Debt debate highlighted fair reporting issues

August 24th, 2011

I listened to a Washington Post reporter being interviewed on the debt ceiling debate, and it was a fascinating glimpse into the challenge of covering politics in the current highly partisan climate.

Observers of national media would expect a Washington Post reporter to be critical of the Republicans for their beat-Obama-at-all-costs approach to the negotiations.

They appeared to be willing to damage the U.S. economy and its standing in global financial markets, rather than give in and let Obama have a victory.

But the Post reporter was adamant that he wasn’t going to appear biased either way. He complimented the Republicans for following their campaign promises – they said they weren’t going to raise taxes, so why should anyone expect them to agree to tax increases – even when the stakes are so high.

It was almost comical at times how hard the Post reporter was working to say equally good and bad things about both sides.

That continues to be the biggest difference between mainstream media and conservative media like Fox News. While many Fox reporters aren’t shy about openly showing their bias, reporters for traditional media – like the networks, CNN and the big eastern newspapers – try to maintain at least an appearance of balance.

 Their biases are more subtle, coming from socio-economic factors largely out of their control. They were raised by progressive parents, attended liberal universities and hang out with liberal friends.

No matter how hard they try, they’re coming to the table with a perspective they can’t override.

With Fox, a conservative perspective is a business decision. Rupert Murdoch knows that he can dominate audience share within the large segment of America that is conservative by speaking their language, giving them the angle they’re looking for, playing to their own biases.

It works. Fox News is making lots of money. Its audience share among conservative TV watchers is huge. It doesn’t matter that liberals make fun of Fox – by dominating one large segment, Fox has the overall lead among cable news shows, and is approaching the size of the network news audiences.

For years, I’ve been among the group of media watchers who appreciate Fox News and the other conservative media for the balance they bring to the table. They force the Eastern establishment media to try harder to achieve fairness.

Citizens who really want the “truth” can watch a little of both and feel comfortable they’re getting as close as possible.

Unfortunately, too many Americans don’t avail themselves of this opportunity. If they’re conservative, they only watch Fox or read the Wall Street Journal. If they’re liberal, they only watch CNN or read the New York Times.

Virtually every liberal would benefit from an occasional trip to Fox, and virtually every conservative would benefit from exposure to other perspectives than they get from a steady diet of Fox.

The Internet should have improved this situation with all the choices it offers. But the same principle applies – if you only go to conservative or liberal websites, you’ll only get one viewpoint.

Oh, well. You can lead a horse to water …

Obama urges a return to civility – nice idea

January 14th, 2011

There was a time, when I was younger, when I would have responded with enthusiasm to President Obama’s call for a return to civility in our public discourse.

The president, speaking during a memorial service in Arizona following the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others at a street corner rally, urged Americans to honor the dead and wounded by keeping the discussion on a respectful level.

My favorite quote from the speech:

“If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.”

Like many other observers of American media and politics, I was dismayed when I saw the direction that bloggers and commentators headed after the Arizona shooting.

Liberal voices accused the Tea Party and other conservatives of creating a climate of hatred that led to – or at least encouraged – the senseless act of violence that killed six and injured another 13.

Conservative voices shot back, and the level of meanness on both sides escalated.

I’ve watched this process unfold during my lifetime. Politics has always been nasty. People have always won elections by attacking their opponents, and truth has always been in the eye of the beholder.

But in the 1960s and 1970s, and to a degree, the 1980s, when the election was over members of the two parties rolled up their sleeves and got to work governing. Remember, “politics is the art of compromise” – or it used to be.

Then somewhere along the line – there are lots of theories on when it started – the attacks got more harsh, truth became less important in campaigning, and the “truce” needed to govern effectively in between elections was lost.

Ironically, one of Barrack Obama’s campaign pledges was to try to bring the parties together – to return to more civility in governing. And both Obama and John McCain managed to conduct slightly more responsible campaigns.

But whether you blame the president or the opposition, the last two years brought a heightening of anger and bitterness, a further loss of civility. To say the nation is polarized is an understatement.

So it really wasn’t surprising – disappointing, yes – when the tragic Arizona deaths were quickly politicized.

I agree that some of the rhetoric used by Tea Party and arch-conservative politicians and commentators is over the top and appropriate for criticism. They are part of the problem.

