Last Wednesday, USA Today editor Doug Stanglin reported about the Associated Press’s hugely embarrassing misfire-of-a-story on General Electric. In a blog post headlined “AP falls for prank report that GE is giving back a $3.2B tax refund,” Stanglin quoted from AP’s correction, included the full text of the retracted AP story on GE, and cited a report from Reuters about the activists behind the hoax.
It was a thorough rundown except for one thing: USA Today had also fallen for the prank report. The fact that it ran the bogus story from AP, and later removed it from USAToday.com, did not make it into Stanglin’s blog post. Why not?
Many news outlets run wire stories using an automated feed of some kind. Given the speed and volume of the content it’s easy to see how mistakes or problems could be missed — and whether news sites should be responsible for corrections to erroneous wire stories they’ve run has been an open question, as we noted in this recent error report at MediaBugs.
But when a news outlet makes the effort to report on another outlet’s high-profile bungle — and fails to mention its own participation — readers are bound to wonder why.
If you searched for the bogus GE tax story on Google News on Wednesday, you would have seen that USA Today ran with it:
Many people quickly took notice of USA Today’s publication of the story, including the pranksters themselves. But later on Wednesday if you clicked on the link to that story, you arrived on a USA Today page simply telling you that it had been removed:
In other words, between the link to the retracted story (later on filled in with AP’s correction) and Stanglin’s blog post, USA Today essentially provided no record on its site that it played a part in spreading some majorly wrong “news.” Nor was there any mention on USA Today’s corrections page, despite the high-profile nature of the mistake, which had real consequences. (GE’s stock price dropped significantly on the fake news.)
If the AP’s blunder had been headed for USA Today’s print pages, it would have been caught and not published — but even in the unlikely event that it had been published, you can be sure the paper would have run a correction notice in a subsequent edition. Online publishing makes it easier to cause embarrassing errors to disappear, but it doesn’t remove any of a publisher’s responsibility to own up to and correct them.
MediaBugs reached out by email to both Stanglin and standards editor Brent Jones to find out why USA Today handled things the way they did. Both responded quickly and cordially, with a definitive explanation on Friday morning from Jones:
USA TODAY’s newsroom practice is to be forthright and transparent when setting the record straight. We responded to reader inquiries and published a correction on Twitter, but we should have included that we published the AP’s story when reporting on the GE tax hoax. To clarify with our readers, website editors have since updated our blog posting, posted a note on our corrections/clarifications blog and the AP’s corrected report.
It’s good that USA Today had put the word out on Twitter, and we applaud them for addressing the problem thoroughly on their site pages in response to our inquiry. (You can now see those updates here, here, and here.) Also worth noting is that USA Today’s accessibility and corrections practices put them at the front of the pack of U.S. media. Even so, in this case they needed external prodding to do the right thing.
Perhaps the online medium makes it easier to stumble in this way. It’s simple enough to unpublish something and just move on — and far too many news sites still lack a clear process for tracking and rectifying their mistakes. There may also be an increasing tendency, navigating today’s ephemeral sea of news, to shrug off responsibility for nonproprietary content. Wire stories, blog posts and tweets seem at once to come from everywhere and nowhere. That’s precisely why this case is instructive.
It’s simply not possible to walk away from the kind of goof USA Today indirectly made. Social media, search engines and other tools will capture it. As more and more content is syndicated, aggregated or borrowed (with or without permission), newsrooms may feel they are less responsible for its accuracy. But in an era of deep distrust of the media, the opposite has to be true. When a news site chooses to repeat someone else’s report it shoulders new accountability along with it — including a duty to correct errors, thoroughly and forthrightly, before they get compounded further.
[Cross-posted from the MediaBugs blog.]
Back in late February, Fox News columnist Juan Williams wrote a scathing piece about racial prejudice in the media. Exhibit A was the Washington Post’s coverage of a poll showing that African Americans and Latinos are optimistic about the economy. The Post, Williams charged, had “buried” this good news because it didn’t fit with the bleak racial stereotypes typically found on the front pages of “the big, white press.”
Since it turns out that the Post actually had splashed the upbeat poll story all over its Sunday front page and its website, the “entire premise” of Williams’ column, as a reader reported at MediaBugs, was flat-out wrong.
At MediaBugs we did what we do in this situation, which is to try to get a response from the media outlet behind the piece in question. Yet, despite multiple attempts on our part to alert Williams and Fox News to the problem, they failed to respond or correct the blunder for weeks.
On Tuesday, Fox finally posted an editor’s note on the piece:
EDITOR’S NOTE: The results of the poll referred to in this article were in fact reported on the front page of the Feb. 20 editions of the Washington Post. Mr. Williams regrets the oversight to the Post, and maintains the study’s findings deserved more prominent coverage in other media outlets.
