Not a Crisis, But a Problem
July 12, 2011

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Timothy Lee asks: What crisis in reporting?

Shirky is sometimes criticized for the rose-colored tint of his spectacles, but here I think he’s giving too much credence to the pessimistic conventional wisdom. It’s clear that newspapers are facing a crisis, and obviously if you’re a newspaper employee or shareholder you should be worried. But whether this is a problem for the broader society is far from clear.

[…]

The Internet is also reducing duplication of reporting effort. The 20th century newspaper industry had a lot of reporters covering identical beats in different cities. Obviously, each metro area needs its own reporters covering city hall. But a ton of stuff in the newspaper—technology and medicine, national business and politics, movie and book reviews—isn’t tied to any specific metropolitan area. As the Internet eliminates geographic boundaries, there’s no longer a good rationale for having so many people writing redundant content.

Like Lee, I’m not so worried about the future of Washington bureaus or arts desks. To the extent that there is a crisis, it’s not a federal one. The big problem, it seems, is on the state and municipal levels; and while Lee sort of offhandedly acknowledges that national coverage and local coverage are two different animals, I think he also downplays the scale of the reportage deficit in a lot of states and cities.

This American Journalism Review article from a couple years ago paints  a pretty stark picture. There are a lot fewer expendable reporters on the state and city beats, yet we seem to be hemorrhaging them at a faster rate. That means fewer people trying to fill the same amount of column space, which means less room for reporters to do the sort of long-term investigative work that would prohibit them from pumping out copy on a daily basis. And while AJR does note that some new media projects have rushed into the vacuum, as of 2009 nobody really knew how to keep those endeavors funded in the long term. That may have changed since — I certainly hope so.

I’m particularly worried about under-covered state and local beats because state and local politics are where much of the really blatant and grotesque corruption in American government goes down. And when you zoom out a bit, that small-scale corruption and abuse of power helps, in no small part, to sustain systemic corruption at the federal level. The fewer reporters cleaning up this shit, the more it festers.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that things will be worse in the long term — I’m not really a fatalist, at least when it comes to this specific topic. There are some really interesting experiments going on in hyperlocal reporting, like NYU’s own East Village Local, that could point the way towards sustainable small-scale journalism. It’s just not guaranteed that they’ll succeed. And until they do, we’ve got a problem on our hands. Maybe not a crisis, but definitely a problem.

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Nick Denton and the New Old Media
October 11, 2010

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Reading this lengthy New Yorker profile of Gawker creator Nick Denton, I’m struck by how little the rise of New York’s new blogging kool kidz really changed anything of substance. Sure, they have a 24-hour news cycle now, and new page-tracker tools to better estimate each others’ monetary worth, but there’s more overlap than they might want to admit between their guiding principles and those of the much-reviled, stodgy, decrepit old media.

What Gawker shares with the more regrettable elements of the Washington press corps is a certain contempt for their subject, along with a thinly-veiled reverence for the power and influence which accumulates around that subject. It’s this tension that allows old media journalists to deride political and ideological commitments that stray so much as an inch from their studious posture of non-ideological apoliticism, while simultaneously obsessing over which team is winning as if federal politics were just one massive fantasy football league.

Gawker gives voice to these same impulses without the squeaky-clean veneer of respectability. They make no bones about ponying up cash for sources. They’ve discarded any attempts at this mythical art we know as journalistic objectivity—a positive development, except it’s been replaced with a curdled, irony-laden drone that’s become just as boring, uniform and insubstantial as its predecessor. (Not to mention ubiquitous in the New York new media scene, as the article hints.) Whereas the ethical code for old media journalism was ossified and arbitrary, the new code is this: be hip, but don’t let on how hard you’re trying.

