March 26, 2007

Meta the Back Channel

Max Frankel’s essay in The New York Times Magazine offers an accurate and comprehensive description and justification for what he calls the Washington “back channel” — the peculiar relationship between government officials and the press that necessitates (rationalizes) anonymous sourcing. Frankel concludes his essay this way:

As Justice Potter Stewart wrote after studying the unending contest between the government and the press during the cold war:

“So far as the Constitution goes … the press is free to do battle against secrecy and deception in government. But the press cannot expect from the Constitution any guarantee that it will succeed. … The Constitution itself is neither a Freedom of Information Act nor an Official Secrets Act. The Constitution, in other words, establishes the contest, not its resolution. … For the rest, we must rely, as so often in our system we must, on the tug and pull of the political forces in American society.”

In loose translation: Prosecutors of the realm, let this back-alley market flourish. Attorneys general and others armed with subpoena power, please leave well enough alone. Back off. Butt out.

I’m just not satisfied with this. Frankel has missed an opportunity to examine what the press could do differently in regard to providing the information citizens need to be free and self-governing. He could have added to the end of that last paragraph this: ‘Journalists should do a better job of explaining this system in the context of their stories. Go meta.’

Let’s refer to the NYT’s own guidelines for anonymous sources:

The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers reliable and newsworthy. When we use such sources, we accept an obligation not only to convince a reader of their reliability but also to convey what we can learn of their motivation — as much as we can supply to let a reader know whether the sources have a clear point of view on the issue under discussion.

This policy is imperfectly followed to be sure, but what interests me most about it is this paragraph–especially the part about conveying “motivation” and “point of view.” To do such a thing requires meta-reporting, or reporting about reporting. This is a practice nearly unknown in American journalism (with, perhaps, the exception of television showing us the circumstances of its reporters in the field).

Journalism is a very big thing, i.e. it is an important cultural practice that has effects (and we still don’t know what all of these are) on our civic and private lives and on our public and private institutions. Critics examine journalism (bloggers and The Daily Show have raised the bar, IMO), but too few journalists examine themselves and their practices as a normal part of reporting the news. If journalism is a big thing, then understanding journalistic practice — as it affects individual news events — is important information to have regarding freedom and self-governance.

To be sure, journalism does do a lot of navel gazing — too much by some accounts. But I think journalists all too often gaze at the wrong navel. They should spend some more time examining how they do what they do effects what everyone else does.

One way to do that is meta-reporting. Frankel’s essay and the NYT policy show us a good place to start. Tell us a whole lot more about these sources, their motives, and their ideologies as a regular part of the reporting; tell us how you know; tell us what procedures you used to be sure. In detail. As a regular part of the news article.

You may notice that this type of information does not fit neatly into the inverted pyramid structure common to news writing. That means my suggestion creates a big problem. Other big problems: space, time, economics. So never mind.

March 20, 2007

Rhetorica Update

Ah, Spring Break. I can finally get some work done 🙂 I’m furiously proofreading the galleys for “Politics & Language.” And I’ve been “calling and begging” for copyright permissions. All of this should be wrapped up by the first week of April.

Speaking of April– Rhetorica will celebrate five years in the blogging biz later in the month. I’ll mark the occasion with much fanfare and a few festivities. I hope to get my loyal readers in on the fun. If you have a suggestion for how to celebrate this momentous occasion, please let me know.

March 16, 2007

Pro-am journalism takes off

Check out Assignment Zero, the latest in Jay Rosen’s push to figure out what it is professional journalists and amateurs (you know, citizens) can create together.

It is important to understand how collaboration can/will work now because the “why” question has already been answered:

A professional newsroom can’t easily do reporting in the many-to-many style. It’s a closed system. Because only the employees operate in it, there can be reliable controls. That’s the strength of the system. The weakness is the newsroom only knows what its own people know or dig up. Which wasn’t much of a weakness before the internet made it possible for the people formerly known as the audience to realize some of their informational strengths.

Citizens helping journalists by being journalists themselves is, I think, an important step along the path toward journalism realizing its primary purpose: giving citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing. In other words, Assignment Zero is unlikely to spend time or effort on the corpses or scalps of celebrities.

March 13, 2007

Smart people reading smart people online

Apparently the web is the place to go if you want to read smart stuff. The Atlantic is looking for smart essayists for new web ventures. According to the Washington Post:

Atlantic Media plans to create at least two Web initiatives over the next year that will focus on the worlds of business and lifestyle and appeal to the same wealthy, educated audience that follows the Atlantic and its fellow publication, the National Journal, Bradley said this weekend.

[David G.] Bradley, who is pouring millions of dollars into the new venture, says he wants to recruit a cadre of uber-experts to form what he calls the Atlantic Society, “where we will find 300 of the smartest human beings across the main intellectual terrains we’re likely to cover and to go out and ask them, would they be essayists for the Atlantic?”

