Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Full Disclosure: A Democractic Endorsement In Every Sense of the Word

Two weeks ago I wondered about presidential endorsements by a newspaper's editorial board and concluded that when a publication joins the civic discourse, the public should not fear, but welcome the opinionated interaction. But what happens when every individual contributor to a given publication wears her biases on a public sleeve?

Whereas some publications prefer a private editorial board vote before endorsing a presidential candidate, online mag Slate has -- for the third straight president race -- provided a list of both editors and contributors and their respective picks for president.

The result? All-around unsurprising:
Barack Obama: 55
John McCain: 1
Bob Barr: 1
Not McCain: 1
Noncitizen, can't vote: 4
But this alone does not necessarily make Slate a left-leaning publication. Editor David Plotz explains the curious, but voluntary practice here, stating:
I don't think a candidate's Slate victory reflects a bias that has corrupted the magazine during the campaign.
Former Slate editor Michael Kinsley does not deny that most journalists tend to vote Democratic, but stresses that an opinion is not a bias (!) and even points toward the practice of overcompensation in an attempt to check one's liberal tilt.

Though The Atlantic's Ross Douthat sees the Slate endorsement as undeniable proof of a left-leaning bias, his former colleague and current Think Progress blogger Matthew Yglesias was correct to suggest that we not assess the "subjective mental states of the staff," but the actual content when attempting to sniff out bias in a given publication.
Having three socialists doing page layout, two moderate conservative [sic] writing features on political relevant topics, and one moderately liberal film critic does not a left-of-center publication make ... [If] your publication contains some articles in which heterodox liberals challenge liberal conventional wisdom and other articles in which conservatives challenge liberal conventional wisdom, then your publication is mostly publishing conservative content.
And there you have it. As a journalist, you can not only vote for who you choose, but sing their praises from a mountain top, because it is only your work that deserves scrutiny.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

In the tank: Blind Cheerleaders

It's probably best if we all just keep both feet planted firmly.
(Courtesy of Archives of Ontario)

This past week, the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that since the party conventions, the media has "not so much cast Barack Obama in a favorable light as it has portrayed John McCain in a substantially negative one." Such studies tend to beg the question, are they in the tank? But by extension, I am asking, what's it mean to be in the tank? Does it implicate the MSM as biased and blinded? And do we even care?

Juliet Lapidos of Slate provided "An unbiased etymology," in which she suggests the that the phrase stems from the 19th century term for swimming pools. "Americans called swimming pools 'tanks' and thus 'go into the tanks' was synonymous with 'to dive.'" This term carried itself into boxing, where William Safire believes "the metaphor evoked a picture of diving to the ring's canvas-covered floor--as if into a pool--to feign loss of consciousness." And thus, as implications of lost consciousness and rolling over abound--the extension to politics does not feel like a stretch.

Today, in the tank gives the impression of being "lovingly enthralled; foolishly enraptured; passionately bedazzled." Further implications entail being "self-interestedly involved; surreptitiously supportive" and times, "corruptly influenced." Bedazzling is something that should be left to magicians, and corruptly influenced bias is far from journalistic soundness.  

But when it comes to political coverage, it seems readers and journalists alike are quick to jump in the tank and the repercussions are large.  

Breaking down the P.E.J.'s report, the project's director Mark Jurkowitz says that "he simple message of our report is that: Winning begets winning coverage." As interest grows (as it does with each day closer to November 4), angles of coverage become contagious as they get dropped into the tank--er, echo chamber.

In the day of the Web and 24-hour news cycles, the amount of information available is immense. Punditry and reportage run the gauntlet of biases, and there is something out there for everyone. It seems, however, that rather than expanding minds, this information has been used to further dive into which ever tank you fall in. Callie Crossley, a media critic at WGBH Boston, suggests that " when people use the Web, as they've been using it in this election and it's been shown over and over, they tend to go to sites which reflect what they already believe."
Success seems to be begetting success, and when the media joins Obama in his tank, viewers and readers are quick to join. Conversely, some see McCain's denial of this as his downfall . But looking back at the original meaning of the term--taking a dive and going in the tank painted similar pictures of self-sabatoge as stock markets and boxers alike tank. This negative connotation, however, doesn't ring true as loudly as it used to, as it now lends itself to "working on someone's behalf." Perhaps, though, as we all follow suit, we should remain wary of in the tank's origins.  Otherwise, choosing sides may simply induce a case of the blind leading the blind.

Joe the Plumber gets his 15 minutes

Coverage on voting issues barely makes the cut with Joe the Plumber dominating the news
Courtesy of Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism

Wurzelbacher must be the most talked about plumber in the news. The media has descended on him with a fury of ‘investigative journalism’, checking everything from his tax records to his voting records. As it turns out he is not a licensed plumber and his first name is not really Joe.According to Jonah Goldberg of the New York Post, the news media has declared war on McCain's Everyman. Joe, he claims, is just being punished by the media for exhorting "revealing but embarrassing answers out of the media's preferred candidate". He represents individualism in opposition to Obama’s ‘collectivist’ policies to "spread the wealth around."
These media critics’ question seems to be: why is the media attacking Joe? The question should be why is the media even covering Joe so feverishly? Between October 13 and19 Joe the Plumber became the No. 3 campaign storyline of the week (filling 8% of the election news hole) according to the Campaign Coverage Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Joe is even being asked for his insights on Social Security and off-shore drilling, by Couric and Huckabee.
When it comes to election coverage, the media narrative is dotted with pseudo celebrities to create controversy - Reverend Jeremiah Wright, former radical William Ayers, and Alaska Trooper Mike Wooten, just to name a few. No doubt McCain shamelessly used Joe to symbolize the middle class man with the American dream. With the 25 mentions of his name in the presidential debate, some talk about Joe the Plumber was inevitable. But the media has catalyzed the process and catapulted him to his newfound Britney-Spears status. According to the celebrated plumber himself, he said he was surprised to hear his name so predominantly featured in the debate. "That bothered me. I wished that they had talked more about issues that are important to Americans." Well, I wish the media would talk more about issues that are important to Americans instead of creating and destroying 15-minute celebrities.

