Remembering David Carr

David Carr. Photo via Wikipedia.

David Carr. Photo via Wikipedia.

This morning I woke up to the awful news that New York Times media columnist David Carr has died at the age of 58.

Carr’s Monday column, “The Media Equation,” was a ritual — all of us who watch the media for a living would check out what Carr had to say, often on Sunday evenings, when his weekly missive would be posted ahead of the next day’s print edition. His fierce intelligence and passion for what’s good in journalism made him the leading media commentator of our time. He was also a master of Twitter, and his quirky feed will be missed nearly as much as his more substantial work.

I knew Carr slightly. I vaguely recall talking with him a few times back when he was at the Washington City Paper and I was writing for the Boston Phoenix. In 2010, I had the honor of sharing a stage with him at MIT. His magnum opus on the Chicago Tribune under Sam Zell (one of the finest pieces of media reporting I’ve seen) had just been published, and Carr was at his profane, funny best.

In December 2013, Boston University announced that Carr would be taking a high-profile role in its journalism department. I remember talking with the director of our journalism school at Northeastern, Steve Burgard, about what it meant for the perpetual rivalry between the two programs.

Now Steve and David are both gone, well before their time.

Why Jon Stewart is the anti-Brian Williams

Jon Stewart. Photo via Wikipedia.

Jon Stewart. Photo via Wikipedia.

Published previously at WGBHNews.org.

Two high-profile departures from the hot celebrity glare of television were announced late Tuesday. One of those leaving is among the most respected people in media. The other is a charlatan.

The object of our respect, of course, is Jon Stewart, who announced he’ll be retiring from “The Daily Show” later this year. A satirist of the highest order, Stewart has been our truth-teller-in-chief since 1999. The charlatan, needless to say, is Brian Williams, who was suspended for six months without pay as anchor and managing editor of “NBC Nightly News.” It’s hard to imagine he’ll be back.

The juxtaposition of these two seemingly disparate events has not gone unnoticed. A six-column headline on the front of today’s New York Times reads “Williams Suspended, at Low Point in His Career; Stewart to Depart at High Point.” The departures also say a lot about our changing perspectives on journalism and the people who bring it to us. As I (and many others) noted when Williams first got into trouble last week over his lies about coming under fire in Iraq, there was a time when Walter Cronkite — a network anchor — was considered “the most trusted man in America.”

Today I would argue that no man or woman can lay claim to being the most trusted. The culture is too fractured. Andy Warhol’s old dictum has long since been updated to “On the Web, we will all be famous to 15 people.” Stewart, though, may be the most trusted person in the media for a certain subset that I would define as deeply interested in the news, though not necessarily hyper-informed; urban; and liberal, but skeptical of politicians regardless of ideology. He is the most vital media critic of our time, a worthy successor to A.J. Liebling and Ben Bagdikian.

Stewart is also the ideal media commentator for the Internet age. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that I’ve rarely sat down at 11 p.m. to watch “The Daily Show.” I’m far more likely to catch clips on YouTube or watch bits and pieces of previous episodes through my cable provider’s on-demand offerings.

Though Stewart, 52, and Williams, 55, are nearly the same age, they seem to be from completely different generations, with Williams representing the outmoded sit-down-and-let-us-tell-you-what’s-important paradigm. Cronkite himself was said to be uncomfortable with his signoff (“And that’s the way it is”) because he knew it wasn’t true. We can only guess what Williams believes to be true. Which brings me to another important difference between Jon Stewart and Brian Williams. At a time when we have become increasingly uncomfortable with old-fashioned notions about objectivity, many media observers have called for a shift to transparency.

Stewart is utterly transparent — we know what he believes and what perspective he brings to his commentary. Williams tried to project the sort of authority that’s rooted in objectivity. It worked, more or less, until it didn’t. (An aside about objectivity. Straight news, as opposed to analysis or opinion, ought to be offered up with fairness and neutrality. Unfortunately, “objectivity” has all too often come to mean something else — a quest for balance at all costs, even the truth. New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan got at this the other day with a piece on “false balance.”)

Stewart is unique, and we’ll still have him for the rest of 2015. I’d like to think the Daily Show franchise is safe. Some of the names people were floating on social media Tuesday, such as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, could prove to be worthy successors.

