- Jeff Jarvis
- Ted Koppel
Former anchor, Nightline
- Larry Kramer
Former head, CBS Digital Media
- Nicholas Lemann
Dean, Columbia University School of Journalism
- Josh Marshall
Blogger, Talking Points Memo
- Scott Moore
VP content operations, Yahoo!
- Markos Moulitsas
Blogger, Daily Kos
- Craig Newmark
- Eric Schmidt
We interviewed the CEO of Google, [Eric Schmidt]. He says that the biggest challenge facing the Internet today is reliability. There's too much information out there that is either fraudulent or irresponsible, and how do you sift through all of that? Isn't that the problem? You need professionals to do that.
Why a professional?
An educated person like yourself, who has experience in the business.
I want the people who know what they're talking about, whom I trust, to tell me what they know. They may not have gone to school, but they may know a lot. They may not be paid to do this, but they maybe do it well. ... I find that odd for Eric Schmidt to say, because ... Google would be nowhere if the people didn't click on what they see as valuable. That's what makes Google Google. The wisdom of the crowd is Google freeze-dried. That's it. ...
Define "wisdom of the crowd" and how that relates to Google.
The "wisdom of the crowd" holds that the crowd is smarter than the smartest individual in it, that as a group they know more. That's what makes Google tick: Google watches what we click on, what we link to, and Google then says that's the better thing, because the people, the crowd, did that. ... Now, that's not the only way to get knowledge. The problem with Google is that yes, their junk comes up in there, or sometimes people can spam it. Nonetheless, it's an incredibly valuable resource that is made possible because the Internet was able to capture the wisdom of the crowd, the wisdom of the people as editor. ...
So the wisdom of the crowd really identifies quality, you say.
It can. Let me tell you a story. I was a TV critic at People magazine in the mid-80s when the remote control passed 50 percent penetration on American couches. ... I did a piece on a CBS morning program about the season-end ratings, and the producer came up to me and said, "You're saying that the top shows in the ratings this year are good." And I said, "Yeah." And she said, "Well, you're defending the taste of the American people." I recoiled in horror. I said, "No, I'm a snob; I wouldn't do that." She said, "You are." ... Television, of all things, proved that we have taste and intelligence, because when we had more shows to watch, we watched the good shows: [The] Cosby [Show] and Hill Street Blues and all these things rose in the ratings, and Beverly Hillbillies, which was the wisdom of network executives, disappeared. ...
Yeah. I was giving speeches about this 20 years ago. I say I'm a Luddite, and I am, but I could see the way the industry was going. Look, when I was a young journalist, if I wanted to be seen and heard in the United States, across the land, I had three options: I could go to ABC, NBC or CBS, period, end of story. These days, and for a long time, any person with a video camera and a little editing gear and access to the Internet can be a network by himself or herself. …
Yeah, I think that's inevitable. But having said that, when people want to know a little bit about the reliability or the quality of the information that they're getting -- it may be that they have found a blog site that they now have been accessing for a year or two years, and they find it to be accurate 90 percent of the time, God bless them. That's better than we do. But much of the time, the problem with getting material on the Internet is you don't know where it's coming from, and you don't know anything about the people who are producing the material.
That's OK, but at least when you're watching Rather -- or these days Bob Schieffer or Katie Couric or Charlie Gibson, or whoever it is who happens to be doing the news -- you've seen them for 20 years, 30 years. You know something about them. You know they are part of an organization in which what that one person writes doesn't get on the air just the way he or she writes it. There's at least a producer or an editor who looks at it and says, "You know, Ted, I don't think that's accurate; you made a mistake here," and then you go back and you check it. In the final analysis, the most important thing about journalism is editing. ...
Well, let me take you to that period of the late '90s, MarketWatch. So the Internet's expanding. You're in that process, and you're in the financial markets. But there's no editor; there's no quality control about what gets on the Internet.
… Well, in our case there was, and because of that, we made it as a medium. People built a trust in us. I grant you -- you're absolutely right -- the initial days of it were Wild West, and a lot of people lost a lot of money because they didn't understand the difference between news and press releases and other information as it was presented on the Internet. ...
Particularly in the financial world, you had people like Yahoo!, who were not news people at the time, create a news site. They didn't know the difference between a news story and a press release, and they put them together in the same list. So you'd go to the headlines about a company, and you'd see these various headlines -- you know, earnings up 50 percent -- and that would actually be the headline on a press release, not on the story about it. Sometime later would come the first stories that say revenues down 30 percent, Duluth plant going to close, and, by the way, earnings are up, but that was artificially done. You wouldn't get that kind of scrutiny until it was too late.
So a lot of people who are unsophisticated about news got burned because they traded on information that was really coming from people with a vested interest, not from journalists who had no vested interest other than bringing you the truth. So there was a period of time that was a learning process in that area. I'm not sure that that's done yet in other areas. It just happened in financial first.
We looked, and on Google News, there are 21,000 press releases.
Right, and that's what you're going to get. Now, if it's identified as such, that's fine, as long as you can get to the stories and you can get to the press releases and you can see the difference. ... There's good information in press releases. ... The fact is you might read a story and say, "I don't know if I'd come to the same conclusion; I wish I could see those numbers," and you can. ... It's an unbeatable source.
Eric Schmidt of Google says the biggest problem facing the Internet is reliability.
That's a very interesting, complicated issue that leads us in the completely different direction.
Right now -- and this is part of the headache of traditional news organizations -- with some notable exceptions, you can't charge for content on the Web. So how can you support the reporting that I think is vital if you can't charge for content? Well, one way you can do it is if there's an avalanche of advertising. But if the advertising avalanche isn't quite big enough, then you can't.
What I hope and believe will happen slowly over time is essentially what's happened in print: Certain Web sites will develop a reputation among their readers for being absolutely trustworthy and smart. Everything is filtered. Even the Drudge Report is filtered. You can't have a news organization that doesn't have an editorial function decide what's in, what's out, how carefully things are checked, etc. Sites will develop brand identities; they'll build their own audiences.
Those sites that provide original information and highly trustworthy analysis will be able to develop audiences that would be willing to pay for them, and then that will pay for the reporting. That would be my hope. But it will be a kind of informal ecosystem on the Web where some publications, some sites are more reliable than others.
