Off-duty reporters, political rallies and NPR

What does it mean to “participate” in a rally? It’s a question I’m asking myself after reading a memo from NPR management (via Romenesko) warning journalists to stay away from the Oct. 30 rallies being organized by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The memo, from senior vice president for news Ellen Weiss, includes this:

NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers, nor should they sign petitions or otherwise lend their name to such causes, or contribute money to them. This restriction applies to the upcoming John [sic] Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallies.

Most of Weiss’ admonitions are a matter of common sense. Journalists should not put bumper stickers on their cars, donate money to political candidates or do anything else that would amount to political involvement. But if I were an off-duty NPR reporter, I’d be offended at being ordered not to attend a rally, whether it be Colbert’s “Keep Fear Alive” event or Glenn Beck’s recent gathering.

Good journalists want to check things out whether they’re working or not. There’s a proper role for a reporter on a busman’s holiday, and it neither requires staying home nor involves waving fists and posters while chanting along with the crowd.

It’s called attending, observing, learning.

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Herald taken to task on sexual-assault stories

John Carroll takes the Boston Herald to task for two stories about underage sexual-assault victims — one of whom is a 14-year-old girl described as allegedly having an “affair” with a 30-year-old school security officer (it’s called rape, people), the other depicted (but not named) in a photo in the print edition.

“Something’s out of whack at the feisty local tabloid,” writes Carroll.

A curiously sourced story

Desirée Rogers, in White House kitchen, is to Michelle Obama's immediate right.

The New York Times fronts an article by Peter Baker on the ugly departure of White House social secretary Desirée Rogers. Go ahead and call it a classic “Who cares?” story, but I’m shallow enough to admit it’s the only one I’ve read in the Times so far today.

What really hit me, though, was this:

And while she [Rogers] is unwilling to discuss her story publicly, several associates shared her account in the belief that her side has been lost in the swirl of hearings, backbiting and paparazzilike coverage.

Go ahead and read the story. I have no doubt that Baker did, indeed, interview “several associates.” But it also seems crystal-clear that Rogers sat down with Baker and gave him an extensive interview, all of it premised on an agreement that she would not be quoted either by name or on a not-for-attribution basis. I believe that’s called “deep background” — not that there’s any agreement on what the term means.

The whole point to such an exercise is to provide Rogers with plausible deniability, and I don’t think Baker did that. Of course, assuming Baker stuck to their agreement, that’s Rogers’ problem, not his. Still, from an ethical point of view it’s at least worth chewing over.

A final caveat: I am, of course, guessing at what happened. It’s possible that Baker got Rogers’ side solely on the basis of interviews with her friends, and that she herself refused to speak with him. But that’s not how it looks from here.

White House photo by Joyce Boghosian. More information at Wikimedia Commons.

Radar can’t be wrong

Radar Online has posted an anonymously sourced item claiming that U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is “considering” stepping down. Well, consider this: There’s no way Radar can be wrong, is there? The item goes on to say that Roberts “could announce his decision at any time.” If Roberts retires in 2021, will Radar, if it’s still around, demand a Pulitzer?

That was quick: If you follow the link now (1:41 p.m.), you’ll see that Radar has retracted the item.

The ghost in Mitt Romney’s machine

Nina Easton

I’m always amazed when journalists find themselves unwilling to follow the simple ethical rules of our business. So this morning I find myself scratching my head over the news that Nina Easton, an ex-Boston Globe reporter who is still working as a journalist, helped former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney write his new book, “No Apology.”

Globe reporter Sasha Issenberg writes that Romney pays tribute to Easton’s contributions in the acknowledgments. And Easton, now Washington bureau chief for Fortune magazine and a commentator on Fox News, has this to say for herself:

Mitt asked me — as a friend and a book author myself — for some input on an early draft. I offered some writer’s advice on things like structure and how to better tease out themes in his writing. It wasn’t much.

No, not much. Just enough to disqualify her from commenting on the 2012 presidential campaign as long as Romney is a candidate. (And please don’t tell me that he’s not a candidate. Romney’s 2012 campaign began the day he dropped out of the ’08 race.) At least Easton left the Globe in 2006; it wouldn’t be good if her fingerprints were found on the paper’s massive 2007 Romney series.

Here, by the way, is Easton on Fox’s “Hannity” on May 28, 2009, talking about efforts by the Bush and Obama administrations to bail out General Motors:

How is it all possible, Sean? How is it possible is that the Bush administration punted on this. They punted by giving TARP funds, bailing out GM, and punting it to the next administration when, in fact, we should have gone through a Mitt-Romney-style plan, which was a government-managed bankruptcy, which would have left this company far more in the private sector.

