White Noise: News from Inside the Media Bubble
The two Tar Heels who sit on the Federal Communications Commission – Republican Chairman Kevin Martin and Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps – clashed last week over a couple of deals that would concentrate media ownership in some of the country’s largest media markets. Copps sent a letter to Martin urging him to investigate Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal purchase. Before that, Martin threatened to block the sale of the Tribune Company to Sam Zell. All of this politicking is happening against the backdrop of changes, proposed by Martin, which would loosen cross ownership rules. Airwave wonks aren’t the only ones chiming in. Presidential candidate Barack Obama sent a letter to Martin urging him to rethink the rule change because it would negatively affect minority media owners.
Merits of skepticism in journalism
Too bad for former Washington Post editor Vivian Aplin-Brownlee, who died on Oct. 20, that the headline for her obit in her own paper made her a footnote in another journalist’s scandal. Aplin-Brownlee, according to an Oct. 6 piece by Post reporter Patricia Sullivan, was the first black assignment editor on the national desk at the post and the first black female reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where she covered the trial of state officials implicated in the deaths of student protesters at Kent State University. But media types and probably everyone else will probably sooner remember her as the assignment editor for Janet Cooke, whose fabricated account of an 8-year-old heroin addict won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. According to the Post, Aplin-Lee directed Cooke to an up-line editor and went on vacation as the story developed. “When Cooke reported that she had seen an 8-year-old shooting up heroin in the presence of a drug dealer, the scene did not ring true to Ms. Aplin-Brownlee,” Sullivan writes. “Cooke, she knew, was a middle-class woman who was a ‘masterful’ writer ‘consumed by blind and raw ambition,’ but also needed the aid of a streetwise photographer to get an earlier story on 14th Street.”
No good deed…
New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald is weathering a hurricane of controversy and criticism for taking a more active than usual role in his piece on underage porn star Justin Berry. According to an extensive New York magazine piece detailing the whole brouhaha, Eichenwald made a number of payments – the largest of which was $2,000 – to Berry over several months in order to persuade him to meet with Eichenwald so that the reporter could convince him to give up the life of a pay-per-view twink. Leading the charge against Eichenwald is Salon.com reporter Debbie Nathan, whose main objection is Eichenwald’s lack of impartiality and cooperation with authorities. It’s an ethical tightrope, to be sure, and in most cases the opprobrium towards Eichenwald’s violation of the usual journalistic standards would be deserved, but all the normal rules get thrown out the window when it comes to kiddie porn – the mere act of viewing it is a crime, even for reporters researching a story. With that in mind, it’s hard to fault Eichenwald for taking an action that was in the best interest of both Berry and himself.
Fake reporters, fake news – real agency?
The Bush administration’s treatment of the press reached a new level of Orwellian strangeness when the Federal Emergency Management Agency held a press conference about the fires in southern California on Oct. 23 in which all the questions were asked by FEMA employees playing reporters. Real reporters were given 15 minutes notice for the briefing and an 800 number that connected them with a “listen only” line, according an Oct. 26 piece by Washington Post columnist Al Kamen. Parts of the briefing were carried live by Fox News and MSNBC. “Very smooth, very professional,” Kamen writes. “But something didn’t seem right. The reporters were lobbing too many softballs. No one asked about trailers with formaldehyde for those made homeless by the fires. And the media seemed to be giving Johnson all day to wax on about FEMA’s greatness.” Mike Widomski, FEMA’s deputy director of public affairs, told Kamen that the questions were compiled from real inquiries that had been coming in from the press all day, and that Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson, who fielded the questions, did not have forewarning about what would be asked. Right. We trust FEMA completely.