Wall Street Journal pushes flimsy Obama story, then stonewalls

*Post updated below with a response from a WSJ managing editor.

Just ahead of last week’s election the Wall Street Journal reported that “high-level Democrats” were calling for President Obama “to remake his inner circle or even fire top advisers” in the face of an imminent drubbing at the polls.

But an error report on MediaBugs flagged a conspicuous problem with the story: It contained no evidence supporting the claim in its headline and first paragraph. Not a single one of the eight people quoted in the piece called for Obama “to remake his inner circle” or “fire top advisers.” (Read the story here.)

Over the past week our MediaBugs team contacted the Journal five times seeking a response to the error report. We emailed a reporter, a managing editor and a general address designated for reporting errors to the newsroom. We also called the phone number listed with corrections info in the print edition. We haven’t received any response.

This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered a void when trying to reach the Journal about an error report. And while the previous instance involved a minor mistake, this one is more substantial.

It isn’t just that we think a reasonable error report deserves a response. It’s in the Journal’s best interest to provide one.

Surely more than one Journal reader wondered why there were no quotes to back up the story’s headline and premise. With no explanation from the newsroom, all we can do is speculate. It’s possible that the reporters spoke with “high-level Democrats” who said they wanted Obama to fire top advisers, but who would only say so off the record. (In which case the article might have explained that.) Or it’s possible an editor chose to punch up the opening and add a headline intended to attract maximum eyeballs. Maybe somebody at the Journal was eager to suggest a dramatic loss of confidence in Obama on the eve of a big election — after all, ever since Rupert Murdoch bought the paper, critics have been identifying a rightward slant in its news pages. (See, for example, The Atlantic, the New York Times, and many other sources.)

It’s also possible that the above explanations aren’t remotely accurate. We just don’t know.

Which, of course, is exactly the point. A Wall Street Journal reader raised a legitimate question; by failing to respond, the paper has left a void for its readers to fill with suspicion and surmise. (Journal readers may have noticed that no top advisers have departed the administration since the election; meanwhile, subsequent reports from Politico and NPR indicate that changes at the White House are likely to involve the “reshuffling of a relatively small cast of Obama insiders” and that “nobody expects an inrush of new blood.” Still, even the departure tomorrow of the entire White House staff would not answer the questions raised by the Journal story.)

When MediaBugs reaches out to newsroom managers about an error report, we explain that our aim is to help close the feedback loop, often inadequate, between the public and newsrooms. (Read our newly published national survey of news sites to see just how inadequate that feedback loop typically is.) We don’t tell editors whether they should run a clarification or correction — that remains up to them to decide and to articulate to the public.

In the pre-Internet age, it was easy for a news organization to control a conversation in the public view about its journalistic practices, or simply to ignore it altogether. Today, the conversation about journalism is everywhere; that’s the case whether or not a news organization chooses to engage with it. When it comes to championing accuracy, the best way forward is to be accessible, transparent and engaged with the public.

[Note: This post also appeared today on our MediaBugs blog.]

UPDATED Nov 12: The Wall Street Journal has finally responded, saying that it “fundamentally disagrees” with the error report posted on MediaBugs. You can read the Journal’s full response here. MediaBugs takes no position on specific bug reports; from my vantage as the project’s associate director I’ll say that we are glad to have the Journal’s response — a primary goal of ours is to connect the public with newsrooms on error reports and establish a useful record of the discussion that ensues.

In my personal opinion, as a blogger who sometimes writes about media, I’ll say that I find the Journal’s response totally lacking. It plays like bad kabuki, failing to address the actual problem raised by the bug report and further undermining the Journal’s credibility. I won’t spend time dissecting it here — because my project partner Scott Rosenberg has just done so over at Wordyard. “Like any journalist who’s been working for three decades, I’ve written and edited thousands of headlines on thousands of stories,” he says. “There is no way I would ever sign off on that headline and lead for that story. Our MediaBugs error-report filing called them ‘completely unsupported,’ and I agree.”

Go read Scott’s post for the stark details as to why — they are illuminating. When you run a story that you don’t have, as he puts it, and then defend it with misdirection and a high-handed tone, you only hurt your credibility more.

[In other MediaBugs news today, CJR’s Craig Silverman talks with me about our new report on corrections practices across major U.S. news sites. Whereby I offer a crucial update to Fox News’ “Fair and Balanced” slogan.]

