Wednesday, February 28, 2007
I'm glad I don't work in a newsroom.
As an independent journalist, it's easy to sit and complain about having to convince editors to buy your story ideas. But I can't imagine having to make the same case while on staff. Shrinking news hole is hard enough to face as a consumer of newspapers, but I can't imagine the demoralizing effect it has on staffers. How many times have important projects been turned down because the paper can't justify the cost in man hours or space? Independents can pursue stories of personal interest and are limited only by our ability to find the right market and powers to convince the editors of their news value. It's not ideal, but at least if you get turned down you can try another market.
How many stories are not being told?
Last summer I was corresponding with an independent journalist who was seeking information about obtaining liability insurance. He was a freelance investigative reporter working on a story about the murky relationship between surgeons and a medical device company. He shared the background and there is no question it was an important story, one that needs to be told. But he also forwarded the e-mail he sent to his editors detailing his decision to back off the story. The reason? The magazine's liability insurance did not cover him as a freelancer and he couldn't afford to "lawyer up." As a former daily newspaper journalist, he knew well the costs of doing so. In two cases his previous news organization was forced to "lawyer up" for stories on which he had reported. In both cases, the paper was exonerated, but that didn't mean it didn't incur legal fees. Those costs could break an independent.
I'm working on a story now that involves the federal government. My husband and I have already had the discussion about what kind of legal exposure reporting this story potentially brings. We talked about attorneys who can help vet potentially litigious issues, what risks we were comfortable with and where to draw the line. He is admittedly still squeamish, but supportive after I convinced him of the larger importance of reporting the story.
Is Nick Lemann really that doughy?
Yuk! Leave the southern-fried delicacy at home, Nick. It's affected and disengenous. If I were Columbia Journalism School I'd be looking for some of those PR majors it turns away to do damage control. Scary to think that he is teaching journalists of the future and holds such condescension toward new media.
Too many middle-age white men
Look at the head shots of those interviewed for this series -- it looks pretty homogeneous, which is part of the problem in this program and in the journalism industry. We're always getting news filtered through the middle-age white men who lead newsrooms. The only women interviewed in the program are Dana Priest, Judy Miller, Lucy Dalglish and Lauren Rich Fine. Of the three, only Dana Priest is actively working as a journalist. I would have added Chris Nolan to the list or Monika Bauerlein or Clara Jeffrey, editors at Mother Jones.
Where is discussion of magazine journalism?
Much of this series so far has focused on print, new media and broadcast. Magazine journalism has largely been left off the program even though that's where long-form journalism that packs a wallop still finds a home. To wit, Seymour Hersh's New Yorker piece this week about the Bush Administration's plans in Iran.
Are So-Jo's the way of the future?
Kevin Sites of Yahoo's Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone describes himself as a solo journalist or So-Jo. In his case, he's reporting, shooting video, stills, audio and sending it all back to be packaged and posted to Yahoo. The term sounds hokey, but it's meaning is something to which I can relate. My next purchase is a digital recorder that will allow me to explore audio elements to my stories. No one is requiring that of me—yet—but I'm interested in the multiple ways to tell a story. I'd like to get a digital video recorder as well, but I'll need to sell a few more articles to make that investment.
The point is that as an independent I'm left on my own to evolve or die as a journalist. My tendency to spend more time than I'm being paid for a piece is problematic financially, but I see a long-term payoff. Creative Ink is the ultimate repository of my efforts, which I hope will include audio and video soon. Here is where I will link to published work, but also include more of the reporting and background that was not used in the published piece. Sure I'm not being paid for that "extra" and readership here is not that high, but what if that changes? It only takes one well-placed link to propel a post into the media stratosphere.
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Friday, February 23, 2007
Our Lenten homework for RCIA is to read a book about Catholic church history. Catholics apparently are notorious for not knowing the history of their church. We received several suggestions, but I welcome any and all recommendations. Here's the list:
The Story of Christianity by Justo Gonzalez comes in two volumes -- early church to the Reformation and the Reformation to present day.
Christianity by Roland H. Bainton
A Concise History of the Catholic Church by Thomas Bokenkotter
Christianity: A Global History by David Chidester
I'm a history buff and tend to go for more rather than less when it comes to history so I'm planning to check out the two-volume Gonzalez books this weekend.
Please share your recommendations here.
One final note: I plan to attend the Catholic-Jewish Colloquium at 7 p.m. on March 15 at Congregation Shaarey Tikvah in Beachwood. The program is sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, the Catholic Diocese Office of Interfaith Affairs and St. Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology. Rev. George M. Smiga and Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein will discuss "Preaching and Teaching Difficult Texts in the Bible." The program is free and open to the public, but reservations are required. Call ADL at (216) 579-9600.
Read more here, here and here.
Consider this exchange between MediaShift's Mark Glaser and Reuters President Chris Ahearn:
Glaser: You talk about bringing this in as a resource for reporters and editors. What’s their attitude about it? Does it take a change in mindset to accept that, or do they feel like someone’s on their turf?
Ahearn: I think it’s both. It goes one person at a time. Our online group was involved with everything. It was more the people who were away from the experiment, there’s a level of concern in the journalistic community, ‘Are they out to replace me?’ The answer is no, God no. It’s my job in management and running the business side to ensure that there’s as much choice out there for our editors as there can be to best address the audience.
The struggle here is how do you let the audience identify what they actually care about and how do you mesh that with the two pillars of control. As a brand, I do want to control what’s around me; as a consumer, I want to control everything about my experience. My own supposition is the reality is somewhere in between. One of the reasons newspapers are such a valuable thing or that people lean back and watch TV is that at times people say, ‘Show me, I like that serendipity.’ At other times I want to be very self-directed, I don’t like that on the page.
