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Promised Lands | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Promised Lands

My new "Think Again" column is called "Money Talks" and it's here.

I did a Daily Beast column with the clunky hed, “Negative Supreme Court Decision Will Make Obamacare Appear a Mistake,” here.

And my Nation column this week is “Punditry and the Art of Failing Upward."

I also published this in The Nation
DAISEY’S DISTORTIONS: In my column of November 9, 2011, “The Agony, Ecstasy and--‘Disgrace’--of Steve Jobs,” I quoted from Mike  Daisey’s one-man show based on what he said he witnessed in the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China. As has been so widely discussed, we now know that while the incidents Daisey described have taken place, he was being less than truthful in claiming to have seen them himself. Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, issues a statement reading, “We would not have called it nonfiction had we known that incidents described in the piece were fabricated....We didn’t know, and the result was that our audience was misled.” Unfortunately (and unknowingly) I passed along some of these same fabrications and so participated in this process. I regret this and regret trusting Mr. Daisey particularly since his fabrications will now be used to discredit his larger point: that of the unconscionable exploitation of Chinese workers by Apple and other computer makers.      ERIC ALTERMAN

A bunch of people have asked me why I stopped doing my Forward column. I don’t wish to go into the details in public but one can perhaps intuit them by reading my former editor there Gal Beckerman’s attack on Peter Beinart’s book, here.

Peter’s book is an important moment in the history of liberal Zionism—indeed it may be the last such moment—and it’s a shame that so treasured and valuable an institution as The Forward has chosen to put itself on the wrong side of this struggle. Beckerman’s attack is not so egregriously ideological as the character assassination published in the increasingly neoconservative Tablet, which Peter answers here but stain on the reputation and character on The Forward nevertheless. Peter and I are friendly, if not exactly friends, and I am obviously no fan of Beckerman’s, but it is the arguments, not the individuals involved, that are the reasons this fight is important. So for a more balanced view of Peter’s arguments—which are pretty much my arguments, albeit more fully and eloquently stated than I’ve ever managed to compose them—try this.

Speaking of the Holy Land, I saw Bruce in Philly last night. Here is the setlist. More on that later. In the meantime, oh yeah, speaking of the Holy Land, I took the kid to see Jesus Christ, Superstar Tuesday night. I have always loved the music but never seen the show. This show was heavy on glitz and Vegas-style dance numbers. The standout, as it should be, was Judas. Jesus was pretty passive as was Mary M. though I thought she had a ethereal quality that was appropriately haunting. The even-more-campy-than-you’d-imagine Herod was also a highlight. Nothing earth-shaking in this production, but nothing to ruin a wonderful body of music, either. Charles Isherwood’s review is here.

Now here’s Reed:

Why Press Ethics Get in the Way of Journalism’s Ethos
by Reed Richardson

For all of our press’s many shortcomings, a lack of self-reflection certainly isn’t one of them. Thanks to a phalanx of pundits, beat reporters, bloggers, and watchdog sites, meta-media analysis is now enjoying an unquestioned boom cycle. But when it comes to media organizations analyzing themselves, all too often what passes for honest, self-criticism is so short-sighted, ham-fisted, and narrow-minded that it tends to do more harm to the public’s perception of the press than good. And perhaps nothing generates these self-inflicted wounds more reliably than when media organizations zealously overreact to journalists who have dared to exercise their own free speech rights or deigned to participate in the democracy around them.

This past week saw two very similar examples of this unfortunate phenomenon from opposite ends of the journalistic spectrum. Out in Wisconsin, where state politics have pretty much been at a rolling boil ever since the 2010 election, 25 news employees from a number of different Gannett newspapers were found to have signed a petition triggering a June 5 recall election of current Governor Scott Walker. This revelation was inadvertent—Gannett’s own investigation team was working on a story about public officials who had signed the petition when they made the discovery—but the internal masthead reactions were anything but, as is clear from the deliberately solemn tone of the Appleton Post Crescent publisher’s column:

Today, in the interest of full transparency, we are informing you that 25 Gannett Wisconsin Media journalists, including nine at The Post-Crescent, also signed the Walker recall petitions. It was wrong, and those who signed were in breach of Gannett's Principles of Ethical Conduct for Newsrooms.

