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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Fact-Checking Porcupine Sex

The days of speeches by the likes of Daniel Webster are long gone, and for some time now the United States Senate — which once seriously was described as “the world’s greatest deliberative body” —  seemingly has been filled with unremarkable politicos who don’t exactly set new standards for eloquence.  So when Kansas Senator Pat Roberts made a curious argument during the ongoing Senate debate about health care reform, the Associated Press decided to take a closer look.

In trying to describe the difficulties in resolving health care issues, Roberts said:  “Once in Glacier National Park I saw two porcupines making love. I’m assuming they produced smaller porcupines. They produced something. It has to be done carefully. That’s what we’re doing now.”

8068693778_38e62ec1de_bSo the current atmosphere in the U.S. Congress is like two porcupines having sex?  That’s not only not reassuring — which presumably is what Roberts was trying to communicate — it’s a distinctly disturbing image, isn’t it?

But the AP decided to have a deeper look at the whole porcupine sex issue.  It didn’t look at whether Roberts has ever been to Glacier or actually saw two porcupines in an intimate situation, but it did ask exactly how porcupines engage in the act.  The AP fact check cites a Duke University biologist who says that porcupine spines may be intimidating to predators, but when mating occurs porcupines can let down their guard.  The AP adds:  “Courtship rituals can be aggressive but when the animals have negotiated the art of the deal, the females relax and reposition their quills.”

So we’ve got Senators talking about porcupine sex and Associated Press reporters fact-checking them?  Apparently this is what passes for useful interaction of the political class and the fourth estate in these days of President Twitter and “fake news” and obvious political agendas on all sides.  It makes me think that those of us out in the country should be careful not to relax and reposition our quills.

About Hillary’s E-Mail

Should we care about Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email address when she served as Secretary of State?

On Monday the New York Times broke the story that, during her four years as Secretary of State, Clinton never had an official State Department email address and instead exclusively used a personal address to conduct official business.  As a result, her emails were not maintained on governmental servers, which may have violated the Federal Records Act.  The Times reported that her aides later went through her emails and decided which ones to give to the State Department.

Following up on the story, yesterday the Associated Press reported that Clinton’s private email address traced back to a personal computer server at her home in New York.  The House Committee investigating the attacks on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya has now subpoenaed her emails, and Clinton said last night that she has asked the State Department to review the emails that her aides provided to the department and release them to the public.  Clinton’s defenders say there is no evidence that she acted with ill intent, and note that other politicians have used personal email accounts.

So, should we care about this incident?  I think we should, for three reasons.  First, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to expect high-ranking public officials like the U.S. Secretary of State to comply with federal law.  I don’t buy the “other people did it too” defense, and saying Clinton wasn’t a conscious lawbreaker is about as lame a justification as you can concoct.  Is the fact that the senior member of the President’s Cabinet apparently was unaware of basic rules of federal record-keeping really helpful to her?  Was she ignorant of and non-compliant with other rules set by federal law, too?

Second, where were Clinton’s aides and other State Department officials and federal officials in all of this?  When they started to get email from her personal email address, didn’t they raise the issue of her non-compliance with federal law — or all they all blissfully ignorant of the Federal Records Act, too?  Are federal employees simply not trained in straightforward administrative requirements of federal law, or were they afraid to raise the issue of Clinton’s non-compliance because they worried about the reaction?

Third, the rules set by the Federal Records Act are important, and aren’t just another set of inexplicable red-tape requirements in the byzantine mass of federal regulations.  Storage of all communications by federal employees in federal departments means that records of those communications will be archived and readily available in the event the activities of the employee are investigated.  The employee won’t get to pick and choose which records will be accessible and thereby tailor the story to make themselves look good.

More importantly, in this world of constant data breaches, storage of official email on personal servers is asking for trouble.  Perhaps the Clintons have the most well-staffed, advanced IT section in the world constantly safeguarding their personal server from attack, but I’d rather trust the federal government to keep the Secretary of State’s confidential communications with the President and foreign leaders secure from the hackers.  Are we really confident that malignant foreign governments didn’t plant malware in the Clinton server and obtain real-time access to her communications?  Clinton’s decision to conduct official business on a personal email account strikes me as both naive and extremely reckless — which aren’t exactly qualities I’m looking for in a presidential candidate.

When A Reporter’s Story Makes A Difference

Earlier this week The Associated Press reported that the federal healthcare.gov website — the portal that many Americans have used to search for health care plans under the Affordable Care Act — was sharing private information about users with a number of third-party entities that specialize in advertising and analyzing internet data for marketing purposes.  The AP reported that the personal information made available to those entities could include age, income, ZIP code, and whether a person smokes or is pregnant, as well as the internet address of the computer that accessed the healthcare.gov website.

The federal government responded that the point of the data collection and sharing was simply to improve the consumer experience on the healthcare.gov website and added that the entities were “prohibited from using information from these tools on HealthCare.gov for their companies’ purposes.”  The latter point seems awfully naive — once data gets put into detailed databases on powerful computer systems, who is to say it is not used to help a third-party company better target pop-up ads for their other clients? — and in any case ignores the ever-present risk of a hacking incident that exposes the personal information to criminals.  Privacy advocates and Members of Congress also argued that the extent of data collected went beyond what was necessary to enhance customer service.

On Friday the AP reported that the Obama Administration had changed its position and reduced the release of healthcare.gov users’ personal data.  Privacy advocates remain concerned about the website’s data collection and storage policies and the available data connections with third parties — connections which conceivably could be used to access personal information — but the Administration’s response at least shows some sensitivity to privacy issues and is a first step toward better protecting personal information.

It may not amount to a huge matter in the Grand Scheme of Things, but it’s gratifying when an enterprising reporter’s story can expose a troubling practice and cause a change in a way that benefits the Average Joe and Jane.  It’s how our system is supposed to work, and it’s nice to see that it still work when journalists do their jobs and do them well.

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?