What If They Threw a War and Nobody Came?

by matttbastard

It appears John Cruickshank has dumped Kathy English as his designated useful idiot in The Toronto Star’s ongoing asymmetrical (and largely one-sided) proxy tussle with the intertoobs. This time the projectile has been launched by the normally not-failtastic columnist David Olive, who, in a fit of self-satisfied pique, has convinced himself that the blogosphere has finally and decidedly been overtaken by the “MSM” (See? He’s totally down with our kooky lingo!) in what Olive describes as a “war” between New and Old Media. All because “bloggers” *gasp* like to get paid.

Or something.

His examples, though, make one wonder if Olive actually reads a broad cross-section of blogs (political, music, pop-cult, etc), or merely browses a tiny cross-section of select Old Media exiles who have, at some point or another, utilized the medium, usually as part of a pre-existing business relationship with traditional print venues:

There was always a tendency for bloggers to save their best stuff for the MSM.
For instance, when it came time for a Rush Limbaugh takedown, David Frum penned a cover story last March for Newsweek. But now, even the pretence of independence is going by the wayside. Andrew Sullivan has moved his one-man blog to The Atlantic. Fellow former independent bloggers Andrew Coyne and Eric Alterman (Altercation) now blog for Maclean’s and The Nation, respectively.

Let’s see: Andrew Sullivan (former editor of The New Republic, longtime Times of London columnist); Andrew Coyne (longtime National Post columnist, mainstay of The National’s At Issue panel, and now Macleans national editor, not merely a ‘blogger’); David Frum (former Bush 43 speechwriter, columnist for Sun Media & formerly The National Review, author of numerous books); and Eric Alterman (OG Bearded Librul, longtime Nation columnist, also an author of numerous books and someone who, AFAIK, has, um, always been a paid blogger, going back to the early days of Altercation when it was hosted by MSNBC.com).

Not exactly what I’d call a representative selection of insurgent hostility to mainstream conventional wisdom.

If Olive REALLY wanted to make his point, he could have mentioned recent Old Media wagon-hitchings on the part of Ezra Klein and Ross Douthat. Of course, both Klein and Douthat sold out ages ago (to The American Prospect and The Atlantic, respectively). See, despite the “us” vs. “them” narrative Olive has constructed, us “independent” online opinionators have been reaching for the brass ring of mainstream acceptance (and monetization) since before there was a cool catchphrase to describe the world of “Internet diarists” (Hello? ‘Big Media Matt’?) But, of course, one would have to actually be a regular consumer of blogs to actually be aware of this; wading into the fever swamp of online discourse is clearly below Olive’s paygrade.

Plus, the fact that Olive also neglects to mention recent defections from old media to those online venues Olive sniffily dismisses as mere ‘aggregator’ sites (eg, Dan Froomkin, formerly of the Washington Post and now Washington Bureau Chief of The Huffington Post) is a pretty telling omission. But, hey, no need to hightlight that inconvenient fact, nor the extensive original reporting done by purportedly parasitic (sigh) venues like Talking Points Memo or HuffPo. Because Nico Pitney is such a dick.

Or something.

That few if any ‘independent’ political bloggers (other than some of the brighter lights of the far-right wingnutosphere) are under the delusion that a few scrappy Cheeto-eaters in sweatpants are going to eventually topple the mighty Fourth Estate with WordPress accounts and collective chutzpah is apparently irrelevant. You see, Olive has to fill 800 words for his Sunday column, and if he has to construct the mother of all straw-man arguments to do so, well, so be it.

Look, I’m sure SOME bloggers do see their relationship with Old Media as antagonistic, rather than symbiotic. I’m also sure SOME columnists will never allow the overwhelming burden of unbelievable ignorance to prevent them from offering an opinion — especially one that conveniently dovetails with the biases of his or her boss.

Hey, we all gotta eat.

Update: Wow, that was fast — haven’t seen someone backpedal this quickly since Sebelius threw the public option under the bus.

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Antonia Zerbisias, Kathy English, and #TorStarFAIL: Great Expectations

by matttbastard

One thing about keeping your expectations low: more often than not, they’ll be met.  This was certainly the case this past Saturday, as our old friend Kathy English, public editor for the venerable Toronto Star, offered a tepid, passive-aggressive non-apology to Star columnist Antonia Zerbisias. Zerb, as you may recall, had been sandbagged in a column written by English (in concert with Star publisher and scourge to uppity female opinion scribes, John Cruickshank) after Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) head Bernie Farber decided to concern-troll the Star editorial board — and succeeded.

