Opinion

Jack Shafer

Britain’s press needs more freedom, not more regulation

Jack Shafer
Nov 30, 2012 00:20 UTC

The Leveson inquiry completed its 17-month official investigation into the filth and the fury of the British press today, pulling into the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Center opposite Westminster Abbey. There, its leader, Lord Justice (Brian) Leveson, delivered the inquiry’s 1,987-page report on the London newspaper phone-hacking scandals, wild invasions of privacy by the press and covert surveillance by newspapers, and recommended new regulations of the press.

The regime proposed by Leveson would replace the current — and toothless — self-regulation by the Press Complaints Commission with a body that would possess investigatory powers and authority to levy fines of up to £1 million for transgressors. The new body would be “voluntary,” funded by newspaper membership fees, as the 56-page executive summary explains, and “independent” of the press and government, though governed by statute. The advantage of submitting to the invitation to volunteer would be an “arbitration” service that would reduce the legal awards newspapers would have to pay when complainants brought their libel and invasion of privacy charges to the new body rather than to the courts.

Anticipating that some publications — namely the tabloids that routinely hacked phones, harassed people, co-opted the police, and published damaging lies — would refuse to volunteer, the summary recommends that those outliers be conscripted by the government’s broadcast overseer, Ofcom, which would operate as a “backstop regulator.” So there’s nothing voluntary about the regulatory scheme Lord Justice Leveson proposes. It surveys the landscape that is the British press — an institution sufficiently demented that one of its organs, News of the World, hacked dead schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s mobile phone in pursuit of lewd headlines — and proclaims that all publications, be they guilty or innocent of the numerous offenses catalogued by Leveson, be subject to a new government-mandated order. With that nose under the tent, it wouldn’t be long until the entire camel was calling the place home.

Leveson can’t avoid noting that it was a newspaper — the Guardian — and not a regulatory body, not a police force, not a parliamentary committee, and not an official inquiry trucked in by limousine that exposed the crimes of News of the World and the purported police cover-up in the first place. Without the diligence of Nick Davies and his Guardian colleagues (plus a terrific assist by the New York Times, which advanced the story and kept it alive), the Milly Dowler case and other press outrages would likely have remained buried. That British newspapers and journalists broke laws and breached ethical standards must be paired with the finding that it was a righteous newspaper operating in the same environment at the same time that revealed the wrongdoing. Leveson’s reaction is akin to a judge proposing that all projectiles be regulated by a sub-judicial body because of a spate of window-breakings: If the devils are misbehaving, make sure to bind the angels in barbed wire, too.

For all its long-windedness, the Leveson recommendations aren’t as much about making British journalists do their work legally as they are about making them perform ethically and produce ethical work. The first obstacle to those goals is that a generous portion of British readership appears to prefer sordid news collected on the dodge to meaningful journalism produced ethically and in the public interest. They love the steaming swill the Daily Mail, the Express, and the Sun serve them, and would still be bolting the mash that the Milly-Dowler-violating News of the World conveyed had owner Rupert Murdoch not euthanized it in 2011 before torching the place. For a window on how ridiculous (if entertaining) these papers are, point your browsers to the watchdog site Mail Watch and scan its archives for deconstructions of tabloid lies and grime. The British audience seems to love this stuff, even when they know it’s half-cocked and ginned-up. Even former Brit Tina Brown makes it a part of her daily media diet, telling New York magazine that “for my sheer hit of trash, I’ll go to the Daily Mail Online, which is so great. It’s just got the best human-interest garbage.”

Fake press releases are a public service

Jack Shafer
Nov 28, 2012 00:50 UTC

Yesterday, an enterprising clown used PRWeb to publish a fake press release about the purported purchasing of WiFi provider ICOA by Google for $400 million. The Associated Press, Business Insider, Forbes, TechCrunch and other websites ran stories about the transaction — without gaining confirmation from Google — and shortly after AllThingsD unmasked the release as fraudulent, the hoodwinked news organizations donned hair shirts in penance for their journalistic malpractice.

