My Take

Your take on the news and how it’s made. What’s your take?

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Opinion: Why the ‘India’s Daughter’ ban is bad for journalism

The Indian government’s decision to ban the BBC’s documentary “India’s Daughter,” about the brutal gang rape on a bus in New Delhi in 2012, has the country divided.

British filmmaker Leslee Udwin addresses a press conference on her documentary film "India's Daughter." (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

British filmmaker Leslee Udwin addresses a press conference on her documentary film “India’s Daughter.” (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

In addition to concerns about censorship, there are also questions about journalistic access. The government has said it banned the film because the it gives one of the rapist a platform for his views and could create a “law and order problem.”

In an interview showcased in the film, one of the rapists, who is now facing a death sentence, shows no remorse and blames the victim’s death on her decision to fight back. Those who support the ban worry it could lead to “copycat crimes.”

Those who support airing of the film in India – myself included – hope it will start a conversation about taboo topics, force introspection about a subculture that fosters such gender bias and, most of all, that it will raise awareness about atrocities that are committed but often not reported.

The documentary shows not just the viewpoint of the rapists, but the parents of Jyoti Singh, the girl who was raped. It shows the protesters demanding justice and the country rallying behind Singh.

Ethics and vulnerable subjects

When I was reading various points of view on social media, I was reminded of a discussion we had last year during a Poynter workshop conducted in three Indian cities.

The topic was ethics and dealing with vulnerable subjects. The room was similarly divided about how to cover rape and violence. Some thought covering rape would lead to more rapes. Some, mostly women, were in favor of covering rape to change the culture of victimization. They thought more reporting of these crimes could lead to increased empathy for victims by the public, and to changes in law enforcement and the justice system.

Banning books, films or controversial speech has long been a government tactic to suppress free speech and limit scrutiny. Indian citizens have the right to information, and freedom of speech and information is central to democracy.

The government is now questioning the permission documents that the filmmaker obtained to get the jailhouse interview and reviewing procedures for access those in jail, which could set a dangerous precedent.

It could hinder journalists from keeping “necessary vigil on the instruments of governance and make the government more accountable to the governed,” which is the main objective of India’s Right to Information Act.

The potential for change

As far as the argument about increased rapes goes, the fact is that there has been an increase in the number of rapes in India. National Crime Records Bureau statistics show 93 women are raped in India every day. And child sexual abuse occurs at horrifying levels and is massively underreported.

But films have historically played a huge role in shifting mindsets in India. Fictional films from a half-century ago, often showed the only recourse for a woman who was raped was to kill herself to avoid shaming to her family’s honor or to marry the rapist. The 1980 movie, “Insaaf ka Taraju,” or “Scales of Justice,” changed that by featuring a protagonist who refuses these options. She fights and loses the case against the rapist who, shockingly, goes on to rape her younger sister. The heroine eventually resorts to vigilante justice. Like “India’s Daughter,” “Scales of Justice” was controversial, but it changed the dialogue about how Indians respond to a victim of rape.

Indian women are warned from childhood about how to protect themselves — limit your outings, don’t rock the boat, accept your circumstances, cover yourself. We, as Indians, challenge these assumptions at every level and we have made huge progress. The documentary shows women coming out in hoards to demand justice, along with men.

Since we can’t become vigilantes, we as a civilized nation need to have constructive dialogue and raise awareness about this issue. We need to change how men view women, change how women perceive women and how families raise their children. We need to change the attitudes of police, who perpetuate the “shame on the woman” myth by discouraging women to report rapes. We need to change laws to reflect the equal status of women in India and provide the resources they need to protect themselves.

Banning “India’s Daughter” further perpetuates a culture of shame. The rapist has grown up in a culture unaware that a woman is not supposed to just lay back and accept being raped. The film isn’t a platform for his views — it is a shocking revelation of deeply rooted biases within India’s culture.

The documentary will lead to awareness and further discussion, not cause an increase in the number of rapes. It will show that we are challenging these notions and changing the culture. One can only hope it will also lead to an increase in the reporting of rapes as more and more women break the cycle of shame.

