Questionable Calls in the Sports Department

by Walter Brasch

With the opening of the high school football season, local newspapers and TV stations have again been running lists of what they believe are the top teams.

Most lists rank teams in the “top 10.” One Pennsylvania TV station, whose on-air number is 16, runs the “Top 16.”

There are several problems with these lists. First, we don’t know how they got those rankings. We don’t know who makes up those lists or what criteria were used. It could be a sports editor and her grandfather. It could be a bunch of station personnel sitting at a bar, throwing back vodka slammers and team names.

Even if we know how the lists are compiled, a second major question arises. Why? Yes, why? Why does it matter? Aren’t won-loss records good enough? Shouldn’t the only rankings that matter be who enters and wins in the playoffs?

Some newspapers have a half-dozen staffers and a couple of subscribers make predictions of the upcoming high school, college, and pro football games. Winners get prestige and, sometimes, gift cards from local advertisers.

Some newspapers run the odds on upcoming games, apparently so their subscribers have basic, although seldom accurate, information to assist them with bets. While betting on college and pro games is fairly common, and mostly illegal, should anyone be betting on high school games?

Several sites rank teams from throughout the country. USAToday runs a pre-season ranking of the Top 25 football teams. With one million boys playing football on 14,000 teams, does anyone think anyone, even those with access to a super-Cray computer, can accurately define the “top 25.” USAToday during mid-summer also does a composite score of four national sites which determine the “Top High School Prospects.” These are, supposedly, the “top 100” high school players, and top recruits for a college football scholarship.

The rankings don’t stop with football. USAToday also ranks the “top 25” teams in almost every sport, including girls lacrosse and boys soccer.

Do these rankings and predictions give the sports departments something to fill time and space? Do they make the sports editor appear to be powerful or intelligent? Are the lists something to allow fans to believe their team is good enough to be ranked? Or to complain that their team was cheated and should be ranked No. 3, instead of No. 17?

Related to rankings are the persistent countdowns of the “Best Play of the Week” and “Athlete of the Week.” These TV clips are loaded in favor of quarterbacks throwing balls to receivers or running backs sidestepping two tackles to score from 20 yards out. Usually overlooked is a great block that springs the running back loose. Or, maybe a quarterback sack that stops the other team’s momentum. But, every week there’s some play that someone-we don’t know who-and we certainly don’t know the criteria-decides for the rest of us.

On Saturdays, we shouldn’t care who was ranked or what the best play was from the night before. We should care that the teenage boys did their best, played hard, and enjoyed their time on the field.

After all, it’s only a game.

[Dr. Brasch began his journalism career as a sports writer and then as a sports editor before turning to public affairs/investigative reporting and in-depth feature writing. He is the author of 20 books. His latest is the critically-acclaimed Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.]

 

The Boss Who Fought for the Working Class

by Walter Brasch

He was born into poverty in New Hampshire in 1811.

His father was a struggling farmer. His mother did most of the other chores.

He was a brilliant student, but the family often moved, looking for a better life-a couple of times so the father could avoid being put into debtor’s prison.

At the age of 15, he dropped out of school and became a printer’s apprentice, sending much of his wages to help his family.

For several years, he worked as an apprentice and then as a printer, his hands covered by ink, his body ingesting the chemicals of that ink.

He worked hard, saved money, helped others achieve their political dreams, became the editor of newspapers, and soon became an owner.

In the two decades leading to the Civil War, Horace Greeley had become one of the most powerful and influential men in America. His newspaper, the New York Tribune, was the nation’s largest circulation newspaper.

But instead of becoming even richer, he used his newspaper as a call for social action. For social justice.

In 1848, as a congressman fulfilling the last three months of the term of an incumbent who was removed from office, Greeley introduced legislation to end flogging in the Navy, argued for a transcontinental railroad, and introduced legislation to allow citizens to purchase at a reduced price land in unsettled territories as long as they weren’t speculators and promised to develop the land.

The Homestead Act, which Congress finally passed 13 years later, helped the indigent, unemployed, and others to help settle the American west and Midwest.

But in his three months in office he also became universally hated by almost everyone elected to Congress. The social reformer in his soul had pointed out numerous ethical and criminal abuses by members of Congress; his party didn’t ask him to run for a full term.

He called for all American citizens-Blacks and women included-to be given the rights of the vote.

In 1854, Greeley became one of the founders of the Republican party. For more than two decades, he had been a strong abolitionist and now the new political party would make the end of slavery one of its founding principles. He was one of the main reasons why his friend, Abraham Lincoln, whom he helped become president, finally relented and two years after the civil war began, finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

More than 225,000 Americans (of a nation of about 35 million) bought his relatively objective and powerful history of the civil war, making the book one of the best-sellers in the nation’s nine decade history. In today’s sales, that would be about two million copies.

Unlike some editors who pandered to the readers and advertisers, he maintained a separation of editorial and advertising departments, and demanded the best writers and reporters, no matter what their personal opinions were. Among those he hired were Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Karl Marx. And at a time when newsrooms were restricted to men, he hired Margaret Fuller to be his literary editor.

He believed in a utopian socialism, where all people helped each other, and where even the most unskilled were given the opportunity to earn a living wage.

He demanded that all workers be treated fairly and with respect. In 1851, he founded a union for printers.

When his employees said they didn’t need a union because their boss paid them well and treated them fairly, he told them that only in a union could the workers continue to be treated decently, that they had no assurances that some day he might not be as decent and generous as he was that day. The union was for their benefit, the benefit of their families, and their profession, he told them.

