Saturday, December 31, 2016

New Year's Resolutions for the Media

Tonight's post comes from political and Civil War  historian Dr. Michael Green, UNLV (who is a highly respected historian with oodles of publications and awards...more on that here:

We'll need a strong media in the coming years, and his thoughts are valuable. If you haven't yet, give $$$$$ to NPR, the Washington Post and the New York Times. Just as your models,voter files, musical skills or other professional skills aren't free, neither is courageous reporting. Pay your dues, peeps, pay your dues. Freeloaders can't fight Trump...

 Dr. Green, I turn it over to you:

The media who covered the presidential election of 2016 have a lot to answer for on Judgment Day. But when Saint I.F. Stone (google him) greets them at the Pearly Gates, they can help their chances if they make these resolutions and keep them.
      Always look for the unhappy ones. James Reston of The New York Times won the first of two Pulitzer Prizes for reporting when he obtained the secret papers the Allies had drawn up for the Dumbarton Oaks conference, which gave birth to the United Nations. Each nation’s representative blamed whoever he disliked or considered his greatest rival for leaking the papers. Reston actually got them from a member of the Chinese delegation who was upset at the lack of attention his country received (a personal connection also helped, but we’ll get to that).
      Democrats will be unhappy during a Trump administration. So will some Republicans—John McCain and Lindsay Graham, for example, if the new president is too friendly with Russia. The media would do well to cultivate the losing side and those who feel left out on the winning side.
      Look for the nothings. During a 1960s conference, several CBS newsmen hoped to find out what went on inside a closed meeting. Charles Collingwood, one of the brilliant corps of correspondents Edward R. Murrow hired during World War II, arrived with the minutes of the meeting. He told the group, “There’s a young man in the Laotian delegation whom I used to know at the Sorbonne. He’s nothing, the fifth secretary of the delegation. But he did happen to have the minutes.” Marvin Kalb, a superb diplomatic correspondent for two decades, said his colleague “went for somebody like the Laotian fifth secretary, who he knew would know what was going on.”
      Similarly, Reston went to a lower-level Chinese official—who also happened to have worked at one time at The New York Times. Like Collingwood, he knew how to exploit connections. But if they were covering the Iditarod, both of them would have understood that the lead dog may know a lot, but the dog at the back is closer to the sled and the driver, and may know more. Reporters need to cultivate those sources. Remember: Bob Woodward’s friend Mark Felt only confirmed information, but Carl Bernstein’s ability to get to know telephone company employees helped them find numbers they might not otherwise have obtained.
      Remember Joseph McCarthy and Murrey Marder. McCarthy is more famous as the senator leading the communist witch hunt of the 1950s, attacking reputations without a shred of evidence or compunction. In The Powers That Be, David Halberstam brilliantly described McCarthy’s technique:

      It was a great journalistic shell game of its kind, hit and run: McCarthy charges, press picks up, passes on, never checks, charges are forgotten, McCarthy goes to next town, reveals a new set of charges, press again uncritically passes them on. McCarthy had shrewdly and ruthlessly seized on the weakest part of the mechanics of journalism, the desire of reporters to have a hot story, and the ability of a senator--who was after all a high public official, and thus a serious man--to make a charge. Because he was a serious man the charge became, if not reality, at least news. The boys in the Senate press gallery occasionally had minor qualms about what McCarthy was doing and what their role in it war, but there were always excuses: he was a senator, their editors wanted it, the play was good, Joe might be right, you could never tell. Sure, they had doubts, but only a columnist could express doubts. Thus it was news. So it was not just McCarthy who was violating the essential bond of trust and civility in a free society, it was the press that was a willing accessory.

      The hero of Halberstam’s account is Marder, a reporter at The Washington Post, who was determined to hold McCarthy to account. Whenever McCarthy made a claim, Marder would carefully investigate it, or point out how it diverged from something else he had said, or put it into a broader perspective—when McCarthy claimed communists had infiltrated the army, Marder went to the base in question to get the real story, rather than just going into print with what McCarthy claimed.
      Marder’s editors supported him, but when they questioned him, Marder replied, as Halberstam put it, “either you believed that a full and fair and honorable explanation of the man and what he was doing was all your readers needed and would in the end bring him down, or there was no sense in being a journalist.” The journalist’s job is supposed to be a full and fair and honorable explanation of what is happening. Halberstam knew it. Marder knew it. Marder’s editors knew it. So should today’s journalists, regardless of the demands of Twitter and internet hits.

