Saturday, July 01, 2006

Resurrecting the Dubner Oath

Jeffrey Dubner started it here:
I swear that I have never taken money -- neither directly nor indirectly -- from any political campaign or government agency -- whether federal, state, or local -- in exchange for any service performed in my job as a journalist (or commentator, or blogger, or whatever you think I should be called).


Lex Alexander took it here:
I swear that I have never taken money -- whether directly or indirectly -- from any political campaign or government agency in exchange for any service performed in my job as a journalist and/or blogger.


I took it here:
I swear that I have never taken money or received services -- whether directly or indirectly -- from any political campaign or political group or government agency -- whether federal, state, or local -- or anyone else -- in exchange for any service performed in my job as a journalist (or commentator, or blogger, or whatever you think I should be called).


George and Russ, will you take the Dubner Oath?
I swear that neither I nor others of my family have ever received money or services -- whether directly or indirectly -- from any political campaign or political group or government agency -- whether federal, state, or local -- or anyone else -- in exchange for any service I have performed in my position in my organization or having to do with my or my organization's website or weblog.


You can probably word it better than I did here.

15 comments:

michael r. kesti said...

I find it extremely admirable for one to voluntarily take such an oath and remarkably rude to suggest that others should. The discourtesy, of course, stems from the implication that one does not assume that the others can be trusted without such testimony.

Bruce said...

I find it remarkably obtuse and naive to think it's remarkably rude to make that suggestion. "Trust us" is the obvious oxymoron of the day.

Anna said...

Michael, I'm curious to hear your answers to two questions, under two conditions (also phrased as questions) -

(Note: you may consider #1 and #2 (and 3 and 4) to be off-topic; nonetheless, I am asking you _these_ questions and _these_ ones are the ones that I'm requesting that you answer.)

1) Do you think that "payola pundits" (i.e., people who publicly argue for a position without revealing to their audience that they're being paid to do so) are a significant (i.e. important) cause of citizen bamboozlement?

2)
a) If yes, in what ways could this "force for disinformation" be countered?
b) If no, why not?
"it doesn't happen much"
"it isn't effective; citizens see through it"
"both sides do it so its effect is equalized"
....?

3) Do you think you can discuss this from a thoughtful, "academic" perspective, without slipping into blame/shame mode?

4) Are you willing to answer all of these questions?

thanks, and say hi to Debra for me (and invite her to come and comment!) -

Anna

Anna said...

Michael, more questions -

1. My understanding is that anyone who testifies in a U.S. court of law is first asked to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Do you feel the same way about this practice as you do about the Dubner Oath? if not, why?

2. re "the implication [is] that one does not assume that the others can be trusted without such testimony"

I'm not sure which of the following 2 things you mean (and thus which aspect of the Oath you find offensive) -

A) "I swear that" is offensive, since it implies that without those 3 words, respondents wouldn't be honest when answering the "I'm not a payola pundit" part;

B) even without the "I swear that", asking someone to go on record as saying they're not a payola pundit implies, offensively, that people can't be trusted to disclose vested interests without being specifically asked (i.e., it implies that payola pundits exist).

Did you mean A, or B, or something else?

(Bruce interpreted your comment as B.)

michael r. kesti said...

Round 1:

1) Yes, they can be. They can also be a significant and important source of citizen enlightenment.

2) It is likely that there are many ways and it is certain that some of them are more effective than are others. I imagine that the most effective may be to reveal facts that prove who are forces for disinformation. Rude implications may amount to attempting to open minds by smashing heads.

3) I stated a truth, as I know it. I am certain that you do not require my encouragement but I wholeheartedly invite you to show that I am wrong. This, I think, is quite academic. You asked Russ and George to deny unsavory affiliations. I find this to be as much about blame and shame as being asked if one has stopped beating one’s dog.

4) It seems the answer is, “Yes.”

As for greeting and inviting Debra, she reads you, too, so you have done so yourself.


Round 2:

1) No, I do not feel that same way about oaths sworn in courts of law. The court has the power to deprive those it convicts of their money, personal freedom, and even their lives. This, in my opinion, more than justifies establishing that witnesses who might commit perjury will have done so knowingly.

2) I meant neither A nor B.

Anna said...

Thanks Michael. This is good.
(and hi Debra!)