In 1872, Horace Greeley ran for the presidency, nominated on both the Democrat and Liberal Republican tickets. But, his opposition was U.S. Grant, the war hero running for re-election on an establishment Republican ticket.

Weeks before the electoral college met, Horace Greeley, who lost the popular vote, died, not long after his wife.

The printers, the working class, erected monuments in his honor.

And everyone knew that the man with a slight limp, who usually dressed not as a rich man but as a farmer coming into town to buy goods, who greeted everyone as a friend, who could have interesting conversations with everyone from the illiterate to the elite, was a man worthy of respect, even if they disagreed with his views. For most, Horace Greeley was just a bit too eccentric, his ideas just too many decades ahead of their time.

On this Labor Day weekend, when not one Republican candidate for president believes in unions, when CEOs often make more than 100 times what their workers earn, when millionaires and billionaires running for office pretend they are populists, when even many in the working class seem more comfortable supporting the policies and political beliefs of the elite, the nation needs to reflect upon the man who knew that without the workers, there would be no capitalism.

[Dr. Brasch has been a member of several crafts, arts, and trade labor unions. He proudly sees himself not as among the elite but as a part of the working class. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster]

 

The Boozy, but not Newsy, Mass Media

by Walter Brasch

The Big Story this past week was the Golden Globes awards.

The Golden Globes, sponsored by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and broadcast by NBC, drew 21 million viewers for the three-hour ceremony, preceded by a one-hour Red Carpet gush-fest hosted by “Today” show personalities. There wasn’t one TV or film personality the hosts didn’t fawn over.

Tamron Hall several times excitedly told the viewers that last year she watched the Golden Globes on TV, and now was so thrilled to be on the Red Carpet to interview fellow celebrities.

Hosts praised the gowns of the women; the women returned the compliments to Hall and Savannah Guthrie.

No one said anything about the spiffy tuxes that Matt Lauer or Carson Daly wore. However, more than just a few viewers noted that Lauer began the telecast watching celebrities through a pair of sunglasses. Lauer, who long ago transitioned from journalist to $25 million a year celebrity, justified the Jack Nicholson look by saying the sun was in his eyes. It’s possible the director, producers, lighting technicians, and camera operators couldn’t figure out how to position Lauer and the pulchritudinous multitude without having the sun affect them. It’s also possible that someone from the Honey Boo Boo family will become a five-time “Jeopardy” champion.

To make sure the viewers knew the Golden Globes were not the staid Oscars, the hosts and some of the celebrities referred to the amount of drinking before, during, and after the presentations. There is, apparently, a correlation that the Golden Globes are a looser, much more fun ceremony because the stars can sit at dinner tables and shine all night long. Some of the TV and Golden Globes staff, and probably some of the stars, may have even chosen to get a Colorado high before the ceremony. Cate Blanchett, who won a Golden Globe for “Best Actress in a Drama,” navigated to the stage and declared, to no one’s surprise, “I had a few vodkas under my belt.”  By the time Jacqueline Bisset got to the stage to accept her award, the orchestra had already begun to play the “Your time is up” music. Emma Thompson, seeming to bond with college sorority girls, came onto the stage with her shoes in her right hand and a martini in her left hand. She was there to present the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay, proving that actors will always upstage writers.

Boozers Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford stayed in New York, preparing whatever wine or other liquor they would feature in their one-hour “Today” show gab-fest the next day.

The day after the Golden Globe awards, newspapers ran innumerable color pictures of actresses, making sure to identify whose designer gown they were wearing. There is nothing wrong with that. The people in the TV and film industry, whether star or gopher, work hard and are every bit as professional as any doctor, lawyer, or cosmetologist. However, there are questions about the professionalism of the news media.

During the week of the Golden Globes, there actually was some hard news.            Forty-five homes were evacuated in New Brunswick after a 122-car Canadian National train derailed. Seventeen of those cars, carrying propane and crude oil from North Dakota, burned. Only because the wind was blowing away from a populated area was a major disaster averted. It was the sixth major derailment since July of trains carrying the toxic and highly flammable crude oil from the Bakken Shale of North Dakota.

In West Virginia, Freedom Industries spilled almost 8,000 gallons of the chemical Crude MCHM into the Elk River near Charleston. That spill caused more than 1,000 residents to go to emergency rooms for a variety of ailments, including rashes and breathing problems. The 300,000 residents who were affected had to rely upon bottled water for at least a week. The contaminated water, which traveled down the Ohio River, was too toxic even to be boiled, cooled, and then used.

In Chicago, four persons were murdered this past week. In Baltimore, there were 16 murders in the first two weeks of the year. Across the country, more than 200 Americans were murdered last week.

There are several ways to determine news media priorities. You can count column inches or air time; the Globes easily won in that category. You can check placement of a story, whether on a page or in the TV line-up. Chalk another win to the Globes. But there’s also another way to determine what the media think are important. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association handed out more than 1,200 press credentials. This would be probably at least 10 times more media personnel than those who covered the train derailment, the chemical pollution, and America’s preoccupation with guns.

More than 4,000 media credentials were issued in 2005 to the press to cover the celebrity trial of Michael Jackson in ocean-beautiful Santa Barbara, Calif. The International Olympic Committee is issuing 2,800 press credentials for the Sochi winter Olympics; about 6,000 press credentials were issued for the 2012 London summer Olympics.

It’s just a reality of the entertainment-driven news media that thinks it’s being relevant by splashing soft puff and entertainment news all over its good-for-one-week porous sheets of newsprint or the air time it leases from the FCC.

