Saturday, October 29, 2005

Journalistic standards

The other day, Atrios -- in discussing Cathy Young's piece questioning right-wing bloggers, particularly Michelle Malkin, for their handling of a series of incidents involving the appearance of explosive devices at various campuses around the country (see my take on that) -- asked the 64,000-dollar question:
By the current rules of the road is Michelle Malkin really a "professional journalist?"

I'm not really sure what the current rules of the road are, but the answer really depends on what your definition of "professional journalist" is, particularly within the realm of print media, which is where Malkin primarily operates.

If it's "anyone who works in a public capacity for a media organization" -- which does indeed seem to be the current rules of the road -- then she probably is.

But by the old-fashioned standards of what makes one a "journalist" -- which entails being primarily a truth-seeker -- she is not.

You see, it used to be that, in order to be called a journalist, one had to actually be, or have been, a reporter. And Malkin has never been a reporter, at least not in any professional capacity.

Now, part of this involves traditional professional ladders within the business. For many years, nearly everyone who was ever an editor was, first, a reporter. Then, once on the editor's rung, one had the option of writing editorials. Columnists -- the star positions on editorial pages -- were culled either from the ranks of editors or star reporters.

Thus, traditionally, anyone who held a column-writing position at a newspaper had first been a reporter and perhaps an editor as well, and thus was in every regard a "professional journalist." Indeed, it often was the case that columnists provided original reporting within their columns.

Those days have now largely gone by the wayside. Nowadays it is not unusual to find columnists chosen from the ranks of non-journalists, and often from among professional ideologues, simply for their ability to string words together in an entertaining fashion. Or sometimes they are chosen just because they fit a certain profile the editor wants for his page.

Malkin is just such a creature. In fact, one of the advantages that she offered editors was that she was a "twofer" who fit two of the key criteria that editors use when deciding upon a columnist: she's conservative and a minority. And she writes reasonably well too.

She is, in fact, more properly described as a "professional pundit," not a "professional journalist." She does do not do original reporting; she provides commentary on other people's work, or cheerleading for various aspects of the conservative-movement agenda. In Malkin's case, it is predictably partisan commentary at that, which propels her even more accurately into the realm of "professional propagandist."

As I've explained previously, I have something of a history with Malkin. I edited her column at the Bellevue Journal American in the early 1990s, while she was syndicated through the Los Angeles Daily News. The LADN only ever employed her as a columnist. Likewise, when Malkin moved to the Puget Sound to go to work for my friend Mindy Cameron at the Seattle Times, it was only as a columnist.

Now, it's true that while at the Times, Malkin did make the occasional foray into providing original reporting within her columns. Indeed, she was rather eager to write various exposes -- but unfortunately, she had trouble doing the requisite legwork to make those exposes actually stick.

First, there was the attempt to question a bit of local "corporate welfare" that turned out to be factually wrong. (Note the correction at the top.)

Then Malkin unleashed a tirade against city officials that explicitly called them prostitutes. Even readers recognized it as crudely libelous, not to mention devoid of basic ethical standards.

There were other instances that raised questions about her judgment as displayed in her columns: one, a column on "envirocrats" that was full of false facts and dopey assertions.

In another piece, she touted the film Waco: Rules of Engagement, which was later thoroughly debunked -- not to mention that its chief promoters and admirers were the Patriot/militia crowd.

Similarly, another column [which has since been strangely removed from the Times' archives] touted the later-debunked "statistical analysis" of John Lott regarding gun control.

The capper, perhaps, was a hit piece accusing the state's Democratic attorney general of manipulating prosecutions in drug cases. A key problem, as the victim pointed out, was that Malkin never bothered to contact the AG's office to get its side of the story -- and moreover, Malkin was once again simply wrong on the facts.

Shortly afterward, she announced she was "moving on."

She polished off her career there by writing a post-departure piece that amounted to a vicious attack on Seattle in the wake of the WTO riots. As numerous respondents pointed out, her mean-spiritedness was exceeded only by her lousy grasp of facts.

In sum, Malkin's recent pose as a defender of veracity in journalism is riddled with all kinds of ironies -- not least of which is that much of what Malkin advocates for amounts to an abandonment of journalistic standards.

But the fact that Malkin has never been a professional beat reporter (and only adopted the pose of one while writing at the Seattle Times) has a real effect on what and how she argues. Because if she had ever been one -- if, in fact, she had ever worked on a daily beat in a newsroom and been actually involved in the dirty daily work of getting out a newspaper, instead of languishing in the role of pundit throughout her career -- she would be a lot less quick to jump to false conclusions about the work of her professional peers.

Indeed, the best argument that Malkin is not a professional journalist is the sheer lack of professionalism in her dealings with other journalists.

This includes her misfire of an attack on Julie Chen -- for which she never had the courtesy or courage to apologize.

It also includes her failure to keep her word when she promised to let me interview her by phone (she later decided an e-mail exchange would suffice -- some standards!).

Probably the most egregious case of this was her bashing of the Pulitzer winner in photography -- an attack so overwhelmingly ignorant of the work done by photographers and how they do it that it really served only to provide concrete proof that Malkin has no idea what she's talking about when she writes about the work of other journalists. But again, that's because she's never been a real journalist.

Malkin continues unabated and unabashed, since being conservative means never having to say you're sorry. She's lately taken editors at the "MSM" to task for failing to join her in taking up cudgels against the spooky threat of creeping Islamism in the memorial to Flight 94 victims. More recently, there's been the Oklahoma suicide bombing and her confusion over the failure of the nation's editors to leap to the obviously dubious conclusion that this suicide was potentially part of an evil Islamist plot extending its tendrils to every corner of the nation.

In the past few days alone, Malkin has led an attack on USA Today over a badly retouched photo of Condoleezza Rice on its Web site (though Malkin, notably, fails to explain that it did not run in the print edition of the paper). Malkin remains unwilling to accept the paper's explanation that it was just a case of bad retouch work, and her readers are chiming in with Assrocketesque "professional" evaluations of whether the photo's retouching was intentional or not.

Well, as a veteran of a major Web news operation, I can tell Ms. Malkin and her many acolytes that mistakes like this, unfortunately, are not altogether uncommon in Web newsrooms. Web photography editors can often include people who are not terribly experienced with image manipulation, and they will make mistakes like this with nothing but professional intentions. In many cases, retouching will take place with an enlarged version of the photo, and in an effort to clean up, sharpen, or otherwise brighten a photo, they will make corrections which look fine in an enlarged version and grotesque and strange when shrunk to Web size. I've seen mistakes like this being made, and it's never, ever with the intention of making someone look bad. Sometimes it can be done out of haste as well; I wouldn't be surprised if this happened when someone applied a "quick fix" program to retouch it and didn't bother to examine what he had produced.

In fact, I'm certain that the basic standards of most professional newsrooms are that cleanup efforts like this are a good-faith effort to make the subject look better -- and they fail simply because of haste or inexperience. I've never known a photo editor, regardless of their political views, to intentionally alter for the worse the appearance of a photo subject, and would be very surprised if that had happened in this case, since USA Today's newsroom is not exactly known as a hotbed of liberalism.

But then, that's my view because I've been there and know firsthand how easy these kinds of mistakes can be. It makes me a hell of a lot less eager to jump to conclusions.

The fact that Malkin doesn't is a result not just of her not having been there. It's also a product of her basic, and abiding, contempt for the hard work of professional journalists. That alone makes her unworthy of being considered one.

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