There's no proof at this point that the Internet will have enough revenue in various sites to support the kind of reporting you're talking about.
It depends. I am way less pessimistic than most people I run into every day in my job, for a number of reasons. The scary stuff in the newspaper business is happening really at about a dozen or so of the biggest big-city newspapers. Based on who comes here [Columbia Journalism School] to speak, the people who publish in small- to medium-sized markets are not nearly as pessimistic as the people who are publishing in big markets. They say, "We're a local newspaper; we publish a lot of local news; our audience is loyal to us; it's not slipping away; our advertisers are not slipping away."
On the Web, some people are doing extremely well, like Bloomberg News, and that's because they're able to charge a huge subscription price because they're based on financial data.
The model for the daily newspaper is they've mushed together a bunch of things traditionally under one roof, and if the Internet starts taking away little pieces of it, the whole doesn't cohere economically, or that's the scenario. The biggest example of that is the classified ads being taken away by craigslist and others.
Some sites on the Web, particularly Bloomberg, have done sort of the opposite: They've built an economic base on all this financial data that people are willing to pay a fortune for, and then layered news on top that their readers like and want, but that's clearly supported by something else.
People will experiment and come up with ways to make this work. I definitely think the trends will drive most American newspaper journalism to be intensely local, and that's where the economic sweet spot is going to be. The most endangered is the Washington bureau and the foreign bureau. The newspaper has to be willing to say in its print and Web iterations, "What you're getting from us, you cannot get anywhere else."
Now wait a second. You are saying that some newspapers are doing OK; a lot of them are still making money. The Los Angeles Times makes over a billion dollars in revenue a year, and over $200 million a year in profit today, and it's in a crisis, and the newsroom is being cut.
That's a different question. My understanding of that is public markets bet on the future of companies. Public markets are often wrong, but they're not just completely blind. So the calculus of investors is, yes, the Los Angeles Times has a 20 percent profit margin, but it's also losing, what, 7 percent of its audience every year? Play it out for 10 years; it's not going to be at 20 percent profit in 10 years unless some cuts are achieved or additional revenue [is found].
That's all the investors are doing. If they thought it will produce 20 percent profit in perpetuity, then the stock wouldn't be going down.
But you're talking about the public markets. [Berkshire Hathaway chairman and billionaire investor] Warren Buffett says newspapers, as an industry, are in decline; tells people, even though he owns a large chunk of The Washington Post, "Don't invest." That's causing a crisis in newsrooms across the United States.
Look, I'm not an investor. For the most part, the public markets do not believe in the future of the traditional print newspaper, particularly big-city newspapers. That's why the stocks of companies associated with traditional newspaper journalism are quite depressed right now.
On the other hand, there's a lot of private players who are trying to get into the business. Some of them are trying to get into it for vanity reasons or public service reasons or whatever you want to call it. Some of them, I think, think they can make the economics work and that the markets are overreacting to something temporary.
But let's say it does happen. Then there's a conversation that people in journalism don't really want to have, but it might be a conversation worth having, which is in much of the world, including in the United States, good journalism is associated with various explicit and implicit public policies. That is, government interventions to make journalism better, such as the BBC in Britain, which has taxing authority; such as the now-departed Fairness Doctrine and various public service requirements in broadcasting; such as nonprofit status and quasi-public status like NPR and PBS have.
We may have to start thinking, if we value reportorial journalism, about structural interventions that will preserve it if trends move in that direction, rather than just saying, "Oh, isn't it horrible?" Or saying, "Why can't we have owners who don't care about profits as much?"
When we interviewed Dean Baquet and Jeff Johnson, the former editor and publisher, respectively, of the Los Angeles Times, they said, "We answer first to our readers and then to our shareholders." Is that a naive perspective in the modern world?
It's a complicated question. Journalism in the United States has traditionally been completely independent of government, although today that's not really true; this show we're on now is, indirectly, very heavily supported by the U.S. government. Like it or not, it's just true. But nonetheless, if you have journalism having a commercial basis, and also journalism as a profession in the sense that the people who practice it have a set of values that are not purely commercial, you've got a built-in tension.
It's nothing new. It's always existed, and it's not a problem that's that easy to solve ever. There's always something else you can do that will be of journalistic value that will drive your profits down. The idea that there was a time when all newspapers were immune to economic considerations and only cared about their readers, I don't really buy that. I grew up in a town that now has a great newspaper, but when I was a kid had a horrible newspaper. The idea that there was this misty time in the past when journalism didn't care about profits and all local papers were great, that time didn't exist.
Go back and read. In 1947, there was the Hutchins [Commission] report about the state of journalism. It said there's too much concern with profits; chain ownership is taking over; sensationalism and celebrity journalism is taking over; something must be done. Go back and read [New Republic founder] Walter Lippmann's book Public Opinion, written in 1922. Same argument: Journalism had this wonderful promise once, but concern with profit and big corporate ownership has dashed that promise, and we have to think of some new way of saving journalism.
This is a constant, because of the way American journalism is structured.
Everyone's running to the Internet. At the same time, when you talk to people at these newspapers or broadcasting companies, they'll tell you the revenue from this is really pretty small and there's declining profits in their parent companies. What's at risk, they say, is in-depth reporting and the future of it. Is it at risk?
I hope it's not at risk, and let me make the case why it wouldn't be at risk. That would be that the economics of the Internet are going to start to work over time. If we're sitting here in 20 years, it's my hope that the people who are doing really good journalism on the Web, that serves local audiences and so on, will be making money at it, and that the print publication will still exist and will have settled down to a smaller, natural level.
Putting it another way, reporting -- taking out the word "in-depth" -- is the only thing you can really offer on the Internet that people would conceivably be willing to pay for; certainly subscribers, and maybe even advertisers. For that reason, I think the economics will start to work on the Web side of journalism.
Most of the established newspapers in the United States, as far as audience goes, have very healthy Web sites with much bigger audiences than their print edition. I can't think of a single big city in the United States where some other person came along and established the dominant local news site that has a bigger audience than the daily newspaper's site.
So the question really becomes, what does the slope of decline look like for the print edition, and does it start to sort of level off? What is the slope of income increase on the Web side through advertising, through some form of paid circulation, through some form of monetizing search? And will we get to some kind of equilibrium where it's still supporting reporting?
