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.”

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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.”

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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.

A leading media ethicist picks up the pieces of the David Brooks story

Edward Wasserman. Photo (cc) 2019 by the Knight Foundation.

The controversy over New York Times columnist and “PBS NewsHour” commentator David Brooks’ conflicts of interest has all but faded away. But before everyone just, you know, moves on, I’d like to share with you a new blog post by Edward Wasserman, former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and one of the country’s leading media ethicists. If you’ve forgotten the backstory, Wasserman has recapitulated it for you.

Wasserman begins with the valuable observation that conflicts tend to arise at the opposite ends of the economic spectrum — low-paid journalists caught in the realities of a shrinking news business have to take on outside work, meaning that “every story we read may be an audition for future work (or a thank-you for past employment), and we’re left to wonder how single-minded the writer’s commitment to us can be.” Or, for that matter, they might have an incentive to write nice things about McDonald’s. That, at least is understandable.

On the Brooksian end of the spectrum, though, the corruption is much more clear. Wasserman writes:

Star journalists cash in on notoriety from their day jobs, and the lead commentator for a prestige publication who moonlights on cable TV can make tens of thousands to speak at a trade association confab or corporate retreat. That’s a powerful incentive to pick subjects and grind axes that sharpen the journalist’s brand — which again raises the question, when we read their work, of who else they’re working for.

Another important point Wasserman makes is that the full disclosure Brooks failed to provide until he was caught by BuzzFeed News is no substitute for avoiding the conflict in the first place. Now, I’m among a younger (not that young) generation of media critics influenced by New York University Jay Rosen, which means that I tend to favor full disclosure without worrying quite as much about conflicts as earlier generations did.

But it’s hard to disagree with Wasserman when he writes: “Disclosure can never cleanse work of its bias; it can only alert readers to the possibility that bias exists and dare them to find it.” I would differ with Wasserman on his use of the word “bias.” Of course Brooks is biased. He’s an opinion journalist. But Brooks does owe us his independence, and he compromised that through his entanglements with Facebook and the Bezos family, among others.

I’m not sure whether Brooks could have survived this if he hadn’t apparently disclosed his conflicts to his previous editors (though not to readers or viewers). In any case, he’s still standing, and though he can drive me crazy sometimes, I agree with Wasserman that he is “a lucid and humane writer.” I’d miss him if he were gone. But I don’t know that I’ll ever trust him again — and there were already reasons to approach Brooks’ work with tweezers and a pair of rubber gloves.

Brooks has undermined trust in the Times, the “NewsHour” and himself. I guess the calculation is that he still has value; otherwise, he’d be gone. But he’s definitely moved himself to the discount rack, perhaps permanently.

Previous coverage.

The Trump campaign lost its libel suit because it really did collude with Russia

Michael Flynn. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

A New York state judge Tuesday tossed a libel suit filed by Donald Trump’s campaign against The New York Times. The suit claimed that a 2019 column by former executive editor Max Frankel was false and defamatory because Frankel wrote that the 2016 Trump campaign had colluded with Russian interests.

Two-thirds of Judge James d’Auguste’s ruling is not especially interesting. He ruled that the campaign lacked standing to bring such a suit, and that Trump would be unable to prove Frankel knew or strongly suspected that what he was writing was false — the “actual malice” standard that pertains to public officials and public figures.

So that leaves us with the third leg of d’Auguste’s decision — that Frankel was merely expressing his opinion, which is protected by the First Amendment. The standard was set in a U.S. Supreme Court case called Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., in which Chief Justice William Rehnquist ruled that labeling a piece of writing as “opinion” provides no protection if that piece contains assertions of fact that could be proven true or false.

The way Rehnquist explains it is that to say “In my opinion Mayor Jones is a liar” would be unprotected speech (that is, if Jones could prove he’s not a liar, he might be able to bring a successful libel suit) whereas “In my opinion Mayor Jones shows his abysmal ignorance by accepting the teachings of Marx and Lenin” would be considered pure opinion and thus beyond the reach of a libel suit.

