Kevin M. Kruse has an Op-Ed in today’s New York Times: The Real Loser: Truth. It is about how American politics may have turned a new corner thanks to the Romney Campaign’s gamble that politicians can lie with impunity and come out ahead.
Kruse says what a lot of people are thinking, but omits an important part of the discussion. Where are the journalists, and why are they allowing lies to pass for truth in the public mind? What are the responsibilities of journalists and the press in this context? What is the problem, and how do we solve it?
I won’t comment much on this except to speculate that this may be an example of a state of affairs in journalism where reporters are making sloppy mistakes because the pace of the newsroom, like the pace of everything else in the internet era, is too quick for us to keep tabs on everything as we should. Numerous reputable newspapers and magazines evidently misreported a story based on a reading of the original Saudi headline, without reading the article itself. Al Jazeera English reports: “Saudi Women-Only City? Look Again.”
A lot of local news, especially detailed news about suburban areas, is being outsourced to a company called Journatic, which sometimes uses fake names as bylines, as This American Life recently reported. NPR is reporting on the story in today’s Morning Edition. A good place for the details that are presently available is this story in the Columbia Journalism Review: “Journatic Busted for Using Fake Bylines.” The story within the world of journalism is not that Journatic exists, but just that it is using the fake bylines. To outside observers, the fact that local news is being outsourced and even offshored should be part of the scandal.
Alternatives in Print is a directory of book publishers and critical periodicals, consisting of the former print resources, Annotations and Alternative Publishers of Books in North America (APBNA). Library Juice Press published the 6th edition of APBNA, and the Alternative Press Center has been the publisher of Annotations, the periodicals directory. We have been working together on an online version of these two reference books for some time, and finally have it completed. It will be updated continuously by the original compilers of the directory information.
The website lets you search the directory by title, subject, or keyword, limiting to either periodicals or publishers (or both in the advanced search). The “front matter” has introductory essays about the alternative press. Library Juice Press is very happy to provide Alternatives in Print as a free online resource.
Arthur Brisbane is New York Times Public Editor, a position outside the regular editorial team that is supposed to act as the reader’s representative. Followers of this blog have probably already heard about his recent post, “Should the Times be a Truth Vigilante?, which many readers found maddeningly stupid. Brisbane was asking whether NYT reporters should challenge statements by journalistic subjects that the journalists know to be untrue. Brisbane was responding to broad public discussion about “He Said/She Said” reporting, in which the truth tends to get lost, although he seemed not to realize that this was the context of his post when he followed up on it yesterday. (Ostensibly, he was responding to an op-ed by Paul Krugman published in December, but he must know that the discussion about this problem has been much broader and been going on for a long time.) An informative early response to his initial post was from the tireless watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). (I will also point to a useful note from FAIR about “both sides are right” presumptions at PolitiFact, the political fact-checking blog.) What is so maddening about Brisbane’s question to readers is that it verges on questioning a fundamental principle of the fourth estate as the supporter of the public sphere – to be an independent monitor of power. At a time when traditional journalism is in a crisis for reasons beyond its control, it is difficult to comprehend why the public editor of America’s paper of record would flirt so explicitly with the idea of giving up on that principle that is the source of journalism’s enduring value to people. What it seems to me that he was doing in asking that question was asking the public to validate a journalistic trend that has been in progress for some time, that seems to be born of a failure to stand up to political pressure. The public hates He Said/She Said reporting. I think Brisbane simply miscalculated in his hope that the public would take the paper off the hook by providing a number of useful responses supporting this sorry trend.
I have said in the Library Juice blogging pledge that we won’t write about news topics that other people are writing a lot about unless we have something new to add, so let me attempt to add another angle to the discussion. What I would say it’s worth considering in light of this debate is that issues like this one have been debated from the beginning of modern journalism, and those earlier discussions can offer much to us now. Some recommendations along those lines. First, an article in Acadame, the AAUP’s journal, by Eric Alternman, summarizing the 1920s debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey over a broader question about the way journalism works in relation to democracy. Lippmann held that (even at the time) real policy issues were too complex for the public to understand through a simple presentation of accurate information, and that the main service of journalism is to provide the basis for conversation rather than information, and that this conversation is the real basis of democracy. In the time I spent as a reference librarian at the California Research Bureau providing service to policy analysts and legislative staffers, I came to sympathize strongly with this kind of view, because I saw that in fact public debate was highly simplified and dramatized versus the more sober and technical discussions that go on in the policy sphere, and this was partly because of the orientation of the public toward issues. Dewey’s side of the debate was more idealistic. It may be that journalism’s insiders see this problem partly from the perspective of the policy sphere about which they are charged with reporting to the public, with the result that in the process of negotiating the level of technical detail versus drama that they provide in news, they also negotiate with the level of truth.