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Thursday, Feb. 05, 2015

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Brian Williams and the resistance of memory

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Saturday, Jan. 10, 2015

Why editors shouldn’t call readers a**holes

New York Times Editor Dean Baquet called a college professor an asshole on Facebook and some people cheered.

It’s possible that those who recognize how hard it is to create great journalism every single day of the year were animated by the idea of the polite and prestigious editor of the country’s biggest newspaper swinging back in response to a cheap shot.

I wish he wouldn’t have.

Creating dialogue in the face of hostility is a challenge in social media – and in real life, too – but it can be done. And it should be done. And it’s in the best interest of journalism that the editor of the New York Times set that example.

Baquet’s comment under University of Southern California’s Marc Cooper’s Facebook post had 53 likes as of this morning.

Marc Cooper seems to reveling in the attention it brought.  He posted every article written about Baquet’s outburst, more than once pointing out to his followers, “I’m the asshole.” And he posted a lengthy response.

I’m sure Baquet expected the scrutiny. Teachers, politicians, newspaper editors, cops – they all hold power over others. They all have the ability to force others to listen. They command a microphone and a spotlight.

I’m not saying they should roll over. Almost everything else Baquet said in his comment was legitimate dialogue. Even the wish that Professor Cooper’s students are more open-minded was fair game.

But the name-calling diverted our attention. I bet it felt good in the moment. And for others, perhaps it provided a vicarious moment of satisfaction in the face of smug self-righteousness. But in the long run, calling Cooper an asshole harms the very condition that Baquet and the rest of journalism strives to create: an informed and engaged citizenry.

Name-calling starts when reasonable listening stops. In doing so, Baquet signaled that he was no longer listening. And that’s a dangerous place for the editor of a newspaper to be.

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Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014

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Rape and anonymity: a fateful pairing

This column has been republished with permission from the author. To see the original post and more from her blog, go to http://genevaoverholser.com/

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The Rolling Stone’s indefensible University of Virginia gang-rape story felt like a punch in the gut to anyone feeling hopeful about progress against sexual assault. But hopeful I remain. This fight is (finally) too vigorous to be stopped by flawed journalism.

News and social-media coverage over recent weeks, from the serial rape allegations against Bill Cosby to reports of sexual assault in the military and on campuses across the nation, would indicate that rape is at last being recognized — as an unacceptable reality that we have accepted for far too long. A lot of people seem to have decided no longer to acquiesce in the notion that rape and silence go hand in hand.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of folks poised to seize on any sign that a rape claim might be false. Rolling Stone gave these folks a huge assist: A spectacular gang-rape story, almost entirely free of attribution, quickly collapsing under its own weight.

Yet this problematic journalistic practice is nothing new; anonymity has been central to rape coverage for decades. (I first wrote about this in 1989. ) The common editorial practice of shielding rape victims by not naming them – unlike the journalistic commitment to naming names in all other crimes involving adults – is a particular slice of silence that I believe has consistently undermined society’s attempts to deal effectively with rape.

How do you size up a problem that’s largely hidden? There is plenty of talk about rape, but little of it is anchored by fact. As Vice President Biden said last January, in releasing the White House Report on sexual assault on campus, “The first step in solving a problem is to name it and know the extent of it.”

We know (vaguely) that the problem is huge. Looking at campuses only, the most widely agreed upon figure is that one in five U.S. college women will be raped during her college years. It’s hard to be sure because, as criminal justice experts agree, sexual assault is one of the nation’s most underreported crimes. The most reliable estimates indicate that some 15 percent of college students who have been raped report the crime. See more information here.

Without data and transparency, the issue has had a hard time gaining footing against administrators’ desire to keep rape statistics quiet. (The Center for Public Integrity has done powerful work on this topic. ) When the crime is not reported, and no one is named, how do you get the data?

One of many reasons that rape victims (or more accurately those who bring charges of rape) do not report it is that those who do are often subjected not only to disbelief, but also to humiliation, shame, and worse. This is abundantly clear in the military’s abysmal record on sexual assault. A recent Pentagon study said that nearly two-thirds of those who did report encountered retaliation of some sort. As a recent New York Times editorial noted, “That is the same as the previous year, despite a new law making retaliation a punishable offense.”

