Newspaper journalism and some challenges of the Web

Is something of value being lost in the frantic dash by American newspapers—spooked by their rapidly declining print readership—to become more “web-centric”? Is the Web encouraging a more visual, aural, and compressed journalism—what some might consider a “lowest common denominator” or “dumbed down” news report? Will the Internet future bring a shallower reportage, hastily cobbled together, that will underserve educated readers (who, by the way, represent the majority of the American newspaper audience)?

Should we worry? Consider the following.

In his farewell column in early May, New York Times public editor Byron Calame raised some concerns about the pressures of an “online world of deadlines every minute”: “The Times’s effort to do more with the same size news staff, and do it 24 hours a day, requires workload decisions that can affect quality, especially in editing.”

Calame warned not only of undue stress on editors, but also of a deadline squeeze on reporters newly burdened with additional “converging media” duties:

Times reporters are now being trained and pushed to quickly prepare video and audio supplements to their articles for the Web version of the paper. With the expanding commitment to get stories online as soon as they are good enough to post, The Times will have to work very hard to keep the time pressure from eroding the quality of either the stories or the supplements.

It goes without saying that if this is a concern at the top of the American journalism food-chain, the realities for reporters at smaller city newspapers will be even more daunting. These smaller papers already have experienced deep cuts in newsroom staffing; any additional Web content or more frequent filing of stories will be added to the considerable current responsibilities of those journalists who survived the pruning. And as anyone with wire-service experience will tell you, even with the best of intentions the rush to “get stories online as soon as they are good enough to post” can pose significant threats to a news organization’s credibility. Overworked and loosely edited reporters make mistakes.

More may be less

There is cheerleading for this media convergence from figures like Sree Sreenivasan, dean of students and a professor at Columbia Journalism School. A recent Poynter Online column by Sreenivasan entitled “MyYouTube” (with a subheadline “Making Simple Online Videos”) explains how easy it is to create videos for the Web, the implication being that working journalists should “let a thousand online videos bloom.”

Yet there are only so many hours in a day; a reporter fiddling with a digital camcorder or mastering the latest video-editing software will spend more time on packaging and processing, and less time reporting and writing. Or he or she may sacrifice considered depth for a once-over multiple-media drive-by (after all, as Calame points out, there are those audio and video supplements to file. ) Forget investigative reporting—there isn’t time. And don’t hold your breath for newspapers to hire additional journalists to pick up the slack for this “more is more” activity.

Coupled with this call for more content (posting stories throughout the news cycle, adding audio, video, photo slide shows, blogs, etc.) there is also a related push for shorter content. A recent Gawker.com story quotes New York Times editor Bill Keller telling his staffers that he wants to see shorter story lengths in the paper (“….Our stories are too often too long… The 1200 word stories could be 800 or 900. There are editors at a Page 1 meeting boasting that a story is only 1400 words.”) Keller’s comments come as the Times prepares to reduce the physical size of its broadsheet (a cost-cutting move largely spurred by the migration of advertising dollars from the Times to electronic media).

Will editors at the Times will focus on shortening the printed story, while posting a fuller version on the Web? Or will reporters be encouraged to turn in shorter copy?

The very nature of the Web (cheap data storage and instant perfect copies through networked delivery) makes “writing to length” an obsolete concept. A reporter or commentator should be able to write as many words necessary, with the complete version posted to the Web and the trimmed alternate appearing in the newspaper. (The Wall Street Journal is employing some of this approach with its recent newspaper redesign). It is depth and detail—often found in longer stories—that many loyal readers appreciate. If they don’t find it in their newspaper (online or off) they will be look for it elsewhere.

Neo-traditionalism?

Publishers and editors should be wary of calls for the rapid posting of (half-baked) news stories and the mantra of “video, audio, and shorter content for the Web.”

