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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.

Tweets can be verbal shrapnel in war zones

In Blog, Uncategorized on July 25, 2014 at 8:23 pm

I know, I know. Journalism is the first draft of history. But even first drafts will profit from a little scrutiny. Which is one of the conclusions I drew after listening to Folkenflik’s thoughtful piece on covering the conflict in Gaza.

His story made the point that anyone who ventures into reporting on Mideast politics is likely to get criticized, with every nuance and word choice scrutinized for bias.

That’s unfair, if unavoidable. But reporters are adults, and provided they have responsible editors to support them when the charges of bias are not justified, the attacks are part of the job.

But there’s a new wrinkle, and this one is more troubling. Journalists are tweeting from war zones and protests in real time. That’s a recipe for disaster. Not because what they tweet will not be the truth, but because the recounting of what you see and hear is far different from tweeting what happened to you as it happens, and your gut feelings about it.

So CNN likely was right to reassign a reporter who tweeted that Israelis who harassed her while she was observing their cheers when missiles were lobbed at Gaza were “scum.” That’s not reporting, that’s what you tell your mother and spouse in private emails. And although she later apologized and said her term only applied to the people harassing her, the damage had been done. Tweets can be verbal shrapnel, and they can easily leave holes in reporter’s reputation for objectivity.

If anyone wants to know how you cover conflicts in which you are immersed and possibly injured, I refer you to former Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor. Taylor, who is profiled in my book, reported from South Africa in times of great violence and riots, before the country’s transition from apartheid to a multi-racial democracy. He managed to be shot in a black township, to be beaten up by an angry white mob, and to be kidnapped by Angolan rebels.

And yet not once, in all that coverage, did Taylor lose his professional demeanor, or his interest in seeing the world from the point of view of others. For example, in a story for the Post, He described the Angolan soldier, Mateus, as “an obliging eager-to-please true believer.” That’s quite remarkable since Mateus was one of the gunmen who had riddled his car with bullets and then took him captive.

If I were an editor or head of network news, I’d issue an order to all reporters in conflict zones: Don’t tweet. Great reporting happened before twitter was invented, and the first draft of history doesn’t have to appear the minute after it happens.

Will Journalists Be Reduced To “Gigs?”

In Blog on July 25, 2014 at 2:24 pm

On Sunday afternoons in the summer, the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Association hosts terrific classical music concerts. The concerts are free, and they spotlight musicians with impressive resumes – schooled at the best conservatories in the country, performances at major music festivals, concert tours abroad, and awards.
In most cases, what the musicians don’t have is a full-time job playing with an orchestra. Instead, they play whenever they can, filling their time with as many performance dates as possible. Some teach. Others hold “day” jobs far from the concert stage.

It’s certainly possible that some musicians have wide-ranging skills and interests that lead them away from music and that they appreciate these part-time opportunities to play. But others, surely, had hoped that their years of preparation and talent would earn them a decent, dependable living.

Classical orchestras have seen hard times. So has journalism. I worry that, after the hemorrhaging of thousands of journalism jobs over the past two decades, many journalists with the passion to report now find themselves in the same place as many gifted musicians.

The “stars” of the profession, particularly the exceptionally facile writers, or those with the right connections or the luck to find the best internships, may be able to land a coveted job in journalism. But thousands more who aspire to a career in news will be reduced to free-lancing.

Indeed, a few years ago, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, speculated whether in the future, journalists would ply their craft in a series of “gigs” – short-term engagements with news outlets. News gathering may well be on the way of the profession of itinerant, albeit highly skilled, practitioners, whose passion prompts them to forgo economic stability.

They may blog, serve as a contributing editor for an online publication, write the occasional magazine piece. Some journalists may get themselves to conflict zones across the globe, hoping to be the eyes and ears of a major newspaper or broadcast outlet. Even major newspapers have drastically cut back on foreign correspondents, leaving the field to underpaid free-lancers, who are lucky if they can get nonprofit support for some of their expenses.

