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Freelance journalists cover global hot spots

The last time Achilleas Zavallis packed his camera gear for Syria, he changed his airline ticket twice within 48 hours because he couldn’t make up his mind whether he should go to a country considered the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. His stomach was tied “in a million knots,” he recalled, as it is every time he travels to a war zone.

A photographer based in Greece, Zavallis is a freelance journalist. When he goes into danger, it is nearly always “on spec,” freelance parlance for covering a story and then trying to find someone to publish his work.

But in November 2013, after changing his ticket and second-guessing his motives and re-assessing the risks, Zavallis went anyway, traveling to northern Syria to document the country’s Christian minority. He stayed for about two weeks. A photo essay from the trip was published three months later in the National, an English-language publication in Abu Dhabi.

“I believe that the story must be told,” Zavallis said, “so that no one can come after 100 years and say that in Syria nothing happened and that no one died.”

At least 72 journalists have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in 2011, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which has ranked Syria the most dangerous country in the world to report. Nearly half of those killed were freelancers, journalists who were not working as staff members for any media organization at the time of their deaths. Two of the most recent (and highly publicized) deaths were those of Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who were beheaded by the Islamic State. Videos of their murders were released on social media.

More than 80 journalists have been abducted in Syria since 2011, and about 20 were still missing as of August 2014, according to New York-based CPJ. The majority are freelancers and are believed to be held by the Islamic State, a radical militant group that has seized large parts of Syria and Iraq, brutally targeting people based on ethnic and religious affiliation. The United States has launched air strikes on the group and is sending American soldiers back to Iraq to support Iraqi troops.

With dwindling budgets to cover foreign news and the high costs of sending reporters and photojournalists to war zones, news organizations are increasingly relying on freelancers to cover some of the most dangerous stories in the world. Freelance journalists pay for their own equipment (a good bullet-proof vest costs more than $500), their travel and lodging. They pay for fixers and drivers, and all of the costs associated with reporting the news. Some are lucky to get $200 for a story that takes days to report or document. When they get injured, they are responsible for their own medical care. Only the biggest news organizations provide medical insurance to freelancers on contract.

When Palestinian photojournalist Ahmed Deeb was hit in the back by a sniper bullet in Aleppo in 2012 while photographing clashes between the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Regime Forces, he paid for his own treatment.

“When I went to Aleppo in first time on 2012, I did not have any assignment,” said. Deeb, who is based in Istanbul and has documented the conflicts in Gaza, Egypt and Syria. “I just was photographing and sending the photos to some wire agencies. Some times they buy my photos, and some times they don’t take any of my photos, which means that my work for that day went vain. That happened many times with me.”

In September, Agence France-Presse announced that it would no longer accept work from freelance journalists in Syria. In a blog post explaining AFP’s position, global news director Michèle Léridon wrote that the freelance journalists had paid too high a price already. “We will not encourage people to take that kind of risk,” she said. Foley, one of the American journalists who was beheaded, had been a contributor to AFP before his capture.

Some freelancers like American photojournalist Holly Pickett welcomed the decision.  “If AFP is not willing to share the responsibility and risk of the freelancer being there, then they shouldn’t take content from there,” said Picket, who recently paid her own travel to Afghanistan, then picked up work documenting stories at a war trauma hospital in Lashkar Gah, Helmand Province.

Others said the decision did nothing to help photographers in other conflict zones.

The vast majority of AFP photographers in the Middle East are freelancers earning very little money, with few rights, said Ayman Oghanna, a freelance photojournalist based in Istanbul.

“Restricting work is not the answer,” said Oghanna, whose work has appeared in various publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, National Geographic and Al Jazeera America. “Enabling professional freelancers to work with the resources and support what they need to work safely is. Freelancers need to know that the organizations they are reporting for have their backs.”

Oghanna is a founding member of the Frontline Freelance Registry, a grassroots group for freelancers that advocates on behalf of its members, on issues from pay to the need for medical insurance.

In a white paper published by London’s Frontline Club in conjunction with the launch of the Freelance Registry, Vaughan Smith, a long-time freelance journalist and founder of the club, wrote that it was time to correct the negative assumptions about freelance journalists.

“In truth their content is now indispensable,” he wrote in the introduction to the report, which called for more hostile environment training, contingency plans when things go wrong and advice on the best forms of security. “In fact, freelance operators have become, on the whole, more experienced in covering conflicts than their employed colleagues. As way of example, freelance content dominates international news coverage of Syria. Without freelancers, reports would be reliant on material from activists, fighters and other local observers.”

The registry, which was launched in June 2013, had 495 members at the beginning of November, according to one of its other founders, Balint Szlanko, who wrote an article about the Syrian Christians for Denmark’s VICE journalism Web site that was illustrated with photos from Zavallis.

“Unsurprisingly, for most of our members the most pressing issue is pay,” he said. “Not necessarily the amount that they are paid. This also includes things like prompt payment.”

Szlanko said decisions like AFP’s avoid addressing the real issue. “The problem here specifically is that many Western news-gatherers ill not currently work with freelancers if they feel that the story is too dangerous precisely because they don’t want to be held responsible – not necessarily legally but morally – if something goes wrong,” he said.

Zavallis was clear about this: He chooses to go. He assumes the risks. But it doesn’t mean he absolves the news organizations that barter for his work. He called it the “email marathon” that happens after a journalist gets back with photos or a story from a conflict zone. He often deals with inexperienced editors who have no idea of the costs or the risks he’s taken for the story. They offer him “ridiculously low pay,” he said.

