Friday, November 30, 2007

Poland's "Homosexual Problem"

The fish rots from the head.

It’s a Polish expression. I heard it through the simultaneous translation at the “Bridges of Tolerance” conference in Krakow November 27-29. The interpreter told me it’s a common Polish expression when talking about problems in politics or society. I take it to mean that if you’re thinking is corrupt, your actions will be corrupt as well.

I was invited to the conference to provide an “American” perspective on how the media covers gay and lesbian issues. Of course, there is no monolithic “American” perspective but I did my best.

The topic is especially sensitive in Poland, which is deeply Catholic, unlike Ireland with its strained distrust thanks to ongoing priest and nun abuse accounts which continue to pop up, and unlike the United States where many American Catholics are quite happy to break to with the Vatican on birth control, abortion and accepting gays and lesbians without believing they are sinning.

In Poland, the Catholic Church is the symbol of resistance against the Russians and before them the Nazis, and before the Nazis, the Russians again. Pope John Paul II was Polish, and involved in the underground during World War II, so Poland has a special relationship with the Vatican, and have a deserved pride (although few Poles would comment on the Vaticans conspicuous silence during the Spanish Civil War, the 20th century’s bloody Catholic fratricide from which the Vatican stayed away.)

But what they refer to as the “homosexual problem” in Poland has caught them, and the rest of Europe, off guard. The country is not only traditional but homogenous, so when gays and lesbians flexed their free expression muscle by putting on a gay pride parade in Warsaw in 2005 without permission from the city, it was the country’s first experience with a minority demanding to be recognized. And like many other countries before them, it was met with resistance.

The Vatican is quite clear about how it regards homosexuality, and Poland takes its cue from Rome. But it has now become an issue for many gay and lesbian activists who say they are discriminated against. They won a small victory the summer of 2006 when the city of Warsaw allowed a gay pride parade, but gays and lesbians face a much tougher opponent: Polish national identity, which many feel threatened by entry into the European Union, and the introduction of the euro by 2012.

The Polish press is a mirror of this confusion about how to address “the homosexual problem”. And I think that’s quite normal, as I said on this panel about how gay and lesbian issues are covered in the media. Participating in a democracy, whether as a journalist watch dogging government and powerful organizations, or whether as a private citizen marching in a gay pride parade, or advocating for restricted recognition of gays civil rights, is messy, and often times unpleasant. But it’s the anti-perspirant on the stench of corruption and injustice, and without an independent media and press, the foulness of the fish head rotting would creep deep into the roots of Polish society.

The more the topic is debated in Poland in an independent media and press, the more I think gays and lesbians will be recognized as a part of Poland. The door has opened, and the church is right to think now it will lead to greater demands. But that is the natural progression of a society that values freedom of assembly and freedom of expression and the rule of law – the smell of rot disappears once the fish grows a new head.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The German Media Landscape: Destruction of a Free Press?

The front page of der Tagesspiegel last week had a hefty center piece on the train strike, which is taking a toll on Germany's import and export system, which relies on the trains to bring and deliver goods to the country. An important national, if not European, story for Germans. 

But another story, also on the front page, but pushed off to the left hand margin, was an article about der Tagesspiegel's discovery that the police had intercepted their reporters' mail and eavesdropped on their interviews with source. Similarly, NDR, the public broadcasting station learned that not only reporters, but an editor, had been caught up in the surveillance of suspects during the course of interviewing them for a story. 

The director of NDR, Jobst Plog was clear about the ramifications for a free press in Germany if it is confirmed that a district attorney gave the go ahead to conduct the surveillance as part of an investigation of alleged left wing radicals. 

Surveillance in Germany takes a different tone than in the United States. Most Americans haven't felt the fear or paranoia of being spied on by the government. We've had a few moments: the McCarthy era, and blackballing people for alleged Communist affiliation. J. Edgar Hoover's almost Nazi like obssession with keeping files on everyone from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Robert Kennedy to Abbie Hoffmann. 

But they were not ordinary people leading ordinary lives. They took risks, they antagonized. An FBI file is almost a badge of honor, because it indicates that you raised to the level of importance that the government ought to know what you were doing. 

Not so in Germany. During the Nazi regime, students regularly reported on their parents comments at the dinner table to teachers, who reported it to the local Gestapo. Anyone who criticized Adolph Hitler at a private party could be arrested; anyone who spoke out against the government even in passing to a friend could be detained. And anyone could be listening: your neighbor, your teacher, your aunts and uncles. It was a regime that turned people on each other. 

