Jayson Blair To Address Journalism Ethics Institute (No, Really)

Jayson BlairHard as it may be to believe, one of this decade’s biggest disgraces has been asked to present a speech on the very subject that was his downfall.

No, I’m not referring to George Bush’s speech about leadership. I’m talking about Jayson Blair’s upcoming address to Washington and Lee University. To their Journalism Ethics Institute. (Now that I re-read that first paragraph, I can see how it may have been misleading.)

Blair, you likely recall, rose quickly as a reporter at the New York Times, eventually landing several major assignments, including filing over 50 pieces on the Beltway Sniper (who is also back in the news, but for a different reason). Eventually, another writer identified instances in which Blair had plagiarized her work, and under additional scrutiny other problems surfaced: false quotes, high error rates, more instances of plagiarism. In May of 2003, the paper took to the front page to apologize for Blair’s actions. He, of course, lost his job. (Well, he resigned, but so did Nixon.)

As first mentioned on Slate’s Twitter feed, Blair will travel to Washington and Lee next Friday to give a speech entitled “Lessons Learned.” W&L Journalism and Ethics Professor Edward Wasserman told the Rockbridge Weekly that inviting Blair to speak — as the keynote, no less! — was “a departure for us” from their usual slate of “heroes…of great accomplishment and stature” but they were bringing Blair this time precisely for that reason:

“Jayson Blair, on the other hand, was at the center of one of the signature journalism scandals of this still-new century, and there’s no way to imagine that his role in it was heroic…My expectation is that he’ll talk not just about his own susceptibilities, but about the pressures and temptations that might induce ambitious and talented young journalists elsewhere in the business to do the wrong thing.”

Wasserman also said that Blair has not spoken publicly about the NYT scandal, but that Blair suggested that this “might be the right time and right occasion.” If so, then it differs from the bio on his website, which, though detailed, fails to mention it.

It does, however, mentions his qualifications as a life coach — his new full-time career. His qualifications?

My knowledge base comes from personal experience, working relationships with psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professionals… organizational development and other areas driven by interest and personal necessity.

Fair enough. Those of you at the event — please tweet about it! And, if you decide not to go, tweet about it anyway. Sometimes the made-up details are the most fun.

With Rachel Sklar

Soundbite: Arthur Sulzberger Thinks Journos Might Have Better Chance On Titanic

WrightBros2“The best analogy I can think of is — have you ever heard of the Titanic Fallacy?” he asked. We hadn’t. “What was the critical flaw to the Titanic?” We tried to answer: Poor construction? Not enough life boats? Crashing into stuff? “A captain trying to set a world speed record through an iceberg field?” he said, shaking his head. “Even if the Titanic came in safely to New York Harbor, it was still doomed,” he said. “Twelve years earlier, two brothers invented the airplane.”

New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. demonstrates the correct Titanic analogy to employ when discussing the future of print. The fact he is clear on the problem (and the future!), alas, does not mean he has a solution. Where are the media world’s Wright Bros.? Will the Zuckerbergs one day fill the void?

George W. Bush’s First Big Motivational Speech A Success

george-bush-motivationalLast week, we reported that former president George W. Bush was putting his newly found free time to use by hitting the motivational speaking circuit with Get Motivated!, a motivational event series that likes to bring in former and current politicians alongside business leaders. His first speech was last night. How’d he do, and what did he talk about?

When Slate asked professional motivational speakers to offer words of advice to the former president, a few themes emerged: Bush should be human and approachable, reflect on his past mistakes, and work around his famous inarticulateness.

According to the Washington Post, he succeeded on all three fronts:

Many people interviewed afterward said they liked Bush, perhaps even because he wasn’t the best speaker of the day. He could have said a thesaurus was a big scaly creature that roamed the planet millions of years ago and they would have applauded.

His most memorable story, one after another said, was about Barney, his Scottie:

Mindful of his new neighbors, who have had to endure as many as 650 people a day gawking at his new house in a cul-de-sac, Bush said he took Barney for a neighborhood stroll with “plastic bag on his hand” to scoop poop. That was a moment, he said, when he realized “Man, my life has changed!”