Bono: He isn't just the King of Ireland anymore...

(The vertically-challenged lead-singer of U2, Bono, will start contributing to the New York Times in 2009. Photo courtesy of The Guardian.)

The New York Times announced this week that it's hired a new columnist for its editorial section and his name may come as a surprise to many: Bono. That's right, the lead-singer of U2 will pen between 6 and 10 editorials for the paper in 2009...at no cost.

While there's no question he's a living legend in the music business, can he thrive as a columnist? Other famous musicians and celebs have contributed to the paper before and have proven their individual worth.

Take the drummer from Queen, Brian May, who blogged for the Times's science section, and just completed his PhD in astrophysics. Or look at Seinfeld creator and Curb Your Enthusiasm star Larry David who scribed his usual neurosis-laden shtick for the paper and currently is writing for the Huffington Post, most recently about November 4th. Angelina Jolie has even written about the US's duty to stay in Iraq to help with reconstruction and humanitarian efforts for the Washington Post. Pretty heavy stuff.

The pieces they write are usually provocative, well-written and interesting. But do we want our celebrities mixing with politics, science and social issues in long-print form? Well, maybe not to deliver straight news, but why the heck not when it comes to them writing an editorial.

Times editorial page Editor Andrew Rosenthal, who hired Bono, notes that in fact, some of the country's most gifted and intelligent public servants aren't so gifted at giving their opinions. Take Condi Rice for example, who Rosenthal calls a "particularly bad op-ed writer." He also cited Tom Wolfe as a writer who can't control his word limit.

I don't think Bono will become the next Paul Krugman, the editorial writer for the Times, who was just awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics. But celebrities can change the world for the better. So, let them talk and let them write.

I'll be waiting around for Bono to start penning his op-ed's, most likely about an important humanitarian cause, like AIDS in Africa or poverty around the globe. All I could hope for though, is that in the future, The Times will hire George Clooney so I can see Bill O'Reilly deliver a Talking Points Memo about how celebrity journalism is ruining the world.

Bold Predictions

"It’s over." That’s how New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow began his column on October 17th, two and a half weeks before Election Day. His column is titled "Nov. 5, 2008" (my birthday!) and predicts that Obama will crush McCain on Election Day. He even describes a scene of Obama waking up on Nov. 5th:
"President-elect Obama (yes, get used to it) could wake up that morning as one of the most powerful presidents in recent American history. Not only is his party likely to maintain control of both houses of the Congress, it could dramatically strengthen its hand."
Blow goes on to talk about the "probability" of Obama receiving a warm international welcome and "possibility" of Obama appointing several justices to the Supreme Court. Man, this guy must be feeling pretty good about his chances to shamelessly play Oracle in the pages of America’s newspaper of record.

Even David Brooks, a conservative columnist for The New York Times predicted that Obama would win by 9 percentage points in a Q&A with students of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

Let’s be real. No reputable journalist would risk being wrong so publicly unless they felt good about their information. These predictions openly rely on recent polls and other studies that consistently predict Obama’s victory over McCain by more than a few percentage points. NPR’s final survey before Election Day showed Obama had a "commanding lead in battleground states and on all key elements of campaign."

First of all, it's unsettling that that journalists buy into the hype of these polls and use them as justification for their Delphic predications. This shows they're disregarding the king caveat: polls are a snap-shot in time based on a tiny sample and have a history of being incredibly wrong more than every once and a while.

But that's not the worst of it. Journalists seem to let polls affect the general tone of their coverage. In an interview with PBS’s Jim Lehrer, Associate Director of Project for Excellence in Journalism Mark Jurkowitz talked about a recent study that concluded, "if a candidate is perceived to be and is seen as doing well in polls, if the strategic dynamic of the campaign is favoring him, then he tends to get better coverage." Polls are pseudo-events, given legitimacy by the media's coverage of them, but not terribly legitimate in their own right. Such questionable numbers shouldn't hold that much sway on a journalist's work.

Regardless, journalists shouldn’t be in the business of crystal balls and soothsaying anyway. Ideally, journalists serve their readership and if in an election season the press’s job is to educate the electorate so they can cast an informed vote, predictions serve absolutely no purpose. There is no sense in journalists telling the public who will win, when the public is the one who will end up making that decision.

If the news media insists on discussing the polls, why not use the opportunity to educate their audience about how best to consume and understand polls?