No surprise then, that for so many years, newspaper editors have agreed to “protect” rape victims by refusing to name them. So why hasn’t this helped correct the underreporting and reduce the retaliation? Maybe because the anonymity, rather than being part of an effective solution to an unacceptable reality, contributes to its prolongation. In other words, it does more harm than good.

You don’t have to believe that there are many women bringing false charges of rape (I don’t) to understand that a fundamental unfairness lies waiting to be exploited when one person is named and another is not, particularly in a crime as inevitably private as rape.

And exploited, it regularly is, as we see again and again — vividly in the case of those bringing allegations against Cosby, and in the appalling New York Times magazine story on sexual assault in the military People react angrily to the woman who “takes down” a beloved old comedian, a talented airman, a great football player – or just a cool frat guy.

If anonymity’s silencing keeps the crime’s dimensions hidden, and its unfairness feeds the fires of those disinclined to hear victims’ truths, anonymity has yet another worrisome trait: It prevents the public from fully engaging with the problem. As journalists well know (but choose distressingly often to ignore) nothing affects public opinion like real stories with real faces and names attached. Attribution brings accountability, a climate within which both empathy and credibility flourish.

Young women today seem to understand all this better than journalists do. Harvard alumna Rory Gerberg is a founder of a coalition of students to address the university’s sexual assault policy. Her view is emblematic: “Our task is to give voice to the daily forms of violence we too often accept as inevitable. This is precisely why student activism is so important. Since I’ve become a campus advocate numerous students have approached me with their stories.”

When real people are credibly seen as having experienced something that we’d rather not acknowledge: That is when we believe at last in a problem’s existence. Thus it was with Anita Hill and sexual harassment. Thus it may well be with Janay Rice and domestic violence (whatever her disinclination to embrace the issue, there is surely no anonymity in that video.)

So, is this that sort of moment for sexual assault? You might say that the past weeks’ stories are as likely to be just another turn of the news cycle as they are to be a tipping point. But I’d say that legacy media are no longer the primary determinant of whether the issue moves forward. Women are now making their voices heard in a way they haven’t been able to before, from Cosby’s alleged victims to college women speaking out on campuses across the country.

Latoya Peterson, in a recent New York Times book review, quoted feminist scholar Donna Haraway regarding “the power to survive… on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other.” Many women are experiencing that power. While the use of social media has its downsides, for sure, this seems unlikely to stop them. For one thing, social media are aiding them not only by giving them a platform, but also by winning them wide support. This includes support from men who have previously acquiesced in the silence, a huge factor in the Cosby story, which David Carr sums up here.

Sen. Claire McCaskill may have a misplaced confidence in the military’s ability to deal with sexual assault, but this she gets exactly right: “What you’re seeing with Cosby and college campuses and the military is that victims are gaining strength by seeing the courage of other victims,” she said. “I have seen this incredible increase in the number of people who have come out and are saying, ‘I want people to know that this happened to me.’ ”

The longstanding nudge (by journalists and others) toward anonymity that women who have been raped have been experiencing has no doubt comforted some, at least for a period. But, increasingly, the underside of this approach even for the individual is acknowledged. Painful as the truth can be, absorbing the notion that you can’t tell it can be worse. As Times columnist Charles Blow wrote of having buried his own experience as a child with sexual assault: “I had done what the world signaled I must: hidden the thorn in my flesh.” What he discovered, he said, was that “concealment makes the soul a swamp. Confession is how you drain it.”

Journalists are avidly tearing apart the Rolling Stone for its appalling dereliction of duty, and rightfully so. But all who have shared in this idea of anonymity as a protection of rape victims have played a role in bringing us to this moment. We have been participants in the notion that rape and silence go hand in hand. It’s a notion outmoded at last, and those who pursue it become more and more irrelevant. Read more

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Tuesday, Oct. 07, 2014

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Enough with the manifestos about the future of news, let your product do the talking

Nikki Usher had a great Columbia Journalism Review article “Startup site manifestos are press criticism” where she notes that startup news orgs like PandoDaily, Vox, FiveThirtyEight and more have gotten into the habit of writing manifestos (much like the New York Times did when it launched in 1851). These manifestos are essentially their critique of the press in action.

