Saturday, December 13, 2008

Funkhouser to Electric Chair? - Journalists Make Lousy Bloggers, Too

I wrote a recent piece about the dangers of confusing bloggers with journalists, and several journalists emailed me with compliments on the piece, which I really appreciated. I meant what I said - bloggers rarely present original news that has been well-researched and based on reliable sources. Red letters, exclamation points and claims of "exclusive" are poor substitutes for fact-checking, confirmation and attempted even-handedness.

While my piece on Tuesday was directed at bloggers who act like they are journalists, today I want to consider journalists who think they are bloggers.

If you want to blog, close down the Prime Buzz, open up your own blogger account under your own name, and have at it. Because you, more than Tony, more than any self-deluded "citizen journalist", are to blame for blurring the distinction between news and nonsense. When you hold yourselves out as journalists and then behave as bloggers, you can't blame readers for getting the two confused.

Take, for example, the Star's Yael T. Abouhalkah. When he publishes a column in the Star, we all expect him to have checked the facts, spoken with the players, placed the issue into context, and considered all perspectives. And, while I frequently disagree with his published columns, I respect the fact that they uphold journalistic standards.

When Yael publishes something on Midwest Voices, though, we don't know what to expect. We can see, however, that we're getting a lower standard than we'd expect for something published. Where are we, as consumers, expected to draw the line between Yael the Kansas City Star Journalist, and Yael the Blogger?

On Thursday evening, I heard that Yael had a civic bombshell posted - the Mayor could be dismissed at any moment by a vote of 9 councilmembers. Sure enough, I went to his collection of posts and saw red letters and "Exclusive!" notices highlighting a post entitled "City Charter allows City Council to throw Funkhouser out". And I read a sensationalistic account of a Charter Provision that has been in the Charter for years, and that does not, in fact, allow the City Council to throw Funkhouser out - unless they find significant misconduct in office beyond anything that has been even alleged.

The red letters and "Exclusive!" notices have been deleted now. On sober reconsideration, the story is no more valid or newsworthy than a similar story entitled "Criminal Code allows State to Put Funkhouser to Death" - if he is found guilty of a capital crime which has not been charged. It's funny that Yael isn't even holding himself up to Blogger ethical standards, which frown upon altering a prior post in order to make yourself look better. (See, for example, that Tony has not tampered with his mistaken post about Funkhouser getting fired by his lawyer.) On Thursday, Yael wanted to out-Tony Tony.

The point is broader, though, than one blog post or one ethical lapse by Yael Abouhalkah. The point is that when journalists report gossip on blogs, or publish material without the rigorous fact-checking and placement into context that ought to go into their published work, they devalue themselves as journalists.

Back in the pre-blog world, journalists were privy to a lot more than they published. The line between what was "newsworthy" and what was "between us" was respected and dependable - and often abused. Real journalists kept us in the dark about womanizing and backroom deals - the public's right to know suffered to support the journalist's access to information.

Now, the pendulum has swung. An off-the-cuff elevator remark about a fellow politician's lack of fashion sense could show up on the Prime Buzz, and the line between journalism and blogging gets further blurred. When you add in the sad fact that McClatchy is asking fewer people to do the real work of journalism, you have a dangerous pressure to pass along quick gossip rather than solid analysis. And that pressure shows itself in Yael's page of recent posts, which, as of this moment, includes Yael trying to write intelligently about Blagojevich, the auto bailout, a gossipy piece with a glaring error about Marcason and Funkhouser's relationship, the Golden Globes, sewers, Tyler Thigpen, Mets baseball, cars, Tony DiPardo, and Big 12 Football. Plus much more, all over the course of 5 days! While still supposedly doing his real work of producing press-worthy copy. (I don't mean to pick on Yael, but his Tony imitation on Thursday evening was the "ah hah" moment that sparked this piece.)

If a journalist wants to join the blog world and post about whatever shiny issue attracts his or her attention, that is great. The more bloggers, the merrier. But if they want to publish their blog as an adjunct to the Kansas City Star, and approach public figures as a multi-headed blogger/journalist, then they have no right whatsoever to complain if the public equates bloggers with journalists.

