Reviewing quotes opens Pandora’s box

July 30th, 2012

“I’ll answer your questions if I can see my quotes before the story is printed?”

That question – and how to answer it – has become one of the summer of 2012’s hot buttons in the media world.

Reporters from the New York Times and other top news organizations have admitted that both presidential candidates aren’t asking – they’re demanding.

And reporters who don’t want to lose access to the candidates and their staffs are agreeing.

It has been a common request during my nearly 40 years as a journalist.

In the 1970s, I was taught the answer should always be “no.” Period. No discussion.

Open up that Pandora’s box and you’ll never be able to succeed as a journalist.

Think about it. If you show one source the quotes you’re going to use from an interview, how can you say “no” to another? Word gets around.

And if you can be forced to show a source their quotes, they’ll want to see other information from the story. Then they’ll want to see the whole story.

You’ll soon have a reputation as a reporter who can be pushed around, dictated to. The news source is in control, not the reporter. That’s not journalism, it’s stenography.

It’s better to just say “no.” Period. No discussion.

Okay, that was the 1970s, and that attitude probably continued through the 1980s. But the world was beginning to change. By the recession of the early 1990s, when newspapers really struggled financially, journalists were beginning to turn a different cheek.

Circulation was declining, and publishers were searching for reasons. Maybe we’ve been too arrogant, too uncompromising, too adversarial, they wondered. So journalists were asked to be kinder, gentler, more cooperative with sources.

After all, what’s more important – your ego or getting the facts right. Why not let a source review the information and comments you gleaned from her, so she can set you straight if there’s a mistake or a misinterpretation.

By the 1990s, I was a newspaper editor, advising my own staff of reporters on how they should handle that question from a source.

I had changed my tune slightly, saying that it was up to each individual reporter, based on their relationship with each source, to negotiate that territory. Generally, the answer should be no.

But sometimes it makes sense to give in, especially if the topic is complex and the likelihood of mistakes is high.

And you always have to weigh the cost-benefit ratio. Is it the only way to get the story? Is the story worth the possible “Pandora’s box” fallout?

Fast forward to 2012.

Now I’m the adviser to a student newspaper – The Agora at Monroe County Community College. I’m helping student journalists learn the basics of the news biz – and guess what question comes up regularly.

Just as presidential candidates are hyper-sensitive about how their campaigns are portrayed in the media, college administrators are nervous about how they will be quoted in the student newspaper.

Talented, experienced professional journalists sometimes make mistakes, inadvertently misquoting a source. With student journalists, it’s common. They’re learning, and you learn by trial and error.

And, of course, there are plenty of times when sources – whether presidential candidates or college administrators – are quoted accurately and later scramble because their words don’t look so good in print.

For whatever reason, faculty, staff and administrators at MCCC often ask the question: Can I see the quotes from me that you’re using in the story? Can I see any facts that came from me? Can I see the story?

Although the situations are light years apart, I think the advice I give the students also would work for the professional reporters covering the presidential campaigns.

Yes, it’s okay to have a discussion about sharing quotes and facts from an interview – in the spirit of accuracy. On a limited basis, it makes sense. If you’re interviewing a nuclear physicist on sub-atomic particles, it might be a good idea to make sure you got the scientific terms right.

But it’s wrong to have a blanket acceptance of source review of quotes and facts. The reporter loses too much – he becomes that stenographer I mentioned earlier.

It doesn’t serve the nation when coverage of our presidential campaign is filtered through the candidates themselves.

And it doesn’t serve journalism education when college students are denied the opportunity to learn the hard way to get it right.

Road trips always come with musings

May 25th, 2012

Reflections from a road trip – some baseball, some media, some culture.

I recently checked off ballparks 33 and 34 on my way to seeing all the Major League venues. I love road trips, and this was a fun one, including a 24-hour drive to Dallas, and a 28-hour drive home from Houston.

Baseball
Both Rangers Ballpark, opened in Dallas in 1994, and Minute Maid Park, opened in Houston in 2000, deserve to be in the top 10 of Major League ballparks.

