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Q: Should newspapers fact-check candidates? A: Define ‘fact check.’ Or maybe define ‘newspaper.’

16 Jan

A friend sent me the link to a post from the left-leaning Alternet (click here), about a brouhaha over whether the New York Times should be “fact checking” the presidential candidates. The dust-up started because, among other things, the Times reporters never called out GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney for falsely claiming in stump speeches that President Obama gives speeches “apologizing for America.” (One of the Times columnists did.)

So Arthur Brisbane, the Times’ “public editor” (AKA ombudsman), put it to his readers: Should Times reporters engage is fact checking the candidates’ claims in their stories? You can probably guess what readers said–loudly. (One sample: “Is this a joke? THIS IS YOUR JOB.”) His responses to the criticisms attracted even more scorn.

To be fair, I wonder how Brisbane was defining “fact checking.” He may have in mind a PolitiFact model of publishing “scorecards” and rating the “truthiness” of specific statements. The Times is NOT set up for that kind of blow-by-blow tracking, nor are many news organizations. Even when NPR pointed out Romney’s error on Jan. 10, its report cited Politifact.com as a source.

That’s not to let them off the hook, especially since there’s some uncomfortable prior history of the Times not being thorough in fact checking. (See: Judith Miller and the case for invading Iraq in 2003.) More profoundly, the news media are supposed to be the “Fourth Estate,” the so-called watchdog of those in authority (and those who would be in authority). A healthy, working democracy needs a vibrant, vigilant media: That’s Poli Sci 101. (Exhibit A: The tagline on the Columbia Journalism Review: “Strong Press, Strong Democracy.”)

So this is a matter of priorities and focus. What’s the goal of the Times’ campaign coverage? If I had to guess, I’d say they see their main job as telling people what happened or what was said on the campaign trail, day by day. Cleaning up the statements of candidates is secondary, something to do when or if possible or when there’s such an obvious howler that it can’t be ignored (or maybe if it’s just so easy to catch).

This isn’t the best way to cover a presidential campaign–what with the future of the country at stake and all–and I doubt anyone in the Times newsroom would say it was. I don’t believe many reporters want to give Romney or “the establishment” or even Obama a free pass. Most journalists have more professional integrity than that. (If you can’t believe that, maybe you can believe they’d just love to win a Pulitzer by uncovering the next Watergate.) I think the lapse in “fact checking” is more a matter of microeconomics than macroeconomics or ideology.

This problem is a result of ever-shrinking newsrooms being overwhelmed by an ever-expanding amounts of information and PR, especially coming from well-funded campaigns like Romney’s (and when the time comes, Obama’s). If the Times’ newsroom is like most others in the U.S., as well endowed as it is, it has likely cut its research staff to the bone, if not eliminated it altogether. At the same time, thanks to the handheld technology of iPhones and tablets and the glories of the Internet and 24/7 cable TV news, reporters must file multiple stories or updates each day, sometimes dozens. That simply leaves too much information for too few workers with too little time to sort, analyze and explain. I’m sure campaign managers have figured out that they can avoid a lot of close, timely scrutiny if they simply swamp the newsrooms.

Why is this happening, if it’s damaging the ability of reporters to actually do their jobs? The newsroom is not the boardroom. Corporations that own media outlets have been cutting newsroom staff and resources for more than a decade to increase their bottom lines. (Just a handful of multinational corporations own thousands of newspapers and other news outlets in the U.S.) The financial interests of company stockholders can trump the political interests of citizen stakeholders. Ironically, I’m convinced, this is penny wise and pound foolish, as the old saying goes: As news owners milk short-term profits by slashing reporting resources, they’re damaging their outlets’ long-term value in the process. Why would anyone pay for thin reporting or PR pass-alongs?

There’s one more log to throw on this fire: Thanks to the Citizens United decision, all corporations–including those that own media–can boot up their donations to political campaigns. (Tangential question: If corporations have First Amendment rights like individuals–and therefore can give money to political campaigns–shouldn’t they be allowed to vote? I’m confused. If “money is the mother’s milk of politics,” then the Supreme Court is inconsistent and ignoring reality.) The net effect: Corporate support for journalism (i.e., the public interest) is down. Corporate support for partisan politics (i.e., personal and company benefits) is up.

This isn’t a conspiracy. It’s just one of the results of a social and political culture that has more and more organized itself around self-interest and profit. So we don’t only get the government we deserve. We also get the government watchdogs we deserve.

