Irreverent thoughts and questions about journalism today

Time to Name the Accuser

This column was filed Sept. 9, but publication was delayed as a result of review and discussion by editors and the travel schedule of the author. 

(Name withheld by editors) is taking her case against Kobe Bryant out of the criminal court and into civil court in Colorado, and it is time her name became standard media usage – instead of being reserved for radio shockjocks, Internet hitmen, Kobe Bryant’s attorney (who “mistakenly” used her name repeatedly in court) or the documents (with her name and address) that the court accidentally put online.

As I wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, “Her voluntary step further into the public limelight makes appropriate a unified move by editors to cease the conceit of this naming taboo. Thus freed from a debate of little meaning, journalists could move on to discuss a terribly meaningful one: how to cover rape trials with sensitivity, balance, fairness, a concentration on fact over rumor.”


The name of the accuser in this case has been removed by Poynter Online editors. After doing a first read on the column, editors Julie Moos and Bill Mitchell met with a group of about 25 Poynter faculty and staff to discuss the issue: Under what circumstances should Poynter consider naming the accuser in this case? 

The discussion was not to seek consensus, but to inform our decision. Our conclusion: Based on what we know at this point, we believe the journalistic purpose to be achieved by naming the accuser is outweighed by the potential harm that could result from doing so. We gladly present conflicting views, as we did with this column by Geneva that was published last year. But we are not willing to step beyond publishing opinion and take the action of publishing the accuser’s name.

This has created an unusual dilemma. Geneva is a valued friend of Poynter, a member of our National Advisory Board from 1993 to 2001 as well as the unpaid author of the weekly Journalism Junction column since November 2002. Citing several competing obligations as well as her principled disagreement with Poynter Online editors, Geneva has informed us that this will be her final column for Poynter. Explaining her decision, she said: “There is little to recommend continuing to write the column for Poynter unless I can say what I believe.” 

 – Bill Mitchell Read more


Thursday, Sep. 02, 2004

Calling Fox Names — Anonymously

My thanks to a colleague at Poynter, Larry Larsen, for pointing out another in a long line of stories at the Washington Post showing forgetfulness about the paper’s supposedly-tightened anonymity policies.

From the paper come these quotes:

“Fox News Channel doing a big number at the RNC is the least shocking thing that’s happened all week,” said one broadcast network exec. “The Olympics are to NBC what the RNC is to Fox News.”

“It says that Fox News Channel is the official channel of the GOP, and if people didn’t know it before they certainly know it now,” offered another competitor.

Still another said FNC’s success Tuesday night suggests the cable news network is the “in-house organ” of the Republican Party.

And from the Stylebook comes this one

The Washington Post‘s Policies on Sources, Quotations, Attribution, and Datelines
We should not publish ad hominem quotations from unnamed sources. Sources who want to take a shot at someone in our columns should do so in their own names.
Read more


Thursday, Aug. 19, 2004

News With a View

I curtsy to no man in recognizing that media today are becoming more openly ideological. But acknowledging a point of view in newer entrants shouldn’t blind us to the fact that the “old media” are far from the model of open-mindedness they seem to feel they are.

And I don’t mean just the fact that coverage on such subjects as gun control or abortion often is knee-jerkishly liberal. Or the fact that, in over-reaction to those very “liberal media” charges, the occasional abortion-rights march — to take an example — is seriously UNDERplayed.

That little herky-jerky dance is lamentable. But I’m talking about a deeper and broader truth: The establishment media are so terminally ESTABLISHMENT. And they don’t seem to get how much of a bias that is.


This thought struck recently as I read “The Ascendancy of News with a View” in Newsday. The gist of it is that folks like George Stephanopoulos and Ted Koppel are alarmed to find that some Americans are looking to sources other than the likes of ABC to get an idea of what’s really going on. I mean, sources like “Fahrenheit 9/11″ or Rush Limbaugh.

