Opinion

Jack Shafer

What war on the press?

Jack Shafer
May 24, 2013 20:26 UTC

President Barack Obama has declared war on the press, say writers at Slate, the Daily Beast, Reason, the Washington Post (Jennifer Rubin, Dana Milbank and Leonard Downie Jr.), Commentary, National Journal (Ron Fournier), the New York Times editorial page, CBS News, Fox News (Roger Ailes) and even Techdirt. Scores of other scribes and commentators have filed similar dispatches about this or that federal prosecution “chilling” the press and pulping the First Amendment. Downie, who could open an aquatics center with the leaks his reporters collected during his 17 years as executive editor of the Washington Post, calls the “war on leaks … the most militant I have seen since the Nixon administration.”

The most recent casualties in the alleged press war are Fox News Channel and the Associated Press. The phone records of reporters at these outlets were subpoenaed by federal investigators after the organizations published national security secrets. Then you have New York Times reporter James Risen. Federal prosecutors have been trying to force Risen onto the stand in the trial of alleged leaker-to-the-media Jeffrey Sterling (CIA) since the latter days of the Bush administration. When media strumming on the free-press topic reaches full volume, reporters and their defenders include the leak prosecutions of Thomas Drake (National Security Agency) and John Kiriakou (CIA), even though no journalist (or journalist record) appears to have suffered a subpoena in these cases. (However, the indictments in both the Drake and Kiriakou cases cite email communications with journalists.)

Championing the besieged press has become so popular that some Republicans have switched sides. Even the commander-in-chief of the alleged war, Barack Obama, has proved himself capable of making sad faces about the “war” on journalism! In his national security speech Thursday, he said, “I am troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable.” Obama went on to promise a review of the Department of Justice guidelines on press subpoenas. These are the guidelines that ordinarily exempt reporters from federal subpoenas and which his Department of Justice ignored in the AP and Rosen investigations. To make nice with the press, Obama promised to convene a powwow of DoJ bigwigs and media organizations to address the press corps’ “concerns.” (Word to my press colleagues: Invitations to discuss “concerns” with bureaucrats are usually a prelude to a kiss-off.)

But all this legal battering of the press, while real, hardly rises to the level of war. Take, for example, the language in the affidavit for search warrant for Fox News reporter James Rosen’s emails, which refer to a “criminal offense.” To journalists’ ears, the affidavit sounds like the precursor to an arrest, and has caused many otherwise sober reporters to protest that the Department of Justice was attempting to criminalize their business. But as George Washington University Law School Professor Orin Kerr argues in this precise blog item, the language in the affidavit “is designed to show compliance with the Privacy Protection Act” and is not a prelude to a prosecution.

No charges have been filed against Rosen, and the Department of Justice say none are anticipated. The Obama administration has yet to indict any journalists for acquiring or publishing classified information and claims it has no plans to do so. Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on May 15, Attorney General Eric Holder expressed his negative enthusiasm for prosecuting journalists.

What was James Rosen thinking?

Jack Shafer
May 20, 2013 22:33 UTC

Just open your Twitter feed and listen to the Washington press corps howl about the Obama administration’s latest intrusion into their business.

From the mainstream we hear the grousing of Washington Post National Political Editor Steven Ginsberg, Washington reporter John Solomon and the Associated Press’s Matt Apuzzo. From the partisan corners come the protests of the Daily Caller’s Tucker Carlson, the New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza, Fox News Channel’s Brit Hume, the Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald and the chronically underemployed Keith Olbermann. All deplore, in vociferous terms, the excesses of a Department of Justice leak investigation that has criminalized the reporting of Fox News Channel’s James Rosen.

While I join this chorus of rage, I also wonder how much of Rosen’s trouble is of his own making. Did Rosen get caught and get his source in trouble because he practiced poor journalistic tradecraft?

Why the underwear-bomber leak infuriated the Obama administration

Jack Shafer
May 16, 2013 22:02 UTC

Journalists gasp and growl whenever prosecutors issue lawful subpoenas ordering them to divulge their confidential sources or to turn over potential evidence, such as notes, video outtakes or other records. It’s an attack on the First Amendment, It’s an attack on the First Amendment, It’s an attack on the First Amendment, journalists and their lawyers chant. Those chants were heard this week, as it was revealed that Department of Justice prosecutors had seized two months’ worth of records from 20 office, home and cell phone lines used by Associated Press journalists in their investigation into the Yemen underwear-bomber leaks.

