Elizabeth Spayd

Of Drones and Men

Air Date: August 1, 2015

Elizabeth Spayd, Editor-In-Chief and Publisher of Columbia Journalism Review and former managing editor of the Washington Post talks about innovations in journalism and technology.

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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

From its long revered Darts and Laurels feature to its essays of criticism, Columbia Journalism Review has presided as the authoritative watchdog of the press. From classic debates about yellow journalism and media bias to burning issues of the day like consolidation, corporatization, and the great content convergence of this millennium, CJR has steered us toward fresh insight, and for that, we’re grateful to our guest today, its newest editor in chief and publisher, Elizabeth Spayd, a much respected former managing editor of The Washington Post.

Years ago I had the good fortune of my first journalism education at CJR under the tutelage of long-time editor, Mike Hoyt. Thus the first ever, entirely student produced, experimental issue caught my attention, as did Elizabeth’s editor’s note encouraging us to pass the torch to the next generation, whose values, she says, are no different than her own.

In that spirit, I wonder if we can open by exploring this hybrid mindset. How does it apply to the advent of drone journalism, to directly published articles on Facebook? What her students called the media’s cutting edge, an open question, and welcome, Elizabeth.

SPAYD: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

HEFFNER: This cutting edge and the hybrid mindset that you accept this new generation.

SPAYD: Uh-huh

HEFFNER: …has knowledge and perspective that’s not necessarily possessed in the newsrooms across the country. How, how are you reconciling these attitudes?

SPAYD: Well, it’s interesting, you know, I, I’ve, I … I really didn’t know what to expect when, uh, I was asked to, to teach this class. I’d actually … I had gone in and taught a course, uh, taught a particular session before. But I’d never had a whole course. So, I didn’t have a whole lot of experience with students that age or young journalists that age. And, I was really surprised by how much they had this same, as you say, the same values that I had.

I, I… I was surprised when they started doing the brainstorming and thinking about what they wanted to do with CJR. I, I had essentially said do anything you want. It has to be about the subject of journalism. But what you wanna make CJR, you can make it. And, uh, and honestly I was surprised that they weren’t more out there in a way. I, I thought my job might be to rein them in a little bit. And it turned out my job was to goose ’em a little bit. Say, Come on, I’m not kidding. Reins are off. And, um … but I do think that they showed in … in this issue that they produced – in print and online – that they’re much more interested in the front edge of journalism, you know, experimental journalism, whether it’s, uh, because of some type of technology or because it’s a way of, of experiencing the actual journalism. And, they all put together a top eleven list. It wasn’t the top ten list because they had sort of a BuzzFeed mode to them in picking an odd number. Uh… they all voted on…, on the group they ultimately selected and then, uh, wrote something up about… uh, what they thought was unique about what was happening among these, these eleven. Uh… and they were…

HEFFNER: Eleven innovations in journalism.

SPAYD: Eleven different innovations in journalism, right. And they weren’t all, uh, digital native operations. Some of them were, were also, you know, legacy … places like the Des Moines Register. So, it was good.

HEFFNER: And when you say they shared your values.

SPAYD: I would say it felt like we had relatively shared journalistic values. Uh, like or… or ethics. Uh, that they, uh, that they … they cared whether something was really right or wrong or reported, uh … you know, which is not when you look at a lot of websites that appeal to millennials, you don’t necessarily see a lot of reporting or, or particularly original reporting behind what they’re doing.

So I was a little surprised by that. Now they’re not normal milennials… they’re um…you know, journalists or aspiring journalists. Uh… And I did … I did find that if there was a common weakness in some of the material that they produced – it was probably around reporting, but I think that …that a lot of that is sort of the age factor – that they are young and they are learning and, you know, it takes a little moxy to get in the door of places or to get your phone calls answered…I don’t think it was that they weren’t trying.

HEFFNER: And in the democratization of news and information that we have seen online, it was reported recently that the Columbia School of Journalism would be reducing the size of its enrollment. Do you think that the young people that you interact with would see that as Clashing with their values of wanting to bring more people into this art. We obviously both recognize there are still woes in the media in terms of the bottom line.

SPAYD: I mean, I think that’s an, an interesting question. I hadn’t really thought about it in the way that you’re presenting it. I… I appreciate the philosophy that’s behind that reduction. The size of the journalism school has taken a real, uh, swing up, uh, around the recession. Because, you know, as typically happens, more people go to school when they can’t get jobs. So this is actually bringing that level back down to what has been the traditional norm of the … of the school. And I think that …that the aim there is, is, you know, get us, uh, get the school back to a, to a place where it can really be an elite school and allow in the best of the best. And not, uh … you know, it had as, as the enrollment already started to decline a little bit as the economy better, you can’t kind of keep this size of operation that was built for this size of a class at that same level. So, I don’t know what, what—actually I didn’t hear any of ’em talk about that. So it is interesting what, what they thought about that. They, they, because they’re in journalism, they’re probably used to, you know, those kind of, those kind of cutbacks. Or if they’re not, unfortunately, they’re gonna get used to ’em.