“He is just a normal guy! He wasn’t the best speaker. But I was happy to see him!” said Lubbock salesman Patrick Kruger, 50.

Breaking: Newspapers Are In Trouble


Over at The Awl, Choire Sicha has been doing a crackerjack, data-intensive job of sifting through one of the biggest, least sexy stories of our time: newspapers as we know them are going away. Yesterday, he put together this acclaimed chart of the circulations of six big papers over the past two decades.

The takeaway: the Wall Street Journal is bigger than everybody else (but cheats a little by including paid online subscribers in their circ figures); the LA Times seems determined to drive itself into the ground, and the NYT and WashPo aren’t looking too good themselves.

Today, Sicha covers newspapers’ coverage of their own decline:

So first, I wanted to look into the actual provision of numbers to the reader within reported stories because I got a sense at times that information was being obscured from the reader—as part of what I (anecdotally) see as a general trend of putting less “facty” information in newspapers. The amount of actual numbers given—as in “The Los Angeles Times, owned by Tribune, reported daily circulation fell 6.5 percent, to 907,997″—per article is then averaged for each year and in five-year increments.

[click through here to see The Awl's fancy-looking graph, not pictured here]

So! What we see is that there is radically less actual information about the real amount of newspapers sold in the last six years—the time of the real newspaper circulation crisis—than in the two previous five-year increments.

He also goes through slews of newspaper headlines reporting on the newspaper decline, and summarizes them thusly: “Reading through them in chronological order, it’s more like ‘meh bad same same same worser hey better worse worse OH GOD WORSE MUCH WORSE PANIC.’”

The trouble with “factiness,” aside from the temptation it poses Stephen Colbert’s lawyers to file an infringement suit, is that on the whole, people would prefer their “LOLcats” and their “SEO-friendly charticles” and their “Hamster Dance” and what not — or at least that’s emerged as the conventional wisdom.

Do Establishment Book Reviews Matter Anymore?


Which is more likely to make you buy a book: a glowing writeup from a published book reviewer, or a bunch of four- and five-star Amazon ratings? Adam L. Penenberg, whose book Viral Loop explores social media and crowdsourcing, thinks with some empirical justification that it’s the latter. In a Fast Company column, he charts the declining influence of professional book reviewers, a shrinking group who are often agenda-driven. Exhibit A: the New York Times reviewer who dissed his first book.

From Penenberg’s column:

In my case, business reporter Alison Leigh Cowan of The New York Times wrote an over-the-top, scathing review of Spooked, in which she not only attacked the book, she questioned my ethics, because I refused to cooperate with the Justice Department, which was threatening to subpoena me so I would out a confidential source at a grand jury hearing and potential trial. I quit Forbes where I was a senior editor because the magazine’s lawyer was pressuring me to work out a deal with prosecutors. Who was the source? He–along with his minions–had hacked nytimes.com, replacing Times content with their own, which was largely obscene and highly critical of tech reporter John Markoff. (History buffs can read up on the incident here , here, here, and here.)

Not only did Cowan have a conflict of interest because The New York Times–and one of its best-known reporters–had been attacked by the person whose identity I was protecting, she was friends with a top Forbes editor who never forgave me for taking my battle with the magazine public. According to those who witnessed it, the editor danced in the hallway the day the review came out.

Penenberg doesn’t dispute the fact that online reviews are biased too, but he holds out hope that the sheer number of reviews gives the biases room to cancel each other out. Positively biased reviews by family and friends are tempered by negatively biased reviews by enemies and trolls, and with a healthy stock of unbiased reviews floating around as well, equilibrium will hit somewhere in the middle. He does mention, quoting a study by Yale economics professor Judith Chevalier, that “while positive reviews increase a book’s sales and negative reviews dampen them, ‘the impact of 1-star reviews is greater than the impact of 5-star reviews.’”