This is a tragedy for individuals with dreams and talent and nowhere to fully use their skills. But it is a terrible loss for the country. Journalism, which should be a staple of every community, may no longer viable enough to support the trained reporters we need to cover local and state governments, to hold elected officials accountable, to provide the information that informs citizens to enable them to participate in their democracy.

We should be a nation that can have classical orchestras in nearly every community. But we cannot be a nation that gives journalists no better job prospects than concert violinists.

Media Coverage of the Israeli-Hamas Conflict Requires Empathy for both sides

In Blog on July 19, 2014 at 10:25 am

When I first wrote this blog, it seemed so easy to make a judgment about coverage of the the conflict between Israel and Hamas.  There is no doubt that Palestinian civilians have suffered the lion’s share of the casualties, and that fact must be a part of any coverage.  Reporters must take us into the hospitals, the makeshift morgues, and the homes of the grief-stricken.  

But an email from our family in Israel made me realize that while unharmed for the most part, Israeli civilians are living in almost paralyzing fear.  As a family member noted, the country is the size of New Jersey.  So Israelis feel very vulnerable.  This isn’t a matter of bias.  But news outlets need to ensure that the coverage is as complete as possible.  That doesn’t mean censoring reporters.  Ayman Mohyeldin is doing a superb job in Gaza.  But we need reporters  to tell us the stories of average Israelis. We need to better understand the fear that is pushing these families, even those who have long worked for peace, to support the invasion.  

 

I am married to a Jewish man, and his uncle and aunt, both New Yorkers, made the astounding decision in the 1960s to pull up stakes and move to Israel. I am very fond of my extended Israeli family, living on two kibbutzim in the country. Whenever there is renewed conflict, I worry about their safety. But I found it disturbing when a Jewish colleague of mine recently commented that the media was terrifically biased in reporting on the current troubles between Israel and Hamas.

She thought the TV coverage was unbalanced and favored Hamas. I disagree. TV reporters were showing their viewers the facts as they experienced them. Their coverage was not about assessing blame. The media have reported on the impacts of the conflict in both countries.

As Hamas rockets landed deeper and deeper into Israeli territory, the networks have shown Israelis running for their lives as sirens went off, seeking shelter, visibly anxious and afraid. But the truth is far more Palestinian civilians have died in this war than Israelis. This is a tribute to the effectiveness of Israel’s defense system.

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Writing a book is hard enough; selling a book is next to impossible

In Blog on July 18, 2014 at 10:00 pm

For years, I dreamed about writing a book. I had some reason to think I was capable of it. In 1990, my husband, after all, wrote a book that landed him on network news shows and on a mini book tour. CBS paid for us to stay in a swanky hotel in New York City – me, Richard and our then two-year-old daughter. His book deserved the acclaim. Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War against Child Abuse was the culmination of years of work as a journalist covering the plight of foster children and the tragic predicaments of families whose poverty was confused with neglect, losing their children to a flawed and often inhumane system.

After years of thinking about writing a book, I did. It was terrifically exciting. I am a former journalist, and although I left that profession years ago, I’ve always been deeply attached to reporters and reporting. In my work as a public interest lobbyist based in Washington, D.C., I often was a news source to reporters, many of whom I admired. It was alarming to see what was becoming of the profession, as newspapers and broadcast outlets shed jobs, and readers went to the Internet for free opinions, and newspapers were giving their product away online. (Later, newspapers got smart and establish pay walls to protect their content.

I wanted to write about the crisis and the profession through the lens of personal experience. I found terrific subjects to profile. I was able to do long-form interviews with two MacArthur genius award recipients – David Simon, best known for his HBO series, The Wire, and Chuck Lewis, who left CBS 60 Minutes in 1990 to do a new kind of nonprofit journalism.