But they didn’t cause last week’s shooting. Sarah Palin didn’t start the nasty trend – she just jumped on the bandwagon. And conservatives, while maybe a little more likely to use NRA-style rhetoric, don’t have a monopoly on mean-spirited comments.

Which brings me back to my first statement – in another time, I would have been cheered by President Obama’s speech, which was full of hope and high-minded thoughts.

Unfortunately, it will take more than a tragic shooting and a stirring speech to bring American politics back to civility.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, actually stated publicly that his party’s No. 1 goal for the next session of Congress was to defeat the president in 2012. Not to fix the economy, create jobs, improve education or health or the environment.

In that environment, it’s hard to be optimistic.

But I don’t want to be part of the problem. I don’t want to let my cynicism, born of decades of watching American politics spiral downward, keep me from being part of the solution.

So I’m going to embrace the president’s theme, as he outlined in my other favorite quote from his speech:

“Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy…”

That’s my goal. I’m going to listen better, look for points I can agree with, whether they’re coming from the left, the right or center field.

WikiLeaks: a tale of two thoughts

December 17th, 2010
I’ve been struggling since the WikiLeaks episode began nearly two weeks ago to come to terms with where I stand.For most of my life, I’ve defended the concept of open government and the public’s right to access to government records and meetings.

Yet, partly because of the many hours I’ve spent – and lawsuits I’ve championed – fighting for open government, I understand that some government information should be kept secret.

I’ve never fought on the national stage over a subject as important as national security.

My battles were more likely to be with a school board over the location of a new elementary school, or a hospital over access to its financial records.

A few decades ago, the daily newspaper in Salem, Ore., printed a photo of me standing outside a closed school board meeting where they were discussing potential locations for schools. As the reporter covering the board, I thought the meeting should have been public; the board chairman didn’t.

I argued that locating elementary schools was an important community decision. Growth and development tended to follow school siting. Build a school, and subdivisons will follow. The public had a right to participate in the decision.

The school board chairman argued that the price of land would skyrocket if speculators knew where they were thinking of purchasing land for a school. The process of searching for land and negotiating a price had to be done in private.

The board won, and it was a surprise to the public when the new school locations were named.

A few years later a lawsuit I initiated reached the Ohio Supreme Court.  I wanted to open up the local hospital’s meetings and records – make their management decisions more transparent. They argued that they were a private – although non-profit – business and could operate in secret if they wanted to.

The problem with their argument was that the county gave them the land for their building, and continued to subsidize their operation in small ways. That made their business public, in my mind.

My newspaper –  in Newark, Ohio – won that fight. The hospital gave in before the Supreme Court could render a decision. 

There is a huge difference, however, in the kind of fighting for transparency in government that is done by responsible journalists and the indiscriminate leaking of secret documents by WikiLeaks.

Legitimate news organizations, when they receive leaked documents, pour over them to decide what is appropriate to make public, what needs more reporting to give it context and perspective, and what simply doesn’t belong in the public domain.

During my three decades as an editor, I’ve received leaked government documents many times. And I’ve decided against printing information obtained by my reporters on numerous occasions.

A good example is a confession by a murder suspect. It may be true that the suspect confessed, but under what conditions. Can that person still get a fair trial after we report the confession? What if they change their mind and plead innocent, and it turns out the confession was forced or faked?

When you move this kind of decision to the national stage, the stakes go up immeasurably. It’s not one person’s right to a fair trial, but perhaps many hundreds or thousands of lives.

If the New York Times or the Washington Post received leaked material, they would study the documents, check the facts, analyze the consequences and eventually make tough decisions about what’s in society’s best interests. They’re not perfect; their decisions can be argued. But at least someone is trying to do the right thing.

When WikiLeaks posts thousands of cables from diplomats around the globe on the Internet, there is no context, no fact-checking, no perspective.

It’s not journalism, and it clearly can be damaging to the efforts of our nation to do business in a world that is chaotic enough.

So, that’s one side.

But at the same time, I can’t come up with an argument that what Wikileaks has done is illegal.

Irresponsible, yes. But illegal?

The First Amendment is pretty clear. “Government shall make no law abridging…the freedom of the press.” Once it has the information, any media outlet has the right to print it.

