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?

Political Accountability – Politicians, the Press & the Public

Covering political events as if collecting box top coupons on the way to election day is not the same as doing a good job, of offering insight, perspective and shining the harsh editorial light to measure what is being said and not just to what is being spoken from the candidate’s lips or media machine.

Calbuzz.com has a very insightful piece The Death of Truth: eMeg and the Politics of Lying about the media holding candidates to their word, exposing contradictions, and pointing out inconsistencies.  It merits thoughtful consideration and discussion.

More from me after this clip.

“Perhaps it’s just a case of wishful nostalgia, but it seems to us that before the rise of Fox News, Rovian manipulation and the abnegation by certain people of fact-based reality, there was some sort of agreed-upon truth that was adjudicated daily by the mainstream media.

A candidate couldn’t say one thing one day — like, for example, that they were opposed to a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants — and another thing another day — like they basically agree with an opponent who favors a path to citizenship. They’d be afraid of being called a liar in the papers, and that would actually matter.

But in the California governor’s race it now appears that we are witnessing the Death of Truth. From a cosmic perspective, this has come about because:

  • The attention span of the average citizen, never very long, has been hyper-accelerated by the rise of new media, including the Internets, where something is old before it barely new — and certainly not fully digested — and everyone is off on the next new thing. Beyond that, the rise of ideologically-sated outlets like FOX and MSNBC ensures that partisans will never again have to watch something with which they disagree.
  • The lugubrious mainstream media is often strangled by self-imposed, on-the-one-hand-on-the-the-hand, false-equivalency “balance,” in part intimidated by loud, if unfounded accusations of “bias” most frequently lobbed by the right-wing. Thus the MSM at times seems unable and/or unwilling to cut through the miasma and call a lie a lie or a liar a liar. (Even Jerry Brown won’t call a spade a spade, referring instead to Meg Whitman’s “intentional, terminological inexactitude.”)
  • It’s now clear that a candidate with unlimited resources can and will blow off complaints, critiques and factual analyses of those who dare to speak up and will instead declare that the truth is whatever he or she says it is — in their paid advertising and the assertions of their mercenary prevaricators.

All of this feeds the corrosive cynicism that infects our politics, demonstrated most visibly in low voter turnout. Even among those who vote, healthy skepticism is often supplanted with a smart-ass, know-it-all facile sophistication that assumes all politicians are liars (they’re not) and that everyone in public life only wants to do well (we still believe there are some who want to do good).

Cynicism, of course, breeds further alienation and disgust, causing a downward spiral of disengagement from the process, leaving voting (and caring) to the true-believing wing-nuts who are certain they know the truth because they read or watch it at one of the ideologically-determined web sites or stations that conclusively confirms their prior held beliefs.”

Political news should not become the equivalent of a sports report of who is merely ahead in the polls, who is neck-and-neck with one another, or who staged a knockout blow; instead it is an ongoing obligation to report on every speech and nuance of the campaign trail.  It is more than reading polls to then proclaim which way the wind is blowing.  It surely demands an investment in better field reporting than to rely instead on the diatribes of pundits who spend the preponderance of their time reading about the campaign from afar, whether in Washington, Sacramento or some glass office in lieu of spending time in the crowds, at the rallies, on the charter, and in the auditoriums.

It requires a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of the campaign and editorial commitment by both the reporter in the field and editor back at headquarters lest five second soundbites from either the candidate or  supporter vs. opponent become satisfying or sufficient for knowledge.

And it does cost money, lots.  It is expensive to stay with the candidates, to ride along on the campaign, to pay for technology whether satellite trucks, transmission facilities or simply a reporter’s per diem. There is no excuse for not making this investment; there are few news events worth more than this investment that will yield comprehensive and sustained coverage of significant races. These are the game changers of our lives.

But the fact is too often even networks, the most prominent national papers, even wires shun White House charters where the cost, first class fare plus fifty percent, is deemed too expensive.  Instead reporters leap-frog ahead of the President or the candidate but miss key moments due to this financially mandated absence.  On a local level there is even less of a an investment and campaigns are covered as episodic events – here a speech there a speech, here a reaction soundbite there a counter point reaction soundbite.  Covering political events as if collecting box top coupons on the way to election day is not the same as doing a good job, of offering insight, perspective and shining the harsh editorial light to measure what is being said and not just to what is being spoken from the candidate’s lips or media machine.

Campaigns now go to greater and greater lengths to limit media access to the candidates.  Some candidates believe they can speak only to affinity-related news outlets and scorn any who are not believed to be boosters for their cause.  Campaigns spend extravagant amounts of time attacking the messengers by specific organizations and individual reporter who they believe are their enemies.

