Friday, June 23, 2006

Blaming the messenger

The Washington Post's Richard Morin penned a column today entitled 'Jon Stewart, Enemy of Democracy?' The headline refers to a report published by two political scientists who found that "young people who watch Stewart's faux news program, "The Daily Show," develop cynical views about politics and politicians that could lead them to just say no to voting."

'Could lead.' It's amazing to me how many people who report on statistics don't know that correlation doesn't equal causality. In fact, the study didn't even say that Daily Show watchers vote less, just that they "expressed less trust in the electoral system and more cynical views of the news media." Well, I don't particularly trust the electoral system, I am cynical about the news media, AND I vote (I wish that would fit on a bumper sticker.)

I am also a devoted fan of The Daily Show. Besides making me laugh and shake my head, I love Stewart's presentation of the news because he says what I am already thinking. For example, he had this to say last night about the Senate's failure to raise the minimum wage: "Kudos to Congress for literally taking a giant shit on the poorest people in the country! They deserve it!"

Now, many people are going to say I shouldn't be a journalism professor if I think that's good journalism. Let me be clear - The Daily Show is unlikely to replace The New York Times in uncovering government secrets such as today's report on another invasion of American's privacy involving banking transactions. But listening to the bland, 'I don't have an opinion about this' way that the MSM reports on these kinds of stories makes me MORE cynical about the system than listening to Stewart, who at least reminds me that there are other people in the country who recognize the absurdity of many of the headlines we read everyday.

From what I understand, the political scientists' study showed clips from The Daily Show and the CBS Evening News to two groups of college students, and found that the group who watched The Daily Show had more negative attitudes towards both candidates. I have serious doubts about this methodology. I'd rather see a study that surveys students' attitudes about politics and civic engagement, and then records their media consumption in a comprehensive way, such as what the Ball State University's Middletown Media Studies have done. Maybe I should put my money where my mouth is and get started on that research.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Washington Post issues video cameras to reporters

In 1998, reporters at the Washington Post laughed when newly appointed managing editor Steve Coll predicted the reporters would soon be carrying video cameras.

As this article in the Washingtonian indicates, they're not laughing now. The Post has started issuing digital video cameras to reporters in metro bureaus. About a quarter of their international bureau reporters already carry video cameras.

And the MSM takes another step into the 21st century.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Spokesman-Review shows readers how the sausage is made

In a brilliant move, the Spokane, Wash. daily newspaper is now webcasting its daily editorial meetings. I think transparency is one of the best ways for the MSM to restore credibility with news consumers. I hope this experiment is successful.

Link to Editor & Publisher article.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

BBC 2, NY Times 0

Both the BBC and the NY Times published stories concerning three suicides on June 10 at the Guantanamo detention camp. Here are the headlines (the BBC ran two separate stories):

NY Times: 3 Prisoners Commit Suicide at Guantanamo

BBC: Guantanamo suicides 'acts of war'

BBC: Guantanamo suicides a 'PR move'

Journalism doesn't have too many universal rules, but one is that 'man bites dog' is bigger news than 'dog bites man,' since the former happens rarely while the latter is far from unusual.

So which seems more newsworthy to you - the suicides of three more men held in a high security prison with no idea when or if they will be released (regardless of whether they deserve to be there or not), or the fact that Guantanamo's commander, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, believes that these suicides amount to an act of war?

"I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of warfare waged against us," Harris is quoted as saying.

According to the military, there have been at least 44 suicide attempts at the Guantanamo camp since January 2002 (41 cited in the linked article plus the three recent deaths; there may have been more in between.) It's still news, but it doesn't explain why the Times didn't mention Harris' quote until the sixth paragraph of their story.

Then there's the comment about suicides being a 'good PR move to draw attention,' which came from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Colleen Graffy. The BBC wrote an additional story about that comment; as far as I can tell the Times hasn't mentioned it yet.

Maybe this type of coverage from the Times is meant to counter accusations of liberal bias. It certainly isn't doing anything for the Gray Lady's credibility.

Tangentially, I think I'm starting to understand America's problem in the war on terror: the military thinks that killing yourself is an act of war, and the diplomats think it's good PR.

That could explain why the administration doesn't understand why more and more people are upset about the death toll: an estimated 40,000 dead Iraqis, 2,416 dead soldiers, and 71 dead journalists (more than in WWII).

Saturday, June 10, 2006

NSA wants to mine MySpace info

According to New Scientist, the NSA is considering collecting information from social networking sites such as MySpace and Friendster to add to their growing database of information about American citizens.

I am vehemently opposed to the NSA tracking phone calls and Internet traffic, but I don't have any problem with this project. People need to understand that, when they post information on a public website (like MySpace), it's as if they went into the middle of Times Square and shouted the info into a megaphone.

I only object to eavesdropping in places where I have some reasonable expectation of privacy. People posting pictures and info about themselves on MySpace shouldn't have that expectation, although many do.

Friday, June 09, 2006

'Real journalism is happening in the blogosphere'

Great piece on CBS News' Public Eye blog from blogger and New York magazine contributing editor Greg Sargent. Here's the kicker:

"The fact that real journalism is happening in the blogosphere is something that mainstream media figures simply are going to have to acknowledge sooner or later. And if they did it sooner, rather than later, they'd be doing themselves a very big favor indeed."

