Category Archives: On Media

Michael A. Wolff – Freedom Fighter

by William H. Freivogel

Mike Wolff has helped save men on death row, preserve the St. Louis school desegregation program, end capital punishment for juveniles, protect the vote of poor people, establish jury trials in discrimination cases, preserve jury verdicts in personal injury suits and foster efforts to rid St. Louis’ municipal courts of longstanding injustices.

Few St. Louisans have made such important contributions to the public good over the past 30 years. As a legal services lawyer, civil liberties lawyer, special counsel to Gov. Mel Carnahan, Missouri Supreme Court judge and chief justice and retiring dean of the Saint Louis University Law school, Wolff has always been on the side of equality, freedom and good government.

This is why the Gateway Journalism Review is awarding Wolff the Freedom Fighter award at its First Amendment celebration on March 23.

Not only has Wolff accomplished more than just about any community leader, he always seems to be having more fun than anyone in the room. A big man, Wolff has a ready smile and a repertoire of wry, funny stories on the tip of the tongue. He’s not averse to chuckling at his own stories.

While on the Supreme Court, Wolff was that rare judge who was willing to explain a court decision to a reporter. Even rarer, he wrote like a journalist in a simple, common sense way that people could understand.

When Wolff was chief justice, AT&T Mobility tried to avoid having to pay tens of millions in taxes due on telephones. The company claimed cell phones were actually two-way radios instead of phones.

Wolff interrupted the technical arguments by holding up a cell phone in front of the lawyers and asking rhetorically if anyone doubted it was a phone.

In a 2011 adoption case, Wolff criticized the majority of the court for delaying the reunion of a boy and his immigrant mother whose parental rights had been unfairly terminated by a lower court. Wolff wrote that the mother and boy should be reunited “not in 90 more days or 900 more days, but now.”

Referring to the biblical story of Solomon, Wolff added, “At least Solomon had the option to decree that the child be cut in half. All we lesser judges have is the law, and it is our duty to make sure that the law is obeyed.”

In 2009, when the state Supreme Court rejected a challenge to Missouri’s school funding formula, Wolff lamented that $6,342 went to educate each Festus student, but $16,647 each Clayton student.

“What makes the children of one school district deserving of only about one-third of the education money available for the schools of the children in the highest-spending district?”

he asked.

It’s not surprising that Wolff writes like a reporter. After graduating from Dartmouth, he worked his way through the University of Minnesota law school as a reporter and copy editor on the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Eddie Roth, a lawyer turned journalist turned public official, puts it this way: “Mike’s record of judicial leadership has his old reporter’s fingerprints all over it. He plied small ‘p’ politics from the bench the way journalists work from newsrooms; not by throwing his weight around, but by throwing well-reported, incisively expressed ideas around. He used fourth estate methods to advance third branch ideals.

“And by forging consensus through carefully constructed, durable foundations of law and fact, Mike Wolff has created platforms on which many have been empowered and inspired to participate in fights to win and preserve freedom.”

After a stint in legal services in St. Paul, Denver and as director in Rapid City, S.D., Wolff joined the Saint Louis University Law School faculty in 1975. He also served as general counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri.

Wolff was the lone Democrat to challenge Republican Attorney General William Webster in 1988.  Terry Ganey, the retired Post-Dispatch reporter who disclosed Webster’s Second Injury Fund scandal, recalls the race: “Webster, an incumbent, was considered unbeatable. Wolff at that time raised the issue of the Second Injury Fund being a problem. He was way ahead in making that an issue.”

Wolff lost in 1988 and lost the Democratic primary four years later to Jay Nixon. But the abuses of the Second Injury Fund helped bring down the Webster in the 1992 race for governor against Mel Carnahan. Wolff became Carnahan’s counsel.

One of Wolff’s leading accomplishments was to help craft legislation, supported by the governor, business leaders and a bi-partisan group of legislators, that made possible a negotiated settlement of the St. Louis desegregation case. The legislation extended the life of the novel program, which continues to exist, and directed state money to school districts with large percentages of poor children. The legislation finessed resistance from Nixon, who had waged an all-out legal campaign to end the transfer program.

As counsel Wolff reviewed the pleas of death row inmates. After Carnahan named Wolff to the state Supreme Court, Wolff was a leader of the court’s close scrutiny of capital cases.

Wolff joined the opinion of his friend, the late Richard Teitelman, in freeing Joseph Amrine from death row after the three key witnesses recanted their testimony. Wolff also took of heat of writing the decision giving Kenneth Baumruk a new trial in 2002. Baumruk had been convicted in the same courthouse where he had killed his wife and shot four others.

The most important death penalty decision led to the U.S. Supreme Court to end the execution of juveniles.

It’s not often that a state supreme court leads the U.S. Supreme Court into a new interpretation of the Constitution. But that’s what happened after the state Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that Christopher Simmons could not be executed for murdering Shirley Crook because he was under 18 when he committed the crime. The U.S Supreme agreed that evolving standards of decency no longer permitted executing teens because their brains are not fully developed.