And later, Ahearn continues:
Going from 2,400 journalists to 24 million sources — that’s a lot of scale and there’s some skepticism, but how might that change the news cycle or the ability of people to make sense [out of everything]. I also wonder how much time is wasted in the rewriting of someone’s else’s copy that doesn’t really change the story or add that much unique value. What’s the obsession with that? I like a world where there’s different levels of news trust and brands and people can mix and match. If you have something unique, then go for it. Everybody is guilty of it, everyone has their unique version, but if you matched them up, how much are they really unique? How much is there overlap vs. a story you really, really need to tell? Can you spend your resources on something incremental?
Speaking of mainstream media and bloggers working together, here's a thought from Jeff Jarvis on reallocating reporting sources.
He argues that big news organizations should be writing investigative pieces about the care and treatment of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan or North Korea's decision to invite the International Atomic Energy Agency's Mohamed ElBaradei in to the country. What we don't need from The New York Times is front-page coverage of Anna Nicole Smith's death or the public un-glueing Britney Spears.
His advice: "Cover what you do best. Link to the rest."
Thursday, February 22, 2007
Wasserman, the Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, contrasts the lone ranger efforts of unknown independent journalists such as Vanessa Leggett and Josh Wolf at protecting the principle of the First Amendment with the marquee "singing journalists" who testified at the Scooter Libby trial. The latter were quick to tell Frontline all about the need to protect the principle, but here are two people who have done time -- walked the walk if you will.
Wolf, 24, has been behind bars nearly six months, said to be longer than any other journalist in U.S. history. The previous record was held by another journalist you never heard of, Vanessa Leggett, who spent 168 days in federal lockup in 2001 for refusing to turn over notes for a book about a murder in Texas.
Maybe it's a cheap shot, but the contrast is irresistible between their dogged refusal to talk and the glamorous parade of marquee journalists that queued up in Washington to testify at the trial of Lewis ''Scooter'' Libby, Vice President Cheney's ex-chief of staff.
What happened is that these journalistic heavyweights -- and their employers -- just didn't have the stomach for a fight.
Meanwhile, bantam-weight blogger Josh Wolf languishes in jail to protect some ordinary people and a principle: That reporters have to be able to assure people that they're independent, that they'll stand up to bullying, that they won't be dragooned as helpmates to police, prosecutors or grand juries.
The cruelest irony is that Wolf's tormentors deny he's a journalist at all. To me, if he's independently gathering publicly significant information for the purpose of making it widely known, he's a journalist.
The question is what we call the songbirds at the Libby trial.
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
I literally bumped into Thomas Merton a few years ago at a time of great personal, creative and spiritual awakening. I had endeavored to push myself into new writerly discoveries and he seemed to be lighting my path.
What I found in his writing would forever change how I viewed my faith and my career. Though the path is winding, contracting and expanding all the time, it remains a worthy journey.
It continued last night as I attended the monthly meeting of the Cleveland Chapter of the International Thomas Merton Society at Ursuline College. We watched the new film "Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton."
In that darkened room filled with Ursuline nuns and Merton enthusiasts I watched a quiet, beautiful film that touched something buried deep within. I fought the lump in my throat and tears welling throughout as I listened to Merton's own words and those of the people who knew him. I recognized something of myself in him—a person desperately looking for God, plagued with doubt and longing—always the longing—for solitude, understanding, knowledge, peace...
To keep the emotion from spilling over, I busied myself by writing snippets from the film in my Moleskin. I'm not even sure I was consciously choosing what to write, rather the fragments wrote themselves.
Here is what appears in my notebook this Ash Wednesday:
"I will listen to this Asian ocean..." — Thomas Merton
He was unclassifiable, a dangerous thinker...
The lost soul of the 20th century looking for redemption, looking for God...
His 180-degree turn toward God fascinates people; how and why did this happen...
He cannot NOT write...
"My God there's an intellectual component to this (faith)..."
God Alone—the words outside the Abbey at Gethsemani
Merton entered the Abby heavy with a sense of punishment; the sex, alcohol and self-absorption had given him a sense of self-disgust...
"A shadow double followed me into the Abbey and he still wears the name, Thomas Merton..."
Gethsemani became too crowded and he turned to a tool shed and later a hermitage for solitude...
Dissatisfaction kept him going; kept him searching for God...
Merton spoke about monastic life the way some speak about Notre Dame football...
Faith means doubt; faith is not the suppression of doubt, it's the overcoming of doubt. You overcome doubt by going through it...
Merton had an omnivorous intellect, interested in all things...
His advice for prayer was to quiet down, it'll happen...
It was not unusual for him to write 20 letters a day to people from all walks of life...
He was silenced on the Cold War and nuclear arms race. For Merton to obey he had to work hard at it and his abbot considered him most obedient for that reason...
Some of his best writing occurred when he moved to the hermitage...
In 1966 he had to have back surgery and fell in love with a 24-year-old nurse.
"I have to think my way around this tenderness...It's a chain of events that can't be stopped...No question I'm in deep and that's no place for a hermit..."
Merton fell in love, those things happen, and yet he chose to stick with his monastic life...
"There's a certain fullness in my life even without her..."
Merton was not at the edge of anything; he was creating a new center...
He's not a relic, rather we haven't caught up with him yet...
Merton was a risk-taker by temperament and realized that to learn anything is to leave a safe ground...
His trip to the Far East in 1968 ended in his accidental death. There were rumors he was leaving the abbey permanently, was getting married or was on a CIA hit list.
"The moment of takeoff was ecstatic. We left the ground, I with Christian mantras and a great sense of destiny of being at last on my true way after years of waiting and wondering and fooling around. I'm going home, to a home I've never been in this body..."
