Philippa Thomas Online

Exploring what we say and how we say it.

What I did and What you said.

36 Comments

On Thursday I published a short story here about the U.S. State Department spokesman’s view that the Department of Defence is being “ridiculous and counter-productive and stupid” in its treatment of Wikileaks whistleblower Private Bradley Manning.

On Friday, President Obama was questioned about it.

On Sunday, the spokesman P.J. Crowley resigned.

I’m writing this because I’ve been a reporter for the BBC for two decades, broadcasting through the traditional mass media of television and radio – and now as an individual, I’ve learned at first hand the power of the blog.

A DIGITAL WORLD

I’m on Twitter. I signed up as @BBCPhilippaT last January. A month later, I was awarded a Nieman journalism fellowship at Harvard University, to focus on the fast changing world of digital media and citizen journalism. In September, I signed up for a class on “Media, Politics and Power”, attracted by lecturer Nicco Mele’s motto that “to understand the digital age you need to live it”. As a coursework assignment, I began to write a personal blog.

I took another class, “New Media and Public Action”, with the social media evangelist Clay Shirky, author of “Here Comes Everybody”. In October, we were debating the power of social media on the day the “New Yorker” magazine published Malcolm Gladwell’s broadside “Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted”. Since December, we’ve all watched as social media played its part in uprisings across the Arab world.

I’m on sabbatical. But I’m a journalist on sabbatical and I live in a digital world .

So a Harvard event on Thursday 10th March featuring the State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley talking about new media & foreign policy was not to be missed.

HOW THE STORY SPREAD

This was a story that started online and only subsequently spread to traditional media outlets.

It started as I walked back from the event at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I called my colleagues at the BBC Washington bureau to tip them off. Soon after that, I published the blogpost. The BBC’s North America editor Mark Mardell retweeted the link. Within 24 hours, my blog registered 17000 views.

Then it spread. At breakfast on Friday, Ed Pilkington from The Guardian called from New York to confirm the facts – after contacting me via the blog. At lunchtime on Friday, Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy magazine online had the first quote from Mr Crowley confirming that this was his personal opinion. Shortly afterwards, President Obama was asked by ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Jake Tapper whether he agreed with Crowley’s comments. That day both the Guardian and the BBC published pieces on their websites.

The story was taken up online by commentators who have been following the case of Bradley Manning – like Glenn Greenwald at salon.com. I didn’t make any further comment. I’m a journalist on sabbatical, not an activist with a cause. (Just as it’s not up to me to comment on the growing liberal anger about Crowley’s effective dismissal.)

But I could see the sources for the thousands of readers coming to my blog. They began coming purely via social media tools – Reddit and Twitter. Then via the websites of big media brand names – primarily the BBC and the Guardian. Hundreds at a time came from new media outposts like the Huffington Post, Salon and The Daily Kos. I knew that a lot of Washington insiders were across it when readers began clicking through from politico.com and washingtonpost.com . Today the New York Times website has so far sent another hundred and thirty readers my way.

And readers online can make their voices heard. Which brings me to your comments about whether I should have published this story, and whether I should have asked P.J. Crowley, “are you on the record?”

THE ETHICS OF THE BLOGPOST

As broadcasters, we’ve always talked to our audience. Today the audience talks back. I want to share some of your comments. A few of you queried the ethics of going public with this story. Many more thought I should have published without asking Mr Crowley whether he was on the record.

Here are a few of your comments, in the order in which you posted them.

Gavin Greenwalt – Reporting should be about discovering the truth, not just airing gossip and the daily embarrassing quote.

“Rob” – He said it aloud in a public forum. Why would you effectively ask for his permission? Kinda weak.

“Hoover” – Because that’s the way the world works, Rob. Try being a journalist for a year and printing every juicy bit of gossip you hear, then after that tell us if you have access to anybody worth listening to.

“Einar from Sverige” – But is there any purpose of being a journalist if you have to be a back-patting “journalist”? I would prefer to rather be a real one, or no journalist…it was a weak sign. I hope she has learned for next time.

“Total Cynic” – ‘The guy is a spokesman for the State Department, not some babe in the woods. Asking him whether he was on the record was typical media suck-up behavior.’

Here’s why I did it. If P.J. Crowley had been standing in a lecture hall with a microphone attached to his lapel, I would have posted my tweet immediately, and phoned the BBC very soon after. (And had I not been on sabbatical, I would then have filed a report).

