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Spotlight’s forgotten reporter

In Blog on February 27, 2016 at 4:45 pm

The two institutions that have most shaped my life – journalism and the Catholic Church – collide in the stunning film, Spotlight. It is the story of the investigative reporting team whose reporters uncovered the systematic cover-up of sexual abuse of children by priests in the archdiocese of Boston. The film is up for five Academy Awards, including best picture.

The Globe’s exposé was published in early 2002. But nine months before, in March 2001, the Boston Phoenix, the alternative weekly, published its story, “Cardinal sin,” which explored in depth allegations that Cardinal Bernard Law was complicit in the abuse cover-up. Kristen Lombardi wrote that first story, and continued her reporting, writing eight stories in all. The Globe’s reporting did not acknowledge her work.

Lombardi lacked the resources of The Globe and was largely working alone, although guided by her editors. But Lombardi, then a young and relatively green reporter, did her best. Her role was consigned to only a throw-away line in the film, when a reporter from The Globe describes the Phoenix as a weak and under-resourced rival that “nobody reads.”

Others have noted The Globe’s dismissal of Lombardi’s contribution. In 2012, media critic Jim Romenesko posted a letter from Susan Ryan-Vollmar on his popular website. Ryan-Vollmar, Lombardi’s editor at the Phoenix, chided The Globe for not acknowledging Lombardi’s ground-breaking work. Ryan-Vollmar praised The Globe’s “phenomenal” coverage, but wondered why the paper seemed determined to take “100 percent of the credit,” unwilling to concede even ten percent to the stories the Phoenix published.

Boston Magazine revisited the credit controversy last fall, when Spotlight premiered.

Despite not getting the credit she deserved, Lombardi went on to become an accomplished investigative reporter. She earned a Nieman journalism fellowship for study at Harvard University and several national journalism awards. She’s now a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity.

I interviewed Lombardi for my forthcoming book, Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope. Like so many of the reporters in the film, Lombardi was born and raised Catholic. She went to Mass with her family, made her First Communion and was confirmed.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Mario Cuomo: May He Rest in Peace

In Blog on January 2, 2015 at 8:46 pm

I was one of the journalists who covered Mario Cuomo when he was governor of New York in the 1980s and 1990s.  The three-term governor, considered one of the liberal lights of the Democratic party, died on January 1, hours after his son, Andrew, was sworn in for his second term as governor.

I was more fortunate than most because I was bureau chief for a chain of business weeklies.  I did not have to treat the governor’s news conferences as events for which I had to file a daily story.  I could use his comments as background for in-depth pieces I would write about state policy, or include in my weekly column.  So I had the luxury of viewing them almost as performance art — events that sometimes provided insights into the most complicated and tortured politician I’d ever encountered.

To understand what it was like to cover Mario Cuomo, you had to understand what it was like to work as a reporter in New York’s capital, Albany.  The city is about two hours away from Manhattan, the place a good number of the state’s elected representatives called home. New York City, after all, is where more than a third of the state’s voters live and work.

Albany itself is an old city with cold, snowy winters, a downtown long on lovely brick buildings but short on interesting restaurants or cultural venues.  If a city can have a personality, I would call Albany a cranky place; a town where civility wasn’t very pronounced and people tended to be suspicious of one another.

Perhaps they resented the sprawling state government complex, its acres of modern agency buildings flanked around a turn-of-the-20th-century state capitol that looked like a cross between a medieval castle and an institute for the mentally ill.  Mount the steep steps of the capitol building, and go through the revolving doors, and suddenly you were in Manhattan again.  The women were sleeker and far better dressed than those in the suburbs of Albany.  The pace inside those doors was quick, the politics were cutthroat.

Reporters had to be approved for membership in the Legislative Correspondents Association in order to get access to the capitol press room.  At the time I worked there, it looked like something that could have been created by Ben Hecht, the author of The Front Page.  Reporters were jammed together, representing a variety of news outlets from all over New York.    Computers were precariously connected to wall sockets that threatened to explode from overloaded circuits.  The New York Times and Newsday had more private enclaves within the space.  The Albany papers had their own space across the hall.

