Saturday, April 30, 2005

Lesson, anticipation, observations

May 15 update: it's been pointed out that a cursory reading of this post could leave you too with the wrong impression. So, in case you're rushed, the punch line is several paragraphs down, namely here.

Why it is good to read carefully, but more entertaining not to:

(FYI: The Greeley Tribune* and The Union* are both owned by the Swift newspapers* chain.)

Tribune article from yesterday, Swift gave ex-CEO $7 million:
...the "filing speaks for itself."...some industry sources indicated [CEO's departure] was not his decision..."There was a lot of conjecture that somehow the owners of Swift & Co. potentially wanted to make a change or were dissatisfied with his leadership. But he wouldn't have been given a consulting contract" if they were unhappy...
Reader's reaction (pushing the "up" button on Greeley Tribune status elevator): That Greeley Trib news team has integrity and guts, to be doing such hard-hitting reporting on their parent company.

Article continues:
... Just before Christmas, the company laid off 800 employees in preparation for a new second shift to further produce the meat slaughtered from the Greeley beef plant's first shift.
Reader's reaction: WTF???

*The Swift co. in the article is not the newspaper-owning Swift co.; its meaty articles originate from the musculature of cows ("...manufacturing, marketing and distribution of processed and canned meat products"*). (In the Greeley Trib comments*: "OUCH - I wonder if my company will consider canning me!!")

Speaking more locally,
  • According to his column today, The Union's editor will roll out his weblog ("...short, snappy and to the point...") on Monday. Unsolicited advice: try to avoid "snappy", no matter what the temptation; there will be plenty.
  • Still waiting for response from him (after 2 reminders in a week - how likely that both# were lost? Preparing to escalate to telephone - be afraid, be very afraid.)
  • Some socially responsible columns, editorials, and news articles on the needs for energy independence and for addressing the meth problem have emanated from The Union in the last week or so. This is good. (too lazy to dig up all the links, sorry)

Thursday, April 28, 2005

When life hands you lemons...

Apr 30: Added Murrow link; small update on The Union's movement toward letting readers speak out online.

Best lines of the night, from Daily Kos (*):

NIGHTLINE: Why Won't Reporters Ask Tough Questions?
[Reporters] said that...if you ask a hard question of [president], you won't get an answer. Dana Milbank said you need to ask it "as an essay question" to him. Koppel then asked both of them "which question" asked as an essay tonight, did the reporters get a substantive answer to? Neither one of them had an answer for Ted Koppel.

Edward R. Murrow spins a little more in his grave.
With all the spinning Murrow is doing these days, we could hook him up to a generator and solve our energy problems immediately.
Perhaps the Town Hall Institute should be looking into this?

Still waiting for answers (to questions on sidebar) from The Union's once-new editor; maybe it's time for another reminder...

In his most recent column he says web logs are in the offing at The Union; this will be an interesting experiment. Will it be a walled garden? How will they deal with community commentary - dispense with the two-way web altogether, and don't allow comments? display the comments through a soda straw? or use a picture window, the way it's done in Greensboro?

Warning: weblogs entail communication.

Update: in comments, Russ Steele points out that you can talk back, publicly, on The Union's 'Web site', after a fashion, although it is rather low profile at present. (Here's the front page; you find it.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

"Sorry we trashed your world, kids"

How will you explain, to yours? "we didn't know"?
...and, if you work in an institution whose proclaimed purpose it is to let people know...?

It's not just theocracy coming down the pipes (*, *); now meet the proposed Sunset Commission, and imagine life without OSHA, the FDA, EPA... Did anyone else read John Brunner's 1972(?)The Sheep Look Up? ("One scene in the book, involving a defective microwave oven, has haunted me ever since"*)

On peak oil, via The Oil Drum, "a pretty good introduction and summary of the idea, from a relatively non-alarmist perspective" by an industry insider is here:
[We] are currently facing the biggest short-term threat to our economic wellbeing that the modern world has ever seen, involving the commodity that society is most dependent on.

Almost nothing, however, is heard of the phenomenon of "peak oil"...
A nuclear power plant might be in Beale's future.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Creature from the Blog Lagoon

In response to a Freedom of Information request, Secret Service records on the White House comings and goings of fake ex-military fake reporter real male escort J.D. Guckert (aka Jeff Gannon) are released. Story, perspective, connections, some corroboration.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

the problem with the press

In an ideal world, the press is a form of science: it attempts to discover and report on the "lay of the land" of reality.

