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Nov. 16, 2012, 10 a.m.

This Week in Review: The BBC’s scandals blow up, and WaPo’s changing of the guard

Plus: Lessons from the Petraeus scandal, war on social media between Israel and Hamas, and the rest of the week’s media and tech must-reads.

BBC’s problems continue to compound: The sexual abuse problems at the BBC boiled over this week, as a parallel scandal emerged: In the midst of criticism for killing a story about sexual abuse by one of its former hosts, the BBC ran a report that falsely accused a former British politician as a sexual abuser himself. At the Columbia Journalism Review, former Guardian digital editor Emily Bell has the best explanation for American audiences of what’s going on and what it means for the BBC.

As the Guardian explained, the BBC didn’t name the politician by name, though it provided some clues in its report. The name quickly spread on Twitter, and the politician has vowed to sue those who identified him there. (He reached a £185,000 settlement with the BBC.) Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon has a good summary of the fallout, which was swift and severe: The BBC’s top executive, director general George Entwistle, resigned after initially saying he was totally unaware of the report, and the BBC’s news director and her deputy both “stepped aside.”

The director of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the nonprofit group that assisted the BBC with the sexual abuse story, also resigned. The Newsnight program that broadcast the report (and killed the earlier sexual abuse story about the BBC’s own) is now being investigated both externally, by the British government’s communication regulator, and internally, with the chairman of the BBC Trust saying the network needs “a thorough structural radical overhaul.” The BBC plans to fill its top executive position with an outsider, though it won’t go through the full search process.

A Times article examined how the BBC’s extensive guidelines failed in these cases. At The Observer, former BBCer John Ware defended the broadcaster as “overwhelmingly a force for good and understanding” and called the Newsnight scandals an aberration, while Patrick Smith of The Media Briefing said the BBC is marked by continual paranoia about where it stands in the public eye. The Guardian’s David Leigh, meanwhile, pleaded for investigative journalism not to be thrown out in the outrage over Newsnight’s failures.

All this happened while the BBC’s former director general, Mark Thompson, started work as the CEO of The New York Times Co., where he’s expected to keep a low profile for a while. The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi put together a good explanation of the Times’ response to Thompson’s arrival, and media analyst Ken Doctor examined the danger for the Times in appearing to be connected to the scandal through Thompson’s apparent incompetence in handling it. The Times, meanwhile, broke news of a letter sent by Thompson’s lawyers about the Savile scandal that contradicted his claim that he didn’t know about it until after he left the BBC.

Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici said Thompson appears to be safe for now, partly because the Times simply doesn’t have any viable alternatives at this point. But Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote an ominous column on Thompson’s arrival, concluding, “The world is smaller now. What happens in London reverberates in New York. And the chaos at the BBC … feels uncomfortably close to home.” Doctor also saw the potential for the Times to be swept up in this and urged Thompson to step aside.

A change at the top for the Post: The Washington Post pulled the trigger on a big editorial shakeup this week when its top editor, Marcus Brauchli, resigned, to be replaced by Boston Globe editor Martin Baron. Brauchli’s departure had been rumored for several months, and The New York Times detailed the ongoing conflict between him and Post publisher Katharine Weymouth, which often revolved around newsroom cuts (Weymouth wanted more; Brauchli didn’t). Weymouth insisted to Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon and others that Brauchli’s leaving was his decision, not hers.

Several observers offered assessments of Brauchli’s tenure as Post editor, which began in 2008. Reuters’ Jack Shafer said that even if it wasn’t his fault, “It’s the Post’s transition from fat to slim that will be Brauchli’s legacy, not the journalistic accomplishments during his watch.” The Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum offered a similar assessment, prescribing an online paywall as the solution for the Post’s financial woes.

The Post’s media critic, Erik Wemple, identified five lessons from the Brauchli era, including the somewhat deflating reality that unlike The New York Times or Wall Street Journal, “by virtue of its business model, the Post is a regional newspaper, with all the grim implications for newsroom resources.” (Late last week, Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton also chastised the paper for its lack of local coverage.)

As for the incoming editor, Baron, Poynter’s Beaujon noted that most of the stories on his arrival have focused on the prospects of cuts at the Post, though Baron told Politico he has no roadmap yet for the paper. Pieces on Baron at the Post and the Boston Phoenix painted similar pictures of a steely, demanding editor with a reputation of coaxing excellence out of journalists amid deep cuts. Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Boston’s Northeastern University, called Baron “an inspired choice.”

