Archive for the ‘Idaho Media’ Category

One of a Kind

Perry Swisher – 1923 to 2012

It was nearly impossible to have a neutral feeling about Perry Swisher. If you expressed admiration for one of his ideas or newspaper columns he would find a way to say or write something the next time that he knew would be highly contrary, bitingly caustic or searingly funny. He was truly one of a kind.

What can you expect after all from a guy who had been elected as both a Republican and a Democrat and ran for governor of Idaho in 1966 as an independent; with the last label perhaps being the most accurate. Swisher, who died Tuesday in Boise at 88, was truly a one of a kind independent – candid, brilliant, opinionated, humorous, not an easy sufferer of fools. The old line “not always right, but never in doubt” fit Swish like a glove.

I have a personal recollection of Swisher as an independent that perhaps summarizes his life of intelligent, not always gentle, commentary on the world and the hapless mortals who inhabit the place. In 1979, then-Democratic Gov. John V. Evans, who had ascended to the governorship when Cecil D. Andrus went off to serve as Interior Secretary in the Carter Administration, appointed Swisher to fill a vacancy on the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.

It was a bit of a surprise appointment and one sure to ruffle feathers down at Idaho Power corporate offices. Swisher was, shall we say, not a champion of big business. He was the kind to make sure that the “regulated” in regulated utility received his full attention.

I interviewed Swisher the day of his appointment to the Commission and, knowing I would get colorful, candid responses, devoted the last few minutes of the interview to asking him for quick comments on various political people he had know as allies and adversaries over so many years. I asked him about Evans, the man who had just given Swisher a new career and a new platform from which to influence public policy in Idaho. I remember the quote verbatim.

“John Evans,” Swisher said, “is the Mayor of Malad who by a quirk of political fate has become governor of Idaho.” Now that is candid.

He might have said Evans is a nice guy, as he is. Or that his benefactor was fast learning the ropes of the governorship, which he was. But Swish, never one to mince words, essentially said the governor who had just given him a plum appointment was a small town mayor who had risen to high office by being in the right place at the right time. Interviewers seldom get such answers. You always got them from Swisher. Politically correct he was not. He once showed up a post game rock concert at Boise’s Memorial Stadium in his bathrobe – he lived nearby – waving a hatchet and threatening to hack the power cables if the noise didn’t abate. He made waves.

The obituaries will chronicle Swisher’s accomplishments, which are not insignificant as a legislator – he championed the establishment of the sales tax – or as a utility regulator – he helped transition us from the old Ma Bell days to fiber optics and cell phones.

Swisher once said of the decision by federal Judge Harold Greene that caused the Bell System divestiture and heralded the deregulation of telecommunications, “Judge Greene took the only perfect thing in the world and screwed it up.” As I said, no lack of opinions from this old newspaper guy.

Swisher would have been a force in Idaho political and economic life had he never served in the legislature or presided at the PUC. He was, and this is not hyperbole, a true public intellectual. The guy had ideas, lot of them. Not everyone in public life thinks enough to actually have ideas about big issues. He did.

If you want to know what a newspaper looked like 25 years ago go back and look at the Lewiston Morning Tribune when Swisher ran the night desk. The paper was breaking news – real news – almost every day. He paid attention to institutions, like the State Board of Education, the PUC and House Business Committee. He’d been on the inside and knew were the public might get shafted and as an editor he was comfortable pulling back the veil.

Former Gov. Andrus told Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker that Swisher was “an Idaho icon,” although he probably cost Andrus the governorship in 1966 with his independent run. Swisher polled almost 31,000 votes in a four-way race and Andrus lost to Republican Don Samuelson by just over 10,000. Both Andrus and Swisher supported the newly enacted Idaho sales tax that year, the issue that dominated the race, and Samuelson didn’t. It doesn’t require a political science degree to conclude that Swisher took pro-sales tax votes from the Democrat Andrus, particularly in Democratic leaning counties like Bannock and Nez Perce.

Another former governor, Phil Batt, told Barker that Swisher was an outstanding legislator, which I took to mean Swish knew how to get to “yes” and it didn’t often require a heavy dose of partisanship.

