Baseball, Basques, Media, Politics

Just Plain Getting it Wrong

Park51300Don’t Confuse Us With Facts, Please…

The photo is of Park51, the proposed site of an Islamic cultural center, two Manhattan blocks north of where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood.

By now, I suspect, everyone in the country – except perhaps that escaped prisoner caught late last week in Arizona with his accomplice girl friend – has an opinion on whether the so called “Ground Zero mosque” is appropriate for this site.

(I’m making the assumption that the jail breaker might just have been too busy while out on the lamb to check in on cable TV or pick up a paper to follow this controversy, but who knows? Seems like everyone else is weighing in.)

There are many things of interest about the hottest story out of New York since Chelsea’s wedding. The “mosque issue” is fast becoming a political litmus for this year’s candidates and political analysts are debating how much voicing support and then walking it back a bit it is hurting the President. Republicans, for the most part, have jumped all over the issue and made the case that this is the worst idea, well, since Mohammad demanded the mountain come to him.

President Obama, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and some of former President George W. Bush’s guys have made the case that the issue must be about religious freedom and not condemning an entire religion by saying all Muslims harbor radical, violent intentions. Others ranging from Newt Gingrich to Harry Reid, in various shades of heated rhetoric, have condemned the location of the proposed Islamic center and, in many cases by extension, also condemned the religion to which 1.5 billion of the world’s people adhere.

One more thing of interest in this story, a story that has dominated the news now for close to three weeks, says a great deal about how information gets disseminated and used in the digital age. It is fascinating to me just how many of the essential elements of the story lack factual basis or have been so distorted in the repeated re-telling that they have little resemblance to the truth.

Hendrik Hertzberg, writing in the August 16 edition of The New Yorker tried to catalogue some of the details that have just gotten lost, or been distorted, or are just plain wrong as the story has picked up steam and controversy.

“Well, for a start,” Hertzberg wrote, “it won’t be at Ground Zero. It’ll be on Park Place, two blocks north of the World Trade Center site (from which it will not be visible), in a neighborhood ajumble with restaurants, shops (electronic, porn, you name it) churches, office cubes, and the rest of the New York mishmash. Park51, as it is to be called, will have a large Islamic “prayer room,” which presumably qualifies as a mosque. But the rest of the building will be devoted to classrooms, an auditorium, galleries, a restaurant, a memorial to the victims of September 11, 2001 (emphasis added), and a swimming pool and gym. Its sponsors envision something like the 92nd Street Y – a Y.M.I.A, you might say, open to all, including persons of the C. (Christian) and H. (Hebrew) persuasions.”

Hertzberg went on to note, as others have, that the principal backers of the center are immigrants from Kuwait (a country we went to war to liberate) and Kashmir and the man who is now routinely referred to in press accounts as “a controversial imam,” Feisal Abdul Rauf, is a Columbia University grad who has been in charge of a mosque in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York for nearly 30 years.

Rauf is so dangerous that the Federal Bureau of Investigation enlisted his help to “conduct ‘sensitivity training’ for agents and cops” after 9-11. Rauf is also the vice-chair of the New York Interfaith Council, which means he regularly associates with Christians and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists who, one assumes, thought enough of him to elected him vice-chair of their organization. (The founder and chairman emeritus of the Interfaith Council, by the way, is the retired Dean of the Cathedral of St. Patrick the Divine. Those Anglicans can be pretty radical.) Rauf has also often and at length, it is important to note, denounced terrorism in general and the 9-11 attacks in particular. Before it became popular for Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh to denounce him, Rauf palled around with Condi Rice and Karen Hughes of the Bush Administration.

Not quite the story that appears in the thousands of words written daily about this issue, but it does help explain, if not excuse, why so many people have made up their minds that the “Ground Zero mosque,” promoted by “radical Muslims” will be a threat to all Americans and an insult to the 9-11 victims and their families. Lots of folks believe that, it’s just not true.

