David Broder, R.I.P.

I was saddened to read of the death of David Broder, the Washington Post reporter and columnist.  Broder, who was 81, died today after a long and distinguished career that included receiving the Pulitzer Prize.

When I was a student at the Ohio State University School of Journalism, Broder was one of my journalistic heroes, and I am confident that my classmates shared that view.  He seemed like a walking, talking, embodiment of everything that a journalist should be — sober, careful, measured, scrupulous about sourcing, fair, and balanced (before “fair and balanced” became a catch phrase).  Broder had a knack for seeming to be above the fray.  He was not partisan, and he did not take cheap shots.  And his writing was clear and straightforward.

It’s been a while since I’ve read a David Broder column.  His work fell out of favor as journalists moved to a more advocacy-oriented, point-of-view approach, to the point where it seems that print journalists are vying to be featured as TV talking heads who are clearly defined as liberal or conservative.  It’s too bad, because David Broder’s thoughtful pieces definitely had a place in world of journalism, regardless of whether you agreed with his conclusions or not.  Political junkies who are interested in an even-handed evaluation of an issue, and citizens who are interested in more civil discourse, are all poorer for his passing.

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Reflections On “JournoList” And Journalism

I’ve been saddened by the recent stories about the JournoList on-line listserv, which allowed a number of prominent reporters and writers to share information and viewpoints.  Although JournoList was intended to be a private listserv, some of the exchanges have been leaked to the press.  One led to the resignation of a Washington Post blogger who was to cover the conservative movement.  More recently, leaked JournoList exchanges deal with helping the Obama campaign deal with the issues raised by the comments of Rev. Jeremiah Wright and other topics.  (I always hate to see messages that are intended to be private made public, but that is the unfortunate reality of the modern world.  No one should put anything in an email that they would not be comfortable seeing disseminated to the world at large.)

The sad thing about the JournoList stories is that they confirm that journalists have lost their way.  When I studied at The Ohio State University School of Journalism in the late 1970s, our professors emphasized objectivity, multiple sourcing, and fact-checking above all else.  Those were the hallmarks of a competent professional journalist, and we all strove to achieve them.  My professors would be appalled at the thought of journalists getting together to help politicians, or anyone else.  Indeed, we were taught to have a healthy skepticism for everything we were told — hence the multiple sourcing rule — and hard-bitten, cynical reporters typically had contempt for all politicians because a skeptical review of their statements often revealed half-truths and omissions.

Journalism has changed a lot since those days.  At some point the decision was made to write stories from a “viewpoint,” rather than trying to set forth objective facts and let the reader draw her own conclusions.  Once objectivity was cast aside and “perspective” was introduced, journalism has seemed to lose its moorings.  Now, you see reporters on TV, trying to be personalities, doing nothing other than regurgitating the conventional wisdom and then offering speculation about what might happen.  Very little actual newsgathering seems to be done any more.

It makes me wonder — what actually is taught in journalism schools these days?

Non-Journalism

Today still more members of the news media — in this case, Reuters and CNBC — fell for a hoax.  On the basis of a dubious press release, they reported that the Chamber of Commerce had changed its position on climate change legislation.  CNBC read the fake press release on the air, and Reuters reported it, in an article that was then picked up by the New York Times and the Washington Post.

I was struck by the explanation of the Reuters spokesman quoted in the linked article.  The spokesman is quoted as saying:  “Reuters has an obligation to its clients to publish news and information that could move financial markets, and this story had the potential to do that.”  My old professor at the Ohio State University School of Journalism, Marty Brian, must be rolling in her grave at that one!  Consider that the quote from the Reuters spokesman equates an admitted hoax with “news and information” and suggests that Reuters’ paramount obligation is to publish whatever comes its way, without doing anything to determine its veracity first.  That concept is antithetical to true professional journalism, which values accuracy above speed and insists upon sourcing and careful fact-checking — particularly of a story that reports that a vocal opponent of legislation has abruptly and inexplicably changed its position.  Doesn’t anyone at CNBC and Reuters have a reporter’s gut instinct, or at least a willingness to take a moment to check the Chamber of Commerce website to see if the press release even is posted there?

Normally I would decry the efforts of the hoaxers, but I have come to believe that they probably are performing a salutary function for the world at large.  Why attach credibility to what you read from the news media if they don’t even bother to check press releases before publishing them?

