Obama’s war on journalism and free expression

President Obama

This commentary also appears at the Huffington Post.

Kudos to David Carr of the New York Times for shining a light on an issue that doesn’t attract nearly the attention that it should: the Obama administration’s abuse of the Espionage Act, which in turn has led to a virtual war on journalism and free expression.

As Carr notes, the Espionage Act, approved in 1917 during the hysteria of World War I, was used three times before President Obama took office in 2009 — and six times during his presidency.

We live in a dangerous era, and there have been prosecutions with which it may be hard to disagree. Carr cites the case of Bradley Manning, who’s been charged with stealing national-security documents that are at the heart of the WikiLeaks disclosures.

But Carr also writes that leak prosecutions often seem to be aimed more at punishing people for embarrassing the government than for genuinely damaging national security. In a particularly ironic case, a former CIA officer named John Kiriakou has been charged with leaking the names of agents involved in interrogating terrorism suspects. Carr points out that “none of the individuals who engaged in or authorized the waterboarding of terror suspects have been prosecuted.”

(More about the Kiriakou case from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Kiriakou has denied the charges.)

Kudos, too, to Jake Tapper of ABC News, whose confrontation with White House press secretary Jay Carney is the hook Carr uses to delve into the issue. A fuller account of Tapper and Carney’s exchange can be found here. Here’s Tapper responding to Carney’s praise for the journalist Marie Colvin, killed in Syria last week:

How does that square with the fact that this administration has been so aggressively trying to stop aggressive journalism in the United States by using the Espionage Act to take whistleblowers to court? You’re — currently I think that you’ve invoked it the sixth time, and before the Obama administration, it had only been used three times in history. You’re — this is the sixth time you’re suing a CIA officer for allegedly providing information in 2009 about CIA torture. Certainly that’s something that’s in the public interest of the United States. The administration is taking this person to court. There just seems to be disconnect here. You want aggressive journalism abroad; you just don’t want it in the United States.

I suspect Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have gotten a pass from many liberals because they believe a Republican president would be even worse on such matters. The fact is, though, that no president has been more aggressive than Obama in prosecuting suspected leakers.

And given the way the media work, it’s no surprise that they’ve said little, since the heart of what they do is respond to accusations. The storyline being promoted by Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich is that Obama is weak on national security, so they’re certainly not going to criticize the president for being too tough on leakers. Thus, no story.

When the government wants to take suspected leakers to court, it inevitably demands that journalists reveal their confidential sources. There is no constitutionally recognized right for journalists to protect their sources, and no federal shield law, which means that such cases have a considerable chilling effect on tough reporting.

In 2006, “Frontline” interviewed Mark Corallo, who was director of public affairs for George W. Bush’s first attorney general, John Ashcroft. In this transcript, you’ll see that Corallo, with the support of Ashcroft — not generally thought of as a friend of the First Amendment — approved only one subpoena for a journalist out of “dozens” that were requested. Corallo continued:

I can’t tell you about that case. It was a national-security case. I believed, after long reflection, that it did put innocent people’s lives in danger, our allies, people in other countries who would be subject to terrorist attacks. The case was so egregious; it was such a horrible instance of unethical behavior by a journalist to boot.

I hope Tapper’s tough questioning and Carr’s column are the beginning of a genuine attempt to hold the Obama White House to account for its repressive policies.

An entertaining look at the New York Times

David Carr torments a flack at Tribune Co.

At long last, I got to see “Page One: Inside the New York Times” at a screening last night at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. It’s a terrifically entertaining look at the culture inside the Times newsroom, focusing on the media desk’s coverage of the newspaper meltdown of 2009 and ’10. I brought a couple of students with me, and they were pretty enthusiastic about it as we were driving back to Northeastern.

As you have no doubt heard, the stars are columnist David Carr and reporter Brian Stelter, two people whose talents, though formidable, pale in comparison to their inhuman productivity. Carr easily slips into the role of Carr, a late-middle-aged reformed drug addict who genially F-bombs his way through interviews and public appearances, building up to his monumental takedown of Tribune Co. and its abusive owner, Sam Zell. Stelter, young and earnest, is the perfect counterpoint. (I know both of them slightly, Carr better than Stelter.)

Director Andrew Rossi and Shorenstein Center director Alex Jones kicked it around afterwards.

An obsessive media junkie probably won’t learn much, but I really enjoyed being immersed in Timesland for 90 minutes. Quibbles? As a friend observed, the documentary was heavily tilted toward men, which seems odd given that before it ends, we see the executive editor’s baton being passed from Bill Keller to Jill Abramson.

