Why we need organizations like Wikileaks

Here’s why:

When the New York Times revealed the location of the U.S.’s top-secret drone base in Saudi Arabia today, after months of keeping the information quiet, the other most important news outlets in the country sheepishly admitted they’d known about it, too. Along with the Washington Post, which said it had “an informal arrangement” with the government for more than a year, the Associated Press added last night that it “first reported the construction of the base in June 2011 but withheld the exact location at the request of senior administration officials.” Asked why the Times acted now, the paper’s managing editor Dean Baquet told public editor Margaret Sullivan it was simple: John Brennan’s big day.

“It was central to the story because the architect of the base and drone program is nominated to head the C.I.A.,” Baquet explained. Brennan’s confirmation hearings start tomorrow, and the Times decided it was important to discuss his pivotal role in U.S. operations in Yemen, where dozens of suspected terrorists have been targeted by drones, beforehand.

Previously, the government worried that the Saudis “might shut it down because the citizenry would be very upset,” so when the location “was a footnote,” the Times complied, Baquet said. “We have to balance that concern with reporting the news.” (Fox News, too, appears to have published the Saudi Arabian base location briefly in 2011 before switching to the more general “Arabian Peninsula.”)

When the location was a footnote? As decided by whom: the White House? And I have to laugh at Baquet’s comment about “[balancing] that concern with reporting the news.” Forgive me for assuming that reporting on secretive government wartime activity conducted without the knowledge of its taxpaying citizens might be considered, without resorting to qualification or euphemism, damn newsworthy. Forgive me further for daring to presume that government “concern” is a stalling tactic as old as the media and the state themselves, and that the Times, which published the Pentagon Papers and the Wikileaks cables, must know a little something about that. Even the Times‘ normally decent public editor Margaret Sullivan scored an assist on the coverup this time:

One of its revelations is the location of a drone base in Saudi Arabia. The Times and other news organizations, including The Washington Post, had withheld the location of that base at the request of the C.I.A., but The Times decided to reveal it now because, according to the managing editor Dean Baquet, it was at the heart of this particular article and because examining Mr. Brennan’s role demanded it…

If it was ever appropriate to withhold the information, that time was over. The drone program needs as much sunlight as possible. This is another crucial step in the right direction.

No, a crucial step in the right direction would have been to publish that remarkable story back when the Times actually found out about it. Amazing that the newspaper had no problem helping to push us into war in Iraq with shoddy, factually incorrect reporting, but it now claims the mantle of journalistic responsibility in defense of delaying the reporting of relevant facts about our ever-expanding drone wars. Here’s the Washington Post‘s equally appalling take:

The Post learned Tuesday night that another news organization was planning to reveal the location of the base, effectively ending an informal arrangement among several news organizations that had been aware of the location for more than a year.

In China, of course, this would be called government censorship. But here in the United States, it’s just old-fashioned journalistic integrity. Glad we have that cleared up.

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.

The hardest job in the world?

That may be slightly hyperbolic, but the New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief will always have his/her work cut out for him/her. And then shredded to pieces, castigated, and masticated ad nauseum. (Even just recently, I have also covered various unsavory aspects of the Times’ coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.)

In this regard, then, criticism of Jodi Rudoren is no different than the intense scrutiny faced by her predecessors (a line that most recently included Ethan Bronner, whose son served in the Israel Defense Forces). She got off to a rocky start earlier this year by doing things as downright treasonous as linking (via retweet) to a Hezbollah-friendly Lebanese news site and acknowledging the existence of Electronic Intifada founder Ali Abuminah, also in a tweet. (It should come as no surprise to anyone that Atlantic columnist Jeffrey Goldberg found all of this very upsetting.)

