The World Economic Forum’s weblog describes itself as “an online journal of (your) views that do not necessarily reflect those of the Forum”. It was started last April at the Forum’s meeting in Warsaw, and gained a new design, URL and increased content during the Annual Meeting in Davos last month.
After the controversy over Eason Jordan (see below), I suspect there are two likely paths the Forum will take. The easiest, beyond doubt, would be to suspend the blog. There will be many voices in the Geneva headquarters of the Forum — and in the vital community of its corporate members — advocating such a course. The late Vere Harmsworth — Lord Rothermere — who was an enthusiastic Davos regular, once told me that the Forum’s watchword was to never offend anyone about anything. I don’t think the Forum is so anodyne, but there was truth to Rothermere’s words.
The Forum knows that in today’s world it needs to become more open and transparent. That’s critical for continuing legitimacy. Yet it is also acutely sensitive to any slights or embarrassments suffered by its participants. The Jordan case has exposed some of the risks of what happens when you don’t minutely control everything that emanates from the Forum, whatever the disclaimers about the weblog being independent. It won’t be a popular view within the Forum, but you could also note that the principal risk is that the truth — sometimes uncomfortable — gets out.
The second likely path would be for the Forum to continue the blog, but to place it under stricter control. This could range from having its contributors confined to the tried and tested, to instituting some kind of check-in, check-out approval system before posts go live. I think this would be a pity. My criticism of the Forum blog as it stands (or stood) was the largely humdrum content, that differed little from the session summaries that have long been issued from Davos (Abovitz’s posts were an exception, as were those of Fortune’s David Kirkpatrick).
The whole point of a weblog is to have the unfiltered, honest voice of the writer come through. That isn’t happening yet with the Forum blog, and any tighter controls would make it impossible.
There is a third path, which I would love to see, but I believe is still a few years off for Davos. Unsurprisingly and presciently, Dave Winer was twisting my arm to do this when I ran the Davos programme in 2000. Here’s what should happen. Every participant in Davos is given a weblog of her or his own, just as they are given Davos emails, iPAQs and personalised programmes. Sure, only a minor percentage would do anything with their weblog.
But let’s say that 5 per cent of participants write regularly. That’s 100 new perspectives on an amazing event. The Forum blog becomes an aggregator for the 100 (or however many) individual weblogs. The kind of multi-faceted, rich picture that so many people (myself included) have tried so hard over the years to convey from Davos is delivered seamlessly.
At the same time, encourage some real Forum blogs, written by the insiders in Cologny. I made the first attempts at this, but the art of blogging has moved on from five years ago. Let me see what issues the programme team are wrestling with. What tsouris is involved in putting together the Dead Sea summit, or the southern Africa summit? Why not a Forum Channel 9? Klaus Schwab could even follow the lead of a member like Richard Edelman and write a weekly reflection on the issues that concern him.
I have no doubt which path a confident, forward-looking organisation would take.
Addendum Once I finished writing the above, I read some of the recent posts by Dave Winer and Jay Rosen about how local newspapers can use blogging. The analogies with the Forum are clear. It’s what any organisation that is at heart a community should be doing.
I was snowed under when the Eason Jordan story broke, so I thought the time had passed to offer any comment.
But then Dave Winer asked me what I thought, and in constructing a reply I realised there was a perspective that had not yet been aired.
It’s a few years since I worked at the World Economic Forum, but my decade-long association with the WEF does give me a good sense of how the organisation thinks and acts.
For those unaware of what happened, here’s a very brief recap. CNN news head Eason Jordan spoke in a non-plenary session in Davos and said something — the facts are disputed — about the US army targeting journalists in Iraq.
Cue storm in the blogosphere, fed not least by right-wing blogs which consider CNN to be a standard bearer of liberal politics. Lots of accusations and denials went back and forth, but in the end Jordan resigned his CNN post.
The World Economic Forum’s own role in this might seem a bit confused. It did the good thing by blessing the blog this year (having tolerated my own blog in 2000). Until the Abovitz storm, I can’t say anything particularly interesting emerged from the Forum blog, but in principle it was a good thing.
When the dispute over what was said arose, a blogger discovered there was a Forum-made tape of the session. Could he see it? No, came the reply from Geneva, it’s off the record. (Jay Rosen has covered the events, and the blogosphere’s role, extensively.)
My first reaction, from afar, was this was ridiculous. Although the Forum has long claimed non-plenary sessions are off the record, this is followed far more in the breach than the observance. Much of the reporting from Davos comes out of so-called off-the-record sessions, without the journalist obtaining the consent of all involved. Further, most people recognise that it is futile to claim an event attended by more than a few people can truly be off the record. Larry Summers, when he was deputy Treasury secretary, told me in Davos that the first thing he learned in Washington was that any conversation with more than two participants would never be off the record (a lesson he has had to relearn recently).
But from the Forum’s perspective, its refusal to release the recording isn’t so ridiculous. The Forum relies on the goodwill of its many powerful participants. So when the Forum tells them that non-plenary sessions are private and off the record, it does need to do what it can to uphold that promise. It was in an iinvidious position.
What certainly could have happened, shielding the Forum from embarrassment, was for Eason to have asked for the recording to be released. Even in more formal off-the-record situations, if the participants agree after the fact, material can move to on the record.
As several people have commented since the Eason resignation, what was on the tape must have been as bad or worse than reported. I suspect the Forum would have released the recording on Eason’s request, but no such request was forthcoming because of what would have resulted.
I’ll post some thoughts later on where I think the Forum should go from here in its blogging initiative.