In science, shoddy work gets called out: peer review exposes faulty reasoning, and peer attempts to replicate results expose faulty data.

The cultural norm for the press is to avoid peer review like the plague. This has consequences.

earth day cancelled

...presumably due to fear of something unpleasant (and wet) happening to the local environment, which did not in fact come to pass.

perhaps this is meaningful.

perhaps not.

In any case, do as we say, not as we did. stay home.

Thursday, April 21, 2005


Apr 23: added a couple more links

Sunday is Earth Day at Lake MacBoyle, up by the airport.

Start of the New Yorker's new series on global warming. If you get your news from "the media", please read this. There will likely be much that you do not know.

Somehow missed this fine Rhetorica post from January on how the media could stop Payola Punditry, if they wanted to. And from Tuesday:
Hellllooooooo? Knock, knock! Is there anyone at home out there in medialand? Right now--not later today, not tomorrow, not later this week--right now put someone on this task: Call every pundit in your employ and put this question to them: Who pays you, and what do they pay you for?-- please disclose everything. Fire anyone who refuses to answer...
Sorry, no. There isn't anyone at home.

Another great Paul Graham essay (via):
One of the most surprising things I discovered during my brief business career was the existence of the PR industry, lurking like a huge, quiet submarine beneath the news. Of the stories you read in traditional media that aren't about politics, crimes, or disasters, more than half probably come from PR firms.
...A good flatterer doesn't lie, but tells his victim selective truths
Insight provided by Christine Boese (blog) in Dan Gillmor's comments:
I can tell you that the PR machine feeds a great gaping yaw: the news hole. So long as the press stays in reaction mode, then the main concern, beyond all others, will be to do whatever it takes to feed that space.

So what's the problem? Staff cutbacks, everywhere. Staff cut to the bone. Why? Because the great gaping yaw can be filled so easily with PR material, and [owners motivated by short-term profit] understand a key element of the equation: viewers and readers cannot tell the difference...
Via Graham, an unforgettable look behind the "reporters taking dictation from PR" scenes in A Sell-Out's Tale. One gem:
[Another reporter] asked me if I would be writing about Volvo. I said I would.
* "What's your angle?"
* "I think I'm going to be writing about press trips in general."
* "An exposé?" she asked, sounding worried.
* "Sort of, I guess."
* "Don't ruin it for the rest of us," she said, without a trace of humor.
If you can't blurt out the truth, what business are you in?*

Excellent piece in The Union - Other Voices (aka guest) column,
A battle for your hearts and minds, by local resident John Morris who provides a lesson in "rhetoric literacy", analyzing the techniques being used by the participants in the recent battle over student health care/parental consent.

And, for those who like the idea of continuing and expanding this "debate":

From Poynter:
In a debate, one side listens only to find a counter-argument. In a conversation, there is give and take. A debate ends with a winner and a loser. A conversation can conclude with both sides learning, and a promise of more to come.
From Philosoraptor:
We know that the passions that are stirred up in aggressive and competitive discourse are very strong. We know, in particular, that these passions make admitting error particularly difficult. We know that admitting error is required for making progress and achieving agreement. Yet we continue to employ this aggressive, competitive model of discourse. We continue to employ a method that is virtually guaranteed not to achieve our goals.
We continue to debate when we should be inquiring.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Science, journalism, balance, shills, again

May 3: minor wording

(related to previous posts' exchanges with local "balance" advocates)

Mother Jones has a special project on global warming online, As the world burns. It includes a Chris Mooney article on ExxonMobil's funding of the "skeptics". Excerpts:
Tech Central Station (link)...received $95,000 from ExxonMobil in 2003
In 1998, the New York Times exposed an API [American Petroleum Institute] memo... The document stated: "Victory will be achieved when...recognition of uncertainty becomes part of the 'conventional wisdom.'" It’s hard to resist a comparison with a famous Brown and Williamson tobacco company memo from the late 1960s, which observed: "Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy."