But I felt the need to clarify. He was speaking to a small academic audience in a relaxed manner. Sometimes these gatherings are as open as they seem. Sometimes they are off the record, as is often the case with our seminars at the Nieman Journalism Foundation.

I’d spoken briefly to Mr Crowley before the event, identified myself as a journalist and exchanged business cards with him. But because of the setting, I thought it was fair to ask openly at the end of the event, “Are you on the record?”

Had he said no, I wouldn’t have wiped his comments from my mind and walked away. I would have done what journalists do in these situations, which is first to ask Mr Crowley whether I or one of my BBC colleagues could arrange to speak to him on the record, and then to alert the BBC to investigate further the tensions within the administration over the treatment of the Wikileaks whistleblower. If you can’t broadcast information, you can still use it.

I agree with “Hoover”. Would it be better for journalists – and for citizens – if we published every bit of inside information that came our way, on the record or not? I suggest that would actually be stupid and counterproductive behaviour, shutting off sources of insight about difficult policy choices.

TWITTER COMMENT: “ONE WORD ANSWER ENDS CAREER”

Did I think as I heard P.J. Crowley speak that this would be a resigning matter? Not immediately. I thought as I said at the time that it was an extraordinary insight into the tensions within the administration over Wikileaks. And so it’s proved.

Did I expect him to say “Sure” when I asked if he was on the record? No I did not. He surprised me.

Would the story have taken longer to emerge if I were not a longstanding BBC News correspondent? Probably, although others present confirmed the details. The outlets that were swiftest to respond – like the Guardian – had no trouble linking to the blogpost because they knew who I was.

This could be characterised as a perfect “new media” storm. But it’s also true to say that a professional journalist for a well-established news outlet like the BBC has a voice that can emerge more clearly from the white noise of the blogosphere.

However – as I’ve found out in dramatic fashion – I’m as open to comment and to criticism to anybody else.

Feel free to talk to me about journalism. You know where to find me.

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Author: philippathomas

I've been a BBC news correspondent for two decades: reporting from the Americas, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Australia. I range across politics, diplomacy, media, religion, environment, arts & more. I began this blog as a 2011 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard. You can talk to me on Twitter at @PhilippaNews. Thanks for reading!

36 thoughts on “What I did and What you said.

  1. What happens when you “go back to work” at the BBC? Does the blog live on? Will you continue to break news on it?

    What about the audience you have built — will you try to maintain it, to “feed” it, or was the PJ Crowley episode a “random act of journalism” for your blog?

    How does this experience affect your sense of the future of journalism? I think it re-enforces your earlier writing – like http://bit.ly/dZWVNJ – but thought I’d check.

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  3. congratulations, philippa. i’m a journalist and i think u were right all the way.

  4. The reality is that PJ Crowley knew exactly who he was talking to, and he knew exactly where the lines were. He knew what he was saying, and he knew what the result would be when word got out that he said it. The inside story emerging from State today and from people that know PJ is that he was ready to leave, and he chose his moment. You reported the story fairly and accurately. And make no mistake about it, he expected you to and used that opportunity.

    You did what journalists do, no more and no less. And PJ did what press spokesmen do: he conveyed the info that he wanted reported, no more and no less.

  5. Philippa: I don’t see any improprieties in how you went about the blog post in question. I read your original blog post almost as soon as it was posted via Twitter, then saw a secondary source via Glenn Greenwald. Now, whether PJ Crowley should have been forced out for that remark? I can think of many reasons pro and con, but I’ll be sorry to see him go either way.

    Likewise, should Crowley have been skewered for every off-beat comment via his own Twitter account? The deleted tweet was an invitation for scrutiny, but if we expect transparency from government officials, and if their every comment will be the subject of excruciating coverage (and this may simply be unavoidable) we should rightly expect public officials to retreat. One thing I know is this: Either you provide a sterilized social media presence, or you go all in and own it.

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  7. Wonder who Crowley was really trying to embarrass: Clinton, Gates, Obama ?

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  9. vive la liberté de la net!
    Very nice academic piece

  10. Hi Philippa,

    As your fellow Nieman, I am naturally biased in your favor. We’ve spent almost our entire year off-the-record, and it’s understandable that you should ask. Also, by asking, you prevent some university official from making a knee-jerk decision to ban press from these sorts of events. That’s good, since universities provide certain kinds of public figures with the same ‘test new material’ space an out-of-the-way venue does for a stand-up comic. There was no reason for you to behave like a tabloid journalist, and I’m not sure why some of your critical commenters thought you should. It’s not about you, and it almost never should be about us as journalists. It’s about what Crowley said, and the Obama Administration’s response to his words.