The Supreme Court, when it allowed the Pentagon Papers to be published, noted that as long as the subject is a matter of public interest, there should be no limits on what the media can print.

The diplomatic cables obviously pass the “public interest” test.  

I think it’s clear that the Justice Department can prosecute the person who leaked the cables. That person probably broke the law.

But WikiLeaks? Some in the federal govenrment are trying to make an argument for using treason laws to prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

I suppose that’s something like the argument – which the Supreme Court has upheld – that you can’t cry fire in a crowded theater. That kind of speech isn’t protected by the First Amendment.

The logic is that there is a limit to free speech. If “crying fire” causes people to be trampled to death fleeing the theater, that’s not free speech, it’s manslaughter.

So following that logic, printing national secrets – ones that truly are going to put someone in “clear and present danger” – isn’t free speech, either.

Okay. I buy that. But it seems to me the bar should be very high – something like the “fire in a theater” level. The Justice Department would have to prove that the cables posted by Wikileaks are not just a nuisance, but a “clear and present danger” to our nation or another nation.

And from what I’ve seen so far, nothing in the cables reaches that level.

Not that President Obama or U.S. Attorney Eric Holder are likely to listen to me.

But if they did, my advice would go something like this: Be very careful before you take on anything that could water down the First Amendment. If you’re worried at all about your legacy, stay away from this one.

Do you want to be remembered as the administration that destroyed freedom of speech in America?

Shakespeare or Web Design?

November 24th, 2010

Part of my job is to advise journalism students on what courses they should take at MCCC.

Intro to Shakespeare, or Web Design?

Often, the choices are obvious. Students should take the general education courses that transfer easily and will fill the basic requirements at any university where they decide to enroll.

And they should take the journalism courses and related subjects that will enhance their career options.

But there usually is room in their schedules for an extra course or two, and that’s where it gets interesting.

I was engaged yesterday in a conversation with two students, each with one opening in her Winter Semester schedule and lots of choices.

MCCC offers many courses that would provide great background knowledge for journalists. One of the trends in journalism is more specialization – Web sites, magazines, newsletters, etc., serving a particular industry or niche market.

A student interested in working as an environmental journalist ought to take an extra science course, like biology or geology.

Interested in financial journalism? Look at economics or business courses.

And then there’s the overall trend toward digital journalism. MCCC is offering a new course next semester, Web Design for Non-designers – a perfect chance for journalists to learn a little about designing for the Internet, without taking multiple Web courses.

As I explained all this to the two students, I could see they weren’t satisfied. It slowly came out that they wanted to use that extra spot in their schedule for a course that was more interesting, more challenging, more exciting … more something.

That’s when Intro to Shakespeare came up.

“Okay, I get it,” I finally said.

“You’re looking for something to feed your soul, not your career.”

Heads nodded.

I couldn’t argue. Feeding your soul is part of the college experience.

Long hours, low pay – I’m jealous

November 17th, 2010

I’m jealous.

There’s a side of me that would trade places in a heartbeat with the young woman who recently took a job advertised as, “Long hours, low pay…”

Joe Grimm, in his blog at the Poynter Institute, told about Darcy Wallace, a new graduate of the University of Oregon journalism school, who began work recently for a small weekly newspaper in the mountains of southern Oregon.

The job pays about $25,000 a year and includes covering “just about everything” in the town of Cave Junction, Ore. – including frequent night and weekend shifts.

Daniel J. Mancuso, the newspaper’s publisher, emphasized that he was looking for someone with enough dedication to journalism to “want” to be wherever news was happening, even if it meant working Saturday night.

I remember being that person.

Not in Cave Junction, Ore., but in Salem, Ore., Bellingham, Wash., Rockford, Ill., Richmond, Ind., Steubenville, Newark and Zanesville, Ohio, and Monroe, Mich.

Actually, I was only a reporter in Salem. That’s where I got my first job, right out of college. I was a reporter for three years, before being promoted to an editing position – which I did for most of the next 30 years.

But I never lost the desire to report the news, and many times, when no one else was available, I grabbed a notebook and ran off to cover a news event.

It’s still hard for me to resist the temptation. There’s something about news reporting that gets in your blood.

