Posted by Brad @ 6:20 pm on August 27th 2008

The Associated Press Brand Takes a Nosedive

It’s been a bad year for the Associated Press.

In the era where print journalism is suffering mightily from online news coverage, the AP has, up until this year, been doing alright, as the bouillon from which the media soup is made. It’s the go-to thing to quote to convey the gist of a news story, which would seemingly allow it to translate perfectly well into any medium so long as that medium is print-based. And yet, 2008 has seen them suffer greatly under a bevy of off-kilter aggressiveness. Three big things are happening that don’t bode well for their future, and have made them go from a completely neutral non-entity, just “the news” in the most generic sense, to a muscular, bullying company with a bad face.

The first is of course, the RAA-like decision to take on fair usage of their material in the online realm and aggressively pursue little known bloggers for quoting them too extensively. Now, they are perfectly justified in doing so, but sort of like Georgia against Russia, it’s not the abstract “rightness” of it that’s at issue so much as the practical boneheadeness of it. The story got a lot of play and a raised a lot of bad-blood, and once the publicity got too much to handle, the AP walked back.

But their war on online blogging continues. Here’s a small but emblematic story that you won’t hear about anywhere else.

The other day, a diarist at Dailykos (for those that don’t know, diaries are more or less just user blogs, not front page content but more like user-generated comment threads) posted a commentary highlighting a story I’ll get to in a second. He got two or three hundred comments, didn’t think much of it, and then…

Well, I’ll let him explain it:

1. I wrote a diary (now deleted) that discussed the Associated Press and its relationship with newspapers. Because this community has found a lot of reason to gripe at the AP, I thought I could provide some information that might assist you in applying pressure to the AP by hitting them where it hurts — right in the subscription fees that they charge newspapers.

2. The next day, around lunchtime, I got a call from someone from the Associated Press’ office in New York. I know this person’s name, title and contact information, but I have chosen not to post it to DKos. The person told me that my diary was in error, and I told the person to e-mail me so we could settle the matter.

3. A while later, I received an e-mail that listed a single numerical fact error in the story. My editors (the people who do the hiring and firing around here) were CC’d on this e-mail, which listed out my DKos username.

4. At this point, I deleted the diary. Maybe I shouldn’t have done this. I probably would have been better off making the correction and leaving the diary as it was, but the fact is that I am a human being and I was afraid. If you’ve ever had anyone violate your privacy as I felt my privacy had been violated, you know how fearful this can make you.

5. I sent an e-mail back, asking the AP official why he or she felt it necessary to involve my employers when I had never told anyone here my name or my employer, nor have I ever written here as a representative of my employers.

6. I posted an update diary, telling this story. It sat on the Rec List all day and racked up hundreds of comments.

I didn’t follow the whole thing closely enough to know the details beyond that, but in any case, the story of the AP singling this guy out from his dailykos user comment and informing his real-life employers of it (I assume this guy works as a journalist in some capacity) received a lot more attention than the original diary did.

It seems evident that the Associated Press, again right or wrong, has decided, like the record industry did, that the online world isn’t just a bare new medium, but rather a threatening community.
If they’re trolling well known blogs to single out user comments and enact a price for those anonymous users, they’ve already made that plunge.

Secondly, there’s the matter of Ron Fournier. Fournier was hired (about a year ago I believe) as the new Washington Bureau chief, meaning he’s in charge of all American political coverage. Most AP writers are pretty anonymous (by design), but Fournier has long had something of a reputation as being a hack, particularly by AP standards. Even his predecessor at the AP Washington Bureau, Sandy Johnson, on Fournier’s taking the position:

“I loved the Washington bureau,” said Johnson. “I just hope he doesn’t destroy it.”

Almost immediately upon Fournier taking the reins, he enacted a series of soft policy changes meant to “humanize” the AP’s coverage. I.e., to make it less, you know, cold and neutral.

Fournier is a main engine in a high-stakes experiment at the 162-year old wire to move from its signature neutral and detached tone to an aggressive, plain-spoken style of writing that Fournier often describes as “cutting through the clutter.”

In the stories the new boss is encouraging, first-person writing and emotive language are okay.

So is scrapping the stonefaced approach to journalism that accepts politicians’ statements at face value and offers equal treatment to all sides of an argument. Instead, reporters are encouraged to throw away the weasel words and call it like they see it when they think public officials have revealed themselves as phonies or flip-floppers.

The new approach was on display in a Liz Sidoti news analysis written earlier this month with the lead, “John McCain calls himself an underdog. That may be an understatement.” […]

Fournier himself, shortly before taking the job as bureau chief, wrote several models for what he’s called “accountability journalism.” A January lead declared that “Obama is bordering on arrogance.”
the right.

Now, let it be said, I more or less agree with the basic principle of Fournier’s argument—that the “fair and balanced” equal time mode of journalism is bad. Only when I make that criticism, it tends to be of cable news networks, not the Associated Press, which, it seems to me, lives and dies by a reputation of neutrality. “Calling it like I see it” is the job of, say, investigative journalists or pundits or even news anchors. That’s probably not the primary job of wire services.

And, of course, when you’re doing that sort of thing, you need to be very, very careful to not let the impression that you’re in the bag for one side or the other seep in, or it sort of destroys the whole point of being an arbiter.

Oops.

Yesterday, Politico’s Michael Calderone published a story proving that Fournier was directly offered a job with the McCain campaign in 2006. He ultimately turned it down, but only after months of negotiations. The job discussion was held between Fournier and the highest level of McCain inner circle types.

Fournier, for his part, never thought to mention this, despite working for the news agency for whom neutrality and dispassionate fact-relaying is the hallmark.

