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Saturday, December 11, 2010

U.S. Falling in the Global Index of Economic Freedom

During my 20-year tenure as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, I spent a lot of my time reporting on the economic conditions of the countries I covered. In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s many of these were so-called "managed economies," in which strong central governments controlled such things as property rights, labor, investments, monetary policy, trade, etc.

The objective was to manage economic growth, redistribute wealth and generally protect the nation from the pressures of global trade and competitiveness.

Unfortunately, as we have seen, managed economies are doomed to failure. Why? Because for the most part they undermine and often discourage things such as individual incentive, creativity, and entrepreneurship.

About 16 years ago the Washington-based Heritage Foundation began issuing something called the Index of Economic Freedom. Today the index looks at 183 nations and ranks 179 of them with an economic freedom score based on 10 measures of economic openness, regulatory efficiency, the rule of law and competitiveness.

The Heritage Foundation defines economic freedom as the right of every human being to control his or her own labor and property.

Says the Foundation: "In an economically free society, individuals are free to work, produce, consume, and invest in any way they please, with that freedom both protected by the state and unconstrained by the state. In economically free societies, governments allow labor, capital and goods to move freely, and refrain from coercion or constraint of liberty beyond the extent necessary to protect and maintain liberty itself."

Sounds like the U.S. should be at the top of that list doesn't it?

Unfortunately that is not the case. In fact the U.S. ranks 8th in the world among the freest economies. Ahead of the U.S. in first place is Hong Kong, followed by Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Switzerland and Canada. Only those top seven are considered "free" by the Index. The U.S. ranks as "mostly free."

Should we be surprised? No, not when you consider how the Obama administration has behaved in the past two years. It has inserted itself into just about every facet of American economic life in the name of "saving" the economy.

First, there was the huge stimulus spending package, coupled with government bailouts and takeovers of financial firms and auto makers. More recently we have seen the proposed nationalization of health care and an energy cap and trade program that are a distinct departure from the traditional American goals of economic and political freedom.

Interestingly, the rest of the world is not following the U.S. lead in these policies. Indeed, most of the nations have already experimented with managed economies and wealth redistribution and found them wanting not only in terms of cost, but in results.

Yet, here is the U.S. pursuing many of the failed policies other nations have already tried and rejected. As a result, the U.S. has dropped two places in the Index and now trails Canada. What's worse, it has dropped out of the "Free" category and for the first time has entered the "Mostly Free" category.

In pulling together its data, the Foundation found that increased government spending did not improve economic crisis performance. In fact, that policy has made those nations weaker.

The Index is created by examining 10 components of economic freedom. It assigns a grade to each ranging from 0 to 100, where 100 represents the maximum freedom. Hong Kong, which leads the list, has a ranking of 89.7 while the U.S at 8th, has a ranking of 78.0.

At the bottom with a ranking of 1.0 is North Korea. No surprise there. The next five from the bottom are Zimbabwe with a ranking of 21.4; Cuba (26.7); Eritrea (35.3); Burma (36.7); and Venezuela (37.1). Each of these nations is some form of a dictatorship. Once again, no surprise.

In my travels as a correspondent I never found one dictatorship that had formulated a successful economic policy--unless it was to enrich those at the top of the political pyramid.

It is interesting to note that the four freest economies are in Asia. The next two are in Europe and then there is Canada and the U.S. in North America, followed by Denmark and Chile.

Chile is a particularly interesting case. In the late 1970s following the 1973 military coup that deposed Salvador Allende, Chile adopted the economic policies of the so-called "Chicago Boys"--Chilean economists who had studied under the University of Chicago's Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman. Prior to that the Chilean economy was wilting under 140 percent inflation and was not considered part of the global mix.

In 1975 Chile adopted a "free market" economy and while that move created severe hardships for Chilean businesses, manufacturers, workers and financial institutions, it ultimately turned the economy around so that it was finally integrated with the rest of the global economy.

I recall visiting Chile at a time when unemployment was hovering around 20 percent. Not everybody in the country was convinced that a free market economy was the way to go. But by 1990 the country had become a democracy and its GDP growth was the highest in Latin America. Today it is number 10 on the Index of Economic Freedom.

Here is what the Obama administration and those in Congress who still want to keep their hands in our pocketbooks should heed: Gross domestic product per capita is much higher in countries that score well in the Index. And that is true for all levels of economic freedom. The idea that government can spend us to prosperty is absurd. It only enriches those who control the purse strings.

