Reporting With A P.O.V.

When I attended the School of Journalism at the Ohio State University in the late ’70s, journalistic objectivity was the standard.  We were drilled in the Dragnet approach to reporting — i.e., “Just the facts, ma’am.”  Sure, the facts could be presented in a vigorous, colorful way — that’s what made for good reporting — but the personal opinions or views of reporters were strictly reserved for “opinion” pieces that would go on the op-ed page, and probably would be labeled “opinion,” to boot.

The approach of the professional journalism community to objectivity has changed a lot since then.  I thought about the changes when I read the lead paragraphs of this news article by AP reporter Foster Klug about the meeting between the North Korean and South Korean leaders today:

180425155911-north-korea-south-korea-meeting-2-exlarge-169“In a historic summit more striking for its extraordinary images than its substance, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in set aside a year that saw them seemingly on the verge of war, grasped hands and strode together Friday across the cracked concrete marking the Koreas’ border.

“The sight, inconceivable just months ago, may not erase their failure to provide any new measures on a nuclear standoff that has captivated and terrified millions, but it allowed the leaders to step forward toward the possibility of a cooperative future even as they acknowledged a fraught past and the widespread skepticism that, after decades of failed diplomacy, things will be any different this time.

“On the nuclear issue, the leaders merely repeated a previous vow to rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons, kicking one of the world’s most pressing issues down the road to a much-anticipated summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in coming weeks.”

We’ll never know how the story of this historic meeting would have been written in the old, studiously objective days, before point of view journalism was accepted as the new normal.  It’s safe to say, though, it would not have suggested that the meeting lacked “substance,” stated that the meeting involved a “failure to provide any new measures on a nuclear standoff” and was viewed with “widespread skepticism,” and reported that the leaders “merely repeated a previous vow” and “kick[ed] one of the worl’s most pressing issues down the road.”  Imagine that kind of reporting at the U.S.-Soviet summit meetings of the ’60s, or Nixon’s visit to China!  It just didn’t happen.

Is the new journalism better than the old?  Proponents of point of view reporting say it simply recognizes reality, and that forcing reports to be mindlessly objective dehumanizes the reporter and fails to acknowledge that reporters bring a perspective to the story when they report it.  Perhaps, but I’m old school — in this case, literally.  I’d be much more comfortable if Foster Klug, whoever he is, left his perceptions, fears, and other baggage behind and simply gave us the facts — leaving it to us to draw our own conclusions.

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A Widening Scandal, And Some Valuable Lessons

The IRS scandal may have been knocked off the front page by Edward Snowden’s fugitive travels and the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin trial, but it’s still out there, and there have been some interesting recent developments.

The House Ways and Means Committee investigation of the IRS targeting of certain groups seeking tax-exempt status has borne fruit.  The AP is reporting that, according to documents obtained by the Committee, the IRS targeting lasted longer than was originally reported and was broader in scope, with the IRS looking not just at “tea party” and “patriot”-named groups, but also at groups that used terms like “progressive,” “medical marijuana,” and “Israel.”  The documents indicate that the prior report of the Treasury Department inspector general may have barely scratched the surface of what IRS functionaries were doing.

DSC04187The new acting commissioner of the IRS, Danny Werfel, has concluded that the IRS used “inappropriate criteria” on certain screening lists and states that he ended the process earlier this month.  He said he found no evidence of “intentional wrongdoing” by IRS employees, but rather “insufficient action” by managers to prevent and disclose the problems.  Werfel says the IRS is committed to correcting its mistakes and holding individuals accountable as appropriate, and the AP report states that the top five people in the IRS responsible for the tax-exempt status of organizations have been removed from their jobs.

It’s all predictable, and the scenario is a familiar one.  Improper action by an agency comes to light, and the first response is to argue that the practices have ended and there is nothing left to examine.  Sometimes that approach works, but when it doesn’t, and congressional committees begin digging, different stories often emerge, and new questions get asked.  How did the IRS screening lists get created?  Who vetted the terms included on the list?  What process was followed when an organization whose name included such terms was identified?

The IRS scandal shows the value of congressional committees that actually conduct investigations, use their subpoena power, and take meaningful testimony.  It also shows that we shouldn’t necessarily trust the reassuring initial statements of agency heads or accept inspector general reports as the last word.  The congressional committees should continue their investigations, but then they need to take the next step — determining whether the tax-exempt status laws should be changed, and if so, how.  That will require Congress to wrestle with some uncomfortable questions:  Why do we grant tax-exempt status to these organizations — regardless of their political affiliations or apparent interests — in the first place, and should that practice continue?  If so, how do we rein in the exercise of discretion by the IRS, so that bureaucrats can’t simply decide to target one group over another on the basis of whim and caprice?

There’s still a long way to go on this one.

A Government Too Big For Its Britches

The Department of Justice’s decision to covertly collect significant amounts of phone call data of the Associated Press is just another sign that we live in a country where the government has grown too big for its britches.

According to a letter sent by the AP to the Department of Justice protesting the action, the DOJ secretly gathered information about AP phone calls for two months.  The records include outgoing calls made on more than 20 telephone lines, including general telephone lines and a fax at AP offices in Hartford, Connecticut, New York City, Washington, D.C., and the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as records related to the calls of five reporters and an editor.  Although the government has not said why it collected the records, the five reporters and editor worked on an AP story about a CIA operation in Yemen that foiled a terrorist plot to blow up a plane and the Department of Justice is conducting a criminal investigation of the leak that led to the story.  The White House was unaware of the subpoenas and the gathering of phone records because the Department of Justice handles such actions independently.

Of course, reporters aren’t immune from prosecution if they commit criminal acts — but due regard for the First Amendment requires that any intrusion into news-gathering be strictly limited and carefully targeted, based on a particularized showing of need.  It’s hard to see how the DOJ action conformed to such restraints.  Finding out who the AP called goes to the heart of news-gathering, and collecting records on more than 20 phone lines used by AP employees hardly seems targeted or sensitive to First Amendment issues.  Instead, it seems like a fishing expedition — and perhaps one specifically designed to chill vigorous exercise of First Amendment rights.  And, of course, the veil of secrecy that the DOJ places over criminal investigations, and the lack of involvement by the White House, will make it difficult to hold people accountable for the action.

Stories about overreaching government employees and lack of accountability have become all too commonplace.  I think it’s one reason why many people have turned to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, hoping that the the written words will serve to restrain governmental excesses.  As the DOJ action in this instance show, however, written words have an effect only if people are paying attention to them.  How many of the DOJ employees who approved the broad collection of AP phone records, in their zeal to catch a leaker, really gave serious thought to what their actions were doing to the AP’s First Amendment rights?