Knee Jerks & Reaction – Free speech or Gun Control?

Whether the tragedy in Arizona was caused by bulls-eyes on web sites or placards or vitriol may never be fully known. But in the response to this tragedy – to say or do something that will make us feel better – we again see a typical American response of “let’s put a band-aid on this” right away. There are already urgent calls for a quick-fix regardless of its long-term implications.

By Sunday there were calls in the media and Congress to restrict what can be said or used in political advertisements. There were calls to limit free speech. There were calls to put limits and penalties on what could be said in a country where it has been our historic right to protect free speech – even when some of what is said is odious.

It seems peculiar that these proponents are seeking to put a fix on free speech instead of looking at the real problem – the absolute proliferation of handguns – semi automatic weapons better suited for war than for sale at a sports store to an individual who will most likely plead an insanity defense for his senseless and selfish actions.

It would be a sad ending to this tragedy that our rights become victims of emotional decisions and knee jerk reaction.

Stupid is as stupid does – again

Sitting in for Sean Hannity on FOX News this week Tucker Carlson called for Michael Vicks execution for pet abuse. Gawker has the clip.
Is this for ratings? Attention? Is it racism? Is it just reality TV?

The question of why the FOX bosses allow this is obvious – cloaked in “free speech” it garners attention and column inches, like these.

But is any one thinking of the longer term damage to discourse? Of course, if it is Tucker’s opinion calling for executions of pet abuses, then he’s welcome to it. Maybe he wants his own show again and feels this is the best way to accomplish that goal. But it just doesn’t pass the smell test of reasonableness… So why say it? For effect? For attention? One can only surmise he was motivated by being quote-worthy. He succeeded. But at what price?

What is the price for discourse? What is editorially responsible? Where is the line? Where are the editors? The managers? The grown-ups?

The war we don’t hear (much) about

Arguably the war in Afghanistan drones on into its ninth year with continuing Draconian consequences including the loss of lives (US & Coalition troops and Afghan citizens), a negative effect on US interests and reputation abroad and devastating impact on our national budget, among others. And yet, no one (including, especially the media) seems to pay much attention.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism reported that just 4% of news coverage this year focused on the war and that’s down from the year before when it was a whopping 5%.  According to Afghan War Just a Slice of US Coverage this week, the war just does not merit much editorial interest or coverage.  Is that because the media finds the war uninteresting?  Difficult to cover?  Or is it the impression and/or understanding that the audience doesn’t much care for the story, so why cover something distasteful that’s apt to turn viewers off?  Or, all of the above?

Thinking back to Vietnam when there were thousands of reporters from all over the world covering that war, daily papers and multiple wire services were filled with incisive and comprehensive coverage. Nightly newscasts featured competitive stories. Names like Saigon, Da Nang, Hue, Cam Ranh Bay, Pleiku and so many others were widely known – heard frequently in coverage and by datelines – and discussed. But what of names, places and coverage from Afghanistan? After Kabul what names do come to mind? And could many (any) of us find them on a map?

Whose fault is that? Is it the media? There are fewer than a handful of reporters in country.  Is that because of diminished interest, reduced news budgets? The difficulty (near impossibility) of getting around without the assistance and escort of the US or coalition military? All of the above? But wouldn’t we be better served by more coverage – not just that which is approved by US military and diplomatic handlers?

From the Times’ story, “The low levels of coverage reflect the limitations on news-gathering budgets and, some say, low levels of interest in the war among the public. About a quarter of Americans follow news about Afghanistan closely, according to recent surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

“Inside the United States, you’ve got audiences that are beginning to suffer from war fatigue,” said Tony Maddox, who oversees international coverage for CNN.”

Competition among journalists in Vietnam as well as the wider range of published, conflicting and divergent viewpoints did contribute to the divisive nature of that war as well as to its ultimate peace.

The current crop of Afghan stories – according to what was published in the Times – seems to focus on whether the war is in fact winnable? A fair question – an obvious one at the end of the year and prior to the upcoming new Congress and State of the Union.