The implication is that traditional journalism simply doesn’t offer readers this kind of news in the existing environment—that it’s not doing enough to give us what we need to know, and these sites are going to offer an alternative way to give us the public information that is the perceived obligation of journalism.

I think Nikki is right in her observation. These manifestos feel like the result of an organization sitting down on a psychologist’s couch, talking about its metaphorical parents and writing how it intends to deal with feelings of abandonment. “I WILL BE BETTER THAN THEM” the news organization shouts. Catharsis!

I found out about the post because of a tweet from my colleague Anthony DeRosa.

My response:

I’ve worked on several projects and endeavors over the years. Some of them are now shut down, some of them like Circa are currently kicking butt. But all of them were manifestos. They were all applied critiques of the news process. Emphasis on “applied.”

NewAssignment.net and Broowaha were critiques on the closed process of data collection/reporting
Spot.Us was a critique on the flow of money in journalism and sought to make it more transparent and participatory.
NewsTrust was a critique of accountability
Circa is a critique of the “article” as the most common/base unit of information (among other critiques).
Manifesto writing is important and helpful, and each of these projects spilled plenty of digital ink describing their goals, but it was the product that spoke loudest. It was the product-in-action that defined what these projects said to the larger industry.

Vox’s stacks are more poignant than the video where Ezra Klein talks about how the web can change things. Pando’s use of comics scream louder than Sarah Lacy’s about page. FiveThirtyEight’s drop-down menu tab says more about its values than any interview about it could. First Look’s future products will say more than any blog post explaining those products.

At the heart of the New York Times innovation report I don’t think the conclusion was the NYT needs to write a new manifesto. Instead, NYT recognized it needs to re-think product(s). That’s how you critique the press today. That’s how one shows what you offer that no other news organizations can.

Writing a long article is how you critique a specific act of journalism (think Ombudsmen) and is incredibly valuable. Just look at the wonderful work of Margaret Sullivan for some of the best examples of recent memory. But a long manifesto won’t re-imagine what we do. Creating a news product is how you critique the press today at an institutional level. That’s how you make a statement on what you think the future will feel like.

lets-do-this-250There is so much talk about entrepreneurial journalism, it’s important to see the forest for the trees. Why is this a golden age of exploration in media? Why is it important to discuss the “future of journalism”? If you want to work on a new project or product ask yourself why. Is it because you can? Because you want to make money? Or because you have something to say and the best way to articulate it is by showing how things can work. Read more

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Friday, Aug. 01, 2014

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NPR One app potential is huge

Public radio and podcasts have taken on an increasing role in my life. I listen while running, cleaning, cooking, driving long distances or taking public transportation, mostly times when I can afford to multitask, but can’t be looking at video or don’t want the added work of reading text.

I downloaded the NPR One app this week and listened to it twice during long morning jogs, and while I was riding public transportation and hanging out in airports. I’ll stop short of calling it a game-changer. But it’s clear that this app, or one like it, has the potential to become a content platform for news and culture audio, the way Amazon is for shopping or Netflix is for movies.

NPR One is like Pandora for public radio content. Because I already have an NPR account, even though I was in New York, it immediately knew that my local station was really WUSF in Tampa Bay.

NPR One began with a Guy Raz welcome and a request for access to my microphone (I’m not sure why). It then gave me the latest three-to-four-minute top-of-the-hour news update. Then it bounced through radio news, first from the last 24 hours of daily NPR shows Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Soon I started getting a mix of more evergreen content, blended in with the day’s news. I got a heavy dose of WNYC content, presumably because that’s where I was, but also because there is no content from my local market currently available.

The app draws from a big pool of NPR-owned products including podcasts, Joel Sucherman, NPR senior director of digital products said. The algorithm blends machine learning and editorial curation to ensure users don’t end up in a filter bubble, he said.

When you like something, you can tag it interesting. When you don’t like something, you click the forward triangle, and it skips to the next story in the queue. Soon, the app was delivering Planet Money reports, Scott Simon interviews with interesting musicians and stories about books and authors. I clicked past a Terry Gross interview once, because it was really long, and I never heard from her again, even though I wouldn’t mind the occasional film director interview. Some of the most pleasurable stories came from something called Vintage NPR, a collection of ‘driveway moments’ that manage to stand up over time.