When I went to journalism school back in the dark ages, a old prof told us over and over that reporting a story – particularly a story steeped in controversy – required more than merely recounting what “he said and what she said.” That kind of journalism, the old, green eye shade guy would say, almost always ensures that “the truth goes and hangs itself.” Seems like that is what has happened on the south side of Manhattan.

There us much more evidence, everywhere you look, of the truth looking for a place to die. Consider, for a moment, the President’s religion and place of birth.

Barack Obama wrote two best selling books about his life and background, books that have been poured over by reporters and his political enemies for years now. Books that discuss at some length his views on religion and what it means to him to be a Christian. Obama has given interviews and made speeches talking about his faith and, in particular, how those of us not of the tradition can begin to understand the black Christian church in America.

Yet according to a new Pew Research poll 20% of Americans now firmly believe the President is a Muslim. In the same survey, fully 34% of conservative Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim.

In his book The Audacity of Hope – you can look it up on page 208 – Obama writes about his decision to fully embrace Christianity:

“It was because of these newfound understandings – that religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic or social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world that I knew and loved – that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized. It came about as a choice and not an epiphany…I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to His truth.”

Reading those words, one who continues to believe Obama is a secret Muslim simply has to believe he is a serial teller of untruths, which may actually help explain the 34%. The opinion page editor of the Dallas Morning News wrote about this the other day and made a telling point when declaring that the paper would quit printing letters making religious claims about the President for which there is absolutely no evidence and that are clearly not true.

“Aren’t the people who claim Obama is a Muslim,” the editor asked, “some of the same people who said they could not trust a man whose Christian preacher said racist and unpatriotic things from the pulpit? Which is it? Is he a follower of a controversial Christian preacher or a Muslim?”

Truth and logic there, but is anyone paying attention?

Another 41% of Republicans in a recent CNN/Opinion Research poll believe Obama was “probably” or “definitely” born in another country. Even when a copy of Obama’s birth certificate, certified as authentic by officials in Hawaii, was posted on the Internet, the so called “birthers” continue to believe what just ain’t so.

Of course, there is more. The story continues to circulate that current Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner used to work at Goldman Sachs, one of the big, bailed out Wall Street banks. Nope, the Goldman guy was the last Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson.

Or, what about the now accepted notion that the terribly unpopular Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) – hated left and right in a rare show of bipartisanship about anything – was all Obama’s doing. Wrong again. TARP occurred on the Bush watch late in 2008 with W’s full backing, as well as that of John McCain.

What’s going on here? There are lots of theories, including one called the “backfire effect.” This notion holds that when a person harbors a particularly strong view, that is shown by facts and logic to be wrong, they often actually reject the facts and logic and strengthen their belief in what is false. It is a sort of “don’t confuse me with the facts” response, on steroids, to something that may be personally comforting or important to believe even if it is just not true.

One theory is that some folks so dislike Barack Obama – much as some folks so disliked George W. Bush – that they need/want to believe things that reinforce their views even if those things aren’t true. The human mind is a curious thing.

A political scientist, Brendan Nyhan, who is a Robert Wood Johnson scholar in health policy at the University of Michigan, has studied the “backfire effect” and recently told NPR’s Talk of the Nation that misinformed people – conservatives and liberals – rarely change their minds once they are made up. Now, there’s a cheery thought.

As traditional journalism declines apace, one of the promising new developments has been a greater commitment by some news organizations to good, old fashioned “fact checking.” There are websites devoted to this. One of the best is FactCheck.org that tries to keep politicians and others making public claims honest. It is, after all, possible to research and find real answers to many things.

Yogi Berra was right, once again, when he famously said “you can look it up.” Yes, you can, if you will.

Nevertheless, Nyhan and others say fact checking, no matter how well it is done, may not have much impact on those who simply won’t be confused by, well, facts.

If, when talking or speculating about things that we believe that just aren’t true, we were focused on whether Elvis is really dead or whether Neil Armstrong really walked on the moon or why the U.S. Air Force just won’t come clean with all it knows about UFO’s, it would be a mild curiosity. We could write it off as just a fact of life that some people will believe what they want to believe. But, when the myths continually trump the facts for a significant number of people in the every day political and policy life of the nation, it is a cause to wonder – can this be good for the country?

The Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page calls what is going on “American dumb-ocracy” and cites as proof of the dumbing down not only the recent Pew survey about Obama’s religion, but also Jay Leno’s on-street interviews and evidence that way too many Americans, for example, have no idea what the First Amendment protects. Civic engagement, Page says, has to mean more than closely following Lindsay Lohan’s drinking problems. Page is discouraged about dumb-ocracy and me, too. He simply says, “heaven help us.”

Lincoln, I think, talked about not being able to fool all the people all the time. That is some cold comfort, but I’m also reminded of the old line, often attributed to Mark Twain, that “it ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Baseball, Basques, Media, Politics

News, Money and Politics

murdochBlurring the Lines a Little More

I’ve long been a believer that the best defense against what is often referred to as “the nefarious influence of money in politics” is the disinfectant that comes with vast amounts of sunshine. In short, let the sunshine in and disclose, disclose, disclose.

As long as the Supreme Court equates First Amendment rights with essentially unlimited political contributions, even from corporations and unions, full disclosure is about all the assurance anyone has that we have the means to judge who – or what – is bankrolling a campaign.

My personal preference would be for even more disclosure, including more frequent requirements for reporting and more disclosure of the ultimate sources of political action committee, union or corporate contributions. If money in politics is poison – even Teddy Roosevelt said it was – then tighter limits on the amounts of individual, corporate and union contributions seems like a sensible approach. But, thanks to a tangled web of laws, regulations and court rulings, we have an increasingly wide-open system where every election cycle the money flows farther and faster and the candidates spend vast amounts of their time, as the campaign language goes, “dialing for dollars.”

Leave it to Rupert Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News, as his recent biographer described him, to add a new wrinkle to the long-running saga around campaign finance. Murdoch, owner of the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal and, most importantly, Fox News, just had his News Corporation write a $1 million check to the Republican Governors Association. Perfectly legal, properly disclosed by all accounts, but a further and unmistakable blurring of the lines between news and politics.

The News Corporation contribution to the Republican governors is certainly not unprecedented. GE, Disney and other “media companies” have been players in this space for a long time. What is unusual is the size of the check and the partisan implications.

News Corporation maintains the corporate side of the house made the contribution with no involvement from the guys who run the cable network where Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck hold court nightly, almost always in high dudgeon about the latest Democratic action, and where a sort of GOP shadow government – Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich – gets paid to comment.

Predictably, Democrats were outraged and demanded disclaimers on future RGA sponsored ads taking on Democratic gubernatorial candidates. It was also widely noted that the News Corporation donation some how didn’t generate much coverage on Fox News. I wonder how Fox might cover a million dollar contribution from the New York Times to a Democratic committee?

The trouble with the News Corporation explanation that this was simply a corporate decision with no connection to the hot house cable network – and let’s assume for the sake of argument that News Corporation is giving us the fair and balanced truth here – is that it just doesn’t pass the old smell test.

As a friend regularly reminds me, the Murdoch explanation lacks the quality of verisimilitude. That ten dollar word is defined as “the appearance or semblance of truth; likelihood; probability” As in “the play lacked verisimilitude.” This play lacks.

It reminds me of the newspaper that editorially endorses one candidate over another and then says, as I almost always believe, that the editorial opinions of newspapers are totally walled off from the newsroom and news coverage. Few readers believe such explanations. They have become as cynical as many reporters. In the age of a more and more sharp edged, opinionated, point-of-view media, Fox News, or anyone else playing at the million dollar level in partisan politics, shouldn’t be surprised that the explanation of separation between the corporate side of Murdoch’s empire and the news side just doesn’t pass the basic test of seeming to reflect, well, the truth.

Here’s the real issue, I think, with Murdoch and his approach. The guy is a businessman, and a very successful one by most accounts, and he is also a committed conservative. In keeping with his personal politics and political philosophy, why not just drop the pretense of “fair and balanced” and engage in the market place of ideas in a fully transparent, genuine manner. If Murdoch would just acknowledge what everyone believes – detractors and fans, alike – that Fox is the conservative opinion network, it would be liberating. Well, on second thought, that may be a poor choice of words. It would be honest.

