Wednesday, March 02, 2005

FREE SPEECH FOR JOURNALISTS. How much free speech is a journalist entitled to outside his or her own newsroom? It's a fascinating and difficult question. On the one hand, you have purists like Washington Post executive editor Len Downie, who is well known for not voting lest it sully his objectivity. On the other, there are journalists who contribute money to political candidates and think nothing of it. (Media Log's view: vote, yes; give money, no.)

The Internet has only made this more complicated. The latest example: Boston Globe technology columnist Hiawatha Bray, who is the subject of a hyperventilating piece on David Brock's watchdog site MediaMatters.org.

The article reports that Bray wrote posts to several weblogs during the past presidential campaign criticizing John Kerry, praising George W. Bush, and passing along the claims of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which cast a number of aspersions on Kerry's record as a war hero. Virtually all of those aspersions were proven false, a fact that Bray seems not to have grasped.

The story has already been picked up by Raw Story and AlterNet, so Bray is definitely in for a few days of razzing. Good thing he wasn't cheerleading for Kerry, or Rush, Fox News, and the entire right blogosphere would be going berserk.

It looks like Bray won't be posting political comments in the future. When I asked him to respond to the Media Matters article, he referred me to Globe spokesman Al Larkin, who e-mailed to me the following statement:

Mr. Bray is a technology reporter and did not cover the presidential campaign, other than a minor technology-related story on very rare occasions. That said, his blog postings were inappropriate and in violation of our standards, and he was informed of that when we learned of them last Fall. Mr. Bray was instructed to discontinue any such postings, and to our knowledge he complied.

Mr. Bray was not a Globe reporter on the Swift Boat Veterans matter, the presidential primaries, or the general election campaign. Our coverage of those subjects should be judged on its own merits, and we are confident the coverage meets the standards of fairness, accuracy, and honesty.

The Globe's statement raises a larger issue: what constraints, if any, should there be on a journalist who wishes to share his political views in forums other than those provided by his employer? Clearly the Globe is taking the conservative approach, which it has a right to do. But is it the smartest course?

Bray, as it happens, has his own blog, MonitorTan.com. It appears to be devoted entirely to tech issues. If you search for either "Kerry" or "Bush" for instance, you will get technology stories about the campaign, not political rants. But the matter of journalists having blogs not connected with their employers can be a contentious issue.

In 2003, Hartford Courant travel editor Denis Horgan was ordered to stop writing a personal blog in which he had been expressing his opinion on any number of subjects. Courant editor Brian Toolan told the trade magazine Editor & Publisher: "Denis Horgan's entire professional profile is a result of his attachment to the Hartford Courant, yet he has unilaterally created for himself a parallel journalistic universe where he'll do commentary on the institutions that the paper has to cover without any editing oversight by the Courant. That makes the paper vulnerable."

That led blogger-journalist J.D. Lasica to write in disdain: "Toolan and his merry band of control-niks believe that newsroom employees are chattel. We can't have journalists expressing views online because then someone somewhere might accuse them of not being wholly chaste, objective, devoid of opinions."

Journalists who do have their own independent blogs tread pretty carefully from what I've seen. An example: Hub Blog, by Boston Herald business reporter Jay Fitzgerald, a project Fitzgerald began before going to work at One Herald Square. Hub Blog is a worthwhile read, but Fitzgerald's online persona is pretty much the same as it is in print.

Increasingly, journalists write blogs for their own news organizations. Media Log is an example of that. But, like an independent blog, Media Log entries are not edited before I post them. Instead, my editor and I talk about what's working and what isn't, which is a kind of after-the-fact editing.

I've also been known to shoot my mouth off in such forums as Romenesko's letters page and Jay Rosen's PressThink blog. This is almost exactly analogous to what Hiawatha Bray did. The only difference is that Bray was expressing opinions that he could never get into the Globe, given his beat.

Unfortunately, these nuances are completely missing from the Media Matters article on Bray. The article claims that Bray covered the 2004 presidential campaign for the Globe, which (as the Globe statement notes) really isn't true; all he did was write a few stories on peripheral matters involving technology. The article closes by noting that the Globe is owned by the New York Times Company, and quotes from the Times' ethics policy:

Journalists have no place on the playing fields of politics. Staff members are entitled to vote, but they must do nothing that might raise questions about their professional neutrality or that of The Times. In particular, they may not campaign for, demonstrate for, or endorse candidates, ballot causes or efforts to enact legislation.

(Note: the Globe has its own ethics policy. The Times does not own the Globe; rather, the Times Company owns both the Times and the Globe.)

Bray, in his posts, not only raised but answered questions about his neutrality. But he doesn't cover politics, which means it's questionable as to whether he compromised his professional neutrality. It might be different, for instance, if he'd written online that Steve Ballmer is the Anti-Christ.

