Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Cash for Quotes

Like a door-to-door proselytizer or a tax audit, checkbook journalism has once again made an unwanted appearance.

The practice involves paying big bucks for an interview or information. It’s been absolutely taboo at every stop I’ve made along my news career. And for good reason which we’ll get to presently.

It’s not taboo everywhere, however. It is sometimes practiced openly and without apology, especially in Europe. Gossip magazines often pay for access to a “star.”

But each time we learn about an incident involving the mainstream media here in the good old USA, it’s like a large pimple that has suddenly appeared on the end of your nose. It’s ugly and embarrassing.

The latest organization to step on the ethical banana peel is ABC news. According to court documents, ABC paid $200,000 to the family of murdered toddler Cayleee Anthony, whose mother, Casey, has been accused of the crime.

The money went to her legal defense team.

ABC explained, "In August 2008 we licensed exclusive rights to an extensive library of photos and home video for use by our broadcasts,platforms, affiliates and international partners. No use of the material was tied to any interview.”

Court documents showed, however, that ABC News paid for a three-night hotel stay at a Florida Ritz-Carlton for Casey's parents George and Cindy Anthony. And if the Anthonys should run into a a reporter while they’re
enjoying their luxurious accommodations, well, that’s just a coincidence, right?

NBC recently drew the wrath of the the Society of Professional Journalists and others for chartering a jet for David Goldman, who had just won a long custody battle with his Brazilian ex-wife over his son. The network generously flew father and son home to New York.

And who else was a board? If you guessed a reporter, you’d be correct.

NBC News spokeswoman Lauren Kapp said that "NBC News does not and will not pay for interviews.”

But as John Cook wrote on the Gawker website, “It's true, in the same sense it's true that Eliot Spitzer paid that nice lady to come visit him in D.C. and she threw in the sex for free.”

It also raises the question: if it’s unethical to pay for interviews, what is it to create rules then find a way to break them? Is there such a thing as felony dishonesty?

Unfortunately, editors have been writing checks for a long time. The New York Times scooped the world with an exclusive interview with the Titanic wireless operator by forking over $1,000 for his story in 1912.

The Hearst folks paid the legal bills of the defendant in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case to ensure scoops during the trial. David Frost paid Richard Nixon to sit down. Nixon went to Frost after CBS turned down his offer to play for pay.

And in 1978, ABC gave Chuck Colson $10,000 to rat out Watergate co-conspirator H.R. Haldeman. CBS turned around at paid Haldeman $100,000 for an interview in which, to the embarrassment of the network, he said
almost nothing.

Life magazine caused a flap when it paid the original Mercury astronauts for their stories.

So why invest all that time and hard work in investigative journalism? Why not just write a check?

For one thing, people will lie and exaggerate to put a wad of cash in their pockets. A Washington reporter once wrote that he had numerous women tell him they would admit, falsely, that they had sex with President Clinton if the price was right.

Worse, if checkbook journalism becomes widespread, people will withhold information unless they are paid.

And, of course, the credibility of a news organization that has crawled into financial bed with a source hovers somewhere around zero.

As far as I’m concerned, ABC has disqualified itself from covering any aspect of the Anthony trial. They have tainted their judgment by giving money to the defendant and can’t be trusted to report truthfully.

Speaking of television, I was amused that CBS turned down a chance to interview Tiger Woods because he would only answer questions for five minutes.

That’s plenty of time for him to say again and again that his life is in the gutter, that his reputation with his wife, children, peers and the public has been damaged forever and that he only has himself to blame.

How many times do we need to ask him his feelings? How many details of his salacious affairs to we need to know?

Five minutes seems about right.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Stating the Obvious

A new study by the Norman Lear Center at USC's Annenberg School has found that an average half-hour of L.A. local television news packed all its local government coverage - including budget, law enforcement, education, layoffs, new ordinances, voting procedures, personnel changes, city and county government actions on health care, transportation and immigration - into 22 seconds.

But crime stories filled seven times more of the broadcast, averaging 2 minutes, 50 seconds. Sports and weather took the most time: 3 minutes, 36 seconds. Soft news - human interest, oddball stories and miscellaneous fluff - took up the next-largest chunk after crime, averaging 2 minutes, 26 seconds.

Who knew?

Well, most of us, actually. Anyone who has even casually tuned in to local TV news over the last several decades has witnessed the "if it bleeds, it leads" philosophy that subordinates the day's events to the grisly crime du jour.

The Annenberg people seem to have spent a lot of time and energy to state the obvious.

Indeed, a study done in 1998 by the nonpartisan Center for Media and Public Affairs concluded that murder is at the top of the agenda on local television news shows. Stories about city government activities get little attention.