As I’ve noted in the past in this space, the news business – and it is a business – that we once knew is as dead as a dodo bird. We are going back to the future with “news” organizations becoming more and more identified with a point of view and a partisan agenda. In my perfect world – I remember Walter Cronkite – I think this is a bad trend, but it is also not likely to be reversed. It was, after all, good enough for the days of Hamilton, Adams and Jefferson and it is going to have to be good enough for the days of Obama and Palin, Fox and MSNBC.

Rupert Murdoch’s big check to the RGA is all right by me as long as he plays by the rules of disclosure. I just wish he’d take the next step, conduct himself like a Hearst, a Pulitzer or a McCormick (partisan news moguls of the past) and drop the pretense that his politics and his cable news operation is anything but a major political player, in both opinions and money, in American conservative politics. Fox News regularly wins the ratings battle against left-leaning MSNBC and CNN, which finds itself in the ill-defined middle, so why not just admit that Fox is the home of conservative opinion and will support conservative causes with its really big checkbook and its really big megaphone.

I happen to think Murdoch is brilliant from a business standpoint in occupying a space where he can shape opinions and influence policy completely in sync with his own views. That is the American way, even if you are Australian. Just go the final step and admit that is what you’re doing.

Jon Stewart – he of the obvious truth – said what lots of folks must be thinking: “This (the News Corporation contribution) is a travesty. I really think if anything Republicans should be paying Fox News millions and millions of dollars. Not the other way around.”

Now, there is some verisimilitude for you.

Basques, Media

Google to the Rescue

Can Google Save Journalism?

James Fallows, the talented and insightful writer for The Atlantic, has a great piece in the current issue that might – just might – give hope to those of us who worry about the future of “real” journalism. It turns out that Google, thought by many to be helping speed the death of old line journalism, is actually devoting serious time and resources to strategies to help quality reporting survive and thrive when the old business models finally creak to a halt.

“It’s the triple whammy,” Eric Schmidt, the Google CEO told Fallows, that is killing newspapers. “Loss of classifieds, loss of circulation, loss of the value of display ads in print, on a per-ad basis. Online advertising is growing but has not caught up,” Schmidt said.

At the same time the smart guys at Google, clearly much more tech savvy than old-line news folks, realize that the value of the search engine is that it can – and must – supply quality content. Without quality reporting, no quality content.

Here’s Fallows on what Google is up to: “After talking during the past year with engineers and strategists at Google and recently interviewing some of their counterparts inside the news industry, I am convinced that there is a larger vision for news coming out of Google; that it is not simply a charity effort to buy off critics; and that it has been pushed hard enough by people at the top of the company, especially Schmidt, to become an internalized part of the culture in what is arguably the world’s most important media organization. Google’s initiatives do not constitute a complete or easy plan for the next phase of serious journalism. But they are more promising than what I’m used to seeing elsewhere, notably in the steady stream of ‘Crisis of the Press’ –style reports. The company’s ultimate ambition is in line with what most of today’s reporters, editors, and publishers are hoping for—which is what, in my view, most citizens should also support.”

I’m the guy who has often joked that I will be the last person in America to buy a newspaper. When everyone else has moved to the iPod or whatever, I’ll still be prowling around an airport or a newsstand looking for ink on newsprint. But even I must concede the old newspaper model is fading fast. Maybe even faster than anyone thinks.

Here’s how one Google strategist describes, not incorrectly, the current newspaper business model: “Grow trees—then grind them up, and truck big rolls of paper down from Canada? Then run them through enormously expensive machinery, hand-deliver them overnight to thousands of doorsteps, and leave more on newsstands, where the surplus is out of date immediately and must be thrown away? Who would say that made sense?” It doesn’t any more.

