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The Bergdahl Saga as a Window Into Journalistic Transparency | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

The Bergdahl Saga as a Window Into Journalistic Transparency

Bowe Bergdahl

Bowe Bergdahl (photo courtesy of the United States Army) 

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

Alter-reviews

1) Eve Alterman on Governors Ball, 2014

2) Eric on Jazz@Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis plays “Modern Ellington.”

3) Eric on the new nine cd Mosaic box set of the complete Louis Armstrong RCA/Columbia years live

4) A few words about Loudon Wainwright III

So if you were really old, like yours truly, and went to Governors Ball last weekend, unlike yours truly, you would have gone to see acts like the Strokes, Jack White, Vampire Weekend, and maybe Outkast and your review might have looked like that by Times critic, Jon Parales. But if you were a sixteen year old sophomore at Bronx Science and were not allowed to go on Friday because of a combination of debate team obligations, a paper due on the issues raised by the film, “The Lemon Tree,” and an incident a few weekends ago that required at least one night of grounding, (and that was generous) and also did not have what her really old father considered to be even remotely decent taste in music, then your review might look like the below.

Governors Ball, 2014, by Eve Alterman

Governors Ball 2014 was an experience filled with heat, pot, overpriced booze, and a diverse crowd full of ages from fourteen to mid forties. The music ranged from indie, to pop, to rock, to EDM, to rap. In past years, Governors Ball has been gated more towards indie and folk music, but as it’s audience has grown, it has become more mainstream -- for the better. Having a larger variety of musical categories was not only strategic, but made Governors Ball enjoyable for almost anyone.

I could not attend Day 1, but the best performance out of Day 2 and Day 3 was definitely Axwell and Ingrosso. They were the last act of the night on Sunday, competing for headliner with Vampire Weekend. Not only was their lightshow phenomenal, but the energy of the crowd mixed with the drop of their new songs and hit singles made for an unforgettable experience. They kicked the night off with one of their new songs “This Time” which was fresh and got the crowd excited. About ten minutes in, they set off fire works and – like the fireworks – the crowd erupted. Each song was different from the next, and the energy never ceased. Everyone in the crowd forgot about the heat, their dehydration, and their aching limbs and just jumped and danced until they finished their set with their hit single “Don’t You Worry Child.”

The next highly enjoyable performance was Tyler the Creator with surprise appearances from Jasper and Taco. Tyler the Creator concerts are often looked upon with distaste because of the aggressiveness of the crowd, the nonstop mosh pits, and the over-all offensive language. However, all of that aside, Tyler the Creator, who performed with Earl Sweatshirt, Jasper Dolphin, and Taco --- members of Odd Future. was one of the only artists of the entire weekend who actually engaged with the crowd and allowed his personality to come through in his performance, including his usage of the word “fuck” 37 times between songs, by this reporter’s count. He made comments about people he saw in the crowd, his thoughts on the festival, and even has some fun with a bra that was thrown at him mid-way through his act. For Tyler-lovers, this made his performance much more enjoyable, because it made the experience much more personal. His energy and the crowd’s energy stayed high and most everyone knew the words and knew what they were getting into when stepping in front of The Big Apple Stage.

Childish Gambino also brought his A-game to Governors Ball 2014. Starting off with an acoustic hook from “Centipede” and then switching to “Crawl” from his latest album Because the Internet, Childish Gambino illuminated the Honda Stage with explosions of fire and bass. About half way into his set, he invites Chance the Rapper and together they do a verse to the song “Worst Guys” as a treat for the crowd. The verse itself was great along with the excitement in the crowd. He ended his set with “Bonfire” from his previous album Camp, with outrageous amounts of fire and explosions only making his performance more memorable and entertaining.

Lastly, both Skrillex and J. Cole (both major headliners) left their talent at home. High expectations brewed for these superstars and they ended up being mediocre at best – J.Cole hitting the mark a lot closer than Skrillex.

Skrillex was the last major headliner of Day 2 and he honestly did not end the night strongly. His graphics were poor and could have probably been constructed one of my computer science classes. They featured dancing “memes” that had absolutely nothing with his set and mostly confused the crowd. His use of lazers was only alright, and the high energy due to anticipation in the beginning of the night quickly died down because the crowd could not tell when he was switching from song to song. The similarity between each song was so great that distinguishing when one song ended and the next one began was almost impossible. As the night progressed, the crowd started to get more and more spread out and roomy, because so many people were leaving. Skrillex gets an overall B-, and to those on molly, maybe a B.

