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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

WikiLeaks and Journalism

At first glance one might think that journalists should be thankful that something like the 4 year-old WikiLeaks media organization exists. After all, WikiLeaks, the international non-profit media organization, publishes otherwise unavailable documents from anonymous sources and leaks.

WikiLeaks, which is lead by Australian Internet activist Julian Assange, has won a number of awards from organizations such as Amnesty International and the U.K.'s Economist Magazine and this year was a finalist for $500K in funding from the prestigious John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

WikiLeaks was back in the news again in a big way this past Sunday when it began publishing 251,287 leaked United States embassy cables, the largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain. The documents will give people around the world an unprecedented insight into the international activities of the U.S. Government.

Journalists worth their salt have an intuitive understanding of that kind of activity. Many of us, at one time or another have obtained information from confidential government and embassy sources that helped us better understand and report a story. I certainly did during the Vietnam War and in places like El Salvador, Guatemala, Argentina, Chile, China, Mexico, etc.

But there is a fine line between obtaining sensitive information from an anonymous government source and publishing information that could result in the exposure and death of people in places where freedom of the press is viewed as a liability and not a right. In this case, some of the information released by WikiLeaks could do serious damage to U.S. intelligence gathering efforts by putting highly vulnerable foreign sources in danger.

When I talked with secret U.S. and foreign government sources in Asia and Latin America I made sure these people could not be identified in my stories. When I met with them I took byzantine-like precautions in finding a safe meeting place. I knew that to do anything less could result in their arrest, torture or worse, their deaths.

We don't know yet just what impact the cables published by WikiLeaks will have on those who can be identified. The cables date from 1966 through the end of February this year and contain confidential communications between 274 embassies in countries throughout the world and the State Department in Washington DC. A significant number (15,652) of the cables are classified "Secret." Another 101,748 are classified "confidential."

The cables show the extent of US spying on its allies and the UN; turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuse in "client states"; backroom deals with supposedly neutral countries; lobbying for US corporations; and the measures US diplomats take to advance those who have access to them.

But most of all the documents reveal the contradictions between the US government's public persona and what it says behind closed doors. There is nothing shocking here. It's called "diplomacy." Every nation in the world practices it and every nation in world spies on its "allies."

I learned these lessons during my days in the U.S. Army intelligence community when I carried a Top Secret and Crypto Security Clearance. Embassies are notorious centers of intelligence gathering. Political and Economic Sections gather and analyze information on their host nations every day.

Of course most of that information is carefully guarded and never undergoes the scrutiny of the press, the public or an outfit like WikiLeaks.

All that changed when Pfc. Bradley Manning, who stands accused of stealing the classified files from Siprnet, handed them over to Julian Assange. The question many might have is how Pfc. Manning obtained access to these files in the first place? How does a young, low-level Army intelligence analyst gain access to a computer with hundreds of thousands of classified documents from all over the world?

The answer, apparently, is that those in the State Department or the U.S. military intelligence community can access these archives if they have: (1) a computer connected to Siprnet, and (2) a “secret” security clearance.

As Manning told a fellow hacker: “I would come in with music on a CD-RW labeled with something like ‘Lady Gaga’ … erase the music … then write a compressed split file. No one suspected a thing… [I] listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone’ while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history.” Manning said he “had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months.”

So what does that say about the U.S. State Department and its ability to protect sensitive information? To me that is the real story here. As a journalist I would like to know just how the classic "need to know" dictum in the intelligence community was ignored or violated.

One of the first things we were taught in the Army Security Agency, which worked with the National Security Agency, was that information is made available only on a "need to know" basis. If you could not demonstrate a need to know something, you were not going to have access to that information.

Did Manning demonstrate a "need to know?" If not, how did he gain access to the database containing these sensitive cables?

The answer to that question will ultimately be learned during Manning's trial. Nevertheless, the fact that these supposedly “confidential” cables were so effortlessly leaked reveals the inexcusable incompetence of our cumbersome national security establishment.

Indeed, this week's episode involving WikiLeaks says as much about U.S. government ineptitude as it does about U.S. government policy.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Old Media vs. New Media

The other day I was listening to an NPR show called Talk of the Nation during which several current issues in journalism were broached. Among them were such things as the concept of reportorial objectivity, the dearth of foreign news bureaus staffed by trained professionals and the idea that individuals themselves are better able to gather news they want than allowing editors and producers to select it for them.

These are all critical questions and ones that journalists and journalism educators have been discussing for years.

