Garland makes good on Biden’s promise to stop harassing the press

Attorney General Merrick Garland. Photo (cc) 2016 by Senate Democrats.

Give President Joe Biden credit for having a keen understanding of what it takes to hold together his Democratic-liberal-progressive coalition.

When he said in May that it was “simply, simply wrong” for the government to spy on journalists, I was skeptical that he would follow up his sentiment with concrete action. After all, he was vice president under Barack Obama, whose harassment of reporters in his campaign against leaks was legendary. Other presidents also thought nothing about going after reporters, including Donald Trump, George W. Bush and, of course, Richard Nixon.

But press secretary Jen Psaki followed up by assuring reporters that Biden meant what he said. And, on Monday, it came to fruition with Attorney General Merrick Garland’s announcement that the administration would stop attempting to seize journalists’ records in nearly all circumstances. In a memo quoted by The New York Times, Garland wrote:

The Department of Justice will no longer use compulsory legal process for the purpose of obtaining information from or records of members of the news media acting within the scope of news-gathering activities.

Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, issued a statement of approval, saying:

The attorney general has taken a necessary and momentous step to protect press freedom at a critical time. This historic new policy will ensure that journalists can do their job of informing the public without fear of federal government intrusion into their relationships with confidential sources.

Technically, Garland was acting on his own. The attorney general is supposed to be independent of the president. But Garland could hardly continue with the anti-press policies of Biden’s predecessors after Biden himself had spoken out so strongly in favor of reform.

Become a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month!

Garland’s actions come in response to some truly shocking actions undertaken by the Trump administration, some of which spilled over into the first few months of the Biden presidency. Acting on what appeared to be political motivations, the Trump Justice Department sought phone and email records from journalists at The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN. Judging from the timeline, the Trumpsters seemed to be looking into those news organizations’ reporting on the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to Russian interests.

There are some exceptions to Garland’s order in the case of life-or-death situations, or if a reporter is believed to be actively helping a source obtain classified information. But these exceptions strike me as reasonable rather than being easily exploited loopholes.

Garland’s memo also says that the Justice Department will support efforts to pass legislation making the guidelines permanent so that they don’t expire as soon as Biden leaves office. That’s really the key, since future presidents and attorneys general would otherwise not be bound by Biden and Garland’s good intentions.

A few parting thoughts about Nikole Hannah-Jones, and the role of trustees and donors

Nikole Hannah-Jones. Photo (cc) 2018 by Alice Vergueiro / Abraji.

Now that the board of trustees at the University of North Carolina has finally voted to grant tenure to New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, I want to close this story out with a few parting thoughts, mainly about the role of trustees and donors.

When it comes to tenure decisions, trustees have what you might call a “ministerial” role. That’s a word that was used quite a bit around the time that Joe Biden’s win over Donald Trump was being certified by Congress. Members of the House and Senate had to vote before the election could become official, but by custom and practice they were bound to vote for the candidate who had won the Electoral College. Their role, in other words, was “ministerial,” not deliberative or substantive. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t deviate, and, as we know, some of them did. But that was seen as a norm-breaking abrogation of past practice, notwithstanding a few protest votes that had been cast in previous elections.

So, too, is it with trustees and tenure. By the time a tenure case comes before the trustees, it’s been approved by the faculty member’s department, college (in the case of a university), provost and the president. The trustees’ role is to ratify, not to debate. As with Congress and the presidential election, that doesn’t mean the trustees can’t vote to reject someone for tenure. But to do so would amount to a complete breakdown of custom and a severe misunderstanding on the part of the trustees as to what their role really is.

Hannah-Jones’ tenure case was approved on a 9-4 vote, meaning that four trustees just don’t get it. They are not there to express their personal views. They’re there to support the administration and then go out to dinner. I don’t mean to suggest that they should play no role in the governance of the university. If there were, say, misconduct on the part of the president, then it’s the trustees’ job to discipline or fire that person. What they’re not supposed to do is reach down past the president and overturn a tenure decision.

