Saturday, September 29, 2012

WSJ forgets the rule: Opinions, yes. Connections, no

According to Media Matters, the august Wall Street Journal failed to disclose that a number of their op-ed writers, who roundly castigated the President and praised his opponent, were also advisors to the Romney campaign.  From the piece:
In a total of 23 pieces, the op-ed writers attacked President Obama or praised Romney without the paper acknowledging their Romney connections.
Shameful.  Or shameless.  Not sure which.

There's no problem with op-ed writers, as opposed to news reporters, voicing their opinion and taking sides.  What's at issue is transparency.  If you're directly involved with the candidate, organization, issue that you are, um, pimping, you darn well need to let the reader know.  Which is what a number of opinion page editors contacted by Media Mattters had to say.  here's a taste:

Nicholas Goldberg, Los Angeles Times editorial page editor since 2009, said that providing transparency for the relationships of op-ed writers is "absolutely essential."  
"Op-ed writers aren't supposed to be objective or to have no stake in the subjects they're writing about," he explained. "But when a writer does have a particular relationship to his subject that is not immediately apparent to the reader, it is important to disclose that so that the reader can evaluate the argument intelligently."
Max Frankel, a former New York Times executive editor and editorial page editor, called the lack of disclosure "shameless."
"They ought to put a banner saying Romney has approved of this page," Frankel said of the Journal. "It looks like The Wall Street Journal editorial and op ed pages have enlisted in the campaign. They should be disclosing that, that makes it outrageous, it is not a mistake or a slip up, it is a matter of policy to be deplored. The page is shameless, not interested in multiple points of view."
He added that his own paper had established policies to prevent such failures: "We had a standard inquiry of people writing as to whether they had any conflict on this subject or this position that you are taking, we questioned them. If they did, I don't remember publishing pieces with a conflict of this flagrant sort. If you are going to let the campaign speak, you say this is from the campaign."
Read more here.  And thanks, Hilary Tone, for the link.  bk

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Writing about Poverty: For 141

Go here for an interview with Pullitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo, who discusses the ethical dilemmas she encountered in writing about poverty in her book about a family, living in a slum in Mumbai, and struggling to get out of poverty.  The book is Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

Here's a taste of that interview:

When I pick a story, I’m very much aware of the larger issues that it’s illuminating. But one of the things that I, as a writer, feel strongly about is that nobody is representative. That’s just narrative nonsense. People may be part of a larger story or structure or institution, but they’re still people. Making them representative loses sight of that. Which is why a lot of writing about low-income people makes them into saints, perfect in their suffering. But you take Abdul, for instance. He’s diffident, he’s selfish, he’s not very verbal. Even his own family considers him charmless. But when the reader meets him, they sense he’s a real person, that he’s not a construct. And even Manju—who’s good and generous in many ways—she’s good and generous as a way of getting back at her mother. The more righteous she can be, the better she can stick it to her mom. So you try to let the reader have a sense of this person and soul, as a recognizable human.
The hope is for the reader to engage with them as individuals and see how these people really do get around social obstacles, when there is a limited distribution of opportunities, when there are institutional problems, be it police corruption or poor public hospitals and schools. I don’t think readers will get invested in what potential is being squandered if they don’t engage with the people in the story as individuals. When you have a kid who is killed, I want the reader to feel what I felt and what the people of Annawadi felt, and because of that, get involved in the problems of criminal or social justice.
And that's the point: as writers, our job is to help our readers engage with the people in our stories and books as individuals. That's how we slap the debate on the table. bk

To quote or not to quote...

That is always the question.  But there's a new wrinkle, according to this piece in Monday's New York Times by media writer David Carr.  He is disturbed by the increasing practice of news sources insisting on reviewing their quotes before publication.  He calls it "The Puppetry of Quotation Approval".  Read the whole column here.

Here's a taste:
Within the past year, I’ve had a communications executive at a media company ask me to run quotations by him after an interview with the chief executive. I’ve had analysts, who are in the business of giving their opinion, ask me to e-mail the portion of the conversation that I intended to print. And not long ago, a spokesman, someone paid to talk, refused to put his name to a statement. Most of the time I push back, but if it’s something I feel I absolutely need, I start negotiating.
As someone who has covered Hollywood, I can’t begin to catalog the number of distasteful communications customs in that industry. And reporters I spoke to said Wall Street companies have been trying to negotiate quotations for a decade, in part because one poorly chosen word could cost millions or even billions. But now it is leaking into all corners of the kingdom.
Including government and politics.  And there's something else that can kill the truth of a story:  email interviews.  More from Carr:
But something else more modern and insidious is under way. In an effort to get it first, reporters sometimes cut corners, sending questions by e-mail and taking responses the same way. What is lost is the back-and-forth, the follow-up question, the possibility that something unrehearsed will make it into the article. Keep in mind that when public figures get in trouble for something they said, it is usually not because they misspoke, but because they accidentally told the truth.
All of which tends to serve the source, rather than the public interest.  Trouble, yes? Especially in an election season.  Back to Carr for the last word(s):
It may seem obvious, but it is still worth stating: The first draft of history should not be rewritten by the people who make it.
 Indeed.  bk