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Foreign, Not Domesticated, News | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

Foreign, Not Domesticated, News


Jeff Bezos. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

My new “Think Again” column is called Neoconservatism on the Decline and takes issue with David Brooks on the nature of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul’s victory over his friends.

My new Nation column is called The Washington Post's Dubious Salvation and that ought to be self-explanatory.

One point I wish I had had the room to include in the Nation piece was the fact that on the Sunday following the purchase, the Post Outlook section ran a piece by Tricia Duryee called “Five Myths About Amazon” that read more like application for a job in Amazon’s public relations office by its author than an even remotely honest assessment of Amazon’s pros and cons. It began as follows:

Let’s separate fact from fiction about Bezos.

1. Jeff Bezos is destroying independent booksellers. But it’s hard to make the case that Amazon was solely responsible for destroying independent booksellers.”

Note the sleight of hand. She goes from “is destroying” to “solely responsible.” In fact, Amazon is destroying independent book sellers, it is just not entirely alone in doing so. Is that so hard to understand?

I did not read the piece that carefully when I saw I wasn’t going to have room to include it, but I also noticed this “myth.”

Amazon’s key advantage is that it doesn’t collect state sales taxes.… Still, there’s not overwhelming evidence that collecting taxes has negatively affected the retailer’s sales in those states.

Again, the sleight of hand. Did we say the evidence needed to be “overwhelming?” How about compelling? How about common sense? I sure don’t mind saving the sales tax on expensive purchases and I don’t imagine you do either, especially when you throw in free delivery and not having to get dressed. The fact that this piece was published at all was shameful.

Fortunately, the Post ran a pretty decent profile of Bezos as well, or the above would have humiliated the entire paper, yet again. And speaking of humiliating the entire paper, here is a nice surprise: Former Post Ombudsman Patrick Pexton on Jennifer Rubin:

Have Fred Hiatt, your editorial page editor—who I like, admire, and respect—fire opinion blogger Jennifer Rubin. Not because she’s conservative, but because she’s just plain bad. She doesn’t travel within a hundred miles of Post standards. She parrots and peddles every silly right-wing theory to come down the pike in transparent attempts to get Web hits. Her analysis of the conservative movement, which is a worthwhile and important beat that the Post should treat more seriously on its national pages, is shallow and predictable. Her columns, at best, are political pornography; they get a quick but sure rise out of the right, but you feel bad afterward.

And she is often wrong, and rarely acknowledges it. She was oh-so-wrong about Mitt Romney, week after week writing embarrassing flattery about his 2012 campaign, calling almost every move he made brilliant, and guaranteeing that he would trounce Barack Obama. When he lost, the next day she savaged him and his campaign with treachery, saying he was the worst candidate with the worst staff, ever. She was wrong about the Norway shootings being acts of al-Qaida. She was wrong about Chuck Hagel being an anti-Semite. And does she apologize? Nope.

Rubin was the No. 1 source of complaint mail about any single Post staffer while I was ombudsman, and I’m leaving out the organized email campaigns against her by leftie groups like Media Matters. Thinking conservatives didn’t like her, thinking moderates didn’t like her, government workers who knew her arguments to be unfair didn’t like her. Dump her like a dull tome on the Amazon Bargain Books page.

Here is Eric Alterman on Jennifer Rubin, from last year.

Way to go to Jack Germond on living to 85 while drinking a lot and eating lots of steak: also for quitting after the stupid 2000 election and retiring to West Virginia. Here's my favorite line of his, from Sound & Fury: When the McLaughlin Group discussed a Texas gubernatorial candidate's insistence that Mexican brothels were the only places a young man could "get serviced" in west Texas, Jack Germond noted that this comment was offensive to west Texan sheep population.

Alter-reviews: The great Loudon Wainwright III returned to the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett last week as he does every summer. It was, as it always is, a kind of homecoming since previous Loudon Wainwrights are buried nearby in East Hampton. Also as with every Loudon Talkhouse performance, the show was extremely intimate, with nobody talking but everybody laughing. Well more than half the material was new and as yet unrecorded, including a song LWIII wrote for “Justified” but did not make the cut—and another he wrote about the fact that hey, Rufus, formerly a “tit-man” is now 40, married to a guy, and has Leonard Cohen’s grandchild as a kid. (How awesome is that latter part, especially for Loudon, to be co-grandads with the greatest lyricist ever and coolest old man alive?) Anyway, that song was great and so were some of the others. The ones that weren’t were just good. It was a lovely show and left everyone in the room with a warm feeling once the young people showed up around ten to start hooking-up etc. I would go to David Bromberg at the Talkhouse but I have to pick up the kid at camp. (That’s my daughter in the water/She won every time I fought her.) You should though, if you’re around (and rich). Last year’s show was incredible.

