Sunday, April 28, 2013

Getting It First vs. Getting It Right

The pursuit of the Boston Marathon bombers has been a great opportunity for journalism professors like myself to explore the emphasis in today's media on being first with a story — regardless of whether it is right.

When I was in journalism school, the emphasis was reversed. Getting it right was more important than reporting it first.

I don't mean to suggest that being first wasn't important. It certainly was. Always has been. But the difference is that we were told repeatedly that accuracy took priority. Publishing rumor, hearsay or something that was not independently verifiable was unacceptable.

That was something aspiring journalists learned from reading "All the President's Men." Woodward and Bernstein inspired a generation of young journalists with their coverage of an imploding presidency, but they insisted on having at least two sources for anything they wrote.

As a result, they were rarely wrong about anything. They were often impugned by their adversaries in the White House, but they were seldom wrong.

Far fewer sources apparently were required by CNN when it reported — erroneously — that a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings was in custody. This was more than 24 hours before the release of the photographs of the suspects by the FBI led to the death of one and the eventual apprehension of the other.

The audience bears a certain amount of responsibility for this atmosphere.

We live in a culture that not only desires but expects instant gratification. Nothing demands discipline anymore. We have hundreds of TV stations from which to choose — and the ability to record multiple programs for viewing at our convenience. We have numerous options for quick, filling (and mostly absent any nutritional value) food to eat and pills to take to fall asleep at night.

If we experience pain, we can get pain relievers over the counter that promise instant relief. Landline phones are disappearing; everyone has his or her own personal phone now — along with his or her personal water bottle in case of a sudden attack of thirst.

And people in the 21st century know that they can go to multiple web sites — in addition to the traditional stand–bys, the broadcast and print media — for news and information. There is no shortage of sources, and each one seems eager to go with any story it has — even if that story is wrong.

Being first is what counts with the audience.

And the pressure to be first guides the often ill–advised actions of media outlets.

Being right is what should matter to all journalists

When I was a journalism student — and then a young journalist — I knew I was up against competition for the readers' time and attention. Competition is part of the business, just like it is part of any other business. And scooping the competition is definitely not a new concept. If I could scoop my competition, that was great. But my professors and editors insisted on accuracy.

I believed in it then, and I still believe in it. Double checking isn't just a good idea for insurance companies eager to attract customers with discounts, you know. It's a good idea for journalists, too, and it used to be underscored with the words Libel Manual emblazoned on the cover of the AP Stylebook — the journalist's bible.

Now, libel is treated almost like an afterthought by the AP — but I know it isn't. It couldn't be. Libel is still a significant portion of media law, and any media outlet that acts as if it isn't is playing with fire. At the very least, it is tempting fate.

E.J. Dionne laments, in the Washington Post, this rush to judgment in the media. And that judgment usually supports whatever the journalist is predisposed to believe.

There is every bit as much partisan rushing to judgment on the left as there is on the right.

In Boston, Dionne observes, "there was an immediate divide between those who were sure the attack was a form of Islamic terrorism and those just as convinced that it was organized by domestic, right–wing extremists. ... [A]bsolutely no one imagined what turned out to be the case: that two young immigrants with Chechen backgrounds would be held responsible for unleashing the violence."

This is not what I believe journalism is about. Journalists report the news. They are not cheerleaders for one side or the other. They report the facts, even if the facts contradict their personal beliefs, and allow the readers to reach their own conclusions.

OK, a few journalists are cheerleaders. They write opinion columns — and, in most cases, those columns are labeled as opinion.

If it isn't clear whether an article in a newspaper is a news report or an opinion column, I would not recommend that you continue reading that publication.

There was a time when I would recommend to people that they turn to CNN for reliable news coverage.

I would have made that recommendation as recently as four years ago, when CNN was the only news outlet (as far as I know) that didn't jump to conclusions based on the observations of unauthorized personnel — and waited until someone who was authorized to do so confirmed that Michael Jackson had died.

That decision prevented CNN from being first; CNN, however, retained its integrity.

But, as the attached clips so clearly show, CNN yielded to the dark side in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings and joined (nay, led) the rush to judgment. There were lesser news outlets that did what CNN should have been doing, what CNN used to do — what all media outlets should have done — the responsible thing.

Next time, undoubtedly, it will be someone else who does the right thing. And, rest assured, there will be a next time.

