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The Media's Role in Covering All Election Candidates

By Ben L. Kaufman · October 26th, 2010 · On Second Thought

I’m troubled by the unjustifiable exclusion of minor party candidates from Ohio campaign debates sponsored by the news media. Criteria I’ve seen for inclusion remind me of the tests faced by blacks at some Southern election boards and polling places. They’re designed to affect the elections by excluding persons who should be included.

I don’t care what the candidates stand for. If they’re on the ballot, they should be on the podium along with Democrats and Republicans. It might be the minor party candidates’ best chance of getting their messages to the public; sponsoring news media are likely to report what is said. We need to hear what third party candidates have to see, given that GOP and Democratic candidates and their backers are spending so much time on nastiness and generalizations without a glimmer of new ideas.

A traditional argument in support of First Amendment press freedom is this: The news media stand in stead of Americans who can't possibly gather enough information individually to vote intelligently on so many races and issues. Stripped of other roles, that of informing voters is the foundation for our continued free press.

Major Ohio news media have turned their backs on this. If viewers, listeners and readers continue to turn their backs on traditional news media, this fundamental failure can't be ignored as a cause.

Some news media do a pretty good job of reporting what the major party candidates say and stand for and sometimes include minor party candidates in their coverage. But that’s the threshold of ethical political journalism, not the crowning achievement.

Curmudgeon Notes

• Whether it’s local or national, print or broadcast/cable, too many politicians damn the opposition without reporters pushing them to say how they will fix things. This journalistic sloth turns too much news media political reporting into propaganda channels. When that happens, I'm no better informed than before I read, watched or listened. Even if no coherent answer is forthcoming, that’s informative.

• Talk about frustration. Activist-editor Greg Flannery couldn’t get arrested. Flannery edits Streetvibes, the biweekly newspaper. It pisses him off that his vendors are not allowed to sell the paper on Fountain Square. For him, it’s a First Amendment issue as well as denying his low-income licensed vendors a likely audience for their $1 papers.

Flannery told me, “I sent the press release to 3CDC (which controls the square). I think they refused to take the bait. There were no cops or security on the square. About three dozen of us passed out copies, with no arrests. I'm going to try again, this time unannounced.”

Fountain Square was/is a public forum. Federal courts say so, even if free speech and access offend local Powers that Be or Wannabe. I’m hoping they’ll take the bait and suffer the same humiliations as constitutionally challenged city officials who tried to ban the Hanukkah menorah and KKK cross from the square. And if you remember, the only criminal acts in those pre-3CDC Fountain Square cases involved vandalism of the cross by folks offended by the KKK.

• Deference to the point of losing sight of readers’ needs still bedevils some Enquirer reporters and their editors. One of the basic concepts we drum into journalism students is the weakness of the one-source story. In long enterprise stories, it’s inexcusable, especially when the significant players are mentioned but missing from the published, finished product.

All of this went wrong in a recent major Sunday Business cover story about Omnicare. According to The Enquirer and James “Denny” Shelton, the interim CEO, the company is a mess. Shelton briefly was a board member before taking his current job. The Enquirer says Ominicare concentrated on buying other pharmacy services instead of serving customers but quotes no customers or former customers. The company failed to offer employee incentives or build lasting customer relationships, but employees and former employees are not quoted.

Now Omnicare says it's trying to sort out those problems and change the corporate culture as well as its organization. Again, virtually no other voices and none below the executive suite. The story reads more like corporate talking points than arms-length reporting.

• Wikileaks releases of thousands more classified Pentagon internal documents, and officials repeat their mantra that the hemorraghe endangers our military. But so do wars we don’t have to fight or can’t win; they kill thousands of Americans as well as tens of thousands of civilians in whose countries we fight. To the extent that news media coverage and online access to these leaked documents makes Americans skeptical of White House and Pentagon clamors for war, these leaks serve a public good. There are wars we should and must fight, but with so little frontline reporting and stenographic and sycophant press at home, these leaks will have to help our understanding and appreciation of what our military has been told to do.

• NPR is evermore important as a source of reliable news and context for news. When NPR sours, it stinks. Retaining Juan Williams for years as an analyst after he simultaneously took Fox News paycheck was worse than stupid. It failed the smell test. Insisting that Fox not identify Williams as an NPR commentator indicated that NPR knew how badly their ethics were compromised.

Williams finally offended NPR to the point that it dropped him for his anti-Muslim generalization on Fox. What he said wasn’t news analysis. It was his opinion about all identifiable Muslims based on their faith and dress. NPR tells employees that they can't say in public what they would not say on NPR. The best parts of the shitstorm that followed was the shocked, shocked chorus of Fox-paid pols (Huckabee, Gingrich, Palin, et. al.) and Fox’s quick $2 million contract for three more years of Williams’ opinions.

My favorite comment about Williams’ stupidity on Fox comes from The Daily Beast, where an editor, Roja Heydarpour, wrote: “The worst part about Juan Williams’ statement wasn’t his appalling bigotry. It was his complete ignorance of how terrorists operate. No matter what Juan Williams says, even the dumbest terrorist in the world wouldn’t wear a robe and turban on a plane. Williams’ crime wasn’t just his comic bigotry but his ignorance.”

