Lying with impunity – rage at the liars and frustration at being rendered helpless

Let’s begin with a disclosure.  I have told both lies of convenience and whoppers.  So perhaps a column on lying is an ambitious undertaking for me, nonetheless…

This week I flew from Dallas to San Francisco on Skywest (a partner of United Airlines).  The flight was more than four hours late due to a mechanical problem and that delay would force me to miss the last airporter bus to my final destination.  The airline’s agent in Dallas was sympathetic, and since the delay was caused by the airline he offered me a free taxi or shuttle ride home.  I asked how I could prove his offer when I arrived in San Francisco, and he proceeded to ostensibly type his promise into my passenger record.  He seemed sincere, genuine and I watched him type for a few moments.  When done he smiled and said, it was “all in the record”.

When I landed I asked the gate agent for the promised voucher.  She pulled up my ticket record, and I asked if she would print it for me.  She quickly left for her supervisor still in the jet way.  “KH” returned, looked at the computer and proceeded to type for more than a minute.  Then he too smiled but said, “it says no amenities offered in San Francisco.”  He spoke with no hesitation.  He added with a grin (perhaps of guile), “would I like to see the record?”

“Hardly necessary,” I replied.

So who lied?  One of these employees did lie.  Was it the helpful gentleman in Dallas who appeared to be sincere in appreciating my difficulty?  Or the harried employee in San Francisco, who at 2a appeared more interested in saving the airline any further expense or encumbrance as well as in sending me away.  I felt rage – not for the voucher, but for the lie.

Why’s this a media column?  Because so many readers, listeners, viewers feel the same helpless rage when consuming their media.  There are people who absolutely rage at talk radio and TV personalities who espouse views that are contradictory to everything they hold dear.  They believe these individuals are lying, or at least misrepresenting the facts.  Just hearing the news and information shaped in a way counter or contrary to their beliefs is enough to send them into fits of anger.

Lying or misrepresentations or bending facts to suit our particular needs of the moment are now so easy, and you just can’t quite catch the liar.  You believe, even know, you are being lied to, but you don’t always know who is responsible; you can’t catch them, you can’t make them apologize, and that’s where the anger begins and boils.

Skywest’s behavior was despicable.  But they got away with lying.  With impunity.

And by extension, is this also why so many news consumers stifle their anger and turn away from media, frustrated by what they hear and how they think it is mauled by truth-benders?  It isn’t just that stories are not credible as much as the misrepresentations send us into rage?  The rage is borne of disbelief, incredulity, as well as the sense that some one in the food chain has intentionally altered the facts and that leaves us helpless.

Good Sex or just a Tawdry Affair? The consequences of broadcasting and political activism sharing a bed

Do audiences appreciate this new symbiotic relationship between news and bias, news and punditry and opinion? Is this a natural growth progression of a huge network’s business covering the news, and how is it possible that this does not cross journalist lines of independence when its social media component strives to become a politically charged entity, something that actively promotes further national division and societal discord?

Fox Nation, another expansion of the powerful FOX brand, promotes itself as a site where all opinions are welcome, although the predominant voices seem to be believers in a conservative political philosophy punctuated by anti-administration diatribe, fear mongering and occasional bigotry.   This is social media, and one does not have to listen long to Fox Radio to hear promotions for this affinity site — listen to us and if you believe in what you’re hearing, you’ll want to join the discussion at Fox Nation.

But the question is when does fair and balanced news reporting become the bulwark of a political affinity group?  It’s not whether this is good, or ethical under some sort of academic standard alone, but is the audience being served (happily) or misused?

It is an honest question for debate for it is changing the way people in this country see, listen, hear and relate to their news. Not so many years ago the major networks were all pretty much the same – bland and apolitical. Owners under the rules of the FCC stuck to rules governing fairness, standards and practices. That’s long over.

