Category Archives: media

What if traffic metrics had been used throughout journalism’s history?

By Christopher B. Daly 

That’s a question that came to mind today while reading David Carr’s latest. In his column, Carr identifies a trend (at least, a trend by journalism standards) of news organizations paying their contributors based on how much traffic their individual “stories” garner. If an item is really popular and brings a lot of eyeballs to the site, the “writer” of the piece earns more money. Conversely, if you write pieces that hardly anyone look at, you get paid less — or nothing.

It all sounds simple and fair and transparent and populist. (This approach puts the “piece” in piecework with a vengeance.)

Only it’s not. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t take into account that journalism has other values besides popularity. Yes, we want readers/viewers, and we want as many as we can get. But we also want to serve our society by occasionally embarking on stories that are so expensive to investigate that they will never pay back any return on the investment of resources put into them. Or, we sometimes work on stories that matter intensely to a small group of people. And, from time to time, we run stories that turn just about everyone off but still make the world a slightly better place.

Let’s consider how a “metrics model” would have served journalism (and the world) over the last couple of centuries.

–The first story about sexual abuse by Catholic priests was hardly a candidate for “most-read” and yet it began a tidal wave of reporting that ultimately rocked the Vatican.

–The first Watergate story (the one with Al Lewis’ byline, on June 18, 1972) had only a tiny fraction of wapo-front_18june1972the readership that the “last” Watergate story 26 months later (the one with the headline “Nixon Resigns” on Aug. 9, 1974)

–Then there was Sy Hersh’s original story about Lt. William Calley and the massacre at My Lai.

One takeaway from those historical cases: some stories need time to build.

–Or what about the columnist Westbrook Pegler? Incredibly popular, but a crackpot who was wrong about everything. His metrics would have crushed the likes of Walter Lippmann (in terms of actual readers, not just people who said they read Lippmann.)

–The first-day stories about the Gettysburg Address barely mentioned Lincoln’s little speech, because (by the lights of the day) it was considered dull and inconsequential compared to the stem-winder of a speech given by the day’s main speaker, Edward Everett. (Who?)

–For a few weeks in 1835, the New York Sun had a wildly popular (and exclusive) story about life on the moon. The paper really racked up eyeballs — until the story was revealed as a hoax. Oh, well. It sure sold papers.

–Or, how about the summer and early fall of 2001? The media were in full cry to “prove” that

Egregious illustration of Chandra Levy.

Egregious illustration of Chandra Levy.

the disappearance of a missing Washington intern, Chandra Levy, was somehow connected to married congressman Gary Condit. (Who remembers them now?) You could look it up: this was a huge story for months in 2001, right up until 9/11. Anyone want to go back there?

Just as some stories need time to develop, some writers need time to develop.

What was Samuel Clemens’ first story, for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada? If he had not been given time to develop as a writer, he would have ended up as the funniest steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, but there’d be no Innocents Abroad (his first big success), not to mention no Huckleberry Finn. What about the first news stories ever written by Ernest Hemingway? Is there a new Martha Gellhorn or Joan Didion chasing clicks today at Gawker?

If we only work on stories that are popular, we might soon become so popular that we won’t matter any more.

The original moonbats.  New York Sun, 1835

The original moonbats.
New York Sun, 1835

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Bloomberg News in China: Pulling punches?

By Christopher B. Daly 

The company known as Bloomberg — founded by Medford native and, oh, yeah, former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg — is really several companies. The one that made Mr. Bloomberg a billionaire is one that makes and sells proprietary terminals that big-time investors use to trade stocks. Mr. Bloomberg also runs a news service that originally just covered business but in recent years has ventured further and further afield until it has emerged as something like a full-service news agency along the lines of the AP or Reuters.

Trouble is, Bloomberg News is a comparatively small part of Bloomberg’s overall business. And when covering news jeopardizes the company’s other interests — by, for example, pissing off the leaders of China — then Bloomberg corporate executives will step in and protect the core business, at the expense of the journalism.

That appears to be just what happened this week, when Bloomberg corporate chairman, Peter T. Grauer, discussed China.

“We have about 50 journalists in the market, primarily writing stories about the local business and economic environment,” Mr. Grauer said in response to questions after a speech at the Asia Society. “You’re all aware that every once in a while we wander a little bit away from that and write stories that we probably may have kind of rethought — should have rethought.”

