Comments of the Week

March 8-12, 2010

At the end of each week, we excerpt some of the most insightful, articulate, interesting, and entertaining comments we’ve received that week. Think we’ve missed something? Well… comment!

Rahm, Off the Record

This week’s “News Meeting’ question noted that the author of one of the many recent stories on Rahm Emanuel wrote that the chief of staff “declined to talk to me on the record for this article.” When that’s the case, we asked readers, should reporters talk to their subjects off the record—and if so, is there a limit?

Reporters in DC grant anonymity when sources won’t go the record. Period. They will continue to do so. When criticized they will say, “Of course we want them to go on the record, and we press them hard on that, but when they won’t…they won’t! What are we supposed to do?”

I’m not aware that the professional conversation about confidential sources has ever moved beyond this point, despite all the forums like this one.

Granting anonymity to sources is by definition a decision that bargains away the public’s right to know, on terms the public cannot know about. There’s no way for the reader of the account to tell whether the bargain the reporter made was a good one or a bad one.

Therefore confidentially sourced journalism is “trust me” journalism, more so than other types of reporting that carry within the account the means for judging whether the account is trustworthy. Thus the opposite of “trust me” journalism is not the untrustworthy kind but “…don’t believe me? check it yourself.” This is exactly what we cannot do when sources speak anonymously.

Where’s the line, you say? (Which, by the way, is the all time, hands down, number one champeeen CJR question, having been asked far more than any other.) I’ll bite: When the identity of the source plus the fact that the source can’t or won’t speak publicly are, taken together, more significant, more newsworthy than whatever information or insight the source provided, then a bad bargain has been struck.

But again, we can’t know when bad bargains are struck in our name, so we’re back to “trust me” journalism. The one way we could (sometimes) know is if reporters who suspect that a bad bargain was made tried to do some reporting on who the confidential sources were, but this is very hard to do and anyway a gentleman’s agreement is in place that says: you don’t investigate who my sources are and I won’t dig into yours, deal?


— Jay Rosen

I have great respect for Prof. Rosen. He’s one of the great journalism thinkers of our time. But he couldn’t be more wrong about this. Yes, anonymous sources can abuse their anonymity to promote an agenda. But that’s what separates the great reporters from the hacks. While some sources may lie “off the record” the undeniable fact is that many can only tell the truth, when they can speak privately. In fact most government lies are told ON THE RECORD, and only by using off the record or background sources can we get the leads that take us to the truth. Can you say Watergate? Bob Woodard argues, and I think he’s right, that reporters should use MORE anonymous sources, not fewer. The accountability comes with the accuracy of the reporting which can be judged only after the fact. Truth, accuracy, are the standards. I care more about figuring out whether what my sources are saying is true than getting them on the record.

— Jamie McIntyre

Hi Jamie: Read my comment again… Did I say anything about the problem of confidential sources lying?

I was trying to point our certain problems with confidential sources that obtain even if they are not lying. For example: Maybe I can’t decide what kind of discount rate I want to apply to sources, based on where I know them to be coming from, because when sources are anonymous I can’t tell where they’re coming from. That’s an example of a problem that applies even when the source is not lying. Instead of assessing where they are coming from I have to trust you, the reporter, which is why I referenced “trust me journalism.”

Without a doubt many, many valuable sources that journalists learn true and valuable things from can only speak under conditions of confidentiality. I am not disputing that. I also think the practice is abused. You’re not going to dispute that, are you?

I also understand that from your ex-reporter’s perspective, there’s really only one issue: is the stuff accurate? If it is (and reporters work hard to make sure it is) then… no problem. But that’s not so. There’s still the problem of how much trust you are asking me to have in you and whether that level of trust can be sustained when sourcing is not transparent. Cheers.

— Jay Rosen

None of this is talking about off-the-record conversation. I don’t understand why journalists need to have such conversations at all. If you use them to tweak articles, isn’t that effectively putting them “on the record”? What I’d like to see a journalist do is have a long, off-the-record convo with someone like Emanuel, then secretly record it and print the whole thing. That would be a slap against the Obama administration’s dickish insistence on anonymity.

— Shii

Good-bye to Bright Green

On Tuesday, The Observatory’s Curtis Brainard wrote about the Christian Science Monitor’s decision to discontinue its Bright Green blog, which covered environmental issues. CSM editor John Yemma explained that as the environment has become more of a mainstream topic, “specialized environmental coverage seemed something we could move beyond.”

