Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Jackals of Freedom

In her resignation speech, Former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin took a predictable swipe at the media:
"Some straight talk for some - just some in the media - because another right protected for us is freedom of the press, and you have such important jobs reporting facts and informing the electorate and exerting power to influence. You represent what could and should be a respected, honest profession that could and should be a cornerstone of our democracy. Democracy depends on you and that is why our troops are willing to die for you. So, how about in honor of the American soldier, you quit makin’ things up?"

The audience cheered approvingly, before Palin released another barb:
“One other thing for the media, our new governor has a very nice family too, so leave his kids alone.”
I’d like to think that last zinger was for David Letterman, whose ill-conceived joke about Palin’s daughter provoked outrage by critics from across the political spectrum.
But Palin’s main criticism of the media is old hat for politicians upset with the scrutiny they receive, and an effort to turn the public against the messenger.
When John McCain introduced Palin to the America public during the 2008 presidential election as his running mate, the media clamored for more information about the Alaskan governor. Were they being too nosy, inquisitive or unfair? Probably not, since McCain’s vetting process took about as long as ordering lunch through the Wendy’s drive-through, and people wanted to know more about this woman who was thrust upon the political stage at the Republican National Convention.
While the media focused on Palin’s personal and political history and executive record, some plumbed the depths about her family and her pregnant teenage daughter. This became grist for the late night comedy mill and for pundits. It also began Palin’s public loathing for the news media.
She views the media as jackals, picking ravenously on carrion, ripping apart the rotted sinew and bloodied flesh of a media feeding frenzy, a gruesome American spectacle that turns the political circus into an abattoir of carnage and horrors.
Like a Kodiak bear defending her cubs, Palin swiped at the media with razor-sharp claws, hoping to draw blood and do what politicians have done in the past – impale an arrogant news media on their own sword.
One of the best books I’ve read about journalism and the media is “Attack the Messenger” by Craig Crawford. The book’s subtitle, “How Politicians Turn You Against the Media” is something I’ve espoused for years, that the political parties want to maintain control and the only way they can achieve this is by discrediting the press.
Here’s what Crawford says about objectivity and reporting:
"Just as it is for politicians, trying to be all things to all people is a slippery slope for the news media. Sometimes, fair and balanced reporting calls for an honest conclusion that might offend a political player.
So what. If it is an honestly drawn conclusion, well proven with the facts, let the offended side wail as much as they like.
At the end of the day, it is not the job of politicians to protect truth. They have an agenda. Often that agenda is a good thing for the country. And sometimes they deceive the public to protect opponents from undermining that agenda…Reporters who lay off the truth or intend to deceive the public in any way no longer deserve the franchise. They should go into politics."

I’ve known a few reporters who left newspapers to work for politicians, writing press releases and handling the media as spokespersons. One reporter even ran for office and became a councilman.
Crawford’s book lists several instances when the press is cajoled, bullied and threatened by those in power. Reading this book made me angry, but by the time I finished, I was completely numb. I understood this whole thing is a game, a grand masquerade of pretend and bullshit, where the seekers of truth are the enemies of the state. Where watchdogs and scrutinizers, who labor to inform the public, are purposefully taunted, ridiculed and even jailed.
Politicians rail against the “liberal media elite”. I think it’s ironic that a millionaire politician with several years of public service who is well-connected socially should call anyone an elitist and make it an insult.
However, there are elites in the media. From the metrosexual latte-slurping urban reporters to the corporate media owners who attend retreats at the Bohemian Grove with their political pals, the media elites tout their wares with superficiality, hooking the country on a steady diet of celebrity drek and political diatribes.
Crawford touches on this:
"Without a free press, there is no freedom. Politicians everywhere – and throughout history – want to control the press and thereby control what the public knows about their deeds.
Thanks to the world’s most protective constitution, the press in America is technically as free as it gets.
But politicians have found a way to limit the public benefits of our free press. They turned Americans against the news media, aided and abetted by the arrogance of elites in the news media who didn’t know what hit them."

