Tag Archives: Columbia Journalism Review

Pepsigate: The Blogging Scandal Of A New Generation

Coturnix, a former Scienceblogger, has the master list of links about Pepsigate.

Curtis Brainard at Columbia Journalism Review:

At least two well-respected science journalists and a handful of scientists have canceled their blogs at the popular and heretofore highly respected ScienceBlogs.com community, protesting Seed Media Group’s decision to give PepsiCo a nutrition blog.

On Tuesday afternoon, ScienceBlogs.com’s editor, Evan Lerner (who has contributed to CJR), posted a short note announcing the new blog, called Food Frontiers, which explained that:

As part of this partnership, we’ll hear from a wide range of experts on how the company is developing products rooted in rigorous, science-based nutrition standards to offer consumers more wholesome and enjoyable foods and beverages. The focus will be on innovations in science, nutrition and health policy. In addition to learning more about the transformation of PepsiCo’s product portfolio, we’ll be seeing some of the innovative ways it is planning to reduce its use of energy, water and packaging.

Longtime members of the ScienceBlogs.com community reacted quickly and angrily to the move, arguing that Pepsi was “buying credibility” created by other bloggers on the site, and tarnishing that credibility in the process (tip of the hat to the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, which brought the scoop to wide attention on Wednesday with a post titled, “ScienceBlogs Trashes its Bloggers’ Credibility”). Announcing that he would move his popular neuroscience blog, Neuron Culture, science journalist and author David Dobbs wrote:

Call me old-fashioned, but I can’t cotton to this. With the addition of Food Frontiers, ScienceBlogs has redrawn the boundaries of what it considers legitimate and constructive blogo-journalism about science. In doing so they define an environment I can’t live comfortably in. So with this post I’m leaving ScienceBlogs. For the moment I am moving my blog to Neuron Culture, hosted by WordPress, while considering other venues that might make sense for me.

Rebecca Skloot, the best-selling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Brian Switek, a freelance science writer and blogger for Smithsonian, announced they, too, are putting their blogs on hiatus. Likewise, Blake Stacey, a physicist and science-fiction writer who writes the blog Science After Sunclipse, Mark Chu-Carroll, a software engineer at Google who writes the blog Good Math, Bad Math, and Dave Bacon, a theoretical physicist who runs the blog The Quantum Pontiff, suspended their operations.

PZ Myers at Scienceblogs:

So what’s with the corporate drones moving in next door?

They aren’t going to be doing any scienceblogging — this is straight-up commercial propaganda. You won’t be seeing much criticism of Pepsico corporate policies, or the bad nutritional habits spread by cheap fast food, or even any behind-the-scenes stories about the lives of Pepsico employees that paints a picture of the place as anything less than Edenesque. Do you think any of the ‘bloggers’ will express any controversial opinions that might annoy any potential customers?

There won’t be a scrap of honest opinion expressed over there that isn’t filtered and vetted by cautious editors before making it online, and it will all toe the Pepsi line. It’s going to be boring. It’s going to blur the line between blog content and advertising. It’s going to be bloodless dull blogging that will diminish the Scienceblogs brand.

So don’t say hello to them at all — don’t even bother to read them. If you want to know more about food science, check out Tomorrow’s Table or Obesity Panacea (more of an exercise physiology blog than a nutrition blog, but they did recently post on sugar-sweetened beverages. Didn’t like ’em.)

Oh, and I don’t care what the Supreme Court said. Corporations aren’t people. I read blogs written by sentient beings, not committees of shills.

Mary Carmichael at Newsweek:

Whatever happens with Myers and the rest of the “SciBlings,” as they’ve become known, it’s pretty clear that a line was crossed with the Pepsi blog and that the line should never be approached again. Yet, with the institutional blogs, one could argue that the SEED Media Group is, if not completely crossing the line, tiptoeing along it. InstitutionalBlogGate (a term no one is actually using, and rightly so) isn’t egregious the way PepsiGate was, since none of the institutions paid for their slots. Also, to quote a commenter at Brookhaven’s blog, “there’s an appreciable difference between a national laboratory and a corporate PR venture.” The labs aren’t trying to sell readers an unhealthy product; they’re trying to spread the word about potentially important research that might make people healthier.

Still, there are some issues of credibility at stake. Would a blog authored by Pepsi scientists have been OK if ScienceBlogs had given it to the company for free? If not, what exactly is different about a research institution’s blog? Can readers put their full faith in these five blogs the same way they can with an ostensibly independent individual’s site? Or is there a difference, the way there is between reading a press release describing a study and more skeptical media coverage of the same research?

A lot depends on who’s doing the writing. Many science writers employed by PR departments are lyrical stylists and smart, conscientious people. But they don’t necessarily fill the role of watchdog the way good journalists and independent bloggers do. That function was neatly described by Marc Ambinder last week in The Atlantic: “When a story is complex, journalists ought to examine whatever thesis they hold and attempt, by reporting, to falsify it.” That’s a little like a scientist’s job description, if you think about it: come up with a hypothesis and then try as hard as you can to prove it wrong. But it’s not a PR person’s job description. “The people writing these blogs are not truly speaking independently as individuals,” says Dobbs, one of the writers who left the network after PepsiGate. “They can’t react critically to everything–at least I don’t think they can while keeping their jobs. Ideally, I would like to see the [institutional] blogs removed. I think ScienceBlogs and the readers would be better off if they weren’t there.”

Not all bloggers feel this way, Myers included. “We’ve known about those [institutional blogs] for some time—they aren’t a problem,” he wrote in an e-mail to NEWSWEEK. “Those sites were set up under the same conditions as the blogs of corporate scientist Mark Chu-Carroll, who works at Google, and university scientist PZ Myers, who works at the University of Minnesota. … [The Pepsi blog blurred] the boundary between advertising and content. I agree that the institutional blogs also blur that boundary, just not quite as much. I can’t insist that their blogs be labeled as advertisements, unless I want my blog marked as an ad for the University of Minnesota, or Chu-Carroll’s as an ad for Google. It’s complicated and messy.”

Virginia Heffernan at NYT:

It started last month when 20 or so high-placed science bloggers angrily parted ways with an extremely popular and award-winning online collective called ScienceBlogs because it starting running Food Frontiers, a nutrition blog that PepsiCo paid to have on the site. (Several of the collective’s contributors, including some who left in protest, have written for The Times Magazine.) In farewell posts, the bloggers charged that the advertorial was deceptive and undermined the purpose of the collective.

Seed Media Group, which oversees ScienceBlogs, eventually killed off the commercial blog, but the staff bloggers kept leaving. Some have predicted that the ScienceBlogs network won’t survive the defections. “The ship is sinking,” mused PZ Myers, the writer of the site’s top blog, Pharyngula, which is devoted to “evolution, development and random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal.”

I was nonplussed by the high dudgeon of the so-called SciBlings. The bloggers evidently write often enough for ad-free academic journals that they still fume about adjacencies, advertorial and infomercials. Most writers for “legacy” media like newspapers, magazines and TV see brush fires over business-editorial crossings as an occupational hazard. They don’t quit anytime there’s an ad that looks so much like an article it has to be marked “this is an advertisement.”

But the bloggers’ eek-a-mouse posturing wasn’t the most striking part of the affair. Instead, it was the weird vindictiveness of many of the most prominent blogs. The stilted and seething tone of some of the defection posts sent me into the ScienceBlogs archives, where I expected to find original insights into science by writers who stress that they are part of, in the blogger Dave Munger’s words, “the most influential science blogging network in the world.” And while I found interesting stuff here and there, I also discovered that ScienceBlogs has become preoccupied with trivia, name-calling and saber rattling. Maybe that’s why the ScienceBlogs ship started to sink.

Recently a blogger called GrrlScientist, on Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted), expressed her disgust at the “flock of hugely protruding bellies and jiggling posteriors everywhere I go.” Gratuitous contempt like this is typical. Mark Hoofnagle on Denialism Blog sideswiped those who question antibiotics, writing, “their particular ideology requires them to believe in the primacy of religion (Christian Science, New Age Nonsense) or in the magical properties of nature.” Over at Pharyngula — which often ranks in the Top 100 blogs on the Internet— PZ Myers revels in sub-“South Park” blasphemy, presenting (in one recent stunt) his sketch of the Prophet Muhammad as a cow-pig hybrid excited about “raping a 9-year-old girl.”

Clearly I’ve been out of some loop for too long, but does everyone take for granted now that science sites are where graduate students, researchers, doctors and the “skeptical community” go not to interpret data or review experiments but to chip off one-liners, promote their books and jeer at smokers, fat people and churchgoers? And can anyone who still enjoys this class-inflected bloodsport tell me why it has to happen under the banner of science?

Hammering away at an ideology, substituting stridency for contemplation, pummeling its enemies in absentia: ScienceBlogs has become Fox News for the religion-baiting, peak-oil crowd. Though Myers and other science bloggers boast that they can be jerky in the service of anti-charlatanism, that’s not what’s bothersome about them. What’s bothersome is that the site is misleading. It’s not science by scientists, not even remotely; it’s science blogging by science bloggers. And science blogging, apparently, is a form of redundant and effortfully incendiary rhetoric that draws bad-faith moral authority from the word “science” and from occasional invocations of “peer-reviewed” thises and thats.

Under cover of intellectual rigor, the science bloggers — or many of the most visible ones, anyway — prosecute agendas so charged with bigotry that it doesn’t take a pun-happy French critic or a rapier-witted Cambridge atheist to call this whole ScienceBlogs enterprise what it is, or has become: class-war claptrap.

Ross Douthat

Tim Lambert at Scienceblogs:

But what really takes the cake is this:

For science that’s accessible but credible, steer clear of polarizing hatefests like atheist or eco-apocalypse blogs. Instead, check out scientificamerican.com, discovermagazine.com and Anthony Watts’s blog, Watts Up With That?

Heffernan reckons that Whats Up With That presents credible science. This is a blog that argues that Venus is hot, not because of the greenhouse effect, but because of the high pressure in the atmosphere (so hence Jupiter and Saturn are the hottest planets right?) . Look:

If there were no Sun (or other external energy source) atmospheric temperature would approach absolute zero. As a result there would be almost no atmospheric pressure on any planet -> PV = nRT

Only if there was no such thing as gravity. Air pressure is determined by the weight of the column of air above a particular point. If the pressure is insufficient to support that column, then gravity compresses the column, decreasing the volume and increasing the pressure until it is enough to support the column. So if you turned off the Sun and cooled down the atmosphere, the pressure would not change. Actual credible science on this from Chris Colose is here. Again, this isn’t “bad-faith moral authority”, physics tells us what the right answer is, while Watts Up With That consistently gets it wrong. For example, accusing NOAA scientists of fraud, arguing that “up is flat“, hiding the decline in snow cover, and fabricating false temperature trends. And if you want more, Peter Sinclair’s video debunking Watts was so good that Watt’s abused the DMCA to try to have it supressed.

Via Andrew Sullivan, David Dobbs:

Heffernan makes two main points.

1. She found the science blogosphere, esp as represented by ScienceBlogs is cacaphonous and of uneven quality.

My comment: This is neither novel nor surprising.

2. She was “nonplussed by the high dudgeon of the so-called SciBlings” in their reaction to what has become known, more or less tongue-in-cheek, as PepsiGate.

The bloggers evidently write often enough for ad-free academic journals that they still fume about adjacencies, advertorial and infomercials. Most writers for “legacy” media like newspapers, magazines and TV see brush fires over business-editorial crossings as an occupational hazard. They don’t quit anytime there’s an ad that looks so much like an article it has to be marked “this is an advertisement.”