Do audiences appreciate this new symbiotic relationship between news and bias, news and punditry and opinion? Is this a natural growth progression of a huge network’s business covering the news, and how is it possible that this does not cross journalist lines of independence when its social media component strives to become a politically charged entity, something that actively promotes further national division and societal discord?

Just as the cablers seem to be in a race to carve out their space along the political spectrum, FOX representing talk-radio-right and MSNBC securing its place as talk-radio-left, there seems to be a new phenomenon of converting audiences into political armies.  Fox Radio is now heard soliciting its listeners to join the “Fox Nation” in order to be a more effective force for change.

What’s different is the blurred line between reporting the news, especially if it purports regularly and routinely to be the epitome of fair and balanced as its brand, but then uses those same broadcasts to appeal directly and solely to a specific political leaning.  It seems expectable that those who register will be parsed and shared with campaigns and PACs, and there are few, if any, limits to how those individuals will be culled and contacted in the environment of social media.

Is there a line and has it been crossed?  Should a national news voice use its power to effect political change in the contemporary environment, and if so, does it need to be more clearly disclosed?  Or is it obvious?

Is it too much for a program host to attend a political rally? Or tell listeners specifically where a rally is planned? Sean Hannity has done both even encouraging his audience to attend if they share his political beliefs.  But is his show even news or is it a talk show about contemporary events? And if it is just that, then he is not subject to the long-established rules guiding journalists and journalism?

There are many who believe FOX News presenters share a conservative bias.  There are even sites which are hyper-critical of Fox News, notably Media Matters which catalogues what it perceives to be daily examples of misreporting and misinformation. In fairness to Fox News and its president Roger Ailes, FOX does draw a line between its news presenters and talk show personalities.  For instance, on election nights the network’s most prominent show hosts, including Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, are not utilized as anchors but rather as commentators separating fact from opinion.  It may be a thin line, but it is a line that is crossed most notably by Keith Olbermann on MSNBC who is offered to the audiences doing both dispensing news and commentary within the same program.

Fox News self-promotes itself as the “new media” and seeks to differentiate itself from all the other networks, decrying them as “mainstream” and old-fashioned, horribly out of touch with their audiences who purportedly are crying out for better reportage. FOX News is not alone; each night John Stewart and Steven Colbert do much the same – making fun of the traditional models in satire and skits.

FOX News is a brilliant, contemporary business which may understand audiences better than any of its competitors.  It has cast off the traditional model of informing and instead has grasped the higher levels of communication theory, specifically to persuade audiences to think as it does and even, at the highest level, to motivate audiences to think that they had the ideas originally.

There is an open question: when does mixing news reporting with social media cross a line of independence, when does reporting with any bias become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Is it OK for established news casts? What about for an organization without a formal news organization, for instance Google, which is offering corporate customers the opportunity to advertise on programs specifically created about their business and its audience appeal? Is that news? Is that propaganda? And once you start producing custom content for a specific purpose, business or government, when does it end, and how will the audience recognize the difference?  When does currying to an audience go too far?

The issue is – if that happens, then they will cover only news that interests their audience, or that their audience already believes in?  What happens to other  viewpoints and under-served communities? Will those voices be hear or be subjected to ridicule? Is that a danger today with FOX Nation – where it says all opinions are welcomed… but are they?

The question is simply this — other than in paid and disclosed advertising, should the cable airwaves or the public channels be used to actively promote a political party or belief? Does the audience care, should they? Should we care on their behalf? On that last question alone I believe the answer is an absolute Yes!

Is BP Buying Off Media Coverage?

Is coverage of the gulf oil spill declining, especially from local TV? And if so, why?  And if so, is there a reason to follow the money which might logically  lead to the BP advertising juggernaut?

In the days and weeks immediately following the oil spill there was a gush of coverage on both network and local TV.  Regional and national reporters crisscrossed from Louisiana to Florida.  Today, 100 days since the disaster, the urgency except for  spill-impacted areas, has naturally diminished.  But is that due to an editorial decision or is it due to the huge buy of advertising time by BP?