NPR staff currently tags all NPR content as it goes into their management system, Sucherman said. A second level of NPR One editors then determine what “buckets” that content should go in. Those buckets determine how long the content will be available on NPR One and how and when the app will match it to customers.

NPR One was publicly available Monday for Android and IOS. They won’t say how many people downloaded it, but it was in the top three free apps in Apple’s App Store all week. Jeremy Pennycook, NPR One product manager, described the debut as more of a preview than a launch. Developers perfected the software enough so that users could open it up and press play. Many additions and improvements are in the works, he said. Eventually it will learn what time of day or days of the week users prefer shorter, newsy content to longer feature content.

The developers specified that all the audio listeners hear on the app will have “that NPR sound.” But they didn’t say how that will happen. Content like This American Life, that is heard on NPR stations but not owned by the NPR network, isn’t currently available on NPR One. There will be interesting negotiations about the pricing and licensing, considering that This American Life has recently gone out on its own. NPR One’s success is contingent on it being the go-to mobile platform, at least for public radio stories and shows, but maybe for an even broader array of audio content. How or even if independent content that seems as natural fit, as well as the good stuff from Public Radio International and American Public Media, isn’t clear.

“It’s a big ecosystem and the edges are very fuzzy,” Pennycook conceded.

(Disclosure: I have weekly media segment on WUSF and also a side podcast; neither are available on NPR One.)

NPR worked closely with six big local stations in the initial development and then later brought in a broader working group of large, midsize and smaller stations Sucherman said. While the app was smart enough to know what my local station was, it couldn’t recognize that I was already a donor. Thus the occasional instructions to press the “donate” button seemed annoying in a way that doesn’t bother me when I hear the same plea on the radio. When I did press that button, I got an email with “give now” button that sent me to my local station’s pledge page.

In order to capitalize on the opportunity, staff at local stations will have to load their “segmented audio” into the NPR One content system. That should be an incentive to the notoriously thinly staffed mid-size and small stations to create such content and produce it in a way that in conforms with the technical requirements of the app. Local stations will be rewarded with data about public radio listeners who may not be donors, including who their listeners are, where they go, when they listen and what they are most interested in. That kind of data will be a goldmine for local stations.

Sucherman and Pennycook pointed out that NPR was conscientious to connect users to their local station, which by design are crucial to NPR’s revenue model. With money from their pledge drives, local stations pay their own bills as well as pay the fees to license NPR shows.

“We had the best interests of the network and local stations in mind,” Pennycook said. “We are disrupting ourselves so someone else does not come in and eat our lunch.”

For me, the user experience was slightly addicting. Unlike the Public Radio app, NPR One can run in the background, so you can text and surf while you listen. It downloaded enough ahead of time that even in New York City, on the notoriously spotty AT&T connection, it didn’t drop as I ran through the streets. On an airplane I was able to listen to four or five stories after my phone lost its connection.

The most notable glitch was repetition, which Guy Raz promised in his introduction wouldn’t happen. The app delivers two quick sponsor messages in a row, which often repeated one right after the other as I continued to listen. I heard a few of the same stories the second time I used the app as well. Also, it drained my battery quickly.

Whether NPR One becomes a true platform, as opposed to just an app, will depend on the mix of content, transparency and sophistication of the algorithm. The reason Amazon works is because consumers can get to the variety of what they want, in a environment where Amazon controls for quality. That ‘NPR sound’ that both Sucherman and Pennycook mentioned can be a bit like Starbucks: It’s consistent and reliable, but sometimes you want a local vibe that is completely different.

Of course, there’s a natural evolution for all platforms.

Facebook had three distinct phases for me. First there was novelty. Then, as more and more people that I cared about joined, I felt a true connection to the platform because it enhanced my life by giving me information I wasn’t getting anywhere else. Lately, as it has become harder to find the content that actually enhances my life, that connection to Facebook has waned such that it’s more an indulgence than a necessity.

