Opinion

Jack Shafer

The source may be anonymous, but the shame is all yours

Jack Shafer
Jun 16, 2014 22:49 UTC

 Bob Woodward, former Washington Post reporter, discusses about Watergate Hotel burglary and stories for the Post at Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda

Twice over the past two weeks, New York Times reporters got taken for long rides by anonymous sources who ultimately dropped them off at the corner of Mortified and Peeved.

The first embarrassing trip for the Times came on May 31, as the paper alleged in a Page One story that a federal insider trading investigation was “examining” golfer Phil Mickelson’s “well-timed trades” in Clorox stock, according to “people briefed on the investigation.” On June 11, the Times rowed the story back — citing anonymous sources again, namely “four people briefed on the matter” — calling the original story about Mickelson’s role “overstated.” Mickelson did not, the paper reported, trade shares of Clorox.

Heads bowed, the new Times article explained the error: “The overstated scope of the investigation came from information provided to the Times by other people briefed on the matter who have since acknowledged making a mistake.”

Gotta love the wording. The people briefed made a mistake, not the Times for relying on anonymous sources.

The Times got its second joyride in a June 3 Page One story about Bowe Bergdahl. A “former senior military officer briefed on the investigation into the private’s disappearance” claimed that before Bergdahl fled his unit on June 30, 2009, he left a note in his tent expressing his disillusionment with the Army and the American mission in Afghanistan, and stated that he was leaving to start a new life. This marked Bergdahl as a deserter for many in the press.

Finding the real Bowe Bergdahl in the fog of news

Jack Shafer
Jun 11, 2014 22:51 UTC

 A sign of support of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is seen in Hailey, Idaho

All news reports are provisional, especially breaking news reports. That which the press states unequivocally tonight may well be retracted by dawn — and then with only a small acknowledgment, much in the way that a TV station’s meteorologist glosses over the fact that the hailstorm he promised for sunrise never arrived.

This message applies to all stories, big and small, and to all news outlets. Today, I single out the New York Times not because I think the Times is a shoddy, careless newspaper but because it is among the best, and its recent miscue in an important breaking story illustrates exactly how abruptly the so-called known facts in a news story can change in short order.

In the first paragraph of its June 3, page A1 story titled “G.I.’s Vanishing Before Capture Angered His Unit,” the Times stated that on the night of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s June 30, 2009, disappearance, he “left behind a note in his tent saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life.” The Times report was promptly repeated by the Daily Mail Online, the Associated Press, Fox News Channel, NBCNews.com, and many other outlets because the Times has a reputation for sober, exacting reporting.

Thanks, Internet, for facilitating the golden age of death threats

Jack Shafer
Jun 10, 2014 15:32 UTC

A man surfs the internet using a wireless connection in the lobby of a hotel in Havana

It’s never been easier to send an anonymous death threat.

In the old days, issuing one required a stamp, an envelope and a trip to a post box. You had to wear gloves to prevent embossing the page with incriminating fingerprints. Spell it out longhand? Good God no! Given a few leads, the boys in police forensics could compare it to other samples of your handwriting. Use a typewriter? Typewriters leave tell-tale signatures on the page by which the machine and potentially the owner can be identified. Cut and paste from newspaper headlines, ransom-note style? A very time- consuming  project just to put the fear of death into somebody. Use a telephone? C’mon, phone records can be traced.

As with so many of life’s labors, advanced technology has removed most of the work and hazard from sending cowardly messages to people to frighten them. The cautious and methodical know to anonymize their browsers with Tor and to use other cloaking techniques to reduce the odds of being apprehended.

If ease is the measure, we are living in a golden age of death threats. Bob Bergdahl, father of the Army sergeant who was recently sprung from Taliban captivity, has received at least four frictionless threats to his life via email in recent days. The threats have led to the cancelation of a celebratory rally in the Bergdahl hometown of Hailey, Idaho. Just two months ago, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey found himself on the receiving end of death threats for having sold his virtual reality company to Facebook. According to gaming website Kotaku, video game designers frequently face anonymous death threats after updating or changing games (Minecraft, Call of Duty, Mass Effect) in a way that displeases customers.

