While Brian and much of the Nightly News team were in Torino, I was vacationing in Tucson, Ariz., riding horses on a ranch and making friends from all across America who had a lot of questions about the news.
My favorite question was from a young oil executive from Oklahoma. Over drinks at the nightly happy hour, he wanted to know: “is this bird flu thing for real?” We were joined by another friend, an emergency room doctor from Minnesota, and both the doctor and I quickly insisted that, of course, it was: my friend invoked the CDC statistics he receives each week, while I mentioned our own reporting, and journalist friends who have traveled to Romania and Italy to cover the story. (All this transpired before this weekend’s news, where infected ducks and turkeys marked the arrival of the flu in France.)
One of my favorite guilty pleasures in recent weeks has been to catch up on old episodes of a classic television series. It’s the cable show, currently on hiatus, about a New Jersey-based businessman and father struggling to balance work and family issues, including periodic downsizing on both fronts. While I love the opening sequence, with its evocative shots of the New Jersey Turnpike, that beleaguered road of my beloved home state, I'm also fascinated by its exuberant, sometimes funny, often offputting use of obscenities. As you'll see below, I am no fan of cussing, but on that show, those words sound right at home.
We have learned an instructive lesson on the perils of instant Internet posting. We wanted to share with you what happened, what errors we made and what we have learned.
In an effort to give viewers and readers a richer experience, we are all encouraged to provide more content online -- background, transcripts of interviews, documents we use in reporting -- than typically appears in our television reports on NBC Nightly News or elsewhere on the network.
As part of a Nightly News report on domestic eavesdropping and national security Tuesday, January 3, Andrea Mitchell interviewed James Risen of the New York Times who broke the story of domestic spying and whose book on the subject came out that day. In the course of a long taped interview for the Nightly report, Andrea asked Risen a question about something that had been picked up by one of our producers, namely that some reporters, including CNN's Christiane Amanpour, may have been spied upon by the National Security Agency. Risen told her he had not heard that. (Intelligence officials have since told NBC News that Ms. Amanpour was not specifically targeted for eavesdropping.)
I’ve been reading the robust and passionate responses to Brian’s post on the false hope that spread from the West Virginia church to the news media and then to viewers and readers around the world.
The Web site of the Poynter Institute, a school for working and future journalists, has a thoughtful analysis of how the miners’ story was reported, then amended. Read it here. The focus is on newspapers, but the article is useful reading for all of us who care about how the press grapples with breaking news, competitive pressures and mistakes.
Following Brian’s interview with President Bush, many of you asked whether any of his questions were submitted in advance -- and Brian told you at the end of this blog post that, of course, they were not. That question took me by surprise, probably because of how well I know NBC News policy, which does not allow any interview subject, presidential or otherwise, to receive questions in advance. But it seems the blogosphere has wondered about journalists pre-clearing questions with the White House before, at least as far back as April 2004, when the WashingtonPost.com tried to dispel similar questions about the daily press briefing in this Live Chat. (Look for the second question, from a reader in Rochester, N.Y.)
Are these suspicions evidence of a lack of trust in journalism, government, or both? I don’t know, but I hope the truth about the way we work will resolve them, once and for all.
Guests at last night’s crowded cocktail party were abuzz: would Judith Miller keep her commitment and make a public appearance, hours after the announcement of her retirement from The New York Times? The answer was yes, and I had a bird's-eye view.
If you are reading this, chances are you are familiar with at least some of the elements of Miller’s involvement in the CIA leak investigation. If not, here's the NYT's recap, published today. While some observers are calling for additional investigation into exactly what happened at the Times, I sensed a closing of a chapter, at least at last night’s event, which was an annual dinner in New York for an organization of media lawyers in New York. Ms. Miller seemed cheerful and relaxed enough, and, though asked, predictably offered no new insight into the reasons for her departure. Then the panel, set months ago to discuss current issues related to reporters' privilege, got to the work at hand.
Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of returning to my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, to participate in a panel discussion about current issues in journalism. Before I reunited with my old reporting buddies, I took in our annual homecoming football game. Sorry, development office: I loved the band but was disappointed in the game results, as was this writer. But wait, maybe you had a different reaction, and would prefer the recounting of the game offered here.
I’m linking to two articles with predictably different takes on the game to raise one of the themes we tackled at the session, just as we do here and at other serious news organizations: has technology changed what you want from us? Are we heading, as one panelist wondered, toward a "journalism of affirmation," where readers and viewers seek out information that reinforces their point of view? What might that mean for that serendipitous moment when you pause before grabbing the remote or turning the page, and find that you were wrong, you are interested in the next story, which perhaps even changed your mind about an issue? And will the Internet change our traditional reporting methods, our job security, even the contribution news makes to our society?
Last week, Nightly News’ investigative unit broke the story of e-mails that revealed a divergence between the warnings of a FEMA deputy stationed at the Superdome during Katrina, and the responses he got from the inner circle of former director Michael Brown. The testimony of the FEMA insider, Marty Bahamonde, was a focal point of Senate hearings the next day. His criticism of FEMA is especially significant because of his reputation: he is highly praised by both Brown and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
The report prompted a skeptical response from one viewer, who wrote:
"… Initially, I thought it was a terrific report. However, I think you owe it to your viewers to give some indication as to who tipped off your reporter and who provided you with the e-mails. If someone in Washington is continuing to make Michael Brown the scapegoat for the disaster in New Orleans in order to protect others, you missed the real story; namely, who is doing the leaking and whom are they trying to protect?"
His first point is a topical one. We are adherents of journalism's transparency movement (the silver lining in the storm over confidential sources), and we try, when appropriate, to share details about how we got the stories we report to you. (Obviously, it's not always possible to identify sources.) Here, we missed a chance to share some background information. NBC News obtained the e-mails from a FEMA critic.
As for the viewer's second point – whether these e-mails were made available to make Brown a "scapegoat" – it's speculative. Our investigative team says there's no evidence that politics were at work here, especially given the bipartisan nature of the Senate hearings (chaired by a Republican) and Bahamonde's stature as a respected source. (For a sense of how his testimony was received, see this Washington Post story.) To me, the skepticism expressed by this viewer is a (not unwelcome) sign of the journalism times. I hope he understands that we take his concerns to heart, and think carefully about our sources, their agendas (if any) and what constitutes everything you need to know about the information we report.
Giving advice is in my blood, professionally and personally. (You can ask my colleagues. Or my younger sisters.) And I especially enjoy talking with young people who are contemplating a professional life in journalism. In particular, I attract students who are struggling between the fourth estate and the law.
These uncertain students have come to the right place. I was a reporter before (and during) law school, then gave legal advice to journalists before returning to the newsroom for my job in broadcast standards. My days are spent working through policy and ethics questions with journalists and, at times, our own NBC lawyers.
In the course of my work, I think I’ve heard almost every possible solution to the law-journalism career dilemma. They range from the local anchor I once interviewed who decided to leave the studio and go to law school, to my friend Adam Liptak, a former lawyer for The New York Times who is now a reporter there, taking on the paper’s toughest in-house stories. (Link: Adam's reporting from Oct. 16 about Judy Miller, NYTimes.com login required)