Opinion

Jack Shafer

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.

Journalists, I can tell you from experience, are difficult to manage. Trained from an early age to hold others to high moral standards and to pick nits like starving baboons, journalists never lack for grousable material about their own working conditions and the editorial choices of their bosses. Most journalists I know will talk trash about their bosses or news organizations — even those who are relatively happy with their jobs — or will leak damaging material about their newsroom if so invited. There is nothing as leaky or lippy as a newsroom. One time, 20 years ago when I was a boss, I happened to walk into the production area late one night as the most junior member of my editorial staff denounced me to a captive audience of paste-up artists. If I was going to fire her for badmouthing me behind my back, I would eventually have to fire everybody, so I pretended deafness to her condemnations as I walked behind her and toward my office.

Suspensions look like time-outs for naughty journalists, but they’re really time-outs for angry bosses, a face-saving interlude that allows bosses to maintain their pride when what they would really like to do is murder their misbehaving journalists. (My understanding is that it is both against the law and most union contracts to kill misbehaving journalists.) Suspension functions like a kind of student probation, giving the party in power a chance to express fury and punish while postponing a final resolution until tempers cool, and to deter latent reprobates from reprobating.

Does anyone still work at the ‘New York Times’?

Jack Shafer
Nov 15, 2013 22:21 UTC

Recent defections of talent from the New York Times — Nate Silver, David Pogue, Jeff Zeleny, Richard Berke, Brian Stelter, Matt Bai, et al. — have unjelled the media firmament, according to Politico media columnist Dylan Byers. In a piece this week, Byers called the departures “a brain drain,” “a sucker punch to staff morale,” and an opportunity for the paper to come “face to face with a harsh reality” that in the new media age, its star journalists can no longer be satisfied by the “‘aura’ of the newspaper of record.” In the same day’s Huffington Post, Michael Calderone had the paper fretting about its “retention rate,” adding the names of Don Van Natta Jr., Lisa Tozzi, Judy Battista, Howard Beck, and Eric Wilson to the list of departees.

The Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple neutered Byers’s observation by noting that if anybody is suffering a brain drain, it’s Politico, shifting the discussion from the-Times-ain’t-the-ultimate-destination-it-once-was of Byers to the more durable assertion by Wemple that retaining-good-people-has-never-been-easy-for-any-outlet-and-it-ain’t-getting-easier. My view comports more closely to Wemple’s, but that doesn’t mean Byers is full of it. The Times departures mean something. But what?

The exodus of accomplished Times reporters to television has been going on for so long that the exits of Jeff Zeleny to ABC News earlier this year and Brian Stelter to CNN this week barely deserve our notice. For as long as broadcasters have been flush, they’ve had their pick of New York Times newsroom stars. Among the earliest stars to step under the lights was John F. Kieran, the paper’s first sports columnist, who hosted a syndicated TV show in the late 1940s and early 1950s after success in radio. William H. “Bill” Lawrence worked at the Times for 20 years, as White House correspondent and other roles, before joining ABC News in 1961. In 1972, the paper’s Supreme Court reporter, Fred Graham, moved to CBS News where he worked for 15 years, and in 1979, Jim Wooten joined ABC News from the paper. After Hedrick Smith left the Times in 1988, he created 26 prime-time specials and mini-series for PBS, also working as a special correspondent for its NewsHour program. Charlayne Hunter-Gault spent 10 years at the Times before going to The MacNeil/Lehrer Report in 1978. Terence Smith made the migration to television in 1985, Bill Geist in 1987, Gwen Ifill in 1994, Buster Olney in 2003, and earlier this year, Susan Saulny joined ABC News from the paper.

Your ‘exclusive’ interview isn’t

Jack Shafer
Nov 13, 2013 22:41 UTC

The journalistic lexicon abounds with terms designed to keep reporters’ and editors’ egos as plump, firm and purple as a ripe eggplant. If a dowdy news account needs dressing up, they rush to wardrobe to wrap it in the “special report” designation. Or if a journalist seeks to embellish his reputation, he refers to himself as a “prize-winning reporter” in his biographical note, suppressing the observation that the reporter without a prize is likely the one who has neglected to enter the contests.

