Letters to the editor

Readers respond to our January/February issue

Accountability vs. access
The reason that access journalism fails the test of true reporting is that access reporting depends on the acceptance of the writer by those from whom he seeks access (“The right debate,” CJR, January/February). The subjects of the news thus become the content editors of the news—that which they wish to grant to Writer A is disseminated. Access news reporting will never be able to completely rid itself of spin. Accountability reporting is much harder; it requires the reporter to come at a story from as many angles and sources as is possible under the constraints of time and budget. By forcing the reporter to take a 360-degree view of a story, it tends to remove, or severely limit, spin from any one source. To compare them is to compare a parlor game with a battlefield skirmish. Skirmishes are bloodier, but when you view the battlefield, you don’t have to wonder what really happened.
Perry White
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On a flight in the summer of 2007, I read Bloomberg Markets cover story series “Toxic Debt” (“The great story,” CJR, January/February). It was an in-depth look at collateralized debt obligations and the ratings agencies. It was probably too little, too late, but it was a damning series.
The Financial Times was also doing quite an excellent job on writing about debt products and imbalances in the markets. They are currently doing similarly excellent work about the shadow banking system in China.
From many of the business journalism sources I read at the time (the FT being one of the most consistent sources), it wasn’t so neat and tidy as access versus accountability. The story was there, and it was being covered well especially by serious business journalists but not very much by the general press. Maybe you mean something else when you talk about access journalism.
Kevin Anderson
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In the few years preceding the economic debacle I was a subscriber and daily reader of The Wall Street Journal. As a full-time investor, I was more than an idle reader.
Every Journal article that mentioned “short selling” seemed to include a brief but meticulous explanation of that process on a level as plain and simple as “McGuffey’s Reader,” although short selling is an old and established action that to my way of thinking sophisticated Journal readers would not need explained.
On the other hand, when it came to mention in the Journal of such essentially newborn “financial products” as Asset Backed Securities or Mortgage Backed Securities, Special Investment Vehicles or Collateralized Debt Obligations (frequently identified only by their even more opaque abbreviations (ABS, MBS, SIV, or CDO), there was not a breath of explanation (or of the exact manner and content of the “tranches” into which some of these products were sliced and diced).
Was this deliberate obfuscation? Or complete lack of knowledge with no ambition to acquire it? Or inability to comprehend a detailed explanation? None of these answers is pleasing.
Steve Brown
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Your January/February editorial and Dean Starkman’s article on the business press touched partially on a subject dear to my heart. I say partially because my criticism deals with news in general. l recall the days when the daily news reports adhered to the “who/where/when/why” school of reporting. Today’s use of adjectives and adverbs and stories were for fiction, not reporting facts. For the past 10 years I have become progressively annoyed with The New York Times for its editorializing news reports. Biased crusading journalists have no part reporting the news; that is what columns, editorials and special articles are for. It takes only reading the first paragraph of a news report to know the political views of the reporter. Negative adjectives follow the conservative report while the liberal report hails it as the savior of the people. It’s interesting to note that editorials and columns excepted, the news reports in The Wall Street Journal stick pretty much to facts. I read both papers to arrive at some sort of truth. As for the mortgage debacle, newspapers forget that without demand there can be no sale. The blame for this monstrous recession goes to the banks but they could not have made the loans without thousands of would-be homeowners who clamored for loans to buy houses they could never afford at interest rates they would never pay. Banks should have refused these loans, which is to their blame, but nary a word of how it came about was ever seen in a newspaper. The homeowners were all “victims.” Access reporting and Accountability reporting each with its own open biases are the new forms of journalism. It would be nice to have just plain, accurate reporting based on facts and not the newspaper’s or reporter’s biases. Although he has the freedom to express his views in column format in The New York Times, the most unbiased journalist is David Brooks. His columns are thoughtful, balanced, and informative, flowing from facts to philosophy. He is a moderate Republican, fair, without malice, and with, so needed, a sense of humor.
Carla Wallach
Greenwich, CT

The love affair is over
Another month, another unrealistic article from CJR. For the record:
1. Foundation journalism has a ton of compromises and trade-offs, maybe even more than ad-supported journalism. Example: Has ProPublica ever investigated the role of the option-arm mortgage in the foreclosure explosion and financial crisis? A leading supplier of option-arms was World Savings, run by Herbert and Marion Sandler, who later sold the bank and founded . . . ProPublica.
2. America needs cars to get around. “The love affair is over” (CJR, November/December) is what I’m writing about.
Yes, bicycles and trains are nice for certain kinds of travel. But while bike rental might help folks get around Manhattan, last time I checked boroughs like Staten Island and Queens were still just as much part of New York City. Try taking a poll on car ownership there. While I might agree with the story that “more and more people want to live in center cities,” few can afford it. Most have to commute from affordable suburbs to their offices, if they’re not lucky enough to work at home like author Micheline Maynard. As for the holy grail of high-speed train travel, ask a Californian who she thinks will have to pay for the $98 billion bullet train the press has been uncritically cheerleading.
It may no longer be a “love story,” but try shopping at Costco or WalMart for your family without a car. Try getting from Los Angeles to the desert, mountains or ocean without a car. More importantly, Steve Lopez did a recent LA Times column about a woman who took nine buses a day to get her kids to better schools. One reader read about it and started a fundraiser that bought the industrious woman . . . a car.
Tell that woman and millions of others like her that “manufacturers managed to sell a product nobody needed . . .”
Perhaps CJR has moved from Columbia University down to Seventh Avenue, but the publication still looks lost in the ivory tower.
Michael Goldstein
Encino, CA

Take that, technology
I am excited about Morozov’s writing, and more particularly about the sudden emergence of a cogent critique of the perfect tyranny that the merger between technology and corporatization of modern life represents (“Evgeny vs. the internet,” CJR, January/February).
As a teacher, the demands of technology imposed on my profession are caustic. The assumption by our school’s administration that all students will have computer jobs is fatuous and debilitating to our purpose. We start with the observation that our students’ brains have rewired to a very short attention span, and instead of combatting this deficiency, we have decided to meet it with teaching units for collaboration and problem-solving, lessons with three levels of human propensity, and projects as the measurement of learning. Kids love it. Administrators expect that we use technology, because [of the] internet. Our population is competent with technology, but not so much as many other nations. We will lose this competition based on the facts. We have other assets, particularly, our diversity. Therein lies our future. It is in the direction of beauty, not science. We are men of action, of danger. Science builds its hut near the safe harbor of logic.
The contemporary idea of progress seems to be that we have already played this game out and should be moving all those who can afford it to move to Earth II. This attitude should be excoriated by anyone who loves mankind. Those who think that the accumulation of humanity’s wisdom and our quest for beauty have been defeated by the hope for a lazier life with safer social interactions should be called out for their moral weaknesses and tiny hearts.
Beauty will save the world. Efficiency is its arch-rival. Yes, beauty is difficult. Why so many of us seem to be auditioning for a role in our last act is a serious and imperative question. That Mr. Morozov has taken up its inquiry is heroic.
Steven Starkweather
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Corrections and Clarifications
In “Almost famous,” from the January/February issue, we said the late Peter Jennings had worked at CBS. He worked at ABC. We quoted Nick Nicholas, the former chairman of HBO, as saying Showtime has 15 million subscribers. Showtime says it has 23 million subscribers. We also should have made clear that the 2008 survey that found 17 percent of Americans had seen the documentary An Inconvenient Truth likely included people who had seen it on DVD.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.