Commentary Magazine


Topic: journalism

Journalists to Obama: Let Us Do Our Jobs

For a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine, outgoing White House press secretary Jay Carney sat for the magazine’s weekly interview feature. Since the American mainstream press can never stop talking about itself, the tough line of questioning of the interview concerned the Obama administration’s infamous war on leakers and shameless spying not only on journalists but on their parents. Carney had a revealing response.

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For a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine, outgoing White House press secretary Jay Carney sat for the magazine’s weekly interview feature. Since the American mainstream press can never stop talking about itself, the tough line of questioning of the interview concerned the Obama administration’s infamous war on leakers and shameless spying not only on journalists but on their parents. Carney had a revealing response.

Here’s the exchange:

One serious accusation that has come up throughout your tenure is that this is an Orwellian administration, the most secretive ever. I know — because I covered them — that this was said of Clinton and Bush, and it will probably be said of the next White House. I think a little perspective is useful. What I really reject — and would have rejected as a reporter covering this place — is this notion that whether a reporter is successfully doing his job depends on information he is being handed through the front door from the White House.

But won’t all these leak investigations produce a chilling effect? Len Downie [the former Washington Post editor] sat in this office as he was preparing a report about how we were producing a chilling effect, and I was able to take a copy of The Post and drop it on the table and point to yet another unbelievable national security leak. Reporters are still able to get stories and information that the administration clearly does not want them to have.

Carney has a point that such accusations are leveled at each administration. But notice his answer to the second question there. His rebuttal to the press taking offense at his boss’s attempts to prevent them from accessing information is that, hey, some stories are still getting through. In other words, the Obama administration’s information suppression isn’t perfect, and therefore isn’t objectionable. Come back to him when he’s put you completely out of business, and maybe you’ll have a point.

It’s kind of an amazing answer when you think about it. But it’s also completely characteristic of this administration. Carney was a journalist. And like most journalists, he went to work for President Obama. (That’s an exaggeration: most journalists may have wanted a job doing officially what they were doing unofficially–spinning shamelessly for Obama–but only a select couple dozen got the opportunity to fulfill their dream of silencing a free press and spouting robotic talking points.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Carney’s response–that sometimes news is occasionally produced despite Obama’s best efforts–has not convinced journalism groups. Via George Washington Professor Jonathan Turley, 38 such groups have sent Obama a joint letter of protest. They write:

You recently expressed concern that frustration in the country is breeding cynicism about democratic government. You need look no further than your own administration for a major source of that frustration – politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies. We call on you to take a stand to stop the spin and let the sunshine in.

Turley comments:

Once again, the White House has a virtually army of commenters and blog surfers who continually deflect such criticism by referring to how much worse the Republicans are or simply changing the subject. However, the mounting attacks on civil liberties by this Administration has gutted the foundational principles of the Democratic party and virtually destroyed the American civil liberties movement. What is left the power of personality over principle. However, this will not our last president. When he leaves, he will leave little in his wake beyond hypocrisy for those who have remained silent in the face of the abuses. It is the victory of the “blue state/red state” construct that maintain the duopoly of the two parties. Each party excuses its failures by referring to the other as the worst of two evils. For years, Democrats and liberals have supported Obama as he has attacked the defining values that were once the Democratic party. The fact that this letter is even necessary is a shocking statement on the state of American press freedom.

Turley makes an important point, not only about press freedom itself but by the partisan nature of excuse-making. We often play the game of “what if a Republican did this?” Well, barring an American metamorphosis into a one-party state, a Republican will at some point be in that position. Obama will have set a precedent in his at times ridiculously obsessive control of the news, and the Democrats will have not only enabled or defended it, but the left-leaning journalists among them will have been lining up for jobs to help them do so.

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Dan Rather’s Obsession

Dan Rather was once among the most powerful figures in American media. Which is why watching him today is a particularly poignant and painful thing. 