 

The principle at stake is our core belief that journalists must make every effort to avoid behavior that could raise doubts about their journalistic neutrality. Political activity is foremost.

 

It is of little consolation to us that none of the news employees who signed petitions is involved with directing or reporting political news coverage.

As far as journalistic transgressions go, merely signing what is, in fact, a non-partisan recall petition would seem to clearly fail to qualify as a ‘breach’ of a ‘core belief,’ no matter what one’s role in the newsroom may be. And let’s also point out that one need not be a raging liberal to find the idea of recalling Walker attractive, since nearly half of all Wisconsinites (including a sizable minority of Republicans) currently disapprove of his job performance and it’s now clear that he lied repeatedly about his planned agenda during his gubernatorial campaign two years ago. 

In the tetchy world of corporate media, however, such realities are ignored in the rush to sacrifice journalists’ individual rights on an altar of phony ethics and to maintain a thin veneer of objectivity. My longstanding distaste for these newsroom policies is well documented, so in the interest of variety, I’ll let Jack Shafer over at Reuters do the heavy lifting this time

[T]he ethical crime in Wisconsin wasn’t having political views, which the Gannett code allows. It wasn’t expressing those views in secret. It was expressing a weakened form of them in a way that could go public. As long as you conceal your views from the ethics cops, you’re safe.

 […]

The primary purpose of the codes isn’t to improve journalism but to simplify the job of policing journalists. It’s easier to hand down to the newsroom 32 commandments that govern behavior, as Gannett does, and then ship violators out for punishment and reeducation, than to examine their work for journalistic quality.

 

Indeed, the more you dig into this incident, the more you realize that the supposedly high-minded responses offered up by people like Post-Crescent publisher Genia Lovett are poor attempts at corporate damage control and probably deserving of a little Rick Santorum-style, potty-mouthed media criticism.

The first sign that Gannett’s motives here are perhaps less than pure? Lovett’s column happens to include long passages that match not just the sanctimonious tone but the exact words of similar mea culpas from sister Gannett papers in Green Bay and Fond du Lac. As Jim Romenesko, the media critic who first noticed the similarities, points out, all three of these cut-and-paste-job columns ran under different (solo) bylines. So, according to Gannett’s own Principles of Ethical Conduct, at least two of the editor’s notes would arguably meet the definition of plagiarism, which would certainly make for a curious context in which to chastise one’s employees for violating several of journalism’s core beliefs.

Of course, the more likely explanation is that well-paid employees back in Gannett’s Virginia corporate offices carefully crafted the language for these apologias. The three Wisconsin editors then merely rearranged the language a bit so they all didn’t read like the same miserable memo handed down from on high. Still, the subtext is as clear as it is deliciously ironic, local editors and reporters must adhere to an overly broad interpretation of both the letter and spirit of Gannett’s ethical rules, but the mastheads, eh, not so much. Is it any wonder we’ve cultivated a press corps that, at its highest reaches, is increasingly known for its timidity and intellectual paucity?

What’s really telling in this example, though, is just how far the Gannett newspapers are—or, more accurately, aren’t—willing to go to right this supposed wrong. “First and foremost, we decided to inform our readers and be as open as possible,” explains Post-Crescent publisher Genia Lovett in a clear, declarative statement. But then, in the very next sentence, she gives us this Orwellian twist: “We have decided not to name the employees. Had they had direct connection to political reporting we would have made a different decision.”

Yes, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. Phrases like “full transparency” and “as open as possible,” according to Lovett (and her two Gannett colleagues), don’t necessarily mean that you will get to learn the actual names of the people who breached six (!) of the paper’s 32 Principles. Why not? Because they’ve already looked at the situation and piously judged it unnecessary, based on the newsroom roles of the transgressors—so much for that earlier point about “of little consolation.” But hey, don’t worry your pretty little head about it dear reader, and good luck trolling through the more than one million signatures if you want to find the names yourself. 