The notion that a “quick study” can master the intricacies of a technology-driven beat — especially one involving energy — is nonsense. Nor could a quick study do any more than write superficial, press-release driven, he said-she said tripe after a few hours’ cram course on economics, banking law, international finance, constitutional law, or any other area The Wall Street Journal used to be known for. While the CSM editor is correct that the environmental arena encompasses virtually all beats to some degree, the notion that the average business writer, or education writer, or garden writer would known the linkages, contacts, intricacies of environmental health or energy is simply false. The editors should have had the integrity to tell the truth: they were cutting costs and didn’t give a damn about in depth environmental coverage.

— Roger Witherspoon

Perhaps the decision comes from the recognition that environmental issues are ubiquitous now. As an urban planner, I’ve observed that local civic engagement and sustainability are inextricably linked. Specifically, low income neighborhoods present the best opportunity for reducing emissions because they present the most inefficient building stock and often have significant space, especially where unused factories stand, for community gardens. Engaged communities working in partnerships with their elected officials, churches, and neighborhood associations will be best equipped to make their neighborhoods green. People are not accustomed to saying ‘civic engagement” and “urban sustainability” in one breath, but the link between the two needs is essential.

At MIT, from where I graduated and now work, I see a tremendous research on new technologies related to sustainability, but few efforts to understand how those technologies will play out with real people in real places. A more integrated approach to sustainability could be very productive.

Will the press leave “green” behind? Or will they begin to integrate it into the vast number of subject in which it should be present? I hope the latter will be true.

— Alexa Mills

“Blogs are powerful tools, of course, but ideally they complement strong news coverage—they don’t substitute for it.”

I agree. I edit a magazine that covers energy efficient, healthy, sustainable, and affordable home building and renovation. We have an audience of professional builders, contractors, and utility program staff.

We have felt a lot of pressure of late to expand our coverage of homeowner issues on our Web site, to reach a wider and wider audience by covering topics not directly related to our core expertise, or by covering topics in a more superficial way. This has been fueled by the rise in social media technology and increased interest among the general public in energy efficiency.

I write a blog on energy and the environment for our local PBS organization, and we have a blog on our magazine Web site. That’s great, but it can’t take attention away from our in-depth coverage. I think we should stick to what we know—in-depth coverage of topics of interest to our core audience.

— Jim Gunshinan

What Does Silvio Signify?

On Wednesday, CJR gave readers a preview of Robert W. McChesney’s remarks to the Federal Trade Commission on the topic of “Rejuvenating American Journalism.” McChesney, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the co-author of The Death and Life of American Journalism, is an advocate of policy changes—including public funding—designed to sustain reporting as a public good.

The list of other nations which essentially license and politically subsidize journalistic organization, cited by McChesney, are not exactly marked by tough reporting of their own governments. Countries like Japan or France are consensus societies, a cultural matter that Americans who disdain their own systems in favor of tourist fantasies seem not to grasp. The United States really is “exceptional,” which is why it has Constitutional guarantees lacking in a Britain or a Germany - guarantees of freedom of the press to any citizen who owns one. In the Internet age, we all own one.

McChesney’s interests are the politics of the old-line chattering classes, not journalism per se; we get more diverse information now than we ever did in the supposed glory days of the networks, The New York Times, and so forth. Journalism is as much about what is not printed as it is about what is printed. “Public” journalism subsidized by the government inevitably (if NPR and PBS are guides) becomes dominated, even in spite of the intentions of its proprietors, by voices from the political left - because part of the reason these voices are of ‘the Left’ is the very hostility to the idea of markets that sometimes leaves them behind. Voices on the right have trouble reconciling their acceptance of political subsidies with their endorsement of markets. And after the left-wing hysteria following the Citizens United ruling from the Supreme Court, it is clear that people on the left judge the degree of protection of speech they endorse by who is doing the speaking, as opposed to the actual content of the speech, which is the more traditional form of censorship.

— Mark Richard

Keep in mind, Mark, that the corrupt Berlusconi rose to power precisely because the Italian government failed to adequately safeguard the public interest aspects of the Italian media system, relinquishing control to private interests - of which Berlusconi was far and away the most dominant. As Prime Minister, he was then able to exert considerable control over the state media. I highly doubt that Prof. McChesney means to suggest that the Italian system is a model of government regulation and subsidy that should be followed in this country. In fact, the Berlusconi example illustrates the merit of McChesney’s testimony:

“Berlusconi will be remembered as the man who in the space of just 25 years, built a conglomerate that rose to dominate Italian commercial television, and to become Europe’s second largest media empire (after Bertelsmann of Germany) and Italy’s third biggest private company, and who used his communicative power and his flair for showmanship to launch a new political party that gathered enough votes to secure his election as Prime Minister in just four months. Overall, his career over the last 25 years stands as an impressive illustration and warning of the power of concentrated media ownership in a lightly regulated marketplace.”

