The debate over news and new media is too often tribal. And though it may make for lively debate, tribalism impairs judgment. Yesterday, Jeff Bercovici blamed a 21-year-old stringer for the violent deaths of 24 people, including seven United Nations workers in riots in Afghanistan, after AFP published his account of a Koran-burning in Florida by Terry Jones, the unhinged pastor. The context, according to Bercovici: the report went against an informal media consensus to ignore Jones’s antics. This has been rebutted elsewhere, so I won’t go into detail on it. But there is a basic problem in arguing that journalism – communicating information about something that happened – is by definition a provocation, or that people looking to provoke, and people susceptible to provocation, won’t find some instrument to express themselves no matter what AFP does. In addition, old media is not a cartel; media outlets cannot collectively agree to “disappear” an event any more than investment banks can all agree buy stocks in order to make the market go up. And if they could, what standards are they supposed to use?

But there’s another issue here. This post – which took shots at Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis – was also reminiscent of Bill Keller’s attack on Arianna Huffington and the Huffington Post. As Bercovici’s subject was citizen journalism – or journalism outside the old media cartel and its values and standards – Keller’s subject was aggregation. The problem here is that “aggregation” wasn’t Arianna’s idea. It is a technological and economic feature of the web as it currently exists. It’s very easy to set up a website or an app and pull in content from many sources. This is a useful service. Sometimes this occurs illegally, and/or without permission, and the HuffPo has done some things with NYT content that the NYT doesn’t appreciate. But if that’s really the problem, a magazine column isn’t the place to deal with it.

By personalizing the issue, Keller trivialized it. Aggregation is a force that that legacy media must grapple with. (Indeed, the NYT does some aggregating of its own.) Markets, technology, clicks and eyeballs aren’t personal. Attacking individuals instead of acknowledging this reality is unserious. The problem here is oversimplifying and anthropomorphizing complex forces, putting a human face on uncontrollable trends the writer disdains. This a common feature of politics – which should tell you something. It’s a terrible way to do journalism. For journalists, anecdotes can carry great power, but in each of these instances the anecdote collapses under the weight of the subject it’s supposed to exemplify. The broader problem here is viewing new media from a position that is simultaneously both defensive and dismissive. That is not a good frame of mind to bring to bear on a rapidly emerging global economic and social phenomenon. The forces being unleashed by new media and social media are formidable. And for journalists, worthy of respect and a sincere effort to understand them. Even if they piss you off.

I was originally aiming for a “Sopranos”-style ending at T/S rather than going with the typical farewell post. Journey on the jukebox. Onion rings. Ominous stalkers. Suddenly, a black screen! But what the heck. I’ve blogged in a variety of forums, and True/Slant was special in its combination of flexibility and journalistic credibility. (And also that it paid you.) It was also a great community, a portal to an array of interesting subjects and journalism about them. It was a great new media/journalism experiment, and I hope that it sparks more innovation.

Thanks to all for reading and commenting. To follow my work post-T/S, the best thing to do is to follow me on Twitter. There’s also my own website/blog. My blogging will show up there and also at the Huffington Post, the Guardian and other venues.

We live in a very data-rich era. And that means fantastic opportunities for journalism. But can journalism rise to the occasion?

I refer to the WikiLeaks release of a trove of 92,000 U.S. documents detailing efforts of the U.S. Army and Special Forces in the war in Afghanistan, published simultaneously with interpretive accounts from the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel. As soon as this went up, you could feel the ground shifting under the media and governments: their traditional relationships were suddenly upended by this new architecture of information flows. From anonymous leakers to seemingly invulnerable transnational secret-exposing organization to journalists and to the public.

To those who say “there’s nothing new here,” I suppose that’s right in the general sense. But if you read some of these documents (or their excerpts), I don’t think they are so easily dismissed as old news. They paint a vivid picture of a daily reality that is absurdly complex, baffling and possibly hopeless. The sensation you get from reading through them is different than if you just read the words “complex, baffling and hopeless.” More different than if you read a policy paper on it. And more different still than if you watch the Pentagon’s daily briefings. There’s no substitute for primary sources, and the volume of information and breadth of topics creates an overwhelming sense of the drift of the war effort.

Does this represent an emergent form of journalism? (more…)

At first, I couldn’t quite understand why David Weigel, the Washington Post politics blogger who just resigned, would merit his own feeding frenzy. He’s not Helen Thomas: he hasn’t been around for 60-plus years, nor does he have a front-row seat in the White House briefing room, nor has he uttered on-camera statements that many people consider offensive or outside the bounds of political discourse.

