Taking a short break from the torture beat, Glenn Greenwald found an unusually egregious case of journalistic laziness by the Politico’s Mike Allen. The give-and-take is worth reading in full, but this is blogs so I’ll summarize.
Allen: Various anonymous Bush officials think that Obama sucks eggs.
Greenwald (via twitter): Mike, please explain your standards for granting anonymity.
Allen: ‘The left’ (including, amusingly, Andrew Sullivan) is attacking me! Also, basically, I don’t have any standards.
If you think that my shorter version misses some important nuance in Allen’s response, by all means, scour Allen’s article for evidence of real standards. It could be that I am an amateur at this, but in his own words it looks like Allen will grant anonymity to anyone who wants it, before or after the quote is given, as long as the source meets some arbitrary standard as an important person. A free subscription to the blog goes to the first reader who can find a substantive point that distinguishes Allen from Judith Miller, the index case for journalistic dishonesty.
As to whether Allen, like Miller, is knowingly complicit or just lazy, like Glenn I find this paragraph illuminating (formatting mine).
I figured that readers could decide whether the former Bush official’s comments sounded defensive or vindictive. And POLITICO readers aren’t so delicate that we have to deceptively pretend there’s no other side to a major issue. So at the bottom of the Axelrod story, I tacked on an ellipsized excerpt of the former Bush official’s quotes, removing several ad hominem attacks on Obama. I quoted less than half of the comment and took out the most incendiary parts — a way to hint at the opposing view without giving an anonymous source free rein. I also added a final sentence with additional White House perspective, so the former Bush official wouldn’t have the last word.
I find that paragraph so perfect in its illogic and self-negation that I have come to cherish it in some perverse way. Allen’s excuse for anonymity was that readers could decide for themselves whether the anonymous Bush criticisms “sounded defensive or vindictive.” But he then confesses that he edited out “the most incendiary parts,” including “several ad hominems.” So, like a good servant-editor, he first helpfully sanitized the Bush official’s smears by making them appear more sober and substantive than they actually were — by removing all the parts that reflected vindictiveness towards Obama — and then justified the anonymity he granted by saying he wanted readers to see for themselves if the criticisms of Obama’s decision were grounded in vindictiveness. He evidently confessed all of that without realizing that his actions completely negate his claimed justification.
His closer is just cold.
Media criticisms are often grounded in the ethical deficiencies and corrupted motives of journalists. And that’s all appropriate. But it’s worth remembering that often the conduct of a journalist is at least as much a question of abilities as it is anything else.
I want to highlight this point because the Politico is not some marginalized joke like the crackhead squatters warming themselves with book fires in William F. Buckley’s place. Whether or not they deserve the attention, real news outlets look to the Politico as a model of how to survive and grow in the internet age. These days that you can find shoddy journalism practically everywhere, but that is not an excuse. It’s a choice.
In establishing Politico, as much as anything Mike Allen meant to prove that online journalism could stand toe-to-toe with anything in the print world. If Allen really wanted to make that point, practically the best thing he could do is make a point of observing best-practices that once separated ‘real’ journalism from the yellow and tabloid kind. The New York Times can shrug off a certain number of mini-scandals because, well, they are The New York fucking Times. When Politico fudges a story it just looks like another sloppy online outlet. To the degree that Politico has influence, it convinces struggling print reporters that maybe that is how internet age journalism should be.
I can understand the impulse to play defense against Greenwald’s relentless criticism. It is a stupid impulse, but impulse control (also known as ‘standards’) is what got him in trouble in the first place. Allen honestly does not see that he is punching himself in the face here.