The urge to adorn the mundane with the magnificent becomes most intense when a news organization bills an interview with a subject as an “exclusive.” This is not to say that exclusive interviews do not exist. When a controversial or newsworthy somebody such as Lance Armstrong shuns the press or otherwise refuses to answer questions, a Q&A like the one Oprah Winfrey conducted with him deserves the appellation. Likewise, when a writer like Walter Isaacson develops deep and constant access with a press-hater like Steve Jobs, resulting in 40 interviews over two years, there’s something exclusive about those talks even if Jobs had answered reporters’ questions during that interval. Because Miami Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito has yet to talk at any length to anybody but Fox Sports, you would not begrudge that organization the crowing rights that go along with having gotten an exclusive.

Yet most pieces billed as an exclusive interview are usually no more exclusive than a seat in a public commode. The Financial Times, which knows better, frequently indulges the inner urge to hype its work by describing conversations with such people as Bill Gates, the Dalai Lama, and Ratan Tata as “exclusive interviews” when honesty-in-packaging would dictate that they limit their boast to “we were the only publication in the room when this voluble world figure sounded off.” Or take Newsweek’s recent piece about investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, a man who never shuts up, which was unashamedly billed as an “exclusive interview.” Or CNN correspondent Sanjay Gupta’s recent chat with Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, which the network deemed “exclusive,” or Barbara Walters sitting down “exclusively” with Fox News correspondent Howard Kurtz to talk about her departure from “The View.” Nearly every recent interview with Richard Branson (Inc.JetsetHuman Resources DirectorReutersThought Economics, 103.7 FM’s Morning Ride, et al.) regards routine access to the billionaire as “exclusive.” (Perhaps he stipulates it contractually?)

Governments worldwide buried in the Snowden avalanche

Jack Shafer
Nov 7, 2013 15:41 UTC

If the U.S. and British governments could stop the press from publishing stories based on the National Security Agency files leaked by Edward Snowden in June, they probably would have acted by now. Oh, the Guardian was coerced by the British government into destroying the hard drives in London containing the leaked files, and London police used terrorism law to detain the partner of Glenn Greenwald — one of the journalists to whom Snowden leaked — at Heathrow Airport and confiscated computer media believed to contain leaked files.

But these measures were largely for show. As Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger had earlier reminded officials, other publications and individuals possess copies of the files, and “doomsday” copies exist that will be released “if anything happens at all to Edward Snowden,” said Greenwald in June. Greenwald wasn’t so much blackmailing the U.S. and British governments as promising retaliation, Capone-style, should harm come to his source.

Meanwhile, hardly a week has expired since June without the publication of a new Snowden revelation somewhere in the world, as this Wikipedia page illustrates. Last week, the Washington Post reported how the NSA pinches data from Yahoo and Google’s worldwide data centers. On Sunday, the New York Times published a laundry list of NSA operations, demonstrating the agency’s pervasiveness. “The N.S.A. seems to be listening everywhere in the world, gathering every stray electron that might add, however minutely, to the United States government’s knowledge of the world,” wrote reporter Scott Shane.

Hate your free service? Go tweet yourself

Jack Shafer
Oct 30, 2013 21:58 UTC

Twitter users by the thousands — or maybe even the hundreds! — stubbed their scrolling fingers yesterday at the news of a new default setting in the popular service. Previously, links to photos or videos in tweets hosted on Twitter servers did not appear in a user’s “timeline.” Now, visual previews “will be front and center in tweets,” the company announced.

By Web standards, the Twitter change was incremental. But as Wired‘s Mat Honan and BuzzFeed‘s John Herman explained, it nonetheless infuriated longtime users who like their information-compressed, character-based Twitter just the way it is. These veteran users regard the inclusion of visuals to their Twitter timeline like the addition of a fistful of arrowroot to their miso soup, and don’t care that the visuals will make it easier for the company — as it approaches a public offering — to sell ads and compete with the visually richer Facebook and Google+ services.

