Afghanistan, Journalism


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.

Afghanistan, Journalism

Juan Williams

juan williamsBoth Right and Wrong

I confess that I’m not at all sure how I feel about the sacking by National Public Radio (NPR) of long-time analyst and historian of the Civil Rights era Juan Williams.

At first blush, I’m inclined to think NPR played the dismissal badly and is getting all the negative push back as a result of a less than clear explanation of why it acted as it did. At the same time, in these days of super heated, ideologically driven ranting on talk radio and cable, NPR’s leadership – awkwardly, at best – seemed to be trying to hold or establish an important principle about how journalists should behave in public. As with most things on Fox News or in the Twitter-sphere, any nuance and much of the substance vanished almost as fast as the focus on Williams’ words about being nervous when he sees people “in Muslim garb” getting on an airplane.

I’m old enough to remember when real analysts did real analysis on network television. I’m dating myself, but there was a time when informed analysis – say Eric Severeid or James J. Kilpatrick – actually offered insight and perspective into what was going on. Now days whether its Sean Hannity blowing hot on the right or Keith Olbermann (he should stick to baseball) babbling on the left, real insight is washed away by soundbite punditry; long on opinions and short of insight.

I’ve read some of the thousands of stories, blogs, columns and Tweets generated by the NPR firing of Williams, who instantly got a $2 million deal from Fox, and I think some of the best insight, ironically, comes from NPR’s own ombudsman, Alicia Shepard.

Shepard has written that the Williams affair isn’t about race or free speech or political correctness, but is about journalism, values and, not insignificantly, how Muslims are increasingly portrayed in the media.

“This latest incident with Williams centers around a collision of values,” the ombudsman wrote, “NPR’s values emphasizing fact-based, objective journalism versus the tendency in some parts of the news media, notably Fox News, to promote only one side of the ideological spectrum.”

She goes on to note, “I can only imagine how Williams, who has chronicled and championed the Civil Rights movement, would have reacted if another prominent journalist had said: ‘But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see an African American male in Dashiki with a big Afro, I get worried. I get nervous.'”

So, with the benefit of perfect Friday morning quarterbacking, NPR might have been much better served to slow down, publicly issue a reprimand to Williams, as perhaps also should have been done when he said on Fox of First Lady Michelle Obama, “you know, she’s got this Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress thing going…” and explain the standards it is trying to establish and maintain.

Instead, as with so much of what passes for journalism these days, Williams’ firing became an instant media frenzy and an instant cause for the right that demanded the end of public support for those “liberals” over at NPR. The always predictable Newt Gingrich called for a Congressional investigation.

Frankly – personal opinion here – I don’t care what Juan Williams thinks, or what the late-Dan Schorr thought. I could give a rip for Hannity’s or Olbermann’s and O’Reilly’s opinions. What might be valuable from that crowd and from all the other “pundits” is not opinion or personal experience, but insight based upon real reporting, research, historical perspective, dare I say it, even facts.

I’m reminded of a line from an old journalism school prof. He said that journalism had no right to refer to itself as “a profession.” Professionals – doctors, lawyers, plumbers – have established codes of conduct and certain standards. Journalism, the old prof said, was “a craft,” no standards, not even widely accepted ethical requirements.

NPR is in for a bashing, some of which is self-inflicted, and it won’t help that liberal rich guy George Soros dumped a pile of cash on NPR just as Williams was getting the can tied to him. NPR could have helped itself, in both cases, by explaining in more detail its approach to the craft of journalism and why trying to establish and maintain some standards still matters. Even NPR fans will have to wonder about just how the Soros’ cash will be handled and whether NPR brass acted too hastily.

Ironically, of all the words written and spoken about Juan Williams’ fifteen seconds of fame, the most balanced, complete and least sensational coverage was on, yup, NPR. Go figure.

Afghanistan, Journalism

Ed Newman

NewmanThe Old School

You wonder if a guy as gifted and rumpled as Edwin Newman could find a job in television these days. He might be considered too erudite, too wordy for the small screen that these days is crowded with graphics, crawls and, often, vacuous, but handsome talking heads.

Ed Newman, whose death was reported yesterday, was a television journalist in the days before “caw-caw,” what we used to call the bells and whistles of TV, the spinning graphics, the split screens, etc. His reporting was of the old school. He was a master of language. He wrote good books, asked tough, fair and informed questions and seemed to have an interest in everything. Put another way, the guy was no Bill O’Reilly.

The great NBC News anchor John Chancellor said Newman style was a triumph of “content over presentation,” and he could do it all – interview, moderate a presidential debate, report an arts piece or analyze an foreign policy development. The guy was a reporter. After retiring, he even even once hosted Saturday Night Live.