The guy who reads crap on the Web so you don’t have to

Jack Shafer
Jun 4, 2014 21:53 UTC

click777

You know that annoying guy in the office who steps on all of your punch lines? Who deflates with a concise quip the shaggy dog stories you’re trying to tell? Well, that buttinski has taken his act to Twitter where, under the username SavedYouAClick, he’s razoring the guts out of the often misleading and exploitative click-bait tweets posted by Huffington Post, Vice, Mashable, Cosmopolitan, Business Insider, TMZ, Drudge Report, and others designed to drive you to their stories.

Unlike the guy in your office, SavedYouAClick doesn’t annoy, he delights. His interruptions on Twitter are pure public service. His method is simple: grab a publication’s tweet that links to one of its stories — such as this one on Wednesday from BusinessWeek, “How China’s government is erasing the memory of the Tiananmen Square massacre” — and then retweet it with an appropriate click-saving comment. How is China erasing the Tiananmen memory? “By pretending it never happened.”

Other recent click-busters from the SavedYouAClick stream:

Adjust brightness, contrast, etc. RT @HuffingtonPost: Instagram introduces 10 new features that will take your photos to the next level

Bowe Bergdahl’s court-martial by the press

Jack Shafer
Jun 3, 2014 19:23 UTC

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The Army has no immediate plans to punish Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for leaving his post in Afghanistan, Secretary of the Army John McHugh said in a statement on Tuesday, putting Bergdahl’s medical and psychological needs first. Bergdahl, a Taliban prisoner for the past five years, was swapped over the weekend for five Talban heavyweights imprisoned at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp.

That doesn’t mean Bergdahl is off the hook. Already, the 28-year-old soldier has been called a traitor by members of his platoon in the pages of the New York Daily News and on CNN. Members of his unit have blamed him in the New York Times for the deaths of other troopers sent out to rescue him, although the newspaper heavily discounts those claims. James Rosen has even published on FoxNews.com a piece sourced anonymously to the Defense Department speculating that Bergdahl was an “active collaborator with the enemy.”

So instead of facing an Army court-martial for allegedly deserting his post on June 30, 2009, Bergdahl finds himself facing a brisk public court-martial in the press. This trial-by-sourcing will only accelerate as the press explores military records and interviews Bergdahl’s troop-mates looking for the evidence.

Why I’m ditching my Amazon account

Jack Shafer
May 27, 2014 18:51 UTC

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I’ve got an Amazon habit. Like many of my other habits — coffee drinking, newspaper reading, excessive profanity — it’s one that I’ve cultivated and refined over the years, ever since I made my first purchase on June 24, 1996, for a new copy of Dan Wakefield’s New York in the Fifties.

In the beginning, I used Amazon primarily as a gift-delivery service. Later, I became the primary recipient of my purchases. Later still, I started “subscribing” to stuff my family regularly consumed, and after that I purchased an Amazon Prime membership, that amalgam of “free” movie streaming, speedy and cheap delivery of purchases, and more, including many purchases of audio books from the company’s Audible subsidiary. I purchased Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite, which now anchors a drawer filled with orphaned devices and chargers. But I’ve resisted an Amazon.com Rewards Visa Card from Chase. You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

One would think with that many hooks into me, I’d be more an Amazon slave than a customer. But that’s not so. Thanks to the company’s recent non-response to criticism that it’s abusing its market power — a silence that’s consistent with Amazon’s we’ll only-talk-if-we-want-to-promote-something media policy — I’ve made the easy decision to turn my back on the world’s biggest store.

Heroin’s fictional comeback

Jack Shafer
May 20, 2014 22:24 UTC

 

heroinFor a drug that has never ever gone away, heroin sure has a talent for coming back every couple of years. On Tuesday, the New York Times advanced the belief that a “flood of heroin” is flowing into New York City in a Page One story titled “New York Is a Hub in a Surging Heroin Trade.”

One difference between a conventional flood and a heroin flood is that a conventional is easier to measure: Plant a tall pole next to the body of water you’re observing, mark the pole with hash-marks in feet or meters, and record the rising water levels. But no such simple technology exists to accurately measure the flow of heroin into or out of a city. To use rising seizure statistics to estimate a surge in the heroin trade is like drawing a bath, stepping into it, and declaring that a flood has ravaged your tub.

The government statistics the Times cites sound impressive. “The amount of heroin seized in investigations involving the city’s special narcotics prosecutor has already surpassed last year’s totals, and is higher than any year going back to 1991,” the paper declares. In the first four months of 2014, we’re told, the city’s special narcotics prosecutor has recorded the seizure of 288 pounds of heroin, which does not include everyday seizures on the streets.