      Learn From Russell Baker. Those familiar with Baker know him as the onetime host of Masterpiece Theater on PBS or for 37 years of Pulitzer Prize-winning commentary in The New York Times or for his charming (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) memoir, Growing Up. They also can learn from him about journalism. The Times had assigned him to cover the U.S. Senate, and the then-majority leader, Lyndon Johnson offered to help him. Baker grasped there would be a price: “a sweetheart contract … couldn’t do me anything but harm.”
      Baker understood that. But he also understood himself, and what he wanted to do. “I had never been much interested in getting ‘inside’ information and scoops. Such stuff was important to a newspaper, but it wasn’t what I did well. On the Senate beat I hoped to give the reader accurate and absorbing pictures of the fascinations that occurred there daily,” he said. “I wanted to let readers know that senators billed as titans of statesmanship were also human. That the Foreign Relations Committee’s stately Walter George of Georgia was also the senator from Coca-Cola, that Senator [J. William] Fulbright [a scholarly and thoughtful foreign policy expert] also worried about keeping the board of Arkansas Power and Light pacified, that the oil industry often called tunes for senators like, well … Lyndon Johnson.”
      Good writing and reporting can capture a lot in a few words. Scoops and inside information can be part of a bigger picture. Consider today’s Senate. The GOP leader’s wife has been nominated for the president’s cabinet; if that doesn’t present problems, what does? The Democratic leader once replied—correctly, to be fair—to Jon Stewart’s criticism of his efforts to tweak Dodd-Frank by saying that “Wall Street is in my district.” Those facts won’t necessarily breed great scoops, but they certainly are part of providing “accurate and absorbing pictures.”
      Know Thy Followers and Readers, and Care About Them First. David Farenthold, who did brilliant reporting on Trump’s foundation, used Twitter to try to round up information. Some correspondents interview someone for one story and never expect to encounter that person again, but good journalism involves saving string: the school nurse interviewed for a story about vaccinations might end up being in charge of medical care for her region and have a great story for a reporter about Obamacare, good or bad.

      People like them ultimately matter more than whether other journalists adore you. An editor in my hometown once told me the story of a reporter who begged to be taken off of a story that was on the front page every day because other reporters laughed at him—they didn’t think it was their kind of story. It wasn’t. It was just a great news story, and the public liked it and cared. That needs to matter more than whether your colleagues follow you on Twitter, or whether they invite you onto their television panels.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Letter is Mightier Than the Mouse Click

As the initial shock of the electon wears off, and  Trump and  Pence pack the Cabinet with anti-government, science denying, anti-worker knuckle-draggers, it's time for us all to take some action.

But not all "actions" are created equal. Here is a handy cheat sheet. 100 points is the best thing a citizen activist can possibly hope to do with one single action, and 1 is the worst. Based on that scale, let's look at some actions:

   POINTS: 2 out of 100
   GRADE: G, because sometimes an F is not bad enough.
Our Facebook feeds are  full of standard online petitions, where you enter your name and an email address and (maybe) if they are on the vaguely sophisticated side, a Zip Code. Then, you click your mouse to send and call it a night.

Dirty little secret: These petitions are the single most ineffective thing you can do as an activist. Since the Internet is the provenance of memes, I'll give you a meme:


The progressive movement has done a fantastic job using online petitions for fundraising, but their impact on lobbying Congress or elected officials is severely limited. Most of the time, online petitions are essentially a front for fundraising. The environmental or choice or other activist group is collecting your email so they can ask for money later ("later" generally commences milliseconds after you sign the petition and you see the gigantic, easy eye "donate" button on your screen). There is nothing at all wrong with this. Those groups need money, but don't assume that signing the petition moves either lawmakers or legislation. It moves neither.


And, there are some dirty little secrets. petitions are often NOT EVEN DELIVERED to Congress. Non profits use the service to enhance their email lists. A non-profit pays to use the site; any new emails that come in on that petition are given to the non-profit, at a price per email. It's great for list building, and it's somewhat effective at corporate lobbiyng (spooking a business by showing them customers are angry). At the Congressional level, it brings us back to our meme:


Sites like Credo and MoveOn are also more effective at corporate lobbying than lobbying Congress. They are simply too ideological. Consider: Speaker Paul Ryan full well understands that anyone signing a liberal group's petition is highly unlikely to vote for a Republican, at least not until they are 90, dementia laden, and can no  longer read the party labels on their ballot. So, Ryan and his Congressional colleagues will simply wholesale ignore a couple hundred printed pages of "signatures" delivered to their staff. And before you pillory the GOP on this, put the shoe on the Donkey: Neither Bernie Sanders nor Elizabeth Warren are likely to be swayed by an online petition circulated by the NRA, a Koch brother PAC, Rush Limbaugh or Breitbart. Remember the meme:


EFFECTIVELY lobbying Congress takes a LOT more time and effort.