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

OJR interview: "J-schools need to get way more technical"

The Online Journalism Review is running a fabulous interview with Adrian Holovaty, a 'journalist/programmer' as he calls himself. Holovaty is encouraging journalism schools to partner with computer science departments to help automate the three most basic tasks journalists do, namely:

1. Gather information
2. Distill information
3. Present information

"A graduate of a journalism school should be a master of collecting data -- whether the old-fashioned way (by talking to humans) or through automated means," Holovaty says.

I'm sorry to say that this idea would scare the pants off of most of my students. But I hope to help them understand the new realities of the journalism industry, and the new skills they will have to master to be successful. Wish me luck.

Senators question harassment of deceased reporter's family over classified documents

The FBI has been after deceased investigative reporter Jack Anderson's family to turn over his records because they contain classified information. The family, bravely and rightly, has refused. It wanted to donate Anderson's papers to George Washington University. The FBI hasn't gotten a subpoena for the documents yet, but the family says it is willing to risk contempt of court charges if the FBI comes around again with a search warrant.

Amazingly, this latest abuse of executive power has actually attracted the interest of Congress. According to this New York Times article, "The Senate Judiciary Committee gave the Bush administration a new lashing Tuesday over its use of executive power, citing the FBI's posthumous probe of columnist Jack Anderson and questioning the notion that espionage laws might allow the prosecution of journalists who publish classified information."

If the FBI wins this case, do you think they'll be restricting themselves to demanding the record of deceased journalists for long? How long before they knock on Seymour Hersh's door?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Journalists: Follow the money (online)

More signs that the future of journalism is online - advertising dollars continue to shift from print to the web, according to this New York Times article.

This quote from the Times article sums up the situation:

"Right now, the news industry is trying to hold on to the past, and Brian [Tierney, the new owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer] knows that you just can't do it," said Mary Meder, the president of Harmelin Media, a media-buying agency in Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Hysterical journalism school commencement address

I believe the term for Gene Weingarten's commencement address to graduates from the University of Maryland College of Journalism is "whistling in the dark." Another term would be 'hysterical.' The lede sets the tone:

"I want to congratulate you all upon your graduation from the University of Maryland College of Journalism, and wish you luck as you prepare to embark on exciting careers in telemarketing or large-appliance repair."

Read on...

Saturday, June 03, 2006

MSM pays the price for lack of federal shield law

Rather than expose confidential sources, five news organizations have agreed to pay $750,000 to Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos scientist wrongly accused of espionage.

Why should the media have to pay for the government's false allegations? Because, in the absence of a federal shield law protecting journalists' sources, the news organizations were being fined $500 a day for refusing to identify the people in the government who gave them detailed background information about Lee, including financial records and the results of his polygraph tests.

Media watchers are far from happy with the settlement. The the New York Times article about the settlement contains two representative quotes:

"It's a huge disappointment, and it's certainly not an ideal resolution. But it's probably as good as we could have expected under the circumstances." -- Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

"These are very strange times in which we are living, and it does appear that sometimes decisions have to be made that would have been unthinkable five years ago. But to make a payment in settlement in this context strikes me as an admission that the media are acting in concert with the government." -- Jane E. Kirtley, a professor of media law and ethics at the University of Minnesota

Not all the media organizations involved in the case were willing to pay. CNN chose to spend $1 million to defend its reporter rather than contribute to the settlement.
"We parted ways because we had a philosophical disagreement over whether it was appropriate to pay money to Wen Ho Lee or anyone else to get out from under a subpoena," said Laurie Goldberg, a CNN spokewoman.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Free speech in the USA: We're not lost yet

I was very encouraged to read about the release of The War Tapes, a documentary shot by soldiers in Iraq. The film won the award for best documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival and opens to the public today in New York City.

The hardest thing for me to believe after watching the trailer was that the military had allowed the film to be released. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the military had asked the director to come to Iraq.

The New Hampshire National Guard offered director Deborah Scranton the opportunity to 'embed' as a filmmaker. "I called the public affairs officer and asked if I could give cameras to the soldiers instead," she said. "He said yes...but it would be up to me to get soldiers to volunteer to work on the project."

According to the film's press notes, the only footage the military refused to let them include in the film was of dead insurgents after a firefight.

As long as things like this can still happen, I have faith that the First Amendment is thankfully still alive and kicking in the United States.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Belief in free speech put to the test

Like most people, I have been disgusted by the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, which has been organizing protests at soldier's funerals because they believe the deaths are God's way of punishing America for allowing the 'sodomites' to live among us.

However, I have to agree with Rick Martinez's column from the News & Observer opposing President Bush's signing of the Respect for Fallen Heroes Act, which prevents protests at military funerals. From Martinez:

"The women and men who put on the uniform each day have dedicated their service to defending and preserving freedom. The Respect for Fallen Heroes Act, signed on Memorial Day, restricts the fundamental element of that very freedom: free speech. By weakening that cornerstone right we cheapen the lives we seek to honor."

To protect free speech, we have to protect speech we vehemently disagree with. The God Hate Fags folks certainly fall into this category, but I have to support their right to speak out. Any other position would be hypocrisy.

The real heroes are the motorcyclists who have been using their 'voices' to counteract the protesters. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, the antidote to any speech is more speech, not less. Even if that speech is the roar of motorcycle engines.