Well, she’s back in hot water again. As part of an otherwise very admirable step into social media (especially for an employee of an “old-fashioned” media institution), Rudoren posted the following commentary on her Facebook page on November 19, during the recent Israeli strikes in Gaza:

In terms of Sarah Sanchez’s q about effects on civilians, the strange thing is that while death and destruction is far more severe in Gaza than in Israel, it seems like Israelis are almost more traumatized. The Gazans have a deep culture of resistance and aspiration to martyrdom, they’re used to it from Cast Lead and other conflicts, and they have such limited lives than in many ways they have less to lose. Both sides seem intensely proud of their military “achievements” — Israel killing Jabari and taking out so many Fajr 5s, Hamas reaching TA and Jeru. And I’ve been surprised that when I talk to people who just lost a relative, or who are gathering belongings from a bombed-out house, they seem a bit ho-hum.

It was this last word — “ho-hum” — that sparked an avalanche of criticism. This flood of responses included one from Philip Weiss, founder of Mondoweiss.net and a fierce critic of Israeli government policies towards the Palestinians. He posted an article extensively analyzing Rudoren’s “ho-hum” comment, as well as previous statements she’s made, and concluded the following:

Rudoren was posted to Israel last June with her family, and we have a couple of times now…commented that she seems culturally bound inside the Israeli experience. These observations in the Facebook shtetl support that view.

When, to her credit, Rudoren linked to Weiss’ column — calling it an “incredibly unfair analysis of my Facebook posts, taking everything out of context to support his agenda” — many of her Facebook subscribers took to her comments section to air their perspectives, including me:

I hate to say it, but “they seem a bit ho-hum” is something you would never see printed in the NYT — or anywhere else — about Israelis/Jews. I’m not even saying it was deliberate bias, but just that certain narratives become reinforced through sheer force of habit and complacency. That was irresponsible phrasing.

Others voiced similar concerns. (The response was not unanimously of one mind, however. Several commenters registered disgust for Philip Weiss, for example.) The next morning in Gaza, Rudoren again — to her credit once more — took to Facebook to explain herself:

My feeling is that my posts on social media have to adhere to the same fairness standards as my work in the NYT itself, but not to the same tone or content standards as I try to bring a bit of reflection/behind the news. So while people are right that I would absolutely never use a term like ho-hum in the newspaper in this situation, I might well use a different word, and probably many more of them, to describe what I have experienced as a kind of numbness and, frankly, strength in the face of all that is happened to the people here. Steadfast probably would have been a much better choice.

I did not at all mean to imply that people were indifferent to the suffering, or uncaring, or unfeeling — they are passionate about their cause, deeply connected to the land being destroyed, with incredibly close extended families loved and honored above all else. What I meant was that their reaction to the literal things that had been happening this week was (mostly) outwardly calm, even, stoic. There is little panic and little public display of emotion (whether sadness or anger) that you might see in other cultures. Talking to people has made me think this is a mix of resignation, routine and resistance, along with a religious viewpoint that views death in this context as a sacrifice, of course, but also a worthy one.

Whether or not Rudoren’s elaboration was entirely honest is certainly debatable. But whatever its degree of veracity, it appears that such off-the-cuff statements will no longer be forthcoming from the freshman Jerusalem bureau chief. Today, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan (who yesterday also tackled the allegedly “Orwellian” captioning of a Gaza photograph that appeared in the newspaper) took Rudoren to task for her social media commentary:

Now The Times is taking steps to make sure that Ms. Rudoren’s further social media efforts go more smoothly. The foreign editor, Joseph Kahn, is assigning an editor on the foreign desk in New York to work closely with Ms. Rudoren on her social media posts.

The idea is to capitalize on the promise of social media’s engagement with readers while not exposing The Times to a reporter’s unfiltered and unedited thoughts.

Given the spotlight that the Jerusalem bureau chief is bound to attract, and Ms. Rudoren’s self-acknowledged missteps, this was a necessary step.

The alternative would be to say, “Let’s forget about social media and just write stories.” As The Times fights for survival in the digital age, that alternative was not a good one.

Some would argue, however, that this nebulous middle ground is the worst position of all. The Times stakes a large part of its reputation on the lofty notion that its reporting is utterly devoid of bias, an idea that implicitly extends to the reporters themselves. Of course, it is impossible to be utterly devoid of opinions and biases developed through experience, research, or otherwise (also known as “living”).