J.Cole did a little better than Skrillex. His songs were easy to dance to and he made the crowd laugh occasionally, but the energy was absent. Most people knew the words to his songs but he in no way made them want to dance, jump, or even really sing along. J. Cole sounded nothing like he does in any of his recordings, and not in a good way. His articulation was poor and it was often difficult to understand what he was saying. However, his ultimate feel was smooth but the crowd’s energy maxed out after some swaying and the occasional hands up. J.Cole gets a B+.

The Governors Ball experience overall was an A, on top of a variety of great music, the food was also spectacular (especially for a festival) and the acts were pretty well organized. The artists mostly stayed on time and it was easy to move from one stage to another. Governors Ball 2015 is highly recommended.

https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/images/cleardot.gifOk, back to the old man....

What a thrill it was to see the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis draws play a bunch of excerpts from the longer and most ambitious works by Duke Ellington, all written in the latter part of his career. Ellington’s later work is generally treated like Albert Eistein’s final decades; people admire the ambition but tend to wish he had stuck to what he did best, and what established his genius as a young man. Wynton and Jazz@LC solved this problem not only by “cherry picking from its already deep well of Ellingtonia with arrangements that shed light on the depth and complexity of the maestro's all-modernistic-all-the-time corpus,” but also by helping us appreciate the works with Wynton’s wonderfully idiosyncratic explanations of the contextual background of the music, which made it just about the most enjoyable master class on jazz and cultural history I’ve ever attended. The repetoire featured rarely heard movie classics including music from Anatomy of a Murder and Paris Blues, alongside selections from some of Ellington’s most revered mid-century works, Far East Suite, Black, Brown & Beige, The Clothed Woman, and more. Ellington. It was a lot of work to curate this concert, as the Duke wrote over 3,000 compositions during his career, and issued alive and dead, over 800 albums. But it sured paid off for the rest of us. More of what’s left this year and a preview of next year’s Jazz@LC schedule, here.

Who can follow the Duke? Just one man of course, and thanks to my friends at Mosaic Records, I get to talk about him. The release of the nine cd box set,“The Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars,” is pretty great news for Armstrong fans. As with Ellington’s late period, smart folk tend to write off later-Louis as so much clowning around and even alleged Uncle-Toming. Call me a philistine, but I’ve always preferred Louis’ RCA period. And now that Mosaic, whose devotion to archival excellence is literally unmatched in any musical category, has collected his live performances from 1947 to 1958, my case has been made over and over and over.

This first-ever compilation is the first to span this range of Louis' career, and as they explain, “It is rich with new discoveries and legendary omissions.” They restored missing solos and removed fake applause. They tracked down the earliest, most authoritative sources for the music and cleaned-up everything to the best of their ability using state-of-the-art techniques. And they corrected a great deal of misinformation regarding discographical details, even if they do say so themselves.

Included in the box is the famous Town Hall concert from May 17, 1947 that set the style for the small group music he'd make from that point on. That date came from the French RCA tapes that Sony along with a newly discovered Carnegie Hall date from November 1947 whose masters had been previously mislabled and never released before. The sound is terrific. There are sessions from the Netherlands eight or so years later, undated, but understood to be part of the "Ambassador Satch" sessions,” rescued back in the day by George Avakian rescued back in the day by George Avakian, shows from Milan, two months later, a date from LA in January 1956 that only pretended to be live but was actually recorded in a the studio. There’s The Great Chicago Concert from June 1956, long out of print, and a concert from Newport in 1956, with four previously unissued performances. There’s even an Avakian recording a rehearsal session with the All Stars in the afternoon and during the evening concert, three attempts at "St. Louis Blues" with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. (The recording equipment caught everything, including a camera breaking down, Bernstein chatting up the audience, Louis playing encores to keep the fans happy. ) And then there's Newport 1958, with nearly no overlap from 1956. Only three tracks have ever been heard from this and it included a reunion with Jack Teagarden and Bobby Hackett. The whole set is here.