Responsible journalists do not report rumor, innuendo and hearsay. They do not take their lead from "canine dogs" barking in the darkness or what other outlets may be doing.

They do their job. They report the news.

When Jon Stewart makes you the recipient of his razor–sharp witticisms twice in a week's time, your credibility is pretty much shot.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Ashes of Waco

It was 20 years ago today that the Branch Davidians' compound in Waco, Texas, burned to the ground when federal agents stormed the compound after a seven–week standoff.

In the aftermath of the bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon this week, it was natural for people to wonder if there was some connection between the two. When one considers the events of the last few hours, though, it is natural to wonder if there is a connection.

The focus of the investigation and manhunt was two brothers reported to be from Chechnya, but they are now said to have left Chechnya while children. At this writing, their allegiances/motivations are uncertain. About all that is certain is that one of the brothers is dead and the other is on the loose.

I suppose such questions will be answered at some point and in one way or another.

If the perpetrator(s) turns out to be domestic, there may be a pretty good chance that the explosions were planned to coincide (almost) with the anniversary of Waco. It was, after all, the inspiration for the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City two years later.

I remember exactly where I was on this day in 1993. I was in Columbia, Mo., with a group of my journalism students from the University of Oklahoma. We were attending a weekend seminar on the University of Missouri campus.

April 19, 1993 was a Monday, the last day of the conference. When things wrapped up around midday, we were planning to hit the road for Norman. I remember waking up in my motel room that morning and switching on the TV. As I got dressed for the day, I kept track of the start of the fatal siege.

It began early that day when the feds tried to use armored vehicles to puncture the walls of the compound — through which, the plan went, tear gas would be tossed in an attempt to flush the occupants out.

But somehow the compound went up in flames instead — some say the Davidians set the fire(s) themselves — and, when it was all said and done, more than 70 people, including their leader, the charismatic David Koresh (born Vernon Howell), were dead.

I've never been sure of the sequence of events. The students and I were busy until around 12:30 or so, but we learned, just before the seminar adjourned, that a fire — well, several fires — broke out shortly after noon. As the host of the seminar concluded the activities, he advised that "all hell has broken loose in Waco."

(I'm not alone in that uncertainty about the event sequence, by the way. Even among those who were at the scene and participated in the siege, there has been and continues to be disagreement about what happened when and who was responsible.)

The students and I didn't see footage of the burning compound until we got back to Norman, but we heard reports on the radio all the way.

That night, when I was back in my apartment, I stayed up late watching news accounts, marveling at what we had missed and at the irony that a bunch of journalism students and professors had missed what was probably the greatest news story of the year because they were attending a seminar about how to present the news more effectively.

I had no idea that, two years later to the day, a bomb would go off in Oklahoma City, less than 30 miles from where I lived, and the timing would be connected to the anniversary of the assault on the Branch Davidians' compound in Texas.

(That was an even bigger news story, one in which I would find myself involved indirectly — as teacher and unofficial adviser to the students who staffed the OU campus newspaper, who produced all their own copy and photos and graphics, unlike nearly all newspapers, professional and collegiate, who depended upon the Associated Press.

(Frankly, I will never be able to say adequately — or often enough — how proud I was and am of the work those young people did on a story that undoubtedly was intensely personal for them. Many had grown up in Oklahoma City or nearby communities; one student even lost her father.)

But no one knew there was a link until later.

Somehow, that seems appropriate. Like other charismatic figures who led their followers to their destruction, Koresh was a mysterious individual. Judging from what I have read of Koresh — and the video clips I have seen of him preaching to his followers — virtually no one (perhaps not even Koresh himself) could have foreseen the fiery end of the Waco compound.

In many ways, Koresh and the Davidians remain shrouded in mystery.

Two decades later, Koresh still casts a mystifying spell.

"His legacy," writes Allan Turner in the Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise, "is one of righteousness, duplicity and showmanship."

A survivor of the inferno told Tim Madigan of the Fort Worth Star–Telegram that he still believes Koresh was who he claimed to be — in spite of the many questions that swirled around the standoff and final siege at the time.

There are many questions about those events that remain unanswered.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Blood in Boston

I used to work as a sports copy editor, and, in those days, you never saw an article from the Boston Marathon on the front page of the newspaper.