-----------
Re my
>> 1) Do you think that "payola pundits" (i.e., people who publicly argue for a position without revealing to their audience that they're being paid to do so) are a significant (i.e. important) cause of citizen bamboozlement?

and your
> 1) Yes, they can be. They can also be a significant and important source of citizen enlightenment.

ok, new questions:
1. Do you agree that payola punditry is akin to disguised advertisements?

2. Do you consider payola punditry to _be_ unsavory? (From your "sometimes they're bad, sometimes they're good" #1 answer, it's not clear whether you _do_ consider the practice to be all that bad)

-----------
>> in what ways could this "force for disinformation" be countered?

> I imagine that the most effective may be to reveal facts that prove who are forces for disinformation.

Sure, if you can do it. But someone who sets the bar that high for 'acceptable' evidence will miss a lot of 'signal', so the pattern won't emerge for them as clearly or as rapidly as it will for others whose filtering algorithms can glean signal from non-crystal-clear input.
(and yes here I am talking like a hardware engineer, i.e. out my, um, )

>Rude implications may amount to attempting to open minds by smashing heads.

Didn't mean to smash heads, not trying to open minds there, just trying to learn things. In retrospect what I should have done is first try to get an unambiguous answer from them, as to whether they consider payola punditry to _be_ unsavory.
(I'll ask this, in a separate post, and ask for a reply in comments; email can be problematic due to on/off-the-record issues)

-----------

> You asked Russ and George to deny unsavory affiliations.

I asked if they would willing to do something that I have already done, that I consider to be a service to my readers.
(so far at least, the answer seems to be no.)

(this is to some degree a Q. of framing, but I think it is important to point out that I'm not asking anything from them that I haven't already given myself.)

and I'm not demanding, I'm asking. They are free to say no or to ignore the question entirely.

-----------
> 4 ...
Yup :-)

-----------
> 1) No, I do not feel that same way about oaths sworn in courts of law [because consequences are more severe]

OK. maybe. won't choose to argue this point at present.


(and thanks, Michael)

Anna said...

(clarification, re the "hardware engineer" allusion above: I am not a hardware engineer, so you might wish to rate the credibility of my HW metaphors accordingly. I did NOT mean to insult HW engineers, only myself.)

michael r. kesti said...

My answer to both of your new questions is, “It can be.”

Asking Russ and George to do what you had already done does not change my opinion of your request. I still admire that you have taken the oath, but asking them to do so was an implicit accusation that, as I thought and you have confirmed (“just trying to learn things”), was backed with no actual knowledge of their guilt.

Yes, that bar is high. It’s a hurdle that ethical, legitimate journalists willingly jump.

Anna said...

============
OK, to attach Michael's answers directly to the questions:

Q: Do you agree that payola punditry is akin to disguised advertisements?

A: "it can be"

Q: Do you consider payola punditry to _be_ unsavory?

A: "it can be"

As I read your answers Michael, they're equivalent to "not always".

If I'm misinterpreting you here, please set me straight.
============

> > > > [anna] in what ways could this "force for disinformation" be countered?

> > > [michael] I imagine that the most effective may be to reveal facts that prove who are forces for disinformation.

> > [anna] Sure, if you can do it. But someone who sets the bar that high for 'acceptable' evidence will miss a lot of 'signal'...[and so will be more poorly informed]

> [michael] It’s a hurdle that ethical, legitimate journalists willingly jump.

Michael, I'm reading your answer as saying "journalists should not publish information unless that information _proves_ malfeasance".

Whereas I think the rule should be more narrow: "journalists should not _assert_ malfeasance unless the information that they publish _proves_ malfeasance."
(I expect we're in agreement on this statement)

Unlike you, I think it's fine to publish info (that could shed light on the "feasance" issue) or post questions that might provide that info, w/o having it be "make-or-break", 'proof' info (but see my next comment about this). I think the value of doing so is illuminated by the hardware analogy above.
(and fyi in that analogy I'm equating the 'hardware engineer' with my blog reader; I want to give that reader(and me) the most useful info I can get.)
============

True, there is still a question of fairness - if the shedding of light comes only from one direction, the reader will get a skewed view of the landscape, due to the structural bias of what's left hidden in shadow.

I was hoping to address/counteract this bias by having Russ or George select a (single) 2nd organization for me to look into, but so far they haven't, and I'm also realizing that it's a somewhat unfair burden to put on them, since it puts them in an adversarial position against said 2nd group.