I really hope it will, and I believe it will. At every moment in my life there's been something that was in crisis, and it's always been wrong to follow the trend line at that moment down as far as it goes. It's perilous to believe that what's happening in 2006 is just going to keep happening exactly the same way, at the same pace, for the next 10 years.
Let me take you to another subject. Maybe you could speak in general, because you've written about the [Valerie] Plame case a year ago, about how it exposed journalists and their sources.
OK. So the Plame case is not really about this world of lonely, courageous whistleblowers who leak material about government corruption to journalists that we all like to think that the journalist-source relationship is all about.
Instead, it's about another part of the journalistic world that isn't, frankly, very attractive, and that is the cozy relationships between Washington reporters and high government officials. They're talking all the time. The reporters have their self-interest, the officials have their self-interest, and you can argue that it's healthy for the reporters to maintain this line of communication so they can tell readers what's going on. But part of what happens is an administration uses that relationship essentially to slime its enemies, and that's what happened here.
This man, [former Ambassador] Joe Wilson, popped up as essentially a public and fairly damaging critic of the Bush administration, and various people in the administration whispered in the ears of various reporters things meant to impugn him. That's how Valerie Plame, his wife, got pulled into it.
In other words, the basic argument as I read it -- it's all complicated and shadowy -- was, "Hey, you need to know something about this guy," and that is, "the only reason he was over there in Niger is that his wife is a CIA agent, and he was a little down on his luck, and she was looking for a freelance assignment to throw him. So that's why he was there." I think that is where the whole case seems to come from. So that particular reporter-source interaction is not the wondrous part of journalism that we all like to brag about, but it goes on.
But the administration's side -- Mr. Wilson wrote an op-ed piece in which he spoke about how he believed that it was [Vice President] Dick Cheney who had, in a sense, dispatched him, through the CIA, to do this mission -- so all the government was doing was trying to say, "That's not true; it was because his wife put him up for the job and nominated him to go do this."
In a perfect world, these people at the high levels of the Bush administration should have flipped through their book of legislation and said, "There is a law against exposing a working CIA agent." In fact, even if it weren't a law, they shouldn't have done it, for all the obvious reasons. They should have had the thought, "We're so mad at Joe Wilson because we just dispute his version of why he was sent there, but unfortunately we have to bite our tongues, because we're not allowed to out a CIA agent." That is what should have happened in this case, but it's not what did happen.
And what does this case say about the relationship of the Bush administration to the press?
Well, what it says to me is sort of counterintuitive, because everybody goes around saying, "This administration is the most leakproof and the least hospitable to the press ever, the most hostile to the press ever." I've covered Washington on and off for a long time, and I don't disagree with that. This is an administration where you can't just stroll into the White House and the Executive Office Building and phone people up and go see them. It's pretty locked down.
But what this case shows is that even the Bush administration, because of the way Washington works, is in constant, chummy, off-the-record contact with the press.
Selected members. But the people that they're talking to are a mix of friendlies and fairly neutral people. In other words, [Time magazine reporter] Matt Cooper did not have a reputation as a member of the conservative media or somebody sympathetic to the Bush administration or unsympathetic; just a reporter covering the White House for a major news organization.
I assume you believe in reporters having confidential sources. Now, the first kind of sources we're talking about --
What I tell students here, when they ask, "Is it always preferable to get things on the record?" is, you should try to get things on the record. I always try as a journalist to get things on the record. But if pressed, I wouldn't say to people, "I will only speak on the record, and I will never go on background or off the record," because you do get things that are helpful to you in prying out some other information from some other person. So I believe in it, but not as the first resort, I suppose.
What's the public-interest in stories that resulted from confidential sources, the real whistleblower type?
Essentially, if you work in a news organization, you get tips all the time about things that need to be looked into. Most of them don't amount to anything, but some of them do amount to something. And many, many, many really good and important and world-changing stories begin with an anonymous person leaking an interview or leaking a document. ...
A really good example is the Abu Ghraib story. This story rocked the world. It was bad for the American war effort in Iraq, but I think very few people would argue that it isn't net good for the country and the world and democracy and discourse to have this seen in the light of day. And all this material in the first instance came from confidential sources. If you had a world with no confidential sources, I don't think we'd know about Abu Ghraib. Not everything comes out on its own.
So [the use of] confidential sources is wedded to the public-interest function of the press, especially over the last 30 years or so?
The First Amendment was not written with confidential source relationships in mind. The First Amendment was written at a time when there really wasn't much reportorial journalism, and what I think the framers of the Constitution had in mind in the First Amendment was protecting essentially freedom of political speech when it was printed and disseminated.
Nonetheless, I think there's a very strong public-interest argument for confidential source relationships and how they enhance democracy. That's why most of the states have legislation on the books protecting those relationships. Now, the federal government doesn't have legislation protecting it, and that's where things are getting interesting right now.
Well, [New York Times reporter] Judy Miller went to jail because of it, the lack of a federal shield law.
Judy Miller went to jail, right.
What do you think of Judy Miller and what happened? She went to jail. Did that help journalism? Did that hinder journalism?
I admire her for sticking by her guns and essentially saying, "I have a confidential source relationship, and I'm going to protect it, and I'm going to go to jail to protect it." She didn't claim that it was legally protected; she essentially said, "I have made a bargain with my source," who turned out to be [former Chief of Staff to Vice President Cheney] Scooter Libby, "and I'm standing by my word even though I know there isn't any legal protection currently, and I'm going to go to jail over it."
She had a coherent argument for why she then left jail and testified, which was that Libby had released her from her bond that she had made with him, a sort of private contract without legal standing. So therefore she left jail. I think the way the case nets out, though, is that prosecutors would take from it the signal that if you just keep pushing and pushing and pushing on the press, they're going to cave on this going-to-jail stuff and eventually testify. So I'm not sure that --
But has that been unfair, because [journalist and author] Bob Woodward didn't resist the subpoena when it turned out he was one of the first recipients of this information. [Columnist] Robert Novak didn't resist. [NBC's] Tim Russert walked right in and said, "Of course I'll testify." And Cooper at first testified and only then balked, and then later testified. Has it been unfair to rap Judy Miller because she was willing to take this to jail and make a point of it?
