Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Tell - And then some

The news media has a strict "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in covering gays (AKA homosexuals) in the military. Reporters don't ask important questions so they don't tell us very much. A recent PBS News Hour featured two members of a commission studying what would happen if DADT ended. One said the military treated everyone as "equals" and gays merely wanted the same treatment, nothing special. Everyone is treated as equals? So that's why female service members have different standards and living facilities, not to mention the contrasting worlds rank creates. Is there a reporter with the guts to ask if allowing openly gay soldiers in barracks will lead to the end of separate female and male quarters? I recall a movie about the army of the future that shows male and female space troopers showering together.

I sense that few reporters actually served in the military. I shouldn't be surprised. Veterans were slim in the ranks of reporters when I worked at AP. I remember a news conference by former soldiers who sued CNN over its "Tailwind Story." The 40 or so assembled journalists were asked to raise their hands if they served in the armed forces. About five or so hands, including mine, went up. This incident is covered in my book, so I won't go in to details.
I think the problem is that there are no really good military writers. I don't mean war correspondence, of which there are many outstanding ones. I mean the "peace correspondence," the reporter, possibly a veteran, whose full time job is covering the armed forces, who reads the Marine Gazette and All Hands and has contacts in all services.

If there had been a few of these around during the WMD controversy a key question might have been asked: What was the mission statement given to the troops just before the invasion? Was it "Find Those Damned Weapons of Mass Destruction!!!" No, the Eve of Battle statement by Major General James Mattis to the soldiers and marines who would risk their lives was a simple one: Get rid of Saddam Hussein who "for decades .. has tortured, imprisoned, raped, and murdered the Iraqi people." Weapons of Mass Destruction were only mentioned in passing, and then in the past tense.

I suppose the failure to highlight the statement should be expected from a news corps that struck deals with Saddam to pay little attention to his crimes in exchange for access to news elsewhere (See John Burns' comments in "Embedded."
Today Bing West is an exception when it comes to military writers. He's very good, but I consider him a military writers' writer. Reporters read him to be informed. When the reading public mentions a military writer it's usually Thomas Ricks, author of "Making the Corps" and "Fiasco." I wasn't impressed by either book. How can one take seriously a writer who, on page 398, dismisses lack of coverage of the Second Battle of Fallujah in 2004 by saying that by then "journalists were fatigued and probably numbed somewhat to the violence." And this after conceding that "if a battle of this intensity had occurred during the spring of 2003 invasion, reporters would have treated it like another D-Day." Someone didn't do their job - and I don't mean the marines.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

No Protestants Need Apply

I loved stories about "firsts," even though they sometimes ended in embarrassment when you learned later that whatever the subject was it wasn't a "first," or "last" or "only." A good word to use in such stories was "apparently." But there was nothing "apparent" in the historic "first" when Elena Kagan was named to the U.S. Supreme Court. The event marked the first time in American history that there was no Protestant on the nation's highest court. What a history lesson!!! Yet, there was little mention of this in the traditional media. There was a lot made of the fact that three women were now sitting on the bench, which rounded up the usual suspects when it came to diversity.

There was, however, an opinion piece in the New York Times that said the lack of a Protestant showed how little religion mattered on a court that at one time regarded "Jewish" and "Catholic" seats as a mark of diversity. Pat Buchanan and Jim Webb came under fire when they pointed out the lack of a Protestant justice.

The last time I saw this journalistic dance around the obvious was when Ronald Reagan became the first divorced man to be president. At that time I just figured reporters moved in circles were divorce was viewed as a rite of passage. I couldn't help, however, recall the opposition divorced Democrat Adlai Stevenson faced when he ran against Eisenhower in the 1950s, which made me conclude that reporters know little about history, even though they are allegedly writing the first draft of history.

There's a void to fill when it comes to writing history for the mass media. I practically ended up writing full time history pieces toward the end of my career. I loved it, but I felt I got those stories by default because younger reporters failed to see the relevancy. I have a good deal to say about this in my book, which quotes an editor who used almost every history piece he could get. "Most readers know so little about history that these stories are news to them," the editor said. I think Carl Nolte's popular "native son" stories at the Chronicle are evidence of this.

It seems that today the journalistic collective memory doesn't go back even a few years. Why else would the New York Times run the aforementioned commentary when just five years ago religion was a key factor in the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito? Alito's Catholicism was important enough for the Associated Press' Rachel Zoll to write that for "the first time in U.S. history, five Roman Catholics, a majority, would be on the high court." Zoll led her story by saying that the appointment would end "more than 200 years of Protestant domination on the Supreme Court."

