Archive for the ‘NYT’ Tag
As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, it isn’t hard to recall the politically fraught case of the 20-year-old bearded kid captured by US soldiers in Afghanistan in late 2001. But think the media got the whole story right on the so-called American Taliban?
Think again: Nearly a decade later, a rather extraordinary meltdown occurred during a recent San Francisco radio show focused on the case of John Walker Lindh. It happened thanks to 14 erroneous words printed in the New York Times in July 2002. My MediaBugs partner Scott Rosenberg and I just published a long piece in The Atlantic that traces the tale and explains its profound implications for news accuracy in the digital age. Here’s how it begins:
It is hard to describe the interview that took place on KQED’s Forum show on May 25, 2011, as anything other than a train wreck.
Osama bin Laden was dead, and Frank Lindh — father of John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban” — had been invited on to discuss a New York Times op-ed piece he’d just published about his son’s 20-year prison sentence. The moment host Dave Iverson completed his introduction about the politically and emotionally charged case, Lindh cut in: “Can I add a really important correction to what you just said?”
Iverson had just described John Walker Lindh’s 2002 guilty plea as “one count of providing services to a terrorist organization.” That, Frank Lindh said, was simply wrong.
Yes, his son had pled guilty to providing services to the Taliban, in whose army he had enlisted. Doing so was a crime because the Taliban government was under U.S. economic sanctions for harboring Al Qaeda. But the Taliban was not (and has never been) classified by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization itself.
This distinction might seem picayune. But it cut to the heart of the disagreement between Americans who have viewed John Walker Lindh as a traitor and a terrorist and those, like his father, who believe he was a fervent Muslim who never intended to take up arms against his own country.
That morning, the clash over this one fact set host and guest on a collision course for the remainder of the 30-minute interview. The next day, KQED ran a half-hour Forum segment apologizing for the mess and picking over its own mistakes.
KQED’s on-air fiasco didn’t happen randomly or spontaneously. The collision was set in motion nine years before by 14 erroneous words in the New York Times.
This is the story of how that error was made, why it mattered, why it hasn’t been properly corrected to this day — and what lessons it offers about how newsroom traditions of verification and correction must evolve in the digital age.
Read the whole thing here in The Atlantic. We reexamined the complicated Lindh case and conducted interviews with Frank Lindh, reporters and editors at the New York Times and KQED, and experts on media accuracy to get to the bottom of what turned out to be a fascinating case study.
Bonus link: Apparently the New York Times is not the only major news outlet with a Lindh error lurking in its digital archive.
MoJo’s Michael Mechanic has pulled together how eight newspapers captured the defining moments of Osama bin Laden’s mortal entanglement with America. From the Gray Lady to the tabloids, it’s interesting to look through these juxtaposed front pages and reflect on all that transpired in the decade between:
(The Examiner’s awkward ad on May 2 is also evocative of historic changes — those roiling the news biz. Though I’m not totally sure about the tabloids, until a couple years ago the front pages were sacrosanct.) Check out the rest of the images here.
No matter where you come down on the veracity, morality or impact of WikiLeaks’ mountainous Afghan “war diary,” its release has been a fascinating event. It prompted me to reread Raffi Khatchadourian’s first-rate New Yorker profile of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, where several passages have fresh resonance in the wake of the latest document dump. (Back in April WikiLeaks made waves when it released a controversial video showing an attack by a U.S. Apache helicopter in Baghdad that killed seven people including two journalists.) There’s been much debate since Sunday, not to mention pushback from the White House, about whether WikiLeaks’ disclosures endanger U.S. troops and allies. Assange takes a provocative stance in this regard. As Khatchadourian reported back in early June:
I asked Assange if he would refrain from releasing information that he knew might get someone killed. He said that he had instituted a “harm-minimization policy,” whereby people named in certain documents were contacted before publication, to warn them, but that there were also instances where the members of WikiLeaks might get “blood on our hands.”
Also widely discussed right now is the idea of WikiLeaks as a kind of roguish champion of transparency — one that is itself frustratingly, if perhaps necessarily, opaque. Khatchadourian also considered this problem in striking terms: “Soon enough, Assange must confront the paradox of his creation: the thing that he seems to detest most — power without accountability — is encoded in the site’s DNA, and will only become more pronounced as WikiLeaks evolves into a real institution.”