She showed a lot of courage in being willing to go to jail to protect her source, and that's admirable. I just think the net of that case doesn't play well for the press in its ongoing maneuvering with prosecutors, because prosecutors took from that case the lesson, "If you keep pushing you'll eventually get the person to testify." So it's important. Her behavior and The New York Times' editorial stance are both important.
If they thought all along, "If only Scooter Libby would have a conversation where he'd release us from our obligation, then we wouldn't need to go to jail, and we'd be happy to testify," it would have been better from a PR standpoint for them to have that conversation a few months earlier and not walk up the hill and then walk down the hill. But nonetheless, I do admire her for being willing to go to jail to protect the promise she made to her source.
But the reason prosecutors may take encouragement to subpoena reporters is that the journalism community, particularly the Washington journalism community that sits in that same sort of hothouse every day, basically caved? [Special prosecutor] Pat Fitzgerald gets people to sign waivers, and everybody walks in and starts talking.
Right. Look, here's the situation. Almost all states have a shield law that spells out when reporters are protected in their source relationship and don't have to testify. There is no federal shield law. This applies notably in the area of national security; national security is not covered by shield laws.
If you had to say to somebody, "What's the net result of the Plame case with respect to protecting the reporter-source relationship?" and you have to state it in one or two sentences, you'd say: "The net result is, absent a federal shield law, if prosecutors push hard, news organizations will eventually cooperate. Some will cooperate right away, some will cooperate more slowly, but the prosecutor got every news organization to testify." That's the one-sentence version of this.
But even if there's a federal shield law and you have an issue like the identity of a CIA agent, or who told you about an NSA [National Security Agency] program, no shield law is going to protect --
Well, so that's what's good about legislation. It's healthy to settle public policy matters through having laws passed because it makes all this clear, what's protected and what's not protected. A hypothetical federal shield law would clearly have to address situations like this, and it would have to say either, "Even in all cases it's protected, end of story," in which case the prosecution wouldn't go after the press, or they would say, "There are the following three or four exceptions where there is no shield," and then prosecutors would go after the press, [and] they'd have a strong case.
In other words, it's hard for the press to argue, "There's something we do that is in the public interest, and even though the public's elected representatives haven't detected that it's in the public interest, we know it is, so therefore we get a legal protection." It forces the press to go into Congress and argue the case. It's democracy at work.
One reason that a federal shield law wasn't passed -- as I understand it, Congress was poised to pass it in '74 or '75 -- one of the issues was, "What's a journalist?"
All these things you can settle, though. We journalists tend to think everything involving us is uniquely complicated and nobody can possibly work it out and understand it except for us. I've seen various iterations of this definition. But you can settle this by having a bunch of people in a room writing various versions of the legislation and arguing about it. They're all out there now. I don't think it's a crippling problem.
But meanwhile, if a federal court just ruled on another Judy Miller case involving phone records. ... And the BALCO [Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative baseball steroids] case is pending and those reporters [Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams from the San Francisco Chronicle] are facing jail, and a young blogger [Josh Wolf] is in prison. It sounds like there's a concerted effort, particularly on the [part of the] federal government, to squeeze reporters and to squeeze this privilege.
I wouldn't say a concerted [effort]. I would stop there. I would say the atmospherics have changed on this issue. The atmospherics are that I think prosecutors, having to meet and talk about it, would just by reading the papers have the feeling that if the information they want entails subpoenaing a reporter and asking about his source relationship, the climate is much more friendly now to that working than it used to be.
By the way, these prosecutors, they're not getting up in the morning saying, "I'm doing this in order to destroy freedom of the press in America." They're saying, "Why does the reporter get a right to stand in the way between me and catching the bad guy, which is my job?" There are two competing visions of the good here, which is why you need legislation.
So this is an opinion operation. So you don't have any fact checkers, for instance? ...
Oh, that's not true. That's not true at all. I've done the main site for more than five years. It's always been made up of a lot of original reporting. When I first started, I was the reporter and the fact checker. But I've been both at conventional publications, so I know how to do both.
With the other sites, the most recent site we launched, we have two full-time reporters. They have two editors -- myself and our managing editor. So it doesn't work exactly like a regular magazine or newspaper, because we're usually reporting in real time. We have the same standards of accuracy and sourcing that, as far as I'm concerned, really any other kind of publication has.
Do you feel an obligation to have the other side of the story, since you're a journal of opinion?
We're very clear about where we stand on issues. But our issue is fundamental honesty with our readers. ...
In every story that we present, we try to present the complete story. Probably what we see as the complete story isn't going to be the same as a conservative publication. The Weekly Standard probably wouldn't see it as we see it, but we don't see ourselves as purely advocates for a particular point of view. Factual reporting counts just as much to us as I think it counts to anybody in newspaper journalism or magazine journalism, and I would stand our reporting up to theirs on the same measure. …
Have you ever run a retraction?
Oh, sure. Absolutely. And there's different kinds of retractions. There's retractions when just journalistically you make a mistake, you get a quote wrong or something like that. More to the point is when you get something wrong or you change your mind.
In the lead-up to the Iraq war, there's a number of things that I wrote that I think in retrospect were wrong -- not journalistically wrong, not facts that I asserted that weren't supported or something like that. Just my basic position and the way I interpreted a lot of the information I think was just wrong. ...
Have you retracted those things on your site?
Sure. In various posts, I discuss the things that I thought I got wrong in the lead-up to the war. But I think when you're doing what I do, when you're covering news in real time, you can't help but reinterpret, come to different understandings over time with things you wrote in the past. …
So you decide to cover certain stories because of your political orientation, your analysis of what's going on in the world, rather than other stories?
Sure. I think it's often frankly not quite that thought out or not quite that systematic. On my site I report on the stories that seem most interesting to me. Often it's a matter of the ones I think aren't getting the attention they deserve, but sure, my whole political worldview plays into the stories that I choose to emphasize or choose not to. ...
[Do] you consider yourself a journalist operating on the same level as any establishment journalist?
I consider myself a journalist who is working on the basis of the highest standards of journalism -- sourcing, fact checking, things like that -- and one who strives at every point to be fundamentally honest with our readers about the information that we're finding out in the course of our reporting. At the same time, we're very open about what our opinions are, about what we think the facts mean and what they don't mean. ...
