Politics, Partiansanship and Priorities – why doesn’t the media focus debate on what is seriously threatening the bulwarks of government and democracy?

Announcing his intention not to seek re-election to the U.S. Senate, Indiana’s Evan Bayh (D-IN) said, “After all these years, my passion for service to my fellow citizens is undiminished, but my desire to do so by serving in Congress has waned. For some time, I have had a growing conviction that Congress is not operating as it should. There is too much partisanship and not enough progress — too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving. Even at a time of enormous challenge, the peoples’ business is not being done.”

What a sad admission.  What a sorry state of the Congress as articulated by one of its insiders.  Too much partisanship? Too politicized? Not enough of the people’s work is being done?
At first I applauded Sen. Bayh for his conviction but the more I think about this the more unsettled I become. Why not fight the prevailing wind?  Too Quixotic?  Unwinable?  Pointless, a fight not worth fighting?   How sad that seems.
Senator Bayh can do what he chooses, to fight what he believes is worth fighting, to take a stand where he believes one must draw a line, stand and fight.  I am however reminded of former Congressman Robert Drinan (D-MA) who always believed that the means was every bit as important as the end, that the way legislation was crafted and implemented was as important as its end result. Congressman Drinan was also a Jesuit and that might explain his unyielding commitment and personal focus. Ultimately Pope John Paul II compelled Bob Drinan to choose between his collar and calling and his seat in Congress, and Father Drinan returned to academic and ecclesiastical positions.
I applauded Evan Bayh for taking his stand and calling attention to his frustration.  But the more I think about it, I am concerned if this is the easy way out?  I am struck by the thought that if people whose convictions are truly noble are being compelled to leave the Congress, aren’t we all as a nation at a loss for their departure?

The media isn’t helping… it is polarizing too.  Whether to the right (FOX) or left (MSNBC) or the muddled middle (CNN), the public is not being served by dispassionate debate and articulation of the facts.  There is a rah-rah quality to many presentations that neither serves democratic discourse or perpetuates sober debate in lieu of screaming and emotion.  The health care debate, the public meetings, the posturing and promoting of personal agenda would seem to more the sufficient evidence to indict both politicians and much of the media.

Of course there will be calls for restructuring, just as there have been calls for campaign finance reform as if this will be the cure-all, the panacea for what ails us.  I think it might be deeper than that, deeper even the the pockets of wealthy candidates who seem intent on spending personal fortunes to win their election.  Deeper too than just positioning and spin.  Much deeper than what can be squeezed into a 30 second attack ad or single column op-ed.

The real problem is tolerance.  Until we work to reform the process, unless we all agree that the means matters, until we stop the rhetoric and bombast at the expense of listening, then there will be only greater partisanship and discord, tumult and disharmony.  From sound bites and quotes, to commercial messages which banter about words like “liberal” or “conservative” with such venom as to make each totally unpalatable, we will continue to alienate audiences, to turn people off, and to polarize listeners and viewers who will believe only in what they are already convinced about, supporting sides they favor and eschew all other viewpoints.

That is the true loss we face.  We should report on that.

Use a Camera, Go to Jail… new laws make it illegal to photograph police

3 states now have laws prohibiting news photography of police… actually, any photography of on-duty police.  If this is the new trend, what does it say for society that it is more afraid of protecting illegal or unprofessional acts by law enforcement than protecting civil rights?
Gizmodo.com is reporting Are Cameras the New Guns that law makers across the country are writing laws that limit if not outright prohibit photography of on-duty police in order to limit or halt photographs or video appearing on social media.
Laws that restrict citizen’s rights also restrict the news media and drape a veil on the truth.  How far does this extend? Will news crews be allowed to shoot benign pictures of video of traffic accidents but not when police misbehave or there are questions of abuse and misconduct? What about civilian journalists who have captured police beatings, for instance the Rodney King video in Los Angeles, the Oscar Grant shooting allegedly by BART police officer Johannes Meserhle – are they now liable for prosecution for capturing evidence of potential misconduct?
Would this ban on photography extend to riots? Would this extend to coverage of police protecting the President of the United States making a visit, campaign trip or speech?
Where does one draw the line — is it permissable to make pictures of police when they are doing good things but not when their conduct might be called into question?
What, pray tell some one explain this to me, are we afraid of?  This was, still is I would hope, a country where we expect our civil rights are protected… where we expect the best and most professional conduct from law enforcement, and where we acknowledge that bad things do happen… and that there are laws to protect everyone involved.