I highly recommend reading the full profile if you haven’t; Assange’s personal background and various perspectives are quite illuminating with regard to the global splash his organization currently is making.
Another major theme since Sunday has been the story’s impact on media itself. Without a doubt we are in an evolutionary moment. Jay Rosen has some great thoughts on the ramifications of WikiLeaks’ rise: “In media history up to now,” he says, “the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it. But Wikileaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new. Just as the Internet has no terrestrial address or central office, neither does Wikileaks.”
There’s another aspect of the freshly tweaked media equation that I find fascinating: How effectively Assange and his (unknown) collaborators played a bunch of prominent global news institutions in the service of their cause. Why did they give the trove of so-called war logs to the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel first, rather than just release all the raw material for anyone to dive into from the get-go?
“It’s counterintuitive,” Assange explained in October 2009. “You’d think the bigger and more important the document is, the more likely it will be reported on but that’s absolutely not true. It’s about supply and demand. Zero supply equals high demand, it has value. As soon as we release the material, the supply goes to infinity, so the perceived value goes to zero.”
It’s certainly no coincidence that three media giants (from countries with troops in the war zone) were offered the embargoed material; WikiLeaks could bet that the New York Times wasn’t going to pass on it knowing that the Guardian or Der Spiegel might well produce a big exposé (and vice versa). You can sense the effect of this calculation bristling beneath comments from New York Times executive editor Bill Keller about his organization’s subsequent reporting project:
First, The Times has no control over WikiLeaks — where it gets its material, what it releases and in what form. To say that it is an independent organization is a monumental understatement. The decision to post this secret military archive on a Web site accessible to the public was WikiLeaks’, not ours. WikiLeaks was going to post the material even if The Times decided to ignore it.
Keller also noted: “At the request of the White House, The Times also urged WikiLeaks to withhold any harmful material from its Web site.”
By which Rosen further points out: “There’s the new balance of power, right there. In the revised picture we find the state, which holds the secrets but is powerless to prevent their release; the stateless news organization, deciding how to release them; and the national newspaper in the middle, negotiating the terms of legitimacy between these two actors.”
Here are some additional pieces to the WikiLeaks/Afghanistan story that are well worth checking out:
• Amy Davidson with a thoughtful take on the huge trove of raw information: “WikiLeaks has given us research materials for a history of the war in Afghanistan. To make full use of them, we will, again, have to think hard about what we are trying to learn: Is it what we are doing, day to day, on the ground in Afghanistan, and how we could do it better? Or what we are doing in Afghanistan at all?”
• Philip Shenon discussing the WikiLeaks phenomenon on “Fresh Air”: “You certainly hear at the Pentagon, at the White House, concern that one of these days somebody is going to leak something really important to an organization like Wikileaks. The example given to me is American nuclear secrets or the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Would Wikileaks put that out to the world without much filtering, and isn’t there a threat in that?”
• Steven Aftergood, a respected voice on government secrecy, noting that WikiLeaks represents a creative solution to “over-control of government information” — but ultimately blasting WikiLeaks as being “among the enemies of open society because it does not respect the rule of law nor does it honor the rights of individuals.”
• The WikiLeaks “about” page, which offers some bold declarations of purpose: “In an important sense, WikiLeaks is the first intelligence agency of the people. Better principled and less parochial than any governmental intelligence agency, it is able to be more accurate and relevant. It has no commercial or national interests at heart; its only interest is the revelation of the truth. Unlike the covert activities of state intelligence agencies, WikiLeaks relies upon the power of overt fact to enable and empower citizens to bring feared and corrupt governments and corporations to justice.”
Here’s the main page for the New York Times series.
And you can follow WikiLeaks activity on Twitter. (Bio: “We open governments.”)
Forget the dismissive Pentagon Papers comparison that’s becoming conventional wisdom — see this sharp analysis from Joel Meares at CJR on the value of the Afghanistan docs: “The WikiLeaks documents put an underreported war back on the nation’s radar. It doesn’t matter that the pundits are yawning.”
Also now on CJR: Clint Hendler traces in detail how the WikiLeaks docs made their way into the Times, Guardian and Der Spiegel, “from Brussels, to a bunker, to blockbusters.” Part of his reporting underscores my view above as to how Assange played his hand with the three powerhouse news outlets:
On June 22, during a six hour coffee-soaked meeting in a Brussels café, Davies [a Guardian reporter] says Assange suggested another idea — that The Guardian and The New York Times be given an advance look at some information the site had on the Afghanistan war, with each paper publishing their own takes on the documents. Within the next twenty-four hours, Davies says Assange told him Der Spiegel should be included as well.