The Budding Power Of New Journalism

Back in the 1970s, when I was a student at the Ohio State University School of Journalism, there was a lot of talk about the “new journalism.” At that time, “new journalism” referred to writers like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson who wrote from uniquely personal perspectives and, in the case of Dr. Gonzo, was an integral actor in his articles. Their pieces were characterized by strong, colorful language, ample irony and humor, and a willingness to express their own opinions about what they were experiencing. Two of my favorite books ever — The Right Stuff and Fear and Loathing: On The Campaign Trail ’72 — were written by these larger than life personalities.

In the past 10 days we have seen a confirmation of the extraordinary power of the newest form of “new journalism,” through the hidden camera videos exposing the rank practices and activities of ACORN employees in offices across the country. As new, ever more shocking videos are posted to websites, we have seen the Census Bureau cut its ties to ACORN and, today, the House of Representatives vote to cut off all federal funding for ACORN.

What is amazing about this story is that two young people — aged 25 and 20 — armed only with a hidden camera, an idea, and a willingness to take a few risks — have brought low a well-funded organization that was strongly supported by many politicians. Their videos were posted on a few websites and went “viral.” No established news media outlets were involved; indeed, the networks and large newspapers largely were oblivious to the story. Average Americans, however, were not oblivious. They saw the videos on the internet and were stunned by them.  Their disgust was quickly communicated to their elected representatives, who did not even attempt to defend ACORN or slow efforts to strip ACORN of government funding. It is an amazing example of how, in some ways at least, the internet has changed the world.

What does it mean? It means Americans no longer are solely dependent on established members of the news media for information. It means that individuals are far more empowered than they were before the internet made it possible for an average citizen to communicate to millions of total strangers with a few strokes of a keyboard. And finally, it means that organizations like ACORN will have to be mindful the next time a self-proclaimed pimp and prostitute walk into their offices seeking aid and advice.

A Band Of Buckeye Boosters

J Schoolers (left to right) J. Most Leickly, Sandy Theis, me, Bob Hust, and Ken Kraus

We’re getting ready for tomorrow’s contest with Navy, the first game of the 2009 Buckeye football season.  I’ll be sitting in A Deck, in the closed end, with Buckeye Bebe, UJ, and Richard.  We’ll be tailgating beforehand and afterward and may visit the Skull Session, too.

-2To usher in the 2009 season and get everyone stoked for tomorrow’s game, I offer these pictures from a tailgate in the French Field House parking lot hosted by my pal and partner Kristin Watt before last year’s game with the despicable Michigan Wolverines.  The picture features an intrepid band of J School graduates, consisting of (left to right) J. Most Leickly, Sandy Theis, me, Bob Hust, and my college roommate Ken Kraus.  In anticipation of the dismal performance by U of M, we gave them the fabled J School choke sign.  Sure enough, The Ohio State University Buckeyes inflicted maximum pain on the hapless team from TSUN, giving them a thorough beating and sending them scurrying back to their ratholes on the short end of a 42-7 whipping.  It was a glorious day.

Journalistic Ethics

The New York Times has reported that one of its reporters who was captured by the Taliban and has been held captive for seven months has escaped. What makes the story particularly interesting is that the Times kept the story of the reporter’s capture confidential during that entire time because it was advised that disclosure of the capture would endanger the reporter. The Times therefore was confronted with a choice between printing what was a newsworthy story or refraining from doing so because printing the story could be fatal to its subject. The situation presented a question of journalistic ethics, and I think the Times clearly made the right choice.

When I attended the Ohio State University School of Journalism, ethics was part of the curriculum — not a major part, but at least a topic that was discussed. I was surprised to learn that there really are no hard and fast standards that apply to all members of the news media. Instead, every newspaper and every reporter had to make their own rough cuts. One of my journalism professors said his particular rule of thumb was never to accept a gift that could not be consumed in one sitting.

For reporters, the ethical questions can arise in countless different scenarios. If a kidnapping occurs, do you follow the requests of the police and the family on what to print and when? I think most journalists and editors would agree to do so, because no story is worth a life. Do you offer a source anonymity when you suspect that they may be leaking to pursue a political agenda? I think most journalists would say yes, if the reporter had done enough checking to believe in the truth of the source’s information and there was no other way to get the story. Do you accept a free meal or round of golf from someone trying to garner some favorable press? I think most reporters would permit themselves to do so, and believe that they could maintain their objectivity — but what if it turns into many meals, rounds of golf, and maybe a junket to an exotic location? Some lines are easier to draw than others.