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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Anchors Away? Brian Williams and Peter Mansbridge Adrift in the Digital Ocean

Brian Williams, NBC News
It says something about the state of broadcast journalism when two, once highly regarded news anchors seem prone to possibly career-ending mistakes.

At NBC News, Brian Williams has admitted that he made things up about his time in Iraq. When forced by social media to come clean, Williams admitted that a helicopter he was in did not come under direct fire.

Williams' coverage in New Orleans of Hurricane Katrina is also being questioned. NBC has asked that its own investigative unit look into these allegations and make a public report on whether Williams misled his audience, his colleagues and his employer.

This comes at a time when NBC Nightly News has been leading the evening network news competitions with long time rivals CBS and ABC.

According to the New York Times, "NBC News executives have not publicly addressed the issue, hunkering down on Friday as Mr. William's troubles continued to draw a frenzy of criticism. Across the web, commentators have been aggressive in questioning not only Mr. William's reporting but NBC's handling of the problem. Some military veterans and commentators have called for his resignation."
The CBC's Peter Mansbridge

At CBC News, a similarly embarrassing situation has been building for months, involving a number of high-profile journalists including Peter Mansbridge, Chief Correspondent and long-time host of the CBC's flagship newscast, "The National."

Unlike Williams, Mansbridge has not exaggerated his journalism or deceived his audience. But he has accepted speaking fees from lobby groups that have many in the blogosphere and the CBC's own ombudsman calling for an end to the practice.

There is a growing perception, led by digital media, that this practice which has further enriched an already well compensated group of public broadcasters, must end. So in an effort to deal with the damage to the CBC's bruised reputation, senior management says they have banned all future paid speaking gigs, unless otherwise approved by the top echelons. Some paid speeches, says Jennifer McGuire, CBC's editor-in-chief will be allowed if they were agreed to before the new policy was proclaimed. McGuire also promised that all speeches, paid or unpaid would be posted on the CBC's website stating where the journalists appeared (that seems not to be happening with any urgency or consistency).

That might have tamped down the controversy. But it hasn't. Bloggers continue to point out significant gaps between management statements and new paid speaking gigs for Mansbridge and others in the CBC. Most recently, blogger, journalism professor and former CBC journalist Andrew Mitrovica has been relentless in going after this practice when it was revealed that Mansbridge spoke to a "FarmTech" conference sponsored by Monsanto and the Koch Brothers. Other bloggers like Frank Koller have been similarly focused and equally disappointed. 

Could it be that the CBC's journalistic stars prefer to ignore the latest ukase from management, since to do otherwise would be to admit that they have done something wrong? They seem to want to tough it out.

At NBC, a private corporation is willing acknowledge that there may be something seriously wrong in the mindset of its most prominent journalist. 

Should not the CBC, the Canadians' publicly funded broadcaster, do any less?


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Should the Media Reprint the Charlie Hebdo Cartoons?

It's a dilemma for mainstream media organizations.

If they reprint, there is a risk further angering extremists who cannot be mollified by any gesture short of a complete capitulation.

If they don't reprint, media organizations are being accused of cowardice, of "allowing the terrorists to win," and failing to live up to their own standards of a free press.

This are two competing but equally valid issues: one is free speech and the consequences to that were demonstrated in the streets of Paris today.

But the other, equally valid notion: the affirmative obligation of a news organization or any media to keep its employees safe. 

In Canada, the CBC will not show the cartoons. In the CBC's French-language service, Radio-Canada, they have decided to show them, possibly in solidarity with the journalists at Charlie Hebdo.

This is a time when our strongly held beliefs about a free medium in a democracy are not universally shared. As we saw today in Paris, a media organization could republish the cartoons in support of free expression, and risk endangering its own employees. 

Or it could not run the cartoons and be accused of cowardice in the face of a threat of terrorism. 

In September of 2005, the Copenhagen newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons that openly mocked Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. At NPR, management decided not to repost the cartoons that connected the Prophet Mohammed with terrorism. 

The thinking at NPR was that the cartoons were freely available for all to see on the Internet. NPR was not serving its public by exacerbating tensions. Indeed, very few US media organizations would reprint them.

