Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Froomkin Comes Alive

Back in 2007, Dan Froomkin posted this informal and very helpful list of rules for journalists who want to practice their craft professionally and honorably.

Here are some parts of it:
You Can’t Be Too Skeptical of Authority
  • Don’t assume anything administration officials tell you is true. In fact, you are probably better off assuming anything they tell you is a lie.
  • Demand proof for their every assertion. Assume the proof is a lie. Demand that they prove that their proof is accurate.
  • Just because they say it, doesn’t mean it should make the headlines. The absence of supporting evidence for their assertion -- or a preponderance of evidence that contradicts the assertion -- may be more newsworthy than the assertion itself.
  • Don’t print anonymous assertions. Demand that sources make themselves accountable for what they insist is true.

Be Particularly Skeptical of Secrecy
  • Don’t assume that these officials, with their access to secret intelligence, know more than you do.
  • Alternately, assume that they do indeed know more than you do – and are trying to keep intelligence that would undermine their arguments secret.
Watch for Rhetorical Traps
  • Keep an eye on how advocates of war frame the arguments. Don’t buy into those frames unless you think they’re fair.
  • Keep a particular eye out for the no-lose construction. For example: If we can’t find evidence of WMD, that proves Saddam is hiding them.
  • Watch out for false denials. In the case of Iran, when administration officials say “nobody is talking about invading Iran,” point out that the much more likely scenario is bombing Iran, and that their answer is therefore a dodge.
Don’t Just Give Voice to the Administration Officials
  • Give voice to the skeptics; don’t marginalize and mock them.
  • Listen to and quote the people who got it right last time: The intelligence officials, state department officials, war-college instructors and many others who predicted the problem we are now facing, but who were largely ignored.
  • Offer the greatest and most guaranteed degree of confidentiality to whisteblowers offering information that contradicts the official government position. (By contrast, don’t offer any confidentiality to administration spinners.)
Look Outside Our Borders
  • Pay attention to international opinion.
  • Raise the question: What do people in other countries think? Why should we be so different?
  • Keep an eye out for how the international press is covering this story. Why should we be so different.

Encourage Public Debate
  • The nation is not well served when issues of war and peace are not fully debated in public. It’s reasonable for the press to demand that Congress engage in a full, substantial debate.
  • Cover the debate exhaustively and substantively.
Write about Motives
  • Historically, the real motives for wars have often not been the public motives. Try to report on the motivations of the key advocates for war.
  • Don’t assume that the administration is being forthright about its motives.
  • If no one in the inner circle will openly discuss their motives, then encourage reasonable speculation about their motives.
It's a pretty good list to which I would only add a few, small tweaks and definitions.

First, a leaker is not necessarily a whistleblower, and neither of them is a journalist.

Wikipedia tells me that a "whistleblower":
...  is a person who tells the public or someone in authority about alleged dishonest or illegal activities (misconduct) occurring in a government department or private company or organization. The alleged misconduct may be classified in many ways; for example, a violation of a law, rule, regulation and/or a direct threat to public interest, such as fraud, health/safety violations, and corruption. Whistleblowers may make their allegations internally (for example, to other people within the accused organization) or externally (to regulators, law enforcement agencies, to the media or to groups concerned with the issues).
On the other hand, "leaking" is a more generic term and does not necessarily involve disclosing misconduct.
"To disclose without authorization or official sanction."
All things being equal, getting even with your boss for denying you a promotion by telling a gossip columnist she is screwing around on her husband is certainly a "leak" but hardly qualifies as blowing the whistle on dishonesty or misconduct.  Under this definition, Karl Rove was certainly a "leaker" for outing Valerie Plame (although to be fair, being a sociopath,  he probably considered himself a do-gooding whistleblower as well.)

Second, starting with the fact that abridging the "free press" is specifically prohibited by the United States Constitution while "telling a reporter about all the weed they're smoking down at the post office" is not, going after a leaker or whistleblower is not in any way comparable to going after a journalist. 

Depending on the context of your actions, boosting your colleague's diary or recording the drunken blurtings of some DOL middle manager without their knowledge or copying a million random Top Secret government documents while under military contract and passing it on to a reporter may make you a hero or a villain or just a dick...but it also might make you a criminal.  The reporter who receives your purloined secrets has a pretty comprehensive first amendment right that should protect them under almost every circumstance: you, on the other hand, have very limited protections for handing over those secrets: 
Under most US federal whistleblower statutes, in order to be considered a whistleblower, the federal employee must have reason to believe his or her employer has violated some law, rule or regulation; testify or commence a legal proceeding on the legally protected matter; or refuse to violate the law.

