Category Archives: Uncategorized

Journalism failed us badly. Here’s how.

People will be parsing this election for years to come. Here’s one thing I know: Journalism failed us badly. Since we are going to need good journalism more than ever in the days ahead, I offer some thoughts about what went wrong:

  1. The bottomless well of Trump coverage early on. This is mostly attributable to cable, but it was true of television more broadly, and it influenced print and online media as well.

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I included this chart from the New York Times in my March 28 blogpost: A tough test for Journalism and the Midterm Grades Aren’t Good.

As the Times story said, “Over the course of the campaign, he has earned close to $2 billion worth of media attention, about twice the all-in price of the most expensive presidential campaigns in history. It is also twice the estimated $746 million that Hillary Clinton, the next best at earning media, took in.”

Of this development, CBS Chairman Les Moonves famously said: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”  Here’s what else he said: “Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

He did. So did they.

Continue reading Journalism failed us badly. Here’s how.

More lessons from civic journalism for today’s disengaged media

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Democracy Fund has published a white paper I wrote: “How to Best Serve Communities: Reflections on Civic Journalism.”  I conclude that “today’s engaged journalism, civic journalism’s replacement in this digital age, enjoys an utterly different environment from the one that confronted civic journalists — one in which disruption prevails, change is the new constant, and innovation is seen, almost universally, as essential. The contemporary movement is landing on far more fertile terrain.”

DF’s Paul Waters blogged about it here, saying:  “Our belief is that this reorientation of local journalism towards engaged journalism is critical to fostering a thriving journalism landscape and a more engaged democracy.”

Civic Journalism, Engaged Journalism: Tracing the Connections

Geneva Overholser's photo
By Geneva Overholser / 2016 August 3rd

“Want to attract more readers? Try listening to them.” That’s the headline on Liz Spayd’s debut as the New York Times’ new public editor. That she devoted her first column to the need to pay attention to readers’ views shows how central the idea of engagement has become for journalists.

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Please see article as published by the Democracy Fund.

 

 

At the Rumble in the Jungle — and hanging with Ali

Here was a heavyweight fight for the ages, and I was sitting in the second row. It was 4 a.m. in Kinshasa – timed to suit American television viewers – on October 30, 1974, and the sweat of George Foreman and Muhammad Ali was hitting me directly in the face.

The then-president of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Mobutu Sese Seko, had lured the two to Kinshasa to help put his country on the map. It worked. I was a few weeks into a two-year stay in Kinshasa when the famous began to arrive: entertainers like B. B. King and Miriam Makeba, writers like George Plimpton, Hunter Thompson and Norman Mailer.

And of course the fighters themselves. Ali had beaten Foreman to Zaire, and quickly worked his charm on the people. He got off the plane, bent to kiss the ground, and declared himself “Glad to be in the land of the brother.” By the time Foreman flew in, the waiting crowd was already yelling, “Ali, boma ye!” (“Kill him, Ali!”).

Then a sparring partner cut Foreman above his eye, and the fight was postponed for six weeks. Foreman was reclusive, but Ali often left his villa to go running, and occasionally to hang out at café/bars – even a couple of times with a few of us teachers from the American School of Kinshasa. We’d drink that good Belgian beer (Ali drank Orange Fanta) and talk about things back home. One day, Ali stopped the conversation to complain that the delay was dragging on too long. “To hell with the land of the brother,” he said to us. “Take me back to the land of the MUTHAH!”

The main thing I remember about the fight itself is that what Ali called his rope-a-dope technique meant that he was regularly leaning back over the ropes above us, taking hit after hit. And I remember feeling astonished at how he seemed to surge with strength at the moment he knocked out Foreman, the heavy favorite and the reigning champion.