These misguided news consumers, Stephanopoulos tells us, “very sincerely, very earnestly” believe that they’re getting actual factual information from such sources. Koppel, sharing George’s alarm at this notion, says he is “concerned that on both sides of the political spectrum, that if what Americans feel they have to get is news with an attitude, what they’re going to end up losing is some of the objectivity that traditionally people in our business have tried [to attain] at least. We don’t always succeed, but we have tried.”


I have sympathy for this view. I’m worried too about Americans more and more wanting to hear only from those who agree with them. But I am powerfully struck that it doesn’t occur to George and Ted –- and all the other sources in the article — that traditional media also have a viewpoint.

Traditional media have a viewpoint. It’s a good old conventional, “acceptable,” middle-of-the-road viewpoint. It’s the viewpoint, generally speaking, of the powerful — which is by and large, even today, the view of well-to-do male white folks. Like Ted and George. (Forgive me for noting that everybody in Newsday‘s long and citation-rich piece seems to belong to this privileged group.)


Would anyone who has ever been part of a movement for change –- civil rights, feminism, anti-war, you name it -– believe that the mainstream media offer so full and rich and open-minded and comprehensive a menu that no one need go elsewhere for an accurate picture of what’s going on?

What has the recent spate of mea culpas in The New York Times ($$), The Washington Post, and the Lexington Herald-Leader shown us, ultimately, if not that these media were in thrall to the reigning conventional wisdom?


When we old-media types come up with our high-sounding prescriptions for the proper media diet for the responsible American citizen, we could stand a reminder that people aren’t fools to think that there’s truth to be sought outside conventional media. The narrower the conventional media -– and we do go through our cycles — the more info there is to be found elsewhere. Thus, in this post 9/11 world, have documentaries set records, and political books flown off the shelves. Some of these partisan upstarts have a thing or two to say. The people are listening. Are we?




Two other quick notes. One of the most interesting things happening in media criticism is the Bay Area’s “Grade the News.” Recently, the San Francisco Chronicle did an interesting interview with the site’s leader, John McManus, which features some delicious straight talk about journalism.   

Finally, an immodest plug for a recent radio show with a terrific discussion of the reporters’ privilege issue. I took part but, more important, so did Floyd Abrams, Lucy Dalglish, Dan Okrent, and Vanessa Leggett. Check it out at WBUR’s “The Connection.” Read more


Thursday, Aug. 12, 2004

A Revolution in Journalism Accountability

I have a clipping in my files dated January 13, 2003. It’s from a British newspaper, the Guardian. Here’s the headline: “With war looming, it is no good the American public looking to its newspapers for an independent voice. For the press have now become the president’s men.”

This morning (Thursday), The Washington Post ran a remarkable story on its front page, responding to months of charges like that one in the Guardian: charges that the Post and other media failed the public in covering the buildup to war in Iraq. The story, by media writer Howard Kurtz, says the coverage “in hindsight, looks strikingly one-sided at times.” Last May, The New York Times did its own mea culpa. Its coverage, the story said, “was not as rigorous as it should have been.”

The Post is the major paper in the nation’s capital. Inevitably, as one of its editors said, it is “the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power.” Before the war, it performed that role avidly. Fast and furious came the headlines: “Cheney Says Iraqi Strike Is Justified.” “Bush Cites Urgent Iraqi Threat.” “Bush Tells Troops: Prepare for War.”

Kurtz notes some of the reasons for the journalistic march toward war: There was an intense focus on what the administration was doing. The technical details of intelligence and weapons of mass destruction make for tough reporting. When contrary stories DID run, they raised a ruckus. As a media observer, I’d add this: The American press was, generally speaking, exceedingly deferential in the wake of 9/11. And it was not alone. The media in part reflect what is going on around them, and there was precious little political debate going on.

These have been difficult times for our country. But whatever the tenor of the era, whatever the popularity ratings of the president, there are things the press should never forget. Skepticism is a patriotic responsibility of journalists. And the press must give voice not only to those in power but also to those who are NOT being heard. These are the failures that the Post –- and the Times before it –- have now acknowledged.

