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Fight spin. Don't be afraid. Know your subject

COMMENTARY | October 01, 2008

Nieman fellows urge reporters to get back to basics in covering the next White House administration. (Second of two parts)

By Barry Sussman

Asked how reporters can do a better job covering the next White House administration than they did George W. Bush’s, Nieman fellows in a new online survey keep coming back to basics: Be humble and don’t seek celebrity. Challenge authority. Fight spin. Don’t strive for false balance in stories. Remember that the first rule of government is that it can’t be trusted. Be adversarial even in times of crisis. Don’t be afraid. Know your subject—have it down cold. And keep in mind that as a rule, politicians lie.

The survey, conducted by the Nieman Watchdog Project, was done in September in connection with the first I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence. The award is to be presented to former Knight Ridder Washington bureau chief John Walcott at 2 PM Oct. 7 at the Newseum in Washington, DC. Walcott got the award for guiding two reporters in outstanding, independent coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war.

Unlike the rest of the national press, Walcott’s team wrote dozens of articles questioning the Bush administration’s claims about the need for military action against Iraq. Walcott is now Washington bureau chief at McClatchy, which bought Knight Ridder in 2006.

The public is invited to the presentation of the Stone Medal. [Seating is limited. To register, send an email to stoneaward@gmail.com by October 3rd.] At the presentation, Walcott will make an address, followed by a panel discussion where seven distinguished journalists—a moderator and six panelists—will get into the issues raised by Walcott, including lessons that should be learned as a new presidential administration comes into power in the coming months.

The survey of Nieman fellows aimed at getting a sampling of editors’ and reporters’ views in advance of the panel discussion. The survey had only two questions. The first asked for a rating – A,B,C,D or F – of the main American news organizations, as a group, for coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war. In all, 145 Nieman fellows in the U.S. and internationally took part and the grade they issued, on average, turned out to be an abysmal ‘D’. (Click here for a report on that part of the survey.)

The second question asked: “What lessons should reporters covering the next American presidential administration learn from the failures in covering this one?”

A few Nieman fellows took issue with the premise of the question. One, free-lance writer Edward Norton, a 1973 Nieman fellow, wrote: “What failures? This is a loaded question that begs for a directed reply. Everyone is entitled to his/her opinion--but no one is entitled to his-her own facts.” Norton’s full response is included below.

What follows are verbatim answers from more than 30 Nieman fellows.

Martha Matzske, 1987 Nieman Fellow, a technical writer in Washington, DC:

1)    Stop worrying about your own celebrity and access to power and start worrying about the first casualty of the profession's present corruption. Journalists aren't supposed to be seeking fame and riches. They are supposed to be watching out for the commonweal by doubting and testing official cant, challenging the complacency of the comfortable, and digging out small and large truths, however deep the slime or fast the spin.

2)    Don’t expect anything from TV news and punditry. Without substantial time and effort devoted to shoeleather reporting, there is no real journalism. A handful of journalists admirably fulfilled their role during the last eight years. The vast majority were an embarrassment.

Douglas Stanglin, 1985 Fellow, editor at USA Today:

Quit letting spin drive the coverage. Jon Stewart is infinitely more effective than the MSM by simply comparing current statements with old ones. Second, quit this infernal need to “balance” one side’s transgressions by fishing for something from the other side. It waters down both and keeps the heat off the egregious acts.

Danny Schechter, 1978 Fellow, executive producer, Globalvision, Inc.:

Don't we see a pattern by now. I go back to Nieman Report Post Mortems on Election coverage over the years and they seem to be written by the same person with critique after critique of the horse race, personality focus, pundit bla bla and etc. Lessons: How about a mandatory course in media criticism and historical reflection so we don't keep making the same mistakes and writing the same mea culpas.

Jack White, 1977 Nieman Fellow, retired Time Magazine columnist:

They need to remember that their relationship with any regime is and should be adversarial, even in times of national crisis. Over and over again we need to remind ourselves that government cannot be trusted.

John Seigenthaler, 1959 Fellow, Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, Vanderbilt University:

Be not afraid.

Ed Lambeth, 1968 Fellow, director and journalism professor emeritus, Universitry of Missouri/Columbia Center for Religion, the Professions and the Public:

Given the secrecy, pace and complexity of presidential agendas, it's more important than ever for reporters to know a wide range of outside and inside experts as well as interest group leaders related to economics, national security, and domestic politics.

Although this is almost bromidic advice, their orientations need to be close enough to policy making to know not only what questions to ask, but what critical quetions are being ignored. Develop teams of reporters to match the key issues.

Joseph Mohbat, 1967 Fellow, trial attorney, New York City:

Staff the White House with a competent stenographer, otherwise boycott the daily spoon-feedings, and send the reporters out to do their jobs.

Dan Stets, 1994 Fellow, Bloomberg News:

More resources need to be applied to investigating the administration’s policies and pronouncements.

Nuri Vallbona, 2001 Fellow, photojournalist, the Miami Herald:

1)    I think journalists need to stop beating themselves up for not getting to the truth about WMDs. They did a very thorough job of covering the war and have appropriately questioned pretty much everything about this administration. They need to let go of the WMD failure, take a deep breath and keep it from clouding future news judgment.