In another notable decision, Wolff was part of the majority that ruled photo ID requirements violated the promise of equality in the Missouri Constitution. That decision has blocked stringent photo ID laws for the past decade.

In other important decisions, Wolff established the right to a jury trial in employment discrimination cases, rejected caps on damage awards as deprivations of the right to trial by jury and upheld the right to collective bargaining for public employees. While on the court he also chaired the Sentencing Advisory Commission and was active in national efforts aimed at more rational, less arbitrary criminal sentencing.

After the court, Wolff became dean of Saint Louis University Law School, righting the ship after a tumultuous period during which the Rev. Lawrence Biondi forced out one dean and appointed an interim dean who did nothing to quiet things down.

The law school became a hotbed of reform of the municipal courts after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. This was a tricky situation because notable alums were on different sides of the municipal court issue. Thomas Harvey, head of ArchCity defenders, led the reform effort, while other graduates were in prominent municipal court judgeships.

Faculty also got heavily involved in the reform, including Professors John Ammann and Brendan Roediger. Wolff saw it as his job as dean to make sure Ammann and Roediger could fully represent their clients, whose lives had been damaged in the muni court shuffle of being locked up for failing to pay traffic fines.

Nor was Wolff afraid to criticize his old colleagues for moving too slowly to bring an end to the unjust practices in the municipal courts. Last summer, Wolff expressed his impatience with the slow response from the presiding judge of the St. Louis County Circuit Court and from the state Supreme Court. That was before the Supreme Court acted at the end of the year to required important changes.

Wolff’s wife, Dr. Patricia Wolff, has long run the Meds & Food for Kids foundation that feeds a miracle peanut butter supplement to malnourished children in Haiti, saving hundreds of thousands of children.

It’s hard to think of another St. Louis couple that has contributed so much to the public good.

From Deep Throat to WikiLeaks

By William H. Freivogel

The most outstanding example of the press and the courts acting together to check the abuse of presidential power is the Pentagon Papers.

Congress had fallen down on its oversight during when on Aug. 7, 1964 it approved the Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing the Vietnam War. The resolution was based on murky — and it turned out false — assertions that North Vietnamese torpedo boats had twice attacked the USS Maddox off the coast of Vietnam.

As the war dragged on and tens of thousands of men died, the press brought the bloody reality of combat to the nightly news, sowing seeds of doubt in Walter Cronkite and the American people. Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright held high-profile hearings later in the war, but Congress did not withdraw its authorization.

Daniel Ellsberg, a disaffected former military analyst and defense expert at Rand Corp., leaked a 47-volume top-secret history of the Vietnam War — the Pentagon Papers — to the New York Times. Publication began in the spring of 1971. The documents showed presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon had lied to the American people and Congress about important aspects of the war, puncturing the myth that voters had to defer to a president’s judgment because he surely knew more than the ordinary citizen. The president knew more, all right, but the additional information was a reason not to fight the war instead of a reason to fight.

Nixon tried to block publication, partly because National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger told him voters would no longer defer to presidents if they saw presidents had lied to them. But the courts backed the press and said the government couldn’t stop publication of national security secrets unless there was the threat of “direct, immediate, and irreparable damager” to national security.

Justice Potter Stewart explained the important check on presidential power that the press and people provide, especially when Congress does not stand up to the president. Stewart wrote:

“In the governmental structure created by our Constitution, the Executive is endowed with enormous power in the two related areas of national defense and international relations. This power, largely unchecked by the Legislative and Judicial branches, has been pressed to the very hilt since the advent of the nuclear missile age.…

“In the absence of the governmental checks and balances present in other areas of our national life, the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry — in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government. For this reason, it is perhaps here that a press that is alert, aware, and free most vitally serves the basic purpose of the First Amendment. For, without an informed and free press, there cannot be an enlightened people.”

Erwin Griswold — the solicitor general who had filed a secret brief with the Supreme Court claiming there were more than a dozen drop-dead secrets in the Pentagon Papers — later wrote that none of the secrets caused the United States harm once disclosed.

One similarity between the Pentagon Papers and the Trump/Russia stories is that the source of the leaks had an intelligence backgrounds. When intelligence sources provide journalists with damaging secrets and the courts protect the press’ publication of those secrets, a president can find himself in a lonely place.

Deep Throat

A year later, the mysterious “Deep Throat” began meeting with Bob Woodward in an underground garage in Washington. Deep Throat turned out to be Mark Felt, the associate director of the FBI whom Nixon had passed over the lead the agency after J. Edgar Hoover’s death.

The Washington Post stories stirred the professional curiosity of U.S. District Judge John Sirica, who applied pressure to induce Watergate burglars to confess to White House connections.

Later, when a special prosecutor sought the secret tapes of White House conversations, the Supreme Court forced their release and Nixon left office a few days later. So it was a one-two punch by the press and the judiciary that forced Nixon from office.