From Snowed by Ross Gelbspan:
Why the lack of major media attention to one of the biggest stories of this century? The reasons have to do with the culture of newsrooms, the misguided application of journalistic balance, the very human tendency to deny the magnitude of so overwhelming a threat, and, last though not least, a decade-long campaign of deception, disinformation, and, at times, intimidation by the fossil fuel lobby to keep this issue off the public radar screen.
...a prime tactic of the fossil fuel lobby [has] centered on a clever manipulation of the ethic of journalistic balance.
Quote from Upton Sinclair:
It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.*

Related, It is a bit like farming - Effect Measure on Adriane Fugh-Berman's article (PDF) exposing pharmaceutical companies' "ghost authorship" of medical articles and other such strategies. They're planning way ahead. Includes this nugget from A.F-B:
Companies regularly fund articles and talks that never mention the targeted drug, but are meant to disadvantage the competition. One of my colleagues was paid handsomely by a drug company to give a hundred talks a year presenting negative data on alternative therapies, a competitor for an infinitesimal share of the market dominated by the company’s blockbuster drug....there would be no reason for the audience to suspect that a talk that mentioned no pharmaceuticals was funded by a pharmaceutical company.
And the punch line -
These efforts may begin years before a pharmaceutical is approved for sale. It is a bit like farming; weeds are removed, the soil prepared, perhaps a cover crop planted, to be tilled under before seeds are sown in the receptive soil...

We'd like to award last week's halo (they improve with age, and we're late) to Adriane Fugh-Berman for bringing these industry practices to light. "Sunlight is...the best of disinfectants" - thank you, Dr. Fugh-Berman, for your contributions toward disinfecting medicine.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Grownup Republicans speak on DeLay and Doolittle

Apr 24, minor edit.

FYI, several links in this post go to the House of Scandal, where the prose is overheated; try to look past the tone to the facts presented.

A recurrent question over the last few years - Where Are the Grownups in the Republican Party?   Slowly they've been emerging*; now one from our own state, Pete McCloskey, is speaking out.

From Friday's NY Times, 10 Ex-G.O.P. Lawmakers Attack Changes in Ethics Rules, McCloskey among them (*) -
"We offer no judgment on Mr. DeLay's actions in the obtaining of funds and favors from lobbyists and foreign agencies*, other than to note that they are the subject of continuing disclosure and discussion well outside the Beltway and in the heart of areas of strong respect for traditional Republican values of honesty and accountability," they said.
The position of our U.S. Representative?
John Doolittle said of DeLay, "I stand 150 percent behind him." *
More details on Doolittle-DeLay connections - including $10,000 from Doolittle to DeLay's legal fund - here; Doolittle is a man who puts his money where his mouth is.

From the April 8-14 issue of the Auburn Sentinel (published weekly; doesn't seem to be online), Mainstream GOP icon Pete McCloskey wants Doolittle ousted:
[McCloskey offered] blunt talk about replacing 4th District congressman[?? - ed.] John T. Doolittle, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and others for what he views as their "apostasy to true Republican principles"...McCloskey is encouraging mainstream/moderate Republicans to organize a search committee..."Republicans for Honesty in Government"...Doolittle is one of DeLay's lieutenants in the House leadership.

Coverage in The Union:
Search Results : McCloskey republican
No articles found.

Search Results : DeLay ethics
No articles found.

(irrelevant link removed)

More DeLay links:
Attendees said DeLay, in extremely brief remarks, told the senators that, if asked about his predicament, they should blame Democrats and their lack of an agenda.*

Wall St Journal rap sheet against DeLay posted here. Tom DeLay has been able to stay in power despite years of scandal:
DeLay's fiefdom of cash and fear -- like so many political machines -- was based on transparent cronyism, bending the law, and other ethical lapses. (in Facing South)
Republicans are being told support for Mr. DeLay is mandatory if they want future support from conservatives. (via Lex)

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Logical fallacies, empirical truths

Bringing third parties into our local blogscrap with NC Media Watch's Russ Steele
- his posts here and here; ours, plus his comments, here and here -
regarding "balance" in reporting, decent science journalism, and how to evaluate evidence - in part spurred by the (against "balance") April Fools Scientific American editorial "Okay, We Give Up" -

...outsourcing judgment to the experts is likely to yield far better results [than trying to learn climate science from scratch]. Don't take it up here, Russ; take it up with the scientists who devote their lives to studying climate science and aren't being funded by those with a vested interest in a particular outcome.

