Saturday, May 12, 2007

Alter-nate Reality

Glenn Greenwald shares a classic contre-temps wherein one person claims that his speculation is more valid than another's facts. It would seem that Jonathan Alter's slap at Jebediah Reed gets him smacked down in return.

Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, at The Huffington Post, in a post last night:
There's one dimension of the blogosphere that never ceases to amaze me: Some people disbelieve nearly everything they read in the "mainstream media" -- and believe nearly everything they read online. Never mind that the ground-breaking reporting on which they base their opinions often comes from the MSM publications like Newsweek, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.

That's because until now, few online publications have invested enough money to undertake original reporting, which is much more expensive than mouthing off at home. I'm happy to see that the Huffington Post is moving to change that disparity by hiring top-flight and highly experienced reporters like Tom Edsall.

I'm also glad to see the magazine Radar sending young reporters like Jebediah Reed out to cover politics. The more the merrier. Unfortunately, Reed is a bad reporter, and his bad reporting of a 30-second sidewalk conversation involving me, Edsall and former Sen. Mike Gravel is now rocketing around the web. . . .

Why do I bore you with this? Only to reinforce the point to be careful of believing everything you read. Just because it's in Radar or online somewhere doesn't make it true. The same goes for reading me or Tom Edsall or others who happen to have worked at first-rate news organizations.

But our batting averages--and David Broder's--are a helluva lot higher than the Jebidiah Reeds of the world, which is only one of the reasons why the readers of Huffington Post are lucky to have Edsall aboard.

When I first saw that Alter had written about this Radar article and called Reed a "bad reporter," I assumed he was going to claim that Reed conveyed the Gravel/Edsall/Broder exchange inaccurately. But he didn't. Instead, he offered this, one of my absolute most favorite statements in a long time:
I don't remember [Edsall] calling Broder "the voice of the people," but if he did, it was said with a pleasantly arch tone, neither serious nor sarcastic.

And while there's exactly no one on the face of the earth that grizzled reporters like us would "matter of factly" call "the voice of the people" (No, not even Mike Gravel), Edsall and I both know that whatever disagreements we may have with recent Broder columns, he is an honest reporter and no ivy tower thumb-sucker.

Alter, Edsall and Broder all work for "first-rate news organizations," while Reed works for some crappy low-level thing on the Internet that Tim Russert never even heard of. Therefore, the way that Alter fantasizes that the conversation would have occurred had he remembered it (which he doesn't) is more reliable than Reed's first-hand account of it.
Here is Reed's response: An Open Letter to Jonathan Alter
Radar is perfectly happy to ignore the occasional ribbing, but cite us for bad journalism and we might just break form to respond. In this edition of "Minding the Store," Jebediah Reed addresses criticisms of his recent piece on Democratic presidential candidate Mike Gravel by Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter ...

Dear Jonathan,

The last thing I had in mind when I wrote that profile of Mike Gravel at the Columbia rally was getting into a Web tiff with you. I've read and enjoyed many of your columns. So when you called me out as a "bad reporter" in your HuffPo screed, it would have been traumatic if I wasn't sure my reporting from that day was bulletproof. Fortunately, it is.

It's kind of funny, isn't it, all this hubbub over one little remark? But reporter Tom Edsall did say that David Broder is the "voice of the people," and he did say it as I reported. In the conversation I documented, in fact, Gravel was accusing Broder of not believing in popular democracy. He referred to the Iraq war and mentioned Broder's book, Democracy Derailed, which, as I understand it, argues that ballot initiatives often yield undemocratic results. Gravel, of course, is a huge believer in ballot initiatives. Edsall, without changing the tone of the conversation, said: "He [Broder] is democracy. He's the voice of the people."

It sounds like you might not have heard Edsall, but—scout's honor—it was not said archly. I suppose you can criticize me for replacing a he with a David Broder and not bracketing it. I'll plead guilty to that. But if you doubt my account, you're welcome to pop by Radar HQ and listen to the exchange on tape.

Accusing me of being a bad judge of tone is one thing—accusing me of being unethical is quite another. (Writing defamatory falsehoods—even about online journalists—doesn't seem like a good habit to get into, either.) You say the lunch was off the record and that I accepted those terms and then broke the agreement. Here's what really happened: I made arrangements with Mike Gravel's press agent, Alex Colvin, to meet up with the candidate at the Columbia rally as part of a feature story for Radar. When the rally was finished, Alex invited me to join the senator for lunch. That invitation was extended to me as a reporter, not as a friendly guest at an off-the-record sit-down with Jonathan Alter. Throughout the lunch, you might remember, I had my tape recorder running and sitting on the table as I was taking notes. The question of what was on and off the record came up precisely once: You were talking about a segment you'd done about John Edwards for Today. You noticed that I had written something down and asked me not to use what you had just said, noting that the Edwards piece hadn't aired yet. I said no problem, made a somewhat exaggerated gesture of putting down my notebook, and, of course, abided by that agreement. I picked up my pad and started taking notes after the conversation turned back to Gravel.

Perhaps it didn't occur to you that there was any news value in what was said at the lunch. It was, by and large, an amicable and low-key affair. But I can't feel guilty for not abiding by retroactive efforts to move it all off the record. And here's the truth: My piece was not remotely unfair to anyone involved, including Edsall.

Sideswiped indeed.


Jebediah Reed

PS—Thanks for the cup of black bean soup! (Actually, please thank General Electric.)


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