Opinion

Jack Shafer

If you must quote anonymous sources, make sure they say something!

Jack Shafer
Aug 14, 2014 21:11 UTC

A decade ago, both the Washington Post and the New York Times conceded that they had lost control of the use of anonymous sources in their pages and each set up new guidelines to police the practice.

Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. promised in a 2004 piece that his paper would “explain to readers why a source was not being named” inside stories, and the Times similarly resolved to tame the anonymous monster.

Both efforts ran out of steam before they even reached pressure, as I and Erik Wemple (then at Washington City Paper) gloated. Ever since, Post ombudsmen (Deborah Howell and Andrew Alexander) and Times public editors (Daniel Okrent, Clark Hoyt and Byron Calame) have rebuked their respective papers for the unchecked use of anonymous sources, but to little avail. The Post no longer employs an ombudsman to wrangle the anonymice scurrying through coverage. The Times‘ current press cop, Margaret Sullivan, still walks the beat with her AnonyWatch feature, which highlights “the more regrettable examples of anonymous quotations in the Times.” She swings a mean stick, but nobody packs sufficient wood to regulate anonymous sources, as a review of the past week’s coverage in the Times and Post indicates.

The Times has cited anonymous sources in at least 25 stories in the past seven days. Behind the scenes, labored negotiations may be governing who gets to speak anonymously in the paper, but from the outside it looks like the Times will give you a mask if you simply ask. In an Aug 5 story about the multi-million dollar deals the stars of The Big Bang Theory just won, the Times attributes its information about the deals to “people with knowledge of the outcome, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the negotiations were private.”

Are not most financial negotiations private, or have I missed public ones conducted at the Hollywood Bowl between stars and producers? By applying such low standards to sourcing, the Times essentially places a placard in its window announcing its availability to any source who wants to anonymously spill details about negotiations. I’m not such a sourcing absolutist that I rule out all anonymity. But if the Times is going to be pliant, at least it can be honest about its pliancy, rephrasing its justification to say, “the sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because the Times always rolls over for them in stories like these.”

All the myths that are fit to print: Why your news feels familiar

Jack Shafer
Aug 12, 2014 22:46 UTC

Has some wise guy flipped a switch and thrown the news into summer reruns?

Everywhere you look in your news feed is a story you’ve seen before. In northern Iraq, conquering jihadists have the Kurds calling on the United States for more help. North Korea is again stating its desire to nuke the White House. A virulent contagion abroad has Americans worrying when it will break out on our shores. And, in a rerun of a rerun, a Gaza war of tunnels, rockets, invasions, ceasefires, withdrawals, broken ceasefires, and shuttle diplomacy is claiming a record harvest of headlines.

At home, Hillary Clinton has commenced another presidential campaign as her party’s presumptive nominee. A new iteration of the iPhone has the press jabbering, and police everywhere seem to be overreacting to imagined threats by killing citizens. Even ancient stories, such as the Rwandan genocide and the start of World War I, have yo-yoed their way back into the news, but only because they are marking anniversaries that end in zero (Rwanda’s twentieth and the hundredth of the start of WWI).

Sometimes the news actually repeats itself, as in the case of Clinton. Such man-made cycles as elections, the Olympics, and wars lend themselves to retreaded coverage, as do the natural cycles of hurricane and tornado seasons, droughts and floods, and summer forest fires. Reporters and editors pack new events into old, familiar templates.

The dangers of deputizing Google to bust child pornographers

Jack Shafer
Aug 5, 2014 23:03 UTC

Illustration file picture shows a man typing on a computer keyboard in Warsaw

“Don’t be evil” — the first sentence of Google’s “Code of Conduct” — has served as the technology company’s corporate motto since its earliest days. But given Google’s role in the arrest late last month of a Houston man on child pornography charges, perhaps we’ve been misreading it. Perhaps the motto is aimed at its customers, as in, “Don’t you be evil or we’ll have you busted.”

Google, obviously, isn’t the first Internet company to alert investigators of a user who might be transmitting or be in possession of child pornography images. Since the late 1990s, the law has required service providers to report apparent violations of child pornography laws. In 2004, for example, AOL provided a tip that resulted in a child pornography conviction. In 2007, Yahoo took similar action that helped earn a child pornography defendant a 16-year sentence. So far, the courts have rejected Fourth Amendment challenges to these prosecutions, and are likely to continue to do so. No credible sources have appeared to denounce the prosecutions as overkill, and I doubt if any will.