After the fight we went back to the Intercontinental Hotel, where most of the visiting foreigners had been staying. The postponement  had had everyone fearing for weeks that the outdoor fight would have to be cancelled because of the imminent arrival of the rainy season (rains in Zaire are rains of a different order). But the season had held off – until just after the fight.  As we gathered for the after-party in the Intercontinental’s courtyard, the winds swept in, the palms swayed, and thunder and lightning were loosed.

It was this Intercontinental bar that had been the journalists’ hangout – especially Plimpton’s and Mailer’s.  Over the weeks, I’d had a couple of rounds with Mailer, thumb wrestling and talking about writing. One night, I gave him some pieces I’d written. The next time I saw him, he told me my problem was that I was too “protean.” I wasn’t sure what he meant, but he was exactly right. The Rumble in the Jungle was one ineradicable memory in a rich and scattered life.

The Media Revolution: What It Means for You

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As part of the University at Buffalo’s International Education Week, I gave a keynote address about what’s happening in the media world today — what we’re losing, what we’re gaining, and what the students ought to do about it.  I urged the students to “seize the opportunity to make contributions.  And take responsibility for the contributions you make.”

Here is the text:

University at Buffalo, International Education week, November 2015

“The Media Revolution: What It Means for You”

It’s a pleasure for me to be here as part of International Education Week. And I’m especially delighted that you have made media your focus. Nothing could be more essential to an understanding of this fast-globalizing world than media.

You know, we say that we are what we eat. More generally, we are what we consume. And that surely goes for media. Our media diet, like our food diet, shapes us every day – for good and for ill. If we select wisely, we nourish ourselves and contribute to good health. If we choose junk, we pay for it. Moreover, our society pays for it. Just as the nation’s health and economy are affected when people eat poorly, our democracy is undermined when people fail to nourish their understanding of the world around them. A government of the people, by the people and for the people is only as good as the thinking and participation OF the people. A democracy of know-nothings will get what it deserves: poor public policy, an inability to progress, a loss of international standing. You, individually, are part of the recipe for good health – for yourself, and for the society of which you are a part.

Continue reading The Media Revolution: What It Means for You

Changing the discussion about the future of journalism: speech text

Below is the text of a speech I delivered at Florida International University University yesterday.  You can find a Storify look at the event here — and a video soon will be archived there as well. Video and text will also be available through FIU and the Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver Center sites.

Leading from the Outside: Rethinking Journalism Leadership When Change is the New Normal

Good afternoon. Thank you, Dean Reis, for that warm introduction. And special thanks to the Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver Center – and to Lillian herself, for bringing me here. I am honored indeed to be part of your Hearst Distinguished Lecture Series.

I hope to present to you today the much-discussed topic of the future of journalism in a very different way.

My goal is to sketch out for you a media future that offers real promise to make our world a better place. A media future that could make informing ourselves more compelling, that could engage people in civic life and nourish our communities. It could make people believe in the possibilities of self-government, and cause them to feel hopeful about the future of our democracy.

Continue reading Changing the discussion about the future of journalism: speech text

Some fairness, please

The press is right to cover assiduously Hillary’s email controversy. And NOT right not to cover her important UN speech! See the fine piece here, which I found only after searching arduously for anything about the speech amid the clamor about the email: http://www.newsweek.com/hillary-clinton-two-front-war-312833

I must note, this brings up an unhappy memory. Twenty years ago, when Clinton gave her Beijing speech on the topic of women’s rights, I was ombudsman at the Washington Post. And I got a call from a staffer of Hillary’s– Lissa Muscatine, now an owner of the bookstore Politics and Prose in DC — saying that, while the coverage of the speech was terrific (and it was — noting that this was the first truly important foreign policy speech given by a First Lady), the paper had incorrectly printed accompanying excerpts from different remarks she had given that day, to a much smaller crowd, on abortion rights. Thus, the coverage touted the importance of the speech, and the printed remarks were from another address entirely.

