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Ernest Miller Ernest Miller pursues research and writing on cyberlaw, intellectual property, and First Amendment issues. Mr. Miller attended the U.S. Naval Academy before attending Yale Law School, where he was president and co-founder of the Law and Technology Society, and founded the technology law and policy news site LawMeme. He is a fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. Ernest Miller's blog postings can also be found @
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May 22, 2005

The Problem With Journalism Is ...

Posted by Ernest Miller

The Washington Post (reg. req.) publishes an op-ed by Prof. Chris Hanson of the College of Journalism at the Univ. of Maryland critical of the effects that the increased speed of the news cycle is having (The 'Scoop' Heard 'Round the World. Sadly.):

The very speed at which information -- or what passes for it -- comes at us is a big part of the problem. In 1857, the sepoy cartridge rumor appears to have spread slowly among Indian regiments, largely by word-of-mouth, over a period of months. In the wired world of 2005, by contrast, Newsweek's story zipped from modem to modem and then from radio broadcast to mosque, quickly igniting unrest that had simmered just below the surface. By the time the denials and retractions caught up, belief in the Koran abuse was probably too deeply rooted in the Muslim world for much skepticism to penetrate.
Um, is speed really the problem here? How would this story have played out pre-internet? Might the story have essentially been forgotten in the U.S., only to gain new prominence when, weeks later, it was picked up by demagogues in Afghanistan and Pakistan to spark riots? It is still likely that the riots would have happened, right? Is it really the speed of the internet that is the problem or the fact that it makes information more readily available? Maybe there wouldn't have been riots because so few in the Middle East would have access to Newsweek without the internet, but in that case, it isn't speed that is the problem, it is distribution and a journalism professor isn't going to argue against the spread of information, is he?

In any case, isn't this another version of the saying attributed to Mark Twain that "a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes"? But doesn't the internet change this to some extent? After all the Killian Memos Affair (aka "Rathergate") shows the power of the internet to counteract falsehoods. Before the internet it would have taken much more time for critical analysis of the memos to have come to light, if it ever did. Oh, wait ... apparently not.

Read on...

Hanson complains about the speed of the news cycle, but in what should be a leisurely op-ed piece publishes some interesting takes on the Killian Memos Affair:

Information hurtles back and forth so quickly that fact, rumor and conjecture seem to blur -- especially when bloggers with political agendas get into the act. Conservative bloggers pounced quickly to discredit the documents then-CBS anchor Dan Rather relied on last fall in his infamous report about President Bush's National Guard performance. Cyber-debate then moved on briskly to other things. Many people think the documents were proven to be forgeries and the gist of the report false. But in reality, no one has demonstrated conclusively whether the documents are fake, or whether or not Bush disobeyed orders to shirk flight status as alleged.
No one has demonstrated conclusively whether the documents are fake? Please. We have several documents written over a period of more than a year that don't match the type style of any documents of known provenance, or any documents from the same military unit of the era. The documents are casually written, yet contain relatively sophisticated type setting that is rare for the era and took significant effort to employ. Furthermore, in a coincidence that is far too amazing to point to anything but falsity, the documents show near perfect alignment (even highly sophisticated center alignment) with documents produced on a modern, common word processor's default settings. Strangely, none of the other documents of known provenance from the era show the same amazing alignment properties.

At this point it is Hanson, the trained journalist, who is spreading rumor and conjecture, since claiming that the documents aren't conclusively forgeries means that they may, in fact, be quite real documents of the era. Heck, claiming that the documents aren't conclusively forgeries makes conjecture look bad. Gee, I wonder if Hanson has a political agenda?

