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.