In this case, former Nightline host Ted Koppel, who was representing what some call "old media", was squaring off against Jeff Jarvis, a media critic and director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York.

Koppel was making a point that goes to the heart of all of these issues: objectivity, the decline in sustained international news coverage and the "Internetization" of journalism.

Here is what he said:

"We now live in a cable news universe that celebrates the opinions of Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, individuals who hold up the twin pillars of political partisanship and were encouraged to do so by their parent organizations because their brand of analysis and commentary is highly profitable. Beginning perhaps from the reasonable perspective that absolute objectivity is unobtainable; Fox News and MSNBC no longer even attempt it.

"It has to do with the corporations that own those two networks and their interest in making money. And operating foreign bureaus, for example - whether they're operated the way they used to be run 20 or 30 years ago or whether there is some new and better way of operating them - is not the issue. They're expensive and, as I said talk is cheap.

"And the fact that you have these many voices on cable television, in effect, debating one another day in and day out, is an inexpensive way of attracting an audience and making money. And that's why they're there - not because of any search for a new, brighter form of journalism."

Amen. These programs have nothing to do with journalism. They are places where people can rant and pontificate ad nauseam. The people who sit behind the desks are journalists in name only. Few have actually spent much time working in a newsroom and if they did, it was likely brief and in the case of TV talent, they were little more than talking heads.

There was another discussion about foreign news and the fact that U.S. networks and newspapers have severely degraded and in most cases, shut down foreign bureaus. Why? Because they are expensive and, according to the green eye shade people who run today's news organizations, they are simply not cost effective as "profit centers."

At the Chicago Tribune (my home for some 27 years) and other places with foreign bureaus, it was common knowledge that the bean counters would divide the cost of operating a foreign bureau by the number of stories produced. That gave the bottom-liners a number they could use to show how much each story from Tokyo or Buenos Aires or Nairobi cost in relation to those produced locally or regionally.

Was there any doubt that the foreign stories cost a lot more? Not at all. But that is not why news organizations had bureaus back in the old media days. There were a couple reasons. First, it was considered prestigious to have one's own correspondent covering events from afar. But second, and most important, the people who ran news organizations back during the "old media" days were journalists--often former foreign correspondents themselves or editors who believed it was the news organization's responsibility to provide international news to their reading or viewing publics.

Today, many news organizations have opted to use "local talent" to cover foreign news. In other words, they hire a Chinese reporter to cover news in China or a Russian to cover news in Russia. This is usually much less expensive and as "New Media" mavens like Jarvis told Koppel on the NPR program: "We have people who actually know the territory and are natives. Do you think we have to have Americans tell Americans the news?"

Here is how the exchange went after that:

KOPPEL: I would like to have American reporters conveying the news to Americans, yes.

JARVIS: Whoa. That seems like a kind of strange bit of xenophobia, journalistic xenophobia. I would love to have people - I love being able to go to blogs and elsewhere and read the people who are in Iraq and in Iran explain it to me far better than someone who just jetted in.

KOPPEL: You're making precisely my point. I don't want someone who just jetted in. I want someone who's lived there for two or three years, speaks the local language, and knows something about it.

JARVIS: How about someone who's lived there for 40 or 50 years and truly understands it and can use these magnificent new tools - which you still haven't answered for me. What do you think of the new tools? Do you see new hope for journalism here?

KOPPEL: I don't see new hope for journalism; I see new hope for the exchange of information. But you haven't responded to my part, which is unless one knows the provenance of the information, unless I know who's putting the information out, I can't judge the validity of that.

And that is why having American correspondents on the ground is so important. When I was covering places like China, S.E. Asia, Latin America, etc. I made sure I knew who was putting out information. I was also not afraid to push officials for it or to demand that they verify some point or another. However, a Chinese reporter working in Beijing is putting his or her life on the line or at least risking prison time doing something like that.

So, if the world of New Media is about "exchanging information," that is fine. However, it is NOT journalism in any sense of the word. People who do journalism are, for the most part, professionals who take their jobs seriously. In fact, as one of my professors once said: "You don't think of journalism as a job. It is a calling. It carries serious responsibility with it. People depend on you for accurate, unbiased information."

There are, of course, those professionals who are less professional than others. It's the same with attorneys, the clergy, teachers and yes, even politicians. There is a reason that journalism is the only business that is protected by a Constitutional Amendment.

Those who founded this nation had no idea that something called The Internet would emerge as a global force for information exchange, but they did understand the value of a free and independent press and its value as a "fourth estate" with the responsibility to be a watchdog of government and to be a open market for the free exchange of ideas.

