CNN and the ethics of Vietnamese dissident interviews by mattsteinglass
June 27, 2010, 3:48 am
Filed under: democracy, Internet, Media, Vietnam

Last week CNN International ran a segment on Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, the Vietnamese blogger who goes by the name “Me Nam” (Mother Mushroom) and spent 10 days in jail last August after she criticised Chinese bauxite mining in Vietnam. CNN correspondent Andrew Spencer interviewed the affecting Ms Quynh in Ho Chi Minh City. In a followup article on Thursday, CNN’s Pamela Boykoff wrote that before Ms Quynh drove her motorbike down from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City for the interview, the blogger emailed to ask: “Can you sure filming is OK and safe for us?” I’m curious what CNN’s response was.

It should have been “no”. Dozens of dissidents have been sentenced to multi-year jail terms in Vietnam over the past three years, usually for “spreading propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” For many of those convicted, the fact that they gave interviews to foreign news organisations has counted as evidence against them. The US and European governments protest the arrests of democracy activists, but foreign intercession has never prevented the conviction of a Vietnamese dissident, except for a few who had foreign citizenship. (I’m aware of just one case in which a jailed Vietnamese democracy activist with close ties to American institutions was released without a trial due to US pressure.)

As for news organisations like CNN (or the ones I work for), we can do nothing to protect the dissidents we interview, apart from running critical reports on their arrests and convictions. The Vietnamese government largely ignores such press coverage, and foreign media don’t usually pay much attention either. It’s just one small story among many. The fact that Ms Boykoff’s article consistently misspells Ms Quynh’s name doesn’t give much reassurance that CNN is paying focused, long-term attention to the issue of Vietnamese democracy activism. Nor does the televised report’s use of a file-footage establishing shot of the old National Assembly building in Hanoi, which was torn down over a year ago. To a Vietnamese spectator watching the report, the use of that shot says: we don’t follow Vietnam very closely.

What responsibilities do news organisations have in these circumstances? Does Ms Quynh know what she’s getting into by going on CNN to criticise the Vietnamese government? Is she under the misimpression that the publicity will help protect her from arrest? I’ve interviewed a number of people like Ms Quynh, ordinary citizens rather than public figures who have fallen into dissident status without entirely meaning to, and who, having grown up in Vietnam’s cloistered information environment, may be strikingly naive regarding the nature of the Vietnamese state and the ability of foreign governments or organisations to intercede. I’ve also interviewed highly educated, self-conscious dissidents who knew precisely what they were getting themselves into and had a reasonable sense of what strategies were likely to be effective.

I’m happy to report the statements of this latter sort of dissident. Moreover, I’m obliged to. They’re political activists who are making news. My job is to report the news. They’re acting quite deliberately, and they can take care of themselves. With the less sophisticated dissidents, however, things get complicated. I sometimes feel that these are people who have been pushed over an emotional edge by the unfair treatment they’ve received, and are lashing out in a fashion that, in the end, will only hurt them. By running interviews with them, you’re essentially exploiting and to some extent egging on their self-destruction.

I’m not saying CNN shouldn’t have run the interview. It’s their call. But I hope that when Ms Quynh asked whether CNN could ensure they would be “safe”, they told her very clearly that they couldn’t, that what she was doing was not safe at all.


The attraction of cynicism by mattsteinglass
May 15, 2010, 10:13 pm
Filed under: Media

Andrew Sullivan thinks I was being “too cynical” when I wrote that

For bloggers, on the other hand, the way to make sure nobody pigeonholes you or dismisses you as somebody’s lackey is to be relentlessly cynical and negative. As long as you’re constantly bemoaning the hypocrisy and stupidity of all political actors (yourself included), you’re golden; you’re nobody’s lickspittle.

Sullivan writes:

It is also possible for a blogger and (to a lesser extent) a politician to have a complicated view of the world and be honest about it. Not to be popular, not to be golden, not to prove you’re “nobody’s lickspittle” – but because it’s what you honestly think and believe.

Of course this is exactly right, and I think it was clear from the tone of my post that I wasn’t advocating that bloggers be flip and sarcastic. I was trying to point out a structural problem of incentives. Bloggers have an incentive to condemn and satirize in all political directions so as to maintain their claim to ideological independence, and what I was trying to say in the post was that this incentive can lead one to be too dismissive towards the behavior of politicians who are often actually doing a pretty good job within the limits established by the political landscape. This isn’t really an issue unique to blogs; it’s a general journalistic problem.