Crawford lambastes old media for being arrogant, and writes their demise paved the way for alternative media of the cable news networks, blogs and the Internet news sites. Yet while alternative outlets are part of the evolution of media, Crawford spends a sizable chunk of the book exposing politicians for trying to cajole the media for their own gain. He explores the nature of “objective” reporting and insists reporters reveal their biases to avoid any accusations from critics.
He also writes that the news media should ask the tough questions and to not do so is a dereliction of responsibility:
"Biased reporting happens, and it is a problem. But submissive reporting is the greater danger. The public should be more worried about reporters who wimp out than the reporters who promote an agenda."

I don’t enjoy being vilified by partisan whores for using my writing talent to inform the public, who are already brainwashed into thinking any criticism or questioning of authority is unpatriotic. Holding a public official accountable is patriotic. Besides dying for your country, it’s the most patriotic thing a citizen can do.
At a recent political event, I spoke to a Republican leader who bemoaned that there wasn’t any outlet that produced objective journalism.
I told him that I would rather have a newspaper that was openly biased instead of one that didn’t ask tough questions or had no backbone to take on the politicians. The GOP leader said he’d rather have no newspapers than ones that were openly biased.
“They’re supposed to tell the truth, not blatantly lie,” he said.
“Lying is what politicians do,” I retorted. “Afraid of the competition?”
“Politicians shouldn’t lie. They should tell the truth,” he snapped, then stated that the liberal media masters in New York and Washington DC set the agenda for what is news in this country.
The fact that he would rather have no newspapers proves his utter disdain for the news business and sheer love of propaganda. Without a free press, society suffers. I wouldn’t have expected the political lackey to think any differently.
Some history: before the move for utter objectivity, the press was biased as hell. Newspapers pushed political agendas, unabashedly writing in purple prose and sensationalizing stories. It was the golden age of muckraking and of yellow journalism, when fistfights broke out in the streets between reporters and the political atmosphere was charged with lightening. Newspapers brazenly had “Democrat”, “Republican” and “Independent” in their names and peddled candidates who supported those views.
In Warren Ellis’ comic “Transmetropolitan,” rebel journalist Spider Jerusalem (who incidentally resembles a mad, futuristic Hunter S. Thompson) has this to say about his craft: “Journalism is just a gun. It’s only got one bullet in it, but if you aim right, that’s all you need. Aim it right, and you can blow a kneecap off the world.”
I’ve tried steadying my aim throughout my career, with varying degrees of success. Sometimes I strike the target and sometimes it ricochets or misfires. Always I’m aiming carefully, hoping it would hit and shower the world in flesh and bone, and allow the truth to change everything.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite died at 92 today and the world has lost one of the shining beacons of journalism. The TV anchorman and reporter once dubbed “the most trusted man in America” left a legacy that is unmatchable by today’s cable news reporters, who seem too physically perfect and airbrushed and vacuous. Cronkite was a competent, sober warrior of the Fourth Estate, an old school journalist living in one of the most turbulent times of our nation’s history. From the assassination of John F. Kennedy to the Vietnam War, to the assassination of Martin Luther King and Watergate, Cronkite was a towering figure who covered our world and brought harsh realities to viewers every night.
After he visited Vietnam in 1968, his on-air editorial, a personal account based on his own observations, was a turning point of the war and influenced public opinion. He was so highly regarded that President Johnson said of him, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Cronkite’s Vietnam commentary led Johnson to end the bombing in North Vietnam and announce to a stunned nation that we wouldn’t run for re-election
Those were the days before the zoo of cable news networks and the 24-hour news cycle doling out partisan opinion and fluff. They were times when a reporter could be trusted and even revered for informing the people.
It was a time when anchormen had catchphrases. Cronkite ended each broadcast with a reassuring “And that’s the way it is...”
Try that now and you’d be laughed out of the studio.
Cronkite was “Uncle Walter,” a familiar face we’d invite in our living rooms and who’s report with dignity and competence. He was the real deal, a mainstream journalist who delivered the news and could be trusted, even by those who thought the media was in cahoots with the Prince of Darkness.
So wired into news and events that he showed emotion when reporting. When Kennedy was assassinated, Cronkite was visibly shaken as he delivered the news. His excitement over the space program and his choking up when Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969 made Americans care about the space race. It became a real thing, a crowning achievement in science, technology and culture and elicited real emotion.
Under that austere Midwestern exterior, Cronkite showed his human side, and the viewers appreciated him for it. He was a titan in broadcast journalism, one of the last of his breed. Though he left broadcasting in 1981, Cronkite continued to stay active, writing and appearing in various movies, television shows and news programs.
His passing marks the end of an era of sober, balanced and straight news coverage in a national lunatic asylum obsessed with celebrities, political diatribes and general insanity.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


