Iowa reporting shows how journalism fails us

Climate change was my top issue in 2000 - still ignored today

David Sirota has it right in Salon when he says that cash-strapped news organizations are squandering precious resources covering the Iowa caucuses in as trivial a way as possible:

. . . for all the faux conflict and chest thumping of the cable shows, and all the references to “Boys on the Bus” nostalgia among print reporters, political journalism today is now the mirror opposite of adversarial. It’s about people who preen around calling themselves ‘reporters,’ but who are in reality just glorified royal courtiers simply transmitting press releases and spoon-fed stories from the candidates and their staffs.

Covering the first Republican presidential nominating event like a horse race is troubling enough. But when analysis consists of statisticians like Chuck Todd of NBC/MSNBC trying to persuade us that thinking can be reduced to counting, we learn less than nothing from the “scientific” punditry. The numbers the networks don’t want you to ponder, however, is how they can justify pretending that the eight votes that separate Mitt Romney from Rick Perry (30,015 versus 30,007) – or even the roughly 4,000 votes that separate Ron Paul from the “winner” – mean anything.

A total of 122,215 mostly old, mostly Christian, mostly conservative, almost exclusively white folks in Iowa had the chance last night to vent their distaste for President Obama and his “uppity” (Rush Limbaugh) wife with the “large posterior” (Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner). The folks in the polling places without walkers were the college students “wasting” their vote on Ron Paul because of his stand against our endless wars or his promise to legalize marijuana (or both).

Anyone who thinks a handful of Iowans have a clue about how to govern a country of 312 million should be governed should be forced to smoke more weed in the hope it would make it harder to them to find their way to the ballot box in the future.

Roughly the same number of folks showed up this past winter at the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, to protest Governor Scott Walker’s plans to end collective bargaining, but only Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC seemed to care. The same for the paltry coverage of the Occupy movement, which all too often focused on the police overreaction and not the substance of argument that 99% of our people need to dismantle the power of the 1%.

Yet this is the first year of the post-Citizens United political process, where corporations ruled by the 1% can now spend unfettered millions on political ads without revealing their identities. The pro-Mitt Romney SuperPAC Restore Our Future outspent the Romney campaign nearly two to one ($2.8 million in nasty ads aimed mostly at Newt Gingrich compared to $1.5 million in Romney campaign ads designed to persuade you Mitt’s the second coming of Ronald Reagan).

Restore Our Future has hired Larry McCarthy to do the ads against Newt. McCarthy, who is also the head of the California Taxpayers Association, was the Lee Atwater protege who made the infamous Willie Horton ads.

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews has gone apoplectic about how the Citizens United decision allows candidates like Romney to recite the lyrics to “America the Beautiful” while the supposedly unaffiliated SuperPACs pull hit jobs on any viable opponent. In the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses, 45% of the ads on state TV were anti-Gingrich ads paid for by these dedicated assassins who never even left their fingerprints on their dirty work.

Do you want to see what this group will do to our first black president? I don’t.

Allowing Mitt to substitute reading song lyrics for explaining his increasingly radical-right positions on pressing issues of the day isn’t journalism, it’s pandering for ratings. Since half of our electorate believes in angels, news organizations today realize that they make more money when they avoid alienating the ignorant with anything resembling mere facts.

Reporters instead remain “objective” by pretending the science does not demand that we act before we reach a cataclysmic greenhouse-gas tipping point that will doom succeeding generations to misery and strife as they compete for the basics of food and water. Journalists find it easier to waste time discussing when Rick Perry will drop out than to explore how politicians can promise to bring back manufacturing jobs when we must compete in a global economy where other countries crush burgeoning union movements and pollute the environment with impunity. In an era when peak oil means that the prevailing economic growth model falters every time our unsustainable consumer economy perks up and gas prices rise, reporters instead allow Michele Bachmann to promise she will bring back $2 gas without responding with hysterical laughter.

