Learning the wrong lessons from The Atlantic’s Scientology debacle

UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism dean Edward Wasserman is dismayed over the consensus takeaway from the recent Atlantic advertising snafu, in which a glowing article written and paid for by the Church of Scientology was presented almost exactly as if it were regular journalism:

In the aftermath of this embarrassment, some of the criticism the Atlantic received was surprising, and focused on how poorly the magazine played the “native” game: Nobody, it was said, could mistake the Scientology missive for an article the Atlantic might actually have run. The magazine erred, Charlie Warzel of AdWeek wrote, by “licensing uninteresting and bizarre content that falls well outside the walls of the magazine’s brand.”

Economist magazine managing director Paul Rossi advised publishers to start thinking like ad agencies and get better at concealment: “The real issue is how do  you make content that’s compelling to a reader that doesn’t feel like an ad. That’s the real challenge.”

So the problem was that the deception was inept and easily detected. If that’s it, the solution, it seems, would be to integrate paid persuasion seamlessly into editorial offerings, so that reader resistance is allayed and the ads go down smoothly.

But that’s not it. The more basic problem, as Columbia Journalism Review’s Dean Starkman wrote, is an “existential” one. In that regard, “native advertising” succeeds precisely because it’s so skillfully wrought that it’s imperceptible as advertising, and joins the flow of information and commentary that readers accept as part of the chronicle of topical realities that they trust the news media to provide.

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The future of journalism?

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Am I going too far? All the cool kids on the Internet (such as Jay Rosen) are buzzing about the New York Times‘ special multimedia feature, “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek:”

I’ve never seen a better design for any story online. It sets a new standard, in my opinion. Now in saying that I am NOT saying “there’s never been anything like it.” Nor am I saying: this is the future of journalism. Nor am I saying that everyone can do this. I’m saying only what I said: in my opinion, it sets a new standard in digital storytelling.

Rarely have I personally been so excited by anything the New York Times has done. But this is truly impressive: an old-media organization standing up to be counted in the twenty-first century. Obviously this level of graphical detail and interactive content is simply too time-intensive and costly to incorporate into most stories, but it absolutely raises the bar for future feature pieces by anyone online.

The media’s free pass to the Republican Party

On Friday, the Huffington Post‘s Dan Froomkin posted an article on how the media whiffed on “the single biggest story of the 2012 campaign:”

But according to longtime political observers Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, campaign coverage in 2012 was a particularly calamitous failure, almost entirely missing the single biggest story of the race: Namely, the radical right-wing, off-the-rails lurch of the Republican Party, both in terms of its agenda and its relationship to the truth.

Mann and Ornstein are two longtime centrist Washington fixtures who earlier this year dramatically rejected the strictures of false equivalency that bind so much of the capital’s media elite and publicly concluded that GOP leaders have become “ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

The 2012 campaign further proved their point, they both said in recent interviews. It also exposed how fabulists and liars can exploit the elite media’s fear of being seen as taking sides.

“The mainstream press really has such a difficult time trying to cope with asymmetry between the two parties’ agendas and connections to facts and truth,” said Mann, who has spent nearly three decades as a congressional scholar at the centrist Brookings Institution.

“I saw some journalists struggling to avoid the trap of balance and I knew they were struggling with it — and with their editors,” said Mann. “But in general, I think overall it was a pretty disappointing performance.”

“I can’t recall a campaign where I’ve seen more lying going on — and it wasn’t symmetric,” said Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who’s been tracking Congress with Mann since 1978. Democrats were hardly innocent, he said, “but it seemed pretty clear to me that the Republican campaign was just far more over the top.”

Lies from Republicans generally and standardbearer Mitt Romney in particular weren’t limited to the occasional TV ads, either; the party’s most central campaign principles — that federal spending doesn’t create jobs, that reducing taxes on the rich could create jobs and lower the deficit — willfully disregarded the truth.

“It’s the great unreported big story of American politics,” Ornstein said.

After banging around on the blogosphere over the weekend, Froomkin’s piece received renewed attention today, when the New York Times‘ public editor, Margaret Sullivan (most recently seen taking her own employer to task — twice — for its lack of coverage of the Bradley Manning trial), highlighted it:

I find Mr. Ornstein and Mr. Mann’s observations smart, provocative and on target in many, though not all, places.

I disagree, for example, that the move toward fact-checking has made the press’s performance worse. On that subject, I agree with The Times’s political editor, Richard Stevenson, who told me last September in a column I wrote on this subject that he saw the move toward “truth-squading” as “one of the most positive trends in journalism that I can remember.” But to take it one step further, I believe that fact-checking should be more integrated into every story and not treated as a separate entity off to the side.

And I think the two commentators fail to see the progress that The Times and other newspapers are making – away from false equivalence and toward stating established truths and challenging falsehoods whenever possible.

That progress, granted, isn’t happening fast enough or – more important — sweepingly enough. And their point of view ought to provoke some journalistic soul-searching.

Death to the fact check

Not because it’s a bad idea, but precisely the opposite: the ultimate goal of fact-checking should be for the practice to appear as part of regular news reporting, instead of as a separate, specialized feature that garners significantly less attention. The Columbia Journalism Review‘s Brendan Nyhan sums it up best:

Dedicated factcheckers like PolitiFact and Factcheck.org play a critical role, but we will know that factchecking has succeeded in changing American political journalism when it disappears as a specialized function. The process of factchecking needs to be integrated into political coverage, not ghettoized in sidebars and online features. If more reporters adopt best practices for covering misinformation (including exercising discretion in not fact-checking some statements), politicians and other public figures could face even more effective scrutiny in 2013 and beyond.

