June 29, 2009

Enough to Go Around

I’m late getting to the Milbank v. Pitney dust-up, largely because I find it so unremarkable. But I’ve decided to mention it because, contrary to the headline here, I do not think this is New Media v. Old Media. Let’s review:

Here’s the blog post Dana Milbank wrote and the follow-up column. And here’s the part that has me scratching my head:

The use of planted questioners is a no-no at presidential news conferences, because it sends a message to the world — Iran included — that the American press isn’t as free as advertised. But yesterday wasn’t so much a news conference as it was a taping of a new daytime drama, “The Obama Show.” Missed yesterday’s show? Don’t worry: On Wednesday, ABC News will be broadcasting “Good Morning America” from the South Lawn (guest stars: the president and first lady), “World News Tonight” from the Blue Room, and a prime-time feature with Obama from the East Room.

Milbank is apparently operating under two strange assumptions: 1) That presidents should not attempt to control their message (in this case with a “planted” question), and 2) that (horrors!) there’s all of a sudden an uncomfortable relationship between journalists and politicians.

(Let me praise him, however, for doing something I think all news organizations should be doing regularly and consistently: questioning the ethics of news organizations.)

This is not an Old Media v. New Media smackdown. This is standard, old-media nonsense.


Pitney did practice meta-reporting regarding how and why he participated in this manipulation. Score one point for new media. But take that point away for not practicing it sooner. I cannot find any evidence on the Huffington Post site (please correct me if I’m wrong) that Pitney alerted his Post readers to the request by the White House for him to solicit a question from an Iranian. Reporting that, as news, prior to the press conference, and doing the job of meta-reporting prior to the press conference, would have nullified this silly controversy. And it would have been a true New Media moment.

As it is, I’ll call out Pitney for allowing himself to be used by the White House. That meets the standards of no legitimate code of ethics that I am aware of.

I’ll call out Milbank for acting like Captain Renault — shocked, SHOCKED! to discover that presidents attempt to manipulate the press and that the press — most certainly the MSM — all too often plays along.

June 25, 2009

One Could Wish

So I was watching Countdown with Keith Olbermann on Tuesday evening; the show included the following segment. Two lines spoken at about 4:30 minutes prompt this writing.

Visit msnbc.com for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

At this point the Sanford story was still just a curiosity. News to be sure, but no one really knew if it would turn out to be humorous or tragic or both or something else. Olbermann treats it as something between a joke and tragedy, which, despite the clear political leanings of his show, is a reasonable choice given the facts as they were understood at that moment.

I’m particuarly interested in this moment between Olbermann and Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post. They had been discussing Sanford’s apparently odd behavior:

Olbermann: “This is your home state. Are all the politicians like this?”

Robinson: “As a journalist, one could wish.”

Olbermann is making a joke of sorts, but we can also tease out a serious question. Robinson’s answer — following the portion I quote here — demonstrates that he understood Olbermann to be asking: How does this behavior square with the political culture in South Carolina?

What I’m most interested in however is the throw-away preface to Robinson’s answer.

I accept the ethic-craft nexus of the primary purpose of journalism as stated by Kovach & Rosenstiel: The primary purpose of journalism is to give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

Robinson is also making a joke. It’s a rather tired joke. Most Americans are familiar with it in one form or the other. This stereotype of the journalist is one of the foundations of the characterizations of journalists in popular literature, television, and film. I call it a stereotype, but that may not be accurate. It may be more accurate to call it a very real characteristic that is a direct result of how journalism is taught in the university and practiced in the MSM.

You see, the sad fact of the matter is, far too many journalists would rather cover the flaky antics of a flaky politician than cover the far-more-important story of governance, i.e. the stuff that actually affects citizens’ lives, the very information that is indeed useful for making civic decisions — all that free and self-governing stuff. Covering goofy antics is just a lot easier. More fun, too!