    Best, and back to your sabbatical…

    Michael

  11. Thank you..really informative!!

  12. Is it even really clear that Crowley wanted to stay in his job?

    Sometimes, you just need a push to realize that it’s time to go.

  13. Well done. You were in the right place at the right time. In journalism, you often make your own luck but lets face it, you had a corker of a story handed to you on a plate. If you hadn’t done something with what Crowley said then you’d have to be a bit of a divvy. I think asking him if it was ‘on the record’ when he said it in a public space like that was probably a bit over-cautious. If it was at an intimate dinner party with a few friends, then it’d be different. I think Mr Crowley knew what he was doing and clearly so do you. Good scoop.

  14. Philippa: I think you were absolutely right to publish PJ’s comments, I also think you were totally right to check that he was happy for his remarks to be attributed. (After all, this was an academic meeting, not a news conference.)

    But here’s a question for you: what would have happened in the pre-Twitter, pre-blog era? My guess is you would have reported PJ’s remarks to your BBC colleagues in the Washington bureau, and they would have reported them on air. The inkies would then have followed up the BBC report, Obama would have been questioned about it; and the end result would probably have been exactly the same, albeit a day or two later. So is this really a Twitter scalp?

    As soon as Crowley answered in the affirmative to your questioning whether he was speaking on the record, it must have been clear to him what the outcome would be. He’s far too experienced an operator to use the language he did without knowing exactly what the consequences would be.

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  17. Philippa,

    I wrote to you on Twitter that I thought you were being slightly deferential to Crowley in effectively asking his permission to publish what was obviously a hugely revealing scoop. But what’s more revealing is the idea that journalists *should* refrain from reporting “juicy gossip” as hoover phrased it, or “inside information” as you did to avoid scaring sources off.

    I’m not a journalist so maybe I’m naive, and I’m asking a broader question, but shouldn’t the overriding principle be that public servants should fear, as an institution, journalism, and doesn’t this tendency to cultivate friendly and close relationships with powerful officials hinder the institutional obligations of each profession (public service and journalism)?

    I suppose my point is that these “ground rules” you talk of could reinforce a broken system at the public’s expense.

    Another point is that I’m actually surprised it took so long for the people that have written frequently about Manning, Wikileaks, the DoD etc to latch on to the story; I think it was roughly 20 hours after your internet post before it was bouncing around Twitter, then FDL, Greenwald, and a few others started checking for verification from other sources. I think in the new media environment, it’s important with stories that are of intense interest to a particular media subset, in this case the civil libertarian left, that this subset is identified quickly and their journalists and writers are identified and made aware of the revelation as quickly as possible.

    You say that you’re status and the BBC’s reputation played a role in the speed of the storm, but had you and others present “tweeted” links directly to the influential commentators that are focussing on this story the most now, the scoop could have been more viral more quickly. So really the only difference that being a “professional journalist for a well-established news outlet like the BBC” made was that you were in the room in the first place.

    • I agree with John Cross here. Perhaps I’m naive as well, and I’m not a journalist, but if truth is to be told, well then it should be told. There are situations where someone speaking in a personal capacity would not want those comments attributed to themselves in public, but this doesn’t sound like that was the case here. It appears that he knew what he was doing.

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  23. This is a nice description of events, but in the end, do you feel good about your end of things? Perfectly good? Or if instead there is ambiguity in your mind, where does that lean you now? Do you worry about what your posting did to the career of someone else, or is that just what the military blandly calls collateral damage? As a longer-range question, how will his colleagues/peers feel about dealing with you in the future? Does the answer to that question bother you? Is it easy to walk away from this battlefield, with wounded and dying on it, or does it make you look back? I put these questions starkly, but by that I do not mean to imply that I have clear answers. And for a compare-and-c0ntrast, match up his answers to the quotes from the NPR folks. If their quotes were misappropriated, how do you think Crowley feels about his. So, did you treat Crowley fairly, but by contrast were the NPR folks treated fairly? I don’t pretend to have easy answers to all this. But if you, and I mean you, throw out “juicy” quotes for the sake of a well-read story, then let us not be surprised by perverse results.

