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A 15-Step Program to Save the Media from Themselves

By Ben L. Kaufman · January 7th, 2011 · On Second Thought

Dump consultants. Cancel audience-counting contracts. Fire click whores. Ice eyeballs. Adopt my cost-free 12-step program to save surviving news media ... from ourselves.

Readers, viewers and listeners know we fill space and time with meaningless words. It goes beyond verbosity. It’s insulting.

Start the new year by embracing virtue:

Step 1: Ban the word “challenge” unless someone has thrown down a gauntlet. No one has “problems” today. Everyone who had problems now has challenges, opportunities or issues.

Step 1.1: Ban “opportunities” or “opportunity.” Every challenge (see above) is an opportunity.

Step 1.2: Ban “issues.” Birthers have issues. It’s their problem.

Step 2: Ban “on the ground,” as in “boots on the ground.” New military expressions sound hip, but this one has been sent into combat too often. It's suffering terminal fatigue.

Step 3: Smarten half-time TV football interviews by having sideline babes tell losing coaches, “Yeah, I understand, you have to score more points and quit missing opportunities. That’s the strategy of every losing coach. Tell me something new.”

Step 4: Learn that “infer” is not a stronger version of “imply” and “presently” doesn’t mean “now” or “momentarily.” Strip “more” from their reporting and headlines, as in “more strict” (stricter) or “more lovely” (lovelier) or “more likely” (likelier).

Step 5: Ban “breaking news” from local TV newscasts that do not include breaking news. Breaking news involves something happening now or presently (see above). It does not mean a live-on-camera standup on the ground by a TV reporter hours after a fire/crime/accident.

Step 6: Ban multiple public radio interviews with the same authors in the same 48-hour period. That might sate Republican lust for silencing public radio.

Step 6.5: An exception to a ban on multiple public radio author interviews would be presumptive presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The more exposure the better (see Curmudgeon Note below).

Step 7: Ban “media” from grammatically challenged broadcasters’ scripts. It’s not Latinist pedantry to know that the media are, not the media is. They work for a news medium, not a news media. Insisting that “data” also requires a plural verb might be too much of a problem (see challenge above).

Step 8: Ban “passed” as synonym for “died.” Passed to where? Reporting that someone “passed,” “passed away” or “passed on” actively affirms there is a life after bodily death on “the other side.” All we know is that bodily death occurred. Whether a spirit or soul exists or lives or passes on is a matter of belief, not a fact. As so many are said to have uttered, everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion but not their own facts.

Step 9: Eschew lascivious reporting of public officials and public figures fucking around unless it affects the commonweal or until they resign. Neither Bart’s nor Tiger’s wood was a national crisis. Eliot’s pricey orgasms didn’t involve public funds or his responsibilities as governor. Bill’s messing around affected the country’s business because Republicans wanted to humiliate him more than they wanted an effective presidency. Mark made “I’ll be hiking the Appalachian trail” code for “catch me in Argentina.” With failing heterosexual marriages more common than adult mumps, adultery/fornication/oral sex should have ceased to be a public issue even when the subsequent divorce involves unfathomable wealth or a threat to the future of the Dodgers.

Step 10: Ban the honorific “mistress” for every tart some public official or figure screws. Restore dignity to “mistress,” as in a longterm emotional and physical relationship, even to marrying the Prince of Wales. Being a mistress should involve an apartment, a car (no Yugos), maybe an acknowledged child or two and the right to stand with the widow at the guy’s coffin. If young women aspire to this once-lofty role, they should pursue economic self-interest beyond eventual sale of tabloid exposes.

Step 11: Ban “democracy” for every country with elections or parliament. That covers “struggling democracy,” “emerging democracy” or similar blarney. Parliaments and elections do not a democracy make (Iran, Egypt, Belarus, Burma, Venezuela), anymore than oil assures national wealth or the Soviet constitution guaranteed personal freedom.

Step 12: Reserve “skeptic” for people open to facts and the possibility of changing their minds. Implacable foes of Cincinnati streetcars or Republicans who reject evidence of climate change are “opponents,” not skeptics.

Step 13: Use the law to require local commercial TV stations to justify their miserable, almost nonexistent coverage of election issues. The FCC requires each television licensee to operate in the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” This means stations must air programming responsive to the needs and problems of our communities. That goes beyond cheap, easy and scary crime stories.

