Friday, August 08, 2008

Policing Themselves To Death


Last week, I published CNN's strict new internet writing policy in its entirety on this site (On Notice/8.1.08). The internal memo had been leaked to me by a source on the inside, and in my rush to make it public I didn't bother analyzing or providing any insight as to what it meant or what the possible ramifications of the policy could be; I just put the thing out there, quick and dirty. I promised in the comment section of that post that I'd have more on the subject later, and here now is the full column on the CNN blogging policy that will appear in the Huffington Post later today. You nice folks will recognize a couple of lines cribbed from my original piece last week.

Believe it or not, I'd like nothing more than to let the subject of my firing from CNN go once and for all.

It's been almost six months since I was shown the office door, supposedly for the unpardonable sin of maintaining a personal blog without allowing the network's Standards and Practices department the right to pre-approve the material posted there. During that time, I've not so much lamented losing a job I wasn't enjoying anymore anyway as I've tried to point out the ways in which the public firing of a popular blogger -- as well as the lack of an identifiable policy on employee blogging in general -- proves that CNN's thinking when it comes to the new media revolution is hopelessly ass-backward. I've always maintained that I and others like me shouldn't have been summarily fired, not because we didn't violate the network's policy against blogging and social networking, but because there was no policy in place to violate. CNN managers, however, insisted that the one-line edict in the network's employee handbook forbidding staffers to write on the outside without company approval acted as a kind of catch-all rule-of-thumb, regardless of whatever nuances or gray areas the march of technology might be bringing to the table.

Well, they insisted it up until a few days ago, anyway.

Just when I thought it was safe to finally put the saga of CNN and its passive-aggressive aversion to web-savvy staffers in the ground, someone on the inside e-mailed me the network's official "NEW POLICY REGARDING PERSONAL WRITINGS ONLINE" late last week. It's lengthy. It's thorough. It's shockingly absurd. It's, to put it mildly, Draconian. It also proves not only that CNN still doesn't get it when it comes to what new media means for the future of journalism, but that the network -- either through ignorance or outright stupidity -- is perfectly content to police itself into irrelevancy.

Behold, just a few of the near-totalitarian restrictions on personal communication that you can expect as a CNN employee, as relayed via a mock question-and-answer session with the enlightened beings of Standards and Practices:

CAN I HAVE MY OWN WEBSITE OR BLOG?

Yes. But you should notify your supervisor about it, to have it cleared as a non-conflict for your work... In addition, you should not operate under an alias on your website or blog in order to participate in biased public behavior. Despite your use of an alias to express a view that may present a conflict of interest, it is still your opinion. Your real identity and occupation could be revealed by someone else at any point.

CAN I COMMENT IN A CHAT ROOM?

It depends on what you're commenting on. A chat room is, of course, a public place. If you identify yourself, or could in any way be identified, then you should not comment on anything CNN reports on. Remember, even though you don't say who you are, someone else might reveal your identity. AND if you're discussing things that are in the news, keep in mind you could be seen as representing CNN, and therefore you should not comment on the issues CNN covers.

HOW ABOUT MYSPACE, FACEBOOK OR OTHER SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES?

Again, on these sites only write about something CNN would not report on. Don't list preferences regarding political parties or newsmakers that are the subject of CNN reporting. Local issues that CNN wouldn't report on would be OK. And of course private communication with friends or family about issues that aren't in the news is fine.

WHAT IF I DON'T WORK DIRECTLY WITH NEWS GATHERING OR NEWS REPORTING BUT ELSEWHERE WITHIN THE SUPPORTING DEPARTMENTS OF CNN?

In discussions about this issue with your colleagues across CNN, it was felt by them that it was important to have this policy apply across the board. If you don't follow this policy, and you are officially a CNN employee, the loss of objectivity won't just apply to you, but could be associated with CNN. Therefore this policy applies to all CNN employees in all departments worldwide.

WHAT ABOUT FREELANCE EMPLOYEES AND INTERNS?