For those journalists who like to blog on the side, I have a few questions.

When you earned the title of "journalist" by going to school and learning from your superiors, did you really want to become a blogger?

Do you think that public figures should treat you with respect, if they know you are looking for material that would never be newsworthy in hard copy?

When you were first hired by the Kansas City Star, one of the great journalistic institutions of the country, did you feel like you were taking on mantle that you would strive to live up to, and maybe even improve? Do you think you're doing that?

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23 Comments:

Blogger Ward said...

"unless they find significant misconduct in office beyond anything that has been even alleged"

So, if the alleged violation of the Sunshine Law, orchestrated by the Mayor, turns out to be true, you don't think that is "significant misconduct"?

12/13/2008 11:01 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Ed Ford says it's not, and I think I can rely on him to take the most aggressive position on getting rid of the Mayor.

From what I've heard about the background, though, no, the allegations aren't going to amount to anything.

12/13/2008 11:06 AM  
Anonymous Sophia said...

I haven't studied the charter language, but I'd be surprised if one violation of the Sunshine Law counted as "significant misconduct."

I'd also like to throw in a few words in defense of Tony (I can't help it! I'm a fair minded person!). Many things "reported" on his blog that seemed silly at the time (e.g. occult ceremonies, barefoot) are now turning out to be basically true. They may not pass the "newsworthy" threshold, but they are true.

As for the specific post you linked, I find it entirely plausible that the reason Funkhouser settled was because Wirken saw he wasn't going to get paid more and had a talk with his client. You may not call it "fired," but as a lawyer surely you're not unfamiliar with this scenario.

12/13/2008 11:13 AM  
Anonymous Doc said...

Well done - both pieces; today's and the earlier bit on bloggers as 'journalists'.

Speaking for myself I try hard not to present myself any more than just another loudmouth with a satirical opinion and to have fun at it.

If I write about the "news", it's only to give my opinion: I certainly am not a journalist nor do I represent myself as one (though, yes, I had the training in college and did edit the universtiy rag, as well as work for College Press Servcie once upon a long, long time ago.)

I have no desire, much less the time, energy or resources, to go out and dig up and report on the news. Nor do I want to rely on 'tipsters' - that would require me to do a certain amount of research to validate their information.

No, what I want - like most bloggers - is to write my own opinion column (without the benefits/restraint of a good editor) and, because of it, to become famous, obscenely wealthy and appear the Sunday talk shows to quietly utter my profound analysis of the week's events, display my sparkling wit and good looks...

*ahem*

In any event, while I have taken a shot or two at The Star's local management, I certainly don't want the paper to fold. My true anger is toward McClatchy and their haphazard management style that has allowed The Star and The Bee and other McClatchy properties to wallow the shallows of McClatchy's eventual Chapter 11. It is a dishonest approach to business that has already caused considerable pain and will most certainly cause more.

In any event, keep on truckin'. It's always nice to read well reasoned, properly constructed essays.

As opposed to...well, you know.

12/13/2008 11:48 AM  
Anonymous Anthony Twain said...

So Funk is in full court bashing of Joe Miller, Ruth Bates, Ed Wolf and anyone else that disagrees with him.

You Dan are now bashing the media for pointing out Funk's failures.

Your point is not that what Funk did was mean (bashing Joe, bashing Ruth, etc), your point is the media (loose term) is bad about reporting it.

Funk blames everyone else for his failures. You seem to be following suite. Someone with real "leadership and grace" doesn't go around whining about others. He takes charge and pushes on.

Which is worse the mayor saying Miller was disgruntled because he didn’t get the chief of staff job this fall and it was a mistake to ever have hired him or the media reporting that he said that?

The line between what was "newsworthy" and what was "between us" was respected and dependable

You seem more like the old school elite that is angry that the powers that be can't control the message.

When you earned the title of "journalist" by going to school and learning from your superiors, did you really want to become a blogger?

So, now only the "elite" from a big school can be journalist? Here are a few "journalists" that never went to J-school. Samuel L. Clemens, Walter Winchell (studied vaudeville) , Bob Woodward (studied history), etc.

