Mainstream Media

No Snow Plowing in NYC is a Snow Job

Even those of us who don’t live in New York City and have enough snow problems of our own have heard the story: City sanitation workers in the Big Apple supposedly were ordered to slow down plowing after the December 26 blizzard as retribution to the mayor for job reductions.

The charge was made by a single city councilman, a union hating Tea Party nut.  And I’m not talking about being a Tea party nut but a Tea Partier who is a nut in other ways.

For many New Yorkers, it was the first they had heard of Mr. Halloran, 39, a lawyer from Whitestone who has had a colorful first year in office.

During his 2009 campaign, his faith was briefly an issue. He is an adherent of Theodism, a neo-pagan faith that draws from pre-Christian tribal religions of northern Europe, and he led a branch in the New York area.

The city is investigating and the New York Times has the story that there seems to be little evidence that it’s true.

But an even better read is Ryan Chittum of CJR’s The Audit deconstructing how the mainstream media, especially CNN, the Washington Times and of course, FOX News used the story to enhance the “labor unions are killing America” meme. Chittum does a great job.

Overpromising Headline

When I read the headline on US News’ Washington Whispers column, “Obama Switches to Cozying with Reporters,” I was expecting a story about how he plans to change his relationship with the Washington press corps, which detractors describe as dismissive, to which I say “rightly so.” Instead it was about his decision to attend the Gridiron Club’s annual dinner. He’s just throwing you a bone, guys and gals.

Internet Gaining on TV and Newspapers?

Well, yes…and not necessarily. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has another survey, out this week, that’s informative, if you don’t misinterpret the findings. The clearest finding is that the Internet is becoming more of the medium for news for many folks than television. It certainly hasn’t overtaken it among all groups, though it has among people 19-29 years old. And even that conclusion is somewhat suspect. After all, you can watch a TV program online. Who gets the credit as the source—TV or “the internet”?

This fuzzy conclusion gets more obscured when you read about the internet’s supremacy over newspapers, which applies to the overall population, though not among the 50+ set. After all, whereas most folks don’t go to the internet to watch TV, I’ll bet a sizable portion of those who look for news online indeed go to newspapers sites. Which makes the conclusions here a little misleading.

[M]ore people continue to cite the internet than newspapers as their main source of news, reflecting both the growth of the internet, and the gradual decline in newspaper readership (from 34% in 2007 to 31% now).

…The internet also has grown as a news source for people ages 50 to 64; currently 34% say the internet is their main source of national and international news, nearly equal to the number who cite newspapers (38%), though still far below television (71%). There has been relatively little change in the how people age 65 and older get their news. The internet has risen to 14% from 5% in 2007, but is still far behind newspapers (47%) and television (79%) as a main source.

I wish the good folks at the Pew center (and I love their work) would have worded it differently.  But reading further, there are nuggets that should influence how political questions are debated.

College graduates are about as likely to get most of their national and international news from the internet (51%) as television (54%). Those with some college are just as likely as college grads to cite the internet as their main source (51%), while 63% cite television. By contrast, just 29% of those with no more than a high school education cite the internet while more than twice as many (75%) cite television.

For political operatives that may mean deploying different spokespeople for different media. For example, if it’s the lower middle class you want to target, send those folks who can sound as if they are one of them. I don’t mean that condescendingly. Joe Biden may make a good source on TV news because he has a working class persona, whereas John Kerry may not.

There is some unabashed good news in the survey results.

Reflecting the slow decline in the proportion of people getting most of their national and international news from television, the numbers specifically citing cable news outlets or broadcast networks as their main news source has fallen. When asked where on television they get most of their news, 36% name a cable network such as CNN, the Fox News Channel or MSNBC; 22% name ABC News, CBS News or NBC News; and 16% say they get most of their national and international news from local news programming.

TV is constrained by its format. Rarely are issues covered in-depth and without prejudice or bias. If more people read the news online, they would be caught up in the world of hyperlinks, taking them to new sources that allow them to gain more knowledge and hopefully a broader range of viewpoints, though that’s not guaranteed.

But here’s the best news. The percentage of people who say they get their news from radio has remained constant over the past 20 years. Alas, they all aren’t listening to NPR; many are Limbaugh ditto-heads. According to Carroll Doherty of the Pew Center, NPR’s audience mirrors the general demographics of the population, so both young and old are listening. Why has radio remained constant? Because traffic hasn’t improved most places. Radio listeners tend to be in their cars at the time.