The good news here is that Williams and Fox finally took responsibility for the mistake. Bravo! We mean it.
Nonetheless, it’s just possible that Williams and Fox might someday make another mistake. And since MediaBugs has published a set of best practices for error reporting and corrections, we thought we would offer a few suggestions should they ever find themselves in this position again:
- Don’t wait a month and a half to fix an error, especially when it’s a flagrant one. If you can’t respond in short order, at least acknowledge inquiries on the matter and let folks know you’re looking into it.
- Try not to mince words. Call an error an “error” and a correction a “correction.” Readers can probably surmise the meaning of “Mr. Williams regrets the oversight to the Post.” But it’s classier not to downplay a mistake while you’re in mid-regret.
- Don’t use a correction to reiterate an argument. Williams certainly is free to wish that other outlets such as the New York Times had covered the Post poll — though, veteran that he is, he must know that most media companies rarely give big play to their competitor’s surveys. But when you’ve reported as fact something that hundreds of thousands of newspaper and online readers know to be false, your mea culpa is not the right place to declare “I was right anyway!” Write another column if you must.
- Give your audience a clear and easy way to alert you when you’ve gone astray. If your “Email Newsroom” link leads the public into a brick wall, and they’ll have to spend weeks chasing down other ways to try getting your attention, you can safely conclude that your status quo is ineffective.
A really good start, in fact, would be to publish any kind of corrections page and policy on your website.
[Cross-posted from the PBS MediaShift blog.]
The future is looking parched for the roughly 30 million Americans who rely on the Colorado River, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Denizens of Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles, this especially means you:
Water managers warn that Lake Mead, the West’s largest and most important reservoir, remains perilously near the level of 1,075 feet at which the U.S. Secretary of the Interior would likely declare a water shortage, for the first time in the nearly century-old history of the Colorado River system. Such a shortage would parch Nevada, Arizona and California with severe water-use restrictions. There alone, some 20 million people depend on Lake Mead’s supplies.
Despite this year’s rain-soaked winter and a modest rise in the lake, the region still faces a deep deficit from a 12-year drought: “Lake Mead’s water level now stands at 1,096 feet, near its lowest point since the reservoir began filling in the 1930s and 110 feet below when the drought began in 1999, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The lake last rose in 2005.”
Statistics can be elusive. One of the best ways to realize the change is from directly on the lake itself. Last August I took a houseboat trip with some friends on Lake Mead, where I snapped some photos showing the drop in the water line. The lake is enormous — but so is the space no longer filled with water:
In the west we’ve peered into the future, which is now. It is conservation.
(According to the water footprint “calculator” linked above, which uses criteria ranging from shower times to car washing to meat consumption, my household of two rates at approximately 12 percent below the daily average for water consumption across American households. Not bad, though as I suspected there’s still room for improvement. The site suggests specific areas for potential progress based on your questionnaire answers.)
In a Feb. 24 column on FoxNews.com, Juan Williams rebuked the Washington Post for downplaying a poll measuring the views of blacks and Latinos on the recession. The poll, which the Post itself helped produce, showed those groups were more optimistic than whites about the U.S. economy despite being hit harder in the downturn. According to Williams, the Post’s poll coverage “did not make its front page” but instead was “buried” in the business section. This was typical, Williams said, of “big media’s inability to report on good news when it comes to life among people of color.”
The purpose of the column was to mount a case against unjust media, with the Post’s deficient poll coverage as Exhibit A. Williams worked his way up to a racially fraught finish:
If there is a story about black poverty, police brutality or a drug-related shooting spree in a Hispanic neighborhood, the big papers will feature it with Page One coverage. Those stories fit old racial stereotypes. And lots of old line civil rights groups and liberal cocktail party people will applaud those papers for any story about racial minorities’ complaints about life in America or stories confirming that life is bad, unjust and oppressive for people of color.
But when there is good news on race relations and refreshing evidence of blacks and Latinos leading the way by showing faith in America’s future, the big media is just not that into it.
That patronizing attitude amounts to prejudice. It is condescending and says more about the old racial attitudes holding back the big, white press than any racism holding back blacks and Latinos in modern America.
There’s one little problem with Williams’ complaint: The Washington Post hardly buried its poll. In fact, as an error report at MediaBugs details, it ran an in-depth story about its findings on the front page of the Sunday, Feb. 20 print edition — replete with a large, sunny photo illustration and oversized headline. The Post also produced an extensive multimedia package around the story on its website.
Williams’ blunder isn’t just embarrassing for how carelessly he flogged his apparently predetermined argument. (How could he have missed the striking A1 spread or multimedia Web package? Did he stop reading the Post altogether despite having worked there himself for more than two decades?) Equally undignified is that Williams and Fox News have ignored attempts by the public to alert them to the problem and get the record corrected.
