February 27, 2007

News does not equal journalism

Eric Deggans criticizes NBC’s Brian Williams for doing a very un-TV-like thing: Refusing to go along with the sensational nonsense of the day. Specifically, the over-coverage of Britney Spears’ baldness and Anna Nicole Smith’s corpse. Deggans writes:

For those who had been complaining about too much coverage of these celebrity-fueled tragedies, it was a rare moment of moderation from a respected TV journalist.

And it was also absolutely the wrong decision.

Because there is real news embedded in these ongoing soap operas. And a media-weary public needs quality journalists like Williams to pull substance out of these tawdry messes.

In Spears’ case, we have one of the world’s best-known pop singers melting down before the public’s eye–a woman with two kids, millions of dollars and multitudes of fans who still can’t conquer her own personal demons.

Smith, a 39-year-old professional train wreck of a celebrity, died unexpectedly–under circumstances similar to the death of her 20-year-old son five months earlier. She’s left an estate potentially worth $400-million to a 5-month-old daughter who at least three men claim to have fathered, kicking off a legal battle over where Smith should be buried.

On what planet isn’t this news?

That’s the wrong question. Of course it’s news. What it ain’t is journalism, or, rather, the reporting of this news fails the primary purpose of journalism as defined by Kovach and Rosenstiel (and as seconded by the codes of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists and the AP Managing editors): The primary purpose of journalism is to give people the information they need to be free and self-governing.

If there is a primary purpose then secondary purposes necessarily exist. Spears and Smith fall somewhere in this realm of “informing the public” (I refuse to call it journalism).

Williams seems to have been tapping into this primary purpose and noticing how completely unimportant these two women are in regard to it. Good for him.

February 23, 2007

Used to happen all the time

Reporters used to have regular off-the-record meetings with presidents–more than a generation ago. Think FDR. I don’t want to slip into Arcadian thinking here, but it seems to me that what made such meetings possible was a level of mutual respect (or openly mutual self-interest) between presidents and the press.

George W. Bush’s contempt for the press is no secret. Having called the press just another “special interest” is one big, fat slap in the face–even if the press all too often acts exactly like a special interest.

So now we discover that Bush recently met with some top TV anchors who are keeping the content of that meeting a secret–although NBC’s Brian Williams let a tantalizing bit slip out. Eat The Press says:

Ummm…hello? We’re all for keeping things off the record (if you are, federal government), but this strikes us as rather scary and cabal-like. Basically, this means that ALL of the top newsies–Russert, Williams, Schieffer, Couric–could collectively be in on some big stuff. Preserving the United States’ options for multifront warfare? MULTIFRONT WARFARE? I mean, yikes.

Did any print journalists attend this meeting?

Considering the uncomfortable role the press played in our involvement in Iraq, that this crew should attend this meeting and agree to keep it off the record is about par for the course.

February 22, 2007

It might be over

Prediction is a game for fools (e.g. TV pundits) and scientists. The fools entertain while kidding themselves and the public that they understand what’s going on. Scientists attempt to create models that predict, not to merely predict (and certainly not to entertain) but to better understand how the world works.

Scholar William G. Mayer’s model of the pre-primary period of presidential nomination campaigns is an example of a model that tells us many interesting things about the world. For a quick rundown, see my blog essay on the topic and my academic essay on what I call the primary instability paradox. These essays explain what I think Mayer’s model has to tell us about press coverage of the pre-primary campaign. And it ain’t purty.

After reading that background, this poll result should seem particularly interesting: Of likely Iowa caucus participants, Rudy Giuliani leads with 29%, and John Edwards leads with 24%.

February 20, 2007

Springfield Bloggers meet tonight

Springfield’s weather is improving this week–a typical late February thaw. Come out and enjoy some fun in inner space this evening: The Springfield Bloggers meeting tonight at 7:00 at the Patton Alley Pub. I won’t be podcasting because I still have not purchased a new laptop battery. If someone else wants to record, I’ll be happy to edit and post.

