Category Archives: Journalism

Why I disagree with Wesley Yang’s conclusion

Rodin's Fallen Caryatid, still crushed by her stone.

Wesley Yang wrote about Aaron in New York Magazine with sensitivity, complexity, and pathos. He laid out parts of the story like puzzle pieces. But then, I believe, he built the wrong image. He built an easier image than belonged there.

I’ve talked to very few journalists since Aaron died, compared to how many tried to talk to me. Mostly those who caught me in New York before I left America, those who got to me through friends, those who were lucky enough to find me when I could talk.

One of them was Yang. I told him (as I told all the journalists I spoke to) that this was a very hard and complex story, that I wouldn’t want to be writing it. Then again, I said, I wouldn’t want to be me even more. I spoke to Yang as I packed to leave America, as I was moving and sorting, falling in and out of silences the day after I’d eulogized him in Cooper Union. I was puffy with crying. I was the strange kind of empty and full that only comes with grief. I spoke of our lives together. I told him things that were not to be published. I asked for quote approval, and he promised it to me.

Yang did not do wrong by me. Many of the moments of his piece were lovely, and he danced up to the ambivalence of Aaron’s legacy in a way few writers thus far have. But in the end he shied away from the terrible lessons of Aaron’s death. He shied away from the what the insanity of the last month has pointed to; in the end, I think, he made this story smaller and easier than it is.

“It cannot serve society’s purpose to make a felon and an inmate out of so gifted and well-meaning a person as Aaron Swartz, and thus he was a victim of a grave injustice. But it bears remembering that the greater injustice was done to Aaron Swartz by the man who killed him.”

The greater injustice: it’s a beautiful sentence, but one that belittles the soul of civilized life.

To put this on Aaron is to say he was too weak, too fragile for our society. He should have been stronger, it’s what society requires. But Aaron would have (rightly) pointed out how meager and mean such a society is, how it’s the job of everyone to demand a better society. “A felon and an inmate” is the lesser of injustice that Yang describes. It’s a way of blaming Aaron for not being able to endure an unbearable weight, the cruelty of a violent system disconnected from justice. Living through this investigation was hell. It is the stuff of hell, of destruction, before you even get to the deeper hell of our private slave labor prison system. You have no idea how you’d react if this has never happened to you. Not Yang, not Heymann or Ortiz. Perhaps me, because I’ve been in the range of damage, more than once. But even then I’m not sure.

We are not the mythical Hollywood Spartans Aaron and I laughed at together many years ago after watching 300. We were slowly, reluctantly, falling in love after both of us had rejected dayjob life at Wired. That night we were both amused and just a little bit horrified that this primitive notion of what makes virtue; that the heroes of this story would have killed us both as children. Aaron and I were part of a culture that prides itself on not slaughtering deformed or sickly children, or leaving unwanted babies to die of exposure. Instead we were the people that could go to the moon and builds ADA ramps. We hold people like Stephen Hawking up as paragons, not of their virtues, but ours. We contend that we live better and more wisely for keeping brilliant minds in useful arts and sciences not only alive, but offering a place where they can thrive and enrich us all.

And we are lying.

Yang blames Aaron for not going to high school, for not learning to do pointless things because he was told to by men with power over him. I have sympathy for Aaron here, I didn’t finish high school either. I have what Yang points to as Aaron’s fatal flaw: and inability to accept doing pointless things to get by. My mom used to get so angry at me, and yell “You can’t have your cake and eat it too!” I would say to her in my calm and infuriating way, “What’s the point of having cake if you can’t eat it?”

It is not as Yang seems to imply the snowball effect of a simple lack of discipline. I can endure things, as could Aaron. Both of us were strong in many ways, and could endure violence from our minds and bodies which few people will ever have to experience, for years. We’d both endured the placelessness of rejecting the system, the self doubt, the terrible judgement and disappointment of others. I’d love to say I helped guide him, but he did at least as much for me as I did for him. We laughed about how bad we looked on paper, two high school dropouts with shitty employment histories. But he told me I was amazing, that I could do what I wanted with my life. I told him he was stronger than he knew.

