leah letter

Access journalism is not for you or me

It too often reports bullshit without identifying the source of the bullshit. And that's bullshit.
leah letter

Access journalism is not for you or me

It too often reports bullshit without identifying the source of the bullshit. And that's bullshit.

A great form of Twitter beef is when journalists from rivaling publications fight over how to do journalism. Over the weekend there was a good tiff between Scott Wilson, the national editor at The Washington Post, and Will Saletan, the national correspondent at Slate. The argument concerned a New York Times story on the secret phone line Jared Kushner wanted to install to Russia, a scoop that the Post broke at 7 p.m. Friday night. Three hours later, the Times published its version of the Post’s story, notable for painting Kushner in a slightly better light with what it appeared to be adding to the narrative: the justification that Kushner wanted the phone line to discuss “strategy in Syria and other policy issues” with Russian officials.

The sources for the Times story were “three people with knowledge of the discussion,” which could theoretically be anyone from White House tour guides to Kushner, Michael Flynn, and Sergey Kislyak themselves. But because the Times only identifies the sources as “people” — as opposed to government sources, or White House sources, or any descriptor that would give the reader more of an idea where the quotes are coming from — the reader is perhaps left more in the dark after reading the article than before. Predictably, this made some other “people” — not to be confused with the “people” quoted in the article, but who knows! — mad.

So what happened on Righteous Nerd Twitter after these stories dropped? Let’s dissect the tussle between Saletan, who is playing for the Times, and Wilson, who is arguing for the hypothetical reader who has been wronged by overuse of anonymous sourcing.

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It all started with a gentle mansplain/scold from Saletan about “how reporting works."

Yes, we know. We have seen Spotlight. Wilson then jumped in, questioning how Saletan came to the conclusion that the Times was reporting “Kushner’s account” when the article did not explicitly say it was quoting anyone from the Kushner camp, just those “three people with knowledge of the discussion” who, again, could conceivably be any sentient humans. Saletan in turn dug in his heels, tweeting, “Sorry, I’m shorthanding. I mean Kushner’s side of the story (which it pretty clearly is), as conveyed by the sources, whoever they are.”

But Saletan fell right into Wilson’s trap: In scolding his Twitter audience for “bashing” the Times for reporting Kushner’s line, Saletan promulgated the easily made assumption that the Times is reporting Kushner’s line to begin with, even though the story never confirms this. But while some readers might conclude that the sources have a pro-Kushner bias, others may surmise that the sources are impartial. Because honestly, how much work should it be to read a newspaper article.

Vague language only ever serves to obfuscate. It’s also the sign of a bad, misleading, and perhaps dangerous story, a perception to which Wilson alluded.

Predictably, Saletan deflected from here, tweeting, “How is this different from what the Post does? Who are the ‘nine current and former officials’ who outed Flynn? Who do they even work for?”

Okay, fair. Wilson said that the Post identified its sources as “current and former U.S. government officials,” which is a little better than just saying you talked to “three people with knowledge of the issue.” But then Wilson dropped a bombshell of sorts: The Post also talked to the “people” the Times cited and chose not to publish their remarks because they would not go on the record saying they were associated with Kushner (or were Jared Kushner).

Damn! This is getting good. Look at all those retweets. Saletan — I’m starting to feel bad for him — continued to grasp at straws. Has he not heard the phrase “to assume makes an ass out of u and me.”

Wilson went on to imply that the Times’ fast and loose sourcing makes it easier for lies to spread.

Still with me? There’s more! This next exchange is really good. If I were writing a blog post about it for the Huffington Post circa 2011, I would go with the headline, “Wilson SLAMS Saletan in Twitter Fight About Journalistic ETHICS (PHOTOS).”

Another explosive tweet. So is what Wilson is saying true, that the Times is quoting Trump flunkies and passing off their quotes as if they are impartial observers and not literally Jared Kushner, Michael Flynn, and Sergey Kislyak? And is this happening at the expense of their readers? Seems that way! Is this a problem? Yes. Are you tired of reading these tweets? Me too.