The Philadephia Inquirer was the only major American newspaper that did. When American troops were fighting in Iraq, it was seen as not being the right thing to do when American policy was trying to win hearts and minds in the Muslim Middle East.

But almost every major European media outlet republished the cartoons. The tradition of a free press in Europe is different from the North American approach. North Americans are often more reluctant to offend, compared to the "take no prisoners" approach to satire in Europe. The Israeli media wouldn't republish the cartoons either. Americans and Israelis, it seems, have a different understanding of the power of religious fervour.

The blogosphere has the freedom to publish; legacy media have additional elements to consider.

It's easy to say "publish, and be damned." It's another thing to live with those consequences.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Where's the Journalistic Skepticism About Digital Media?

About a year ago, George Packer wrote an important article for the New Yorker about what's happening to journalism.

It's called "Telling Stories about the Future of Journalism." In it, Packer interviewed Ezra Klein, a digital wunderkind (he's around 30 now) who was at the Washington Post, where he ran the hugely successful Wonkblog. That blog was, according to some, the most read part of the paper. Klein wanted more money to expand the blog. Management said no. Klein quit that Post to join Vox Media, an online start-up where he now resides as head of news.

The Packer article is not particularly judgmental. It is quietly skeptical. Especially about the language of the blogosphere. He lets Klein reveal himself with these phrases:

"Our mission is to create a site that's as good at explaining the world as reporting on it."

Klein says Vox will "be in the informing-our-audience business."

Vox (the site) describes itself as " of the fastest growing online publishers, focused on lifestyle brands that connect with passionate audiences...Vox is solving the problem of developing high-value digital journalism, storytelling and brand advertising at scale (sic)."

Many people are admiring the cut of these young Emperors' new clothes. David Carr of the New York Times proclaims that news on the web is thriving, based on "heavy traffic, deep-pocketed investment, new technology, and brand names."

And Wall Street agrees. In 2014, Buzz Feed raised $850 million in its IPO. Its aim is to move away from the trivial and into serious journalism. And it's hiring. Vox has more than 50 positions that it wants to fill now.

Packer and Carr agree that despite all the glitz and promotional hype, there is a missing element: "One big obstacle to long term media success remains: quality," writes Carr. And Packer seems to reluctantly agree:

"...once the quality box is checked, the loser will be the 'legacy' news organizations, currently staffed by non-digital journalists...And maybe quality is overrated anyway. Given their fiscal woes, just ask the Post the Times and the Journal."

Fast forward to this week's New Yorker.

Andrew Marantz in The Annals of Media writes: "The Virologist: How a young entrepreneur built an empire by repackaging memes."

Like Packer, Marantz quotes a twenty-seven year old Internet-media entrepreneur Emerson Spartz who "has been successfully launching Web sites for more than half his life."

Spartz is evidently smart and speaks in that same peculiar New Age geek-speak that Ezra Klein used in the previous New Yorker interview:

"I'm passionate about virality!" "Try to change every comma to a period." "Use lists whenever possible. Lists just hijack the brain's neural circuitry." "The most awesome you are, the more emotion you create, the more viral it is."

Marantz follows Spartz around his various offices in Brooklyn and Los Angeles and then to his home town of La Porte, Indiana all the while dropping McLuhanesque aphorisms like "Art is that which science has not yet explained..."

Both articles indicate a trend that news and digital are increasingly converging into an information-free zone.

In a poll taken in July 2014 by the Associated Press:

  * Americans don't feel much pressure to keep up with news and public issues anymore.

   * Only 37 percent think that's very important, down from a majority -- 56 percent -- in 1984.

   * In fact, a fifth say there's no obligation at all to stay fully informed.

   * Young people are even less likely to feel the public ought to know what's going on, despite having unprecedented amounts of information at their fingertips.

In the 1980s Neil Postman said about Television that we are "amusing ourselves to death." In 2015, Klein and Spartz have assumed the updated roles of digital court jesters.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Will Rupert Murdoch Be Vindicated in 2015?

2014 was the Year of the Hacker.

From Jian Ghomshi to Bill Cosby to Ray Rice to Rob Ford, to North Korea, Sony and the UVa Rape story, digital media did much to undo what's left of the dignity of legacy media organizations.