“It’s obvious that in five or 10 years, most news will be consumed on an electronic device of some sort,” Schmidt told Fallows. “Something that is mobile and personal, with a nice color screen. Imagine an iPod or Kindle smart enough to show you stories that are incremental to a story it showed you yesterday, rather than just repetitive. And it knows who your friends are and what they’re reading and think is hot. And it has display advertising with lots of nice color, and more personal and targeted, within the limits of creepiness. And it has a GPS and a radio network and knows what is going on around you. If you think about that, you get to an interesting answer very quickly, involving both subscriptions and ads.”

That is the key: how to generate the ad revenue – and remember most newspapers have always been a platform to sell ads, the news content was secondary.

Read Fallows piece and see if you don’t agree that Google gets the content piece and may just be smart enough to help the real journalists figure out the business approach, too.

Not everyone agrees, of course, but can anyone doubt that the way journalism is financed, distributed and packaged has already changed in rapid and remarkable fashion. I can’t see ahead to next year let alone ten years, but I’m confident we have only seen the beginning of the transformation. My hope is that the daily, hourly need for quality content will help drive the technological transformation.

You might want to Google that notion while reading your ink on newsprint…while you still can.

American Presidents, Basques, Media, Obama

The Press on the Press

white houseThe Tyranny of the 24 Hour News Cycle

Barack Obama faces another huge speech this week – the State of the Union is Wednesday – so standby for the predictable narrative that the president has, pick your version, “hit a home run” or “done himself no good politically” with the high profile appearance before Congress.

Under either scenario, the buzz will dissipate quickly with the pundits and cable bloviators moving on to something else by about Thursday afternoon. Such is the nature of the 24 hour news cycle. The current White House approach to dealing with the new reality of speed, speed and change the subject – and they obviously have some work to do – is contained in a fine piece by the New Yorker’s media critic Ken Auletta. Auletta’s piece is required reading for political junkies or anyone who wants to try and understand the culture of the news business these days.

Here’s the money quote: “The news cycle is getting shorter – to the point that there is no pause, only the constancy of the Web and the endless argument of cable. This creates pressure to entertain or perish, which has fed the press’s dominant bias: not pro-liberal or pro-conservative but pro-conflict.”

The perceived need for speed has driven even the better Washington reporters to adopt a daily approach to journalism that makes all of them into 21st Century versions of the old fashioned, story-a-minute, green eyeshade wearing re-write man. In fact, NBC’s Chuck Todd tells Auletta, “we’re all wire-service reporters now.”

One telling observation in Auletta’s piece is the comment from presidential historian Michael Beschloss who recounts that when the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 John Kennedy was on vacation. “For six days, no one pressed him hard for a reaction,” Beschloss says. Obama stayed quiet for three days following the attempted Detroit airline bombing – he was on Christmas vacation in Hawaii – and was widely attacked for his slow response.

The constant news cycle is a fact of political life. No wonder most politicians govern from a constant crouch, ready to leap this way or that in response to the latest “urgent” breaking news.

Speed kills whether you’re a mongoose taking on a cobra or a White House press secretary taking on, well, you get the analogy.

Associated Press culture writer Ted Anthony has a separate take on the impact of the 24 hour news culture and the response to the awful disaster in Haiti. With frustration mounting that relief efforts are taking too long, Anthony asks: “Are the expectations of the virtual world colliding with the reality of the physical one?”

The answer, of course, is “you betcha.” Disaster aid in the virtual world of cable news does seem too slow, even with U.S. airborne troops and Marines involved, guys who just happen to be the world’s masters at logistics and rapid deployment.

Not much wonder that the American public chaffs about the slow economic recovery, the time it takes Congress to pass a health insurance bill, or the slogging process of figuring out a new strategy in Afghanistan. These days instant gratification is just not fast enough.

Basques, Media

Media Matters

newspapersRupert and the Gray Lady

More proof this week of the fundamental changes taking place in the newspaper business. David Carr, a media commentator for The New York Times – the Gray Lady of American journalism -gives voice to what many media traditionalists have either observed first-hand or expected would happen.

Stop the presses: Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal – another great American newspaper – has turned to the right in its news and analysis. At least that is Carr’s assessment.

