Archive for category: Newspapering

Libel per se – UPDATED TWICE

02 Jul
July 2, 2014

UPDATE:  12 p.m., July 4

I am informed that the Huff Post piece has now removed the reference to my having been fired.  Instead, apparently, my revenge was had upon editors who spiked one of my articles because my writing wasn’t “Dickensian” enough.  They never said anything of the sort to me or anyone else, and that is not actually the reason that particular article was spiked.  I carefully related the actual sequence of events to Dr. Williams in my April memo as a discussion of  that particular article and its fate features throughout her manuscript, but no matter.  With regard to the Huff Post essay at least, I am libeled no more and I thank the author for her apology at the bottom of the essay.

A brief word on the non-performance of the Huffington Post in this matter, on their publishing ethic, and on the manner in which this institution conducts its business:

The abdication of editorial responsibility in the case of aggregated sites such as Wikipedia or barely-edited copy dumps such as the Huffington Post is one of the sad retrenchments in news distribution and commentary.  The ethos of such entities — hey, we don’t write the stuff; we’re just the blackboard it’s scrawled upon —  sounds at first to be an ennobled argument for an open and unfettered marketplace of ideas, where some unseen hand of libertarian idealism ensures that better notions triumph over bad ones, and the lies are all, in the end, run down and brutalized by more powerful truths before much harm is done.  Demagogues from Huey Long to Joseph Goebbels have an answer to that naivete; shit, John Kerry will sell you a used Swift Boat if you’re credulous enough to believe such tripe.   These policies are not ennobled.  They are craven.  They allow web entities to profit off the slanders, provocations and irresponsible claims in the real-time battles that make their sites central and profitable to every argument. Lies and cheap provocations become as essential to the dynamic as the truth, and accuracy and falsehood are accorded equal honor.  It’s yellow stuff indeed.  

Some of the best and most courageous journalism that I’ve witnessed involved the decision by good and careful editors NOT to publishing something incomplete, or inaccurate, or ethically impaired.  Such things seldom happen with our present internet.  Instead, the editors of the Huffington Post are not only untroubled at the thought of unknowingly participating in a libel, they prove comfortable with maintaining that libel even when its falsehood is known.  They throw up their hands, cry that we shouldn’t shoot the piano player, who’s merely playing the music of others.  As if carrying a lie about another citizen to a mass of people isn’t still the tort of libel and a thoroughly scumsucking thing with which to be engaged.

UPDATE:  2 p.m., July 3

Today, I spoke with the director of Duke University Press.  He informs me that Dr. Williams’ book, which had been sent to the printer without any changes since I viewed the manuscript three months ago, is now on hold while the publisher consults with its author and with legal counsel.  Given that this gentleman was coming to this issue suddenly and without prior knowledge, and, too, that some time is required to reach people, gather information and address complicated matters, I’m inclined to leave it here and keep the details of my conversation private.  At present, I am content to believe that Duke University Press is trying to address the issue.   More to come.  Or not.  Hard to know. 

ORIGINAL  TEXT:  July 2

The permanent churn of the internet is such that if you allow a dishonesty to stand for more than a moment, it will be endlessly repeated as fact for as long as there are humans left to link to it.   We all sense this.  And even so, for some falsehoods, we have to laugh and let it ride; the stakes just aren’t that high.

But every now and then comes a moment when — as someone who counted himself as a professional reporter for some certain years — I find myself stunned, like a cow with a sledgehammer, to see just how indifferent another practitioner is to any basic responsibility and ethics.

In this instance, the practitioner is an academic author, Linda Williams, who has published a book of themes and arguments relating to a television show I once wrote and produced, “The Wire.”  Her book, published by Duke University Press, is currently being hawked as new books always are, and Ms. Williams has written a piece for the Huffington Post, which appears on that site today as part of that publicity campaign.  For obvious reasons, I will not link to it because of the libel contained therein.

Understand, it is not merely an error.  Everyone makes mistakes.

The reason that I can attest that this is no mere error is that a few months ago, Duke University Press sent me a galley of the book and asked that I look at it.  As I explained to them, I am without public opinion as to Dr. Williams’ thoughts and theories regarding “The Wire.”  She is welcome to all of them.  I do, however, find myself capable of opinion on any narrative that suggests I was at any point unethical as a newspaperman.  Those years matter to me to a much greater degree than how anyone might view my later performance in the entertainment industry.

And indeed, embedded in the original manuscript was a theme, conjured from god knows where by the author, that I had been fired from the newspaper after a falling out with editors that involved an ethical breach on my part.

