media chinwag

Musings on Journalism in the Online Age

How to Report on Political Slime

Even in a presidential election race deplorable for personal attacks and vulgar language, the exchange about the candidates’ wives seemed to be a low point.


Before the Utah Republican caucuses on March 22 a Super PAC supporting Ted Cruz ran Facebook ads with a photo of Donald Trump’s wife Melania posing in the nude, with the caption: “Meet Melania Trump. Your Next First Lady. Or, You Could Support Ted Cruz on Tuesday.” (Cruz won the voting, 69 percent to Trump’s 14 percent.)

Donald Trump fired back with a tweet threatening to “spill the beans” about Cruz’s wife Heidi:

Lyin’ Ted Cruz just used a picture of Melania from a G.Q. shoot in his ad. Be careful, Lyin’ Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!

Journalists gleefully took to social media, airwaves, and websites of reputable print and broadcast news organizations to cover the latest brawl involving Donald Trump.

The Trump-Cruz tussle continued on Twitter and with sound bites throughout the week. Cruz taunted, “Donald, if you try to attack Heidi, you’re more of a coward than I thought.” Trump responded with a retweet depicting a glamorous Melania side-by-side a scowling Heidi with the line, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Cruz came back with more: “Donald, real men don’t attack women,” and “Donald, you’re a sniveling coward, and leave Heidi the hell alone.”

The War Over the Wives was extraordinary, albeit perverse, political theater. But was it news, deserving of coverage by journalists? Should the personal lives of politicians and their families be off limits? The answers to these questions are not as simple as we may like.

Undoubtedly, the right to privacy must be respected by journalists. However, exceptions can and should be made when there is an overwhelming public interest. President Bill Clinton’s private life could not be considered off limits in his “inappropriate relationship” with a 22-year-old White House intern. It illustrated several failings of legitimate interest to the public, from predatory sexual behavior and lack of sound judgment of the commander in chief to dishonoring America’s highest office.

Another exception is when public figures willingly remove the curtain of privacy, including the one around their families. The glamour image in the pro-Cruz ad came from a photo shoot published in 2000 by British GQ, when 30-year-old Melania Knauss of Slovenia was Trump’s fashion-model girlfriend (they were married five years later). According to the magazine, the photo shoot—with Melania “wearing handcuffs, wielding diamonds, and holding a chrome pistol”—took place on Trump’s customized Boeing 727.

gq cover

Though tasteless and opportunistic—well, slimy—the pro-Cruz ad, sponsored by the Make America Awesome political action committee, touched on a reasonable question concerning Trump’s lifestyle choices. With Trump loudly questioning the values of entire communities—Mexicans and Muslims, for example—his own values are certainly fair game.

Trump’s retort—as tacky, bullying, and slimy as it was—also touched on a valid issue. The “beans” appeared to refer to Heidi Cruz’s bout with depression a decade ago—including an incident that has been reported by the New York Times among others.

In 2005, after Heidi quit a post at the White House to be reunited with her public-servant husband in Texas, police responding to a 911 call reportedly found Heidi sitting next to an expressway with her head in her hands. An officer’s report later stated: “I believed that she was a danger to herself.”

The personal background of a prospective First Lady is of legitimate interest to voters. This is especially reasonable in this case, given that Heidi Cruz has played an active public role campaigning and raising money in her husband’s quest for the White House. (It can also be noted that the Cruz campaign has used their young children as cuddly props in political ads, promoting the image of Cruz as a stable family man.)

So it’s difficult for journalists to ignore personal attacks like the Cruz-Trump exchanges when the attacks relate to issues of public interest. The question is how to appropriately report on the slime-slinging.

Huffington Post came up with an idea in mid-2015. The editors felt that the Trump campaign was a “sideshow,” to be expected from a self-promoting tycoon who had made a second career as a reality TV star.

So Huffpost announced it would cover Trump’s campaign in the Entertainment section rather than as part of its political coverage. “If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette,” the editors said in a note to readers. By December, with Trump blowing away the rest of the Republican field for six consecutive months, it became clear this was not the answer, and Arianna Huffington herself announced a change in plan. “We will no longer be covering his campaign in Entertainment,” she told readers. It has “morphed into something else: an ugly and dangerous force in American politics.”

In a column in The Fix, Washington Post writer Callum Borchers suggests making a clear distinction between remarks related to policy and those that are not:

When Trump says he will deport every last undocumented immigrant living in the United States, the media have to cover the statement extensively because it’s about what he plans to do as president. There are serious questions to answer: Is the proposal realistic? What would it cost? How would it affect the economy? What would it do to America’s image?

When Trump says he will “spill the beans” on Cruz’s wife, however, the media response should be much more muffled. Not silent—you can’t just pretend he never said it or that Cruz never responded—but there’s not really substance to dissect. The sole purpose of a comment like that is to steal airtime and ink that might otherwise be devoted to issues that actually matter.

That’s a start, but journalists need to go further. The massive media attention given to Trump’s outbursts and the personal attacks exchanged by candidates is part of the deeper problem of the horse race coverage of American politics. That’s the gallop of 24/7 coverage highlighting controversial comments, gaffes, petty squabbles, personality clashes, and opinion polls that overtakes coverage of substantive issues. It’s a problem that has become even greater in the digital media age, where journalists’ reports are left competing with the endless chatter and diatribes on cable shows and social media not to mention the propaganda output of political organizations.

