One of the most interesting and invaluable aspects of serving as SPJ’s president is to experience what it’s like to be written about by other journalists.
Boy, have I seen some shoddy reporting and unfair stories that not only have appalled me but have made me even more determined to ensure my work is accurate, honest and fair.
Which brings me to Gloria Cooper, and the long-running “Darts and Laurels” column in the Columbia Journalism Review. Given my encounters with Ms. Cooper, I’m puzzled that her title is “deputy executive editor.”
The Darts and Laurels column in CJR’s latest edition awards a laurel to SPJ’s national ethics committee for working diligently to ensure that a recent deal SPJ established with PR-wire company MarketWire was consistent with SPJ’s core missions and ethics statement. I wholeheartedly agree that the committee should be praised for its attention to this particular matter.
While Ms. Cooper didn’t award me a “dart,” she may as well have done so. You can read the article for yourself and see that she paints me in the same negative light as the some of the harshest critics (who are very few in number, I might add) of what has become known as the “MarketWire deal.” In that light, I am a journalist who is eager to see the news and PR industries making nice with, and cozying up to, one another. I am willing to foresake SPJ’s “cherished code of ethics” for money.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
I have cut a lot of reporters (particularly those in college) a lot of slack since my presidential term started in August. If the quote wasn’t precise but managed to convey my point, I’ve let it slide. If my name and title were a little goofy, I haven’t said anything. I even have shrugged off a couple of minor, factual inaccuracies because I understood the tight deadlines under which the journalists who called me were working.
Gloria Cooper, deputy executive editor of CJR, has finally prompted me to blow a whistle — and to do so loudly. What I have observed of her reporting I share here with hopes it’ll help all of us (as in me, too) be better journalists.
I’m also elaborating here because Ms. Cooper’s item insinuates that SPJ national leaders and I are trying to hide from the world controversy that surrounded this matter — and I want to assure everyone, particularly SPJ members, that that isn’t the case. Want to know anything about this organization? Drop me a line, or give me a ring, and I’ll be happy to give you the good, the bad and the ugly. In detail. For hours.
Observation No. 1: It helps when you report the facts. Ms. Cooper’s item states that SPJ officials considered “terms of the (MarketWire) proposal” that included “sharing the development of the curriculum” with the PR-wire company. Ummm, nope. SPJ officials said from the start that this organization — and this organization alone — would develop and control any content presented during MarketWire-hosted seminars. We’ve never deviated from that stance. Period. When you can’t get facts straight, you leave your reporting open to allllll sorts of criticism.
Observation No. 2: It’s easy — but unwise and annoying to interviewees — to draw conclusions before you’ve actually done a thorough job of reporting. Ms. Cooper called SPJ headquarters and spoke with Quill Editor Joe Skeel. He suggested that she contact me for more information, and, according to Joe, Ms. Cooper told him she “wasn’t ready” to speak with me. “It was like she already knew what she was going to write, and that nothing I said was going to make a difference,” he later told me. “She already had her story and wanted the facts to support it.” I got the same feeling when I called (yes, I called her, not the other way around) Ms. Cooper. Her questions were pointed to such a degree that I felt she was looking for information that would support her preconceived notions.
Observation No. 3: The words “apparent” and “apparently” are common, cheap shots. Those words are handy little devices we journalists often trot out when we don’t know — or don’t want to acknowledge — someone’s motivations and intentions. We can get away with conveying so much — even making judgment calls of our own — if we simply write that things are “apparent.” Hey, as long as they’re apparent to us, that’s all that matters, right? Wrong.
Observation No. 4: It’s unfair to sock it to people and not give them the opportunity to defend themselves. Perhaps even worse is when people provide a defense that a journalist simply fails to include in his or her story. In Chicago, I never “pressed” SPJ’s National Ethics Committee to “give its blessing” to what was, indeed (and accurately reported as) a “most immodest proposal.” Why? There are two primary reasons: 1. It was a most immodest proposal!
2. The composition of SPJ’s national ethics committee wasn’t clear at the time this matter was addressed in Chicago.
Here’s the (boring but pertinent) inside baseball:
I presented the MarketWire proposal to the national board for consideration. I knew it was problematic on many levels, but I thought SPJ’s national directors would work as a large group to revamp the proposal to its liking. I was wrong. The board balked and cited several problems — but we ran out of time to do anything to address them.
To keep the proposal from languishing until the next board or executive committee meeting — which wouldn’t happen for a few months — directors wisely asked that I seek input from the National Ethics Committee.
I appeared before the committee only with intentions of seeking input. No blessing. No vote. No nothing. Just feedback that would help SPJ national leaders review the proposal with an even more critical eye and revamp it. I in no way tried to “press” the committee for its “blessing” because, by that point, I realized the proposal needed serious work. I’m not one to seek “blessings” for proposals I consider flawed …
I also wasn’t concerned with securing any “blessings” because, at that time, the composition of SPJ’s national ethics committee wasn’t very clear. If I must be completely honest — as I was with Ms. Cooper — the group was unwieldy. It was also laden with several people who participated in name only. So, on the day I attended that meeting in Chicago, I made it clear to the room that I sought no vote and no formal approval because it wasn’t clear to me that our “ethics committee” was adequately represented. The group’s chairman at the time even agreed with that approach before the meeting started.
There are plenty of people who will back me up on all of this, but Ms. Cooper apparently didn’t feel the need to contact them (despite the names and numbers I passed along to her). She was fine with parroting hurtful and inaccurate impressions (relayed to her by that noisy, handful of critics). She was fine with mischaracterizing my actions and motivations — without acknowledging in print my statements to the contrary. This is hardly accurate and fair reporting.
Observation No. 5: Let’s all be thankful for fact-checkers. When I heard that Ms. Cooper was working on an item about my role in the MarketWire deal, I decided to call her. We talked, and she told me she had much more reporting to do and would call me back before publication. The next call I received was weeks later from a fact-checker. As he read passages of the item, I corrected him. He rewrote and read some more. I corrected some more. He rewrote — and finally conceded that he had even more rewriting to do. He was hurried because he made it clear that he was under a tight deadline. I decided to call CJR Editor Michael Hoyt, and, lo and behold, Ms. Cooper called me back the next morning. I tried again to work with her — but the end result is still lousy. But hey, I suspect it’s better than the version that would have run had that fact-checker not bothered to call.
While I’m on this little rant, here’s what I explained to Mr. Hoyt is even more annoying about this entire matter:
“… CJR rarely writes about the Society of Professional Journalists. It doesn’t note our tremendously good work. It doesn’t acknowledge our amazing national network of volunteers who make plenty of personal sacrifices to improve and protect journalism. Instead, CJR delivers this drivel about a ‘committee’ meeting that happened LAST AUGUST and a deal that was approved in DECEMBER.“