Latoya Peterson


In TechCrunch world, readers value interpretation as much as information

This week, thousands of people descended on San Francisco for Tech Crunch Disrupt where the start-up focused conference is in full swing with Michael Arrington, found and former editor for TechCrunch, in attendance. Being ousted from the roost of his popular blog hasn’t slowed Arrington for a second; he’s got a brand-spanking new venture capital firm and AOL’s $25 million payday to dry his tears.

However, AOL may have bit off a bit more than it can chew with the TechCrunch acquisition and ouster. While the official statement appoints Eric Schonfeld to the top of the masthead, Arrington and some key staffers have expressed their displeasure with AOL’s decision. And with good reason. The controversy hasn’t dampened enthusiasm for Arrington — for reasons that are unique to the fifth estate, or the new breed of news provider rising up while the field of professional journalists shrinks.

In the wake of Arrington’s decision to write for TechCrunch while launching CrunchVentures, a venture capital firm highlighting up and comers in the tech industry, vanguards of the fourth estate cried foul over the obvious conflict of interest. AOL, which purchased TechCrunch for $25 million close to a year ago, immediately freaked out and — after a few contradictory statements — ultimately removed Arrington from all operations. The fallout continues, as most wonder if Arrington’s brand could birth a new blog-VC ecosystem, a complication that contributes to our continuing conversation on the evolution of journalism.

AOL’s dilemma represents a key shift in thinking from the fourth estate to the fifth estate. While objectivity rules in the fourth estate, transparency is a major alternative to new media makers who believe that true objectivity is impossible. But which one do audiences value more?

AOL’s decision to remove Arrington made immediate sense in a fourth estate context, particularly for a legacy organization that may hold objectivity as a core value. However, trust in a fifth estate context is more fluid. As Farhad Manjoo explains in Slate, Arrington had a well-known habit of allowing a lot of the personal to influence the editorial:

I’ve never met Arrington, so everything I know about him is from his writing and his stage presence at TechCrunch’s many conferences. He comes off as a dogged reporter, a brilliant businessman, and—as the Fake incident [where Arrington publicly scolded an entrepreneur for a perceived news scoop] suggests—a huge asshole. It’s clear that each of these traits has been crucial to TechCrunch’s growth from a small personal blog into Silicon Valley’s central chronicler of business news.

Rather than hurting his credibility, his persona helped it. Readers, while complaining about some of Arrington’s ways, ultimately stuck with the blog. So the latest blending of personal and editorial interests isn’t outside of his public persona in a way that would violate trust with his audience. In fact, for his readers, these values are not in conflict: Arrington’s audience did not come to TechCrunch because they believed he would provide a completely objective view of the tech world. They came because they trusted his style of reporting and his brand, and placed a lesser value on objectivity than they did on Arrington’s interpretation of information.

This isn’t to say that brand trumps objectivity in the online world; rather, the idea of objectivity is one factor in how audiences evaluate the information they receive. (This is increasingly showing up in cable news as well, where MSNBC and Fox News are both presenting information with a slant and audiences reward them with ratings.)

Traditionally, trust in a publication is often compromised when a business seems to be catering to advertisers or mixing editorial and its own financial interests. However, trust can also be undermined in other ways. Readers come to TechCrunch for the latest information, but what makes a blog stand out is the trust in the people running the site, the editorial voice, and a site’s adherence to its own standards. That same trust wouldn’t automatically transfer to AOL’s appointed editor in this era of blended norms.

As TechCruncher Paul Carr notes in his emphatic statement of support for Arrington:

I’m not going to speak for the other members of the team, but my own position is clear: unless Mike Arrington appoints his own successor, guaranteeing that TechCrunch retains its editorial independence, I’m gone. Done. Out of the door.

Ceding control to the Huffington Post will be the death of everything — the voice, the swagger, the “fuck you” attitude — that makes TechCrunch great; and I’m not going to stay around to watch that happen.

Readers will most certainly be upset if they feel that the brand they trust has been compromised. Perhaps, over time, readers would have felt betrayed by Arrington’s CrunchVentures involvement, in exactly the ways outlined by critics. But the immediate threat to most people furiously commenting is the idea that TechCrunch could be irrevocably changed by AOL and not for the better.

The trouble is, AOL tried to advocate for a fourth estate vision of objectivity at the same time it violated a core fifth estate value: voice is king. An early sign of this conflict was “The AOL Way,” which was leaked earlier this year.

The approach emphasized the quantity of posts, efficiency and SEO as measures of success. Engadget, another tech blog purchased by AOL, saw its editor resign after he decided he didn’t want to meet the demands of the AOL Way. Other writers decribed being allotted just 25 minutes to turn around an article for which the headline mattered more than the story’s quality or perspective. With its acquisition of the Huffington Post, AOL has moved to a different editorial strategy.

Still, Arrington had hoped AOL would return TechCrunch to him, but the company shows no signs of doing so. Which means that as AOL fights for solvency it will also be fighting for legitimacy in the fourth and fifth estates, as readers in general and TechCrunch’s loyal audience in particular decide whether it values what AOL does. Read more

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‘Marriage Vow’ pledge misrepresented slavery facts, media repeated mistakes

A peculiar candidate pledge made national headlines this last week and exposed some of the cracks in our collective media foundation. The “Marriage Vow,” created by conservative religious group The Family Leader, was presented to Republican candidates as a way to secure the group’s support. Presidential hopefuls Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum both signed on — and unwittingly endorsed erroneous statements about black families under slavery. (Apparently, the candidates intended to support the  assertions made about homosexuality.)

Both the Fourth and Fifth estate leapt into action, with the Fourth explaining what happened and what might have sparked the controversy, and the Fifth parsing out what interested them most and either condemning or supporting the vow.

But one important part of the conversation is missing: Where is the context around the claims in the document? Were black children really in stable, two parent homes in the era immediately after slavery, as the “Marriage Vow” claimed? The immediate reaction from many writing on the Vow was to dismiss the claim outright, but consider how misinformed many Americans are on key tenets of American history.

Use Michele Bachmann as an example; she seems to believe the founding fathers were against slavery, when history reveals George Washington had over 300 slaves at Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson was a total hypocrite, publicly against slavery as an institution but maintaining slaves at Monticello and keeping a shadow family with Sally Hemings. Most of the founding fathers owned slaves, though their personal opinions on slavery varied. Yet, without a quick correction of untruths, this type of error spreads and people  believe what they have heard.

This lack of cultural knowledge has to be rectified on a variety of fronts — it cannot solely fall at the feet of the news media. Journalists are always at war with the limits of time and word count, which means complicated issues often have to be distilled down to the most basic ideas. Unfortunately, this also means that sometimes, crucial information around key issues is lost. It also means that reporters may not be well versed in every topic that may arise on a campaign trail, so needed insight is missing from articles.

The Vow debacle calls to mind another media maelstrom that occurred back in 2006. Michael Richards (aka Kramer on “Seinfeld”), in a stand-up routine at the Laugh Factory, was caught using racial slurs onstage. My colleague (and the founder of Carmen Van Kerckhove wrote at the time of the incident:

The fact that Richards, when provoked by a black man, immediately reminded him that it wasn’t so long ago that he could have been lynched and made a public spectacle of, to me indicates that he is resentful of having to tolerate blacks being equal to him, and longs for the days when he could exercise his “god-given” superiority.

But later, Van Kerckhove would make the incident part of her discussions on media, noting that much of the conversation around Richards focused solely on his use of the n-word. Most outlets ignored the massive lynching reference, and instead just debated whether use of the n-word word was offensive.