I was able to explore the high points of journalism in the 1980s and 1990s when newsrooms were flush, and reporters were encouraged to go big and deep. The people I interviewed who had left the profession were among its best and brightest. Paul Taylor had covered the transition in South Africa from apartheid to a multi-racial democracy. He’d been beaten by a white mob, shot in a black township, and kidnapped by Angolan rebels. Yet he relished that beat as the high point of his career. It inspired him to leave journalism to form a nonprofit dedicated to improving democracy in the U.S. Joan Connell had written movingly about the role of religion in people’s lives, had been a pioneer in online journalism, and after a long and successful career, became what she termed a “journo-bureaucrat,” helping young journalists, particularly those who were oversees on a free-lance basis, cover wars and other disasters while taking care of their own mental health.

I also told the stories of sexism and racism in the newsroom through the eyes of reporters who had experienced it
I was able to get the perspectives of Atlantic editor James Fallows and award-winning investigative reporter Jim Steele to help me make sense of this transition period in journalism, and to understand how the profession might be able to survive in the 21st century.

The individuals I profiled in my book had such terrific and memorable stories, I felt privileged to be interviewing them. Likewise, I assumed that the distinguished journalists who had valuable insights would draw readers. This, I thought, will be a book worth reading, not because of me but because of these gifted people who had been so generous with their time, their thoughts and their life stories.

My husband’s agent was willing to take me on. She helped me develop a book proposal. She made the rounds, but there was not much interest from publishers, who were not sure the book would attract a large enough audience. I was obsessed with getting a bona fide publisher, and searched every angle. I remember one chilly fall day, after a very long day at work, forcing myself to attend the convention of the American Library Association. I had invested $25 in a day pass, with the idea of browsing the aisles of publishers and possibly finding one who might be willing to take a chance on me. That’s how I found McFarland and Company, a publisher primarily of textbooks, based in a small town in North Carolina.

My agent approached them, and they offered me a contract. No advance, but a significant share of the royalties. I did not care about earning much money from the book. But I hoped that it would get some attention.

McFarland was terrific to work with. It took about two years to research and write the 85,000-word manuscript. I rewrote each chapter about 12 times, checked and rechecked my facts. My husband was a great editor, suggesting revisions, asking questions.

My daughter was my proofreader, did my index and was an all-round scold when it came to formatting and having the correct citations. She was terrific, although I often wanted to wring her neck for being so scrupulous.

The week after Christmas in 2011, I remember mailing the manuscript to the publisher. I was so nervous my hand trembled as we made the final copy and addressed the envelope. This was my baby, this was the ship that carried my dream.

McFarland editors made few changes and asked for two minor deletions. We had wanted to call the book Bye-lines, but the editors suggested Out of the News. I loved the cover they chose – an old-fashioned typewriter. I was amazed at how big my name looked.

Six months later, when my husband and I were in Europe on vacation, the book arrived. My daughter emailed us. I was overwhelmed. The book was real. No one could take this away from me. I’d become a nonfiction author!

I remain enormously grateful for the experience. My work colleagues organized a wonderful book party for me, and some of the subjects of my book attended. They were pleased, and bought extra copies for their parents! The following year, the Society of Professional Journalists honored the book with a national award for excellence. Winning that award was one of the high points of my life.

Along the way, I have received great reviews, wonderful coverage in the alumni magazine of Point Park University, where I earned my graduate degree in journalism, and from the Association of Opinion Journalists.

But I learned something very important about being a nonfiction author. Writing a book is hard. Selling a book is next to impossible. I did not expect my book to do as well as my husband’s book did. But I did not realize how hard it was to sell any books, particularly when your publisher does not sell books in book stores and sets a price that seemed awfully high to me. My book was a paperback, but its price-tag equalled the textbooks that students must buy because professors have assigned them. I also did not realize how much publishing has changed. Book stores are closing down, and it’s difficult for new authors to compete in a world where a few authors command all the attention and most of the dollars of readers.