Perhaps this is all the logical outcome or expected result of the Michael Deaver inspired style to control the message, the campaign spin, the mouthpiece also known as the candidate.  Perhaps this is what happens when a need for outrageous sums of money to run a campaign become the dominant force in politics.  If the media is not present to protect their role – to fight for access – to not merely go along for the ride but instead challenge the campaign and make that ride to victory or defeat as bumpy as possible, for who else is in such a position to be as independent and challenging, then in the end the readers, the viewers, and the voters are at risk of being short-changed.

Calbuzz raises some questions about the quality of reporting to date.  The media has not always done a good job for a host of reasons, from the fact that many, experienced old hands have lost their jobs to a lack of commitment of editorial space and dollars to do the job.  And here’s the last part – readers, viewers, voters are not demanding better.  Too often they seem to settle for a diet of political pabulum, brevity and volume, all the while decrying bias whether real or perceived, and no longer recognize that us-versus-them reporting, punditry, and sheer volume is not a viable substitute for insight and knowledge.

Disclaimer – Calbuzz co-founder Jerry Roberts is a friend, and I am currently teaching a directed study program  producing content for the site.
Finally, whether you agree or not I ask that you do two things — send this link to others and leave a comment; create a dialogue or add to the thread so that others will appreciate what you have to offer.

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.

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.

What’s wrong with jail for oil executives? It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.

It worked for Al Capone… why not Tony Hayward and so many other oil executives?   Remember the adage that you’re never punished for the crime but you’ll be doomed for the cover-up?  The oil spill is horrific but what’s more damaging has been the response, the obfuscation, the denials, and the apparent path of half-truths.

It seems apparent there will never be enough money to pay for all the losses, the hardships, the heartache.  Besides fines are merely money paid by a corporation and diddled about on a balance sheet.  In an age where we mourn the absence of real responsibility, make the crime personal, not just business.

Al Capone was never convicted for crimes regarding prohibition but for tax evasion.  What’s the crime committed by the oil executives?  Perjury!

Follow the logic.  Or perhaps better phrased, follow the money.  In order to gain government leases, in order to win approval of countless drilling plans, even when testifying before Congress following the disaster on Transocean’s Deep Horizon drilling rig it seems evident the executives from BP systematically misstated the facts (lies, fibs? white lies, convenient truths?) on government forms, contracts, plans and in testimony.

And that, ladies and gentleman of the jury, is perjury.

$20 billion dollars will never be enough as a set aside for damages.  BP is already claiming they have spent 10% of that on containing the spill alone.  What will happen when gulf beaches become oil stained gooey sand dunes, devoid of tourists for years?  Or what will happen to spring-break-centered towns like Panama City when no students return next year?  Or for anyone who bought condos on a once white-sand beach who will never be able to unload those albatrosses?  Imagine the devastation from the first hurricane in the gulf which inhales oil soaked sea and distributes that as rain hundreds of miles inland, not to mention the storm surge, both of which will leave an oily residue hundreds, perhaps a thousand miles from the spill?

There is simply no way to contain the damage nor provide restitution for all these ‘legitimate’ claims.  How do you put a value on some of the losses, or for deaths of wildlife or fish?  As for the examples like a hurricane BP will most likely argue that flood surge and rain is an act of God and nature and surely they cannot be held responsible for that!  As for the more acute, local claims, one must believe they will follow Exxon’s tact of making every nickle and dime a hard-won fight for those who suffered the loss.
Which brings me back to my principal theme.  In order for any real change there ought to be personal and not just business accountability.  This may seem like some sort of Jonathan Swift parable but change is unlikely to stem from political posturing, Congressional displeasure and environmentalist hand wringing.  For any oil or drilling executive who made their false assertions, who knew that there were not enough booms, or that the valve was not up to par, they should be held accountable for simply this: lying.  They seem to have lied or misled or misrepresented inconvenient truths regularly.  Senior and highly trained engineers at BP and other oil giants should have known better – they to either lied or went mute when higher-ups changed or modified their reports.  They kept their jobs but at an ethical price that is now being borne by others who are quite innocent victims.  Similar assertions of defense and denial echoed at war crime tribunals with only a modicum of success.  Surely we would not be able to jail all of the senior vice presidents, the vice presidents, the senior engineers and on down the line, and some offer value as government witnesses, but the point is simple – let’s make those responsible pay for their perjury.  While we’re at it, perhaps offer an amnesty for all the other oil companies might be considered, for perhaps 90 days, as a period when they could review and revise their plans too.

