former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Posts Tagged ‘news’

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.

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Reporting It Right, The First Time

In Blog on May 7, 2013 at 9:00 am

The Boston Marathon bombings reminded us of the perils of real-time reporting.  Live tweeting, streaming news coverage and instant punditry all seemed to conspire together to confound and confuse.

In this age of nearly instant communication, there were instant and inaccurate reports, about the number of dead, the progress of the investigation, and the suspects.  The New York Post did everything but declare two teens in the crowd to be the perpetrators, circling their faces in red, on a cover photo titled “Bag Men.”   Other media outlets breathlessly told us that a Saudi man might be sought in the case, also wrong. We were even told that a suspect was arrested when no arrest had been made.

Washington Post media critic Paul Farhi isn’t bothered by fast-breaking news containing mistakes.  He wrote that in a media environment where events happen, and are reported, in real time, errors are inevitable, and don’t matter as much as they used to.   Farhi cites Mark Jurkowitz, associate director for the Project for Excellence in Journalism, who observed that technology greatly speeds up the correction of initial misinformation, and thus errors matter less.

That seems like a rather weak defense.  If news outlets want to be taken seriously, the major value they bring to the table is that they report verified facts, not unverified assertions or speculation.  If CNN isn’t better than the Twitterverse, why does it exist?  If the chances of my receiving credible fact-based information aren’t improved if I pick up a newspaper rather than search for reports in the blogosphere, why should I bother with any mainstream news outlet?  Indeed, Farhi ends his column with another observation from Jurkowitz, who notes that mistakes damage the credibility of the news media as a whole, even when the public fails to distinguish media outlets that report the facts from those that are more lax.

The New York Times’ David Carr got it right when he noted that accuracy is something that the American public ought to expect, and get, from its news media.  If journalists merely regurgitate what they hear, anyone can do their job.

And despite our obsession with knowing everything in real time, we also look to mainstream media outlets for validation of what we learned, and – to some extent – the kind of power and beauty that words can impart to terrible events.  The day after the bombings, I picked up The New York Times, and came close to tears when I read the first sentence of its main story.  Listen to its cadence, the somber measured tone of the words, the restraint.

Two powerful bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday afternoon, killing three people, including an eight-year-old child, and injuring more than 100, as one of this city’s most cherished rites of spring was transformed from a scene of cheers and sweaty triumph to one of screams and carnage.

Journalism is not just about reporting what happened.  A journalist bears witness to terrible events, and in the bearing witness, brings some order into chaos.

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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.

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Tough New Public Editor Challenges Top Brass at The Times

In Blog on October 29, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Margaret Sullivan and I were both cub reporters in Buffalo.  And even then she was considered a strong, good reporter who couldn’t be bullied.  It’s clear that she hasn’t lost that toughness.

Sullivan, who rose to be editor and vice president of The Buffalo News, this year joined The New York Times as its public editor. Perhaps because she knows what it’s like to be in the executive suite, Sullivan seems to have had no qualms about giving her new bosses some advice about a prickly personnel issue.

As the newspaper’s public editor, Sullivan’s mission, according to The Times, is to “write about The Times’ journalism and the people who produce it,” and to serve as a “liaison to the paper’s readers.”  To ensure that the public editor is independent, unlike every other journalist on the planet, Sullivan has been promised a four-year tenure.  So at least in theory, she can poke a stick at the big bosses in public, and not get the sack.  But there are thousands of other ways that you can feel the wrath of upper management even when your tenure is secure.  It will be interesting if, at the end of two years on the job, she exercises her option to re-up for another two years.

Only four months into her new job, Sulllivan now is writing frank comments about a very messy controversy brewing at The Times, which concerns the man the Gray Lady had selected to be its new president and chief executive officer.

Mark Thompson, The Times’ CEO in waiting, is in the vortex of an emerging scandal in his home country.  He had been a high-ranking executive at the BBC when BBC investigative reporters were about ready to do a story alleging that a beloved BBC entertainer, Jimmy Savile, who died last fall, had been a sexual predator during the 1970s and 1980s.  (What better gig for a predator than a familiar TV face who visited lots of children’s hospitals?)  But the BBC killed the investigative piece, and, even worse, aired a couple of smarmy Christmas tributes to Savile.

Saville, according to news accounts, had been the target of police investigations in the past, but they all had been dropped.  The BBC journalists had their story squelched, but a competitor network subsequently broadcast its own story about the scandal. After the story broke, more than 200 victims came forward to allege abuse.