But – from a media standpoint – and a critical one – how is it that a war which is sucking resources at an appalling rate only merits 4% of the annual news coverage to begin with? Incidentally this isn’t just the fault of the media, for whatever our many sins might be, we have also become victims of the business culture which seeks to please audiences by giving them news they want, news they will be entertained by – not necessarily the news they need to make sober, serious and informed decisions. Afghan news is deemed to be unpopular unpleasant – it’s certainly foreign – and to be discriminatory or bigoted it is about people and a country we don’t generally think very highly of! There, I said it. From a media management standpoint – though they may not want to admit it – if honest they’d say their audiences don’t understand these people – don’t relate to these people – and don’t believe that our being in country is going to make much of (if any) reasonable difference. We’re marking time until the body county, blood-letting and money loss is so unsupportable that we’ll skulk out having declared a win, proudly asserting we had established a toe hold for democracy and proclaiming a peace. Whatever the hell that will look like.

The real question is this – from a media standpoint – 4%. Is that the best we can do? Is that a measure of how little we really care – and its failing Y2Y.

So as we enter 2011 let’s watch for stories with more bang-bang than politics. And stories about Presidential visits – 3 hours at an US air base – instead of a texture piece on the complexities of the Afghan government. And let’s not minimize the panache of visiting news anchors – Beauties in Bush Jackets – who visit from time to time to do their own ‘in-depth’ personal reporting conducted from the safety of US military escorts. This isn’t reporting. This is white wash. We deserve better… we don’t want to pay for it, we don’t want to be bothered by tough reporting and serious questions… and so instead we wait for Beltway pontificators to fill in what we don’t get from the field — offering platitudes and opinion instead of reportage.  It is however a poor alternative for the real thing.

Is doing enough actually enough?

Joshua-Michéle Ross who writes a nifty column Opposable Planets on social media has written Be Committed but Not Attached offering a phrase “be committed to the work that you do, the purpose you have, the intentions and integrity of your actions. Don’t be too attached to the results.”

I’ve been pondering this for the last few days.

Applied to the work: media – especially the challenged world of multimedia communications today – is just being committed enough? In times of tumult – of change – of business challenges while one cannot live daily on the edge, doesn’t one have to be committed to results? Is there any other way that is as rewarding?

The whole world is in a terrible state of crisis, and we dont hear much about it.

The foreign correspondent has become a casualty of the economy.  The days of the dashing foreign correspondent, trench-coated and adorned on top with a fedora are long-gone. 

Newspapers which prided themselves on their overseas commitment and the breadth and depth of their coverage have long since shuttered their news bureaux overseas.  So too have networks preferring to import pictures of breaking stories to London to be voiced there before being re-transmitted to New York.

So what’s lost?  The foreign correspondent is dead. Long live the foreign correspondent piece in today’s Guardian by Timothy Garton Ash is a thoughtful, insightful view as to what’s lost when we no longer care (or are willing to pay) to find the news ourselves.

His closing graphs, “For all my experience cries out to me: there is nothing to compare with being there. However many thousands of fantastic clips, blogs and online transcripts you have, there is nothing to compare with being there…

The unique value added by the 20th-century foreign correspondent consisted, at best, in the combination in one person’s experience over time, the considered throughput in a single mind and sensibility, of all three elements: witnessing, deciphering, interpreting. If we can somehow preserve that, in the journalism of our day, then we may yet achieve both more and better foreign news.”

The Guardian story is worth a look…not so much because it breaks a headline about the dearth of competent foreign journalism as much as it is a reminder of what we have lost… and to think about the consequences of our ignorance, a lack of awareness or interpretive appreciation and an absence of understanding.

In 1924 Sean O’Casey ended Juno & the Paycock with the admonition “”th’ whole worl’s in a terrible state o’ chassis”. Never did it seem that was more true than today.

Long live the foreign correspondent.