So, I say, “Good for you, Darcy Wallace. Have a great time. Learn to tell the stories of the folks who live in Cave Junction. Learn to give them the news and information they need to survive and thrive in the mountains of Oregon.

“Whether you stay in Cave Junction for the rest of your life, or use this job as a springboard to bigger places, I hope you never forget how much you learned about telling stories and helping people.”

Some of the best journalism in America goes on in small towns, where important stories – to the readers of the local newspaper – are told every day by reporters like Darcy.

NPR hurting more than Juan Williams

October 27th, 2010

The Juan Williams affair is doing more damage to NPR than to Mr. Williams.

Williams walked away with a $2 million contract with Fox News; NPR has a serious perception problem that is more of a reopened sore than a new wound.

For most of its history, National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service have suffered from accusations of liberal bias. Whether you agreed with the claims has largely depended on where you sit.

But during the rancorous past decade, when Fox News has used its new model of news commentary to create a schism in American journalism, NPR has benefited.

Its morning and evening news shows, along with its mid-day interview shows, have been rising in both popularity and impact on the national scene.

While the cable news channels, and to a degree the networks, have slogged away in the “bias wars,” NPR has cultivated a “down-the-middle” path.

In the process, it has moved from a minor player, largely only noticed by the intelligentsia, to one of the most trusted and listened to news organizations in the country.

By mishandling Juan Williams’ involvement with Fox, NPR CEO Vivian Schiller has given the right-wing enough ammunition to last for years.

Fox has obvious competitive reasons for wanting to stick a knife in NPR. Even some of my conservative friends, who think Bill O‘Reilly and Glenn Beck are journalists, were beginning to pay attention to public radio.

They’re noticing that NPR is an alternative that provides serious, fact-based news coverage – which is sometimes hard to find elsewhere.

The Washington Post reported a year ago that NPR’s audience has grown roughly 50 percent in the last decade.

That’s during a time when most other media, including network news, have struggled to keep from losing market share.

Ms. Schiller has apologized, both to her news staff and to Williams, for how she handled Williams’ firing. If given a second chance, I’m sure she would do it differently.

The issue wasn’t really what Williams said about Muslims. It was that he was on Fox news giving his opinion on a regular basis.

That’s antithetical to the mission NPR has cultivated so carefully – just the facts, please. NPR wants listeners to be able to count on serious, unbiased news and analysis. Williams’ role on Fox was confusing the issue.

Schiller should have just asked Williams to choose – be a news analyst on NPR or a celebrity commentator on Fox.

That would have further positioned NPR as the news organization in the middle.

Instead, she’s given America’s conservatives – those who want to pretend that Fox News is the only legitimate news source, and that everyone else is biased – a battle cry that can only hurt NPR’s image.

Students hopeful they’ll have jobs in journalism

October 26th, 2010

I recently reconnected with an old friend in the newspaper business, who now edits a community newspaper in Wisconsin.

One of his first questions was, “What’s the attitude of students taking journalism classes these days?”

He didn’t have to explain further. It was clear that he meant, “Are they worried about the state of jobs in the journalism world.”

My response was short. I wrote:

“Their attitude is pretty good.

“They’re realistic about the business model – or lack thereof – for sustaining newspapers. But they’re also hopeful about new media opportunities.

“One of the first things I did at MCCC was create a new media journalism course and add a Web site for the student newspaper.

“I emphasize over and over to students that graduates who get jobs will be those who are equally comfortable writing a news story, shooting and editing a video, blogging, using social networking, etc.

“And as you can imagine, they take to all that like fish to water. But they also love the newspaper and want their stories published in the print version, too.”

I’ve read a number of articles this fall about student use of college newspapers around the country. The research shows that students are still reading college newspapers – often spending more time with them than with the newspaper’s Web site.

That seems to amaze people, because the same surveys report that students get most of their news online

Of course, there’s one simple explanation. College newspapers – like The Agora, the student newspaper at MCCC – are lying around all over campus. When you’re waiting for a class to start or munching a burger in the cafeteria, they’re handy.

But it’s more than that.

I also think that newspapers retain a certain cache with young people. They don’t think about them first – they turn to their cell phone first, their laptop second. A newspaper is an afterthought.