Aside from growling about it on Twitter, what can the 140-character minimalists do? Not much. Free Web service outposts like Twitter, Facebook, Google, SkyDrive, Dropbox and the rest can change their features and their terms of service (ToS) at will unless the Federal Trade Commission intercedes with a privacy audit or ruling. The only real resort for irate users is to delete their account and take their cheapskate ways to another free service. For the most part, this never happens. Back in 2010, “Quit Facebook Day” organizers convinced only 33,313 out of 400 million users to disconnect from the service, as Alex Howard reported. It turns out to be easier for someone to leave a marriage than it is to abandon a Facebook or Twitter account. If you’re fed up with your marriage, there’s a bottomless stock of potential spouses. But there is only one Twitter and one Facebook. Grow heavily invested in a free service — Google would be mine — and you’ll grudgingly surrender your golden retriever, your first-born, and your left kidney if and when the new ToS require it.

Yes, we spy on allies. Want to make something of it?

Jack Shafer
Oct 28, 2013 21:59 UTC

If not yet the consensus opinion, by tomorrow morning most everyone with a keyboard and a connection to the Internet who isn’t also a head of state will concede that the ally-on-ally spying by the United States — revealed in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to Der Spiegel — won’t matter much in the long run.

This is not to say German Chancellor Angela Merkel has no right to be personally ticked off about the U.S. snooping on her phone calls since 2002. She does. This morning, the Wall Street Journal reported that upwards of 35 world leaders were spied on by the U.S. They have a right to be ticked off, too, but the protests are largely contrived. As Max Boot and David Gewirtz wrote in Commentary‘s blog and ZDNet, respectively, nations have traditionally spied on allies both putative and stalwart. One excellent reason to spy on an ally, Gewirtz notes, is to confirm that the ally is really an ally. Allies sometimes become adversaries, so shifting signs must be monitored. Likewise, allies may be allies, but they always have their disagreements. What better way to prevent unpleasant surprises from an ally than by monitoring him? Boot quotes Lord Palmerston, the 19th century British foreign minister and prime minister, on this score: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

Other reasons to spy on allies: It keeps them honest, or if not honest, it at least puts them on notice that their lies might get found out. Spying gives countries a diplomatic leg up on allies, as well as an edge in things military. The downside — well, there is really no downside unless receiving the stink eye from an ally for a couple of weeks qualifies as a downside. And so it has been for a long time, as Slate’s Fred Kaplan wrote in 2004. In 2009 Britain’s Telegraph reported that spy agencies from 20 countries, including France and Germany, had sought to steal Britain’s secrets. Earlier this year, the Guardian disclosed that British spooks eavesdropped on the G20 dignitaries when they convened in London in 2009, dispensing a little what-goes-around-comes-around to their allies. Apprehended spies may suffer, as has the American Jonathan Pollard, who pleaded guilty to spying for Israel in 1987 and is serving a life sentence in prison. But the spymasters don’t, so don’t expect them to stop any time soon.

Move over Bezos, ESPN can do news better than you

Jack Shafer
Oct 23, 2013 22:28 UTC

The pompous slogan, “The Worldwide Leader in Sports,” actually undersells ESPN’s ultimate potential.

If the Bristol behemoth were a stand-alone company instead of a Walt Disney Co./Hearst Corporation co-venture, it would be the most valuable media property in the world, worth $40 billion against annual revenues of $10.3 billion, according to one estimate. Wherever sports happens or is discussed — cable, broadcast TV, radio, online, mobile and print — one ESPN tentacle can be found wrapped tight around it, squeezing out revenue, and the others probing for fresh sucking places. It speaks four languages in more than 61 countries and has a larger standing army than Canada. I made up that army fact, but if ESPN had one it would be the world’s most predatory, profitable and entertaining.

Like Alexander the Great, ESPN has recorded so many victories in such a brief time that it will soon weep upon discovering that no additional sports worlds exist to conquer. The company has entered its mop-up phase, a place where most mature companies end up, doing more of what it does best, finding new ways to serve the old stuff, but not advancing at the old velocity. But if ESPN wanted to break out of the gold-plated sports ghetto that it now owns, what better strategy than to spend its millions refashioning itself as “The Worldwide Leader in News.” International news. Political news. Domestic news. Cultural news. Business and financial news. Local news (it already has a sports presence in five top cities). Weather. And, yeah, even sports.

