Tag Archives: media ethics

Freed POW Bergdahl is an attractive candidate for scapegoat for a war U.S. public has abandoned

 

No accounting has been demanded for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The architects of those disasters have shuffled off-stage now to their pensions and honorarias; some occasionally return to the public forum as learned commentators, as if their lethal stupidities of a decade ago now qualify them as experts on the bad choices to come.

Meanwhile the real leaders—Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld—are hanging back, presumably hoping the next wave of revisionism will restore to them the reputations for wisdom and courage they imagine they deserve. Hey, why not? Their victims are either dead or ignored. Even Nixon was remembered for statesmanship by the time he died.

In this country, we don’t have truth and reconciliation commissions, which elsewhere invite the victims of social calamities to talk publicly, and which try to restore dignity to those who suffered and to lay the seeds for futures in which such debacles won’t recur.

Instead, the engrained U.S. response to catastrophes—such as laying waste to other lands without cause—is to change the channel. In Scarlett O’Hara’s words, “Tomorrow’s another day.” Or as Kinky Friedman put it, “Let Saigons be bygones.”

When the urge for retrospection arises, chances are it won’t be to demand accountability. It’ll be to seek scapegoats. Hence the Bowe Bergdahl affair, an unfolding chapter in how the longest war in U.S. history is being imagined.

Bergdahl was the only U.S. prisoner of war left in Afghanistan. He was freed last month after being held by the Taliban under often harrowing conditions for almost five years. When he was captured he was a 23-year-old private first class (he’s only a sergeant now because he was promoted while in Taliban hands.) Actually, he was a home-schooled grunt from Idaho who had a longing for adventure, a flair for wordplay, and a loathing for the miseries of war.

The initial jubilance surrounding his release quickly subsided. The first buzz-killer was the exchange that freed him, in which five ex-Taliban officials were released from Guantanamo. Obama critics condemned them immediately as “some of the worst outlaws in the U.S. war on terror,” or, as Sen. John McCain declared, “the five biggest murderers in world history,” killers with U.S. blood on their hands.

That’s quite a stretch. Actually three of the five had been in U.S. hands since November 2001 and the other two since Continue reading

On Google, the curse of the Permanent Record, and the right to be forgotten

 

Once, we came of age under the shadow of something called a Permanent Record. Nobody ever actually saw one, but it was a scary thing, and as youngsters we understood we had to keep our own permanent records clean, since any stains on them could do lifelong damage.

Plainly, the idea of an authoritative, ineradicable ledger on individual behavior is a powerful one. Widespread too. You see it in everything from the divine Book of Life to the gift list kept by Santa, who knows if you’ve been naughty or nice.

That permanent record meant somebody was paying attention, which was good, but it was also a brooding and oppressive background presence, since it enabled even trivial sins to curse our futures.

A good thing it was largely mythic. Back then, actual record-keeping was spotty and forgetful, and technology had zero ability to corral the manifold traces that we leave as we make our way through life into some all-knowing compendium.

No longer. Welcome to the digital age. Its mighty search engines have spawned a virtual permanent record for millions of individuals. It’s updated constantly, lasts forever, and is in fulltime public view.

What gets in it and with what prominence—those are mysteries, depending on the alchemy of particular search engines. Generally, it seems, they suck up most anything about someone that was published or resides in Internet-accessible public records. (The search engines don’t scour social media like Twitter and Facebook, yet.)

That means the fraternity house dustup that led to a sleepover in jail, or the rude remark at a political rally, or any of a thousand missteps and embarrassments that in a pre-modern age would have faded into oblivion—the debris of what Justice John Paul Stevens called the “practical obscurity” we used to inhabit—remain vivid, alive and, potentially, toxic.

Hence the importance of last month’s ruling by Europe’s highest court. It authorizes people to demand that links to material that threatens their privacy be scrubbed from search results.

The case involves Google, the California-based colossus that handles roughly 90 percent of Europe’s Internet searches. It was brought by a Spaniard who challenged a link to a 1998 item in a Catalan newspaper about the auction of his home, which was repossessed to pay off debts he owed. He reasoned that the matter had been resolved ages ago and there was no reason people who googled

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Has U.S. journalism lost its nerve?

Much of normal news, the routine patter that fills our screens and spills from the airwaves, is a chummy co-production of authorized sources and compliant scribes. The rituals of normal news ensure that the public agenda is dominated by the concerns and perspectives of the powerful, whose priorities typically lead the newscasts.

Fortunately, that’s not all our news media do. We also have parallel traditions, among them a journalism of defiance. That’s when reporters ferret out and make public newsworthy realities that people in power would rather be ignored and sometimes even make it illegal to expose.