There was one other important ingredient to the Watergate scandal. Congress fulfilled its role in checks and balances with the important Senate Watergate hearings and a move toward impeachment.

A similarity between Watergate and the Trump situation is that Watergate involved a burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters; the Russian hacks were a modern-day cyber-theft of DNC documents.

Jason Blair and Judith Miller

The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the D.C. sniper murders and the anthrax poisonings discredited the press’ use of unnamed sources and tested the press’ spine for checking presidential power.

New York Times reporter Jason Blair built his fabricated stories about the sniper on fictitious confidential sources. Judith Miller of the Times used real but inaccurate confidential sources in government to help President George W. Bush beat the drum for a war against Iraq. The Times also ran a column falsely implicating scientist Steven Hatfill in the anthrax poisonings.

Compounding the problem, the press as a whole failed to scrutinize the president’s justification for the war in Iraq, a justification found to be false when no weapons of mass destruction were found.

With Congress, the courts and the press all on the sidelines, the unchecked president took America into a pre-emptive war against Iraq based on the danger of weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist.

After the fall of Baghdad, as the insurgency grew in Iraq, Ambassador Joseph Wilson disclosed in a New York Times op-ed that the government knew before the war that Saddam Hussein had not bought uranium from Niger for a bomb – despite Bush’s claims to the contrary in his State of the Union speech. I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, struck back at Wilson by leaking the secret that his wife, Valerie Plame, was an uncover CIA agent — an effort to force the whistleblower’s family to pay a price for telling the truth.

Guantanamo and the Geneva Conventions

The courts and the press reasserted their power to check Bush in the years after the war.

The Washington Post disclosed that the CIA was using secret “black” prisons in foreign countries to hold terrorism suspects and apply “enhanced interrogation techniques,” such as waterboarding. The New York Times disclosed what appeared to be illegal and unconstitutional wiretaps of American citizens conducted without warrants. Both stories relied on unnamed sources.

In a Dec. 5, 2005 meeting at the White House, President Bush and his top advisers warned Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger and top editors that they would have “blood on their hands” if the disclosure of the secret wiretaps helped al-Qaida carry out another attack on U.S. soil. The Times published despite the threat.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court rejected the Bush administration’s assertion that the courts could not review the president’s detention of al-Qaida prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

The Supreme Court found that even the Guantanamo prisoners could go to federal court. In addition, they were entitled to the rudiments of due process, such as the opportunity to hear and refute charges against them.

The legal argument that Trump’s lawyers made in defense of the president’s ban on travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations was similar to the Bush claim about the Guantanamo prisoners. Trump maintained that the courts had no business reviewing his executive order because he had absolute power in arena of immigration and national security.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision rejecting Trump’s argument cited the Supreme Court’s earlier decisions against Bush’s claim of absolute power at Guantanamo Bay. It noted that the Supreme Court had found the “political branches” lack “the power to switch the Constitution on or off at will.”

Trump’s warning that the judges would deserve the blame if the delay of his order resulted in a terrorist attack was reminiscent of Bush’s warning that the Times would have blood on its hands if it disclosed the NSA wiretapping.

Snowden and the NSA

The most recent example of the press checking the power of a president was Edward Snowden’s leak of information about the extent of NSA spying on Americans. Snowden, who worked for the defense contractor Booz Allen, leaked information about the NSA’s collection of metadata on the telephones calls of all Americans and about the PRISM program collecting internet content.

Initially, the NSA claimed the programs had been valuable in stopping scores of terrorist attacks. But it turned out that there was no proof that the information had stopped a single attack.

The Obama administration sought to prosecute Snowden for violating the Espionage Act, but he obtained asylum in Russia. Meanwhile, Obama signed a reform law that put the NSA program on a firmer legal footing by having private phone companies collect the metadata instead of the government.

Crying wolf

One characteristic common among confidential source stories is that the government almost always cries wolf about the dire consequences of publication.

Nixon’s solicitor general wrote a brief of drop-dead secrets that would cost tens of thousands of lives. The solicitor general later said there was no harm.

Bush warned Times’ editors they would have blood on their hands, but there was no attack resulting from the publication of NSA wiretapping.

And the Obama administration claimed Snowden’s disclosures would end surveillance techniques that had stopped scores of attacks. But they later admitted there was no proof that U.S. attacks had been stopped.

One government warning that proved prescient was Kissinger’s to Nixon – If the people knew from the Pentagon Papers that presidents lied about the Vietnam War, they might not believe presidents in the future.

The people found out from the press and they have been skeptical of presidents ever since.

Trump attacks checks on his power

By William H. Freivogel

 

In the past half century the most reliable checks on presidential power have been a watchdog press and independent judiciary. In his first weeks in office, President Donald Trump has attacked the legitimacy of both institutions with a fusillade of insults, misstatements and lies.  They were among the 133 lies and misstatements that the Washington Post counted over the president’s first 34 days.