Mainstream media organizations did their best to stay in the game. But the biggest stories often came from digital media organizations that live for gossip - TMZ and Gawker led the pack again and again.

On Georgia Public Radio, I was linked with Eric Bollert from Media Matters and Katie Culver from the University of Wisconsin on a show hosted by Celeste Headlee called "On Second Thought." We discussed whether digital media is the villain or the saviour of journalism.

Clearly, it's both.

When mainstream media republish and rebroadcast leaked emails about Sony and the nasty comments made about celebrities in Hollywood and Washington, DC, mainstream media have become enablers of bad behaviour, by doing the hackers' dirty work for them. But this ethical lapse will likely soon come back to bite.

Now it's becoming increasingly clear that the leaks and the hacks were not the work of some cyber-hip North Koreans, but more likely an inside job from disgruntled (and soon to be former) employees at Sony.

As Margaret Sullivan, public editor of the New York Times noted, mainstream media organizations, including her own, need to go for higher standards of newsworthiness. This is not, she noted, the Pentagon Papers.

It's worth recalling that only a few years ago, the media were excoriating Rupert Murdoch for the practices of hacking into private emails that his journalists in the London tabloids engaged in.

Today, as more of these activities become less shocking, I expect we will see more of this in 2015 as news organizations feel the pressure to compete with the blogosphere with the same standards and practices.

A benefit to getting rid of all these older, analog workers is that media organizations hire younger, hipper, cheaper and more digitally literate journalists.

But in the rush to compete, legacy media will feel the pressure to hack into the porous digital membrane. I am told that young journalists are already being directed to do this in a few once stodgy news organizations.

We will look back at the misdeeds of the Murdoch empire with nostalgia for a simpler time.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Is the CBC More Toxic Than Other Media?

In one particular sense, yes. Jian Ghomeshi has left a stain on the public broadcaster that will not be erased so quickly. Even in the unlikely event that he is found not guilty of assault, the memory will remain.

Inside the CBC, morale has plummeted. I’m told, it's slowly recovering.

Outside the CBC, it has not. 

Recently a group of (mostly) female students asked me if it's safe for them to work at the CBC. I was taken aback by the question. But it means that CBC management has a lot of work to do to correct both the appearance and the reality of what it is like to work for the public broadcaster.

In the media, Ghomeshi has opened journalism’s irresistible tendency to schadenfreude.

Among them, Anne Kingston in Maclean's Magazine stands out. She accuses the CBC of abetting Ghomeshi. John Doyle in the Globe and Mail has been similarly tough.

CBC management missteps haven’t helped. Awkward interviews on The National and on 
the fifth estate, have reinforced the idea that management knew about this, but tried to avoid dealing with it.

Recent revelations of managerial backsliding over the issue of paid speeches by high profile CBC journalists have also contributed to the sense of a rudderless public broadcasting.

But how true are the allegations of toxicity?

Neil Macdonald is the CBC’s Senior Washington Correspondent. He is also a well-known contrarian about most issues.

On Facebook, he has taken the view that the CBC is no more and no less toxic than newsrooms in general:

CBC is a big place, and while I will stipulate that Ghomeshi's Q was by all accounts a nightmarish place to work, I repeat that have never seen any "toxicity" in the parts of CBC where I've worked.

I've had editors say sarcastic and even mean things to me over the years, including a senior CBC boss who called me an idiot more than once, and I'm still alive. I've always thought newsrooms are rough and tumble. I even expect them to be. I'd have gone into social work if I wanted something nurturing.

Neil is right - up to a point. In my experience, the newsroom can be a rough-and-tumble sort of place. And newbies can often be subjected to a certain amount of razzing. As a boss once described it, “it’s a place of sharp elbows.”

But Neil misses the point about the nature of newsrooms today. While Neil has been through more than a few newsroom dust-ups and survived, I sense that for entry level journalists, it’s a much tougher place than it once was.

I hear from my students who are lucky enough to land internships - usually unpaid. And they let me know how happy they are to finally land something that comes with a paycheque, even if it is only on a limited term contract with no benefits. 