Soledad O’Brien is a truth vigilante

Jay Rosen noted an encouraging development from CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, seen below (on Monday’s show) challenging reigning Republican doofus (and U.S. Representative from New York) Peter King on his “Obama’s apology tour” lies.

O’Brien is on somewhat of a roll, as she managed to reduce another Romney surrogate to flailing ad hominem attacks last month when his “reality” simply refused to match up with, well, Reality’s reality.

This is exactly the type of journalism we need to see more often if the infamous “post-truth” trend in American campaign seasons is to be stopped. It’s going to take aggressive but fair questioning, backed with judiciously researched data and facts. And it’s going to require a journalistic courage not to back down in the face of screaming old white men (or black men, or white women, or anyone else).

Over time, these confrontations could even become less necessary as campaigns readjust, knowing they won’t get away with telling lies on a national TV channel devoted to journalism. It goes without saying that journalists must be aggressive with lies told by both sides, but it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in political science to see that the vast majority of bald-faced lies, distortions, and half-truths is coming from the right wing these days. It’s time to remind them we’re not all as stupid as they clearly think we are.

On sportswriting and sportswriters

Nicholas Dawidoff admires how the very best sportswriters manage to wring meaning out of what is, ultimately, a triviality:

When writing about sports, you have to learn to navigate an odd literary predicament: Your audience often already knows the outcome before it starts reading. An editor at Sports Illustrated once advised me that the art of the work rested in telling people who already know what happened a story so compelling that they forget everything and, at the end, wish they’d been there. Not every writer can chance upon a famous athlete’s last game, as John Updike did for his peerless profile of Ted Williams. We won’t all encounter a young basketball player so committed to developing a sense of where he is on the court that he practices dribbling around lines of chairs with makeshift blinders in eyeglass frames (see John McPhee on Bill Bradley). But this editor helped me to regard sports as a parallel world full of little climaxes and telling details, just waiting for you to make the most of them…

Athletes, after all, are characters to a sportswriter, just as family members must be to a memoirist. You are responsible for them in full, and it’s particularly important to remember what brought you to them in the first place. What writers like Mr. Angell, A. J. Liebling, John McPhee, George Plimpton and the great Red Smith, as well as Sports Illustrated writers like Roy Blount, Robert Creamer, Frank Deford, Dan Jenkins, Ron Fimrite, Steve Wulf and — too many to mention! — share is the essence of good sportswriting: empathy. The appreciation of others is, for most, the reason to watch games, and it happens to be a noble human quality. Where too much recent American literature is less concerned with any search for meaning than the preening desire to be admired, really good sportswriting is grounded in curiosity and revelation, an enthusiast’s notes. And while few authors can compete with the reality, a writer can deepen it, preserve what happened and then mine it for the deeper human qualities at play that are the essence of lasting writing.

Meanwhile, Sebastian Stockman — who whiles away considerable column space on a very strange and only marginally germane tangent regarding the prevalence of Nazi references in sportswriting — bemoans the trade’s overarching lack of a wider societal perspective:

But no, Murray and Deford possess a self-awareness about their professions that Feinstein does not. That is, that the most interesting stuff in the sports world has to do with its stories, not its scores.

I would like to say that all sports fans know that, but we do not. For evidence, I turn to the letters page of the July 30 Sports Illustrated. One C. Fred Bergsten from Annandale, Va. has written in to respond to a book excerpt the magazine ran on that 1992 Dream Team. Here’s the letter:

With all the hype of the 20th anniversary of the Dream Team… most fans are forgetting that there were two squads, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, that could have given the Dream Team a run for its money had their countries not dissolved just before the Barcelona Games. The Soviets were the defending gold medalist from the 1988 Games, and Yugoslavia was the ’90 FIBA world champion. It is a tragedy that colossal matchups among the three basketball superpowers never occurred in ’92.

Yes, the tragedy of the Yugoslavian civil war was not Srebrenica, it was that the reigning FIBA champs didn’t get a shot at the Dream Team.

Personally, I harbor a fairly schizophrenic view of sportswriting. On the one hand, much of it — the stuff I tend to read, anyway — represents the worst kind of writing. In fact, one can say there is an almost inverse relationship between what people broadly consider good sportswriting and what they consider good journalism. In good sportswriting, heroes are continually made of men and women who pursue an irrefutably trivial career. In good journalism, even the best characters invariably have their flaws, or else all credibility of the writer is lost. In good sportswriting, the sporting events themselves are made into epic, and epoch-defining, moments in history. In good journalism, even the most classic drama is eventually dissected into digestible, often technical and highly detailed, pieces.

In short, there is a patent ridiculousness to sportswriting, and it is this quality that both draws me in and repulses me simultaneously. A sportswriter is, to me, someone who interprets the adage “the pen is mightier than the sword” as an unqualified exhortation to somehow combine the two. I inwardly mock these journalists’ labored metaphors but, in moments of glory for a team I happen to follow, feel inspired to ascend those very same mountains of linguistic bling bling myself. And in the meantime, I won’t feel guilty about reading them either.