broadsideblog

Posts Tagged ‘On The Media’

Should Reporters Burn Bridges (Hastings And McChrystal) Or Stay Mum To Retain Access?

In Media, the military on June 28, 2010 at 8:15 am
Jamie McIntyre

Jamie McIntyre.Image via Wikipedia

This was the question debated yesterday on “On The Media”, a weekly show on NPR — should Michael Hastings (a True/Slant writer) have told McChrystal’s story in all its gory, insubordinate detail?

The show interviewed Jamie McIntyre, a former Pentagon correspondent, who lauded Hastings for his work, but raised the larger question every reporter knows — trading off not reporting everything you see and hear (racist or stupid or off-color or sexist remarks) while covering a beat (a specialty area) in order for your sources to remain comfortable with you and confident you won’t make them look bad publicly. Then, the deal goes, they will tell you important things, maybe first, maybe even exclusively.

McIntyre called it, which it is, reporters’ “dirty little secret.”

The trade-off is short-term pain (keeping your mouth shut) for long-term gain (scoops.)

Is this a good idea? Bad idea?

For any reporter who needs access to sources, as any beat reporter does, it’s like asking if they should take notes or return calls. You can’t torch every bridge the minute you’ve crossed it. Not only will you never be able to access that source again, but you’ve scared off all your others: if s/he did it to them, why wouldn’t they do it to me as well?

Part of the drama, for journalists, is feeling annoyed that Hastings broke the rules…David Brooks slapped his wrist in The New York Times for participating in a “culture of exposure.” (So much better than the how they play inside the Beltway?):

During World War II and the years just after, a culture of reticence prevailed. The basic view was that human beings are sinful, flawed and fallen. What mattered most was whether people could overcome their flaws and do their duty as soldiers, politicians and public servants. Reporters suppressed private information and reported mostly — and maybe too gently — on public duties.

Then, in 1961, Theodore H. White began his “The Making of the President” book series. This series treated the people who worked inside the boiler rooms of government as the star players. It put the inner dramas at center stage.

Then, after Vietnam, an ethos of exposure swept the culture. The assumption among many journalists was that the establishment may seem upstanding, but there is a secret corruption deep down. It became the task of journalism to expose the underbelly of public life, to hunt for impurity, assuming that the dark hidden lives of public officials were more important than the official performances.

Then came cable, the Internet, and the profusion of media sources. Now you have outlets, shows and Web sites whose only real interest is the kvetching and inside baseball.

In other words, over the course of 50 years, what had once been considered the least important part of government became the most important. These days, the inner soap opera is the most discussed and the most fraught arena of political life.

Brooks candidly admits he couldn’t do his job without keeping mum. Most writers with any serious access know these unwritten, unspoken rules. They play by them.

Perhaps most importantly, they savage those too stupid, bold or naive to break them.

Pack journalism, which denotes the safety of traveling in numbers, also reflects another reality: like a posse of wolves, they can, and will, turn on the maverick among them and tear them to shreds for their temerity for breaking from the pack and its group behaviors.

(I lived through this, at Michael’s age, when I wrote two front-page stories about Queen Elizabeth, who I had followed on tour for two weeks, for The Globe and Mail. An enormous international press pack had followed her, as I had. But in both of these stories, I said and reported things that breached standard protocol — and was pilloried for it. I knew some of my competitors were getting their butts kicked hard for not reporting as I had, so it was an easy out to accuse me of lying and making some of it up. I have never felt so much professional stress, then or since.)

Here’s another take on it:

But in the wake of the firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as Afghan commander over intemperate remarks to Rolling Stone magazine, Pentagon officials are concerned the military may recoil in fear and anger from the press.

The chill couldn’t come at a more inopportune time for the Pentagon’s leadership, with skepticism about the war’s progress growing among U.S. politicians and officials in Afghanistan ahead of what is likely to be the war’s most important operation, the imminent move by thousands of U.S. forces into Kandahar, the spiritual heartland of the Taliban.

“If we recoil, if we go underground, if we get defensive, it’s self-defeating,” said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary. “We need to remain as engaged as ever, if not more so because we are at a crucial point in this war.”

Freelancers, who often jump from story to story, subject to subject, freelance to job back to freelance to fellowship to book, owe allegiance only to their conscience, bank balance and career ambitions. Untethered to a beat, a set of specific editors and a publication or broadcast outlet who also wants to consistently, accurately beat the competition, freelancers are — free — to behave as they, and their editors, see fit.

Wanna Hear What I Really Think? Got $6,000?

In business, Crime, Media on May 13, 2010 at 3:06 pm
Money

Image by AMagill via Flickr

So much for “free” speech.

Just got off the phone with an agent who sells “E and O” — errors and omissions insurance — as I start to figure out how to protect my ass(ets) as a writer. He’s sending me several applications, one of which, the multimedia version, is really long. Of course it is!

The joy of “independent writing”? Anyone can sue us anytime. The latest darling of the suit-happy are SLAPP suits — Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. Which means, unless you work on staff for a Big Media Company (with in-house staff attorneys whose highly-paid job it is to protect you and, more importantly, your employer) you’re toast, baby.

More and more, writers are strong-armed into signing contracts that leave us holding the bag in case someone we cover sues the media outlet for whom we’ve done the — freelance — work.

