former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Archive for August, 2014|Monthly archive page

The Post should have thought twice about running this op-ed

In Blog on August 22, 2014 at 11:16 am

Last Sunday, The Washington Post give its valuable Sunday real estate to a woman whose only credentials for writing about the pro-choice movement happen to be her personal experience undergoing an abortion.   Yes, the writer runs a media analysis firm, and was communications director for Emily’s List, which raises political contributions for pro-choice candidates.  But that doesn’t make her an expert on either morality, or the views of women who have had an abortion, or how a fetus develops in the womb.

Do opinion page editors have a responsibility to not be stupid when they seek out divergent views?

I think they do.  I believe that not all opinions are created equal, and that particularly if they express rather extreme views, the writer ought to demonstrate expertise that goes beyond, “Well, I had this experience, and so I believe X.”

Personal experience is fine, but it shouldn’t be sufficient credentials for anyone who writes for the The Post’s Opinion pages, particularly its Sunday Outlook section.

And yet, again and again, I see this desire by The Post to go with the idiosyncratic voice who has a personal story but nothing else to back up his or her views.  I’m sure these voices draw readers and comments.  But I think it’s irresponsible for a paper of The Post’s caliber to give away its space and soapbox to the next fluent, if inexpert, writer that comes along.

I know this view is not held by everyone.  Many people I respect feel that opinion pages should welcome a variety of views that are well written, including those that rely primarily on personal experience.  But even if you believe that this particular op-ed was appropriate for the The Post, it seems to me that it should not have run without equal space given to a rebuttal view.

It appears that the writer considers abortion more a messaging problem to be addressed rather than an issue that evokes strong views on both sides.  She critiques those in the pro-choice camp who would call the decision to terminate pregnancy a difficult one.  Her contention: It wasn’t a difficult decision for her to undergo an abortion, so it shouldn’t be for other women.  She cites statistics that really don’t measure whether other woman view abortion through her narrow lens.  The numbers she uses only show that an unintended or unplanned pregnancy is a major reason for abortion, not whether the decision was a difficult one for the women involved.  She cites a medical journal reporting that the vast majority of women who decide to undergo abortion have a “high confidence” in their decision.  But again, these findings do not prove that many women did not consider their decision carefully and thoughtfully.

She also includes data that report that women want to undergo an abortion as quickly as possible.  She cites that as additional evidence that women do not struggle to make this decision; others would hypothesize that women can tussle with a decision and be desirous of speed at the same time.

Her refusal to accord the fetus “a status of being” is simply outlandish, as radical as the view held by many in the pro-life movement who consider the fetus equivalent to a person.  One would be hard-pressed to deny that the fetus is a potential human being.   Indeed, the science is working in the other direction – providing viable outcomes to babies born prematurely earlier and earlier in their fetal development.

Her statistics don’t make the case that abortion is not a moral issue to thousands of women, including those who are vigorously pro-choice and those who have had an abortion.  And when you present such an extreme view, doesn’t The Post have the responsibility to offer the opportunity for rebuttal to those who would disagree?

To its credit, The Post has let those who disagree air their views as Letters to the Editor.  But we all know that doesn’t carry the same weight as an Outlook piece, and it’s difficult to rebut in 250 words or less.


In Memoriam James Foley: May Journalism Prove Itself Worthy of His Legacy

In Blog on August 20, 2014 at 8:33 pm

James Foley led an exceptional life.  On August 19, the world learned that Foley, who was captured in Syria by ISIS terrorists two years ago, was beheaded in retaliation for recent US bombings of ISIS positions in Iraq.  He was exceptional, but not privileged.  He was not famous.

He was a free-lancer, mostly on his own in the world’s most dangerous places. He was poorly paid and likely didn’t even get health insurance.

He was just one free-lance photojournalist taken hostage by an enemy.  He was among the itinerant shock troops of the news profession, the media soldiers serving news outlets that are willing to have them risk their lives to generate stories and photos, but unwilling to spend their capital to give them a secure base, and a dependable income.

Foley didn’t get paid the millions of dollars the networks provide to their fluffed and puffed anchors, the people who for the most part read the news, not cover it.

He didn’t get the attention of the media elite, so fixated on the minor travails of David Gregory, who was inelegantly dropped from Meet the Press last week.

He didn’t get the access to power afforded that small circle who cover the President, having to endure those tedious stints on Martha’s Vineyard or Hawaii, or face the backpedaling and obfuscation of the White House press secretary.

He didn’t get the comps and perks of the reporters who cover Hollywood, or write about film, and jet off to Cannes.

He wasn’t a household word, like the people who host the morning shows and have a loyal following and present the news, interspersed with segments on cooking and hair care.

He didn’t have millions of twitter followers, like some of the entertainment bloggers.