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  25. For the love of God, do whatever you need to do but NEVER jeopardize access. Lose that and the fame, the nice flat and the Nieman fellowships go with it. After all, if you don’t suck up to power, surely one of your colleagues will and then where are you? Back in some kind of mundane existence covering school boards and flower club meetings. Remember why you became a journalist – to aid the government in filtering the news for public consumption. Tell me again, what’s the difference between what you do and a government PR flack? Paymasters. Truth be told, if you feel the need to clear everything you write, you’re nothing more than the disseminating agent at the bottom of the government information food chain. And that’s OK, just be honest about it. Most of us who have been in the ‘business’ understand the relationship and that’s why many of us no longer do it.

    For the record, I could give a damn about PJ Crowley’s career. Every mic is on, every tape recorder is running and if you’re a big boy playing in the big leagues you know every single thing you say is potentially news. Unless, of course, you can hold the threat of losing access over the heads of your press courtiers.

    And Philippa, in terms of “insight,” you know damn well they give you what they want to give you for public dissemination – nothing more or less.

    • First some context for my response in case you don’t read my full comment below, I’m not only a journalist, and I not only worked for the BBC but worked with Philippa in Washington. However, my comment isn’t based on my personal relationship with her or her husband, who also worked in Washington at the time.

      I’m a little confused by what exactly you’re so angry about in this particular instance. In the abstract, you believe that continued access is predicated on an all too cozy relationship between journalists and people in power. Fair enough. I understand that, and I’d say that it’s a concern for some journalists, including me. However, in this specific instance, Philippa followed editorial practice, got the quote and published it (even though she’s on sabbatical). It shows that while there are challenges in terms of balancing the need for continued access with holding those in power accountable, journalism can manage that balance. If you’re making a more general point about the too deferential relationship between some journalists and those in power, that’s fair, but I’d argue that Philippa shows how high ethics can still hold people in power to account.

      • Kevin – one of the reasons I’m tracking this debate and have started to check Philippa’s blog is because, like you I appreciate the interaction between “traditional” journalists who mostly see this type of feedback as indulgent and unnecessary.

        But, whilst I don’t feel the anger, I can understand the concern with the notion that a significant comment indicating strong internal ruptures in an administration would have been effectively wiped from the record of history because of retrospective request for permission (I know it would have been followed, but the biggest story would have another “internal tensions” affair) . Given what the U.S. and U.K. government has gotten away with in the past 11 years the standard for this sort of generosity should be far higher than it is. i.e only in exceptional circumstances. If every journalist applied the same high standard (they won’t) they could apply more heat to government with greater public input. I’m aware that this is a broader theoretical argument that’s difficult to apply to individual cases.

        And to me, the contemporary “traditional” journalist seems far more rigidly attached to their ethical obligation to (especially government) sources but more flexible in their obligation to the public.

    • James,

      I doubt that this would have been wiped from history. As Philippa said, she called the Washington bureau. Also, asking whether a conversation is on or off the record isn’t asking for permission to report it. Sure, the quote has more power being attributed to him. In this case, this wasn’t a press conference, where we can assume things are on the record so it was the professional thing to do to ask especially since Philippa wasn’t there in her professional capacity.

      I wouldn’t call it generosity. It’s professional protocol, and again, Philippa got the quote, got the story and followed protocol. To me, this shows that you can hold government to account and still follow well accepted standards of journalism.

      In terms of whether a change to these accepted standards would have changed the history of the last 11 years, I fear you give journalists too much credit (and power) in terms of how we can move governments. I was in Washington working for the BBC in the lead up to the war in Iraq. There was plenty of solid, sceptical coverage from the BBC, and my most recent full-time employer (I’m freelance now) The Guardian definitely held both the Bush administration and the Blair government to account. The British press and media were far more critical than the US media and yet the result in the UK was the same as in the US.

      Also don’t confuse ethics with acquiescence. Working for the BBC for 8 years, I can honestly say that journalists there take great pride in holding all parties, and governments, to account. As for whether our ethical obligation to our sources is greater than our sense of duty to the public, I just don’t recognise that at all. My highest duty is to provide information to my audiences so that they can make the best decisions as citizens in a democratic society. My passion is public service, and if you ask the majority of journalists at the BBC, they would say the same thing.