[Dr. Brasch’s latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation of the environmental, health, and economic effects of horizontal fracturing to capture natural gas. The book also includes extensive analysis of the collusion between corporate interests and politicians.]

Weathering a Blizzard of News Media Bravado

by WALTER BRASCH

Ginger Zee is an ABC News weather person. She’s 32 years old, has a B.S. in meteorology, and says even in high school she wanted to be a TV network weatherperson. Not a scientist in a lab studying and analyzing weather, but a TV weather person. For more than a decade, she worked local and regional markets, mostly in Michigan and Chicago.

Her other qualifications are that she is photogenic, has a somewhat bubbly personality, wears a size 4 dress, weighs 125 pounds, and was her high school homecoming queen. If she wasn’t on TV, she says she’d have loved to be a bartender.

It’s entirely possible she’s competent. But, it’s also possible that TV execs bypassed thousands of other competent meteorologists to find someone who knows weather-and looks good on camera. For meeting those qualifications, ABC-TV gives her significant air time. She is the weather person for the weekend editions of “Good Morning America.” If there’s a snow storm, blizzard, or heavy rain, you can see her-or any of a few dozen other TV personalities-male and female-on air, under an umbrella or in a parka, trying not to freeze any of their six-figure salary assets. It’s a good visual, as they say in TV.

It’s also bad journalism.

There is absolutely no need to put someone onto a deserted street with a hill of snow and wind to tell us there is a hill of snow and wind, and to stay off the roads.

First, it’s just not the weather person who may be in danger. On local news, there’s usually an all-purpose staff person who combines driving the SUV or van with responsibilities as a sound and video technician and who endures the same conditions as the weather person. On network TV, there may be a mini-crew of four others to get the picture on air. We don’t see them, and none make anywhere close to the salaries of the on-air talent. But they’re the ones driving, setting up the equipment, coordinating with the studio, and making sure the live performance during a blizzard appears to be not only as dangerous as it looks, but that the weather person also looks good.

Second, technology has given us the ability to station remote cameras. The weather person could stay indoors, among computers, telephones, charts, and maps and tell us the same thing-without being the only ones dumb enough to be blown into a snow bank.

We understand why local news gives us this visual, and leads off almost every non-prime time newscast with a weather report and usually erroneous predictions. But, now network TV not only gives us the same thing, it also leads off the evening news with same information we get from local news. Last weekend, Ginger Zee and weather people from the news networks were bundled up somewhere in New England, facing the cameras and wind gusts of 75 miles per hour. Some weather people were in Times Square showing us that the “crossroads of the world” was pedestrian free because of the blizzard. They had the easier job-there was less snow, less wind, and Times Square was a limousine ride from the network studios.

Newspapers aren’t immune from the “bravado syndrome.” Editors sitting in windowless offices have no hesitation in sending out eager photographers, salivating at getting that one great weather shot, even if it’s of their company car being stuck in a snow bank after sliding off an icy road.

To “humanize” the story-high-paid news consultants like to throw around the concept of “humanizing a story”-some of the reporters had to find people stuck in the snow. There were many to choose from. But, the questions asked were along the lines of, “So, how did you get into this situation?” “How do you feel about this storm?” and “What do you plan to do?”

There wasn’t much reporting in New Jersey. The “Garden State” was snowed under, but didn’t get hit as bad as New England, which saw two feet of snow and 75 miles an hours wind gusts. But, there were stories there, which didn’t receive heavy coverage and didn’t threaten the news crews’ physical safety. New Jersey has begun to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Could someone have checked to see what the blizzard did to the people and their properties in those shore areas that were once flooded, and now snowed-in and likely to endure even more water damage if temperatures increased and the snow melted before it could be shoveled and trucked from residential and commercial areas?

Getting “the story” is good journalism. Risking your safety and health, and possibly putting others at risk for a weather story, isn’t.

[Walter Brasch has been a journalist more than three decades. He acknowledges while much younger, he thought nothing about rushing into danger. Now that he’s matured, he looks back and thinks that some of his bravado was just plain dumb. Dr. Brasch’s latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth analysis of the health and environmental problems associated with natural gas drilling, and an investigation of the relationship between the energy industry and politicians. It’s available through amazon.com or www.greeleyandstone.com, and local bookstores.]

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Walter M. Brasch, Ph.D.

BREAKING NEWS: AP, Media Fumble News Story

by WALTER BRASCH

On the Sunday before the final presidential debate, Mitt Romney and some of his senior staffers played a flag football game with members of the Press Corps on Delray Beach, Fla.

Ashley Parker of the Associated Press, apparently mistaking fashion reporting for news, reported that Mitt Romney was “wearing black shorts, a black Adidas T-shirt and gray sneakers.” Romney’s team, composed of senior campaign staff whom Parker identified, was “clad in red T-shirts.” She didn’t report what the members of the press wore, their names, or how many were on a team, but did acknowledge she “also played, winning the coin toss for her team, but doing little else by way of yardage accrual.” Yardage accrual? If this was Newswriting 101, and she put that phrase into a news story, there wouldn’t be one college prof anywhere in the country who wouldn’t have red-marked it, and suggested she stop trying to be cute.

Romney was a starter-we don’t know which position he played-made a “brief beach appearance” and left when “the game was in full swing,” possibly not wanting to get too mussed up by having to interact with commoners. There is so much a reporter could have done with Romney’s failure to finish the game, but didn’t. Parker, however, did tell readers breathlessly awaiting the next “factoid” that Ann Romney “made a brief appearance . . . after cheerleading from the sidelines.” She was protected by the Secret Service who served as the offensive line, undeniably allowing her to take enough time to do her nails, brush her hair, put on another coat of makeup for the AP camera, and then throw a touchdown pass to tie the game at 7-7. At 14-14, the game was called because, reported Parker, “Mr. Romney’s aides needed to get to debate prep, and the reporters had stories to file.” Obviously, stories about a beach flag football game on a Sunday afternoon was critical enough breaking news to stop the game and breathlessly inform the nation.

