Patterico's Pontifications

5/24/2006

THE TRANSPARENT NEWSROOM

Filed under: General — Evan Maxwell @ 12:24 pm

Posted by the technologically challenged guest blogger, Evan Maxwell

(Patrick and I have been going back and forth about my inability to successfully link with other Web pages in my posts. I’ll try to end run that problem by cutting and pasting a link at the end of this post.)

We hear a great deal nowadays, particularly from professional journalists, about the need for “transparency” in public life. If I have a bone to pick with my former colleagues, it’s this: the standard late 20th Century newsroom is about as transparent as your average concrete block.

My interest was piqued by the piece in Editor & Publisher, the newspaper trade mag, about a flap brewing at the Toledo Blade, which won a Pulitzer this year for the “Coingate” stories about campaign financing irregularities inside the Ohio Republican establishment. It seems that a Blade reporter (not a member of the Coingate team) has been suspended for sending an anonymous letter to the Pulitzer Committee. The letter alleged ethical irregularities involving a political reporter who knew about the problems months before they became public knowledge. If I read a somewhat turgid piece of reporting from E&P correctly, this political reporter did nothing with his knowledge.

The point I would make is this: there are hundreds of such ethical issues floating around inside the walls of the nation’s newsrooms. There always have been and there always will be. But seldom do such newsroom issues bubble to the surface of public life. Why? Because the one thing that journalists are loathe to do is cover themselves and their colleagues in a public way.

It isn’t merely a matter of professional courtesy. Newsmen of my generation (slightly Pre-Watergate to the end of the 20th Century) were warned time and again that a good reporter makes sure he or she “doesn’t become part of the story.” By that is meant that journalists can examine the activities of others with impunity but they should never find themselves in a position where somebody examines them and their activities.

This once-unchallenged rule meant that the great unwashed public was never invited inside the story to see how it was put together. They were never allowed to see what kinds of personal and/or political judgements were being continuously made in the journalistic process of gathering, writing and displaying the news. They were never privy (a choice of words that is deliberate) to the inside story of the story, even though that inside story was often as fascinating as the public one. As a result, most of the public never realized that journalism was a messy process, not unlike the processes of legislating and sausage-making, to use Mark Twain’s elegant simile.

I am an old fan of “process.” Even though I turned in my press card twenty years ago, I am still fascinated by what I believe is the fundamental purpose of journalism, the exploration of the way things happen. I suppose that’s why I’m now out of the business of daily journalism, which seems to have become absolutely enamored of discrete facts shorn of their natural context. My fascination with process is the reason I think it is crucial that public-minded citizens should pay attention not only to what they read but to how they came to read it. Facts are gathered or ignored, leaked or suppressed, headlined or downplayed. Those choices are human and commonplace but they shape the landscape of public life in critical ways and to claim otherwise is to reality.

I am pleased to note that the process of journalism has become more transparent, more amenable to examination, both by the press itself and by other forces in public discourse. There are newspaper ombudsmen and women on nearly all the major papers. Howard Kurtz does yeoman work on CNN. Alternative weeklies kick the sacred cows of powerful dailies and television stations on a regular basis.

Then, too, the Web is absolutely critical in today’s dialogue. Just look at Memogate if you doubt me; just look at what disclosure of “sock-puppetry” did to the reputation of a highly-regarded Pulitzer Prize winner named Mike Hiltzik.

Journalists used to think they were somehow above the fray, Solons judging and condemning, folk poets sitting on a rock watching and reporting on clan battles but strangely, miraculously uninvolved in the outcome.

Well, they are in the fray and always have been, whether or not they want to admit it. Reporters, editors and publishers have become “part of the story” and they will remain so forever because there are lots of people who watch journalists with the same avidity that journalists watch everybody else.

And that is as it should be.

(Here’s the link to E&P in the old cut and paste method: http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1002574766. Sorry for the glitch.)

UPDATE FROM PATTERICO: Here is the link.

A Not-So-Hypothetical Hypothetical: Let Your Voice Be Heard on What Should Happen to This Commenter

Filed under: Blogging Matters,Scum — Patterico @ 7:14 am

Assume that a commenter (let’s call him “jmaharry”) comes onto a blog and calls the owner (call him “Patterico”) a liar right out of the gate. The commenter is quickly exposed for making numerous false statements. When challenged, the commenter disappears from the thread, and never admits the false and clueless nature of his statements.

The commenter returns at other times to call the host a liar. Despite the commenter’s invective, the host tries to be patient, because he actively cultivates opposing viewpoints on his site, as long as they are civil.

The commenter disappears for a period of time. He has still never admitted or retracted the numerous false statements he made in the first post he commented on.

Then, after a period of time, however, the commenter returns, using a different name. He tells no-one that he is the same person.

He suggests that the host has a history of dishonesty.

The host calls him out for being too cowardly to make the accusation under the name he used before, which is the name other commenters know him by.

As an excuse, the commenter pleads that he has received threatening phone calls and e-mails from other of the host’s commenters. Ergo, he had no choice but to change his name.

The host suspects that this is a fabrication by the commenter, to justify changing his name. Although the commenter has contacted the host by e-mail before, at no time in the past had the commenter e-mailed the host to say that the commenter had been threatened by the host’s other commenters. Nor had the commenter left any comments to that effect. The first time that the commenter mentioned the alleged threats was as an excuse for coming on the host’s blog under a different name than the one the commenter had always used before.

But the host offers the commenter a chance to substantiate his charge. If the commenter proves his charge, the threatening commenters will be banned.

The commenter repeatedly refuses to substantiate his charge.

What should be done with such a person? If he’s banned, he will whine about the host banning people of opposing viewpoints (not true). If he’s not banned, the host must remind readers of the commenter’s checkered history every time he comments. After a while it eats up too much time.

Suggestions?

UPDATE: Banned. (But with a caveat.)


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