Opinion

Jack Shafer

Taking a trash-talking Murdoch lieutenant to task

Jack Shafer
Apr 1, 2014 22:41 UTC

 

A journalist hasn’t performed a full day’s work unless at some point he deprecates a competitor, either in print, in a public speech, or idly while exiting the building for lunch. News Corp chief executive Robert Thomson (Wall Street Journal; Times of London; New York Post; Australian; et al.) more than earned his pay Monday, when he rabbit-punched the Washington Post at an Advertising Week Europe conference in London. He castigated Post staffers, most of whom regard themselves as “high priests” of journalism, he said. Their self-worship has prevented them from making the necessary transformative digital switch, Thomson alleged.

As if commissioned by the Post‘s guardian angel, the Financial Times answered (registration required) Thomson’s sass with a glowing story about all the digital initiatives at the Jeff Bezos-era Post. The newsroom is adding three dozen new faces, including data journalists and mobile designers, and has struck a deal with six outland newspapers that will allow their subscribers to bypass the Post pay wall and read all they like there. The paper has established a new online contributor network, drawing on the talent at the Volokh Conspiracy blog, and it has swung (and missed) with its Post TV venture.

Financial Times reporter Emily Steel was dazzled by some of the skunkworks projects that digital wizard Cory Haik showed her, which included prototypes built on Google Glass, Snapchat, the Secret app, and smartwatches. So allow me to correct Robert Thomson: If any future-blocking high priests of journalism remain at the Post, they must be directing their masses off the premises.

I slag Thomson not only to fill my own daily quota of deprecation, but as a device to revisit the journalistic debate that has smoldered like an underground coal fire since the commercial Web got going 20 years ago. The debate pits the platformists against the contentists, to pinch the terminology of my friend Michael Schaffer of the New Republic.

Platformists, who speak excitedly and are prone to writing in italics, insist that technology changes everything! Function must follow form! Digital first! Innovate or die! Everybody must learn how to write code! Data rules! We must build an Uber for news! A GarageBand for news! A Candy Crush for news!

The next publisher of the Washington Post is…

Jack Shafer
Aug 12, 2013 21:19 UTC

I resist making predictions if only to avoid the inevitable disappointment when they fail to peg future events. As best as I can tell, every forecast, every prophecy, every reading of entrails and chicken bones that I’ve committed to print (or its digital equivalent) has failed to come true. But this time I think I’ve read enough into my tea leaves to confidently assert my suspicion that in early October, after Jeff Bezos consummates the deal he made with Donald Graham to purchase the Washington Post for $250 million, one of his first acts of ownership will be to name Vijay Ravindran his publisher of the newspaper.

Ravindran, who holds the title of senior vice president and chief digital officer at the Washington Post Co., seems like such a logical fit for the job I feel guilty about killing that goat and boiling a chicken to confirm my hunch. Ravindran’s company biography makes him sound like a research product bred specifically to replace the Washington Post‘s current publisher and chief executive officer, Katharine Weymouth.

Ravindran previously worked as a software engineer and technical manager between 1998 and 2005 at Bezos’s Amazon, where he labored to help bring 1-Click ordering, Amazon Prime, and other advances to the online shopping. From 2005 through the 2008 election, he was chief technology officer at Catalist, a D.C.-based vendor of voting-list databases for progressive clients. Since joining the Post Co. in 2009, Ravindran has sought to transfer some of Amazon’s technological gravitas to its online operations. WaPo Labs, which Ravindran founded and leads, has developed several experimental services including Trove, a news personalization site that I use daily, and others that I’ve never touched, including the Post‘s Social Reader and its Poll Watch app. As part of his techno-push, the company has also recruited such talented folks as Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda of Slashdot fame. Last year, SocialCode, the Post Co. social advertising agency that Ravindran helps lead, made news when it “acquihired” 15 engineers from the previous incarnation of Digg.com.

