Time to be smart, not a smartass

HedgeFundFlouting convention has its uses. An outrageous image can provoke debate, prompt action or, at a minimum, win attention. And all those things are vital to any media organization in our infoglutted age. When so many magazines vie for notice, after all, it takes a lot to grab a reader’s eye on a crowded newsstand, stand out in a towering mail pile or merit a crucial split-second’s notice on a computer screen.

But does that mean sacrificing taste? Sure, Penthouse gets a second glance every time. But will that translate into lasting buzz or just a dismissive, “ah, there they go again?” Does a magazine want to be known as smart and sassy or as juvenile and sassy? What happens to the “smart” when a puerile cover image sullies the book’s impact?

So this brings us to Bloomberg Businessweek. There’s no question the magazine has done impressive work since 2009, when McGraw-Hill sold BusinessWeek after thinning its journalism ranks over several financially troubled years. One would expect no less than excellence from Bloomberg, the preeminent business-news operation of the day. A friend who toils abroad for the news service points out that BB won the 2012 National Magazine Award for General Excellence – the magazine world’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize — something the magazine hadn’t done since 1996, an earlier time of superb journalism at BW.

InfidelityBut one must wonder whether BB has won despite some of its new approaches, rather than because of them. Much of the reporting and writing remains superb – its economic coverage, for instance, has won awards from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, and I know from serving as a judge that the work was best in class. Some of BB’s contrarian ideas, fleshed out well in text that intelligently challenges conventional wisdom, are compelling. At its best, its work is as good as the best material BW was known for over decades, work that won 10 National Magazine Awards in various categories from 1973-2008, all before the latest general excellence prize. BW and its staffers won a slew of other prizes for foreign and domestic work over those years, too.

MatingJetsThe risk for BB is that its drive to be edgy, particularly in its cover imagery, could easily thrust it over a cliff’s edge. It could all too easily slip from provocative to prurient, as it has at times already. Disturbingly, the distance from smart to smartass is not all that great.

Already, the editors have had to apologize for the art in a cover piece. They ran a smart housing story, only to have its impact undercut by racial insensitivity in the cover art. At best, the drawing seemed goofy anyway.Housing

BB today, like BW before it, does have to distinguish itself both in its journalism and in the artwork it uses to make its points. And, as my friend from Bloomberg points out, the magazine has been recognized for its design successes by such outfits as Britain’s Design and Art Direction. Apparently, though, what caught the eye of folks at D&AD was one of the more elegant covers, which used a stark and simple photo of Steve Jobs. This seems a case of BB earning recognition for being classy rather than déclassé. That’s something any editor should feel proud of.

JobsBB has had some impressive successes. It has held onto 4.7 million readers worldwide when so many others have lost the readership battle. It can draw on the work of 2,300 journalists in 72 countries, a couple thousand more journalists and support staffers than BW ever had. If it is to keep up its record of success in readership and influence, the book should work to be known for top-flight economic and business coverage and high-quality artwork that makes the coverage come alive. This is its inheritance, its bloodline. The editors shouldn’t be weighed down by the magazine’s stellar list of alumni and their work as they sort out what to put in the book each week, what imagery to adorn its cover with. But, if they do pause for a second to consider the book’s distinguished history, they might feel a useful nudge in the right direction.

What do the editors, staffers and art folks want the book to be known for anyway? What do they want their legacy to be? Flout convention, sure. Be provocative. Kick up dust. But do it with style and intelligence. A little grace can carry you a lot farther than an adolescent smirk or an unwelcome dollop of snark.

Prosecute Snowden, not the press

article-0-1A78A5A4000005DC-767_634x362As Edward Snowden wings his way toward whoever he thinks will shield him from American prosecutors, his bizarre story keeps metastasizing. This noxious growth is now tainting the press. The latest turn: the suggestion that not only should the former NSA contractor be prosecuted but so should a recipient of his leaks, Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald.

NBC “Meet the Press” host David Gregory today asked Greenwald: “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?” So, was Gregory siding with some politicians who have called for a journalist to be prosecuted for doing his job? Certainly seemed so, though the TV host did later say he was merely asking a question, however pointedly.

Have we come to that in journalism? Are we now dining on our own? Would Gregory have raised the same question to the late Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, and his editors when in mid-1971 they decided to publish the Pentagon Papers? Then, as now, national security concerns were at issue in the publication of explosive secret material — in that case classified material dealing with the ongoing Vietnam War.

Sulzberger
Sulzberger
The Snowden case is a knotty one. There’s no question for me that the former trusted intelligence analyst should be prosecuted for his crime. He betrayed his employers and violated his oaths. His acts could be considered treasonous in a time of war, albeit an undeclared war with terrorists. He should be brought to account for them.

But it’s also clear that he brought to light a practice that deserves national scrutiny. Indeed, the shame of it is that the debate hasn’t happened until now. Do we want the government reading our email or, however much buried in massive data-collection practices, scanning our phone calls? Certainly, we want it rooting out terrorist plots, using wiretapping or whatever technology works. But should it cast its net so wide that it ropes in everyone? These are important questions and, sadly, it took Snowden’s actions to bring them forward.

Snowden, however, didn’t have to blow his whistle quite the way he did. He had alternatives for bringing his case forward. He could have found a friendly congressman or senator, perhaps a libertarian who might have found the NSA practices just as dubious as he did. Questions then could have been asked and debated, perhaps behind closed doors in deference to national security. Policy could have been changed quietly. Is it naïve to think so? Perhaps. But Snowden didn’t even try this route.