Is the British Press a Better Model?

Can we expect any news organization to be fair and balanced? Is objectivity an unattainable goal?  More important, does the quest for objectivity require the American press to become not only neutered but lacking in any useful information and reluctant to declare anything true or false?

David Folkenflick has what is described as the first in a two-part series examining such questions on this morning on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” (The article on the website follows closely the audio story but isn’t verbatim from the ME report.  Listen to the story from the link at the website.)

Basically, he reports that British newspapers, while striving to be accurate and fair, do not try to hide their point of view.  Anyone who’s ever read, say the Guardian or The Telegraph would recognize the different takes on the same event.

"In Britain, we feel that it’s better to know where people are coming from and then to make up your own mind about what you think, because the truth is nobody can be completely impartial and objective," Boles says. "I mean the idea [that] The New York Times doesn’t have a political point of view — it’s ridiculous. It does, but it twists itself into knots in an attempt to pretend that it doesn’t."

This idea of transparency among reporters is one explored in depth by Jay Rosen of “PressThink” and others. It has been suggested that reporters should reveal their biases for everyone to know, so we can make a judgment about their reporting.

Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger argued that British papers give more room than their American counterparts to voices that challenge conventional wisdom.

"I think it’s quite a striking thing about the British press that you get this polemical battle over the basis for what news is, which I feel is to a large extent missing in the American scene," Rusbridger says. "No judgments are free of ideologies, so who you choose to quote and how you structure stories are highly political judgments. I think that’s the problem with trying to place too much faith in something called objectivity."

I disagree, perhaps because I have a different definition of objectivity.  (However, I agree that American mainstream media typically rely on the “usual suspects” and often little opportunity for views outside Washington conventional wisdom a voice; but that’s another topic.) Objectivity does not mean that you give both sides of an argument equal voice or that you make no judgment about an argument. It does mean, to me, that you give both sides a chance to explain themselves but that a reporter should be free to express a judgment on those arguments. All too infrequently, you’ll see a reporter say that something isn’t true or misleading. But it should happen far more often. For example, the GOP argument that taxes hurt the economy or job creation is not one that many informed economists will make. The CBO reported last year that of 11 ways it studied to improve the job market, tax cuts were the least effective. It’s OK to allow one to make a claim once, especially if the reporter doesn’t know if it’s true. But a good reporter will try to gauge the accuracy of a claim and at the very least suggests in her reporting that the claim is suspect and point to informed sources as evidence. That’s objective reporting, which is to say reporting that objectively strives for truth. It’s what’s required for a democracy to function, that is, an informed voter.

Which is what I think this Labor member of Parliament is getting at.

In the Palace of Westminster lobby, surrounded by marble statues of prime ministers that date back centuries, Anne Begg — a Labor member of Parliament who represents the south part of Aberdeen, Scotland — says she reads British newspapers every day, but finds them wanting.

"One of the concerns I have with some of the print media is that it’s almost all comment, which is always partial and is always partisan," she says. "In that respect, I don’t know if you could call them newspapers anymore — they’re perhaps comment papers."

In fact, if you remove quotations from many news stories you end up with a very short story.  Still some would stand on their own without the quotes.  Read a story sometime and imagine what it would be like without the quotes, which typically are often misleading spin. If reporters were tasked with writing stories of substance that don’t rely on spin from both sides, we’d have a better product.

Bloggers vs. Reporters

Remember in the early days of blogging when reporters would dismiss our work as nothing more than a bunch of people sitting at their computers in their pajamas expropriating journalists’ work? We weren’t doing the hard work of true professionals, who would dig up resources and conduct tough interviews before writing exposes of how things really were.

Fast forward to Monday, when we find this article in The Washington Post.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was bullish in laying out his agenda for the new Congress with Republicans in control of the House.

And how did writer Philip Rucker know this?

Issa, who as chairman will have subpoena power, said he will seek to ferret out waste across the federal bureaucracy. While he used fiery rhetoric in describing the Obama administration in a series of television interviews Sunday, he said he will focus on wasteful spending, not the prosecution of White House officials. [emphasis added]

To be fair, it wasn’t quite a rewrite of a GOP press release.  He had Democratic congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland give the rebuttal from a transcript of Cummings’ appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

But Mr. Rucker was busy working for this report.  Apparently even going so far as to change the station!

