July 6, 2015

Polls, or paradigms?
CJR makes an important point in your look at the coverage of senator Bernie Sanders (“Bernie Sanders can’t win: Why the press loves to hate underdogs,” May 2015).

Political journalists should not try to pick winners and losers. That’s the job of voters.

Predicting the outcome of elections isn’t really very interesting and we aren’t any good at it anyway.

But you go beyond your reporting in saying that:

“Spurious though early polls may be as a predictor of who will win the nomination, every large news organization uses them to allot campaign coverage—or to justify the coverage they’ve already decided to give.”

Every large news organization?

Sign up for CJR's daily email

I’ve been involved in presidential campaign coverage at three very large news organizations since Walter Mondale tried to unseat Ronald Reagan in 1984.

At NPR, arguably the largest by audience and staff, we do not use polling to allocate coverage. The same was true at The Associated Press. Before all that I was privileged to work with Robin Toner, EJ Dionne, Johnny Apple, Bill Safire and other fine political reporters, columnists and editors at The New York Times. Never in all those years did anyone ask me to use polling to allocate or justify coverage nor did I ever ask anyone who worked for me to do so.

Even mildly experienced political journalists and their editors understand that polls at this stage capture little more than name recognition. The bigger challenge is what I’d call the paradigm problem (HT, Thomas Kuhn). We get a certain paradigm in our heads. A conventional wisdom. Someone is a front runner, someone else a long shot. We develop this paradigm from a witches’ brew of polling, money, instinct, and the ineffable judgements of the chattering classes of political “experts.”

The only antidote to this conventional wisdom is reporting. David Broder taught me that years ago. If you want to know what’s happening in politics, go knock on doors far outside the beltway and ask potential voters. They will tell you.

There is plenty we can do to make political journalism better in this country. Public radio, with its 1,800 journalists at npr and member stations, is deeply committed to doing so. It is one of our most important contributions to the democracy. We are working closely with both our member stations and our colleagues at pbs and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to create political coverage that breaks paradigms and engages and informs voters.

If you want to know what’s happening in politics, go knock on doors far outside the beltway and ask potential voters. They will tell you.’

CJR’s coverage of our coverage helps hold our feet to the fire and that’s good. But coverage of the media needs to adhere to the same standards of reporting you rightly expect of us. Let’s focus on what really needs to be improved and how we can do it. That’s a conversation worth having.
Michael Oreskes
Editorial Director and Senior Vice President for News

It’s been years since I read CJR, and I’m a journalist. I’d dismissed it years ago as toothless self-congratulatory pablum. But Steve Hendricks’ piece on the coverage of Bernie Sanders has made me want to pay attention to the magazine again. Well done.
Dan Baum

Higher standards for Hersh
I shouldn’t need to explain this to the Columbia Journalism Review, but central to the concept of investigative journalism is documentation: not just making allegations, but finding the paperwork and eyewitnesses and experts to back them up. Seymour Hersh has done nothing of the sort with regard to bin Laden (“The media’s reaction to Seymour Hersh’s bin Laden scoop has been disgraceful,” May 2015.) I expect Alex Jones to be unaware of his obligation to source his claims; I hold Seymour Hersh to a higher standard.

Then there is the meat of Hersh’s claims, which holds that three countries would opt for a cover story that requires them to perpetuate a diplomatic rift that works against their various interests . . . why would they do that, rather than pick a better cover story? It’s a fair question, and one that Hersh ought to have a good answer for.

Thus far, he doesn’t. And of course, there is the small matter of al Qaeda needing to be in on it too; with that, the Hersh story leaps instantly from “a little too implausible for some people’s taste” (the author’s words) to “a preposterous cock-and-bull story that deserves to be mocked with abandon” (mine).

The piece opens with the statement: “Seymour Hersh has done the public a great service by breathing life into questions surrounding the official narrative of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.” And the same is argued by Truthers, Birthers, Deathers, and every other -er who feels the need to justify their cause even after reality has resoundingly smacked it down. I have no doubt that the Obama administration has “smoothed out” some details of the bin Laden raid and outright lied about others, but it does not follow that you can do Alex Jones-grade work on the matter and call it investigative journalism. Not even if the “you” in question happens to be Seymour Hersh.
Lou Duchez

Trevor Timm writes: “How many knew about the NSA’s mass phone metadata program aimed at Americans until Edward Snowden revealed it? A thousand? Ten thousand?

It stayed secret for more than seven years until a single person—a contractor, not an NSA employee—exposed it.”

I appreciate the general point he’s making, but this is a bad example.

The NSA’s domestic phone metadata program was disclosed to the public in 2006 by USA Today, in an article by Leslie Cauley. The story led to substantial public debate and followups articles elsewhere (including by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker).

Failing to give credit to Leslie Cauley is doing her and USA Today a disservice—a bit like the disservice you think is being done to Seymour Hersh now.
Keith Winstein

Archiving the internet
I have had the same problem (“Can the Boston Phoenix’s digital history be saved?,” May 2015) while doing research on Patch.com, which folded and was bought by another company. I have found the old pages on the Internet Archive, also known as the Way Back Machine, which is a treasure. However, within the past year the new owners started to remove access to even the archived material, and I had to find a way around it. Fortunately, I did, but it doesn’t always work. This is very distressing, and for that reason, I think it’s imperative that people support the Internet Archive. This is a priceless common heritage that must be maintained!
Dr. Carrie Buchanan 

The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.