former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Archive for September, 2014|Monthly archive page

Toasting the First Amendment and mourning the Orange Revolution’s bitter aftermath

In Blog on September 20, 2014 at 12:01 pm

Powell Tate, the DC strategic communications firm founded by Carter consigliere the late Jody Powell, and Sheila Tate, an adviser to the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush,  annually holds a reception to celebrate the First Amendment.  The celebration takes place on Sept. 18, one day after Constitution Day, marking the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787. It’s always a grand occasion, particularly when the September weather is balmy.  Many journalism groups, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, are on hand to raise a glass to our rights as citizens and journalists.

This year, Sept. 18 also was the day the President of Ukraine spoke to a joint session of Congress, urging U.S. help for his embattled country.

Both events reminded me of my good fortune to have worked as a journalist and as a public interest advocate in a democracy, no matter how flawed or polarized.  It also brought back memories of the Ukrainian activists I met nearly a decade ago, who, for a time, seemed so close to pursuing their democratic dreams.

Even after winning  independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Ukraine struggled for more than a decade to build a society where human rights were respected, elections meant something and  a free press could hold government accountable.

But in 2004, people formed a mass movement, dubbed the Orange Revolution, to protest a rigged election that was about to deny power to a reformer, Viktor Yushchenko. Election returns were blatantly recalculated in an attempt to keep power in the hands of a pro-Russian  politician, Viktor Yanukovych, whose political base was in Donetsk, now the epicenter of the current scrisis.  Yushchenko’s campaign was stymied by the state-run media’s biased coverage. He was harassed by government spies, and became seriously ill from dioxin poisoning, likely the work of the opposition. But the people’s voices were so great the reformer ultimately assumed the presidency.

(Yanukovych ultimately had a second act in the Ukraine, and as President, his refusal to sign an agreement linking his country more closely to Europe led to demonstrations that forced him out of office.  The tumult gave Russian president Vladimir Putin an excuse to move in, take control of Crimea, and to stir up and aid the opposition elsewhere in the country.)

In 2005, I was vice president for advocacy for the good-government group, Common Cause.    I was asked by Freedom House to fly to Kiev to conduct an intensive training on whistle-blowing for new Ukrainian activists.  It was a wonderful group.  They had all played roles in the Orange Revolution.  And they were bursting with enthusiasm.  They wanted to hold this new democracy accountable.  They wanted to learn how to get the information they needed to call attention to the government’s flaws.

I still have the binder I brought with me, listing the students and their aspirations.    Most were engaged in local democracy.  One group wanted to hold elected officials in Odessa accountable for keeping their campaign promises.  Another was monitoring the allocation of land in Kiev and other cities, to make sure that the public had a say in those decisions. Some activists wanted to measure the effectiveness of youth initiatives in the Kirovograd region, while others were speaking up for rural voters, working to ensure their access to information about local public authorities.

We discussed a whole range of tactics to hold officials’ feet to the fire.   Somehow we communicated through a mixture of English, Ukrainian, Russian and German.

I kept a list of some of the goals they came up with:  We will hold five workshops to educate ‘grass-tops’ – the heads of local organizations — about civic engagement; We will send our research product to ten journalists.  We will create a rapid response team when our calls for reform are not answered.

They were not naïve.  They understood that Yushchenko was no  saint.  And they knew their country had serious problems with corruption.  We discussed the need for an independent civil service, transparency when it came to campaign contributions, laws to protect whistle-blowers.  I told them that we still struggled with these reforms in the United States.

But they were so proud of what they had accomplished.  On a rainy, bitterly cold night in Kiev, they took me on a special, Orange Revolution tour.  We walked miles in the cold drizzle, as they pointed out the spots where the demonstrators had massed.  They told me about placing  large television monitors in view of the soldiers defending  government buildings, so that they could see the protesters, and comprehend the power of this mass movement.  They gave me a small orange scarf, a souvenir of the revolution.  It was the best walking tour I ever had.

Back in the classroom, the enthusiasm was tempered by wariness.  I was taken aback when one young woman asked me: “When you criticize the government, what do you do when there’s a knock on your door and you are threatened?”

I did not have an answer for her then.  I don’t have one for her now.

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Starving in a “news desert”

In Blog on September 15, 2014 at 11:15 am

I don’t know what depressed me more.  Columbia Journalism Review’s story on respected media outlets increasingly using contributors, often unpaid, to beef up their online content, or the fact that the journalists who read CJR haven’t bothered to comment on it.  Perhaps they’re too busy struggling to keep their own jobs.

The story’s author emphasized the need for editorial scrutiny of contributors’ content, more fact-checking and policing for any outrageous comments or errors.

But the story also reminded me that we are drowning in opinion and commentary, and starving for fact-based news analysis.  It’s like being surrounded by fast-food joints and unable to find a store selling fruits and vegetables.

Just as there are “food deserts” in America’s inner cities, we seem to be experiencing “news deserts” throughout the country.  There is work for journalists to do, but the people who own media outlets do not appear to value that work, or want to pay for it.

We have public policy debates that cry out for fact-based analysis.

Take, for example, the question whether an increase in the minimum wage increases kill jobs.  In most cases, journalists shrug, and quote an opponent and a proponent offering up different points of view.  But there are ways to find answers to these and other public policy questions.

You look to the experience of locales that have raised the minimum wage.   You seek data about higher wages and their impact on productivity and worker retention. You explore the minimum wage policies of other countries, particularly those that have had a history of high productivity.  You return to the public debate the last time the minimum wage was increased, and determine whether any of the predictions – good or ill – came true.

I was happy to see Dana Milbank use his column to explore some of these questions. But we’re still talking commentary, and a column can easily be discounted by those who disagree.  And even Milbank concedes that the column was not attempting to offer a definitive answer.

What we need is more explanatory journalism. I concede it is difficult to do, takes time and staff resources.  But that’s what differentiates journalism from most online opinion.

It’s been a long time since the Philadelphia Inquirer gave Donald Barlett and Jim Steele the time to explain why the American economy had failed average families.  Their 1991 series, “America: What Went Wrong” generated huge reader response.  In a pre-Internet era, the paper got requests for more than half a million reprints, and the stories were re-published in newspapers throughout the country.  When the series became a book, it landed on the New York Times bestseller list for eight months.

Barlett and Steele still practice journalism, now at Vanity Fair, their substantive pieces competing for readers’ attention along with stories about Jennifer Anniston, Jay Z and James Franco.  When they revisited the topic of their 1991 series in 2012, they collaborated with the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University.  Their work was published as a book, The Betrayal of the American Dream.

It had an impact, — also becoming a New York Times bestseller — but not the electrifying impact of the first series, which reached hundreds of thousands of average Americans, who valued newspapers because they provided them with information and analysis that made a difference in their lives.

And that’s the real tragedy.  Average citizens, struggling to make sense of the world, get so little assistance from the one profession that could help them better understand it.