We’re in an era of spectacularly audacious disclosures of official secrets—commensurate with the most audacious expansion of official secrecy in the history of this or any country. Since Wikileaks, the online anti-secrecy network, posted in 2010 the classified gunsite footage of Iraqi civilians being slaughtered by a U.S. helicopter, news media worldwide have showcased stunning disclosures of U.S. secrets and the shadowy infrastructure through which the unprecedented post-9/11 regime of surveillance and data collection has been sustained.

The counterattack has been ferocious: The soldier who was Wikileaks’ source, Chelsea Manning, is doing 35 years in federal prison, and the mastermind who brokered the release to the news media, Julian Assange, is under de facto house arrest in London.

Meantime, top media continue to feast on secrets served up by Wikileaks’ successor, ex-U.S. intelligence analyst Edward Snowden. They include astonishing revelations about government data sweeps, penetration of the tech industry and the overreach of National Security Agency electronic snooping.

Amazing stuff. Political leaders continue to denounce Snowden as a spy, but the public isn’t convinced. One of the few surveys of broad opinion on the matter, a Quinnipiac University poll last year, found that by a huge 55-34 percent margin voters regard Snowden as a whistleblower, not a traitor, and that by 45-40 percent people believe official anti-terrorism efforts go too far in restricting civil liberties.

So you might think that U.S. journalists would feel emboldened: After all, here’s news of vast import, purloined in the name of civic purpose with evidence of public support. Seems like a sturdy basis on which to challenge the tired rituals of normal news, to re-energize that parallel tradition of defiance and independent truth-seeking.

A surprising new survey suggests this isn’t how today’s journalists see things. It’s the latest in a series of polls conducted every 10 years since 1971 by Indiana University researchers. What it found was a demoralized profession, one that has lost its nerve. Respondents are convinced the news industry is generally heading in the wrong direction and that its biggest problem is “declining profits.”

Most remarkable are signs of a dramatically growing rejection of the very reporting techniques that have nourished the journalism of defiance in recent years.

Consider this question: Might, “on occasion,” a reporter be justified in using “confidential business or government documents without authorization?” That means newsworthy information you’re not supposed to have.

Fewer than 58 percent of the 1,080 respondents in the 2013 poll approved, a major decline from nearly 82 percent in 1992. Continue reading

Saving Sources: Time to Stand Up

Introductory Remarks, 8th Annual Reva and David Logan Symposium on Investigative Reporting, organized by the Investigative Reporting Program of the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley, April 26, 2014

Welcome to Berkeley, where we’re observing the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, which is a natural segue into the theme of this year’s symposium, which focuses on the beleaguered condition of news sources.

This is something I’ve been talking and writing about for the past few years, so I’m very glad to be able to take a few minutes to tee this up before I hand off to the organizer and star of this gathering, Lowell Bergman.

I have three main points:

1. Press freedom is meaningless without source freedom.

2. Neither the media, nor the courts, nor even our frayed system of civic education has ever assigned sources the importance and respect they deserve.

3. And finally, the media need to step up institutionally for their sources.

1. To my first point, which should be obvious but apparently isn’t: press freedom Continue reading

Sex isn’t the only way to spoil a news relationship

Sleeping with a source seems like such a transparently bad idea there wouldn’t seem to be much point exploring why journalists shouldn’t do it.

But with The Los Angeles Times summarily firing one of its top investigative reporters after he told his bosses he’d had a brief affair with an informant, it seems worthwhile to look at what the limits ought to be in the relations between journalists and sources.

Physical intimacy is only one of many powerful off-screen entanglements that can develop amid the mutual dependency that often arises between reporter and source. Few of them draw the same gut-level disapproval as extramarital sex, but many still have the potential to corrupt the work that the public sees.

In this case, the Times reporter, Jason Felch, had been investigating the alleged failure of LA-based Occidental College to comply fully with federal rules requiring it to report complaints of sexual wrongdoing on campus. Felch had written three stories on the subject and had accused Occidental of incomplete disclosure, asserting that allegations of 27 sexual assaults had wrongly gone unreported to U.S. education authorities.

Occidental didn’t address the substance of the stories before they were published, and afterward hired a PR firm to prepare a detailed response. It was presented to the Times in March, three months after the last story ran.

The school argued, persuasively, that Felch had misunderstood his data, and that the 27 unreported instances did not involve assaults at all, but instead covered a range of allegations—distasteful emails, for instance—that fell below the threshold of significance at which disclosure is legally mandatory.

It was, then, when his bosses confronted him with the apparent reporting errors that Felch told them about his romance. He says the woman hadn’t been a source since the beginning of their affair—a contention that conflicts with what the Times says he initially said. He also says the affair was brief and, by now, was over.

Still, the Times fired Felch—a 10-year employee and a onetime Pulitzer finalist—and editor Davan Maharaj said Felch’s failure to tell his bosses sooner of his “inappropriate relationship” amounted to “a professional lapse of the kind that no news organization can tolerate.” The core point: “Our credibility depends on our being a neutral, unbiased source of information in appearance as well as in fact.”

