Where Have All the “Reader Advocates” Gone?

NEW SLAUGHTERAmong the things that continue to amaze me is how little thoughtful, generally well-informed people care about the steady demise of newspapers. It may be that after a half decade or more of hysterical death knells such people have stopped believing the Star Tribunes and Pioneer Presses of the world are really going to go away.

Or … it may be that even the thoughtful and generally well-informed have lost whatever emotional attachment they once had to papers, which is odd considering how the internet with its “comment”-ability would seem to offer more ability than ever for readers to interact — emotionally and otherwise — with those that deliver the news (as those that deliver news define news).

Word that the Washington Post has joined the list of papers dismissing their ombudsman — the allegedly independent voice that both solicited reader complaints and issued a judgment on the quality of the paper’s work –  seems like a good moment to address what’s wrong here. Largely, I’m in agreement with veteran media writer Jack Shafer, who writes:

“As conceived back in 1970, the ombudsman’s job was, in former Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee’s words, “to monitor the paper for fairness, accuracy, and relevance and to represent the public in whatever strains might arise from time to time between the newspaper and its readers.” (Emphasis added.) The Post ombudsman was “resolutely autonomous,” Bradlee wrote. Working on contract rather than staff, the ombudsman was given the independence to write about whatever he wanted to write about. He couldn’t be assigned. He couldn’t be edited. And he couldn’t be fired …

But the occupants of this perch have generally shied away from using their power to inflict public punishment or embarrassment on the Post.  … No matter what the ombudsman’s background, the tendency has been to pull punches whenever the Post erred. Instead of roasting the paper for its transgressions, the ombudsman could be relied on to sympathize with the hard job of newspapering and gently explain the newsroom’s mistakes to readers. Worse yet, some ombudsmen have played Monday morning quarterback with their columns, detailing from the safe remove from deadline pressure how they would have assigned, reported, written and edited a flawed story had they been in charge.”

You will not be surprised to learn that neither of our two local dailies has ever turned such responsibility over to someone who wasn’t one of their paid and trusted employees, someone who could be counted on to “over”-represent the paper and apply team-think opacity rather than embarrassing transparency.

The reason for papers’ disinterest in the sort of brave and bold oversight Ben Bradlee suggested echoes a couple recent threads here on The SRC. Namely, the discussion after Bob Woodward’s pissy overreaction to a White House e-mail, and our new policy moderating the worst of the trolls.

Point being no one anywhere likes being told, in public, that they’re wrong, or that they’ve screwed-up, least of all journalists. Reporters and editors have extraordinarily high regard for their probity and wisdom, and already feel perpetually embattled by both cloddish know-nothings and smart-ass ideologues eager to witness their final fiery impact.

If there’s a walking hell worse than the person who outs a reporter for laziness, a breach of ethics, or an entire big city paper for timidity in the face of great civic peril, or gross conflict of interests (**VIKINGSSTADIUM!!**) I don’t know what it is. Maybe a snitch in the Baltimore drug trade. The social/professional peril for that person is nigh on to mortal. But it is what has to be risked to be of any real value, if  “reader advocacy” and “transparency” mean anything besides corporate buzz-blather for “return deflective fire”.

The reason neither local paper bothers with even the pretense of formal, regular, ongoing public accountability is that done badly and irregularly, it only serves to feed its enemies, the PowerLines of the world, adversaries determinedly selling the “reckless liberal bias” meme to their retrograde readership.

But that is almost precisely the reason to have a fully independent ombudsman, on duty throughout the day every day, rather than beard-stroking once every other Sunday. Here at SRC and other good blogs (if I must say so myself) our new “moderation” serves first to block out the worst of the socially maladjusted numbskulls, the inflamed clods who soil the punch bowl for everyone involved, while our interaction, generally speaking, has the intended effect of clarifying gaps in our original posts. (It doesn’t always work that way. But then we’re not always sober, unlike everybody working in newspapers.)

If the Star Tribune parked a Ben Bradlee-style ombudsman on its comment lines, sifting through the most trenchant complaint or observations and offering near-real time response, I kinda think the paper would win national kudos for getting its big boy/big girl pants on right and showing genuine courage in the face of enemy fire. Moreover, based on the comments we can all read on the Strib site, the majority of the complaints border on rank, ideological nonsense and can be easily dismissed with withering authority.

On the occasion that the paper or a reporter really shanks one into the woods … well, it’s not like no one noticed, and they only look worse when they send a hapless employee apologist out to explain how tough it is to do “great journalism” under deadline pressure and the vital need to sustain “open lines of communication” with powerful local business interests.