Do you think that public figures should treat you with respect, if they know you are looking for material that would never be newsworthy in hard copy?

Since when did public figures treat journalists with respect? History shows up that public figures most show their disdain of journalist, when journalists dig up dirt like they are supposed to.

"The press is the enemy. " Richard Nixon.

12/13/2008 12:12 PM  
Anonymous mainstream said...

Now hold on a minute. What exactly did Yael say that was inaccurate or untrue?

I was surprised to read it, and I think that little factoid may have been a surprise to more than a few city hall insiders.

Goes to show how many people have really read the city charter.

12/13/2008 3:24 PM  
Anonymous mainstream said...

Oh, and your conclusion that Funkhouser's behavior doesn't fall under the definition of misconduct is a quite subjective one, wouldn't you say?

Yael's column was valid, and guess what? There's an ethics investigation initiated shortly after his column was published, supported by a unanimous vote of the city council.

That sounds like everything Yael said was not only true and acccurate, but it characterized the reality of the situation.

12/13/2008 3:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That sounds like everything Yael said was not only true and acccurate, but it characterized the reality of the situation.

Funk supporters are starting to sound more like Bush supporters.

We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

12/13/2008 3:55 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

People, please.

This post is NOT about Funkhouser.

12/13/2008 4:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, the point is, you don't like what the media is saying, you are trying to put them down.

You have not pointed out one thing that Yael, or others, said that was untrue. Instead you pine for the good old days when power brokers decided what was news, when the public's right to know suffered to support the journalist's access to information.

The point is that when journalists report gossip on blogs, or publish material without the rigorous fact-checking and placement into context that ought to go into their published work, they devalue themselves as journalists. What facts has prime buzz gotten wrong? If your going to call "Yael" a "blogger" and not a "journalist", why don't you back it up with some facts? What exactly has Yael gotten wrong?

All of your example of an "ethical lapse" by Yael, doesn't tell us what was incorrect about Yael's facts. Your entire post is basically "I don't like the message, so I will bad mouth the messanger."

12/13/2008 5:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post is NOT about Funkhouser.

Um, maybe I am wrong, but isn't the title of your post:
"Funkhouser to Electric Chair? - Journalists Make Lousy Bloggers, Too "

12/13/2008 5:44 PM  
Anonymous inafunkaboutthefunk said...

One day when the Funk is gone, we will all get to see the ultimate spin from Dan. Until then, he isn't going to say anything negative about his boy Funk. We all take this as a given...

And when something comes up that cannot be refuted, we see the game he plays. Either duck duck goose, or shoot the messenger. Cleverly never responding to the comment.

Oh well, what we get is, as he pointed out, what HE pays for.

12/14/2008 2:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dan how do you sleep?

12/14/2008 7:42 AM  
Blogger I Travel for JOOLS said...

I must agree with both of Dan's posts on this subject. The knife cuts both ways. I expect a newspaper to follow objective standards of reporting the news with editorial opinions being the exception. I have no similar expectations of news bloggers who are acting on their own behalf. They are opinionists. They may or may not be operating on facts.

However, many people believe that if it's sponsored in any way by a news organization, then it must be as true as anything directly offered by a legitimate news organization. I just checked Prime Buzz and see no disclaimer of any kind that they are not acting on behalf of the Star in accordance with the Star's journalistic standards. If I failed to see it, somebody please point it out. I'll gladly retract what I said about Prime Buzz, but in general I believe at the least there should be disclaimers from professional reporting conduct on any blog which is associated with a professional news organization.

12/14/2008 8:37 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Obviously, a group of commenters has been conditioned like Skinner pigeons to react to anything remotely positive about Funkhouser, or at least in defense of him, as an extraordinary provocation that demands an immediate attack. I'll take the blame, then, and agree that to make my point clear in this post, I should have pointed out one of Yael's frequently uninformed sports predictions, or his strange (though not unique among the media) spin on the Blagojevich scandal, trying to tie it to Obama when Obama promised nothing but gratitude.