I will never regret writing this book. But the pain of checking my stats on Amazon or getting my twice yearly reports from my publisher is an acute reminder of just how cruel a business publishing can be. Amazon does sales rankings among 8 million books on the market! Writing a bestseller has the same odds as winning the lottery.

You would think I would learn from this experience. But I’m writing a second book with the working title, Catholic Women Confront Their Church. I hope it will catch on with the public, but my eyes are wide open.

Lose the Mercedes: This riches to rags tale is about entitlement, not empathy

In Blog on July 13, 2014 at 3:27 pm

It’s often been said that a story that gets a lot of media attention is a story about something your editor talks about at a cocktail party.  Journalists, since they achieved a certain level of pay and status, have been largely interested in what occupies the minds and hearts of people like them – white, educated, upper middle class.

So it’s no surprise that the mainstream media in Washington DC would be so taken by Darlene Cunha’s op-ed about her journey from riches to rags.  Here was a cautionary tale they could understand, a story about someone in their crowd.

The piece first ran online at The Washington Post, then was published in the Outlook section of the Sunday Post. Cunha also got a very sympathetic interview on NPR.  In her op-ed, Cunha writes of the events that landed her in a “dreary” church applying for federal nutritional assistance.

I’m not quite sure what Cunha’s point was.  It seemed mostly a vehicle for talking about herself and her unfairly deserved plight, and how awful it felt when people reacted to the sight of her, a white woman driving a Mercedes, applying for government help. She seems to imply that poverty should not be considered a moral failing, and lamenting that it harmed her self-esteem.  She wasn’t going to let that happen again.

I agree with Cunha that in this country we tend to punish the poor.  But the people we punish are not like her, for the most part.  They start out without access to decent housing or education, often struggle in families for generations that have experienced underemployment and discrimination.

And I didn’t detect any empathy for all the other people sitting on hard chairs filling out pages of paperwork.  What we their lives like?  What options did they have?  She was knocked off kilter by an unintended pregnancy, the birth of premature of twins, a job loss, and the housing meltdown of 2008.

But it appears that she still had health insurance, so her woes did not appear to include medical bills that can bankrupt a family of modest means.  And she and her spouse had some options, most importantly, the education to navigate the forms and bureaucracy, to know about tax allowances for short sales of homes that are underwater, the skills to get new jobs.

Instead of showing empathy for others, her empathy was for herself.  Cunha heartily defends their Mercedes, paid in full, as the one “comfort” they could cling to in hard times.  And she argues, it wouldn’t make any sense for her partner to trade it in for a “crappier” used car that they would have to make payments on.  Of course, they could have sold the Mercedes and used the proceeds to buy a decent used car, or even gotten along with one car, — they owned two — but these options didn’t seem to have been on the table.  It was clear that she felt entitled to that Mercedes, and she offers it up as a sign of triumph.  The couple kept the car through all their hard times.

I make these comments not to condemn the author of the piece, but to point out the conclusion that she didn’t make.  She had all the advantages that her race, class and education could provide. Yet she landed in a precarious place, dependent on government help.  And, for her, poverty turned out to be merely a bit of a detour in a prosperous life.  By 2012, the couple was recovering, and now has enough income for her to afford to go to graduate school.

How much harder it is for the working poor, who lack of all these advantages, and have no Mercedes they can cling to in hard times.

 

A compelling story, but was it journalism?