Step 14: Stop calling people “security guards.” If they provide security, “guard” suffices. If they don’t, they aren’t guards. Stop referring to “security” personnel if they’re responsible for demonstrably insecure government computers.

Step. 15: Don’t tell me I can’t count. Reporters are notoriously bad with numbers. You’re lucky I didn’t try percentages or yields.


Curmudgeon Notes

• "Style" in the news media usually refers to word use rather than what's worn. Style books are held in roughly the same reverence or fear that Scripture holds in a seminary. Know it. Use it. Deviate at risk. Typically, style governs how numbers are written (four, not 4) or how the president appears in print: President Obama or Mr. Obama, not Obama. Who is called Dr.? Only physicians, or also dentists, osteopaths and professors of Ugaritic? There was a long battle at The Enquirer (not the Enquirer) over how to refer to the property status of a woman; did she belong to her father (Miss) or her husband (Mrs.)? Our editor long opposed Ms. as generic or if requested by the woman about whom we were writing. One of my worst moments was being sent back to Marydale in Kentucky to ask participants in a radical feminist theologians' gathering if they were Miss or Mrs. I'd decided unilaterally that Ms. would be most appropriate for them. Had he the power, my editor would have turned me into a pillar of salt ... after I returned from the conference with the required information for correct Enquirer style.

The Enquirer never confuses Rob Portman with a Cincinnatian.

He's from Terrace Park. Period. Which brings me to a current style breakdown at The Enquirer. It's a big deal that John Boehner is the new GOP speaker of the House in Washington, D.C., but is he from West Chester (Wednesday's paper), Cincinnati (in Sunday story about speaker-predecessor and Cincinnatian Nicholas Longworth) or Reading (an earlier fawning bio that forgot his role as tobacco errand boy on the House floor)?

It's a stretch to say that place doesn't matter or that everyone knows what the paper means. Tell that to Reading residents who drank in young John's family bar and get damn little national acclaim for raising a young man who became an able politician on the national scene. Tell that to the people of West Chester who re-elected him so often he was poised by rank and esteem to take over the top House job. Tell that to Cincinnatians who can't vote for him, don't live in West Chester and don't consider Reading as a must-see for visitors who aren't shopping for a wedding dress.

• Gannett — owner of The Enquirer, USA Today, scores of dailies and hundreds of weeklies — continues to promote the Heimlich Maneuver as first response to choking or to an unconscious person being pulled from the water. Its archive provides a 1999 graphic showing how to do the Heimlich Maneuver. Gannett papers continue to use that graphic. Granted, it includes a footnote that the American Heart Association and American Red Cross no longer recommend the Heimlich Maneuver as first or only response, but who reads that when there are images telling readers what to do? Backslaps work for choking, and the Heimlich Maneuver has no value when someone is pulled from the water, according to the U.S. Coast Guard and Centers for Disease Control. I began writing about this almost five years ago when The Enquirer offered its potentially lethal advice as a public service for a safe Memorial Day. Gannett hasn’t changed.

Weekly Standard heavyweights fell in lust with Sarah Palin in Alaska and brought her to wider Republican attention: Drs. Frankenstein to the monster they created. So it would be ironic if the Weekly Standard’s recent cover story on Haley Barbour, the demonstrably able governor of Mississippi, catapulted him past Palin in the run for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. It’s a good read.

To Barbour’s credit, his accomplishments are significant in ways that Palin never imagined or attempted. He is central to the battered state’s continuing post-Katrina recovery. As a fundraiser and lobbyist, his clout is enviable. All of that is recounted in The Weekly Standard, as are his benign memories of race relations in his hometown of Yazoo City. I doubt that the flap these recollections stirred will hurt him with his likely supporters. Historians of that era, interviewed by Amanda Terkel for HuffingtonPost, offer a harsher view of the role played the white Citizens Council and flight from federally imposed school integration in his hometown of Yazoo City. After his views drew national attention, he sort of recanted on what he said were the virtues of the Citizens Council.

• A Gallup Poll on creationism proves that humans evolve. It also assures endless stories about church-state/theology-science separation, especially in public schools. Gallup said, “A small minority of Americans hold the ‘secular evolution’ view that humans evolved with no influence from God but the number has risen from 9% in 1982 to 16% today. At the same time, the 40% of Americans who hold the ‘creationist’ view that God created humans as is 10,000 years ago is the lowest in Gallup's history of asking this question, and down from a high point of 47% in 1993 and 1999. There has been little change over the years in the percentage holding the ‘theistic evolution’ view that humans evolved under God's guidance.”

