What Should The WHCA Do?

Every year, it seems, something happens at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner that is controversial, but this year’s dinner took the cake.  The combination of non-attendance by President Trump, who skipped the dinner for the second straight year after years in which other Presidents typically attended, and a crude stand-up routine by comedian Michelle Wolf that has been strongly criticized by people from across the political spectrum, has a lot of people talking about whether the dinner should be changed — or should occur at all.

180430_michelle_wolf_white_house_staff_roastMuch of the controversy was caused by Wolf’s routine, which launched a lot of insults at members of the Trump Administration, including some mean-spirited comments about high-profile women in the Administration like White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.  Many people found Wolf’s performance offensive.  I’m not familiar with Wolf, but the reports of some of her “jokes” at the dinner suggests that she goes in for cheap jibs, often about physical appearance, rather than a leave ’em rolling in the aisles standup routine.  Insults about people’s looks aren’t exactly the highest form of wit.

And, Wolf’s comments put the assembled black-tie glitterati of the journalism community in the uncomfortable position of listening to an invited performer crassly describe the President’s daughter, for example, as “as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons” — which isn’t exactly calculated to enhance the perceptions of many Americans about the objectivity of the White House press corps.  In an era in which the President routinely tweets about alleged “fake news” and claimed media bias, the Wolf performance at the WHCA dinner seems like a self-inflicted wound, calculated to reveal that the press is, in fact, highly partisan.

This year’s dinner has been viewed by many as such a disaster that it’s provoking some soul-searching within the WHCA about how the dinner should be changed — and whether it should occur at all.  After all, does the press corps really need to be seen rubbing elbows with the President and other high-ranking politicos, or would it be better to hold itself apart from the people it is supposed to be covering?

Why not just end the dinner?  As is true of so many things these days, it comes down to money.  The WHCA dinner is by far the biggest fundraiser for that organization, which then uses the funds to advocate for journalists.  The incoming president of the WHCA says the revenue generated by the event “keeps our association running” — and supporters of the event question whether big media groups will buy expensive tables for a more low-key function that actually focuses on journalism, rather than politicized comedy.

I think the WHCA serves an important function, and I recognize that money is important, so the annual dinner probably is here to stay — at least, until people stop coming.  But I think the WHCA needs to start self-editing a bit more, and thinking about the reputation of journalists everywhere when they are deciding who should speak at the dinner, and what kinds of things should be said.

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.

Boots On The Trail

Hey, have you heard about Marco Rubio’s “cute boots”?  What, you haven’t?  What’s wrong, don’t you read the New York Times?

rubio20bootsBecause the NYT is featuring three — count ’em, three — articles on Marco Rubio’s boots.  One bears the headline Marco Rubio’s Shiny Boots Stir Up the Presidential Race.  Another, by the “Times Insider,” is headlined Marco Rubio’s ‘Cute Boots’ and Other Campaign Issues.  And the third, by “First Draft,” is headlined Marco Rubio Reacts to Those Boots That Were Made for Talking.   Hey, I get it — that’s a play on the Nancy Sinatra anthem, These Boots Are Made for Walking!  Pretty clever!

And in case you haven’t had enough of Marco Rubio’s boots (I use his full name because apparently the NYT style manual requires that headlines bear a candidate’s full name when the subject of the article is footwear) from those three testaments to quality journalism by the publication that has pretensions of being America’s Newspaper of Record, you can run a Google search and find articles where the other Republican candidates are razzing Rubio for the coverage his boots have received.

As for the boots themselves — well, they’re boots.  To my untrained eye, they look vaguely like Beatle boots, rather than cowboy boots.  And in any case, who gives a flying fig about boots?  With the Middle East teetering on the brink, North Korea just claiming that it exploded a hydrogen bomb, and the stock market suffering through its worst start to a year ever, the New York Times thinks Rubio’s boots are worth three articles?  Have I somehow been transferred to an alternative universe?

If you’re wondering why America’s newspapers are struggling and losing circulation, look no further.

Clickbait

It’s obvious that ad revenue on some free websites is tied to “clicks” — how many times people tap their mouse to access a story.  It’s one way for the website to account for its traffic and provide data to advertisers who want to know how many people are seeing their banners and pop-up ads.  Not surprisingly, many websites are set up to maximize clicks.  That’s why you often need to click “next page” to read an entire article, for example.

The most irritating aspect of the click-counting emphasis, however, are the articles that clearly are “clickbait.”  You’ve seen them featured on the websites you visit, cluttering things up like unsightly litter on the side of a highway:  where are members of the cast of an old TV show now, what “jaw-dropping” dresses got worn to a recent awards show, which celebrities have killed a person (number 8 will shock you!), what “weird trick” will allow you to immediately lose 20 pounds or secure your retirement, and on and on.  You’ve probably gotten to the point that you don’t even notice them anymore on the websites you visit.

What’s discouraging about the “clickbait” phenomenon, however, is that even more high-end internet content providers seem to be unable to resist publishing their own form of clickbait.  Those are articles that clearly are designed to stoke controversy and provoke criticism, in hopes that the articles will be linked and discussed on other websites.  They’ll gladly accept harsh bashings if a few more clicks come their way.

