President Obama, and many other others, have pointed out that those saying we can balance the budget solely by eliminating “waste, fraud and abuse” are taking a phony approach to fiscal discipline.  However, that doesn’t mean that “waste, fraud and abuse” doesn’t exist — a fact proven by yesterday’s Washington Post piece on spending by HUD on community housing projects.

The Post story found that in recent years more than $400 million in HUD money has been spent on stalled or abandoned projects.  In some cases, money was loaned and projects never got underway.  Many of the people to whom money was given had no experience in construction or had questionable qualifications for getting the federal booty.  The overall picture painted by the article suggests that our tax dollars were spent with little concern for how they would actually be used, and then with little attention to how they were actually being spent.

I recognize that $400 million is only a tiny drop in our colossal deficit bucket — but $400 million is still a lot of money in my book, and the Post article looks at only one program administered by one agency.  What would we find if every federal program were subjected to similar scrutiny?

I’m not surprised by the waste found in the HUD housing efforts, nor am I surprised by the attitude reflected in the quotes from government officials who are involved in this poorly run program.  One person who manages HUD money says we need to reduce the risk by enacting “basic standards” — which suggests that hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent without even “basic standards” that apply.  Could that possibly be true?  The Post quotes another government official, Mercedes Marquez, HUD’s assistant secretary for community planning and development, says “We can do better and we will.”  But why on Earth should we believe her?  Isn’t it safe to assume that every HUD official since that agency was formed has said pretty much the same thing?

This is an example of where governments and businesses diverge.  In any business, a division that failed to insist on basic accountability and frittered away $400 million would be shut down — period.  Why shouldn’t we take the same approach with this badly administered program?

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.

Journalism Adrift

I’ve posted before on “the new journalism” found on blogs and websites and spurred by the internet and easy access to sound and video recordings.  Today, even an obscure video or blog posting can “go viral” and have an enormous, immediate impact that is difficult for newspapers or weekly news magazines to match.  There is simply no need to wait for your daily paper or 6:30 network newscast anymore, and with each passing day fewer people are doing so.

I think the rise of “the new journalism” has been baffling to the “old journalism.”  Deep down, members of the media can’t understand why people aren’t content to get the news the same way they did during the 1970s.  Mainstream media outlets want to be relevant given the rapidly shifting tastes of modern American culture, but they clearly don’t quite know how to achieve that goal.  For example, the Washington Post hired a blogger to cover conservative politics; he recently resigned under fire after his comments on a listserv didn’t match the objective standards expected of Washington Post reporters.  Why should it have surprised anyone that a blogger might not always display that mask of careful objectivity that is a hallmark of traditional journalism?

Another approach seems to be to have mainstream journalists try to write more like bloggers.  This model, I think, is even more misguided.  Eleanor Clift’s recent piece for the “Woman Up” section of the website Politics Daily, on Al Gore’s alleged massage incident, is an embarrassing illustration of that approach.  For years, Clift has portrayed herself as a respectable, knowledgeable commentator on national politics, although she is probably best known for feverishly trying to get a word in edgewise on The McLaughlin Group.  Whereas Clift used to quote “campaign insiders” and “highly placed Administration officials,” her entry linked above quotes an email sent by a colleague and describes how that colleague “imagined” a “scenario” involving Gore.  Clift’s piece also discloses that she went for a run in the morning and a “fellow jogger” confided that it was “nice to know that Gore had these urges.”  Still later, Clift states that she “doubt[s] Gore’s alleged late-blooming sexual aggression will manifest itself with a tally comparable to Tiger Woods.”

Isn’t it humiliating for Clift to write such drivel?  Why in the world would anyone want to read about the speculative imaginings of Clift’s colleague, or the awkward confession of a geriatric jogger?  By writing about such tripe Clift provides nothing that could not equally be provided — and probably with more honesty and immediacy —  by a blogger in the heartland.

Mainstream journalism is never going to survive if it strives only to produce pale imitations of content that already can be found in abundance elsewhere on the internet.  It would be like trying to compete with the Ipod by producing a ’60s-era transistor radio.

