Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

Yes, it was wrong for MSNBC hosts to huddle with Obama

Rachel Maddow joined the huddle at the White House. (Source: Wikipedia)

Conservative media are in a huff this week over the group hug that President Obama reportedly held with hosts and pundits from MSNBC, the left-leaning news network.

And they should be.

The grim bit here isn’t that Obama invited a group of journalists that he clearly views as friendly to his administration.  That’s politics.

It’s his job to find and cultivate allies wherever he can to advance his agenda.

The fumble is that MSNBC’s crew — who purport to be, you know, journalists — took the meeting.

According to Huffingtonpost, a White House spokesman said the “Obama meeting Maddow, other progressives [was] to discuss importance of extending the Bush middle-class tax cut.”

Maddow reportedly joked that she was joining a “hippie cabal.”

This isn’t quite on par with Fox News attempting to recruit its own presidential candidates, but its far too cozy and collaborative a relationship.

In a post this week, I argued that MSNBC is different from Fox — a liberal-leaning advocacy news network, to be sure, but still a news network.   This weakens my argument considerably.

Reporters and journalists meet with people in power in many different ways, from social gatherings to formal interviews.  Sometimes we’re actually (gasp) friends with the people we cover.

That’s nothing new. But this has the optics of an organizational session, a team meeting.

The bottom line is very simple.  News organizations face a lot of competing pressures, from the financial to the social to the political.

Which makes it all the more vital that they fight to maintain their first loyalty, which is to their audiences and to the facts.  My question to Maddow and Company would be simple.

How did that trip to the White House help inform your viewers?  What did it do for your credibility as an independent, trustworthy voice?

Joking that she’s part of a “hippie cabal” isn’t much of an answer.

The public shaming of Rupert Murdoch

The political class in Washington DC is still grappling with the revelation that Fox News, owned by media magnate Rupert Murdoch, attempted to secretly recruit and bankroll its own presidential candidate this year.

Meanwhile, the media world is trying to digest the morally reprehensible decision by another of Murdoch’s media companies, the New York Post, to put the photograph of a “doomed” man on its front cover.

All of this, of course, comes in the context of an independent investigation into the operations of Murdoch’s media outlets in Britain.

That study concluded last week that the company was “reckless in the pursuit of sensational stories ‘almost irrespective of the harm.’

So far, the response here in the US has been muddled to the point of incoherence.

The Washington Post put the story about Fox’s effort to recruit General David Petraeus for a White House bid in its style section.

Politico ran a cheerful piece suggesting that the whole affair is a sort of inside joke, with everyone in on the gag that Murdoch is perpetrating on America.

In various treatments of the story, Fox New senior executive Roger Ailes is described variously as “wily,” “sharp-tongued” and a “man who makes his own rules.”

In fact, Murdoch and Ailes are liars and cowards.  They are corrosive and aberrational elements in America’s civic discourse.

Together, they are also among the chief architects of the unraveling of the modern Republican Party.  Fox’s embrace of fact-free propaganda from “death panels” to “birtherism” has helped transform the conservative base into a kooky fringe.

These latest disclosures raise the ante considerably.

The main thrust of Bob Woodward’s story is that Ailes dispatched one of his “news analysts” to Afghanistan to interview General David Petraeus.

Ailes used the opportunity to send a secret message that Fox executives would manage and bankroll a Petraeus presidential campaign.

This alone would be an extraordinarily serious breach of faith.  For a political operative from a media company to attempt to counsel a four-star general, urging him to break ranks with America’s commander in chief, is astonishing.

But the messenger — a former Republican candidate for New York’s Senate seat — also spent a significant amount of time offering to secretly shape Fox News coverage to Petraeus’s liking.

“So what I’m supposed to say directly from him to you, through me, is first of all, is there anything Fox is doing, right or wrong, that you want to tell us to do differently?” Kathleen McFarland asked.

Here’s what the McFarland transcript tells the millions of people who rely on Fox for their information:  The network will skew information to favor the powerful.  The network will enter into secret arrangements with political figures.

The people hired by Fox will pretend to be informing audiences about life-and-death matters, from war to poverty to healthcare reform.

But in fact they will often be secret operatives, carrying out the undisclosed political agenda of Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch.

We also know from these latest revelations that these men are willing to hack the telephones of a grieving family, in order to pursue tabloid scoops.  They will splash horror on their front pages, sparing no thought to decency or civility.

This isn’t about Murdoch’s empire being conservative.  There are plenty of professional, factual and honest conservative news outlets in America.

This is about Murdoch’s company being a propaganda organization, a deeply cynical political operation led by individuals who are — and this is the kicker — profoundly immoral.

