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Anchor babies, aweigh

Suddenly we’re hearing about a strange new threat called “anchor babies,” and news media are not doing a very good job getting the facts right and putting the term in context. It’s important for journalists to report this carefully because the far right is citing the alleged threat of “anchor babies” to justify monkeying with one of the most important parts of the Constitution, the 14th Amendment, with its guarantee of citizenship to anyone born in this country.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, who claims to be a moderate, has been warning of the dire threat of “anchor babies” every chance he gets. Recently on CNN he was asked by Wolf Blitzer how many illegal immigrants come here just to have babies that automatically become U.S. citizens. Graham said there are “reports” of some 6,000. Blitzer failed to follow up and ask some obvious questions: What “reports?” What are they based on? And this figure of 6,000: does it refer to 6,000 a year, a decade, or some grand total over all time?

Politifact examines the issue carefully in a long article and ends up saying there’s no evidence of any large number of illegal immigrants coming here to give birth:

“Graham appears to be conflating two things — a pattern of wealthy foreigners engaging in ‘birth tourism’ using legal visas, and illegal immigration of poorer people from Mexico. In our view, failing to make the distinction exaggerates the alleged problem and uses inflammatory rhetoric to obscure legitimate policy questions. On balance, we rate his comment Half True.”

Rating it half true seems overly generous. Graham knows very well he is misleading the public, and the overall impression he’s leaving is totally false. Even Lou Dobbs won’t go as far as Graham; Dobbs defends the 14th Amendment and “birthright citizenship.”

This is an issue ripe for demagoguery, and it’s up to journalists to report the facts carefully and help the public have a sensible debate about immigration.

(Photo: Still from video of CBS News report.)

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One year without a real newspaper

It’s been a year now since the death of the Ann Arbor News. It’s been replaced by something called annarbor.com, which is both a website and a twice-weekly (Thursday and Sunday) print newspaper. I don’t know if it’s successful commercially, but in terms of journalism it leaves a lot to be desired.

Much of it seems to be a kind of community bulletin board, with notices of upcoming events and soft features on life in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Some of the stories are so trivial they almost seem like “little Billy Jones fell off his tricycle yesterday.” One time I went to the website and the lead story was about a 100-year-old man who still plays the harmonica. There was a link to video of this gent actually playing the instrument, in case I might be interested, which I was not.

The week it was launched annarbor.com failed to cover some major political stories: the gubernatorial candidacy of local businessman Rick Snyder and the final campaigning for the following week’s Democratic primary for local offices. Last month, less than a month before today’s Michigan primary election, there was a story about Snyder being third in a poll of GOP voters — but the story was a link to a Detroit News item instead of being written by an annarbornews.com staffer. The same day a story about Obama’s visit to Michigan was just a rewrite from the Grand Rapids Press.  And today annarbor.com has a story about political factors in today’s election — again drawing heavily from the Grand Rapids Press, which happens to be owned by a subsidiary of the company that owns annarbor.com.

While some of the staff are professional journalists who lost their jobs at the old Ann Arbor News and were rehired by annarbor.com at lower salaries, others on the staff are amateurs, and it shows. Some of the stories look like rewrites of press releases (without even much rewriting, I suspect). One time the website even included an actual press release without identifying it as such. Some of the news coverage seems amateurish and naive, without the skepticism and adversarial relationship toward the rich and powerful that American journalism prides itself on and that the public needs. (The closest thing to a real newspaper with that type of attitude is the university’s student-run newspaper, the Michigan Daily.)

To be sure, annarbor.com does publish a print edition twice a week, so at least the old Ann Arbor News is not completely dead, in format. It does provide some information of interest to the community. And it has potential, if it can tap into tips from local citizens who are sending in items about their interests, but it would need a more professional staff and a more journalistic attitude.

It’s a pity, because this is a highly literate, well educated community that would read long-form, in-depth, investigative pieces, and hard-hitting stories exposing social problems, and intelligent, thoughtful, critical profiles of the many interesting people here including world-renowned experts, and instead they are being given pretty thin stuff.

(Photo: Toronto Star)

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What can we learn from the Shirley Sherrod affair?

My blogger friends aren’t going to like this post. I’m going to be accused of being a media dinosaur. But I can’t help feeling that the Shirley Sherrod affair demonstrates the need for all of us to go back to some of the old values of traditional mainstream media.

When I say traditional values I’m talking about values that go back to before the Internet and before cable. I’m talking about doing things more slowly and carefully. I’m talking about being skeptical whenever someone tells you that something happened. I’m talking about wanting to see the original document or the original tape yourself before writing about something that allegedly comes from it, something that could cost a woman her job and unfairly raise charges of racism in a country where race is still such an explosive issue.

In other words, old-style, traditional, skeptical and independent journalism, journalism that is concerned about being fact-based, complete, contextual, in-depth and fair.