The piece recounts the unusual, highly secretive collaboration between the three news outlets that followed, as well as differing views on Assange’s involvement in the process. It’s an intriguing read that answers some questions while raising others — not only about how a rather mysterious new media force drove a global news cycle, but also about how things will go down when WikiLeaks makes its next move to foment a “global revolution,” as it puts it, in government and institutional accountability.
Some commentators have suggested that the WikiLeaks story essentially was over after a couple days. Far from it, judging by the reaction of U.S. officials.
Speaking at a Pentagon press conference on Thursday, Defense Secretary Bob Gates said that the disclosures had “potentially dramatic and grievously harmful consequences,” including for Afghans identified in the documents who had helped the U.S. war effort. Added Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff: “Mr. Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing, but the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.” (It’s interesting that Mullen seemed to refer to Assange’s source as a single person.) Meanwhile, the Justice Department apparently is looking into possible espionage charges against Assange and his organization. (That may be a stretch.) And Assange has said that WikiLeaks has another 15,000 unreleased Afghan war documents in its possession.
Though it’s grabbing fewer headlines these days, the upheaval in Tehran that began last summer continues to simmer. Apparently the Obama administration has some evolving ideas about how to exploit the domestic dissatisfaction, which has been rising, along with the local price of tomatoes, for quite some time. How long can Ahmadinejad hold on?
I finally had a chance to read Nazila Fathi’s recent essay about her experiences reporting from, and then fleeing from, Iran, where she’d been working for the New York Times. It’s chilling at turns, but also uplifting, particularly with its focus on the regime-busting role that technology has played in the historic unrest. Last summer I focused at length here on the unprecedented ways in which digital technology was shaping events from Tehran to Tiananmen Square. With events in Iran, Twitter suddenly had gone from trendy social networking toy to subversive diplomatic tool square on the State Department’s radar. But until reading Fathi’s essay I hadn’t known about another fascinating technological application in the fight—the use of Bluetooth by dissidents to dodge the crackdown. As Fathi writes of Iran’s continuing unrest in December:
Last month, during and after the funeral of the reformist Grand Ayatollah Hossain Ali Montazeri, one of the demonstrators’ most useful tools was the Bluetooth short-range radio signal that Americans use mainly to link a cellphone to an earpiece, or a printer to a laptop. Long ago, Iranian dissidents discovered that Bluetooth can as easily link cellphones to each other in a crowd. And that made “Bluetooth” a verb in Iran: a way to turn citizen reportage instantly viral. A protester Bluetooths a video clip to others nearby, and they do the same. Suddenly, if the authorities want to keep the image from escaping the scene, they must confiscate hundreds or thousands of phones and cameras.
The authorities have tried to fight back against such techniques and the Internet itself, but have fallen short. In November they announced that a new police unit, the “cyber-army,” would sweep the Web of dissent. It blocked Twitter feeds for a few hours in December, and an opposition Web site. But other blogs and Web sites mushroomed faster than the government could keep up.
Also be sure not to miss Frontline’s compelling documentary on the infamous killing of Neda Agha-Soltan.
UPDATE, 1/28/10: According to the New York Times, Iran reportedly has just executed two men in connection with the election protests. Nine others have been condemned to death for same.
As Barack Obama continues wrestling with decisions about a war that could define his presidency, veteran reporter David Rohde’s account of his seven-month ordeal as a captive of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan makes for some compelling reading. Along with two Afghan colleagues, Rohde was kidnapped in November 2008 while attempting to meet a Taliban commander for an interview. This June, upon reading the surprising news of his escape to freedom — the kidnapping had been kept quiet by the New York Times and other media organizations out of fear for Rohde’s safety — I was anticipating the narrative account surely to follow.
Months later, Rohde’s retelling does not disappoint. In an ongoing five-part series in the Times, his dispassionate tone combines with thoughtful attention to detail to give the reader confidence that, although some of his recollections may be imprecise, his harrowingly close view of America’s elusive enemy was also a profoundly revealing one. In political terms, Rohde’s subsequent analysis cuts in several directions.
