Promoting Excellence In Journalism?

Two weeks ago I sent to the Columbia Journalism Review a rebuttal to a defense written by the magazine’s managing editor Vanessa Gezari of Buzzfeed’s decision to post the so-called Steele dossier, the collection of un-vetted memos making lurid allegations about Donald Trump. The magazine accepted the submission but a fortnight on the editors still have not posted my response. So I have decide to post it here. I think the arguments I make are important in the debate underway among journalists about how we should be covering Trump. Please see another post of mine on this issue here.

Anyway here is a link to Vanessa Gezari’s article.

And here is my response:

Vanessa Gezari’s arguments supporting Buzzfeed’s publication of the questionable dossier on Donald Trump strike me as Jesuitical and they are a sad reflection of where we are as a profession these days. I find it troubling that they should be mounted by the managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, which markets itself as “Encouraging excellence in journalism.”

I don’t see how CJR’s managing editor is promoting excellence in jo,urnalism by endorsing the publication of material of this huge scope that was not verified and that those who posted it apparently harbored doubts about as to its veracity.

Gezari seems to be arguing — in fact is — that it is okay to take a punt to see what happens, to see if any leads are generated — even if people are smeared as a result.

By that standard we should all shove up stuff on the internet to see what works or doesn’t, even if we have major doubts about the veracity of what we have just posted, just to see what gives. I sense underpinning her piece is a belief that the allegations must largely be true about Trump.

When something looks too good, it might well be the case that it is! In short, it might not be true. And as journalists we have a responsibility to try to get as close to the truth as possible, before we decide to publish.

Gezari argues: “But did reporters independently verify all the allegations against Hillary Clinton and her allies contained in the emails released by WikiLeaks?” No, they didn’t, but it was Wikileaks — not a bona fide news organization — that published the material. Once in the public realm, news outlets had no choice but follow the story.

Gezari seems to think that media outlets were just sitting on the dossier. Many weren’t. They were working to try to prove the allegations or to knock them down. Yes, that takes time — as she notes investigations can take months and sometimes years. Although in this case I doubt it would have taken years. Premature publication has screwed up quite a lot of journalists who have been working on the dossier and complicated efforts to get the backstory on the dossier.

The dossier is full of contradictions and basic factual errors — as I noted in an opinion article for The Hill and as Andrei Soldatov did in a piece for the Guardian. Perversely, the Guardian chose to headline Andrei’s article a tad misleadingly, “The leaked Trump-Russia dossier rings frighteningly true.” In fact, he was casting grave doubts about the material.

Some errors in the dossier are so basic that they cast huge doubt on the skills of Christopher Steele, the former British MI6 agent responsible for preparing the memos. Let me give you a few instances. The misspelling of “Alpha” for “Alfa” in reference to one the most important banks in Russia. The wrong FSB department when it comes to eavesdropping or cyber investigations. The naming of an official as having been tasked to deal with the U.S. election who was actually tasked with the Russian elections and, anyway, moved from Vladimir Putin’s office to the State Duma in October.
Why didn’t Steele notice these errors? Why didn’t Buzzfeed? Or if they did, whey did they carry on and post the document in its entirety?

And then we have unexplained and troubling contradictions, such as the material on Trump’s business deals in Russia, or rather the lack of them. In one memo it is stated: “The Kremlin cultivation operation on Trump also had comprised offering him various lucrative real estate development business deals in Russia, especially in relation to the ongoing 2018 World Cup soccer tournament. However, so far from reasons unknown Trump had not taken up any of them.”

But in another memo we get this: “Regarding Trump’s claimed minimal investment profile in Russia, a separate source with direct knowledge said this had not been for want of trying. Trump’s previous efforts had included exploring the real estate sector in St. Petersburg as well as Moscow.”

So which is it? He tried to secure business deals and failed, or was offered lucrative deals but for unknown reasons didn’t take them up.

Such factual errors and contradictions should have stopped Buzzfeed from posting the dossier. They did discourage others.

But then the media world seems to be divided into three groups now.

One group comprises those who hate Trump so much, they can and will believe anything of him. They have relatives on the other side of the aisle — those who hate Hillary Clinton so much they can and will believe anything of her — even that she has been overseeing a human trafficking operation! Then we have the group whose members love Trump and so won’t believe anything bad about him, even when verified.

And then there are the poor sane souls in the middle, who might love or hate Trump, or even be indifferent to him, but who hold fast to professional standards and try to base their articles on facts.

Can I Get Two Alternative Facts For Price of One?