But as media organizations thin out, the pressure on the newcomers is more than it was in my day - and I would suggest, when Neil Macdonald was starting out.

These young journalists are part of the new media “precariat.” They are unsure how long they might last. They need to be nice to everyone. They are often subjected to harassment by people who could control their futures.

Are newsrooms toxic? That may be overstating it. But CBC management seemed willing to tolerate a higher level when it involved certain “stars.” 

If news organizations are going to thrive in these economically insecure times, they will have to find way to lower the toxicity even if it can never be entirely eliminated. They need to do this if they want to nurture the next generation of journalists. 

Especially at the CBC.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

CBC: Needed More Than Ever - Just Not in its Present Form
The assumptions published by the Financial Post in Philip Cross’s rant against the CBC are a recitation of well-known anti-public service outrage. It’s quite an indictment: the public broadcaster is accused of "intellectual bigotry, Toronto elite disdain, assumed superiority and biased programming."

It is a litany of bad media behavior, or so it would seem. But after the charges are read out, where is the evidence?

Mr. Cross fails to provide anything beyond than his own fevered impressions and antipathy. He certainly does not like Michael Enright or Peter Mansbridge. But he never tells us why. Mr. Cross is entitled to his opinion, but he is not entitled to his own facts.

The CBC has been accused of many things including repeated attempts to placate conservative critics with well-known and outspoken pro-business journalists and personalities such as Kevin O’Leary and Rex Murphy.   

They are hardly a bunch of aging hippies seeking to join the next available Marxist cell.

Mr. Cross conveniently overlooks the efforts made by the CBC to present a reasonable reflection of Canadian points of view. That is in fact, the role of the CBC: a public broadcaster is not the captive of any one point of view. Mr. Cross would prefer that the CBC looks and sounds like his personal ideological gathering that reflects his own brand of politics. Sorry Mr. Cross, but that’s not what a public broadcaster does.

What, in fact, is the role of a public broadcaster in this intense digital environment? The CBC is not alone in wrestling with that idea.

Other broadcasters including the BBC, American Public Media and Radio France, to name a few, are also trying to re-invent themselves. The pressures on public broadcasters everywhere are intense in light of the demands of the marketplace and the fragmenting of audiences caused by the Internet.

No one has come up with a perfect solution. All media are trying to figure out how to retain their audiences, how to use new media to best effect and how to stabilize a precarious financial situations. Newspapers, above all, are struggling with this.

Some public broadcasters (Israel and Greece) have even gone so far as to go off the air in order to re-tool their programming with a promise to return sometime next year.

It’s not an easy time to be a public broadcaster. Many are asking whether they should simply pursue ratings, above all else, and to hell with any mission-driven concepts of public service?

Should they provide the high-minded, and expensive programming that commercial broadcasters avoid? Or can they provide a combination of the two and satisfy enough of the public to assure the trust and support of the politicians who fund them?

Tough choices. And not an easy place to be. Combined with that dilemma, the CBC has not done itself or its audiences any favours with its recent screw-ups involving Jian Ghomeshi.

Yet the role of a public service broadcaster in Canada is still needed, just as we need public policy decisions to keep our country and its culture alive. The question is, in what form and for whom should a public broadcaster be part of the Canadian media landscape? 

Mr. Cross claims that Canada would be better off without a public broadcaster entirely. He implies that all other media (one assumes they are without any ideological baggage) could easily fill in behind in a CBC-less Canada.

But is the private sector able, willing and appropriately resourced to provide programs that inform, enlighten and entertain Canadians as required by the Broadcasting Act of 1991? That seems unlikely.

Or should the private sector simply do what it does best – entertain the public in order to make a profitable return on investment for its shareholders?

That is precisely what a public broadcaster must not do.

The public broadcaster in Canada needs to find a role for itself that understands the media consumption needs of the audiences. At the same time, it has to provide services that commercial media simply are unable or unwilling to do.

The public broadcaster in Canada is in need of serious re-invention. It must create high quality and contextual news and information. It must generate entertainment that is both popular and original. In short, to provide content that will both surprise and delight.

