Posts Tagged 'Washington Post'

A note to everyone who looks like the people from the bar last night: you’re on my list

[by JSC5]

If you were looking for a concrete example of what I was talking about in my previous post on how terribly puerile our privacy culture is these days, then look no further.* The libertarian/conservative law prof blog Volokh Conspiracy has you covered. Here’s Prof. Kenneth Anderson talking about the effect the JournoList ‘scandal’ has had on his perceptions of reporters in general:

When I was reading Peter Finn’s reporting on the Washington Post website on the CIA for my previous post, and despite this being a widely reported, straight-facts story, and despite my long-time, continuing, unstinting admiration for Peter Finn as a reporter on national security and related issues at the WaPo, I do admit that one of the first thoughts in my head was … is he a JournoLister?  And if he is, do I need to somehow discount his account as being part of a pre-conceived narrative?  And if so, by how much? 

So Kenneth Anderson used to have tremendous respect for Peter Finn’s work as a reporter because of his extensive body of work as a journalist. But post-JournoList, suddenly Kenneth Anderson has grave doubts about Peter Finn’s reporting — so much so that he’s decided to cast aspersions about Finn’s work on a widely-read media outlet.

That’s quite an about-face to be caused by one listserve. For those of you who’ve rationally decided to care more about your own things than the latest inside-the-beltway ‘scandal’, here’s a brief recap. JournoList was a private listserve for center-left journalists, opinion writers, professors, bloggers, and public intellectuals. From what I know, J-Listers used it to chat about current events, policy, sports, gossip, and the state of journalism. Some members clearly used it to let off steam. Dave Weigel, a former journalist/blogger for the Washington Post, famously used it to complain to his friends on JList about Rush Limbaugh and some other celebrities on the right. Someone with an anti-Weigel axe to grind leaked the JournoList archives to a new right-wing website called the Daily Caller. It was a win-win for all involved in the shady deal: the Daily Caller got a bunch of new hits, and the leaker got Weigel fired and may have destroyed his career (we’ll find out in a few years).

Some conservative media outlets decided to run with the story that JournoList was a liberal cabal coordinating stories and manipulating the news. The evidence to support this view is pretty weak / non-existent, but that hasn’t stopped some people – like Kenneth Anderson – from moving into full freak out mode.

It’s probably unfair to single out Kenneth Anderson, since there are plenty of other examples, but I think it’s important to have a concrete example of how insane our culture has become. Anderson used to have a very high opinion of some journalist named Finn based on years of experience consuming and appreciating  his reporting. But now that some partisan hack media outlets are publishing vague accusations of journalistic misconduct among a group of people on J-List, Anderson is suddenly extremely distrustful of ALL JOURNALISTS. I apologize for the profanity, but that’s just fucking nuts. I’ll echo my colleague JSC7 in asking why vague allegations about JList, or specific citations of intemperate words said in private, should be such a powerful signal that should change a person’s professional credibility despite years and years of actual work product that could provide a more accurate source of judgment?

Let me put this another way: A random, untrustworthy dude on the street comes up to you and says that some heinous shit went down at a local bar last night. Do you (A) dismiss the bum’s allegations and go on with your life unless you get some actual, credible information, or (B) gasp in horror and publicly question the morals and credibility of anyone who even looks like the people who would have been in that bar last night — even if you had just recently asked one of them to be your newborn child’s godfather?

Common sense says (A). Certain oh-so-earnest and concerned political operatives on the right say (B).

Does this mean that everything about JournoList was above board? I don’t know. I wasn’t on it. But nothing yet has come out that makes me think JournoList was any more problematical than an office water cooler. So like any sane, good-spirited person, I’m choosing not to believe the worst and most outlandish conspiracy theories until I see some credible evidence. I’d like to even stop reading, writing, or caring about this topic untill/unless this credible evidence materializes. Unfortunately, the cause of maintaining standards of decency and privacy is too important.

* The title of the piece in question, as you’ll notice if you click through, is “A note to all the non-JList reporters”. Combine that with my bar analogy later in the post and you have the odd title to my blog post. Sorry about that.

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What is an objective journalist?

[by JSC7]

As usual, unfashionably late to the party on the whole Dave Weigel “What happens on the mailing list stays in the mailing list” fiasco, but watching it play out has been a doozey. Here’s JSC5 bigger picture take, the Bernstein post he commented on, and some other reactions (1, 2, 3, 4). I don’t know, the whole thing seems to be one straw man after another. The one reasonable point that people have made is that reporters can have strong opinions about whatever topic they cover, though I feel like even there the analysis tended towards abstraction. Would we get up in arms if an environmental journalist sent a private e-mail talking smack about BP? Would we get angry about a correspondent in Burma told a buddy that he hoped the junta would set themselves on fire?

You can’t answer no to that question, yes to the Weigel equivalent, and still believe in the objectivity of news. If you answer the two questions differently, it’s probably because you think there’s something inherently worse about the Burmese junta than merits aggressive reporting from contrarian reporters, and that that something is lacking in conservative U.S. politics (Weigel’s beat). Now, that might be true, but if you think that reporting should change based on your opinions about the topic being reported on, then you’re not asking for objective news, because objective news would presumably have some standards that are independent from your personal tastes.

Which brings me to the bigger topic, which I haven’t seen mentioned in the Weigel case, which is how the hell do we measure objectivity in journalism in the first place? We can call a journalist voluminous, hardworking, concise and precise with his facts, but how do we go about calling him objective? In psychology there’s a word signaling, which means using something to signify something else (like, walking with a swagger to signal that your genes are the awesome). Weigel’s Journolist rant was taken as a signal of his lack of objectivity. Somehow, this rant managed to outweigh whatever signals of objectivity his entire opus of journalistic work was emitting.

This should be setting off red flashing alarms. I would hope that the Washington Post had some kind of opinion about Weigel’s objectivity before they saw the rant. If you called the in 2009 and asked them, hey, is Weigel an objective reporter?, they could have done more than shrug their shoulders. Somehow, though, a few lines about Matt Drudge’s self-immolation totally tipped the scales.

What this suggests to me is that it’s really hard to tell an objective journalist from a non-objective one. I haven’t heard anything more rigorous than a bells-and-whistles version of “I like to think I’m objective, and I like Weigel’s reporting.” If a show of hands is the best we’ve got, well, then we don’t got much, and whether Weigel should or should not have been fired is not the question we should be asking. Instead, we should be asking why ancillary factors like Journolist rants can totally change our evaluation of articles that have, without complaint about their objectivity, already been edited, published and consumed.


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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