Risen on press freedom (and our secret history)

George Orwell

“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”

George Orwell

With that epigram in mind, let’s consider the recent experience of James Risen, the New York Times national-security reporter who is battling to stay out of jail for refusing to reveal his confidential source (or sources) in a case the government is bringing against someone else. [That would be former CIA officer Jeffrey A. Sterling, whose case I wrote about last summer in an earlier post.]
In court this week, Risen complied with a subpoena and testified in federal court. He testified that he would not reveal his sources. Well done.
Here’s why what he is doing is so important: Unless reporters find out secrets, they are not really doing their job. Without those stories, we would have next to no idea what our government is doing.
In Risen’s own words (according to the Times story):

Mr. Risen, in the speech last fall at Colby College, noted that many of the most controversial aspects of the government’s response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — drones, waterboarding, secret prisons, prison abuses in Iraq and more — took place in secret.

“If you took away all the things that the press revealed to begin with in the war on terror, you would know virtually nothing about the history of the last 13 years,” he said. He said that the government was less likely to prosecute leaks of classified information that made the government look good, such as the successful mission to kill Osama bin Laden.

“Stay on the Interstate highway of conventional wisdom with your journalism, and you will have no problems,” he said. “Try to get off and challenge basic assumptions, and you will face punishment.”

Well put.

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The Monday Round-up

By Christopher B. Daly 

Happy 2015, dear readers!

For the first Monday of the new year, let’s get things rolling.

From the New York Times:

THIS JUST IN . . .

Times reporter James Risen went into a federal court today in Alexandria, Va., and told a judge under oath that he has no intention of revealing his confidential sources — ever. From the paper’s own story:

“I am not going to provide the government with information that they seem to want to use to create a mosaic to prove or disprove certain facts,” Mr. Risen said.

–BU Professor David Carr holds forth in his Media Equation column about the challenges facing those who operate on the traditional media model of “one to many.” Now, the many are moving toward a media approach that might be called “me to a few.” As usual, plenty to think about here.

–Can anyone write books on a hamster wheel? This piece finds one author.

–Here’s an op-ed that makes a case for the importance of narrative. The writer argues that evidence (and common sense) indicates that when people are sick and go to see their doctors, they want to describe their illnesses in terms of a story. (“My cousin came to visit and brought this infection, and at first it wasn’t so bad, but then . . .”) And I think most patients want to hear a story back from their doctors.

–This story about China’s ideological wars made my head spin. I think the reason (other than the early hour of the day) was the disorienting use of the term “leftist” in the Chinese context. As this piece indicates, if you’re a leftist in China, that means you are a loyal member of the Communist Party and endorse whatever the party bosses dictate. In my view, the term “leftist” refers to someone who supports individual liberties and resists statism, conformity, and bureaucracy, especially when it attempts to crush dissent or diversity. What China needs is a real “Left” to challenge centralized power and spread freedom of thought, expression, movement, and reproduction.

–A 2015 wish list from the paper’s “public editor,” Margaret Sullivan. She has a point, of course, about anonymous sources — which all journalists overuse — but so does her own paper’s James Risen, who is a good example of why we sometimes need confidential sources.

ELSEWHERE:

–On the Media has a special report on the infamous “Torture Report” by the Senate Intelligence Committee. H-t to OTM for keeping the spotlight on this important issue. We shouldn’t let holidays and other stuff take our eye off this ball.

Enough for now.

Peace in 2015.

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Abolish the NCAA (football edition)

By Christopher B. Daly 

It becomes clearer every year around the Bowl season that big-time college football is essentially a farm system for the NFL in which the players are not paid. That’s great for the NFL and for spectators; not so great for the players or the universities they supposedly attend.

From the story in today’s Times:

Never has the sport been so awash in money, a growth industry on campuses that some observers believe increasingly resembles professional football more than higher education.

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Abolish the NCAA (cont.): Alabama edition

By Christopher B. Daly

Now comes news that a major university is throwing in the towel on big-time college football — and this is happening deep in the heart of football territory. Officials at the University of Alabama-Birmingham have declared game-over for football. It simply costs too much. (Not to mention all the other bad results of intercollegiate athletics. If you want to see more, just type NCAA in this site’s search box.)

Students working hard at entertaining others.  (Credit Eli Baylis/The Hattiesburg American, via Associated Press)

Students working hard at entertaining others.
(Credit Eli Baylis/The Hattiesburg American, via Associated Press)

Maybe the NCAA will disappear one sport and one school at a time.

Here is the Times’ version. (Nice touch on that headline, using the verb “spiraling.”)

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Monday round-up

By Christopher B. Daly 

As a service to readers, here is a compendium of recent reporting and commentary about journalism:

–First up, Boston University Prof. David Carr’s latest Media Equation column for the NYTimes. I have to agree: the legacy media are being disrupted to their cores.

Elsewhere in the Times:

–Here is an “Editorial Observer” opinion piece by Times reporter Ernesto Londono, noting the passing (for now, anyway) of a Defense Dept policy of “embedding” journalists with military units in war zones. Well worth reading, from one who was there.

–I’m delighted to see the run-up in the valuation of Vox, a remarkably and consistently interesting online news site, run by CEO Jim Bankoff and led editorially by Ezra Klein. Apparently, investors feel they can bank on Bankoff.

