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.

Whad’Ya Know

762-frontNot Much Apparently

The Pew Research Center is out with a new quiz probing just what we know about current issues and politics. Most folks who have taken the quiz – the questions range who the Senate Majority Leader is to which country holds most of the debt that the United States has piled up – could answer less than half of the questions correctly.

Take the quick, 12 question quiz and see how you stack up.

Frankly, if you read a daily newspaper, listen to NPR, watch CNN, FOX of MSNBC, or check a major newspaper blog once in a while you should ace the quiz. However, based upon Pew’s findings, most folks are living in an basic information black hole.

Fewer than half knew that U.S. troops have sustained more causalities in Afghanistan over the last year than in Iraq. Only 26% knew that it takes 60 votes in the Senate to end a filibuster. Interestingly, the question most frequently answered correctly – 59% of the time – was the nation that holds the most U.S. debt. (Hint – it’s not Belgium.)

I’ve long been on my soapbox with concern that education in basic history and what we used to call civics – how the government works, that we have three branches, that Senators operate under different rules that Congressman, etc. – has nearly gone the way of the dodo.

This Pew quiz does not prompt me to revise that opinion. With more and more sources of news and information, Americans seem less and less informed about the “facts” underlying what they tell pollsters are their clear concerns about the direction of the country.

Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend in 1789: “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

By contrast, when the people don’t even know the basics about how their government operates and who makes the decisions, a strong, enduring democracy is, well, not necessarily strong or enduring.

Who Was This Pulitzer

pulitzerHe Invented Modern Newspapers

The Pulitzer Prizes were announced yesterday. The awards are an annual and much anticipated part of modern journalism, literature, history, poetry and music. The journalism prizes are, in many ways, the Academy Awards for ink stained wretches. They bring with them prestige, bragging rights and, one would suspect, champagne corks popping in a few newsrooms.

The prizes were endowed and named after the Hungarian Jewish emigre who did nothing less than invent the modern newspaper. And, just in time for the announcement of the prizes comes a fine new biography of Joseph Pulitzer entitled – Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print and Power. The author is James McGrath Morris.

Talk about your self-made man. Pulitzer came the United States at 17 with little more than the clothes on his back. He immediately lied about his age and enlisted in the Union Army and saw combat in the Civil War. Afterward he established himself in St. Louis, got involved in newspapering and politics, became a leading citizen of the German speaking community, served in the state legislature and became a major national figure in Democratic politics. In keeping with his many contradictions, Pulitzer started his political career as a “liberal” Republican, but came to despise President Grant and switched parties.

In the cut throat newspaper world of New York City at the eve of the 20th Century, Pulitzer stole key employees from his younger brother’s paper – they never got along – and established the New York World as a new type of newspaper – brightly written, interesting, controversial, afflicting the comfortable. He made a bundle, reported on bribes made to influence the construction of the Panama Canal, saw his health decline as a result of his obsessive work ethic, went blind and died on his fabulous yacht in 1911.

Oh, yes, there was the circulation war with William Randolph Hearst that ushered in the era of “yellow journalism.” At the height of his influence, Pulitzer’s New York World had a circulation of 600,000 daily, the largest in the world at the time. He was the Rupert Murdoch of his day, but with an element of public interest that seems quaint today and so un-Murdoch-like. Hence Pulitzer’s legacy.

The Hungarian-born, German-accented Jew who all his life longed for acceptance, created a lasting legacy; the prizes that carry his name as well as Columbia University’s School of Journalism that he bankrolled. Ironically, the newspaper king who invented the popular press created the enduring awards celebrating quality journalism and did much to establish higher standards for the craft.

Joseph Pulitzer died almost a hundred years ago. His brand of aggressive journalism may also be a dying. The prizes that carry his name are a fitting legacy for a demanding, aggressive, courageous, egotistical newspaper tycoon. It remains to be seen whether American journalism will long remain equal to the prestige of Pulitzer’s prize.

Pulitzer once said that the survival of popular government depended upon a disinterested, public spirited press. By contrast, “a cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself.” Pulitzer’s nightmare seems to be coming true.

American newspapering – indeed the craft of journalism – faces a crisis of survival. The cynical and the mercenary – FOX, MSNBC, Glenn Beck and Rachel Maddow – demand large audiences for what passes these days for real journalism. What they do really does debase the people and their government. Pulitzer, with all his faults and excesses, would have seen right through the current trends.