In the first installment of the series, war hawks will find some forceful affirmation in Rohde’s seasoned assessment of the enemy:
Over those months, I came to a simple realization. After seven years of reporting in the region, I did not fully understand how extreme many of the Taliban had become. Before the kidnapping, I viewed the organization as a form of “Al Qaeda lite,” a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan.
Living side by side with the Haqqanis’ followers, I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious. Contact with foreign militants in the tribal areas appeared to have deeply affected many young Taliban fighters. They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with Al Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world.
For those who decried the Bush administration’s conduct of its so-called war on terrorism, there is also persuasive evidence here. “My captors harbored many delusions about Westerners,” Rohde writes. “But I also saw how some of the consequences of Washington’s antiterrorism policies had galvanized the Taliban. Commanders fixated on the deaths of Afghan, Iraqi and Palestinian civilians in military airstrikes, as well as the American detention of Muslim prisoners who had been held for years without being charged. America, Europe and Israel preached democracy, human rights and impartial justice to the Muslim world, they said, but failed to follow those principles themselves.”
From Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib, this would come back to haunt Rohde directly — a consequence of which many intelligence and military leaders had long warned. In the second installment out today, Rohde describes how his pleas for release were rebuffed:
When I told them I was an innocent civilian who should be released, they responded that the United States had held and tortured Muslims in secret detention centers for years. Commanders said they themselves had been imprisoned, their families ignorant of their fate. Why, they asked, should they treat me differently?
Among the dramatic turns in Rohde’s tale is a remarkable deception perpetrated by his primary captor. (Also see Monday’s piece.) More than just a gripping account, though, his writing further illuminates a Gordian conflict with no end in sight — and on the eve perhaps of some momentous choices in Washington. It’ll be interesting to see what more perspective Rohde offers as the series continues through Thursday.
UPDATE: Some New York Times readers are taking issue with the presentation and placement of the Rohde series (titled “Held by the Taliban”). As I make clear above, I’m with executive editor Bill Keller on this one:
When David Rohde escaped after more than seven months in captivity, it was clear even as we celebrated that his experience was one more window into a long and complicated war. No other journalist, as far as I know, has had such an experience of the Taliban from the inside. As I hope the series makes clear, this is not a story about David Rohde, it is a story about the character, strength and organization of the people the U.S. is fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It provides detailed insights into the minds and motives of the Taliban’s footsoldiers. It also reveals the extent to which the Taliban has, with impunity, colonized a swath of Pakistan. Yes, it is a hell of a story, but it also adds rich detail to our understanding of the Taliban.
Part three of the series is now available here.
The esteemed journalist Mark Bowden is back with another thought-provoking article on the digital media revolution. It is at once deeply reported, crisply written — and strangely myopic in its conclusions.
In the October issue of the Atlantic, Bowden tracks the story of how a partisan blogger armed Fox News and the rest of the TV noise machine with the primary attacks used against Supreme Court nominee (and now Justice) Sonia Sotomayor. (As I wrote in May, an early riff suggesting that conservative Republicans would wisely refrain from attacking Sotomayor — another echo in the chamber — would prove plain silly.) Bowden shows how a blogger by the name of Morgen Richmond dug up and helped disseminate obscure video clips that would soon have every talking head focused on Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” and judicial “policy making” comments from the past.
Bowden asserts that the deployment of those comments was “the work not of journalists, but of political hit men.” Although he acknowledges that partisans supplying material for TV news broadcasts is nothing new, he sees a dark trend, one to be blamed squarely on the proliferation of blogging. “With journalists being laid off in droves, savvy political operatives have stepped eagerly into the breach. What’s most troubling is not that TV-news producers mistake their work for journalism, which is bad enough, but that young people drawn to journalism increasingly see no distinction between disinterested reporting and hit-jobbery.”
The problem here is twofold. First, Bowden levels blame at the wrong target. As blogging expert Scott Rosenberg writes, “Surely the failure here is on the part of the TV news organizations that turned it into a marquee soundbite without looking more deeply into it. Wasn’t that their job, their process, their vetting — the safeguard that ostensibly distinguishes them from the unwashed blogging masses? Aren’t they the ones who are supposed to be after truth rather than scalps?”