This old journalism is sharply different from the rapid-fire, shoot-from-the-hip style popular in cyberspace where many items are written hastily and with a partisan or ideological bias, items that replace careful, independent scrutiny of facts with clever commentary designed to skewer an opponent and reinforce the prejudices of one’s own side.

In this case it was Fox, the Obama administration and the NAACP that embarrassed themselves by jumping to conclusions that later proved to be wrong, but the same thing could happen to other media, government and political organizations of all stripes. It could happen to you.

What we had in the Sherrod affair was a conservative organization, Fox “News,” jumping unthinkingly on a story based on a bit of tape provided, out of context and with great distortion, by a conservative agitator, Andrew Breitbart, who was trying to discredit the NAACP for seeing racism in the tea party, and then we had Fox playing up the story and commenting on it without checking into it more carefully. Then we had a liberal administration firing Sherrod because of all the hysteria whipped up by Fox, and we had a liberal organization, the NAACP, approving her firing, and now we have Fox finally doing more careful reporting and finding white farmers who say she helped them and is no racist, and now the NAACP is saying it was snookered, and the Obama administration is backtracking.

What a mess.

And so unnecessary.

It all could have been avoided if all of us, liberal or conservative or of whatever ideological stripe, had just calmed down and taken it more slowly and carefully instead of jumping to conclusions and seeing things through a distorted partisan lens.

Go ahead. Attack me. I know I’m a dinosaur (34 years at the Wall St. Journal, AP, Newsweek and CNN). But I think it’s time for anyone who is writing in cyberspace or appearing on cable channels to slow down, be more careful, stop and think and learn a lesson or two from the best of the old media.

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CNN 30 years later

(This post has been updated. See more recent item.)

For CNN alums like me, this coming Saturday evening will be especially nostalgic. We’ll commemorate CNN’s 30th anniversary at a reunion at the National Press Club in Washington. CNN first went on the air on June 1, 1980. The network has evolved over the years, and seeing some of its creators at the reunion will be a reminder of how much it has changed.

Ted Turner is scheduled to be there, along with co-founder Reese Schonfeld. I remember Ted visiting the Rome bureau twice while I was there – once with his wife and another time with a woman who was not his wife. Both times Ted spent part of the evening reading aloud press clippings about himself. An amazing self-promoter (known to detractors as the “Mouth of the South”). For me, joining CNN was a scary move, coming as I did from solid, established mainstream print media (Newsweek, and before that the AP and the Wall Street Journal). I had no idea whether CNN would even survive, whether Ted would do something outrageous to discredit the network. At times he came close. One of the worst moments was when he did an on-air editorial saying the producers of the film Taxi Driver should be put on trial in connection with the attempted assassination of Reagan because the shooter, John Hinckley, had been influenced by that movie. We correspondents and producers all cringed, but Ted never did another on-air editorial, thank God.

I remember Reese Schonfeld hiring me in 1981 in Atlanta, and during our conversation in his office he kept looking at the TV monitors, including one showing a CNN reporter doing a live shot from California. The reporter’s live shot seemed to be going on too long. Reese picked up the phone and said something. Within a few seconds she was gone. I was amazed that the president of the network would be making minute decisions like that. Later a producer told me that Reese once had screamed an obscenity as he ran across the set behind startled anchors – all live, of course.

Those early days were crazy, as I noted in my memoir, Capturing the News. Just before midnight one night in Atlanta as I was learning the ropes, a producer came up to me and asked, “Can you anchor?” The midnight anchor had not appeared. I had never done TV news. Fortunately the anchor finally showed up at the last minute, but CNN had been quite ready to put someone as inexperienced as me on the air. One time while in Rome I was assigned to do a story saying the Pope had VD (what they called STD’s in those days); I found a way to avoid doing such a preposterous story. Another time a transformer caught fire during an interview I was conducting in Paris, and the smoke caused my interviewee, a distinguished political analyst, to weep and beg me to stop the interview. With our second-hand, third-rate equipment and our amateurish approach, we were the laughingstock of TV news. The established news media called us “CNN – Chicken Noodle News.” Thirty years later, they’re not laughing any more. CBS News, fallen on hard days, is now talking merger with CNN.  How times have changed.

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Helen Thomas’s ignoble departure

Over the years, Helen Thomas went from tough adversarial questioner of the powerful to hateful bigot. Too bad. From her front-row perch at White House press briefings, for many years she did the right thing by asking tough questions about U.S. justifications for wars, and to her credit she did not allow herself to get co-opted into the establishment mentality like so many Washington journalists. But with the passage of time she became less of a questioning journalist and more of a columnist with an agenda, and now she has been forced out because of disgusting anti-Semitic comments.