After a vocal outcry, both online and in numerous letters to the editor (two of which were quietly published this past Wednesday, a far-lower circulation day than the prominent Saturday edition where the original column appeared), English revisited the matter this weekend — by whinging about snark and incivility:

It is the opinion of some blogger in Abu Dhabi [aka former Star employee, Jen Gerson, who responds to English’s incivil swipe here], upon reading my column of last week, that I am a “disconnected crony.”

Other bloggers labelled me “priggish,” overly “earnest” and expressed the view that my column is evidence that “old media are still painfully unaware of how blogs operate.”

An online commenter said I should have known that a comment posted by Star columnist Antonia Zerbisias on her blog, which I consider inappropriate for publication by this news organization, was simply the “snark – irony, sarcasm,” of the blogosphere.

I learned much about “snark” and nasty blogosphere invective this week from some bloggers who disagree with my take on what Zerbisias wrote. Mean-spirited personal attack, inaccurate facts, innuendo and even speculation about the identity of my spouse was lobbed my way, much of it anonymously.

Most of what I read simply reinforced my view that blogs produced by professional journalists working under the brand banner of a “mainstream” news organization such as the Star must aspire to far higher standards than what’s emerging elsewhere in the blogosphere.

A good start would be, oh, I dunno, aspiring to make sure you have the whole story before drawing a conclusion:

Here’s the fuller context that explains why she wrote this: Zerbisias had seen Farber marching in the Pride parade wearing a T-shirt that said, “Nobody knows I’m gay.” She didn’t include that information in her blog so readers didn’t know that context. Nor did she tell me that when I showed her my column before publication.

In complaining to the Star, neither did Farber think to tell me that he, along with dozens of others who marched with the Kulanu group, had worn a T-shirt that made its own ironic quip. That’s context I sure wish I had known.

This makes it clear to me that Zerbisias’s comment was intended as sarcastic irony, stock in trade for this columnist and blogger. But I think her attempt at irony failed here; the quip – as published without that context – was ambiguous and could be misunderstood.

And yet the only person who seemed to misunderstand the quip was you and Cruickshank (shit, I bet even ol’ Bernie is a Seinfeld fan). Just because your reading comprehension is substandard is no reason to assume that others share your deficiency, Kathy.

Anyway, moving on:

To be fair to Zerbisias, it should be made clear, though, that she did not “make things up,” as Farber interpreted it. “I don’t `make things up’ – ever,” she said, adding that there “is a lot of space between publishing falsehoods and spouting irony.”

The principle of my column last week remains. Toronto Star journalists simply can’t engage in this hurly-burly tone of the blogosphere if it confuses readers or doesn’t meet the Star‘s journalistic standards. As publisher John Cruickshank told several readers this week: “It creates confusion about how committed we are to the truth and gets imbued with too much seriousness because we are the Star.

Shorter: “Bloggers are MEAN, the DOG ate my homework, and, goddammit, I’m STILL RIGHT!!1one”

Sigh.

Cover your ears, kids–that sonic boom you heard was from the F-16-like point swooping over English’s head.

Dawg, who, late last week, modestly proposed that English’s original column was in fact a Machiavellian plot to make Farber and Cruickshank look like dunces, reassesses his previous bestowal of the benefit of the doubt to English:

Blogs are indeed different from common-or-garden reportage: “hurly-burly” sums it up quite nicely. But editors and publishers are loath to relinquish control, which means that in-house bloggers are forced to look over their shoulders while we in the blogosphere proper are not.

The chilling effect here is palpable: recall that we aren’t even talking about a post, but a comment thread. Ethics and professionalism, both of which Zerb wears on her sleeve, by the way, are not what this is about at all. Rather, it’s precisely what an observer quoted by English says: “old media are still painfully unaware of how blogs operate.”Different languages: different ways of engaging in print; different styles.

But the same ethical and professional standards, pace English, at least for those of us who take the craft seriously. On that point, when she dug around a little more, assisted by hordes of outraged commentators, bloggers and Star correspondents, she discovered that Zerb hadn’t transgressed any ethical or professional codes whatsoever, and had to be content with complaining about her alleged ambiguity. That’s fair comment, I suppose, but a far cry from her original assertions. So why is she even raising the question of standards, leaving the impression, despite her earlier disclaimer, that Zerb had violated them?

Worse, readers are condescended to: none of that hurly-burly stuff for us if it “confuses” us. I submit that no one in this wildly overblown affair was remotely confused. That’s a dodge, plain and simple.

Dave further articulates the bottom line that English has apparently allowed her easily-bruised ego to obscure:

I could fire back with two words, which English would dismiss as evidence supporting her current view. So, I’ll say this: We are your readers, Ms. English.

The “new media” and the bloggers English decided to castigate are the same people that used to sit around the kitchen table bitching about things read in newspapers and whose only recourse was to submit a letter to the very organ and editor with whom they took issue.