Times have changed. I can guarantee that the Boston Marathon will be on the front page of every newspaper tomorrow, but that has nothing to do with the race.

It has everything to do with the explosions that occurred near the finish line this afternoon.

Initially, it was thought there had been three explosions, but, as I write this, it appears that the third event — a fire or explosion at the nearby JFK library — was a bizarre irony.

When I heard that, I immediately thought of the hijackings of 2001 — and how I heard of planes crashing into the World Trade Center ... and then the Pentagon. Perhaps it was due to the fact that my office did not have a television, but there was a lot of confusion in my workplace that day — and a lot of misinformation floating around, even from people who had been in contact with friends and relatives who were watching things unfold on TV.

There is always some confusion around an event like this, and, sadly, I have become well acquainted with them. I was living a short distance from Oklahoma City when the federal building there was bombed (the 18th anniversary of that event will be this Friday, by the way); it is safe to say that my exposure to that event was more intense than it was for most.

And I, like most Americans, remember the confusion that was part of the developing story on 9–11. A few years later, I watched, transfixed, as the news coverage of the series of bombings in London flooded the airwaves.

The only things that seem clear are that at least three people are dead tonight, more than 100 are injured (some have lost limbs), and no one has claimed responsibility.

The investigators may already have an idea who was responsible, but they are keeping their cards hidden — as good investigators do.

In the days ahead, I expect many of the pressing questions to be answered — perhaps not always to everyone's satisfaction but answered, nonetheless.

There were people from all over the world in Boston today; consequently, I expect to hear eventually of injured — possibly even deceased — people from several countries.

There may even be things about this case that will surprise me.

Actually, the only thing that I am sure of — at least, as sure as anyone can be at this point — is that this was a coordinated, organized attack that almost certainly involved more than one person. I don't know if it was carried out by a domestic or foreign group. I suppose that is a detail we will learn in due course.

For now, I am willing to let the investigators do their work — which, I suppose, is an easy thing for me to do, considering that I am about 1,500 miles away and I won't have to put up with the inconvenience that many Bostonians will as they try to go about their daily business.

But investigators don't get to choose where a crime is committed. They can only investigate the scene of a crime, wherever that scene happens to be. This seems likely to be a difficult scene to process.

I wish them all the best in investigating this crime. I hope they bring those responsible to justice.

And I hope that we learn whatever we need to learn from this event to keep another one from happening.

But I am doubtful that will happen.

I am doubtful because, as is abundantly clear in the debate over guns, we tend to treat only the symptoms and not the disease.

The symptoms are the weapons that are used to kill and maim people.

The disease is whatever prompts one human being (or a group of human beings) to deliberately hurt or kill other human beings.

People who are bent on destruction will do it with whatever weapon is available to them. They will use guns — or knives, as we saw at the school in Houston last week — or explosive devices, as we saw in Boston today.

Until we are ready to face that problem with the vigor with which we attack inanimate objects, we will not rid our land of this epidemic of violence.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Matter of Semantics

Recently, the Associated Press handed down a new policy on the use of illegal immigrant in AP articles.

The policy is as clear as mud.

I teach journalism in the Dallas County community college system, and the AP's Stylebook is one of the texts we use. Other faculty members and I also use it when we advise the student newspaper staff.

Personally, I have been using the Stylebook since I was in college. It's been in use in every newsroom in which I have worked since that time.

Sometimes it can seem that journalists are slavishly devoted to the Stylebook's rulings on things. I'll give you that one. I hear that complaint from students all the time. I complained about it myself when I was their age.

But be fair here. The Stylebook is the final arbiter for journalists. We turn to it to resolve issues that come up in newsrooms.

And one of the biggest, ongoing issues in recent years has been the one of how to refer to non–citizens who are in the United States.

The popular phrase has been illegal immigrants, but I have resisted the use of the word immigrants.

I tend to agree with the assertion that a person cannot be illegal. A person's actions (or intentions) may be illegal, but a person cannot be. defines immigrant this way: "a person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence."

That suggests to me someone who is following the sanctioned method for attaining citizenship. Talk of establishing a path to citizenship suggests that such a path does not already exist. But it does.

To be a permanent resident implies that one not only lives here but follows the rules, from obeying speed limits and driving on the right side of the road to paying taxes, all that stuff, with the intention of becoming a citizen.

