Monthly Archives: May 2009

What’s Wrong with Print Journalism?

Veteran reporter Walter Pincus has a fine piece in the Columbia Journalism Review examining what’s wrong with print journalism and how it can be saved.  It’s a good read and an educational review of how we got here.

One prescription he has is to, frankly, follow the lead of public relations professionals.  One of the tenants of the PR business is that repetition and a sustained effort is often needed to influence the news.  If you are trying to increase attendance, say, for a jazz festival, as I am doing for a small festival in Colorado, one news release is not going to cut.  Reporters and editors must become familiar with it, hear different facts over time and eventually a smart angle might get good coverage.  One tactic is to keep the information in small, quickly digestible bites.  Pincus thinks that’s a good prescription for keeping newspaper readers.

Over the past ten years, The Washington Post has won nineteen Pulitzer Prizes. But over that same period, we lost more than 120,000 readers. Why? My answer, unpopular among my colleagues, is that while many of these longer efforts were worthwhile, they took up space and resources that could have been used to give readers a wider selection of stories about what was going on, and that may have directly affected their lives. (emphasis added) Readers have limited time to spend on newspapers. The number has been twenty-five minutes, on average, for more than thirty years. In short, we have left behind our readers in our chase after glory.

…[O]wners, editors, and reporters should push issues they believe government is ignoring. They should do it factually and in articles short enough to read daily, but spread over time. That is how Americans absorb information—by repetition.  (emphasis added)

One issue that frustrates me in today’s print journalism is the “faux fairness” doctrine.  Print journalists too often act as secretaries transcribing comments and going to great pains to give each side its due, even for such one-sided issues as evolution.  There’s no other viewpoint here of any scientific import.  But conservative, for a long time, have effectively demanded and received this “faux fairness.”  Pincus gives us the history.

The celebrity of Woodward and Bernstein, along with financial rewards that accompanied Bob’s continued hard work, set new goals for others in the profession. At the same time, the impact an aroused press could have on government and politics was not missed by conservative supporters of the Nixon administration. Their response was twofold: demand more conservative columnists on newspaper op-ed pages and equal treatment in news columns for politicians and experts from “both sides” of issues. It was an informal way of applying the fairness doctrine, which was required of the electronic media, to print.

…Today, mainstream print and electronic media want to be neutral, presenting both or all sides as if they were refereeing a game in which only the players—the government and its opponents—can participate. They have increasingly become common carriers, transmitters of other people’s ideas and thoughts, irrespective of import, relevance, and at times even accuracy.

Pincus also provides a look at how the PR superstar Mike Deaver impacted the news.  What I didn’t know was that it wasn’t until Reagan’s administration that The Post almost mandated a daily White House story.

In 1981, at the beginning of the Reagan administration, Michael Deaver—one of the great public-relations men of our time—began to use early-morning “tech” sessions at the White House, which had been a way to help network producers plan the use of their camera crews each day, to shape the television news story for that evening. Deaver would say that President Reagan will appear in the Rose Garden to talk about his crime-prevention program and discuss it in terms of, say, Chicago and San Francisco. That would allow the networks to shoot B-roll. The president would appear in the Rose Garden as promised, make his statement, perhaps take a question or two, and vanish.

After a while, the network White House correspondents began to attend these sessions, and later print reporters began showing up, too. On days when the president went off to Camp David or his California ranch, Sam Donaldson, the ABC News White House correspondent, began his shouted questions to Reagan, and Reagan’s flip answers became the nightly news—and not just on television. The Washington Post, which prior to that time did not have a standing White House story each day (publishing one only when the president did something newsworthy), began to have similar daily coverage.

At the end of Reagan’s first year, David Broder, the Post’s political reporter, wrote a column about Reagan being among the least-involved presidents he had covered. In response, he got an onslaught of mail from people who said they saw Reagan every night on TV, working different issues. It was a triumph of public relations.

When President George H. W. Bush succeeded Reagan and occasionally drifted off the appointed subject, criticism began to appear that he “couldn’t stay on message.” When Bill Clinton did two, three, or four things in a day, critics went after him for “mixing up the daily message.” Being able to “stay on message” is now considered a presidential asset, perhaps even a requirement. Of course, the “message” is what the White House wants to present to the public.

You think newspaper are partisan?  Is The Post and the New York Times liberal, and the Washington Star and the Dallas Morning News conservative?  Well, that’s the way the founding fathers thought it should be, according to Pincus.