Is that an improvement? Of sorts. You might be forgiven for thinking that it’s more honest. But as kool kidz journalism takes its place in the new status quo, the old rationalizations and evasions start coming back. Take this quote, for instance:

This past summer, Gawker published a big “exclusive,” titled “Mark Zuckerberg’s Age of Privacy Is Over.” It featured two dozen paparazzi images of the young Facebook C.E.O., his Mandarin tutor, his sister, and his “comely” girlfriend. They were unremarkable images, and the accompanying text said as much: “His car is nothing you’d blink at on a Bay Area freeway… . Zuckerberg’s house is modest, even humdrum… . He wears nearly identical faded gray t-shirts day after day.” Its winking conceit was that Zuckerberg had become a billionaire by encouraging people to share more of their private lives with one another.

“Zuckerberg is the Angelina Jolie of the Internet,” Denton explained, in response to a critic who charged him with aspiring to “no higher principles whatsoever,” noting with particular disapproval the exposure of the girlfriend. “His lovers, friends, and acquaintances—like those of any other celebrity—are caught up in the vortex,” Denton went on. “He has to make a choice; and they have to make a choice. And none of the choices—retreat from the public eye, abandonment of friendship—are palatable.”

See what Denton’s doing there? He’s removing himself and Gawker from the story as conscious actors. Zuckerberg is the one who “made the choice” the be stalked by paparazzi when he become rich and famous. Maybe that’s true to a certain extent, but it ignores the fact that the people ding the stalking make a choice as well. Denton’s trying to edit himself out of the story here, because that way he can ignore the dimension of personal responsibility that comes along with having a soapbox. It’s the same thing the Washington Post does when they want to cover a juicy scandal: they say it’s “created a media firestorm,” as if they’re some observer from outside the media, objectively observing its goings-on.

This isn’t to say that Gawker isn’t remarkable in some ways. Its formal and technical elements serve as a decent model for how to distribute journalism in the modern age. But it’s not enough to just be faster and flashier. For the new journalism to be a success in anything but economic terms, it needs to be better. More self-aware, more rigorous, honest, compassionate, and courageous. If I thought formal innovations were all the new era of journalism had to offer, then I’d drop out of the enterprise entirely.

The Social Network
October 3, 2010

Caught it over the weekend, and thought it was fantastic. To state the obvious: this is a drama, not a work of journalism or a documentary. It’s meant to entertain and move you. To the extent that it teaches you anything, I don’t think it teaches you much about the specifics of Facebook’s creation, or the ensuing lawsuits. But it makes you feel something, and it keeps you hypnotized for a good two hours. In fact, when it was done, I found myself wishing I could stay in that world for another two hours. I’m looking forward to seeing it again.

I’d write more, but David Denby has already said pretty much everything that needs to be said.

Nietzsche Blogging: The Mask of Objectivity
September 30, 2010

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What would Nietzsche have thought of the modern news media? No way to know for sure, but I think a snippet of his description of Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (pictured) might give us a hint. In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche writes:

As a historian, [Sainte-Beuve is] without philosophy, without the power of the philosophical eye—hence declining the task of judging in all significant matters, hiding behind the mask of “objectivity.” It is different with his attitude to all things in which a fine, well-worn taste is the highest tribunal: there he really has the courage to stand by himself and delight in himself—there he is a master.

I’m not familiar with Sainte-Beuve, but this description seems pretty timely to me. It gets at what I was trying to argue here: that you can’t really express complex ideas without also expressing some form of subjective value judgment, implicit or explicit. But if you take great pains to pretend that you’re not making a value judgment, then you can avoid an argument about what you’re actually saying and, at worst, turn it into some sort of meta-argument about whether or not the way in which you were saying it was sufficiently judgment-free.

“He’s a Necessary Branch of Government”
September 14, 2010

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From a review of philosophy Kwame Annthony Appiah’s The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen:

“Whatever happened when these immoral practices ceased, it wasn’t, so it seemed to me, that people were bowled over by new moral arguments,” he writes. “Dueling was always murderous and irrational; foot binding was always painfully crippling; slavery was always an assault on the humanity of the slave.” What was needed in each of those cases, he suggests, was the awakening of a nation’s sense of honor, an awakening that caused people actually to act. Mr. Appiah writes well about how shame and ridicule, often delivered through a free press, have consistently been sharp moral motivators.