“But you can’t say anything ‘cause the story is done,” he said. “You feel that it’s important to be out there for people to read and you need to make back some of the money you spent going in the first place. There are even editors and photo desks that will contact you asking for permission to run your work with out any pay, offering as an excuse that either the magazine, Web site, newspaper is small and can’t afford the cost or that the exposure you will get by their publication will help you get more offers down the road.”

 Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the most recent print edition of GJR. 

Michel Martin urges journalists to tell the uncomfortable truth

“Journalism matters because we have the responsibility to inform readers of the truth of their world, even when they don’t want us to.”

That was the message Michel Martin, host of NPR’s “Tell Me More,” and journalist of more than 25 years gave guests at Gateway Journalism Review’s First Amendment Celebration March 19.

Drawing journalists and friends of news from around the region, the event took place at the Edward Jones headquarters in Des Peres, Mo.

“We are following the story of ourselves as a nation,” Martin said of the media’s Ferguson coverage. Just as we as a people are imperfect, journalism should “hold a mirror to both flaws and beauty,” she said.

Martin said she didn’t want to give too many opinions on the shooting of Michael Brown, because she would be moderating a Ferguson community discussion again shortly and wanted to retain some neutrality.

She left the opinion to the follow-up panel. The panel consisted of Alvin A. Reid, a weekly panelist on KETC-PBS’s “Donnybrook,” and St. Louis Magazine contributor; Patrick Gauen, who has been the police and court editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch since 2000, and a weekly columnist since 1989; Tim Eby, who has been in public radio for three decades and is general manager of St. Louis Public Radio; and Craig Cheatham who has worked in broadcast journalism for 30 years. Cheatam filed numerous in-depth reports on Ferguson and led KMOV’s analysis of the Grand Jury documents.

Sorting out facts

GJR’s publisher, William Freivogel, introduced the panel discussion by asking two questions:

“How did we allow this mantra to get started — ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ — when the Justice Department has refuted that it happened?” he asked.  And “how have we allowed pervasive racism to exist so long right under our noses?”

While Gauen said the facts of the case contradicted “the narrative,” he thought Brown has become symbolic for pervasive – and real – victimization around the country.

Reid wasn’t so sure the Justice Department report fully refuted the narrative. “I am convinced we still don’t know what happened on that street in Ferguson.”

Gauen said there was “an inability to tell a balanced story on all sides.” In contrast to 50 years ago, when there were no protester accounts, now there were few police viewpoints. The police had less control of the information surrounding this case than they typically do, he said. Social media contributed to them losing the shape of the narrative.

Touching on citizen journalists’ role in Ferguson, Reid said their involvement has been “problematic.” Their contributions were marred through their antagonism of the police, he said.

“I felt very early there was a false narrative going on,” said Cheatham. “There is a difference between peaceful and non-violent protest. I reported on how some of the police went down and were scared by those protests. I was tagged as a ‘pro-cop’ reporter, and in that environment, you don’t want to get tagged as pro-anything.”

He added that he thought the media did a poor job of covering the protesters’ side early on, when they were too busy instead staying on top of the story as it broke.

“People want their own facts,” Cheatam later said. Journalists shouldn’t feel pressure to cater to them.

Looking at the big picture, “the region has permanently changed,” according to Eby. “There are a lot of people who just want things to go back to the way they were before Aug. 9. I don’t think that’s possible,” he said. It is now journalists’ job to bring the conversation the case started to the forefront, he added.

‘Tell all stories’

Before moderating their panel, Martin talked about the Children’s Crusade, the 1963 civil rights demonstration by hundreds of Birmingham school students in Alabama. Local newspapers agreed not to put the confrontation on their front pages, even though the national papers did – it was “too explosive,” Martin said. There were also no quotes from the demonstrators.

The Birmingham papers said they didn’t know how to cover the story – and wouldn’t know who to call for quotes from the protestors’ side. “I’m very confident that we are doing better than that,” Martin said. “But are we doing the best we can do? How deep are our rolodexes?”

Martin used this question to pivot to underrepresented groups within journalism, pointing out large gender and race disparities in bylines nationwide. Even the New York Times, under then-editor Jill Abramson, had the fewest female bylines among the 10 biggest news outlets. On network television, most news shows’ guest analysts remain white males.

“Are women of color only capable of talking about what they are, not what they know?” Martin asked.

“We have to do our jobs,” she said – and do them better. Journalism should “tell all stories,” and depict “the world as it is, not as we want it to be. It is the media’s honor, its duty to learn this uncomfortable world as it is, not as it was.” This is important in world of polarized media where you can now “pick your own truth,” she said.

“It’s expensive education,” she concluded, quoting former GJR fundraiser speaker John Seigenthaler, for whom she had earlier asked a moment of silence. “But we’ve tried ignorance so many ways, and it doesn’t work.”

 

 

Wannabe heroics of O’Reilly and Williams

Bill O'Reilly Under FireOn April 19, 1945 the New York Times published an obituary for nationally known war correspondent Ernie Pyle who “died today on Iejema Island, just west of Okinawa, like so many of the doughboys he had written about…killed instantly by Japanese machine-gun fire.” Pyle, the Times added, had become World War II’s beloved “chronicler of the average American soldier’s daily round, in and out of foxholes in many war theatres.”

He had also become the role model for journalists covering a war. After 1945, American reporters pursued that ambition in Korea in the 1950s and in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. But when Great Britain and Argentina squared off in their 1982 squabble over the Falkland Islands and during America’s first war in Iraq in 2003, government restrictions and censorship made it impossible. Thus reporters’ dreams of heroism on the field of battle or in the field of journalism came to an end.

