Opinion

Jack Shafer

Buzz off, Waxman — Congress can’t tell a newspaper how to do business

Jack Shafer
Jan 8, 2014 21:21 UTC

Oh to be a fly on the wall Jan. 15, when Tribune Co. executives meet with the staff of Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., in a command performance to explain the media conglomerate’s plans to spin off its newspapers — which include the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Baltimore Sun — into a separate company named Tribune Publishing.

Waxman called for the meeting in mid-December after Tribune filed its blueprint with the Securities and Exchange Commission, arguing in a letter that the restructuring may not “be in the best interests” of his constituents, who live in the Pacific Coast-hugging congressional district that runs inland to include Beverly Hills. The spin-off will essentially defund the newspapers, Waxman argued, specifically the Los Angeles Times, which his district depends on for news. Under the terms of the restructuring, the Tribune Publishing newspapers will pay a cash dividend to Tribune Co. The newspapers will also lose their real estate holdings, forcing them to pay rent for their current facilities.

Waxman worries that the deal endangers the long-term survival of the Los Angeles Times, which like most other newspapers has shrunken its newsroom as advertising and circulation have fallen over the past decade. In a second letter to Tribune, which he also made public, Waxman wrote, “At a minimum, you appear to be putting the profits of the Tribune Co. ahead of the interests of the public in viable local newspapers.” In it, he asked Tribune to forward to his staff a raft of relevant spin-off documents before the Jan. 15 meeting.

Absent evidence of law-breaking by Tribune, how can the company’s restructuring be the business of Congress or Henry Waxman? So far, Waxman hasn’t deployed any bogus rhetoric about the “stakeholders” who read the Los Angeles Times having rights equal to those of the shareholders who actually own the property. But it’s early yet. Waxman may get there soon if Tribune’s executives don’t acquiesce to his charms.

So why doesn’t Tribune tell Waxman to go find a hot place and jump into it? Probably because after it sheds its newspapers, its primary assets will be in the highly-regulated business of broadcasting, where it owns 23 television stations. As a member of the House minority, Waxman can’t cause Tribune much in the way of regulatory trouble now, but what if the House flips? (Waxman was, after all, the chair of the Energy and Commerce committee.) Game theory encourages the Tribune to act the supplicant, perhaps giving Waxman some cheap token for his blessing, and then do basically what it was going to do in the first place.

The Times advances the NSA’s amnesty-for-Snowden trial balloon

Jack Shafer
Jan 2, 2014 23:32 UTC

Of course the New York Times editorial page wants clemency or, at the very least, a generous plea bargain for National Security Agency contractor turned super-leaker Edward Snowden! The news pages of the New York Times have directly benefited from top-secret leaks from Snowden to break stories since last August, when the paper acquired a cache of his NSA material from the Guardian. (The Guardian published its own “pardon for Snowden” editorial today.) In urging leniency for Snowden, the Times editorial page is urging leniency for a specific news-pages source, which the editorial doesn’t directly state. If that doesn’t define enlightened self-interest, nothing does.

The Times editorial page operates independently from the Times news operation, so I’m not suggesting that Executive Editor Jill Abramson instructed Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal what to write. But on this score, she probably didn’t even have to stifle the urge. For the last decade, the news side has been breaking stories about warrantless surveillance by the NSA, a secret bank-data surveillance program, and, via WikiLeaks, the war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan and the U.S. diplomatic cables. The editorial page has lectured the government on its overreach and incompetence in the security realm. Abramson and Rosenthal, who report to the same publisher, obviously harmonize on this score. Even if they didn’t, it’s unlikely in the extreme that a Times editorial would ever call for a Times news-side source to be seated in a Judas Cradle as punishment for leaking to the press.

Did I say unlikely in the extreme? Allow me to reverse my course. Not every editorial page is buckled to its news pages. Take the Washington Post for example.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1998 lesson on the price of secrets

Jack Shafer
Dec 27, 2013 15:22 UTC

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review and is reprinted with permission.

