Shout-out to Reporters! and Gerth’s Piece in the Columbia Journalism Review and How It Relates to Our Issues

The Alaska Roadless writing I did last week reminded me of how difficult it must be to be a journalist in our space. I worked on Colorado Roadless for years and it’s still complicated.  And simplifying tends to degenerate to good guys and bad guys. Not to speak of the fact that explanations are too lengthy and most people aren’t interested to that extent.  To which I would add Friedman’s Law of Natural Resource/Environmental Conflicts: there are always more than two sides.  With a corollary: If someone reports on only two, they are missing the picture.

Bottom line… a big shout-out to journalists who cover our stuff.  We know it’s not easy.  And an offer- my virtual door is always open to reporters who want a glimpse into the different perspectives and possible sources on any related issue.  I’ve been impressed by the quality of the discussions I’ve had with newbies (and the usual reporter suspects) in this space and want to make sure that you all feel welcome.

That being said- I’d like to talk about three things that came across my desk in the last few weeks that have to do with journalism institutions. I understand that many of these institutions are under a great deal of financial pressure (and of course transfer that to their workers), so I am sympathetic.  Today’s post is on the  Columbia Journalism Review piece by Jeff Gerth.

I recommend.. don’t read commentary on it.. just read it if you’re interested. It’s not that long.  If you do, you will be amazed and tired and impressed by how many documents, phone calls and other information Gerth sorted through. The key part for me was the Afterword.  It’s written by someone who obviously really cares about the profession of journalism, as I do, and I think all of us should. Because these are the folks who interpret our world for the public.

I think most reporting in our space doesn’t deal with anonymous sources or “people familiar with”, but others of Gerth’s recommendations might be relevant. The outlets NYT and WaPo, though, who do write in our space, do not come out very well in the Gerth’s story. Note what Gerth says is needed to build back trust.  I’m thinking a 90-day stand-down and a public process with sets of recommendations- whoops, that was prescribed fire.

I’ve avoided opining in my more than fifty years as a reporter. This time, however, I felt obligated to weigh in. Why? Because I am worried about journalism’s declining credibility and society’s increasing polarization. The two trends, I believe, are intertwined.

My main conclusion is that journalism’s primary missions, informing the public and holding powerful interests accountable, have been undermined by the erosion of journalistic norms and the media’s own lack of transparency about its work. This combination adds to people’s distrust about the media and exacerbates frayed political and social differences.

One traditional journalistic standard that wasn’t always followed in the Trump-Russia coverage is the need to report facts that run counter to the prevailing narrative. In January 2018, for example, the New York Times ignored a publicly available document showing that the FBI’s lead investigator didn’t think, after ten months of inquiry into possible Trump-Russia ties, that there was much there. This omission disserved Times readers. The paper says its reporting was thorough and “in line with our editorial standards.”

My last reporting project for the Times, in 2005, was an inquiry into US propaganda efforts abroad. I interviewed a former top CIA expert on behavior and propaganda, Jerrold Post, who told me that leaving important information out of a broadcast or story lowers public trust in the messenger because consumers inevitably find the missing information somewhere else. (And Post, who died a few years ago, spoke before the arrival of social media.)

Another axiom of journalism that was sometimes neglected in the Trump-Russia coverage was the failure to seek and reflect comment from people who are the subject of serious criticism. The Times guidelines call it a “special obligation.” Yet in stories by the Times involving such disparate figures as Joseph Mifsud (the Maltese academic who supposedly started the whole FBI inquiry), Christopher Steele (the former British spy who authored the dossier), and Konstantin Kilimnik (the consultant cited by some as the best evidence of collusion between Russia and Trump), the paper’s reporters failed to include comment from the person being criticized. The Times, in a statement, says some of the subjects were approached on occasion, yet the paper’s guidelines also call for their comments to be published.

