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This Week in Review: Journalism and the surveillance state, and ESPN’s conflict of interest

Plus: The New York Times’ site is hacked, Al Jazeera America’s initial reviews, and the rest of the week’s journalism and tech news.

Work on the Snowden documents spreads: A couple of smaller new stories trickled out this week regarding U.S. NSA surveillance, led by The Washington Post’s feature on the U.S.’ secret intelligence budget and the revelation that the NSA paid several tech companies millions of dollars to cover their costs in complying with its PRISM online data-gathering program. One of those companies has been anonymously fighting a government gag order about a surveillance case, though a document released this week inadvertently identified it as Google. A column by WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange on the Australian news site The Stringer accused Google of being essentially an arm of the U.S. State Department.

Elsewhere, the British newspaper The Independent broke a story about a secret U.K. surveillance base in the Middle East, claiming that it was in Edward Snowden’s leaked documents. Snowden and The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald disputed the claim that Snowden was The Independent’s source, with Greenwald suggesting that the leak actually came from the UK government itself (something The Independent denied).

The Guardian also announced that it’s brought in The New York Times to work with it on the Snowden documents after the U.K. government made the paper destroy its hard copies in that country. BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith reported that The Times is working on a set of stories to co-publish with The Guardian next month. ProPublica also confirmed that it’s working on the documents, first with The Guardian and most recently with The Times. The Guardian’s editors answered questions from readers about their work with the documents, and The Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, gave the paper a mixed review on its reporting on the story.

Critics continued to target the U.S. and U.K. governments for their actions toward the journalists reporting on the leaks, led by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. Free Press’ Josh Stearns urged press freedom advocates to fight back, and the British journalism review Press Gazette called for British papers to defend The Guardian. Likewise, The Times’ David Carr tweaked U.S. journalists for turning against Greenwald as a fellow journalist, a point echoed by GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram. NYU’s Jay Rosen argued that the surveillance state is trying to “throw sand in the gears” of journalism, and that “journalism almost has to be brought closer to activism to stand a chance of prevailing in its current struggle with the state.”

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Journalistic integrity questions at ESPN: A troubling development late last week in the world of sports journalism prompted some further questions about the relationship between journalists and their sources — not involving the state, but with the sports leagues they cover. PBS’ Frontline announced that ESPN was taking its name off of a documentary on the NFL’s response to head injuries that the two groups had been collaborating on. The initial suspicion was that ESPN backed out to avoid incurring the wrath of its most lucrative broadcast partner (it has a $15.2 billion deal to broadcast the NFL’s games), and that appeared to be confirmed by a New York Times report that the NFL pressured ESPN after seeing the doc’s trailer.

ESPN denied that its decision was influenced by the NFL, and said it pulled out because it didn’t have any editorial control over the program. The New Republic’s Marc Tracy (before the Times piece was published), concluded that the network was probably more over-careful than anything. ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte couldn’t determine exactly what happened, but said it was clumsiness at best and a more sinister elevation of profit motive over journalism at worst.

Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch looked at the pressure points that will continue to test the tenuous relationship between the NFL, ESPN’s business side, and its journalism operations. The Nation’s Dave Zirin had the most damning material, anonymously quoting several veteran ESPN journalists who lamented the extreme power imbalance in favor of business interests over journalism at the network. “It is not a journalism company. It’s an entertainment company,” said one. “When you get in bed with the devil, sooner or later you start growing your own horns.”

ESPN received a torrent of criticism externally as well. The NFL players’ union condemned the decision as a “disappointing day for journalism,” and Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand told Marketplace it was a “huge black eye for ESPN.” Awful Announcing’s Matt Yoder, grad student Brian Moritz, and freelance sports journalist Viv Bernstein all talked about what an ominous indicator this was of ESPN’s journalistic integrity. Poynter’s Kelly McBride said the episode teaches investigative journalists the lesson that “it’s incredibly difficult for a news organization to hold its own partners accountable.”

Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky examined past examples of ESPN bowing to leagues’ pressure, and The New York Times published an in-depth three-part series on ESPN’s dominance of the world of college athletics that even led to a mid-2000s Justice Department investigation. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Dean Starkman used that series to explain why ESPN’s conflicts between business and journalism are even more fundamental than in the rest of the journalism world.

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Another news org’s site hacked: The New York Times’ website went down for several hours on Tuesday because of a hack by the Syrian Electronic Army, a group sympathetic to the Bashar al-Assad regime there. It was the second time The Times’ site had gone down in the past month, and at least the third time a news organization’s site had been brought down by the Syrian Electronic Army in the past few months. The Times and The Atlantic Wire have good summaries of the attack.

Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon has a useful roundup of pieces explaining the attack, which hijacked The Times’ entries in the Domain Name System and changed the records that allow web browsers to determine what server www.nytimes.com refers too. (It didn’t involve any access to The Times’ servers.) The Washington Post’s Timothy B. Lee and CloudFlare’s Matthew Prince had the best explanations of what happened, and the Los Angeles Times reported that the attack started with a phishing email at the paper’s domain registrar.

Reading roundup: A few other stories floating around this week:

— The initial ratings for Al Jazeera America’s launch last week were predictably low (given its newness and its difficulty getting carriage on cable providers). Public radio program Here & Now talked about whether Americans would tune in to AJAM, and at the Columbia Journalism Review, j-school dean Lawrence Pintak gave a mostly positive review of the new network, calling it solid if unspectacular. Quartz’s Todd Woody looked at AJAM’s strong coverage of climate change, and Doc Searls lamented the loss of Al Jazeera’s live online stream in the U.S. and cable companies’ aversion to the web.

— Directors of the drone journalism programs at two j-schools, the universities of Missouri and Nebraska, reported that they’ve been grounded by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. As The Chronicle of Higher Education reported, the two programs will apply for federal permission to test the drones outdoors, but the decision throws the development of this new journalistic subfield into question. Nebraska’s Matt Waite also explained his situation at his program’s blog.

— Medium, the invite-only publishing platform co-founded by a couple of the founders of Twitter, drew some discussion about its growth and identity over the past week. Bloomberg Businessweek profiled co-founder Evan Williams, and The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal questioned what exactly Medium is, as did GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram. Medium user Anil Dash attempted an answer.

Reports surfaced that the tech site All Things D is looking around for a potential buyer as its contract with News Corp subsidiary Dow Jones expires at the end of the year. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram looked at what a sale might entail, and Reuters’ Felix Salmon examined the immense value Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg have built up at All Things D.

— Finally, The Guardian’s Stijn Debrouwere published an insightful talk he gave regarding news organizations’ misuse of data analytics and how they can make them more effective. It’s worth a read this weekend.

Photo of football concussion study in progress by University of the Fraser Valley used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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