The Real Question for Jeff Bezos: Time to Invest in Journalism?

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It’s been fascinating to watch the cheerleading that’s gone on since the announcement that the Graham family was selling The Washington Post to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.

When the announcement was made, the reaction from technologists and Web journalists was pretty reflexive.  Many out there are describing Bezos as a savior, as the person who will finally help The Post get its digital act together. Lots of cheerleading about the possibilities with new packaging, and the “bold” business acumen of Bezos.

We’ve seen letters to Bezos from former Posties and declarations of hope from former Posties who worked for Bezos. We’ve seen a little finger-wagging from current Posties as well as a long parade of sentimentalism praising Don Graham, and reminiscing of a time gone by.

It seems we’ve seen both ends of the spectrum — cheerleading from technologists and other journalists who seem almost giddy that a rich tech guru will become a major media player — and those lamenting the end of an era.

Where’s the healthy skepticism?

It’s been hard to find. As another former employee of the Post Company (I worked at washingtonpost.com from 1996-2006) I’m also curious as to how this new transition will work out but I’ve hesitated to jump on the Bezos bandwagon.

There have been a few out there who have registered concernsJeff Jarvis tweeted: “One thing about Bezos and a newspaper: He is no proponent of openness. A more secretive tech company it’s hard to find.” And, Christopher Mims tweeted:  “Jeff Bezos now owns both Washington Post, $600 million server cloud for CIA. That won’t be a conflict of interest.”

And, Felix Salmon pointed out some basic management issues that may not sit well at The Post: “It (Amazon) also employs, mostly indirectly, thousands of workers in warehouses around the world, picking and packaging the goods it sells; those workers are treated badly, and enjoy effectively zero slack in their working lives.”

Yet, it’s been difficult to hear any real analysis amongst the cacophony of cheerleaders saying Bezos will create a Post where the readers will finally get what they want (like with Amazon.) What exactly does that mean? More coverage of the Royals? More video of car chases? More shallow news of the weird?

There’s been plenty of commentary about what a technologist like Bezos can bring to a company like The Washington Post. And, yes, after stagnating for the past 15 years, The Post will finally have to change its business model and those not on board with a “digital-first” mindset will not last long.

But, what about the journalism? Yes, The Post was a great newspaper but just because the delivery mode is changing doesn’t mean the journalism should.

The real questions for Bezos have not been asked — or answered.

Will he invest in a timely, costly investigative pieces?

Will he devote time and resources to foreign reporting?

Will he re-open bureaus that have been closed in the past decade as cost-cutting measures?

Some have described Bezos as a bottom-line kind of guy, well the bottom-line is that good investigative journalism takes time and money. And, Bezos won’t see much return on his investment, unless you can start quantifying “afflicting the comfortable” and holding government accountable.

Since the onset of Web journalism, there has been a wrestling match over the role of journalists and editors. The gatekeeping role has disappeared — no longer do journalists and editors determine what the user/consumer should read.  The Great Decoupling, as JD Lasica put it.  That unwillingness to give up the gatekeeping role and create new roles hurt The Post and many other news organizations.

But, it’s beginning to feel like the pendulum needs to swing back a little. We live in a scary, secretive time where the idea of privacy is laughable and where the public, press, and judiciary all seem to support the right of the government to eavesdrop and collect information on the citizenry at will. Jay Rosen recently asked how we can get ourselves back to an informed citizenry.

Jeff Bezos can go a long way to doing that by investing in journalism. I think many are hoping he will. We’ll see.

‘Preemption’ Strategy: Where are the hard questions?

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During the runup to the Iraq War, The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus was one of the few national security journalists challenging the weapons of mass destruction assumptions being made by the Bush administration.  Unfortunately, the administration’s bogus claims were usually given A1 treatment, while Pincus’s stories often made their way onto A21.

At the time, I was one of the editors working on the newsdesk of The Post’s website and we would often try and get the “other side” from Pincus featured prominently on the homepage.  Still, you have to wonder what would have happened if his reporting was featured more prominently in the newspaper.