Newman was in the same class with a Cronkite and a Schorr, two other recently departed broadcast icons whose work and style can’t be replaced and whose quality is essentially not to be found on the tube these days. Newman’s passing makes me long for the old school – news first, from real journalists, with entertainment or mere diversion left for the sitcoms.

Afghanistan, Climate Change, Human Rights, Journalism

Whatever Happened To…

fischerBryan Fischer…

I confess that I hadn’t been following all that closely the controversy in New York City over the proposed construction of a Muslim cultural center not far from the site of the September 11 attack. Until, that is, I saw an item featuring the former Idaho fire brand, Bryan Fischer, suggesting that the country ought not allow the construction of another Mosque, ever, anywhere, at anytime.

Fischer, who used to run the Idaho Values Alliance (and is still listed on the group’s website) and served as the Idaho Senate chaplain, is cutting a wide swath these days. Fischer writes an on-line column, hosts a radio show and regularly offers up even more incendiary rhetoric that he did when he was defending a display of the Ten Commandments in a Boise park or objecting to books in the Nampa public library.

It was his latest column that grabbed my attention. Here’s the first graph:

“Permits should not be granted to build even one more mosque in the United States of America, let alone the monstrosity planned for Ground Zero. This is for one simple reason: each Islamic mosque is dedicated to the overthrow of the American government.”

Ok, then.

Other recent Fischer commentary has focused on his claim that new Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan is “a dangerous judicial activist.” He also questioned the new Justice’s sexual orientation. Fischer jumped on the bandwagon with Texas Rep. Joe Barton, who he said was right to call President Obama’s ability to secure a pledge of $20 billion in Gulf Coast clean-up dollars from BP “a shakedown.” And – this one got a lot of air in the blogosphere – Fischer made the charge that Hitler was a homosexual and that some how that “fact” leads to a connection between Nazism and gays in the American military.

Read it for yourself. You can’t make this stuff up, unless you’re Bryan Fischer.

Fischer summarized his Hitler/homosexual/gays in the military column with this:

“Homosexuality gave us Adolph Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and six million dead Jews. Gays in the military is an experiment that has been tried and found disastrously and tragically wanting. Maybe it’s time for Congress to learn a lesson from history.” Some history.

Fischer bases this view on a 2001 Hitler biography by a German historian Lothar Machtan. A New York Times reviewer, a former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said of the book and its scholarship:

“Machtan employs innuendo and insinuation. He asks rhetorical questions designed to lead the reader to answer them in a manner that supports his argument, even when alternative explanations are at least as plausible. He introduces possibilities that are then assumed to be probabilities and, indeed, certitudes. By the use of quotation marks, he highlights what are probably innocuous comments so that they seem loaded with homoerotic meaning. In short, he has written a tendentious book that is more a brief for the prosecution than a work of balanced history.”

Sounds a lot like a Bryan Fischer column.

Just for the record, and leave it to Jon Stewart and The Daily Show to drive this point, no serious historian of Hitler and Nazis makes an absolute claim that Hitler was homosexual. One suspects it would be news to Eva Braun. Fischer and his “sources” also conveniently ignore the incontrovertible historical record that the Nazis rounded up and sent to the camps homosexuals, along with Jews, the disabled, gypsies and other “undesirables.”

And, even if the record was less clear, conflating the tragedy of Nazi German with homosexuality is the worst kind of, let’s say it, intolerance and hate speech.

Fischer’s latest contention involving the proposed New York Muslim center hangs on just as thin a thread. Fischer wrote on August 11:

“The imam who is heading this project, Feisel Abdul Rauf, has ties to terrorist organizations himself, and said in a ’60 Minutes’ interview shortly after 9/11 that ‘United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened.'”

Truth be told, Rauf has long had a close relationship with the U.S. State Department and Bush-era State Department official Karen Hughes enlisted his help and shared the stage with him when that administration was attempting to enhance its public diplomacy activities in the Muslim world. For what its worth, on Wednesday the Times had a bit more nuanced take on the New York controversy.

Or, put another way, not only is Fischer guilty of demonizing another religion he hasn’t got his facts straight. Even his throw away statement that the Muslim center is planned “for Ground Zero” is wrong. As this map shows the two sites are at least two long city blocks apart. It is sort of like saying that Boise High School is on the Statehouse grounds. It just isn’t true.

Here is my historical point: America has always had its share of Bryan Fischers. They live now, as in the past, on the hot oxygen of hate masquerading as political speech or true religion and they thrive because the media let’s them get away with it.