(taking the view that one should not engage in argument from authority or against inauthority)
Please do not fall into the trap of attacking the scientist, when their science challenges cherished points of view. If you can prove their science wrong with data, OK. Just attaching the person and the funding shows how weak your argument is. Data is true regardless of sides, regardless of where the funding comes from, government, environmentalist, or industry. Data is data. It does not have emotions.

..."consider the source" is a pretty good heuristic...

Like Woody Allen conjuring up Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, we at NCFocus happen to have John Rennie, editor-in-chief of Scientific American, right here:
Brooke Gladstone: So then, what is the responsibility of the media when it comes to reporting issues like evolution and global warming and species extinction and acid rain and missile defense - do reporters have a responsibility to quote the senators and the novelists, even when there is a clear scientific consensus?

John Rennie: There's certainly a proper way to represent these kinds of contrary views, but in perspective. You don't want to have stories structured in such a way that, for example, you have one global warming supporter who is quoted, representing 98 percent of the scientific community and then matched up against one other person who's a denier, who's given effectively the same amount of space. Because then people in your audience could be left with the idea that there is a more equal balance in how seriously those ideas are taken. You also want to be able to point out, for example, what kinds of affiliations do the people on both sides have.

...I think what we're seeing these days is people trying to make a fetish of balance.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Training your dog the "Family Values" way

Last weekend we made the serendipitous acquaintance of Song Kowbell of Creative Canine Training - Song is called into households with misbehaving dogs, observes the family's interactions, then points out changes that can interrupt the dysfunctional dance, much like a canine version of Nanny 911.

A much different approach to canine behavior modification is taken by James Dobson of Focus on the Family, with which the Capitol Resource Institute is affiliated.* (CRI being the group behind the recent controversy over the high schools' "student access to confidential medical care during school hours if need be" / "parents rights" policy.)

How does this family values advocate deal with dissension in the ranks? Dobson tells us in his book (The Strong Willed Child); the passage is excerpted by Digby here. We don't have the stomach to repost it on NCFocus, but please, go read it. It provides insight.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

minimal progress report, and pandemic prognosis

Wed. night update: added pig link and fine print (including the thought experiment)

Added a couple more questions for The Union's new editor Pat Butler in the April 7 post.

If you get a server error when attempting to leave a comment, Blogger, not blogger, is to blame. Save early, save often...

Go to Yubanet and read the 3rd installment (on the unpredictable consequences of dewatering) in Doug Mattson's series on the proposed reopening of the Idaho-Maryland Mine. Would Lake MacBoyle also be at risk?

And speaking of predicting risks, we find some cause for optimism on the pandemic front.
Know-nothing blogger punditry: Yes, bird flu is coming - it's infecting pigs now - but not in the high-fatality form in which it first made our acquaintance. In this 1997 New Yorker article , Malcolm Gladwell makes the point (or we draw the inference) that what made the 1918 pandemic so virulent was World War I and the attendant crowding, such that the sicker the person was (too sick to move out of the trenches, etc), the more others were exposed to them - whereas in a more normal time the sicker you are, the more you stay at home and thereby reduce your virus's opportunities to infect the public. The first scenario selects for virulence, the second selects for mild infection.

Or, if you don't believe in evolution, you can interpret it as God saying "Peace, man" and punishing warmongering.

Thought experiment:
Taking communion is an inherently unsanitary act, no? Suppose the H5N1 pandemic comes to pass, and congregations continue to congregate and take communion while the unbelievers cower at home. How would an observer be able to distinguish between the end result of this scenario (the faithful are dead, the heathen still walk the earth when they dare to venture from their homes) and the Rapture? Duration might be an issue since the Rapture's instantaneous, but if the six days of creation can be permitted some elasticity in actual time, the Rapture might get a little leeway too.

Heresy from our most-heathen friend: "The Rapture is coming; avoid the rush"

and don't forget the Mayan calendar.

From TNH:
If, on appropriate occasions, the members tell, enjoy, trade, and/or devise transgressively funny jokes about their denomination, it’s a church.

If such jokes reliably meet with stifling social disapproval, it’s a cult.

Also we'll stick our neck out on a limb and say that Marburg just isn't infectious enough (and kills its victims too quickly after they become contagious) to spread uncontrollably.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Questions to ask...

