Category Archives: Editorial

Getting the final word right

by Pat Louise

William F. Buckley, Jr. Edited by James Rosen, A Torch Kept Lit. Great Lives of the Twentieth Century, Crown Forum, New York, 2016, $22, 323 pages.

Over the course of 53 years — from when he founded the magazine National Review in 1955, hosted the television show Firing Line (1966-99), until his death in February 2008 — William F. Buckley Jr. spoke or wrote the definitive words on the conservative viewpoint.

He also, over this time, wrote the last words on 250 historical figures he had met during his lifetime. His obituaries, most of which ran in the National Review with the standard headline of the deceased’s name followed by RIP, give an intimate, honest – sometimes brutally honest – portrait of many influential people of the last century.

The best of these essays have been collected into the New York Times bestseller, A Torch Kept Lit, chosen and edited by Fox News chief Washington correspondent James Rosen. Published in October 2016, the book delves into Buckley’s thoughts on the famous of the famous, mostly those who were leaders in government, journalism, music and entertainment. In one section he shares his thoughts after the deaths of his parents and his wife Pat, who predeceased him the year before.

Another section covers some of the movers and changers who become personal friends. The final section, to perhaps illustrate that WFB truly did have the last word at this, covers his nemeses.

Rosen refers to these works as eulogies, but Buckley’s thoughts made public would hardly be acceptable by any funeral forum standards. Three weeks after the death of John F. Kennedy, one of five presidents included in the book, Buckley criticizes the national outpouring of grief.

 

READOUT: Extinguishing the flames of Camelot

 

“The rhetoric has gone quite out of control. The symbol of our emotional, if not neurotic excess, is the Eternal Flame at Arlington.… The lovely and tormented Mrs. Kennedy needs a gentle hand lest in her understandable grief, she give the air of the Pharaoh, specifying his own magnitude.’’

His essay about author Truman Capote includes the story of when then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan joked about using Capote as bait to see if there were any homosexuals working for him.

Buckley opens his column about the death of Jerry Garcia with, “If I ever heard a song played by the Grateful Dead I wasn’t aware of it.’’ Buckley then goes on to criticize Garcia for not going public with his addictions to drugs and alcohol. “If he had done so, how many would have had better prospects for health, love and longer lives?’’ Buckley concludes.

And none of these even falls under the Nemeses category.

To show just how far Buckley could go in landing a death-blow punch to the dead, here is his opening for the essay about Ayn Rand, one of six nemeses in the book: ”Ayn Rand is dead. So, incidentally, is the philosophy she sought to launch dead; it was, in fact, stillborn.”

He also shows no love for former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. “She treated all the world as her own personal slum project; and all the papers, of course, remarked on that fabulous energy – surely she was the very first example of the peacetime use of atomic energy. But some publications went to far as to say she had a great mind. Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of Euclid.”

Not everyone receives such call-it-as-he-sees-it treatment. Buckley’s four family members receive the sort of glowing obituary routinely found in newspapers that encourage such glowing praise as they bill by the word. Buckley treats Johnny Carson with a bashful tenderness, a comment about how many of Carson’s ex-wives would have attended his memorial service aside.

Receiving such gentle treatment is rare, though, and a good thing. That Buckley candor makes this book a delightful read, a combination of intimate glimpses of some of the century’s most well-known figures, before – bam — Buckley skewers them, not just bringing them down to ordinary levels, but making readers recalculate their own high opinions of the dearly departed.

It is difficult, though, to feel sorry for the subjects. To have one’s death come to the attention of WFB rivals today’s stage of being mocked on Saturday Night Live. Yes, it is mockery in front of millions, but to be mocked on SNL is a sign one has reached the upper ranks of People Who Matter.

Buckley honestly acknowledges that what he is offering comes strictly from his viewpoint. Many of the essays begin with “I first met” as Buckley spins an opening anecdote from his perspective; none of them contain the usual facts required in an obituary, such as birth and death dates, lifetime achievements or honors.

Buckley seems to assume with these essays that his familiarity with the deceased parallels that of his readers, since he jumps in with his thoughts without much introduction of the subject. For each one Rosen provides an opening note that helps frame Buckley’s connection to the subject and provide background not contained in the essay. That adds significantly to the depth of enjoyment of the stories.