When the country was split, the Communist Erich Honecker, after 9 years imprisoned by the Nazis, took lessons from the Communisty Party head and eventually lead the most notorious secret service in the world: the Stasi. After the wall fell, and people burst into the basements of the Palast der Republik, they found millions upon millions of files. The Stasi had kept records on everyone, East and West Germans. And they had lists of informers, some paid, some "informal". When the German government received the Stasi files from the CIA in 2000, the BBC reported on the concern about exposing former West Germans as Stasi agents. Families are learning that a beloved relative was in fact an informer; wives learning that husbands were spying on them, and vice versa. As an individual you can request your file and look at it, but it's so sensitive, even 17 years after the wall has come down, that no one except journalists or researchers, are allowed to look at the Stasi files. Journalists are prohibited from publishing or broadcasting information from the Stasi files that were collected through secret methods, like taping a conversation without someone's knowledge or taking their picture without them knowing. But of course, the Stasi was all about secrecy, and the majority of the information was collected secretly. 

That was chilling enough. One of the first things the U.S. did when it "denazified" Germany after the war was building up an independent press. It has served the country well, from the undercover reports of Guenther Walraff on living as a Turkish factor worker to the exposure of the Hitler diaries as a fake. Germans are engaged in their democracy, proud of it, and they should be. They, and the rest of the world, paid a heavy price for it. 

When the press learns that it's government has been spying on them, spying on their whereabouts with sources, how can Germans begin the road to trusting each other, and reporters? In so many ways, it is a young democracy, a young nation state, and it is an infant in trusting the stewards of its democracy - the press - to safeguard the promises of the German constitution, one of which is the right to privacy. German privacy laws are very strict, and when you think about the history, you understand why. The press cannot function effectively if the government is spying on reporters in the interests of national security. The press cannot safeguard the freedoms demanded in the constitution when a government deploys its powers to secretly collect information. That is a step in the direction of a military junta, of a type of dictatorship. It's not of an individual, but it's of an entity, like the Nazis, who pass laws and exercise them for the "safety" of the country. The Nazis were democratically elected, and within two years, stripped Germany of its democratic practices. The country has come so far, and it's a leader for other European nations. It's time to leave the secrecy behind, and let the sunshine begin to heal the sores of government chafing. 

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The German Media Landscape, Part One

The shocking tale of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung giving up its tradition of no pictures on the front page has gripped the pundits in Germany. Journalism in Germany is declining, the standards are being lowered, und so weiter und sofort as they say here in the Fatherland.

I have always thought pictures were dangerous to journalism. You know that one of the Afghan refugee girl with the haunted eyes on the cover of National Geographic? That was a bad call. And raising of the flag at Iwo Jima? What a load of tripe to even consider for placement on the pages of a newspaper.

Photojournalism has a provided some of the iconic moments of history. And God forbid you create a newspaper that (gasp!) more people would want to read. The BILD is of course awful, but the paper is a well known tabloid and it's cheap to buy too. I don't think the FAZ is falling into this category.

German newspapers are not quite in the position as American papers. It's a fairly literate population, but of course this is changing as younger readers turn to the Internet. But this change is slow, since unlike the U.S., Germany hasn't had a recent baby boom. The last one occurred when all the boys and men disappeared into the eastern and western fronts and never returned in 1945. So these people will keep things afloat, and quite healthy for many years to come.

Still, German publishers are turning to the web as in the U.S. A recent article the English edition of Der Spiegel 'The Perils of Online First' goes into detail about the efforts of newspapers to publish first on the web and neglect the print product, which is a bit like shooting themselves into the foot. Uwe Knüpfer is experimenting with an online publication in the Ruhr area of Germany but it's a hard sell. They too are searching for the holy grail of how to make journalism on the Internet financially sustainable, and hopefully lucrative in the long run.

The article I think neglects one perspective, and that is that journalism standards are not necessarily neglected on the web. I'm trying to think of a good example of when that happened, and they don't give one in the article. If anything, there are examples of great online journalism that involve interactivity and better explanations of our society and how it works. The NY Times is doing this, as well as the Washington Post. I'll give a nod to the Star Tribune as well, because they produced excellent work on the plight of Liberians in Minnesota, which made an impact on policy. Even Der Spiegel has wonderful online segments, most recently about the Baader-Meinhof gang and their reign of terror when they murdered politicians and important ministers.

