Julian Assange and the Woeful State of Whistle-Blowers

As the media’s indispensable helpmates, don’t they deserve constitutional protection too? This column originally appeared in The New York Times, April 26, 2019 Credit…Illustration by Adam Maida; Photographs by aaaaimages and Boris Roessler/picture alliance, via Getty Images To the journalism mainstream, Julian Assange, newly imprisoned founder of WikiLeaks, is less a hero than a conundrum. […]

Did the story on Aziz Ansari’s awful date cross the journalistic line?

This column originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 30, 2018.

The story on Babe.net, an online news site styled for hip young women, was long and lurid. Its title: “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned out to be the worst night of my life.”

It was, at best, an epically bad date, according to the account, with heavy-handed sexual advances made, partly rewarded and finally rebuffed, and it ended with the woman leaving Ansari’s Manhattan apartment in tears of outrage and humiliation. But the article is more than a sob story. Suddenly, the account of that evening in September has achieved an incendiary cultural renown in the wider furor over gender bullying–“a critical flashpoint in our reckoning with sexual violence,” as Slate describes it, and as atlantic.com writer James Hamblin says, “crystallizing debate over an entire movement.”

Aziz Ansari is an accomplished and popular actor, author and comedian, the star of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” creator of a well-regarded Netflix series, a winner of Emmy and Golden Globes awards. He has feminist cred for gestures in support of the #metoo movement.

In the portrayal offered by Babe.net, he is also a bit of a swine, oblivious to clear signs of sexual refusal, forcing himself on an unwilling young woman who found herself in a situation she plainly couldn’t handle.

My interest isn’t in adjudicating his behavior, nor in exploring whether his accuser failed to assert herself clearly and unambiguously. There’s plenty of commentary on that. The question I want to address is whether any of this is newsworthy and whether the account of it that ran in Babe.net constitutes responsible journalism.

Those aren’t easy questions. The problems with the story are manifold and obvious. First, the evidentiary issue: Its sourcing is wafer thin—a single informant. Her identity is concealed (she’s renamed “Grace”), so her credibility can’t be appraised. Second, the question of taste: The account is driven by a description of sexual doings that’s so detailed it’s practically pornographic.

Finally, above all looms the privacy issue: The incident it chronicles isn’t offered up as fitting a pattern either of sexual predation on Ansari’s part or of institutional coercion— Continue reading “Did the story on Aziz Ansari’s awful date cross the journalistic line?”

Safeguarding News in the Era of Disruptive Sources

Published in Journal of Media Ethics, Vol. 2, Issue 2, April-June 2017. Expanded version appeared in After Snowden, Privacy, Secrecy and Security in the Information Age, Ronald Goldfarb, ed. (NY: St. Martin’s, 2015.)  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 […]

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”