This dynamic is repeating once again with the conversations around the the “Marriage Vow.” For those familiar with slavery beyond the basics taught in high school, the idea that blacks were in stable, committed marriages before slavery is absolutely laughable. Slavery was a system in which blacks were treated like chattel. Marriage bonds were not acknowledged, since the property claim superseded the idea that a family would want to remain together.

Noted historian Nell Irvin Painter points out that in the domestic slave trade, parents and children were often separated. “This was completely devastating for families, there was just no question of it,” she explains. Further, slavery wasn’t the end of the devastation. The economic havoc continued into the Reconstruction era, and also plunged many families into poverty, since slaves could not legally earn wages, collect property, or pass their wealth on to heirs.

Scholar Hannah Rosen, author of  “Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South,” notes:

[It] would not be possible to know exactly how many enslaved children lived with both of their parents before emancipation in the US (and this most likely varied across time and by region as well as by the whims and preferences of different slave holders), and thus to make an accurate comparison with the present. Historians such as Herbert Gutman pointed to unexpected numbers of families that did manage to stay together (“BLACK FAMILY IN SLAVERY AND FREEDOM”), but the impressiveness of his findings is based on the conditions under which enslaved people lived, which worked against families living together. There was no legal basis nor in general respect by slave owners for enslaved people’s family relations. In the United States, enslaved people could not legally marry nor was there any guarantee that families would not be separated when it was in the financial or other interest of a slave owner for parents to be sold away from each other and or their children.

Tera Hunter is currently working on a book about marriage in the slavery era, and told NPR’s “Tell Me More” the other factors that complicated how African-Americans viewed marriage — particularly because it was both an expression of love and a tool of subjugation.

Hunter talks Michel Martin through the realities of life after slavery had officially ended — how former slaves often walked long distances, appealed to various government agencies, and relied on church networks to repair what had been torn asunder. Hunter notes that marriage still wasn’t a straightforward affair. Many African-Americans were afraid to legalize their relationships, after being subject to the legally sanctioned whims of their slave masters. And, some white Southerners were opposed to blacks being legally married, which would later mirror controversy around interracial marriages, then called miscegenation. Hunter and Martin’s conversation also exposed how marriage was used as a political tool, which also mirrors today’s social climate:

MARTIN: But you also say there were some owners who promoted marriage, even though they had no interest in recognizing it over the long-term, because they thought it served their interests, as well. Tell me about that.

Prof. HUNTER: Right. So, owners had some interest in promoting marriages, in part in response to the  abolitionist movement, because one of the strongest points that the abolitionists made, one of the most compelling attacks on slavery was the ways in which it undermined family relationships and marriages.

And so, in response to that, post-slavery defenders argue that, you know, slave-holding households themselves were like families and that they actually did encourage African-Americans to marry, to adopt Western Christian notions of marriage rather than so-called heathen practices from their past. So, essentially, slave masters learned that it was to their advantage to promote marriage and families, in part because it made economic sense. It mollified the slaves. It kept them reasonably content. It gave them incentives to remain on their plantations, as opposed to running away.

History is often complicated, and is an ever-evolving canvas. Since what we count as historical fact is often a widely agreed upon interpretation, it would make sense that there would be differing perspectives on what marriage was really like for those who were enslaved. However, there is a difference between interpretation and misinformation, and it’s clear that the “Marriage Vow” gets a lot of facts wrong.

Ultimately, the controversy over the “Marriage Vow” has illuminated an interesting structural issue in how Americans interrogate facts and understand news. Some of the problems are unrelated to journalism. For example, educational institutions in the United States do not all teach the same curricula. Our understanding of complex historical matters depends on what we are exposed to in the classroom, and that can be determined by everything from political wrangling to historical divisions.

But, even with these systemic issues, there has to be some point at which media outlets return to providing sorely needed context. It’s clear that Americans are working with different understandings around ideas of national importance. In some ways, the responsibility of the media is to bring everyone around with facts, so we can begin productive discussions. But most news organizations are not doing the necessary debunking. A Washington Post article about the controversy summarizes the “Marriage Vow” claims, but only notes that there is a “complete absence of empirical proof.” Do readers know why these claims are erroneous?

The fifth estate has risen to fill this gap. While news articles are skimming the surface, blogs like Jack and Jill Politics, Booker Rising and Mediaite are busy interpreting the facts and reactions, providing much needed backstory to their respective audiences. But that produces a different problem. With blogs mixing context and opinion, audiences are more vulnerable to slanted information.

The New York Times’ Opinionator blog did an excellent round up of reactions throughout the blogosphere and found that quite a few outlets led with provocative headlines that were also misleading. While many bloggers provided a needed perspective on the legal, religious, and racial context that was missing. That context, though, was clearly viewed through the perspective of the blog.

This wouldn’t be such a problem if we could trust that our audiences were media literate, and had a framework from which to understand and grasp these issues. Unfortunately, as Matt Thompson explained in a preamble to his panel at SXSW, our focus in the news cycle has shifted toward episodic knowledge — bits and bytes of info tossed out in response to news-worthy events. The core question of the panel married the realities of the fourth and fifth estate: We have the tools to provide both context and breaking, immediate news — the question is how do we work those needs into our existing practices?

The “Marriage Vow” pledge is proving to be far more valuable than just a simple news story; it has actually exposed a major flaw in our coverage of issues. If traditional media focuses mainly on fact-based stories without context, and newer media focuses on in-depth explanations of certain aspects of a story through a particular lens, where is the space for thoughtful examinations of the issues without spin?

If we could find a way to wed fact-based stories with balanced context, that’s a union that would benefit the entire nation.

Correction: Michel Martin’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post. Read more


Twitter does not need an editor, just time to evolve

Are tragic movie deaths considered newsworthy? What about Twitter users’ penchant to Rise and Grind? Social media has blurred the boundaries of traditional news organizations by allowing journalists and taste-makers to patch into a daily conversation around trends.

While only 8 percent of Americans who are online actually use Twitter, its awareness levels are through the roof — over 90 percent of the general population knows about the platform. Twitter’s adoption rate and visibility have made it a go-to for information, so it was only a matter of time before discussions of regulation would begin.

Earlier this month, AdAge’s Simon Dumenco argued that Twitter was becoming a “disinformation network.” Dumenco suggested that Twitter use human intermediaries to determine the “best source of information” for trending topics.

After venting his frustration with celebrity death hoaxes and jokes passed around and interpreted as truthful, Dumenco proposed that Twitter create a hierarchy of sources and parse the accuracy of what is trending on the site.

Dumenco says he doesn’t want to tamper with the trending topics (though, Twitter has already done that when Bieber-fever stricken teens figured out how to game the system) but he advocates for human oversight for origin and truthfulness of trends, and asks Twitter to rank sources of information, something akin to a content editor for Twitter.

That is so old media.

First, Twitter is a platform. No more, no less. While people find all kinds of uses for Twitter (everything from locating food trucks to popularizing new slang terms like QILF), it’s a stretch to assume that all users put a premium on “truthfulness” rather than other values like connection or entertainment.

Secondly, the whole idea of moderating a platform dedicated to an exchange of ideas is problematic. Much has been made of the social media boost Twitter provided to Iran’s Green Revolution and the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and now Libya. Did any of the initial updates come from so-called “best sources of information?”

The main players and participants were generally local citizens connected to those in Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Many large media outlets were forced to scramble and play catch up. Was there both misinformation and true information spread? Of course. Breaking news is fluid until someone can confirm what is happening.

Trying to direct users to more established sources of information, instead of allowing them to decide for themselves who is credible, reinforces the idea that large establishments will automatically be more trustworthy than citizens on the ground — regardless of who actually has access to the best news and information.

Derrick Ashong, host of Al-Jazeera English’s social media-based news show “The Stream” agrees, finding the idea of empowering a handful of people to moderate truthfulness almost laughable.