Would he have broken laws in talking with an elected government official about a government program? That’s one for the lawyers to decide. Certainly, he would have spared the government the international black eye it has suffered from his leaks. To much of the world now, the U.S. respects its citizens’ rights to privacy no more than China does. But, if Snowden found a courageous legislator to work with, he might have forced changes to happen without making the U.S. look like a global snoop, hardly a beacon of freedom.

TimeIf Snowden got nowhere with the legislators, he could then have turned to the press, it seems. That was the route former military analyst and ex-Pentagon staffer Daniel Ellsberg took. He shared copies of the Pentagon Papers first with legislators and moved beyond them only when none would make them public in the halls of the Capitol. He felt they had to be exposed. Ultimately – two weeks after the Times began printing the Papers and was enjoined temporarily from doing so – a senator, Mike Gravel, did publish the documents in the official record of the Senate.

But Snowden chose otherwise, rushing outside government to make his case. He broke the laws and violated the trust of his colleagues. Whether he is prosecuted or not, history will judge whether his acts were heroic or merely treasonous. Ellsberg has largely been judged a hero. But Ellsberg had the guts to face the consequences of his actions. Unlike Snowden, he stayed in the U.S. and was tried for espionage in court. The charges were dismissed, as it turned out, because of governmental misconduct that, ironically, included illegal wiretaps on the former analyst. But the risk for Ellsberg’s act of conscience was very real.

Now Snowden will live as a fugitive, likely to spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder. Is that heroic? Ellsberg also tried at first to stay out of the limelight, leaking his documents anonymously until he was outed. By contrast, Snowden seems to crave the attention, lionizing himself for his actions. Again, heroic? The more apt word might be narcissistic.

As for the press, the Times was right to print the Pentagon Papers. They proved invaluable to understanding how dishonest the politicians were in pursuing a war that was foul and doomed from the start. Similarly, the Guardian and the Washington Post were right in publishing Snowden’s leaked documents, even though the war we are currently fighting – the battle against terrorists – is just, is impossible to avoid and is one we must win.

The argument this time is over whether the government’s intrusions are massive overkill. Are the security services deploying a nuclear bomb when well-aimed rifles might work better? Certainly, we all want them stopping terrorist plots. But can they not just ID the bad guys and go and get ‘em without ensnaring all Americans and plenty of foreigners in their net? Do the terrorists win when we give up something as precious as privacy, the cherished right of all Americans to be left alone?

Snowden went about this all wrong. But the debate he triggered is necessary and vital and so, too, are the journalists who have brought his story to light. Gregory’s pointed question to Greenwald deserves a loud answer: no, the journalist should not be prosecuted for doing his job. Instead, the policymakers need to be held to account for falling down on theirs.

Free and foul speech: the Islamic uproar

As Muslims across the world protest the American-made movie trailer that ridicules Islam, the collision of values between the West and the Islamic world seems never to have been so stark. Free speech versus respect. Tolerance as opposed to ideological despotism. Openness to criticism and debate instead of muzzling.

What stance must we in journalism take on this fight? Anyone who espouses freedom of thought and expression, it would seem, cannot side with those who would suppress it. No matter how noxious or vulgar that expression is, the right of all to say what we think is fundamental for journalists. More than that, free expression is central to a democracy, a core value. The open exchange of ideas, we believe in the West, leads to progress as the best ideas win out and the weakest wither.

If Islam and the teachings of its prophet do offer the best ideas, are they not strong enough to withstand the amateurish rant of a fraudster and a few friends in California? Surely they are. Is Islam so fragile that its followers must murder Americans to defend it? Absolutely not. Are its ideas so weak that a 14-minute movie trailer can undermine it? No. And is the feeble little film really so powerful that the faithful cannot simply shrug it off?

But far more than a battle of ideas is involved here. Fouad Ajami, the Stanford academic and a Muslim himself, traces the fervor in the eruptions in the Muslim world to “a deep and enduring sense of humiliation.” In his insightful column in The Washington Post, “Why is the Arab world so easily offended?,” he traces the rise and fall of Islam as a cultural and economic force among the nations. Where adherents once dominated much of the civilized world, thriving and making huge contributions to art and science, millions now struggle in poverty, envying the West and blaming it for their sorry state. Many now crave nothing more than to move to Europe or the U.S., even as others set fire to the American flag or trample Western embassy signs.

Further, fundamentalist opportunists in places such as Egypt and Libya pounce on any opportunity to capitalize on these feelings of inadequacy and fragility. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula and his friends gave them the perfect excuse to target even an American as friendly to the Muslim world as J. Christopher Stevens, the late ambassador to Libya who aided in the work of rebels there seeking to oust a despot. “Innocence of Muslims” was a gift to Al Qaeda, the Taliban and their ilk as they seek to turn back the clock instead of embracing the possibilities for improvement of their societies in the 21st Century.

The ideas in the trailer – such as they are – certainly are obnoxious and offensive. Knowledgeable critics say they are flat wrong. But since that is so, would the piece not simply die of its own trivial weight? Is not the best response for the Islamic world simply to ignore the film, to brush it off as a piece of lint that floats momentarily onto the rich tapestry of Islamic history and belief? The Catholic Church, after all, survived intemperate artistic criticisms, such as “Piss Christ,” the 1987 photo by an American artist depicting a crucifix in urine. Judaism has survived such bogus attacks as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” or vile marches by would-be Nazis in Skokie, Illinois.

There is nothing wrong with civil protest, even outside embassies – far removed as they may be from Hollywood. Indeed, advocates of free speech should welcome that. Bigotry needs to be countered whenever it arises and the bigotry of this film must be condemned. So, too, must the foulness of anti-Semites be opposed. And anti-American sentiments must be countered wherever they arise. But there’s no excuse, of course, for killing. And the answer to free speech should just be more free and better speech, eloquence instead of ignorance. Certainly, it should not be violence.