Bush’s memoir could be called “Delusion Points”

According to a write-up in the Times this week of George W. Bush’s new memoir, here’s one way in which the former president regards the Iraq war:

For the most part, Mr. Bush offers a strong defense of his presidency, declaring that his decision to invade Iraq was the right one because … “the Iraqi people are better off with a government that answers to them instead of torturing and murdering them.”

From the Times’ coverage last month of the WikiLeaks Iraq war logs:

[T]he documents … contain indelible details of abuse carried out by Iraq’s army and police. The six years of reports include references to the deaths of at least six prisoners in Iraqi custody, most of them in recent years. Beatings, burnings and lashings surfaced in hundreds of reports, giving the impression that such treatment was not an exception. In one case, Americans suspected Iraqi Army officers of cutting off a detainee’s fingers and burning him with acid. Two other cases produced accounts of the executions of bound detainees.

Love in the time of Terror Babies

“My parents, with admirable foresight, had their first child while they were on fellowships in the United States. My mother was in public health, and my father in a library-science program. Having an American baby was, my mother once said, like putting money in the bank.”

So begins Daniel Alarcón’s recently published short story “Second Lives,” whose narrator is a Latin American man with a potent longing for a First World life. His dream has eluded him; he realizes he is doomed to a “terminal condition” of Third World citizenship, despite that his older brother — the one lucky to be born on U.S. soil — had seized the opportunity to emigrate many years prior.

Alarcón is a writer I’ve long admired, in part for how he weaves complex cultural politics into quietly powerful narratives. (His luminous story collection War by Candlelight is a must-read.) “Second Lives” arrived with uncanny timing in this politically boiling August. At face value, its opening easily could be another rallying cry for the political far right, members of which have been stirring up anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hysteria from California to Texas to lower Manhattan.

Even by today’s standard of partisan politics, the hot wave of demagoguery hitting the country feels off the charts. Take the fear mongering of Louie Gohmert, the Texas congressman who has been flogging the “terror babies” conspiracy on national television: Shadowy foreigners are plotting to give birth in the U.S., only to take their tots overseas, train them as terrorists and send them back decades later, courtesy of the 14th Amendment, to wreak havoc inside the country.

That this theory is plainly ridiculous, and has been debunked by FBI and U.S. Customs officials, is beside the point. As Ruben Navarrette Jr. wrote from Phoenix, this is political opportunism of a very scary kind.

You might say that Gohmert is just small potatoes. But what about more influential Republicans eager this election season to foment a crusade against Islam? The tactics aimed at the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” — which in name is pure invention — are no less craven. Newt Gingrich put a Hitlerian stamp on the proposed Muslim center in lower Manhattan: “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington,” he said by way of egregious comparison on Fox News. No doubt Gingrich is pleased to be in lockstep with the cowardly Anti-Defamation League; he could scarcely do more to exploit fearful support from Jews than to evoke the Holocaust.

There seems to be not a shred of empathy or basic human decency in this dark political campaign. Oh, sure, some agitators will say that some of their best friends are Muslims — which should ring about as true and logical as pronouncements on CNN by Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association: “I love Muslims, I am pro-Muslim. I am anti-Islam. I would say to a Muslim, ‘Look, your ideology is destructive, it’s deceptive, it’s dark.'” Or as Fischer also put it: “Islam is not a religion of peace. It is a religion of war, it is a religion of violence.”

In this war, Gingrich, Boehner and Cantor are the generals, the Fischers their captains on the ground. For them anything goes in the battle for congressional power this fall, the rising dangers of nativist provocation be damned.

Which returns me to Alarcón’s story. Against the multitude in the media recently (no shortage of fictions among them) it is an unwavering prick of light. It brims with the humanism that America’s darkly cartoonish politicos so palpably lack. As great fiction should, the story never directly grapples with the Big Political Issues, like immigration. Indeed, the politics here are personal, etched in the lives of characters coping with family struggle, romantic heartbreak and the daily challenges and amusements of assimilation. “Second Lives” is a portrait of a divided family gazing across the chasm between the Third and First Worlds — and it is a vivid reminder of what is really in the hearts and minds of the vast majority of America’s immigrant hopefuls.

