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Media struggle with demands for transparency

News consumers now seek enough information to judge newspapers' reporting for themselves.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published January 16, 2006


Look at the headlines in recent months - besides those focused on industry layoffs and cutbacks, of course - and times don't look so bad for American newspaper journalism.

The New York Times revealed domestic spying by the National Security Agency without court orders; the Washington Post exposed secret prisons operated by the Central Intelligence Agency for suspected terrorists and the Los Angeles Times' uncovered Iraqi newspapers that took payments to publish pro-American stories written by the U.S. military.

So why are these groundbreaking stories sparking criticism over questions of credibility?

The Washington Post took barbs for declining to reveal the countries housing the secret prisons at the request of U.S. officials. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post faced criticism after revelations President Bush secretly met with their editors to ask they not publish their blockbuster stories.

And the Times' NSA story has drawn a host of critical comments - both for the acknowledgement inside the report that the newspaper delayed publishing its account for a year, and for top editors' unwillingness to detail why they held the story.

Even the Times' own public editor criticized the paragraph-long explanation of the publication delay within the NSA story as "woefully inadequate."

Transparency - telling the public how the media gets its stories - has become one of the biggest issues facing newspapers.

Even as readers accept the hundreds of little facts newspapers print daily, they are increasingly seeking the story behind big stories, leaving editors to struggle with how much they can comfortably reveal.

"We have, without any fanfare or much conversation, moved into a era in which news organizations are expected to explain themselves," said Alex Jones, a former New York Times reporter and director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. "Twenty years ago, it would not be expected that the New York Times would explain itself. The concept of what accountability is has changed."

Consider the list recent of big journalism missteps: the fabrications of former New York Times journalist Jayson Blair, the mistaken stories on Iraq's weapons programs by former Times reporter Judith Miller and former CBS anchor Dan Rather's flawed story on President Bush's National Guard service for 60 Minutes II.

As a result, like a teacher who insists students show their work as well as an answer, news consumers now seek enough information to judge newspapers' reporting for themselves.

But New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller - forced to defend his paper's NSA story delay on the heels of Miller's controversial departure - seems a weary cynic on the subject.

"Instead of ferreting out and criticizing bad journalism, or challenging journalists to pay more attention to stories that are being neglected, a lot of media critics spend their time trying to discredit good journalism," said Keller, who last month released two post-publication statements on the NSA story saying the delay allowed further reporting which strengthened the work.

"One effect of this has been to diminish whatever credibility our trade has left,' he said. "It's kind of exasperating."

As an example, Keller cited negative reaction to another Times scoop in December: a six-month investigation into an 18-year-old honor roll student who sold explicitly sexual images of himself on the Internet, unveiling a hidden child pornography industry.

Critics questioned reporter Kurt Eichenwald's independence because he convinced the teenager to leave the business and cooperate with a federal investigation. But Keller said he has not heard similar concerns from the general public.

"(Byron) Calame, our public editor, I would be willing to bet, got bombarded with messages mostly talking about how Kurt reported the story and did he get too close to his source...?" said Keller in an interview last week.

"I'm absolutely sure that, to Barney, it feels like what he's getting is a sample of readers, but he's not...What he's getting is the media blog establishment," said the editor, referring to online Web logs that feature press criticism. "They all know to write to Barney if you want to pull the wings off of flies."

As it turned out, Calame wrote a column published Sunday praising Times editors and Eichenwald precisely for their transparency. He noted Eichenwald kept the story's subject well-informed, delivered a balanced report and presented a first-person accountdetailing his reporting of the story.

"In my limited time as public editor, I don't think I'm taking on subjects or taking them on differently than I had my previous 10 or 12 years (as a deputy managing editor) at the Wall Street Journal," said Calame, who retired in 2004 after 40 years at the Journal. "(And) because we get e-mails from readers who are speaking for themselves and thinking for themselves, I would not be prepared to write them off as quickly as Bill does."

Calame's Jan. 1 column on the NSA story - suggesting editors should have put material from Keller's subsequent statements in the story and criticizing them for not saying whether they knew about the NSA's spying before the 2004 presidential election - crystallized many concerns.

"Why couldn't they tell readers more about why they couldn't tell them more?" added Calame, who became the newspaper's second public editor in May, taking a job created as part of a massive effort to make the Times more responsive following the Jayson Blair controversy in 2003. "You're never going to satisfy all readers, and you will never prevent efforts at transparency from being used by your worst enemies."

(Citing confidentiality concerns, Keller declined to speak directly on the publication delay, denying the scheduled January publication of a book by Times reporter James Risen detailing the NSA story prompted the newspaper to publish in December).

Columnist/author Arianna Huffington, who has long criticized former Times reporter Miller on her Huffington Post blog, said transparency can also help newspapers police their own reporters.

"What is it going to take for the New York Times to live down the dozens of ludicriously flattering editorials about Judy Miller?" Huffington said. (Full disclosure: three of this critic's blog postings have appeared on the Huffington Post). "I think 2005 was the year blogging was really taken seriously by everyone, including the mainstream media. Newspapers that are still fighting that reality are like dinosaurs."

For Post editor Leonard Downie Jr., such questions are just the price of doing business in a world with more media about media, an Internet-fast, 24-hour news cycle and heightened partisanship.

"I never see it as a question of retaining our credibility (through transparency)," said Downie, who declined to confirm or deny meeting with Bush, citing confidentiality agreements.

Still, don't secret meetings with the President damage readers' trust, making them see the newspaper less as their watchdog and more like another self-interested private institution?

"We are trying all the time...to make our reporting as transparent as we can," he said. "We are an institution...(but) we also are watchdogs at the same time."

As usual, the cause of this seismic change in the media can be traced to the Internet and its wide range of Web sites exposing the story behind big stories.

"It's always been the case that news organizations did things that weren't fully justified...(but) in the past, it didn't really matter, because there wasn't any way to challenge decision-making," said Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University and creator of the media-focused blog, PressThink.

Rosen said the Times may have particular problems negotiating transparency issues, because its internal culture has resisted such openness until recent years.

"Up until a few years ago, the rule was the Times didn't talk about the Times, and it had such a unique and powerful place in American culture, and within the news media itself, it was simply having trouble adjusting to a new position," he added.

Now, subjects can post transcripts or recordings of raw interviews on Web sites. One technology columnist has even posted audio podcasts of interviews alongside his column online, allowing readers to judge if he quoted his subjects accurately.

"Authority in an interactive world comes from communicating, not from avoiding communication," said Rosen. "Explaining yourself is not navel-gazing. It's a part of democracy."

Keller, who hired the Times' first two public editors and cites a long record of speaking publicly on the newspaper's journalism, resisted Rosen's notion that the newspaper has continuing problems with transparency. But he acknowledged some colleagues ask if he shouldn't talk less and let their work speak more.

"If we spend all our time explaining ourselves, we'd never get our jobs done," he said. "One of my New Year's resolutions was to pay a lot less attention to the inside of the media beltway. This leaves me a lot more time to do journalism."

Eric Deggans can be reached at 727 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media/