But that's not all:

Bloggers also set the pace when CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan came under fire last year for allegedly asserting, at a conference not covered by the news media, that U.S. soldiers had deliberately shot journalists in Iraq. Jordan insisted he had meant only that soldiers had been reckless, shooting at targets they did not know were journalists. But outrage spread so quickly over the net that Jordan resigned -- and the top story moved on -- before anyone could verify exactly what he had said. There were plenty of eyewitnesses with different versions of what he said, but there was no transcript, and to this day the issue remains murky.
No transcript? Well, maybe not, but there was a videotape. However, the conference organizers refused to release it. Jordan never called on the conference organizers to release the tape in order to clear his name and show that he did not say what his critics claim. Which is really too bad, given that the issue remains murky to this day. It is still not too late for Jordan to call for release of the recording. I'm waiting...waiting...waiting...

Once again, even though Hanson had the leisurely time for an op-ed he apparently didn't do all the checking one might expect. Either that, or he is being deliberately misleading.

Cyber-pace journalism plays havoc with subtlety, precision, distinctions, qualifications and consistency. The tempo demands simple ideas and crude story lines.
Well, we've seen what old-fashioned leisurely op-ed writing does for Hanson's journalism, why must he accuse cyber-pace journalism of the same?

Actually, his criticism seems more apt of television and the mass media than the internet. Isn't it television and mass media that demand simple ideas and crude story lines? How precise and qualified can a minute or two of a broadcast be? Which is more subtle, television or the internet?

Another simple-for-cyber story line was "Newsweek Wrong!", trumpeting the administration's angry, full-bore denial/condemnation of the magazine's account, which it called "irresponsible" and "demonstrably false." "They cannot retract the damage they have done to this nation or to those who were viciously attacked," McClellan said.
Hmmm...soundbites. Was McClellan speaking for blogs, which would parse the living hell out of his statements in plaintext, or television, which would show McClellan speaking from a position of authority in front of an impressive-looking podium and the White House logo behind him? Simple-for-cyber my ass. Simple-for-television more like.
By the same token, as Brian Montopoli noted in a CJR Daily posting, news outlets reported that Newsweek had issued a full retraction.
And where was this posting? Does CJR publish treeware on a daily basis? Or, perhaps, this was a not-so-simple-for-cyber version of the story?
Rumors and half-truths are most likely to take on the guise of solid fact when there is a dearth of information about a compelling topic. Twenty-four-hour cable news has made the problem far worse, especially when a compelling story is breaking and the cable news channels feel obliged to cover it around the clock, with little of substance to report.
Wait a minute, I thought it was this cyber-pace journalism that was the problem? Is it 24-hour cable or cyber-pace journalism that is at issue?
When released Guantanamo detainees declared months ago that they had seen interrogators put Korans in toilets, media gave their claims wide and prominent circulation, even though it was impossible to verify them. It seems that if you can't report solid facts, you can at least report assertions. It was their claims that helped make the Newsweek story seem plausible. Unfortunately, many in the audience regard unverified assertions as gospel, just as sepoys knew with certainty that the British had defiled their cartridges.
Hold on a moment here. It's the audience that is the problem now? Can't Hanson keeps his villains straight? First, it's the pace of information (although why the pace is at fault is never clear). It is cyber-pace journalism that leads to crude storylines, which is shown by citing television soundbites. Then "cyber" morphs into "cable" as the 24-news channels get blamed. Now it is the audience that can't distinguish between asserted stories and verified ones? Geez.

And what does Hanson propose to do about these unverified assertions, given that the government is highly reticent to verify? Should the press simply ignore the claims?

So take your lumps, Mike [Isikoff], then go back out and nail this story down.
Well, okay, then. Glad we got that straightened out. Just nail the story down. Great advice. Never would have thought of that.

Comments (6) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Blogging and Journalism | Journalism


COMMENTS

1. Seth Finkelstein on May 22, 2005 01:03 PM writes...

What a hackish, paint-by-numbers, article. A small proof for the journo-principle that you don't get points for being accurate, you get points for saying what your audience wants to hear.

