The Reporters Who Got It Right
Knight Ridder was the bomb before the Iraq invasion
Links are at the end.
That’s a harbor there in the background.
I’m voyaging again this week; the plan is to be more active in these precincts than was the case during the Japan excursion—which is to say, something rather than nothing—but no guarantees.
“What distinguished the Knight Ridder Washington bureau from its peers in the Washington press corps was its remove from power and politics.”
Yr. editor has sung the praises of the reporters at Knight Ridder both contemporaneously, when they were busy debunking Bush administration lies about Iraq before and after the invasion—at one point nominating them to run the CIA, since their Washington and Baghdad bureaus both seemed to have a better understanding of things—and more recently in the pages of this here publication.
They were good, and their then-Washington bureau chief, John Wolcott, has an essay in Foreign Affairs explaining why they got so much right while other outfits got so much wrong.
Because his subject is his bureau’s reporting before the invasion, he doesn’t touch on the excellent post-invasion reporting by the chain’s Baghdad bureau under Hannah Allam and Nancy Youssef. Allam is now reporting on domestic extremism and national security at the Washington Post, and Youssef holds down the national security desk at the Wall Street Journal.
We were an experienced group of journalists, with years spent developing sources in the intelligence community and the military. I had reported and edited for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and U.S. News and World Report.
Knight Ridder also had two superb national security reporters in Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, who later were reinforced by Joe Galloway, arguably the greatest war correspondent of the Vietnam era. Other news organizations also had formidable talent, along with larger staffs, bigger budgets, better reputations, and broader reach. Yet in the early days after 9/11, they didn’t seem to be noticing the red flags that the Knight Ridder team had already started seeing.
Landay is now at Reuters, where he has a byline on a recent story about how the invasion fucked everybody involved up except, of course, the people who instigated it.Like Youseff, Strobel is covering national security at the Journal, reporting recently on Havana Syndrome. Galloway died in 2021, and Wolcott teaches at Georgetown University.
Knight Ridder was purchased by the McClatchy family chain, which went bankrupt and got snatched up by some piratical finance firm or another, where it is suffering the fate of post-partum octopuses.
[W]e did not see ourselves as part of the Washington elite, nor did we crave to climb from the fourth estate to become town criers for the first. The entire 9/11 team was well connected, but Landay, Strobel, and Galloway saw no need to curry favor with—much less rely on—high-ranking officials in the Pentagon, Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, or anywhere else. They spent their time earning the trust of people closer to the ground and further from the politics. It became a standing joke how much time I was spending meeting still-unnamed sources in the paint aisles of the Lowe’s store and the Cracker Barrel out in Manassas, Virginia, rather than at embassy parties in Washington.
Last, and perhaps most important, we had the unflinching support of our bosses: Tony Ridder, Knight Ridder’s CEO; the late Jerry Ceppos, the vice president of news; and Clark Hoyt, the Washington editor and my immediate supervisor. Not until much later did I learn that advertisers had called Ridder and asked that he tell them when the latest in our series of “unpatriotic” articles would appear so they could pull their ads. He told them they would see it at the same time he did—when it hit newsstands.
Some of the most infuriating examples of journalistic malpractice in the runup to the invasion involved the administration or administration sources leaking misinformation to reporters, and then citing the resultant anonymously-sourced reporting to back up claims of which they were the source. New York Times reporters were especially prone to this—the once-respected and still unrepentant reporter Judith Miller foremost among them—and the paper name-checked Knight Ridder in their belated mea culpa for their coverage.
The Iraq invasion was not the first nor the last opportunity for reporters to fuck up consequentially, and Wolcott pegs the 2021 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as another example, once again faulting the administration, the military and the press for creating an echo chamber rather than relying on sources closer to the action and lower on the food chain, as his reporters had done in Washington and Iraq.
Investigative journalism has suffered during the intervening years, echoing the distress of journalism as a whole, with newsroom cutbacks, editorial cowardice, futile attempts to beat an ever-accelerating clock, and both chains and individual newspapers succumbing to new, asset-stripping owners from the private equity and hedge fund universe.
Wolcott does find cause for hope in investigative partnerships between nonprofit investigative outfits like ProPublica and institutional ones like the New York Times and the Washington Post, both of which have produced good stories recently, but still bemoans the clickbait culture eroding the emphasis on good reporting, to whatever extent that exists.
Today, laudable efforts are underway to bolster basic investigative reporting and quiet the increasingly frantic quest for attention, too often in the form of official leaks and sensational stories touted as “scoops” with half-lives now measured in seconds. After all, the latest outburst from former President Donald Trump or Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, however ludicrous, and the latest Harry and Meghan gossip are guaranteed to attract an audience.
Yr. editor goes looking for Wolcott’s reporters now and again, just to bask in the glow of their once-and-again splendid reporting.
Speaking of click bait . . .
“Add a negative word to your headline — words like harm, heartbroken, ugly, troubling, angry — and get 2.3% more clicks, on average.”
NeimanLab reports on a massive study of what makes a headline perform well in terms of clicks. Not surprisingly, the old “if it bleeds, it leads” formulation from back in the local TV days still applies, sort of.
The paper is by Claire E. Robertson, Nicolas Pröllochs, Kaoru Schwarzenegger, Philip Pärnamets, Jay J. Van Bavel, and Stefan Feuerriegel — variously of NYU, University of Giessen, ETH Zurich, LMU Munich, and Karolinska Institutet.1 And it builds upon a well-known phenomenon — a bias toward negativity that shows up not just in news consumption, but across all sorts of information-seeking behavior.
As Baumeister et al. put it in an oft-cited paper 20 years ago: Bad is stronger than good.
The researchers used a massive database of headlines, the articles with which they’re associated, and reader responses to them from Upworthy, the once-ubiquitous quick hitting site which was if not the king of clickbait, at least royalty.
Headline words associated with sadness increased clicks. Headline words associated with joy and fear reduced clicks. And headline words associated with anger had no statistically significant effect.
That’s fascinating, and unexpected — both for me and for the authors, who expected anger, fear, and sadness to all increase clicks. This is an area where I wonder about the age of the data; in this angrier political era, would anger drive more clicks than it did during the relative (relative!) calm of the second Obama administration?
The study covered Upworthy data from 2013-2015; until somebody undertakes a similarly ambitious study of recent clickbait, we won’t know what’s primate now. What made the Upworthy database especially valuable was the company’s practice of testing multiple headlines on the same story and promoting the best-performing one to a high traffic page. All of the tested headlines on more than 20,000 stories are preserved in the database.
It’s possible you may be seeing more headlines along the “more in sorrow than in anger” from this publication.
Music to click on
This really is some sorrowful stuff, except for Elastica. Come, be depressed with yr. editor.
Bat For Lashes, “The Haunted Man;”Lykke Li, "EYEYE;" Elastica, "Elastica."
That, Comrades, is all there is
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