Perry Swisher was old school. He liked a drink and a good story. He read everything and applied his knowledge. I never had a sense he cared what anyone thought of him or his ideas. He was comfortable being what he was – smart, opinionated, candid and funny. Not always right, but never in doubt.

I’m glad I knew him. Idaho should be glad he flashed across our political and journalism sky. He lived a full life and left a mark, a measure for anyone to aspire to. When people remember Swish I’m betting they bemoan that there aren’t more like him; more true, intelligent, candid independents.

 

Old School

Pat Murphy, 1929 – 2011

I didn’t know Pat Murphy well. I wish I had known him better. What I did know and observe firsthand about the former Arizona Republic editorial page editor, columnist and publisher I liked – a lot.

Murphy died last week in Idaho where he had retired – but where he kept on writing and reporting – after his long career in Arizona.

Pat Murphy was, in a day of Twitter, silly cable news and more and more vacuous news coverage, old school. He was a newsman and nothing sexist is meant by that term. Writing in the Republic last week, columnist E.J. Montini, recalled Murphy’s tenure as publisher and the fact that he had replaced a man who was forced to resign the job because it was discovered that he had fabricated a military record that did not exist.

“In a lot of ways,” Montini wrote, “Murphy did for The Republic and Gazette what Gerald Ford did for the White House. (He would hate this comparison.)

“Naming Murphy as publisher almost immediately restored order.

“The first time he appeared in the newsroom after being named to the top job, reporters and editors burst into applause.”

In an editorial, the Republic remembered Murphy as a “brassy, bold, uninhibited, occasionally cantankerous, fearless, opinionated, quick-writing newsman.” They got it just right, I think.

Murphy ran the Arizona daily when day after day the front page was dominated by news of the latest shenanigan pulled by a governor, Evan Mecham, who would eventually be impeached and removed from office. Murphy called the wacky Mecham “brutish” and an “ideological juggernaut.” When Pat resigned as publisher, Mecham called it “good news” and predicted that the paper’s reputation would improve. It seems too obvious to point out that Murphy’s reputation did just fine and Mecham’s name will forever be linked to impeachment.

In one of his last columns for the Mountain Express in Ketchum, Murphy lamented the apparently growing trend of adult violence directed toward children and he offered a sane and sober explanation for why it’s happening: poor parenting.

“Children who grow up in an atmosphere where parental authority is firm and respected,” Pat wrote, “where ethics of truth, honesty and regard for others are emphasized, where spiritual or religious values are important, where learning and education are essential and a work ethic is obvious generally mature into adults who’re social assets.

“Children lacking that nurturing are empty of basic qualities required of a civilized human.”

Murphy was a journalist, a veteran, an opinionated and passionate man; a fellow willing, as the old phrase goes, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. He was old school and first class.



J. Robb Brady

A Rare Breed

Loyal readers at this spot know that I occasionally rage against the dying of the light of local journalism. The days of independent, community-minded and engaged newspapers, television and radio stations does seem to me more and more imperiled, which makes the passing of J. Robb Brady, the long-time publisher and editorialist of the Idaho Falls Post Register, a singularly sad milestone.

Brady was a young 92 when he died Sunday in Idaho Falls. His wife Rose – they were married for 69 years - died earlier this year.

Robb Brady was, as the younger set might say, “old school.” His office looked like it could have been at home on the set of the old television show “Lou Grant.” Robb truly had printer’s ink in his veins and it was obvious he took great pride and satisfaction in running a family-owned newspaper.

Robb Brady was also a conservationist, occasionally at the expense of his objectivity, but had I the chance, as he did, to buy ink by the barrel, I would want to have the same kind of opinionated, passionate editorial page he presided over at the Post Register. I remember taking a client in some years back to “background” Robb and others at the paper on a new mining venture in Lemhi County. I warned the client that it would be a tough session full of pointed questions. Robb, as far as I know, never met a mine he liked and the editorial board meeting was tough and pointed, but never lacking in civility.

