I read the news today. Oh, boy!

Kudos to anyone old enough to recall the Beatles reference. Even after 25 years this industry vexes me sometimes.

Like the other day when I am sitting down with a cup of tea scanning cable channels for reaction to the latest primaries. On one hand, MSNBC’s far-left lineup included “political analyst” David Axelrod. On the other, Fox’s uber-right featured one Monica Crowley.

The question of objectivity in the age of affirmation media is a puzzling one for us all in this class. I sense it even troubles Rosenstiel and Kovach, who dedicated a sizable portion of Chapter 5 to the subject of expert sources and analysts.

Axelrod, of course, is the political sophisticate who engineered President Obama’s rise from first-term senator to the White House in 2008. His marketing genius enabled Obama to raise millions of dollars in a Kickstarter kind of way that blunted the huge financial and name-recognition advantages of the Clintons. He was rewarded with a key political post during the president’s first term.

Crowley’s credentials are a bit less obvious. A longtime contributor to Fox News, she served as a foreign policy assistant to former President Richard Nixon. She is a well-recognized conservative radio personality, author of several books and holder of a doctorate from Columbia University.

These are both highly credentialed people. I just don’t understand how they can be taken seriously in a campaign year when their political affiliations are so clearly apparent. Sorry, I just can’t take with import anything Axelrod says about the GOP or Crowley etc. about the Dems any more than I can value a sports talk radio host who boldly identifies himself as a Mets fan then offers up analysis on their biggest rivals.

There is a thin line between analysis and affirmation, a point the authors make discreetly in Blur. What is especially troubling to me is that affirmation journalism is so much a part of the existing media culture that news channels don’t even feel inclined to offer full disclosure on their analysts anymore.

Axelrod, Crowley and others are VERY good at what they do and have made themselves wealthy doing it. Good for them; they’re informed and offer relevant insights. If they didn’t, no network would hire them regardless of the network’s raison d’etre.

I just get a bit nostalgic for the old days when, for whatever journalism’s excesses, things seemed a little less partisan and little more on the level. There is no mystery in a news world saturated these days with “analysts” from both sides of the aisle.

I dread the news today. Oh, boy.


The Uber Assumption in Kalamazoo

Another day, another mass shooting in America. It’s getting to the point that these events don’t surprise anymore.

But one thing about the Kalamazoo shootings did stop me in my tracks, and that was the media’s immediate and almost reflexive identification of the shooter as an “Uber driver.“ Did it bother you?

We have read in both Elements and Blur about the dangers of assumptions and labels — all blacks are this, all Catholics vote this way, all Yankees fans are smug. While I have no love for the Yankees – in fact, I rather loathe them — I am inclined to believe there are a few down-to-earth fans somewhere.

Presuming all members of a group share the values and practices of the group is the quickest way to journalistic overreach, so my experience has taught me. As I read details of the shooting I was fascinated at the consistent description of the shooter as an Uber driver, often high in the story. As if that is all we could learn about this tortured and twisted person.

From USA Today: The alleged shooting spree by an Uber driver in Kalamazoo, Mich., is triggering fresh questions about whether the ride-hailing giant is doing enough to keep its riders safe.

The New York Post: Girl ‘brain-dead’ after Uber shooting gives thumbs-up before organs harvested

I could find more examples I am sure.

Most of this is, of course, relevant description of the shooter with legitimate news value to those who want to know of his background and motivations. But pardon me if some of this also seems like an attempt to piggyback on the Uber paranoia gripping some big cities these days, including my own, NYC, where Uber is banned. If that’s so, and I pray I am wrong, then we all need to look at our ethical mirrors.

There is some Skull and Bones-like mystery to Uber, its hiring practices and its business model. And I don‘t know if Uber needs to rethink its background checks after this tragic incident. I do know it has become remarkably successful remarkably quickly. I’d hate to see other hardworking Uber drivers and even this mega-successful company itself become collateral damage to a story for which there is no explanation.

On Scalia and Facebook ‘Liking’: The mind reels

I was motivated Saturday following news of  the death of Justice Antonin Scalia to look into the justice’s voting record on First Amendment matters. What I found vexed me.

Scalia, it seems, (and I am no scholar on these matters) was an unapologetic defender of First Amendment religious values. In fact, in one of the final speeches before his death he said that while government could not favor one religion over another, he saw no constitutional restriction against favoring religion over non-religion.

On the subject of free expression rights, however, he had a somewhat more more nuanced opinion. He voted with the majority in Hazelwood and in one of his more humorous opinions denied to a group of men’s establishments First Amendment protection for their nude dancers. You have to admit, he was a dazzling writer.

I must admit the Hazelwood decision has always perplexed me, if only for the labyrinth of analysis needed to determine its applicability. As a college adviser it applies little to me, but from what I can see the more hands-off the HS adviser is, the better protection the district has against libel or other actions.

I try to convince my administration that the need for prior review evaporates if the best journalistic practices are followed — meaning objectivity and fair sourcing, recognizing bias and working to avoid, respecting the private lives of private people until their actions make them fair game. How will students learn these practices unless we let them practice them?