In our culture, this strength is not enough. One must be born without blemish, and be strong and brilliant on top of that. Yang is critical of Aaron’s inability to endure pointless things thrust on him by corrupt power structures. I share this quality with Aaron, so I am left asking myself, why am I alive? I believe it is for two reasons: I was born a woman, and I was born poor. To be either in America teaches you something quickly that Aaron never learned. It teaches you that you are prey. I have the instincts of a prey animal: avoid detection, flee from violent people, hide, wait, use all available resources for my advantage. Aaron and I were both fragile, but he believed that we still lived in a society that valued something other than might and force. I have no such illusions.

Yang had all these puzzle pieces, and tried, understandably to say something about Aaron, but instead he accidentally said about America, something more important than Aaron’s death. He said that we are social Darwinists now. That our values are that if you are weak in body or spirit, that if you are poor, or even just unlucky, you deserve to die. What Yang shows in his account of Aaron is that we are a lesser place and a lesser civilization than we’d hoped for.

Photo from Flickr, by rocor

A Note on How I Choose My Assignments

Hello! Thank you for your recent suggestions about what I should cover/what direction I should go in my career.

First off, I really mean it. Thank you. Without the help and guidance of people in the communities I’ve covered over the years, I would be nowhere and my shit would suck ass. I know I owe my career and insight to my sources, my readers, and to the communities that have allowed me to learn about their lives and values. I’ve done this as an outsider, and the tremendous respect and warmth people have demonstrated, meeting my needs and ethical concerns over the years, is literally humbling.

But for every story I take on, there are many I don’t.

Let me explain a few things about that. First off, there is one of me. I try to work roughly full time, but frankly, I’m not even good at long jags of full time work before I tire out a bit. Sometimes I work a lot more than full time, but usually I burn out rather badly after I do, and end up working much less for a while. I have learned/am learning to pace myself, and if your story has come up during a time when I need to recharge my batteries or go play with my daughter, I’m sorry, the world just has to turn without me for a while. Don’t bother to tell me a story is more important than my time with my daughter — she’s why I do this in the first place.

No matter how good your idea is, you don’t get editorial input on what I choose to write about, or how I write it. Honestly, publications would probably pay me a lot more if I would write about what they wanted when they wanted me to, and I’ve chosen to make much less to maintain my independence. I appreciate suggestions, and am super grateful for help, but my independence is important enough to me that I’m willing to stay poor to keep it. (I wouldn’t mind not staying poor, but you know…)

I have my own agenda and ethics. I see my work building towards a cohesive whole, a larger story, and I’m loyal to that story. I think in long time scales, and about a long and specific story I’m telling over my career. Not everything that should be told is part of that story — again, there is just one of me. If your suggestion is totally awesomely awesome and deserves attention, but I don’t want to cover it, this is why.

I see my readers as people picking stuff up right now, but I also see them as people in 100 or 200 years, trying to understand how this period affected the world they live in. I don’t know whether those people will read me specifically, but I do believe I affect a narrative that will come down to them. I feel responsible to them to get stuff right over time, and to tell a insightful and constructive story.

I do get terrible suggestions, but things I thought were terrible suggestions turned out to be great stories I misjudged and passed on. I spend a lot of time being wrong, which is just part and parcel of spending a lot of time in unknown territory. I’m not likely to tell you if I think your suggestion is terrible. Not because I’m buttering you up, because I’ve been wrong enough to not really trust my opinion in that. I’ve chased plenty of stories that ended up stupid and passed on others that turned out brilliant. It’s taught me that these things are hard to judge.

My answer is to choose stories based on my desire to understand and explain how the technology of this age is changing what it means to be human, not whether or not I think it’s a good story. Whether a particular event/op/tip/etc. fits into the metastory I’m telling is something only I can decide. And if I figure it out late, I’m late to the story, but I’m ok with that. I’m not a news automaton, I’m not even a story telling automaton. I’m a person whose stories are shaped by my values, ethics, and dreams for the future. You have helped build that, but only I can steer it.

But all that said, please keep ’em coming, I’d be lost without suggestions. I <3 you all.

