Friday, June 29, 2018

CAPITAL GAZETTE MURDERS HIT HOME FOR ALL JOURNALISTS

Like many journalists -- likely including those who were murdered at The Capital Gazette in Annapolis on Thursday -- I have covered deadly events, murders, tragic accidents, horrific natural disasters and heartbreaking loss of life.

As a reporter, you have to overcome your own sadness or empathy to a degree in order to cover these events. Get the story, know the pain the victims are under, but get the facts together correctly and fairly.

But all of that went out the window on Thursday when I heard about the shooting at this local daily paper, which took the lives of four journalists and one sales associate at the hands of a revengeful, hateful person. It later was revealed that the gunman, Jarrod Ramos, had sued the paper, unsuccessfully, on a weak claim of defamation after it had reported on his arrest and guilty plea in a stalking case.

So these journalists, who had done their job reporting on this thug, paid the price that none should pay. Although reporters often pay it on a daily basis. The latest Committee to Protect Journalists data stated that at least 29 journalists had been killed on the job this year, and that does not include the countless times reporters are physically and verbally abused, called liars for reporting the truth, and threatened.

I have never been to the Capital Gazette, but it appears to be a great local daily paper like the ones I and many other reporters have worked at in our careers. The Daily Journal in Elizabeth, N.J.; The Argus in Fremont, Ca.; The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, CA., and the S.F. Independent in San Francisco were the Capital Gazettes of my life. We faced threats and anger in those newsrooms, as many journalists have around the country.

I had the son of a mayoral candidate in Linden, N.J, try to physically attack me when I reported on his father's actions, while a district attorney investigator in San Francisco left a threatening message on my voicemail when I covered his brother's poor legal history during a D.A. race. That led to a police investigation and his firing.

These are nothing compared to what the Annapolis newsroom went through. But they and many other such examples by reporters show the scary and potentially dangerous acts often committed against the press as they do their job. And the most recent rhetoric against news people, led in many ways by President Trump, only adds to the fervor.

I'm not saying that Ramos took Trump's unfair and hateful anti-press and "fake news" claims to heart and that they led him to commit the murders. But the recent angst against our profession that is only doing what it is constitutionally protected to do can be blamed at least in part on the president's hateful words.

And the rhetoric by many journalism opponents, often on the right, doesn't help either. Hate monger Milo Yiannopoulos, whom I won't even dignify as a journalist or valid commentator, said just days ago that, "I can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight."

And Fox News Host Sean Hannity somehow tried to blame Congresswoman Maxine Waters, D-Ca., for the shooting, saying her recent calls to keep protesting and "push back on" Trump administration officials could be linked to the shooting. No surprise Hannity has no idea what he is talking about.

As for the Capital Gazette, its record of solid journalism appears clear. Just last month the paper won a string of prizes from the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Press Association awards, including "extensive coverage of gang violence, the removal of the Roger B. Taney statue, sports events, a profile on the new Annapolis mayor, education writing and more," according to its own story of the honors.

Among the winners were Editorial Page Editor Gerald Fischman, who took first and second place for editorial writing that objected to the lack of a hate crime charge against a man who left a noose at a local school and a county councilman's censorship of public speakers, and Assistant Editor Rob Hiaasen, who won first place for a feature column about living near a segregated beach in Florida. 

Both were killed Thursday.

The paper apparently never won a Pulitzer Prize, not surprising for a small daily that churns out the needed local news on a regular basis and often has few resources or little time for the big, epic investigations. But it did get honored today when the Pulitzer Board posted the following statement online:

The Pulitzer Prize Board expresses heartfelt condolences to the victims and families of the horrific newsroom shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Md. Our thoughts and prayers are with all who are affected by the tragedy today at an institution that traces its origins to 1727.

Maybe the staff that amazingly covered the story of death and hate in its own newsroom on Thursday with a gripping, complete package of stories, could earn a special Pulitzer next time around. 

Monday, June 25, 2018

NY TIMES' STRANGE WATKINS CASE SHOWS NEED FOR PUBLIC EDITOR TO RETURN

Ali Watkins. Photo:Twitter
The strange case of Ali Watkins got a little stranger today as The New York Times, her employer of just six months, published a lengthy report on her apparent conflict of interest with a government official. And her confusing lack of disclosure to some bosses on some of the details.