The pranked news organizations were right to self-flagellate, and the apologies and self-recriminations appeared to be sincere. “We were wrong on this post, for not following up with Google and the other company involved but posting rather than getting waiting [sic] on a solid confirmation beforehand from either source. We apologize to our readers,” confessed TechCrunch.

You don’t even have to be a talented liar to fool the press into publishing one of your lies. You just have to have gumption. In February, the Madison Capital Times got taken in by a phony press release about Representative Paul Ryan pressuring the Smithsonian to delete posters from its archives. A bogus April press release about the Bank of America’s seeking advice from customers on how to run its operation fooled the Dow Jones Newswire, and in June, a fake press release about General Mills got play in the Dow Jones Newswire, WSJ Online, and Fox Business News before the ruse was uncovered. In August, the Los Angeles Times got doubly duped when it ran a story about a nonexistent San Diego pharmacy crackdown that relied on two prank press releases.

The sex scandal as civic lesson

Jack Shafer
Nov 15, 2012 00:32 UTC

The saturation coverage of the Petraeus sex scandal has yet to annoy many people besides policy wonks, but it won’t be long before a full-throated essay attacking the endless column inches and hours of airtime devoted to the salacious story arrives. (Inching close to that stand but not quite occupying it today are Tom McGeveran of Capital New York, Howard Kurtz, and The Week, which is upset about the “sexist” coverage of the scandal.) As was the case with the Clinton-Lewinsky* sex scandal, the Herman Cain sexual harassment scandal, the Anthony Weiner Twitter scandal, the Eric Massa “tickle” scandal, the John Edwards sex scandal, and many others, some columnist or talking head will grumble about how the Petraeus story has distracted the populace from the real issues of the day — the fiscal cliff, climate change, job creation, the deficit, Hurricane Sandy recovery, Sudan and Somalia, immigration policy, the Middle East…

Tell these people to go pound sand.

Political sex scandals have a way of engaging an otherwise apathetic public in substantive coverage about the workings of the criminal justice system, the misuse of political power, and American prudery. Already the Petraeus scandal has schooled a naïve nation about proper email hygiene, the internal workings of the FBI, lax military discipline, computer privacy issues, and the loose handling of classified information. And this scandal has been in the wild for less than a week.

Reading about the Cain, Clinton, Weiner, and Edwards scandals may have sickened you. I can remember squeamish moments while reading the Starr Report. But the reporting on the Clinton scandal, the Cain episode, the Weiner sleaze, and Edwards’ adventures in lying and cheating right-sized the public’s estimation of political figures. Where the accused were forced to defend themselves before a court (Edwards) or the House of Representatives (Clinton), citizens were given direct windows on the workings of justice. In the Cain business, readers everywhere were given a course on ethical and legal conduct in the workplace that could not be equaled by any commercial refresher course. And as dopey as the Weiner incident was, it demonstrated convincingly how small-screen fantasies can expand to big-screen embarrassments better than any fear-mongering cover story in Time or Newsweek. Who doesn’t recall intense (and informed!) watercooler arguments over evidentiary standards during the Clinton impeachment hearings? Such scandals have the potential to make walking Wikipedia entries of us all.

Marcus Brauchli, one-term editor

Jack Shafer
Nov 14, 2012 00:42 UTC

As the daily newspaper winds down after a century of dominating the news business, so does the job of editing one. Editorships of the top papers were once comparable to lifetime appointments to the federal bench, with all the perks and prestige that came with a judgeship. A.M Rosenthal led the New York Times for 17 years. Benjamin C. Bradlee served as executive editor of the Washington Post for 13 23* years, and after him came Leonard Downie Jr., who had the job for 17 years.

Today, the top editor can rely on no more longevity than your average NBA coach, who fully expects to be dribbled out the door (or take the initiative to make a fast break for it) after a few seasons. The latest editor given his walking papers is Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, who after four years at the job has been given the new title Washington Post Company vice president and assigned to evaluating new-media opportunities. His replacement, announced today, is Martin Baron, currently the editor of the Boston Globe. By comparison with other newspapers, the Post is a safe harbor for editors: The Los Angeles Times has cycled five journalists through its top job since 2005. Prior to editing the Globe, the itinerant Baron held the top job at the Miami Herald from 1999 to 2001.

