Plain talk, redacted

One of the earliest and most fundamental lessons I learned in journalism was that no one outside of the newsroom gets prior approval or restraint of anything we published. Period.

A corollary was that sources didn’t get to approve or change their quotes. You might read quotes back to them to make sure that you got them right. You might read a section of your own writing to a source to make sure you characterized a technical issue clearly. But any changes made to a quote or a story were made by the writer not by the source. You never gave away that power or responsibility.

So what are we to make of this New York Times story that says the Times, the Washington Post, Bloomberg and Reuters have agreed to allow campaigns to approve the quotes of their aides before publication? I don’t know. Hell, I had to read the story twice because it was so hard for me to believe.

Oddly, the story doesn’t actually say why the news organizations agree to such restrictions. This is the closest reference: Most reporters, desperate to pick the brains of the president’s top strategists, grudgingly agree.

Campaign strategists wouldn’t talk to the New York Times or the Washington Post? Do you really believe that? They wouldn’t talk to the two most powerful political media outlets in the nation? I don’t, but for fun, let’s play it out. If campaign stategists won’t talk to you, what that really means is that you will get beat on a story because the strategist will talk to your competition. And no news organization wants to get beat. (This, despite the fact that no one really ever remembers who had what scoop because news becomes a commodity in about two seconds these days.)

They could say what every editor I’ve known would have said: “Hell, no, we won’t give you prior approval over your quotes. We’re going to tape it. If you say it, it’s on the record. Be responsible for your words, don’t say something stupid and you’ve got no problem.” The source could say no interview and that’d be that. But if your competitor gives in, well, you lose the story.

Would we worry about that? Probably. Would that cause us to compromise a principle? No. We’d just try to get another story.

Most media organizations have ethics policies. I would love to see the wording on an item that explains when, why and which sources get the authority to review, approve or strike through their quotes before publication. Bet no self-respecting media organization would put that in writing.

Much of the public doesn’t trust what newspapers print. The public thinks reporters are biased. This is a step in the wrong direction.

Support the Bill of Rights — all of them

One of the neat things about the Constitution is its durability and steadfastness. You don’t look at the Bill of Right and decide that one is more important than the other. States can’t pick and choose parts of it they want to follow or ignore, even though they occasionally do. When there is conflict, well, that’s what the U.S. Supreme Court is for.

That was my thinking when I read about the hubbub caused by the posting on WRAL’s site of a search form to find people with conceal-carry handgun permits. The permits are public records, and, like marriage licenses, divorces, birth certificates, criminal records and land transfers, they are available to anyone who wants to see them.

Of all of those public records, which are the most private? The birth of a child? A failed marriage? Nope. Gun ownership. At least it is based on the uproar about making the records easy to find. There’s something about guns that gets people going. (Thank you, NRA.)

The WRAL action making concealed-carry permits easy to search has caused some to criticize the TV station, saying the action is an invasion of privacy and could endanger the lives of lawful, gun-owning citizens. I haven’t seen any evidence that such availability of public records endangers lives, but I suspect it is possible that lives are endangered whenever at least one party has access to a handgun.

One blogger — anonymous, of course — personalized it with a blog post titled “First Blood,” that calls out Mark Binker, the writer of the news story on the growth of concealed-carry permits. I know Mark Binker. He used to work for me. I doubt he is bothered one way or the other by any backwash in the publication of the search tool.

I won’t weigh in on WRAL’s motivations. As a First Amendment advocate, I think public records means records are public. They should be easy to get to. If someone wants to make them searchable, that’s the way of the world these days. Why, there are tabloids that print the names and photos of everyone who has been arrested. That’s certainly an invasion, too. It may not be nice, but it’s legal.

It is ironic, though, that staunch defenders of the Second Amendment have trouble defending the First Amendment.

Update: Another site — I’m not going to link to it — writes a bio of Binker culled from information in the public domain and encourages its readers to contact him politely and let him know their disappointment that the station published the search tool. It’s a fascinating ethical question that I’m sure doesn’t occur to the site’s writer — again anonymous.

You object to putting public information out in the public. You think it is wrong and dangerous. As a result, you do the exact same thing and go a step further by encouraging people to take action by contacting someone?

Respect your readers — don’t ignore them

Columnists like to get in pissing matches with each other. It’s a spectacle for readers — who will get in the most blows??!!! — and it provides fodder for the next column, which columnists are always searching for. Back in the golden age of newspapers — the 80’s, for me — the News & Record had two columnists who would argue back and forth for days until the managing editor told them to shut up and write about something else.

Times have changed. Thanks to the Internet and blogs and comments, you don’t need a fellow newspaper columnist to take up the cudgels. Readers do it on their own.

Case in point: the New York Post’s Andrea Peyser characterized Greensboro as a “derelict town” on Thursday. Before News & Record columnist Jeri Rowe could respond on Saturday, Greensboro defenders voiced their thoughts on Facebook, on Twitter and in the comments section of the Peyser’s column. (For those keeping track, Peyser’s column was “liked” on Facebook 548 times; Rowe’s column, 401 times.)