Newspapers across the U.S. were often begun by pamphleteers, political parties, or businessmen who wanted to get involved in local, state, or even national affairs. The founding editors of The New York Times started that newspaper as supporters of the Whig party and later switched to the Republican party. Adolph Ochs, who bought the Times in 1896, was helped in his negotiations by a letter from President Grover Cleveland, who wrote that Ochs’s management of The Chattanooga Times had “demonstrated such a faithful adherence to Democratic principles that I would be glad to see you in a larger sphere of usefulness.” The Washington Post’s publisher Phil Graham helped put Lyndon Johnson on the ticket with John F. Kennedy.

They used their presses to influence government, but that is what the founding fathers contemplated when they wrote the First Amendment. The idea was that citizens in a democracy were to read more than one paper or pamphlet, weigh all opinions and facts as presented, and make up their own minds. (emphasis added)

Which is what we web surfers do, isn’t it?

The only disappointment I had with Pincus’ article is that he teased us with a phenomenon I wished he had explore:  the proliferation of print media pontificating on television.

While most corporate owners were seeking increased earnings, higher stock prices, and bigger salaries, editors and reporters focused more on winning prizes or making television appearances.

What do print reporters do to get access?  Are they paid and how much?  Do they put aside objectivity for bombast, the drug of choice for cable news?  How does the appearance of T
he Post reporters on a cable show impact the coverage the paper gives – or downplays – about that media outlet?  What do journalist compromise to ensure a return engagement?

Still, it’s a good read.

What We Need in a Supreme Court Justice

President Obama is getting lots of advice about who should replace retiring Supreme Court justice David Souter.  Basically, the advice is all the same”  “Pick one that’s like me!”

The new justice should be Hispanic, or black, or a woman, or gay, as if being a member of a class will engender jurisprudence.

I won’t argue against the notion that certain life experiences can infuse one’s view of what the Constitution protects.  And the right’s criticism that the new justice should only interpret the law, not make it, and be a “strict constructionist” is laughable.  The right, after all, was perfectly happy to have a close majority of the Supreme Court decide an election.  And they wanted the courts to interfere with a husband’s right to make health decisions for his incurable, terminal wife.  Don’t make law, they say, unless it is a law they like.

Empathy is not what I’d look for in someone to take Souter’s seat. Experience is.  Experience in the law, sure, but also in the fresh experience in America.  I think the president should chose someone who is close to his or her Americanization.  By that I mean I’d like to see someone who, if not a naturalized citizen, is the offspring of immigrants.  Someone who saw his or her parents struggle to learn the language and customs, fight discrimination and sacrifice to allow their child to fulfill the America dream.

Certainly a few of the usual suspects bandied about as nominees would fit this description.  But the important thing is not that they are Hispanic in particular, but that they have witnessed first hand the Americanization process.  I think such a person has a particular outlook on what the American experience can mean.  I don’t want them to rule in any particular way on immigration or any other issue.  I just think American justice and freedom is a bit fresher in their minds than those of us who aren’t as close to  the immigrant experience.

Specter Becoming a Pariah?

You have to wonder who looks more foolish in this saga – Sen. Arlen “I Never Said I Was a Loyal Democrat” Specter or Sen. Harry “I Never Promised You Anything” Reid.

After the Democratic caucus rebelled, the Senate striped Specter of his seniority.  He’ll sit at the ends of committee daises.  Maybe there is a method in the madness that is Reid.  Maybe he planned it just this way.

In the end, aides, it was a no-brainer to strip Specter of his seniority: Specter is now a Democrat and has no choice but to try to ingratiate himself with the Democratic Caucus if he wants to retain his seniority after this Congress.

Nah.  I don’t think Reid has the capability to be that creative.  But as for Specter…

Specter tried to make some amends with members of his new party Tuesday. After word leaked out that he’d told The New York Times that the courts in Minnesota should “do justice” and name Republican Norm Coleman the winner over Democrat Al Franken, Specter backpedaled, telling CQ that he had “conclusively misspoke” in “the swirl of moving from one caucus to another.” (emphasis added)

What appears to be swirling in Specter’s head are misfiring synapses.  Did he forget to take his Cholinesterase or Memantine?  By the time the 2010 Democratic primary rolls around, he’s likely to forget to campaign – or even vote.

Cell Phone Use

This is a paradigm shift, as they say, with significant implications for politics and pollsters.

For the first time, the number of U.S. households opting for only cell phones outnumber those that just have traditional landlines in a high-tech shift accelerated by the recession.