“In school,” recalls Alarcón’s narrator, “my favorite subject was geography. Not just mine, it should be said.” He continues:

I doubt any generation of young people has ever looked at a world map with such a powerful mixture of longing and anxiety; we were like inmates being tempted with potential escape routes. Even our teacher must have felt it: when he took the map from the supply closet and tacked it to the blackboard, there was an audible sigh from the class. We were mesmerized by the possibilities; we assumed every country was more prosperous than ours, safer than ours, and at this scale they all seemed tantalizingly near. The atlas was passed around like pornography, and if you had the chance to sit alone with it for a few moments you counted yourself lucky. When confronted with a map of the United States, in my mind I placed dots across the continent, points to mark where my brother had lived and the various towns he’d passed through on his way to other places.

That dream of “other places,” of course, has everything to do with the greatness on which our immigrant-rich society has been built. The demagogues who have forgotten this truth, or who knowingly have traded it for the miasma of deranged politics, would do well to read and ponder Alarcón’s tale. It is so much taller, as it were, than any of theirs.

WikiLeaks exposed

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.”)

UPDATE 7/28/10:
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.

UPDATE 7/29/10:
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.

Porn at the Pentagon, Glenn Beck’s gunman, MILF rebels and ancient mullets

Inspired by a robust number of clicks from the first three installments, herewith is another bundle of microblogging, back by popular demand! I’ll return to lengthier writing in this space in the near future; for now I’m occupied with our preparations to expand MediaBugs into a national project (this fall), trying to scale something of a brick wall at Bloomberg, and working on a couple of other research & writing projects. Meanwhile, I think I’ve discovered a handy addendum to the maxim: The art of writing is rewriting, indeed, but the art of writing also is turning off your Internet access for a little while. Until next time… enjoy.

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Is it “douchebag” or “douche bag”? @LoriFradkin has the answer! http://bit.ly/cafs3d about 1 hour ago

oh, lovely: child porn at the Pentagon, US intel agencies “at risk of blackmail, bribery, and threats” http://bit.ly/dxZDaB about 1 hour ago

you can bet the farm this crazed Calif. shooter watched Glenn Beck and/or Fox News. See quotes from his mom: http://bit.ly/cIKMf2 11:02 AM Jul 19th via web

Told ya so! re Oakland gunman likely inspired by Glenn Beck: http://bit.ly/axh2kL Wed Jul 21 14:01:48 2010

how to stop gorging on digital information: http://bit.ly/crZRZ4 Wed Jul 21 08:33:11 2010

once the heart of the Mayan empire, now a “rapidly deforesting mini-narco-state” http://nyti.ms/dD45S4 9:10 AM Jul 19th

some pretty f–@%*! funny Blagojevich ringtones: http://bit.ly/cOg4VW 11:46 AM Jul 16th

97-year-old stoner seriously bummed out by Vallejo authorities: http://bayc.it/p2P/ 10:24 AM Jul 15th

the Moro Islamic Liberation Front: a rebel group with a headline-grabbing name! http://bit.ly/bbFDtM 10:01 AM Jul 15th

Steve Carrell and Paul Rudd take it to the hole on Lebron and Jim Gray http://youtu.be/KtIaMr2hGeI 9:51 AM Jul 15th

Utah one-ups Arizona on anti-immigrant fear mongering http://nyti.ms/b30CfF 10:38 PM Jul 14th

but U.S. still in critical condition RT @nprpolitics Cheney Recuperating From Heart Surgery http://n.pr/dwbwVu 2:37 PM Jul 14th

CBS News: The Netherlands Win World Cup! (by a score of “SCORE to SCORE”) http://bit.ly/aon754 3:14 PM Jul 12th

apparently the mullet is ancient history: http://bit.ly/d4cs1p 9:19 AM Jul 12th

Lots more straight from the source, right here.

Hard to get a fix

Just about every professional journalist under the sun will tell you that accuracy and transparency in news reporting are essential to a media organization’s credibility. It would seem to follow, then, that most newsrooms would make tracking and correcting errors a priority — particularly in the digital age, in which they have unprecedented capability to interact with the public. But that’s not at all the case right now. Over at MediaBugs, Scott Rosenberg and I have just published our first major report on the state of corrections practices across the Bay Area news media. What we found will not boost public confidence:

The results of MediaBugs’ first survey of Bay Area media correction practices show that 21 out of 28 news sites examined — including many of the region’s leading daily newspapers and broadcast news outlets — provide no corrections link on their websites’ home pages and article pages. The websites for 17 of the 28 news organizations examined have no corrections policy or substantive corrections content at all.