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Postscript, Jan. 18: This pot continues to boil. Go here for a thoughtful discussion of the New York Times’ fact-checking controversy, courtesy of Lucas Graves and the Nieman Journalism Lab.

F2F Finale: That’s all, folks

16 Jan

This is my final “Face to Faith” column. It’s been a good run, since June 2003. If you’re keeping score, that’s 346 columns.

First, the thank-you notes. Thanks to the editors of the Johnson City Press for the opportunity to explore a lot of interesting territory. Thanks also to friends and colleagues who have generously offered their ideas, suggestions and encouragement.

Thanks to the countless people who let me share their expertise, insights, experiences and voices in this space. One of my favorite parts of being a journalist is the privilege of meeting people I would never otherwise get to know.

Finally, thanks to you for reading and for sending your comments, criticisms (honest!) and compliments. Even more, I appreciate your joining me in looking at all sorts of subjects through the lens of religion. One of my favorite parts of covering religion has been the variety, with the chance to write about everything from Trinitarian doctrine to tax law.

The breadth of religion, as well as its depth, is not a small point. More than ever, we need all the tools we can manage to help us understand our world, and it’s no secret that dozens of important news stories every week – whether in our front yard or on the other side of the globe – are ripe with religious meanings, causes and effects.

So before I go, let me suggest seven topics to keep tabs on, listed in no particular order. These aren’t predictions. Let’s just call this a kind of heads-up memo.

The unbuckling of the Bible Belt. I’ve regularly called our region “the area formerly known as the Bible Belt.” No doubt this place still has a different religious climate than, say, New York or Los Angeles. Even so, church attendance is lower than the national average and actual behavior and attitudes about several key social issues mirror the rest of America. With the increasing secularization of society and growing cultural diversity, we’re not as distinct as we used to be (or maybe like to think we are).

The continuing rise of syncretism. “Syncretism” is a fancy word for mixing beliefs and practices into a kind of spiritual stew, an inclination some people have tagged with labels like “me-ism” or “cafeteria religion.” This is a long-time trend, but I was reminded of its power and attraction when I saw “Avatar” last week. (See below, “impact of media, The.”) Regardless of what someone thinks of this development, it’s one that has real implications for how we view the world.

The politics of sex. I can’t think of one sex-related controversy being debated in the public square – birth control, homosexuality, the meaning of marriage (including same-sex marriage and civil unions) – that isn’t shaped by religious belief.

The impact of media. This issue goes beyond debates over the content of TV shows and movies. The media we invent – and how we use them – affect us. For example: In a digital world, how do you define a “community”? Is a church a church if it’s only on the Internet, or is a vague acquaintance on Facebook a “friend”?

The definition of “human.” Far from being a philosophical abstraction for eggheads, the question of what it means to be human is on our doorstep in a dozen ways. The abortion and end-of-life debates are prime examples. For future reference, we’ll also need to consider if there’s a point at which someone treated with cloning, genetic engineering or robotics might not be considered a fully human being anymore.

The spiritual dimensions of money. It’s not just the matter of garden-variety greed or even Bernie Madoff’s unfathomable fraud. Dozens of economic answers can raise scores of religious and spiritual questions. In other words: Are any religious, spiritual or moral issues connected to health care, jobs, welfare, education, foreign aid (think of Haiti this week), war, credit and debt (both personal and national), advertising and marketing, crime, the justice system or the care of elderly people?

The persistence of church-state controversies. Thanks to the massive gray area written into the U.S. Constitution and lived out in American history, the familiar tensions over faith and public life will continue. After 223 years, why stop now? This is part of our national DNA.

That’s all. In the words of an ancient Christian greeting: Grace and peace to you. Amen.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 16 Jan 2010.

A student prays. Can controversy be far behind?

18 Oct

Yes, that really is the name of the high school mascot.

It’s been a busy three weeks for Greg Ervin as principal of Gate City (Va.) High School. He’s been fielding phone calls almost every day from parents or the press about a church-state storm that unexpectedly boiled up after a student said a simple, heartfelt prayer at a football game.

“Somewhere lost in all this was the fact that a kid died,” Ervin said this week. “No one ever intended to sensationalize this. It was a simple act of kindness and respect.”

The story started on the night of Sept. 11, when the Sullivan South High School football team played at Gate City. Not only was it the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, but the folks from Sullivan were still grieving the death of Jake Logue, one of their players who suddenly collapsed and died during a game in Knoxville on Aug. 21.

