Monthly Archives: April 2013

Conservatives may buy some big U.S. newspapers

By Christopher B. Daly 

The wonder is that they have not done this already.

According to today’s Times, the Koch brothers are thinking about making a bid to buy the ailing Tribune company, which would give the billionaires ownership of the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun and the Hartford Courant. (It should be noted that for most of their existences, the LAT and the Tribune had editorial views that the Koch brothers would have envied.)

This sounds like a page from the Murdoch playbook: buy prominent American newspapers and use them to advance conservative views. Nothing could be simpler, really, and many conservatives founded U.S. newspapers to do just that.

I would be a little more concerned if they were buying up digital media properties with growing circulations, ad revenues, and staffs.

Shhh: don’t tell the Kochs!

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Give the Marathon bomber a fair trial

By Christopher B. Daly 

Here’s my two cents:

As a native of Boston and someone who has cheered at many Boston marathons over the years, I say we should give Dzhokar Tsarnaev a fair trial, which begins with reading him his Miranda rights as soon as he is lucid. To do anything less means that we are falling apart as a society.

The bombing of the marathon was a horrible crime — a violent assault on the persons of those killed and maimed and an assault on civilization itself and all its hard-won gains.

If we in Boston are as wonderful and as “strong” as we have been telling ourselves this week, then we can really do no less that to follow our own laws. We have to acknowledge that, as far as we know, Tsarnaev is a U.S. citizen who committed a crime on American soil. Therefore, he should be tried in a regular criminal court. We should not sink to his level, which was sheer barbarism. Nor should we pretend that he was some kind of soldier. We are not at war, and our courts are open and functioning. (To call him an “enemy combatant” is ridiculous: he was not wearing anyone’s uniform, and he was not following orders. He was part of a fantasy, not an army.)

I will grant that he appears to be a rotten bastard who did not deserve the blessings of living here, but that doesn’t mean we have to panic and throw out some of our highest achievements. We should use this occasion to remind ourselves who we really are — and to let freedom ring, from Cambridge to the Caucuses. All the angry young men in the world should see that we actually are fair, that we follow the rule of law, and that (by the way)  if they mess with us, we will defend ourselves — by following the rule of law.

In other words, we should give him a fair trial — not for his sake, but for ours.

That would be Boston strong.

U.S. District Court, Boston

U.S. District Court, Boston

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When the news is wrong (for a stupid reason)

By Christopher B. Daly 

imagesAs many have observed, several front-line news organizations reported incorrectly on Wednesday afternoon that authorities had “arrested” or “taken into custody” a suspect in the Boston marathon bombing. As someone who spent 10 years working for The Associated Press (where our watchword was always, “Get it first, but get it right”), I feel bad for journalists who are chasing leads in the investigation into the bombing case. They are under tremendous pressure to advance the story, “break” news, and stand out from the crowd.

I feel bad for them, but that’s not my only response. I also feel appalled at the news media’s chronic inability to exercise restraint. As the afternoon unfolded, I had a sickening sense of deja vu: here we go again, with the race to be first.

But, first with what, exactly? If the cops or the FBI had really made an arrest, they were going to announce it — and quickly. So, what difference does it make if I find that out at 2:30 or 2:45 or 4:00? Is my life any better?

Besides, it’s not as if this is the kind of news that authorities try to hide. When they nab a bad guy, they’re proud of it. They want to stand there at the press conference (ties all straight, uniform gleaming) and take a turn at the podium to say the same clipped phrases they always say. Sure, that’s important, and someone should be there to report it. But we do not need an entire army of reporters trying to get this information first. The mania for being first upsets and erodes all other journalistic priorities.

This kind of frenzy for “scoops” is essentially a waste of journalistic resources and enterprise. There are many fine, experienced, tough reporters and photographers in Boston this week. They should not waste their time trying to surf a few feet ahead of the cops in pursuit of factual information that is going to be divulged anyway. This is particularly true when reporters get in the way: if journalists report, for example, that an arrest is “imminent,” doesn’t that tell the bad guys that it’s time to flee?

In fact, I don’t consider that kind of reporting a “scoop” at all. Real news consists of information that someone is trying to hide or that would not come to light unless an individual journalist gets out and gathers information and connects some dots. Reporters make a contribution to society when they generate information that we would not have otherwise.

So, get out there and find a real, true story — and tell me something I don’t know and that won’t be announced from a podium.

We can do better.

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Filed under CNN, Journalism, journalism history, leaks, Uncategorized

Digital media win another Pulitzer

By Christopher B. Daly

logoScore another victory for serious journalism that was born on the Web. The born-digital environmental website “InsideClimate News” won a Pulitzer Prize this week for national reporting based on its stories about an oil pipeline spill in the Kalamazoo River.

That follows earlier Pulitzers awarded to The Huffington Post and Politico (2012) and ProPublica (2011).