I’m sorry, but this Marie Antoinette approach to newsroom ethics is just patronizing and insulting to readers and contemptuous of employees. Professing outrage and an adherence to an uncompromising journalistic standard simply doesn’t work if you then turn around and violate that standard by implicitly acknowledging mitigating circumstances are at work and that half-measure punishments will suffice. By choosing to adopt rigid, Draconian ethics rules rather than more reasoned, transparent policies, news organizations have decided it’s more important to be able to quickly and easily cover their ass than worry about further driving a wedge between the actual practitioners of journalism and the public.

Further evidence of this enforced disconnect between the press and the people could be found this past week in the normally politically arid world of ESPN. Several of its commentators drew the ire of the network’s ombudsperson when they changed their social media profile photos to show solidarity with the growing public outrage over the killing of Trayvon Martin.

Kelly McBride, part of the Poynter Review Project, chastised those ESPN journalists who posted hoodie photos of themselves by framing their actions as an overly simplistic choice between self and profession: “If you want to make a difference, explain the story, don’t become part of it,” she scolded. But her logic is as muddled as it is misguided.

Leading off her ombuds piece, McBride contrasts a reported column by ESPN’s Jemele Hill on the Miami Heat’s hoodie protest with what she characterizes as the ineffective, “slacktivist” preening of those ESPN editorial employees who merely changed their avatar picture. Adopting her best school-marm tone, McBride deigns to educate the lazy protestors:

It feels good to join a popular movement by slapping a bumper sticker on your car or wearing your heart on your sleeve. But with a little work, and a little self-restraint, journalists can do so much more.

 […]

[Hill] practiced journalism. And it’s so much more effective than pulling up the hood on your sweatshirt and taking a picture.

This would be a salient argument, if it weren’t for the fact that just pulling up the hood on their sweatshirts and taking a few pictures was pretty much the extent of what LeBron James and his Heat teammates did that sparked the laudatory 1,300 words from Hill. In other words, a few famous athletes engaging in a symbolic protest can be the hook for a “nice, tight column,” according to McBride, but journalists doing the same thing themselves somehow shows poor judgment and a sorry lack of professionalism.

Ironically, McBride’s admonition for journalists to avoid such public displays in order to “make a difference” also finds itself under attack by her own arguments later in the piece, when she somewhat incongruously points out that ESPN commentators “sit on a perch of influence:”

So they have an enormous reach. They should take that role seriously. When you become part of the story, you lose your ability to tell an independent story.

Hmmm. So perhaps a lowly ESPN journalist isn’t so lowly after all, and maybe changing their Twitter profile really can raise awareness of an important issue, just like when a famous athlete does it? And not for nothing, but maybe McBride should re-examine her star witness’s social media accounts, since Hill posted several Tweets this past week that leave little to the imagination as to her views about Trayvon Martin’s killing. What’s more, McBride further muddies the issue by completely ignoring the larger and uglier Fox News-generated assertion linking hoodies and race that sparked the entire protest in the first place. Instead, she obtusely tries to link it to a specific Change.org petition filed by Martin’s parents that, no surprise, makes no mention of hoodies. Then, strangely, she abandons this line of reasoning about the true political ramifications of the hoodie pics in the very next paragraph. Confused yet?

Oddly enough, McBride’s busted fire-hose logic stands in stark contrast to the surprisingly straightforward reaction from ESPN’s corporate masthead. After briefly banning the hoodie picture protest, the network quickly and wisely reconsidered, recognizing, as vice president of editorial Rob King says: “Visually, they are expressing their notions of tolerance around the case. We feel this is a unique expression.” I say bully for ESPN for understanding that an individual’s journalistic talents don’t always have to be kept hermetically sealed off from the public persona of the individual that possesses them. More news organizations should follow suit.

That journalists are human—with all the attendant flaws, biases, and beliefs that that entails—doesn’t make them any less effective in their ability to speak truth to power. It’s only when the media falls victim to its own myth that, with enough ethical rules, it can cordon off those private biases and create a thoroughly neutral, independent, and trustworthy press that real danger lurks. In other words, dismissively turning away from readers while sitting upon one’s ethical high horse might seem like the right journalistic outlook, but from the point of view of the public, the side of the press that they’re left with is, well, increasingly unattractive. 

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. 

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

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