Permalink to Comment

2. Vic Havens on May 23, 2005 07:49 AM writes...

"speaking from a position of authority in front of an impressive-looking podium"

I know it's a bit of a crochet, but... it's not a podium, it's a lectern.

One stands ON a podium; one stands at or behind a lectern.

When watching a speaker, one would only notice any podium, whether impressive-looking or otherwise, if one were looking at the speaker's feet.

Permalink to Comment

3. John Cunningham on May 23, 2005 08:37 AM writes...

Seth, where was Miller painting by numbers? he delved into specific details of the Newsweek story, and cited specific details of the Bush/Natl Guard memos. You addressed nothing in the way of inaccuracies in Miller's thoughtful article, you simply engaged in a sophomoric ad hominen attack. Is that the best that you can do?

Permalink to Comment

4. Seth Finkelstein on May 23, 2005 09:37 AM writes...

John: Argh, you misread my comment. I see the mistake. I was calling Hanson's piece as hackish, paint-by-numbers, and concurring with Miller. I hadn't realized it would read ambiguously since it was an off-the-cuff me-too.

Permalink to Comment

5. chris hanson on May 30, 2005 02:22 PM writes...

Ernest Miller recently posted a highly misleading critique of my May 22 Washington Post Outllook piece on this site. I wish to post this message to hold him accountable for his distortions.
My article jumped off from the Newsweek Koran-in-toilet fiasco to discuss broader problems in journalism. “Newsweek's mistake is only the latest example of a deepening crisis
in American journalism, I wrote. “Too often these days, reporters and editors seem unable or unwilling to perform a basic duty -- sifting rumor from fact, salesmanship from independent analysis -- and instead become conduits for falsehoods, half-truths and propaganda. Whether they know it or not, news media are helping create a world in which we often don't know what we know, and don't know what we don't know, and are thus easy marks for manipulation by anyone from politicians to
ideologues to self-help gurus.”
I maintain in my article that the speed at which information, or supposed information flows, in the age of cyber scoops and 24 hour cable news helps explain our state of unrecognized ignorance, along with the mounting secrecy of the Bush administration and its growing ability to intimidate the press after 9-11 and the increasing difficulty news consumers have distinguishing rumor from fact in a very foggy news environment.
Yet Mr. Miller discusses my piece on his posting as if I am attributing the problem to cyber speed alone. This little trick enables him to build bogus arguments later on, as we’ll see. Mr. Miller begins his posting as follows:

Miller: The Washington Post (reg. req.) publishes an op-ed by Prof. Chris Hanson of the College of Journalism at the Univ. of Maryland critical of the effects that the increased speed of the news cycle is having (The 'Scoop' Heard 'Round the World. Sadly.)
Miller then quotes from my article: “The very speed at which information -- or what passes for it -- comes at us is a big part of the problem. In 1857, the sepoy cartridge rumor appears to have spread slowly among Indian regiments, largely by word-of-mouth, over a period of months. In the wired world of 2005, by
contrast, Newsweek's story zipped from modem to modem and then from radio broadcast to mosque, quickly igniting unrest that had simmered just below the surface. By the time the denials and retractions caught up, belief in the Koran abuse was probably too deeply rooted in the Muslim world for much skepticism to penetrate.”

Miller then comments, ‘Um, is speed really the problem here? How would this story have played out pre-internet? Might the story have essentially been forgotten in the U.S., only to gain new prominence when, weeks later, it was picked up by demagogues in Afghanistan and Pakistan to spark riots? It is still likely that the riots would have happened, right? Is it really the speed of the internet that is the problem or the fact that it makes information more readily available? Maybe there wouldn't have been riots because so few in the Middle East would have access to Newsweek without the internet, but in that case, it isn't speed that is the problem, it is distribution and a journalism professor isn't going to argue against the spread of information, is he?”