Part of the solution is to double-down on packaging and framing of political coverage that is worthy of the press’s role in a democracy. The professional news media needs to keep the focus overwhelmingly on the serious issues of the day and the candidates’ positions on them, and not get sucked into the vortex of sensational tweets and sound bites. Slime sells, so this is an important test for news media establishments hungry for ratings, web traffic, and profits.

When matters like a candidate’s values or personal lifestyle do become a legitimate public interest, the media should report on this in a measured, thorough, and responsible manner. The coverage should be kept in proper proportion to the coverage of other public concerns, such as the candidates’ positions on pressing domestic and foreign policy issues. The character of politicians who revel in slime tactics should also receive appropriate scrutiny.

One thing we saw again in the War Over the Wives is the pitiful state of political discourse in a nation to which the world looks for leadership. That’s a story worth covering.

—Scott MacLeod

Crackdown on Anonymous Sources

Three cheers for the move by the New York Times to tighten up the use of anonymous sources in its reporting.


In a memo to the Times’ staff on March 15, Executive Editor Dean Baquet, Deputy Executive Editor Matt Purdy, and Standards Editor Philip Corbett noted that while sometimes crucial to the journalistic mission, the use of anonymous sources “also puts a strain on our most valuable and delicate asset: our trust with readers. … [R]eaders question whether anonymity allows unnamed people to skew a story in favor of their own agenda. In rare cases, we have published information from anonymous sources without enough questions or skepticism—and it has turned out to be wrong.”

The Times stylebook has long provided strong and clear criteria governing anonymous sourcing, but the memo introduced three new procedures and a reminder. When anonymous sources are the primary news element in a story, the story must get a signoff from one of the newspaper’s three top editors. Other use of anonymous sources must have the approval of the relevant department head or deputy. Direct quotes from anonymous sources will be permitted only rarely. And, finally, the memo reminds reporters that at least one Times editor must know the specific identity of any anonymous sources before publication.

The memo did not say so, but Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan suggested the crackdown was the result of two embarrassing errors in front page stories over a six-month period in 2015. See her reviews of those mistakes here and here.

Sullivan has been campaigning in the newsroom for tighter control over anonymous sources. In 2014, she launched a special section of her Public Editor’s Journal called Anonywatch to track nameless quotations in the Times.

Here’s the full memo

To the Newsroom:

The use of anonymous sources is sometimes crucial to our journalistic mission. But it also puts a strain on our most valuable and delicate asset: our trust with readers.

At best, granting anonymity allows us to reveal the atrocities of terror groups, government abuses or other situations where sources may risk their lives, freedom or careers by talking to us. In sensitive areas like national security reporting, it can be unavoidable. But in other cases, readers question whether anonymity allows unnamed people to skew a story in favor of their own agenda. In rare cases, we have published information from anonymous sources without enough questions or skepticism—and it has turned out to be wrong.

The use of anonymous sources presents the greatest risk in our most consequential, exclusive stories. But the appearance of anonymous sources in routine government and political stories, as well as many other enterprise and feature stories, also tests our credibility with readers. They routinely cite anonymous sources as one of their greatest concerns about The Times’s journalism.

After consulting with a number of our most experienced reporters and editors, we have decided to take several steps to raise the bar and provide added scrutiny for our use of anonymous sources. These new guidelines require top editors to approve the use of anonymity. But it is incumbent on everyone producing journalism throughout the newsroom to share the responsibility.

Our basic, longstanding criteria remain unchanged: Anonymity should be, as our stylebook entry says, “a last resort, for situations in which The Times could not otherwise publish information it considers newsworthy and reliable.” That standard should be taken seriously and applied rigorously. Material from anonymous sources should be “information,” not just spin or speculation. It should be “newsworthy,” not just color or embellishment. And it should be information we consider “reliable”—ideally because we have additional corroboration, or because we know that the source has first-hand, direct knowledge. Our level of skepticism should be high and our questions pointed. Without a named source, readers may see The Times as vouching for the information unequivocally—or, worse, as carrying water for someone else’s agenda. As far as possible, we should explain the source’s motivation and how he or she knows the information.

We recognize that in today’s hypercompetitive news environment, the tighter guidelines below inevitably mean that we will occasionally be beaten on a story. We have no intention of reducing our urgency in getting news to our readers. But we are prepared to pay the price of losing an occasional scoop in order to protect our precious credibility.

This is not an easy balance to strike, and these new guidelines may be just the starting point. We will review these steps in the coming months and make adjustments if necessary. For now, we want to adopt these new procedures, starting immediately in all departments:

1. Special rules apply when the lead of a story—that is, the primary news element—is based entirely on one or more anonymous sources.

Any such story must be presented in advance by the relevant department head to Dean, Matt or Susan. They should be told explicitly why their approval is being sought—that is, the story’s main news element depends on anonymous sourcing. The department head should be prepared to discuss the details of the sourcing and other reporting, including the identity of the source, if asked.

This conversation or email exchange should not be part of a routine discussion of multiple stories. Sending a batch of summaries or simply passing along a copy without comment is not enough. This should be a dedicated conversation, focusing entirely on the sourcing issue of this one story.

If it sounds as though this will slow down the process—that’s part of the point. A story that hangs entirely on anonymous sourcing should always get special scrutiny. If, for any reason, you have not received specific approval, the story should be held.

On rare occasions when all three of those editors will be unavailable, they will designate Phil or another masthead editor to grant these approvals. A note on the story should specify which masthead editor approved the sourcing.