The response from the Journal is fascinating. The dueling statements from editors Robert Thomson of the WSJ and Bill Keller of the NYT read like the transcript for a Fox News shout down.

Here is the important point, I think, and the accelerating trend: the news business is fragmenting into a range of providers of “content” built around distinctive perspectives – political, social, economic. If the Journal has become the national conservative newspaper, there are those who would argue that the Times has long been the nation’s liberal paper. Perhaps both papers should just admit the obvious.

Of course, a press baron like Murdoch, schooled in the tough, partisan style of British journalism, is going to put his conservative mark on the Journal. If Murdoch understands anything, he understands market segmentation. He knows there is a vast audience for point-of-view news and he will get there first with the most. He is increasingly serving up British-style journalism for an American market.

Fifty to 75 years ago, papers like the Chicago Tribune, published by the isolationist, Republican Colonel Robert McCormick – the publisher modestly dubbed the Trib “the World’s Greatest Newspaper” – and New York’s short-lived PM, a left of center paper bankrolled by the millionaire Marshall Field, were unabashedly point-of-view. These papers reported favorably on their friends and assaulted their enemies, often in front page editorials.

Once, after a Tribune story spoke favorably of a U.S. Senator McCormick disliked, the publisher cabled – no email in the 1930’s – his Washington bureau asking if reporters there intended to continue to serve as press agents for the Senator. They didn’t.

We may be inevitably headed back to a much earlier day in American journalism when every newspaper was partisan and all the “news” came with a distinct point of view. Alexander Hamilton had his own newspaper, so did Jefferson, and everyone in the 1930’s knew that McCormick’s Tribune was anti-Roosevelt. It was his point of view. Was it always fair? No. Was it entertaining? Absolutely. Did it sell papers? McCormick created a media empire built on his personal perspective and his skill as a innovator in the delivery of information. Like Rupert Murdoch, the Colonel understood his market.

Murdoch, as with many things, may just be ahead of the pack as American newspapers go back to the future. In fact, having a distinct point of view may be the salvation of print journalism in the digital age.

Basques, Media

Save Balloon Boy!

Ballon BoySomeday, Someday…

The cartoon from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch kinda says it all.

Someday , I just know (if I live long enough), I’ll be able to say I was impressed by the journalistic judgment shown by cable news. Someday.

Yesterday, on the other hand, fell just a little short.

My favorite part of the “balloon boy” story was watching the once-credible CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer. It was quite the situation in “The Situation Room.”

This is the same guy who used to report with some authority on the Middle East peace process and interview presidential candidates. But, hey, what’s that compared to a live balloon chase over the eastern front of Rockies. There is news, after all, and then there is news.

Linda Holmes, a writer on popular culture, has some thoughts. As she points out – listening Wolf – “It’s not always easy to know what you’re looking at, even when you’re staring at it with your own eyes.”

After Wolf, and a close second as a favorite part of the “balloon boy” story, comes the merchandise.

At www.SaveBalloonBoy.org you can own the tee-shirt commerating the “most disappointing conclusion to helium-filled balloon journalism ever.” Retail $20, unless you buy at least 25 shirts and qualify for the 10% discount.

The only quick lesson to draw from “balloon boy” is that the 24-hour news cycle needs lotsa material. After all, Michael Jackson can only die once – presumably.

Basques, Boxing, Media, Poverty

Poverty in Idaho

That Could Be MeFood Stamp Usage, Crisis Assistance Stretch Providers; Families Try to Cope

Boise State Radio, the NPR station covering much of southern Idaho, has produced a remarkable series of stories this week focused on how the nation’s economic trials have impacted Idahoans.

It is the kind of journalism we sadly see too little of these days – no shrill political debate, none of the simple slogans that often tend to simplify an issue to the point of distortion. The station’s news staff has touched a raw nerve with this material – a young woman talking about not wanting to use food stamps, but having no choice and homeless families out of work and nearly out of hope.

The series – That Could Be Me – is available on line, at a website that lists a number of resources for those folks who often get attention only when unemployment numbers or food stamps usage is reported.