I said I was sure the foreign desk would want to correct it, especially since the record would otherwise be wrong. She said she had already talked to them, and they had declined. Astonished, I talked to the foreign editor myself, and found him tenacioiusly resistant. Only after considerable back and forth did he reluctantly publish a “clarification,” not a correction. Such resistance to being fair about women’s words remains, clearly, today (as does that editor, at the Post — Jackson Diehl, now with the oped page.) This surely must change. It’s against the press’s own interest (not to mention the nation’s) to be so blind to fairness.

Her campaigning for women’s rights, and her efforts to explain her emails, shows how tricky it is to be Hillary.
newsweek.com|By Nina Burleigh

RIP David Carr

We have lost an extraordinary talent tonight, with David Carr’s death, far too soon.

My own little piece of this widely shared awareness began in 1997. Carr had barely arrived in DC from Minneapolis when he wrote (in the Washington City Paper) a little something more perceptive about my time as Washington Post ombudsman than I could have conjured up myself.  I chafed at his “prairie marm” reference, given my many previous hometowns.  But his eye was a keen one, and I’ve been relying on it ever since:

“Geneva Overholser, ombudsman for the Post, was elected chairwoman of the Pulitzer Prize board last month. Ombudsmanship is usually a one-way ticket to obscurity, but Overholser, the former editor of the Des Moines Register, is making a name for herself by taking on some of the paper’s most hallowed names. Last Sunday, she chided her employer for its cheesy “Issue Forum” special advertising sections, which look like news but aren’t. And she took on Bob Woodward—something that hasn’t happened since he was canonized back in the ’70s—for his use of unnamed sources in his takedown of Al Gore’s fund-raising activities. Managing editor Bob Kaiser felt compelled to respond to her critique in print, which suggests that she’s getting under somebody’s skin. Overholser’s ascension to the chair of the Pulitzers isn’t going to get any seconds in the Post newsroom, where Beltway provincialists view her as a prairie marm who just doesn’t know how business gets done in the big city.”

Carr, for so many perceptive and thoughtful and illuminating pieces, we’ll miss you sorely.

 

 

Rape and anonymity: A fateful pairing

 

Nancy Ziegenmeyer identifies the man who raped her. By David Peterson, from the 1989 series
Nancy Ziegenmeyer identifies the man who raped her. By David Peterson, from the 1990 series

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. Continue reading Rape and anonymity: A fateful pairing

Hey, Silicon Valley: You oughta have old journalists (like me) on your boards!

 

I loved doing this interview with the wicked-smart and delightful Ruben Sanchez, just out in Skyword.com’s Innovator Series.  Reading it over, I realized that one of the ideas I mentioned to Ruben is something I wanted to develop a bit, so here goes:

In all immodesty, the cool, bristling-with-ideas folks planning startups are overlooking an opportunity:  They should be putting old journalists (yes, like me) on their boards. Google “why startups fail,” (see here, here and here for just the first three examples I saw) and you’ll get my point.  Veteran journalists have skills that counter common startup plagues.

Take the single-minded commitment of one leader: It may be a criticall thing for a startup, as far as it goes.  But listening mostly to yourself is a problem.  Run your thoughts past folks who have served the public interests in many different ways over a long period of time, and everyone is likely to learn something.   Same with one very narrow idea — enrich it by regularly subjecting it to discussions with those who have long experience with life, and enhance its staying power.

Management weaknesses are another challenge.  Anyone new to this arena could benefit from the counsel of those who have found solutions over years of management challenges.

Veteran journalists know how to picture the people they are trying to reach.  They know how communities function and what strengthens or weakens democracy. They know how to write, edit, verify, curate. And, stubborn and passionate as we are, old journalists can help by bolstering your tenacity and passion when those are flagging.

Silicon Valley is famous for its lack of gender and ethnic diversity. Both of these lamentable facts decrease startups’ chances of success in our ever more diverse society. Here’s another lack that weakens them. Journalism has made plenty of mistakes over the past few years. Why not benefit from what we’ve learned from them?