2. Every other use of anonymous sourcing anywhere in any story must be personally approved in advance by the department head or deputy.

A note on the story should indicate that the sourcing has been approved, and by whom. Slot editors, copy editors and producers should not publish a story with any anonymous sourcing that does not have a note indicating that the department head or deputy has approved the sourcing.

3. Direct quotes from anonymous sources will be allowed only in rare instances and with the approval of the department head or deputy. Such quotes are generally used to add color—but by definition, merely adding color does not normally clear the bar of newsworthiness that justifies anonymous sourcing. If the substance of the quote is newsworthy, it can be paraphrased, and must be approved under the procedures above.

Sources who demand anonymity give up the opportunity to have their speculation or interpretation reflected in our stories, and such quotes will no longer be allowed except in the rare instances when the direct quote is pivotal to a story. Other exceptions might include ordinary individuals who are sharing personal details in difficult circumstances and whose voices are worth capturing—for instance, immigrants discussing their ordeal with smugglers, or patients sharing their medical histories. In all these cases, direct quotes from anonymous sources must be approved by the department head or deputy.

4. As a reminder, it continues to be a hard-and-fast rule that at least one editor must know the specific identity of any anonymous source before publication.

Departments should set up regular procedures to make sure this rule is followed consistently.

—Scott MacLeod

Live from Aleppo

CNN has an important series on the devastation in Syria, reported by correspondent Clarissa Ward.


Ward has won numerous awards for her foreign reporting, including from the Middle East—a Peabody, a Murrow, a duPont-Columbia, and four Emmys. The CNN series is called “The truth about Syria: Undercover behind rebel lines.”

Few foreign journalists dare enter the Syrian war zone anymore, after the beheadings of reporter James Foley and others at the hands of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Scores of foreign and Syrian journalists have died in the five-year-old conflict.

But Ward, along with producer Salma Abdelaziz and filmmaker Bilal Abdul Kareem, braved sniper fire, aerial bombardments, and the risk of kidnapping to report in rebel-held territory for a week recently. They even made the journey into Aleppo, a major city in northern Syria where 320,000 people may be trapped between the rebels and government forces.

Refinery29, a style website, posted a good interview with Ward about her reporting from Syria. It includes this discussion about the advantages of being a woman correspondent:

People often assume, Oh, you’re a woman working in the Middle East. Yikes! And I’m like, “Actually, there are a lot of advantages to being a woman.” I truly believe, as talented as my male counterparts are, I don’t think that a male Western journalist could have done this, because the whole cloak-of-invisibility thing is pretty important. So, just on the superficial level, that makes a huge difference.

I can wear a niqab and people don’t even look at me, because I’m wearing a niqab. It’s like a gesture of respect. You don’t look into the eyes of a woman who’s dressed like that, because she’s making a statement by wearing that outfit that she doesn’t encourage that kind of eye contact with men. So, that was crucial.

…I spent two days posing as a tourist. Then, I sort of slipped off into an alleyway in the old city, put a headscarf on, and went and lived with some activists for a week.

But beyond that, I think there are several things. First of all, you get to participate and engage with 50% of the population that your male counterparts just do not. I get to sit with women in the kitchen—and women know everything. You want to get the lowdown on what’s going on in that village? Sit in the kitchen for a few hours. They are going to make you eat a lot of food, that’s a given, but that’s okay, because you’re in Syria and the food’s delicious. And then, they’re going to tell you everything that’s going on.

Because they are a fountain of information and knowledge and beyond that, they are—not to resort to stereotypes—but they are a little more willing to engage with you emotionally. I’ll give you an example: When I was in Aleppo a few years ago, there was heavy shelling going on. And as a Western woman, I can sit with the men or the women, which is another bonus. So, when I was sitting with the men and the bombardment started, I noticed that the men obviously got nervous, but no one articulated it. They just started smoking a lot of cigarettes and arguing with each other, because everyone was tense.

Whereas when I went and sat with the women, one woman was rocking back and forth, holding a pillow, one woman was crying hysterically, and one woman was praying. I just thought: This actually gives you a better sense of what people are really feeling when they hear the sounds of bombs. The men may sit there, argue, and smoke cigarettes, because they don’t want to start crying or rocking back and forth in the fetal position, but that is how they feel inside, as well. It’s just that the women are maybe a little more open about expressing it.

—Scott MacLeod

Turkey’s Press Crackdown

So much for the Turkish Model? After the Arab Spring, many touted the idea that Egypt and other Middle East countries should follow in Turkey’s footsteps as a Muslim nation operating on democratic principles. Among the cherished democratic principles, of course, is liberty of the press. The latest news from Turkey therefore is as distressing as it is depressing: authorities sent heavily armed police into the offices of the Zaman newspaper on March 4 and seized control of Turkey’s largest daily.


Once friendly to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who became president in 2014 after a decade as prime minister, Zaman has taken an increasingly critical editorial line on Turkey’s leader. Erdoğan had a political falling out with the Gulen movement, which is closely affiliated with Zaman, in 2013. Prosecutors accuse Zaman of engaging in terrorism propaganda.

The ongoing Turkish crackdown on the press extends well beyond Zaman, to reporters, columnists, and bloggers who criticize government policies or publish information deemed sensitive about national security, Kurdish demands, or Erdoğan’s rule. Turkey’s judiciary has reportedly charged some 1,800 people including many journalists under a law that prohibits “insulting the president.” Turkey has frequently blocked Twitter and YouTube, and Erdoğan has hinted at a total shutdown of social media.

