Safeguarding News in the Era of Disruptive Sources

Published in Journal of Media Ethics, Vol. 2, Issue 2, April-June 2017 ABSTRACT Obligations and loyalties that develop between reporter and source both enable and enrich—and impede and corrupt—the flow of publicly significant information to wide audiences. Source relations are at the core of journalism practice, yet they are a thinly developed area of journalism ethics, […]

The media’s helping hand in enabling the Trump electoral win

Published in The San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 14, 2016

The news media have assigned themselves a generous role in getting Donald J. Trump elected, which by my count would be the third time this century that press failure produced what many people, myself included, regard as a civic calamity. This isn’t like the first time, the 2003 Iraq war, where few journalists had the sources to challenge the false claim of national peril. And it’s not like the second, the 2008 financial collapse, where the extent of the system’s rickety dependency on reckless lending was hard to discern beforehand.

This time, there was nothing hidden about the realties. They couldn’t have been more public. Trump was thoroughly out there, brazen, outspoken, in your face. And the press—not just the legacy press, but tough-minded internet natives too—did their due diligence. They rummaged his flaky business past, exposed his frat-house squalor and his spectacular mendacity, put his cruelties on daily display, left his policy ignorance and lack of qualification for high office unmistakable.

And he did lose the electorate by a non-trivial 2.9 million votes. So a substantial audience was paying attention.

Still, the conclusion that the election represents a historic moment of press failure is warranted, and this is the right moment to reflect on the nature of that failure before the media lurch into covering Trump’s presidency in the same flawed ways that they covered his candidacy.

Lessons learned?

First, exposure trumps substance. Donald Trump was the most charismatic and telegenic of the GOP primary candidates, and his on-air presence was a crowd-pleaser—for the debates, for cable news, for network news talk shows. Bookers may have thought of him as a clownish longshot, but he drew audiences, and the saturation exposure of his rallies conferred stature and credibility on him. Trump essentially applied his business model to the campaign: Instead of licensing his brand in return for cash royalties, with TV news, he offered his presence and collected his royalties in votes.

Second, evenhandedness has its limits. It became apparent, as the general campaign heated up, that the style of Trump’s electioneering—the sheer velocity of insults, falsehoods, fabrications and squirrelly accusations—demanded skeptical treatment and even real-time refutation. But the conventional standards of journalistic professionalism also required some measure of balance. That meant paying equivalent attention to Hillary Clinton’s wrongdoing, and giving outlandish play to partisan drama over an internet server she used during her tenure as secretary of state four years before, and which apparently caused no discernible harm to national security. Likewise, petty sniping among Democratic campaign workers exposed in hacked emails drew extravagant coverage—not because it mattered, but because it was unfavorable to Clinton and could be cited as evidence of balance.

Finally, covering politics isn’t just covering politicians. It’s reporting on the electorate and what voters see, fear, demand and long for. The most spectacular evidence of press failure was the universal astonishment over the outcome among the organizations that purport to be the best informed. Some of that cluelessness was attributable to the destruction of the regional press, the traditional conduits of authoritative reporting on the sentiments of the provinces. Even the best reporters from out-of-town news organizations cannot match the authority with which local reporters can speak. The extent of disgust with national political elites, with marginalization of the heartland, with trade and immigration policies, fueled a cultural insurgency of which Trump became the flag-bearer, and which was simmering, largely unnoticed, by elite media.

So what now? Trump’s enthusiastic use of Twitter to share hunches, thoughts, Continue reading “The media’s helping hand in enabling the Trump electoral win”

Why plagiarism matters

Published on CNN.com, July 19, 2016 I hail from the world of journalism, which has seen its fair share of plagiarism scandals in the past decade or so, starting with the Jayson Blair affair at The New York Times in 2003. But plagiarism in the news business is a different animal from what’s being alleged […]

Why the Media Have Been Greasing Trump’s Wheels

How to explain the indispensable role of the news media in lubricating the unfathomable rise of Donald Trump? It can’t be favoritism. I venture to say that a survey of U.S. journalists taken at the start of the primary season would have found support among the working press for the idea that Trump was a […]

Images of real, violent death are now routine on screens big and small, and nobody knows what they’re doing to us

I was pretty young, but I remember with fascination and horror the stills from the Zapruder film of the John Kennedy assassination. Frame by frame, Life Magazine, which in those days defined news photography, in early 1964 ran the grainy color 8mm images of the murder—Kennedy grabbing his throat as the first bullet hit him, then Jackie cradling him, finally a red blur as the killing round went through his head.

There must have been comparable, mass-circulated, images of death from before JFK’s, but I don’t remember any. The ones that came after I do remember well: Martin Luther King Jr. crumpled on the Memphis balcony; Bobby Kennedy dying, his face almost luminous as he’s comforted by the Filipino waiter in Los Angeles; the Viet Cong commando executed during Tet; the anguished girl crouching, screaming, alongside the dead student at Kent State.

They were signature moments from a world gone mad, and they left a mark because they were rare. They were rare because the news media shied away from pictures of death and dying. That was never because the pictures weren’t readily available. No metro newspaper ever complained about a shortage of grisly pictures. Images of shotgunned murder victims, limbs severed in car wrecks, impaled motorists were never hard to come by.

But the pictures were considered distasteful, more likely to cost subscriptions than to sell papers. I once asked an editor from the National Enquirer why his tabloid hadn’t published photos of Princess Diana dying in her wrecked limousine in Paris, by all accounts a harrowing scene captured by a platoon of paparazzi. Two reasons, he said: Our readers would hate us, and we’d get thrown out of the supermarkets.

