Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Decline of Journalism

It's no longer enough for journalists to think they are doing a good job. "When the media does its job differently, citizens do their jobs differently, which is important," said Jan Schaffer, Director, Pew Center for Civic Journalism at a presentation in Baton Rouge.

Perhaps Jim Lehrer, anchor of the Lehrer News hour on PBS, said it best. "Journalism as practiced by some, has become something akin to professional wrestling -- something to watch rather than believe."

Americans no longer have confidence in journalists. There was a time, when news anchor men like Walter Cronkite and Paul Harvey were considered trusted members of the family. But those days are long gone.

National surveys document a growing resentment towards the American press and the way that it chooses to cover the news. In fact, numerous publications, including the Washington Post are laying off investigative journalists.

I don't know what experiences you have had with the media, but ask yourself the following question. How many stories have you read, (where you may be the source of information, or at least possess a good understanding of the issue) that you thought that story was, in your view, 100% accurate?

Granted, we have to allow for the expression of diverse opinion, but no matter what kind of spin a writer may choose to employ, he/she still has an obligation to report the facts accurately -- that includes references to specific language in formal reports and investigations.

When journalists cut corners or get lazy, citizens are the recipients of piece-meal commentary, full of factual errors and sloppy reporting.

I found a wealth of information about this topic at the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, an organization that does research regarding American perceptions of the media.

Here's a brief summary of how journalists are "categorized" in one of the articles I read. (I don't think the Director of the Pew Center actually considers journalists dogs... but here's a list of different roles Schaffer says journalists can play).

Traditionally, journalists have been criticized for being lap dogs -- (employees under the control of publishers out to play civic booster and woo advertising dollars).

Then, thanks in part to political scandals like Watergate and Monica Lewinsky, we have attack dog journalists.

Attack dogs race at break neck speed to cover the latest scandal in Washington D.C., Olympia, Paris, Ferndale, or Iraq. They are best known for their ability to negotiate blackberry bushes and heavy underbrush to take secret photos of "celebrity couples" while they are making out.

Attack dogs are not the least bit concerned about the wake of destruction they can leave in their path. Who cares if the story that they're running is true or not? It just needs to be "sensational" to pull in readers.

No one gives a damn who's reputation is damaged -- or, as in the case with Princess Diana, who is killed.

All that matters is that the author/media has the opportunity to sell newspapers, radio ads, books or magazines to consumers.

Of course, a rash of defamation and libel lawsuits is slowly forcing media and publishers to back away from publishing articles/books that are considered a form of defamation of character.

Doesn't matter. Attack dogs understand that they can create considerable discomfort for an individual or organizaiton by creating a negative digital (internet) trail for their victims -- a ploy that can seriously damage an innocent person or organization's ability to apply for future jobs and business contracts.

Looking for a local example? Does any one besides me remember Paul de Armond, Jay Taber and John Servais mid 1990's accusation that a number of prominent local Republicans were "militia members" because they were forming local civic groups to protect property rights? (If you can't win fair and square -invent a conspiracy theory)?

I read all three men's books and articles back when I was working in Olympia. As a researcher, I can't believe that the media and publishers would publish such circumstantial rubish!

Definition of circumstantial: Of no primary significance; incidental.

Definition of property rights movement v. wise use movement: Researchers have identified numerous groups and organizations that fall under the general classification of the environmental opposition, one of which is the property rights movement. These groups commonly oppose federal regulation or intrusion related to land that is privately held, especially environmental laws that limit the owner's full or partial use of the land. This segment of activists is distinct from the wise use movement, which grew out of the Sagebrush Rebellion of the mid-1970s. Wise use advocates support an antigovernment regulatory agenda related to the use of public land and resources, where the property rights movement is based on the use of privately held land.

Even Scott Ayers from the Bellingham Herald got in on the act. Reputations were destroyed, and, when U.S. federal agents finally marched in and arrested the REAL militia wackos, (homemade pipe bombs and all), no one even bothered to apologize to the individuals who had been falsely accused.

Nice town. Bad journalism. Definition of Journalism: writing that reflects superficial thought and research, a popular slant, and hurried composition, conceived of as exemplifying topical newspaper or popular magazine writing as distinguished from scholarly writing: He calls himself a historian, but his books are mere journalism.

That sums it up nicely.

Looking for information about the latest local conspiracy theory?

That's easy - just meander over to the Bellingham Herald's community editorials where guys like Greg Kirsch and Tom Pratum will be happy to enlighten you about Conservation NW's (a popular local non-profit Conservation Organization)."secret" connection to the "Trilateral Commission," or whatever other ridiculous nonsense Kirsch, Pratum and company are spewing to turn folks against the proposed DNR Reconveyance. (Their best hatchet work is buried in the electronic comment sections of the Herald posts). Over a year's worth of conspiracy theory nonsense about David Syre single-handedly taking over the world. Attack dogs. The world is full of them.

So, what are the real facts surrounding the proposed reconveyance?Whatcom County tells citizens that this is "a proposal to transfer DNR lands to the County (that) would create two large preserves on each side of the lake adjoining park lands.

Here are the perks:

*Resource management would focus on allowing the forest to mature into an old growth environment.

*Transfers approximately twenty five percent of the Lake Whatcom watershed to Whatcom County for park purposes.

