Tag Archives: journalism

Propaganda, or the other side of the story?

At around 5 PM on Wednesday afternoon, RT (formerly Russia Today) anchor Liz Wahl decided to call it quits on-air, accusing the channel of “[whitewashing] the actions of Putin.”

Wahl’s announcement created quite the buzz in media circles. The New York Daily News, temporarily losing track of the date by several decades, declared: “A ‘Russia Today’ anchor broke through the Iron Curtain.” The New York Times ran a piece headlined “Russian Channel’s War Coverage Continues to Cost It Journalists.” MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell dubbed Wahl “today’s bravest person on TV.” And Business Insider helpfully proclaimed: “Anchor For Russian Propaganda Channel Dramatically Quits In Protest Live On The Air.”

Perhaps no one was more effusive in his praise for Wahl than James Kirchick, a contributor to The Daily Beast. In an “exclusive” post-resignation correspondence with Wahl, Kirchick reports that, as far back as last August, “Wahl felt morally compromised working for the network, she told me, but wasn’t yet prepared to quit.” (Wahl had first contacted Kirchick last year after he had taken a brief hiatus from agitating for whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s execution in order to stage a bizarre one-man TV protest against Russia’s undeniably pervasive homophobia — a stunt that lasted two minutes and was utterly unrelated to the panel on which he’d been asked to participate.)

“Wahl did a very brave thing,” Kirchick concluded. “Unlike [Abby Martin, another RT anchor who had expressed her displeasure at Russia’s Crimea intervention, two days prior to Wahl], who will continue to cash Putin’s paychecks, Wahl is now out of a job. But that’s the price real reporters—not Russian-government funded propagandists—have to pay if they are concerned with quaint notions like objectivity and the truth.”

Aside from the obvious absurdity of calling an American anchor working from Washington, D.C. “brave” for publicly denouncing the editorial decision-making process of her foreign employer, Kirchick’s article failed to define what exactly differentiates “real reporters” from “Russian-government funded propagandists.”

This is especially surprising given Kirchick’s own background as a reporter for a government-funded propaganda network. As a recent writer-at-large for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Kirchick and his employer were funded entirely by the United States Congress. RFE/RL got its start in 1949, when it was founded by the anti-Communist organization National Committee for a Free Europe. That organization was launched, in turn, by none other than Allen Dulles, who just four years later would take the helm of the CIA as the Director of Central Intelligence. (He still holds the record for the longest tenure as DCI.)

RFE/RL was itself funded by the CIA as late as 1971, a fact that brought the radio network no small amount of notoriety. During the Cold War, Radio Free Europe headed up an American anti-Soviet propaganda operation that “sent 590,415 balloons that carried 301,636,883 leaflets, posters, books, and other printed matter from West Germany over the Iron Curtain to Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland from August 1951 to November 1956.” (The historical legacy of this “extensive propaganda campaign” is recounted on RFE/RL’s web site.)

Today, RFE/RL is overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an entity that also supervises other bastions of independent journalism such as Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. (This is the same Office of Cuba Broadcasting that, during the George W. Bush administration, paid ten reporters varying totals of up to $240,000 each to disseminate anti-Castro opinion — the revelation of which resulted in the termination of three of them by El Nuevo Herald, The Miami Herald‘s Spanish counterpart.) The BBG is itself under the watchful eye of foreign relations committees in both the House and the Senate, and its budget is set annually by Congressional appropriations committees as well. Last year a former board governor, commenting on an inspector general’s report portraying widespread dysfunction at the BBG, explicitly described the organization’s purpose as “telling [the American] story worldwide.”

Kirchick’s role at RFE/RL included filing American-friendly stories with headlines such as this one, from August 26, 2011: “As Libyan Rebels Assert Control, Calm Descends Over War-Torn Capital.” In that particular piece, published five months after the U.S. and its allies launched a military intervention in Libya that quickly obliterated the operation’s stated objectives (as described by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973), Kirchick bizarrely declared:

As fighting continues in the Libyan capital between rebels and fighters loyal to deposed leader Muammar Qaddafi, a sense of calm has finally settled over most of the city, putting something of an end to what has been the most intense conflict to emerge in the “Arab Spring.”

And everyone lived happily ever after. As The New York Times summed up last month:

Precious little has been achieved in Libya since the war that killed Colonel Qaddafi and ended his 42 years of autocratic rule. The country held its first free elections amid much euphoria in 2012, creating a General National Congress that then appointed a new government.