P.S. If you’re a PR person trying to get me cover your product, it’s probably not going to happen. And honestly if you knew my work, I’m not sure you’d want it to. Might want to save us both the trouble there. Also, despite being named Quinn, I’m not a man.

HOPE: the lost article

(Due to a few problems and confusions with timing submission and editing, this piece about the Next HOPE never ran at Gizmodo. It’s presented on my blog instead because… you know, why not? I almost never name my own articles, that’s my editor’s job. But I have names for them in my head, and this one was called:)

Scenes from a Hacker Conference

The Hotel Pennsylvania was packed the weekend of the The Next HOPE conference, full of New York’s summer tourists as well as hackers. But it’s wasn’t hard to tell the hackers apart from the civilians. They were the ones in all black– goth with funnier t-shirts and no make-up.

The look may have risen nearly to the level of self parody, but the enthusiasm was genuine. The vacationers were far outmatched for pure excitement. People were grinningly happy to be here. “This year was… the HOPE that people thought would never happen, but we’re still here despite the economic problems and other issues,” says founder and organizer Emmanuel Goldstein. “This was The Next HOPE. It was about renewal.”

HOPE stands for Hackers On Planet Earth. It was created by the community around 2600, the Hacker Quarterly, mainly by 2600’s co-founder, Emmanuel Goldstein, less well known as Eric Corley. It’s been going since 1994, every 3-2 years. The HOPE conferences are much more hacker conferences than computer security conferences, embracing an ethic and aesthetic that goes beyond security. “There are other conferences that relate on certain themes (to HOPE), but most don’t hit the politics/anarchy/hacking all at once. It’s actually a pretty rare combination,” says Aestetix, one of the conference organizers.

Goldstein has made the HOPE conferences by far the most European of the American hacker gatherings– a political event, with a worldview that exceeds the technical. American hackers have often taken the mantel of bad guy hooligans much more than their European counterparts, for whom defiance and transgression are seen as more righteous and politically active. European hackers have often swung socialist, the Americans, libertarian. Goldstein tries to be as inclusive as possible. “The idea is to get people to come out of it saying ‘that’s really something different and I had my mind opened,'” says Goldstein.

The talks ranged wildly, from coding to resist botnets to sex and food and a talk about how we perceive color. They are political, technical, scientific, social, and often funny. But one of the things people notice about the HOPE conferences is that they always bring the drama, and The Next Hope was no exception. This year featured a WikiLeaks keynote that brought out federal agents looking to question Julian Assange, and the public appearance of Adrian Lamo, with whom WikiLeaks has been in an embarrassing public pissing match over the case of alleged leaker Bradley Manning.

“As annoying as drama can be to watch unfold, it’s also really exciting. I think general news stories follow the same line, drama sells,” said Aestetix, and the organizers weren’t shy about playing up the drama.

Goldstein took the podium in front of a packed room for the WikiLeaks keynote. Goldstein is a middle aged man with a soft, welcoming face. He looks like a man perpetually ready for a backyard BBQ. A two minute hate of this Emmanuel Goldstein would feel like chewing out a favorite uncle. He looked over the crowd with a grin. “Everyone having fun?” The audience cheered. “Alright. There’s a lot of feds here. I don’t understand it. There’s all this interest in the conference this year for some reason. So hi, how are you doing?” He laughed, and went on to introduce Jake Appelbaum in the place of Julian Assange.

(Photo credit to Jake Appelbaum. Yes, the same Jake Appelbaum.)

The next day he brought Lamo to the stage to defend himself, admonishing the hackers to listen to the same man he’d castigated the day before. Lamo did a remarkable job, and the tense room broke partly for him. Even his opponents conceded he’d displayed the kind of courage hackers value over almost anything else. As Lamo walked out of the hotel, one of the attendees called him a bastard. He then grinned and laughed, and added “You’ve got balls, though.”