That said, the real travesty at UNC is that the trustees allowed a major donor to influence them. Walter Hussman Jr., who showered so much money upon the journalism school that they named it after him, contacted some of the trustees and made his feelings known about the 1619 Project, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Times reporting about slavery and American history that Hannah-Jones conceived of and was the lead writer for. Although Hussman, who owns the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has said it wasn’t his intention to pressure the trustees and that he never threatened to withhold his donation, there seems to be little doubt — according to reporting by NC Policy Watch — that at least some of the trustees were worried Hussman would close his checkbook and walk away.

And not to go bothsides here, because there’s really no comparison. But the Times reports today that the trustees also heard from another major donor, this one on Hannah-Jones’ behalf:

As the debate went on, Ms. Hannah-Jones received the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a major donor to the university. The foundation’s chief executive, Richard E. Besser, sent a letter to the board chairman, Richard Stevens, on June 3, encouraging the trustees to “support the appointment of Ms. Hannah-Jones with full tenure privileges.”

That, too, was improper, although I suppose Besser concluded that he needed to fight fire with fire.

The merits of Hannah-Jones’ tenure case were indisputable. Her appointment was to a Knight Chair, a position that always comes with tenure. She is the recipient not only of a Pulitzer but of a MacArthur Genius Grant. Opposition to her was grounded in right-wing criticism of the 1619 Project, which seeks to recenter the American story around slavery. The quibbles about it are minor when compared to its epic sweep.

We should all be glad that this has finally been resolved. But it’s enraging that it was so difficult.

Previous coverage.

Major news outlets are running a tobacco company’s ads on their websites

More than two decades after cigarette ads began disappearing from newspapers, major news organizations are running ads on their websites from tobacco giant Philip Morris touting the company’s research into smoke-free tobacco products.

I began reporting this piece after an alert reader called my attention to an ad in The Boston Globe titled “Science leading to a smoke-free future,” which appeared over the weekend and was in rotation as recently as Monday. But in Googling around, it didn’t take long to find that similar Philip Morris ads have been published by The New York Times, The Washington Post and Reuters. No doubt they’ve appeared in many other outlets, too.

These are not ads that were automatically served up to news websites by Google. Rather, they are sponsored content, produced in collaboration with the news organization that publishes them. Such content, also known as “native advertising,” use type and layout that differ from the typical presentation. It’s also accompanied by disclosures that it was paid for by the advertisers and that the news and editorial departments had no involvement in its production.

Regular readers know that I’m a defender of native ads as long as there is sufficient disclosure, and I have no problem with the way these news organizations handle them. But partnering with a major tobacco company on an ad promoting research into tobacco products? Really?

Become a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month. Members receive a weekly newsletter with exclusive early content.

These ads appear under the byline of Dr. Moira Gilchrist, vice president of strategic and scientific communications at Philip Morris. Some excerpts from the Globe version:

We are now on a path to one day, hopefully soon in many countries in which we operate, completely replace cigarette sales with smoke-free alternatives that are a better choice for the people around the world who smoke today. These are nicotine-containing products that do not burn tobacco, which — while not risk-free — are a much better choice than continuing to smoke….

The fundamental principle that drives our scientific work is the widely accepted fact that nicotine — while addictive and not risk-free — is not the primary cause of smoking-related disease. It’s the burning of tobacco that creates the harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke — which is why from the outset we design our smoke-free products to eliminate burning, thus eliminating smoke while providing an alternative that smokers find acceptable and will actually use.

According to Michael Moore of Australia’s George Institute for Public Health in Australia, and a past president of the World Federation of Public Health Associations, the Philip Morris ads are the latest in a series of tactics by Big Tobacco to win acceptance for e-cigarettes. In an article he wrote last year for the European Journal of Public Health, he identified other tactics employed by the tobacco companies as “use of the term ‘harm reduction,’” social-media attacks on critics, hiring lobbyists, and touting e-cigarettes as a method for quitting smoking. According to a summary of his article:

Tobacco companies face an ever-increasing rate of marginalisation. They use eCigarettes as an opportunity to improve their credibility. In the past it was “just filter it” and “light cigarettes”. More recently, Philip Morris established a “Foundation for a Smoke-free World” pumping millions of dollars into distorting arguments about harm reduction.

And, yes, Moore gives Gilchrist a shoutout: “To enhance arguments, Big Tobacco has deployed public health figures like Dr Derek Yach and Dr Moira Gilchrist.”