This is my question… is there any relationship between BP’s advertising buy and the decision by stations to turn down the spotlight’s glare?  These are economic tough times in the ad world.  On local stations where the community’s automotive dealers were once counted on the purchase up to 30% of the local advertising space, and where nothing else has become a one-for-one replacement for the absence of such dealer ads, BP has obviously found a welcomed reception for its branded ad campaign about what it’s doing to repair the damage and sustain the environment.  Was there a quid pro quo?  Was there a condition, or a wink between the station and the media buyer that stipulated the news department scale back its oil spill coverage?  In exchange for a media buy was there a request, a demand for kinder editorial treatment?

I am not suggesting stations are choosing not to cover the spill but have they scaled back from two or three stories a night to a single story, often not even the lead story?  Is this coincident?  Or is the story fading on its own merit?  That is, except for efforts at sea to cap the well, there really isn’t much that seems substantively different from stories produced a week, two weeks or even three weeks ago.  Is this an editorial decision that with fewer new stories there is less to report, less reason to invest precious air time, or is there something more sinister at play?

We know that TV has limited commitment to many stories.  TV media hs been criticized for having the attention span of a small child.  And as a colleague has critically said about complicated stories, “TV does not handle complex carbohydrates well.”  And perhaps it is simply a case that audiences appear satiated on the spill story; perhaps minute by minute ratings provide evidence that many audiences have ‘tuned out’ from the story and therefore, with less interest comes decreased demand and fewer stories.

But is there something more?  I don’t know.  I haven’t access to such proprietary information on either side.  I am just wondering if any one has information to prove whether this is real, coincident, or unfounded.

Anna Nicole Smith’s trial raises troubling questions about court managed media

The trial of Anna Nicole Smith’s boyfriend and her doctors in Los Angeles hasn’t yet begun and already it has raised interesting questions about the way courts try to manage high profile trials and the media.

Los Angeles County Superior Judge Robert Perry has announced he will root out stealth jurors who seek personal gain from jury service on this celebrity trial; he will cross check jurors for any criminal behavior they omit during voir dire, and he will allow attorneys questioning of prospective juror’s personal drug history, legal and illicit, even asking what prescription medicines they take.  That seems to be a trifecta for a very ambitious inquiry into juror’s behaviors, their present and past and poses the question, who is protecting the juror’s rights?

This is a trial which has already attracted considerable media interest.  But long after the trial has concluded, what happens to the information acquired by the court about both the legal use of medications or of drug abuse that’s put on the public record in terms of juror’s rights, their long-term ability to buy health insurance among other privacy concerns. To his credit Judge Perry has said he will release jurors who don’t want to be questioned about their personal histories before the court, but even that raises questions of doubt, to wit: Why not? What are they hiding?  This is a slippery slope where what is said, or not said, could become grounds for future decisions, some perhaps even individually harmful?

And there are the media concerns.

Associated Press Special Correspondent Linda Deutsch filed this about jury qualification on Thursday, “Perry plans to keep the names of jurors secret from lawyers, who complained that would make it impossible to track whether they were blogging or reporting on the trial via social networking websites.  The judge agreed to ask prospects if they have blogs or social media accounts. He also intends to ask his staff to check periodically to make sure jurors are not blogging about the case.”

It is evidence of a growing sophistication of courts about what jurors are doing both live and at home, sending tweets, doing extra research, and communicating in forums.  It also sends a certain chill in that judges traditionally admonish jurors not to discuss the case, but this could be a first where the court has announced  if it will take an aggressive, even proactive approach scanning for what it would define as inappropriate or extra curricular comment.