Too often, conventional newspaper journalism makes everything into a "one side says this, the other side says the other," even when it's clear that one side is telling the truth and the other isn't. We try to avoid that.
You're interpreting information.
You're interpreting the news for people.
You're not just presenting them with information.
We're doing both. I think you can do both. ... I wouldn't want there to be only opinion journalism in the whole ecosystem of the news world. I think there should also be conventional daily newspaper reporting, where opinion, to the extent that one can, is filtered out of the process of news reporting.
I think, in many cases, the kind of reporting we do is more honest, is more straight than a lot of things you see even on the front pages of great papers like the Times and the Post. But I think both kinds of journalism should exist, should coexist. They reinforce each other. They help people come to a complete appreciation of the world they're living in.
Any reliable sense of how many people ... click your site?
On any given weekday, for our sites, between 100,000, 150,000 people a day. It varies. There's all sorts of different ways in the online world you can slice and dice readership. About a quarter of a million page views on weekdays is another metric. One more that may help people kind of get their heads around it is a little less than a million people come to our sites over the course of a month. Those are all different ways to understand our audience. ...
Do you take ads from anyone?
Basically, yes. When I started taking ads for our first site, which was back in, I think, the fall of 2003, I gave it some thought, and what I decided was that we would accept ads, regardless of political content.
You take a Bush campaign ad.
Absolutely. Absolutely. For obvious reasons, it doesn't come up that often. People are trying to hit our audience. That tends to be people of the same political viewpoint. But in the lead-up to the 2004 election, we ran several ads. We ran an ad for an [conservative commentator] Ann Coulter book, which obviously got squeals of outrage from some of our readers.
But for us, it's a matter of the basic division that I think every news organization tries to have between the business side of the outfit and the editorial side. We reserve the right to reject ads on very general standards of appropriateness or taste. ... I've rejected a number of ads just on what I consider taste grounds. They were all, as it happens, anti-Bush ads in the lead-up to the 2004 election. But the basic answer is we don't pay attention to the politics or the content of an ad when we decide whether to run it. It's strictly a business decision.
So are you a partisan journalist? …
That's not a label I would use for myself. ... To me, "partisan" means that you have a side, and then you organize the information to help that side. I don't think that's what I do. I think that I approach every issue that I can with as open a mind as I can and as honestly as I can, and I write the pieces that I write from what I think is the most accurate, most honest portrayal of the story that I can. ...
Would you do the same [type of critical reporting that you've done on the Bush administration], let's say, with Clinton?
I don't think the same facts are true about Clinton. … I think Bill Clinton made all sorts of mistakes. ... I'll give you an example. A couple months before 9/11, I got a tip about a story that was later reported after 9/11, which was that the Clinton administration had -- at least allegedly had -- a chance to get bin Laden in Sudan in the mid-90s. Now, for whatever reason, I wasn't able to actually get the story before 9/11. Once 9/11 happened, the prominence and the juiciness of that story obviously skyrocketed. It eventually was reported in The Washington Post. I did follow-up reporting on it -- which is obviously, one could say, against my political leanings -- that Clinton made a big mistake there.
So I think my reporting speaks for itself in terms of my willingness to report things that are averse to those who I'm inclined to support politically. ...
You don't report, for instance, that the economy is doing really well. Your blog doesn't credit the Bush administration with the stock market going up, and the American economy is outperforming most of the rest of the world.
I dispute some of your facts, but we don't report everything. We are not like The New York Times. ... It's trying to give the complete picture. ... We have myself and three employees, so we pick and choose what we cover. We don't cover everything.
What we are trying to do is, in most cases, we are focusing in on the stories we think are important, and mostly the stories we think are important are the ones that aren't getting either enough attention or aren't getting the correct kind of attention. If we do a story that is critical of the Bush administration, do we fall back and say, "Well, we hit him there; we've got to fall back and do a story that says the unemployment rate isn't that high"? That's not how we operate; that's not how we see our mission. It's just not what we do. ...
You said that [in] your reporting on Social Security, you veered into political activism.
You abandoned journalism.
No, I don't think I abandoned journalism.
You didn't just become a propagandist?
No, I don't think I did.
Why? You hated the Social Security program, right? You thought it was bad. ...
Yeah, yeah. But I don't think that makes me a propagandist. I think the difference is that I got more involved. ...
I started focusing in on certain members of Congress, particularly Democrats, who were not willing to come out with a specific position on this question, and I focused people's attention on those. So in an indirect way, it was a way of organizing opposition to what the president was doing.
Didn't you send your readers out to poll Congress when there was a voice vote?
That was with what we call the DeLay Rule, which was this rule the GOP House Caucus passed to basically allow Tom DeLay to stay as majority leader even if he got indicted.
Yeah, yeah. Because I think, again, that was a case where members of Congress had an advantage, because no one was making them say where they stood.
Because they could do a voice vote, and there was no record.
They could do a voice vote, and there was no record. And no one quite had the time to go out and ask these members of Congress individually, "Where did you vote?" They would come up with some excuse or something like that. What I thought was that having their constituents ask them, "You represent me; what did you do?," was a way of bringing the truth out, of finding out where people stood.
I think where they stood probably, in many cases, did embarrass them. But I wanted to find out where they stood.
And you took the word of your readers who reported back to you?
No. What we did was readers went; they called; they asked; they got letters and stuff like that. We got that information back, and based on that, we would go out and confirm it. Some cases, we actually got the letters that members of Congress sent. So no, we didn't just take their word for it. We had various ways of confirming what these members of Congress said.
So you were taking tips or advanced research from your audience and then fact checking it afterward.
Yes. ... This was kind of a hybrid, where if a journalist calls up a member of the House of Representatives and says, "Where did you vote on this DeLay thing?," they can just say, "We're not answering that question." If 100 constituents call that member of Congress and say, "I want to know where you stood on this question," they're far less likely to stonewall them, because they know that their constituents are interested. Once they start answering their constituents and say, "Yeah, we voted in favor of that," and we find that out, we can follow up and say, "Hey, you're telling your constituents you voted for this. Is that true?" ...
And you say that in the Social Security area, the mainstream press really doesn't care about it because they make too much money?
I think the fairly comfortable economic position of a lot of the lead reporters makes them relatively indifferent to the future of social security. Yeah, I think that's true.