Still, the danger of the Muslim world erupting in such passion against the trailer is that it gives the filmmaker a far bigger stage than he deserves. The fervid reaction launches a film few would have heard of into superstardom. The same was true of the anti-Islamic Florida pastor, Terry Jones, who advocated burning copies of the Quran. Such men and their “work” don’t deserve the fame the protesters confer upon them. The best response, perhaps, is no response. Instead of burning flags and scaling embassy walls, why not educate the West on how the anti-Islamic ideas are baseless?

Ideas matter, of course. Plenty of wrongheaded ones have led societies astray – just look at the legacy of Osama bin Laden, Adolf Hitler and their like. But it’s only by letting ideas compete freely, by letting people shop in the intellectual marketplace, that the best ideas come to the fore and the weakest die.

This is, of course, a recent notion. Not so long ago, people in the West could lose their lives for blasphemy. Our current view of the value of free expression hasn’t taken root in the Islamic world yet – and it may never do so. But, as Ajami sagely writes, “Modernity requires the willingness to be offended.” Much to the regret of the West and to the disservice of the Arab world, he says the heartland of Islam lacks that willingness.

Last night, my wife and I saw “Ai Wewei: Never Sorry,” the astute documentary by Alison Klayman about a courageous artist’s struggle for freedom of expression in China. Ai does things the authorities cannot abide, such as producing a video in which a string of people, including himself, say “Fuck you, Motherland.” He embarrasses police who assault him by filming them. He is subjected to constant surveillance and winds up arrested and detained for 81 days. His art studio in Shanghai, which officials once encouraged, is destroyed. He’s a thumb in the eye to those who would suppress free expression.

Freedom of expression must be cherished and protected. Ai’s criticisms are powerful and important. The California fraudster’s are not. In each case, however, totalitarians cannot be allowed to throttle their voices. Let them speak. Counter them, if necessary, or heed them. Ignore them if that’s appropriate. In the end, a critic’s barbs will stick only if they deserve to.

Mud all around in DePauw journalism case

A friend, Mark Tatge, is in hot water because he showed students how to use the tools of investigative reporting on one of their own, a 19-year-old sophomore busted for drinking. The unsettling case raises questions about the duties journalists have to the truth, journalism teachers have to students and administrators have to teachers.

And like lots of unsettling cases, it’s messy.

Tatge, a former Midwest bureau chief for Forbes and textbook author with a distinguished record in the business, teaches investigative reporting as a visiting professor at DePauw University. To show students how to use public records, he handed out a public records packet about the arrest of a student athlete in January for public intoxication, resisting law enforcement, illegal consumption of alcohol and criminal mischief. According to journalism blogger Jim Romenesko, the 17-page packet included Facebook and Twitter profiles, along with court documents.

Devised as a classroom exercise, the case study has gone far beyond the blackboard. The DePauw student newspaper told the campus about it and blogger Romenesko delivered the news to his national journalism audience. The blog, Inside Higher Ed, has written about it. Needless to say, the student is embarrassed. And her mother lashed out at Tatge in a letter to The DePauw, accusing him of bullying, “wanting to create news,” and not caring whether a student or the school was damaged.

For his part, Tatge is troubled that the university has shown no support for him in this maelstrom. Academic freedom and the principles of journalism are at stake, he and his supporters have suggested.

Plenty of journalists and academics have offered backing in comments on Romenesko, though opinion is hardly unanimous. One critic said it was “totally inappropriate within the context of a student-faculty relationship. How about a little judgment?” A critic faulted Romenesko for printing the details, including running the student’s photo. Inside Higher Ed held off on identifying the student.

I’m reminded of what officials at Tsinghua University in Beijing warned me about the classroom last semester. The classroom, they say, is a public sphere in which anything you say can echo far beyond school, especially in the days of the Net. Therefore, be cautious of what you say there. Avoid sensitive topics, they counseled.

Tatge, I imagine, had no notion that this investigative exercise would have gone any further than the door of his classroom. For his students, it would be a powerful example of using public records in a way that hit close to home, as The DePauw suggested in its coverage. It would have more impact than doing, say, a patent search, he suggested.

Indeed, Tatge may have figured there would be no embarrassment to the young woman, who turned 20 a month after her arrest. She would not have even known about it if some friends in the class hadn’t told her of the discussion. Certainly, Tatge, would not have deliberately sought to put her in the stocks nationwide, to expose her shame far and wide. He just wanted to make a lesson in public documents real and meaningful for the students in his class.

But the questions this case raises are troubling. Should teachers worry, in the age of the Net, that everything we do in a classroom can be showcased to the world? Does that lead to self-censorship, a la China’s? Do we really want to stifle ourselves in the way teachers – and journalists — there must to save their jobs? At home, will administrators back up such faculty when the heat rises? Or will they cave under pressure?

On the other hand, shouldn’t faculty members feel obliged to shield 19-year-olds who do stupid things? Isn’t it the nature of kids to make dumb mistakes that in an earlier, less public, time would have been punished quietly? No teacher would deliberately hold a student up to nationwide scorn. All of us – Tatge included, I’m sure – feel our first duty is to educate students, not humiliate them.

It’s less a legal matter than a moral one. Legally, the student lost her right to anonymity when she was arrested. But does that mean she’s fair game in any classroom on campus? Does a teacher have a moral duty to protect students, even if the law permits exposure? Do teachers need to act more discreetly about their young charges?

At the end of the day, we can only hope everyone involved remembers a few key things. First, the student has to live with the consequences of her alleged mistake. It was she, not Tatge, who brought this grief down on herself. She, her mother and the school administration should keep that in mind. In an earlier generation, mom might have taken the daughter to the woodshed, not turned her wrath on a teacher and the campus newspaper. Indeed, it’s surprising that lawyers haven’t shown up yet.