Sites that do offer corrections-related content frequently make it relatively difficult to find: It is located two or three obscure clicks into the site, or requires visitors to use the site’s search function. Once located, the corrections content is, in most cases, poorly organized and not easily navigated.

In the above report, you can see the specific rundown for most major news outlets headquartered in or regularly covering the Bay Area (including some major national outlets). We’re not just looking to highlight these problems; we also hope to encourage news organizations to fix them — and the good news here is that the necessary improvements are pretty easy to make. To that end, we’ve also published a companion piece outlining best practices in error reporting and corrections.

Also see Scott’s excellent post over at MediaShift Idea Lab for more insight into why news sites have stopped short in this realm — and where we think they should be headed, most ambitiously. (Nutshell: Adding a “Report an error” button as a standard feature on every news page online. The promotion of which is a project in our pipeline.)

And be sure to check out the fun little movie we just released (with the help of our talented friends at Beep Show) — the hard-hitting yet heart-warming story of MediaBugs, as told by men in shorts.

Bonsai music, the sound of sadness, and a killing via Twitter

Gentle readers: It’s been another busy month, including a trip to MIT for the Future of News and Civic Media Conference, where we showcased the first phase of MediaBugs and hung out with a bunch of interesting folks working on some intriguing cutting-edge projects.

In lieu of posting here since an early June dive into the Gulf calamity, I offer a third experimental installment of self-aggregated micro-blogging, which has proven a considerably easier way to riff while on the run. (Also see installments one and two.) Nicholas Carr may believe web links are rotting our brains, in which case I’ve already spoiled your screen, but I’m more with Steven Johnson on the “greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture” thing. Happy browsing.

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Rolling Stone is “back on a roll.” And apparently not because of that booty-licious Lady Gaga cover. http://nyti.ms/dssVSY about 6 hour ago via web

#BP’s audacious new plan to drill, baby, drill off Alaska: http://nyti.ms/cQ6RVn Thu Jun 24 17:37:58 2010

embattled and/or bespectacled journos reportedly should not stir outcry about senseless murders in the leafy suburbs: http://bit.ly/9RBzFK Thu Jun 24 14:42:41 2010

A serious bonsai tree jam: http://j.mp/dubR2D Wed Jun 23 18:59:19 2010

ancient big weather and what may be the world’s largest dinosaur graveyard: http://bit.ly/bP2wZd Wed Jun 23 15:38:14 2010

The same intervals that express sadness in music also found in speech: http://ow.ly/21KDz Tue Jun 22 11:05:53 2010

Utah attorney general live tweets execution by firing squad: http://yhoo.it/bv3ol8 Fri Jun 18 12:20:12 2010

in Iraq, “the biggest campaign of dog execution ever.” And KBR is involved. http://bit.ly/azxcYc Fri Jun 18 08:37:46 2010

CNN “expert” says that Obama’s Gulf speech used, uh, too many words, or words w/too many letters, or… somethin’ http://bit.ly/cUfOZg #dumbcoverage Thu Jun 17 12:01:11 2010

what’s the carbon footprint of that thing you’re about to buy? Very cool project, Sourcemap, from CFCM at MIT http://bit.ly/zA1a4 #knc10 Wed Jun 16 15:36:58 2010

Tom Waits’ personal playlist: http://bit.ly/bMlZAp Wed Jun 16 15:29:46 2010

now that’s politics with brains! accusing your opponent of “waterboarding” the economy: http://politi.co/cTGh0a #WTF Mon Jun 14 12:49:57 2010

“We must save the oceans if we want to save mankind.” -Jacques Cousteau (born 100 yrs ago this Friday) #oilspill Wed Jun 9 14:42:11 2010

AP dateline: UNDER THE MURKY DEPTHS OF THE GULF OF MEXICO (reporter into “thickest patch of red oil I’ve ever seen”) http://yhoo.it/cfQfaH Wed Jun 9 09:38:34 2010

the catastrophe of oil-soaked birds, explained: http://bit.ly/doM9gd #BP #oilspill #alt-energy-now Tue Jun 8 11:32:34 2010

The deep dark shades of BP’s Gulf oil spill

[Updates from Sat, Sun, Mon (2x) are below.]