My comment: Obviously I differ with her on this, as I felt strongly enough about Seed’s blunder to leave immediately, before almost anyone else had, and before it was clear the reaction would be both broad and deep. You can read both my quick initial post announcing my departure — A food blog I can’t digest — and a more considered explanation at Why I’m Staying Gone from ScienceBlogs. And as you can read below, I’m not the only one, even among “legacy media,” types (I write for the same sorts of outfits Heffernan does, including the New York Times Magazine), who thought the transgression was serious enough to warrant leaving.


You remember Virginia Heffernan’s New York Times article on science blogging last week? Yeah. It was bad. She totally deserved to be called on it. She’s made at least one follow-up since, but it probably ain’t going to convince many people.

I’m tellin’ ya, though… don’t brush her off completely.

Yeah, let’s criticize that she didn’t get past the first impression of science blogs. We should expect Heffernan to look before leaping – she writes for the Times, after all, which still has a certain reputation as a paper of record and quality. But let’s not pretend that her impression ain’t shared by anyone else.

For instance, she took heat for recommending a climate denialist blog. But that’s not the first time that blog got recommended by people who ought to know better. That tells me there’s something we can learn there.

When we read Heffernan’s piece, we don’t like it. She was bound to get a lot of, “You don’t know what you’re talking about” (which, like I said, she earned). But she’s not getting as much, “Would you like to learn?”

Now, because she is a public figure, and counts people like David Dobbs among her colleagues, we might be able to convince her we ain’t so bad. Win for us if we do.

But a lot of us are probably just going to give her up as a lost cause. “She didn’t like the science blogosphere? Tough noogies. Good riddance.”

Bora nailed it when he wrote about the power that the Science Blogs website in particular had, but it’s true for the rest of us. There’s probably a lot of other people who have reactions like Virginia, but don’t blab about them in such a public forum. So they go away all quiet-like, and nobody makes the effort to reach out and invite them back.

We can do better than, “Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.”

Chad Orzel:

That’s where I think this incident points out a real problem: if we’re really trying to promote science, Virginia Heffernan is our target audience: she’s a smart and educated person with no science background, who would benefit from learning more about science in an informal manner. She’s one of the people we ought to be speaking to using blogging as a platform.

If we’re driving her away before she learns anything, there’s something wrong. And castigating her after the fact, essentially for being driven away, is not helping at all.

That’s what bothers me about this whole incident. Firing up people who are already interested in science and know something about it is great, but to paraphrase an Adlai Stevenson joke, we need a majority. If we want to improve the standing of science, and make the world a better place, we need to reach people like Virginia Heffernan (at the very least), and get them on the side of science.

(Of course, my calling her “half stupid” isn’t as helpful as it might be, and now I sort of regret that phrasing.)

Now, it might be that she’s really a denialist in disguise, and deliberately whipping up sentiment against ScienceBlogs for nefarious purposes. But, you know, if you always assume that people who disagree with you are acting in bad faith, you’re not going to get anywhere good. I’m inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt on the Watts thing, especially since the other two sites she recommended are, in fact, excellent sources for people who want to learn about science.

More Myers:

Man, that Heffernan article is turning out to be such an excellent marker for stupid. Now some Catholic wanker is citing it as supporting his claim that scientists are all nasty people, claiming that the problem with science is scientists. Being Catholic, you know exactly who he is going to complain about.

Heffernan writes about the meltdown over at Science Blogs. “Science Blogs”, as you may well remember is the home of blogger PZ Myers who is famous for advancing science by desecrating the Eucharist. While Myers is the most read of the misogamists at Science Blogs, his penchant for the unpleasant is rather standard fare.

“Science Blogs” has recently seen many of its bloggers leave in protest over the addition of a new nutrition blog called Food Frontiers. Science Blogs’ sin that PepsiCo sponsors the site. It is indubitable that nobody does righteous indignation quite like the ungodly.

Wow. Every sentence is wrong.

  1. There is no meltdown. There was risk of one, but Seed got their act together, and we’re all working away productively now.
  2. Cracker abuse is so 2008. Get over it. And no, that wasn’t science, nor did I claim it was: it was a protest against the inanity of reactionary Catholics.
  3. Misogamist? Moi? I’ve been happily married for over 30 years!
  4. Nobody quit over the addition of Food Frontiers.
  5. It was not a sin that Pepsi sponsored the site. The problem was that it was not labeled as an advertisement, and blurred a boundary between advertisement and content. That’s what got people upset, as well as a pattern of infrastructure neglect.
  6. Funny about that ungodly business. I’m definitely ungodly; I’m still here. So is Greg Laden. ERV thought it was all a tempest in a teacup. Jason Rosenhouse didn’t even seem to notice. The biggest ungodliest bloggers here seem to have had a range of reactions; and several of the people who decamped were theists.

Like I said, everyone who cites the Heffernan noise positively seems to be factually incompetent, including Heffernan herself.

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James Joyner Did The Joke Already: David Weigel To Be Replaced By David Petraeus

Betsy Rothstein at Fishbowl DC:

FishbowlDC has obtained e-mails written by WaPo‘s conservative-beat blogger Dave Weigel, that the scribe sent to JournoList, a listserv for liberal journalists. (Read up on JournoList with Yahoo! News’s Michael Calderone‘s 2009 story that he wrote for Politico).

Seems Weigel doesn’t like (and that would be putting it mildly) at least some of the conservatives he covers. Poor Drudge – Weigel wants him to light himself on fire.

Weigel’s Words:

•”This would be a vastly better world to live in if Matt Drudge decided to handle his emotional problems more responsibly, and set himself on fire.”

•”Follow-up to one hell of a day: Apparently, the Washington Examiner thought it would be fun to write up an item about my dancing at the wedding of Megan McArdle and Peter Suderman. Said item included the name and job of my girlfriend, who was not even there — nor in DC at all.”

•”I’d politely encourage everyone to think twice about rewarding the Examiner with any traffic or links for a while. I know the temptation is high to follow up hot hot Byron York scoops, but please resist it.”

•”It’s all very amusing to me. Two hundred screaming Ron Paul fanatics couldn’t get their man into the Fox News New Hampshire GOP debate, but Fox News is pumping around the clock to get Paultard Tea Party people on TV.”

Weigel says he “happy to comment” to FishbowlDC but it seems he’s tied up on the phone. Will bring you his remarks as soon as he provides them.

David Weigel:

Below the fold are quotes from me e-mailing the list that day — quotes that I’m told a gossip Web site will post today. I apologize for much of what I wrote, and apologize to readers.

– “This would be a vastly better world to live in if Matt Drudge decided to handle his emotional problems more responsibly, and set himself on fire.”

I apologize to Matt Drudge for this — I was incredibly frustrated with the amount of hate mail I was getting and lashed out. If he wants to link to this post with some headline accusing me of wishing death on him, I suppose he can do so. But I don’t wish that. I was tired, angry, and hyperbolic, and I’m sorry.

– “Follow-up to one hell of a day: Apparently, the Washington Examiner thought it would be fun to write up an item about my dancing at the wedding of Megan McArdle and Peter Suderman. Said item included the name and job of my girlfriend, who was not even there — nor in DC at all.”

I stand by this — I was offended by the way that item was written. I do apologize for reacting like this against the entire Washington Examiner, as my gripe was with one reporter, and the person who gave them this item was apologizing to me.

– “I’d politely encourage everyone to think twice about rewarding the Examiner with any traffic or links for a while. I know the temptation is high to follow up hot hot Byron York scoops, but please resist it.”

I stand by that reaction but apologize for belittling Byron York.

– “It’s all very amusing to me. Two hundred screaming Ron Paul fanatics couldn’t get their man into the Fox News New Hampshire GOP debate, but Fox News is pumping around the clock to get Paultard Tea Party people on TV.”

I stand by this, although I apologize if people find the word “Paultard” offensive. It was a neologism coined during the 2008 campaign to describe fanatical supporters of Paul — I used it in this case to convey how Fox covered those supporters in 2008.

Jonathan Strong at Daily Caller:

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh famously said he hoped President Obama would “fail” in January, 2009. Almost a year later, when Limbaugh was rushed to the hospital with chest pains, Washington Post reporter David Weigel had a wish of his own. “I hope he fails,” Weigel cracked to fellow liberal reporters on the “Journolist” email list-serv.

“Too soon?” he wondered.

Weigel was hired this spring by the Post to cover the conservative movement. Almost from the beginning there have been complaints that his coverage betrays a personal animus toward conservatives.  E-mails obtained by the Daily Caller suggest those complaints have merit.

“Honestly, it’s been tough to find fresh angles sometimes–how many times can I report that these [tea party] activists are joyfully signing up with the agenda of discredited right-winger X and discredited right-wing group Y?” Weigel lamented in one February email.

In other posts, Weigel describes conservatives as using the media to “violently, angrily divide America.” According to Weigel, their motives include “racism” and protecting “white privilege,” and for some of the top conservatives in D.C., a nihilistic thirst for power.

“There’s also the fact that neither the pundits, nor possibly the Republicans, will be punished for their crazy outbursts of racism. Newt Gingrich is an amoral blowhard who resigned in disgrace, and Pat Buchanan is an anti-Semite who was drummed out of the movement by William F. Buckley. Both are now polluting my inbox and TV with their bellowing and minority-bashing. They’re never going to go away or be deprived of their soapboxes,” Weigel wrote.

Of Matt Drudge, Weigel remarked,  “It’s really a disgrace that an amoral shut-in like Drudge maintains the influence he does on the news cycle while gay-baiting, lying, and flubbing facts to this degree.”

In April, Weigel wrote that the problem with the mainstream media is “this need to give equal/extra time to ‘real American’ views, no matter how fucking moronic, which just so happen to be the views of the conglomerates that run the media and/or buy up ads.”

Daniel Foster at The Corner:

After making a number of disparaging comments about elements of the Right — including Ron Paul supporters, gay marriage opponents, and fellow blogger Matt Drudge — on a private listserv called “Journolist,” Washington Post blogger Dave Weigel has reportedly resigned this morning.

UPDATE: Early word is that Weigel will be heading to the Huffington Post.

UPDATE II: The HuffPo talk now seems premature. Weigel was seen at the blog’s DC offices today, but it was apparently a social call.

Also, Daily Caller has a bunch of new e-mails from Weigel, disparaging everybody from Rush Limbaugh to Newt Gingrich. I hadn’t seen these yet because the DC‘s servers had been down for much of the morning.

Jeffrey Goldberg:

The liberal blogger Dave Weigel, who was hired by The Post to cover the conservative movement, has resigned, after advising Matt Drudge on a semi-public forum for leftish commentators to set himself on fire. Put aside the controversy over whether the Post, which was advised by its star blogger, Ezra Klein (who once advised parties unknown, via his Twitter account, to “fuck tim russert. fuck him with a spiky acid-tipped dick”) that Weigel would do an excellent and balanced job of reporting on conservatives, even understood that it was hiring a liberal, and not a conservative (Ben Smith has more on this aspect of the controversy), the issue in the newsroom today is, How did the Post come to this?

“How could we destroy our standards by hiring a guy stupid enough to write about people that way in a public forum?” one of my friends at the Post asked me when we spoke earlier today. “I’m not suggesting that many people on the paper don’t lean left, but there’s leaning left, and then there’s behaving like an idiot.”

I gave my friend the answer he already knew: The sad truth is that the Washington Post, in its general desperation for page views, now hires people who came up in journalism without much adult supervision, and without the proper amount of toilet-training. This little episode today is proof of this. But it is also proof that some people at the Post (where I worked, briefly, 20 years ago) still know the difference between acceptable behavior and unacceptable behavior, and that maybe this episode will lead to the reimposition of some level of standards.

Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic responds to Goldberg:

Mr. Goldberg and I are in agreement that Mr. Weigel showed poor judgment in emails he sent to a listserv for liberal Washington DC journalists. The indiscretion is something that most journalists I know would guard against, and I also found objectionable his suggestion that links should be withheld from The Washington Examiner as retaliation for a mean-spirited item written by one of its gossip columnists. Links ought to be afforded on the basis of merit, full stop.

But the main “stupidity” on display here is that Mr. Weigel trusted the members of an avowedly private forum to keep his rants off-the-record, as advertised. In others words, he trusted his colleagues too much, and that isn’t a flaw that should disqualify someone from being a reporter, nor should the fact that they have strong, occasionally intemperate opinions, as do we all.

Do we really want to establish a standard whereby the worthiness of a journalist is measured by whether or not he has controversial opinions? Or how adept he is at concealing those opinions?

Let me put this another way. There is no opinion Jeffrey Goldberg could offer on an e-mail listserv that would change my high opinion of the magazine stories he has produced over many years. His work is the only standard by which I judge him, and so long as he writes at the level to which I am accustom, I’ll read him regardless. Obviously that isn’t the standard that high profile media corporations use when hiring reporters and writers, and Mr. Goldberg and I probably both feel a responsibility to our various employers to maintain some hard to define level of discretion when writing for public or even semi-private consumption.

I’ll defend to death, however, the proposition that the work of a journalist should be the only standard by which he is measured. Mr. Weigel’s work is superb: he breaks news, his foremost loyalty is to the facts, and he reliably treats fairly even folks with whom he very much disagrees. The conservatives he covers are the biggest losers here. As Ben Boychuck wrote on Twitter, “I find you insufferable, but indispensable. Sorry you resigned. I’ll read you wherever you land, you magnificent bastard.” That should be the reaction of someone who finds what Mr. Weigel wrote to be distasteful.

Let’s examine the implications of the standard that The Washington Post is actually employing here, and that most newspaper companies would also employ.

— In the excerpt above, Mr. Goldberg quotes an anonymous Washington Post staffer who, it should be noted, spoke disparagingly of his or her own newspaper in a conversation with a journalist from a competing media company. This source disparaged Dave Weigel, The Post, and the people responsible for hiring him, anonymously. In other words, this source’s very actions imply that he or she knows The Washington Post would look unfavorably on the public airing of this opinion, but decided that lack of discretion isn’t the problem so much as being stupid enough to get caught. Do journalists really want to help establish a standard whereby “stupidity” equals transparency?

— Firing Dave Weigel incentivizes more digging into the personal opinions of journalists, and validates the idea that they should be judged on the basis of those opinions, rather than the content of their work. What’s next? E-mails sent to a few people and leaked? Opinions offered at a bar over beers and surreptitiously recorded? Can I reiterate how glad I am to have moved away from Washington DC? (You should hear what I say about De Beers in private!)

— Mr. Goldberg suggests that this episode might “lead to the re-imposition of some level of standards” at The Washington Post, suggesting that the newspaper’s problem is that it employs people like Ezra Klein and Dave Weigel, who’ve exercised poor judgment in writing intended for a private audience. I submit that seeing these two staffers — who are intellectually honest and talented, whatever their flaws — as the problem at The Post is to miss the Mark Theissen for the trees.

Oops, Freudian slip. What I mean to say is that The Washington Post publishes many talented writers at the tops of their games — Gene Weingarten, I’d give half of what I own if I could clone you — but its most egregious flaw is confusing what actually consists of inexcusably poor judgment. To be more specific, by firing Dave Weigel, and continuing to employ columnists like Marc Thiessen, the Post is saying that it is inexcusably poor judgment to utter honestly held, intemperate opinions if they wind up being made public, but it is perfectly acceptable to write an intellectually dishonest, error-filled book on the subject of your main expertise, and to publish columns of the same quality.

Mr. Goldberg and I agree that Dave Weigel showed poor judgment, but by holding him up as the poster child for declining standards at The Washington Post, as opposed to other more deserving targets, the inescapable message is that the quality of a journalist’s actual work for publication matters less than the public image he is able to project. As far as I know, Mr. Thiessen has never said anything intemperate on a semi-private listserv. Apparently that is what’s required if he’s to resign his column — that’s the consequence of a weird standard whereby firings at a newspaper are utterly unconnected to single word actually published in its pages.

More Goldberg:

A couple of people I know and respect have told me that my criticism of Dave Weigel is misplaced; that he tries harder than I thought to be a fair reporter; that he makes mistakes, but everyone makes mistakes. And they’ve provided me with examples of his good reporting. So maybe I’ve made a mistake myself by blogging too fast and too thoughtlessly on this issue. On the other hand, I was repulsed — really repulsed — by his invitation to Matt Drudge to kill himself. I despise violent keyboard-cowboyism, and not only because I’ve received various invitations over the years to kill myself, or let myself be killed, because I’m a supporter of Israel, or because I support the Kurds in their struggle against Saddam, or because I supported the invasion of Iraq (mainly because I’m a supporter of Israel, actually).In any case, I wanted to say this now, and with any luck I’ll return to this subject later.

Ross Douthat:

Set aside the fact that Weigel — who’s actually a left-tilting libertarian rather than a liberal partisan — really is a good reporter, good enough and fair enough to have a number of conservative bloggers rallying to his defense, or at least speaking well of his reporting. The more important point is that no journalistic standard was violated by firing off intemperate e-mails to what’s supposed to be a private e-mail list. Maybe Weigel should have known better than to trust the people on JournoList, and I can certainly understand why once the e-mails were leaked, his ability to cover the conservative movement would be compromised, and a parting of the ways with The Post might seem necessary. But if hitting “send” on pungent e-mails that you assume will be kept private is a breach of journalistic ethics, then there isn’t an ethical journalist in the English-speaking world.  The real story here isn’t Weigel’s public embarrassment — it’s the shame of FishbowlDC for publishing private correspondence, and the disgrace of JournoList for harboring at least one would-be career wrecker. The only decent response is to disband the email list — and to his credit, its founder is doing exactly that.

Jim Geraghty at NRO:

Somebody on Journo-List didn’t like Dave Weigel and decided to publish his most furious and incendiary remarks that he thought — unwisely — that he was expressing in confidence. (At least I hope these were his most furious and incendiary remarks; what could top these? “I’m going to deafen David Brooks with a vuvuzela”?) So what else is on there that, if revealed, could make life difficult for Ezra Klein or Jeffrey Toobin or Paul Krugman or Ben Smith or Mike Allen? Or is the idea that as long as they stay in line, they’ll never have some remark they regret publicized to the world? Did Journo-List evolve into a massive blackmail scheme that ensures no one inside the club will ever speak ill of another member?

Liz Mair

Bruce Bartlett:

Apparently, Dave Weigel has been forced out over some utterly trivial e-mail rants that were published by some shameless idiot. Speculation is that the Post didn’t want a thinking conservative who cared more about facts than the party line, but would rather have some whack-job Glenn Beck wannabe representing the conservative position on the Post web site. I am canceling have canceled my subscription to the Post.

Ezra Klein:

I began Journolist in February of 2007. It was an idea born from disagreement. Weeks, or maybe months, earlier, I had criticized Time’s Joe Klein over some comments he made about the Iraq War. He e-mailed a long and searching reply, and the subsequent conversation was educational for us both. Taking the conversation out of the public eye made us less defensive, less interested in scoring points. I learned about his position, and why he held it, in ways that I wouldn’t have if our argument had remained in front of an audience.

The experience crystallized an idea I’d been kicking around for some time. I was on all sorts of e-mail lists, but none that quite got at the daily work of my job: Following policy and political trends in both the expert community and the media. But I always knew how much I was missing. There were only so many phone calls I could make in a day. There were only so many times when I knew the right question to ask. By not thinking of the right person to interview, or not asking the right question when I got them on the phone, or not intuiting that an economist would have a terrific take on the election, I was leaving insights on the table.

That was the theory behind Journolist: An insulated space where the lure of a smart, ongoing conversation would encourage journalists, policy experts and assorted other observers to share their insights with one another. The eventual irony of the list was that it came to be viewed as a secretive conspiracy, when in fact it was always a fractious and freewheeling conversation meant to open the closed relationship between a reporter and his source to a wider audience.

At the beginning, I set two rules for the membership. The first was the easy one: No one who worked for the government in any capacity could join. The second was the hard one: The membership would range from nonpartisan to liberal, center to left. I didn’t like that rule, but I thought it necessary: There would be no free conversation in a forum where people had clear incentives to embarrass each other. A bipartisan list would be a more formal debating society. Plus, as Liz Mair notes, there were plenty of conservative list servs, and I knew of military list servs, and health-care policy list servs, and feminist list servs. Most of these projects limited membership to facilitate a particular sort of conversation. It didn’t strike me as a big deal to follow their example.

But over the years, Journolist grew, and as it grew, its relative exclusivity became more infamous, and its conversations became porous. The leaks never bothered me, though. What I didn’t expect was that a member of the list, or someone given access by a member of the list, would trawl through the archives to assemble a dossier of quotes from one particular member and then release them to an interested media outlet to embarrass him. But that’s what happened to David Weigel. Private e-mails were twisted into a public story.


It was ironic, in a way, that it would be the Daily Caller that published e-mails from Journolist. A few weeks ago, its editor, Tucker Carlson, asked if he could join the list. After asking other members, I said no, that the rules had worked so far to protect people, and the members weren’t comfortable changing them. He tried to change my mind, and I offered, instead, to partner with Carlson to start a bipartisan list serv. That didn’t interest him.

In any case, Journolist is done now. I’ll delete the group soon after this post goes live. That’s not because Journolist was a bad idea, or anyone on it did anything wrong. It was a wonderful, chaotic, educational discussion. I’m proud of having started it, grateful to have participated in it, and I have no doubt that someone else will re-form it, with many of the same members, and keep it going. Hopefully, it will lose some of its mystique in the process, and be understood more for what it is: One of many e-mail lists where people talk about things they’re interested in. But insofar as the current version of Journolist has seen its archives become a weapon, and insofar as people’s careers are now at stake, it has to die.

As for Dave, I’m heartbroken that he resigned from The Post. Dave is an extraordinary reporter, and a dear friend. When this is done, there will be a different name on his paychecks, but he will still be an extraordinary reporter, and a dear friend.

James Joyner:

It’s a shame that Dave, who most agree is a rising star, had to pay such a high price for some indiscreet emails, especially since a fellow journalist violated his confidentiality.   One suspects, and I certainly hope, that he’ll land on his feet soon.  My guess is that Reason or the Washington Independent, both of which are much more openly ideological publications than WaPo, will happily take him back.

You know who would be a good replacement for him at the Right Now blog?  David Petraeus.

UPDATE: Julian Sanchez at Megan McArdle’s place

Philip Klein at The American Spectator

Tyler Cowen

James Wolcott

Foster Kamer at The Village Voice

Weigel himself at Big Government

Greg Sargent responds to Goldberg

Goldberg responds to Sargent

Matt Welch at Reason

Matt Steinglass at DiA at The Economist

UPDATE #2: Greg Marx at Columbia Journalism Review

Andy Barr at Politico

UPDATE #3: David Carr at NYT

Matthew Yglesias


UPDATE #4: Weigel in Esquire

Charles Johnson at LGF


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Give Your Blog Posts Some Ritalin

John Hudson at The Atlantic with the round-up.

