January 20, 2011

DECONSTRUCTING THE GUARDIAN'S "EXPLANATION" OF THE JAMES RICHARDSON WIKILEAKS "COMMENTARY"


I really wish I didn't have to do this. In fact, I have thought about whether to open my mouth again for numerous days, hoping that somebody else, somebody, somewhere, anywhere, really, would take a closer look at how it was even possible for somebody like James Richardson to get through, publish an article that was filled with falsehoods, only to then have that article race around the world through a well-connected network, with each reprint, each reposting gaining more credibility.

But see, there are so many thing vying for the audience's attention, and let us be honest, come on, who the fuck cares about Zimbabwe in the West, right? It's "we amended it, move on, there is nothing to see here". And more importantly than that, when you deal with the media's internal structures, dear god, nobody really wants to see that. Or think about that.

Let me tell you an open secret. The news media is one of the most intransparent systems known to modern man. Those who constantly come out and call for "transparency" everywhere, they really don't like somebody else to poke their noses into their business. How dare you? We are the ones fighting for truth and justice! We are uncovering...yeah, what exactly are you uncovering?

And more importantly, how do you do that? Huh?

Hey, just asking.

People in the media, they move on. They don't reflect. They never reflect. When the picked what they tought to have been the last piece of decaying meat of a story, they go looking for something else. Oh, look over there! A squirrel!

Even Glenn Greenwald, who I consider to be a very good analyst, was kind of okay with the "explanation" the Guadian's deputy editor, or as he said (hey, not my words)
The Guardian, through its deputy editor, Ian Katz, has a good, straightforward explanation of this episode and the issues I raised. I don't agree with everything Katz writes there, but kudos for addressing the issues with clarity and transparency.
Really? Clarity? Transparency? Okay, then... let us take a closer look at said "explanation". By the way, if you feel that I am unjustly coming down too harshly on the Guardian, if you feel that this here is a hit piece against one paper and one paper alone, you would be wrong.

The Guardian here serves only as an example to illustrate a deeper problem with how structures in the news media have corroded, and I am choosing this one because it is so beautifully insane that other examples wouldn't live up to it. I mean, hey, how often do you publish something that is so blatantly wrong that you cannot even blame somebody else for it? How often do you have such an example? Usually, the media (and I am stating it as a non-partisan thing, everybody these days, regardless of political bias, does it exactly this way) has somebody to blame. Hey, it wasn't us! It was our source! Hey, it wasn't us! We were misinformed! Hey...

...only in this case, the falsehood was so obvious that they couldn't pull this particular rabbit out of their hats. It died in the hat. If you look very carefully inside the hat, you can see it gasping for air, you know, the way the Hugh Jackman clone gasped for air in the water tank at the beginning of Christopher Nolan's The Prestige.

(1) TIMING IS EVERYTHING

With all that in mind, let us look at how it all happened. It's a magic trick. Watch closely. You might learn something. Let us first pull up one of the excuses that are put forward.
Some critics saw malice in the publication of the Richardson piece in the first place: why would the Guardian point the finger at WikiLeaks knowing it had published the cable? In fact, neither Richardson, a first-time contributor to our comment website, nor the US-based editor who handled it, were aware of the somewhat complicated process through which (most) cables were published. The piece was posted on the bank holiday after Christmas. 
We can paraphrase the first two sentences by Ian Katz like this: We are not evil, we are just monumentally stupid. Or, in other words, we don't have a system in place that allows us to verify facts within our own organization with, you know, a phone call. An email. A carrier pigeon.

Actually, from my own experiences in globalized media empires (well, media empires is too big a word, really, let's call them media fiefdoms, and yes, I am looking at you, Future Publishing), I can tell you that a complete lack of communication between different departments is somewhat normal. Pitiful, yes, but abhorrently normal. If you try to get something from an editor who works at a different branch of the same news organisation, you will often get less information than what you get if you try to obtain the same information from independent sources. Like I said, news media conglomerates are completely screwed up that way, you know, like governmental services... or any global corporation, really. They are poorly structured, have constant in-fighting and joustling for better positions.