In the 1930’s Father Charles Coughlin built a mass following with his radio program and newspaper. Coughlin preached a populist economic message, flavored with anti-Semitism. He raged against the Federal Reserve, Franklin Roosevelt, Communism and in favor of a return to what he considered the true meaning of the Constitution.

Another preacher-turned-politician Gerald L.K. Smith started out as a Huey Long disciple, but after Long’s death he attempted to pick up the Kingfish’s mantle in Louisiana and beyond. He built a sizable following in the 1930’s and 1940’s. You can find YouTube videos of Smith that sound strikingly like contemporary cable television coverage of a Tea Party rally. In one 1936 speech, Smith frothed against “corrupt, thieving politicians” and predicted that “the baby havin’, stump grubbin’, sod bustin’, go to meetin’, God fearin'” Americans were finally going to take over the country.

Before long both Coughlin and Smith flamed out. Smith couldn’t get any candidate for president in 1948 to accept his endorsement and, in fact, he was widely repudiated. Coughlin’s own Bishop eventually silenced his radio demagoguery. Both men lived into the 1970’s, mostly forgotten and remembered only, as recounted in Alan Brinkley’s fine book, as Voices of Protest.

Bryan Fischer is of the same ilk and I suspect he will eventually secure the same fate. The pity is that such folks gain credibility at all and that it lasts for any length of time.

I reserve a spoonful of blame for the Idaho media who gave Fischer a launching pad for what is now a national megaphone and hardly ever held him accountable. While he was riling things up in Idaho there was precious little reporting on who financed him, where he really came from and whether his ideas and accusations could withstand serious review.

Guys like Coughlin and Smith rose the same way. They were media sensations in their day, always available to comment on anything and masters of gaining media attention with flamboyant rhetoric and flimsy facts.

This famous quote is attributed to, among others, Mark Twain: “A lie can run around the world six times while the truth is still trying to put on its pants.”

Google “Bryan Fischer” and see how slowly the truth is catching up with him. It’s time the former Idahoan to get some of the scrutiny he lavishes on others and should have gotten when he was dishing out his brand of demagoguery in Idaho.

To paraphrase Bryan Fischer, the monstrosities contained in this man’s hateful rhetoric are dedicated to overthrowing common sense and fundamental human decency. No one should take him seriously. Some obviously do and that, too, is a monstrosity.


Afghanistan, Huntsman, Journalism, Television

Dan Schorr

schorrGiving Them What They Need

Every once in a while someone will ask me if I miss the old days when I had access to an audience through a television set. I usually make some flip remark about how things have changed a lot since the “days of black and white TV.”

Truth be told, I do miss it, but what I miss is so long gone as to be an historic relic. The TV news of CBS from the 1950’s to the 1970’s – an era defined, in part, by Dan Schorr – is what I really miss.

There was once a running debate in many TV newsrooms and, once in a while, even in the general manager’s suite about the real purpose of news on the tube. In simplest form, the debate boiled down to two choices. Do you give the audience what they seem to want? Or, do you give them what, in the opinion of experienced journalists, they need to know?

Dan Schorr was clearly in the “need to know” camp. His death on Friday does mark the passing of an era. He is the last direct connection to Edward R. Murrow, the broadcast journalist whose standards once, but no more, defined excellence in the broadcast trade.

I was never a particular fan of Schorr’s commentary on NPR. Late in his long life he too often seemed the master of conventional wisdom. He was rarely a man – or a reporter – of nuance and nuance and a lack of convention, I think, makes better commentary. What impresses me about Schorr’s long career was his fierce devotion to the serious business of government, politics and foreign affairs. He undoubtedly thought he knew, based on serious study and hard work, what we needed to know about and he regularly served up the serious stuff.

As Michael Tomasky wrote at the Guardian, “Schorr comes from a time and culture, CBS News in the 1950s, when putting news on television was considered such a civic trust and responsibility that the news division didn’t even have to make a profit.”

I’ve always loved the dictum at the old CBS News that a news program wasn’t ever called a “news program” or a “news show.” News was delivered in the form of a “broadcast,” a term reserved for serious information, seriously delivered. A show, on the other hand, starred Lucille Ball.

There was no perfect age of television news and it is a mistake to be too sentimental about the “good old days,” but there was a seriousness of purpose and a sense of civic responsibility in the days when names like Cronkite, Sevareid, Huntley, Smith and Schorr dominated the credits. Today’s hot-blooded shouters, the Olbermanns and the O’Reillys, couldn’t carry the microphone stands of those earlier pros.

Daniel Schorr represented one of the last links to that old, give them what they need to know tradition. The old TV newsroom debate, I fear, died long before the old Nixon enemy passed this week.

Afghanistan, Journalism

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.