former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Archive for May, 2013|Monthly archive page

Kochs Mean Bad News for Tribune

In Blog on May 30, 2013 at 10:30 am

Okay, this post is not about ABC news reporter Jonathan Karl or Benghazi. So if you want to talk about that, you should probably go elsewhere. What concerns me a lot more than the lapses of individual reporters are systemic changes in the news business that may have lasting and damaging repercussions on journalism for years, if not decades, to come.

I’m talking about you, Koch Brothers. As has been widely reported, Koch Industries, is considering a $660 million purchase of the Tribune Company’s TV stations and eight newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, and the Los Angeles Times. It appears that Koch may be the only bidder interested in all the media properties, a state of affairs that has alarmed progressive reform groups throughout the country.

The worry is that the Kochs have a very distinct, vocal and aggressive agenda – big on free markets, naysayers on climate change, and definitely against government intrusion into capitalism.

Certainly, these are sentiments that have been shared by many newspaper publishers over the years. But the Kochs are unique in the way they’ve advanced their views, not just the old-fashioned way through big political donations, but also through lots of financial support to think tanks that create the academic underpinnings to make the Koch ideology more respectable. Koch-infused messages challenging the validity of climate change or equating regulation with massive job loss, neither validated by evidence, seep out of these think tanks, or through so-called academic “experts” dependent on millions of dollars in Koch funding, and make it into the public sphere where they influence public policy.

The New York Times recently reported that the Kochs have a discussed their ten-year plan for moving their agenda forward, a plan that not only includes rallying grassroots support and supporting think tanks, but also influencing the media.

There are two ways a Koch purchase could be pernicious. They could actively involve themselves in news reporting side of the business, something so blatant that it likely would stir up lots of opposition and reader and even advertiser resistance. Indeed, some media commentators believe that the Kochs would gain little, and may lose money, on a deal to buy newspapers in two liberal bastions of Chicago and LA

Or it could be a lot subtler. The Kochs could buy the Tribune’s papers and broadcast stations, and assume what appears to be a hands-off approach. However, over time the Kochs could make changes in the newspaper’s upper management in ways that downgraded importance of certain reportorial functions.

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Reporting It Right, The First Time

In Blog on May 7, 2013 at 9:00 am

The Boston Marathon bombings reminded us of the perils of real-time reporting.  Live tweeting, streaming news coverage and instant punditry all seemed to conspire together to confound and confuse.

In this age of nearly instant communication, there were instant and inaccurate reports, about the number of dead, the progress of the investigation, and the suspects.  The New York Post did everything but declare two teens in the crowd to be the perpetrators, circling their faces in red, on a cover photo titled “Bag Men.”   Other media outlets breathlessly told us that a Saudi man might be sought in the case, also wrong. We were even told that a suspect was arrested when no arrest had been made.

Washington Post media critic Paul Farhi isn’t bothered by fast-breaking news containing mistakes.  He wrote that in a media environment where events happen, and are reported, in real time, errors are inevitable, and don’t matter as much as they used to.   Farhi cites Mark Jurkowitz, associate director for the Project for Excellence in Journalism, who observed that technology greatly speeds up the correction of initial misinformation, and thus errors matter less.

That seems like a rather weak defense.  If news outlets want to be taken seriously, the major value they bring to the table is that they report verified facts, not unverified assertions or speculation.  If CNN isn’t better than the Twitterverse, why does it exist?  If the chances of my receiving credible fact-based information aren’t improved if I pick up a newspaper rather than search for reports in the blogosphere, why should I bother with any mainstream news outlet?  Indeed, Farhi ends his column with another observation from Jurkowitz, who notes that mistakes damage the credibility of the news media as a whole, even when the public fails to distinguish media outlets that report the facts from those that are more lax.

The New York Times’ David Carr got it right when he noted that accuracy is something that the American public ought to expect, and get, from its news media.  If journalists merely regurgitate what they hear, anyone can do their job.

And despite our obsession with knowing everything in real time, we also look to mainstream media outlets for validation of what we learned, and – to some extent – the kind of power and beauty that words can impart to terrible events.  The day after the bombings, I picked up The New York Times, and came close to tears when I read the first sentence of its main story.  Listen to its cadence, the somber measured tone of the words, the restraint.

Two powerful bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday afternoon, killing three people, including an eight-year-old child, and injuring more than 100, as one of this city’s most cherished rites of spring was transformed from a scene of cheers and sweaty triumph to one of screams and carnage.

Journalism is not just about reporting what happened.  A journalist bears witness to terrible events, and in the bearing witness, brings some order into chaos.

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