That in and of itself would be a perfectly valid explanation, at least on the surface.

If... well, if there wasn't that naging feeling that they didn't explain anything. Not really.

Ian Katz describes a process, that is all.

Description, Mr. Katz, is not an explanation, and you should know that. An explanation would not be this glib, nor would he conceal certain aspects that would go through the heart of the matters, as to "how the hell did that piece wind up there in the first place"?

The piece was postend on the bank holiday after Christmas. Now, here's the thing. That sentence is either a lie, or Mr. Katz really has no idea when the bank holidays after Christmas were.

Let me clue you in. Those bank holidays were December 27th and December 28th, in lieu of December 25th and 26th. Or in other words, Monday and Tuesday after the Christmas weekend. That was when the post appeared. Says not me, says Ian Katz.

Only that is not when it was posted.

It was posted, according to the Guardian's own website history, on January 3rd, at 19.00 GMT, which is 14.00 Eastern Standard (wait, let me check. Both countries run on winter time, that makes it five hours difference, yep, it's correct).


Now, it was posted on a bank holiday, make no mistake about that. January 3rd was a banking holiday in lieu of January 1st.

But how good is a deputy editor who is not even capable of differentiating that? In an explanation? Details, details, details... will always fuck you up. But let us not hold that against him. The guy was likely to have been under enormous pressure at the time, and fuck-ups are human.

Let us rather look at the other thing that Mr. Katz inadvertendly reveals about how certain things can appear on the Guardian banner, because those are more interesting to us.

(2) WHO WAS THAT MASKED MAN?

Notice how carefully Mr. Katz avoids naming the "US-based editor" who got Mr.Richardson to write this - still not fully corrected, I might add - op-ed?

In fact, neither Richardson, a first-time contributor to our comment website, nor the US-based editor who handled it, were aware of the somewhat complicated process through which (most) cables were published.

Of course he didn't name him.

He's the Deputy Editor, and within an organisation, he is the one responsible to keep that kind of shit out of the spotlight. Some of you may agree with that kind of position. I don't. Because while it is superficially admirable to stand up for your people, in this particular case it shoves the process that would explain why such an enormous clusterfuck of epic proportions was allowed to begin with right out the door.

Again, news people are the most secretive people this side of intelligence agents, especially when they are in positions of power themselves. And what would be the benefit for you, the audience, to know the name of the CiF America editor, anyway?

He is an editor. He must know his shit. Or he wouldn't be in this position. He must be well versed in dealings of an international nature, or he wouldn't be in this position. He must be able to look at a piece presented to him and ask the relevant question, "is this all correct?"

Right?

Now, the editor responsible for CiF America (and I cannot tell you if he personally handled the James Richardson piece, but he is in charge of this section) is a man named Matt Seaton, who has been occupying this position since the Guardian folded its American operation GuardianAmerica back into its main website, due to budget cuts and what management usually calls "strategic repositioning".

Oh, what the hell... let's simply call it what it is. They laid off pretty much most of their staff and shuffled a few pieces around, making Seaton the head of CiF America.

You may say that even if he is the editor responsible for that section, it may have been another editor (only I couldn't find one, but still... one must be fair) responsible for...

... and here is where they lose me. Because whatever "explanation" Ian Katz offers in his text, it doesn't cover the most important bit. How did this piece end up in the Guardian? It's not like anybody can post an article. Comments, yes, but know what? That you can do pretty much anywhere these days. But the structure of CiF is made in such a way that it revolves solely around op-eds, or what we in Germany would call "guest commentaries".

Somebody must have picked James Richardson. Somebody must have signed off on the article. Somebody must have been... and here is the irony of that, since the entire op-ed was a scathing attack on "responsibility"... somebody must have been responsible.

