Political and campaign reporting

For readers puzzling over anonymous sources, a few primers

Huffington Post | Esquire | The New York Times

According to an anonymous source (OK, it was my editor, Andrew Beaujon), The Huffington Post offered readers “The Definitive Guide to Decoding Washington’s Anonymous Sources.”

Congress has made a lot of news lately, and journalists Ryan Grim and Jason Linkins write: “For those of you just walking into the theater, we thought a quick primer on some of the coded language the Capitol Hill press corps uses might be useful.”

“You have surely noticed that story after story is powered by the musings of anonymous congressional aides, lawmakers and White House officials. Can you believe any of this? Yes. But it depends. To a non-initiated reader, the description of these anonymous creatures may appear to be quite random. But embedded within them are major giveaways about the reliability of the information being passed on, and how much credit you should give it. For example, if the author of the story you’re reading is an experienced Capitol Hill reporter, the description of the source you’re reading is likely the result of an explicit agreement between the source and the reporter.”

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Mayoral candidate endorses himself in ad on alt-weekly’s cover

Cleveland Magazine

This week’s Cleveland Scene carries a wraparound ad for mayoral candidate Ken Lanci. The four-page ad goes over the Scene’s actual cover and includes an endorsement of Lanci — who has said he’d consider buying the Scene — from “The Lanci Tribune.”

In Cleveland Magazine, Erick Trickey wonders “shouldn’t a rebellious alt-weekly avoid a sleight-of-hand that suggests a millionaire political candidate can buy its endorsement?

What sort of political coverage of the mayor’s race will Scene offer up now? “Premiere edition,” declares the “Lanci Tribune.” Will the paper bite the hand that feeds in the next issue? Or keep quiet about the mayor’s race?

Trickey’s criticism is “pretty boring,” Scene Editor Vince Grzegorek says in an email to Poynter. Read more

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Don’t call it an impasse, stalemate, or standoff

Don’t call it an impasse, or a stalemate, or a standoff.

Yes, it’s a shutdown. But accurately describing how our government arrived at this point requires more than one word.

To suggest that this current government shutdown is an example of Republicans and Democrats simply unable to reconcile their differences is to ignore the facts of how budget appropriation bills are passed.

Dan Froomkin points this out in an opinion piece for Al Jazeera. James Fallows calls it out in The Atlantic. And Greg Mitchell screams about it in the The Nation.

Bill Adair, the Knight Professor at Duke University and the founder of PolitiFact, told me Wednesday during a phone call that if he were editing reporters, he would insist they use more words to describe exactly what happened, rather than allowing them to reduce the government shutdown to a deadlock, a political stare-down, or gridlock, all of which imply mutual responsibility. Making it seem like the House and the Senate simply couldn’t agree is just untrue. Instead, there is a faction of Republicans operating outside the normal appropriations process.

“I would urge reporters to avoid terms that convey a sense of equal blame on both sides and instead use precise descriptions of what has happened,” he said.

Accurately describing political machinations has always been a critical function of journalism. But speaking and writing with crystal-clear precision and authority on confusing issues is even more important in our modern information ecosystem, where there are so many voices tossing around contradictory messages.

Journalists have a moral obligation to use language that accurately describes what has happened. And that doesn’t mean they are choosing sides. You can still argue about whether the Republicans were justified in shutting down the government as a last-ditch attempt to derail the Affordable Health Care Act before it went into effect. You just can’t forget to mention that that’s what happened.

It is not accurate to simply describe Congress’ failure to pass the appropriations bill without describing how House Republicans deviated from the standard procedures by including language in the bill that would change a current law that has nothing to do with appropriations.

Adair thinks journalists need to go even further and describe what has happened to the entire progression of appropriations in Congress.

“The process is broken,” he said. This Politico story describes the buildup.

The current bill that Congress failed to pass was simply a bill to authorize the government to continue running at current levels. It didn’t actually change anything about the government’s responsibilities. There are a dozen appropriation bills every year and Congress is passing none of them, Adair said.

“Specificity is the way to counter false equivalence,” Adair said.

Reporters covering the shutdown must competently describe how it happened. Using vague throwaway terms is misleading, inaccurate and undermines the core journalistic value of seeking the truth.