They are among the trend in new ballparks launched by Baltimore’s Camden Yards in 1989, with great sight lines, spectator treats like giant scoreboards, and amazing food.

Minute Maid’s iconic touch is a nearly lifesize train that travels above the left field grandstands when a home run is hit.

My favorite feature in Rangers Ballpark is the variety of Texas barbecue you can buy in the centerfield food court (I had a smoked Turkey leg dripping in barbecue sauce). A side benefit is the view of the Dallas Cowboy’s amazing new stadium next door.

I prefer the Rangers’ park to the Astros’, but it’s a close call. One thing that is nice about Minute Maid Park is its downtown location. You can park for $5, walk the downtown, and eat at a sports bar across the street before entering the stadium.

Rangers Ballpark is in Arlington, a half-hour drive from downtown Dallas, sandwiched between Six Flags Texas and Cowboys Stadium. That’s cool, but not as nice as a downtown location.

Another baseball highlight – watching the Rangers’ emerging superstar, Josh Hamilton, hit two home runs during the stretch when he hit eight in 18 at-bats. I witnessed a tiny little piece of baseball history.

Media
There’s nothing like 52 hours in the car (actually, that includes six hours each way sleeping at a rest stop) to get a feel for the state of talk radio in America.

And let me tell you, it’s a frightening experience.

I took along my ipod, loaded with lots of music and an audio book. But I like news radio (not surprising for a journalist), so I still spent hours spinning the dial listening to conservatives, liberals, preachers, sports fans and some I couldn’t even identify.

What’s so scary? Here’s a list:

• It seems that conservative and liberal talk show hosts are entirely blind out of one eye (or is it deaf out of one ear). They say the most outrageous things as if they were truth. It’s as if repeating a wrong over and over makes it right.

For example, liberals talk about the Tea Party as if it’s an evil crusade, something akin to the way conservatives talk about the Occupy Movement.

It apparently hasn’t occurred to any of them that both movements are comprised of good, honest people struggling to make their country a better place. They just see the world from different viewpoints.

Why can’t radio hosts help their audiences see that, instead of playing into the most small-minded views of reality.

• Christian radio hosts may be even worse, based on some that I heard while driving through the South. Their lack of tolerance left me alternately angry and sad.

One discussion I listened to focused on how Muslim extremists have infiltrated the Obama White House. As I pondered the on-air conversation between the host and a supposed expert, I realized they were using the terms Muslim and terrorist interchangeably.

It was as if they truly believed that if you choose to worship God as a Muslim, you are inherently evil. I was floored, dumbfounded. Who gave these people keys to the airwaves?

• Why is it sports talk show hosts think they have to yell to make a point? I know they have a lot of time to fill, and they’re often forced to do it with meaningless drivel. But yelling doesn’t make it sound better.

I’m a sports fan, for better or worse. I like to keep up on what’s going on in the wide world of sports. But it sure makes it painful when you have to listen to ranting and raving by guys who apparently think shrieking at the top of their lungs improves ratings.

• For me, National Public Radio is a refuge of sanity in the otherwise nutty world of radio news and talk.

News and commentary on NPR is easy to find – I went through Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama without failing to find an NPR station.

NPR’s news reporters and talk hosts are consistently thorough, thoughtful and balanced.

I listened to other talk radio out of curiosity. As a journalist and a media teacher, I wanted to hear what was out there on the drive from Michigan to Texas. But I kept coming back to NPR to regain my connection with reality.

Culture
Besides going to baseball games, my second reason for visiting Texas was a family reunion. I spent a week at Lake Conroe, about an hour north of Houston, with my mother, brothers and sister and their spouses.

A week in Texas was much nicer than I expected. I’ve always had a bit of a bad attitude about Texans – based only on the small sample I’ve known (several have been good friends).

As I drove across the Texas-Louisiana line on the way home, I had two thoughts:

One, the Texans I met were genuinely friendly and helpful. Even more than Midwesterners, they’re quick with a “How ya’all doing” and a wide smile. They answered my questions – I ask a lot of questions wherever I go – with good humor and wanted to know about me, too.

