Monday, June 1, 2015

Jack Shafer, poster child [repost]

You might have heard about Bruce Bartlett's recent paper on the effect that Fox News has had on the Republican Party. I don't entirely agree but it makes some interesting points about the way information flow affects politics.

The paper raises serious questions not just about Fox but about the entire journalistic ecosystem. For a long time and for a variety of reasons, major mainstream outlets like the New York Times and Politico have been reluctant to call Fox out on its most egregious lapses (these days, the news media is pretty much one long row of glass houses).

It's not surprising that Politico media apologist Jack Shafer took umbrage. If you really want to read Shafer's comments, you can find a link in this piece by Eric Boehlert, but, before you do, I would recommend that you take a few minutes to review Shafer's rather... flexible standards for journalistic quality and ethics.

More on journalistic tribalism
from WEDNESDAY, APRIL 3, 2013

Having brought up the charge in a previous post, I should probably take a minute to spell out exactly what I'm talking about. I'm using a very broad reading of the term 'tribalism' (perhaps so broad I should say something like 'tribalism and other social psych phenomena'). The traits I'm thinking of include:

1. Us/them mentality;

2. Excessive reliance on in-group social norms;

3. Deferring to and preserving hierarchies;

and as a consequence

4,   A tendency to use different standards to judge interactions based on the relative positions of the parties.

There is inevitably going to be a degree of subjectivity when deciding who goes where in the hierarchy, but I think it's fairly safe to say that Maureen Dowd and (till his death) Michael Kelly were in the innermost circle with writers like David Brooks and most prominent, established Washington and, to a lesser degree, New York journalists fairly close.

In this tribal model, it makes perfect sense that Politico would view Chris Hughes' (outsider) request for a small change in the copy of Timothy Noah (insider) as a major affront. It also explains Politico's attacks on Nate Silver (outsider) when his work started making established pundits (insiders) look bad.

The press corps's treatment of Al Gore in 2000 is another case in point. Following the lead of Dowd and Kelly and reinforced by a general dislike of the candidate, the group quickly established social norms that justified violating the most basic standards of accuracy and fairness.

The poster child for this kind of journalistic tribalism is Jack Shafer, or at least he was a few years ago when I was first experimenting with blogging. One of my main topics was the press's inability to face up to its problems and Shafer was the gift that kept on giving (I haven't read him much since). That blog is gone now but I still have my notes so here are some highlights.

Shafer was openly disdainful of readers and generally dismissive of their interests which is an extraordinary starting point for a journalism critic. Consider this passage from the aptly named "Why I Don't Trust Readers"
I'm all for higher standards, but I draw the line when journalists start getting more complaints about less serious professional lapses. Serious: Plagiarism, willful distortion, pattern of significant errors, bribe-taking. Not serious: campaign donations in the low three-figures for reporters distant from that beat; appearance of conflict of interest; a point of view; friendships with the rich and powerful.
First, notice the first item on the list. Plagiarism is certainly a serious offense, but the other serious offenses are the sort of things that can destroy people's lives, conceal crimes and enable corruption. Even more interesting is what didn't make the list: unintentional distortion due to laziness or bias; patterns of minor errors; isolated cases of serious errors due to negligence; selective reporting (as long as it doesn't rise to the level of distortion); failure to dig into important aspects of a story; cozy relationships with subjects as long as it doesn't involve the quid pro quo of a bribe.

What's important here was the victimology. In plagiarism, the primary victim is a fellow journalist. In all of these other cases, the primary victim is either the subject or the reader. Shafer was a tribalist and his main objective was almost always the defense of his tribe and its hierarchy.

There's a remarkable inverse correlation between the rank of Shafer's subjects and the harshness with which he treats them.  This is particularly apparent when different subjects of the same article have different positions. Shafer provided an excellent example when he wrote a post complaining about liberals writing books that actually called conservatives liars in the titles.

The books were Al Franken, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them,  Joe Conason's Big Lies and David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush. Of these three, Conason was something of a pariah (Shafer dismissed him as a Clinton apologist) and Franken was clearly a journalistic outsider. Corn, on the other hand, was very much an insider in the Washington press corp (Shafer even described him as a friend in the post).