The triple bylined piece, which also cites work from five more staffers, reads like some kind of  bad D.C. soap opera with anonymous sources, personal details and even cutesy descriptions of Watkins' home life: "In recent years she has zipped around Washington on a motorcycle, taken boxing lessons, and doted on her Husky, Kellan, whom she outfitted with a Putin chew toy."

To be fair, it is also an example of the Times seeking to tell the entire, open story of an embarrassing internal issue, very similar to the Jayson Blair scandal of 2003, in which a reporter was fired for a long string of fabricated stories, made-up facts and outright lies about attending news events. In that case, a four-page report on Mother's Day 2003 left no lie, deception or embarrassment untold.

Ali Watkins is no Jayson Blair, far from it. But feeling the need to expose all of the details about her issue mirrors the paper's reaction to Blair's sins, which resulted in the firing of two top editors that year. It also led to the creation of the paper's public editor position, an independent ombudsman job that lasted until last year when the Times cut the position that was the last real independent review of the paper's work.

Boy, could they use a public editor now.

For those not in the know, Watkins, a 26-year-old Times reporter, joined the paper in December 2017 after successful reporting positions at McClatchy, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post and Politico. She earned a reputation as a dogged reporter who dug out scoops on the high-level intelligence beat and was part of the team that became a finalist for a 2015 Pulitzer Prize.

But during much of that time, she was also involved in a romantic relationship with James Wolfe, a senior aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee, the very group that her Pulitzer-worthy work was covering. The Pulitzer board described the nominated series as "timely coverage of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on CIA torture, demonstrating initiative and perseverance in overcoming government efforts to hide the details."

Today's Times report, which begins on Page One and fills an entire inside page, says Watkins has long claimed that Wolfe was never a source on her reporting, but also reveals she did not tell all of her editors who he was when disclosing that she was involved in a relationship with a committee official.

"People at BuzzFeed say they had a general sense of her personal life," The Times wrote. "During a job interview, Ms. Watkins told Miriam Elder, an editor, that she was dating a man who did intelligence work on Capitol Hill. She said he was not a source, but did not volunteer Mr. Wolfe’s name or title, and the discussion went no further. (Ms. Elder declined to comment, but did not dispute the account.)." 

It later added, "Ms. Watkins made another move in May 2017, to Politico, while she and Mr. Wolfe were still together. She has told friends that when she was hired, she informed a Politico editor, Paul Volpe, that she was dating a man in the intelligence community, though she again did not volunteer Mr. Wolfe’s name or his position. A spokesman for Politico, Brad Dayspring, said only that she “did not disclose the personal nature of her relationship early on in her tenure.”

Watkins' and Wolfe's romance first became public after Wolfe was arrested June 7 for allegedly lying to investigators about his contacts with Watkins and three other journalists, according to the Times. In a bizarre twist that prompted serious backlash among journalists, Watkins' phone and email records were seized, a serious violation of journalistic rights.

But that story also forced the Times and Watkins to reveal her relationship, which today's article further expanded upon, detailing when the two first met in 2013, first kissed in 2014, and later broke up in late 2017. Watkins has not commented and is reportedly on a pre-planned vacation. The Times indicates in the story that it is conducting an internal review of her work and actions.

The Times also revealed today that Watkins had been approached by two FBI agents asking about Wolfe just days before she began working at the paper in Decmber, a fact she told editors about at the time, although it is unclear if she revealed the entire Wolfe relationship then. The paper also disclosed that, "In February, however, Ms. Watkins received a letter that she did not tell her editors about: a notice from the Justice Department, informing her that investigators had seized some of her email and phone records."

The Times said Watkins was advised by her lawyer not to disclose the letter to her employers. Asked about that decision, Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy said in today's paper that editors “obviously would have preferred to know.”

And editors perhaps would have preferred that such a relationship did not exist at all. To make clear, it appears Watkins' romance with Wolfe had ended before she joined the Times, where she has not reported on stories related to him or the Senate Intelligence Committee. 