And like it or not (and I was in editor-in-chief myself), the guy responsible is the guy heading the department, since Katz's "explanation" also makes it clear that apparently nobody on the UK side was asked, consulted with or talked to before the Richardson piece was posted.

That leaves Matt Seaton.

And here is where I got curious. Who is this guy? I mean, picking and choosing op-eds is a very difficult, very responsible position, for at the worst, what happened here... will happen. You have changed the public discourse by alowing somebody to voice an opinion, somebody who... at least that used to be the case, an expert on things. Such as you must have been an expert on something.

And Matt Seaton is an expert.

On cycling.

You can stop laughing now. No, really. Stop it. This isn't funny.

In fact, nearly all of his articles at the Guardian (and a short profile check proves it) were columns on cycling, the biking race sport or fluff pieces that some way or another were connected with his passion.


Good for him.

No, I am not being sarcastic. Good for him for making his passion something that pays well.

That, however, does not qualify him for a position that would enable him to cause this much harm in the public discourse. It does not qualify him to make these kind of decisions, period. Did he look at the WikiLeaks process at his own paper? Did he write extensively about foreign affairs? No. Was he involved in the WikiLeaks investigative reporting? No. No. And...

No.

Even though it was right on the website. I mean, Katz' excuse is that the entire Guardian WikiLeaks team was on a well-deserved vacation. Really? I am all for vacations, but is he really trying to sell us that not a single of them was available? Not a single one could be reached by phone, by email, by SMS, by iChat, by...

... this in the year 2011? Possible, but highly unlikely.

And hey, the guy does know how to tweet. A lot.


But even that, let us just buy into it for a moment. And if we do that, it doesn't look too good for Matt Seaton, because it shows an amazing lack of intellectual curiosity for a man in his position, not to mention an appaling lack of foresight. It takes less than thirty seconds to google the relevant information. I should know. I did it. But then again, why check something?

It's an op-ed. It's an "opinion", right?

And here is the first systematic breakdown.

And here's why it is not only the Guardian who is guilty of it. It has become the norm to not fact-check opinion pieces. You know, those pieces who are then regularly picked up by other opinionistas around the world, and - like really bad D students - they point to that "opinion" and state it as "fact".

Sarah Palin said... Chuck Shumer said... David Cameron said....

Unknown "expert" James Richardson said...

.. oh, wait. That is something that we do need to take a closer look at. I mean, just like Matt Seaton, guy responsible for the entire section, was not an expert on anything... neither was James Richardson.

(3) MEET JAMES RICHARDSON, EXPERT IN...

...well, I am not quite sure what he is an expert in, but he sure has an opinion. Or two. Or three. Or indeed any opinion that is the talking point of the US Republican party on any given day. Don't believe me? Check out his own blog, the Skepticians, and look through his posts. Any and all of them. There is no investigation in any of them all, no analysis or thoughtful consideration.

Meet James Richardson. They guy who now works for Hynes Communications as an account services director (which sure is a nice title), who before worked as a PR person for the College Republicans, who has a degree in...

... oh, wait, it doesn't say that. All it says was that he attended the University of Georgia, and doesn't it strike you as somewhat funny that in the big list of people working for Hynes, like Liz Mair (very impressive resume, that) all of them carry their own degrees like a shield in front of them? Only he...doesn't?


Just something to notice, that's all. Because in a Twitter reply to Glen Greenwald, said co-worker Liz Mair claims that James Richardson wrote the WikiLeaks-Zimbabwe piece on his own time, so it surely is not connected in any way, shape of form to their employer, Hynes Communications.


Only it remains as of this date the first prominent feature on their website, giving it thus the company's endorsement. See, if it were a regular company, this would have caused them to take it down, amend it, do something with it.

But they didn't. More than two weeks later, the story proudly stands.

Oooops.