I think the problem lies in that there is a generation of journalists - I would call them the Lost Generation - who are being taught journalism without understanding the ethics of online reporting because their teachers don't know either, and nobody is really talking about it. If they are, I haven't been made aware it. Journalism schools are putting emphasis on new media, which is good, but as far as I can tell, very little on what is right and what is wrong and what the obligations are. I don't pretend to have the answers.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

KSTP, Why don't you just change your call letters to USSR?

My leftist buds will no doubt tell me that I'm naive, and my defense of the Hubbard family owned KSTP franchise in Minnesota was misplaced all along.

I will still defend the Hubbards on some things (like giving candidates free air time and hosting live debates), but I was sorely disappointed in their coverage of the aftermath of the bridge collapse in Minneapolis. The mayor, R.T. Rybak, signed off on opening up a pedestrian bridge, which allowed closer viewing of the wreckage. KSTP sicced one of their serious, manly reporters on the hunt for Rybak (who as many reporters in the Twin Cities know is probably the most accessible elected official this side of the Mississippi). He got reporter-tough with him, asking him to respond to the emergency responders who didn't want the site opened up.

Follow up interview with Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek. Remember this guy? The disgraced public safety commissioner in Minnesota who is on the record as using racial slurs in interrogating suspects as a Minneapolis cop and was forced to resign as a result? Well, the Comeback Kid Stanek got elected in 2006 to the sheriff's office, and he's loving it. The interview was between him in the KSTP's studios and some blonde cupcake who looked like she was barely literate. She gently probed him on what it meant to the families to limit access to the site. His eyes filled with tears, he choked up but somehow managed to make it through the tough interview with Barbie. He should have announced his candidacy for governor right then and there.

According to a former employee of KSTP, Gary Hill, expect more of this. The Hubbards are getting into the newsroom, and they're not leaving. They've always been idealogues, as I well know, making hefty contributions to Republican candidates, but they've always been explicit about their politics, which I'm grateful for. But painting Rybak as the bad guy, and Stanek as our knight in shining armor, besides showing KSTP's gross bias, is inaccurate.

I'd love to see a robust discussion about the ethics of access to disaster sites, the appropiateness of showing body bags, playing the tapes of the final moments of some of the victims, and other unpleasant things. If it were me, I'd show the bags, but I know other news executives feel differently.

KSTP was my station choice immediately after the bridge fell down. It's now fallen by the wayside, because I know the Hubbards are pushing their political agenda on an issue that has no good guys or bad guys. It's painting the story of government incompetence as black and white, when it's several different shades of the rainbow. Maybe KSTP should change their colors to red, the color of the Soviet flag, who so excellently spewed propaganda to the disservice of their constituents, but for the greater good of improving the lot of a small group of people who could only think about preserving their political influence.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

When Print Journalists Go Broadcast

It shouldn't surprise many in my most recent hometown of the Twin Cities that a few print reporters have taken up residence at at least one broadcast outlet. I happened to be escorting a group of teenage miscreants to tour the newsroom and meet the News Director at Minnesota Public Radio (what a generous fellow Bill Wareham is - he must have teenage children).

I knew there was a new sheriff in the newsroom. Chris Worthington, a higher up editor at the Pioneer Press, was one of the rats to leave the sinking ship early before the buyouts, and ensconced himself as Bill Wareham's boss in July of 2006. Traversing between media is nothing new in the Twin Bergs - TV goes to print, radio goes to TV, newspaper heads go to magazines. It's a small reporter's world here.

So it was with much surprise when Wareham, who is a candid fellow but shrewd, told our budding journalism students that he thought MPR could have responded more quickly to the I-35W bridge collapse, which had occurred just four days earlier. And that he noticed a difference in how broadcast and print approach such catastrophes. He noted that Worthington came from a print background, so his response was to assign the stories to the appropiate beat. Wareham wanted to get as many people on the ground as possible to get live coverage moving as soon as possible.

Even though Worthington is a print guy, it's still no excuse. News outlets have had Internet capabilities for several years now. Why is it so difficult for print guys to adapt to this new order? I get the "we don't need to rush and make sure our information is accurate", but in a calamity of the I-35W collapse, not rushing hurts your coverage in the long run. It didn't take too long before the state and the feds moved in, blocking off access to the site -- those were golden opportunities to get footage up close and personal, and footage that served the public interest. It's won't be too long before we forget the horror of the collapse, and the press has a responsibility to show those images, not the ones taken from far away.