That may be giving cable news a little too much credit, but as Rosenberg also points out, most bloggers don’t even purport to contribute journalism. And the failure to appreciate what blogs do contribute — especially collectively — is the other shortcoming in Bowden’s discussion. Morgen Richmond himself explains this clearly, in his response to Bowden’s piece:
[W]hile I wholeheartedly disagree with Bowden’s ultimate assessment that the Sotomayor “court is where policy is made” and “wise Latina” comments were non-controversial when taken in full context, the truth of the matter is that literally within hours (if not minutes) of posting both of these, there were an assortment of bloggers across the political spectrum dissecting and analyzing these finds. And not just the short clips which ultimately played on TV. I posted a link to the full Duke Law video almost immediately, and embedded as much of the “wise Latina” speech as I could in my initial post, so anyone who was interested had access to as much context as they wanted. Many highly-regarded blogs, such as the Volokh Conspiracy, concluded as Bowden did that these statements were not as controversial as they seemed on their face. And of course many others were not so willing to give Sotomayor the benefit of the doubt. The point is that this started taking place within hours on the internet, long before any of this made it’s way into the broader media. (Remember that I posted both of these statements before Sotomayor was even nominated.)
Bloggers often are lazy about providing useful context for readers — political agenda or no, it’s not easy to do well in the short space the genre typically requires. Yet, the linking that so often serves as a blogger’s shorthand points up the powerful information ecosystem of the Web. It is the information consumer’s charge, as much as ever, to dig deeper, to explore widely and to question orthodoxy. (Including his own.) The digital medium allows this far more readily than a television broadcast or print article does.
This isn’t the first time I’ve criticized Bowden for his media analysis — see my recent writing on his takedown of New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, as well as Bowden’s response.
He’s one of the best and most respected in the business, and I couldn’t agree more with Richmond when he says the world needs more journalists like Bowden, not fewer. Surprisingly, though, Bowden’s own legwork on the role of blogging in the Sotomayor story didn’t help him to get past his seemingly jaundiced view of the digital medium and its democratizing power. I think he tips his hand when toward the end he says: “There’s more here than just an old journalist’s lament over his dying profession, or over the social cost of losing great newspapers and great TV-news operations. And there’s more than an argument for the ethical superiority of honest, disinterested reporting over advocacy.”
But that’s precisely his thrust. With no small whiff of nostalgia he reiterates that an old-school reporter, proceeding from curiosity over political conviction, is more likely to discover the unexpected and reap the rewards of “speaking wholly for himself, without fear or favor.” Maybe so. Yet, Bowden could just as easily be describing bloggers when he concludes that reporters have “the power to stir up trouble wherever they go. They can shake preconceptions and poke holes in presumption. They can celebrate the unnoticed and puncture the hyped. They can, as the old saying goes, afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”
Pondering the rise of new media and the decline of the traditional newsroom, skeptics still tend to cling to either-or thinking: You’ve either got shrill partisan hacks or experienced professional reporters, and never the twain shall meet. The failure of imagination involved is pretty obvious. Digital media has unlocked great potential for nontraditional approaches to the gathering and analysis of information — a vast middle ground of additional possibilities.
Let’s say the government releases a bunch of documents related to a controversial, secretive activity. Now anybody with a computer, an Internet connection and a little motivation can dig in. (Of course, this has already been going on for quite a while.)
Today brings a fresh example of how reporting by bloggers can contribute to, or even lead, a major news cycle. In a front-page story today, the New York Times announces that the CIA used waterboarding, a torture technique provoking fear of death by drowning, hundreds of times on two Al Qaeda suspects — far more than was previously known. It’s newsworthy information on several levels, including for how it punches holes in past testimonials from U.S. officials about covert interrogations conducted by the Bush government.
This was not a scoop from the nation’s largest newsroom. The information underpinning the Times report came via blogger Marcy Wheeler, who discovered over the weekend that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in one month when she examined the fine print in a newly declassified Bush administration memo from 2005. Wheeler also used the memo to look at a telling clash between the FBI and CIA over the interrogation program and to examine the key question of whether waterboarding actually is effective, as has been claimed by Dick Cheney et al.
The Times report underscores that this story remains far from over (also see Mark Danner for an in-depth political discussion of the unresolved torture issue) — and the public has an enterprising blogger to thank for pushing it ahead.
It’s a kind of yoga. You do it with your dog. No, seriously. Together with your pooch you stretch, you meditate, you pose. The New York Times reported on this recently. Maybe you’d already heard about it, but probably not. (More on that in a minute.) For an hour or so on the evening of April 8 the story was featured, replete with large photo, atop the leading news site. It was number one on the Times’ list of most e-mailed stories for a couple days thereafter. Apparently doga is a rising trend in America, worthy of much attention.