We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of these acknowledgments. They signal a revolution in press accountability. Newspapers, like people, have always made mistakes. But they have rarely admitted the big ones. Of course, you can’t help but wish that the light had dawned earlier. Even as I read my Post this morning, I was hearing reports on NPR of intense fighting in Iraq. “You’re too late,” I longed to say to my newspaper. But that would be wrong.

I don’t know if I agree with Post editor Len Downie, who says it’s a mistake to think that different coverage would have led to a different outcome. But I do know this: Accountability on the part of the press is a good and hopeful thing -– and even a brave one. When those in power, including the media, acknowledge their impact and admit their fallibility, we’re all better off.

A slightly different version of this was prepared for commentary on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Read more


Monday, Aug. 09, 2004

Colin McNickle Responds

From: Colin McNickle
Sent: Monday, August 09, 2004 1:33 PM
To: Overholser, Geneva
Subject: Incredible

Ms. Overholser –

I found your recent posting “Omitting Telling Details” both laughable and tragic.

The larger question is my employer, not that I never got an answer to what even The New York Times was forced to admit was a perfectly “reasonable” question?

Furthermore, you, supposedly the paragon of journalistic whatever, link to a Max Blumenthal blog that is so factually bereft that it would be filed under “fiction” in any library.

Just one example is the smear of my days with UPI (as a bureau chief in two cities and as the broadcast editor for Pennsylvania based in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, no less). Sorry to burst all you liberals’ notions, but I didn’t work for the Rev. Moon – I left UPI for the AP in 1991 and well before Mr. Moon bought the wire service.

And you and Mr. Blumenthal -– you by your link, Blumenthal by his writings — show your utter ignorance of economics by finding something nefarious about F.A. Hayek’s writings on free-market economics and the well-proven dangers of socialism. The “linkage” to Alfred Jay Nock -– “he was a hysterical anti-Semite … ” –- is equally ludicrous. What, that makes ME an anti-Semite? That’s like saying anyone who ever quoted Sen. Robert Byrd must be a Klansman.

And, indeed, if you study the economics of Gov. Ed Rendell, they ARE more socialistic than free-market. In fact, it’s a textbook case.

Let’s address the real issue here –- Mrs. Heinz-Kerry said something publicly for which any reporter worth his salt would seek clarification/expansion. What did she mean? We still don’t know. Attempting to kill the questioner won’t get us the answer.

Thank you,

Colin McNickle
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

From: Colin McNickle
Sent: Monday, August 09, 2004 1:50 PM
To: Overholser, Geneva
Subject: Oh, and a post script

Ms. Overholser-

And one more thing –- Blumenthal refers to “Alfred Jay Nock.” It’s “Albert,” actually.

Colin McNickle


Overholser, Geneva
Sent: Monday, August 09, 2004 2:23 PM
To: Colin McNickle
Subject: RE: Incredible

Dear Colin McNickle,

Thanks for your feedback. Feel free to post it publicly (if you haven’t) on the Poynter site.

Meanwhile, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. To me the issue is not whether you asked a logical question (I think you did), but whether Heinz-Kerry would have every reason to be suspicious of and annoyed by an encounter with a reporter who comes from a clearly unfair/imbalanced newspaper that has tormented her in the past.


Geneva Overholser
Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting
Missouri School of Journalism, Washington bureau

From: Colin McNickle
Sent: Monday, August 09, 2004 3:01 PM
To: Overholser, Geneva
Subject: RE: Incredible

Dear Geneva –

Agree to disagree? On some basic facts of the issue that you purposely misrepresent? Geesh.

When’s the last time -– if ever -– that you have actually read a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, news or editorial section, cover to cover? Perhaps you’d like to see a few issues…

And, please post my response; I think you have a responsibility to do so.

Colin. Read more


Thursday, Aug. 05, 2004

Omitting the Inconveniently Telling Detail

I came back from vacation raring to gripe about how we in the press conveniently overlook significant details on these catchy little stories we go bonkers over.