• Moving on from Williams, we’ve finally learned what it takes for NPR to admit its bias in favor of NPR talent-turned-author. Faced with criticism from keen listeners, here’s what ombuds Alicia Shepard recently wrote in part: “All Things Considered host Michele Norris has done what no other author has done on NPR: scored a ‘fourfecta’ with her new book. Norris has been able to promote her memoir on each of the four shows that NPR produces: Morning Edition (ME), All Things Considered (ATC), Talk of the Nation (TOTN) and Tell Me More (TMM). They are the only news shows where NPR is solely responsible for the editorial content. ME host Steve Inskeep spoke with her for 8 minutes on Sept. 20. Later that day, Norris did a 4-minute essay for her show, ATC. On Sept. 27, TOTN interviewed Norris for 30 minutes. Three days later, TMM spoke with Norris for 16 minutes. After spending a day searching, NPR librarians could not find any other author who appeared on all four programs.”

And NPR’s commitment to neutrality came under new scrutiny because of recent memos limiting staff political activity. Senior VP for news Ellen Weiss reminded the staff: “NPR journalists may not run for office, endorse candidates or otherwise engage in politics. Since contributions to candidates are part of the public record, NPR journalists may not contribute to political campaigns, as doing so would call into question a journalist’s impartiality.

“NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers, nor should they sign petitions or otherwise lend their name to such causes, or contribute money to them. This restriction applies to the upcoming Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallies.

“You must not advocate for political or other polarizing issues online. This extends to joining online groups or using social media in any form (including your Facebook page or a personal blog) to express personal views on a political or other controversial issue that you could not write for the air or post on NPR.org.

“NPR journalists may not serve on government boards or commissions.”

CEO Vivian Schiller added, “No matter where you work at NPR you should be very mindful that you represent the organization and its news coverage in the eyes of your friends, neighbors and others. So please think twice about the message you may be sending about our objectivity before you attend a rally or post a bumper sticker or yard sign. We are all NPR.”

Writing on NPR’s web site, Dana Davis-Rehm said no memos were required for Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor rally or any other recent rallies on the mall in Washington, D.C., such as the One Nation rally, “because it was obvious to everyone that these were overtly political events. It's different with the Colbert and Stewart rallies; they are ambiguous. But their rallies will be perceived as political by many, whatever we think. As such, they are off limits except for those covering the events.”

• NPR policy and practices are mainstream. Reporters give up aspects of our rights, as the NPR policy on political activity suggests. Failure to observe such cautions invites the destructive accusation of bias and once that idea takes hold, it’s almost impossible to uproot. We know that we shouldn’t contribute to candidates or parties promoting issues. We should not belong to activist groups about whom we might have to write. We should not write about businesses in which we have financial interests. And we should try to avoid writing about family members and close friends if that reporting would lead a reasonable reader/listener to doubt our integrity. Finally, we should expect increased scrutiny if family members make such donations or belong to such groups.

• I came of age when McCarthyism outlived the drunken demagogue who gave it a name and, as an Oct. 18 New Yorker essay reminded me, the John Birch Society erupted and infected the national body politic. Written by historian Sean Wilentz, the essay’s central point is that Glenn Beck and his fellow travelers are in that 1950s paranoid style. They’re even using some of the same discredited sources, histories and the all-purpose and omnipresent guilt by association. It’s well worth reading, either for the colon-quivering reminder of things forgotten or a first insight into that from which we’ve never recovered. In a season of faux frights, this is the true terror.

• Nothing like a public university to teach a real life lesson. It's worth the tuition. The University of Kentucky banned distribution of its student paper, The Kentucky Kernel, from parking lots at UK’s Commonwealth Stadium grounds. The Kernel reported that UK officials said its contract with sports marketing firm IMG required the ban. After about a month, UK agreed to let students distribute the UK paper at three spots in UK stadium parking lots. The Kernel agreed — for now — to abide by the limit but said in part, “Stifling constitutional amendments to help the athletics program capitalize off of its $80 million contract is the kind of action that keeps UK from making strides toward being a benchmark university. ... The contract with IMG essentially claims that for the right price UK is willing to restructure its priorities if profit is involved. UK is a sports school, and while there is reason to continue ensuring that these athletics programs excel, the university is taking giant strides in the wrong direction by drafting contracts that push other students’ rights to the background for the sake of money.”

• Not so long ago, Rachida Dati, the French politician and former Justice Minister, misspoke on national TV and referred to oral sex instead of inflation. The French word "fellation" is similar to "inflation," pronounced the same in French as in English. She was embarrassed, but lacking our morality police the French didn’t cart her to the guillotine. More recently, Washington-based blogger Amanda Hess topped Dati. As Mallary Jean Tenore reported on PoytnerOnline, Hess wrote that "one in three black men who have sex with me is HIV positive." She meant to say "one in three black men who have sex with men..." Hess told Tenore that about 10 minutes after publishing the blog post she saw a tweet about the typo and posted a correction. Other readers called it "the greatest correction ever," "a doozy" and "the correction heard 'round the world."

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: editor@citybeat.com



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