"I think [Attorney General Eric Holder] needs to realize that, for example, WikiLeaks, if the president says, ‘I can’t deal with this guy as a terrorist,’ then he has to be able to deal with him as a criminal," Issa said on "Fox News Sunday." "Otherwise, the world is laughing at this paper tiger we’ve become.

Mr. Rucker may have received overtime or hazardous duty pay.  He actually watch a third TV program, quoting Issa from his CBS interview Sunday.

This entire article was written based on two Congressmen’s Sunday TV interviews.

Mr. Rucker was able to write this entire story by watching TV, probably while in his pajamas.  This one was literally “phoned in.”

How is Julian Assange Different from Bob Woodward?

Seems like journalists don’t like it when someone—other than themselves—reveals what really goes on in government.

Or consider the theme that framed last night’s segment:  Assange is profiting off classified information by writing a book!  Beyond the examples I gave, Bob Woodward has become a very rich man by writing book after book filled with classified information about America’s wars which his sources were not authorized to give him.  Would Yellin ever in a million years dare lash out at Bob Woodward the way she did Assange?  To ask the question is to answer it (see here as CNN’s legal correspondent Jeffrey Toobin is completely befuddled in the middle of his anti-WikiLeaks rant when asked by a guest, Clay Shirky, to differentiate what Woodward continuously does from what Assange is doing).

They’re all petrified to speak ill of Bob Woodward because he’s a revered spokesman of the royal court to which they devote their full loyalty.  Julian Assange, by contrast, is an actual adversary — not a pretend one — of that royal court.  And that — and only that — is what is driving virtually this entire discourse:

Why Do Regulators Meet with the Regulated?

Columbia Journalism Review this morning spotlights a Los Angeles Times article that documents and elucidates the relentless lobbying by financial firms.  Though most of the praise is directed toward the Times’ use of data to highlight the extent to which financial firms, having lost some key battles in Congress over the financial reform law, now relentlessly lobby the regulators, hoping to get lax enforcement written into the regulations.

The story documents that one law firm met three times with a regulator in two weeks, representing a different client each time.

At the end of the piece, CJR’s Ryan Chittum asks a pertinent question I’d like to see an enterprising story on: 

What’s unclear from the story is why [Commodity Futures Trading Commission Commissioner Bart] Chilton is meeting with these guys three times in two weeks if he doesn’t want to. Why can’t he just refuse the meetings? I have a feeling the answer just might be illuminating.

Why do regulators meet with the regulated?  Sure, they might like some insight on questions they are unclear on.  But one would hope the regulators know the industry well enough that they don’t need a primer three times in two weeks to hear the same complaints.

A recommendation to MSM who all send reporters to Congress detailing the same tit-for-tat verbal wars on the Hill everyday:  Free up a reporter to do some digging on this.  It can’t be that hard to lay out what happens between the regulated and the regulators.

Jon Stewart, Terry Gross

From Jon Stewart’s interview with Terry Gross:

I’m less upset with politicians than [with] the media. I feel like politicians — the way I explain it, is when you go to a zoo and a monkey throws feces, it’s a monkey. But when the zookeeper is standing right there and he doesn’t say, ‘Bad monkey’ — somebody’s gotta be the zookeeper. I feel much more strongly about the abdication of responsibility by the media than by political advocates. They’re representing a constituency. Our culture is just a series of checks and balances. The whole idea that we’re in a battle between tyranny and freedom — it’s a series of pendulum swings. And the swings have become less drastic over time. That’s why I feel, not sanguine but at least a little bit less frightful, in that our pendulum swings have become less and less. But what has changed is the media’s sense of their ability to be responsible arbiters. I think they feel fearful. I think there’s this whole idea now that there’s a liberal media conspiracy, and I think they feel if they express any authority or judgment, which is what I imagine is editorial control, they will be vilified."

Obama/Bush Double Standard

The headline on this The Caucus blog post is similar to others reporting President Obama’s recent backyard chats:  In Iowa, a Skeptical Audience Greets Obama.  That may be fair enough.

But I’m curious why reporters aren’t making the obvious comparison:  George W. Bush would never subject himself to an audience, even when he was giving a public speech, that wasn’t hand-picked and assured to be a GOP partisan one.