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
In the days following the first installment the discussion board was rife with criticisms pointed at Frontline in particular and journalism in general. Consider this from a Scottsdale, Ariz., writer who calls the program a "whitewash":
"The press, including Frontline, is grossly incompetent and saying "Oh, we made a mistake" does (not) make anyone suddenly competent or change the situation. Oh, mea culpa, we followed the New York Times and we should not have. Yuch. The press does not question anything and is incapable of doing so. Current example: Defense Secretary Gates alleges that weapons are clearly coming from Iran because they have "Iranian serial numbers." What the heck is an Iranian serial number? Why did no one question him?"
To be fair, a number of the more recent comments were highly favorable of the reporting in the program, with a number expressing outrage at having been duped to such devastating ends.
The sharpest criticism on the discussion board, however, was directed at Judith Miller, who was labeled a ditz and a shill for the Bush Administration. Many questioned giving her a platform, though the argument can be made that she is (for better or worse) a big reason why we're having this conversation.
One writer did ponder why the lesser-known journalists whose reporting demonstrated skepticism about the administration's claims in the build-up to the war were not featured more prominently. That's a fair question. Do we really need to see more of those who are regulars on cable news in addition to the front pages of the national papers?
If they were setting the agenda for coverage at their agenda-setting news organizations, doesn't the public deserve to hear from those who bucked their lead and actually questioned the reasons for going to war? Shouldn't we also hear from that great anonymous herd of journalists trying to do the story justice without the superstar asterisk next to their byline?
We heard in the first episode about reporters from Knight-Ridder's Washington Bureau challenging the administration's rationale for war in Iraq, but we didn't hear directly from the reporters who did the work and faced veiled threats by the administration.
We're seeing some of this all over again as the New York Times allows Michael Gordon (Judith Miller's cohort on WMD reporting) to cover the saber-rattling about Iran. Which brings up today's point: In all of this blame directed at how journalists do their job, the reality is that layers of editors permitted the mediocrity. Just as they receive praise for courageous decisions (such as running the CIA black prison site story), they also deserve blame for not questioning sourcing or for not demanding to know the source of the sourcing. Wasn't Gordon's credibility on national security reporting permanently damaged by his work with Miller? Why allow him to continue covering the beat? And don't tell me it's because of his source network. I think we've already established that it is "less than."
Over a year ago I wrote the following analysis for Quill magazine laying the blame for the Judith Miller saga at the feet of NYT editors.
Quill Magazine / December 2005 Analysis
Seeking accountability in the Miller saga
By Wendy A. Hoke
Prosecutors will tell you that they don’t get to choose the victims they represent. Sometimes those victims come with baggage that makes them appear unsympathetic. Yet prosecutors will work the case because they’re charged with prosecuting crimes, not representing palatable victims.
Such is the case of New York Times reporter Judith Miller. She spent 85 days in jail to defend the principle of protecting confidential sources in the course of doing her job. It was an important stand given the federal prosecutors’ propensity to issue subpoenas to reporters to share what they know about federal wrongdoing.
The leadership of the Society of Professional Journalists believed that her stand should be recognized with a First Amendment Award. Despite criticism that arose both inside and outside the Society, SPJ honored her at its national convention in Las Vegas in October.
Miller’s scripted-like responses to prepared questions lobbed at her not by SPJ attendees but by a trusted legal colleague exposed Miller to be a flawed journalist, who looked more like an exposed nerve ending than the anti-Christ of reportage.
This perceived vulnerability fails to mitigate the fact that she has engaged in some questionable behavior that smacks of high-powered favoritism on the one extreme and sheer laziness on the other, as evidenced by her over-reliance on confidential sources and willingness to capitulate to misleading attribution.
The lesson, particularly for the young members of SPJ, is to beware of the excesses that can bring a superstar reporter to his or her knees. And beware the newsroom that breeds such a poisonous culture.
While there are a number of troubling aspects to this story, they don’t all fall at the feet of Judith Miller. Behind every reporter is a cadre of editors that assign and edit stories before publishing.
Why didn’t her editors more carefully supervise her? It defies logic that editors at The New York Times would allow any reporter, particularly one covering national security, to “run amok.”
But run amok Miller did and no one seemed to be willing to stop her. That has left the industry wondering, “Why wasn’t she stopped?” And this question will continue to dog and damage our industry until the Times answers.
The buck stops with the editor who must demand transparency in sourcing in order to provide readers with critical information.
Miller asserted that her case is being confused with the combustible issue of why we went to war in Iraq, arguably the fundamental foreign policy issue of our time.
Her defense of the inaccurate reporting on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction goes up like Harriett Miers’ nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. “My sources were wrong and so my reporting was wrong,” she told the Vegas crowd.
It was a preposterous statement to make to a roomful of journalists and serves to make her look like nothing more than a shill for her sources.
There were plenty who did question the Bush Administration’s assertions on WMD, as is evidenced by the number of links to those stories out on the blogosphere.
Miller may be able to pass that don’t-blame-the-messenger drivel on to the general public, but journalists preach and practice that you verify information provided by your sources before you go to print.
Miller knows better, and so does the Times.
There’s a reason journalists push for information—so that we get the story right. In the absence of answers, we’re left to question how the Times operates.
Did Miller have any kind of security clearance?
What were the conditions of that clearance?
Did her editors know and agree to those conditions?
Did she think her sources were talking to her or to the Times?
Has the Times articulated a clear policy on the ownership of reporters’ notes?
Didn’t Miller have an obligation to turn over what she knew to the reporter who replaced her on the national security beat?
In the absence of answers, The Gray Lady looks more like a charwoman covered in the soot of the Miller debacle than the stately newspaper of record.
© Copyright 2005 / Wendy A. Hoke
Thursday, February 15, 2007
"Thomas Merton brought contemplation into the twentieth century, divesting it of its antique scholasticism and ancient prejudices: making it efficient far beyond the inner circle of Christian initiates. He retained the best that was thought and said within the monastic counter culture—preserving its traditions while broadening its appeal and bringing it into dialogue with the contemporary world.
