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The lost art of journalism

About a month ago, venture capitalist Chris Sacca wrote this on Twitter.

Journalism: The art of ignoring all the facts that don’t support the article you’ve already written.

I retweeted this and replied:

The same could be said for my blogging….

Sacca’s quote generated some discussion on Twitter and some email as well.  Some asked if I believed it, some just trashed it, while some wondered if he was right.

Here are my personal thoughts on the subject, something I have been thinking about for over 16 years.

Lawrence Phillips In 1995, a Nebraska football player named Lawrence Phillips violently beat his his ex-girlfriend, Kate McEwen.  He dragged her down a flight of stairs and it was a horrific scene.  A situation in any other university, the player would be expelled.  Instead of being kicked off the team, kicked out of school, he suspended from the Husker football team by coach Tom Osborne.  He sat out a game and then started to play again.  There was some national outrage but at the local Cornhusker press conference, the local media didn’t ask Osborne a thing about it.  The media was dependent on it’s access to Osbourne and wasn’t going to let a shameful decision by the coach affect that access and was silent when security kicked the network news crew out of there for asking hard questions. 

The same thing happened during the Rick Pitino debacle in Louisville, the Jim Tressel fiasco at THE Ohio State, and basically everywhere John Calipari that has coached.  Don’t even get started with Rogers Sportsnet brining in the compulsive rumor fabricator Eklund onto their trade deadline show.  He was proven to be a liar before they ever brought him on their air.  In many media markets the local sports coverage is so dependent on it’s access to the program that it has stopped covering the program and instead becomes beholden to it and transforms into it’s P.R. arm (it doesn’t have to be that way, New York Rangers coach John Tortorella and New York Post hockey writer Larry Brooks essentially hate each other)

During the same time of the Lawrence Phillips assault and whitewash, investigative journalist Gary Webb was writing a series of articles about the Dark Alliance which accused the CIA of drug smuggling.  The San Jose Mercury News stood by the story, backed away from the story and when things got tough for the paper, tossed Webb under a bus which ended his career as an investigative reporter.  After Webb committed suicide, other papers started to verify his stories but the Mercury News blinked in the face of opposition.

Probably the most famous case of mass newsroom and editorial failure was the lead up to the Iraq War.  The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, and most other papers were touting the American government line that there was weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  At the same time some American and most of the world’s media outlets were saying that there was no weapons of mass destruction.  It was kind of surreal.  I would wake up every morning and read the New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today and see compelling (and competing) arguments for the invasion of Iraq while in the evening I would come home and watch Kudlow & Cramer which had a regular series of experts (including Scott Ritter, the former UN weapons inspector) on the show all stating that there was no WMD in Iraq.  I remember after the invasion of Iraq was complete and there was no WMDs thinking, “I got it right, CBC got it right, Kudlow & Cramer got it right, CBC got it right… why did almost everyone else get it wrong?”  The New York Times later talked about being caught up in the mood of the nation, believing Colin Powell, and their government sources.  So much for questioning everything.

We saw the same thing with the Irish media and their boosterism of the Irish economy the expansion of real estate values.  From Michael Lewis’ article in the New Yorker

The Irish IndependentKelly wrote his second newspaper article, more or less predicting the collapse of the Irish banks. He pointed out that in the last decade they and the economy had fundamentally changed. In 1997 the Irish banks were funded entirely by Irish deposits. By 2005 they were getting most of their money from abroad. The small German savers who ultimately supplied the Irish banks with deposits to re-lend in Ireland could take their money back with the click of a computer mouse. Since 2000, lending to construction and real estate had risen from 8 percent of Irish bank lending (the European norm) to 28 percent. One hundred billion euros—or basically the sum total of all Irish public bank deposits—had been handed over to Irish property developers and speculators. By 2007, Irish banks were lending 40 percent more to property developers than they had to the entire Irish population seven years earlier. “You probably think that the fact that Irish banks have given speculators €100 billion to gamble with, safe in the knowledge that taxpayers will cover most losses, is a cause of concern to the Irish Central Bank,” Kelly wrote, “but you would be quite wrong.”

This time Kelly sent his piece to a newspaper with a far bigger circulation, the Irish Independent. The Independent’s editor wrote back to say he found the article offensive and wouldn’t publish it. Kelly next turned to The Sunday Business Post, but the editor there just sat on the piece. The journalists were following the bankers’ lead and conflating a positive outlook on real-estate prices with a love of country and a commitment to Team Ireland. (“They’d all use this same phrase, ‘You’re either for us or against us,’ ” says a prominent bank analyst in Dublin.) Kelly finally went back to The Irish Times, which ran his article in September 2007.

