Afghanistan, Journalism

Ten I’d Like to See

Editor for a Day

I’m a news junkie. I consume newspapers, radio, television, the Internet, blogs and more like some folks consume cans of Coke or bags of salted peanuts. I’m addicted to news.

My much better half once clipped a Charles Schultz “Peanuts” cartoon from the Sunday paper and had it framed for me. In the cartoon Snoopy is seen with a significant number of papers under his arm (leg?) and Charlie Brown remarks that he’s always buying all the out of town papers. That’s me.

So, as a year-end wish, I’d like to put on my green eye shade for a moment, the kind an old-time editor might have worn, and suggest ten stories I’d like to see someone write.

1. Who has survived the housing bubble? I keep hearing stories about the massive inventory of built housing in Ada and Canyon Counties in Idaho, but I wonder how the developers, builders, architects, etc. manage to hang on? Is the housing situation improving? How much inventory is there? Who has weathered this awful story…and who hasn’t?

2. What’s happening to the Idaho timber industry? Twenty or more years ago every Idaho politician spoke of the staples of the Idaho economy as being timber, agriculture and mining. Political battles were fought over allowable harvest levels in Idaho’s national forests. Potlatch and Boise Cascade carried real economic and political clout. Additional formal wilderness designation was held hostage to the need for access to new raw materials. Agriculture is still big, mining – particularly gold exploration is booming – but what about the timber industry? The industry’s once-powerful trade group disbanded last year. What has happened to jobs, companies and how big (or small) is the once mighty industry?

3. Speaking of wilderness, that is where the Idaho Democratic Party has wandered for the last 15 years. With the exception of a one-term congressman and a superintendent of public instruction, the party that once held the governorship for 24 straight years seems a political afterthought. Does any Democratic leader have a plan to help the party return to relevance? Who might be a serious candidate for a serious office in 2014? Or, has Idaho become what Alabama was in the 1930’s – a one-party state for as far as the mind can see?

4. Speaking of politics, I’d be curious – and other Idaho news consumers would be, as well, I think – as to what the state’s all-GOP congressional delegation thinks of the current state of presidential politics. Several of the state’s Republican leaders have endorsed Mitt Romney, but I don’t see anything about what they make of the current campaign. I know these guys, serious politicians all, are following the debates and watching the polls. I’d like to know what they think about the campaign.

5. Idaho undertook massive changes in public education over the last two years, including for the first time actual year over year reductions in spending. School districts have downsized staff, changed schedules and eliminated programs. Who has been hurt? How many teachers have left the state and why?

6. Another education money story I’d like to see fleshed out is what the impact of legislative action on public school spending has been for local property taxpayers. There have been levy elections designed to raise money from property taxpayers to replace money – sales and income tax dollars – that has shrunk at the state level. The Boise district will ask voters to approve a levy in March. Some numbers reporting on what has happened could be enlightening.

7. One of the expected big battles of the 2012 Idaho legislature will center on whether the state will create a state-based health insurance exchange” as required by the unpopular Affordable Care Act– Obamacare in the parlance of those who most dislike the law. Idaho legislators voted against the exchange idea last year, but Gov. Butch Otter finally used an executive order to facilitate work on the exchange in the interim. Soon, the legislature will be asked to authorize the creation of an exchange and spend money on setting it up. Here’s a comparison I’d like to see: Utah, a state every bit as conservative as Idaho, already has an exchange in place. How did that happen? What is different in Utah as opposed to Idaho? Conservative Republicans run both states, but have come to apparently very different conclusions on this important issue. [Full disclosure: I serve on the board of a health insurance company that supports – as I do – creating a state-based exchange.]

8. The most vocal opposition to creating an Idaho exchange comes from the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative, free-market think tank, and its director, a former reporter and GOP staffer, Wayne Hoffman. Hoffman is a very effective advocate. Many legislators listen when he speaks. Good for him. What lawmakers, the public and the media don’t know is who bankrolls his efforts. It continues to be a valid question and a potentially important story with impacts for Idaho’s public policy and politics.