Broadcasters historically have loved to win print reporters to their newsrooms. Print guys love to dig up dirt, and have neat tricks and a history of sources to expose fraud, waste and abuse. But the order is no longer print reigns supreme with the best coverage, then radio, and TV at the bottom of the barrel with its ridiculous anchors and pundits who editorialize and shout. The Internet has become the great leveler in journalism, allowing broadcast outlets to shine, and show those print guys, you don't know how to cover everything. In fact, those ancient methods may hamper coverage, and the public interest.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Moyers: Old but Good

It must be the way he asks questions. Because at first glance, he's not much to look at. A well-educated, privileged white man who doesn't take it for granted.

He seems to take a natural curiousity about everything, even with guests who's views he finds repugnant, as recently happened with a libertarian writer. He treats them relatively the same, with dignity, with respect, ared with information but itching for a conversation, not a fight.

I remember first reading Bill Moyers, not watching him. My advisor for the extended essay requirement of the International Baccaulaureate Diploma recommended "The Power of Myth", Moyers' iconic interviews with mythology professor Joseph Campbell. I was more interested in Campbell at the time, and quoted him in my my final thesis.

I met Moyers again, 4 years later, in a journalism class. The professor, while not a great instructor, had the foresight to make us watch part of "The Public Interest" series, another iconic Moyers work. In the presence of the ruthless, Republican strategist, Michael Devers, Moyers exuded his trademark calm and respect, which is why I suppose, so many admire him. He confronted the beast, continues to confront the beasts, as well as the better angels of our nature.

so it must be in the questions, but it's also his eye for a good story. And people make good stories: villains, underdogs, heroes, philosophers, powerbrokers, you and me. He connects them, and us with the contempoary issues of our day: corruption, patriotism, civic duty, honor, redemption, falls from grace. He takes on meta issues, such as the recent documentary on how the American press covered the lead up to the war in Iraq.

Bill Moyers is an anomaly in the white noise of talk radio, network sitcomes and inane local news. He's high brow journalism at a time when the educational and civic ability of Americans is at an all time low ( look at the number of Americans registered to vote - and then look at the even more depressing figure of those registered to vote who don't make it to the polls.) It begs the question of whether Moyers is doing a service by remaining above the fray, or limiting his audience by remaining (and forgive me, Bill, because I love you) old-fashioned.

Perhaps he would riposte with an avuncular chuckle, then a thoughtful response about how the American public can be trusted so long as it's supplied with the facts.

Or maybe he would say that public broadcasting is the last refuge for true independent journalism to take chances and he won't compromise.

Moyers is 73 this year, 2007. He was a child of World War II, cut his professional teeth in the Johnson administration and Vietnam, and turned to what was then a still noble calling, television journalism. But I fear Moyers abilities are lost on Gen Y and future generations. I fear he is an anachronism, and I fear that while he may be practicing the best journalism in the United States, he is limited by his understanding of how to reach my generation (I'm 29 at this writing). As devoted as I am to Moyers, not even I catch every show.

Who will remember this icon? Who will say "there but for the grace of God goes Bill Moyers?" I've spent the last 6 months at a Big 10 school, spending time in the campus newspaper newsroom, and a mention of Bill Moyers gets blank stares and a shrug. It's depressing to see Moyers' work go underrecognized, if not completely unrecognized. And I wonder how he will continue to fare with the expansion of the web.

But Moyers is the king of comebacks. He has repeatedly said he is retiring, then returns with a new series. He seems to prefer appearing alone, the center of gravity. His instincts are right on: we trust him to ask questions we want answers to, and we trust him to ask questions we never even thought of. Not many have that happy talent.

The future of Moyers: relegated to insomniac tv sets of the blue hairs? Or underground hero to young journalists?

Monday, April 30, 2007

No Virginia Tech on the Daily Show or the Colbert Report

This will be brief: a salute to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (or should I say a tip of the hat?) for steering clear of the Virginia Tech shootings. Sometimes if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. It was only when the fallout occurred over the loopholes in the gun law that they responded, staying true to their ethics of afflicting the comfortable, rather than afflicting the afflicted as the MSM is so wont to do.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Information Haves and Have Nots

I've been out of the blog world for quite a bit. Keeping my media diet of Daily Show, Washington Post podcasts, and a cursory glance at the Star Tribune's website, the daily paper of my current hometown Minneapolis. The American empire appears to be standing up nicely.