Only days before the Zaman seizure, the state satellite signal provider yanked IMC TV off the air during a live broadcast—at the time, the channel was interviewing two senior Cumhuriyet journalists facing charges of exposing state secrets for reporting on the alleged transfer of weapons from Turkey to Syrian rebels.

Last fall, Turkish authorities seized the Ipek Media Group, firing journalists on its two opposition dailies and two opposition TV channels and transforming the media outlets into government mouthpieces.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey is among the worst jailers of journalists in the world, with 14 journalists imprisoned as of the end of 2015. It ranks 149th of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.

Today’s Zaman, the English-language version, issued a statement on the government’s seizure of the media group:

We are going through the darkest and gloomiest days in terms of freedom of the press, which is a major benchmark for democracy and the rule of law. Intellectuals, businesspeople, celebrities, civil society organizations, media organizations and journalists are being silenced via threats and blackmail.

Speaking to the New York Times, veteran political journalist Asli Aydintasbas, who  lost her column in the daily Milliyet newspaper reportedly under government pressure last year, said:

This pattern is appalling, and Turkey is galloping towards an authoritarian regime full speed ahead. Unfortunately, the world, in particular the E.U., remains silent. The government here can sense the vulnerability in the West, especially since the beginning of the refugee crisis, and is pushing the boundaries to consolidate its power.

—Scott MacLeod

Hollywood’s Spotlight on Journalism

Well, how ironic! Amid the ongoing collapse of newspaper journalism, a movie about newspaper journalists wins the big Oscar for the first time.


The 2015 Academy Award for Best Picture goes to Spotlight, which tells the true story of the Boston Globe Spotlight Team investigative reporting unit that revealed widespread child sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests and the cover-up of the crimes by high-level church officials.

The Globe itself won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service “for its courageous, comprehensive coverage of sexual abuse by priests, an effort that pierced secrecy, stirred local, national and international reaction and produced changes in the Roman Catholic Church.” The Globe’s Pulitzer entry included 22 stories, including the first piece in the series written by Michael Rezendes titled: “Church allowed abuse by priest for years: Aware of Geoghan record, archdiocese still shuttled him from parish to parish.”


Josh Singer, who along with Spotlight co-writer Tom McCarthy won the 2015 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, recently explained how the film’s underlying message is the importance of journalism to society:

This story isn’t about exposing the Catholic Church. We were not on some mission to rattle people’s faith. In fact, Tom came from a Catholic family. The motive was to tell the story accurately while showing the power of the newsroom—something that’s largely disappeared today. This story is important. Journalism is important, and there is a deeper message in the story.

I don’t think many understand the value of a good newsroom. The L.A. Times used to have 19 reporters covering legislature and now they have 4. When you have fewer reporters covering a story, you have far less accountability.

We wanted to spark or rekindle an interest in accurate and accountable journalism. When there is this kind of accountability among good journalists working together, it has a lasting affect on the public. Remember, Watergate was also a local story that became national.

Newspapers may be shrinking or dying, but investigative journalists are not giving up. In the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Brant Houston reports on how non-profit news organizations are picking up some of the slack.

Here’s the Spotlight trailer


—Scott MacLeod

The Intercept, Two Years On

Adversarial muckrakers + civic-minded billionaire = a whole new world

That was the sub-headline on a Columbia Journalism Review article on October 17, 2013. It perfectly summed up the excitement many of us felt about the announcement that billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and national security journalist Glenn Greenwald were getting into the journalism business together. But, alas, the partnership still seems to be very far from reaching its objectives and potential.


By February 2014, Omidyar and Greenwald, with a barebones staff, had launched The Intercept. According to its mission statement, The Intercept is “dedicated to producing fearless, adversarial journalism. We believe journalism should bring transparency and accountability to powerful governmental and corporate institutions, and our journalists have the editorial freedom and legal support to pursue this mission.”

Over the past two years, The Intercept has undoubtedly proved to be an important new player in American journalism. It has hired stellar journalists such as—in addition to Greenwald—Laura Poitras, Jeremy Scahill, and Peter Maass. It has been a relentless watchdog on powerful people and institutions, initially as a platform for Greenwald’s ground-breaking reporting on the National Security Agency based on leaked documents from Edward Snowden.

Yet, by The Intercept’s own reckoning, the launch of the publication was severely hampered by the management style of First Look Media, the parent company Omidyar created for an envisioned $250 million investment in journalistic projects.

In June 2014, Greenwald, Poitras, Scahill and Matt Taibbi—who was hired to start a separate First Look Media publication called Racket—wrote a letter to Omidyar complaining that budgetary and personnel restrictions were jeopardizing the whole enterprise. The Intercept, already up and running with big-name journalists, managed to work out some of the kinks with First Look. But Taibbi left the company to return to Rolling Stone magazine, and First Look shut down Racket before its launch.

The recent scandal involving reporter Juan Thompson indicates that The Intercept’s organizational problems are far from over. And these problems are beginning to infect The Intercept’s credibility.

In “A Note to Readers” on February 2, 2016, Editor in Chief Betsy Reed announced the firing of Thompson, who had covered race and criminal justice issues for The Intercept since November 2014. An internal investigation had revealed that Thompson fabricated quotes, deceived editors, and lied about his reporting methods.