For our part, MediaBugs tried multiple times to contact Fox News via email and Twitter since March 15. The generic address provided with FoxNews.com’s “Email Newsroom” link (firstname.lastname@example.org) apparently isn’t effective. We have yet to get any response.
The lack of one may in part be due to the fact that Fox News has no accessible corrections info or content on its website, as we reported in our recently published study of online corrections practices across U.S. media. The news honchos at Fox might consider an approach more like the one at NPR, where Williams recently was ousted for a different prejudicial tangle. Fox may regard its newsroom as “fair and balanced” — but apparently it’s also totally inaccessible to an audience concerned with factual accuracy.
There’s some chance, once this post circulates, that Williams and Fox News will take notice of some unflattering attention and fix the piece. Better late than never. With our work at MediaBugs we’ve seen more than one case in which a long chase and critical coverage have proven necessary to motivate a response.
In the flourishing age of interactive news, it shouldn’t have to be that way. Terrific tools already exist for better communication and greater transparency. Perhaps only ideology, or just plain laziness, now stands in the way.
[Cross-posted from the MediaBugs blog.]
On February 15th the LA Weekly published a post by Simone Wilson under the headline “Lara Logan, CBS Reporter and War Zone ‘It Girl,’ Raped Repeatedly Amid Egypt Celebration.” The opening paragraph stated that Logan had been “brutally and repeatedly raped” — with that phrase emphasized in bold type.
The LA Weekly apparently got the story wrong. Logan had suffered a horrifying sexual assault while working in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, disturbing details of which came to light in subsequent media coverage. But according to reporting from three different news outlets — The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and IOL News of South Africa (Logan’s native country) — Logan was not raped. Those articles were cited in a MediaBugs error report posted last week by Tracy Clark-Flory, a journalist who covers women’s issues. (Disclosure: Clark-Flory is a friend and former colleague of mine at Salon.) Since the report was posted, MediaBugs sent three emails to LA Weekly editors seeking a response. We’ve received none.
It’s understandable how a news organization might have made this kind of mistake; while many initial reports about Logan’s attack adhered to a statement from CBS News describing “a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating,” LA Weekly wasn’t the only outlet to make the leap to “rape.” (See Jen Phillips’ post on MotherJones.com for more on this.)
Still, it’s troubling that more than three weeks later the LA Weekly has not posted a correction on its piece, or explained why it believes no correction is warranted. To say that accuracy is important to a news organization’s credibility is stating the obvious — but it seems particularly crucial when public understanding is distorted around a story as emotionally and politically fraught as Logan’s.
Here’s one small anecdote showing why. Last weekend I described the issue to a friend who is well-read on current events. He said that he’d seen the LA Weekly piece, among others. When I told him that Logan apparently had not been raped, he was surprised — he’d understood that to be a central fact of the story.
The LA Weekly’s silence on the matter could in part be due to the withering criticism it came under for Wilson’s piece, which ran with a curvaceous photo of Logan and used various sexualized descriptions of her, including “firecracker” and “gutsy stunner.” Newsrooms tend to circle the wagons when under attack.
That uproar, ultimately, was a matter of editorial judgment and (brutally bad) taste, one that LA Weekly editors may or may not choose to address at some point. (Wilson did so, to some degree, in an update to her post on Feb. 16.)
But this issue is more straightforward. By not addressing the apparent factual mistakes brought to its attention, the LA Weekly not only damages its reputation but also does a disservice to Logan’s story, which has cast a powerful light on a previously underreported problem faced by female journalists. The uncorrected errors take a piece that already comes across as insensitive and make it seem irresponsible, too.
[Note: This post first appeared on PBS.org's MediaShift blog.]
UPDATED: It seemed worthwhile to include this subsequent exchange I had with an anonymous reader in the PBS MediaShift comments thread:
Anonymous: “I agree with you for the most part, however… no named source has yet contradicted their account. It could be that Lara was raped. We still don’t know.”
My reply: “True, the details of what happened still aren’t entirely clear. But since all the evidence we do have points to Logan not being raped, reasonable readers have a right to raise questions — and they deserve an answer from the LA Weekly. Perhaps the Weekly knows something it hasn’t shared, though the piece appeared to include no original reporting and that seems unlikely. Regardless, if the public raises legitimate questions the onus is on the newsroom to support — or correct — its account.”
UPDATED, 3/15/11: LA weekly has since posted a correction notice stating that it “erroneously interpreted CBS’ report of what happened to Logan on February 11, 2011.”
As of this update the original article’s headline and repeated references to “rape” in the text remain unchanged.
