Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘journalism

Time versus Carefulness

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program-clock

There was an interesting conflict between broadcasting necessity and journalistic necessity this morning on CBS This Morning.  Susanne Craig and David Barstow, both reporters of the NY Times, co-wrote a story which they broke about the taxes of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Apparently, Ms. Craig discovered three pages of Mr. Trump’s 1995 tax return in her NY Times mailbox.  After she and Mr. Barstow verified the authenticity of the pages with the tax professional that actually prepared the return the pages seemed to come from, the reporters released the story.  The reporters were asked if they feared legal consequences for writing the story based on documents Mr. Trump’s campaign said were obtained “illegally”.  They responded that a  tenet of journalism is that if a reporter does nothing to solict the receipt of such documents and they are verified as true, they can report the story as factual and be held harmless.

Ms. Craig spoke succinctly and briefly about how she got the documents, while Mr. Barstow was extremely measured in how he talked about conversations with staff attorneys, odd presentations of numbers on the form itself and getting the preparer to verify his work.

But because he took so much time carefully going through those aspects of the story, Charlie Rose and Gayle King began getting cues from their director that time was running out and that they need to wrap so the show could go to a break.

It was ironic that the journalists at that table, all of which were seeking the truth in the spirit of the First Amendment, were also essentially at odds over the amount of time available to tell that truth.

The chasm between TV news and newspaper reporting has been an open secret for decades.  If you notice, TV people are often reading stories written by newspaper people.  Newspapers reporting has been and remains the backbone of American journalism while TV is the compromise that adds pictures and speeds things up while removing much of the useful nutritional information.

I understand the program clock.  I understand affiliates down the line waiting their turn to insert local news, weather and traffic.  And I understand the need to make sure advertiser’s commercials get aired since ultimately, that’s the fount from which everything flows.

It just made me a little sad that such an important story was abbreviated.  To read the full, fascinating article at your leisure, visit http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/02/us/politics/donald-trump-taxes.html

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When Elephants Fight

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elephant-fight-far

“When elephants fight, the grass suffers.” – African Proverb

In the course of working on my book about the public radio pledge drive, I stumbled upon a conversation between two leaders in the public radio realm. Adam Davidson, who has been a content producer for NPR and APM with a particular interest in economics, and John Sutton, a long time radio researcher and fundraising consultant who has been following audience behaviour for decades.

Mr. Sutton responded to a conversation Mr. Davidson posted about the future of audio content and how public radio in general is facing an existential threat from new, long-form journalism from podcasts like “Serial”. Mr. Sutton responded that people don’t use podcasts the way they use radio as it currently exists and even with the technological changes that have rocked public radio, their effect in the long term will be smoothed out.  As time went on, their conversation got a lot livelier and their critiques of each other’s point of view, much more, … um … pointed.

Fortunately, what I’m working on isn’t specifically about program production, audience behaviour or technological innovation as it affects public radio. There are people are much smarter about those things than I will ever be. But it reveals the problem with experts. What is the public to do when standing between two people who have the credentials to clearly and cogently defend opposite points of view?

Pubcasters do everything they can to keep the public happy and in a giving mood and that means drawing as little attention as possible to such conversations. But in the deep underbelly of public radio, they ultimately direct bigger conversations. Like, for example, those over the success of Jarl Mohn, NPR’s new CEO who wants to bring more high value donors into NPR. It’s a strategy that drew justifiable skepticism from the host of OPB’s daily flagship radio news program in 2014.

Maybe the extra cash will help public radio rely less on pledge drives, give producers more freedom to produce higher quality programming and help it avoid future bloodbaths like the one that rocked the network in 2014. ICYMI, NPR made deep cuts in staff and programming in a cost saving move.

In their August 2015 conversation, both men do agree on one thing – the key to public radio’s success is producing programs the audience will listen to and pay for. Their discussion, found here, is probably only one of many such fights between such elephants deep within the public radio milieu.

Written by Interviewer

March 12, 2016 at 08:59

Propaganda, Cowboy Style

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Shot Up Flag

I am working on a project that I don’t really have time to interrupt.  Except here I am doing it because I have found a quote that so exquisitely explains what is happening in Malheur county near Burns, Oregon, that I just have to share it.