Beyond that, the logic went, such images were rarely ever needed to tell the story. That was the thinking.

But that was then. We have entered a new age when it comes to images of death. Video of violent killings has become routine. Round-the-clock news channels, lacking fresh video, run continuous loops of snuff film.

How many times have I seen the 12-year-old in Cleveland with a toy gun shot dead by a cop with a real one; the teenager in Chicago as he’s shot and shot again, incredibly, 16 times, by a policeman; the Paris club-goers running into the alleyway, filmed from above, some dying, others stumbling past the bodies; the ISIS videos of hostage slaughter, images generally carried by our media right up to the moment when blade meets throat.

And the inexhaustible supply of surveillance video, a mainstay of local news now, more images of beatings and shootings. Our public records  Continue reading “Images of real, violent death are now routine on screens big and small, and nobody knows what they’re doing to us”

Drone war’s media profile remains low, despite Jihadi John hit, and opponents resort to an ad campaign to raise public outrage

A ghost is stalking the presidential debates, uninvited and unacknowledged. It’s the silent envoy from a murderous side of U.S. overseas operations, one that’s reviled abroad and can’t help but scar the hearts and minds of the very people our leaders consider pivotal to global success. Here I’m talking about the U.S. drone war.

This week’s news that the loathsome ISIS executioner with the London accent, Mohammed Emwazi—known as Jihadi John—was killed in Syria by a U.S. drone was one of the rare instances when drones draw public attention here.

The candidates’ silence during the debates is understandable, since they have nothing to gain from talking about the drone war, this being one of only three out of the 44 countries Pew surveyed last year where most people support the program. Elsewhere, Pew found, disgust reigns and is growing.

We don’t hear much about that from our media, since earlier disclosures indicating our government knows that drones are killing a lot of civilians provoked scant public response—and this Congress is hardly likely to hold hearings on an effort lawmakers generally support, whose victims are both faceless and distant.

Still, I was surprised a few weeks back to see an article in The Guardian of London in which whistleblowers Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden were applauding some new leaks of secret U.S. documents about the drones.

The leaks, which concern CIA and Air Force drones in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, were reported by The Intercept, the maverick U.S. website bankrolled by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

The leaks indicate that drone-borne targeted assassinations: first, are guided by frequently inaccurate “signals intelligence,” meaning inferences based on electronic communication captures instead of ground-level spies; second, are authorized by death sentences pronounced by presidential decree, which are subject to neither review nor appeal; and third, have killed hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians, many of them reflexively classified as “enemies” posthumously, no matter how thin the evidence that they had done, or intended to do, any harm to us.

As one example, The Intercept reported, during 13-month-long Operation Haymaker in Northeastern Afghanistan in 2012-13, some 200 people died, of whom only 35 were specifically targeted. “During one five-month period … nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets,” The Intercept said.

The reason I was surprised to read that Ellsberg and Snowden welcomed those disclosures was that I hadn’t seen the new leaks reported anywhere else in this country’s media.

Continue reading “Drone war’s media profile remains low, despite Jihadi John hit, and opponents resort to an ad campaign to raise public outrage”

Suppose an inside scoop of official secrets gives some market players an unfair advantage—is that a good reason to muzzle the media?

People who are concerned about runaway secrecy and who cheer when the media break important stories in defiance of government edict may still find this particular affair worrisome.

Suppose the official secrets that are illegally leaked are published in an exclusive newsletter for a narrow sliver of the public that pays a lot of money for them. What’s more, the secrets don’t so much enlighten the broad public—which doesn’t see them—as they enable those lucky customers to cash in by making smarter investments than non-subscribers do.

Now, by and large, even though the government prosecutes leakers vigorously (especially in the national security realm) and tries its best to imprison them, it never goes after the outfits that publish the blown secrets. By custom—if not by statutory or constitutional entitlement, since this immunity has never been tested in court—the media get a pass.

But should the newsletter that brokered the illegal leak to its clients, who sought to profit from it financially, still benefit from the restraint that the U.S. government usually shows to news organizations that run classified material?

So to the case at hand, which involves Medley Global Advisors, owned by the London-based Financial Times. Medley describes itself as “the leading global provider of macro policy intelligence for the world’s top hedge funds, institutional investors, and asset managers. “

In October 2012 a Medley newsletter published delectable, secret information about forthcoming actions to be taken by a pivotal committee of the Federal Reserve, the country’s central bank.

The Fed is notoriously protective of its deliberations, since they routinely move markets worldwide, and is mindful of the immense advantage that knowledge of coming decisions can give to those in the know.

In this instance, according to an account from Pro Publica, Medley reported that the Fed’s Open Markets Committee had decided in September to extend its stimulus program, and would buy $45 billion per month in Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities for some months to come.

That was big news, and the day after Medley’s account came out the Fed, as scheduled, released minutes of the committee meeting, which confirmed the report. That caused bond prices to fall and yields to rise. Advance knowledge of what the minutes would say was, it’s safe to assume, extremely advantageous.

Fed officials launched an internal probe, and by last month the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a regulatory agency, had started an insider-trading investigation while federal prosecutors in Manhattan were conducting a Continue reading “Suppose an inside scoop of official secrets gives some market players an unfair advantage—is that a good reason to muzzle the media?”