Merton's writings on writing show us how we might do the same. In a postsecular age increasingly beset by fast faith and false art and rapidly dividing into "tiny colonies of the saved," I can think of few more useful or important lessons."
— Robert Inchausti
San Luis Obispo, California, 2006
I'm planning to attend a screening of Morgan Atkinson's film, "Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton" next Tuesday evening at the Ursuline Sisters Motherhouse.
With luck and a little planning, I'll also be able to make a Lenten trip to The Abbey at Gethsemani. While I'm there I'll be sure to stop at The Merton Center at Bellarmine University. I'm told my articles about Merton are part of the official archive.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
"Your show touched on something that I've been wondering about for a long time and which I think is extremely important. You discussed the evolution of confidential sources from the early "whistleblower" types to today's constant and often unnecessary use by government types to "put out" info/their side of the story/impugn someone etc. It has struck me for a long time that the media developed a process a long time ago and everyone has become "media savvy" and knows how to use that process to their ends. Yet, the media does nothing differently. They continue down this path as if it was the only way to "journalistic truth". Why hasn't someone figured out a different way to tell the public what is happening? Doesn't it rankle them that they're being used constantly and not in the service of truth?"
Raney Aronson: "Well, I think that was at the heart of what Lowell Bergman cared about when reporting on this issue. It is definitely true that journalists get played - but then it's also true that the use of confidential sources are essential to our profession. John Miller (former journalist and now with the FBI) said something that struck a cord with me, he basically said because now that Branzburg was reaffirmed and if a federal grand jury in good faith asks a reporter for his/her sources a new conversation needs to start happening between reporters and their sources. The bar in other words for granting confidentiality should he argues be higher - and I absolutely agree with this assessment. For his interview go to our website."
Here's a question: What would happen if the Washington Press Corps just stopped granting government officials anonymity? Want to change the rules of the game, then make it so.
There's a lot of criticism fired at Frontline on the discussion board. But it's clear from reading transcripts of the extended interviews that you can't possibly get the full picture of what it's presenting without seeing those complete interviews.
If you want to pick one, try Ron Suskind.
American and Iraqi officials have said that recent intelligence points to signs of fracturing within the Mahdi Army, and that radical splinter groups who are not under Mr. Sadr’s control could be carrying out commando-style raids and assassinations.
Officials have suggested that these splinter groups could be receiving orders from officials in Iran, but have not offered direct evidence to back up their claims.
(Bold is mine.)
She gives props (sort of) to MBA bloggers covering the trial in response to a question about why traditional media was not live-blogging the trial. Answer: because MBA was. That bodes well for MBA's credibility in covering such events in the future.
But the overall tone of her responses is still chummy—I know these people, they work very hard, their very competitive and busy, blah, blah, blah.
That was in no way as interesting as last night's brilliant Frontline program "News War." It was only part one of four, but the initial installment provided a comprehensive road map for how the media helped us to get where we are today. My boys were watching and asked the billion-dollar question: "So why did we go to war with Iraq?" That was followed by: "How do we get out?"
Part Two will be broadcast at 9 next Tuesday on PBS.
Today is Valentine's Day, the day on which we celebrate romantic love. Every February, florists in the United States import several million pounds of roses from South America. About 36 million boxes of chocolate will be given as gifts today.
Many writers have been inspired by love. William Butler Yeats met the Irish Nationalist Maud Gonne in 1889. She was one of the most beautiful women of her time, and Yeats fell in love with her the first time he saw her. He said, "[When I met her] the troubles of my life began." He described her as "Tall and noble but with face and bosom / Delicate in colour as apple blossom." He proposed marriage soon after their first meeting, and she refused. But they both believed in magic and the occult, and in their letters they referred to their mystical marriage, and their telepathic communication. Gonne later told Yeats that she couldn't marry him because she believed they had been brother and sister in a previous life. But she inspired some of his greatest poetry.
Robert Louis Stevenson was passing by the window of a house one night in France when he looked inside and fell instantly in love with a woman he saw eating dinner with a group of her friends. Stevenson stared at her for what seemed like hours, and then opened the window and leapt inside. The guests were shocked, but Stevenson just bowed and introduced himself. The woman was an American named Fanny Osborne. They fell in love and got married a few years later. Marriage seemed to make Stevenson more industrious. Even though he was often bed-ridden with his respiratory illness, he published on average 400 pages of writing a year for the rest of his life.
E.B. White was a staff writer at The New Yorker when, in 1929, he took a vacation to Ontario, working at a summer camp that he had gone to as a kid, and he seriously considered quitting his job at The New Yorker to become a camp director. He had just turned 30, and he was disappointed that he'd failed to produce anything other than humorous magazine pieces. He wrote a letter to the fiction editor of The New Yorker, Katherine Angell, saying that he considered himself a failure as a writer, and he wasn't sure what the point was in continuing. She wrote back to say that there was no question in her mind that he was a great writer, even if he hadn't produced a masterpiece yet. She said, "For you to give up writing now would be like a violinist giving up music, the thing he most loved in the world, because he can't be [the best]." When White returned to New York, he married her.
In 1956 Sylvia Plath was studying in Europe on a Fulbright Scholarship when she went to a publication party for a literary magazine. It was there that she met the poet Ted Hughes, whose poetry she admired. When he introduced himself, Plath quoted one of his poems to him, and he guided her to a side room of the bar. She later wrote in her journal, "He kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hairband off ... and my favorite silver earrings ... I bit him long and hard on the cheek and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face." They got married four months later.
Happy Valentine's Day
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Occasionally the wind causes the whole house to shutter and swirls of snow drive down from the roof. From which direction is the snow coming? Of course it's the west, but it blows in such wild circles and sometimes seems to hover in place outside my office window.