Eventually, such coverage was so persistent Alito took note of it in a speech to the Justinian Society, a law group. "There has been so much talk lately about the number of Catholics serving on the Supreme Court," he said. "This is one of those questions that does not die." He went on to complain about "respectable people who have seriously raised the questions in serious publications about whether these individuals could be trusted to do their jobs." Before Alito there was John Roberts. The Los Angeles Times even went after his wife with a piece headlined "Wife of Nominee Holds Strong Antiabortion Views."

Do I hear "double standard" and "liberal media?" I think there is far more involved and it's been evident since UPI became moribund decades ago. The AP was handed a virtual monopoly on the gathering and distribution of news. If the AP doesn't take note, as it did when Alito was picked, then the angle that didn't get used is the tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear. The situation is better now. The Internet has several blogs that reported on the limited definition of "diversity" in the mainstream coverage of Kagan. Some even wondered if there were any veterans on the court or asked why all justices graduates of Ivy League schools, which made "old school tie" more important than "old boys network."

I hope I live long enough to see an atheist named to the court. I want to see how the story is framed.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Something good about the Chronicle. Now that's news.

In just a few paragraphs, a letter to the Chronicle summed up what I have been trying to say about the future of news. In short, news won't have much of a future if reporting is driven more by technology than content. The important part of newspaper is NEWS, not PAPER.
I doubt Mark Thomas of Berkeley was thinking about this when he praised Chronicle reporter Justin Berton in his April 10 letter. Thomas was the climber who survived a trek on Mount Shasta that took the life of his friend, Tom Bennett.
"...the media greatly added to the anguish and suffering of myself and Tom's family through their eagerness to print or broadcast a story regardless of the accuracy of the facts or the appropriateness of the source," he wrote in commenting on Berton's story, "Climber tells of doomed descent," which was in the April 2nd edition.
Berton, he said, was willing "to wait until I was ready to talk. He was willing to talk with me on my terms without making demands for details or photo/video for a sensational story."
"It seems to me that many reporters get credit for being the first or the loudest in telling a story, and I think that these are the wrong incentives to have in reporting," Thomas wrote.
Thomas concluded by saying Breton "should get credit for waiting and producing a quality story with great sensitivity."
I was so moved by the letter that I told Breton that someday he would value the letter more than a Pulitzer.
"I already do," he messaged back.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Brown bombs and no one hears

Jerry Brown's "Governor Moonbeam" image continued to shine Sunday, but no one seemed to notice,which says more about the modern news media than it does about California's literal elder statesman.

The San Francisco Chronicle asked the three candidates for governor their thoughts on the closing of the Nummi plant in Fremont. Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner gave long answers that appeared in the paper's Insight section. Brown did not provide a response. The newspaper reported that Brown's "campaign had assured The Chronicle it would submit his answer by a Wednesday deadline, but did not deliver it as promised."

Hard to believe this is not all over the news chain. If it does make it we won't be able to escape. More lemming reporting brought to you by the low side of high tech.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The corpse that won't stay dead

Wasn't there a Spanish king who had a lisp so bad people started speaking that way so the problem would seem normal? A real emperor had no clothes story. Are we seeing this happen with President Obama, who mispronounced Navy corpsman as "corpseman" during a prayer breakfast speech? Never head about it? Not surprised. There's little, if any, mention of it in the traditional news media. It's all over the net, however. I think it would have been ammo for late night comics, given the pounding Bush took for similar slips. (See earlier postings about the Quayle-Clinton era as well as Obama and "57 states."). Does all this matter? I think so if one regards these incidents as lessons in media power. Will "corpseman" become the correct pronunciation? Living memory tells us there was a time when "gay" meant only happy. And how did "gone missing" become so accepted when just a few years ago it meant you were AWOL? News stories about missing persons used to say simply that they "are missing." These earlier examples, however, pretty much came when the mainstream media could regard net comments as nothing more than puddles. Not so now.
The imbalance results from "liberal bias," right? I'm not so sure. I think there's a good chance reporters covering the speech didn't know the difference between corpsman and corpseman. I'd bet they didn't know what a corpsman is. When I entered the news game almost every one I worked with had been in the military. When I left hardly anyone had. I saw many stories shortly before I retired that used "battleship" to describe a destroyer or refer to a corporal as an "officer." The late lamented media mag Brill's Content had a piece about military reporting that said social concerns in military coverage far outweighed that of preparedness.
Things might be a bit better now because the Internet will eventually catch you. If only the news powers regarded blogs as a means to improve reporting. Start now by owning up to the "corpseman" goof.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

"Ramparts" Needed Watching

I wish I talked to Peter Richardson before he wrote "A Bomb in Every Issue," the latest history of Ramparts, the flashy 1960's San Francisco-based magazine his subtitle claims "changed America." I was on the 50-yard line when Ramparts was born. At its conception would be more accurate. The full subtitle reads: "How the short, unruly life of Ramparts magazine changed America." I think it's more exact to say Ramparts "changed American journalism." I concede my version might not be needed. Adding "journalism" seems synonymous or redundant. So goes American journalism, so goes America.