Supervisors should make sure freelancers and interns read this policy now -- or on their first day going forward -- and commit to following it.


So, to recap: As a CNN employee -- any CNN employee in any department, even the per diems -- you're not to offer an opinion to anyone in the general public at any time, including your own family, on any story CNN is covering or may cover at some point in the future (which, unless you're psychic, includes just about everything).

Joining a cult wouldn't force you to suppress your emotions and cut yourself off from the outside world this absolutely.

The problem, of course, is that it doesn't have to be this way. In fact, it shouldn't be this way, not if CNN hopes to survive in an era that's seeing sweeping changes in how journalism is practiced and news coverage is disseminated. A friend of mine named Terry Heaton is a vice president and the new media guru for Audience Research and Development, one of the country's largest and most powerful media consulting firms -- and he may have put it best. He recently said about the CNN edict:

"I think this document is ridiculous, because transparency -- not a muzzle -- is the new ethical standard for a reinvented journalism, and frankly, any journalist who can live with this ought to examine his or her own calling. Free speech is not a right to be given up in the name of some hodgepodge nonsense called 'objectivity.' How noble, or not."

This one quote makes two points, and makes them blisteringly clear: A) the way news is covered has changed drastically and any attempt to assert old-school "control," over either the flow of information itself or the image of the almighty mainstream news organization as the trusted arbiter of it, is a fool's errand, and B) objectivity, to put it bluntly, doesn't matter. In fact, the new CNN policy proves in no uncertain terms that objectivity is a lie; it doesn't exist. And yet news organizations have been behaving as if it does, and lauding it as the standard to which all true journalism adheres for decades. What CNN's internet policy implicitly states -- the dirty secret that it inadvertently pulls back the curtain on -- is that the network is perpetrating a fraud on its audience, attempting to convince viewers that because they can't see the bias, there is no bias. Line after line in the memo, CNN makes it clear that the important thing isn't to not have an opinion (because that, believe it or not, would be impossible), it's to not let anyone know what that opinion is. It doesn't matter what you're beaming out to millions of homes, it matters how the people in those millions of homes perceive it.

Once again though, there's no need for it to be this way. A newsroom full of Vulcan-like automatons -- or, in reality, thinking, feeling people who've simply been led to believe that they need to bury the fiercely opinionated nature that's the hallmark of every truly great journalist -- does no one any good, least of all the public that the media purport to serve. What's more, whether they realize it or not, the authors of the CNN memo are effectively carpet-bombing the network's ability to procure future journalists. Does Rick Davis, the Napoleonic head of CNN's S&P department, really believe that the political and cultural leanings of every MySpaced, Facebooked and blog-happy kid recruited by the network from here on out won't be common knowledge by the time he or she first walks through CNN's front door? Digital footprints last a long, long time, and if it really is all about the audience's perception, it'll take a viewer no more than a mouse-click or two to uncover the biases of the next Anderson Cooper.

Unless, of course, CNN has a plan to begin growing its future news staffers in a vat somewhere and sequestering them until they're old enough to be hired.

Which, if the Orwellian tone of this new policy is any indication, it very well might.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you came back and commented on that laughable policy. I'm wondering if there will be a defect from CNN for this? I also wonder what other network's policies on this look like, or if they even have them.

Finally, I wonder if they could enforce this in court. You were obviously fired because of their handbook, but would they take the same action against someone who is a member of the NAACP or the FSF or EFF? It seems like these kinds of policies would, in the end, be unconstitutional if someone were dismissed for going against them.

It is still true that you work somewhere "by choice" and you therefore "choose" to follow their rules, but I suspect a grandfathered employee may have a different opinion on that.

Deacon Blue said...

CHEZ SAID: A newsroom full of Vulcan-like automatons -- or, in reality, thinking, feeling people who've simply been led to believe that they need to bury the fiercely opinionated nature that's the hallmark of every truly great journalist -- does no one any good, least of all the public that the media purport to serve.
----------------------------

I don't THINK you're saying that journalists should bleed their opinions and biases onto the page or into their on-air copy.

