Thursday, February 15, 2007

Deborah White and others on Hubris of the Press

Deborah White was one of my first real contacts in the world of blogging. We not only share an old-fashioned Liberal sensibility but the Christian faith as well. Our brand of politics and/or faith may not be every one's cup of tea, but it's more cohesive than most public discourse about those topics.

In this column she drives home a basic idea, that civility and a fundamental respect for privacy is eroding in today's dog-eat-dog world of reporting. And that includes ALL the press...print, broadcast and, yes, even blogging. She has put her finger on a real problem. That is why my blogroll has so many holes in it. I love satire and snark as well as the next guy, but a droning pedal tone of complaining about stuff grows weary in my ears. And there is a difference between trivia and leering voyeurism.'s routine for partisan pundits, from conservative Rush Limbaugh to liberal Al Franken, to grant airtime and print space only to leaders who support their iron-clad worldviews.

Of course, conservatives have complained for decades that the so-called liberal media reports from a radically-biased perspective.

I have my own frustration with pundits who cite the Moonie-owned, ultra-conservative Washington Times newspaper (and similar) as a credible, objective news source, and the Wall Street Journal, in recent years, has brashly trumpeted its conservative slant.

None of that is especially new, though.

What's new, and most galling of all, are members of the political press who punish leaders who don't stroke the reporter's ego; who don't provide 24/7 access on demand; who don't respond to every intrusive personal query; who don't always present a happy smile, a pat answer and warm approval of every crass word written about them.

[...]Examples abound from both sides of the political aisle: Journalists who gloat that they can make or break a candidate. Bloggers who withhold support until they receive sufficient fawning attention. Reporters who probe into the darkly sensational because they despise the politician. In the articles cited, Mike Allen, Maureen Dowd and the like are acting purely for their self-interests. And their rants have not one scintilla to do with public good or the public's need to know.

Call me naive if you will, but I still believe in a modicum of civility and privacy. Our country, our families, our children would be in a better, healthier place if we focused on the formidable issues of our day, and ignored trashy, Anna Nicole-like distractions.

Democracy works only when the political press upholds its responsibility to the public, and doesn't indulge in a narcissistic, influence-hungry, gossip-driven shadow of the best traditions of American journalism.

H5N1 Blog has a post that underscores her point. Remember, she is not even remotely connected with this guy, but this morning I came across what seems to be the same observation about the press from each of them.

Strictly in the interest of timely and accurate information the blogmaster at H5N1 has been sticking to his task with the tenacity of a bulldog. The prospect of a bird flu pandemic has lost a sense of drama since it's not exploding (yet) with waves of sick and dying victims. Today's announcement of contaminated peanut butter is getting more coverage, even though that will be old news this time next week. But the threat of a bird flu pandemic, boring as it may be, will remain.

Look at what he writes about the press.

In our own media, reporters and editors have to fill a bottomless news hole, on a cycle now reduced to far less than 24 hours. As they scramble from the Grammy awards to Anna Nicole Smith to possible war with Iranto a flu pandemic, they don't have much time to check facts.

Even back in the lackadaisical 1980s, I saw the effects of this scramble. I had the luxury of a weekly column in a Vancouver daily. I could interview someone, write my column, and then check back with my source to make sure I'd got my facts and quotes right.

You wouldn't believe the surprise and gratitude my sources expressed when I checked back. University presidents and school principals were used to hit-and-run interviews by reporters with urgent deadlines. What appeared in print was rarely what they'd actually said.

So they saved me from some embarrassing goofs, and I managed to report what they'd really been trying to say. They were also happy to talk to me for later stories.

But I'm not blaming the reporters and excusing the sources. In a mess like this one, the sources need to pester the media, early and often. Healthcare bureaucrats and specialists should invite their local media people in for a good lunch and a long talk about what the hell is really going on.

The media folks just want a good story, and it might as well be an accurate one.

This has another welcome effect. Reporters and editors divide the world into two classes: targets and sources. Targets are psychopathic liars, usually elected politicians and corporate CEOs, who understand only bullying and shaming. Sources are friends who give them the truth in a usable form.

To qualify as sources, healthcare officials need to establish good relations with their local media long before the culling starts. That will at least give them a chance to put the scientific side of the story before the public, and to minimize the errors of fact and interpretation.

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