Friday, June 10, 2011

"All the gossip that's fit to print": "Newspapers" issue open invitation to dime-out Palin

This afternoon, the State of Alaska is making public a huge lot of over 24,000 emails from Sarah Palin dating back to when she was Governor of that state.

We're sure the next few days will be chock full of media reports about crazy, zany things she allegedly said or did in those emails, as is usually the case when the media covers all things Palin.

We leave it to you (or maybe to a future blog post from us) to decide if those reports are fair or unfair.

But we think there's something profoundly unfair and, indeed, odd about how the media plans to cover the email release. According to the political Web site, several major newspapers across the country are enlisting the help of online citizen volunteers to help their reporters sift through the emails that are released. The Washington Post, LA Times and New York Times all reportedly are asking members of the public to notify them if they find anything noteworthy or interesting in the email release.

Here's what the New York Times site says today:

"We’re asking readers to help us identify interesting and newsworthy e-mails, people and events that we may want to highlight. Interested users can fill out a simple form to describe the nature of the e-mail, and provide a name and e-mail address so we’ll know who should get the credit. Join us here on Friday afternoon and into the weekend to participate.

The Washington Post's Obmundsman, meanwhile, is saying this:

Sarah Palin and her e-mails are just too darn irresistible. The day began with an announcement on The Fix that The Post was looking for 100 readers to work in teams to sift through the former Alaska governor’s 24,000 emails, scheduled to be released Friday in Juneau.

The move was clearly an effort at crowd sourcing, the technique of enlisting the help of readers who may know more than journalists do about Alaska and Palin to make sense of the e-mails. And it was an “interactivity play”to get as many readers as possible to be engaged with The Post, particularly online, in a potentially major story.


This is not reporting a story. This is an anti-Palin witch hunt sponsored by major newspapers. This really is what Sarah Palin herself would deem "lame" and "gotcha journalism."

It's kind of sad that these newspapers have sunk to the level of asking their readers to report the news to them. Are these newspapers really doing so poorly that they can't pay their own reporters to do this work for them anymore? If these newspapers are trying to be neutral sources of record on the political landscape, this isn't the way to do it. And, if the story isn't important enough for the papers to cover on their own, why is it important at all?

All of this leads us to believe these newspapers are just looking for gossip. It's tantamount to a free-for-all public dime-out, and we don't like it. Usually, tips from the public are accepted by the newspaper, assigned to reporters, and reporters investigate them independently before printing. Will that happen here if someone contributes more than just a quote from an email, or will it just be printed? The Post specifically says they're looking for people with knowledge of Alaska, presumably to add context and go beyond the primary source documents themselves. Don't they have reporters who can do that work for them?

We don't oppose the posting of these emails. It's public information. Palin said whatever she said in them. We don't even object to reporting on the emails if there's something interesting and relevant in there (although, we note that Palin is currently neither an elected official nor an official candidate for public office, despite her high public visibility).

What we object to is this passive-aggressive way of reporting the news and the bias that underlies it. This is a way for the papers to report what they think is news without having to stand behind it and take responsibility for it. When a newspaper reports something, it's essentially saying the paper thinks it's important enough to report on. But by sourcing (sorry, "crediting") reports to readers, the paper can broadcast facts "innocently." If this what they want to be known for, then they should become a blog.

As we have said many times in the past, you don't have to sympathize with Sarah Palin to object to the media's treatment of her. Every action, every report, sets a precedent. Today it's Palin, tomorrow it will be someone else. In other words, today it might be someone you dislike, but tomorrow it might be someone you support. That's why the question that needs to be asked, and the examination that needs to be made, is objective.

It's not about whether the papers are doing it to a certain person and not someone else. The practice is just wrong, regardless of its target.

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