For additional details, see the updated mediabug.
Simplistic pronouncements about the role of social media in stirring uprisings and toppling dictators have by now, thankfully, seemed to die down. That Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other digital tools have been important to the historic upheaval in the Middle East is an unimpeachable fact. And a closer look at how those tools played a part is more than just interesting — it may offer clues to major social and political movements of the future.
A gathering last week in San Francisco organized by Hacks/Hackers and HackDemocracy showcased some illuminating work on the subject. Stanford computer scientist Rio Akasaka shared an animation he made showing worldwide Twitter activity from Feb. 7 to 14 that used the hashtag #Egypt. Unsurprisingly, the United States and Europe figure most prominently in the dynamic constellation, but there was also a climactic surge across the Middle East, South Asia and South America as news spread on Feb. 11 that Hosni Mubarak no longer held power:
Each dot on the map, Akasaka said, represents a single tweet; at the peak of activity for #Egypt, he said, there were as many as 6,000 per minute.
After the Mubarak regime all but shut down the Internet in Egypt at the end of January, activists moved to work around the technological assault. Egyptians relied even more on mobile phones to connect to the outer world, said Ahmed Shihab-Eldin of Al Jazeera English, in some cases texting and emailing trusted contacts elsewhere in the Middle East or Europe who would disseminate the info via Facebook, Twitter and blogs. Meanwhile, Google and Twitter joined forces to launch speak2tweet, a service that helped Egyptian citizens keep information flowing online by way of voicemails.
Egyptian-born technology entrepreneur Amir Khella said that the R.N.N news hub on Facebook, which reportedly saw a veritable explosion of page views in late January, was the best “hack” he’d seen among any related to the revolution. The R.N.N page pulled together information via text messages, phone calls and emails from people witnessing various events on the ground. R.N.N would crosscheck multiple reports from the same approximate time and location, Khella said, in order to separate fact from rumor. (Who exactly is behind R.N.N remains unclear, he later told me.) It was a nimble kind of crowdsourcing born of the crisis.
No doubt there have been other useful applications of digital technology during this period of seismic change in the Middle East, and surely more will spring up in the months ahead. It’s also important not to overstate their role, and to examine how the Internet has been used nefariously by oppressive regimes.
Maybe in part it’s because the earlier proliferation of Facebook and Twitter in American culture was marked by some frivolity that writers such as Malcolm Gladwell haughtily dismissed them as a sideshow in the context of revolutions. (See Matthew Ingram for a sharp take on how Gladwell went astray.) But as the speakers last week in San Francisco reiterated, a great number of people in the Arab world are using them, and not primarily to muse about what they ate for lunch. Under pressure from the U.S. government, executives at Facebook and Twitter have made moves to keep their platforms viable for activists, and it’s doubtful that their motivations to do so were solely capitalistic.
“We realize that in order to be meaningful, online freedoms must carry over into real-world activism,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in February, in a wide-ranging speech about Internet freedom. She later continued: “The dramatic increase in internet users during the past 10 years has been remarkable to witness. But that was just the opening act. In the next 20 years, nearly 5 billion people will join the network. It is those users who will decide the future.”
The showdown continues in Wisconsin pitting public-sector labor unions against Republican governor Scott Walker, who aims to eviscerate collective bargaining rights. As of this writing the state’s Democratic lawmakers apparently are still MIA. Days of large protests in Madison and even the involvement of the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers have indicated the high stakes. Recently on Talking Points Memo, which was ahead of most national media on the Wisconsin story, Josh Marshall made a persuasive case that Walker’s anti-labor offensive could have a big impact on national politics:
Whichever side of the policy issue you’re on, I think the outcome of this situation is going to have ramifications across the country. Republicans came out of the 2010 election pumped up and feeling that they had a huge mandate to fundamentally change government in this country. I don’t think the elections really told us that at all. But these things are decided by results post-election not by analysis of the election returns. And that’s what’s being determined right now.
If Gov. Walker (R) is able to push through big, big changes to collective bargaining rights and makes it stick, that will be picked up in many other states and it will shape perceptions of the public mood going into the 2012 election — from the top of the ticket all the way down to the bottom. On the other hand, if he gets shut down and the idea takes hold that he overreached, that will have similarly widespread effects in other states as well as in shaping the political terrain going into 2012.
As TPM’s Brian Beutler has pointed out, similar fights already are brewing in Tennessee and Ohio. (Also instructive is Beutler’s rundown of how Walker ginned up the budget shortfall in Wisconsin per his partisan agenda.)