So, the AP brand for political reporting has taken a pretty heavy hit. The net effect of the whole affair is a little akin to Dan Rather’s national guard story on CBS.

All of these things are finally starting to have a notable effect on the business. The AP has been having trouble with charging newspapers too much for the wire service (forcing them to reduce their fees for next year by 10%), and, in concert with all the other problems, their reach is declining.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune is the latest paper to cancel AP service. In Washington, The Spokesman Review of Spokane canceled around the same time that The Bakersfield Californian cut ties. Several smaller newspapers have joined in. In Ohio, eight of the top newspapers, including The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Columbus Dispatch, The Cincinnati Enquirer and The Toledo Blade, decided to create their own network, the Ohio News Organization. Now they share local news without submitting it to the AP.

The Associated Press has been the the preeminent source of “news” in the most objective sense of the word since 1993 (when it put away UPI). Reuters and Agence France-Presse are their main competitors, but AP is nearly alone in terms of American-based wire service (they have no major competitor here). But they’re up against it at the moment, and it’s clear that, though I don’t expect them to be replaced anytime soon, they’re starting to go on the decline. And unlike newspapers, they don’t have the internet to blame, but rather, their own boneheaded decisions and ham-fisted approaches to the shifting media landscape.

7 Comments »

  1. I think the tying of Fournier to McCain is a bit of a stretch. It sounds like they were pursuing him as a political hack, not an ideologically driven one:

    ““He did us the courtesy of considering the offer before politely declining it,” Salter said.

    He added that Fournier was an attractive target because of his knowledge about the political process, not because of his ideological or partisan leanings. Salter says he still does not know what, if any, those are.”

    There are people in the business of politics almost independent of ideology. I am not saying that Fournier is not political, just that pursuing a job offer is not necessarily indicative of personal beliefs.

    Something seems fishy with the DKos blogger. The fact that the AP was able to tie his name and (work?) phone number to his DKos account name clearly means that that information wasn’t obscured. If that’s the case he doesn’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy nor an expectation that his employer should remain in the dark about his DKos postings. The AP CCing his employer does seem a bit odd, but it is less so if the guy was contacted at work. The story doesn’t quite mesh.

    Comment by Cameron — 8/27/2008 @ 6:38 pm

  2. As far as Fournier goes, the air of him being a partisan relative to other AP journalists (as you say, not so much in the absolute sense—there’s a world of difference between him and Bill Kristol) had been hanging around him since the 2004 election. I find it hard to believe that him being seen as a well placed national press flak with a perception of right-leaning tilt was coincidental with the McCain campaign offering him a job. I find it even harder to believe given the emails between himself and Karl Rove, where it’s pretty clear that, at the very least, Fournier was bending over backwards to portray himself to them as a sympathetic figure. More disconcerting, one doesn’t give the impression, based on those private discussions and his subsequent writings, that he was just putting on airs to get a story (though that, in itself, would be problematic if the AP were giving up objectivity for access). Finally, as the newly minted head of the Associated Press’ Washington Bureau with the newly minted John McCain campaign as the Republican nominee, it’s hard to fathom Fournier deciding that it was nobody’s business. AT THE VERY LEAST he should have disclosed it because, if it came out absent him, it would damage the AP brand.

    I had some similar thoughts with the dailykos blogger. I’m not going to arbitrate that, because I don’t know all the facts. It sounds like he made a numerical error, but it also sounds like he was fairly receptive to them. They contacted his employer as a measure of first resort, not because they were dealing with an obstinate troll who wouldn’t listen to reason. It was a scare tactic, plain and simple. And the fact that a wire service is trolling blog comment sections and then singling out people and contacting their employers with their complaints makes it pretty hard to miss their intent.

    Comment by Brad — 8/27/2008 @ 7:09 pm

  3. I don’t have any opinion about Fournier, really, but this:

    Fournier, for his part, never thought to mention this, despite working for the news agency for whom neutrality and dispassionate fact-relaying is the hallmark.

    is a bit silly as a complaint. You don’t have to enumerate previous job offers when you get a new job, that’s just a daft idea.

    Comment by Adam — 8/27/2008 @ 7:28 pm

  4. As for “they did this” I guess we’d have to know at what level within AP the decision was made. Unlike the going after bloggers stuff (which must have been discussed at higher levels), this harassment could pretty easily just have come out of some over-aggressive reaction by one person at mid-level.

    Comment by Adam — 8/27/2008 @ 7:30 pm

  5. is a bit silly as a complaint. You don’t have to enumerate previous job offers when you get a new job, that’s just a daft idea.

    Sure. You can instead run the risk of it coming out from second-hand sources and your reputation and the reputation of your new agency taking a hit in the process.

    The same goes for “over-aggressive reaction by one person at mid-level”. I’m not talking about the cosmic “fairness” of any of it, I’m talking of its effect on the AP brand.

    Comment by Brad — 8/27/2008 @ 8:05 pm

  6. It also goes without saying that that’s doubly apropos for a wire service like the Associated Press, whose entire business is wrapped up in the perception of vigilant straight reporting.

    Comment by Brad — 8/27/2008 @ 8:08 pm

  7. I wasn’t commenting on the likely effect — I think that’ll come out over time, but compared to going after bloggers, I don’t think being mean to a DKos diarist is a disaster — but on the logic of the attacks and, I guess, whether I think that AP have actually taken a wrong turn or whether this is just noise.

    As for the Fournier thing, even with the likelihood of a leak, he still shouldn’t have said anything about it. That’s just a weird idea; if he did it, most of us would have been wondering why the Hell he did, assuming there must be something more to it, etc, because it really would be weird.

    Comment by Adam — 8/27/2008 @ 8:12 pm

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