To truly appreciate Richardson's effort one should first read "If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade: An Essential Memoir of a Lunatic Decade," the memoir of Warren Hinckle, the brains behind Ramparts. No Hinckle, no Ramparts. To know Hinckle is to know Ramparts. I'm in Hinckle's book. Only a page and a half, but it says a great deal about us and the paths we took in life. Pages 6-7 recall our days on "The Crusader," the student newspaper at Riordan High, an all boys Catholic school in San Francisco. Warren was editor and I was sports editor, profiled in the book as a "burly football player" whose view of "our journalistic calling was that it came somewhere after football and girls." Warren's life, in contrast, centered around teletype machines and printing presses.

I was his "traveling companion" on trips to the San Francisco Examiner where Warren would "drool over the teletype machines." Reading those passages now, I find irony in the fact that I was the one who ended up in a career on the other end of those teletype machines.I was as shocked as anyone at Riordan when I, not Hinckle, won the Press and Union League Club scholarship in 1956, the year we graduated and Hinckle was valedictorian. A bigger shock came ten years later at the class reunion when Hinckle tried to address his classmates and was booed - a lot. I shouldn't have been surprised. In its pioneer editions, Ramparts was billed as a Catholic literary magazine. Many thought "anti-Catholic" was more like it. The first chapter of "Lemonade" would be called "Catholic Dirty Tricks." I remember one alum at the 1966 gathering screaming "you don't speak for us" through hands held as a megaphone.

I suppose it's true that you can't go home again, but I did go back to Riordan during the last decade and felt very much at home, even though the student body is no longer dominated by Irish and Italian offspring. The events that drew me were memorials, one for a classmate and the other for a former faculty member, both of whom served in the Marine Corps, the teacher in WWII and Korea and the graduate in Vietnam. I didn't spot Hinckle at either memorial. I would have liked to talk with him. I did talk to many classmates, though, and all seemed glad that we had fine male role models during our teen years.

"We were lucky," one said,"almost all these guys, even some of the religious, served in the military. They really gave us a feeling of individual responsibility and team work." I think that's true. I wasn't a very good student, but I left Riordan with the feeling that what I did with my life had consequences. That's probably why "Philip's Code" puts so much stock in the character of the news reporter.

If I go on in this vein much longer I will start hearing "Rosebud," but I do want to underline that Hinckle had a huge impact on journalism, a legacy we live with to this day. He was a promotional genius, which I witnessed as a reporter at UPI in the 1970s when he gave me an exclusive that received international play.

In 1973 Warren asked me if I wanted to interview prison fugitive Joel Kaplan, who two years earlier had been lifted by helicopter right out of a Mexican prison. Later, Hinckle co-authored a book about the inventive escape called "The Ten Second Jailbreak" which was eventually a movie starring Charles Bronson. In 1973 there was so much interest in Kaplan the rival Associated Press ran a long feature on efforts to find him. Hinckle lined me up with an exclusive interview with Kaplan at a North Beach cafe. Kaplan had been stashed away, supplying information for the book. Turned out the escape was probably legal, although the reasoning behind that was very complicated and needs a book of its own. Keeping Kaplan under wraps helped create interest.

I thought a few times about writing a book similar to Richardson's, but when I mentioned that to friends they felt I was too close to the subject to be objective, which is again ironic considering Ramparts and its offspring killed off even attempts at objectivity. I think my friends were right. It would have started and stopped with Hinckle. They also said I overestimated Ramparts' influence.

"Watergate was far more important," was the way one of them put it. I'm not so sure about that. There might very well have been no Watergate without the trail blazed by Ramparts. Besides, I concluded decades ago that there were two factors far more important than Watergate or Ramparts: the placing of UPI on life support, which gave AP a virtual news monopoly, and downsides of technology, both of which I tried to show in my book.

The news culture spawned by Ramparts urged reporters to "question authority." What happens when the news media becomes the "authority?" Not much if the traditional news outlets can't be held accountable, which was nearly impossible until talk radio gained power. On the last page of his book, Richardson asks Hinckle why Ramparts had been so successful in its early years. "Probably because the rest of the press was so shitty," he replied. I am sure there are a lot of talk radio people who would say the same thing if they were asked what was the key to their popularity

Things aren't much better now. In addition to talk radio, today's version of the underground press of the 1960s includes rantings on the Internet, the home to the "validation journalism" in which people get their news with their favorite slants built in. There is hope. If enough people learned where news comes from, how it is gathered and distributed, they could use all the latest advances in technology to convince the news powers to stop firing people and get back to basics to the point they will regain the public's trust. Getting the news out is not the same as getting the news. That's why my book is dedicated to all journalists who still believe the pen is mightier than the mouse.