Harvey Weinstein’s not the only one spying on reporters

Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech. – Benjamin Franklin



Harvey Weinstein had no qualms about spying on journalists to protect himself, or even using journalists to acquire information he could use against his accusers.

He used Dylan Howard, the chief content officer of American Media Inc., publisher of the National Enquirer, who passed on information about Weinstein’s accusers gleaned by his reporters.

Then there was the freelance writer hired by Black Cube, a private intelligence agency, who passed on information about women with allegations against Weinstein.

Sounds creepy. But Weinstein’s not the only one spying on reporters and he’s not the only one trying to undermine and disparage journalists.


Walmart just removed a t-shirt like the one above from its website, following a complaint from a journalist advocacy group.
The shirt was listed on Walmart’s website through a third-party seller, Teespring, which allows people to post their own designs for sale.

The Columbia Journalism Review just reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said criminal investigations into the sources of journalists are up 800 percent and he’s vowed to “revisit” the Justice Department’s media guidelines that restrict how the US government can conduct surveillance on reporters.

Then there’s Breitbart chairman Steve Bannon who sent two reporters to Alabama to dig up dirt on reporting done by the Washington Post about Alabama Republican Roy Moore. Breitbart’s goa, according to Axios, is to undermine the work of Post reporters Stephanie McCrummen, Beth Reinhard, and Alice Crites.

How about when the Koch brothers allegedly hired private investigators to dig into Jane Mayer’s past while she was working on her book, “Dark Money,” which accuses the Kochs and other wealthy plutocrats of hijacking American democracy.

At one point, Mayer heard that she was going to be accused of plagiarizing other writers. According to the New York Times, a dossier of her supposed plagiarism had been provided to The New York Post and The Daily Caller. The writers insisted there had been no plagiarism, causing the smear to collapse.

Three years later Mayer said she traced the plagiarism accusation to a firm involving several people who have worked closely with Koch business concerns. The firm was Vigilant Resources International, whose founder and chairman, Howard Safir, had been New York City’s police commissioner under former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

“Smearing Mayer is reflective of Safir’s contempt for reporters and the media in general when he was police commissioner,” said a Newsday reporter.

In June of this year the New York Post reported that the Trump administration was spying on journalists who have been handed leaked information.

The Post said the Justice Department has obtained a legal warrant from the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to conduct electronic surveillance on reporters who were known to have published articles based on leaked information.

The surveillance was reported to be part of the Trump administration’s attempts to clamp down on leaks from within the White House and government departments.

In some respects, there’s nothing new about all this.

In 2013, the Justice Department advised the Associated Press (AP) that Federal investigators had secretly seized two months of phone records for reporters and editors of the AP. The government had obtained the records for more than 20 telephone lines of its offices and journalists, including their home phones and cellphones.

Gary Pruitt, the president and chief executive of AP, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. calling the seizure, a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into its news gathering activities.

There’s so much concern within the journalism community about government spying that the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and Freedom of the Press Foundation are teaming up to find out what’s going on.

On Nov. 29, they filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Justice Department and several intelligence agencies, demanding records revealing how the government collects information on journalists and targets them with surveillance.

Penn, El Chapo and Rolling Stone: throwing journalistic ethics to the wind

Mexican photojournalists hold pictures of their murdered colleague Rubén Espinoza during a demostration held at the Angel of Independence square in Mexico City. Photograph: Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

Mexican photojournalists hold pictures of their murdered colleague Rubén Espinoza during a demostration held at the Angel of Independence square in Mexico City. Photograph: Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

Rubén Espinosa, 31, a photographer for the Mexican investigative magazine Proceso, was killed in a Mexico City apartment in August, along with four women. Each had been beaten, tortured, and shot in the head.

Espinosa was the 13th journalist working in Veracruz to be killed since Governor Javier Duarte from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI) came to power in 2011, according to Article 19, an international organization defending freedom of expression and information.

But what does Sean Penn care about that? His interest is in self-aggrandizement. Tossing humanity aside, he arranged to do a secret, exclusive interview of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, a murderous drug cartel leader known as El Chapo, that was published January 9 by Rolling Stone.