Trump labeled judges who blocked his immigration travel ban a “so-called judge,” “ridiculous,” “disgraceful” and deserving “blame…if something happens.” White House policy adviser Stephen Miller went so far as to say “the powers of the president to protect our country…will not be questioned.”

Meanwhile, in a remarkable feat of jujutsu, Trump captured the term “fake news” and wielded it as a sword against legitimate news organizations.  After having been accused of benefiting from fake news in the run-up to the 2016 election, Trump turned the tables and expropriated the slogan to attack news he doesn’t like.

And it’s becoming a popular propaganda technique worldwide.  Vladimir Putin has claimed reports of Russian hacking in the 2016 U.S. election are fake news, even though they are substantiated by Western intelligence.  And Syria’s President Bashar Assad has claimed Amnesty International’s reports of mass hangings are also “fake news.”

Even as Trump branded legitimate news as fake, his White House issued press credentials to the likes of Gateway Pundit Jim Host, a St. Louisan who regularly reports false news and conspiracy theories.

Trump himself seems to believe the conspiracy theories. In the most extraordinary and unverified claim of his young presidency, Trump tweeted on March 4 that former President Obama tapped the phones at Trump Tower as part of an Obama plot to undermine his administration.  Trump apparently relied on radio host Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart for his information.  Had he instead checked with his own FBI director, James Comey, he would have been told his tweet was untrue.

After the tweet, newly credentialed Gateway Pundit headlined: “Incompetent AND Criminal: Obama’s Wiretapping of President Trump Icing on the Cake of Worst President Ever.”  Breitbart called the “scandal” “DeepStateGate,” a reference to the conspiracy theory that a shadow government of unelected officials and intelligence officers controls the government.

Trump capped his first month in office calling the mainstream media the “enemies of the people” — by which he means his enemies.

The Supreme Court viewed the press’ role in the opposite fashion in the 1971 Pentagon Papers case when it laid out the importance of the press as a check on presidential power in the nuclear age. In siding with the New York Times’ publication of the secret history of the Vietnam War, the court said an enlightened citizenry is a important check on presidential power in foreign affairs and there couldn’t be an enlightened citizenry without a press that is “alert, aware and free.”

No president before Trump has so personally and quickly attacked the media or so rapidly created a credibility gap through false public statements.  The closest historical analogy is President Richard M. Nixon with his enemies list, vice presidential attack dog and illegal taps of Washington reporters.  Nixon’s presidency didn’t turn out well.

Meanwhile, the branch of government the Founding Fathers envisioned as the main check on the president — Congress — is behaving like a lapdog.  The Republican-controlled Congress has done little to push back, excited that a unified Republican government can accomplish major parts of the GOP legislative agenda.

With a compliant Congress, the Trump attacks on the two remaining checks on his power make sense:  Target the two institutions that can limit your power. But what is the end game envisioned by Trump and the architect of this strategy, Stephen Bannon, the former Breitbart editor who speaks of a “fight a day” with the press?

In modern history, presidents fighting with the press and judiciary have failed.

The judiciary and press gain power

After World War II, both the federal courts and the press asserted new power. Chief Justice Earl Warren’s Supreme Court took the lead in recognizing broader civil rights and civil liberties protections. At the same time, the Golden Age of investigative journalism fortified the media’s role as watchdogs guarding against government abuse.

The pinnacle of this Golden Age was Watergate when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post reported on the use of Nixon campaign money to fund illegal acts, such as the burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel.

Those stories, like most of the journalistic challenges to presidential power, were based on unnamed sources. Deep Throat, the most famous confidential source in history, helped Woodward and Bernstein bring down Nixon.

Confidential sources have been essential to the most consequential disclosures about Trump as well.

Vice President Mike Pence reportedly learned that National Security Advisor Michael Flynn had lied to him about contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak by reading about the contacts in a Washington Post story. Trump had known about the contacts for days but apparently hadn’t told his vice president before the Post’s story based on unnamed sources.

Similarly, the Washington Post’s sourced account about Attorney General Jeff Sessions meeting with Kislyak, despite Sessions’ contrary testimony, led less than 24 hours later to Sessions’ recusal from the investigation of the Russian meddling in the election.

Trump complains about the leak of secret information by unnamed sources, and with some justification. Leaking top secret information is a crime.

But the publication of the leaks is not a crime. And it took the Washington Post stories with their unnamed sources to force Flynn’s resignation and Sessions’ recusal.

Media ethics codes advise journalists to minimize the use of confidential sources. The reader has no way of knowing whether to believe a nameless, faceless leakers. But the reality of Washington is that big stories checking presidential power almost always rely on confidential sources. People leaking top secret information would get fired and jailed if identified.

Good source stories and bad ones

Not all confidential source stories are created equal. Some serve the public good; some do not.

The leaks of the top-secret Pentagon Papers and of Watergate investigative information revealed serious abuses of presidential power. Edward Snowden’s disclosure that the NSA was collecting the metadata from all Americans’ phone calls got him charged with Espionage, but also led to reforms protecting privacy.