When I asked Megan Arendt, a spokeswoman for the anti-tobacco organization Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), about the Philip Morris ads, she told me by email: “In a perfect world, vapes would only be marketed to (and sold to) adult people who smoke. But given their clear history of targeting children, an ad ban should include all tobacco products.”

The Philip Morris ad doesn’t promote smoking or even vaping, which has its own health risks. (On Monday, Juul reached a $40 million settlement with North Carolina over a lawsuit charging that the vaping company marketed to kids. Massachusetts is suing as well.) But the ad does talk about “ensuring our smoke-free products deliver a consistent aerosol” — so the intended user of the products being developed would still be inhaling.

Cigarette advertising is legal in U.S. newspapers. The papers couldn’t be banned from accepting such ads because of First Amendment protections, but the tobacco companies themselves could be prohibited from advertising. In 1970, President Richard Nixon (yes, everything really does go back to Nixon) signed legislation banning cigarette ads from television and radio, but those are regulated media.

The New York Times banned cigarette ads in April 1999, but said the policy didn’t apply to other papers it owned, which at that time included the Globe. That July, the Globe’s then-ombudsman, Jack Thomas, took his bosses to task and called for the Globe to follow the example set by the Times and other papers. He wrote that “publishers are still in conflict, still seduced by the revenue from tobacco ads but also uneasy in the role of a siren luring readers into a deathtrap.”

My research trail went cold after I found the Thomas piece, but at some point the Globe stopped accepting cigarette ads, as did virtually all other newspapers. As ASH’s Arendt says, the Globe — and every media outlet — should take the next step and refuse to accept ads for tobacco products. Claims that the products are only intended for adults who want a safer alternative to smoking are nice, but you know what? They’ll find those products without the complicity of news organizations.

Nikole Hannah-Jones and the challenges facing Black women in academia

More fallout from the fiasco at the University of North Carolina over New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure case as The Washington Post reports on the challenges facing Black women in academia. Nick Anderson and Joe Heim write:

In Chapel Hill and beyond, many academics are backing Hannah-Jones in what has become a remarkable tenure showdown pending before the university’s board of trustees. The case has raised questions about the influence of politicians and donors on the faculty hiring process.

For Black female professors, long underrepresented among America’s tenured faculty, the stakes are deeply personal.

It’s time for the feds to stop hassling and spying on the press

FBI headquarters. Photo (cc) 2008 by zaimoku_woodpile.

Previously published at GBH News.

It was a move reminiscent of the post-9/11 Patriot Act, which allowed federal investigators to spy on the reading habits of library and bookstore customers in the name of fighting terrorism.

Last week we learned that the FBI had subpoenaed USA Today in pursuit of Internet Protocol addresses and other data. The goal was to help the agency figure out the identities of people who had read a story last February about a Florida shootout in which two FBI agents were killed and three were wounded. The subpoena specifically cited a 35-minute time frame on the day that the shootings took place.

Fortunately, USA Today’s corporate owner, Gannett Co., the nation’s largest newspaper chain, took a principled stand and fought the subpoena. On Saturday, the FBI backed down. There’s already little enough privacy on the internet without having to worry about the possibility that government officials will be looking over our shoulders as we’re reading.

We are in the midst of a systematic assault on the media’s role in holding the powerful to account. And it’s long past time for our elected officials to do something about it by passing legislation rather than relying on assurances by President Joe Biden that he’s ending these abuses. After all, Biden’s assurances can be undone by the next president with the flick of a pen. We need something stronger and more stable.

Barely a month ago I wrote about the revelation that the Trump Justice Department had spied on three Washington Post reporters’ phone records. I observed that Trump’s actions were in line with a long string of presidential attacks on the media, from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush to Barack Obama.

Since then, the revelations have come at a dizzying pace. In addition to the USA Today subpoena, which strikes me as especially egregious since it targets readers rather than journalists, there have been at least two other noteworthy instances of abuse:

• In late May, CNN reported that the Trump administration had secretly obtained 2017 email and phone records of Barbara Starr, a longtime reporter for the network. The period in question was June 1 to July 31, 2017.