Translation from corporate-speak: We are not a real news organization that wants to tell the truth no matter what and let the chips fall where they may. Bloomberg wants the chips to fall in his pocket. It’s his company, and he can do as he likes. But no one should be under any illusions.

If a story is true and interesting and you withhold it, you are engaging in self-censorship. If you really are in the news business, that approach, over the long run, is bad for business.

 

 

 

 

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Inside the Meme Factory: Conservatives gin up “studies” to suit needs

By Christopher B. Daly 

Here’s a peek inside what I call “the Meme Factory” — the interlocking set of institutions that conservatives built, mainly since WWII, to manufacture “studies,” slogans, and ideas that could probably not pass muster at most universities or scholarly journals but are very useful to the conservative movement. Briefly, the way it often works is that a conservative funder or activist has a notion. The notion is taken to a conservative “think tank,” where it can be refined, simplified, and outfitted with some academic-sounding “research.” The whole package can be offered to sympathetic conservative “journalists” who work at conservative media outlets like Fox, National Review, Newsmax, Breitbart, etc. Then, when real scholars and responsible journalists ignore it, conservatives can cry foul and denounce everyone else as “biased.”

Today’s case in point: a story in the NYTimes not about this phenomenon but which nevertheless reveals a bit of how this system operates. The story naturally focuses on the latest developments. Igt is essentially a “stage-setter” for a hearing set for Tuesday in a federal court in Detroit over the suitability of same-sex couples as parents. But it’s the backstory that really deserves equal attention:

–To start at the beginning, in August 2010, a federal judge in a different federal court in California writes in a ruling that he found “no reliable evidence that allowing same-sex couples to marry will have any negative effects on society.”

–Alarmed, conservatives swing into action.

–In late 2010, they gather at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, one of the central nodes in the Meme Factory. According to the Times, “opponents of same-sex marriage discussed the urgent need to generate new studies on family structures and children.” In other words, they wanted to commission studies whose outcome was pre-determined.

–Result: “the marshaling of $785,000 for a large-scale study by Mark Regnerus, a meeting participant and a sociologist at the University of Texas who will testify in Michigan.” The money comes from two conservative foundations: Witherspoon and Bradley.

–His study comes out in 2012 in the journal Social Science Research, and conservatives immediately start citing it. No surprise: the study “finds” that children do best when raised by their own straight, married, monogamous parents.

–Scholars criticize his methods and motives, prompting the journal to launch an internal audit of its own procedures. Basically, the folks at Social Science Research need to determine how they got so badly used in this case.

–No matter. The Meme Factory has delivered: a study, a controversy, victim status, and news coverage.

Who says American manufacturing is dying?

Below, as a public service, I offer a version of a work in progress. It’s a timeline of the interlocking institutions that make up the Meme Factory — think tanks and media outlets. You’ll notice that some names crop up again and again: Scaife, Mellon, Murdoch, Kristol.

(Please help me fill in any blanks.)

CONSERVATIVE MEDIA AND INSTITUTIONS

 

A TIMELINE

 

Compiled by Christopher B. Daly

MEDIA OUTLETS

 

Debut              Name                                                   Owner/Founder

(not to mention: WSJ, Chi Tribune, LA Times, US News, Reader’s Digest, Forbes, etc)

1944                Human Events                                        Henry Regnery et al.

1955                National Review                                 William F. Buckley Jr.

 1965                Public Interest                                        Irving Kristol  (folded, 2005)

1967                American Spectator                             R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr./Regnery

196?                Commentary (turns right)                 Norman Podhoretz/

1968                Reason  (libertarian)                            Robert W. Poole Jr.   

1975                Conservative Digest                           Richard Viguerie

1982                Washington Times                              Rev. Moon/Unification Church

1985                The National Interest                         Irving Kristol

1988                Rush Limbaugh                                     Limbaugh/Clear Channel

1995                Weekly Standard                                 Murdoch/News Corp/ Wm Kristol

1995                Townhall.com                                      offshoot of Heritage

1996                Fox News                                                Ailes/ News Corp. (Murdoch)

1996                The Drudge Report                             Matt Drudge

 1996                Free Republic (website)                   James C. “Jim” Robinson

1997                World Net Daily                                 Jos.&Eliz. Farah

1998                Newsmax Media                                 Christopher W. Ruddy  (Scaife)

2001                InstaPundit                                         Glenn Reynolds

2002                The American Conservative (mag)     Pat Buchanan, Taki, et al.

2002                Glenn Beck Radio Program                 Glenn Beck

 2007                Breitbart.com                                      Andrew Breitbart

INSTITUTIONS                 [major donors: Olin, Coors, Scaife, Richardson, Bradley]