It was a one-sided arrangement that left communicative readers at the mercy of “edited for brevity” or without a voice at all. What English doesn’t like is that we like this process a whole lot better. Further, because of the “new media” we are able to communicate directly with the principle subjects of stories and columns – and do. I’m sure that sends chills down the spines of newspaper editors because their worst nightmare has come true: continuous and unrelenting scrutiny, and continuous and unrelenting criticism – some of it accompanied by the language spoken around the kitchen table.

Here’s the thing, Kathy: you fucked up.

You fucked up big.

You guys got played by an experienced player with an agenda who used your forum as Public Editor as a platform to launch a heated proxy missive against a respected Star columnist.  Contrary to your defensive posturing, this is not really about the online rabble, new media vs. old, or the ‘ethics’ of snark; this is about your responsibility as a journalist to gather all the facts before accusing one of your colleagues of making shit up — a charge that, if substantiated, is, I would wager, a fireable offense at any newspaper and thus very serious.

By not gathering the relevant information beforehand (namely, Farber’s highly public–and self-promoted–appearance at Toronto Pride 2009 wearing a t-shirt glibly pronouncing his apparently facetious life on the down-low), you subjugated that responsibility and gravely damaged Zerbisias’ reputation. Saying that neither Farber nor Zerbisias were immediately forthcoming with said information is a cheap cop-out; a five-minute Google search (much like the one likely conducted by SOME BLOGGER IN TORONTO) would have helped unearth the buried info that you now acknowledge exonerates Zerbisias (though you still claim that your original charges are somehow still valid. Logic is apparently an unprofessional blogger conceit).

One can imagine the chill mentioned by Dawg is quite palpable right now in the Star newsroom, as reporters and columnists must be asking themselves: Can the public editor, editor-in-chief and publisher be trusted to protect their staff against spurious charges lodged by special interests trying to muzzle the press?

Many of them, I would wager, feel their trust has been betrayed.

By allowing a lobbyist to dictate the editorial response to an off-hand, ironic remark, your ability to sift between legitimate and manufactured grievance is now in question, Kathy. And by not addressing your dereliction of duty in an open, transparent manner, you aren’t exactly making us brim over with confidence that you do in fact recognize the gravity of your failure.  Quite the opposite, in fact.

So, until that moment of epiphany occurs, be advised, Kathy, that your readers — the hurly-burly, rambunctious, unprofessional online rabble that you scorn — will be watching. This isn’t personal; the dissemination of accurate information is imperative for any democracy to properly function. It is in the public interest to have a press corps free of self-censorship, unencumbered by the fear that the ideology of special interests will dictate their output to the detriment of a vibrant, free press.

As Corvin Russell notes, you owed Antonia Zerbisias an apology for defaming her professional reputation as a journalist and for not protecting her from a bad-faith political attack. But, like Dave said, you also owe us, the Star readership, an apology: for not providing us with all the relevant information; for allowing a lobby group to influence your editorial mandate; and for doing a piss-poor job of representing our interest. Y’know, what they pay you the big bucks for.

It is going to take time to restore confidence in your ability, for both your staff and readers; this time, the expectations are monumentally greater.

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Antonia Zerbisias: Under Their Wheels

by matttbastard

Anyone following my Twitter stream this weekend would have noticed that yours truly was a little bit dissatisfied with several pieces recently published by The Toronto Star. We’ll deal with the egregious diversity fail over what constitutes the most ‘important’ works of art/literature over the past 10 years another time (as per the white male columnists commissioned by the Star to map the contours of contemporary Canadian culture, women need not apply). For now, I want to address Saturday’s cowardly hit piece on Star columnist/blogger (and good friend of the Logic) Antonia Zerbisias by Star Public Editor Kathy English.

The 800-word public flogging was apparently commissioned by Star publisher John Cruickshank, after a complaint was lodged by Bernie Farber, president of the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC). Farber, no stranger to public grandstanding, raised a stink after Zerbisias left an obviously tongue-in-cheek comment (on an otherwise unrelated post) ironically speculating on Farber’s sexual orientation following his curious participation in the Toronto Pride celebration. Of course, it’s kinda hard to earnestly claim ‘defamation’ on the part of Zerb when there are pictures of Farber in the parade wearing a t-shirt that reads “Nobody knows I’m gay.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with (apparently) bearing false witness to further a political agenda, of course.

A tone of thinly-disguised contempt towards new media applications (note how English repeatedly points out the marginal online audience Zerbisias’ Star-hosted blog, Broadsides, receives in comparison to her ‘real’ column–ZOMG ‘only’ 900 daily hits!) is apparent throughout English’s embarrassingly ignorant column, making one skeptical that she and Cruickshank can be trusted to craft a knowledgeable, nuanced social media policy for Star reporters/columnists, one that takes into full account the conventions and standards of the online landscape (to say nothing of basic respect for digital fora in general.)