Consider Mr. Rather’s appearance with CNN’s Piers Morgan Monday night. When asked about the recent, erroneous Benghazi report on 60 Minutes that led to a leave of absence for reporter Lara Logan, Rather compared that story to the one that ruined his career:

“With our story, the one that led to our difficulty, no question the story was true. What the complaint… was ‘Okay, your story was true, but the way you got to the truth was flawed. The process was flawed.’ That’s not the case with the Benghazi story. Unfortunately, and there’s no joy in saying this, they were taken in by a man who was a fraud.”

Now for some context.

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Dan Rather was once among the most powerful figures in American media. Which is why watching him today is a particularly poignant and painful thing. 

Consider Mr. Rather’s appearance with CNN’s Piers Morgan Monday night. When asked about the recent, erroneous Benghazi report on 60 Minutes that led to a leave of absence for reporter Lara Logan, Rather compared that story to the one that ruined his career:

“With our story, the one that led to our difficulty, no question the story was true. What the complaint… was ‘Okay, your story was true, but the way you got to the truth was flawed. The process was flawed.’ That’s not the case with the Benghazi story. Unfortunately, and there’s no joy in saying this, they were taken in by a man who was a fraud.”

Now for some context.

Mr. Rather’s 44-year career at CBS (24 years of which he spent as the anchor of the CBS Evening News) ended because of his role in a story that blew apart. The 2004 story was meant to smear President George W. Bush a few months before his reelection. The problem is that it was based on forged National Guard documents that were almost immediately revealed as such. Yet Rather insists to this very day that the forged documents were accurate. 

This claim is a hallucination, as this 224-page Report of the Independent Review Panel (convened by CBS) makes clear. But Rather would not let it go. After being fired in 2006, he filed a $70 million lawsuit against CBS and its parent company, Viacom, claiming he had been made a “scapegoat,” which was subsequently dismissed in its entirely. Mr. Rather of course appealed. And in 2012, while promoting his book Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News, the former CBS reporter continued to insist the forged documents were accurate. “I believe them to be genuine. I did at the time, I did in the immediate aftermath of it, and yes, I do now,” he said.

This story fascinates me in part because of its insight into human psychology. Mr. Rather is emotionally unable to accept that the National Guard story was false and built on lies, that his effort to bring down an American president brought him down instead. And so he keeps returning to the scene of the crime, hoping to clear his name, convinced that one more adamant declaration that his story was true will magically make it so. Unfortunately, and there’s no joy in saying this, Rather doesn’t have the self-awareness to know that each time he does this, he becomes a more pitiable figure.

“To the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” These are the words of Captain Ahab as he tosses his harpoon toward the great white whale. But they could just as easily be Dan Rather’s. 

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“Hardball” Host Can’t Answer the Question

If you’d like to see what happens when an arrogant, thin-skinned journalist is asked a legitimate question about a silly (but revealing) comment he once made, you can’t do much better than viewing this clip of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.

C-SPAN’s Steve Scully—one of the most objective and decent journalists in America today—asked Matthews if he still felt toward Barack Obama today the same “thrill” that went up his leg in 2008.

The response by Matthews is filled with bitterness and self-righteousness. “If you had done your reporting over at C-SPAN, you would have checked that I said the exact same thing in 2004 after I heard his address up here in Boston,”” according to Matthews. “I want to help you with your reporting,” Matthews says later. And it gets worse from there, with Matthews—who for some inexplicable reason characterizes his work as “reporting”—constantly trying to put down Scully, including calling him a “jackass.” Matthews is enraged because Scully asked Matthews a question Matthews faces from “every horse’s ass right winger I bump into.”

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If you’d like to see what happens when an arrogant, thin-skinned journalist is asked a legitimate question about a silly (but revealing) comment he once made, you can’t do much better than viewing this clip of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.

C-SPAN’s Steve Scully—one of the most objective and decent journalists in America today—asked Matthews if he still felt toward Barack Obama today the same “thrill” that went up his leg in 2008.

The response by Matthews is filled with bitterness and self-righteousness. “If you had done your reporting over at C-SPAN, you would have checked that I said the exact same thing in 2004 after I heard his address up here in Boston,”” according to Matthews. “I want to help you with your reporting,” Matthews says later. And it gets worse from there, with Matthews—who for some inexplicable reason characterizes his work as “reporting”—constantly trying to put down Scully, including calling him a “jackass.” Matthews is enraged because Scully asked Matthews a question Matthews faces from “every horse’s ass right winger I bump into.”