Just as no one gets ‘em all right, the public institutions that try to imply a reputation both beyond and immune to reproach is really only baiting its enemies and dismaying its allies.

Local Journalism’s Bachmann Failure

If you have any interest in things like gay bullying and the seamless interlocking of modern conservative politics and homosexual fear-mongering, you owe it to yourself to read the Rolling Stone piece, “One Town’s War on Gay Teens”.  It’s the, well, embarrassing tale of how conservative religious zealots up in the Anoka-Hennepin school district created and inflamed a climate that may – may –  have contributed to bullying that resulted in the suicides of nine teenagers, a rate far, far beyond the national norm.

Now, I realize that judging by traffic flow, deep-inside media stories hold very little interest to the public, and even less if the story means having read a daily paper opinion page piece. But bear with me, or move on. Your choice.

The 7000-word Rolling Stone story is both vivid, detailed and unsparing in making the connection between the likes of Michele Bachmann and the atmosphere of intense intolerance in the north metro area. It is also wholly unlike anything written, or produced, by any major media outlet in the Twin Cities — Star Tribune, Pioneer Press or Minnesota Public Radio — all of whom are fully aware of both the appalling suicide rate and the fervor of anti-gay rhetoric stoked by religious conservatives.

My MinnPost colleague, David Brauer, appears to be aware of this curious under-reporting of so highly provocative a case of cause-and-effect. A couple of days ago, he took Star Tribune opinion page writer Lori Sturdevant to task for a column she wrote tut-tutting Rolling Stone for what she regarded as a hyperbolic presentation of the story of Anoke-Hennepin’s problem, specifically the way it connected Bachmann’s political strategy with the anti-gay fervor … and tragic consequences.

I encourage you to read David’s piece, “Rolling Stone didn’t slime Michele Bachmann.” He treads into a pet/obsessive fascination of mine, namely the clear editorial choice made by standard-bearers of journalistic truth-telling and context-providing in this major media market. To be more specific: The very curious way the Star Tribune, the Pioneer Press and MPR have restrained their coverage of Bachmann, in particular, and the volatile, potent and routinely factually inaccurate movement inspired by her kind.

My duties at MinnPost involve aggregating stories from near and far with an impact on Minnesota. When Bachmann was in the GOP presidential hunt there was a regular torrent of reporting and commentary on her daily/hourly accusations, misstatements, flagrant falsehoods and, what else can you call them but outright lies.

The striking thing to me, as I surfed hither and yon, was how little of Bachmann’s manifest recklessness with the truth made its way in to the print (or on-air) version of any of our three primary serious news entities. To its (modest) credit the Strib did run more of Bachmann’s absurdities in its “Hot Dish Politics” blog than the other two did anywhere. But, if I had to apply a percentage, our three local journalism mainstays reported no more than 30%-40% of what Bachmann — a presidential candidate and easily the highest profile politician in the state — was saying in a given news cycle.

More to the point in the context of the Rolling Stone piece, the influence of Bachmann, and other hyper-conservative political characters on events in Anoka-Hennepin, was reported only flatly. There was no drawing of any overt lines of causation, and no story approached the depth of reporting Rolling Stone put into the piece. Put another way, our local journalistic icons, treated the over-heated Anoka-Hennepin culture war milieu with studied dispassion and no evident desire to lay out a full and complete context for their readers/listeners.

My suspicion/accusation has long been that the local news media have each separately made an economic calculation that regular and full reporting Bachmann’s misrepresentations, activities, alliances and influences becomes counter-productive after the point of perfunctory diligence. Translation: To have aggressively covered her — did I mention, a presidential candidate and the state politician with the highest profile on the national stage? — would be to risk blowback from her intensely contentious supporters, open themselves to invigorated charges of “liberal bias” and possibly/likely suffer advertising/underwriting blowback.

My attitude has always been that Bachmann was/is a disgrace to the concept of public service; that her’s is a stunningly self-serving act fired by her willingness to recklessly disregard even a minimal respect for truth, accuracy and fairness … three qualities on which serious news organizations pride and market themselves. By her contempt for those qualities and her surge into the national limelight it seemed to me she merited/required both 24/7 attention from her hometown media AND regular reminders that she was practicing a form of reckless rabble-rousing that didn’t entitle her to serious coverage.

That last part is me, largely as blogger. But all three of the news organizations I mentioned have “silos” for analysis and commentary where they could have laid out in far greater depth than they didthe roots of Bachmann’s candidacy and her influence with so potent a sub-set of today’s electorate. But, largely, they passed on that opportunity.

Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker wrote the definitive Bachmann profile, Karl Bremer at “Ripple in Stillwater”, Bill Prendergast and the rest at The Minnesota Progressive Project delivered the best day-to-day coverage and Rolling Stone laid out the most complete portrait of the pernicious effects of her rhetoric and influence.

Put bluntly, there’s no excuse for that kind of coverage not appearing in journalism entities truly committed to reporting without fear or favor.

Minnesota Media Sides With Anti-Union Forces By Adopting “Right To Work” Framing

On the abortion issue, one group of advocates says “Right to Life,” the other side says “Pro-Choice” and the news media usually opts for the more neutral term, calling it a debate over “abortion rights,” or describing the protagonists as being “anti-abortion” and “pro-abortion rights.” Fair enough. On that issue, reporters have done a pretty good job of striking a balance on the language they use.

But on the top labor issue of the day, one side says “Right to Work,” the other side says “Right to Work for Less” or “union busting.” The media goes with “Right to Work.”

Pioneer Press headline: “Republicans set stage for right to work fight in Minnesota”
Star Tribune headline: “State Republicans launch right-to-work amendment”
MPR headline: “One on One: The Right to Work Amendment”

In other words, the news media is framing the issue exactly how pro-amendment spin savants want it framed.

As reporters know, there is a reason why amendment proponents deliberately chose the words “right to work” for their propaganda. Extensive market research told them swing voters felt supportive of the notion of having the “right to work,” and are opposed to someone taking that right away from them. Who wouldn’t? So, they invest in millions of dollars worth of marketing and PR trying to make that wording stick.

At the same time, amendment opponents’ market research told them that “Right to Work for Less” was helpful to their cause. Those words bring attention to the fact that the typical employees in states with this union restriction make about $5300 less per year than employees in other states, a fact that is extremely helpful in selling their point-of-view.

To be fair, perpetually PR-challenged unions don’t do themselves any favors on this front, as they continually use their opponents’ “right to work” framing in their own communications, making that label seem normalized and mutually acceptable.

Still, as with the abortion debate, reporters should avoid both side’s carefully focus grouped labels, and go with more neutral language. For instance, they could call it a “union limitation amendment,” or some such poker-faced pabulum.

Minnesotans are going to be exosed to a lot of news coverage about this amendment over the next nine months, so it’s a good time for editors to have earnest conversations about fair rules of engagement. Reporters need to get a lot better at covering the issue in a balanced way.

- Loveland

Misinformin’ Norman

When the Deep Marine accusations against Senator Norm Coleman became public, I wrote: “I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that Texans McKim and Thomas are being reckless with the truth…(about their accusations that Coleman was having corporate gifts illegally directed to him through his wife)”

So, yesterday’s news that there would be no federal legal action taken against Coleman was not a shocker. It looks like the Texans were lying about Coleman, and I feel bad that happened to him and his wife during a delicate time in the 2008 Senate campaign. It was unfair, and that damage can’t be repaired. In a race decided by 325 votes, it may have cost him a Senate seat. That’s not right.

But before you feel too sorry for Senator Coleman, read today’s stories a little more carefully. While Coleman apparently did nothing illegal, he did tell a whopper to voters. Repeatedly.

In today’s Pioneer Press, this important point was made:

On “one or or two” occasions, (Coleman campaign donor Nasser) Kazeminy purchased dress suits for Coleman at Neiman Marcus in Minneapolis before Coleman was a senator, (Kazeminy attorney Louis) Freeh affirmed under questioning from news media.

The revelation confirmed at least part of a different allegation against Coleman that dogged him through a portion of the 2008 campaign. He and his aides sought to dismiss it repeatedly –and never acknowledged it was true despite weeks of questioning. At one point, Coleman himself said, “Nobody except my wife and me buy my suits” – a statement the Pioneer Press and several other media outlets reported as a denial such purchases ever happened.”

This was very responsible reporting by the Pioneer Press’s Dave Orrick. For others, particularly those outlets that questioned Coleman’s campaign for months about the suits, it was a glaring omission.

So, the good news from the investigation: Former Senator Coleman isn’t a law breaker. The bad news: He was lying to us for months.

Both findings are relevant to Minnesotans.

The Strib Almost, Just About, Kind of Calls Pawlenty a Liar.

THIS POST HACKED.

- The Mgmt.

Another Stool at the Bar…

Or is “another stoolie behind bars” a better analogy?

Damned if I know.  I’m still trying to get my head around it being 2010.  According to the science fiction future historical timeline, this was the year in which Dave Bowman comes back to terraform Jupiter’s Europa, there are colonies on the Moon and Mars and everyone has a nano-scaled tech implanted in their heads to augment their wetware.  Instead, we’ve got Glenn Beck, ride sharing with the Russians to the International Space Station and the iPhone.  Somehow, I feel short-changed.

