Monthly Archives: January 2014

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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Aaron Swartz, in memoriam

By Christopher B. Daly 

Thanks to my colleague John Wihbey for this beautiful reminder of the life and work of Aaron Swartz, the Internet activist and transparency advocate who committed suicide a year ago as he was facing excessive federal criminal charges brought by an over-charging, over-zealous federal prosecutor. Wihbey, who runs the Journalist’s Resource at Harvard and teaches journalism at Boston University, wrote in his op-ed in today’s Boston Globe:

His posthumous celebrity aside, two ideas that guided much of his short life’s work are worth considering: academic open access and open government.

A powerful line of inquiry informed Swartz’s thinking: What should be in the public domain, and what might properly remain closed or proprietary? These are not abstract issues: Access to knowledge empowers people in a very real sense — and the lack of access disempowers them. Increasingly, the status of information becomes a question of equality, and a moral issue.

The concept of “open access” was born long before Swartz downloaded that first set of JSTOR articles in fall 2010, but has accelerated since. Research suggests that perhaps half of all new studies can be accessed for free, but important material remains costly. Even large libraries struggle to pay escalating fees from publishing companies.

The Pew Research Center has found that nearly three-quarters of Americans look for health care information online; a quarter of those report running into an online paywall. Only 2 percent end up paying the fee demanded by publishers, often $30 or more for a study. The National Institutes of Health database now houses more than 2 million open articles, but more than 20 million are locked away elsewhere.

Open government was also an area of intense interest to Swartz. He worked to improve access to public-domain materials — for example, downloading and providing free access to federal court records, for which the government had been charging. In the Obama era there has been much hype around open government, yet progress has been halting. A new investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found that the information practices of the Federal Election Commission, a crucial window into our political campaigns, remain woeful. Even good-faith technical efforts, such as Data.gov, have had mixed success.

To honor Aaron Swartz, we should all try to carry on his important work and help realize the promise of the internet for all.

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A new New York Times online

By Christopher B. Daly

Today brings a long-awaited redesign of the New York Times online in all its various incarnations — desktop, laptop, tablet and mobile.

An overall first impression: it’s clean, smart, fast, and user-friendly. A clear winner. 

Screen Shot 2014-01-08 at 11.11.00 AM

To learn more, here’s an article by former Times media reporter Brian Stelter.

Some concerns:

–In the mobile version I am seeing on my iPhone, one screenful displays only 1.5 stories. It feels a bit like following a flashlight beam. I get no sense of the overall news picture.

–I am, of course, concerned about the simultaneous introduction of “native advertising” — which I consider an insidious erosion of the separation of  “church and state” within news organizations. I don’t care that everybody’s doing it. (On the other hand, I was just roaming around the site on my desktop computer, and I saw zero ads of any kind: is that courtesy of my ad-blocker?)

Your thoughts?

 

 

 

For comparison, here’s the way the Times looked when it made its debut in 1851 (price, 1 cent):

The_New-York_Daily_Times_first_issue

 

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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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Surveillance state: The rationale for secrecy is, of course, SECRET

By Christopher B. Daly

top-secret-stampYou may think you are a sovereign citizen of a free country. You may think that “we, the people” rule through elected representatives who are accountable to us. But that would be wrong.

The latest affront to self-government is a ruling issued by a federal appeals court on Friday (beware of Friday rulings). Here’s the background:

Thanks to accused leaker Edward Snowden, we know that the U.S. government runs a secret program in which the government calls on the telephone companies to hand over information about you without a court order or subpoena, even if you are not suspected of any wrongdoing. You were not supposed to know about it, but that cat is now out of the bag.

So, you might want to know where the government gets off concocting such a scheme and how it could possibly square such massive, secret, peacetime spying on law-abiding citizens with the Constitution. Well, too bad. The Obama administration’s lawyers, who wrote a memo in 2010 attempting to justify the whole thing, decided that the memo itself should be kept secret, and President Obama agrees.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and others filed suit seeking to get access to the memo. The government refused. On Friday, Judge Harry T. Edwards said no. EFF can’t see it and neither can we, the people. According to a link-rich story in today’s Times by the redoubtable Charlie Savage, the ruling seems likely to stand.

This is just the latest cause for disappointment in President Obama when it comes to transparency and press freedom. If he wanted to really serve those great causes, he could:

–stop prosecuting and issuing subpoenas to reporters at an unprecedented pace

–stop over-classifying new material as “secret”

–begin reducing the backlog of classified materials that can be de-classified with no harm

–adopt the common-sense reforms recommended by his own task force on surveillance issues.

There are many things to admire about Barack Obama, but his record in this area is not one of them Perhaps it confirms that the Founders were right to be suspicious of executive power per se, regardless of the individual wielding that power. They saw, rightly, that power is by its very nature aggressive, always seeking to expand and never yielding unless forced to do so.

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Abolish the NCAA: Shame on UNC, too

By Christopher B. Daly 

Today’s NYTimes greets the new year with a dismaying (though hardly surprising) story about the ways in which the NCAA extends its corrupting reach into college classrooms. It’s an extreme version of a common imagespractice — providing fluff courses for intercollegiate athletes so that they can maintain their student status even while they are spending all their time in training for their schools’ teams (which are nothing more than farm teams for professional leagues).

This story is particularly dismaying because it involves charges of academic abuse that are so egregious that they caught the attention of a criminal prosecutor. Not only that, but the case involves UNC-Chapel Hill, where I went to graduate school in history, which is actually a images-1fine, serious, and improving university. Yes, it is also an NCAA powerhouse in football, basketball, lacrosse, and other sports that fill stadia and attract national TV distribution.

 

Again, I ask: What educational purpose does the NCAA serve?

In my experience, the practice of intercollegiate athletics not only contributes nothing to students who participate, it also detracts from educating young people. The only educational purpose I can imagine is to serve as an object lesson in what not to do in economics, law, and ethics.

 

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