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So what did Max Frankel do? If you read his commentary, you’ll see he looked at a number of public actions and statements by Trump and people close to him to show that they were toadying to Russian interests, and that not only did the Russians expect something in return, but that Trump and his allies moved in that direction both during and after the 2016 election. We all know this. We all watched it unfold in real time. (It’s important to note in this context that “collusion” is not a legal term anymore than “toadying” is. In other words, labeling such behavior as “collusion” is protected opinion as long as the underlying facts are accurately stated.)

Among other things, Frankel cites the infamous Trump Tower meeting as well as incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn’s lying to the FBI about his discussion with the Russian ambassador before the 2017 inauguration about the possible lifting of sanctions. Those actions led to criminal charges against Flynn, to which he pleaded guilty twice before Trump, as president, pardoned him in the final days of his administration. Frankel writes:

Candidate Trump made no secret of his intention to forge a warm relationship with the Kremlin. But pledges of sanctions relief and other specific moves while not yet in office were unseemly at best and clearly offensive to the American convention that we have only one president at a time. Mr. Flynn especially had to lie because though already in transition to power he was directly undermining Mr. Obama’s still active and punitive diplomacy against Mr. Putin.

Frankel didn’t libel Trump, not just because of the technicalities of defamation law, but because he wrote the truth. Trump might as well sue Robert Mueller while he’s at it.

The David Brooks matter comes to an end (probably)

I just want to put a “-30-” on this. The New York Times reported earlier today that disclosures will be added to David Brooks’ past columns in which he had a conflict of interest (background here). He’s resigned from his paid position at the Aspen Institute. Most important, I think, is this:

Mr. Brooks had received approval to take the paid position at Aspen in 2018, according to Eileen Murphy, a Times spokeswoman, but the current editors of the opinion section did not know about the arrangement.

Presumably this means that Brooks’ outside work was approved by former editorial-page editor James Bennet, who apparently saw nothing wrong with Brooks’ writing about Facebook and other Aspen funders without disclosing that to readers. Bennet is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

Brooks should have been more forthcoming than he was in his modified limited hangout on the “PBS NewsHour” Friday night. But barring any further disclosures, this story feels like it’s over.

And kudos to Craig Silverman and Ryan Mac of BuzzFeed News for their dogged reporting.

David Brooks addresses the Weave controversy

Move ahead to 8:48

New York Times columnist David Brooks addressed the Weave matter Friday evening durng his regular appearance on the “PBS NewsHour” — which places Judy Woodruff and company several steps ahead of the Times when it comes to transparency.

Brooks was nervous through the segment, which began with his usual back-and-forth with Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart. At the end, in the clip that I’ve bookmarked above (start at 8:48 if it doesn’t happen automatically), Woodruff gave Brooks a chance to explain himself. I thought he seemed sincerely interested in trying to set things right, but that he wasn’t entirely forthcoming.

He began by saying, “First, we did totally disclose it,” referring to his salary at the Aspen Institute, where he runs Weave, a civic-engagement initiative. Later, he seemed to say that what he meant was he’d disclosed it to his superiors at the Times. Certainly his readers and viewers didn’t know it.

He also said he had “not meaningfully written” about any of Weave’s funders, including Facebook, even though BuzzFeed News — which broke the story — has presented evidence to the contrary. Nor did he mention a post he wrote for Facebook’s blog in which he sang the praises of Facebook Groups, also revealed by BuzzFeed.

“It has not affected my journalism,” he insisted. Nevertheless, he conceded that his critics have a point and said he’ll be making changes over the next week.

How will this end? I suspect the Times will announce a policy pertaining to all of their in-house opinion journalists, and that will be the end of it — especially if Brooks can prove that management knew about his Weave salary.

Earlier:

Update: BuzzFeed News reporter Craig Silverman rebuts Brooks point by point in this Twitter thread:

Update II: Brooks has resigned from his position at the Aspen Institute as more conflicts of interest surface. BuzzFeed News reports.

Did David Brooks’ former superiors know about his conflicts of interest?