What James Foley was, was a journalist. As his parents said, a person who gives witness.  A person whose sense of mission is unquenchable.  Like a fireman compelled to go back into a burning building to look for survivors, Foley returned to the world’s most dangerous places to make sure that the rest of us did not forget about those enduring great violence, fear and deprivation.

James Foley was special in life because he risked his to force us to see the world’s sorrows and face the world’s injustice.

He was special in death because long after this stint of terrorism is over, his example and his work will inspire generations of reporters who come into this profession not for the money or fame or public acclaim, but because they are called to give witness. At the very least, these brave reporters and photojournalists deserve real jobs, with sufficient pay and health insurance.  But they should receive so much more – our respect, admiration and our loyalty.

Let us hope that in the future, the profession may be worthy of Foley’s legacy and that of his colleagues putting themselves in harm’s way.


Social Media Led the Way, Now Mainstream News Must Keep the Spotlight on Ferguson

In Blog on August 18, 2014 at 9:00 am

Guest post by my daughter, Valerie Wexler

Hands up. Don’t shoot. We all know that powerful refrain now. A community echoing what were possibly Michael Brown’s last words before being shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

We know the chant now, but yet again it took the mainstream media a while to understand the full implications of a story that social media was on top of for days.

On August 9th and 10th I watched as news of yet another shooting of an unarmed black kid played out on Twitter. I posted this powerful piece by Roxane Gay, but even as I did I knew many people were still not paying attention. To those in the media or constantly on Twitter it seems like the world has become oversaturated with news, but many people outside that bubble still depend on mainstream media.

It was the arrests of the Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan J. Reilly on August 13th that finally propelled Ferguson into the spotlight. However even then the mainstream media was behind. Information from Ferguson came almost entirely in the form of tweets. During the night of the arrests, it appeared that the only news crews broadcasting from the area were a local station and one livestream (Al Jazeera America attempted to continue coverage but reporters were teargassed). In fact it’s quite likely that Lowery and Reilly would have stayed in jail overnight if their colleagues and followers hadn’t immediately noticed that they had stopped tweeting.

Though it appears to have been covered briefly, cable news did not stay with the story that night even as events continued to worsen, and many of those of us watching on social media seemed to be wondering the same thing, is anyone else seeing this?

The answer was too often, No, or only after the fact. The journalists who have been on the ground have done great work in conditions that at times closely resemble a war zone. Wesley Lowery’s account of his arrest was harrowing and he has clearly tried to continue reporting and not let himself become too much of the story. But too often the mainstream media- reporting the next day, after the police officers dressed in military gear with rifles pointed at a peaceful crowd had mostly dispersed- got it wrong.

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Bloomberg to DC: Drop Dead

In Blog on August 8, 2014 at 9:52 pm

I have a friend at Bloomberg’s Washington operation who is among the estimated 25 staffers that are losing their jobs at DC’s Bloomberg bureau.  They are among Washington’s best and most senior reporters.

This is a very disheartening move.  It’s bad enough when news outlets drop good people because of budget pressures.  But in this case, it appears that Bloomberg simply does not believe that covering the Congress, government or campaign finance is as important as covering the blood sport of politics.

Bloomberg reportedly is lavishing money on Game Change authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, both of whom live in the Big Apple.  According to Politico, Bloomberg is spending millions on these two reporters alone, an estimated $4 million through 2016.  The two reporters are gearing up a new political broadcast show for Bloomberg, a program replacing one hosted by longtime political journalist Al Hunt, who will continue to write a weekly column.  A new website also is part of the plan.

The American public is drowning in political coverage, which has become a genetically modified form of reporting, a mix of sports coverage and entertainment gossip, with some satire and cheekiness thrown in for good measure.  What do political reporters tell us?  Not much.  They predict and speculate as much as sports commentators, but with less reliability.  They show us the “game” behind the curtains of political campaigns, which is as entertaining as knowing the “behind the scenes” gossip of any enterprise.  But really, the Republic didn’t benefit a heck of a lot from the “information” in Game Change.

What citizens don’t know is how the federal government works, or how Congress works, or fails to work.  And don’t get me started on how badly nearly every news outlet does covering federal agencies.  After all, why would anyone want to know whether the Environmental Protection Agency is actually protecting the environment, or the Food and Drug Administration truly is truly ensuring our access to safe and effective prescription drugs and devices?  We only learned about the Veterans Administration and its flawed record serving vets because of brave whistleblowers at VA hospitals who couldn’t stand the abuses and spoke out.  It was only after years of misconduct triggered Congressional hearings and government investigations that this scandal got the media attention it deserved.

D.C. might be a backwater to some of the media elite, but it’s where government either fails or succeeds, and where corporations and other special interests spend their time and money trying to influence public policy.

Funny, you don’t see the nation’s biggest lobby firms pulling out of DC and moving to New York.  Maybe they know something media’s movers and shakers fail to grasp.