Friday, September 25, 2009

What did he know and when did he know it?

Yes, it's a recurring theme: A large majority of Americans don't trust the media.

But why?

What is it that the mainstream media has done that makes it so heinous, rating even below lawyers on the trustworthiness scale?

Some of the fault, undoubtedly, lies at the front doors of executive offices, people who have gutted the newsroom in favor of light-hearted fare, leaving overburdened reporters to pick and choose what information is worthy of mass public consumption without the benefit of thoughtfulness and discussion. And sure, some of the blame must rest with new technology, on the shoulders of the Internet journalist who's redefined the standards of media pushing 'being first' to the front of the line ahead of 'being right'. Gone are the days of editors-in-chief laying out their product beside print copies of their competitors and going over the details with a fine toothed comb. For one reason: Very few newspapers have competition these days and, for another, editors don't seem all that interested these days in doing that type of hard work. Layoffs and downsizing, followed closely by rehiring (cheaper) help, is currently required learning in Running a Newspaper 101.

Primary among the reasons newspapers (and the rest of the media) have lost the public trust, in my opinion, is the lack of competition. With no competing interest the onus for reporting on well-sourced, credible information has been removed. As a matter of fact, holding back information in order to promote internal agendas* has become the rule of the day, especially at ChronBlog. (once the newspaper of record in Houston, now Houston's biggest political/social blog)

To see an example of this, on a micro-level, one need look no further than the writings of the Chron's lead sports columnist, Richard Justice. I've said before (on other blogs) that I find Mr. Justice to be a fine writer. His prose, when properly edited, can be elegant and, at times, engrossing. His 'background' columns telling stories from sports days past are among the best you will ever read. What he lacks is a complete and utter inability to analyze current sporting events and place them in anything resembling meaningful context. He's also either very unobservant, or intentionally withholding from the public information.

How do I know this? Because in his recent blog post on the firing of Cecil Cooper he let readers know something that should have been revealed long ago, had he been paying attention:
Players have been wearing t-shirts asking, ''Really?'' Really, as in, ''Did he really just do that?''
In a season when the Astros were struggling, where fans were clamoring for a reason why, this bit of trivia could have gone a long way in explaining the problem, and shedding some much-needed light on the Astros' clubhouse circumstances.

Would the players in question have been angry? You bet. But that's something that a quality sports writer has to learn to deal with. The facts are that Justice and his colleagues have unequalled access to players before and after a game, they're in the locker room frequently and, if the claims they were wearing the shirts under their jersey's is true, should have seen those shirts, asked questions about them, and reported this fact much, much sooner.

Is this a little thing? In the grand scheme of it all, yes. Tiny. I'll even go so far as to say minuscule. But these minuscule items start adding up, reporters in close contact with public figures discovering, and then withholding, valuable information from the public in an effort to retain "access" to the personalities they cover. On a stage where the 'facts' matter, politics, chumminess of this type can lead to reporting that runs counter to the public interest. Consider Kathy Walt who penned a glowing piece on Rick Perry in 2004 before bolting the Chronicle and joining Perry's staff. Or Alan Bernstein who left the Chron to work for Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia (although, as near as can be determined, at least never did anything as egregious as the Perry love-fest). When retaining access becomes more of a priority than obtaining information the news media takes a big step back. It cannot help but do so.

Reporters love to play a game called "connect the dots". After any big disaster or negative story there are legions of writers who, benefiting from the clarity of hindsight, engage in a game of "who knew what and when". The public reason for doing this is to "get to the bottom" of said issue. The overriding reason is to (hopefully) create scandal and either sell copy or drive ratings. At times (Watergate for instance) such information is a useful tool in unravelling the Gordian knot of political intrigue. Unfortunately these situations are few and far between. Often, there is no criminal intent to be outed, and the 'knowledge' of who knew what only stands to stoke the fires of partisanship and scandal that talking heads and party-bloggers hold so dear. In my view, however, playing a game of connect the dots with the media industry might just unravel what's going so wrong in the industry.

Who knew what and when did they know it? And do they have an obligation to the public to tell us what they know when they know it to be true?

*It's widely known, among political hacks, that Jeff Cohen's wife is an anti-death penalty activist. Because of this ChronBlog is strongly anti-DP in their editorial slant. Despite this these facts are never disclosed. How this effects the "news" you consume is a different matter, for a different post.

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