How dare one journalist read an accurate quote from another and ask if he still holds those same views.

The irony abounds. Chris Matthews hosts a show called “Hardball”—yet when asked about his previous statement, he whines and complains as if the question itself is illegitimate. And unlike Matthews, Scully is respectful to his guests and doesn’t constantly interrupt them.

Of all the people I have met in the political class over the decades, those with the thinnest skins tend to be journalists. They are antagonistic toward politicians and revel in their effort to “afflict the comfortable.” Yet when the tables are turned in even the most gentle of ways, many of them (though certainly not all of them) become petty, small-minded, and ad hominem in their response. It’s no wonder the American public holds journalists in such low esteem.

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“Literary Journalism”: What It Is, What It Is Not

This morning, over at Critical Mass (the blog of the National Book Critics Circle), Geoff Dyer reveals the five “works of literary journalism” that he likes best. Dyer won the Circle’s 2011 criticism award for Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, a collection of essays. It’s not his fault that his list of favorites is dull and vapid. The classification of “literary journalism” is dull and vapid.

As a term, literary journalism is first cousin to “literary fiction,” another dull and vapid classification the republic of letters could do without. Apparently, literary journalism is fancy journalism, highbrow journalism. It is journalism plus fine writing. It is journalism with literary pretensions. But here’s the thing about literary pretensions. They are pretentious. They are phony. Good writers don’t brag about writing literature, which is a title of honor. Good writers accept the moral obligation to write well — that is, they subjugate themselves to the demands of the text under hand — and they leave the question of literature, the question of lasting value, up to the literary critics.

The word journalism does not denote a genre, but a venue. Journalism is what gets printed in journals and their digital successors, including blogs and even Twitter. Literary journalism is periodical writing about literature. I am a literary journalist, because I write about books for COMMENTARY. Edmund Wilson is the patron saint of literary journalists. But when he wrote book-length criticism that was not originally conceived as a series of contributions to the journals (Patriotic Gore, for example), Wilson was no longer writing as a journalist. And when he wrote journal pieces like those collected in The American Earthquake but originally published in the New Republic (about “the arts of the metropolis, from Stravinsky conducting Pétrouchka to Houdini, nightclubs and burlesque shows, Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, the painting of O’Keeffe and George Bellows,” as his biographer describes them), Wilson was no longer writing as a literary journalist.

Most of what gets referred to as “literary journalism” is some combination of history and travel writing — history because it undertakes to determine what happened in a past, travel writing because it depends upon first-hand observation in addition to documented evidence. Those who object that journalism (of any kind) is not history are doing little beyond disclosing their own prejudices and assumptions. “The question in history,” Michael Oakeshott wrote, “is never what must, or what might have taken place, but solely what the evidence obliges us to conclude did take place.” Thus the historian and the journalist share the same obligation — an obligation to the evidence. What did take place might have taken place five minutes or five centuries ago, but as long as it belongs to the past, historian and journalist share the same interest in it.

Nor do their objectives differ, no matter how far apart their methods and prose might seem to put them. Oakeshott again: “The historian’s business is not to discover, to recapture, or even to interpret; it is to create and to construct.” Both historians and journalists recreate the past in the name of reporting what the evidence obliges them to conclude took place. Historians may claim to be more comprehensive and objective; “literary” journalists, to be more compelling and timely. But these claims are justified merely by the fact that some historians and some journalists have bought into them. They are self-advertisements, not logical distinctions.

There is no reason for anyone to repeat them, nor to compile lists of their favorite “literary journalism.”

This morning, over at Critical Mass (the blog of the National Book Critics Circle), Geoff Dyer reveals the five “works of literary journalism” that he likes best. Dyer won the Circle’s 2011 criticism award for Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, a collection of essays. It’s not his fault that his list of favorites is dull and vapid. The classification of “literary journalism” is dull and vapid.

