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.

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