And there was a hierarchy.  One reporter said that the Newsday reporters spoke only to reporters from the Times, and the Times reporters spoke only to God. What brought all of us together, however, was our singular frustration with Cuomo.  Cuomo rarely gave direct answers to questions.  Indeed, he’d usually respond to a question by posing his own question.

The Socratic Method can be a way of eliciting truth, but in Cuomo’s hands, it was a weapon.  He did not have kind feelings for the Albany press corps.  He seemed to view the media as an enemy to be foiled.  Other politicians – Bill Clinton for one – courted reporters and knew how to enlist the media as an ally. I do believe that in his heart of hearts Cuomo thought that most journalists were out to get him.

Not that he was oblivious to the symbiosis that naturally exists between a governor and his state house correspondents.  Annually, the reporters would perform a satirical show for the governor and Albany insiders, similar to the Washington journalists’ Gridiron show, but in my view, way funnier.

The dress rehearsal always got bigger laughs than the performance the following night.  That’s because the governor attended the performance, as did his predecessors.  And with each line, his staff would look over to see if Cuomo was laughing – in order to determine if it was safe for them to laugh, too.

I don’t recall how funny he thought it was, but one of my all-time favorites was the routine satirizing a typical encounter between Cuomo and a reporter.  The setting was a high school class, and Cuomo was a student. The teacher asks Cuomo a simple question: “Did you do your homework?”    Associated Press reporter Bob Bellafiore brilliantly captured Cuomo, who responds with a series of questions of his own.  Was the teacher asking where his homework was? Was he asking whether he had done his homework?  Was he asking whether the homework was physically in the classroom?

You had to be there to get the humor, but in truth, it was not that far from a typical Cuomo response to a question.  You could not pin the man down.  Reporters started bringing two tape recorders to press conferences, one to record his latest answers and another to play back his previous responses when he would deny having uttered them.  The Governor would never explain.  Nor would he ever admit to error.

I don’t think he behaved this way out of pride.  Quite the opposite.  I think he carried with him the sense that somehow he’d never be fully accepted.  He was acutely sensitive to prejudice against Italian-Americans, something he felt blocked his aspirations early on in his legal career.  Like Richard Nixon, he never felt like an insider. Those jokes he told about his mother, who always seemed unimpressed about the success he achieved, were self-deprecation tinged with a bit of hurt.  And being an outsider, he was wary of any coverage that might be critical. So he always remained on the offensive.

Even the Governor’s annual baseball game with the press corps was played for keeps.  Cuomo was notorious for larding his team with the beefiest State Troopers he could find.  He always wanted to win.

It was this nagging self-doubt that haunted him, I believe.  This sense that he would never be good enough.  The irony of course is that reporters wanted so much to believe in him.  The man’s oratory could soar, and he was faithful to a strong ethical code.  He was not your typical pol.  He opposed the death penalty when most New Yorkers supported it.  He reminded America that the gauzy visions of Ronald Regan did not help the nation’s poor and oppressed.

People regret that Cuomo never ran for president, that he could have been elected.  But I doubt that.  The national press corps would have become disillusioned with the great orator from the 1984 Democratic convention, after encountering the prickly antagonist that the Albany press corps knew.

And Cuomo rose to power when Italian-American politicians often were assumed to have connections to organized crime. Indeed, throughout Mario Cuomo’s career, there were whispers about such ties.  There was absolutely no evidence to back them up, but Cuomo knew that they’d surface in a campaign, anyway. I think the same fears may also have prompted him to pull back from a Supreme Court nomination during the Clinton Administration.  Confirmation battles can be fierce and unforgiving. Indeed, his aversion to even the word, “Mafia” was so strong, he boycotted the “Godfather” films until 2013.  (Now, of course, with the Court dominated by an Alito and a Scalia, these fears of Mafia connections seem ludicrous.)