It’s important not to romanticize organized labor in this battle; its history is peppered with abuses and cronyism on par with those of the most cunning politicos, leaving the American public skeptical of unions with reason. But Paul Krugman today crystallizes what’s important about the Wisconsin showdown as well as anyone I’ve read to date:
You don’t have to love unions, you don’t have to believe that their policy positions are always right, to recognize that they’re among the few influential players in our political system representing the interests of middle- and working-class Americans, as opposed to the wealthy. Indeed, if America has become more oligarchic and less democratic over the last 30 years — which it has — that’s to an important extent due to the decline of private-sector unions.
And now Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to get rid of public-sector unions, too.
There’s a bitter irony here. The fiscal crisis in Wisconsin, as in other states, was largely caused by the increasing power of America’s oligarchy. After all, it was superwealthy players, not the general public, who pushed for financial deregulation and thereby set the stage for the economic crisis of 2008-9, a crisis whose aftermath is the main reason for the current budget crunch. And now the political right is trying to exploit that very crisis, using it to remove one of the few remaining checks on oligarchic influence.
Recently the Spanish-language site of Yahoo News reported that NASA had contracted with three companies to develop some truly incredible commercial aircraft. The future planes, Yahoo reported, could be available by 2025 and fly at 85 percent of the speed of light. Just imagine: You’d be able to jump aboard one of these suckers and zing from Vancouver to Capetown in, oh, about a fifteenth of a second. Now that’s newsworthy!
And perhaps it might even be possible — but it’s not true. As a MediaBugs user reported, NASA is in fact aiming for these future aircraft to reach 85 percent of the speed of sound. (Impressive in its own right, but nothing remotely approaching the speed of light.) Apparently somebody at Yahoo Noticias en Espanol had mistranslated the NASA press release from which the story was mostly drawn.
Even seemingly small errors in the news — in this case a single mistranslated word — can matter, and they should be corrected with care. The Yahoo story was fixed a day or two after the mediabug was posted — a positive outcome — although without any notice to the public that it was changed. [*See update below.] We don’t actually know how the error came to Yahoo’s attention; I couldn’t get any meaningful response from the company when I tried to let them know about it.
Which is quite difficult to do. Yahoo News has no corrections info or content of any kind, nor any real channel for contacting its editors or producers. (When I tried the “News Help Form,” found via a barely noticeable link in the page footer, I received a comically unhelpful “Escalation Notice,” followed a day later by an email from a customer service rep promising to “send this information to our editors if necessary.” By that point the article had already been fixed.)
As we revealed in an in-depth MediaBugs study published in November, many legacy print-news companies are still stumbling big-time when it comes to error reports and corrections online. Yahoo News, of course, can’t even plead about transitioning to digital in an era of dwindling resources; it is part of a pioneering technology company native to the two-way medium of the Web. So why isn’t it doing a better job with this stuff?
Part of the answer may be that Yahoo News primarily is an aggregation site, filled with wire service stories and links to reporting from other news organizations. But in July 2010 Yahoo launched The Upshot, a news blog with original content produced by a small handful of established reporters and editors. Yahoo News already commanded huge traffic, but now the company apparently was making a bid for greater news-media relevance (and, presumably, even more traffic). Its Twitter feed, followed by roughly 62,000 people, says that its “Tweets are hand-picked by the Y! News Team and 100% RSS feed free!” In other words, there are real people behind the curtain here.
Still, good luck reaching them. In addition to trying the “help” form and contact via Twitter, I emailed an Upshot editor, Chris Lehmann, to see about reporting the “speed of light” error. He responded quickly and cordially, telling me that he had no idea whom to contact about it, particularly since the error was on the Spanish-language site. I commented that correcting a substantive error without any notice to the public is bad form. (Yahoo News has company in this practice: The New York Times and Reuters recently were caught doing this too.) “On the U.S. news blogs,” Lehmann said with regard to substantive fixes, “we always append an update to note when we’ve corrected the text.”
The Upshot also stands out from the Yahoo News mother ship by providing on its main page a visible list of editorial staff and their contact info. “Keep us honest,” editor Andrew Golis wrote last July. “Email us, comment on our posts, let us know when we’ve made a mistake. When we agree with you, we’ll be fast and transparent about fixing it, apologizing and explaining.”
The rest of the Yahoo News operation should get onboard with that agenda if it wants the public to trust in its content, already an uphill battle for the news media in general.
Here’s a suggestion to the managers of Yahoo News for a good start: Join the Report an Error Alliance. Put that snazzy little red-and-black button on every news page. When it bleeps with reader feedback, have somebody around to respond in reasonably short order (light speed won’t be necessary!) and publish the results in a transparent, user-friendly way.
UPDATE, 11:30 a.m. PT: Things have since accelerated farther away from clarity: When I returned to the Yahoo News story page today to check for an update I discovered that the text has changed back to the erroneous version first published. Whereas the segments in question had been changed from “la velocidad de la luz” to “la velocidad del sonido” they are now back to the former.