Moreover, Media Matters presents no evidence that Bray campaigned for, demonstrated for, or endorsed anyone. Rather, he was expressing his opinion. Should he be able to? I say yes, but his editors obviously disagree.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

You could see this coming. The Globe doesn't allow its sports people to appear on WEEI. Why would they not drift into other areas of communication,like the Web?
Bray is heard on WBZ from time to time discussing tech stuff. I've never heard him mention anything political.
I really don't care what he thinks of Kerry,or what he blogs about. But I do think the Globes standard should be that you can't plagiarize,libel anyone,or even lie about someone. In other words don't expect to write for the Globe but freakout on the I-net, in your own time.

Anonymous said...

I left journalism after 20 years in 1999 when I turned 40 because I just found it too restrictive to my personal life. I wanted to be more active in my community. I wanted to contribute to non-profits - many of whom might have fallen under coverage by me at some point _ and I wanted the freedom to express my opinion whether political or otherwise. I never have regretted it. For what it pays, the price to be a journalist at a major paper is too high a price to pay for any institution to rule over your life.

Anonymous said...

This is a tough nut, but I think the Globe is right. Newspapers have competitive issues to deal with, their own staff shouldn't be one of them.

In Bray's case specifically, I wouldn't him banging on his keyboard all day long about whatever he wants to, because I generally like his writing, but, well, don't wipe your butt with the hand that feeds you.

Anonymous said...

When you're a journalist, you're representing the organization you're writing for. If your outside activities in any way compromise your relationship with the journalistic entity, you need to choose whether you want to be a journalist or not. Otherwise, you're a columnist at best. The Jay Fitzgerald/Boston Herald situation is the exception; if the outside activity precedes the relationship with the paper, accomodations can be made.

AnthonyG said...

What's Wrong With this Picture? ..


DK wrote:

Bray... pass[ed] along the claims of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which cast a number of aspersions on Kerry's record as a war hero. Virtually all of those aspersions were proven false, a fact that Bray seems not to have grasped. ..

Sorry, Dan, the Swifties and their Republican Right sponsors did not merely "cast aspersions," they orchestrated one of the most extensive disinformation campaigns and shameless character assassinations in a modern presidential election.

Their disinformation campaign was designed to deceive the average news consumer with dozens of seemingly-specific allegations that few people have the time or wherewithal to verify.

It deliberately exploited the process of pundits, commentators and activists promoting and repeating the bogus allegations on TV, talk radio, the web and in print.

That's how political disinformation campaigns work.

Bob Somerby demonstrated just how easily these ludicrous, self-contradictory, craven allegations were to disprove --and how few MSM "journalists" exposed them for what they were.

Bray has no excuse --he is a paid, professional journalist. No honest, professional could possibly have treated the Swiftie smears as anything more than propaganda unless they were themselves intending to promote it. ..

This ain't about journalists' free speech. It would be one thing if a reporter blogged that he liked Bush's leadership on terrorism or disliked the prospect of a Kerry presidency. It is another to promote a flagrant partisan smear that any J-school student could debunk in 10 minutes.

Have you no standards for accuracy?

Jon Garfunkel said...

Forgive for me being one of those freedom-comes-with-responsibility wafflers. I don't see any chilling effects here, but I think if Bray had kept his cool in his posts, nobody would have noticed. I think that the Globe is worried about is readers getting the impression that Bray is sloppy or winging it. A number of bloggers have promoted the idea of a blog being a place to be sloppy, but I reject that ideal. (see The Unbearable Lightness of Blogging)

Jon Garfunkel said...

Forgive for me being one of those freedom-comes-with-responsibility wafflers. I don't see any chilling effects here, but I think if Bray had kept his cool in his posts, nobody would have noticed. I think that the Globe is worried about is readers getting the impression that Bray is sloppy or winging it. A number of bloggers have promoted the idea of a blog being a place to be sloppy, but I reject that ideal. (see The Unbearable Lightness of Blogging)

Anonymous said...

Don't you see the blog, blogosphere, or whatever else it's called as nothing more than an expansion of Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park?

Whether Bray enters the silent scream stream or not, his voice has not one degree of merit as a journalist.

Personally, I find the nonsense he scribbles in what is presented as expertise considerably more offensive.

Anonymous said...

"Pehaps Kennedy should try searching another way, by Googling, for example, "monitortan.com", bush (http://search.yahoo.com/search?p=%22monitortan.com%22%2C+bush&sm=Yahoo%21+Search&fr=FP-tab-web-t&toggle=1&ei=UTF-8). He would then discover that "watha@monitortan.com" has the habit of forwarding politically significant articles to blogspots with his own personal opinion/editorial as a preface."

