Archive for June, 2007

As if NYC doesn’t have enough to worry about …

If you want to take a picture or shoot video in New York City, you might have to travel solo and make it awfully darned snappy.
Check out this New York Times story about new rules being considered by the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting.
According to the Times: “…Any group of two or more people who want to use a camera in a single public location for more than a half hour to (would be required to) get a city permit and insurance.
“The same requirements would apply to any group of five or more people who plan to use a tripod in a public location for more than 10 minutes, including the time it takes to set up the equipment.”
The paper also reports that while the proposal is not meant to affect tourists and amateur photographers and videographers, its language is so vague that that very well could become the case.
Journalism advocates are also rightly worried that these goofy proposed rules will invite more confrontations between journalists and police officers — and that the rules will be arbitrarily enforced.

Is the Fairness Doctrine really fair?

The Hill has reported an interesting look at Congressional debate surrounding the resurrection of the Fairness Doctrine, which, until 1987, required broadcasters to devote a “reasonable” amount of time to presenting all sides of a controversial issue.

Until the law was scrapped, the government was empowered to determine how many sides and what constituted “reasonable time” and “fairness.”

Allow me to boil down the current flap: conservative talk radio dominates the airwaves — and that royally upsets left-of-center politicians, activists and average joes who are frequently skewered. The lefties say a revived Fairness Doctrine would help ensure Americans (I’m supposing Americans who get most of their news from talk-radio stations) are better informed. The righties say the government shouldn’t be in the business of regulating media. The lefties argue that station owners make their big profits from public airwaves and, therefore, owe it to the public to be more balanced when presenting information. The righties argue that those big profits underscore that the public obviously isn’t buying what the left is selling (“Remember Air America?” they ask.).

I side with the righties on this one. Newsweek columnist George Will makes an argument with which I find it very difficult to quibble.

“Conservatives dominate talk radio,” he wrote. “Although no more thoroughly than liberals dominate Hollywood, academia and much of the mainstream media.”

Will also convinced me that the Fairness Doctrine hampered free speech — and likely would do so again. To make his point, he delivered an eye-opening history lesson:

“Beginning in 1927, the government, concerned about the scarcity of radio-spectrum access, began regulating the content of broadcasts. In 1928, it decided that the programming of New York’s WEVD, which was owned by the Socialist Party, was not in the public interest. The station’s license was renewed after a warning to show ‘due regard for the opinions of others.’ What was ‘due’? Who knew?

“In 1929, the government refused the Chicago Federation of Labor’s attempt to buy a station because, spectrum space being limited, all stations ‘should cater to the general public.’ A decade later, the government conditioned the renewal of a station’s license on the station’s promise to broadcast no more anti-FDR editorials.

” … The Kennedy administration, anticipating a 1964 race against Barry Goldwater, had wielded the doctrine against stations broadcasting conservative programming. The Democratic Party paid people to monitor conservative broadcasts and coached liberals in how to demand equal time. This campaign burdened stations with litigation costs and won 1,678 hours of free air time.”

The Nixon administration played similar games with the nation’s three major networks.

All of the political shenanigans affecting the nation’s broadcast outlets weren’t lost on liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, who wrote in 1973 that the doctrine allowed administration after administration to “toy with TV and radio.”

It was under President Regan that the law was dropped. By the mid-’80s, it was difficult to argue that there was a “scarcity” of media. And now? The scarcity argument is absurd. Aside from the Internet, there are, according to Will:

“14,000 radio stations—twice as many as in 1970—and satellite radio has nearly 14 million subscribers. Eighty-seven percent of households have either cable or satellite television with more than 500 channels to choose from. There are more than 19,000 magazines (up more than 5,000 since 1993).”

If Americans want balanced information, they can most certainly find it — and without the government’s help.

As you’re watching this issue unfold in Congress, pay attention to U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, a conservative Republican from Indiana, who had a syndicated talk-radio show before winning election. (Pence is also a co-sponsor of the Free Flow of Information Act of 2007, also known as the federal media shield bill.) Pence is working with Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican from Oregon who owns a radio station, to craft legislation aimed at stopping a resurrection of the Fairness Doctrine. I have a hunch — it’s only a hunch — that they’ll find a friend in Sen. Ken Salazar, a Democrat from Colorado, who has owned radio stations in Pueblo and Denver.

Not so over the Hill …

Random thoughts from last week’s whirlwind trip to Washington, D.C.:

  • Your correspondence really does matter. As I zipped in and out of the offices of more than a dozen members of Congress, I heard one thing over and over: they want to know what you, their constituents, think. Please call, write or send e-mail (and have your family and friends do the same).

    Wondering what to say? Please tell your representatives that you support HR 2102 — also known as the Free Flow of Information Act of 2007 — which would create a federal media shield law. And please tell your senators that you support SB 849 — also known as the OPEN Government of 2007 — which would reform the federal Freedom of Information Act substantially.

  • Many senators dislike the practice of secret holds. Consider asking your senator to work to put a stop to this dastardly practice. Some officials are still quietly cheering SPJ for unmasking Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), who has used one of these back-door parliamentary tricks to stall SB 849, reform of the federal Freedom of Information Act. In the words of one senator’s staffer, “I’m a big fan of SPJ for doing that. Good, good work.” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) called the pratice of placing secret holds “pernicious” and a “perversion” of what the founding fathers intended.
  • Lean hard on Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) — especially McConnell. Reid, the Senate majority leader, has the ability to bring SB 849 to the floor for a vote. His staff says he has sent to McConnell, the Senate’s minority leader, a “time commitment” — meaning that Reid essentially has asked McConnell to encourage Kyl to remove his hold on the bill so that Reid can go ahead and take this important proposal to the Senate floor for a vote. So far, McConnell hasn’t bothered to respond to Reid’s request.