Welcome to the Hypothetical Future

A thoroughly amusing and flashy take on the "Dewey defeats Truman" photo irresistibly taken from Steven Stark's Boston Phoenix article

Searching through this week’s Romanesko archives, I came across not one but three inventive articles which all take a considerable leap to focus on events that decidedly did not happen, or haven’t happened yet. On crosscut.com, a Seattle-based Northwest news site, self-professed Republican John Carlson spins a fairy tale where Palin is actually a Democrat, and as a result she receives glowing raves from the supposedly liberal media. His bias is devastatingly obvious, and as a result his mocking tone shows through and damages the effectiveness of his hypothetical, and by the time you reach the bottom of the page and he declares that he’s “long active in Republican politics,” it’s hardly a shocker. More interestingly, Steven Stark of the Boston Phoenix pens a piece about McCain’s shocking victory, published November 5th, 2008. Stark imagines that “the tsunami of youth support” for Obama never actually goes to the polls, but rather “the over-65 crowd who turned out as if the election were a five-o’clock dinner special.” Stark’s imagination runs wild, and he receives an angry comment from a poster known as theliberalcrab, who purports to have written a more interesting version of the November 5th story on his blog where Obama is the victor, and even revisits his own post to applaud his foresight (he modestly titles his post “Wow – Am I A Seer?”). My question is, is any of this relevant? Does anyone read this and find it moving or influential, or is it all just fluff? Sure, that’s a memorable and amusing graphic above, but does it have any effect on those reading these publications, or any others?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Judy comes Home

Judith Miller
Courtesy of www.gawker.com

It’s the tragic tale of a conservative cheerleader who lost her way in the deep dark pages of “liberal media”. Judith Miller, who on September 8, 2002, published an exposé in the New York Times, detailing the interception of “thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes” in Iraq, thereby legitimizing the threat of WMD’s. Her sources were the following: “Bush administration officials”, “American officials” and “Iraqi defectors who once worked for the nuclear weapons establishment (who) told American officials”. Judith Miller, whose favorite high profile source was Ahmed Chalabi, a convicted criminal, who made false confirmations of Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons laboratory. Judith Miller, who spent 85 days in jail to protect the identity of her source who outed covert CIA agent Valerie Plame. Judith Miller, who after “resigning” from the New York Times joined right wing think-tank Manhattan Institute.

On October 20th, dear Judy joined…get this…FOX News, as an on air analyst. According to Fox Senior VP,"she has a very impressive resume," – a resume tailored for Fox it may seem. Fox news isn’t picky about sourcing. Reporting that strays slightly from the truth? Fox doesn't mind. Right-wing propaganda and Fox go together like peanut-butter and jelly. Fox is just as responsible for spreading misperceptions on the war in Iraq - its viewers have higher support for the war.

Judith Miller can finally join the esteemed ranks of Hannity and O'Reilly. It is nothing less than a match made in heaven. Judith Miller is finally home.

(My apologies for any "liberal biases". I tried to stay as fair and balanced as I could.)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

To Comment on Living

"Picket Fence" Courtesy of Bonbon Mom on Flikr.

“HALLOWEEN has gone global.”

--Michael Boodro,
Martha Stewart Living, Oct. 2008

Martha’s editor-in-chief made the most self-gratifying comments in October’s
Editor’s Letter, crediting the enterprise as being “no small part responsible for Halloween becoming an international phenomenon.”

It’s just a historically inaccurate and arrogant blip that won’t effect voters or send the country to war. However, I really want to send Martha a letter. I want to tell her she’s wrong (see Parmy Olsen’s “Halloween Declared Dead in France”) and Americanizing. Also problematically, Boodro’s idea of global only includes France, Great Britain and the U.S.

But I realize that there’s no public way to respond to Michael Boodro, or to Martha. Her magazine doesn’t publish comments, only questions. A Martha Stewart Blog exists and it is possible to publish mediated comments…but I expect Martha’s empire will quash my letter or toss it into a waste can marked “Bad Things.”

Discussions on Martha’s blog range from how-to questions to praising comments. I’ve yet to see a dissenting voice.

We expect newspapers to carry discussion forums for readers, but should a cultural agenda setting periodical hold the same standard?

Without one, MSL becomes a megaphone for selling what Veronique Vivienne calls an unchallenged “compilation of every American domestic fantasy at the end of the 20th Century.”

And the market Martha sells to is indeed wide.

“Everywoman.com” Joan Didion reports on the overwhelming span of the Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia: Two magazines, a weekly radio show, a nationally syndicated TV show, twenty-seven books, and merchandising relations with Kmart.

If Martha Stewart wants to spread an idea—such as a phrase, an image, or a mere color palate—she doesn’t need to reach far. Her radio show can be advertised in MSL, as well as any new cookbook (i.e. November’s MSL advertises Martha Stewart’s Cooking School in the Editor’s Letter) or domestic product. It’s a pastel colored layout of vertical integration.

In 2006, Fortune 500 ranked Martha the
21st most powerful Woman in America. Beating out the First Lady and a number of political leaders, Martha Stewart can influence several million readers, listeners, and viewers. In return, she receives questions and adoring fans. If my Halloween questions get any attention, I’ll keep everyone updated.

The Levi Scavenger Hunt

Levi Johnston and Bristol Palin (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

The Associated Press' Senior Managing Editor Mike Silverman's "Beat of the Week" memo goes out to his staff and last week praised reporter Adam Goldman for his "[t]racking down" of Levi Johnston.

Johnston, of course, is the teenage father of Bristol Palin's baby, and the subsequent AP story serves as a sort of celeb profile of the 18-year-old, detailing his thoughts on subjects from fatherhood to politics. The exclusive interview of who Silverman calls "one of the most elusive personalities of this presidential campaign" was conducted on Johnston's driveway after searches high and low and earned Goldman a $500 reward.

Problem is, Johnston should not be considered a fair game "personality" in this race. His tangential involvement in the race is unfortunate and it is extremely difficult to reckon with this sort of nosiness as journalism. The poor guy's private life became game as soon as Sarah Palin accepted the VP nod--a questionable decision considering her daughter's state--but an exposé is beyond superfulous. Let the kid live!