A series of planned salons sponsored by The Washington Post and funded by a sponsor that would sell access to journalists and “power brokers” sends a chilling message for the future of American journalism.
Washington Post publisher and CEO Katherine Weymouth issued an apology in her paper over the planned dinners, where the powerful and mighty would rub shoulders with a few select journalists at a shebang paid for by a sponsor. According to Weymouth’s statement, the sponsors would have no control over the discussions and no special access for journalists.
Politico reported that the Post offered sponsorships for the off-the-record soirées - $25,000 for one dinner or $250,000 for a whole series of dinners, where lobbyists would have access to editors, journalists, Congressional Representatives and members of the Obama administration. The first of these meetings was to take place July 21 at Weymouth's home and focus on health care.
“If our reporters were to participate, there would be no limits on what they could ask. They would have full access to participants and be able to use any information or ideas to further their knowledge and understanding of any issues under discussion,” Weymouth wrote in her apology.
She did apologize for the event, but wrote that she believes there is a “legitimate” way to hold such meetings that don’t conflict with the Post’s ethical standards.
Why hold such events? Is it that the newspaper industry is economically hurting and these high-priced dinners would provide a quick influx of cash in the Post’s ailing coffers? Is it selling access to journalists and editors?
Selling access isn’t just wrong from an ethical standpoint – it’s morally offensive, a blasphemy in journalism, the Original Sin of the Fourth Estate. At no time must the journalist be a Las Vegas escort in a motel room filled with sweaty Rotarians looking for a good time.
That’s exactly what would’ve happened at this salon – an elitist gangbang where lobbyists, government officials, Congressional Representatives and corporate bigwigs would convene a powwow to discuss topics of the day. Think of it as an Algonquin Roundtable with controlled dialog, wealthier participants and no public access.
What the Washington Post was trying to do, a dialog between reporters and the high-powered sources they’d never meet, backfired. It was doomed to fail because money was involved. Sponsorship of an event where journalists are involved is akin to pimping out your objectivity and integrity.
Sleazy tactics like this are why people are suspicious of the modern press. There’s a gulf between readers and the journalists and editors as wide as the Grand Canyon and it’s growing every day. Accusations of plagiarism, bias and now selling access for the rich and influential only widen that trench.
This is the worst instance of pay-to-play I've heard. Not because it involves politicians and lobbyists - that system is a well-established clusterfuck of Faustian pacts that's filled Washington for decades - but because a newspaper is perpetrating it. A newspaper - which should find pay-to-play repugnant and harmful to the Republic - is enabling lobbyists and the influential and powerful to schmooze with and have unfettered access to the movers and shakers in government.
Why the secrecy? Why not have a series of town hall style meetings and invite the public to observe and participate in the discussion if it includes health care and other issues? Why sell out your credibility on such a ludicrous, ill-conceived scheme?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Daring to Blog