By contrast, the 2003 leak by Vice President Dick Cheney’s office of Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA agent seemed intended to punish Plame’s husband, Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson. Wilson had blown the whistle on President Bush’s false claim about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Bush claimed in the 2003 State of the Union speech that Saddam had bought yellow cake uranium for a bomb from Niger, even though Wilson himself had investigated for the CIA and disproved the claim.

It was an upside-down leak with the people in power leaking top-secret information to punish the whistleblower — Ambassador Wilson. Usually, however, it’s the other way around, with whistleblowers leaking information about the abuse of power by top officials.

Julian Assange and WikiLeaks also performed a disservice to American democracy by serving as the apparent delivery system for Putin’s assault on the 2016 presidential election. Think of it: WikiLeaks and then the mainstream media became accomplices of Russia’s successful attempt to destabilize the election of the greatest democracy in the world.

One ethics issue most journalists have not confronted is whether reputable news organizations should refuse to print the bad leaks – the ones where high officials are leaking to damage whistleblowers, such as Wilson, or where WikiLeaks is weaponized to deliver hacks from Russia’s FSB.

The answer is tricky. Almost all leakers have mixed motives. Woodward and Bernstein claimed for years that Deep Throat did not have an ax to grind, but Deputy Director Mark Felt was mad at Nixon for passing him over to head the FBI. And if news organizations had refused to print the hacked DNC-Clinton foundation emails, they would have looked as though they were protecting Hillary Clinton.

News organizations should remember, however, that The New York Times’ demand for a leak investigation of the Plame outing boomeranged into Times reporter Judith Miller spending 85 days in jail for protecting her source in the vice president’s office.

Lessons for journalists

The past half century provides lessons for journalists performing the press’s constitutional duty to check President Trump’s power:

— When the press does not check presidential abuses of power, a president with a Congress of his own party will be unimpeded in his exercise of power. The beginning of the Vietnam War and the Iraq war are examples.

— The press’ use of confidential sources was essential to every major case where the press has checked presidential power — Pentagon Papers, Watergate, CIA black prisons, NSA wiretaps during the Bush administration and NSA data collection during the Obama administration.

— The use of confidential sources can be abused when used to support the presidential power to wage war as with Judith Miller, or to punish a whistleblower as with Valerie Plame or to harm the United States as with the weaponization of WikiLeaks as an instrument of Russian intelligence.

— Old-fashioned investigative reporting – such as Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, the black CIA prisons and the NSA wiretapping — is essential to the press’ check on presidential power. Stories moored to facts are more persuasive than flights of advocacy reporting.

— The press’s role of finding the facts and getting as close as possible to the truth is fundamental to the functioning of democracy because an unenlightened citizenry can enable bad government just as surely as an enlightened citizenry is essential to good government.

Today’s press is built on the Enlightenment assumption that free speech and a free press can find the facts that a democracy needs to arrive at governing truths. That still is possible in these days of the Trump administration when propaganda spreads across the political spectrum and across media platforms. But it requires hard work by journalists and sophistication from citizens.

Justice Louis Brandeis, one of the great justices of the 20th century, famously expressed his confidence that free expression would help democracy find truth: “Those who won our independence believed,” he wrote, “that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth . . . that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government.”

Three veteran journalists depart PD

photo by Terry Ganey

by Terry Ganey

There was a poignant departure ceremony earlier this week on the fifth floor of the building at 900 N. Tucker Blvd, the headquarters of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Newsroom colleagues shared stories about three veteran reporters – Tim O’Neil, Jim Gallagher and Tim Bryant – who were among six journalists taking advantage of a recent buyout offer. Together these three have accumulated some 89 years of experience just at the Post-Dispatch.

The event was similar to others taking place since 2005, as financial pressures have forced owner Lee Enterprises to trim staff. This loss seemed especially painful after all the cuts that had taken place. These three had spent all of their time in the journalistic trenches, and it would be hard to find anyone more conscientious, humble and hardworking.

“This is a great group who have been serving the people of St. Louis for many years,” said one editor. “It has been a privilege to work with them.” In an era when the man occupying the White House rages against journalists being “enemies of the American people,” consider the careers of O’Neil, Gallagher and Bryant.

Columnist Joe Holleman said he had learned much from O’Neil during the years they had worked together. “His word is iron,” Holleman said. “Every word of an O’Neil story works for a living.” Holleman recounted an anecdote about how, after a former mayor of St. Louis claimed another city official had earned a Purple Heart, O’Neil uncovered the records to show the claim was a fraud.

O’Neil gave up a piece of his body collecting the news. Last Nov. 9, while covering a hearing in St. Louis County, Robert E. Jones, the lawyer for Sunset Hills, slammed a door to a conference room after O’Neil had opened it to make an inquiry. Jones slammed the door to keep O’Neil out, slicing off part of the journalist’s finger. A lawsuit is pending.