9. Washington State voters recently voted – with healthy encouragement from Costco, the big retailer – to get the state out of the liquor business. States where liquor is controlled, purchased by the state and sold in state-owned and operated liquor stores, is a relic of the country’s post-Prohibition days in the 1930’s. Given Idaho’s historic inclination, when given a choice, to favor the private sector over the public, just how does the state maintaining a liquor monopoly fit? It is often argued that the status quo helps discourage consumption. But is that true? Would a change cost the state money or make it money? An enterprising reporter ought to be able to figure that out? Right next door Washington will be testing many of the assumptions long-held in Idaho.

10. And…I’m curious about the impact on the state’s unemployment rate over the last 18 months or so of the downsizing local and state governments have engaged in. Just how many positions have been eliminated in the tough budget environment? What has been the impact on both those people and public services? Maybe it’s good, maybe not. It’s an important story that hasn’t been much reported.

There you have it…ten stories I’d love to read in 2012.

 

Afghanistan, Grant, Idaho Media, Journalism

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.

Afghanistan, Grant, Idaho Media, Idaho Politics, Journalism, Public Lands

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.

 

Afghanistan, Britain, Journalism, New York

A Job for DCI Tennison

Tabloid Scandal Gets Closer to the Top

I’m thinking as I read about each new revelation in the widening Rupert Murdoch/tabloid/police/political scandal in Britain that we really need Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison to unravel this mess.

Think of the Helen Mirren character from the long-running PBS series, Prime Suspect, putting the screws to Murdoch’s henchmen. Mirren’s character was herself deeply flawed; a failure at love, she drank way too much and smoked like a campfire, but at her core she was an honest cop determined to see the right thing done. This British scandal needs a Jane Tennison.

Already the Murdoch mess has claimed his lucrative tabloid, The New of the World, that paper’s top editor, Rebecca Brooks, who was arrested over the weekend, the publisher of the Wall Street Journal, the top two cops at Scotland Yard and other assorted bit players in Murdoch’s world and that of Prime Minister David Cameron. The scandal is getting dangerously close to the top. Murdoch hardly has anyone else to fire. Well, his son, perhaps, or himself.

Count on this story continuing to unfold for a long time to come. As Carl Bernstein, who should know, suggested in a Newsweek piece, all of this could become Britain’s Watergate.

Bernstein quoted one observer as saying of Murdoch and his leadership in the steady dumbing down of what passes for journalism in his empire on both sides of the Atlantic, “In the end, what you sow is what you reap. Now Murdoch is a victim of the culture that he created. It is a logical conclusion, and it is his people at the top who encouraged lawbreaking and hacking phones and condoned it.”

As to the Watergate analogy, Bernstein says: “The circumstances of the alleged lawbreaking within News Corp. suggest more than a passing resemblance to Richard Nixon presiding over a criminal conspiracy in which he insulated himself from specific knowledge of numerous individual criminal acts while being himself responsible for and authorizing general policies that routinely resulted in lawbreaking and unconstitutional conduct. Not to mention his role in the cover-up.”

It’s always the cover-up.

Murdoch’s jettisoning of the last two people to preside over the newspaper that hacked the mobile phones of some 4,000 people and potentially blackmailed and bribed police to cover it up can be seen one of two ways. The media mogul is finally taking charge or, Nixon like, Murdoch has fired his Haldeman and Erlichman in an effort to keep his distance from the details of the scandal.

This much is true: Rupert Murdoch didn’t amass a vast, global communications empire by not paying attention to the details – and the troubles – that perplex any CEO and his organization. He’s played his game ruthlessly, with enormous political and economic resources at his disposal and now the fruits of that approach are becoming all-to-evident.

