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.

Deciding The Worst Job

A website called CareerCast.com has declared what it considers to be the worst job in 2016:  newspaper reporter.  It’s the third year in a row that being a print journalist has ended up at the bottom on the desirable occupations list.

The website uses a methodology that looks at each job’s work “environment (emotional, physical and hours worked), income (growth potential and salary), outlook (employment growth, income growth potential and unemployment), and 11 stress factors to determine which professions are among the least desirable.”  Newspaper reporter ends up at the bottom of the list because the median annual salary isn’t that great, the outlook stinks because so many newspapers and other media outlets are closing, and there isn’t a lot of potential for career growth.  The best job, in contrast, is “data scientist,” where the median income is $128,240 and there is a strong growth outlook.

news-guySorry, but I disagree with this.  Good jobs and bad jobs aren’t just defined by salary and whether you’re in a thriving industry.  Other qualities — like being able to use your creativity and your brainpower, and whether the job involves noisy, smelly, dangerous, or otherwise unpleasant conditions — are important, and more important still is whether you like your boss and co-workers and look forward to getting to work in the morning.

Speaking as a former reporter, when those other qualities are considered, I think being a reporter is a pretty good option.  The job is always interesting, and at times, when you break a good story or write a particularly good lead, that you feel a nice little adrenalin rush.  Are you really going to get the same kind of feeling from being a boring, nerdy, white coat-wearing “data scientist”– which sounds like a puffed-up title, anyway?  And how can reporter possibly be less attractive than the traditional scutwork jobs, like sanitation worker or cubicle dweller?

Sorry, CareerCast.com.  You’ve totally missed the boat on this one.  There’s just no way that being a reporter is the worst job around.  Who knows?  Maybe the real worst job is ranking jobs for CareerCast.com.

Back To The J-School

IMG_3420From 1977 to 1979, I spent huge amounts of time in an unassuming brick building tucked away at an anonymous intersection on the sprawling campus of the Ohio State University.  It was the home of the School of Journalism, known to its denizens as the “J-School.”  It was where I met Kish and where my friends were, and the epicenter of my little college universe was the Ohio State Lantern newsroom found on the second floor.

Last Friday afternoon I had the chance to go back again, thanks to a kind invitation from Dan Caterinicchia (who helpfully goes by “Dan Cat”), the Director of Student Media at OSU and faculty advisor to the Lantern.  Dan asked if I would come out and talk to his class of Lantern reporters, purportedly to discuss journalism ethics but in reality to give an aging ex-reporter a chance to share some memories with fresh young people about a time and place that still evokes many warm feelings.

During my visit I got a chance to see the Lantern newsroom, pictured above, which has changed tremendously since my era at the J-School.  During the ’70s the newsroom was a long room that ran almost the entire length of the building.  It was filled with rows of desks covered with electric typewriters where reporters were furiously typing copy, pods of desks where copy editors and section editors were marking up stories, a dark and smelly photo lab, and a “wire room” where constantly clattering marchines were spitting out reams of reports from the Associated Press and United Press International.

There was a tremendous buzz and energy in that long room, with reporters trying to meet their deadlines and the pressure of putting out a newspaper that was published every weekday and distributed to a community of more than 50,000 critical readers.  The newsroom was filled with an ever-present blue haze of stale cigarette smoke because everyone seemed to smoke like fiends in those less cancer-conscious days.  The ashtrays were dented silver film canisters, and they were always jammed to overflowing with crushed butts.

For an aspiring reporter, it was a little slice of journalistic heaven that made you feel like you were part of a real newsroom — and you were.  When I worked briefly for the Toledo Blade after graduation, the look and feel of its newsroom was not materially different from that of the Lantern.  I felt like my J-School experience had trained me well.

IMG_3421The newsroom looks a lot different now.  The long room has been cut in two, with one half devoted to a TV studio for Lantern TV.  The newsroom part is smaller, cleaner, and quieter.  There is no need for the long desks of typewriters or the noisy wire room, because reporters can just type their copy on laptops and email it to the editors, who work on huge Apple computers to put the newspaper together.  There’s no indoor smoking, either, which is a good thing.  Although a lot has changed, I imagine that the Lantern staffers of our day and of the present day would quickly find common ground — at least, the stack of empty pizza boxes on a trash can at one corner of the newsroom suggested as much.