Sure, the interview beget some juicy quotes--"At first, I was nervous," he said. "Then I was like, 'Whatever.'"--but has the infotainment market blurred the line of journalistic ethics this severely?

The Society of Professional Journalists Code calls for reporters to "minimize harm" by treating subjects as humans deserving of respect. "Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion
into anyone’s privacy." To that end, "pandering to lurid curiousity" should be avoided and we should remember that "private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention."

Last I checked, ol' Levi just wants to focus on hunting and hockey and not once sought power of any kid. In accordance with the above standards, the AP's story is little more than a voyeuristic, bottom-feeding disgrace.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A sympathetic profile or a mean-spirited lowblow...

(Cindy McCain winking alongside Sarah Palin at the GOP Convention. Photo courtesy of the LA Times Blog.)

The New York Times has done it again. Well, maybe.

In the October 17th issue of the Times, reporters Jodi Kantor and David Holpfinger wrote an exhaustive, biographical piece on Cindy McCain. It examines Mrs. McCain's personal life, ranging from her early days in Washington to her time on the presidential campaign trails in 2000 and 2008. Towards the end of the article, however, her addiction to painkillers, her involvement in the Keating Five scandal and various discrepancies in health and travel are highlighted.

A common mantra in journalism is 'timing is everything.' Why did the Times choose to publish a rather questionable article about McCain's infidelity with a former lobbyist (which has since been proved totally false) right as he won the nomination? Or why might the Times have decided to publish this article a mere two and a half weeks before November 4th and not months ago?

To affect public perception right before the election, says the McCain camp, who came out with a
response and said that this intimate portrait of Mrs. McCain proves (once again) the media's leftward slant and their unfettered support of Barack Obama. They do raise some interesting points. Why now? Why has there never been a single article about Obama's admitted drug consumption (cocaine use is a felony) or what about Michelle Obama's controversial thesis at Princeton? All very important, relevant questions that would allow us to get even more informed about a potential president and first lady.

To play devil's advocate though...Michelle Obama has gotten a lot more negative press through this campaign than Cindy McCain, notably on Fox where she's been called a 'baby mama' and the likes of Sean Hannity have repeated ad nauseum her now infamous "this is the first time in my adult life I have been proud of my country" comment. The right-wing blogosphere's has also labeled Michelle as Barack's 'bitter-half.'

Does this article mean that the Times is in the tank for Obama? Or may it just be a piece shedding light on a rather shrouded political spouse? I don't know the answer to either, but I do think the timing is questionable.

Monday, October 20, 2008

When The Star Player Works The Refs, Someone Usually Listens

Michael Jordan being fouled by Charles Barkley (courtesy of the New York Post)

No one was more adept at being babied by referees than Michael Jordan. The plaintive gaze of utter disbelief in his eyes after a missed shot as he darted his sad eyes in an incredulous look to the sideline was enough to make any ref think twice about their lack of a call. Next time, they blew the whistle.

Such may be the case when presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain turn their own ire toward specific outlets of the media. Obama in Sunday's New York Times Magazine:
"I am convinced that if there were no Fox News, I might be two or three points higher in the polls," Obama told me. "If I were watching Fox News, I wouldn't vote for me, right? Because the way I'm portrayed 24/7 is as a freak! I am the latte-sipping, New York Times-reading, Volvo-driving, no-gun-owning, effete, politically correct, arrogant liberal. Who wants somebody like that?"
And repeatedly, McCain and his campaign have lambasted the Times, his chief strategist stating, "But whatever the New York Times once was, it is today not by any standard a journalistic organization. It is a pro-Obama advocacy organization that every day attacks the McCain campaign, attacks Gov. Palin and excuses Sen. Obama."

You'd think both of these men were Mohamed Atta. Or worse, Al Gore.

But is all the whining a textbook case of "working the ref," in which candidates feign temper tantrums, thereby convincing the media to overcompensate in their favor? Probably.

If we can remember back to primary season and the infamous SNL skit (in which a debate moderator asked if Obama if he needed a pillow), the Clinton campaign's subsequent talking points all centered around a media "in the tank" for Obama, leading to a month of negative news coverage for the Illinois senator and a sharp downturn in his poll numbers.

So as with Jordan -- who averaged over 8 free throws per game throughout his career -- we've seen the refs get worked. Let's just hope that with two weeks until election day (the fourth quarter, if you will), the media-as-referee has settled into their style, will call a straight game and just let 'em play.

Is it better to be left in the dark or blinded by the light?

This map has since been fact checked (and checked, and checked...).

Around the same time children learn that covering ones eyes doesn’t mean he or she is invisible, they usually learn that just because they say it, it doesn’t make it true. This sense of awareness, however, seems to fade when applied to the media consuming nation as a whole.  (Just one exhibit?

In the days of insta-news, it’s hard to forget that people like Factcheck.org are around to vet you “Faster than the speed of spin.” Or as Sarah Palin puts it, people like to do that “who said what at what time and we’ll have proof” ”thing”. With innumerable resources at hand, especially with the rise of the Internet, there are very few facts that can’t be checked. But just to make things easier, organizations like FactCheck.org have stationed themselves to “put the facts out there and let the chips fall where they may.” More or less, the facts are out there.

But questions remain.

In light of the “fact-check it” trend, Daniel Libit, of Politico.com begs the question: “Has the drumbeat of ”fact-checks” blended into white noise, letting significant misstatements and deceptions get lost in the mix?” Has “Fact” lost its clout? Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, quoted in the same article, seems to think so: “It is becoming wallpaper. After a while, you get enough of a pattern on the wall you don’t even know it’s there.” Could it be—fact checkers are blinding us with the truth?

