Naming the Civil War

As GWB steadfastly resists calling the conflict in Iraq a “civil war” despite the pronouncements of many of his own current and ex-military advisers, media outlets also grapple with the nomenclature. E&P reports that starting Monday The Los Angeles Times, NBC and MSNBC, will all be using that troublesome phrase to describe what is going on in Iraq. More interestingly the Washington Post seems to be stuck in a precautionary loop. Leonard Downie, Jr., the Post’s executive editor told E&P:

“We just describe what goes on everyday. We don’t have a policy about it. We are not making judgments one way or another. The language in the stories is very precise when dealing with it. At various times people say it is ‘close to a civil war,’ but we don’t have a policy about it.”

This is typical disingenuous strategic objectivity. The obvious question is how and when does ‘close to civil war’ become simply ‘civil war’? How can a media outlet make ‘very precise’ judgments about such matters? The Post’s top reporter Dana Priest is more revealing:

“Well, I think one of the reasons the President resists that label is because it equates almost with a failure of U.S. policy. I will say for the Washington Post, we have not labeled it a civil war. I have asked around to see why not or see what’s the thinking on that — and really our reporters have not filed that. We try to avoid the labels, particularly when the elected government itself does not call its situation a civil war. I certainly — and I would agree with General McCaffrey on this — absolutely the level of violence equals a civil war.”

Priest’s comments reveal that the Post’s caution derives not from some grand commitment to journalistic objectivity it is in fact a text book example of “official source” theory and Stuart Hall’s argument that one of the subtle but highly influential ways official sources hold power over media portrayals is that they are usually the ones that define the language that is used. Hall argues that it is incredibly difficult for other “secondary definers” to move through this initial textual definition of the issue. A classic quote from Hall:

“The more one accepts that how people act will depend in part on how the situations in which they act are defined, and the less one assumes either a natural meaning for things or a universal consensus on what things mean, then the more socially and politically important becomes the process by means of which certain events get recurrently signified in certain ways.” (Rediscovery of Ideology 1982)

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The Greatest Story Ever Sold – By Frank Rich – Books – Review – New York Times

In a review of NYT Columnist Frank Rich’s new book, The Greatest Story Never Told, writer and now Bard professor Ian Buruma sums up some of the general problems with current journalism – not startlingly original but neatly expressed:

THERE may be one other reason for the fumbling (over WMD and Bush-critical jounrnalsim): the conventional methods of American journalism, marked by an obsession with access and quotes. A good reporter for an American paper must get sources who sound authoritative and quotes that show both sides of a story. His or her own expertise is almost irrelevant. If the opinions of columnists count for too much in the American press, the intelligence of reporters is institutionally underused. The problem is that there are not always two sides to a story. Someone reporting on the persecution of Jews in Germany in 1938 would not have added “balance” by quoting Joseph Goebbels. And besides, as Judith Miller found out, what is the good of quotes if they are based on false information?

Bob Woodward, one of Rich’s chief bêtes noires, has more access in Washington than any journalist, but the weakness of his work is that he never seems to be better than his sources. As Rich rightly observes, “reporters who did not have Woodward’s or Miller’s top-level access within the administration not only got the Iraq story right but got it into newspapers early by seeking out what John Walcott, the Knight Ridder Washington bureau chief, called ‘the blue collar’ sources further down the hierarchy.” This used to be Woodward’s modus operandi, too, in his better days. Fearing the loss of access at the top and overrating the importance of quotes from powerful people, as well as an unjustified terror of being accused of liberal bias, have crippled the press at a time when it is needed more than ever. Frank Rich is an excellent product of that press, and if it ever recovers its high reputation, it will be partly thanks to one man who couldn’t take it anymore.

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Fundamentally adversarial

Maybe my post yesterday was too pessimistic. Perhaps the controversy over the Pulitzers will round support for a press that is taking itself more seriously. As the NYT reports:

Some observers on the press side saw the awards as a recognition that the split between the government and the press, which many thought had been papered over during the first Bush administration, had widened again.

“I think that there is a renewed recognition that the relationship with government is fundamentally adversarial,” said William L. Israel, a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “I have not seen the kind of unanimity from the Pulitzer board for some time. Over and over, they endorsed work that held the government to account.”…

But Eugene L. Roberts Jr., a former editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, said that the press policies of the administration in power were always worse than those of the administration that went before it.

“I think every generation of journalist thinks they are more put-upon and aggrieved than the one that came before it,” he said. “I worked in the 50′s and 60′s at Southern papers, and there was plenty of pressure back then.”

Still, the press likes to cite its moral authority, especially in the face of an administration that has reflexively invoked executive privilege, a tool that was used 4 times between 1953 and 1974 at the height of the cold war and 23 times between 2001 and 2004.

Since the beginning of his presidency, Mr. Bush has made it clear that he does not buy the industry’s widely held conceit that it serves as a proxy for the American people. That, he has suggested over the course of his two terms, is his job.

