Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Malkin and journalism

Speaking of Michelle Malkin, check out Alex Koppelman at Dragonfire as he weighs in on Malkin's standards when it comes to journalism.

Koppelman points out (as I did earlier) that Malkin has never worked as a reporter or in the belly of the daily production of reportage, and quotes me regarding her career here in Seattle as a columnist. Then he continues:
None of this has stopped Malkin from interpreting even the minutest details as evidence of a liberal media conspiracy. Last week, it was a photo of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, altered by USA Today in what Malkin called the "malicious photoshopping of a black Republican official." Undoubtedly, the photo had been altered -- Rice's dark, bloodshot eyes had been whitened, and her pupils had changed in shape, becoming unflattering, even creepy -- but such alteration is hardly evidence of malice. In fact, alterations like those happen all the time as photo editors try to make their work more visually interesting.

... This week Malkin's back at it. Her new target is James Dao, a reporter for the New York Times, and a piece he wrote after the number of American casualties in Iraq hit 2,000. In the article, Dao quoted part of a letter Corporal Jeffrey B. Starr wrote to his girlfriend in case he died in Iraq, which he did in April of this year. Dao chose a quote from the letter that expressed Starr's premonition of his own death. Malkin, though, was angered by what Dao left out -- a part of Starr’s letter in which he confirmed his willingness to die for what he considered a noble cause. This, to Malkin, was proof of "selective editing" and "agenda-driven" reporting by Dao. But the truth is never as black-and-white as Malkin sees it.

Dao declined to comment for this article, but he did forward along an Email from Bill Borders, a senior editor at the Times. "The most prominent part of the presentation of Starr was the picture and caption at the top of Page A15," Borders wrote. "The caption represented him this way: 'His father, Brian Starr, said his son believed in the war but was tired of the harsh life.' The article also reported that even after his son's death Brian Starr 'remained convinced that invading Iraq was the right thing to do.' " And, in fact, Dao explicitly referred to Starr's pro-war views, using the same language given in the caption.

There can be some debate as to whether Dao should have included the rest of Starr's letter, and I myself would say he should have, not because the additional material would substantively change the portrayal of Starr, but because Starr's letter was a moving look into the thoughts of a soldier whose life was tragically cut short. But that's ultimately an editorial decision -- including the omitted portions of the letter would have meant fitting 100 additional words into the story. In a piece totaling more than 3,500 words, as Dao's did, that may not seem like much, but the article included the words of more than a dozen soldiers and their families, as well as background on the war, statistics on the death rates of soldiers, charts and photos. If Malkin had experience as a reporter she would know that in a newspaper, where articles must fit spaces defined more by advertising and layout concerns than editorial concerns, every word matters. Cutting 100 words of Starr’s letter, after summarizing the pro-war views those words reflected, allowed Dao to explore the lives of other soldiers, other families hurt by tragedy. That's not bias; indeed, it's the essence of a reporter's job.

Koppelman's piece was fresh in my mind when I happened upon Michelle's self-written profile at Pajamas Media:
A lot of the work that I do, it isn't just about opining, but about investigative journalism as well. That's one of the coolest things about the blog, being able to do that kind of hybrid thing. I got a lot of criticism in the past for doing opinion pieces with a lot of reporting in them. A lot of mainstream media editors aren't comfortable with that because they don't expect it. So I love that about blogging.


A few words about investigative journalism:

Investigative journalism is actually an extremely arcane, and hallowed, field within the trade. The people who are investigative journalists will spend months, sometimes years, working on a single story. Their specialty is a knowledge of genuine investigative techniques, including those employed by private investigators, and include some practices that some people (like certain mayors of Spokane) might consider devious. But for the most part, it's arduous work that requires, above all, an ability to comb through stacks of records and pull out important information.

Real investigative journalists are capable of employing their skills in a variety of areas: crime, corporate mismangement and malfeasance, government corruption and incompetence, and political scandals -- though the latter, while the best known, are probably the least often applied.

If you want to get a sense for the work of real investigative journalists, spend some time strolling about the site of Investigative Reporters and Editors, the premier organization for such journalists in this country. And note: If you do a search on their site for "Malkin," you come up empty.

There are very few genuine investigative journalists working today at most mainstream newspapers, mostly because they are expensive and not terribly productive in terms of the quantity of copy that newspapers rely upon, and because they also have a nasty habit of embarrassing the friends of their publishers. For some reason, when budget cuts come down in today's newsrooms, the investigative spots are usually the first to go.

Sometimes I am mistakenly referred to as an "investigative journalist," and I always try to take pains to correct that misinformation. What I do is more in the way of "research journalism" -- that is, I tend to rely on standard research techniques (interviews and archival research) rather than investigative techniques.

I've known and worked with a number of real investigative journalists over the course of my career, including Jay Shelledy (who worked on the Don Bowles investigation) and James Steele, of the famed Barlett and Steele duo.

In fact, Jim Steele is a friend of mine.

And Michelle, trust me -- you're no Jim Steele.

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