So what causes entire newsrooms to get a big story wrong?  One local reporter suggested it was trusting different sources which kind of makes sense but it doesn’t explain why the CBC, CTV, and CNBC went a different direction than the New York Times and Washington Post.  This wasn’t the case of two reporters hearing two different stories about Jerome Igninla being traded, this was a story that sent a nation to war for years and the reporting was very one sided by the Times and Post.   Why did most of the American media buy the Pentagon sell job and most of the international media did not?

While it is popular to say that everyone got it wrong, a post by Arriana Huffington from 2004 that everyone did not.

Among them is Joe Lauria, a reporter who has covered the UN since 1990 for a variety of papers, including the London Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, and the Boston Globe. He bridles at Miller’s claim. "I didn’t get it wrong," he told me. "And a lot of others who covered the lead up to the war didn’t get it wrong. Mostly because we weren’t just cozying up to Washington sources but had widened our reporting to what we were hearing from people like Mohamed ElBaradei and Hans Blix, and from sources in other countries, like Germany, France, and Russia. Miller had access to these voices, too, but ignored them. Our chief job as journalists is to challenge authority. Because an official says something might make it ‘official,’ but it doesn’t necessarily make it true."

This is no time for rewriting history, or for allowing those who helped the Bush White House market the war to fall back on the comfort and safety of a collective "we all screwed up." After all, as Jack Shafer pointed out on Thursday, even in the New York Times there were "at least four non-Miller stories published during the war’s run-up that glower with skepticism about the administration’s case and methods."

So what went wrong at the Times?  Michael Massing’s essay in the New York Review of Books offers this up.

Why, I wondered, had it taken the Times so long to report this? Around the time that Jehl’s article appeared, I ran into a senior editor at the Times and asked him about it. Well, he said, some reporters at the paper had relied heavily on Chalabi as a source and so were not going to write too critically about him.

After looking at this, he concludes

This points to a larger problem. In the period before the war, US journalists were far too reliant on sources sympathetic to the administration. Those with dissenting views—and there were more than a few—were shut out. Reflecting this, the coverage was highly deferential to the White House. This was especially apparent on the issue of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction—the heart of the President’s case for war. Despite abundant evidence of the administration’s brazen misuse of intelligence in this matter, the press repeatedly let officials get away with it. As journalists rush to chronicle the administration’s failings on Iraq, they should pay some attention to their own.

Judith Miller, who was responsible for much of the New York TImes reporting blamed her sources.  This confused Slate’s Jack Slater as Miller claimed her roll is to share the what people in official positions tell her rather than question and investigate what she is hearing.

My job was not to collect information and analyze it independently as an intelligence agency; my job was to tell readers of the New York Times as best as I could figure out, what people inside the governments who had very high security clearances, who were not supposed to talk to me, were saying to one another about what they thought Iraq had and did not have in the area of weapons of mass destruction. [Click here for Miller Clip 3.]

More disturbingly, a later investigation by Byron Calame, suggested there was a fair amount of editorial incompetence in the New York Times Newsrooms as well.

By the spring of 2003, the newsroom was overwhelmed by the Jayson Blair fiasco, and Mr. Raines and the managing editor, Gerald Boyd, left the paper. When Bill Keller became executive editor on July 30, 2003, he focused on dealing with the trauma of the Blair scandal. Nevertheless, with questions growing about weapons in Iraq, he told Ms. Miller she could no longer cover those issues. But it took until May 2004 – more than a year after the war started and about a year after it became clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – before The Times acknowledged in an editors’ note that the coverage was flawed. Mr. Keller then directed her to stay away from all national security issues.

The Times weren’t the only ones who had jumped on the WMD bandwagon.  The Washington Post was in there as well.

On December 12, for example, The Washington Post ran a front-page story by Barton Gellman contending that al-Qaeda had obtained a nerve agent from Iraq. Most of the evidence came from administration officials, and it was so shaky as to draw the attention of Michael Getler, the paper’s ombudsman. In his weekly column, Getler wrote that the article had so many qualifiers and caveats that

the effect on the complaining readers, and on me, is to ask what, after all, is the use of this story that practically begs you not to put much credence in it? Why was it so prominently displayed, and why not wait until there was more certainty about the intelligence?