According to a story in the Washington Post, InsideClimate News was founded in 2008 and has just seven staffers. Founder David Sassoon is listed on the website as a graduate of Harvard and the Columbia Journalism School. With no office, InsideClimate News has virtually no overhead and zero “legacy costs.” Instead, they appear to depend for support in large part from foundations — including, ironically, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which is based on the fortune that the family made by dominating the market for, of all things, oil.

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Un-bundling the media

By Christopher B. Daly 

In his latest column, the New York Times‘ David Carr makes a smart argument about how the media — both entertainment and news — are coming apart under pressure from the Web. That’s coming apart, not falling apart. They are coming apart in the sense that the “bundles” of material that arose during the pre-digital era no longer make sense. 

Here’s his lead:

For the longest time in the media business, the concept of the bundle has been foundational. Ads go with editorial content in print, commercials go with programming on television and the channels you desire are paired with ones you did not in your cable package.
People were free to shop for what they wanted, as long as they were willing to buy a bunch of other stuff they did not. The box score last night for your home team? It was wrapped inside a bundle of paper that included everything from foreign news to ads for lingerie. If you liked a song, you generally had to buy an album full of others to get the goods.

 

I think he’s on the right track. Consider the newspaper, for example, as I did in my book Covering America. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 13:

Another problem besetting newspapers (and, to a great extent, magazines and television news as well) was even more existential. When seen against the backdrop of the Internet, one fact about newspapers becomes painfully obvious: a newspaper is a fixed bundle of coverage that is good but ultimately second rate. Offering readers no choice, a newspaper presents coverage of a set matrix of topics: politics, crime, business, sports, arts, and something called lifestyle. In each case, though, people who really know or care about those fields understand that they are not going to find the absolute best, most detailed, most passionate coverage of their favorite topic in a daily newspaper. They know that the best coverage will be in some niche on the Web where obsessive amateurs or professional experts gather. And with the coming of the Web, the absolute best coverage is available to everyone, everywhere, all the time, for free. In politics, for example, readers can find pretty good coverage in the Times or Newsweek. But if they really live and breathe politics, they will want it faster and at a much higher level of granularity, so they will log on to a site like Politico or Real Clear Politics instead and get what they are looking for. The same is true for business, sports, even crosswords and recipes. Thus the question arises: What is the remaining value of reading merely pretty good coverage (and paying for it) when readers can unbundle the newspaper, go online, and plunge into first-rate coverage, written by real aficionados and provided at a price of zero?

One way to understand the decline of the newspaper is to ask the ultimate question: If newspapers did not exist, would it make any sense to invent them?

I wrote that about two years ago. The only change I would make now would be to drop the reference to Newsweek. The venerable weekly print newsmagazine went broke in 2012 trying to sell a fixed bundle of pretty-good coverage and was absorbed into a born-digital enterprise, The Daily Beast. I might also amend the statement that all the high-quality niches are free, since a small but possibly growing number do charge something.

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Filed under broadcasting, Journalism, journalism history, New York Times, publishing, software

Literary criticism: a reader writes

By Christopher B. Daly

Recently, a reader posted a largely critical “customer review” of my book Covering America, on the book’s Amazon page. The writer of the criticism, Ralph Poore, is, of course, entitled to his opinion and the free expression thereof. At the same time, I have my right to engage his criticism and explain my views.

First, let me thank Mr. Poore for reading my book and for reading it quite carefully, to judge by the granularity of his comments.

Here’s his review and one of my reactions:

If you like East Coast, elitist views of journalism, then Christopher Daly’s Covering America is the book for you.

Daly focuses mainly on journalism east of the Hudson River. He makes occasional visits to news media along the Potomac River, but he frankly doesn’t find much of value beyond those two regions. He covers a lot of the familiar territory found in other journalism histories by profiling one or more journalists of their time.

Missing is the westward trek of newspapers and editors in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Missing, too, are many publications that have played important roles in the history of journalism and of the country.

To be fair, any book that purports to cover a topic across 320 years of history has to leave something out, else no one would be able to lift it. And Daly makes it clear that his book is a narrative “about the broad scope of journalism in America… [and] not an encyclopedia” (p. 6).
Fair enough.

As I wrote in the preface, my approach was not encyclopedic. My stated criterion for inclusion in my book was innovation — especially in one or more of the following dimensions:

–the economics of news,

–the technology of news gathering and dissemination

–the philosophy of news

–the sociology of the newsroom or the audience

–the politics of the power balance between journalism and other institutions.

As it happened, most of that innovation took place on the East Coast, particularly in New York City. I did not cause that, and I don’t apologize for it. That said, my book does at least mention papers outside the Northeast: the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to name a few, as well as the Atlanta-based CNN.

Here’s the rest of his review. I am not going to reply point-by-point, but I would encourage any readers of this blog who have also read my book to jump in and share your views.

