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Jay Rosen
87,892 followers -
A teach journalism at NYU and write about the press in a digital era
A teach journalism at NYU and write about the press in a digital era

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My new post at PressThink attempts to redefine the term "Fourth Estate." It's now a state of mind that some in the press have (but some don't.) Some who have that state of mind are journalists, some are not.

Here's how The Browser, a very good aggregation, best-of-the-web site, summarized it: "For decades we’ve used the term 'fourth estate' to mean the Press. But it’s better defined as an attitude of mind, the will to hold power to account. Some journalists have it, but the floor is open. We’re back to Carlyle’s original 19C formulation: 'Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power. It matters not what rank he has: the requisite thing is that he have a tongue which others will listen to.'"

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There is a thread that connects these two: Snowden and Jeff Bezos. Something we do know about Snowden — that he's willing to up against the most powerful people in the world — is something we don't know about Bezos. But as publisher of the Washington Post, he is going to find this out about himself: When his free press moment comes, will Jeff Bezos answer the bell? My latest post at PressThink frames it that way.

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This week I made a decision that as a press critic I would retire from trying to criticize CNN. I explain why in this post. Since it was published a former executive at CNN, Sid Bedingfield, has said he's almost at that point too. The way I see it, CNN is now just non-fiction TV, also called reality shows. Criticism of it should pass to another department: TV critics who write about a new season of The Voice or The Next Great Food Network Star. 

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My new post on my site, PressThink, is about two kinds of commitment in political journalism and some lessons for the press in the leak of  the NSA story to columnist Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian.

The two kinds are "see? we have no commitments! so trust us!" which I call in this piece politics: none vs. "here's what's happening and here are my convictions" which I call politics:some. My purpose is not to denounce one or praise the other but merely to make the point that both are valid, effective, "traditional," and professional.

Is the distinction helpful? It's supposed to be.

A small window into this issue was provided by Greenwald when he posted the email exchange between a New York Times reporter seeking comment on Greenwald and blogger Andrew Sullivan, who knows Glenn. As you can see by going here http://goo.gl/geJ6S the reporter asks Sullivan:

1)   He obviously had strong opinions, but how is he as a journalist? Reliable? Honest? Quotes you accurately? Accurately describes your positions? Or is more advocate than journalist?
2)   He says you are a friend, is this so? I get the sense that he is something of a loner and has the kind of uncompromising opinions that makes it hard to keep friends, but could be wrong.

That line or hers, "more advocate than journalist?" shows the kind of thinking I'm pushing against in this post.

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This week I started releasing a cycle of work that began 14 years ago when I read my first article about "open source journalism." I thought then, and still believe, that the craft of beat reporting would be changed by the discovery that, as Dan Gillmor put it in 1999, "my readers know more than I do." That, plus the frictionless ease by which information and expertise from knowledgable users could flow in would make possible a different kind of beat coverage. 

A lot has happened since I came to that conclusion 14 years ago: The rise of blogging after 2000, which changed the READ ONLY web into Read/Write. The rise of social after 2007, which changed the web into read/writer/share. The routine use of networked methods in journalism, as with finding sources over Twitter or Facebook. 

But we still haven't seen the networked beat emerge in full form yet, and that is why I continued to work on the problem. In this post at my blog, PressThink, I respond to "specs" I received from Quartz News (qz.com), the Atlantic's global business news site. In reply to these specs, I gave them a design for launching a networked beat for one of their "obsessions" (that's what they call them, rather than beats.)

The obsession we chose to model in networked form was "covering bitcoin as a window into digital money." Here's the post, with the background, the assignment from Quartz and the beat design. 

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The Atlantic magazine made a fairly large mistake recently when it ran some "sponsor content" from the Church of Scientology. What ran was something resembling an article from the Church about all the great things going on there. The Atlantic initially moderated the comments in a way that seemed to be cheerleading for the Church. Then when people around the web noticed they took the article down, plainly said "we goofed," and added that they would be conducting a review of what happened. (All were good moves.) That review was evidently completed, and the results were summarized in a memo that became public today. I've linked to it.

I see three problems. 

One: why is this a memo to staff (which was leaked) rather than a public statement by The Atlantic about what went wrong with the Scientology deal? I'd love to know. Seems to me there are almost no advantages to making it an internal thing and many plusses to going public. Well, it became public anyway, a completely predictable event because the writers were pissed!

Two: The memo from Atlantic president Scott Havens says that there was nothing wrong with the idea of selling "sponsored content" to the Church of Scientology. The error was in "the execution of the campaign." More specifically, "we did not adequately work with the advertiser to create a content program that was in line with our brand." This suggests that there was a way of giving space to the Church of Scientology to tell its story that would be line with the Atlantic's editorial brand, but the business staff just didn't execute well enough.