So, since the online petition doesn't work, try this:

2) A personalized email or letter.
   POINTS: 85 out of 100
   GRADE: B+

This only works, however, if you DO YOUR HOMEWORK.

CHOOSE YOUR TARGET: Before you write, call the Representative's or Senator's office and ask them for the name of the person who handles the issue you would like to write about and get their email address. If you are addressing climate change ask for the environmental staffer; if it's education, ask for the education staffer. Don't just use the office's main email address, it's an electronic data dumpster; get the staff person's email and send it directly to them. Even if the receptionist won't give you their email over the phone once you have a name you can generally Google them to find it.

WRITE CAREFULLY. THEY GO LOW, WE GO HIGH:  Check your anger and your partisanship at the door. You are trying to convince someone you are right, and they are wrong. You won't get there with all caps, or profanity, or worse yet, a four paragraph electronic version of the Harry Potter Howler. Keep your missive professional. For an example of a letter on Gun Control, click here:

Research your issue, and write armed with real facts.Tell the official your concerns and that his or her opinion on your issue means a great deal to you and will influence your vote. But don't wear your partisanship on your sleeve. If Speaker Ryan's staffer senses "hard core liberal" your missive carries less weight. You don't need to hide anything, just advocate cleverly. THEY GO DUMB, WE GO SMART.

If you want to fight for Medicare, look at how Senator Al Franken from Minnesota chose his words in a missive criticizing the incoming Trump Administration:

"More than 55 million Americans depend on Medicare’s guaranteed access to medical care. Nearly a million of those people are Minnesotans [find the number for your state and insert that in this sentence]. All of them paid into the system during their careers, and all of them retired with the understanding that the next generation would care for them when they needed it most. Donald Trump did not run on a promise to end Medicare as we know it. In fact, he promised that he was “not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid.” But that’s not what he’s saying anymore. He's already shown that he's comfortable with breaking his campaign promises."

Or, look at a paragraph from the Democratic Senators' letter to Trump on Medicare:

" Low-income children and families and people with disabilities are the primary beneficiaries of Medicaid.  Millions of seniors and individuals with disabilities have earned and rely on their Medicare benefits.  Medicaid is the only assistance available to millions of low and middle-income families who have a loved one requiring nursing home care.  As you noted when you extolled their benefits on your campaign website, cutting these programs would be devastating."

We might add a final paragraph, deftly avoiding partisanship:

"Understand, Mr. Trump, voters are no longer interested in the same old tired GOP rhetoric. You were right to oppose old school Republicans on trade, and you were right to oppose them on Medicare. America did not vote for more of the same, and it's morally repellent for you to back off your promises, even before you take the oath of office. Are you for change, or for more of the same? If you think tossing your campaign promises into the first trash can you pass is leadership, don't bother accepting the oath of office on January 20. Shame on you, Sir. Shame. I am respectfully requesting the favor of a reply from your Administration, and I'd like you to answer this question: how is breaking your campaign promise 'Making America Great Again'?"

No need to be disingenuous. Just make your reader at the White House who reads your letter (and it will be an impressionable aide, not Trump), come away with an uneasy question "Are we annoying one of OUR voters here?".

If you don't get a reply within a week, follow up, re-posting your original message. And keep doing it until you do get a reply.

This will be more effective than including any of the following quotes from petition and news site comments on Medicare:


"Trump is larding up his cabinet with so many despicable scumbags"

"It was only a matter of time before the most selfish nation in the world did something like this. The US is totally isolated and reviled."

Or these comments online regarding  Trump's choice for EPA Secretary:

"The good news is that you'll get a dead otter with every fillup, you can eat it or mount it on your wall."

"Trump's billionaire cabinet picks and pay to play what's in it for me appointees and the orange turd hasn't even been sworn in yet."

In blog posts to follow, I'll be posting sample letters and fact sheets. Want to fight Bannon? Argue for renewable energy? Fight for fair funding in education? Stay tuned.

BE INFORMED and put TIME into your activism. You'll get out of it what you put into it. If  you rely on the one mouse click petition, you get what you invested: nothing.

And, yes, I'll give you the meme one last time.


You can do better than clicking a button. And given we are facing a Trump Administration, you are going to need to step up your game, and quickly.