Wednesday, January 05, 2005
On journalism: When you typically ask a professional journalist why they decided to get into that profession, the answer you all too often get is something related to changing the world or helping the downtrodden. (See Coleman, Nick.)
I'm an anomaly. I got into journalism because I love to write. Have I gotten excited when I uncovered a good story? Yes. But I never saw it as part of my job to write news articles to advance an agenda -- liberal or conservative. [We'll ignore, for the time being, how I ended up doing page design when the reason I got into the business was to write.]
As evidence of my nonpartisan reporting past, I offer the fact that I interviewed Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens when I was a reporter at the Lompoc Record in the mid-90s. When the article came out and I mailed a clip to his office as a courtesy, I learned that what I had written had angered him -- a lot. In my years as a reporter, no one ever accused me of slanting my stories or leaving out or ignoring one side or the other. That's not to say I never made mistakes. I remember getting a letter from a reader once which read merely: "One phenomenon. Two phenomena." I'd used the singular when I should have used the plural in a story earlier that week.
All of this has been a way of saying that I truly love journalism. I enjoy reading a well-reported, well-written story. I like reading newspapers -- something that too often seems passe among many of my peers.
But sometimes I just have to shake my head at what too many of my journalist peers are doing to further tarnish the media's already dubious credibility.
Sometimes it's the little things, like this portion of an AP graphic that was part of a larger map that ran in many newspapers earlier this week.
The label on that chart isn't accurate. The figures are direct cash donations by governments -- not "worldwide largest donations." That $350 million figure for the United States doesn't include private donations -- including the more than $14 million raised for the American Red Cross at Amazon.com. It doesn't include the value of all of the food and medical supplies that the government is providing. It doesn't include all the money spent on U.S. military helicopters, cargo planes, ships helping with the disaster relief efforts -- or the men and women manning them.
That's a piddly complaint.
What Corey Pein has done at the Columbia Journalism Review is much worse. A lot of bloggers have already ripped Pein's article to pieces -- I'd like to highlight Jonathan V. Last's, Powerline's and Jim Lindgren's contributions especially.
Pein attempts to defend the indefensible -- CBS News' use of forged documents for a hit piece on President Bush in the run up to the 2004 election -- by shoddy and selective reporting. A couple highlights:
Haste explains the rapid spread of thinly supported theories and flawed critiques, which moved from partisan blogs to the nation’s television sets. For example, the morning after CBS’s September 8 report, the conservative blog Little Green Footballs posted a do-it-yourself experiment that supposedly proved that the documents were produced on a computer. On September 11, a self-proclaimed typography expert, Joseph Newcomer, copied the experiment, and posted the results on his personal Web site. Little Green Footballs delighted in the “authoritative and definitive” validation, and posted a link to Newcomer’s report on September 12. Two days later, Newcomer — who was “100 percent” certain that the memos were forged — figured high in a Washington Post report. The Post’s mention of Newcomer came up that night on Fox, MSNBC, and CNN, and on September 15, he was a guest on Fox News’s Hannity & Colmes.
Newcomer gave the press what it wanted: a definite answer. The problem is, his proof turns out to be far less than that. Newcomer’s résumé — boasting a Ph.D. in computer science and a role in creating electronic typesetting — seemed impressive. His conclusions came out quickly, and were bold bordering on hyperbolic. The accompanying analysis was long and technical, discouraging close examination.
To summarize: "Newcomer is sure of himself and he wrote something very long, but I, Corey Pein, a journalism student at Columbia University, am too stupid to understand it, so I will dismiss what he has to say."
Pein's characterization of Newcomers as a "self-proclaimed typography expert" is also irresponsible. It's clear from Newcomer's resume that he is a typography expert. Pein's "self-proclaimed" is code for "I dont' believe him and neither should you."
Red flags wave here, or should have. Newcomer begins with the presumption that the documents are forgeries, and as evidence submits that he can create a very similar document on his computer. This proves nothing — you could make a replica of almost any document using Word. Yet Newcomer’s aggressive conclusion is based on this logical error.
While attempting to whack Newcomer, Pein winds up, swings and hits himself right in the face. "You could make a replica of almost any document using Word." This is either a lie, or Pein is an idiot -- or both, let's not limit ourselves. Try this Pein: Make a replica of the Declaration of Independence using only Word. That might be too tough. Make a replica of the lead story of today's New York Times that matches up like the fake memos and the re-typed Word document.
Pein also says that Newcomer claimed to "create a very similar document on his computer." Bad reporting again. Newcomer demonstrated that he could create an identical document on his computer -- using Word's default settings (something Charles Johnson did first).
Would-be gumshoes typed up documents on their computers and fooled around with the images in Photoshop until their creation matched the originals.
Wrong again! The only person who typed up documents on their computers and fooled with them in Photoshop was David Hailey -- Pein's "right-wing mob" victim -- who isn't a typographic expert, but a technical writing instructor.
There are so many mistakes in Pein's piece that, if CJR is honest, it will take nearly as many column-inches as the original article to explain all of the corrections.
And this piece of garbage was published in perhaps the most respected journalism publication in the United States?
And it gets worse. Last month, an AP photographer just happened to be in the right place at the right time to capture the images of two Iraqi elections workers being murdered in broad daylight.
When Wretchard over at the Belmont Club raised a question about the possiblity of collusion on the part of the photographer and the terrorist murders, he was quickly attacked by the liberal online magazine Salon.
I didn't wade into the brouhaha at the time because the circumstances really were murky. Maybe there was collusion. Maybe there wasn't.
And then an AP flack sent a letter to PoynterOnline.
AP on its Iraqi photographers and insurgents
12/23/2004 2:54:30 PM
From JACK STOKES, director of media relations, Associated Press: [This is a solicited letter regarding Salon's "The Associated Press 'insurgency.'"] Several brave Iraqi photographers work for The Associated Press in places that only Iraqis can cover. Many are covering the communities they live in where family and tribal relations give them access that would not be available to Western photographers, or even Iraqi photographers who are not from the area.
Insurgents want their stories told as much as other people and some are willing to let Iraqi photographers take their pictures. It's important to note, though, that the photographers are not "embedded" with the insurgents. They do not have to swear allegiance or otherwise join up philosophically with them just to take their pictures.
This was another kick in the pants to good journalism. The AP in Iraq has taken the idea that a journalist needs to objectively report the facts with a sort of amorality that cannot see the difference between cops and criminals.
Let's reword that second paragraph a bit.
Child molesters want their stories told as much as other people and some are willing to let photographers take their pictures. It's important to note, though, that the photographers are not participating with the child molesters. They do not have to swear allegiance or otherwise join up philosophically with them just to take their pictures.
As I read that letter, that's what went through my mind. If given the opportunity to do a story on someone from NAMBLA as he went about seducing an underage boy online and then meeting him in a park, would the AP go along with having a reporter shadow them, knowing what was going to happen was against the law?
Does everyone who want their "story told" by the AP get it? Is the AP so totally blinded that it cannot see evil?
American journalism is in bad shape. Maybe constructive criticism from readers and bloggers can make it better by holding it accountable, but I'm not so sure.