But what Daly leaves out is a lot, and it is often important. For example, in looking at press coverage during the Civil War, Daly’s examination stops at the Mason-Dixon Line. Of the Southern press he says only, “Across the South, many newspapers simply collapsed” (p. 110). The major Southern newspapers didn’t collapse, and never mind that Southern correspondents, including a few women, wrote some of the best war coverage by any reporter North or South.

As Daly’s narrative moves closer in time to the present, its sins of omission and commission, as well as its elitism (and frankly snarky comments about conservatives), become more pronounced. I primarily would like to deal with several examples from the mid-20th to 21st centuries to make my point.

East Coast elitists have an almost cult-like attachment to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal programs. It comes as no surprise then that the journalists who Daly profiles in the 1940s for his “broad scope of journalism in America” never raise any questions about the efficacy of New Deal programs.

FDR’s policies cost billions of dollars often with no real benefit to the nation and in some cases caused real harm to real people, including my parents and grandparents. In FDR’s second term, unemployment lines were long and getting longer. Joblessness got worse after almost every New Deal program started.

Instead of an explanation of why journalists let this state of affairs slide, Daly gives us a portrait of gossip columnist and radio host Walter Winchell supporting Roosevelt: “At a time when most American newspapers were published by businessmen who supported the Republican Party and hated Roosevelt, Winchell…was one of the few prominent voices raised in support of fighting fascism” (p. 220).

Republicans, businessmen and Nazis vs. Winchell and Roosevelt. Really? Either this is sloppy writing or a deliberate attempt to associate the GOP with anti-democratic forces. The effect is the same in either case.

Skip ahead to the 1980-1999 period when Daly takes on conservatives directly. He writes: “Conservatives railed against a media system they said favored big government, welfare, immigrants, and alternative lifestyles while denigrating family, country, and God” (396-397).

Daly dismisses these concerns with a sheer nonsensical statement: “In part, many conservative critics were misreading the media–finding an ideological intention where journalists were actually asserting their professional values. Often, critics on the Right interpreted the journalistic ideals of independence and skepticism as political commitments to antiauthoritarianism or partisan liberalism” (397).

It is hard to see how Daly can reconcile conservatives as believing the media both favored “big government” and “antiauthoritarianism.” Those are polar opposites. And it had become clear to almost any observer west of the Hudson River that by this time period elite journalists had merged their ideological and professional values.

Finally, there is the issue of blatantly distorting the facts when it comes to Fox News. Daly cites a 2003 study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland that purports that Fox News viewers were more misinformed about the Iraqi war (p. 419-420). PIPA claims “those who watched Fox News almost daily were significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe….” and then goes on to list a series of supposedly false statements.

Neither PIPA nor Daly cites a single supposedly wrong or misleading fact reported by Fox News.

The Wall Street Journal has examined the clear flaws in PIPA’s methods. The so-called false statements are actually just prejudiced questions about people’s opinions. The opinions just don’t reflect the beliefs of media elites and liberals.

WSJ points to more objective and fact-based surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press which ranked Fox News viewers as among the most informed. At the bottom of Pew’s list were regular consumers of CBS News, Access Hollywood and the National Enquirer.

All of this was known or should have been known by Daly while he was writing his book. For some reason he chose to ignore it.

Meanwhile, you will look in vain in Covering America for even a brief mention of high-profile cases of deliberate misinformation on the part of the East Coast, elite media. For example, you will NOT find Daly criticizing those media for:

Walter Duranty, the Pulitzer Prize winning Moscow Bureau Chief of The New York Times (1922-36) who lauded Stalin and denied widespread famine and mass starvation in the Ukraine.

Janet Cooke (1980), who fabricated a story about a child drug addict for the Washington Post and won a Pulitzer Prize.

ABC’s 20/20 (1978), CBS’s 60 Minutes (1980) and NBC’s Dateline (1993) all ran stories that fabricated safety problems with cars and trucks.

Christopher Newton, an Associated Press reporter who in at least 40 stories (2000- 2002) quoted sources who did not exist.

Jayson Blair (2003), whose fabricated stories in the New York Times brought down Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd.

CBS’s 60 Minutes host Dan Rather and producer Mary Mapes 60 Minutes who used forged documents (2004) about President George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard less than two months before the presidential election.

And Daly worries about Fox News viewers being misinformed? Really?

The flaws in Covering America are unfortunate. Daly was a reporter for the Associated Press and the Washington Post before he began teaching at Boston University. He knows how to tell a good story.

There is much in Daly’s narrative that is solid and even insightful at times. But to get at the good stuff, the careful reader has to constantly act as an investigative reporter, questioning assumptions and checking facts. It is a lot of work.

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Filed under Covering America, Journalism, journalism history

End the NCAA: follow Spelman’s lead

By Christopher B. Daly 

Here’s some very exciting news for those who would like to eliminate the corrupt (and corrupting) NCAA from college campuses and instead encourage college sports that actually involve getting all college students to exercise.

Today’s New York Times has a story about Spelman College, which is doing exactly that.

Go, Spelman!

Who’s next?

Get moving!

Get moving!

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