It just doesn’t make sense to me.  Would some one help me to understand by starting a rigorous debate?

CNN to go it alone? Network may rely on no sources other than itself?

Not so many years ago… major newspapers sent their unilateral reporters around the world, wire services competed to file first from world capitals; radio and television networks scrambled to be first with multimedia and the global news audience was the prime beneficiary of news and information, in-country sourcing due to a robust sense of competition.  Economic realities and changing market forces have picked off those reporters as if by a sniper whose aim was unfailing.  UPI is gone, AP and AFP remain though reduced in size, scope and prominence.  Now comes news that CNN is considering dropping all its outside sources CNN Close to Dropping AP… in favor of complete reliance on its own staff, I-reporters and citizen journalists, Tweats and other independent, unprofessional and inherently unreliable, untrained sources. It is not that all are unreliable they are untrained, unprofessional, unregulated and the audience is unprotected from uncorroborated reporting.
That’s the risk… the risk of spin, government or corporate news masquerading as real, and simply stories which cannot be checked and verified in what will be a competitive rush to publish and broadcast. It is already unfortunate that independent reporting has been a casualty of the economic juggernaut. The risk – and it is a significant risk – is that the network is choosing economics over prudence, responsibility and history.

Death – unedited, raw and disturbing captured on camera

Death – captured on video – in June 6th’s Los Angeles Times Death of fugitive porn actor captured in disturbing video is a short metro (L.A. Now) item on the death of a porn actor named Stephen Clancy Hill, who was wanted in connection with a rampage that left two others dead.  In all, not a terribly monumental story when compared with carnage that dots the worldscape daily, except that this story features video of the actual moment of Hill’s death captured and shown as a link from KTLA Channel 5.

Is this news worthy?  And why have the editors determined that watching a raw tape of his body tumbling off a cliff, ricocheting and bouncing from is something that adds to our understanding or appreciation of the death?

In the final act of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”, Guildenstern wonders aloud if the concept of death can be portrayed on a stage. It is not a large leap to extend this question to citizen journalism and modern media.  Somewhat at an emotional loss he asks, “No…no…not for us, not like that. Dying is not romantic, and death is not a game which will soon be over…Death is not anything…Death is not…It’s the absence of presence, nothing more…the endless time of never coming back…a gap you can’t see, and when the wind blows through it, it makes no sound.”

For the editors of the Los Angeles Times the death of this man makes a great deal of disturbing visual noise.

Score 1 for Ethics

This is just worth sharing… Score one for ethics and leadership
NBC STATION IN L.A. ADMITS NOT LIVING UP TO JOURNALISTIC STANDARDS

from StudioBriefing, May 19, 2010
The NBC-owned television station in Los Angeles on Tuesday announced the departure of its “vice president, content” and simultaneously admitted that it had not lived up to “journalistic standards” when it aired a faked report about new credit card rules in February. In today’s (Wednesday) Los Angeles Times, media columnist James Rainey said that Tuesday’s announcements by KNBC-TV represented the culmination of a “psychodrama” at the station that “has pitted traditional television journalists .. against a nouveau crowd of content creators who prefer their sizzle served up hot, preferably without much steak.” In the faked report, Rainey said, the station hired reality show producer Vicki Gunvalson, who interviewed friends about the new credit card rules, then passed the friends off as ordinary “men in the street.” The interviews, Rainey indicated, were conducted at an Orange County boutique, owned by another friend of Gunvalson. A spokesman for the station told Rainey that it is “taking steps to prevent this from happening again.”

If you live by the sword…

We all know them… colleagues or bosses who wield enormous power often based on the most ephemeral set of skills or talents.  Many are sycophants, some are pathological, others are deceitful and conniving, but they invest considerable time embellishing their careers, often in spite of their limited talent and acumen, often if not always at the expense of others.

