Archive for December, 2008

Deep Throat and the Shield law

Mark Felt’s death Thursday gives us a chance to talk about probably the most famous annoymous source in journalism history – Deep Throat – and how it shows we need get the Shield law passed in the next Congress.

Felt admitted in 2005 that he was Deep Throat, the secret source that helped provide information to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward. Woodward used Deep Throat’s assistance to help expose the Nixon administration’s involvement in the Watergate scandal.

Some say that Woodward and his partner Carl Bernstein did little more than review reports from FBI investigations that Felt, the No. 2 man at FBI at the time, provided. Duh! Of course Woodward and Bernstein relied on some of what the FBI had uncovered. The point is that the public might not have seen any of it, and certainly not as soon as it did, if not for Woodward and his secret FBI source. The book All The President’s Men also makes it clear the duo had more than just one source in FBI and justice. There were also efforts by Nixon’s people to get the FBI and CIA to stop investigating or to cover up. The Post stories made that very difficult.

I do not want know what things would have been like if Woodward and Bernstein did their Watergate reporting in this era, when U.S. attorneys eagerly seek the names of annonymous sources with subpoenas. I’m certain Woodward and Bernstein would havve held out under enormous pressure and cost. They spent 35 years doding questions from the currious and those writing books suggesting they knew who Deep Throat is.

Whistleblowers and leakers such as Felt are critical to democracy functioning well. If whistleblowers decide it is too risky to speak out about wrong doing or to help expose corruption, as Felt helped do, it is the American people who will lose.

So we will continue to push for the Shield law in the next Congress. SPJ and its many media coalition partners came pretty close last summer. We have more optimism this year. We are hopeful that a new administration will provide a Justice Department more open to our request. We are already planning are efforts to push the bill next year and have urged the President-elect to follow through with his campaign promise on the bill. There is more to come. Feel free to contact your member of Congress and ask them to support the Shield law in 2009.

If only all of government was this transparent and accessible

You probably have heard about the recount in the Minnesota U.S. Senate race. It has reached the point where the state canvassing board is reviewing challenged ballots. The transparency of the process is impressive and it is a great example of how news organizations can use technology to allow people to access it.

The canvassing board meeting is open and is being broadcast so others can pick it up. The Star Tribune, the state’s largest newspaper, is streaming it live complete with two commentators who show up during breaks to provide analysis and explanation.The paper also provides a running count of the vote tallies so you an watch a lead grow or shrink.

Believe it or not, it’s been interesting watching. You can see the board review the ballots, sometimes straining to ascertain voter intent. They show the ballots on the screen so the viewers can decide for themselves. The meeting is conducted in a big room the Legislature for committees and anyone can watch in person.

A group of organized citizen journalists is also live streaming and providing live blogging.

Many papers and TV stations have the ability to live stream on their web sites and they are doing it. It is a great tool to provide accessibility to government and attract audience.

Nothing funny about shoe incident

While some in the Arab world are cheering the Iraqi journalist who tossed his shoes at the President of the United States, this incident should trouble U.S. and international journalists.

It reflects badly on all of us and has the potential to further restrict access to presidents and world leaders. There is debate about whether the U.S. news media treated the story too lightly. Predictably, Rush Limbaugh says it has.

Reporters should not become the story as this person did. It’s never OK to throw shoes or anything else at anybody. And certainly not a journalist who is supposed to be covering a press conference featuring the U.S. and Iraqi presidents.

In addition to inflicting more damage to the credibility of the news media, this incident might lead to tighter restrictions on covering government leaders and greater scrutiny of those trying to get into press conferences and events where safety and security are paramount.

Fargo Forum: Bright light in the dark night

I’ve been in a lot of newsrooms in the last few years. And even if I hadn’t, it doesn’t take much reading to know that layoffs are hitting almost all newspapers. Just last week, the company that owns my paper, Gannett, laid off 2,000 people including eliminating 23 jobs at my paper.

So on a visit to the Fargo Forum in northeastern North Dakota ,it was joy to walk into a building that had not yet been hit by layoffs.  The economy in North Dakota is holding its own thanks to agriculture and a burgeoning oil industry. Car sales were up in the state 27 percent. Yes, it’s true.

The Forum is a family-owned paper in a 100-year-old building that smells like printer’s ink the minute you walk in the door. It has a classic newsroom library with the old recipe card indexes and files that hold old newspaper clippings. That old-fashioned index card holder covers three-stories of the building and has the name of anyone who has had their name in the paper.

In that same room is a frame recognizing the 1958 Pulitzer Prize that the Forum won for its coverage of a devasting tornado in Fargo.

On the third floor is a staff photo from 1927 that is a reminder of how much the business and job titles have changed during the years.

Don’t think the Fargo Forum, whose parent Forum Communications owns about 30 papers in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin, and a few TV stations, is behind the times. It has radio station  news studio and capability of shooting live TV news shots from its newsroom for its TV station about a mile away. The remodeled newsroom is huge and has a number of aggressive, energetic reporters, photographers and editors who work for editor Matt Von Pinnon.

Thanks for the nice visit to Fargo and here’s hoping things continue to go well there and good fortune shines on everybody else.

Freezing in Fargo

Last month, I traveled to the sunny climes of Central Florida for SPJ. Today, I’m just going 150 miles north and about 55 degrees colder to Fargo, N.D., where it 12 degrees this morning. I should note it is 11 degrees in Central Minnesota, so it will not be much of a shock for me. I wonder how, Joe ( Where Is My Winter Coat?) Skeel, one of SPJ’s associate executive diretors from milder Indianapolis is doing.

SPJ is doing some training for the Fargo Forum, the regional newspaper in northeastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota. On Saturday, SPJ is doing online training for 51 journalists for the area. We also hope to talk to some people up there about restarting the North Dakota Pro Chapter or creating the Red River Valley chapter that would draw journaliss from Minnesota who live too far from Minneapolis to take advantage of the Minnesota Pro chapter events.

Former Minnesota Chapter President Art Hughes will be tagging along to talk about chpater activities.

Stay warm!


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