As you no doubt know, I appeared on a panel in Boston called "No News Is Bad News" over the weekend. It was a fascinating conference, with journalistic heroes like John Carroll and Anthony Shadid. Just as exciting, I got to meet phred, Selise, BlueStateRedHead, and others. And my own personal favorite--from my panel, at least--came when someone asked me what I would have done to prevent the Lewinsky scandal (and more importantly--picking up on a point I had made--having the press report on a topic that the majority of the country just didn't think was important). I responded something to the effect that, "I would have liked to see the press reporting on the rise of the Scaife funded partisan press with some attention to the way it inserted stories into the non-partisan press; I would have liked to see people report on Ken Starr's prosecutorial misconduct, and I would have liked someone to get up and say 'It was just a consensual blow job between consenting adults.'" I think I repeated "blow job" a few times as I tend to do when you get me riled. According to phred, who was in the audience, some of the seniors in the audience gasped. At which Joe Lockhart, who was on my panel, responded, "Yeah, I can't tell you how many times I wanted to say just that."
I then got into a fascinating conversation following John Carroll's panel. He had said that we need to find a way to fund investigative journalists, and that blogs just wouldn't do that. Afterwards, I agreed with him that blogs could not replace Dana Priest or Eric Lichtblau (at least not yet, though TPM's crowd is doing a lot of the same work as Lichtblau). I also pointed out that David Carr--
who has had a long simmering debate with Jay Rosen over whether bloggers could do original work and who admitted that we, the FDL team, had during the Libby trial [Big crow correction: Rosen informs me it was not Carr; I apologize for the error]--had described advising his college aged daughter aspiring to be a journalist to make sure her own writing was getting noticed on the Internet, thereby admitting the value of a reputation-based vetting system.
We need big companies to pay (and more importantly, legally protect) journalists like Priest and Lichtblau (and, just as importantly, Shadid). But do we need big media to report on culture and sports?
Which is why the two latest incidents of the NYT's ham-handedness with blogs really resonates for me.
Experts in Credit versus Experts in Journalism
The first incident is a post by Tanta at Calculated Risk. She notes that a NYT reporter, Gretchen Morgenson, had picked up a story about Deutsche Bank not being able to foreclose on some mortgages it held because it didn't have the paperwork. Tanta wonders why Morgenson didn't admit she got the story from the Toobz.
Perhaps I have gone temporarily blind, and there is somewhere in this article an acknowledgement that this story was "broken" on a blog. (Not mine, by the way: I Am Facing Foreclosure.com "broke" the story. I ignored it as long as I thought I could.) Query: is this where GM has been getting a lot of story juice lately? Could that be why some of her recent reporting, especially on Countrywide, is such a noxious mixture of fact and hype, information and innuendo?
But you can fish in the blogs, it appears, without having to admit it. And without identifying the blog-source of your stories, you avoid having to confront the evaluation problem. There are great blogs and terrible blogs out there. There is carefully gleaned and analyzed information, and there is rumor, garbled gossip, and speculation masquerading as fact. There are people whose agenda and biases are perfectly clearly spelled out, and there are those who are talkin' a book or just shilling. If you want to seine the blogs for NYT material, you have to deal with this problem for yourself and for your readers. Identifying your sources is not simply professional courtesy, it's the beginning of the process of evaluating the source.
It's a great point. If you're going to get stories from blogs (a practice I'm all in favor of, with proper attribution, of course), then follow blog culture and journalistic culture and note where you got the story and--preferably--provide a hot link.
Tanta goes on, though, to note that Morgenson does the blogs one better, and adds error on top of her unattributed and ill-advised borrowing.
I said most of what I want to say about the issue yesterday. Let me just pause over this one tidbit in GM's article this morning:
When a loan goes into a securitization, the mortgage note is not sent to the trust. Instead it shows up as a data transfer with the physical note being kept at a separate document repository company. Such practices keep the process fast and cheap.