Again, college media is different species of fish than HS, and to my high school colleagues in Kent’s program, good luck.

And now for something completely different (hat tip to anyone who recognizes the Monty Python reference).

In researching Scalia, I came across a case from 2013 that I thought was worth a mention. I recognize it’s old news but I bring it up only because I am amazed at the amount of litigation required to arrive at the decision.

That year, a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Facebook “like” is protected by the First Amendment, claiming it was the functional equivalent of posting a political sign on your front lawn. The decision didn’t surprise me; in fact, it seems wholly logical. What shocked was that a lower court judge initially determined that “liking” was not protected, and he had to be reversed on appeal.

It showed me how murky some First Amendment litigation is, and maybe it’s a question for Mark Goodman. The trial judge actually agreed that Facebook posts are constitutionally protected, just not like the “like” widget. Makes you wonder where all this is going, especially for high school students.

Living the New Newsroom Reality


The readings from Blur and Elements of Journalism this week were akin to a visit through my recent journalism past, particularly the anecdote of Mark Willes, the former General Mills exec who took over the Times-Mirror Corp., in the early 90s.

As the authors point out, Willes had little understanding of journalism. Judging from his track record at General Mills, he had little understanding of cereal either. In fact, at Newsday we called him— though not to his face — the “Cereal Killer,” since his first act was not to applaud the paper for its 19 Pulitzers, including one that year, but to trim the editorial staff by 25 percent. He also closed New York Newsday, our plucky attempt to move into the big city from the ‘burbs, just at the time it was turning a profit and threatening the NY Times.  More jobs gone.

Willes, we came to understand, had little on Sam Zell, who purchased Newsday and several other papers from the Tribune Company in the early 2000s. In his first meeting with the news staff, Zell boasted of editorial independence and respect for Newsday’s journalistic legacy then went down the hall to advertising and swore  “the wall between advertising and editorial is coming down, beginning now.”

It reminded me of President Clinton proclaiming with fingers crossed behind his back that the “era of big government is over.”

Truth is, these days we can’t escape the economic realities confronting the industry. And it’s not merely competition from the Internet. As the authors point out, any newspaper that has survived the Great Internet Putsch probably has a revenue-generating  website anyway.

I’ve always questioned journalists who believed the industry was immune from the forces of capitalism … the same forces that created, then relegated, say,  Wite-Out, typewriters and VHS tapes. I’m reminded of the dialogue between Henry Ford and the last buggy-whip salesman in Manhattan. Ford complimented him on being the best buggy-whip manufacturer in the city — if he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have survived the Model T. Ford then apologized for his plan to drive him out of business. Buggy whips, it seemed, won’t be needed once everyone has a car.

While essential to a functioning democracy, it’s pure hubris to believe newspaper journalism is a linear descendant of the Founding Fathers’ vision; that society couldn’t function without it and that the Road to Governmental Perdition is paved with back issues of newspapers no longer with us.

Truth is, Jefferson and Washington HATED the press, especially when they were manipulating the levers of power. Even Hamilton, who founded the NY Post and was a co-author of The Federalist Papers, had trouble balancing the public’s right to know with the government’s right to function.

So how does journalism, particularly print journalism, survive?

Last month, billionaire Gerry Lenfest announced he was donating the Philadelphia Daily News, the Inquirer and Philly.com to a nonprofit, where, presumably, they will be free to pursue quality journalism without having to report to shareholders.

Good for them. Good for the good people who work there. And good for the folks in Philly, who will see the independent, public-spirited journalism we all wish we could be doing more of.

Someone mentioned the other day that I would enjoy the film “Spotlight” despite subject matter sure to disturb any obedient Catholic. She also thinks it is the last great thing the Boston Globe will ever do.

I hope she’s wrong. But I sense unless there’s a new business model she could be on to something.

Week 2 musings and some election melodrama

We read and chatted plenty this week about a journalist’s responsibility to society. It struck me as ironic that the very week we do this, there emerges yet another election drama centered on the role of the journalist.

Donald Trump has announced he will not participate in Thursday’s GOP debate. The Republican front-runner has apparently not forgiven Fox News’ Megyn Kelly for asking what he believed were one-sided questions the last time the two squared off in a debate forum.

Let’s forget for a moment a few things about Trump: 1) that does he not owe the voters of Iowa an appearance? 2) that can he be expected to stand up to Putin when he’s running from a reporter? and 3) does his newfound embrace of evangelicalism not include the “turn the other cheek” philosophy espoused by Jesus?

Instead, let’s distance ourselves from the politics and consider this from a media perspective primarily. Megyn Kelly, who did not have a great performance in Fox’s initial debate, is apparently all gung-ho to tee it up again. She has refused to back down from Trump’s misogynistic attacks, insisting that no candidate for the presidency has the right to manipulate the terms of a debate, nor decide which reporters are worth his or her time.