Sean Penn (L) greets El Chapo

Sean Penn (L) greets El Chapo

This is the same paragon of journalistic ethics that published the since discredited story of a gang rape of a student at a University of Virginia fraternity. A report by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism reviewing Rolling Stone’s pursuit and coverage of that story said the publication didn’t follow “basic, even routine journalistic practice”.

The same criticism applies to Penn’s story, a stream of consciousness essay that reads like something written by a drug-addled Hunter S. Thompson, requiring the reader to suffer through over 4000 words about the derring-do involved in getting to El Chapo before Penn even meets him.

“I take no pride in keeping secrets that may be perceived as protecting criminals, nor do I have any gloating arrogance at posing for selfies with unknowing security men,” wrote Penn. “But I’m in my rhythm.” So why consider “…those beheaded, exploded, dismembered or bullet-riddled innocents, activists, courageous journalists and cartel enemies alike…” who’ve died at El Chapo’s hands? Journalistic glory awaits.

Besides, as Penn wrote, El Chapo doesn’t engage in “gratuitous kidnapping and murder”. He’s “…a businessman first, and only resorts to violence when he deems it advantageous to himself or his business interests.” Well, that explains it.

You might be surprised that, as a former reporter, I’m not too concerned about the ethics of Penn interviewing El Chapo, even though he’s clearly a drug lord who has committed murder and mayhem. Any good reporter would try to do the same.

I also don’t think Penn doing the interview and not advising law enforcement of his contact with Guzman, and where he could be found, is an ethical error.

My gripe is about something Rolling Stone admitted right up front, without any apparent shame: “Disclosure: … an understanding was brokered with the subject that this piece would be submitted for the subject’s approval before publication.”

Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone’s publisher, even told the New York Times. “I don’t think it was a meaningful thing in the first place.”

The problem is that’s a massive breach of journalistic principles.

It also raises legitimate questions about the contents of the article. Wenner said El Chapo didn’t ask for any changes, but how can the reader trust that? Admitting that the subject was given a pre-approval opportunity invites a lot of speculation about the truth.

Wenner compounded the problem by telling the Times, “We have let people in the past approve their quotes in interviews.”

That’s a bad move, too. It’s OK to go back to sources to clarify facts, to avoid making errors, but not to give them quote approval.

Politico argues that pre-approval was no big deal. “It was only common sense for El Chapo to demand story approval lest a geographically revealing detail get folded in and lead to his capture. In other words, the El Chapo story probably would not have been granted without the pre-publication concession—and without having a swaggering celebrity amateur to report and write it.”

Saying it’s OK to grant pre-approval if that’s the only way to get a story done is a cop out if there ever was one. That’s a slippery slope that can justify all sorts of ethical compromises to get a story.

And that’s where trust in journalism is lost.

If all you want is clicks, open a porn site

The Oregonian plans to tie reporter’s performance evaluations and pay to the number of online page views of their stories. The goal, according to a presentation made to reporters, is to increase both total unique page views and page views in particular sections, such as sports, entertainment and business.

If all a site is seeking is page views, it might as well just shift to porn. After all, that’s where the real traffic is.

Even though The Oregonian will be joining a growing list of news sites using content metrics to influence coverage, pay and performance, great peril lies ahead.


It used to be that a newspaper story’s readership and impact were hard to measure. The paper knew its paid circulation and where its subscribers lived, but whether the general audience, or specific key influencers, were reading particular stories and getting engaged in them was a mystery.

Digital journalism has changed all that. Now a news organization can measure precisely the web traffic a particular story generates, allowing the readership of individual reporters and the appeal of certain types of stories to be measured.

In the new dynamic, reporting is being evaluated following the principles of crowdfunding, where success is measured by how much money your online pitch attracts.

The problem, however, is that popularity at an online news site isn’t necessarily the equivalent of quality. A digital story on a celebrity, accompanied by an amusing picture and a reader quiz, might attract a lot of hits, or be great “click bait” as the online world says, but that doesn’t mean it was worth doing.

Equally, a well-written deeply researched story on damaging political chicanery might draw page views only from a small number of public policy aficionados, putting the reporter at a disadvantage in the pay and performance sweepstakes.

There’s no doubt that audience metrics are valuable, and are going to play an increasingly important role in helping traditional newspapers survive. The issue is whether they will be used wisely and to the public good.