Beyond the talks, drama, and clothing choices there’s the touches that are unique to HOPE. What passed for an expo floor at the Next HOPE really wasn’t. The most capitalist of the booths were the little businesses like, selling fancy padlocks alongside lockpicking kits, and Adafruit industries, which sells kits and supplies for electronics hacking. There was a hackerspace village with tables laid out with soldering irons for whoever needs them. Off to the side 8 bit DJs blasted unexpectedly good music, music that found its form within the constraint. Beyond that a lockpicking area, and a Segway track. Right in the middle of the floor boxes of imported Club Mate were stacked nearly to the ceiling in an unlikely cardboard tower. Like so much of HOPE, 2600, and the hacker scene in general, it had the feel of an impractical solution undertaken just to see if it could be done.

You can’t really get the feel of the event without talking about the Club Mate, a vile German caffeine drink based on the South American yerba maté plant. The drink became popular with American hackers after being imported at the Last Hope by 2600. It’s everywhere, and people refer to it constantly. “Have you had your Club Mate?” Speakers admonish their audiences. It’s thrust into my hands by a conference organizer. I thrust it into someone else’s hand. It may be hacker vitamins, but it tastes like sucking on a pill. I’d rather have a meth habit. Even the brewer, Loscher, acknowledges that it’s an acquired taste. The 2600 store ships it around the country, “supplying various hacker spaces with pallets of the stuff” according to the website.

I wandered over to see the lockpicking area gatherimg a crowd. There was competition going on, and a team finishing up. This was the the Defiant Lockpick Challenge (Named for the 1958 movie the Defiant Ones). Two people form a team, bringing their personal lockpicks. They’re given a box and five minutes, and handcuffed together awkwardly. The timer starts, and they pick the box open. Inside are eight padlocks, four pairs, for the contestants. They can pick the cuffs and escape from them at any time, but that’s the last lock they’re allowed to pick.

The next team was two men in black t-shirts, one with a black fedora to match. Time was called, and they worked frantically. Fedora was seated, his team mate hunched over the table across from him. The box was easy, but the locks inside vary from easy to much harder, and it wasn’t apparent which were the easy locks.

They were mostly quiet except for the sounds of the picks, their badges knocking against the table, and the occasional yell and crash of a lock thrown against the table when they got one. It’s surprising how enthralling lockpicking can be to watch. It was tense, and the concentration seemed like a palatable force emanating from their table. The crowd grew as they went along, complete with photographers circling around the contestants. Four locks, five locks, they’ve gone through them faster than anyone before them, the event announcer told us. But they were getting to the hard ones. The hunched over man picked his way out of the handcuffs first, and watches while his loosened companion settles into a final pick. Fedora was still seated, left hand completely covers a padlock, with an index finger gently pushing a torsion wrench at the base of the keyhole while he raked across pins with his right cuffed hand. His partner inserted a shim into the handcuff still on him, and waited. The time was nearly up. People in the crowd, along with an announcer, began counting down. Some held their breath. The man in the fedora popped the last padlock, and in nearly the same motion, his partner popped the cuff off his arm.

Everyone burst into relieved applause while the partners threw their arms to the ceiling in triumphant Vees. They’d won by one lock. Generally lockpicking for fun is called locksports largely to avoid trouble with the law, but here it lived up to the moniker.

Later, when the organizers are closing the conference Goldstein fields screams from the audience to make the conference annual. It’s been a success. Goldstein points out to me later that despite holding a conference with several thousand attendees who pride themselves on being transgressive, and refusing to set up explicit rules, there wasn’t a single incident over the weekend. “Our crowd has always been fairly mature. There’s immature people of course, but they’re drowned out by the mature community around them,” he says. “If you treat people like adults then they’ll act like adults”

Goldstein’s been there from the beginning, and he sees the community getting more complex. It’s more inclusive of women, politics, and dissent than it once was. “It’s a strange community to gauge,” he says, “Is a hacker anyone that says they’re a hacker? If we included everyone that called themselves hackers, I’d say we’ve grown up. We’re talking abut a lot of things we weren’t talking about 10-15 years ago. We have a wider net around what defines us.”

Looking for your questions…

On digital rights, to answer in an upcoming article in Maximum PC magazine. I’m especially looking forward to questions on mashups, if there’s anything you’ve wondered about, or suspect other people are wondering about. Please feel free to post them in the comments, or to make your life much easier you can mail them to my address (quinn @) or Twitter them to @quinnnorton.