Second, it was the police, not Tatge, who made the charges public in the first place. Once such charges are lodged, they are out there for all to see. They eventually will be adjudicated, raising still more opportunity for exposure.

Punishing the messenger here will not make the student’s problems any easier. Administrators need to back up teachers when the fault lay elsewhere to begin with.

Still, faculty members are not just journalists, not just messengers. The muddy part here is that teachers have other responsibilities to students – both those in their classrooms and others on campus. That’s a tough line to walk at times. Sadly for all involved, there’s mud all around on this one.

Spitzer, News of the World and The Tree of Life

I just saw the Terrence Malick opus “The Tree of Life,” the 139-minute meditation on God, evil, love, death, evolution and a tortured upbringing in the 1950s. No date movie this, but it certainly gives a viewer something to chew on. Kind of like “2001” meets a dark, dark version of the Hardy Boys. It does have a ring of truth to it, despite its grand self-importance and distinct lack of humor.

The peculiar thing is it puts me in mind of two unsettling developments in the news business this week, the cancellation of Eliot Spitzer’s effort at redemption, “In The Arena,” and the shutdown of the News of the World. The connection may seem remote – chalk and cheese — but bear with me, dear reader.

First off, both these deaths of journalistic enterprises were sad but perhaps inevitable, much like the death at the center of the movie. The movie revolves around the loss, at 19, of a young man whose problem seems to be his innocence, sensitivity and talent in a life that values such things too little. The boy’s passing was crucial to explore the movie’s central tension – the question of whether life is about grace and wonder or torment and struggle. Are we all doomed to life as a matter of “nature red in tooth and claw” or is there a divine force that brings love and justice to the chaos?

To bring this idea round to the end of the Spitzer program and the British tabloid, the question is, were these journalistic deaths just? Further, what do they say about the nature of the world of journalism today? What do they say about the torments and struggles of individuals and enterprises? And what do they say about the evolution of our media?

In Spitzer’s case, the cancellation at base was a matter of ratings and viewership. The show was just pulling too small of a viewership for CNN, which is struggling to compete with the ideologically driven appeal of Fox News, as well as the glut of “content” that afflicts all media in the Internet age. On one level, the show’s fall is yet another example of the evolution of journalism, with the inevitable deaths of outmoded approaches this brings.

A guy sitting at desk commenting on the news of the day, with interviews – especially of other CNN pundits – just doesn’t cut it these days. Viewers need more or they’ll turn away and troll for news and information on the Net or elsewhere on the tube. This is part of the reason that conventional TV news is struggling. Such is true also of print news operations.

But Spitzer’s fall was more than that. Spitzer is a tragic figure, someone every bit as tormented and driven as the character Brad Pitt plays in “The Tree of Life.” The Pitt figure longs to be a musician but instead is a would-be entrepreneur stuck in a deadend factory executive role. He’s tortured and in turn torments those around him, including his wife and sons, as he wrestles with a life where he sees only deception and money as the driving forces. He’s cold and distant, an angry and intense figure, a sad archetype of a certain kind of 1950s father.

Spitzer, it seems to me, is every bit as cold, and someone constantly at war with inner demons. By some accounts, during his tenure as Attorney General in New York he bullied defendants, especially corporate executives. He beat them into submission, often by going outside the rules of the courtroom. He likewise brought an intensity to “In The Arena” that reflected no humor, no grace, only a penetrating and cold intellect. He’s a smart guy and a relentless questioner, but every night was a painful struggle with issues of political venality and ideology.

How much of that can an audience take? It proved too much for most viewers, it would seem. Indeed, “The Tree of Life,” with its relentless intensity, is likewise too much at times. It has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

More than that, Spitzer lacked something indispensable to journalism. He had no innocence, something crucial in a news person. He carried far too much baggage as a disgraced former governor whose dalliances with prostitutes may never be forgotten. His demons made him fascinating in a way, as one could imagine the torment that underlay his aggressive questioning of guests. But it ultimately distracted from the core mission of a journalist – to be a reporter or analyst of the news, not a center of attention oneself but rather someone focusing the limelight.

Spitzer, much like the Brad Pitt character, is akin to a figure in classic Greek tragedy. Spitzer was done in by his own grand flaws in the end. He rose to great heights only to fall, twice. The Pitt character is more the tortured victim of outside forces, but his personal flaws figure into his failed home life.

Tragedy is too grand a word, however, for the News of the World case. Certainly it is discomfiting for the people tossed out of work there. And it’s a disappointment, perhaps, for the hundreds of thousands who bought the paper each week, however trashy it was. The world will be poorer, perhaps, for the silencing of yet another once-powerful journalistic voice. But by most accounts the paper was garbage. Its voice was shrill and vengeful and no exemplar of quality in the field. The loss is hardly worth grieving over.

It may be that News of the World demonstrates that there can be justice in the world. It was killed for its journalistic sins, its inability to draw lines about what newsgathering approaches are appropriate and what are not. Paying off cops and hacking into phone mail, as alleged of the paper, is just not right. Fleet Street in general should learn from this sorry case and one hopes that Rupert Murdoch’s commitment to quality papers, such as The Times, Sunday Times and The Wall Street Journal, will only be deepened by this. Maybe it could even make Fox News less shrill.

Sometimes, deaths are appropriate. That was not true in “The Tree of Life.” It may be so for “In The Arena” and the News of the World, sorry cases whose passing will help journalism evolve.