On either of the coasts, you’re more likely to get a quiet smile and maybe a nod. In some cities – Philadelphia comes to mind – it may be more of a snarl.

In Texas, as in Michigan, folks were much more willing to initiate a conversation with a stranger, along with an honest offer to help.

Two, the commercialization/homogenization of America has made it tough to find real, regional differences. The same stores line the same strip malls, whether it’s in Louisville, Memphis, Little Rock, Dallas or Houston.

We asked a local for a tip on the best authentic Texas barbecue, and he sent us to a franchise restaurant.

We went to the Woodlands, a famous upscale Houston shopping area, and I thought I was at Easton Town Center, the mall outside Columbus, Ohio. I don’t know which came first, but I suspect Woodlands Mall was built first, but then expanded to copy the Easton “Main Street” concept.

The result, though, is cultural confusion. Where am I, anyway?

I only have two cities left to complete the tour of Major League ballparks – Tampa Bay and Phoenix.

But don’t worry about me running out of destinations. When I finish the first round, I’m starting over, visiting the ballparks built since my first visits. There must be a dozen.

I sense many more road trips in my future.

Newspapers not quite Humvees yet

April 11th, 2012

Just how bad off is the newspaper industry?

David Carr, media writer for the New York Times, characterized newspapers as like used Humvees – “a hulking beast that has lost relevance in a changed landscape.”

In his usual eloquent prose, Carr described the decline of the industry, which he notes is about half the size as seven years ago.

He didn’t say whether he was referring to revenue, profits, or number of employees, but all would be about right.

In a fascinating development, the editor of the Boston Globe – which is owned by the New York Times – responded with a letter to the editor, which was printed in the Times. How often does that happen?

Marty Baron took issue with Carr’s metaphor. Newspapers may be struggling financially, he said, but they are still important to their communities and to the nation.

“Local and regional newspapers may have lost revenue, but they haven’t lost relevance,” he wrote.

As evidence, Baron offered a list of stories in newspapers across America that had made a difference – from The Patriot-News in Pennsylvania exposing the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State to The Sarasota Herald-Tribune finding Florida law enforcement officers were allowed to stay on the job despite stealing from crime victims.

Baron is right on. From national companies like the NY Times and Wall Street Journal down to community dailies like The Monroe Evening News, newspapers remain almost as relevant as a decade ago.

They may have shrunk in size – I cringe sometimes when I pick up the Evening News and feel more air that paper between my hands.

They may have shrunk in staff – by my count the Monroe daily has about two-thirds of its news staff from seven years ago when I arrived in the newsroom.

But the Evening News – just like all those other papers mentioned by Baron – remains an important mainstay of life in Monroe County. It still plays the same invaluable roles.

It keeps the populace informed – not only about who is running for school board, but also which bridge will be closed for construction and who won the Bedford-Monroe soccer game.

It still holds elected officials accountable. There’s not a public official in the county who doesn’t know the Evening News is there, fulfilling the time-honored watchdog role.

And it still ties the community together. It’s where Monroe discusses its problems and celebrates its successes. It’s where you go if you want to be an informed, responsible citizen, or if you just want to know how a former local athlete is doing on his college team.

No one wants to imagine a future without it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s mostly online, with a smaller print version.

As long as it’s there, to keep us informed, and to keep a watch on public life.

Yes, it’s smaller. But it’s still very important.

The credit for that goes largely to those journalists who are left behind, still fighting the good fight. 

There may be fewer of them, but they’re working hard to continue to be valuable to their readers – whether at the Boston Globe or the Monroe Evening News. 

They’re doing more with less, somehow maintaining that importance, that relevance, that is so vital to community life.

My hat’s off to them.

Times “truth” controversy raises tough questions

January 13th, 2012

The first week of the semester has just ended, a week in which I spend time in all my classes talking about the purpose of journalism.

“Tell the truth,” ranks high on the list. There are others, of course: Report the news, be a watchdog over the powerful, entertain, uncover injustice, provide a forum for community discussion, etc.