“The age of the war correspondent as hero appears to be over,” Phillip Knightly, reporter for the London Sunday Times, wrote in his book “The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Iraq.” (2004 edition)

This is not an excuse for the embellishments of the experiences Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly made to his reporting on the Falkland Islands war or NBC’s Brian Williams to his stint in Iraq, but as context around their original claims, lost in much parsing of the phrases or terms with which they initially described their encounters with the dangers of covering frontline carnage.

The Vietnam War, Knightly wrote, was “better reported than any of the other wars examined here” (in his book). Drew Middleton, who covered the military for the New York Times, attributed that to the absence of censorship. As a result, there was a great deal of original reporting. Moreover, access to the population of Vietnam allowed reporters to capture the human aspects of the war’s “complete tragedy” for both sides. Seymour Hersh won the Pulitzer Prize for his stories about the My Lai massacre, Sydney Schanberg for his dispatches from Cambodia carpet-bombed by United States Air Force B-52s.

Reporters were free to write the first draft of history in Vietnam, and David Halberstam of the NYT expressed this in a letter to Knightly. He suggested that each story from the war there should have included a third paragraph that read: “All of this is shit and none of this means anything because we are in the same footsteps as the French and we are prisoners of their experience.”

The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence, a decade later, wanted to make sure reporters would not come to a similar conclusion about the Falklands conflict. Only a group of selected British correspondents were allowed to accompany UK forces to the battlefield on the islands, leaving “no room for impartial reporting.” O’Reilly and all other reporters covered the conflict from Buenos Aires, 1,180 miles from combat, based on press releases prepared in London.

The British government, Knightly observed, followed three rules: control access to the fighting; exclude neutral correspondents; censor your own. The American government found another way to prevent war correspondents from undermining its Iraq operation by the ways they might report it: it embedded reporters within units of American forces. They thereby saw to it that a bond was established between the members of the unit and the correspondent assigned to it; they controlled just what embedded reporters got to see and what they would not see.

Questions about the “big picture,” about the government-proclaimed progress made in the war were often brushed off during press briefings: “This is a f___ing war, asshole. No more questions for you. Why don’t you just go home.”

Reporters were embedded, caged in the experiences of their units, unable or unwilling to report on the plight of the Iraqi victims of the fighting. The media at home decided that the public was not interested, in 2003, in people just like those responsible for 9-11. The government had won the battle for the hearts and minds of the American people, even if lies about Iraq were necessary.

And for correspondents such as Brian Williams, the dangers a freely roaming reporter like Ernie Pyle faced in war zones, were unavailable, so he added them to his reporting repertoire.

What O’Reilly and Williams did was not necessary. The former is a leading talk show host, the latter a successful nightly national news anchor. Their climbs to those positions were, we assumed, supported by solid news reporting in the past, and if possible by the “heroism” of facing great danger to capture what the wars on the Falkland Islands and in Iraq were like for all touched by them, and what they were all about.

There has been little of that kind of reporting since it was squashed in the Falklands and in Iraq.
War reporting had become collateral damage of war.

Washington déjà vu: ‘Hearts and Minds’ rears its head again

“The casual use and misuse of the phrase ‘hearts and minds’ should be guarded against.” – Sergio Miller, Small Wars Journal, 2012

President Obama was unaware of or undeterred by that warning when in a February 18 Los Angeles Times op-ed piece he wrote: “Our campaign to prevent people around the world from being radicalized to violence is ultimately a battle for hearts and minds.”

To many American journalists and their audiences the campaign’s more immediate strategy was not voiced in his remarks: stopping ISIS and other jihadist organizations and individuals from killing people around the world. Many had hoped to discover it.

Moreover, the administration is faring badly in the media battle against the terrorist organization ISIS, particularly in the social media. The task of leading our battle was handed to CSCC, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. This bureaucratic entity has not found ways to compete with the gruesomely bloody materials released by ISIS that immediately go viral. The suggestion that CSCC should expose the nihilistic destructiveness through competitively vivid releases has not yet been acted upon. Our Department of State wallows in goody-two-shoe mini-lectures as responses as well.

A day before his op-ed appeared, Department of State spokesperson Marie Harf insisted that a short-term strategy would not prevent the radicalization to violence the president hopes to thwart. Instead, she proposed that “we have to combat the conditions that can lead people to turn to extremism.

“We can’t kill every terrorist around the world, nor should we try. How do you get at the root causes of this?…It’s really the smart way to combat it.”

The president expanded on her view in his op-ed: “Groups like al-Qaida and ISIL exploit the anger that festers when people feel that injustice and corruption leave them with no chance of improving their lives. The world has to offer today’s youth something better.”

The president’s take offers only one reason young people turn to the “violent extremism” he deplores. One day after his LA Times piece, the New York Times introduced readers to another in a font-page story by Mona El-Naggar: “From a private school in Cairo to ISIS killing fields in Syria.”

It tells the story of Islam Yakem who, “As a young man wanted to be a fitness instructor. He trained relentlessly, hoping that his effort would bring him success, girlfriends and wealth. But his goals never materialized. He left that life (in a middle-class Cairo neighborhood) and found religion, extremism and, ultimately, his way into a photograph where he knelt beside a decapitated corpse on the killing fields of Syria, smiling.”

The materialistic element of the American Dream and capitalism—“success, girlfriends and wealth”—had failed him, so he turned to the religious and spiritual dream offered by a segment of Islam, the holy jihad against Islam’s enemies. This is a “root cause” of “violent extremism” neither Obama nor Harf confront.