In 2000, as the Green Party candidate for the 8th Congressional district in Michigan, I ran on a three-point platform:

    GLOBAL WARMING – We may be in danger of triggering an irreversible, runaway greenhouse effect. Instead of squandering tax dollars on Star Wars that merely enriches stockholders, we should be investing in research to learn how to save the planet for future generations. Do you hear any so-called “mainstream” candidates dealing with this all-important issue?
    UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE – When my first husband died of cancer 30 years ago, I counted on Teddy Kennedy to deliver on universal health so that others wouldn’t have to do what I did — drop out of college and beg for low-level jobs just to keep us insured. Yet here we are three decades later and the kinds of jobs I held then don’t even offer insurance today. You call that progress?
    END THE WAR ON DRUGS – We know what it takes to make our society safer — drug treatment on demand, strict gun laws, community collaborations, a strong social safety net. We should reserve costly prison space for the truly violent. Let’s start by legalizing medical marijuana and industrial hemp!

If I were running today, I would still focus on these issues but also join Ron Paul in ending our international adventurism. But the way in which the media ignores Paul’s message shows that “objectivity” does not extend to treating progressive issues like ending wars, legalizing drugs and restoring our civil rights as issues worth mentioning.

In my case, the only question reporters asked me was whether I was a “spoiler.” Not one asked me to explain why I thought global warming was a big deal.

A relentless focus on process over substance is more than laziness, as Sirota alleges. It’s part of a profound corporate contempt for serious discussion about how we should live going forward in this complex world. People say they are hungry for serious discussion, fresh ideas and real analysis. There are thousands of bloggers out here telling us more of what we need to know. The challenge for all of us is to find the wheat among the chaff.


Salon’s Hack List highlights what’s wrong with today’s political press

Mark Halperin cashes a paycheck for squandering his powerful platform at Time magazine

Salon magazine’s prolific Alex Pareene has finally rolled out
2011’s 20 awfulest political journalists, giving this year’s top honors to Time magazine’s Mark Halperin, calling him “both fixated solely on the horse race and also uniquely bad at analyzing the horse race.”

Halperin is the prototype of the “objective” journalist who prides himself on refusing to comment on anything he sees. Race baiting? Distortions? Outright falsehoods? Let’s instead look at those recent poll numbers that show Ron Paul rising in Iowa.

By treating politics as a sporting event rather than as a contest of ideas with consequences, Halperin squanders the opportunity to use his powerful platform at Time magazine and on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to promote the kind of informed discussion that could make voting more than a tribal exercise in doing what it takes so our team wins. The only time Halperin displayed something resembling passion was the time on Morning Joe that he called Obama a “dick.”

I was actually hoping that the top-of-the-bottom slot would be awarded to Erin Burnett, the latest anchor to fill the ever-changing musical chair in CNN’s unstable 7 p.m. time slot. Pareene awarded her fourth place, acknowledging her spectacularly trivial and patronizing coverage of Occupy Wall Street as her hackiest moment.

Is this relentlessly perky free-market Barbie manufactured by CNBC by way of Goldman Sachs the future face of broadcast news? Heaven help us.

While I was bemoaning the current state of political punditry in the United States, I happened to pick up the year-end double issue of Rolling Stone. In addition to the stellar reporting of Matt Taibbi and Tim Dickinson, the issue featured excerpted quotes from an interview with former NASA scientist Jim Hansen, who has been relentless in trying to persuade the mainstream media to cover climate change as something other than a manufactured controversy. Here’s a few sentences on Obama’s record:

He allowed the usual cast of characters to carry the ball, and they came up with the cockamamie scheme called cap and trade with offsets, in which big banks would be the biggest winners and Big Coal and Big Oil and Big Utilities all were given their share. And the public would get screwed. Energy prices would go up, and there would be almost no impact on solving the climate problem. By staying disengaged, Obama completely blew the chance to really be a great president. He could have changed history.”

The problem isn’t just the voices we hear but those we don’t hear or don’t hear enough of – Jim Hansen, Naomi Klein, Cornel West, Barbara Ehrenreich. Chomsky is frequently featured in the European press, but he says that he often finds himself disinvited on those rare occasions he is offered a platform, even by supposedly progressive news outlets such as PBS. Media moguls often allow incendiary critiques fromthe right, but not the left. (So long, Keith Olbermann.)