My suspicion is that while the first change was in all likelihood made by a person, the reversion to the error is probably due to a system glitch whereby that fix was overwritten. Of course, this points back not so neatly to the crux here — we have no effective way to inform Yahoo News about the problem, let alone get a clear explanation from them.
[Ed. note: This post also appeared today on the MediaBugs blog.]
It was an amusingly good time interviewing one of the great comedians of my generation for the Jan/Feb issue of Arrive magazine. If you don’t have any plans to ride the rails in the northeast over the next few weeks you can read my cover profile of Amy Poehler here. She talked (and joked) with me at length about her current TV show Parks and Recreation, which returns to primetime tonight, as well as about her Saturday Night Live days, parenthood and some action-packed projects she is pondering next. (“I want to be killed in a movie,” she said. “I want to have a really spectacular end.”)
It was interesting to hear Poehler’s take on the humanity beneath the antics of “Parks.” She mastered sketch comedy long ago, and her acting interests have broadened in recent years. I hadn’t watched much of the show until I took this assignment; from what I’ve since seen, it has its moments but can be rather uneven. And yet, it was also quickly apparent to me that Poehler’s charisma and comedic talents could carry the show, at least for a while. The future of “Parks,” now in its third season, appears to be riding on how the ratings tally this spring.
Particularly fun in going back over Poehler’s incandescent career to date was revisiting one of her early breakthrough characters (and one of my favorites), “Stacy,” who brought hilarious combustion to Late Night with Conan O’Brien in the late 1990s. Thanks to YouTube, of course, you can watch her again in glorious action.
The snazzy layout for the print issue of Arrive is also worth checking out via the link above, not least for the gallery of Poehler’s many memorable SNL characters, from Dolly Parton and Dennis Kucinich to Hillary Clinton and Kim Jong-Il.
A report from the Washington Post on Wednesday describes an effort by the CIA to assess the impact of WikiLeaks on U.S. national security. The effort is known as the WikiLeaks Task Force. Apparently it’s also commonly referred to as “WTF” around the halls in Langley. While that acronym may be cracking some sardonic grins, the Post story also reveals a CIA perspective that is no laughing matter.
To some agency veterans, WikiLeaks has vindicated the CIA’s long-standing aversion to sharing secrets with other government agencies, a posture that came under sharp criticism after it was identified as a factor that contributed to the nation’s failure to prevent the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Even while moving to share more information over the past decade, the agency “has not capitulated to this business of making everything available to outsiders,” said a former high-ranking CIA official who recently retired. “They don’t even make everything available to insiders. And by and large the system has worked.”
Without a doubt the sharing of sensitive information among U.S. agencies remains a complex and unwieldy issue — perhaps as complex and unwieldy as the U.S. national security apparatus itself since it ballooned under George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11. But while a strong majority of Americans believe that WikiLeaks has harmed the national interest, it could be dangerously foolish to buy into a resurgent lockdown mentality.
In his indispensable 2006 book “The Looming Tower,” journalist Lawrence Wright investigated the devastating effect of turf battles among the CIA, FBI and NSA prior to the 9/11 attacks. Wright’s book, as I detailed in an essay for Salon, made a persuasive case that the 9/11 plot may well have been foiled if not for fatal duplicity on the part of the CIA, which jealously guarded its intelligence gathering from the criminal-investigation focused FBI. A crucial opportunity apparently came and went in late 2000:
In Yemen, [FBI agent] Soufan was on the trail of an al-Qaida figure closely connected with Nawaf al-Hamzi and Khaled al-Mihdhar, two Saudi-born al-Qaida operatives who would later help seize planes on 9/11. The CIA had surveillance photos of all three men together from an al-Qaida summit in Malaysia the previous January, but when Soufan came knocking for information, the CIA slammed the door shut. It was part of what Wright calls “a bizarre trend in the U.S. government to hide information from the people who most needed it.”
As I noted in my piece about WikiLeaks and cyber warfare earlier this month, some U.S. officials have been warning anew about the dangers of inter-agency turf battles. Former national intelligence director Dennis C. Blair recently told Congress, “This infuriating business about who’s in charge and who gets to call the shots is just making us muscle-bound.”
What happens when the next 9/11 is in the works? The real imperative, it seems, is for the U.S. government to better protect any necessary secrets (the definition of which is another key subject — see Thomas Blanton on “the massive overclassification” of U.S. national security information) while improving upon the sharing of vital information among agencies. If it fails in that mission, the fallout could ultimately be far greater than anything perpetrated by the likes of Julian Assange and company.
[Updates to this post, through Monday Dec. 13, follow below.]