— Rich Potter

The point about Berlusconi is more complex than that. The countries cited by McChesney are all consensus societies, much less demographically and culturally complicated than the U.S. As the case of Italy illustrates, there is little division between the State and the primary, traditional industries, including media industries. Right now the Italian government is drafting more restrictions on the Internet, for example - a government action not out of line with McChesney’s way of thinking, but which benefits Berlusconi’s media empire.

Berlusconi’s media empire, like his rise to power, whatever you or I think of it in qualitative terms, has been accomplished by giving that damned consumer what he or she wants. The unspoken element in McChesney’s analysis, like all left-wing analyses, is the addressing of whether what McChesney proposes would be good for the consumer, or good for regulators of consumer preferences. In the recent Citizens United case, almost no one asked the simple question of whether consumers had the same right to see the Hillary documentary that they have to see a crucifix soaked in urine at a publicly-funded museum; the whole debate was between big bulls arguing over whether one of them had the same speech rights as the other. Governments put in power by voters have legitimacy as interpreters of the public will, but so do markets - possibly with greater accuracy.

— Mark Richard

Fox and Friends

On Tuesday, “Dumb Like a Fox,” the cover story of the March/April issue, went live online. Writer Terry McDermott concluded that, contrary to the Obama administration’s charge, Fox News is not an arm of the Republican Party—but that, like the rest of cable, it doesn’t produce much in the way of journalism, either. The piece sparked a spirited debate and one unlikely Field of Dreams reference.

You leftists sure are thick! The main point being presented here by those of us who aren’t left wing hacks is that Fox News is biased just like all the other news organizations out there. So, why single out Fox News? If you were really interested in news reporting being unbiased you would attack the mainstream media as a whole. Instead, you only attack those news organizations that lean differently from yourselves. Fox News is here to stay! Deal with it!

— Michael

Oh… how biased is Fox News… blah blah blah.

As has been stated before, but must be repeated for all ye lefties out there… MSNBC, CNN, etc. and their “journalists” are, of course, unbiased.

More and more people are seeing through this lefty hypocritical crap.

CJR = Communist Journalism Review

“Peace, love, dope! Now shut the hell up and get the hell out of here!”

— Danny

Boy, the fox bots are out in force tonite! I think that you people are missing the real issue with Fox, the issue that I tried to focus on in the initial comment on this piece.

I could care less if the opinions on fox news are slanted conservative or liberal. I have no problem with opinion content exceeding news content, in fact I think it’s better to have a journalist tell an audience “such and such is true and such and such is false” rather than ‘objectively report’ CNN style “so and so said *crazy ass thing* and people want to know could *crazy ass thing* be true?”

Journalists are supposed to be able to convey the truth. They should be allowed to make calls, and give supporting reasons, instead of ‘objectively’ repeat a bunch of stuff told to them and shrug when it comes to the integrity of the content. “Hey, I’m just the mail man. I deliver the mail, I don’t write it.” is not a preferable attitude towards the news process.

Opinion is good, no matter the slant, when it is factually based.

The problem with FOX news is that they lie too much and spread sloppy stories when it suits their narrative. They don’t just slant the truth, they quite often make it up. That is what makes them despicable.

— Thimbles

One obvious answer to the status quo that is cable rolling news would be to bring BBC World on air here in the US (the BBC operates not one but TWO 24/7 rolling news channels - one for the domestic UK market and one for a world market).

BBC World is probably 80% news and 20% “something else” (love that term btw). Not only would bring not only a level of quality (the BBC has more global bureau and people on the ground than any other news org) but it would also bring more world news agenda to the US market.

People claim the BBC doesn’t live up to its “unbiased approach” - a view I tend not to agree with, and I spent 6 years working for the organization at the beginning of the last decade. But even if claims it is biased are true, I don’t see any of the existing US rolling news players exuding better virtues. Plus, the *British* and *commercially independent*BBC is hardly going to be in favor of one *American* political party than the other.

But of course, we won’t see the BBC World channel on our screens here in the US as the very players involved in the status quo - CNN (Turner), Fox, MSNBC (NBC, Comcast) own most of the delivery platforms and spectrum licenses.

When you pay your cable or dish bill every month, remember you are fueling the very status quo being written about here.

— Ben Metcalfe

To the non-politicians here: the key fact — CNN has 300% more reporters than FNC.

That is, CNN is oriented toward reporting, while FNC is oriented to ‘talking heads.’

I think Howie Kurtz pointed out, Bernie Sanders of Vermont has gotten at least 300% more air time on FNC than CNN.

Which Sanders really likes.

Which one is “better?”

Contrary to the Democrats — it depends what your preference is.

Bernie Sanders appears to love to talk on FNC.

Life goes on. Afflict the politicians — without fear or favor.

— Russell, a retired front-line journalist

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.