But wait, there’s more: Edward R. Murrow interviewing Louis in Paris; a performance, previously unissued, of Louis in London; and two tracks from a 1956 date in Ghana that have not been previously released, and even more than that, but I’m exhausted. Typical of Mosaic, they have corrected details about the time and place of certain recordings where the original recording companies played fast and loose with the details, and restored recordings to their original condition when we discovered the official releases might have been cobbled together from as many as five different sources.

The box comes with an exhaustive essay by Ricky Riccardi, archivist for the Louis Armstrong and a new discography that sets many records straight, along with many vintage photographs. It ain’t cheap of course, but it’s awesome and when the limited release is gone, it’s gone forever.

On Monday night I saw Loudon Wainwright workshop a one-man show at Manhattan's Westside Theatre about his dad called “Surviving Twin,” which he calls a "posthumous collaboration" the late Life magazine columnist, Loudon Wainwright Jr. Since it was the first night of a workshop performance, I think one is not supposed to judge too much, but I will say this. It’s free, and there will probably room if you drop by. And if you like Loudon, you a) are going to like this, b) derive further insight into is ahem, unique pysche and artistic inspiration, c) be surprised at how well this old Life magazine columnist’s work holds up. Who would have thought It runs for three more Mondays and you can find out more, here.

OK, I’m done, but two things last (unpleasant things) that (unfortunately) forced themselves on me owing to the power of the Internets.

1) The Daily Caller editors and its clueless correspondent J. Arthur Bloom does not understand the meaning of the word, “retraction.” Read the first sentence of this silly piece. Then read this piece by me. No retraction anywhere.

What jerks those people are. (Addendum: I see now that Bloom has dropped the word “retraction” and replaced it with “correction.” This is just as false. There was no “correction.” And there is no acknowledgement of the change. And he identifies me as being with The Nation, rather than The Daily Beast, where the piece I wrote appeared. These people can’t behave honestly or honorably even when they know they are being watched. Oh and the headline is ungrammatical. It should read "The Media Finally Get" not "Gets." Media is a plural noun. Morons.) 

2) And speaking of jerks, this deeply offensive quote passed through my computer as well: "The body of Israel is fetid in the back room of American Jews. They haven’t been there but it’s stinking up the joint, and it pollutes their view of the world. Max Blumenthal tried to tell them what it is, but the Zionists ran him out of town using the Nation.” Get it? Jews are “fetid” of body. “The Zionists,” in the form of yours truly, “ran Max Blumenthal out of town.” Amazing. Old fashion bodily-based Jew-hatred combined with moronic conspiracy mongering in two successive sentences. Can you guess who wrote it? Nope, not David Duke. Not Louis Farrakhan. Not even Jean Marie Le Pen (who is actually more eloquent than that). Rather it was Phillip Weiss, proprietor of Mondoweiss.com, showing his true colors. The policies of Israel’s government may be in many respects, indefensible both with regard to its Arab minority and to the Palestinians living under brutal (and unlawful) occupation on the West Bank, but no one should stand silent for this kind of ignorant hate-speech. Words have consequences and none have been worse in history than those of hateful anti-Semites.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

The Bergdahl Saga as a Window Into Journalistic Transparency
by Reed Richardson

Years ago, media critic Jack Shafer adroitly staked out the perils and the peculiar calculus of the DC media’s lazy habit of letting sources speak off the record. Granting anonymity is a necessary evil of reporting in rare occasions, yes, but it’s universally understood that less disclosure and transparency is anathema to journalism’s goal of informing the public. And to abuse this practice is to fundamentally change the nature of what you’re reporting. Or, as Shafer bluntly puts it, analogizing the famous Japanese saga Rashomon: “the identity of a story’s sources is as important as what the sources said.”

The past two weeks, another saga has played out across the national media as the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has sparked both backlash and counter-backlash. Not surprisingly, much of the narrative of the Bergdahl coverage—fueled by innuendo and hearsay—has raced ahead of the facts. There have been numerous cases of the press failing to do its due diligence when it comes to vetting claims about Bergdahl and the terms of the deal for his release. But there are two specific examples I want to explore that provide a vital lesson on the media’s broader, contradictory impulses on transparency.

