former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Posts Tagged ‘journalists’

When Did Contraception Become Controversial?

In Blog on January 5, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Tell me, when did the media decide that contraception was controversial?  When I did a search on Google News, I found that the words contraception and controversy occurred together more than 4,000 times, often in broadcast and print news accounts.

Contraception is not some bizarre practice that most Americans avoid.  Yet, ideologues and the Catholic hierarchy have managed to brainwash reporters, most of whom I’ll wager practiced birth control at some point in their lives, and persuaded them to treat the term gingerly.  Contraception used to be called family planning. That term better reflects the well-established concept that people have the right to determine how many children they can love, raise and financially support.

Most sexually experienced  Catholic women of child-bearing age – an estimated 98 percent — have practiced contraception at some point in their lives.  As a reporter colleague of mine once put it, “We’re Catholics, but we’re not idiots.”  The statistics are pretty clear that most Catholics don’t see anything wrong with contraception.  Only 15 percent find it morally wrong.  Even among Catholics who attend weekly mass, two-thirds don’t find contraception objectionable.  Count me among that group.  Heck, I even sing in the choir at my church.

And as a few media outlets have tried to point out, federal regulations long on the books already had made the availability of birth control pills a requirement for most employers that provide health insurance.  Many state laws had imposed similar requirements on Catholic institutions. Catholic institutions that fought these rules were often blocked by the courts.

But by and large  journalists have done a terrible job of making the point that contraceptive use is the norm in this country, and that federal regulations and state laws have been quietly requiring that it be a part of employer-provided health insurance for years.

Read the rest of this entry »


An NSA Buffet That Leaves Us Hungry

In Blog on December 26, 2013 at 10:00 pm

This month, the American public saw what happens when reporters do in-depth profiles of an institution or individual with whom they have a shared history.  The results often don’t serve journalism very well.

As it happens, both pieces concerned the embattled National Security Agency.  In both cases, the reporters in question got unprecedented access because their subjects trusted them and knew they would be treated well.

CBS’s 60 Minutes profiled NSA, amping up the agency’s positive profile a few megawatts. Viewers got an inside look into the secretive agency, virtually strolled through its hallways,  even heard from telegenic young staffers who work there.  The cameras also took us inside the office of the NSA head Gen. Keith Alexander. But all this access came at a price —  critical journalism that asks the difficult questions and won’t settle for the less-than-forthright answers.

To his credit reporter John Miller told his audience that he used to work at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.  He also stated that Alexander agreed to the interview because he believed “NSA has not told its story very well.”

It is entirely appropriate to give a subject of a major story the opportunity to make his case, and to make it fully.  But what was missing was the opportunity for NSA critics to challenge those assertions.  Also missing were tough questions from Miller himself asking why NSA felt obliged to lie to Congress, and whether its contracting procedures needed a little retooling.  How in the world did an IT contractor get the access that Snowden had? Did Alexander understand why Americans were so concerned about the capture of so much data?  After all, phone numbers alone can be the keys to much more information.  Had this virtually unsupervised effort  truly saved lives?

I agree with journalist critics, and there are many, that CBS failed to fully inform and instead served as a public relations vehicle for a government agency.  If  NSA wants to make its case, let it buy full-page ads, place op-eds in The New York Times, make its officials available for interviews on the Sunday talk shows.  NSA officials can do cross-country tours and field questions from local reporters.  But CBS should never have agreed to such uncritical coverage.

It will be interesting to see if journalists are as quick to critique Barton Gellman’s extremely sympathetic profile of NSA leaker Edward Snowden for The Washington Post. After all, journalists tend to take the side of people who leak information to them.

Read the rest of this entry »

GUEST POST: News Happened in Texas and Everyone Was Watching, No Thanks To The Mainstream Media

In Blog on June 27, 2013 at 9:00 am

I am proud to loan this space to guest blogger Valerie Wexler!

As the Boston bombing suspects led police on what would become a citywide manhunt, word spread first via the internet, but national and cable news quickly caught up.  Tuesday night, a story less violent but equally riveting (and one that could affect the lives of millions of Texan women) unfolded on the floor of the Texas State Senate.  That story also attracted widespread attention on the internet  but it was not picked up by one cable news channel.

Instead more than 180,000 people watched one livestream of state Sen. Wendy Davis filibustering Senate Bill 5, a bill that would ban all abortions after 20 weeks and put strict new regulations on abortion providers, forcing most clinics in Texas to close. The filibuster was briefly mentioned on evening newscasts but it was Twitter and the internet that kept the world informed into the night.