The opportunity that the Internet provides us in circumventing commercial media could allow the Occupy movement to create a new online citizen journalism based on providing the 99% the news it wants and needs. Email me at lansingonline AT with your ideas and input into how this new media should function.

WWTPD? Are police and Homeland Security colluding to silence reporters covering Occupy?

Is Homeland Security coordinating crackdowns on journalists?

Images that police prefer to prevent

Wonkette reports that the U.S. Department of Justice let slip that Homeland Security coordinated the infamous conference call where mayors of cities with Occupy encampments coordinated their heavy-handed eviction efforts.

In The Guardian, Naomi Wolf says that the National Union of Journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists are issuing FOIA requests to find out whether Homeland Security and local police also colluded on tactics aimed at preventing journalists from covering those police actions.

Wolf’s article notes that in New York City, police officers outside Zuccotti Park asked journalists to identify themselves. Those who did were then ushered away under threat of arrest.

The police, of course, always argue that their goal was to protect the reporters, while the real reason was to avoid anymore images of police brutality that have continued to stun the public. In numerous cities where police were emptying the Occupy encampments, “protecting” journalists often meant they were punched, kicked and otherwise abused. How about protection from the police?

Is this what press freedom has come to?

How can this happen?

Wolf extends blame beyond local officials to the federal government, beginning with Republican Rep. Peter King of New York who sits atop the Homeland Security subcommittee in Congress. King has been quoted in Huffington Post calling the Occupy Wall Street protesters a “ragtag mob” of “anarchists.” Wolf also wonders whether the Obama administration is giving tacit approval to press crackdowns, since Homeland Security is ultimately answerable to the president.

On the few occasions when President Obama has talked about #OWS, he has been somewhat supportive, but tentative. Progressives already disappointed with Obamas refusal to fight on civil rights issues are concerned that he will not speak up for journalists who appear to be targeted for retaliation.

It’s easy to see why many politicians are reluctant to tie themselves too closely to the Occupy movement, for fear of being tainted if a violent incident occurs and also because the protesters are critical of Republicans and Democrats alike. But if both Democrats and Republicans are colluding to keep reporters from covering the Occupy movement, the role of the citizen journalist becomes even more important. Protesters and observes armed with video cameras and cellphones are filling the gap when the mainstream press either fails to send reporters or those who try to cover events are denied their right to do so.

It is also worth noting that Wolf published her allegations The Guardian, which has been regularly outdoing the U.S. prestige press with its Occupy analysis.

Fighting for our rights

This YouTube labeled AMAZING video of a journalist not taking crap from NYPD raises as many questions as it purportedly answers about the relationship between the police and the press at Occupy events.

The title card “How To Successfully Resist Police Intimidation and Defend Your Rights” argues that the young man is a hero for persuading police to acknowledge his First Amendment right to video on a public sidewalk. Viewed from the police perspective, however, the video could be viewed as an example of a police officer flicking at a pesky mosquito. And, based on the experience of journalists at other Occupy events, the young man with the video camera was lucky that the confrontation ended peacefully.

But what are reporters’ rights in these situations? In our post-9/11 world, the National Press Photographers Association has been complaining that police are restricting photographers and videographers’ access more than ever. The article outlines the legal history that should guarantee journalists the right to video from sidewalks and other public thoroughfares.

The bottom line is that if a police officer asks you to move, the law says you must do so or risk arrest like anyone else. Journalists can always fight for their rights later in a courtroom, but that doesn’t get you the images you wanted to take at the site.

A huge question is whether the young man in the video is considered a journalist or a blogger. The Electronic Frontier Foundation explains that the law is still murky and confusing on this point, with journalists traditionally enjoying far more First Amendment protections than bloggers.

An example of an official press pass

The United States government does not license journalists as a number of other countries do. However, you hear the officer in the video asking to see the videographer’s press pass.

