Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Don't tell her this, but until today, I'd never heard of Kara Swisher.

I followed a link to one of her columns on the site All Things Digital from MediaBistro's daily digest. First I noticed that there are two names on the site: hers, and Walt Mossberg's. Secondly, I found, prominently displayed on the left, a link to her Ethics Statement. Further piquing my interest, the tag before the jump said, "This is probably more than most of you want to know, but...."

Ah, rejoice! I want to know more than most of us want to know! Tell me more!

Swisher, who is a technology writer, proceeded to disclose her relationship with an executive at Google (her wife, which led to a brief acknowledgement of disagreement with California's Proposition 8, effectively repealing same-sex marriage), and the way she manages any potential impact from that relationship. She stated, basically, that she does not accept money from anyone she covers in any way. She referenced her investments and explained that the funds are managed in such a way that while it is possible at any given time that she might own shares of stock in a tech company, she is not aware of those individual purchases.

Essentially, Swisher invaded her own privacy and stated for the records all the things some believe should be assumed. It's not entirely what she said, but that she said it at all.

Like the taboo against discussing salaries (the continued existence of which must be adding just a little more spin to Marx's turns in his grave), I've always felt it's a little silly to take offense at obvious ethical or conflict-of-interest charges that might fall short of the legal line. It might be naive of me, but if one is in the business of providing information others depend on, disclosure of relationships, financial or otherwise, that might affect one's viewpoint, and sharing a few details about how those potentialities will be managed, is both good business and good ethics. No one in the media is presumed innocent until proven guilty any more, even - sometimes especially - its producers. Transparency is vital to the integrity of news.

Is this something that should be business as usual, expected by the public, for anyone proclaiming any level of accuracy and objectivity - a practical, necessary sign of good integrity? Or is it a dangerous precedent for the invasion of privacy and a smear against names wh ich have not yet been attacked?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Some quotes about the media....

Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock. -- Ben Hecht

Journalism consists largely in saying "Lord Jones died" to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive. -- G. K. Chesterton

[You reporters] should have printed what he meant, not what he said. -- Earl Bush, press aide to Richard Daley

Unfortunately, the media have trouble distinguishing between real science and propaganda cross-dressed as science. -- Linda Bowles, columnist

Its failings notwithstanding, there is much to be said in favor of journalism in that by giving us the opinion of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community. -- Oscar Wilde

The difference between literature and journalism is that journalism is unreadable and literature is not read. -- Oscar Wilde

The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything. Except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands. -- Oscar Wilde

The good people sleep much better at night than the bad people. Of course, the bad people enjoy the waking hours much more. -- Woody Allen

A little inaccuracy sometimes saves a ton of explanation. - H. H. Munro (Saki)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

International journalism...sorta

In honor of Bastille Day, an "important time to recall justice and equity," here is a look at some current info on French journalism....

France has three major dailies: Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Libération. Le Monde, which means "The World," is considered the French newspaper of record. It has existed for less than a century, having taken over the format of Le Temps ("The Time") after World War II at the request of Charles de Gaulle. Le Temps was suspended November 30, 1942, after accusations of collaboration with the German occupation. Le Monde went into print on November 19, 1944.

Le Figaro was started as a satirical weekly newspaper in 1826 and evolved into a daily in 1866. It is a conservative paper.

Libération. also known as Libé, is the youngest, founded in 1973 by Sartre (the father of existentialism. And in an eerie domestic arrangement Simone de Beauvoir called "The Family," but that's beside the point). It was originally a leftist paper - where all staff from the editor to the janitor received the same salary - but has moved more to the center-left (and a "normal" pay scale). It's gone through quite a shakeup in the last few years, as it needed money, took on an investor (Edouard Rothschild) who claimed he wouldn't interfere, then said he wouldn't invest more money unless the editor, Serge July (also a co-founder) and Louis Dreyfus (the "directeur général") resigned. A total of close to 150 people have resigned, been laid off, or dismissed since the beginning of Rothschild's involvement.

There are many comparisons between French and American journalism out there. Still an initiate to the world of journalism myself, I was a little surprised to find that comparative journalism is already a sub-field. One practitioner, Rodney Benson, said in an interview with PressThink, " What’s different then is that the journalistic voice in the French press is more overt."