Their class position influences how they cover things.
Yeah. Not in ways that they're dishonest. I think all sorts of facts about individual reporters go into the assumptions that they bring to the news. Yeah, I think that that's one of them.
In the case of Social Security, another thing that played into that is the conventional wisdom in Washington, and the conventional wisdom in Washington on Social Security leaned right. ...
... When people talk about objective journalism, you're saying that there really isn't any function to he said/she said journalism. You've got to take a stand is what you're saying.
I would say this: There's a lot to be said for the canons of journalistic objectivity. However, I think that it has become derailed in recent years to the point where you have cases where Person A is saying something that, as near as we can figure out as human beings, today is really true. ... And journalists take what Person A is saying and say, "Well, we've got to get Person B's opinion, too, to have balance." There are many cases where the person running the story knows that Person A is telling the truth and Person B is lying, but to maintain objectivity, they are placed on equal footing, even though one's true and one is not true. I think that is not honest journalism. I don't think that is really informing people. ...
I mean, philosophically, what you're saying is that you believe there's an objective truth out there that should dominate editorial policy, and you don't have to just throw in all the other information that doesn't really challenge substantially that objective truth.
I believe in facts. I think that as imperfect human beings, we don't always know what the facts are. But the way we organize our whole society, our science, our technology, whatever, is based on trying things out, finding out certain things are true and certain things are not true. I think that those basic judgments should inform journalism much more than they do. ...
There are some people who think that the conservative bloggers, conservative critique and undermining of the press, combined now with the liberal bloggers and the undermining of the credibility of what you call as well the elite press, is basically wiping out professional journalism. It's putting it under great stress in this country.
It is putting it under a lot of stress, and I think some of that critique is damaging. On the whole, though, it's positive. Again, for the reason I said earlier, that what we've had before is ferocious critique all on one side, I think that ferocious critique on both sides is better than ferocious critique only on one side. ...
I think that the long-term effect [on the press] will be positive. ... My critique is trying to get people to practice better journalism. And I think the people who are trying to delegitimize journalism altogether want a world of information in this country where ... the people who have power control the information. I think that's why they want to undermine journalism.
But there's another thing that's happening. The economics of the news business is changing, as you know, dramatically, in part because of people like you. People are going to the Internet. ... It's cutting into the profitability, and it's also creating much more diffuse, if you will, outlets everywhere.
Yeah. It's undermining the sole authority that the big journalistic outlets have had.
The fear is that there's not going to be enough money out there to pay for, if you will, this objective kind of journalism, this professional journalism that you like to critique but you also depend on, because you depend on The New York Times or CBS News ... to set a standard.
Oh, absolutely, absolutely. ... I think the blogs depend on the mainstream media for much more than to set a standard. They rely on the mainstream media for a lot of the original spadework of reporting. There's no question about that. ...
So who's going to pay for it if you're adding to the problem by not only helping to, in a sense, undermine it, but also taking away [advertising] revenue?
I disagree with the premise. I think that the reason that investigative reporting is being underfunded, or just reporting in general is being underfunded, is not because blogs are taking some minute fraction of their ad revenue. It's because the ownership basis of a lot of the media's changing. ... The news divisions in the past weren't expected to really turn a profit. They would break even. They were loss leaders in the whole context of the news business. The big newspapers were owned by families. Now they're being much more run on a profit basis. ...
I think a lot of the companies, a lot of the institutions that we know about are going to cease to exist or change. But I have faith that the basic functioning of journalism -- people going out, collecting together facts, telling a story to their readers that is as true as they can ascertain -- I have faith that that is going to survive all this economic turbulence, even though I think the challenges and the dangers that you describe are real.
Your blog basically made it, if you will, over the [Sen.] Trent Lott story, as I understand it.
That was one of the first stories that got a lot of attention. It got the blog attention in its own right, yeah. So that was one of the first big stories, kind of a breakthrough story for us.
What happened? And why did it work out for you in particular?
That was a story ... that was actually first reported, though very briefly and on a very limited basis, by ABC News. ...
The story is that Trent Lott had made this statement at [Sen.] Strom Thurmond's birthday party: "Things would have been a lot better in America today if Thurmond had won the 1948 presidential election." What I guess not a lot of people remembered anymore was that Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign was based on a hard pro-segregation line. ... So when you unpacked what Trent Lott said, it was really egregious. It was terrible.
But no one did unpack it. Most of the news media just ignored it. And in the way that the news media works, a story really has a 24-hour audition -- it makes its case, whether it's going to catch fire, whether it's going to become a real story. And that story failed its 24-hour audition.
I think in a pre-blog world, that would have been the end of it. ... My blog and others picked up the story and basically started making the case for it; that it deserved another chance as a story; that it was a lot more important than the rest of the news media had thought. So we were making that case. ... Eventually it got back into the conventional press, and pretty quickly after that it became sort of a firestorm. And as everybody knows, Trent Lott had to step down as majority leader.
But that's a case where again, you need to think of the news media as an ecosystem. You have your newspapers; you have your 24-hour cable networks; you have your blogs. They each have a niche. They each play a role, and if everything is working correctly, they're each playing a role in giving viewers overall an accurate understanding of what is happening.
This was a case -- and I think it was the first time for blogs -- that they really showed the very positive role they could play, which was when the conventional news media in D.C. and New York, for whatever reason, misses a story. I think in this case, it was a function not of political bias but of journalistic clubbiness. Everybody knew Trent Lott. Everybody had gotten used to Strom Thurmond. ...
You criticized David Broder of The Washington Post.
The way to see Strom Thurmond in Washington had become to see him as a lovable old guy with a weird accent who had maybe done some terrible stuff way, way in the past, but it had all been forgotten about. And those blinders that I think all the big journalists in Washington were wearing made them miss this story.
It was up to blogs, precisely because of their political engagement; also because a blog doesn't need a news peg to return to a story the second day. A newspaper has to have a news peg to come back to a story the second day. ... Blogs can keep making the case for a story. They have freedom that conventional news publications don't have. In this case, it allowed them to see a story that needed attention that the big cable networks and the big newspapers were blind to.
Did you do the same thing when Dan Rather presented these documents about George Bush's National Guard service?