Amidst the sand, Parker reported, “There is a long history of candidates and their staff members occasionally interacting with reporters on a social level.” She referred to a couple events during the 2008 campaign; Sen. Barack Obama played Taboo with reporters; Sen. John McCain hosted a barbeque for the media. Those facts alone should have kept any alert comedy writer, satirist, or political pundit in material for the next four years.

A beach football game between politician and press may seem innocent enough-a couple of hours of fun to break the stress of a long, and usually annoying, political campaign. But there’s far more than flags pulled from shorts.

Reporters who socialize with the power elite-and this happens far more than it doesn’t happen-often fail to do their primary job: challenge authority, as the Founding fathers so eloquently asked. It wasn’t White House reporters who broke the Watergate story that eventually led to the resignation of Richard Nixon, it was two police reporters at the Washington Post, who took abuse heaped upon them by the White House reporters and hundreds of others, including some of their own newspaper, for going on what was called a vindictive witch hunt.  It was the media who proved they were better stenographers than reporters who dutifully chowed down whatever crumbs they were fed by the Bush-Cheney administration, and seldom questioned why the U.S. was invading Iraq. A few from the major media and many from the alternative press who did question authority were dismissed as mere gadflies. It was the sycophantic press that also didn’t question the destruction of civil liberties by the passage of the PATRIOT Act.

Against policy wonk/environmentalist Al Gore in 2000, Americans said they would rather have a beer with George W. Bush. Many of the press did have beers with candidate Bush, who once invited the media onto his ranch to watch him shoot and then barbeque pigeons for a group barbecue.

Every year in the nation’s capital is a high society event, the “Gridiron dinner.” Everyone-politicians, members of the press, and a horde of actors and singers-dress up in ball gowns and white-tie tuxedos to drink and schmooze. When it isn’t Gridiron Season, there’s all kinds of social events at all kinds of places that reporters just have to attend in order to get their stories, they simplistically justify.

Sports reporters who are too close to the teams or the sports they cover are derisively known as “homers,” not for Homer Simpson, who some of them act like, but because they favor the home team. Entertainment reporters and arts critics feel important because publicists will often go to extraordinary lengths to get them face-time with celebrities. To prove how “independent” they are, some, who have no discernible creative talent, will write snarky columns about celebrities and their works, thinking they are clever rather than the pompous self-aggrandizing jerks they really are. Many in the media-especially those in television and the print reporters who often do TV talk-show commentaries-probably should drop the pretense they’re journalists and just accept the appellations that they are celebrities.

It isn’t just reporters who cover national stories who get too close to their sources. There are now state and metropolitan gridiron dinners. At a local level, Reporters who cover the police and city council are often on a first-name basis with their sources. Even if they honestly believe they are objective, and will knock down lies and deceptions, they often don’t. They believe they need these sources to get more news, and are afraid that if they become too tough, the news, which is fed to them, will somehow dry up. They often accept “background” and “off-the-record” comments, which they never report or attribute, because somehow it makes them feel that they, unlike their readers of a lesser level, are “in the know.” And yet, every reporter will swear upon a stack of style manuals that he or she is objective and independent.

Don’t believe that? Put yourself in the position of being a reporter. You’re sitting at your desk in the bullpen of a newsroom, now decimated by layoffs. In walks a man in a three-piece suit and a woman in fashionably-acceptable skirt, blouse, blazer, and two-inch heels. They have a story to tell. Now, you may think that because they are PR people or middle-management executives for a large corporation, they are suspect to begin with, but they, like you, are college graduates; they are eloquent; they have a news release with the story laid out. Want anything else? They’re more than pleased to get it for you.

Now, the next day, while walking outside your office, a bag lady accosts you. She’s wearing little more than rags. Her hair is unkempt; her breath stinks. It’s doubtful she was ever a sorority president. “You a reporter?” she barks, knowing that if you’re wearing jeans, a nice but not expensive shirt and a tie you probably aren’t a corporate executive or big-shot politician. She wants to tell you a story-something about a corporation that did something very unethical and possibly illegal. You’re running late to your appointment with a physical trainer who has promised to keep you fit and attractive. You just want to get past this obstacle.

Who do you relate to? Those who look, act, and think more like you-or those who you probably wouldn’t have a drink with after work?

Don’t expect the media to stop having social encounters with their sources; it will never happen. But, do expect that maybe some will heed the call of the Founding Fathers and be independent of the sources they are expected to cover.

[Walter Brasch spent more than 40 years as a journalist and university professor, covering everything from local school board meetings to the White House.  He is currently a syndicated columnist and book author. He acknowledges that in his early 20s he was enamored by being at the same parties as the “power elite,” but quickly got over it, and has been fiercely independent from the power-elites, including the power-media, whether at local, state, or national levels. His current book is the critically-acclaimed Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution.]

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Walter M. Brasch, Ph.D.

Latest Book: Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution

(www.greeleyandstone.com)

www.walterbrasch.com

www.walterbrasch.blogspot.com

www.facebook.com/walterbrasch

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v…

The Fluff Factor: Today’s Journalism

by WALTER BRASCH

Will someone please buy gags for Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford?

It makes no difference what the color is.

Plain or polka-dotted.

