Why the liberal media love to torment liberals

Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy
Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet is blaming an overreliance on anonymous sources for his paper’s monumental screw-up involving San Bernardino terrorist Tashfeen Malik’s social-media activities.

“This was a really big mistake,” Baquet told Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, “and more than anything since I’ve become editor it does make me think we need to do something about how we handle anonymous sources.”

And yes, Baquet has surely identified part of the problem. But I would argue that anonymous sourcing in this case is symptomatic of a larger problem: a failure to vet damaging information as thoroughly as it should have been, compounded, perhaps, by a predilection not to look too closely when it involves alleged wrongdoing by a liberal administration.

Say what? The liberal mainstream media has it in for liberal politicians? The answer to that question, I would argue, is an unambiguous “yes.” There are few things more comforting to journalists—constantly under attack for their alleged liberal bias—than to make life miserable for their supposed allies on the left. Not only do they think it might give their critics pause, but it also feeds into their own sense of even-handedness.

Here’s what happened. On December 12, the Times reported that before the shootings Malik had “talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad,” and that government officials—who are supposedly monitoring such activities—missed it.

It turned out that the Times was wrong. Instead, FBI Director James Comey said several days later, Malik had made her views known in private messages, not in public forums. The Times posted an “Editors’ Note” at the bottom of the story and rewrote the lede. But as Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple pointed out, the rewritten version still emitted a strong whiff of governmental malfeasance even though officials had no reason to investigate Malik before she and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, killed 14 people at a holiday party on December 2.

The Obama administration’s alleged fecklessness in failing to intercept Malik’s communications before the shootings became an issue at last week’s Republican presidential debate, as moderator Wolf Blitzer cluelessly allowed the candidates to prattle on even though his own network, CNN, had already reported Comey’s statements.

Margaret Sullivan, in her characteristically unstinting post-mortem, noted that two of the three reporters who wrote the Malik story, Matt Apuzzo and Michael Schmidt, were also the bylines behind a disaster earlier this summer in which the Times reported, falsely, that Hillary Clinton was under criminal investigation for how she used her celebrated private email account. As Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum put it, “In the end, virtually everything about the story turned out to be wrong. Clinton was not a target. The referral was not criminal. The emails in question had not been classified at the time Clinton saw them.”

And now you’re beginning to see the contours of the larger issue I mentioned at the top: the frequency with which the mainstream media unfairly go after liberal politicians in order to create the narrative that they are equally tough on both sides. The Times, in particular, has a record of being susceptible to this phenomenon (for instance, see Gene Lyons’s article“The Media Chase Hillary, Time And ‘Times’ Again,” at The National Memo.)

Consider the paper’s obsession with the so-called Whitewater scandal in the 1990s—a tangled affair involving the Clintons and Arkansas real estate that never went anywhere. Or its indulgence of then-Times reporter Judith Miller’s credulous reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Or columnist Maureen Dowd’s endless mockery of a claim that Al Gore never made (that he’d “invented the Internet”) and her fabrication of a pretentious John Kerry soundbite that he never actually said (“Who among us doesn’t like NASCAR?”).

As a liberal commentator myself, I’ll confess that I’m not immune to the allure of dishing it out to liberal politicians I usually agree with. In 2012, for instance, I wrote a piece for The Huffington Post headlined “Obama’s War on Journalism.” I stand behind every word that I wrote about the president’s contempt for the role of a free press in a democratic society. But I’ve also cited it on a number of occasions when I’ve been criticized for being pro-Obama.

What often leads the media astray in these situations is that they are responding to what the liberal media critic Eric Alterman calls “working the refs”—that is, media-bashing by conservatives aimed at getting eliciting better treatment. It goes back (at least) to Richard Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, who declared war on the press in his famous speech deriding the “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

The way to deal with those complaints, though, is through fairness and fearless truth-telling, not through false balance.

Did the Tashfeen Malik social-media story make it onto page one without proper vetting because, institutionally, the Times benefits from beating up on a liberal administration? Probably not—at least not directly. But there’s an attitude at the Times and within the mainstream media generally that goes back so many years and has manifested itself in so many ways that you can’t help but ask the question.

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New York Times under fire for San Bernardino screw-up

Tashfeen_Malik
Tashfeen Malik (photo via Wikipedia)

The New York Times has walked back an explosive claim: that San Bernardino terrorist Tashfeen Malik had “talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.” As Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple reports, FBI Director James Comey said earlier this week that there was no evidence for that particular morsel, which the Republican presidential candidates chewed over at Tuesday night’s debate.

Wemple also notes that the Times‘ revised story now makes it clear that Malik had actually discussed her views on violent jihadism privately. The result is a story about social media that’s not really about social media, with the Times “attempting to preserve the structure and feel of a story about federal government misfeasance” even though there is zero reason to believe federal officials should have been aware of her private communications.