But the newspaper industry isn't feeling quite as robust. I, and my fellow Kiplinger Fellows, met with the publisher of the Columbus Dispatch today. The paper just bought out 21 reporters, and it appears in the next couple months, the paper will trim its physical size by a couple inches.

Senator John Glenn attended our discussion: in his early 80's, he's concerned about what happens to a democracy when the newspapers are cutting reporters, ergo content.

I do share those concerns. But I also believe that for time imemoriam we've lived in societies of information haves, and information have nots. Lawyers are the classic examples of those who profit the most from information. Accountants I think another. So why should there continue to be a gap in information when most people have access to the Internet, either at home or surfing on the computer at the local library?

Well, not all pigs are equal. This is the difference between my parents' stock fund portfolio and Donald Trump's. His accountants know more than theirs. They have better information. The same holds true for everyday folk. Some people are savvier about obtaining information than others. I think consumerism is a good example. I can think of a few friends who are fanatic about finding good deals on clothes. I wouldn't say I'm a spendthrift, but I'm not going to quibble over a $10 or $15 difference on a pair of pants. I can afford it. My friends can too, but they quibble because they --and here's the key-- know they can get it for cheaper. They're aware of the difference, and they know it's out there, and once you know something is out there, it changes how you make your decisions.

That might not be the best example. There are much more profound ones, and in the case of journalism, hopefully, showing those differences in candidates, or elected officials, will have a profound impact on how you interact within this democracy.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Quality vs. Quality

Sitting in a room with mostly young public radio reporters from different midwest affiliates (myself included - young, but not employed by a midwest NPR affiliate), I had an epiphany.

Public broadcasting is doing an excellent job churning out sound artists who also happen to do news. At least, that's what I came away with.

But as I sat through the listening session, I was struck how the younger reporters spend so much time on the sound integrity on their stories, that they forget basic newsgathering.

Take the gentleman who did a sound rich, plucky story on why a public library in Cleveland was considered the best in the country. Well, I heard inside the library, how it's changed...but I had this nagging question at the end of it: Why is this library number one in the country?

Don't get me wrong. I love sound rich stories. I think reporters, whether you work with sound or not ( and increasingly, every reporter works with sound, even the print guys who are kicking and screaming into the world of digital journalism), need to get outside more. Meet people. Hang out. Listen. Watch. Absorb. But don't forget it's not all about the sound quality. It's still about the news, isn't it?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

BBC Model in America?

A lot of public broadcasting supporters look across the pond to state funded journalism and cultural programming. They look at Germany, with its monthly fee subsidy on televison and radio sets; they look at the BBC in Great Britain, and wonder how we could get it so wrong.

They have good reason to think that. Let's face it the state of journalism, and broadcast journalism in particular, is at a low ebb. In a recent conversation with Gary Gilson, soon to be the former head of the Minnesota News Council, he said, "Nobody's interested in doing public service journalism anymore. They [the networks] used to pour money into projects. It's over."

Gilson also isn't upbeat about ongoing foundation support, pointing to the Ford Foundation's short lived interest in public interest international journalism, "making the global local" projects and others. And so again, we turn our heads across the pond, and wonder why we in the United States can't adopt the BBC model.

I'm not totally persuaded by the BBC model. I went to German public schools, I have a fine private, international school high school education, I've summered in the south of England. And there's good broadcasting in western Europe. But it's not all good, even though it's heavily subsidized. So I don't buy the argument that subsidies are the answer.

The other thing about the BBC - and any other western European model - is that if the government chooses, it can forbid them to broadcast material. Such was the case with the BBC, just a month after the 9-11 attacks. Prime Minister Tony Blair summoned, to use the parlance of the British newspapers, the broadcast service executives to Downing Street to ask them not to broadcast tapes of Osama bin Laden. Flash forward to May of 2003: on a tip from a fellow journalist, the BBC's Andrew Gilligan meets with Dr. David Kelly, a scientist critical of evidence suggesting Saddam Hussein was capable of producing WMD's. Gilligan doesn't name Kelly as a source, and the government forces the issue, requiring Gilligan to testify and criticizing the BBC for allowing a story to air with only one source to verify that evidence was cooked up in the case being made to go to war in Iraq. Gilligan coughs up Kelly's name, who eventually kills himself in July of 2003.