As Raju Narisetti, senior vice president, strategy, for News Corp. said recently in a Poynter.org piece, Editors continue to have a key gatekeeper role to play even in this era of promiscuous audiences, even when they need to become gate-openers. Part of that is exercising good judgment. And if we didn’t do that, stories on Syria, the U.S. fiscal cliff and even the NSA wouldn’t continue to get the play they currently get on our home pages, especially if such decisions were purely based on following cues from reader-engagement metrics.”

Click-based news also doesn’t necessarily translate into public attention. Tony Haile the CEO of Chartbeat, a data analytics company, recently argued in Time.com that more sophisticated measurement of reader engagement is necessary. What’s critical to understand, he said, is a reader’s attention. “… writers living in the Attention Web are creating real stories and building an audience that comes back,” he said.






Redefining “reporting” – the erosion of journalistic integrity by Metro

Metro is misusing the term "reporter"

Metro is misusing the term “reporter”

Traditional journalists have long been defined by their independence and integrity, beholden to no one but the public, producing the news without fear or favor.

But lately, with trust of American media already at an all-time low, media are being complicit in their own decline, undermining their authenticity and trustworthiness by allowing publicists to pose as reporters and blurring the line between editorial content and paid advertising.

One of the more egregious abuses of the journalism standard is at Metro, the Portland area’s regional elected government, where a former Hillsboro Argus news writer pretends to be a “reporter” providing “objective, written news coverage” of Metro. Metro created the position in 2010, insisting that the new hire would provide “objective, written news coverage” of the agency. The “reporter” would get style, spelling and other editorial support, but could decide what topics to pursue and would not have his or her work edited for content.

The eventual hire, Nick Christensen, came from the Hillsboro Argus, where he had covered Metro and western Washington County. Pror to that he served as managing editor of the Summerlin Home News near Las Vegas and as a reporter at the Las Vegas Sun.
Now reporting to Metro’s Communications Director, Jim Middaugh, Christensen is referred to as “Metro News editor” and as a “news reporter” for Metro on the agency’s website.

Access by a true reporter to the inner corridors of power can translate into aggressive, groundbreaking, fiery media stories, but it’s not likely that Metro’s in-house “reporter” will produce such stories. It’s clear from a review of his prosaic, process-oriented writing to date reveals that he’s not going to be a Woodward or Bernstein exposing seamy government practices or, for that matter, an investigative reporter in the tradition of the journalists at Willamette Week who exposed Neil Goldschmidt’s rape of a 14-year-old babysitter.

Instead, Christensen’s stories are carefully crafted press releases masquerading as independent news reporting. Metro even asks, “In the interest of disclosure to readers”, that media attribute content from Christensen‘s (stories) to him and identify him as a news reporter for Metro.
Making things worse, local media, including the Portland Business Journal, Willamette Week and the Portland Tribune have bought into Metro’s ruse, frequently citing Christensen’s comments as those of a reporter. This even though Middaugh has admitted that Christensen’s work is “definitely public relations”. Middaugh has justified Christensen’s identification as a “reporter” on the basis that government has a responsibility to keep people informed in the face of public cynicism, apparently unaware that misleading the public feeds that cynicism.

Christensen’s stories are, let’s be honest, the equivalent of advertising disguised as news. In that respect, he fits right in with the deliberate blurring of the divide between advertising and editorial content that’s going on across the media landscape, eroding public trust in journalism.

In case you haven’t noticed, digital and print media are increasingly featuring sponsored content, or “native advertising” created or developed by a business or special interest seeking to influence viewers.

In a prominent case, The Atlantic magazine found itself in the middle of a reputation debacle in January 2013 when it featured a native advertisement package submitted by the Church of Scientology which, though identified as “sponsor content,” looked otherwise like a regular story.

The Internet exploded with negative comments, some criticizing The Atlantic for promoting the controversial Church of Scientology, but more for allowing paid advertising to be subtly disguised as editorial content.

To put it simply, the news business is slowly being corrupted by practices like native advertising and media’s willingness to go along with things like Metro’s attempt to pass Christensen off as a reporter. If it isn’t controlled, readers’ trust will be lost.

So, let’s all get on the same page here and call a P.R. guy a P.R. guy. For Metro, that would be good P.R.