Soon British Members of Parliament will be asking, as the great Sen. Howard Baker once did of Watergate witnesses, “what did Rupert know and when did he know it?’ The prime minister will be answering the same question.

Someday, down the road, the BBC will make a drama series out of all of this that will be a big hit on both sides of the pond. It will literally be “ripped from the headlines” and too fantastic to be believed, but it will be true. I hope they find a role for DCI Tennison.

 

Afghanistan, Basques, Journalism, Media

All the News

From Ridiculous to Scandalous

You could not look at a website or pick up a paper over the weekend without seeing the nearly minute-by-minute coverage of the latest Rupert Murdoch outrage. Murdoch’s scandal peddling News of the World printed its final edition on Sunday. (Final that is until Murdoch can buy enough time to resurrect the sleazy tabloid under another banner.)

For once it seems the great Australian press baron has got his comeuppance. Don’t bet on it. This guy has more lives than Donald Trump and a lot more money. Reportedly he left the super-secret Allen Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho to tend to the mess in London. Hanging in the balance is Murdoch’s effort to further expand his empire by fully taking over British Sky Broadcasting, a major television network.

It would have been great to be in London on Sunday. I would have bought every paper in sight – at least those not controlled by Murdoch – to see how they covered the demise of the NTW and the still unfolding scandal of how Murdoch family members and assorted retainers presided over a newspaper that hacked into apparently thousands of mobile voice mails in pursuit of the “scoops” that made the now defunct NTW both profitable and the very definition of yellow journalism. Those hacked include murder and crime victims and military personnel. Find Murdoch’s photo next to sleazy in the dictionary.

I do love the headline in the Telegraph: Goodbye, Cruel World. That about says it.

The increasingly Tony Blair-like Prime Minister David Cameron underscores how deeply Murdoch has his claws into politicians on both sides of the pond. Apparently even Margaret Thatcher had a thing for Murdoch. Cameron, however, takes the prize for admitting the obvious. The PM had the gall to stand on the floor of the House of Commons and condemn his party and all the others for growing “too close” to the powerful press tycoon. Cameron was so close he hired the former News of the World editor to be his chief mouthpiece. That guy is now in jail. Even the Church of England owns shares in Murdoch’s enterprise.

So, if you’re keeping score at home, make that Murdoch owning (or renting) two of the three major political parties in Britain (his switch last election to the Tories was likely decisive for Cameron), a piece of the Church and even the Royals. Murdoch’s official biographer is doing the same air brush job for the Queen Mum. In the U.S., so far, Murdoch only dominates one national political party, but recall that he did make nice with Hillary Clinton when most everyone thought she might be the Democratic candidate for president. Murdoch is an equal opportunity co-opter.

There are predictions in Britain that the phone hacking scandal will finally rattle the all-too-cozy relationship among newspapers, broadcasters and politicians. If that happens, so much the better for the future of a truly great country. Either way it ought to be a cautionary tale for those of us in “the colonies” who like our news with a semblance of fairness, if not objectivity.

If the British papers will just print the truth about the News Corporation and it’s powerful, scandal and money soaked boss that should be more than enough to take care of King Rupert. But, then again, I never thought he could pull off buying – and remaking – The Wall Street Journal or get away with having half the Republican presidential candidate field on his payroll at Fox News. Nothing Murdoch does should surprise.

A book to put it all in context is Evelyn Waugh’s very funny novel Scoop written in 1938. The New York Times’ Nick Kristof suggests it for a good summer read and I agree. Waugh’s tale – farce is one word for it – focuses on the world of London tabloids trying to outdo each other covering an obscure war in an even more obscure African country.

One of the characters in Waugh’s book says: “I read the newspapers with lively interest. It is seldom that they are absolutely, point-blank wrong. That is the popular belief, but those who are in the know can usually discern an embryo of truth, a little grit of fact, like the core of a pearl, round which have been deposited the delicate layers of ornament.”

You’ll read Scoop and laugh and then think maybe Rupert Murdoch read this, too.