...when some blogger that you don't know from Adam asks to interview you.

Mostly asked by The Union's new editor, which gives us a modicum* of hope.
  • What is your background?
  • What is the mission of your blog?
  • Do you have written policies that you share with your readers?
  • What is your policy on editing the answers to interview questions?
  • Will the answers be used in different ways in the future as you see fit?
  • What is your corrections policy?
  • What is your disclosure policy?
  • Do you allow comments on your weblog?
    • If so, what are your standards for commenters?
    • If not, why not?

Not recommended:
  • How many readers do you have?
    Please, this is like asking a man...uh...never mind
  • Do you strive to seek balance with the issues you provide commentary on?
    Not if we want to inform our readers, we don't. Links yes, fairness yes, false equivalence no.

* a modicum is roughly the size of a large iota.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Russ Steele finds our halos unholy

updated Apr 14

In a comment on our Friday post, local conservative blogger Russ Steele begs to differ with its content, and does so at his weblog.

Russ is making two specific objections:

First, he says we do need "balance" in reporting climate science issues.

(Russ, is it just the specific case of climate science reporting that you disagree on, or all kinds of science reporting?
Do you agree that in the case of alien abduction experiences (which Mooney explains do have a scientific, non-alien explanation), "balanced reporting" does a disservice to the readers?
What's your overall (i.e., not attacking a minor point) impression of the April Scientific American editorial on this problem, "Okay, We Give Up"?)

In support of the need for balance, Russ cites the 'contrarian' pair (environmental economist Ross McKitrick and mining executive Steven McIntyre) critiqued here (see also Real Climate's myth #4.)

Will we get down into the point-by-point climate science trenches with Russ? No. NCFocus has no expertise in climate science, nor a belief that developing one would be the best use of our sadly limited mental resources (and time): outsourcing judgment to the experts is likely to yield far better results. Don't take it up here, Russ; take it up with the scientists who devote their lives to studying climate science and aren't being funded by those with a vested interest in a particular outcome.

Also see Krugman's April 5 column - "Thirty years ago, attacks on science came mostly from the left; these days, they come overwhelmingly from the right, and have the backing of leading Republicans..."

Second, Russ attacks Rogers' claim (here(PDF), on the PACNC website - don't forget to link to what you're criticising! It shows you have faith in your position and in your readers) that CRI's "82% support parental notification" automated phone survey results boiled down to only 5.4% of actual survey responders saying yes - Russ says the %response was % of total calls made, not of people who answered any survey questions.
([Apr 14] sorry, this confusingly worded to the point that I'm afraid to clarify it for fear of changing the meaning and making it wrong - maybe another night, when I'm awake...)

(another apparent real flaw: she does also state that 200 responses are needed for statistical validity, which sounds (to NCFocus) more like someone's rule of thumb than statistical truth; doesn't the # needed for statistical significance depend on the results?)
Apr 14 update: By "validity", she's probably referring to statistical power, not statistical significance as we originally assumed.
Also this Boston Globe article is relevant, in an amusing way - them Easterners got mighty high standards:
"If it were our poll, we would be very upset if it were used in a way that did not make it clear that there were that many [20%; CRI's was ~ 90%] nonrespondents," said Francis J. Connolly, senior analyst for the Kiley and Co. public opinion research firm.
Also amusing: Rodgers is troubled by the editor's influence over both the editorial and news pages. "As senior news editor, Cliff Schechtman makes the final decisions," he said. "He also actively participates in the paper's editorial policy..."

Russ says:
Typical survey responses are 2 to 3 percent. This survey’s response was over 6 percent, a valid survey response. It was not a bogus survey, as suggested on the PACNC web site.
Another point though - it's only "valid" if the responses of those who did answer the question are representative of the public as a whole. It seems likely that the few who don't hang up on automated phone spam are likely to be substantially different from the general population.
In any case, it's our considered opinion that the PACNC Q&A and Myths and Facts have info that's more relevant to what the policy should be.

(Russ does link to CRI's response to McCall's April 5 column in the Union, which we hadn't done, so here it is.)

Advice for editors: how to defend your reporting

1. Don't, since it's an obvious conflict of interest; instead, outsource the job to an independent expert. The defense will carry a lot more weight if it comes from someone without a vested interest.