Private flaws, public failings — Spitzer and Edwards

It was surreal watching CNN this past week, as former Presidential hopeful John Edwards was hit by a federal indictment in connection with his extramarital affair during the 2008 presidential campaign. The Edwards news was old hat. What was bizarre was watching a genuine expert in the realm, former N.Y. Gov.-turned-pundit, Eliot Spitzer, report on it all.

How rich can it get in the land of pols-turned-quasi-journos? Here was Edwards, a former U.S. Senator looking pathetic but still well-coiffed as he offered regrets but a denial of legal guilt. And there was Spitzer at his anchor desk for his prime-time showcase, “In The Arena,” recounting it all and soberly assessing the prosecutors’ chances. Here was one marital cheat talking to a national audience about the failings of another, while never mentioning his own perfidies, of course.

How can it be that national TV journalism has descended into a hall-of-mirrors world such as this? Where are Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw or Katie Couric when you need them? Even Lou Dobbs – whose former CNN show, with its dubious emphasis on point of view, seems to be Spitzer’s model – would have been better. At least, it would have been free of hypocrisy.

Don’t get me wrong about rehabilitation. I believe in second chances. And people do have a right to make a living, a right even to regain lost dignity. What’s more, Spitzer, unlike Edwards, was never indicted as a result of his secret dalliances. Spitzer in fact had the good sense to resign as governor in 2008, stepping out of that arena with an appropriate mea culpa and sequestering himself for a while as he presumably tried to get his hungers under control and keep his family together. He’s also a smart guy with some real experience that could be valuable – maybe outside of journalism.

But there remains something odd when one serial adulterer who plunged sullied from high public office sits at a gleaming high-tech news and commentary desk and opines about the misdoings of another. A viewer might have half-expected Spitzer to declaim, “well, back when I was stepping out on Silda, here’s how I stayed clear of prosecutors…”

As it was, Spitzer instead interviewed a former prosecutor-turned-journalist, CNN legal analyst and New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin, about the prosecution’s risky case. That gave Spitzer a chance to hint, albeit briefly, that maybe prosecutors were abusing their discretion in pursuing the case (which has to do with the misuse of nearly $1 million in donated funds to conceal the affair). It would not have been out of place for Spitzer to compliment the enforcers who passed on pursuing him, even as he dallied with prostitutes first as New York’s attorney general and then as its governor.

One has to wonder what was going through Toobin’s mind. The guy, an author of much-praised books on the Supreme Court and other legal matters, is a professional journalist, not a pol. One imagines Toobin saying, “Well, Eliot, you’re right. The prosecutors who combed through the wiretaps in your case may have taken an unpopular stance in declining to charge you, but in legal terms …”

Of course, nothing of the kind happened. Instead, it was as if the ex-Gov. was just another journalist, another honest purveyor of the craft bringing truth to the benighted millions. The sad part is that CNN has plenty of legitimate journos – Anderson Cooper sits atop a long list. But for reasons that one suspects have to do with ratings, it chooses to be the vehicle for Spitzer’s return to the limelight.

As for the pathetic l’affaire Edwards, the doings of the former North Carolina Senator, onetime Democratic vice-presidential nominee and two-time Presidential aspirant offer still more lessons for journalists. This aw-shucks pol with the boy-next-door good looks is a bona fide member of quite a club of the ethically challenged. Members — some prosecuted, some not – include former governors, such as Spitzer, Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, James McGreevy of New Jersey and Mark Sanford of South Carolina, as well as former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, former President Bill Clinton, former Israeli President Moshe Katsav and current Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Each member’s tale is sordid in its own way and together they are interestingly nonpartisan. But the common denominator for all these disgraced leaders is the heady pursuit of sex, money or power – their outsize cravings for such things — and the blurring of the lines between right and wrong that can come with that. For reporters, these folks, including Spitzer, are the embodiment of the idea that vigilance is mandatory. Of course, that idea goes for real reporters – the Cronkite and Couric type — not the ersatz cable-host variety.

Making business journalism sexy (almost)

Looking for ways to make business journalism come alive for students? How about creating scavenger hunts for juicy tidbits in corporate government filings? What about mock press conferences that play PR and journalism students against one another? Then there are some sure bets – awarding $50 gift cards to local bars for mock stock-portfolio performances and showing students how to find the homes and salaries of university officials and other professors – including yourself — on the Net.

These were among the ideas savvy veteran instructors offered at the Business Journalism Professors Seminar last week at Arizona State University. The program, offered by the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, brought together as fellows 15 profs from such universities as Columbia, Kansas State, Duquesne and Troy, as well as a couple schools in Beijing, the Central University of Finance & Economics and the University of International Business and Economics. I was privileged to be among those talented folks for the week.

We bandied about ideas for getting 20-year-olds (as well as fellow faculty and deans) excited about business journalism in the first place. The main answer was, of course, jobs. If they’d like good careers in journalism that pay well, offer lots of room to grow and that can be as challenging at age 45 as at 20, there really are few spots in the field to match. These days, with so much contraction in the field, business and economic coverage is one of the few bright spots, with opportunity rich at places such as Reuters, Bloomberg News, Dow Jones and the many Net places popping up.

The key, of course, is to persuade kids crazy for sports and entertainment that biz-econ coverage can be fun. The challenge is that many of them likely have never picked up the Wall Street Journal or done more than pass over the local rag’s biz page. The best counsel, offered by folks such as UNC Prof. Chris Roush, Ohio University’s Mark W. Tatge, Washington & Lee’s Pamela K. Luecke and Reynolds Center president Andrew Leckey, was to make the classes engaging, involve students through smart classroom techniques and thus build a following. Some folks, such as the University of Kansas’ James K. Gentry, even suggest sneaking economics and (shudder) math in by building in novel exercises with balance sheets and income statements.