In Blog on July 3, 2014 at 9:33 pm

Is there a sale on news print? The Washington Post has been running very long stories lately. Stories that go for pages and pages. I think sometimes think this is a sign that the paper is committed to in-depth journalism, but sometimes I wonder if the length reflects, at least in part, a dearth of good editors.
On Sunday June 28, the Post ran “The Man in the House.” It began on the front page and extended for two more nearly full pages of the print edition of the paper.
The story was well written. It had a strong narrative arc, and it deftly related the struggle of one local family to get mental health care for a loved one who refuses to take his medication and refuses hospitalization. It elicited more than 900 comments, many from people who had been diagnosed with mental illness, or were related to someone who had. It was compelling, and very, very sad. It reminded me of what was the existential question in my newsroom in the 1980s: Are you a reporter or a writer? The author is certainly is a talented writer. But was this story journalism?
I don’t think so. The story was not anchored with enough solid factual reporting to earn the reader’s trust that this account was true. And the story failed to provide enough context. It describes the problem as one of laws that make it too difficult for mentally ill people to be involuntarily committed, without acknowledging that there is a delicate balance between respecting the rights of the mentally ill and finding ways to effectively treat them. The piece gives very short shrift to the notion that laws were changed because terrible injustices had been done to individuals wrongfully committed for years to institutions, the victims of abuse and neglect. It may be good and effective storytelling to link this saga to the epidemic of mass killings by deranged and violent individuals, making its tone more ominous as the man’s mental state continues to deteriorate. But it oversimplifies both the cause of this epidemic of violence – many would blame the easy availability of guns for these recent mass murders — and implies that mental illness invariably explodes into violence.
The namelessness of the piece was really disturbing. Even though aspects of the story already were part of the public record – the man’s father had testified about his plight at a public hearing – the family was afforded complete anonymity. It seems the decision to keep the family’s name secret served the author’s narrative structure as much as it honored their privacy.
What makes me think that this was not just sensitivity on the part of the Post is that no one is on the record in the story. People are only identified by their occupation. So we get the comments of a psychiatrist or a lawyer or a neighbor, or hearing witnesses, but no names. We are given a domestic drama without anchor in facts. The reader is essentially told: “Trust us. This is true.”
Worse, the narrative is told as a series of days pass. It begins at Day 730 and ends with day 896. Unless the reporter followed the family for days on end, it is difficult to perceive what is reconstructed from the family’s recollections and what the reporter actually witnessed. If there were more details, one could better trust this reportorial decision.
And while the Post raises questions about the wisdom of public policy that makes it so difficult to involuntarily commit someone to a mental institution, it offers little context.
The print story does include a short “sidebar” with the history of mental health treatment in the U.S., but that is hardly sufficient. How many families are struggling with the same problem in Maryland and the U.S.? Are there are other states that have less restrictive laws? How does Europe handle this problem? Is anyone in Congress proposing legislation to address the Supreme Court decision that made involuntary commitment so difficult? And while the reporter mentions in passing the abuses at mental institutions that prompted the relaxation of the laws about involuntary commitment, the story does not address the larger problem, a lack of resources for treatment. Follow-up outpatient care in the community that was supposed to support the mentally ill and their families never materialized. Instead, the mentally ill were released from institutions that were more like prisons into communities totally unprepared to address their needs. It’s not simply a matter of laws that are too lax about involuntary commitment, it’s about a mental health system that has failed for decades. Interestingly, the comments to the story raised many of these issues.
Other reporters have found ways to write stories like this and done it brilliantly while remaining faithful to the reader by supplying facts. Madeleine Blais, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her feature writing, accomplished this feat in 1987 when she wrote “The Disturbance” for The Miami Herald’s Tropic Magazine. Blais’ reporting, even after all these years, feels true and moving. She profiled a Miami family dealing with a schizophrenic sister who had been homeless for years. But because her dialogue, sometimes reconstructed, is grounded in details and facts, the reader can believe. And this family bravely went on the record with their story.
Note to Post editors: If you’re going to encourage more of this style of reporting, learn from the best. Blais’ book, The Heart Is An Instrument, includes terrific examples of long-form writing that also is excellent reporting. And it’s easily available. Heck, I bought my copy on Amazon.

VA Inspector General wrong to demand POGO records

In Blog on June 22, 2014 at 7:16 pm

Full disclosure first: I work for a nonprofit that often hears from federal agency whistleblowers.  I also have a very positive and longstanding relationship with the staff of the Project on Government Oversight, POGO for short.  (Heck, their executive director even publicly praised my book.)

