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Archive for October, 2013|Monthly archive page

Remembering Watergate: Decency Ultimately Prevailed; Would it Today?

In Blog on October 20, 2013 at 10:16 pm

In journalism and politics in Washington, some things never change.  When the government wants to manage the news, the best way to do it is to release a big story late on a Friday, particularly the Friday before a three-day weekend.  Reporters on deadline don’t have time to find anybody to challenge the story, and it’s framed as  the government prefers.

That’s still true in the nation’s capital, although harder to pull off with everyone online 24/7 and available on their cellphones.  It was far easier 40 years ago, when the Nixon White House announced to reporters that it had reached a compromise on access to the Watergate tapes.

The tapes would provide crucial corroboration to the testimony of former White House counsel John Dean, who had testified that Nixon had approved a series of illegal actions, motivated either by his desire for political victory or his need to cover up the break-in by White House operatives into Democratic party headquarters.

The so-called compromise, and the events that followed, were the subject of an extraordinary gathering at the National Press Club last week.  Key figures in events that would become known as the Saturday Night Massacre gathered to recall those events.  They were introduced by someone who, as a young lawyer, had served on the staff of Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox – Stephen Breyer, who, of course went on to become a Justice of the Supreme Court

The compromise story came as a surprise to Cox, who had subpoenaed the tapes.  He hadn’t agreed to the offer by the White House to give up his demand for the tapes, and to permit 73-year-old Democratic Senator John Stennis of Mississippi who was hard of hearing and on heavy-duty painkillers after having been seriously wounded in a robbery, to listen to the tapes and assess the veracity of written summaries.  Cox would have to accept the summaries , and could not ask for any additional materials.

Cox’s staff scrambled.  “We called the Los Angeles Times’ Washington bureau and asked them what was going on,” recalled Jim Doyle, Cox’s press secretary.  “We had to make clear to the press that Cox had major reservations” about the proposed deal, Doyle said.

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In America Interview, Pope Got Away With Murder

In Blog on October 8, 2013 at 6:37 pm

I suppose I’m taking my life in my hands, jousting with Jesuits.  But come on, editors of America Magazine, I read your entire interview with Pope Francis, and I came away frustrated.

Did you Catholic journalists never hear of a follow-up question?  Yes, it’s tough interviewing the big boss, but surely some of his answers simply begged for more elucidation.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the U.S. Catholic Conference, gushed in a recent Washington Post blog that the interview was “a journalistic gold mine.” It may stand as “America Magazine’s greatest moment in its 104 years of publishing, a tribute to the Jesuits and the Catholic press and journalism overall.”

Sister Mary Ann may have a vested interest in rooting for her team.  But the mainstream media was equally uncritical.  Reporters from major print and broadcast media outlets savored tidbits from the interview as if they were truly revelatory.

Oh, isn’t that cool, the Pope loves Mozart and Fellini!  And he thinks the hierarchy can be overly prescriptive!

The Pope’s quotes were good, but if you read the entire interview, you realized that America got “Reagan-ed.”  You know, you let a powerful person’s wonderful sound bites prevent you from finding out what he actually has in mind and how he will govern.

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Spare Us From Reporters With Agendas

In Blog on October 5, 2013 at 10:23 am

I wrote this blog before the shutdown.   During the crisis, David Farhenthold did solid reporting.  But now that it is over for the time being, I fear he’s repeating the same troubling pattern.  His October 20 front-page story focuses on the strategic errors House Republicans made in trying to achieve their budget goals.  But he neglects to mention one crucial fact.  There was an election in 2012, and the election was a referendum on spending priorities.  Many of the priorities that certain Republicans espouse were soundly rejected by the voters.

On September 27, as much  of Washington was consumed by doubts about a government shutdown, the front page of The Washington Post was consumed by something else – the story of one Mike Marsh, a federal worker urging Congress to defund his agency.  The headline “Fire Me,” was the size that newspapers usually reserve for declarations of war or presidential election results.

But this story, at best, should have been treated as a feature story, not a news story.  Lord knows, it contained very little news.

I’m not saying the Post should not have run  it.  It was a typical “man bites dog” news event.  But here’s the problem.  The reporter did little to enlighten readers, about whether there was any truth to Marsh’s claim that the agency in question, The Denali Commission, is useless.

What makes this front-page story all the more curious is that Marsh declined to be interviewed for it.  Yes, that’s right.  He sent his complaints about the commission to the Post and Congress, and responded to some emails, but that’s it.

What do we find out from this story?  How much The Denali Commission currently receives in federal funds,- $10.6 million annually –  and that the entire Alaska congressional delegation supports it.  Marsh claims that its purpose  – to help get federal assistance to communities in Alaska that need it – isn’t necessary.  He also contends that the commission builds projects in tiny Alaska settlements – power plants or health clinics – that the citizens can’t afford to maintain.

These are criticisms worth investigating.  But reporter David A. Fahrenthold never bothers to do any actual reporting. He never tries to  get to the truth.  Does Marsh – who is Inspector General for the Commission and commutes to his job from his home in Phoenix  when needed – have a point, or is he simply a loose cannon?

What has the Denali Commission accomplished or failed to accomplish?  Fahrenthold quotes the Commission’s top federal official, Joel Neimeyer, but it is difficult to know what he asked him.  All the story focuses on is Neimeyer’s views on Marsh.  At the very least, you would have wanted someone at the Commission to respond directly to Marsh’s charges.

Fahrenthold seeks out a labor representative on the commission, Vince Beltrami. But again, Fahrenthold  focuses on Beltrami’s reaction to Marsh’s attempt to defund the agency, not the work of the agency itself.

If this were a real news story, you might even get a list of what the commission cites as its accomplishments and try to contact people in the communities that the commission claims to have helped.

You might call mayors and community development specialists in the state to see if the Commission was doing a good job.  Even if they didn’t feel free to speak on the record, you’d get a better understanding of what this tiny federal agency was doing or failing to do.

I rarely say a reporter has an agenda.  But a spate of recent stories under Fahrenthold’s byline makes me think he’s angling for a position at the libertarian Cato Institute.  (One pleasant and recent exception: his September 29 story on agency waste that results from “use or lose it” policies for spending at the end of the fiscal year.)

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