I rub my eyes and try to clear the fog from my contacts because it's getting harder and harder to make out the houses across the street. They are filtered behind a cataract cloud of blowing snow.
Can't tell where the street ends and the yard begins. And I watch as landmarks—the stop sign at the corner, the unruly hydrangea in the front bed and the patio table on the back deck—measure the accumulation.
The wind pushes hard on the front door seemingly penetrating the protective glass of the storm door. But in between gusts, all is quiet and momentarily peaceful. But it won't last. It's 2:50 and by 3:15 the boys will be home and celebrating the likelihood of another snow day.
Monday, February 12, 2007
Friday, February 09, 2007
Just finished reading a real page-turner by Erik Larson. Isaac's Storm is a riveting account of the great hurricane of 1900 that ravaged Galveston Island, Texas.
I'm a great admirer of Larson's research and reporting process and found this book to be filled with rich detail and personal accounts that place the reader right in the storm's path. Read my review of Devil in the White City also by Larson.
In this earlier book, Larson's main character is Isaac Cline, the weather bureau station chief in Galveston, whose job it was to predict such a storm. The Weather Bureau of the time was coming off of scandal and needed to prove its credibility with the public. However, it chose to do so by downplaying predictions to the detriment and death of more than 6,000 Galveston residents.
In the days and hours before the storm hits, the people of Galveston are excited by the prospect of the storm. Instead of turning on The Weather Channel as we would today, they head to the beach to see for themselves, at first completely unfazed by the ominous surf and sky. But then the water creeps up ever closer, ever deeper and soon it becomes a wind-driven tempest driving people to seek shelter in convents and orphanages and homes near the beach.
There's such a tension to the story that I felt myself clenching my teeth as I sped along. This is not a book to be savored slowly. It's meant to be devoured in one sitting. And its not just about a storm, it's about people's reaction (of all ages) to storms. It's a very human story.
But it's also about power.
There was a cockiness at the turn of the 20th century that lead powerful and learned men to believe they could control Mother Nature. We read about their arrogance and ineptitude and pettiness that resulted in death for so many. But overarching the entire narrative is the central character, the storm.
Larson writes of this living, breathing force, feeding off the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico and the startling low pressure system. And all the while it continues lumbering across the great uninterrupted expanse of water gaining strength and velocity to hit Galveston dead on.
"The bureau's forecasters believed the sudden easing of wind and the attendant change in direction meant the center of the storm had passed over or near Key West, and saw this as confirmation of their belief that the storm would soon be traveling up the Atlantic coastline. Once again, they tailored fact to suit their expectations. They knew just enough to believe they had nothing to fear.
But the storm did not go north.
The bureau had missed the true meaning of the wind shift at Key West. Here was an area of calm immediately adjacent to a zone of gale-force wind, in a storm that had just crossed the great mass of Cuba without losing any of its size or energy or its ability to produce biblical volumes of rain. No one knew it at the time, but the conditions at Key West provided the clearest evidence yet that the storm's architecture was changing … Where the inrushing and outpushing forced balanced, the winds began to form a circle, a gigantic carousel over the ocean.
This storm was about to open its eye."
It's hard to read such an account without seeing giant warning flashes to Hurricane Katrina. He describes Galveston as sitting in a bowl and the competing surf from the Bay and from the Gulf were overwhelming the sides of the bowl. The people, creatures and property within were like Cheerios in milk.
I was interested in learning more about Galveston today and stumbled up this site dedicated to the storm.
They didn't yet have the name that we hear so often in hurricane reporting today—storm surge. But it was clear that the city's construction left little protection from the rising swells. I read here in a conversation with Larson that the city did try to add infrastructure to lessen the impact of the damaging and deadly storm surge:
But the storm did compel the city to build a seawall, and it showed meteorologists for the first time that a hurricane's greatest threat to land comes from the storm surge it raises in the sea. What it should have taught is that nothing is certain, not ever.
What struck me, particularly after I just finished interviewing and writing a profile of New Orleans Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss, was Larson's pre-Katrina response to what Galveston has done to prepare itself for another hurricane.
"After the storm, it built a seawall, but meteorologists fear the wall may have made Galveston complacent. Most of the city's new housing is rising on land beyond the wall's protection, adjacent to little signs marking an evacuation route. I was fascinated to learn that despite satellites and hurricane-hunting aircraft and computer models, no hurricane expert thinks the days of monstrously deadly hurricanes have passed forever. Like seismologists, they believe a Big One is long overdue, and they rank Galveston as one of the most likely targets. They envision a great storm that does something unexpected -- accelerates suddenly, veers, or undergoes the kind of explosive deepening that marked the hurricane of 1900 -- and catches the city's 60,000 residents before they have a chance to evacuate or, perhaps worse, in midevacuation. Technology has produced the illusion that it has so defanged hurricanes that they'll never surprise us again. But no one who has spent any time studying hurricanes would agree."(Bold is mine.)
A highly recommended read!
Thursday, February 08, 2007
I’m no conspiracy theorist, but revelations about big journalism and the Bush Administration keep getting curiouser and curioser. We are seeing this exposed in all its seemliness thanks to Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.
Consider the chain of events: President Bush made the case for a preemptive attack (remember shuddering at those two words?) against Iraq using 16 words from his 2003 State of the Union speech:
"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
With that, we were off to war. He convinced former Secretary of State Colin Powell to make the case before the United Nations and sent then-National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice to Judith Miller talking about mushroom clouds. We were going to “shock and awe.” Remember all that?
One individual dared to expose himself to ridicule, humiliation, political suicide and professional suicide to tell the Bush Administration it was wrong, that it’s reasoning was based on faulty intelligence. When he couldn’t get an audience with them, he took it to the New York Times and the public. He paid the price, but so did his wife, who was outed as a CIA agent.