There comes a time in every writer’s life when he questions his marriage to the written word, and whether he should continue pursuing the life of a scribe. Relentlessly questioning this futile existence, hunched over a keyboard, emoting through language and pouring one’s heart and soul onto the page is at once gratifying and maddening. And yet, it’s also a nomadic existence punctuated by loneliness and stone-cold sobriety, that what we do depends so much upon personal reflection and experience. Anything less means one is either a hack or a machine churning out bland pabulum that’s neither inspiring nor worth reading.
As a journalist, I’ve always maintained objectivity in that I report the facts. I cite documents, tape interviews and publish quotes verbatim and never inject my own personal opinions into news stories. That’s journalism.
Yet on this blog, I have the freedom to write whatever I want to.
So when the mayor told my editor that there was probable bias with my writing because of certain blog entries at The Angry Reporter, I took notice. The mayor didn’t approach me about these concerns. He went right to my boss.
The mayor also has concerns that because my landlord is one of his strongest verbal critics and because I posted a video of my landlord mooning the mayor a year ago and because I’m brazen enough to blog about what I think, then I should be drawn and quartered in the public square for crimes against journalistic objectivity.
The editor, who reads the blog and is aware of its content, is a free speech advocate who realizes I do this personal blog on my own time and it is not affiliated with the paper. Some reporters have succumbed to blogging and as a result, were fired. Others were demoted or mocked for daring to write anything resembling a personal opinion.
I think I have a good working relationship with the mayor and the city’s administration. If the mayor had any concerns about my credibility, he should have addressed them to me.
Thing is, I really don’t care about my landlord’s political opinions. I just pay the guy rent and want to be left to my own devices.
There’s no sinister agenda and I’m not some hired gun sent to malign the sterling reputations of our upstanding local officials.
What it comes down to is the First Amendment and the journalist’s responsibility to accurately report stories and separate themselves from any personal opinions they might have about the subjects they write about.
Thus the blog functions as a release valve for blowing off steam, a lightening bolt cast from Valhalla, and a mighty sword to slay dragons. Some would venture blogging compromises the journalist’s neutrality and objectivity, that to be a good journalist, one must exist alone and in a bubble and hold no allegiances or opinions.
Good luck getting invited to parties with that attitude.
That’s not to say the reporter/blogger should run roughshod; there are issues of libel to consider, so in many ways, the blogger must closely edit their writing.
Concerns that a journalist should not blog what they truly believe about the people they cover are understood. However, if the writer represses and stifles what they believe, they become robots, witless automatons and gullible hangers-on excreting canned statements and press releases that don’t serve their readers.
The blog is the outlet for creativity and opinion. It gives the writer a conveyance to publish and be read by a worldwide audience, larger than the newspaper’s circulation and one more attuned to the digital world we inhabit.
Separating both objective reporting and opinionated blogging is not rocket science. For a fresh-out-of-school journalism major, raised on a steady diet of commentary and biased television news, maybe this process would be tricky. Yet for someone like me who has been at the game since 1994, it’s easy to switch from journalist writing mode to regular writing mode. Plus, the newspaper’s editors function as gatekeepers, weeding out anything questionable.
I believe the mayor or other elected officials or anyone else for that matter, really doesn’t care about this blog. To them, these are just the fevered rantings of a struggling writer and nothing more and nobody is forcing them to seek out and read this blog.
However, I can’t control, nor do I have a part in the problems my landlord has with the mayor. The fact that I live in a building owned by someone with a grudge against the mayor is not my fault.
The mayor also had issue with the articles I’ve been writing for the paper, which delve deeply into pay-to-play allegations against the mayor and the public defender. I didn’t dream up this story. I’m only reporting it. Blaming the messenger is a tried-and-true tactic used to discredit the media, what the targets of scrutiny do to appear victimized.
My question is: would the community be better served if this story hadn’t been reported at all?
Should the citizens, who have the right to be informed about their government, be kept in the dark about the public defender’s $500 contribution to the mayor’s campaign which is in violation of a local ordinance that the city purposefully didn’t enforce?
Perhaps those in power want the citizenry to remain stupid and docile and not ask too many questions. Perhaps the press should just stick to covering ribbon-cuttings and fluff pieces and relinquish their responsibility as watchdogs and become part of the city’s publicity department.
Maybe I’m just tilting at windmills, a lone crusader who wants elected officials to make the right decisions and become responsible for their actions.
Yet I think there’s something more. I think it’s about fighting the good fight, about giving the public the facts and informing them about their community.