1943                American Enterprise Institute                        big business

1947                Regnery Publishing                             Eagle Publishing

1957                Hoover Institution                              ?????/ Stanford

1960                Young Americans for Freedom           William F. Buckley

1961                Christian Broadcasting Network        Pat Robertson

1963                Oral Roberts University                     Oral Roberts

1969                AIM                                                    Reed Irvine

1973                Heritage Foundation                           Paul Weyrich             (Coors)

1975                Eagle Forum                                        Phyllis Schlafly  (radio, Web)

1977                Cato Institute                                      Edward H. Crane                                                                                       (Koch, Olin, Scaife, Bradley)

1977                Focus on the Family                           Dr. James Dobson

1977                National Journalism Center                M. Stanton Evans (Buckley; YAF))

1978                Inst. for Educational Affairs               Irving Kristol/William E. Simon                                                (Olin, Scaife, Richardson)

1979                Moral Majority (thru 1989)               Weyrich, Viguerie, Falwell.

1982                Federalist Society                               Edwin Meese, Robert Bork, Olson

1987                Media Research Center                       L. Brent Bozell III

1997                Project for  New American Century         Wm. Kristol / Robert Kagan 

 

 

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Globe owner John Henry: A man of few words?

By Christopher B. Daly

Former commodities trader and current pro-sports franchise owner John Henry has also owned the Boston Globe newspaper since last summer, when he bought it for a mere $70 million. Since then, he has said little about his plans, his political views, or his philosophy of journalism. That’s his prerogative, of course, but all the readers of the Globe around New England and beyond, may start to tire of his taciturn approach.

Boston-Globe-and-Henry

 

Last October, Henry published a 3,000-word op ed in his own newspaper under the headline “Why I Bought the Globe.” Among other high-minded points he made was this passage:

 

This much is clear: The overriding mission of The Boston Globe will be to ensure that its readers are getting news they can trust. The Globe will place its emphasis on hard-hitting, investigative accountability that readers can rely on. Not only will the Globe seek to hold people and institutions accountable for their actions, we will hold ourselves accountable for fairness, balance, and fact-checking.

Today, reliable information has never been more valuable. A newspaper needs to provide the breadth of perspective and diligent analysis that gets to the heart of what is going on in our world. The Globe will never be the prisoner of any ideology or political agenda.

Our enterprise reporting will shed new light on important issues of the day, with intellectual honesty and discipline. We will provide our readers with the assurance that if they read the Globe, they will know that time, effort, and thought were put into each and every report.

In this way, Henry sounds like many other American publishers who have issued similar declarations upon taking over newspapers: political independence, a commitment to service, a sense of public trust, etc. His statement was similar in spirit and tone to that of Adolph Ochs when he took over the New York Times in 1896. Here’s the heart of Ochs’ declaration:

It will be my earnest aim that The New-York Times give the news, all the news, in concise and attractive form, in language that is parliamentary in good society, and give it as early, if not earlier, than it can be learned through any other reliable medium; to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved; to make of the columns of The New-York Times a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.

Since his op-ed last fall, Henry has said little, other than a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce last month. He has removed the Globe’s publisher, Chris Mayer, and given himself that job. Now comes a bit more insight, in an article from Boston magazine, written by senior editor Jason Schwartz. In the piece, Schwartz reveals that Henry would not grant him an interview, but “instead agreed to exchange emails” — without saying how many. The piece includes interviews from other key players (including Globe editor Brian McGrory) but adds little to our understanding of Henry and his intentions.

One reveal: Henry confirmed that he plans to sell most of the Globe’s property in Dorchester and move the newsroom into a prominent place closer to downtown — a good idea that I have thought the Globe should have done years ago. The sale of all that land should reap at least $70 million, which would mean that Henry got the newspaper as such for free.

Still, questions persist. Here are some I have:

–How can the Globe return to profitability?

–How long will the Globe continue in print?

–When you start to make money from the Globe, what will you do with it?