Reporters knew who she was because administration officials told them. They had to understand on some level that this was retaliation against someone who dared to speak out against the war.
Reporters cried “stop the leak” loud enough to get investigators interested. But when the investigators turned to them and said, "Tell us what you know, the only evidence of the crime is in conversations with reporters," they shouted back reporters’ privilege. "Wait a minute! We don’t want to get to the bottom of this if we have to tell you what we know."
Big journalism was talking out of both sides of its collective mouth. Did reporters and editors stop for a minute to ask a key question: Is the public better off knowing or not knowing? Is it better that the public know a key White House official leaked the information, or that the Office of the Vice President may have been masterminding the effort?
When the investigation put them in a tough spot, they repeatedly downplayed its significance, making it sound as if it were a meaningless episode, one of many that occurs hourly in national politics and government. They went on “Larry King” and “Hardball” and “Meet the Press” and talked about its relative insignificance and how any charges Fitzgerald made would be minor, unable to dent this administration.
Bob Woodward actually squirmed on Larry King the night before the indictment while pontificating on the leaker. We later learned he had known the leaker's identity all along because he was told. Talk about duplicitous. Tell Larry you can’t make it if you have to, but don’t sit there and lie on CNN!
Was Woodward protecting his source for his upcoming book, “State of Denial”? Or was he protecting himself? He did more to damage his journalistic credibility with that appearance and his attempt to snow his editors than anything else he’s done in his career.
Judith Miller spent 85 days in jail protecting Libby, but could it be, as Don Zachary, a media lawyer with Fox Spillane says, more an attempt to “atone for the sins” of faulty reporting on the weapons of mass destruction issue? After all, Libby claims he waived his confidentiality long before her 85 days were up.
In big journalism’s efforts to challenge subpoenas and avoid damage to reporter/source relationships (to protect its own interests), an investigation that could have resulted in an indictment in October 2004 — let’s say that again, in October 2004 — was now delayed another year to October 2005.
This trial has exposed more about the cozy nature of reporters and governmental officials. Maybe the public isn’t paying attention and maybe they don’t care about the nature of the relationship between government and journalism. But they should care, because journalism let them down. The ability to weigh the pros and cons of a preemptive attack, the consequences of launching the war, an exit strategy, the stress it would place on the military as it wages a global War on Terror. These things were not sufficiently debated at the time. We were like bobble heads as the administration made the case. "Shock and awe! Yeah, shock and awe!"
I’m not saying this was a deliberate effort to pander to the government, but I am saying that if reporters and their editors had stopped long enough to ask themselves the hard questions about their own motivations, the administrations assumptions; if they had pushed their sourcing beyond the usual suspects, had spent more time following events where they were happening and less inside the Beltway; and had honestly challenged and investigated source claims, then events may have turned out differently.
If the reporters had agreed to limit the scope of their grand jury testimony earlier and we had an indictment in October 2004, before the Presidential election, where would be today?
I think that’s a fair question and I think reporters who cover government need to think about whom they are protecting? Are they protecting a government source or are they serving the public’s right to know?
Because from what I’ve seen through this trial, the administration believed it could master and manipulate journalists. Whether that is in fact the case is not the issue, it’s the perception that they are puppets of the administration and White House stenographers that is most damaging.
There are always exceptions to the rule. The Washington Post’s Dana Priest has done some time-consuming, meticulous and downright courageous reporting on national security. The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh is another example of someone consistently and courageously challenging the administration's claims. Now that President Bush's popularity has declined, journalism has again grown a set of balls, pushing this Administration for proof and details on the troop escalation and shift (if there is one) in strategy.
But is it too late? We are sitting here with a President who doesn’t really know how to get us out of the “preemptive” war he started. With only two years left in his term, it’s safe to believe that he has passed that burden on to the next guy—or gal.
Watergate was exposed by two young journalists who capitalized on the collective malaise of a Washington Press Corps that had largely fallen down on the job because of stonewalling from a paranoid administration. Hmmm, sounds familiar, eh? Let’s hope journalism learns from this and doesn't have a relapse. Because if it doesn't serve the public and ask the hard questions and hold government's feet to the fire, there are plenty of citizen journalists willing to do the work for them.
Tuesday, February 06, 2007
It's not very often I get to just play around on the Web. But after searching iTunes tonight for some new music for my iPod, I stumbled upon Dire Strait's Brothers in Arms. The album by the same name was one of my favorites in college. I used to lie on my bed and listen to this song in the dark. Fed my melancholy self.
The song also reminds me of my all-time favorite hour of television. On a lark, I went to YouTube and found the last few minutes of the season 2 finale of "The West Wing," called Two Cathedrals.
This is a masterful use of music and photography in place of words.
There's another video of President Jed Bartlet's rant against God in the Latin from the same episode. Check it out.
Friday, February 02, 2007
Why was the White House so nervous in the summer of 2003 about the CIA's reporting on alleged Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Niger to build a nuclear bomb? That's the big question that runs through the many little details that have emerged in the perjury trial of Vice President Cheney's former top aide, Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
The trial record suggests a simple answer: The White House was worried that the CIA would reveal that it had been pressured in 2002 and early 2003 to support administration claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and that in the Niger case, the CIA had tried hard to resist this pressure. The machinations of Cheney, Libby and others were an attempt to weave an alternative narrative that blamed the
The bottom line? (CIA's Iraq mission manager Robert) Grenier was asked in court last week to explain the White House's 2003 machinations. Here's what he said: "I think they were trying to avoid blame for not providing [the truth] about whether or not Iraq had attempted to buy uranium." Let me say it again: This trial is about a cover-up that failed.(Bold is mine.)