The proposal could provide more than 50 miles of future trails to connect neighboring communities while protecting our watershed. (I'm a hiker and outdoor enthusiast - I like this idea). More info about the reconveyance can be found here:

Yes, even local papers like The Bellingham Herald and the defunct Whatcom Independent have their attack dogs.

At some point, public watchdogs appeared on the scene (during the Love Canal era). Public outrage about the health consequences of toxic dumping ushered in a brand new era. Watchdog Journalists emerged to monitor the ethical behavior of public officials and corporations, environmental health issues, consumer rights, human rights and irresponsible government spending -- and that's a role still valued by the community (and the main reason why I host this blog).

But the public sometimes has misgivings about watchdogs, because they feel that watchdogs are driving controversies, especially when coverage involves taking a hard, unvarnished, look at the ethical behavior of public officials. But ethics in public service is important. A candidate's behavior before an election provides voters with valuable information about the way an elected official may behave once he/she is in office.

Do we really want an elected representative who does not respect our laws? Is it really ok to violate state and federal law to propel yourself into office?

And, if we allow our "betters" (the elected elite), to thumb their noses at state and federal law, how can we possibly expect regular citizens to respect and obey the law?

New models for reporting are being tested. For instance, Harry Boyte, of the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota advocates a sled dog role. "One that doesn't romanticize citizens but really challenges them to do serious work for their community. It doesn't let citizens off the hook any more than it does public officials."

Another possible role is that of a guide dog. A journalist who not only gives citizens accurate news and information, but also helps them perform their job as citizens, without telling them what to do or believe in the process.

Personally, I like the sled dog/guide dog models. My ten years in Olympia taught me that citizens have a wealth of knowledge and experience that can enhance and improve our quality of life -- as long as citizens have access to the information they need to make informed decisions.

Unlike some of my blogger peers, I have not lost faith in the people of this community, state or nation -- even if I do occasionally question the behavior of a handful of elected and appointed officials.

Jim Carey, a respected journalist at Columbia University tells us, "Freedom of the press, is when people can talk and they can write it down. Journalism is the expression of public life. What distinguishes journalism from the media? Journalism is the practice. Media is the institutional setting."

In a recent study, the Pew Center for Civic Journalism asked, "are we treating people in our news stories as spectators of some civic freak show rather than active participants of self-governing society"?

I think that question brings us right to the heart of the matter.

Is Sam Taylor, Government Reporter for the Bellingham Herald, providing accurate coverage of Mayor Pike's campaign violations?

Or, is he continuing to attack the messengers, (public watchdogs) regardless of the evidence that has been brought forward and laid at his feet?

Does Taylor treat all complainants equally?

For instance, I haven't noticed Taylor questioning the motivation of A-1 Builders for filing a PDC complaint against the Building Industry Association of Washington. (A-1 Builders is one of a number of petitioners in a lawsuit against the BIAW challenging its use of ROII funds to fund political campaigns). The BIAW traditionally funds Candidates that the owner of A-1 Builders (a BIAW member) would not support.

Maybe Taylor is beginning to understand that Washingtonians routinely use sunshine laws to question the behavior of candidates and political organizations. Perhaps we're not "civic freaks" after all...we're just Washingtonians...

Nor is Taylor throwing rocks at the law offices of Kyle Olive for filing a PDC complaint against the Republican party.

Or, perhaps Taylor only questions the motivations of private citizens who file complaints against the candidates he's supporting?

Did Taylor's (and former KGMI talk show host, Brett Bonner's) coverage of the complaints -- in tandem with the Public Disclosure Commission's blatant staff errors -- create an environment that provided Dan Pike with an unfair advantage over his opponent, Dan McShane?

Does anyone care?

I doubt it. Political corruption is so rampant in America, its become mainstream.

In the U.S., it doesn't matter how you win - it only matters that you win. But, as the citizens of Detroit discovered with (former) Mayor Kilpatrick -- dishonesty, if allowed to fester and grow unchecked, can bring an entire city to its knees.

In Detroit's case, the Governor of the State of Michigan finally had to intervene to remove Kilpatrick from office. (Politicians with huge egos won't resign -- no matter how much trouble they have got themselves into).

I don't know the answer to the questions I posted about Taylor above. But I do know that as a former legislative employee who has worked with dozens of government reporters, T.V. anchors and other members of the media, I'm convinced that Taylor is biased.

I'm not a journalist, just a former legislative aide/researcher/amateur blogger. If I was asked what journalistic model I fit into, I would respond with "dead dog".

The dead dog model is a metaphor for projects that blogger/writers invest sweat and tears into -- just so we can watch them die on the page -- sort of like this post.

Nevertheless, like Schaffer, I believe that it's possible to create news coverage that motivates people to think, and even to act. News should empower readers, not entice them to vilify their neighbors, or post nasty or threatening comments online.

Or, as Jan Schaffer, Director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism said, "The goal is to produce news that citizens need to be educated about issues and current events, to make civic decisions, to engage in meaningful civic dialogue and action."

Now that, in my opinion, is a laudable goal.

In fact, it's an accurate description of what legislative aides do when constituents contact them in Olympia or Washington D.C..

A good legislative aide will provide constituents with factual information about issues and bills that encourage constituents to engage in meaningful dialogue and action, regardless of the constituent's political affiliations or ideology.

Shouldn't that also be the role of journalists?

October 4, 2008 11:01 AM

Defintion of Civic: of or relating to or befitting citizens as individuals; WordNet® 3.0. Princeton University. 05 Oct. 2008.>.

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