Ironically this subject became a national debate in journalism circles when Arthur Brisbane, public editor of the New York Times, asked the question in a blog post: “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?”

There was immediate and vitriolic reaction from across the blogosphere, which ranged from “Duh,” to anger that he would dare to ask the question.

Some of the reaction, however, seriously tackled the ticklish issue – the same one I was discussing with journalism students virtually as Brisbane was writing.

On the one hand, journalists strive to be balanced and fair, keeping their own views out of the story. On the other hand, they strive to find the “truth.” 

Well, I’m sorry to say, we’re human beings and we come at truth from different perspectives.

Some of the people who railed at Brisbane for his naïve question – of course the Times should call out public officials when they lie – didn’t seem to understand how elusive truth can be.

Jay Rosen, one of the best thinkers in journalism today, offered a good perspective on the problem:

“Something happened in our press over the last 40 years or so that never got acknowledged and to this day would be denied by a majority of newsroom professionals. Somewhere along the way, truthtelling was surpassed by other priorities the mainstream press felt a stronger duty to. These include such things as “maintaining objectivity,” “not imposing a judgment,” “refusing to take sides” and sticking to what I have called the View from Nowhere.”

I disagree with his assertion that “truthtelling” was surpassed by “refusing to take sides.” Rather, I would say that good, conscientious journalists realize they often don’t have the time or resources to prove beyond a doubt which side is right. So they do the best they can under the circumstances, and that often means giving both sides and letting readers decide for themselves.

Yes, you can call that the View from Nowhere, and it can be very unsatisfying for readers. But it’s reality.

Another interesting response came from journalist James Fallows, who has written a book on the subject.

“I think Brisbane deserves credit rather than ridicule for raising this question. Let’s hope that within the Times, and elsewhere, it’s one more reason to focus attention on the difficult daily choices facing journalists trained to be “fair” and “objective” in the new political-infosphere terrain. (And, yes, I realize that these choices are difficult.)”

One of the examples given by Brisbane sheds light on the problem. He notes that presidential candidate Mitt Romney often accuses President Obama of making speeches “apologizing for America.” But the president, Bribane notes, has never used the word apologize in a speech about U.S. policy.

So, should reporters covering Romney point out every time he uses that phrase – which is every speech – that it’s a lie.

You can imagine the reaction from Romney supporters. One man’s lie is another’s truth.

Should the New York Times be a “Truth Vigilante?” How about the Monroe Evening News, or The Agora, the MCCC student paper?

Or course they should. We would all agree that journalists should put “seeking truth” at the top of their lists of responsibilities.

But that’s the easy answer.

When you’re interviewing pro- and anti-abortion advocates for a story on when “life” begins – as I have – the wise choice may not be to spend a lot of time “seeking truth.” One side thinks it begins at conception, the other thinks it begins when life could be sustained outside the womb.

Both are right, sort of. Both are convinced the other side is wrong.  Seeking the “truth” would likely open the reporter to accusations of bias.

Frankly, I think providing context is often more important than probing for truth. Like beauty, truth is often in the eye of the beholder.

When journalists fall short, I think, it’s often because they didn’t provide enough context to allow readers to sort out the dueling versions of the truth.

Mitt Romney isn’t lying when he accuses President Obama of apologizing for Ameria. He’s giving his opinion. A follow-up question – getting Romney to explain what he means – would provide context. A response from the president would add more context.

Then “truth” is easier for the reader to find, without the reporter appearing to take a side.

 

Blogging shifts toward longer, less frequent

January 3rd, 2012

The concept of blogging has been shifting with the sands for the last decade or so – since the Internet opened the door to anyone who wanted to write.

A recent blog post on the Idealab site – where they’ve been researching new media trends – suggests that the sand is shifting again – this time toward more long-form blogging.

That works for me, since it’s essentially what I’ve done from the beginning.