HEFFNER: Well, a lot of people have spoken in the same way they, they did for decades about CJR. Uh, when they reflect on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the most poignant media criticism has come from this magazine. And perhaps, from the television set and the studio of The Daily Show.

SPAYD: Would love to think that.

HEFFNER: [LAUGHS]

SPAYD: I hope that that’s the, I hope that that’s the case. The only thing I would say about that, I mean …when I came in, one of my strong values was that I felt like we are foremost here to hold the media accountable for the enormous power that they have. So I, and I felt like we had drifted a little bit from that, uh, in the past couple years. So that is very important to me. But the other thing that’s important to me is not to do that like a jerk basically. You know, not to have too strong of an edge or a snarky voice. I’m not one to, you know, promote a snarky voice. It’s meant with, you know, the voice should be with the intent of making our profession better. So, you know, I guess it depends on what, what people mean by that. But I hope it’s you know…

HEFFNER: Right. Well, I, I see that—

SPAYD: I’ll take it as a good thing. [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: I say that in furthering your, uh, analogy or looking at the, the passing of the torch, uh, in terms of getting more people to subscribe to this magazine.

SPAYD: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Or the same number that would click a, a bite from The Daily Show.

SPAYD: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Um, what do you think, from being a veteran of a newspaper and having edited everything from the most classified national security stories to domestic affairs, what do you think today of the integration into, uh, the integration of news articles that are being directly published and disseminated on social media?

SPAYD: Well, I think that there could become a clash with that. I don’t know that they’re… that I see them as, uh, kind of in parallel right now. But I think that it’s …there’s a lot of danger in taking what’s, what the New York Times or The Washington Post has, uh, produced, what they’ve developed, the journalism that they’ve developed with all their standards and losing control of it, in a way, by publishing it on someone else’s network where they too start to introduce their, their values. And I haven’t seen anything in the relatively small amount of information and real detail that we’ve been given about what the terms of that transaction are. But I do think at any time you give somebody else, some other partner, that much control, that’s not in your, you know, they haven’t grown up with your values. They have clearly not always publically shared them and it’s, uh, you know…

HEFFNER: [OVERLAP] It’s a challenge not to have an editor.

SPAYD: Yeah. It’s a challenge not to have an editor. And it’s a challenge not to run your own press, even if it’s in digital. You know, uh, and it’s, it’s an act of desperation.

HEFFNER: Well, is it your contention that operating out of a model that, uh, that lacks that oversight, uh, is gonna be dangerous, um, for the next decade, plus, as more papers die?

SPAYD: Uh, it’s gonna be risky. I think it could be dangerous. I, I don’t, I’m reluctant to doom it before it, before it takes off because, you know, if I were still at The Washington Post, I’m sure I’d be weighing it seriously too. You know, that it kinda reminds me, granted to a greater degree, but, you know, five or eight years ago, we would, you know, have a lot of, uh, a lot of wringing of our hands over whether we ought to let other digital publishers take our content and, you know, do a blurb off it and then a link to us. And we felt like, why should they be stealing our content? But if we didn’t let them steal our content, our traffic would really decline, because if, if we gave ’em too much grief about it, then they wouldn’t point to us at all. So it’s, uh, it, it reminds me of, you know, it’s like it’s, uh, you know, it’s like the lesser of two evils. And, uh, and, and I do think there’s dangers. There’s dangers around press freedom.

HEFFNER: The social media and newspapers are not playing necessarily by the same rules yet. Do you see CJR as a mediator in that conflict?

SPAYD: I would hope so. I don’t think that there should be a unified standard for that. I think individual news organizations ought to set their own standards. I feel like that is part of our democracy and part of what the fourth estate, fourth estate should be. There ought not to be any organization or group vote about, you know, how those standards should be met. But I do see CJR being a voice of light in that. And, and you know, making strong arguments for, um, how, how organizations should come down on those values, uh, when, when the, uh, Charlie Hebdo incident, uh, arose and a lot of, uh, prominent publications weren’t publishing, you know, any of those cartoons, we stood up and said, you know, made a case for why that, why that is, uh … wrong. And, and, uh, a little spineless. Uh… so I, I think that definitely is a space we wanna be in.

HEFFNER: Well, the feature that was beloved for so many decades that I referred to in the opening was Laurels and Darts, and—Darts and Laurels as you corrected me. Uh, I, the spirit of that continues on as you grapple with so many of the issues facing the fourth estate now. Reflecting on your tenure and, uh, we’re recording in the spring, this will air over the summer. What’s, what’s been the greatest laurel and the laurel being accolade, dart being criticism, uh, since you took over the magazine.

