Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

How to Be Wrong

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Red X

KBOO is a community radio station here in Portland that has occupied the far left politically and on the radio dial for almost 50 years.  I conduct interviews for KBOO’s news and public affairs.  So I assumed that because KBOO champions LGBTQ issues, the news director would be interested in new Governor Kate Brown’s view on human rights issues as they affect that group.  Ms. Brown is the nation’s first bi-sexual state executive.  I had been trying to secure an interview since shortly after she assumed the governorship.

Chris Pair, the Governor’s spokesperson was, at all times, prompt in his replies to my requests and cordial in explaining the governor’s schedule and the difficulty in getting an interview for anything except in response to specific issues, i.e. bill signings, policy statements, etc.  But today, he was specific by saying focusing on anything other than Ms. Brown’s work in office is not where they want to take the messaging.

Jenka Soderberg, KBOO’s news director concurred with Mr. Pair.  She said she didn’t understand why the mainstream media, including the Oregonian, had latched onto Ms. Brown’s personal life while there were many more pressing issues that she felt deserved public attention.  Among them, what Ms. Brown can do as Governor to prevent the EPA from forcing the city to cover its reservoirs.  Or learning her views on preventing Nestle’ from setting up a bottling plant in Cascade Locks and using ungodly amounts of water while Oregon is suffering through its worst drought in decades.

At that moment, I felt like I had missed a meeting.  And I remembered again why they’re called news “directors”.  I guess it’s one thing to assume something is important, but it’s another for it to actually be as important as you assume.  And we all know what happens when we assume.  Reporters need directors and editors because reporters are not always right.

Maybe later, the messaging will line up and make that other conversation happen. Maybe not.  But pressing business is the headline today.

I get it.

Written by Interviewer

May 22, 2015 at 09:47

The “N” Word on Google Maps

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Google Maps

As a journalist, people are always trying to get your attention.  A perennial candidate wants an interview everytime they run for everything from Congressman to dogcatcher.  A citizen wants to tell you about how a conspiracy by the DMV is keeping him and only him from getting his license.

There are lots of stories that don’t make the news director’s radar and not for the lack of trying by the people pitching them.  But other stories are so over the top true that you assume everybody must know about them.  Sort of like when you see a flipped over car on fire on the freeway; surely somebody has called 911.  So you don’t need to, right?

Somebody sent me an email with a link to a story that reported that Google Maps is currently having a naming problem with the residence of the President.  Specifically, if you type the “N” word (ending with “a” instead of “er”), the White House and the area surrounding it in Washington, D.C. appear.  This was as of 8 p.m. PST on May 19th.

What kind of story would this be to tell?  News?  Public information?  For some, it certainly seems to be entertainment.  How much attention should something like this get?  How did it happen?  What is being done to fix it?  And who are the proud, God-sent, shining examples of humanity who did it?

It would be nice if somebody told me this is just some unfortunate mistake.  That this isn’t really from the company that pledges to “Do No Evil” even if they do sell out protestors in authoritarian regimes.  That it’s some kind of terrible joke.  TMZ says its no joke.

Burning car, flipped, in the middle of the freeway.

Has anybody called or are there just too many of them for people to bother?

Written by Interviewer

May 20, 2015 at 10:17

Fer it before he wuz agin it

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Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush told Megyn Kelly on Fox News that he, along with many people in the Senate in 2001, would’ve done exactly what his brother, former President Bush did when confronted with 911; pursue a course of war.  That was certainly a clear answer.  But later, Mr. Bush, while being interviewed by Sean Hannity, said he didn’t understand the question as it was posed by Ms. Kelly, called it a” hypothetical” and said he didn’t know what he would’ve done.

Perhaps supporters of the war who are also Bush’s supporters put pressure on him to recant.  But his follow up is one of those things that make you go, hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm …

But before it looks like this is bagging on Jeb Bush, consider:
– Theantimedia.org said Rand Paul was against the Drug War before he was for it
– The New American says General Norman Schwartzkopf was against the 1991 Gulf War before he was for it
– Twitchy.com says John Kerry was for the Iraq war before he was against it
– Fox News says former Senator and Presidential candidate John Edwards was for the war in Iraq before he was against it.
– The Daily Kos says Mitt Romney was for the Vietnam War before he was against it.
– Outside the Beltway says Senator John McCain was for trading taliban prisoners for Army Sgt. Beau Bergdahl before he was against it
– Wizbangblog says former President Bill Clinton was for the war in Iraq before he was against it.
– Politicususa.com says Paul Ryan was for the war in Syria before he was against it
– Foreign Policy magazine says President Obama says he was against the authorization for the war before he was for it
– Politicalwire.com says former Vice President Dick Cheney was against the Iraq was before he was for it …

… and on and on.