What actually strikes me most by this kerfuffle isn’t Peyser’s egregious attack on the city. She is a columnist for the New York Post, after all. She, like many columnists, simply likes to stir the pot. The more response, the better. If it’s angry, that’s the best. From her Wikipedia entry:  The Washington Post has described Peyser as an “object of fascination among some media observers in New York, who count her unforgiving, exuberantly spiteful columns as a guilty pleasure.” New York magazine described her as “the Madame Defarge of the New York Post” in a 2004 profile.

But nowhere does she respond to questions and comments about her column. Granted, I’m not a great fan of online comments on newspaper sites. I used to be but I’ve seen how comment fields tend to be populated by anonymous commenters who write abusive, racist and stupid things. But many of the comments on Peyser’s column deserve a response. At this writing, there are 68 comments on her column. Most want an explanation for her characterization of Greensboro. Most of the comments are signed with seemingly real names, as opposed to those commenters who hide behind pseudonymns.

This is where journalists fail when they don’t engage with their readers. I understand not responding when the trolls take over a comment thread. I routinely told reporters at my old paper to monitor comments on their stories, to participate to help readers, to be polite and receptive, but to steer clear of crazy. (And it quickly gets crazy.)

My observation is that most journalists steer clear of comments, period. When I mentioned this on Facebook, several told me that comments fields are not the place to interact with readers. I acknowledge that, in many cases, that is true. But if journalists aren’t going to interact with their readers online, then perhaps comments should not be enabled on their stories. If the comments are so toxic that reporters won’t engage, what is the point? It’s certainly not contributing to a safe path for the community to discuss.

Yet, in the case of the Peyser column, readers are asking a good question that deserves an answer. When they are ignored, they feel disrespected. And no journalist, even at the New York Post, should want to disrespect her readers.

North Carolina: Just barely passing

North Carolina can be proud. It didn’t fail in the State Integrity Investigation results. Its overall grade was a C-minus.

It did receive an F in public access to information, which will not surprise any journalist, an F in state budget process, and an F in redistricting, which will not surprise any Guilford County resident.

From the analysis: When an influential North Carolina lawmaker named Stephen LaRoque helped sponsor and pass a 2011 bill loosening regulations on billboards, he was the co-owner of five billboards and president of a firm that owned four others.

But when LaRoque asked the North Carolina Ethics Commission to review his key legislative role, it found no conflict, citing what it called a “safe harbor” stemming from the fact that his law would benefit everyone owning billboards.

The case reflected what many analysts say is the prevailing state of North Carolina’s ethics regulations: A lengthy set of rules has been enacted to help keep public officials honest, but enforcement has sometimes not been strict. They also complain that the extensive rules haven’t adequately curbed the influence of monied interests on state policymaking.

No surprise that the latest Elon University Poll found that only 27% of North Carolinians approve of the way the General assembly is doing its job.

Proud is the wrong descriptor for what it should be. Ashamed is more like it.


When it’s OK to lie

Jeff Jarvis tackles an issue that has puzzled me — and most journalists, I suspect for years: people who think it’s OK to lie.

Isn’t telling the truth the norm in our society? Don’t you expect anyone you know — friend, family member, coworker — to tell you the truth? If they don’t, aren’t you at least disappointed? If caught in a lie don’t you expect your credibility to be diminished? Isn’t there a cost to lying in society?

So how could that norm be canceled for public figures, for politicians who insist we’ll have death panels or for performers on stage who think the spotlight forgives lies?

It reminds me of a suggestion my wife made back in 2006 when I was still the editor of the paper. “You know what you need to do? You need to create a standing column on public lies. You could fill it every day…. Jessica and Nick say they’re happily married. Angelina says she’s not dating Brad. WMDs. ‘I did not have sex with that woman.’

“You say you want readers to connect emotionally with the paper, to feel smarter after reading it, to be inspired and entertained. I guarantee this would be the most entertaining thing in the paper. You could call it ‘The check’s in the mail.'”

I didn’t do it. Yet one more regret I have.

Your tax dollars at work

Mark Binker, capital reporter for the News & Record, tells of a visit to his home by the FBI.

She explained that she was doing outreach, particularly in advance of the big national convention coming here.

She said I should feel free to let her know about anything that concerned me.

I asked what sort of thing would concern me that I would call her about.

“That would be your determination, not mine,” she said.

Mark is a conscientious, law-abiding citizen. He’s also a journalist, which means he’s an independent-minded cuss. My guess is that the FBI will learn what Mark knows when they read it on his blog or in the paper.

P.S. I am one of the friends Mark consulted on the normalcy of an FBI visit.

The language of a newsroom

A male reporter writes on his Facebook page: Me to a (female) editor on being sick during the opening of political filing and the hearings on redistricting, which I’ve been following up to this week’s climax: “I feel like I’ve been taking this girl out on a bunch of dates and now someone else is going to bed with her.”  

He immediately apologized for his comment, knowing it was inappropriate in a workplace.

I said, “This is how newsrooms talk. It’s OK.”