Network news, a business I happen to know well, is filled with such people.  There  are both men and women who have truly slept their way to power and prominence.  There are those who have married their careers to anchors and executives only to be eviscerated themselves, as if by a scythe, when their powerful benefactor’s star has lost its luster.

Last week ABC News announced the departure of long time executive Mimi Gurbst.  Many believe the 30-year veteran was edged out in a power shift that promoted those in Diane Sawyer’s coterie and cast aside those who were not among the favored few.  Others believe this is a touch of long-delayed justice for an individual who had littered her career path with other’s reputations.  What makes all this so interesting is the reaction to this story in The New York Observer “Top ABC News Producer Leaving Network To Become High School Guidance Counselor” by Frank Gillette. Mr. Gilette’s fawning lede and story, heaped with praise and adulation, triggered the most amazing series of comments – more than 100 of them, and none positive.  Reading the posts one cannot help but conclude that engaging with Ms. Gurbst professionally was like touching the third rail.

Network news is an industry which often puts its best face on its own dirty laundry and unpleasantries.  No where is this more visible than in tributes or saccharin eulogies offered about individuals who were not particularly well thought of even when they were alive.   But I cannot recall a public recollection made by colleagues laced with such vitriol and venom.  And that’s the lesson… if you live by the sword be prepared to be cut and slashed and wounded by those whose personal and professional reputations you traded as the currency of gossip, innuendo, and disrespect.

In disclosure I knew Mimi Gurbst at ABC years ago.  I haven’t spoken with her in more than a decade.

Hype only serves to disappoint audiences

News producers, managers and all those create news – the content which is the stuff that keeps the soap commercials from bumping in to one another – seem to me to be more frantic, ever-so-driven to capture and hold their audiences.  More than ever before it seems  that they too have drunk the Kool-Aide and now piously justify their hype as necessary to lure and secure audiences. Sadly though this is getting sillier and sillier as boasts are proclaimed that cannot be defended, promises are assured that cannot be delivered, and audiences – like you and me – feel more cheated.

It just feels like an era of news abuse – instead of trust – is in vogue and in turn, professionals are defending what is indefensible, hype.

For instance on a weekend report about the death of a University of Virginia co-ed the network anchors assuredly promise “we’ll have the latest on the investigation when we return.”  Really?  On a Saturday?  On a Saturday when investigators are not visible to the media and when there has been no news release from the police.  So the latest is… actually, when?  Yesterday!  And so it has already been… reported? And when?  Yesterday!  And so the boast of having the latest news coming up is really just a… hype?  A tease?  And that’s somehow OK… or if as professionals you knew there was truly nothing new, was the hype a lie? A white lie?  Or just a plain old-fashioned whopper since it was uttered with the prior knowledge that it was untrue.

Or for instance the Today show used the word “Exclusive” six (6) times about a single guest.  Exclusive appeared twice in anchor copy and four times as a graphic.  Are producers so desperate to convey the appearance of superior coverage that they cannot let that content speak for itself but must instead wrap it with banners and bravado to drive the point home?  Or maybe there is such churn in the viewership that the constant reminders of exclusivity are the only hooks remaining to lure viewers?  But if that’s the case then all the exclusives that appear day in and day out are not attracting audiences but may instead be repelling viewers who are tired of being abused with adjectives masquerading as important content.

It seems the corruption of the profession runs deep… as deep as our own self-identity.  A national radio show on journalism featured a guest who said, “reporters are now packagers” of news and claimed that he didn’t need to report because he had sufficient “listening posts” to tell him what was going on.  It feels a little absurd to ask, but I am mystified because  if reporters are not going to report, then who is?  And listening posts, who are they… and how do we trust his definition of who is responsible, and ultimately, who is vouching for them?  It is the proverbial slippery slope and, whoops!  We’ve started sliding.