Then there are the correlations that warm the heart of this elitist bred-in-the-bone liberal: “Those who are less educated are more likely to hold a creationist view. Those with college degrees and postgraduate education are more likely to hold one of the two viewpoints involving evolution. ... The significantly higher percentage of Republicans who choose a creationist view of human origins reflects in part the strong relationship between religion and politics in contemporary America.” The numbers: 88 percent of Republicans embrace one of the two views that God was involved in Creation while 8 percent embrace godless creation and evolution. On the other hand, the really awful news is that 74 percent of the Democrats embrace one of the two God/creation views while only 20 avow godless creation/evolution. Independents views on all three categories of origin/evolution were virtually those of Democrats (since Southern Democrats became Republicans...).

• Evangelical Christians want taxpayers to help build another Godly theme park in Kentucky, this one based on the biblical stories of Noah’s ark and the tower of Babel. Given the likelihood that no such ark existed — with two of every critter aboard — and the tower is another ancient myth, what should the news media call these creations? My quarrel is not with the builders’ beliefs and their certitude that the Bible is literally true and without error. God knows, many Americans agree. But for The Enquirer and other secular news media to refer to a “replica” or “re-creation” is to affirm the existence of the original ark and tower. That’s theology, not fact.

• First it was dumping returning GIs claiming they weren’t combat casualties but were mentally ill when they enlisted. Then there was the admission that the Pentagon was woefully unprepared to treat combat casualties with emotional problems or blast-caused traumatic brain injuries, the signature wounds of the Iraqi and Afghan wars. To their eternal shame, physicians and psychologists helped the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs flee these responsibilities. Now ProPublica.organd NPR are reporting how the Obama administration also is ducking its responsibilities for brain-injured combat veterans by denying them cognitive rehabilitation therapy. ProPublica is a nonprofit, nonpartisan website committed to “journalism in the public interest.” NPR is National Public Radio.Stars & Stripes, the military’s daily paper, is publishing their work as well.

changecincinnati.com posted a lot of stories from The Enquirer. Jason Haap at Cincinnati Beacon asked The Enquirer if this fell within or exceeded “fair use.” He was told this use of Enquirer material was news to the paper but the question would be forwarded to Attributor, an outside firm that Gannett uses to look into whether someone has slipped beyond fair use into plagiarism. Haap still was hoping for a reply when changecincinnati.com apparently took down its local content and now automatically links to a White House web site.

• In the world of foodies, critics often seek anonymity in the hope their meals and service will be what readers would experience. Some use real credit cards in phony names. Others use “maiden” or spouse’s names for reservations or credit cards. Years ago, I invited Sarah Pearce, The Enquirer’s restaurant critic, for lunch at a friend’s Corryville cafe serving Mediterranean food. I did not say I was coming or with whom. Sarah, as does Polly Campbell today, uses a wide-brim hat to obscure her face on her column logo. I still remember the poisonous look that Sarah gave me when my friend came to our table, welcomed her by name and said he was honored to have her as his guest. Food and service were typical: good. We paid. He never explained how he knew.

More recently, an unhappy Los Angeles restaurateur barred the Los Angeles Times critic and snapped and posted her photo online. Those who applauded said high-end restaurateurs already shared the kind of information but others remained unaware of what the critic looked like. It’s an interesting debate.

• A recent CityBeat column on a new Seventh Street foodie spot downtown was puzzling. It said “handmade deli sandwiches” first brought in customers. What’s special about that? How else do you make sandwiches? Even a taste-free and soggy airport turkey/cheddar/cuke combination on multigrain bread served by Starbucks was made by someone’s hands. The writer didn’t indicate whether he tasted anything about which he raved, whether one of those sandwiches, commercially-blended coffee, factory-produced meats or local pastries and breads. Even granting the columnist’s uncritical enthusiasm for the new place and positive adjectives, it was puzzling journalism that failed to mention a similar spot for eating or carryout catering to similarly busy but tasteful urban dwellers and workers: Silverglade’s a block away on Eighth Street.