But I think one of the best examples of the risk one avoids through the easy out of constant cynical is the problem Sullivan has in his treatment of Barack Obama. I’m actually with Sullivan on this: Barack Obama is an enormously talented politician and a deeply ethical guy, with a complex and sophisticated view of how politics works and of how to be responsible in trying to strengthen the polity and improve people’s lives through the messy medium of politics. I give him an enormous benefit of the doubt in almost any situation, both in terms of his intentions and in terms of whether his take on an issue is better than mine. This is true of Sullivan as well. But the risk Sullivan has run in his very admiring writing on Obama is that many readers will come to see him as a cheerleader. I don’t think this is fair, and I think that even if it’s true, that’s a problem those readers have, not a problem Sullivan has. But still, this is a risk that exists in the journalistic world. The same thing happened to Hendrik Hertzberg during the administration of another extremely talented and admirable president, Bill Clinton. It would be easy for Sullivan to avoid this risk by simply adopting a world-weary skeptical attitude towards Obama, and it’s to his credit that he’s not doing so.

What Brad DeLong means by journalists 'trying their best' by mattsteinglass
May 7, 2010, 5:05 am
Filed under: Economics, Media, Uncategorized

I understand Brad DeLong’s frustrations with journalists failing to get complicated stories about economics and economic policy right. I don’t know anything about the specific cases in which he feels some reporters at the Washington Post weren’t trying to get it right. But as a broad response, I would have to say: for most of us, the level of detailed and scrupulous reportage which he expects on every story entails an amount of work that almost no journalistic institution in the world will pay us enough to do, anymore.

This isn’t really a complaint; it’s more of an observation. The quality of reportage, both financial and otherwise, is going to keep going down. And it’s going to keep going down because there isn’t a market for quality reportage. It doesn’t pay any more to interview 10 sources for an article than it does to interview 5 of them. And it doesn’t pay any more to come up with an interesting or accurate way to tell a complex story than it does to resort to a well-worn format such as “there’s a heated debate over”, present one side, present the other side, come back to somebody saying there’s a heated debate, ends.

It’s not so much that the answer to the question “why oh why can’t we have a better press corps” is “because no one will pay for one.” I’d say that the question should be “why oh why can’t we have better reporting”, and the answer is “because no one will pay for it”.

I too believe that basketball fans can cover opera, but… by mattsteinglass
April 1, 2010, 9:58 am
Filed under: Conservatism, Liberalism, Media, race, Religion, Uncategorized

I think Conor Friedersdorf’s objections to “newsroom diversity as ideology” are, overall, wide of the mark. It would certainly be a pernicious mistake for communities to be covered only by people who came from those communities, or for journalists to be pigeonholed into reporting only on the communities they come from. But that’s not what the piece by Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander to which Friedersdorf objects is talking about. Here’s the paragraph that Friedersdorf calls “nonsense”:

“You can’t cover your community unless you look like your community,” said Bobbi Bowman, a former Post reporter and editor who is a diversity consultant for ASNE. (Full disclosure: I [Andrew Alexander] sit on its board). “If you have a community of basketball players, it’s difficult for a newsroom of opera lovers to cover them.”

Friedersdorf writes:

Imagine diversity consultant Bobbi Bowman telling a black reporter, “I’m sorry, your work is good, and I’d like to grant your request to cover Georgetown for the Metro desk, but you can’t cover a community like Georgetown if you don’t look like the people there.”

But that’s not what Bowman said. She didn’t say you can’t cover basketball if you’re an opera lover. She said a newsroom full of opera lovers will find it difficult to cover a community of basketball players. Bowman is talking about the effect of diversity on communities, including the community of a newsroom. People in diverse communities soak up background knowledge from each other. They’re made aware of things they don’t know that they don’t know. They’ll walk in every morning and hear unfamiliar terms being bandied about, they’ll get an inkling of what’s going on out there and how much they have to learn.

In contrast, people in homogenous communities don’t know what they don’t know. They get trapped in echo chambers, and assume that the possibly ignorant opinions they and their demographically similar friends hold are accurate. The opera lovers at the Washington Post will likely do a solid job of covering a community of basketball players, but that’s in part because they’re surrounded by basketball fans. And the basketball players at the Washington Post will probably do a better job of covering opera if there are still a few opera fans left at the paper.