When the “Afghan war logs” became public earlier this year, I focused on WikiLeaks from the standpoint of its huge impact on the media. The ongoing release of a quarter million State Department cables has since unleashed a torrent of hot debate about government secrecy and whether Julian Assange’s organization is a force for good or evil.
Like many others, I’ve marinated myself in related articles and commentary over the last week but remain ambivalent about some of the complex moral issues involved. I’ve also been pondering a question that seems noticeably absent from the discussion: Could it be that WikiLeaks is actually the best thing in a long time to afflict U.S. national security?
The cacophonous phenomenon on the world’s front pages has been a grand wake-up call — the rise of cyberwar is no longer a matter of theory. It’s here whether you believe Assange is an enemy or a hero. If it proves true that a low-level Army analyst was able to get his hands on such a colossal amount of sensitive documents, what does that say about Pentagon preparedness for the security challenges of the proliferating information age?
So far some contents of “cablegate” itself have informed our view of just how serious an issue this is. As the Times reported on Sunday, “repeated and often successful hacking attacks from China on the United States government, private enterprises and Western allies” have been taking place since as far back as 2002. One previously unreported attack “yielded more than 50 megabytes of e-mails and a complete list of user names and passwords from an American government agency.”
The China cables also show the fire with which WikiLeaks plays; you get the sense that if some of the redacted names were revealed, it could potentially be disastrous, both to individuals involved and to U.S. intelligence gathering.
It’s noteworthy that the Obama administration’s assessment of the damage from WikiLeaks has consistently been inconsistent. The latest round has Attorney General Eric Holder saying that “national security of the United States has been put at risk,” while Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that concerns about potential harm are “significantly overwrought” and that the disclosures will have a “fairly modest” impact on foreign policy. The mixed message would seem to suggest that the U.S. government yet lacks a coherent approach to safeguarding the nation’s information infrastructure.
In the later years of the Bush administration, the federal government began to prioritize cyberwar, a focus continued by the Obama administration. But today there are the troubling, all too familiar signs of unpreparedness, agency turf wars and legal muddle. The Pentagon’s Cyber Command seeks to expand its powers aggressively and is, not coincidentally, publicizing that fact now. According to the Washington Post, its general in charge recently testified to Congress that he could not adequately defend the country against cyber-attack because it “is not my mission to defend today the entire nation.” If an adversary attacked power grids, he said, a defensive effort would “rely heavily on commercial industry.” Former national intelligence director Dennis C. Blair warned, “This infuriating business about who’s in charge and who gets to call the shots is just making us muscle-bound.”
By some accounts the world hasn’t seen anything yet in terms of the looming dangers of cyberwar. An attack could cripple America, argues former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, striking everything from train routes and electrical grids to bank data and medical records.
WikiLeaks over the last few months, then, may have exposed U.S. government vulnerability in an alarmingly useful way, if one not much in line with Assange’s ideas about undermining state power. You can bet it has lit a serious fire under officials involved with the nation’s cybersecurity, who now must be working that much more intensively to plug any leaks in the ship of state and build up defenses against future attacks. They are, of course, likely toiling in secrecy. For now, anyway.
UPDATE: On the eve of his arrest in London, Assange publishes an article in The Australian: “Don’t shoot messenger for revealing uncomfortable truths.” He opens with a quote from Rupert Murdoch: “In the race between secrecy and truth, it seems inevitable that truth will always win.”
UPDATE 12/8/10: Hackers sympathetic to Assange and WikiLeaks have launched a series of cyberattacks in recent days, targeting MasterCard, PayPal and a Swiss bank. (Could Twitter be next?) The Guardian looks into the “shadowy group” allegedly behind the attacks:
A 22-year-old spokesman, who wished to be known only as “Coldblood”, told the Guardian that the group – which is about a thousand strong – is “quite a loose band of people who share the same kind of ideals” and wish to be a force for “chaotic good”.
There is no real command structure in the group, the London-based spokesman said, while most of its members are teenagers who are “trying to make an impact on what happens with the limited knowledge they have”. But others are parents, IT professionals and people who happen to have time – and resources – on their hands.
It’s really too bad that Stieg Larsson isn’t still around to witness all this.
UPDATE 12/13/10: The WikiLeaks saga itself continues to ratchet up the potential for cyberwar. With a secret grand jury in Virginia reportedly now considering criminal charges against Assange, a headline in today’s Daily Mail raises the specter of retribution for Assange’s potential extradition: “Britain on cyber warfare alert as Whitehall prepares for WikiLeaks revenge attacks on Government website, it reads. Apparently “bank details of taxpayers and benefits claimants” could be at risk.