But both bodies have come under criticism for failing to manage the country effectively. Security is deteriorating amid growing corruption and perceived incompetence, and the Congress has been frequently gridlocked by a strong divide between Islamist parties and the more liberal groups that are nervous about the growing power of the Islamists.

Tensions have been rising in recent weeks as the militias that fought the war against Colonel Qaddafi have tried to influence the political process. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was abducted from his hotel and held for hours in October by militia members who wanted to force his resignation. On Tuesday, two militia groups demanded that the Congress dissolve itself or face the arrest of its members.

You know, “something of an end” to the conflict. It’s almost enough to make one wonder whether Kirchick’s coverage was influenced by the government that funded him.

Indeed, given the reality of his former employer’s history and present (an association which Kirchick happily touts on his own site), it seems particularly incongruous of him to call Liz Wahl brave for stating the below today:

Last night RT made international headlines when one of our anchors went on the record and said Russian intervention in Crimea is wrong. And indeed as a reporter on this network, I face many ethical and moral challenges — especially me personally, coming from a family whose grandparents, my grandparents, came here as refugees during the Hungarian revolution, ironically to escape the Soviet forces.

I have family on the opposite side, on my mother’s side, that sees [sic] the daily grind of poverty, and I’m very lucky to have grown up here in the United States. I’m the daughter of a veteran. My partner is a physician at a military base where he sees every day the first-hand accounts of the ultimate prices that people pay for this country. And that is why personally I cannot be part of network [sic] funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin. I’m proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth. And that is why, after this newscast, I’m resigning.

Even leaving aside the above confusing litany of digressions — which reads more like a checklist of patriotic cliches than a plausible justification for quitting one’s job on a live television show — there is little courageous about Wahl’s pronouncement. And the timing, coming just two days after her colleague Abby Martin’s more measured criticism of Russian foreign policy — statements that did not, as it turned out, culminate in a melodramatic abdication of the anchor’s perch — is certainly interesting, to say the least. Perhaps strangest of all, however, is Wahl’s apparently sudden epiphany as to RT’s source of funding. One can only surmise, of course, that James Kirchick remained just as blissfully unaware of his own benefactors during his time at RFE/RL.

RT, in responding to Wahl’s accusations, stated:

When a journalist disagrees with the editorial position of his or her organization, the usual course of action is to address those grievances with the editor, and, if they cannot be resolved, to quit like a professional. But when someone makes a big public show of a personal decision, it is nothing more than a self-promotional stunt.

Even given the blatant pro-Kremlin slant of RT’s entire oeuvre, it is hard to disagree with the network’s assessment. Wahl leaves RT for an almost certainly brighter future in American journalism: by feuding with her employer — whose bankrollers in the Kremlin are particularly vilified in the popular American mindset at the moment — in such a public manner, she managed both to significantly raise her media profile and to solidify her mainstream American bona fides at the same time. (Hey, it worked for Juan Williams.) Fox News must already be on the phone.

But RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, speaking in the wake of Abby Martin’s on-air critique, scored the most on-point observation:

Media outlets do not exist in a vacuum. Can you really expect any American corporate-owned news network to report a story in a way that goes against the U.S. national interest? Or Euronews to not advocate [European Commission] positions?

Given our own recent history with unjustified violations of other nations’ sovereignties, Simonyan’s question seems fair — “Russian-government funded propagandist” or not. As for James Kirchick, well, it takes one to know one.

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House of Cards: Welcome to the spectacle

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By its very nature, House of Cards invites discussion. It entire first season was foisted upon us all at once last February as an early Valentine’s Day present: a tale of escalating palace intrigue that culminated, in Episode 11, with the shocking (and somewhat absurd) murder of Congressman Peter Russo. Season 2, which was released — en masse, once again — to much fanfare on Friday, provoked even larger ripples online, eliciting the ritual thinkpieces, interviews, and meta-analyses.

You’ll forgive me, then, for wading in myself. As a binge-watcher of Season 2 (I finished the finale sometime after midnight on Monday), I fell prey, like so many others, to the seductive guile of Frank Underwood as he marched his way straight into the Oval Office.

Let’s leave plot contrivances aside for a moment. House of Cards may fancy itself pop culture’s sharpest purveyor of political realism, but its broad narrative brushstrokes are nothing if not impressionistic. (Either that or I’m not nearly paranoid enough about my elected officials.)