An earlier Wemple post provides more details about what went wrong at the Times, as well as some less-than-adroit handling of the information by the Los Angeles Times and by CNN debate moderator Wolf Blitzer. Blitzer allowed the candidates to trash the Obama administration on the basis of the Times story even though it had already been contradicted by CNN’s own reporting. (#slatepitches: “Wolf Blitzer Actually Did a Good Job Moderating the Debate. Good Job, Wolf!”)

And as Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum notes, two of the three Times reporters, Matt Apuzzo and Michael Schmidt, “were also the authors of July’s epic fail claiming that Hillary Clinton was the target of a criminal probe over the mishandling of classified information in her private email system. In the end, virtually everything about the story turned out to be wrong. Clinton was not a target. The referral was not criminal. The emails in question had not been classified at the time Clinton saw them.”

The Times has a problem. We’ll see how executive editor Dean Baquet handles it in the days ahead.

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.

Bezos’ bucks may re-ignite Post-Times competition

Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos

When Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post last year for the paltry sum (especially for him) of $250 million, newspaper observers hoped that it presaged a new era for the struggling daily. For now, at least, it looks like those hopes are becoming a reality.

The Post is ramping up. Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post reported recently that the paper has hired 50 full-time staff journalists so far in 2014, and that it is making at least a partial return to its status as a national newspaper — a status it had retreated from during the final years of Graham family ownership. Executive editor Marty Baron told Calderone:

We’ve talked a lot about the need to grow. We’ve said that in order to grow, we have to look outside our own immediate region and the only opportunity for growth is digital. We are looking at growth opportunities around the country.

Richard Byrne Reilly recently wrote in VentureBeat that Bezos isn’t quite the hands-off owner that he appears to be, taking a deep interest in the paper’s digital initiatives. According to Reilly:

With chief information officer and technology vice president Shailesh Prakash at the helm, Bezos is pumping cash into the once staid company’s IT infrastructure. Lots of it. The new leadership has put 25 computer engineers into the newsroom, helping reporters craft multifaceted digital stories for mobile devices.

The Post’s expansion is a heartening development, and it’s one we’re seeing unfold in Boston as well. Red Sox principal owner John Henry, whose $75 million purchase of The Boston Globe was announced just days before Bezos said he was buying the Post, has, like Bezos, shown a willingness to try to grow his news organization out of the doldrums into which it had fallen.

The Globe is making some interesting moves into video; has redesigned its nearly two-decade-old free Boston.com site while moving all Globe content behind a flexible paywall at BostonGlobe.com; has developed new verticals for innovation and technology (BetaBoston) and arts and entertainment (RadioBDC and BDCWire); and will soon unveil a standalone site covering the Catholic Church.

As for the Post, it’s notable that its comeback coincides with a serious misstep at The New York Times — the botched firing of executive editor Jill Abramson. Combined with the loss this week of the Times’ chief digital strategist, Aron Pilhofer, to The Guardian, and the release of an internal report criticizing the Times’ own digital strategy, it may not be an exaggeration to suggest that energy and momentum have swung from the Times to the Post. (To be sure, the Times’ new executive editor, Dean Baquet, enjoys an excellent reputation.)

From the Pentagon Papers and Watergate in the early 1970s until about a decade ago, the Times and the Post were often mentioned in the same breath as our two leading newspapers. Good as the Post was during the final years of the Graham era, budget-cutting allowed the Times to open up a lead and remain in a category of its own.

It would be great for journalism and for all of us if Bezos, Baron and company are able to level the playing field once again.

Photo (cc) by Steve Jurvetson and used under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Auletta chips away at the Jill Abramson story

Jill Abramson
Jill Abramson

Ken Auletta of The New Yorker keeps chipping away. This is fascinating stuff. The fickle finger of blame for why New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson was fired shifts from chief executive officer Mark Thompson (OK, that was just a theory of mine) to new editor Dean Baquet. (And, of course, and always, publisher Arthur Sulzberger.)

And as Auletta points out, the big question still hasn’t been answered: “Why did the Times, which so heralded the hiring of its first female executive editor, terminate Abramson in such a brutal fashion?”

Photo via Instagram.

Jill Abramson, accountability and The New York Times

Jill Abramson
Jill Abramson

Previously published at WGBH News.

My two favorite stories about Jill Abramson both speak to her insistence on holding The New York Times to account. Those stories may help explain why she was removed as executive editor on Wednesday.

The first pertains to investor Steven Rattner, a friend of publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. who was being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission over a kickback scheme involving the New York State pension fund. (In November 2010 Rattner paid a $6.2 million settlement and accepted a two-year ban on some of his trading activities.)

According to The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, Abramson — then the managing editor, serving as Bill Keller’s number two — didn’t hesitate to green-light a front-page investigative report on Rattner, the Sulzberger connection be damned. “What better test is there for an editor than how they handle the publisher’s best friend?” Auletta quoted an unnamed Times source as saying.