  26. Philippa,

    I’ve long said since I started blogging for the BBC during the 2004 US presidential elections that I’m a very traditional journalist in terms of ethics and standards who uses cutting edge tools to report and distribute information and engage audiences. Yes, we’re former colleagues, but I applaud how you handled this.

    There are two things I appreciate about this post and how you handled this situation. One, I think it’s great how you showed how your journalistic standards and practice can be applied to digital journalism. There are ethical challenges unique to digital journalism just as there are challenges unique to television, radio or print, but I think that some standards transcend platforms.

    People ask me whether the standards are more lax online. I say that where I’ve worked, the BBC and The Guardian, we work on multiple platforms but we have one standard of journalism. It’s great to hear you work through the professional process of reporting this story.

    The second thing I really appreciate is sharing that process with your audience. As journalists, we too often assume that everyone understands our thinking and motivation. It’s important in situations like this to explain our values and our thinking. In situations like this in my work, I see it as an opportunity to communicate those values and challenge misperceptions (or even distortions) about those values. Great stuff!

  27. Kevin, I think you totally “get” where I am coming from, & this really helps to clarify my own thinking – thank you – I too would say that I am “a very traditional journalist in terms of ethics and standards who uses cutting edge tools to report and distribute information and engage audiences” – and I’m sure I will quote you on that in the future!

    I’ve been reading the comments coming in & will post again within a week – but obviously this flurry of debate is part of a far bigger conversation about what it means to be a journalist in a new media world.

    In the future, I’ll write more about what I’m reading & who’s influencing me & would welcome suggestions from you all about great articles & sharp minds on media matters.

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  30. I hope you don’t mind me putting my tuppence-worth here, either.

    I have been involved in journalism to varying degrees on levels of varying anonymity. I entirely agree with the belief that any and all public figures should be held to account and the truth be told, in accord with James’ view. However, what Kevin said about ethics and what Philippa fulfilled was morally and ethically correct.

    Forgive me, Philippa, if that sounds remotely patronising, but what you did in that room was utterly correct. Regardless of who Cowley is, or the position a public figure holds, were you a member of the public hearing of human rights abuses, you have every right to ask how that person feels if their comments were to be made public. And regardless of whatever political games the ‘big leagues’ play in, curmudgeon, those in positions of public responsibility need to continuously ask whether they are the right person to be doing the job and whether their consciences will allow them to do the job correctly and morally.

    This is simply a case of one man’s conscience being higher than the inappropriateness of the office-holders above him. And a member of the public becoming aware of that.

    Being someone who works within areas of high confidentiality, I applaude your concern at ensuring he was aware of the impact of his words. Members of the public who have high expectations of standards but no experience of public office often forget how office-holders are human and respond to situations on a human level. You treated Cowley with respect and he replied knowing his words could be reported publicly. Under no circumstances should anyone blame you for anything, or at the very least accuse you of being either naive or a brown-noser. You are someone who saw an opportunity and approached it with respect. And as you say, you would have investigated it properly afterwards.

    What your experience shows is a triumph of one man being prepared to say what he thinks, then standing by that when he walks. His statement proves that as it finishes supporting the work of journalists ensuring governments are held to account.

    What your success also shows, and this pleases me the most, is the facade of Obama’s administration.

    I am British and not remotely of any party-political persuasion. And in the same way a desire for change allowed the British people to be seduced by style and approach from New Labour, that same seduction due to dissatisfaction gave the world someone who was regularly defeated in open televised debates.

    ‘Inside Job’ revealed Obama’s current perpetuation of a deficient economic system. No-one really picked up on that. Now, you have revealed the hypocrisy of a nation’s government that sees no problems in the immoral treatment of prisoners.

    Congratulations. Your instincts and virtues are necessary.

    There is, however, one question for me which remains: how long would Cowley have continued, knowing about Manning’s situation?

    It doesn’t matter why Cowley resigned. If he was pushed, no-one can do anything about it. But if it was through conscience, it is a success for ethical journalism that a man, who wasn’t happy at his bosses’ handling of a situation, publicly aired his feelings, and was aware of the fallout of that.

    Perhaps he was sick of it all and planted the young man in order for that question to be asked in order that he not end up in the brig, too…

    God bless.

  31. Ahem…

    ‘Crowley’…

    I’m remembering my upbringing…

    ‘There’s no ‘r’ in bath…’

    Apologies.

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