good journalism

Yes, James O’Keefe is a journalist

One of my former U.S. students insists that the conservative filmmaker — famed for taking down NPR executives and the liberal activist group ACORN — is not a journalist. She recently asked for my opinion, and I hesitated to reply. I suspect she objects to O’Keefe’s methods — he gathers information through deceptive means and I’m certainly one who frowns upon journalists who lie or mislead their audiences or subjects. But, I think she also objects to O’Keefe’s ideology — but only she knows which objection carries more weight.

This recent NY Times Magazine profile of O’Keefe helps shed light on these issues. Take the time to read it–it’s well-written and largely unbiased. In it, two professors of journalism speak to the issue of whether O’Keefe’s methods are outside the norms of journalism:

“Undercover journalism goes back to at least the 1820s in this country,” says Brooke Kroeger, the director of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, who has written a book on the subject, to be published next year. “And the use of hidden cameras to do it came into prominence after World War II.” Muckrakers, of course, are advocates, loved or despised according to the targets they choose. “For years, advocacy groups such as those for a better government have partnered with journalistic organizations,” Kroeger says. “Last year the Humane Society released an undercover video of the inhumane treatment of pigs in Virginia that got picked up by media around the country and won applause from animal lovers. Many of those same people vociferously went after O’Keefe for his exposé of NPR. It’s basically a question of what you care about and what side you are on.”

Earlier this year, two of O’Keefe’s actors, posing as fictitious representatives of a Muslim philanthropic organization, had lunch with Ron Schiller, NPR’s senior vice president for development. In the course of ingratiating himself with these potential donors, Schiller was caught denigrating Tea Party members and Republicans in language that the corporation later said it was appalled by. The scandal hastened the departures of both Schiller and his boss, Vivian Schiller (no relation). When it was suggested that the tapes had been dishonestly edited, O’Keefe invited people to watch them in their entirety. “He said it, that’s just a fact,” Dana Davis Rehm, a spokesman for NPR, said of Ron Schiller. In the aftermath, NPR conducted sessions on ethics for its support and operational staff and is planning to publish updated ethics guidelines in September.

His takedown of Acorn was even more devastating, although Bertha Lewis, Acorn’s former chief executive, contends that the videos were dishonest. “He is demon, a liar and a cheat,” she says. “What he did was despicable. He created a fiction.” Bertha Lewis still insists that Acorn did not offer advice on how to break the law. Clark Hoyt, a former public editor for The New York Times, reviewed O’Keefe’s raw footage and edited tapes and concluded that “the most damning words match the transcripts and the audio, and do not seem out of context.”

There is no doubt that O’Keefe disseminated only the material that supported his thesis about Acorn, but this kind of selectivity is the norm in advocacy journalism. “I put James O’Keefe in the same category as Michael Moore,” says Dean Mills, dean of the University of Missouri’s school of journalism. “Some ethicists say it is never right for a journalist to deceive for any reason, but there are wrongs in the world that will never be exposed without some kind of subterfuge.”

I agree. I think O’Keefe’s methods are questionable but not outside the norms of journalism. His tactics looks quite similar to liberal provocateur Michael Moore, and I certainly consider him a journalist as well. But, they both represent a certain type of “muckraking” journalism — one that belongs on the media fringes, not not on the evening newscasts or metropolitan dailies.

In the end, these partisan journalists add something to media landscape that their more “objective” brethren can’t. And I’d argue that we’re all better off for it.

By | August 27th, 2011|great quotes|1 Comment

Regarding dwarf vampires and drinking water

Do yourself a favor and read this Jonah Weiner profile in the NY Times Magazine on the reclusive brothers behind the Dwarf Fortress complicated, but retro-graphics computer game. It profiles a couple of interesting characters who have decided to dedicate their lives to an esoteric game rather than more traditional pursuits. Here’s a good bit:

If much of Tarn’s apartment suggests a tenant who never fully moved in, his bedroom suggests a tenant who never sets a sock outdoors. When I peeked inside, rumpled underwear, discarded boxes and books lay scattered across the carpet. A sheet of plywood, edged with black foam rubber, was wedged into the window frame and affixed there by metal clamps. Tarn wakes up around 3 p.m. every day, codes through the night and goes to bed around 6 a.m. The plywood keeps slumber-disturbing daylight out of the room, making it a chamber fit for a vampire dwarf — or at least for a computer programmer.