Maybe that’s natural evolution for all platforms. At first cable TV was so cool, then it was so pointless, but eventually it brought me unique content from MTV’s “Real World” to “Mad Men.” At first Netflix saved me time, then I couldn’t find anything I wanted to watch, and now I have “Orange Is the New Black” and “House of Cards.”

It’s obvious that there is an audience for this type of news and culture audio and I think a need for a platform, outside of terrestrial radio, to deliver it. If NPR One doesn’t grow into that platform, something else will. Before Facebook there was MySpace.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Guy Raz’s last name and Terry Gross’ first name. Read more

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Newspaper group CEO: We need to embrace all media including print

A longtime newspaper man who recently turned academic, Mr. David Boardman posted an essay sharing his personal lamentations about the state of the newspaper business and how the NAA chose to present its industry outlook at the 2014 World Newspaper Congress.

Mr. Boardman’s focus on print publications doesn’t adequately show the changes and growth that are taking place. The reality is that the newspaper business is comprised of multiple platforms, reaching many audiences. Read more

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Friday, Oct. 17, 2008

How Change Looks in America

Back in March of 2007, I was sitting on my bedroom floor making robots out of Legos with my 6-year-old when Barack Obama took the podium at the Brown Chapel AME church in Selma, Ala. It was a significant moment in the making of the Democratic contender and, depending upon what happens on November 4th, possibly the making of a president.

I told Noah, my youngest child, that we’d have to take a break from the construction project to listen to the speech.

“We wanted to watch this because that man is running for president,” I explained.

“Cool,” Noah said, hardly looking up.

“Do you think he can win?” I asked.

He shrugged.

My little test was over. I thought, for a moment, that he’d see the profound significance of my question –- a black man running to become the 44th president of the United States; the first time it’s even looked remotely possible. I thought his answer would tell me whether our country had changed.

Instead, he shrugged.

I knew how big it was that Obama was at Brown AME, a modest little church that’s a few blocks from the Voting Rights Museum and practically around the corner from the Edmund Pettis Bridge, where 44 years ago marchers were clubbed by state troopers on horseback; a day they call Bloody Sunday. This church, not far from the start of the mile-long city, was where civil rights greats preached. It was the womb of change.

And yet, Noah shrugged. In his nonchalance, I thought, was hope as much as innocence. That he saw no great consequence in the moment gave the moment its profundity. How far must we have come that a black child was totally unimpressed that a black man had the audacity to think he could be president? How much change, in fact, must we already have achieved that he would merely shrug?

I’d been in Brown AME with my oldest children more than a decade before, when the distance was barely 30 years between our visit and the successful march across the bridge led by Martin Luther King Jr. There were plenty of reasons to think we hadn’t traveled all that far since, were we to judge by the O.J. fallout and the riots after Rodney King.

And yet a mere decade later, we see reporter John King on CNN explaining that the electoral numbers favor Obama. By a lot.

The Democratic candidate runs under the mantra “Change you can believe in,” and the Republican has adjusted the line to say, “Change is coming.” I believe the truth of it is that the change has already happened.

Change never waits its turn. It does not ask permission. It needs no electoral votes to prevail.We should dispense, especially in my profession, with the question of whether America is ready for a black president. Let me put aside for now my revulsion that the question is asked at all. The fact is that America spoke on the matter months and months ago, long before the Democratic primaries were done, when there were only two Democrats standing –- a black man and a white woman. America has been speaking on the subject over and over again, in senatorial and congressional and gubernatorial races. In sports and culture and education and in our communities.

America has said, “Challenge me, demand of me, aspire –- yes, even hope –- and I will show you who I can be.” The change has already happened, the one that says we are, in fact, ready, and all those who would try to stop it by exploiting petty bigotry with race-baiting and all these xenophobic allusions to terrorism will fail, because it is as though they are trying to stop the sunrise and it is already high noon.

Let me say this, though. Just because we have changed does not mean that racism is dead. Congressman John Murtha had to apologize not long ago for calling a part of western Pennsylvania racist, and it may be that by his painting with too broad a brush, then backing down, this latest racial dustup during the campaign will only serve to obscure the whole truth of America.