But her past actions with a potential conflict of interest relationship clearly do raise concerns. The Times' own Ethical Journalism handbook, which was not even mentioned in today's report, states:

Clearly, romantic involvement with a news source would foster an appearance of partiality. Therefore staff members who develop close relationships with people who might figure in coverage they provide, edit, package or supervise must disclose those relationships to the standards editor, the associate managing editor for news administration or the deputy editorial page editor. In some cases, no further action may be needed. But in other instances staff members may have to recuse themselves from certain coverage. And in still other cases, assignments may have to be modified or beats changed. In a few instances, a staff member may have to move to a different department — from business and financial news, say, to the culture desk—to avoid the appearance of conflict.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, seen by many as the bible for such reporting rules, says simply, "Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived; Disclose unavoidable conflicts." 

Watkins has said Wolfe was not a source on her reporting, but wouldn't her relationship with him be at least a perceived conflict of interest? 

As for the Times, cutting its public editor post has appeared to be a potential mistake, not only with the Watkins story, but a few months ago when reporter Glenn Thrush was suspended and later reassigned after allegations of mistreatment of women arose. He was kept on the job, but not until Times editors went through their own investigations and decided to allow him to remain after a two-month suspension.

The 2018 Showtimes series "The Fourth Estate," which chronicled the paper's first year covering Donald Trump's presidency, included a segment devoted to the Thrush incident. Executive Editor Dean Baquet said during a conference call with editors about Thrush, "I think that kind of behavior has got to end." When someone on the call asked why Thrush would not then be fired, Baquet answered, "What I said in the statement is that we're in a moment where there is a huge debate about how to deal with this stuff. But that in my view these things have to be taken as individuals, and individual circumstances. That there can't be blanket rules or blanket punishments."

It would have been interesting to see what part a public editor would have played in that situation, or in the ongoing Watkins debates and reviews at the paper today.

A public editor could clear a lot of the air on this and other such internal issues, and without requiring so many staff members to take time away from covering other important news. It also would remove an obvious conflict of interest the Times faces when having its reporters report on itself.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: ONE OF THE GOOD ONES

Charles Krauthammer's recent announcement that he is facing his last days due to a tough cancer battle brings to mind what a class act he has been for most of his career.

During my time covering media I have been lucky to interview him a few times, and in all cases he was well-mannered and civil, despite disagreeing with my views and likely not a fan of my employers. He also showed great courage and resilience having been a quadriplegic since a diving accident in 1975.

As The New York Times' Bret Stephens wrote on Sunday, "Whether you agreed with him or not, Charles’s column taught ... Charles could write political columns with the best of them, but the game for him was philosophical, not partisan. His conservatism was never about getting Republicans elected in the fall. It was about conserving the institutions, values and temper of a free and humane world."

But Krauthammer also reminded me of the different levels of conservative commentary I have come across during my time on the media beat, first for 11 years at Editor & Publisher, and later at Media Matters for America for eight years.

On the job at the convention
During those days I attended many events where I would approach and interview right-wing voices from television, radio and the web. And it was always interesting to see their reactions. Some were cordial, even when they made clear they did not like what I often wrote, although agreeing it was usually accurate. Krauthammer was in this group, and I am sure many who know him on the right and the left would agree.

One of the times we spoke was in 2009 when I wrote a story for E&P on how conservative columnists would approach the new Obama Administration. Krauthammer was quite open, saying,
“It is a lot easier to be in opposition, it is easier to criticize.” Ironically, he has likely seen that in the past year with Trump, whom he has openly criticized.

Also in that story were comments from three other conservative commentators who fall in to the more cordial and friendly category of the right-leaning media voices. Those include George Will, Cal Thomas and the late Tony Blankley. I spoke to Blankley on at least a dozen occasions and had coffee with him in his office at Edelman International public relations in Washington, D.C., shortly after he faced a tough cancer surgery. He died from that illness in 2012.

With Tony Blankley
The former chief of staff for Newt Gingrich, Blankley was a hard-lined conservative, but always very responsive and respectful. And a great story teller during many off-record talks about the campaign trail and Capitol corridors.

