Camouflaging The Point

Say that a news reporter, hypothetically, writes an article in which he both selectively omits crucial facts about a story in order to present a picture of a candidate to present a technically-accurate but in fact misleading picture of that candidate to the public, and plagiarizes another journalist.to get some of that material.

Which of these infractions will get the reporter’s editors, managers, ombudspeople and colleagues the most exercised?

The plagiarism, naturally; the story will generate abashed corrections, a firing, in-depth-analyses and apologies, and endless discussions and not a few news stories about the reporter’s offenses against the craft.

The selective reporting?  Despite the fact that it presented an ultimately misleading impression of an important story, journalists will largely wash their hands of it.  The editors will nod their heads and say “everything in the story was factual, and things were left out because of space constraints”.  The ombudsmen will write a piece on how perhaps more care is required in sourcing, but the story was ultimately factual, and thus fair.  Other journalists will shrug their shoulders and say “sh*t happens”.

And for the candidate, it just did.

The most interesting thing about the Washington Post/David Weigel case isn’t so much the incident itself – Weigel’s participation in a hush-hush liberal list-server with many of the nation’s “elite” left-leaning journalists, his off-the-record slurs against conservatives, or the fact that a fellow “elite” lefty journalist decided to dump a bunch of the offending emails.

Although that seems to be the part that the WaPo thinks is most important.  The Post’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, took a whack at writing the WaPo’s nostra culpa (or perhaps Weigel culpayesterday, hitting all the important points – if you’re a left-leaning journalist:

Weigel bears responsibility for sarcastic and scornful comments he made in e-mails leaked from a supposedly private listserv called “Journolist,” started in 2007 by fellow Post blogger and friend Ezra Klein. Weigel’s e-mails showed strikingly poor judgment and revealed a bias that only underscored existing complaints from conservatives that he couldn’t impartially cover them.

I read this, and I thought “liberal journalist sniffing down his nose about conservatives when he thinks he’s in private?  That’s not even a “dog bites man” story.  That’s a “dog pees in grass” story”.

But his departure also raises questions about whether The Post has adequately defined the role of bloggers like Weigel. Are they neutral reporters or ideologues?

This is a question that can only come from Planet Beltway.

Here’s a better question:  a newspaper which is widely believed to have a left-of-center editorial slant hires a reporter from the liberal propaganda-blog Washington Independent (a corporate cousin of the Minnesota “Independent”, both run by the ironically-named “Center for Independent Media”, all of which were founded by liberals with deep pockets to spread propaganda for the Democratic Party), to essentially serve as a journalistic anthropologist, a Jane Goodall-like figure to translate the mysterious ways of all those inscrutable enigmas between the Hudson and the Sierra Madre.

So why should the half of the American people and news consumers who identify as conservatives not see that as overt, institutionalized condescension?  As one of the most powerful media organs in the country telling its readership “we will have one of our specialists translate all this vaguely-scary, wingnutty, teabaggy stuff into acceptable, non-accented English”?

Weigel did an interview last winter on NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross (full transcript here) where talking to a elite-media-club member in good standing Terri Gross, he lets his guard down.

Mr. WEIGEL: He was elected in 1984 and he left on his own volition in 2002. I mean he was in no danger of being defeated. He just retired to become, like a lot of former congressmen, a lobbyist with some political interests.
GROSS: Okay. So what are his interests in funding the Tea Party movement?

Mr. WEIGEL: One thing Armey would say is that he doesnt fund the Tea Party movement. He loves to contrast what they see as union thugs and ACORN putting Democratic rallies together with Tea Party people gassing up their cars and driving to Washington for his rallies. There’s some dishonesty there.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WEIGEL: I mean Freedom Works is always on the scene. It helps set these things up. It’s got full-time activists who help get permits. And I mean I’ve been to a couple of events at Freedom Works’ office where theyll have huge, you know, nice buffet spreads and things like that for Tea Party activists and conservative bloggers to meet and strategize.

Mr. WEIGEL: He was elected in 1984 and he left on his own volition in 2002. I mean he was in no danger of being defeated. He just retired to become, like a lot of former congressmen, a lobbyist with some political interests.

GROSS: Okay. So what are his interests in funding the Tea Party movement?

Mr. WEIGEL: One thing Armey would say is that he doesnt fund the Tea Party movement. He loves to contrast what they see as union thugs and ACORN putting Democratic rallies together with Tea Party people gassing up their cars and driving to Washington for his rallies. There’s some dishonesty there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEIGEL: I mean Freedom Works is always on the scene. It helps set these things up. It’s got full-time activists who help get permits. And I mean I’ve been to a couple of events at Freedom Works’ office where theyll have huge, you know, nice buffet spreads and things like that for Tea Party activists and conservative bloggers to meet and strategize

Not that Weigel was systematically unfair – although he strains to connect the John Birch Society to Glenn Beck.  Read the transcript for yourself; you be the judge.