These 52 essays provide not just a quick character sketch of the subjects, but a more complex review of Buckley’s life, one well lived and peppered with interesting people. The title suffices for both the subjects to find a short resurrection to their glory days in these pages, but also a reminder of the joys of a journalist’s clean and pointed writing style.

Buckley’s death might have caused relief in some who feared what his tribute would say about them. But they, after all, wouldn’t be around to read them anyway. For those still earth-bound, A Torch Kept Lit provides a pleasurable way to confront the demise of others.

Mike Mike: a mother’s view

Lezley McSpadden with Lyah Beth LeFlore, Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil, Regan Arts, New York, 2016, $26.95, 254 pages.

By Pat Louise

Since Aug. 9, 2014, much has been written about Michael Brown, shot that day by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. In Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil, Brown’s mother tells her son’s life story before his death became a national story.

Author Lezley McSpadden, with author Lyah Beth LeFlore, takes up much of the story talking about her own life, including pregnancy at age 16 and then raising son Mike Mike and her other children before her oldest was shot on Canfield Drive. For those looking for a mother’s rant against police and government amidst racism in her town, this book deals up a surprisingly little of that. Instead, readers get a better understanding of the people behind the national news event.

The book opens with a punch to the heart of a mother’s learning her son has been shot and is lying in the street a few blocks away. As she races to the scene, McSpadden leaves us there, going back to telling the story of her childhood and then Mike Mike’s 18 years, before circling back to the shooting and its aftermath.

McSpadden seems to be exploring the questions of how did we get here and what happened. While she thoroughly answers the first, she says at the end she has yet to learn exactly what happened that day, as two of the three witnesses refuse to talk to her and the third is dead.

With a candor that doesn’t always put her in the best light, McSpadden chronicles her childhood, including disappointments with her father and her struggles to keep going to school and work once she has her son at age 16.  Her choice of writing styles with slang and incorrect grammar can be jarring, especially as she writes in a prose as if talking to the reader over coffee at the kitchen table.

She and Mike Mike bounce around living with her mother, on their own and with the Browns, parents of her son’s father. Her son – nicknamed Mike Mike to distinguish between his father Mike — is raised by an assortment of family members, but always with plenty of love around him, McSpadden says again and again.

Who the world would come to know as Michael Brown from Aug. 9, 2014, on is described as a laid-back kid, always too big for his age and the target of bullying because of his size. He is not a good student, forcing his mother to try a number of tactics to keep him in school and obtain a high school degree, something she was unable to do. Brown does earn his diploma, becoming a high school graduate who turned 18 just weeks before his death.

That kid who, according to his mother, might have given her grief in the home but never outside of it, becomes the counter character to the Michael Brown police originally said had a weapon, tried to harm an officer and had just been involved in a robbery.

McSpadden does not attempt to fill in the gaps leading up to the shooting; instead she details her quest to talk to the man Brown was with at the Ferguson Market and who saw him get shot. An attempt to talk to him – a person McSpadden said she never heard mentioned by her son – resulted in nothing truthful being told, she writes.

Whatever one’s views of the shooting – justified or police brutality – the description of McSpadden and her family racing to the scene and forced to see Brown’s body lying on the street for hours, unable to even touch him, makes for painful reading. But this is where McSpadden’s story makes the most impact, as she strips away the controversy and questions and flashes back to standing for hours wanting to get to her dead son lying on the street.

McSpadden skims through her appearances at press conferences and talk shows in the days and weeks after the shooting and then the grand jury report. She touches briefly by name on those in law enforcement and government in Missouri who made promises, offering her view of whether they were sincere or not.

She spends more time on problems between her and Brown’s father regarding the funeral and meetings with Missouri leaders to update them on the case. While the question remains of what it felt like to get pushed into the national spotlight and see the devastation in the city of Ferguson over the shooting, McSpadden sets all that aside to focus on her grief over burying her son.

It works because what the reader gets is not a national spotlight view but something more intimate.

McSpadden wraps up her story by saying she shook out of her depression by starting the Michael O.D. Brown We Love Our Sons and Daughters Foundation. The Foundation brings together mothers of other males shot by police, a group known as the Rainbow Mothers. The Foundation offers a variety of ways to help them adjust to their new normal of life.

She says as her book went to press late last spring that she has yet to learn the solid truth of what happened in her son’s final moments. “This isn’t a black versus white issue. This is an issue about Right versus Wrong,’’ she states at the end.

Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil might roil those convinced Brown deserved his fate, as McSpadden’s view is most definitely that he did not. But her opinion comes strictly as that of his mother, and that is what mothers do. Readers are given fair warning on the cover with the description of The Life, Legacy, and Love of My Son, Michael Brown. Anyone expecting a balanced outlook from Wilson’s perspective will not find it. Instead, what you get is a detailed look into one family’s life in the face of losing a loved one to a cop shooting.

Spinning presidential yarns

By Chris Burnett

Greenberg, David. The Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency (2016) New York: W.W. Norton & Company, $18.95, 540 pages.

In The Republic of Spin, historian David Greenberg provides the reader with a comprehensive summary and analysis of the development of public relations techniques used by U.S. presidents since the turn of the 20th century. Today it is impossible to imagine a world where presidents had no one on their White House staffs assigned to deal with the media or go over the Washington press corps’ heads to develop a positive image of the chief executive with the public. However, it was not until the beginning of the 20th century, with the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, that chief executives began to aggressively court, or as we say today, “spin,” the media, with a concerted public relations effort.

Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers University, has done an excellent job in writing a series of essays describing the nature of the presidents serving over the past century and how they have used the communications technology of their day. As a historian, he is well equipped to describe events that promoted the professionalism of presidential public relations. The 44 chapters, comprised of essays between 10 and 15 pages long, are written in a journalistic style the author has honed as an editor at Slate and the New Republic, and as a writer for the New York Times, Washington Post, Atlantic and other professional and scholarly publications. The book is especially useful for general readers wanting to know more about presidents and the press. The Republic of Spin is great for an undergraduate politics or journalism class, for the focus on people and events of the day make this book an easy read.

Greenberg’s main theme, developed throughout the book’s 540 pages with numerous examples, is that spin, defined as the “huge arsenal of tools and techniques (elected officials and their aides have used) to shape their messages, their images and our thinking,” has become an integral part of presidential campaigning and governing. Greenberg writes that spin involves the work done by an army of campaign consultants, press secretaries, handlers, speechwriters and other political handlers as well as hacks and flacks to make sure every public utterance coming from the White House or presidential campaign is portrayed in the most favorable light. Whether spin is a good or bad thing seems to be irrelevant to Greenberg. Spin is just there, and it is a key part of the modern presidency.

To support his theme, Greenberg takes the reader on a tour of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st, concluding with a superficial glance at the Obama administration’s spin efforts. He focuses more detail on the development of spin in the first three quarters of the 20th century, through the end of the presidency of Richard Nixon in 1974. In fact, Nixon’s failure to effectively spin the Watergate break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters was arguably the most devastating in the history of the presidency.

Greenberg’s tour is entertaining, and the reader will learn a lot about how public relations’ early pioneers, such as Ivy Ledbetter Lee and Edward Bernays, who played a key role in developing presidential and political public relations. Certain presidents, such as Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt, not surprisingly, played a big role in expanding the role of spin in the presidency. Woodrow Wilson, the first president to deliver his State of the Union address in person to Congress, also found success in the world of spin, though his later failure to get the Senate to ratify the treaty that would have brought the nation into the League of Nations marred the end of his presidency. John F. Kennedy was a master of spin through the first live televised news conferences and commanding performance in the first live televised debate in 1960 with Republican candidate Nixon. My favorite chapter of the book discusses the Kennedy campaign’s masterful handling of reporter Theodore White’s chronicling of the 1960 campaign in what would become The Making of the President 1960, which won the Pulitzer Prize and burnished a positive image for the president well before his assassination. By giving White unprecedented access to the Kennedy campaign, and charming his fellow Bostonian, Kennedy showed that special treatment of individual media members could help make for favorable treatment with future journalists and historians. White would go on to chronicle future presidential campaigns in the Making of the President series throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but it was his 1960 book that won the greatest acclaim. In effect, White showed that journalists can be persuaded to spin.

Another advantage of Greenberg’s historical approach comes from his mention (although it is by no means emphasized in the text) that presidents taking advantage of “new media” tend to be viewed as most successful. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) used his love of personal campaigning and celebrity status as war hero in the Spanish-American War to feed the thirst of the expanding print media of newspapers and muckraking magazines for political news. Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945) used the new medium of radio to deliver carefully crafted Fireside Chats and build the image of strong leadership that make him president until nearly the end of World War II. Kennedy (1961-1963) mastered the new medium of television, and Obama (2009-2017) was the first president to use spin to harness the power of the Internet, particularly Facebook, to build a strong positive image in campaigning and fund raising. The book was written before Donald Trump’s triumphant 2016 campaign, so future historians will get to analyze whether Trump’s use of spin with Twitter feeds will continue to help him build a following and allow him bypass a hostile Washington press corps.