His pithy conclusion? “Cowan wasn’t reviewing the book. She was settling a score. And so do many of those littering book pages on Amazon with 1-star reviews. The difference is that these Amazon evildoers really do dampen book sales. Cowan’s ax job probably didn’t.”

The witty, light tone of Penenberg’s piece doesn’t take away from the weight of the shift he’s documenting. Book reviewers are an especially vulnerable flank of the media establishment, but all cultural critics are subject to the same logic. In the age of Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, what individual film or music critics matter? Why bother with the incomplete catalogue and glacial pace of printed restaurant reviews when there’s Yelp?

The sanest answer to this line of questioning may be that for the new critics, voice, tastes, and style matter much more than definitiveness of opinion, which can always be crowdsourced away. Which means that as those jobs continue to vanish from newspaper and magazine payrolls, the survivors, ironically, will come to resemble the opinionated bloggers they used to pooh-pooh.

Soundbite: The Press Is To Blame For White House Vs. Fox

“Where I come from, these observations would barely count as basketball-court trash talk, let alone words of war. The blame for upgrading low-level bickering to all-out combat has got to go to the press, which loves nothing better than to talk about itself. (That includes me, of course.)

To get a genuine picture of what a war on the press looks like, you can’t fan the pages of Nexis for grouchy things George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, or even Richard Nixon said about reporters, newspapers, and networks. You’ve got to go back to the 1930s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt raged against the press like noisy clockwork.

Slate’s Jack Shafer taps his contender for the ‘which President hated the press more’ parlor game that has been going on in media circles of late.

If the goal of the White House was to white noise any other news reporting out of the news cycle with their ‘war’ on Fox than I think, at this point anyway, their decision must be considered an unmitigated success! Of course, there appears to be another Somali pirate debacle on the horizon so perhaps we’ll get a temporary breather.

Different Media Standards? Barack Obama Vs George W. Bush

090218BarackandGeorge--123497512309767900On more than one occasion we have pondered what would happen if George W. Bush had made some of the same decisions that President Barack Obama has lately been making. The different ways that the two presidents are received by the media (and by extension, the public) has been particularly glaring during the recent White House Vs. Fox debacle, especially when it looked like the rest of the press corp had nothing to say about it.

(Actually what I said was: Try to imagine the response had “Dick Cheney appeared on Meet The Press and not only declared war on MSNBC because he didn’t like Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann, but encouraged the rest of the press to cease treating it as a bona fide news operation.”)

Then there is this past weekend’s golf meme — President Bush loved his bike and his brush (and was frequently castigated for the latter), Obama loves his (mostly male) golf. Imagine if President Bush had been playing this much golf.

Politico has also picked up on the trend noting the wildly kind (non?) response from the media Obama has received after: “making a four-hour stop in New Orleans, on his way to a $3 million fundraiser; snubbing the Dalai Lama; signing off on a secret deal with drug makers; doing more fundraisers than the last president.” It’s SO UNFAIR that former Bush counselor Ed Gillespie jokes that “we’re going to start a website: IfBushHadDoneThat.com.” (Actually, someone may have beat them to it.)

So what? Has the media just been continually suckered into a love affair and Obama will forever be given the hall pass on questionable behaviour? Says political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe:

“There may well be almost an unconscious effort on the part of the media to give Obama a bit more slack because he is more likable, because he is the first African-American president. That plays into it.”

Maybe. There’s no question the press likes Obama more than Bush, or any other President since J.F.K., for that matter. But George W. Bush was judged harshly for good and terrible reason (for a number of good and terrible reasons actually, namely Katrina and Iraq, and in hindsight the economy). And while Obama probably should have spent more time in New Orleans (and maybe it would have been nice for him to check in with the Dalai Lama) these are not decisions piggy-backed on previously made disastrous decisions like not evacuating New Orleans properly ahead of a hurricane. So perhaps the press is just actually doing their job and Obama is merely being judged on his performance of the last nine months and not the sometimes calamitous eight years that preceded it. That said, any time a government launches an offensive on an entire news network should be cause for concern.