One of the egregious examples was a Thompson story dated June 19, 2015, about 21-year-old Dylann Roof, who slaughtered nine African Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina two days earlier. The article quoted Scott Roof, who was identified as Roof’s cousin, saying that Roof went “over the edge” when a girl he liked started dating an African American man. The Intercept’s internal investigation, which included speaking with two members of the Roof family, said the family did not know of such a cousin.

In her note, Reed accepted responsibility for the Thompson affair, apologizing to the subjects of the stories, to people who were falsely quoted, and to The Intercept’s readers. “The best way we can see to maintain the trust of readers,” she wrote, “is to acknowledge and correct these mistakes, and to focus on producing journalism we are proud of.”

That may not be enough to maintain the trust of The Intercept’s readers. The Thompson fabrications amount to an institutional scandal of great proportions, particularly for an organization that prides itself on reporting highly sensitive stories based on anonymous sources.

The Intercept should follow through with a full (and preferably independent) investigation into Thompson’s career and work at the publication. The review should not only cover Thompson’s reporting methods and deceptions, but the editorial process that enabled him to get away with the fabrications. Precedents for such accountability have been set by other publications, notably the New York Times in the Jayson Blair scandal, and Rolling Stone in the case of its discredited story about a vicious gang rape at a college fraternity house.

Also curious is The Intercept’s decision to keep Thompson’s 40-some stories for the publication as well as his biography on its website. The Dylann Roof story is labeled “Retracted” with an editor’s note explaining why, and four other stories are labeled “Corrected” with similar editor’s notes.

However well intended, this approach does nothing to restore the breach of trust that The Intercept has created with its readers. It leaves the impression that everything is more or less okay, except for a few errors here and there by a lone reporter that have now been “corrected.” It leaves the mea culpa seeming half-hearted.

Perhaps a better idea is for The Intercept’s homepage to display a prominent hyperlinked “Correcting the Record” box, where readers would be taken to a full report on the affair and an account of measures being taken to prevent future breakdowns in the editorial process.

If Thompson’s bio is to remain, it should  be accompanied by text clearly explaining his role in the breach of trust. His journalism should be transparently removed from the website, or kept in a special section devoted entirely to the scandal. Readers can hardly have any confidence in his articles after his own editor in chief stated that “Thompson went to great lengths to deceive his editors, creating an email account to impersonate a source and lying about his reporting methods.”

After all its organizational problems, New Look Media is well advised to get its act together. This is an outfit that was flung together too quickly, without regard for the importance of creating a foundational institutional culture suited to the work of journalism. Omidyar  formed the partnership with Greenwald within a few weeks of meeting him for the first time, without even discussing roles and responsibilities. Omidyar’s idea resembled what New York University’s Jay Rosen calls the “personal franchise model” of assembling star journalists and supporting them.

The Intercept itself diagnosed the problem with this idea, in a remarkable article it published in October 30, 2014 about the turmoil within First Look Media that led to Matt Taibbi’s exit:

First Look and the editorial staff it hired quickly learned that it is much easier to talk about such high-minded, abstract principles than it is to construct an organization around them. The decision to create a new editorial model left space for confusion, differing perspectives, and misaligned expectations.

—Scott MacLeod

Access Journalism

The risk of falling prey to political manipulators is an occupational hazard for journalists. It is particularly so for those whose beats provide off-the-record background briefings and other tantalizing opportunities for access to powerful people in high places—for example, senior policy makers at the White House, Pentagon, State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, etc. Access to power and the “scoops” that can result is a rush for driven journalists in cutthroat competition for front page real estate and the glory and money that can accrue.


A notorious case in point, of course, is former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who said “I was wrong because my sources were wrong” after her misleading reporting on Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs helped the Bush administration build its case for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Though a relatively innocuous example, an email exchange between then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s spokesman and a journalist for the Atlantic provides a rare and revealing insider glimpse at the practice of Washington hacks cozying up to powerful sources.

Atlantic politics editor Marc Ambinder emailed Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines on July 15, 2009 asking for an advance copy of a speech Clinton would be giving at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Reines responded by offering the speech, but on three conditions:

1) You in your own voice describe them as “muscular”

2) You note that a look at the CFR seating plan shows that all the envoys—from Holbrooke to Mitchell to Ross—will be arrayed in front of her, which in your own clever way you can say certainly not a coincidence and meant to convey something

3) You don’t say you were blackmailed!

Ambinder immediately responded, “got it,” and complied: the first paragraph of his scoop for the Atlantic dutifully called Clinton’s speech “muscular” and noted that the three envoys would be “seated in front of Clinton, subordinate to Clinton.” The piece’s headline: “Hillary Clinton’s ‘Smart Power’ Breaks Through.”

Gawker’s J.J. Trotter reported on the email exchange, which Gawker obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request for Reines’ email exchanges with journalists. In the Washington Post, media critic Erik Wemple called the exchange a “Beltway bucket of slime.”

Miller, in her 2015 autobiography The Story: A Reporter’s Journey, continued to deny any fundamental professional lapse in relying on dubious sources. By contrast, Ambinder, who has since left the Atlantic to become a Los Angeles-based writer and producer, honorably acknowledged his error to Gawker:

It made me uncomfortable then, and it makes me uncomfortable today. And when I look at that email record, it is a reminder to me of why I moved away from all that. The Atlantic, to their credit, never pushed me to do that, to turn into a scoop factory. In the fullness of time, any journalist or writer who is confronted by the prospect, or gets in the situation where their journalism begins to feel transactional, should listen to their gut feeling and push away from that.