The question is asked,

And why, he might have added, didn’t the Post and other papers devote more time to pursuing the claims about the administration’s manipulation of intelligence? Part of the explanation, no doubt, rests with the Bush administration’s skill at controlling the flow of news. “Their management of information is far greater than that of any administration I’ve seen,” Knight Ridder’s John Walcott observed. “They’ve made it extremely difficult to do this kind of [investigative] work.” That management could take both positive forms—rewarding sympathetic reporters with leaks, background interviews, and seats on official flights—and negative ones—freezing out reporters who didn’t play along. In a city where access is all, few wanted to risk losing it.

Which isn’t a lot different than what happened at the University of Nebraska with Tom Osbourne.  The other factor is the same that played into the Irish financial implosion (and the American housing boom), reporters were afraid of being on the wrong side of public opinion.

Such sanctions were reinforced by the national political climate. With a popular president promoting war, Democrats in Congress were reluctant to criticize him. This deprived reporters of opposition voices to quote, and of hearings to cover. Many readers, meanwhile, were intolerant of articles critical of the President. Whenever The Washington Post ran such pieces, reporter Dana Priest recalls, “We got tons of hate mail and threats, calling our patriotism into question.” Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and The Weekly Standard, among others, all stood ready to pounce on journalists who strayed, branding them liberals or traitors—labels that could permanently damage a career. Gradually, journalists began to muzzle themselves.

Not everyone censored themselves.

In the weeks following the speech, one journalist—Walter Pincus of The Washington Post—developed strong reservations about it. A longtime investigative reporter, Pincus went back and read the UN inspectors’ reports of 1998 and 1999, and he was struck to learn from them how much weaponry had been destroyed in Iraq before 1998. He also tracked down General Anthony Zinni, the former head of the US Central Command, who described the hundreds of weapons sites the United States had destroyed in its 1998 bombing. All of this, Pincus recalled, “made me go back and read Powell’s speech closely. And you could see that it was all inferential. If you analyzed all the intercepted conversations he discussed, you could see that they really didn’t prove anything.”

By mid-March, Pincus felt he had enough material for an article questioning the administration’s claims on Iraq. His editors weren’t interested. It was only after the intervention of his colleague Bob Woodward, who was researching a book on the war and who had developed similar doubts, that the editors agreed to run the piece—on page A17. Despite the administration’s claims about Iraq’s WMD, it began, “US intelligence agencies have been unable to give Congress or the Pentagon specific information about the amounts of banned weapons or where they are hidden….” Noting the pressure intelligence analysts were feeling from the White House and Pentagon, Pincus wrote that senior officials, in making the case for war, “repeatedly have failed to mention the considerable amount of documented weapons destruction that took place in Iraq between 1991 and 1998.”

Two days later, Pincus, together with Dana Milbank, the Post‘s White House correspondent, was back with an even more critical story. “As the Bush administration prepares to attack Iraq this week,” it began, “it is doing so on the basis of a number of allegations against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that have been challenged—and in some cases disproved—by the United Nations, European governments and even US intelligence reports.” That story appeared on page A13.

The placement of these stories was no accident, Pincus says. “The front pages ofThe New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times are very important in shaping what other people think,” he told me. “They’re like writing a memo to the White House.” But the Post‘s editors, he said, “went through a whole phase in which they didn’t put things on the front page that would make a difference.”

John Walcott of Knight Ridder The McClatchy Company suggests it was partially due to some lazy reporting.

If nothing else, the Iraq saga should cause journalists to examine the breadth of their sources. “One question worth asking,” John Walcott of Knight Ridder says, “is whether we in journalism have become too reliant on high-level officials instead of cultivating less glamorous people in the bowels of the bureaucracy. “In the case of Iraq, he added, the political appointees “really closed ranks. So if you relied exclusively on traditional news sources—assistant secretaries and above—you would not have heard things we heard.” What Walcott calls “the blue collar” employees of the agencies—the working analysts or former analysts—were drawn on extensively by Knight Ridder, but by few others.

It paints a pretty ugly picture of journalism.  The part of it that gave me hope was what happened to Judith Miller.  First of all, Maureen Dowd went to town on Miller’s reporting 

Judy admitted in the story that she ‘got it totally wrong’ about W.M.D. ‘If your sources are wrong,’ she said, ‘you are wrong.’ But investigative reporting is not stenography. . .