Hanson response: Speed is certainly a problem, and Miller contorts his brain to miss the point. If a supposed fact is not verified, it is not information but something closer to rumor and possibly false. The faster that rumors and falsehoods spread, and come to be believed, the harder it is for the truth to will out when and if it is established. In the Newsweek case, denials and the retraction came far too late to have much impact. Speed is certainly a factor when agitators with modems can disseminate the Periscope item to an entire network of people within seconds and gin up riots.
Of course, we can never know what would have happened if this item had been reported 30 years ago.”


Miller goes on: In any case, isn't this another version of the saying attributed to Mark Twain that "a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes"? But doesn't the internet change this to some extent? After all the Killian Memos Affair (aka "Rathergate") shows the power of the internet to counteract falsehoods. Before the internet it would have taken much more time for critical analysis of the memos to have come to light, if it ever did. Oh, wait ... apparently not.

Read on...

Hanson complains about the speed of the news cycle, but in what should be a leisurely op-ed piece publishes some interesting takes on the Killian Memos Affair.

Miller quotes from my piece. “It is much the same with other stories. Information hurtles back and
forth so quickly that fact, rumor and conjecture seem to blur --
especially when bloggers with political agendas get into the act.
Conservative bloggers pounced quickly to discredit the documents
then-CBS anchor Dan Rather relied on last fall in his infamous report about President Bush's National Guard performance. Cyber-debate then moved on briskly to other things. Many people think the documents were proven to be forgeries and the gist of the report false. But in reality, no one has demonstrated conclusively whether the documents are fake, or whether or not Bush disobeyed orders to shirk flight status as
alleged.”

Miller’s comment. No one has demonstrated conclusively whether the documents are fake? Please. We have several documents written over a period of more than a year that don't match the type style of any documents of known provenance, or any documents from the same military unit of the era. The documents are casually written, yet contain relatively sophisticated type setting that is rare for the era and took significant effort to employ. Furthermore, in a coincidence that is far too amazing to point to anything but falsity, the documents show near perfect alignment (even highly sophisticated center alignment) with documents produced on a modern, common word processor's default settings. Strangely, none of the other documents of known provenance from the era show the same amazing alignment properties.

At this point it is Hanson, the trained journalist, who is spreading rumor and conjecture, since claiming that the documents aren't conclusively forgeries means that they may, in fact, be quite real documents of the era. Heck, claiming that the documents aren't conclusively forgeries makes conjecture look bad. Gee, I wonder if Hanson has a political agenda?

Hanson response. Here, I was at fault for not making my point more clearly. I wish I had put it like this: Debate moved on quickly to other things, and we’re still not clear on whether or not President Bush was a National Guard slacker, or on who was behind these highly dubious documents. We don’t even have closure on their falsehood, as CBS’ independent panel declined to make a finding on that question and no reputable independent news organization stepped in to do so. As it is, the forgery findings of some very persuasive font and typeface experts have been fogged by the zealous partisanship of so many who disseminated these analyses.

Miller then quotes another graf from my article: “Bloggers also set the pace when CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan
came under fire last year for allegedly asserting, at a conference not
covered by the news media, that U.S. soldiers had deliberately shot
journalists in Iraq. Jordan insisted he had meant only that soldiers
had been reckless, shooting at targets they did not know were
journalists. But outrage spread so quickly over the net that Jordan
resigned -- and the top story moved on -- before anyone could verify exactly what he had said. There were plenty of eyewitnesses with different versions of what he said, but there was no transcript, and to this day the issue remains murky.”

Miller’s comment: No transcript? Well, maybe not, but there was a videotape. However, the conference organizers refused to release it. Jordan never called on the conference organizers to release the tape in order to clear his name and show that he did not say what his critics claim. Which is really too bad, given that the issue remains murky to this day. It is still not too late for Jordan to call for release of the recording. I'm waiting...waiting...waiting...
Once again, even though Hanson had the leisurely time for an op-ed he apparently didn't do all the checking one might expect. Either that, or he is being deliberately misleading.

