Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Press-Citizen tone deaf to news

In Iowa City, the 21-only ordinance debate finally reached creshendo on Tuesday. The city council was poised to make it's third and final vote in favor of the measure, making 21-only the law at all bars in town beginning June 1.

As contentious as this issue has been over the years - including the fierce fight over the 21-only ballot initiative that failed in 2008 - this impending action by the council should presumably be the lead story on the front page of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

But you would be wrong.

The Press-Citizen, gaurdian of the public trust and beacon of democracy that it is, instead ran an AP wire story on Republican gubenatorial primary candidate Terry Brandstad. Six columns wide and right below the mast-head with the fat headline read: "Branstad calls for business tax cuts." The story was predicated entirely on this announcement Monday, that as governor he would cut corparate taxes, which would presumably "boost" the state's economy.

Paradigm-shattering as the idea of a Republican cutting taxes may seem (tongue-in-cheeck, folks), his opponents in the primary go farther, proposing to eliminate the corporate tax completely.

If Branstad's announcement in pursuit of state office was news-worthy enough to trump the impending passage of a hot-button city ordinance, than why did the Des Moines Register sit the "big story" in the lower-right corner, below the fold on their front page?

The Register, instead, ran a lead story, right below its masthead, on corruption charges at a Coralville nursing home (a story the Press-Citizen ignored, despite it's proximity). The Register's second story concerns a Polk County Board of Supervisors impending decision on awarding a contract to the company of a former county employee. Only after these appear does a staff-written story of Branstad's campaign announcement given any exposure.

If you are regular reader of this blog, you've heard me grind this axe before. Political campaign bluster should not trump actual acts of government, real news. And don't forget the corruption story in their own back yard they ignored. The Press-Citizen's decision to put Branstad's empty comments front and center on a news-day that held important issues at hand is tone-deaf and irresponsible.

Do they think that a politician's name and mug will simply sell more papers than actual news? If that is true, than it is an even sadder commentary on the state of the paper's news-making decisions.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Staged political event not news

Apparently the Iowa City Press-Citizen found it news-worthy that Mitt Romney made public statements critical of Democratic leadership.

"Romney: Leaders put nation on road to decline; Former governor criticizes health care reform."

The Associated Press story highlights the former Massachusetts governor's statements at a book signing in Des Moines on Monday. That Romney, a potential Republican nominee for the 2012 presidential election, was critical of his opposition was predictable, expected. It was hardly news.

But it was a non-event that ended up garnering front-page treatment. Why is this? Likely because known personalities can drive readers' interest in news stories. We see this in the popularity of tabloid publications. Those principles are not unknown in the traditional news room.

Political controversy is a second motivation for running Romney's comments on page one. We see the prevailing programming on the popular cable news networks is confrontational political talk. Viewers eat it up, and are likely to do so when they see it in print.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Focus on money, not rhetoric behind policy

Today the New York Times ran a front-page story titled "A Consumer Bill Gives Exemption On Payday Loans." I was pleased to find that reporter Sewell Chan's sole emphasis was on the important role of money in shaping this legislation, not the superficial candy of political deal-making.

Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee takes center stage in the scrutiny. A ranking member on the Senate Banking Committee, he has effectively lobbied Democratic Senator Chris Dodd, the committee chair, to loosen proposed regulations on payday loan businesses.

The bill creates a consumer protection agency that would set rules on consumer lending and enforce penalties on offenders. Corker's change would require the agency petition a regulatory board before rules could be enforced upon payday lenders.

The change was agreed upon by Dodd in bipartisan spirit in order to recieve Corker's support, and get the bill out of committee and onto the senate floor for a vote.

But rather than focusing on a bipartisan victory - a seemingly rare feet in present-day Washington, the reporter uncovered the appearance of unethical legislative practices. Corker had received financial political support from the payday loan industry based largely in Tennessee, creating the appearance of a quid pro quo action on the part of the senator.

Though Dodd and other committee members were also shown to have recieved past campaign funding from the payday loan industry, the donations were fewer and more characteristic of passive political support.

As well, the original legislation had not been written to favor payday lenders with an extra barrier to regulation. It was only put in place after Corker's lobbying.

This story might have been angled to celebrate Corker and Dodd's bipartisan deal-making, which would have undermined reporting on the actual content of the bill. Instead, the reporter gave the reader important information on how political donations in this case, may have effected an industry consumers use every day.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Blogger: Media complicit in political games

On Monday, Foreign Policy.com blogger David Rothkopf posted a declaration of independence from his former political party affiliation. In the post entitled "Why I Am No Longer A Democrat" Rothkopf decries the inefficient governance of America's two-party system. The parties, he says are no longer the best way to organize the various interest groups that make up the voting public. In fact, he says they are a hindrance.

Complicit, Rothkopf writes, in this broken system is the media. What is wrong with the coverage is this: "It's all about the game of politics and not at all about the business of governing." This he writes, puts politicians in permanent campaign mode, diverting much of their energies away from practical legislating. Rothkopf writes, "The media's obsession with daily polls and who's in and who's out and the cage match aspects of politics, has also unsurprisingly made it impossible (in a time of shrinking news department resources) to cover what should be covered."

