“Out Damn Spot”: The Tragedy of Blodget, Act II, Scene II


Citizen journalists are the people of the year. Pofessional public-interest and “service” journalists are objectionable vermin to be exterminated. Go figure.

Stealth marketing harms, I argue, by degrading public discourse and undermining the public’s trust in mediated communication. Doubt that an editor has an authentic voice leads to an overgeneralization of distrust as audiences come to believe that mediated speech is inauthentic or untrue even when it is not. The law of bribery as well as public discourse theory helps to show how such distrust corrupts the kind of communicative public sphere that a democracy needs. –Stealth Marketing and Editorial Integrity, Ellen P. Goodman. Texas Law Review. Austin: Nov 2006. Vol. 85, Iss. 1; pg. 83, 70 pgs

There is a general decline in trust in all spokespeople and sources of information. That means a company must tell its story consistently and in multiple venues in order to achieve trust. We live in a world—as Linda Stone describes–of continuous partial attention. –Richard Edelman, The Changing Face of Trust; see Trust 2.0: Triumph of the Shill?

“There are no second acts in American lives.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940)

Taint by Association: New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt takes a hard line on the Grey Lady’s giving a byline to Henry Blodget, noting that Hoyt’s predecessor’s warning about full “consider the source” disclosure on the stock blogger and barred-for-life securities research analyst went unheeded.

The column is from November 11. My delay in noting it is explained by the fact that the Times arrives here in Brazil by packet steamer and has to clear customs before reaching me.

Just kidding. Writes Mr. Hoyt:

I think there are two questions here. One is whether The Times properly identifies Blodget when he writes for the paper. I don’t think so. His name was big in financial news at one time, but many readers do not know him.

The Public Editor apparently makes suggestions but does not have enforcement power:

Byron Calame, who was then the public editor, said he thought The Times had erred by identifying Blodget only as “a former Wall Street analyst” who “writes frequently for Slate.” It wasn’t enough, Calame said, for Blodget to make a parenthetical aside in the article to “an unfortunate theory of mine — one that, along with some e-mails that caught the notice of the Securities and Exchange Commission, helped my Wall Street career go the way of eToys.” Calame’s admonition went unheeded, because the next time Blodget appeared on the Op-Ed page, last December, defending huge bonuses at Goldman Sachs, he was still “a former stock analyst” and now “the author of the forthcoming ‘Wall Street Self-Defense Manual.’” Neither he nor The Times alluded to the rest of his history.

The classic case of this: a “fake news” incident in which a Fox News affiliate ran an Intel-produced advertorial, without attribution, as its own work. It simply took the Intel promotional script and redubbed it using the voice of one of its journalists.

I tend to think of this as “reputation laundering” — or “Judy Millerism,” in homage to Dick Cheney’s successful planting of a moral panic story about aluminum tubes on the front page of the Times — but the more common term these days, I think, is “stealth marketing.” See

In it, Intel-employed anthropologist Genevieve Bell is identified only as “Genevieve Bell, anthropologist.” This tends to suggest — which is the truth, but not the whole truth — that Bell is an academic expert on the subject. But it also suggests that she is a disinterested expert.

See also

“Why would The Times give a former analyst who lied to investors a platform to write about financial markets?”

The bigger question is whether The Times should be publishing him at all. Like Nocera, I believe in second chances, and Blodget seems to be doing fine establishing a new career. But why would The Times give a former analyst who lied to investors a platform to write about financial markets? If he wanted to write about how investors can spot phony reports by analysts, that would be one thing. But each time the newspaper uses Blodget as it has, it is conferring greater expert status on him.

Contagion.

These deals work two ways. The Times’s luster may help Blodget. But some of his taint rubs off on The Times.

There is an interesting paragraph on “reputation contagion” in the Times “integrity” manual.

Attribution to another publication … cannot serve as license to print rumors that would not meet the test of The Times’s own reporting standards. Rumors must satisfy The Times’s standard of newsworthiness, taste and plausibility before publication, even when attributed. And when the need arises to attribute, that is a good cue to consult with the department head about whether publication is warranted at all.The New York Times, Guidelines on Integrity

When I write in to complain about Larry Rohter, I often cite that principle against the practice of citing “local press sources” to back peculiar claims.