I don’t think Cuomo shied away from running because he had something to hide.  I just think he found the specter of battling these rumors day after day for months on end unpleasant, something to be avoided.  He did not want to have to justify himself and his honor, after achieving a measure of success and respect he’d fought so hard to gain.

Perhaps I see in Mario Cuomo a little of my own father, also the son of Italian immigrants.  My father never achieved the heights that Cuomo achieved.  But they both grew up at a time when prejudice against Italian-Americans was common.  My father always was dogged by the fear that he was not good enough, always afraid to take risks.  He came so close to achieving so much more.

Cuomo always liked to talk about the difference between the poetry of the campaign and the prose of governance.   Cuomo’s prose of governing did not soar. But he was a good and decent man.  If he had the insecurity of a Nixon, he never let it get the better of him, never permitted it to violate his conscience or his core beliefs.

I hope that in his final decades, Mario Cuomo took pleasure in what he was able to achieve.  If there is a heaven, perhaps the Governor will be able to engage Socrates himself in the exchanges that so frustrated the reporters covering him.

Information deficit disorder jeopardizes our democracy

In Blog on December 20, 2014 at 7:38 pm

Before I took up a career as a public interest lobbyist, I was a journalist.  And in my heart of hearts, I continue to think like a journalist.  Indeed, I have been so emotionally wedded to the profession that I wrote a book, Out of the News: Former Journalists Discuss a Profession in Crisis to deal with my own feelings about leaving.  But journalists continue to break my heart, and not because I long to be a reporter again.  It is because my second career reminds me how important – and increasingly how rare – good journalism is.

Daily, I walk the halls of Congress and hope to persuade Members to oppose proposals that will harm the public good, and to advance proposals that will benefit it.

I don’t expect reporters to agree with me.  But what is so discouraging is that mainstream media reporters increasingly are not interested in covering what Congress does, or fails to do, until the eleventh hour before a crucial vote or perhaps after the final days of a congressional session when something important is left undone.

Columbia Journalism Review recently wrote a story about the media’s lack of interest in a strongly bipartisan bill that came within inches of getting approved by Congress before Members left for good at the end of December.

The bill would have strengthened the federal Freedom of Information law, making it easier for all citizens, including journalists, to gain access to information shedding light on the workings of their government.

The point of the CJR story, and a blog by New York Times ombudsman Margaret Sullivan, was that the media should have energetically reported on the stalemate for legislation that stood to benefit journalism directly.  After all, a free press thrives when government operates transparently.

That’s true.  But the problem is much bigger.  The dirty little secret in Washington is that by and large the press corps does a terrible job covering 90 percent of what happens in Congress and how it affects average Americans.

I can’t tell you how many meetings public interest lobbyists convene to figure out just what angle of a complicated policy matter might draw the interest, no matter how fleeting, of a distracted press corps.

We know we can’t present anything too complicated, that the details must be written in text that is easily accessible, and brief.

We understand that many reporters want “stories” not memos.

We know they want “sexy” not “wonky” and have to convince editors who have even less patience.

But it gets old, this constant struggle to entertain.  And it wears you down, when big fights over things you care about fail to capture the media’s attention, and thus never really become a part of the public debate.

There are definitely some exceptions.  Reuters reporter Sharon Begley has bravely gone where few journalists have — delving into the wonky world of cost-benefit analysis.  She has written about “the lost pleasure principle”— and how it could weaken pending federal efforts to address the potential health hazards of e-cigarettes and to inform the public about the nutritional value of their restaurant meals.

Washington Post reporters Tom Hamburger and Matea Gold have done a splendid job tracking the new methods deep-pocketed special interests are using to influence public policy.

But consistent careful coverage of federal policymaking is by far the exception, rather than the rule. Media outlets can rise to the occasion, especially when a government failure creates dramatic story lines – patients crippled by defective hip implants, mounting deaths because of tainted products from compounding pharmacies, or environmental disasters.