Perhaps most amusing was the judge’s awareness of the celebrity gossip site TMZ.com.  In an exchange with Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Renee Rose Judge Perry refused to grant a gag order while admonishing her that he was unsealing many of her motions. In an exchange reported by Deutsch, the Judge suggests he has already reached some conclusions, dare I say judgments about the caliber of media reportage and coverage, “I don’t think you should file under seal just because you don’t want the media to see it,” Perry said.
The prosecutor protested, “Everything I file ends up on TMZ,” Rose said.
“Who cares?” said the judge.
“Our jury pool is out there,” said the prosecutor.
“Do we even want people who watch TMZ on the jury?” asked the judge.
“We’re going to get them,” Rose said.
“I hope not,” said the judge.”

His judicious assessment of the quality and effect of tabloid television and its often salacious approach to celebrity coverage is justifiably troubling to courts.  The judge has decided to exclude cameras in court because, according to the Deutsch report, “he believes they are a negative influence and help create a “carnival atmosphere. “The problem with celebrity trials is it has a tendency to bring out kooks, frankly,” the judge said.” As if the presence of TMZ and the scores of global media encamped at his court-house door are not already sufficient to bring on the entertainment.

It doesn’t set a precedent; too many trials from Scott Peterson to Michael Jackson have been closed to cameras when, after the fact, attorneys in both cases revealed they would have preferred cameras  to assure better and more accurate reporting rather than what transpired when cameras were excluded.

While the temptation to request a bag of popcorn and watch the passing parade is almost irresistable, the questions raised both by limiting the media and unlimited questioning of the jury is troubling with long-lasting implications.

Except for Deutsch, as usual, we’re not hearing much about these issues in the media.  That raises the question, what has happened to the in-depth view, the coverage of the process of a case and not just its headlines and the scurrilous descriptions of the scoundrels in the case?

Ms. Smith died of a drug overdose in 2007; The defendants Dr. Khristine Eroshevich, Dr. Sanjeep Kapoor, and Smith’s former lawyer-boyfriend Howard K. Stern are charged only with conspiracy to provide drugs and not charged with causing her death.

Disclaimer – I was the pool producer for both the People of the State of California against Scott Peterson and against Michael Jackson.  I am also a friend of Ms. Deutsch.

Make comments and engage in a dialogue.  Silence is ominous and yields nothing toward improving the media.

When there is no media watchdog the public gets screwed

In Bell, California, population just 40,000, a bedroom suburb of Los Angeles there is no media watchdog.
Perhaps that’s why the city’s Chief Administrative Office who began in 1993 at a salary of $72,000 a year was given successive raises to bloat his 2010 salary to $787,637 dollars a year! By contrast President Obama’s salary is just $400,000.

No one noticed. No one reported it. The public was screwed.

In Bell where 1 in 6 residents lives below the poverty line the Los Angeles Times discovered Is a city manager worth $800,000 a year? the Assistant City Manager made $376,288 a year, the mayor and three of four part-time officials made $90,000 and $100,000 a year, and the city police chief earned $457,000. The city police force has 50 officers, by comparison, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck is paid $307,000 to manage a force of 1,300.

No local paper or radio reports on Bell. There is no daily newspaper. TV rarely covers Bell except for a traffic accident or helicopter chase on the freeways, episodic events that have little impact and only passing interest.

Few people obviously paid sufficient attention. I suppose they trusted their officials would behave responsibly and do the right thing, not rape the city treasury and the public’s faith. They were too busy working, living, being with their families – there was no one from the media to keep the officials honest – covering routine hearings, meetings, budget drafts… the pick and shovel work, what used to be called shoe leather of local reporters.

An Associated Press story on the city’s situation captured this quote, “This is America and everything should be transparent,” plumber and longtime Bell resident Ralph Macias said.”

The AP’s story continued, “By law, the council would have had to approve the contracts in an open session, but several residents complained that officials are loathe to explain what they are doing and quick to race through matters at public meetings with little discussion.”

But no one was there to notice.

And that’s what happens when you cut the media, cut reporters, look to savings the can be accrued by off-shoring local reporting to writers in other countries, even as far away as India who watch local meetings online and seek to synthesize what really occurred?