Finally, the report says: "Economic freedom improves the overall quality of life, promotes political and social progress and supports environmental protection. Economic freedom correlates with poverty reduction, a variety of desirable social indicators, democratic governance and environmental sustainability."

We can only hope that the U.S. will not fall further in the Index. I would hate to find myself living in a place that mirrors those failed government managed economies I once covered in the 1970s and 1980s.

When I think of that scenario I have to shudder and then I am reminded of what President Ronald Reagan once said: "The most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help."

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

WikiLeaks and Journalism

At first glance one might think that journalists should be thankful that something like the 4 year-old WikiLeaks media organization exists. After all, WikiLeaks, the international non-profit media organization, publishes otherwise unavailable documents from anonymous sources and leaks.

WikiLeaks, which is lead by Australian Internet activist Julian Assange, has won a number of awards from organizations such as Amnesty International and the U.K.'s Economist Magazine and this year was a finalist for $500K in funding from the prestigious John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

WikiLeaks was back in the news again in a big way this past Sunday when it began publishing 251,287 leaked United States embassy cables, the largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain. The documents will give people around the world an unprecedented insight into the international activities of the U.S. Government.

Journalists worth their salt have an intuitive understanding of that kind of activity. Many of us, at one time or another have obtained information from confidential government and embassy sources that helped us better understand and report a story. I certainly did during the Vietnam War and in places like El Salvador, Guatemala, Argentina, Chile, China, Mexico, etc.

But there is a fine line between obtaining sensitive information from an anonymous government source and publishing information that could result in the exposure and death of people in places where freedom of the press is viewed as a liability and not a right. In this case, some of the information released by WikiLeaks could do serious damage to U.S. intelligence gathering efforts by putting highly vulnerable foreign sources in danger.

When I talked with secret U.S. and foreign government sources in Asia and Latin America I made sure these people could not be identified in my stories. When I met with them I took byzantine-like precautions in finding a safe meeting place. I knew that to do anything less could result in their arrest, torture or worse, their deaths.

We don't know yet just what impact the cables published by WikiLeaks will have on those who can be identified. The cables date from 1966 through the end of February this year and contain confidential communications between 274 embassies in countries throughout the world and the State Department in Washington DC. A significant number (15,652) of the cables are classified "Secret." Another 101,748 are classified "confidential."

The cables show the extent of US spying on its allies and the UN; turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuse in "client states"; backroom deals with supposedly neutral countries; lobbying for US corporations; and the measures US diplomats take to advance those who have access to them.

But most of all the documents reveal the contradictions between the US government's public persona and what it says behind closed doors. There is nothing shocking here. It's called "diplomacy." Every nation in the world practices it and every nation in world spies on its "allies."

I learned these lessons during my days in the U.S. Army intelligence community when I carried a Top Secret and Crypto Security Clearance. Embassies are notorious centers of intelligence gathering. Political and Economic Sections gather and analyze information on their host nations every day.

Of course most of that information is carefully guarded and never undergoes the scrutiny of the press, the public or an outfit like WikiLeaks.

All that changed when Pfc. Bradley Manning, who stands accused of stealing the classified files from Siprnet, handed them over to Julian Assange. The question many might have is how Pfc. Manning obtained access to these files in the first place? How does a young, low-level Army intelligence analyst gain access to a computer with hundreds of thousands of classified documents from all over the world?

The answer, apparently, is that those in the State Department or the U.S. military intelligence community can access these archives if they have: (1) a computer connected to Siprnet, and (2) a “secret” security clearance.

As Manning told a fellow hacker: “I would come in with music on a CD-RW labeled with something like ‘Lady Gaga’ … erase the music … then write a compressed split file. No one suspected a thing… [I] listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone’ while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history.” Manning said he “had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months.”

So what does that say about the U.S. State Department and its ability to protect sensitive information? To me that is the real story here. As a journalist I would like to know just how the classic "need to know" dictum in the intelligence community was ignored or violated.

One of the first things we were taught in the Army Security Agency, which worked with the National Security Agency, was that information is made available only on a "need to know" basis. If you could not demonstrate a need to know something, you were not going to have access to that information.

Did Manning demonstrate a "need to know?" If not, how did he gain access to the database containing these sensitive cables?