Another exhibit is a familiar target: anonymous sources. I’ve used them myself, including, sparsely, in this piece. What’s different in the Trump era, however, is both the volume of anonymous sources and the misleading way they’re often described.

One frequent and vague catchphrase—“people (or person) familiar with”—is widely used by many journalists: the Times used it over a thousand times in stories involving Trump and Russia between October 2016 and the end of his presidency, according to a Nexis search. The last executive editor I worked for, Bill Keller, frowned on its use. He told the staff repeatedly the phrase was “so vague it could even mean the reporter.” The Times, in a statement to CJR, said, “We have strong rules in place governing the use of anonymous sources.” Other outlets mentioned in this piece declined to discuss their anonymous-sourcing practices.

Another anonymous-sourcing convention that was turbocharged in the Trump era was the use of more neutral descriptors like “government official” or “intelligence official” or “American official” to mask congressional leakers. A few reporters admitted that to me, but, of course, only anonymously. Here’s how it works. First, a federal agency like the CIA or FBI secretly briefs Congress. Then Democrats or Republicans selectively leak snippets. Finally, the story comes out, using vague attribution. “It was a problem for us,” Mike Kortan, the former FBI spokesman until 2018, told me. Kortan, who also worked in Congress, added: “We would brief Congress, try and give them a full picture with the negative stuff, and then a member of Congress can cherry-pick the information and the reporter doesn’t know they’ve been cherry-picked.” The typical reader or viewer is clueless.

My final concern, and frustration, was the lack of transparency by media organizations in responding to my questions. I reached out to more than sixty journalists; only about half responded. Of those who did, more than a dozen agreed to be interviewed on the record. However, not a single major news organization made available a newsroom leader to talk about their coverage.

My reporting has been criticized by journalists, from the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, in the 1980s, to Harper’s magazine in the 1990s and the Daily Beast in the 2000s. When I’ve had the opportunity to respond, which hasn’t always been the case, I’ve tried to engage. On a few occasions, I concluded the inquiring reporter wasn’t really open to what I had to say, so l let my story speak for itself.

But during this time, when the media is under extraordinary attack and widely distrusted, a transparent, unbiased, and accountable media is more needed than ever. It’s one of a journalist’s best tools to distinguish themselves from all the misinformation, gossip, and rumor that proliferates on the Web and then gets legitimized on occasion by politicians of all stripes, including Trump.

Most Americans (60 percent) say they want unbiased news sources. Yet 86 percent think the media is biased. The consequences of this mismatch are all too obvious: 83 percent of the audience for Fox News leans Republican while 91 percent of the readers of the New York Times lean Democratic.

Jennifer Kavanagh, senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me of her concerns about news silos.

“If you are only getting your news from one source, you are getting a skewed view,” which, she said, “increases polarization” and “crowds out the room for compromise, because people base their views on these siloed news sources.” She added: “People don’t have time to deal with nuance, so they settle on a position and everything else tends to become unacceptable.”

Walter Lippmann wrote about these dangers in his 1920 book Liberty and the News. Lippmann worried then that when journalists “arrogate to themselves the right to determine by their own consciences what shall be reported and for what purpose, democracy is unworkable.”

More on trust tomorrow.

8 thoughts on “Shout-out to Reporters! and Gerth’s Piece in the Columbia Journalism Review and How It Relates to Our Issues”

  1. Sharon, I found your statement “I recommend.. don’t read commentary on it.. just read it if you’re interested.” to be rather interesting on a topic about media trust. This can easily be interpreted as “trust what Gerth writes and don’t believe those who criticize him.”

    I read part of Gerth’s lengthy opinion piece and found he was guilty of some of the same things he was being critical about. For example, just in the part you quoted, “Most Americans (60 percent) say they want unbiased news sources. Yet 86 percent think the media is biased. The consequences of this mismatch are all too obvious: 83 percent of the audience for Fox News leans Republican while 91 percent of the readers of the New York Times lean Democratic.”