Clearly, Mr. Bush doesn’t want to throw his brother under the bus for the 12-year Iraq War.  But you don’t hear Republicans speaking of George W. with the same reverence of Ronald Reagan.  That says something about how party faithful on the right see the Bush Doctrine.

The larger point is politicians change their minds for their own reasons like all of the rest of us.  Except when we do it, it isn’t necessarily a judgement on our character or mental faculties.  It won’t necessarily destroy our lives or give people license to judge us for the rest of our lives because we were human.

Interviewers need to bring up inconsistencies like this during subsequent interviews.  To not is to deny constituents, whether they’re listening to business leaders or politicians, the opportunity to truly understand their thought process.  And once recants like this are being discussed, the interviewer needs to press the question to the edge of journalistic decorum.

The “Larger” Problem

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Passing the Buck

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, in talking about what happened to Freddie Gray on CBS This Morning, spoke in a way that I’ve heard a lot of leaders speak in the last few days.  When asked about issues of transparency or police conduct or protester frustration, they don’t talk about the specific incidents of specific individuals but instead, put them in the larger context of a national or cultural or social problem.  They speak of it in a way that implies it is a problem that belongs to all of us.

That is quite a flip.

Back in the day, when authorities faced civil rights issues, there was never an acknowledgement that they were a societal problem.  Back then, nobody wanted to admit that black people were even part of society, let alone an issue society needed to address to be more equitable and cohesive.  But hearing that being mentioned so often as the “real” problem each time questions are asked about the circumstances of specific victims, it starts to sound to me like a get out of jail free card.  It starts to be used as an opportunity to divert talking about the problems in their town since their problem is really part of a “larger” problem.  So, passing it off as something that is so all encompassing that it’s beyond their control sounds reasonable while it also acknowledges the problem – a twofer.

Which is all well and good except that larger problem isn’t being successfully solved either.  Consider that if the larger problem is represented by a collection of similar, smaller problems and many of those problems are also contextualized the same way, it becomes a circular argument.

Reporters need to bring leaders and spokespeople back to the granular and not let them escape into the realm of the systemic.  There is safety in the ambiguity of policy and procedure.  Responsibility gets effectively diffused in the layers of bureaucratic anonymity.

Instead, reporters need to stay focused; policeman X shot person Y.  When will the report be released.  What will the Mayor do now.  What must the community do here?

Local, personal and immediate.

Spinal Injury or Broken Neck?

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Broken Neck

It matters what words reporters use.

Charlie Rose of CBS This Morning has been the only news person I’ve heard use the words “Broken Neck” to refer to the injuries received by Freddie Gray.  In case you don’t know, Gray was arrested by Baltimore police a few weeks ago for a misdemeanor.  But by the time witnesses saw him being moved to a police vehicle, he was being dragged.  His body was rigid and he was screaming in obvious pain.

Police said they failed to summon medical help and they failed to buckle him in with seat belts as they transported him.  Hearing that, I’m not sure if they were saying the unrestrained ride caused his injuries and they then failed to call for medical help, or he sustained injuries during the arrest and their failure to buckle him down before the ride aggravated those injuries for which they failed to call medical help.

Regardless, he died in a hospital shortly there after from what the media tended to describe as everything from a neck injury to a spinal injury to a partially severed spine.

It also matters why reporters use the words they use, which makes this is a good place to talk about sanitizing language and what I consider a most egregious use.  “Sever” is a French word derived from an older Latin word which means to “remove by or as if by cutting.”  Unless police tried to cut Mr. Gray’s head off with some sort of blade, his spine was not severed.  But sever sounds a lot softer than saying his neck was broken.  Police breaking necks sort of puts them in the category of Family Guy or Robot Chicken episodes, which doesn’t do a lot for public relations.

If making people feel better is the point for media, why don’t we call school shootings “secondary educational institution incursions” or call plane crashes “compromised airfoil equipment incidents?”

Do some media not want to inflame passions in the streets?  Do they not want to the call out those “bad apples” who admittedly don’t follow procedure, until a final report is issued?  Do they not want to cause more pain and suffering to friends and family of victims?

Or are some truths just too truthful?

It would be nice if our designated media wordsmiths actually used the right ones.  Thank you Mr. Rose.

Written by Interviewer

April 30, 2015 at 00:38

Eyes Wide Shut on the KGW Rally

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KGW Pioneer Square

A Google search as of 4/28 at 4 p.m. reveals eleven results with the search terms “KGW, IATSE, IBEW, SAG AFTRA and rally”.  Of those, one is a blog post from me, two are from NWLaborNews.org and the rest are a collection from Facebook, YouTube, IBEW and a few scattered others.  Even a search of the Oregonian, a non-broadcast medium, shows no coverage of Saturday’s event.  Perhaps the alternative weeklies will have something about the rally when they go to print in a few days.  But it seems no local, major TV or print media have yet produced anything about the event.  A search of those terms at the online archives of KATU, KGW, KOIN and KPTV show no stories about the rally with some search efforts showing no results for IATSE and SAG AFTRA acronyms.

