J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

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Archive for February, 2007

Who Wants to be the Next Colin Powell? No One, it Seems. (Updated Below)

Posted by chanders on February 11, 2007


  Here We Go Again
  Originally uploaded by Chanders.

Just as the lefty blogosphere begins to crank up its dissection of mainstream media reporting on the Iran-Iraqi insurgency connection, along comes a Baghdad briefing that looks to set a new gold standard when it comes to the dodgy use of anonymous sources.

Some back story first: as Glen Greenwald noted yesterday, both the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post (along with the AP) have recently published well-researched stories casting doubt on some of the more hyperbolic Pentagon claims about Iran’s meddling in Iraq. Obviously, there’s a history here: no one in the media should be willing to be a stooge for over-hyped way mongering "evidence" again, considering how well this all went the last time around. As Greenwald notes, "It seemed as though the media was treating the war-inflaming claims of Bush officials against Iran much more skeptically."

So a lot of people hit the ceiling when, on Saturday, New York Times reporter Michael Gordon penned a front-page article headlined "Deadliest Bomb in Iraq Made By Iran, US Says." Greenwald puts it well:

The article does nothing, literally, but mindlessly recite administration claims about Iran’s weapons-supplying activities without the slightest questioning, investigation, or presentation of ample counter-evidence. The entire article is nothing more than one accusatory claim about Iran after the next, all emanating from the mouths of anonymous military and "intelligence officials" without the slightest verified evidence, and Gordon just mindlessly repeats what he has been told in one provocative paragraph after the next.

Editor and Publisher dryly noted that Gordon "wrote with [Judith] Miller the paper’s most widely criticized — even by the Times itself — WMD story of all, the Sept. 8, 2002, “aluminum tubes” story that proved so influential, especially since the administration trumpeted it on TV talk shows." Raw Story alleges that the Gordon story "appears to violate the paper’s policy on using unidentified sources … Gordon’s article doesn’t contain any explanation why his sources were unidentified, nor does it even come out and explicitly say that anonymity was granted." And Think Progress highlights the little-noticed fact that the Bush Administration stepped back from the cooked-intelligence precipice once before, noting that "on Feb. 2, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley acknowledged that the Iran briefing was held back because it was “overstated” and not “focused on the facts.”

So, this is where we find ourselves Sunday morning, as the Pentagon prepares the Baghdad release of its long-delayed, much-hyped "Iran dossier," charging that "Iranian security forces, taking orders from the "highest levels" of the Iranian government, are funneling sophisticated explosives to extremist groups in Iraq, and the weapons have grown increasingly deadly for U.S.-led troops over the past two years."

Incendiary claims indeed. But here’s the worst thing. The briefing was provided by "senior defense official …  on condition of anonymity," according to the AP. Or as the Washington Post puts it, the briefing was supplied by "a senior defense official in Baghdad, who like the two other officials spoke on condition of anonymity." The AP attributes the briefing to "U.S.-led forces in Iraq," as if somehow the forces themselves stood up at the podium and provided a hundred-thousand man press conference.

This boggles the mind. A full-dress press conference, supposedly providing the best-evidence the U.S. has amassed so far on Iranian interference in Iraq, is given by three people, all speaking on condition of anonymity? And its taken seriously? And reported? And it gets better. Writes the Post:

"The officials said they would speak only on the condition of anonymity so the trio’s explosives expert and analyst, who would normally not speak to reporters, could provide more information. The analyst’s exact job description was not revealed to reporters. Reporters’ cell phones were taken before the briefing, and the officials did not allow reporters to record or videotape the proceedings."

Or writes the Times:

"During the briefing, the senior United States military officials were repeatedly pressed on why they insisted on anonymity in such an important matter affecting the security of American and Iraqi troops. A senior military official said that without anonymity, for example, the military analyst could not have contributed to the briefing."

This is insanity. This press conference should have been boycotted by every self-respecting reporter in Iraq.