    Who is the source for this information (from what I could find, it was Pew)? And is this an accurate depiction of the statement (no). The statement was percentage of people who lean Democrat who use NY Times as their main source of political and election news. That shows a lack of important nuance. Interestingly, the study says 95% of those who use Fox as their main source of political and election news lean Republican, not 83%.

    Several things popped up showing an equal level of lack of nuance in just the first 4,000 words or so of what I read before I decided Gerth obviously has an issue with NYT and is not allowing anything get in his way with trying to discredit their work. For that reason, I quit reading. I have better things to do. Maybe I’m incorrect in my assessment since I didn’t read on.

    The part about quoting sources is important. One of the primary reasons for the vagueness of sources is because of Trump’s record of retribution.

    Another interesting point being discussed by academics in communication is the idea of reporting both sides when it is obvious one side is lying. Does this then cause people to latch onto the lies? It’s a difficult conundrum. Even so, NYT has been criticized for their extra efforts to give both sides their ink… or electrons. I put both sides, but you are correct in saying there is almost always more than two sides.

    But, regardless of all that, I think your overall point of loss of trust in the media is correct. There has been a steady decline for decades. I think a big part of that has to do with the increase in media sources and the polarization of media in an effort to attract readers/viewers/listeners. Like it or not, providing news, after all, is a business. We are no longer living in the time of Walter Cronkite. Did that polarization occur due to the media or did it occur because of the increase in political polarization first? I would guess the latter and then the media outlets leaned left or right to attract viewers.

    There is a lot to this topic and I think taking one opinion piece and suggesting to not read commentary on that piece is exactly what the problem is. In order to be literate about current affairs, one has to get their news and opinions from multiple sources and do some fact checking.

    • Mike, that’s an interesting take. When I looked at the commentary, albeit briefly, they seemed to fall into two predictable categories .. .. “of course!” and “it’s junk” and didn’t necessarily add any value. I think some called it an “epic fail”. I think it’s important for us to be able to talk about it and I appreciate your substantive take on where Gerth missed the boat.. (in his opinionating and bigger picture stuff). Hope that clarifies why I said that.

      • Sharon, I had a similar experience when I did a search, but being a skeptic by nature, I tend to gravitate to the “it’s junk” reviews to see if there is anything of substance. I found a fairly thoughtful critique in Mother Earth News of all places. The writer had also written a lot about Russiagate and had some interesting thoughts in addition to agreeing with Gerth on some parts.

        There is a lot of bias in the media based on what they report on, what they don’t report on and the language they use. But that is only part of the story. The other part is are they using factual information or even using language that provides a little wiggle room as to certainty of their information. In general, NYT and WaPo do a good job with the facts, but obviously lean left with their bias. They don’t always get it right and when they get it wrong, will often, but not always, admit it. That is very different than many other media outlets.

        I don’t think Gerth’s critique will have much of an effect on the news media industry. I’m not sure what would, which is why it is important for people to learn and practice good skills in recognizing the biases and fact checking. Unfortunately, the majority of people are looking for news that confirms their cognitive bias, in fact, I would say we all do to some extent.

        As for developing trust in the media, I don’t think it is going to get better any time soon. The severe polarization between our political parties will continue to cause our politicians to criticize the media that don’t agree with them. The media that does agree with their leanings will share these sound bites perpetuating the distrust.

        I think it was a Statista poll that showed the majority of people who read the Times as a primary source for news trusted the Times. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was also true with people who use Fox as their primary news source. So, it’s one of those I don’t trust the media, but I trust the source I use.

        One possible solution would be to do what Ukraine did for a while. A few years ago, Ukraine had a once a week prime time fact check television show. The primary purpose was to provide the public with factual information to counter Russian disinformation. But, even then, people would have to trust the information in the program.

