Archive for October, 2006

Armstrong or hamstrung? You decide.

Well, sure looks as if Travis Armstrong, editorial page editor of The Santa Barbara News-Press, won’t be re-joining SPJ anytime soon.

An editorial released today flames SPJ and flames me for the Society’s decision to laud N-P staff members who were smart enough to leave that newsroom following breaches of journalism ethics.

Stalwarts of journalism ethics — some of whom contributed to the writing of SPJ’s ethics code, the gold standard of American journalism — conducted independent investigations of the shenanigans at the N-P. Our leaders spoke with several people involved — even to the PR spinmesiters hired by publisher Wendy McCaw — and left many messages that went unreturned. Our tireless volunteers sent several detailed e-mails, which I reviewed. They were patient. They listened. They gathered information as any talented and highly experienced journalists would.

Then, yes, they reached certain conclusions with which Ms. McCaw and Mr. Armstrong obviously disagree. Those conclusions landed squarely in the ballpark of journalism ethics, not labor or management disputes, and essentially boiled down to this: The newspaper’s ability to deliver trustworthy journalism was — and would continue to be — heavily compromised by its management’s dim view of journalism ethics. (But, hey, don’t take SPJ’s  word for it. Feel free to contact any of the senior newsroom managers and writers who gave up their jobs over this mess. Feel free to contact the thousands of N-P readers who dropped their subscriptions after reading what amounted to cursory accounts of what actually went down in the newsroom … SPJ leaders learned more than ever was reported.)

Oddly (or maybe not so oddly for someone having trouble crafting a sensible argument), Mr. Armstrong decided in his editorial to link SPJ’s conclusions regarding his newsroom’s antics to the Society’s decision not to stick its nose into disputes that have surfaced in recent months between the Los Angeles Times and its owner, the Tribune Co. He even went so far as to suggest that SPJ has steered clear of getting involved in the LAT/Trib battle because it’s compromised by all of the money it collects from big media (giving those of us who routinely fundraise for SPJ a hearty laugh and a half this morning).

As I already have stated, it was easy — darned easy — to see how problems embroiling the N-P stemmed from violations of journalism ethics. The Tribune/L.A. Times affair is very different. As I already have written (Note to commentators posting on the Nieman Watchdog Web site: If you want to quote me, please do so completely — and thus accurately): “… SPJ hasn’t issued any formal statements concerning the LAT/Trib brouhaha because it hasn’t been easy to know where the dividing line is between differing newsroom/management cultures and vision and over-the-top cost-cutting that has legitimately harmed the Times’ ability to do outstanding work.”

Certainly, at the point this Society sees the Times’ credibility damaged in ways similarly endured by the N-P, you can bet we’ll say something.

And certainly, this Society takes support from any newsroom that will give it. That support amounts to tens of thousands of dollars to produce national conferences, where we can teach the importance of journalism ethics and the Society’s other core missions. That support amounts to $50 to cover the cost of juice and doughnuts offered during SPJ meetings in newsroom cafeterias and breakrooms. It amounts to $5 from students who have very little to give but are resolute that they must do something more to support SPJ than simply pay their annual dues. It amounts to donations of office supplies, volunteer time and other amazing acts of charity.

What that support does not amount to: protection against SPJ’s scrutiny and criticism when deserved.

For Mr. Armstrong to suggest otherwise is an insult to SPJ’s nearly 10,000 members, who work on local, regional and national levels to improve and protect journalism.

Rethink booking United

Headed out Friday to meet with SPJ members in Fort Worth, Texas. Let’s just say the travel there was a nightmare — and that I no longer wonder why United Airlines continues to struggle mightily. Some random thoughts and observations (feel free to share your own air travel story because I know you have one):

1. Arrived at Denver International Airport at 8:30 a.m., Friday to make a 10:15 a.m. flight to Dallas/Fort Worth. Checked in electronically with only one carry-on bag.

2. Arrived at the appropriate gate only to be informed that my flight had been delayed until 1:30 p.m. I asked two attendants (separately) why and was told that the problem essentially boiled down to a “staffing issue.” United needed to fly in pilots from New Mexico to Denver so that they, in turn, could get us to DFW. One attendant said my flight was delayed in large part because United hadn’t been smart about deploying its resources. We were held hostage because the ONE flight crew the company was depending on to man my aircraft needed eight hours of rest (which no one would begrudge them). That rest period, unfortunately, overlapped with my flight! Yes, bad scheduling, I would say.

3. While waiting around, I had the chance to observe United’s customer service. One flight was oversold quite a bit. I counted approximately 10 people who were ticketed and bumped from the flight. No happy campers among them. A young couple with a toddler was sitting next to me, hoping to fly stand-by. When they got word that the flight was oversold and there was no way they’d get on, the wife burst into tears. Turned out she and her husband were bumped from their oversold flight that left Denver at 6 a.m. By this time, the couple had tried — unsuccessfully — to board three subsequent flights. They had been waiting in the airport for more than five hours — and their little one was clearly exhausted and unable to nap with all the commotion around him.

