James Fallows and Jay Rosen 12/9/10

December 8, 2010

Thursday night we welcome Jay Rosen and James Fallows to Virtually Speaking. While the conversation will go, as always, where it will, there are three areas I am hoping to talk about, all of them related to how media narratives get framed, sometimes in ways that are downright weird, or even perverse. This is particularly appropriate, because both guests have written extensively about these issues. For me, James’ Breaking The News was seminal in my understanding of the weekly news cycle, and helped inspire the Virtually Speaking Sundays program as a counterpoint to the Sunday morning news shows setting the weekly narrative.

The first story we’ll talk about is the TSA screening story.  It was striking how quickly this  story became about the extreme right wing launching an attack on the TSA as a means of undermining the Obama administration, and even acting against unions, because sometime in the future the TSA may unionize. I found this very strange; I’ve been writing online about security theater in civil aviation for years. James Fallows, who has also been writing about this issue for years,  had a similar reaction, which was especially amusing,  because back in March we had James and security expert Bruce Schneier here at Virtually Speaking to talk about…security theater at American airports and on American airplanes. So we are going to talk about how folks like Bruce, and James, and myself, were turned into unwitting  tools of the Koch empire‘s attack on Obama–at least according to the Nation Magazine, and a remarkable number of my Twitter friends. Jay Rosen was on this story as well–noting in his Twitter stream, in close to real time, that the Nation article represented an editorial failure, in smearing unfairly the most widely publicized case involving the body scanners, James Tyner. Publisher Katrina Vander Heuvel ultimately issued an apology for the Nation’s coverage of  Tyner.  But the shift in narrative, away from civil liberties, and toward an artificial left/right frame persisted.

The second issue I hope to discuss is James’ cover story on coal and the future of energy use.  This story made very clear that a reality-based approach to the world’s energy future necessarily involves a role, a very large role, for coal.  This story threw a monkey wrench into the dominant left wing narrative, which led to some interesting responses from those who felt like James was providing cover for a deadly industry.

Then we will turn to wikileaks. Again, I would like to start by talking about the direction the media narrative took. There was a rapid shift away from the cables’ contents, and what they meant about American foreign policy practices to what digby called “Icky Assange.” Jay had an interesting video focusing on the deeply disruptive nature of the attacks, while James was also addressing the impact of the cable releases.

We are saving WikiLeaks for last because we could easily fill the hour with just that discussion. I have posted other background links earlier.  The zunguzungu post is particularly interesting. And you should check out the transcript of his interview with TIME’s Richard Stengel.


(12/9/10, 7pm EST)

Checking my twitterstream as I prepared for tonight’s program, I see Jay put up a post about one aspect of WikiLeaks and traditional journalism that I wanted to raise tonight.



December 6, 2010

Yesterday, Ombud Artie Brisbane over at the NYT Week in Review closed his defense of the Times using the WikiLeak material with these three paragraphs:

What if The New York Times in 1964 had possessed a document showing that L.B.J.’s intent to strike against North Vietnam after the Gulf of Tonkin incident was based on false information? Should it have published the material?

What if The Times had possessed documentary evidence showing that the Bush administration’s claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were unfounded? Should it have published the material?

These questions, which need only be posed rhetorically, supply an answer to the larger question: Would you as a reader rather have the information yourself or trust someone else to hang on to it for you?

There’s a paragraph missing here, that anybody who has been paying attention would insert between the last two:

What if the Times had possessed incontrovertible evidence, compiled by two of its top reporters, including a Pulitizer Prize winner, that proved the Administration was illegally spying on American citizens using a massive wiretapping program?

One of those reporters, Eric Lichtblau, explained how this came down, for those who don’t remember.

If you’re interested in asking Mr Brisbane, his email is public@nytimes.com


December 3, 2010

I had an epiphany about the nature of blogger pseudonyms and bylines when the Dave Weigel/journolist mess was going on.  But there was so much being written, I decided to let it slide.   Including “Robert X. Cringely’s” post in yesterday’s WikiLeaks entry reminded me.

For those not as old as I am, back when IT trade magazines were printed on paper, the last editorial page, the one facing the back cover, was one of the most widely read, and was often used for industry gossip.  That sometimes turned into a platform that launched a secondary pundit career for the person writing it–John Dvorak comes to mind–which didn’t really do the magazine much good. So what InfoWorld did was create a fake byline, Robert X. Cringely. They eventually assigned the beat to a guy named Mark Stephens.

This attempt to own the byline failed. When Stephens left in 1995, he took the nym with him, eventually restrained by a court case initiated by IDG, InfoWorld’s publisher, to not appear in competing technical publications. This didn’t keep “Robert X. Cringley” from writing for the NY Times, PBS, and various book publishers, including the best-selling Accidental Empires. This reminded me of the post I meant to write back when Weigel was losing his job for things he had written in the past, emailed to a private list.

What I realized is that bylines in newspapers are themselves pseudonyms, that “NY Times reporter Eric Lichtblau” is not the real life Eric Lichtblau, but rather a representation of him that complies with New York Times standards not just of writing practice, but of personal behavior.  That is, Eric Lichtblau cannot do some things in his real life without damaging the NYT’s “Eric Lichtblau” byline. He couldn’t, for example, go to the Jon Stewart rally, because the Times doesn’t want “Eric Lichtblau” to be seen as a partisan supporter of Sanity. (Well, maybe the Times folks had some inkling that the media might be a target of the rally….)