Instead, one of his offenses was … dancing, maybe a little strangely, at a wedding. This was truly a feeding frenzy worthy of a Seinfeld episode.

Seriously, Weigel is a talented journalist who added a fresh perspective to the Washington Post. He should not have been booted out for what he did. Why was he? The Weigel Incident does illustrate some of the biggest fault lines and flaws of Washington journalism. Here are a few: (more…)

Image representing New York Times as depicted ...

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Every so often, the establishment press unintentionally reveals how it works. It’s as if you suddenly put Big Media through an fMRI that showed not only its internal structures and their connections to the government, business et al, but how this system actually works, dynamically – and also pinpoint where something has gone wrong.

I’m referring to James Risen’s New York Times story on Afghanistan’s apparently vast mineral resources. I wanted to wait a little while before writing on it, because such a story has a kind of lifecycle, and I wanted to see how this one played out.

At first it appeared to be a geopolitical game-changer, perhaps heralding the arrival of a the next big 21st conflict, like the “Great Game” in 19th century Central Asia between the Russian and British Empires. And maybe it is.

Then, instantly, the story came under fire for overhyping known facts and what looked like too-convenient timing. The U.S. military mission in Afghanistan – set to end next year – is faltering, Hamid Karzai is acting odder than usual, Congress is growing restive. Suddenly, the NYT runs a story quoting David Petraeus saying: Afghanistan has enormous strategic importance. (more…)

Fox News Channel controversies

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Responding to my “death of accountability” post, Shoq says I don’t lay enough blame on the conservative establishment of think tanks and media operations, which exploit traditional media customs of fairness and “objectivity” to advance ideological and/or Republican Party agendas:

I have been railing about the collapse of accountability for years. This article sniffs around the edges of the problem, and makes some important points, but it completely misses the role that right wing think tanks like Heritage, Media Research Center, and of course, Fox News and the broader corporate media have played in the deliberate deconstruction of accountability and social responsibility.

When the public is convinced that there are no empirical facts, and that one version of events is as valid as any other, they become desensitized to the reality of most crimes and their consequences, and are far more compliant and forgiving of those accused of abusing a trust, principle, law, company, office, nation, and population. (more…)

CHICAGO - APRIL 08:  Former Chairman of the Fe...

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A recent Frank Rich column dealt with the almost complete lack of accountability for … well, almost everything. His primary evidence was Alan Greenspan’s retrospective performance evaluation: right 70 percent of the time. Maybe, but that other 30 percent was a killer. Rich continues:

This syndrome is hardly limited to the financial sector. The Vatican hierarchy and its American apologists blame the press, anti-Catholic bigots and “petty gossip” for a decades-long failure to police the church’s widespread criminal culture of child molestation. Michael Steele, the G.O.P. chairman, has tried to duck criticism for his blunders by talking about his “slimmer margin” of error as a black man. New York’s dynamic Democratic duo of political scandal, David Paterson and Charles Rangel, have both attributed their woes to newspapers like The Times, not their own misbehavior.

Rich treats this as a natural consequence of today’s overheated, short attention-span media culture; basically, if you commit a giant screwup, but can spin the media to give you a pass – at least until it moves on to the next crisis, which won’t take long – then you’re in the clear. Your place in history is safe. And this works! (more…)

Goldman Sachs Capital Partners

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I’m late to this, but it’s not going away, so here’s my question: Is Matt Taibbi merely a journalistic scourge, or also a scourge on journalism itself? The question isn’t just about Taibbi, but about the state of journalism and America right now, post-bubble, post Iraq war, post-Bush.

You probably know the background: Taibbi has written a couple of searing cover stories for Rolling Stone on the financial shenanigans of Goldman Sachs over the past century and on the Obama administration’s close ties to Goldman and Wall Street and its halting attempts to reform the banking system.

These pieces are, unlike most stories that contain the word “Geithner,” actually fun to read and make a simple and compelling point: historically, and now, there is a tight nexus between the elite banks and uppermost reaches of the federal government – whether it’s run by Republicans or Democrats. This has proven to be catastrophic. Its persistence after the disaster of 2008 is a significant structural problem for the American economy – and, by extension, the global economy. Obama’s diffidence on the matter is one of the great mysteries of his presidency, given the both the substantive problem and the political advantages to taking on the bankers, which would theoretically appeal both to liberals and the tea party crowd.

Taibbi indicts not just Goldman, but the system. And that system is, well, highly indictable. But on the way, he overreaches. He imbues his villains with more agency than they deserve. He makes mistakes. (more…)

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal are now in an all-out pissing match. I’d say great – nothing like a little journalistic competition to lubricate the gears of democracy, right? Except that it’s not that kind of newspaper war. It’s a stupid, Murdochian war. In other words, a war which is not about anything but war itself, or, to be precise, a state of neverending ideological conflict.