The French press tends to be opinionated and editorial, but Benson praises its mix of "context, interpretation, and judgment" within its dailies - more affordable and widely read than the U.S. opnion magazines - as a vehicle to foster a more truly national debate.

This comparison doesn't go into great depth, but it's a thorough and intriguing analysis of the differences between one American and one French journalist, covering the same event in Russia, who both won their nations' highest prizes (the Pulitzer and the Prix Albert Londres).

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Contacts for cash at WaPo?

Proving the relevancy of the academic discipline I'm inventing, a scandal over WaPo (as reported by has blown up over the last week.

According to a Thursday, July 2nd, Politico article (Washington Post cancels lobbyist event amid uproar), a health lobbyist who received a flier about a fundraising salon provided the flier to journalists because he felt it was a conflict of interest.

The article reports that the flier read, in part: "Underwriting Opportunity: An evening with the right people can alter the debate," says the one-page flier. "Underwrite and participate in this intimate and exclusive Washington Post Salon, an off-the-record dinner and discussion at the home of CEO and Publisher Katharine Weymouth. ... Bring your organization’s CEO or executive director literally to the table. Interact with key Obama administration and congressional leaders."

Obviously, an instant and major objection is the phrasing "alter the debate." While it's literally true, language like "the right people," "alter the debate," "intimate and exclusive," and finally "$250,000" - the price tag - imply influence peddling, not merely discussion and information sharing.

That aside, is this merely a PR nightmare, or an actual ethics explosion?

In her apology, Weymouth writes "I do believe there is a legitimate way to hold such events."

The article linked above reports that Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School, disagrees. She argues: "The bottom line, so to speak, is not what was said on the fliers about paying big bucks and getting a seat at Weymouth's dinner table. It is that the fliers were honest about the nature of the offering: contacts for cash."

It seems to boil down to the question of whether or not the event is on the record. Because this dinner would not be, it implied that the journalists of the Washington Post were available for purchase - for officials to pick their brains and influence them without direct reportage, and for lobbyists to use reporters to get to officials. Obviously, this violates the ideal of independent reporting.

Weymouth outlines what she sees as the ethically correct approach: "If our reporters were to participate, there would be no limits on what they could ask. They would have full access to participants and be able to use any information or ideas to further their knowledge and understanding of any issues under discussion. They would not be asked to invite other participants and would serve only as moderators."

The opposing view is that any paid off-the-record access compromises journalistic integrity, because it has journalists entering into a financial arrangement with the people that they are covering.

Kanter, quoted above, said, "Let's hope that the Chinese wall between the news side and the business side doesn't crumble under current intense financial pressure as the industry transforms."

I've tended to argue the opposite - I want it to crumble. I think the mitigated, residual, but influential leakage of business concerns still affects the news as it is reported. I believe that a large and powerful news organization such as the Washington Post is better able to insulate itself from those effects, but that when spillover does happen, it reaches further; and that a smaller organization is impacted by more limited concerns but more likely to be forced to consider them.

I agree with a statement from David Bradley, the owner of Atlantic Media, in an internal memo (as reported by MediaBistro's Fishbowl blog): "The imperative, as I see it, is to rebuild journalism on different financial pillars."

In addition to being succinct, this statement is interesting because of what Atlantic Media does. For six years, the company has hosted off-the-record dinners for a price. The memo quoted was written in response to the WaPo scandal, discussing the issues as he saw them: secrecy, motives, the issue of off-the-record, editorial staff involvement and marketing materials.

He wrote, "As the whole of our enterprise surely knows, the economic foundation beneath journalism is falling away. Ten years ago, 55% of The Atlantic's revenues derived from print advertising. Today, that figure is 29%. I think I will be more comfortable, still, when that dependence falls below 20%. The imperative, as I see it, is to rebuild journalism on different financial pillars. One of them, and not inconsequential to us, is events of all types."

I want it to be possible for people with money to give it to journalists. I really do. And I think that sponsored dinners, if handled correctly, are no more influential than running advertising in news pages...and maybe less. How, though, do we ensure that they are "handled correctly" when the doors are closed?