Now here's Reed:

Foreign, Not Domesticated, News: Why McClatchy Reporting Still Stands Apart from the Mainstream Media
by Reed Richardson

Bad reporting is usually easy to spot: its phrasing clichéd; its sources predictable (as is what they say); and its narrative tired and lazy. Great reporting, on the other hand, isn’t always so obvious. It can take time to recognize it, often only after a long accretion of comparisons to adequate or even good reporting does it stand out. But in today’s saturated media market, even great reporting can easily be shunted aside, overlooked, if not outright ignored. Sometimes this happens inadvertently, but sometimes it occurs precisely because its uncompromising narrative simply doesn’t fit what everyone else is saying.

All of this is to say that if the McClatchy newspapers’ indispensible foreign and Capitol Hill coverage isn’t a part of your regular news diet—and it probably isn’t—it really should be. Nowhere else can you find consistently uncompromised journalism that makes you stop and think, challenges the conventional wisdom elsewhere, and is rich with detail no one else has. As I Tweeted earlier this week, to read McClatchy’s recent coverage of our nation’s counterterrorism programs abroad and government surveillance here at home is to get a bracingly different perspective than anywhere else in the U.S. mainstream media.

Just this week, one could find a striking contrast between McClatchy’s reporting and the other major news organizations. For example, on Sunday, The New York Times ran a story entitled “Embassies Open, but Yemen Stays on Terror Watch.” With a Washington, D.C. dateline, the article was chock full of standard quotes from US officials about the lingering threats in that country. All in all, a fairly in-depth report. Until, that is, you read McClatchy’s dispatch: “U.S. embassies in Muslim world would reopen amid still-murky threats.” In it, you encounter a passage that is a head-snappingly frank back-and-forth about how the US foreign policy sausage gets made, culminating with a paragraph the likes of which is nowhere to be found in the Times piece or anywhere else for that matter:

A high-ranking Yemeni security official speaking on the condition of anonymity told McClatchy that the claims of a foiled plot had no basis in fact. That source bemusedly attributed media reports about imminent terror strikes to a single official’s comments, which he cast as a misguided attempt at shifting public opinion in the face of increasing and unpopular American drone strikes.

Yes, everyone knows the press gets spun, perhaps nowhere as often as when it relies heavily on military and administration sources to cover terror threats. But rare is the mainstream news organization that actually weaves this pre-packaged reality into its journalism and so clearly lifts the veil on how these talking points drive coverage and policy.  

The same dynamic was at work last week, when a barrage of drone strikes in Yemen generated prime coverage from all the major media outlets. If you chose to read the Associated Press “Big Story,” though, you’d be treated to 14 paragraphs of the US government’s side of the story before any critical voices are quoted, and then it’s an American. Contrast that with McClatchy’s report from the same day, which, like the AP report, features a Sanaa, Yemen dateline, but also offers a much less sanguine, local reaction to the drone attacks. Right in its headline, McClatchy cites Yemenis calling the drone attacks an “overreaction” and, in the lede, the reporter notes the “widespread outrage” generated by the strikes. Side by side, it’s clear which story offers more context about the immediate efficacy and long-term impact of our drone policy.

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Back on the home front, this dichotomy appears as well. While the New York Times and CNN produced capable stories on President Obama’s proposed surveillance reforms last Friday, McClatchy’s Washington bureau developed the story for a few days. As a result, co-authors Anita Kumar and Jonathan Landay build a much more analytical and dubious take, one that goes beyond just throwing in one or two token opposition voices and calling it a day. Instead, every government claim gets balanced with a skeptical source, to create a meticulous examination of what constitutes real change and what is merely eyewash from the administration. That some of these insightful privacy experts never appear elsewhere in mainstream media coverage is perhaps more telling than what they actually have to say.