 

Afghanistan, Journalism

Woodward

Good Columnist, Good Guy

The Idaho Statesman in Boise and the paper’s readers said so long this weekend to long-time columnist/reporter Tim Woodward.

As I get a little older, I tend to reflect more and more on such transitions and, as a result, I have a much greater appreciation of the value of guys like Tim to an institution, whether it be a newspaper or any other outfit. Woodward, a talented writer and a very good guy, is one of the very few links to Boise and Idaho journalism that dates to the same era when I started in the business. In 35 or 40 years in any business, you accumulate a big Rolodex and, if you’re smart and engaged, as Tim was and is, you rack up the kind of perspective and knowledge that only comes with time and experience.

There is lots to be said about Tim Woodward and his contributions to his town and state – I’m a big fan, for example, of his longer form writing, particularly his biography of Idaho writer Vardis Fisher – but lets say this much: he has done something that few of us get to do, he touched a lot of lives.

The newspaper columnist, particularly those with an ability to tell a compelling human story, are a great tradition among the ink-stained wretches of the world. Think Breslin or Royko. The Oregonian’s Steve Duin is in this category. Tim Woodward, too. Good columnist, good guy. Good luck.

 

Afghanistan, Journalism

Dumbing Down

How Print Journalism Survives…or Not

Fascinating piece by the Public Editor of The New York Times this past weekend taking the gray lady to task for not preserving “its dignified brand,” while covering popular culture.

Arthur Brisbane wrote, “The culture is headed for the curb, and The New York Times is on the story.” Brisbane went on from his exalted perch as “the readers’ representative” – the watchdog of the watchdog if you will – to criticize the Times for running three pieces in five days, two book reviews and a feature, on “The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt.”

For the culturally unhip that is the title of a new memoir about, I gather, a New York guy who wears women’s clothes and confuses and confounds his family and friends. One of the Times reviews called it “vaguely sad.” The Public Editor was suggesting that such a book, with a $750,000 advance to the author one Jon-Jon Goulian, is certainly news, but perhaps the newspaper of record had overplayed the whole thing just a tad.

OK, OK, NPR reviewed it, too – “very funny but frustratingly shallow.”

Brisbane’s larger point, I think, and a fundamental point for mainstream journalism in an age of shrinking newsrooms and circulation. is a question as old as the craft: do we give the reader what they want or do we give ’em what we think they need?

Somewhere, I suspect, some people are making a lot of money telling newspaper executives what to do to re-imagine the content and financial model for old paper on the front step. The Times recently put a tentative toe in the pay wall water and its website is a must visit for news junkies even if it messes with its brand by writing silly pop culture pieces that are better left to the Huffington Post.

The old Seattle P-I went out of business some time back as a cut-down-trees product and is now entirely online and mostly local. One of the more intriguing experiments is unfolding in Tampa where Gannett is testing “hyperlocal” content in a series of new websites.

My own bias, as the last guy on the planet who will relinquish his grip on old-style newsprint, is for local news organizations to try their own versionof the Gannett Tampa model. Go even more local.

An old journalism prof told me once, admittedly this is ancient history – BC (before computers) – “that people like to see names in the paper.” He meant that readers want to read about their neighbors, their kids, people they know, their community. Such stuff has long been the content staple of good weekly papers

If I were editor for a day – or a month – at a small to mid-sized paper, I’d junk the daily national and international news, or perhaps run just a few headlines, and put all the newsroom resources on the community. Go back to covering the school board meetings. Report on what’s new at the Saturday market. More local culture, more local politics, more of everything local. I’d localize national and international stories more in the interest of getting local folks to comment on the news. I’d take a page from the Times and create a local Bill Cunningham, the photographer who rides the streets of Gotham on his bicycle recording the look and rhythm of the city.

Sounds easy and I know it’s not. It requires boots on the ground and reporters and editors completely invested and interested in their place. But this much is true, I can get the national political news, and do, from lots of sources all day long and into the night. We have many fewer options to find out what’s going on close to home.