When I launched “Blogsmonroe.com” a half-dozen years ago (I was managing editor of the Monroe Evening News at the time), I emphasized three things to prospective bloggers:

1) Write frequently. The more often the better. I suggested at least three times a week.

2) Write about something you know, something you’re passionate about. People don’t want to read drivel. But they may be interested if you share your knowledge.

3) Be interactive. Try to make it a conversation.

I was never much good at doing what I preached. I didn’t write very often, and I didn’t get into many long, interactive conversations.

But I did write about what I cared about and knew something about – media issues. And because I’m passionate about the topics, most of my blog posts tended to be longer.

It makes sense that the arrival of Twitter would move blogging in the other direction.

Blogs that are short bursts of words, several times a day, have been upstaged by Twitter. It’s a better platform for that kind of instant update.

And interactive conversations have been upstaged by Facebook, the ultimate social media (so far).

But Twitter and Facebook aren’t very good platforms for a serious discussion of a topic. Blogging remains ideal for one person to present his/her views, and get responses from others.

Even when I was blogging regularly, I rarely posted more than once a week. That’s because I didn’t have anything important enough to say any more often. I’ve used my blog as a place to express my views, but only when I though there was enough content to warrant it.

If the trend is indeed toward less frequent and more substantive blogging, I suppose I can feel somewhat vindicated.

But I won’t. I didn’t do it for any conscious reason. I did it because it worked for me.

And it’s why I continue blogging, even though I have less to say and therefore blog less often. For me, a blog post is a great way to express your views on a subject you care about, giving others a chance to agree or disagree.

That’s one kind of blog. There are many others, and I suspect the diversity of styles will continue to be a hallmark of blogging.

Although blogs are losing readership in some quarters – because of competition from Twitter, Facebook and other websites – I think they still have a future.

Taking the longer, harder road to college

December 16th, 2011

Sometimes you hear something sad, wonderful and biting – all at the same time.
Those were my reactions to a short essay on National Public Radio yesterday.
A young man, Sayre Quevedo, talked about his college dreams, and how they were smashed when he received his FAFSA – the federal financial aid report – and realized he couldn’t afford the high quality colleges that already had accepted him.
Sad , yes. You could hear it in his voice.
But there was something wonderfully courageous about his reaction. It wasn’t to cry and give up.
A year later, he’s now working two jobs while putting himself through his local community college. And, I suspect, he’s learning life lessons that a full-ride scholarship to college never would have taught him.
Sayre’s essay was biting because it cut, deeply and honestly, in a 19-year-old’s voice, to the heart of a serious crisis in our nation’s higher education system.
Increasingly, only the rich and the poor can attend our best universities. The rich can afford the spiraling tuition. The poor, if they’re smart, get scholarships.
The middle class is being priced out of the game.
I see Sayre every day in my classes at Monroe County Community College. Not Sayre, himself. He’s attending a community college in California.
But the desks are lined with young people like him – smart, hard-working students who have the same dreams – and are taking the same longer, harder road to get there.
I haven’t taken a survey, but it’s my sense that most of my students are working at least one part-time job, many two. Some are working full-time and going to college full-time.
 I talked to a young woman the other day who wanted to join the staff of The Agora, our student newspaper, but wasn’t sure she had time with her full load of classes and three part-time jobs.
She was serious. She had fallen in love with writing in an English course, and wanted to see whether Journalism was right for her.
I could see her working the numbers in her head, probing for how she could come up with enough hours in the day to wedge in another opportunity.
I couldn’t let it show on my face, but I wanted to give her a hug and thank her for the inspiration she provided me. When faced with that kind of courage, grit and hunger to learn, any problems I’ve had with my day seem to slide into the background.
Maybe I can work a little harder, too, to help a few students reach their goals.

Occupy Wall Street movement hard to figure

October 12th, 2011

I’ve been struggling to get my head around the Occupy Wall Street movement.

In some ways, it reminds me of how I struggled with the Tea Party a couple years ago.

I can relate with the overriding message – our system for earning and sharing wealth is out of whack.

We bailed out the bankers and investors, and a couple years later they’re back to million-dollar salaries while most Americans still are struggling.