And though it was unavoidable, the sense of panic that pervaded the business when the film was being shot has abated to at least some degree. We’re hardly out of the woods. It seems that every day, we hear about cost-cutting and layoffs. But the notion that was prevalent a year or two ago, that the entire newspaper business was in its death throes, now appears to have been exaggerated. If “Page One” were shot today, I suspect it would be more optimistic.

Sex, rock-and-roll and the fall of Tribune Co.

We all knew it was bad. Today, New York Times media reporter David Carr tells us how bad in an exhaustive piece on Tribune Co. under real-estate mogul Sam Zell and his nutty co-conspirators, Randy Michaels and Lee Abrams.

There’s plenty of sex and rock-and-roll, though no drugs. The only false note is Carr’s description of the new barbarians desecrating the “shrine” that was the office of longtime Tribune owner Robert McCormick.

Then again, though the Colonel was a piece of work on the order of the foul-mouthed Zell himself, he never would have dreamed off stripping his newspaper and ushering it into bankruptcy.

Join David Carr and me this Thursday at MIT

Please join New York Times media columnist David Carr and me this Thursday, Oct. 7, for a discussion about “The Online Migration of Newspapers.” The program, to be held from 5 to 7 p.m., is part of the MIT Communications Forum, hosted by director David Thorburn.

The event will take place in the Bartos Theater at 20 Ames St. in Cambridge, plotted on this Google map. And yes, it will be my first public anything since this happened a couple of weeks ago.

Reflections on the state of media criticism

Hayes_20091222I’ve got an essay in the current issue of Nieman Reports on the evolution of media criticism, from its roots in the work of A.J. Liebling and the alternative press to its current status as an Internet-fueled growth industry.

The essay is, in part, a review of a new book by the media scholar Arthur Hayes called “Press Critics Are the Fifth Estate: Media Watchdogs in America.” Hayes deliberately eschews journalistic practitioners of media criticism such as Jack Shafer, Howard Kurtz, David Carr, Eric Alterman and Liebling himself in favor of political activists. (The cover aside, Stephen Colbert and even Jon Stewart receive surprisingly little mention.)

Hayes’ argument is that activists from ideological organizations such as Accuracy in Media on the right and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting on the left are more likely to bring about change than those whose mission it is to report on media institutions and write about their findings. As you might imagine, I disagree. I write:

At its best, media criticism — like all good journalism — is about digging out uncomfortable facts and telling them fearlessly. It is difficult to do well and, it shouldn’t be the critic’s job to bring about change. Truth is a rare enough commodity that it ought to be valued for its own sake.

Hope you’ll take a look.

Take two and call me in the morning

These two pieces really need to be read together. In today’s New York Times, media columnist David Carr takes a look at Gannett’s Journal News, in Westchester County, which has essentially fired the whole staff and invited everyone to reapply.

It sounds brutal — OK, it is brutal — but with the business model irretrievably broken, it makes perfect sense to blow everything up and start over. If it’s inevitable that the paper is going to end up with a much smaller staff, then it’s vital that the right people get to keep their jobs.

The second piece is a blog post by Howard Owens, the former GateHouse digital-publishing director who’s now publisher of the Batavian, a community news site covering the area between Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y.

Although much of Owens’ post is about why it makes sense for newspaper companies to separate print and online news operations, the heart of it is that since online advertising can only grow so much, the proper response is to cut expenses in order to reach break-even. He writes:

In a market where the newspaper newsroom might cost $10 million, I knew how to make $1 million online, or even $2 million, but I didn’t know — and still don’t — how to make $10 million.

So if I can make a million online, why do I need operate a $10 million newsroom, especially given the greater efficiencies of online publishing?

It’s possible to make money in online journalism. What may not be possible is for large, legacy news organizations — especially newspapers — to survive unless their executives are willing to rethink everything they do.

Reading the Times with Times Reader

Last week’s David Carr column on paid content brought a response from Slate’s Jack Shafer, who reminded us of his love for a product I had frankly forgotten about: Times Reader, a subscriber-only program that lets you download that day’s New York Times and read it offline, at your leisure.

Times Reader is based on some of the earliest ideas for online newspapers — ideas that were washed away by the rise of the Web. Indeed, Shafer even links to a video about the Knight Ridder digital tablet, an early-’90s idea that never came to pass. As envisioned back then, you’d plug your device into a slot on your cable-television box in order to receive newspapers, magazines and possibly books. You’d pay for it all, of course.