What’s “new” is already old and what’s old isn’t selling

When did TV News lose its balls? When did TV news decide it was better to get the interview and promise not to offend than to actually hold people accountable and perhaps, dare even, make news in the process?

Is it some sort of unwritten code not to be tough? Is it the result of cut-throat competition that has resulted in a broadcast environment of pabulum? Did news producers find their legs cut from beneath them by corporate ownership (Viacom, GE, Disney) that is more concerned with legislation and other corporate divisions than they are devoted to their news operations and what once passed for content?

David Carr’s To Beat Today, Look to Tomorrow is a thoughtful compendium of what’s wrong with morning news. Those stalwart morning shows… on ABC, CBS or NBC are hardly news any more, certainly not often news-worthy and more often news-light.

Soft features that once would never see airtime in what was once called the 7 o’clock “hard news hour” now dominate and sometimes even lead the broadcasts. Editorial-lite, anchor-intense gabfest now proliferate where once pointed interviews were the morning staple.
News was made – people wanted to be heard making news – programs wanted to break news – politicians and others were expected (and perhaps at times were excited) to appear and speak the truth (that’s news!) as the business day began.

What has caused the change? Not that long ago news makers who said quote-worthy things on a morning show set the agenda for the day to follow. They were even used as snippets in subsequent broadcasts. How long has it been since that happened?

When did TV News lose its balls? When did TV news decide it was better to get the interview and promise not to offend than to actually hold people accountable and perhaps, dare even, make news in the process?

Is it some sort of unwritten code not to be tough? Is it the result of cut-throat competition that has resulted in a broadcast environment of pabulum? Or perhaps what is more likely, did news producers find their legs cut from beneath them by corporate ownership (Viacom, GE, Disney) that is more concerned with legislation and other corporate divisions than they are devoted to their news operations and even concerned for the absence of what once passed for content?

Ok, for disclosure – as a freelancer I do work for more than one of these morning broadcasts 0r their cable cousins, albeit far from the decision centers on West 57th Street, Times Square or 30 Rock.

Guests are fawned over – given fruit baskets with notes signed from “their friends and family at XYZ news”. Yes, God’s truth… that’s what I and others have been instructed to write. I have declined.

I have noted over the years the news divisions sway over the content seems to have been minimized – the intensity of the questioning has been lessened. In its place we see a zeal for getting the guest – for proclaiming it an exclusive even when there was no competition for the story itself.

Have we all deluded ourselves into believing that the audience cared about an exclusive that was, on its merits, not truly important? Does making a hullabaloo about an exclusive raise the story to be worthy of the water-cooler later in the day?

David Carr is correct. The morning news model is dated.  Once there was a chance to earn greater interest because the shows were content heavy, compelling attention, and featuring well-written copy instead of largely ad-libbed repartee.

One day the audience might again demand more. Today in the 500 channel world of entertainment it seems as if too many stations – like CBS’ Early Show – are mired in repeating what is already shown elsewhere – echoing through the airwaves – instead of forging new ground.

So sure, toss out the old anchors. Pretend that’s the problem and the solution. If we are following the tried-and-true model of network production next the New York masterminds will once again remodel the show’s set and change graphics package for the program.
For when the anchor carnage doesn’t pan out, this will surely so the trick… after all we’ve experienced this before.

WikiLeaks – media or messenger?

A friend asked for my thoughts about the WikiLeaks story based on diplomatic cables… what the NYTimes currently explains is a (treasure) trove of documents offering perspective on US allies and enemies.

I responded: Troubled… I worry that (what appears to be) an indiscriminate use of Freedom of Information Act requests (FOIAs) is abusive and not journalism. It is troubling that regurgitating huge amounts of data without the legwork invested by and associated with solid reporting masquerades as journalism and contemporary media. I think it does a disservice to all true journalists. Good reporting is less about volume and more about substance, perspective and context, and that does not appear to be reflected here.