The first of these was a New York Times front-page story from last week. Written by Helene Cooper at the early stages of right-wing’s campaign to label Bergdahl a “deserter,” the story includes several long, unflattering quotes from two of his former platoon mates. But more importantly, Cooper also offers up a rare peek behind the journalistic sourcing curtain in this passage:

“He wouldn’t drink beer or eat barbecue and hang out with the other 20-year-olds,” Cody Full, another member of Sergeant Bergdahl’s platoon, said in an interview on Monday also arranged by Republican strategists. “He was always in his bunk. He ordered Rosetta Stone for all the languages there, learning Dari and Arabic and Pashto.” [emphasis mine]

It’s instructive how little narrative effort had to be expended here by Cooper to add this phrase, yet how much important context this same phrase provided readers. The pair’s petty gripes about Bergdahl’s personality as well as their tenuous claims about the search for him leading to the deaths of six U.S. soldiers now make more sense given the orchestrated nature of their interview. So, one cheer for Cooper and the Times for arming their readers with this extra helping of transparency.

Why only one? Because it’s clear the Times could have done more if full, robust disclosure were the goal. Why not publicly name the “Republican strategist,” for example? BuzzFeed, to its credit, didn’t shy away from pointing out that said strategist was Richard Grenell, a former aide to hardcore neocon and sneering Obama critic John Bolton. Hmm, that might be worth knowing. (It wasn’t like his role was a well-kept secret either; one of the interviewed soldiers publicly thanked Grenell for his help on Twitter.) But an even more frustrating revelation later came to light in the Times’ public editor’s column this past Monday, when we learned even more damning details from Cooper about the two sources in her story:

“They both had clearly been coached, though, and had the same answers to my question about whether they thought the United States shouldn’t have traded the five prisoners for Bergdahl. At that question, they both said, ‘I don’t want to get into the politics of this, but. …’”

Oy. In other words, these aren’t fellow soldiers merely getting help from a GOP insider to tell their own stories, instead they’re willing, partisan proxies tactically engaging a political spin war against the administration. That’s the real scoop here. And the sharp journalistic instincts Cooper displays to pick up on this are precisely what readers of the Times are presumably paying for, and that editors of the Times are presumably touting as the paper’s competitive advantage. Which is why leaving out this key context makes no sense. It goes right to the motives and trustworthiness of these sources. What’s most disheartening here is that the cause of greater journalistic transparency neatly dovetails with the paper’s long-term interests—telling more of the story would have made for a newsier, more shareable (i.e., more profitable) story—and yet the Times still pulled its punches.

Still, this imperfect, half-hearted effort at revealing how the media narrative sausage gets made is an encouraging step toward accountability. And it stands in stark contrast to my second example—the impenetrable, ethically malleable punditry of the National Journal’s Ron Fournier. A longtime vice provost at the David Broder School of Beltway Media Centrism, Fournier’s shtick of touting chimerical policy compromises while incessantly ankle-biting Obama is well established. And the president’s decision to swap Bergdahl for five Taliban detainees elicited a similarly predictable response from Fournier entitled “‘I’ve Had Enough’: When Democrats Quit on Obama.” But what intrigued me about his latest “Why Won’t Obama Lead?!” diatribe was an aside he provides about his sources:

“In the 18 months since I began writing columns focused on the presidency, virtually every post critical of Obama has originated from conversations with Democrats. Members of Congress, consultants, pollsters, lobbyists, and executives at think tanks, these Democrats are my Obama-whispers.”

Out of curiosity, I went back and read these columns (the things I do for readers!), and he’s right. Or, I should say, I'm guessing he's right, because he almost never names all these disappointed Democrats. In a way this isn’t surprising because Fournier, not long after he started writing this column, breezily informed his readers that source transparency would be ritually sacrificed in exchange for candor. The silver lining, I guess: at least he was transparent about the lack of transparency we could expect from him:

“Going back to my first political beat, covering Bill Clinton’s administration in Arkansas and later in Washington, I’ve had a practice that is fairly common in journalism: A handful of sources I deal with regularly are granted blanket anonymity. Any time we communicate, they know I am prepared to report the information at will (matters of fact, not spin or opinion) and that I will not attribute it to them.”

Now, I firmly believe journalists who immerses themselves in a beat don’t need to attribute every little fact they know to be true from their reporting to a named source (or any source at all, for that matter). And, as I’ve already conceded, ferreting out important, closely-held details sometimes demands granting anonymity to sources, especially when dealing with an increasingly secretive government. But this isn’t what Fournier is describing here. Instead, this “blanket anonymity” he’s doling out is just a clubby way of laundering his agenda through Washington sources who have no fear of being held responsible for their actions or words.