But I’ve noticed that journalism students don’t want their stories to be posted only on the Web. They also want to see them in print.

It means more to them that their article is enshrined in newsprint and ink. It gives it a sort of permanency, or maybe legitimacy.

At any rate, the answer to my old friend’s question is that students are hopeful they’ll have jobs in journalism.

And some of them actually hope they’ll be able to work for a newspaper.

Same topics attract students to Web site

October 5th, 2010

It probably comes as no surprise, but college students are interested in about the same kinds of stories as the rest of us.

The top stories on the student Web site at Monroe County Community College so far this semester – – involve television, death, sex and religion.

I remember when the Internet first began providing fresh new insight into reader interests. It was a real shock – and not a pleasant one.

Prior to the Internet, newspapers had only the most rudimentary research on what readers liked. Based on surveys, we knew that they preferred local news to state and national news. But there was no clear picture of what “local news” meant.

And besides, it only took a small amount of common sense to realize that what people told the friendly voice on the other end of the phone when answering survey questions, and what they really did, may not be exactly the same.

They could “say” they were interested in local government news. But did they really read the stories?

Then along came the Internet. Computer software could measure exactly which stories readers “clicked” on. There was no guessing. A click was a click.

And the results were shocking. Day after day, crime topped the list of news people actually read. When sex was involved, the interest really shot up. Entertainment news also was popular, as well as anything controversial – which is where religion often comes in.

The top four stories on The Agora’s Web site so far this semester:

No. 1: A story about a TV sitcom produced and acted by local residents and presented on Monroe’s Public Access TV station, MPACT.

No. 2: The death of a college employee who was a former student.

No. 3: An exhibit and lecture on sex trafficking, planned later this month at the Whitman Center.

No. 4: A column on the mosque and cultural center planned for Manhattan near the site of the World Trade Center.

No surprises there. After more than a decade of watching Internet viewing statistics, I’m used to it.

What about the “important” stories, like the visit to MCCC by a group from a Chinese college, or the record enrollment, or faculty negotiations going to mediation.

The China story ranks 21 on the list, negotiations are at No. 20, and enrollment is at 32.

Again, no surprises. Regret, maybe, but not surprise.

Of course, The Agora Web site is fairly new. It’s still in its first year, and it doesn’t get that much traffic yet. While there have been as many as 6,000 page views in a day, the typical number is more like 150.

Like many news Web sites, Google is the number one source of visitors. Most of the Google visitors come for the movie reviews. They search Google for “Nightmare on Elm Street,” and a student-written review at little MCCC appears.

A close second is viewers  who come directly to the site – probably mostly students and employees who either have it bookmarked or just type in the address.

The next two sources are interesting – people who link from the college Web site,, and people who start with The Agora’s Facebook page and link back to the Web site.

Those four sources account for 90 percent of the visitors. A few also arrive from Yahoo and Bing, and from other college newspaper Web sites – we’re in a network of about 600 college newspapers – and from assorted other links.

I keep waiting for the day the Web site is discovered by more Monroe County residents. Because we haven’t done anything to promote it, most local residents don’t know it exists.

It’s my experience that these things happen virally. One of these days a story on will make the rounds through local computers, and people will discover the site.

As I’ve been saying, people still want news

September 27th, 2010

A new study from the Pew Research Center reinforces the point I’ve been making for years – the public’s appetite for news isn’t shrinking, it’s growing.

New technology is just helping people consume news in faster and more portable ways.

About 100 years ago – actually, I think it was 1996 – I was a member of a committee tasked with figuring out the future of newspapers. I was an editorial consultant for Thomson Newspapers and was asked to join a team brainstorming the company’s response to this new threat, the Internet.

Our conclusion wasn’t that prescient – any similar group would have come up with the same outcome.

Consumers, we decided, would gradually migrate from traditional media to the Internet and other new media platforms, over a period of many years – probably 10 to 20 or more.

That was 1996. Today, 14 years later, we’re in the midst of that migration.

The good news for journalists is that having more choices has only increased the amount of time most people spend reading news. And as long as people are interested in news, there will have to be journalists to do the reporting and writing.