There’s no bailout in sight for workers.

I felt the same way about the Tea Party’s central theme – get government off our backs. Smaller government and lower taxes are both concepts I can get behind.

But the devil’s in the details. When it got down to exactly what the Tea Party wanted, I realized it was way more radical than I could support. I’m somewhere in the middle of American thought, and the Tea Party was just too far off-base.

Lots of other people who stayed with the Teapers a lot longer than I did are falling off the bandwagon, too, as they see the direction it’s headed. We need to cut spending. That’s obvious. But not at the expense of everything else.

Now I’m trying to figure out where this Occupy Wall Street tidal wave is rolling, and I’m hard-pressed to find answers.

I start with the basic premise that capitalism works. The next basic premise is that some limits are needed, or capitalists will get out of hand. Given a free rein, the ruthless tycoons of the world will be, well, ruthless tycoons.

Forty years ago, when I started my working career, the average CEO made about 40 times the average American worker.

Now, statistics are hard to confirm, but the average CEO wage is likely between 100 and 500 times the average worker’s wage. One reliable group puts it at about 325-to-one.

And it’s not just the top guy. Banks and big corporations pad the pockets of a herd of vice presidents and department heads. Half-million-dollar-plus salaries go far down the flow chart.

And making it more absurd, they pad those big salaries by using the economy as an excuse for lowering the pay of workers, or laying them off altogether.

Wall Street applauds when a corporation improves its bottom line by cutting the workforce. The guys at the top get raises and ataboys.

That’s a society with a problem. It’s a distorted socio/political/economic system. It’s capitalism run amuk.

The Occupy Wall Street crowd gets that. I think the average American is sympathetic to the complaint.

But the problem is easier to identify than the solution. You can’t legislate corporate pay. You can’t pass a law against greed. You can’t require CEOs to be good citizens.

Sure, there are current political issues involved. The president’s proposed tax on high incomes would level the playing field a little – very little.

What’s needed is a massive cultural shift that would knock the tops off some of those peaks and fill in the valleys, at least a little.

That’s not likely to come from Congress or the White House.

Maybe it can start with the Occupy Wall Street movement? Stranger things have happened.

Obama re-election column troubling, scary

September 23rd, 2011

Here’s another example of how journalism has changed, turned upside down.

It’s no longer about news.

It’s about what goes viral on the Internet, and that creates dynamics that are sometimes puzzling, sometimes troubling and sometimes just plain scary.

Chicago Tribune opinion columnist Steve Chapman suggested in his regular column on the Op-Ed Page that President Obama should back out of the 2012 presidential race.

His logic is that because the public is angry at everyone in Washington, anxious to kick the incumbents out, Obama would do everyone a favor by taking the blame and stepping aside.

Before the digital revolution, that column would have created some laughs in Chicago. Most people would write it off as a columnist at a traditional conservative newspaper taking a shot at the Democratic president. Glenn Beck does it every day.

Enter the Internet. The column went viral. In less than a week it had a half-million page views. A blip on the radar screen had become a bomb on the blogosphere.

Will it change the course of world events? I hope not. But it could.

That’s the new reality. It’s virtually impossible to predict what will catch the fancy of the digital world.

The puzzling part is trying to figure out what will fall flat, and what will take off.

The troubling part is that Chapman’s column is just his opinion. There are no new facts, no new ideas, just one guy’s half-loony hiccup.

The just plain scary part is that the Internet can turn a column like that into a new version of reality – that’s what going viral means.

It takes on a life of its own, like a pile of goop in a sci-fi horror flick, oozing into new shapes as it slithers through doors and windows – but not just in one house, in every house worldwide.

Scary, huh.

Cut the hyperbole in the tax debate

September 20th, 2011

I like to think that American voters are smart enough to know that both President Obama and his critics are engaging in outrageous hyperbole when discussing proposed tax increases for the rich.

Obama has called his proposal the Buffett tax, after Warren Buffett, who is one billionaire who supports taxing the rich at a higher rate.