I don’t know how else to say this:  There was no ethical breach.  No lapse in any ethical standard of journalism was ever suggested or referenced in any of my work, even by those editors with whom I had deep and fundamental disagreements over the direction and priorities of the newspaper.  No ethical question was ever raised by those editors with me, nor with any of my immediate supervisors.  Nothing of the sort was ever discussed or brought to my attention in any way, ever.  It.  Just.  Did.  Not.  Happen.

I was not fired at all.  In fact, because of more philosophical disagreements, I elected to leave the Sun voluntarily in November 1995, taking a buyout with about 120 other newsroom employees who were offered a year’s salary and benefits to leave the newspaper.  Further, when it became clear to the editors in question that I was determined to depart the paper, one of them, Mr. Marimow by name, came to me in the last hours of the buyout window and put a slip of paper in my hand.  It promised a $5,000 raise immediately if I would withdraw my buyout papers, and a second raise in the subsequent fiscal year.  I thanked him, but noted that my differences with him and with Mr. Carroll were not really about money, and I left the paper.

And yet, here I am in the Huffington Post today under the byline of Dr. Williams, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley:  “Thus did David Simon have his sweet revenge on the bosses who once fired him from the Baltimore Sun…”

Again, I conveyed all of the above corrective facts to Dr. Williams and her publisher both, in writing, by early April.  I wrote that they should look at the material and endeavor to do the proper and responsible thing.  I did not hear back from them.  I do not know if substantive changes have been made to the book manuscript.  I only know that I am nonetheless, in today’s published essay, someone who needed to be fired from his newspaper.

Being fired from any job certainly implies cause.  It is defamatory on its face.  And when a writer is informed in advance of the facts and chooses to publish such a claim regardless, it meets the definition for libel, and actionable libel even of a public person.

Today, I’ve written to my original contacts at Duke University Press, asking, in effect, what the fuck.  I also attempted to correct the record using the disembodied and bureaucratic uselessness that is the Huffington Post’s corrections and legal inquiry forms.  Nada.  No replies.   No follow through at all.  As of a few moments ago, the lie stands, comfortably, amid the warm breezes of a web where truth is always late to the picnic.

There is a presumption that the academy — with its research standards and its intellectual rigor — is ever superior to the slapdash, first-draft-of-history half-assedness that is daily journalism.  We made mistakes in print all the time.  Yes, we did.  But if someone sent me corrective material months in advance of publication and I still managed to print a libel without regard to that material, I would have been, well, fired.  And I would not have complained.

Columbia Journalism Review: Free For All

05 Jun
June 5, 2012

For the last few days, I’ve been heartily engaged in the comments section of a couple CJR items that originated from the New Orleans Times-Picayune‘s travails.  I advocate for the industry-wide adoption of online pay walls to sustain high-end journalism. Others regard this as a disastrous suggestion.

As the comments began to pile up, I saw some insight and a lot of argumentative fallacy.  People do love to call names.

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Sweetheart, Get Me Rewrite

10 May
May 10, 2012

My alma mater, the Baltimore Sun—though something of a fraile grey lady in this internet age—is nonetheless celebrating her 175th birthday this year. Sun alumni and other Baltimoreans were invited to contribute essays to a special edition to be published this weekend.

My offering is an homage of sorts to one of the metro desk veterans who raised me from a pup.

www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/sun-magazine/bs-sm-david-simon-20120513,0,5336130.story

Thanks, Dave.  And no, I will never forget the First Rule of Rewrite:  “Shoot It Down.”  Or as you once sagely argued: “There are always salmonella outbreaks.  I don’t see why we have to write about this one.”

Testimony, U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, Hearing on The Future of Newspapers

06 May
May 6, 2009

David Simon, former Baltimore Sun reporter and creator of the HBO series The Wire, testified before the Senate Commerce Committee during a hearing on the future of journalism. These are his prepared comments.

Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet
Hearing on the Future of Journalism, May 6, 2009

Thank you all for the invitation and opportunity to speak on this issue today, but I start by confessing reluctance.

My name is David Simon and I used to be a newspaperman in Baltimore. Head and heart, I was a newspaperman from the day I signed up at my high school paper until the day, eighteen years later, when I took a buyout from the Baltimore Sun and left for the fleshpots of Hollywood.

To those colleagues who remain at newspapers, I am therefore an apostate, and my direct connection to newspapering –having ended in 1995 – means that as a witness today, my experiences are attenuated.