Another panelist on this NPR program spoke of reporters whose job it was to now contextualize the news.  And a third said it was now completely correct for reporters to have an opinion and allow that to be reflected in their work.  I always thought that was opinion… not reporting.  Isn’t that what Op-Ed pages and Editorials  are for?  Is the new era of reporting relegating those columns to the dust bin of old journalism too?
We’re mired in the new words of the language – we have “commoditized” news to the point that it is most important to monetize it… even at risk of becoming homogenized content so as not to offend or challenge any one.  We are all now “content producers” which I suppose means we are all – as I am here – able to write and self publish, somewhat regardless of our authority or authenticity.  We speak passionately of being in touch or tune with our communities, although that seeks somewhat murky and ill-defined.  Is my community that of those who are overweight white 50-somethings of general affluence living in well-to-do communities featuring overpriced homes that represent much of our life-worth and that we fear could be depreciating in the current economic downturn?  Is that my community?  And if it is, pray tell, how is any one going to monetize me?

Look – the point is this – let’s watch our words.  Our boasts.  Our claims when we really know better.  Words matter.  That’s my clarion call.  Let’s think about the new clichés that serve little purpose but to make us sound au courant and quote-worthy.  Adjectives are colorful but when we use them intentionally to be misleading aren’t we all guilty of cheapening our profession?  Of course.  What’s wrong with reporting being the benchmark of what’s important, significant – the adage: news is the first draft of history?
What do you think?  Leave a comment… let me know.

Why do the words “Trust” and “News” in the same sentence seem unbelievable to the audience?

Perhaps the problem isn’t that audiences do not believe their news providers, as one recent poll would have us believe, maybe we just don’t want a diet of facts we disagree with or truths that disturb us?  Maybe it is that we are becoming largely a nation of self-righteous, opinionated zealots who disagree with any voice other than our own?

There has been a lot of coverage about the recent survey that Americans do not trust their news sources.  It’s prompted many news managers to assert their coverage is absolutely grounded in fact, rooted in the inherent bedrock of journalism and the larger audience’s problem stems from reading, watching and listening to other organizations who clearly, evidently don’t respect or even value news, truth, and fairness in the same high degree or standard.

But I haven’t read any one yet who has laid some of the blame on the audience.  What, blame the audience?  Are they the victims of poor reporting or to blame for failing to demand better?  What?  Wait!   Could not a compelling argument be offered that over the past 20 years the audiences have demanded less and worse, they have appeared to be satiated on a measly diet of incomplete news mush.

Audiences today seem to be divided in Foxes or Hedgehogs, those who find a web source and burrow down (foxes) or those who behave like hedgehogs nestling among many stories or sites picking up tidbits of information that they associativity relate into a  pastiche.

Whether that audience finds the right blend of news and facts and information seems irrelevant for they feel informed, and based on a wide array of bits of information they are as assertive as they believe themselves to be well self-informed.  But audience surveys show how poorly informed they truly are.  USC’s Annenberg School did a survey – both print and TV side by side – of the Los Angeles market and found “A composite half-hour of LA local TV news contains 8:25 of ads; 2:10 of teasers (“stay with us – there’s a story you won’t want to miss”); 3:36 of sports and weather; and 15:44 for everything else. So besides sports and weather, only about half of a half-hour of news is news. How much of that 15:44 is about events that happened in the Los Angeles media market? Local news takes up 8:17; non-local news gets 7:27″  The full document can be found as a link from there.

So what has gone wrong?  How do we dissect the road we took that has led to our own dismay and destruction as a trusted source of information and news?

TV News is an industry which became a playground for consultants invited by general managers and news directors in pursuit of dollars.  The professionals were often co-conspirators in the rush to expand audiences and achieve higher ad revenue as news became a business instead of a responsibility.

This slippery slope dates back generations.  In the 1970s consultant-inspired thinking gave life to happy talk and eyewitness news which were innovative at the time but became feeding grounds for wasted time, irrelevant comments, and ersatz displays of emotion.  In the 1980’s live trucks enabled reporters to use technology – some of which were over by the time the newscast began but by-God they had presence.  They were there LIVE and again precious air time was sacrificed for glitz.

Stories that were complex were deemed to be too difficult for TV or were said to be “too depressing” for the audience that might be watching at meal time, and the consequence is an entire generation was fed a buffet of crime and chaos.  The ‘if it bleeds it leads” style of news still predominates in  even the largest markets.