The Houston bust, in which John Henry Skillern allegedly sent explicit images of a young girl to a friend via email, comes a year after Google Chief Legal Officer David Drummond renewed his company’s commitment, which he dated to 2006, to expunge child pornography from the Web and identify its traffickers. As the company’s email policies state, “Google has a zero-tolerance policy against child sexual abuse imagery. If we become aware of such content, we will report it to the appropriate authorities. …”

Plagiarists’ real crime? Ripping off readers.

Jack Shafer
Jul 29, 2014 22:19 UTC

A man reads a newspaper in the auditorium before the lectures for the 15th biennial International Anti-Corruption Conference in Brasilia

The plagiarists are back in the news, taking public beatings for allegedly having filed refried copy at BuzzFeed, the New York Times, and the United States Army War College, where Senator John Walsh, (D-Mont.), has just been busted for lifting portions of his 2007 master’s degree paper.

Of course, plagiarists — like shoplifters — are always with us, pinching small and large chunks of stuff that doesn’t belong to them. So I don’t think this week’s news necessarily means that a new plague of plagiarism has descended upon us, only that the law of averages decided to harvest three perpetrators at roughly the same time.

To answer the question of why somebody would commit plagiarism, you would first have to answer why somebody would shoplift. Plagiarism, like shoplifting, is a crime of optimism. Both plagiarists and shoplifters know what they’re doing is wrong. They know the odds of getting caught are high and getting higher, thanks to the advent of search engines and security cameras. They know disgrace will follow, they might lose their jobs, and in the case of shoplifting, their imprudence may earn them jail time. But as optimists, plagiarists and shoplifters ignore the nasty weather awaiting them and sail on, assuming that somehow they’ll outrun the storm.

Dear Mr. Murdoch: Save yourself 80 billion bucks

Jack Shafer
Jul 17, 2014 21:59 UTC

News Corporation CEO Rupert Murdoch waits to testify before the House Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law Subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington

The first time Rupert Murdoch tried to acquire Warner, Ronald Reagan was completing his first term as president, the Bell System break-up was nearly finished, and the first Macintosh had just gone on sale.

Murdoch’s aim was to construct an entertainment-information conglomerate on top of his existing newspaper properties. When Warner (or Warner Communications, as the parent company was called then) spurned his 1984 offer, he promptly went on to purchase 20th Century Fox as his bedrock and from that base built an international company that includes a American broadcast network, 28 terrestrial U.S. television stations, several satellite broadcasting entities, a profusion of cable television channels, an immensely profitable news network, and more.

Thirty years later, the 83-year-old Murdoch is throwing $80 billion at TimeWarner, which recently shed its print properties, for a new reason. Having exceeded his infotainment empire goals, Murdoch still needs to expand his business to compete with other jumbo-sized media conglomerates, such as the No. 1 revenue-generating conglomerate, Comcast — which owns NBC and Universal, and has a bid pending regulatory approval for Time Warner (no relation anymore) Cable — and No. 2 conglomerate Disney, which owns a line-up of properties similar to that of Murdoch. If Murdoch’s No. 4 conglomerate, 21st Century Fox, succeeded in swallowing No. 3, TimeWarner, it would become the new No. 2.

The truth is, you’ve never had the ‘right to be forgotten’

Jack Shafer
Jul 15, 2014 21:44 UTC

An illustration picture shows a Google logo with two one Euro coins

A recent ruling by Europe’s top court has given its people a “right to be forgotten.” Google and other search engines must now delete “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant, or excessive” information from search queries when a European individual requests it, even when the info is true. This isn’t a classic case of censorship: the “offending” pages produced by newspapers and other websites will go untouched. Google and the other search engines just won’t be allowed to link to them.

The court has largely left to the search engines how best to handle requests to decouple the names of petitioners from search results served, which has already produced major confusion, as well as a comically passive-aggressive response from Google, which has received more than 70,000 requests in the opening round, with 1,000 said to be arriving daily. (See this Washington Post editorial for a few examples of people who have succeeded in persuading Google to “delist” certain search results.)

How did a right to be forgotten become enshrined, even in a place as retrograde as Europe? If you’ve lived in a village or even a small town, you probably learned the hard way that privacy has never existed in the original state of nature. Everybody in a small town knows that you drink, how much you drink, and what brand, thanks to that rumor-mongering liquor-store clerk. They know where you sleep at night, who you sleep with, and whether your nights are restful or rambunctious because the local pharmacy tech gossips about your Ambien and Viagra prescriptions. The librarian knows what books you’ve checked out of the local library, the local merchants recall having rejected your overextended credit card, and they all swap this information like chattering birds on a wire.

