Saturday, July 26, 2008

Media must redouble its commitment to fairness

(Originally published 7/26/08)

The media is meant to tell the story. Not be the story.

But now it is, as the line of objectivity has become increasingly blurred during this presidential campaign.

It’s been especially obvious over the last two weeks: As dozens of journalists have scrambled for their places on Barack Obama’s Amazing Incredible Tour of Europe and the Middle East, literally two journalists – one reporter and one photographer – met John McCain as he arrived in New Hampshire Monday.

But which would you rather cover: One candidate’s highly anticipated overseas trip, or your 3,947th town hall meeting? So some of this is understandable.

Or is it? When McCain traveled to Iraq in March, the networks produced only four full-length stories during evening news programs: NBC had three, ABC had one. CBS devoted only 31 words over 10 seconds to the trip over the whole week.

Enter media bias.

Journalists are human beings. They have opinions and a life experience that shape them. They have value systems, just like everyone else. And they take these things with them to the newsroom, to interviews, on assignment and on set.

But there’s something else at work. Journalists are also Americans. They’re voters (well, many of them, anyway). They’re taxpayers. They send their kids to public schools and have concerns about American foreign policy and domestic issues like healthcare. Why should they be immune from the excitement of this history-making election? How is it fair to expect them to remain stoic, just because journalism is their craft?

As I have said here before, everyone has bias. That’s a simple fact. What sets journalists apart is their ability – and commitment – to recognize their personal leanings and account for them when telling a story, so the story is as fair and accurate as possible.

Obama is plowing new ground in American politics, as the media is doing in covering him. But the media’s commitment to fairness is falling by the wayside.
Journalists could help themselves by not engaging in analysis. I’m sure the intent is to provide factual information that grounds the analysis. But the practice falls far short of the ideal. CNN frequently puts its reporters into this no-win situation. Predictably (and in Candy Crowley’s case, unapologetically), they can’t provide facts without opinion.

The media can also take advantage of natural opportunities for parity. The New York Times blew one such opportunity this week when it rejected an op-ed piece by McCain responding to an Obama piece about Iraq. Opinion page editor David Shipley told McCain staff that he wouldn’t accept the piece as written, but he suggested that McCain pen a response “that mirrors Sen. Obama’s piece.”

Micromanagement, anyone?

Yes, the Times endorsed McCain in the primary. Yes, the Times’ “standard procedure” is to “go back and forth with an author on his or her submission.” And yes, the Times has published at least seven such pieces by McCain since 1996.

(By the way, Shipley was President Clinton’s senior speechwriter from 1995 to 1997.)

I wonder: How many of those previous seven did the Times kick back to McCain?

If members of the media can’t find their center and stop being the news, they might as well not bother reporting it.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Dreaded disease is back among politicians

(Originally published 7/19/08)

Bad news, friends: That dreaded disease, flipflopitis, is back – and it's spreading.

Outbreaks of flipflopitis are common among politicians in election years. Notable recent cases include:

  • Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who had opposed oil drilling off the Gulf Coast – until he supported it;
  • President Bush, who had long insisted that his administration would not engage in diplomatic talks with Iran as long as it was pursuing development of its nuclear program – until he decided to send the No. 3 man in the State Department to multilateral talks with Iran in Geneva and establish a diplomatic presence in Tehran; and
  • Democratic presidential nominee-to-be Barack Obama, who had opposed FISA and telecom immunity last year – before he voted for them this week, and who had pledged to accept public financing for the general election – before he opted out.

    And then there’s GOP presidential nominee-to-be John McCain.

    For two years, McCain had been the face of “comprehensive immigration reform” and various proposals that would provide a “pathway to citizenship” for illegal immigrants already in the United States.

    Then came the primaries, and McCain had to win over Republican hard-liners who oppose amnesty in any form. He admitted that the country just wasn’t ready for “comprehensive immigration reform” and began talking about how nice it would be to have a border fence.

    Then he secured the nomination. Speaking this week to the National Council of La Raza, the largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization in the U.S., McCain didn’t back away from border security but was back to talking about “comprehensive immigration reform.”

    Maybe it's because candidates aren't sleeping much and don't remember their previous positions; perhaps it's because all that Red Bull clouds their judgment. But most cases are actually a side effect of another disorder: Panderosis, an insidious, underlying condition that predisposes politicians to doubletalk and manifests itself as candidates face cheering crowds of supporters during campaigns.

    Flipflopitis is highly contagious. It tends to spread among politicians especially when they are together, such as debates. It can also be triggered when they are faced with aggressive questioning from the media and/or evidence, such as polls, that a candidate’s previous position on an issue is no longer the prevailing one.

    There is no known cure for flipflopitis. Once stricken, the victim must live with the effects, which may include being categorized as a flip-flopper or being served waffles by hecklers at campaign breakfasts. Unfortunately, even if the patient is able to recover from the underlying psychological issues that drive him to seek approval even at the cost of his own dignity, the political distinction of “flip-flopper” will likely remain.

    But, there is good news: Voters can manage the symptoms of flipflopitis in their politicians by administering frequent doses of Don’tInsultOurIntelligencicillin. Think recovering surgery patient with a morphine pump – but voters hold the button. While initially embarrassing, and even painful, for politicians to receive, Don’tInsultOurIntelligencicillin is quite safe. Over time, it has a therapeutic effect that has even been known to blunt the effects of panderosis.

    Of course, the government doesn’t cover Don’tInsultOurIntelligencicillin, and it isn’t available in bulk from Canada. It’s up to voters to mix their own doses, with the raw materials of current events awareness, independent thinking and common sense.