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“The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” is now available. The book is a compilation of essays and case studies edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, with a foreword by Bob Steele, for use in newsrooms, classrooms and other settings dedicated to a marketplace of ideas that serves democracy. You can find more information about the book here. Read more

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Page One as pillory: The clever craft of insult journalism

Until now, my favorite tabloid headline came from the New York Post: “Headless Body in Topless Bar.”

The July 26, 2013, cover of the New York Daily News

That paradigm of textual parallelism has been supplanted by this recent wordplay from the New York Daily News: “Same Old Schlong & Dance.” The Yiddish slang for penis — or should I say schlang — is bowdlerized only by the substitution of a round “Race for Mayor” badge over the letter “o.”

The image is of disgraced mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner clutching a phallic carrot at a soup kitchen. Weiner’s unfortunate name, his sexting misadventures, his sacrificial wife, and his unbridled narcissism have turned him into a laughingstock.

As my colleague Anna Li points out, the key word here is “stock.”

In Puritan days, Weiner would have been pilloried — chained for shame in the public square, his head in the stocks, his sins on display, with his critics hurling insults, epithets, rotten food, and the occasional dead animal in his face.

It seems as if that function — mass public humiliation — is now the task of tabloid newspapers, late-night comics, and political bloggers.

As a pervy former Congressman — “perv” and “pervy” being the headline words of the moment — Weiner is such an easy target that even the stately New Yorker magazine got into the act. The New Yorker’s cartoon cover image — an homage to King Kong — shows Weiner straddling the Empire State Building, restoring phallic imagery to popular culture and giving new meaning to the edifice complex.

The Aug. 5, 2013, cover of The New Yorker

To put this in a literary context — sorry, it’s what I do — the insult has been a staple of serious literature and popular culture for millennia, with its history extending from ancient heroic epics to rap competitions like the ones in Eminem’s movie “Eight Mile.”

You can find it in written and oral culture high and low. In Shakespeare, the insult is an instrument of wit, resulting in some of the Bard’s most colorful language:  “Mad mustachio purple-hued maltworms!” Just as clever in African-American popular culture, it’s called “playing the dozens,” as in “Your mama’s teeth so crooked, she got a job at Home Depot — makin’ keys.”

Jason Fry notes in an email that the culture of public shaming is alive and well on the Internet, “where tales of poor behavior go viral and everybody digitally leaps on the offender for a day or two. I suspect the tabloids are familiar with this dynamic and now egg it on quite happily.”

The fact that mayoral candidate Weiner is an easy target — along with his reluctant tag-team candidate Eliot Spitzer, of call-girl infamy — doesn’t diminish the craft of the clever headline and the daring double entendre. Here are some of my recent favorites:


For those of you not up on your disgraced New York politicians, that’s Spitzer smiling on the front page of July 27′s Daily News.

As for July 24′s “BEAT IT!” — next to one of the least-flattering photos of a political candidate in history — it was a front-page tease to a Daily News editorial: “Enough of all the lies & salacious revelations. Weiner is not fit to lead America’s premier city.” (The pun may indeed be the lowest form of humor, but “Beat It!” suggests the masturbatory escapades of the candidate, even as it editorially points the arrow for him to get out of town.)

That issue of the Daily News featured a two-page spread that included an orgy of naughty word play in headlines and subheads:

  • “Crotcha, Anthony”
  • a chonology labeled “His wanky panky trail”
  • four sext messages under the headline: “New Weiner Shame Unzipped”
  • a supportive quote from Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin under the head “I stand by my perv!”

It may not be possible to have more fun writing short.

It should be said, of course, that there is a level of hypocrisy in high moral outrage underwriting titillating coverage and gossip. The editorial may say “Enough of all the…salacious revelations,” but that doesn’t stop the News and the Post from publishing as many of them as possible.

Let’s also remember that not every person held up for public humiliation deserves it. There are still people — I am one of them — who think that public and private moralities can be separated in the public interest, and that people with unusual sexual behaviors or appetites can — and have — turned out to be excellent mayors and even presidents.

There is a role for insult journalism — and for the front page as a pillory — as an antidote to gross misbehavior in the public sphere. But such a role for the press can be easily abused, and may need its own occasional remedy.

