How journalism failed America at a most critical time

In the days prior today’s bailout vote, you could surf through Google news and find any number of stories that told us that the U.S. economy is in a crisis, and that spending $700 billion to bail out Wall Street bankers was unavoidable.

Or you could turn on the television and watch just about any news show and hear the same thing.

What you rarely found or heard was any serious questioning of whether the crisis was anywhere near the proportion George W. Bush said it was, or if the bailout was really necessary, or if the bailout would work, or if, maybe, the bailout might make things actually worse.

All of these are legitimate, skeptical questions that at a time when the nation’s attention was nearly focused solely on questions around the economy, the mass of mainstream media failed to cast a doubtful eye on anything government officials and elected representatives were telling them.

Oh, occasionally, Ron Paul got a little air time, but for the most part, if you wanted to find any commentary or reporting that was anything other than an Amen Chorus for Bush and Paulson, you had know where and how to look.

Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist David Cay Johnston put it this way:

Journalists, and specially Washington journalists, are generally behaving like lapdogs and generally only asking detail questions around the central premise. This should concern us all. This is the same kind of behavior that we saw during the run up to the War in Iraq, when there was no shortage of critical facts and skeptical sources, but only the usual stalwarts in journalism reported skeptically.

Johnston went on to note that when Tom Brokaw opened the previous Sunday’s Meet the Press with, “Our issues this Sunday: The American financial system in deep crisis.”  Not, “The president says,” but rather a bald statement of fact.

Why, at a time of great decision — just like the run up to the invasion in Iraq — when America needs more, not fewer, skeptical voices, did U.S. journalism lap up whatever gruel they were fed?

I blame Walter Lippmann.

In the 1920s, Lippmann sought to weed out of journalism some of the excesses of jingoist reporting that he witnessed during World War I.  He elevated objectivity to a professional moral code, that reporting and writing should be neutral. It was not the role of the reporter to interpret.  He should merely regurgitate the facts as observed or offered up by official sources.  Lippmann did not trust a singular human to exercise critical thinking about complex issues.

His objectivity code smacks of a certain elitism — that first, only official sources should be allowed to speak, and only specially trained professional journalists could be trusted to transmute their words and deeds to an easily led (or misled) public (“manufactured consent”).

While Lippmann’s formulation of objective journalism has not completely quashed advocacy journalism, or watchdog reporting, it has become the standard practice of the work-a-day reporter.

No where is it more insidious than inside the beltway.

Think back to the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Any number of White House and Pentagon officials could be found quoted — often anonymously — in the leading publications on the tactics, strategy, necessity and urgency of the war, but few contrarian voices were heard.  The arguments against the war were left to anti-war celebrities on television shout shows, lefty blogs and scattered protesters.  There was nothing like an expert calling bullshit on most administration assertions in mass media reporting.

Whether you supported the war or not, the complete lack of alternate voices in much of the reporting of America’s newspapers should cause you concern.

Many critics of the war before and since have referred to Bush’s push for invasion as “the rush to war.”

That phrase echoed through my mind much the past week as Bush and Congressional Democrats hastily set to work on a $700 billion bailout of New York’s financial institutions.  It is no stretch to call it a “rush to bailout.”

The original proposal was a three-page document; Democrats had doubts, so they (working with likeminded Republicans) tried to fashion more complete legislation, but did so through secret meetings (some) and not a single public hearing. No expert witnesses were called, and no outside voices who distrusted the “rush to bailout” were called to testify.

Yes, the press just lapped it up.  In fact, you risked being labeled a crank if you even questioned the necessity of the bailout.

It smelled — it smelled of politicians eagerly doing favors for some of their biggest donors, and for the elite press corps protecting their elite patrons.

Just as prior to the Iraq war, there were some lonely voices raising alternate view points. The McClatchy News Service did one story — but only one, that I can find — mildly doubtful of the Bush narrative.

