Stories I’d like to see

How the Guardian protects state secrets, and weak reporting at Ad Age

In his “Stories I’d like to see” column, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on

1. How the Guardian protects America’s national security:

Last week, the Guardian released another Edward Snowden-procured red-hot document—a “top secret,” 32-page National Security Agency training manual for a program initiated in 2008 called XKeyscore that purportedly allowed NSA analysts to vacuum up data on Internet browsing activity around the world.

“The NSA boasts in training materials that the program…is its ‘widest-reaching’ system for developing intelligence from the internet,” wrote the Guardian’s Glen Greenwald.

That was quite a scoop, though I suppose I’m not alone in no longer being surprised at anything the NSA is snatching up. But what did surprise me was that as I scrolled through the electronic version of the document, four of the 32 pages were blacked out, because, according to the Guardian’s explanation: “This slide has been redacted as it reveals specific NSA operations.”

Really? How exactly are Greenwald and his editors making these decisions about what threatens and doesn’t threaten national security? The Washington Post, New York Times, and other news outlets that have published security secrets have explained in the past that they typically go to White House or security officials in advance, and listen to — and sometimes act on — concerns that some of what they plan to publish will pose a threat that far outweighs their news value. It’s an awkward conversation because the officials start with the premise that all of the material falls into that category, but it often results in material being withheld or delayed.

But the Guardian and Greenwald in particular have assumed a far more adversarial stance than those in the more mainstream media, whom Greenwald routinely dismisses as lackeys of the national security state.

So how is the Guardian’s redaction process handled? Do Greenwald and his editors just sit there and decide for themselves that something in the Snowden material is too dangerous to be revealed, even by their standards? (That’s got to be a pretty high bar.) Is Snowden helping them decide what needs to be withheld? Or have they, too, established a back channel to their NSA and other security apparatus adversaries? If so, I’d love to know what those conversations are like.

In its report on the new Guardian material, the Times simply said, “some of the pages were redacted by The Guardian.” There’s a better story here than that.

2. How not to be a valuable business publication:

This really comes under the heading of “stories I hate to see.”

Read these opening paragraphs from a lead story from Ad Age, the venerable ad industry trade publication:

When Vogue Editor Anna Wintour shows up this December in “The Fashion Fund,” she won’t appear on a high-profile network such as Bravo or A&E, but on the lesser-known art channel Ovation TV — a station that Time Warner Cable dropped earlier this year.

In “The Fashion Fund,” Ms. Wintour is one of several fashion bigwigs who select the 2013 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. The competition, now in its 10th year, pits 10 emerging designers against one another as they vie for a $300,000 grant. An earlier iteration of “The Fashion Fund,” which offers a behind the scenes look at the competition, ran on and in 2012. When the six-episode show moves to traditional TV, it will be on a network that appears in roughly 50 million homes nationwide, about half as many that receive Bravo and A&E. But the Conde Nast title selected Ovation in part because the network would celebrate fashion as an art form.

But Conde Nast Entertainment said Ovation is “the perfect home for the series.” Conde Nast Entertainment, Vogue and the CFDA, which stands for Council of Fashion Designers of America, worked with Break Thru Films to produce the series of six hour-long episodes.

Vogue certainly had its share of suitors for the show. Five other well-known TV networks were interested in “The Fashion Fund,” a person close to the company said. But the Conde Nast title selected Ovation — which had approached the magazine about the partnership — because it felt the network would celebrate fashion as an art form.

Okay, what’s wrong here? Well, what if I re-wrote the story and opened with this paragraph instead:

“In a blow to Conde Nast’s much-publicized effort to turn its iconic magazines into TV brands, Anna Wintour and Vogue have failed to land their ‘Fashion Fund’ reality television show on any of the established cable channels that would give it a large audience and prestigious launch pad. Instead, they have had to settle for a launch on Ovation, a struggling cable channel that got bounced off the dial in New York, the media capital of the world, because Time Warner Cable refused to continue to tolerate its low ratings.”

Is my version right and the other one wrong? Or vice versa? Who knows?

And that’s the point. The reporting in the article is so thin that it is impossible to know.

Every quote and account in the story is from someone with an interest in spinning, or just plain not telling the truth, about the Conde Nast launch. But these sources can’t be held accountable for what they are saying because they are anonymous.

The two reporters — yes, the story has two bylines — apparently didn’t even try to question the spin by going to the more prestigious channels, such as Bravo or A&E, and asking someone there, on the record or even for background, whether that station had been asked to bid on the show.

The giveaway to me that this story is pure spin is that “a person close to the company” (I guess the reporter means Conde Nast) said that “five other well-known TV networks” wanted the show, but then declined to name any of the five. Well, if you’re going to insist on anonymity so that you can’t be held accountable for what you say, why wouldn’t you then name at least one or two of those disappointed networks? After all, the networks won’t be angry at you because you’re not being named.

The only answer can be that you’re afraid the reporters might actually call them to check — which, of course, is something the reporting team from Ad Age should have done anyway by calling any and all possible suitors. It’s not a long list, and reporting is supposed to be just that, not stenography.

Here’s a suggestion for whenever you read a business story that depicts a clear winner and loser. If the alleged winner has put out a press release that seems a bit suspicious (as in, “Of course we chose Ovation over Bravo”), that’s strike one. If the release is followed by only anonymous spin, that’s strike two. And if the loser or losers (in this case all those supposedly disappointed suitors at the other networks) have not even been asked to give their accounts of what happened, that’s strike three.

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Steven Brill , the author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight To Fix America’s Schools, has written for magazines including New York, The New Yorker, Time, Harper's, and The New York Times Magazine. He founded and ran Court TV, The American Lawyer magazine, ten regional legal newspapers, and Brill's Content magazine. He also teaches journalism at Yale, where he founded the Yale Journalism Initiative.