The oil-drenched marine life preparing to testify on Barry Blitt’s June 7 New Yorker cover did not make me smile in the slightest. (I doubt humor, even the dark kind, was Blitt’s core intent.) It’s an effectively painful riff on the slow-motion horror story continuing to seep from the Gulf region. Like so many others over the last few weeks, I’ve been unable to look away from the gush of media coverage on BP’s oil spill calamity; what follows below is a roundup of things I’ve found to be the most illuminating or compelling along the way. As I suggested a week ago, I think this disaster — which will go from terrible to far worse before it’s over — will likely be a paradigm-changing event, one that will force a fundamental shift in U.S. energy policy. That is if, god willing, U.S. leaders and a great many of the people who elect them realize that such a shift must be the necessary outcome of this god-awful historic event.

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Blitt’s characters say it one way; these terribly vivid, awfully real pictures of moribund wildlife, from the AP’s Charlie Riedel, say it all.

ABC reported yesterday that, not long after the disaster began, BP and the Feds conspired to withhold footage indicating a much more massive oil spill than initially conveyed to the public.

There have been multiple reports this week that BP has tried to prevent the media from documenting animal deaths in the Gulf region.

The NOAA has been tracking the scope and movement of the devastation, including views of the spill from space. It’s huge.




The astonishingly tone-deaf CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, used Facebook to issue an apology, as if BP’s tapping into social media gives it or its inept leader any prayer of scrubbing clean their blackened names.

A guy who does damage control for Blackwater (since whitewashed as “Xe Services”) offered some “advice” to BP about dealing with a public relations disaster: “There are times when you have to man up and take your lumps, and this seems to be one of those times.”

Susan D. Shaw, a marine toxicologist, suited up in some protective gear and swam directly into the spill. “What I witnessed,” she later wrote, “was a surreal, sickening scene beyond anything I could have imagined.”

MoJo’s industrious Mac McClelland has been reporting from the front lines and continues tweeting about it here.

Some imaginative work by “DIY mappers” has helped document the spreading fallout and build an independent data set of oil spill imagery.

And if the reality of this nightmare hasn’t yet sunk in… Boston.com’s “The Big Picture” has plenty of additional heartbreaking images.

UPDATE 6/5/10: Although for obvious reasons they’re unhappy about it, members of Wyoming’s Casper Petroleum Club recognize that the energy paradigm shift is coming.

The fallout has reached Florida, darkening the mood in the Tampa Tribune: “Forget ‘drill baby drill’ and realize it’s time we start shifting our fuel needs to safer alternatives. … This sickening slick will do more damage than we can imagine. It’ll affect us in ways we can’t consider. But the images now are burning deep in people’s minds. It’s going to be a long summer.”

UPDATE 6/6/10: Ian Urbina pulls together documentation and testimonials in the Sunday Times showing that nobody in the private sector was effectively in charge of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig, either before the disaster or in its aftermath. The federal government also failed: “a hodgepodge of oversight agencies granted exceptions to rules, allowed risks to accumulate and made a disaster more likely on the rig, particularly with a mix of different companies operating on the Deepwater whose interests were not always in sync.” It appears nobody took the prospect of a blowout seriously: “The rig’s ‘spill response plan,’ provided to The Times, includes a Web link for a contractor that goes to an Asian shopping Web site and also mentions the importance of protecting walruses, seals and sea lions, none of which inhabit the area of drilling. The agency approved the plan.”

UPDATE 6/7/10: The New Yorker’s June 7 cover notwithstanding, even the blackest crisis needs its dark satirists; the most compelling stuff has been flowing from @BPGlobalPR since mid May. Here’s a semi-toxic sampling:

Try our cap operation at home! Hold a funnel over a firehose, sell what you catch and proclaim victory! #bpwins about 13 hours ago via TweetDeck

Words can not express how sorry we are. So we are going to stop apologizing and just give our investors 10 billion dollars. 7:48 AM Jun 5th via TweetDeck

Found driftwood that looks like Jesus crying oil. Not sure what it means but we’re charging 20 bucks to see it. #bpcares 9:27 AM Jun 4th via web

ANNOUNCEMENT: No one is allowed to look at our oil. All Gulf residents are required to close their eyes until this is over. 7:16 PM Jun 3rd via web

We’ve hired Dick Cheney’s former publicist to head up our PR dept. Hopefully she can make us as lovable as Dick Cheney. 12:18 PM Jun 1st via Twitterrific