Jeff Bezos is an owner who knows how to deliver

Jack Shafer
Aug 5, 2013 23:21 UTC

As the American newspaper business began its red-ink slide in the late 2000s, I fully expected a billionaire to rescue the financially struggling Washington Post. But I never thought its savior would be Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who purchased the paper today for $250 million.

I put my money on Michael R. Bloomberg’s money, in a July 2012 column titled “How Bloomberg can still run Washington” because he seemed like such a logical buyer. Unlike Bezos, Bloomberg already owned a media empire comprised of a news service, a cable channel, a weekly magazine, and more. Unlike Bezos, Bloomberg had toyed in semi-public with the idea of buying either the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or the Financial Times. Unlike the 49-year-old Bezos, who has been building spaceships and an eternal clock with his mad money, the aging (71 years old) Bloomberg seemed to need one last great gesture in his career before called to paradise. He wasn’t ever going to be president, a campaign he had gamed out. As for running the World Bank, a job Bloomberg was reportedly shopped to fill, well, that would be a step down from Emperor of New York City.

My matchmaking ploy failed. Washington Post Co. CEO Donald E. Graham, whose family owns a controlling interest in the company that owns the paper, humorously rebuffed my proposal in a tart email. Bloomberg didn’t knock on my door offering to pay me a finder’s fee. My idea was completely forgotten — even by me! — until today.

Edward Snowden and the selective targeting of leaks

Jack Shafer
Jun 11, 2013 22:47 UTC

Edward Snowden’s expansive disclosures to the Guardian and the Washington Post about various National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs have only two corollaries in contemporary history—the classified cache Bradley Manning allegedly released to WikiLeaks a few years ago and Daniel Ellsberg’s dissemination of the voluminous Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and other newspapers in 1971.

Leakers like Snowden, Manning and Ellsberg don’t merely risk being called narcissists, traitors or mental cases for having liberated state secrets for public scrutiny. They absolutely guarantee it. In the last two days, the New York Times’David Brooks, Politico’s Roger Simon, the Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen and others have vilified Snowden for revealing the government’s aggressive spying on its own citizens, calling him self-indulgent, a loser and a narcissist.

Yet even as the insults pile up and the amateur psychoanalysis intensifies, keep in mind that Snowden’s leak has more in common with the standard Washington leak than should make the likes of Brooks, Simon and Cohen comfortable. Without defending Snowden for breaking his vow to safeguard secrets, he’s only done in the macro what the national security establishment does in the micro every day of the week to manage, manipulate and influence ongoing policy debates. Keeping the policy leak separate from the heretic leak is crucial to understanding how these stories play out in the press.

Does anyone care about newspaper ombudsmen?

Jack Shafer
Mar 4, 2013 23:54 UTC

Last week, Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth discontinued the ombudsman position, replacing it with an ambiguously defined “reader representative” to whom readers will be able to address their “concerns and questions,” as soon as the paper gets around to appointing one.

This “ombudsman lite” slot is a radical dilution of the old position. As conceived back in 1970, the ombudsman’s job was, in former Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee’s words, “to monitor the paper for fairness, accuracy, and relevance and to represent the public in whatever strains might arise from time to time between the newspaper and its readers.” (Emphasis added.) The Post ombudsman was “resolutely autonomous,” Bradlee wrote. Working on contract rather than staff, the ombudsman was given the independence to write about whatever he wanted to write about. He couldn’t be assigned. He couldn’t be edited. And he couldn’t be fired, Bradlee continued.

On paper, the power to write such a weekly column and dispatch internal memos of rebuke to the newsroom sounds like a job fit for a hanging judge. But the occupants of this perch have generally shied away from using their power to inflict public punishment or embarrassment on the Post. On some occasions the paper has filled the job with experienced government functionaries, such as Joseph Laitin, Bill Green, Sam Zagoria and Robert J. McCloskey, but usually the job has gone to journalistic veterans, such as Geneva Overholser, Andrew Alexander, Richard Harwood, E.R. Shipp, Michael Getler, Deborah Howell, Joann Byrd, Robert C. Maynard, Charles B. Seib, Patrick Pexton (who just completed a two-year tour of duty) and others. No matter what the ombudsman’s background, the tendency has been to pull punches whenever the Post erred. Instead of roasting the paper for its transgressions, the ombudsman could be relied on to sympathize with the hard job of newspapering and gently explain the newsroom’s mistakes to readers. Worse yet, some ombudsmen have played Monday morning quarterback with their columns, detailing from the safe remove from deadline pressure how they would have assigned, reported, written and edited a flawed story had they been in charge.