Pincus is still around, now authoring a column entitled “Fine Print.” He recently wrote a column which asked: “Has Obama taken Bush’s ‘preemption’ strategy to another level?” Pincus quotes a revised “strategic guidance” document which is startling in its bluntness:

“For the foreseeable future, the United States will continue to take an active approach to countering these threats by monitoring the activities of non-state threats worldwide, working with allies and partners to establish control over ungoverned territories, and directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary” — emphasis added (by Pincus.)

I expected this column to get a lot of traction — for reporters and editorial boards around the country to pick up and run with this story.  But, the follow-ups have been relatively few. Where are the questions?  Where are the editorials? Isn’t this an issue worth probing?

To answer Arthur Brisbane’s recent question, yes, now would be the time to be a “truth vigilante.”


Hiatus Is Over….A Rough Week for Ombudsmen

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Hi and welcome back!  It’s been awhile.  Admittedly, the care and feeding of this blog fell off last semester (sometimes life takes over) but now I’m back to reviving my little plant.

So, of course, where to start?  As more than a few folks noted on Twitter the past several days, it’s been a rough week for newspaper ombudsmen.  Arthur S. Brisbane, the public editor for The New York Times, drew much attention  with his column which posed this question:  “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?

The lede is poster-child verbiage for those wondering whether there are still out-of-touch editors roaming around in the mainstream media:   “I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”


My head hurts.

The backlash on Twitter and on the comments board for the article was predictable. Christian Moerk of Brooklyn captured the feelings of many:  “As a former Times freelancer, and ’92 graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, I’ll keep it short and to the point: Mr. Brisbane, even posing the question as you did reveals an appalling ignorance of what journalists are supposed to do for a living. You wouldn’t have lasted in a J-school ethics class for five minutes, let alone a newsroom.”

This old-school print mentality of he said/he said journalism still dominates too many mainstream newsrooms.  It’s one of the many reasons why journalists get a bad reputation.  Too many readers views journalists as nothing more than glorified stenographers.  NYU’s Jay Rosen calls it the “View From Nowhere.”  The Times should really know better (remember the assertions about the “weapons of mass destruction?)

Brisbane’s question on how to tell the truth while being “objective and fair” came on the heels of a column by Washington Post ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton, where he asked: “Is The Post innovating too fast?


Q&A With The Post’s Eric Athas

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The view from The Washington Post's newsroom on the night it was announced that Osama Bin Laden was killed. (Courtesy of Eric Athas.)

I contacted Eric Athas (Journalism ’08) after I saw him post a photo from outside the White House after his Sunday night/Monday morning shift occupied by the Bin Laden news.  My Q&A with him follows:

1.  How did you find out about Bin Laden’s death?

I was editing the washingtonpost.com homepage Sunday evening, and news had come to a screeching halt. Our lead story was hours old — about how embassies in Tripoli had been attacked. The Capitals had just lost their second straight game to the Lightning. The most interesting story we had was about a dangerous shortage of U.S. medical supplies. There was also one about oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. Then a reporter sent an e-mail saying that Obama was going to address the nation on an undisclosed topic. The next piece of information we received was that it was national security-related. My first thought was that it had something to do with Libya given Saturday’s news that Gaddafi’s youngest son had been killed by a NATO air strike. Typically in these situations (knowing there’s news, but not sure what that news is) I head to Twitter. I had Tweetdeck open, but I had to focus on getting a banner headline on our homepage and begin planning for a major news story. I first heard it was bin Laden-related from MSNBC, which was on in the background. But the actual “Osama bin Laden is dead” news then popped up in my Twitter feed.

2.  What are your thoughts about how the story broke on social media?

Breaking news on Twitter is the standard. Look at the major news stories this year — and there have been a lot of them — and they all developed on Twitter and Facebook in a way that is incomparable to any newspaper, Web site or broadcast. The bin Laden news was no different, especially considering the raid was inadvertently tweeted by @ReallyVirtual as it was happening. What’s funny is that this story was moving so fast on Twitter that I had to quit out of TweetDeck to prevent myself from getting too engrossed. With reporters calling sources and other producers monitoring Twitter, it would have been more of a distraction for me.      

