Defending the press

In the eyes of the public, being a journalist used to be cool. Rumpled fedoras, lots of vodka, foreign excursions and living on the edge. Not every kid wanted to be Edward R. Murrow, but to some of us, it looked like a very cool job.

These days, the reputation of journalists is reminding me of that old joke about lawyers. You know the one: “What do you call ten lawyers at the bottom of a lake? A good start.”

I get it – like bad ambulance-chasing lawyers, there are newspapers and TV networks who do an abysmal job practicing the art of journalism.

And even a journalist with the best of intention can make a bad call. Since Friday’s horrific school shootings, we’ve heard a great deal of criticism about the media covering the story.

That criticism includes some very valid comments. Several journalists showed questionable judgement interviewing young children.

A few recent events have driven home that public sentiment for me. Last week, I saw an article about a Navy SEAL from my hometown who was killed in Afghanistan. The comments on the article expressed dismay and disgust that “the media” had contacted the dead Navy SEAL’s family.

I am here today not to bury journalism, but to praise it.

I’m admittedly biased – I’m a journalist, for one, and I’ve been a news nerd since I was a kid. I was watching Watergate hearings when I was four or five.

In fourth grade, our class had a project where we wrote about ourselves. The other boys in the class wrote about their bikes or model airplanes. I wrote that I was following the news about the Jonestown massacre. (One of many reasons that my teachers thought I was odd!)

For me, knowledge has always meant reassurance. I was never good at fighting with my fists, but as they say, knowledge is power. I fight, when needed, with words.

And I’ve always found comfort in knowing all that I could. I also looked up to and respected the people who told the stories of other people.

Younger people might be mystified by the hero worship of journalists like Walter Cronkite or Peter Jennings, but there was a calmness in their presence that announced to the audience: This is happening. And this, too, shall pass.

What I can tell you is this: As imperfect as our press might be, it is a free press. It may be clogged with the sediment of public relations fluff and infotainment tripe, but its heart still beats.

Just today, news that NBC News reporter Richard Engel was free from being captured in Syria was made public. People are still working on your behalf, putting their lives on the line to find out what’s happening in the world.

I understand in the case of the Navy SEAL from my hometown that his family didn’t want to speak to the press, and certainly their wishes (and anyone’s wishes in that situation) should be respected.

A friend of mine has faced the media recently as a result of the Connecticut shootings, and I’m reminded that it’s an intense spotlight to be in, particularly at a time of such loss and sorrow.

But in the case of war casualties, for example, many families WANT to tell the story of their loved one, and talk about a loss in a war that, to them, feels like it’s been vastly underreported. Many families want all of us to know what their loved one lost, or what they lost, and want us to clearly understand the cost.

news_leadWhat a private person might see as hounding, though, is a habit of persistence that we developed in the face of a lot of closed doors in political chambers, legal chambers and corporate boardrooms. We dig deeper to try to keep you as informed as possible.

I know a lot of the things we dig up aren’t pleasant. They don’t fit simply into neat piles. They don’t end like a sitcom, with all the loose ends tied up in twenty-three minutes.

They defy simplification, and while some opinion-based news programs will try to make the news black or white, us versus them…very little in news, and in life, breaks down that way.

And when your own life is filled with challenges, or work, or drudgery, or sadness, or is packed wall to wall with life itself that keeps you too busy to stop and take a breath, absorbing bad news is the last thing in the world many of us want to do.

We’d collectively rather read Us Weekly, or watch Honey Boo Boo, or something equally ridiculous that lets us hang up our brain, and breathe, and laugh.

I understand that. I totally get it.

But I’m here to tell you we shouldn’t lose sight of the value of our press.

It is a right spelled out for us in the FIRST Amendment, after all. There’s been a great deal of rhetoric in recent years about our Constitution, and freedom of the press is a cornerstone of the rights we so clearly value as Americans.

And if you’ve been taking that right for granted, understand that in many places, we’re in danger of losing the voices that make a free press.

Technology and the Web has brought massive changes to the ways information is shared, and while it’s made access more immediate in some ways, it’s also devastated some media platforms – especially the ones who do long-form, deep, thorough and thoughtful journalism.

The list of cities that have lost a daily newspaper includes some substantial U.S. cities: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Albuquerque, Honolulu and Denver, to name a few.