OMG This isss ridciulsus. playing a drinking gamee where we drink a shot everytme we seeee an oily birdddd!!! LOL! so wasted!!11 #pbcares 5:03 PM May 31st via web

Flying Rand Paul in to consult. Evidently he’s an expert at keeping black out of places. #bpcares 8:06 PM May 27th via web

Of course, bp cares about the fishing industry as well. Now, all tuna from the gulf coast comes pre-packaged in oil. #you’rewelcome #yum 1:58 PM May 27th via web

UPDATE II – 6/7/10: Oh yeah, in case you’re wondering: A few days back the guy behind @BPGlobalPR, Leroy Stick, explained his schtick:

I started @BPGlobalPR, because the oil spill had been going on for almost a month and all BP had to offer were bullshit PR statements. No solutions, no urgency, no sincerity, no nothing. That’s why I decided to relate to the public for them. I started off just making jokes at their expense with a few friends, but now it has turned into something of a movement. As I write this, we have 100,000 followers and counting. People are sharing billboards, music, graphic art, videos and most importantly information.

Why has this caught on? I think it’s because people can smell the bullshit and sometimes laughing at it feels better than getting angry or depressed over it. At the very least, it’s a welcome break from that routine. The reason @BPGlobalPR continues to grow is because BP continues to spew their bullshit.

I’ve read a bunch of articles and blogs about this whole situation by publicists and marketing folk wondering what BP should do to save their brand from @BPGlobalPR. First of all, who cares? Second of all, what kind of business are you in? I’m trashing a company that is literally trashing the ocean, and these idiots are trying to figure out how to protect that company? One pickledick actually suggested that BP approach me and try to incorporate me into their actual PR outreach. That has got to be the dumbest, most head-up-the-ass solution anyone could possibly offer.

Do you want to know what BP should do about me? Do you want to know what their PR strategy should be? They should fire everyone in their joke of a PR department, starting with all-star Anne Womack-Kolto and focus on actually fixing the problems at hand. Honestly, Cheney’s publicist? That’s too easy.

Also dig Mr. Stick’s closing call to arms: “In the meantime, if you are angry, speak up. Don’t let people forget what has happened here. Don’t let the prolonged nature of this tragedy numb you to its severity. Re-branding doesn’t work if we don’t let it, so let’s hold BP’s feet to the fire. Let’s make them own up to and fix their mistakes NOW and most importantly, let’s make sure we don’t let them do this again.”

AP’s complicated Seinfeld episode

Recently a MediaBugs user reported that an Associated Press story had misidentified the “Seinfeld” character George Costanza as Jerry’s “neighbor” on the show. Eventually the AP’s west coast entertainment editor, Steve Loeper, responded to an inquiry about the matter, and the AP subsequently decided to publish a correction.

It was a positive outcome, but here’s the rub: Getting to it involved no less than contacting five different people, sending eight emails and making three phone calls — and it took more than three weeks to get a result.

Indeed, one of our early observations with MediaBugs has been that reporting an error to news organizations — even (or is it especially?) large, reputable ones — can be difficult and time-consuming.

When the “Seinfeld” bug appeared on our site on April 28th, I searched online for a specific channel through which to contact the AP regarding errors. I couldn’t find one. (Apparently one does not exist; more on that in a minute.) The AP story had no byline but was datelined Los Angeles, so I looked up the LA bureau and sent an email to the news editor there, Brian Melley. Having been a news editor myself at a busy national media outlet, I knew his inbox was likely to be inundated. I followed up with another email two days later. A couple days after that I tried calling, and emailed again on the heels of that. Then I also tried emailing the LA bureau chief, Anthony Marquez.

Next, I thought to contact an acquaintance who works as a reporter for the AP in Washington, to see if I was even poking in the right place. I learned from her that the news service has a decentralized system for corrections; the AP reporter and/or editor on a specific story apparently is responsible for handling any potential correction. I had been poking in the right place, if to no avail.

Next I tried emailing another person I knew of who used to work in the AP’s LA bureau, to ask if there was anyone else there I might try. He suggested contacting Loeper. After a couple of emails and a voicemail, Loeper responded in timely and good-humored fashion, and we were on our way to a correction. (While the bug ostensibly had been posted by a “Seinfeld” devotee, Loeper subsequently told me via email that the AP “got the definitive word from Rick Ludwin, the NBC executive in charge of the ‘Seinfeld’ series back in the ‘90s, who noted that Kramer and Newman lived in Jerry’s building, but George had his own apartment in another building and also lived with his parents for a time.”)