Chasing 24/7 Web deadlines is a mistake: newspapers should concentrate on their gate-keeping function and avoid the distractions of too-frequent filing. They should worry less about being scooped (currency), and more about accuracy, consistency, depth, and providing context for readers.

The reality of Google News (and other news-aggregating websites) is that consumers of news now have their choice of thousands of news sources for any given story—why assume they will select on speed, and not on perceived journalistic quality, authority and editorial reliability (what marketers would call “the brand”)?

Pushing for extensive multi-media coverage is another mistake: the time and effort spent on podcasts and YouTube videos shouldn’t come at the expense of basic reporting and editing, nor should they crowd out in-depth journalism. The assumption that younger Web users are attracted primarily by the visual should be questioned—Web 2.0 communities like MySpace and Facebook offer significant amounts of text-on-screen in connecting their members together. It is content that matters and that’s something newspapers are expert at creating.

Taking a neo-traditionalist perspective on newspaper journalism on the Web means rethinking how the paper will cover its community. My hunch is that a vast majority of readers—current and future—will choose accuracy, context, and deeper coverage over YouTube talking head videos. It may mean a smaller audience, but it will be a loyal audience; in a world with a bewildering number of media choices, that should be a winning strategy.


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Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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Campaign songs and the candidate

So Senator Hillary Clinton has asked the public to choose her 2008 presidential campaign song by voting at her website on a selection of nine songs.

It’s a clever idea, mixing pop culture, Web interactivity, and a faux election; the Clinton staff has been careful to screen the songs so that they align nicely with the Senator’s campaign themes.

The 1992 campaign song for Bill Clinton, Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)” (a perfect choice for a self-indulgent Baby Boomer candidate) doesn’t make this most recent Hillary Clinton list. What does? The slate includes two U2 songs (“City of Blinding Lights” and “Beautiful Day”), two Motown songs (“Get Ready” by The Temptations and “I’ll Take You There” by the Staple Singers), two rock songs (Smash Mouth’s “I’m a Believer” and “Right Here, Right Now” by Jesus Jones), two country songs (Shania Twain’s “Rock This Country!” and the Dixie Chick’s “Ready to Run”), and a “girl-power” song by KT Tunstall, “Suddenly I See.”

Clinton’s website does allow write-ins (a surprise) and the wags and Clinton-bashers are already offering suggestions (no surprise)— “Maneater” (David Brooks of the New York Times); “Shameless” and “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” (Jon Sanders of TownHall.com); and “Baby Got Back” (Rush Limbaugh).

Bet on one of the U2 songs to win the contest (even though you could argue choosing an Irish group is a form of musical outsourcing, ordinarily not a popular move for a Democratic candidate). U2 has become the establishment choice for vaguely-uplifting, quasi-religious, feel-good music, which is why Bono and the band are invited to perform at public mega-events (Super Bowls, NBA Finals, Katrina concerts, etc.) That Bono militates for non-partisan diplomatic action on Africa’s numerous problems makes choosing U2 all the easier for Clinton fans.

(U2’s ceremonial performances and lucrative concert tours have opened the group to sniping about their rock legitimacy; the “sell-out” charge isn’t helped by the wildly popular YouTube and IFilm video of a Bank of America manager crooning a corporate version of U2’s “One,” including these (altered but now immortal) lyrics: “It is even better/Now that we’re the same/Two great companies come together/Now, MBNA is B of A/One bank, one card, one name that’s known all over the world.”)

Matching candidate and song?

Do campaign theme songs matter? When a song matches up well with the candidate, you could argue there is a “total branding moment” (as those in marketing might term it). Some good matches: Bill Clinton and “Don’t Stop”; Ronald Reagan and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” in 1984 (Reagan also used the anti-war “Born in the USA,” a strange choice for the “Morning in America” candidate considering the song’s dark lyrics); Irving Berlin’s “I Like Ike,” written for Dwight Eisenhower’s 1952 campaign; and “High Hopes” for John F. Kennedy in 1960.

