Friday, April 27, 2007

Objectivity 'a scam': visiting St.Louis journalist

Ed Bishop, editor of St. Louis Journalism Review for 11 years, is shown addressing a small group of WIU students on the lawn of Simpkins Hall on Tuesday. Also a radio host and journalism professor at Webster University in St. Louis, Bishop called journalists' pretense of objectivity a "scam."

WIU student and
Western Courier Opinions Editor Michael Bertacchi is shown in the foreground.

Photo by Lisa Kernek

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Recalling 9/11's free-speech casualties

While some of the media audience still thinks about Don Imus' firing, Los Angeles Times columnist Patt Morrison recalls two journalists who also were fired -- not for being stupid, but for being skeptical.

By Patt Morrison
April 19, 2007
via the Los Angeles Times

All the ink and the airtime that's been expended on Don Imus being fired for saying something controversial and stupid got me thinking about two other media guys — working stiffs, not multimillionaires; professional informers, not inflamers — who got fired for saying something controversial and wise.

Imus was canned after he slagged a women's college basketball team. The two newspaper columnists were canned from their small-town papers after the 9/11 attacks for criticizing President Bush.

I know what you're thinking: If that's grounds for firing, the editorial offices at the nation's news operations would be as empty as a Laura Bush stare, right? Nowadays, sure — when Bush's approval ratings are circling the drain. But remember the tetchy, proscriptive atmosphere after the 9/11 attacks, when the nation was circling the wagons around anything American, starting, as far as some people were concerned, with the president? Then-White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer took his own blue pencil to the 1st Amendment when he warned that Americans "need to watch what they say."

In Grants Pass, Ore., at the Daily Courier, and at the Texas Sun, down in Texas City, journalists Dan Guthrie and Tom Gutting — separated by about 30 years in age but not at all by their conviction — were thinking: Where was Bush? Where was the presence that the nation craved in that terrible aftermath, but wasn't getting?

As Guthrie wrote: "He didn't storm back to the capital and lead us through our darkest hour…. He skedaddled" to one Air Force base, then another. Guthrie praised New York firefighters and the passengers aboard United Flight 93 as "the heroes of this rotten week." As for Bush, Guthrie wrote: "We're praying for him." That was after he used, fatally, the word "cowardice."

Hundreds of miles away, Gutting, who'd been a newspaperman since he was an Indiana teenager, was writing what turned out to be his last column. He praised Rudy Giuliani's decision to be "highly visible." He lambasted Bush: "It's time we snapped out of the 'support our president' trance and start to be vigilant citizens, as our Constitution demands."

Well. The reaction didn't stop with the men's firings. An Alaskan fisherman professed a wish to use Guthrie for crab bait. In Texas, Gutting became, as the more colorful threats went, "a man who needed killin'."

In the half-decade since, the men, like the country, have moved on. Gutting, 28, researches grants at a Houston university and goes to law school. Guthrie, 67, teaches at a community college; the flags he put in his garden for dead soldiers have bleached to white, like so many of the flags slapped on bumpers after 9/11.

Of the 1st Amendment, Guthrie says: "I realize it comes with stipulations. You're free to say what you want, but that doesn't mean you can't suffer repercussions." Evidence Imus. Guthrie sometimes watched Imus and had to wonder whether the man even knew what he was saying. Did he "even know what 'ho' means? Did he think it meant a member of the 'hood? We have ageism dueling with racism."

Gutting's first thought was "what a damn fool thing to say." But should Imus have been fired? "I just can't say that. As much as I abhor what he said and there's real pressure to say 'yeah he should be fired'…. "

I was writing a column as the World Trade Center towers were toppling, and in the heat of such a singular moment, I hoped I got it right: cautioning about the assaults we ourselves could mount on our civil liberties, so that 9/11 would be a "test of how much Americans truly believe in America."