4. The bumped passengers and folks flying stand-by — approximately 25 people total — formed a line in front of a service desk staffed by only one attendant. The attendant saw only two customers before grabbing his backpack and thermos. Without a word, he simply walked away from the desk. No, “I must leave for lunch now. Someone will be here to help you in just a minute.” No, “Thanks for your patience.” He just walked away. The looks on those customers’ faces was priceless — and I wasn’t the only person taking it all in. A woman sitting near me shook her head and started laughing. The customers waited nearly 20 minutes before another attendant showed up to help them.

5. My flight was moved to three different gates before take-off. What a drag.

6. Passengers occasionally asked flight attendants why we were delayed. I thought it was fascinating to hear how the story I was given in the morning changed. It eventually involved bad weather and those mysterious (and convenient) “mechanical problems.” Never mind the guy with a laptop who was checking the weather and couldn’t, for the life of him, understand how weather could be the issue. He announced that to everyone — and a couple of men sitting near me with their own computers (one wearing a “Geek Squad” T-shirt) said they, too, had reached the same conclusion. Flight attendants everywhere looked annoyed.

7. Lunchtime rolled around. We had been waiting for hours in an airport because of what was clearly (at least to me) United’s ineptitude. Weather and mechanical problems? I didn’t buy it. The airline didn’t offer to give anyone meal vouchers. One woman complained about that, and a sheepish attendant offered a voucher to a small group of us.

8. While sitting at the third and final gate, mothers with small children congregated so their little ones could play with each other. The kids (seven of them, I think) ranged in age from 1-6 years old. They were rowdy, running up and down, shrieking, rolling around on the floor. All the stuff you would expect of children who, by this time, had been waiting in the airport more than five hours. I didn’t think they were particularly bothersome. A United attendant walked over to the group and said, “Please get your children to sit down and be quiet. They are very disruptive.” One mother let the attendant have it — and in no uncertain terms. I wanted to cheer for the angry mama bear.

9. We finally boarded. The flight was packed — but uneventful until we landed. We arrived at DFW only for United to leave us on the tarmac for more than 30 minutes. The captain said there was no open gate. After we hit the 20-minute marker, a man stood up to use the restroom (we had, after all, been given softdrinks). The captain — yes, the captain — got on the overhead speaker and barked at the guy. Scolded him. Used a tone that was plain, old rude. The captain told all of us that the seatbelt sign was on for a reason. The first steward quickly followed up by further calling attention to the man, who had timidly tried to make is way back down the aisle to his seat. Passengers around me leaned over to speak to the man, most reassuring him they would never fly United again. He smiled in appreciation — but I’m pretty sure he remained danged uncomfortable.

10. When the plane finally lurched on to a gate, we were given that tired script thanking us for flying with United because they know we have a choice, yadda, yadda, yadda. Two men in the back of the plane loudly booed and hissed. They didn’t let up. Soon, the booing spread. Just about everyone was booing and hissing (I was too busy scratching notes on a pad, thinking I’d have a great story to tell someone). Needless to say, when we walked off the plane, there were no attendants or captains standing at the front, shaking hands, smiling or sending us on our way with a cheerfully fake, “Buh-bye.”

Go UT Vols?! Whatever.

Oh. For. Crying. Out. Loud. Some flacks really don’t get it. Textbook case: The sworn image-protectors of the University of Tennessee’s football team.

According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, UT has suspended the media credentials of News Sentinel sports reporter Dave Hooker. Why? Hooker had the audacity — oh, the nerve, I tell you — to interview an injured football player without first checking in with the university’s sports information office.

Turns out the player, who suffered a possibly career-ending injury last month, was in big demand by several local news organizations. UT essentially told everyone it would trot out the player for interviews when possible.

Hooker didn’t play by the university’s silly rules and scored an exclusive phone interview with the player — clearly a sign that the hard-charging reporter’s work is trusted and respected on some levels — that appeared in a story published Oct. 5.

UT’s reaction is so ridiculous it’s hard for me to know where to begin to criticize it.

“Your action has caused not only the UT Athletics Department but also your colleageus to doubt your ability or willingness to follow accepted guidelines for access to Tennessee student-athletes,” UT Associate Sports Information Director John Painter wrote in a letter delivered to Hooker.

I’d love to know who these “colleagues” of Hooker’s are. Fellow reporters are really doubting his ability and willingness to follow “accepted guidelines?” Good for them! Any self-respecting journalist more interested in delivering timely and compelling information to the public than in being controlled by a bunch of spinmeisters should doubt his or her ability to follow the spinmeisters’ edicts. I’d worry about those journalists if they didn’t. (Thinking it’s wrong to break the UT’s rules when it comes to speaking with student athletes there? Quick word of advice: Don’t brag about that on your resume.)

Let’s hope UT officials choose their words very, very carefully when discussing this matter (and you know they will) with the student athletes they clearly consider children incapable of speaking for themselves. Wouldn’t want to tell those “kids” they don’t have the right to speak with whomever they choose… (Note to said kids: If anyone tells you to clam up if you haven’t run everything through one of the university’s flacks first, please, please, please give me a call. And if any university official in any way punishes you for speaking your mind without first clearing it with one of the campus’ image consultants, keep my number on speed dial.)