SPAYD: Oh, boy that’s a good one. I have, I’m terrible at recalling, uh, all of those. If I, if I could line ’em up, I, I might pick differently. But I’ll, but I’ll tell you, um, one that comes to mind, which was fairly recently.

HEFFNER: Because it really, like, like a dart is an insult. And you, you—

SPAYD: Well, dart I, I can do that easily. I can do that one easily. The laurel is, you know, if I start with the laurel that one—

HEFFNER: Cause you could read the whole Polk, Polk Awards and Pulitzers. But…

SPAYD: Yeah. There’s…

HEFFNER: In terms of trends.

SPAYD: …been an enormous amount…

HEFFNER: Right.

SPAYD: …of, of great journalism. A recent one was this piece that, that the New York Times did on the nail salons. I thought that that was just a great example of incredibly hard, shoe-leather reporting, you know, going around to all these nail salons to look at the kinds of conditions that the workers were facing. In some cases, not even being paid and, and, uh, you know, subjected to all kinds of chemicals, uh, chemicals. Uh, and then interpreting, you know, working through interpreters on that and, and then the New York Times publishing it in all these different languages. I just thought that was both a tool of the modern day to be able to do that. But also, the kind of local reporting that we often hear about and it’s true that seems to be in decline. Um, so that’s a, that’s a recent one that, that comes to mind. There’s been, you know, a lot of great journalism. There’s a lot of great journalists. Clearly around, uh, around Snowden and, and all that’s come out since then, uh, uh, I mean the…

HEFFNER: Dart.

SPAYD: A dart? Okay. Guess. Rolling Stone. [LAUGHS] Um, I just felt like that was pretty abysmal. Pretty abysmal for, uh, an organization, particularly, that has the means to stop those, that level of error and mistake to get in, get published. They have fact checkers there. They have multilayer editing. They have reporters who can work on something for months. They have…

HEFFNER: Give, give our viewers of snapshot of how this transpired.

SPAYD: Uh, well they had, uh, a writer, reporter who’d been working, worked for Rolling Stone for a long time who had worked on other publications. She had, uh, uh, been working for a while on a piece going out and talking to different women around the country, focused on, uh, campus rape and campus sexual assault. She ended up, uh, uh, having her focus drawn, I don’t remember how exactly she got to this woman. But, uh, but a woman, uh, at, uh, uh, the University of Virginia, she, you know, as this, as it developed, uh, she ended up building a story that was largely around this woman’s narrative about how, uh, she got sexually assault at a fraternity, uh, party. Takes it to her editors. They, there’s some effort to fact check. To try to get to other students that might know something about this. But, but it wasn’t at a very significant level. And it, and it clearly wasn’t at a level to allow them to discover that this woman’s story was very dubious and it’s… it’s possible that something happened that night. But nothing close to what, what the account in Rolling Stone said.

HEFFNER: Well, was the most abysmal thing the editor’s note? I mean, even beyond—

SPAYD: Well, that too, exactly. Yeah. Once they did, you know, first round of, of editor’s note—

HEFFNER: They retreated, they retreated. But really, they didn’t retract.

SPAYD: [OVERLAP] They, they were—Yes. They retreated and didn’t retract. And they essentially blamed the woman.

HEFFNER: Right.

SPAYD: Instead of their own, uh, their own behavior. Their own, uh, lack of, you know, you know, appropriate editing, and oversight.

HEFFNER: The Washington Post operated a little bit different during the Watergate era. And, uh, Katherine Graham would not have stood for that kind of editorial malfunction at such a high level.

SPAYD: I would hope not. I seriously doubt it. [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: And, and, and CJR and, and the school, uh, in cooperation with, uh, the investigators here.

SPAYD: Right.

HEFFNER: Were commissioned to produce a report on what went so terribly wrong.

SPAYD: Yes, that’s right. Uh…

HEFFNER: And what, from, from that, what did you think, what did you deduce ultimately went so terribly wrong?

SPAYD: Well, I, I mean I have spent my life as an editor. But, so maybe this impacts how I, how, how I view this…But I, um, I primarily blame the editors for not, like, you’re never in a good space when you have a, and, and I’m sympathetic to this. But you have a good reporter, who’s been extremely reliable in the past. They’ve produced some great journalism for your publication and it’s very tempting to think, if they’re telling me this, then it must be right. If your head’s ever doing that, you know, time to stop and slow down and ask more questions. And obviously some of the fault is with this reporter. She had the same, uh, she got caught in a similar kind of, uh, psychological spin in a way where she wanted to believe this woman. And the more you wanna believe, the more you do believe. And the less you find the need to go check it. Because you’re, you’re, you’re sure of what you have. So I’d say, 75 percent on the editors and 25 percent on her.