Or is it? Indeed, there’s a bit of a journalism issue here, but first things first: Sure, the pictures of the dogs were pretty cute and/or pretty funny, and who doesn’t love cute-funny dogs, and who wouldn’t click gleefully on a slide show with additional pictures of cute-funny dogs, thereby contributing to what certainly must’ve been a big spike in page views for nytimes.com.
There’s probably not much reason to add that partner yoga with your dog may sound like one of the more inane things you’ve ever heard of, because others are likely to say that (yogis among them), as well as to suggest that the dogs involved may well be feeling less than enlightened by the activity, and anyway, the photos (by Michael Nagle) from the Times’ slide show really do speak for themselves:
There is good reason to add, however, that claims about doga’s growing popularity across the land seem howlingly suspect. Behold the all too common trend story that offers no real evidence of a trend.
After a brief opening anecdote about a few people in Chicago, New York and Seattle variously contorting with their Jack Russell terriers and Shih Tzus, the Times report says this of doga (emphasis mine):
Ludicrous? Possibly. Grist for anyone who thinks that dog-owners have taken yoga too far? Perhaps. But nationwide, classes of doga — yoga with dogs, as it is called — are increasing in number and popularity. Since Ms. Caliendo, a certified yoga instructor in Chicago, began to teach doga less than one year ago, her classes have doubled in size.
That’s it, folks. The rest of the article contains no further quantitative information about the purported legions of spiritually enlightened pet owners caught up in the craze.
Perhaps the Times reporter spotted some sort of trend in other stories about the alleged trend: The Associated Press covered it back in 2007, and ABC News published a story on April 1 (whose date apparently was a coincidence, although you could be forgiven for thinking the story was fake.) ABC included San Francisco and Jacksonville, Fla., on the list of locales and described a few doga accessories being sold. But no hard numbers there, either. Instead, the story leaned on “pet trend expert” Maggie Gallant to claim that doga “has the potential to be a very widespread trend.” As Gallant panted, “There are 75 million homes in America that have dogs and about 13 million people practicing yoga.”
Kudos to Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich for sniffing out the truth. With a little follow-up reporting, she discovered that the Chicago locale cited in the Times article — the one where classes “have doubled in size” — now offers one doga class a week, with three to 12 students in each.
Aside from whatever benefits may lie in store for dog owners who team up with their beloved furry ones for stretching and meditation, it seems that America’s big embrace of doga turns out to be, well, a particular kind of scoop indeed.
The so-called crisis in the news industry sure has generated some sensational stories of late. “American journalism is in a period of terror,” announces Mark Bowden in a tome of an article appearing in the May issue of Vanity Fair. Mostly a deft hatchet job on Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of the New York Times, Bowden’s piece sent the media cognoscenti into a tizzy, although nobody seems to have noticed its one truly illuminating segment.
Even the mighty Times is facing financial peril these days, and Bowden’s premise is that the newspaper scion “has steered his inheritance into a ditch.” He abuses tools of the trade to help suggest his case. As one unnamed “industry analyst” tells us, “Arthur has made some bad decisions, but so has everyone else in the business. Nobody has figured out what to do.” Earth shattering. Perhaps Bowden should pick up a copy of the Times and read Clark Hoyt on the suitable use of anonymous sources. For a substantive take on contemporary debacles across the business, check out this recent piece by Daniel Gross.
In fact, I’m a big fan of Bowden’s. Right now I happen to be reading his 2006 book “Guests of the Ayatollah,” a riveting account of the Iran hostage crisis. Particularly in the realm of national security, few reporters are as exhaustive, persuasive — and downright exciting to read — as him.
On the media, not so much. There he has tended toward the self-involved, maybe a particular pitfall for great reporters covering their own vocation. (See the opening line of the Sulzberger article, which zooms in directly on… Bowden himself, as he receives a phone call from Sulzberger: “I was in a taxi on a wet winter day in Manhattan three years ago…” Especially telling, I think, given that in another recent piece orbiting the news business, a profile of David Simon, Bowden also wrote himself prominently into the narrative.) The Vanity Fair article is exquisitely timed with the accelerating upheaval in the newspaper industry, and reads mostly like, well, a salacious, insider-y Vanity Fair article.