Brian Whitaker, former Middle East editor of the Guardian and author of “Arabs Without God: Atheism and Freedom of Belief in the Middle East,” did. In a 2014 article for the Guardian he wrote: “Compulsion in religion is the ideological foundation stone of ISIS and Islamist movements in general. Believing they have superior knowledge of God’s wishes for mankind such groups feel entitled – even required –to act on his behalf and punish those who fail to comply with the divine will. In doing so, of course, they do not claim to be seeking power for themselves but merely trying to make the world more holy.”

The terms Whitaker uses to describe the “mission” and actions of groups like ISIS remind us of similar terms which National Socialists used to sanctify the mission of their movement. At the core was the belief, first expressed by an obscure 19th century poet: “Am deutschen Wesen soll die Welt genesen.” It requires several translations to get the gist of it: “The German spirit shall heal the world”—“The German way of life shall cure the world”—“German values shall cure the world.”

And young Muslims, recruited to jihadist movements, are sold the absurd notion that they will, by killing and self-sacrifice, bring the “superior” way of life, spirit and values of Islam to the world, and if not accepted, impose or force them upon the world.

Economic hardship and denial of opportunity contribute to their escape from the often grim reality of life in a Paris or Cairo suburb. But when Harf offered as a cure what her critics described mockingly as a “Jobs for Jihad Delinquents Program ,” they made a solid point, based on the most documented example in history. When Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January of 1933, there were six million unemployed, or one third of the country’s workforce. Six years later, the number was down to 300,000.

And just then, in 1939, young Germans marched off to the holy war to bring German values to the East and slaughter the millions of Jews, Slavs, and Gypsies not fit or willing to embrace them. A job in a Hamburg factory or Munich brewery was just a job, but this lifted them into something bigger than themselves and their jobs, something good and sacred. They believed that absurdity and committed atrocities, as the ISIS murderers believe another absurdity and inflict their atrocities.

Obama might gain credibility in leading a world-wide campaign “to offer today’s youth something better” (his words in the op-ed) if he started with offering America’s underprivileged youths, say those in West Virginia’s poorest county, some better things: better schooling, better housing, better opportunities for jobs. Today, in McDowell County*, young people escape from despair into drugs and petty crime. They are not killing others; they are destroying their own lives as they watch their communities crumble. And their values? As Brecht put it: “First the stomach, then morality.”

Why do the young jihadists, from Islamic and non-Islamic countries, Muslims and non-Muslims, accept that the evil they commit is really for a greater good? Harf and Obama have not looked at answers that do not please them, answers they cannot accept, answers that run against what others have learned from history, from the history of Islam itself and from the history of destructive movements in other cultures and societies.

The president and Harf may not agree with Henry Ford’s infamous “history is bunk,” but they sound as if they want to act on it. They might want to remember, however, that Fascism had to be defeated before a Marshall Plan could help change the society that embraced it. A T-shirt for sale on the internet claims that “revolution starts in the mind.” That is true of change as well.

*See the excellent “50 Years into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back,” by Trip Gabriel, The New York Times. April 20, 2014.

The good, the bad and the ugly of St. Louis TV news

Media guru Tripp Frohlichstein dreams of delivering a “State of the 2014 Local News” address to St. Louis’ three TV stations (he considers Channels 2 and 11 one station as they share facilities and people). This is his dream address:

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for taking the time to discuss the state of local news. There are times when the local media perform well and serve viewers in a meaningful way.  Unfortunately, there are too many times when the opposite is true.  So today, let’s look at the good, the bad and the ugly of local news in St. Louis.

Before we do, it is critical to remind you of the importance of what you do.  Despite the rise of the Internet as a source of news, Pew Research studies show people still rely on local television news more than any other source of information.  A study released on June 17 by the GfK market research group for Hearst Television finds, and I quote, “viewers have a high level of engagement and trust with local television news.”

Even young people cite the importance of local TV news.  Now, many of those people may not watch the news in the traditional way.  Instead of sitting down in front of the television at 6 o’clock and watching for a half-hour, they may pick and choose the stories they want by going to your station’s website or Facebook page.

Please keep this in mind during this presentation.  More importantly, remember this responsibility as you make your day to day decisions on what to cover, how to cover it, how you write it, who you hire and so on.  If you keep your audience’s reliance on your integrity and skills in mind perhaps, just perhaps, you can improve the product you deliver.

Let’s begin with some of the good when it comes to how you serve the viewers of the region. All of the local news stations have the ability to perform well when major news, affecting many people, is breaking.  Of particular note is bad weather.  Sure, some viewers get upset when you interrupt their favorite shows, but when lives may be on the line, it’s the right thing to do.  Moving the actual programs to one of your alternative digital channels is a good idea and should become standard practice.

One of the highlights of last year was the intense and challenging coverage required after the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson.  All of the stations performed extremely well, though some of the Gannett reporters from out of town used by Channel 5 had problems as they were not as familiar as local reporters with the area.  The violence required reporters to put themselves in danger at times.  However, local viewers benefitted in the end with accurate information (a lot more so than many of the national networks) looking at the many different angles of the story ranging from the actual shooting, the grand jury verdict, the violence, the peaceful protestors and their attempts to stem the violence, the impact on surrounding communities as well as the city itself, and how the national media coverage portrayed us.  Despite some mistakes and not always being where they needed to be, most of the time, our local stations excelled as they covered those events.

I also admire some of the investigative work done by the local stations. Elliott Davis (2) continues to crank out example after example of government waste. Craig Cheatham (4) often has well researched, well thought-out investigative pieces.