Once you have the kids, these folks offered some cool ideas for keeping their interest:

— discuss stories on people the students can relate to, such as the recent Time cover on Mark Zuckerberg or the May 2003 piece in Fortune on Sheryl Crow and Steve Jobs, and make sure to flash them on the screen (at the risk of offending the more conservative kids, I might add the seminude photo BW ran of Richard Branson in 1998)

— scavenger hunts. Find nuggets of intriguing stuff in 10Ks or quarterly filings by local companies or familiar outfits such as Apple, Google, Coca-Cola, Buffalo Wild Wings, Hot Topic, The Buckle, Kellogg, etc., and craft a quiz of 20 or so questions to which the students must find the answers

— run contests in class to see who can guess a forthcoming unemployment rate, corporate quarterly EPS figure or inflation rate

— compare a local CEO’s pay with that of university professors, presidents or coaches, using proxy statements and Guidestar filings to find figures

— conduct field trips to local brokerage firm offices, businesses or, if possible, Fed facilities

— have student invest in mock stock portfolios and present a valuable prize at the end, such as a gift certificate or a subscription to The Economist (a bar gift card might be a bit more exciting to undergrads, I’d wager)

— follow economists’ blogs, such as Marginal Revolution and Economists Do It With Models, and get discussions going about opposing viewpoints

— turn students onto sites such as businessjournalism.org, Talking Biz News, and the College Business Journalism Consortium

— have students interview regular working people about their lives on the job

— discuss ethical problems that concern business reporters, using transgressors such as R. Foster Winans as examples. Other topics for ethical discussions might include questions about taking a thank-you bouquet of flowers from a CEO or traveling on company-paid trips, as well dating sources or questions about who pays for lunch

— discuss business journalism celebs, such as Lou Dobbs and Dan Dorfman

— discuss scandals such as the Chiquita International scandal (Cincinnati Enquirer paid $10 m and fired a reporter after he used stolen voicemails)

— use films such as “The Insider,” “Wall Street,” and “Social Network” to discuss business issues

— use short clips from various films to foster discussions of how businesses operate. Good example: “The Corporation”

— team up with PR instructors to stage a mock news conference competition pitting company execs in a crisis against journalism students. Great opportunity for both sides to strut their stuff.

We also heard helpful suggestions from employers, particularly Jodi Schneider of Bloomberg News and Ilana Lowery of the Phoenix Business Journal, along with handy ideas from Leckey and Reynolds executive director Linda Austin, a former business editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. My biggest takeaway: run some mock job interviews with students and teach them to send handwritten thank-you notes.

And we were treated to some smart presentations by journalists Diana B. Henriques of the New York Times about the art of investigative work (look for her new Madoff book), the University of Nevada’s Alan Deutschman about the peculiar psychologies of CEOs (narcissists and psychopaths are not uncommon), the University of Missouri’s Randall Smith’s view of the future for business journalists (it’s raining everywhere but less on business areas). We got some fresh takes on computer-aided reporting, too, by Steve Doig of the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication as well as on social media by the Reynolds Center’s Robin J. Phillips.

For anyone interested in journalism, especially biz journalism, it was a great week. As I take the lessons from ASU to heart, my students will be better off. My thanks to the folks there.

Treason? WikiLeaks and the press

Should some secrets stay secret? And is it treasonous for news operations to report on leaks of war documents when their countries are at war?

These questions arise, of course, because of the release of 92,000 documents about the Afghanistan war by WikiLeaks, in coordination with London’s Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel. The ugly affair raises still further questions about what constitutes patriotism, how the Net makes high-quality journalism tougher to practice, and what governments will now do to try to bury their secrets even deeper.

First off, did the papers act properly? At first blush, it appears that at least two of the organizations — the Times and Der Spiegel — were maneuvered into this joint release. The instigator, it seems, was The Guardian, which had learned that WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange intended to release the papers unfiltered on his Swedish-based Web site. The editors at the Guardian suggested the joint release, apparently persuading Assange that he would make a bigger splash that way. This, at least, is the account given to PBS.

The papers then faced some tough choices: first, do they release the documents, along with their own independent reporting and analysis, and, second, do they share the information with the White House, giving the government a chance to react? On the first count, it seems that the papers really had no choice. After all, the documents would be out on the site no matter what the papers did, and, most likely, they would appear in print (since none of the three competing papers could trust the others to hold back). In short, WikiLeaks held the cards in this high-stakes poker game and it played the papers against one another.

Then the question was, what should the editors do with the information? The New York Times contacted the White House and got its reaction – its take that there was nothing really new in the documents. The White House also did not ask that the Times hold back on publishing the papers (probably realizing the move would be futile). Instead, it got a chance to put its spin on the news, likely hoping to quash the whole matter by offering the “nothing new” take. Certainly, the troops wouldn’t be surprised (see Ed Stein’s cartoon above).

Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times, laid out the issue nicely in a sidenote to the stories. He noted that the paper had a month to report out the story and that it sought to eliminate any references that could endanger the lives of Allied forces or Afghan supporters. He also suggested that the WikiLeaks folks had the mainstream media over a barrel, arguing “To say that it is an independent organization is a monumental understatement. The decision to post this secret military archive on a Web site accessible to the public was WikiLeaks’, not ours. WikiLeaks was going to post the material even if The Times decided to ignore it.”

Since then, of course, split opinion has emerged on just how problematic the release has been. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden told the folks at Politico that “We’re going to get people killed because of this.” And Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat who chairs an intelligence subcommittee, said the documents give the Taliban a hunting list: “There are names of State Department officials, U.S. military officials, Afghans and the cities in which they live in the materials.” By posting them online, she said, “we’ve just served up a target list and an enemies list to the Taliban. … Real people die when sources and methods are revealed.”