Will remained at least responsive and professional when being interviewed, even after I wrote about his conflict of interest related to one column, and another controversial column about campus sexual harassment and assault that prompted protests at a Michigan State University commencement he attended in 2014 . I was impressed to see that he recently appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher, clearly before a hostile crowd.

Thomas was always responsive and kind, especially during a short stint I served on Fox News Watch in 2008 with him. But when I joined Media Matters in 2010, he stopped taking my calls. Guess he couldn't handle the truth.

Breitbart News founder Andrew Breitbart, who passed away too young in 2012, was another well-mannered right-winger in person. When I approached him at a CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) event in 2011, with video rolling, he gladly answered my questions. Although he also criticized a report I had done -- although not as inaccurate -- we shook hands when it was over.

At CPAC in 2012
I attended at least 10 CPACs and interviewed conservative media folks at all of them. In most cases, the kind and professional people stood out. Among those have been Lars Larson, Tim Constantine, Scottie Nell Hughes, Rusty Humphries, Hugh Hewitt, Mary Katharine Ham, Jonah Goldberg and even Larry O'Connor, although he would always take a swipe at my bosses, but again never with any valid inaccuracy charge.

Radio talk show host Michael Medved could be the nicest of the conservative commentators, although he might not even be considered hard right as he seems to have a thoughtful and measured view. He would not only chat with me anytime I saw him, but he let me sit in on his show for an hour when he was in New York years ago.

With Dana Loesch at CPAC 2013
Dana Loesch was among the kinder voices for years during her time as a radio talk show host, newspaper columnist and later a commentator for Glenn Beck's The Blaze. She always greeted me with a smile and was glad to comment for whatever the story was, often chiding me that I should work for someone who appreciated me more. I disagreed. 

So it surprised me a great deal when she signed on with the NRA and made some hateful anti-press videos that took on an almost threatening tone against the mainstream media. She must be making good money to align herself with a group so focused on helping the gun manufacturers, as those are clearly their priority, not private owners and hunters.

Then there are the truly mean-spirited, rude and downright unprofessional conservative commentators I have endured. None of them ever frightened me as I have had real tough guys come after me in my career -- from mob-connected thugs in New Jersey to corrupt politicians in California.  

Still, it is interesting to see how low some can stoop, and how cowardly. Sean Hannity comes to mind as he ran away from me twice at the TALKERS radio convention held annually in New York. Both times I approached him to ask a question, he saw the video or audio recorder and took off. And Mark Levin told me to "go to hell" during a CPAC event when I sought to ask a question.

I had little interaction with conspiracy theorist and online radio talker Alex Jones, although I spoke briefly with him in Cleveland during the 2016 Republican Convention there. I believe he answered one or two questions about his false claim of the day, but with no outward attack or his trademark red-faced ranting.  

I never had the honor (or dishonor) of meeting right-wing radio man Michael Savage in person. But back in 1995 when I was at a small newspaper in San Francisco and he was on local radio station KSFO, he bashed a series I had done on a local district attorney candidate, giving the challenger an hour or so to attack my work, with lies, and refusing to let me come on and defend myself. (Side note: the candidate, Bill Fazio, lost and when he did, his brother, a D.A. investigator, left a threatening message on my home voice mail -- he was later fired.)

After that and Savage's anti-gay comments years later, he showed his true side.

Video news fraud James O'Keefe is not even worthy of mention, although it was telling years ago that he refused to be interviewed on video during a 2011 event in New Jersey where he spoke. Ironic since he has made a career out of undercover, deceptive videos and misleading edits of them to push false claims. He also happened to repeat his often-told story of how he got Lucky Charms banned at Rutgers University when he was a student -- another falsehood. 

Then there is Roger Stone, who fits into both categories in some ways. The right-wing Trump supporter, birther and author would always point me out in the crowd when I attended his events, usually with video camera on, telling the then booing assembly to let me be. But then he often refused to answer questions during the Q&A, even saying I was "not a journalist." Later, after the event, he would sometimes give a comment. 

In a funny twist, I was among a small crowd at a Cleveland book store during the 2016 GOP convention waiting for Stone at a book signing, hoping to ask him some questions. (He later declined). As we waited, a woman and her children were taking pictures in front of Stone's appearance sign. I offered to take the shot for them and they thanked me. They later turned out to be his daughter and grandchildren.