At least, I hope not.

Like you, I believe that neutrality and objectivity are fairy-tale constructs in the end, but I DO think that rank-and-file journalists, even the best ones, need to make it clear that they aren't TRYING to pursue agendas in their stories but are actually attempting to give as balanced a report as possible.

Since, after all, letting your opinion show (in your paid work, that is; I think you should say whatever the hell you like in personal life, on blogs, etc. as long as it isn't a direct and heavy conflict of interests) is, I feel, the purview of commenters and news analysts, not the bulk of journalists out there.

Then again, maybe that's just a bit of the old school coming out in me. Because I don't think that journalist needs to be (or needed to be) reinvented; just tweaked a bit.

But hell, I'm 40 and got my degree in J-school before there were new media curricula...so I guess I would be an old fart...

Anonymous said...

I'm curious Chez, what about the current CNN regime makes you think they WANT to recruit great, or even competent journalists. Aren't you one of the proponents of the view that CNN has decided to go the Fox News route and sell out any credibility it had for ratings by way of attractive anchors and 'controversy' rather than, you know, that whole 'truth' thing? Pointing out that this is an Orwellian policy barely befitting a Communist media outlet that curtsies and dances to the tune of the politburo shouldn't bother them very much. I can remember traveling as a kid and watching CNN International and being impressed by The Most Trusted Name in News. Now they give significant air time to Lou Dobbs' fantasies that some day a Mexican might seduce his daughter and wreck the purity of the Dobbs bloodline. Making sure that there are no 'scandals' at the expense of retaining good employees seems pretty much par for the purely profit driven course.

Torn Shorts said...

So CNN doesn't want anyone working there to have an opinion eh? I guess they haven't watched Prime News anchor Mike Galanos who sometimes borders on editorializing.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand this part,

"In addition, you should not operate under an alias on your website or blog in order to participate in biased public behavior"

Does that make it harder for them to find out who it is and fire them?

But Chez, isn't this policy the same as Klein cutting off the email with outsiders just after he got there?

Isn't it the same as Klein ending the tours at CNN NY?

Isn't it the same as Klein's policy that "the personailities don't have to apologize when they treat fans like garbage"? (And that was told to me by an employee of CNN)

Isn't it the same as those emails going out using Anderson Cooper's email address telling viewers to fcuk off? Some of them have been around long before Klein was and had gotten email from Anderson on many occasions before Klein arrived.

It just goes along with Klein utter hatred, paranoid delusions and general fear of all fans or his jealousy of those who have fans when he never will.

Anonymous said...

Chez, I've got a question. How come Kiran Chetry was allowed to sit on the set of CNN's American Morning and call the whole celebrity magazine-baby photo exclusive trend "out of control" when she herself had done the same thing? Granted, she didn't get the same amount of dough that Brangelina got for her twins, but still, she sat on there with this smug expression on her face, and didn't bother to disclose that she had garnered her own exclusive deal with the very tabloidish OK! Magazine. John Roberts even touted the upcoming exclusive the day after Kiran's son was born, explaining that there would be not photos now because Kiran had a deal with OK! Shouldn't she have disclosed her own deal before making comments critical of Jolie? Does CNN push for magazine deals in order to promote their anchors and reporters, or are things like this all handled by the anchor and their agent?

Anonymous said...

So, CNN is saying that, if employed by them, you cannot discuss anything that is being covered by them in the news with close family and friends? How can they enforce this? This would mean that a person couldn't talk about any politics, financial issues, health issues, world affairs or anything else for that matter! They think they can dictate to their employees as to what they talk about behind closed doors? What kind of nonsense is this? Maybe the name Communist News Network is a good fit after all.

Chez said...