In this case, a player clearly chose to speak about matters very important to him to an audience that clearly cares about him — and with a tenacious reporter who gets a big thumbs up from me (for what it’s worth).

A quick addition to this post: Never thought I’d see the day that this business writer actually tracked with a bunch of sports writers. See their reaction to this mess.

Take on the Trib and LAT? Not so fast.

In recent days, writers from many publications have asked me what SPJ has to say about the management shakeups and staffing decisions being hashed out between the Los Angeles Times and its owner, the Tribune Co.

In a word: Nada.

These are tough issues for an organization such as SPJ to address. We do our best not to engage in “personnel and labor matters.” At the same time, we’re all about the improvement and protection of journalism — and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the relentless cutting of newsroom staff we have seen across the country has harmed (and is harming) quality journalism.

But the bottom line here — at least so far — is that SPJ hasn’t issued any formal statements concerning the LAT/Trib brouhaha because it hasn’t been easy to know where the dividing line is between differing newsroom/management cultures and vision and over-the-top cost-cutting that has legitimately harmed the Times’ ability to do outstanding work.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must make clear that I worked for the Chicago Tribune and very much enjoyed my time there. I understand a few — and I mean only a very few — of the political dynamics in the Tribune family tree. Let’s just say I’m not surprised by the tension that has bubbled to the surface very publicly in recent months. It is no secret that the Trib’s working relationship with the LAT has been difficult from day one of the Times Mirror Co.’s acquisition. You could ask anyone who has spent much time in the Tower or at the LAT about that tension, and I’m willing to bet they could tell you an interesting story — or three.

For what it’s worth, Michael Kinsley did a nice job of explaining some of the dynamics figuring into the LAT/Trib relationship. It’s worth a read.

Am looking forward to hearing what you think — and how you would decide whether to issue a statement on a matter such as this given SPJ’s mission.

Church to IRS: “See you in court!”

All Saints Church, an Episcopal congregation in Pasadena, Calif., will see the Internal Revenue Service in a higher court.

The IRS ordered the 3,500-member church to hand over all documents it produced in 2004 mentioning political candidates (specifically, presidential candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry, I presume). What prompted the invasion of free speech and free religion (and the practice thereof)? A 2004 sermon in which a former church rector outlined some of the problems Jesus would have with American foreign policy, pre-emptive war and a general lack of caring for the poor in the United States.

The church has declined to give the government the information it seeks and said in a recent statement that its current pastor won’t be testifying before IRS officials on Oct. 11.

Global press freedom: Do you really care?

The Washington Post has launched an impressive blog, called PostGlobal, to promote discussion about issues of worldwide concern.

I was invited to respond to one of the recent questions posed. I needed to keep my post to roughly 400 words.

“How can journalists work together to protect each other and our common goal of open communications?”

Here’s what I wrote (What do you think about this issue?):

Sure, American journalists have plenty of their own problems to address. The industry’s rapidly changing economic dynamics have disrupted newsrooms across the country. Egregious lapses in journalism ethics have rocked some of the nation’s most respected news organizations. Overzealous federal prosecutors, encouraged by a ridiculously — and increasingly — secretive executive branch, have launched serious legal assaults on the foundational principles of a free American press.

But where press freedom is concerned, American journalists do have it embarrassingly easy compared to journalists in many other countries, where murders, blatant censorship and government raids and closures of newsrooms are the norm.

Why would I choose the word “embarrassingly?” Primarily because I suspect global press freedom doesn’t rank very highly among American journalists’ most pressing concerns. I’m willing to bet the average American newsie hasn’t heard about the latest shoot-’em-up in a Mexican newsroom or of the African woman raped after writing critically about her government. I’m also pretty sure the typical American reporter hasn’t stopped to think about how much journalists in other countries would love to have a Freedom of Information Act that allows them to review public documents. (Given how much American journalists bother to use FOIA, they appear to take it for granted. A recent study conducted by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government analyzed 6,439 requests last year and found that 60 percent came from businesses and 6 percent came from the media.)

Why the disconnection? Journalists get busy. Most of us are paid to study intensely what’s happening in our own back yard. And, as stated, we have our own problems to worry about.

The Society of Professional Journalists, one of the United States’ oldest and largest journalism advocacy organizations, works hard to call attention to the burdens carried by journalists in other countries. Our members believe in the free flow of public information and in every citizenry’s right to know what its government is doing in its name. Our members also recognize that greater press freedom abroad is likely to translate into greater press freedom at home.

We have found that one of the best ways to promote global press freedom is by encouraging greater interaction among American and foreign journalists. We highly encourage work exchanges. We welcome opportunities to send American journalists to newsrooms in other countries – and to welcome journalists from other countries into our newsrooms. The Society is always looking for opportunities to know and be known.

It’s amazing what we all begin to pay attention to once we’ve forged personal relationships.


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