“A lot of people argue that Fox News isn’t truthful, but we aren’t calling for an editor for DirectTV or Comcast,” he explained in a phone interview. “Since Twitter is a new media platform, people are looking at it in an old media way… They may not have a full comprehension of the medium. The editorial responsibility is from the source — if you chose to believe something from an unverified source, it’s on you.”

Ashong pointed out that media has traditionally been a top down kind of business, where a handful of people were expected to curate what was newsworthy for the masses.

“If I turn on CNN, I won’t hear anything about [what's] going on in Africa unless there’s a conflict to be covered or a tragedy. As a person born in Africa, that’s unacceptable to me. It isn’t that there’s no news being created, it’s just that we won’t hear about that news.”

With the democratization of information delivery (even as governments and corporations try to suppress certain types of information in favor of others), what is considered “newsworthy” is determined by the consumers of news.

To try to regulate Twitter, or shepherd people to the “best” source of information misses the real problem: ensuring that media consumers everywhere are media literate, and posses the tools to decide for themselves how to evaluate the trustworthiness of a source.

Twitter can be useful to journalists and other media producers by providing a direct line to what millions of people around the globe are thinking and feeling. However, Twitter was not designed for the sole use of media outlets or in the service of truth.

Twitter is a platform for users to engage with each other, nothing more. Some people exchange verified and accurate information; others trade jokes and spread misinformation, the same way hoax email chain letters still make their way around the internet.

The key when evaluating new media spaces like Twitter is to allow them room to grow, change, and evolve. If folks press for regulation too early, or try to squeeze new media into an old media framework, who knows what new opportunities we could lose? Read more

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Police say an 11-year-old girl was raped in this abandoned trailer in Cleveland, Texas. Eighteen men -- ages 18 to 27 -- have been accused of participating in the attack. (Pat Sullivan/AP)

New York Times, Houston Chronicle tell different stories of 11-year-old’s rape

The New York Times finds itself embroiled in controversy after publishing an article on a horrific gang rape that occurred in Cleveland, Texas. Citizens (most notably young feminist organizer Shelby Knox) are striking back, taking to to demand that the Times apologize and also deftly illustrating how advocacy can serve to illuminate bias in how stories are reported.

Police say an 11-year-old girl was raped in this abandoned trailer in Cleveland, Texas. Eighteen men — ages 18 to 27 — have been accused of participating in the attack. (Pat Sullivan/AP)

The piece, written by James C. McKinley, Jr., came under fire for stacking the coverage so that the piece heavily quoted from those who blamed the victim for her predicament, mentioned precious little about the boys and men involved in the assault, and focused heavily on revealing class markers instead of illuminating the details of the case.

As an example, let’s examine one of the key issues in the piece — McKinley gave space only to people who said it was the girl’s fault that she was sexually assaulted:

“Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.

” ‘Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?’ said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record. ‘How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?’ “

In contrast, Cindy Horswell of the Houston Chronicle chose a different type of framing for her piece. Typically, journalists attempt to get people who represent both sides of an issue to comment in their stories. Horswell, while describing the same event, managed to get a variety of views, but did not slant the coverage in favor of one side or the other:

“Some Cleveland residents, like Kisha Williams, are critical of the 11-year-old’s parents.

” ‘Where were they when this girl was seen wandering at all hours with no supervision and pretending to be much older?’ she asked.

“Several churches have organized special prayer events for the town.

“Carter Williams, 64, seated at a small card table playing dominoes inside a local grocery, does not think laying blame is the right response to the sex assault.

” ‘This is a praying time for the young men and the young girl,’ Williams said. ‘Seems like everyone in this whole town needs some God in their life.’ …

“Over the Thanksgiving holiday, retiree Joe Harrison noticed an 11-year-old girl as he walked past an abandoned trailer to play dominoes with friends in what locals call ‘the Hood.’

“He thought the girl looked older than her years with her long hair and dark makeup. She was standing near the aging brown trailer, which was partially covered by a blue tarp and had remained unoccupied since Hurricane Ike except for an occasional drug user who would sneak inside to smoke crack.

“Later, Harrison heard loud music blaring from that same trailer on Ross Street. But he thought the girl had already been picked up by her mother. He never realized anything horrible might have happened until weeks later when the arrests started.

” ‘I have a granddaughter that age and can’t imagine anything like that happening to her,’ he said. ‘Whoever did this should pay for it.’ “

In addition to the missing perspectives, McKinley leaves discussions around the boys involved frustratingly vague. Only briefly touching on the identifying affiliations of some of the suspects, he then puts forth a very loaded framing, noting (emphasis mine): “Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?”

The framing of this question as a way to unify the piece is an indirect way to infer that the young men accused are the real victims here — not the girl who was sexually assaulted.

Gina McCauley, the founding blogger of What About Our Daughters, doesn’t accept that one sided line of questioning. McCauley has extensively covered incidents of sexual violence toward black women, particularly assaults that are geared toward black women and children. After explaining the similarities in coverage between this incident and a similar gang rape of a young girl in Milwaukee in 2008, McCauley calls out the language of enablers:

“Did I mention that this allegedly took place during Thanksgiving Week??? Why didn’t the women of Cleveland know where their sons, husbands, fathers, uncles, nephews and cousins were in and around THANKSGIVING?? I know where mine were! Did I mention this was during the holidays??”

McKinley doesn’t ask this question. McKinley doesn’t make any reference in his piece to trying to speak to the girl’s mother, any of the suspects’ parents or relatives, or the teacher who turned in the video.

There are no direct quotes from investigators, attorneys, or child services — all parties who are currently involved in preparing the case or dealing with the child’s well-being. In fact, the only person of authority quoted in the piece is Stacey Gatlin, the spokesperson for the Cleveland school district.

What’s interesting is what McKinley chooses to spend time on: the description of poverty in the area.

“But there are pockets of poverty, and in the neighborhood where the assault occurred, well-kept homes sit beside boarded-up houses and others with deteriorating facades.

“The abandoned trailer where the assault took place is full of trash and has a blue tarp hanging from the front. Inside there is a filthy sofa, a disconnected stove in the middle of the living room, a broken stereo and some forlorn Christmas decorations. A copy of the search warrant was on a counter in the kitchen next to some abandoned family pictures.”

The picture of poverty he paints is a way of class-coding the incident. The facts are clear on where the girl was assaulted. So why spend a paragraph describing the place?

Combined with the one-sided nature of the information presented, McKinley paints a voyeuristic picture that makes the rape look like a terrible event in a desolate, poor part of town — part of the cost of living in an impoverished area.

This is particularly disappointing when one realizes the space could have been used to provide more details. The Chronicle’s Horswell provides only a basic description of the trailer, but manages to illuminate so much more about the case:

“James D. Evans III, an attorney who represents three of the defendants, insists: ‘This is not a case of a child who was enslaved or taken advantage of.’

“Investigators note an 11-year-old can never legally give consent. …

“Neither Cleveland police nor Child Protective Services would discuss the safety issue or a closed-door hearing with the family held Friday in Coldspring. State District Judge Elizabeth Coker said a gag order has been issued.”

The purpose of journalism is to illuminate issues, provide context, and produce fair coverage about the incidents that occur in our world. The New York Times piece does not meet this standard.

At best, McKinley’s article is shoddy journalism, presenting less than half of a story, providing no context for what has happening, and focusing on trivial details to the detriment of the full story. What makes it more egregious is that the Times linked directly to the better sourced, better framed Chronicle article — yet still produced a piece which upheld both class bias in reporting and what feminists term “rape culture”: a cultural norm that encourages blaming the victim of sexual assault or rape while exonerating the perpetrators.

