Thursday, July 31, 2014

Publishers Lunch and Pernicious Anonymity

Yesterday, Michael Cader posted some interesting and important thoughts at Publishers Lunch. It’s behind a paywall, but I’ll excerpt the part I want to respond to. I’m going to address Michael’s position on anonymity; Joe Konrath addresses Michael’s thoughts on book pricing and other matters on his own blog.

Michael’s thoughts on anonymity are all set forth in the first sentence of his post:

As most of our readership has likely seen by now, on Tuesday afternoon the Amazon Books team put up another unsigned, closed to comment post (an exercise in what Barry Eisler ought to call shameful "pointless, pernicious, promiscuous anonymity") on the Kindle Forum.
First, I want to thank Michael for (finally) addressing, albeit obliquely, my periodic thoughts on the way he grants anonymity to sources quoted in his articles. The link he offered was to my blog generally, but I think the post he’s referring to is this one, where I said:
By the way, shame on Publisher’s Lunch for offering pointless, pernicious, promiscuous anonymity to the unnamed “Hachette executive” quoted in that article. Amazon’s executives are all on the record, and Publisher's Lunch offers anonymity to Hachette executives…. why, exactly? Are they whistleblowers? Do they fear retaliation from Amazon? This kind of anonymity is unworthy of anyone who takes journalism seriously.
But Michael might also have been responding to something I wrote in a conversation with Joe Konrath a few years ago (also available as a comprehensive, profoundly offensive free downloadable book called Be The Monkey) with regard to Publishers Marketplace, a service of Publishers Lunch. Here’s an excerpt—you’ll see that I challenge Publishers Marketplace to publicly account for their shameful habit of granting publishing executives anonymity:
Joe: I have to say on this topic that the two anonymous comments made in the Publishers Marketplace coverage of your defection irritated me. The “senior publishing executive” said: “[Eisler will] have to sell a hell of a lot more copies than he has ever before.” But that’s exactly backward—actually you can sell fewer books, and you’ll make more money, because you’re getting a much higher royalty on your own.
I hope this senior publishing executive isn’t in charge of accounting, because he/she apparently has no conception of numbers.
Barry: Yes, that was not a great moment in the history of anonymously sourced senior publishing professionals.
Joe: The other anonymous comment was: “Nielsen Bookscan figures show Eisler’s print book sales, which have always been driven by mass market editions, declining steadily from book to book.”
Well, duh. ALL print sales have been declining over the last few years. But apparently they weren’t declining to the point where a publisher didn’t want to give you half a million dollars. Also, your mass market edition for your last book isn’t even out, so there are no Nielsen Bookscan figures yet…
Barry: One of the most destructive, pernicious, slovenly aspects of modern journalism is the promiscuous use of anonymous quotes. Most news consumers are so inured to references to anonymous sources that they don’t even notice them. And though newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post have strict rules about the use of anonymous sources, they routinely ignore them—ignore their own rules.
Here’s the thing. The only time a journalist is justified in using an anonymous source for a quote is when that source is a whistleblower or otherwise faces a legitimate fear of retaliation if her or his identity is revealed. That’s it. That’s the only circumstance. Anything else is at best lazy and more likely corrupt. So while I don’t really care that what the two anonymous Publishers Marketplace sources said was silly, wrong, and misleading, or that the two people who asked for anonymity are cowards, I do care a lot that Publishers Marketplace would offer the individuals in question the protection of anonymity. Were these individuals afraid I would retaliate or something? Smite them with one of my all-powerful indie author thunderbolts?
Joe: More likely they were afraid to look stupid by saying stupid things…
Barry: The main thing, though, is that when a journalist asks someone for a quote, gives someone the opportunity to be quoted in an article, there needs to be a damn good reason for offering that person anonymity. If the person insists on anonymity in the absence of that damn good reason, a good journalist will quote someone else.
Seriously, I would really like Publishers Marketplace to answer these questions in public:
Publishers Marketplace, why did you offer anonymity in your piece? Do you think this sort of anonymously-sourced journalism promotes accountability, encourages accuracy, and fosters meaningful discussion? Couldn’t you have found sources who would go on the record with such anodyne stuff? Why didn’t you? Was this a mistake? Is it in keeping with your own journalistic guidelines and consistent with sound journalism generally? If not, what will you do to improve the quality of your practices going forward and ensure your reporters don’t do this sort of thing again?
Joe: You really think they’ll respond to that?
Barry: If they’re good journalists and care about the quality of their product and the trust of their readers, they will. If they’re not and they don’t, they won’t. But I hope anyone who’s reading this—anyone who believes good journalism is vitally important and that bad journalism is pernicious and destructive—will tweet Publishers Marketplace with a link to this piece and tell them we’re calling them out publicly and urging them to do better. @publisherslunch—let ’em know any way you like, or just cut and paste “@barryeisler and @jakonrath call out @publisherslunch for pointless and promiscuous grants of anonymity,” with a link to this discussion wherever you found it. And if you want to learn more about becoming a more active consumer of news and about why we should all call out reporters for shoddy practices, be sure to read Dan Gillmor’s excellent new book, Mediactive.
Well, it’s been three years, and Publishers Lunch is still granting anonymity to publishing executives for no legitimate journalistic rationale. And though again, I’m encouraged that Michael seems to at least be aware of my criticism, I’m concerned that he doesn’t understand it, because he seems to be conflating anonymity in an article with closed comments to an article. Both practices are problematic, but they’re not at all the same thing.
Let me start by trying to find some common ground here: I generally agree with Michael (and with top literary agent Ted Weinstein) that Amazon should have enabled comments on its post. Though I think there’s a bit of a difference between what one might reasonably expect from a corporation, on  the one hand, and what one might expect from an organization calling itself the “Authors Guild,” which bills itself as “the nation’s leading advocate for writer’s interests in effective copyright protection, fair contracts, and free expression” (my emphasis, because I love irony), on the other, let’s not quibble. Let’s just agree that whether it’s the “Authors Guild;” or Amazon; or James Patterson, Douglas Preston, Richard Russo, or Scott Turow, the failure to engage substantive critiques of your arguments (yes, that’s you, Douglas Preston of “Authors United”) is a disservice to the public and belies a lack of confidence in one’s own positions.
(Which, I have to emphasize, is why I’ve been so disappointed in the failure of Publisher’s Lunch to respond to my critiques of their pernicious habit of granting publishing executives anonymity. Michael, you’ve clearly read the critiques; is a misfired jab in response really all you think you owe your readers?)
All that said, to equate granting anonymity for sources quoted in a news publication, on the one hand, with a blog post closed to comments, on the other, is incoherent. Let’s talk about why.
Amazon’s post was issued on behalf of the corporation. It’s signed, “The Amazon Books Team.” Michael, if there’s some way you think the post would have been more transparent or more accountable if it had instead been signed, “Jane Doe, on behalf of Amazon,” I’d be grateful if you could elaborate. But either way, we would know the statement was made on behalf of Amazon and that Amazon stands behind it.
By contrast, the Publisher’s Lunch anonymous quotes I’ve addressed have been about (i) speculation regarding the basis for an author’s business decisions; and (ii) refuting Amazon’s on-the-record assertions about how Hachette has dragged its feet in negotiations. In this context, is there any question that transparency and accountability would be improved if the executives making these assertions allowed the use of their names?
Or to put it another way, why won’t they use their names? If Amazon is lying when it lays out the factual history of Hachette’s foot-dragging, wouldn’t a Hachette executive—wouldn’t the entirety of Hachette management!—want to go on the record to rebut? Of course they would. And that being the case, why doesn’t Publisher’s Lunch, in the interest of transparency, accountability, and accuracy, insist that any such official it quotes go on the record?
Look, if I publish my own blog post without enabling comments, I’m being small-minded and cowardly. But if I publish someone else’s comments without attaching his or her name to those comments, I’m potentially enabling score-settling, propaganda, and straight-up lying in the pages of my own publication.
So when the White House publishes bullshit on its own website, we know where the bullshit is coming from, even if we can’t directly respond. But when the New York Times publishes that same bullshit—attributed to “Senior Administration Officials”—we don’t know who to hold accountable. The official seems to be speaking on behalf of the government, but maybe she’s not. We can’t question her assertions or otherwise hold her to account because we don’t know who she is. We don’t even know if she’s speaking on behalf of the government, some faction of the government, or herself alone. It’s all deniable—with the newspaper’s complicity.
There’s a ton more to be said on this topic. Michael, I highly recommend the following:
1.  This excerpt from my novel Inside Out on “information laundering,” a term I shamelessly stole from Pulitzer-Prize- and Polk-Award-winning journalist and certified Rain fan Barton Gellman.
2.  This address by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, especially:
See what I mean? The insiders are worried about how their conference is going to “play” in the media. They are trying to make the story come out a certain way. Reporters grant them anonymity so these struggles can be publicized. But if today’s media report about politics is about how the media will be reporting a political event tomorrow, there’s obviously something circular in that. And this is how it begins to make sense to call the journalists “insiders.” Everyone is engaged in the production of media narratives. Journalists and politicians are both “inside” the story making machinery.
Eric Schmitt remembers being surprised when, as a member of a Times newsroom committee on reporting practices, he was given information about what bothered readers of The Times most. It wasn’t political bias, or factual errors, or delivery problems. The No. 1 complaint, far and away, was anonymous sources,” Mr. Schmitt, a longtime and well-respected national security reporter in the Washington bureau, told me last week. “It goes to the heart of our credibility...”
The heart of our credibility. Perhaps worth pondering.
Michael, in the end, maybe we won’t be able to agree on any of this. But even if your point that “Hey, Amazon does it, too!” were correct, would that absolve you when you fall short of your own journalistic benchmarks? Shouldn’t you set your own standards based on your own integrity and on what’s best for your readers, and without regard to what Amazon or anyone else does or doesn’t do in their own blog posts?