Bloggers, tweeters, information exchangers and bombastic talking heads on TV are not part of that fourth estate. They are the back benchers of journalism. They can fulminate, blame and pontificate, but they will never break a story that results in a Pulitzer Prize or a Peabody Award. They aren't interested in producing compelling journalism.

That's not their job. Their job is to preach to their choirs--to bring forth opinions and judgments that coincide with the attitudes and values of their slavish audiences--be they liberal or conservative.

And that, my friends, is NOT journalism.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Blurring of News and Opinion

Those of us who have been in the news business for more than a few years (for me it's more than 30 years) have learned a hard truth in the past decade or so: There has been an obvious blurring of the lines between what we learned journalism should be and what it has become.

Coming as I did as a neophyte into the cavernous news room of the Chicago Tribune back in 1969 right out of college, I had editors who made sure that I didn't stray from accurate, evenhanded and unbiased reporting into opinion and rumor. When I did, I got my wrist slapped.

That's what happened last week to MSNBC's Keith Olbermann when it was determined that he donated money to various liberal political campaigns. Olbermann was suspended from his Countdown show on MSNBC for (gasp) two whole days and reinstated this week.

Not surprising. Olbermann gets paid to blather--primarily attacking anybody who is right of the middle and doing it in a particularly vicious, often vile and hateful way.

He is broadcasting's version of recently defeated Democrat Rep. Alan Grayson, who you will recall said in a House floor speech that the Republican's healthcare plan was for senior citizens to "die quickly."

When I was learning how to be a reporter (something I don't believe Olbermann ever did) we were exhorted to strive for objectivity in our reporting. We knew there was no such thing as a purely objective reporter. All of us have biases and are more than likely predisposed to have prejudices one way or the other in dealing with events, sources, issues, etc.

What saddens me today is that with the enormous influence of cable and cable news shows that purport to report stories as objectively as possible, the viewing public has trouble discerning between news and opinion. The strict separation between news and opinion is simply vanishing.

The Olbermann case is an example of that. Old time newsmen such as Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, Harry Reasoner, etc. would never have committed such a faux pas. Why? Because doing so would have undermined their credibility as professional journalists. And once journalists lose their credibility, they have lost everything.

When he returned to air Tuesday, Olbermann said there needed to be a debate about journalists and political donations and that it needs to be adapted to the "realities of 21st Century journalism."

I beg to differ. The realities of 21st Century journalism should mirror those of 20th Century journalism--good journalism needs to be a watchdog on government and elected officials; it needs to be as objective and impartial as possible and there should be no doubt where news ends and opinion begins.

One of the first rules I learned after joining the Chicago Tribune was that I was not allowed to engage in any kind of local politics--including joining the local school board. While reporters were allowed to belong to political parties, we were not allowed to work for any candidates or to express any open support for them. We were supposed to be independent observers, otherwise how could our reporting be trusted?

The question that has to be asked is this: Is Keith Olbermann a journalist? I think not. He is paid to be a provocative pundit/commentator yet here he was anchoring MSNBC 's election night coverage November 2.

Were he a real journalist he would have known that in order to maintain any kind of journalistic credibility at all he could not give money to any political candidate.

But Olbermann could care less about journalistic credibility because he is simply NOT a journalist. He doesn't pretend to be impartial. He is a committed left winger who makes no apologies about it.

So should he have been suspended? Probably not. What needed to happen is for somebody at MSNBC to step up and tell it like it is: Olbermann is not an impartial reporter. He is paid to share his left-wing biases with his like-minded audience, in much the same way that Sean Hannity is paid by the Fox Network to share his conservative bent with his audience.

I have never heard Hannity claim to be an impartial journalist. Fox's Bill O'Reilly and Glen Beck are paid commentators, not reporters. One watches those shows knowing that the emphasis is not on impartiality, but on opinion.

Yet, Fox News gets slammed again and again for being "unfair." I think Fox's news coverage is as fair as any of the other cable networks (certainly MSNBC's).

What the viewing public has to learn to do is discern between the line-up of opinion shows and the time given to reporting news. That goes for all cable and broadcast networks.

Unfortunately, with the blurring of the lines between news and opinion in the reporting process, that continues to be a challenge for most viewers and readers.

On the other hand, it may be that the viewing and reading public really doesn't care if stories are slanted and biased as long as they are slanted and biased in the direction they themselves lean, left or right.

I hope that is not the case. If professional journalists and news organizations cannot or will not provide unbiased news that will allow a citizenry to make informed choices and decisions then I fear our democracy is in terrible danger.