Emphasis is my own. And here are a couple choice passages from NY Mag’s great profile of Jon Stewart from a couple days ago:

“Jon has chronicled the death of shame in politics and journalism,” says Brian Williams, the NBC Nightly News anchor who is a frequent Daily Show guest. “Many of us on this side of the journalism tracks often wish we were on Jon’s side. I envy his platform to shout from the mountaintop. He’s a necessary branch of government.”

And Stewart himself:

Yet as appalled as Stewart was by the politicians, his greater scorn was increasingly aimed at the acquiescent and co-opted news media. “I assume there are bad actors in society,” Stewart says. “It’s inherent in politicians to be disingenuous. And a mining company wants to own the company store—as it is in SpongeBob. Mr. Krabs just wants to make more money. He’s not concerned with SpongeBob’s working conditions—although SpongeBob is putting in hours that are not humane, even for an invertebrate. I assume monkeys are gonna throw shit. I get angrier at the people who don’t go ‘Bad monkey!’ or who create distraction that allows it to continue unabated. The thing that shocked me the most when I first met reporters was the people who would step aside and say, ‘Boy, I wish I could say what you’re saying.’ You have a show! You are a network anchor! Whaddya mean you can’t say it?”

So to recap: large swaths of the press, in the interest of impartiality and in response to various other professional, social, and economic pressures, have largely avoided publicly shaming unjust actors in our society. Appiah seems to conceive of the press as an outside force that can wield shame as a way of forcing justice and progress. But our Fourth Estate has been so wholly swallowed up into the apparatus of power and the cult of the process, that it falls to people like Jon Stewart to shame them.

Williams’ quote is pretty telling. Stewart is “a necessary branch of government” only to the extent that he keeps chiding Williams and others for dereliction of duty.

Down the DC Rabbit Hole
September 13, 2010

Thanks to this latest contribution to the ongoing online discussion on what political journalism could learn from political science, I spent some of my train ride back from DC (where I spent the weekend looking at apartments) reading this fantastic essay on the 1988 campaign by Joan Didion. I’ve been meaning to dig into Didion’s work for a while now, and it turns out that this was a particularly good place to start.

Didion wrote this essay from the perspective of a political outsider immersing herself in the life of The Process. She renders politics as an insular, arcane observance with its own set of rituals, carefully observed conventions and hierarchies that are both chillingly alien and wholly irrelevant to those standing outside it. While much has changed in the 22 years since she penned “Insider Baseball,” I think the basic substance of that criticism has not.

In about two weeks, I will be living in that world. I’ve been preparing myself for that possibility since high school, and it’s true that in some ways I’m already a part of it—or, at the very least, a compulsive observer of it. But soon I will be living in America’s (indeed, the world’s) political capital, working full-time in political research and communications, socializing in my free time with political journalists, operatives, Hill staffers and other people who have devoted their careers to The Process.

I don’t know if the sensation of strangeness that comes with that knowledge will ever wear off, but I hope it doesn’t. It clearly does for a lot of people—and these are the ones who think The Process consists of unyielding physical law. Didion rightfully argues that the opposite is true: these laws and tribal codes are really deeply idiosyncratic ideological propositions. You can’t engage with them without having them warp your perspective to some degree. Of course, no one’s perspective is more ideologically warped than he who takes his position to be fundamentally non-ideological.

I don’t write this as an endorsement of the “Real America” fallacy—the idea that political outsiders alone are uniquely qualified to evaluate what occurs in the political process because they stand apart from it and are therefore objective. I’m not a fan, by any means, of newspaper columnists who think the best way to address complex policy problems is through interviewing random cab drivers named Joe. Rather, I think the lesson here is that human subjectivity is ubiquitous and overwhelming. This is hardest to see when you’re embedded in a world like DC, with its robust and convoluted internal logic and mythology; but losing sight of it means failing to meet some of the fundamental ethical obligations of the career I’ve chosen. My ability to grow as a political commentator and observer depends largely on how well I can engage and participate in this culture while recognizing both its subjectivity and its oddness.