Ideally, rather than listening to me, you should be hearing from any number of voices of those still laboring in American journalism. I am concerned that the collective voice of the newsroom itself – the wisdom of veteran desk editors, rewrite men and veteran reporters is poorly represented in this process. But of course newspapers are obliged to cover Congress and its works, and therefore the participation of most working journalists in today’s hearing would compromise some careful ethics. I know your staff tried to invite working journalists but were rebuffed on these grounds. And so, tellingly, today’s witness list is heavy with newspaper executives on the one hand, and representatives of the new, internet-based media on the other.

And so, I’ve accepted the invitation, though to be honest, I’m tired of hearing myself on this subject; I’ve had my say in essays that accompany this testimony, and in the episodes of a recent television drama, and I would be more inclined to hear from former colleagues if they were in a position to speak bluntly.

I am glad, at least, to be testifying beside Steve Coll, who labored at the Washington Post for two decades and whose coverage of complex issues upholds the highest journalistic standards. And I will leave to Mr. Coll a more careful and considered analysis of where journalism and newspapering must travel. I fully agree with his fundamental argument that non-profit status is the industry’s last hope, and I believe his thoughts on the subject are more advanced and detailed than my own.

If Mr. Coll can be prescriptive, I will do my best to be diagnostic. I’ll set him up by concentrating on what went wrong in American newspapering.

What I say will likely conflict with what representatives of the newspaper industry will claim for themselves. And I can imagine little agreement with those who speak for new media. From the captains of the newspaper industry, you will hear a certain martyrology – a claim that they were heroically serving democracy to their utmost only to be undone by a cataclysmic shift in technology and the arrival of all things web-based. From those speaking on behalf of new media, weblogs and that which goes twitter, you will be treated to assurances that American journalism has a perfectly fine future online, and that a great democratization in newsgathering is taking place.

In my city, there is a technical term we often administer when claims are plainly contradicted by facts on the ground. We note that the claimant is, for lack of a better term, full of it. Though in Baltimore, of course, we are explicit with our nouns.
High-end journalism is dying in America and unless a new economic model is achieved, it will not be reborn on the web or anywhere else. The internet is a marvelous tool and clearly it is the informational delivery system of our future, but thus far it does not deliver much first-generation reporting. Instead, it leeches that reporting from mainstream news publications, whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth. Meanwhile, readers acquire news from the aggregators and abandon its point of origin –namely the newspapers themselves.
In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host.

It is nice to get stuff for free, of course. And it is nice that more people can have their say in new media. And while some of our internet commentary is – as with any unchallenged and unedited intellectual effort – rampantly ideological, ridiculously inaccurate and occasionally juvenile, some of it is also quite good, even original.

Understand here that I am not making a Luddite argument against the internet and all that it offers. But democratized and independent though they may be, you do not – in my city — run into bloggers or so-called citizen journalists at City Hall, or in the courthouse hallways or at the bars and union halls where police officers gather. You do not see them consistently nurturing and then pressing sources. You do not see them holding institutions accountable on a daily basis.

Why? Because high-end journalism – that which acquires essential information about our government and society in the first place — is a profession; it requires daily, full-time commitment by trained men and women who return to the same beats day in and day out until the best of them know everything with which a given institution is contending. For a relatively brief period in American history – no more than the last fifty years or so – a lot of smart and talented people were paid a living wage and benefits to challenge the unrestrained authority of our institutions and to hold those institutions to task. Modern newspaper reporting was the hardest and in some ways most gratifying job I ever had. I am offended to think that anyone, anywhere believes American institutions as insulated, self-preserving and self-justifying as police departments, school systems, legislatures and chief executives can be held to gathered facts by amateurs pursuing the task without compensation, training, or for that matter, sufficient standing to make public officials even care to whom it is they are lying or from whom they are withholding information.

The idea of this is absurd, yet to read the claims that some new media voices are already making, you would think they need only bulldoze the carcasses of moribund newspapers aside and begin typing. They don’t know what they don’t know – which is a dangerous state for any class of folk — and to those of us who do understand how subtle and complex good reporting can be, their ignorance is as embarrassing as it is seemingly sincere. Indeed, the very phrase citizen journalist strikes my ear as nearly Orwellian. A neighbor who is a good listener and cares about people is a good neighbor; he is not in any sense a citizen social worker. Just as a neighbor with a garden hose and good intentions is not a citizen firefighter. To say so is a heedless insult to trained social workers and firefighters.

So much for new media. But what about old media?

When you hear a newspaper executive claiming that his industry is an essential bulwark of society and that it stands threatened by a new technology that is, as of yet, unready to shoulder the same responsibility, you may be inclined to empathize. And indeed, that much is true enough as it goes.

But when that same newspaper executive then goes on to claim that this predicament has occurred through no fault on the industry’s part, that they have merely been undone by new technologies, feel free to kick out his teeth. At that point, he’s as fraudulent as the most self-aggrandized blogger.

