November 30, 2010

Metergate In Springfield

On the New York Times op-ed page today you’ll find a plea against anonymity in online forums. I’ve been commenting on anonymity for a long time now — the latest iteration here. My belief now is that newspapers ought to offer tiered service. Anonymous users get a low level of service; people who are open about their identities get a high level of service.

I believe there is still a (small) place for anonymity.

But that doesn’t mean I like it (anymore). The excuses I read/hear are mostly the same: “I can’t post under my real name because [world-ending calamity would occur].

If true (and I wonder), then perhaps it is not ethical for such a commenter to be commenting in the first place. (I wonder the same thing about anonymous sources in journalism, but that’s a matter for another post.)

No newspaper owes any citizen space online or in print. It’s simply a good idea and one important way to fulfill the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

Want to rant into cyberspace and be anonymous? Start a blog.

It’s time for newspapers to stop enabling anonymity. Implementing service levels is a good way to do it.

In that post I linked above I talk about the new policy at the Springfield News-Leader (Gannett-wide I’ll bet) of having reporters participate in the online discussions of their stories — a good idea. But I’m also cautioning against getting sucked into arguments with trolls — typically anonymous. A former student of mine called me recently to chat about the comments on one of his stories. I call it “metergate.”

Here’s the offending sentence from his news story about Black Friday:

By Friday morning, the line outside Best Buy had stretch for several hundred meters.

And here is the problem as described by an anonymous commenter (with 8 recommends):

Yards and feet have meaning to me here in America – meters do not. I am not sure if the writer is European or just trying to be elist.

This is a real eye-roller in my opinion. But it is illustrative of a certain kind of socio-political non-thinking that is infecting our civic discourse. This appears to be trollish behavior to me and ought to be ignored. I think it would have been entirely appropriate for a commenter to ask why the reporter used “meters” instead of the more commonly-understood “yards.” (The AP Stylebook provides a little help here. Basically, since a metric measurement is not “relevant” to the story, it should have been changed to “yards” by a copy editor. A copy editor should also have taken care of  “had stretch”.) What would have been so wrong with simply asking? Well, it’s not effective trolling. Someone asking such a question may actually want to understand the use of the word rather than want to deal an ignorant socio-political zinger.

In this case, I happen to know that the reporter is biased to the metric system, but for reasons that have nothing to do with European elitism. Here’s the reporter’s respectful reply:

Oh, I didn’t mean to cause confusion. A meter is roughly the same as a yard. Eight years of military service has left me metric-minded.

Well handled.

He could also have mentioned his two tours in Iraq as a sergeant in charge of a combat unit. Not quite a European elitist.

I consider his commenting on metergate a waste of a good reporter’s time. Such time-wasters are going to continue as long as the News-Leader (and other newspapers) continue to run open commenting and forum systems.

The time has come for a tiered system to elevate civic discourse, enhance  the primary purpose of journalism, and save reporters from time-wasting trolls.

November 14, 2010

Wow! That Was Easy!

So The New York Times published a do-it-yourself federal budget balancing exercise today. In about five minutes I fixed the country — easy.

The following is my formula that achieves balance for both the 2015 and 2030 models.


  • Cut foreign aid
  • Cut farm subsidies
  • Reduce military to pre-Iraq War size
  • Cancel or delay some weapons systems
  • Reduce number of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Raise Social Security age to 68
  • Reduce Social Security benefits for people with high incomes


  • Return estate tax to Clinton-era levels
  • Return tax rates to Clinton-era levels
  • Allow Bush tax cuts to expire for income over $250,000
  • Some extra tax above $106,000
  • Enact “millionaire’s” tax
  • Eliminate tax loopholes and keep rates up
  • Carbon tax
  • Bank tax

Done! One balanced federal budget without touching Medicare.

I ought to run for public office 😉

But, really, I find this exercise a rather interesting thing for a newspaper to publish. What happens after we try this ourselves? What are citizens really willing to do once they actually have to make a choice? What compromises might we be willing to make? How much common ground is there?

Granted, this exercise is simplistic. But I’m thinking there’s great potential in interactivity of this sort as a way to inform and foment debate.

November 8, 2010

What Am I Teaching?

Two interesting blog posts this morning, flagged by Jay Rosen on Twitter, have me thinking about what it is I’m teaching:

I Am A Blogger No Longer:

My experience has not been unique, but it has spanned the life of this newly evolved species of reporter. I’ve had some time to think about what effect doing this day and night has had on the practice of journalism, on the quality of news-gathering and dissemination, and on the people who do it. I’ve written quite often on the first two subjects and participated in many discussions about them. All I will say here is that the mere fact that online reporters feel they must participate in endless discussions about these subjects is something new, a consequence of the medium, and is one reason why it can be so exhausting to do primarily web journalism. The feedback loop is relentless, punishing and is predicated on the assumption that the reporter’s motivation is wrong. Unfortunately, the standard for defining oneself as a web journalist depends upon establishing a certain credibility with a particular audience of critics. Responding to complaints about content and structure and bias is part of the way one establishes that credibility.

Journalists’ Code Of Ethics: Time For An Update:

I don’t like long ethics policies for newsrooms. Too many of them exist mostly to document reasons to fire people. Too many of them are mostly lists of do’s and don’ts (usually more don’ts), rather than helpful guides to making ethical decisions in situations that aren’t as simple as the policies sometimes make them. For organizations, I prefer statements of basic principles:

Hmmmmm… I have no problem with change. Journalism’s history is hardly static. What it was 20 years ago, what it is today, what it will be tomorrow? Different. Challenging. Frustrating. Exhilarating. And in the hands of my students — the new generation. I’m anxious to see what they will do with it.

November 3, 2010

The Whole Blogging Thing

As announced recently, the focus of Rhetorica is now on the rhetoric of opinion journalism. It is the topic that has increasingly piqued  my interest. And as I mentioned last week, the next two subjects will be Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristof.

I realized something today that I have been blocking or avoiding: I have come to loathe political journalism as practiced in the U.S. today. I’m slogging my way through the election coverage by The New York Times today and hating every moment of it because our so-called newspaper of record is a shining example of how broken this beat is from top to bottom. Political journalism is actually doing more harm than good. It is a failure of craft and ethics on a massive scale.

But I don’t care anymore.

Now, on to more practical matters. Averting my gaze from political journalism means that I can do something that I have been wanting to do: Offer fewer but (I hope) better posts on a particular topic. The whole trying to blog everyday on Rhetorica thing hasn’t been working for a long time now. I’ve finally faced up to why that is: I dislike the original topic, and I’ve had very little (zero?) impact on press-politics

If you’re one of the thousands out there that just absolutely must read something from me almost everyday, then you’ll need to read Carbon Trace, my blog about walking and bicycling for basic transportation 🙂 I’ve come to realize that it is important for my blogging to have an actual impact. This local blog has an actual impact on my world.

I would also encourage you to follow Ozarks News Journal — the local news site for my JRN378 Multimedia Journalism class.

Rhetorica soldiers on. But I’ll be following something like the Jay Rosen model of blogging. Watch for my immediate commentary on Twitter.

November 2, 2010

Be Counted

I voted at about 9:30 a.m. this morning. My polling place is just two blocks from my office. I was the 147th voter. At age 53, I was easily the youngest person in the room by 15 years or more — including voters and poll workers.

I always wear my “I Voted” sticker. And I nag my students about voting.

Now I’m nagging you readers of Rhetorica. Please be counted today.