As a term, literary journalism is first cousin to “literary fiction,” another dull and vapid classification the republic of letters could do without. Apparently, literary journalism is fancy journalism, highbrow journalism. It is journalism plus fine writing. It is journalism with literary pretensions. But here’s the thing about literary pretensions. They are pretentious. They are phony. Good writers don’t brag about writing literature, which is a title of honor. Good writers accept the moral obligation to write well — that is, they subjugate themselves to the demands of the text under hand — and they leave the question of literature, the question of lasting value, up to the literary critics.

The word journalism does not denote a genre, but a venue. Journalism is what gets printed in journals and their digital successors, including blogs and even Twitter. Literary journalism is periodical writing about literature. I am a literary journalist, because I write about books for COMMENTARY. Edmund Wilson is the patron saint of literary journalists. But when he wrote book-length criticism that was not originally conceived as a series of contributions to the journals (Patriotic Gore, for example), Wilson was no longer writing as a journalist. And when he wrote journal pieces like those collected in The American Earthquake but originally published in the New Republic (about “the arts of the metropolis, from Stravinsky conducting Pétrouchka to Houdini, nightclubs and burlesque shows, Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, the painting of O’Keeffe and George Bellows,” as his biographer describes them), Wilson was no longer writing as a literary journalist.

Most of what gets referred to as “literary journalism” is some combination of history and travel writing — history because it undertakes to determine what happened in a past, travel writing because it depends upon first-hand observation in addition to documented evidence. Those who object that journalism (of any kind) is not history are doing little beyond disclosing their own prejudices and assumptions. “The question in history,” Michael Oakeshott wrote, “is never what must, or what might have taken place, but solely what the evidence obliges us to conclude did take place.” Thus the historian and the journalist share the same obligation — an obligation to the evidence. What did take place might have taken place five minutes or five centuries ago, but as long as it belongs to the past, historian and journalist share the same interest in it.

Nor do their objectives differ, no matter how far apart their methods and prose might seem to put them. Oakeshott again: “The historian’s business is not to discover, to recapture, or even to interpret; it is to create and to construct.” Both historians and journalists recreate the past in the name of reporting what the evidence obliges them to conclude took place. Historians may claim to be more comprehensive and objective; “literary” journalists, to be more compelling and timely. But these claims are justified merely by the fact that some historians and some journalists have bought into them. They are self-advertisements, not logical distinctions.

There is no reason for anyone to repeat them, nor to compile lists of their favorite “literary journalism.”

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Gannett Reporters Sign Walker Petition

On Sunday, Gannett’s Wisconsin team broke the news that 29 Wisconsin judges had signed a petition to recall Gov. Scott Walker. Today, in an embarrassing follow-up, the paper’s publisher reports that 25 Gannett reporters apparently signed the petition as well. So, thanks for ruining it for the whole news team, guys:

In the interest of full transparency, we are informing readers today that 25 Gannett Wisconsin Media journalists, including seven at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, signed the recall petition. It was wrong, and those who signed the petition were in breach of Gannett’s principles of ethical conduct.

It is little consolation to us that none of the editorial employees who signed a petition has any involvement in our news or political coverage or decides how those stories are developed and presented. None of the employees serve on the investigative team. Had they been directly involved, we would identify them.

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On Sunday, Gannett’s Wisconsin team broke the news that 29 Wisconsin judges had signed a petition to recall Gov. Scott Walker. Today, in an embarrassing follow-up, the paper’s publisher reports that 25 Gannett reporters apparently signed the petition as well. So, thanks for ruining it for the whole news team, guys:

In the interest of full transparency, we are informing readers today that 25 Gannett Wisconsin Media journalists, including seven at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, signed the recall petition. It was wrong, and those who signed the petition were in breach of Gannett’s principles of ethical conduct.

It is little consolation to us that none of the editorial employees who signed a petition has any involvement in our news or political coverage or decides how those stories are developed and presented. None of the employees serve on the investigative team. Had they been directly involved, we would identify them.