First Amendment radicals — I count myself among them — resist any and all such intrusions: You can’t very well have a free press if every unpublished act of journalism can be co-opted by cops, prosecutors and defense attorneys. First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams speaks for most journalists when he denounces the “breathtaking scope” of the AP subpoenas. But the press’s reflexive protests can prevent it from seeing the story in full, which I think is the case in the current leaks investigation.

(Disclosure: About 50 news organizations, including my employer, Reuters, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder objecting to the subpoenas.)

The dumb war on political intelligence

Jack Shafer
May 8, 2013 22:01 UTC

For as long as legislative and regulatory acts have moved financial markets, investors and their operatives have scrummed like Komodo dragons for first bites of the fresh laws and orders dispensed by government. The stampede for the timeliest legal and regulatory information has given rise to the “political intelligence” business, which converts Capitol Hill whispers into stock market gains, and which has now attracted the full scrutiny of Congress and the regulatory apparatus.

Although legislators and regulators previously sought to hobble political-intelligence operatives, their efforts were stoked by a Capitol Hill leak about Medicare policy on April 1 that reached Height Securities — a political intelligence outfit — which in turned relayed the information to its clients in a 75-word note about 35 minutes prior to the official announcement. Clients acted on the tip, goosing skyward the price of such health insurance company stocks as Aetna, Health Net and Humana.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has issued subpoenas about the Height Securities leak, the Government Accountability Office has white-papered the political-intelligence topic, and Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) — a legislator who puts the grand into grandstanding — has started his own investigation of Height Securities and aims to introduce a bill to police the political intelligencers. (Grassley’s interest must be amplified by the fact that a former staffer turned lobbyist appears to have ferried the controversial leak to Height Securities. It’s like that horror movie cliché, in which the call is coming from inside your house. Or something like that.)

Who’s afraid of the Koch brothers?

Jack Shafer
May 1, 2013 22:44 UTC

The thought of the Koch brothers purchasing the Los Angeles Times so distressed staffers attending a recent in-house award ceremony that half of them raised their hands when asked if they would quit their jobs should the paper — which has come out of bankruptcy court and is very much for sale — fall into the two oil billionaires’ portfolio, the Huffington Post reported recently.

The unscientific show of hands indicated greater newsroom hostility for the Kochs, who have never owned a daily newspaper, than for Rupert Murdoch, journalism’s usual whipping boy, who has owned dozens of papers and rarely shied from using them to advance his business interests: Only a “few people” promised to throw themselves out the window if Murdoch wins the Los Angeles Times.

Murdoch!? The guy whose London tabloids excelled at phone-hacking? The owner of Fox News Channel and the New York Post? The kowtower to the Chinese? Whose newspapers have brought readers such headlines as “Nympho Gets Life for Killing Hubby With Paraquat Gravy,” “Maniac Who Cut Off Mom’s Head to Go Free,” “Uncle Tortures Tots with Hot Fork,” “Leper Rapes Virgin, Gives Birth to Monster Baby,” and “Green-Eyed Sex Fiend Is Hunted.”

ChartGirl boxes the news

Jack Shafer
Apr 24, 2013 19:47 UTC

If you’re the nautical sort, you probably interpret the news as a flow. If you hunt and peck on the typewriter, your news feed might resemble a pointillistic painting. But if you love to break ideas down into their sequential components, keep your socks folded and sorted by color in a dresser, compose everything you write with an outliner and consider a pair of tweezers a blunt instrument, then you probably view the news through the schematic eyes of Hilary Sargent, the creative force behind the ChartGirl website.

Since November, Sargent has been sorting and reordering the chaotic sewer of breaking news into lucid and logical text-and-graphics charts. When the top story was General David Petraeus’s affair with Paula Broadwell, Sargent straighten the “endless story angles” with an annotated chart depicting the major players in the scandal ‑ from Jill Kelley to Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), fromHarvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tampa ‑ and plotting the salient interconnections. Better than a New York Times write-through of all known facts about the scandal, ChartGirl collected the known knowns, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns in concise and puckish fashion. (Connecting Broadwell with Michelle Obama with a line, Sargent asked, “Who has better arms?”)

In early December, with John McAfee on the lam, Sargent extracted from the event the three dozen most important institutions, individuals and plot elements (e.g., a tampon, four poisoned dogs, Vice magazine, “bath salts”) and arranged them like wheel spokes around a McAfee head shot to bring coherence to the tumult. Later that month, Sargent applied her news-mapping skills to the awfulness of the Westboro Baptist Church and to Donald Trump‘s feuds with such celebrities as Rihanna, Carrie Prejean, Rosie O’Donnell, Al Neuharth and Stephen Colbert. Since then, she’s diagrammed the news behind the Bill Ackman vs. Carl Icahn battle, the highlights of the Gardner Museum heist, and, last week, press corps Boston Marathon bombings hits and misses.