Tarn and Zach’s parents live on several wooded acres in nearby Bremerton, and Zach, who is 35 and between jobs, has lived with them since 2002. Zach brought over a drinking glass from the house in case I got thirsty, because Tarn owns only a couple of dishes. In the fridge were three sodas and a jug of water and nothing else. Tarn said I was welcome to anything, although the jug technically belonged to Scamps — the tap water has something in it that makes the cat refuse to drink it. Tarn consumed “maybe one glass” of water in the last three months, hydrating with soft drinks instead. “Water’s not doing it for me these days,” he said. “I know it’s bad, but the sugar goes right into programming the game. If I don’t drink soda now, I get a headache and can’t do any work.”

Great description and a hilarious quote. “Water’s not doing it for me these days.” You’ll chuckle about that line in a few days.

Read the rest.

By | August 3rd, 2011|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Keep it light

In an AJC article about Atlanta’s snow, the last line should produce a chuckle:

Typical of the icy chaos gripping this vulnerable landscape on Friday was this: Two police officers, a Cobb County sheriff’s deputy and an off-duty Cobb police officer, were forced to leap 20 feet off a bridge or chance getting crushed by an out-of-control PT Cruiser — this coming after the deputy had slid into a wall and damaged his squad car, and the other officer riding in a pickup truck had stopped to assist him. They were taken to WellStar Kennestone Hospital with injuries that included fractures and sprains. Among the vehicles, there were no survivors.

By | January 8th, 2010|Uncategorized|3 Comments

Tips for better news writing

Fantastic criticism from Michael Kinsley on what’s wrong with journalism today. Read the whole thing, but here’s the major points:

1) Over-hyping: Reporters waste too much explaining to you just how important everything is, instead of just telling you what happened.

2) Rely less upon outside experts. They’re just a cop out that keep the reporter from explaining what’s happening in his own words. Do this well — and news outlets build credibility.

3) Don’t use protective qualifiers when their isn’t any doubt.

4) Don’t be verbose — “Reforming health care” rather than “a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system.”

5) Don’t get too far away from inverted pyramid style, i.e., keep the important details at the top of the story.

6) Don’t end cute. Stop trying to wrap up every story with a catchy close.

He concludes:

On the first day of my first real job in journalism—on the copy desk at the Royal Oak Daily Tribune in Royal Oak, Michigan—the chief copy editor said, “Remember, every word you cut saves the publisher money.” At the time, saving the publisher money didn’t strike me as the world’s noblest ideal. These days, for anyone in journalism, it’s more compelling.

By | January 6th, 2010|Uncategorized|5 Comments

Unbelievably responsive journalism from the AJC

Less than two hours ago, I criticized an AJC news article for failing to be careful in their reporting on an allegation of sexual misconduct regarding a high school counselor. The article’s lede read that the counselor had been “arrested for fondling a student…” I noted that the wording was too definitive, since he hadn’t been convicted of anything. My blog fed my post to both Facebook and Twitter.

I just received a message via Twitter from the AJC. It read: “Thank you for bringing that to our attention. The problem has been addressed.”

The article’s lede now reads: “A Cobb County high school counselor arrested for allegedly fondling a student has declined to resign.”

Wow! Talk about embracing the new media environment. Three cheers for the AJC and their digital journalists. When I’m finished with my dissertation, I plan to write an article for American Journalism Review highlighting these and other changes the AJC’s been making. They should be a model for the newspaper industry.

By | December 24th, 2009|Uncategorized|7 Comments