But they too often lose interest, and don’t follow up to see if our elected officials do enough to address the problem that caused the crisis in the first place.

Reporters change beats.  Newspapers change owners.  There is little sustained attention to federal agencies, or Congressional committees.  Sometimes, as when Sen. Elizabeth Warren takes to the floor to attack a spending bill because it will jeopardize our financial system, the media takes notice.  But Warren had been warning for months about efforts to weaken government regulation of banks. It was only in the final hours of the final days of the 113th Congress that most reporters noticed.  And then, of course, it was too late for the public to weigh in.

Let me be clear.  It is not the media’s job to arouse either outrage or approval.  But if Americans are in the dark about what Congress does or fails to do, they can’t assess the performance of their elected representatives or knowledgably express their views.

Journalism is in transition now, and mainstream media newsrooms have lost thousands of jobs.  Newspapers throughout the country shut down their Washington bureaus, depriving us of seasoned reporters who were covering their local members of Congress.  One can only hope that publishers, editors, and owners of broadcast media outlets will come to realize that journalists cannot shirk the duty they have to the American public – to inform citizens so they can govern themselves.

Christmas wishes and rape

In Blog on December 14, 2014 at 6:12 pm

In the wake of the controversy over Rolling Stone’s story about campus rape, and the response from The Washington Post, I have a few wishes:

I wish solid reporting on sexual abuse on campus received the attention it deserved.

I wish that rape victims always were treated with the respect, seriousness and care for the truth that Kristen Lombardi so well exemplifies.  Her nine-month investigation in 2009 won her several national journalism awards.  But it didn’t prompt to the media attention that Rolling Stone’s story did last month. (And praise to Post blogger Alyssa Rosenberg for reminding us that telling the stories of rape victims demands special skills from journalists.)

I wish Rolling Stone’s sensational rape story had held up and that the reporter had done a better job checking her facts before questions about the veracity of her explosive central anecdote undermined in some people’s minds the fundamental premise of her story: that rape victims find it difficult to come forward on campus, scared of their attackers and unsure that the university will believe them or protect them.

The story of the woman reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely called Jackie was the vivid narrative that held our attention, but the article also contained the stories of other women who spoke on the record and allowed their full names to be used.  It also contained a penetrating critique of a campus culture that seems to prefer less accountability and more genteel silence, even if that means hurting sexual assault victims and even, potentially, those who are wrongfully accused.

I wish that the collapse of this one vivid anecdote had not skewed coverage of the larger issue in the Post.  Indeed in its initial follow-up to the Rolling Stone article – before the questions about Jackie’s story arose – the Post was writing solid pieces about the way U-VA responds or fails to respond to victims of sexual assault.

For example, I wish the Post had diverted some of the resources it devoted to reacting to the Rolling Stone story to covering the Senate hearing on campus sexual assaults, instead of relying on an Associated Press story.

Instead, not only have the Post’s two media critics – Paul Farhi and blogger Erik Wemple –  weighed in several times about the flawed reporting, we’ve had several very long pieces on its factual errors.  The Post did a public service in initially raising doubts about the veracity of certain aspects of Jackie’s account, but the the paper now risks losing sight of the larger institutional problem that the story attempted to illustrate.

I wish more stories like this one  by Nick Anderson were part of the Post’s ongoing coverage.

I wish the Post had not given the sleazy blogger who recklessly chose to reveal what he claims is the name of the rape victim the attention he so desperately craves.

I wish that Post editors don’t lose sight of the balanced views the Post editorial staff has wisely conveyed.

I wish the Post had devoted as much energy, outrage, and general chest thumping to debunking the shoddy journalism that helped send us to war in Iraq, leading to more than 100,000 violent deaths, as it has to this one failure in a key part of one story by Rolling Stone.

Finally, I wish, desperately, that a newspaper that once nominated a story for the Pulitzer Prize whose central character turned out to have been fabricated out of whole cloth, would, just for a moment, stop being so self-righteous about this incident.  And move on.