Stateside, meanwhile, the Times’ Scott Shane reports movement on the cyberwar front: “Whether or not the Obama administration tries to prosecute those who disseminated the information, it is determined to use technology to preserve its secrets. The Defense Department is scaling back information sharing, which its leaders believe went too far after information hoarding was blamed for the failure to detect the Sept. 11 plot. The department has also stripped CD and DVD recorders from its computers; it is redesigning security systems to require two people, not one, to move large amounts of information from a classified computer to an unclassified one; and it is installing software to detect downloads of unusual size.”
CNN’s broadcasts these days are packed with cheerleading for the network’s viewer participation opportunities. You’re encouraged to “share your story” at CNN iReport or “join a live chat” at Anderson Cooper’s blog or check out CNN Heroes on Facebook or follow one of the network’s nearly three dozen Twitter feeds. Welcome to the brave new world of interactive news!
But what if you happen to notice an error in a CNN broadcast and want to tell the network about it?
Welcome to the jungle.
Back on October 28th, a MediaBugs user filed a bug pointing out that a CNN broadcast had misidentified the prime minister of New Zealand as a film executive. (Watch the CNN clip here.) A primary goal of MediaBugs is to help improve communication between the public and newsrooms on error reports; currently we reach out to reporters and editors to let them know about bugs as they are filed.
Over the ensuing two weeks, I emailed CNN twice using an email form designated on its website for reporting an error. I got no response. That wasn’t entirely surprising since the form’s auto-reply message says, “While we are unable to personally reply to every e-mail, your comments are important to us, and we do read each and every one.”
CNN.com provides no contact information for editorial staff. (My search engine sleuthing for CNN Managing Editor Jay Kernis‘ email address proved unfruitful.) Eventually, I came across a Twitter account on a feedback page for CNN TV, @TeamCNN, whose bio indicates it is “dedicated to assisting our viewers.” After a cordial exchange of messages on Twitter, @TeamCNN asked me to submit the error using another email form, different from, though similar to, the one I’d used earlier. It was Nov. 18, three weeks since the bug had been filed. “We will look into,” @TeamCNN said.
After a couple more Twitter exchanges there was still no result. Another week had passed. CNN may present itself as being on the cutting edge of social media, but clearly it was time to pick up the phone. There had to be a way to reach a real live person in the newsroom, even though the only number I could find anywhere on CNN’s website was buried at the bottom of this About page. It was for contacting the network’s “Copyright Agent.” Googling farther afield, I dug up a number for a main line at CNN headquarters in Atlanta and asked the operator to connect me to the appropriate department. I reached an editorial assistant and explained the situation. He agreed that I should email him the bug report, saying he’d look into it. I sent him the link a few minutes after we hung up. A few days later I followed up at the same email address to check on a result.
As of this publication, CNN still hasn’t provided a response. Perhaps the particular broadcast error is so far in the rear view mirror at this point that correcting it doesn’t much matter to them. So what if a handful of viewers were left thinking that the creative director of WETA Workshop, Richard Taylor, is a dead ringer for New Zealand Prime Minister John Key?
Or, for all we know, the network may have already issued a correction on the air weeks ago. The problem is, there’s no way to find out on its website because CNN.com has no corrections content at all.
The point of slogging through this tale isn’t to pick on CNN, but rather to illuminate an endemic problem. CNN.com is hardly alone in its inaccessibility and unresponsiveness, as MediaBugs’ recently published national survey of news sites reveals. We’ve had similar experiences reporting errors via MediaBugs with Fox News, the LA Daily News, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.
With digital platforms for news in rapid ascendancy, this status quo is untenable. Today, problems in news coverage are being discussed online by anyone and everyone; newsrooms need to welcome sincere attempts by the public to notify them about factual mistakes.
That means offering real accessibility — a clear way to report an error and a commitment to responding. Many news sites still rely on a generic email address or form buried deep in their pages, or on chaotic comments threads, for feedback. But if reporting an error using those channels feels like pulling back window curtains on a brick wall, why would anyone bother?
We’ve been glad to see several positive outcomes at MediaBugs, too, with timely corrections from CBSNews.com, and from KCBS and KNTV in San Francisco. Thus far these have been the exception. But the good news is that it’s pretty easy for newsrooms to make effective changes on this front (see our rundown of best practices in error reporting and corrections).
And let’s take it a step further, toward a real breakthrough: Maybe one day soon, the industry standard will be for all online news pages to have a prominently placed, universal button for reporting an error. A new project just launched by MediaBugs founder Scott Rosenberg and Craig Silverman of Regret the Error (and PBS Media Shift) is aiming for just that. Newsrooms of the 21st century: Please join us as part of the Report an Error Alliance.
[This post first appeared at PBS.org's MediaShift Idea Lab.]
UPDATE 12/9/10: CNN has finally responded with a correction. Details here.