Painted or sequined.

Scented silk, Egyptian cotton, or an auto mechanic’s oil-soaked rag.

Just as long as it can be stuffed into their mouths.

When their mouths are open, the personality-drenched hosts of NBC’s fourth hour of “Today” are swilling cocktails, blathering about themselves, or interrupting their guests.

It makes no difference who the guest is. Cookbook or romance author. Relationships or nutrition expert. A-list actors. No one gets more than a couple of seconds without cross-talk with one or both of the hosts. They may think it’s funny. Or, maybe, like authors who are sometimes paid by word, or doctors who are given bonuses for scheduling myriad lab tests, these babblers have to justify their seven-figure annual incomes by the jabber rate of words per minute. It may be time for NBC to move all four hours of the “Today” show from the news division into the entertainment division.

Almost as bad as the GabFest at 10 a.m. is what has happened to news shows. At one time, news anchors, assisted by newswriters and producers, went into the field, got the news, wrote it, edited it, and then broadcast it. They sat in anchor chairs because they were excellent journalists. But broadcast journalism-and those two words should seldom be put next to each other in the same sentence-with a few network and regional exemptions devolved into yet another mess of Reality TV.

The co-hosts, known as anchors, are usually a tandem of a wise middle-aged older man and his pretend trophy wife, both of whom spend more time in Make-up and Hair Dressing than they ever spent in journalism classes. Their reporters and correspondents may have studied journalism in college, but their interests were undoubtedly more focused upon voice quality, delivery, and personality than source building, probing, and fact checking.

On air, the anchors open with something serious. A fire. A mugging. A supermarket opening, reported by freshly-scrubbed 20-ish field reporters and recorded by videographers with digital cameras and almost no knowledge of what video is. In all fairness, it’s hard to know what videotape is when your best friend is an iPad.

If a story doesn’t have a “visual,” it probably won’t air. That’s one of the reasons why stories about the foolishness of state legislatures aren’t broadcast. The other reason may be that Public Affairs Journalism isn’t usually a required course for college students majoring in Broadcast Journalism. By the end of the first news block, the co-hosts lighten up. Coming back from commercials-there are eight minutes of them in a 30-minute news cast-the co-hosts may have more news or a script that directs them to “throw it to Weather.”

For four or five minutes, a college-educated meteorologist or a “weather girl”-on some stations it makes no difference-using the latest visual technology tells us the highs, lows, barometric pressure, storm fronts, and the history of weather.

One of the responsibilities of the weather people is to make sure they get names into the broadcast, probably because some overpriced media consultant told them to do so. A simple sentence like, “It was in the mid-80s throughout our region” is replaced by telling us it was 84 degrees in Snowshoe Falls, 85 degrees in Dry Gulf Junction, and 84 in East Swamphole. To make sure our bodies can tolerate the whimsies of Mother Nature, weathercasters predict what will happen a week away, usually with about the same success as a drunk with the Racing Form.

Time for more commercials.

At least twice, the anchors “tease” the viewers with some celebrity scandal they will tell us all about if we just keep watching until the end of the show.

Next up is about four or five minutes of Sports. The latest fad in sports reporting is to be a part of the story. So, we see sportscasters doing push-ups with the football team, learning how to shoot an arrow, or reporting from inside a race car. Apparently, they believe that gives them credibility, something they probably learned from anchors’ ride-along on fire trucks and Blue Angels flights.

By the end of the newscast, the co-hosts, weather people, sportscasters, and field reporters have turned the news into the Happy Time Half-Hour Aren’t We Wonderful Show. They wasted our time chatting informally among themselves, tossing one-liners they think are cute and might get them work in a Comedy Club-as a cook. Take away the Happy Talk, tighten up their reporting-how many times do we need to hear that a “community is in shock” about a fire, death, or that the fireman’s carnival had to be cancelled-and the 22 minute news show might be only 15.

At the National Conference for Media Reform four years ago, Dan Rather-who for more than a half-century has been everything a news journalist should be-explains what has contributed to the decline not just TV news but all journalism as well: “Media consolidation, the corporate news environment, ‘message discipline,’ media cowardice, news-for-profit, celebrity fluff, ‘so-called human interest stories,’ sensational trials, gossip, ‘news you can use,’ [and] partisan shouting matches.”  

There are a few journalistic highlights, like “60 Minutes” and Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” which he modestly calls fake news, but which makes far more sense than anything else permeating the airwaves. Nevertheless, most news operations-local, regional, broadcast or cable-have been compromised by exactly what Dan Rather said.

Maybe it’s time for all of us to join Hoda and Kathie Lee and drink our way through what passes as the news.

[Walter Brasch proudly calls himself a journalist, and has been for more than 40 years, in radio, TV, newspapers, and magazines. He was recently honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Pennsylvania Press Club. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Before the First Snow, which looks at the establishment and alternative media, as well as the public relations industry.]

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Walter M. Brasch, Ph.D.

Latest Book: Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution

(www.greeleyandstone.com)

www.walterbrasch.com

www.walterbrasch.blogspot.com

www.facebook.com/walterbrasch

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v…

Blood on the Lens

“If it bleeds, it leads” is local TV’s aphorism that dictates its belief that fires, car crashes, and shootings lead off the nightly newscast. These stories, of course, are more “visual” and easier to cover than poverty, worker exploitation, and the health care crisis.

But, now and then, it’s hard to find an assortment of adrenaline-enhanced stories. And so it was that WOW-TV’s panicked station manager met with his news director late one afternoon to go over the final line-up for the 6 O’clock news, which, with few variants would be the same news the station would run in its “expanded news coverage” shows over the next 24 hours. The station manager wasn’t happy.