Nick Carr:

A few years back, my friend Steve Gillmor, the long-time technology writer and blogger, went on a crusade against the hyperlink. He stopped putting links into his posts and other online writings. I could never quite understand his motivation, and the whole effort struck me as quixotic and silly. I mean, wasn’t the hyperlink the formative technology of the entire World Wide Web? Wasn’t the Web a hypermedia system, for crying out loud?

My view has changed. I’m still not sure what Gillmor was up to, but I now have a great deal of sympathy for his crusade. In fact, I’m beginning to think I should have joined up instead of mocking it.

Links are wonderful conveniences, as we all know (from clicking on them compulsively day in and day out). But they’re also distractions. Sometimes, they’re big distractions – we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read. Other times, they’re tiny distractions, little textual gnats buzzing around your head. Even if you don’t click on a link, your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up a bunch of neurons to decide whether to click or not. You may not notice the little extra cognitive load placed on your brain, but it’s there and it matters. People who read hypertext comprehend and learn less, studies show, than those who read the same material in printed form. The more links in a piece of writing, the bigger the hit on comprehension.

The link is, in a way, a technologically advanced form of a footnote. It’s also, distraction-wise, a more violent form of a footnote. Where a footnote gives your brain a gentle nudge, the link gives it a yank. What’s good about a link – its propulsive force – is also what’s bad about it.

I don’t want to overstate the cognitive penalty produced by the hyperlink (or understate the link’s allure and usefulness), but the penalty seems to be real, and we should be aware of it. In The Shallows, I examine the hyperlink as just one element among many – including multimedia, interruptions, multitasking, jerky eye movements, divided attention, extraneous decision making, even social anxiety – that tend to promote hurried, distracted, and superficial thinking online. To understand the effects of the Web on our minds, you have to consider the cumulative effects of all these features rather than just the effects of any one individually.

Marshall Kirkpatrick at ReadWriteWeb:

Inline references allow a reader to explore, to look under the covers of a train of thought, to familiarize themselves with something casually referenced, in the middle of reading. It’s good to point at things sometimes, maybe even often. (In some cases, the writing on a site can be so bad that readers just want to find a link to whatever the blogger has discovered and leave to see it for themselves. I hope we always add more value than that here.)

I often advise new writers on our staff to place links inline with the reader’s mental voice and vocal emphasis in mind. Imagine that a link is like a chorus of angels singing – the words you link are going to be underlined and appear in a different color after all – and make those angels sing at just the right time in the sentence. Maybe those are little devils, though, and not angels after all.

I like to add links out to other sources at every opportunity in order to enrich what I’m writing, to broaden the conversation, and frankly because I think linking to other blogs is a good faith way to encourage other blogs to link to us. To act as if our blog is the only place online to learn about what’s important is the height of arrogance and a real disservice to readers. Internal linking is good business practice, but I think a balance is best.

Search indexing is largely powered by links, and the words linked inline are key. That’s a tough one. Links between documents are the foundation of much of the most innovative analysis being done online, but maybe those links could just be placed well away from a body of text.

Few of those other reasons for linking require that it be done in the body of the text, though. Most major blogs that put links in the footer of a post appear to do so as a formality, just to acknowledge debt to another blog but in the least likely way that readers would click off site to visit those other sources.

Mathew Ingram:

I could also link to a piece by Fred Wilson, a web native if there ever was one, about the “power of passed links,” in which he argues that links are the currency of the web. Like Nick’s criticism of links, currency can get in the way in our lives as well — it not only makes our pockets heavy with change, but it warps people’s minds in all sorts of ways. And yet, we couldn’t very well do without it. But links aren’t just useful to readers — I think adding them is also an exercise in intellectual discipline for the writer.

As I mentioned to a number of other people who were discussing Nick’s piece, including Chris Anderson and Vadim Lavrusik, I think not including links (which a surprising number of web writers still don’t) is in many cases a sign of intellectual cowardice. What it says is that the writer is unprepared to have his or her ideas tested by comparing them to anyone else’s, and is hoping that no one will notice. In other cases, it’s a sign of intellectual arrogance — a sign that the writer believes these ideas sprang fully formed from his or her brain, like Athena from Zeus’s forehead, and have no link to anything that another person might have thought or written. Either way, getting rid of links is a failure on the writer’s part.

As I said in a comment on Nick’s post, I fully expect his next move will be to remove links of any kind — and then to ban comments as well, as “thinkers” such as Seth Godin have, since they just get in the way of all that pure thought. And then, perhaps, Nick will finally decide that the internet itself is rather over-rated, and will retreat to his books, where no one can argue with him. And that would be a shame, because arguing with him is such fun.

Ryan Chittum at Columbia Journalism Review:

The distracted-by-links thing has long been an annoyance for me—particularly when they’re not specifically selected links. For instance, here are a few paragraphs from a New York Times column today:

Think about reading a newspaper pre-Web that decided it wanted to turn a few words blue here and there. Isn’t that in itself distracting? Now think about how many times you jump in and out of a story to follow some link. It can’t not be distracting.

It’s not a trivial question to ask what the Internet is doing to our attention spans. I know mine, for one, is shot to hell. And my suspicion (totally unproven and based only on personal observation!) is that you scan more than you read on the Internet. With a printed publication, you read more than you do on the Web. Why is that? Well, you’re not distracted by hypertext for one.

Reading on the Web takes more self-discipline than it does offline. How many browser tabs do you have open right now? How many are from links embedded in another piece your were reading and how many of them will you end up closing without reading since you don’t have the time to read Everything On the Internets? The analog parallel would be your New Yorker pile, but even that—now matter how backed up—has an endpoint.

Links add another dimension to a story when used well for context, sourcing, and reference. They’re extremely valuable and a critical part of the value that the Internet brings. But some people are better linkers than others. Look at that New York Times screen capture above. Every one of those links takes you to a topic page rather than something specifically relevant to the point in the text. That’s not worth the distraction of the links.

Babbage at The Economist:

Mr Carr’s suggestion that this is not a bad idea has prompted responses from several web gurus: Jay Rosen at NYU has accused him of wanting to “unbuild the web”; Jeff Jarvis claims that Mr Carr’s post is, ironically, linkbait (insert joke about pots, kettles and the colour black here); and Mathew Ingram gives a robust defence of the link:

I think not including links (which a surprising number of web writers still don’t) is in many cases a sign of intellectual cowardice. What it says is that the writer is unprepared to have his or her ideas tested by comparing them to anyone else’s, and is hoping that no one will notice. In other cases, it’s a sign of intellectual arrogance — a sign that the writer believes these ideas sprang fully formed from his or her brain, like Athena from Zeus’s forehead, and have no link to anything that another person might have thought or written. Either way, getting rid of links is a failure on the writer’s part.

Fair enough. But I have to confess that I have some sympathy for Mr Carr’s view. I don’t mind piles of links in sidebars, but I find links in text can be irritating if there are too many of them. Of course, it makes sense to link to sources, but links also invite the reader to go away and read something else, and they can imply that the item you are reading can only be understood by reading all the references. At The Economist we do our best to write articles that are self-contained and make sense without the need to refer to other sources, which leads to some characteristic Economist style quirks, such as saying “Ford, a carmaker”. (See? We saved you the trouble of having to ask Google what the company does.) When those articles are published online, there are very rarely hyperlinks in the body of the text.

Admittedly, the advent of browsers with tabs means a link is less of an invitation to go elsewhere than it used to be, because you can open up lots of background tabs while you read without interruption. But I wonder what proportion of the web population actually does this. Anyway, having chortled (via Twitter) at Ms Miller’s idea of a list of links, footnote-like, at the end of the article, I feel the least I can do is give it a try. So here are the links. What do you think? Is this approach less distracting? Should we include more links in the text of our articles? Are we being arrogant, or cowardly, by not doing so?

Felix Salmon:

I’m sympathetic, in theory, to the whole issue of placing extra cognitive load on the brain. I have found myself of late using the Readability plugin a lot when I’m not reading text directly in my RSS reader. I’ve even been known to throw a minor diva fit with the style police at Reuters, who at one point insisted on turning every reference to the US into a reference to the U.S. That was something I hated, because I consider that placing a period in the middle of a sentence is a crime against readability: it draws you up short for no good reason.

I also dislike hyperlinks which give no indication of what they’re linking to (yes, Balk, I’m looking at you). It’s rude to make me click on links to understand what you’re saying, as though you’re still writing for Suck circa 1996. We’ve all grown up, at least a little, since then.

But for all that, links belong in hypertext. Indeed, they’re integral to it. Without links, blogs cease to be a part of the conversation and become instead essays with footnotes, a bit like Wikipedia articles. (And even Wikipedia, which puts links at the end of its articles, also makes very clear exactly which bit of the text each link is linking from.)

A blog entry with links at the bottom has aspirations to being self-contained, like say a newspaper column: the links are optional extras. I never have such aspirations and anybody looking to make full use of the power of the internet is doing themselves a huge disservice if they start thinking that way. In these days of tabbed browsing, there’s a difference between clicking and clicking away: most of us, I’m sure, control-click many times per day while reading something interesting, letting tabs accumulate in the background as we find interesting citations we want to read later.

Someone writing online should no more put their links at the end of their essay than a university professor should first give the lecture and then run through the slides. It makes no logical sense, and it does no good for the consumer of the information. So let’s nip this meme in the bud, and encourage the likes of Barry Ritholtz to always put their links where they belong, in the text, not buried at the bottom of the blog entries, where they’re easy to miss, or where they’d just pile up cacophonously if there were many of them.

Andrew Sullivan

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“I’m Predicting It’ll Be At Least As Successful As Arianna’s Last Campaign For Governor And You Can Quote Me On That.” -Ned Rice, National Review Online, May 25, 2005

Robert Greenwald at Huffington Post:

And what a wonderful birthday party it is, for an extraordinary five years of the Huffington Post! It’s time to celebrate, with birthday hats, cake, noisemakers – especially the noisemakers, to pay tribute to an organization that’s been making plenty of noise since its inception five years ago.

Think back to those sad and lonely days when we didn’t have the Huffington Post to help us, educate us, lift our spirits up and energize us. Who would ever have imagined that five years later, we would have something that surpassed the Drudge Report by a thousand miles, with much more traffic, original reporting, more political impact and more fun. With real facts and actual reporting.

And Arianna rose to the challenge. Ignored the naysayers, won over those who were sure it would fail, and has built something unique and long lasting.

Watching the changes, improvements, and additions to the Huffington Post in the five years since then has been a thrill and an inspiration.

With National Editor Nico Pitney and a great group of news editors finding the most interesting and engaging content, the site’s impact just grows and grows.

Star reporters such as Sam Stein, Ryan Grim, Arthur Delaney, and Dan Froomkin proved that digging, probing, and asking the questions that weren’t being asked could pay off, big-time. As evidence, consider that exciting moment when Sam was called on at a press briefing by President Obama. Talk about coming a long way in a short time!

Columbia Journalism Review has five articles on HuffPo

Liz Cox Barrett at CJR:

What is a birthday without being reminded of what you were like when you were first born, according to some of your peevish relatives (the ones who always knew you’d amount to nothing)?

And so, below, some (very) early media reactions to the birth of The Huffington Post. Or, the Top 5 UNENTHUSIASTIC HuffPo Reviews of 2005 (NO PHOTOS).