I am in Europe — well Britain and technically still Europe for two more years — and so have only just caught up with the Meet the Press interview today where trump aide Kellyanne Conway says Sean Spicer, the new White House press secretary, was merely offering “alternative facts.”

I am really looking forward to moving forward with Trump press officers at State, the NSC and Pentagon to ask them to supply me with some “alternative facts.” What am I meant to ask? Is this a fact or an alternative fact? Which one should I consider more truthful — the fact or the alternative fact? Could you give me several alternative facts and can I pick the alternative fact I should use? Can I get two alternative facts for the price of one?

Right of Reply?

Pretty disgusted with the Columbia Journalism Review. More than a week ago I wrote a rebuttal to a piece written by the managing editor in which she argued Buzzfeed was right to post the Steele dossier. They accepted my rebuttal but still have not posted it more than a week later.

As friends here know, I am no Trump advocate but I am reporter who believes in some fundamental standards of the profession, which I think Buzzfeed broke. I remain very suspicious of the Steele dossier.

Yesterday, I was with a serving British intelligence officer, who said to me that he was having trouble squaring with what he knows about Steele and his past professionalism with a dossier that is “dubious.” It isn’t the job of journalists to post material like this without some serious verification, at least in part. “Gossip” was a word the intelligence official used when discussing the dossier. We need to be copper-bottomed.

I wrote about the Steele Dossier marker this month for The Hill. The article is here.

Trump Era: Devaluation of News

I was asked today on Facebook by my friend Michael McDowell, a former BBC and Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reporter this: “Jamie, what is your position on the Times, Post (not WSJ yet), and other major prof. journalism orgs. actually calling Trump’s or Spicer’s or Conway’s lies, actually using that word, depending. Or false, or innacurate, etc. It has certainly been stepped up in recent days, esp. re. the claims on the numbers at the rallies.”

My response: “When the camp Trump comes out with a demonstrably untrue statement, that should be highlighted, but in news sections it should, I feel, be countered not by the reportorial voice but by another authority. So on the issue of Metro ridership, why not use a statement on the actual numbers from the transit authority? When Trump says he has not been feuding with the CIA, why not run what he has said in the past and what intelligence officials have said? In the more opinionated venues, the standards are different.”

It strikes me that the Washington Post and NYT are allowing themselves to be rattled into making a strategic error. At the same time, they are lowering their own professional standards. I can’t recall them handling any previous U.S. or foreign leader this way. Let the facts speak for themselves — reportorial claims of lies aren’t even necessary. But by opting for this approach they are devaluing their reporting and placing themselves on a par with Fox News. That is undermining their reportorial authority.

When it comes to opinion or pieces in opinionated news sites like the Daily Beast or Buzzfeed, the standards are different.

Happy to Rent — Happy to Threaten

Noleggiare, a newish Italian car rental company, whose marketing catch phrase is “Happy to Rent” and is already earning a poor reputation, judging by the reviews it is getting on such travel sites as Trustpilot (I have reviewed them there) has just made a vague defamation threat against me, presumably to try to stop me reviewing my awful rental experience with them recently on any other site.

“Please, note that in case of defamation we are forced to take legal actions,” they say in a recent email.

Well, I have been sued, or threatened with legal action, by Mexican drug lords, Mexican politicians, British politicians, British and American corporations for news and investigative reports but I have never experienced a rental car company trying to intimidate with a silly defamation threat. Suffice to stay they have me quaking in my shoes.

Tripoli Isn’t Cairo.

Pro-government protest swallowed up by square

Pro-government protest swallowed up by square

Tripoli, May 4.

To provide some perspective: some wire agencies and newspapers today have talked about hundreds of protesters rallying to the Libyan government’s side in a standoff with militias over a law that would disbar Gaddafi-era officials from political office or from working in the bureaucracy, even if they assisted in the uprising that toppled Col. Muammar Gaddafi 18-months ago. The law if passed tomorrow (Sunday 5 April) would led to the government having to quit and about half of the Congress. The Islamists would benefit the most in the long-term.

This is Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square yesterday afternoon and a picture of the pro-government demonstration. I estimate there were less than 200 then. It filled up a bit more when about a hundred pro-militia protesters showed up. This is hardly ordinary Libyans rallying to the government — there were more people shopping in the nearby souk.

For more background on this political crisis you could read my VOA article from Thursday — the situation hasn’t changed much, although there have been plenty of behind-the-scenes negotiations. And below some paragraphs from the piece:

“If the militias succeed in forcing the General National Congress (GNC) to pass a law barring Gaddafi-era officials from being lawmakers or working for the government, Libya could be plunged into an even deeper crisis with no clear guidelines on how to proceed.