There are racists in western Pennsylvania. Maybe lots of them. But they no more totally define the region or the state or this country than does the multicultural Kumbaya surrounding Obama.

We are a complex nation, and we change our ideas, our aspirations, our visions of our noblest selves sometimes long before we defeat our innermost demons.

Change never waits its turn. It does not ask permission. It needs no electoral votes to prevail. It arrives as a viral notion that spreads on the winds in search of a host who can look in the mirror and see an image of possibility. We’ve slowed and sabotaged change in this country, but never stopped it, by limiting the image in that mirror to only one gender, only a few shades of white, only one, gilded road of privilege. So we often look in the mirror and see who we’d like to become long before we get there.

That is how we change in America. We see what is possible. And then we make it happen.

So when I asked my 6-year-old what he thought of Obama’s chances; when I asked him, in fact, if he thought he, Noah, could be president. He shrugged. And then, he said this:

“Well, I do like him.”

“Really,” I said. “Why?”

“Because,” Noah said, “he looks just like me.”

A version of this essay was delivered as a speech to the “Greater Pinellas Democratic Club.” Read more

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Crossing Paths with Journalists and Pundits

The first (and only) time I met NBC’s Brian Williams, he threatened to send sharks with laser beams attached to their heads after me if I didn’t return his copy of The New York Times.

I needed the newspaper to make a graphic for that night’s edition of “Hardball with Chris Matthews.” Somehow, it seemed that Brian Williams was the only person at MSNBC who still subscribed to a print edition of the newspaper. And, of course, the interns who came before me on “Hardball” during the summer of 2001 had borrowed the newspaper and neglected to return it.

Eventually I was allowed to borrow the newspaper. I learned that no one could beat a news anchor’s ability to deadpan.

Since then, I’ve had the chance to meet a surprising number of high-profile pundits and journalists. Many of them probably don’t remember me. Some I can only hope have forgotten me.

Pat Buchanan falls into the latter category.

Buchanan was in a surly mood when he arrived at Ripon College in 2002 for a speech. Hours before, he had abruptly terminated a live interview with the campus radio station after taking umbrage at one of the questions. The stunned silence was quickly filled with Aerosmith’s “Livin’ on the Edge.”

It seemed not unrelated that I was relegated to interviewing Buchanan for the campus newspaper while he signed copies of his book after the speech. The problem was that Buchanan didn’t have a marker to sign the books. His constant complaints about not having a marker kept interrupting the flow of the interview.

Finally, I handed him a dry-erase marker that I had used earlier that day in the newspaper office. When he removed the cap, ink shot out of the battered marker and seeped into the sleeve of what looked like a very expensive shirt.

I learned not to become part of the story.

When I crossed paths with James Carville at an empty gate at Palm Springs International Airport, Carville checked his voicemail and pretended to talk on his cell phone rather than speak to me. Maybe Buchanan had warned him.

When Tim Russert arrived at my alma mater in February 2006 to give a speech on media ethics, I’d conducted enough interviews to make the memories of Pat Buchanan fade. Still, I went into the interview feeling a bit queasy. How exactly does one interview one of the toughest journalists in Washington, D.C.?

Because the speech took place during the Scooter Libby trial, I didn’t have high expectations. Like many journalists who were tarred by the Valerie Plame investigation, Russert seemed neither saint nor sinner. He had said little publicly about the case outside of “Meet the Press,” and since the trial was still raging, I didn’t expect that to change.

I sat down in a conference room among a small group of journalists hoping that he would be willing to talk about whether he thought there should be a federal shield law.

“I don’t take positions on the issues,” Russert said in response to my first question. For a moment I thought the 90-minute winter drive from Milwaukee had been in vain.

He continued:

“I do not think it’s healthy or good for our country, our society and for our media that we are in a situation now that we seem to be being subpoenaed on a regular basis. Because I really do believe that will have a chilling effect on what we can do.”

Arianna Huffington had accused Russert of reporting on the Plame story while not explaining his involvement. “Maybe (the speech) will lead to a spin-off panel on the journalistic value of showing disdain for your audience,” she wrote days before his speech.

When asked, it was clear Russert was aware of the criticism. And that he found it unwarranted.