The tweets came not just from citizens or protesters on the ground but also from local reporters who knew the Texas legislature and the people in it. Like the Boston Globe during the manhunt, The Texas Tribune and its reporters consistently provided solid information through Twitter and their liveblog. (It should also be noted that The Texas Tribune was founded by nonprofit sponsors and is cited in Out of the News as an example of strong nonprofit journalism.) As Davis’s filibuster was challenged and points of order and issues of germaneness piled up, local reporters tried to provide explanations while links to the Texas Senate rulebook were passed around on Twitter.

No cable news cameras were there when, in protest to the halting of the filibuster, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (who had rushed back from her father’s funeral) did the parliamentary equivalent of dropping the mic, asking, “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues in the room?” And no national news anchors were present to witness how that moment triggered 10 minutes of sustained yells and screams from the protesters filling the building- long enough to delay the vote on the bill.

But that statement, and those yells, made their way across the internet in seconds, as local reporters and citizens tweeted, posted on Facebook, and clipped and shared on YouTube. News was happening whether the “mainstream media” acknowledged it or not.  Once again we were depending on those on the ground for accurate information.

Read the rest of this entry »

Plagiarism of the Spirit: Reporters are Stuck in the DC Bubble

In Blog on June 17, 2013 at 9:00 am

Recently, Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi wrote a lengthy story on DC couples who work in media and politics.  The story revealed one of this city’s not-so-well-kept secrets: In this town, the media literally are in bed with the government.  Farhi’s piece outed some of those government-media duos – NPR’s Ari Shapiro is the spouse of Michael Gottlieb, on the staff of the White House Counsel.  White House Press Secretary Jay Carney is married to ABC News’s Claire Shipman.  Washington Post reporter Sari Horowitz is the wife of Health and Human Services General Counsel William B. Schultz. Vice President Biden’s communications director Shailagh Murray is married to Wall Street Journal political reporter Neil King.

Farhi himself also coyly confesses, without naming names or specifying the nature of the relationship, that he sometimes writes about CBS news and is related to an employee at the network.

Farhi’s critique focuses on how well these couples manage conflicts of interest.  But that’s not really the problem.  Reporters by and large do pretty well avoiding favoritism covering the news. They adjust assignments, and are pretty scrupulous about not covering any issue on which their loved ones have direct responsibility.

The problem goes much deeper.  It is the inbred Washington culture where big media and big government mingle in a seamless minuet that creates a plagiarism of the spirit. No, I don’t mean the plagiarism that happens when one reporter literally copies the words and opinions of others.  This appropriation is much larger and more fundamental.  The journalists who live and work together in the tight little cocoon of DC politics are seeing the world in the same way, chasing down the same fragments of news, and no one is challenging anybody’s assumptions.

Think of it.  The elite who comprise the Washington press corps — those reporters for major media outlets who cover the White House, the federal government and Congress and who are regular contributors to the weekly news shows — by and large are well paid and comfortable.  High-profile reporters send their kids to the same private schools that also are attended by the children of senior government officials. They run into each other at the same parties.  They live in the same neighborhoods.  They dine at the same restaurants.

None of this is wrong.  But it is severely limiting.  Journalists used to be working class stiffs, outsiders whose press passes would only get them pressed against the window of power, not inside the halls.  They had empathy for the “little guy” because they emerged from the same class.  Journalism was one of the few jobs around that required no formal college degree. To those who lacked the right pedigree or social skills, journalism rewarded hard work and cleverness with decent-paying jobs that were enjoyable and stimulating.

As much as journalism might be in financial distress nationwide, the DC press corps still contains many reporters who’ve never taken a Greyhound bus or entered a Walmart.  They don’t understand what it means to earn only the minimum wage.

Read the rest of this entry »

Journalists Should Stop and Do the Math on Minimum Wage

In Blog on February 13, 2013 at 1:31 pm

In last Saturday’s Washington Post, Matt Miller of the Center for American Progress authored a very thoughtful oped proposing that we raise the minimum wage, which currently is so low that it forces people who work full time to live in poverty.  Miller argues that increasing the minimum wage is a much simpler solution to the problems of the poor than the raft of federal programs out there to help alleviate poverty.  Plus, if the minimum wage were increased, thousands of workers would have the discretionary income to increase their consumer spending, improving the economy.

So what does Miller’s proposal have to do with journalism? In my mind, quite a bit.  Here’s the problem. Most journalists haven’t been paid by the hour since they were teens babysitting or mowing lawns.  When they report about the working poor, they fail to do the math, and since they thought $9 an hour was pretty good when they were 15, the reality of how little the minimum wage is and how inadequate it is to support a family is lost on them, and their readers and viewers.