Politicians warned that approval of the new law could throw the country into chaos. But militiamen blockading the foreign ministry on Thursday dismissed those fears.

Allowing regime holdovers to stay in the government or legislature would be an insult to the “martyrs” of the rebellion that ousted Gadhafi 18 months ago, the militiamen say.”

Visit Tripoli See Fireworks…Including RPGs

Hard not to chuckle at the ill-timing of a Daily Telegraph travel piece that extolled the virtues of Libya as a destination for tourism. The article was posted online on the night of Nov 4/5 and opened: “Tripoli, Libya’s capital, is known for its walled medina and relaxing old-world ambience, and is home to a number of grand mosques, statues and fountains.”

It is home also to several unruly militias. As the article was posted a couple of rival state-sanctioned militias started skirmishing — it lasted  for more than 12 hours — in Tripoli, firing rocket-propelled grenades at each other, leaving nearly a dozen wounded and adding to ordinary Libyans’ sense of powerlessness.

The puff piece was part of a PR effort encouraged by the Libyan government to entice tourists to the North African country. A few months ago USA Today ran a similarly premature travel article urging tourists to visit the country.

Question: Do travel editors pay any attention to what is actually happening in a country?

To Publish Or Not

 Beirut

I wrote recently for the Daily Beast about the assassination of Lebanon’s intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan and what it means — or could mean —  for the country as it tries to avoid spillover from the sectarian war raging in neighboring Syria.

The piece opened thus: “Ten days on from the Oct. 19 bombing, Lebanese security experts are still painstakingly collecting evidence and placing it in large bags under two white tarpaulins drawn across a courtyard, where they are trying also to assemble what remains of a car. After The Daily Beast arrived at the scene and started to take notes, skittish intelligence officials decided to haul this correspondent in for three hours of questioning.”

The backdrop to the story was ironic for me. As many of you know Newsweek will cease publishing the magazine at the end of the year and will go totally digital. Newsweek will be a separate subscriber-only online product but with some stories posted on the Daily Beast as well. I think the strategy a good one and trust Tina Brown’s commercial sense. However, if the magazine had ceased publication in October my troubles with the Lebanese intelligence officials in Beirut would have increased.

This is the email I sent my foreign editor explaining:

“Don’t wish to sound like a Luddite. But the only thing that satisfied the Lebanese intelligence guys about my bona fides was a copy of the latest edition of Newsweek! They complained that my International Federation of Journalists press card could have been forged. Remained unimpressed with my UK passport. And said web sites could easily be spoofs so I told them to get the latest international edition of the magazine. The first store apparently had sold out — good and bad news, I supposed.”

 

Libya: Back To The Future

UN Envoy Ian Martin: But where are the women?

 

Tripoli

With prayers and a band playing the national anthem the Libyan election commission opened the media center for the July 7 polls. It is being housed in the Tripoli International Convention Center right in the compound of Gaddafi’s favorite hotel in the capital, the luxurious Rixos hotel.

It seems an odd place to have a media center for the first free elections in almost half-a-century. The hotel, close to Muammar Gaddafi’s compound of Bab al-Aziziya, is very much associated for ordinary Libyans with the Gaddafi family. It was here that Saif al-Islam, the despot’s son, gave his more rip-roaring threatening performances during the rebellion.

The Rixos was also where the regime insisted foreign journalists stay and it was here that 30 of them were trapped during the uprising. They were basically locked in and many of them feared they would be used as human shields when the rebels launched their assault on the capital. The reporters and cameramen were prevented from leaving by Gaddafi goons.

So the association for many people is not a happy one. But apparently the commission has decided to ignore that dark past and go in for a spot of re-branding with fine posters celebrating the sacrifice of mothers during the uprising. There is also a stirring poster of women of all ages with the title “Rebelling To Be Heard.”

A pity then that we didn’t hear from any women on the rostrum all evening — just men. We had the election commissioner, the Prime Minister, UN Envoy Ian Martin, etc. But no women.

For that matter there weren’t that many foreign journalists among the great and good and diplomatic corps who came. That may have something to do with the fact that international journalists have been finding it extremely difficult, in some cases impossible, to secure visas. The deputy Italian ambassador told me: “We have had a big problem. The Libyan embassy in Rome just wouldn’t give out visas. We have managed to secure a few but it is still not resolved.”

That is being echoed by journalists and officials in London, Paris, Washington DC, etc. Some things never change. The king is dead, long live the king.