Monthly Archives: July 2012

NYT error: Fox News is not top rated

By Christopher B. Daly 

Today’s Times has an interesting (though somewhat thin) story about the relationship between president Obama and Fox News.

One thing caught my eye:

But now, with the presidential campaign entering its most competitive phase, the simmering tensions between Mr. Obama and the country’s highest-rated news channel threaten their fragile détente.

Problem is, Fox News is NOT the “country’s highest-rated news channel.” It is the highest-rated cable news channel, with about 1.3 million viewers. But it comes nowhere near the size of even the lowest-rated broadcast news channel. And it is still a tiny fraction of the combined audiences of ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS, which have well over 20 million viewers in all.

(Yes, there is a bit of an apples/oranges issue here, but, come on: Fox is in a different universe from the broadcast networks.)

(A further thought: in a nation of 300+ million people, does Fox News with 1.3 million viewers deserve the attention it gets?)



Filed under broadcasting, Fox News, New York Times

JFK on Vietnam

By Christopher B. Daly 

The folks at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston have announced the completion of the task of transcribing and releasing the secret recordings that Kennedy made in the Oval Office while president. (Kennedy, not Nixon, first came up with the idea of secretly taping his conversations — no doubt with the intention of writing his memoir someday.)

Can we really be sure that the keepers of the flame in these presidential libraries really divulge everything? I don’t know.

But for the time being, here is a tidbit from the Library’s newsletter featuring some of the fruits of what was probably one of JFK’s last discussions of Vietnam:

During a meeting on September 10, 1963 regarding the civil
war in Vietnam, President Kennedy expressed frustration
with the conflicting reports provided to him by his military
and diplomatic advisors. General Victor Krulak and State
Department Advisor Joseph Mendenhall were reporting to
the President on their four-day fact-finding mission to South
Vietnam. Krulak’s view, based on his visits with military
leaders, was generally optimistic, while Mendenhall, a
Foreign Service Officer, shared his impressions of widespread
military and social discontent.
These vastly different viewpoints caused President
Kennedy to pause and then comment: “You both went to
the same country?”
After nervous laughter, the President continued, “I mean
how is it that you get such different—this is not a new thing,
this is what we’ve been dealing with for three weeks. On the
one hand you get the military saying the war is going better
and on the other hand you get the political (opinion) with its
deterioration is affecting the military…What is the reason
for the difference—I’d like to have an explanation what the
reason is for the difference.”



Hard to say definitively, but this sounds like a man with serious doubts. Even all these years later, I think a lot of people would like “an explanation what the reason is for the difference” between the military advice and the political advice. If any president asks any military figure, Can we do X? The answer will certainly be, Yes, Sir! Is that really advice?

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Filed under history

Noise pollution: a matter of life and death?

By Christopher B. Daly 

Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting in my backyard near Boston on a warm summer evening. I could hear the screech owls calling, as they have been doing every night this summer. I have heard them before in the yard, but always as migrants, passing through in the fall or spring. This year, I could pretty clearly make out a family group, based on the numbers and the calls for food from the fledglings.

Young screech owls / Audubon Society

Young screech owls / Audubon Society

This night was the hottest of the season so far, and I noticed something different: air conditioners were going, in our house and in the house next door. I found the noise annoying, but then I got to wondering how it affects the owls. After all, they need to use their ears to hunt. According to a wonderful book I am reading, Bird Sense, by Tim Birkhead, owls use their famously large, front-facing eyes mainly to navigate in flight to the vicinity of their prey. The “final approach” to the target is guided by hearing, through the owls’ equally famous ears.

But what happens when two air conditioners are roaring all night? Does the sound level interfere with hunting? Do the motors drown out the faint – but vital — scritch-scratchings in the undergrowth that the owls depend on?

I don’t know, but I do know that on that hot night, the owls moved off and went hunting elsewhere. Presumably somewhere quieter.





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Filed under Nature, Wildlife

Not to be missed

By Christopher B. Daly

A few recent notable pieces:

Ken Doctor at Nieman Journalism Lab summarizes some favorable trends in the business of news. Woo-hoo.

Vanity Fair follows the money and takes a look at Mitt Romney’s decision to off-shore part of his personal finances.

Vanity Fair scores again with a vivid remembrance of the late Marie Colvin, who was a real reporter.

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Filed under Journalism, journalism history, Politics

“Quote approval”: A new low in journalism?

By Christopher B. Daly 

When a journalist interviews someone (anyone), the normal ground rules that govern the interaction amount to this:

I am a journalist working on a story. I want to talk to you and use the things you say in my story, based on my judgment of what is important. I will use none, some, or all of what you say, as I choose, to further the pursuit of the truth. Whatever quotations I use will be verbatim — nothing added, nothing left out. I will also use your real name (and title, if you have one).

This is the essence of the standard known as “on the record.” Journalists prefer it because we believe that, on the whole, it holds people accountable for the things they say. In certain (ideally rare) situations, however, journalists will negotiate some lower standard. Almost always, these retreats from the “on the record” standard come at the initiative of the people we are speaking to. These other arrangements are known by a bewildering array of terms, which do not always mean the same thing in different cities or beats. The problem is that these departures usually serve the source rather than the audience.

Today comes word from the Times that political reporters for all the major news organizations have adopted a new — and, I think, pernicious — practice. They allow the people they are interviewing to get a look at their own quotes before publication and censor them. That is, the big shots around Obama and Romney routinely demand and get the power to edit themselves before their words appear in print or online.