“It’s more hype than real risk,” said James K. Galbraith, a University of Texas economist and son of the late economic historian John Kenneth Galbraith. “A nasty recession is possible, but the bailout will not cure that. So it’s mainly relevant to the financial industry.”

Unless you were either smart enough or engaged enough to seek out alternative versions of reality, you wouldn’t know that economists such as Galbraith had serious doubts about the extent of the crisis, or that some experts doubted a bailout was necessary, or that a bailout would work, or that the bailout rush was smart (yes, that is a WaPo link, bless their souls — one somewhat skeptical story), or that the bailout would profoundly change the role of government and private capital, or that the bailout might make matters worse.

You would think that a press corps that believed itself badly burned by Bush on Iraq would be a little more skeptical of the president now. It might demonstrate just how firmly entrenched Lippmann’s brand of official source journalism is in most reporters’ minds.

It should be asked, even, whether the dearth of skeptical reporting helped feed a sense of hysteria, even to the point of propelling today’s 777-point DOW drop?

And has the reporting so far helped Americans better understand how the current financial conditions might directly effect them? I’ve had friends, closer to retirement than I am, express fear about losing value in their 401(k)s without a hint of recognition that the bailout may actually have caused those assets to lose more money and result in a slower recovery.

It could be argued that the American people, who pressured representatives to reject the bailout, saw through the clamor and clouds, but if you spend time reading comments on newspaper web sites, angry constituents reacted more viscerally than logically.  If you support the reform, you should be concerned that the lack of depth in news coverage also failed to clearly communicate why the bailout was necessary and wise.

Lippmann may have done the republic and a journalism a service by offering an antidote to the excesses of yellow journalism, but maybe its time for editors to recognize that their reporters are smart enough (or should be) and readers perceptive enough to allow those gathering the facts and doing the writing to provide context and meaning to events and what officials claim. That may not be objective, but it will lead to a better informed, more responsive public.

Looking ahead, local will be the big media winner

Some people think the web makes the world bigger. I say, it makes it smaller.  Some people say the web makes us neighbors with people in Kenya or the Ukraine.  I say it makes us better neighbors with the family next door.

There was a time in United States history when newspapers served as a centralizing force for drawing communities together — and then came  television, and cable, and satellite — all the forces that did nothing to humanize communication, but made mass communication more mass and less personal.

The Internet brings back the possibility of human-sized communication.

At a time when too many glass-eyed Americans turn to network TV for their “Heroes” and get “Lost” in whatever flimflam Hollywood is dishing out this season,  the Web opens up new possibilities for people, local people, people who share a common interest in a common community, to partake in conversation and pursue change with conviction.

In 1995, I started a web site in eastern San Diego County called East County Online.  At the time, I would tell any number of colleagues in the newspaper business: “Mark my words, the web is the best thing that ever happened to local news; all the fascination now is with global communication, but eventually, people will look homeward and want to use the web to build better communities.”

I’ve never stopped believing that. I believe it to this day.

I’ve learned a lot about the Internet and how people use it since 1995, but the philosophy remains the same: Together, we can use digital communication to build better, stronger, more self-reliant communities.

A big reason I was excited to join GateHouse Media in Sept. 2006 was it would keep me involved in local journalism. The idea of building news web sites that help local communities prosper is still exciting to me.

With strong local web sites, maybe we can convince a few people to turn off the TV once or twice a week and visit a local art gallery, spend an evening  with the local theater group, or “root,root, root for the home team.”

And that idea is a major philosophical underpinning of The Batavian.

In a recent E-Media Tidbits post, Amy Garhan writes:

However, I question the Commission’s strong focus on geographically defined local communities. It seems to me that with the way the media landscape has been evolving, geographically defined local communities are becoming steadily less crucial from an information perspective. I suspect that defining communities by other kinds of commonalities (age, economic status/class, interests, social circles, etc.) would be far more relevant to more people — although more complex to define.

I suspect that clinging reflexively to “local” as the paramount criteria for “relevant” reflects a newspaper perspective that was never a good fit for most people, and that never really served most people’s information needs well.