My friend and colleague, Sharon Stevenson, now an ex-pat who offers a particularly excellent eye on the media, wrote: “To the editors of the unsigned “A Note to Readers: The Decision to Publish Diplomatic Documents” of Nov. 28, 2010:
I’m wondering if stating that “…it would be presumptuous to conclude that Americans have no right to know what is being done in their name,” means you are saying that the government should therefore have no right to secrecy about any communication or deliberation. Because that’s exactly what that statement implies. Do you really mean that we the public should have the right to know everything that is done or said “in our name” by government?
If that is so, then I must as an American journalist of thirty years ask if you are advocating that the government should fail, i.e. lose all power to negotiate, lose all power to react to possible threats, lose all power to be considered an ally since all those actions normally have some aspect of secrecy or confidentiality involved?
By not condemning, or questioning at the least, the wholesale dump of cables and in fact enjoying the fruits of readership by their publication, not as part of stories generated by decisions of reporters and their editors to pursue information, but as part of the illegal stealing of lawfully classified secret documents, you are in fact encouraging more of the same illegal thefts of government information and making a mockery of “freedom of the press.”
You are not recognizing that the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) exists for this purpose to make it possible for legitimate members of the media to get the documents they need to better help the public exercise their franchise, the main reason for freedom of the press in the first place, i.e., for the public to be able to cast an intelligent, well-informed vote.
As much as I have admired and certainly daily read the NYTimes, your reputation for me is now sullied, smirched, dirty, and your actions show you are putting monetary gain ahead of the rule of law and the welfare of the nation.
To help you remain consistent, I hope that from now on the NY Times will record and publish all meetings at the top executive levels of the paper and require reporters to videotape their interviews with all sources and put them on YouTube. Because after all, isn’t it presumptuous to conclude that subscribed American readers have no right to know what is really behind the investigative stories which form the bedrock of your freedom of press?”

The questions posed by this (to me) is that there may be less and less definition between news and text/words. Words become jumbles; thoughts become less important to the absolute volume of content.
The absence of real reporting from so many world capitals makes this all the more alarming. As news organizations have retrenched in the new world economics there are fewer feet on the ground and eyes balls on the scenes to report (and analyze) world and political events, offer perspective and interpretation based on a series of observations, variables and reportage.

WikiLeaks is enjoying surging popularity as if it is some upstart or a David playing against the Goliath of traditional media. Dont forget that Goliath plays a daily role, even if not as glamorous a role as WikiLeaks, an organization that has not invested itself in the daily grind, the less popular but oh-so-necessary role of media.

National Security Trumps the Right to Know, Sometimes Even the Opportunity to Ask

The recent gas explosion that destroyed a neighborhood in San Bruno, California offers another example of police and local authorities using the drape of “national security” to push the media back from the scene, to refuse to answer questions, and to deny access to maps and other documents that would give knowledge and comfort to residents, rate payers and tax payers.

Before the dawn of the morning following he explosion I was ordered back from an intersection more than a mile from the fire by a sergeant of the Pacifica (California) police acting as part of a mutual aid response. Why couldn’t we remain where we were parked – and had been parked for some 12 hours? “National Security” was his response as if by declaring those 2 words it precluded any further discussion or need for explanation. One could surmise if we refused to move the skies would be filled with black helicopters and the streets with black SUVs as federal law enforcement would leap from these vehicles as if clowns packed into too small a car in a circus ring.

“National Security” is all one needs to say now in defense of any argument or inquiry. Why can’t the utility PG&E release maps of outs gas lines? “National Security.” I suppose they are worried that terrorists with backhoes will soon be digging up streets to cause unimaginable destruction.

I suppose if I trusted those making the assertion, that in fact there was a real threat I’d be more willing to comply with their instruction. It just so often seems to ring like a hollow excuse. It becomes a wild card for which there is no argument; it trumps all other discussion.