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Treasonable journalism

There has been quite bit written about Pulitzers for Treason by right wing columnists in the US, following the Times‘ award for breaking the story about the NSA domestic wiretaps. But MarketWatch media columnist Jon Friedman got a shock when all of the reader responses to a recent column were anti-Times. Here’s some of the comments:

“Your last piece on the Pulitzers includes this gem: ‘If anything, the Pulitzer vindicates the (New York) Times as a hard-hitting and public-spirited news operation.’ No, it simply shows them to be law-breaking cowards (yes disclosing this program by using the sources they used is a violation of the law). How you can conclude that an award handed to a MSM (or “mainstream media”) outlet by a totally MSM-stacked committee shows anything other than the completely out of touch nature of the MSM is beyond comprehension!”

“You couldn’t have gotten it more wrong!” another reader named Steve Dansker wrote.

“First off, the Pulitzer is a popularity contest among those that constitute the Board. Look at the orgs these folks come from: most Awards seem to go to folks on the same papers (or is it just my imagination?).”

He added: “Get real: the ‘breaking of the NSA story’ was not a ‘break’ at all. It was in fact a traitorous act. The authors couldn’t have given more of a damn who it hurt or KILLED! They just wanted to (1) blacken the eye of a Republican Administration, and (2) get some notoriety. Do you really think this story would have been written if Gore had won? I think not!”

These comments don’t just attest to a fractious blue/red America, they highlight serious trouble facing the media. Surveys have for a long time shown that consumers have an uneasy alliance with media they read/watch. Many seem to believe that journalists are in the same category as used-car salesman when it comes to trustworthiness.

But these comments about the Pulitzers show something very disturbing about the current media environment. I think the last comment is most telling. It comes from a particularly skewed fantasy about journalism.

As a journalist I know that a big newspaper would have published the wiretap story no matter who it concerned because it is such a shattering story. I know nothing about the personal politics of the Times reporters who broke the story but as professional journalists no matter what their colors they would have been aware of the enormity of the story. In the end – and this can be both a good thing and a bad thing – the ideology of the big story, over rides all others for journalists.

But maybe this is not so different to Watergate when, at least initially, Nixon’s supporters were dismissive of what they perceived as biased liberal press attacks. But if the ideas expressed by Friedman’s readers are widespread this does not bode well at a time when the whole relationship between journalism, government, their sources, their respective privileges and responsibilities is under deep scrutiny.

The ghost of Judy Miller

Arianna Huffington has been one of the most trenchant critics of Judith Miller throughtout the whole Plamegate affair, sometimes hysterically so, but her latest post is all sense. She suggests that a recent Times editorial on Scooter Libby which commented that the latest round of “this messy episode leaves more questions than answers” is unduly coy:

But what the Times doesn’t say is that one of the reasons there are more questions than answers is because the Times itself continues to operate behind a veil of secrecy, refusing to come clean about exactly what transpired behind the scenes at the paper while this White House disinformation campaign was going down.

This isn’t information that the paper of record needs to get from Bush or Cheney or Libby or Fitzgerald or the Senate Intelligence Committee. It’s information the Times already has — questions the paper can already answer.

So instead of bemoaning the surfeit of Plamegate questions, how about the Times adding a few answers to the ledger?

Huffington is right. For all its mia culpa exposes of itself the Times still refuses to answer some basic questions, the most relevant are, as Huff points out:

Did Miller propose writing a story about any of what she heard that day at the St. Regis (or during her two subsequent July 12 phone conversations with Libby)? If not, why not? Why would she keep this information to herself?…

So if she did pitch the story, which Times editor did she pitch it to? What was their reaction? Why did no story result? Had the editors become so suspect of Miller’s sources and reporting that they refused to sign off on the story? Was she officially barred from writing about Iraq/WMD? Did her editors know that she thought she had special Pentagon clearance to receive classified information?

Or were Times editors dubious of Judy’s latest round of inside info because they knew that just a week earlier Colin Powell had told three other Times reporters the opposite of the bill of goods Libby was peddling to Miller?

Because of these questions the Times and journalism as an institution will be on trial again when Libby fronts the court on perjury charges. Journalists have rightly been up in arms over the confidentiality of sources issue in the Miller saga but their are actually much deeper issues.

Any protections that journalists claim, such as confidentiality of source relationships, derive only from journalism’s democratic role. When the confidentiality of source relationships seem to be inhibiting journalism’s obligation to question government rather than enhancing it, then other questions must be asked that go beyond initial “protection” framework.

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Creating Neutral Experts

The Revealer has a good critique of newspaper sourcing practices when quoting “experts” from think tanks. The NYT acknowledge in a story today that they were caught out in their earlier reporting of The Lincoln Group’s activities in Iraq. The Lincoln Group a PR outfit with ten million dollars worth of contracts in Iraq has been under investigation for paying to get pro-US stories in local Iraqi media and most recently paying Sunni clerics for their support.