As this inherent contradiction — practiced far and wide by mainstream media establishments — is subjected to increasingly incisive scrutiny by the likes of Jay Rosen and others, some organizations (especially those being distributed primarily via the Internet) have taken to disclosing political leanings and other relevant information upfront, and allowing readers to decide for themselves whether the reporting is worthwhile.

But in the case of Rudoren, it appears the New York Times is doing neither: now that it is no longer able to plausibly deny the existence of a functioning analytical brain inside its Jerusalem bureau chief’s head, it has decided to censor her, instead of embracing the newfound transparency of her possible innate biases. In fact, Rudoren’s critic, Philip Weiss, is among the frustrated:

Count me an unhappy reader. I like the transparency of social media, I like to know about reporters’ biases. The Rudoren moment showed us that even reporters for the most prestigious journals are real people with real responses, for better or worse; and I believe that Rudoren’s apprehensions about Palestinian culture are widely shared in the US establishment (indeed, I have admitted my own apprehensions re Islam). In the unfolding of the story, we got to see Rudoren, who is a smart, tough, thoughtful person, respond and evolve before our eyes. Now the Times, worried about its authority being diminished, needs to pull the curtain.

Chimes in Pamela Olson: No more unfiltered thoughts from Mrs. Rudoren– it probably would have happened sooner or later anyway, but it’s a pity.  It was a fascinating look into the mind of an establishment journalist just getting her feet wet, unconscious biases and all, revealing things that are supposed to be kept well hidden.  It’s always fun to watch the newbies– reporters, politicians, thinktankers– slowly learn the various orthodoxies they must adhere to.

Fellow blogger, friend, and Middle East obsessive Max Marder is on the same page:

For many, Rudoren’s social media activity has provided a refreshing peak into the way she covers her beat. She should not be criticized for talking to, or sympathizing with, actors on the fringes of the Israeli-Palestinian political spectrum as long as her reporting remains unbiased. The Times decision to attach an editor to her desk to supervise her social media use will prevent its readership from gaining insight into its reporter’s true feelings.

This decision sets a dangerous precedent. In journalism and in social media, as in politics writ large, censorship has been delegitimized and transparency is the ideal. The Times should know better.

Noted Israel critic Glenn Greenwald expressed similar concerns:

The reality is that all human beings – even including journalists – see the world through a subjective prism, and it is impossible to completely divorce one’s assumptions and biases and cultural and political beliefs from one’s observations and “reporting”. It is far better to know a journalists’ biases than to conceal them or pretend they do not exist. Having a window into what Sullivan calls “the unfiltered and unedited thoughts” of journalists is of crucial value in knowing that these biases exist and in knowing what they are – which is precisely why the New York Times acted so quickly to slam that window shut.

Me? I’m a bit conflicted. The New York Times‘ solution feels excessively heavy-handed and, worse, effectively eliminates any incentive for someone like me to bother following Jodi Rudoren’s Facebook and Twitter feeds anymore. At the same time, even if Rudoren’s reporting itself appears to be at least superficially neutral, her troubling Facebook comments leave an open question as to whether she is truly approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with an open mind. (Given her predecessor Ethan Bronner’s own familial entanglement, it can surely be said that the Times has followed a somewhat risky path in its Jerusalem appointments.)

I’m still willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. As Max Marder has pointed out (both in his post and in conversation with me), when it comes to this particular conflict, it is often difficult to distinguish bias on the part of the Times from one’s own political stance on the subject. Whatever mistakes Rudoren may have made so far, it seems likely that we’ve now lost an interesting source of first impressions from a newcomer to the region, thanks to the (understandable) skittishness of her employer.

Drone strikes and the New York Times

Public editor Margaret Sullivan pings the Times for its fuzzy coverage of civilian casualties resulting from drone strikes:

Some of the most important reporting on drone strikes has been done at The Times, particularly the “kill list” article by Scott Shane and Jo Becker last May. Those stories, based on administration leaks, detailed President Obama’s personal role in approving whom drones should set out to kill.

Groundbreaking as that article was, it left a host of unanswered questions. The Times and the American Civil Liberties Union have filed Freedom of Information requests to learn more about the drone program, so far in vain. The Times and the A.C.L.U. also want to know more about the drone killing of an American teenager in Yemen, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, also shrouded in secrecy.