The government prevents broadcast of the Hutton inquiry on television or radio into Dr. Kelly's death, and his criticism of the evidence used in the case made for the invasion of Iraq. The BBC complies.

Let my inner Bill O'Reilly come out here: that would never happen in America. The government could not make an order like that and get away with it. However, I will concede this: this same story - the furor over the BBC using one, unnamed source to verify fabrication of evidence to make the case for war, the documents that showed high level government officials doctoring intelligence - never made it into the American press for an entirely different failing of the United States, and its not because we don't subsidize public broadcasting.

It's because American journalism is timid, including public broadcasting. And I would argue that public broadcasting can be especially timid because they are so petrified of losing their precious federal dollars that they won't go out on a limb.

Now you could say, that's an extreme example. And there are plenty of examples where the BBC has done robust reporting, from conflicts in Africa to terrorism in western Europe to domestic issues on the island. But it's those singular instances where the BBC shows it's only as strong as its weakest link, and its weakest link is that when the stakes are high enough, the government will tell them what to do, and they will comply.

I have a problem with that, and I don't see the BBC funding model as a panacea for the woes of American journalism. There are too many string attached. There are already strings attached for National Public Radio as the news arm for Voice of America. I have a problem with censorship, even if it happens very rarely. It's never OK for the government to tell an independent press what to say or do, and to say you're independent and comply with the government's orders is hypocritical.

After some reading, I'll post soon about different ideas about freedom of speech. Apparently, not even Americans really believe in the 1st Amendment. Sigh.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Stroking the Public Radio Ego

Being the lone radio person in a group of newspaper fogies, I'm finding myself amused by at once the deference, but also sad, comments sent the way of public broadcasting.

On one hand, my print colleagues appreciate the artistic value of radio and audio; on the other, they lament the inability of public broadcasting to financially support as extensive a news network of reporters and editors as newspapers do.

The most public version of this discussion came out when McClatchy announced it would immediately sell the Pioneer Press in Saint Paul, after acquiring it in one of the biggest newspapers sales from Knight Ridder. The e-democracy folks in the Twin Cities, certain the Twin Cities was doomed to becoming a one paper town, floated the idea of the state's largest public broadcaster to purchase the paper. Minnesota Public Radio has a many multi-million dollar budget, buys and sells radio real estate with the help of low cost loans and good standing in credit: why not buy a paper?

As many pointed out in the posts following the idea, the nonprofit may be able to pull off a 12 million dollar acquisition (as it did with the purchase of St. Olaf's WCAL in Northfield), but HALF A BILLION? It's a lot to ask, even the wealthy, and well-endowed Minnesota Public Radio.

But there are other reasons why I wouldn't recommend public broadcasting's hand in the newspaper business. The Americans who do support public broadcasting want the national stuff: All Things Considered, Fresh Air with Terri Gross. Local news production, on the scale of Minnesota Public Radio, is almost unheard of at an NPR affiliate. The bulk of their budgets go to National Public Radio or Public Radio International to purchase programming, rather than investing in local programming.

To me, that lack of investment in local programming shows an unwillingness to try new things, which newspapers in their heyday were known for. That's the exception, not the rule in the small world of public broadcasting. They are so careful, so fearful of pissing off potential donors, current donors, foundations, they wouldn't touch it. Fo Shizzle.

That doesn't mean public broadcasting can't change. But it's an insular culture that doesn't like outsiders coming in, telling them how they can do better work. And so little of public broadcasting is devoted to actual journalism, that it would take an infusion of newspaper talent to turn the small reporting ships of NPR affiliates into the strong, shrill shrieks of Washington policymakers calling for an end to public broadcasting funds.

Don't get me wrong; I love my American public broadcasting. I give money. I defend it's mission. I'm grateful. But I'm also painfully aware of its shortcomings. It's like my parents. I love them, but I also know I can't get everything I need, or even want from them.

Friday, January 26, 2007

What's Up with Journalist Access to the Floor During State of the Union?

At the same time President Bush was preparing to make his next to last State of the Union address, I was struck by a head cold. Achy sinuses, headache, sore throat. What better way to feel better than by watching the State of the Union. I decided to turn to CNN.

