[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on Nov. 15, 2013.]
60 Minutes’ unsatisfying apology: CBS News’ 60 Minutes was forced to apologize this week for running an account of last fall’s Benghazi attack that turned out to be false, but its apology left its critics even more upset that they had been at the original transgression. Poynter put together a good timeline of the events, but here’s a quick rundown: 60 Minutes ran an interview last month with security contractor Dylan Davies regarding his account of the Benghazi attack. Questions began swirling about the veracity of Davies’ story almost immediately, peaking late last week when reports emerged that he gave both the FBI and his employer a completely different account from the one he gave 60 Minutes.
60 Minutes initially defended its report (The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone explained why) before the story’s reporter, Lara Logan, issued an informal apology last Friday and a short, vague formal correction on Sunday’s show. (It’s also conducting some sort of secret internal review.) As the liberal media watchdog site Media Matters detailed well, criticism about the apology rained down from all corners — professional media critics, academics, and liberal bloggers and media observers. The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi gave an overview of the firestorm surrounding Logan, though his account was dinged by Slate’s Amanda Hess for bringing in Logan’s looks and femininity.
Media Matters’ Joe Strupp talked to several academics who chastised CBS News for its weak apology, criticism echoed by The Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik and former CBS News reporter Marvin Kalb. John Teti of The Onion’s AV Club explained that Logan’s unconvincing apology stemmed from 60 Minutes’ positioning of itself as the hero of all of its stories: “Her instinct is to maintain a storyline in which 60 Minutes did no wrong — the hero was simply victimized by a villain greater than itself.”
Others looked at the events that led to the error in the first place. At the Columbia Journalism Review, former NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard looked at the internal checks that failed, and Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert contrasted CBS News’ handling of the story with its chairman’s own stated standards. “I don’t know the players involved enough to know whether this happened because of bias, indifference, arrogance or wild sloppiness. But you can’t screw up much bigger than this,” wrote Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo.
NYU’s Jay Rosen gave the most thorough breakdown of the report’s aftermath leading up to the apology, and The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson tied the report to Benghazi as “the story that burns all sides.” Michael Calderone laid out several questions yet to be answered after the correction. Liberal blogger Digby noted Logan’s previous statements on Benghazi, and Salon’s Alex Pareene called for Logan to be fired based on a comparison with CBS’ 2004 “Rathergate” controversy that led to Dan Rather’s ouster. Poynter’s Craig Silverman provided a useful rundown of this episode’s similarities with and differences from Rathergate (the main difference being a slower apology this time around).
Michael Wolff of The Guardian pushed back against the granular focus on CBS’ failures in this case, arguing that 60 Minutes’ declined long ago, and it’s no longer the nefarious power center it used to be. Meanwhile, another CBS News story, on security risks on Healthcare.gov, came under scrutiny, and Simon & Schuster, the CBS-owned publisher of the book on which 60 Minutes’ interview was based, pulled Davies’ book. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple called attention to reporting by Fox News that also relied on Davies as a source, but Fox stood by its reporting.
Is there a Times brain drain?: The New York Times suffered three key defections this week — most prominently, star media reporter Brian Stelter is leaving for CNN, where he’ll host its media show Reliable Sources. The New York Times Magazine also lost its editor, Hugo Lindgren, and its top political correspondent, Matt Bai, with the latter moving to Yahoo News.
Capital New York’s Joe Pompeo called Stelter’s exit a major loss for The Times’ media desk, and The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple called him a huge get for CNN, which will turn its Reliable Sources gig into a full-time job. (It had long been a part-time assignment for former Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz.)
Coupled with other defections over the past several months (most notably Nate Silver’s to ESPN and David Pogue’s to Yahoo), this week’s departures led observers like The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone and Politico’s Dylan Byers to wonder if The Times, renowned for poaching other news organizations’ talent at will, has seen the tables turn. The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Groves talked to a Times staffer who called the exodus “a disaster,” but also quoted managing editor Dean Baquet arguing that the departures have all been under very different circumstances, and the paper has made some high-profile hires of its own.
Times public editor Margaret Sullivan briefly made a similar point, and Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson told the French newspaper Les Echos that people are still lining up to work at The Times. Erik Wemple of The Washington Post pointed out that you could also make the case that Politico’s experiencing an exodus as well.
The New Republic’s Marc Tracy also argued that the paper still has some of the most talented journalists in the world and also noted that there’s a difference between the mostly anonymous elite reporters who have left and the big brands like Stelter, Silver, and Pogue — the latter were never going to stay long at The Times anyway. Former Wall Street Journal reporter and nascent entrepreneur Jessica Lessin looked at that dynamic from a different angle, saying that traditional news organizations are going to continue to have a tougher time keeping journalists with an entrepreneurial drive: “No company can fight the fact that the reasons for staying with a brand seems less compelling just as barriers to controlling your own destiny today are lower than ever and dropping.”
Fostering innovation in student journalism: The on-again, off-again blogging initiative known as the Carnival of Journalism was back late last week with a broad set of posts about what student news organizations should do to innovate and how journalism schools should teach aggregation. Patrick Thornton, who organized this round of the Carnival of Journalism, presented many of them in his roundup, but there were a few worth highlighting.
Aram Zucker-Scharff urged student journalists to see themselves as their community’s local media, and Memphis journalism professor Carrie Brown-Smith encouraged them to think of their student news orgs like startups. Several people — journalists Lauren Rabaino and Emma Carew Grovum, and former Colorado professor Steve Outing — issued inspiring calls for student news organizations to experiment radically, and Wisconsin journalism professor Sue Robinson talked about treating journalism as a process.
The advice from others, such as Michael Rosenblum, Paul Bradshaw, and Victoria Baranetsky, was simpler: Don’t think of yourself as a student; just go and do journalism, though journalism professor Martin Hirst pushed back against that a bit. Outing summed up the theme of many of the posts when he stated that “NOT to innovate is a disservice to student journalists, journalism education, and the news industry.”
Reading roundup: A few other stories and thought-provoking pieces this week:
— Vox Media, which owns The Verge, SB Nation, and Polygon, snapped up the Curbed network of sites this week, adding coverage of dining, real estate, and fashion to its portfolio and tech and sports coverage. PandoDaily’s Hamish McKenzie wondered if Vox’s vertical-based strategy means the end of portals, and Felix Gillette of Bloomberg Businessweek explained how such mergers let niche digital publishers collect a mass audience. In the best post on the subject, Reuters’ Felix Salmon looked at Vox’s strategy of using a first-rate, in-house CMS to create scale across a variety of sites.
— On the surveillance front this week, Scotland Yard is pursuing a criminal investigation into the leak of the Snowden documents to The Guardian, and Al Jazeera America looked at the old-fashioned ways journalists are resorting to getting documents in light of government surveillance. The New York Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, compared the paper’s handling of the Snowden documents with its publication of classified surveillance information during the Bush administration, and The Times looked at the administration’s efforts to maintain secrecy in high-level discussions, especially overseas.
— A couple of useful reports released this week: The Pew Research Center published data about news use across social media platforms, and the American Press Institute issued a report on sponsored content, or native advertising.
— Finally, two very worthwhile posts here at the Lab: Nebraska journalism professor (and longtime coder-journalist) Matt Waite on learning to be good at math and Ken Doctor on the continued role print is playing in many publications’ strategies around the world.