When is somebody (how about you Mr. President?) going to kick some ass?

Frank Rich has written a compelling Op-Ed piece (6.4.10) in The New York Times Don’t Get Mad, Mr. President. Get Even asking if or when the British Petroleum gulf oil spill will finally trigger Mr. Obama’s anger to reach a boiling point. I think for many Americans, especially those living from Texas to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and to Florida, that tipping point passed some days ago.

Doesn’t it bother any one but me that he seems so measured?  So level headed… so unflappable even as pelicans and other shore birds die; just as beaches, industries and communities all slathered in oil may not recover for a generation?  Doesn’t this disaster rise to the level where some one in government, some one in charge, can appear to be righteously pissed off over the event, the handling, the aftermath and the guile of the company and executives in charge?

And then comes the story from The Washington Post Gitmo Becomes $500 million Camp Costly that the government’s investment in facilities at the prison camp includes features that might be considered by some, especially those suffering from the downturn in the current economy, to be lavish by any standard.  Fast-food franchises, an Irish bar, astro turf and playgrounds (mostly unused) litter the base even as its mission is on the decline and the urgency of these constructions seems to be mitigated?

A story in the Seattle Times over the weekend reported fees for the Washington Mutual bank failure have topped $100m and are still climbing.  Of course these are fees that to be paid from whatever is salvaged from the assets even as that means an even smaller fiscal pie is left to pay back to investors.  What was most alarming was the line that attorneys are charging $925. and hour for their services.  That’s a higher rate than most criminal attorney’s charge on capital cases!  Doesn’t any one wonder whether this seems exorbitant?  Is there a better way, a more affordable way?  Should there be?

The lessons learned from the bank failures and the catastrophic consequences of the financial meltdown are still yet to be calculated.  But for those responsible, isn’t tar and feathering an option worth reconsideration?  Shouldn’t many Americans who are living on savings, borrowed money, who have lost jobs and in many cases are losing hope, what little remains, aren’t they justifiably angry?  What’s wrong with showing anger?  What’s wrong with being authentically mad?  Why is showing anger something that seems to be out of place?

I cannot help but recall the lead character from the movie “Network” who asked his viewers to go to their windows and scream, “I’m mad as hell and I am not going to take it any more.”

On the eve of election night here in California, as well as other states, I do wonder when the electorate will find its way of expressing its simmering anger… not just in a ‘toss the bastards out” kind of knee-jerk response, but when will we demand and get better?

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.

So long, farewell… Buh-bye Tony

BP CEO Tony Hayward is a marked man emerging as America’s latest leading corporate villain.  He’s the new poster boy for what not to say in a crisis.  His apparent self-focus that “he wants his life back” pits his desire for normalcy against the loss of 11 workers in the fire and sinking of the Transocean rig.  One might imagine their families would like those lives back too.

Tony, you’re doomed man. Say goodbye.  It’s all now a matter of time… you’ve been tar and feathered, smeared in oil.  When you now appear on camera the common reaction is to throw darts or change the channel.  In a world where trust and believability, credibility and likability rule… you’re sinking like a rock.

It seems truly amazing that – for some one who teaches crisis management -BP continues to make mistakes, missteps, misstatements 45 days in to the disaster.  The failure to explain what would be deemed “legitimate” claims before Congress in the earliest days of the story is today compounded by an artful, expensive PR campaign that features Hayward and his cabal of advisors doing the ‘best they can’ all the while oil gushes from the pipe.  Isn’t there an inherent contradiction in all this… are they really doing the best job they can?  Difficult admittedly, but not a success by a long shot.

The real lesson remains the experience of Valdez, Alaska.  Twenty one years after Exxon ran their tanker onto Bligh Reef there is still an oily residue just under the rocks along the shoreline of Prince William Sound.  Droplets of oil abound in the water, in pools, coating the underside of rocks that cover that shore.  Billions of dollars spent and tens of thousands of man hours invested in clean up have failed to restore, entirely restore, the waterways and shoreline.  Yes the sound is healthier than some doom and naysayers predicted, but it is not without lasting injury.  It would seem evident that a similar fate awaits the gulf coast and possibly other eastern beaches and the communities that depend upon the water for food, tourism, attraction and livelihood.

So as we watch for the expected outcome — Hayward will walk the plank with a shove from the BP board; the company will lose its financial luster and ultimately file for court protection or receivership to protect its reduced and falling assets.  Thousands of workers will lose jobs and homes; alcoholism will rise… abuse, domestic violence, divorce all soared in Valdez and the surrounding communities too.  Suits and class action filings for worker compensation due to illness stemming from the clean up will clog the courts the way the oil stifles marine life on marshes today.  Perhaps even years from now medical claims, lung and other injuries will continue to haunt local residents and their families, perhaps too even birth defects.  This will be a petri dish for health, injury and litigation for generations.  Within this year I predict BP and it’s eco-friendly logo will be replaced with a new name and consumer  brand, as if that is sufficient to hide the experience from the public’s memory.
Sadly it doesn’t take scientist to see where this mess is headed… admittedly it’s a bona fide crisis.  Hayward may become the fall guy but the corporation and those who are advising it deserve some of the blame for the handling of the story.   Black oil, corporate greed… mistakes and mishandling.  Dishonesty.  Shame.

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.

BP’s approach to the oil spill crisis – corporate sacrifce! Let’s toss our friends into the sea.

There’s an established rule in crisis communications that you round-up your allies and stand together — sink or swim, but both human or corporate  sacrifice is frowned upon as poor sportsmanship.

That rule was cast aside Monday by BP CEO Tony Hayward who threw his Gulf of Mexico drilling vendor Transocean Ltd. directly into the deep water saying, “The drilling rig was a Transocean drilling rig. It was their rig and their equipment that failed, run by their people, their processors.”

Oh Mr. Hayward?  How do you feel about companies or people you really dislike?  In an interview on NBC’s Today Show, Mr. Hayward went on to point out that Transocean owned the giant Deepwater Horizon platform and that BP was merely a lessee.  While accepting the burden of paying for clean up costs one has to wonder what Hayward was thinking?  Why was he sitting on national television dissing what until last week was considered a valued partner to BP’s global operations?

So much for loyalty.  So much for corporate responsibility.  Hayward could be laying the framework for a legal defense to put as much of the blame, the harsh light of public recrimination and ultimately the public memory onto the shoulders of his Swiss partner Transocean.  To this observer it appears a flimsy and transparent attempt to add to the slimy oil slick also known as the ever-expanding blame game.

Kudos to Mr. Hayward – he appeared sincere and forthright.  He was well-trained and prepared.  But his statements left real doubt as to the corporate courage and conviction of BP… and I bet the blame will be shared by many more before the well or this story is capped.

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.