But, I digress.  As usual.

My actual purpose in writing today was to introduce a new member of the Crowd, Brian Lambert.  Observant visitors will note the appearance of his “gravatar” on the left side of the page or  may have read of his imminent arrival in David Brauer’s MinnPost column over the holidays.

Mr. Lambert is one-man media band with  gigs ranging from MinnPost, where he’s one of the authors of the Daily Glean, to blogging at the Rake and MPLS/St. Paul magazine, yakking on KTLK-FM and writing for the Pioneer Press where I first met him as a media critic. Starting next week, he’ll be co-hosting a 7-9 PM show on FM107, aka “The Chick Station.”  He’s probably done more stuff I’m forgetting, but I’ll leave it to him to embroider as he sees fit.

I’m not sure when his first post will appear or the topics he’ll be writing about (not surprising since I don’t know these things about myself), but I almost always find Mr. Lambert’s musings interesting, insightful, entertaining and fun.  He’s also enjoyably snarky and gossipy about the local media scene when the spirit moves him.  In short, he’s a fine addition to our group, especially since he promised to buy the first round for everyone who makes it to our next meatspace gathering. This alone sets him apart from the rest of us.

Enjoy.

- Austin

Photo credit:  Dick Kraus.  “Brian Lambert helps his dad shovel a heavy snowfall from the steps of their rented house in South Huntington in 1996″certified payroll nice

PiPress gives the Strib a big, wet kiss

pipress_strib_adBob Collins at MPR’s NewsCut blog has an interesting story from this weekend. Apparently, the folks at the St. Paul Pioneer Press felt compelled to give their across-the-river competitors at the Minneapolis Star Tribune a nice big hug after the Strib clawed its way out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Click on the image to see a larger version in which you can read the entire text of the ad.

My favorite part? The comments on Collins’ story, which included this gem of a back-and-forth:

Here we are online discussing the apparent fate of 19th century dead tree edition media (ok it was high tech in those days)

Anybody else see the irony?

Posted by MNguy | October 4, 2009 9:58 PM

Yes, we are on an online site. One managed by a radio network, the same guys who were supposed to kill the newspapers in the 1920′s and 1930′s, and who were supposed to be killed along with the newspapers by television in the 1950′s and 1960′s. It is indeed ironic.

Posted by Gardoglee | October 5, 2009 12:51 PM

Photo courtesy of MPR’s Bob Collins

Solar Powered Medical Care

Sun light from Above“Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” the old saw goes.

Some hospital officials might disagree. While they are big believers in peroxide, alcohol, and ammonium disinfectants, some get very squeamish when sunshine is used to disinfect systemic germs in the medical sector.

It’s completely understandable that the hospitals featured on today’s front page of the St. Paul Pioneer Press are uncomfortable. It can’t be much fun to have the federal government telling the world how you are doing when it comes to death and readmission rates for three common ailments.

But these disclosures are as healing as the disclosures made by patients in exam rooms.

When performance and medical error data move from dusty manila folders to the front page of the paper, poor performing hospitals get external and internal pressure to fix languishing problems. Strong performing hospitals get due credit and subsequent referrals to reward the fruits of their labors. And with successes and failures out in the open, all hospitals are better able to learn from each other.

Moreover, such disclosures give referring physicians and patients the ability to shop based on something more meaningful than hospitals’ marketing chotskies, ads about new machines, and opulent lobbies.

If we’re going to have a free market health care model, and it looks like we are, consumers need better access to better information. Markets only work well when patients are informed enough to vote with their feet, or walkers. But health care consumers have been blindly stumbling around in the dark for too long. Our stumbling is a big reason the markets haven’t been working well.

To be sure, these kinds of disclosures aren’t perfect. For instance, some hospitals take on the most challenging patients. It’s more difficult for these hospitals to achieve excellent outcomes than it is for hospitals who keep the less challenging patients and refer the most challenging patients elsewhere.

But disclosures lead to better referring physician and consumer understanding of these acuity-related dilemmas, and some information is better than no information whatsoever.

The disclosures shouldn’t end with outcomes and error data. Physicians who receive tax dollars should be required to disclose their financial stakes in medical companies. That information should be readily available to patients. Patients and regulators need to be able to ask, “Did that physician order that test or device because there is a proven, science-based need, or because she is profiting from it?” Most physicians will have a good answer to the question, but the question needs to be asked. As the 5th Dimension opined, ‘Let the sun shine in.”