You also boast some fine veteran anchors who do a quality job of presenting the news.  In local news, you not only want credibility but personality.  Mike Bush (5), Kelly Jackson (5), Kay Quinn (5), Steve Savard (4), Robin Smith (4), Mandy Murphey (2), Tom O’Neill (2), Dan Gray (2) and John Pertzborn (2) are some who immediately come to mind.  They have different styles but do their jobs well. After all, morning anchors need even more of a lighter touch than the (supposedly) more serious evening anchors.

There are some good reporters out there too, mostly veterans.  You have to admire Betsey Bruce, the venerable Channel 2 reporter who has been relegated to not exactly prime time yet continues to turn out solid, old-school journalism, covering stories fairly and professionally.  There are many other solid reporters such as Russel Kinsaul (4), Matt Sczesny (4), Roche Madden (2), Paul Shankman (2) and Andy Banker (2).  But there are not enough high quality reporters and we’ll get to that in the bad section.

Perhaps the greatest strength of local news in St. Louis is its weathercasters.  While most of the best reporters are veterans, there is a good mix of young and old when it comes to meteorological talent.  Dave Murray (2) and Cindy Preszler (5) have ruled the roost for a long time.  But also showing considerable talent are the entire Channel 5 and Channel 2 weather teams. At Channel 4, Kent Ehrhardt, Matt Chambers and Kristen Cornett all stand out.

Finally, in sports, it is again the veterans who stand out.  Perhaps the most unsung hero of the sports genre is Frank Cusumano, who consistently produces interesting pieces that go beyond the typical sports highlights and interviews. Renee Knott (5) has also established himself as has his colleague Katie Felts (5).  Doug Vaughn (4) and Maurice Drummond (4) are also solid sports contributors.

From the good, we turn to the bad.  Part of this is dictated by budget cuts that result in understaffed newsrooms and overworked, often rookie, reporters.

Gone are the days when a reporter was always accompanied by a camera person and sometimes even a sound technician.  Today’s reporters are so often what you call a “one man band.” Interviewees often complain reporters no longer spend much time preparing for their interviews.  And, because reporters often are rushed, mistakes seem more frequent.  Part of this may also be due to the younger less experienced reporter. St. Louis is often a reporter’s first job.  The result is viewers often get misinformation, as the mistakes reporters used to make learning their trade in smaller cities now happen here.  Be comfortable with corrections. Corrections make you look good.  It tells viewers we want to get it right. Instead of avoiding admitting a mistake, own up to it.  Your audience will appreciate it.

Our discussion of the bad must also include a disturbing penchant of self-promotion of station programming.  If “Great Day St. Louis” or “Show Me St. Louis” wants to feature these “features,” good for them.  But the half-hour and hour evening newscasts should be devoted to real local news, not interviewing the star of a show that airs on the station’s network.

Today, for the most part, the “beat reporter” in television is a thing of the past.  The real loser in this is the viewer who now gets less analysis of a variety of issues.  Wouldn’t it be nice, for example, if a station were to take a true, in-depth look at the battle between county executive Charlie Dooley and the challenger for his job in the Democratic primary, Steve Stenger. It would be great if stations did in-depth interviews with both men, as well as those around them, to really understand what appears to be their deep-seated dislike of one another. Why not do in-depth reporting to examine the validity of each man’s claims?

Instead, we have too many short-form, easy-to-cover stories.  It is easy and efficient to cover fires, murders and meetings.  It is hard to cover government stories or the background leading to the meeting being covered.  But which of those has more impact on the largest number of people in the community?

Another thing to think about is how you use a live shot.  If something happened 8 hours ago, there is absolutely no need for a reporter to be standing in front of a building with nothing going on, to tell us it happened “here.”

Finally, the weather sometimes is not as dangerous and yet still gets over-covered.  Severe thunderstorms are part of living in St. Louis.  When tornadoes are spawned, cover them.  Otherwise, information at the bottom of the screen is all we need.

Finally, the ugly.  All the stations are guilty of trying to be first with a story. You folks at the stations think being first is important.  Maybe it is to you.  But to viewers, not so much.  So think about what viewers care about, not what you care about next time there is a major breaking story.

Related to this self-promotion is some of the overly dramatic writing and delivery by some of our anchors.  Channel 4’s Sharon Reed is at the top of the list, but by no means the only offender.  It sounds really important when you hear an anchor say “News Four has learned…”  But so has every other station because it was in a press release.  It’s not right to fool viewers.

Then there’s this one:  “Our investigation uncovered several lawsuits.”  Well, that’s not true.  You didn’t uncover them because lawsuits are not hidden.  You just found out about them.

Some of the promotion is also almost tasteless.  I wrote in the Gateway Journalism Review about Channel 4 running a promo around 6:20 in the evening warning people not to eat meat until they heard a story promised for 10 o’clock [Editor’s note: the author’s post ran on gatewayjr.org on March 14, 2014]. At dinnertime you are telling me to wait till 10 o’clock?  If it is that important, tell me now.  And when the story did air, it was a vague, very short 17 second story about a recall from the previous month.  This is not the way to treat viewers: in the interests of increasing your own ratings.  The same goes for a station promising to keep viewers updated on a story.  But you never hear another word.

Finally, the number of misspellings of on-air graphics has increased substantially.  How am I supposed to trust you if you can’t spell a name right or misspell basic words on a regular basis?  Either use your spell checkers or have someone proof those graphics before they are posted.

