On Breitbart: Norms, Laws, and Accountability in American Journalism

[Update: read Jay Rosen’s account and analysis of how this all turned out.  I agree entirely.]

There’s a post I meant to write after the Shirley Sherrod incident this summer.  Instead it became a lecture that I give to my students in my Media, Government, and Politics seminar at Rutgers.  Given ABC’s announcement last night that he’ll be involved in their election night coverage and analysis, I think it’s time I share the perspective.

We are governed by laws and by norms.  There’s an important difference.  Laws are written down.  You break the law, you face a lawsuit.  Particularly in 21st century litigious America, the power of law can be used equally as sword and as shield (cough, cough, copyright).

Some things can’t (or shouldn’t) be legislated.  Freedom of the press, for instance, is a First Amendment guarantee against government regulation of the press.  We have journalist shield laws, for instance.  There are exceptions — libel and slander, fighting words — but in general we have a strong and well-intentioned tradition of giving the “fourth branch” the freedom to keep the other three branches of government accountable.

Norms are informal agreements.  You break a norm, you face shunning from the community that holds that norm.  “You’ll never work in this town again,” that sort of thing.   For decades, the internal norms of the journalistic profession have been an effective ward against certain types of behavior.  If you falsify a story or plagiarize, you’re done in the profession.  Fired and unhireable.  What’s more, these norms are enforced in a public manner, creating a set of cautionary tales.  Journalists are taught about Janet Cook and “Jimmy’s World,” for instance.

The tools of digital media — the ones that allow me to write this blog, post video to youtube, and post photos to flickr — allow for a beautiful mashup culture, but also a dangerous collapse of context.  Selective editing allows any amoral jerk with Final Cut Pro to create a fake news story out of whole cloth.

Our laws aren’t going to be very useful in stopping such activity, because law is both sword and shield.  The boundaries between journalist and citizen are necessarily fuzzy, and mashups ARE political speech, and should be protected as such.  But that leaves norms to do the heavy lifting of mitigating against false scandal-mongering.

And that brings us to Andrew Breitbart and his protege, James O’Keefe (himself a Rutgers alum).  O’Keefe’s ACORN tape was a perfect example of the collapse of context.  Use a hidden video camera, collect hours of footage of people reacting to awkward questions, then splice the best bits together and announce “scandal.”  It worked, and there was no public reckoning when the truth of the matter came out.  The norms against falsifying stories simply did not operate.  O’Keefe became a star.

Breitbart attempted the same gambit this summer with the Shirley Sherrod video.  Take a half-minute clip out of a 40 minute speech, trumpet that you’ve found a racist in the Obama administration, and let the pageviews just flow in.  The Obama administration overreacted, firing Sherrod before the truth could be known, but that was in response to a perceived reality — that this was going to be *the* story in the news cycle, regardless of how flimsy the evidence.  Breitbart’s gambit didn’t work very well because it was too easy to find out just how selectively the story had been edited.  He did a hack job of his hackery, and so *that* became the story.  Even Bill O’Reilly condemned the actions on Fox News.

At that point, the question really became “how will the journalistic community react?”  At issue is whether any norm of professional accountability is still at work, or whether it’s all just controversy and pageviews.  Breitbart is a public figure and the Sherrod incident was a high-profile event.  Our laws aren’t supposed to govern this one (Breitbart has found enough of a gray area, noting that he just promoted the tapes, but didn’t edit them himself); our norms are.  So if the journalistic community reacts by making him a pariah, then that sends a strong signal about the boundaries of acceptable behavior.  Falsifying a story may make you famous, but there can be serious costs.  If, on the other hand, a few months later Breitbart is back in the news with no mention of his track record, then that also sends a strong signal.  It says that celebrity, controversy, and page views trump everything else.  Getting caught in an elaborate lie only increases your name recognition, and the industry rewards fame more than anything else.