The headline on the Times Public Editor piece this weekend was “Loitering on the Fringes.” Here’s hoping that struggling newspapers strike the right balance on the old “what they want and what they need” question and give us more of what answers both questions – more local content. More coverage where we live and most of us don’t live on the fringe.

By the way, Publisher’s Weekly said of that book the Times has given so much attention to: “Through all his flashy attempts to grab the reader’s attention, Goulian’s story never seems interesting or serious enough to deserve it.” If that blurb is true – who cares about this slice of pop culture?

Not interesting, not serious, not exactly the standard definition of news in The New York Times or elsewhere. In every town the school board still makes news.

 

Afghanistan, Journalism

A Reporter’s Reporter

David BroderDavid Broder, 1929 – 2011

In the last few years it became “inside the beltway” sport for some to denigrate the kind of journalism that Dave Broder practiced for so long from his lofty perch at the Washington Post.

To his few critics, Broder, who died on Wednesday at age 81, was old school, a guy interested in the substance of politics, not the cynicism, someone who actually believed that politicians could be motivated by something other than self-interest. Worst of all, to some, Broder was a model of civility; judicious with his judgments, slow to pull the trigger of blame.

For my money, he was the gold standard, the dean, the kind of reporter who is rapidly disappearing from the political beat, or any other beat. Broder was to the soles of his well-worn shoes a reporter, not a pontificator. He was criticized by some for repeating the conventional wisdom on D.C., but by any measure of the work that journalist do, he was a calm, reasoned, informed, non-cynical voice that both tried to understand politics and not debase politicians. Dave Broder was a nice guy in what is often a cutthroat business.

I met him once and spent a day with him at an Andrus Center conference in Boise a number of years ago. That forum, organized with the Frank Church Institute at Boise State, focused on politics, the press and the law in the post-9-11 world. Well into his 70’s, Broder consented to fly across the country and be part of a discussion that I moderated featuring judges, lawyers and journalists. He provided no bombast, just perspective. No harsh criticism of the political process, but rather understanding informed by the belief that most of the time people in public life try, as they see it, to do the right thing.

Many of the tributes to Broder, and there will be many over the next few days, will mention his penchant for going door-to-door to talk to real voters about politics. The tributes will stress his sensitivity, even his compassion for the mighty who tumble from great power and his fundamental decency and gentlemanly nature. All true.

New Yorker political writer Hendrik Hertzberg admits to criticizing Broder for his repeating of the conventional Washington wisdom, but then recounts a charming story of Broder impressing the devil out of Hertzberg’s fawning mother. Not every good reporter is a hit-headed Carl Bernstein. Thank goodness there has been room for a long, long time for a decent and discerning Dave Broder.

I connived to sit next to Broder at dinner after a long day at that Andrus Center conference. We’d spent the day discussing and debating how the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon would change American politics, law and the press. I wanted to hear him hold forth on Washington, but he kept gently turning the conversation local.

Always the reporter, he wanted to know what was going on in Idaho. Midway through dinner, he pulled out one of those uniquely shaped reporter’s notebooks and starting taking notes. I was dumbfounded. Dave Broder, the dean of Washington political reporters, thought I had something worth recording in his notebook. If I hadn’t already liked the guy, that would have sealed the deal. But, most importantly, he really did want to know. He was a reporter. Always looking for information, opinions, insight.

Writing in the Post yesterday, Robert Kaiser said it well: “In a business dominated by hard-driving egos, Broder was an anomaly: a Midwestern gentleman, gentle in manner, always eager to help fellow reporters and to preserve the reputation of his newspaper. His standards never slipped, save perhaps when yielding to his perennially unfulfilled dreams for hisbeloved Chicago Cubs.”