Some will call this the “new media.” I do not think it is much to crow about.

Changing the definition of news – Bill O’Reilly asserts Fox News is dominant because they understand and give Americans what is important to them

In this clip Bill O’Reilly on ‘A Growing Split’ in News Coverage by Kevin Allocca on TVNewser is a piece and 2 video clips featuring Bill O’Reilly and FNC commentator Bernie Goldberg discussing mainstream media bias. 

Bill O’Reilly started his program last evening (Monday 7.19.10) with his take on Howard Kurtz, CBS’ Bob Schieffer, and Sunday’s edition of “Reliable Sources,” using their conversation as a jumping off point to criticize the “mainstream media.”

“Apparently there’s a growing split about how the news is covered in this country,” O’Reilly said. “The old-guard mainstream media makes decisions based on ideology, race, and elitism. The new media, of which Fox News is a part, covers what Americans believe is important to them. That’s why we are a dominant #1, and I submit that we have far more influence than the network news does.”

This too is a subject I have been writing about, see When Did Mainstream Media Get to Be a Dirty Phrase from June 17th.
How mainstream news is defined and denigrated is as interesting as any argument facing the media today. Fox – positioning itself as David to the mainstream media’s Goliath – is aligning itself with a distinct view of America, Americanism and Americana. It seeks to build alliances and seeks allegiance on the basis of political belief as that shapes its approach and tone, especially on the prime time evening newscasts as distinct from the daypart news programs. It asks viewers to rally around the institution (Fox) rather than the substance of the story, and at times intertwines the two. Either way it blurs the line of media independence and pure reportage.
Fox asserts that it is in fact the “new media” and defines the lines of that coverage and declares network dominance. That may not be the case in terms of sheer numbers but it is a growing trend.
Are there consequences and if so, what?

Shut Out & Shut Down but Media Refuse to Shut Up as Public Officials Behave Badly

Preventing access as a form of censorship is a dangerous point on the slippery slope toward despotism and government gone wrong. The latest slip and slide in this direction was written last week at the Regents of the University of California meeting in San Francisco when a journalist with a camera was barred from their public event.  The Regent’s defensive argument was he didn’t have a press credential; the weakness to their argument is the press credential per se wasn’t required.  Credentialed or not  any one is entitled to make pictures at a public meeting under Bagley-Keene, a California law since 1967.
To make matters worse UC police instructed that no one was allowed to make pictures of them doing their job, in this case acting as gatekeepers to enforce a decision which was against the law. This is a chilling thought, one I wrote about on June 9th “Use a Camera, Go to Jail” as it seems many jurisdictions are increasingly less interested in public scrutiny of their work than ever before.

From Saturday’s San Francisco Chronicle, UC Regents baring of filmmaker draws protest “State law is clear – any member of the public has a right to film and record public meetings of state bodies,” Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, wrote to UC President Mark Yudof.

Yee, who chairs the Senate’s committee on Public Records and Open Meeting Laws, asked Yudof to explain not only why filmmaker Ric Chavez was barred from taking his video camera into the meeting, but why UC policy – which makes no provision for the public’s right to film public meetings – “is in complete contradiction to state law.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of the UC system being difficult toward news coverage. A Santa Barbara based cameraman has written to me about the UC campus there requiring fees for news coverage and offering limited access. This is a public school open to the world which needs to be reminded that coverage of news stories doesn’t come at the point of a pen writing a check.

What happens when something really serious happens… will institutions first ask who’s there to cover it, what their intentions are, their motives?  Perhaps they’d like to see examples of prior work?  How much will be required and how far back would they like to review? Should a network include coverage of the student massacre at Kent State? How about carnage at Virginia Tech?  Neither of those stories is likely to sway an administration’s decision toward openness?  UC Regents would be hard pressed to review the free speech movement at Sproul Hall at UCBerkeley – ah the halcyon days of tear gas in the plaza and riot-helmeted cops in the hallways when the sound of clicking handcuffs rivaled that of chalk on blackboards.