Much of the conversation sandwiching the release of the second season centered on House of Cards‘ innate cynicism. Ian Crouch, writing for The New Yorker, for example, explained the show’s ethos thusly:

“House of Cards,” back now with its entire second season streaming on Netflix, is a show about contempt. There is contempt in the general, interpersonal sense: the politicians, operatives, journalists, and various other D.C. types all hold one another in especially expressive disregard. (Last season, Francis Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, explained his relationship to his colleagues like this: “They talk while I sit quietly and imagine their lightly salted faces frying in a skillet.”) And there is contempt in the legal sense—the plots turn on the subversion and manipulation of rules and regulations, and the breaking of laws (murder, etc.) for personal gain and professional advancement. Ethics, like feelings, are obstacles, and beneath consideration.

Crouch goes on to claim, rather convincingly, that the series saves its most ferocious contempt for its own audience: “We are the ones, after all, who tolerate and thus perpetuate the real-life theatre of venality and aggression from which ‘House of Cards’ derives its plausibility.”

As a description of the political status quo, this is certainly true. Crouch, however, clouds his thesis by emphasizing the cockiness of Beau Willimon, the showrunner whose elimination of yet another principal character in the Season 2 premiere showcased, Crouch reports, “a power trip in which the show and its main character assume parallel roles as bullies.”

While this is a perfectly defensible interpretation of the relationship between House of Cards and its enraptured fan base, it is not, I think, the most accurate one. Contempt implies strength of feeling: it is, after all, one of the telltale signs of a marriage in dissolution. Admittedly, it is often a sign of power inequality as well: the strong feel contemptuous of the weak, not vice versa. Nevertheless, contempt connotes a vigorous degree of hostility.

But it is this precise feature — red-faced rage and its emotionally-charged cousins — that is almost entirely absent from House of Cards‘ dalliance with its viewership. On this, Todd VanDerWerff of A.V. Club hits the right note:

Midway through the season-two finale of House Of Cards, Kevin Spacey’s Francis Underwood confronts one of the many people incredibly pissed off at him backstage at the opera. (It has to be the opera, for House Of Cards does not do subtlety.) The conversation is interrupted by a patron who exits the auditorium, presumably looking for a bathroom. They look over at her as she walks through—both seemingly miffed that she even exists. It’s a scene that summarizes House Of Cards’ relationship to the average American citizen: Everybody in this country is grist for the mill for politicians like Frank, who serve only themselves and carry out their real deal-making far behind the scenes of what’s available to the press and C-SPAN. And don’t you think you have the right to know about it. At best, you’re an irritating inconvenience. At worst, you’re dead.

Contempt is for threats; rivals, even. Contempt is what drove Frank Underwood to send Peter Russo to his makeshift gas chamber in Season 1 and Zoe Barnes to her early demise in Season 2. It is, as a general rule, the principal sentiment vaulting Underwood’s entire career past those of his peers in the House of Representatives and beyond.

But a clear line separates the contempt pervading nearly all of House of Cards‘ interpersonal relationships from its most crucial one by far: that of Frank Underwood’s with the audience. When, in the new season’s premiere, Kevin Spacey at last addresses the viewer, he gazes not directly into the camera, as is his wont, but through a bathroom mirror. As he speaks, the camera pulls in slowly until the frame edging the glass is almost completely obscured: Frank Underwood has met his reflection, and it is us.

Did you think I’d forgotten you? Perhaps you hoped I had. Don’t waste a breath mourning Miss Barnes. Every kitten grows up to be a cat. They seem so harmless at first—small, quiet, lapping up their saucer of milk. But once their claws get long enough, they draw blood. Sometimes from the hand that feeds them. For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted. Welcome back.

Ian Crouch views this parting scene as evidence of Willimon’s arrogance:

And then there is one last shot, in case there was any confusion as to the message: a pair of silver cufflinks bearing Frank’s initials. They’d been mentioned before—a birthday gift from his body man—and, called back, they make for a funny visual gag: “F.U.” … We’ve been told, as the Times likes to say, to “commit a physically impossible act.” Frank despises most everybody—why should we be an exception?

But here Crouch misunderstands Underwood and, by extension, Willimon. “F.U.” is the precise opposite of a “power trip:” it is, rather, the ultimate invitation to an insiders’ club. It is a joke so obvious it begs to be understood, a wink that demands a knowing nod. As a sophomoric sight gag, “F.U.” is a souvenir to its audience. But as an epithet, “F.U.” is decidedly not a message to those of us who watch House of Cards: it’s a contemptuous insult for everyone who doesn’t.

