News Media Acting Like Politicians, But Get Paid Better

UPDATE: The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi reports NPR staff are upset with the resignation of Senior Vice President of News Ellen Weiss, who spent her entire career at NPR, rising from the ranks to lead a resurgence of the storied news organization.  Some inside public radio see it as a capitulation to conservatives.

Some blamed congressional conservatives and Fox News – which had repeatedly denounced NPR since the October firing – for inflaming the situation, which led to the resignation on Thursday of Ellen Weiss, NPR’s senior vice president for news. Weiss was the NPR executive who terminated Williams for saying he was "nervous" flying on a plane with people in "Muslim garb" on Bill O’Reilly’s TV program. Since his firing, Williams signed a three-year contract with Fox for almost $2 million.

"We have allowed Fox News to define the debate," wrote Peter Block, a member of the board of Cincinnati Public Radio, in a posting to an e-mail group consisting of public radio managers. He added, "I do not think this kind of capitulation [by NPR] assures the future of an independent press. . . . Democracy is on the line and NPR is one of the last bastions of its possibility." Block said in an interview that NPR’s reaction "lacked integrity." NPR’s ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, also pointed to Fox, noting in her column, that the Williams "incident has become a partisan issue in Washington’s hothouse atmosphere, with Republicans (egged on by Fox News) using it as a rallying cry to demand that NPR be ‘defunded’ by the federal government."

Staffers wouldn’t be quoted criticizing NPR’s action, though it is typical of its lack of courage. They were probably afraid of retaliation from Schiiller and the board. Instead the staff remind us of what was lost

Guy Raz, who hosts the weekend edition of "All Things Considered," called Weiss "the finest journalist I ever worked for. . . . She’s a pretty legendary figure in the newsroom. For many people, she’s an inspiration that you could start at the bottom and make it to the top if you worked hard it. It’s a cliche, but she really set the standard for integrity."

Some employees interviewed Friday steered clear of criticizing NPR’s upper management, but Raz said there was some anger in the newsroom. "It’s a pretty natural reaction," he said. "Yeah, I think we’re angry because she was such a good leader. She really knew how to lead this organization," he said.

Economics reporter Adam Davidson said Weiss had "the single most important role in the development of NPR over the past 20 years. . . . I don’t think there’s anyone in the history of public radio who has had as positive an impact. I’m shaken and shocked" by her exit.

In the last day, however, we learn that the dog didn’t eat NPR’s records. At least we know what Vivian Schiller, the chief executive who, of course, kept her job, even though she agreed with the firing and made sarcastic remarks about Williams at the time.

According to tax records released by NPR on Friday, Schiller received a bonus of $112,500 in May 2010, about 17 months after she was hired by the Washington-based organization. This was in addition to a base salary of $450,000. The bonus was included in her hiring package, NPR said.


Don’t you love it when news organizations exhibit the same blatant obfuscation that they deplore when practiced by corporations, politicians or other organizations?

Take NPR, for the latest example. Yesterday, NPR released a report finding that the news editor who fired Juan Williams over his controversial remarks and NPR’s president who supported the action, while acting within the law, had a quick trigger finger. The board, of course, wouldn’t exactly say that the firing was justified or that it was unfair.  It was just too, oh, decisive. I guess the bleeding heart softies at NPR would have preferred bringing in Williams for a chat and letting him down easy. Maybe giving him an NPR coffee mug with his pink slip.

Meanwhile, they let the news editor Ellen Weiss take the fall, forcing her to resign, while NPR Chief Executive Vivian Schiller was punished by withholding her bonus for this year.

When asked by The Washington Post about that bonus:

Schiller said she "fully accepted" the board’s decision to cancel her bonus, which she said had not been determined for the current fiscal year. (Schiller could not recall the amount of her bonus in fiscal 2009, and NPR said it did not have that information.)

Really? Schiller couldn’t remember the size of her bonus? OK, maybe it was figured by some kind of arcane formula down to the precise cent. Which wouldn’t be unexpected at NPR where they probably have tortured their accountants to come up with a calculation that is “fair.” But she couldn’t give us a ball park figure?  Say, $2,000, or $200,000 or $2 and an NPR tote bag? But then NPR says it “did not have that information”? Do they burn their books after each fiscal year? Did the dog eat the records?

‘Character Assassination’

Here’s Rush Limbaugh

The president is trying to trick Rush Limbaugh into talking about himself and would rather engage in "character assassination" than debate conservatives in the "Arena of Ideas," the conservative talker charges in an e-mail to POLITICO.

There was a time when an reporter/writer worth his salt would follow that lede with “…a curious charge from an entertainer who makes his living assassinating characters.”

Saving CNN—and the Profession

All right, it’s a grandiose headline, but what CNN might do could at the very least show a way for journalism.

