Tag Archives: journalism

A new voice for America

By Christopher B. Daly 

A lot of what the rest of the world knows, thinks, and feels about America is a result of messages they get from the media — from Hollywood, from books, from TV, from the Web. In many cases, the most important medium is radio.

And a lot of the media the rest of the world gets comes from one or more of the global broadcasts subsidized by the U.S. government. That cluster of operations is run by an obscure group called the Broadcasting Board of Governors. This week, the BBG got a new chief executive: Andrew Lack, who knows a thing or two about broadcasting. He was the head of the NBC News division and the chief of Bloomberg News, so he knows how to run large communications operations.

On its website, the BBG says it is an “independent federal agency” (oxymoron alert?) whose mission is to “inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”

Here is the portfolio of the BBG’s broadcasting entities, many of them dating from the Cold War:

–Voice of America,

–Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty,

–the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa),

–Radio Free Asia, and

–the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Marti).

Is this the propaganda arm of the American government? That’s actually a more complicated question than it may seem.

If Andy Lack were asking my advice (which he does not need) about what to tell the rest of the world about America, I would remind him of the observation made by Mark Twain:

Mark Twain

“When in doubt tell the truth. It will confound your enemies and astound your friends.”

[Full Disclosure: I know Andy Lack a little bit because he was the donor who funded the first endowed chair in the Boston University Journalism Department, where I teach. I chaired the committee that searched for someone to fill the chair, and — with Andy’s help — we found David Carr, who now occupies the Andrew Lack Chair.]

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Obama (finally) does the right thing on press freedom

By Christopher B. Daly

It’s tempting to say “Better late than never” about the Obama administration’s recent flurry of decisions to stop trying to intimidate the news media. But they really should have known better and never embarked in the first place on the most sustained campaign to chill press freedom. Stopping an idiotic, wrong, and unconstitutional policy is not exactly cause for celebration. As Obama himself has described his policy in other arenas, “Don’t do stupid shit.”

In the case against a former CIA officer accused of leaking national security secrets to a reporter, the government decided to go after the reporter. That reporter, James Risen of the New York Times, has been living for years under the threat of being sent to jail unless he would swear under oath who his sources were. Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Justice Dept prosecutors would not demand in court that Risen name his source(s). Just this week, the defense in that case said the same. So, Risen is off the hook.

What Holder did not say is important too: he did not say he was sorry to James Risen (which he should do). Nor did he say that he would institute a policy under which no reporter who commits no other crime will be threatened with jail just for protecting the identity of confidential sources. This is still a matter of prosecutorial discretion.

Here is the Washington Post version.

In another matter involving the relationship between government and the news media, Holder announced just yesterday that he is putting in place a new policy under which he will forbid the government from secretly tapping journalists’ telephones or hacking their emails.

Here is the AP version. Here is the WaPo. Here are the AG’s new guidelines. (It takes more than two pages of single-spaced gobbledeegook to fall short of what the founders said in 11 words: Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.”)

These are the right things to do, as far as they go. But they don’t go nearly far enough. The fact is, presidents and attorneys general come and go; prosecutors and NSA agents follow policy or they don’t. What we need to ensure that policies endure past different administrations and have real consequences is a “shield law” passed by Congress that protects journalists nationwide. What we really need is for the Supreme Court to read the First Amendment properly and decide, once and for all, that press freedom extends to reporting.

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The Monday Rdp (Nous sommes Charlie edition)

By Christopher B. Daly 

Like many other people, I adopted the political slogan “Je suis Charlie” last week. As with any slogan, it is a statement that is not valuable for its literal truth. It is valuable for its political message. It says that in a conflict between murderous doctrinaire literalists and peaceful free-thinking artists, I’m always going to be on the side of the artists. Of course, as a slogan, the statement “Je suis Charlie” also flattens the issue and robs it of much of its nuance. That’s too bad, but in a political crisis, some things do have to wait. Last week, the paramount issue was to defend freedom of speech, thought, and expression.

That’s why it was so disappointing that no high-ranking leader of the United States (the country that invented constitutional guarantees of free speech and press) managed to get to Paris to take part in the giant demonstration over the weekend. Shame on us. (This just in: Obama now gets why this was such a mistake. He could have at least dispatched that great avatar of press freedom Eric Holder to the march, since Holder happened to be in France anyway. Sheesh!)

Thousands of people gather at Republique square in Paris, France, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015.  Thousands of people began filling Franceís iconic Republique plaza, and world leaders converged on Paris in a rally of defiance and sorrow on Sunday to honor the 17 victims of three days of bloodshed that left France on alert for more violence. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Thousands of people gather at Republique square in Paris, France, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015. Thousands of people began filling Franceís iconic Republique plaza, and world leaders converged on Paris in a rally of defiance and sorrow on Sunday to honor the 17 victims of three days of bloodshed that left France on alert for more violence. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

In related news, “Mr. Natural” himself — pioneering underground cartoonist R. Crumb, who has lived in France for a couple of decades — holds forth on the politics of cartooning in an interview with the Observer. Unlike most people, imagesCrumb actually knows what he’s talking about here.

Plus, there’s this. Just when you thinks can’t get any crazier, here is an example of the Saudi attitude toward free expression. A thousand lashes! Read this New Yorker piece and ask why we not only tolerate but actually support that government.

Elsewhere . . .

New York Times media columnist and BU Prof. David Carr has two items of interest to readers of this blog.

In his column today, he reports on his recent trip to CES in LV. My favorite line:

Think about it: What better place to explore the world of virtual reality than Vegas, a place where both Venice and New York are rendered as casinos?

And here’s the syllabus for Carr’s spring course at BU on media criticism. Sorry, but I think it’s too late to sign up.

Also worth reading, NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan on the decision all media faced last week about whether to re-print the offending cartoons.

Great photo but not Kyrzbekistan.

Great photo but not Kyrzbekistan.

And on a lighter note, an embarrassing screw-up at the Times last week resulted in the brief birth of a new nation: Kyrzbekistan (which perhaps ought to exist)

Favorite new flavor: The Ira Glass audio story-telling complex has just launched another subsidiary. The newest part of This American Life is a venture called “Invisibilia” — which just has to be heard to be believed. The first two shows blew me away this weekend: one about a blind guy who taught himself to echolocate (like a bat, a dolphin, or a sperm whale) and the other about the power and consequences of our own dark thoughts. Superb storytelling.

Closer to home:

The Boston Globe has re-invented its soft-news/arts section yet again. Gone is “g” — the daily tabloid insert. In its place is a free-standing regular section with different themes on different days. Enh. The print edition looks pretty dreary (because it’s printed), but the online version looks a bit snappier. Much will depend, of course, on how worthwhile the content is. Here’s the editor’s note from Brian McGrory.

And in other local developments, a hat-tip to Adam Reilly, the new regular news anchor on the evening news program produced by PBS affiliate WGBH in Boston. Reilly brings a welcome measure of intelligence, curiosity, and gravitas to a job that really screams for it. His resume includes a degree from Carleton College and one from the Harvard Divinity (!) School, as well as reporting stints at the late Boston Phoenix and WGBH radio and TV.

Keep up the good work!

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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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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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