Business Editor Roland Klose recounted how Gallagher could take a complicated subject and make it understandable for readers. And he related how readily Gallagher would accept an assignment, no matter what the topic. “Do you have something for me?” was Gallagher’s greeting to his editor, Klose said. The headline over Gallagher’s last business column for the newspaper fittingly read: “A geezer’s guide to Social Security.”

Discussing Bryant, Klose said he could extract stories about development from the walled-off world of real estate. He said Bryant was once locked out of a meeting of developers, but he was still able to unearth what had transpired in the meeting by making telephone calls and resorting to old fashioned “shoe leather.”

The buyout offer was made to journalists 55 and older with 10 years of experience. Also departing the paper in the buyout were veteran City Editor Pat Gauen, reporter Steve Giegerich and sportswriter Dan O’Neill.

Gilbert Bailon, editor-in-chief, said there was no getting around the fact shrinking resources will have an impact at the newspaper. But he said the staff remained committed to covering news important to the people of St. Louis.

In an era of “fake news” and declining circulation, the Post-Dispatch has published a house ad that seeks subscribers. It reads: “TRUTH…FREEDOM OF THE PRESS…Delivering stories that uncover truths and fight for progress. Help us protect that liberty.”

 

1A strives to find its own voice

by Pat Louise

Sixteen days before President Donald Trump opened his administration with his Inauguration speech that declared ‘From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first,” NPR’s newest radio show and podcast focused on the topic.’

Since Jan. 2 host Joshua Johnson leads discussion on 1A that mostly centers on daily topics with a connection to the First Amendment, which inspired the name of the show.

Now airing 9 to 11 a.m. on the radio, Johnson and 1A replaced the 37-year running Diane Rehm Show. The show airs from WAMU on the American University campus in Washington, D.C.

For those listening to radio via podcasts on their own timetable, the 1A version provides a show between 35 and 50 minutes. Depending on the length of the show, 1A offers one or two podcasts a day culled from the radio show. This review looks at the podcast.

1A started strong. On the Jan. 4 podcast titled “Is the Era of American Humanitarian Intervention Over?” the 47-minute show featured five guests. Before the discussion, the show opened with a montage of quotes and music from such notables as Martin Luther King Jr., Bart Simpson, Bruce Springsteen, Richard Nixon and Jimi Hendrix.

Rather than a round-table discussion with panelists taking an extreme view one way or the other, the show allowed the first two guests to explore the topic solo for seven to nine minutes each.

Up first was Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a Democrat who served two tours of duty in the Middle East. Gabbard made a strong case that Trump’s directive of America First made sense economically by redirecting U.S. resources to solving problems at home instead.

Giving a different viewpoint was St. Louis, Mo. schoolteacher Elvir Ahmetovic, a Bosnian who came to the United States in 2002 as a refugee. He spoke about the need for the United States to act as rescuers for families such as his.

The other three panelists, including Boston Globe columnist Stephen Kinzer, rounded out the show with a thoughtful and balanced outline of how Trump’s new direction could both benefit and hurt on a national and global level. At the end, listener comments praised the show for its give-and-take of both sides of the issue.

1A’s rating on iTunes for that show puts it at the sixth most popular podcast for Jan. 4, a fast jump from two days before when it debuted at No. 25.

Two days later 1A reached No. 3 with the first of its weekly Friday News Roundups, broken into one podcast for domestic news of the week and the other for international.

But since then, 1A has steadily dropped in listeners to No. 77 on Feb. 5 and falling to 95th the following week, to bump back up to 92nd to start the week of Feb. 12. Rankings are based on the number of downloads requested of the top 200 podcasts available through iTunes.

On iTunes, 1A ranked behind Sleep With Me, (59th), a podcast of boring stories to help people fall asleep; Car Talk, (67th), which is all reruns at least 10 years old, and Guys We F****D, (87th), which bills itself at the Anti-slut Shaming podcast.

Which is all a shame in itself, as 1A has some good offerings. Its Friday roundup usually brings it up a few rungs on the daily iTunes chart with a great blend of news and behind-the-scenes looks from journalists and others involved on the topics.

In the Jan. 13 domestic roundup, done one week before Trump took office, CBS News Chief White House correspondent Major Garrett made an astute observation about how journalists should cover the new president. He said journalists need to distinguish between what Trump says that is interesting and what he says that is important.

Since noon Friday, Jan. 20, that statement might well sum up the challenges facing the press corp these days.

Along with trying to drill down on important topics, 1A ventures into some topics of its own design. One show, the Politics of Laughing, looked at political-based humor with a trio of comedians. Another, Revisiting James Baldwin, examined why the author’s work is once again popular.

The show also tapped into the music industry with a couple of music-themed shows. In Do The Grammys Matter. Yes (asked and answered in the title as many listeners pointed out, eliminating the need to listen) the panelists of two NPR music journalists and Simon Vozick-Levinson from MTV, explain the relevance of the awards.

The Feb. 13 show Going Country: The Surprising Success Of Country Music, the podcast called itself a boot-scootin’ 1A. That show drew 67 comments on the 1A website around the question of what one country song would you choose to introduce someone to country music.