Basically, yes. ... In the Dan Rather story, we were by no means the first ones to catch the fact all this stuff with the typesetting and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But ... there was a chorus among liberal blogs defending the story, and if you look at what I wrote at the time, [I] was basically saying that I didn't think that this was something that should be defended necessarily and that I thought that these conservative blogs who were making this argument had a point. ... That, I think, is an example of the fundamental honesty with your readers. ...
A lot of reporters, particularly in Washington, were telling us that they're feeling a lot more heat from the left, particularly left bloggers, if you will. Is that a reaction to what was going on in the past?
... Yeah. Going back about a quarter of a century, you have a mainstream news media which, as many people say, is made up of people who are predominantly Democrats. However, they're working within these canons of objectivity, reporting both sides, etc. On the other side, you have the right-wing news media that is made up overwhelmingly of conservatives not following the same canons of objectivity. So you have people at The New York Times and The Washington Post that I think, for a generation, ... have been used to thinking, "All right, I'm reporting this news." And then the second thought they get in their head is: "Is reporting it this way going to get me accused of liberal media bias? How do I counter for that? What do I do to pre-empt those charges of liberal media bias?"
Basically, the right has, I think, been working the refs -- to use a basketball metaphor -- for a quarter of a century. And for people who have my political viewpoint, that leads to a dominant form of media reporting that skews to the right, even if it's written by people, produced by people, who may tend to vote as Democrats.
You're saying the conservatives have been, if you will, raising hell about the establishment media's coverage of, let's say, the White House, and it has had an effect, ... even if [editor] Len Downie tells us, at The Washington Post, it doesn't have any effect?
I'm certainly not saying he's lying. I've worked in conventional journalism, I have a lot of friends who work in conventional journalism, and I think it's not an overstatement that in many newsrooms, the train of thought goes, "What's the story?," a; then b, "How are we going to get accused of liberal media bias?" When that is your chain of thinking, you inevitably end up with, I think, a very skewed kind of coverage. ...
What I think has happened in the last three or four years, mainly because of blogs, is that there's finally noise on both sides. For reporters, I have no doubt that's not pleasant. And it's not because they're coddled or something. It's not fun at all getting your judgment second-guessed, whatever. And in some cases it's ugly; It's yelling, and it's unfair complaints and stuff like that. But I think the final result is better journalism than you've had in the past, because there is critique, active critique, from both sides. So even though it's not fun for journalists, ... the net result is a positive one. ...
You don't think the press had done a very good job covering the Bush administration.
No, no. And some of that is undoubtedly just because of my own political viewpoint, that I'm a critic of the Bush administration. But I think it goes beyond that. I think it stems from a few different reasons.
One reason, again, is the resurgence of conservative media in this country over the last couple decades -- Fox News, talk radio, all these kind of things that have pushed ... the dialogue in a rightward direction. 9/11 clearly had a huge part of that. The press felt very cowed after that. In some ways, I think that the Bush administration has played to the weaknesses of how journalists understand journalistic objectivity. ...
What's to stop partisan journalism, like Fox News, for instance -- I think you would call that partisan journalism, right? -- from the slippery slope of becoming propaganda? I think in a lot of cases, Fox News has already slipped down that slope. They've fallen and they can't get up. It is a slippery slope.
What stops engaged opinion journalism from descending into propaganda is the integrity and honesty of the reporters and editors who produce this stuff. What the media has to rely on in general is having a sufficient diversity of voices, so that you're not depending on the individual integrity or honesty of writers and reporters; that you have enough diversity of voices that if parts of the news media is slipping into propaganda -- the fundamental dishonesty with readers that propaganda is -- that you have other voices that are bringing them back to the facts. ...
There's no question that there's more things that are called news over the last 25 years, whether it's on cable or digital channels or on the Internet. But what about quality? Just because you call it news doesn't mean it's information you can believe.
Sure. Well, I think you could apply that filter or standard to broadcast news, to cable news, over the last few years. I probably watch cable news in the evening once in a while. I wouldn't really call that quality journalism for the most part. Few exceptions. But anybody who wants to know the news of the day by 6:00 at night in whatever time zone they are, they already know it, because they've gotten it off the Internet.
There are many choices for them on the Internet. Anybody who puts out a low-quality news product online is not going to be around very long, because there are too many substitutes out there who are high-quality, and the cost of switching to one of those is the cost of clicking your mouse or typing a few keystrokes in.
Yeah, I'm not working with any editors in the traditional sense. Now, I have a couple hundred thousand people -- about 600,000, 700,000 people -- that visit the site every day. They're my editors. ... I write a post, and I'll go in 15 minutes later, because everybody will point out my typos, so I can go back and fix my typos, because they're going to come in and they're going to say, "You misspelled this word"; "You got this number flip-flopped"; "Oh, this congressman's a Republican, not a Democrat; you've got that mistake." And of course I'm writing several thousand words a day, and it's all top of my head. I'm not editing. I'm not rewriting stuff. I just spit it out, ... and I move on to the next thing. So those are my editors.
But again, that's also the danger, because I'll just spit out whatever, and I may say something that is not politically correct or something that's not very diplomatic, and people get angry. That comes with the territory. It's a very raw medium. Nobody's tempering what I'm saying. Nobody's tempering my emotions. And if I'm cranky or I haven't gotten enough sleep, or something just angers me irrationally -- we all get angered irrationally -- I'll write something that later on I'm thinking, yeah, maybe I should have waited 10 minutes to post that. ...
There's nothing like it, I think, in the traditional world of politics or media, where such raw emotion is the norm of the medium, as it is in blogging. But then again, that's what makes it so exciting. It's not canned; it's not prepackaged; it's not just your focus group-tested talking points. This is actually what people really believe, and that's what makes it so much more interesting, so much more fun to read than traditional punditry or traditional media stuff or analysis or politicians on a stump.
What is this development with Jeff Jarvis?
Well, Jeff Jarvis is one of the people I trust for advice on media, and he, with [Upendra Shardanand] and a lot of other people, are working on a news aggregator [Daylife.com] which can help people collect news and can figure out what stories are really about, and then hopefully, as this evolves, help us find out versions of stories that are more trustworthy. ...
News aggregator is like Google aggregates a list when you do a search for stories?