From this perspective, the message of House of Cards is remarkably consistent. It is no accident that an unsubtle version of Politico — an online-only publication dubbed Slugline — serves as the most formidable opponent of Underwood as he rapidly scales the Washington political ladder. Indeed, it is only the murder of its most intrepid reporter that reestablishes Underwood’s control over his own destiny, an objective that could only be derailed by a consummate insider such as Zoe Barnes. In a two-season narrative arc dedicated to highlighting Frank Underwood’s utter mastery of his domain, the single common thread uniting him to all of his peers in House of Cards is their overwhelming collective insulation from life outside the Mall.

Indeed, the fiercest contempt in the series is reserved for all of The Others: those who believe in a democratic politics, the power of representative elections, education reform, foreign policy initiatives, the national interest. People who didn’t catch “F.U.” Simpletons, one and all.

Is anyone really supposed to care about any of the particular policy battles waged throughout the first two seasons? Do we even remember what they were? Of course not: we’re here for the spectacle. We’re here, in short, to become insiders too. It is in this arena that House of Cards excels: it masterfully inhabits the universe populated by our politicians and the hordes of journalists who mob their every prepackaged press conference and giggle over their every wayward tweet. Contempt for the real world goes without saying. We are all complicit in trading away accountability journalism for tabloid-style coverage of the daily political grind, and House of Cards is our soma.

Todd VanDerWerff neatly captures this addiction to irrelevance towards the end of his review:

Yet House Of Cards is also weirdly perfect when it comes to what it’s meant to do, which is keep viewers plowing through episodes, regardless of time spent doing so. There are just enough flourishes around the edges…that it’s possible to feel like House Of Cards has something deeper on its mind, even when it’s all but clear it doesn’t. This is sleight of hand that works much better in the middle of the binge, rather than a few hours later, when contemplating whether the plot made any sense.

VanDerWerff appears, at first glance, to be damning House of Cards with faint praise. But it is really quite the opposite: in portraying Washington as a city full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, House of Cards has in fact perfectly captured the reality of modern politics in the era of horse-race journalism.

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Market failure

Proof that supply and demand are not always in perfect equilibrium, at least in the realm of quality journalism:

What a contrast. Silicon Valley: where ideas come to launch. Washington, D.C., where ideas go to die. Silicon Valley: where there are no limits on your imagination and failure in the service of experimentation is a virtue. Washington: where the “imagination” to try something new is now a treatable mental illness covered by Obamacare and failure in the service of experimentation is a crime. Silicon Valley: smart as we can be. Washington: dumb as we wanna be.

Tom Friedman is the most embarrassing of a truly amateur-hour op-ed operation at the Times.

On “Planet Hillary,” no one has a name

In tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine, Amy Chozick delves into the political intrigue surrounding Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions. The online hubbub over the article, titled “Planet Hillary,” actually began on Thursday, when the magazine cover art was released, to widespread bewilderment:

Anyway, I got around to reading the piece today and couldn’t escape an uneasy feeling about it. It took me a few minutes to realize that “Planet Hillary” was a vintage Politico-esque creation. It deals almost entirely in political maneuvering and the “who’s-in-who’s-out” hysteria endemic to public figures and their extensive entourages. More damningly, it is almost completely devoid of policy discussion.

Granted, there is a place in political journalism for fluffy, narrative-driven, gossip-heavy recaps of the Washington social ladder. But generally speaking, The New York Times has not been that place. (The reliability of that axiom is one major reason I’m a subscriber.) In fact, it is perhaps because of the Times’ historical reticence to portray the constant power shuffling within American politics as equivalent to its counterpart in a typical high-school cafeteria that “Planet Hillary” seemed to meander so aimlessly and conclude in such a random way: the Times simply isn’t good at this kind of thing. Which is itself a good thing.