    A couple of things you should know about McConnell — particularly if you live in Kentucky: At least three people have indicated an interest in taking on McConnell, who is up for re-eletion next year. Might be interesting to ask them how they feel about FOIA reform and the public’s right to public information.

    (Side note: for what it’s worth, SPJ member John Yarmuth, a Democrat representing Kentucky’s 3rd House District co-sponsored the House’s version of the FOIA reform bill … He clearly gets the importance of this legislation.)

    Don’t let Reid off the hook, either. Given his Senate post, he could override all of this silliness to bring this bill to the floor. The procedures he’d have to follow would be more time-consuming — but if McConnell and Kyl aren’t going to play ball, Reid needs to step up to the plate anyway.

  • If you’re going to SPJ’s national conference, coming up Oct. 4-7 in D.C., consider visiting with your elected officials. If you’re wondering what issues — other than SB 849 and HR 1202 would — would be smart to raise, feel free to drop me a line. And if you’re planning a trip to D.C. with your kids, consider making an appointment to see your elected official — or at least his or her office (As Sen. Wayne Allard (R-CO) told me, “It’s your office, not mine.”). I was impressed by the amount of time otherwise VERY busy legislators spent warmly greeting children from their home states. I saw lots of smiling young faces, proud handshakes and pictures taken in front of American flags. The young ones appeared to love their interactive civics lessons.
  • I’m not rendered speechless very often … but Sen. Ken Salazar (D-CO) managed to catch me by surprise as I entered his office. “I’m signing on to that bill of yours,” he said in reference to a proposed media shield law. I’ll be writing about his commitment in an upcoming column for The Denver Post.
  • The Hill is filled with interesting decor. OK, so I get into furnishings … Let’s just say that one could learn a lot about jazz by visiting Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) and about the entire Tar Heel state by visiting Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.)
  • SPJ’s general counsel, Baker & Hostetler in Washington, D.C. has worked hard and effectively to ensure SPJ’s voice has been heard on Capitol Hill. For that, the firm has my profound thanks.

Anchorwoman: How low can we go?

Let’s get some things straight right out of the starting gate: No, I don’t have the face or body for television (only because the medium is so intently — and stupidly — focused on cosmetic beauty). No, I’m not bitter about that. And yes, I fully expect some people who read this little rant to think it’s more firmly rooted in jealousy than in genuine concern for journalism. To them I say, “Kiss my byline.”

When I first heard that KYTX, a Tyler, Texas, TV station has hired a beauty pageant winner with absolutely no background in journalism to read the news, I thought it was just a joke. And her efforts to break into TV will be the basis of a reality show, too?! I laughed even harder.

But this is, sadly, no joke — just more reason to believe that some people in journalism have lost their minds.

The sheer stupidity of the tarted-up newscast in Tyler angers me. It’s demeaning to women (Are you surprised the station isn’t trying this with a former Chippendale?). It’s demeaning to ALL television journalists who have worked hard to learn the trade of responsible, ethical and indepth journalism (This little experiment screams, “You, too, can leap from the catwalk to the anchor desk as long as you know how to rip and read!”). And it’s certainly demeaning to the general public, which deserves nothing less than thoughtful and thorough news. People have every reason to shake their heads at this travesty in Tyler and consider it one more example of how ratings (and, therefore, money) trump good journalism.

Please don’t think I’m picking only on TV here. Newsrooms of all stripes have done some royally stupid things lately. However, three incredibly dumb moves brought to my attention this week all happen to revolve around TV stations.

In addition to the silliness in Tyler, there’s the contest being run by a Denver radio station wanting to know who deserves the title of “hottest newsie.” I cringed a few recent mornings on my way to work as some of the journalist “contestants” yukked it up on the air with the deejays. Everyone managed nicely to avoid any mention of the importance and difficulty of the reporters’ work. But chitchat about their dogs and favorite hair and skin products? No problem!

Then, there’s the news team at WGME in Portland, Maine, which appears in one of the biggest assualts on journalism integrity ever to hit the silver screen. But hey, I give them credit for managing to promote a theater and their newscast while also directing moviegoers to turn off their cell phones and pick up their trash. That takes real talent!

Wake up, people. You’re harming journalism — and looking fabulous as you do so.

‘Predator’ finally on the run?!

Surprise. Surprise. Former NBC News producer Marsha Bartel, who has worked on the “To Catch a Predator” series, has filed suit against the network. She claims, in part, that NBC fired her after she complained about the bad journalism ethics figuring into the show’s production.

I said in November that the show had some serious problems — and Gary Hill, a veteran broadcaster and former chairman of SPJ’s National Ethics Committee also expressed serious reservations.

According to a story appearing on

  • Bartel claims NBC pays Perverted Justice, an online vigilante group whose volunteers pose as juveniles on the Web to lure their targets. By providing the money. NBC has given Perverted Justice a “financial incentive to lie and trick targets of its sting.”

If the network is, indeed, paying Perverted Justice, is Bartel’s argument reasonable? I think so.

  • Bartel claims the network failed to give her the names of the volunteers working for Perverted Justice. She also said that the organization does not provide complete transcripts of its volunteers’ chats, making it impossible to “independently verfiy the accuracy of those transcripts.”

Another reason to be concerned? Yup.

  • Bartel claims NBC “unethically pays or indirectly reimburses law enforcement officials to participate in the ‘Predator’ sings in order to enhance and intensify the dramatic effect of the show.” In her claim, she states that NBC provided police with video equipment and tapes and other forms of reimbursement.

Another problem? You don’t need to read SPJ’s Code of Ethics, do you?

Bartel is suing for $1 million.


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