So let’s do the math. A full-time worker earning the federal hourly minimum wage of $7.25 earns a princely $15,080 a year.  Let’s boost that figure up a bit, to the hourly wage of $10.  Annually, that amounts to $20,800.  Could you live on that?  Would that be enough to pay for food, clothing, and shelter?  (Let’s assume that your employer gives you health benefits, which isn’t too likely.)  When you live this close to the bone, losing a dollar bill or a metro card that drops out of your pocket is a disaster.  You can’t afford any sick time.  A vacation is a faraway dream. No restaurants with tablecloths.  No books.  No movies.  There is no margin for error.  God help you if you thought you could raise a child or two, or live in a decent neighborhood.

So here’s my plea, all you journalists out there.  Whenever you are doing a story about a minimum wage worker, do the math, and translate that hourly wage into what most of us are lucky to earn, an annual salary.  It will not change national policy, but maybe it will give the rest of us just a little more empathy for the burdens of the working poor.

Washington Post Ombudsman Lowers the Bar for “Great” Journalism

In Blog on February 7, 2013 at 3:10 pm

I often agree with Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton. But not this week.

He begins his column with a question: “You know what makes The Post great, on its best days?”

The answer? “Reporters reporting.”

Uh, right. Presumably, however, reporters also report for The Post on its worst days and on all the mediocre days in between. So perhaps Pexton had in mind some extraordinary examples of great reporting.

No such luck. “It is reporters” he points out, who sit “through hours of a city or county council session or a congressional hearing,” to get the quote or fact that prompts a surprising news story. “It is reporters” who wait until (egads!) “after midnight” to witness a controversial zoning decision vote. “It is reporters” with “ringing ears” no less, who make phone calls to talk to sources to get the information they need to write a story they were assigned to that morning. “It is reporters” who have to go to “bloody crime scenes” and encounter “people who are upset, stressed and crying.”

This is what supposedly “separates” the work of Post reporters from the “…thin reporting that passes for journalism in media land.”

I agree there’s a lot of “thin reporting” out there. But the work Pexton describes is so basic to plain vanilla journalism that it should not be cast as heroic. It should be the floor for the profession, not the ceiling.

Pexton could as easily have written, “It is dentists” who “bravely attack tooth decay, put their hands into dirty mouths, and who have to extract dead, bloody teeth from people who are upset and stressed.”

Read the rest of this entry »

CNN and The New York Times: How Committed To Good Journalism?

In Blog on January 19, 2013 at 10:37 pm

I don’t know which is sadder – the fact that CNN decided to outsource much of its investigative reporting last May, or that the event largely escaped notice until The Daily Show publicized it last week. CNN is such a shadow of itself, I’m not sure how big an audience there is for its investigative reports, or what real impact they have on the world. Nevertheless, anytime investigative reporters lose full-time jobs, that’s not good news.


Being outdone by a fictional news show isn’t great either.

And while The New York Times isn’t laying off any environmental reporters, the fact that the paper announced this month that it would disband its environment desk also raised concerns about the paper’s continuing commitment to covering the environment. As I wrote in my blog for the Union of Concerned Scientists, I can’t say I find The Times’ explanation for axing the specialized desk of reporters and editors very convincing.

Last of the ‘Lifers’? Milwaukee Magazine Reviews Out of the News UPDATED

In Blog on January 3, 2013 at 9:00 am

Updated to add!  The review and the book also got a mention yesterday from Jim Romenesko in a post on journalists leaving the newsroom.

A great review of Out of the News yesterday by Milwaukee Magazine’s Erik Gunn. He was even inspired to find out what the lives of some of his former colleagues have been like since they left the newsroom:

The simultaneous explosion and implosion of media may be especially dispiriting for the would-be lifers: If journalism is all you ever wanted to do, what happens when the craft changes so much it seems unrecognizable, or the ranks of working journalists become so decimated that you have no choice but to explore something new?

I pondered that question while perusing Out of the News: Former Journalists Discuss a Profession in Crisis (McFarland & Co., 203 pp.), by Celia Viggo Wexler. Wexler, a newspaper reporter turned lobbyist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, produced the book from probing interviews with 11 journalists who found themselves forced by conscience or circumstance to leave the profession. (Disclosure: Nearly 30 years ago in Rochester, N.Y., Wexler and I knew each other while working for competing newspapers.)

Probably her most prominent subject is David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter and creator of acclaimed TV shows including The Wire, which devoted one season to the struggles inside an urban newspaper. But the other 10, virtually all from the top ranks of media organizations, have stories just as compelling.

Read the rest of this entry »