Greenberg’s book, however, has its flaws. The historical approach he uses and emphasis on spin causes him to downplay the role historical events can play in presidential success or failure. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) was a successful president because he presided over a nation at a time of great prosperity more than because he mastered spin. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969) was a legislative master but a poor television communicator. Yet it would be hard to imagine any president positively spinning the Vietnam War or the race riots of the late 1960s.

The book’s length, and scope, also make it at times appear to be overly stuffed with facts and people that it is hard for the reader to focus on what he considers to be the most significant factors influencing political spin. . Greenberg’s journalistic and historical approach makes the book easy to read, but the lack of focus can also provide the impression of superficiality. The author also focuses too little on more recent administrations. Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, two presidents who were among the more accessible to the media, get brief treatment, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal is the major focus given to Bill Clinton’s two presidential terms. The chapter on Obama emphasizes his campaign success but does not explain how or why his administration was unable to use its talent at spin to make at least a dent in the partisan opposition in Congress.

Despite these flaws, The Republic of Spin is a useful compilation of stories on the role political public relations plays in building successful presidencies. This volume is useful in that so much information on so many presidents is packed into one book. However, readers turning to this book for an analysis of the current relationship between presidency and the media will not find what they want in this otherwise impressive work.

 

‘Freedom Fighter” Mike Wolff says good reporting inspires social change

Michael A. Wolff, former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court and dean of Saint Louis University law school, gave these remarks upon receipt of the GJR’s Freedom Fighter award at last month’s First Amendment Celebration.

by Michael A. Wolff

I am deeply honored by this award. I am impressed by the exaggeration of its title – “freedom fighter” seems an overstatement that my father would have enjoyed and my mother would have believed.

I consider myself a recovering reporter. Here is something I never have disclosed: At one point in my life, nearly five years after graduating from law school and leaving The Minneapolis Star I sent a note to my old managing editor asking if the paper might have an opening for me as a reporter. He did not write back. How soon they forget.

I truly am humbled by receiving this award from an organization whose members have so single-mindedly devoted their lives to telling the truth to the people in our community and nation. I will risk omitting some truly great journalists who are here and honor me by their presence, so I beg your indulgence in advance to single out my friend and occasional co-conspirator Bill Freivogel, Margie Freivogel, Charles Klotzer, whose St. Louis Journalism Review I started reading more than 40 years ago and whose legacy lives on in the Gateway Journalism Review and the able writers and editors who populate it and continue to provide the criticism necessary to keep our media performing their essential role in our society.

Let’s face it – we lawyers and journalism have something in common – if it weren’t for human frailty, greed, avarice, and at times simple incompetence, we would all be out of business.

Great reporting inspires our passion for social change. My friend and SLU colleague Roger Goldman read your reporting in the Post Dispatch 40 years ago about trigger-happy Maplewood officers whose deadly shots did not disqualify one of them for future employment in another municipality. Roger has spent 40 years of his terrific career seeking to hold police accountable through certification and licensing all over the country.

Great reporting builds a sense of community, sets the stage and furthers the progress made in all the areas you have mentioned … education, racial justice, health care, criminal justice. It builds a community of those who, like you who are here, have a shared view of reality and the motivation to do something.

Great reporting can shame our leaders, although shame from time to time seems to go out of fashion.

Put aside shame, for now. These days it seems truth has gone out of fashion, and that feels even more ominous.

But it is so essential that we know basic facts, that we tell basic truths widely to get some agreement on a sensible common course. We cannot be a well functioning democratic republic without shared facts. Correct information is essential to drive out misinformation. I cannot think of a time in my lifetime when great reporting and great editing were more needed.

I thank you for being essential truth sayers. I also am grateful for the comics among us. Satire is alive and well. Unfortunately it sometimes is hard to tell what’s real news and what’s Saturday Night Live. It reminds me of the time decades ago when the satirist Tom Lehrer (younger people, you can Google him) said that satire died the day they gave Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize.

As a lawyer and judge, I sometimes have had the experience you occasionally have when someone questions your motives, your fairness, your judgment. That’s when humor comes in handy. I may be an idiot but I know this because Garrison Keillor told us: You can go your whole life and not need math or physics for a minute, but the ability to tell a joke is always handy.