Twitter panic in the newsroom

Jack Shafer
Jul 10, 2014 22:15 UTC

 A person holds a magnifying glass over a computer screen displaying Twitter logos

With the exception of a well-drafted libel suit, nothing fills the underwear of the modern newsroom editor with liquid panic faster than social media, especially Twitter. Having invested millions of dollars and countless man-hours to erecting sturdy news standards based on fairness and impartiality, they fear that one 140-character message by an editorial employee will ravage the entire edifice.

The panic-fluids ran hot over at NPR this week after a blogger on the network’s education team tweeted, “I reach out to diverse sources on deadline. Only the white guys get back to me :(” The blogger apologized, and to her credit did not place her tweet in the burn bag. Mark Memmott, the network’s Standards & Practices supervising editor, issued a memo to remind the staff of NPR’s social media policy, which he boiled down to this: “If you wouldn’t say it on the air, don’t say it on the Web.”

Personal comments on Twitter or Facebook “can reflect on NPR and raise questions about our ability to be objective,” Memmott wrote. Citing NPR’s Ethics Handbook, he asserted that “nothing on the Web is truly private,” and that even retweets were suspect — and to be avoided! — because they can be viewed as endorsements.

What’s more rare — a unicorn or an Al Jazeera America viewer?

Jack Shafer
Jul 9, 2014 09:47 UTC

 A man works at a desk in the Al Jazeera America broadcast center in New York,

Al Jazeera America draws such a teensy audience — 15,000 on average during prime time, according to Nielsen — that if you dropped all of the fledgling cable news channel’s viewers into a modern NBA arena you’d leave a couple of thousand vacant seats. To place Al Jazeera America’s audience in perspective, it’s less than half of that once attracted by Al Gore’s Current TV, the channel it replaced last August. Ratings leader Fox News Channel pulls in an evening average of about 1.6 million.

Such miserable ratings would be understandable if Al Jazeera America produced its shows on a shoestring, as did Current TV, or if it marginalized itself by broadcasting bonkers propaganda like RT (formerly Russia Today), or if most cable households couldn’t receive it.

But none of those excuses apply. Al Jazeera America’s executives have claimed that the company was spending “hundreds of millions” to establish 12 U.S. bureaus, not to mention the $500 million it gave Current TV’s owners to go away. Unlike the bombastic RT, Al Jazeera America has to date avoided peddling any country’s political line, even though it’s owned by the wealthy Kingdom of Qatar, a hereditary monarchy. (If prizes are a measure of journalistic worth, Al Jazeera has already established its legitimacy by winning two Peabody Awards.) And while not available everywhere, Al Jazeera America can be viewed in about 55 million of the country’s 100 million pay-TV households.

The press reveals its crushes — once the crushes are dead

Jack Shafer
Jun 30, 2014 22:37 UTC

U.S. flag flies at half-staff on the Capitol dome in memory of former Senator Howard Baker in Washington

When prospecting the media for signs of bias, don’t forget to read the obituary pages, where reputations go to get taxidermied.

Because most deaths follow the actuarial tables, newspapers bake and freeze ahead of time the obituaries of the famous and aging, defrosting and garnishing them with final details for serving when death finally claims the subject. Last week, the aged obituaries of former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), who died at 88, were published. Though they might not teem with bias, they illustrate the media crush on Republicans who make deals with Democrats.

If Baker’s obits were theater reviews, you’d have to say he earned raves for being, as the New York Times Page One headline put it, the “‘Great Conciliator’ of the Senate.” The bias on display in the premeditated Times obituary, as well as obits in the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, is not for left or right. Instead, it swings prejudicial in favor of a politician who kept legislation moving.

If I unfollowed you, it’s because you tweeted about the World Cup

Jack Shafer
Jun 26, 2014 20:06 UTC

WC Tweet

At the rate I’m going, the number of people I follow on Twitter will have dropped from 640 to zero on July 13, after the last World Cup match concludes.

I’ve never been sentimental about Twitter, randomly unfollowing gassy and predictable feeds when flooded by their abundant and stupefying tweets, or pruning my list to make room for new voices. I can only assume that other Twitter devotees similarly budget their accounts, otherwise how could one keep up with the traffic?

Last month, soccer enthusiasts simplified the editing of my follow list by tweeting expansively about the World Cup. They published pre-game tweets. They live-tweeted matches. They offered post-game tweets. They tweeted about soccer fashion, about the officials’ bad calls, about the stadiums, other fans, the weather, other tweets, and more. If you’re a heavy Twitter user, you know what I’m talking about.

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