But the bad matches don’t seem to matter; George H.W. Bush’s choice of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” in 1988 was loopy; his Democratic opponent, Mike Dukakis, picked Neil Diamond’s “America,” a more fitting song for a presidential run, and lost badly nonetheless. Al Gore’s 2000 campaign songs—“You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive and “Let the Day Begin” by The Call—seemed better choices than the songs George W. Bush alternated between (Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” Billy Ray Cyrus’ “We the People” and Van Halen’s “Right Now”) but we know how that all worked out.

Republicans have a harder time with selecting “safe” songs. Cranky liberal songwriters will balk at a GOP candidate appropriating his lyrics and music: witness Isaac Hayes objecting to Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign transforming his 1960s hit “Soul Man” into “Dole Man” (Dole dropped the song), and John Hall of the group Orleans, now a Democratic Congressman, blocking the Bush 2004 campaign from using his “Still the One.” It’s no wonder W. turned to country music’s Brooks and Dunn for “Only in America” in 2004 (a song which also turns up in the opening of Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center).

First-hand strangeness

Covering a George Wallace rally in Boston in 1976, I experienced first-hand one of the stranger candidate-song pairings. Wallace had fellow Alabamian Bobby Goldsboro open for him with his treacly hits “Honey” and “Watching Scotty Grow,” hardly the sound-track for an angry, race-baiting populist. Wallace should have picked Charlie Daniels’ 1975 hit “South’s Gonna Do It Again.”

Yet the people who run presidential campaigns tend to believe that these songs matter. One of the more amusing bits in a wonderful documentary on Howard Dean’s 2004 Democratic Presidential campaign (“CNN Presents: True Believers: Life Inside the Dean Campaign”) features Joe Trippi’s dogged efforts to promote LeAnn Rimes’ version of “We Can” as the former Vermont governor’s theme song—including Trippi’s displeasure when a different song is substituted at a Dean rally.

There are two sure things about Campaign 2008 candidate songs. First, no presidential hopeful will play any sort of rap or hip hop music as he or she strides onto a stage, not after l’affaire Imus. Second, no candidate will come close to eccentric Texas billionaire Ross Perot in picking the perfect song for their campaign. Perot’s totally appropriate pick for his failed 1992 independent bid? Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.”


; ; ; ; ; Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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Hollywood’s CIA fantasies and “The Good Shepherd”

Why is it so hard for Hollywood to make a compelling and serious film about the Central Intelligence Agency?

Robert DeNiro’s The Good Shepherd (2006), recently released on DVD, like so many other formulaic movie treatments of the CIA, recycles the same tired old anti-Langley themes. It’s a shame, for DeNiro has assembled a talented cast and he focuses the movie on a fascinating time for America’s new intelligence agency, the period from the CIA’s post-World War II inception to the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

What greatly hampers The Good Shepherd is the apparent unwillingness by DeNiro, or his screenwriter, Eric Roth, to take seriously the reasons for the creation of the CIA: the clear and present danger represented by a Stalinist Soviet Union, and the need—first enunciated by Harry S Truman—for accurate intelligence on its expansionist designs. Roth’s flat screenplay is a puzzlement—he is credited with scripting both Munich and Forrest Gump and so he knows how to tell a story and how to deal with ambiguity, but he does neither in The Good Shepherd.

CIA fantasies

That Hollywood has a CIA problem shouldn’t come as a surprise. With few exceptions American producers, directors, and screenwriters hold left-of-center political views; consequently, it seems, they regard the CIA as an unnecessary and distasteful legacy of the Cold War, or a villainous organization willing to commit all sorts of heinous crimes to insure American hegemony in the world.