The ease with which the United States government creates new state secrets masks the ultimate cost of the secret’s production. Once minted, a secret must be guarded lest a spy sneak in and pluck it from the bunch — or a Chelsea Manning, an Edward Snowden, or a lesser leaker with a security clearance release it into the wild. Vaults must be built, moats dug, and guards hired, trained, and paid. Add to that the cost of routine audits, to make sure nobody has picked the locks, and the expense of the annual security clearances for the spooks, bureaucrats, and IT specialists who make, sort, use, and maintain the secrets. At last count, nearly five million people in the U.S. were cleared to access Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret information, a number that includes both government employees (like Manning) and contractors (like Snowden).

Official secrets have been reproducing faster than a basket of mongooses thanks to the miracle of “derivative classification,” and this rapid propagation has compounded the maintenance costs. Whenever information stamped as classified is folded into a new document — either verbatim or in paraphrased form — that new derivative document is born classified. Derivative classification — and the fact that nobody ever got fired for overusing the classified stamp — means that 92.1 million “classification decisions” were made in FY 2011, according to a government report, a 20 percent increase over FY 2010. Once created, your typical secret is a stubborn thing. The secret-makers’ reluctance to declassify their trove is legendary: In 1997, 204 million pages were declassified, but since 9/11 only an average of 33.5 million pages have been declassified annually.

The information singularity is coming!

Jack Shafer
Dec 19, 2013 22:36 UTC

“Data! Data! Data!” Sherlock Holmes cried impatiently. “I can’t make bricks without clay.”

The sleuth’s insatiable hunger for petabytes of data presaged that of the National Security Agency’s by a little less than seven decades. Like the NSA, Holmes took a pointillistic view of the truth. Find as many facts as possible, he held, view them from as many angles as possible, turn them inside out or set them aside until you collect more facts, and then, like pouring iron into a mold, cast your most durable image of reality. “It’s an old maxim of mine that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” as Holmes stated in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet.”

The age of Snowden has made well-known NSA’s demanding data desires. So, too, have we gotten a glimpse of how the agency’s information foundry works, that place where mathematicians massage the metadata of phone records and Web traffic with powerful relational database software to strip away the impossible in pursuit of the “truth.” Whether you believe the collection and analysis of your personal data is trivial or intolerable, the age of Snowden has alerted us all to the coming of the information singularity, where near perfect portraits and detailed biographies of us all can be assembled if enough computer power is thrown at a big enough data set.

Plotting the Snowden plea bargain

Jack Shafer
Dec 16, 2013 21:32 UTC

CBS News gave the National Security Agency an early Christmas present on Sunday—a segment on “60 Minutes.” The title of the segment, “NSA Speaks Out on Snowden, Spying,” telegraphed the network’s generosity. After taking beatings in the press and in Congress, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander reached out to “invite” (which is how CBS News put it) the program to receive the NSA’s version of the Snowden affair. “What they got was a chance to make their case,” said correspondent John Miller.

The segment contained the usual NSA evasions and elisions (see the blog work of Jesselyn Radack for examples), so besides the novelty of network cameras recording images inside the puzzle palace, the only non-trivial moments of the broadcast came when Rick Ledgett, head of the NSA task force in charge of Snowden damage assessment, gave a positive response to Miller’s question of what he thought of the idea of acceding to Edward Snowden’s request for amnesty.

“What would your thought on making a deal be?” asked Miller. Ledgett responded:

Newtown’s magical thinking

Jack Shafer
Dec 12, 2013 22:17 UTC

Newtown, Conn., city officials want my type to stay out of town this Saturday, which marks the first anniversary of the Dec. 14, 2012, massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School. My type, of course, is the nosey parkers who call themselves journalists, the ones who stick microphones and cameras in the faces of the distraught, who knock on the doors of the bereaved and phone them incessantly for interviews.