The answer to that question will ultimately be learned during Manning's trial. Nevertheless, the fact that these supposedly “confidential” cables were so effortlessly leaked reveals the inexcusable incompetence of our cumbersome national security establishment.

Indeed, this week's episode involving WikiLeaks says as much about U.S. government ineptitude as it does about U.S. government policy.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Old Media vs. New Media

The other day I was listening to an NPR show called Talk of the Nation during which several current issues in journalism were broached. Among them were such things as the concept of reportorial objectivity, the dearth of foreign news bureaus staffed by trained professionals and the idea that individuals themselves are better able to gather news they want than allowing editors and producers to select it for them.

These are all critical questions and ones that journalists and journalism educators have been discussing for years.

In this case, former Nightline host Ted Koppel, who was representing what some call "old media", was squaring off against Jeff Jarvis, a media critic and director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York.

Koppel was making a point that goes to the heart of all of these issues: objectivity, the decline in sustained international news coverage and the "Internetization" of journalism.

Here is what he said:

"We now live in a cable news universe that celebrates the opinions of Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, individuals who hold up the twin pillars of political partisanship and were encouraged to do so by their parent organizations because their brand of analysis and commentary is highly profitable. Beginning perhaps from the reasonable perspective that absolute objectivity is unobtainable; Fox News and MSNBC no longer even attempt it.

"It has to do with the corporations that own those two networks and their interest in making money. And operating foreign bureaus, for example - whether they're operated the way they used to be run 20 or 30 years ago or whether there is some new and better way of operating them - is not the issue. They're expensive and, as I said talk is cheap.

"And the fact that you have these many voices on cable television, in effect, debating one another day in and day out, is an inexpensive way of attracting an audience and making money. And that's why they're there - not because of any search for a new, brighter form of journalism."

Amen. These programs have nothing to do with journalism. They are places where people can rant and pontificate ad nauseam. The people who sit behind the desks are journalists in name only. Few have actually spent much time working in a newsroom and if they did, it was likely brief and in the case of TV talent, they were little more than talking heads.

There was another discussion about foreign news and the fact that U.S. networks and newspapers have severely degraded and in most cases, shut down foreign bureaus. Why? Because they are expensive and, according to the green eye shade people who run today's news organizations, they are simply not cost effective as "profit centers."

At the Chicago Tribune (my home for some 27 years) and other places with foreign bureaus, it was common knowledge that the bean counters would divide the cost of operating a foreign bureau by the number of stories produced. That gave the bottom-liners a number they could use to show how much each story from Tokyo or Buenos Aires or Nairobi cost in relation to those produced locally or regionally.

Was there any doubt that the foreign stories cost a lot more? Not at all. But that is not why news organizations had bureaus back in the old media days. There were a couple reasons. First, it was considered prestigious to have one's own correspondent covering events from afar. But second, and most important, the people who ran news organizations back during the "old media" days were journalists--often former foreign correspondents themselves or editors who believed it was the news organization's responsibility to provide international news to their reading or viewing publics.

Today, many news organizations have opted to use "local talent" to cover foreign news. In other words, they hire a Chinese reporter to cover news in China or a Russian to cover news in Russia. This is usually much less expensive and as "New Media" mavens like Jarvis told Koppel on the NPR program: "We have people who actually know the territory and are natives. Do you think we have to have Americans tell Americans the news?"

Here is how the exchange went after that:

KOPPEL: I would like to have American reporters conveying the news to Americans, yes.

JARVIS: Whoa. That seems like a kind of strange bit of xenophobia, journalistic xenophobia. I would love to have people - I love being able to go to blogs and elsewhere and read the people who are in Iraq and in Iran explain it to me far better than someone who just jetted in.

KOPPEL: You're making precisely my point. I don't want someone who just jetted in. I want someone who's lived there for two or three years, speaks the local language, and knows something about it.

JARVIS: How about someone who's lived there for 40 or 50 years and truly understands it and can use these magnificent new tools - which you still haven't answered for me. What do you think of the new tools? Do you see new hope for journalism here?

KOPPEL: I don't see new hope for journalism; I see new hope for the exchange of information. But you haven't responded to my part, which is unless one knows the provenance of the information, unless I know who's putting the information out, I can't judge the validity of that.

And that is why having American correspondents on the ground is so important. When I was covering places like China, S.E. Asia, Latin America, etc. I made sure I knew who was putting out information. I was also not afraid to push officials for it or to demand that they verify some point or another. However, a Chinese reporter working in Beijing is putting his or her life on the line or at least risking prison time doing something like that.