An answer to this apology for compromised journalism could be found in many sources, and I will cite a couple of them. First, a book that is dated in its examples but not in its overall thrust: The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation, by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky. This book provides thorough evidence of the the kind of positive falsehoods, as opposed to oversimplifications, often offered by experts and reported unquestioningly by journalists. It is dated, but to the point.
More important, however, is the rich area of work surrounding the effects of the capitalist organization of the institutions that give us the news. From the most recent past era, a cornerstone work is Ben Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly. Though it is from before the internet era, I think it is still essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the core problem behind “He Said/She Said” journalism and related failures (such as that steady stream of PR that makes up so much of what is presented as news). There are other important works related to Bagdikian’s from the same era, including Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent and works by Robert McChesney. Not long ago these books were essential starting points for anyone wanting to think progressively about journalism, but new issues are causing them to fade into the background. It’s time for new to works deal with the same issues in the new media context. But these works and older ones are still important. For an understanding of how far back these market effects on journalism have been a problem, books worth consulting would be Upton Sinclair’s 1919 The Brass Check, which is freely available in various forms; a compilation of media criticism edited by Robert McChesney and Ben Scott, titled Our Unfree Press: 100 Years of Media Criticism; and a new book out by Amy Reynolds and Gary Hicks, Prophets of the Fourth Estate: Press Critics of the Progressive Era. (Full disclosure: Litwin Books is the publisher of the latter one).
I think the historical and political-economic context Brisbane’s question to readers is worth understanding better through some reading beyond the blogosphere, where past work is easily forgotten.
Authors: Amy Reynolds and Gary Hicks
Published: January 2012
Printed on acid-free paper
Prophets of the Fourth Estate: Broadsides by Press Critics of the Progressive Era highlights press criticisms during the Progressive Era (1890-1920) that aimed to enhance the role of the press in a democracy, limit corporatization, and better utilize the press’ capacity as an agent for social change. This insightful history of the press criticism of the era includes selections from the writings of critics of the news media of the time. The press critics discussed and republished in this volume include Charles Edward Russell, Moorfield Storey, Oswald Garrison Villard, Donald Wilhelm, Roscoe C.E. Brown, anonymous editorial writers at The Public and The Nation, and others. Their ideas and challenges to the corporate/commercial press model are as relevant today as they were nearly a century ago.
Amy Reynolds is the Thomas O. and Darlene Ryder Distinguished Professor II and Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Research in the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. Gary R. Hicks is associate professor and chair of the Department of Mass Communications at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Protest on the Page:
Print Culture History in Opposition to Almost Anything*
(*you can think of)
Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture
September 28-29, 2012
Protest has a long and varied tradition in America. The conference will feature papers focusing on authors, publishers and readers of oppositional materials, in all arenas from politics to literature, from science to religion. Whether the dissent takes the form of a banned book by Henry Miller or documents from Wikileaks, conference presentations will help us to understand how dissent functions within print and digital cultures.
The keynote speaker will be Victor Navasky, Publisher Emeritus of The Nation and George T. Delacorte Professor in Magazine Journalism, Director of the Delecorte Center for Magazine Journalism, and Chair of the Columbia Journalism Review. In addition, he is the author of such noted books as Kennedy Justice (1971), Naming Names (National Book Award, 1982), and A Matter of Opinion (George Polk Book Award, 2005). Perhaps best known for his long career as editor and then publisher of The Nation, Navasky has an understanding of dissent and its publications that has few peers. His lecture, and the subsequent reception, will be open to the general public.
Proposals for individual twenty-minute papers or complete sessions (up to three papers) should include a 250-word abstract and a one-page c.v. for each presenter. Submissions should be made via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The deadline for submissions is January 31, 2012. Notifications of acceptance will be made in early March 2012.