There’s no better way to make sure we write about puppies and kittens and rainbows than knowing one false move can mean our IRAs are going to get garnisheed in a settlement. The saber-rattling by those with very deep pockets – hmmmm, the wealthy and powerful? — means many of us slap duct tape over our mouths every morning, no matter what madness and malfeasance we discover.

“Independence” is a relative term.

One lawyer I spoke to, knowing the writing life, (beyond lucrative TV and film), delicately inquired, “Do you have any assets?” The answer, having worked long and hard and been really disciplined about driving clapped-out old cars and wearing (mostly) consignment shop shoes is “Yes.” I save 15 percent of my income every year, even when that income is so small I think: “Why bother?”

And, this being the U.S, a nuisance lawsuit is both nauseating and much more probable than I’d like.

Suiting up, then, is quite the challenge, requiring the (paid) services and advice and expertise of my accountant (becoming a company); an attorney (making sure it’s all done properly) and an insurance agent. Unlike car or home insurance, I can’t cough up that dough each month — it’s one lump sum, on my income, a fortune. There is cheaper insurance but — funny thing!– it’s capped at a much lower amount.

Why should you care?

Every day, there are posts I don’t write — or write and don’t publish — because, who needs it? Like many of my colleagues, I’ve got other things to worry about without some $$$$$-mad aggrieved plaintiff ruining my life. That costs you, dear readers, because there’s all sorts of (interesting) stuff it simply isn’t worth mentioning, for fear of such a suit. I know, personally, other independent writers backing away slowly, if regretfully, from smart, incisive, tough, investigative work for this very reason.

Believe it or not, not every writer wants to focus on all-fluff-all the time. But without a safety net, you can’t safely leap too far.

I’m thinking of setting up a Paypal account — you really want my unvarnished opinions? Help me speak truth to power, and not lose my home/assets/savings in the process.

Answering Questions Without A Clue — Aka Male Answer Syndrome

In behavior, Crime, men on April 15, 2010 at 11:00 am
Personification of knowledge (Greek Επιστημη, ...

A statue of knowledge...boy or girl? Image via Wikipedia

Here’s a phrase new to me — although certainly not the behavior it describes — male answer syndrome. This weekend, the NPR show On The Media will examine this habit of answering a question with great certainty even when you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Girls and women generally don’t do this. Most of us loathe looking stupid. We also learn the odds are good that when a woman speaks out loud and clear she’s going to be ignored, shouted down or challenged — depending how testosterone-soaked the atmosphere. So before you open your mouth, you want to be fairly sure you know what the hell you are talking about. Fact-checking on your Blackberry mid-sentence, in my view, is lame.

The point of confidence is putting it out there and seeing what happens. The underlying assumption — am I right? (she asked in a female sort of way) — is that no one will challenge you if you bluster hard and loudly enough. An air of utter confidence can tend to intimidate many people.

I’ve seen it in its most toxic form, thanks to a con man (ex-felon) I dated a decade ago; “con” is short for “confidence”, both that which they so successfully radiate and cultivating their victims’ crucial confidence in them and their usurious schemes. You don’t reap the harvest without a healthy supply of seeds.

He started out in Chicago, handing out business cards covered in fancy acronyms, pretending to be a doctor. Anyone who actually knew medicine — and he chose his victims carefully — would know in a heartbeat the guy was a total liar. But so persuasive was his act that he got a local sports car dealership to send over (!) a vehicle on approval, got a bunch of women to agree to marriage thanks to the glittering CZ he slapped on their gullible fingers, then moved to New York and started all over again, this time pretending to be a lawyer.

From its first iteration, a piece by Jane Campbell in Details, 1991:

ut Male Answer Syndrome (MAS) is by no means harmless, as my friend Pauline discovered at the age of 8. She had found that eating icecream made her teeth hurt and asked her father if Eskimos had the same problem. “No”, he said. “They have rubber teeth”. Pauline repeated this information in a geography lesson and found herself the laughing stock of the class. That was how she learned that a man, even if he is your own father, would rather make up an answer than admit to his own ignorance.

Later in life women run into the same problem: Men can speak with such conviction that women may be fooled into thinking that they actually know what they are talking about.

A woman who finds herself in the midst of an impassioned argument about glasnost may suffer from an eerie sense of displacement. Has a weird time-space warp landed her in the Kremlin? No, she’s in the mailroom with Dave and Bob, who she knows for a fact read only the sports pages.

My friend Jeff (he of the Harley) is full of expertise on subjects as diverse as global warming and Elvis’ current whereabouts. In reality however, he is an expert at only one thing: making a little knowledge go a very long way. For him answering is a game, and not knowing what he is talking about just adds to the thrill.

Expressing skepticism can be highly inflammatory. Even mild-mannered Abe Lincoln types may react to “Are you sure about that?” as a vicious slur on their manhood and find themselves backing up a ludicrous assertion with spurious facts.

It took me a while to notice a variation of this pattern, most evident in my ex-husband, a medical student when we met and who became a psychiatrist. When he didn’t know the answer to something, he’d say, “I’m not sure.” He was sure, all right. He didn’t want to admit ignorance, so the dreaded words “I don’t know” never passed his lips, at least in his private life. While few patients want their doctor to say “I don’t know”, it’s a useful phrase when it’s actually true.

“Are we out of milk?” is a fairly safe question, for example. A simple yes or no would suffice.

Gentlemen, is this part of your verbal repertoire?

Ladies, what do you do, if anything, in the face of it?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 11,003 other followers