Organizations – public institutions – nor their officials should not be allowed to use access as a guarantee against positive or negative coverage, scrutiny or assessment by the citizenry of the quality of their work and the decisions they make.  It just isn’t a model which protects our right to know, the right to cover, and the rights of all of us to measure and monitor the government we pay for.

Who should decide – at an institutional level – what deserves coverage and what could be potentially embarrassing or liable? Maybe in spite of the open meeting law Regents and others can impound cameras, take away note books and recorders. Hey, why not just go into hiding entirely, star chambers and executive session.

But this is happening… more and more often.  This is distressing. This is dangerous

Public places – San Francisco’s Ferry Terminal, the passenger piers at San Francisco International airport – both operated with public funds – use both real and rental-cops to move crews off property demanding that they have prior knowledge and approval from management.  This is the same management which uses public funds to operate these public facilities… places where any one public with or without cameras is invited… so why not news coverage?

This decision to close ranks and circle the wagons is mirrored too at the corporate level.  As an example, BP is reportedly making it most difficult to video or film their work in the gulf. Reportedly many local operations, paid for with BP funds, are off-limits to media. It seems curious that BP – already a premium member of the pillory club for the crime itself as well as the initial cover up is now making strides to become more secretive, closed, and manipulative of the media, as far as it can be based on the money it is investing to that end.
More and more often corporations are risk-adverse to speaking on camera or allowing crews in to make pictures of their operations.

We’re seeing the first draft of censorship and limits on freedom of the press.  Sadly the mainstream press has become so emaciated by cuts that there is no one left standing it seems to fight the good fight.  As a public we may not realize what we’re losing until we have lost it.

When did Mainstream Media get to be a dirty phrase?

I once thought the worst one might say about mainstream media is that it was professional, predictable, at times boring, but usually responsible, generally trustworthy and fact-checked.

Today it is under attack, principally by Fox and talk radio as something disreputable and surely not to be trusted. In fact, listening to the right-wing media it seems they are on a campaign to set themselves up as the only viable alternative to mainstream.

Isn’t there a contradiction in that, or am I missing something? How can the fringe become mainstream in its own right? And why would it? Once it became mainstream wouldn’t that defeat the purpose of being radical in its own right?

Sean Hannity attacks the media weekly (daily) with such vile that it he has become a caricature of a little boy ranting while trying very hard to appear like a sober, elder newsman.  The more he bobs and bops, the more his girlish strop becomes increasingly inane.

Here’s a headline Mr. Hannity – you are every bit as much mainstream media as the next network anchor.  You cant enjoy the kind of publicity, prominence, power and viewership without being part of the mainstream.  Try as hard as you want to deny it, but you have met the enemy – Mr. Mainstream, and you are him.

What’s curious too is the unstated contradiction raised by this.  Michael Savage boasts he is America’s most popular radio talk show (clearly something he wants and needs in order to maintain ratings and advertising revenue) and then attacks everyone else as mainstream.  He wants in as part of the club yet wants no part of its membership?  Fox TV does the same.  They want to be treated as mainstream – part of White House pools and other media seen as responsible, national journalists, and they compete for the purpose of divvying up the advertising pie, but yet at the first chance they get – their personalities say, oh no – not us; we’re not mainstream but we’re different, special, counter-culture.  Isn’t it interesting that conservative voices are today seen as counter-culture?  Back in the old days… that just seems very different.

Look – mainstream or not – the question is what’s wrong with being seen as mainstream – tell the facts, provide insight, do the tough pick and shovel work of stationing reporters all over the globe and the country and provide news coverage of important events, regardless of how they may attract ratings.  Tell the news that responsible editors believe need to be told and understood.  Provide analysis and not rants.  Provide context instead of opinions delivered with increasing angst and volume.  Limit assertions in favor of sound bites and quotes from individuals engaged in the stories, and do so for more than :50 to :10 seconds each.  What value is so short a sound bite?