The next day, public editor, Byron Calame wrote,

Ms. Miller may still be best known for her role in a series of Times articles in 2002 and 2003 that strongly suggested Saddam Hussein already had or was acquiring an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction… Many of those articles turned out to be inaccurate."

Barack Obama's birth certificate Have they changed?  Well today Fox News asked their viewers regarding Barack Obama’s long form birth certificate, "is it good enough for you?"

The Nation looks back at the reporting that defined the Mission Accomplished event.  A mission so accomplished that there was another 4,000 American and a couple hundred thousand Iraqi casualties.  Try to control the grimace as you read what Maureen Dowd wrote.

George Bush - Mission Accomplished Maureen Dowd in her column declared: “Out bounded the cocky, rule-breaking, daredevil flyboy, a man navigating the Highway to the Danger Zone, out along the edges where he was born to be, the further on the edge, the hotter the intensity.

“He flashed that famous all-American grin as he swaggered around the deck of the aircraft carrier in his olive flight suit, ejection harness between his legs, helmet tucked under his arm, awestruck crew crowding around. Maverick was back, cooler and hotter than ever, throttling to the max with joystick politics. Compared to Karl Rove’s ”revvin’ up your engine” myth-making cinematic style, Jerry Bruckheimer’s movies look like Lizzie McGuire.

“This time Maverick didn’t just nail a few bogeys and do a 4G inverted dive with a MiG-28 at a range of two meters. This time the Top Gun wasted a couple of nasty regimes, and promised this was just the beginning.”

So much for the paper of record.  It asks the question, if I can’t expect the New York Times, Washington Post, or the any newspaper in Ireland to stand up to popular opinion and keep digging for the truth, why expect more from The StarPhoenix or local television stations.  While they probably aren’t offered rides on Air Force One, how do I know that selections on The StarPhoenix’s 52 things to love about Saskatoon aren’t connected to advertising buys? (especially when reading this article) or electoral coverage is not influenced by the same access issues that sucked in Judith Miller and a lot of other respected journalists?  Who knows what information that James Wood has published after Premier Brad Wall offered to help him win the office football pool?

I almost everything before this paragraph last the day that Sacca’s tweet appeared.  Since then I have been wondering, do I trust journalism.

First of all, there is a difference between news entertainment and journalism.  What FOX News practices, what MSNBC does, and what SUN TV parades out isn’t journalism.  It’s driven by ratings and is all about profit.  Now I may find Keith Olbermann a lot more entertaining and less offensive then Glenn Beck, it’s still not journalism.  Does anyone even on the right think that Sarah Palin is on FOX News for any other reason than to further her own political aspirations (faltering as they are)?

I believe in it because as I have grown older and wiser, I know it when I see it.  This winter a reporter came in and did a story where she opened with the line, “I am just going through the motions on this story but at least I don’t have to endure another day of —-.”  Seriously.  Another local reporter assured me that I was off the record and direct quoted me.  I had read of stupid reporters in Warren Kinsella’s book Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics and The War Room but thought they were confined to covering politics (or Nebraska football).  Apparently it’s not and I learned it the hard way.  Even I have a blacklist of local reporters I will no longer talk to and sadly I keep a voice recorder in my office drawer after being misquoted.

Do I trust journalism?  I don’t know but I have grown to trust specific journalists and yes, I trust many outlets.  In addition to The StarPhoenix there are papers and magazines that are an important part of my daily life, including those that have screwed up big time in the past (I’m looking at you, The New York Times and the Washington Post).  They are the papers and magazines that I toss in front of Mark and later Oliver that will teach them a global worldview, the importance of figuring out both sides of a story, and in the case of some papers, how to handle a situation when you have screwed up.  Others will teach Mark what happens when you lose your intellectual integrity and only choose to see one side of an argument so I guess Fox News does have some value after all.

2 Comments

  1. Mike O says:

    Jordon,
    What an awesome piece of journalism! Great work there!

  2. will hodder says:

    Jordon…for better or worse, journalism is undertaken as a profession by human beings, who are just as fallible as other members of the species. Although you seem to treat this sort of thing as a relatively new problem, journalists have been mislead, screwed up and ignored important stories for dozens, if not, hundreds of years. The “lost art” has actually been “lost” for some time, if it ever existed in the first place.

    P.S…nothing is ever “off the record.” The sooner you learn this, the happier you’ll be.

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