1. Nikki Finke, LA Weekly, May 12, 2005, “Celebs to the Slaughter: Why Arianna’s Blog Blows.”


Judging from Monday’s horrific debut of the humongously pre-hyped celebrity blog the Huffington Post, the Madonna of the mediapolitic world has undergone one reinvention too many. She has now made an online ass of herself. What her bizarre guru-cult association, 180-degree right-to-left conversion, and failed run in the California gubernatorial-recall race couldn’t accomplish, her blog has now done: She is finally played out publicly. This website venture is the sort of failure that is simply unsurvivable. Her blog is such a bomb that it’s the movie equivalent of Gigli, Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate rolled into one. In magazine terms, it’s the disastrous clone of Tina Brown’s Talk, JFK Jr.’s George or Maer Roshan’s . No matter what happens to Huffington, it’s clear Hollywood will suffer the consequences. It seems like some sick hoax…

“The Internet Newspaper” has its charms, but “Making an online ass of herself…” since 2005 might also look striking under the green Huffington Post logo.

2. Ned Rice, National Review Online, May 25, 2005, “The Drudgery Report”


Arianna pitched this latest elaborate ploy to write off her cocktail parties as a business expense in terms of it being a “group blog,” which is another way of calling it a personal journal-by-committee with all the charm, originality and integrity that that implies. Others describe it as a virtual think tank, although judging from what “The Huffington Post” has trotted out so far it feels mostly like a groupthink tank. … I’m predicting it’ll be at least as successful as Arianna’s last campaign for governor and you can quote me on that.

In 2003, Huffington received 47,505 votes for governor. In March 2010, according to Nielsen Online, The Huffington Post had 13 million unique visitors.

3. Cal Thomas, Tribune Media Services, May 13, 2005, “The Blog That Ate Real Journalism”


The Huffington Post, an Internet blog that debuted May 9 after a campaign that would have delighted P.T. Barnum, makes me nostalgic for the good old days of journalism. It isn’t that its founder, Arianna Huffington…doesn’t have every right to join the increasingly clogged blog superhighway…

The problem with blogs such as The Huffington Post is that they divert our attention from real and serious journalism…

With blogs, we do not know if what we read is true. For most blogs, no editor checks for factual errors and no one is restrained from editorializing… Blogs have no checks and balances.

I suspect – and hope – that once the bloom is off the blogs, serious people (and they seem to be an endangered species) might still crave real journalism and be able to remember what it looked and sounded like.

The problem with blogs such as Cal Thomas’s is that they consist of the authors’ (presumably factual-error-free) syndicated newspaper columns re-configured to look sort of blog post-ish.

Clint Hendler at CJR:

I don’t love the prime element behind Huffington Post’s business model: the army of unpaid writers whose work generates traffic to subsidize a small group of editors and reporters. But no one forces anyone to write for free, and The Huffington Post can plausibly claim that the writers get some intangibles—exposure and a small amount of cachet among them. That someone would centralize and harness for their own profit a pool of writers who could have started their own unpaid blogs was a smart, if inevitable, move. And once you start to talk in terms of the inevitable, it becomes hard to blame those who merely recognized the opportunity.

So it is with their repackaging of news that’s reported elsewhere. It may feel unseemly to see the salient points of an article reproduced at the Huffington Post site with a bare link, and little incentive for the reader to click through. But repackaging someone else’s reporting for your own profit, without payment, was not invented by The Huffington Post, nor any other Internet site. Think of all the warmed-over stories that make the grist of local radio. Nightly affiliate news programs have long feasted on reporting done by newspapers. The Huffington Post has mostly just updated the practice for the Internet age.

And finally, perhaps it’s a minor point, but I ought to mentin the endless parade of sleaze—nip slips, boob tape, bikini shots—pushed out by the site. This is not content that would go in your father’s sober-minded newspaper, and sometimes I have difficulty taking the best content at the site seriously, knowing that Celebrity Skin is just a vertical away. But what about your father’s television network? Have we ever judged local TV news reporters by the fact that their station also ran Baywatch? The national networks for sharing their airwaves with the worst of reality TV? The newspapers who tell you the truth on the front page, and sell you the lie of a horoscope inside?

Ryan Chittum at CJR:

Let’s get it out of the way up top that I think The Huffington Post is a mess—a schizophrenic, mostly unreadable hunk of tabloid journalism leavened with serious stuff.

I mean, where else can you read a droning missive on the BP oil spill by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, helpfully identified as “Spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide,” on the same screen as “Lawrence Taylor RAPE Arrest: NFL Legend ARRESTED For Attacking Teenager” and “Elisabeth Hasselbeck SLAMS Erin Andrews’ Clothing, Excuses Stalker”?

Eyeballs JARRED. Reader GOOGLY-EYED After Reading HuffPo.

And I wouldn’t blame you if you hadn’t looked at the site in a year, and thought it was still just a mix of celebrity op-eds and tabloid junk.

But that’s a superficial (if understandable) read these days. In the space I cover, the business press, the site has been doing some serious reporting lately.

Zero in on Shahien Nasiripour’s work, which has quickly become a must-read for anyone covering the financial crisis or who’s just curious about it. Last month, I noted how his coverage of a congressional hearing far surpassed that of, ahem, more august outfits like The New York Times and The Washington Post:

The Huffington Post, the Times, and the Post were all at the same hearing, and only the HuffPo came out with the news.That’s a single instance, but it was important news. The head of mortgage lending for Bank of America came out in support of cramdown, which would allow bankruptcy judges to lower the principal on underwater mortgages.

Kevin Drum:

HuffPo does do a fair amount of very good reporting on business and financial reform issues. It requires a seemingly endless stream of flotsam and jetsam to subsidize all this, but hey — you’ve got to subsidize it somehow. If you’re not the Wall Street Journal, covering this stuff just doesn’t pay.

I suppose this kind of tabloidy mashup of salacious trivia with serious reporting might be a model for the future. Not the one we all had in mind when news first started going online, but it wouldn’t be the first time the human race was surprised by what ended up working and what didn’t.

Hamilton Nolan at Gawker:

CJR celebrates with five pieces on the online dynamo that is The Huffington Post, the site that proved that liberals on the internet are just as dumb as Republicans on the internet, comment-wise. I sure thought it was a dumb idea when it launched, but boy oh boy have I been proven wrong. America cannot get enough of popular celeb friend Arianna Huffington. She sows, we all reap!

Mike Shields at Mediaweek:

The Huffington Post has enjoyed meteoric traffic growth since launching five years ago, and buzz to match. Now it’s time for the site’s business side to catch up.

Industry veteran Greg Coleman, who became the site’s chief revenue officer last September, said the goal is to double HuffPo’s revenue this year and next—a goal he expects to exceed in 2010 (publisher reports put the site’s 2009 revenue at $15 million).

Since being hired, Coleman has brought on 18 experienced sales executives who have helped land dollars from General Electric, Siemens, Mercedes, HP, and most recently IBM and Discovery. But HuffPo is still under the radar at some agencies, despite reaching 22 million unique users in April.

“We have world-class editorial [and] world-class technology, but our ad sales operation is virtually a startup,” said Coleman. Upon arriving, he found a small sales team with little experience and no syndicated research. “The way business was conducted in the past, we’d wait for RFPs to come in. That was it. What we are doing [now] is introducing the brand to a lot of people.”

According to CEO Eric Hippeau, HuffPo will be profitable in 2010 for the first time. Until recently, “we’ve been in investment mode,” he said.

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What We’ll Never Know We’ll Never Know

Max Fisher at The Atlantic with the round-up:

The longest-running political battle of 2008, the Democratic presidential primary fight between Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, cemented Obama’s more sweeping presidential victory that November. But what if it had worked out differently, with Clinton defeating Obama in the primary and, quite possibly, going on to win the presidency? There are many ways that a President Hillary Clinton might have governed differently, but writers are focusing on health care reform. How would Clinton’s second stab at reforming the health care system have gone as president?

Bruce Bartlett in Forbes:

I wrote a couple of columns in 2007 telling conservatives that they really should consider lending some support to Clinton if they believed, as I did, that Obama was much more liberal than her and that whoever won the Democratic primary would probably win the general election (see here and here). After the first one, Pat Toomey of the Club for Growth (and now Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania) said publicly that I was crazy.

Let’s fast-forward. Obama won the Democratic nomination over Clinton, easily beat Republican John McCain in the general election and has indeed governed as a liberal in office–at least on domestic issues. Clinton became his secretary of State.

Interestingly, contrary to the expectations of most conservatives and liberals, Obama’s foreign policy has been very consistent with that of George W. Bush‘s. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are still being prosecuted–the latter with even more vigor than under Bush; the prison at Guantanamo Bay is still open for business; the Patriot Act has been renewed by Congress with White House support; and Obama is regularly berated by left-wing bloggers for failing to implement a more liberal foreign policy agenda and essentially fulfilling Bush’s third term.

Many conservatives credit Secretary of State Clinton for this favorable (from their point of view) state of affairs. Right-wing foreign policy experts like Robert Kagan publicly praise the bipartisanship of Obama’s foreign policy. And James A. Baker, who served as secretary of State for George H.W. Bush, recently said that he agreed with the overwhelming majority of what the Obama administration is doing in foreign affairs.

So would conservatives have been better off following my advice and helping Hillary Clinton to get the Democratic nomination, rather than futilely wasting their efforts on McCain, Mitt Romney and other Republican candidates who could not win and were considered far from ideal from a conservative point of view anyway? (McCain was always sticking his finger in the eye of conservatives before 2008, and Romney imposed a health care reform in Massachusetts almost identical to the one later adopted by Obama.)

I think the evidence suggests that Hillary Clinton could have won the Democratic nomination with just a little bit more support, and probably would be governing significantly more conservatively than Obama. For one thing, given her disastrous experience with health care reform in 1993-1994, it’s reasonable to assume that she would have stayed away from that issue at all costs.

Kevin Drum:

Well, we’ll never know, will we? But my guess is just the opposite. I think Hillary was, if anything, more dedicated to healthcare reform than Obama, and I think she would have taken it on more vigorously than he did. What’s more, my guess is that her better feel for the Senate and past failure with healthcare reform would have made her more effective at getting a package passed. It probably would have looked about the same as what we got (her position during the campaign was similar to Obama’s and most of the work was done by Congress anyway), but I suspect that she would have been a little more aggressive about pushing it through more quickly. Contra Bruce, we might have gotten healthcare reform last fall instead of last month.

But! Who knows? Maybe the economy would have spooked her. Maybe Bill would have convinced her to wait until 2011. Maybe the townhall madness of summer would have stopped her short. But I think the conservative myth of the allegedly principle-less, endlessly calculating Hillary has led Bruce astray here.

Jonathan Chait at TNR:

I’m not sure Clinton would have “stayed away” from health care reform — the issue was the centerpiece of her domestic platform, and it would have been costly to simply abandon it from the outset. I do believe, though, that any significant adversity would probably have caused her to retreat. In the wake of Scott Brown’s victory, her chief political strategist, Mark Penn, urged Democrats to abandon health care reform. (“Break it down and start with the easy stuff like electronic medical records first and work up to the harder parts year after year.”) That’s probably the sort of strategy Clinton would have followed if she had won.

Greg Marx at Columbia Journalism Review:

Bartlett’s claims about Clinton’s relative conservatism aren’t limited to health care. But his assertion that she wouldn’t have pushed forward on that issue in particular is off base for a number of reasons. The first, as Drum points out, is that it rests on a view of her as uniquely “principle-less [and] endlessly calculating” that is basically a conservative myth. There’s not really any reason to think that she, personally, would not have been just as committed to reform as Obama—or, for that matter, any number of other politicians.