Bradlee’s legacy should be about the journalism, not the power and privilege

In Blog on November 2, 2014 at 1:03 pm

Ever since longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee shuffled off this mortal coil at the venerable age of 93, the Post has luxuriated in the wonderfulness of itself and its past.  I hesitate to estimate the amount of newsprint that has been devoted to lionizing the former editor.

I understand the attention.  What was disturbing, however, was the way praise for the man was so intertwined with mourning for a time when the D.C. world was dominated by a media elite, who mingled with the city’s rich and powerful.

What’s left of that elite remain engaged in an orgy of nostalgia for the world of privilege and power that no longer sustains journalism.  Thank God for that.

Nearly all the column inches seemed to be a dirge for that life, for the power that elite journalists once wielded, and for the way they hosted and attended exclusive dinner parties, where their views mattered and they commanded the attention of hundreds of thousands of readers, and even more important, the highest ranks in government.   Aside from the iconic Watergate scandal, the praise for his stewardship of the Post largely failed to mention anything else.

Praise for Bradlee skewed to the parts of him that mattered least, in terms of his journalistic legacy.

He was glamorous.  Although an American aristocrat, he was willing to eat lunch with reporters in the Post lunchroom.  He was brash.  He was easily distracted.  He was buoyant. He was profane.  He was a spiffy dresser, at least after his third wife, Sally Quinn, took him in hand.

Women loved him and men wanted to be like him.

This luxuriating in loss culminated in the breathless story about the invitation-only post-funeral reception at the Bradlees’ Georgetown home that drew all of Washington’s power elite to a soiree more exclusive than a White House dinner.  About 800 of what are said to be Washington’s best and brightest toasted their fallen hero in a white tent on the lawn of his Georgetown mansion.

But the best journalism is written by journalists who are outsiders, far enough from the centers of power so that they can perceive its flaws and are willing to breach its secrecy.  Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who exposed the Watergate scandal, were Metro reporters.  They were not yet invited to tony dinner parties when they pursued what seemed to be a crime story.  The Post’s Washington correspondents did not realize its importance or pursue it.

To his credit, Bradlee let his green reporters go after the story, and backed them up in their dogged efforts to follow every lead.  He did so, despite threats by the White House to punish both him and publisher Katherine Graham.  And Woodward and Bernstein’s recollection of Bradlee as editor rightfully praised him for his courage and doggedness.

But one does wonder if the Post would have been so willing to expose a president who had conspired to violate the constitution if he had been wittier, more charming, more “their sort” than the socially clumsy Richard Nixon.  The Nixon White House had power, but it lacked the patina that often comes with it.  (In an otherwise positive assessment of Bradlee, Charles Pierce observed that the glamorous John F. Kennedy should have received more scrutiny from Bradlee when he was a reporter and also Kennedy’s friend, and that the Post refrained from a full-bore investigation of the Iran-Contra affair, wary of the perception that the press only went after Republican presidents, not a sufficient reason to investigate a violation of constitutional principles even greater than Watergate. Reagan, too, was a far more popular president than Nixon.)

We should not mourn the glory days of the media elite, when expense accounts were fat, and reporters did not have to compete for attention with grubby online upstarts.

We should honor the legacy of the solid and often brilliant work that Bradlee’s stewardship encouraged and permitted.  But we should remember that good work nearly always is done by those who remain outside the tent, not comfortably ensconced within it.

Killing the messenger — again: New film arouses new ire from big media

In Blog on October 18, 2014 at 7:46 pm

I remember when Gary Webb’s story about the CIA, the Nicaraguan Contras and drug trafficking broke in the mid-1990s.  I remember the reaction of big papers to that story.  I read the book by Nick Schou on which the terrific new film, “Kill the Messenger” is based.

I am no expert on the CIA or drug trafficking.  But what has always saddened me is the approach the mainstream media took when Webb’s story broke.