Under these circumstances, it's not surprising that Shafer finds a way to shield Corn from much of the blast.
This criticism applies more to Franken and Conason than it does Corn—you can't expect a book about Bush's lies to also be about Clinton's lies. And Corn acknowledges in his intro that Bush isn't the first White House liar and that Clinton lied, too. 
Of course, you could easily make a similar but more persuasive argument in Franken's behalf. Lies was largely focused on the relationship between the GOP and conservative media and since the book was published in 2003 when there was no Air America and MSNBC was just starting to experiment with liberal programming, there was no way to provide similar examples on the left.  Just to be clear, I'm not making that argument; I'm only saying that it's just as viable as the one makes for Corn.

For an even more dramatic bit of paired data, consider two obituaries Shafer wrote, separated by only a few months. The first was for Walter Annenberg, best known as a philanthropist and founder of TV Guide. The second was for Michael Kelly, journalist and former editor of the New Republic. Once again there's a clear hierarchical distance between the subjects: Annenberg, though decades earlier a power in publishing and to his death a major force in philanthropy, was not a journalistic insider; Kelly, on the other hand was about as inside as you can get.

As you've probably guessed by now, Shafer's approach to these two obituaries differs sharply. Though they don't fully capture the difference, the epitaphs give a good indication of the respective tones:

Michael Kelly: "Husband. Father. Journalist"

Walter Annenberg: "Billionaire Son of Mobster, Enemy of Journalism, and Nixon Toady Exits for Hell—Forced To Leave Picassos and van Goghs at Metropolitan Museum."

The contrast is sharpest when Shafer addresses journalistic scandals and cozy relationships with controversial right wing politicians, areas where there are definite parallels between the two men. Shafer actually explains away the New Republic/Glass scandal as an instance of Kelly being too loyal for his own good.

Shafer often judges figures on the periphery of the journalistic establishment based on a much higher standard than "Plagiarism, willful distortion, pattern of significant errors, bribe-taking." For someone like Larry King, a few disputable errors and minor discrepancies (such as changing the date of an incident from 1972 to 1971 when retelling an anecdote) merit an entire column. (It's worth noting that this column ran in the middle of 2009, a period when the coverage of politics, the economy and the European crisis were raising all sorts of journalistic questions, questions that didn't get a lot of space in Shafer's column. This raises the issue of trivialism in media criticism -- see On the Media for a myriad of examples -- but that's a topic for another thread.)

If marginal figures committing minor offenses are treated harshly by Shafer, what happens when someone at the top of the hierarchy does something that Shafer normally considers a serious offense like plagiarism? We got an answer to that one when Maureen Dowd was caught lifting a passage from Josh Marshall.

Here's her explanation in Bloggasm:

“i was talking to a friend of mine Friday about what I was writing who suggested I make this point, expressing it in a cogent — and I assumed spontaneous — way and I wanted to weave the idea into my column. but, clearly, my friend must have read josh marshall without mentioning that to me. we’re fixing it on the web, to give josh credit, and will include a note, as well as a formal correction tomorrow.”
And here Shafer explains why it's not so bad:
1. She responded promptly to the charge of plagiarism when confronted by the Huffington Post and Politico. (Many plagiarists go into hiding or deny getting material from other sources.)

2. She and her paper quickly amended her column and published a correction (although the correction is a little soft for my taste).

3. Her explanation of how the plagiarism happened seems plausible—if a tad incomplete.

4. She's not yet used the explanation as an excuse, nor has she said it's "time to move on."

5. She's not yet protested that her lifting wasn't plagiarism.

6. She's taking her lumps and not whining about it.
And here was my response at the time:
1. 'Responded.' Not to be confused with 'confessed,' 'owned up,' 'took responsibility,' or any phrase that uses a form of the word 'plagiarism.'
2. "[A] little soft"?
3. Yeah, near verbatim quotes make it through convoluted processes all the time.
4. "[M]y friend must have read josh marshall without mentioning that to me." -- What exactly would an excuse look like?
5. No, she just implied it wasn't plagiarism. That definitely gives her the moral high ground.
6. What a trooper.
(I apologize for the tone. I was in a snarky phase, but I'm trying to play nicer these days.)

I've spent a lot of time on Shafer because he's a good example,  I was familiar with his work and, as a media critic, he has an important role in journalism's self-correction process, but he's is not an isolated case, nor is he the worst of bunch (particularly not since the rise of Politico).

The point of all this is that journalism has a problem with tribalism and other social dynamics. These things are affecting objectivity, credibility and quality. What's worse, journalists seem to have so internalized the underlying mindset to such a degree that most of them don't even realize what's going on.

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