• In a particularly noxious abuse of the government’s power, The New York Times reported several days ago that the Justice Department had subpoenaed Google for the email records of four Times reporters — and that, though the inquiry had begun under former President Donald Trump, it continued under Biden. As recently as March, the Justice Department obtained a gag order prohibiting Google from informing the Times. That order was later amended so that a few top officials at the Times could be told, but not executive editor Dean Baquet.

“It is urgent that we hear from the attorney general about all three Trump-era records seizures, including the purported reasoning behind them and the rationale for not notifying the journalists in advance,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in a statement released last week. “The goal must be to ensure that such abuses never occur again.”

Compounding the problem is the widely misunderstood belief that government officials are violating the First Amendment. For instance, on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” this past Sunday, Adam Goldman, one of the four Times reporters targeted in the Google probe, said, “The U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. has a history of trampling on the First Amendment, so that’s why I wasn’t surprised. They treat the media, they treat newspapers like drug gangs.”

In fact, over the past century the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment in such a way that the protections for news gathering are exceedingly weak.

Protections for publication and broadcast are strong, which is why the press has been able to report on secret stolen documents — from the Pentagon Papers to the Snowden files — with few concerns about facing prosecution.

But the court has ruled that journalists have no constitutional right to protect their anonymous sources. And with regard to the current string of spying revelations, the court has held repeatedly that journalists enjoy no special rights that would not be available to ordinary citizens.

President Biden recently pledged to end the practice of seizing reporters’ records, saying the practice is “simply, simply wrong.” Some observers questioned whether he actually meant it, since he’d be breaking not just with Trump’s abuses but with longstanding practice. That, in turn, led press secretary Jen Psaki to assure journalists that Biden planned to follow through on his pledge.

But what a president does, a future president can undo. To guarantee that the press will be able to perform its watchdog role, we need a federal shield law so that reporters won’t be compelled to reveal their confidential sources. Such protections — either by law or by court decision — are already in place in 49 states, with the sole exception being Wyoming.

We also need legislation that prevents the government from secretly spying on journalists’ online activities — and on readers’ activities as well.

No doubt opponents will insist that the government needs to be able to spy in order to keep us safe. But the Post, CNN and Times cases appear to involve the Trump administration’s politically motivated attempts to learn more about the origins of the Russia probe, including the activities of former FBI Director James Comey. The USA Today case did involve a much more serious matter. But after dropping its demands, the FBI told the BBC that “intervening investigative developments” made the information unnecessary.

Which is nearly always the case. Rarely does the government’s desire to interfere with the press’ role involve a situation that’s literally a matter of life or death. And the law can accommodate those rare instances.

In general, though, the government should go about its business without compromising the independence or freedom of the press.

UNC donor reportedly opposes Hannah-Jones’ hiring because she’s not ‘objective’

The Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC. Photo (cc) 2020 by Mihaly I. Lukacs.

There’s been an important new development in the Nikole Hannah-Jones story. According to the veteran journalist John Drescher, writing for a North Carolina website called The Assembly, a “mega-donor” to the University of North Carolina opposed hiring Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist who conceived of the 1619 Project and who’s been denied tenure by the UNC board of trustees.

The donor is Walter Hussman Jr., the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, whose $25 million gift to the UNC journalism program in 2019 resulted its being named the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Drescher reported that Hussman is so enamored of old-fashioned both-sides objectivity that he “relayed his concerns to the university’s top leaders, including at least one member of the UNC-CH Board of Trustees.” Among other things, Hussman wrote:

My hope and vision was that the journalism school would be the champion of objective, impartial reporting and separating news and opinion, and that would add so much to its reputation and would benefit both the school and the University. Instead, I fear this possible and needless controversy will overshadow it.

Hussman is no fan of the 1619 Project either, although he appears to be aligned more with historians who’ve criticized it than he is with those on the right who’ve attacked it.

Now, there are several curious aspects to Hussman’s opposition. First of all, Hannah-Jones is an opinion journalist who works for the Times’ opinion section. Her journalism is rigorously fact-based, informed by a strong point of view. Does Hussman really oppose such journalism? After all, the Democrat-Gazette has an opinion section. (All four of the ADG’s  opinion journalists who warrant a headshot are white men, by the way.)