June 19, 2009

Where Their Heads Be

Michael Miner covered the Chicago Media Future Conference for Chicago Reader and offers a report that I  recognize as the thinking of some of my students:

If the old guard perceives the collapse of the MSM as a disaster out of which just maybe some good might come, the young Turks believe they’re witnessing — and abetting — a redemptive and overdue paradigm shift. To the collapse of MSM they say, good riddance.

Journalism is not going away. It can’t.

I don’t say “it can’t” because of some fuzzy-headed notion of journalism’s importance to democracy (read pages 55-61 of this book). I say “it can’t” because humans naturally are 1) curious, 2) gregarious, and 3) loquacious about what they know.

Business model? Who knows? Wait and see.

Is a business model necessary. Yes, if you want to run a journalism business. But what if all you want to do is do journalism? Is a business model still necessary?

Some of my students are headed into small-town journalism where newspapers are still kings of the local media. In many ways, these kinds of papers — the small dailies and weeklies — have never been a part of the MSM except as an imitation in look and feel. I applaud those making this choice. Citizens in fly-over land deserve good journalism, too.

Some of my students are thinking they will be part of a new New Journalism — one disconnected from the old business model but still in need of information professionals. Here’s how one conference participant put it:

“This may be jumping ahead a little bit in our conversation but I think one of the roles that journalists can play in the future is to be sort of an arbiter of what all of this mass amount of information is worth paying attention to, and sort of curating a news experience. Finding out all of that distributed content and bringing it into one place so people don’t have to go searching, and finding all of those little bits that they would be interested in if they knew where to find them.”

Well, that sounds a lot like what journalism has always been. Add the primary purpose — to give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing — and you have a rather standard definition of journalism. The key to understanding the difference here: distributed content.

My students want to be journalists. And they will be.

June 14, 2009

Everything is OK. Really.

First, read The Newspaper Suicide Pact at Xark!

Next, read this column from publisher Tom Bookstaver in today’s Springfield News-Leader — a Gannett newspaper.


June 9, 2009


These are not secrets: 1) The business of news organizations is selling eyeballs and ears to advertisers, and 2) The eyeballs and ears show up for the news content, not the advertising. From these two truths (and a few others) comes a long-established ethic in journalism, as stated by the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists:

Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.

Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.

Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.

Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.

A good code of ethics should leave room for interpretation, otherwise it will be a rigid and useless set of rules that cover only a narrow range of ethical situations. Given that, these normative statements seem very clear to me in regard to Jon Stewart’s proper lambasting of MSNBC’s Morning Joe sellout to Starbucks.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Morning Joe’s Sarcastic Starbucks Sponsorship
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Economic Crisis

In the next segment, Stewart did nothing more than point out the awful truth about where cable TV news is right now.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
“i” on News
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Economic Crisis

Question: Is this what citizens really want from journalism?

Possible answers:

  1. Yes.
  2. Good citizens have moved on. Why do you think readership and viewership is shrinking?

Seriously, folks. Wanna “save” journalism? Try being serious.

June 5, 2009

Bass Fishing for Journalists

Allow me to state the obvious: Sound-bite media driven by sound-bite culture (or is it the other way around?) create(s) sound-bite thinking. Sound bites are enthymemes — truncated arguments that require the audience to supply the missing logic and/or information. Sound-bite thinking is the construction and maintenance of ideas (e.g. but not limited to ideology and common sense) based upon electronically-mediated (electronically-encouraged) enthymemes.

Question: Of what value is journalism if it merely passes along the sound-bites?

Observation: Talking Points Memo is an excellent example of online journalism. But of what value is it when it publishes sound bites without the necessary reporting, i.e. journalists operating as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification.

Exactly what does Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) mean when he says of President Obama: “I just don’t know whose side he’s on.”

Sometimes I think journalists are like largemouth bass — easy to catch if you dangle something flashy in front of them. Electronic media are designed to gather and disseminate sound bites. Such gathering and disseminating is not journalism. To be journalism, an editorial act must be inserted between the gathering and the disseminating. An editorial act is an act of judgment (and we can certainly argue about what should constitute an editorial act) about news value. It is also an intervention into the reportorial process — an intervention that includes checking, promoting, and protecting facts so that one may construct information and knowledge.