Now, that is what I call "communication". Note how, on his own website, yes, that aforementioned Skepticians blog, the relevant falsehoods still remain. No amendment. No apology. No nothing. Note that on his Twitter feed Richardson does not at all address the issue. Why should he? He has done his job, uh, his passionate plea on the plight of Zimbabwe, and the dangers of WikiLeaks.


Both topics so dear to his heart that he wrote about them, in his entire "career" as an opinionista exactly... ONE TIME. Let me repeat that. ONE SINGLE TIME. In that "op-ed".

Oh, tags, here "Africa" and "Wikileaks", they're a bitch, aren't they? Especially since they allow a quick search around on what you have done so far. Did you not watch The Social Network? Let me paraphrase to you the most important line in that movie.

The internet is for-fucking-ever.

But actually, I did read through every single one of his posts.



But hey, in his own words on Twitter, he did play-act Zimbabwe at an African Union mock-up at college.


If that makes you an expert in anything, then I am an expert in superheroics, because when I was six I got dressed up in a Superman costume, got on a bike to get the cape fluttering in the wind, and, actually, that would make me more of an expert than him, because I did fly. When I lost control of my bike. And was hurled about ten metres through the air. To this day I tell people that the only thing that hurt was the landing.

But wait a minute, you say. Wasn't that piece filled with facts and figures and historical time-lines designed to show off his argument? Yeah, it was. Which brings us to...

(4) WHEN WIKIPEDIA ATTACKS

Anybody who has kids in school, who has talked to school teachers and/or college and university professors knows that Wikipedia is bad. Not "bad" bad, certainly not evil, but it is very often used to create the illusion of knowledge by students that is enough to coast them through class. Or life. Or coast them through an entire decision tree at what is supposed to be a good, critical paper.


If you compare the WikiLeaks article on Morgan Tsangvirai with James Richardson's article, you will notice that Richardson's article reads like the cliffnotes, and all the relevant data is there to make his argument for him (whether that argument is a valid one is quite a different story, for the political circumstances in Zimbabwe are quite murky, and I did try to educate myself in the past week or so, but that reading up doesn't make me an expert on anything. It just makes me curious as to why the Chinese are backing Mugabe with billions of dollars, while the West tries to go against that. Is it about human rights? I have that sinking feeling that it is about natural resources, once again, and wouldn't that be a first? No, not if you look at things that are happening e.g. in Angola. Or the Congo. Or anywhere, really, where them damn Africans are sitting on "our" resources. And don't tell me we don't back dictators. As long as they are "our" dictators, we are absolutely fine with them).

So, we have
(a) a complete lack of editorial foresight and control

(b) an editor in charge who possesses neither the experience nor the expertise to make a judgment call.

(c) the same editor who is too lazy and not intellectually curious enough to make up for said lack of expertise

(d) a writer who has thus far not shown any interest in the topics covered, who allegedly wrote this piece on his own time (and dime?) while working for an organisation that puts on its banner the mission statement to alter and affect the outcome of public discourse for corporate clients.
What don't we have, just yet?
(e) a newspaper unwilling or incapable of owning up to it all.
This brings us to...

(5) LANGUAGE, IT IS KIND OF IMPORTANT

There are two factors as to why language is important, one we are dealing with here, and one we are going to deal with in a little bit. But first, the obvious bit. Watch how Ian Katz in his "explanation" is trying to wiggle himself out of the whole "naming WikiLeaks as the culprit" dilemma.

It has moves only a propagandist, a contortionist or thea forementioned Hugh Jackman clone in the water tank could appreciate. Say, how did that end for Hugh Jackman's magician again?
It's important to remember a bit of context: during the whole period "WikiLeaks" became shorthand used by virtually all journalists the world over for the entire project. This was partly – or even mainly – to give them credit for being the main source (or intermediary) for the material. So, day after day, news organisations such as the BBC and other newspapers reported that "WikiLeaks today revealed that …"

It was often equally true that it was the Guardian, or El País, or the New York Times, which had "done the revealing", not to mention much of the time-consuming work of finding, editing and redacting the material. But it was a piece of widely understood journalistic shorthand. The material was routinely referred to as a "WikiLeaks revelation", including in the Guardian – ironically, perhaps, because we did not want to look as though we were stealing WikiLeaks's thunder or glory.

