When I talk about the state of corrections in today’s news media I use the phrase “circle the wagons” a lot. It’s meant to evoke the defensive reflexes that kick in when a news organization perceives it’s under attack. Too often, circling the wagons is the default reaction in the newsroom when readers raise questions about coverage.
The advantage of the circle-the-wagons response is that it buttresses the institutional facade of authority, and these buttresses hold up well as long as the reader lacks the time or interest to pay close attention. The disadvantage of the circle-the-wagons response is that it is prone to crumble when the reader looks too closely.
In this post, I am going to look very closely at one such incident. So be warned: we’re heading deep into some weeds.
Last week MediaBugs received an error report about an election-eve story in the Wall Street Journal. The story’s headline announced “Pressure Builds on Obama to Shake Up Inner Circle,” but, our error reporter pointed out, the article failed to provide any quotes of actual people urging Obama to shake up his inner circle. We sought a response from the Journal, and when we didn’t get one, we made a little noise about it.
MediaBugs finally got a response from the Journal Thursday. I would characterize it as a circle-the-wagons response, and I’m going to dissect it and the story it references to see what we can learn.
I should state right here that I’m presenting these views as Scott Rosenberg, blogger and sometime media critic. In my role as director of MediaBugs, I’m very happy that we have a response from the Journal, and MediaBugs itself takes no position on specific bug reports. But one of MediaBugs’ goals is to make public the dialogue between people who report errors in coverage and newsroom leaders who respond. If it’s public, instead of locked away in emails or private conversations, we all have the opportunity to kibitz — which I will now proceed to do.
Here is the lead of the Journal story: “Some high-level Democrats are calling for President Barack Obama to remake his inner circle or even fire top advisers in response to what many party strategists expect to be a decisive defeat on Tuesday.”
With that set-up, one naturally reads the rest of the story anticipating a payoff. Surely we will hear from one or two “high-level Democrats” by name — or, failing that, one or two lofty Dems who preferred anonymity — providing quotations along the lines of “Obama’s team has got to go!”
Failing that, surely we will at least read indirect statements from the reporters telling us that they have indeed spoken to some high-level Democrats who can’t be quoted but who made it clear that they think that Obama’s team has got to go and they are calling for that to happen.
Instead, here is what the story gives us:
“Tensions have come to the surface after [White House] meetings over the past few weeks…” [OK, things are tense!] “Some Democrats were so unhappy with the White House meetings, they started their own.” [OK, some new meetings!] “The strategy sessions aired a range of disagreements” over the elections. [Right, disagreements!]
The story proceeds this way. Strategy sessions! Complaints about Obama’s failure to stem the GOP tide! Strategists saying they’re “really puzzled” about White House missteps!
But those calls for remaking the inner circle or firing top advisers never do turn up. The closest we get is this paragraph:
Nevertheless, interviews with Ms. Myers and other strategists in touch with the White House foreshadow the start of what Democratic strategists forecast will be finger-pointing and recriminations if predictions hold true and the party loses the House and suffers setbacks in the Senate. Mr. Obama is already planning to remake his economic team, but now strategists expect more pressure for a complete West Wing overhaul.
OK, let’s review: interviews with Myers and other strategists — presumably, these are our “high-level Democrats,” though none is an actual officeholder — “foreshadow the start” of what strategists “forecast will be finger-pointing and recriminations…”
Dang! After all that foreshadowing of the start of the forecasting, we’ll still only get some lousy finger-pointing and recriminations? What about those cries of “Obama’s team must go”? It seems that some strategists “expect more pressure” for a West Wing overhaul at some indeterminate time in the future, but said pressure has not, apparently, yet been applied.
Far from fleshing out this hint of a prediction of a shakeup, the remainder of the story subsides into more “competing strategy conference calls,” and rear-window analyses by strategists, and grumblings from (nameless) Democratic congresspeople that the White House was indifferent to their fate. There’s plenty of talk about the White House’s mistakes and how they contributed to the Democratic defeat — but not one suggestion that the President fire his top advisers.
Now let’s turn to the response of the Wall Street Journal’s assistant managing editor, Karen Pensiero, to our bug report.
We fundamentally disagree with your assessment that our article ‘Pressure Builds on Obama to Shake Up Inner Circle’ was ‘unsupported.’ In fact, we were surprised that you took seriously the ‘fabrication’ claim by your anonymous contributor. As is clearly stated in our article, our premise came from ‘interviews with Ms. (Dee Dee) Myers and other strategists in touch with the White House.’ Those strategists told us that they ‘expect more pressure for a complete West Wing overhaul,’ as we clearly stated in the article. Not surprisingly, many of those high-level officials aren’t comfortable with making those calls in public. But nonetheless, our reporting for this article was solid and complete. The remainder of the article laid out the reasons why pressure was building for a shake up in the White House inner circle. Please be assured that the Journal takes matters of fairness and accuracy very seriously. However, in this case we disagree with the premise of your contributor’s concern.
Even using quotes in this selective way, the best argument the Journal editor can muster gives us a report that there are expectations of “more” cries of “Obama’s team has got to go” — in the future. But the story she is defending reads: “Some high-level Democrats are calling” for that team to go — present tense. That’s a different premise, and that’s what rang out, front and center, on the Journal’s home page the night before the election.
Now, of course, as Pensiero says, the official sources for this type of story don’t want to make those calls in public! And maybe they are indeed making them in private. None of that matters to the reader. The reader reads a headline and lead and expects to see them backed up. The reporters either find the material to support their premise or give up the premise. If you can’t get people to go on the record or to give you blind quotes, sorry, you don’t have a story. (Of course, you could say, “We know this is happening even though we can’t get the quotes — just trust us,” but that’s not the way the game is played today.)
If you’re still with me here, if you’ve read the Journal story and my comments and now the Journal’s response, you’re going to have to draw your own conclusion. The point of MediaBugs is to get enough information on the public record for us to do so.
Here’s my conclusion:
Like any journalist who’s been working for three decades, I’ve written and edited thousands of headlines on thousands of stories. There is no way I would ever sign off on that headline and lead for that story. Our MediaBugs error-report filing called them “completely unsupported,” and I agree.
When you run a story that you don’t have, you hurt your credibility. You can repair it by admitting a mistake and correcting it. Or by offering an explanation of the process that led to the mistake. Or by otherwise engaging with the people who cared enough about your work to report the problem.
But when you circle the wagons, you just lose more of your credibility.
- November 12, 2010 @ 09:39:32 [Current Revision] by Scott Rosenberg
- November 12, 2010 @ 07:50:29 by Scott Rosenberg