One of the reasons our politics has assumed such a hard and nasty edge relates directly to the hard and nasty approach of too many opinion-driven news organizations and the people who work for them. Dave Broder, even when criticized, refused to succumb to the nasty and cynical. He uplifted his craft and, as a result, uplifted those he covered.

I’ve often thought since that dinner in Boise back in 2003 that Dave Broder would have been welcome on that particular night at any Georgetown salon, Washington embassy or U.S. Senator’s dinner table. He chose to come to Boise. He wanted to know what was happening out here. He was curious and interested. He was a real reporter.

At that Andrus Center conference Broder was asked what responsibility the press has to protect secrets that might impact national security. It was the time when then CIA officer Valerie Plame had been publicly identified and her cover blown thanks to political leaks and press reports.

Broder warned the questioner that he was going to get a longer answer than he might want and then proceed to say, with nuance and insight, that it is the government’s responsibility to protect its secrets. The press has another job. The job of the press is to report what is going on, he said, what is important. The government tries to protect secrets, the press reports news.

Old school, indeed.

If you don’t believe Dave Broder was one-of-a-kind, try to think of anyone in journalism today who can now inherit his unique role. He was the dean, maybe the last of a breed.

I’m not sure he ever revisited those notes he took when we were talking during dinner, but he did write it down. I’ll remember that – and Dave Broder – for a long, long time. Good guy, terrific journalist.

Egan, Idaho Politics, Journalism, Medicaid

The Moral Test

medicaidHard Cases

“The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life; the children, those who are in the twilight of life; the elderly, and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

The quote is most often attributed to the liberal icon Hubert Humphrey and dates to a time when there was a broad consensus in American life that government had a very precise role to play in trying to improve the plight of those fellow citizens “in the shadows of life.” The lingering Great Recession more than ever has called that role of government into question and, at the same time, made Hubert’s eloquent quote more relevant than ever.

A massive human hurt is unfolding in nearly every state as governors and state legislators contemplate unprecedented reductions in spending on various services paid for at the state level by Medicaid. In states like Idaho, all the easy stuff has been cut. Now the real pain begins, as illustrated by the estimated 1,000 Idahoans who showed up on Friday, some in wheelchairs, to show state legislators, more eloquently than words ever could, just what the American social safety net really means to real people.

With the 50 states collectively facing a budget gap estimated at $125 billion, the New York Times reports today that Medicaid is “ripe for the slashing” from New York to California, from Idaho to Texas. The times are tough – very tough – but I doubt that even tough-minded, fiscally conservative legislators can live with the implications of ending services for a guy in a wheelchair or an 8th grader with autism.

In Idaho, 20 lawmakers, the members of the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC), make most every spending decision for the rest of the 85 members of the legislature. It is an awesome power and responsibility. The committee has co-chairs, Sen. Dean Cameron and Rep. Maxine Bell, and no one has ever credibly accused these experienced lawmakers of being big spenders. They run a tidy ship and one has to be impressed with the diligence they and their committee have lavished on the hard choices the state faces with both Medicaid and education. Cameron and Bell deserve a lot of praise for showing the political courage to open up the committee to those thousand people who came calling on Friday. It had to have been a sobering experience for anyone paying attention.

Here’s a fearless prediction. Arguably the most conservative legislature in the nation won’t be able to make the $25 million in Medicaid cuts that Idaho’s governor has proposed. It will take a while yet for the reality to sink in, its still early in the legislative process, but Friday was an important day. Not only did the thousand show up, but the budget numbers that have been in dispute since the first day of the 2011 session just gained some clarity and not in a good way.

All this will eventually lead to a frantic search for some barely acceptable source of new revenue to help plug the budget holes. The legislature will come to embrace, in tried and true fashion, the method of patch and scratch tax policy making. Some how, some way, Idaho’s very conservative legislature will “find” some new revenue to avoid these awful choices.