2. If appropriate, provide links to the articles in question, to help readers judge for themselves; just saying "they're available on our website" does not suffice, especially when the website Search utility is silently defective.

3. Don't just summarize the complaints; no matter how fairly you do it, the reader won't be able to judge how fairly you are doing it. The web is a spacious place; allow the complainants to present their case there, and link to their presentation, thus allowing motivated readers to calibrate you.

(This is in reference to a column published yesterday, which made a very reasonable case but for the above points, which we'd link to if we could find it on the website.)

-40- *

Friday, April 08, 2005

The old ways are not inherently better

Nice (except for the format) PDF of a talk by Chris Mooney showing how the norms of journalism lead to lousy science reporting, and how fringe groups use this to their benefit.

Related, the Union's editorial yesterday, which - while taking a step forward by providing URLs - still has a ways to go: note the use of false equivalence ("...We've heard from the vocal extremes...."), and the take-home message of "speak out, make your voice heard" with no accompanying exhortation to become informed first.
(From Butterflies and Wheels: "...majorities are often wrong, and they are much more likely to be wrong when they are uninformed about the issue to hand...").

Fortunately, "vocal extreme" Susan Rogers (of Media Literacy) steps up to the plate, taking Chris Mooney's "the journalistic objective remains to inform people" to heart on the PACNC website - see the Q&A and Myths and Facts. (and wish that the PDFs elsewhere on the site were HTMLs...)

This week's halo goes out to Susan Rogers.*

* No cronyism, nepotism or kickbacks were involved in the selection process; we have not met her.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

More questions for the beleaguered editor

April 23: edited; edits disappeared; re-edited. Hopefully, questions are no longer of the "when did you stop beating your wife" variety.

April 12: added a couple of questions on editorial ethics.

[Apr 8:] Post date is misleading - actually published on Friday. (Attempted to publish on Thursday, when Blogger was belly-up; have added questions since.)
Editor informs us he's swamped and won't get to questions - including the previous ones - for at least a few days.

Do you view The Union primarily as a business, or as a public trust?

Hypothetically, assuming you had the resources to do so, how would you evaluate the paper's success?

Some readers believe that In the past, when the stakes were high, The Union has featured dubious editorials ("...crafted very deliberately to say what we want them to say, and no more") (what is the term for attempting to mislead while uttering only truths?) whose logic the principals were not willing to explain or to defend. Would you consider writing a deliberately misleading editorial (and then refusing to address objections to it) to be an ethical use of The Union's editorial authority? Will you allow it to happen on your watch?

These readers believe that this sort of behavior has historically occurred when the stakes were high, followed by more reasonable behavior when they weren't. If this Hyde-then-Jeckyll pattern has indeed been the case, would these readers be wise to take thoughtful, reasonable editorials and reporting during this (low-stakes) period as evidence of a fundamental ethical shift?

The question that always seems to silence the newspaper staff:

The Union's Search page has returned incomplete results since at least sometime last summer. For a while it carried a disclaimer, warning the users of this fact. For months now, it has not carried a disclaimer. Entreaties to the webmaster have not been answered (at least not with answers.)
  • Do you think that incomplete Search results are something the user should be warned about?
  • Where does "adding a sentence to the webpage warning the user that they're not getting complete results" fall, on the priorities list?

Search problem example: Search for
  "grand jury" "david wright"
and see if architect David Wright's Nov 3 2004 letter is returned. (it does come up if you look for "everything published on Nov. 3", just not if you search by keywords.)

(Belatedly wondering if perhaps Mr. Wright might have had second thoughts and requested that the letter be hidden, our crack interview team called and asked him; he was unaware of the search obscurity and said he had certainly not requested it.)

A hypothetical question:
If it were to turn out that the incomplete Archive Search had been deliberate, would you report this to your readers?
(or would you consider it to be private, like other internal affairs at the newspaper?)

Corollary: if your answer is "But that's a hypothetical question", please read Butterflies and Wheels on hypothetical questions.

-40- *

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Followup questions for Pat Butler

Friday update: a couple more questions.

Followup to our email interview with new Union editor Pat Butler. You should read the full interview first; only the parts that elicited further commentary are reprinted here.

Formatting for this post: our question in italics, the excerpts from PB's answers in blockquote, our followup in normal text. It's still clunky; we'd like to include the whole of PB's text here too, but do it in a way that works without drowning out the followups, and we haven't figured that out yet.