News is partially to blame for creating an audience which has been stuffed on the candy of irrelevance at the expense of substance.  A friend says television news doesn’t handle complex carbohydrates well and that’s true.  It doesn’t because anything serious or chewy is skipped over with the conviction that the audience either doesn’t care to be bothered with the facts or wouldn’t understand those complexities or the nuance.

Consultants told news managers the only things the audiences care about was weather and traffic, witness the boom in high dollar technology and promotions for super duper Doppler and accurate at all costs weather and traffic graphics that proliferate in all media markets today.

It is easier to watch weather… it is certainly easier for anchors to engage with banalities about the weather in lieu of risking showing ones true ignorance of substantial news matters.

I recently watched the NBC affiliate in San Jose take more than 30 seconds to announce and illustrate a set of 4 new stamps about cowboys on their evening news.  The fact that none of them stemmed from the bay area, the artist was a not local resident, nor was there any editorial linkage to the story that made it relevant was, in itself, irrelevant.  On any night when there is substantive news to report, the producers chose this story as more important, and it became the subsequent subject of an engaged dialogue between the anchors, as if 30 seconds wasted on the story itself wasn’t indulgent enough.

If the education system has done a poor job teaching civics it is a lesson that has not been lost on reporters who are assigned to important stories without the proper grounding.  Just before opening arguments in the 2005 Michael Jackson molestation trial in Santa Maria, California a reporter from the Los Angeles market asked me, “Which side goes first?”  They truly had no idea; clearly they had not even watched enough episodes of “Law and Order”.  It is a simple thing, and they should have known – but they didn’t – and the amount of other, missing information was daunting.  This was a person who would go on to report the trial, assumed to be some one with knowledge, and yet they were vastly out of their league reporting anything but a fender bender.  Or new stamps.

Should we be surprised that we have created a generation of idiots?  Hardly.  In entertainment this is an audience who watches programs such as “Are you smarter than a 5th grader?”  Why we set the bar so low, not even at the junior high school level, is probably because we have little conviction the adults in the audience would be competitive if the curriculum was more challenging.

News today is in an economic crisis.  Networks are closing their overseas bureaus preferring to simplify and voice over material from bases in London.  Former CBS correspondent Tom Fenton warned of the consequences of this in his book Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All.  What was bad then (2005) as overseas bureaus were closed and reporters on the ground in distant lands were fired is being replicated today by ABC News in the United States.  One cannot cover news as if it is an exercise in distance learning.  Nothing can be substituted for feet on the ground, eyes on the scene local knowledge of the people and institutions making important decisions and creating news.

The point is this — when confronted by a survey that the audience doesn’t trust its sources of news is really not that unexpected.  Distressing to professional news people – yes, it should be.  Distressing to any one who cares about an educated public, yes!  it should be too.  But is it the fault of news, per se?  Partially of course.  The blame or responsibility for this is at the feet of a society which doesn’t really seem to value its news, or any one that gives lip service to news instead of really understanding and wanting to be taxed with serious substance, instead of the pabulum that has passed as news for so long?

There is blame for many – for education systems that don’t teach the value of news and information; for individuals who shun anything but infotainment, and then participate in surveys to say they don’t trust news.

It prompts me to wonder, just who do they trust?  Who do you trust?  Comment or email… let me know what you think?

Ethics & journalism

…our paramount responsibility… is to present all significant facts, all significant viewpoints so that this democracy will work in the way it should work–by individual citizen’s making up his own mind on an informed basis. Our job is to contribute to that process and not to make up for them the minds of those who listen to and watch us. We must always remember that a significant viewpoint does not become less significant just because we personally disagree with it, nor does a significant and relevant fact become less relevant or significant just because we find it unpalatable and wish it weren’t so.”

Many will read that and scoff.  Ethics and journalism; in the same sentence?  In the contemporary era of shout out news where far too often the loudest or most popular voice predominates, where corporate content can be packaged to appear as bona fide news, where a TV anchor’s personal appearances can be billed to be as important as the event they are ostensibly covering… are ethics being practiced?  Are ethics important or are they an inconvenience?

It is too facile to decry the apparent dearth, some might say death, of ethics today, but let’s not wring our hands and harken back to a bygone era when ‘things were different’ as if that is some balm for our current condition.  Let’s not just give up muttering it used to be different, but, heck, it is what it is today.