I was a bit flummoxed about what to talk to the class of Lantern reporters about, but the flow of memories and stories came easily and the students listened respectfully.  Dan made things easier by calling up some of the newspapers and stories of my day — the Lantern now has a terrific, easily accessible on-line archive of its editions from 1881 to 1997, available here — and displaying them on a large screen as we talked. I’m not sure the students got anything out of the talk, other than random recollections and references to cultural touchstones that are now decades out of date, but it was fun to remember some of the issues and challenges that we struggled with so long ago.

I was impressed by the journalism students, who seemed as bright and inquisitive and interested in the world as the J-School rats of the ’70s that became my friends — but much more polite, of course.  And I also was impressed by Dan Caterinicchia, who has an excellent record of work as a professional journalist with the AP and also obviously has a  good rapport with his students and a keen eye for how to keep the Lantern meaningful in a changing, digital, social media world.

I would say to my fellow ex-Lanternites — and you know who you are — that the Lantern is in good hands, and that the J-School, and the on-line archive, are worth a visit.

Sy Hersh Speaks Out

Seymour Hersh won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam War.  Ever since, he’s been the scourge of presidents and press officers, not afraid to speak his mind about America, journalists, and politicians.  He’s an equal opportunity gadfly who launches withering criticism at Republican and Democrat alike.

Recently Hersh put reporters and the Obama Administration in his gun sights.  According to a report in the Guardian newspaper, Hersh ripped American journalists, chiding them for their timidity, their refusal to challenge the story lines put out by the Obama Administration, and their willingness to temper their reporting to support the President.  He said that the Obama Administration story about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden is “one big lie, not one word of it is true,” and argued that journalists aren’t investigating the shifting depictions of the event as they should.  He called reporters “pathetic” and “more than obsequious” for their unwillingness to challenge the President, and he claims the Obama Administration “lies systematically.”  He singled out the New York Times and said the newspaper spends “so much more time carrying water for Obama than I ever thought they would.”

Hersh — like me — is a big believer in real journalism and reporters who ferret out the truth and let the chips fall where they may.  He thinks, however, that the existing managers of newspapers and network news bureaus will never return to the days of “shoe leather” reporting, where reporters find sources and stories rather than waiting in briefing rooms for press officers to give them handouts.  Hersh recommends firing 90 percent of newspaper editors and promoting new editors who can’t be controlled, closing network news bureaus, and starting over.

It’s interesting to hear a journalistic icon like Seymour Hersh speak out about the state of American reporting.  Newspapers are worried about why their circulation is falling, falling, falling.  Maybe if they stopped “carrying water” for politicians and started really reporting on what is actually happening, readers would return.

The (Sigh) News About The News

The news business in America has been in the news a lot recently, and unfortunately the news is pretty much all bad.

Two of our most storied newspapers, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe, have been sold for a small fraction of their value only a decade ago.  The New York Times, which bought the Globe in 1993 for $1.1 billion, sold it to billionaire John Henry for only $70 million.  What’s worse, the Times retained liability for the Globe’s pension obligations, which reportedly total more than $100 million.  If you do the math, that means the Times basically lost its entire $1.1 billion investment over 20 years.  Although the Times tried to justify its sale as an effort to focus on its core “brand,” it’s obvious the sale sought to unload a money pit that the Times didn’t know how to turn around.

The Washington Post and related publishing businesses were sold to Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, for $250 million.  Although the price was higher than the pittance paid for the Globe, it still shocked the journalism world because it was much lower than the Post‘s expected value and because it ended the long-time ownership of the Graham family.  Both the Post and the Globe have been troubled by the same trends that have plagued other newspapers — declining circulation and a business model based on paper, with all of its attendant costs, when the rest of the world is moving full throttle into digital communications.

In addition to the fire sale prices paid for these two legendary publications, recent journalism news has seen continuing layoffs of reporters, editors, and other members of newspaper staffs.  Last week, for example, the Cleveland Plain Dealer laid off about one-third of its editorial staff.

One sign of the desperate times in the news business is the effort to see the silver lining in Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post.  Some people in the journalism industry hope that Bezos, who has taken Amazon from an on-line bookseller to its current status as an ever-expanding conglomerate powerhouse, may be able to figure out what has stumped others in the journalism business:  how to make the daily newspaper something that everybody will read, and happily pay for, again.