Police agencies often issue press passes that allow journalists to cross police lines when they are reporting on crimes and accidents. It isn’t a license per se, but official identification. Acquiring a press pass is again more of a privilege than a right, since the agencies set their own guidelines. In most cases, citizen journalists need not bother to apply.

Even with a press pass, police officers routinely deny reporters access for various reasons. But, as paid journalists disappear, we must pressure authorities to extend the pitifully few press protections afforded corporate media to citizen journalists as well.


The MSM mostly ignored news of the more than 100,000 people who marched to protest WI Gov. Scott Walker's efforts to dismantle collective bargaining

As a Sixties leftover, I can attest that mainstream media back then was actually more likely to give protesters a voice than the corporate-controlled news organizations of today.

When Abby Hoffman and his Yippies rained dollar bills down on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, to highlight the greed as traders scrambled to pick up the money, reporters from major networks were there to capture the manufactured action.

In contrast today, mainstream broadcast news organizations studiously ignored the protest in Madison, Wisconsin, last March when more than 100,000 people showed up at the Capitol to protest Governor Scott Walker’s attempts to dismantle collective bargaining.

Perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is WWTPD? – Wat Would Thomas Paine Do? His incendiary brand of pamphleteering has more in common with today’s bloggers than “objective” journalists who risk being fired if they express any particular political point of view.

Thomas Paine did not need a press pass to write “Common Sense,” and the First Amendment was not written to guarantee media companies a steady stream of images of Ashton Kutcher caught cheating on his soon-to-be-ex-wife. The Tea Party’s reverence for “our founding fathers” borders on the cultish, but I would hope we can find common ground in fighting to ensure our right to a truly free press, whether or not the journalism in question is practiced for a profit or not.

In an interconnected world where we are facing complex issues ranging from imminent economic collapse to climate change, we need all the information we can get, from as many sources as possible. The mainstream media still has resources that citizen journalists can only dream about. Citizen journalists often have the time, the commitment and the access that professionals may not. As Paine would say, these are times that try men’s souls, and “If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately.”

Traditional media FAIL in covering Occupy

Yesterday’s post criticized the mainstream media for its predictably narrow reporting on the police brutality clearly visible in the video of the peaceful protesters being attacked at the University of California at Davis. A quick tour of some alternative media sites shows that these “new new new” journalists do a far better job of covering these complex and important stories.

In less than 24 hours, more than 75,000 people have already seen the video of UC-Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi posted on lhfang86’s YouTube channel. The video shows Katehi walking through a crowd of students sitting in protest in stony silence. By refusing to chant or shout, the students created a stunning tableau beyond what words could convey.

Mainstream media often find themselves hamstrung by their rules in knowing what to do with such news. Many news organizations resist showing “amateur” video from YouTube, while alternative media embrace such first-person accounts.

The AP news story on the incident only included quotes from “officials” – couldn’t they find a protester to talk to or didn’t AP consider them worth quoting?

Meanwhile BoingBoing partner Xeni Jardin posted a great article that included an interview with a student who was pepper sprayed. A student identified only as W recounted what he and his fellow protesters suffered.

BoingBoing also reported that the large canister of pepper spray used by the campus police was military grade, which is not to be used on people within 15 feet, a prohibition the officers at UC-Davis clearly violated. Wikipedia, much maligned by the mainstream media, reports pepper spray’s dubious history, including the two-month prison stint served by the FBI agent who falsified the testing that authorized the use of this dangerous chemical by domestic police agencies. Of particular concern are reports that pepper spray could be lethal to people with various medical conditions such as asthma.

The Anonymous-themed 99% Legion Is Awakening site on Tumblr gives visitors contact information on one of the officers seen spraying students in the video, as well as for the UC-Davis chancellor and police chief among other officials. While the site urges people to “[p]lease be respectful in your condemnation of this act of brutality,” I think it’s a safe bet that Lt. John Pike, Chancellor Katehi and Police Chief Spicuzza found themselves fielding a few blistering phone messages.