Please become a member of Media Nation today

The other curious aspect is that Hussman doesn’t actually understand what objectivity is. The Assembly quotes from an op-ed that Hussman wrote for The Wall Street Journal in 2019:

Two years ago I heard a prominent journalist say she doesn’t believe in the “false equivalency” of presenting both sides, and that she sees her job as determining the truth, then sharing it with her audience. I decided then that I needed to let our readers know that we didn’t agree with those statements.

The problem is that objective reporting, as conceived by Walter Lippmann more than 100 years ago, is an open-minded and dispassionate pursuit of the truth, not balance or both-sidesism. “Seek truth and report it” is the way the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics puts it.

Hussman, unfortunately, has embraced the caricature of objectivity. And Hannah-Jones has gotten caught up in his misunderstanding.

Addendum: In 2019 I wrote about a genuinely innovative idea at the ADG: the paper was giving iPads to its subscribers so it could stop printing the paper and save money. If you let your subscription lapse, it would stop working.

Previous coverage.

Yes, Trump officials spied on reporters. But every president abuses the press.

Photo (cc) 2018 by Adam Fagen

Previously published at GBH News.

The revelation last week that the Trump Justice Department had spied on three Washington Post reporters’ phone records barely caused a stir. But as much as I’d like to think that such behavior would shock the conscience, I can understand why the story failed to resonate. It was, after all, the sort of thing that all administrations do. To invoke a pandemic cliché, it was a sign that nature is healing.

Not to sound cynical and world-weary. We should be outraged. We should be shouting from the rooftops. When the government uses its awesome legal powers to stymie journalists who are trying to do their jobs, we lose our ability to hold the powerful to account. The incident would stand as yet another example of former President Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies — except that, at least in this instance, his actions were right in line with those of his predecessors.

As Jon Allsop of the Columbia Journalism Review wrote, “it’s not ‘bothsidesism’ to call out loathsome things that both sides are actually doing.”

So what happened? Devlin Barrett of the Post reported last Friday night that the Justice Department informed current Post journalists Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller and former Post journalist Adam Entous that their phone records had been obtained, and their email logs had been unsuccessfully sought, for mid-April through July of 2017. The phone records showed whom the reporters were in contact with but did not reveal the contents of the calls.

There are a few details that make this particular exercise of executive power especially disturbing. The three reporters were delving into the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to Russia during the period in question. The records were sought in 2020, when the attorney general was Trump enabler William Barr. Thus the incident could be seen as part of Trump’s long-standing obsession with covering up his ties to Russian interests.

In other respects, though, it was business as usual.

I wrote a commentary in 2012 for HuffPost headlined “Obama’s War on Journalism.” It’s a matter of public record that Barack Obama, during his eight-year presidency, showed a shocking lack of regard for the role of the press in a free society. Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, were obsessed with identifying government officials who had leaked sensitive or embarrassing information to the press. One reporter, James Risen of The New York Times, was threatened with jail for several years.

The Obama years were extreme but not exceptional. Previously, then-Times reporter Judith Miller actually did a stint behind bars for refusing to cooperate with an independent counsel’s investigation into possible wrongdoing by officials in George W. Bush’s administration: Someone had publicly identified a CIA operative in apparent retaliation for an op-ed (oops, guest essay) her husband had written for the Times that accused officials of ignoring evidence contradicting their claim that Iraq was trying to build nuclear weapons.

At least in that case, Bush had nothing to do with the investigation that landed Miller in jail. But Bush hardly had clean hands. After the Times reported that Bush’s National Security Agency was illegally spying on Americans, Bush denounced the paper’s work as “a shameful act,” and people around him urged that the Times be prosecuted under the World War I-era Espionage Act. The Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its revelations.

Of course, Richard Nixon’s attempts to retaliate against the press were legendary, ranging from including hostile reporters on his “enemies list” to threatening to strip The Washington Post of its television stations.

A central dilemma in all of these cases is that though the First Amendment offers robust protections for anything that the media might publish or broadcast, it is relatively silent on protections for reporting. In Branzburg v. Hayes, the 1972 decision that reporters do not have a constitutional right to protect their anonymous sources, Justice Byron White wrote that “news gathering is not without its First Amendment protections.” As a general rule, though, reporters have no more protections in going about their jobs than do ordinary members of the public.