IN OTHER NEWS. . .

Here is a package in the Boston Globe about the experiences three of their journalists are having now, while they are being portrayed by

Globe staffers pose with the actors who will be portraying them in a new film, to be called "Spotlight."

Globe staffers pose with the actors who will be portraying them in a new film, to be called “Spotlight.”

Hollywood for a new feature film about the Globe “Spotlight Team” investigation into the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse of children by priests.

Here is the latest episode of Brian Stelter’s “Reliable Sources” on CNN.

And here is the latest from NPR’s “On the Media.”

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The New Republic: a prime example of “patronage journalism”

By Christopher B. Daly

The New Republic is 100 years old. Yay!

Three cheers for TNR.

One cheer for surviving for a century. (More about that in a minute.)JPNEWREPUBLIC5-master495

One cheer for incubating the careers of many great journalists.

One cheer for being willing to go out on limbs and (sometimes) provoke the audience.

The venerable magazine threw a big party for itself this week in Washington and invited a couple of hundred bold-face names. Just to keep up its intellectual cred, the magazine also celebrated by posting the thoughts of “100 Thinkers” who have appeared in its pages over the last century. But then, in an anti-intellectual move that is just the kind of thing that TNR does to exasperate its readers, the magazine’s editors decided to rank those 100 thinkers rather than link to the best thing those thinkers ever contributed to TNR.

In any case, this seems like an appropriate moment to notice another dimension of TNR’s staying power: it has almost never made money, but it has always enjoyed the patronage of a wealthy person or family willing to subsidize its losses. For the first 40 years or so, it was the couple Willard and Dorothy Straight, who covered an estimated $4 million in losses (back when a million bucks was a lot of money). He was a banker, and she was an heiress to the Standard Oil fortune. For decades after that, TNR was patronized by owner/editor Martin Peretz, who married an heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune. Now, the hole in TNR’s bucket is the problem of Chris Hughes, a zillionaire co-founder of Facebook.

Paranthetically, let me observe that based on my study of journalism history, the patronage model works. In fact, it works about as well as any other — and better than many. TNR has enjoyed the backing of wealthy individuals whose fortunes were based on natural resources, industrial products, and social media.

Here is a sketch of the founding of TNR that I wrote for my 2012 book Covering America. It is told from the perspective of journalist Walter Lippmann, who was one of the foundational hires at TNR and an ocasional contributor throughout his long career.

In the fall of 1913, Lippmann got an invitation to lunch from Herbert Croly, a prominent Progressive thinker and journalist, one whom Lippmann had somehow never managed to meet. Croly, who had been impressed by Lippmann’s debut book, A Preface to Politics, had a proposition: How would Lippmann like to join the staff of a new magazine Croly was

First issue: Nov. 7, 1914

First issue: Nov. 7, 1914

putting together? The magazine was to be smart, literate, and progressive. He could write and edit and make $60 a week. Lippmann jumped at the offer. It was another stroke of good fortune. The magazine, which still had no name, was eventually called the The New Republic, and it became one of the most important journals of opinion and analysis of the twentieth century. The venture had the financial backing of two of the greatest journalistic “angels” of all time, Willard and Dorothy Straight. Willard Straight was a banker in the House of Morgan, but his wife had even more money, as a Whitney and thus an heir to the great the Standard Oil fortune.[1] The Straights never interfered with the magazine’s editorial operations and steadfastly stood by as the New Republic lost money year after year. By one reckoning, they subsidized the magazine by an average of $100,000 a year over 40 years.[i]

Croly’s goal was to “be radical without being socialistic” and to advance the ideas he had propounded in his recent book, The Promise of American Life. In that book, Croly argued that the economic changes brought by industrialization called for a radically new approach. No longer could progressive politics be based on the agrarian ideals of Jefferson; Americans needed a new philosophy to match the times. They needed a program (sometimes called the New Nationalism) that brought the power of government into a new balance with the power of big business. The small, weak central government envisioned by Jefferson could not possibly deal with the challenges posed by companies like Standard Oil or the big meat-packing firms or the sugar trust. Instead, the country needed new agencies like the Interstate Commerce Commission or the Food and Drug Administration, staffed by a new class of expert public servants, that would have the power to police and guide these huge private enterprises. Nostalgia was useless; even trust-busting would not do the job. What America needed was a professional cadre of able but disinterested administrators who could provide leadership in the public interest. This was just the outlook that Lippmann had been moving toward ever since he left Harvard, one that ultimately drove him away from the populists, socialists, and muckrakers of his youth. With his new job and his new views, Lippmann began drifting away from the radical, downtown crowd at Dodge’s salon and began meeting more and more members of the Establishment, including lawyers like Judge Learned Hand and Professor Louis D. Brandeis. He continued to admire his childhood hero, Teddy Roosevelt, even as he began looking for new exemplars of public leadership.

[1] Which was ironic, of course, since Standard Oil was the emblematic target of progressive reform.

[i] Steel, 62.

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Yes, the Times caters to rich readers — and that’s just fine

By Christopher B. Daly

In her latest column, NYTimes public editor Margaret Sullivan expressed a certain angst over the newspaper’s practice of accepting ads for high-end products. To me, this is a puzzling kind of problem for her to have. Who does she think pays her salary? And the salary of everyone else in the Times newsroom? Continue reading

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