Mainstream media set up to FAIL

Traditional news reporting techniques are proving inadequate to the task of covering a quicksilver movement that is evolving so quickly. The mind-numbing formula of sprinkling ‘he said/she said’ quotes from people with “standing” (experts, officials, academics, community leaders) leaves readers confused about what to believe and unsatisfied that news account fail to tell them what is really happening.

The leaderless Occupy movement poses a particular problem to traditional reporters because there is no “official” or “expert” authorized to speak for the group. Other than an occasional “man on the street” interview, the mainstream media devalue accounts from citizen participants, victims and witnesses, because of the rationale is that such people often have an axe to grind.

What the MSM fails to acknowledge is that their “experts” often spin events based on the desire to please their bosses or colleagues, or to sell a book, win an election or get a grant. A reporter friend who worked with torture victims in Europe was frustrated that editors were often reluctant to publish their accounts, while the torturers or the officials who protected them were quoted freely because of their credentials.

People crave analysis and context

Mainstream news organizations are struggling with the realization that breaking news is the low-hanging news fruit where fierce competition makes it hard to generate much revenue. Everyone has the same story, so it is hard to drive traffic to your site so that you can profit from page-views and click-through. By rejecting analysis as bias, the traditional press puts itself at an intellectual and economic disadvantage.

In a digital world, people absorb that news almost by osmosis. After a big new story breaks, I often ask my students where they learned the news, and most credit social media.

A trusted friend posts a headline link in a tweet or on Facebook, and my students pick up the news on their cellphone or laptop. Most don’t bother to click on the link back to the story because the headline tells them enough or because their experience tells them they will rest of the story will be mostly empty calories. For real nourishment, they go to non-traditional sites they trust, or they go straight to the source at the acknowledged Occupy Wall Street site or Occupy Headlines.

This is a generation that turns to Jon Stewart and The Daily Show and not Brian Williams and the NBC Nightly News to learn more. For young digital natives to follow a link back to your story, you must offer them better analysis, new insights, a thoughtful point of view, satirical humor, multimedia or interactivity that allows them to feel they are making a difference.

The mainstream press also exhibits a bias against open expressions of emotion, as if feelings taint rationality. Yet don’t we all struggle to figure out how to fell about the news we hear?

Part of this bias may stem from the fact that males still dominate the decision-making at most traditional news organizations, and competitive, highly educated men are often more uncomfortable with feelings than their female counterparts. In his book The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, Professor Drew Westen notes that it is a mistake to think that rationality is a superior form of decision-making. He argues that males in particular succumb to savagery in places like Darfur or Abu Ghraib if they are freed from a conscience that requires feeling emotions such as horror, compassion or remorse to make the right decision.

The mainstream media instead tries to lure young people on the basis of their hard-won reputation for objectivity, credibility and trust. To which, I can only reply – really?

The New York Times epic fails of Jayson Blair’s plagiarism and Judith Miller’s weapons of mass destruction/mushroom cloud debacle undermine the argument that the mainstream gatekeepers deserve our uncritical trust. If even the “best” news organization in the country gets it so terribly wrong, why not give BoingBoing a try?

It wasn’t a blogger who helped propel us into the Iraq War that has cost us 4,480 US troops killed and more than 32,000 wounded, as well as $800 billion of our tax dollars. (Yes, there is obvious irony in linking to statistics on the Christian Monitor site, but perhaps that simply underscores why news consumers need a spectrum of news sources to choose from.)

The problem with objectivity is that it all too often turns reporters and editors into mere stenographers. When the top-ranking GOP presidential candidate, currently Newt Gingrich, says that Occupy young people who go get a job – after they take a bath – the news organization that repeats such garbage as if it offers balance loses rather than gains credibility.

In the latest issue of Adbusters magazine, the Culture Jammers who launched the Occupy meme, an article on “postcool” says that young people have moved beyond the pose of irony and individualism to an intense commitment to building grassroots solutions. Finding ways to report on these new initiatives will pose problems for traditional reporters without ties to those new communities and whose editors would view serving their needs as taking sides.

My apologies in advance for showing my Sixties roots, but the Occupy movement is forcing the media to decide whether it will be part of the solution or remain part of the problem.