    Judging from recent examples, Americans need to stock up – and soon.

  • Saturday, July 12, 2008

    Respecting the presidency, not discouraging dissent

    (Originally published 7/12/08)

    With the War in Iraq now into its sixth year, a struggling economy and a growing sentiment among Americans that their government just doesn’t get it, it’s a good time to explore political protest.

    Hence, last week’s guest columns about whether Americans should “support” President Bush.

    The answer is subjective and based on each person’s individual values. As Americans, we have not only the right to question our leaders, but the freedom to support or oppose them based on their answers.

    So the question should really be whether Americans should respect him, regardless of whether they support him. And even then, it’s really two questions.

    There’s President Bush, the man, who is responsible for the decisions and policies central to his administration. Think what you will of him based on his record. But the president is not the presidency.

    The presidency, the office itself, was carefully crafted by the Framers, who provided a system of checks and balances to ensure that despotism – even benevolent despotism – would not develop in the new country called the United States of America.

    The presidency is an institution that has survived 43 presidents over 219 years. And it will outlast the presidency of George W. Bush.

    Matthew Goodwin wrote last week, “The most patriotic thing to do is to be engaged and voice your opinion; the unpatriotic thing to do is to discourage dissent out of ‘respect for the office.’”

    Right – and wrong.

    I’ve said it here before: Beyond being a privilege of freedom, engagement in public affairs, whether in agreement or opposition, is Americans’ responsibility.

    But encouraging respect for the presidency isn’t discouraging dissent. It doesn’t mean blindly pledging allegiance to the officeholder, come what may. Indeed, to willfully disregard the uniquely American rights “peaceably to assemble” and “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” simply for protocol’s sake is to disregard what it is to be an American.

    There is a difference between protesting a politician and disrespecting the office he holds. The key is to keep protests against politicians in the political arena.

    Of course, the beauty of this country is that people are just as free to display their ignorance as they are to protest.

    Goodwin recounted with self-serving pride how he booed the president at a university commencement last year.

    “If the president believes in the freedoms he says he wants the world to enjoy, then he of all people would have been the most proud of me,” he crowed.

    Goodwin is among many Americans who no longer understand the difference between the office and the person holding it.

    Consider what happened on the Fourth of July, as President Bush was welcoming to the American family a group of naturalized citizens who were taking their oaths of citizenship.

    It was a completely apolitical event, but it was interrupted several times by disruptive protesters yelling at the president about the War in Iraq.

    In all likelihood, those protesters were born into their American citizenship.

    But by exercising their right to protest when and where they did, they said to the newest Americans, for whom citizenship has long been the fondest of dreams, “My rights matter. Yours do not.”

    At one point, Bush raised his voice over a shrieking woman to say, “We believe in free speech in the United States of America.”

    Goodwin, of all people, would have been the most proud of him.

    Coming up on the blog, a look at the campaign finance reports of Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller and challenger Rainer Meadows.

    Don’t forget to vote in the statewide runoff Tuesday!

    Saturday, July 5, 2008

    Freedom, the child of Hope

    (Originally published 7/5/08)


    It’s a beautiful word, rolling off the tongue like a breeze.

    It’s a beautiful word for a beautiful concept: The ability to pursue opportunity, to practice individuality, to participate in the extraordinaries of ordinary life without fear of retribution.

    And we Americans celebrate this extraordinary concept in ordinary ways.

    In backyard barbeques and around picnic tables all across this country, Americans will gather ’round to enjoy holiday meals as they observe the anniversary of their country’s freedom.

    There are dishes aplenty with cosmopolitan influences befitting the melting pot that is the United States: Whether it’s mojito-marinated, ranchero-flavored or huli-huli grilled chicken; Mediterranean or Bavarian potato salad; Peking pork pasta, Aegean or Vietnamese rice noodle salad; kielbasa or baked bean pot lentils; you can have a meal for Independence Day as ethnically diverse as your fellow celebrants.

    And as with everything American, even eating is competitive: There’s even a world-famous hot dog eating contest in which participants race to see who will need angioplasty first.

    Not really. But sort of.

    High school marching bands provide the soundtrack in communities across the country, a Souza-laced celebration punctuated by the occasional piccolo and reminiscent of the bands that once accompanied America’s fighting men and women into battles to secure and protect that freedom.

    Most of us finish the night enjoying breathtaking fireworks shows, whether on a blanket out in our community or vicariously through the wonders of television. It’s a spectacular way to finish the evening.

    But for three American families, freedom this Fourth of July takes on a whole new meaning.

    Held hostage in Colombian jungle by a revolutionary militia for more than six years, Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell were freed Wednesday in a daring rescue operation that was described by fellow hostage and former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt as “a miracle.”

    The three Americans arrived back in the States in the early morning hours of July 3 to receive medical treatment and to be reunited with the families that had yearned so long for their return.

    Imagine, for a moment, what that must have been like. Where were you six years ago? Think about what it would have been like to be held in a jungle in a foreign land since then. Think about all you would have missed – with your family, with your friends – as those years slipped away.

    Upon your return, would you recognize your children?

    Would you remember what it was like to make your own decisions?

    Would you have given up hope?

    For in the beginning, it was hope that gave birth to freedom – hope that there could be a New World, that individuals could have a country wherein they could worship freely, that the ideals of self-reliance and personal responsibility and determination would be a strong enough foundation to turn that hope into reality.

    Hope gave birth to freedom on that day in 1776, and freedom holds open the doors of opportunity for us.

    Welcome home, Marc, Thomas and Keith. Welcome home to freedom.