Thursday, February 17, 2005

Job Description : Must Be Accountable!


Yesterday, Hugh Hewitt had Bret Stephens (apparently the token weasel at the Wall Street Journal for the moment) on his radio show, and Bret was in due course defensive, whiny, evasive, and petulant. The next best thing to having Eason Jordan on the show as well.

In case you did not know, Bret is a personal friend of Mr. Jordan, and he allowed that friendship to influence his opinion of the scandal which forced Mr. Jordan to leave his high-priced, no-accountability position at CNN. I first wrote about Mr. Stephen's preferential defense of Mr. Jordan here, and when he (as it seem to be) wrote the editorial which claimed to represent the collected opinion of the WSJ staff, I reviewed it here.

Now, I'm sure Bret Stephens is serious about his work, certainly dedicated to getting the story right almost all the time. But he is also a human being, and certainly his last two articles, one under his name, and one hiding under the WSJ banner, were heavily slanted to the emotional and against rational consideration. Thus the weasel tag; he's earned it for now, but can shuck it if he comes back around to the normal WSJ standards of objective reporting.

Yesterday, Mr. Stephens was a guest on Mr. Hewitt's radio show, as I mentioned, and he had a hard go of defending his position. Of course, it's pretty hard to defend Mr. Jordan's comments, even more so when you try to admit the comments were indefensible, but somehow the man should not be held accountable. And there turns the knot in Mr. Stephen's stomach. On the show, Mr. Stephens worried aloud, about whether the blogosphere might become a mindless pack, chasing down innocent journalists for a single slip. I can set Mr. Stephens' mind at ease on that count, although I also have to give him some very bad news.

The good news for the Old Media comes in three parts. First, Jordan was like Dan Rather, an arrogant and vindictive man who long ago lost any respect for the truth, who wielded his position for the purpose of vendetta and the feud. That has no place, at all, in journalism, and no one in the blogosphere has any intention or motive to make hunting down journalists in general. Further, the overwhelming majority of bloggers were not after Jordan's scalp, or Rather's either. What they wanted was accountability, an honest admission of the facts and an open review by Old Media of the conduct of their leaders and leading figureheads. I do not know of a single blogger of group, who honestly had the sort of power to force anyone out of a job. In the case of Rather and Jordan, it looks very much like CBS and CNN took an expedient course to cover their rear ends and avoid something nastier they had hidden; I would think an investigative journalist, like Mr. Stephens say, could make a story out of that, if they tried.

Second, the bloggers are almost all analysts; we do not have access to the primary sources for most news. That means the Old Media still gets to the noise first, and if they would just do their job up to the standard they advertise, they could make the bloggers redundant for the most part. Bloggers are accessories, effective and powerful and fast yes, but we won't replace the Old Media. Unless it kills itself with rash assumptions and paranoia.

Third, the medium always changes. First, it was print, then telegraph, then radio, then TV, then live TV, and so on. We are what news is becoming, and there's no reason the existing journalists can't learn from us. We are not your enemy. We do what you do, except we are decentralized and free from corporate ties. Bloggers are not elitists.

Now the bad news. The world is changing, and one of the good changes, is the move towards universal accountability. Most of us already know about that, from schools with standardized testing to hold teachers and districts accountable, to employees evaluated on a standard measure, to reward them on an objective scale, and yes, to bloggers fact-checking the Old Media and fisking their articles for signs of hubris.

I wrote about the Sarbanes-Oxley Act yesterday, in part because it demonstrates how corporations are being forced to prove they are being upfront and consistent. That's the way of the New World, Mr. Stephens, and while it makes it a little tougher to be a journalist, the ones who meet the standard can enjoy the knowledge that they passed a test others couldn't accomplish. When people are held to a high standard and tough out meeting the requirements, they take pride in their results. Ask any Marine just out of Parris Island.

So, maybe it hurts losing a friend to the ravages of truth and a close look at unsupported claims. In the end, it means a better product for the reader, better information, and a reason for the writers to take pride in their work, knowing they are not spinning a story, but honestly reporting the truth.

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