Guthrie's and Gutting's firings made my point faster than I could have imagined. Five years on, Guthrie says he hated more than anything else the letters and phone calls telling him to "leave, just leave — that's our response to the dissenter: Just leave."

And Gutting? "I still think about it a lot. It's when you get [your] ideals tested and you pay consequences for them [that] you find out whether you believe what you espouse to believe. And I wouldn't change a damn thing."

Can Imus honestly say the same? Watch for it: Some network somewhere will probably give him the chance.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"Who will PAY for the news?"

By David Corn
April 05, 2007

A few months ago I gave a speech at a university, and before the event I attended a luncheon with members of the Democratic and Republican clubs on campus. There were two dozen students present. We talked about politics and the media. The questions were sophisticated. They asked about political figures in Washington and media players they read and watch. It was heartening. These young adults were clearly well-informed and dedicated consumers of news.

I asked them to rattle off their main information sources. It was the usual suspects: CNN, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, Newsweek, Time. That is, the dino-media (a k a the MSM). A few libs at the table were familiar with The Nation, while some cons were fans of the National Review. As media consumers, they were getting a decent mix. Then I asked a follow-up: How many of you pay for media? Only three raised their hands. The rest get it for free from websites. I shook my head.

The information revolution we are all living through is wondrous. Thirty-five years ago, when I was an adolescent Watergate junkie, I couldn’t read The Washington Post’s coverage. I lived outside New York City, and it was impossible to find The Post. I still recall the delight I experienced when I passed through the Atlanta airport during a family vacation and walked by a newsstand that sold out-of-town papers. There was a copy of The Post . I quickly bought it—and was not disappointed that it contained merely a tiny, inside-the-front-section article on the latest Watergate wrinkle.

These days anyone with a computer has access to newspapers across the country and around the world—and much more. And all the news, information and analysis zipping around the Internet is amassed, amplified, digested and dissected by a wide array of aggregators and bloggers—and generally served up for free. It has never been easier for a citizen to be well-informed. One can obtain government reports, drafts of legislation and transcripts of press conferences and congressional hearings directly. You can watch government and public affairs in action on the C-SPAN channels and websites. See candidates speechify; read their position papers. There is no need to rely on journalists to bring you what (they think) is important. During the recent Scooter Libby trial, bloggers sat in the media room, watched a closed-circuit broadcast of the trial and posted a pseudo-transcript of the proceedings in near-real-time. (No media cameras were allowed in the federal courtroom.) Citizens obsessed with the trial didn’t have to wait for my (or The New York Times ’) reports; they could read along with the action.

It’s also never been harder for a citizen to be well-informed—since there is so much freely available news-related material to wade through and so much other media that competes for attention. Borat clips on YouTube, the latest dish on celebrity gossip sites, easy-to-grab music on iTunes, personal diaries and video confessions on, not to mention tens of thousands of programs on hundreds of cable and satellite television channels. To make an old fuddy-duddy point, it used to be that if a person wanted sports news, he or she had to flip through a newspaper or sit through a news broadcast. Now you can choose from a variety of sports-news delivery vehicles (the various ESPN outlets among them) and not be inconvenienced by any non-sports news. If bowling is your passion, you can find sites that will keep you busy for hours. We reside in a media world of niches.

There’s a lot more information—that is, distractions—out there, but still only 24 hours in a day. (Did I mention the Borat clips on YouTube?) Which means it does take time and effort—and perhaps most of all, discipline—to consume a healthy media diet. But one foundation of such a diet has to be solid journalism: reporting that reveals what is going on in the world about us. And my fear is that obvious and easy-to-bemoan market and cultural forces are placing pressure on the production of good journalism.

Keep those students in mind. They benefit from the work produced by big media institutions, but they do not pay for it. They have become accustomed to obtaining information for free. But it costs newspapers, news networks and magazines a lot to field reporters (even underpaid ones) and editors who produce the stories that can then be obtained for no pay on websites and that are grabbed by aggregating sites. There has to be revenue to support these operations and infrastructures.