In the freshest evidence of the growing appeal of cell phones, 20 percent of households had only cells during the last half of 2008, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey released Wednesday.

…Further underscoring the public’s shrinking reliance on landline phones, 15 percent of households have both landlines and cells but take few or no calls on their landlines, often because they are wired into computers. Combined with wireless only homes, that means that 35 percent of households — more than one in three — are basically reachable only on cells.

The changes are important for pollsters, who for years relied on reaching people on their landline telephones. Growing numbers of surveys now include calls to people on their cells, which is more expensive partly because federal laws forbid pollsters from using computers to place calls to wireless phones.

Specter Implodes

Rumor has it Sen. Arlen Specter is calling for impeachment hearings against President Obama.  He also wants the GOP caucus to have a veto over any Democratic legislation and wants the Pennsylvania Democratic senate primary cancelled and himself declared the winner of the 2010 general election.

Well, far fetch, maybe.  But possible.

"There’s still time for the Minnesota courts to do justice and declare Norm Coleman the winner."

–Specter, according to NYT

Is Obama Good for the Economy?

Remember in early March when all the Obama critics were saying that the stock market was rendering its judgment on Obama’s economic policies when it was down?  it was all Obama’s fault.  Once he was elected inaugurated, the market tanked, they said, blaming his policies.

Well, as of today, the S&P stock index is up almost 13% since Obama was elected inaugurated, and the NASDAQ, the tech-heavy index, is up 22% since Obama was elected January 20.

So I guess the market is rendering its judgment that his policies are working!

Specter vs. Sestak Revisited

After seeing Congressman Joe Sestak on “Hardball” Friday, I don’t think he’s going to play “bad cop” to keep Arlen Specter in line as a Democrat.

And then today on Meet The Press, Specter says he’s “not a loyal Democrat.”  What the hell do we need this guy for?

What are the GOPers Smoking?

As the GOP tries to find its voice, may we suggest they first reverse the Bush administration’s rejection of reality.

In this story about the coming decision to replace Justice David Souter on the Supreme Court, we have Wendy Long of the Judicial Confirmation Network and a former clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas saying,

The current Supreme Court is a liberal, judicial activist court. … If Obama holds to his campaign promise to appoint a Justice who rules based on her own ‘deepest values’ and what’s in her own ‘heart’ – instead of what is in the Constitution and laws — he will be the first American President who has made lawlessness an explicit standard for Supreme Court Justices.”  (emphasis added)

Let’s forget that liberals have been losing most SCOTUS decisions to a 5-4 conservative majority.  But then to suggest that because Obama might consider life experiences, he therefore is looking for lawlessness as a standard for selecting a justice?

Well, reality seems out of reach for GOPers.

The GOP obviously does not have much power in D.C. these days, but just like we helped ourselves by opposing the deficit-busting stimulus, opposing left-wing nominees like her is our path back to the majority,” one Republican source said. (emphasis added)

I’m almost starting to feel sorry for the party of Coolidge, Hoover and Nixon.  It’s not that they’re smoking something; they’re eating their own shit.  That’ll make you sick.

Specter vs. Sestak?

If President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid raise money for Arlen Specter’s 2010 Senate campaign, I can’t really imagine second termer Rep. Joe Sestak running successfully for the nomination.  But I’d be curious about the back story here

The House Democrat said he would look closely at Specter’s policy statements and how he votes over the next few months before deciding whether to take him on.

“What’s he running for?” said Sestak. “There are critical issues facing our nation, from healthcare to how do we take care of education.

“Now, if he’s for the right things we might end up with the right candidate but for me it’s a wait-and-see.”

Let’s play politics.  Sestak is the voice of the Democratic base over the next year keeping Specter’s feet to the fire.  If the Dems were smart, they’d let Sestak keep a high profile and play the maverick.  He likes the role. 

Sestak is beginning to position himself as an outsider, a candidate not in lockstep with the wishes of party leaders in Washington.

The lawmaker recalled that when he first ran for Congress, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had already settled on another candidate and tried to stop him from running.

Sestak said he told political strategists in Washington at the time that he did not think he needed their permission to run.

“I think this just comes down to what’s best for Pennsylvanians, and boy are we independent.”

If in a year from now Specter has been more of a problem than a help, Obama and Reid can back off on their pledge to help Specter at all costs.

But I suspect, all they want is Specter’s vote on key issues, like this one.