Fact checking has been as fast and frequent as ever this campaign; and yet, its impact seems to be somewhat less than perceptible. The oft-cited case of Palin’s Bridge to Nowhere plays upon this point. “Thanks, but no thanks,’ she claims; stopped at her hand, asserts the party. A quick search on FactCheck.org, however, implies the issue is a more ”complicated” than that.

This seems to be were things get interesting. In his story “The Lies We Bought: Unchallenged ‘Evidence’ For War,” John MacArthur quotes Peter Teeley, a press secretary for George H.W. Bush as saying, “You can say anything you want during a debate, and 80 million people hear it.” In the case that “anything” turns out to be false, and journalists correct it, “So what. Maybe 200 people read it, or 2,000 or 20,000.” The drumbeat of fact-checkers might be loud, but repetition is the father of learning and the echo chamber is deafening.

It seems that it’s not the quality of the statements released but the quantity that matters. And in fact, the incessant scrutiny may be hurting whatever truths are out there. “The one thing I worry about is by doing it the way we do, putting up articles one after another, we reinforce the notion that all politicians are liars and it doesn’t matter who gets elected,” says Brooks Jackson, director of Factcheck.org. More frighteningly, “We’re so hyper about fact-checking,” said a senior McCain aide in Libit’s article, “that you have candidates actually curtailing what they believe they can tell the American people.” 

Oh the irony.  In seeking truth, it seems we have only been turned into cynics—cynics undeserving of honesty.  

This leaves me fearful: if "truthfulness" carries such little weight, then what exactly gives form to public figures and stories?  In the absence of fact, what blood pumps through the veins of journalism?  Without honest reporting, what is left?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

AP - the Media Overlord

Associated Press photo

The Columbus Dispatch announced today that its service cancellation with the Associated Press, effective Jan, 17, 2011. As a result of AP’s service with its current rates, the company decided to to maintain their local reporting staff instead. In addition, Dispatch requested AP to cease transmissions generated by Dispatch.

The fragile state of the newspaper business has been evident, with the industry falling by almost 40 percent, according to Goldman Sach's analyst Peter Appert. With newspapers constantly trying to minimalize costs and maximize profit via their websites' news outlets, why doesn't the AP lower their rates to keep their customers?

In Rick Edmond's article, "What Would Happen if Newspapers Divorce AP," AP is obstinate about not cutting rates and acquiescing to its customers, even when it's becoming more and more advertising-oriented and maintains its lucrative media giant status as a major news and photo owner and distributor.

AP is already reaping profits from newspaper staff cuts. According to AP executive editor, Kathleen Carroll,
"Good mid-sized papers are being forced to make a lot of strategic decisions
about what only they can do and should continue to do." The local, local, local
answer makes sense, but quasi-national health and science specialists often end
up on the list of good things a regional can no longer afford.

Thinking back to our discussions on Chomsky's first filter on size ownership and profit-orientation, is the media going to be monotonous as they rely on recycled and redistributed articles from AP? Does an editor have to choose between a press staff and profits?

One Man Vs. A Thousand Shadows

No faces - Image from V for Vendetta

At a recent Sarah Palin rally in Scranton, PA, the Times-Tribune reports that a person in the crowd shouted “kill him!” at the mention of Obama prior to Palin’s speech. Northern Pennsylvania’s timesleader.com later reported that none of the Secret Service agents in the crowd, nor Chris Hackett, the man speaking who mentioned Obama, heard the cry about killing Obama. This whole issue spiraled into Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank claiming that the Secret Service now conspires to prevent press access to crowds at rallies. The reasoning, according to tampabay.com, is that “negative things had been written in the past” and “the campaign wanted to avoid that possibility.” A letter written to Romanesko decries the Secret Service for admitting that they do restrict the press and thinking that it’s acceptable. Some comments posted raise the point of whether this story even had any validity from the start. Is this a party line being issued by the Secret Service or exaggeration by reporters? Does it even matter? Are a few reporters with names and identities helpless when they go up against a faceless entity like the Secret Service?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Should Readers Endorse Newspaper's Endorsements?

A screenshot from the Chicago Tribune's website endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama for President

With its first ever endorsement of a Democratic presidential candidate, the Chicago Tribune has broken tradition and possibly revitalized the importance of a publication's support. The paper is also undergoing a more literal face lift, which Michael Miner writes will produce a "leaner, cleaner" and more importantly, less expensive Tribune, and he wonders whether this new leaf turning is to secure financial interests for the "retooled" paper.

So why do editorial boards of papers pick a candidate? Editor and Publisher's current count has Obama with 101 newspaper endorsements to McCain's 32. Does picking a winner merely validate a paper's legitimacy or is the process more wholly rooted in a gut instinct and policy? Should this be allowed or is the tradition antiquated?

Author Richard Miller asks in the Fox Forum whether endorsements are professionally appropriate arguing that when editorial boards were among the most informed members of the electorate, they had a responsibility to lead, but since people now "know more," endorsements are irrelevant. He also argues that news is in the midst of a "credibility crisis" and endorsements merely "raise deep suspicion" that "the front page is actually the editorial page."

As asserted in this TIME piece, young news readers are suspicious of "traditional authority" but this inclination leads me to a different conclusion. Though we do favor transparency and straightforwardness, objectivity is overrated, especially with regards to an editorial page. Our skepticism allows us to ask questions and that seems sufficient. Papers aren't hoping to give the final word or change any minds. As the one-time editor of the NYT's editorial page, Howell Raines stressed the paper's obligation to be a part of the "civic dialogue." I welcome that notion.

