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Archive for May, 2009

This will be my column in Monday’s Gazette:

When presidents nominate new justices for the Supreme Court, people who care about courts project their hopes and fears onto judges most of them have never heard of.

From the special interests and from the extremes of our political spectrum, we hear caricatures about empathetic or activist judges. And we really don’t have a clue what the justice will do.

Here’s the truth: Presidents (as well as governors) nominate people for the Supreme Court who they believe will be good justices, interpreting and applying the law and the Constitution honestly. They also nominate people they hope will reflect their own political philosophy. They have a better track record on the first score than on the second.

I don’t know how Sonia Sotomayor will work out as a Supreme Court justice, presuming that she wins confirmation. And neither do all the liberals hoping she will be empathetic or all the conservatives who think that “identity politics” play a role in her selection but were irrelevant in the selection of the 108 white male justices who have preceded her to the court.

Do you suppose that when Gov. Terry Branstad appointed Marsha Ternus and Mark Cady to the Iowa Supreme Court that he anticipated someday Cady would write and Ternus would join a unanimous decision overturning Iowa’s ban on same-sex marriage? I think we can be sure he didn’t. He appointed them to interpret the Constitution and they did that faithfully.

Do you think that when liberal icon John F. Kennedy appointed Byron White to the court that he thought he would become one of the most conservative justices? Or that Republican Richard Nixon thought Harry Blackmun would be one of the most liberal?

I do know that lots of anti-abortion voters campaigned hard for Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush, based on Republican platforms committed to appointing justices who would overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. And by the time Roe came up for review by the court in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey case, Reagan and Bush had appointed five of the nine justices on the court. Add in the fact that the original two Roe dissenters, White and William Rehnquist, remained on the court and this looked like a 7-2 reversal of Roe.

But two Reagan appointees, Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy, and a Bush appointee, David Souter, joined in a 5-4 decision affirming Roe. Put simply, a majority of the Reagan-Bush appointees voted to uphold Roe, and if even one of them had voted the other way, it would have been overturned.  

Keep this in mind as you read and listen to the various projections of Sotomayor as a Supreme Court justice. The truth is that we never know and people from either end of the political spectrum who try to fan hopes and fears are doing so from speculation and ignorance.

Justices, like all people, change and grow through the years. However long a justice serves, we can count on two things: He or she will rule on some issues we can’t now anticipate and a justice at the Supreme Court level is not bound, as appellate justices are, to follow earlier rulings of the Supreme Court.

Presuming she is confirmed, Sotomayor is young enough that she probably will spend the next 20 years or more ruling on the laws of our land. If you know how she will rule on issues we can’t now anticipate, you are either truly wise or, more likely, truly foolish.

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Secret is as secret does. 

When I first wrote about Thursday’s NAA meeting of newspaper executives, I had to confess I didn’t actually know what was happening, but was writing based on some blogs that were mostly based on speculation or rumor or on the agenda for the meeting, which James Warren of The Atlantic obtained. After some off-the-record emails and a phone call and after reading Editor & Publisher’s two accounts of the meeting, I know more about what was discussed there. My basic views remain unchanged: The meeting was misguided and newspaper executives’ heavy focus on paid content as a way of protecting the print product is wasting time and energy that we shoud focus on more productive innovative solutions.  (more…)

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I hope the newspaper tycoons meeting secretly in Chicago this week come up with a clap-your-hands plan.

Because clapping our hands to save the newspaper industry, like we saved Tinkerbell at the movies when we were children, has more chance of succeeding than the paid-content-cartel approach that newspaper executives are dreaming and talking about but being careful not to conspire about. (more…)

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It’s OK to be sick and tired of Twitter rants by journalists who don’t understand it.

The same day I posted about Edward Wasserman writing about Twitter without really learning about it, I read another piece from another journalist I respect, Paul Farhi of the Washington Post, writing The Twitter Explosion in the American Journalism Review

Farhi, to his credit, did a fairly thorough job of researching Twitter by reading about it online and by interviewing journalists who use it. He just didn’t bother, from what I can tell, to learn anything firsthand by actually using it. And his writing revealed his ignorance. (more…)

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I have long been an admirer of Edward Wasserman’s work. When I was presenting a series of ethics seminars, Our Readers Are Watching, for the American Press Institute, I frequently recommended Wasserman’s Miami Herald columns on ethics in a list-serv for participants.

But his latest work shows how smart people can write stupid things when they don’t take the time to learn and understand the topic they are writing about. Wasserman, a professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, clearly is smart. His thumbnail bio with his columns says he was educated at Yale, the University of Paris and the London School of Economics.

Apparently that meant Wasserman was so educated he didn’t have to learn anything first-hand about Twitter before writing about it. His latest column, How Twitter poses a threat to newspapers, revealed so much ignorance about Twitter that I knew without looking that he had never bothered to use Twitter. But I look anyway. It’s good journalism to do some research and see if your assumptions are correct. A quick check using Twitter’s “find people” function showed no Edward Wasserman on Twitter. (Update: Wasserman confirmed in an email response that he has not used Twitter. His response, which shows a refreshing humility and thick skin, is in the comments.) (more…)

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First tweets tend to be pretty lame (mine was), often something like “trying to figure out this Twitter thing.”