I’m not crying over the troubling PNL statements of major media corporations. Yet the impact extends beyond the newsroom and the boardroom. The world is probably more complicated than ever. There is more to know, more to cover. Yet newspapers are firing, not hiring, reporters. The Washington Post booted out some of its most experienced hands (enticing them with last-chance buyouts). The New York Times, The Los Angles Times, The Boston Globe, NBC News—cutbacks everywhere. Time recently ordered its Washington bureau to axe four of its eleven correspondents (while the magazine’s honchos in New York hired neocon Bill Kristol, who was wrong on practically everything about the Iraq war, to write a column).

Across the traditional media landscape, this is the scene: fewer overseas bureaus (if any) and fewer seasoned journalists collecting and presenting information. Sure, a new business model may arise, with revenue coming from website ads or pay-to-read fees. But we’re not there yet. And one can wonder how much dislocation will occur before such models emerge—and if the effects of that dislocation will be reversible.

The MSM has screwed up plenty. Look at how it covered the run-up to the Iraq war. And the corporate overseers of media conglomerates tend to worry more about profit than public service. Networks are slaves to ratings. You know the rap. (For a tutorial on the evils of cable news, see the latest, “What We Call the News.”) I’m grateful for the limitations of the big media outfits, for they create a market opening for the work I do. But these large journalistic entities—for better or worse—provide an information baseline for public discourse. And they bring to public attention crucial stories: CIA secret prisons, the NSA domestic wiretapping, Enron’s misdeeds, Hurricane Katrina foul-ups, Jack Abramoff’s sleaze. The citizenry needs them to be healthy.

Let a million bloggers bloom, indeed. And the more websites, the merrier. Let the information free-for-all unleashed by the Internet continue, even if bad information (rants, inaccurate material, unvetted data) too frequently drowns out good information. But we ought to be mindful that bad information—and cheap-to-produce information—can drive out needed information that is expensive to produce. It costs much for media outlets to cover overseas developments, to mount investigative projects, to field talented and experienced reporters to penetrate the darker corners of governments and corporations, and to deploy a sufficient number of journalists to report on key institutions such as Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, the EPA and the State Department. Blogs and cut-and-paste-and-dissect websites provide essential services for a media consumer—producing news of their own and analyzing the news produced by others—but we ought to remember that much of what we know of the world we know because of the work of journalists toiling within mainstream media environs. In other words, support your local MSM—as well as alternative media (say, my home base, The Nation ) that employ and deploy reporters to gather and disseminate facts. Without them, there would be much less to blog about.

David Corn is The Nation's Washington editor and the author with Michael Isikoff of Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Virginia Tech & Video: ethics & etiquette

Following is the Monday/Tuesday column I wrote for five downstate daily newspapers:

This week is the Society of Professional Journalists’ nationwide Ethics Week, when reporters, editors and the audience all talk about journalism ethics – discussions that range from meaningful discourse with the public to worthless navel-gazing.

At its silliest, the contemplation lets media-baiters and -haters discount the hard work and diligence practiced by most reporters and the whole notion of journalism ethics (reminding one of Mahatma Gandhi’s reply to a question about what he thought about Western Civilization: “It would be a good idea.”)

However, this week is a good time to step back and gauge press coverage of the Virginia Tech tragedy, especially television using video mailed to NBC by Cho Seung-Hui, the 23-year-old student who police say killed 32 people and himself on April 16.

In the middle of the worst one-man shooting spree in U.S. history, Cho apparently mailed the DVD and 23 pages of material crudely criticizing others and referring to “martyrs like Eric and Dylan,” the killers at the 1999 Columbine massacre. NBC got the video last Wednesday, notified the FBI and started using it that afternoon.

The material was not news but novelty, gratuitous footage barely better than the primitive cell-phone images repeatedly shown in the days before. But it was footage, and television is a visual medium (recalling another quip attributed to comics Ernie Kovacs and Fred Allen, that it’s “called a medium because it is neither rare nor well-done”).