Being scrupulous at all times will not help you get all the scoops, but it will help you sleep at night. At no point at The Atlantic did I ever feel the pressure to make transactional journalism the norm.

—Scott MacLeod

Covering the Hate Beat

A notable feature of the 2016 race for the White House has been the free flowing comments of some Republican candidates against economic migrants and political refugees and, by association, against the Latino and Muslim communities. The comments go beyond anti-immigration rhetoric and cross the line into the realm of hate speech.


Businessman Donald Trump led the way in his presidential announcement speech on June 16 by describing Mexican immigrants as criminals, drug smugglers, and rapists. After the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, he redirected his venom toward Muslims. He called for a database to monitor Syrian refugees and possibly all American Muslims as well. Trump accompanied this view with a statement questioning the loyalty of American Muslims, claiming that immediately after the September 11 terrorist attack on Manhattan’s World Trade Center “thousands and thousands of people were cheering” across the river in Jersey City “where you have large Arab populations.”

Trump’s Islam-bashing actually started long before he became the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination—he’s been at the top of the polls since June. He was one of the loudest voices in the United States pushing right-wing claims intended to smear President Barack Obama—that he was born in Kenya—which would disqualify him from occupying the presidency—and that he was a secret Muslim.

Ben Carson, an African-American neurosurgeon in the Republican race, chimed in that Muslims are unfit to be president of the United States because of their religious faith. Ted Cruz, a senator from Texas and another Republican candidate, called for banning refugees from Syria if they are Muslim, but letting Christians in. “There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror,” he explained. Another contender, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, echoed a threat by Trump to shut down U.S. mosques as venues inspiring radicalism. In the latest opinion survey, Trump, Rubio, Cruz, and Carson lead the Republican race with 36, 14, 12, and 10 percent support, respectively, among likely Republican primary voters.

To a great extent, American mainstream news media organizations, wittingly or otherwise, have propelled the hate speech. They have hyped the sound bites, replaying them in headline after headline and broadcast after broadcast, to the point that the comments have enabled the candidates to drive news coverage and thus dominate the campaign discourse. Moreover, too rarely are the comments characterized as hate speech, but are rather labeled as “controversial” or “provocative.” Here journalists are pursuing a false objectivity, eager to prove they are not biased for or against any candidate or party. They are also taking refuge in a false equivalency that treats comments defending or attacking Latino or Muslim communities as equally valid and acceptable political discourse.

Hate speech is broadly protected by the First Amendment, giving Trump and the other Republican candidates a constitutional right to make their odious comments. In Europe, they would need to be more careful. Britain’s Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006 makes it an offense to incite hatred against a group of people based on their religious beliefs. In France, even an icon such as Brigitte Bardot has been convicted and fined for inciting hatred with anti-Muslim comments, including: “My country, France, my homeland, my land is again invaded by an overpopulation of foreigners, especially Muslims.”

Nor in the United States is the right of free speech absolute. Incitement of violence, for example, is not fully protected—and there are reasons to believe that Trump’s remarks have incited violence. The cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten became a cause célèbre for many free speech advocates, who argued that by definition free expression must include the right to spout offensive ideas. (The cartoons most certainly were a direct cause of the anti-Danish protests and riots that swept the Islamic World afterwards, with some 200 deaths.) In an aggressive campaign asserting such a right, the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo famously persisted in publishing insulting cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. When Muslim extremists attacked the magazine’s offices and slaughtered 12 people last January, massive demonstrations erupted across France proclaiming “Je Suis Charlie,” ostensibly in defense of free speech.

These can be difficult issues, certainly for journalists, who see part of their calling as a mission to defend the right to a free press. Nobody should argue that the news media should ignore hate speech, least of all when it is spewed forth by public figures and even aspirants to the presidency. The question is how to cover it.

When journalists cover criticism of the hate-mongers, they provide readers and viewers with important alternative viewpoints. News media outlets have traditionally called out lies or provided context on their editorial and Op-Ed pages. Some news media and civil society organizations have institutionalized platforms that make fact checking a discrete service holding public figures accountable for the accuracy of their statements. The Washington Post,, and have done admirable work in exposing Trump’s untruths about Latinos and Muslims. In September, the New York Times carried a strongly worded editorial criticizing the Republican attack on Muslims.

But this is not enough, not in an era when the best intentions of the finest journalists are often drowned out by the deafening idiocy of “debates” on so many cable and satellite so-called news channels, or otherwise overwhelmed by social media chatter.

News executives and beat journalists alike need to take a long, hard look at how to define and treat hate speech in the digital media age. One of the principles of journalism is pursuit of the truth—and “truth” is not just dutifully recording and endlessly repeating the hate speech of politicians, but also providing background and perspective. Journalists have an important obligation to their societies to be responsible framers of the public discussion—but this is not accomplished when the endless repetition of the hateful sound bites overwhelms the few stories or editorials here and there that attempt to give critical context.

Broadly speaking, the American mainstream news media has failed miserably in its obligation to provide a comprehensive and proportional narrative of American life—including the lives and voices of ethnic and religious minorities. It should go without saying that Latino and Muslim communities and new immigrants—including the undocumented immigrants that Republicans are so fond of baiting—have made enormous positive contributions to the economic and cultural vitality of the United States. America, indeed, is a nation of immigrants. Yet, pack journalism’s obsession with sound bytes and easy headlines reinforces ignorance about minority communities and the issues around them.

