13 Oct 2017

Adventures in Objectivity

0 Comment

This is part 1 of a 2-part series. Click here to read both parts.

Adventures in Objectivity – Reportage Worth Paying For

Long lived success in commerce follows a simple axiom.  Deliver to the customer what is promised at a fair price with a reasonable margin for profit and business thrives.  Buy a Snickers bar, get chocolate, peanuts and caramel…and perhaps dental difficulties.  Buy a house, get a roof over your head and countless headaches.  Buy a tank full of gas, receive freedom to travel to destinations of your choosing.

Buy a newspaper – and – get the news?  Get someone’s idea of the news?  Get opinion labeled as news?  Get a headache?  Get a stack of paper with some wire copy and a banal editorial held apart by ads is the more likely outcome.

The advent of electronic delivery of daily events has devastated daily newspapers.  The PolicySmith recently renewed (albeit reluctantly) The Denver Post subscription to the tune of nearly $400 per year for daily and Sunday delivery.  That price reflects the loss of classified ad revenues which was the backbone of newspaper profitability.

With those pages of classifieds long gone, the sustainers of your daily fish wrap are grocery stores, mattress vendors, car dealers and the occasional ambulance chaser.  Without these, your daily wouldn’t be much more than bridge and advice columns, comics, a weather map and an editorial inveighing against all things the editor dislikes.  More akin to a newsletter on newsprint – barely large enough to line a bird cage.

Virtually all dailies are in readership decline and have been for years…with the lone exception being The Wall Street Journal.  A saving grace is the technology advances that provide electronic editions that mirror print editions.  One can have the full Chicago Tribune, WSJ, New York Times, Washington Post or most any other newspaper handy on any smart phone or tablet.

Perhaps this evolved means of delivery could mean stabilized readerships, even growth – but steady decline is not just caused by the death of classifieds and changing public tastes in information acquisition. The marked shift from objectivity to advocacy journalism in news dailies has taken a toll.  The practice widespread, embraced by many journalists and is lamentable.  News is rarely just news, it has a bent, an arc intended to convince the reader of the writer’s views

A “news” story in The Denver Post on October 10, 2017 related a reporter’s discussion with Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) on the Iran nuclear deal.  The reporter’s narrative clearly indicts the senator apparently because he won’t conform to what the reporter believes his actions should be.  Gardner’s position is so described “…he won’t say whether it would be the right move if President Donald Trump takes a step back from the international accord.”  And, Gardner’s further explanation (which follows) is labeled as “hesitancy” – “I think there are a lot of pieces that have to be answered before I can say that – including whether the President makes the request that those sanctions to be reissued.”

An objective read of the senator’s position is that he doesn’t yet have sufficient information to take a position, and there may be no position to take depending on the President’s actions.  The fact that the senator “won’t say” and he’s described as having “hesitancy” are both implicitly negative characterizations.  Objective reportage would not hang characterizations on a senator who is waiting for all the information before deciding…unless that characterization is one of prudence.

All this is prelude to an examination of a totally different approach to reportage of a highly charged topic – the organized big business of environmental activism.  On the 31st anniversary of Earth Day, in April 2001 The Sacramento Bee stepped out to be the first daily newspaper to objectively and critically examine the “high-powered fund raising, the litigation and the public relations machine that has come to characterize much of the (environmental) movement today.”  These organizations had not previously been subject to such scrutiny anywhere in the media.

How could that be?  Here’s how – for 30+ years following the first Earth Day the media largely fell in line with the conventional (politically correct) wisdom that there was purity of purpose, Mother Earth needed saving and if only the public would support “the environment” (read Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Natural Resources Defense Council, ad nauseum) all would be well…Earth could be saved from the ravages of humanity.

Enter Sacramento Bee Executive Editor Rick Rodriguez and Pulitzer Prize winning environmental reporter Tom Knudson.  The newspaper of record for the environmental movement’s Ground Zero would publish the results of 16 months of research, travel to 12 states and northern Mexico.  Executive Editor Rodriguez said to the Bee’s readers about Tom Knudson’s research, “…what he has found is that the movement established, in part, to combat the influence of the powerful has itself become big business.”