In the spirit of transparency, accountability, and engagement that (I think) we both agree on, I hope to hear from you in the comments. Mine are always open. :)


Mark Terry said...

Thanks for this. As a freelance writer I've witnessed first-hand how companies etc., demand control over content in the media.

shugyosha said...

WRT Scalzi: did you follow his "exchange" with a certain Daniel Knight? That's a "Have a hamburger" situation. A mishandled one.

I think the only reason I'm not banning the IP is "Big Idea".

Take care.

Steven Zacharius said...

I agree that everyone should make their sources know when possible. Some people might not want to go on the record publicly. They might not have the authority to comment publicly on corporate policy or numbers. But I don't know why data guy would hide either. I'm for full disclosure. I don't hide.

Barry Eisler said...

As you note, Steven, different people will have different reasons for preferring anonymity. But for all the reasons I note in my post, a personal decision in that regard is qualitatively different from a journalist agreeing to grant a source anonymity within the journalist's own article.

As for Data Guy's decision, DG is publishing numbers that anyone can check, along with along with a methodology anyone can duplicate (as, indeed, DG urges people to do). Nobody has to take his word for anything, nor should we. I think that's a bit different from a Hachette executive refusing to attach his or her name to a claim that Amazon's charges of Hachette foot-dragging are false. How can anyone check that?

Broken Yogi said...

Love that term "information laundering". Will have to remember to attribute it to Barton Gelman, who unfortunately I've not heard of before.