3.  Did you go immediately to work?

Lucky me, I was there.

4.  Tell me about how you handled the story Sunday night/Monday morning.

On washingtonpost.com, the story developed like this: When we got the report Obama was going to address the nation, I put up a breaking news banner and simultaneously sent a breaking news e-mail alert with a link to where the live video would be displayed. Meanwhile, as our reporters worked on figuring out what the story was, our social media team signed on and began tweeting. When we confirmed bin Laden was dead, it obviously became our lead story, but I kept a live video banner headline up so users could watch Obama on our site. At this point we began building a big package that would have a giant photo, big headline and all of the bells and whistles of a major story. We added components such as photo galleries, video, stories and a place where users could submit photos. After that, it was a matter of creating a package that would deliver the story — the biggest I’ve ever encountered at The Post — in the most effective way possible. With stories like this, one challenge is sifting through all of the content that’s pouring in and feeding it to our users steadily.

5.  Did you use social media in getting the story out on your site?

One of the advantages of working at The Washington Post is that we have many producers and editors handling all of the different moving parts of a mammoth story such as this one. We have a great engagement team that was able to focus on social media all night and day — which not only means tweeting and posting to Facebook, but also finding other ways to tell the story. Here’s one example.

On a personal social media level, once I finally had a chance to get out of my seat (4:30 a.m.), I took a stroll over to the White House and shot some video and photos of the cheering crowd. I uploaded the video to YouTube and posted the photos on my Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts. It was a fun Washington moment.

6.  Any lessons learned from how fast this story moved?

I was reminded how important it is that a news organization’s Web presence doesn’t get caught up in the the freight train of information spilling out. People will go to Twitter for the news as it’s happening, and they’ll go to washingtonpost.com, nytimes.comwsj.com and elsewhere to learn more about it. I also think there’s a lot to learn from this story, along with the Tucson shooting, the turmoil in the Middle East, the tsunami in Japan and the storms in the South. Once the dust settles, all of those stories will help teach us about better ways we can help deliver news to he world.

Plagiarism, Parenting and the great David Broder

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Some  updates:

*  Poynter: Are there ways for academics and newsrooms to collaborate on newsroom standards?

*  Daily Hampshire Gazette: Parenting in a new media world.

And, in case you missed it, there were many great tributes after the death of former Washington Post columnist David Broder, including a couple from some friends:

Charles Babington

*  Dan Balz:  David Broder’s remarkable life and career

*  Mark Stencel:  Broder’s Shift Key:  An Unlikely Online Makeover

Also, Mark passed along one of the great quotes from Broder:

“I would like to see us say — over and over, until the point has been
made — that the newspaper that drops on your doorstep is a partial,
hasty, incomplete, inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering
of some of the things we have heard about in the past 24 hours –
distorted, despite our best efforts to eliminate gross bias, by the
very process of compression that makes it possible for you to lift it
from your doorstep and read it in about an hour. If we labeled the
product accurately, then we could immediately add: But it’s the best
we could do under the circumstances, and we will be back tomorrow with
a corrected and updated version.”


A Day in the Life: News Judgment, Initiative Pay Off for One Digital Journalist

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“There are a thousand stories on a college campus.”

It’s a phrase I often use in my classes.  Usually, the goal is to motivate students to be in a “constant state of journalism.”   What I mean by that is that I want my students to always be ready for a story, always looking for ideas and always ready to shoot photos, video, and interview folks if a story presents itself.  In my first year here, I had one student who shot a great Veteran’s Day photo and ended up freelancing it to one of the local newspapers — and got paid! Since then I’ve had a number of students who have made the ‘state of mind’ pay off.

It’s a concept that just becomes second nature after awhile. And having such a mindset makes you a better journalist once you are out there and getting paid.

So, I was pretty excited to come across this blog post by Eric Athas, a 2008 graduate of the UMass journalism program who now works as a producer for The Washington Post’s web site.   Eric recently found himself in the middle of one of the more horrific stories to hit the Washington suburbs in quite a while.

I’ve stayed in contact with Eric since he graduated and he’s always been a journalist who has an uncanny nose for news.  And, when we talk about the most important characteristic needed in today’s new world of journalism, that remains a key asset.