As you may know, armed militants, protesters, occupiers or patriots (depending on to what degree you agree or disagree with their intentions) have taken over a Federal Wildlife Refuge.  Their trigger was the arrest of a father and son for setting fire to federal lands and being sent to prison a second time after a court ruled the time they initially spent in jail for the crime wasn’t sufficient.

And their ultimate goal may be to go out in a blaze of glory; a combination of Waco, Texas and Timothy McVeigh with the intention of starting a new Sagebrush Rebellion to sweep across the west.  But their stated reason, today, for remaining at the refuge, today, includes convincing local farmers and ranchers that the land upon which the refuge sits belongs to them, the true owners, not the federal government.

There are many tangents to that line of thinking, including how, if you want to get technical, it is the Paiute Indians; the 13,000 year prior residents who may have the ultimate, bonafide claim.  Another tangent is how, an armed group of white men can commandeer a federal facility with police, sheriffs, marshals, FBI and military within spitting distance and nobody gets shot.  But an unarmed and innocent black man in any one of a dozen U.S. cities can be shot by police because the officers feel their lives “were in danger”.

And then, there is the Constitutional interpretation, which unfortunately, like the Bible, can be interpreted to mean anything by those believing they are the chosen ones to interpret it.

But I digress.

Back in 1961, during a seminar hosted by the National Educational Association of Broadcasters, University of Illinois, Urbana faculty member Harry Skornea told a story about his work in East Germany just after the Berlin Wall went up:

“This reminds me of 1948 when I struggled a good deal with the organization of a news department for RIAS (Radio In The American Sector) in Berlin. The blockade was starting and our people were trying to set up a good news department that would cause the people to listen to RIAS instead of the much more powerful East Berlin station. And one of the things that I thought they were doing wrong and which we finally were able to put a stop to was that, good as our news department was, the communists were using us, or manipulating us. When one of the East German leaders, Grotewohl or someone else would speak, or when there would be an enormous rally in Leipzig, our newsmen would be real proud of the fact that they were able to cover it.  And I said, “Don’t you realize that in a great many cases these meetings are being staged precisely so you will cover them and report them?  And that you’re being used time after time?  You’ve got to have the courage not to cover certain things which have propaganda implications, because unless you’re extremely perceptive, you may be lending yourself to their nefarious ends.  And I think that in a great many cases, we fail to recognize the extent to which things we relay are “managed” in some way or other by people who are a little bit more skillful than we are, and I think we are going to have to begin to screen more carefully ourselves”.

The news cycle is such a circular heroin injection and any news porn that fills the seconds is considered to be serving the highest standards of the Society of Professional Journalists, or at least the drooling demands of advertisers.  But does telling the public all about it all the time make them informed such that they will solve the problem without, as Oregon Governor Kate Brown lamented regarding the Malheur situation, “tearing themselves apart”?  Can it make the perpetrators think about the philosophy of the matter at a depth deeper than their ego without making them laugh so hard that they piss themselves?

Or does it just make journalists punks?

Teaching to the Wrong Test

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Melissa Click

Two University of Missouri faculty members are apologizing to journalists they tried to bully off the campus’ Carnahan Quad yesterday.

Assistant Professor of Mass Media, Melissa Click (shown) and Director of Greek Life, Janna Basler tried to prevent at least two journalists from covering an event called “Concerened Students 1950”, a student and faculty group that says it seeks the liberation of black collegiate students.

According to CBS, the event was promoted by the school and journalists were invited to attend.  But two days before the event, reporters were told not to attend.  Video reporter Mark Schierbecker and photographer Tim Tai were forced off campus, but not before Schierbecker’s camera captured Click yelling to other students to provide some “muscle” to help eject them from the event. Religious Studies Department chairman Richard J “Chip” Callahan, who was standing behind students blocking the videographer said to Tai when he appealed for help, “Don’t talk to me.  It’s not my problem”.   The St. Louis Post Dispatch reports that Callahan and Click share a common address.

Schierbecker’s video has gone viral and has sparked an ironic debate over communications professors who censor with critics ranging from Jonathan Chait at the NY Times to Rod Dreher from the American Conservative condemning Click. CNN Money is reporting that Click has blocked access to her Twitter account while Basler has deleted her account.  She and Basler were also roundly criticized by other communications faculty for their behavior.