Anyone listening carefully may have noted that I was bought out of my reporting position in 1995. That’s fourteen years ago. That’s well before the internet ever began to seriously threaten any aspect of the industry. That’s well before Craig’s List and department-store consolidation gutted the ad base. Well before any of the current economic conditions applied.

In fact, when newspaper chains began cutting personnel and content, their industry was one of the most profitable yet discovered by Wall Street money. We know now – because bankruptcy has opened the books – that the Baltimore Sun was eliminating its afternoon edition and trimming nearly 100 editors and reporters in an era when the paper was achieving 37 percent profits. In the years before the internet deluge, the men and women who might have made The Sun a more essential vehicle for news and commentary – something so strong that it might have charged for its product online – they were being ushered out the door so that Wall Street could command short-term profits in the extreme.

Such short-sighted arrogance rivals that of Detroit in the 1970s, when automakers – confident that American consumers were mere captives – offered up Chevy Vegas, and Pacers and Gremlins without the slightest worry that mediocrity would be challenged by better-made cars from Germany or Japan.

In short, my industry butchered itself and we did so at the behest of Wall Street and the same unfettered, free-market logic that has proved so disastrous for so many American industries. And the original sin of American newspapering lies, indeed, in going to Wall Street in the first place.

When locally-based, family-owned newspapers like The Sun were consolidated into publicly-owned newspaper chains, an essential dynamic, an essential trust between journalism and the communities served by that journalism was betrayed.

Economically, the disconnect is now obvious. What do newspaper executives in Los Angeles or Chicago care whether or not readers in Baltimore have a better newspaper, especially when you can make more putting out a mediocre paper than a worthy one? The profit margin was all. And so, where family ownership might have been content with 10 or 15 percent profit, the chains demanded double that and more, and the cutting began – long before the threat of new technology was ever sensed.

But editorially? The newspaper chains brought an ugly disconnect to the newsroom, and by extension, to the community as well. A few years after the A.S. Abell Family sold The Sun to the Times-Mirror newspaper chain, fresh editors arrived from out of town to take over the reins of the paper.
They looked upon Baltimore not as essential terrain to be covered with consistency, to be explained in all its complexity year in and year out for readers who had and would live their lives in Baltimore. Why would they? They had arrived from somewhere else, and if they could win a prize or two, they would be moving on to bigger and better opportunities within the chain.

So, well before the arrival of the internet, as veteran reporters and homegrown editors took buyouts, newsbeats were dropped and less and less of Baltimore and central Maryland were covered with rigor or complexity.

In a city in which half the adult black males are without consistent work, the poverty and social services beat was abandoned. In a town where the unions were imploding and the working class eviscerated, where the bankruptcy of a huge steel manufacturer meant thousands were losing medical benefits and pensions, there was no longer a labor reporter. And though it is one of the most violent cities in America, the Baltimore courthouse went uncovered for more than a year and the declining quality of criminal casework in the state’s attorney’s office went largely ignored.

Meanwhile, the editors used their manpower to pursue a handful of special projects, Pulitzer-sniffing as one does. The self gratificationof my profession does not come, you see, from covering a city and covering it well, from explaining an increasingly complex and interconnected world to citizens, from holding basic institutions accountable on a daily basis. It comes from someone handing you a plaque and taking your picture.

The prizes meant little, of course, to actual readers. What might have mattered to them, what might have made the Baltimore Sun substantial enough to charge online for content would have been to comprehensively cover its region and the issues of that region, to do so with real insight and sophistication and consistency.

But the reporters required to achieve such were cleanly dispatched, buyout after buyout, from the first staff reduction in 1992 to the latest round last week, in which nearly a third of the remaining newsroom was fired. Where 500 men and women once covered central Maryland, there are now 140. And the money required to make a great newspaper – including, say, the R&D funding that might have anticipated and planned for the internet revolution – all of that went back to Wall Street, to CEO salaries and to big-money investors. The executives and board chairman held up their profit margins and got promoted; they’re all on some golf course in Florida right now, comfortably retired and thinking about things other than journalism. The editors took their prizes and got promoted; they’re probably on what passes for a journalism lecture circuit these days, offering heroic tales of past glory and jeremiads iads about the world they, in fact, helped to bring about.

But the newspapers themselves?

When I was in journalism school in the 1970s, the threat was television and its immediacy. My professors claimed that in order to survive, newspapers were going to have to cede the ambulance chasing and reactive coverage to TV and instead become more like great magazines. Specialization and detailed beat reporting were the future. We were going to have to explain an increasingly complex world in ways that made us essential to an increasingly educated readership. The scope of coverage would have to go deeper, address more of the world not less. Those were our ambitions. Those were my ambitions.