But there’s another factor here, one that’s unrelated to assessing anyone’s moral character. During the 2008 primary, the Democratic Party was strikingly united on policy issues, and one of the issues that united the party was the need to push for health care reform. The candidates produced lengthy plans to demonstrate their commitment to the issue, and the details became the subject of some fairly substantial debate—for awhile, whether or not an “individual mandate” was necessary was actually a running topic. (Clinton’s plan had one; Obama’s—at the time—didn’t.) Having thus promised a broad coalition of supporters that health care would be a top priority—and enjoying, after the election, large congressional majorities with which to press the issue—they couldn’t very well have backed down, even if they wanted to.

Matthew Yglesias:

Of course we’ll never know. But I think the fact that we’re having this conversation at all is an illustration of how bad a job primary campaigns do of accomplishing what activists want them to do. Back during the primary, absolutely everyone I know regarded Clinton as the candidate more committed to health reform. Heck, one of the reasons I voted for Obama is that I thought she was the candidate more committed to health reform—I wanted someone who’d make energy and climate his top domestic priority.

But it turns out that whatever you say about Clinton, Obama was actually really really really really committed to getting a health care bill done. What’s more, the bill he was so committed to getting done was closer to Clinton’s proposal than to his own. So what was accomplished by all those Clinton-Obama debate exchanges? Not much. And it turns out that the main questions that have divided progressives—how important is a public option in the scheme of things and what are the merits of high-stakes brinksmanship as a legislative tactic—are things that weren’t talked about at all over the course of a very long nominating process.

UPDATE: John Sides

Andrew Gelman at Salon

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Pictured Below: MSNBC and Fox News

Terry McDermott at Columbia Journalism Review:

No reasonable person would sincerely deny that Fox has a distinct bias favoring Republicans, and conservative Republicans especially. Even Fox used to admit as much. When he started the network, Ailes was straightforward in talking about his desire to redress what he saw as ideological bias in the mainstream media. He wanted to address the same “silent majority” his old boss Richard Nixon had sought to serve. This is nowhere more apparent than in the guests who appear on the network. On the day in question, other than short video clips of news conferences or other public appearances, Fox didn’t put a single Democrat on the air except as a foil for Republican or Fox commentators.

This appears to be politically motivated, but that could be just an artifact—the content seems political but the primary aim is much more likely commercial. Cable news is not literally a broadcast business, but a narrowcast. At any given moment, there are a relative handful of people (in peak hours less than five million and in non-prime hours half that, out of the U.S. population of 320 million) watching all of these networks combined. American Idol, in contrast, routinely draws 30 million. Although cable news is a comparatively small market, it is a small market with a much larger mindshare, mainly because the media are self-reflective, creating a kind of virtual echo chamber. It is also lucrative. Advertisers want exactly the sort of educated, higher-disposable-income audience news programming tends to attract.

Ailes has proven an extraordinarily acute businessman who has, according to an excellent piece by David Carr and Tim Arango in the January 9 New York Times, turned a fledging news operation that barely existed a decade ago into the runaway market leader in cable news and a profit engine that turns out more than $500 million annually for Rupert Murdoch’s global News Corporation.

Ailes’s most valuable insight was that sharp opinions do not necessarily chase an audience away. In fact, they seem to have created one. There is no worry of offending a broad audience, because there is no broad audience to start with anymore.

It’s worth noting that MSNBC languished in the cable news ratings competition until becoming more sharply opinionated, in that way becoming a left-leaning analog to Fox. It’s highly doubtful this change was due to political considerations. In other ways, though, MSNBC is not a Fox analog at all. Although its overall operation is sharply to the left of Fox, it offers a wider array of guests and doesn’t completely shut out Republicans. Matthews, for example, on the day in question conducted a friendly interview with two Tea Party Republican activists. The existence of Morning Joe, starring outspoken conservative Joe Scarborough, on MSNBC’s morning air offers further evidence.

Ailes, by his programming choices, sees no need to have a liberal counterpart to Scarborough on Fox. Why should he? He’s got the ratings, the money, and a political operation that is nearly pure in its adherence to contemporary populist Republicanism.

Don Suber:

The pattern I see is different from the one he sees. The MSNBC and CNN reporters both buy the government’s contention that it needs to control and tax carbon dioxide emissions because of an eminent threat from carbon dioxide. The Fox News reporter is the only one reporting something that questions the basis of expanding the government’s power.

Terry McDermott is entitled to his opinions but this is little more than a TV review by a guy who does not like Fox News. He prefers CNN.


But the same thing that he complains about — too much opinion and not enough news — is what he indulges in his piece, ending it: “But is [Fox News] an arm of the GOP? Not unless you think Roger Ailes would actually work for Michael Steele. It is more likely the other way around. Steele, in some broader cultural sense, works for Ailes, who is without close contest the most powerful Republican in the country today. The national Republican Party has shrunk to a narrow base with no apparent agenda other than to oppose everything the Obama administration proposes. This extends even to opposing policies Republicans either created or once supported. In explaining these reversals, Republicans frequently say that their changes of position — for example, on deficit-reduction measures that they routinely dismissed when in the majority — owes mainly to changes in national circumstances. But the main circumstance that seems to have changed is their loss of formal power in Washington. This suits Fox perfectly, and gives heft to its self-definition as an insurgency.”

Kevin Drum:

Still, the main point of this paragraph can hardly be emphasized enough: hardly anyone watches cable news. Even in prime time, Fox has a couple million viewers — that’s about 1% of American adults — and the other operations have a million or so. Cable news is a molehill that gets routinely turned into a mountain range because they happen to be talking about the most self-obsessed bunch of gossip hounds in the country: politicians. But the reality is that almost no one is watching. Take away the echo chamber and Glenn Beck would be about as important as a guy on a soapbox in Central Park. Which is basically what he is

Matthew Yglesias:

But the reason it’s hard for political pros in DC to grasp this is that people in Washington are constantly watching cable news. It’s really weird. Obviously there’s no way to make this happen, but I think our politics would get a lot healthier if you could simply prevent anyone from watching it during working hours. People would find out that total ignorance of what’s on TV would leave them about as in touch with their constituents are they are right now since nobody watches cable news. By contrast, outlets that really are influential in terms of determining what people know—things like local broadcast TV news—are never watched by DC political professionals because you can’t see them without living in the local area.


I feel much smarter on days I allow myself to just turn them off, and official Washington would be much smarter if they just turned them off too.

James Joyner:

I think this misses the point.  The vast, vast majority of people simply don’t care about politics.   As George Will is fond of saying, Americans don’t pay much attention to presidential campaigns until after the World Series.  Which is saying something, since most Americans have long since stopped caring about baseball, too.

The people who sit around watching Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN are a small fraction of the population. But they all show up to vote.  More importantly, they’re the folks who organize and influence those who can’t be bothered to care most of the time.

The same’s true, incidentally, of niche shows like Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.”  Nobody’s watching them, either.  Except a large numbers of influencers.

Matt Steinglass at DiA The Economist:

But what’s truly absurd is that those political professionals don’t watch it because they think they’ll learn something substantive. (It is physically impossible to learn anything substantive by watching cable TV news. It’s like trying to grow muscles by drinking Coke.) Rather, they watch it because they think it will keep them in touch with what average Americans are watching.

I heartily applaud the judgment of the great majority of Americans in declining to watch cable TV news. Television is fundamentally a terrible medium for communicating events and public affairs. The demand of keeping a constant narrative flow going in real-time is poorly matched to the way things actually unfold in the world. Back when broadcast TV was the only way to watch documentary video, people put up with the bad narrative-structure fit, because being able to watch people shooting at each other or tsunamis washing away villages is amazing. But now that you can put that video on the internet and make it accessible on demand, either on its own or as part of a well-constructed, coherent story, it’s hard to see why anyone should have to put up with anchorpeople, or with “experts” shouting at each other from tiny split-screen boxes.

Rod Dreher:

When I was at the Dallas Morning News, all of us on the editorial board had TVs on our desks, or at least in our offices. When we first got them, I left mine on CNN all day; a glitch in the cable line into my office meant I couldn’t get Fox or MSNBC. When that was eventually fixed, I tried Fox, but got tired of its politicized slant on the news. Eventually, I just turned off the TV entirely, because it was repeating the same stuff all day long, and it was interfering with my ability to pay attention to what I was reading on the Internet. As Steinglass goes on to say, the cable news format cannot bring real understanding to issues as they play out in the real world. The more I would sit at my desk and read stories from newspaper and magazine sites, as well as opinion from bloggers on the left and the right whose views I respected, the more irritated I would get with cable news for oversimplifying everything.

I was at my mom and dad’s house earlier this year, and watched a couple of hours of Fox, which happened to be on. It was ridiculous. It’s not that I disagreed with what I heard (though I did, with some of it) as much as the way the news was framed and presented irritated me, because it seemed to present information, often sexed up, without any real attempt at conveying understanding. The only reasons we had cable TV back in Dallas was so the kids could watch PBS Kids in the mornings, and so cable news would be available to us in the event of some sort of breaking event. When we moved to Philly, we decided against cable TV. I get all my news now either from the morning newspaper, public radio on the drive to and from work, or from the Internet (I’d say 80 percent of it). Not only do I think I’m not missing a thing, I suspect I probably gain in understanding by its lack. Your mileage may vary.

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That’s Deep, Man

Josh Green at The Atlantic:

The culture of Washington reporting has changed in the wake of the Halperin/Heilmann book.

An exchange I had yesterday with an administration source:

Me: “So we’ll do this on deep background, right?”

Them: “Yeah, but not ‘Halperin deep background’–deep background.”

Me: “Right. I can use the info, but if I want to quote I gotta run it by you first.”

Them: “Yes. No book scenes, none of that stuff.”

Me. “Yeah, yeah, I got it.”

Mike Allen and Glenn Thrush in Politico:

Heilemann said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”: “We had a very clear agreement with all those sources that our interviews would be on deep background. … Our ground rules are … that we won’t identify any of our sources as the sources of the material. But we said to them all very clearly that if they put themselves in scenes of the book, if they were uttering dialogue to people in the book in part of a scene, that we would identify them as the utterer of those words.”

Halperin added: “There’s no one we talked to for the book who we burned in any way, or violated any agreement with.”

Politico suggests Reid gave these quotes directly to the reporters. Why did they end up in print? Heilemann, for his part, defended their approach on MSNBC by saying that the reporters told all interviewees that “if they put themselves in scenes of the book, if they were uttering dialogue to people in the book in part of a scene, that we would identify them as the utterer of those words.”

But if Politico is right here, then Reid wasn’t putting himself in a scene. He was speaking directly to the reporters, on “deep background.” The reporters declined to elaborate to Politico exactly what transpired, and I’ve been unable to get them to comment. Meanwhile, other controversial “quotes” in the book are merely paraphrased.

To be clear, there may well be an explanation for what happened with Reid. And producing narrative histories with unclear sourcing in the text is a grand D.C. tradition (see Woodward, Bob). But what’s mystifying is that virtually none of the media figures lavishing attention on this book have broached the sourcing issue, something you’d think would merit a bit of discussion among professional journalists. Discussion of this has been left almost entirely to bloggers.

Hopefully, Politico’s piece will change that.

Glenn Greenwald:

Unjustified anonymity — especially when mindlessly repeating what shielded government sources claim in secret — is the single greatest enabler of false and deceitful “reporting.”  Despite (or, really, because of) its unparalelled record of producing lies, it will never stop, because agreeing to it is how “journalists” end up being selected as favored message-carrying servants for the powerful.  This falsehood-producing method isn’t ancillary to American journalism but central to it; the book which is occupying the attention of America’s political and media class is based exclusively on unattributed, shielded sources, and that seems to bother none of them.