As news readers, we are not and should not be scared of others' stances, whether they come from peers, edlers or institutions. Perhaps NYU professor Mitchell Stephens said it best:
''[O]pinion is a way of getting at the truth, and we tend to forget that sometimes in America. Sometimes you think that American journalism has gotten so opinionphobic that it has lost a tool that contributes to people's understanding.''

Monday, October 13, 2008

Bat Boy's back, alright!

The Alien has spoken.
(taken from the Weekly World News Election Coverage)

Believers and cynics rejoice--Bat Boy is back!

Last week, a newly formed Bat Boy LLC, announced its intentions to take over the former supermarket staple
Weekly World News. Formerly owned by the struggling American Media Inc., the News has been a leading source of news for those curious about the Alien’s presidential endorsement, following Ombatma, Barack Obama’s half-man half-bat half-brother, or wondering what Elvis is up to these days (or is it Kim Jong Il?!).

Since shutting the presses fourteen or so months ago, “The World’s Only Reliable News” has been available online, but after this take over, it seems readers can look forward to a slightly more, well, accessible Bat Boy. CEO Neil McGinness, a former VP of Entertainment at IMG Media sees the value in the paper: “We think this is the greatest alternative media vehicle in the universe,” he told the New York Post.

What else does he see in the paper's future? Branding, of course. Branding, creating ubiquity of images, seems to be something of a specialty for
IMG, and under McGinness’ guidance, it seems WWN will test its luck in the merchandising and movie licensing world. “We see tremendous potential for growing the brand and significantly expanding business,” McGinness told MarketWatch. Bat Boy the Musical, after all, was received positively.

And so it seems, “some newspapers” will run inserts of the Weekly World News and Bat Boy will regain his cultural ubiquity, and hopefully, his resistance to any truth/fiction status. These days, it’s difficult to draw a line between the serious and comedy, between the imagined and the incredible, the absurd and the bogus. I mean, it can’t hurt the MSM to have a loveable half-bat half-boy like him around to give their fantastical headlines a little more credibility.

Amongst the few major news outlets to cover this revival, were MarketWatch and New York Post. It’s almost as if you can hear Murdoch pointing and laughing, “Who’s more credible

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Death of the Magazine

image courtesy of ACPmedia.com

It's official. My favorite magazine (where I had my dream internship) is getting its last subscription on the December issue. Hearst will be
folding CosmoGirl!, its second title along with Quick & Simple. What a perfect example of our economic woes. All the editors, photographers, researchers, and interns - are jobless. Who would've thought, Hearst, the original Big Five member, would slowly crumble, one magazine at a time?
And Cosmogirl! isn't the last. Fast Company magazine's publisher laid off twenty employees, while the power of the magazine's website shifted to Bob Sussman, previously editor. This proves that not even glossy cover of a celebrity with the most sexy appeal is not going to help maintain readership.

But there is still hope for the magazine's website because it will continue to run long after Susan Shulz, CosmoGirl!'s Editor-in-Chief stops working on putting together Teen advice and celebrity gossip for young girls to read. No matter the content is entertainment or hard news, the blatant shift is towards the internet, quick and easy news, images and videos. Journalists can't just do the reporting anymore. They not only have to know the World Wide Web, they have to learn to build traffic, beat out the other competitors in the new medium. What this says about journalism, is that it's not (and maybe never was) just reporting, getting the truth out there. It's about cutting expenses, beating out the competition.

Gahhd Bless Ya, Serra PAY-lin

RAWR, Courtesy of Ina, www.tiedyeina.com/

I experienced the Vice Presidential debate a day late through NPR, so I didn’t hear about Sarah Palin’s winks until a week later. I did, however, fall in love with her Alaskan accent. What can I say, it’s charming. Others, however, would rather dislocate their eardrums than listen to her voice for the next 4-8 years.

Mostly, the voice helps the Republican Camp.

Jason George writes that the Alaskan accent is attractive because it sounds "untrained" http://www.swamppolitics.com/news/politics/blog/2008/09/sarah_palins_accent_explained.html. Compare this to Hillary Clinton’s voice, which could have been mistaken for a Northeastern news anchor, possibly a male one.

Palin didn’t have to reference soccer moms or mainstreet construction workers during the debate. Her voice expresses enough of a caring PTA persona already.

And the cute rhyming phrases--“I say it ain’t so, Joe… near and dear to my heart..” – speak directly to the average American citizen, fulfilling his need to see an authentic member of the middle class present in a high political position.

If desired, Palin could loose the accent with the help of a speech therapist as Stephen Colbert did. But why? Republicans don’t want robotic personalities, no Al Gores and no more Hillary Clintons.

Old-Fashioned Reporting Still Number One?

Anne Hull, courtesy of asne.org
Anne Hull - image courtesy of asne.org

2008 Elijah Parish Lovely Award recipient Anne Hull, a Washington Post reporter honored for courageous journalism, delivered a convocation address at Colby College several weeks ago. In her address, Hull retells the story of her experiences documenting the Department of Labor’s guest-worker program and exposing maltreatment within the gates of Walter Reed. Her speech is powerful and her message certainly compelling, but there’s a small part of her argument with which I do not agree. Discussing the decline of truly intrepid exposé reporting, Hull belittles the rise of a “caffeinated society of bloggers…filing dispatches from a TMobile spot at Starbucks.” Citizen journalism may not necessarily take as much effort as what Hull calls “committed” and “invested” reporting, but Hull is greatly underestimating the kind of access that anonymous bloggers can get and generalizing all bloggers into one unaccomplished category. Perhaps it is that major stories can be broken more easily now and some feel that bloggers don’t have to pay their dues. Sensationalism of new media is also a threat (read about a student using Twitter to escape jail), and maybe we are better off with what Hull cringes to call “old-fashioned reporting.”