Monday, June 4, 2018

CANCELING 'ROSEANNE' WAS RIGHT, BUT THE SHOW WAS NOT RIGHT-WING

Whatever you think of Roseanne Barr's latest racist and offensive tweet, which sparked major backlash and lost her the show she had just brought back to life, it was wrong to label it a pro-Trump show.

I was not happy that the show was cancelled as I was a big fan. No, not because Roseanne's character, like Roseanne herself, was a Trump supporter. But because it was a funny, smart and inventive show that dealt with edgy issues of the day, much the same way the earlier version did.

Believe me, if the show had been a half hour of some kind of pro-Trump promotion, I would have turned it off from the beginning.

Sure, Roseanne deserved to lose the show given the terrible views she expressed, and ABC had good cause from a business and public relations standpoint to take a stand given the backlash it would have endured by keeping the program on the air -- it was a valid move.

But to refer to it as some kind of show representing views of the Trump base was just wrong. Part of this was due to Trump himself, who probably never even watched it, hitching himself to the success because Roseanne's character happened to be a Trump supporter. But this was raised in the show only a handful of times and in a very limited way.

Most of the show's plot lines dealt with the same issues it had considered 25 years ago when the original version aired: unemployment, crime, middle-class economics, raising children, paying bills and dealing with working class headaches. And while Roseanne was a Trump supporter, her sister and others were not and it led to some great examples of how the country is so divided today.

She also looked at some very progressive issues, with a son whose child was mixed race; a grandchild who was dealing with gender identity; a daughter seeking to be a surrogate parent; and on and on. One of the best episodes had Roseanne confronting her own Islamophobia.

This is no different from her earlier show that was among the first to have a gay wedding, discuss teen pregnancy and birth control, confront domestic abuse, depression, other mental illness and, yes, racism. 

And even if Roseanne's character had been more outspoken about her right-wing views that would not have necessarily made the show bad. Archie Bunker on All in the Family was much more racist, prejudice and outspoken about controversial issues of the day - but it made for great television and actually allowed the producers to show the absurdity of his views.

In the recent Islamophobia episode, Roseanne's fear of her Muslim neighbor was exposed as baseless and dangerous, even to herself. It also allowed viewers to see why some people have such fears, wrong as they are, the same way Archie Bunker had unfair views of people not like himself. Usually based on ignorance of something different. In Roseanne's case, perhaps pushed by the president she so admires. 

I am not trying to defend Roseanne's actions and in no way am I seeking for her to return to television, or be allowed to brush off this and other terrible things she has said and done. It's just that, as a reporter, I hate seeing misinformation spread and this show being portrayed as something other than what it was - good, innovative and edgy television. 

And Roseanne has no one but herself to blame for its removal. It has nothing to do with her politics, its her own racist and unacceptable actions and views. That may be the best issue of all the show is now forcing people to confront.

Friday, June 1, 2018

NEW KNOXVILLE FLICK HAS NORTH JERSEY ROOTS IN REAL DANGER

The latest flick from crazy man Johnny Knoxville, he of Jackass and Bad Grandpa fame, has its roots in North Jersey and an infamous amusement park where me and my friends spent many a summer vacation day.

And we were lucky we weren't killed.

Action Point, the new film from Knoxville's book of dangerous stunts and bathroom humor, stems at least in part from Action Park, the Vernon, N.J., play land of the 1970s and 80s known more for broken bones and ambulances than family fun.

As the film's trailer below indicates it sets Knoxville in a park similar to Action Park, with a dangerous water slide, a coaster ride that produced skinned knees and flying carts, and the infamous rope swing where drunken riders often forgot when to let go.




A low-budget mini-documentary on Action Park came out a few years ago and shows the dangers it had that gave it the nicknames, Traction Park or Class-Action Park. See that below:



 
During a recent episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live, Kimmel and Knoxville discussed the roots of the film in New Jersey's most dangerous fun spot. See that HERE. 

It opens today, June 1, and I promise I will be among the first in line - but not for the rope swing.