So, if the world of New Media is about "exchanging information," that is fine. However, it is NOT journalism in any sense of the word. People who do journalism are, for the most part, professionals who take their jobs seriously. In fact, as one of my professors once said: "You don't think of journalism as a job. It is a calling. It carries serious responsibility with it. People depend on you for accurate, unbiased information."

There are, of course, those professionals who are less professional than others. It's the same with attorneys, the clergy, teachers and yes, even politicians. There is a reason that journalism is the only business that is protected by a Constitutional Amendment.

Those who founded this nation had no idea that something called The Internet would emerge as a global force for information exchange, but they did understand the value of a free and independent press and its value as a "fourth estate" with the responsibility to be a watchdog of government and to be a open market for the free exchange of ideas.

Bloggers, tweeters, information exchangers and bombastic talking heads on TV are not part of that fourth estate. They are the back benchers of journalism. They can fulminate, blame and pontificate, but they will never break a story that results in a Pulitzer Prize or a Peabody Award. They aren't interested in producing compelling journalism.

That's not their job. Their job is to preach to their choirs--to bring forth opinions and judgments that coincide with the attitudes and values of their slavish audiences--be they liberal or conservative.

And that, my friends, is NOT journalism.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Blurring of News and Opinion

Those of us who have been in the news business for more than a few years (for me it's more than 30 years) have learned a hard truth in the past decade or so: There has been an obvious blurring of the lines between what we learned journalism should be and what it has become.

Coming as I did as a neophyte into the cavernous news room of the Chicago Tribune back in 1969 right out of college, I had editors who made sure that I didn't stray from accurate, evenhanded and unbiased reporting into opinion and rumor. When I did, I got my wrist slapped.

That's what happened last week to MSNBC's Keith Olbermann when it was determined that he donated money to various liberal political campaigns. Olbermann was suspended from his Countdown show on MSNBC for (gasp) two whole days and reinstated this week.

Not surprising. Olbermann gets paid to blather--primarily attacking anybody who is right of the middle and doing it in a particularly vicious, often vile and hateful way.

He is broadcasting's version of recently defeated Democrat Rep. Alan Grayson, who you will recall said in a House floor speech that the Republican's healthcare plan was for senior citizens to "die quickly."

When I was learning how to be a reporter (something I don't believe Olbermann ever did) we were exhorted to strive for objectivity in our reporting. We knew there was no such thing as a purely objective reporter. All of us have biases and are more than likely predisposed to have prejudices one way or the other in dealing with events, sources, issues, etc.

What saddens me today is that with the enormous influence of cable and cable news shows that purport to report stories as objectively as possible, the viewing public has trouble discerning between news and opinion. The strict separation between news and opinion is simply vanishing.

The Olbermann case is an example of that. Old time newsmen such as Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, Harry Reasoner, etc. would never have committed such a faux pas. Why? Because doing so would have undermined their credibility as professional journalists. And once journalists lose their credibility, they have lost everything.

When he returned to air Tuesday, Olbermann said there needed to be a debate about journalists and political donations and that it needs to be adapted to the "realities of 21st Century journalism."

I beg to differ. The realities of 21st Century journalism should mirror those of 20th Century journalism--good journalism needs to be a watchdog on government and elected officials; it needs to be as objective and impartial as possible and there should be no doubt where news ends and opinion begins.

One of the first rules I learned after joining the Chicago Tribune was that I was not allowed to engage in any kind of local politics--including joining the local school board. While reporters were allowed to belong to political parties, we were not allowed to work for any candidates or to express any open support for them. We were supposed to be independent observers, otherwise how could our reporting be trusted?

The question that has to be asked is this: Is Keith Olbermann a journalist? I think not. He is paid to be a provocative pundit/commentator yet here he was anchoring MSNBC 's election night coverage November 2.

Were he a real journalist he would have known that in order to maintain any kind of journalistic credibility at all he could not give money to any political candidate.

But Olbermann could care less about journalistic credibility because he is simply NOT a journalist. He doesn't pretend to be impartial. He is a committed left winger who makes no apologies about it.

So should he have been suspended? Probably not. What needed to happen is for somebody at MSNBC to step up and tell it like it is: Olbermann is not an impartial reporter. He is paid to share his left-wing biases with his like-minded audience, in much the same way that Sean Hannity is paid by the Fox Network to share his conservative bent with his audience.