Other recent films from the “Left Coast” reflect those prejudices: see, for example, the conspiracy-fueled Syriana (2005) where the CIA blithely assassinates a Middle Eastern leader via a Predator-drone-delivered missile, or any of the recent Robert Ludlum-inspired Jason Bourne films where CIA executives calmly approve the murder of apostate agents. (The notion that the CIA has the proverbial “license to kill” ignores the history of the past 15 or 20 years, where any CIA covert action has required the clearance of battalions of government lawyers to say nothing of direct presidential approval). True, these are thrillers, not bound to reality, but their negative portrayal of the CIA speaks to the Hollywood mindset.

Despite DeNiro’s comments in some PR interviews that he wanted to offer a more nuanced history of the CIA, the underlying negative point-of-view behind these other “above-the-law” CIA fantasies also informs The Good Shepherd. That is artistically problematic, however, since it insures that what reaches the screen is ideologically-driven and clichéd (so much so that I kept looking for an appearance by Chris Cooper, Hollywood’s favorite all-American CIA/military villain). It certainly doesn’t make for anywhere near as authentic or entertaining art as would a movie with more ambiguity and an appreciation for the moral dilemmas of espionage. (Samuel Goldwyn wasn’t all wrong when he counseled: “Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union.”)

What goes missing in is a sense of why the CIA exists, and why people are drawn to work for such an organization (patriotism? thrills? the intellectual challenge? a mixture of these motives?). We never get a sense of the conflicts that arise in operating an intelligence agency in an open society that prizes the rule of law. The nature of the Soviet threat is never explored, nor the historical debate over the best way of addressing Soviet gambits in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and whether containment would prove effective as a strategy or more aggressive “roll back” tactics should be employed.

The CIA as social club

Instead, in The Good Shepherd we get the CIA as Yale’s Skull and Bones writ large, a secret society aimed at defending establishment male privilege (or so the movie suggests). While it’s true that the OSS, and then the CIA, had Ivy League roots, the history of the period suggests that the men and women attracted to the CIA—especially the adventurers drawn to covert work—saw themselves as enlisting in an ideological struggle against Communism, not joining a post-college social club.

Matt Damon plays Edward Wilson, The Good Shepherd’s repressed upper crust protagonist, as such a cipher that we can never quite understand what motivates or drives him. The tag-line for the movie proclaims, “Edward Wilson believed in America, and he would sacrifice everything he loved to protect it,” but it’s never clear that Wilson believes in much of anything, let alone America, or that he is capable of love. Damon’s emotionless performance made me long for a voice-over narration for some sense of the character’s interior life—not a positive sign for a movie. No doubt the idea of Wilson as a bloodless WASP was drawn from the real-life CIA mole-hunter James Jesus Angleton, but centering The Good Shepherd on this humorless workaholic robs the movie of any humanity.

The Good Shepherd explores the CIA’s misguided role in 1950s coups in Latin America and elsewhere, the continuing espionage battles with the KGB, and the agency’s Kennedy-inspired early 1960s obsession with Cuba. There’s no context to this, however, no Stalin, Beria, Mao, Korean War, Berlin Wall or Hungarian revolution, and the screenplay suggests that the CIA remained more interested in protecting American business interests in Cuba and Latin America than in countering Soviet aggression.

The CIA’s role in gathering and analyzing intelligence is slighted (no surprise) in favor of covert skulduggery. Among American films, perhaps only Patriot Games (1992) has tried to capture the pain-staking work of solving the intelligence puzzle that is at the heart of what spy agencies actually do.

That those who work for the CIA are also corrupt or motivated by elitism is another recurring theme in The Good Shepherd. Thus we have a Mafia capo, Joseph Palmi, questioning Wilson/Damon about his world view in this exchange:

Palmi: Let me ask you something… we Italians, we got our families, and we got the church; the Irish they have the homeland; Jews, their tradition; even the niggas, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Wilson, what do you have?

Wilson: The United States of America…and the rest of you are just visiting.

In this ham-handed bit of WASP-bashing we are meant to see that Wilson’s patriotism (if it can be called that) is sparked solely by elitism. But does DeNiro really want us to conclude that the Cold War was about defending the right to exclude Italians, Irish, Jews, and blacks from establishment country clubs? And weren’t the most aggressive “clients” of the CIA, the ones pushing for assassinations and muscular covert action —Jack and Bobby Kennedy—Irish Catholics?