POGO is a big-time advocate for and communicator with whistleblowers.  During its 33 years of existence, its work with whistleblowers has helped raise media visibility and Congressional attention to issues ranging from gross underpayment of royalties by oil companies drilling on federal lands to the Navy and Marine Corps’ refusal to disclose toxic water contamination at the U.S. Army base at Camp Lejeune, to the newest scandal plaguing Washington, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ cover-up of delays in treatment.

It is that latest scandal that has put POGO in the crosshairs of agency’s Acting Inspector General, Richard Griffin.  Griffin has subpoenaed all POGO records “from current of former employees” of the VA “relating in any way to wait-times, access to care and/or patient scheduling issues.”

Griffin’s request has major ramifications.  POGO has been soliciting VA employees to report on fraud and mismanagement at the agency, at a special website.  POGO promises that it “will work to protect your identity” while trying to “expose and remedy” the VA’s problems while “lowering the risk of jeopardizing your career.”   The website says the information submitted “will be encrypted and anonymous.”

Griffin wants the records to facilitate its investigation.  But what he doesn’t seem to understand is that his desire for more complete information is jeopardizing something much more important – the freedom of whistleblowers to find a safe harbor to report their concerns about government waste, fraud and abuse.

The IG’s quest is ironic for at least two reasons.  First, POGO’s work helped prompt the media and the Congress to take this scandal seriously and helped stir Congressional demands for accountability.  Secondly, POGO has been a great advocate for federal inspectors general.

POGO refuses to comply, defending itself in part by contending ”the First Amendment reporter’s privilege and legal precedents afforded to those who investigate and report the news apply to POGO. “ It has solid grounds for that assertion.  POGO has journalists on staff, does comprehensive investigative reports, and recently won accolades from the Washington, D.C. chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for its work.

But there is a more fundamental reason for the Inspector General to lay off.  POGO, as many other nonprofits, is a safe harbor for whistleblowers.  They often trust the nonprofits they know more than the media outlets or reporters they may not.

And in this era of diminishing resources and time to do good journalism, when investigative reporters are an endangered species, nonprofits like POGO increasingly are the intermediaries between whistleblowers and the mainstream media.

Nonprofits not only are trusted by whistleblowers.  They also work hard to frame their stories in ways that will make them easier for reporters to use.  And they usually do the initial pass at verifying the information and filling in the gaps.  As a result, many media outlets rely on this pre-digested information for their stories.

Good reporters will always do their own fact-checking and enterprise reporting.  But it’s a heck of a lot easier because of the work POGO and other nonprofits do.

Whistleblowers need and deserve safe harbors.  They have to be willing to trust that when they supply sensitive information, their identities will be kept confidential.  If they can’t trust that confidentiality will be maintained, they will not share their stories.  While we have stronger whistleblower laws that offer federal workers legal rights to fight back if they suffer retaliation, those rights to due process are not foolproof.  And fighting retaliation may take months, if not years.

Even if a whistleblower ultimately wins his or her case, speaking truth to power can often be tantamount to career suicide.  Just ask Franz Gayl, whose efforts to protect soldiers in Iraq by pressing for better armored vehicles led to his being reprimanded and denied a security clearance,  or Bunnatine Greenhouse, a senior federal contracting official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who blew the whistle on waste and fraud and was demoted. Being vindicated does not restore years of struggle and exile from the federal workforce.

Journalism, the public and whistleblowers will benefit if the VA drops its demand for POGO’s records.  Let’s hope that the agency’s Inspector General gets the message.

 

 

 

SCOTUSblog deserves congressional access

In Blog on June 9, 2014 at 9:10 pm

I remember one of the hardest adjustments I had to make when I left my job at the trade daily, American Banker, and joined the national staff of the good-government group, Common Cause: While I love my new job, I hated giving up the access.  I hated having to plan to attend congressional hearings, and then stand in line for an hour or more, when my former colleagues in the fourth estate could run into a hearing room at the last minute, assured of a seat and access to all the materials.