Thursday, October 9, 2008

I think she's got a point (sort of).

(Ann Coulter shooting a gun. Courtesy of About.com's political humor section.)

Fresh off what we were discussing in class on Monday, the character (possibly?) of Ann Coulter showed up on Fox News this week to introduce her new column.
She does raise some interesting and valid points shockingly. She reviews last week's Vice Presidential debates between Biden and Palin, calling out Biden in the process (no real surprise there). She calls Biden's statements "wildly inaccurate" and compares him to Lyndon LaRouche.
Some of her gripes ranged from insignificant, like the fact that Katie's restaurant closed 20 years ago, to significant like interpreting incorrect articles of the constitution, which countries are actually in NATO and how much money we've spent in Iraq compared to Afghanistan.
Now to the part of the column I actually cared about. What if Sarah Palin had uttered a single misstatement as egregious as one of his? What if she were to claim that her running mate never said he would meet without preconditions with dictators, even though he said it numerous times, which are readily accessible all through cyberspace? What if she had pompously lectured about the duties of the Vice President and then cite the article of the constitution which lays out the responsibilities of the VP incorrectly, multiple times?
Coulter claims its the biases of the MSM who won't talk about this. Liberal media this, elite media that. She pushes the idea of the media as leftist (all mainstream media) vs. balanced (Fox) in sort of a fight to the death over exposing political agendas.
It's the conclusion where we differ though. I think it's far worse than that. A woman can't get a fair shake in politics in the media's eyes. Look at Hillary Clinton, look at Palin, and look at Geraldine Ferraro (remember when she was a 'racist' a few months ago?). The list can go on and on. It's not a Democrat / Republican thing. It's a woman thing.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

It’s about confidence...

Does this seem like a healthy working environment?
Image from Alteringtime.com

On his blog “The Feed” media critic for St. Petersburg Times Eric Deggans wondered how CNBC’s tourette's afflicted financial “guru” Jim Cramer (host of his show Mad Money) kept his job after telling investors to get out of the market on NBC’s Today show.

On October 7th, Jim Cramer defended his statement on NBC's Today show, saying he still stands behind what he said. According to anchor Meredith Vieira, his comments caused a “firestorm." One email likened his comments to “yelling fire in a crowded building.” Another email pointed out that the financial system is based on “trust” and that Cramer was sabotaging it. What makes this all very ironic is that Cramer has been giving bad advice for a while (he told people to buy Wachovia and Bear Stearns stock), but he’s taking criticism for giving good advice this time: SELL!

Jim Cramer and business journalists (not that he is one) are stuck in a very odd position. Because the market is based so much on confidence, their collective coverage can affect the confidence of the market. It’s sort of like the “observer effect” in science that says in some experiments in quantum physics, the very observation of the experiment could change its outcome. Business journalists are in the same boat.

Howard Kurtz's column “Press May Own a Share in Financial Mess” is about how business journalists failed to foresee this economic crisis. He acknowledges their difficult balancing act: “If these journalists shout too loudly, they can be accused of scaremongering and blamed for torpedoing the stock of outwardly healthy companies.”

Using The Wall Street Journal as an example, he says some stories and opinion pieces did warn about possible collapse, but they failed to paint a full picture of the economic crisis. Basically, they played it down. Some of the journalists he quotes in his piece offer hints as to why:
"…If we had written stories in late 2000 saying this whole thing's going to collapse, people would have said, 'Ha ha, maybe,' and gone about their business." - Fortune Magazine Managing Editor Andy Serwer.
"When I would cover these very issues about problems with regulation, problems with 'is this a disaster waiting to happen?' people would say: 'Well, young man, you don't have an MBA like I do. Trust us. We went to business school.'" - David Brancaccio, PBS.
"The business press tends to get in with the people that they cover. They get in the bubble that is Wall Street, just like political reporters get in the bubble that is the White House and the traveling press of the campaign . . . and they don't see the obvious things." - Steven Pearlstein, Washington Post business columnist, Pulitzer Prize winner.
This does not sound like an environment where honest journalism can go down. Can you smell filters?! How much does sourcing and corporate ownership contribute to the sunny optimism of business pages, even on the verge of a financial crisis? There is real pressure on business journalists to paint a rosy picture and when they don't, they're punished, even when they're giving good advice at the time (a la Jim Cramer). There needs to be enough distance between the business journalist and the market, so that honest, objective reporting can go down.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

...In This Economy? Even the Chains Fall

The Creative Loafing logo--more like shelter from the IRS...

In the model of WaMu and the rest of the world's more "stable" institutions, one of the country's leading alternative weekly chains (an ironic idea, no?), Creative Loafing, filed for bankruptcy last week. Print is dead, remember?

Simultaneously, the New York Sun published its "last issue" a couple of times, in the tradition of those Everything Must Go, one day only sales that end up lasting weeks.

New York Press had a vague obit for both rags, mostly wondering the eventual fate of each, a question that may have been answered when Loafing CEO Ben Eason told Atlanta Magazine that he, "wants his journalists to be filling their websites up every day with fresh content. And not just fresh content, but links to other stories written by anyone in the world."

But as laid out in this Gawker post, we have enough bloggers talking about each other's stories--we need someone to do some reporting!

