Hang down your head, Hearst Newspapers

There’s been a running argument over the last 20 years or so about whether or not newspapers should run ads on their front pages.  The front page is sacred, the old school guys insist: all news and only news, because this is how we show the reader that they’ve come to a serious source of news.  Yes, of course we need to sell ads to stay in business, but we don’t run them on the front page.  We just don’t.

This is one of those fights that the old school guys have been losing, slowly, one paper after another.  A few years back the American Journalism Review ran a good, short history of the issue and outlined reasons for and against.

Gene Patterson, former chairman of the Poynter Institute and former editor of the St. Petersburg Times, sees the page-one ad as a sign of painful economic times for newspapers. “I find the section-front ads to be acceptable; I find the page-one ads repugnant,” he says. “But if they are done tastefully and held down in size, I think perhaps we have to accept them… We have to police it and monitor it and be guided by taste, but I don’t think the advertisers want to ruin us. We are their vehicle, after all, and I think we can work with them to achieve compromises.”

Others want to hold the line. Gene Roberts, a former managing editor of the New York Times and executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, says front-page ads are just another in a series of industry mistakes triggered by short-term thinking. “It’s one more in this kind of death by a thousand cuts that the newspaper business seems to be administering to itself,” says Roberts, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, which houses AJR. “In the long run, the big necessity is to get and maintain readers, and I think without question that front-page ads work against readership.”

(snip)

Page-one placement can spark visceral reactions not only from journalists but also from readers. Take the case in March of the fluorescent advertising stickers (for a motor oil company and a carpet-and-flooring company) pasted atop the front page of the Hartford Courant. Reader Representative Karen Hunter received several indignant comments on her blog. “That is disgusting to have advertising on the front page of my newspaper,” wrote one woman. Said another: “This has got to stop.” One reader took it further, accusing the Tribune Co., the Courant’s parent, of “absolutely whoring for advertising… It screams, ‘We’re desperate!’ It screams, ‘Ethics be damned!'”

Imagine what they would say if they got a look at this Sunday’s edition in my hometown.  Today, over at Houston’s Leading Information Source, they threw in the towel on this argument.  Not only do we now run ads on the front page, we run two pages of ads in front of the front page!

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After the initial shock, I decided I’m not really surprised.  More’s the pity.

If you need a giggle, try Xinhua

Official government news agencies are not famous for their whimsy, particularly those whose mission is to convey all the warmth and humanity of a dictatorial regime.  Yet China’s Xinhua agency delivered the goods when it reported that Jeff Bezos had purchased The Washington Post by mistake and was having trouble cancelling the transaction!

Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon reports that Xinhua came across this Andy Borowitz piece in The New Yorker and republished it as fact: Amazon founder Bezos inadvertently clicked on the Post’s website and ended up making a purchase, and customer service wasn’t being too helpful in straightening out the mistake.

Mr. Bezos said he had been on the phone with the Post’s customer service for the better part of the day trying to unwind his mistaken purchase, but so far “they’ve really been giving me the runaround.”

According to Mr. Bezos, “I keep telling them, I don’t know how it got in my cart. I don’t want it. It’s like they’re making it impossible to return it.”

Xinhua does not have an American sense of humor, clearly; it apparently does not have an American sense of plagiarism, either.

Maybe the guy in the tin foil hat was right

We should all be in line to take a whack at the idiots responsible for these completely avoidable exercises in governmental overreach and hubris.  All together now: what the hell were they thinking?  I can’t decide which is more disturbing: the government using its power to harass and tacitly threaten law-abiding citizens based on a perception of their political views, or the government using its power to harass and tacitly threaten journalists in the pursuit of their constitutionally-recognized role as government watchdog.  Both are abuses of government power that fly in the face of what this country is meant to stand for.

Today the attorney general ordered the FBI to investigate the Internal Revenue Service for apparently singling out for enhanced scrutiny the applications for tax-exempt status from what were perceived to be conservative political groups.  Yep, it looks like the party in power has been using the authority of the taxman to reward those with whom it agrees and punish those with whom it does not.  Is there any more textbook definition of abuse of power than that?

I’m not saying that the IRS shouldn’t be thorough in reviewing applications for tax-exempt status; the IRS should be exceedingly thorough in investigating such requests.  Wouldn’t we all be willing to believe there are those among us who would do whatever they could to reduce their tax bills, even lie about the true purpose of their organization?  There are entire political movements built on the effort to reduce taxes, but that doesn’t mean they deserve extra scrutiny.  Whatever’s determined to be the proper amount of review for gaining tax-exempt status should the bar for everyone to pass, and it’s just flat wrong for an arm of the government to single out persons or groups for extra scrutiny based on their actual or perceived political views, including their views about taxes!  (Is this a great country or what?)  The whole idea has conjured up in my imagination that happy visage of Richard Nixon and enemies lists.

It’s just as wrong, and just as dangerous to our liberty, for the Justice Department to seize phone records of journalists.  The DOJ notified The Associated Press last week that at some point earlier this year, and clearly without prior notice, it had seized records for 20 phone lines belonging to AP offices and journalists, including home phones and cell phones.  It did not state a reason why these records were seized; it’s believed to be in relation to an investigation into leaks about how the CIA disrupted a terrorist plot to bomb an airliner.

Our system envisions a strong press as a watchdog on government at all levels, acting as a representative of the people seeking out information that the government wants kept quiet…the stuff that the politicians and the bureaucrats don’t want you to know, that they’ve kept from you out of embarrassment or guilt.  There have been people in the government from the beginning who understood the importance of that role to the overall functioning of society, and who’ve provided sensitive information to reporters despite being told not to do so.  Today we call those people whistleblowers.  When that whistle gets blown the government’s first response is often to decide who will take the blame, and they devote a terrific amount of energy to learning who told the truth.  In some cases they ask a court to order the journalists who ran the story to tell where they got their information; in others, like this one, they just take private information without the knowledge of its owner in the hopes that they’ll be able to deduce who ratted them out.