Likewise, liberal “MSNBC anchor Keith Olberman” suffered a loss of credibility when Keith Olberman said he had made an apparently partisan contribution to a political campaign–a contribution that has not been approved by the contractual owners of “Keith Olberman,”who do make exceptions for “personal” donations.  There was much consternation, dismay and protest expressed by KO fans, and MSNBC apparently decided it would be better to put”Keith Olberman” on the air than it would be to punish Keith Olberman further.

It was interesting to read the fans’ comments. (I should note that I have only seen Olberman on video clips on the web passed around by liberal bloggers. Since these are usually his Special Comments, presumably his Most Special Comments, I probably have a distorted view of the program.) One theme was “WTF? Keith is liberal? He supports liberal candidates? Who knew?” which said, pretty clearly, that “Keith Olberman” would not be mistaken for “CBS Anchor Walter Cronkite” anytime soon.

All of this fuss, of course, is a reflection of the problems the news people are having preserving what Jay Rosen calls the View from Nowhere.  It is harder and harder to preserve the fiction that by not voting in elections, not contributing to candidates, and not publicly endorsing anybody that the byline has no personal opinions on the material above the name.

Much of the exposure of the vacuity of the byline is a result of the use of pseudonyms on the web. Many of the most successful bloggers attained their stature based purely upon their prose. No nepotism, no Ivy League fast track, no sexual favors were involved in their becoming very widely read, and very influential on the web–and eventually, in the real world, to point that a self-proclaimed “sucky blogger” is invited to meet with the President.

But bloggers have voices from somewhere!  That’s very much part of the point. They can’t be journalists like Len Downie’s stable of reporters, because they have points of view they don’t even try to disguise. In fact, they sometimes snarkily celebrate their differences from the “real journalists.”

But, of course, the “real journalists” are just the same as blogger personas. They’ve just adopted the clever tactic of using their own names as their pseudonyms.  In the presence of bloggers, this device becomes ineffective; “Howard Kurtz” is pretty clearly not Howie Kurtz.

Marc Ambinder‘s valedictory addresses this:

Really good print journalism is ego-free.  By that I do not mean that the writer has no skin in the game, or that the writer lacks a perspective, or even that the writer does not write from a perspective.  What I mean is that the writer is able to let the story and the reporting process, to the highest possible extent, unfold without a reporter’s insecurities or parochial concerns intervening. Blogging is an ego-intensive process. Even in straight news stories, the format always requires you to put yourself into narrative. You are expected to not only have a point of view and reveal it, but be confident that it is the correct point of view. There is nothing wrong with this. As much as a writer can fabricate a detachment, or a “view from nowhere,” as Jay Rosen has put it, the writer can also also fabricate a view from somewhere. You can’t really be a reporter without it. I don’t care whether people know how I feel about particular political issues; it’s no secret where I stand on gay marriage, or on the science of climate change, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. What I hope I will find refreshing about the change of formats is that I will no longer be compelled to turn every piece of prose into a personal, conclusive argument, to try and fit it into a coherent framework that belongs to a web-based personality called “Marc Ambinder” that people read because it’s “Marc Ambinder,” rather than because it’s good or interesting.

You see the quotation marks, right? And you see that you could substitute “print-based personality” for “”web-based” and change not a thing, right?

Then along comes Twitter. Now you have another threat to the preservation of print’s eponymous pseudonyms, because the Twitter persona is closer to the actual person than the byline nym is. This serves people like Ana Marie Cox really well, because “Ana Marie Cox” has always interwoven the personal with the reporting, but for most reporters Twitter is a minefield. And, sure enough, journalists lose their jobs over remarks made on Twitter.  Octavia Nasr made the mistake of honestly expressing her opinion of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, destroying the credibility of “CNN’s Senior Editor of Mideast Affairs Octavia Nasr.”  But it has become essential for Beltway media byliners to have a Twitter presence, if only to keep up with each other.  So the twitter feeds become, largely, a different representation of the byline nym.  @HowardKurtz only says things “CNN’s Howard Kurtz” would say, and he never, ever responds to questions.  Can “The Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz” coexist with him as well as “Washington Post Media Critic Howard Kurtz”?


Which brings us to  David Carr. He is very aware that @carr2n is not the same as “NY Times reporter David Carr” neither of whom are David Carr:

Carr also tries to balance his personal and professional life on Twitter; this is perhaps the most important element in creating a well-established, brandable avatar. Before he sends out a Twitter message, it almost always passes through his head that he’s a columnist at the Timesand has the ability to damage his professional life. “All the time,” he says.

“It’s a persona,” Carr adds. “So when I’m on the bus, going to New Jersey, if I communicate about that bus and the next week when I’m talking about The Social Network with David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin, I think it provides balance. I think people think I’m less of a jerk, that I’m not always talking about the fabulousness of my life. So I try and provide a rounded portrait.”

That rounded portrait, of course, also extends to his Twitter name – again, it’s “carr2n.” He consciously stepped away from using “carr,” a name that’s still available.

If you asked Ted Nesi, a political reporter with WPRI Eyewitness News, a Providence, R.I., television station, he’d tell you that Carr has curated his image well.

“As a reader, I feel like he manages to combine the authority and seriousness you expect from the Times without allowing himself to become stale or conventional,” Nesi said in a recent interview. “He’s clearly been very quick to embrace new media, as an avid Twitter user and blogger.”

It is going to be very interesting to watch what happens to bylines as they disperse through  different media. The effect of television was reinforcement–the newspaper’s reporter’s persona became still more restricted by both time, and the teevee’s need for broad, bold, polarizing strokes.  The new, interactive social media–even simple engagement with commenters–will make it harder and harder to preserve the eponymous pseudonym.