But after several further minutes of reflection, I noticed a much more specific problem with the piece: it is utterly stacked with anonymous statements and characterizations. To quantitatively confirm my suspicions, I re-read the article, this time marking every statement by any source (including quotes, paraphrases, and descriptions) that met the following criteria:

  • It was made to Amy Chozick in the course of her reporting for the article (so “James Carville has compared the Clinton world, perhaps not so originally, to an onion” doesn’t count, because that statement happened outside of Chozick’s reporting)
  • It was attributable to one person only (so “Several people close to Clinton have already discussed installing someone to play the role of ‘chief listener'” doesn’t count either, since it represents an aggregate of multiple conversations)
  • It was explicitly attributed, whether anonymously or otherwise, to a person (so “When Ready for Hillary held a seminar for donors at Le Parker Meridien hotel last fall to discuss what it would take to win in 2016, Bill Clinton personally checked in with an attendee to ask what was being discussed and who was there” doesn’t count because the anecdote wasn’t directly attributed to any particular source)

Keep in mind that these are extremely conservative criteria. There are, for example, multiple statements attributed to “several people close to Clinton,” “several people close to the Clintons,” “several others,” and “others,” to name a few examples. These I did not count, as it is conceivable that the sources’ collective anonymity was more a function of Chozick’s concision than her sources’ desire for discretion.

I was also, of course, careful to include all instances of named (that is, not anonymous) sources. Consider the following passage from the article:

A few months later, over lunch near the White House, Reines laughed as a couple of meddlesome emails popped up on his BlackBerry from two older Clinton loyalists who had re-emerged since she left State. In between bites of a shrimp cocktail, he called these noodges “space cowboys,” referring to the 2000 film in which Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland play aging pilots who reunite to disarm a Soviet-era satellite on one last mission.

I counted this as a named statement, despite the fact that it’s only two words long (“space cowboys”). I’m also counting it as a separate named statement from another quote earlier in the same paragraph by the same source, solely because the statements occurred at different times chronologically. (Elsewhere, I counted him again in an innocuous comment about the names of his kittens.)

Despite all of these precautions, 18 of the 36 statements — exactly 50% — that were made to Chozick in the course of “Planet Hillary” were anonymous (19 of 37 if I’d counted “a foundation spokesman,” which didn’t seem designed to provide discretion, but rather to avoid introducing too many irrelevant names). Here were a few representative examples:

  • “Legally she could not participate in fund-raising or political activity, and so the period, noted one staff member, seemed like a quiet four-year pause.”
  • “Until recently, her seven personal aides worked out of a tiny Washington office (‘smaller than my first N.Y.C. apartment,’ one aide said in an email) on Connecticut Avenue.”
  • “She ‘inspires loyalty, and she’s loyal back,’ another person close to the inner circle says.”

(Emphases mine. You can check my count by viewing my spreadsheet here. Yellow-highlighted rows represent anonymous statements.)

The “Guidelines on Integrity” document available from The New York Times Company’s web site has this to say about anonymous sources:

Anonymity and Its Devices. The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers newsworthy and reliable. When possible, reporter and editor should discuss any promise of anonymity before it is made, or before the reporting begins on a story that may result in such a commitment. (Some beats, like criminal justice or national security, may carry standing authorization for the reporter to grant anonymity.) The stylebook discusses the forms of attribution for such cases: the general rule is to tell readers as much as we can about the placement and known motivation of the source. While we avoid automatic phrases about a source’s having “insisted on anonymity,” we should try to state tersely what kind of understanding was actually reached by reporter and source, especially when we can shed light on the source’s reasons. The Times does not dissemble about its sources does not, for example, refer to a single person as “sources” and does not say “other officials” when quoting someone who has already been cited by name. There can be no prescribed formula for such attribution, but it should be literally truthful, and not coy.

Similarly, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage states:

[A]nonymity is a last resort, for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers newsworthy and reliable. Reporters should not offer a news source anonymity without first pressing to use a name or other helpful identification…

If concealment proves necessary, writers should avoid automatic references to sources who “insisted on anonymity” or “demanded anonymity”; rote phrases offer the reader no help. When possible, though, articles should tersely explain what kind of understanding was actually reached by reporter and source, and should shed light on the reasons. Anonymity should not shield a press officer whose job is to be publicly accountable. And, given the requirements of newsworthiness and substance, it should not be invoked for a trivial comment: “The party ended after midnight,” said a doorman who demanded anonymity. (If the doorman simply refused to give his name, that is a less grandiose matter, and the article should just say so.)

Anonymity must not become a cloak for attacks on people, institutions or policies. If pejorative remarks are worth reporting and cannot be specifically attributed, they may be paraphrased or described after thorough discussion between writer and editor. The vivid language of direct quotation confers an unfair advantage on a speaker or writer who hides behind the newspaper, and turns of phrase are valueless to a reader who cannot assess the source.