In Baltimore at least, and I imagine in every other American city served by newspaper-chain journalism, those ambitions were not betrayed by the internet. We had trashed them on our own, years before. Incredibly, we did it for naked, short-term profits and a handful of trinkets to hang on the office wall. And now, having made ourselves less essential, less comprehensive and less able to offer a product that people might purchase online, we pretend to an undeserved martyrdom at the hands of new technology.

I don’t know if it isn’t too late already for American newspapering. So much talent has been tom from newsrooms over the last two decades and the ambitions of the craft are now so crude, small-time and stunted that it’s hard to imagine a turnaround. But if there is to be a renewal of the industry a few things are certain and obvious:

First, cutting down trees and printing a daily accounting of the world on paper and delivering it to individual doorsteps is anachronistic. And if that is so, then the industry is going to have to find a way to charge for online content. Yes, I have heard the post-modern rallying cry that information wants to be free. But information isn’t. It costs money to send reporters to London, Fallujah and Capitol Hill, and to send photographers with them, and to keep them there day after day. It costs money to hire the best investigators and writers and then to back them up with the best editors. It costs money to do the finest kind of journalism. And how anyone can believe that the industry can fund that kind of expense by giving its product away online to aggregators and bloggers is a source of endless fascination to me. A freshman marketing major at any community college can tell you that if you don’t have a product for which you can charge people, you don’t actually have a product.

Second, Wall Street and free-market logic, having been a destructive force in journalism over the last few decades, are not now suddenly the answer. Raw, unencumbered capitalism is never the answer when a public trust or public mission is at issue. If the last quarter century has taught us anything – and admittedly, with too many of us, I doubt it has – it’s that free-market capitalism, absent social imperatives and responsible regulatory oversight, can produce durable goods and services, glorious profits, and little of lasting social value. Airlines, manufacturing, banking, real estate –is there a sector of the American economy where laissez-faire theories have not burned the poor, the middle class and the consumer, while bloating the rich and mortgaging the very future of the industry, if not the country itself? I’m pressed to think of one.

Similarly, there can be no serious consideration of public funding for newspapers. High-end journalism can and should bite any hand that tries to feed it, and it should bite a government hand most viciously. Moreover, it is the right of every American to despise his local newspaper – for being too liberal or too conservative, for covering X and not covering Y, for spelling your name wrong when you do something notable and spelling it correctly when you are seen as dishonorable. And it is the birthright of every healthy newspaper to hold itself indifferent to such constant disdain and be nonetheless read by all. Because in the end, despite all flaws, there is no better model for a comprehensive and independent review of society than a modern newspaper. As love-hate relationships go, this is a pretty intricate one. An exchange of public money would pull both sides from their comfort zone and prove unacceptable to all.

But a non-profit model intrigues, especially if that model allows for locally-based ownership and control of news organizations. Anything that government can do in the way of creating non-profit status for newspapers should be seriously pursued. And further, anything that can be done to create financial or tax-based incentives for bankrupt and near-bankrupt newspaper chains to transfer or even donate unprofitable publications to locally-based non-profits should also be considered.

Lastly, I would urge Congress to consider relaxing certain anti-trust prohibitions with regard to the newspaper industry, so that the Washington Post, the New York Times and various other newspapers can sit down and openly discuss protecting their copyright from aggregators and plan an industry wide transition to a paid, online subscriber base. Whatever money comes will prove essential to the task of hiring back some of the talent, commitment, and institutional memory that has been squandered.

Absent this basic and belated acknowledgment that content has value — if indeed it still does after so many destructive buyouts and layoffs – and that content is what ultimately matters, I don’t think anything else can save high-end, professional journalism.

Thank you for your time and again, for your kind invitation.

In Baltimore, No One Left to Press the Police

01 Mar
March 1, 2009

By David Simon

Sunday, March 1, 2009

 Reprinted with Permission, The Washington Post

BALTIMORE In the halcyon days when American newspapers were feared rather than pitied, I had the pleasure of reporting on crime in the prodigiously criminal environs of Baltimore. The city was a wonderland of chaos, dirt and miscalculation, and loyal adversaries were many. Among them, I could count police commanders who felt it was their duty to demonstrate that crime never occurred in their precincts, desk sergeants who believed that they had a right to arrest and detain citizens without reporting it and, of course, homicide detectives and patrolmen who, when it suited them, argued convincingly that to provide the basic details of any incident might lead to the escape of some heinous felon. Everyone had very good reasons for why nearly every fact about a crime should go unreported.

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