As for Williams, I can’t imagine anyone expects him to resume anchoring duties after such a severe punishment. Mostly likely negotiations on the terms of his departure are already under way. For all the talk about the network nightly news having slipped into obsolescence, it’s still the closest thing we have to a mass medium, watched by more than 20 million people. A new anchor will be named and life will go on as before, at least for a few more years. Someday, though, it will end. And the Brian Williams episode will be looked back on as a signal moment in its demise.

Why Brian Williams may not be able to come back

Even though it’s an anonymous quote, the ending of this New York magazine piece on Brian Williams by Gabriel Sherman shows why it will be hard — maybe impossible — for him to return:

As one insider put it today: “The lingering questions in the executive suite is if he stays, how does he ever sit down with Rand Paul or Chris Christie and say, ‘You said this two years ago, and you said this last week.’ How does he do that?”

He doesn’t. He can’t.

Update: And he won’t. NBC has suspended Williams for six months without pay. Such a harsh punishment is almost certainly a preliminary step toward a negotiated departure.

Reporting on national security in the age of Edward Snowden

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

WASHINGTON — As governments throughout the world try invasive methods to penetrate newsroom secrets, top journalists use no-tech methods: meeting sources outside microphone range, avoiding phone and email messages and keeping pencil — not electronic — notes.

“We’re going back to old-time shoe leather reporting,” said New York Times national security correspondent David Sanger. “We try not to leave a trace — with no electronic footprint.”

But he told a “Journalism After Snowden” conference at the Newseum last Thursday that while journalists can protect their own data and sources, they can’t control what hackers can do to intercept their electronic communications.

The conference was the last in a series exploring issues raised by Edward Snowden’s massive leaking of National Security Agency documents.

Sanger said the Times’ greatest concern is not the NSA but with protecting communications with staffers around the world, where surveillance can potentially obtain drafts of stories.

He and other speakers noted that the U.S. government has obtained employees’ records and that that the recent Jeffrey Sterling espionage conviction shows that prosecutions could succeed without forcing a reporter to testify.

In that case Times reporter James Risen fought a seven-year battle to protect confidential sources, but the government helped make its case by producing phone calls and email contacts between Risen and Sterling.

Times executive editor Dean Baquet and his Washington Post counterpart, Marty Baron, said they decide officials’ requests to withhold national security information on a case-by-case basis.

They said they won’t surprise officials by publishing potentially dangerous information but will give them a chance to make their case against publishing.

Baquet will hear them out and push them hard for specifics about how publication can harm national security. He said they have to prove that printing risks “life and limb.”

Baron said, “We don’t publish sources and methods. We try to balance national security concerns with the public interest. It comes down to our judgment.”

Both editors said the press should do more, not less, probing of national security issues.

Baquet sees more secrecy in national security than ever, saying for example that it’s “stunning” how little we know about drone warfare. “It’s an undeclared, undiscussed and uncovered issue around the world.”

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

Can Brian Williams recover from his false Iraq tale?

Brian Williams. Photo via Wikipedia.

Brian Williams. Photo via Wikipedia.

Published previously at WGBHNews.org.

Update, 8:30 p.m. Williams, in his apology, conceded that the story he had been telling was false — that his helicopter was not fired on and landed safely. Yet the pilot of Williams’ helicopter is now offering an account that’s close enough to Williams’ original story that we might all be tempted to say “never mind.”

The mainstream press this morning is stepping gingerly around Brian Williams’ literally incredible mea culpa about (not) coming under fire in Iraq 12 years ago.

Ravi Somaiya of The New York Times reports that the NBC News anchor “apologized for mistakenly claiming” his helicopter had been shot down. The Washington Post — which, unlike the Times, plays it on page one — is more forthright in saying that Williams “conceded” his story was “false.” But reporter Paul Fahri goes to some lengths not to get ahead of developments.

Not that you can blame either news organization for its caution. Williams is a certified icon of broadcast journalism, and no doubt NBC will go to great lengths to protect him. If Williams is disgraced, so is the network’s news division. It would take years to recover. But what happens next is largely out of NBC’s and Williams’ hands.

As first reported Wednesday by the military news organization Stars and Stripes, Williams has said a military helicopter that was transporting him in Iraq was hit by rocket fire and forced down. Stars and Stripes reporter Travis J. Tritten writes: “Williams and his camera crew were actually aboard a Chinook in a formation that was about an hour behind the three helicopters that came under fire, according to crew member interviews.”