I have never heard Hannity claim to be an impartial journalist. Fox's Bill O'Reilly and Glen Beck are paid commentators, not reporters. One watches those shows knowing that the emphasis is not on impartiality, but on opinion.

Yet, Fox News gets slammed again and again for being "unfair." I think Fox's news coverage is as fair as any of the other cable networks (certainly MSNBC's).

What the viewing public has to learn to do is discern between the line-up of opinion shows and the time given to reporting news. That goes for all cable and broadcast networks.

Unfortunately, with the blurring of the lines between news and opinion in the reporting process, that continues to be a challenge for most viewers and readers.

On the other hand, it may be that the viewing and reading public really doesn't care if stories are slanted and biased as long as they are slanted and biased in the direction they themselves lean, left or right.

I hope that is not the case. If professional journalists and news organizations cannot or will not provide unbiased news that will allow a citizenry to make informed choices and decisions then I fear our democracy is in terrible danger.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Juan Williams, Political Correctness and Muslims

I have given my last donation of any kind to NPR and PBS after learning today that Juan Williams was fired for making what can only be called a bland statement about Muslims on the Bill O'Reilly show.

Here is what Williams said: “I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

Williams only said what probably 90 percent of Americans believe if they are being honest with themselves. The fact that he was fired for it is an example of just how ludicrous political correctness has become in the United States.

Williams, after all, is a political commentator and he was simply doing what he is paid to do: comment on the body politic of the nation.

In its statement announcing Williams' firing NPR said: . "His remarks on The O'Reilly Factor this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR."

I know Juan Williams--not well, but I know enough of his professional background to know that while he may lean occasionally to the left his is one of the most reasonable liberal voices on the airwaves.

I met Juan when he came to the University of Illinois a few years back to give a talk. At the time I was Dean of the College of Media and a professor of Journalism. I found Juan a thoughtful professional. We talked about stories we had covered (I was a foreign correspondent for much of my 25 years with the Chicago Tribune) and discussed some of the issues of the day over lunch.

The United States used to be a place where people could hold respectful discussions about issues that impact our nation. No more.

Look at what happened on the cackling hen house called The View when Bill O'Reilly went on the show and said it was Muslims who killed innocent victims at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in that field in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001. Anybody with an ounce of brains knows that he was not saying "all Muslims" were behind the attacks. He was simply stating a fact. The men on these planes were Muslims. They weren't Rosicrucian's, Shinto priests, Shriners or Buddhists.

The point both he and Williams were trying to make was that there is a global problem with Muslims who want societies to adjust to their religion, their way of life and their social mores, rather than the other way around.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said exactly that when she announced this past week that the multicultural model for integration in Germany has “miserably failed.” Merkel showed tremendous political courage when she expressed a clear position in an ongoing debate over the integration of immigrants – especially Muslims – into German society, stressing that the current situation must be changed.

According to Merkel, immigrants should be required to integrate into society, by committing to learn the German language – and not only be allowed to do so voluntarily, as has been the policy up until now.
Had she made those statements in the United States as an American politician the clucking hens on The View would have all walked off the set and Merkel would have been pilloried by the liberal political correctness police.

The fact is, Islam is not a tolerant religion. As a foreign correspondent I spent a lot of time in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Religious tolerance does not exist in any of those countries. Try being a Christian or Jew in Pakistan or Iran or Saudia Arabia. I witnessed the persecution of non-Muslims in many of these countries by the Islamic "Religious Police" who enforce Sharia law with a vengeance.

Simply stated, Sharia law is medieval Fascism. It was a set of laws made up by Islamic scholars that became laws governing all the Islamic Caliphates. Today, radical Islam seeks to impose it, whether through violent jihad or through cultural jihad, the latter of which is a jihad to overthrow existing societies [including the democratic west] and to impose Sharia law from within.

In fact, Sharia law is inconsistent with the American Constitution. It strips away individual rights, limits free speech, invades the privacy of people's homes and condones violent attacks not only on infidels but Muslim women and children who deviate from Sharia law.