Forgive me for this, but what self-serving nonsense. To begin with, candidates have been manipulating the terms of debates since the days of William Henry Harrison. Remember, how in 1980 the theatrical Ronald Reagan debated an empty chair when incumbent Jimmy Carter decided he had better things to do that night?

But more to the heart of the matter, at what point does Kelly —a highly educated woman with a presumed grasp of journalistic priorities —grow weary of being the story? At what point does the cult of celebrity news personality collide tragically with the public’s right to hear from the potential Republican nominee?

We know Trump is a blow hard. But forgive me for wondering if Kelly and the folks at Fox propping her up aren’t loving every ounce of this. Thing is, this clash of egos is a real threat to the electoral process and hardly what we news professionals would call a “fair and balanced” exchange of ideas.

On to other things ….

“The Elements of Journalism” presented an interesting, if irritating, issue in the anecdote of Jack Nelson, the Atlanta bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times from back in the days when newspapers still had out-of-market bureaus.

While following up on the deaths of three students in South Carolina, Nelson ambiguously identified himself to hospital personnel as being from “the Atlanta bureau.” Undoubtedly, the staff took that to mean the Atlanta bureau of the FBI and turned over to Nelson vital medical records that advanced his story.

Kovach and Rosenstiel seem to celebrate his resourcefulness. I’d be embarrassed for the fraud I committed.

In fact, I almost can guarantee that for all the details Nelson’s ambiguity brought to the story, had I attempted as much at Newsday I’d find myself in a most unpleasant HR conversation.

Newsday’s ethics guide insists on full disclosure on the part of its journalists unless such disclosure would jeopardize the well-being of the reporter or his source(s). I can’t imagine the LA Times has less exacting standards.

Nelson knowingly duped innocent people. And while it may have turned the direction of the investigation, we never hear if, say, his duplicity cost hospital personnel their jobs. I can’t celebrate that; perhaps that’s why I don’t get this book.

Not Charlie Hebdo
One reason I enjoy David Brooks is I consider him a conservative with sanity. His NY Times column “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo” shines a stadium-size light on the hypocrisy of both the uber-left and ultra-defensive right on the matter of satire.

It is indeed chilling that there are those who would kill in defense of a caricature. But also, there are those who find nothing satirically off-limits. Great line from Brooks: “Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.”

If I understand Brooks, the folks at Charlie Hebdo took political satire to a near irresponsible level. It might be deserving of constitutional protection, but the social value of its target-rich, low-brow humor, that’s another matter. Civility should be a journalistic priority as well.

Are Kovach and Rosenstiel overreactive

So last semester, those of us in Ethics were introduced to Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s treatise on The Elements of Journalism. Much of it was to be treasured, but rethinking it now for Social Role, I’m inclined to wonder if they’re weren’t howling at the moon just a bit too much.

As John writes in his class intro, Kovach and Rosenstiel argue the primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing. To them, journalism exists to offer up the  “independent information that makes it possible for us to take part in governing ourselves.”

It’s State of the Union-type language – flowery and high-minded, and were it delivered live it would certainly generate the applause track every president looks for when he pushes for, say, enhanced funding for cancer research. Who doesn’t want to cure cancer, and who doesn’t want better journalism?

The thing is, I don’t believe the industry needs the course correction the authors seem to imply is required to remain relevant in the 21st century. Kovach and Rosenstiel are obsessed with wondering when and from where the next Walter Cronkite will emerge. But I see new Cronkites all over the media landscape, including a few in this class and in Kent’s program.

This semester we’re studying the media’s relationship with the society it serves.  My experience in print spans — Lord help me — nearly three decades. I say honestly, it is harder to be a responsible journalist now than when I was covering zoning meetings in Greenwich, Conn. in the late-1980s.

Competition was limited, standards were enforced and the morning-after glow from a great Watergate victory lingered. If not wholly respected, print media was at least considered alongside mosquito repellant as one of those things essential to everyday survival.

As I read Kovach and Rosenstiel, I came away convinced that their primary observation was, that somehow it all went very wrong. I didn’t buy it then, and I ain’t buying it now.

Perhaps you all as full-time educators had a different reaction to the book than I did. Perhaps the Malbec I’m sipping has elevated my sensitivities. But I just can’t get past the notion that these guys seem rather smug in asserting journalism’s need for redefinition.

In 30 years, I’ve never once been in a news meeting where the subject of “will this sell papers” or “will that generate web traffic” has been mentioned. And were it, I assure you we editors would vote with our feet and walk out of the meeting.

Because it’s not some half-baked idea of what the public wants in its newspaper that led my colleagues and I to spend winter days measuring railroad platforms in New York City for code violations; or interviewing survivors of the Hudson River miracle. Nor did it lead us to investigate concussion protocols in high school athletics years before the Will Smith film saw the editing room.

We did it because we all have a bit of Cronkite in us, and no matter what aggrandizements Brian Williams might pull off or fabrications Jayson Blair might concoct, this remains an industry populated by people determined to do right by the readership.