It is quite clear that the three nameless quotes I excerpted above, as well as others like them, fail to meet the Times‘ threshold for granting anonymity. In some cases, Chozick’s usage is directly contradictory to policy. If anonymity “should not be invoked for a trivial comment,” then the statement by the “one aide” (quoted above) on the size of Hillary Clinton’s Washington office, for example, is certainly a violation of the rule.

Anonymous statements have long been a source of contention with readers, a point Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has raised multiple times. (A 2009 article by a previous public editor for the Times, Clark Hoyt, cited a study finding that almost 80 percent of anonymous statements in the newspaper failed to meet the official New York Times standard.)

“Planet Hillary” seemed to me to be an especially egregious case, as the underlying substance of the article was already paper-thin. The anonymous statements simply added to the puffy feel of the piece itself and contributed to an overall sense of (mostly banal) palace intrigue. Here’s hoping to see less of this in the future.

Short-circuited journalism

Almost alone among the professions, journalism is not rooted in a body of substantive knowledge. The claim is not that journalists lack knowledge or skill, for that is far from true. Nor is the claim an entry into the perennial but ultimately fruitless debate over whether journalism is a craft rather than a profession. The claim instead is a precise one: Journalism is not grounded in a systematic body of substantive knowledge that would protect its practitioners’ autonomy and inform their judgment.

The above passage was penned by Thomas E. Patterson in his recent book, Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism. I was reminded of it today after reading this on GigaOm:

If you were reading some of the major tech-news sites on Wednesday — including the New York Times and Washington Post tech blogs — you might have gotten the impression that a huge proportion of the Chinese internet somehow got redirected to a small house in Wyoming on Tuesday. Why? Because that’s what a lot of the headlines said. The truth is almost as strange, but a Chinese technical glitch plays the starring role in the story, not a small house in Wyoming.

The house that captured everyone’s attention is a tiny brick home on what looks like a well-manicured street in Cheyenne, Wyoming. It showed up in photos on Gizmodo and The Verge, under headlines like “Most of China’s Web Traffic Wound Up at a Tiny Wyoming House Yesterday” and “Chinese Internet Traffic Redirected to Small Wyoming House” (that one was the New York Times tech blog). The Washington Post said that “thousands if not millions of Chinese Internet users were being dumped at the door of a tiny, brick-front house.”

In fact, the small house is just the company’s registered business address, one that is used by thousands of shell companies and other corporations who want to remain relatively anonymous (and the company that registered it has actually moved to a different address in Wyoming). The traffic actually went to wherever Sophidea’s servers are located, which is hard to say with any precision.

Among many other things, the Edward Snowden story helped expose a woeful shortage of technical savvy among our national press corps. As the next generation heads to the blogosphere, here’s hoping these mistakes become fewer and further between.

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Journalistic civil war

David Carr has really hit the nail on the head with his latest:

The larger sense I get from the criticism directed at Mr. Assange and Mr. Greenwald is one of distaste — that they aren’t what we think of as real journalists. Instead, they represent an emerging Fifth Estate composed of leakers, activists and bloggers who threaten those of us in traditional media. They are, as one says, not like us.

“By no means was I treated as a hero when I first came forward. I was indicted and spent two years in court,” Mr. Ellsberg said in an interview. “But in those days, journalists were not turning on journalists. With Snowden in particular, you have a split between truly independent journalists and those who are tools — and I mean that in every sense of the term — of the government. Toobin and Grunwald are doing the work of the government to maintain relationships and access.”

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Death of the ombudsman

Edward Wasserman, the dean of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, laments the elimination of The Washington Post‘s ombudsman position:

No matter how the job is structured, ombudsmen generally please no one. While journalists complain that they’re quick on the trigger and unsympathetic to the pressures of deadline-driven news production, outsiders say they’re too soft, and lack the spine to challenge their own employers over the most vexing new practices.

To that is joined now the criticism that they’re simply obsolete. That’s a point The Post itself endorsed when it noted the profusion of tough media commentary from unaffiliated online critics, implying there was no longer a need for The Post itself to weigh in as well.

That’s an interesting point, but I didn’t hear any corresponding commitment to cooperate with these outside inquiries. And I can’t imagine The Post deciding that in light of the ramped-up coverage of Capitol Hill by Politico, The New York Times and others, it need no longer cover Congress.

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Are online paywalls too little, too late?