Likewise, caregivers who want to accept Medicare, Medicaid or other public funds, should have their salaries disclosed. These talented and well-educated people deserve to be very well-compensated. They’ve got massive medical school debts and medical malpractice insurance bills. But patients have a hard time judging the merits of physicians’ claims that federal reimbursements are causing financial hardships. As taxpayers footing huge payments to physicians, we deserve better information about physicians’ relative financial position and subsequent reimbursement needs.

So, please, keep the peroxides, alcohols and ammonias flowing in Minnesota’s hospitals and clinics. But more and better communications is another disinfectant we need to add to the mix.

- Loveland

Franken Sense and Blur

startribune.com)..

Where's the Franken viewpoint? (Source: startribune.com).

The outlook of the Minnesota U.S. Senate election recount is obviously blurry. The source of much of the confusion is related to how challenged ballots should be characterized during the period before the State Canvassing Board rules on them.

FRANKEN VIEWPOINT. The Franken campaign says their count now shows them 22 votes ahead of Senator Coleman. They say that count assumes that the call the local election judge(s) originally made for each challenged ballot will be upheld by the Canvassing Board. For instance, even if a local election judge originally called a ballot a Coleman vote, and the Franken campaign has challenged that local judge’s original ruling, the Frankenistas’ count reportedly assumes that vote will end up as a Coleman vote.

COLEMAN/MEDIA VIEWPOINT. The Coleman campaign and the major media outlets are counting challenged votes differently. They are using raw data released by the Secretary of State’s office. These data are the most “official” data available, but their use effectively assumes that every challenge will be upheld by the State Canvassing Board. This is certainly a debatable assumption. By this count, the major media outlets and the Coleman campaign show Coleman with a lead of over 300 votes.

Putting aside for a moment the issues of which counting assumption is more reasonable and how the rejected absentee ballots play into all of this, I’ve been surprised and disappointed the Franken campaign’s interpretation of the count has often not been reported by reporters. I’ve seen the Franken count and arguments on liberal blogs, analytical blogs, and Franken campaign emails, but not in many mainstream news stories.

Including the Franken claims makes mainstream news stories more murky, and reporters, for very good reason, strive to give their consumers clarity and certainty. But in this case, the reality is much more blurry than the daily count released by the news media leads the public to believe. Reporters should characterize the Franken count as a “claim,” “contention” or “assertion,” because it can’t currently be verified, but it deserves to be included in the reporting, so Minnesotans are aware of both sides’ viewpoints and rationale.

- Loveland

income tax preparation nice

Judicial Jujutsu

Lawsuits are flying around the Minnesota Senate race right and left today.

LAWSUIT #1: First, the Huffington Post reports that a lawsuit in Texas against Coleman alleged that a family friend provided $75,000 to the Senator’s family through the friend’s business. If true, that would be a very big deal, but this lawsuit has apparently been withdrawn.

LAWSUIT #2: According to news accounts, Coleman’s has filed a lawsuit alleging he was defamed by Franken, because Franken said Coleman was ranked the fourth most corrupt Member of Congress by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

Which lawsuit is righteous, and which is frivolous? I have no idea.

It’s worth noting that Coleman has filed similar suits against Senator Paul Wellstone and Attorney General Hubert Humphrey in the waning days of past campaigns, so there’s a fighting chance that this lawsuit may be more about winning in the court of public opinion than winnning in a court of law.

But Franken did seem to make a factual error. Apparently CREW said Coleman was one of the 20 most corrupt Members of Congress (out of 535), a fact Coleman doesn’t seem to dispute. But Coleman does dispute that CREW specifically ranked him fourth.

And lots of crazy lawsuits get filed against incumbents like Coleman in the final week of campaigns, and there is a good chance that the Texas suit lacks merit as well.

Merit aside, I do find this back-and-forth interesting from a public relations standpoint.

First, does it really help Coleman to call in the news media to essentially declare “how dare my opponent say I’ve been named fourth most corrupt, when I’ve only been named as one the 20 most corrupt?!” Is shining the light on a corruption ranking ever a good idea?

Second, if Coleman is innocent, shouldn’t he deny the allegations? Might the mum and run routine (see videoclip above) feed a perception of guilt at a delicate political hour?

Finally, shouldn’t the Star Tribune mention both the pro- and anti-Coleman lawsuits in its coverage? In the current on-line story, only the anti-Franken lawsuit is mentioned.

- Loveland

Post-post postscript: Since the original post, the Star Tribune has published a separate story by investigative reporters Paul McEnroe and Tony Kennedy about the anti-Coleman lawsuit. Hence, the deletion above. The Pioneer Press did a story on the anti-Franken lawsuit, but not the anti-Coleman lawsuit. vat invoice nice

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