I say amen to all of these comments.

The idea of reporting on politics as a contest, a sort of sporting event, plays into the meaner instincts of public nature. Affiliation becomes religion. Deviation from ideology - the audacity of compromise - becomes defeat. And no one likes a loser. The divisive zero-sum political power struggle that is touted by our politicians is a losing game for governance. Our media outlets should not honor it with a play-by-play.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

WSJ beats Times, Post to the point

In our era of the ever-shirnking attention spans, most readers don't get past the first few paragraphs of a story, let alone the headline. It can be hard to find a news story that delivers that benefits readers with the real goods within just a few inches.

When the US Senate on Monday voted to end debate and move toward passage of a bill aimed at spurring job creation via business tax credits, it was the politics of the vote rather than the policy itself that was emphasized in two of our nation's leading newspapers. The New York Times and The Washington Post highlighted the minimal partisan capitulation of five Republicans rather than on the machinery of the bill, which came later in the story - but not until after a reader had been drug through the polemics of Capitol Hill bartering.

The Times' 5 Republicans Help Advance Jobs Measure - the national edition print headline - ran for seven paragraphs before offering a single detail of how the Senate bill would theorhetically create jobs. In fact, a print reader would have to flip through to page A18 to get to those details, an effort many readers won't make, instead taking away the politics of the vote but not the substance of the legislation.

The Post, though employing their own reporter, offered no alternative coverage of the bill's passage. In Senate advances job-creation bill with GOP help, The Post goes six paragraphs about the bipartisan breakthrough before bothering to mention the details of what it was the senators agreed upon.

The Wall Street Journal, however managed to address the bipartisan support without pushing the legislative details to the back of the article. In Senate advances jobs bill, The Journal includes the bill's primary policy of hiring tax breaks for businesses in the second graph. The fourth graph breaks-down those tax breaks and the fifth graph offers other pieces included in the legislation.

All this vital policy information was included in less space that it took The Times and The Post to get past the politics of the day's session. The Journal article certainly includes references to the adversarial political climate in Washington, but does so in a manner deferential to the reader's interest in the actual legislation that has moved closer to becomming law.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Times Fronts Dem's Retirement, Fall-Out

The New York Times may claim a national scope, but its front page on Tuesday catered to the political sensibility of beltway Washington.

"Lighting a Fuse for Rebellion on the Right" is a feature story profiling the popular Tea Party movement. Considering the breadth of protest groups nationwide that have alligned under the banner, such a feature does have national significance.

But political party/movement happenings can be overemphasized.

The Times includes an original story on the retirement of Indiana Senator Evan Bayh. A Democrat, Bayh's retirement fits into a larger political picture focused on the partisan nature of elections. In other words, "What does this mean for my party?"

The Times' headline, "Democrats Reel As Senator Says No to 3rd Term," says as much.

This focus comes at the cost of more pertinent national news.

The Des Moines Register relegated the Bayh retirement to an AP wire story on the second page. For a front page, it ran a McClatchy-Tribune News Service wire story on the growing strains on the Social Security fund due to increased early retirements brought on by the economic recession. Hardly more than a regional paper, the Register had more of a sense for national news that most impacts its readers.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Reporters Enable Partisans

In modern reporting of government and public policy, the news too often gets confused with the political talking points of the politicians they interview. As a result, readers can come away from a story not knowing rhetoric from reality.

In todays's Des Moines Register, columnist Richard Doak suggests that news reporters stop playing the "fair & balanced" game with the pols and start reporting more hard information.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Fox Puts Spin First

Fox News.com made an interesting point of focus among their front-page headlines today.

Like its online counterparts at MSNBC.com and CNN.com, Fox News.com included a prominent headline about the advancement of Iran's nuclear program. However, unlike the others they don't give the nukes story a photograph - which would signal greater emphasis on the story.

Instead, Fox News.com devotes it's sole headlines picture to a piece of faux wit: "Worst(cossed-out) Best Week Ever?" is emblazoned atop an image of the Capitol burried in snow, a lone skier treking past. With a wink, this line suggests to the reader that the heavy snow now burying Washington, D.C. and shutting-down the federal gov't is a blessing in disguise: When not in session, Congress can't spend money - and this is "Best".

The image links to a Wall Street Journal (a member of the Fox-media family) story about the reactions of Congress to the blizzard-induced government shut-down. Headlined "Snowball Fight on the Hill Over Gov't Shutdown", Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn is quoted first, calling the shutdown a "dream". He refers not just to enjoying a bit of leisure time, but the money he says gov't inactivity saves. The story then quotes Nevada Senator Harry Reid joking that the snow-closure is still no match for Republican obstruction of legislation. No real news is included, just snarky pol quotes.

By placing unwarrented emphasis on this short, purely political non-news exchange of jabs, Fox News.com glorifies terms of spin rather than constructive policy discussion.