HEFFNER: [LAUGHS] Well it reminds me of a dart from a decade plus earlier. When Judith Miller was scapegoated but it Jill Abramson and others who, who were the editors. `

SPAYD: Yeah. I think that there are parallels to that. The, the—Judith Miller was a little murkier, just in—I mean, I don’t think this is a, an excuse for it. But there was sort of the fog of war at that time. It was difficult—like all of us, you know, including The Washington Post got, uh, bamboozled by the administration on intelligence sources leading us to believe that they, uh, that they had a lot of confidence that there were weapons of mass destruction. So it wasn’t like they were alone on this, you know, in the same way that, that the Rolling Stone was. But, but they’re the same issues of, of how much checking and, and how much questioning went on.

HEFFNER: Do you think that that retreat, uh, and, and, uh, pretty immediate retreat after The Washington Post, uh, I, I think was largely responsible for exposing the, uh, error of the reporter. Um, do you think that they were threatened that, uh, the University or the fraternity threatened to sue them to oblivion if they didn’t act? Is that how this escalated?

SPAYD: Uh, I have no, I have little doubt. I do not know. But I have little doubt that the, Rolling Stone was, uh, especially motivated by legal concerns and they’ve certainly proven right there, you know, they’re dealing with legal battles now.

HEFFNER: And, and one of the things I, I wanna—we’re running out of time—but I wanna talk a little bit about empathy. Because you mention that in this case, it was misplaced. In your vision for CJR in the future, uh, because in the last couple of issues, you talk about the intersection of reporting and empathy.

SPAYD: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: How, how, how can we look at that in a, in a way that’s gonna give us new insight, um, so that we can avoid situations like Rolling Stone?

SPAYD: I mean, I think that empathy is one of the great, uh, purposes that journalism has—to create empathy in readers. That’s what we ought to be doing with a large amount of what we do, help readers get drawn into, uh, other people’s circumstances and other people’s lives and issues, that they don’t care about, but that we want them to care about. So I think that kind of empathy is a good thing. But the kind of empathy that is dangerous is when you are so strongly associating with someone who … whose feelings you care about, that you don’t want to, you know, pull back and evaluate what they’re saying.

HEFFNER: You do miss Washington a bit. But I’m wondering how you’re gonna bring that vibe of the newsroom—and we said, you know, I, I was there at one point too. Uh, how are you bringing that to New York? Because I think that, uh, the culture you were part of, of news gathering can really, uh, enlighten these students with whom you’re working. Um, is there, is there anything that you’re hoping that … that your students in New York and the culture of the journalism school and the magazine can gain from your twenty years, approximately, at
The Washington Post.

SPAYD: Yeah. Well, that’s interesting. I would say that pretty immediately one of the things that I changed, um, at CJR is trying to make it feel more like a newsroom. Um, and uh, we have a 10 AM meeting every day where we talk about what’s going on. You know, we’re trading emails all the time about different things that we’re seeing and whether there’s something there for us to, you know, hop on. I’m trying to make us much more timely.

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm.

SPAYD: I feel like CJR, uh, was, had moved into a place that was a little more academic and ponderous and kind of, you know, a little bit too much focus on the word, “Review.” Like, you know, we’ll step back and in due time we’ll render, you know, an opinion on this digital thing. Uh, I’m being silly. But, but I’m trying to get away from that. I feel like the world moves much more quickly and CJR needs to move much more quickly.

HEFFNER: Well you’re moving quickly.

SPAYD: [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: And we really didn’t talk about this in depth. But drone journalism is a thing. And maybe it can counteract the malevolence of, uh, drones being used, uh, for, uh, more, uh, conniving and, uh, militaristic means. What do you think about this? And your students wrote about unmanned vehicles, uh, that, uh, that could expose things, uh, where a security guard is gonna be obstructing you from getting the truth.

SPAYD: I think there’s lots of interesting issues there. I, I find that right now it’s over-regulated. I feel like the media ought to have some rights to use drones. I was, I wrote an editorial, uh, for that issue about how, uh, you know, absurd I thought it was that the FAA is making what are essentially, are First Amendment decisions about where the, the media ought, ought to be able to go with that… Obviously, we, not to be, put anyone in dangerous situations. They shouldn’t be flown too low over a public park or, you know, there’s, I, certainly there’s, you know, a lot of, uh … reasonable ways to, to manage that. But right now, I feel like there’s too much of a freak-out about it.

HEFFNER: Well on that note. Maybe we can drone into the US Supreme Court. And that will be the camera that—

SPAYD: Yes.

HEFFNER: …opens, opens the minds to the American judiciary. But it’s a great thought to leave us on. So thank you.

SPAYD: Thank you.

HEFFNER: Elizabeth Spayd, for your time today.

SPAYD: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other Open Mind interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook at OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.