The (misguided) passion of Glenn Greenwald

Jack Shafer
May 14, 2014 22:30 UTC

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It’s not that journalists have thin skins — it’s that they have no skins.

This adage gets trotted out once a month or more in better newsrooms to provide context for the overreaction of a reporter or editor who has found himself on the receiving end of criticism for something they’ve published. This week, some journalists who have been critical of Glenn Greenwald are seeking skin grafts for their skin grafts after reading his denunciation of them in the final chapter of his new book about the Snowden files, No Place to Hide.

I would ordinarily write something like — “Greenwald settles scores with the New York Daily News, David Gregory of NBC News, Alan Dershowitz, CNN, Reuters reporters, the Washington Post‘s Walter Pincus, Leslie Kaufman, Andrew Ross Sorkin, Jill Abramson, and Michael Schmidt of the New York Times, and others in the press corps for criticizing him, Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange” — except Greenwald isn’t a score-settler. Once you earn a place in his scope, there you will stay, even after he runs out of ammunition.

In today’s news, one size fits all

Jack Shafer
May 14, 2014 14:39 UTC

newsroom

Whenever editors want to impose their will on a newsroom — be they editors at newspapers, magazines, news wires, websites, or TV programs — they dictate a memo for distribution to their journalists noting that stories have gotten too long and instructing everybody to write shorter. It’s a frequent request, as editors come to believe that their reporters aren’t listening to them or are openly defying their requests to file more succinct copy. In recent days, top editors at my outlet, Reuters, sent such a memo, asking writers in the Americas to diet their copy down to between 300 and 500 words. So did a top editor at the Associated Press, who set similar goals for his reporters and editors. Inspired by these bold moves, I’m sure that editors all over America have typed up their own shorter-is-better memos and are pressing send right now. (The Reuters memo says the call for short copy is nothing new — it’s in the Reuters Handbook. The AP says it’s responding to requests of its members, who don’t have time to edit copy down.)

The strong preference for short over long probably dates back to the invention of moveable type: The costs of printing make page-space scarce and hence very valuable. The shorter you make each story, the more stories you can pack into the available space, and theoretically this leads to an informed and satisfied reader. Some editors preach for shorter stories because they think that’s the way to get the boring stuff out of the way. In the contemporary era, the leading proponent of the short stuff was Al Neuharth, the auteur of Gannett Co.’s USA Today. “A maximum of facts in a minimum of words,” was Neuharth’s founding formula in 1982, and “making reporters out of essayists” was his method.

Although derided by the competition as a McPaper peddling McNuggets, USA Today‘s relentless brevity found many imitators in the industry. By 1992, USA Today was noting with satisfaction an industry-wide trend toward shorter stories. By 1995, the Los Angeles Times was documenting the contraction of the “news hole” at the Chicago Tribune, which required reporters to write their pieces into tighter spots. Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser noted in their 2002 book, The News About the News, that by 2000 TV network stories were also getting shorter. Perhaps the most dramatic victim of shrinky-dinkage was the Wall Street Journal in 2007 after Rupert Murdoch took over, with the long, detailed, dripping-with-context Journal story becoming the exception rather than the rule.

Heaven forbid journalists ask questions!

Jack Shafer
May 8, 2014 22:02 UTC

 newsconference

Cass R. Sunstein emptied his digestive system of a steaming wad of press rancor Wednesday in his Bloomberg View column titled “Why Officials Don’t Tell the Media Everything.” Sunstein — a legal scholar who served as the Obama administration’s regulatory czar for three years and more recently sat on the panel that reviewed U.S. surveillance programs — phrases in his usual genial but condescending fashion his objections to journalism as practiced in Washington.

First, Sunstein chides reporters who are “disturbed” by government officials who stiff-arm them. Then he complains (from his own personal experience) about the four common requests journalists make of government officials. They ask 1) for information about policy decisions before they’re finalized or announced; 2) about internal conversations, including high-level conflicts; 3) to “say something spicy about the president”; and 4) to respond to recent allegations to help journalists determine who is right or telling the truth.

Oh, the effrontery, the chutzpah, the nerve of reporters who ask government officials pesky, premature questions to obtain news! But that’s not how Sunstein sees it, explaining that 1) it is generally not the place of an official to “make the announcement ahead of time”; 2) confidential remarks should remain confidential; 3) sharing sauciness is disloyal; and 4) if nobody in government is wrong or lying, a response will only garner the allegation more attention.

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