I have tried to be available, preferably without attribution, to help reporters understand the current events that they are writing about – I remember the feeling of having to write about several different subjects in a single week. I always have had respect for that daunting challenge that reporters and editors have put their talents to. When I was a reporter I sometimes felt like the wreck on the side of the road, hoping that someone would stop and help. I often felt that way as a lawyer.

Also on the side of the road are those who are taking up some cause of social justice in these challenging times. We should stop and help them if we can.

It is easy for us to ignore those who are trying to advance social justice. There are just so many problems. There are many ways that various contending factions define social justice. It is easy to be overwhelmed, and the temptation to do nothing is strong, to leave them on the side of the road.

I leave you with my profound thanks, not on the side of the road, … but without a quick and satisfying answer. Perhaps this will help, a thought from one of Missouri’s most cherished treasures, Mark Twain: “Always do right,” Twain said. “This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

The Gray, Grey Lady mucks up

by William A. Babcock

Media — it’s a plural. Medium is the singular. Grammar 101. Clear. Simple. No question.

Unless you’re the New York Times, which inexplicably and regularly refers to “media” as a singular, as in “the media is.”

That newspaper argues that usage has made it so, much in the same way the Associated Press now accepts “under way” as one word in all instances, allows “hopefully” to be an adjective and persists in saying someone “died suddenly,” where, since death always is sudden, the correct usage is “died unexpectedly.” Ah, the death of the English language as we know it – or at least as we knew it. Sigh….

So yes, the New York Times’ caving into to common/incorrect usage is annoying. But that’s where annoyance with the Gray (or is it Grey?) Lady ends –or should end.

The Times, along with other traditional mass media such as the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and CNN, have proven to be great annoyances to Donald Trump. The newly elected president has been berating and calling these traditional mass media names and accusing them of distributing false information and news.

His omnipresent diatribes against legacy media not only provide ample fodder for Gateway Journalism Reviews’ weekly eNewsletter, but readers will note the issue they now have in front of them is the second quarterly magazine to focus on Trump and the media. That’s only the second time in this publication’s nine-year existence that it has published two issues focusing on the same topic (let alone on the same individual), with the first being the Ferguson issues.

Journalism reviews are media ethics tools. As such they focus on ethics shoulds, as opposed to First Amendment musts. And even when legal issues are featured, as was the case in GJR’s last magazine, the shoulds must take precedence. Or to quote First Amendment scholar Donald Gillmor, the law must have a clear moral element to it, or it ceases to be just.

To put it bluntly, Trump has been grossly unfair, irresponsible and unethical in his criticism of journalism and the mass media. His skin, if he indeed has any, is microscopically thin. Have the media made mistakes in covering the United States’ president? Absolutely.   Have the mistakes been the exception and exceedingly rare. Absolutely.

And let’s differentiate between “professional media” and “social media.” Professional or traditional media operate under established ethics codes. One such code, and the one most accepted as the gold standard, is that of the Society of Professional Journalists. This code instructs journalists to seek truth and report it, to minimize harm, to act independently and to be accountable. Social media seldom have – and rarely conform to – such ethics guidelines.

Is she a journalist?

Today a 14-year-old girl wearing PJs and blogging on her laptop while reclining in bed may be considered to be a journalist. But to say she’s a journalist in the same manner of the Times’ Dean Baquet, Joseph Kahn or Rebecca Blumenstein, is simply ludicrous. The pig-tailed teenager – a social media journalist – may be engaging in rumor mongering, may be spreading fake news and/or may be reporting the truth.

The U.S. is the only nation guaranteeing freedom of the press. With that guarantee should come the responsibility that journalists be credible – that they behave ethically. It’s a shame that many social media “journalists” are unaware of their ethical responsibility.

But for Trump or his staff to not see the difference and lump all “journalists” in the same boat is demeaning not only to his office, but it also can lead members of the public to distrust journalists – and to distrust them at a time when the world needs to trust trustworthy media. And for him to berate professional media for trafficking in “fake” news is preposterous.

So until Trump understand this, the media will continue to rightfully call him out when he lies, exaggerates and behaves like a boorish bully in his treatment of the media.

Now if only the Times might finally stop mucking up the English language and consider that media are indeed plural.

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.

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.”

 

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?