Consumers of news have a duty here. Demand excellence and reward the disinterested and public spirited. The Republic depends upon it. Really.

Replacing Justice Stevens

Brandeis+portraitThe Liberal Seat on the Court

With Justice John Paul Stevens retiring, President Obama has the opportunity to name his second justice in less than two years. How important is the pick?

Consider this: Since 1916 when Woodrow Wilson made the controversial appointment of Louis Brandeis to the high court (that’s his portrait to the left) only two other men have held the seat. Stevens, who has sat on the Supreme Court for 35 years, and William O. Douglas who held the seat even longer, more than 36 years. Brandeis served for nearly 23 years.

One seat on the Supreme Court and only three occupants in nearly 100 years. There is a lot riding on any Supreme Court appointment, but the symbolism of filling this particular seat – the liberal seat on the Court – assumes even greater importance.

Brandeis/Douglas/Stevens, each made a large and lasting mark on the Court and the nation. Filling those robes demands a respect for the history of the institution as well as a sense of how one person can shape the Court.

One sure thread ties the three famous justices together. Each was a champion of the individual and individual expression. Douglas once said that the Constitution is not “neutral…it was designed to take the government off the backs of the people.” In addressing the importance of the First Amendment he said, “Free speech is not to be regulated like diseased cattle or impure butter.”

Brandeis and Stevens shared a profound distrust of concentrated government power. One of Brandeis’ most famous quotes addresses his concern. “The greatest dangers to liberty,” he wrote, “lurk in the insidious encroachment of men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.”

Brandeis, an opponent of “bigness” in government and business, opposed much of the expansion of presidential power under Franklin Roosevelt even while sharing FDR’s progressive desire to regulate banks and eliminate monopoly.

Stevens will be long remembered, I suspect, for his Hamdan v. Rumsfeld opinion limiting presidential power related to the war on terror.

Brandeis, the first Jew appointed to the Supreme Court, brought controversy with him in 1916. Former President William Howard Taft spoke against his appointment contending Brandeis was unfit to serve. The Senate took four months to confirm him, the vote was 46-22.

Douglas, only 40 when FDR named him, drew only four negative votes in the Senate, but went on to become an extremely controversial figure while on the Court. He was very political – FDR came close to putting him on the presidential ticket in 1944 – and very outspoken. Douglas championed environmental causes to such a degree that some Court observers thought his strong personal opinions influenced his judicial decisions. Ironically, then-Congressman Gerald Ford tried to impeach Douglas in 1970 and five years later appointed Stevens to replace him. Douglas caused more gossip in 1965 when he married wife number four, a woman a third his age.

Stevens, by all accounts has become so effective by mastering the careful, personal politics of the high court. And while he is the acknowledged leader of the liberal faction, he evolved into that role or, as he prefers, the Court evolved around him. This much is certain, whomever Obama nominates will not receive the unanimous Senate vote that Stevens’ nomination received in 1975.

Many factors will be weighed and measured in the coming nomination and confirmation of the justice who will eventually replace John Paul Stevens, but the president – a student of history – must know that the person he appoints will be filling an historically significant seat on the Supreme Court. Stevens, as Linda Greenhouse wrote in the New York Times, has been the bridge between two different kinds types of Supreme Courts – the one he joined in 1975 and the one he leaves this year.

The Brandeis/Douglas/Stevens seat should be reserved for a justice of historic importance, such is the legacy of this appointment. Barack Obama may make no other more important decision in his presidency.

Weekend Potpourri

menckenFrom Mencken to the Dodgers…

Ever wonder about the origin of the term “banned in Boston?” It originated with what was called the Watch and Ward Society, as in watch for something bad and ward it off.

The caustic critic and reporter H.L. Mencken took those Boston blue bloods to task in 1926, trying and succeeding in getting himself arrested for distributing banned and “obscene” material – his magazine, the American Mercury.

My friends at the Massachusetts Humanities Council issue a wonderful, daily e-newsletter with a highlight of each day in the Bay State’s history. This week they featured the Mencken story, a classic example of one crusaders effort to counter censorship.