Courtesy of LUMA Partners.
Courtesy of LUMA Partners LLC.

Michael Wolff thinks so:

Without a dramatic turnaround in advertising income, there are only two strategies – neither mutually exclusive – for the continued existence of newspapers, in digital or any other form:

• Having established the paywall model, the goal, in a race against time, is to extend it to a greater and greater part of the user base. Like the paywall itself, this is unchartered territory. Rupert Murdoch’s more absolute paywalls having worked significantly less well than the New York Times’ porous wall. The Times, however, counting on its brand power and on the gradual change in consumer behavior, is trying to up the ante, recently cutting its free take from 20 to ten articles.

• Re-orient the cost basis of the business, still largely modeled on advertising income, to the much smaller subscription revenue base. That is, fire a lot of people.

This is, actually, good news, if not necessarily for shareholders or for many employees. Some newspapers can continue to exist, albeit as vastly smaller and less profitable businesses.

I have a few points in response. First, Wolff characterizes newspapers’ plummeting revenue in the following terms: “A digital advertising environment on the web – one even more pronounced in mobile – that relentlessly increases the amount of advertising space available and lowers the value of all space overall.”

Wolff is mostly right, for now. But that’s only because advertisers have yet to figure out what’s valuable. I worked in online advertising for two years (including one year for a behavioral targeting firm), and I can say with some confidence that we still don’t have adequate metrics to measure advertising success online — hence the degradation of online real estate. But soon enough, the advertising landscape will have to revert to form.

Why? Well, because advertisers don’t like paying for something that provides no value. It’s astonishing just how little advertisers still know about their own data in 2013 — that is, the audiences on their own web sites, the customers buying their products, and so on. The problem is even worse when it comes to connecting with new audiences, also known as advertising. Not only do the companies themselves not understand the data, but many of the online advertising firms that these companies have hired know little about what they’re selling as well. (Take a look at the above headache-inducing graphic of the online media landscape to understand why.) Continue reading Are online paywalls too little, too late?

Now featured on The First Casualty: my mistakes

An example comparison of different versions of the same post.
An example comparison of different versions of the same post.

One of the oft-noted pitfalls of online journalism — whether conducted by online-only publications or by traditional print/media outfits that have migrated online — is the lack of transparency over changes made to posts and articles after they’ve already been published. Many, for example, have observed The New York Times change headlines and even article text after posting them online, even after people have read the original version.

It is, in fact, this problem of unmarked revisions that gave rise to the truly stellar site NewsDiffs.org, which explains: “For better or worse, readers can now view ‘the making of the sausage’ that historically was discreetly tucked away from view with dead-tree editions.” The site scrapes the articles appearing on home pages of news organizations (currently The New York Times, CNN, Politico, and BBC) and archives each iteration of the ones that change after publication, so visitors can see what was revised.

Well, a few years ago, a developer named Scott Carpenter, responding to a “manifesto” written by Scott Rosenberg in which he called for news organizations to build a Wikipedia-style public revision history, built just such a plugin for WordPress blogs.

Fast forward to yesterday. Blog post revisions have been an ongoing internal question for me: I try not to change a post after publishing it if at all possible, but obviously I have to break this rule for a variety of reasons from time to time. If it’s something small, such as a grammatical error or a typo, I change it as soon as I see it, without noting the correction. If it’s significant, I usually add the word CORRECTION or UPDATE to the bottom of the post, to note the change. Inevitably, there are gray areas.

But I have yet to come up with a red-line rule on when to note a correction and when not to. Nor have I settled on a hard-and-fast point at which a post becomes “non-updatable.” (Generally, once I’ve written a subsequent post, I don’t update previous ones. But even on that, I’m not sure I’ve followed this rule 100% of the time: I’ve been blogging for over three years and am closing in on 700 posts, so I haven’t kept close track.)

Enter Scott Carpenter’s handy plugin. (Thanks, Scott!) I just read about it for the first time yesterday, and I immediately realized it would work perfectly for my purposes. Now, on all posts going forward and on every one that’s already been posted since the beginning of the blog, every published revision is publicly viewable. To take a look, go to any single post’s perma-linked page (just click on the post headline from the home page), scroll to the bottom of the post, and you’ll see a list of all post revisions, complete with links. If you click on an older version of a post, it will load it — and you can even scroll to the bottom again to see a side-by-side comparison of what has changed since then.

If you notice any problems or bugs, please let me know!