“The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly,” ended with the Good winning, the Bad dead and the Ugly out of the picture.  I hope that happens here.  As I said at the beginning, people rely on what you do.  So as you go forward, please make your decisions less with “self” in mind and more with your viewers at heart.  I would argue that if you truly try to work that way, it will mean more trust, more viewers and, therefore, more advertising dollars.

Thank you.

PEOPLE magazine at 40: Paparazzi in print

1974 was not a good year for America. Historians depict a country exhausted from 15 years of public stress. They see the after-effects of more than a decade of social and political conflict over civil rights, equality for women, the nuclear arms race and the Vietnam War, as well as the lingering and devastating effects of three assassinations in the 1960s. The resolution of the Watergate scandal, with the resignation of President Richard Nixon, brought a “sense of weary relief,” in the words of historian John Morton Blum.  It also brought a desire to retreat from engagement in public issues to the cultivation of private lives. The time was ripe for PEOPLE magazine.

The first issue appeared on March 4. It was, as the editors noted, the first launch of a national magazine in 20 years, since Sports Illustrated in 1954. In an introductory note to that first issue the editors did not talk about how their publication might propel the advance of the rising “celebrity-gossip-scandal” journalism and contribute to the decline of “general interest” publications (think of LIFE, Look and Collier’s). Their goals were more modest.

“Journalism has, of course, always noted and dealt with people,” they wrote, “but we dedicate our entire editorial content to that pursuit.” The American people were ready and eager to get away from issues and conflict about them to the “up close and personal” approach television was pursuing. Ideas, history and social, political and economic matters could remain the province of those pointy-headed pseudo-intellectuals in Washington and on campuses.

But what kinds of people would PEOPLE reveal to us? The “doers, headliners, stars and comers.”  Or, as the editors said, “the above average, the important, the charismatic, the singular.” The average Americans, the “folks” in flyover land wanted to read about them, the publisher bet, and and the publisher turned out to be right. Circulation remained strong in 2013 at 3.5 million, ranking PEOPLE in 12th place among magazines. Reader’s Digest was the only other magazine in the top dozen directed at general readers.

The editors also promised “never to be cruel or awestruck or gushy.” To translate that, they promised to be bland and inoffensive. In the first issue they mostly succeeded.

The cover story on March 4, 1974, featured Mia Farrow at 29, about to dazzle audiences in “The Great Gatsby” with Robert Redford in the title role. Readers discovered that Farrow “in real life is not at all like Daisy (Buchanan),” the character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel on which the movie is based. “With Mia everything is family…She’s really a loving, caring person, not like those old selfish movie stars caring only about themselves.”

Farrow may well be a caring and selfless mom, but why lambast movie vixens of old such as Betty Davis and Barbara Stanwyck? They may not have been embodiments of family values, but they sure could act.  And Farrow? As Roger Ebert (no highbrow critic in some cinematography journal) put it: “…we cannot understand what’s so special about Daisy Buchanan. Not as she’s played by Ms. Farrow, all squeaks and narcissism and empty sophistication.”

PEOPLE couldn’t help being gushy and awestruck before Hollywood’s gods and goddesses, editorial vows notwithstanding. That came through again in another story of the first issue, one about William Peter Blatty, writer and producer of “The Exorcist,” one of the 1973’s blockbusters.  He is quoted as dismissing criticism from New York Times critic Vincent Canby (who called the movie “elegant claptrap”) and the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael: “They belong to a very small set of reviewers who have been trapped so long in the squirrel cage of their own ego that the world outside their cage is a blur. They neither reap nor sow nor perform any useful social function.”

The PEOPLE reporters did not enter Blatty’s verbal squirrel cage to interpret, and who can blame them? The best comment on the movie came from the manager of a theater in which it played: “My janitors are going bananas wiping up the vomit.” That helps explain all that talk about how much a movie grossed.

The rest of the issue is pleasantly bland and blandly pleasant. Movie gossip columnist Sheila Graham, recently transplanted to Palm Beach, informed readers that her new home town was “the richest and snottiest Place to be Seen” and that in comparison to Hollywood, a “working town,” it was dull. But at least “there are no slums in Palm Beach.”

There’s an interview with Marina Oswald, widow of JFK’s assassin. It’s Psychology Today Lite, but at least it quotes her as wondering if Lee Harvey Oswald “brought all this down on America.” The closest the first issue comes to insight into the people it covered is the homespun, cracker barrel “makes you kind of wonder” comment Marina Oswald tossed to her interviewers.

In the first decade after PEOPLE’s debut two things happened to American journalism. Jann Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone magazine, summarized the first in 1985: “Call it what you want – gossip journalism, celebrity journalism, human-interest journalism. By any name, this has become the dominant theme in journalism.”

David Sumner, professor of journalism at Ball State University and often called “Professor Magazine,”(he’s author of “The Magazine Century:  American Magazines Since 1900”) identified the second dominant theme, a “general decline in the intellectual level of magazine content.” Both themes emerge with relentless clarity from a viewing of the June 16, 2014 issue of PEOPLE.

The content consisted mostly of pictures and snippets of text. Gone was the pretext the people depicted might be, as suggested in 1974, “above average, charismatic or singular.” A few may be important to their families and friends. Take this example. An entire page (p. 28) was devoted to the photo of a chubby young man who turned out to be Rob Kardashian, a “TV personality, business man and model, best known for appearing on reality television shows that center upon his family,” (“Keeping Up with the Kardashians”).

“It’s a family that “prides themselves (sic) on looking absolutely fabulous,” an insider revealed to another publication [which? Looks like maybe it was Hollywood Life?], and poor Rob obviously failed to live up to his fabulous potential.