There are a number of immediate steps that American editors and reporters can take to address hate speech. They can put the brakes on automatic, continuous, tabloid-style coverage that treats a politician spewing hate speech as if it was just Justin Bieber committing another act of adolescent mischief. Instead, they can provide their readers and viewers with thoughtful explorations and discussions that use universal human values, rather than the false objectivity and balance supposedly conferred by equal column inches and air time, as journalism’s frame of reference. American journalists can devote space to much fuller, more responsible coverage of communities upon which demagogues are apt to prey.

At the heart of the matter is the philosophical question of free speech. Without any hesitation, it should be practiced and defended at all costs. Whether one cites Supreme Court decisions or the law of common sense, it is clear that healthy societies are built upon the free flow of information and opinions. That is precisely why it is so important that journalists not abuse their right of free speech, or enable others to abuse it. Journalists need not scapegoat, defame, or humiliate our most vulnerable communities, or provide the megaphone for those who do, to prove that free speech is a value worth defending.

—Scott MacLeod

NYT: “Our Path Forward”

Its 96-page internal “Innovation” report in March 2014 called for a strategy to make the New York Times newsroom “a truly digital-first organization.” Last month, the strategy was unveiled, and it might rather be termed a “mobile-first” strategy.


Executive Editor Dean Baquet, Chairman and Publisher Arthur O. Sultzberger Jr., and eight other officials of the 164-year-old newspaper company declared in an 11-page memo solemnly titled “Our Path Forward”: “Our company was built for the print era and now must be redesigned for the mobile era… Our first two million subscribers grew up with The New York Times spread out over their kitchen tables. The next million must be fought for and won over with The Times on their phones.”

The memo noted that in the last five years, the newspaper has doubled its digital revenues to $400 million. The headline from the memo was a goal to double the digital revenues again to $800 million by 2020. Last summer, the Times announced that it had surpassed the 1 million mark in digital subscribers.

The Times is making an impressive effort to figure out how a major news organization rooted in the print era can survive in the digital era. With so much at stake—the Times‘ epic contribution to American journalism, the legacy of a great newspaper family—one assumes this strategy is as cutting edge as it gets. But will it work?

The Times is betting on its uniqueness. It is betting that the best business model should focus on getting users to pay for Times journalism—on the basis of the uniquely high quality product it offers—rather than depending on advertising revenues.  The Times is betting on digital subscriptions, and it believes that loyalty of digital subscribers is what will drive whatever digital advertising it also manages to attract.

From the memo:

Though “user-­first” has become a popular buzz phrase in recent years, it has real meaning for us. While most of our competitors chase scale, our unique business model is built on directly asking our most loyal readers to help us pay for our massive news gathering operation.  In addition to contributing all of our digital subscription revenue, they also are responsible for driving the majority of our advertising revenue  through their deep engagement. The sustainable path to long-­term revenue growth requires that we always prioritize user experience and  the needs of our customers over hitting quarterly revenue targets.  These deep reader relationships are our  most valuable  asset.

The Times newsroom, 1,300 journalists strong, has already re-geared as a digital-first organization. The memo accepts the “inevitable decline in print.” But the memo’s talk about the need to “deepen the engagement with our current readers” and “building new relationships with people around the world” is a leap of faith.

The Times has prioritized hiring journalists “with new skills in graphics, video, technology, design, data, audience engagement and much more.” In outlining fresh approaches for the digital era, the memo points to innovations like digital storytelling techniques, big multimedia projects, video reports, liveblogging, mobile phone alerts, newsletters, translations, service journalism, and new formats like Apple Watch and Snapchat. These are in line with the Times‘ core goal of making the user experience as enriching and personal as possible.

Yet, it’s not clear how those wonderful features produced by digital-savvy journalists are going to enable the Times to keep its 2 million current paying customers—one million of them buying the print paper—let alone recruit new ones. Undoubtedly news consumers everywhere will continue to love reading the Times. The question is whether enough of them will be willing to pay for it.

The memo predicts that “over the next few years, the battle is going to be won or lost on smart phones.” Yet, mobile devices with five-inch display screens don’t seem to be a very ideal platform to support what the memo rightly calls “ambitious, original, high-quality journalism that is essential for an informed society.”

In the last few financial reporting quarters, the Times has been clocking 20 percent or so increases in its digital subscribers—no doubt, one of the reasons for the surprising confidence expressed in “Our Path Forward.”

Other numbers continue to be sobering, however. Digital advertising revenues, though steadily improving across the industry, only contribute about one-third to overall ad revenues. Print ad revenues have been steadily declining at the Times in 2015—down 11 percent in the first quarter, 13 percent in the second quarter, and about 1 percent in the third quarter. In the third-quarter results released at the end of October, just three weeks after the “Our Path Forward” memo was issued, even digital ad revenues declined by 5 percent. As the memo says, “for all we’ve accomplished, our digital business is not yet close to supporting the scale of our ambitions.”

The Times’ strategy is a clear-headed appraisal of the challenges it faces, and a reasonable action plan for survival in the digital era. It aims to not only survive but thrive. The Times‘ goal is nothing less than attracting readers who will “build a lifetime relationship with The New York Times.” Times‘ executives deserve enormous credit for their unyielding commitment to quality journalism rather than bottom lines. Yet the Times‘ future depends to a great extent on dynamics outside its control.