I was quickly slapped down by a mutual friend. Sorry, John Robinson, but this might have been okay in the past. It’s not anymore, even in a newsroom, where salty speech is the norm. Joe knows it, and that’s one reason why he feels lousy.

What followed was a rollicking conversation about the appropriateness or not of that kind of comment.

Newsrooms, which used to be filled mostly with white men, were known for off-color language, sexist jokes, cigarette burn holes on desks and chairs, more profanity than you might hear in jail, occasional fistfights and frequent attacks on chairs, desks and trash cans. That typewriter with the sticking keys? Back in the day, it might find itself tossed out of a second-floor window.

Now smoking is banned, the floors are carpeted, there are as many women as men, and everyone has to go through training to understand the laws involving harassment. I once had to cruise the newsroom and take down photos that staff members posted in their cubicles that might be considered inappropriate or contributing to a hostile environment. (I briefly removed a pinup photo of a male actor with his shirt off from one female reporter’s wall. The language that resulted may have contributed to a hostile workplace.)

I don’t miss those days, but I do think newsrooms are different sorts of places. Journalists are irreverent and don’t stand on convention. Editors demand that they speak truth to power and that they don’t back down when put off. So, how can we expect them to be PC in a newsroom?

I know this makes me sound like one of those nutcases that blames everything bad in society today on the PC culture. Nope, not me. I’m glad that people can’t smoke in the newsroom. I support the limitation of dropping F-bombs. Newsrooms and news coverage has been vastly improved by the gender and racial diversification of the staff. Lowering the sexual tension and chauvistic temperature is a must.

But sometimes people who make their living with colorful, descriptive words can’t help themselves. And the image the reporter evoked fits exactly what happened. Sorta.

For the record, the female editor the reporter addressed? Here’s what she said: Your comment didn’t even break into the Top 100 Inappropriate Things (You) Said To An Editor list. And yes, we have a list. For the record, I thought it was funny.

Update: Michael Triplett at NLGJA responds. I agree with everything he says.

Romenesko also asked people about how the newsroom has changed. Some responses on Facebook.

Get it first, but get it right

A few days ago, I declared the exclusive dead. It wasn’t a long post, but it was long enough. Now, in the wake of the at-the-time-false-declaration-that-Joe-Paterno-is-dead-story, I wish I had simply written this:

Is it just me, or does being first really only seem to matter when the story is wrong?
Fortunately, Bob Dalton did.
(Hat tip to Dan Conover.)

Democrats invite 500 media folks, but it’s off the record

A day after the Democratic National Convention Committee reiterated that Charlotte’s gathering would be “the most open and accessible in history,” 500 media representatives were given a tour Wednesday of their September digs.

One of the first orders of business: cone of silence.

Mark Washburn of The Charlotte Observer nails the Democrats for their controlling arrogance in a media walk-through. You’re going to keep hundreds of the media off-the-record? It’s not even as if what they’re briefing the media on is actually that important. I mean, how could the apparatchik think that everyone was going to accept such a thing? The press is not a pussycat; it won’t stand for this blanket off-the-record stuff. Crazy, right? Well….

“A total non-issue,” said Greg Kohler of Charlotte-based NBC News Channel, who has been managing convention setups since 2000. Kohler was more interested in the good news of the day – spots in the arena for his reporters to do stand-ups were going for $1,200 to $1,800, rather than the $10,000 they cost in Denver and at other conventions.

Larry Rubenstein, who runs the logistics for Reuters news service, was focusing on the money, too. In Charlotte, the media can rent chairs at the arena for only $49, a third less than what they were paying in Denver four years ago.

He said off-the-record conversations are common during media orientation, and he thought even the Republicans had some such moments in December. “Accepted practice,” he said. Competitive reasons.

Now, we’re not pussycats. For another take, Rob Christensen of the N&O also got a more traditional story out of the gathering. No mention of the off-the-record status of the meeting.

The News & Observer says stop

Steve Riley, senior editor/investigations for the News & Observer, said enough is enough yesterday. Good for him.

At The N&O, we’re accustomed to having folks saying unpleasant things about us. Most of the time, we just smile, let it pass. Occasionally, we have to admit that the caller or letter writer is correct.

We try to draw the line when someone falsely accuses us of illegal behavior.

You can read the whole thing, but the person making the charge against an N&O reporter isn’t just anybody — the Durham DA — and she’s not just talking. She’s made it in a sworn affadavit.

Riley responds with a categorical denial, and I believe him.

When I was an editor, I, too, resisted making a big deal about people saying things about the paper and its reporters that were patently false. The paper is a large, powerful institution and comes with a target on its back. We didn’t need to respond to every criticism and falsehood. I thought that responding would make the false charges even more visible, to say nothing of dignifying the criticism. Besides, when your own editorial page routinely criticizes someone or something, you have to have a thick skin yourself.

Still, in retrospect, I wish I had been quicker and more aggressive in reacting to some of them. Setting the record straight is critical when you make a mistake; it’s also critical when someone files a false charge.