Some will point out that this is nothing new, only a distillation of what we have long known about Fox News and Murdoch’s wider agenda.

In an interview with Politico, NYU journalism professor suggested that there are “no ramifications because everyone, inside of Fox and outside, understands that the Fox News Channel is a political organization that does news and makes money.”

“Bob had a great scoop, a buzzy media story that made it perfect for Style. It didn’t have the broader import that would justify A1,” Liz Spayd, the Post’s managing editor, told POLITICO.

That’s a cop-out.  Millions of Americans aren’t in on the con.  They’re not willing collaborators in the deception.  They don’t have any idea the kind of deception Murdoch and Ailes are perpetrating.

The Leveson commission in Britain suggested that some kind of body be created to monitor egregious behavior by media companies.  I think this, too, is a dodge.

This isn’t about “the media” writ large.  It’s about one company, one set of executives, one secret agenda.

So what should be done?  I don’t think we need a new watchdog body, or commission, or oversight board.  Rather, I think it’s time for the journalism culture to draw a line in the sand.

It’s time for those of us who believe in the power of factual and ethical reporting to kick Murdoch’s entities and operatives out of the club.

Award ceremonies, dinners, professional organizations and academic gatherings – they should all close their doors, firmly and publicly.

It should be made clear that reporters who choose to work for Murdoch’s empire will see their resumes permanently tainted by association.

No editor or news director can know with certainty what role those “journalists” played, what orders they followed, what ethics they compromised.

The fact that they chose to work for men like Murdoch and Ailes, on the other hand, offers a great deal of clarity about their professional values.

Media outlets should also be deeply cautious about following Fox News’ media agenda on stories that range from Obamacare to Benghazi.  All too often, Murdoch’s politically-motivated manipulations have shaped broader coverage.

Really, this kind of proposal is common sense and long overdue.

Just as we would never dream of allowing political operatives to submit their campaign ads to a journalism award competition — or corporations to submit their infomercials — we should refuse to allow Murdoch’s operatives to participate.

Without taking these steps, the larger media culture becomes part of the con.

By inviting Fox News and the other Murdoch subsidiaries to take part in our professional activities,we give them cover and legitimacy.

And when we wink and shrug at their dishonesty, we do ourselves an even greater disservice.  We embrace the notion that real and ethical journalism isn’t worth fighting to preserve.

We embrace a cynicism about our own work that is — and I think this is an important part of Murdoch’s larger manipulation — toxic.  He empowers his own brand of sleazy manipulation by lowering the standards of everyone else.

I don’t have any illusions that a public shaming will cause Murdoch to reform his empire.

But it might go a long way toward shoring up the courage, the long-standing values, and the deeply damaged reputation of American journalism.

The news and the public good

I’m spending a day this week in a journalism conference in Grafton, Vermont, and it will come as no surprise to many In Boxers that it’s a complicated and often grim conversation.

On the one hand, journalists continue to champion really important civic ideals, including open government, public disclosure and transparency, and accountability.

The folks in this room – from public media, newspapers, TV and on-line publications – are (like me) true believers.  They think a functioning democracy needs a free, fair and robust press.  The two go hand in hand.

Unfortunately, we are a full generation into the digital revolution and the future of journalism remains, in significant measure, a troubling mystery.  Many newspapers are closing, or cutting staff sharply.  TV news rooms are struggling.

As more and more people shift to getting their news from things like smartphones and i-pads, no one is quite sure how to ask them to pay for it.

The good news is that there is an amazing creative ferment, here at NCPR and across the “news business.”  People are experimenting, trying new things, collaborating, trying to reinvent themselves.

I don’t think it pays to be pollyanaish.  In this transition, some cool things have been and are being lost.  There will likely be more good and important stories missed or treated superficially as the number of reporters and editors declines.

We will, as journalists, have fewer resources to challenge authorities of all kinds, demanding the kind of information that the public needs and deserves to have.

But I think it’s very likely that some cool, responsive, and creative new models for journalism will emerge.   Our dear hope is that NCPR will be one of those innovators, finding better ways to help you stay informed.

Of course, that future hinges on a lot of you continuing to believe that we’re worth supporting, and that means people continuing to call us (or pledge on-line) to make donations.

So here’s my question to you:  Of all the sources of news that you use, how many do you support, through subscription or membership or other form of quid pro quo?

And how worried are you that your local journalism watchdog — newspaper, commercial radio station, TV station — won’t survive the digital age?

Spunky North Country obit draws national nod

Media critic Jim Romenesko pointed attention this week to the obituary of Malone native and Potsdam high school graduate Marylou Cunningham.