Pierre Omidyar and the bottomless optimism of billionaire publishers

Jack Shafer
Oct 17, 2013 21:18 UTC

Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar – reckoned to be worth $8.5 billion — inspired tens of thousands of journalists to freshen their resumes this week when word of his plan to start his own mass media organization leaked out. With Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, and Laura Poitras announced as its first hires, the outlet will emphasize investigative journalism, but as Omidyar explained in a post, the site will serve all news.

Rattling his dumpster of cash, Omidyar will soon join other billionaires who made their money elsewhere and now peddle product at the newsstand, including Michael Bloomberg of Bloomberg News, Jeff Bezos of the Washington Post, Herb Sandler of ProPublica, Philip Anschutz of the Weekly Standard and the Washington Examiner, Mortimer Zuckerman of the Daily News and U.S. News and World Report, Richard Mellon Scaife of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, John Henry of the Boston Globe, the late Sidney Harman of Newsweek, and the late convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Washington Times. A whole junior varsity of sub-billionaire moneybags, including Wendy P. McCaw of the Santa Barbara News-Press, Jared Kushner of the New York Observer, Doug Manchester of U-T San Diego and Chris Hughes of the New Republic, have similarly bought their way into the news business to spread their influence or enrich democracy, depending on who is doing the telling.

Plutocrats the world over delight in owning media properties, and for good reason: Money can buy a lot, but unless you own a publication you’re just one of the world’s 1,426 billionaires – human cargo on a private jet, a delegator, an employer of lobbyists, another yakker in the opinion chorus. Moving to the head of the line requires the media club upgrade, which makes you and your publication a compulsory venue for campaigning candidates. Media properties are like musical instruments: when played just so, they compel your enemies to dance, as William Randolph Hearst of the San Francisco Examiner and New York Journal first demonstrated with his family’s money in the 1890s, and the super billionaire Koch brothers would have discovered had they purchased the Los Angeles Times.

Will anyone defend the Washington Redskins name?

Jack Shafer
Oct 10, 2013 21:35 UTC

For the past 14 years, Dan Snyder, principal owner of the Washington Redskins football franchise, has defied incessant calls from activists and journalists to change his team’s name and Indian logo to something less “offensive.” In May, he added extra rebar and a moat of burning oil to his previous vows on the name-change, telling USA Today that “We’ll never change the name,” adding, “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”

Obviously, Snyder could never have thought that a good liberal like President Barack Obama would side with him on the issue. The best Snyder could hope for was that the president would remain too busy with domestic and global crises to comment on the dispute.

Then, in an interview last weekend with the Associated Press, Obama suited up and entered the name-change field. What was his position on the name of the Washington Redskins football team, the AP asked. Is it insulting to Native Americans? Did he think it should be changed? Obama acknowledged the controversy diplomatically, careful not to rile Redskins loyalists, but said that if he were an owner of the team, “I’d think about changing it.”

More media won’t solve political ignorance

Jack Shafer
Oct 8, 2013 20:24 UTC

The surplus of quality journalism in print, on the Web, and over the air should give the public little to no excuse for being uninformed about political issues. Never before has so much raw and refined political intelligence been available at such a low cost to citizens willing to buy a cheap computer and Web connection — or pay the bus fare to the local public library.

But uninformed the people are, as Ilya Somin delineates in his subversive new book, Democracy and Political Ignorance, and their ignorance is willful!

“The sheer depth of most individual voters’ ignorance may be shocking to readers not familiar with the research,” Somin writes on his first page. Many Americans don’t know how the government works, they don’t know much about who runs the government, and they’re clueless about how government programs work. For instance, a 2006 Zogby poll reported that only 42 percent of respondees could name the three branches of government. In another survey from that year, only 28 percent could name two or more of the five rights in the First Amendment, and a 2002 study indicated that 35 percent believed that the words “From each according to his ability to each according to his need” could be found in the Constitution. CNN found in its 2011 poll that Americans estimated on average that foreign aid consumes 10 percent of the federal budget when it actually takes up less than 1 percent.

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