Saturday, March 05, 2005

The controversy surrounding a recent Los Angeles Times article by Korea correspondent Barbara Demick suggests that the practice of journalism in America may be in for a momentous change. Conservative bloggers have pummeled Demick for the article, in which a North Korean official cheerfully defends his government's record, completely unchallenged. She's even been compared to Walter Duranty, the notorious New York Times journalist who filed glowing dispatches about Stalinist Russia during the Great Terror of the 1930's.

Well, it turns out that the story isn't that simple. Apparently, Demick has written at length about the horrors of the North Korean Regime after all. Then there's this article, from this past fall, in which Demick ruminates on the difficulty of reporting on North Korea while being barred from the country. And now, a few months later, we read Demick obediently parroting the North Korean government's propaganda.

I believe what we have here is a classic example of the foreign correspondent's version of a "source greaser". A couple of years ago, when it was revealed that CNN had prettified its coverage of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq in return for "access", I pointed out that domestic journalists do this sort of thing all the time, buttering up sources in return for juicy tidbits. It's hardly surprising, then, that reporters traveling abroad pack a similarly lax set of scruples, when it comes to getting information about countries where the flow of information is tightly controlled by the government. I strongly suspect that Barbara Demick is playing this game--filing some obsequious reports about North Korea in the hope of getting a journalist's visa, where (she imagines) she can get the real scoop on the country.

What's interesting about this case is that it demonstrates the way the collapse of the media establishment (of which blogs are only one part) has opened up journalists' practices--including source-greasers--to withering scrutiny. As a result, many standard journalistic practices--source-greasers among them--may now be impossible to get away with.

That's not a bad thing. Source-greasers are part of an inherently dishonest transaction, whose only beneficiaries are the journalist and the source. The source gets both flattering press and the opportunity to mislead the public by feeding the journalist "scoops" of his or her choice, and the journalist gets preferential access to these scoops. The public is the clear loser from this type of transaction, and its abolition can only improve journalism.

In the case of foreign reporting, scrutiny of journalistic practices is particularly difficult, because the audience is inherently less well-informed about the topic, and therefore less able to assess the credibility of the journalists. But if the CNN and LA Times cases are any indication, even foreign correspondents may soon be constrained by media watchdogs to report in something resembling an honest fashion. That would certainly be a tremendous improvement.


Anonymous said...

Continuing from the old comments.

Lower level journalists (in the U.S.) follow signals from higher food chain journalists. Higher food chain journalists are certainly smart enough to know that, when parroting viewpoints, they are misleading the public. So, basically, you're saying that all journalists are source greasers and that our journalism system is a complete fraud. Or, at least complicit in perpetuating false viewpoints that benefit the wealthly, powerful, etc.

Maybe what we need is an index which measures how often a newspaper, CNN, etc. do this parroting activity and then hold them to task for it. Oh, wait. I built one of those last year. :)

Dan Simon said...

As far as I know, it's pretty rare for a journalist to parrot an official government or party press release without obtaining a balancing comment from the opposing party. Journalists will, of course, often arrange such stories in a way which favors the journalist's perspective on the issue. Alternatively, a journalist may occasionally parrot, without opposing commentary, statements from self-proclaimed "non-partisan" organizations that actually have a partisan agenda. However, deliberately engaging in this kind of flagrant advocacy--however common--is widely acknowledged to be bad journalism, and even its most enthusiastic practitioners pay lip service to disdaining it in favor of "objectivity", or at least"fairness".

Source-greasing is a completely different phenomenon. Rather than explicitly take a partisan stance on ideological grounds, the source-greasing journalist will depict the source in a favorable light, in return for information that itself may be true or false, and may benefit whomever the source wants it to benefit. The information's only important properties, from the journalist's point of view, are that it be (a) interesting, (b) printable, and (c) handed only to that particular journalist, as an "exclusive".

The problem with source-greasing is that (so far, at least) it appears to have almost completely escaped criticism from press watchdogs. Consider, for example, one of the true legends of source-greasing: Bob Woodward. Reviewers of his books often openly speculate on the identities of his main sources based on which people in the book are portrayed in a positive light. Nevertheless, Woodward is nearly universally revered for his ability to obtain "access"--not condemned for his willingness to bend the truth to flatter his sources, in order to preserve the source-greasing reputation that wins him still more and better "access". Perhaps scrutiny from alert bloggers will change that in the future.

Anonymous said...

I'm just not convinced there is a significant difference between source greasing and regular journalism, as practiced in major & minor U.S. news periodicals. The only line you seem to be drawing is that, in source greasing, the *only* purpose of the article is to grease the source while in regular journalism it may occur as a subset of an article.

Dan Simon said...

Well, let's start from the understand the difference between the journalistic ideal--balanced coverage of all points of view--and a source-greaser, in which only the source's point of view is represented--right?

Anonymous said...

The journalistic ideal, as I understand it, is to present the facts of a situation to the public for judgment. "Balance" isn't a requirement. But "fact checking" is. The problem with source greasing, to me at least, is that it lacks fact checking without implicitly stating that fact checking was left out.