Hanson response. That Jordan and CNN and Davos obfuscated, was all the more reason for journalists not to let the issue go but to use all their powers and all their skills to get the tape. Doing so might have put to rest Jordan’s claim that he was misunderstood. As to ‘deliberately misleading,’ a Freudian might suggest that Mr. Miller is projecting his own guilt onto someone else . See the next items.

Miller quotes another passage from my article. “Rumors and half-truths are most likely to take on the guise of solid fact when there is a dearth of information about a compelling topic. Twenty-four-hour cable news has made the problem far worse, especially when a compelling story is breaking and the cable news channels feel obliged to cover it around the clock, with little of substance to report.”

Miller’s comment. Wait a minute, I thought it was this cyber-pace journalism that was the problem? Is it 24-hour cable or cyber-pace journalism that is at issue?

Hanson response. Here is one of Mr. Miller’s straw men. First, he asserts falsely that my article is attributing the problems under discussion only to cyper-pace journalism. That makes me an over-simplifier. Second, he asserts falsely that my introduction of another factor – 24 hour cable – makes my argument contradictory. But of course my argument is not contradictory, because I did not offer a mono-causal explanation in the first place. Mr. Miller surely knew this all along.

Miller then quotes another passage. “Unfortunately, many in the audience regard unverified assertions as gospel, just as sepoys knew with certainty that the British had defiled their cartridges.”

Miller’s comment. Hold on a moment here. It's the audience that is the problem now? Can't Hanson keeps his villains straight? First, it's the pace of information (although why the pace is at fault is never clear). It is cyber-pace journalism that leads to crude storylines, which is shown by citing television soundbites. Then "cyber" morphs into "cable" as the 24-news channels get blamed. Now it is the audience that can't distinguish between asserted stories and verified ones? Geez.

Hanson response. Here we have a vertiable straw man slaughter. Given that Miller read my article, he surely knows that I did not jump from one mono-causal explanation to another, over-simplifying and contradicting myself each step of the way, but was instead offering multiple factors to account for a complicated problem. Yet Miller has the brazen intellectual dishonest to make his claim.


Miller quotes another passage from my piece. “Given the staggering advances in communications technology since the Indian mutiny, it's sobering to realize how difficult it remains to cut
through rumor with steely, unswerving fact. We reach so many of our judgments in fog and depend on journalists like my old colleague Isikoff to help us see more clearly. So take your lumps, Mike, then go back out and nail this story down.”

Miller’s comment: Well, okay, then. Glad we got that straightened out. Just nail the story down. Great advice. Never would have thought of that.
Hanson response: Here he twists the intent of my tongue-in-cheek closing line to offer a final gratuitous slap and a tone of superiority unjustified by his cheap sophistry.

Permalink to Comment

6. Seth Finkelstein on May 30, 2005 03:27 PM writes...

Mr. Hanson

Before the partisan brigade arrives, let me try to make some quick deep criticisms (sadly, I found your piece very poorly done).

1) You *start* with the Newsweek-to-riots narrative, and go on to pontificate from there. But the riots weren't spontaneous - they were generated merely using the Newseek account as part of the pretext, if that. This causal difference arguably undermines your whole piece, since there will always be an error somewhere. Further, I'd argue Newsweek took *reasonable* effort to verify their story, though that turned out to be insufficient (which further undermines your thesis using it as an example of "a deepening crisis in American journalism.").

2) That the partisans have trumpeted the evidence of the Guard document forgery does not inhibit you from reading the original analyses yourself, and coming to your own conclusions on the matter. If you disagree with the expert evidence, which is pretty thoroughly unchallenged by any knowlegeable experts, I would be fascinated to hear why. That CBS-haters love the evidence doesn't make it false.

Digression - it is amazingly telling to me that you write: "CBS' independent panel declined to make a finding on that question and no reputable independent news organization stepped in to do so." - as you know, the panel was not charged with making such a finding.

You've only added to the fog.

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