[Full disclosure: the station asked me to moderate a roundtable discussion with various providers and others who are trying to offer services and make sense of the enormous increase in poverty over the last year. The roundtable discussion airs several times over the next few days. It was a sobering experience to begin to understand the impact of what is happening.]

The 149,000 Idahoans using food stamps right now – that’s a 40% increase – aren’t welfare queens or shirkers, they are parents who have lost a job and in many cases have had to seek assistance for the first time in their lives. At the same time, public sector assistance has been stretched to the point of breaking and great organizations like the Salvation Army and Genesis World Mission lack the resources to fill the growing gap, much as they try.

For those of us who have it pretty good in this awful economy – a job with benefits, a comfortable safe place to live, never a wonder about where the next meal will come from – BSU Radio’s series is an uncomfortable wake up call. Thousands and thousands of our neighbors are really hurting. They need to be brought into the sunlight of public attention, not left in the often forgotten shadows of grinding poverty. This reporting does just that.

BSU Radio News Director Elizabeth Duncan and her team have given us all the evidence we need to realize that we all have a responsibility in this time of national trial.

All of the panelists who participated in the roundtable agreed, all of us need to know more about what living with poverty means, how it can impact an entire generation of children, how government budgets are woefully inadequate, how the very fabric of a community is frayed. This series is a good start. It will sober you up to the reality of a life of poverty in Idaho.

Basques, Media

Remembering a Press Secretary

powellJody Powell…Advisor and Spokesman

The death this week of Carter Administration press secretary Jody Powell got me thinking about how he (and Jimmy Carter) fashioned the all important White House job.

Say what you will about the Carter Administration (I believe history will treat the one-term Georgian better than many contemporaries) Powell played the high profile role of press secretary just about right, I think. He was the rare press secretary who successfully mixed the duties of trusted advisor to the president with the ringmaster role of daily care and feeding of the White House press corps.

Franklin Roosevelt and his “secretary” Steve Early, invented the modern White House press operation and Powell played very much the same role in working with his president as Early did with FDR. (By the way, there is a fine recent book about Early and the key role he played – virtually deputy president to FDR – called The Making of FDR : The Story of Stephen T. Early, America’s First Modern Press Secretary.)

Current White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs seems to have the same portfolio – advisor and spokesman. It is a much different approach, and a better approach I think, than either of the Presidents Bush used or than Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton employed.

In the Steve Early, Jody Powell, Robert Gibbs model, the press secretary serves as advisor first, presidential flack second. The Clinton and Bush models seemed at times to be designed to make certain the press secretary knew as little as possible in the interest of never being able to really speak with authority for the president.

My long-time friend and business partner, Chris Carlson, knew and worked with Jody Powell during the Carter presidency. Chris ran the public affairs shop at the Department of the Interior for then-Secretary Cecil Andrus.

I asked him for a couple of anecdotes about Powell, the irreverent Georgia boy who with Hamilton Jordan, helped engineer Carter’s improbable presidential campaign in 1976.

“Yes, they had an irreverent attitude towards the ways of D.C., as did my then boss the incoming administration’s new Interior Secretary. Like Secretary Andrus, both Jordan and Jody actually placed their own phone calls rather than play the D.C. game of having a secretary place the call and see whose boss acknowledged the pecking order by getting on the phone first.

“Powell had little time for such games, and though he had a temper he also had a great sense of humor, could laugh at himself, the pretensions of the press and the absurdities of power politics. In the four years of the Carter Presidency he somehow managed to keep that sense of humor and he also recognized and respected what an asset Governor Andrus was to the President.

“When one of the most critical decisions involving Interior’s future had to be made, and Secretary Andrus had to go meet with the president and the inner circle of advisors – the Georgia mafia – to tell them the president’s long cherished goal of creating a new Department of Natural Resources had to be abandoned for lack of key political support, it was Jody Powell who weighed in first behind the secretary’s political judgment and helped to persuade a dubious president to see the wisdom of cutting his losses.

“Bottom line, Jody Powell was that rarity of rarities in D.C., a self-effacing, decent person who radiated intelligence and integrity, did a difficult job well and succeeded in part because of his basic decency and humanity. There aren’t many like him.”