The WaPo’s Alexander asks:

And, given the disdainful comments in his e-mails, there is the separate question of whether he was miscast from the outset when he was hired earlier this year.

The bigger question is “how could anyone who was paying attention “miscast” Weigel as anything but a left-leaning writer who would treat conservatism with the same giggly, hipster post-irony of an Ira Glass or a Robert Sagel?”   Weigel’s history is pretty well-known,   Even I could have told them; Weigel spent some time years ago (ten years ago at least) covering a Minnesota electronic-democracy group; while Weigel seemed to be a fair enough guy, there was no mistaking his political sympathies.

But the problem isn’ t that a liberal paper sent a liberal to cover, and translate, conservatism. It isn’t even that that reporter turned out to say naughty things about conservatives when he thought he was off the record.  Most conservatives accept that as the norm.

So the WaPo’s editors miss the point when they say…:

“I don’t think you need to be a conservative to cover the conservative movement,” [editor] Narisetti told me late today. “But you do need to be impartial… in your views.”

He said that when Weigel was hired, he was vetted in the same way that other prospective Post journalists are screened. He interviewed with a variety of top editors, his writings were reviewed and his references were checked, Narisetti said.

“But we’re living in an era when maybe we need to add a level” of inquiry, he said. “It may be in our interests to ask potential reporters: ‘In private… have you expressed any opinions that would make it difficult for you to do your job.”

…because the real point is not that reporters can be “impartial”, any more than I can.  They need merely to be honest about their biases – because there is no such thing as a neutral reporter.  Objectivity is a myth – and the idea that the WaPo thought they could pass off a secret club-member like Weigel as “objective” isn’t nearly as insulting as the fact that whole “conservatives in the mist” exercise entirely about a sense of preening cultural superiority.

Alas, it took only one listserv participant to bundle up Weigel’s archived comments and start leaking them outside the group. The result is that Weigel lost his job. But the bigger loss is The Post’s standing among conservatives.

There, Mr. Alexander needn’t worry; the Post never had much to lose.

The other question that actually matters relates to “Journolist”, the hush-hush email discussion group where “elite” left-leaning  journalists swapped ideas and mapped out approaches to big stories.  Journolist was founded by Ezra Klein, formerly of the ultraleftyblog Pandagon, with whom I went ’round and ’round back when blogging was mostly done for the love of the game.

And Klein, like Alexander, is mostly concerned about the damage this flap does to his craft-within-a-craft, the pseudo-journalistic institutional blog:

In a column about Stanley McChrystal today, David Brooks talks about the union of electronic text, unheralded transparency, 24/7 media and a culture that has not yet settled on new rules for what is, and isn’t, private, and what is, and isn’t, newsworthy. “The exposure ethos, with its relentless emphasis on destroying privacy and exposing impurities, has chased good people from public life, undermined public faith in institutions and elevated the trivial over the important,” he writes.

There’s a lot of faux-intimacy on the Web. Readers like that intimacy, or at least some of them do. But it’s dangerous. A newspaper column is public, and writers treat it as such. So too is a blog. But Twitter? It’s public, but it feels, somehow, looser, safer. Facebook is less public than Twitter, and feels even more intimate. A private e-mail list is not public, but it is electronically archived text, and it is protected only by a password field and the good will of the members. It’s easy to talk as if it’s private without considering the possibility, unlikely as it is, that it will one day become public, and that some ambitious gossip reporters will dig through it for an exposure story…

Well, yeah.  Klein’s right here; I study how people and computers interact for a living, and faux intimacy and lowered inhibitions are why online discussions quickly degenerate into name calling, why online dating is an intense whirlwind, and why online commerce, with its instant gratification, is so popular.

But the real story in this flap – and the real damage it does to “journalism” – has little to do with the formalities of the journalistic craft, or the pathologies of online communication.

Klein:

A newspaper reporter opposing the Afghanistan war in a news story is doing something improper. A newspaper reporter telling his wife he opposes the war is being perfectly proper. If someone had been surreptitiously taping that reporter’s conversations with his wife, there’d be no doubt that was a violation of privacy, and the gathered remarks and observations were illegitimate.

Right.  So let’s continue the analogy.

Dozens of newspaper reporters who oppose the Afghanistan war gather online, in a “secure” undisclosed virtual location they share with other journalists and plenty of hard-left pundits, to discuss how they can affect the coverage, to shade it to a desired political end.

Ethical or not?

