Specimens of Old Journalism

Here is AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll defending what I believe were a seriously flawed story and tweet about some of Clinton Foundation donors Hillary Clinton happened to meet with while Secretary of State.

There’s a better version of the video from CNN here but it’s not embeddable on Medium and it’s not on YouTube.

I bring this clip to you because it contains — as my friend Jay Rosen would say — specimens for study, two specimens revealing the difficulty classical journalism has adapting to a new media ecosystem today.

CNN Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter recounts the difficulties the AP had getting Clinton’s meeting records and then asks his audience: “Did they just want to show they had done the work, did they just want to show they had found something, even if it didn’t amount to much?”

Carroll’s answer: “We didn’t say it amounted to the end of the world. We said this is an important and interesting thing that people should know about.”

Editors love to tout news judgment as a key value that journalists add to the flow of information in society. What is the AP’s news judgment here? How important is this story? Somewhere between interesting and the end of the world: You decide.

Stelter shows Carroll how Donald Trump & Co. were exploiting especially the AP’s deceptive tweet promoting this story.

Her answer: “All of us can’t be held responsible for the way that everybody thinks about and responds to and talks about the coverage…. Our responsibility is to give them fair and balanced and rock-solid reporting and let them agree with it, disagree with it, talk about it, think what they might about it.”

Right there is a specimen of a common old journalistic belief: We just report the facts; we have no view; we don’t have a role in what those facts mean or do. I call this the Wernher von Braun Rule:

Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.

Carroll also says: “I think the issue with conflict of interest is not the actual quid pro quo. It’s the proximity. It’s the impression that people have of maybe they got the meeting because they donated, maybe they didn’t.”

In other words, the AP found no evidence of quid pro quo, no smoking gun, nothing here that was wrong, no rock-solid reason to cast aspersions, no real conclusion. But they went with the story anyway because of the impression people might have — an impression the AP’s story gives them. Yet remember that Carroll says she “can’t be held responsible for the way that everybody thinks about and responds to” this story. Does not compute.

We most certainly need to look at the impact our work has, not only in how interested parties exploit it, not only in how the public interprets it, but also in how effective it is in performing our key job: informing the public. Was the public better informed after this story? Did this story give people the information they needed to decide how to vote for President? I would say no. As Stelter said, the AP took what it could get with its Freedom of Information request and tried to make an article out of it. Because that’s what we do. We make articles.

That leads us to our second specimen: the tweet and Carroll’s discussion of it.

The key problem here is that the AP is discussing only 154 meetings out of more than 1,700 Clinton held as Secretary of State, according to her campaign manager. Thus the AP’s math — that 85 of the 154 meetings, or more than half, were with foundation donors — is wrong, deceptive, and irresponsible. The real proportion is more like 5. percent.

On Reliable Sources, Carroll says the tweet linked to the full story. I can’t find anything to click on in that tweet, can you?

When Stelter challenges her about the tweet’s accuracy, Carroll says: “I would say that we’re a lot better at breaking stories and covering news and gathering video and taking photos than we are at tweets. This one could have used some more precision.”

Does that mean you regret it? Stelter asks.

“No, if we felt it was wrong we would have taken it down…. I think it was sloppy. Maybe going forward we would need to work on more on our precision on our tweets.”

Thus she is saying that sloppy imprecision is good enough for Twitter. Nail that to the museum wall.

Stelter confronts her with another tweet that ignores Donald Trump’s exploitation of a tragedy for his political ends:

“It was clumsy,” Carroll admits. “We’re better at news-gathering than we are at promotion.”

In Carroll’s view, then, Twitter is merely an advertising vehicle, a means of promoting the AP’s real work: articles. She does not see Twitter— or, one presumes, the rest of social media — as another form of reporting, another means of informing the public.

What have we learned about classical journalism in this age? We see that classical journalists think it is their job to make good stories. I would argue that our job is to inform the public. Classical journalists say their work ends when they produce their stories — they aren’t responsible for what comes next. I say we should always ask why we are are reporting what we are reporting and what our impact will be. At least at the AP, classical journalists say they want to get readers to their stories. I say it is our job to take journalism — reporting, investigation, facts, context, explanation, impact — to the public, wherever they are, in whatever form necessary. Even on Twitter.

Kathleen Carroll is stepping down as the AP’s editor soon. I honestly feel sympathy for her having to end her tenure with this, trying to defend old journalism in a new world.

On Twitter — where I don’t just promote my articles, I have informative conversations — Raju Narisetti responded to my tweet containing one of Carroll’s quotes on CNN with this:

I agree. But this also should make the AP ask what kind of executive editor it needs next, an editor who can rethink what the Associated Press’ job is in an age when we can inform each other (we are becoming our own wire service), when the AP can inform people in so many new ways, when bad actors can use the AP’s reporting for their ends, when the standards of journalism — bringing facts, correction, understanding, context, investigation and other classical journalistic values — are more needed than ever.