Update: Editor and Publisher notes that the Voice of Iraq (VOI) has outed one of the three "anonymous sources":

In his new site, Iraqslogger.com, Eason Jordan observes in response, that "one of the three supposedly unnamed US officials apparently has been outed by an Iraqi news service, Voices of Iraq, whose report on the Baghdad news conference identified one of the three speakers as Major General William Caldwell, whose portfolio includes public affairs and who holds frequent news conference and grants one-on-one interviews.

"So, if the VOI report identifying Caldwell is correct, why did every other news organization apparently agree to grant anonymity to the general who’s the official spokesman of the US-led Multi-National Force in Iraq? Why would Caldwell insist on not having his name associated with these allegations today?

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From Power to Authority in Communications Research

Posted by chanders on February 2, 2007

This is a very early excerpt of a larger theoretical paper I’m working on. Its in an extremely preliminary state. Nevertheless, I’m happier with the ideas here– how they integrate the sociological and theoretical concerns of my project; how they relate to larger issues I’ve thought about as an activist, how they bring anti-authoritarian concepts to the fore– than I’ve been with much I’ve done for a long time. For various reasons, including a work in progress presentation I’ll be giving in two weeks, I thought this was an appropriate time to share them with the larger web community that occasionally drops in and pays attention to my incoherent ramblings.

As always, comments are welcome and sought after. Please remember, this is all very nebulous at this point, so there’s lots to be done.

Despite fairly profound conceptual difficulties, arguments about power,
authority, and the relationship between the two– from the “three faces
of power debate” that dominated much of political science in from the
1950’s to the 1960’s; to the provocative writings and interviews of
Michel Foucault; to Bourdieu’s more empirically grounded work on
symbolic power– have been some few areas of current research in which
both social scientists and social theorists have felt compelled to
produce voluminous and contradictory materials in equal measure. All,
that is, but in the realm of communications and media research. For
while questions of media power (and related questions of media effects
and media influence) have dominated the field since its inception, the
theoretical relationship between these questions and questions of
authority and legitimacy have been rarely addressed, especially on a
non-normative level. The few scholarly investigations tackling issues
of (usually specifically “journalistic”) authority have been a
theoretical and definitional muddle, often doing more to obscure the
concept than illuminate it. All the while, of course, media-marketers
and political communications researchers carry on merrily with their
“media effects” experiments, (still, it seems) convinced that the proof
of media power is in the purchasing.

In the pages that follow I try to tease out the conceptual distinction
between power and authority in the field of media research and argue
that non-normative questions of institutional media authority deserve
more attention than they have thus far received from scholars in the
communications field. I posit that, although my primary concern is with
questions of media authority, such a problematic cannot be properly
understood without first coming to grips with the genealogy of media
power; in other words, investigating with the manner in which the
notion idea media power has been articulated by communications
theorists and researchers.  As media power has remained at the center–
either by its presence or its absence– of most scholarship in the
field of media studies, such a genealogy inevitably forces the
researcher to take a position within the currently fevered debates over
the history of communications research.  The argument is made in the
pages which follow that, for most of the history of the field, media
research has concerned itself with the overt exercise of media power
rather than the capacity for such an exercise; furthermore, that most
structuralist exceptions to this obsession with exercised power have
remained beholden to a vulgar Marxist conception of power; and finally,
that recent movements in the field towards more complex notion of
symbolic power and its relationship with various other forms of power
mark a welcome conceptual advance. Nevertheless, even these theoretical
moves neglect issues of authority in media institutions.

If Part One explores issues of power in media studies, then, Part Two
focuses instead on media and authority. I probe the conceptual
distinctions between power and authority, noting that while authority
necessarily involves questions of legitimacy and right, scholarship in
this vein need not be necessarily and irreducibly normative. I examine
the well-known attempt by Barbie Zelizer to move issues of
“journalistic authority” towards the center of communications
research– an attempt whose serious theoretical shortcomings trumped  a
deeply original insight into the differences between power and
institutional authority.  I conclude by advancing my own understanding
of the relationship between power and authority in media studies,
highlighting some ways in which this understanding can be not only be
applied to current questions in communications research, but also might
serve to  draw the fields of media studies and the sociology of news
into a closer, more  productive conversation.

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