What Breitbart is Doing to Journalism
August 3, 2010

This is the subject of my latest column.

Also: Yadda, yadda, Tumblr Tuesday.

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#CPNC and “Partisan” Journalism
July 8, 2010

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Yesterday at the conference, I attended a journalism talk featuring some great panelists* that I nonetheless found sort of troublesome. The real problem was that all of the panelists tacitly accepted a rather odd premise: that there exists this dichotomy between objective journalism and partisan journalism. If you’re not doing one, you’re doing the other.

But it seems to me that partisan journalism would be just as bad as objective journalism, because “partisan” implies that the journalist in question is playing for a team. Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, it suggests the journalistic project involves catering to the prefabricated ideological leanings of your audience and professional community.

If you want to see what’s wrong with partisan journalism, look no further than the final speaker of CPNC Day 1: Paul Begala (pictured, right). Begala might be a perfectly good guy, but he’s a professional who has some pretty perverse incentives. He used to be a Democratic strategist, but now his job is to sell books and boost ratings, which he does by filling a niche as The Democrat on CNN talk shows. The way to fill that niche, and do it well, isn’t to offer honest, original insight—it’s to regurgitate DNC talking points in a reasonably entertaining fashion. And that’s pretty much what he did at CPNC, rocking us young liberals gently to sleep with some soothing lullabies about how FOX News is the Great Satan and we’re all so smart and awesome.

Ironically** a journalism ecosphere that blended that form of commentary with straight reporting as a matter of course would produce a lot of the same problems as the current model. We would continue to get “both sides” of a story, and any take on current events that did not lie somewhere in that continuum of acceptable discourse would be neglected. (If you want to see why that’s a problem, think back to 2003, when the bipartisan consensus was that a vote against the Iraq War was a vote for Islamocommunazism.) Even if major media outlets were more closely identified with movements instead of parties (sort of like how The Nation is liberal but not capital-D Democratic, while FOX is very much capital-R Republican), you would wind up in an environment where they catered to those movements without offering a whole lot of challenging or useful internecine criticism.

Now to be fair, all the panelists were pretty good journalists, and I don’t think they were intentionally advocating that style of reporting. But I think the subtext of the conversation, to a certain extent, was that they were all batting for a team. And sure, that’s always going to be true, to an extent—I mean, I do it too—but I think we need to be very conscious of the fact that this will always be in tension with one of the fundamental responsibilities of a journalist: constant, vigilant skepticism. I may be a liberal in a liberal community with a primarily liberal audience, but I also need to recognize that the best way to serve that audience is by always making the effort to stand a little bit outside of it.

In other words, the hardest thing about being a journalist isn’t the aloneness. But it might very well be the struggle to achieve and sustain that aloneness when every fiber of your being resists.

*Ann Friedman, Chris Hayes, Amanda Terkel, Kai Wright, Richard Kim.

**Or maybe not ironically? I don’t know. Shut up.

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Objective Journalism and the Politics of Language
July 2, 2010

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I’ll stop annotating my column attacking “objective” journalism soon, but there’s one important point in there I want to expand on. I wrote, “Human language is too complex, too subjective, and too ambiguous to express non-mathematical propositions in wholly mathematical, objective terms,” but word count restraints kept me from presenting a more detailed argument for that claim.

Conveniently, the past couple of days have presented me with the perfect example of what I was talking about: Adam Serwer (whose new solo blog you should bookmark straightaway) writes about a study showing that the New York Times would only refer to waterboarding as “torture” outside of its opinion pages when the waterboarders were not American agents.

The Times’ defense of this position is worth reading, because it makes clear the impossible choice with which they were presented. Impossible, at least, if you have an ideological commitment to “objectivity,” because, in this case, the whole notion of an objective option is ludicrous.