I’m not convinced.  You can’t — as I have done — sit in the stands of a Batavia Muckdogs game and say local is no longer relevant.  There is no stronger bond than the ones you have with people you’ve known for many years and seen at their best and their worst and shared with them a common cause in boosting youth football or arguing whether the town council should tear down the old bank building.

This isn’t the first time I’ve come across the argument that “local no longer means geography,” or “community is more about affinity,” but the position ignores the major impact local events and decisions have on both individuals and national affairs.

The assumption that local is irrelevant in a wired world ignores both history and human nature.

Here’s a question for you: Why do so many newspapers in foreign lands have much higher circulations and household penetrations than U.S. newspapers?

Here’s a possible answer:  The communities those papers serve are more stable, less mobile. You still have grandchildren living in the same neighborhood as grandma, and parents who socialize with the same friends they’ve known since 1st grade.  These communities are just as assaulted by Hollywood and Madison Avenue dreck (or a locally produced alternative) that hypnotize Americans, but homogenized culture hasn’t been as damaging to the local newspapers.

The big difference is mobility, or lack of it.

The United States has always had its Horace Greeleys exhorting its young men to go west, but true mobility — the true dislocation of families and disruptions to small communities — began with World War II, when troops were sent to coastal bases or abroad, and giant industrial war centers were built to employ those who stayed behind.

We’ve had now about 60 years of mobility, and over that time we’ve watched newspaper circulation fall of the shelf.

As I talk about in my “Reinventing Journalism” presentation (most recently given in Atlanta at SPJ’s convention), newspapers thrived when they were run by publishers/editors who paid close attention to changes in society and fashioned their newspapers to fit with their communities needs.

But starting in the 1920s or so, and accelerating after WW II, the professionalization of journalism separated the newsroom from readership concerns. Newsrooms became insular sanctuaries where such tawdry worries as to what readers really wanted from their news pages was too venal to discuss.

So while society changed — more mobile, more connected to electronic media — newspapers followed a singular path whereby newsroom personnel were free to indulge in delusions of knowing what was best for readers while ignoring the real needs of their communities.

If local communities are less coherent today than 60 years ago, well certainly mobility and network television play a role, but so do newspapers that fired their community correspondents, stopped covering eagle scout promotions and tea socials, concerned themselves more with the process of local government than the community impact of its decisions, and tried to be the only indispensable source for all the news of all the world, instead of the one indispensable source of Little League news.

If newspapers had done a better job of adjusting to changes in society, maybe their circulation troubles today would be less troubling, and our communities — and our democracy — would be stronger.

As for the future — I still believe in local.

Mobility is not the natural human trait. We are social creatures who crave connections with flesh-and-blood friends and family. Online communication is fun — and greatly expands our reach of friends and associates — but it’s no substitute for running into an old friend or uncle at the local coffee shop.

As long as I’ve been involved in online communities — approaching 14 years now — I’ve observed the overwhelming desire for people to want to meet their digital friends at local bars or industry conferences.  It happens over and over.  We depend on those real connections.

Unfortunately, seeing an industry colleague once or twice a year — no matter how brilliant he or she is, nor how much you like that person — is no substitute for a weekly breakfast at the local diner or impromptu backyard bar-b-ques with a trusted friend.

And at it’s heart, that is what local is all about. Those family bonds and friendly affiliations is what enables and enlivens a community’s civic life.

And for 150 years, newspapers played a vital role in helping communities remain connected and strong, but then we lost focus. We no longer wanted to write about Mrs. Sterlings embroidery class or the 50-year-going bridge club. We wanted to win prizes by uncovering scandals at City Hall (that’s not a knock against watch dog journalism, but a note about a loss of purpose) and dream of our bylines in the Washington Post or New York Times.

The beauty of the web for local news is not only does it give us a new chance to refocus on true local news, but it makes it easier to enable the strong civic engagement that only comes when people talk with each other. Through comments and blogs and UGC video, we have a chance to pull people away from “American Idol” and into a real dialogue about the issues that matter most to their home towns.