It does seem more dire as business decisions dictate, even now dominate, decisions at news organizations globally.  Advertorials, paid content masquerading as original reportage, even this week’s decision by the Gannett newspaper chain to allow a sports team to report on itself Reporter and Players Wearing Same Colors raise serious questions about independence, unbiased news and trustworthiness.

I was teaching ethics in journalism this week to graduate students at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco;  it’s an important component in my writing for multimedia class, and I found that I was reminding myself and then reading aloud these words written by former CBS News President Richard (Dick) Salant.  This is from his preface to the CBS News Standards published in April, 1976.

He makes several salient points… including recognizing the difference between news & entertainment, the responsibility of news professionals to exercise their judgment and not be swayed by polls or audience opinions, and an obligation to report the news as it is, not as we want it to be.  I don’t normally quote whole paragraphs, but this is an exception.

“One (of his personal convictions) is the overriding importance to our form of journalism of drawing the sharpest possible line–sharp perhaps to the point of eccentricity–between our line of broadcast business, which is dealing with fact, and that in which our associates on the entertainment side of the business are generally engaged, which is dealing in fiction and drama.  Because it all comes out sequentially on the same point of the dial and on the same tube, and because, then, there are no pages to be turned or column lines to be drawn in our journalistic matrix, it is particularly important that we recognize that we are not in show business and should not use any of the dramatic licenses, the “fiction-which-represents-truth’ rationales, or the underscoring and the punctuations which entertainment and fiction may, and do, properly use.  This may make us a little less interesting to some–but that is the price we pay for dealing with fact and truth, which may often be duller–and with more loose ends–than fiction and drama.

Second it is my strong feeling that our news judgments must turn on the best professional judgments that we can come to on what is important, rather than what is merely interesting.  Again, our function, then, contrasts sharply with the rest of the broadcast schedule which surrounds us, and, indeed, which supports us.  In general, to the extent that radio and television are mass media of entertainment, it is entirely proper to give most of the people what most of them want most of the time.  But we in broadcast journalism cannot, should not, and will not base our judgments on what we think the viewers and listeners are “most interested” in, or hinge our news judgment and our news treatment on our guesses (or somebody else’s surveys) as to what news the people want to hear or see, and in what form.  The judgments must be professional news judgments–nothing more, nothing less.

A corollary of this basic principle is that if we are to provide what is important for people to know, we must not shrink from reporting what is newsworthy even though there are no pretty or dramatic pictures to go with it.  There is nothing wrong with a talking head–provided the head has something to say and says it well.  We must not be carried away by the cliche, which, like almost all cliches, is only sometimes true, that a picture is worth a thousand words.  It may be and it may not be.  A few well-chosen, well-written, and, above all, thoughtful, words may often be worth a thousand pictures.  The most exciting thing in the field of information is an idea.

And, finally, this is as good a place as any to remind ourselves that our paramount responsibility at CBS News is to present all significant facts, all significant viewpoints so that this democracy will work in the way it should work–by individual citizen’s making up his own mind on an informed basis.  Our job is to contribute to that process and not to make up for them the minds of those who listen to and watch us.  We must always remember that a significant viewpoint does not become less significant just because we personally disagree with it, nor does a significant and relevant fact become less relevant or significant just because we find it unpalatable and wish it weren’t so.”
Now that does seem to be fair and balanced.  Dick Salant was a lawyer and broadcast manager whose judgments were thoughtful and worthy of being read and heard 34 years after he wrote them.  He could hardly have been prescient to the economic conditions that affect the news business today, but he was aware of the dangers that stem from blurred lines and indiscriminate, reckless or less-than-thoughtful reporting, as well as the need to educate the craftsmen and women to appreciate the noble profession and responsibility to our audiences.

So ethics in (and) journalism?  Yes.  It must be taught, nurtured, amended and refined.

I believe Mr. Salant’s last point is the most important — audience’s must have the information they need to make informed judgments presented without our opinion, slant, bias, preference and prejudice.

I enjoyed reading this to my students.  It seemed worth sharing with you.