She was remembered for “giving cancer the finger for 27 years” and for being a lifelong Mets fan, “though surprisingly that wasn’t what killed her.”

Hope my obit reads with half that much vinegar.  Read the full remembrance here.

H/t Newzjunky

North Country journalism wins

Will Doolittle (Source: Glens Falls Post Star)

We’ve been grumbling a bit lately about cutbacks and challenges in the North Country’s media culture, so why not enjoy a couple of quick victory laps?

First, a shout-out to Will Doolittle at the Glens Falls Post-Star, who won a Society of Professional Journalists award for his reporting on veterans dealing with the aftermath of Agent Orange exposure.  This from the Post Star.

The series was told primarily through the struggles of a local man, Charles Cooley of Fort Edward, whose benefit payments were stopped after his condition worsened and he applied to have his disability level raised.

As a direct result of the stories, Cooley’s benefits were restored at a higher level and he received a lump sum check to cover back payments.

“This is a great example of what great journalism can accomplish,” Post-Star Editor Ken Tingley said. “These stories changed the life of Mr. Cooley and helped to right a wrong. You cannot ask for anything more rewarding than that.”

And another big kudo to former NCPR freelancer Jacob Resneck, who has a byline in this week’s USA Today, reporting from Turkey on the continuing violence in Syria.  Here’s a taste:

Former Syrian secret police operative Zakaria Mohammed walked for three days from Dier al Zour to get here this weekend, he said. He deserted after regime troops arrived and began indiscriminately killing civilians and members of their own ranks who hesitated to follow orders.

“They call it the security solution,” he said. “But it’s inhumane. They have been stripped of every sense of humanity. They’ll take a whole family to prison and torture them.”

Pretty cool for journalists from our corner of the world to get that kind of exposure and recognition.  Congrats…

Does the newsroom have a glass ceiling?

The number of 2011 New Yorker articles written by men and women. Image: VIDA

My friend from college is an up-and-coming D.C. print journalist. We’re always checking in and comparing notes about our work. But her latest memo detailed a strange sort of sexism she’s encountered in the journalistic world: “You are a girl,” she told me. “So you’re expected to write about girl things.”

Girl things is short for women’s issues: contraceptives, abortion, parenting, and, yes, the “war on women.” But my friend wants to write about public policy and campaign finance. She has no interesting in writing about the pill. None at all.

According to a 2011 count conducted by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, that’s precisely what female writers are expected to do.

“When it comes to a career in journalism, chicks should stick to writing about chicks,” VIDA co-founder and poet Erin Belieu lamented to Mother Jones.

Belieu and her colleagues counted the number of articles written by women in publications like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Harpers. Their conclusion: that between 65 and 75 percent of the material was written by men.

And then there’s the issue of who writes which stories. Do men get all the serious bylines, while women write about women’s issues–or worse, fluff? Here’s Belieu:

“A friend of mine defines this kind of intellectual segregation as the “tits and nether bits” ghetto, a place in which women only speak to other women. Meantime, men are allowed and encouraged to speak to whomever they want. We also want to give women writers the confidence to say, “Hey, I can write about whatever I want. I have authority. I have expertise. I have a unique perspective as a person, first and foremost.”

I like covering and reading about women’s issues because I care about them. But I shudder to imagine a journalism career in which writing about women’s issues proved its own glass ceiling.

What do you think? Should women be the people covering women’s issues? And is journalism still a man’s game?

Truth, art

The internet has been abuzz since “This American Life” retracted Mike Daisey’s Apple manufacturing story on the grounds that it contained “significant fabrications.”

In response, Daisey issued the following statement:

“I stand by my work. My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity. Certainly, the comprehensive investigations undertaken by The New York Times and a number of labor rights groups to document conditions in electronics manufacturing would seem to bear this out.

What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic ­- not a theatrical ­- enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.”

I in no way want to diminish the enormous gaffe by Daisey and “This American Life” both. It raises some really important ethical questions. But I also think Daisey’s defense is interesting because it differentiates between the rules for storytellers and the rules for journalists. Journalists have a very clear obligation to tell the truth, all the time. For storytellers, memoirists and non-fiction writers, it’s a little different. They can take creative license, tweaking words and facts and anecdotes, in order to arrive at a better articulation of a true idea.

Journalism, done well, employs all the practices of good storytelling and the rigor required by fact checking. “This American Life” is an interesting venue for this to play out because it’s easy to forget that what they do is journalism. When I think of “This American Life,” I think of an outlet renowned for its great storytelling. The thing is–the stories are true.