–Is it important to even try maintaining a separation between the paper’s editorial page and its news pages?

–If you have money to invest in the Globe, what are your top priorities for expanded coverage?

–Is there a comparable news operation anywhere in the world that you admire?

–If you had to choose between watching the Red Sox in the World Series or the Liverpool Football Club in a championship game, which would it be?

BONUS: My estimable colleague Dan Kennedy has written about this same topic today, including a warning about the possible return of Mike Barnicle. Well worth a read.

 

 

 

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Boston Globe owner begins making his moves

By Christopher B. Daly 

It’s no great surprise that John Henry, the wealthy former investor who bought the Boston Globe late last October for less than $70 million, has named a new publisher: himself. This is a step that has many precedents in the history of American journalism. And it makes sense: why spend the money to buy a whole newspaper if you don’t plan to run it?

The more interesting development announced by the Globe is that the paper will have a new CEO: veteran ad man Mike Sheehan. A longtime executive with the Boston advertising powerhouse Hill Holliday, Sheehan now takes on the responsibility for making enough money to rebuild the Globe’s reporting strength to the point where it can fulfill its goal of being a robust regional news organization.

Personally, I wish them all the luck. Get cracking, do good work, and start hiring more journalists.

Here's the Globe's caption on this double portrait: John Henry (left) and Mike Sheehan hope to boost ad revenue at the Globe.

Here’s the Globe’s caption on this double portrait: John Henry (left) and Mike Sheehan hope to boost ad revenue at the Globe.

 

 

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Surveillance state: NSA chief sees threats everywhere

By Christopher B. Daly 

In what universe does it make sense that DNI James Clapper still has his job?

He should have been charged with contempt of Congress for lying under oath and sacked by his boss, President Obama. Instead, there he was yesterday testifying to Congress.

He used the platform Congress gave him to denounce Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who spilled the beans on the illegal and questionable programs and tactics run by imgres3our intelligence agencies. Of course, he blamed Snowden for serious but vague damage done to America. On examination, what he really means is that Snowden made life difficult for our spy agencies. Whether he caused any other kind of damage is unclear. (transcript, anyone?)

To quote the Times:

Mr. Clapper did not give specific examples to bolster his assessment about the damage Mr. Snowden had done. He also did not say whom he believed Mr. Snowden’s accomplices to be.

But he wasn’t finished. Turns out, he sees “threats” everywhere. There are bogeymen all over Asia, the Mideast and Africa. Everywhere he looks, he sees nukes, bio-chem weapons, conspiracies, and an ever-mutating array of threats. Most of these threats are either hypothetical, localized in some faraway place, or intramural disputes between people who are no friends of ours. At the risk of sounding like some kind of neo-isolationist (which I am not), I have to observe that almost none of the threats hinted at by Clapper involve real, credible, imminent attacks on the territory of the United States.

But that’s not the standard for our military-intelligence complex. There, the issue is whether someone presents a threat (of any kind) to something known as “American interests” — a term that has no specific definition. It is so vague and all-encompassing that it could mean almost anything — a kidnapping threat against a U.S. citizen anywhere in the world, for example, or an apolitical piracy operation that menaces U.S. shipping anywhere in the world.

The fact is, not every problem in the world is an American problem, and not every problem in the world has an American solution. But if you are seeking to justify the existence of your agency and get more money for your budget, it behooves you to play up all these “threats.”

Thanks to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, who has emerged as the great skeptic in Congress. (He’s the one Clapper lied to, face to face, last year.) At this week’s hearing, Wyden

said that the dealings between spy agencies and their congressional overseers were crippled by a “culture of misinformation.”

Speaking of executive actions, this is one problem Obama could solve today, without needing an act of Congress. Fire Clapper.

 

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MEDIA: David Carr has seen the future

By Christopher B. Daly 

And the future for journalism is . . .

  DIGITAL. . .

                                           PROFITABLE . . .

                                                                 AND HERE NOW!

Focusing on the recent decision by Ezra Klein to decamp from the old-school Washington Post

Ezra Klein, pointing to his major asset.  AP photo

Ezra Klein, pointing to his major asset.
AP photo

when the legacy medium could not accommodate his demands, Carr sees an array of “digital natives” who are managing to do good (or at least decent) journalism and make money at the same time.

 

If true, three cheers for those on-line winners!