Let me suggest that Inhofe’s assertion is entirely meaningless without the participation of a partisan (or interested) audience (of any kind) to interpret it (I could actually make this claim about any assertion, but lets not go there right now). But that assertion sure is flashy! Set the hook!

I understand that TPM is passing along raw data as it arrives in its gathering system. That’s blogging, not journalism (although blogging can be journalism).

Of what value is this sound bite without at least an attempt at applying an editorial process. None — except, of course, it gives TPM’s generally liberal audience (assumed from its content) something to huff about. Did anyone ask the Senator: “What do you mean by that”? Did anyone press for something more than the usual blather.

Here’s what we get from The Oklahoman, the original source:

Sen. Jim Inhofe said today that President Barack Obama‘s speech in Cairo was “un-American” because he referred to the war in Iraq as “a war of choice” and didn’t criticize Iran for developing a nuclear program.

Inhofe, R-Tulsa, also criticized the president for suggesting that torture was conducted at the military prison in Guantanamo, saying, “There has never been a documented case of torture at Guantanamo.”

“I just don’t know whose side he’s on,” Inhofe said of the president.

It is unclear from this reporting (a little meta-reporting please) if Chris Casteel, of the paper’s Washington bureau, asked the Senator to explain himself or is simply speculating. I tend to believe the cynical latter. In any case, The Oklahoman gives us reasons by way of some (entirely inadequate because we don’t know what it is) editorial act between the gathering and disseminating. What Inhofe apparently means is (given the limited information of Casteel’s reporting): Obama is not a Republican and, therefore, is not really on America’s side. We may certainly debate whether or not Obama’s policies will, among other things, keep us safe or advance our legitimate foreign policy goals. But such debating is much harder to do — takes a different kind of thinking — than casting a flashy sound bite to a hungry news media.

The reporter and his editors just could not resist a shiny lure —  one that does not further the primary purpose of journalism, which is to give people the information (something quite different from a sound bite) they need to be free and self-governing.

It’s one thing to hear nonsense such as this on TV or read it on the internet. Newspaper journalism, no matter in what medium it is practiced, is supposed to be better than this.

But you may be asking: Isn’t the fact that he said it news? Yes! On the same order as celebrity “news” IMO. (It may also be news in the context of examining Republican party tactics to regain power and influence. This is an ongoing story of vital importance to citizens. Tossing sound bites without context, however, does more to raise questions than to answer them.)

June 2, 2009

Rhetorica Update: Back At It

I just returned from vacation, and I am now planning my summer of ethics coverage that I hinted at earlier (yes, I forgot to post the cat-in-the-hammock photo before leaving).

I’ll be giving a presentation on “Media Ethics for the 21st Century” at the annual conference of the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association in early October this year. This deadline will also provide a focus for my blogging project this summer. Here’s what my talk will be about:

The codes of ethics of media professions have long put the burden of ethical behavior more on individuals than on organizations, businesses, or institutions. Who benefits from this arrangement?

Technological and economic changes occurring now demand a re-evaluation of media codes of ethics — from the code of the Society of Professional Journalists to interested organizations such as the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association. Questions that should be raised concerning the current ethical bargain among the outdoor writer, the outdoor press, and the outdoor industry:

1. What constitutes an ethical problem and from whose point of view?

2. What are the sources of ethical standards, and whose agendas do/should these standards serve?

3. How do we solve ethical problems, and whose interests are served by the methods we use to arrive at solutions?

My discussion will critically examine how ethical codes work, who they work for, and what changes SEOPA may wish to consider for its code in order to meet the new technological and economic challenges of the early 21st century.

In other Rhetorica news, an essay of mine will be published later this month in Poverty & Public Policy entitled ”Losers” and the Sub-prime Mortgage Crisis (snappy, I know). I discuss how the term “loser” has been used by media pundits. The Rick Santelli tea party rant provided an interesting case for my dicusssion.