A public service broadcaster must be both aspirational and realistic on behalf of the public it must serve. That doesn’t mean being boring (low ratings) or so popular (aka sleazy) that it demeans the purpose of the public broadcaster. It needs to be a service that enough Canadians want to justify the annual Parliamentary appropriation of around $1 billion.

It also should be strictly non-commercial so that its values remain one of service to the country, not to create just another media commodity that is indistinguishable from the rest.

A revitalized CBC must have the originality of Danish TV in its wonderful series “Borgen” and the capacity of a great news service such as NPR.

Mr. Cross would prefer that Canadians (and implicitly, the federal government) should abandon the concept of public service broadcasting altogether.

That would be a terrible mistake. It was a Conservative government that created the CBC in 1936. It could be a Conservative government that should now restore the concept, if it has the courage and the imagination to take on the task.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

CBC Radio: Lament for a Notion

I've hesitated to write anything about the latest awfulness inflicted on Canada by the Jian Ghomeshi scandal because it's so unspeakable. As George Steiner wrote about an even more appalling event, "when confronted by horror, silence is the only response."

Only a week ago, the story broke thanks to Jesse Brown's relentless pursuit of rumours and insinuations. We owe him our thanks.

But it occurred to me and many others who continue to follow this slow-motion, relentless car wreck, that the outpouring of sadness and anger is misplaced. It's not just about Ghomeshi and his appalling (and unacknowledged - by him) practices. It's about how Canadians have suddenly realized that the national treasure known as CBC Radio hasn't been there for quite some time.

Commenting on Ghomeshi in the blog Vulture, Adam Sternbergh, a former CBC-er now in New York says:

It’s that the scandal represents a further undermining of a treasured — possibly the treasured — national cultural institution. It’s a tremor that shakes the fortress and leaves it more unstable. Lots of listeners like and even revere Ghomeshi, but their relationship with CBC Radio is more intrinsic and profound. However it all plays out, the CBC can certainly survive without Jian Ghomeshi. But most of Canada, I’d venture, would not even like to consider the prospect of surviving with a diminished CBC.

CBC Radio still has some bright spots: Michael Enright's substantial The Sunday Edition, Tom Allen's witty and charming Shift, Laurie Brown's hip The Signal and locally, Matt Galloway's passion for Toronto on Metro Morning. So there are still some possibilities. But fewer of them than we deserve and less than there used to be.

Yet CBC Radio has been diminished and has been in decline for a some time. It was easy and unfair when Radio people would quietly mock the troubles that would occasionally beset their colleagues in TV. No one's mocking anyone now.

The reasons for Radio's decline are many and complex:  an institutional smugness, governmental indifference, a decline in funding, and a senior management culture that must believe that the state has no real role in public broadcasting.

At the same time, there was a widespread delusion that CBC Radio could still be a "light unto the nation," as it were....that Radio would still be able to create a sense of national community and conversation in this cacophonous digital age. I thought so along with others. We were wrong.

The same questionable and deforming values of ratings and star-status that have been so damaging to CBC TV have also had its effect on CBC Radio. We were in denial.

Over the years, the country has changed. It is not the communitarian culture that it once was 20 years ago. A program like Morningside with Peter Gzowski couldn't exist now. We live in a far too fragmented digital culture.

If Ghomeshi was seen as a possible successor to Gzowski, it was a deeply wished-for scenario. And it almost worked. But in the end, it was a mirage. Our national lament for a missing CBC Radio may be for something no longer be possible. That's what has people so upset.

Q was seen as too big to fail and Ghomeshi as too important to manage. Now the results can be seen and heard outside this one program and this one disgraced host. Other producers, journalists and radio staffers have been warning about a managerial vacuum for years. Now, those particular chickens are roosting all over the CBC.

Some optimists are saying that this dreadful episode will soon pass, that the public will forget Ghomeshi and the CBC can "return to regularly scheduled programming", as the saying goes. That is unlikely to happen.

This is not about one man's libidinous foolishness. It is about the institution that he served so poorly. This is a crisis of truly existential proportions for the CBC. Nothing short of a complete re-invention of public broadcasting in Canada can save it. And if it can't be saved, we have no one to blame but ourselves.