But neither does the legislative council of Newtown want America to forget what happened in their town one year ago. This paradox — don’t forget us but don’t bother us, either — poured a load of sand into the media gears, as Paul Farhi writes today in the Washington Post. Heeding the admonition to stay away from Newtown this weekend are CNN, Fox News, ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, NPR, NewsHour, the New York Times, USA Today and the Washington Post.

I, too, implore reporters to avoid Newtown this Saturday, but for editorial reasons that have nothing to do with sensitivity to the families who lost members in the attack. I deplore anniversary coverage of most if not all events, because in almost all cases anniversaries produce journalism that affixes a new introduction on old clips. Readers may love anniversary stories, but that’s still no excuse for running them unless you’ve got something genuinely new to add. But if you do have something new to add, why wait for the anniversary? Publish it when you confirm it!

What’s worse than sponsored content? The FTC regulating it

Jack Shafer
Dec 6, 2013 17:43 UTC

What’s more dangerous to consumer well-being, sponsored content or the intervention of the Federal Trade Commission? On Wednesday, the agency held a conference, “Blurred Lines: Advertising or Content,” to “discuss native advertising,” as the New York Times put it. The event attracted several hundred “advertisers, academics and media executives,” who listened to the agency’s views about native advertising — or sponsored content, infomercial, or advertorial, as some call it — those Web ads that are designed to look like editorial content, not ads.

Many if not most top editorial sites offer sponsored content, including the Washington Post, Huffington PostSlateTechmemeBusiness InsiderForbesBuzzFeed, the Boston Globe’Boston.com, the Atlantic, and others, and the list of advertisers includes such household names as IBM, Jet Blue, Pillsbury, Purina, Columbia Sportswear, Dell, UPS, McDonalds, and BMW. The Times piece acknowledges that it, too, will soon be joining the sponsored content caravan that brought publishers about $1.5 billion last year.

When convening a conference to “discuss” something or other, the FTC (or other regulatory entities) is almost never in pursuit of discussion — any more than a police officer who says he just wants to talk. Such conversational assemblies usually become venues in which the agency can issue a veiled threat, either directly or indirectly, to its targets, instructing them sotto voce that unless they change their ways they’ll suffer the agency’s wrath. The regulatory playbook usually dictates that the agency promise targets that unless they start observing “voluntary” restrictions, the agency will have to request legislative authority to make restrictions mandatory. Nothing can be “voluntary” if somebody is threatening to make it mandatory, but the gambit works nine times out of ten.

If Katie Couric is the answer, what’s the question?

Jack Shafer
Nov 27, 2013 00:08 UTC

Web publishing — never a diffident business — has been calling attention to itself all week long. Yahoo chief executive officer Marissa Mayer, whose forte as boss has been the shimmering acquisition (Summly, Tumblr, Xobni, Rockmelt, et al.) and the high-profile media hire (David Pogue, Megan Liberman, Matt Bai), signed Katie Couric as the site’s “global anchor,” and promised additional Yahoo News signings, enabling Couric to “lead a growing team of correspondents.” Business Insider auteur Henry Blodget, whose enthusiasm for himself approaches the onanistic, responded to Michael Wolff’s suggestion that the Insider has peaked and that he should sell with a column saying he wasn’t ready to bail. Further down the food chain, Politico, which recently dumped its broadcast TV stations, purchased Capital New York, and PandoDaily (backed by Peter Thiel, Marc Andreessen, Tony Hsieh, and others) bought NSFWCORP to, as its Editor-in-Chief Sarah Lacy put it, “double down on investigative reporting.”

All this recent activity could be interpreted as the Internet’s usual background noise — prestige hires, quietly dumped in the next business downturn, and the usual activity by sites testing their worth in the marketplace or actually selling out. Or, alongside the global expansion of BuzzFeed, the phenomenal growth of Gawker, and Cheezburger-Circa’s blitzkrieg, do these nuggets serve as new markers of the Web ascendency to a place of media dominance?