Mainstream used to be a good thing.  Why now is that the enemy?  Why should it be the enemy?  And why should we – any and all of us – have to decide what news we like on this basis.  News isn’t supposed to be a popularity contest – it was never intended to be a profit center –  but we now spend more time killing the messenger than we do in listening to the message.  It is both wrong headed and dangerous to the Republic.

The message is this – tell me what you have to tell me, don’t boast over how good a job you’re doing at telling me, and stop decrying everyone else for the job they’re doing.  Just do your job – fair and balanced, and I’ll decide.

Oakland’s rage – riots or not the mood is unclear

If you were a member of the media and you anticipated potential civil disobedience, which is more news worthy… or more responsible?  A) To cover law enforcement’s preparations of an event which may or may not occur, or B) invest in a more contextual story about the economic plight and social unhappiness that may or may not be responsible for the raw nerves, frayed community relations and tensions?

If you’re watching or reading San Francisco media their choice largely appears to be A.  It remains easier to point and shoot a camera or grab the easy quote from officialdom rather than source out responsible individuals in a community which is not just under-served but largely ignored much of the time.

All of this stems from what might best be called Rodney King redux, 3 days of riots in Los Angeles after an all-white jury in Simi Valley, California acquitted four Los Angeles policemen accused of beating Mr. King following a traffic-stop.

Eighteen years later another trial, also involving a white police man and a black victim, is poised to provoke rage.  The trial of former Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Johannes Meserhle is soon to be deliberated, and in the event that the jury finds him not guilty or not guilty of a serious enough offense, there are fears of new riots in Oakland’s streets.

The media question is what’s the best way to cover this story?  If there are riots will they simply be about justice, or the belief that the jury’s verdict was not the right result?  Or is it possible that disobedience and tumult occur because of a systematic failure to provide for a community – including well-paying jobs, better schools, economic development, and sustained community services?  To read or listen to much of the pre-coverage it would seem as if the community itself has gone mute on these issues — that if there are disturbances it will be because of justice, and not a pattern of injustice, racial profiling, harassment and other abuses, real or perceived, believed or merely assumed as truths.

And so the coverage has featured police drills.  Law enforcement is ready.  Mutual aid for emergency services has been requested and responses tallied.  All this remains the easy story.

But what about the community?  Who is demonstrating leadership?  Who is articulating what is needed or wanted within the black community, and equally important: are they being heard?  Are they even being approached?  Are they being included in the story or edited out from the earliest point, the story’s inception?  For those of us who covered the Rodney King riots we quickly learned it was not just rage at the system that acquitted the police officers.  Unhappiness had simmered for some time – over services or a lack thereof – over treatment by local Korean merchants and alleged abuses or snubs, some of which were deemed to be based on cultural perceptions.

In Oakland I have grown tired of forecasts of civil unrest.  I am particularly tired because I have yet to see anything more than a prediction of trouble,  what some one in a position of office, whether that is municipal or media, believes could happen based on history.  Wouldn’t it be interesting if the media could report and foster a dialogue because it does have the platform, knowledge and experience; because too,  once upon a time, dialogue mattered.

And what if there were no demonstrations or that they were brief and peaceful?  Then off to the next crisis du jour, a tumult of the moment, a toxic time bomb waiting to explode showering some one else with woe of the moment.

The Press Failed McChrystal – The Absence of Feet on the Ground and its Consequence to Truth, Knowledge and Discourse

Now that former 4-star U.S. Army General Stanley A. McChrystal has been retired in a maelstrom of debate over disobedience to his President and breach of military protocol, the question remains: why did his happen?  Why did this happen this way?  He was an experienced officer, well-groomed in military-media etiquette; he was arguably a man who would have entertained access to reporters on whatever terms or conditions he deemed.  So why this article – at this time – to Rolling Stone?