@ Anonyous 9:05PM

Make no mistake, talent is treated differently than those behind the scenes. It's always been this way, whether at the local or network level. Technically, this is understandable; it's the talent that sells the tickets. Because of this fact though, any opportunity to promote an anchor -- or an anchor's children for that matter, because it makes the anchor seem less like a news-reader and more like an honest-to-God star -- will be supported 100% by management. The fact that, say, a Kiran Chetry (whom I've worked alongside and have absolutely no problem with) can comment about the silliness of "celebritizing" the birth of somebody's kids while simultaneously doing the same thing in regards to her own just shows how out of touch that anchor is (not to mention how much he or she secretly believes that they are, in fact, psuedo-celebs themselves).

Anonymous said...

Chez you ignorant slut!
You were fired from CNN because you would take reader comments from CNN's website and then rip the person who made the comment apart on your pathetic blog! Have you ever heard "You don't shit where you eat?" Well, that is EXACTLY what you were doing. CNN asked you to leave the table and you STILL can't get over it. Face it, you FUCKED UP! Perhaps when they took out your pinball sized tumor it was actually you fricken brain they removed. Get over yourself douchebag. You ain't so special afterall. I'm just telling you what your parents failed to tell you from the time you were a tiny child.

Chez said...

Rick? Rick Davis? Man, good to hear from you -- course you are kind of violating your own policy.

Either way, give me a few minutes to stop laughing at you and then maybe I'll respond. Actually, make it a few hours.

Anonymous said...

So, CNN has this reputation for hard news, The Most Trusted Name in News, and they rip on Fox all the time for their fluff and celebrity obsession, yet when it comes to their anchors and reporters, they have no problem with them being pushed and marketed like cheap merchandise. When Chetry did her deal with OK!, just what on earth did they think was going to be gained by that in respect to viewership for American Morning? The losers that read that trash aren't even up at that hour of the morning. I'm glad you and Chetry worked well together. It's only my observation, but I think the two of you would think along the same lines and agree on lots of stuff.

Chez said...

Oh, don't get me wrong; she and I have almost nothing in common. I just thought she was pretty cool and wasn't by any means hard to watch on TV. She's not gonna be shortlisted for a Nobel or anything, but as far as morning television is concerned, you could do far worse.

Chez said...

@ Anon 10:16

Sorry pal, your second comment gets dumped. The rules are, no mention of my family. Wanna pick on me (even choosing to be a sniveling little shit and remain the ever-popular "anonymous")? Feel free. All you have to do is bring up my daughter though and you're gone. Thanks for playing though -- and have a nice day. : )

Oh, and by the way -- it's "what goes around comes around."

Stupid.

alex said...

Chez for the win.

Deacon Blue said...

When Inara hits 2 or 3 years of age, if she's anything like my little girl (and given your and Jayne's personalities, I doubt Inara will be a shrinking violet), you won't have to worry about stupid comments about her; you'll be able to set her loose on the Anons of the world for bringing her into it and she'll beat them senseless for it. ;-)

Anyway, glad to see that lack of sleep hasn't impaired the daddy protective instinct.

trish said...

Still dealing with people who think you're heartbroken over losing the CNN gig, eh Chez?

Anon, I think it's pretty obvious that getting fired from CNN was the best thing that ever happened to Mr. Malcontent's writing career. He's crying all the way to the bank.

Chez said...

I wouldn't go that far. But yes, it's worked out pretty well.

Christine said...

I was thinking about this the other night, and realized that they've opened the door to take things even further. Say you're talking to a friend of yours at a cafe or bar, and the two of you are discussing politics. You make your views known, and he goes back and writes a blog entry about about, quoting a particularly salient point you'd made the night before. Is it okay as long as he doesn't use your name? What if he does? It's not your blog, you have no control over it, but there's your viewpoint for all the world to see. Surely even without a name, it could be linked back to you, the CNN employee, making a comment about something that CNN is covering.

Take that logic, follow it even further and it comes about that you can't even discuss CNN topics with friends in the privacy of your own home, because god forbid, they might have blogs. Or maybe they post a comment on someone else's blog, and you're named, whether directly or indirectly.

Seriously. Thought control.