In defense of journalistic error

Jack Shafer
Apr 22, 2013 22:23 UTC

Hilary Sargent, who does business on the Web as Chart Girl, compiled the best early guide to the journalistic mistakes made on the afternoon of April 17, as broadcasters and wire services moved their conflicting and error-studded reports about the status of the Boston Marathon bombing dragnet. At least eight news organizations — including the Boston Herald, the Associated Press, CNN and local station WCVB-TV — reported that either an arrest had either been made or was imminent.

These bulletins were, of course, proved wrong quickly. By the weekend, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan was crowing about the home team’s errorless Boston performance in her column. With uncharacteristic swagger, Sullivan wrote that the paper’s performance upheld its “reputation as journalism’s gold standard,” a comment likely to be shoved back in her face several times before her public editorship ends.

Without question, the Times deserves credit for avoiding rank errors in its Boston coverage, as do the scores of other outlets that fielded the story without booting the ball. But as anybody who has worked in a newsroom can tell you, reportorial diligence is never sufficient to prevent a news organization from misreporting stories. News, especially breaking news, has always been a difficult thing to report accurately. If you examine the news product closely, you’ll discover a vein of feldspar running through even the shiniest gold standard.

Shameless paper in mindless fog

Jack Shafer
Apr 18, 2013 23:02 UTC

If our culture allowed diseased newspapers to be quarantined, I’d have the New York Post kenneled right now.

I express that sentiment after reading the Post‘s Boston Marathon bombing coverage, in which it erroneously reported that 12 were dead, mistakenly stated that a Saudi national was “a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing” and, this morning identified two Boston Marathon bystanders in a Page One photo as “Bag Men.”

Of course, every news outlet botches a breaking news story from time to time, and many have erred in their Boston reporting, as BuzzFeedChart GirlPoynterSalon and others have tabulated. But what distinguishes the New York Post from other stumbling outlets is the cavalier manner about its errors. When other outlets make monumental mistakes, they may take their time printing corrections. They may avoid acknowledging their errors if they can get away with it. Or if they acknowledge their errors promptly — as CNN’s John King did this week — they may blame “confusion” or “misinformation” rather than accept the blame directly. But by and large, the press takes its lumps.

Terror and the template of disaster journalism

Jack Shafer
Apr 16, 2013 22:58 UTC

Natural disasters, airline crashes — and yes, terrorist bombs — undercut the normalcy of everyday life by bringing death’s whammy to an unexpected place at an unforeseen time. In the hours and days following such catastrophes, journalists work to restore normalcy to the panicked population by explaining how and why the bad thing happened and how to prevent it from happening again. Reporters have been normalizing the abnormal for so long that they’ve created well-worn catastrophe templates to convey their stories. Yesterday, while covering the Boston Marathon bombing, journalists leaned hard again on those templates.

First came the sputtering dispatches over radio and television about the calamity. Next up were the on-the-scene broadcast reports, frequently marred by confusion and contradiction, as the press held out hope for survivors but prepared audiences for the worst. Video of the catastrophe was converted by the cable news networks into a perpetual loop, giving the talking heads a wallpaper background to talk over  (and giving new viewers just tuning in something graphic to watch).

Then came the eyewitness accounts, telling of a big bang and the second big bang, testimony that transported more emotion than data. Not that that’s a bad thing: Since the first storytellers competed around the fire, emotion has coexisted with data in the service of narrative. Nobody wants a story composed exclusively of numbers or of feelings. Then came additional video and photos, early body count estimates, speculation and the refinement of facts mined and edited through the early evening and into the night.

Our national pastime: Press criticism

Jack Shafer
Apr 10, 2013 22:17 UTC

In early 1946, Albert Camus emptied into New Yorker press critic A.J. Liebling’s ear his plan for a new newspaper.

“It would be a critical newspaper, to be published one hour after the first editions of the other papers, twice a day, morning and evening,” said Camus, who knew a thing or two about journalism, having recently resigned his editorship of the Paris daily Combat.

“It would evaluate the probable element of truth in the other papers’ main stories, with due regard to editorial policies and the past performances of the correspondents. Once equipped with card-indexed dossiers on the correspondents, a critical newspaper could work very fast. After a few weeks the whole tone of the press would conform more closely to reality. An international service,” Camus told Liebling.

  •