Despite ostensible regulation by the Federal Communications Commission, NBC had the right to air portions of the video without interference from the government because Americans have the right to a free press, of course.

But as former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said, "Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do, and what is the right thing to do.")

Most deliberations in most newsrooms about whether or not to use a photo pertains to privacy, taste and safety – exposing innocent people, disturbing the audience and putting people at risk. There’s no hard-and-fast rule because journalists try to present the best version of the truth at deadline to a public served by the information, and there are exceptions to almost everything our unpredictable species does. But there are practical guidelines. The Society of Professional Journalists has a Code of Ethics that mandates we “seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable.”

Sometimes a compelling reason emerges, but it’s tempered by such concerns, along with common sense, good judgment and sensitivity to the community.

Arguably, maybe only a photo of a grieving parent can convey the heartbreak of a child’s loss, or only a shocking picture of a street with debris including broken glass and a pedestrian’s unshod sneaker can communicate the tragedy of a fatal car crash, or only a stark scene of blood and death can show the horrors of war, whether in Baghdad or Normandy.

But the Cho footage offered no real news. Other facts and comments told us how troubled he’d seemed; an anchor’s summary of the package’s content would have adequately enlightened audiences as to the twisted motives of a disturbed person.

We didn’t need to see his scowl or hear his rants to understand that which cannot be fathomed.
“Minimize harm”? NBC, CBS, Fox and other “news” shows on cable suspected they were not minimizing harm, which is perhaps why NBC anchor Brian Williams said, “This is a sick business tonight, going on the air with this.”

SPJ advises journalists to show compassion and use sensitivity, specifically when “using photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief,” to show good taste, and to avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, plus reminds journalists, “Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.”

Less can be more, as it’s said. But the voracious appetite for visuals (and viewers and profits) can cloud reason – along with perceived pressure from the public. On the one hand, it’s felt, media acting as a filter or gatekeeper in deciding what to sue or withhold is vulnerable to accusations of covering up something. On the other hand, using sensational contents – especially visuals – opens up media to charges of exaggeration, titillation or superficiality.

But in using the video, adrenalin outpaced wisdom.

A week earlier, TV newsrooms had access to a video of a Lynwood, Ill., educator having sex with an employee in his office, and despite the claim it was newsworthy – having caused three resignations – no TV news shows to our knowledge featured it.

But at a time of 24-hour news with pictures, cutthroat media competition, and media access to and from cameras, phones, YouTube and MySpace, it may not be long until such material would be used.

Unless audiences realize that if journalists are to be held accountable, viewers, listeners and readers all must demand quality, not just quantity; substance, not just flash; and etiquette, not just excitement.

Friday, April 20, 2007

A Wonderful Virginia Tech Tribute

Anyone interested in photojournalism (or just beautiful journalism) should check out AP photographer's Casey Templeton's moving tribute to the Virginia Tech community on his web site. The address is It's stunning work.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Former area photojournalist wins Pulitzer

Renee C. Byer, left, celebrates her Pulitzer Prize with Cyndie French, one of the subjects of her touching series "A Mother's Journey."

A photojournalist who went to school and got her first media job in west-central Illinois won the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography, it was announced yesterday.

Renee C. Byer, 48, of the Sacramento Bee, won for her work on "A Mother's Journey," a series published last summer chronicling the final year in the life of a dying boy and his mom.

A graduate of Bradley University, Byer was a staff photographer at the Peoria Journal Star in the 1980s before moving to daily newspapers in Holyoke, Mass., Hartford, Ct., Portland, Ore., Seattle, Wash. and Sacramento.

"In presenting the $10,000 feature photography prize to Byer, the judges described her entry as an 'intimate portrayal of a single mother and her young son as he loses his battle with cancer'," writes Bee reporter Dorothy Korber, who also quoted Byer.