McKinley may not have intentionally set out to create a biased article. But that was the end result. And those who are practicing journalism would do well to be aware of the ways in which we can perpetuate injustice and bias through the words and framing we choose.

Editor’s Note: New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane wrote Friday about reaction to the coverage, saying “the outrage is understandable.” Brisbane also says the Times is working on a follow-up story. Read more


How Gawker’s redesign subverts the scannable culture of the Internet it helped create

It’s only Tuesday, and already it has been a tough week for Gawker Media.

The popular blogging house announced its plans for a brand refresher back in December, part of Nick Denton’s grand vision to move “beyond the blog.” Denton announced his grandiose goals by saying:

“It represents an evolution of the very blog form that has transformed online media over the last eight years. The Internet, television and magazines are merging; and the optimal strategy will assemble the best from each medium.”

Unfortunately, the unveiling didn’t quite go as planned. After executing the new site design on Monday, commenters widely panned the new design. quickly (and perhaps temporarily) reverted to a reverse chronological view Monday that was closer to the typical blog format, while Tuesday all the sites in the portfolio are using the new layout.

The reason for the user outcry is fairly simple — unlike committing to sit down with a newspaper, magazine, or television show, the online world is built and based on distractions.

Denton’s redesign was trying to accomplish the impossible — force readers to focus on one editorially selected topic while the norms of the online world make everyone into little hummingbirds, flitting from link to link, site to site, and story to story.

Indeed, the Internet became a popular venue for reading because you could jump from place to place quickly and easily.  In the course of a morning, I can skim up to 300 stories from various outlets and videos. Of that number, I will probably select around a dozen to actually commit to reading.

A study from Outsell notes that 56 percent of Google News users click through to read the story behind the headlines. The study confirms a long-held Internet adage: No one clicks through links. The idea has always been to make ideas pithier and shorter or package them in a way that is so compelling, the user has no choice but to click through.

Gawker’s original design, particularly the immediate nature of their coverage and their average of 40 or so posts in a day, was designed to foster a skimming culture. The new design pushes for a more controlled reading experience and so the transition is a bit jarring.

Readers airing their frustrations in the comments section or in the #groupthink hashtag on Jezebel openly ask for a return to the days when they could visit the site, scroll down, and participate in any conversation that struck their fancy. As commenter Georgian Mae Fayne hilariously lamented:

“You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell! …

I’m too old to defect to tumblr. The cool kids over there will laugh at my love of pictures of Zac Efron and Shia LeBoeuf on shetland ponies. My internet life is over.

/collapses in melodramatic heap #Groupthink

The new site design may have had visionary aims, but as the comments reveal, most readers believe that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

Latoya Peterson was a contributor to, a Gawker Media property.

CORRECTION: This story originally said 44 percent of Google News users click through to read linked stories; it is 56 percent who click through. Read more


From Sarah Palin to Christine O’Donnell, Coverage of ’08 Election Reverberates in 2010

The 2008 landmark election cycle marked the first in which a white woman and a black man threw their hats in the ring to compete for the highest office in the land. Predictably, these acts opened America’s Pandora’s Box of racism and sexism, enthralling the nation and reverberating even in these 2010 midterm elections.’s political grand dame, Rebecca Traister, covered the race — and along the way found herself questioning everything from her political views to the nature of feminism in politics.

I also blogged about the election, race and gender at, so our paths crossed again and again. In 2009, Traister asked to interview me for her project, which became the recently published “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” Earlier this month, we caught up at Politics and Prose, the night she gave her inaugural reading from her critically acclaimed first book. Speaking loudly over the clanking of silverware and the din of the cafe, we talked a bit about the state of the media, gender politics in the press corps, and fantasy worlds. An edited version of our conversation is below.

Election as a prism through which to see American women’s history

Latoya Peterson: Why did you name your book “Big Girls Don’t Cry?”

Rebecca Traister: Well, I didn’t think of writing this book until very, very late in the election. I wasn’t reporting on Hillary Clinton and thinking, “This could be a book.” I was reporting on Hillary thinking, “No one is ever going to want to hear about Hillary again after this.” Boy, was I wrong about that — two years out, and people can’t get enough of Hillary.

But then, when Palin came on the scene, what I began to see was the story of the election was a prism through which to look at a much bigger story of American women’s history. A history that went back 150 years, longer actually, went back to Abigail Adams’ complaints about how the men who were securing rights weren’t paying much attention to their wives and the rights of their wives. It stretched back through the divisions between suffragists and abolitionists, over the 14th and 15th amendments.

It definitely stretched through the social movements, and through the mid-20th and 21st centuries, and it started to explode and continues to explode, as we listen to people talk about the purported year of the woman, and “mama grizzlies” and Sarah Palin, who is going to shape how we think about women in public life into the future.

So I had this idea one day after watching television, sometime after Palin had come into the race, and I thought “Oh, this story is epic.” Ironically, it was Palin’s entrance that made it epic in my mind.

…She changed everything. And a friend called me as I was tossing the idea around in my head. And she said “Oh, you could call it ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry.’ ” And of course, when she said it, the image it evoked was the image of Hillary not really crying but getting bashed for crying. And I was like “God, that’s a great title.”

And the title is all about the expectations that once you’ve matured to a certain point that we should be over this, we should be over gender, over this stuff — and that, you know, you’re not supposed to cry, you’re not supposed to become attached, you’re not supposed to become emotional about these things.

For any of us who did connect to Hillary — as a hero of some kind, or as someone who we connected to because she was a woman doing something we’d never see a woman do before — there was a sense that somehow we were regressing to childhood. That [crying] was this feminized, devalued, immature reaction, like we were supposed to not care about this stuff. It was just supposed to be about policy and we weren’t supposed to care about identity politics.

People who tell you that it’s stupid to care about identity politics are almost always people whose identities have been very adequately represented historically.

This is exactly the story I wanted to tell because we were not supposed to be attached to this. And yet so many people did get attached. Whether or not they were supporting her, whether or not they were supporting him, it became such an emotional, identity shifting experience for America. And that title, for some reason in my mind, captured that. Now, ironically, and I had no idea this would happen, as I started writing the book and reporting it, like every character in the book cries.

…Geraldine Ferraro talks about crying when she goes into the voting booth to vote for Hillary, there was the moment of Hillary crying, I cried after Hillary’s concession speech, Sarah Palin cries because Gloria Steinem hates her —

Wow, everyone does cry. The only reason I don’t cry is because I hate politics.

Traister: (laughs) There’s also a scene that I go back to that Nora Ephron wrote about in 1972, about Gloria Steinem crying at the Democratic Convention, Miami Beach. It was the year that Shirley Chisholm won, and the women’s caucus, which was new that year, got kind of screwed over by the Democrats. There is this incredible scene of Gloria Steinem crying, that Nora Ephron wrote about some 40 years ago. That is contrasted with a woman named Shelby Knox, who is a young feminist, who lived with Gloria, crying, and Gloria saying, “I don’t understand, why are you crying?”

Gloria actually is the big girl who learns to stop crying about politics. But I didn’t know that going in, I didn’t know those stories. So there’s this irony that practically everybody there cries.

Fallout from ’08 has been rise of women on the right

So how have you seen the landscape shift post-2008 election, particularly in terms of media?

Traister: If I have one serious complaint, it is that … [Obama] is doing this magnificent thing, which was engaging a whole generation and so many people who have never been engaged before. You’d better follow through dude. Because if not, they’re never going to believe in anybody ever again. That is my fear.