Monday, April 16, 2018

#METOO COVERAGE LEADS VARIETY OF PULITZER PRIZES

The revelations about sexual assaults and harassment that sparked the #MeToo movement took the top awards at the Pulitzer Prizes today with The New York Times and The New Yorker sharing the coveted Public Service prize for their reporting on the issue, while The Washington Post's revelations of Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore's alleged sexual harassment of under-aged girls won that outlet the Investigative Reporting honor.

Other winners included those covering the Trump Mexican wall issue, Russian interference in the U.S. elections, and the deadly South Carolina church killings. 

The awards spanned both newspapers and magazines with 13 different news outlets taking at least part of a prize. Multiple winners included The New York Times with three and The Washington Post and Reuters two a piece.

See the entire list HERE and video of the announcements below:

IT'S PULITZER DAY - LEAKS, MYSTIQUE AND "THE CABAL"

It's Pulitzer Prize day once again.

For years, this was my favorite story to cover when I was at Editor & Publisher, the once proud bible of the newspaper industry.

After we were lucky enough to get leaked finalist names for several years, it became something of a guessing game to see how many were correct. Most of the time we were on top of it, until the Pulitzer folks got wise and put the clamps on the leaks.

Known by many as "The Cabal," the leaks were the work of a group of Pulitzer jurors, some members of these committees that actually filter through the thousands of Pulitzer entries and provide three finalists for the 17-member Pulitzer Board to consider.

For years the group, led in part by former Washington Post ombudsman and D.C. news veteran Deborah Howell -- among others -- would hit the phones after the finalists were chosen and a printed list would eventually evolve. It circulated and found its way to me back in 2004.

After determining it was valid, Editor Greg Mitchell and I posted it online at E&P and found it was correct once the announcements occurred. "The Cabal" and its leaks continued for several years, but later died out due to tighter controls and newer jurors not interested in spreading the word.

Still, it has become clear that the Pulitzer Board itself is known to advise friends and colleagues if a win is coming. Past editors and winners have told me how they were informed hours -- even days -- before the big announcement, in some cases even receiving champagne from the top brass at their papers ahead of time.

Last year, The New York Times accidently let the word out online when it prematurely advised that its winners would be discussing their prizes later in the day.

It is interesting that nine of the 17 Pulitzer Board members work for news organizations that likely have entries in the competition. The past practice has required that they leave the room when categories in which they were finalists are discussed and voted upon. 

That has even extended to journalism and media companies that own many outlets. With so much consolidation, that can mean a lot these days.

For instance, Houston Chronicle Editor Nancy Barnes, a long-time respected editor, is on the board. But since her paper is owned by Hearst, which owns 24 daily papers and 25 U.S. magazines, she cannot be involved in the board deliberations if any of them are finalists.

The same goes for board member Aminda Marques Gonzalez, executive editor of The Miami Herald, whose owner is McClatchy, owner of more than two dozen daily papers. Those include the News & Observer of Raleigh, The Kansas City Star, The Charlotte Observer and The Sacramento Bee

The board, which met last week, then reads and decides what to award -- or not award. One of the beauties of the prizes is that the board has final say and can award prizes to winners who were not finalists, move entries around among the 14 journalism categories, give two awards in a category, or none.

With the leaks shutdown years ago, speculation is more difficult. but look for some Harvey Weinstein coverage to be in the running, along with Trump-related reporting and, hopefully, a handful of investigative issues.

The earlier Goldsmith Prize finalists often offer an insight. This year's nominees for that award ranged from addiction issues to Russia. Expect more of the same today.

Then there are always the little engines that could -- small papers that come out of nowhere to grab the prize and show size does not matter in these awards. Last year, the tiny Storm Lake Times in Iowa won for editorial writing with in-depth opinion on local agricultural issues.

It is that broad swath of contenders that make the awards that much more interesting, the fact that a small paper in Iowa competes against The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal -- and can sometimes win.

And let's not forget the non-journalism Pulitzers that are awarded in music, poetry, literature and drama.

With that, I will be tuning in at 3 p.m. today to the live announcements online and, as former Pulitzer Administrator Sig Gissler used to say, waiting for them to "change some lives forever."