What this tells me is that the public seems to sees no story here and so the stations don’t cover it. Media companies in general and TV stations in particular are economic animals.  If the market wants it, they’ll begrudgingly report it even if doing so is against their interests.  But if the market doesn’t show any interest, and especially if that reporting works against owner interests, such a story won’t see the light of day.  And I know some people may think that a story like this one is surely in the public interest and so, stations have an obligation to cover it.  But again, the FCC has designated stations like KGW as the ultimate gatekeepers of the public airwaves and those stations have always determined what “in the public interest” ultimately means.  Because I can find precious little about a rally for employees of a television station, it reminds me how much of an insular racket commercial broadcasting actually can be.

I can imagine that the employees themselves are stunned at the completeness of the blanket media companies have dropped on them and their issue.  That they had to go to the center of the city and essentially scream at the top of their lungs because they knew they wouldn’t get an electronic megaphone speaks volumes to power of media corporations rather than of media workers.

Thinking about the general public now, I don’t understand how so many people can benefit from unions but not do more to learn more about unions and what they are facing from a business climate that places efficiency and shareholders above all else.  But conversely, I’m sure a lot of those same union workers have 401K plans with Gannett or Clear Channel bundled somewhere in their asset mix.  And the closer they get to retirement, the better they want that portfolio to perform.  What a miserable conundrum.

One thing for sure … what ever happens, we’ll get out of it exactly what we put into it.  Here’s what I put into it.  The story begins at 27:28.

BTW, I tweeted that I’d produced that story to the three unions mentioned in the piece and, separately, to the local TV stations with employees who could be affected by KGW’s union fight.  As of 4/29 at 9 a.m., I have 253 impressions that seem linked to the unions and 25 impressions that seem linked to the the TV stations.

Written by Interviewer

April 29, 2015 at 23:27

Gannett No Good for Portland

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TV Tower

This was the title of a press release issued by three union locals representing professional broadcasting; the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Screen Actor’s Guild – American  Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA). I called IATSE spokesperson Dave Twedell to learn more.

Essentially, these unions are worried by changes media corporation Gannett wants them to agree to, primary of which is allow “amateurs” or people not represented by the union to do union jobs.  This means, according to Mr. Twedell, bloggers, podcasters and possibly independent videographers would begin doing the work of professional writers, producers and field camera operators under what’s called a “Non-exclusive jurisdictional contract”.   And this is feared to lead to other changes, including:

(1) The firing of local television engineers at Channel 8 and turn local engineering responsibilities over to Gannett’s automated Master Control facility in Jacksonville, Florida,

(2) The possible elimination of Ch. 8 news altogether because Gannett may sell away the station’s bandwidth (including part or all of Ch. 8’s frequency) at the next FCC auction.

Mr. Twedell said the purpose of a planned rally at Pioneer Courthouse Square on Saturday is to distribute information on the proposed changes by Gannett and give the public a chance to make their concerns known to Gannett.

I asked Mr. Twedell if he expected any of the “talent” (any of the Channel 8 anchors or reporters) would show up.  He said he can’t speak for the SAG-AFTRA part of the coalition, since this event focuses more on the photographers and video editors side of TV operations.  But he said several SAG-AFTRA members are “active participants in our campaign” and we’ll see what we’ll see.

The release was issued on April 20th.  Let me know if you’ve heard anything about it on any news broadcast.

———————————————————————

Here is the full text of the release:

“Ever since Gannett took over KGW in late 2013, things have progressively gone downhill, including cost-cutting by bringing in amateurs and outsourcing work to machines located thousands of miles away.  That isn’t right”.

“KGW is a vibrant part of the community.  Because KGW is licensed to broadcast in the public interest, the public has a right to know what the new corporate owner, Gannett, wants to do with KGW”.

“The city goverment relies on Channel 8 to provide reliable real time information during emergencies.  The station’s advertisers rely on it to provide a large audience and the large audience is made up of stakeholders who can and we believe should speak up about the Gannett business model”.

“On Saturday, April 25, join us for a rally and celebration of KGW in Portland’s iconic Pioneer Courthouse Square.  Help us protect quality broadcasting and family-wage jobs, and stand up to corporate media.  KGW must maintain its standards and identity.  This is OUR air”.

——————————————————————–

The rally takes place Saturday, April 25th at Pioneer Courthouse Square from Noon until 2 p.m.

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