The new Pew study notes that 44% of Americans say they went online, either on a computer or a mobile device, to get news “yesterday.” As the same time, the percent who used traditional media to access news “yesterday” is only slightly smaller than 10 years ago – about a third for radio and television and 58% for television.

And this is the key point: Only 9% of people surveyed say they get their news only from the Internet.

What has happened is that most people have integrated the Internet and mobile devices into their arsenal of news choices. There are lots of ways to find out what’s going on in the world, and people are using all of them, both the newest and the most traditional.

From the standpoint of a news company, what we decided in that meeting 14 years ago still holds true today. The key is to maintain the quality of your traditional news organization, while positioning yourself to be a leader in new media, too.

That’s the same thing we talked about during my three years at the Monroe Evening News.

The audience is gradually shifting from the paper and ink edition of The Evening News to the Web and mobile versions. To stay viable as a company, Monroe Publishing Co. needs to maintain the quality of its traditional products, while being a leader in its market in new media.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. But so far, it appears to be working. The print circulation has dipped only slightly over the last 10 years – staying around 20,000 subscribers. Meanwhile, roughly 8,000 unique visitors a day are checking out their Web site.

There’s undoubtedly some duplication – as the Pew study points out, many people integrate both new and old into their daily habits. But it’s likely the actual number of people who get their news from The Evening News has grown.

The Pew study goes into much more detail, but the message throughout is pretty much the same:

People are more interested than ever in news, and they’re integrating many sources of news into their daily habits.

Yes, blame media for Quran burning mess, but…

September 13th, 2010

I asked students in my journalism class for their opinions on how media handled the Florida preacher and his Quran-burning publicity stunt.

They were pretty much unanimous in blaming the media for turning a small-town hate monger into a global icon – and in the process further tarnishing the United States’ image in the world.
I can’t disagree.

That was my reaction, too, from the very beginning. One of the funniest lines came from the White House press secretary, who noted that Rev. Terry Jones’ press conferences attracted more reporters than his sermons attracted parishioners. (Here’s a NY Times article that includes the quote).

Yet it’s easy to blame the “Media,” with a capital M – that amorphous blob dominated by national TV news but that also includes everything from fringe blogs to the New York Times.

It’s a lot harder to actually identify what went wrong – to pinpoint exactly who should have done what differently.

When Rev. Terry Jones started his campaign by posting a sign in front of the church that read, “Islam is of the devil,” the local newspaper, the Gainsville Times, wrote a story under the headline, “Anti-Islam church sign stirs up community outrage.”

Seems like a fairly responsible thing to do.

The first coverage of Rev. Jones’ Quran-burning plans was on a Web site, Religion News Service. That small article slowly mushroomed through the Internet until it was on Yahoo and Rev. Jones was being invited to appear on cable news shows.

But the real kicker came when it reached the Middle East and Muslims began expressing outrage. That’s when the mainstream media could no longer leave it alone.

The TV networks, the New York Times, the Associated Pres – the big boys in U.S. media – couldn’t very well ignore protests involving hundreds of people in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

So the story continued to take on momentum, until it was being discussed by heads of state around the world.

To their credit, most of those major news outlets announced that they would not show pictures of a Quran burning. There’s no sense offending people gratuitously.

But that’s too little, too late. The cat’s out of the bag. The lid of Pandora’s box has been opened.
Still, it’s not clear what any individual media outlet should have done differently.

The Internet changes the rules of the game. A small story can explode through the World Wide Web, becoming a big story without any help from traditional media.

This wasn’t a case of the Gainsville Times giving Rev. Jones undue coverage, and the Associated Press picking up the story and giving it traction nationwide. Then you could have pointed a finger at the local newspaper and the national wire service.

In the old days, that’s about the only way a local story got national legs.

But now a small Web news service can write a short story, and it can take off like wildfire.

It can become “News” with a capital “N” before it’s even touched by traditional media.

Yes, I blame the media. At some point cooler heads at all the national media – newspaper, radio, television and Internet – should have simply turned off the faucet. They should have relegated Rev. Jones to the cutting room floor.

His antics are designed for one purpose – to get attention for his fringe views.

But once the story has reached the level of international protests, it’s pretty hard to ignore.

Yes, blame the media. But understand that there aren’t any easy answers.