I rail endlessly about mortgage industry practices that are "fast and cheap" and that sacrifice risk management. You all have never heard me complaining about the practice of third-party document custody because it is one of the very few old-fashioned slow expensive risk management processes that the New Paradigm people have not yet managed to do away with. Document custodians are the Nerdiest Nerds there are, and their nerditude is in so many cases the only thing separating the current secondary market from a Wild West clown show.
In other words, Morgenson presented something that acts as a control on the mortgage process as part of its lack of control. At least according to Tanta (who of course has built up credibility in the blogosphere by earning it, so I trust her), Morgenson made a stupid error. One that remains uncorrected, I might add.
Which, when I read it, made me glad I'm following Calculated Risk for my news on the subprime meltdown, and not the NYT.
Lloyd Carr's Presser
And then a friend sent me news of further NYT ham-handedness with a blog, MGoBlog, reporting the news (last week) that Lloyd Carr will retire (to add to the irony, this involves one of NYT's own blogs).
Three separate sources indicate that Carr has made his decision to retire official and people around the athletic department are being told. The formal announcement will come after the Ohio State game, possibly at the Monday press conference, possibly a day or two later.
The next day, the NYT linked to the news, while at the same time slamming MGoBlog.
A Michigan blog cites three unnamed sources saying, “Carr has made his decision to retire official and people around the athletic department are being told. The formal announcement will come after the Ohio State game, possibly at the Monday press conference, possibly a day or two later.”
Let’s just say that MGoBlog is not exactly a rock of journalistic credibility, as their site features a picture of a guy holding a “Jesus hates Wisconsin” sign and a cartoon snake bludgeoning a Badger. But there is certainly a buzz. The far-more-reliable Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune writes that two industry sources believe this is Carr’s final year at Michigan.
Oh! God forbid a sports site put fan graphics on it! I'm sure that automatically makes its author completely unattached from the networks that know the real dirt on sports teams, right?!?! And putting fan graphics on a site is so much more damaging, I'm sure, than serving as willful stooge in the Administration's attempts to lie us into war, right? I mean, warmongering, that's a real rock of journalistic credibility, right?!?!?
Anyway, here's what MGoBlog had to say after an industry rag made the same kind of smear.
First: MGoBlog is not "constrained by conventional journalistic standards and accountability." This is right. Large sites run by many people under the aegis of a major corporation that has media credentials do have different standards than this independent site. Since Rivals [the industry rag, which has done this before] is in tight with various assistant coaches, they have to toe the party line on this stuff lest their access get revoked. And if they get something wrong they just say "whoops, sorry" and move on without major consequence.
At MGoBlog, things are different. It is a blog. I am a guy. I float on the internet. So for it to be credible at all it has to be right all the time. And I have to do this largely without ever meeting or talking to the people who provide information. So there are some requirements. Everything I post has to be multiply sourced if the tipster hasn't established a track record. I try to lay out the situation in as much detail as I can, giving a timeline of events and stating what I think and why. (Unfortunately, in this situation all sources have requested no details be relayed.) I am very serious about getting things right. I have to be. It is my sole source of credibility.
At this point, it's probably appropriate to note that today at 10, Lloyd Carr will announce his retirement. Right when MGoBlue said he probably would. It's also probably appropriate to say it saddens me to see him go. As someone who taught one of Carr's athletes, had friends teach some of his more celebrated athletes, and still follows one of his more illustrious grads religiously, I gotta say he will be missed. He's the consummate college coach--preparing his athletes for the NFL and, more often, for life. Cheers, Lloyd.
But back to the NYT and blogs. MGoBlog gets it precisely right. MGoBlog's reputation rises or falls based on his day-to-day credibility, whereas the NYT can launch a war and still recover. Kind of. And unlike unembedded journalism in Iraq or long-time reporting covering the intelligence and military beat, sports is something that is relatively easy to cover. We all get to see the games, and some of the most interesting people to speak to are far away from the centers of power, and it doesn't take that much money to do well.
So why is the NYT covering Michigan sports, and not someone who has a proven track record, even if that person posts "Jesus hates Wisconsin" graphics?
Anyway, this is a long and wandering navel gaze. But I'm interested in what you think: what are the topics that a NYT has to cover, because it has the resources to do so? And what are the topics that a good blog can do as well or better?