From: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Hiawatha_Bray

Anonymous said...

As a fellow business journo, I feel somewhat for Bray's situation. As we cover a market that is fairly unpolitical (for the most part - aside from editorial efforts to meld business and political issues in certain stories, etc.) it's easy to feel a greater sense of freedom when speaking on other topics, as I don't feel my political views ever compromise my ability to write about business objectively. The same could be said for almost anyone covering areas other than politics. Listen to the sports guys on WEEI offer up their own (strong) political views on a daily basis. People have feelings and will talk about them when provoked, this is life.

However, the problem is that Bray is using his identity as a Globe reporter to lend credibility to his online persona. There's no need for this, other than his own desire for recognition with his posts. It's hubris, as it is very easy to post and communicate online in an anonymous manner (hi there).

My advice to journos looking to post their thoughts and ideas online, outside of their areas of coverage and employer's boundaries, is to do so under a nickname or some other monniker that is not directly associated to their byline. I know a lot of journos who do so on various bulletin boards, etc. If you wanted to trace their tracks, most could probably be "outed" for who they really are, but as they are taking the effort to separate themselves at least by name, and to not reference their profession in their posts, I think this is the best approach.

Anonymous said...

Isn't the real issue here about scandal-mongering? As an employee of a newspaper of record, Mr. Bray publicly supported what was clearly a fabricated partisan attack on John Kerry by the Bush campaign. It wouldn't be any less wrong if a Globe business reporter publicly promoted Kitty Kelly's nonsense that Laura Bush sold marijuana in college or Jerry Falwell's absurd Bill Clinton murder conspiracies. Newspapers dealing in serious news have to have minimum standards around it's employees engaging in blatent rumor and innuendo.

Anonymous said...

"Virtually all of those aspersions were proven false, a fact that Bray seems not to have grasped."

Nor should he, since that's something that's only believed by partisan Kerry supporters who still can't believe their guy lost on the merits, and not some shadowy dirty-tricks campaign.

Anonymous said...

From Feb 10 comments on
Dan Gillmor's site
:

I hold no brief for Mr. Gannon, but I'm still not sure I see what he or the White House did that's so terrible...
Posted by: Hiawatha Bray | February 10, 2005 12:20 PM

You're joking, Hiawatha, aren't you? Please tell me you're joking.
Posted by: Dan Gillmor

ThomasMcCay said...

Of course, there is the possibility that the Globe is trying to protect itself from a future "bought journalist" scandal.

What if the writer in question is being funded by the Republicans to lend his name to the cause via the blog. I mean if the person so willingly participated in an obvious character assassination effort, trust becomes an issue for the Globe.

Anonymous said...

This is just another example of how blogs are a nightmare for the MSM.

Sure the Globe looks bad, but it's Brock and Media Matters who really get exposed.

Joseph J. Nagarya said...

Gee, I'm not a journalist, and I don't play one in any aspect of my life, including the time I spend sleeping. But I make every effort to not spread falsehood. Let's conclude, shall we, that "Hiawatha Bray the Brayer" is simply a nasty right wing asshole who has no concern for truth when it gets in the way of "winning".

That sort of ethos is pervasive across the personality; but don't expect the high-minded clean-white-shirt "Globe" to concern itself too closely with ethics. Recall the right wing "Globe" journalist who plagiarized (and who, as a media elitist, rants against media elitists), but didn't lose his job because the slap on the wrist was excruciatingly painful for the war-monger? (And because a media elitist.)

At a time when the print news media is being discredited by its own, and like never before in history being challenged for dominance by other media, one would think they would see the writing on the wall and clean up their act, and their house, as effort to regain credibility and survive. Instead, I would not be surprised if the "Globe" were to hire Armstrong Williams in order to expand into TeeVee, and "Jeff 'What's My Name Today?' Gannon" as not-so-White House reporter.

Anonymous said...

Partisan "conservative" extremist haters are the only ones who insist on claiming as true the smezrs against Kerry which were utterly and absolutely refuted. And those haters do so because they are at war against reason, standards, and truth, because they know that if they told the truth about where they are actually at, they would be tarred-and-feathered and run out of town for being totalitarians haters of democracy.

The shame of it is that they are too dense to grasp the fact that the first person adversely affected by their hating is the person closest to them: themselves.

Anonymous said...

Bray is about as likely to publish a "Balmer is the Anit-Christ" article as Jeff Jacoby is to write a column admitting he was wrong on gay marriage. He almost never meets a Microsoft product he doesn't love (even if no one else does).

He and Jacoby are remarkably similar writers. They both suffer from the desire to be pundits and they both are way too strongly partisan to ever succeed. You can't be a visionary when you're acting as an apologist...