And so Gawker's oddly self-aware blogger proposed a solution:
Fuck an alt-weekly. Become and Alt-monthly. Keep the features. Take your time. Consolidate. Save on printing costs. Save journalismism. And try not to go broke. Your cities will thank you.
Talk about a moment of clarity. Blogging on the level of news aggregation is less an alternative medium than a symptom of lacking capital. Opinions are cheap. We've seen it on the twenty-four hour news cycle and we see it daily on the web, and though ad revenue may be shrinking, I'd love to see someone (anyone!) attempt to make their dollar work for them. Shake it up if you have to, fire some people, cut some corners where necessary, and change the game. Just don't give up on journalism just yet. Not today, not in a world like this.

The Depression Will Be Twittered

"I want us to get in on the ground floor of the next band wagon."
(by William Haefeli, for the New Yorker)

“After the stock market crash, some New York editors suggested that hearings be held; what had really caused the Depression? They were held in Washington. In retrospect, they make the finest comic reading. The leading industrialists and bankers testified. They hadn’t the foggiest notion what had gone bad.” 
-Hard Times by Studs Terkel (1970) 

Speaking with NPR on the current financial situation, Jeff Jarvis supposed that, “I don’t think anyone—including the people in charge—can make sense of what’s happening in the country right now…it’s just too big and too complicated, and it requires both too much background and fundamental understanding about economics.” Meanwhile, news on the changing financial climate is flying in at a breakneck speed. People, seeming to want answers, or at least explanations—somebody to translate the current state of financial affairs into English, are tuning in: the week of 9/14 proved to be the highest rated in all of CNBC’s nineteen year history and viewer ship has more than doubled for shows like CNBC’s Mad Money. But what are they getting? What happens when the media can’t keep up with the news? And really, how many experts does it take to explain the news?

Locked into what NPR called a “quick-twitch story cycle, ” journalists are scrambling for the newest, hottest stories before they burn out and the next fire is lit.  Or as this cartoon from the New Yorker so aptly put it, they are fighting for "The ground floor of the the next bandwagon."  In the interim, seems like the MSM has resorted to melodrama to tide over the onlookers until they can sort out what’s going on. Flashy (and vague) headlines about “nightmares,” “meltdown,” and cute smiles are feeding viewers emotional needs, keeping them glued to the media like passerby’s to a car crash.

Is it possible for the media to break from this cycle and provide quantity and quality--up to the moment news and substantive reporting? Perhaps times of high turnover news are better handled by new medias, like bloggers and twitterers, who can provide up to the moment information. As Hamilton Nolan of Gawker put so kindly, “we don’t need more bloggers. Content is really much more worthwhile. Invest in it. Any asshole can blog, shit. You have reporters. Use them!” Talk is cheap, but perhaps, in an economy like this, news is worth investing in.

Offshore & Off Topic

Offshore Drilling Rig, Minerals and Management Services, US Dpt of Interior.  

With the devastation from Gustav and Ike, newspapers can’t stop talking about fuel and energy. But the media’s conversations aren’t putting the right questions out to the public. The physical extraction of nonrenewable resources require a geological/environmental perspective, but the talk almost always buzzes around politics and prices.  As a result, a majority of Americans support offshore drilling even though geologists say it’s a terribly unsustainable and economically unviable

In early summer, the media wrote of offshore drilling in terms of John McCain as the maverick pushing to end our dependence on foreign oil.

By September, media outlets (NPR, Huff Post) repeated the political shout, “Drill Baby, DRILL!” accrediting Republican representatives as the issue’s frontrunners.  

Search for “Offshore Drilling” on the NYTIMES.com and a huge list of McCain/Obama articles appear….No articles on the first search frames the issue from a factual, scientific approach.

But some outlets are getting a word in from experts.  Here’s a look at () one a blog post that drills deeper than politics and into the statistics/facts about oil shale (If politicians had a better understanding of oil shale extraction, they probably wouldn’t hunt for it).  Dr. Bill Chameides suggests here that news papers are also producing exaggerated figures for the billions of oil barrels that could potentially lie underneath our shore. 

This oil obsession could shift America’s future economy, environment, and foreign policy.  It’s an issue that needs broader perspectives from experts, but with the way the media reports offshore drilling, we only learn that politicians operate on two speeds: walk and drill.   

Palin vs. Palin

The two faces of Sarah Palin in the media
Photo courtesy of CTV

Thursday’s vice presidential debate seemed to be Palin vs. Palin. Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times and Tom Shales of the Washington Post were in agreement that Palin’s opponent was more her image in the media than Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Who. It was Palin of the Katie Couric - Tina Fey fame vs. confident and feisty soccer mom. According to Jane Kim of the Columbia Journalism Review, “the debate was about media representation, billed as self-representation.” With Palin it’s more about the image and less about the issues. In fact she made it exceedingly clear that she would not be answering the moderator’s questions until she had completed her talking points. And who came blame her. Her image in the media is so tarnished (for good reason, some may say) her biggest battle was in fact against the “other” Sarah Palin. On the other hand, she had managed to lower media expectations to a point where David Brooks of the New York Times may be justified in claiming “few could have expected as vibrant and tactically clever a performance as the one Sarah Palin turned in Thursday night.” Few could have indeed. Evan Cornog of the Columbia Journalism review, says it in all his eloquence : "Palin’s abysmal performance in recent press interviews, particularly her talks with Katie Couric of CBS, had lowered expectations so far that anything short of rotating her head 360 degrees and vomiting green slime while masturbating with a crucifix would have counted as a victory." (Reference to the Exorcist)