Detroit and New Orleans have newspapers that print less frequently. The Plain Dealer, long Cleveland’s voice of the people, is potentially facing the same reduction in publication.

You may think that it’s the nature of our corporate world today, that mergers lead to those exciting buzzwords like “synergy” and “economies of scale,” and hey, if it means a couple of jobs are lost, then journalists are just like the next guy (or woman) and have to suck it up.

Except that when you lose reporters, you lose the eyes and ears that can find out that your city council spent your taxpayer money on trips to the Bahamas.

You lose the experienced researchers who can tell you not only that something IS happening, but provide the context of WHY it is happening.

And what you have in its absence is something like The Huffington Post – a collection of language without any real structure. You end up with a snippet of a story that tells readers only the basic facts, and leaves the readers to fill in the blanks by themselves.

That isn’t really news – it’s a big vat of misinformation, and it feeds on itself.

Journalists have a responsibility to the public, and we have an ethical responsibility to do our jobs in the best, kindest, most transparent way we can. I agree with that, and I know some of my fellow journalists need to do a better job.

But I’d argue that all of us need to value the work that journalists do for our readers and viewers — and our country. If you’re finding the fluff, the opinion channels, and the tabloids lacking, then dig around for more news sources.

Find a newspaper that has longer, more in-depth articles. Listen to NPR or any TV or radio source that takes more than 30 seconds to explore an issue. If you want better journalism, value the great work that’s being done.

As a journalism (and a recent returning student), I have a dog-eared copy of a book called The Elements of Journalism in my library. It’s a fantastic book that talks not so much about the work of doing journalism – the editing and the arrangement – as it does the reasons WHY we do what we do.

There are ten commandments, so to speak, about what journalists are obligated to do. We are bound to truth. Our obligation is to citizens and our readers. We are disciplined to be objective researchers, avoiding conflicts of interest with those we cover and verifying all we see and say.

The last “commandment” is important to the work that we do, too. It says, “Citizens, too, have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news.”

And the biggest one is to decide, as a culture, whether we collectively value truth, value information and value the fine art of journalism – even when the results make us angry, challenges norms, or makes us feel uncomfortable.

We are in an age where corporate interests drive newspapers, and television, and the Internet. And it’s up to the public to be clear about what you value. As with politics and politicians, involvement is crucial, and it’s quite frankly what all of us owe our democracy.

We will collectively end up, as they say, with the journalism we ask for — and the journalism we deserve.

Creative common sense: the value of creative work

There have been some really vivid debates happening recently centering around artists and how they are compensated for their work.

Much of the focus was a blog post by David Lowery, the leader of bands Cracker and Camper van Beethoven and an advocate for musicians. His blog The Tricordist published an excellent post yesterday as a response to an NPR intern admitting on air that of the 11,000 songs she’d downloaded, she paid for almost none of them.

I talked about this here back in January and it’s a debate that’s been raging for a decade or so now since the advent of Napster. It also seems to be primarily generational, as younger music fans simply don’t see paying for music as a necessity.

What musicians have to rely on when people don’t honor their work.

I see obvious parallels between musicians and journalists. Ironically, the NPR intern – ostensibly a journalism or broadcasting major – will soon be in a job market where paying jobs have shrunk and the few opportunities open are often internships.

The TV stations and newspapers in Chicago don’t think it’s economically wise to hire a newbie out of college, and much of their remaining budgets go to on-air talent or production needs. So those fact checkers, graphics editors and admins? All interns, all free.

In other words, Emily the NPR intern will soon be experiencing the same thing the musicians she’s downloaded have: working without compensation.

I have 13,000 tracks in my iTunes and have paid for 99% of them. Some may have been “ripped” from physical CDs but at some juncture, I paid for them. I have a small, tiny sliver of unpaid tracks that in most cases, were unavailable in any format or out of print.

Maybe this is the hey-you-kids-get-off-my-lawn old man coming out in me, but it IS increasingly a moral issue to me. If people don’t understand that they are stealing, then we have a serious issue.

How would most hourly employees feel if, at the end of two weeks of work, your company simply didn’t pay you for your work? We’d have riots in the street.

Why is that unacceptable for “most of us” but OK for artists, musicians and writers?