But The Times has not been without fault. Since the article in May, its reporting has not aggressively challenged the administration’s description of those killed as “militants” — itself an undefined term. And it has been criticized for giving administration officials the cover of anonymity when they suggest that critics of drones are terrorist sympathizers.

The New York Times’ credibility takes another blow

The new New York Times public editor has already stepped in it, it would seem. From Margaret Sullivan’s column yesterday:

Readers are quick to cite examples. Several who wrote to me thought there was an element of false balance in a recent front-page article in The Times on the legal battles over allegations of voter fraud and vote suppression — hot topics that may affect the presidential race.

In his article, which led last Monday’s paper, the national reporter Ethan Bronner made every effort to provide balance. Some readers say the piece, in so doing, wrongly suggested that there was enough voter fraud to justify strict voter identification requirements — rules that some Democrats believe amount to vote suppression. Ben Somberg of the Center for Progressive Reform said The Times itself had established in multiple stories that there was little evidence of voter fraud.

“I hope it’s not The Times’s policy to move this matter back into the ‘he said she said’ realm,” he wrote.

The national editor, Sam Sifton, rejected the argument. “There’s a lot of reasonable disagreement on both sides,” he said. One side says there’s not significant voter fraud; the other side says there’s not significant voter suppression.

“It’s not our job to litigate it in the paper,” Mr. Sifton said. “We need to state what each side says.”

Mr. Bronner agreed. “Both sides have become very angry and very suspicious about the other,” he said. “The purpose of this story was to step back and look at both sides, to lay it out.” While he agreed that there was “no known evidence of in-person voter fraud,” and that could have been included in this story, “I don’t think that’s the core issue here.”

It’s shocking to read a national reporter so casually dismiss the central point of his own article:

In the last few weeks, nearly a dozen decisions in federal and state courts on early voting, provisional ballots and voter identification requirements have driven the rules in conflicting directions, some favoring Republicans demanding that voters show more identification to guard against fraud and others backing Democrats who want to make voting as easy as possible.

The most closely watched cases — in the swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania — will see court arguments again this week, with the Ohio dispute possibly headed for a request for emergency review by the Supreme Court.

But this is the New York Times, after all. Even a column ostensibly criticizing the use of false equivalence manages to boldly reassert the practice by the bottom of the page.

Censoring the news: this only happens in tyrannies and American presidential campaigns

The New York Times nonchalantly (and unknowingly) begins writing its own obituary as a serious journalistic enterprise:

The push and pull over what is on the record is one of journalism’s perennial battles. But those negotiations typically took place case by case, free from the red pens of press minders. Now, with a millisecond Twitter news cycle and an unforgiving, gaffe-obsessed media culture, politicians and their advisers are routinely demanding that reporters allow them final editing power over any published quotations.

Image representing New York Times as depicted ...Quote approval is standard practice for the Obama campaign, used by many top strategists and almost all midlevel aides in Chicago and at the White House — almost anyone other than spokesmen who are paid to be quoted. (And sometimes it applies even to them.) It is also commonplace throughout Washington and on the campaign trail.

The Romney campaign insists that journalists interviewing any of Mitt Romney’s five sons agree to use only quotations that are approved by the press office. And Romney advisers almost always require that reporters ask them for the green light on anything from a conversation that they would like to include in an article.

From Capitol Hill to the Treasury Department, interviews granted only with quote approval have become the default position. Those officials who dare to speak out of school, but fearful of making the slightest off-message remark, shroud even the most innocuous and anodyne quotations in anonymity by insisting they be referred to as a “top Democrat” or a “Republican strategist.”

It is a double-edged sword for journalists, who are getting the on-the-record quotes they have long asked for, but losing much of the spontaneity and authenticity in their interviews.

Good thing the Times isn’t the most influential paper in the world or anything…because acquiescing to this absurd self-censorship would really be embarrassing if that were the case.

Perhaps this is a good entry point for the new public editor. Good riddance, Brisbane.