As someone with a vested interest in the Web’s success, I’m prepared to interpret the setting of the sun as an indicator that the Internet was causing all the other media forms to go dark. But it’s not just me: The speed with which Google transitioned from a university research project to a media colossus impels the belief that the complete eclipse of traditional media is unstoppable. In about a dozen years, Google has reordered the media cosmos: It will take in 33 percent of all global digital ad revenue — approximately $38.6 billion — this year, six times that of the first runner-up, Facebook, according to eMarketer. It will also collect more than 50 percent of all mobile advertising. Its annual ad revenues now surpass those of the entire newspaper industry (as well as the entire magazine industry), as Business Insider recently informed us. “The growth of internet advertising revenue has outpaced other media every year since 2005,” Marketing Land reported earlier this year, with the Internet vying with domestic broadcast TV for ad revenue primacy.

Grandpa, grandpa, tell me about the JFK assassination again!

Jack Shafer
Nov 21, 2013 22:00 UTC

A common defense of the annual Kennedy assassination deluge — one that peaks in anniversary years ending in 5 or 0 for numerological reasons, I assume — is that the assassination happened so long ago that it’s more historical than it is news. If you’re 54 years old or younger, which accounts for about 80 percent of the population, you’re too young to have any contemporaneous memories of the killing from 50 years ago. The current coverage must seem fairly fresh to the youngest of the younger readers. For slightly older readers, the coverage isn’t designed to make you remember the murder and aftermath, it’s designed to remind you of the previous years the media reminded you of the episode.

Who are the designers? The editors and producers who control news media are mostly boomers older than 55, who like all the generations before them frequently confuse important things that happened when they were young for news. Blame them for swamping us this week with endless re-ups of Frame 313, the swearing in of Lyndon Johnson, Jacqueline Kennedy’s bloody pink dress, and John F. Kennedy Jr.’s salute. This week’s most ridiculous look-back has got to be Bob Costas’s No Day For Games: The Cowboys and JFK,  which ran on the NBC Sports Network and described how the assassination disturbed the Dallas Cowboys.

Children have a good excuse for wanting to be told old stories. They’re not very bright, they often don’t absorb the whole narrative the first time around, they learn by repetition and draw comfort from it — and if the story recounts how Bambi’s mother got whacked, they have every right to hope that in the retelling the dark story will be much brighter.

Newsroom big mouths strike again

Jack Shafer
Nov 18, 2013 22:38 UTC

Bloomberg News suspended its Hong Kong reporter Michael Forsythe last week, according to a New York Times report published today. (The New York Post broke the story on Friday.) His suspension began with a request, apparently from superiors, that he go “to the floor where human resources offices are.” A summons to HR is never a good sign. Indeed, according to the Times Forsythe “did not return to the newsroom,” reinforcing the universal view that an unsolicited invitation to visit HR is as desirable as an unsolicited invitation to a gallows.

The Times doesn’t say why Bloomberg News suspended Forsythe, and neither party is talking about it. The Times arranges the dots in a constellation to spell out its belief that he was likely a confidential source for an earlier piece in the paper. That story detailed how Bloomberg News delayed the publication of stories potentially upsetting to the Chinese government and which if published could hurt sales of the company’s lucrative financial terminals.

Assuming Forsythe was the leaker, you can either regard him as a heroic whistleblower who exposed his employer’s editorial cowardice, or as an ungrateful malcontent and troublemaker who bit the hand that pays him. Suspension, a secular form of limbo, gives an employer like Bloomberg News the opportunity to display its anger at the employee and mollify others without going through the bloody mess of a firing. If Bloomberg News were to summarily dismiss Forsythe for leaking, it would be announcing to its thousands of employees that the punishment for speaking out of school is termination, which just isn’t a practical policy for a news organization: Journalists make a living out of encouraging other people — in industry, in government, in academia, on sports teams, inside organized religion — to speak critically and confidentially about their organization. Firing a journalist for leaking to the press or for complaining defines hypocrisy.

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