The rest of the pictures showed us many more people such as Rob. There was a full page devoted to things these people said:

  • “If I’m in a bathing suit, I should pose proudly.” — Jessica Simpson
  • “I looked down and the nutter was trying to bury his face in my crotch, so I cracked him twice in the back of the head.” — Brad Pitt
  • “There’s a Twitter account called @JessicaBielArms.  Should my ass be offended?” — Jessica Biel

Wittier comments used to be found written on the walls in junior high school boys’ rooms.

The cover story, an interview with Hillary Clinton, makes a stab at journalism. The former First Lady and secretary of state and perceived front runner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination answered questions, but her answers lead to few follow-up questions her comments should have provoked.

When asked about what she discusses with those who see her as the best hope for a female president, she replied: “I don’t think the most important questions are ‘Are you going to run?’ and ‘Can you win?’” I’m not having those conversations. The important questions are ‘What’s your vision for America?’ and ‘Do you think you can lead our country there?’”

About Monica Lewinsky: Hillary Clinton has “moved on.” We should too, the presidential hopeful tells us: “I think everybody needs to look to the future.”  There’s not a word about fixing the present.

Asking questions is what journalists do. PEOPLE today is a mix of supermarket tabloid, movie fan magazine and gossip column. It does public relations work for the “stars” and wannabe stars, the very rich and occasionally for a mover and shaker in Washington.

Paul Fussell, author of “The Great War and Modern Memory,” summed up what the magazine represents: “It is the function of a bad magazine like PEOPLE to encourage readers to admire and envy shallow show-business celebrities and various stupid freaks of curious achievements…”

And that raises a question not likely to get discussed around the water cooler: Do magazines such as PEOPLE shape or mirror society?

 

Danziger on Charlie Hebdo

I knew George Wolinski, but not closely. He saw the humor in everything, and probably even the black humor in the disaster than befell his last day on earth. If he got to meet with the murderers in heaven or wherever he might have pointed out that for all their expense and fear they accomplished nothing. They gave him a famous death rather than some waning, weakening thing, succumbing to Alzheimers. He might have written a note to be passed to God or Allah or whoever, saying something to the effect, look, these guy are idiots, make them work in the kitchen for a few years, that should do it.

Political cartoonists are heartened by stupidity in government especially the kind than is provided by politicians wrapped up in their own bull. We appreciate it more than most journalists when a candidate, especially for a re-election he or she does not merit, tries to deflect press attention from their abysmal records in office by lying and smiling to the voters. Paul Conrad, one of the deans of the cartooning field, working for the Los Angeles Times for many years, said that when Nixon resigned, “I wept.” Nixon has after all provided the Conrad family with bread and shelter for many years.

This perverse pleasure, which admittedly doesn’t seem to help the nation forward toward better government, still has a use. Prompted by some goofy or evil politician, a good cartoon can quickly show that we are not fooled. Editorialists temporize and try to answer their own questions, but the cartoons, if done right, are like an ice cube down the back of your shorts, uncomfortable and surprising, embarrassing and mortifying. Meant as a joke, but just a bit too harsh to forgive.

And too many ice cubes down too many shorts will result in a reaction, so a bit of judgment is needed.

Which is the problem with the Paris killings. Men like my colleague Wolinski didn’t believe in much of anything, certainly nothing religious. He and his editors were not just irreligious, they were anti-religious, and not just once in a while, but nearly every issue. They could not understand how anyone could take the claims of  religions seriously, and so they didn’t themselves. The practices of Islam, the proscriptions against most of the physically enjoyable parts of life, especially when you live among the best wine and the most intriguing women on earth, strike men like Wolinski as illogical at best and inhuman at worst. The Puritan ethic, the idea that to find anything more enjoyable than contemplation and worship of a Supreme Being, was to insult that Being. Fundmental Islam seemed to take that to the limit.

Should Charlie Hebdo have limited their insults to the Islamic faiths? Should they have looked for more intricate ways of amusing their readers at the expense of what they thought were stupid, irrational beliefs? Should they have, as a friend said, “stooped to subtlety”? Would their message been lost if the purposely and rather childishly insulting nature of their magazine had been tempered?

Curiously, here in the land of the free, political cartoonists are well used to self-control, if not self-censorship altogether. At the top of the list of subjects to be gentle about is religion. The American attitude is to let people alone in their minds, despite the hard charging right wing sections of the current GOP. And there is an American practicality in this. Barry Goldwater used to say that you can’t legislate morality, and he was righter than he thought. Force in almost any activity generates a counter force. Forced thinking doesn’t change the mind of anyone. Thus, reason most of us in the US, why try? Living a happy life despite attempts by others to prevent your enjoyment of it is the best response, and living well is the best revenge.

Until these murders, the satires on various faiths in Charlie Hebdo were pretty much without effect. The Jews were attacked and the paid no attention. The Catholic Church went about its archaic ceremonies unimpressed. If there was a difference in the radical Islamists it was that in France, they are poor and largely unemployed. And although there is no justification for the killings, there is an argument to be made that making immigration possible as the French have done to many peoples, and then treating immigrants poorly is bound to have a reaction.

So far the discussion and review of this bloody event has been to frame it as a freedom of expression issue. Well, it’s not that simple. Freedom is a wonderful idea, but reality has always trumped ideas. And the reality of human existence in these times is that a lot of people are crazy and believe insane things. And that there are a lot of guns and ammunition about.
danzcolor

 

 

With drone technology, potential pitfalls are worth the risk

Articles such as Ravi Somaiya’s Jan. 15 story in the New York Times, titled “Times and Other News Organizations to Test Use of Drones,” should come as a surprise to no one who’s been paying attention to the technology behind these unmanned aerial vehicles.