What’s impressive in what Eric did here is that he didn’t wait for instructions or a press release.  As the events unfolded before him on a sleepy Saturday morning, he took the initiative (and took out his IPhone to shoot video) got out of his car, investigated, and came back with a story.

And, trust me, that kind of initiative is noticed.

Going to Sri Lanka

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Yes, I’m going to Sri Lanka.  My flight is less than a month away so I figured it was time to start blogging about my preparations.

In mid-September, I was contacted by the State Department with a request to go teach multimedia and freedom of the press in Sri Lanka for a week in December.  I pretty much jumped at the opportunity.

The request came roughly a year after a request to go teach in Kazakhstan.  I had to turn down that opportunity because of scheduling issues but the timing worked out on this opportunity.  I’m flying out on Dec. 10 — the day after the semester ends (I’ll be grading many of my final projects on the plane:)

I’m going to spend a week lecturing and conducting seminars focused on Web journalism, freedom of the press and investigative journalism and then my wife and I (she’ll be joining me during the week) will spend a couple of days doing the tourist thing, but mostly lying around the beach.

When I was first contacted about the trip, one thought came to mind — the 2004 tsunami.  I was working at The Washington Post’s Web site at the time and was working a newsdesk shift the day the tsunami hit South Asia.  Many western-based news organizations (including The Post) were slow to respond during the early morning hours when reports first started to arrive.  Holiday weeks are usually times of low staffing and many news organizations were slow to understand the scale of the disaster.

Yet, The Post caught up quickly.  And, the disaster actually provided one of those transitional moments for a news organization that at the time was struggling to find ways to merge its online and print operations.

By pure happenstance, Michael Dobbs, one of The Post’s foreign correspondents at the time, was vacationing on a small island off the coast of Sri Lanka.  Unlike many of the national and local reporters at The Post, Dobbs did not view the web operation as a threat to his work.  After all, the daily version landed at his doorstep via electronic means ever day. While many of the local and national reporters saw The Post in terms of a “print-first” mentality, many of the international reporters correspondents did not.  Print deadlines were fairly artificial for foreign correspondents, something that those of us working for the Web operation saw fairly regularly with the coverage of the Iraq ground war.

So when Dobbs found himself literally in the middle of the tsunami, he first called the newdesk at the Web site (at the time, The Post’s Web operation was run out of a newsroom in Arlington, Va. while the newspaper operation existed in downtown Washington, D.C.) and filed a first-hand account over his cell phone.  Kenisha Malcolm, one of my colleagues at the time, captured his report and filed an audio report with his eyewitness account.

I remember listening to that audio report and just being wowed.  As Dobbs recounts, “something was very wrong with the sea.”  Sometimes the simplest descriptions are the best.

When my wife and I were looking at places to stay, we came across the Weligama that Dobbs wrote about.  I’m hoping to see as much as the area as possible in 12 days and will try to capture through words and images how Sri Lankans are coping, six years after the tragedy.

More to come….

Transparency and Gene Weingarten’s Visit


During his recent visit to UMass, Pulitzer prize-winner Gene Weingarten told a few stories.  One of them involved an exchange with Bob Kaiser — one of my favorite editors from my time at The Washington Post.

The story was an amusing one and involved an effort by Weingarten and one of his reporters to construct a profile on a person who made a living off of writing term papers for college students.  After the interview turned out not to be the best, the reporter jokingly suggested they have the term-paper writer write the story, put it under the reporter’s byline and wait until the kicker at the end of the story to let the reader know they had been duped.

As with most of Weingarten’s story, there were chuckles from the crowd when Weingarten decided to go ahead with the idea.

But Weingarten continued and said that Kaiser, then the managing editor at The Post, said that while he liked the story, misleading the reader violated the contract of trust that journalists have with their audience.

“We don’t lie to our readers,” Kaiser told Weingarten.

The story was from the pre-Web days but even then Kaiser seemed ahead of his time with his notions of transparency.

Weingarten also gave some old-school stories about getting information and interviews through some questionable means early in his career — including hiding behind a curtain during a city council meeting.