Buffett is fond of pointing out that he is taxed at a lower rate than his secretary.

On the other side, Republicans are crying “class warfare,” accusing Obama of pitting the rich against the poor, while thumping their chests and pointing out that the richest 1 percent already pay 40 percent of the taxes.

Both sides are trying to use catchy phrases to spin the news their way. Terms like “Buffett tax” and “class warfare” are just attempts to hide the real facts.

Fact one: Obama is proposing an increase in the capital gains tax rate. Most rich people make their money buying and selling securities; the earnings are taxed as capital gains, at 15 percent. That’s considerably lower than the 25-35 percent most of us pay on our wages.

Fact two. Yes, the richest 1 percent of Americans pay about 40 percent of all federal taxes. But that’s because they earn more than 40 percent of the money made by Americans each year. And their share of the wealth has been increasing for more than 20 years. Census data clearly shows that the rich are getting richer while the middle class and poor are losing ground.

If the rich are earning more of the money, doesn’t it make sense they should pay more of the taxes?

If Americans are smart about how they listen to politicians on both sides – cutting through the hyperbole and demanding facts, we have a chance to get government back on track in the next few months.

Washington has been at a stalemate, with both parties digging deep trenches and refusing to budge.

But the excessive spending of the last decade – two wars we couldn’t afford (paid for by borrowing, mostly from China) and a gigantic stimulus package to get us out of a recession – has led to trillion-dollar deficits that have everyone frightened.

Republicans and Democrats alike realize that we’ve reached the borrowing ceiling. Our national credit card is maxed out. We can’t keep mortgaging our grandchildren’s future.

Sounds like a dark cloud, right.

But I’m an eternal optimist. Maybe the cloud is dark enough to get Congress to see the light. Our nation needs to cut spending dramatically, and to carefully raise taxes enough to get us back to balancing the federal budget.

We can’t cut our way out of this. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the recession stimulus were too costly.

We also can’t raise taxes enough to cover the deficit. That would be suicide for the economy.

A balanced approach is the only thing that makes sense.

And we’ll only get there if voters turn deaf ears to the spinning coming from both sides.

It’s not about class warfare. It’s not about Warren Buffett’s secretary.

It’s about doing the right thing – paying your bills.

Court decision helps citizens who record police

August 30th, 2011

A federal appeals court decision last week has fascinating implications for citizens and journalists who record police at work – such as during an arrest or controlling a crowd during a protest.

The 1st Circuit U.S Court of Appeals ruled that a Boston man’s First Amendment rights were violated when he was arrested for using his cell phone’s digital video camera to record police arresting a man on the Boston Commons.

The police used a state law against recording a conversation without both people’s permission to charge the man, Simon Gilk.

Gilk pulled out his cell phone and began recording the arrest when he heard a bystander call, “Stop, you’re hurting him.” Gilk was concerned that the police may have been using excessive force.

This decision could clarify a situation that has been fraught with peril for journalists and citizen journalists – regular folks like Mr. Gilk who take it upon themselves to record possible police misconduct.

Now that anyone can carry a video camera with them – and most people do – this is not an unlikely scenario. Numerous people – both journalists and citizens – have been arrested over the last few years in similar situations.

I show my class a video of journalist Amy Goodman being arrested by police while covering an anti-war protest during the Republican 2008 presidential convention. The video was taken by a citizen journalist, by the way. Goodman was arrested when she tried to stop police from arresting her colleagues.

In most cases, especially involving local police and local news outlets, officers are professional and respectful in their treatment of journalists at the scene of an accident, arrest, protest or whatever. They understand the First Amendment rights of journalists.

But there certainly are exceptions, and many professional photographers can tell stories about times they were told to put their cameras away or face arrest.

And I can only imagine what police think when citizen journalists get our their cameras and start recording. It’s so easy for officers to arrest them and claim they were participating in the protest or getting in the way of police doing their job.

Only time will tell whether last week’s decision will have a lasting effect strengthening the First Amendment rights of citizens to record police at work. I hope it does.