The film portrays Webb as an investigative reporter who got the story right, but was unfairly discredited by other journalists at bigger newspapers.  The film has given those in big-time media another chance to take a whack at the story and Webb’s reputation.  Some have at least hinted at having second thoughts about how Webb was treated.  But others have not mellowed. Not even Webb’s suicide in 2004 seems to have dampened their ire.

“Dark Alliance”, Webb’s three-part series, published in 1996 in the San Jose Mercury News, is a convoluted tale because the story is complicated.  At its heart is the fact that in the 1980s, the Reagan Administration secretly, and illegally, supported a war that the public did not approve and which, eventually, Congress refused to fund.

The Iran-Contra scandal established that secret and illegal support.  Webb, however, found two Contra supporters who were also smuggling cocaine into the U.S.  The smugglers told him that the CIA knew of their activities and that drug money had been used to support the Contras.  What made the story so appalling is that the cocaine that was smuggled made its way into the inner city of Los Angeles, where the crack cocaine epidemic devastated African-American neighborhoods.

It’s one thing to turn a blind eye to the source of Contra money, and quite another to encourage or cooperate with the smuggling.  Webb’s words may not have claimed CIA direct involvement, but the graphics and headlines of the series seemed to lead to that conclusion.  The series, one of the first to go viral on the Internet, prompted rage from African American leaders and activists.

Because of its Silicon Valley location, the Mercury News was a pioneer when it came to making use of the internet, but it still was a relatively small newspaper.  The country’s big news outlets at first tried to ignore the story.  But the public outcry was so great, they couldn’t.  Their approach to “Dark Alliance” was not journalism’s finest hour.

At The Washington Post, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, reporters did not painstakingly take the time to verify the parts of the story that Webb got right, and to advance the story, or give it more context, something that often happens when an initial story creates waves.

Instead, reporters set out to discredit the story and its author.  They seemed to have inordinate respect for official sources at the CIA, such a wellspring of unblemished truth, and no respect for the dogged and solid reporting that Webb did.

Was Webb’s series perfect? No. Did it need more editing, and a less fervent tone?  Yes.  Has that ever happened before in the history of journalism?  Only every day.

But Webb had committed the unpardonable sin.  He made senior reporters, working for bigger news outlets, look like chumps.  They weren’t going to stand for that.

And he wrote his story at a time when the American public still retained some faith in its governmental institutions.  Yes, this was post-Watergate.  But the fact that the Watergate scandal was uncovered, and a President was held accountable, supposedly proved that the system worked.

Webb’s story cast doubts on the foundations of democracy in a much more fundamental way.  At the very least, it questioned whether the government funded an illegal war with reckless disregard for the source of those funds, or its impact on American communities.

After the media’s excoriation of Webb, Geneva Overholser, a distinguished journalist and The Washington Post’s ombudsman at the time, criticized the Webb story as “seriously flawed” for leading readers to conclude that the CIA knowingly permitted crack cocaine to be imported into the U.S., causing untold harm to inner city neighborhoods.

But Overholser’s critique didn’t stop there.  She also skewered big media for never expending energy on addressing “the serious questions the series raised.  Instead, she wrote, “The Post ( and the others) showed more passion for sniffing out the flaws in San Jose’s answer than for sniffing out a better answer themselves.”  The reporters haggled over the details – the amount of cocaine smuggled into the country; the amount of drug money that found its way to the Contras.  But they didn’t objectively try to find out whether the story’s fundamental premise was true.

Overholser noted that Post editors and reporters had been aware of “strong previous evidence that the CIA at least chose to overlook contra involvement in the drug trade.” But the paper didn’t follow up.  (Indeed, one Post reporter who tried had his own work squelched by his editors. He concluded that Webb’s story had been essentially right.)

The Webb series could have given the Post the opportunity to have re-examined that evidence, Overholser wrote. “Alas dismissing someone else’s story as old news comes more naturally.”

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.

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.

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.

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