Bloggers And The First Amendment

Senator Lindsey Graham — who seems to be quoted about every topic under the sun — misspoke earlier this week.  In discussing a “shield law ” that Congress is considering in the wake of the Department of Justice’s aggressive pursuit of journalist email and other news-gathering information, Graham asked whether “any blogger out there saying anything” deserves First Amendment protection.  He later corrected himself and said that every blogger enjoys freedom of speech.

Of course, that’s right.  Every American enjoys freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment, and there isn’t any exclusion for bloggers.  Graham’s misstep, though, is one of those instances where a politician’s statement reveals a deeper truth about their actual beliefs.  Graham is an old-line politician who is struggling with the modern world, where the traditional daily newspapers and nightly network broadcasts that he grew up with are fighting a losing battle to hold on to an audience, and any person with a computer and a camera can contribute to the national dialogue about issues and events.  At the root of his comments are these core questions:  how do we deal with these new guys, and who are they, really?

Bloggers must be a pain for politicians.  The traditional methods of controlling the media — having a press secretary who interacts with those pesky reporters and answers their questions, wining and dining the big-time reporters and throwing them a scoop now and then to stay on their good side — just don’t work with bloggers.  There are too many of them, and they don’t go to press conferences or call press secretaries for comments.  They tend to be out in the real world, reacting to what politicians are actually saying, observing the politician actually interacting with the citizenry, and (often) reading the bills and committee reports to try to understand what the politicians are actually doing.  The teeming mass of bloggers makes political manipulation of the press a lot harder.

That doesn’t mean that bloggers are any better or purer than traditional reporters — just different.  Most bloggers come at the issues from a clear ideological bent, and their stuff should be read and weighed with that reality in mind.  Their postings aren’t edited by professionals or subjected to the fact-checking and publication standards that exist at good daily newspapers.  But there is no denying that bloggers — awkward stepchildren of the modern world that they are — have made, and increasingly are making, significant contributions to the national dialogue about the issues of the day.

I’m glad Senator Graham corrected his misstatement and recognized what should be undeniable:  bloggers, like all citizens, are protected by the First Amendment.  It’s just a bit troubling when one of our elected leaders makes such a fundamental blunder in the first place.

A Peek Inside The Brittle, Thin-Skinned D.C. Bubble

Every once in a while we hear about a story that gives us a good sense of the warped world of politicians and journalists in Washington, D.C.  The recent snit between Bob Woodward and the White House is one of those stories.

In case you missed this earth-shattering tale, Bob Woodward — the Watergate reporter who has since made a career out of writing turgid, insider-based accounts of Washington events — was getting ready to write about “sequestration,” the Rube Goldberg process by which $85 billion in “automatic” spending cuts will be made today because our current President can’t lead and our current Congress can’t legislate.  When Woodward told a White House aide his view on the genesis of the “sequestration” concept and the President’s approach to it, he says the aide yelled at him for a half hour, then sent Woodward an email that stated, among other things, that Woodward would “regret” staking out his position on the issue.  Woodward, miffed, disclosed the exchange, which he saw as a veiled threat.

What does this tell us about Washington, D.C.?  It tells us that the White House is focused more on spin than solving problems and is amazingly thin-skinned about criticism.  “Sequestration” — the implementation of “automatic” spending cuts that were consciously designed to be so draconian and blunderbuss that they would force the parties to sit down and reach an agreement — is an idiotic way for our government to operate.  I don’t blame the White House for trying to blur its role in putting such lunacy into place.  The Democrat-controlled Senate, and the Republican-controlled House, are engaging in similar juvenile finger-pointing.  The notion of accepting responsibility and reaching agreement on a rational approach evidently is too adult a concept to hold sway in the weird world of Washington.

But what of Bob Woodward? He received a dressing down from some presidential flunky and then got an email he thought was ill-considered.  Big deal!  I guess the politicians and reporters in D.C. are so chummy that a few strong words are deeply wounding and cause for scandal.  Maybe that’s our problem.  The reporters and the politicians in the D.C. fishbowl are so used to stroking each other that real reporting never gets done and real accountability never gets assigned.  I’d be perfectly happy if more politicians and aides with bloated egos did some yelling at reporters tracking down the news, and more reporters shrugged off the tirades and printed what they and their editors decided was the real story.