Details like the roar of the crowd in the Des Moines ballroom where Howard Dean screamed his immortal Scream. Details like a full characterization of the journalist Teresa Heinz Kerry told to “shove it.” Then, I discovered just how far behind the curve a blissful few days in the West Virginia mountains can leave you. See, for example, this and this.  

Still, I want to add my two bits: When I Googled “Teresa Heinz Kerry” and “shove it,” I saw twice as many references to the episode that do NOT mention Richard Mellon Scaife (who employs the journalist she told to “shove it”) as references that do. This significant omission leaves the news consumer with the impression that the object of her remark was just another journalist — albeit perhaps a conservative one –- as opposed to a journalist from a paper with a long and ugly history with Heinz Kerry and her family.

This omission makes it much easier to write pat little didn’t-we-tell-you-she-was-strange headlines such as “Teresa Heinz Kerry Calls for More Civil Tone in Politics, Then Tells Reporter to ‘Shove It’” or “Show and Tell: Teresa Heinz Kerry’s ‘Shove It’ Outburst Is the Latest in String of Outspoken Behavior.”

It’s also worth noting that these handy little omissions cross party lines. When I Googled “Schwarzenegger” and “girlie girls,” I found almost twice as many references to the remark that did NOT mention the phrase’s “Saturday Night Live” origins compared to those that did cite “SNL.” Read more


Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Fear and Anxiety in Network Newsrooms

Much that is commonly “understood” among journalists is rarely voiced in public. A pre-convention event this week in Cambridge – where network anchors went on the record about the partisan and corporate pressures they feel – was a bracing exception. The Shorenstein Center program was mostly noted in the news for Jim Lehrer’s chastisement of the big three anchors for their stinted convention coverage. But even rarer was the theme kicked off by Dan Rather at the start: “Fear has increased in every newsroom in America.” The three anchors (Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw) sparred with one another about whether it was “fear,” “caution,” or “anxiety,” but its existence seemed clear.

Rather started by noting this: When you’re a reporter contrasting what someone in the administration says with what you know to be the facts, pointedly laying out the differences, “You’re gonna catch hell.” “And those who are willing to pay the price,” Rather said, are fewer today than before. In a later remark, he said the strong feelings nationwide and the guarantee that they’ll be voiced not only calls up more caution than ever – sometimes a good thing – but causes some to ask: “You know what? We run this story, we’re asking for trouble. Why do it?”

Peter Jennings, having rejected fear, said shortly thereafter, “I think there is anxiety in the newsroom, and I think it comes from the corporate suite.” He hears more from conservative critics than in the past, he said, and “I think it creates concern in the corporate suites. This wave of resentment rushes at our advertisers, it rushes at our corporate suites, and it gets under the newsroom’s skin.”

Then it was Rather’s turn to demur, saying that had “not been (his) experience at CBS News, at least in recent years.” To which Jennings responded: “I can take on anything. But I feel a presence of anger in the air all the time.”

Tom Brokaw soft-pedaled this angle, noting that there had previously been “a kind of tyranny of the left” that only naturally had been succeeded by its opposite. But when the three were pressed by Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) about what they would have done differently in the coverage of the run-up to war in Iraq, the original topic revived.

Judy Woodruff cited “voices listened to but not given the prominence of the flood of voices from the administration.” She described a “hyper-patriotic … mood that had taken hold to some degree in the media.”

Rather went further with the specific results: “We did not do our job of pressing and asking enough questions often enough.” He said there is “more reluctance now than 35 to 40 years ago to stand up and look ‘em in the eye and ask the hard questions.” 

Brokaw said he thought “the big failure” was that “we didn’t connect enough dots. We didn’t raise enough questions about the political process.” 

“Where are the hearings in the House? Where are the hearings in the Senate?” he asked.

Lehrer’s only comment on the topic: The fact that views today are “strongly held is terrific for us,” he said, because “viewers will watch with more vigor.”

Woodruff’s thought about the powerful partisan outpourings: “We want to be responsive, but it can never govern what we do.”