Click on image or here for a Flickr slideshow
of page captures from Times Reader

Anyway, Shafer’s latest prompted me to see if a Macintosh version of Times Reader had ever become available. Indeed it had, and I promptly downloaded it for a test drive. Because we subscribe to the Sunday print edition, there’s no extra charge for us. Otherwise, it’s $14.95 a month.

Is it worth it? Reluctantly, I have to say no, except for a certain small subset of readers. If you want to read the Times on your laptop every day in a place without an Internet connection — say, on a commuter train, or a bus — then Times Reader is for you. Of course, even trains and buses are increasingly likely to offer WiFi, so maybe I should describe the target audience as a subset of a subset.

First, the good. The typeface used by Times Reader is strikingly attractive, presented in a three-column format, almost as if you were reading a print newspaper. Because the entire paper resides on your hard drive, navigating Times Reader is very fast. Using the cursor keys, I find that I can skim through the paper much more effectively than I can with the Web edition.

In addition, we all know that the experience of reading a newspaper in print is very different from reading it on the Web. In print, there are boundaries; we’re limited to what the editors have chosen for us. The glory of the Web is that there no limits, but that’s its downfall, too. The temptation is to follow link after link. Before you know it, your intention to read the paper is gone.

Times Reader reimposes those sense of boundaries, especially when you turn off your Internet connection. (There are links, but you can’t follow them unless you’re online.) It’s just you and the paper, so you might as well read it. Unless you are an extremely disciplined person, you’re likely to read more of the Times using Times Reader than you would with the Web edition. If, like me, you don’t have to pay extra for Times Reader, then you ought to give it a try and see if you like it.

So what’s not to like? Quite a lot.

First, despite the attractive typeface and presentation in Times Reader, I actually find the Web version easier to read. The type is plainer, the leading (spacing) wider. I’d also rather have one column to negotiate rather than three. Readability tends to be a subjective judgment, but there you have it.

Second, photography in Times Reader is an afterthought. The Times, like many newspapers, has used its Web site as a way of giving us more, better photojournalism than ever before. Yet Times Reader doesn’t even give us as much as the print edition. There is a “News in Pictures” feature, but it’s completely random and unsatisfying.

Third, the Web edition includes a view of the print-version front page. I have no particular psychic need to have the print edition, but I do like to look at page one to see how different stories were played. You don’t get that with Times Reader, and the organizational scheme is such that, beyond the lead story, you don’t get an entirely clear idea of what’s important and what isn’t.

Fourth, Times Reader isn’t just a closed environment; it’s claustrophobic, even compared to the print edition: there are no ads in Times Reader, and I miss them. Advertising gives you a sense of liveliness, of stuff going on. I hardly ever click on Web ads, but I’m glad they’re there. Of course, Times Reader also cuts you off from all the great online-only content the Times Web site offers — videos, blogs, slideshows and the like.

Finally, I’m not sure all content is present in Times Reader. Last Thursday, for instance, I couldn’t find David Pogue’s technology column (and, as best as I can tell, there is no search function). I was also interested in trying out the crossword puzzle, but the necessary Mac software for my version of OS X (10.5) seems to have been botched.

Times Reader is a valiant attempt to come up with an online newspaper that people will pay for, and it’s something you may consider trying if you want to read the Times in a spot with no reliable Internet connection. But, to my eyes, it’s not nearly as good as either the Times in print or on the Web. Too bad.

Another round in the paid-content debate

Having recently regaled us with the flawed tale of a community newspaper that refuses to publish its content online, New York Times media columnist David Carr is back — this time with a suggestion that what we need is “an iTunes for news.”

Carr’s thesis is that news organizations can no longer afford to give away their content. But, as he acknowledges in his lament about the arrested state of online advertising, they’re not giving it away — or, at least, they don’t mean to. Rather, they’re failing to sell enough advertising to pay for their journalism. That’s a problem, but it’s not the same problem.

Carr knows as well as anyone that a good deal of what you pay for when you buy a newspaper doesn’t contribute anything to the bottom line. You’re paying for paper, presses, maintenance to those presses, distribution and — yes — the salaries of some good, hard-working people who won’t be needed if and when we move into a Web-only environment.

Given that, news organizations should theoretically be able to come up with an online version that pays for itself, or even turns a profit, without charging for access. That’s what national and local television newscasts do, and the model worked even better some years ago, when those newscasts were deeper and meatier than they are today. That’s what National Public Radio and its affiliate stations do, raising money directly from listeners in the form of contributions and from corporations in the form of advertising — uh, sorry, “underwriting.”