NBC's Brian Williams explains the difficulty in covering one of their own:
While we can't change the fact that some of our own people have been mentioned in (and are essential to) the Libby case, we're currently going over how to cover, for example, Tim Russert's day on the stand. We are trying to avoid having a correspondent who reports TO Tim... have to report ON Tim. As you know, Tim's been unable to discuss the case with us on the air, in order to avoid influencing the outcome. There are several ways to remedy any coverage problems, and our aim is to cover it straight as we've tried to do throughout the trial thus far. We'll keep you posted on what we decide, and you'll of course see the coverage when it airs.
How does Judith Miller escape this week? Here's Booman Tribune's take:
It's a cruel irony for Judy that all the thanks she gets for obstructing this investigation for over a year is to be destroyed by the people she set out to protect. I love it.
Let this be a lesson to anyone that does business with the Bush administration. I don't care if you are Karzai, Maliki, Lieberman, or Judy Miller...there is no profit in it. They will destroy your reputation quicker than you can say Colin Powell or George Tenet.
Hat tip to The Hindsight Factor.
We'll leave the last word on the Libby trial this week to Nicholas Lemann writing in The New Yorker:
The Libby trial reveals a White House that thought its problems were with people who could not be counted on to confirm its suspicions, like Ambassador Wilson. It should have worried less about those who would speak truth to power, and worried more that power is no longer trusted to speak truth.
Hat tip to Ernie the Attorney
Thursday, February 01, 2007
Quill / January/February 2007
Ten Interview with Chris Nolan
By Wendy A. Hoke
Chris Nolan has worked in her share of newsrooms on both coasts. While many in the news business are left scratching their heads and wringing their hands over loss of readers and revenue, this self-described “stand-alone journalist” is excited about the future of news. We’ll let her tell you why.
Q: More than a year ago, Jay Rosen (New York University professor of new media) invited you to write about being a “stand-alone journalist.” What is your definition of a “stand-alone journalist”? Why not use the term freelance?
A: The idea behind a stand-alone journalist is that you are not affiliated with any one news association. It’s someone who is working on the Web, using time-tested editorial metrics to do their job to produce professional, quality editorial. Stand-alone journalists mostly consist of former newsroom journalists. Spot-On’s writers all have some kind of professional news experience. I edit them, but they are not struggling to be heard. They understand professionalism and consequences of not doing the job. Basically, they know what editors are looking for. Freelance implies you’re working with a larger organization or else it’s used to denote people who are between jobs
The concept underlies my quip that newsrooms have left the building. When I started to write about technology, I had a column in the New York Post on Silicon Valley. I didn’t need to be in a newsroom in New York to do my job. I could write breaking stories about Frank Quattrone (the former investment banker who helped take some of the hottest names of the tech boom public and was later found guilty of obstructing justice and witnessing tampering) and do very good journalism from the second bedroom my house.
Q: As you mentioned we’re no longer hampered by place in terms of doing our jobs. How has your newsroom and independent experience combined to lead you to where you are today?
A: Everyone in the newspaper business struggles with new media. The blog is simply a tool, it’s a piece of software that allows you to write and publish on the Web. It’s not so different from what goes on in newsrooms. We’re able to research stories on the Web, write them and e-mail them to others. That Web-based experience has gone on and fueled what we are able to do at Spot-On. I wanted a way to stand apart from the large crowd of folks placing emphasis only on the technology by using this to do the work I’ve always done.
Q: Describe your journalism experience.
A: I have no idea how to do anything else other than journalism. My first newspaper job was when I was 16 or 17 at The Daily Banner in Cambridge, Md. I think local reporting is such an invaluable experience. I worked at the statehouse in Delaware, at the Tampa Tribune and kicked around the east coast at various papers. I moved to Washington, D.C., in the early ’90s and began working at a series of television trade magazines. I covered Congressional commerce and judiciary committees. In the process of doing that I was asked to start writing about technology and I came out to Silicon Valley. I went to work for the San Jose Mercury News for a while and later wrote a tech column called, “Talk is Cheap” for the New York Post. By early 2001—the nuclear winter of technology—I stopped covering tech. Frankly I goofed off.
I really was freelancing then. A local group asked me to help with newsletters and I suggested a Web log instead. Nick Denton (founder of Gawker Media) had shown me the first blogging software back in 2001. So I threw up the site (Politics from Left to Right) and used it as a way to explore the technology, which I thought was important for someone in the news business to understand.
Q: At what point did you think your blogging would become a business?
A: When (San Francisco Mayor) Gavin Newsom allowed same-sex couples to wed, the traffic on the site tripled overnight. After that I thought, maybe this is a business. We raised money and closed the first round of fund raising one year ago. We’re now in the second round and it’s as hard as everyone tells you it is.
Politics from Left to Right was based at my Web site (www.Chris Nolan.com). We were playing with Moveable Type and didn’t have style sheets or anything. I was just interested in how the technology worked. The original blog and my Web site were folded into www.Spot-On.com a year ago and that’s when I started to aggressively recruit writers. The idea was to provide small- to medium-sized papers with diverse content and voices. I have nine writers today all over the world (Spain, Colorado, Beijing, Milan, Washington, D.C., California and Massachusetts) writing about many different topics from politics to sardonic views on raising teenagers. We’re adding a woman from India in January and I’d like to find a good food writer.
Q: How do you select writers to work for Spot-On?
A: I read a lot of stuff on the Web. I’m looking for writers who have a clear idea of what they want to say. I want smart, good writers who are ready to slot into any other media that’s out there. When I read their stuff I want to say, “Cool. I hadn’t thought of that.”
The nice thing for writers is that they don’t have to sit and wait and pitch. I offer the content to news organizations with the motto, “We’re from the Internet and this time we’re here to help.” We’re creating ways to reach the reader that they haven’t been reaching.
Q: So what’s been the response of news organizations?