I don't know why I pick CNN. Probably from my days at a boarding school in Switzerland when one of the teachers would have it on all the time during the 1st Gulf War. So they got me at a young age. But I gotta say CNN, and all the other networks, aren't doing much with their newfound access to the floor. I'm not quite sure what the physical access gets them anyway. They're able to take a different angle shot of the action, therefore our perspective has changed as viewers? We're somehow more level with the elected officials who decide much of our fates from before birth until after death? I didn't feel much in touch with Washington by watching John Roberts mingle with the gaggle of politicians on the floor, but to have CNN report it, it was the greatest wish ever to have a camera on the floor.

If there was one thing that the coverage of the State of the Union proved to me, is why The Daily Show and The Colbert Report remain ever popular: how can we take these guys seriously? Better yet, how can we take that Candy character on CNN seriously? It's at moments like those, staring into the television void that I fear for the future of television journalism. I know TV is the favorite whipping post of every pseudo intellectual in this country, but as someone who loves television, loves news, and knows some of the cats producing it, I know they can do better. Spending half the coverage on how fantastic it is to have access to the floor during the speech doesn't tell me much. Apparently, the access didn't do much for CNN's ability to hold policymakers feet to the fire as well.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The New Media Frontier..I Guess

This fellowship program I'm in at the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at the Ohio State University talks a lot about new media. It is in fact a "New Media Fellowship".

But the media itself isn't new. Radio has been around for about 80 years; television for 50, and the printed word, at least in modern western European history, since good old Johannes Gutenberg figured out the secret to movable type (I think it was in 1482, but of course the Chinese had him beat by a few hundred years.)

What's new is the ability to meld these individual mediums into a whole made possible by the world wide web. You can now watch a movie on your computer, or make an audio slideshow with photos you took from your last vacation, or publish a video newsletter (a vletter?) about your family on your home computer. And you can sit like me and blog the afternoon away in lieu of constitutional law homework.

I hear a lot about the "revolution" the Internet has had on the ability to create media, and the fear it strikes in the hearts of reporters who worry about amateurs encroaching on their professional turf. I don't see it as much of a revolution. Didn't the printing press open up a new media class of non royalty, common folk who could own the means of production of media, and distribute pamphlets that created social, religious and economic revolutions? I'm thinking of Martin Luther, of Thomas Paine, and all the unknown printers who threw themselves into the creation of new means of communicating that didn't require monks slaving hours with pen and paper to preserve ideas. And writing in the vernacular also opened up the ability for information to be understood by lay people.

So it is with the Internet. That's why it's not enough for newspaper to just publish stories on the web. I think we've forgotten that we collect information through the 5 senses, not only by digesting words through our eyes and into our neurons. Because we (western industrialized folk) are surrounded by radio and television and video and photography, we intuitively reject the way newspapers, and broadcast outlets are recreating newspapers as hypertext.

It's up to the "professionals" to now professionalize news on the web - which means thinking about why we like to watch television or listen to the radio or go to a photo exhibit in the first place. I can only answer for myself, but it's something I think news outlets will have to ponder as well, and not use a focus group either.

The Ohio Frontier

I'm coming up on three weeks in Columbus, Ohio. The responses I received when I made public my decision to leave KFAI Radio in Minneapolis to come - omigod - HERE ranged from "Why would you leave Minneapolis for an inferior city?" to "What a fabulous opportunity!"

It seems to me - just to add to the categorization we all seek to box people in - is that there are two types of people in world. One group finds its status in where it lives; the other finds status in what it lives. I think I'm in the latter group. I don't really care where I live, so long as I have access and opportunity to what I want to be doing, which isn't much. I'm not vain, so access to trendy boutiques in unimportant; I'm not a music aficionado, so I don't care about the local indie rock or pop scene; I don't really care all that much about art or theatre,

It's also no secret that midwesterners in general have an inferiority complex, and part of its manifestation is to put other parts of the midwest down. Fine with me; I'm not from the midwest, and can scoff at everyone in it, knowing full well that it doesn't matter if Minneapolis is on the cusp of being a first class city and Columbus most definitely a second class city - both are neither fully first class anything, and for those of us who have experienced first class, the provincialism of such a conflict is rather charming. Kind of like watching a Jerry Springer show.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Welcome to My Blog

Since leaving my job as the News Director of KFAI Radio, a few interested parties have suggetsed I start a blog.

So here I go: I'm in Ohio, doing a new media fellowship. No, I will not leave with an M.A. in journalism. This fellowship is where they pay me to complete a project ( in this case a multimedia website on Somali businesses in Columbus, Ohio). They also pay for classes if I want to take them. I'm taking constitutional law - watch out, Scalia!