Briefly: the NYT’s David Carr wrote a piece calling attention to what a lot of us have noticed in recent months: that under Rupert Murdoch’s ownership, the Journal’s Washington coverage has moved noticeably rightward from its traditional, ideologically neutral stance. Probably the low point of this was the news story that repeatedly used the term “death tax” for “inheritance tax.”

The WSJ’s managing editor Robert Thomson responded with (politely-phrased!) trash talk:

The news column by a Mr David Carr today is yet more evidence thatThe New York Times is uncomfortable about the rise of an increasingly successful rival while its own circulation and credibility are in retreat. The usual practice of quoting ex-employees was supplemented by a succession of anonymous quotes and unsubstantiated assertions. The attack follows the extraordinary actions of Mr Bill Keller, the Executive Editor, who, among other things, last year wrote personally and at length to a prize committee casting aspersions on Journal journalists and journalism. Whether it be in the quest for prizes or in the disparagement of competitors, principle is but a bystander at The New York Times.

NYT editor Bill Keller then responded to this, and no doubt Thomson will fire back, if not now at some other propitious time. And so on.

Here’s the problem. There are a lot of flaws in standard DC political coverage – its obsession with the news cycle and cable talking heads, its deference to power, its maddening insider’s cynicism and arrogance. But American politics still depends on journalism institutions to, well, explain it to itself. The federal government is a huge and complex monster. If you’re going to go toe-to-toe with it and expose what’s going on, it helps to have a weighty name behind you – like the NYT or WSJ, with their traditions, smart editors and clout.

But those institutions are under siege and disappearing. Layoffs have all but demolished many important redoubts of mainstream media’s political coverage. Only the New York Times, McClatchy (home to fine, often prescient coverage that is often underplayed by the mediasphere), and the Wall Street Journal at or not too far below their traditional full strength in staff and clout.

Except, er, that now the WSJ Washington bureau is apparently caught in the tractor beam of Murdoch’s Death Star. I feel for the journalists there, because this “death tax” business and increasingly blatant bias will hurt their credibility in DC and in journalism. The WSJ’s rightward lurch will also hurt the public debate, because it will have lost an important honest broker. There will be a lot of heat, not much light. It will be that much harder to tell what is really going on. And that’s just the type of environment in which Thompson and Murdoch thrive.

We all know the Washington media swims in an ever-shifting stream of “narratives” that drive coverage in one direction or another on an hourly basis – or, if one really has juice, can dominate coverage for months and months. Unfortunately, these narratives usually have only a tenuous connection to reality, and even to political reality. Unless they become the political reality, which happens sometimes, but less often than you think. This situation is, needless to say, bad. The focus on narratives is not journalism – at its worst, it’s a kind of anti-journalism that obscures the truth rather than illuminates it.

Politico is Washington’s premier narrative factory, and yesterday it was cranking them out: editor John Harris posted a piece called 7 stories Barack Obama doesn’t want told. Here they are: “He thinks he’s playing with monopoly money,” “Too much Leonard Nimoy,” “That’s the Chicago way,” “He’s a pushover,” “He sees America as another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe,” “President Pelosi,” “He’s in love with the man in the mirror.”

The headline gives the reader the tantalizing sense that Harris is dipping into something forbidden, the “real” story the White House wants to keep from you. But of course these stories are not “stories” at all in the traditional Who-What-Where-When-How sense. They are narratives. Some of them (“Chicago way” and “Pushover”) are mutually contradictory.

Harris will say he’s just reporting what’s out there. But just scanning the titles it’s obvious that all of them are manufactured BS.

I’m not defending Obama here – he certainly deserves criticism on the deficit, health care, Afghanistan – everything. But Harris’s “7 stories” are not substantive criticism. Quite the opposite – they are flatly misleading. And putting them in this format isn’t a way to inform readers, the basic function of journalism. In essence, it’s market testing to see which political attack is stickiest – what drives traffic, what’s the most promising way to trip up the president. A floundering president ideologically out-of-step with the nation is a much better story than a centrist, boring, bureaucratically competent one, which is basically what Obama is.

Harris could have made an attempt to evaluate these lines of attack on the merits. Is Obama’s deficit spending out of line with that of past presidents in similar situations? Is he cavalier on budget matters? Does he really love himself too much? But that’s not what this is about.

A White House aide’s unofficial response, leaked to Marc Armbinder, isn’t especially clever. (Washington is generally not a good place for zingers.) But it contains more truth than the Politico piece.


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