It’s too bad that she has discredited herself this way at the end. There was a time when her aggressive questioning was appropriate, especially as a challenger to administration spokespersons who tried to play down the horrors of war.

As CBS’s veteran White House correspondent Mark Knoller writes:

During a heated exchange on November 30, 2007, White House press secretary Dana Perino got decidedly fed up with Thomas when one of her questions suggested the president was oblivious to the deaths of innocent people in Iraq.

“Helen, I find it really unfortunate that you use your front row position, bestowed upon you by your colleagues, to make such statements,” scolded Perino.

She told Thomas that “to suggest that we, the United States, are killing innocent people is just absurd and very offensive.”

But Thomas, then 86-years old, didn’t back down:

THOMAS: Do you know how many we have (killed) since the start of this war?

MS. PERINO: How many — we are going after the enemy, Helen. To the extent that any innocent Iraqis have been killed, we have expressed regret for it.

THOMAS: Oh, regret? It doesn’t bring back a life.

MS. PERINO: Helen, we are in a war zone, and our military works extremely hard to make sure that everyone has the opportunity for liberty and freedom and democracy, and that is exactly what they are doing.

But for all the credit she deserves for earlier being properly adversarial toward the flacks for war policies, her hurtful anti-Semitic comments at the end were inexcusable. An ignoble departure.

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BP oil disaster: what news media need to do next

Day after day there’s been an endless gusher of news reports about the BP oil spill, and in general, journalists have done a good job. They’ve covered many angles, especially the impact on wetlands wildlife and on the people of the fisheries industry. (And those photos of oil-stricken pelicans have helped focus attention on the immensity of the crisis.)

To be sure, not all the coverage has been adequate. There’s been far too much focus on what this means for Obama’s popularity and image, although that’s a natural question to ask. News media failed to clarify exactly who and what was the source for those initial underestimates of the oil flow, and failed to keep pressing BP for enough updates about its various capping attempts (which might have revealed that at one point BP had stopped the attempt without telling the public). Some journalists gave too much play to politically-motivated claims, including those by Palin and her ilk that BP had had to drill deep because the mean old environmentalists pressured them against “safer,” more shallow drilling.

But in general journalists have worked hard to keep us informed on the most important news developments. Now it’s time for news media to focus more on the policy implications. The New York Times had a good editorial Saturday on the need for the Senate to stop delaying and pass the comprehensive energy bill. This oil spill is a terrible tragedy, and there probably is no silver lining, but at least it could be a wake-up call, and journalists should take advantage of the enormous public interest in it to focus more on policy. News media should create a forum for an intelligent, reasoned debate on where we go from here with our energy policy. They should tell us what enlightened policy experts are saying about what we need to do, at last, once and for all, to drastically cut back on dependence on oil.

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Can CNN survive?

Although there is turmoil at CNN (anchor Campbell Brown leaving, ratings dropping for CNN’s U.S. primetime shows, talks under way about a merger with CBS News), that turmoil may not be the whole story. A recent National Journal piece presents a far rosier picture, which is reassuring for anyone who wants to see quality, objective TV journalism survive. The article notes that CNN as a whole (not just the U.S. primetime operation) had its most profitable year ever last year. While primetime ratings are terrible, CNN earns only about 10% of its revenue from those shows, it says. The article quotes Jim Walton, President of CNN Worldwide, as adding: “…the remaining 90 percent comes from non-prime-time programming on the network, as well as HLN [Headline News], CNN.com, CNN International, CNN en Español, CNN Airport Network, and all of the other CNN-branded news and information platforms that together deliver more news to more people than any other news organization in the world.” The article reports another healthy indicator: “Despite the prime-time slippage, CNN continues to attract more unique viewers than its competitors overall, according to Nielsen surveys. In April, its 90.2 million viewers topped the 82.3 million who watched Fox News and MSNBC’s 74.8 million. And HLN’s 79.5 million viewers add to CNN’s bottom line.”

As CNN approaches its 30th birthday this June, the outlook is decidedly mixed, but at least it is not all bad. CNN does well when there is big breaking news, and according to this article it still does well enough even on slow news days. If it were not part of a publicly held company whose stock is traded, it would not have to worry about pressure to show higher earnings every year, and could just make sure it covers its expenses, like a nonprofit such as PBS, whose NewsHour show is another example of quality TV journalism that makes a good effort at objectivity. But since it does have to contribute to profit growth, there is that pressure. The hope is that CNN execs will resist the temptation to goose the ratings with fluff, sensationalism, high-priced anchors, and opinionated news items. In a sense, the worst thing that happened to CNN was getting the huge ratings boosts it experienced in the first Gulf War and on 9/11, because they created pressure to try to keep the ratings up, which is not possible without sacrificing quality. As someone who joined CNN in its first year, I salute its successes and hope that it keeps to its promise of good journalism (despite occasional lapses — see my previous blog post).

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