Monday, February 14, 2005

L'affaire Eason

CNN's Jordan Eason is gone. The New York Times is in a bit of a lather about it.
At the same time, some in the traditional media are growing alarmed as they watch careers being destroyed by what they see as the growing power of rampant, unedited dialogue.
Rampant, unedited dialogue. My god, save the women and children. Welcome to the real world of being a journalist these days.

Former CNN News Group Chairman Walter Isaacson quickly grasps for the now well-worn straw of "we do the news; they don't":
It's ironic that he was brought down partly by talk-show and blogging folks who represent the opposite approach and have seldom . . . ventured out to do . . . frontline reporting."
No irony here. Those great unwashed masses are called "the audience" or "the readers." They have opinions that count and that refused to be constrained by the letters to the editor. And whether they're a minority or majority doesn't really matter if you're going to retain your fealty to the spirit of the First Amendment.

(In that same Atlanta Journal-Constitution piece, former TV reporter Deborah Potter, now of NewsLab, exhibits more understanding by noting that such things "are always exacerbated by delay and obfuscation, and I think both of those happened in this case."
Online blogs "are becoming a force to be reckoned with," she said. "The questions that were raised were good journalistic questions: 'What exactly did he say?' The way you deal with this kind of controversy is by being transparent, by being open.")

In everything I've read, Jordan comes across as a solid journalist, one ready to stand by his troops.

But the "salivating morons who make up the lynch mob" referred to by Steve Lovelady in a note on PressThink bother me less than Lovelady's assumptions that play into the hands of those managing newsrooms who are likely to shudder at every "boo" coming from a relative handful of blogs. This kind of stuff, forgetting for a moment the levels at which it is being waged, is hardly new. Ever po'd a mayor and his minions and had them descend on your city or managing editor? Or how about a horde of angry readers? Yet the editors and news directors and bureau chiefs I worked for used to be pretty good at sorting out the BS from that to which attention must be paid. Lately, we seem too often willing to suspend (as the Wall Street Journal suggests) that use of journalistic common sense and backbone.

(Or as Rebecca Blood notes: Traditional media will respond "It was being reported elsewhere--we were just reporting that it was being reported!" I would answer: "Grow up. With the emergence of the blogosphere, speculation is a commodity. Traditional journalism's most important role remains the same: to report the facts, as best they are known, without being gamed by those who have an agenda.")

We are all fond of quoting the phrase "news as a conversation." But conversations sometimes get rowdy -- they even turn into arguments. The smart ones know when to listen and when to let the chatterers just chatter. Will the chatter rise to the level where the person targeted cannot effectively do his or her job? That largely will depend on the resolve of the organization and its belief in the person. But this is all part of the "conversation"; get used to it. It's going to get personal because we are becoming a personalized society with personal media.

Jeff Jarvis, like Potter, notes the real point here was that the bloggers were pressing for the tape or an accurate transcript of Eason's remarks, but one was not produced: Learn this lesson well: The speed of news has changed and so has the speed of scandal. You can't wait and hope something will go away. Today, that's tantamount to a coverup.

So one thing to take away from all this: Perhaps Eason should have thought twice, as a news executive, before speaking at an off-the-record meeting. Nothing is off the record anymore, especially if the conference itself was being blogged. And expect friends and foes alike to use the increasingly more democratic public discourse to press for the release of whatever detritus is lying around.

A second thing to take away: The blog world is getting pretty good at holding people accountable for their actions without the need for mainstream media, most of which were far behind on this one. If it makes journalists think for that extra second, take that extra bit of care, before spouting off, it's a good thing. If, however, as the Times implies, it might send some journalists scurrying to ground and producing only pablum even blander than what we too often have today, that is to be feared.

If it happens, however, it will be the journalists' fault, not the bloggers'.


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