"In a situation like this, your instincts as a person are to try to help," Byer said. "But as a journalist, you have to step back and let things unfold as they naturally would. It can be very, very painful.

"I was documenting a story that needed to be told, and it was a gift to be allowed to be there. Throughout, I had a bigger vision that -- because of what I was witnessing -- it would bring hope to other families."

Byer said she saw "A Mother's Journey" as an exploration on several levels: the financial impact on a family struggling with a tragic situation, health care shortages that led to maddening delays, and, finally, the very personal and heartbreaking loss of a child.

One of the first people to congratulate Byer was Cyndie French, the mother whose son Derek passed away.

Here's a link to the Bee story (free registration may be required) --

Here's a link to a Peoria Journal Star piece --

Monday, April 16, 2007

Classic Dave Barry column from '98 revives 'boob tube' during sweeps weeks

Humor columnist Dave Barry is on an extended leave of absence, but newspapers are reprinting some of his classic pieces, and in the last couple of weeks, papers from New York to Peoria reprinted Barry's hilarious take on local TV "investigative reports."

It's not long before "Sweeps" -- when stations contrive all kinds of multi-part series, sensational topics and special promotions to attract bigger audiences for the time viewer numbers are measured by Nielsen. So be warned.

And amused.

"My point is that, pound for pound, the most dramatic and entertaining programming on television is your local TV news shows," Barry writes.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Will FCC cry, 'Break up the Tribune!'?

Sportswriters and baseball fans may recall the old "Break up the Yankees!" cry every time the Bronx Bombers seem to dominate Major League Baseball. Now a similar chorus may arise about Chicago -- and the Cubs are only peripherally involved.

The Federal Communications Commission must approve Sam Zell's 8.2 billion purchase of the Tribune (including the Cubs and broadcast properties such as WGN-TV 9 and WGN-AM 720), and it's anything but an automatic OK.

"They've got pretty difficult obstacles to surmount," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president and chief executive of Media Access Project, a non-profit telecommunications law firm that said it will fight the Tribune-Zell deal because it is not in the public interest, in a piece in the Trib itself. "This is going to be very treacherous and complicated."

The FCC could force Zell to relinquish ownership of media in the same market.

Meanwhile, however, Zell seems to be considering "flipping" the Tribune's Los Angeles Times anyway.

Check out these two stories:,0,1569133.story?coll=chi-business-hed

Friday, April 6, 2007

Newspapers thriving -- if online's counted, too

Newspaper circulations may be stagnant at best, but readership is up, according to a study released this week linking visits to newspaper web sites.

News consumers 25-to-34 years old went up more than 13 percent, says the report, tying together data from Newspaper Association of Amerca, Scarborough Research and Nielsen ratings.

Left unstated is that companies still considered newspapers are actually journalism operations, reporting and presenting content for multiple platforms. Almost all news and features acquired via Yahoo, Google or individual web pages aren't created by software engineers, computer programmers or electronics staff, but by journalists -- most of them technically employed at newspapers.

Here's a link to NAA's newspaper/web breakdown for the country's top 100 papers --

Editor & Publisher magazine has a short piece summarizing the findings--

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Jailed freelancer freed Tuesday

After 7 1/2 months in federal prison, freelance jounalist Josh Wolf was freed yesterday after a compromise with prosecutors had him post on his web site the video footage the government sought and deny under oath he knew anything about incidents at a July 2005 protest.

Federal prosecutors agreed not to call him before their grand jury considering evidence in a case involving damage to a police car, nor ask him to identify people shown on his video.

Wolf, 24, was jailed last summer after refusing to turn over his video to federal prosecutors after local prosecutors did not pursue the case.

"Journalists absolutely have to remain independent of law enforcement,'' he said. "Otherwise, people will never trust journalists.''

Here's a link to a San Francisco Chronicle piece on Wolf''s release, along with a link to Wolf's web site --