Former Star intern Jen Gerson (currently based in Abu Dhabi) does the heavy lifting addressing (and utterly decimating) English’s thinly-sourced and imprecise charges (memo to Ms. English: a blog comment is not the same thing as a blog post, much like an editorial is not a horoscope, even though both are typically part of a broadsheet. Are you following so far? Good.)

Gerson:

Given the context of the comment, nobody but the most wide-eyed naif would assume Zerbisias was outing Mr Farber. She was calling a public lobbyist to account for his hypocrisy. You know, doing that “journalism” thing we all so love to talk about. Albeit, in the snippy tone of a blogger, rather than the staid voice of print.

The obligatory response by Mr Farber, and the ensuing blog banter are all standard fare. I only started to feel my hackles raise upon reading this one: ‘Gay’ blog post was just not fair’ by the Toronto Star’s public editor, Kathy English, who spent the next 870-odd words, knees bent, begging for Farber’s forgiveness while offering her columnist’s head on a sacrificial plate.

She writes: “blogs by Star journalists ‘may not put the Star in a negative light.’”

Yes, because God Forbid we express a Controversial Opinion that may or may not be perceived to be negative with people who we may or may not be trying to kowtow to.

The only journalist who has put the Star in a negative light is Kathy English.
As a columnist, Zerbisias represents herself. Her readership knows her views and biases and pick up the star to read and/or rail about them.

However, as the public editor, English is perceived to represent the wider paper. So that column made the entire publication look like it’s run by humourless, uncomprehending fools who are quick to throw their own people over the edge of the ship at the behest of a well represented and powerful lobby.

Perhaps the saddest thing about this chilling, over the top attack on journalistic autonomy and free expression is the fact that Zerbisias has been spanked–publicly–for violating an as-yet unwritten policy. Vague exhortations regarding ‘civility’ come across as fawning overcompensation; English is simply trying too damn hard to be seen as doing something, and, as noted by Gerson, ends up looking foolish in the process–especially when one considers Farber’s provocative reputation and contentious history with Zerbisias (another memo for English: if you can’t separate legitimate reader concerns from blatant concern trolling you have no business being a public editor).

Exactly why English–and Cruickshank–were so quick to jump on Zerbisias over something that, if inaccuracy is the primary complaint, could be addressed with a simple ‘regret the error’ mea culpa, remains unclear, though this certainly isn’t the first time that Cruickshank has zealously targeted an uppity, left-leaning woman columnist in response to manufactured outrage.

Dr. Dawg wonders if there’s something other than editorial prudence driving the TorStar bus that English and Cruickshank have tossed Zerbisias under:

Why, if there is nothing wrong with being gay, is Farber “forced” to state publicly that he is not? Why all the Sturm und Drang? What does it matter, one way or the other?

And then a Star editor and the publisher go into full damage-control mode–except that I can’t, as noted, discern any damage. Not, in any case, unless Farber, despite his protestations, thinks that the “gay” label is a stigma, and the Star brass agrees with him. Blogs by Star journalists, says English, “may not put the Star in a negative light.” An ironic comment about someone being gay does that?

Tempest. Teapot. And possibly a wee bit of homophobia disguised as hand-wringing concerns about fairness and accuracy? You decide.

Ultimately, however, this controversy isn’t about ‘gay panic,’ or defamation, or even ‘accuracy’; it’s about the gatekeepers of Old Media desperately and opportunistically attempting to assert top-down editorial control over a still-uncertain contemporary media environment where their presence is largely unnecessary and unwanted. Unless Cruickshank, English, and the industry in general learn how to craft an online identity for newspapers and newspaper employees acknowledging the rollicking, informal, interactive atmosphere that defines the blogosphere without sacrificing traditional journalistic ethics, their already fleeting relevance will continue to evaporate.

We still need the invaluable contribution to the public good that is provided by quality journalism; but we must also take into account the industry-wide online evolution that has taken place completely below the radar of certain oblivious publishers and oversensitive public editors.

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Antonia’s Back!

by matttbastard

And, by God, she ain’t a-feared of teh eff-word:

The fight is far from over, not as long as women are treated as slaves and chattel all over the world, not as long as there are those who would snatch away our hard-won reproductive rights, not as long as there are ”honour killings,” not as long as women (and their children) are being murdered by their partners in shocking numbers, not as long as women’s work is valued less than men’s, not as long as women are degraded and objectified by society and culture.
I may love my strappy sandals, but I won’t be tossing my combat boots.

Make sure to update your bookmarks/subscriptions.

h/t skdadl-with-one-‘sk’.

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