Yeah. If you look at news.google.com, it brings together stories on similar subjects from a lot of different sources, and sometimes gives us a perspective on news that we wouldn't have otherwise. Daylife should do that and more.
Daylife will read them or assess them?
Well, it will take a look at what the story is about and maybe even be able to extract a few lines from the story, capturing the gist of the story.
Hopefully it's got a lead that will let the computer figure it out?
[It's] primarily computer-based, but I'm hoping that they'll be able to bring people into the equation, because sometimes you just need a human's touch on something. People are good at sniffing out when a story isn't exactly straight with people.
Is this to solve the problem that the Web is known for quantity of information but not qualitatively letting you know how good the information is?
That's part of what Daylife is about, and you're right: There's a lot of stuff on there, maybe many versions of the same story. How do we figure out what's really going on? I'm hoping Daylife starts with helping with that, and then gets better over time. ...
... Motive for this?
Well, from my perspective, it's to help people figure out what's going on in the world and to help us figure out what versions of stories are the most trustworthy. That kind of thing takes a while to get to, but Upendra is an expert on collaborative filtering, utilizing and -- forgive the cliché -- the wisdom of crowds, which running craigslist I see really does work, as long as you have some protections against panic or mob rule. ...
Wisdom of crowds? ...
Well, democracy is based on the idea that when you've got a lot of people together, making decisions together, you can get better results than often so-called experts. There's a lot of experimental psychology on this [that] shows that this really does work. The book The Wisdom of Crowds [by New Yorker writer James Surowiecki] has some of this articulated more anecdotally than scientifically. ... If this sounds like I'm talking about democracy from a political perspective, that's it. Democratic mechanisms have their flaws. The problem is that democracy works better than any other system we've found. ...
[Berkshire Hathaway chair and billionaire investor] Warren Buffett said it's not clear, if the Internet had been invented first, that we would have newspapers today.
Newspapers used to be produced using the precursor to the Internet, the printing press, and I think we're going to see a smoother evolution of papers onto the Net than a lot of people are worried about. There are some promising technologies like scrollable displays that could just be pulled out of your cell phone. I think newspapers will survive and do really well, just not on paper.
A lot of people, myself included, are excited about blogging and stuff like that, citizen journalism, but I do remind people that no matter how excited we are, there's no substitute for professional writing, no substitute for professional editing, and no substitute for professional fact checking. The problem is that with blogging, the model is publish first, maybe fact check later. In newspapers, the model is you fact check first and then publish. But those models are merging. ...
The Internet is a cacophony of voices, and over time, there are more professional voices?
Let's say that, OK, on the Net we do have news commentators and news reporters, and out of that confusion, we are beginning to see the emergence of voices who speak truth to power and who are trustworthy and who back up what they're saying. It's a slow process, but it's being accelerated as new ways of delivering news come online. There's Digg.com emerging, as is Daylife.com. We're going to see a lot more. The idea is we need help figuring out what's going on, and we need help figuring out what voices we should listen to. ...
Well, there are many problems with the emergent online news world. The single most important problem is that one of the things that newspapers always did is they had editors. Those editors were good, and they had a lot of experience, and it kept everybody in check. The brand of the newspaper, the brand of trust that was inspired by many, many years of hard work on the part of the publishers, it is much more difficult to find in the new world, in the new online world. Is this an evanescent thing? Is this going to be here for a year or two? Are they going to be here for 100 years? How important is the institution that's online that's being built? We don't know yet. …
The next stages of Google News and Google evolution are all about artificial intelligence, literally taking the content that's produced by these wonderfully valuable reporters and reading it and understanding it and figuring out how to rank it and how to organize it -- literally understanding at the computer level what you and I understand intuitively just as human beings.
That understanding will allow us to figure out what's likely to be true, what's likely to be a press release, what's likely to be wrong, and it will really make a huge difference in terms of our ability to get the right information when somebody wants to see it.
We just looked today, and Google News includes 21,000 press releases.
As long as a press release is accurately labeled as a press release, I see no problem with intermixing it in with the news, because a smart reader can say, "Hey, this is a press release."
As this explosion of information follows, you will end up seeing a flight to quality and a relatively small number of sites which become the defining sites for information. Eventually people will say, "Enough is enough; there's too much crap out here." They'll want to see reputable brands emerge on the Internet.
The fear in newsrooms is the resources will disappear to do in-depth investigative reporting, take on the larger institutions of society and fulfill the public-interest role. Would you intervene to prevent that?
Rather than purchasing one, we would probably try to figure out a way to do the best possible deal to favor the existence of such groups, because we're critically dependent upon them. It's also true that newsgathering is going through a process of consolidation. There may be fewer investigative teams around the country, and that's not a good thing. But they're not going to go away. It's too fundamental an aspect of our democracy in the United States and worldwide.
The L.A. Times, it seems, is on its way to becoming more regional; one reporter in Baghdad instead of four, etc. Worried about that?
I'm always worried about fewer voices. I don't think we're going to end up with just one voice in each of these areas. The good news is -- and this has not been discussed -- is that many other voices are being heard. While it's true that this tremendous professional-quality work is under attack, and that's not good, remember there are many new voices entering the market, and they need to be heard as well.
Many new voices?
Online reporters, bloggers, man on the street, that sort of thing, and they're now part of the whole news calculation in the world.
But they don't necessarily come with the editor you talked about, the experience, the professional journalists that are involved, and therefore people can't tell the difference, right?
It's actually much worse than that, because all of us grew up in a situation where what we read was true or as close to true as people could figure it out. Now some things that you read are literally false, and furthermore, it's becoming possible for corporations, governments and so forth to manipulate the online news. They can actually pay people to generate all sorts of falsehoods to manipulate the spin, and the spin around marketing around a presidential election can now be deployed everywhere.
We at Google are very worried about this because it leads to a lack of accuracy. It makes our goal, which is to get accuracy out there, harder, because we can't tell what's true. We can just see what's most popular, and if you repeat it often enough, maybe we'll get confused and think something that's false is really true.
So this generation of multiple voices comes with a cost, and one of them is sometimes that voice is a computer. It's somebody who's shooting many, many, many times, trying to manipulate an outcome. You can imagine, even if democracies didn't do this, surely dictatorships in the era of online and Internet access would have it in their interest to use the Internet to manipulate their citizens.