It prompts questions – perhaps a riddle – what was it about the traditional role of the press, of open reporting and discussion free from pundits and partisanship that has made this war different from others?  It should prompt tough discourse over what has happened to foreign correspondence, unfettered news gathering in country by trained eyes and ears from journalists trained and experienced in covering both policy and military matters.  It offers a chance to realize the consequences of cost-counting that closes news bureaus at the expense of editorial depth.  When news outlets close and reporters are absent, how does that change both what we know as well as limit the ability of news makers to tell what their sides of the story?

In Vietnam there were literally thousands of reporters – producers – camera people – bureau staff who daily covered both the war and the political scene.  They represented a global audience drawn from papers and networks from Europe, Asia, Australia and both Americas.  There were ex pats and indigenous personnel.  Together they competed and celebrated their scoops and watched each other like hawks lest one be beaten on a story.  Whether an embassy reception or the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MAC-V) briefing there were plenty of reporters working on a range of stories.  Today that has changed.  Most – the vast majority – of American reporters in the Iraq-Afghan theatre are embedded on combat operations and out of Kabul.  News is too often defined in terms of “bang-bang.”  Combat with our troops in action gets a reporter on the air while a contextual, political report veiled in nuance and citing sources is deemed as being dull and is less newsworthy, less likely to either make it in the newspaper or on air.

So what happened with McChrystal?  Did the absence of news outlets in Kabul create an environment where there was no opportunity to share the story as he saw the facts?   Why couldn’t his story be told without such a Draconian consequence to his reputation and career?  Did he have to replicate a Truman-MacArthur show down?  What avenues were closed to him because of the absolute absence of reporters he could trust, on-the-ground with enough in-country experience to appreciate what he had to say?

I submit there were too few reporters on the scene and knowledgeable enough to appreciate the changing political nuance.  I suspect that much of the basic crux of McChrystal’s argument was the tone and nature of the war was changing in a way that was far more profound that could be captured by airport news conferences, Sunday network talk shows, and punditry on cable stations of both the left and right.  That noise was far from the real nature of the war.  In that noise over substance and an inability to articulate the issues as he felt they needed to be heard, for McChrystal it had reached a tipping point.

This isn’t a matter of censorship or war-reporting censorship; that debate isn’t new.  Michael S. Sweeney’ s terrific book, The Military and The Press, An Uneasy Truce is a seminal work documenting government censorship and military coverage.  McChrystal’s self implosion does not seem to be about censorship per se except for the fact that news organizations in this war have exercised self-censorship by their absence from the scene, by their decision to rely on others to cover the date lines, capitols, institutions and individuals who would otherwise be at the center of the story itself.

Former CBS News and long time overseas correspondent Tom Fenton’s Bad News; The Decline of Reporting, The Business of News, and the Danger to Us All is yet further proof documenting the consequences of homogenized news packaged in at a central point at the expense of true understanding of the individuals, policies, politics and knowledge that can only be acquired, managed and challenged by a news office committed to its craft.

The riddle of McChrystal is how he was screwed by the business of news – the absence of reporters – the lack of those who understood the war and had the ears of the editors – who could challenge the assumed beliefs with consequential reporting that might have made a difference.

Yes there is a debate over McChrystal and obedience to protocol.  There is a debate over the persecution of this war.  And there are questions about the business of news gathering and the consequences of a muted press.  I wonder if McChrystal may have thrown himself on a grenade merely to draw temporal attention to a 9-year old war that seems to receive less and less attention in the public eye — except for the bang bang, fear of boogie men known and unseen and an election cycle.  It seems  a very superficial way to cover an epochal event that threatens to bankrupt the nation and bleed her sons and daughters dry.

Disclosures – Michael Sweeney is on the faculty of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University where I am an adjunct instructor.  My father Robert Shaplen was Vietnam correspondent for The New Yorker Magazine from 1945 until 1988.