The memo notes, for example, that the Times will particularly focus on younger readers, who are “reliable first indicators of major trends that ultimate affect our entire audience.” Already the under-35s make up 40 percent of the Times’ mobile audience. But studies show that these so-called Millennials have adopted digital media consumption habits for the digital age—digital natives are getting their news from networks such as social media more than via destination news sites. It is far from certain that the Times will be able to demonstrate to this demographic “the unique value of consuming The Times on our own platforms.” The memo acknowledges the ominous phenomenon of readers’ “changing habits.”

As the memo notes:

Skeptics still openly wonder if we can continue to deliver on this journalistic mission, given the seeming mismatch between the economics of news media and the scale of our operations. They suggest the days when a media company can fund a big, ambitious  newsroom are over. They doubt we can continue to cut legacy costs and fund digital innovation at the same time.

These are serious and fair questions. The most pressing challenge is not to prove that our journalism matters—it’s to demonstrate that our business can continue to support this mission.

—Scott MacLeod

Catalyst Chicago: Small Is Beautiful

With Old Media disrupted, and New Media overwhelming us with dating advice columns and kitty videos, how wonderful it is to see a non-profit like Catalyst Chicago celebrating 25 years in business. Founder-editor-publisher Linda Lenz launched the publication in 1990 to provide extensive coverage of Chicago Public Schools. Catalyst has been an exemplar of community journalism since the print age, and it is also a model representing the possibilities of journalism in the online age.


Lenz’s story of Catalyst’s origins, which she relates in a 25th anniversary issue, sounds like good strategy for an online start-up:

My idea for Catalyst Chicago began with the Chicago School Reform Act of 1988, which cracked open and breathed new life into a calcified school district. The key feature was revolutionary: creating elected local school councils—six parents, two community members and two teachers—that would have the power to select their schools’ principals, a make-or-break decision for schools regardless of who does the choosing.

That structure created a need, I thought, for an independent source of in-depth information on education issues so that council members and others newly involved in the system could knowledgeably participate in this grand experiment in local control.

For the previous decade, I had been the education reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, and I knew that the news media would not have the time, space—we were still a print world—or inclination to dig deep into school-improvement issues on a regular basis.

Creating an editorial plan was easy, but I didn’t know how to put it into motion, so I consulted a savvy news source, Anne Hallett, who was then executive director of the Wieboldt Foundation. Anne said: “Go talk to the Community Renewal Society,” which at that time had been publishing The Chicago Reporter, an investigative newsletter focused on race and poverty, for 17 years.

At CRS I reunited with Roy Larson, the Reporter’s editor and publisher, who had been the religion editor at the Sun-Times and my pod-mate. Roy melded my idea with CRS’s idea for a newsletter for parents, and together we went in search of funding. As it turned out, the MacArthur and Joyce foundations had been looking for a way to track implementation of the Reform Act, and The Chicago Community Trust was interested in assisting parents.

So in February 1990, the first issue of Catalyst rolled off the presses. Reviewing our early issues—and they are all online—I am struck by how little the major issues have changed. In our first few years, we reported on principal selection, testing, school choice, the shortage of bilingual teachers, funding equity and overcrowding in Hispanic communities.

Catalyst is published by but is editorially independent from the Community Renewal Society, a civic group founded in 1882 whose mission statement calls public engagement one of four primary components of a theory of change:

For citizens or organizations to take action on an issue, they must first be aware of the issue and its importance and understand its causes, its consequences and possible solutions to it. Effective public engagement is intertwined with building knowledge and understanding. Community Renewal Society’s newsmagazines—Catalyst Chicago and The Chicago Reporter—will surface issues and provide insightful analyses into pressing social concerns.

Catalyst, today an online publication that has reduced its newsmagazine run from nine to three issues per year, has gone on to do solid reporting on every imaginable issue confronting Chicago public education. It has won some 50 prizes for its reporting, including a Studs Terkel Community Media Award in 2011. In the last few years Catalyst’s coverage has included in-depth reports on the shortage of funds for sports facilities, the challenges high school graduates face in completing college, drugs in schools, and teacher turnover.

In October, a 2013 story by Catalyst reporter Sarah Karp on a $20 million no-bid professional development contract to train school principals yielded spectacular results: the federal indictment of former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett on charges of funneling contracts to former employers in exchange for kickbacks; within days, Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty to one count of fraud in the bribery and kickback scandal, and agreed to cooperate on further cases.

Karp’s story had pointed out that Byrd-Bennett had worked for the company receiving the no-bid contract immediately prior to joining Chicago Public Schools, initially as a consultant. Karp’s reporting intrigued the school system’s inspector general, and soon federal prosecutors were on the case. The fact that it was a community publication that broke the scandal, and not the major Chicago media players like the Tribune and the Sun-Times, is testimony to the critical importance of community journalism.

As Lenz told the Columbia Journalism Review: “What we do is give our staff the gift that most journalists want, which is time. Our journalists have time to go through reports. They become really expert on the nitty-gritty, how a school system works. And then they have the time to go after things.”

How does Catalyst manage to pay its great journalists? Its longtime business model is one that more and more media organizations are starting to consider. It is funded by print and online advertising, contributions from individuals, and grants from companies and foundations including: the Boeing Company, The Chicago Community Trust, Lloyd A. Fry Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Robert R. McCormick Foundation, McDougal Family Foundation, Oppenheimer Family Foundation, Polk Bros. Foundation, Spencer Foundation and the Voqal Fund.

—Scott MacLeod