In the end, AP did right by the error. It wasn’t an earth-shattering one. But rather than getting into whether it’s important for such errors to be corrected (see here and here for why we believe it is), a simple question instead: why does it have to be so hard to get an error fixed?

You can almost hear Jerry working it into one of those nightclub monologues he used to close the show with: “What’s the deal anyway with these newsroom people? You see a simple mistake, so you try to let them know — you email and you call, and you call and you email, and… nothing. Really? What’s the deal with that?” (Cue laugh track.)

[Cross-posted to the MediaBugs blog.]

MediaBugs: Where you fix the news!

I’m excited to announce that we’ve opened the doors today to MediaBugs, a new project intended to help improve the quality of news coverage in the San Francisco Bay Area. If you see an error or problem in a news report that you think needs to be corrected, please come on over and submit a bug report! From there, we’ll help start an open conversation between you and the journalist(s) behind the story, with the aim of getting the issue resolved.

For more about the thinking behind MediaBugs and how it works, check out this report from Mallary Jean Tenore today at Poynter Online. Craig Silverman (of “Regret the Error” fame and one of our project advisers) tells Tenore that “fact checking is becoming one of the great American pastimes of the Internet age.” If so, we should soon have plenty of fresh bug reports for the Bay Area public and media community to consider. As Tenore points out, research by Scott Maier, a journalism scholar from University of Oregon, shows that fewer than 2 percent of errors in daily newspapers ever get corrected. (And there are reams of errors, studies show, in newspapers and across all manner of news media.)

We also hope that journalists will benefit from MediaBugs. We’ve met with many of them around town over the last couple of months to introduce the project, and have been pleased to encounter lots of interest and positive response. Not only do we think MediaBugs offers newsrooms a handy new tool for tracking error reports, we also hope it will help them win greater confidence among their readerships. As Tenore suggests in her piece:

While running a correction might make journalists cringe, doing so can actually make them look good. Maier said public opinion research shows that the public tends to trust the media more when they see corrections being made. In that sense, correction-tracking software like MediaBugs, Maier and Silverman said, can help journalists gain credibility.

And that could only be a good thing, with said credibility having tanked of late.

For some great related reading, also see Silverman’s own recent piece for CJR, in which he notes that corrections aren’t just for journalists and news organizations anymore: “Anyone who generates content or shares information will inevitably encounter a moment when they have to correct a mistake. Thanks to the Internet, mobile devices and other technologies, more and more people are engaging in content creation—and the act of correction.”

UPDATED: More on the project launch from Megan Garber at Nieman Journalism Lab. Also, here’s where you can follow MediaBugs on Twitter.

UPDATED, 10/27/10: MediaBugs has gone national.

Tactile porn, Sarah Palin and a cool brown dwarf

Loyal readers: Until I can return to writing in this space more frequently, here below is another microblogging fix to bridge the gap. (Complete with shamelessly SEO’d headline.) At the moment I’m immersed in the launch of MediaBugs, working on a magazine profile of comic actor Amy Poehler and continuing research for a long-term project on Haida Gwaii. And running around quite a bit with our very active Vizsla pup, Renzo. (Did I mention—yikes!—also planning a wedding?) Meantime, if you have an appetite for more links beyond the below, follow the daily feed here.

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pornography for the blind: http://bit.ly/causwb about 3 hours ago
  
Sarah Palin is getting very rich http://bit.ly/aOwfJy about 3 hours ago

James Cameron, eco-warrior: http://j.mp/AvatLula Heartening, but does he have the political skills to be effective? http://nyti.ms/blKA2T about 21 hours ago

via St. Louis Post-Dispatch, revelations of J. Edgar Hoover’s media obsession http://bit.ly/b0hDBd about 23 hours ago

GOP prepping for war on Obama’s next Supreme Court nom? http://n.pr/dwdQP1 Of course they are—beware talk otherwise: http://wp.me/prtei-oG about 24 hours ago via web
  
it’s true, I’ve been wanting to say this for a while: Cool Brown Dwarf Found Lurking http://bit.ly/d37n6w 9:55 AM Apr 12th via web

#Treme off to a good start, music alone worth the price of admission. Fun to see Kermit Ruffins still going strong at Vaughn’s… 11:23 PM Apr 11th via web

sexual abuse scandal haunting the Pope reaches the Bay Area: http://bit.ly/cHFqGb 4:17 PM Apr 9th via web