So Michael - you're better positioned for this, how about if you do the honors? Pick a Nevada County group, any group, please.
============

also, food for thought for Michael -
could your "bad to ask if they'll take the oath" view also be expressed as "Journalists shouldn't ask tough questions?"
(if not, what's the difference? what sort of tough questions do you think _are_ acceptable? e.g. is it ok for me to ask people whether they think payola punditry is unsavory?)

> "asking them to [take the oath] was an implicit accusation"

I guess I don't see it that way - it's not of the "when did you stop beating your wife" form, which presupposes guilt.
I think it's just a tough question.

(now, maybe it's _too_ tough - if it's a q that only saints and liars can give the "right" answer to, it is NOT going to advance the cause. How could we rewrite it so that, say, 60% of journalists (those not in the above 2 categories) could pass it?)


But I am curious how other readers see the issue of whether or not it's ok to ask; anyone care to say?
(please apply the Clinton Test before answering)

(and thanks again Michael; this has been an interesting exchange)

Anna said...

In previous comment on this thread I said
"I think it's fine to publish info (that could shed light on the "feasance" issue) or post questions that might provide that info, w/o having it be "make-or-break", 'proof' info"

On the one hand, I believe this, firmly.

On the other hand, I also, equally firmly, believe this from Kovach and Rosenstiel(*):
"...investigative reporting involves not simply casting light on a subject, but usually making a more prosecutorial case that something is wrong. Here journalists should be careful they have enough evidence to do so, especially since often pieces can be structured as either exposes or news stories. ....An expose is in effect a prosecutor's brief and the case it sets forth must be unambiguous; if the story does not meet this test, it should be written as something else."

So - in case anyone's wondering if it's possible to simultaneously believe two seemingly opposing things: yup, no problem.

Well... obviously there _is_ a problem, if what I wrote was an expose.

Was it?

Note absence of blog post headlines akin to "How the plans were laid"* (see Oct 10 and Oct 25 posts)). I am not alleging malfeasance, because I do not know that any has occurred.

This is where insight from genuine working SPJ-code-of-ethics-following journalists would be awfully helpful.

michael r. kesti said...

> [anna] Michael, I'm reading your answer as saying "journalists should not publish information unless that information _proves_ malfeasance".

Your read is incorrect. Not only is this not what I said, it is easily proven wrong. Publishing information such as community events is, for example, obviously a legitimate journalistic function that requires no proof of malfeasance.

More to the point, however, is that your request for Russ and George to swear an oath was not an occasion of publishing information or, in my opinion, of asking “just a tough question.” Despite your claims, I still see your request as an implicit accusation. Perhaps the answers to a couple of my questions will help to resolve this matter.

Why is it that you asked Russ and George to take this oath only after having first targeted them and their organization (Sierra Environmental Studies Foundation) for investigation?

Why did you not ask others to take this oath?

Anna said...

I probably wouldn't ask tough questions unless there were signs of strangeness, either.

I think a lot of this stems from the difference in approaches, between curiosity and warfare. I try to find out, you attack and defend.

We're going to have to agree to disagree on this one since I don't see that spending more time on it will yield value.

And since you let my tentative interpretation stand, I'll take it that in your view, payola punditry is not always unsavory.

Hue said...

I think a blogger writing a post advocating any position on a issue should disclose whether or not the blog is receiving money or services -- whether directly or indirectly -- from a political campaign or political group or government agency -- whether federal, state, or local -- or anyone else.

Face it, technology allows anyone to be a blogger to offer an opinion. But few of us can do for a living. Bloggers generally have a day job. So if a blogger is getting paid, then it should be disclosed. A blogger should disclose even if he or she takes a contrary position from the funding source. If a blogger has a trust fund, or made money from another business, and now devotes his or her time blogging, that's different.

If you look hard enough at writers who call climate science bunk, you will generally find that they work for a foundation funded by the oil industry. That's fine, but disclose it.

It's a same thought of an stock analyst or fund manager touting or dissing a stock. You would want to know whether that person owns the stock, sold it short or if that company is the underwriter.

With an op-ed or a story in a newspaper, you know where that's coming from even if you don't agree. From a blog, who knows?

michael r. kesti said...

> [Hue] With an op-ed or a story in a newspaper, you know where that's coming from...

Really? How can one be sure?

Anna Haynes said...

Again: this is Jeffrey Dubner's oath. (I'd be very curious to know what Stephen Dubner's oath would look like...)