In the most celebrated case of pillory literature, Hester Prynne was made to wear a “Scarlet Letter” to signify her adultery, and to stand on a public scaffold to feel the scorn of her community. In the end, Nathaniel Hawthorne returns her to that place of shame and transforms it into place of tolerance and compassion for sinners great and small. It’s the Puritans who got it wrong.

For more from Roy Peter Clark, see his new book “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times,” to be published by Little, Brown on Aug. 27. Read more

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NYT interview with Obama: No surveillance questions?

Jackie Calmes and Michael D. Shear’s interview with President Obama packed in enough news to fill three New York Times articles and one media story: “It was the paper’s first exclusive chat with the president in nearly three years,” The Huffington Post’s Jack Mirkinson writes.

In the interview — full transcript here — Obama discussed income inequality, said he would approve the Keystone XL pipeline “only if it does not ‘significantly exacerbate’ the problem of carbon pollution” and vowed to implement Obamacare. All newsworthy, all wrung from a 40-minute interview.

But Calmes and Shear showed what must have been superhuman forbearance by not asking Obama about his administration’s pursuit of reporters’ phone records, prosecution of leakers, or its insistence that Times reporter James Risen should testify in a leak case. Read more

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White House photographer Pete Souza joins Instagram

White House photographer Pete Souza joined Instagram Wednesday, kicking off his feed with — what else — a food pic. Of course, the food he depicts is available on Air Force One, which some of you may find more interesting than your lunchtime burrito.

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Helen Thomas

Remembering longtime journalist Helen Thomas

Longtime White House journalist Helen Thomas died Saturday at age 92. Thomas worked for United Press International for 57 years and covered every president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama. She was a columnist for Hearst Newspapers between 2000 and 2010.

Helen Thomas in her front-row seat.

Thomas was a pioneer for female reporters. She was the first woman to break away from the “White House women’s beat”; instead of writing about presidents’ kids and wives, Thomas wrote hard news stories alongside men. Additionally, she was the White House Correspondents’ Association’s first female president.

The Associated Press reports:

She also pushed open the doors for women at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. At her urging, Kennedy refused to attend the 1962 dinner unless it was open to women for the first time. The tactic worked. More than a decade later, Thomas was the first woman to serve as the association’s president.

“Women and men who’ve followed in the press corps all owe a debt of gratitude for the work Helen did and the doors she opened,” Steven Thomma, the association’s current president said in a statement Saturday. “All of our journalism is the better for it.”

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White House uses embargoes as yet another way to drive reporters crazy

The Washington Post

The White House “uses embargoes mainly to try to manage the news,” New York Times reporter Peter Baker tells Paul Farhi.

“It will put out some small scrap of information, usually previewing an event to be held the next day, and embargo it to 6 a.m. That way it can help drive coverage starting at the beginning of the day on the morning shows and Web sites. It’s a way of trying to manipulate the fast currents of the modern news cycle.”

Baker also says the White House never “asks if we agree to an embargo. They’re just sent out to mass e-mail lists with the assumption that if we receive it, we agree to it.” Read more

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Michael Hastings

Friends, colleagues remember Michael Hastings

The reporter Michael Hastings died Tuesday, BuzzFeed and Rolling Stone reported.

He knew how to tell it,” BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith writes.

He knew that there are certain truths that nobody has an interest in speaking, ones that will make both your subjects and their enemies uncomfortable. They’re stories that don’t get told because nobody in power has much of an interest in telling them — the story, for instance, of how a president is getting rolled by his generals.

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How the Washington Post made its election-predictor tool

Source | Washington Post

NPR news apps developer Jeremy Bowers discusses in Knight-Mozilla OpenNews’ Source the legwork that went into the Washington Post’s election predictor app.

Bowers worked with the Post’s Ezra Klein and graphics editor Emily Chow to produce the tool, which launched in April 2012 using economic data models from to predict the likelihood of President Obama being re-elected. In the essay, Bowers says the work of political science professors John Sides at George Washington University, Lynn Vavreck at UCLA, and Seth Hill at Yale (now of UC-San Diego) was integral to the process. Read more

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