That exercise is a remarkable undertaking and achievement in service to its readership.  The PolicySmith has searched far and wide for a similar effort in breadth and depth.  That search continues.  There are some of lesser scope wherein the reporter undertook the arduous task of traveling the miles, interviewing reluctant/uncooperative sources, and slogged through the research for the facts, not just repeating assumptions and generalizations.  We’ll meet one, Salena Zito, later is this essay.

In the next four parts of this series we’ll travel dual roads, examining Mr. Knudson’s findings and how they compare to the environmental establishment today, and the journalistic enterprise required to uncover and deliver his findings to the newspaper’s readership.  To the uninitiated, a Pulitzer Prize may seem a wonderful thing to receive – in the context of journalists it’s much more – the equivalent of the Nobel Prize.  The qualifications and results to qualify for a Pulitzer are in ample evidence in this series.

It begins with a conservationist visiting Washington, DC to promote a community-based forest management plan.  When he stepped into the offices of the Wilderness Society he became uneasy.  “It was like a giant corporation,” he said.  “Floor after floor after floor, just like Exxon or AT&T.”

Similarly, a newly elected board member of the Sierra Club experienced a similar letdown “when he showed up for a soiree” at the Westin St. Francis Hotel.  The environmental activist from downstate said, “Here I had just been elected to the largest grass-roots group in the world and I’m having cocktails in the penthouse.  What’s wrong with this picture?”  Knudson says soon the board member “was calling the Sierra Club by a new name: Club Sierra.”

Extraction industry professionals have known for decades of the elitist attitudes and bloated expenditures by NGO leadership.  This objective and factual presentation of the culture, practices and money in play in Big Environment was a revelation and breath of fresh air – AND – it came from the daily press in the capital of the state that has long worn the self-congratulatory banner of environmental leadership, stewardship and simply, “clean.”

One can only speculate on the driver of this effort, but the PolicySmith likes to believe it is nothing more than hardworking journalistic enterprise.  While one may rightfully tire of the decades of self-congratulation by Woodward and Bernstein, the fact remains they dogged the Watergate story to its final ignominious end, and unearthed numerous cans of worms along the way.

Pick up any newspaper today and it’s generally a pretty thin broth.  Salena Zito’s byline wherever you find it assures you such will not be the case that day.  Ms. Zito has written for the New York Post, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and is a columnist for the Washington Examiner and is a political analyst for CNN.

Ms. Zito traveled the backroads of 49 states and crisscrossed Ohio and Pennsylvania prior to the 2016 election.  She predicted the Trump victory and was the subject of derision by her peers.  She interviewed thousands of voters in districts won previously by Barack Obama but voted for President Trump in 2016.

In August of 2016 she wrote:

“Two components of these voters’ answers and profiles remain consistent: They are middle-class and they do not live in a  big city. They are suburban to rural and are not poor — an element I found fascinating, until a Gallup survey last week confirmed that what I’ve gathered in interviews is more than just freakishly anecdotal.

These Trump supporters are not the kind you find on Twitter saying dumb or racist things.

The Gallup analysis, based on 87,000 interviews over the past year, shows that while economic anxiety and Trump’s appeal are intertwined, his supporters for the most part do not make less than average Americans (not those in New York City or Washington, perhaps, but their Main Street peers) and are less likely to be unemployed.

The study backs up what many of my interviews across the state have found — that these people are more concerned about their children and grandchildren.”

The dogged pursuit of a story to its conclusion, whatever that may be, is what consumers of news expect and are willing to pay for.  For Mr. Rodriguez, Mr. Knudson and Ms. Zito nothing less will do.  Newspapers nationwide can and should take a page or two out of their playbooks…for that matter the electronic press could as well.  Perhaps the electronic media will be a topic for some time later.

Up Next: The Sacramento Bee series review shifts into high gear as we accompany Tom Knudson in his exploration of dollars and environmental NGOs.  As Michael Corleone famously said, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.”  Even more so today as we’ll check in on the movement and its path since the Sacramento Bee series was published 15+ years ago.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.