 

Here’s Carr’s take:

In making the switch, Mr. Klein is part of a movement of big-name journalists who are migrating from newspaper companies to digital start-ups. Walter Mossberg and Kara Swisher left Dow Jones to form Re/code with NBC. David Pogue left The New York Times for Yahoo and Nate Silver for ESPN. At the same time, independent news sites like Business Insider, BuzzFeed and Vox have all received abundant new funding, while traffic on viral sites like Upworthy and ViralNova has exploded.

All the frothy news has led to speculation that a bubble is forming in the content business, but something more real is underway. I was part of the first bubble as a journalist at Inside.com in 2001 — an idea a decade ahead of its time — and this feels very different.

The web was more like a set of tin cans and a thin wire back then, so news media upstarts had trouble being heard. With high broadband penetration, the web has become a fully realized consumer medium where pages load in a flash and video plays without stuttering. With those pipes now built, we are in a time very similar to the early 1980s, when big cities were finally wired for cable. What followed was an explosion of new channels, many of which have become big businesses today.

Still, some things don’t change all that much. As Carr points out, it still takes some serious money (about $25 million, he says) to launch a big site, and it takes time (5+ years, he estimates) to work out the kinks, find your audience, build a staff, and earn a reputation for being worth a visit.

[FULL DISCLOSURE: David Carr is no longer just the most influential columnist writing about media and the web, but he is also a new colleague of mine on the Journalism faculty at Boston University, where is the new, inaugural Andrew Lack Professor in the economics of journalism.]

 

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New biography of Roger Ailes

By Christopher B. Daly 

Looking forward to reading the new biography of Roger Ailes, the driving force behind Fox News, by Gabriel Sherman. It sounds like this is the one worth waiting for, rather than the earlier version published last year by Zev Chafets, which had Ailes’ cooperation (which can only mean one thing).

Sherman, a contributing editor at New York mag (and Newton, Mass. native), has been working on this book for years, and he certainly has the journalistic credentials to pull it off.

Today’s story in the Times features this quote from Ailes:

“I want to elect the next president.”

As if that were a shocking ambition for a news executive. The same could have been said of Benjamin Bache at the Philadelphia Aurora in the election of 1796 or of Henry Raymond of the The New-York Daily Times (as it was originally known) in 1856 or William Randolph Hearst every year from 1896 to his death in 1951. American publishers and broadcasters have usually seen themselves as king-makers (it not candidates, a la Hearst). It appears to be one of the major appeals of the job.

Another curious passage from today’s story:

Last year, lawyers from Fox News met with lawyers from Random House to discuss Mr. Sherman’s book. Fox requested the meeting because it had heard about allegations that might be in the book that it said were inaccurate, and to emphasize that the book had not been fact-checked by Fox News.

Well, why would the book be “fact-checked by Fox News”? It should be fact-checked by its own publisher, Random House, not the subject. Isn’t that the essence of editorial responsibility? Sheesh.

Fun fact: Ailes is quoted as calling Bill O'Reilly "a book salesman with a TV show."

Fun fact: Ailes is quoted as calling Bill O’Reilly “a book salesman with a TV show.”

Photo: Brian Ach/Associated Press Images for The Hollywood Reporter

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Partisanship in journalism: a discussion

By Christopher B. Daly

For readers’ convenience, I am posting some material that airs out the issue of partisanship in the news media. In sequence, here are:

1. A NYTimes invitation to a Sunday Dialogue, a feature of the paper’s Sunday Review section in which readers are asked to respond to a short essay.

2. My reply as published on Dec. 7, 2013.

3. A thoughtful email that I got from a reader, who gave me permission to post his ideas here.

4. The Sunday Dialogue replies by people other than me.

5. The original author’s reply to the replies.

6. My reply to that reply.

08letters-articleLarge

 

How Fox News, MSNBC and others present the news.

 To the Editor:

An autobiography gives an intimate account of a life, but to get the larger picture, you also need the biography.

The same goes for news. Relying on one source, or even on several sources with the same bias, will leave you with only part of the story.

That’s why the much maligned right-wing media is just as important as the so-called mainstream press. Fox News and others on the right certainly have a deeply embedded conservative bias, but the liberal bias on the other side is just as pervasive. Taken together, they roughly fill each other’s omissions.