But we have been too-often toyed with before. We are told we can’t make pictures at an airport or along a public waterfront where joggers run and mothers stroll with baby carriages because it might give advantage to our enemies. How about the damage this Draconian approach might cause to a free and open society? Is this truly for our safety or is it window dressing in the absence of a better, more effective plan? It reminds me of the months following 9/11 when the California Highway Patrol assigned a patrol cruiser parked at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge as a final bulwark of security against a cascading truck aimed at the bridge towers. I so often saw the officer in that car asleep in his seat that I wondered how much real security was being provided as opposed to what might otherwise seem to be window dressing.

It is frightening to witness the erosion of media protection. It seems to be a step in the wrong direction to limit access, to thwart entry, and to restrict the free flow of information. If there is a real threat, then there is no argument. If there is no reason except for the desire of authorities to conduct their work free from the eyes of the media and the public, then this must be fought.

Who’d want a career like this?

CNBC is reporting on those jobs expected to experience the greatest decline in the next 10 years.
Tops on the list:
“Reporters and Correspondents

Employed in U.S.: 61,600
Change expected in next decade: -8%
Average salary: $34,850

Consolidation and convergence are the top reasons the news industry is shrinking. News outlets are increasingly sharing each other’s content, which means they need fewer reporters and correspondents.

The news business gets hit particularly hard during economic downturns as most revenue comes from advertising, and companies spend less on advertising during a slump. Improving technology is one bright light, which could drive some employment in online or mobile divisions.

Competition is expected to be intense for jobs at large and national newspapers, broadcast stations and magazines. The best opportunities are expected to be with smaller, local news outlets as well as for online news organizations, as technology generates demand for online reporters or mobile news units. Writers who can handle scientific or technical subjects will have an advantage.”

This is enough to make one very sad…and the salaries too. Who’d want a profession that’s guaranteed to enable enrollment in food stamps?

This was once an honorable and valued profession. What happened?

OutFOXed or smarter than one?

In an editorial tip-of-the-hat to its generally conservative audience, the self-proclaimed fair and balanced FOX network has built a lineup of high profile, high-powered anchors and contributors, including former governors Mike Huckabee (R-Arkansas) and Sarah Pallin (R-Alaska) among others. It has been an effective strategy that has been coined “talk radio right” and remains largely popular among audiences and, in turn, many advertisers.

Politico points out in today’s The Fox primary: complicated, contractual that with 4 FOX regulars now exploring the possibility of running for president in 2012, at what point does the news network have to make a choice — drop these popular talent entirely; disclose its inherent political support by providing them an unlimited, unhindered platform; assure audiences that coverage is fair and balanced regardless of political ambition or finances; or appoint an ombudsman?
Fox is already counting down the days to this November’s mid-term elections. It would be fair to assume a similar countdown clock to 2012 will be unveiled shortly after November 2, 2010… so, when is the proper time to establish some distance?
It is abundantly clear that Ms. Pallin is already campaigning for something, endorsing GOP candidates and appearing for tea party fund-raisers nationwide. Messrs. Gingrich and Huckabee routinely appear on the political circuit of speeches as they graze the chicken dinners and sample the audience’s response to their message.

Is this apparent conflict of interest a problem for FOX? To an old ethicist it would seem unseemly. How can a network cover one of its own without bias? Without criticism or the basis of impartiality? Or, can it?

But what if this is the new standard? Is FOX comfortable evolving from “Your Election HQ” to becoming the “voice of the nation network”? By covering only those it appears to favor, from Sharron Angle or Christine O’Donnell, raising awareness and money for their campaigns, is FOX also building the inside track on whatever news and politics from within those in power, those it backed, and those who are dependent on their access to the FOX mouthpiece?

So – has FOX been outFOXed as Politico might suggest, or does the network care? Do they need to? Surely the toothless FCC is in no position to do anything.
In what is an essentially changing media world has FOX simply been the first to pick and back the candidates it favors? Too Machiavellian or just plain strategic?

And what happens after the votes are cast and it is time to pay the piper?