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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

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. 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. Read more