Leaking Like A Sieve

It is appalling that General McChrystal’s confidential report on conditions in Afghanistan for President Obama was immediately leaked to the Washington Post.  Who was the leaker?  Someone in the White House who thinks the war in Afghanistan is wrong and wants to exert pressure on the President to stop the fighting?  Someone in the military who wants the public to know that the military is recommending more soldiers on the ground, so that there will be pressure on the President to follow that recommendation?  Or is it just someone who got a copy of the report and wants to curry favor with the Post in hopes of getting some fawning Style article at some point in the future?

Does no one in government put the best interests of the country over their own self-interest or their personal political views?  Don’t the few people who got copies of this report feel sufficient loyalty to President Obama to allow him to review and carefully consider a confidential report about a military matter?  The people who leak these important reports to the press seem to think it is all some kind of Washington insider political game.  It isn’t.  The decision on how to proceed in Afghanistan — which unquestionably was an important base for terrorists before 9/11 and still serves as a significant refuge and threat — is an important one that the President should be permitted to make after quiet reflection and consultation, without being rushed or prodded by unseemly leaks.

As a former journalist, I am all in favor of open government and vigorous press coverage of important decisions.  A government has to be able to keep some secrets, however — particularly when it comes to military and intelligence matters.  Right now, our government seems incapable of performing that essential activity.  At some point, it will cost us.

Update On Journalistic Ethics

I’ve written before on the Washington Post‘s tremendously ill-conceived “salon” concept, where attendees would pay the Post to hobnob with D.C. movers and shakers on health care and other issues.  After the uproar about obvious conflicts of interest, the Post bagged the concept, and now the marketing executive who was supposed to run the program has resigned.  You might not expect a marketing executive to appreciate the nuances of journalistic ethics; you sure would hope that the Post‘s editorial staff and publisher would appreciate those nuances.  So far, none of them have resigned — even though the salon concept was floated before the marketing executive came on board.

Journalistic Ethics (III)

The Washington Post is now falling all over itself in trying to explain the colossal blunder in its “salon” business concept, in which corporations would have paid $25,000 a pop to have drinks with Post, Obama Administration, and congressional insiders. This article tries to explain how the ethical lapse happened.

I appreciate the Post‘s willingness to contemplate its own navel on this incident, but this article and the other explanations I’ve seen simply don’t address the fundamental question — how in the world did someone in a position of authority at the Post not realize the shockingly obvious ethical problem posed by the salon concept? The problem for the Post is that all of the people whose antenna are supposed to tingle when a “pay to play” scenario is outlined apparently felt nothing and said nothing. Journalism relies entirely on the personal ethics of reporters and editors, and if the ethical sensibilities of Post editors and writers are so deadened that they did not hear alarm bells, that is a very serious situation. Perhaps the enormous criticism the “salon” concept has received will reawaken the Post‘s ability to recognize ethical problems. I hope so. The Post is a worthy institution, and it would not be good for anyone if it were crippled by scandal and hindered in its vigorous news-gathering as a result.

Journalistic Ethics (II)

The recent story about the Washington Post “salon” where attendees could have an off-the-record meeting with Obama Administration officials and other assorted movers and shakers is pretty amazing. The reaction of the Post‘s publisher, as reported in this Politico entry, suggests that the publisher may not fully understand the issue that has attracted all of the comment. Whenever a newspaper begins to focus on “business practices” and “new and promising lines of business” that do not involve journalism, the journalism is going to be compromised in some sense. If the Post begins doing business with other entities, much less trading on its name to sell access to politicians, its journalistic ethics are going to be viewed by many in the public as compromised. If the Post gets into a for-profit business deal, what are the chances that it is going to publish a devastating expose of its business partner or new business venture?

The Post should follow my old journalism professor’s rule, and just not take what can’t be consumed in one sitting. Long-term business deals, and $25,000 admission “salons,” would not pass muster under that rule.