The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Getler, bad apples and Kelley: what about the anonymice?

WaPo ombud Michael Getler gets a good deal less play here than his New York Times opposite number, Daniel Okrent for all sorts of reasons: nothing like Jayson Blair or Peter Landesman has cropped up in the Post during the time I've been interested in such things (which isn't that long).

And my impression is Okrent's tenure is more of a performance - it's time-limited, for one thing; and one only has to look at the guy's photo byline to suspect a certain theatrical quality in his work that seems borne out in the prose itself.

Getler (March 28) is pondering the state of journalism in prize time. Just how rotten is it?

He seems [1] to conclude that the problem concerns
just a few, troubled bad apples among thousands of hardworking and fact-checking journalists.

But not these miserable few hacks alone:
But editors are the gatekeepers; they are the ones who ultimately must protect the paper and the public from any reporter who seeks to deceive or abuse the trust that must exist in a newsroom. Investigations must assess the role of editors and publishers, as well as that of the reporter.

It's a point I made at some length myself (March 23) in relation to the editing of Jack Kelley.

Getler also questions USA Today's performance [2]:
Many of Kelley's stories were astounding in their detail, borderline unbelievable in many cases to anyone who has worked abroad. He had an amazing knack for being at the scene of extraordinary events.

It's undoubtedly a good thing to give full value to the editorial function's part in producing cases like Kelley's - where one can clearly see that the system has gone wrong.

But not if one is distracted from examining more fundamental issues of news quality. Such as the use of anonymous sources - much discussed here (just scroll down the page!).

Or the adoption by the media of the White House's news agenda or its way of framing news stories: the sort of issues explored in Susan Moeller's study (PDF) on WMD stories mentioned several times before here.

There is no question than a journo using anonymous USG sources is per se doing anything unethical - both the New York Times and the Washington Post provide guidelines which have proved fairly elastic in practice. And the questionable WMD work of the Times' Judith Miller has been lauded by her bosses. (All discussed here before.)

This kind of systematic quality problem is much more intractable than a Blair/Kelley: from the tiny amount I've seen, getting a good many journos and editors to admit that there's a problem at all will be no easy matter.

A big case like Kelley is an opportunity for top management to impose a redemptive story arc: some senior heads rolling in the process, as in the Blair affair, but finishing with one of those scenes from the 60s TV dramas preceded by the title: Epilog. Loose ends are tied up, apologies made and forgiveness granted, all under the supervision of the wise and (to the viewers) comforting Perry Mason-type character.

(Indeed, a cynic might suggest that the management of a newspaper like the Times or Post should bring in a guy like Blair every few years, with the intention of playing out that sort of arc, to give the organisation a sort of colonic irrigation: the illusion of having been purged of impurities.)

It works for the average reader, too - who these days tends to be fairly distrustful [3] of newspaper product. Whilst the anonymous sources issue might well bore him or go over his head, he can understand the fakery of guys like Blair and Kelley without too much difficulty. So when a similar case is discovered and dealt with, he shares the narrative satisfaction of those inside the organisation.

The inclination of all parties, then, after a Blair/Kelley is, in Tony Blair's favourite phrase, to move on.

Which would be unfortunate.

  1. He prefaces his 'conclusion' with a couple of rhetorical questions posing alternatives that do not exhaust all possibilities. (The Rick Bragg case illustrated the possibilities for the creative (but not necessarily unethical) use of the product of the labour of others, I seem to remember.) Rumination followed by re-reading are indicated!

  2. I am not quite so happy about his reference to the fact that not have a large, experienced (and expensive) staff of foreign correspondents and editors as do some other major American papers.
    Sounds as if he's trying to suggest that the Post was safe(r) from a Kelley-type fiasco.

  3. I can't hack routing out the stats right now. So it's a weak formulation.


A NYT Kelley piece (March 29) based on interviews with USAT journos.

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