Newspapers vs Journalism: legislation and special pleading

The Brothers Marburger want to rewrite copyright law to save newspapers, and thereby, journalism. They want “aggregators” to pay “newspapers” for linking to/summarizing their pieces, and they want to bar “aggregators” from “profiting” from the articles “belonging” to a “newspaper” for 24 hours after posting. Quotes here are mine, to convey that none of these words mean anything particularly precise. There’s so much to take apart here, I’m stymied as to where to begin.

One thing I should admit upfront is that I have never in my life subscribed to a newspaper. My mother did for a while. I was in one, the Evening Outlook in Santa Monica as a kid, and I liked that. But not only did I rarely read them, when I did it was mostly the comics and the stock prices1. There’s a simple physical reason- I hate the way the paper and ink feel on my skin. Cheap newsprint on my fingers acts on my nervous system like finger nails on a chalk board. I hate hate hate slightly slightly greasy, slightly crumbly texture, and the way it comes off on my hands, making them feel dirty, dried out, and oily all at once. Just talking about it makes me want to wash my hands.

But boy did I always love the idea of journalism. I knew I wanted to be a writer and journalist when I grew up pretty much from the 3rd grade. Knew. (Why I didn’t start until I was in my 30s is another long and at times troublesome story) For both dermatological and career/personal reasons, the coming of the web opened the door to my first desire. I left what was shaping up to be a lucrative career in interface design to become a freelance writer.

Some friends expressed their confusion; I was jumping off the Queen Mary onto a barge that was not only skanky, but as far as anyone could tell, already actually on fire. 2005/6 was a hell of a time to declare oneself for journalism. I’ve never worked in a newsroom, though I interviewed once at the Chron. I was told ‘morale is very low’ during the interview, for which I had no pithy reply. A few moments later I admitted that I read my news off Google News. I didn’t get the job. When I was asked later by a Reuters guy why the hell I’d gone for that interview, I told him I kind of wanted to work in a newspaper’s newsroom before they all went away, and I figured that was one of my last chances. He laughed the hard laugh of the bitter and damned, and asked if he could quote me.

People have wondered why I’m not more scared, and the short answer is this: I’m not an employee. I’m a well, a mine. Whatever else gets lost or shuffled, I’m necessary. I can interview, investigate, learn, and then explain. I can write and take pictures. I can give you whatever form you want for those final productions, I don’t care that much. Like the musician and the auteur, I am the natural resource that becomes the product in the hands of an industry. Wherever you put me, however much you pay me, whatever my outlet, I’m still a journalist.

Just like the RIAA isn’t actually trying to save the art form of music, and the MPAA isn’t trying to save the filmic expression, Newspaper people aren’t trying to save journalism. Sometimes the people aligned with these organizations know this, and argue instead for the value their particular infrastructures add to those fields. Those more respectable arguments I can appreciate even when I don’t completely agree.

In an interview I did years ago with Monique Wadsted of the Swedish bit of the MPA (The MPAA’s wee international bit) she argued that in the long run uncontrolled piracy could threaten the huge budget productions that we enjoy. She has a point- a flattened marketplace may not have the investment capital to pour into a yearly summer blockbuster season that costs as much as a small nation’s GDP. I am not actually being flippant here. I love summer blockbuster season. I love the enormous spectacle of the things, their ridiculous scale, comic book motifs and the jewel tone richness. I’m glad we make them, the same way I’m glad people thousands of years ago made the pyramids. But I don’t confuse the pyramids with all building, or Hollywood productions with all cinematic expression.

It seems like every time someone argues for tightening copyright to protect their industry, they conflate their industry with their field of endeavor. But it’s newspapers that are the absolute worst offenders here. Newspapers, newspaper people contend, are the only authoritative source of journalism, the only trustworthy arbiters, the only stalwart defenders democracy can trust. For the sake of our soul as a nation the laws must be changed to ensure the survival of their business model. This argument has the kind of conflict of interest and special pleading that gets journalist salivating, when it’s not about the people that sign their checks.

Some are salivating anyway, like my friend just this guy I happen to know, no friendship stuff or anything, King Kaufman at Salon. He co-writes the Future of Journalism blog, which can be ungentle, at times, with the blithering idiots.

