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Try Playing it Straight

Try Playing it Straight

August 30th, 2008  |  Published in Reporting commentary  |  2 Comments

In watching the MSM lose credibility and the newspaper sector face seriously and steadily shrinking revenues I see them trying to find ways to survive. Like the AP doubling down on agenda driven journalism and MSNBC countering Fox’s shenanigans by jerking viewer’s chains with opinionated journalism from the other side of politics. MSNBC President Phil Griffin says  “MSNBC does not have an ideology. We hire smart people who are passionate about their love of politics and love of news.”

I’d suggest they all take some clues from the successful independent journalists. Of the three I read regularly, Michael J Totten, Bill Roggio and Michael Yon, Michael J Totten is the closest to a regular MSM journalist  for the simple reason he was one before he went independent and still regularly publishes when and where he can in print outlets. There is no secret about his appeal. He is transparently fact driven, not agenda or meme driven. The difference is subtle, but real enough that his readers support him directly because of the quality of his reporting. He goes into a situation with an open mind aware of the assumptions, the predigested interpretations, and various agendas different political viewpoints would bring that might blind him to what is actually going on. I get the distinct impression that he knows quite well that avoiding all these traps is the only way he will earn the trust and the money of his readers. He includes, rather than filters out,  details that unsettle and complicate. He reports context in a way that allows the reader see how he is approaching his subject. In his current post from Tbilisi The Truth About Russia in Georgia  he is interviewing a Georgian government information officer in the presence of an American academic expert on Georgia. Here he describes the men he is getting his material from and why he believes them:

Regional expert, German native, and former European Commission official Patrick Worms was recently hired by the Georgian government as a media advisor, and he explained to me exactly what happened when I met him in downtown Tbilisi. You should always be careful with the version of events told by someone on government payroll even when the government is as friendly and democratic as Georgia’s. I was lucky, though, that another regional expert, author and academic Thomas Goltz, was present during Worms’ briefing to me and signed off on it as completely accurate aside from one tiny quibble.

What is unusual here to me is that Totten steps back and lets these people tell the story and scrupulously avoids appearing omniscient.  Put another way he gets his ego out of the way and includes his doubts and known limitations as part of the story. He could easily big note himself – the story he may be uncovering is the sort of thing that makes reporters think Pulitzer. Here is his opening:

Virtually everyone believes Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili foolishly provoked a Russian invasion on August 7, 2008, when he sent troops into the breakaway district of South Ossetia. “The warfare began Aug. 7 when Georgia launched a barrage targeting South Ossetia,” the Associated Press reported over the weekend in typical fashion.Virtually everyone is wrong. Georgia didn’t start it on August 7, nor on any other date. The South Ossetian militia started it on August 6 when its fighters fired on Georgian peacekeepers and Georgian villages with weapons banned by the agreement hammered out between the two sides in 1994. At the same time, the Russian military sent its invasion force bearing down on Georgia from the north side of the Caucasus Mountains on the Russian side of the border through the Roki tunnel and into Georgia. This happened before Saakashvili sent additional troops to South Ossetia and allegedly started the war.

That’s a big claim and a big discrepancy to explain. Michael  spends the rest of his article investigating and confirming it as best he can.  If the situation in Georgia interests you it certainly is worth reading it all. At the end of the article Michael tells us why he thinks so many people got the story wrong:

Russian rules of engagement, so to speak, go down harder than communism. And the Soviet era habits of disinformation are alive and well.

“You also have to remember the propaganda campaign that came out,” he said. “Human Rights Watch is accusing the Russian authorities of being indirectly responsible for the massive ethnic cleansing of Georgians that happened in South Ossetia. The Ossetians are claiming that the Georgians killed 2,000 people in Tskhinvali, but when Human Rights Watch got in there a few days ago and talked to the hospital director, he had received 44 bodies. There was nobody left in that town. Plus it’s the oldest law of warfare: have your guns in populated areas, and when the enemy responds, show the world your dead women and children.

“Right,” I said. “That goes on a lot where I usually work, in the Middle East.”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s exactly what the Russians were doing.”

Maybe. Maybe not, but what is critical here is the open recognition that the media gets manipulated. That is a critical part of the story usually left out. An independent journalist can break the club rules. Who’s going to fire him? His readers actually pay him to report just this kind of missing context.


  1. Dick Stanley says:

    September 1st, 2008at 1:03 am(#)

    I agree that Totten (especially), Roggio and Yon are refreshing. I support all three with a pittance of their revenue because they are, as you say, fact-based. Much detail, few generalities. Totten’s piece may not be “the truth,” but it’s more interesting than the usual AP or even NYTimes generalities. Makes me want to buy one of Goltz’s books.

  2. admin says:

    September 17th, 2008at 12:20 pm(#)

    Thanks for the comment Dick, Sorry if I was slow noticing it. Totten’s work reminds me of genuine independents I read in high quality monthly magazines in the 50s and 60s where a journalist didn’t always have to follow an editorially driven line. I think editors knew how and when to let top free lancers off the leash in those days. That was my impression anyhow. Now I think the brand and its attached narrative dominates more. Roggio and Yon seem to me a newer breed – guys who know much more about the military than most reporters because of their military experience and who can write well. I plan to do separate articles on them because I think each of these three stalwarts makes a quite different contribution to emerging independent journalism. Thanks again.

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