If a citizen breaks the rules, he/she risks losing certain privileges that go with being a citizen — like voting, for instance.

If one doesn't follow the rules for becoming a citizen, it is hard for me to see how one can logically be expected to follow the rules after attaining citizenship. Thus, it is difficult for me to categorize one who is here illegally as an immigrant.

But if a non–citizen is not following the rules for becoming a citizen, that does not mean that person's intentions are illegal. It means that person is pursuing something other than citizenship.

My term for such a person would be alien.

Let's return to for a minute or two.

It defines alien this way: "a resident born in or belonging to another country who has not acquired citizenship by naturalization."

Aha! The introduction of yet another important word — naturalization. defines it this way: "to confer upon (an alien) the rights and privileges of a citizen."

And defines citizen as "a native or naturalized member of a state or nation who owes allegiance to its government and is entitled to its protection (distinguished from alien)."

If one is here illegally, can that person ever really owe allegiance to the government of the country where he resides? Can he ever be entitled to its protection?

Per the definition, an alien cannot.

Because the word alien, it seems to me, already defines such a person as having an allegiance elsewhere — or perhaps having no allegiance at all.

But, as I observed earlier, not all aliens are here illegally.

You see, it really does seem to me that the words alien and immigrant speak to intent.

We do not deny aliens the opportunity to live here nor would I suggest such a thing, but aliens and immigrants are distinct by virtue of their intentions. Many aliens live in this country for the legitimate purpose of pursuing an education, but their intention is to return to their native country when they are finished. They are here to obtain knowledge, not American citizenship.

Sometimes such openness backfires — as it did when terrorists used knowledge they acquired here to fly planes they had hijacked into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

After those events, those young men were known — and will always be known — as terrorists and hijackers. But before Sept. 11, 2001, how were they classified?

To my knowledge, none had applied for U.S. citizenship. They weren't considered immigrants. They were openly seeking an education. They must have been regarded as aliens.

That word did not — and does not — speak to the legality of their activities or the legitimacy of their presence on American soil. It only speaks to their stated intentions.

Perhaps many aliens do intend to apply for citizenship. When they do, they should be regarded as immigrants, and they should continue to be regarded as immigrants until they become citizens — or unless they violate the law.

Until they apply for citizenship, however, they are aliens.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Iron Lady Dies

"She was a tigress surrounded by hamsters."

John Biffen
The Observer December 1990

Margaret Thatcher, the first female prime minister of Great Britain, died earlier today after a stroke. She was 87.

They called her "The Iron Lady." They called her a lot of things — "Attila the Hen," for example.

The names reflected the fact that, as I said to my father only a few weeks ago, she was a tough old bird. And she found a philosophical soulmate in Ronald Reagan, who was also a tough old bird.

As the Washington Post's "Five moments that show why Margaret Thatcher mattered in American politics" demonstrates, they were frequently of the same mind — although Thatcher, as I recall, did not agree with Reagan's decision to invade Grenada 30 years ago.

Many people have credited Reagan with the toppling of the Soviet Union, but I've always felt that Thatcher played an important role in that as well. It was the vice–like grip of Reagan and Thatcher policies on both sides of the Atlantic that crushed the Soviet Union. That, I think, is Thatcher's true legacy to the world.

In the wake of her death, tributes have been pouring in from around the world.

Barack Obama focused on her contribution as a role model. "[S]he stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can't be shattered," Obama said in a statement released through the Office of the Press Secretary.

There was more to her than that, though.

She had certain principles by which she lived, and they weren't for everyone — but she did express the way most people feel (or, at least, felt at the time) when she said, "You know, if you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything, wouldn't you, at any time? And you would achieve nothing!"

Not everyone agreed with her when she said, "Socialists cry 'Power to the people,' and raise the clenched fist as they say it. We all know what they really mean — power over people, power to the state."

Or when she said, "A world without nuclear weapons may be a dream but you cannot base a sure defense on dreams. Without far greater trust and confidence between East and West than exists at present, a world without nuclear weapons would be less stable and more dangerous for all of us."

But such positions stemmed from the principles upon which she was raised.

"My policies are based not on some economics theory," she said in 1981, "but on things I and millions like me were brought up with: an honest day's work for an honest day's pay; live within your means; put by a nest egg for a rainy day; pay your bills on time; support the police."

She will be missed.