Even as august a publication as the New York Times isn’t immune from the lure of clickbait.  Recently the Times published an article called “27 Ways to Be a Modern Man” that can only be viewed as high-end clickbait.  It’s a silly piece that lists grossly implausible attributes of “modern men” — such as that they not only buy shoes for their wives, but will know their wife’s shoe size and which women’s shoe brands run large or small — and it’s gotten creamed all over the internet.  But I’m guessing that it’s been one of the biggest click-producers that the Times has published recently, and that will make the Times, and its advertisers, happy.  (I’m not going to link to it because the last thing I want to do is reward the publication of any more clickbait.)

It’s sad, really, to see publications like the Times stoop to the level of clickbait.  It makes me wonder what kind of long-term impact the internet is going to have on the quality of journalism in America.

I Won’t Watch It

Kish and I were driving home yesterday, so we missed the TV news coverage of the awful shootings in Virginia.  We therefore didn’t see the footage of the killer gunning down two innocent people, for reasons no one will be able to explain.

We listened to the radio, though, and heard the sounds of the gunshots and the terrified and anguished screams of the witnesses — and that was bad enough.

Whatever other twisted grievances and chilling fantasies may have motivated the killer to commit a cold-blooded murder of a reporter and cameraman on live TV, it’s obvious that a desire for public attention was one of them.  I won’t give it to him, nor will I have my sensibilities jaded and perverted and corrupted by watching something so horrible.  I’m not going to look for his Facebook page, or read his “manifesto,” either, nor am I going to put a picture of him, or his criminal deed, on this post.  Consider it my little protest against publicizing the evil actions of a sick, depraved mind.

There’s a serious journalistic ethics question lurking here:  if you are a TV news program, do you broadcast the footage, which plays into the killer’s desires and potentially might lead to copycat actions, or do you decline to do so, knowing that some of your viewers might change the channel to a station that takes a different approach?  I can’t fault those outlets that broadcast the footage, on a “just report the facts” rationale, but I can applaud those networks and programs that declined to do so.  Journalists are part of society, and as a society we have an interest in discouraging murderous acts by disturbed individuals.

We live in a weird world, where ethical questions arise that wouldn’t even have been possible in an earlier, less technological age in which “social media” didn’t raise the possibility that every criminal could also become a celebrity.  Sometimes, as in the case of the Virginia shootings, it’s a truly ugly world.  I’d rather not dive into that ugliness.

Without Dispatch

An era is ending in Columbus.  The Dispatch Printing Company is selling the Columbus Dispatch, our local daily newspaper, to the New Media Investment Group, a holding company that is headquartered in New York City.

The Dispatch has long been identified with the Wolfes, an influential Columbus-based family that has owned and published the newspaper for more than 100 years.  Indeed, the Wolfes are so associated with the Dispatch that when the sale was announced this week the current publisher, John F. Wolfe, wrote a letter to the community explaining why the family would part with their flagship publication.

Wolfe’s stated reasons are familiar to anyone who follows the newspaper business:  he believes that independent, locally owned newspapers cannot realistically compete in an era where media conglomerates have the advantage of economies of scale.  Such economies are crucial in a business where the costs of acquiring, printing, and distributing a hard copy newspaper — to say nothing of providing it with content — put the daily newspaper delivered to your doorstep at a clear disadvantage compared to digital outlets that don’t have to buy paper and ink, maintain printing presses, and pay printers and delivery people.  When you combine the cost disadvantage with overall national trends of falling subscription numbers and declining advertising revenue, you produce a witches’ brew that ultimately has been fatal to many independent dailies.  The Dispatch has tried to cut costs, by shrinking the physical size of the newspaper among other steps, but ultimately it, too, succumbed to the inexorable forces of the marketplace and the reading habits of the American public.

The Wolfe family has been a central force in Columbus forever, and whether you agreed or disagreed with the Dispatch‘s editorial positions or approach to the news you at least knew that their hearts were here, in Columbus, and their focus was on their newspaper.  Now the Dispatch will be operated by a faraway conglomerate that owns 126 dailies in 32 states.  For those of us in Columbus for whom the Dispatch has been synonymous with the Wolfe family, it is a stunning development — and now we will see what those economies of scale will look like, and how being one newspaper in a corporate stable of more than 100 newspapers will affect news coverage, content, and the focus of local reporting.  We can safely predict that Columbus will never be the same.

Dredging Up The News

Richard had another really good article published in the Florida Times-Union this week.  This one is about the history of Army Corps of Engineers’ chronic underestimates of costs — and the resulting substantial cost overruns — in prior efforts to deepen the Jacksonville harbor.  It’s a significant issue for the people of Jacksonville, because a new river-dredging project is being touted, and local government would be picking up part of the tab.

This kind of story is important, whether you live in Jacksonville or not, because it deals with a very common scenario.  Business leaders and politicians pitch a big project, promising that it will create jobs and is needed to keep the community competitive.  Politicians like big projects because they create a sense of progress and, not incidentally, the pols get to award contracts for the construction work.   Project boosters produce feasibility studies and cost estimates that make the project seem like a bargain and it gets approved — but then when the bills roll in, the costs are far above the estimates and, often, the promised economic benefits either don’t materialize at all or are far below what was forecast.

In this instance, Richard used public records requests to obtain documents that show what prior Jacksonville harbor-deepening projects actually cost, which is typically many multiples of the rosy cost estimates provided before the projects got underway.  It’s another good example of Richard’s smart use of access laws to report facts that help to educate the reader and provide some meaningful context to the political promises.

It’s interesting that one of the people Richard interviewed for the story, a professor who studies ports, noted that every large infrastructure project involves cost overruns and delays.  We would all do well to keep that reality in mind the next time our local leaders want taxpayers to endorse a new jobs-and-progress project.