The problem with online news today is threefold: (1) sites like Craigslist and Monster.com have taken away much of the advertising that news orgs might have been able to sell; (2) the recession has halted the growth of online (and print) advertising; and (3) newspaper companies are staggering under so much debt that they need a rate of return that would be unrealistic even in a more favorable economic environment.

I’ve learned a lot over the past few years from Lisa Williams, who founded H2otown to cover her community of Watertown and now heads up Placeblogger to track community Web sites around the world. One of the most important is this: the future belongs to the small and the swift, and journalists — especially young journalists — ought to think of their careers the way tech workers do. Today’s journalists will probably live a rather nomadic existence, moving from start-up to start-up as we all try to figure out where the news business is going and where there might actually be money to be made.

Two cases in point.

Last week Politicker.com, a promising project whose goal was to expand into a network of 50 state-based sites, more or less went out of business, cutting back to just New York and New Jersey. The Massachusetts site is gone (though still up). Its blogger-journalist, Jeremy Jacobs, has taken a job at The Hill.

Politicker’s national managing editor, James Pindell, who blogged the New Hampshire primary for the Boston Globe’s Boston.com site, and who is himself a pioneering online journalist, is out of a job, although I can’t imagine he won’t get scooped up by someone very soon.

I’m not sure what happened. It could be that Politicker’s business model — getting advocacy groups (i.e., lobbyists) to buy ads in order to reach the intended audience of inside players — was not realistic. It could be that the model was brilliant but the timing was bad. In any case, the cycle of destruction and creation continues.

Because, this week, the long-anticipated GlobalPost.com makes its debut. Headed by New England Cable News founder Phil Balboni and former Boston Globe foreign correspondent Charles Sennott, the site is aimed at covering international news at a time when most traditional news organizations are cutting back.

It’s hard to imagine a more heartening development in journalism. And, yes, David Carr would rightly point out that GlobalPost plans some subscription-based services.

In fact, there may be a place for some pay services in online journalism, although I suspect it will be rare. Carr cites the Wall Street Journal, but people will pay for the specialized financial information to which a Journal online subscription gives them access. Sorry, but the Times, good as it is, doesn’t offer that.

Likewise, some people will pay to have their favorite newspapers downloaded onto a device like the Amazon Kindle, a step up in convenience and readability in comparison to the typical laptop.

As we move rapidly into the post-newspaper era, we’re going to see all kinds of experiments — mostly free, some subscription-based, most of which will fail, a few of which will succeed and serve as models for the industry.

The one thing that won’t work — and I think Carr would acknowledge this if it were put to him directly — is the notion that newspapers as we have come to know them will somehow be able to charge for their everyday content. That horse left the barn 10 years ago, and it’s not coming back.

Photo (cc) by David Muir and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

The wrong solution to the wrong problem

No doubt David Carr’s column in today’s New York Times is going to get a lot of attention. Carr takes a look at the triCityNews of Monmouth, N.J., a small alternative weekly that is thriving, supposedly because it doesn’t put any of its content online.

I don’t have a fully formed reaction, but I do have some observations that should provide some context.

  • It’s hardly a secret that small newspapers are still making money, especially if they haven’t been burdered with the crushing debt that chain ownership often brings. Nor does putting content online have much of an effect on the print circulation of small papers. The triCityNews would probably be doing fine even if it had a robust Web site — especially since the print edition is free.
  • Large papers aren’t doing as badly as you think, either. Tribune Co.’s headline-grabbing bankruptcy was due entirely to the $13.6 billion in debt it’s carrying, the result of two ill-conceived mergers. In fact, the company’s newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, would be operating at a profit were it not for the debt.
  • The most lucrative part of any newspaper, large or small, used to be its classified-ad section. That’s gone forever, mainly because of Craigslist, which will continue to thrive regardless of the triCityNews’ online strategy.
  • Even so, free online editions may slowly be moving toward profitability. Jeff Jarvis reports that the LA Times’ Web site revenue is greater than the cost of its news-gathering operation, suggesting that the print edition could be scrapped at some point. I suspect it’s not quite that simple. But it’s not hopeless, either.

Carr wants that newspaper executives to rethink the whole notion of putting their content online for free. Carr’s a sharp guy, but in this case I think he’s proposing the wrong solution to the wrong problem.