Whether venturing off the map of politics to boot scoot through the country music scene helps 1A keep and bring in listeners is unclear. With so much news hovering around the First Amendment and politics, these topics provide a respite – but a respite listener may well find too light to follow.

The single biggest factor for low ratings given by listeners on various review sites is that the 1A podcast does not provide the full two hours from the radio show.

Many listeners point out that Rehm’s full two hours was available as a podcast. Reviewers said they would prefer the full context of discussion rather than chunks of it.

Listeners give the second-most critical comments to Johnson’s style as a host. While some love his laid-back approach to let guests speak their minds, others say he lets too many statements go unchallenged. Other criticisms question whether the show can accept viewpoints not strictly in the liberal line of thinking and whether the choice of panelists shape a preordained thinking on a topic.

One of the biggest criticisms came from a Feb. 7 podcast, Sanford Now, taking an early five-year look back at Sanford, Fla., where Trayvon Martin was killed by a neighbor. Along with Matthew Peddie, assistant news director at WMFE in Orlando, the other panelist was Paul Butler, Georgetown University Law Center professor, former federal prosecutor and author of the forthcoming book “Chokehold: Policing Black Men.”

Listeners said Butler’s well-known viewpoint (he has spoken out about a number of incidents when a young black man has been shot, including Ferguson) brought nothing new to the discussion. Instead, the suggestion was to have included someone in authority from the Sanford community to explain changes over the five years.

The other podcast from the Feb. 7 1A radio show was Rest In Power: How Trayvon Martin Transformed A Nation. His parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, co-authors of the book Rest In Power, were the only panelists and discussed their lives since their son was shot Feb. 26, 2012. They talked about their book, their son and a foundation set up in his name.

Most of that fell by the wayside. The 355 comments on the 1A website degenerated into name-calling and charges of racism among commenters.

It might be that in striving to give everyone an equal platform to exercise their First Amendment rights, 1A has overlooked finding its own voice in the discussion. While NPR certainly will not give Johnson the 37 years Rehm had to do so, the show’s hits outweigh its misses and should be granted time to grow and improve.

Greitens plays hide-and-seek with press

by Terry Ganey

Lock on Greitens press office door (photo by Terry Ganey)

JEFFERSON CITY, MO. — There’s a game of hide and seek underway in Missouri’s state capital.

The new governor, Republican Eric Greitens, is doing the hiding. The state capital press corps is doing the seeking.

So far, Greitens is winning.

A former Navy SEAL with no experience in government and no penchant for answering questions, Greitens has yet to hold a full-blown news conference since he was sworn into office Jan. 9. Sometimes when pursuing reporters have posed questions, he has ducked into an elevator. During an appearance calling out the National Guard for an ice storm, Greitens deflected questions that sought information about other issues.

Following the recent signing of a “right to work” bill, perhaps one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in modern memory, Greitens bolted out the back door of his office rather than field questions about it. When Greitens held a joint appearance with other state officials to discuss a troubling issue at a foster home, reporters were put on advance notice: “Questions unrelated to this situation will not be answered at this press conference.”

“It’s like covering a brick wall,” said Phill Brooks, a veteran state capital reporter who works for KMOX radio in St. Louis. “You can’t ask questions of this governor. You’re shut off if you try to ask questions. Many of the announcements of state government are getting done through Facebook. I feel like we’re covering the executive branch of state government with a brick wall in the way.”

Kurt Erickson, the statehouse reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has resorted to filing Open Records requests to extract routine information out of the Greitens administration. Erickson posted on Twitter recently that “no longer can a reporter freely enter Eric Greitens’ press office to talk with his spokesman.” The posting was accompanied by a photo of a lock on the door to room 218 in the state capital.

For years capital reporters have entered that door where a receptionist could field a request to see the governor’s press aid. In Greitens’ case, that’s Parker Briden.

In response to Erickson’s post, Briden tweeted, “That’s not the ‘press office,’ it’s a full suite of offices. Go through the main entrance and they’ll buzz me.”

The “main entrance” Briden referenced is the reception room where everyone wanting to see the governor or his staff shows up to seek an audience. A reporter for the Gateway Journalism Review went to the reception room recently and requested to see Briden.

The receptionist buzzed him on a telephone, and when there was no answer, the receptionist suggested sending Briden an email. The GJR reporter emailed Briden asking for an interview for information about press access to the governor. There was no response. State capital reporters say they have a hard time getting Briden to respond to written and telephone inquiries.

As public officials reach out to constituents through their own means of communication such as social media, the journalistic organizations supplying straight news to the public have been shunted aside. The Republicans controlling the General Assembly have moved the press offices to a roost in the Capitol building. The Senate has limited journalists’ access by ousting reporters from a table on the floor of the chamber and moving them to a nosebleed section of the public gallery.