… The other part is that Hillary has sailed out of this thing. … The warmth toward Hillary right now is so intense. Whenever anybody ever says ruefully “Oh, Hillary wouldn’t have given up the public option going in,” or whatever they say, I tend to think Hillary would have made almost exactly the same choices as Obama. So I don’t have any great fantasies about things being different. But the fact that people even say that… mean, I feel so much more warmth toward her now from the people who have hated her that it’s kind of amazing. So there’s been that.

But most of the fallout from the election — and I’m sorry to say this because I wish I’d seen more fallout in the democratic party actually — has been this rise of women on the right. Or the purported rise of women. There are a few female figureheads, who are, unfortunately, nuts.

I am a big believer in the idea that if we were going to get closer to gender equality in politics of course, you’re going to have female nuts. There needs to be good and bad of everything. So I don’t begrudge these women at all, I just wish we had a more varied spectrum at the moment.

And do you think that the media has played any role in influencing how political women are perceived, and who is considered a contender?

Traister: Let me tell ya, I have not been thrilled about the approach to Christine O’Donnell over the last few days. And in part, it’s because do you people learn nothing? This kind of overconfident, oversexed, prurient … look. She’s an eccentric and unusual candidate who I disagree with every fiber of my being. But when I watch some of the coverage of her, and the behavior — the sort of overconfident assumption that this woman is so laughable. This is how they talk about Sarah Palin too, and Sarah Palin is still behaving as a tastemaker within her party.

When I was in the middle of writing this book, and last summer, Palin quit the governorship, I thought to myself, “Well, shit.”

In more than two centuries of American political history, there are some things that are just givens. And one of them is that when you quit your term as governor, halfway through, for no discernible reason, you are no longer a political contender. And I thought, writing my book, “No one will ever read this book, because in a year, no one will care about Sarah Palin any more.”

So, we now know that’s not the case.

… It hasn’t stopped her. Nothing will. So all this stuff about “Ha-ha-ha, Christine O’Donnell, she’s an idiot, oh look at this funny thing,” the question about whether she’s a virgin… I’m sorry people, but are you really talking about whether or not she’s a virgin? Seriously? Because she might be in Congress. Why don’t you learn that laughing at these women just pisses people off, and gives them more fuel? That lesson does not seem to have sunk in.

I mean, am I crazy that the Christine O’Donnell coverage is a little over the top?

It is over the top, and you can bring that back to the press corps. There’s this idea that there are folks who are political tastemakers, and they know everything, have seen everything, and they can dictate then who the country will vote for. And I think that the rise in women candidates who aren’t conventionally qualified (to steal a term from “conventionally attractive”), who aren’t politically clear from skeletons as their predecessors have had to be — where are we headed, coverage wise?

Traister: I think we are in the same place with male candidates too. Bill Clinton still had to pretend he didn’t inhale. And Barack Obama has written a memoir where he described his experimentation with drugs. The only scandal that could bring someone down anymore, I believe, is John Edwards style sexcapade … That involved an illegitimate child and an ill wife. That was so morally reprehensible, it went beyond just garden variety cheating. It was epically immoral.

Media coverage then and now

As a member of the media, how does it feel to be writing what is largely a media critique of the way the 2008 election was covered?

Traister: It feels like I’m probably not going to be invited on MSNBC a lot. There’s an enormous amount of navel gazing that goes on the media, and I’m not the first person in the media to be critical of it. But you can catch yourself. I found myself in an interview the other day about the sexism that faces Sarah Palin, and the ways in which instead of just reasonably questioning her credentials and abilities and experience, we fall into this kind of pointing, hooting, punch-line, knee-slapping thing with her that is definitely gender inflected. I have certainly been as guilty of that as anybody. When you’re doing a critique of the media, its important for you to be aware of the ways that you fall into exactly the same patterns that you’re calling out in other people.

It forces you to reckon with your own things. I write about that in the book, how I was extremely aware that the intensity of my reaction to Palin was really tied up in the fact that she was a woman. I didn’t care about how she was dressed, I wasn’t making fun of her high heels — which a lot of people were doing — I wasn’t questioning whether she could be a good mother. There was a whole strain of that stuff that I wasn’t participating in.

But the power of my antipathy toward her … of course, that had to do with her gender. She was being presented as someone who I was supposed to respond to in a certain way. There was a perversion of the whole language and sense of women’s empowerment and women’s history. I was so much more intensely engaged in being critical of her than I would have been had she been a little-experienced man. You have to sort of cop to that too, and say – look, I do these things that I also criticize others for.

Also, the media is an ever changing beast. We saw it change in many ways during 2008. Rachel Maddow, for example. Can you imagine we live in a world that two years ago, three years ago, didn’t have Rachel Maddow as a regular voice? That changes the landscape. …

On the other hand, Campbell Brown, who did all this great work during 2008, just stepped down from her show because she didn’t have any ratings after she came back from maternity leave. So it’s not as though the kind of expansions of roles for women in the media were all permanent.

On the other hand, Christiane Amanpour has a Sunday morning show, Candy Crowley, who did incredible election reporting, now has a Sunday morning show.

Things expand and contract. There seems to still be an overall expansion of the voices of women. Not necessarily women of color or people of color, really. Not seeing a lot of that. Which is interesting, considering that our President is a man of color.

One of my arguments in the book is part of the reason you have more women’s voices, was because you needed women to talk about women. One of the arguments that Katie Couric makes in my book is that you needed women to talk about women and you needed black people to talk about black people. In fact, that expansion didn’t happen so much for people of color. Melissa Harris-Lacewell has become one of the most prominent pundits, and she was not so prominent before.And she’s certainly still out there -– she was just on Maddow.

Right, but she gained a lot of prominence on Maddow, and Maddow helped hold open that door.

Traister: But that’s another part of the process that we need to be considering. That when you get those people through the door, they then give a hand up to other people. Maddow has expanded the number of young people who wouldn’t have a platform, who [now] totally have a platform thanks to Maddow. Read more


Humorous News ‘Warning Labels’ Hint at Serious Challenges for Media

Last week, Boing Boing, the popular technology and culture blog, trained its spotlight on a hilarious and painful project by British comedian Tom Scott. He created a set of printable warning labels meant to alert consumers to some of the major flaws that plague journalism.

With statements such as “This article is basically just a press release, copied and pasted” and “Journalist does not understand the subject they are writing about,” the stickers were met with amused guffaws from consumers and a resigned acknowledgment from practicing journalists.

Scott’s joke played into existing consumer attitudes about the trustworthiness and reliability of modern news coverage. Gallup recently published the 2010 results of its Confidence in Institutions poll. Once again, news media fared higher than Congress, but that isn’t saying much.

Only 25 percent of respondents have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers, and 22 percent said the same for television news. Neither institution has fared very well in the periodic survey. When Gallup started asking about confidence in newspapers in 1973, 39 percent expressed confidence. When TV news was added in 1993, 46 percent expressed confidence.

Gallup frets:

“With nearly all news organizations struggling to keep up with the up-to-the-minute news cycle and to remain profitable in the process, Americans’ low trust in newspapers and television news presents a critical barrier to success. The Pew [State of the News Media] report asserts that 80% of new media links are to legacy newspapers and broadcast networks, making clear that traditional news sources remain the backbone of the media. But so long as roughly three in four Americans remain distrustful, it will be difficult to attract the large and loyal audiences necessary to boost revenues.”

Against this grim backdrop, Scott’s labels struck a chord. I caught up with him via e-mail and asked what he hoped to achieve with the journalism labels.

“I wouldn’t call it a project, really — it’s a cheap joke that seems to have become rather popular!” he wrote. “If I can make people laugh, and make people think, that’s great; if the labels actually start being placed on newspapers around the world too, that’s fantastic!”