What do you think the Washington Post’s ombudsman would say?

The fact that the Washington Post felt it needed to report on conservatism as a matter of cultural anthropology is insulting, but just dumb; a waste of resources, and of credibility to the conservative community even before the Weigel flap.

The fact that “journalists” are discussing how to politically shade their coverage to achieve desired political ends – as some of Weigel’s emails showed – is the real issue here.

I’d love to see an editor, an ombudsman and a journalist address that.  All the other questions are just side issues.

8 thoughts on “Camouflaging The Point

  1. Mitch wrote: “Say that a news reporter, hypothetically, writes an article in which he both selectively omits crucial facts about a story in order to present a picture of a candidate to present a technically-accurate but in fact misleading picture of that candidate to the public”

    and yet knotted himself like a pretzle along with others on the right when it was James O’Keefe selectively omitting crucial facts about a story, over and over and over, in order to present a story that was neither technically accurate because of added faked visual and audio elements, and where ‘severe editing’ removing those crucial facts presented a misleading picture to the public.

    Plagiarism is bad – like the right wing candidate who lifted Obama’s speech almost perfectly verbatim. It is easier to define it, and to condemn it whenever it happens.

    When you are, Mitch, equally willing to fault the same behaviors on your side of the political aisle as you are the same or similar actions on the left, you will be discussing issues instead of spinning politics.

    Being critical only of the left while excusing the right…….no, that is not being issue oriented at all. That is just another instance of shading the coverage, leaving out crucial facts (by virtue of being similar occurrences or behaviors) that you are criticizing here.

  2. DG,

    So your reasoning here is “unless you criticized O’Keefe and Giles, you must ignore Weigel and the WaPo?”

    Really?

    That’s illogical, even if anything you said about O’Keefe was true – and let’s just say I’m letting that one slide for the sake of focus.

    When you are, Mitch, equally willing to fault the same behaviors on your side of the political aisle as you are the same or similar actions on the left, you will be discussing issues instead of spinning politics.

    Patent balderdash, DG. It is not my job to police the ethics of “my side”, much less do it to your rather malleable and agenda-driven satisfaction.

    Being critical only of the left while excusing the right…….no, that is not being issue oriented at all.

    You’ve been hanging around with Pen too long. There is NOT some cosmic account of pluses and minuses that I, personally, must keep in balance to be able to speak about any given issue.

    That is just another instance of shading the coverage, leaving out crucial facts (by virtue of being similar occurrences or behaviors) that you are criticizing here.

    You mean, like accusing “the right” of an “avalanche of violence” based on a smattering of incidents and a bunch of (in hindsight, but as predicted) idle phone threats, while you remain silent on the left’s long and, to those capable of shame, shameful record of actual violence and intimidation?

    By the “logic” you’re foisting on me, you’d have to make sure you were PERFECTLY even-handed in your coverage of that issue before you could have an opinion on it. Sound fair?

    Because you have a LOOOOONG way to go!

  3. the apologist DG wrote:
    “Plagiarism is bad – like the right wing candidate who lifted Obama’s speech almost perfectly verbatim. It is easier to define it, and to condemn it whenever it happens.”

    Or like when Vice President Joe Biden lifted a significant portion of a speech from a British MP Neal Kinnock. or President Obama’s 2.16.08 plagiarism of a Deval Patrick speech.

    DG are you condemning Mr Biden and Mr Obama for their plagiarism?

  4. So DG, are you saying that we have to be absolutely fair in order to speak out? Pretty please, is that true? Because if that is true, you must be absolutely pissed at virtually every media outlet in this country for violating your standards of fairness. They have been violating your standards left and… well, left, for years.

  5. and yet knotted himself like a pretzle along with others on the right when it was James O’Keefe selectively omitting crucial facts about a story, over and over and over, in order to present a story that was neither technically accurate because of added faked visual and audio elements, and where ’severe editing’ removing those crucial facts presented a misleading picture to the public.

    Yeah, because that’s EXACTLY like a clique of over 400 of some of the most high-profile journalists colluding in Internet seclusion to craft a message to their multiple, influential media outlets a biased political reality masked as objectivity, all the while elbowing each other in the ribs to keep quiet about the big ruse they’re playing on their readers. Resulting in, of course, the election of the empty suit known as President Obama.

    Yeah, that’s EXACTLY the same.

    I’d call you a tool, but, no, at least a tool is useful once in awhile.

  6. Hell, I wish there were 400 more James O’Keefes around to counteract the giggling portside frat boys on the Journolist. Otherwise, what Yoss said, Mrs. Teasdale.

  7. I must say I felt like Yogi Berra reading the NPR quote: deja vu all over again.

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