Will the situation improve under President Biden? Not likely. As the CJR’s Allsop pointed out, the Biden Justice Department didn’t just inform the three Post journalists that they had been spied upon — it went out of its way to endorse the practice. Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for the current Justice Department, was quoted in the Post’s account as saying that the department “follows the established procedures within its media guidelines policy when seeking legal process to obtain telephone toll records and non-content email records from media members as part of a criminal investigation into unauthorized disclosure of classified information.”

Raimondi added — shades of Obama and Holder — that “the targets of these investigations are not the news media recipients but rather those with access to the national defense information who provided it to the media and thus failed to protect it as lawfully required.”

With public approval for the media near record lows, and with the courts unlikely to carve out any new protections for journalism, it’s not realistic to think that things are going to change for the better any time soon.

At the very least, though, the president could issue guidance to his Justice Department, backed up with a strong public statement, that the government will not spy on, subpoena or prosecute journalists except under the most dire life-and-death circumstances.

Biden appears to be intent on breaking with his predecessors in many ways, especially regarding the size and scope of government. Respecting the role of the press would be one way that he could ensure greater scrutiny of that government on behalf of all of us.

A Washington Post correction adds to confusion over Rudy Giuliani and the FBI

Rudy Giuliani. Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore

When you have to publish a correction, be forthcoming about it. The Washington Post failed to do that over the weekend, thus compounding the harm it had done to Donald Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani. Here is the Post’s correction, published on Saturday:

An earlier version of this story, published Thursday, incorrectly reported that One America News was warned by the FBI that it was the target of a Russian influence operation. That version also said the FBI had provided a similar warning to Rudolph W. Giuliani, which he has since disputed. This version has been corrected to remove assertions that OAN and Giuliani received the warnings.

The correction makes it appear that the Post was backing down solely on Giuliani’s say-so. That led to a tweet from Caroline Orr Bueno in which she asked: “Why retract it instead of just adding in a statement saying Giuliani disputes it?” To which I responded: “Marty Baron has left the building,” referring to the recent retirement of the Post’s executive editor.

But it turned out not to be so simple. Because The New York Times and NBC News had also run stories claiming that Giuliani had been warned, and they published corrections as well. Tom Jones of Poynter rounds them up. First, the Times:

An earlier version of this article misstated whether Rudolph W. Giuliani received a formal warning from the F.B.I. about Russian disinformation. Mr. Giuliani did not receive such a so-called defensive briefing.

Not much explanation there, but at least the Times isn’t attributing the reason for its correction to Giuliani. The clearest is from NBC News:

An earlier version of this article included an incorrect report that Rudolph Giuliani had received a defensive briefing from the FBI in 2019 warning him that he was being targeted by a Russian influence operation. The report was based on a source familiar with the matter, but a second source now says the briefing was only prepared for Giuliani and not delivered to him, in part over concerns it might complicate the criminal investigation of Giuliani. As a result, the premise and headline of the article below have been changed to reflect the corrected information.

That’s how you do a correction: explain exactly went wrong. Of the three, the Post’s is the worst, since the wording makes it appear as though the editors were responding solely to a complaint by Giuliani. The Times’ is OK, but its lack of clarity and falls into the “mistakes were made” category. So kudos to NBC News for doing it the right way.

Giuliani remains in a heap of trouble. His apartment and office were searched by the FBI last week as part of what appears to be a criminal investigation into his activities in Ukraine. There was no need for news organizations to pump it up with information that was unverified and, as it turns out, wrong.

And, as Oliver Darcy of CNN observes: “All the original reports were attributed to anonymous sources.”

Please become a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month.

By dropping the phrase ‘op-ed,’ The New York Times strikes a blow for clarity

Putting together the first New York Times op-ed page

I’m all in favor of getting rid of jargon that separates journalists from the public. A few years ago I stopped spelling “lead” as “lede,” and I explain to my students that it was a conscious decision rather than a sign that I’d just fallen off the turnip truck. (Some background from Willamette Week. About leads, not turnips.)

So I was intrigued that The New York Times has decided to use “guest essays” to describe what we’ve come to know as op-ed pieces. Times opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury (and by the way, her title is itself a move away from the archaic: the person holding her job used to be called the “editorial page editor”) explains it this way:

Terms like “Op-Ed” are, by their nature, clubby newspaper jargon; we are striving to be far more inclusive in explaining how and why we do our work. In an era of distrust in the media and confusion over what journalism is, I believe institutions — even ones with a lot of esteemed traditions — better serve their audiences with direct, clear language. We don’t like jargon in our articles; we don’t want it above them, either.