As the New York Times noted in his obituary: “Mr. Powell had honed his style years before, when Mr. Carter was governor. Responding to a critic who accused his boss of “communistic” tactics against opponents of the busing used to desegregate schools, Mr. Powell wrote that one of a governor’s burdens was having to read ‘barely legible letters from morons.’

“’I respectfully suggest that you take two running jumps and go straight to hell,’ he continued.”

I can assure you that is something every press secretary has wanted to say.

Basques, Media

More Bad News…for the Press

New Survey Shows Decline in Public Confidence

The Pew Center is out with a new survey that may help explain some of the demise of the so called “main stream” media.

As the chart illustrates, the percentage of Americans who believe the media generally gets the facts straight has declined from 55% in 1985 to 29% this year.

From the Pew report: “Similarly, only about a quarter (26%) now say that news organizations are careful that their reporting is not politically biased, compared with 60% who say news organizations are politically biased. And the percentages saying that news organizations are independent of powerful people and organizations (20%) or are willing to admit their mistakes (21%) now also match all-time lows.”

A piece at Forbes on-line comes to a different conclusion, saying Pew failed to define its terms properly by lumping the wild hodgepodge of “media” in with your local TV newscast and daily fish wrapper.

“In other words, if you consider Glenn Beck’s tirades journalism, or get your news from posts on Hamsterdance.com, they were lumped in with your opinions about The New York Times.”

Fair enough – maybe. The facts are that traditional sources of news – local and national papers and network evening news programs, for example – are not nearly as relied upon as information sources as they were just a few years ago. Part of the reason, I suspect, is confidence and perhaps even more importantly relevance.

Here’s a fearless prediction: in a bid to survive, more and more newspapers will follow the direction of the cable channels and offer up a “news product” with a distinct point of view. The business model will be to further fragment the market in the interest of talking to the audience that wants its “news” to reaffirm its perspective rather than challenge any assumptions.

Look for the confidence numbers to continue to decline.

Basques, Media

Media Odds and Ends

TrahantMark Trahant: Health Care Discussion too Narrow

Thoughtful commentary from Fort Hall, Idaho native Mark Trahant on the current health care debate. Trahant writes in Indian Country Today.

Trahant, the former editorial page editor of the Seattle P-I, is serving a stint as a Kaiser Media Fellow assessing the Indian Health Service and what it can tell us about the current controversy.

Tribune Soft on Cubs?

Has the Chicago Tribune, long the owner of the city’s National League baseball club, always taken it easy on the Cubs? Nah…it is merely perception according to a piece on the Tribune sports page. Right.

Still, the Cubbies’ new ownership removes the stigma that baseball coverage of the northsiders always slighted the White Sox on the Second City’s southside.

Favorable coverage or not, the Cubs are still wallowing in a 100-plus year World Series drought and the 2009 post-season is looking more and more, well, doubtful.

As they say: “Anyone can have a bad century.” There is even a website.

Times Picks on J.C. Penney

My blood runs cold this time of year as I remember the dread I would feel as my mother hustled me off to J.C. Penney to acquire a new season of “school clothes.” I hated the whole experience, not least because mom’s ideas about “new” fashion never seemed to be on the same page with mine.

When I was growing up, however, it was pretty much a trip to Penney’s or ordering from the Montgomery Ward catalog.

The New York Times found out that the James Cash Penney’s stores – the first was in Kemmerer, Wyoming – still enjoys some brand loyalty. The Times “reviewed” the new store in Manhattan and got lots of push back for a pretty snarky piece by a fashion reviewer. Executive Editor Bill Keller even saying, as reported by the Times’ Public Editor, that he wished the story hadn’t run. His mother shopped at Penney’s, too.

Do you think all this will serve to re-enforce the notion that the Times is out of touch with middle America?

And, finally…

I was pleased to be asked recently by the Idaho Press Club to pen a piece for the venerable organization’s newsletter. The experience certainly dated me, however. I served as president of the Club in 1978.

We hardly had color TV in those days.