Start of questions:
  • As a newcomer with nominally great power, do you feel that you owe the community a look into your head (by answering questions such as these), or do you believe it's OK to expect us to just wait and judge by your future actions?

    (While we prefer answers with less PR content, his having devoted the time to respond answers the question itself.) on the issues of the day in a fair and balanced manner.
    "Accurate" is good too. (presumably the obvious was merely overlooked, but a little belaboring never hurts.)
    The challenge, of course, is to prioritize those issues when you have a staff that includes just six reporters
    (Just an FYI, we hear there used to be eight; not sure how long ago this was.)
    What could you do better with two more reporters?
    'Great power' suggests that I make decisions in a vacuum
    Our concern is the one reflected in the aphorism "Don't piss off people who buy ink by the barrel"; you do have great power, if your publisher gives you free rein, although you're right that the wielding of it is constrained by journalistic ethics.

  • What code of ethics do your syndicated columnists adhere to? (have they provided written assurances that they're not on the take?)
    As a newspaper executive, you have the clout to extract the information that your readers need. It would be nice to know whether any of The Union's syndicated columnists are receiving undisclosed outside money, goods or services from those whose policies they write about; blanket "nothing to see now, move along, everyone's fine now" assurances from the syndicate are not convincing. What is the text of the affidavit that each columnist has signed? Armstrong Williams indicated there were plenty of others on the take; which of them appear within the pages of The Union?
    (This isn't likely to be your highest priority task, but it'd be nice to know whether you considered it worth addressing.)

  • Do you believe that telling both sides of a story is sufficient for good journalism?
    [miscellaneous characteristics]...making the story as balanced as possible...
    What is meant here by "balanced" - equality of standards, or equality of outcomes? (What's called "balance" is often really "false equivalence".)

  • On the "Chinese wall" between news and advertising/business interests...
    What will you do if attempts are made to breach the wall?

    To use an example: what would you do if, for example, the publisher were to put pressure on you to go easy on an advertiser?
    An alternative question - have you received assurances that there will be no such pressure?

  • If you learned of information that would be important to readers but costly to advertisers, what factors would you weigh, in deciding what to publish?
    Is it newsworthy or not is always the main question.
    You're saying that if it was newsworthy, but costly to advertisers, you would still publish it?

  • Traditional newspaper policy seems to be to avoid mentioning (and thereby alerting your readers to) other news outlets. Will this be your policy as well?
    I don't think there is such a thing as a traditional news policy on this matter, but if you can cite some specific examples I'd like to see them.
    You may well be right; this impression came from a newspaper person's offhand statement, but it wasn't made in a serious context.
    Perhaps it's a function of news reporting norms, which differ greatly from weblogs in this regard: searching The Union for news articles containing "Sacramento Bee" or Yubanet doesn't bring up much.
    And maybe it's because you actually do original reporting, unlike some of us...

  • Can you come up with any circumstances which would warrant a small town newspaper bringing in an ombudsman?
    Only a few of the largest newspapers in America have ombudsmen. If we add another full-time employee...

    A full-time ombudsman for a small paper would certainly be overkill. But if that paper were part of a 30-newspaper chain, or the ombudsman was a moonlighting journalism professor hired on a piecework basis...might there then be cases where it would be appropriate?
    -40- *

  • what do you see as the role, if any, of objectivity in journalism?
    Objectivity is central to what we try to do each day.
    Apologies for the poorly worded question. What do you mean by the word "objectivity"?
    (Actually, feel free to skip this question; Rhetorica's "Objectivity is not a stance; it's a process" is what we were aiming for. )

  • What do you see as the purpose(s) of journalism?
    (if more than one, could you roughly prioritize them?)
    Priorities include informing, educating, entertaining and responding to our readers' questions and concerns.
    So "informing" is top priority? (not in every single article, of course, but overall?)

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Interview in progress with The Union's new editor

The current state(s) of our questions and Pat Butler's responses are posted over in NCDocuments; more to come, but you can contribute - if you have any questions, either post them in the comments (may require registration) or email them to ncfocus2003 at yahoo....

Reminder: you'll want to impress Mr. Butler with your intelligence, civility and rationality.

Monday, April 04, 2005