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Calling Out Spin is What We Do

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Poor James Risen.

Excuse me: Poor Pulitzer-prize winner and Very Serious Journalist James Risen.

He writes a story on Afghanistan’s buried mineral wealth, convinces his editors that it is Page One stuff — maybe another Pulitzer, even! — only to have people like Mark Ambinder and Josh Marshall criticize it as old news, carefully repackaged as the ultimate Bright Shiny Object designed to change the direction of the current debate over Afghanistan policy.

The nerve of some people, says Risen. Why, they’re . . . they’re . . . they’re bloggers.

As John Cook noted at Yahoo News, “Risen didn’t take kindly to the blogospheric criticism. “Bloggers should do their own reporting instead of sitting around in their pajamas,” Risen said.” As the very same John Cook noted on Twitter, however, Risen actually phrased his complaint a bit more . . . ahem . . . graphically, which was a bit problematic for Yahoo.

But this is a mark of Very Serious Journalists. Publish what you want, and when you get called out on it from someone who lacks a lofty, Village-approved Very Serious Journalism job, instead of responding to the critique, talk about their pajamas. If pushed, mention their cheetos and their parent’s basements.


You know you’ve made an indelible mark in your chosen field when some theory gets your name attached to it. Sometimes this is a good thing, and other times, not so much.

Consider, for instance, the discussion of the Iraq war by Very Important Journalists. Again and again and again, folks like Tom Friedman noted that “the next six months” are absolutely critical, until of course they’re not, at which point a different six months become absolutely critical. As Atrios noted in 2006, “The dominant view among the in crowd in Washington is that the next 6 months is a critical time in Iraq. As it has always been. They’re all Tom Friedman now.”

Thus was born “the Friedman Unit.”

In a lesser way, the Milbank Unit (coined by Marcy Wheeler) has become part of the media lexicon, measuring the volume of journalist output against the standard set by Dana Milbank: 4 columns a week of roughly 700-800 words. Astute FDL readers will note that Scarecrow, Blue Texan, Attaturk, and others at FDL regularly put out a Milbank Unit every two days. Some, like David Dayen and Jon Walker, put out two Milbank Units a day, and when Marcy gets on a roll, she puts out one Milbank Unit before breakfast.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Not every Very Serious Journalist has their name attached to a unit, of course. Look at Mike Allen, the Stenographer-in-Chief of DC and Dick Cheney’s go-to guy for bashing the current administration, and Jim “Pool Boy” VandeHei, who could only manage cretinism when he was shooting for stenography.


All this Very Serious Journalism, from Friedman to Milbank to Allen and the Pool Boy to Risen, makes me repeat four words over and over and over again: thank God for Firedoglake.

In her reply to Risen, Marcy wrote that “calling out government spin is just what we bloggers do for breakfast.” After breakfast, we take on corporate spin, political spin, religious spin, and whatever other kinds of spin catch our attention.

FDL combines straight reporting with both analysis and advocacy, moving from the simpleminded “he said/she said” model so beloved of folks like Mike Allen and David Broder to something a bit more substantive.

  • Someone’s wrong (or worse, lying) here, and we think we know who . . .
  • Here’s where they’re wrong (or lying), and here’s the evidence to back up our claim . . .
  • Here’s what needs to be done to correct it, and this is why we think it’s better . . .

As Jay Rosen noted at the link above, too many journalists “associate the middle with truth, when there may be no reason to.” FDL may have its sins, but equating the truth with the middle is not one of them.

As Rosen noted in another piece about the FDL coverage of the Libby Trial:

It was the most basic kind of journalism imaginable. You’re my eyes and ears, Christy. Tell me what happened today. When it came time to interpret, to get inside the heads of the key actors, they rose to that challenge too. (Here’s video of FDL’s Jane Hamsher, Christy Hardin Smith and Marcy Wheeler after closing arguments.)

But it’s not just the contributors at FDL that make the journalism practiced here something special — it’s also the commenters. The commenters around here often become part of the analysis, as they bring to the discussion their own areas of expertise. Thus, for example, when Marcy Wheeler digs into the weeds of a Department of Justice memo discussing the UN Convention against torture and authorizing “certain techniques” for interrogations of suspected al-Qaeda detainees, the memo gets critiqued not only by her — a scholar of political literature — but also by practicing defense attorneys, former federal and state prosecutors, military vets, pastors, psychologists, government bureaucrats, medical professionals, and people with many other professional backgrounds, each one bringing their own expertise to bear. Theories get trotted out, kicked around, refined and revised — often ending up influencing the next post on that subject.

The FDL Book Salons on Saturdays and Sundays (and occasionally during the week) are a favorite part of FDL for me. Each one is a chance to spend two hours — two whole hours! — with all kinds of authors, talking about their work. Sometimes the conversations discuss and debate the contents of the book, challenging the author, while other book salons take the book as a jumping off point for discussions that go well beyond what’s between the covers, with the author as a pleasant guide. Between the authors, the hosts, and the commenters, they are almost always great conversations — and you won’t find that in the book review section of the NYT.

FDL would not be what it is without financial support. We don’t do fundraising often, but it is what makes it possible to feed the squirrels that power the servers, send reporters to cover stories like the Prop 8 Trial and the BP Oil Disaster, and do the thousand and ten other things necessary to keep the lights on around here. You can help with a gift — big or small — by hitting our fundraising page.

Oh, and one more thing before I close: Risen is also wrong about blogger couture, or at least the couture here at FDL. Pajamas? I think not. As Christy Hardin Smith noted several years ago,

You really haven’t blogged until you’ve written a post while wearing a tiara and a feather boa.  It’s “extreme blogging,” and don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Damn straight.

But my feather boa is getting a bit worn, so if you could make a donation on the fundraising page, maybe Jane would get me a new one. Thanks.

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.