I consume those local press sources, and I really think you ought to heed my advice on this: You need to boil a lot of them before they are fit for human consumption. Some of them cannot be boiled enough.

Really, to be on the safe side, you should boil all of them.

In light of that principle, however, I suppose you might set out to defend Blodget by seeing whether his current journalism — on his blog, and in the Silicon Valley Insider as well, in which Forbes and Variety journalists also participate, according to Blodget — is consistent with “The Times‘s own reporting standards.”

Is it?

Are Forbes and Variety “tainted” by association?

Assignment: Take Bill Keller’s “integrity” memo and other relevant reporting standards documents — all of them industry state of the art, I think — and try to apply them to Henry’s work as an Outsider and on the Insider.

Are they careful about attribution and the use of anonymous sources, for example?

Their stated policy:

We crave news, rumors, and other info. Please send to tips@alleyinsider.com. Unless you say otherwise, we’ll assume you want to remain anonymous.

Are rumors and news forms of information? What is a rumor?

talk or opinion widely disseminated with no discernible source; a statement or report current without known authority for its truth

What is information?

the communication or reception of knowledge or intelligence; knowledge obtained from investigation, study, or instruction

What is news?

a report of recent events; previously unknown information

I am just browsing my Webster’s Tenth Collegiate there. But maybe the MW10 in on the vast Communist plot? Maybe you have a dictionary — a Wiktionary, perhaps, one that is fair and balanced with respect to people who still believe in phlogiston and the hollow earth — that defines the terms differently.

You could start, I guess, with yesterday’s Blodget post:

It is not even really clear to me that the anonymous “users” quoted there are “users,” plural.

The writing and editing is sloppy.

You have passages without quotation marks alternating with passages in blockquotes, which suggests that you have remarks by the author alternating with quotes from the “users.” But that is apparently not the case.

The link to the “user feedback” is actually just a link to the front page of Facebook, which makes it a false attribution. Clicking on the link does not lead to content the link text says it will show you: The “dismayed feedback.”

Anyway, the structure of the post is apparently “Facebook responds to user feedback, and users respond to the response.” The original user feedback to which Facebook is responding is not reproduced.

Facebook has begun to respond to the ever-growing dismay about its Beacon social ad program. The gist of the response? We’ll say whatever we think we need to to get you people to stop whining. But we’re not letting you opt out.

If you want me to believe in the existence of “ever-growing dismay,” of course, you need to measure dismay at Time A, B, C, D, … and demonstrate that that dismay metric has not subsided at any point in that time period.

“Ever-growing dismay” has many of the prima facie features of a moral panic campaign — emotional ventriloquism, anonymous sourcing, fuzzy generalization — and therefore needs to be substantiated if moral panic is to be ruled out.

I thought this post was pretty incoherent.

Yes, I am sure that readers of this blog probably feel the same way sometimes, but then again, I never promised you a rose garden.

This is just another stupid blog, lazily written, full of knee-jerk, half-assed thoughts, and occasionally makes bone-headed errors that it sometimes does not catch for quite some time, if ever.

(Readers sometimes do help me avoid stating nonexistent facts, which I really do hate doing. But the vast majority of the messages I get still tend to suggest that my dick is too small or that my mother blows the Seventh Fleet for beer money.)

(I constantly mistranslate the Zona Oeste of Rio as “the Eastern Zone,” for example. Don’t ask me why. Perhaps because oeste resembles Spanish este. I do know better, but I keep fouling up. It is something of a chronic brain fart.

Which just goes to show you: (1) it is very hard to copyedit yourself, because (2) journalism is an extremely demanding team sport; and (3) boil what you read on blogs before consuming.)

As a control group, you could use the Times’s own Dealbook — which I enjoy and admire, I have to say — and some of the W$J’s “blogs” in a similar mold — ditto, with some marked exceptions.

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