I’m always uneasy when decisions like this one are made with an eye to appearances, and the Times allowed the core question—was Felch’s reporting skewed by his affections?—to go unaddressed. Too bad, because as a matter of professional conduct (as opposed to personal morality), that’s the question that really ought to matter.

But that silence is unavoidable. Who can possibly know? That’s why sex has to be off-limits for reporter and source. It destroys any reasonable expectation that the source’s influence will be weighed fairly and dispassionately. Did the source offer sex as a way to make sure his or her account got greater weight? Did the reporter suggest that sex might be a way to ensure the source version of evens is taken seriously?

And what if sex comes to be seen as a routine part of the bargain, if potential sources understand they might be asked for favors in exchange for sympathetic treatment? How much harm might be done in a general way to the ever-imperiled flow of publicly significant information?

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Why would anybody talk to a reporter? The plight of the irreplaceable source

Why should people talk to reporters? It’s a question that’s seldom raised among news people, which is too bad, because it’s an important one.

When you think about it, that question goes to the foundation of the entire edifice of a free press. And that foundation, at the moment, is shaky.

Let’s back up. No honest press, whatever its sense of mission and however firm its legal protections, can outperform its sources. It can’t be any better, stronger, braver, more richly informed, or more dedicated to broad public purpose than the people who swallow their misgivings, return the phone call, step forward, and risk embarrassment and reprisal to talk to the reporter.

The mythology of journalism enshrines the sleuths, sometimes the editors, even the publishers, but sources are really the whole ball game. Press freedom is nothing more than source freedom, one step removed.  The right of a news organization to tell what it learns is an empty abstraction without the willingness of news sources to tell what they know.

Considering how important sources are, it’s stunning how little affection they get and how flimsy the protections are that anybody claims for them.  For starters, take the current national security cases, the unprecedented Espionage Act prosecutions that the Obama Administration is pursuing against whistleblowers who gave news reporters secret information about governmental improprieties and illegalities.

Nowadays prosecutors, for the most part, prefer to leave the press alone, and happily embrace the idea that even if an informant belongs in prison for handing over secrets for publication, the media organizations that actually make them public need not be answerable.

That practice reflects a cozy little entente between government and big media: The government avoids a public fuss, and the media buy themselves immunity at the cost of their sources’ safety.

Of course, as a matter of moral logic ignoring the press is absurd. If publishing something causes real harm, those responsible should be called to account—whether they’re former security contractor Edward Snowden or The New York Times.

More important, if the publication creates, on balance, a public benefit nobody should be punished—neither the mighty news organization nor its source.

But news sources have few allies nowadays. That’s not just in the national security realm. If you look at digital era news practices, the overall environment for sources has deteriorated, and potential informants have better reason than ever to keep silent.

Consider the channels through which reporters and informants communicate. News organizations routinely post email addresses for their reporters. But does anyone believe an email to a journalist is private, in the way a phone conversation would have been a decade Continue reading

Transgender suicide ignites media ethics firestorm

An ethical firestorm has flared up over an expose that ran last month in Grantland, a sports and popular culture site affiliated with ESPN, on the unlikely subject of a new golf club and the woman who invented it.

As much as any media ethics matter of recent years, the furor touched off by “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” raises compelling questions about whether conventional journalistic practices are nasty, brutish and indefensible—questions raised by an online community of newspeople who have a strikingly different ethic in mind.

The Grantland article was the product of an eight-month inquiry into Essay Anne Vanderbilt, aka Dr. V, who spent seven years developing an aerodynamically innovative putter that some respected golfers believed materially improved their games. The possibility loomed of a major technological advance—and a business triumph—in a sport that reveres its toys.

But the Grantland writer, Caleb Hannan, discovered serious fabrications in Dr. V’s academic and professional resume: She didn’t, as claimed, have degrees from MIT and Wharton; she wasn’t related to the Vanderbilt dynasty; she probably didn’t help develop the Stealth bomber. Apparently, she had been an auto mechanic, albeit a remarkably gifted one.

Then, Hannan’s background checks took an unexpected turn. While trying to figure out why he could find no trace of Dr. V before 2000, he learned she was transgender, and had lived until then—and had married twice—under the male name she was born with. “What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into the tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself,” he wrote.

That story ended some weeks after Dr. V’s last, angry, email communication with Hannan, when in late October she killed herself.  In January the story was published.

It’s unclear what pushed her to suicide—fear that she’d be exposed as transgender, the lies in her resume, or the demons that many transgender people wrestle with, which is why they attempt suicide at rates far greater than the general population. (She tried before.)

But the transgender element is what provoked furious comment after the story was published—and it’s what challenges most frontally cherished practices of textbook journalism.

Traditionally, information bearing on the capacities, character, stability and credibility of an entrepreneur would be considered fair game for a reporter, who Continue reading