None of the falsehoods documented here will ever lead to any accountability, because the identity of the falsehood-producers will be shielded by their loyal journalist-servants, and the journalists themselves will simply claim that they wrote what they did because their hidden sources told them to.  That’s not only the effect, but the intent, of the central method of American journalism:  to disseminate outright falsehoods to the American public and ensure that neither the liars nor their loyal message-carriers ever face any consequences or even reputational loss.  Anonymity is so common that “reporters” barely even bother any longer to explain why it’s justified, notwithstanding numerous policies of media outlets requiring exactly that explanation.  As the use of anonymity has escalated rapidly, so, too, has the pervasiveness of outright falsehoods and the inherent unreliability of much of what the American media “reports.”  Lying is so much easier — and thus so much more common — when you get to do it while remaining hidden

Jason Linkins at Huffington Post:

More perplexing “ground rules” were offered on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”, where Heilemann said they had told sources “that [they wouldn’t] identify any of our sources as the sources of the material.” However, he added, “we said to them all very clearly that if they put themselves in scenes of the book, if they were uttering dialogue to people in the book in part of a scene, that we would identify them as the utterer of those words.”

I’m not sure how that’s supposed to work! At what point does someone speaking on background suddenly transform into someone who’s actively placing themselves inside a scene in an as-yet-unwritten book? And in this case, there’s no evidence Reid ever said these words to anyone else, so the scene is actually the off-the-record interview itself! It’s too charitable to simply call this shady.

In today’s Politico, Mike Allen and Glenn Thrush write that Reid “chatted freely with the two disarmingly charming book authors who came to his office at the Capitol shortly after the 2008 election…. Reid wasn’t on guard — perhaps because he’d been told by his staff that the meeting would be “off the record,” according to a person with knowledge of the exchange.”

But then comes this bullshit:

In the second-guessing that followed, Capitol Hill veterans said there was no way that such inflammatory words from a Senate majority leader would remain off the record, even if that had been the arrangement.So it’s OK to violate a promise to a source — as long as the quote is really juicy? That is just absurd. Imagine what Mark Halperin would say if a blogger made that argument.

As it happens, some bloggers have been calling for reporters to out their sources in certain cases — not when their quote is particularly juicy, but rather when they’ve flat-out lied behind the cover of anonymity.

Clint Hendler at Columbia Journalism Review

That’s the question facing New York magazine’s John Heilemann and Time’s Mark Halperin, the book’s authors. (And, unfortunately, CJR won’t be able to ask it. Kate Pruss Pinnick, their publicist, says that “the guys are only doing one interview on their methodology”—and it won’t be with us.)

This is a very messy situation, so let’s start by laying out what they’ve said elsewhere about their sourcing agreement, starting with the book’s author’s note:

All of our interviews—from those with junior staffers to those with the candidates themselves—were conducted on a ‘deep background’ basis, which means we agreed not to identify the subjects as sources in any way.It’s helpful that the authors, after introducing the term “deep background,” offer their own definition, because, as is usually the case with attribution standards, there isn’t a universally understood definition of the term.

But their standards seem to be consistent with the following scenario. If Joe Schmoe spoke to them, the substance of his remarks is on the record, but the source of the information is not. He should never find the words “Joe Schmoe told us…” introducing the information he passed on, or the words “Joe Schome told us he said…” introducing a quote. But he could certainly find all the information—even information that a reasonable reader would assume only Joe Schmoe had access to—relayed in minute detail.

It’s not hard to see how this sort of agreement can get very weird, very quickly. Even if the authors never tell you who told them about a scene, it’s hard not to venture an accurate guess. See, for example, New York’s Halperin/Heilemann excerpt on the Edwards meltdown, where the Rielle Hunter-related exploits of Jonathan Brumberger, a young staffer, are detailed alongside his internal monologue, and his one on one interactions with the candidate. Gee, I wonder who talked?

There are some internal thoughts in the paragraph containing the Reid remarks, but context around the Reid quotes make it less clear who passed on his words:

He was wowed by Obama’s oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama—a “light-skinned” African American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,” as he said privately. Reid was convinced, in fact, that Obama’s race would help him more than hurt him in a bid for the Democratic nomination.Given the tenses and phrasing, one likely guess for the source of the quotes would have been someone other than Reid—a staffer, aide, or consultant or some such who heard Reid muse about race as Obama considered or undertook his run.

But on Monday morning Greg Sargent of the Plum Line reported that the majority leader’s office confirmed that the comments were made by Reid himself in an interview with Halperin and Heilemann. Politico’s Mike Allen and Glenn Thrush later reported that the taped interview occurred “shortly after” the election.

While the authors identify the “Negro”-laced comments as having been offered “privately,” which they certainly were, the book doesn’t say to whom they were offered, or when. We now know that, according to Reid’s office, the quotes come from the authors’ first-hand knowledge. But readers, seeing the phrasing on the page, would have no idea of the quote’s source—it could have been, as seemed quite possible on first reading, that Reid offered the observation to someone else, who then passed it on to the authors.

So you see? By not using the words “Reid told us,” they’ve lived up to their (now rather narrow seeming) commitment not to identify the source of any information.

Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic:

Deep background, to me, has always meant that information can be conveyed — but sourcelessly, so I am asking the reader to take it finally on my own authority. Example: if a senior Democratic official had told me that, as I reported earlier, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s IE team had just spent $600,000 on an ad buy in Massachusetts, I could report that as fact without sourcing it to anyone — as long as I was confident it was true. More precisely, as long as I am willing to have my own reputation judged by whether it’s true. (My source for that, incidentally, was NOT a senior Democratic official.) For any matter of consequence, deep background information can’t be stenographic. It’s incumbent upon reporters to check it out thoroughly…to get second sources, to make sure that the stuff is solid.

From the perspective of a source, it allows them to impart information without leaving any fingerprints. The journalist has to be aware of this motivation and take it into account.

Off the record, to me, means off the record. Obviously, telling ANYTHING to a reporter entails the reality that the reporter’s brain will record the information and use it, either to build to something else, or to keep in mind when figuring out what questions to ask.

My favorite off-the-record example to give is my learning, the DAY of the election in 2004, that Elizabeth Edwards had received a positive cancer diagnosis. For a variety of reasons, I agreed to keep this information off the record until the next day. Off the record, in that instance, meant precisely that. In addition to not writing or broadcasting the information, for me it includes an understanding that I will not talk to other people about it. Sometimes, off-the-record information is negotiated to include an embargo, and sometimes it isn’t.

Confusion sets in, though, because some sources conflate “off the record” information with “deep background” information. Sources assume that talking to a reporter carries with it the implication that the reporter will use the information somehow. But off-the-record information can include information that really will never be published — if, say, in the course of reporting about the attack on the CIA base in Khost, reporters learn the name of the chief of station in Afghanistan, and the CIA makes a convincing case that the name of the woman would, upon being published, jeopardize national security (and assuming reporters agree and are willing to abide by this request), then that information truly becomes off-the-record…segregated in one’s mind from any writing endeavor.

So is there a fifth category? Often, sources enter into off the record agreements with reporters knowing full well that reporters are writing books….and that the information imparted to them will only be off the record until the book is published. I call this category “Off The Record ‘Till The Book Is Published.”

So under what rules was Harry Reid operating under when he gave an interview to one of the authors of Game Change? Perhaps he believed that the authors would use the information he was imparting but not quote him directly — even though they would be permitted to attribute the information to him directly. In that case, perhaps Reid expected his conversation with the author to result in a sentence that said something like,

“Reid believed that America was ready for a black president, and it didn’t hurt that Obama was lighter-skinned, or that he talked like a Harvard law professor.”

Or “and that his appeal to a post-partisan, post-racial America was suited to his own bi-racial background and evident ability to operate in both black and white worlds.”

Something like that.

UPDATE: Daniel Drezner

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Russian Cyber Gangs Attack Citi Or At Least That’s What The Wall Street Journal Says

Mark Memmott at NPR:

The two sides of this story couldn’t be further apart:

The Wall Street Journal says it’s been told by unnamed “government officials” that the FBI “is probing a computer-security breach targeting Citigroup Inc. that resulted in a theft of tens of millions of dollars by computer hackers who appear linked to a Russian cyber gang.”

But Citigroup’s Joe Petro, managing director of its Security and Investigative Services, says that “we had no breach of the system and there were no losses, no customer losses, no bank losses. … Any allegation that the FBI is working a case at Citigroup involving tens of millions of losses is just not true.”

Owen Fletcher at PC World:

The Russian Business Network is a well-known group linked to malicious software, hacking, child pornography and spam. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is probing the case, the report said.

It was not known whether the money had been recovered and a Citibank representative said the company had not had any system breach or losses, according to the report.

The report left unclear who the money was stolen from but said a program called Black Energy, designed by a Russian hacker, was one tool used in the attack. The tool can be used to command a botnet, or a large group of computers infected by malware and controlled by an attacker, in assaults meant to take down target Web sites. This year a modified version of the software appeared online that could steal banking information, and in the Citi attack a version tailored to target the bank was used, the Journal said.

John Hudson at The Atlantic has the round-up. Douglas McIntyre at Daily Finance:

The U.S. banking system may be at risk from these cyberattacks, but the financial system may not be their most important target, at least as far as the federal government is concerned. Last July, hackers, probably from North Korea, targeted government websites in the U.S. and South Korea. Computers at the Treasury Department and FTC were shut down briefly.

Programmers are becoming much more sophisticated at breaking into the servers and PCs that run major websites, including those run by the U.S. government. Anti-hacker software is supposed to be well-designed and highly effective, but it appears that is not always the case.

The government and businesses with sensitive information, including banks and defense contractors, are likely to be subject to more and more of these breaches, and there isn’t much evidence to show that all of them can be stopped.

Ryan Chittum at Columbia Journalism Review:

The paper counters that with an explanation of why Citi would lie:

U.S. banks have generally been loath to disclose computer attacks for fear of scaring off customers. In part this is an outgrowth of an experience Citibank had in 1994, when it revealed that a Russian hacker had stolen more than $10 million from customer accounts. Competitors swooped in to try to steal the bank’s largest depositors.You can bet this one was one of the most heavily “lawyered” WSJ stories in a good while. The liability for getting this one wrong would be huge, especially after a flat denial.


It’s rare to see a story like this where the subject denies the very premise of a super-sensitive story and yet the paper goes ahead and writes it anyway.

The WSJ is calling Citigroup a liar. Good for it.

Alain Sherter at Bnet

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It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Correct The Washington Post

From the Washington Post:


Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Nov. 26 article in the District edition of Local Living incorrectly said a Public Enemy song declared 9/11 a joke. The song refers to 911, the emergency phone number.

Rizoh at Rap Up

The embarrassment could’ve been easily avoided had the writer actually listened to “911 Is A Joke” first. I’ve done all the hardwork for them by digging up a music video of the 1989 PE classic. It took me 5 seconds.



Why WaPo Neocons Should Not Write About Hip Hop


Unfortunately the U.S. military had already invaded Public Enemy by the time of this correction.

Michael Scherer at Swampland at Time

John Cook at Gawker (well, the comments):

“The Washington Post would also like to clarify a misstatement published on Nov. 26 in a profile of the actor and musician Will Smith. Mr. Smith was never, in fact, heir to the throne of Bel Air.”

In other news, police were fruitless in their attempts today to recover rapper Q-Tip’s wallet in El Segundo, CA.