Of course, students of media coverage will recognize McClatchy’s storied history of mining overlooked and underappreciate sources to get at the truth. Eleven years ago—back when they were known as Knight Ridder— this same Washington news bureau was producing outstanding reporting that cast serious doubt on the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq. As FAIR noted in its 2006 review of who in the mainstream media didn’t get it “Wrong on Iraq” (a very short list), Knight Ridder stood out for its clear-eyed, not-so-credulous approach:

Knight Ridder's skeptical reporting stood apart from the more credulous coverage regularly put forth by most other mainstream outlets. When the New York Times reported on the aluminum tubes story, ‘U.S. Says Hussein Intensified Quest for A-Bomb Parts’ (9/8/02), it emphasized the White House view that the tubes were hard evidence of an Iraqi nuclear program, and downplayed dissenting views. Knight Ridder published a very different piece, ‘CIA Report Reveals Analysts' Split Over Extent of Iraqi Nuclear Threat’ (10/4/02), recording strong dissent by prominent experts and portraying the tubes' purpose as anything but a settled issue. Indeed, in the end, the dissenters were right.

Indeed, this reporting was so discordant from the rest of the Beltway media’s drumbeat for war, that editors in affiliated newspapers buried the DC bureau’s stories and senior executives on the masthead chose not to submit KR’s coverage for a Pulitzer Prize that year. As former Knight Ridder Washington bureau editor Clark Hoyt explained in this Nieman Watchdog post, breaking news like this only arose suspicion internally: “How do we know you're right?’” Hoyt recalls being asked. “The New York Times and Washington Post weren't reporting this stuff.”  

Hmm, where have we heard that line before?

It’s little wonder American Journalism Review titled its post-mortem of KR’s pre-Iraq War coverage simply: “Going It Alone.” The AJR story is illuminating for, in it, one learns from KR Washington reporter Warren Strobel the fairly banal yet counterintuitive-for-the-Beltway-media formula he and his reporting partner, Jonathan Landay followed to get at the truth. Partly driven by necessity, Strobel and Landay essentially had to flip the idea of access to sources on its head:

“[Their] conclusions came from a lot of extra digging and source-building they were forced to do without the red-carpet access to high-level officials that some of the nation's top media outlets enjoy.

“‘Knight Ridder is not, in some people's eyes, seen as playing in the same ball field as the New York Times and some major networks,’ Strobel says. ‘People at the Times were mainly talking to senior administration officials, who were mostly pushing the administration line. We were mostly talking to the lower-level people or dissidents, who didn't necessarily repeat the party line.’

“'Those sources,' [then] Knight Ridder Washington Editor Clark Hoyt adds, were ‘closest to the information.’

“‘I'm not saying we didn't have any top-level sources,’ Strobel says, ‘but we also made a conscious effort to talk to people more in the bowels of government who have a less political approach to things.’”

This different reporting strategy—more ground-up than top-down, more outside than inside—uncovered a strikingly different reality than the one being sold to rest of the press by the Bush White House. But, KR’s excellent reporting likely would have never even made it to the printing press had its Washington bureau not also embraced a vastly different philosophical approach to reporting about our government 11 years ago:

“‘Many other news organizations were willing to give the administration the benefit of the doubt, particularly in the post-9/11 environment,’” Strobel says. ‘We were not.’”

More than a decade later, McClatchy is using this same prescription to offer a dramatically divergent tale of our nation’s campaign against terror both at home and overseas. Case in point, earlier this month, when the Times and CNN withheld, per the government’s request, the names of two key Al Qaeda leaders from their reporting on a potential terror attack. McClatchy, whose reporting was the only one of the three to include a dispatch from Yemen, didn’t hold back and scooped the pair. Again, driving its decision to go it alone was its strong shoe-leather reporting and better sense of the truth beyond what Beltway sources were saying. As McClatchy Washington bureau chief James Asher later explained to Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone (who is really worth following for trenchant meta-media coverage on terror and spying issues): 

“Our story was based on reporting in Yemen and we did not contact the administration to ask permission to use the information. In fact, our reporter tells me that the intercept was pretty much common knowledge in Yemen.”

That two highly respected news organizations would—again—accede to such a unnecessary request should set off alarm bells for anyone who cares about press's ability to keep the public truly informed. Fortunately, Asher is unequivocal about maintaining his journalists’ distance from invidious government interference (and is clearly in possession of some sharp elbows as well):

"On your larger question about the administration's request, I'm not surprised. It is not unusual for CNN or the New York Times to agree not to publish something because the White House asked them. And frankly, our democracy isn't well served when journalists agree to censor their work.

"As I've told our readers in the past: McClatchy journalists will report fairly and independently. We will not make deals with those in power, regardless of party or philosophy."

To be fair, the reporters, editors, and producers at every major US news organization would no doubt agree with the principles Asher articulates here. But the ongoing tragedy of American journalism is this: McClatchy continues to stand apart from the rest of the mainstream media because it so often seems to be the only one fully practicing what it preaches.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

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