Remember Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea? How about James Frey, who wrote A Million Little Pieces? Both authors published highly acclaimed and widely-read books, and both were heavily criticized when the public learned that they’d fabricated some of their material. My question to you, blog readers: how does this impact the quality of their works? Are they any any less good?

I took a literature class in college called “Truth and Other Fictions.” We read writers who blurred the line between memory and the present, between truth and lies, reality and constructions. The human mind is pretty complex, and sometimes, if you tell yourself something over and over again, it can become true. If you think this is interesting stuff, here are some further musings on the intersections and disparities between art and fact.

Mikey Daisey is scheduled to perform at the Flynn in Burlington on March 31st. I’ve been meaning to buy my ticket all week and will certainly do so this evening. Because, true or no, Mike Daisey tells a good story.

“This American Life” retracts major story about Apple

One of the top journalists in public radio, Ira Glass, has announced that This American Life is retracting a major story about ethical manufacturing in China.

“We’re retracting the story because we can’t vouch for its truth,” Glass said in a statement, asserting that the producer of the piece, Mike Daisey, lied to the show during fact-checking.

“Daisey lied to me and to This American Life producer Brian Reed during the fact checking we did on the story, before it was broadcast. That doesn’t excuse the fact that we never should’ve put this on the air. In the end, this was our mistake.”

A major stumble for a great American news program.

As a reporter, though, here’s what I find interesting.  Glass is devoting this weekend’s program (which airs on NCPR Sunday at 11 am, with a repeat on Fridays) to exploring their own inaccuracy, their own journalistic fumble.

Which gets at, in my view, the fundamental aspect of journalism that many people (including far too many reporters and editors) don’t understand.

We will make mistakes.  We will get facts wrong.  We will, on occasion, screw up mightily.  I’ve done all these things.

The test of a news organization’s mettle is in the honesty and forthrightness of the correction.  That’s the acid test.  Do you have the guts and the integrity to admit that you screwed up?

Do you look over your editorial practices to find out how to avoid similar mistakes in the future?  Do you make things right with the people whose stories you got wrong?

So far, Ira Glass is doing the right things.  We’ll find out on Sunday whether his mea culpa sets the record straight.

Morning Read: Post-Star parent company struggling

One of the region’s most important daily newspapers, the Glens Falls Post Star, is owned by Lee Enterprises, a national company that operates hundreds of dailies and weeklies around the country.

Lee Enterprises is scrambling to avert a major financial crisis.

This month, the company sold roughly $1 billion dollars worth of junk-status bonds, according to the Wall Street Journal, in order to push back a tide of red ink.

Lee, weighed down by about $1 billion of debt, has long been high on the list of potential bankruptcies. But thanks to the roaring market for debt of risky companies, Lee is preparing to sell junk bonds that would enable it to pay off its obligations and give it a new shot at survival.

A regional blogger, MOFYC, is running a guest-essay this week looking at Lee’s travails, possible impacts on the Post-Star, and the struggles of traditional newspapers in general.

In the broadest possible terms what the Post-Star figures illustrate is a general decline in print circulation on the order of 23% since about the time Lee’s stock price started sliding.

Post-Star managing editor Ken Tingley, meanwhile, has described his paper’s future in hopeful terms, citing a rapid shift to on-line audiences and on-line revenue.

These days, poststar.com is flourishing and growing at explosive rates. In March, we had more page views and unique visitors than ever before.

The unique visitors were close to a half-million for the month, page views were well over 5 million.

Friday morning, when I was reading our report on the Warren County tourism committee’s meeting, I saw that their Web visits had improved to 480,000 for the year or what we now do in one month.

But it remains unclear how traditional journalism will work in the future.  Who will pay for it?  How?  What will be lost if institutions such as the Post-Star can’t field big, professional teams of reporters and editors?

My view on this is pretty black-and-white.  I think newspapers are one of the pillars of modern democracy, and I don’t think anyone knows what civic life will look like without them.

Bloggers and civic journalists can fill a lot of gaps, and help to open the dialogue to more voices and more points of view.  (Public radio helps too…)

But newspapers are still the bread-and-butter and the shoe leather that keep our communities informed.

As always, your comments welcome.

Favorite headline of the week, maybe the year

I know we’re still in January, but this headline from the Plattsburgh Press-Republican might just have sticking power as my favorite attention-getter of 2011:

“Pot-bellied pig the perfect pet for local man”

[Todd] Farrell’s decision to take in a pet pot-bellied pig has become a responsibility that he cherishes and takes seriously.

“When I first heard about him, I thought, ‘What a perfect pet for me,’” Farrell said from his Redford home recently as he talked about his decision to bring the unusual pet into his life.

I think the headline says it all, but you can read the full account here.