Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Personal and private

What’s in a word?

The world, apparently, if the word is "personal."

This week’s stupid media debate: Is it liberal media bias if the press refers to George Bush’s Social Security plan as promoting "private accounts?" It is according to GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who showed up on the Al Franken radio program Tuesday to argue that the media must use the terms the president chooses for describing his program. To use alternate descriptive words, Luntz said, would be biased.

This is a big deal because the GOP has run polls that show people are more inclined to support a "personal account" than they are a "private account." Never mind that Bush himself used the term "private account" up until about two months ago, when the poll data came in – the president uses "personal account" now, and the media better get in step – or else.

Hey, here’s a good reason why the media ought to refer to these things as "private accounts" from here on out: Nobody respects a wimp. If the press ever wants to be taken seriously again, it’s going to have to start pushing back when powerful forces on either side of the aisle start pushing us around.

Timothy Karr of covers this nicely in his blog.

Hey, let’s try an experiment. Check to see if your local paper praises the pending Alberto Gonzales confirmation. Then challenge them with this: today's Washington Post editorial connecting the dots between what Gonzales said about torture in his public hearings (very little) and what he said about it in the written answers he provided to the committee after slinking out with his tail between his legs.

The Bush Administration condones torture. That’s an objective fact, and administration denials don’t change a thing. The debate ought to be about whether torture is good policy, not about whether the White House supports it. It does. It just doesn’t like to admit that it does.

So why aren’t we having that conversation?

Sy Hersh is an American hero. Read this monologue (it’s supposed to be an interview, but Amy Goodman never gets a word in edgewise) on the Gonzo debacle. Hersh calls the neo-cons a "cult."

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Whither objectivity?

There's a bunch of talk about the death of objectivity going around this week, with such new-media heroes as Dan Gillmor and Steve Yelvington weighing in with thoughts on what might replace it.

My basic response to each of these articles (plus a very good Tim Porter essay at morph) relates to the source credibility idea I've suggested here and in various real-world conversations. What caught me off guard was what appeared to be a general agreement that objectivity was either doomed, foolish impossible.

Objectivity means "Trust Us" in these discussions, and that's a non-starter. It caught me off-guard. Had no one considered the possibility of alternatives? I just sort of expected that other people were having thoughts like mine about open-source fact checking and credibility scoring. Now I'm not so sure.

I don't want to assume that and make big pronouncements. I'm no think-tank guy with a long CV. To be honest, I'm only in this conversation because I had a relatively slow period at work earlier this month and I started researching these issues because I was interested in doing a piece on the wikimedia foundation. Nor am I some webmonkey pioneer. I'm a lapsed blogger (not enough time and no money in it) and what websites I've created have been niche interest, low-tech, content-heavy monstrosities. I'm a newspaper guy (OK, I'm more than JUST that, but you get the point).

But if it's true that we're ready to junk objectivity in favor of something else without even giving it the benefit of the same creative and innovative energy that we've applied to other new-media tools, then duh -- shame on us.

Yes, The Media is a monolithic foe bent on world domination. I get that part. But it is also people like me -- imperfect, well-intentioned, nearly broke and ready to take some chances if they show some chance of leading to something better. We're used to be demonized by the right, sneered at by the academy and called elitist by everyone else. OK. You don't like us. We get it.

But if it takes reporters and editors to defend objectivity as a principle, then OK, I'll do until some of the other guys make it to the party. I believe in what I do, and I believe the new-media tools now arriving on the scene are just what we need to fix what's broken.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Information registry for real-time blogging?

where to begin?

Tim Porter’s piece “Explode the Newsroom: Six Ways to Rebuild the System” rocks, although I posted a comment disparaging Ways Nos. 2 and 3 at the site. The trick is to find the right people to run this new newsroom. My humble suggestion: Look amongst the ranks of those veterans who opted out of the old system.

Second, I had a great exchange today with my brilliant former co-worker Andy Rhinehart. There is more there than can be described in short here, but it did lead to what I thought was an interesting idea about creating a system that cataloged bits of new media information (and perhaps, someday, ideas?), allowing me or you to track whatever is being said about a topic in real time.

In such a system, I could point my aggregator to find everything that is being blogged about the Rice confirmation hearings, and every blog that had self-reported a post on the subject would show up. Andy, who is a new-media guru in South Carolina, didn’t immediately laugh at my idea, which I considered a good start.

Then we talked about fantasy football.

Why is it that I suspect that most of the “journalism professors” who write about “new media” have a bug up their ass? Like a lot of working reporters, I have come to distrust many of the voices from the journalism academy. They’re the sort of people who come through pitch snake-oil solutions to circulation problems, and we just figure they’re out to make a name for themselves.

Is my skepticism misplaced?

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Radio wars

The first thing you notice about Air America radio is its novelty: Liberal talk radio? In America? How whacky!