Spiff up those weblogs! The Atlantic may be reading.

One thing I wonder about: Do people–even smart ones–want to read lengthy essays–even smart ones–online, i.e. as opposed to paper, which can be easily held while nestled in one’s favorite reading chair–you know, the one in which you do your best thinking?

March 9, 2007

Should bloggers make money?

The question is not: Can money be made by blogging? The question is: Should bloggers make money (and how)? It should be a question of ethics and not a question of economics.

There’s nothing wrong with making a buck. But I wonder just what a blogger gives up when he or she decides that writing a blog requires an income by soul-selling.

I have no problem with tip jars or other types of payment from readers who perceive editorial value from a particular blog (read my blogging policy). That makes sense. And I have no problem with ads that are clearly differentiated from copy. That’s just normal.

But I have a big problem with accepting money to write about products, services, or politicians or whatever as if these opinions were not completely purchased. Or, rather, I have no problem with it as long as I know you’re doing it and, therefore, can avoid your culture-polluting drivel.

So, really, I have no problem with it at all. I’ll not read it because it ain’t worth reading. But I sure as hell want to know if you’re doing it.

And one last thing: This has nothing to do with my wanting bloggers to adhere to journalistic ethics (although I think that’s a good idea for those wanting to be taken seriously–including journalists!).

Here’s the latest on this drivel from Josh Friedman of the Los Angeles Times.

March 8, 2007

Freedom of the press

A quiz: What does the word “press” refer to in the First Amendment?

Journalists have First Amendment rights because citizens have these rights.

So is Josh Wolf a journalist? Who cares? He’s a citizen with First Amendment rights (and a bunch of others, too).

This part of the story is particularly interesting:

“I would define a journalist as someone who brings news to the public,” says Garbus, a noted First Amendment lawyer handling the case on a pro bono basis. “It’s a definition that might cause journalists some discomfort because it opens up the gates.”

But U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan says in a court filing that Wolf’s resistance “is apparently fueled by his anointment as a journalistic martyr” and that he needs “to come to grips with the fact that he was simply a person with a video camera who happened to record some public events.”

So does Ryan have a problem with citizens exercising their First Amendment rights? Further, notice how his attitude creates a de facto licensing of journalists, i.e. journalists are only those recognized by authority.

Wolf is simply an American with rights.

March 8, 2007

Wikipedia wants proof of credentials

Wikipedia will now ask for proof of credentials from those contributors who cite expertise. I think this is entirely reasonable. But one word of caution: Credentials (e.g. a Ph.D.) do not guarantee accuracy or fairness. Credentials do not ward off mistakes or nefarious intent. And, further, when did 4 out of 5 eggheads agree on much of anything?

March 6, 2007

Springfield Bloggers meet tonight

If you’re in town (and what blogger isn’t just dying to visit Springfield?), stop by the Springfield Bloggers meeting tonight at 7:00 at the Patton Alley Pub. I still have not purchased a new laptop battery. So no podcast tonight unless someone else takes over the task.

March 1, 2007

How to kill journalism

Suppose you wanted to kill journalism (never mind for the moment what a motive might be), how would you go about it? I suppose there are many ways to accomplish this, not the least of which is allowing the ethical standards or news content (i.e. the stuff of that primary purpose) to slide.

We’re actually living through what may actually be the death of journalism by corporate ownership. I have nothing against capitalism. Best economic system we humans have yet devised. But it seems to me to work best when business people have goals, dreams, and purposes beyond profit. In other words, shouldn’t business people be in business to do something and make money in the doing of it–the doing coming first and being most important?

For all the woe about newspapers, they really are still good businesses. What if you wanted to kill journalism and decided to hold newspapers to a higher standard of profit? Check this out:

In fact, falling circulation numbers and sinking stock prices notwithstanding, corporate executives’ cries of impending poverty are exaggerated. Newspaper chains routinely generate profit levels that most companies would kill for. ExxonMobil topped the Fortune 500 list for 2005, reporting 11 percent profit margins, while the average profit for the entire list was 5.9 percent. That year, the top 13 publicly traded newspaper companies enjoyed average profit margins of 20 percent; the 3 most financially successful chains, Gannett, McClatchy, and E.W. Scripps, earned around 25 percent margins. The Tribune Co.’s newspaper division earned 20 percent, as did the beleaguered Los Angeles Times. And this during a year that analysts lamented as “the industry’s worst” since the 2001 recession.

Local ownership does not guarantee good journalism (or good business). But local owners can afford working for a purpose alongside profit. The corporations and their shareholders are simply incapable of caring about purpose.

Perhaps a silver lining will peek out: After the collapse of newspapers as a business, locals may pick up the pieces and be perfectly happy with 10 percent margins.

(Pleasant dream…Don’t wake me.)