Jennifer Preston of the New York Times got off to a better start, asking in her inaugural tweet Tuesday:

Hi, I’m the NYT’s new social media editor. More details later. How should @nytimes be using Twitter?

With 40 characters to spare, she identified herself clearly and started being social, starting to learn and preparing to teach, which is exactly what a new social media editor should do. I also like that she’s identifying herself in her profile as more than her job. She’s also a mother of twins, an author and a friend. It’s a nice contrast to the Wall Street Journal’s admonition against mixing personal and professional, which goes against the culture of the social media.

I’m pleased that The Gazette was several months ahead of the Times in designating a staff member to lead us into the social media. I appointed  Jamie Kelly our social media guide last summer.

I suspect Jamie was better qualified for his job than Preston. Unless she had a private Twitter account (I couldn’t find one) before Tuesday’s appointment, her first use of one of the most important and prominent social networks came after her new gig was announced Tuesday. She’s on LinkedIn (only 15 connections, though that will grow; she already has more than 3,000 Twitter followers) and Facebook, though we don’t know yet how much she has used either. I saw no sign of her on Flickr and didn’t check other social networks she might be on. Her social media education will be quite scrutinized. But on the other hand, not many of us are more than a year or two ahead of her. And as I wrote in a pair of posts early in my Twitter time, you learn quickly.

I responded immediately with a tweet  encouraging Preston to talk to Jamie and to check out my Twitter tips for editors and my post on journalism ethics in social networks. I meant to write a blog post offering lots of advice (as condescending as that sounds) to Preston, but two other bloggers (probably more, but I’ve seen these two), David Kaplan and Patrick Thornton, offered some really sound advice already (Preston already acknowledged Kaplan’s).

I’ll disagree with Patrick on one point: The nytimes Twitter feed has 946,401 followers (it grew by 2,000 from when I wrote the first draft of this post last night), just offering headlines and links. That’s giving a lot of tweeps something they want, so I wouldn’t mess with that. Patrick is right that you should be social in social media, and I encourage being more interactive with other Twitter profiles, but New York Times headlines and links obviously interest lots of people more than they do Patrick. So give those people what they want. And then follow the rest of Patrick’s advice.

Adam Darowski also offered (not directed at Preston, but valuable to her anyway) some helpful advice on “How To Use Twitter and not Be a Douchebag.” I tweeted a link to his piece and then was retweeted 11 times, which is a lot for me.

Rather than echoing or adding to the good advice offered already, I’ll weigh in with a review of Preston’s first 31 tweets (the most-watched Twitter debut since Oprah?):

  • She already has the hang of retweeting, echoing the advice offered to her by several tweeps and replying to more.
  • She understands the importance of links, passing along a link to Kaplan’s blog and to a list of Times Twitter feeds (another link she attempted to pass along was a busted link).
  • Preston understands the value of courtesy, thanking tweeps seven times for their help and praising suggestions she received.
  • She discussed the Times’ use of Twitter, mentioning that Andrew Sorkin had tweeted from an event.
  • She told us that she had attended a Twitter session by some Times colleagues. That would have been a great event for twittercasting (or a liveblog using Twitter feeds from her and other Times staffers attending). She got some advice in that session from Jennifer 8. Lee, whom I enjoy following.
  • She’s seeking (or listenting to) advice from veteran Twitterers, as she noted in thanking Mathew Ingram, communities editor at the Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s Twittering journalism experts. I hope Preston also seeks advice from Times staffers Nicholas Kristof and David Pogue, two Twitterers I enjoy.
  • Preston converses with her tweeps, asking questions to seek clarification or elaboration (sometimes necessary with the 140-character limit).
  • She shows enthusiasm. I’d like to see more sense of humor, though that might be a bit of a challenge to the very serious culture of the New York Times (but it is the culture of social media). (Kristof shows some humor in his tweets, another reason for Preston to study his style and discuss his approach with him.)
  • She doesn’t regard social media as a 9-to-5 job. That tweet thanking Ingram was one of three she posted yesterday evening fairly late.

I hope Preston will lead a vigorous (and public) discussion of how the Times should use social media and what are Times standards regarding opinion, when and how to mix personal with public, etc.

Times ethical issues are aired publicly (Public Editor Clark Hoyt’s column Sunday examined issues dealing with perhaps the two biggest Times superstars, Maureen Dowd and Thomas Friedman). One of the greatest injustices in journalism ethics in recent years was that Rick Bragg was smeared in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal with a matter that was simply a case of changing standards. Bragg followed a common procedure of using stringers and got pilloried when the standard changed beneath him. We don’t want to see a quality Times journalist smeared by changing or unclear standards regarding social media.

I’m glad the New York Times is venturing into social media in such a public way. I hope @NYT_JenPreston and her colleagues share some valuable lessons with the rest of the industry as they are learning.

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This will be my column in the Monday Gazette:

Imagine the excited news coverage if a major medical journal announced that scientists had developed a cure for cancer.

Editors would splash it across the front page of every newspaper. It would lead the evening newscasts and talk shows would chatter incessantly about it. The word would spread instantly on Twitter and blogs.

That’s probably not how we’re going to cure cancer. But the dramatic progress we have made in fighting cancer is big news that doesn’t get the big headlines or generate lots of chat or tweets because it’s happened so gradually. (more…)

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