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.

How Bloomberg can still run Washington

Jack Shafer
Jul 19, 2012 00:14 UTC

At the age of 70, Michael R. Bloomberg nears an actuarial end that not even his $22 billion net worth can reverse. By giving him a measly 13 years of life expectancy, the law of averages has made the New York mayor acutely aware of time. In 2006, he installed a countdown clock in his mayoral headquarters that marked time until the end of his second term. As his third term commenced in 2009, Bloomberg escalated his war on time, putting a stopwatch to meetings. Was he racing the clock, or, as the co-inventor of the Bloomberg Terminal, did he think that a firmer grasp on life’s raw data would prolong his life?

Before he’s ushered to his reward, Bloomberg – whose current term as mayor ends at the close of 2013 – yearns to do something as grand as revolutionizing Wall Street, making billions, and running New York City government. Ordinary billionaires find this sort of psychic remuneration in philanthropy, but Bloomberg, a generous donor, is no ordinary billionaire. Philanthropy gives him a kick, but not the kick he craves. Back in 2006, Bloomberg’s special something looked to be a presidential campaign. He took foreign policy lessons from a centrist, priced the cost of the race at an affordable $500 million, and played the big-town flirt as he explained to one news organization after another how he didn’t really want to run for president – while reminding them what a splendid president he would make.

He didn’t run because he came to understand that he couldn’t win as a Democrat, a Republican or an independent. It’s for the best that he didn’t become president: His idea of governance is giving orders, as if he’s the people’s CEO. It’s also for the best that when the Obama administration shopped him to fill the vacancy at the World Bank, as its president, he declined the position because he didn’t want a boss, as New York’s Gabriel Sherman reported.

Aiming for Bradlee but missing

Jack Shafer
May 9, 2012 14:21 UTC

This review originally appeared in the Washington Post on May 6, 2012, and is being reprinted by permission of the Post.

Jeff Himmelman uses his new book, Yours in Truth, to take shots at Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and their 1974 book, All the President’s Men. But Himmelman’s fire does not come from the usual redoubt of Watergate revisionism. He is a former researcher for Woodward, one who worked so diligently on Maestro the reporter’s 2001 book about Alan Greenspan, that Woodward gushed about him in his author’s note.

“Jeff Himmelman,” he wrote, “was my full-time collaborator at every step of this book—reporting, writing and editing. … A truly remarkable man of unusual maturity, brainpower and charm, Jeff is an original thinker who retains a deep sense of idealism. … This book would never have been completed without him, and it is his as much as mine. I consider him a friend for life.”

When anonymice attack

Jack Shafer
Oct 19, 2011 00:02 UTC

Washington’s anonymous sources are disagreeing with one another today.

In the lead story in today’s New York Times (“U.S. Debated Cyberwarfare in Attack Plan on Libya”), the anonymous sources tell reporters Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker that the issue of whether or not to attack Libya with cyberweapons was “intensely debated” by the Obama administration last March.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post‘s catch-up story by Ellen Nakashima that runs on A5 in today’s print edition, disputes an important element of the Times revelation. Relying on its own anonymice, the Post piece confirms that a cyberwarfare debate took place but asserts unequivocally that the debate “did not reach the White House” according to Pentagon officials. [Emphasis added.]

Obviously, either the Times or the Post owes its readers a correction because the administration cannot have “intensely debated” cyberwar against the Libyan military at the same time that it did not. Such  a fundamental contradiction screams out for a follow-up story by both papers, but will we see them?

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