“What do you mean leading off the news with a report that some jokers at the Public Health Service found the cure for AIDS? Weren’t there any accidents? Fires? Murders!”

“Sorry, Boss, there’s nothing out there.”

“NOTHING?! ‘Nothing’ as in ‘no accidents,’ or ‘nothing’ as in ‘You’re about to get a job at Kwik-E-Mart’?!”

“Boss, we really tried. I have five camera crews running around right now.”

“Think you can get two of them to run into each other? We’d pay the hospital bills.”

“Boss, don’t you remember? The union made us agree to a six-month moratorium on stories that involve us maiming our crews just for the sake of ratings?”

“Some union,” the station manager huffed. “Doesn’t even want its members to get more air time.”

“It’s only for six months,” said the news director. “After that, maybe we could cut the brake linings on Unit 3 and have Unit 4 cover it. But for right now, the news scanner is dead.”

“What happened to that fatality on Honeysuckle?”

“By the time we scrambled the chopper, the drivers had exchanged insurance numbers and left.”

“Left!?” thundered the station manager. “No one leaves when there’s a camera crew on the way!”

“Best we could figure out, it was just a few paint scratches.”

“Any of the cars red? If you got there faster, it might  have looked like blood. Check the cops again. They might be covering up something.”

“Sorry, Boss. Even Philly’s not reporting any murders in the past 24 hours.”

“Then go out and shoot someone!” the station manager demanded.

“Sorry, Boss, I can’t do that.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” said the station manager. “Tell Susie Sweetwater to do it. Her ratings are down. This should help.”

“Susie’s in the middle of her reading class right now, and you know how she hates to be disturbed when she’s learning new words.”

“Then Heartthrob! Audiences salivate whenever he’s on. The public would back him even if he had assault weapons and made welsh rarebit out of the Easter Bunny.”

“It’s an hour until air,” the news director reminded the station manager. “Hearthrob’s already in Makeup. They’re darkening his hair tonight.”

“Celebrities!” shouted the station manager. “Audiences love train wrecks, and celebrities do it better than anyone! Find me Lindsay Lohan!”

“We have two crews on her now,” said the news director, “but all she’s doing is drinking and partying. Besides, we’ve done that story five times this month.”

“What about the Jersey Shore morons.”    

“They’re currently destroying what’s left of the Roman civilization, and we can’t afford to send a crew.”

“Get me a fire! Forest. Trailer. Stove. I don’t care!” the station manager demanded, smashing his coffee mug against his desk, and cutting his wrist. “BLOOD!” he shouted. “We have blood!”

“It’s only a scratch,” said the news director.

“It’s blood! And it’s good for a grabber. Grab a producer. Come in with an extreme close-up full-frame, and then pull back to a medium shot. Dissolve to some of the footage of the Vancouver fans rioting when their team lost the Stanley Cup. Here’s your lead: Violence in Canada leads to blood-letting in America.” He paused a moment. “Make sure you run teasers on this every five minutes.”

[Walter Brasch, who once worked with TV, says it’s much safer in print journalism. His latest book is Before the First Snow, which is receiving critical acclaim for its look at the American counterculture.]

New Hampshire or Bus: Sarah’s No-Campaign Campaign Tour

Speeding along city streets, going from somewhere to somewhere else, was the Sarah Palin “One Nation I’m Not Running for Anything But Follow Me Anyhow” bus chase.

Following her were about two dozen reporters and photographers from the national news media, and now and then some local news teams, many of whom violated traffic laws in order to keep the Palin Convoy in sight.

The news media told others how much they were suffering. Sarah wouldn’t tell them where she was going. She didn’t issue press releases. She wouldn’t give them interviews when they wanted. The media had to call, text, and radio each other just to get information. They couldn’t even get proper bathroom breaks because they had to chase that danged bus and the two Sarah SUV escorts. They believed their lives were more like those of combat correspondents under heavy incoming fire, and not the celebrity-chasing paparazzi they had become.

What little information they got, they had to go to Facebook and Twitter, where Team Sarah posted nightly updates. And, oh yeah, if you have a few bucks, please contribute to Sarah PAC, which was funding the trip.

On the second day, 10-year-old Piper Palin had sarcastically told a photographer, “Thanks for ruining our vacation.” Of course, it wasn’t the media who “ruined” what Piper thought was a family vacation. Sarah Palin’s own website claimed the purpose of the tour was “part of our new campaign to educate and energize Americans about our nation’s founding principles, in order to promote the Fundamental Restoration of America.” To “promote” that education campaign, Piper’s mother commissioned a luxury bus, and wrapped it in a professionally-created design, complete with a Sarah Palin signature larger than anything John Hancock could have written. Since Mother Sarah always emerged from the bus wearing ready-for-prime-time campaign makeup and conservative “glad-to-meet-ya-but-I’m-not-really-running” conservative suits, it was questionable just whose vacation it was.

In Washington, D.C., on Memorial Day, Sarah put on a helmet, black leather jacket and, still wearing high heels, jumped onto the back of a Harley, and seized the spotlight from thousands of Rolling Thunder bikers who were in the capital to honor POWs and MIAs. Sarah was in the capital to honor Sarah.

In the nation’s capital, she wore a large cross. In New York City, the fundamentalist half-governor whose church believes that Jews will never get to heaven unless they are baptized as Christians, wore a Star of David.