Well, you can hardly blame them for trying. Who wouldn’t want that option?

But the journalists should never have agreed to it. These spokespeople, senior officials, and top aides get paid lots of money for their ability to think on their feet and choose their words carefully.

At the very least, having agreed to this arrangement, the journalists have a professional duty to reveal the terms. What about transparency? I, for one, could live without stories in which members of the political class get to “clean up” their quotes.

Another question: in what other fields does this practice apply? Sports reporting? Business news?

(Props to Jeremy Peters of the Times for blowing the whistle on this practice.)


Filed under Journalism, journalism history, New York Times, Politics

Noting the loss of Little Bear’s creator

By Christopher B. Daly

How fondly I remember. . .

. . .reading the Little Bear stories to my boys when they were

like little cubs. So, here’s a gentle wave good-bye to Else Holmelund Minarik, who wrote the Little Bear series, so perfectly illustrated by her collaborator, the recently deceased Maurice Sendak. Today’s Times says in an obituary that she died at home in Sunset Beach, NC, at the age of 91. Sounds like her.


A journalistic footnote: This gentle soul was married for a while to Homer Bigart, one of the toughest war correspondents ever. A real reporter’s reporter and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Bigart covered WWII, the Korean War, and the American war in Vietnam. Bigart, who was her second husband, died in 1991.

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Filed under Journalism, journalism history

“Wait, wait”: Would someone please impose an embargo on the news media

By Christopher B. Daly 

Kudos to the SCOTUSblog for this remarkable tick-tock on what went wrong in the initial reporting about the Supreme Court ruling on the Obama health care plan back on June 28. Tom Goldstein, the publisher of SCOTUSblog, has put together a 7,000-word reconstruction of the first half hour of reporting, focusing on the screw-ups  at CNN and Fox News. He has done us all a service with his meticulous, minute-by-minute (and sometimes second-by-second) narrative of that day’s hits, balks, run-downs, and errors.

What this post-game review suggests to me is that, first and foremost, the news business needs to do better. As a former wire service reporter (10 years with the AP, both on desks and in the field), I appreciate the need for speed. SCOTUS decisions move markets; they sometimes hand the White House to one party over the other. Often, they are the epitome of breaking news. That said, it is insane for reporters to cover Supreme Court opinions on the fly. No one benefits. In Goldstein’s tick-tock, the description of the gyrations of the front-line legal correspondents reminds me of nothing so much as an episode of “Iron Chef” — in which highly talented people are subjected to insanely artificial difficulties (“OK, now you have two minutes to make a three-course meal out of kale and strawberries. GO!”). There is absolutely no reason to turn this scheduled event into a speed-reading contest.

The Supreme Court also has some lessons to learn. It is insane that the Court does not post its opinions, in full, on the Web at 10:00:01. Why should the White House and Congress have to wait? Why should citizens have to wait? Why should prisoners facing execution or stock traders or anyone have to wait? In this day and age, to hand out paper decisions is an affront.

But most important of all, after reading Goldstein’s report, I am strengthened in my belief that the Court and the news business need to get together on a slow day and figure out a better system for these kind of hand-offs. The answer is staring them in the face: an old-fashioned news embargo. The Court could simply identify 10-20 of the top court reporters — all vetted, credentialed experts — and invite them to come to the building at 8 a.m. The journalists could all then be locked in a room (like jurors) with no wi-fi access. They could then take their time to read the opinion (in full), digest it, and craft a coherent and accurate story. At 10:00, those stories could all be released, all at once. That way, all the news organizations that care about speed would have a multi-way tie and the issue of who was “first” would be moot. That way, the first version would also be the right version. That way, the public gets a full, careful, accurate version at the earliest possible moment.

P.S.: The world would certainly be a better place if people would stop posting comments just to gloat. Goldstein mentions a couple of these kind of comments that SCOTUSblog received from readers rubbing it in that CNN and Fox were right and SCOTUSblog was wrong. In retrospect, they look like the doofuses they are.

Twitter postings / Topsy

Twitter postings / Topsy

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Filed under blogging, CNN, Fox News, Journalism, Supreme Court

“Forgive us our press passes”

By Christopher B. Daly

I heard a fantastic story yesterday on the “This American Life” radio program. It was about the business/ethics/professional issues raised for the field of journalism by a new-ish company called Journatic. The story, by producer Sarah Koenig had the brilliant memorable headline “Forgive us our press passes.” It explained the creepy side of how out-sourcing has arrived, almost completely under the radar, in the American newspaper business. Turns out, lots of the routine fillers (school lunches, ordinary obits, etc.) that fill up small-town and suburban newspapers are actually “written” by worker bees in the Philippines, Eastern Europe, and Africa. They toil away for peanuts, then transmit their “stories” to editors in the states, who get paid next to nothing to “edit” those “stories,” even though the editor could be more than 1,000 miles away from the community being “covered” in this way. The whole operation seems to make a mockery of the idea of “hyper-local” news. 


To her credit, Koenig really pursues the issue in great depth and nuance.

Also, a note to journalism teachers: you should share this piece with your classes. It is really a two-fer: it tells some important truths about the direction the news business is heading in, and it is a model of how to use audio to tell a complicated story. It is must-listen journalism.






Filed under broadcasting, Journalism, local news, media, NPR