Last month when the story broke, and again this morning, the NYT quotes “Michael Rubin, a Middle East scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington research organization” as an outside expert. They acknowledge this morning that Rubin may not be just a disinterested scholar:

Mr. Rubin was quoted last month in The New York Times about Lincoln’s work for the Pentagon placing articles in Iraqi publications: “I’m not surprised this goes on,” he said, without disclosing his work for Lincoln. “Especially in an atmosphere where terrorists and insurgents – replete with oil boom cash – do the same. We need an even playing field, but cannot fight with both hands tied behind our backs.”

However The Revealer’s Jeff Sharlet makes the more pertinent point:

This obscures the fact that Rubin is not a “scholar” in the traditional sense of the term, but a committed neoconservative activist, a former official of the Coalition Provisional Authority, and, according to two reliable reporters in the liberal magazine Mother Jones, one of Wolfowitz’s cheerleaders in the early stages of the war.

This doesn’t mean Rubin shouldn’t be quoted in the paper, but it does mean that he should be identified as more than a “Middle East scholar.” Rubin’s an apparatchik.

And a loony one, to boot. The Times‘ ideology-erasure policy not only recasts conservatives (and in other cases, leftists) as centrists, it also gives its talking heads the appearance of reasonable detachment. You be the judge. (More about Rubin here, from the leftist International Relations Center.)

…Perspectives of people such as Rubin should be in the news — after all, he helped make the events under discussion happen — but they should not be categorized as outside “experts.” That’s like quoting a naked PETA activist as a neutral observer in an article about fur.

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Answering back

Great article in the NYT by Katherine Seelye on the way the internet is changing the relationships between sources and journalists, between the writers and those being written about. It is a great article because it does what good journalism does, it provides a range of points of view while still being pointed in its analysis. It begins with a fairly bland analysis of the phenomenon:

Unhappy subjects discovered a decade ago that they could use their Web sites to correct the record or deconstruct articles to expose what they perceived as a journalist’s bias or wrongheaded narration.

But now they are going a step further. Subjects of newspaper articles and news broadcasts now fight back with the same methods reporters use to generate articles and broadcasts – taping interviews, gathering e-mail exchanges, taking notes on phone conversations – and publish them on their own Web sites. This new weapon in the media wars is shifting the center of gravity in the way that news is gathered and presented, and it carries implications for the future of journalism.

Too many journalists would have left it at that and this would have been one of the many articles that concentrate on the mechanistic ways blogs and the internet are influencing journalism. But Seelye goes further:

The printing of transcripts, e-mail messages and conversations, and the ability to pull up information from search engines like Google, have empowered those whom Jay Rosen, a blogger and journalism professor at New York University, calls “the people formerly known as the audience.”

“In this new world, the audience and sources are publishers,” Mr. Rosen said. “They are now saying to journalists, ‘We are producers, too. So the interview lies midpoint between us. You produce things from it, and we do, too.’ From now on, in a potentially hostile interview situation, this will be the norm.”

These processes are changing both journalism paradigms and journalism practices.

Journalists now realise that they have to be extra careful in their transactions with sources and some programs are posting their own full transcripts. It is also changing formal public relations practices with businesses incorporating blogs into their publicity strategies. But the revenge of the source is not just a utopic story about reform and empowerment.

Danny Schechter, executive editor of MediaChannel.org and a former producer at ABC News and CNN, said that while the active participation by so many readers was healthy for democracy and journalism, it had allowed partisanship to mask itself as media criticism and had given rise to a new level of vitriol.

“It’s now O.K. to demonize the messenger,” he said. “This has led to a very uncivil discourse in which it seems to be O.K. to shout down, discredit, delegitimize and denigrate the people who are reporting stories and to pick at their methodology and ascribe motives to them that are often unfair.”

Seelye gives one example where a creationist group used these techniques to dispute a Nightline piece on intelligent design.

Ultimately this process is part of the broader push towards “transparency” in news media:

Reporters say that these developments are forcing them to change how they do their jobs; some are asking themselves if they can justify how they are filtering information. “We’ve got to be more transparent about the news-gathering process,” said Craig Crawford, a columnist for Congressional Quarterly and author of “Attack the Messenger: How Politicians Turn You Against the Media.” “We’ve pretended to be like priests turning water to wine, like it’s a secret process. Those days are gone.”

Some news outlets are posting transcripts of their interviews with newsmakers, and some reporters are posting their own material. Stephen Baker, a senior writer at BusinessWeek, has posted not only transcripts from his interviews but also his own notes on his Web site, saying he likes to involve his readers in the journalistic process.

“Sometimes I say to my readers, Here’s my interview. What story would you have written?” said Mr. Baker, who writes about technology. Journalism, he added, used to be a clear-cut “before and after process,” much like making a meal; the cooking was done privately in the kitchen and then the meal was served. Now, he said, “every aspect of it is scrutinized.”

One of the difficulties with this is that it is forcing a simultaneous public and professional reevaluation of news gathering processes. But it is difficult and confusing to suddenly have a public conversation about news when so much of what journalists take for granted as routine story formation is seen as a quasi alchemical process by much of the public. We have sold the myth of objectivity for so long that it has become common wisdom: whereas once upon a time this provided a protective shield it is now being used as a weapon against us.

It’s classic blowback.

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