Brady simply wanted folks to justify their plans and most of all answer how they would take care of the Idaho environment he came to champion. The answers he got were seldom good enough, but his judgments were rarely nasty, rather more concerned and dubious. In other words, his was the newspapering mind of a skeptic, not a cynic.

He wasn’t a booster – OK, well maybe a little bit of a hometown booster of the Department of Energy. All politics is local after all. Not many mines in Bonneville County, Idaho, but thousands of jobs at the Idaho National Laboratory.

For example, in a 2006 editorial Brady lamented the power of oil and gas companies to dominate the Bush Administration’s public lands leasing policies and suggested that global warming had an answer – develop a newer, safer generation of nuclear reactors rather than exploit more dirty carbon-based energy. At least Brady, unlike too many who possess a strong conservation ethic, had a real alternative to more oil and gas exploration – invest in nuclear power.

The tributes to Robb Brady will flow in now from those who will remember his spirited, passionate editorials about the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains, about his championing of protection for the magnificent Sawtooth Range and the River of No Return Wilderness. But some of the best and most important memories will come from the generations of ink-stained wretches he touched and trained.

Marty Trillhaase, now the editorial page editor of another family-owned newspaper in Lewiston, once worked with Brady in Idaho Falls, as did the Idaho Statesman’s Kevin Richert and Rocky Barker. Calling Brady kind, generous, opinionated and courageous, Trillhaase concluded his editorial today with the all-too-true observation: we’ll not see his like again.

 

News or Advocacy

newspaperWho Pays and Why

I’ve long believed that one of the consequences of the vast proliferation of information sources – the Internet, cable, social media, etc. – and the contemporaneous decline of the so called “main stream media” would be the rise of an increasingly partisan media. By partisan, I mean “news” with a distinct point of view and an obvious ideological bent.

In a way, it’s a movement that goes back to the future. In the days of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, consumers of political news could read a “pro-Adams” or “anti-Hamilton” newspaper. Newspapers were the “voice” of political movements and made little effort to provide anything approaching real “fairness and balance.” Even fairly recently, the Chicago Tribune, under its autocratic owner and publisher Robert McCormick, was the leading voice of Midwest, conservative, isolationist sentiment. McCormick delivered the news heavily laced with his considered view of what America should be all about. As a Guardian blog points out, Britain has long had a tradition of news organizations representing a distinct political point of view or party and paid for in some clandestine manner.

The most effective manifestation of this back to the future in our politics is FOX News and MSNBC. Despite protestations from the heads of news operations at both cable networks that they play news coverage right down the middle, FOX puts a deliberately conservative slant on everything while MSNBC varnishes its coverage with liberal lacquer. I watch both, but always with the “are they reporting or advocating” meter turned up full. FOX and MSNBC are my idea of day-in, day-out “point of view” journalism.

Now comes the fascinating and not altogether encouraging development of “news bureaus” in several state capitals that are openly mixing “news” of state government with advocacy of particular public policy positions.

John Miller with the Associated Press in Idaho reported last week on a relatively new website – Idahoreporter.com - and what he described as, “similar news operations…now in place in Washington state, Michigan, South Carolina, Montana, Wyoming, Florida, West Virginia, Arizona, Missouri, Maryland, Nebraska, Illinois, Texas, Tennessee, Ohio and elsewhere.” In Idaho, the “news” site is connected to the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a 501(c)3, non-profit that recently sent a fundraising appeal over the signature of former Republican Senator Steve Symms.

Miller notes that “there are fears that these organizations are trying to advance a certain agenda by the stories they decide to cover — even if the articles themselves are unbiased.”

He quotes Amy Mitchell, deputy director for the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism: “They are still very new. But in any content, there are a couple of different kinds of bias to look for: the angles taken by a reporter, the tone of writing. But there is also a bias that can exist in terms of choices of stories to cover.”

These operations are flourishing for at least three reasons. The traditional media – newspapers and TV, primarily – are retreating in their coverage of government and politics. At a time when a majority of Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction and many feel our politics are hopelessly dysfunctional, there is a dearth of local reporting on policy and politics. These new news bureaus are filling a void.

