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New Media's reliability/accuracy

Jeff Jarvis

Blogger, BuzzMachine

Jeff Jarvis

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. ...

Ted Koppel

Former anchor, Nightline

Ted Koppel

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. ...

Larry Kramer

Former head, CBS Digital Media

Larry Kramer

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.

Nicholas Lemann

Dean, Columbia University School of Journalism

Nicholas Lemann

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.

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.

Josh Marshall

Blogger, Talking Points Memo

Josh Marshall

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.