There’s a form of the argument against amending the laws that doesn’t apply to the RIAA or MPAA, which is that newspapers were shitty at their sacred duty. Bill Wyman lays this out very nicely- that the business incentives all pointed towards not upsetting or offending anyone, which kind of runs counter to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” Newspapers did come to play it safe, and safe became more important in many cases than right. As Lore pointed out, “No one ever got fired for installing an evil Microsoft product.” Part of the problem was also biological structural: primates don’t like getting yelled at and avoid it. There are a few that by some accident aren’t too put off by this, and they do often become journalists. They don’t often become managers, even the ones that work at papers.

There’s an argument newspapers were compromised by media consolidation and therefore don’t deserve the protections they seek. These are interesting arguments, and should probably get lots and lots of blah blah blah Inside Journo Baseball. But I don’t actually care about them. Even if they did everything right I don’t want to see newspaper’s special pleading succeed. There’s no reason it has to be them doing it in the future, that journalism has to look like it did in the past.

That there is something good in an existing institution isn’t enough. It has to be better than what we gain when we lose it. For instance, there are a lot of things we might gain from perfect DRM, but creating perfect DRM would require outlawing and destroying the general purpose computer. No contest- we’ll live without.

What the brothers Marburger would ask the world to give up is the fast linking and commentary of the internet, and the diversity of talents outside of corporate newspapers becoming the watchdogs of society. They would also ask the world to give up a lot of reporting, and some of the power media has to afflict the comfortable.

Scandals would be far easier to get out in front of if news spreading is slowed by copyright restrictions. I can get my side of the story out to as many aggregators and blogs as possible, your side has to wait 24 hours. Is an aggregator still an aggregator if it does original reporting or commentary? There aren’t many that don’t. Is WaPo still a paper when it blogs, quotes, and links? Do I get to sue them if they link to and reproduce this post before a day has passed? More news stories then ever are bubbling up from on-site amateurs, will this law protect them? From what? If several people are all working on the same story, does only the first one get to publish? Does it depend on how much one’s employer looks like an aggregator vs newspaper? If so, what incentive does anyone have to take a little extra time to get it right? If I want to make sure a story never really can be written about, can I “register” somewhere as a paper and write about it every 24 hours? What about international sources, are they to be protected/embargoed? If I put my aggregator in Latvia, but live in NYC and take adverts from Google, what are you going to do? What about when the whole situation is reversed, as in the case of Global Voices2?

And all of this might not even save newspapers, even while the damage to journalism would be intolerable. And I like journalism more.

1 Mom’s requirement. I have the distinction of being the only person I know that knew how to read the financial papers, operate several kinds of firearms, hide illegal drugs on my person, relate and analyze good portions of Greek mythology, and identify and sabotage a distributor cap by around age 10. My parents were never, ever boring.

2 GV is pure and simple, simpler than most, a blog aggregator. When it studied its readership, it found that a very high number of people reading were journalists, and most of them admitted they’d gotten stories from GV and written about them in ‘legitimate’ news outlets. One of those journalists was me. Thanks, Global Voices! Please don’t sue me for the thing you kind of wanted me to do! Oh this has gotten so confusing.

Never forget this, you ink stained wretches.

Andrew Brown speaks a great truth in the midst of the dissolution of the journalism we have known:

“If readers cannot change their lives as a result of what they read, they will not bother. In particular, they won’t demand accuracy; and when what they read seems to have no effect in the real world, they won’t demand kindness, either.”

I can’t think of a better explanation of what happened with CNBC.

He points to this post, which I record here because I am mentally scraping the links.

Interesting times

Imagine this falling through a time hole into the 90s

Imagine this falling through a time hole into the 90s

It looks like all of society as we knew it is kind of coming apart, something I hyperbolically declaimed would happen in my attention seeking drama laden way in the mid 90s, when I was trying to explain the internet to people like the California Banker’s Association.

I had no idea I was right. Or at least, if I had some idea intellectually, I had none emotionally, and certainly no idea what the implications of it were. Disruption is an intense thing to live through, and littered with casualties.

