Friday, April 5, 2013

Just two more on journalistic tribalism and I'll change the subject

I was planning to give the topic a break for a while after these harsh (though I hope justified) posts on Timothy Noah and Jack Shafer, but these two recent stories (both via TPM) are simply too apt to leave out of a discussion of the increasingly unhealthy culture and social dynamics of journalism.

The first involves a topic hit briefly in the second post, Michael Kelly's handling of the Stephen Glass scandal, discussed here by Tom Scocca as part of a larger piece on Kelly and Iraq.
Remembering Kelly in 2004, the editor of his posthumous collected works, Things Worth Fighting For, wrote about the mystery of “the two Michaels”—the subtle reporter and the hectoring columnist. There were more like three Kellys: the loving and loyal personal Kelly; the impish, incisive, and sometimes courageous observer; and the nasty, often petty polemicist, who wrote things for effect that he knew were untrue. But they blended into each other, and not to his benefit.

It was Kelly’s notion of collegial devotion that led him to brutally defend his New Republic protege Stephen Glass, past the bitter end, refusing to concede to Buzz Bissinger that a smear Glass had written about the healthy-eating activist Michael Jacobson, in a story admitted to have been fabricated, was inaccurate.

When interviewed, Kelly said that he would gladly apologize to Jacobson for the opening anecdote—as long as he was given definitive proof of its embellishment.

So he shared with Sullivan, who had originally hired Glass, the distinction of an active role in two of the worst failures of journalism in a generation. Perhaps, like Sullivan, he would have changed his position on Iraq, had he lived to see our military might losing control, the easy liberation collapsing into hell, Saddam’s torture prisons reopening with American torturers. What might he have written, if he’d had the chance to engage with the terrible truths of this past decade? What might a hundred thousand other people have done, if they’d lived too?
The notion of loyalty comes up a lot when people remember Kelly. It's a word with highly positive connotations but a somewhat spotty record. You'll hear it used to describe people sticking with down and out friends but also to explain why clean cops cover up for dirty ones. As a general rule, when loyalty means always siding with the insider in an inter-group conflict, it's a bad and potentially dangerous thing.

If you look at this in terms of the interests of subjects, journalists and readers, Kelly's loyalty expressed itself almost solely as putting journalists' interest above those of  their subjects and readers. Both in the Glass affair and in his own writings, Kelly placed a low value on seeing a subject treated fairly or a reader informed truthfully. Despite this, even after the Glass scandal, Kelly remained a tremendously well respected member of the journalistic establishment.

The second involves a favorite Kelly target, Al Gore and the ultimate DC insider, Bob Woodward:
He also told an unflattering, but amusing story about sitting next to former Vice President Al Gore at a dinner, saying being with him was “taxing,” and added, “To be really honest, it’s unpleasant.”

Woodward said Gore pressed him on why the journalist didn’t go after Bush, who beat Gore in the 2000 presidential election, over the war in Iraq.

Gore was a former reporter before becoming a politician, and “he thinks he invented [reporting] also,” Woodward joked in reference to an often misquoted statement that the ex-vice president claimed he invented the Internet.
I don't want to dig through the whole sordid history again but here's a quick recap. Al Gore was strongly disliked by much of the DC press (most notably by the highly influential Kelly). Probably not coincidentally, the coverage of Gore's campaign was marked by the creation and propagation of various misquotes and factual errors.

What's interesting here is Woodward's ability to tune out more than a decade of revelations about the 2000 election. When faced with professional criticism, he responds by dismissing the critic with a widely debunked claim that originated from a string of professional lapses by his immediate colleagues.

These are all signs of a profession in trouble.

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