There is also a demand for “point of view” reporting. If there wasn’t, FOX News wouldn’t consistently lead the cable ratings. There is more and more evidence that liberals love to have their point of view validated. The recent New York Times/CBS News poll focused on Tea Party supporters found that crowd wildly in love with Glenn Beck and FOX. The complexity and ambiguity of that continuing search of “objectivity” is clearly something many of us desire to avoid.

Finally, there is the money. Someone out there has the deep pockets to finance the rather elaborate and sophisticated efforts of idahoreporter.com and similar efforts around the country. But who?

None of the people running these efforts, including former reporter Wayne Hoffman in Idaho, will talk about the deep pockets. Ironically, while Hoffman regularly blasts government for a lack of transparency and frequently posts the results of his requests for public records – salary information for the Wilder School District, for example – he justifies his own lack of candor about who backs his efforts by invoking the non-profit status of his organization.

This is a curious stance for a group that helped set a good part of the agenda for the most recent session of the state legislature. Hoffman’s group advocated elimination of state funding of Idaho Public Television, successfully sought to end the income tax check-off for political parties and strongly backed the state’s effort to legally challenge the federal health insurance reform legislation. Good for them. That is the way our system works. But, the system also works based on sunshine and it gets perverted when information about who is bankrolling efforts like Hoffman’s remains secret.

I’m an absolutist when it comes to the marketplace of ideas. Everyone can and should play. Admittedly, I prefer my news served up with at least a side dish of objectivity, but don’t begrudge a Rupert Murdoch or a Punch Sulzberger their points of view. They’re paying for it, after all. Or, better yet, the advertisers they induce to buy time with FOX or a full page ad in the New York Times are paying for it. In those cases the marketplace of ideas is supported by the market and the more of it the better.

By contrast, what these new “news bureaus” – and the “think tanks” that back them – lack is the very transparency they claim to value in the public arena. I’m confident the proponents of this confluence of “news” and “advocacy” will continue to expand their efforts to influence public affairs. Just don’t confuse what they do with real journalism or with advocacy that abides by the rules of real disclosure.

All of us are better served when we know who is writing the checks that make this kind of effort possible.

A Delicate Balance

Perry_Mason showIt’s Not As Easy As They Made It Look

In the old TV series, Perry Mason always wrapped up the case in the last few minutes of the show, tied a ribbon on the verdict and went out for a cocktail, or whatever, with Della Street. If only it were that easy in real life.

The American system of justice is often complicated, confusing, contentious and cumbersome. It is also central to our form of government.

On April 15th in Boise, the Andrus Center for Public Policy – I proudly serve as the volunteer president of the Center – will host with the Idaho Press Club a half day seminar that will dig into some of the complications of the justice system, particularly as they relate to the media. The seminar – we’re calling it “A Delicate Balance” – is also supported by the University of Idaho College of Law and the Idaho State Bar. Members of the bar can earn two continuing legal education (CLE) credits for attending.

The seminar at the Boise Centre is open to the public – there is a $10 registration fee – and will be, I believe, both interesting and entertaining to anyone who cares about how our justice system works and how its workings are reported by the media. Register on line at the Andrus Center website and look over the seminar agenda.

Idaho’s Chief Federal Judge B. Lynn Winmill will keynote the seminar and be joined in a panel with, among others, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, the Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey, Todd Dvorak of the Associated Press, Betsy Russell of the Spokesman Review nd prominent Idaho attorney Walt Bithell. University of Idaho Law School Dean Don Burnett will participate in the panel and offer remarks.

Some years back, the Andrus Center adopted as a part of several of its policy conferences a “Socratic dialogue” method of engaging participants in a discussion of difficult, contemporary issues. We’ll take that approach again on April 15th. I’ll present a hypothetical scenario to the panel and they’ll work through some of the issues that often occur when the Constitution’s guarantee of a fair trial comes in conflict with the First Amendment protections of a free press. It will be fun and provocative. Participants in the Andrus Center/Press Club seminar are also invited to attend the College of Law’s Bellwood Lecture reception also at the Boise Centre. The reception will begun upon completion of the seminar.

Hope you’ll attend. I’m guessing that even Perry Mason could benefit.