As the ensuing debate acknowledged, the country’s political mood, translated through the corporate suites, HAS been affecting what the media was doing. Here’s hoping the welcome level of candor in Cambridge is a signal that this is ceasing to be true. Read more


Thursday, July 22, 2004

Anonymous in the Midwest

Paul Wolfowitz is accustomed to requesting –- and receiving –- anonymity when he wants it. But, as the Des Moines Register reported (not, alas, online, though you can read about it in Slate) that doesn’t work everywhere:

Incognito in Omaha

After Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz spoke to the Omaha Chamber of Commerce last Friday, he set aside 45 minutes to talk about the Iraq war with a handful of newspaper reporters from Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri. As is common in Washington, D.C., a Pentagon aide swooped down just before the questions began and explained that Wolfowitz could only be identified as a “senior Defense Department official.”

But this was Omaha, and the Midwest reporters rebelled at the suggested anonymity. They told Wolfowitz such a session was essentially a waste of their time, and besides, it’s customary for public officials in the Midwest to put their name behind their comments. One reporter explained it would look pretty silly if he wrote a story quoting Wolfowitz speaking publicly to the Omaha Chamber, and then in the next paragraph quoted a “senior Defense Department official.” Everybody in Omaha knew Wolfowitz was the only senior defense official in town on Friday.

Wolfowitz, who recently apologized for negative comments he made about reporters covering Iraq, retreated without hesitation and agreed to speak on the record.

(from the Des Moines Register, July 15, in “Insider: Iowa Ear,” a weekly column of inside-baseball political items)

Interestingly, just after a former Register reporter e-mailed me that story, a friend here in Washington sent me his own thoughts about anonymity. Here’s Jim Rosen, a McClatchy Washington bureau reporter:

Since I got to Washington a decade ago, I’ve been amazed that someone like the national security adviser can hold a detailed briefing with dozens of reporters, and they dutifully cite “a senior administration official” because that’s the instruction they get.

Some reporters — and I’ve probably been guilty of this — might feel it gives their work a certain cache to appear to have special access to high-level officials. Of course, the poor reader never knows that it’s a big pretense and that all those other reporters got the same information in a quasi-public setting. It’s a kind of illicit trade: The administration gets deniability, secrecy, and lack of public accountability in exchange for the reporter receiving a false veneer of exclusivity.

Meanwhile, William Babiskin told me his uncle Al used to joke: “They tell us something was said by ‘someone close to the White House.’ For all we know, it’s a wino in Lafayette Park.”

Finally, a colleague at Poynter, Larry Larsen, wrote to note his concern about the NY Times story on the Cheney-replacement rumor, which was absolutely bristling with anonymity. “So much for this,”  he said, noting The New York Times’ anonymous sources policy. I agree. Maybe inside, in a standard analyis or political memo format, but on the front page? 

The Wilson Affair and the Elusive Truth

A number of my correspondents have noted questions raised in recent government reports about Joe Wilson’s truthfulness. As one of many who wrote about Wilson and his yellowcake uranium report, I’ve gone back at this new information to try to figure out where the facts lie. There’s a lot more heat than light being cast on the subject, but among the more helpful sources I’ve found are Bill Safire’s July 10 column and, in the L.A. Times, a report by Doyle McManus and a piece by Tim Rutten.

There appear to be significant differences between State Department and CIA views, between British and American views and between various readings of the Wilson report, as well as different interpretations as to whether Wilson’s wife “offered up his name” or responded to queries about whether he’d be willing to make his controversial trip. There is plenty here to make those inclined to bristle do so on either side. I can only say that the entirety of it makes me feel less certain of the truth than I was. I thank my readers for challenging me to return to the issue. Read more


Thursday, July 15, 2004

Fox News: Outed at Last?

Call this the season of the documentary. The summer’s most powerful (not to mention polemical) challenges to conventional thinking have come from the left, via the silver screen: “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Control Room,” “Hunting of the President” and now, “Outfoxed.” The interesting thing is not whether these flicks are fair or balanced or thorough or comprehensive. Surely they are, by and large, NOT — and not intended to be. The interesting thing is their surprising and quite remarkable popularity — these are documentaries, for crying out loud! — which says a great deal about what has recently been left unsaid, or substantially understated.

