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Weigel and Nasr "Sins" Put the Church of High Integrity on Trial

|Includes: Graham Holdings Company (GHC), TWX

I’ve always been a faithful disciple, worshipping at the altar of Church and State. (And of the Reverend Al Green, but that’s another story.) I’ve resisted commercial pressures and been party to painful terminations when staffers violated rules bringing the newspaper’s integrity or credibility into question.

Thinking about the recent terminations at the Washington Post and CNN, though, I wonder if the press priesthood is still another cultural institution in the process of being swept away, encumbered as much as it has by habit as by principle.

In America, we don’t require press licenses, owing our craft we believe to one of the birthrights of the nation, the First Amendment. At the same time, in mainstream media, mainly the daily press and TV news, we’ve developed an order over the years. It’s one with its own sense of right and wrong, one of quick trial and punishment, one that often uses excommunication as a first punishment.

Those ex-communications can electrify debate, as they have in the last two weeks, as first the Washington Post let blogger Dave Weigel go and then CNN rapidly dispatched 20-year veteran Octavia Nasr.

They paid the price of an absolutist system, a system that owes its certainty to a different age. The priesthood, understanding the pressures of commercial and get-ahead-anyway-you-can America, has always taken a tough line with news reporters. Avoid any conflict of interest, or the appearance thereof. Don’t let personal beliefs get in the way of your reporting. Pre-Internet, that could be a tough discipline, but it is one that largely served the press and readers well.

Now, each Sunday, it seems, there fewer congregants in the church.  There’s a strange information promiscuity sweeping the land. In fact, down the street, revivalists – in the case of the Post, – are setting up tents from coast to coast to draw some of those who have left the mainstream news faith.

The High Church of Integrity is challenged. Its doctrines and dogma are being challenged by those who believe a more contemporary set of principles and practices can replace the received wisdom.  Let’s call it the new approach a Society of Friends, with tips both to the Quaker collaborative style and to the Facebook era.

There’s both a philosophical and practical reason for the challenge to the old way of doing things. Philosophically, many editors have come to believe that journalism in the Internet age demands new ways of expressing and maintaining integrity. Practically, the evolving Big Tent theory of journalism – the more journalism from bloggers, hyperlocal site operators and Pro-Am writers of all kinds – means evolving new practices that breathe fresh air into still-valuable principles.

TBD’s approach is instructive, both philosophically and practically.

Steve Buttry is director of community engagement for TBD, moving there from the world of dailies, after winning Editor and Publisher’s editor of the year award.

TBD's Community's Network has already signed up some 90 community sites, though TBD won't launch for a couple of months. How is TBD dealing with issues of potential conflict of interest, with credibility and with integrity? It's taking a far different approach with those partner sites

"We aren’t placing any requirements or guidelines on them," he told me. "We aren’t presenting them to the public as professional journalists operating by the SPJ Code of Ethics (though some of them are). Sometime after we launch, we will ask them to choose some labels that would identify whether they are independent or involved in the activities they blog about, etc. Actually we think they are pretty transparent about that. Some don’t identify themselves publicly, which I would prefer. But on the whole, I would say bloggers do transparency better than traditional media. Our basic approach is that we trust our audience to be discerning and smart. We think they can tell neutral reporting from blogging about personal passions and activities. Some will want both. Some will gravitate to one or the other (or another of the many types of content and perspectives we present). We are fine with that. If we learn of egregious ethical violations such as plagiarism, fabrication, deception, we will drop someone from the network and explain why. But we are not expecting all of the network to follow traditional journalism standards and, frankly, I’m glad that they aren’t as hung up on the myth of objectivity the way traditional journos do."

That's for the community network. What about TBD staffers, of whom they'll be a couple of dozen? Says Buttry, " No staff policy or guidelines at this point. We'll have lots of conversations about ethics. I think conversations shape ethical decisions better than rules."

Ironically, TBD is headed by Jim Brady, the Post’s prodigal son, who ran and got accolades for his role leading the content side of for years.

TBD’s approach is web, 2010. It’s a Society of Friends approach, and one being put into place not by starry-eyed newbies, but veteran journalists reinventing their craft on the fly. There’s risk there, of course, for Steve Buttry and Jim Brady in the approach. Undoubtedly, controversies will pop up on their watch, and their new practices will be dissected.

For Marcus Brauchli’s Post, the challenge is strong as well.  He and his paper represent, now more than ever, the gold standard in American journalism, along with a handful of other newspapers. He deserves credit for aiming to keep a high bar in place in a shifting age. Safeguarding the Post’s integrity, thankfully, remains a given; the question is how to do it and successfully extend the Post’s reach and breadth, especially when TBD is out to take a bite out of its lunch.  Post ombudsman Andy Alexander and others have pointed out that the Post’s own internal standards, and the communication of them to staffers, are confusing and uneven.

For the Post, on a practical basis, its own effort to build a bigger tent -- ironically, a goal in hiring Weigel and others -- must continue, especially given the TBD competition. How to build that tent in the modern age now becomes the Post's big issue.

A great Poynter chat, moderated by Steve Myers and involving both Dave Weigel and Jay Rosen, dissected the issues well. Objectivity. False objectivity. Disclosure. Engagement with readers and not underestimating their intelligence.

As Jay pointed out, “What's at issue is how a craft that is replete with judgment explains itself when questioned. The old explanations have broken down. But there are careers that essentially rest on them. This is one reason they are not easily given up…. The Voice of God and the View from Nowhere were never that believable; there was just no alternative and no way to talk back. Now there is. Journalism ought to come down from the clouds and live among the people as the imperfect and improvised product that it always was.”

On a practical level, the Times blogger Kate Roberts laid out well why a punishment short of excommunication could have worked well in the Weigel affair.

“For both Mr. Weigel and the Post, a reprimand, suspension or even just imposing some standards – think without speaking or writing everything out loud – might have been a better outcome."

In CNN’s quick termination of Nasr, a 20-year-veteran (Weigel had been on the job for three months), we see further absolutism in dealing with social media-inflected change.

Certainly, Nasr had to take responsibility for seemingly simplistic homage to a terrorist, but one 140-word tweet needn’t determine a whole career. Readers are smarter than that, as Buttry points out, if editors give them the chance. Twittercide – the tanking of a career based on one stupid post – needn’t be synonymous with capital punishment.

In the age of Twitter and of “confidential” journalist list serves (the quicksand that enveloped Dave Weigel) the point is that the Church must examine its teachings and its rules. That doesn’t mean changing its principles, just realizing that the multiple forms of expression before us all demand more nuance in judgment – the judgment of management as well as that of reporters.

Disclosure: none