One of Mencken’s great quotes: “All [zoos] actually offer to the public in return for the taxes spent upon them a form of idle and witless amusement, compared to which a visit to a penitentiary, or even to a State legislature in session, is informing, stimulating and ennobling.” So there.

All is not well in Dodgerland

The Daily Beast has some of the lurid details of the high stakes, high money divorce of the McCourts, the owners of, among other things, one of the most storied franchises in sport – the Dodgers. Frank McCourt has said the divorce from his wife, Jamie – a divorce that the L.A. Times says will end up being the most expensive in state history (now that is saying a mouthful) – won’t disrupt the team.

“My kids will own the Dodgers someday,” McCourt said. “As we get this matter resolved… things will get back to normal.” I hope so, but only for Joe Torre’s sake. He’s the only thing this Giants fan likes about the Angelenos.

And, oh by the way, you ever wonder how the super rich manage to get by? The Times also reports that from 2004-2009, the McCourts banked $108 million and didn’t pay a cent of income tax. Now, I really dislike the Dodgers.

Egan on Earthquakes

In his New York Times on line column Tim Egan ruminates about the earthquake that will someday hit Seattle.

“Living in earthquake country,” Egan says, “is the life embodiment of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line about the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time while still being to able to function.”

The human mind is amazing. Intellectually we know disaster can strike any moment, but practically we (mostly) continue to carry on despite that realization.

Better it is to hold the cynicism in check and live the life of an optimist. As the great Mencken said: “A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.”

Have a good weekend.

What is it about Montana

MurrayGiants in the Senate

Fewer than a million souls live in Montana, the state that sprawls out under the Big Sky. Yet, during the 20th Century, Montana produced well more than its share of powerful, influential United States Senators.

The handsome and very liberal Jim Murray, a wealthy son of Butte, Montana, is one of a group of Democratic senators who wielded real power and have had lasting influence, while representing geographically massive, but population small Montana.

Murray’s pioneering role in pushing for universal health care coverage was recalled recently in a fine piece by Montana journalist Charles Johnson. Johnson notes that Murray occupied, from 1934 to 1961, the seat now held by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a champion of the health care legislation recently passed.

“Jim Murray was a trailblazer as part of a trio of lawmakers who worked hard but ultimately failed to pass national health insurance bills under Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman,” Johnson wrote.

As proof that little really ever changes in American politics, Murray’s work more than 50 years ago with Sen. Robert Wagner of New York and Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the father of the current Dingell in the House, was attacked as “socialized medicine” that was certain to usher in the ruination the country.

Johnson recalls that Sen. Robert Taft, the Ohio Republican now regarded as one of the all-time giants of the Senate, once interrupted Murray at a hearing to denounce the health legislation as “the most socialist measure that this Congress has ever had before it.”

Murray, never a great orator, shouted back at Taft: “You have so much gall and so much nerve. … If you don’t shut up, I’ll have … you thrown out.”

The charge of aiding and abetting socialism was perhaps an even more powerful accusation in the 1950′s than it is when hurled at President Obama today. Murray’s brand of progressive liberalism always brought with it a charge that he was a dangerous lefty. In his long Senate career he never had an easy election.

Charles Johnson notes the irony in the fact that while Murray’s most passionate opponents in the 1940′s and 1950′s came from the ranks of the American Medical Association, the AMA’s current president endorsed the recent legislation, noting that it “represents an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of tens of millions of Americans.”

Now, it is Baucus’ turn to have his role in the passage of the health care legislation fiercely debated in Montana. Perhaps as as indication of the intensity of the furor, Baucus, who was re-elected just last year, has gone up on television in Montana today seeking to explain why the legislation that he had a major hand in creating and, that dates back to his Senate predecessor, is good for Montana.

Each of Montana’s most influential U.S. Senators were controversial in their day. In my read of the state political history, Murray and Baucus properly join Sen. Tom Walsh, the investigator of the Teapot Dome scandal; Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, the man who lead the fight to turn back Franklin Roosevelt’s assault on the Supreme Court in 1937, and Sen. Mike Mansfield, the longest serving majority leader in Senate history, as Montanans who have made a lasting mark on the Senate and on the nation’s business.

Few states can claim a larger collection of truly influential – or controversial – U.S. Senators. Big names, indeed, from the Big Sky State.