• There’s a growing brouhaha over a NASA experimenter’s study that suggests Mono Lake in California contains a bacterium that lives with arsenic replacing phosphorus as a vital element. Her study was published in the top rank journal, Science. In the Good Old Days, challenges to her methods, data and conclusions would have trickled into Science and similar journals over months and years. Not now. Mainstream news media — print, radio and TV — covered the Science article in a relatively stately manner. Now they’re focused on the aftermath; immediate and sometimes rude criticism online in blogs, news sites, etc. Whether we’ll get better science under such instant new media barrages of opinion and counter-facts is uncertain.

• In a GQ magazine celebrity interview with actress Winona Ryder, the actress made news with evidence that Mel Gibson’s anti-semitic outburst during a police stop and film about Jesus was no recent aberration. She said, "I remember, like, fifteen years ago, I was at one of those big Hollywood parties. And he was really drunk. I was with my friend, who's gay. He made a really horrible gay joke. And somehow it came up that I was Jewish. He said something about 'oven dodgers,' but I didn't get it. I'd never heard that before. It was just this weird, weird moment. I was like, 'He's anti-Semitic and he's homophobic.' No one believed me!"

• They’re called “evergreens” or “fillers,” stories prepared for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day when news is slow. You often can tell: People in the pictures are in summer clothes outside in the sun. Often they’re well done, good ideas completed without daily deadlines. On rare occasion, they go unused, only to show up a year later as really evergreen or embarrassingly out of date. But people’s ages change and so do some of the facts unless there's a last minute call to double check before publication or broadcast. Fillers are especially obvious around Jan. 1: Top 10 (news stories, movies, tunes, TV shows, etc.) lists. I’ve written them. Boring to do. Worse to read or hear.

• NPR Ombuds Alicia Shepard thanked persistent listener Henry Norr, who caught reporters wildly and persistently overstating the number of State Department cables released since Nov. 28 by WikiLeaks. She wrote online that “as of December 30, 2010 only 1,947 are publicly available.” That was two weeks after Norr asked, “Do you guys just make stuff up and present it as fact? You begin your ‘review’ of this story by saying, ‘First, the web site released thousands of confidential U.S. documents.’ That's simply not true. All you have to do is go to the web site in question and you'll see that it has thus far released precisely 1,344 of the documents in question — less than one percent of the 251,287 apparently in their possession. 1,344 is not 'thousands'!"

NPR’s Shepard said her colleagues considered "thousands" accurate. “Last July, WikiLeaks released the Afghan War Diary, which made public 77,000 documents about the Afghanistan War. In October, WikiLeaks released almost 400,000 documents about the Iraq War. So, it has, in fact, released thousands of documents.” However, Norr cited nine examples where NPR reporters, hosts and newscasters talked about “thousands” of State Department cables being released. Shepard continued, “I admit it. I let it go. But that didn’t stop Norr, and for that I thank him. A week later, he emailed: ‘So ... my message from last Tuesday didn't convince you there's been a problem with NPR's reporting?’ It did. ... On Dec. 21, I sent Norr’s nine examples to NPR top editors and asked that a staff memo be sent out reminding everyone to be more careful in talking about the November document release. The memo went out on Christmas Eve.

“Still Norr was (rightly) not satisfied. ‘Aren’t you going to run a correction as well?’ He prodded me. I prodded Stu Seidel, NPR’s deputy managing editor who handles corrections. And so thanks to Norr’s doggedness the correction is on the Web, and hopefully NPR won’t make the same mistake again.” It says: “In recent weeks, NPR hosts, reporters and guests have incorrectly said or implied that WikiLeaks recently has disclosed or released roughly 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables. Although the web site has vowed to publish '251,287 leaked United States embassy cables,' as of Dec. 28, 2010, only 1,942 of the cables had been released.”

NPR wasn’t unique. Shepard quoted Matthew Schafer, a graduate student at Louisiana State University, who found the Associated Press, The New York Times, Politico, UPI, The Economist, Mashable, BBC, The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor among others whose reporting implied that all 250,000-some documents allegedly obtained by WikiLeaks had been were released in the latest go-around.”

Mea culpa. If I did or said the same things in On Second Thought, it was an example of relying on the usual suspects rather than verifying what they reported. At least I’m groveling where I made any mess. Now, will NPR broadcast its correction for donors, members and others who rely on its radio reporting and might not read its web site and Shepard’s columns?


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: editor@citybeat.com

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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