Flirting with Bruckheimerism

In an attempt to balance The Good Shepherd‘s thinly-veiled ideology with entertainment, DeNiro flirts with elements of Bruckheimerism—that Hollywood penchant , perfected by the producer Jerry Bruckheimer, for grand-scale blockbusters filled with violence and car-chases aimed at 17-year-old suburban boys. While DeNiro does not employ much “bang-bang” in The Good Shepherd (it actually might have given the film some needed zip), he does aspire for something grand—the PR for the film calls it “an epic drama.” (Some reports have suggested DeNiro sees the potential for a Godfather-like series of films on the CIA).

This fascination with the epic is yet another mistake—the characters get lost in the narrative sweep, and the underlying family drama seems manufactured and contrived. To provide some structure to the film, DeNiro resorts to popping up every 20 minutes as the character Bill Sullivan to provide us an awkward explanation for the latest turn in CIA history.

Spy stories don’t translate well into epics. Some of the better espionage films have been quiet, focused on a simple tale. Think of The Third Man (1949), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), the BBC mini-series based on John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) and Smiley’s People (1982), The Conversation (1974), The Falcon and the Snowman (1985), Patriot Games (1992), and, more recently, Steven Spielberg’s much-under-rated Munich (2005), which was criticized by some for the very ambiguity that, laudably, challenged the viewer’s pre-conceptions.

The best spots in The Good Shepherd are the quieter parts of the film. Tammy Blanchard is marvelous as Wilson’s college love interest, the deaf student Laura; Oleg Stefan makes a believable KGB foil; and Michael Gambon’s British agent/university don adds some needed color. When DeNiro narrows his directorial focus, and gives the actors some space and time, The Good Shepherd begins to intrigue. It makes you wish that DeNiro had chosen to adapt Charles McCarry’s The Last Supper, which covers the same historical territory but in a much more personal way, or even Ward Just’s post 9/11 novel Forgetfulness.

Don’t expect Hollywood to change the formula anytime in the near future. This summer Turner Network Television will broadcast The Company, a series based on the epic—yes, another epic—CIA novel by Robert Littell on the history of the agency. A hint as to the likely villains in this cinematic exercise: they won’t reside in Moscow’s Lubyanka Square.


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Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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Front-page fairness and the Santa Barbara News-Press

I once heard Abe Rosenthal, former editor of the New York Times, explain his simple test for fairness in a front-page news story: would you be comfortable with the balance and tone of the reporting if a close family member was the subject of the article? The story was fair if you could answer yes.

Rosenthal’s point was, I think, that a journalistic Golden Rule of sorts should apply in reporting on the foibles and failings of others. That didn’t mean that reporters or editors shied away from publishing or broadcasting hard things about people, but journalistic ethics demanded that they should recognize the great potential for personal damage in what they might report, and guard against carelessness or hasty conclusions.

I found myself thinking about Rosenthal’s simple test (one I have cited many times in teaching journalism) when considering the ugly headline from the Sunday, April 22, Santa Barbara News-Press: “News-Press seeks exam of computer used by ex-editor Roberts containing child porn,” which carried the sub-headline, “Roberts denies involvement.” If you read the article, which is centered on the newspaper’s former executive editor Jerry Roberts, and review the pertinent details of the situation (some only found in other newspapers), you have to conclude that this is a story that, on the grounds of fairness and transparency, never should have been published.

A glaring omission from the story was its silence on the high-stakes legal dispute between Roberts and the newspaper’s owner, Wendy P. McCaw, one prompted by his abrupt departure from the News-Press last year in a conflict over journalistic ethics. (More on that dispute here.) Readers deserved to know that background, as the News-Press has a potential conflict-of-interest in covering the matter. Further, any claims of wrong-doing during an employment dispute have to be viewed with healthy skepticism.