Leor Galil:

It’s hard to tell how “911 Is A Joke” fit into the article, as it was immediately removed from the piece. (I have been unable to retrieve the original version of the article.) In any case, this is a major issue considering that song was off a Billboard-topping album released on Mar. 20, 1990 (A Huffington Post piece on the correction incorrectly stated that the album was released on May 26, 1990, which happens to be the date that the album peaked on Billboard at No. 10.) Considering that 1) the album came out 11 years before 9/11 and 2) Public Enemy were at the peak of their fame and notoriety when they dropped Fear of a Black Planet, it’s something of a big error that Dickson mistook a song where Flavor Flav raps about the (lack of) emergency responses in black communities to have something to do with September 11th. Considering the members of Public Enemy are still prominent members of the black community, its a bit reckless to say they made a song declaring 9/11 a joke when there’s plenty of evidence saying otherwise.

So, of course, the correction went viral.

The Daily Swarm posted the correction on its site a day after the correction came out. And then it made the rounds shortly thereafter.

Rachel Maddow tweeted about it.

The Huffington Post had a write up (with an inaccuracy of its own, as I previously mentioned.)

The Washington City Paper had a little post on its Arts Blog.

Techdirt took the Post to task for the error.

The Rap Up used it as ammo for the Post’s lack of hip-hop knowledge.

All told, the short correction generated more readership than the initial article did. Dickson’s piece had a Facebook widget that said four people had posted it to their Facebook sites.

444 people linked to the Post’s correction on Facebook; 55 people plastered the link on digg.

1,890 people linked to the article on Twitter. That’s over 59 times as many people who tweeted the original article.

All of this isn’t even counting all the write-ups linking to the correction, many of which show a healthy number of posts on Facebook, Twitter and other sites.

Clearly, Dickson and the Post made an error (UPDATE/CORRECTION: As Post music/arts critic J. Freedom du Lac points out, one cannot definitively say who at the paper caused the error – it could be an editor-introduced error as much as anyone else’s error). Unfortunately, a lot has been lost in the re-tweets and re-posts of the correction. People have been too quick to jump on the Post for the error, many of whom criticized the Post for not putting a correction up sooner.

Yet, most of these individuals would have never discovered the error had the Post not written about it in the first place: only three readers commented about the error when it first cropped up. And obviously, the Post listened.

Craig Silverman at Columbia Journalism Review:

Then along came @phontigallo. That’s the Twitter account of Phonte (Phonte Coleman), a member of the Grammy-nominated hip hop group Little Brother. Just after 11 p.m. on Sunday, he tweeted a link to the Post correction and noted, “This inspired my next trending topic.” From there, he unveiled the #washingtonpostcorrections hashtag, which invited people to come up with amusing imagined corrections related to famous hip hop songs and artists. He started things off with these:

Soon, people were chiming in and a meme was born. Twitter users continued to churn out imagined Post corrections into the early part of this week. Some of my favorites:

@iivoreee: ‘Fear of A Black Planet’ determined to be an album and not a critique of a struggling dating site.

@jsmooth995: George Clinton has assured us his roof remains intact, and he takes fire safety quite seriously

@corones: An earlier article incorrectly stated that Chicago was not Frank Sinatra’s kind of town. In fact, it is.

@corones: An earlier article incorrectly stated that Sir-Mix-A-Lot dislikes big butts. We regret the error.

@justinmpeterson: We regret mistakenly asserting that Coolio had been spending most his life living in a gangsta’s paradise.

@justinmpeterson: We would like to clarify that if you got a problem, yo, Vanilla Ice will not actually solve it.

Also on Twitter, Post reporter J. Freedom du Lac (@jfdulac) took note of the trending topic:

Not surprisingly, our “9/11 is a joke” correction has become a meme. And some of the #washingtonpostcorrections are hilarious.One person also used the hashtag as a vehicle for media criticism:

@streethistory #washingtonpostcorrections is still more accurate then the #washingtontimes(We’ll forgive him his “then” error…)

Corrections are often amusing. This was a great example of that fact. But the use of a correction to create a hashtag is also a powerful reminder that the public knows what corrections are, and why they exist. The commenters on the Post’s story didn’t hesitate to demand a correction, and Twitter users had no problem using the correction format and tone as a means to elicit humor. It speaks to how ingrained the correction is in the minds of citizens and media consumers.

The birth of the #washingtonpostcorrections hashtag once again sends the message that people expect corrections. News organizations also shouldn’t be surprised to see their mea culpa take on a life of its own.

UPDATE: Regret The Error

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Chuck Todd V. James Fallows And A Number Of Twittering Backseat Drivers

Max Fisher at The Atlantic has already done the round-up, but we’ll do it again here. Fisher:

Media coverage of President Obama’s recent trip to China tended to focus on short-term political goals such as currency policy and whether China would join in sanctions against Iran. The trip was mainly covered not by China experts, after all, but by the White House press corps, which has long been criticized for inordinately focusing on short-sighted Beltway politics. That criticism hit new heights when The Atlantic’s own James Fallows, who lived in and reported about China for a number of years, wrote a five-part take-down of media coverage of the China trip. Fallows’s posts compelled a response from Chuck Todd, one of the highest profile members of the White House press corps.

Several Fallows posts. Here:

I have what I think is some interesting new info coming on this front over the weekend; stay tuned, starting Saturday afternoon. For the moment, two more installments in my argument, previously here and here,  that Barack Obama’s recent swing through Asia was a relative success, and certainly nothing like the disaster that most U.S. coverage implied.

Installment one: me talking with Bob Garfield of NPR’s On The Media just now, about why American fantasies of an omnipotent, rising China may have distorted American press reaction to what Obama said and did.

Installment two: the before-and-after analyses from a private client newsletter by Damien Ma, Divya Reddy, and Nicholas Consonery of the Eurasia Group, reinforcing the idea that what actually happened on the trip was almost exactly what informed observers expected to happen, and not some humiliating disappointment.


While I’m at it, here’s one more: a story quoting the new US Ambassador to China, former Republican governor of Utah Jon Huntsman (a Mandarin speaker), to exactly the same effect.

“Washington’s ambassador to Beijing hit out on Friday at negative US media coverage of President Barack Obama’s visit to China, saying it failed to take into account important progress on many issues…

“The trip was the top news story in China, drawing strong interest from the mainland public who, surveys suggest, are largely positive in their view of the American president.

“However, much of the US media coverage was strongly negative, accusing Obama of failing to gain concessions on key issues such as Iran’s nuclear programme and climate change, as well as being weak on human rights.”

“I attended all those meetings that President Obama had with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao,” Huntsman said, referring to the Chinese president and premier. “I’ve got to say some of the reporting I saw afterward was off the mark. I saw sweeping comments about things that apparently weren’t talked about, when they were discussed in great detail in the meetings,” he said.
I wasn’t in touch with Howard French or Tish Durkin (to say nothing of Amb. Jon Huntsman) before we all expressed the same amazed and negative reaction at the way our colleagues had missed the main point of what just happened in America’s relations with a very important part of the world. We’re all familiar with one “crisis of the press,” the business collapse. This is a different kind of crisis, though it makes the business crisis worse: the distortion of reality by compressing every complex issue into the narrative of the DC-based “horse race.” As you can tell, this really bothers me.


Howard French at The Columbia Journalism Review:

“I find that the Washington reporters tend to be typically the most subject to this instant scorekeeping. This is part of the game of Washington reporting. They’re at the bleeding edge of this phenomenon that I think is distressing in terms of the approach of the press to serious questions. Everything is shot through this prism of short-term political calculation as opposed to thinking seriously about stuff. You can’t be an expert on every question, and so you’re part of the Washington press corps and if you’re really good and really diligent, you’re going to be expert maybe in a few things and one of those things might not be China.

“And now you’re in China on a three- or four-day trip and all of a sudden you’re having to weigh in on in important things and you don’t speak any Chinese and you don’t know any Chinese people and you’re in the security bubble of the president and you’re traveling from stop to stop on a stopwatch with the guy and being pumped all the time by the president’s aides—and this is true of all presidents—and subject to their spin and you’ve got these short deadlines and you’ve got to write these things. So they operate within those constraints. It’s a very difficult process, so I’m being critical of the press but I don’t see any obvious ways around that particular piece of things. “

Tish Durkin at The Week:

The criticism of his uninspiring — if unsurprising — punting on human rights is predicated on the idea that if Obama had come here and forcefully addressed the issue, the earth would have moved. There is no real basis to believe that, and a fairly strong basis not to. It’s not as if speaking truth to power hasn’t been tried: In 1994, when Beijing hosted the United Nations World Conference on Women, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton showed up and gave them hell about human rights. Her rallying cry — “women’s rights are human rights” — stirred the hearts of feminists, including Chinese feminists, and echoed across the world.  That speech scared the wits out of the Chinese Communist Party — but didn’t pry a pinky off their grip on power.

Then there’s the idea that Obama is tiptoeing around the Chinese because they’re such a large creditor. Everyone can agree that the level of U.S. debt, including debt to China, is a problem.  But the question at hand is: what specifically did the president fail to address on this trip for fear of debt-related retribution? Human rights? Currency revaluation? Pushing China to pressure its nasty friends, such as Iran? Come on. The Chinese-American debt scenario didn’t even start unfolding until the George W. Bush administration. Those thorny issues, in all the forms they have taken over time, go back a lot further. Precisely what magic were the Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I and Clinton administrations working before China got all those T-bills?

Last but not least, there is the bupkuss factor: the consenus that Obama, poor jerk, has come away with nothing. No breakthroughs. No deals. Not even an Oprah “a-ha” moment. It’s as if everybody thinks that some concrete public concession on at least one of the biggies — carbon emissions or political reform or North Korea — is something a U.S. president just can’t leave China without, like a silk robe or a ceramic tea set.

But in reality, it’s not like that. Every key element of the Sino-American relationship is too big and too convoluted for the thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach to apply.

So, relax, everybody. Obama came, he charmed, he left. And for now, that’s perfectly fine.

Or, as Fox News-certified Maoist and soon-to-be former White House communications director Anita Dunn might put it: Obama’s trip wasn’t a great leap forward. But it was a step in the right direction.

Chuck Todd on Twitter:

Plenty of folks have passed on comments about coverage of the Asia trip; It’s caused the blogosphere/twitterverse to do the usual, which is focus on facts that support their own thesis; the generalization that goes on with judgments against the WH press corps are hypocritical in that folks backseat driving the coverage are doing to the press what they themselves are accusing the press of doing. The reality is this when it comes to the president’s Asia trip: we won’t know if this trip was a success or failure for some time. Short term, we’ll get a sense of how this trip went when the U.S. presses for tougher sanctions against Iran. Long term, especially in terms of relations with China, this trip will be placed in proper context. But let’s not just do the easy thing… when folks don’t like how things are doing which is to do what sports fans do, blame the refs, rather than the players on the field. BTW, my favorite part of all this backseat driving is how 1 or 2 pieces of reporting gets collectively used to attack entire press corps. Even funnier already, how folks are so blind to their own rage, they are accusing me of whining. Apologies for trying to introduce nuance!

Fallows responds to Todd:

With all good will toward Chuck, let me point out the distinction: What (we) reporters say or write about an event can in fact be judged as soon as we say or write it, because it’s all out there to be seen. What happens in a meeting between the leaders of China and the US often can’t be judged for months or years after it occurs — which is the complaint about instant analysis of what Obama “got” or didn’t from this trip. For instance: no sane person imagined that an agreement about the value of the RMB would be announced just after this session. That is not the way the Chinese government has ever behaved in response to foreign “pressure.” We will know whether US intervention on this issue had any effect over the next few months. It reveals zero familiarity with the issue to expect anything else — or imply that the absence of an announcement is a “failure.”

UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias

UPDATE #2: More Fallows here and here

John Cole

UPDATE #3: Daniel Larison

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