Every Thursday, we ask Poynter faculty, staff and online contributors for their impressions of the news of the week. What surprised them? What was overplayed? Underplayed? What does it mean for the media? What will they be watching for next week? You can find this week’s answers below and answers from previous weeks here. To contribute your own thoughts on the week in review, click the “Add Your Comments” link at the bottom of a post. You can also subscribe to receive “This Week in Media” by e-mail: just click here.
For the week of Feb. 13-17, 2006:
- Jill Geisler on the chatter about Cheney
- Scott Libin on the expectations of the American press
- Rick Edmonds on details of the details of the story… and more Knight Ridder news
- Bob Steele on the anatomy of the cartoon furor
- Larry Larsen on Larry’s Spy Challenge and the last telegram
The Chatter About Cheney
Leadership & Management Group Leader
My take on the vice-presidential shooting saga: It hasn’t been over-covered. It has been over-chatted.
The logorrhea of cable TV hosts and guests, newspaper columnists and bloggers shouldn’t be confused with reporting. Reporting means uncovering new information, filling holes, separating assumption from fact, sourcing and verifying — and getting as close to the story as possible.
Talking about the event isn’t reporting. Accusing someone of arrogance — be it Dick Cheney or David Gregory — isn’t reporting. Making jokes on late-night comedy shows (however hilarious) isn’t reporting. Filling news programs with chatter — and then repackaged chatter — isn’t reporting.
And yet — at the end of the week, people may look back, remember clutter that was chatter, and say the story was over-covered.
I wish it had been over-covered. When the second-highest elected official in the country shoots a man, it is news of consequence, and the public has a right to know about it — in detail — in a timely fashion.
Africa, America, and the Expectations of Openness in Government
Leadership & Management Faculty
I had a fascinating conversation this week with a group of 13 visiting African journalists. We met just as the story of Vice President Cheney’s shooting accident was unfolding and as the White House press corps was getting its first shot at spokesman Scott McClellan.
The African visitors’ English was better than my French, but we were all fortunate to have skilled translators on hand.
I had watched that day’s White House press briefing live, as indignant reporters fired questions at a visibly uncomfortable McClellan. The Washington journalists could barely believe it took almost an entire day for the White House to say anything about the hunting incident.
My African guests could barely believe what they were hearing.
They found the matter of the shooting itself far less amazing than the outrage of the press corps. In the African nations the visitors come from, information on such an incident might have emerged over the course of a month or a year — if ever — but certainly never within a day. The Africans, several of whom work for government-run media themselves, said that in their countries journalists, readers, listeners and viewers don’t expect openness on the part of government, and they don’t get it.
Over the following few days, I began to wonder how truly different Americans and Africans are in that respect. The vice president, speaking exclusively to Fox News Channel, suggested the Washington press corps was simply suffering from a bruised ego after being beaten on a big story by a small paper in east Texas. Cheney said he was more concerned about his friend’s care than about the media’s curiosity, and, despite the furious fuming of a few Democrats in Washington, that line of logic seemed to satisfy a lot of people.
It worries me that Americans in general are so much more willing than journalists are to be kept in the dark when the government says it’s best. I still believe the handling of this episode by the vice president and the White House turned what would otherwise have been an unfortunate mishap into
an outright fiasco. But I don’t think most people really share the anger of journalists on this sort of thing. To paraphrase the previous administration, the public just doesn’t feel our pain.
Oh, and one word of advice: When talking through a translator about a shooting incident like this one, don’t make the mistake I did and refer to the vice president as “fair game.”
Psst, David Gregory, Who Cares? and More Knight Ridder News
Researcher and Writer
Most over-covered story of the week? By a wide margin, when and where the details of Dick Cheney’s hunting accident were released. I know NBC’s David Gregory and his brethren were bent out of shape at being scooped by the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, but outside the White House briefing room, that, and being a day late in the news cycle, is no big deal.
The accident itself is a legitimate story. We will all want to know about how Mr. Whittington recovers, just what happened on the quail shoot and whether there is a plausible case that something important was covered up. But I would be astonished if the matter rises anywhere close to the level of, say, Steve Coll’s superb reconstruction in The Washington Post, of how Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.
I get the point that this may be another example of the Bush administration’s poor communications and disrespect for the Washington press. But this very week, we had fresh, far meatier stories on instances that actually matter — like the Katrina snafus, Abu Ghraib and Mideast intelligence.
It pains me to agree with Rush Limbaugh about anything and to be out of step with respected Poynter colleagues. By week’s end, I at least had company from PressThink’s Jay Rosen. His take: two cheers for the non-traditional path by which the story broke; self-important MSM “ex-influentials” need deflating.
Best case, they might even be encouraged to get out of the briefing room more often.
This week also brought the surprising news that Knight Ridder’s corporate charter requires that an expert independent panel consider whether a potential buyer will maintain journalistic quality. If not, the required margin for approval of a sale goes up from 67 to 80 percent.
Also, the Newspaper Guild found a financial backer for its long-shot attempt to buy the nine Knight Ridder papers that are unionized.
I was particularly struck, though, by a recent story in Forbes, often a cheerleader for predatory capitalism, suggesting that too much “dumb money” is now chasing too few deals in private equity pools like those bidding for Knight Ridder. The story added that after an acquisition, the private equity groups typically charge their investors 1 to 2 percent in fees and take 20 percent of profits — a structure that virtually guarantees cost-cutting (as opposed to, say, investments in journalistic quality).
There is a range of happy and unhappy endings possible in the Knight Ridder auction. Surely one of the saddest would be to see the company swept away by a financial bubble.
Decoding the Cartoon Fiasco
Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values
I found The Washington Post’s “Anatomy of the Cartoon Protest Movement: Opposing Certainties Widen Gap Between West and Muslim World” very enlightening on a number of levels. It offers a clear, substantive chronology of the issue and the events as they’ve played out in Europe and the Middle East in particular. It includes thoughts from a number of players in the Muslim world. It gives insight into how this “movement” progressed, including the role of several technologies in building steam.
This article doesn’t offer a complete picture, to be sure, but rather focused insight. Perhaps it’s fodder for conversation. There’s so much to ponder on this issue. Click here to offer your own insights.
Larry’s Spy Challenge & Telegrams
The grand prize in Larry’s Spy Challenge has so far gone unclaimed. A free lunch sits on the back burner, waiting for an enterprising journalist to tackle the subject of warrantless domestic spying, uninterrupted from Truman to Bush.
Last week, I mentioned the contents of the last telegram transmitted by Western Union as an under-covered story. I received a note from former Poynter summer fellow Hina Alam:
I did try to find out what the contents of the last telegram sent were. I was told that due to privacy purposes that could not be disclosed. But I was also told that there were 10 telegrams sent on Jan. 27, some were birth announcements, some congratulatory messages and others the employees trying to be the last person sending each other a telegram. I did a story about this. It will be published in The Lufkin Daily News this Sunday.
Here is a link to the story. I am saddened that a final (public) message was not constructed for the history books (OK, wikis); maybe that kind of celebratory message is a relic of a bygone era. After all, does anybody know what the first Google search was? So, in light of this failing, I have constructed my own ficticious “last telegram” that I feel would have been appropriate. Please feel free to submit your own.
First telegram message: “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT?”
My ficticious last telegram message: “It served us well, but a new day has come. May we never forget these communication footprints in the soil underneath the information superhighway that carries us today. Godspeed.”