It won’t be easy, and people elected never to raise taxes will anguish over the choices, but it will happen I think. Idaho’s lawmakers have come face-to-face with their fellow citizens who really do, through no fault of their own, live in the shadows. In the end, it will not really be much of a political test. No one is likely to lose an election by making a vote to preserve home care services for an elderly, wheelchair bound neighbor. It will be quite a moral test, however, for lawmakers who infrequently see so clearly the impact of their votes.

Afghanistan, Journalism

The Olbermann File

olbermannThe Agony of Cable

I have been trying for a week now to sort out just how I feel about this Keith Olbermann matter and I keep coming back to one question: Isn’t his 15 minutes of fame about up?

If you are a watcher of news about “the news,” you know that the MSNBC host of the popular show Countdown was suspended for a few hours recently for violating an NBC News policy about employees of the news division making political contributions. In keeping with the general tone of cable TV, the hubbub over the Olbermann suspension has lasted longer than the Olbermann suspension.

Now Howard Kurtz at The Daily Beast offers up the inevitable story – Olbermann has antagonized all his bosses at NBC who seem on the verge of showing him the studio door even as he enjoys the remainder of a four-year, $30 million contract. Don’t bet on it.

That last fact about money is perhaps all one really needs to know about this story.

Keith Olbermann, a clever, opinionated partisan (playing a journalist on cable) gets paid a lot of money by the folks at MSNBC for performing essentially the same shtick five nights a week. He offers opinion and commentary in the guise of “news,” interviews people with much the same point of view and draws a fairly large audience of like-minded Americans every night. Over at Fox, Bill O’Reilly does the same thing, as does Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. Nothing going on here has very much to do with news and nothing at all to do with the public interest. Meanwhile, the top brass at NBC looks pretty silly because they are trying to apply the old rules of TV news to the new reality of the openly partisan swamp of cable.

Leave it to Jon Stewart to really sum this up: “Yes, MSNBC, it’s a stupid rule, but at least it was enforced poorly.”

The very best thing I’ve read from the Olbermann file is the take from former ABC News correspondent Ted Koppel that appeared in the Washington Post. Koppel, a real journalist, made a telling point when he quoted Olbermann as saying the NBC rule he had violated just needed to be “adapted to the realities of 21st Century journalism.” There you have it.

Serious journalism on the tube is a dying institution. Some of the last surviving dinosaurs, the Tom Brokaws and Koppels, still show up to bemoan the good old days when the Keith Olbermann’s further push the lines of what real journalists know to be acceptable, but even they know real news on TV is in its death throes. Cable and the vast corporationization of news has left the public interest notion on the curb, while entertainment masquerading as news drives ratings and money.

Some of us can remember, as Ted Koppel does when: “Much of the American public used to gather before the electronic hearth every evening, separate but together, while Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Frank Reynolds and Howard K. Smith offered relatively unbiased accounts of information that their respective news organizations believed the public needed to know. The ritual permitted, and perhaps encouraged, shared perceptions and even the possibility of compromise among those who disagreed.”

That hopelessly old fashioned model, as Koppel says, was far from perfect, but it has much to recommend it that the antics of an Olbermann and a Beck certain don’t.

The reality of 21st Century journalism is simply money and ratings. The old fashioned sense that broadcasters had a public service role to play by virtue of their use of the public airwaves – a notion embodied in the 1927 federal legislation providing some framework for organizing those airwaves – has gone the way of 16 millimeter film.

If you really wonder why our politics – brace yourself for the Lame Duck Session – are as dysfunctional, nasty and vacuous as they are, you can start to find the answer in the vast wasteland of cable “news.” You’ll find no notion of shared perception or compromise out there. Peel back the hot air and find the mother’s milk of cable: it’s all about the money.

I seriously doubt MSNBC will dismiss Keith. It would be like firing your franchise. They hired him to be outspoken, full of himself and a shameless partisan. The powers to be at NBC are getting just what they have paid for and they are moralizing all the way to the bank.

His 15 minutes of fame just got extended.