Finally, Weingarten spoke about the stories surrounding both of his Pulitzer Prizes, including “Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car is a Horrifying Mistake. Is it a Crime?” In describing how he was able to get people to talk to him about this difficult topic, Weingarten said he related his own story to interview subjects, sharing how he almost killed his daughter, Molly, the same way.

To a near-quiet audience of a couple of hundred people, Weingarten related how one day in the early 1980s he was taking his daughter to daycare, made a wrong turn and ended up in parking lot of The Miami Herald.  He was about to get out of his car when his daughter saved a tragedy from occurring.

“As I was about to get out, Molly said something and that’s the only reason she’s a veterinarian today,” recalled Weingarten.

It was a moving story, especially since it was delivered to a room filled with budding journalists.  Yet, the admission is not found anywhere in the narrative of the Pulitzer prize-winning story.  In an online discussion after the story was published in The Post, Weingarten told his story. So, while there was transparency, it was transparency after the fact.  Since Weingarten’s visit, I’ve had several class discussions on Weingarten’s appearance and what it means to be transparent in today’s 24-hour news cycle.

And, after reading the online discussion, some students felt angry, almost emotionally manipulated by the story he wrote.  Would readers’ opinions on the topic have been different if Weingarten had been transparent within the story?


For me, I remember the huge discussion that happened after the story was originally published.  As a father of three, I have a built-in bias.  I was repulsed by the headline and the attempt to classify these deaths as “mistakes.”

Being transparent would have provided Weingarten with a different approach to the story and perhaps swayed those holding my opinion.  But, most importantly, Weingarten would have been honest with the reader.  Letting the reader know you have an emotional investment in the story is one of the main arguments for being transparent.

Remembering 9/11


9/11 in Amherst

Flags were flown all over Amherst, Mass. on 9/11.

This is a fairly solemn time of year for many around the United States, including myself.  Every year on this day, I feel the large bricks return to my chest.   For a long time after Sept. 11, 2001, I felt the bricks on my chest.

On that date, I had two young children — 3 and 1.  We lived in Gaithersburg — part of the sprawling Maryland suburbs outside of Washington, D.C. I was also the national/political editor for The Washington Post’s Web site on that date.  The big story before 9/11?  I was working with Chuck Babington, the political blogger for the site, for weeks on a package about tax policies which we were supposed to launch that day.  That became trivial rather quickly.

As the news broke that day, I struggled between my role as a father and husband and that as a journalist/editor.  Students often ask how best to handle covering tragedy and how I handled 9/11 and the weeks and months afterwards.  Journalists always try and compartmentalize their emotions.  It wasn’t easy that day.  And, I’m still not sure I shouldn’t have grabbed my family, jumped into a car and driven into the mountains somewhere.  It’s a question that continues to haunt me.

Everyone always talks about the weather on 9/11.  It was a stunning Fall day.  My wife and I found ourselves lucky to commute together for the first time in a while.  We both worked in Arlington — the location of The Post’s web site at the time.  My wife worked in a building filled with offices connected to the Department of Defense and just blocks away from the large building with USA Today on it.  We were stopped in traffic on Canal Road when WTOP, the all-news radio station in Washington, reported that a commuter plane had crashed into one of the buildings at the World Trade Center.  As someone who dealt daily in the world of breaking news, my first reaction was that the report didn’t make sense.  I called Jason Thompson, a colleague and friend who was already at the office and he said they were on the story and were trying to get details.  I dropped my wife off and was a block from my office when the news of the second plane came across the radio.  I called Jason again and I’ll never forget what he said:  “Yeah, we just saw it on TV.”  The tone in his voice gave me chills.  Still does.

I walked into a newsroom that was a sort of controlled chaos.  In  the national/political corner of the newsroom, Chuck was on his third update or so on the breaking story.  After discussions with Doug Feaver, the executive editor at the site and Ju-Don Roberts, the metro editor, we decided to send Chuck to the newspaper offices where he would be better able to take feeds from numerous sources.  It was a month before I saw him again.

We tried hard to focus on the story.

The day was a blur.