A: We’re at the end of another terrible year in the news business. At Spot-On we’ve spent the past year developing a first-rate editorial product with diverse voices. Our writers are reasonable, responsible and reliable. They produce every week. I think of this as a revitalization of news and I’m excited at the opportunity. Editors can look at our work and say, “This person is interesting and has a nice voice, let’s try it for few weeks and see if it works.”
Q: Is Spot-On profitable?
A: We’re a classic editorial startup – we are not profitable but we are privately held and that’s all I’m going to say. We made the decision not to compete with our clients for ad dollars. The future is in syndication.
We came along at time when readers wanted more information and we were able to provide it. Markos Moulitsas (Daily Kos) and Redstate are hard-core political activist sites. Josh Marshall (Talking Points Memo) is very much in the news business but he belongs to a long tradition of news activism. Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) is a spokesperson for the Web. I’m doing something different by using everything I’ve learned in 20-plus years as a journalist and producing a quality product so people in newsrooms will say, “I want that.”
Q: Where has the news business gone wrong with the Web and how can it make up for lost time?
A: For an industry of people who thrive on delivering the message of change, we don’t embrace it well ourselves. I think a lot of people have faith in the business and how it will go forward. Others are not able to envision the future and that’s gut wrenching. Either way, it’s time for the whining to come down to a dull roar.
The news business made a lot of mistakes and a lot of that is because they did not have a competitive environment in which to work. Blogs are a new competitive environment and that’s great because the competition makes us all better.
I agree with many people that much of what is out there (on the Internet) is junk. But much of what out there is really interesting stuff – compelling and smartly done. It just needs some editing. I don’t have to gather writers in a newsroom to let them follow their bliss. The future news business is more creative voices.
Craig Newmark’s (Craigslist) innovation is not technology based. He allows people to enter type into a server, saves that information and then pushes it out onto the Web. Any newsroom can do that. Of course they’d have to fire their CSRs (customer service reps) and adjust how they are selling advertising. It’s a lot to ask of the news business all at once. A lot of people are very put out by that process and that’s unfortunate.
Q: What are the challenges to running a start-up?
A: It’s no walk on the beach. But we’re starting to see people placing work. Traffic on the site is good and big sites are talking about us. It’s a lot of fun to work with writers. We’re not a big family cracking wise all the time like you have a in a newsroom environment, but it’s a lot of fun.
Like it or not, blogging has become a source of information for people. Daily newspapers are filled with wire copy and a lot of voices from on high. But when you go to Web there’s all these people raising their voices. The disenfranchised are always the first to come on board. Then it morphs into something more useful. It’s moving slowly, but it’s happening.
Q: How would you advise seasoned journalists to become more familiar with technology and the way people get their information? And how would you suggest journalists of the future maximize their natural gift with technology in a reporting career?
A: Start by reading their own online Web pages. Many newspaper Web pages are unattractive and difficult to use, but the Examiner folks have been constantly tweaking their site and making it more attractive. Some of coolest sites are from magazines. Vanity Fair is brilliant and really well done.
The second thing is to look at your kids. They’re not reading newspapers but they are reading. Look at and learn from how they use cell phones and text messaging. Kids are not going to grow out of it; they take it for granted. The ability to collect and gather news is dispersed and I can’t articulate that any more clearly.
I think it’s important for people to understand the things we’ve historically used to collect information—wires and messaging services—now exist on a public network. When I started in the news business, the idea that you could sit in the United States and talk for free with people in China would be greeted with peels of laughter. I do it all the time thanks to Skype and Instant Messenger.
News has gotten into this situation because at a technology-driven movement we placed the emphasis on technology (think: DIGG, YouTube, Blogger, etc). These are pieces of software no different than Word or Excel or Outlook. They can be moved, shaped and manipulated to suit your particular needs. When you place emphasis on technology the message get lost.
For students, the most important thing is to get the basic who, what, where, when reporting experience. The media business is so competitive and if you learn how to spot breaking news, to make smart judgments quickly then you will succeed. Don’t spend a lot of time mastering specific technology because it will continue to change. The emphasis must be on basic reporting and writing.
© Copyright 2007 / Wendy A. Hoke
Rory O'Connor, blogging for MBA writes of the defense picking apart Cooper's note-taking skills:
Jeffress continues to pick at Cooper’s sloppy notes and typos in an attempt to cast doubt on what his recollection says they mean. What exactly did Libby say to him? It’s pretty tough to say by examining the notes. We’ll have to decide whether to believe Cooper’s “recollection” is accurate — or not.
And later in that same post, he continues but also reminds us that Cooper's shorthand notwithstanding, this is still far from a knockout for the defense:
By hammering on Cooper’s incomplete, typo-ridden, reporter’s shorthanded notes, the defense is attempting to cast doubt on his contention that Libby told him anything about Valerie Plame or her CIA connection. Cooper can’t explain the gaps in his notes and emails, but adheres to his contention that his recollection of what Libby said to him is accurate.
Over at BTC News there's this roundup of the day's impact on media:
On the press watching front, the primary lessons of today’s action are that Matt Cooper and Judy Miller really need to brush up on their note-taking skills, and people who talk to Cooper and Miller should probably take their own contemporaneous notes in order to ensure that what gets printed bears some resemblance to what was said.
On the entertainment front, the big news is that according to Cheney advisor Mary Matalin, Russert, who will be testifying next week, hates Hardball host Chris Matthews, who was causing serious heartburn in the vice president’s office during the period in question. Matalin suggested Libby call Russert to complain about Matthews; Libby did so, and that conversation is the one during which Libby says he learned (or relearned, or re-relearned …) from Russert that Wilson was a CIA officer.
I'm not sure why typo-ridden notes are a problem. It's not as if it gets into print that way. I'd venture to say that most journalists have their own form of shorthand, which could prove problematic in the reporting process. But it's why we end every conversation with, "If I have any other questions or need some clarification, can I give you call?"