Fox, for example, spent a good part of the past year digging into the Benghazi attack and I.R.S. tax-exempt status stories and talking hopefully about smoking guns, while the mainstream press was determined to take the Obama administration’s word for it that it did nothing wrong in either case.

More recently, when the president’s pronouncement about keeping your health insurance proved false, it was reported as a lie by the right and as a simple misstatement by the left.

And when the Obamacare website failed so miserably that not even the mainstream press could cover for it, the networks were obliged to sound like Fox for a while, although noticeably lacking was the appetite for pursuit that characterizes their coverage of Republicans.

Fairness in journalism requires not that every story or point of view receive equal weight but that every valid position receive equal respect. Thus the pro-life position should be treated with the same validity as pro-choice; small-government conservatives with the same respect as tax-and-spend liberals; Republicans as more compassionate than they sound and Democrats as less omniscient than they think.

But since journalists and news organizations are partisan at heart, one must sift through the best reporting and punditry from each side of the journalistic divide and take all the biases and agendas into account to arrive at an informed understanding of any story.

MARK R. GODBURN
North Canaan, Conn., Dec. 2, 2013

The writer is an antiquarian bookseller.

Here’s my comment:

In his lament about bias in the news media, Mr. Godburn assumes that unbiased journalism is possible and desirable. History suggests otherwise.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, American journalism was highly political, often polemical and openly biased. That was the kind of journalism in which the likes of Sam Adams and Thomas Paine gloriously argued for liberty, and it was the form of journalism that was on the founders’ minds when they enshrined the doctrine of a free press in the First Amendment.

Only later, beginning with Benjamin Day’s Sun newspaper in 1833, did American journalists begin to develop a strong tradition of factual reporting. In part, this was the result of Day’s ambition to sell his paper to every reader (“It Shines for All”) and not limit his audience to members of any one political party.

In the 20th century, the major broadcast network news divisions, first in radio and then in television, reinforced this idea. They not only wanted the highest possible ratings, but were also operating as publicly traded corporations and were regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.

Nowadays, from within the turbulence of the digital age, we can begin to see that the years when big media companies were purveying what they described as nonpartisan, factual reporting were actually a historical period that is already fading into the past. The Internet has reinvigorated the “advocacy tradition” in journalism, and it has also made possible new forms of reporting such as crowd-sourcing, reporting that enlists the audience and the like. The spirit of innovation lives.

CHRISTOPHER B. DALY
Boston, Dec. 4, 2013

The writer is a professor of journalism at Boston University and the author of “Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism.”

Here’s the email I got from blogger Steve Claflin:

Professor Daly:

Thank you for “Partisanship in the Media” in the December 8 New York Times letters.

The revived “advocacy tradition” problem you mention might be easier to manage if we had a form of majority rule that allows the general public to have more influence.

In the old days, the House was able to vote on any bill and the majority would prevail. Until an important bill recently passed by a wide margin, a Tea Party minority could usually intimidate other members, especially the Speaker, and prevent legislation that would easily pass from even getting to the floor. The minority party in the Senate can routinely block action on bills, because minority rule is built into Senate procedures. 60 votes are needed, with the help of a fickle minority, to pass legislation.

Is there anything more vital to democracy than majority rule? Is this what distinguishes democracy from autocracy? Is this what a democracy needs in order to succeed? We have the elections we normally associate with a democratic process. We reassure ourselves by going through the motions.

But the active ideological minorities in Congress, and the members who are owned and operated by special interests that donate large sums of money, are repeatedly able to slow or block or derail changes those few oppose and the rest of us generally favor. As such repeated occurrences so rudely remind us, we can have the structure, the trappings, the proceedings, the appearance of democracy without having majority rule.

Here are the other comments published in the Times:

Readers React

In an ideal world, graced by Enlightenment ideals, Mr. Godburn’s recommendation that citizens sift through biases of diverse news media outlets to form a complete perspective would be warmly endorsed. However, in this far-from-ideal world, individuals live in media echo chambers, selecting out viewpoints that agree with their own and sometimes avoiding conflicting ones.

Research finds that conservatives gravitate to Fox News and liberals to MSNBC — as well as to like-minded websites. A Pew Research Center study reported that from August to October of 2012, just 6 percent of Fox News’s election stories about President Obama were positive, while only 3 percent of MSNBC stories about the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney were positive.