After the plane hit the Pentagon, I tried to reach my wife by phone but the lines were jammed for hours.  When I did reach her, I urged her to leave immediately and go home to be with the kids.  She t0ld me her building was being evacuated.  She then sat on Canal Road — again — for hours, as helicopter gunships with baby-faced soldiers leaning out the window buzzed overhead.

*  I remember standing on the balcony of our building and seeing smoke from the Pentagon.  We sent videographers to the Pentagon.  What they saw was traumatizing.

*  I remember lots of e-mail.  Many people I worked with forwarded what they were hearing from AP to local TV to local radio.  Sorting through what was rumor and what was real that day was perhaps the most challenging moment of my career.   The rumor of the car bomb at the State Department made it on air and on the Web at a number of places, including NBC’s Today Show….but proved wrong.  And as I watch the replay of the Today Shows’ programming that day, it’s stunning how quickly Bin Laden’s name is mentioned in connection with the attacks.  By 11 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, Tom Brokaw is on air giving background on Bin Laden.

*  I remember moments.  Standing in the middle of our building in Arlington, with reports of the fourth plane headed towards D.C. and one editor saying “we’re in the flight path to the White House.”  We looked at each other and then went back to our desks. We were in a vulnerable building, but no one left.  All those in the newsroom that day were focused on getting the story out.  Not only was it the day that transformed the country but it also transformed the journalism industry.  Feaver has often said that 9/11 was the day that Web journalism was born.  The Web site was re-designed on the fly that day and washingtonpost.com became a place not just for news but also a place for service journalism.

*  I remember everyone throwing themselves into covering the story.  No one left.  People in marketing, advertising and HR sent me information to add to the breaking news story.  Before there was crowdsourcing, we had a community of people contributing information.

*  I remember the video.  The plane. The crash.  The smoke.  The flames. Those jumping out the windows.  The horror of watching both buildings collapse.  I grew up in the New York suburbs and always considered myself a New Yorker.  Many family and friends worked in New York.  As I tried to juggle my duties as a journalist I thought about all those I knew in New York.  My uncle, now retired from the New York City police department, could not be tracked down until the early evening hours on 9/11.

*  I remember the bricks on my chest.

As 9/11 approached this year, I became disturbed about the coverage of the planned Islamic Center and the “burning the Koran” narrative that we’re still hearing today.   It really makes me wonder how far we’ve come in nine years.  For the most part, journalists operated with honor and distinction on 9/11 and the days and weeks afterwards.  I wasn’t feeling so positive around the hysterical coverage of these two recent storylines.  Facts have been ignored in favor of headlines, SEO and the desperation to be first . . . and the coverage has been nothing short of disgusting.

But I came across something yesterday in the social media universe that gives me hope.  A twitter feed with the hashtag #wherewereyou has gone viral and many are sharing their thoughts of the day.   The hashtag was generated by The Washington Post in an attempt to use merge social media and blogging and crowdsourcing to answer the question:  9/11:  Where were you when the towers fell?

It’s a simple but effective idea that has a created a story via the Twitter stream.  Reach out to the community and get their thoughts and create a story.  What a great idea.

As you read through the twitter stream, you gain perspective.  The day comes flooding back.  Life is valued.   And, you find yourself recognizing the narratives of the “Ground Zero Controversy” and the “Koran burning” for what they truly are.

Weigel, the ‘off-the-record’ listserv and Club Journolist

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One of the main critiques of journalists over the years is the notion that we are insular; that we play by our own rules and that we are clubby and enjoy fraternizing.

The recent debacle involving former Washington Post blogger David Weigel and “Journolist” certainly seems to indicate that the airs of clubbiness continues with professional journalists claiming their privacy was violated when discussions on their listserv were outed.   If you missed it, Weigel resigned his position at The Post after opinions he voiced on the Journolist — opinions bashing Republicans and conservatives — made it into the public sphere.  This caused a bit of a conundrum for the folks at The Post since Weigel authored a blog called “Right Now: Inside the conservative movement with David Weigel.”