There are conflicting reports about what Breitbart’s role on ABC News will be this Tuesday night.  ABC says it will be “exceedingly minor.”  Breitbart’s own site, bigjournalism.com, says he’ll be “bringing live analysis from Arizona.”  Mediaite says that his inclusion will make it “must-see tv” on Tuesday night.

On Monday, I’ll be updating my students on this.  I won’t be watching this “must-see tv.”  I’ll watch another station.  But what I’m going to tell my students is that ABC is making it clear that, as far as they’re concerned, you should skip the “Media Ethics” class and take “Video Editing” instead.  The only defense we have against the malicious exploitation of the collapse of context is a set of community norms that mitigate against the worst excesses presented by digital communications technology.  Those norms have to be stronger than the drive for a few more pageviews, otherwise the mainstream press becomes identical to the tabloid press.  And those norms are most important in response to high-profile events where the community signals that an activity is out-of-bounds.

ABC, to paraphrase a much younger version of Jon Stewart, “you are hurting America. Please stop hurting America.”

The R2K lawsuit: market corrections and scalp-taking

Markos Moulitsas of DailyKos announced Monday that he is suing Research 2000 for fraudulant activity, based on a statistical analysis conducted by Mark Grebner, Michael Weissman, and Jonathan Weissman.  I won’t comment on the details of their study here — Nate Silver has done a much better job of that already — but instead want to make a broader comment about the internet, markets, and “scalp-taking.”

I’ll note as a caveat that Research 2000 is launching a counter-suit.  The facts will be revealed in time, and the way things look today may not turn out to be the reality of the situation.  I don’t mean this blog entry to prejudge the results of this trial.

That said, it appears as though the progressive political blogosphere has just claimed a second scalp within the polling industry.  The first occurred back in the fall of 2009, when Nate Silver at 538 raised serious concerns about Strategic Vision.  Noticing serious anomalies in their data, as well as a lack of public information about the company itself, Silver asked some very public questions about whether they were fabricating their data.  The head of Strategic Vision cried foul and claimed he’d see Nate in court, but he then beat a hasty retreat and hasn’t been heard from since.

DailyKos has contracted with R2K since the 2008 election cycle, and has sent them a lot of business.  After Nate published his inaugural pollster rankings last month, Markos announced that he’d be rethinking the partnership with R2K (who fared poorly compared to other pollsters).  That apparently led to a few statisticians deciding to take a deeper look at R2K’s numbers, which revealed anomalies that would be consistent with mild cooking of the books and/or outright fraud.

Talking Points Memo took a deeper look at the head of R2K, Del Ali, and found that his background consists of 2 degrees in recreation.  That’s really pretty odd, to say the least.  You would expect the head of a major polling firm to have a background in, well, statistics.

And that leads us to the point I’d like to make: how is this possible?  Professional polling is a competitive and lucrative business, with longstanding industry leaders and standard-setting organizations.  Neither Strategic Vision nor R2K was a minor player — both were significant pollsters whose findings were reported by mainstream media sources.  Both (it appears) were somewhere between shady and fraudulent.  In a well-functioning market, incentives should exist for shaming and discrediting such actors.  The field of professional polling involves enough statistical wizardry and high enough stakes that, if such incentives operate anywhere, they should operate there.  And yet we now have seen two occasions in which, essentially because Nate Silver and company have made a hobby of advocating for responsible polling practices, major irregularities have been uncovered, with field-transforming impacts.

There’s a lesson here about just how robust the market mechanisms in various knowledge industries actually are.  Even in a field that has incentives for self-policing, even in a field tied to academic institutions like AAPOR that are full of people who have the means and motive to investigate such irregularities, there has been a distinct lack of accountability for years.  The lowered transaction costs of the internet has enabled skilled hobbyists to dramatically affect that market.  The internet itself doesn’t magically improve the polling industry (far from it), but it did create a new opportunity structure through which motivated volunteers could challenge and affect existing institutions.