Facts that would lessen the focus on Roberts weren’t reported. The story never stated directly that the workplace computer in question had been used by at least two other News-Press editors before Roberts. The article had to concede that the Santa Barbara district attorney had not filed any charges, largely because multiple users of the computer made it impossible to trace to any one person the more than 15,000 downloaded images of child and adult pornography. Even Roberts’ denial was undercut; the News-Press article stated: “Mr. Roberts hired a private expert to give him a lie detector test which the expert claimed he passed.” (Note the use of the verb “claimed,” rather than the more neutral “said.”)

For his part, as the Los Angeles Times reported, Roberts vehemently denied any link to the pornography and demanded a retraction: “The story was false, defamatory and malicious and published with knowledge it was untrue.” His attorney denied that Roberts had refused to cooperate with police, as the News-Press story reported. Roberts indicated that if the News-Press didn’t retract the story, he would consider suing for defamation.

An attorney for Ampersand Publishing (McCaw’s holding company through which she controls the News-Press) defended the article, “saying the company was concerned that a crime had been committed.” To date, no retraction has been published, and Ampersand has continued legal efforts to obtain and “conduct forensic tests on the hard drive of the computer” which is still in the possession of the authorities.

Issues of transparency and guilt-by-association

Whether Roberts ends up suing Ampersand for libel or not, there are several significant ethical issues raised by the story. The first disturbing issue is the article’s lack of transparency. There is no by-line on the story. We don’t know who did the reporting or who wrote the story; apparently no journalist was willing to sign his or her name to the article and accept personal responsibility or accountability.

And as the New York Times noted in its coverage, the article is silent about the legal fight between Roberts and McCaw: “Ms. McCaw has filed a claim of $25 million against Mr. Roberts for breach of contract; he has filed a counterclaim of $10 million for damages.” Roberts has argued that the article is meant to damage him “during arbitration over the competing legal claims.”

The second, and more important, issue is the question of guilt-by-association— how the headline and story tarnishes Roberts even as it acknowledges that he “denies involvement.” Being linked with child pornography in any way is incredibly damaging to one’s reputation. There were numerous people with access to the computer in question, the district attorney concluded that he couldn’t pursue charges, and yet only Roberts was named in the story. The implication isn’t lost on the reader.

News-Press management apparently decided that there was enough news value in its legal efforts to retrieve the hard drive to publish a story; it chose to name only Jerry Roberts among the users of the computer; it elected to report that Roberts had refused to cooperate with police (something Roberts denies); it chose to publish the story in the widely-distributed Sunday paper. That meant that Roberts would be denying a connection to child pornography on the front page of the newspaper he once edited. Whoever approved the article had to know the potential devastating impact of this linkage on Roberts’ reputation and standing in the community.

Failing the fairness test

The News-Press story on Jerry Roberts doesn’t pass the Rosenthal fairness test, or meet any of the ethical standards of the codes meant to govern responsible journalism. (One of principles of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is: “Minimize Harm: Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.”) Given the circumstances, I can’t imagine how any fair-minded editor would run with such a story.

So it’s not surprising that the News-Press has faced wide-spread criticism, not only from journalists but also from members of its own community, many who termed the story a smear. The weekly Santa Barbara Independent has defended Roberts, running a gutsy front-page headline, “Have You No Shame, Mrs. McCaw?”, an echo of Boston lawyer Joseph Welch’s stinging rebuke of Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

While I’m no fan of libel suits (as they are sometimes employed to chill freedom of expression), I can see why Roberts would consider that option. Who can blame him for seeking redress, whether in the court of public opinion, or through a lawsuit? How much, after all, is a reputation worth?

Full Disclosure: I worked in management at the Santa Barbara News-Press some twenty years ago, briefly, when it was owned by the New York Times Company. I do not know Jerry Roberts.


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Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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