But yesterday, for the first time since we got liberal talk in Charleston, I turned it off. I had two teenagers in the car and there were callers prattling on about conservatives this, Republicans that, and it dawned on me that the whole thing was giving me the same indigestion that conservative talk radio always has. Did I want my boys listening to breathless leftwing fantaticism? Did my silence equal endorsement to them?

This morning's schtick on "Morning Sedition" actually made me wonder if there's much long-term hope for talk radio. It's fun, but I can't help but imagine Karl Rove sitting there, with a digital recorder collecting all this verbal detrius, cracking his knuckles.

And then there's Ed Schultz, in an ad, boasting that he's bringing the "unfiltered truth of what's really happening" to America. Geez. Cringeworthy. If he were REALLY aware of the unfiltered truth, he'd stand in awe of the labor-intensive complexity of the task before him.

Can't "the reality-based community" find SOMETHING out there?

Sunday, January 16, 2005

A blog by any other name

In the fall of 1999, Hurricane Floyd drove hundreds of thousands of South Carolinians from their homes. Those of us who stayed around to cover the story for the newspaper in Charleston faced an irony: To whom were we publishing?

True, we had the reporters and editors in place. But our carriers had evacuated, and even if we managed to get the paper delivered, our readers had retreated for higher ground. Funny how you don't think about stuff like that until you're in the middle of a crisis, isn't it?

So it was that, right there in the newsroom, we invented a live blog.

Forget deadlines and standard news-cycle gatekeeping: As soon as relevant information reached the city desk, we turned it around and put it up on the front page of our website. It was an ad hoc system -- a features writer and a sports columnist compiling briefs and blurbs in real-time and passing them over to a webmaster who slapped on the tags and republished the site every time an update arrived -- but it was the perfect medium for the information that people needed.

What we had hoped proved to be true: Lowcountry residents desperate for hometown news found that they couldn't get it from radio and TV in Charlotte and Greenville. Instead, they logged on to the internet and went to our website. The website recorded more hits that day than any other before or since, and our success with this new medium left many of us energized about its possibilities.

Nothing came of it, of course, in part because we didn't have a name for what we'd created. But the spirit of that effort, and the sense of community it formed with our readers that day, should serve as an example for the kind of transformation our industry now requires. You can call it a proto-blog. I call it journalism in a different medium.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Note to Poynter: Change the debate

The Poynter Institute's Roy Peter Clark's latest essay "Narrative Chic & Kowtowing to the Bush Bashers"( seems to gently chide the Nieman Narrative Conference for not scheduling more speakers who like President Bush. Clark doesn't bash the Bush-bashers like Alan Greenblatt ("Journalists shouldn't be cheerleaders") did, and makes a point of saying he's not asking for form without content.

What then, exactly, is he asking for?

"It is a call, instead, for more speech," Clark writes. "Harvard needed William Safire on language. Or Martin Marty on parables. Or William F. Buckley Jr., on the spy novel. Or Billy Graham on anecdote in the homily. Or Andrew Sullivan on blogging. Or Christopher Hitchens on Orwell and Iraq. Or Mel Gibson on Mad Max, Hamlet, and Jesus. Or Ayn Rand risen from the dead."

Which is when it struck me: Yes, that's all perfectly reasonable, blah blah blah. But we're talking about the wrong thing. Both Greenblatt and Clark started from a basic assumption that there's something wrong about journalists attending a conference where "majority" sensibilities are not given equal time, with no consideration given to whether those sensibilities are based on an accurate assessment of the relevant facts.

As Greenblatt complained, "The level of public distrust evoked by partisan leanings - real or perceived - did not stop the reporters at the Nieman conference from applauding frequent left-leaning sentiments."

Yes, balance it out. Sit on our hands. Make nice-nice with everyone, including obvious partisans like Safire and Buckley who simply aren't playing by the same rules we are. In fact, invite them to come so we can not applaude them too, so that... why? So that we'll be perceived to be unbiased by people who aren't attending the conference? What a perfectly reasonable, perfectly useless prescription.

It prompted this response:

Change the debate
Posted by Daniel Conover 1/14/2005 10:08:08 AM

If I say the sun is up at noon, does balance require that I find a source who says it isn't, or to point out that yes, maybe that's true, but that it's night on the other side of the planet?

Would you expect a doctor, after giving you a medical diagnosis, to improve its fairness by sending you to a witch doctor for a second opinion?

Such is the flaw in our debate over bias. Our critics called us biased, and when pressed for proof they found it in our collective mindset. It's not that we're overtly biased, they say, it's that we see the world in wrongheaded ways and frame our stories accordingly. We nod like chastened children, ignoring the rightwing bombast that dominates TV punditry, talk radio and our editorial pages.

Few of us would argue against the existence of at least some liberal media bias. I can cite loathsome examples. We needed to look in the mirror, but for too long now we've failed to confront the politically motivated campaign against our profession. We've allowed our critics to misappropriate our ethical standards of fairness and balance to distract us from our primary mission: Telling it like it is.

It is not biased to point out that exit polls showed Bush voters were more likely to believe things that simply were not true (WMDs, Iraqi links to 9/11). When the government engages in propanda, we're supposed to challenge it.