Bravo to Nate Silver for his nearly one-man quest to improve the polling industry.  He didn’t have to take on this challenge, and I’m sure it’s made him plenty of enemies in the process.  Kudos to Markos Moulitsas as well for partnering with statistical researchers and readily admitting it once he learned there was a problem with his data.  The internet doesn’t make the industries perform more responsibly, it just creates new opportunities for motivated outsiders to mobilize knowledge/people/resources in new and interesting ways.  Between R2K and Strategic Vision, we have a good example of just how poorly the “statistical wizardry” industry was actually functioning, and also a case study in how networked volunteers can transform such industries.

As the old proverb goes, “may you live in interesting times…” Interesting times, indeed.

AEJMC Supports Net Neutrality

I was excited when Carol Pardun, President of the Association for Education and Journalism and Mass Communication, told me that the group would be issuing a statement supporting network neutrality. I was ecstatic when she asked for my input on the statement.

Now, the statement is out, and I’m listed as a contact. Later today, thanks to the good eye of Josh Stearns at Free Press, I’ll be writing a post for the SaveTheInternet blog.

Here’s the text of AEJMC’s statement on net neutrality:

AEJMC Supports Net Neutrality


January 26, 2010

Carol Pardun, AEJMC President (803) 777-3244, pardunc@mailbox.sc.edu
Bill Herman, AEJMC Member and Media Law Scholar, (215) 715.3507 (mobile), billdherman@gmail.com

AEJMC Supports Net Neutrality

The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) urges the Federal Communications Commission to adopt rules preserving open and nondiscriminatory access to the internet.

The debate about network neutrality is complex and contentious, but we wish to address a specific myth advanced by network neutrality opponents: that this regulation would stifle innovation and create disincentives for investment in next-generation broadband networks.

The AEJMC rejects this claim.

The most important internet innovations have not come from network providers, but from creative outsiders who built their inventions on top of a neutral network. Requiring network neutrality is vital to preserve competition and investment in internet content, services, and applications.

The FCC should codify the internet openness principles that already guide the agency, and Congress and the courts should support this move. The rules would protect both consumers and innovators of content, services, and applications from unfair discrimination by internet service providers. Perhaps most importantly, these rules would help preserve and develop the internet as a key tool for communication that serves our democracy.

This statement was issued by the President of AEJMC and through the President’s Advisory Council.

Related links

* Federal Communications Commission
* Network Neutrality (Wikipedia)
* “Net Neutrality” in the news (Google)


The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication is a nonprofit, educational association of journalism and mass communication educators, students and media professionals. The Association’s mission is to advance education, foster scholarly research, cultivate better professional practice and promote the free flow of communication.

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ShoutingLoudly Welcomes Paul Falzone

It is with a joyous heart that I welcome our latest co-conspirator contributor, Paul Falzone.

Like the rest of us, he has a big “Penn” stamp on his arse, having earned his PhD from Annenberg in 2008. He started in 2003 (same year as Jason and me), and it quickly became apparent that he was a genuine radical. Little wonder we got along so well!

Paul’s now at Green Mountain College, as good a home for him as I could have possibly imagined.

I look forward to seeing his insights appear with the same unreliability that our 3.5 readers have come to expect from the rest of us.

Lokman Tsui, “Beyond Objectivity,” Pt. IV

1:20 Begins the Q&A session.

Forgive me for getting names wrong or not knowing them; will try to clean this up later.

Ethan Z. gives David Weinberger the “ceremonial first question.”

DW: Hospitality has been a big deal since the Old Testament. Has there been less focus on hospitality because of the fake intimacy with strangers from around the world? Why as a term has hospitality slipped away?

LT: Part of this is the explosion of connections on the internet. Explosion of media choices, explosive growth in flow of everything worldwide–information, products, capital, and so on. Everything but people.

We’ve stopped looking at the people behind it all. Even with the news. How often do you think of the person behind the news?