If reporters had a chance to question Greitens, they’d ask him about the millions of dollars in undisclosed campaign contributions he received, about the unidentified donors to his inauguration parties, and about his tax returns that he never made public. They’d also ask him about policy decisions to cut state funds for the elderly, disabled and higher education.

Greitens’ behavior has not gone unnoticed. For example, Bill Miller Sr., the veteran editor at the Washington Missourian, recently wrote in an editorial: “Gov. Eric Greitens has gotten off to a terrible start in setting an example to lawmakers, and to all Missourians, in regard to transparency. Why is he hiding the donors who have been backing him? There is no question that he apparently believes it will harm his political career.”

Miller went on to say Greitens apparently has his eyes on the White House. Which brings up the question: Can Greitens play hide and seek for four years?

U.S. election: the view from China

Chinese mainstream media have been busy analyzing America’s misleading poll results in the aftermath of last week’s U.S. elections. Media here have attributed Donald Trump’s success to white-collar workers’ support from both males and females, and his proactive use of social media, even though Hillary Clinton was endorsed by many American mainstream news organizations.

Some reports here have included analyses and predictions of Trump’s policies, including the U.S. stance on global trade, geopolitics and partnership with American allies. As for Sino-U.S. relations, it is believed that it would be unlikely for Trump to impose a high tax rate on Chinese imports, as he claimed during the campaign, according to Xinhua, China’s national news agency. On the other hand, Xinhua has indicated economic collaboration might go even further given Trump’s background as a businessman.

Other coverage about Trump seems anecdotal. The Beijing Youth Daily, the capital’s metropolitan newspaper, ran a story about Trump registering his last name and its Chinese translations as trademarks in 2006 when he was a businessman. However, “Trump” had been registered by a Chinese whose name is Dong. Trump appealed but in vain. According to reports here, Trump has 78 effectively registered trademarks in China relating to his name and businesses in insurance, finance and education.

In Chinese social media Weibo and Wechat, China’s versions of Twitter and Facebook, Internet users seem to be fascinated by Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka. She is portrayed as a supermodel, successful businesswoman and mom with three children, who is going to be the next America’s First Daughter. Social media here report she is endowed with wealth and beauty, though she still works diligently to get a diploma from a prestigious university, and that she rose to the current position in her father’s company while also managing her own business. She is acclaimed by Chinese social media users as a role model for modern women — a success on both professional and familial levels.

 

Author’s note:  Dr. Fu is assistant professor at Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics. She earned her Ph.D. at Southern Illinois University’s College of Mass Communication and Media Arts.

Election day post-mortem: use a lottery

After every presidential election, journalists, academics and political operatives gather for various campaign post-mortems and autopsies. Brows furrow. What went right? What went wrong?

After much cluck-clucking and tut-tutting, everyone agrees media people must do things differently next time. Fewer polls, better polls, more issue coverage, less on the horserace, listen to voters, etc.

Then we all go out and sin again in four years.

After the polling and handicapping debacle of 2016, perhaps things really will change in 2020. But probably not.  Journalism’s performance in 2016 was often driven by bottom-line considerations: more click bait, more hits, more eyeballs, more buzz, tweets and edge — all to deal with improving bottom lines of media companies.

Nothing’s going to change that, especially when many news organizations are struggling to survive and have shareholders to please.

But if the journalism community doesn’t agree to some changes, Donald Trump’s success is going to embolden other celebrities. They will say outrageous things and journalists will dutifully – and profitably – report it all. To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with celebrity candidates. The nominating system just shouldn’t be rigged — to borrow a phrase — in their favor.

Donald Trump is very much a product of the decision by parties and news organizations to use polls to decide which candidates got onto pre-primary debate stages and where they stood. Other credible candidates, including several national political leaders, were pushed to the fringes, or to the “kids table.”

So here is a simple suggestion to add to the list of things that ought to change in four years: Don’t use polls to decide the placement of candidates in primary debates. Use a lottery.

Polls are limited instruments as we’ve just seen. Using them to decide which candidates get into a debate and which candidates are relegated to the kids table is guaranteed to give celebrity candidates center stage and greater attention. That limits what’s heard from less well-known but perhaps more substantive candidates.

Given how far off the mark polls were on election night, why should polls be the arbiters of who gets a good position on stage and who doesn’t? (Remember how some candidates were sidelined in early debates by microscopic changes in polls? Some of the polling screw-ups on election night weren’t microscopic.)

Other metrics can be used to determine who gets considered for inclusion in the lottery. Has the candidate qualified for federal matching funds? Are they on the ballot in 50 states? Or are they on the ballot in at least enough to give them a majority of delegates to a nominating convention — or 270 electoral votes?

Instead of just one “main event” and a “kids table” debate, there would be randomly chosen groupings. Celebrity candidates will still stand out but they won’t get an unfair advantage and others would have a better chance to be heard by voters.

If something like that is not done, we can look for a Kim Kardashian to be center stage in the 2020 Democratic primary debates.

 

Author’s note:  David Yepsen is former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Prior to that he was a political writer and columnist for the Des Moines Register.