Another recent content related controversy surrounds the cartoonist Matthew Inman, better known as The Oatmeal, and a conflict he’s had with the team that runs the Web site FunnyJunk.

FunnyJunk appears to be a site where users upload content – any humor-based content they want. Inman found several hundred of his works uploaded to FJ without any attribution as to who created them.

I won’t fully recount the blow by blow here – it’s just too odd and bizarre to believe – but instead of honoring Inman’s intellectual property claims, FunnyJunk’s lawyers sued him for compensation, claiming they had been slandered.

Or in simpler terms: An artist was expected to comply with the free, uncompensated use of his work.

Sound familiar?

To me, these issues underscore how we see work in this country, what we see as valid work (often only white collar work is valued), and how we compensate people for their time and efforts.


Kitty Kelley, journalism and our information feed

I’m about to say something I never thought I’d be saying aloud: I’ve come to respect Kitty Kelley, and I think she’s engaged in a valuable conversation about modern journalism.


Yeah, I know. She’s queen of the unauthorized biography. In the gilded halls of literature, “unauthorized” translates to “trashy beach read.” Her prose can be bulky and clumsy, and the narrative tone in her books often takes the tone of the “psssssssst!” style of gossip.

So how can I mention Kelley and journalism ethics in the same sentence? Because she’s made an excellent point in recent interviews and essays: Good journalism should, to some degree, be unauthorized. That’s how we get the real story.

Her recent essay for American Scholar mentions a case where CBS reporter Lara Logan (a veteran foreign correspondent) admitted on a CNN panel discussion that she avoided asking potentially controversial questions to the leaders of the American military in Iraq. Why? So she could sustain ongoing access and, she may have assumed, “candid” comments from the generals there.

The problem with that theory, of course, that another journalist (Michael Hastings from Rolling Stone) did ask those questions, and the end result of the release of that interview was the firing of General Stanley McChrystal.

Kelley may have said it best in her essay: I do not relish living in a world where information is authorized, sanitized, and homogenized. I read banned books, I applaud whistleblowers, and I reject any suppression by church or state. To me, the unauthorized biography, which requires a combination of scholarly research and investigative reporting, is best directed at those figures, still alive and able to defend themselves, who exercise power over our lives.

So where do we draw those lines when we’re reporting stories? You can’t find a better or more timely example of this than WikiLeaks. As a country that declares freedom of the press in our Constitution, we should be defending the utter freedom of information. But is WikiLeaks a brave stand for that sort of transparency, or an unethical unearthing of information that jeopardizes our safety?

No matter where you stand on the ethics or lack thereof regarding WikiLeaks, I think it’s incredibly curious that criminal charges (charges that are in some cases hard to definitively prove) has derailed Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ leader. It’s also curious to me that the next big revelation from WikiLeaks was supposed to be about a large financial institution. (The lines between our government and our corporations seem to get fuzzier all the time.)

I remember a few years ago reading an academic essay that called much of today’s journalism “Us vs. Them” journalism, particularly print journalism. Few reporters map out all the aspects of a story. Increasingly, as a way to engage the reader/audience, news stories are written as if they were feature stories. Reporters find the main point of interest to write about, and then in an attempt to offer “balance,” they find someone or something representing the polar opposite and include that in their story as a “counterpoint.”  It’s no wonder we seem to be so polarized in this country – our information feed certainly is!

The us vs. them mentality is everywhere, and it’s probably due to a number of factors: decreasing budgets for print, TV and radio news; a perceived shortening of our collective attention span; the need to tie every story into a bow and resolve it as if it was some sort of 1980s sitcom, with hugs and lessons at the end.

I’m not sure Kelley’s books have ever had the same impact as the WikiLeaks documents; knowing who Frank Sinatra slept with, or that Prince Philip has a short temper, is hardly equivalent. But while we can pass judgement on the importance of her work, I can’t deny that she’s exhaustively researched her subjects – and gets verification from sources.

The bigger lesson from Kelley is her willingness to look beyond the surface and dodge the spoon-fed stream of PR chatter to find the real story. It’s a reminder to me that when I’m trying to sketch out an outline of a story I’m writing, I also need to make that sketch (metaphorically speaking) in pencil, so that I can let the story tell itself and shape itself.