The vast majority of Guardian stories would use the same formula: "In documents released today by WikiLeaks it was revealed that xxx …" That gave WikiLeaks the credit it both deserved and sought – and was preferable to the alternative: "In documents released today by WikiLeaks, the New York Times, the Guardian, El País, Le Monde and Der Spiegel."

First of all, Mr. Katz is not technically incorrect. "WikiLeaks" has become - especially in the English-speaking world - a journalistic shorthand for anything relating to any of the US diplomatic cables, the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War protocols.

What he conveniently "forgets" to mention is that at least one other of the four news media outlets has been relatively sparse in the usage of such term, and of course nobody in the English-speaking world knows about this, because that news media organisation is Germany's Der Spiegel.

Let us look, very briefly, at one of the articles that is dealing with a diplomatic cable that was in in the hands of WikiLeaks and then was subsequently published by the New York Times. It deals with the DEA (buit that isn't important). For those who cannot speak German, I apologise. But this article by Der Spiegel shows how good, quality journalism is done.

You know, journalism that doesn't hide behind language.

Again, this goes straight to the heart of how you build a reality by design and language. When, where and how certain things are highlighted.

Look at the section header right underneath the date. This tells us - in the shortest terms - that the following article belongs to a series of articles that are part of the "Wikileaks Revelations (Enthüllungen).

The actual headline deals with the facts, and only the facts. Or as we like to call it, the relevant information. US DRUG ENFORCEMENT AGENCY ACTS LIKE AN INTELLIGENCE SERVICE.

Do you see the phrase WikiLeaks there? No.

Why not?

Because that is not what is important, something that is then highlighted in the lede of the article. Does it repeat WikiLeaks there? Nope. Instead the very carefully chosen phrase "this is revealed in US diplomatic cables" (Das zeigen US-Botschaftsdepeschen).

In the actual article that follows, what is first used as the source, since they were the ones who actually did do the publishing of those cables? WikiLeaks?

Uh, no... they call upon the New York Times as their primary source, because somewhere at the New York Times somebody made the editorial decision to run this cable. Do you know how many times WikiLeaks is mentioned in the article itself?

Once. Count it. One single time.

In a mention. In the THIRD PARAGRAPH.

Now, let us compare that with how many times Mr. James Richardson used the phrase WikiLeaks in his "commentary". And I will use his original piece, not the slightly amended one, okay? You know, the one that you let slip through your net of non-existing editorial control, Mr. Katz of the Guardian.

SEVEN TIMES. The phrase WikiLeaks was used seven times in said article, and noneof the usage was "journalistic shorthand" for the US cables. Why not, Mr. Katz? Why can't we compare that?

Let me lecture you a little bit on language.

Because you sure as hell need it. And you may very likely need to be hit over the head with the Oxford Dictionary, because it appears that the education you got didn't really take.

If WikiLeaks is used in the context the way Der Spiegel used it, it is used as an identifier, yes. It allows the reader to contextualise the information in a certain way. It is a perfectly valid usage.

If WikiLeaks is used in the way James Richardson used it in his "commentary", what does it describe? Mr. Katz? Mr. Seaton? Mr. Richardson? Anybody? Bueller?

It describes the organisation itself. WikiLeaks is thus no longer a journalistic identfier that sources information, it is indeed the organisation itself that is described, and that is what he intended to do, Mr. Richardson did.

See how that works, Mr. Katz? See how you are using a superficial "definition" of a word to obfuscate?

To lie? To deny?

Shame on you.

And shame on those who were apparently so dreadfully incompetent in educating you about the different ways to use English. Unless, of course, you used this "explanation" in full knowledge of what I just said here.

