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Archive for July, 2013|Monthly archive page

The Press Let the Pope Off Easy

In Blog on July 29, 2013 at 12:13 am

I am a Catholic, but even I thought that the coverage of Pope Francis’ visit to Brazil could have used a bit more hard-nosed journalism.

World Youth Day, occurring biennially, brings hundreds of thousands of young Catholics from all over the world to celebrate their faith and meet with their pope.  The fact that this event occurred in Brazil this year, early in the tenure of this new Latin American leader of Catholicism, gave the pope just the positive exposure that the Vatican PR machine must have hoped for.  Reporters like to cover events that are unpredictable, that evoke emotions, and that can be told with much drama.  In all aspects, the pope delivered. It didn’t hurt that the pope was visiting a country that had lost hundreds of thousands of Catholics, many to evangelical Christianity, adding a bit of political intrigue to the event.

There was nothing wrong about the chronicling of the pope’s dramatic  visit to Rio’s slums, and his eagerness to reach out to the poorest of the poor, or the millions flocking to hear him say Mass on the Copacabana beach.  

And the pope deserved praise for preaching social justice to a country that has been wracked by corruption and income inequality.  The pope is considered one of the world’s moral leaders, and his message of concern for the struggling and homeless, has been a powerful symbol of a new direction for the Church.  But that should not make him immune from scrutiny.

Many reporters seemed reluctant to criticize his decision to reject a pope-mobile and to open the windows of his Fiat sedan as it was mobbed by a crowd as crazy as a bunch of girls at a Justin Bieber concert. Indeed, the Associated Press enthused that this reckless conduct was a powerful symbol of recapturing “the dynamism” of the Church and going out into the streets. To its credit, The Wall Street Journal raised concerns about the pope’s decision to flaunt security protocols. But generally, the media was ready to blame everyone but the pope for the security problems, and focused more on the pope’s lack of fear than his heedlessness.

Again it isn’t that all aspects of the pope’s trip, including its roughly $50 million cost to the Brazilian government, weren’t covered.  It is just that they were asides. And protests from Brazilians about the costs certainly didn’t dominate coverage. For example, CBS’s Dean Reynolds did do a morning news report that included footage of the protests, but that story didn’t appear to make it to the nightly newscast:

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How The Post Failed The Public on Wal-Mart

In Blog on July 18, 2013 at 8:00 am

Washington, D.C. probably is home to more think tanks and economists than any other city in America. So you would think The Washington Post, still the city’s leading newspaper, might have turned to some of them to shed a little light on a major local controversy.

The D.C. City Council recently passed the Large Retailer Accountability Act, or the “living wage bill.”  It would require large retailers to pay a minimum wage of $12.50 an hour.  In reaction to the passage of the bill, Wal-Mart has said it will withdraw plans to develop three stores in the District, and reconsider its plans for three other stores already under construction. As I write this, no one knows whether Washington Mayor Vincent Gray will veto the bill.  It doesn’t appear that the council has the votes to override a veto.

I am not complaining about The Post’s two editorials opposed to the living wage bill.  The paper has a right to take a position on this issue, albeit one that was heavily biased in Wal-Mart’s favor.

What does bother me is the quality of the paper’s overall coverage. As this controversy has played out, The Post has failed to provide comprehensive ongoing reporting on the issue, or to give its readers consistently solid explanatory journalism that provides facts and context, and challenges assumptions.

Instead, The Post’s coverage has been scatter-shot.  Some of its best analysis seemed to be left to the paper’s blogs, which tend to be more commentary than straight news, and while very informative, lack the authoritative voice of news stories. Blogs, too, are not always published in the print editions of the paper.  That means that the people most affected by the Wal-Mart decision, those in underdeveloped neighborhoods waiting for a Wal-Mart bounce, might not have access to all the information about the controversy.

At the very least, The Post should have explained what the living wage bill does in some detail, not just once, when the bill was introduced, but for each significant story on the controversy.  A Post story in March included facts about the living wage bill that were significant and deserved repetition.  The living wage bill applies only to large retailers who have not negotiated wages through collective bargaining agreements. And the $12.50, as I understand it, is actually $11.75 if benefits already provided by the employer are factored in. That distinction appears to have been lost in most of the subsequent news coverage of the law.

But The Post should have done much, much more.  It could have reached out to the city’s urban policy experts and economists, and given the community coverage that:

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Does the News Go Better With Koch? What a Takeover Could Mean for Journalism

In Blog on July 11, 2013 at 7:04 pm

Anyone who cares about journalism and democracy can find it difficult to be upbeat these days.  Money seems to dominate politics, giving billionaires the power to influence public policy debates and frame issues, affecting electoral and public policy outcomes.  The power of money is even greater when media properties are on the auction block.  At a time when the number of mainstream media outlets is shrinking, owning media properties means having a megaphone to get your message across, while those with opposing points of view can only whisper.  This is the opportunity that ownership of Tribune Company presents to any prospective owner.   An opportunity that seems tantalizing to the Koch Brothers.

David and Charles Koch have been masters of the free enterprise system. Koch Industries is the nation’s second largest privately held company, primarily operating in energy and related fields, with annual revenues of $115 billion, operating in nearly 60 countries.   The Kochs have become philanthropists with their fortunes, but many of their donations have been more than investments in the arts.  Their largesse has sustained an impressive network of think tanks fostering a pro-free-market anti-regulation viewpoint that is buttressed by generous donations to politicians who agree with them.  Much of the Koch money has been pretty invisible, but many nonprofits, and a few investigative journalists, have laid bare the architecture of the Koch money machine.

Now the Kochs may be on the cusp of acquiring a venerable if financially ailing engine of mainstream journalism in the U.S. – the Tribune Company.  I recently wrote about how I felt a Koch Brother takeover would be bad news for the Tribune Company and for journalism in general. Two weeks ago, the Newspaper Guild – Communications Workers of America, the union that represents journalists, sponsored a lively discussion exploring what a Koch purchase may mean for the future of journalism.

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