In “How to Fix CNN” in yesterday’s Politico, the only intelligent, original ideas came from Jay Rosen:

[Rosen’s] alt line-up for CNN prime time looks like this: (Please excuse my jokey titles…)

  • 7 pm: Leave Jon King in prime time and rename his show Politics is Broken. It should be an outside-in show. Make it entirely about bringing into the conversation dominated by Beltway culture and Big Media people who are outsiders to Beltway culture and Big Media and who think the system is broken. No Bill Bennett, no Gloria Borger, no “Democratic strategists,” no Tucker Carlson. Do it in the name of balance. But in this case voices from the sphere of deviance balance the Washington consensus.
  • 8 pm: Thunder on the Right. A news show hosted by an extremely well informed, free-thinking and rational liberal that mostly covers the conservative movement and Republican coalition… and where the majority of the guests (but not all) are right leaning. The television equivalent of the reporting Dave Wiegel does.
  • 9 pm: Left Brained. Flip it. A news show hosted by an extremely well informed, free-thinking and rational conservative that mostly covers liberal thought and the tensions in the Democratic party…. and where the majority of the guests (but not all) are left leaning.
  • 10 pm: Fact Check An accountability show with major crowdsourcing elements to find the dissemblers and cheaters. The week’s most outrageous lies, gimme-a-break distortions and significant misstatements with no requirement whatsoever to make it come out equal between the two parties on any given day, week, month, season, year or era. CNN’s answer to Jon Stewart.
  • 11 pm.: Liberty or death: World’s first news program from a libertarian perspective, with all the unpredictablity [sic] and mix-it-up moxie that libertarians at their best provide. Co-produced with Reason magazine.

All good ideas. But let me suggest a re-organization and a few other ideas.

First, shoot the messengers, i.e., the politicians. OK, not actually shoot them or, God forbid, put them in cross hairs. But minimize them. Healthcare, financial reform, immigration, energy realignment, economic recovery—they all are influenced heavily by what politicians do, but the pols don’t inform the debate. People with expert knowledge do. What do those who study healthcare think will decrease costs? How can those costs be impacted by public policy? How do we approach end-of-life care decisions? The people who can answer those questions don’t go to work at the Capitol. They are academicians, doctors, insurance executives, analysts and everyday people who have faced such issues. Three or four sitting around a table with a journalist who listens—rather than jumps in with his next question—can lead to intelligent debate. Sure, some folks will say that’s what PBS does and they don’t attract more than a couple of dozen viewers. But NPR has its largest audience ever. It’s not what I’m proposing but it’s a beacon of light for intelligent information.

Second, label nothing left or right, liberal or progressive, totalitarian or libertarian. Labels close minds. Once you read “the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities” or “the conservative American Enterprise Institute” readers and listeners have already made a judgment about the idea or viewpoint about to be expressed.

Third, don’t aim to make news; instead engender thought. This, of course, is ridiculous to many journalists. Their job is to report news. Fair enough. But I’m thinking of broadcast programs or long-form print journalism. The economics of the business is such that news organizations may need to change deadline driven news hounds into analysts, not of the politics but of issues.  Think what would happen if a Congressman held a press conference and nobody came.  It wouldn’t be the end of the world. 

Fourth, interrupt talking point messengers. The journalists has no responsibility to let drivel drivel. The goal should not be to be “fair and balanced,” but “objective.” That means telling someone, “That’s not true.” Eventually, you may need to simply banish certain guests. Still, the politicians have a role in my programming, but they don’t own the airtime.

So here are my programs: Bob’s Show, Carol’s Show, Ted’s Show, Alice’s Show. In other words, put the focus on intelligent journalists who can foster insightful conversation. That would include the regular host, perhaps with subject specific reporters joining the conversations. The shows could tackle different topics each day. Hot issues, healthcare for the past year for example, might be a topic each night with each show’s moderator tackling a different aspect of the issue. Think “Charlie Rose.”

And here is where I think Rosen’s ideas fit in:

Begin each show with a fact check segment on the last 24 hours’ most audacious claims or charges (also see last three segments for fodder). The segment should pay particular attention to hypocrisy. Instead of “Fact Check,” call the segment “Truth or Consequences.”

Then the roundtable. Encourage participants to talk to each other. The moderator should interrupt for clarification or challenge, as well as follow a tangent when an answer requires it. Don’t book people who are likely to foment argument for argument’s sake but seek passionate viewpoints.

Then “Thunder on the Right,” with the moderator one-on-one with a conservative politician asking him or her to respond to the arguments just elucidated during the roundtable. Again, the questioner must be willing to say, “Stop the talking points,” or “That’s not true.” It’s OK here to discuss the politics of the issue, of course. Why can’t a good idea get done? How does our political system inhibit tackling big questions?

“Left-Brained” is the mirror image.

And finally, “Off the Wall” or “Out of Nowhere” or “A Third Way” (which is not to be confused with the middle way.) Seek out ideas not enjoying widespread discussion. Let it be a two to five minute presentation in any format that makes sense.

