The Digital Journalist
Stories you Might have Missed
April 2004

by Ron Steinman

In case you were busy with getting on with your life this past month, here are a number of items that might have passed you by. As usual, there has been much news, some good, some bad, but always news. A good deal has been hard and ugly. Some stories have been frivolous and meaningless.

Let me start with a trifle of news from the West Coast. It concerns the helicopter traffic reporter known as the Commander. He is ending his career as on-air in the air reporter. Realizing that he is among a dying breed, and that chopper fuel is going sky high, he flew the coop before his bosses could consign him to the trash heap of local news. Though some are still flying, we will miss these who newly grounded reporters, their weather reports and fun-filled descriptions of multiple car pile-ups and the manic police chases they covered over the freeways. Here is a suggestion in this era of reality programming. We could salvage the helicopter reporter-pilots on a new, on-demand, niche digital channel. It would not be any worse than what is now on the air as reality programming. This would be real reality. Are there any takers? You can have the idea as my gift to you, free.

On a more serious note, there are new revelations from Washington that makes me queasy about the White House using fake reporters to push its current Medicare program. Have the Republican Party hacks no shame? Do they believe the public is so nave as not to realize what is being foisted on it? Worse, what is wrong with the television news stations and networks which play that baloney as if it were real? As more stations use these video news releases, called VNRs, without attribution, to help fill airtime and defray the cost of doing their own pieces, the struggle for local news drifts further from salvation. I can visualize the victory dance in the White House. Controlling the news outlets is bad for democracy, but political parties in power want nothing less.

Tommy G. Thompson, secretary of health and human services stood up for the administration's foray into producing pieces for use on news programs. He defended them, saying the Clinton administration did the same. His spokesman argued that stations have a choice to accept them or not. Good points, but many wrongs never make anything right. More importantly, impersonating an officer is usually worth a jail term. Impersonating a reporter gets the perp and his producer no penalty, but it is a disservice to those in our profession. To outsiders, it creates doubt and confusion. These days it is hard enough to tell right from wrong, who is telling a lie and who is not, without resorting to bogus journalists in the pay of our government. Using phony reporters in VNRs for TV is the sort of device that makes muggers look good. Credibility for journalists is tough enough to maintain without phony VNRs making their way into the marketplace and further gumming up the truth.

However, there is hope. The Radio-Television News Directors Association is stepping into the fray. It is urging broadcasters to be very careful when they make their minds up to broadcast VNRs craftily intended to look like real news stories. If newsrooms use anything from outside sources, the RTNDA urges broadcasters to disclose the origin of the story it is airing. That way, the viewer has a chance to hoot with scorn at something that should not be on their screen.

Something else has been irritating me for some time. A sourpuss academic attacked the pictures from Mars as dull, lacking in color, with no depth or clarity. She found it boring that all she saw were pictures that had a red tint on a flat landscape that for her, said very little. I find it hard to understand that attitude over something magical, thrilling, never before seen, from so far away that it is difficult to imagine we could see anything at all. It is digital, by the way, in an exacting science that defies my understanding. Think of it: Mars. Sitting enthralled watching Buck Rogers on a silver screen as a boy on a Saturday morning was an act of pure imagination. Those pictures from Mars and those clunky, odd-looking vehicles running around on the ground make the dream real, only to be topped when they discover little red people just below the surface. Obviously, the professor did not grow up in the era of Saturday morning serials at the local movie palace as I did in Brooklyn. Mars is all about romance, and to deny us that one last inkling of unearthing (or un-Marsing) the mystery that is Mars is to deny us too much.

Jayson Blair is back. The serial typist, despite his frequent use of the mea culpa is pushing forward to sell his new book. Yes, he is still on the loose and the mostly softball interviews he is giving makes me wonder whatever happened to tough love as an interview technique. There is no doubt people have a prurient interest in Blair the man, and Blair the liar, but give me a break. Someone somewhere should ask some tough questions and not play the forgiving god from Olympus, as all the interviewers seem to be doing. To let him slip slide away and not remain in oblivion, constitutes a journalistic sin. Collectively we should bow our heads in shame. The problem of journalists fabricating stories, unfortunately, will not go away. We can thank Jayson Blair for creating something positive by forcing newspapers everywhere to take a hard look at what their reporters report.

The latest revelation comes from USA Today, the largest circulation daily in America and one of its star reporters, or should I say former star reporters, Jack Kelly. I have difficulty understanding what motivates a reporter to lie. Being a journalist is not only enjoyable, it is also exciting, especially when you are a foreign correspondent. Think of it. You get to go places few others have a chance of visiting. You see things hardly anyone else does. Professionally you possess an open ticket to a free ride on life's carrousel. Why lie, cheat, and deceive your editors, and thus your readers, both of whom put their trust in you because your newspaper or magazine or television network allows you to place your name above the story? In today's world, the loss of trust in one reporter means the loss of trust in all.

The catch phrase everyone is using, is journalistic fraud, better known as a fancy excuse for lapsed editing, and reporters succumbing to a "me-ism" in our culture that should have died long ago. Self-gratification lives. All that that "me-ism" promises in our celebrity culture is a poor justification for lying and cheating even in this age where standards have dropped below the horizon. Journalists are now on the front lines of a society gone mad with "making it" first and "damn the consequences." From everything I read in The New York Times, USA Today, and journalism's worst kept secret, Poynteronline-Romesko on the web, our profession is slowly bleeding itself to death. The problem with reporters who fabricate events, instead of telling a true story, is growing. In their minds, fertile imagination helps to make a story better. That's nonsense. Are bylines so important they rise above honesty? Do not forget, reporters who enjoy the truth are part of the solution.

Editors are also not without sin. The pressure to produce something better than the competition has weakened their usual vigilance. I do not have any answers, but editors who do not tire of old fashioned reporting and who can rise above the pressure of more circulation, could only help. This month another report came out that may partly reflect the cheating, and, thus explain the loss of confidence in the press we face everyday. The Project for Excellence in Journalism released a survey on the state of journalism in America. Everyone has a right to take away from it what best satisfies his needs. To me the most important part of the report is the steady decline in circulation in daily newspapers, about 11 percent in the last fifteen years. For television news there is also flatness in viewers, meaning little or no increase in those watching the tube. Editors and publishers have to protect their turf, so no newspaper was happy with the survey. The report says that more people are turning to other sources of news, among them, Spanish-language newspapers, alternative weeklies, and news Web sites. By the way, in most newspapers where the story appeared, if it appeared, editors collectively buried it somewhere on the back pages where fewer people were likely to see it. Does that say something to you? It does to me.

Finally, there is my nomination for photo of the month. It is not from Madrid. It is not from the Middle East. It appeared on the front page of The New York Times Saturday, March 20, 2004 and it adheres lovingly to the saying that one picture is worth a thousand words. It is a long shot of an empty room in Baghdad, Iraq. In the background, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is standing next to Paul Bremer, America's pro counsel in Iraq. The picture captures the moment immediately at the start of a briefing when Arab journalists walked out to protest the deaths of two employees of Al Arabiya television who were shot by American soldiers. Powell, of course, did not know the walkout was coming. He said he would look into the incident, and that he believed the shooting was not deliberate. Powell and Bremer look stunned and alone. The photo speaks of emptiness, a sadness so telling about America's role in Iraq, and its relationship in the Middle East, that it is enough to make one weep.

© Ron Steinman

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