Exposure to biased media strengthens partisan biases, exacerbating political polarization rather than producing the more informed understanding that Mr. Godburn desires.

RICHARD M. PERLOFF
Cleveland, Dec. 4, 2013

The writer is a professor of communication at Cleveland State University.

I read The New York Times every morning. I also watch more MSNBC than I like to admit. Occasionally, for entertainment, I’ll wander to Fox for a Bill O’Reilly moment or two.

Mr. Godburn’s thesis is an example of false equivalence. The Times is real journalism. But even The Times sometimes stretches too far in the service of “journalistic objectivity.” When one perspective is true and the other is propaganda, they should not be presented as equally valid.

As to MSNBC and Fox: The MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, for example, is surely dramatic. But I have never encountered an instance in which she was fundamentally dishonest. On the other hand, Fox is frequently and outrageously untethered from the truth, and its talking heads are attack dogs. Anyone consuming equal doses of this “news” will have intellectual indigestion.

If you bend over too far in the effort to be balanced, you’ll fall flat on your face.

STEVE NELSON
New York, Dec. 4, 2013

Well said, Mr. Godburn. Political correctness and a pervasive left-wing media bias are corrosive and do immense harm to the democratic process. People eventually find out that they have been misled. This breeds cynicism and mistrust. The left and the right learn to develop their own separate versions of the “truth.”

But while most right-wing news sources acknowledge their bias, those on the left deny their bias. Left-wing news sources are suffering a fallout in ratings because people are waking up to these facts and don’t like being manipulated.

FRANK COOK
Wayne, Pa., Dec. 5, 2013

Mr. Godburn makes a telling point, but he doesn’t go nearly far enough. His assertion that liberal and conservative news outlets “roughly fill each other’s omissions” assumes that there are exactly two reasonable points of view toward any given social issue; that these viewpoints are locked in a zero-sum game whereby each one can be validated only to the degree that the opposing one is impeached; and that they happen to correspond to the platforms of our two leading political parties.

Both parties are only too eager to promote this theory themselves, since it implies that together they have a monopoly on the truth. So a responsibility of both a free press and its readers is to examine both contrary viewpoints critically and consider other viewpoints — a third, fourth or fifth perspective — that have not been embraced by either side.

THOMAS LEITCH
Newark, Del., Dec. 4, 2013

Balanced news media is essential in any democracy. But let’s remember what brought us to the present situation — the 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which required the airing of contrasting views on public issues, and the loosening of regulations on media concentration, allowing many media outlets to fall under the control of a few corporate-owned conglomerates.

Both have created a situation in which media is not only biased and unbalanced, but overwhelmingly influenced by the opinions and wishes of its corporate masters.

DOMINIC QUINTANA
Astoria, Queens, Dec. 4, 2013

Having recently returned from a trip to Brussels, I found the evening news there to be refreshing and professional. One subject wasn’t beaten to death 24/7 as it is here. You didn’t have to flip from channel to channel to see the “whole” picture, and the news was international in nature. In the United States you rarely hear about what is going on in Africa, Australia and, actually, most of the world.

It is a shame.

BONNIE CHALEK
Ridgewood, N.J., Dec. 4, 2013

I agree with Mr. Godburn that we need different perspectives. I would like to point out that Fox News is the No. 1 news source in America. Surely, that should qualify Fox as “mainstream.”

Studies have also shown that, for many Americans, Fox News is their only source of news. Those viewers are getting a slanted perspective — not balance. Defenders of Fox News often portray it as an underdog struggling to have a voice in the crowd of “mainstream” outlets, but that depiction simply isn’t consistent with its ratings.

I commend Mr. Godburn for admitting that news outlets he identifies as left-leaning did report on the problems with Obamacare. I find that so-called left-leaning news outlets, including The New York Times, are frequently critical of Democrats and their policies.

Mr. Godburn would have a much more difficult time finding comparable examples of Fox News criticizing the G.O.P. — except perhaps when it criticizes moderate Republicans for not being in lock step with the rest of their party.

TOBY PLEWAK
Easton, Mass., Dec. 4, 2013

It may be a fool’s errand to think that we can overcome media bias. The media is ultimately a collection of voices of various people, who generally stick to certain biases and opinions. The answer instead may be to encourage media outlets to be more forthcoming about their biases.