A bit of history: The Times’ op-ed page is only 50 years old, and it literally means “opposite the editorial page.” With print becoming less and less relevant, the term “op-ed” wasn’t just jargony; it was nonsensical as well. The original idea was to expand the editorial page, with its unsigned editorials, cartoons (but not in the Times!), letters and staff-written opinion columns, by adding a second page devoted to contributions from community leaders, elected officials and the like.

Of course, it also led to the hiring of more staff columnists. But the basic idea survived, and calling something a “guest essay” is clear in a way that “op-ed piece” never was. And yes, someone has written a history of the Times’ op-ed page: University of Maine journalism professor Michael Socolow, whose work was summarized by Jack Shafer, then of Slate, in 2010.

Not long after the Times added its op-ed page, many other daily papers followed suit. It will be interesting to see whether any of them similarly follow the Times’ lead in renaming op-eds. (The Boston Globe doesn’t seem to have a label for outside contributions other than the same generic “opinion” that it also slaps on staff-written columns.)

I’m sure many of us will continue to use “op-ed” for a long time to come. But kudos to Kingsbury and the Times for this sensible step.

Update: Socolow has written an elegy to the op-ed page for Reason, lamenting that the original vision for provocative outside commentary has degenerated into groupthink. “Publishing offensive commentary these days is not simply seen as inflammatory in the old sense; many people consider it intentionally malicious, if not felonious,” he writes. “Any denial to the contrary — any defense of the old-fashioned marketplace of ideas, or calls for widening diversity of opinion — is widely viewed as little more than disingenuous subterfuge.”

Please become a member of Media Nation. For just $5 a month, you can support my work and receive a weekly newsletter with exclusive content.

No, giving away the news in the mid-’90s was not a misguided strategy

There are a few problems with the premise of New York Times reporter Edmund Lee’s long Sunday feature on reinvention efforts at The Wall Street Journal. We’ve been talking about this on Twitter, and I thought I’d share what I and a few others have been saying. Here’s the paragraph that Lee uses to frame his story:

The Journal got digital publishing right before anyone else. It was one of the few news organizations to charge readers for online access starting in 1996, during the days of dial-up internet. At the time, most other publications, including The New York Times, bought into the mantra that “information wants to be free” and ended up paying dearly for what turned out to be a misguided business strategy.

This is wrong in virtually every respect.

First, in the early days of the web, there was no reason to think a general interest newspaper couldn’t thrive by giving away its journalism and supporting it with advertising. This was, after all, before Craigslist, Google and Facebook came along, and newspaper executives’ heads were filled with visions of multimedia ads that they would control. It wasn’t at all obvious in the mid-’90s that it wouldn’t work out.

Second, the Journal is not a general interest newspaper. It’s a specialty publication, and even in the days of the free web it was understood that actionable financial information was one of the few things that people would pay for.

Third, many if not most subscribers pay for the Journal through their expense accounts. Their employers wanted them to switch from expensive print subscriptions to relatively cheap digital.

Finally, and most important, is Lee’s truncating of Stewart Brand’s famous 1984 quote. Lee is hardly the first reporter to do that and thus leave a false impression. But in the case of the Journal, the part that gets left out is more important than the “information wants to be free” canard. Here is what Brand said:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.*

The Journal epitomizes the “information wants to be expensive” part of Brand’s quote, because news that you can use to make money is by definition “valuable.”

The rest of Lee’s story is well-reported and interesting. But the paragraph he uses to frame it, fairly high up in the piece, is just a mess.

*Update: As Donna Halper points out in the comments, I used the cleaned-up version of Brand’s full quote that is usually cited. But, in fact, it’s not quite word for word — and Brand’s use of “almost” shades the meaning even further:

On the one hand you have — the point you’re making Woz [Brand was replying to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak] — is that information sort of wants to be expensive because it is so valuable — the right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information almost wants to be free because the costs of getting it out is getting lower and lower all of the time. So you have these two things fighting against each other.