former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

March Celebrated Past But Didn’t Commit To Future

In Blog on August 30, 2013 at 2:30 pm

What happens when you compress all the news coverage of Black History Month into one week, and put it on steroids?  This week’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Don’t get me wrong. It is absolutely fitting to mark this event, and to pay homage to the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.  Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech ought to be remembered. We should honor the years of struggle that African-Americans endured to galvanize a nation.  Their nonviolent protests were met with beatings, imprisonment and death, and those horrendous events were broadcast across the nation.  Television journalism helped inform the conscience of a nation.

But what was lacking in the commemoration was the acknowledgment that the strides in racial equality also demanded political power.  As dramatic and moving as the civil rights protests were, the prospects for legislative reform 50 years ago seemed dim, at least until the Southern Democrats’ hold on the Senate was broken.

Ignoring that fact meant that this week’s events were more about emotion than strategy and leadership. The reading and viewing public got a big dose of memories, leavened with cogent analysis of the continuing legacy of racism. It was in large part, about sharing memories. NPR’s “The Race Card Project,” offered us an intriguing glimpse into the feelings of average Americans about black-white relations.

Watching the broadcast coverage of the event, one was struck by the tens of thousands of people who gathered on a rain-soaked day, the speeches, and the songs.

But here’s one concern about all that coverage. The March was framed as the one event that changed the course of history, prompting the passage of landmark civil rights and voting rights laws.

No one wants to diminish the March’s impact. It was crucial to the advance of civil rights. But the media ill serves the civil rights movement and history when it implies that speeches and marches alone change history. King, and his colleagues sowed the seeds for reform, as did the hundreds of thousands of civil rights activists throughout the country. And civil rights leaders were acutely aware of the obstacles that stood in their way in Congress, and used the media as a vital tool to overcome some of those obstacles.

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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.

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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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