So, if you read this column and your vision turns read at the point where I mention Funkhouser, please reread it with one of those criticism included, and come back and comment on the issue of whether you agree that journalists trying to play like bloggers is a bad idea.

(Now, as a brief aside, for those who can't take their minds off Funk, Yael was wrong because the charter does not allow the council to remove the mayor unless they find misconduct in office more than has been alleged - as Ed Ford himself acknowledges. Also, the mistake he repeats in the gossip about Marcason and Funk is that Funk isn't appointing people from her district out of spite - if the Star does its job, you'll see a correction in the next day or so. Finally, Yael's ethical lapse was his deletion of the "exclusive!" tags and the red lettering - changing posts is a blogger no-no. (http://www.rebeccablood.net/handbook/excerpts/weblog_ethics.html. All that said, I'll not further address the distracting comments that aren't about journalism and blogging.)

12/14/2008 9:24 AM  
Anonymous mainstream said...

Ok, so Yael's only accurate infraction is acting impulsively with the Exclisive claim.

I think Yael came off souinding a little mavericky.

12/14/2008 9:39 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

To me, it seemed my "Tony"-y, but I can accept mavericky, too. It didn't seem journalistic-y, though.

BTW, I meant to say "your vision turns red" instead of "your vision turns read".

12/14/2008 10:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is a chintzy thing to jump on Yael for when one considers all the trouble and embarrassment the funky administration has heaped on KC. Yael had to come a long way before he broke with Funk, but at least he acted like a grown up and did it.

12/14/2008 6:30 PM  
Anonymous Kingsfield said...

Dan - most of your commentators are assholes. They cannot think about anything other than Funkhouser - they are pathetic. It's sad, but you're correct when you say that you should have chosen another one of Yael's idiocies to focus on.

Now you have halfwits acting like Yael is something more than a complete douchebag, simply because Yael hates Funkhouser as much as they do.

12/14/2008 10:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kingsfield, I think you ARE Dan.

12/15/2008 8:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Dan's world, if you are not a Funk sycophant, then you are not a REAL journalist.

12/15/2008 8:57 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Kingsfield, the commentators are not assholes, as you claim. A few of them behave that way here, because they can anonymously express whatever pain or hostility troubles their world. I bet in real life, even the most vicious of them are generally nice, decent people.

Similarly, Yael is miles away from being a complete douchebag - he, like a lot of other journalists, is trying to find a way to remain relevant in a world that includes blogs that are more provocative and looser in many ways than he was trained to be. I'm sure it's pretty troubling to see the success of some untrained bloggers writing better columns more consistently than you are, when having the opportunity to do so was your career goal for years. Pundit used to be a job you earned based on years and years of apprenticeship or even serfdom, writing obits and dry news until you earned your right to pen a column. Now that apprenticeship has been replaced by either a meritocracy or democracy, and any yahoo with a modem and a blogger account can compete on an equal footing, and I'm sure he's resentful and confused. More positively, I suspect he's also a little addicted to the instantaneous feedback that he gets on the blog, and loving the fact that he doesn't have to worry about balance, accuracy or attention to detail on the blog - blogging, for Yael, means never having to say you're sorry.

Anonymous - Kingsfield is not me. If I remember correctly, he's disagreed with me a few times - I am truly not smart enough to keep track of multiple personalities. Nor do I care to try.

(On the other hand, Inafunk IS me, trying to demontrate how over-the-top much of the anti-Funk criticism is, but people keep taking me seriously!) ;-)

12/16/2008 6:17 AM  
Anonymous Anthony Twain said...

I bet in real life, even the most vicious of them are generally nice, decent people.

We feel the same about you Dan. (to most of us you might as well be anonymous)

Pundit used to be a job you earned based on years and years of apprenticeship or even serfdom, writing obits and dry news until you earned your right to pen a column

Back to the "only the elite" should be journalists theme? I wonder how many of our nations great journalist would meet your criteria. I had not thought you so anti common man.

Would riverboat pilot be a good enough apprenticeship? How about vaudeville training?

12/16/2008 2:29 PM  

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