Essential reading for media: @dangillmor on NYT getting in bed with Apple over iPad http://bit.ly/drT4eo 10:25 PM Apr 8th via TweetDeck
  
How John McCain is short-selling his soul! http://bit.ly/ciaTsy (watch the whole thing) 9:39 AM Apr 8th via web

Once again in California, looks like it could be a Chinese railroad http://s.nyt.com/u/cqo 6:17 PM Apr 7th via API
  
this is a great dog story: http://nyti.ms/bXEAyN 2:28 PM Apr 6th via web

Twitter fix

Dear Loyal Readers:

You’ve probably noticed a slower pace in this space recently; I’ve been immersed in a couple of projects, including getting MediaBugs off the ground. But if you’re on Twitter, you know how easy it is these days to keep the conversation going, at least 140 characters at a time, and indeed I’ve found it to be the best channel for sharing thoughts and links of interest in the interim. (I plan to return to more active blogging again soon.) Several times daily (on most days) you can follow my finger on the digital pulse here.

If you’re a Twitter user you also know how easy it is to miss a million things in the collective news stream you’ve let flow; to try to take in everything would be like drinking from a fire hose all day long. You may not even realize your own effect on the flow, and it can be illuminating to take a look back over your collective contribution. The sum of the parts can almost start to take on a flarf-like quality. Here are some recent bits from my adventures in micro-blogging, with lots of links for your browsing delight and/or distraction…

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well, there goes another “entire copy desk” at a major newspaper http://bit.ly/9wj5Sn about 3 hours ago

“The daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting” http://nyti.ms/boSnGB about 4 hours ago

Seder at the White House sounds pretty cool http://nyti.ms/aKnvmv about 5 hours ago

Jesus was way hungry http://nyti.ms/diC4Hq 12:23 PM Mar 29th

war gaming Iran. Conclusion? Not a great idea. http://nyti.ms/a2cqsq 11:33 AM Mar 29th

vivid Jim Marshall photos: Jimi http://bit.ly/dD5ko3 … and Johnny http://bit.ly/b1Hcl0 10:09 PM Mar 25th

the dark side of nanotech? http://bit.ly/cHGvja 5:43 PM Mar 24th

global warming upshot: ocean swallows disputed island in Bay of Bengal http://bit.ly/chJyUr 4:21 PM Mar 24th

uh, not just anyone can hope to dodge home foreclosure with the help of PETA http://bit.ly/bhIXWU 4:13 PM Mar 24th

some say blogging is dead, respected bloggers included. @scottros says not so fast http://to.pbs.org/a94Cax 4:03 PM Mar 24th

you are watching your TV and surfing the Web at the same time, aren’t you. http://j.mp/aetKD7 11:09 AM Mar 22nd

finally got up the nerve to watch “The Cove” last night. Extraordinary film. Check it out, spread the word. http://www.takepart.com/thecove/ 10:02 AM Mar 22nd

7 years of war in Iraq today. Consider the names & faces of the dead: http://nyti.ms/c8p3tf 9:18 AM Mar 19th

Ailes to Fox staff unhappy w/insane Glenn Beck: “We prefer people in the tent not dumping on other people in the tent” http://bit.ly/9pzCFR 11:22 AM Mar 18th

RIP Alex Chilton http://bit.ly/9s6SGe 12:42 AM Mar 18th

from the dystopian California files: more than 23,000 school teachers get pink slipped http://dlvr.it/DRdg 6:00 PM Mar 15th

think twice before doing crimes at your keyboard http://bit.ly/bdIRVe 12:55 PM Mar 15th

French bread was spiked with LSD in CIA experiment: http://bit.ly/akIZn6 8:48 AM Mar 12th

Congrats to Haida artist Robert Davidson for receiving the 2010 Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts http://bit.ly/dgXJVv 1:43 PM Mar 11th

the ultimate crime deterrent: San Quentin reviewed on Yelp http://tcrn.ch/dgDp8N (Indeed, the food apparently is “horrible”) 1:49 PM Feb 23rd

how many Tweets per day now? Oh, about 50 million. That is, 600 *every second*… (via @robinsloan) http://is.gd/8X8NI 12:56 PM Feb 22nd

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Go here to drink more from the fire hose!