Of course, in this country you cannot say such things on the airwaves if you work for NPR--even as a paid commentator/analyst such as Juan Williams. Your views must be consistent with the politically correct policies of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Political correctness in the United States is having a chilling effect on public discourse. When you must continually worry about who you might offend when making a point I fear we are on a dangerous path--one that will lead us to a nation where the First Amendment is nothing more than a quaint 18th Century notion no longer applicable to the narrow-minded, intolerant, politically correct state liberals are pushing us to become.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

"Committing Journalism" is NOT Reporting

Recently a member of the Vietnam Old Hacks organization I belong to offered a valuable discussion about what is happening to journalism today.

His point was that young journalists today are increasingly ill-equipped to do good journalism. This may be a failure of journalism schools to properly prepare them for the rigors of superior journalistic practice. Or it may be a lack of leadership in professional newsrooms.

As someone who has toiled in both worlds (27 years with the Chicago Tribune and 13 years at the University of Illinois--7 of those as Dean of the College of Media, which includes the Departments of Journalism, Advertising, Media and Cinema Studies and the Institute of Communications Research) I can tell you that he offered a pretty accurate appraisal of some of the inmates of the academy who are teaching the next generation of old hacks--if indeed there will ever be a "next" generation.

This past year some members of the AEJMC (Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications), which is the umbrella organization for all accredited journalism programs in the country (about 110 at last count) squabbled for weeks about dropping the word "newspaper" from the organization's "Newspaper Division" because many academics believe newspapers are already dead.

Never mind that many newspapers are reinventing themselves and using new technologies and delivery platforms to reach readers and advertisers. Of course, there is the fact that too many of the young minds sitting in journalism classes are being indoctrinated with the idea that technology is the driver and accurate and compelling content is some kind of journalistic afterthought.

In my classes (I taught what I did for 25 years at the Trib--foreign correspondence) too many students had the idea that all they had to do was sit at a computer conduct Google searches and cull the Internet for information and then rewrite it with their own twist of style, etc.

The idea of actually going out and talking to people--sometimes in far away and dangerous places--was anathema to some students. Thankfully, after telling them enough of my own war stories, those students moved on to English Literature or Film Studies.

Of the handful that remained some have actually gone on to be correspondents. I hear from them on occasion and what I hear is that editors and producers are under increasing pressure to cut costs.

When I was sent abroad for my first posting in Japan back in 1974 I was told quite clearly: "Never let money stand between you and a good story. Do what you have to do to get to where the story is." That's how I operated for most of my career until the mid 1990s when the bean counters finally gained control of the Tribune and news gathering became much less important than keeping the bottom line fat for the stockholders.

Needless to say, those are NOT the kind of marching orders reporters receive today. I fear that the combination of money woes, lack of good old-fashioned newsroom mentoring and the infatuation with new technologies are conspiring to reduce reporting to armies of "communicators" who do no first hand reporting.

Today, almost anybody with a computer or I-Phone can "commit journalism." Unfortunately, that's a lot like committing a crime--and the public is the victim.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

CLOSE LOCKER ROOM DOORS TO ALL MEDIA

Now that the racket over "sports reporter" Ines Sainz has subsided a bit, let me make a few points. Sainz, for those of you who have been residing in a cave the past week, is the Mexican TV Azteca reporter who entered the N. Y. Jets locker room looking like a Las Vegas hooker.

First, I have never understood the double standard here. Why are women reporters allowed to enter locker rooms where men are walking around in the buff while male reporters are not allowed to do the same in the locker rooms of female athletes?

Second, why is it necessary for reporters--be they male or female--to enter any locker room where athletes are showering, getting dressed, undressed, etc?

I spent most of my life as a foreign and national correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. As such, I covered a lot of international sports--the Olympics, international basketball games, baseball, football etc.

Like other reporters I was allowed into locker rooms to interview male athletes--never female athletes. Even so, I never felt really comfortable talking to naked male athletes and I am sure I would have had trouble forming intelligent questions talking to naked female athletes.

So why not bar both men and women from locker rooms. Why can't the athletes be made available after a contest and before they hit the showers? Or if that won't work, why not wait until they have showered and dressed before reporters are granted access?

OK, I have heard some of the arguments. Reporters have deadlines and need to get to the athletes asap. Bull! The 10 or 15 minutes athletes need to shower and dress are hardly going to make a difference--not today when stories are posted on the Internet with seconds of a sporting event.

The Ines Sainz affair is one in a long line of similar cases involving women in men's locker rooms. Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis had his knuckles rapped by team big wigs for saying it, but his comments about Sainz had a ray of truth about them, i.e., that the combination of female reporters and "53 male packages" on display was a recipe for....well, you figure it out.