At Fort McHenry, Mt. Vernon, the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and several other historic sites on her six-day erratic trip up the eastern seaboard, she stopped for minutes here, minutes there, in an attention-deficit span of pseudo-patriotism, long enough to make sure the media saw her, that there was ample opportunity for photo-ops, and then moved on. Where? No one really knew. It was as freewheeling as her own political style.

At Gettysburg, she stayed long enough to take advantage of numerous photo-ops. In New York, the media breathlessly told us about Sarah and newly-incarnated birther Donald Trump having pizza in a restaurant on Times Square.

On I-90, near Worcester, Mass., her caravan rolled into a storm, just behind a tornado, not stopping for either their own safety or to help those affected by severe damage from the tornado.

In New Hampshire, where Mitt Romney was announcing his campaign for the presidency, Sarah managed to have her own show about five miles away, drawing the national media to her star power, and then claimed she didn’t mean to upstage Romney. It was just an accident, she said in the state where the nation’s first primary for the 2012 presidential election will be held.

At Ellis Island, she misinterpreted potential immigration law. In an interview with Fox News reporter Greta van Susteren, the only reporter allowed on the bus, Sarah mangled the truth about Social Security, the Obama stimulus plan, and the foreign aid package to Egypt.  

In Boston, she reinvented history and complained about “gotcha” journalism. You know, like the “gotcha” question Katie Couric asked in 2008 about what she read. This “gotcha” had come from a Boston reporter who had thrown an even easier puff ball-“What did you learn in Massachusetts and what did you take away from it?” Apparently, she didn’t learn much. Instead of spending enough time in Boston to learn about America’s revolution, she informed the nation that a bell-clanging Paul Revere went out to warn the British not to mess with America’s right to bear arms-or something to that effect. When historians politely disagreed with her curious interpretation of history, she steadfastly maintained she knew American history, and that everyone-including, apparently, Paul Revere’s own notes and letters- was wrong.

Some of the Sarah Zealots even tried to manipulate information in Wikipedia to parrot what Sarah believed was the reason for Paul Revere’s ride, thus giving revisionist history an entirely new dimension.

Although Sarah thought the media were into “gotcha journalism,” the truth is that the wily politician, who tiptoed into broadcast journalism after college, now assisted by a media-savvy campaign staff, managed to do everything right to manipulate the mass media to give her more coverage than a Puritan in a clothing factory.

Her handling of the media was the ultimate “gotcha.”

You betcha, Sarah.

[Walter Brasch, a journalist for more than 40 years, has reported on almost every presidential campaign since 1968. His latest book is Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution, available at amazon.com]

Note from John:  I refuse to cover this moron any longer.  Unless she formally announces her candidacy for president this is the last mention of Sarah Palin here.

Journalism’s Role in Educating Africa About What it Eats

This is the second in a two-part series of my visit to Africa Harvest in Johannesburg, South Africa. Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

Daniel Kamanga, the Director of Communications of Africa Harvest, and former journalist, says that journalism in Africa has to overcome many challenges, including a general lack of coverage on agriculture issues-let alone a deeper understanding about who is funding agricultural development in Africa. “No one knows who Bill [Gates] is in Africa,” lamented Kamanga. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the biggest and most influential funders of agricultural development in sub-Saharan Africa. (See Filling a Need for African-Based Reporting on Agriculture).

“You can’t have a revolution in Africa if people aren’t briefed,” says Kamanga, referring to the call for a Green Revolution in Africa by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Although agriculture makes up about 98 percent of the economy in Kenya, it’s barely covered in the country’s newspapers. And there are not any agricultural editors at any of the newspapers on the entire continent.

But it’s not just a question of reporters having more knowledge, according to Kamanga. It’s also a matter of compensation. African journalists are typically paid very little compared to journalists in other countries. In Burkina Faso, reporters receive just 160 dollars per month. As a result, many journalists see bribes as a way to supplement their income.

Yet with newspaper and media consolidation, fierce competition for advertisers, and lackluster economic conditions in Africa and all over the world, it’s a trend that might only get worse.

Toothless: The Watchdog Press That Became the Government’s Lapdog

Toothless:  The Watchdog Press

That Became the Government’s Lapdog

PART II: The Lapdogs Get Some Teeth

by Walter Brasch

In May 2004, the New York Times, while claiming it was aggressive in pursuing stories about the Bush-Cheney Administration, slipped in an apology for acting more as the mouthpiece for politicians than as a watchdog for society. “Coverage was not as rigorous as it should have been,” the Times admitted. Part of the problem, the Times acknowledged, was that “Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper.” The Times concluded it wished “we had been more aggressive.”

           Almost three months later, the Washington Post, one of the most hawkish papers for invading Iraq, finally acknowledged its own pre-war hysteria and lack of journalistic competence and courage. “We were so focused on trying to figure out what the administration was doing that we were not giving the same play to people who said it wouldn’t be a good idea to go to war and were questioning the administration’s rationale,” wrote Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.

           During President Bush’s second term, especially after his popularity had begun to sink, several major newspapers, including the New York Times and Washington Post, became more aggressive, publishing several major investigations into the War in Iraq, the government’s use of torture and apparent violation of the Geneva Accords, violations of due process, extensive spying upon Americans, the failure to provide combat troops with adequate body armor, the silencing of government scientists who disagreed with Bush-Cheney beliefs and values, the classification of 55,000 documents in the National Archives that had previously been declassified, the use of propaganda to support doctrine, and problems at Guantanamo Bay.  

A New York Times investigation by Tim Golden and Don Van Natta Jr. revealed “government and military officials have repeatedly exaggerated both the danger the detainees posed and the intelligence they have provided.” That same investigation also revealed a CIA report in September 2002 that questioned the arrests. Most of those picked up in Afghanistan and transferred to Guantánamo Bay, according to the CIA investigation, were low level recruits or innocent men.