This is the second time a conservative blogger at The Post has come under fire and resigned.  In 2006, when I was still working at washingtonpost.com, Ben Domenech, the author of The Post’s Red America blog, resigned his post after a short stint after allegations of plagiarism were aired in the public sphere.  With Domenech, there were some serious questions about the thoroughness of the background search conducted before hiring such a high-profile blogger.

One would think that the execs over at The Post would be extra vigilant these days about those involved with their operation.  Yet, Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli seems to want have it both ways.  On the one hand, he tells The Post’s Howard Kurtz:

“….we can’t have any tolerance for the perception that people are conflicted or bring a bias to their work. . . . There’s abundant room on our Web site for a wide range of viewpoints, and we should be transparent about everybody’s viewpoint.”

Then when questioned about the apparent contradiction of having a conservative blogger bashing conservatives, Brauchli gets into a defensive crouch, telling Kurtz:

“We don’t have the resources or ability to do Supreme Court justice-type investigations into people’s backgrounds. We will have to be more careful in the future.”

We expect more from one of the premier political reporting organizations in the nation.

The Post’s Howard Kurtz describes Journolist as an “off-the-record listserv for several hundred independent to left-leaning commentators and journalists that was founded in 2007 by Ezra Klein, now a liberal blogger for The Post’s Web site.” The premise — an off-the-record listserv for journalists — seems almost laughable, especially in the context of Katharine Weymouth’s failed dream for off-the-record dinners.

A  number of journalists, as well as Klein and Weigel themselves, seem irked because some of Weigel’s comments were “leaked.”   Klein, upset that his little private club has now exploded into the public eye, has decided to kill the “off-the-record listserv.”

Part of the reason Klein says he started the club was to create:

“An insulated space where the lure of a smart, ongoing conversation would encourage journalists, policy experts and assorted other observers to share their insights with one another.”

There’s that word again:  Insulated.  And if you look at a roster of who was in the club, it reads like a Who’s Who of print reporters who just don’t get it.  And, in the end, that’s the feeling you really get from this whole debacle:  Out of touch print dinosaurs creating a little club where they thought they could hold private electronic discussions.  Of course, is that if such a club were being conducted by a group of politicians, I doubt Klein or Weigel would hesitate to report on some “leaked” e-mails containing similar comments. The claims to privacy ring a bit hollow.

Klein attempts to understand the world of transparency and the Web, but doesn’t quite get it:

“There’s a lot of faux-intimacy on the Web. Readers like that intimacy, or at least some of them do. But it’s dangerous. A newspaper column is public, and writers treat it as such. So too is a blog. But Twitter? It’s public, but it feels, somehow, looser, safer. Facebook is less public than Twitter, and feels even more intimate. A private e-mail list is not public, but it is electronically archived text, and it is protected only by a password field and the good will of the members. It’s easy to talk as if it’s private without considering the possibility, unlikely as it is, that it will one day become public, and that some ambitious gossip reporters will dig through it for an exposure story. And because that possibility doesn’t feel fully real, people still talk like it’s private and then get burned if it goes public.”

Weigel goes further in his version of events, saying:

“No serious journalist has defended the leak of my private e-mails; no one who works in politics or journalism would accept a situation where the things they said off the record could immediately become public.”

Welcome to 2010, Mr. Weigel, Mr. Klein.  Assume that anything and everything is public.  Get used to it.

Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander takes the “it only takes one bad apple to run it for us all approach”  while a rather cogent argument for outing the emails comes from FishBowl DC.

In answering the question on whether or not the e-mails from the “off-the-records listserv” should have been published, Besty Rothstein cuts through all the nonsense pretty quickly:

“It’s not a reporter’s job to worry about the outcome of a genuine news story in that it may upset some people.”

End of story.

Much of what has been written in the wake of this debacle has focused on ideology.  Not many are writing about the privacy issues and the silly presumption of an off-the-record listserv for journalists.  As most of my students know, creating and maintaining a respectable digital footprint takes work.  It means acting responsibly on Twitter and Facebook.

It also means taking care in e-mails and all electronic communication.  You never know where your e-mail is being forwarded or where it will end up.

Weigel and Klein should know this.  If they didn’t know it before, they do now.

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