The paper’s publisher really beats himself and the staff up in the apology today, which makes you wonder – if this lapse was taken so seriously by Gannett, why wasn’t it disclosed along with the initial story on the judges yesterday? You would imagine the Gannett i-team noticed that some of their fellow reporters’ signatures were on the list when they were first reporting the story. Waiting a whole day makes it look like the paper was forced into disclosing it, even if that wasn’t actually the case.

But it’s hard to get too worked up over this. When it comes to ideology and journalism, Jay Rosen seems to have the most reasonable philosophy. Having strong political opinions doesn’t preclude someone from being a quality reporter, and acknowledging those political opinions is probably a good step toward building trust with the public. At the same time, these journalists who signed the petition were in violation of Gannett’s own ethics rules. And considering the fact that Gannett was reporting on the potential ethical lapses of public officials, that blunder certainly undermines its credibility.

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Why is WaPo Partnering With the Chinese Communist Party?

The Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo has a great item out this morning on the Washington Post’s advertising partnership with the Chinese Communist Party. Apparently, a Chinese government-controlled media outlet has purchased its own news supplement – complete with Washington Post masthead – that is published in the Post’s print and web editions. Ostensibly this is considered an “advertisement,” and is handled by the Post’s advertising department, but critics say the supplement is so poorly labeled that many readers likely believe they’re reading the Post’s own reporting – but are actually reading Chinese government propaganda.

Kredo spoke to journalism ethics experts who explained why the relationship is problematic:

“They need to address the proverbial elephant in the living room—why are you carrying a Communist government-sponsored publication?” asked Lois Boynton, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“It raises some ethical issues for the Post,” said Boynton, who criticized China Watch for intentionally obfuscating its origins.

“There are issues of transparency associated with who publishes China Watch,” she said. “The ‘about’ blurb doesn’t provide that detail. Although many people may know that China mainstream media is government-controlled, it may not be clear for all readers.”

“Readers go right through this section as if they’re moving through the hard news to the more in depth reporting, never realizing that they’re being inundated with Chinese government propaganda,” said Stephen Yates, a former national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. “It doesn’t hit a person that they’ve arrived at an ad supplement filled with things that have passed Chinese Communist Party filters.”

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The Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo has a great item out this morning on the Washington Post’s advertising partnership with the Chinese Communist Party. Apparently, a Chinese government-controlled media outlet has purchased its own news supplement – complete with Washington Post masthead – that is published in the Post’s print and web editions. Ostensibly this is considered an “advertisement,” and is handled by the Post’s advertising department, but critics say the supplement is so poorly labeled that many readers likely believe they’re reading the Post’s own reporting – but are actually reading Chinese government propaganda.

Kredo spoke to journalism ethics experts who explained why the relationship is problematic:

“They need to address the proverbial elephant in the living room—why are you carrying a Communist government-sponsored publication?” asked Lois Boynton, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“It raises some ethical issues for the Post,” said Boynton, who criticized China Watch for intentionally obfuscating its origins.

“There are issues of transparency associated with who publishes China Watch,” she said. “The ‘about’ blurb doesn’t provide that detail. Although many people may know that China mainstream media is government-controlled, it may not be clear for all readers.”

“Readers go right through this section as if they’re moving through the hard news to the more in depth reporting, never realizing that they’re being inundated with Chinese government propaganda,” said Stephen Yates, a former national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. “It doesn’t hit a person that they’ve arrived at an ad supplement filled with things that have passed Chinese Communist Party filters.”

In addition, Kredo reports there are questions about whether the partnership violates the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The law requires agents being paid by foreign governments – i.e. lobbyists or political consultants – to register their affiliations in a database and disclose them publicly. But there is a gray area here when it comes to FARA. For example, while a lobbyist may have to register under FARA if he has a financial relationship with the Russian government, news organizations controlled by the Russian government that are aired in the U.S. (i.e. Russia Today) do not have to register in the same fashion. It’s a loophole that allows foreign governments to duck the rules.

While FARA violations are rarely prosecuted, this could still increase pressure on the Post to rethink its current partnership. Considering the Post editorial page’s typically exemplary coverage of the Chinese government’s human rights abuses, it would be nice to see the advertising department update its standards to follow suit.

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