2)    Journalists need to fight, fight, fight to keep any future administrations from eroding their access to information and access to news events.

3)    Journalists need to resist the temptation to rush a story to print or air just to get a scoop. I believe that this has led to serious credibility problem like "Rathergate." We live in an age of multiple media outlets. Being first no longer has the journalistic significance it once held. Being first and wrong, however, has catastrophic consequences.

4)    Having commentators (like Keith Olbermann and Sean Hannity) cover political events alongside reporters blurs the line between opinion and fact.

John Zakarian, 1969 Fellow, editorial page editor and vice president, Hartford Courant:

Over-reliance on what government officials say for the record is a dangerous thing. Over-reliance on "off the record" chats with people with a stake on the issue is even more dangerous. When an issue is important enough, triple check with third-party sources, dig far more into public records on the subject to detect contradictions. Don't just get the other side; get many sides. Beware of being "played" by people offering "exclusives."

Editors need to do much better separating facts on the ground from fantastic scenarios drawn by zealots. They clearly overplayed the government's version of the WMD story. It's as if our reporters and editors became embedded with officials in Washington long before they bedded down with our soldiers on the battlefront. The news media's cheerleading was truly a low moment in American journalism. It was akin with Hearst's directive to his reporter to give him pictures and he will provide the war.

Jonathan Larsen, 1980 Fellow, free-lance writer, editorial board chairman of OnEarth Magazine:

Return to basic principles. The job of the journalist is to report out all the facts and make a considered judgment to guide the reader. One must weigh the evidence of both sides of a debate and handicap accordingly. Equal time has been the bane (and the fig leaf) of modern journalism.

Mary Newsom, 2008 Fellow, associate editor, Charlotte Observer:

  1. TV networks are lazy and shallow. Print media must do the heavy lifting.
  2. The N.Y. Times and WashPost, and TV networks are NOT the only journalists in town. Heed what the little guys report.
  3. Remember: People will lie.
  4. Talk to more than just "spokespeople."
  5. People will bash the media. Get over it, and do your job anyway.

Murrey Marder, 1950 Fellow, retired Washington Post diplomatic reporter and sponsor of the Nieman Watchdog Project:

The American press must face the fact that it has swallowed a totally illusionary concept of blind reliance on "authoritative sources" as a substitute for reporting.

Edward Norton, 1973 Fellow, free-lance writer:

What failures? This is a loaded question that begs for a directed reply. Everyone is entitled to his/her opinion--but no one is entitled to his-her own facts. The question posits no memory of the events and coverage for months on end. And it drops down the memory hole all the UN resolutions and Saddam's intransigence. A state of war plus an armistice with conditions existed from 1991, though few recognize that today.

Why is there not more interest in the coverage of the 8-year Clinton Administration that saw repeated attacks on U.S. assets and no great media or public outrage, even when bin Laden declared war on the U.S.? Whether one likes it or not, a state of war has existed since at least 1993 [first WTC bombing] and prior to that, 1991 with the Iraq armistice, similar to the 1953 Korean armistice, an armed truce today. Today, it seems, history is the first casualty of war.

Amy Nutt, 2005 Fellow, staff writer, the Newark Star-Ledger:

The difficulties of access will always be there, which is why White House reporters need to be ever more vigilant about asking critical questions. The media should step back before plunging in -- realize that the historical context of the times may influence how they report a story. Post-9/11, did the media too easily buy into a war with Iraq?

We need to go back to basics, and the print media need to take the time to do the in-depth reporting and investigating and not always be looking over their shoulders at the electronic media's 24-7 "feeding of the beast."

Jane Daugherty, 1984 Fellow, investigativer reporter, Palm Beach Post:

No cheering from the press box. Stay out of bed -- or being embedded -- with the Administration and remember that the press is the Fourth Estate, not part of the First, Second or Third. Be skeptical, no matter who is in the White House, and research, research, research. Reporters should aspire to objectivity, which no one can attain, but embrace fairness, which is attainable.

Thomas Blinkhorn, 1968 Fellow, columnist, The Valley News, Vermont:

Serious reporters are at a distinct disadvantage in covering American politics and presidential administrations because of the changing role of the news media in American society. It is a tragedy that the really professional reporters from top notch newspapers are being offered early retirement packages because of the changing economics of the traditional fourth estate. I believe some new sort of pooling arrangement is necessary.

Richard Longworth, 1969 Fellow, executive director of Global Chicago Center, Chicago Council on Foreign Relations:

The changing shape of the media changes coverage. Cable TV (Fox, CNN, etc.) and the Web provide endless time/space to fill. There isn't enough serious news to fill this gap nor enough readers/viewers to digest it. Result: non-serious news (e.g., Jeremiah Wright) dominates, and distracts newspapers, too. This is a structural problem, not responsive to pledges from serious journalists to focus on The Issues. Will the Web, especially, enhance election coverage or corrupt it?