After the clash, Concerned Students 1950 tweeted an image of a flier upholding the First Amendment right of the media to be welcomed and showed their appreciation for the coverage.

Both Basler and Click have issued apologies.  Basler’s said, in part, “I regret how I handled the situation and am offering a public apology to the journalist involved.”  In Click’s statement, she said “I regret the language and strategies I used and sincerely apologize to the MU campus community and journalists at large for my behavior …”  Click has also resigned her courtesy appointment with the University’s School of Communications.  According to Linkedin, She has a B.A. in Business Administration from James Madison University and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The University clarified that Click is a professor of communications, not journalism.

But even that, it seems, is debatable.

To me, the worst part in all this is that something we thought could be depended on to bring us a good story; i.e. journalism, was attacked by the very people responsible for promoting it, while that thing that deserved to be highlighted, namely the continued injustices to blacks and other minorities, was sidelined by this ignorance and ridiculousness.  Even sadder is that students didn’t know they were helping do it to themselves.

Video image by Mark Schierbecker

News, Politics and Dead Children

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Politicians

I just listened to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a follow up report by CBC reporter Nahlah Ayed on the BBC Newshour.  A family in which a father, Abdullah Kurdi, lost both of his boys and his wife as he tried to get them to Europe from Turkey and the grief of the remaining family was featured.  One of his sons has become the subject of worldwide revulsion.  More about that later.

As I listened to the father and his sister crying over the death of the children, and the father’s pledge to put a banana on their graves each day (the children loved bananas), I was thinking about the function of emotional impact on breaking news stories and how politicians gravitate between amplifying and attenuating that impact in their own political self-interest.

When Terry Schiavo was at the center of a life support termination whirlwind in the early 2000s, the conservative elements of the American Congress rallied, along with then President George W. Bush, to try to prevent her husband from disconnecting Ms. Schiavo.  The Congress intervened as the country was embroiled in a debate about what constituted “persistant vegetative state”.  Eventually Mr. Schiavo did disconnect his wife from life support despite what some called the misplaced efforts of Congress.

This refugee crisis issue doesn’t seem much different in that the life of a people and their right to survive is being counterbalanced against public opinion which has again translated into political calculation.  Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing Iraq and Syria, crossing the Mediterranian, and landing in Greece and Turkey as they try to make it to Germany.  Germany has opened it’s doors to them but curiously, those people are being blocked by Hungary and are unable to reach Germany.  David Milliband, former Home Secretary for Great Britian, told Todd Zwllich of The Takeway today that the United States needs to begin taking more refugees to help reduce Europe’s crisis.

The Newshour’s Tim Franks paraphrased the speech by Mr. Harper addressing the crisis by saying that people can expect many more deaths.  Mr. Harper himself said he has visited a refugee camp and said the numbers of people awaiting transit to Europe stretches into the millions.  That clip, though possibly incomplete, seems to suggest that although there will be more deaths, we should not be surprised by them.  And that seems to be an oh-so-gentle way of beginning the distancing of the political responsibility from the humanitarian crisis.  That he has visited a camp apparently buys him little on the way to being able to actually address its existence.

Europe is hamstrung as to what to do about the flow of refugees, even though the spigot was turned on the moment President Assad of Syria began barrell-bombing citizens he called dissidents and turning a blind eye to ISIS operatives in his territory.  That is what began the flow of people west and north away from the Middle East and North Africa.  And it represents a second catastrophic failure of political will by the world in general.

Injured and dead children are no motivation for change.  Phan Thị Kim Phúc, also known as “Napalm Girl” from the famous photo taken in 1972 during the Vietnam War was nine.  The war raged on for three more years.  And if twenty murdered six year olds at Sandy Hook Elementary School by a gunman in 2012 didn’t affect the politics of guns in one of the most powerful and progressive countries on Earth, the ability of other nations to successfully address their own crisis doesn’t look hopeful.  Maybe it’s a defect in human DNA.  But when babies, like 2-year old Alyan Kurdi, the son of the father mentioned above, wash up on beaches as corpses or disappear beneath oceans because elections, public opinion, budgets and soverignty collide with empathy, resolution promises to be a long, slow, grinding process in which many many, many more will die indeed.