“It’s almost amusing to read the things that have been written, because in terms of transparency, there has been no organization that has been more transparent,” said Russert, who then opened a folder and began reading, “Meet the Press” style, from transcripts of previous NBC broadcasts to prove his point. When finished, he offered me a copy.

Others had accused Russert of having political motivations for trying to avoid testifying in the Plame case. Russert noted that The New York Times and Time magazine had fought subpoenas in the Plame case, and that other news organizations were also fighting subpoenas related to a lawsuit brought by Wen Ho Lee.

“If you don’t fight subpoenas, what you’re saying is, why should anyone talk to us?” Russert said. “Because what’s going to happen is, we’re going to go to court and just spill the beans about everyone who talked to us and what they said.”

I couldn’t resist asking Russert to put on his pundit hat before he left. I wondered: Would President Bush ever sign a bill to create a federal shield law?

“That’s a great question,” he said. “I do not know. I do not know. Mike Pence of Indiana, a very conservative Republican, and Richard Lugar have introduced one. My sense is when things get to his desk it’s a difficult bill to veto, politically. That’s my judgment as a political analyst.”
 
Before he left for the speech, Russert wanted our take as Wisconsinites: Would Brett Favre return? Had Aaron Rodgers’ unenviable day finally come to take the place of an icon?

I’ve never met Tom Brokaw. But after six years of meeting people I never expected to, I’ve learned not to discount the possibility. (Maybe we’ll cross paths in an airport.)

When NBC announced that Brokaw would become interim host of “Meet the Press” until after the election, it seemed a sensible choice.

Anyone else could have become the journalistic equivalent of Aaron Rodgers.

Brandon Lorenz is senior editor for Building Operating Management, a national magazine that covers buildings and real estate. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Read more

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Hold Still, Little Catfish

A long time ago a friend related the story of a little boy and a catfish.

“Catfish, as you know,” my friend wrote, “are extremely lively and can be dangerous. Well, this little boy one day was attempting to clean this catfish and the catfish finned the little boy.

” ‘Hold still, little catfish,’ the boy yelled. ‘I ain’t going to do nothing but gut you.’ “

It’s that story that comes to mind almost every day when I read the newest release from a newspaper telling about the latest cuts in staff and in space.

Hold still, little newspaper, we ain’t going to do nothing but gut you.

It’s also the story that comes to mind every time I read a column by an editor or a statement by a publisher telling readers that we are slicing and dicing staff and space, but we are going to give you a better newspaper.

Hold still, little newspaper, we ain’t going to do nothing but gut you.

The new design is going to thrill you. Of course, we are cutting inches off the web size. The shorter stories are going to give you more time to do other things. Of course, there will be less watchdog and public service journalism because that takes a lot more resources to do. And the combined sections are the right way to go in the rush of today’s world. Of course, we will have to eliminate some of your favorite features to make it work.

Hold still, little newspaper, we ain’t going to do nothing but gut you.

I understand the need to reassure readers that you are going to do your best to give them the best you can given the fact that double digit, and sometimes triple digit, job reduction announcements have become commonplace in our industry.

I understand the stomach-wrenching stress editors are dealing with these days, more stress than perhaps ever before. I spent 47 years in daily newsrooms and experienced many roller coaster economic rides, but none like this one. So I don’t envy any editor today, or publisher. It’s not surprising to see some of the best say enough is enough.

I understand what is happening to the economic model with which we have operated all these years, and the perfect storm which has hit us — a recession, home sales in the dumpster, classifieds fleeing to the Craiglists of the world, trading the dollars of print advertising for the pennies of online advertising, the pressure from Wall Street, and a lot of other thunder and lightning.

What I don’t understand is this business of not leveling with readers. You can’t eliminate 30, 40, 100 jobs and produce the same quality of journalism, in print or online, that you were producing before the avalanche of cutbacks overwhelmed the newsroom.

The reader is not dumb. It doesn’t take an advanced degree to recognize that less is not more. It’s simply less. You can pretty it up with a new design, but that’s like telling the little catfish that he will look better dressed in cornmeal.

If you do that, you deserve to be finned. Read more

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