Baron arrives at a paper much diminished from its salad days under Bradlee and Downie, when the Post was the leading mass-advertising vehicle in Washington and corpulent with profit. Under Bradlee’s and much of Downie’s tenures, the paper’s biggest problem was finding something to spend all that money on. It established domestic bureaus in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Austin, Denver, and Miami. It expanded its business pages into a freestanding section in the early 1990s. * It created local bureaus to serve the suburbs that circle Washington, filled them with reporters and produced zoned editions. It experimented with new weekly sections covering consumer tech and lifestyle.

Hurricane Sandy by the numbers

Jack Shafer
Nov 9, 2012 00:33 UTC

People in high places are competing to put a dollar number to the deadly ruination visited upon the Northeast by Hurricane Sandy.

Today at a press conference, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo estimated the damage done to his state by Hurricane Sandy at $33 billion and to the region at $50 billion. The governor’s estimate exceeded that of disaster modeler EQECAT, which put total insured losses at $10 billion to $20 billion and economic losses at $30 billion to $50 billion on Nov. 1. The EQECAT numbers dueled with the projections of AIR Worldwide, another risk modeler, which pegged insured losses at $7 billion to $15 billion at about the same time.

Given the densely populated area it struck, Hurricane Sandy may end up being the most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history. Of course, Sandy’s precise ranking isn’t likely to matter to those who directly experienced it, losing property, livelihoods — and in some cases loved ones. Upwards of 72 people died from the storm in New York and New Jersey. But as elected officials, risk modelers, the media, and others continue to quantify the storm, don’t be afraid to question the validity of the numbers—and to ask what purpose they serve.

The battle over Benghazi

Jack Shafer
Nov 2, 2012 22:35 UTC

When Washington bureaucracies rumble, they often avoid directly savaging one another by using the press as proxies. By leaking selectively to news outlets they believe will give them the most sympathetic hearing, they hope to shape the news by making it. The strategy doesn’t always work. Sock puppetry revolts good reporters and some bad ones, too, because they know carrying tainted water for a source today may stain their reputations tomorrow.

The Benghazi story hasn’t turned any reporters into absolute dummies—yet—but as the tag-team match of blame being played by the White House, the State Department, a congressional committee, and the CIA escalates–and with the Romney campaign eager to pounce on anything that makes the administration look bad–don’t be surprised if unnamed sources start spinning the facts in a self-serving manner.

You shouldn’t feel bad if you’re confused about Benghazi and have no idea who should be sacked for not doing his job: Press accounts and comments from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have all congealed into one murky, confusing stew. Now, clarity has arrived in a new ultra-narrative given yesterday to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and others, sourced to a “senior administration official,” “senior intelligence officials,” “a senior American intelligence official,” “a senior U.S. intelligence official,” and “U.S. intelligence officials,” respectively.

Is it ever okay for journalists to lie?

Jack Shafer
Nov 1, 2012 16:13 UTC

This article originally appeared in the September/October issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.

In 2007, investigative journalist Ken Silverstein went undercover to test Washington lobbyists’ taste for sleaze. Using an alias, Silverstein created a fictitious energy firm that ostensibly did business in Turkmenistan and approached professional lobbyists to see if they could help cleanse the regime’s neo-Stalinist reputation. The bill for services rendered—newspaper op-eds bylined by established think-tankers and academics, visits to Turkmenistan by congressional delegations, and other exercises in public relations—would have been about $1.5 million. (Disclosure: I consider Silverstein a friend.)

But when Silverstein’s piece, “Their Men in Washington: Undercover With DC’s Lobbyists for Hire,” was published in the July issue of Harper’s, the resulting uproar had less to do with craven lobbyists than with journalistic impropriety. Various critics assailed Silverstein for his charade: Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, an ethics expert at the Poynter Institute, a CBS News blogger, an American Journalism Review writer, and other notables. Journalists shall not lie, the critics mainly agreed. Doing so diminishes their credibility and that of the entire profession.

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