The idea here is that women reporters who enter locker rooms are "professionals" and should be treated as such. Once again, however, there is a need for some propriety here. Ms. Sainz entered the N.Y. Jets locker wearing jeans that looked like they were painted on. OK, we can argue that no matter what a person wears that is no excuse for boorish behavior or cat calls--things that went on in the Jets locker room when Sainz walked in.

But what about male reporters? Are they not "professionals" too? Can't they then be allowed to enter women's locker rooms the same way female reporters are allowed to enter men's locker rooms? Apparently not. Apparently they are not "professional" enough.


Lance Briggs of the Chicago Bears may have said it best when he said no female reporters should be allowed in a men's locker room.

“This is the same place where grown men are taking showers," he said. "This is the place where we [use the bathroom], and right outside of all these places we’re surrounded by media. As we’re drying off, we’re [unclothed] and trying to answer questions at the same time. It’s our realm. It’s our realm. The media has been welcomed into our realm. I’m not saying what happened there [in New York] is OK, but at the same time, maybe she didn’t belong in there. The men’s locker room is for men. Just like the women’s locker room is for women.”

The best solution is to ban the media from ALL locker rooms where athletes are showering, getting dressed, etc. Many colleges already do this and it is the right thing for the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB to do also.

Keep the locker room doors closed to all media. Short of that allow reporters in only if they are blindfolded.

After all, why are reporters at a sporting event anyway? To cover the game, the match, the race, etc.

They are definitely NOT there to become the center of attention in the men's locker room. And yet that is what Ms. Sainz achieved....and I have a feeling that is exactly what she wanted.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Reporter and Ethics

I am a member of an organization of former Vietnam war correspondents called "Vietnam Old Hacks." This is a large group of many of the best reporters who ever covered war. Many went on to cover other wars--perhaps too many, for some paid the ultimate price doing the work they loved.

Recently on the Vietnam Old Hacks listserv, the following excerpt from a story by reporter David Wood was published. Here are the first few paragraphs:

"I'm going back to Afghanistan to report on the war. But after the (Gen. Stanley) McChrystal fiasco, what the heck are the rules?

This will be my fifth time in Afghanistan since 2001. I'll be hanging out with several battalions of the 10th Mountain Division, whom I've traveled with and reported on for going on two decades in places like Somalia, the Balkans and Afghanistan.

So this will be familiar ground. Except for the new cloud of uncertainty that came between soldiers and journalists after Gen. McChrystal and his top aides jocularly derided the Obama administration and others, in front of a reporter. Result: Rolling Stone Magazine won a place in history for its sensational story on "The Runaway General,'' and the general was forced into ignominious retirement after a brilliant career for what he may have assumed was off-the-record barstool banter."

It appears the reporter who wrote the Rolling Stone piece committed an unforgiveable breach of journalistic ethics in reporting what McChrystal and his aides said. Of course, I don't know the ground rules that were established between the general and the reporter. However, it is doubtful the general said what he did on the record.

During my time as a correspondent in places like Vietnam, Cambodia, El Salvador, Afghanistan, etc. I often had off the cuff conversations with high ranking officials who were also valuable sources. One thing I learned early on in my journalistic career was NOT to burn a source. Once you do that, you have lost that person as a source forever.

I can't count the number of times someone in the U.S. Embassy in Saigon or San Salvador or Islamabad told me something that could have gotten them fired because they were venting about someone or some policy. Some of these comments were pretty damning. Did I rush off to my hotel room to pound out a story? (In the days before computers we hacks used portable typewriters.

No I didn't. Because I knew intuitively that this person was trusting me NOT to write a piece based on our private conversation. How many times did I meet CIA contacts in bars on Saigon's Tu Do street and how many times did they divulge juicy tidbits about what was happening the Embassy? I knew what I could and could not hang on these sources. In any case, most of these were background briefings unless we established "rules of banter." During our conversations these sources knew they could trust me not to burn them.

Some reporters, however, are trigger happy. They are always looking for that one story that will win them a slew of awards and thereby make their career. I always avoided reporters like that. These are the same men and women who will NOT have your back when things get dicey on the battlefield. They are dishonest, unscrupulously ambitious and dangerous.

But most important, they are in the news business for all the wrong reasons. The job of a reporter is to report accurately and fairly so the reading or viewing public can make informed decisions about their lives, the people they elect and those who are in power. They are "watchdogs" of government.