For his part, WikiLeaks’ founder Assange said on MSNBC that about 15,000 reports were withheld because they could have revealed the identities of Afghans who have aided U.S. forces and exposed them to “the risk of retributive action” from warlords or the Taliban. For a better sense of who Assange is and what drives him, check out an interview he gave to the folks at TED, the conference organization on the West Coast.

Seems to me there’s no doubt that the leak of the papers in the first place was treasonous. If proved to be the source, Pfc. Bradley Manning will likely spend the rest of his life in jail. The Army intelligence analyst, also suspected of leaking a video a few months ago of a couple Reuters photographers being killed in Baghdad, will be lucky – in other times, he’d be shot. Now, one would guess, the Obama Administration won’t risk making Manning, an impossibly baby-faced twenty-something in his AP photo, into a martyr. Some of Manning’s friends, too, may be implicated, and one wonders whether they had a duty to inform on him before his alleged leaks.

As for WikiLeaks, the legal situation will be tricky but it seems the U.S. can do little against it. Even if Swedish authorities try to muzzle the site, some there, such as Sweden’s Pirate Party, are already offering help. Of course, Assange might never again be able to travel to the U.S. or perhaps to his Australian homeland, since he could be picked up for various violations. Australia is part of the coalition fighting in Afghanistan. Indeed, one has to wonder just where he can go in the West without being pursued.

Some folks are saluting the leaks, praising the media outlets for publicizing the documents, and ignoring or rebutting questions of treason. “I’m more concerned about the troop threat caused by our nation’s involvement in a war that lacks the backing of the Afghan people or fiscal accountability for the $330 billion we have pumped into the longest war in U.S. history,” argues a colleague at Nebraska, Assoc. Prof. Bernard McCoy. “What do we have to show for this? With corrupt Afghan political leaders and insurgents who, according to our own intelligence reports, are as strong as ever, our troops remain at great risk.”

And comparisons to the Pentagon Papers abound. That secret history of the Vietnam war, detailing a wealth of information not revealed to the public and quite embarrassing to the politicians of the day, was published first by the New York Times and then the Washington Post, both in mid-1971. The papers were an official Defense Department study of U.S. activities in Vietnam from 1945-67. A former colleague at BUSINESS WEEK, Mark Ivey, says of the current leak, “Viet Nam, relived.”

But the new documents, including raw intelligence memos, were nowhere as well-researched or vetted as the Pentagon Papers were. The Afghan War documents may be rife with errors and could prove useful in the end only to vengeful Taliban. Joshua Foust, a contributor to Current Intelligence, argues, “If I were a Taliban operative with access to a computer — and lots of them have access to computers — I’d start searching the WikiLeaks data for incident reports near my area of operation to see if I recognized anyone. And then I’d kill whomever I could identify. Those deaths would be directly attributable to WikiLeaks.”

For my part, it seems clear that the leaks could not be stopped once insiders in the military or elsewhere in the intelligence establishment made up their minds to release the papers. If it hadn’t been for WikiLeaks, someone else in the anything-goes Net universe would likely have found a way to help them surface. At that point, the news organizations acted well in doing what savvy reporters do – they put the documents into context and fleshed them out.

Yes, the newspapers were played by Assange. But they gave the public a far richer and more useful account than he would have by releasing the documents alone. In the case of the New York Times at least, the U.S. government also had a chance to frame the discussion and attempt to minimize the damage.

Will anything change now? It seems some Afghans will be in danger. Pakistan’s intelligence service is likely embarrassed and angry. And the U.S. intelligence agencies will now seek stronger means to keep secrets under lock and key. But, unlike the Pentagon Papers, revelations seem few and there’s little in the papers even to strengthen the case of the antiwar folks.

President Obama’s war in Afghanistan has been messy from the start. Too few forces to begin with. A publicly revealed deadline for drawdown. A military leadership that was anything but politic. Unless his plans for military victory start paying off soon – with real gains against the Taliban and Al Qaeda — the WikiLeaks affair will go down as another troubling turn — probably a small one — in a painful, prolonged and maybe doomed battle against Islamist terrorism. This ethical contretemps pales before that ugly reality.

The Google Challenge


Illegal immigrants live in the shadows. But now that one of our journalism students has put a spotlight on one of them, a hard-working UNL sophomore who has been in the U.S. since age 2, the glare is turning out to be too bright.

The result is something of an ethical dilemma for us at the J School. It is also a powerful illustration of how Google makes it impossible to pull a story back once it’s gone public. All in all, the case is rife with lessons for student journalists, a potent teachable moment.

The immigrant at the center of this tale, a promising young psychology major who hails originally from Mexico, willingly talked with our student journalist. She sat for photos. But after the story went out on our Web site, NewsNetNebraska, she phoned our student journalist to ask us to take her name out of it and to strip it of any photos or other identifying information. Essentially, she asked that the piece be killed.

The young woman suggested she didn’t understand the piece would go beyond a class exercise. This was the case, it seems, even though our student journalist maintained it was made clear to her that the information would be published. What’s more, the photo session alone should have brought this home to the woman.

Out of compassion, and a sense that some important questions need to be pursued, however, my colleague opted to yank the piece off our Web site — for now. He left open the possibility that it may be restored in coming days, with more details, once he and our student journalist can get answers to some crucial questions.

Problem and lesson No. 1, though, is that the piece hasn’t really gone away. True, it’s no longer on our site, and visitors get a message to that effect. But Google caches such pieces, it seems, and it remains available at the click of a computer button. As we’ve learned, once something is out on the Net, it’s out for good.