But even in this, there’s a catch. For, if you read through Fournier’s columns, you won’t just find a dearth of named sources, you’re lucky to find any quotes at all—anonymous or otherwise. And those few instances where he does cite an anonymous source are hardly “matters of fact, not spin or opinion.”

For example, last October, at the nadir of the Obamacare exchange rollout, Fournier used an email subject line from an over-reacting “senior Democratic consultant” as the lede to one of his Cassandra-like missives. The quote read simply: “Dem Party is F*****d.” I could be wrong, but that sounds kind of opinion-y. Yet the email’s tone fit within Fournier’s incompetence-at-the-White-House framing, so in it went. Back in March, a “Democratic lobbyist” told him “If [Obama] could govern half as well as he campaigns, he’d be a good-to-great president.” Where’s the fact in there? Or in the subhed to an April column about Obama’s foreign policy, there was this unflattering quote from a so-called Democratic ally who worked part-time as an adviser on both of Obama’s presidential campaigns: “He just is not a natural leader.” How many people worked as a “part-time adviser” for Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, I wonder? Does being part-time really afford him or her unique insight to Obama’s leadership skills? Would he or she have liked to work full-time, maybe? Might those or any number of other circumstances have colored this opinion? Of course, but we’ll never know how.

Fournier seems to recognize how unseemly all this unattributed backdoor sniping of the president has become. Thus, in this week’s column about Bergdahl, he notably lifts the veil on another one of his journalistic “practices” in his own defense:

“Few frustrated Democrats are willing to complain openly. I grant them anonymity, which creates a problem: Readers, for good reason, don't trust anonymous quotes. One way to avoid deluging readers with unnamed Democrats is for me to digest their complaints along with other reporting to shape my columns and tweets.” [emphasis mine]

I am Ron Fournier, I am large, I contain multitudes, I am become “Democrats complained to me privately…”

This is a professional journalist, I remind you. Someone who is now apparently so self-conscious about relying upon idle, DC chit-chat as his source material that he’s decided to further conceal this rather than, you know, trying to use fewer anonymous sources. No need to worry your pretty little head, dear reader, about a “deluge” of unnamed Democrats—and what happened to that “handful of sources” caveat?—Fournier’s going to absorb what they tell him and you’ll just have to trust that he got it right.

As grossly problematic as Fournier’s journalistic approach is here, in a way I’m glad he publicly admitted to it. It perfectly captures how the Beltway conventional wisdom feedback loop works—a friendly DC pundit known for airing anonymous critiques of the president attracts even more anonymous critics, whose opinions are then digested and then excreted out into the discourse. And tomorrow, the cycle begins anew.

Stand Fournier’s decision up against what Cooper did at the Times and you’ll see two journalists moving in opposite directions along the transparency spectrum. The latter is taking steps, albeit haltingly, toward serving up more honest, forthright reportage, while the former has chosen to channel an invisible chorus of unaccountable voices that merely stir the media pot. If you want to know which of these our democracy needs more of, just ask Sgt. Bergdahl.

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

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

The Mail
Jon Eddison
Austin, TX

Good column [“The Roberts Court’s Stealth Campaign Against a Free Press”] and depressing. Just remember that it takes four votes to grant a petition of certiorari. The Supreme Court's process for considering petitions and the voting is opaque. Risen may have gotten three votes for all we know. Justices interested in the issue may have not seen Risen’s case as the one they wanted to decide. There is always the risk, with the Roberts Court, that the reactionary majority will take a case for one ostensible reason and run with it to accomplish another political objective. Judges sympathetic to the press may have felt that taking the case risked more downside than good, despite Mr. Risen’s woes.

Denis Smith
Marietta, GA

Hi Reed,

Very good post on the Robert's Court and the Free Press. One item stuck me. From your piece:

"[I]t all but validated a Justice Department lawyer’s outrageous analogy that citing such privilege is the equivalent of receiving drugs from a source and then refusing to testify about it."

In such a case, would I not have a Fifth Amendment right not to testify? So DOJ is actually arguing that I have less rights as a journalist than a drug arrestee! Either Risen is party to a crime and can't be compelled to testify, or Risen is not party to a crime and has the right not to testify about journalistic sources. I would argue for both, but DOJ sees neither.

Anyway, thanks for the great work.

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