Yikes. Williams, in addressing viewers on Wednesday, called his version a “mistake,” adding: “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”

In a timeline for CNN put together by media reporter Brian Stelter, it appears that though Williams spoke and wrote about the incident with varying degrees of inaccuracy over the years, the first time he told a clearly false version was in 2013 on David Letterman’s show.

This looks like a serious lapse of ethical judgment on Williams’ part. I find it hard to believe it was an honest mistake. How can you believe that you were flying on a helicopter that came under fire when you actually were on one that landed safely an hour later?

And I need to emphasize this: It wasn’t just a personal tale that Williams embellished — it was journalism. After all, the essence of journalism, as New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen puts it, is “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” Williams was there, we weren’t, and he gave us a false account.

Not everyone is being as cautious as the Times and the Post. Writing last night in the Baltimore Sun, David Zurawik began: “If credibility means anything to NBC News, Brian Williams will no longer be managing editor and anchor of the evening newscast by the end of the day Friday.”

My own sense is that it’s too early to say whether Williams could or even should lose his job over this — although, barring a major exculpatory revelation, it doesn’t look good. Regardless, we have certainly come a long way from the days when an anchorman, Walter Cronkite, could be called “the most trusted man in America.”

Whatever else happens, Williams has permanently forfeited any such claims for himself.

Worcester Sun hopes to compete with Telegram & Gazette

Looks like the GateHouse Media-owned Telegram & Gazette of Worcester is getting some competition. Mark Henderson, the T&G’s former online director, is starting a news organization called the Worcester Sun, an online-mostly project with a paid Sunday paper.

The Sun has a $150,000 Kickstarter campaign, a website, and a presence on Facebook and Twitter, all of which are linked in the press release below. Go Local Worcester posted a story about the Sun on Saturday.

Best of luck to Henderson and cofounder/managing editor/creative director Fred Hurlbrink Jr., like Henderson a former GateHouse journalist.

WORCESTER, Massachusetts — Worcester Media Partners is proud to announce the launch of the Worcester Sun, an impact community journalism enterprise comprising a unique combination of best-in-class digital offering with a paid Sunday print product.

These products will be supported by an intuitive business model that puts quality journalism, and more importantly the folks who produce and consume it, at the forefront by leveraging the modern media world’s best efficiencies in a sustainable package.

Worcester Sun can be found at its new home on the web: www.worcester.ma; also look for regular updates and announcements on Facebook and Twitter.

In order to build the type of journalism enterprise Worcester deserves, Worcester Media Partners recognizes the necessity of ambition. We have set our sights high, and we look forward to the continued support of our community. Please visit our Kickstarter page to learn more about the project and how folks can pledge their support to the future of local journalism in and around the Seven Hills.

Worcester Sun was conceived by Mark Henderson, a 30-year veteran of Worcester-area journalism, who most recently spent several years as the online director of the Telegram & Gazette. There, he marshalled a number of innovations that propelled telegram.com to rank in the top 10 nationally in 2013 in audience growth and subscriber volume.

“We believe that when the number of former journalists exceeds the number of working journalists there is an opportunity and a need for a new approach,” Henderson said.

“The Sun will be the first news startup in the nation to launch with a paid Sunday newspaper.  We recognize that this is a huge undertaking, but we believe the community is ready for this approach. In addition, over the long run we believe this model could work in as many as 100 cities nationwide.”

Henderson is joined by co-founder Fred Hurlbrink Jr., managing editor/creative director. The group is working with no less than a dozen advisors, many among the leaders in their field in New England, who have logged more than 200 years of community journalism experience.

Under the leadership of this impressive cadre of innovative, experienced journalism pros, and with the support of the area’s brightest reporters, photographers, designers and new media professionals, Worcester Sun intends to provide the community with impactful, civic-minded journalism that promotes intelligent conversations and positive change.

Worcester Sun will shine a light into the deepest corners of the topics and events that matter most to the city and its residents. We will cover stories with candor and perspective. We will never pander or underestimate our readers. We will hold public officials accountable. We will hold ourselves accountable doubly so.

Worcester Sun will change journalism in Worcester. It is, indeed, a new day.