John Pekkanen, 1971 Fellow, contributing editor, Reader’s Digest; the Washingtonian:

To put it bluntly, the American mainstream media has lost its way and lost its balls. I have lost faith in its independence and its ability to investigate motives behind major government decisions because it's such an entrenched part of the establishment. Asking "hard" questions at news conferences is no substitute for digging out information the Administration may not want you to have.

Cassandra Tate, 1977 Fellow, staff historian, historylink.org:

Be less credulous.

William Dietrich, 1990 Fellow, Sunday Magazine writer, Seattle Times:

Be skeptical. Check spin against reality by developing more rank-and-file administration sources and getting out of D.C. to see the effect of policies. Don't be swayed by popularity. Study history, and apply it.

Matt Schofield, 2002 Fellow, editor, Kansas City Star:

Who knows anymore. We do breakout pieces on issues, with candidate perspectives included, even without them (boxes with the stories), in depth profiles, etc... and what everyone wants to read is the latest blogosphere rumor (of the moment).

Patricia O’Brien, 1974 Fellow, writer:

Start by facing the fact that the news business waited far too long to determine the facts in Iraq. What we learn from the failures of this administration is that we should never take the White House at face value, no matter who wins the election.

Saul Friedman, 1962 Fellow; Newsday columnist and Nieman Watchdog contributor:

Run like hell from the conventional wisdom. Think a bit more deeply. For example, isn't McCain's age and health an issue in his choice of Ms. Palin, as an unqualified running mate?

Nancy Webb, 1984 Fellow, a writer.

I don't blame the reporters who have been parroting absurd allegations, misleading comments, and outright lies. They've been assigned to cover the horse race, not look inside the horses' mouths and check for truth and accuracy. Editors delude themselves into thinking a thoughtful, researched follow-up in the following few days or weeks brings the scale into balance. It doesn't. No matter how much energy goes into fact checking, it's always a relative pittance compared to the energy that goes into being a conduit. Political strategists are taking advantage of the current passion for instant (i.e., unflitered) information. Here's a bona fide pipe dream: A cabal of editors refuse to cover the campaign as breaking news and encourage reporters to be responsible journalists. Other media will "get it first," but it's not worth getting. Let them have it.

Anita Harris, 1982 Fellow, President, Harris Communications:

In the name of objectivity, liberal reporters bent over backward to give the GW Bush administration a break; the problem of being denied access if critical is difficult but so is reporters' basking in the aura of power. These are complicated problems but so was Watergate, so were the Pentagon Papers...I expect little from networks, but the great independent newspapers have to take a stand, find more ways to protect/fund/reward independent reporting.

Melissa Ludtke, 1992 Nieman Fellow, Editor, Nieman Reports:

Reporters continue to be too often diverted by the "infotainment" elements of the horserace (poll driven reporting) and by topics that are irrelevant to candidates' ability to govern, so much so that major issues of great significance are ignored or buried in the ever-rising heap of minutia. Good example: Excessive coverage of Republican VP nominee Sarah Palin's daughter's pregnancy and the difficulty, then, that more relevant info has in gaining public attention.

Endy Bayuni, 2004 Nieman Fellow, Deputy Chief Editor, Jakarta Post:

You are not less patriotic or a bad American if you criticize the administration even in times of war. In fact, you will do the country and people (rather than the government) a greater service by scrutinizing a policy or a decision that has widespread support of the people. Public opinion today is fraught with manipulations, what with spin doctors around, that the media and journalists should have to courage to tell the truth, even if it means going against the stream.

Nick Valery, 1984 Nieman Fellow, retired West Coast bureau chief, The Economist:

Don't let yourself get suckered in. Stay wary, rudely persistent and skeptical. Remember, all administrations lie: it's their divine right and duty (or so they think) to do so. Read the fine print: that's where Izzy Stone found most of his leads. Above all, do the math yourself. And never, ever rely on handouts.

Arben Kallamata, 1993 Fellow, free-lancer, Canada:

  1. Be more objective.
  2. Try to open their minds to alternative views. How the world sees them, sometimes matters.
  3. America's obsession with religion has become ridiculous. It is the 21st century, and the US politics has gone too far from the principles of the US founding fathers in separating politics and government from religion. Politicians are ignoring this for their own advantage. Media, somehow, seem to comply with them. Even Democrats are following George Bush in this insanity.

G.H. Beaton, 1978 Nieman Fellow, originally from Australia, now residing in Pennsylvania:

The television air waves have become so full of tired repetition and re-hash that a week-long black-out would, figuratively speaking, leave no one in the dark. Pressure of filling that gaping on-air hole and the now endless news cycle has meant countless more hours devoted to politics, probably good in aggregate, but the quality of television coverage would be improved if meaningless polls and personality chatter were curtailed. The print media has done a creditable job this election cycle, imho.

Patsy Nakell, 2007 Fellow, Editor-in-Chief, Ny Tid, Finland:

Any president, even the one now being portrayed as the answer to all of America's problems, must be subjected to critical scrutiny once in office. Not even Barack Obama is beyond reproach.

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