           Among other reporters from the Times who broke major stories were Elisabeth Bumiller, Douglas Jehl, James Risen, and Eric Schmitt, who wrote about secret prisons and rendition; and James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, who wrote several articles about the government’s illegal spying upon American citizens. Times editors, however, had kept the stories about the government’s spying out of the newspaper for about a year, in deference to the Administration’s hysterical claims before the November 2004 election that breaking news about unconstitutional activities might somehow be aiding and abetting the enemy; the reality was that the Times was duped into protecting the Administration against a vote drain.

           For the Washington Post, Stave Fainam wrote about abuses by extramilitary private contractors in Iraq; Dana Priest wrote about secret prisons and controversial parts of the Bush-Cheney counter-terrorism tactics; Jo Becker and Barton Gellman investigated the growing influence of Dick Cheney into national policies; and Dana Priest, Anne Hull, and Michael duCille in several articles exposed the medical and psychiatric neglect of returning combat soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Although the Post’s Bob Woodward fully believed Bush-Cheney Administration claims about the need to invade Iraq, he still produced the most in-depth reporting about Bush and his decision-making process. His four books in six years were all best-sellers.

           The Los Angeles Times published a series in 2006 about Iraq’s descent into civil war following the U.S. invasion. Outstanding reporting about the impact of the war upon soldiers and civilians was done by several reporters, including Borzou Daragahia  and David Zucchino of the L.A. Times; and Lisa Chedekel and Matthew Kauffman of the Hartford Courant. However, for the most part, reporters accepted what they were given. Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent for the London Independent, condemned much of the American press corps in Iraq for “hotel journalism,” writing stories based upon what they were told in press conferences without going into the field.

            At the Boston Globe, Charlie Savage did solid reporting about President Bush’s use of signing statements to bypass federal and constitutional law.

           Much of the best in-depth reporting about the Bush-Cheney Administration, especially its fixation upon invading Iraq, was done by reporters for national magazines.

           Seymour Hersh’s powerful series about the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and several articles about the war in Iraq first appeared in the New Yorker. Hersh had broken the story about the massacre at My Lai and its cover-up during the Vietnam War; it was this willful murder of civilians by the U.S. military that other reporters knew about but didn’t report that earned Hersh the Pulitzer Prize. However, after Hersh’s series was published, the establishment media could no longer ignore the story. Not much changed in the four decades since then. Perhaps Hersh’s greatest honor is that a senior Bush advisor called him “the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist.”

           Among several outstanding hard-news reports about the Bush-Cheney Administration, especially its fixation upon invading Iraq and of subsequent constitutional violations, were those of Michael Isikoff in Newsweek, David Corn in Mother Jones, Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, and James Bamford in Rolling Stone.

           With a few blips for courageous reporting, the American press, according to media critic Norman Solomon, continued to blindly accept the Bush-Cheney doctrine as truth. “The American media establishment,” wrote Solomon in August 2007, “continues to behave like a leviathan with a monkey on its back- hooked on militarism and largely hostile to the creative intervention that democracy requires.”

           However, reporters for one establishment news agency consistently represented the highest ideals of an uncompromised press.

           John Walcott, the Knight Ridder bureau chief in Washington, and bureau reporters Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, were aggressive in publishing well-documented stories that challenged Bush-Cheney claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the need for the invasion. When McClatchy bought out Knight Ridder in 2006, Walcott continued as bureau chief, and Landay and Strobel become senior correspondents. They continued to challenge the propaganda, and proved that their organization was doing everything the Founding Fathers demanded when they said the primary function of the media is to act as a watchdog on government. When other media disregarded the anti-war dissidents, Walcott’s reporters interviewed them; when other media gave Guantanamo Bay coverage little more than “he said/she said” coverage, the McClatchy bureau dug into the story to present the truth and not the spoon-fed lies. When other media took down what they were told at press conferences and private meetings with senior Bush-Cheney officials, Walcott’s reporters listened, but went to innumerable professionals and lower-level staff in the Defense and State departments to get the truth.

           “Journalism is not stenography,” says Walcott, winner of the first I.F. Stone medal for journalistic independence. The role of the journalist, he says, isn’t to record what people say, but to question it in the search for the truth. “One of the reasons we pressed so hard for the case for the war in Iraq,” says Walcott, “is that what they [the Administration] said simply made no sense.” The primary focus for Walcott’s reporters was “how were the decisions being made in Washington, [by] many who had never been to war, would affect the men and women” in the military.  

            “On the whole, the Bush Administration did not put out the welcome sign for us,” says Roy Gutman, McClatchy foreign editor. On even routine stories, the White House planted its leaks with friendlier organizations, and tried to isolate the Knight Ridder/McClatchy bureau from the other media. Publicly, the Bush-Cheney Administration issued no retort; by maintaining silence, the Administration knew the establishment media would also ignore a competitor’s reports.

           “We were alone at the beginning,” says Walcott, “and are still fairly lonely at the end.”

Forthcoming: Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, The alternative press, and establishment commentators.

[Walter Brasch continually challenged Bush-Cheney claims about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. He wrote about the shredding of civil rights under the PATRIOT Act, including violations of free speech, due process, and the rights of privacy. He and Rosemary Brasch, two years before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, wrote about disaster preparedness and concluded that the U.S., because of political incompetence and the deployment of troops and resources to Iraq, wasn’t prepared to deal with a natural disaster. The establishment media ignored their reporting.]