Clay on newspapers, Ethan’s cute cat theory on government destabilization,
TAL on the giant pool of money, Cory at Microsoft, The zombie armies.

Ok, it’s not all about the internet, except it is. It’s about what happens when you hook a lot of computers to a telecom infrastructure. It’s what Skynet really looks like.

What Happened: The Problem with Journalism

I just finished Scott McClellan’s What Happened about his time in the White House and as the press secretary for the Bushies. It portrays McClellan as pretty much exactly the person I imagined him to be. Also, not a work of literature.

But when he talked about the state of political journalism he hit his stride, and a lot of what he said is worth keeping to hand:

To this day, I’m often asked about the “liberal media” critique. Is it true? Is the problem with Washing ton in part a result of the fact that left-wing journalist are, in effect, at war with conservative politicians and trying to bring them down?

My answer is always the same. It’s probably true that most reporters, writers, and TV journalists are personally liberal or leftward leaning and tend to vote Democratic. Polls and surveys of media professional bear this out. But this tilt to the left has probably become less pronounced in recent years, with the ascendancy of a wider variety of news sources, including Fox news, demonstrating the popularity and therefore commercial viability of conservative views. And more important, everything I’ve seen both as a White House press secretary and longtime observer of the political scene and the media, suggests that any liberal bias actually has minimal impact on the way the American public is informed.

The vast majority of reporters- including those in the White House press corps- are honest, fair-minded, and professional. They try hard to tell all sides of the stories they report, and they certainly don’t treat information or statements coming from a conservative administration with excessive harshness or exaggerated skepticism. And even when a bit of bias does seep through, I believe the public sees it exactly for what it is. We in the Bush administration had no difficulty in getting our messages out.

If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington,the choice over whether to go to was in Iraq. The collapse of the administration’s rationales for war, which became apparent months after our invasion, should never have come as a surprise. The public should have been made much more aware, before the fact, of those uncertainties, doubts, and caveats that underlay the intelligence about the regime of Saddam Hussein. The administration did little to convey those nuances to the people; the press should have picked up the slack but largely failed to do so because their focus was elsewhere- on covering the march to war, instead of the necessity of war.

In this case, the “liberal media” didn’t live up to its reputation. If it had the country would have been better served.

I’ll even go a step further. I’m inclined to believe that a liberal-oriented media n the United States should be viewed as a good thing. When I look back at the last several presidential administrations- the two Bushes, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford- I see a succession of conservative/centrist leaders. either right of center or just left of center, who pursued mainstream policies designed to satisfy the vast bulk of middle-class American voters. All of these presidents were at least moderate on economic policy, generally pro-business in their orientation, and within the mainstream on most other issues, from foreign policy to education to the environment. And the congressional leaders they worked with were, generally speaking, from the same mold- conservative or centrist. Over the past forty years, there have been no flaming liberals in positions of greatest power in American politics.

Under these circumstance, a generally liberal or left-leaning media can serve an important, useful role. It can stand up for the interests of people and causes that get short shrift from conservative or mainstream politics: racial and ethnic minorities, women, working people, the poor, the disenfranchised. As the old saying goes, a liberal reporter ought to take up the cause of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable,” speaking out on issues that otherwise would be neglected or ignored, exposing wrongdoing, and helping to keep the powerful in government and business honest.

Furthermore, I welcome a media that are skeptical and untrusting. The more so the better- as long as they are honest and fair. Those who are in positions of power should have to continually earn the trust of the governed. They should be constantly challenged to prove their policies are right, to prove they can be trusted, and to prove they are accountable. That is the way we are more likely to get to the important, sometimes hard truths. In today’s information-based society, if a media outlet or journalist goes overboard they will pay the price… (bit about Dan Rather) …

So I don’t agree with those who excoriate the “liberal media.” As long as they do their job professionally, I have no problem with liberal reporters, and I certainly dealt with them happily enough as press secretary. The real problem with the national media is the over emphasis on controversy, the excessive focus on who is winning and who is losing in Washington, and the constant search for something or someone to pick on and attack. These bad habits too often cause the larger truths that matter most to get lost in the mix.

Any and all typos are mine, all mine.