This is actually expressive of a pretty central tension in thinking about racial integration. Conservatism embraced the idea of an individualist anti-racism that permits no discrimination on any grounds by the late 1970s or so. But it did so in part by rejecting communitarian conservatism, which had been associated with support for segregation in the ’50s and ’60s. The orthodoxy on the conservative end of things became that expressed by John Roberts: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” (Or, as Stephen Colbert would put it, “I don’t see black skin.”) Liberals, meanwhile, have not had an easy time of articulating the difference between barring consideration of gender, religion or ethnicity to exclude people from institutions, but allowing or encouraging consideration of gender, religion or ethnicity to include people in institutions and promote in-house diversity. And it’s a genuine problem: any time you consider one person’s under-represented identity to include them, you may be considering someone else’s over-represented identity to exclude them.

Still, what Bowman is saying here is like what universities say when they explain why they value diversity in admissions: diversity is mission-related. In sectors like education and media, diverse institutions perform better. The reporter you put on a beat doesn’t need to come from that beat. But the newsroom that’s covering all those beats will do a much better job if it contains a mix of people who come from all those beats, too.

Howell Raines takes on Roger Ailes and Fox News by mattsteinglass
March 13, 2010, 9:00 am
Filed under: Conservatism, Media

I’m glad Howell Raines wrote a Washington Post op-ed excoriating his fellow establishment journalists for failing to “(blow) the whistle on Roger Ailes, chief of Fox News, for using the network to conduct a propaganda campaign against the Obama administration — a campaign without precedent in our modern political history.” But the op-ed itself is somewhat weak tea. When he decides to pick out a bit of egregious Fox up-is-downism, here’s how he does it:

This is not a liberal-versus-conservative issue. It is a matter of Fox turning reality on its head with, among other tactics, its endless repetition of its uber-lie: “The American people do not want health-care reform.” Fox repeats this as gospel. But as a matter of historical context, usually in short supply on Fox News, this assertion ranks somewhere between debatable and untrue.

He then goes on to note that, in fact, Americans have repeatedly shown broad demand for reform of the health-care system. This just isn’t a really great example of Fox outrageousness. I’d guess Glenn Beck says stuff that’s more disgusting and more clearly contradicts factual reality approximately every ten minutes.

What Raines does do, and what I think is novel, is accuse establishment journalists of being cowed into meekness by Fox News’s money, and by its ability to destroy their careers in a collapsing news-media environment where revenue is gradually trending to zero. There’s a pretty radical analysis hiding in there somewhere. What Raines is essentially saying is that the mainstream for-profit media is dominated by the need to make money, and that what it feels able to say is determined by constraints set by corporate power. I wouldn’t have thought the Howell Raines who did so much to undermine mainstream liberalism in the ’90s would be taking up that line, but maybe he’ll end up on Bill Moyers’s side of things yet.

Guilty pleasures modern media leaves no time for: re-reading your own writing by mattsteinglass
March 11, 2010, 1:58 am
Filed under: Media

I used to really enjoy re-reading articles I’d written. If I do that with my blog posts, it leaves no time to keep up with the guys who post 12 times a day.

I think this is actually an argument that blogging is less narcissistic than traditional magazine journalism. But on the whole that would be an absurd contention.

Even the Oakeshottian libertarian compassionate crunchy-con non-partisan Conor Friedersdorf by mattsteinglass
March 11, 2010, 1:55 am
Filed under: Conservatism, Media

Twitter is an incredibly terse medium. Politics are becoming increasingly partisan. People are trying to cut through the chatter of a crowded media environment. Sentences are getting shorter.

Conor Friedersdorf wishes Glenn Greenwald hadn’t called him “Conservative Conor Friedersdorf” in a tweet. (Via Andrew Sullivan.) I can see where he’s coming from. If I had to pigeonhole Friedersdorf, I’d put him in that interesting sub-section of the political blogosphere comprising mainly libertarian-leaning independents who’ve differentiated themselves from the dull spartan prose of middlebrow mainstream journalism not by going pithy, sharp and ironic (Duncan Black, Matthew Yglesias, John Cole, Andrew Sullivan’s median post, and a thousand conservatives I dislike too much to name) but by going long and reflective (Will Wilkinson, Daniel Larison, and, on the more progressivish side of the genre, Julian Sanchez).

But technology constrains prose implacably. The tweet is our master, not the other way around. “Liberal Matt Steinglass: Friedersdorf crying in wilderness.”