Scott cheekily decided to name-check the tabloid-esque British newspaper Daily Mail and its right-wing journalist Richard Littlejohn as part of the list. “The Richard Littlejohn gag was very much a cheap crowd-pleaser,” he explained, but then noted, “I imagine there’s not really a great crossover between Mail readers and folks that’d consider using these stickers!”

I asked Scott what journalists could learn from his project. “Very little,” he said. “That’s not me being flippant — it’s just that any journalist who gives a damn about integrity already knows about this. I’ve had a couple of e-mails from journalists — who wanted to stay anonymous — and rather than being angry with me, they bemoaned the fact that they frequently had to write posts that fawned over PR stories, simply because of pressure from the higher-ups at their organisation.”

Indeed. Scott has already earned a fan in New York Times television and digital media reporter Brian Stelter, who linked to the journalism labels on his Tumblr blog, “…the deadline.” His post, presented without commentary, inspired close to 3,000 fellow Tumblr users to spread the word.

Consumer reception to Scott’s labels has been mixed. Wendi Muse, founder of Retail DJ, cautioned that “one man’s trash is another man’s news,” telling me that while facts and fact-checking are important, the framing of articles will always reflect some kind of slant.

Muse questioned whether people will ever agree on what is biased and what is unbiased and said she believes that the question is less about news spin and more about encouraging better reporting.

Dany Sigwalt, a community organizer and youth activist in Washington, D.C., called the labels “snarky” and said she would be offended if one were plastered across an article she wanted to read. Sigwalt said she believes that bias is being perpetuated, but on the part of those who deem the stickers worth using.

The stickers, she said, assume “that I, the reader, am completely uncritical in my thought processes … It’s really not much better than the article itself, because you don’t know where the sticker-ers’ allegiances lie.”

Interestingly enough, in the breakdown of the Gallup numbers, 18- to 29-year-olds said they trust newspapers substantially more than all other age groups, with 49 percent of them rating newspapers favorably.

Yet, according to another Gallup poll, this same age group is least likely to pick up actual newsprint. Gallup admits that it is “unclear how much respondents factored in the online and cable offshoots of ‘newspapers’ and ‘television news’ when assessing their confidence in these institutions.”

However, it could be that younger consumers have learned to discern where news comes from in the digital space. Ozioma Egwuonwu, director of cultural insight and anthropology for the marketing agency RAPP, said that Scott’s warning labels resonate because they tap into “what we have intrinsically known — that news is biased at its core.” Still, Egwuonwu enjoys the provocative nature of the labels and said she wishes there were a digital version for use on websites like Facebook.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly described Ozioma Egwuonwu‘s gender.

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Use Authentic Experiences, not Formulas, to Talk about Race

Watching and reading news reports about race in America is a depressing endeavor. Just this week, race has dominated the headlines, from racism in the ranks of the tea party to USDA’s Shirley Sherrod being dragged through the mud based on an edited video being posted on a prominent conservative blog.

Why is the press corps so bad at covering racial issues? Regardless of the circumstance, the players, and the nature of the problem, most stories about race follow the same format, almost to the letter. A journalist describes the issue at hand and poses the question, “Is this racist?” The reporter then interviews the principals or talks to a pundit (rarely is an expert tapped), presents both arguments, and ends the piece.

This is indicative of a much larger problem. Since race is such a polarized issue in the United States, reporters and pundits often avoid the messier threads, preferring a tighter, “neutral” story flow over our messy reality.

And even if an outlet chooses to tackle race without hiding behind the he-said-she-said formula, the subject is often treated in the most sensationalist way possible.

For example, take a recent Time magazine piece by Joel Stein called “My Own Private India.” This story was positioned as satire, but it relied heavily on racial stereotypes to explore an awkward and explosive topic: how immigration impacts small, traditionally white towns. While Stein attempts to get in a few jabs at white Americans, the effort fails as it still upholds racist language and ideas toward South Asians. One unfortunate section reads:

“Eventually, there were enough Indians in Edison to change the culture. At which point my townsfolk started calling the new Edisonians ‘dot heads.’ One kid I knew in high school drove down an Indian-dense street yelling for its residents to ‘go home to India.’ In retrospect, I question just how good our schools were if ‘dot heads’ was the best racist insult we could come up with for a group of people whose gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose.”

The blogosphere quickly mobilized and responded. Sepia Mutiny, a blog reflecting the lives and experiences of South Asian-Americans, quickly took Stein to the woodshed, with Anna John (a friend and fellow Poynter Sense-maker) breaking down why Steins’ words were so problematic:

“You ‘question’ the quality of Edison’s schools because you think ‘Dot Head’ was a mediocre epithet? Would dotbusters‘ have been more suitable? Yeah, I know, wrong place. They slaughtered a ‘Dot Head’ for the crime of being Indian over in Jersey City, not your precious, quondam white Edison.”

While the Mutineers found themselves in a conversation about whether Stein’s article fit the definition of racism, actor and former political appointee Kal Penn took to the pages of The Huffington Post to show how Stein’s “jokes” were not new or novel:

“Growing up a few miles from Edison, NJ, I always thought it was hilarious when I’d get the crap kicked out of me by kids like Stein who would yell ‘go back to India, dothead!’ I was always ROTFLMAO when people would assume that I wasn’t American. He really captured the brilliant humor in that one too!”

Time magazine quickly issued a statement saying the piece “was in no way intended to cause offense,” despite its use of racial slurs and an “us versus them” tone that is more often seen in antagonistic roundtables on CNN than in humorous columns.

Stein’s response to the controversy was similarly aggravating:

“I truly feel stomach-sick that I hurt so many people. I was trying to explain how, as someone who believes that immigration has enriched American life and my hometown in particular, I was shocked that I could feel a tiny bit uncomfortable with my changing town when I went to visit it. If we could understand that reaction, we’d be better equipped to debate people on the other side of the immigration issue.”

If Stein wanted to explore his discomfort with the changing dynamics of his hometown, why make the new residents of Edison, N.J., the butt of his jokes?

Kate Rigg, an Asian-American comedian who often tackles race and racism in her routines, notes that there is a difference between making a joke about race and making a racist joke. However, far too many people don’t understand the boundaries.

While Stein didn’t fall back on cheap language gags, he did rely on a lot of pernicious stereotypes for his humor — stereotypes that are unfortunately still in effect and change the dynamic of a “joke.” Considering our tense conversations on race and immigration (not to mention who qualifies as a “real” American), Stein could have erred on the side of caution.

However, the Fifth Estate is not immune from clumsiness in dealing with racial complexity. Tech blog Gizmodo was reamed recently for an article called “Why I Stalk a Sexy Black Woman on Twitter (And Why You Should, Too),” in which Joel Johnson, after learning that African-Americans have a disproportionately high presence on Twitter, sought to broaden his mostly white Twitter life by following a random person.

While he intended to extol the virtues of diversifying one’s Twitter feed, his remarks about her “faux modeling shots,” “mall fashion” and “frustratingly childish” expressions of faith, combined with the stated goals of the piece, created a strange space where people could read racism, sexism, and other things in his account.

Johnson seemed surprised at the backlash and responded in the comments to his original post, but he appeared fairly unwilling to understand exactly why his piece prompted such a harsh reaction. However, as Shani_O explains on the Postbourgie blog:

“Calling her tweets about God ‘charming’ and ‘childish’ is creepy. Talking about how he enjoys looking at the pictures she sends to other guys is creepy. Focusing in on how sexy she is, when we have a history in Western culture of black women being treated as hypersexual creatures, is creepy and sexist. And the exotification of this woman is creepy and racist. It’s not lynchmob racist, or job-discrimination racist, or even ‘black people suck’ racist. It’s the kind of racism that’s casual and common and doesn’t technically ‘hurt’ anyone, so its defenders would have us believe it isn’t racism. But it is. And it matters.”