Thinking of different ways to measure hospitality: Ratio of listening to speaking. Incoming attention vs. outgoing attention. Examples:

Movie imports vs. exports. Obviously, US doesn’t do great here.
Links: Link to self or others? Here, blogs are very hospitable and newspapers very inhospitable.

Jason: Gatekeeping and training of journalists. Journalists and professional training.

LT: Journalism is a craft, not exclusively a profession. Professionalization leads to certain kinds of news. What can we do differently when journalism is an internet-based craft? How can we strive to improve our craft as non-professionals?

[???}: What’s the hook? What’s your organizing principle?

Suggestion: Erik Erikson, social psychological identity: Who is “I,” “we,” and “they”? How do we identify who’s inside, outside, etc.?

[???]: (Couldn’t hear; something about respect.)

Must make sure those whose voices should be included are included.

[???]: Is hospitality also an issue of large country vs. small countries?

EZ: US is now behind both India and Nigeria in terms of number of films exported, but US films have a much bigger footprint. Top grossing film in France is Titanic. In Australia, it’s Crocodile Dundee.

This has shaped the kinds of films that get made in the US. Summer blockbusters export well; “Boom!” sounds the same in every language. Woody Allen, in contrast, exports very poorly.

[???]: What are the norms in this community, and how do they conflict with local laws and cultures? [Ex: Something about (C) and fair use.]

LT: They don’t really conflict, they’re dialectical.

[???]: A lot of traditional notions of journalism are tied up w/ specific notions of public sphere. E.g., professional journalism is tied up w/ a centralized, equal public sphere.

GV doesn’t have one polity. How does this change your analysis?

LT: GV not trying to create a global public sphere–one cosmopolitan polity. It’s more like a public of publics–ala the internet being a network of networks.

[It’s about 1,000 degrees in here and I’m fading fast. The q’s keep coming, but it’s time to admit that I can’t blog and pay attn at the same time…]

Lokman Tsui, “Beyond Objectivity,” Pt. III

1:11: Replacing objectivity with intersubjectivity.

The internet features a new proliferation of voices. So now, our attention is the scarce resource. How do I deal with the overload of information?

We look to institutions to solve this problem–to steer attention.

We can judge these institutions based on their hospitality–the dialectical negotiation between objectivity and hospitality.

Example: Rotten Tomatoes. It’s much more interesting to read the movie reviews than the objective information. IMDb, Yelp, Amazon, etc.

Aggregating, curating, and [amplifying?] multiple voices.

How would this look for the news?

1:17: GV combines these voices together. Blends them.

Caveat: I get a lot of responses that this is unrealistic, idealistic. Hospitality is easy when we’re friends, but it’s hard and dangerous to be hospitable when we’re not friends.

Yet it’s our duty and obligation. I hope this raises our willingness to be hospitable to each other.

Lokman Tsui, “Beyond Objectivity,” Pt. II

12:50: Is Global Voices (GV) journalism?

Rebecca McKinnon: No. No fact checking, no objectivity, most participants don’t see themselves a journalists and even refuse the label.

This question is a red herring–it’s like asking Lok whether he’s Chinese, Dutch, etc. What’s more interesting is what it says about what journalism is for, why it’s important, and so on.

Susan Sontag: Photography is not seeing, it’s a way of seeing. GV and journalism are both ways of seeing.

GV and professional journalism are both like vehicles for getting to a specific destination. One is a plane, the other a car, but both are supposed to carry us to truth.

Let’s invent a car/plane! [Shows slide of a cartoon car/plane; chuckles in crowd.]

12:53 There are 3 ideal types of journalism, each of which has its own democratic theory and purpose.

Imagine a 4 column, three row table:

Type of Journalism: Professional / Alt Media / Public Journalism

Democratic Theory: Liberal / Participatory / Deliberative

Purpose: Information / Representation / Conversation

1:00: This takes us beyond objectivity. This isn’t even the point of public journalism. What IS the goal of something like global voices?

