Saturday, December 3, 2011

Murdoch's Journalism Is Now the Standard

Thirty-one years ago, when I was planning my wedding, The Washington Post ran a brutal but brilliant story, entitled "Jimmy's World," all about an 8 year-old heroin addict in DC. You read that story and cried, it was so vivid and real. I did. The article won its author, Janet Cooke, a Pulitzer Prize, and that's when the cacca hit the proverbial fan.

Turns out that the story was less than accurate. It wasn't even true. Not only that, its author wasn't really who she said she was. She was a brilliant writer, but she was also a brilliant fantacist, a liar, a fraud. There was no magna cum laude from Vassar, no year at the Sorbonne, no fluency in four languages. Just a young woman with ambition and a lively imagination.

Fast forward to the early part of this decade, and you have the same story playing out at The New York Times, this time with wunderkind Jayson Blair.

Both writers "resigned" amid a welter of instances of plagiarism and fabricated reporting.

Mike Barnicle is a hack. He pontificates from his perch daily on MSNBC's political breakfast coffee klatch show, Morning Joe. He bills himself proudly as a professional Irish-American, a political commentator with gravitas and a friend of the Kennedys.

In the latter part of the 1990s, Barnacle got the boot from The Boston Globe not only for fabricating news stories, but also for plagiarising from George Carlin's writings and for pallin' around with Whitey Bulger's people.

It is said the newsroom erupted in cheers when his departure was announced.

However, he was saved from ultimate disgrace by Don Imus, then employed by MSNBC (before he, too, would leave in controversial circumstances) and Chris Matthews.

Earlier this year, The Independent (whose byline is "It is, are you?"), Britain's other left-leaning broadsheet, suspended (with pay) one of their star op-ed columnists, Johan Hari. Hari had admitted to plagiarising a great deal of the content in his pieces and fabricating others. Not only that, but he also used an online alias to log onto Wikipedia in order to alter biographies with rude entries to other columnists who'd been critical of him in the past.

As you do. As adolescents do. Take that. There. You'll be sorry.

Hari explained exactly what he did in his own words, in a groveling apology he wrote just before he took off "for journalistic re-training" (with pay - in other words, The Indy was going to pay him to retrain properly as a journalist because he'd never been trained properly as a journalist even though he'd been working as a journalist for some years. Got that?)

If you want to add material from elsewhere, there are conventions that let you do that. You write “she has said,” instead of “she says”. You write “as she told the New York Times” or “as she says in her book”, instead of just replacing the garbled chunk she said with the clear chunk she wrote or said elsewhere. If I had asked the many experienced colleagues I have here at The Independent – who have always been very generous with their time – they would have told me that, and they would have explained just how wrong I was. It was arrogant and stupid of me not to ask.

The other thing I did wrong was that several years ago I started to notice some things I didn’t like in the Wikipedia entry about me, so I took them out. To do that, I created a user-name that wasn’t my own. Using that user-name, I continued to edit my own Wikipedia entry and some other people’s too. I took out nasty passages about people I admire – like Polly Toynbee, George Monbiot, Deborah Orr and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. I factually corrected some other entries about other people. But in a few instances, I edited the entries of people I had clashed with in ways that were juvenile or malicious: I called one of them anti-Semitic and homophobic, and the other a drunk. I am mortified to have done this, because it breaches the most basic ethical rule: don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you. I apologise to the latter group unreservedly and totally.

Think that sounds puerile? You wouldn't be wrong if you did. The gist of all of this is that if he'd just asked the big kids to help him, he wouldn't have made all those mistakes.

Mark you, Hari hasn't lost his job. He's just on sabbatical learning how to do his job.

And that brings us to Matt Seaton, and, here, I've allowed myself a huge dose of surprise, because I've only just now realised who this man is. He was married to another journalist, Ruth Picardie, who died very young and very tragically from breast cancer in the late 1990s. She wrote for both The Guardian and The Independent, and her book chronicling her fight against cancer, Before I Say Good-bye, was published posthumously. It's one of the bravest and most heart-wrenching books I've ever read.

