Opinion

Jack Shafer

Bloggy Monday: McGinniss’s anonymous sources; Netflix switcheroo; ask an expert; FOIA turnaround.

By Jack Shafer
October 10, 2011

Alaskan anonymice. Joe McGinniss got knocked by reviewers—me included—for relying so heavily on anonymous sources for his new book, The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin. Today he strikes back at his critics in the opinion pages of USA Today, citing Bob Woodward, New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson, and Huffington Post media reporter Michael Calderone on why journalists must get anonymice to squeak about the powerful if they’re going to get the story.

In mounting his defense, McGinniss lunges for the “speaking truth to power” clichĂ© and hugs it as if he’s drowning and it’s the only safety buoy bobbing in sight. In the case of McGinniss’s coverage of Palin, who resigned from the office of governor in July 2009, the more appropriate catch phrase would be “speaking truth to those out of power.” Since 2009, Palin has held little power outside of her TV appearances, her reality TV show, her two best-selling books, her sporadic bus tours, and a threat to run for president. By such a wobbly yardstick, even Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich can almost be considered “powerful.”

McGinniss brags in the op-ed that he interviewed about 200 people in Alaska and quoted more than 60 in the book. As I read The Rogue, I kept track of the number of anonymous sources that he cited and came up with more than 50. It seems to me that a book that isn’t about national security or whose information isn’t cocooned beneath a corporate veil, such as The Rogue, should have had a better ratio than 60 named sources to 50 unnamed ones. McGinniss builds the case in his book and his op-ed that Sarah and Todd Palin deal vindictively with people who cross them, although to the best of my knowledge none of their victims have been fished out of Cook Inlet.

It doesn’t bother me that McGinniss relied heavily on anonymous sources for reporting his book but it does bug me that he gave them such voice and prominence in the telling of his story. Just because an anonymous source says something doesn’t make it true; just ask Judith Miller. In many cases, anonymous sources have less of an incentive to tell the truth than someone speaking on the record because they know nobody is going to find them out. Also, on-the-record quotations are easier to verify than anonymous ones. McGinniss knows this. Must I go on?

As for McGinniss’s USA Today kicker—”And let’s remember, without Deep Throat, there wouldn’t have been any Watergate hearings, and Richard Nixon would never have resigned”—this is absolutely wrong. Deep Throat wasn’t the essential source that broke the Watergate story, as W. Joseph Campbell (and others) have reported. McGinniss could pick up a copy of Campbell’s 2010 book, Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism or click through to this piece on Campbell’s blog. As Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein write in All the President‘s Men, Woodward’s discussions with Deep Throat were “only to confirm information that had been obtained elsewhere, and to add some perspective.”

Netflix switcheroo. Having named his DVD rental service “Netflix” instead of “PostalFlix,” company founder Reed Hastings consciously telegraphed the electronic future of his company. So, having contemplated this transition from the beginning, how could he so completely bollix the decision to halve the company into two entities, Qwikster for DVDs and Netflix for streaming, and then today announce that he’s stitching the twins back together and calling his one big baby Netflix again?

I can’t think of any parallel in business history that compares to the Netflix debacle. Hastings’s mistake was to bundle a new service—video streaming—into the Netflix classic product in 2007 and charge no additional price as long as subscribers didn’t exceed defined viewing thresholds (six hours for $5.99 a month subscribers and 18 hours for $17.99 a month subscribers). Netflix is a flat-rate viewing service, Hastings actively signaled to his customers.

Had Hastings charged a nominal extra sum for streaming from the beginning, indicating to customers he was launching a second, new product that he was discounting to his DVD customers, few would have griped. That would have left him free to increase the streaming fee as the size and quality of his streaming library grew and as he expanded the number of hours of streaming per customer. I don’t recall any cable TV subscribers threatening to bomb Comcast offices when pay-per-view was introduced as a separate, paid product decades ago.

People don’t really protest for long if you start charging for something that was once considered free, just as long as you haven’t mistakenly bundled it with a paid product. Take, for example, the low resistance to the New York Times‘s recent imposition of a pay wall for its Web site. The Times could have pulled a Netflix and split itself into two different products—the paper edition and the Web edition—and started charging separately for each. Instead, it started charging for the free service—targeting the excessive free-riders who had no moral right to object to the shakedown—but left undisturbed its relationship with paid print subscribers, who were encouraged to use as much of the Web edition as they like.

Although he’s killing Qwikster, Hastings is still sticking to his previously announced price increases, which is what most riled his customers in the first place. The company won’t restore its relationship with its customers until they accept the higher prices as normal—and with $1 a night rentals at Redbox and online alternatives at Amazon, iTunes, and Hulu, that won’t be soon.

Ask an expert. This week’s installment of “Ask an expert” taps political reporter David Weigel, my former colleague at Slate. Hey, Dave, what’s the biggest difference between the Tea Party movement and Occupy Wall Street? Dave’s answer: “The Tea Party, from the outset, had a satisfactory political outcome in sight/mind. Namely, beating Obama and winning Congress.”

FOIA update. On Sept. 22, I wrote a piece about the critiques of Al Jazeera the State Department and the Defense Intelligence Agency wrote in 2005 and whose existence were revealed in diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks. I filed FOIAs the next day with both State and DIA requesting copies of those critiques, which the cables say a State Department officer shared with Al Jazeera, and promised to keep you up to date on the FOIA process.

Today, the State Department confirmed via the U.S. Mail that it had received my request and would notify me after it had retrieved and reviewed the material.

Nice turnaround, State! That’s 10 working days! Now, get on the case, DIA! (For RSS updates on my FOIA request, add this to your feed.)

******

The DIA will probably deliver its response with a drone. Send yours via email to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. I stream all day on my Twitter feed. (This RSS feed rings every time a new Shafer column goes live. This hand-built one rings every time a correction is filed.)

PHOTO: Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is reflected in the window of her SUV in Portsmouth, New Hampshire June 2, 2011. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Comments
One comment so far | RSS Comments RSS

If I were you, Jack, I’d fact-check to see if maybe McGinnis was monkeyfishing up there in Cook Inlet with Sarah and Todd. You are the last person on the planet I would think would bother to keep count of anonymous references in a piece. Are you OCD…or just previously burned?

And Jack….did you actually say this: “Also, on-the
-record quotations are easier to verify than anonymous ones.”? I’m going to write that one down. Great insight. There’s no foolin’ you, Jack. You da pro! You betcha.

Jack Shaffer analyzing Palin palaver! Heady stuff. Reuters sure is getting its investment back!

Must you go on? Please don’t on my account.

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