Lesson No. 2: politicians can make people very nervous. This story is playing out against a worrisome Legislative backdrop. Charlie Janssen, a senator in the Nebraska Legislature, is pushing to repeal a two-year-old state law that permits some illegals to pay in-state tuition rates. As a result, the student our journalist wrote about could be at risk if someone in the Capitol pokes around a bit. So, too, could the UNL Admissions folks who let her into school, perhaps especially because University leaders are trying to shoot down Janssen’s effort.

In short, the student could be tossed about like a political football.

From a journalistic standpoint, however, the situation raises a host of questions:

— did she really not understand that the information about her would be published? If not, why would she sit for photos?
— was it proper for her to be admitted to the University in the first place? It seems she was not permitted in under the embattled two-year-old law, the so-called DREAM Act, but rather just came in without a Social Security number.

Our students will be looking further to see if a follow-up is merited, and if the piece ought to be restored to our site. For now, however, it’s already providing a remarkable case study.

Ethics and the Net


A friend, Steve Wildstrom, raises some important questions. Do the Net and the creative destruction under way in journalism change our traditional journalistic ethics? Are new business arrangements journalists are making with sponsors crushing the tenet of independence that reporters have long lived by? At times we have taken up this question in classes and I suspect we’ll do so far more.

Steve, a former BUSINESS WEEK columnist who wrote expertly about new technology each week for many years, will be writing about emerging technology again next week at the Consumer Electronics Show. Instead of doing so for BW or another pub, however, he’ll write for a blog run by Nvidia, a big chipmaker.

Steve says the company is putting no constraints on him but requiring only that he keep the posts relevant to Nvidia’s areas of interest. He’s comfortable with the arrangement, he says, but adds that “it sure is different.”

Further, Steve writes:

I do have one suggestion for journalism schools as a consequence of my ongoing career exploration. The old rules of journalism have to change if anyone is going to make a living in this business. We’re all turning into entrepreneurs of one sort or another. What are the ethical rules for this new world? No one seems to know. They sure can’t be the old world, where we lived off advertising support and pretended that it had no relationship to what we did. Now we have to get up close and personal with the people who pay the bills. The old rules don’t work and it’s everyone for [himself] figuring out the new ones.”

Other friends, such as Howard Wolinsky, a long-time veteran of the Chicago Sun-Times, have similarly struck out on their own now and are writing for various outlets. Howard is doing some interesting work for Ancestry magazine, for instance.

For those of us who long labored at arm’s length from the advertisers, getting so “up close and personal” with sponsors is a challenging idea. On its face, it seems the “church and state” separation that governed at such mags as BW is eroded by personal sponsorship arrangements. Do we censor ourselves in such deals? Do we not write critically, for instance, about the sponsor? Or, do we not write at all about the sponsor’s competitors (or do so only damningly)? Just how long is the leash the sponsor puts us on, and that we put ourselves?

It would be naive to think that a writer’s independence is not curtailed by such arrangements. To a larger degree than was the case at a place such as BW, it seems the one who pays the piper will call the tune. Certainly, a sponsor might deem some topics inappropriate, such as glowing references to competitors. So, too, will writers deem topics inappropriate or too risky to address in such columns. No one will want to bite the hand that feeds them.

But the new one-on-one sponsorship arrangements need not be corrupting or unethical. So long as the work that does appear is untainted by the sponsor and reflects a writer’s best reporting and judgment, how is that any different from work we would have done for the old pubs? Certain topics or organizations may be taboo, but if the writer remains free to praise or damn those he writes about, is he not serving readers well?

At big pubs such as BW, such concerns were rarely an issue. For most of the time I was there, the magazine had so many advertisers that if one pulled its pages in a huff over a critical piece, the magazine could rely on others to fill the space. Reporters were told simply to do their best work, without fear or favor. In fact, some reporters would joke that they were members of a “million-dollar club,” a club filled by those whose critical reporting had cost the magazine a million dollars in ad revenues.

Over 22 years, I was involved in only two incidents where deference to advertisers affected our coverage. Many years ago, soon after I joined BW, we ran a critical story about an advertiser and used its logo to make a point — instead of a healthy tree, the company’s symbol, we ran an image of one that was half-shriveled. The advertiser’s execs said they could live with the story, but they were so furious about the logo-tampering that they pulled their ads. We also had a high-level lunch at which they made their case to me and my editors about why they were not doing as poorly as we suggested in the text. (Such meetings were not unusual and in fact helped our coverage). My editor ruled that in the future we would not satirize or otherwise demean company logos, arguing that the companies had invested too much in them for us to take cheap shots. (Struck me as arguable at the time, but so long as the words were untainted, that was fine).

In the second case, during the hard-pressed last couple years, an advertiser had signed on as a sponsor for a recurring feature. When I alluded to one of the sponsor’s rivals in a piece for that space, an editor quashed the piece. We were free to write about competitors in other parts of the magazine, she said, but not in that recurring feature. This struck me as tolerable, since it is akin to the issue of “adjacencies,” where we wouldn’t want to write about an advertiser in a space next to the ad (something that raises obvious questions).

I am sure that Steve’s work for the Nvidia blog, or wherever else it appears, will be straightforward, ethical and useful to his readers. That’s the sort of guy he is. I don’t believe he would tolerate meddling, and he’s talented enough that he’ll find another outlet if it occurs. Readers will learn a lot by checking his work out. Same goes for Howard, who did some remarkable investigative work for the Sun-Times.

Still, the new one-on-one sponsorship arrangements do put new demands on readers and writers alike. Readers, for instance, need to be aware of who is paying the freight and stay alert for bias. And writers, of course, need to be cautious about muzzling themselves to the readers’ detriment. The Net is forcing us into a brave new world, but the deal we make with readers still must hold true — we will tell the truth as we see it. If that changes, we’re lost.