And this new truth-telling or ethical conduct might be applied to the mining industry… or transportation, or food too as there seem to be countless industries that have grown too cozy with government regulators who  believed we’re paid by taxpayers to protect the public at-large.

The point is this – instead of focusing solely on monetary recover, which is important, let’s not settle for the easy solution – the money alone – but use this disaster as a water shed mark in US history when companies are put on notice that too-close-for-ethical-comfort relationships with K Street lobbyists is not an alternative to the more costly truth; and that doing business well requires ethics.  That success is not judged solely on the balance sheet or an ability to recover from a whoops-moment.

We have suffered through the banking crisis, the housing meltdown, the oil spill and yet it feels as if we haven’t learned a lesson called accountability.  Fiscal, moral, ethic accountability and leadership is what is sorely needed.   We have suffered a hat trick of woe.  Have we learned anything more than, “Wow, it sure is expensive” and “How did that happen?”  Are we that naive?  Are we perpetually doomed to be ostriches?  If we don’t want to put the bastards in jail then let’s break out the old family recipe for mixing tar and start gathering the feathers.

The media has treated each of these events in a episodical way.  The public sees them as disasters each  in their own right.  But I think there may be an underlying cause that transcends all three… greed, a lack of ethics and accountability.  Money wont restore that – not even the most Draconian fine.  Accountability is not s synonym for businesses with deep pockets but rather it should be a maxim for the behavior of a company’s leadership, its C-levels and its Board.

BP’s Media Management – Brilliant! Insidious but brilliant

Brilliant?  Tony Hayward and the cast of Gilligan’s Island… brilliant?  Well, perhaps as the Skipper he has left a lot to be desired, but virtually everything else the BP media machine is doing is text-book perfect and likely to be studied as a model for crisis communications and disasters of tomorrow.

BP is using the media, the web, social media and is literally crafting stories right before our eyes.  They have mastered the concept of producing and distributing their own media and communications.  Believing in the long tail of the web BP has hired its own reporters to gather news stories under the guise of journalism. Under banner headlines “BP reporters Tom Seslar and Paula Kolmar are on the ground in the Gulf, meeting the people most immediately affected by the oil spill. Read their regular updates” are an apologia of unimaginable guile and proportion featuring heartfelt reports of clean ups and mitigating the severity of the disaster. BP knows that some of these stories will fall into mainstream media either through a lack of checks and balances or an absence of editorial scrutiny. BP knows that while they cannot rebut all the stories produced by the press the corporation can muddy the water by producing and distributing its own look-like news. Clever. Perhaps even diabolical. Effective nonetheless.

Aggregating electronic media is also used to build what masquerades as a social media-oriented site where true news is co-mingled with corporate pieces.  They create and maintain a look so responsible, so balanced and fair.  Why not?  They cannot prevent the cascade of negativity so they might as well co-opt it to fit their presentation and advantage.  And goodness let’s watch them use You Tube as one of the silos to distribute their material to the main stream.

Union Carbide and Exxon were the poster children for how to bumble and fumble corporate responses to a crisis. Johnson & Johnson, Odwalla, even fast food outlets have done a better, more comprehensive and responsive job in managing a crisis over the recent past. But BP has set a new bar in how to handle the media on the ground, when to stonewall, when to provide selective access to those it favors (most notably FOX news, perhaps based on their British Sky News affiliation AKA Rupert Murdoch?), and now creating content thanks to their own news team juggernaut.

After Katrina all the networks pledged to establish and maintain news bureaus in New Orleans in response to what was perceived to be the national anguish over the tragedy. Slowly but steadily the New York based, east coast centric news producer’s interest waned until the economic costs of sustaining gulf coverage was deemed to be too high with respect to the newsness and news value of what was produced. No network executive wanted to blink first, that is to be perceived as caring less about the minority impacted city, but inevitably the networks scaled back and withdrew their staffs. Watch for the same in the gulf… the story will move from just Louisiana on to Mississippi, Alabama and ultimately the prize jewel Florida. As the floating story sails the gulf the reports will migrate too, a nomadic news team on the prowl for the oils next landfall. Meanwhile the audience’s attention to oil soaked birds and families-with-ruined-lives will become tiresome. The birds will be featured in pieces on Nat Geo. The families will become features on anniversary occasions and special events such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Cynical perhaps but predictive too. And as time passes the only ones covering the story, crafting and creating faux news will be the one organization with the most money to spend and the most reputation to change… BP.
Watch it and weep.

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?