Before the game began at Gate City, a brief ceremony remembered the 9/11 victims and Logue, including a moment of silence. A student who was allowed to speak said a prayer, concluding “in Jesus’ name.”

At least one parent in the stands took offense and contacted the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. A few days later, Ervin received a letter from the organization, advising him that a “sectarian prayer delivered over the public address system” before a football game violated a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Such prayers, the letter noted, carry “the impermissible endorsement of the school and coerce participation” in a religious exercise.

The ACLU had been told that Gate City regularly opened its games with prayers – but that is not the case.

Photo: Kingsport (Tenn.) Times-News Web site

Photo: Kingsport (Tenn.) Times-News Web site

Ervin shared the letter’s contents with teachers and the Scott County school board and then responded to the ACLU, describing what happened and correcting the wrong information.

In its reply to Ervin, the ACLU pronounced itself satisfied: Case closed.

The story could have ended there, if a little more patience and a little less readiness to be angry had ruled the day.

“We don’t go looking around for incidents,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis in a phone interview this week, “but when someone calls and says this is what they witnessed, we respond. We usually resolve these matters quietly. We write a letter, and the official writes back to explain or clarify. That’s OK. That’s our standard procedure.”

The ACLU did not make its first letter public, but apparently someone in Scott County was upset enough to notify the press about it. Reporters soon arrived, and as word about the ACLU’s concern spread, anger flared. People wrote furious letters to local newspapers and posted unfounded accusations on Web sites.

Photo: Ned Jilton II, Kingsport Times-News.

Photo: Ned Jilton II, Kingsport Times-News.

Some Gate City students printed about 1,000 T-shirts to hand out at their Oct. 2 football game, taking a swipe at the ACLU. “I still pray…” the shirt fronts read, and on the back: “In Jesus’ name.” When the Virginia ACLU heard about that protest, it publicly affirmed the students’ rights to distribute the shirts, saying they were only exercising their constitutional right to free speech and religious expression.

While the ACLU has a long record of controversial crusades and debatable pronouncements, Willis insists it is not “anti-religion.” Any list of religion-related cases that the ACLU has handled, he said, will include as many defending the free exercise of religion as those challenging unconstitutional “establishment” of religion.

Last week in Nashville, for example, the ACLU of Tennessee completed a successful negotiation on behalf of Christian students from Belmont, Middle Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech universities who were barred from holding worship services for homeless people in a city park. The Metro Board of Parks and Recreation had “unfairly blocked religious groups’ regular use of park space,” according the ACLU, and helped to revise the policy.

“We’re not the prayer police,” Willis said this week. “The original plan at Gate City (on Sept. 11) was for a moment of silence, and there’s no problem with that. We’re down to a really minor (legal) issue that happened one time. The principal was put on the spot. … This was something spontaneous. What was he supposed to do?”

What Principal Ervin wants to do now is move past the controversy and just “remember the spirit” when two communities shared a moment of sadness and sympathy and “a student reached out and spoke as best she knew how.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 17 Oct 2009.

Rocky Mountain News closes, digital train rolls on

28 Feb

rmn-finalfrontpage_t600

Yesterday saw the last day for the Rocky Mountain News, which published in Denver for 150 years (149 years, 311 days to be precise). I wasn’t very familar with the paper except for the three years our family lived in Colorado Springs, but I know it as a unique and lively paper that built a solid reputation (multiple Pulitzer Prizes in the last decade) and enjoyed a colorful history, to put it mildly. It’s a paper that people will miss, and we should.

This is the latest casualty in the newspaper revolution, but it won’t be the last. More than 15,000 newspaper jobs were lost around the country in 2008. Denver is now a one-paper town (the Post survives), and other major cities have faced or are facing (San Francisco, Seattle) the same prospect. But the demise of the RMN seems to have struck a deep nerve among those who pay attention to the news business.

Visit the RMN site to read and view the coverage of its own death. Watch the online video on the front page. It’s a 21-minute primer on the current upheaval in the news business, focused through the story of the RMN’s final months. Slightly self-serving, maybe, but when someone’s going down for the last time, we can cut some slack. Mostly, the video presents an informative and sometimes poignant story.

Coincidentally (or not), Hearst Publishing announced on the same day that it’s developing a digital reader for periodicals — like Amazon’s Kindle device, but for magazines instead of books. Note how this particular digital train is moving from less periodicity to more: books … magazines … next stop: newspapers?

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