As a reporter, I understand how vile and intransigent politics and politicians can sometimes be.  But as a listener hearing a crying father, or as a reader looking at a picture of a toddler in tiny tennis shoes face down in beach sand, I find me sometimes asking journalism, “What am I supposed to do with this horror?”

Photo by Virginia Mayo of Reuters

Redundant?

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Redundant

Journalism has competing tenants.  One says, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them and tell them what you told them”.  The point of doing that, of repeating key aspects of a story throughout the story, is to reinforce the message since a long story can give people so much information they can get lost in it.

But the other one is that a lot of journalism tends to speak to people at about a 7th grade level.  There, the point is keeping things simple helps people follow the message.

Where these collide is the redundant review.  I often hear an interviewer ask a guest a question, the guest gives a perfectly cogent answer, and the interviewer, for some reason, restates that answer, and maybe even puts a slightly different spin on it than the guest intends.

I wonder why this happens.  Maybe the interviewer is trying to stay loyal to tenant number one.  Or maybe, they’re trying to stay true to tenant number two.  Sometimes, I wonder if there is a number three, namely, the interviewer is working the answer out in their own mind to make sure they understand what the guest is actually saying.

I have a third tenant that makes this tendency by some interviewers understandable.  The interviewer should be a surrogate for the listener.  And if there is ever  any question in the interviewer’s mind that a listener might not understand what a guest is saying, the interviewer should speak up.  My year of interviews with Oregon political office seekers proved this to be necessary over and over.

I’ve talked about interviewers adding spin, or restating or talking down to their audience.  Each of those is definitely annoying.  But not everybody who listens has the same capacity to understand and for that reason, journalism has to give those listeners the benefit of the doubt.  For those with capacity plus, they should see that as a win-win for us all.

Written by Interviewer

February 24, 2015 at 02:02

“Russia Today” Give and Take

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RT

Just watched an excellent interview between Oksana Boyko and Jean-Marie Guehenno, President of the Internatonal Crisis Group.  Ms. Boyko is Russian journalist who was asking Mr. Guehenno questions on the Russian news program Russia Today.  I came in late to the conversation, but I first heard Ms. Boyko ask about the concept of sovereignty and whether that system of how nations declare and enforce their independence is any better than other possible systems.  The discussion drew on World War Two and Vietnam era lessons learned from Roosevelt to Kissenger.

Then, she moved onto the problems with how countries agree on decision making processes between them considering the differences in worldview and the problems as they relate to Realpolitik.  She made a simple but effective example of how geopolitics isn’t much different than politics between neighbors and is balance of power the only way they can interact and coexist?  Mr. Guehenno responded that a balance of power relationship, although it has helped the world avoid major conflicts, it tends to be unstable over the long term and systems of cooperative agreements are much better.

Then, after clearly associating herself as a Russian journalist, she posed a very blunt question to Mr. Guehenno about why the U.S. and the west’s propogation of democracy is better than the Russian or Chinese systems.  To this, Mr. Guehenno spoke to the idea that although no political system is perfect, the west focuses on the rights of the individual and thus, alluded to the possibility that Russia and China may not be so focused.

Ms. Boyko responded that imposed systems of governmence have led to more wars, not fewer wars to which Mr. Guehenno agreed but he also said that although imposed systems don’t tend to work, democracy does because of its focus on individuals.  But it, like any system can’t be imposed.  Instead, he said, it must be a grass roots effort from the inside.

Finally, Mr. Guehenno and Ms. Boyko discussed and compared current conflicts in Syria versus Ukraine.  Although Mr. Guehenno accused Russia of being the primary irritant in Ukraine, in Syria, he was much more willing to spread the blame to all of the players, including the United States.  Near the end, there was some cross-talk when Ms. Boyko contested some of Mr. Guehenno’s assertions about where that blame lies.  But she was able to wrap it up with a smile.

Russia Today is Moscow’s answer to the fast paced news and production values of CNN and Fox News.  It is tight, well put together and offers a view of the world Westerners don’t often see.

The discussion, which appeared on an RT program called “Worlds Apart” was a complex, in-depth and perfectly coherent one.  It was enjoyable and informative through eyes not our own, which sometimes, can be a pretty healthy perspective to try out.

Written by Interviewer

February 16, 2015 at 03:24