We see all the time on The Batavian people who have known each other for years (and we also see this in the comments on stories of GateHouse newspaper sites), who still meet up at social events, getting deeply engaged in conversations online.  An online news site extends the conversation. It doesn’t replace it. And by putting it out in an open forum, it invites other people who may not have been as engaged previously to participate.

That sort of engagement can and should have a powerful impact in a democracy. If our local communities are ever going to disentangle themselves from the tendrils of federal unfunded mandates and overarching intrusions to homes and businesses, then it’s going to take more people, people who care about such things, involved at a local level.

And here’s my prediction: Rather than increase mobility, digital communication will increase stability. Over the next couple of decades, we’re going to see more and more people seeking out small towns — good places to raise families (even some families returning to their ancestral rural communities), live less hectic lives, escape crime and smog, and control living expenses. And the same communities that are so perfect for families are also the best places to start or relocate businesses, for all the same reasons.

Digital makes this easier, but concerns over the environment and oil consumption will also play a role.  In rural communities, you consume fewer natural resources, can get better — locally grown — food and can more readily help others in need.

Smart people, and smart companies, are going to move out of the big cities — necessary in an age when cooperative communication, information dissemination and physical commerce was hard — and back to mid-west and rust-belt towns.

It will take time, but as these once-displaced people settle down, they will put down roots as surely as they plant tomatoes and apple trees and invite neighbors over for some pie, coffee and conversation.

The future is local, and that should be good news for anybody looking to build local news businesses.

Now it can be told: Videos I shot for The Batavian

Soon after our launch, we owed Philip Anselmo a vacation (he transferred from another GateHouse paper), so I got to be The Batavian‘s reporter for four of five days (Ryan Sholin filled in for a day, too).

During that week, there were two fire in Genesee County — one was a fatal.

The first fire was in Corfu and no people were harmed, but three cats died.  I had the Canon HV20 and a Tripod with me, but no lav mic.  Time on scene was about 45 minutes (mostly waiting for the fire chief to grant an interview, during which I shot my B-roll).  Editing time was also about 45 minutes (I shot way more B-roll than I needed)

NOTE: I can’t get the embed code to work right in this version of WP and I don’t want to spend a lot of time figuring out (eventually, I’ll convert this blog to Drupal), so I’m just linking to the video.

Corfu Fire.

The very next day, a teen-age boy was killed in a fire.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t get to the scene in the morning because of meetings at our corporate office.  I didn’t get there until about 3 p.m.  It was looking dismal for getting a worthwhile video.  Plus, stupidly, I had forgotten to recharge the battery for the HV20 and discovered it was dead.  I had to use the Flip Ultra.  The result is below (on scene for 30 minutes (mostly BS’ing with film crews from local TV stations, which is how I got the high school photo of the deceased) and less than 30 minutes to edit).

Fatal Fire.

I’m proud of this video. Check the comments on YouTube.  I think it shows you can do something worthwhile if all you have is a $150 camera.

Not directly related to Batavia, but we did a train-the-trainers video course recently, and I like this video I did about my hometown dairy (half a mile from my house).

Pittsford Dairy.

You can check out the videos Philip has been shooting for The Batavian on our YouTube channel.

GateHouse’s online-only project in Batavia, New York

On May 1, we launched a project in Batavia, NY to work out how to build an online-only, local news business. We wanted to go to a town where we didn’t have a newspaper so that we could have the freedom to experiment without concerns about disrupting one of our own publications.  We picked Batavia because it’s a neat, vibrant town; it’s close to our home office; and the daily newspaper there was doing nothing on the web.  Scott Karp has been aware of the project almost from its inception and after a couple of regional bloggers uncovered it as a GHS project, Scott nudged me about doing a post himself.  Here’s his post.

The Fighting 29th did an earlier post about the site. Rochester Turning also picked up on it.

The site is still very young, still under development (we’re working on a new design and adding additional features as we speak), but the local reception has been pleasantly strong so far.