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An odd contradiction on guns from the Times

Courtesy of The New York Times (Steve Ruark).
Courtesy of The New York Times (Steve Ruark).

Yesterday, The New York Times reported on a national trend of declining gun ownership:

The rate has dropped in cities large and small, in suburbs and rural areas and in all regions of the country. It has fallen among households with children, and among those without. It has declined for households that say they are very happy, and for those that say they are not. It is down among churchgoers and those who never sit in pews.

The household gun ownership rate has fallen from an average of 50 percent in the 1970s to 49 percent in the 1980s, 43 percent in the 1990s and 35 percent in the 2000s, according to the survey data, analyzed by The New York Times.

The story, reported by Sabrina Tavernise and Robert Gebeloff, noted the data’s seeming contradiction to prevailing media narratives:

The findings contrast with the impression left by a flurry of news reports about people rushing to buy guns and clearing shop shelves of assault rifles after the massacre last year at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

“There are all these claims that gun ownership is going through the roof,” said Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “But I suspect the increase in gun sales has been limited mostly to current gun owners. The most reputable surveys show a decline over time in the share of households with guns.”

The Times should know a thing or two about the impression left by that “flurry of news reports:” it contributed substantially to creating it. Here is an excerpt from a New York Times article on December 21st of last year, headlined “Shop Owners Report Rise in Firearm Sales as Buyers Fear Possible New Laws:”

With gun-control legislation getting more serious discussion than it has in years, gun sales are spiking as enthusiasts stock up in advance of possible restrictions.

Gun sales have been increasing over the past five years, with marked increases around the 2008 and 2012 elections, and after mass shootings like the one in Aurora, Colo., and now in Newtown, Conn…

There is increasing demands for guns in the United States. Last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted 16.45 million background checks for firearm sales through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, a 14 percent jump from the previous year. In the first 11 months of this year, the bureau conducted 16.8 million background checks, a record since the system’s founding in 1998.

The article goes on to check in on various online and brick-and-mortar gun shops, all of whom dutifully trumpet the massive demand at their stores. (Imagine that: a gun shop owner who’s just been given an enormous audience by a global newspaper declares that he is doing brisk business? I don’t know about you, but sounds like an “I’ll take him at his word” situation to me.)

But that wasn’t all. Just three weeks later, the Times was back with another contribution to the “flurry,” this time with the headline “Sales of Guns Soar in U.S. as Nation Weighs Tougher Limits:”

As Washington focuses on what Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. will propose next week to curb gun violence, gun and ammunition sales are spiking in the rest of the country as people rush to expand their arsenals in advance of any restrictions that might be imposed…

Gun dealers and buyers alike said that the rapid growth in gun sales — which began climbing significantly after President Obama’s re-election and soared after the Dec. 14 shooting at a school in Newtown, Conn., prompted him to call for new gun laws — shows little sign of abating.

December set a record for the criminal background checks performed before many gun purchases, a strong indication of a big increase in sales, according to an analysis of federal data by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun industry trade group. Adjusting the federal data to try to weed out background checks that were unrelated to firearms sales, the group reported that 2.2 million background checks were performed last month, an increase of 58.6 percent over the same period in 2011. Some gun dealers said in interviews that they had never seen such demand.

And finally, another three weeks and a day later, on February 2nd of this year, the Times struck again, heralding “The Most Wanted Gun in America,” the Bushmaster AR-15:

Before Newtown, the rifles sold for about $1,100, on average. Now some retailers charge twice that. At Pasadena Pawn, on the wall behind glass counters of handguns, are three dozen or so AR-15-style rifles. Dangling from nearly every one is a tag that says “Sold.”

“The AR-15, it’s kind of fashionable,” says Frank Loane Sr., the proprietor. His shop has a revolving waiting list for the rifles, and a handful of people are now on it. “The young generation likes them, the assault-looking guns…”

But despite the headlines, and partly because of them, commercial gun sales are growing. Last year, they were up 16 percent industrywide, according to estimates from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry trade association. Semiautomatic rifles like the AR-15 are responsible for a significant share of that growth.

One can be forgiven for reading The New York Times and leaving with the impression that, yes, the entire country is stampeding its nearest weapons shops and loading up on anything with a trigger. This is just the latest in a long line of examples of the media helping to create a story, then reporting on the fallout from that story from a detached perspective, as if the press had nothing to do with the preceding whirlpool of artificially manufactured “news” in the first place.

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