An aside: a critical opinion piece seems to me to have jumped on the bandwagon facing the wrong way, perceiving the victims to be "the citizens of the District of Columbia," as the planned event did not discuss their civic issues. WaPo has significant national concerns as well as local, and if the Examiner would like to see a better approach to those local civic issues, that's fine - but it has nothing to do with this planned dinner. A significant problem when addressing ethics concerns is exploding the ground. Let's deal with one issue at a time, people.

Sunday, July 5th, Washington Post: Publisher Katharine Weymouth writes letter of apology to readers
Sunday, July 5th, Washington Post: Post Publisher acknowledges mistakes
Monday, July 6th, Politico: WaPo launches internal review

Monday, July 06, 2009

The cradle of the nation

The Fourth of July has always been a quietly powerful holiday for me, with various personal meanings. This year, it took on a new meaning - or more accurately, all the meaning it holds for me coalesced, breaking like a wave inside me as I sat on the huge stone block where the First Amendment is engraved near Constitution Hall in Philadelphia.

It started innocently: a friend mentioned he had to drive someone to the airport on the Fourth, and that he was thinking of going into Philadelphia afterwards.

"You know, because that's where it all started and everything," said my friend, who will, after spending two-thirds of his life in the country with a green card, finally become a citizen this year.

"Ooh!" I said. "That sounds like fun! I've never done that."

Despite having moved to Pennsylvania almost eight years ago (the longest I have ever stayed in one state), and despite visiting it often even before that, I've never actually gone to the city for the Fourth.

My father grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and because of that, and his family, I've been coming back to this city for my entire life. I clearly remember a trip around age 7 during which I stood inside the Liberty Bell and traced the crack with my finger. Now, I've been told that no one's been allowed to touch the Bell for decades, so maybe it was a full-size replica, or maybe my tour guide broke the rules big time. Or maybe I had a really, really overactive imagination.

But I went to see the Bell on Saturday, and for the first time read the plaque on the outside of the building. A loudspeaker was delivering the message, and it finished as I read. A little kid darted up to the other side of the window where the plaque is and pressed a button, and a delivery in Spanish started. I was unexpectedly and deeply moved.

The trip started as a lark, but as we were taking our first break from walking, sitting on a bench outside a Quaker meetinghouse, four men in extremely realistic colonial costume walked down the path. I smiled at them, startled, then recognized one of them - Benjamin Franklin. I mean, they were all in great costumes, but this man, body, face, and hair, just looked so much like Ben Franklin that it was like he had stepped out of the past.

Now, Ben Franklin is kind of my hero. He started with nothing to speak of. He showed up in Philadelphia as a starving, broke runaway. He had a year of formal schooling and a few years' experience in a print shop. He was a printer, an entrepreneur, an editor, and a community organizer. He started a hospital, a library, a fire company, a university, an insurance company, and a society of learning - most of these being innovative social contributions, the first of their kinds in the country, or at least in Philadelphia. He had great talent with science as well, which he turned to increasingly after about the age of 40. He refused to take out a patent for the Franklin stove, he said he would never run for public office, although he would take any office offered him, and he was already 50 years old when he started his career in diplomacy. Originally loyal to England, he thought of moving there permanently, but as his knowledge of corruption in the country grew, he started wondering if America should break away.

He was one of the original investigative reporters, discovering letters from a two-faced politician and sending them to the colonies to be published (in the Hutchinson affair). He contributed much or most of the thinking behind the Declaration of Independence. He was seventy when he signed it.

He was the Ambassador to France, where he helped pave the way for the French Revolution. Always ahead of himself, by the time it actually occurred, he was already back in America, writing an anti-slavery treatise.

My father assigned his autobiography to me when I was being home schooled, and he's fascinated me ever since. Any flaws aside, I think he is one of the most remarkable men ever to have lived, with one of the most remarkable minds in the history of humanity.

Seeing my childhood hero in the flesh - so to speak - gave me a sense of wonder that underlined my feeling of connection to Philadelphia, and to Independence Day. Later I found the actor outside Independence Hall and got a picture with him, which made me feel incredibly obnoxious and touristy.

Independence Day represents everything that means the most to me - liberty, equality, freedom, true justice. It's the meaning of my life, really. It's why I'm here - to understand the meaning of those ideals, to protect people who are threatened with losing them, and to help them learn to understand them and protect them in turn. I'm grateful to the people who have died for them, but I want to live for them.