Thompson has told a British parliamentary committee looking into the Savile matter that he didn’t kill the story and that he hadn’t known about the Savile investigation.

Thompson’s initial denial that he hadn’t heard anything about the flap was then followed by a clarification that yes, he had been approached at a party by a BBC journalist who mentioned the program.  He told The Times that he then asked BBC news executives about the report, and was told it had been canceled for “journalistic” reasons.

The Times has been reporting on the story, often citing aggressive follow-ups by British journalists.  Just today, for example, The Times noted that the killing of the BBC’s story had been reported in the media several times, making Thompson’s lack of interest in the story and why it was spiked, a bit more difficult to swallow.

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It’s Finally Here

In Blog on July 28, 2012 at 4:49 pm

After nearly three years, Out of the News: Former Journalists Discuss a Profession in Crisis is a published book.  It’s available from the publisher, McFarland, from Barnes and Noble and from Amazon.   It is my first book, and I loved nearly every moment researching and writing it.

The essence of this book are the 11 intriguing, talented, vivid journalists I had the privilege to interview.   All have left the world of “for-profit” journalism; some have left the field entirely.  But they continue to hold very strong views about its past, present and future.

Their stories were a gift to me, and I hope that they will be a gift to the readers who find this book.

Journalism continues to evolve.  But the need for good journalism is as great, if not greater, than ever.

Facts are the fuel for democracy.  When unbiased information is difficult to come by, democracy’s engine sputters.  The vacuum left by the absence of good journalism is filled by propaganda and punditry. Both can cause the gears of government to slow down and finally stop.

We need the people profiled in this book.  We need them to remind us once again about what good journalism can achieve.

One of the highest purposes of journalism is to bear witness – to give an honest rendering of an event, or a complex issue, or a person – while keeping the journalist’s own ego out of the way.

I hope this book, in its own way, bears witness to journalism.

The Blog

In Blog on March 12, 2011 at 4:03 am

Why I Wrote This Book

For years, I have had a recurring dream. I’m in a newsroom, working on a story, desperate to be accepted, wanting a job. The room is crowded, noisy, intense. I observe people but they don’t seem to notice me. Obstacles get in the way of making a good impression. Either I’m dressed in my underwear, or can’t find a computer, or don’t understand the assignment. Whatever happens, and however hard and frantically I try, the dream always ends the same way: I am shut out.

I have had this dream since I left journalism, although leaving journalism was a perfectly rational thing to do, and something I did voluntarily. I loved my new career as a public interest lobbyist, and the power it gave me to influence public policy. Writing a sentence in a law, I would tell myself, was far more meaningful than writing a front-page story.

And yet that sense of incompleteness wouldn’t go away.

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The Book

In Main Posts on March 12, 2011 at 4:02 am
at Amazon and Barnes & Noble
See What People Are Saying About the Book

Long before mainstream news organizations were hemorrhaging jobs and losing billions of dollars, journalists at some of the nation’s biggest and most respected mainstream news outlets were leaving their newsrooms. Out of the News tells the stories of some of those journalists. In the process, it offers a detailed accounting of the past three decades of journalism, a time when the news industry has undergone dramatic change.

Out of the News captures the voices of the nation’s best journalists as they explain the circumstances that led them away from mainstream reporting and into new endeavors. Wexler, herself a former award-winning journalist, describes their experiences in and out of journalism and presents a fascinating group memoir of these times and their rich, exciting lives.

Their stories are good reads in and of themselves. But their experiences also offer an inside look at the structure of news organizations, and the limited power many journalists have over their own work.

read more and go to book page

The Author

In Main Posts on March 12, 2011 at 4:01 am

Celia Viggo Wexler is an award-winning journalist who made a successful transition to a flourishing career as a public-interest lobbyist working for a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.  She worked for daily newspapers in the Midwest, Northeast and Washington, earning praise for her coverage of the business, consumer, and labor beats, and her investigative reporting on the influence of political contributions on public policy.

She worked for 12 years at Common Cause, a nonprofit good-government group, rising to the position of Vice President for Advocacy.  While at Common Cause, she wrote more than 50 studies that tracked the influence of big money on politics, and became a trusted source to dozens of journalists throughout the country. She now lobbies for the Union of Concerned Scientists.  Her free-lance stories have appeared in The Washington Post, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Toronto and earned her graduate degree in journalism from Point Park University, Pittsburgh.

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