The New York Times posted David Brooks’ Friday column last night without any suggestion that something was amiss. Meanwhile, Paul Farhi’s report in The Washington Post raises the possibility that Brooks had let his superiors know he was drawing a salary from Weave, the civic-engagement project he’s affiliated with at the Aspen Institute, but that the new regime, led by opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury, may have been unaware:

People at the Times said Brooks informed at least some of his previous bosses about the details of the Weave project. But last summer saw the departure of the Times’s top editorial-page editors, and Brooks’s current editors were unaware of the arrangement. Officially, the Times has declined to say whether it knew about Brooks’s outside employment.

Needless to say, it would be interesting to go back and see if he wrote any columns about Facebook and other organizations with which he had a financial relationship while James Bennet was the editorial-page editor. Bennet might have known, but those ties weren’t disclosed to readers. Which is, after all, what really matters.

Earlier:

The New York Times has a David Brooks problem

David Brooks. Photo (cc) 2011 by the Miller Center.

The New York Times’ David Brooks problem has ratcheted up from “uh, oh” to “holy cow.”

Craig Silverman and Ryan Mac of BuzzFeed News reported on Wednesday that Brooks, a prominent Times columnist, is getting paid for his work at Weave, a civic-engagement project that’s part of the Aspen Institute. Among Weave’s funders is Facebook.

A week earlier, BuzzFeed reported that Brooks had written a post on Facebook’s blog singing the praises of Facebook Groups without letting his editors at the Times know about it. That was bad enough. But now that there’s money involved, the Times is going to have to take action.

It’s unclear whether the Times knows he’s been getting a second salary. If they do, then perhaps Brooks can avoid being disciplined. But whether they know or not, what about the rest of us? Every time Brooks writes about an organization in which he has a financial stake, that needs to be appended to the bottom of his column. Needless to say, the problem with that is it would look ridiculous. I’m sure the Times doesn’t want to run a piece by one of its own staff columnists that reveals he’s in the tank to someone else.

As someone who has worked in opinion journalism for many years, and who teaches it, I feel like I have a stake in calling out Brooks’ misbehavior. I stress to my students repeatedly that we have the same ethical obligations as straight-news reporters. We don’t make political contributions. We don’t put signs on our lawns. And we maintain our independence.

One of the four tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is to “act independently.” The code explains further: “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.” Brooks’ conflict seems avoidable enough, but at the very least he should have disclosed it.

A summary of Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s “The Elements of Journalism” has this to say about independence and opinion journalism:

Journalistic independence, write Kovach and Rosenstiel, is not neutrality. While editorialists and commentators are not neutral, the source of their credibility is still their accuracy, intellectual fairness and ability to inform — not their devotion to a certain group or outcome. In our independence, however, journalists must avoid straying into arrogance, elitism, isolation or nihilism.

I assume the Times is going to take this seriously. It may be bad for Brooks that the Times’ opinion editor, Kathleen Kingsbury, is just a few weeks into her job and may want to send a message to the rest of her staff.

But I’m troubled by a statement BuzzFeed got from Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy. Silverman and Mac write: “Murphy said other Times columnists have roles outside the paper. When asked for an example, she cited Paul Krugman, who was a professor of economics at Princeton and is currently a distinguished professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.”

Seriously? Krugman is not a columnist who scored an academic gig. He’s a professor who was so highly regarded that the Times hired him as a columnist. The Times is his second job (or was; he seems to be semi-retired now), just as the Aspen Institute is Brooks’ second. And everyone knows about Krugman’s academic background. It was hardly a secret when he won the Nobel Prize in Economics.

I hope this can be resolved. Brooks is reviled in many circles, but I value his work. He often shows himself to be out of touch, and he can drive me crazy sometimes. But at his best he’s very good, and I’d hate to see him go, or set up a Substack.

It will be interesting to see what happens when Brooks and Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart kick the week’s news around on the “PBS NewsHour” tomorrow evening. Brooks should address it.

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McNeil speaks out — at length

Where is Slate’s old “series saver” when you need it? Don McNeil has written a four-part blog post on his departure from The New York Times that Medium says will take you 82 minutes to read. McNeil resigned after it came to light that he’d used the N-word during a trip with students to Peru.