After all, what makes drones so appealing to journalists is that they give reporters access to the sky. That’s something that was not so readily accessible before these machines made their presence known. To get aerial shots used to require a helicopter, a hot-air balloon or an airplane, all of which usually are dependent on others to operate – and cost money to use, too.

But using aerial technology take pictures of the world around us is not new at all. In a May 3, 2013, Slate article titled “Privacy Concerns Shouldn’t Ground Journalism Drones,” New York media lawyer Nabiha Syed detailed how, in 1906, a commercial photographer named George R. Lawrence hoisted a 46-pound camera into the air above San Francisco (with the help of 17 kites and steel wire, no less) to take panoramic shots of the earthquake and fire devastation in that city. Syed then fast-forwarded five decades later, to 1958, to tell how television news reporter John Silva altered the media landscape even further through his use of the KTLA “Telecopter” in Los Angeles – ushering in the modern reality of live traffic updates, car chases and other aerial broadcasts to the city’s residents.

Journalists the world over always have embraced new technologies to relate the newsworthy events in our world. What’s a little perplexing for me, though, is how many Americans think drones are a sudden intrusion on their Fourth Amendment privacy rights that need to be severely restricted by the Federal Aviation Administration.

So why do drones get such a bad rap in our society? U.S. citizens have not voiced the same level of concern – or outrage – about security cameras in department stores, banks or even public streets, so is the real impetus for all this new drone legislation spurred by a fear of potential abuse by journalists and the government?

Part of the resistance to widespread drone use appears to stem from the surreptitious nature in which they can be deployed. Think about it: A person sunbathing in his or her back yard can be filmed by a cameraman flying aloft in a helicopter just as easily as by a drone – and with the exception that the aircraft cannot be less than 500 feet off the ground, where private property protection ends, there is nothing illegal about that cameraman being up in the sky. (The U.S. Supreme Court, in the 1946 case United States v. Causby, ruled 5-2 that the ancient common law doctrine that land ownership extended to the space above the earth “has no place in the modern world.” Justice William O. Douglas’ opinion noted that, if the doctrine were valid, “every transcontinental flight would subject the operator to countless trespass suits. Common sense revolts at the idea.”) Of course, one downside to using any aerial device – manned or unmanned – for journalism is that it has the potential to come crashing down on the very citizens it was sent up to look down on.

Consider, too, that the use of drones by journalists already is a fait accompli – something that has already been done and cannot be undone. Reporters overseas already have produced tantalizing glimpses of the future of drone-enhanced journalism. For example, a video on CNN’s website, shot from a drone and narrated by reporter Karl Penhaul 10 days after Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the Philippines in early November 2013, showed what the people of the community of Tacloban, Philippines, had to deal with in the storm’s aftermath. The video in which Penhaul appears, titled “A bird’s eye view of Haiyan devastation,” could be considered a peek into the future of journalism here in the United States.

Whether we Americans are ready for them or not, drones already are being deployed within the borders of the United States. They’ve been in use both by the Customs & Border Protection agency along the U.S.-Mexico border and by law enforcement personnel, bringing us closer to what the American Civil Liberties Union has termed a “surveillance society” government. Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration, under the aegis of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act passed by Congress, has been tasked with integrating commercial drones into U.S. airspace by the end of this year. The FAA estimates that 7,500 commercial drones could be flying in national airspace in just a few years, and agency officials have reported that the number of domestic drones could rise to 30,000 by the year 2030. The FAA is not constrained by the act to address privacy concerns related to the use of commercial drones, and FAA officials said the agency does not have the authority to make or enforce any rules related to privacy concerns.

While the FAA may avoid delving into the ethical aspect of drone use, a group with a focus on the future of drone journalism has made this its core mission. The Professional Society of Drone Journalists, which formed in 2011, bills itself on its website as “the first international organization dedicated to establishing the ethical, educational and technological framework for the emerging field of drone journalism.” The organization’s founder is Matthew Schroyer, a drone expert who works for a National Science Foundation grant at the University of Illinois. In a July 2013 interview posted on the website of International Human Press, Schroyer said he has developed a preliminary code of conduct for drone journalism. His hope is that the code will be interactive at some point, so members of the society can alter the code to keep up with developments in the drone journalism field.

The code lays out the additional responsibilities that drone journalists take on when controlling these unmanned vehicles, and it also emphasizes the potential risks of operating these devices in populated urban areas as the speed, range and size of these machines undergo further development. Being able to take aerial photographs when reporting on a story makes a drone a valuable resource, but in this regard the code also warns that the chance for abuse – especially when it comes to matters of privacy and safety – also is increased.

But despite the potential pitfalls associated with this technology, what the drone movement has going for it is historical record: Many of the technological advances in cars and planes that Americans enjoyed after World War II can be directly traced to advances made in the war effort against Germany and Japan. In this same way, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have helped fuel the advances in the unmanned aircraft industry. Armed drones still are being used for to eliminate terrorists overseas, but the unarmed civilian versions of these machines are now available to any hobbyist (or journalist) with the money to spend on them.

The way I see it, we can’t un-ring this bell. Drones already are part of the future of journalism, and today’s students studying to be tomorrow’s reporters will have to learn how to do their jobs with this new piece of technology. I echo the sentiments of Rose Mooney, the executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership at Virginia Tech, who told Somaiya that she hopes drones “can provide this industry a safe, efficient, timely and affordable way to gather and disseminate information and keep journalists out of harm’s way.”