However, it seems Smeaton has gone over to the dark side. It was he, who elected to publish Naomi Wolf's unsubstantiated sceed regarding the supposed involvement of the Department of Homeland Security, Congressman Peter King and the White House in the removal of various Occupy Wall Street encampments in certain American cities. Wolf's article, based on the irresponsible and equally unsubstantiated remarks made by Michael Moore and even more unsubstantiate (and later repudiated) remarks by a blogger writing in a Rightwing online publication.

The stuff of Fox, right?

Yet, it's Smeaton's attitude to those people who've done the homework Smeaton should have done, which is disturbing.

British newspapers, like all newspapers, have, occasionally, jumped the gun and published untruths. Usually when this occurrence has been discovered or pointed out to them, they are quick to print a retraction of their original piece, with an apology.

But not this time.

Smeaton, himself, issued a response to the critics who'd seen fit to exemplify the errors inherent in Ms Wolf's piece, playing the false equivalency game of weighing the positive reactions up against the negative before prissily surmising:-

To the critics, Wolf – and by extension, the Guardian, as publisher – were irresponsibly encouraging people to believe that "Amerika" is on the brink of falling into fascism. An underlying theme here is that the article was feeding anti-American sentiment and prejudicing foreigners' views by overstating bigotry and repression in the United States. Against this, however, one might place the numerous comments, many apparently from US residents, offering congratulations for telling it like it is – noting often that "you would never read this article in the US press."

(Hmmm ... and even though a broken clock might be right twice a day, it's wrong the rest of the time. There are deluded people the world over, Matt Smeaton).

And concluding:-

Whether you see Wolf's article as reckless conspiracy theory-mongering or passionately engaged partisanship probably depends not only on how you see the Occupy movement and its policing, but also on what you consider the role of opinion journalism to be and how it should treat facts versus views.

The emphasis is mine, because his last surmisal here is nothing less than an oxymoron. Opinion journalism is always a journalists view of concrete facts. Facts are truth. They are things that happened which cannot be negated. A bus hits a telephone pole. That happened. People saw it. They may have different opinions - again, based on fact - as to why it happened. They'll read that the driver had a drink at lunch - some would surmise that he was drunk. They'll read he'd been suffering from depression - so maybe he killed himself. Opinion is always fact-based, but it should never be presented as fact.

The blogger Smartypants cut right to the quick in the comments' section accompanying the article:-

I clicked on this hoping that Matt would apologize for the Guardian's role in publishing Ms. Wolf's overheated exaggerations. Sadly, I am disappointed.

If you want clicks and revenue - I guess you got it.

If you want opinions that are based on facts instead of rumor-mongering, then an apology would be in order.

(Bravo! Shame'em). To which Matt gave a rather snarky and somewhat surprising reply:-

I'm not offering an apology because I don't see there's any need to: the essence of opinion journalism is that writers are free to espress their views, be they ever so wrong. What would 'fact-based opinion' look like, anyway? I think any sentient reader could see that Wolf was making such big inferences and connecting dots where reporters, operating by different rules of engagement, had not. That's her opinion, and she's entitled to it. Just as we're entitled to disagree.

Well, yes, Ms Wolf is certainly entitled to her own opinions, but she isn't entitled to her own facts. Fact-based journalism would have involved a bit more research than the rantings of a media whore producer with a book to sell and a blogger on a Rightwing website with an agenda. It would have involved, at least, understanding the hierarchy under which the Department of Homeland Security operates - hint: it doesn't answer to Peter King - and taking all of that research, citing links and naming names consulted, reaching a viable opinion based on tangible facts. But this is Naomi Wolf, a self-confessed feminist, who sides with a fashionable perp, in condemning alleged rape victims.

And this is The Guardian, who now proves that it has no more moral high ground to assume over Rupert Murdoch, because it's sharing the same asshole.

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