Johnson stuck to his guns, writing in a follow-up post:

“While quite a few people seemed to grasp the thrust of the piece — ‘You should follow a few people on Twitter who aren’t like you’ — several others got caught up on issues of race, sex, voyeurism, and the ‘proper’ use of Twitter itself.”

But here’s the thing: Both the Time and the Gizmodo stories were racially tone deaf. The authors (both white and male) had the impression that it was permissible to make jokes in service of a larger position about race (and other data markers, in Johnson’s case) or racism (and immigration, in Stein’s case.) However, what they chose to present were rehashed stereotypes.

Instead of authentically approaching conversations about race and racism by acknowledging their experience and how it forms their opinions, they just assumed that their worldview was the default and did not consider any other perspectives.

Discussions of race and society do not have to end badly or strip themselves of humor to be taken seriously. In a speech for South by Southwest, Baratunde Thurston (comedian, Web editor for The Onion and political pundit) managed to explain “How to Be Black” online — without stereotypes and with illuminating data and information.

His speech revolves around how African-Americans use the Internet. Around 4:30, Baratunde explains how a joke quickly goes sour when put into the existing context of race and racism:

The clip ends almost 7 minutes into Thurston’s speech. However, it’s the next segment that is crucial. He reveals that while Twitter can be an amazing space to hang out and connect, it is not immune from the same racism that occurs in offline spaces:

So what makes Thurston’s speech different from Stein and Johnson’s efforts? In essence, he relies on knowledge that comes from a base of knowledge, his own observation, and life experience. Thurston also presents stereotypes, but he challenges the perceptions that inform racial stereotyping rather than just letting the stereotypes stand. Thurston was always a comedian, but he also knows enough about race and racism to ensure he isn’t perpetuating the same inequalities in his work.

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And here, it is the knowledge gap that figures prominently. Media outlets in both the Fourth and Fifth Estate often stumble over the best way to handle this tense situation.

In order for the media to live up to its goals of informing the populace, those who create stories and articles will need to do some deep reflection on their personal biases, the role that race plays in society, the role that race plays in newsrooms, and how all of these factors together influence the national dialogue on race, racism, and race relations.

Anything else is journalistic malpractice. Read more


What’s Next for Blogging at News Orgs Post-Weigel?

The level of obsession by media insiders around the demise of David Weigel as a Washington Post blogger reflects the changing nature of today’s journalism values.

Weigel’s work straddled the world of the new and the old, incorporating norms from the Fifth Estate (distinctive voice, independent point of view and snarky hyperbole) with those from the Fourth Estate (pursuit of truth, fairness in reporting and keeping personal opinions from public view). The scrutiny of his departure from the Post comes from journalists in both worlds and reveals a growing tension between the two cultures.

To recap: Weigel was a blogger-reporter for The Washington Post and the main author of the now-defunct “Right Now” blog. He resigned from his job after Fishbowl DC published excerpts of his personal e-mails in which he lambasted parts of the conservative movement. Weigel had posted his pejorative thoughts to JournoList, an invitation-only listserv for center to left-leaning journalists and policy experts. 

The Daily Caller then followed up, revealing even more inflammatory e-mails. 

On June 29, Weigel updated his blog with a note that he would be contributing to MSNBC while still looking for a full-time job.

Dividing into camps

Observers from both the Fourth and Fifth estates were quick to take sides, with Twitter hashtags#Weigelgate and #teamweigel. New York magazine explored Weigel’s motivation, pointing to his desire to be liked. The Atlantic was all aflutter, with Marc Ambinder making the pro-Weigel case, Jeffrey Goldberg (who is downright ecstatic at Weigel’s departure) showing out with multiple posts, Ta-Nehisi Coates giving Goldberg a kind version of the side eye for excessive schadenfreude and Conor Friedersdorf asking, “How Should Journalists Be Judged?”

The Washington Post’s own Howard Kurtz touched on Weigel twice, once in his Media Notes column and another time for the Art & Style section. Even the Economist’s Democracy in America blog weighed in:

“It indicates that reporters with bylines at non-ideological journalistic outfits, like the Post and other old-fashioned newspapers, will only be able to cover ideological politics if they can amputate their own political opinions. That’s an oppressive thing to force upon someone, a form of political correctness all its own, and like all political correctness, it results in a smothered, distorted, false kind of speech. The only way I can think of to get around this problem, to allow journalists to report and analyse politics in an honest and intelligent fashion without worrying about accusations of bias based on the contents of private emails, would be to have a newspaper where the reporters don’t have any bylines, where everything is written in a collective voice. But that’s a crazy idea that would obviously never work.”

David Carr of The New York Times won the set, describing Weigel as an outsider brought in to work his magic on a tradition-bound newspaper:

“Mr. Weigel was the victim of a ‘not invented here’ reflex that many legacy media companies still possess. He was not, as they say, ‘one of us,’ but one of ‘them,’ brought in to sprinkle new-media pixie dust on a mainstream newspaper that was hemmed in by political and journalistic convention. …

“There are a few lessons to be learned from the whole mess. First, as mainstream media tries to co-opt and deploy some of the tools (and voices) of the insurgency, the intersection is going to be tricky for some time to come.”

Speaking of pixie dust, it could also be said that Weigel was the Post’s version of movie archetypeManic Pixie Dream Girl, providing the Post with a makeover similar to the ones that play out in teen movies. The trouble is, even if Weigel had lived up to his role as Manic Pixie Dream Guy, the Post wasn’t ready for it.

It’s important to note that much of the conservative criticism around Weigel isn’t even about his body of work, but rather that there is not a conservative equivalent to Ezra Klein’s left-leaning policy blog.

The Washington Post explains

Still, what exactly was Weigel’s great sin? Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander (who also maintains a blog) explained

“Weigel’s e-mails showed strikingly poor judgment and revealed a bias that only underscored existing complaints from conservatives that he couldn’t impartially cover them.

“But his departure also raises questions about whether The Post has adequately defined the role of bloggers like Weigel. Are they neutral reporters or ideologues?

“And, given the disdainful comments in his e-mails, there is the separate question of whether he was miscast from the outset when he was hired earlier this year.”

Alexander posed some of these questions to Raju Narisetti, the Post’s online managing editor, who replied that someone doesn’t have to be conservative in order to cover conservatives, but “you do need to be impartial … in your views.” Narisetti said that managers will revise the vetting process going forward.

The Fifth Estate responds

Considering the reaction from both the Fourth and Fifth Estates, perhaps the Post should reconsider not just the vetting process, but also the role of blogging in a mainstream organization. Perhaps the traditional inclination to maintain the appearance of impartiality is the problem here, not the solution.

The disclosure of Weigel’s comments offended a variety of sensibilities, particularly those conservatives who didn’t appreciate being covered by someone who, in the words of The Daily Caller’s Jonathan Strong, “betrays a personal animus toward conservatives.”

Some writers even called for someone more sympathetic to the conservative cause to cover the movement. However, isn’t the hallmark of a journalist being able to report fairly, despite one’s own personal opinions about certain subjects? Can the media afford to blur the wall between a reporter’s private opinions and professional life, as long as the facts are the most important piece?

A week into this debate, there is no clear consensus from either the Fourth or Fifth Estate on the broader issues laid bare by Weigel’s downfall. Many in legacy media believe he was the convenient fall guy for multiple agendas. Many in the Fifth Estate believe that blatant disclosure of derogatory opinions, particularly from someone who is an active participant in the digital space, is too foolish to be defended. (Weigel himself used the words “hubris,” “cocky,” and “arrogant” in his mea culpa on Big Journalism.)