If we, as media consumers, know that a mainstream news outlet typically holds a certain viewpoint, then we can take in the news with a better understanding of what information may be missing or may be shaded one way or another. As it is, given the rather obvious political positions held by certain newspapers and television news divisions, many of us have already begun interpreting the news in this way.

MATTHEW K. KERFOOT
New York, Dec. 4, 2013

Here is Godburn’s last word:

The Writer Responds

Professor Perloff reinforces my point by noting that conservatives gravitate to right-leaning news sources and liberals to left-leaning ones, often without being exposed to contrary views or inconvenient facts.

But then he says that going to such biased sources only exacerbates the problem, as if he thinks there are reliably unbiased sources that one can go to instead. There are not, and that is why it is necessary to mine a variety of biased ones.

Mr. Nelson engages in the cheap liberal tactic of Fox-bashing. If Fox’s talking heads are attack dogs, they are poodles compared with the pit bulls he favors at MSNBC. Simply calling one’s favored sources true journalism and the other side propaganda doesn’t make it so. And if too much news causes intellectual indigestion, too little causes intellectual blinders.

Mr. Leitch is correct that there are more than two points of view. And examining all of them will not necessarily allow one to arrive at some desired middle ground. Just because you have one foot in hot water and the other in cold doesn’t mean you’re comfortable.

Professor Daly’s claim that I assume unbiased journalism is possible and desirable may have been a good lead-in for his journalistic history lesson, but that’s not what I said. The problem is not that journalists are biased — it’s that they claim they aren’t.

MARK R. GODBURN
North Canaan, Conn., Dec. 5, 2013

And, of course, since this is my blog, here’s my final, final word:

I will grant that maybe I misread his original post. When he wrote that all journalists and news organizations are partisan at heart, I thought he considered that a flaw. Perhaps inevitable, perhaps correctable (by reading multiple sources from different perspectives) but still a problem. If he says he doesn’t think so, then who am I to argue? I would say that many people (including a lot of journalists) do consider partisanship some kind of original sin of journalism.

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Surveillance State: An old-school leak of FBI docs

By Christopher B. Daly

History keeps happening.

Thanks to a new book by former Washington Post journalist Betty Medsger called The Burglary, 51HydAvzamL._AA160_Americans can now see another example of principled, patriotic, non-violent dissenters who made America a better place by risking jail to bring important truths to light. The New York Times has a good story today about it, including a terrific video. More is at NPR.

To set the scene:

–It was a time in American history when we were fighting an undeclared war halfway around the world.

–We were fighting against people whose history, culture, and language we did not understand.

–We could not tell friend from foe.

–With each passing year, the insurgency grew stronger and we never managed to “pacify” any territory.

–American citizens tried to stop the war and were castigated as disloyal, unpatriotic.

–The government engaged in a secret, illegal campaign to find and crush people it considered terrorists.

The year was 1971, at the height of the American war in Vietnam, not 2003 or 2004, at the height of the U.S. “war on terror.” (Instead of al Qaeda, the FBI was targeting domestic “terrorists” like the Weathermen and the Black Panthers) After years of peaceful protests, a small group of anti-war activists decided to try a new tactic: break into an FBI office, remove the files, and divulge the secret contents to the news media.

Here is a template for national security leakers. The break-in described in the new book took place in the Philadelphia suburb of Media, Pa., on March 8, 1971. That very same week, Daniel Ellsberg made his first contact with New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan to discuss divulging the massive secret files that became known as the Pentagon Papers. In both cases, people who found that they could not change policy through normal politics and who could not legally blow the whistle on wrongdoing decided to go outside the law — risking prosecution and jail — in the hope that disclosing secrets would lead to a desirable change.

The comparisons to Edward Snowden are obvious. As a contract employee for the NSA, Snowden learned that the government has built a vast spying operation since 9/11/01 that includes secret top-secret-stampsurveillance of millions of law-abiding Americans in peacetime and that officials hid and lied about.

The anti-war burglars in the Media FBI break-in hurt no one and did almost no property damage (they had to jimmy a lock to get in). As a result of their disclosures, no one died and the sky did not fall. Instead, the disclosures added fuel to the anti-war movement and provided vital clues to the wider disclosures that led to the Church Committee investigation and reforms.

In the Media break-in, the only apparent crime was simple burglary, and the statute of limitations expired long ago. So, there is no question of penalties as these American heroes emerge from the shadows.

 

 

 

 

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