Then you are a disgrace to the journalistic profession.

For then you let this happen...

(6) CHOOSE YOUR AUDIENCE CAREFULLY

The article in the Guardian, which we now always get pointed out, oh, so helpfully, was an op-ed... was not really intended for the UK audience to begin with. I will make that bold claim now. And you can tear me apart for it, if you would like. But it doesn't change one fundamental fact.

Of all the news organisations dealing with WikiLeaks documents

(see what I did here? I identified the fact that, yes, these documents came via WikiLeaks, but only in this particular context, without dealing with the actual organisation. Language, like I said, is kind of important)

Neither Le Monde nor Der Spiegel would have had the same effect. Why? Because the rightwing blogosphere, be they in corporate media or "independent" (you know, like The Skepticians, which is so independent that Mr. Richardson names his fellow HYNES STRATEGISTS at the bottom, and with his official email address being the one at HYNES COMMUNICATIONS), are too lazy or too stupid to understand a foreign language. And so, unless the use Google Translations (and boy, these people don't even use Google to any good effect), trying to place something in those news outlets would not have the desired effect.

What effect?

Well, to change the public discourse, of course.

In America.

And America only.

Because one thing nobody has mentioned, not really, so far is that another right-wing opinonista, James Kirchick, wrote essentially the exact same thing, published in the Wall Street Journal, on December 31st. Same drive. Same spin. Nobody cared.


Want to know why?

Because it was the Wall Street Journal.

But to have the same thing published in the Guardian? Now, that is the Prestige. That is the final act, the grand glory of propaganda infiltration. Why? Because it is the Guardian! It is one of the news media outlets that is seen as "WikiLeaks Central". And to have the Guardian's banner over such a "commentary" allows the Beltway echo chamber to do this...


Notice something?

Look very carefully. Watch propaganda in progress. Gone is Mr. Richardson's name, gone is the fact that it was "an op-ed, you know, it's just an opinion". Instead you have...
And now the Guardian explains how Wikileaks may be responsible for helping keep keep the country in Mugabe's murderous vice.
... and that is something that anybody at the Guardian, yes, even a cycling specialist, could have seen coming from a mile away. If just a single one of the people involved had been properly trained as a journalist. If somebody, anybody had the inutition of a proper journalist.

But they didn't.

They apparently never read about Judith Miller.

So stop making up excuses for your failure. And answer us this.
(1) Who approached James Richardson? Or how did he approach you?

(2) What were his references that made you think he was an "expert"?

(3) Who edited and fact-checked the article?

(4) Who paid Mr. Richardson for his work?

That, then... and only that would be an explanation.

Everything else is just an excuse to make it go away.

And I wish I could tell you that this is uncommon, that this is a glitch in the system. But it isn't The reason the Guardian was caught with its pants down was the monumental stupidity that it was they who made the editorial decision to publish those US cables.

And only because of that, we had that minor interest in the blogosphere (because like I stated earlier, who the hell gives a damn as to how the media works?). But the truth is, what happened at the Guardian is happening every day, and will continue to happen.

As long as the system is set up to replace proper journalism with talking heads, as long as newspapers and media organisations cut and slash budgets and outsource column inches to "think tanks" and "experts", who have never proven to be an expert in anything... other than talking bullshit.

Just so that you remember that, the next time you click on an article. Or open a magazine. Or read a newspaper. Or watch television. These people, they are by and large not there to tell you the truth. Or as my economics/sales/marketing/media management/bullshit professor at the University of Missouri, Charles Warner, used to say, "you think you are here to tell the truth? No. You are here to sell advertising. To fill the gap between two blocks of commercials".

And know what? He is right. Charles Warner is.

But only because we allow him to be right.

[NOTE] This article was updated for the simple reason that the first draft uploaded this morning had points (5) and (6) eaten by my content management system. My apologies. Also, I changed the screenshots to have them all the same width. Yes. I am anal like that.