Confusion remains, as well as a host of unanswered questions: In our increasingly polarized political discourse, what role should bloggers play in reporting the news? Are they more like opinionated columnists or impartial reporters? Will there be a further blurring of the boundaries between Fifth Estaters, who generally make their names based on both quality of work and personality; and Fourth Estaters, who gain credibility by quality and fairness? (It’s a high compliment when sources with different opinions agree their views were adequately and accurately represented in a story.)

Those of us in the Fifth Estate will continue to push back against the notion of impartiality. Is it even possible to report on an issue without bringing your own personal lens to the situation? Many of us would argue no, and media critics often point out the hidden bias or slant in news stories, particularly on divisive issues like race, gender and sexual orientation. 

In some ways, the Fifth Estate prefers transparency to impartiality — then, at least, bias is acknowledged and accounted for. Did Weigel misrepresent himself as a conservative? Was it a sin of omission by simply failing to reveal enough about his complex views?

In the end, the true culprit here is the management at The Washington Post. In the mad rush to grasp the new, hot up-and-comers, they failed to do enough due diligence — both on Weigel’s (public) background and how the addition of bloggers would impact their perception as a newspaper. In the end, it’s no surprise they got burned. Read more


Why Keith Olbermann Flounced from Daily Kos

Why did Keith Olbermann break up with political website Daily Kos? The answer highlights the tension professional journalists must resolve as they experiment with different audiences and relationships.

Olbermann, the host of MSNBC’s “Countdown,” has been a heavy participant at the political website the Daily Kos since 2008. He maintained his own diary there and often responded to others in comment threads around the site. But for a while last week, it appeared that relationship with Kos had ended — after a critic suggested Olbermann’s biting commentary on President Obama’s oil speech was a ratings ploy.

In response, the TV personality announced he was leaving the site until it returned to a level of reason. His post evokes a feeling of betrayal by his community, as he writes in a post called “Check, Please.”

“For years, from the Katrina days onward, whenever I stuck my neck out, I usually visited here as the clichéd guy in the desert stopping by the oasis. I never got universal support, and never expected it, nor wanted it (who wants an automatic ‘Yes’ machine?). But I used to read a lot about how people here would ‘always have my back’ and trust me this was of palpable value as I fought opponents external and internal who try to knock me and Rachel off the air, all the time, in ways you can imagine and others you can’t.

“Now I get to read how we pre-planned our anger because ‘beating up on the President has been good for ratings.’ “

The Kos community responded quickly, with more than 2,000 comments and a half-dozen blog posts addressed directly to Olbermann. Some pleaded for the host to continue to make his case. Others pointed out that one anonymous commenter did not signal a widespread site response. And yet others urged him to consider fighting bigger battles. Why did Olbermann’s missive provoke such strong discussions?

The boundaries between the traditional newsroom and the less structured world of social media have been eroding for years. Olbermann’s situation points to the downside of the new era of hyper-connectivity. As media personalities rely more and more on cultivating a fan base for support,  media consumers have unprecedented access to those who shape news coverage.

Olbermann was a pioneer in this regard. His high level of involvement at Daily Kos was unusual, particularly considering most members of the traditional press corps are leery of Fifth Estate-style engagement. While some broadcasters have started to incorporate blogging and Twitter into their brand, most use it as a space to solicit ideas, or as a marketing tool. Olbermann, however, used the Internet in true Fifth-Estate style, as an active participant.  

While Olbermann seemed to enjoy the Kos community and frequently used the site as a sounding board for his ideas, the accusation of one commenter apparently pushed him away. 

Olbermann’s reaction was somewhat understandable. After all, those in the media – even those who provide more opinion than reporting – rely on the idea of truthfulness as a mission. To insinuate that Olbermann altered his actual opinion in pursuit of viewers is a serious charge. However, part of the culture of the growing Fifth Estate is that everyone is entitled to his opinion, no matter how ill-informed or incorrect.

Anyone can publish, for any reason. Some people share the pursuit of truth, and blog only about what can be verified as factual information. Others have no such allegiance and say whatever comes to mind. The commenter who offended Olbermann may not have been concerned about the truth, but happy to pass along a Fifth Estate speculation that would offend Olbermann’s Fourth Estate sensibilities.

Yet, Olbermann seems to have forgotten that just because people can say and do anything online, it does not mean others will automatically believe the statement. Many in the burgeoning Fifth Estate subscribe to the Greater Internet F***wad Theory (link contains profanity) which holds that people blessed with anonymity in online spaces will take the opportunity to act out in ways that would not be possible in real life. While Olbermann took great offense to the comment, another Kos blogger, David Kroning, called him on the reaction:

“I won’t speculate as to why you wrote an angry diary decrying this community. As others have noted, it seems more than a little strange to have gotten upset based on the comment of one random, little-known user who receved [sic] no support for his/her comment.”

Olbermann was concerned and upset that his credibility had been called into question by one of his supporters, and saw this as symptomatic of the changing nature of dialogue on Kos. But as Kroning explains, trust is a major component in the Fifth Estate.

Mentioning that the user was “little-known” and received “no support” is a code often employed in the blogging/commenting world to indicate little influence. While the Internet creates spaces where anyone can say anything, those who become credible for the ideas they share generally have to prove their expertise and become respected within the context of that particular community. From a Fifth Estate perspective, all types of comments are to be expected and some assertions will be ignored, unless the poster provides compelling evidence to back up his claim.

That didn’t stop Olbermann’s Fourth Estate sensibilities from taking a bruising, and instead of brushing off the accusation, or just addressing the commenter, he left the entire community. This behavior is known within the Fifth Estate as “flouncing.” As Wordiq defines it:

“A flounce is where a person on an Internet discussion forum or chat room announces that he intends to leave, however rather than making a quiet announcement and then leaving, he or she loudly and obnoxiously announces their departure, possibly sabotaging or closing some aspect of the forum or chat room as a parting shot. In most flounces, the flouncer returns after some period of time; thus, a flounce is a characteristic exaggerated exit which is inherently insincere.”

While it was expected that Olbermann would respond to online critics and correct erroneous information, the threat of leaving until people behave better isn’t one that generally works in sprawling online spaces. It remains to be seen how serious Olbermann is about decamping from Daily Kos, but if Internet behavior is any indication, he’ll be back in time for the next election cycle.
UPDATE: Indeed, less than a week after Olbermann announced his departure (and the day after I submitted this for publication), he was back on Kos, with a post sheepishly titled “So, uh, this looks like a nice site.” However, in true flounce fashion, Olbermann had to justify his leaving and get in a dig at his detractors:
“… The last diary was misinterpreted by 99% of the old media and 99.5% of the new media. I didn’t ‘quit Daily Kos because I got criticized for criticizing POTUS.’ I wrote what I wrote because there was a body of us here which assumed any criticism of this administration had to originate in a nefarious and wholly nugatory plan to destroy it. There certainly are such nefarious and wholly nugatory plans, active, this very minute: The most prominent is called the Republican Party (GOBP). …

“…I, in turn, don’t mind criticism of my criticism. But, sheez, if I wanted to whore out my opinion for money, I could find about 50 less dangerous and more lucrative job paths than the one I’ve taken. The show I do and the positions I take are under assault, every day, from every possible direction, and I’m not complaining about it: I can afford the suit of armor. I just get pissed off now and again when I’m busy dodging bazookas and somebody bounces a nine-volt battery off my shiny metal ass claiming I’m actually an agent trying to make dough the easy way.”

Well done, King of the Flounce, and welcome back to Kos.

(Thanks to Greg Dworkin of Daily Kos for letting us know about Olbermann’s return.)

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