A University of Delaware study in 1999 found that crime stories claim more air time than any other type of story, from public issues and human-interest features to election news.

So what's thepoint of this new study?

"All the L.A. TV stations tell the FCC that they're serving the local public interest," said Martin Kaplan, Annenberg professor and Lear Center director, who was principal investigator on the project, along with Seton Hall professor Matthew Hale.

"These numbers decode what they actually mean by that." He added, "Local television is a profitable business, despite the recession, and newscasts are a big reason why. If stations spend only 22 seconds covering local government, they must really believe it's ratings poison."

One could argue that it is in fact ratings poison. From 1978 to 2008, the average city turnout for a mayoral election was 30 percent; it was 15 percent for a municipal election that is not citywide.

Given those figures, any TV news director worth his breaking news is not about to turn his 6 o'clock news show into C-SPAN no matter how high minded he may be.

It's all about ratings, after all.

It does, however, raise an interesting chicken-and-egg debate. Is audience indifference to local government affairs the result of shoddy television programming? Or does TV merely reflect its audience's apathy?

Probably some of both. Certainly brick-and-mortar governmental coverage isn't always sexy. And TV doesn't invest a lot of time and money in investigative reporting. So local government coverage gets the short end of the television stick.

But local newspapers, public television and radio cover local government activity, so there is clearly an appetite for that kind of news.

So what's to be done?

"There is serious cause for concern here," said attorney George Kieffer, who is a member of the Los Angeles Civic Alliance, a group of community leaders. "Most people get their local news from television. If local television isn't doing the job, we can hardly expect our citizens to be aware of what is going on with our governments."

Kieffer said that he expected the civic community now to begin to weigh in on license renewals based on the degree of local hard news coverage.

Challenging licenses is not going to change the journalistic landscape for the long term, however. And unfortunately, with the decline of newspaper revenues and readership, there will be fewer and fewer watchdogs to keep an eye on our public servants.

What well-funded and resourceful organizations like the Lear Center and the Civic Alliance need to do is fill the gap.

Use their resources to form a team of reporters and editors to cover and investigate local government activities and publish and publicize their work using the latest in electronic media.

This would not only help fulfill the critical watchdog role; the competition would make other media outlets improve their coverage.

Conducting dubious surveys and waiting for local TV to step up to the plate is a no-win game.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Final Farewell

Come let us now remove our hats, lower our eyes and bid farewell to a piece of Americana which will be soon take its place on the slag heap of history.

Bang the muffled drum, hang the black bunting. And say your final goodbyes to the Hummer, an automotive monstrosity that clogged our streets and parking lots, sucked up our gas and polluted our air for
too many years.

So long, Hummer. May you rest in pieces.

The end came recently when General Motors pulled the plug on this street-legal tank, whose sales were declining faster than Tiger Wood’s endorsements. It was so bad, GM couldn’t even sell the brand to the Chinese, who
apparently can smell a lemon from across the Pacific Ocean.

Just who was responsible for foisting this behemoth on an unsuspecting public?

Why, no other than Arnold Schwarzenegger, the man who put the glutes in government.

It seems that while Arnold was on a movie shoot some years back he spotted a convoy of military vehicles called Humvees and fell completely, madly in love. Too bad he didn’t heed the old military saying that an elephant is a
mouse built to government specs.

His lust to own one convinced the manufacturer to have a go at offering them civilians.

Arnie ended up owning a fleet of Hummers. And the vehicle appeared to be particularly popular with status-seeking suburbanites and under-endowed males.

Great move, Governor, except this hunk of iron was to responsible driving what bacon cheeseburgers are to cardiac health.

It weighed in north of 8,000 pounds, got eight miles to the gallon, cost a fortune to buy and insure and had its fair share of mechanical problems. Riding in it was like looking out of a mailbox. If that isn’t bad enough, it had the carbon footprint of a coal-burning steel mill.

The Hummer was quite possibly America’s ultimate symbol of wretched excess.

It made its debut following the first Gulf War, a made for television conflict in which it played a starring role.
A gas guzzler? Most people assumed it ran on testosterone. Actors and athletes made it the ultimate bling.
There was also a misguided sense of patriotism in owning the vehicle that carried our boys to victory in battle.

When gas prices began to soar, GM tried to downsize the car from monstrous to merely monumental. It didn’t work. Post 9/11 Americans were beginning to understand the pitfalls of our dependence on foreign oil and the warnings about global temperature increases were causing concern.