Consider the case of Fox News. It has been besting the rest of cable news by delivering journalism with an attitude and an ideology — while declaiming that it alone of all the media is free of these very traits. The pose, while widely winked at within the trade, went largely unchallenged in public — as did the larger, very effective and focused conservative campaign against liberal media bias. Not surprisingly, many believed what they kept hearing.

Consider the Pew study released last month, on increasing polarization of news audiences. Check out the chart labeled “Growing Credibility Gap.” In a list of most of the main national news media, the percentage of Republicans who “believe all or most” of what they got from each declined dramatically from 2000 to 2004. Fox News was the only exception.

Would even the most conservative news consumers claim that the change was in each of these media themselves — that they were all more believable in 2000, much less so in 2004? It was the perception of the news consumers that changed — a change very skillfully cultivated by conservatives, and countered but little by others.

Why this reluctance to respond to the charges — and to the changes in the media landscape? The very effectiveness of the “liberal media” charge has caused journalists to shy away from anything that might invite the label (and calling Fox News ideological is as sure an invitation as there is).

Then there’s the clubbiness of media folk in New York and Washington — not to mention corporate-pressured aversion to controversy. Also, conflicting interests nudge some toward genial acceptance: Surely the important voice of Howie Kurtz of the Washington Post is distorted, consciously or not, by his working for CNN.

“Outfoxed,” whatever else one thinks of it (I haven’t seen it) has at last blown this subject wide open. Having acknowledged the change, we are happily freed to think about what it means. For example:

  • Whether the polarization and politicization in the media is such an awful thing. See Andrew Kohut’s interesting New York Times piece from last Sunday.

  • Whether the real problem, as Tina Brown puts it in The Washington Post, is not Fox News and its flair, but “the others”: “The concentration of media power among a handful of behemoths makes the mainstream scared and driven by the bottom line. There is a retreat in newspapers as much as in TV from investigative reporting and foreign coverage into craven cost-cutting, Foxian imitation, ‘lifestyle’ journalism or pallid, self-correcting ‘balanced’ coverage that treats a genuine scandal like the Senate intelligence revelations as just another story of the day.”

  • How different is this polarized/politicized media world from other chapters in history? The always interesting Alan Wolfe looked at this question in “The New Pamphleteers” in Sunday’s NYT.
Read more

Monday, June 28, 2004

A Challenge to Washington Bureau Chiefs

Years of lament over anonymous sources gave way this spring to a spate of policy-tightening. (See The New York Times and Washington Post, among others.) That welcome step, alas, may mostly have resulted in lengthier descriptions of the same old anonymous sources –- perhaps in even greater numbers.

Now comes a still more promising stage: Action. First, Slate‘s Jack Shafer offered to help reporters “out” officials who insist on giving briefings anonymously. Now the NYT’s Dan Okrent suggests that the AP and the five largest papers agree not to cover anonymous government briefings.

The Okrent idea gets at the problem that has dashed reform efforts in the past. Okrent previously cited former NYT Washburo chief Andy Rosenthal’s efforts to get more on-the-record attribution. Ben Bradlee sought the same at the Post. Both failed because other media organizations were still going along with the anonymizers. The solution lies in collaboration, as Okrent’s AP-and-the-five-big-papers idea acknowledges.


Another possibility (call it a friendly amendment) is collaboration among Washington bureau chiefs. These folks (I need to say here that my husband, David Westphal, is McClatchy’s bureau chief) have worked together to deal with the Pentagon on war coverage. I propose they make the overuse of anonymity their next campaign.

Start with the low-hanging fruit — declining to cover routine briefings by government officials who refuse to be named. If bureau chiefs of the largest news organizations in Washington agreed to do this, I’m betting it would be a solid first step toward real change at last — a change the rest of the American media (not to mention their readers and viewers and listeners) would thank them for. Read more