Clearly the two presidents should have been wearing a wristband that said “WWMD?” — “What Would Mitt Do?”

Easton, of course, is hardly a pioneer. Perhaps the most memorable of such breaches took place in 1980, when columnist George Will helped Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan prep for his debate with then-president Jimmy Carter, and subsequently enthused over Reagan’s “thoroughbred performance” on “Nightline” without disclosing his role.

And, yes, Globe journalists have been known to lend a hand in various ways to Democratic politicians over the years.

But it’s a lousy practice, and I can’t understand why some journalists are so attracted to it. I mean, how did Easton ever get to the point at which she considered Romney a “friend” in the first place? This is someone she covers. Period.

More: I had not anticipated the demand for details I’ve received regarding the aid and comfort Democratic politicians have gotten from the Globe. I did have a specific incident in mind when I wrote that sentence, but it was a long time ago and I have my reasons for not wanting to get into it. Indeed, anything I could come up with would predate not just Marty Baron’s tenure as editor, but his predecessor, Matt Storin’s, as well.

For some insight into how the Globe and Democratic politicians once benefited mightily from each other’s favors, you might want to take a look at this piece I wrote some years ago (pay no attention to the date at the top of the page) about Jack Farrell’s wonderful book “Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century.”

Two cheers for anonymous sources

Yes, anonymous quotes should be used sparingly. But in my latest for the Guardian, I argue that they are just like anything else in the journalist’s toolbox — a help to readers when used properly, a bane when abused.

Media Nation heads for the Merrimack Valley

I’ll be speaking later today at a conference of the Northeast Massachusetts Regional Library System, which Mrs. Media Nation reliably informs me is pronounced NIM-rils. The event is being held at Nevins Memorial Library in Methuen.

My topic will be a familiar one — reinventing journalism in the post-newspaper age — but I hope to add a few wrinkles to it based on some recent developments at the Boston Globe, and on the time I’ve been spending with the folks from the New Haven Independent.

I’ve posted the slideshow I’ll be using. For some reason, a few odd breaks crept in when it was converted from PowerPoint to SlideShare. But you’ll get the idea.

Tomorrow I head back to the Merrimack Valley for a panel discussion on how blogging on newspaper Web sites has affected the news cycle — and how that can create challenges in breaking-news situations.

The panel, part of a conference being held by the New England Society of Newspaper Editors (NEZ-nee? I’ll have to get back to you on that), will be held at the Eagle-Tribune in North Andover.

Balloon dad hits the 14:59 mark

Richard_Heene_20091017Yes, we should all be skeptical about checkbook journalism, and Gawker is right up front about having paid Robert Thomas, a former friend and would-be business associate of balloon dad Richard Heene (photo).

But if Thomas can be trusted, the picture he paints of Heene is devastating. Thomas portrays Heene as an increasingly paranoid, frantic man who believes shape-shifting reptiles are running the government and who would do anything to get on television.

The two had even talked about perpetrating a hoax with the balloon, Thomas claims, though getting one of the kids involved was supposedly not part of the original plan.

This story in the Denver Post only adds to the sense that it’s all about to fall apart.

Photo of Heene is from his MySpace profile.

Journalism ethics in real time

Melissa Bailey
Melissa Bailey

Melissa Bailey, the managing editor of the New Haven Independent, has written a fascinating story for Slate’s Double X on the steps she took to protect the identities of the fiancée and the ex-girlfriend of Raymond Clark, who’s been charged with the murder of Yale University student Annie Le. Bailey writes:

We learned the girlfriend’s identity, as well as the names of Clark and his current fiancee, before their identities were public. This was in the days after Le had disappeared but before her body was found, when slews of national reporters had descended on our city to find clues to the killing. As we chased the story, I wanted to break news — that’s my job. But I also wanted to shield the women caught up in the case from an onslaught of judgment and national attention that would make things harder for them.

Bailey writes about the decision to use material from the women’s Facebook and MySpace pages even while withholding their names. The Independent also withheld Clark’s name until he had been formally charged, even after New Haven police put it in a press release and repeated it at a news conference.

Her essay is an interesting, close-up look at applied journalism ethics. I’m not sure whether I’d have made the same calls as the Independent. But I’m impressed at how much thought went into Bailey’s and editor Paul Bass’ decision-making.

How meta is this?

Media Nation links to the New Haven Independent’s coverage of the Annie Le murder, noting that the news site refrained from naming the suspect, Raymond Clark, until he had been formally charged. The Independent links back to Media Nation’s commentary on said decision and asks its readers to comment.

Check out the discussion.