The definitions of words, after all, are not natural facts about the universe. They can shift and mutate. They’re formed by consensus, by context, by speaker and listener. With that in mind, the Times has a point in one respect: yes, to call waterboarding torture is to take an ideological position. Sure, you could marshal all kinds of evidence to suggest that the practice of waterboarding conforms to the definition of the word “torture”; you could point to historical precedent and cite the Oxford English Dictionary. But historical precedent doesn’t mean much given how mutable language actually is, and to argue that the Oxford English Dictionary is the set-in-stone record of the whole English language as it exists right now is, itself, a hotly contested (and, I think, faintly ridiculous) claim.

So the Times finds itself unable to call waterboarding “torture.” They’re objective! And to take a position on the precise definition of a politically electrified word is wholly inappropriate when done from a place of objectivity. There’s simply no objective authority or phenomenon you can refer to in advancing your claim.

On the other hand: waterboarding is torture. It has been torture. People like Joe Lieberman started shifting their own definition of the word “torture” after it was discovered that the United States waterboards. It was a craven, naked manipulation of the English language, a deliberate attempt to undermine the relative stability of language and meaning in order to cover for, well, torture. And the Times, by couching references to waterboarding in euphemisms like “harsh interrogation techniques,” aided and abetted that process. By refusing to call the process by what it was universally understood to be before the United States started doing it, they were providing cover.

The Times’ defense suggests that this charge doesn’t bother them a great deal. But consider this: by providing cover, and tacitly accepting a warping of the English language also accepted by barely a quarter of English-speaking Americans, they are taking a political position—and, for that matter, a minority position.

So this was the impossible position for the Times: on the one hand, they could take a position that would superficially appear “objective,” but would also be morally atrocious. Their other option was a position that does not appear objective, but would at least be morally permissible and conform to the overwhelming consensus on the meaning of English words.

But the Times, seeing a position where there was no “objective” choice, went for the option that would at least maintain the illusion of objectivity. Maintaining this illusion was more important to them than doing the morally right thing.

But in attempting to maintain the illusion, the Times revealed something else: that the doctrine of objective journalism is not some perfectly cool, dispassionate filter through which to view the world, but a dogma of its own that can have just as great a distortive effect on one’s observations as any acknowledged bias.

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Objectivity and Credibility in Journalism
July 1, 2010

In general I was pretty disappointed by the response in the comments to my recent column criticizing the concept of “objective” journalism (a lot of it came down to either ad hominem attacks or grievous misreadings of my argument). But one response from commenter watsonho got me thinking. He (she?) writes:

Journalists and commentators are supposed to be authoritative – they are supposed to know what they are talking about. If they admit they are wrong, they become undependable, untrustworthy and therefore useless. So there is a strong psychological bias against ever admitting you are wrong, no matter how strong the evidence.

However, when you take the position that you are “objective” you can easily change your position as facts change or your viewpoint evolves. In the early days of the Iraq war, for example, many media outlets presented a very positive view of the war. When it became clear that the war wasn’t going well, they started running stories that presented a more critical look. They were able to do this without coming under attack or appearing contradictory because in both cases, they were being “objective.”

[snip]

If we moved to a system where we discarded “objectivity” and let all our opinions hang out, we would quickly move into a state of journalistic trench warfare, where everyone digs in and refuses to budge out of fear of losing their credibility.

It’s an interesting defense, but it seems ethically untenable to me; it requires the journalist to assume a position of authority which I argued—and note that watsonho did not dispute this particular claim—no one has any right to. What watsonho is suggesting is that journalists must claim false credibility for the greater public good.

My argument is for a more meritocratic system: repeatedly making outlandish, indefensible claims should cost you credibility, as should digging into the proverbial trenches and defending your claims against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. If that sounds utopian or overly idealistic, it’s no more so than this belief that journalists can effectively distance their own subjectivity from their reporting.

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