The irony was, that when I was working for Common Cause, most of my time was spent doing journalism – hard-hitting reports focused on the influence of big money on policymaking.  Yes, it’s true, the journalism had a point of view– it was aimed at making our campaign finance system and our government more open, honest and accountable.

But the reports I wrote were the best journalism I ever did.  And they received terrific play in the mainstream media. Heck, one report, on the conflicts of interest besetting then SEC chair Harvey Pitt popped up on Meet the Press.  I tuned in to find some of the words I had written for that report on the big screen as the late Tim Russert asked Pitt about my report’s assertions.

That isn’t to say I expected to receive credentials from the Senate Press Gallery.  There is a distinction between non-profit advocacy groups and entities that practice journalism.

But in this new world of blogs, and increasingly opinionated journalism, the way we define journalism and journalists needs a lot of re-thinking.   I serve on the membership committee of the National Press Club, and sometimes I feel like a member of the Vatican curia trying to determine how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

One symptom of the need to update our definitions and qualifications is reflected in the current controversy over SCOTUSblog and the decision by the U.S. Senate Daily Press Gallery’s Standing Committee of Correspondents to refuse to credential its journalists.

The SCOTUS in SCOTUSblog stands for Supreme Court of the United States, and the blog, by all accounts, has done an outstanding job covering the court and its decisions.  It has received a Peabody award and an award from the Society of Professional Journalists for its excellent and comprehensive reporting.

But what has got the credentialing committee’s knickers in a twist concerns the way the blog supports itself financially, and whether its support structure erodes its ability to avoid “lobbying” the court.

SCOTUSblog does have a complicated structure, in part because its founder is a practicing lawyer.  But the blog has gone to great lengths to wall off its coverage from conflicts of interest.

And it has valid reason for seeking congressional credentials. Not only do such congressional credentials carry some weight with the folks who give premium access to Supreme Court proceedings, they also give reporters writing on court-related issues in Congress the access they need.

For ages, journalists have worked for publishers and media owners who have had financial ties that could affect coverage of a myriad political and economic issues.  The Graham family, which owned The Washington Post, also owned for-profit colleges; the paper’s current owner, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, practically owns the world.  NBC News now is owned by cable giant Comcast and its reporters will have to write about Comcast’s effort to gain government permission to merge with Time Warner. Yet when we’re dealing with legacy journalism, these questions of ownership and independence seem less threatening.

Reporters tend to be very respectful – I would say too respectful – of one another.  But in a May 22 letter to the chair of the credentialing committee, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 14 media outlets wrote a letter urging the committee to re-consider its decision.  (SCOTUSblog appealed the rejection and there was a public hearing on the matter on May 23. The committee has not yet said whether it will reconsider its rejection.)

The letter, signed by National Public Radio, The New Yorker, Politico, and CNN, among others, made this common-sense point: “The function a journalist serves – providing news and commentary about pressing issues to the public – has always been to us more important than the organizational format within which he or she sits, so long as his or her news outlet has clear policies to maintain editorial independence.”

In this era of blogs and non-traditional media, it is crazy to make decisions about journalism qualifications on the basis of organizational structure. Our media landscape is different these days. Traditional media outlets are feeling the sharp elbows of online publications whose correspondents also expect – and deserve – access, provided they don’t make stuff up and provide serious news coverage. Needless to say, their employers should give them the independence to report honestly and fairly.

To my mind, a journalist should be defined as someone who produces journalism – information or commentary that serves the public interest.  I would extend that definition to journalists who may have to take second or third jobs to support their expensive habit of wanting to report the news.

SCOTUSblog is not your average media outlet, but it has more than proven it is committing acts of journalism.  It seems strange to demur on its media credentials, when 200 media outlets, including non-traditional sites such as Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, are given this valuable access.  Let’s hope the credentials committee changes its mind.