In cases where whistleblowing on a specified topic is protected by statute, US courts have generally held that such whistleblowers are protected from retaliation. However, a closely divided US Supreme Court decision, Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006) held that the First Amendment free speech guarantees for government employees do not protect disclosures made within the scope of the employees' duties.
Third, I would revise Mr. Froomkin's editorial choice to wrap his rules around the relationships between journalists and "the administration"/"administration officials" and change it to "authority". The relationship between reporters and any "authority" can become corrupt and damaging to the republic whether that authority is the White House, Wall Street, the Koch Brothers, G.E., Rupert Murdoch or the Rand Paul Administration-in-waiting. 

Finally I would ask what if any real-world consequences should be visited on people who call themselves journalists but flamboyantly flout Mr. Froomkin's rules?   

Should Judith Miller have been able to claim journalistic protection for helping Dick Cheney lie us into a war?  

Was Jeff Gannon a journalist?  If not, why not?

Is James O'Keefe a journalist?  

Is Sean Hannity?  Is Rush Limbaugh?  

If I decide to start tossing unsubstantiated slander around as fact because an anonymous source whispers it in my ear, do I get to be considered a journalist? 

And would another blogger ethics panel finally clear all of this up?


Anonymous said...

This is why I read you.

Thank you so very much. :D

Unknown said...

Bradley Manning is a Hero. Free him now!

Lawrence said...

I am starting to suspect you don’t like Bradley Manning. If I am not mistaken, Mr. Manning is responsible for leaking the Apache helicopter gun camera and audio known as “Collateral Murder”. If you haven’t seen it, go over to You Tube and spend 17 minutes observing what I hope is an unrepresentative example of our gallant army air officers in action. Either these men are too blind to fly, too poorly trained to tell the difference between a camera and an RPG, or are lying sadists. I have my theory as to which is the truth. If our press did its job, I wouldn’t have to hound my war cheerleader friends and relatives to go look at what is being done in their name. They would have seen it on CNN about a hundred times, kind of like the plane that flew into tower 2. Our CIC should screen that at his next meeting with the Joint Chiefs of the armed forces and tell them, “The next time something like this happens, there will be courts martial and resignations starting with those responsible, and ending with someone in this room. The same goes for the rapes, and the child prostitutes and sex slaves around our overseas bases. This meeting is adjourned, you are dismissed.” Our President is from Chicago, but he apparently never heard of Elliot Ness.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

I am starting to suspect you don’t like Bradley Manning.

That's an unjustified assertion. Manning pretty clearly violated military law.

Now, you may think it was justified; you may think the law is wrong. You may think, as I do, that Manning's treatment in custody has been appalling.

But none of that changes the fact, and that fact is all that driftglass mentioned up above.

Of course, I have no knowledge of the strength of your mind-reading powers, so perhaps you know exactly how he feels about it.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

And would another blogger ethics panel finally clear all of this up?

Not if anyone says "fuck".

Lawrence said...

I am aware that Manning broke the law and disobeyed standing orders, and that he should face court martial. I am less concerned about that than about what was revealed in the example I mentioned. As to my inference of disapproval, Manning has been referred to in today's post and in a recent podcast solely in terms of his breach of military discipline. If that is the extent of someone's comment on the entire issue, I think it is fair to assume disapproval. The issue of importance, for me, is that our armed forces, sometimes, but I hope not often, behave badly, at times to the point of committing war crimes.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

If that is the extent of someone's comment on the entire issue, I think it is fair to assume disapproval.

I disagree, but that is the extent of my disagreement with what you wrote. There's simply no information that enables you to make an assumption like that.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Also, Lawrence, your initial comment said you think dg doesn't 'like' Manning, whatever that may mean. In your second comment, you changed that to 'disapprove'. Those are very different things.

But regardless, Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole.

jim said...

The image of primadonnas like Hannity or Limbaugh shaking down sources & breaking stories = my Smile Of The Day.

tmk said...

minor nitpick, but i found a better version of the Frampton clip at top (complete):


Unknown said...

A journalist's right to protect a source's anonymity has to be protected even if the journalist is a credulous hack like Judy Miller. Analogously, the innocent and the guilty alike have Miranda rights, for the time being at least. GannonGuckert, O'Keefe, Hannity, Limbaugh have never produced anything resembling journalism and until they do the point is moot.

Unknown said...

Yet Droneglass sees fit to (implicitly) place the heroic Bradley Manning in the same category as these repulsive media pimps.

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