Type of Journalism: Global Voices
Democratic Theory: Communicative Democracy
Purpose: Conversation
Objectivity?: Hospitality

Habermas looked @ so-called “3rd places” like coffee shops where political conversations can take place. This works because of relative equality, which is something of a prerequisite for his understanding of democratic discussion.

Lok: Hospitality shows how power differentials can be used for good. E.g., Ethan Zuckerman invites me over, but even though he’s ETHAN ZUCKERMAN, he subverts himself and his comparative power to serve me as his guest.

We don’t have to bracket out differences and pretend like there’s no power differential.

1:06: Correction to alternative media and the problem of inclusion. Hospitality isn’t unconditional. If your guest misbehaves, you can ask them to leave.

Opposite of hospitality: Hostility. E.g., sign in front of Geno’s cheesesteak stand in S. Philly. “Speak English.”

Hospitality: Back to Kant, Perpetual Peace. Hospitality is a right that comes from our mutual co-existence. Also, Roger Silverstone’s theory of hospitality in the context of the media.

Lokman Tsui, “Beyond Objectivity,” Pt. I

12:38: How did Lok get to studying Global Voices?

Started by being interested in Chinese internet, as well as Dutch dislike of difference.

Chatted w/ Andrew Lih (of Wikipedia Revolution fame), who urged him to find something amazing that’s not well understood. Global Voices also allowed him to work on something that straddles multiple cultures–like Lok himself.

12:44: How does the world come to know itself?

The public is where strangers come together to discuss the news. How does the internet change this?

It urges us to rethink the relationship between and constraints around journalism and democracy.

Let’s imagine a better journalism together. How can we design better institutions that take advantage of the new media environment?

12:47: Point of comparison: Ethnographies of newsroom culture in 1970’s. Assumed that newsroom culture shaped production of news.

Ex: Newsroom production needs breed reliance on government sources as authoritative, reliable.

Global Voices (GV) newsroom happens online. What sort of affordances and constraints does this lead to, and how does this affect journalism?

Need a new conceptual toolkit to explain this.

making sure the world continues to be listened to

Most of you perhaps don’t know that I am writing my dissertation about Global Voices. But this is an incredible group of people who make sure that parts of the world that otherwise gets ignored in the mainstream media get their voices heard.

They are currently looking for donations that will help them sustain the incredible valuable and good work they do. I ended up donating $77 dollar – why $77? It’s my birth year. It’s a small sum with a symbolic value that I hope will encourage others to chip in as well.

Why should you donate?

Donating to Global Voices helps tell them that they are doing a good job. The value here is symbolic, rather than material. This is not unimportant – they would never have gotten so big if most of their work was not ‘free’, free as in volunteer labor. Getting appreciation for the volunteer work you do is incredibly important. Viviana Zelizer has called this the crowding-in effect of money on volunteer work.

Donating to Global Voices helps them stay a bit more independent from big donors. And allow them to write about topics they think are important, as opposed to topics that will attract the biggest crowd. The question of how media organizations get funded is not a trivial one. Global Voices get funded through a combination of support from foundations, corporations and individual donations. Political economy, particularly work by scholars like Robert McChesney and Oscar Gandy to name a few, has pointed out how money shapes what media writes about, and what not. In a perfect world, media organizations would all be funded by many individual donations, so that they can maintain independence and write about topics without constraint. In reality, media organizations will often not write about topics that might offend their owners or advertisers. Also, they will write especially about topics that will get the attention of a lot of audiences in order to attract more advertisers. These are topics people might want, but not necessarily what they need. Consider how much words are devoted to Britney Spears and the iPhone, which are great topics, but they tend to drown out other regions, areas and topics.

To sum up, giving a donation is a good idea because they are great people that do important work nobody else is doing – we want to make sure they can continue to do this work as well as let them know we appreciate the work they do. Please consider making a donation.

Besides donating, there is another way to help and show your appreciation: by spreading the word. They have made some cool – and cute – badges you can use to put on your blog.

Donate to Global Voices - Help us spread the word

cross-posted from global voices, one world