He’s quite right that there isn’t actually much evidence of a liberal bias. Most actual studies that have gone by in my time as a journalist have indicated something more like conservative bias in political reporting. Of course these things are impossible to measure realistically, because someone has to pick the center in order to figure out which side of center something is, and the political center is the ultimate subjective quality in the universe.

I do think conservative views get taken more seriously, and that once a voice is established, reporting doesn’t know how to get away from it. Journalists tend to develop a self reinforcing list of experts. When you do an interview you want someone gloriously authoritative, so some of that can rub off on your reporting. Once someone is interviewed, they have more of that prestige, and it becomes harder to get away from them. That’s how we ended up listening to the same idiocies about the war in iraq and the mortgage market, to name a couple, over and over again, then had to hear the same people come back years later to say no one could have foreseen what was coming.

What was coming was painfully obvious.

I think when McClellan says “They try hard to tell all sides of the stories they report,” he’s actually talking about the false balance problem, which worked out well for him, but makes me want to beat my head against my desk. False balance is like watching someone make terrible algebra mistakes through a one way mirror. A balanced report about the state of, say, vote fraud would define it, and then tell you who is doing it. If one side is stuffing ballots or purging voter rolls and the other isn’t, that’s what you say. You explain the context of the fraud, and the history that lead to it. Balance in this case comes from investigating all sides.

False balance is much less work. Once you have a story on one side, you look for something, anything, related on the other. It’s different from trying to find the same thing on the other side, but you have to notice that you changed the meaning of what you’re talking about to catch false balance happening.

You write them up as equivalent, claim the story is about one thing even though it’s truly about two things, and go home early. This is how bad voter registration cards becomes the same thing as ballot stuffing or voter purges. If you actually sit back and think about it, voter reg cards are no where near the stories that purges or ballot stuffing are, because they don’t involve actual voting.

If Mickey Mouse showed up on election day- that would be a story.

False Balance means you don’t have to dig around as much, and even better, no one yells at you.

That gets to the other thing I think McClellan missed in this analysis. People don’t like getting yelled at and punished, and the severity of the punishment doesn’t actually make that much of a difference in how hard people try to avoid it. I think this resulted in a much more cowed and self censoring media over the last eight years. It’s very similar to what we talk about happening in the repressive Chinese media environment- say the wrong thing and you get a phone call no one wants to get. Here, it came with nasty phone calls and public shaming. The ultimate threat in China was being taken away in the middle of the night. Here it’s losing access to sources. Turns out the Chinese may have been trying too hard- you can get most of the compliance you want with a well placed cold shoulder. This is pretty in line with what we know about the psychology of social defection. People don’t want to do it, and that’s all it takes to game the media.

But McClellan’s vision of a good journalist as (these days) being liberal, afflicting the powerful and constantly making the government prove itself goes to the heart of the social contract of the press. Our checks and balances lie in being contrarians. The center and the right should have faced a liberal media for 40 years. And Hugo Chávez should face a conservative media. We’re supposed to be pains in the ass with very harsh ethical standards to obey.

The other thing McClellan nails is the loss of perspective that comes from increasingly inside baseball reporting. News stories going in depth on polls are kind of ridiculous. A report on how progress is going on an attempt to get people to react to something rather than how they are reacting is so conceptually convoluted and naval gazing I might have to have a lie down. Hence things like “covering the march to war, instead of the necessity of war.”

Completely separate from journalism one other thing about the book struck me. McClellan does a spirited endorsement of school busing when talking about his own childhood in Texas. Listening to it I couldn’t help but think, where was the Republican conservatism in this? I noticed after that every time he expressed his values he completely failed to sound Republican. His political values were totally out of line with the people he served and what he was accomplishing. People constantly end up this deep in structures without noticing that kind of thing. It’s kind of Milgram but with cocktail parties.

The entirely of What Happened can also be read as one huge positive book review for a book called The Permanent Campaign and Its Future which seems to have been quite the come to Jesus for McClellan. And yeah, now I kind of want to read that book. So What Happened was a pretty successful book review, laid out in the patterns of the suffering Scott McClellan along the rest of the nation.