As with previous conferences, we anticipate producing a volume of papers from the conference for publication in the Center’s series, “Print Culture History in Modern America,” published by the University of Wisconsin Press. A list of books the Center has produced is available at the Center’s website (http://slisweb.lis.wisc.edu/~printcul/). The best proposals will mirror these earlier works, as they speak to their own authors, publishers, and readers.
For information, contact:
Christine Pawley, Director,
Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture
4234 Helen C. White Hall, 600 N. Park St.
Madison, WI 53706 phone: 608 263-2945/608 263-2900
fax: (608) 263-4849
Daniel Ellsberg spoke at the American Library Association Annual Conference in New Orleans this summer, about the current world situation and libraries. ALA’s Leonard Kniffel followed up with this on-camera interview.
MiT7 was a great conference – intimate, warm, stimulating, interdisciplinary, and cutting-edge. There were some brilliant minds at work. I plan to post a few comments on the conference later. For now, here are links to podcasts from the three topical plenary sessions:
The JTA Jewish News Archive, which is searchable and free for the public to use, was launched officially Tuesday evening with a celebration at the Center for Jewish History in New York.
Highlights of the archive include extensive reporting from Europe in the 1930s and 1940s — including perhaps the first article on what has become known as the Babi Yar massacre — JTA’s reportage on the founding of the State of Israel, close and sustained coverage of the Soviet Jewry movement, and decades of articles chronicling the changing roles and responsibilities of Jewish women.
The attack on NPR during the present budget scare has been symbolic, but for more reasons than one. It’s been observed that the attack is symbolic because the proposed cuts in funding are not a very significant amount of money in light of the Federal budget problems. But the other reason it is symbolic is that NPR isn’t the beacon of non-commercial information that we think of it as being, and hasn’t been for a long time. Corporate sponsorships have paid the bills more and more as the decades have gone by, and the recognition given to the sponsors between shows has become more ad-like accordingly. But today I noticed something that indicates their dependence on big business more starkly.
On Science Friday today there was an interesting segment about a large solar array being built in the Mojave desert by a company called BrightSource. It sounds like a very impressive and smart project. Enhancing the impression of the project’s smartness was Ira Flatow’s discussion of Google, Inc.’s investment of one hundred and something million dollars in the project, their largest investment ever. He wondered aloud why Google would invest so much money in a company that is not doing something related to computers, and proceeded to give a number of good sounding reasons, ending with Google’s considered expectation of “something like a 6% return on their investment.”
I went home wondering if I, too, can invest in BrightSource, and found a press release issued today, the same day as the Science Friday program, titled: “BRIGHTSOURCE ENERGY, INC. FILES REGISTRATION STATEMENT FOR PROPOSED
INITIAL PUBLIC OFFERING.”
That is pretty good publicity work for the IPO, getting that segment on NPR.
I have read enough to know that that is how it works in the commercial news media. Something like 60% of the news we read in newspapers comes in from PR people rather than reporters, and the proportion has grown as newsrooms have cut staff. But I have assumed that NPR, being a public service, is different. Not so much.
There is an very good article by David Remnick in the February 28th issue of the New Yorker about Ha’aretz, the Israeli newspaper that has set the standard for accuracy in news there for many years while also providing the main support for pro-Peace viewpoints among Israelis. If you are interested in the role of the press in a democracy, the fate of newspapers, or the fate of Israel, the article is a must-read. It is called The Dissenters.
Satirist Jon Stewart and activist Julian Assange are symbols of a world without journalism — a largely online marketing-based, consumer-driven world at odds with principles of democracy and freedom.
Stewart is often considered a journalist because he holds people accountable when many metro media outlets no longer do so in their downsized newsrooms. “The Daily Show” does this often by following up on what newsmakers did or said in the past and then comparing that to current, contradictory actions and statements. Wikileaks purportedly holds people and governments accountable. It does so, however, by “WebThink.” Whereas responsible journalists scrutinize motives of tipsters and fact-check authenticity of cables, WebThink just dumps it all on the Internet and lets computer chips fly where they may.
In this brave new media world, you learn about a crisis when it has reached unmanageable proportions, such as happened in the subprime housing debacle at the roots of a recession that has slashed budgets at colleges and universities. And that is why educators everywhere should be concerned about the demise of global journalism, networks of trained reporters and editors generating content on the scene in national and international bureaus. We no longer live nor educate in that world. By elevating access over truth, ours has become a world that reacts via commentary rather than prevents in advance of calamity….