Each of the last three segments are grist for the next day’s “Truth or Consequences.”

“Politics is Broken” is not a recurring program but it is a recurring topic or issue. And by the way, it should have a dose of history, both to put the current political environment in perspective and to clarify what the Founding Fathers founded.

These shows may not fit into an hour-long format. Some topics may need 90 minutes. And CNN, with its broad resources for breaking news, can always preempt the regular line-up to cover such news.

My concern for Rosen’s program ideas is how long will people want to listen, for example, to a program that is solely dedicated to knocking down political myths. That may be too cynical for the most cynical among us.

Journalism was never meant to be fair and balanced between fact and fiction. It’s supposed to uncover truth. As the preamble to the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists states:

…[P]ublic enlightenment is the
forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.

Post’s Double Standard for Op-Ed Submissions

It’s not easy getting an op-ed into The Washington Post—unless you are a known quantity, if not of reasonable quality.  I’ve had success about a dozen times over the years, but on several occasions I was raked through the coals by editors wanting me to back up my assertions or interpretations.  And I’ve been unsuccessful, too, when editors didn’t think I had a unique perspective on the issue at hand.

But if you’re a usual suspect, you can pretty much say anything—or nothing—and get your column published.  Witness former Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich’s op-ed on Sunday: “Annapolis leadership is out of touch on marriage and other issues.”  What was his unique insight?  He starts off talking about the state’s attorney general ruling that same-sex marriages can be recognized by the state, but the clear intent of his column is political posturing.

What strikes me most is not the attorney general’s conclusion but the broader pattern it fits, which should give Marylanders pause: Our political leadership in Annapolis is regularly enacting policies that conflict with mainstream sentiment in Maryland.

Ehrlich makes the usual GOP case against raising taxes.

That decision — raising the sales tax by 20 percent — disproportionately hurt poor and middle-income families and dealt a serious blow to Maryland’s entrepreneurs. Every additional dollar the O’Malley administration takes away from Maryland families means one less dollar they can spend in Maryland’s small businesses. Less business means more layoffs.

The entire argument in that paragraph is specious, but a typical GOP talking point.  He also goes after unions, the GOP’s favorite whipping boys.

Forcing nonunion state employees to pay union dues demoralizes thousands of workers and erodes their financial security for no credible reason.

Which then leads to his grand finale.

Our representatives in Annapolis are out of step with families, employers and taxpayers. If nothing else, Mr. Gansler’s opinion will send lawmakers running for the ideological trenches rather than coming to grips with their spending habits or getting government off the back of job-creating entrepreneurs.

The question is not whether Marylanders want more jobs and less government experimentation with our state’s social fabric; the question is whether their representatives in Annapolis will ever start listening.

What The Post did—and does often—is give politicians a platform to speak their talking points, while you and I need to have a unique voice and point of view.

The newspaper even allows politicians to espouse views that the paper itself has called nonsense.  On the issue of reconciliation, The Post says it’s opposed to using it for the health care bill but points out that Republican objections are hypocritical.

LET’S GET a few things straight about reconciliation, the procedure by which Democrats may be able to pass health-care reform by a simple majority. We aren’t fans of using the reconciliation process for this purpose. To approve a change as sweeping as this on a party-line vote strikes us as risky for Democrats and, pardon the phrase, unhealthy for the country. But questioning the wisdom of using reconciliation is different from questioning its propriety. Republican rhetoric notwithstanding, using reconciliation in this context would be neither a misuse of Senate rules nor, in a historical context, unusual.

The Republican rap on reconciliation is that it is a "little used" (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell) "abuse of the legislative process" (Indiana Rep. Mike Pence) that would be used to "jam this bill through Congress" (Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch). This is hard to take from a crowd that just a few years back was moaning about the preeminent importance of the up-or-down vote. In fact, reconciliation is no more a tricky parliamentary maneuver than the filibuster. Senate rules allow a minority to block legislation by requiring 60 votes to end a filibuster. They also provide a way around the filibuster in certain circumstances involving budgetary matters.

…And the biggest abuse of reconciliation rules was engineered by Republicans, when they obtained a parliamentary ruling that reconciliation could be used not only for tax increases, but for tax cuts as well. Those who complain about twisting the rules now weren’t bothered then.

So what does the paper do today?  It gives Sen. Hatch, whose argument it called “hard to take,” prime op-ed space to make the same argument.

To impose the will of some Democrats and to circumvent bipartisan opposition, President Obama seems to be encouraging Congress to use the "reconciliation" process, an arcane budget procedure, to ram through the Senate a multitrillion-dollar health-care bill….

Hatch makes no mention of the fact that Republicans used reconciliation to ram through Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts., which cost two and half times what the current healthcare legislation would cost.

But he has a name, so The Post lets him say whatever he wants.