Instead, we're over-compensating. We're allowing equal weight to voices we know to be manipulative and misleading, as if this will make us popular again. It isn't working.

Yes to fairness and balance. Yes to objectivity and humility. But first and foremost, yes to critical thinking and loyalty to a higher goal: truth. I believe we will find our moral center by affirming our values, not by pretending to deny truths. Sitting on your hands for Norman Mailer as an act of feigned objectivity? How sad.

If you were covering the Crucifixion, would you take the lead from Pilate's press conference?

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Is the internet "local"?

Unless you work for or subscribe to one of "The Bigs" (NYT, USAT, WP, LAT, WSJ, etc.), you've probably noticed that news judgment on 1A can get a bit screwy. One day the lead is five killed in Iraq; the next day it's a local water shortage, and the story about SEVEN people killed in Iraq is on 4A.

That's because the mantra at the mid-majors and the mini-metros and the small dailies is "local-local-local." It's what all the readers surveys tell us. It's what people in focus groups tell us. We want more local news. To desperate editors, "local-local-local" can become something akin to a fetish.

Compound that message with the impending sense of doom brought about by the consolidation trend and the media wars of the last couple of years. There's a sense that since smaller dailies can't cover the world like the NYT, they should cede that role to The Bigs and compete for readers with an even heavier emphasis on "local-local-local."

Balance this against the needs of plain old readers, who want good local coverage but need all the news of the day. They don't care about our competitive strategies and internal angst. They want the daily report, and they would like it prioritized with some sense of significance. They can't figure out what the hell we're doing, and quite frankly, neither can we.

My question: what IS local? Is local just geographic? Is local for a bedroom suburban community just that bedroom suburb, or does it include the city where the residents work, party and shop? Is local a place or an identity? And if you live in a suburb, do you REALLY care one wit about the "local-local" coverage from one suburb over?

In a world where most of my gossip and conversation occurs via e-mail, one has to ask, is the internet local? Heaven help us if the answer is "no."

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Transparency and credibility

Rather than focusing on bias, let's try to crack this nut: How do we apply the spirit and capacity of modern technology to improve the information we gather, publish and consume?

It seems to me that one solution could involve a continually updated credibility score that applies to reporters and sources. This idea got zero traction when I trotted it out in the late 1990s, probably because of the costs associated with creating such a system in-house.

But a hyperlinked credibility score, based on factual tests and administered by something like the Wikimedia Foundation, harnesses the strengths of both the "traditional" media and the grassroots/distributed media. One is great for collecting information and comes with a built-in gatekeepers; the other has vast knowledge and unmatchable manpower.

Link the blogosphere to some dbase that compiles and computes the factual track record of public figures, spokespeople, reporters and commentators and you've got an powerful, instant tool for evaluating the credibility of developing stories.

Obviously, such a system would improve over time, and the credibility of some claims ("Saddam has WMDs, I swear to Gawd") would have to wait for verification. This scoring system would therefore be dynamic, and old claims could come back to haunt the person who made them.

Such an approach could be endlessly transparent, since anyone who wanted to know more about the credibility of a source would have an easily clickable history to examine.

The belief that "citizen journalists" will be able to consistently outperform traditional journalists in news gathering, news judgment and ethics overlooks all sorts of practical, logistical roadblocks (as WikiNews appears to be discovering). Better to give group each a role that supports the other.

We've already got more information than we can handle. The battleground is real-time epistomology: How do we know what we know? Given the right scoring system, the answer will be right in front of us.

It's the credibility, stupid.

Same as the old boss?

The mainstream media's discomfort with the new net culture is both sad and predictable, as is the result: People with hard-earned experience in reporting and communication aren't even participating in the conversation about the future of their trade. They've conceded their place at the public table.

One can hardly blame these news executives. The web, particularly the blogosphere, is a hostile place to loiter if you're flashing mainstream media credentials. Most editors haven't kept up with the new technologies themselves, don't blog, don't run RSS. Trained as gatekeepers, the very thought of democratic involvement in information sounds like a sure prescription for chaos. To these people, bloggers look like anarchists. Grassroots journalism looks like a passing fad.

But as the media wars of 2003-04 have proven repeatedly, journalism isn't the problem. We're suffering from various media failures, and most of them are traceable to corporate executives, editors and reporters who skimped on journalism in favor of something else: Profit, favor, partisanship, intellectual laziness.

We need more journalism, better journalism, smarter and more principled journalism. Gathering and communicating information ethically and accurately is a much trickier business than most rookie bloggers might imagine, and in this, mainstream reporters and editors might be a valuable resource. Conversely, blogs and other citizen-run sites could actually provide the intellectual capital and manpower to transform mainstream media into a truly 21st century model.

Without that partnership, the future looks increasingly corporate, and it is only a matter of time before the same forces that captured and ruined American newspapers grasp the keys to the blogosphere and destroy it as well. As the Who put it, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

This blog does not aim to lead the conversation, but to join it.