To Sulzberger’s credit, the incident didn’t prevent him from naming Abramson to succeed Keller in 2011. But what may have created an irreparable breech was a second, similar story. In 2012, Sulzberger chose Mark Thompson, the former director general of the BBC, to become chief executive officer of the New York Times Co. Before Thompson could begin, Abramson dispatched one of the Times’ top investigative reporters to look into whether Thompson had any role in the child-sex-abuse scandal whirling around Jimmy Savile, a once-popular TV host.

Both Thompson and Sulzberger were angry, reports Gabriel Sherman in New York magazine. A source was quoted as saying of Sulzberger: “He was livid, in a very passive aggressive way. These were a set of headaches Jill had created for Arthur.”

Now the Times’ internal top cop is off the beat. And Thompson, presumably, has a freer hand to enact his agenda — an agenda that is said to include, among other things, more online video and more native advertising, the term of art used to describe what used to be disparagingly referred to as “advertorials.”

Abramson’s successor and former number two, Dean Baquet, is now the paper’s first African-American executive editor, a not-insignificant milestone on a par with Abramson’s being the first woman. He is said to be a fine editor and a popular choice with the newsroom.

But given that Sulzberger’s own son recently wrote a report arguing that the Times isn’t moving quickly enough on the digital front, it might seem strange that Abramson’s successor would be someone regarded as even less digitally savvy than she. The likely explanation is that Thompson sees himself as the paper’s chief digital officer. Certainly Thompson does not lack for confidence. Less than a year ago he supposedly told a Times executive, “I could be the editor of the New York Times,” according to an article by Joe Hagan in New York magazine.

I don’t mean to play down any of the other reasons that have been given for Abramson’s abrupt and brutal dismissal. There is the matter of her brusque demeanor, described in detail last year by Dylan Byers of Politico. At the time I dismissed it as anonymously sourced sexism, but Byers is deservedly taking a victory lap this week.

Another factor was her complaints about making less money than Bill Keller did when he was editor, a story Ken Auletta broke within hours of Abramson’s dismissal. Auletta reported that Abramson even learned she made less than a male deputy managing editor when she was managing editor. The Times has denied all, although in language that makes it hard to figure out what, precisely, it is denying.

And then there is the incident that may have precipitated the final crisis — her reported attempts to hire Janine Gibson away from The Guardian to serve as a co-managing editor for digital without bothering to inform Baquet. Certainly that’s the angle that the Times’ David Carr and Ravi Somaiya play up in their own coverage of Abramson’s dismissal. (Other accounts say Gibson would have been a deputy managing editor, and thus presumably less of a threat to Baquet’s authority.)

Still, none of these reasons sufficiently explains why Sulzberger believed Abramson needed to be dealt with so harshly. She was all but hustled out of the building, treated like Howell Raines after he was dismissed for enabling a plagiarizing, fabricating young journalist named Jayson Blair. By contrast, the Times under Abramson’s editorship has been a journalistic success and has done reasonably well financially at a time when the news business has been imploding, as Matthew Yglesias explains at Vox. (Vox also takes the prize for the best Abramson headline: “Tattooed, puppy-stealing badass editor Jill Abramson out at the New York Times.”)

“I think what it says to us is there is still enormous challenges for women out there, for women who assume those key and influential roles in journalism,” Melissa Ludtke, a pioneering sports journalist and former editor of Nieman Reports, told Politico’s Anna Palmer.

I think it’s more complicated than that. It is nevertheless a fact that in the past few years Sulzberger has fired two of the highest-ranking women in the newspaper business — first Janet Robinson, creating the vacancy that Mark Thompson later filled, and now Abramson.

In addressing the staff Wednesday, Sulzberger referred to “an issue with management in the newsroom.” That’s not good enough. And it’s not the kind of accountability Abramson pushed for in covering the powerful institution that she worked for. I hope we’ll learn more in the days ahead.

Jill Abramson named to lead the New York Times

Jill Abramson

I have no particular insight into the announcement that New York Times executive editor Bill Keller has decided to step aside. But it’s big news in the media world, and it will be worth keeping an eye out to see whether there’s a story behind the story. Jim Romenesko is gathering links. It is, of course, significant that the Times’ next top editor, Jill Abramson, will be the first woman to run what is arguably our leading news organization.

Keller will write a column for the Sunday opinion section, which is being redesigned. His column for the Sunday magazine hasn’t exactly been well-received, so it’s hard to believe Keller is what we Frank Rich fans have been waiting for. But Keller is obviously a fine journalist, and he may rise to the occasion when he’s not dashing something off in addition to his other duties.

The last time the executive editor’s job changed hands was in 2003, when Howell Raines and his deputy, Gerald Boyd, stepped down following the Jayson Blair scandal. At that time Boston Globe editor Marty Baron, whose résumé included a stint as a Times editor, was considered for a top job at the Mother Ship. (Little-known fact: Keller turned down the chance to replace the retiring Matt Storin as the Globe’s editor in 2001, recommending Baron instead.)

That seems unlikely to happen this time, as Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet has already been announced as Abramson’s managing editor for news. Baquet is a former editor of the Los Angeles Times, where Baron also spent a good part of his career.

New York Times photo.