February 15, 2007

What he did not say and do

Howard Fineman says the first Republican primary for the 2008 presidential election takes place in Florida next week–at the annual meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters. Candidates, declared and otherwise, are expected to show up and perform for the evangelicals–except Rudy Giuliani. Rhetorical strategy is also about what you don’t say and don’t do. And I think this is a good one.

February 13, 2007

Print is not going away

I saw an interesting story on CNN Headline News the other day about how in the near future many surfaces will become computing surfaces because of touch-screen technology. In such a world, will print newspapers be necessary?

Print or newspaper journalism will certainly be necessary, although this may be delivered by computer.

But I suspect that the dead tree technology will be sticking around for a while, even if Arthur Sulzberger Jr. is losing confidence in it. He was quoted as saying this at Davos: “I really don’t know whether we’ll be printing the Times in five years, and you know what? I don’t care either.” And he followed up with this by way of explanation: “So let me clear the air on this issue. It is my heartfelt view that newspapers will be around–in print–for a long time. But I also believe that we must be prepared for that judgment to be wrong. My five-year timeframe is about being ready to support our news, advertising and other critical operations on digital revenue alone …whenever that time comes.”

I think newspapers will change radically in the years to come. For one thing, I think most papers will move to the tabloid size. Broadsheet is, frankly, an outdated and annoying size–good for leisurely Sunday mornings but bothersome on the bus. For another, I think those papers that survive in print will be the ones that report in-depth about local communities and bring citizens further into conversation with their communities. In other words, newspapers will survive in print as long as they continue to do good journalism using all the available tools and media.

February 8, 2007

Giddy with excitement

Gilbert Cranberg asks: Why did the press as a whole fail to question sufficiently the administration’s case for war?

And he asks a lot more specific questions that ought to be answered in something more than the haughty brush-off that passes for self-examination and explanation for much of the news media.

Cranberg wants to turn the social scientists loose on this topic (they already are working on it, no one but other social scientists read the journals). Good luck with that.

The penultimate paragraph:

The press response to the build-up to the Iraq war simply is the latest manifestation of an underlying and ongoing reluctance to dissent from authority and prevailing opinion when emotions run high, especially on matters of war and peace, when the country most needs a questioning, vigorous press.

It’s called the status quo bias.

February 6, 2007

When blogging enters the mainstream

Blogging is now officially a mainstream media endeavor, even for those who wear pajamas and earn no money. I know this because bloggers are now the target of PR efforts of all kinds, e.g. Microsoft recently offering free laptops to bloggers so they can test, and write about, the new Vista operating system.

Scott Kirsner says it’s time for bloggers to adopt the ethical standards of the journalism establishment:

I believe we will soon see a bifurcation in the blogosphere, with trusted bloggers letting readers know about connections that may influence what they write. Blogs where payment for reviews seems to dominate — or where every third posting is about wonderful free dinners and gifts lavished upon the blogger — will be regarded much more skeptically. How many more people have relied on Julia Child for cooking advice (who never endorsed a product), rather than Ron Popeil, star of late-night infomercials for the Showtime Rotisserie Oven?

In other words, bloggers, good ones, will adopt these standards as a matter of course because these standards (e.g. this code of ethics), while imperfect to be sure, still signal an attempt to deliver the kind of information readers may trust–something we call journalism.

February 6, 2007

Springfield Bloggers meet tonight

Drop by the Patton Alley Pub at 7 p.m. for the Springfield Bloggers meeting. My laptop battery is shot, so I may not be able to make a podcast unless I can get power. We’ll see.

February 1, 2007

Rhetorica Update

Hoo-ray! Those two deadlines I mentioned a couple of months ago–the ones that slowed my blogging–well, I met ’em!

One is “Politics & Language,” an edited collection of articles and essays from 2000 through 2004 that help demonstrate the role language plays in politics (Cambridge Scholars Publishing). The other is the essay I wrote with Doug McGill and Jeremy Iggers for the 2006 Media Ethics Colloquium. It’s slated to run this year in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics.

I’m taking the rest of the day off 🙂