I question that claim. The Church has been extremely hostile to journalists. Its attempts to intimidate the press and prevent facts that don't fit its narrative from coming out are well documented and would be well known to the Atlantic's editorial staff. See:

http://www.lamag.com/features/2012/12/18/the-tip-of-the-spear

It's also extremely aggressive in promoting an unblemished image of the Church. The idea that Scientology was a good candidate for "sponsored content" but the Atlantic just didn't execute well feels far fetched to me, especially in a memo that says: "Our highest priority is The Atlantic’s reputation and credibility." Scientology was a poor candidate for sponsored content, exactly the kind of client that should be turned down because of the likelihood of reputation harm. 

Three: The memo makes a point of warning the writers, critics and bloggers at The Atlantic, who speak their minds about almost everything: "And we most certainly should not speak to the press or use social media to attack our organization or our colleagues. We are a team that rises and falls together."

What actually happened is that some writers for The Atlantic said on Twitter that they were not on board with this decision, had nothing to do with it, and they were concerned about it. That's not an attack. It's an alarm. It may be uncomfortable and embarrassing for the organization, but if the highest priority is the Atlantic's reputation and credibility, then the people who run the magazine should be grateful for writers who say publicly, "the team erred." 

Let me add that I am a (paid) subscriber to The Atlantic, a loyal reader of theatlantic.com, and a fan of many of the magazine's writers. I want its reputation to remain high. The decision to go forward with the Scientology feature was a mistake from which The Atlantic and the journalism world can learn. But there seems to be some mistaken ideas in play. That's not about execution, Mr. Havens. 

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I agree with Glenn Greenwald that we need an investigation of the conduct of Federal prosecutors Carmen Ortiz and Stephen Heymann in the Aaron Swartz case. I believe the right point of pressure is the Inspector General's office of the Department of Justice, but it is also a good thing that Congress is getting involved.

The victimized institution in the case, the JSTOR service, said it saw no point in prosecuting Swartz for a felony. As far as it was concerned, the case was closed when Swartz returned the data he downloaded from the MIT network.

The investigation should begin there. Why did the US Attorney for the Massachusetts district disagree? Also important, in my view: What principle of proportionality was in play in this prosecution?  

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"CNN needs new thinking," said its big boss, Jim Walton, after announcing last week that he would step down as president of CNN Worldwide.

After years of observing this fact -  that CNN needs new thinking! -  I am too cynical to believe that Walton's admission will bring a change. The most likely result is that nothing will happen. CNN and its corporate owners, Time Warner, are fully satisfied with the money CNN makes as a worldwide news operation operating in all those hotels and airports and cable systems abroad. CNN International is the product, CNN in the US is just a spasm. For the actual product (the CNN of the hotel chain and airport lounge and foreign cable system) to work it has to feel harmless, safe, neutral, like beige carpeting in the convention center.

Just listen to Jeff Bewkes, CEO of Time Warner, praising Walton... "When Jim Walton assumed the presidency of CNN in 2003, it was underperforming and earnings were in serious decline. Since then, he and CNN have tripled earnings, doubled margin and delivered annual growth of 15 percent. In his nearly 31 years of uninterrupted and distinguished service to CNN, Jim has been instrumental in growing the business into the financial powerhouse it has become, while establishing the brand as the worldwide leader for television news."

A financial powerhouse growing at 15 percent a year needs new thinking? I doubt it. Bland newsy mush is not a weakness, but a strategic proposition for CNN. They've made their peace with mediocrity and also-ran status in prime time in the US. The fact that CNN is neither Fox nor MSNBC lets everyone feel great about his or her own "serious news person" credentials, and if you under-estimate how powerful that feeling alone is, you cannot get a handle on why this situation persists. They know almost no one watches until there's a big breaking news event, and they know they surrender everything to it and go to wall-to-wall whether there's anything to report or not. They don't care. 

For there to be any movement at CNN, they would have to admit that the View from Nowhere, and "we're not the left or the right-leaning network," and "at CNN, the news is the star" and "the worldwide leader in news" have lost their power to inspire great work. But that cannot be admitted. For structural reasons--the biege carpet that offends no one--and for ideological reasons. The people at CNN think they are better than everyone else in cable TV because they haven't gone left or right. Who's going to tell them they're not? No one has been able to yet, and plenty have tried.

CNN could turn prime time in the US into a laboratory for new approaches in nightly news without seriously affecting its financial performance. It could become truly experimental and keep Jeff Bewkes happy. It could conduct a three-hour fact checking clinic and tell us who the biggest deceivers are in our public life. It could accept third place status and go for prestige by producing original documentaries that actually investigate. There are many things it could do and still make barge loads of money. It won't do any of them. 

Jon Stewart nailed it years ago with his segment. "CNN leaves it there." http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-october-12-2009/cnn-leaves-it-there Years later, CNN is still leaving it there. Tune in years from now and CNN will be leaving it there. The network is in stasis. It's a failure that makes money and makes for self-satisfied journalists. Speculating about how to improve it is idle. 
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