We used to talk about the “chilling effect” that a variety of government actions would have on the newsgathering process, on the minds of the reporters who might think twice—or more than that—about pursuing a story when faced with the possibility, or the likelihood, that the government was going to fight back.  And this is that.

It’s inconceivable to me that all the people involved in these two growing scandals are merely misunderstood or made poor decisions about how to achieve a legitimate objective, but I don’t think the blame goes all the way to the top.  This president is neither that paranoid nor that stupid…although you’d think that a professor of constitutional law might have impressed on his subordinates some of his relevant thoughts about the proper use of governmental power.  If this news had come out while the last man was president, I would have accepted it as prima facie evidence of the evilness of his administration and its soulless pursuit of instituting theocratic capitalism as our new form of government.  I would have been wrong, but I admit I would have thought it.

When the government spies on reporters and appears to punish political enemies, it gives the tin foil hat crowd encouragement: “The government is spying on you—it’s keeping track of who you call and who calls you, it’s watching what you do and where you go and who you meet, it’s keeping information on your income and your taxes and your friends and who you associate with, and it’s using that information against you.”  Today that sounds a little less ridiculous that it did last week.

Unassigned additional reading:

Mitt: Did I say that out loud?

Years ago I was a political junkie, but I kicked it. Turned out it was pretty easy to get the political process monkey off my back when the campaign content and tactics got so distasteful that I couldn’t bear to listen. But some things come back easily, in the right circumstances.

The “hidden video” news revealing Mitt Romney in an unguarded moment in his native environment—among the wealthy—expressing his apparently-honest feelings about a large portion of his fellow citizens left me shaking my head and imagining the effect on voters. Even if what he said was right—and mostly it’s not—demonstrating that contempt for the poor and the elderly, who make up most of those who owe no federal income tax but still pay plenty of other taxes, isn’t going to help Romney with his likeability problem. Today’s revelation of another video clip from that same fundraiser—in which Romney asserts that Palestinians (apparently, all of them) “have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace” with Israel—and the promise of the full video still to come, makes you grateful to live in a time when everyone with a phone is a potential hidden camera.

Romney is right about the fact that most people, on both sides, have made up their minds, and the outcome depends on the choices of a small portion of voters. The experts haven’t had time yet to gather data on how Romney’s truth outbursts in a Florida fundraiser will affect those undecided voters, but that data will get put into the mix along with this very interesting analysis of the polling up to this point which concludes that “Given where the election is being contested, however, the most likely outcome is that Obama wins enough tipping-point states to eke out a victory.” I can hardly wait for the debates!

The powers that be control the message—even more than you know

Here is another depressing argument that the reality you and I inhabit, and feel comfortable most days saying we have some control over, has been sanitized for our protection.

The New York Times reports that “quote approval” is a common practice with the Obama and Romney campaigns, but also among most of the government bureaucracy.  Campaign or government officials agree to an interview with the proviso that they get pre-publication approval as to “what statements can be quoted and attributed by name.”

The chutzpah is galling, yes?  But here’s the worst part: the reporters agree to the condition!

It’s nothing new for politicians to go to extraordinary lengths to manage the impressions we get of them, and that’s not all bad: I’d rather have leaders who take time to consider what they’re doing and how their actions will be perceived than leaders who don’t take a moment to think about alternative courses of action and their potential outcomes.  And remember, there is no requirement anywhere that any politician or candidate for office need ever consent to be interviewed; that’s just the way, historically, that they have communicated with the people who put them in power.  They’re free to ask for any condition at all in return for an interview.

But, the role of the journalist in our system is to report—to dig, to uncover, to reason, to relate, to provide context—so the rest of us can hold leaders to account for the actions that they do take.  It’s not the job of the journalist to help the leaders fabricate a version of reality that puts them in a more positive light, and letting them clean up their quotes is doing just that.  (This system doesn’t work for an interview that is broadcast live on television or radio or the Web…yea, TV and radio.)

The politicians themselves betray a little self-consciousness on the issue—“The Obama campaign declined to make Mr. Plouffe or Mr. Messina available to explain their media practices. ‘We are not putting anyone on the record for this story,’ said Katie Hogan, an Obama spokeswoman, without a hint of irony.”—and the Times story says reporters “grudgingly agree” to this restriction.

I would argue that they should not agree at all.  Giving in to the bully is not the way to get him to stop stealing your lunch money.

Politicians should have the fortitude to stand by whatever they say when they agree to an on-the-record interview, whether it’s broadcast on television or reported in a printed publication, and I’m disappointed to learn about some of those who demand the final rewrite as if they were negotiating a movie deal.  But journalists mustuphold a higher standard, and that means no more cooperating with the cover-up.  Today’s story in the Times is a good start, because now the rest of us have a better idea of what’s going on.  Shining a light on this stupid practice is the first step toward bringing it to an end.

I’d love to see a story that informed me “candidate so-and-so would only agree to an interview if The Daily Disappointment gave him authority to decide which quotes would be included in the story.”  No news publication can cede the responsibility to write its own story as its writers and editors see fit; to give up that authority to the people who are the subjects of the story is to erase any reason for you or me to believe anything they print.

The author and critic Louis Kronenberger wrote that “The trouble with us in America isn’t that the poetry of life has been turned to prose, but that it has been turned to advertising copy.”  He wrote that in 1954…change is sure slow.

→UPDATE 7/17:  Turns out that not all the reporters give “quote approval”–congratulations, Associated Press!