Petraeus, sex scandals, and privacy: The political story that’s taken over the U.S. news media has been the sexual indiscretions of former CIA chief David Petraeus and the bizarre investigation that has swept up several others, including the U.S.’ top officer in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen. For a quick primer on the story, Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon has a thorough list who’s been named as saying or doing what to whom.

The episode has prompted some scrutiny from several corners over the way the media handles sensational scandals like this. News designer Mario Garcia noted that the story has almost all of the traditional attributes of newsworthiness, making the media swarm pretty predictable. Screenwriter and former reporter David Simon derided the futility and hypocrisy of journalists’ preoccupation with others’ sex lives, concluding that “when Americans begin to accept the human condition for what it is rather than an opportunity to jeer at the other fellow for getting caught, then we will be, if nothing else, a little bit more grown up.” Reuters’ Jack Shafer, on the other hand, argued for the importance of sex scandal coverage as an entree for the public to more important issues.

New York magazine’s Joe Coscarelli laid out the media’s five stages of grief over the fall of a man they considered an American archetype, and Roy Peter Clark of Poynter identified some of the media distortions that make those downfalls seem bigger than they are.

The other media/tech angle to this story is that of digital privacy, as many of the pieces of evidence in this case are from Gmail messages found by federal investigators. Wired’s Kim Zetter explained how Petraeus’ illicit emails were found, and Adam Serwer of Mother Jones dug through the troubling legal privacy issues with our own ostensibly secret emails. The New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe and The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald both expressed alarm at the reach of U.S. government’s surveillance efforts, with Greenwald stating, “what is most disturbing about the whole Petraeus scandal is not the sexual activities that it revealed, but the wildly out-of-control government surveillance powers which enabled these revelations.”

Israel, Hamas, and war on social media: Conflict between Israel and Hamas flared up this week, and social media played a role we’ve never seen before in war. As BuzzFeed’s Matt Buchanan documented, the Israeli Defense Forces’ Twitter account live-tweeted its attacks on Hamas leaders and defended its actions, producing the first viral government war propaganda we’ve seen. The IDF also posted video of its attack that killed Hamas leaders on YouTube — which was blocked and then reinstated — and received a threat on Twitter from a wing of Hamas in return for its own threats. They also used some gamification elements on their blog, which repulsed ReadWrite’s Jon Mitchell.

Wired’s Noah Schachtman explained why Israel might be publicizing its attacks this way, quoting a Harvard scholar who saw its video as both a warning to its enemies and a reassurance to its own people and to those concerned about potential collateral damage. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram wrote that the improved social media tools of governments and armies will make it that much more difficult for war reporters to inform the public about what’s really going on in battle.

BetaBeat’s Jessica Roy reported on how social media companies are handling the situation, and both BuzzFeed’s Buchanan and The Atlantic’s Brian Fung looked at the question of whether Israel is violating Twitter or YouTube’s terms of services. (In both cases, they really don’t know what to do.) Ingram also noted the inscrutability of those social media gatekeepers.

Reading roundup: A few other news stories going on this week, too. Here’s a quick review of the rest:

— A final wave of post-election commentary on Nate Silver and political punditry: Gallup shot back at Silver after he called out their inaccuracy; Silver gave an interview to Chicago magazine and chatted with Deadspin readers, explaining, among other things, why he doesn’t vote. The Daily Beast’s Andrew Romano proposed a way to incorporate stats into punditry, and Bora Zivkovic of Scientific American mused on Silver and the nature of expertise in journalism.

— A few more takes from the debate on newspapers and Google News: The Economist argued that going after Google isn’t going to solve newspapers’ problems, and PandoDaily’s Hamish McKenzie wondered if newspapers are becoming more bold because Google News is becoming less important. A chart went around showing Google’s dominance over newspapers in ad revenue, though Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review argued that it was misleading.

— The Financial Times backed down on having its paywall cover its blogs, and Reuters’ Felix Salmon explained why.

— Two good reads for the weekend: An enlightening Lab interview with Tumblr executive editor Jessica Bennett, and a strong argument by Free Press’ Josh Stearns for the necessity of digital literacy in a “big data” era.

George Entwistle photo courtesy BBC. Marty Baron photo courtesy The Boston Globe. David Petraeus photo by Hector Alejandro used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 16, 2012, 10 a.m.
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