And yet, buried deep in the 11,500 words is one of the best analogies I’ve encountered anywhere conveying the potential for digital journalism:
When the motion-picture camera was invented, many early filmmakers simply recorded stage plays, as if the camera’s value was just to preserve the theatrical performance and enlarge its audience. To be sure, this alone was a significant change. But the true pioneers realized that the camera was more revolutionary than that. It freed them from the confines of a theater. Audiences could be transported anywhere. To tell stories with pictures, and then with sound, directors developed a whole new language, using lighting and camera angles, close-ups and panoramas, to heighten drama and suspense. They could make an audience laugh by speeding up the action, or make it cry or quake by slowing it down. In short, the motion-picture camera was an entirely new tool for storytelling.
Bowden uses the comparison in the service of whacking Sulzberger — but it also points directly to a broader stagnation in media companies’ use of the digital platform. There is experimentation going on, but often without much imagination: Digital video clips are all the rage? OK, we’ll put reporters on camera describing the stories they’ve just published! Online communities and reader interactivity are the latest buzz? OK, we’ll feature the shouting matches in our comments threads as actual news!
The rising multimedia and publishing capabilities of the digital realm are charged with promise, and demand deeper thinking about their optimal use. With any given subject, which digital tools are most effective for gathering information and telling the story? How can the information-rich ecosystem of the Web enhance the knowledge gained? What new ways are there to produce reliable, authoritative and compelling content, taking maximum advantage of a decentralized and participatory technology like no other we’ve ever known?
Soon enough we may all be getting our news on a kind of flexible digital paper. The possibilities for what it could contain are big, and they’re just beginning.
UPDATE: Mark Bowden responds.
At hearings Wednesday on Capitol Hill lawmakers excelled at one of the things they do best: political theater. The outrage flowed, as Edward Liddy, the current CEO of American International Group, got grilled about the $165 million in bonuses going to a bunch of guys who helped bring the U.S. banking sector to the brink of collapse with immense and immensely reckless insurance bets. (A complicated scheme, but credit to President Obama, who did a decent job Wednesday morning of explaining in basic terms how they did it.)
To what degree Americans should be angry at taxpayer-backed AIG or our government leaders (past and present) is a murky discussion, but it’s clear that the level of outrage across the country is plenty high right now. (High enough not only to juice a show on Capitol Hill, but also some widely celebrated media blood sport.) What’s interesting to me at the moment is how a number of major news outlets have seen the popular discontent as an opportunity to highlight reader interactivity on the Web.
At the top of its home page Tuesday night the New York Times featured reader diatribes — treating them as news itself. “Some people are vengeful, calling for jail, public humiliation or even revolution,” reported A.G. Sulzberger. Over the last few days, “the most passionate voices, not surprisingly, could be found on the Internet — on blogs and discussion threads — in unusually bountiful numbers.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the Washington Post featured a round-up of its own reader comments, if not especially articulate or enlightening. (“Corporate and political self-seeking are devastating our families, our country, and out [sic] world.” Etc.) The Wall Street Journal’s home page gave top real estate to voices from the “Journal Community,” which tended, naturally, to reflect a constituency of a somewhat different kind. “The Obama administration is spending too much time and resources to go after this money,” scolded reader Craig Cohen. “The fact is, it will probably cost the US more money in legislative time, attorney fees, opportunity cost, etc to get these bonuses back than they are worth. But that doesn’t matter to the President. This is not about bonuses. It’s about class warfare. These bonuses went to the elite…. They must be punished!”
A key question on my mind is, how can media companies unlock greater potential with reader engagement and participation? It’s stating the obvious to say that there’s nothing cutting-edge at this point about letting readers loose with their opinions. (Put nicely, it tends to have limited value in unfiltered form.) Are there new ways to generate useful insight and information from the many smart readers out there, rather than just a lot of noise? This is an issue we grappled with regularly over the years when I was at Salon, and I have a hunch it could figure prominently in ways forward with news reporting in the rising digital realm. What if, for example, readers with experience in the culture of Wall Street could begin to add to the picture of how the AIG problem metastasized? Or shed light on how thoroughly it has been reported on?
Smart people have been working on ideas in this area for some time. Mother Jones has an interesting activist-style approach that it’s experimenting with. Between the ongoing destruction in the newspaper industry and what some major companies are attempting now online in terms of reader interactivity (the two hardly unrelated), I have the sense that whoever begins to unlock the challenge in a more creative, substantive way could make a big splash.