        Another, long-term solution, is to do what Finland is doing, which is to teach critical consumption of information in schools starting at a young age and continuing throughout all grades. Of course, that isn’t going to get traction in the US at the moment (it is happening in some schools) because the politicians will want to micro-manage it.

        At least that is my personal short take on this topic. I’ve spent a lot of time reading up on disinformation, misinformation, how it moves through our society and how it has led to increased polarization and radicalization. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to climb out of our current hole, but it is possible.

  2. My take on all this (not resrtricted to the points made by Sharon and Mike) is: why on earth should there not be polarization? I was a child during the bland pasteuriized non-polarized 1950s. The journalism back then was simplistic, shallow, narrow-minded, intolerant of real dissent or even of rational criticism. Intellectuals or strong-minded “regular people” could find alternative sources of information, of course. But they were too few and too timid to have much of an effect on public discourse. Today, as an old codger of 76, I welcome the diversity of opinion and the intense outspoken rivalry that I behold amongst a horde of internet folks. This is exactly what journalism would have been like, back in the late 18th century, if today’s information technology had been available to those ancestors of ours. The so-called Founding Fathers lived…and chose to place the First Amendment in its pre-eminent place…during a time of all-out media war. The news sheets libelled and slandered each other…and their chosen enemies in the political realm…with utter abandon. Duels were actually fought and some editors got killed because tempers in the journalistic field ran so high. Today’s lively media scene isn’t even in that league. The country needs more dissent, more expression of outrage and scorn, more fierce debate. Not less. To hell with conformity. Screw civility. The Times and WaPo are self-important propaganda rags, totally beholden to their wealthy owners and corporate advertisers. Fox and MSNBC ditto. Completely unworthy of emulation or respect. The reporters who are employed by those businesses toe the line. Because the prospects for paid employment elsewhere are not good. So the Overton Window is scrupulously respected and we consumers of…er, “news”…get fed the middle-of-the-road pabulum that our rulers decide is good for us. Well, they can go pound sand. I’ll do my own fact-checking and will decide for myself whom to trust. Just my 2 cents worth. Have a nice day.

    • Great that you are willing to look for the facts, but how do you decide whom to trust (from todays’ expanding universe of options)?

  3. I was off grid backpacking when you ran your 3-part commentary on journalism so wasn’t in place to comment. Since I am former reporter (UA journalism degree & newspapers in Oregon, Utah & Oklahoma plus continue to do some freelance in Idaho & Arizona) thought I should weigh in. Have not had time to read other folks’ comments yet. Three responses: 1. Yes newspaper/ news publication management tends to be arrogant and not willing to repent of misinterpretation (although they still will fire reporters for outright lying unlike other so-called news outfits I know of which encourage it). Doesn’t sound like the disputed “FBI dossier” was outright lies just taken out of context to indicate more “there there” than warranted. 2. This opinion piece was INCREDIBLY long. Based on my experience as spouse/ editor to a scientist no other reputable journal would run anything this undisciplined. Which brings me to my current beef with news publications. When they have a big issue they will cover it with pages and pages that wear out the most dedicated reader. I know you were impressed with his level of detail; that should go into good investigative reporting but doesn’t need to be shown in paragraph after paragraph. Yes I know you did your research. What about footnotes? To me the lack of discipline in “news writing” is alienating the few of us who still want to “read the news.” 3. Yes journalism is dying. Lots of reasons. Can’t compete with Internet. Capitalism encourages predatory takeover of community newspapers. Next generation doesn’t like paper. And although Gerth contends news pros have brought “fake news” charges on themselves with un-objective liberal stance, I believe there has been huge 30-year effort by conservatives aided by removal of fairness doctrine (which required some level of equal time for opposing views in broadcast) which allowed flourishing of innuendo-based talk radio, Fox “News” and now other broadcast outlets even more steeped in propaganda which demonize liberal democracy as well as the working press & encourage hostility and simplistic authoritative broadsides rather than some attempt at exploring the complexities of our modern issues.


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