To understand why shit like the Times article gets printed we must first look into the mystical journalistic psyche. Reporters, especially political reporters, tend to be sycophants. This is an essential part of their job, which is sucking up to people in power and wanting to feel special even though if they were really smart they would be making a lot more money as corporate lawyers. But sycophancy leads them into journalism, where it comes with the patina of righteousness, so it seems “important.”

This is a very dangerous combination, and it has played out again and again in disastrous ways at the Times especially. A tour through the Vanity Fair archives will provide you with hours of reading material on Judith Miller, Jayson Blair, and various other scandals in which we see how a mammoth institution can get so wrapped up in itself that it loses sight of its purpose. The Miller affair will forever illustrate the paper’s rich history of not only believing people in power, but protecting their identities even when they are wrong or lying. I fear we are watching this happen again, in real time, with Trump.

The lead byline on the Times’ Kushner story belongs to Maggie Haberman, who has become something of a folk hero in the Trump era. Haberman has been roundly commended in several glowing profiles for her dedication to “fairness” in covering Trump, which is interesting, because the notion of fairness in journalism more often than not means yielding to power. We can “trust” a reporter to be fair — to tell us what a politician is doing or saying, or maybe even give us a little window into his rotten soul — but that does not end up mattering very much when what the politician is telling the reporter is a load of horseshit and the politician himself is Lucifer come to life.

We saw this deference to power from Haberman back in November, when Mike Pence was booed at a performance of Hamilton, which was actually a very funny and nice thing that happened. Haberman, on Twitter, noted that the booing indicated a “level of disrespect” since Pence was, at the time, the vice president-elect. One could say this was Haberman simply reporting on cultural trends in respecting the vice president. But her comment also indicated a clear bias, not to mention a regard for the perceived niceties to which those in power have traditionally been entitled: The vice president, however ghoulish, deserves our esteem no matter how many women’s lives he has ruined, and booing him is not funny (I guess we live in Thailand now). Can a reporter be fair if she thinks the vice president, by all accounts a lumbering ignoramus, merits respect? Hmm...

The notion of being "fair" is bullshit.

Another Haberman tweet rankled as well. Ahead of Trump’s visit with the pope last week, Haberman commented on how Press Secretary Sean Spicer, a practicing Catholic, would not get to meet His Holiness. “This seems needlessly harsh — when else is Spicer likely to meet the Pope, and it mattered to him?” she tweeted. Respectfully — who the fuck cares if a preening idiot who routinely lies to the press and thought Nazi death camps were called “Holocaust centers” gets to meet the pope? Unfortunately, this is the vantage point from which too many political reporters function: looking at their beat with a type of myopic respect that blinds them to the fact that what they’re reporting might have real-world consequences.

Haberman is not the only Times reporter making a concerted effort to gravely and reverentially cover the stupidest president in American history; I don’t mean to single her out but her tweets are really bad. Let’s look at someone else. On Sunday, Mark Landler, the paper’s White House correspondent, wrote a love letter to Melania Trump on the occasion of her first state visit abroad, during which she awkwardly convened with the pope while dressed like a widow, did a press-friendly visit to a children’s hospital, and wore a $50,000 coat. Landler compares Melania to Jackie Kennedy, writing that she was one of the trip’s “most intriguing figures, at times sphinx-like, at times expressive, and always fashionable… she was the supporting player who occasionally stole the spotlight.” In the coming weeks, be on the lookout for an A1 story on how Melania’s “soft power” is helping to influence her husband’s governing.

A recognition of the narrow field of vision that determines what gets reported is necessary when reading political coverage, especially when we consider articles like the Times’ Kushner piece, which report bullshit without identifying the source of the bullshit (we must also remember the sinister notion that anonymous sources use journalists as much as journalists use them. Who is ultimately getting used? No one even knows!). There are places that do this kind of reporting better and more responsibly than others. The Times is not one of those places, but they do offer great coverage of Glenn Beck’s watch collection.

Okay, one more tweet, kind of off-topic but it’s really good.

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