Some core principles of journalism are enduring, said the Committee of Concerned Journalists recently:

"As audiences fragment and our companies diversify, there is a growing debate within news organizations about our responsibilities as businesses and our responsibilities as journalists. Many journalists feel a sense of lost purpose. There is even doubt about the meaning of news, doubt evident when serious journalistic organizations drift toward opinion, infotainment and sensation out of balance with news.

“Yet as we change we assert some core principles of journalism are enduring. They are those that make journalism a public service central to self-government. They define our profession not as the act of communicating but as a set of responsibilities.

Journalism can entertain, amuse and lift our spirits, but news organizations also must cover the matters vital to the well being of our increasingly diverse communities and foster the debate upon which democracy depends. The First Amendment implies obligation as well as freedom."

There is a difference between being a responsible "watchdog" and an imprudent "newshound."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Decline of Style and Class

You have probably received one of those e-mails displaying photos of so-called "Walmart People." As you scroll down there is a collection photos of Walmart shoppers wearing wild assortments of clothing covering bodies that seem fashioned from silly putty or carved from tree stumps.

There are horribly overweight women wearing inadequate shorts barely covering explosions of tattoo blemished buttock flesh; there are men wearing pink leotards and combat boots; there are people who seem to have crawled out of a fissure in the earth--troglodytes perhaps? Or conceivably humanoid-like creatures from another planet that crash landed into a Goodwill warehouse?

Can any of this be real? Do people really look like that? And do they go to Walmart and other places?

The answer is yes, yes and yes. These are real people. They do look like that and they actually abandon their dank and murky grottos to venture into well lit public places such as Walmart.

What happened? How did the nation spawn organisms that apparently have no concept of taste, style or class?

Beyond these "Walmart people" I think national taste and style hit a new low when the Northwestern University women's 2005 national championship lacrosse team showed up at the White House in wearing flip flops. What does this say about respect for the nation's highest office, let alone personal pride and class?

It says none of that matters anymore. It says if you want to go to a funeral wearing cargo shorts and a tank top it's OK because the most important thing is not showing a modicum of respect for the deceased, but how YOU feel.

The whole concept of “class” or what it means to be classy is an unknown quality with too many people today. Nothing is left to the imagination. In movies the camera must go through the bedroom door and act as voyeur as actors and actresses engage in multiple forms of mattress gymnastics. Remember movies when a couple would go through a door and then the next scene would be the next day? That’s enough…leave something to the imagination for God’s sake. Can you imagine Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Audrey Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, etc. baring it all for a scene with a nude Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, James Stewart or Burt Lancaster? Wouldn’t have happened. Great actresses of today such as Meryl Streep, Kate Winslett and Cate Blanchett know you don't have to do the horizontal waltz in order to exude sex appeal. They leave something to the imagination.

So why do otherwise intelligent women show up at the White House in flip flops? Why do "Walmart people" feel they can go shopping looking like two legged rubbish bins?

There is very little child rearing, I fear. Too many parents are abrogating that responsibility to schools, day care centers, etc. The result is a nation in which millions of kids have little or no understanding of common values, self-discipline, social responsibility, respect for others or what we used to call “good manners.” All of that is simply passé. The idea for young girls today is to look like trash, show as much booty as they can and have a big tattoo poking out above their butt crack.

When I was teaching at the University of Illinois, I couldn’t believe how many female students came to my morning class in their pajamas. They could have cared less how they appeared. But hey, at least they were comfortable.
We can argue that its "generational." OK, I agree, up to a point. Back in "the day," we wore tight jeans, some of us had ducktail haircuts, and we liked to cruise around in customized cars with loud glass pack mufflers. But how many of us looked like those people at Walmart--or for that matter at McDonalds, Taco Bell, Burger King, or I-Hop? Because I have seen them at those places also.

People took a lot more pride in their appearance mainly because (in my case, at least) my mother would never have allowed me to walk out the door looking like a vagrant. I think too many parents today don't provide that kind of supervision. Few teach their kids any kind of discipline. School teachers today tell me that when they get kids from homes like that (and that means most kids) every time they attempt to discipline them the parents circle the wagons around their brats and often it's the teacher who gets disciplined. I can't imagine what it must be like to teach high school today.

Who knows where all of this will end. I am not optimistic. I think I will take my camera to my nearest Walmart and digitally bag a few troglodytes.