That didn’t stop the GM folks from trying to sell ice to the Eskimos. Mark LaNeve, vice president of sales, service and marketing for GM North America, said he'd love for consumers to begin thinking of Hummers as tools to get a job done. "No one criticizes a bulldozer for its gas mileage. That's because it's built to do a job."

But as the Sierra Club's Daniel Becker remarked, "It's one thing if it's carrying soldiers to and from a fight, it's another if it'shauling lattes home from Starbucks."

So what did it all mean?

Absolutely nothing in the long run. The chromed giants of the 50s and 60s and the muscle cars of the
1970s were replaced with Japanese fuel-sippers when oil supplies were low and prices soared.

When prices went down and availability was restored, the SUV made its way onto the automotive scene where it enjoyed a long reign.

Now, with gas prices rising and petrol dollars fueling terrorism (not to mention Iran’s nuclear ambitions), we turn our eyes to hybrids and electric vehicles. And they’re coming.

But the pendulum swings. At some point, muscular vehicles will come rumbling down the street

As one publication pointed out, "Being big and powerful is essential to our national identity.”

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Sorry Excuses

In keeping with the spirit of the moment, I am proposing a new Olympic event.

The good news is that you don’t have to be swifter, higher or stronger.

The bad news is you have to be contrite, tearful and humble.

The competition? Public apologies.

We have been witness to some gold medal efforts this past week, featuring socko performances from Toyota to Tiger.
Past participants feature a rogues gallery of high profile personalities, many of whom were caught engaged in sexual activities that would make a lumberjack blush.

It seems we live in the Age of Apologies. So it’s about time we recognize those who win our hearts and minds and those who flop in the attempt.

Let the games begin.

Toyota president Akio Toyoda: Pressured into appearing before a congressional committee, he explained that "My name is on every car." He admitted that his company "lacked the customer perspective" when it came to doing recalls, instead relying on technical information.

"Customers have become uncertain about safety of Toyota vehicles and I take responsibility for that," Toyoda said. "I myself as well as Toyota am not perfect."

Well, neither are airline pilots, Mr. Toyoda, but they manage to do their job for the most part with maiming or killing people. It didn’t help Toyoda that he had to appear at a hearing largely characterized by political posturing, which delivered more theater than answers. Bronze medal.

Tiger Woods: For a man who has spent his life in the spotlight, Tiger Woods has never seemed comfortable as a celebrity. Even with the golfing press, for the most part a bunch of fawning sycophants, interviews were curt and to the point.

We thought it was because he was a private person. We now understand he is but for reasons we could not have imagined.

It came as no surprise to me that at his so-called “press conference,” in which he apologized for his promiscuous behavior, he displayed all the emotion of a man studying a tricky downhill putt.

This is a man who is complete control of himself, even when he isn’t.

Did I believe him? Heck yes. Let’s not make this more complicated than it needs to be. The guy has fallen from the peak of stardom to the pit of despair. But more than ego, there’s a lot of money involved and he has business partners who want to see him reclaim his image. Sure, he’s sorry.

Nonetheless, his act played well in Peoria. Gold medal.

Mark Sanford. The South Carolina governor told everyone he was hiking the Appalachian Trail when in fact he was winging it down to Argentina to snuggle with his “soul mate.”

It cost him his wife and family but this self-admitted liar and cheat still has his job. No medal.

Eliot Spitzer, the former governor of New York chose to spend his free time with high-priced prostitutes to the tune of some $80,000. When exposed, he tearfully resigned his office but has managed to keep his family together.

He is now writing political commentary and considering another run for office. Bronze medal.

James McGreevy: The former governor of New Jersey, with is wife at this side, completed the rare double axle by announcing he was going to resign coupled with an admission of his homosexuality. He also admitted to an affair with the man he appointed his Homeland Security advisor.

Since leaving office, he has studied to become an Episcopal priest. Silver medal.

Larry Craig. At a press conference in 2007 Sen. Craig denied allegations that he solicited gay sex in an airport restroom. He apologized, sort of.

He was sorry for pleading guilty, sorry for failing to consult with anyone beforehand and sorry for not telling
anyone he got arrested. He denied wrongdoing, stating, "I am not gay. I never have been gay." No medal.

Latrell Sprewell. The former NBA star apologized for choking his coach PJ Carlesimo. ” I’m sorry for what I did, and if you don’t believe that, I’ll kick your butt.” No medal.

And, of course, Bill Clinton. “Now, this matter is between me, the two people I love most -- my wife and our daughter -- and our God. I must put it right, and I am prepared to do whatever it takes to do so. “Nothing is more important to me personally. But it is private, and I intend to reclaim my family life for my family. It's nobody's business but ours.”

Now we know where Tiger got his script. Bronze medal.