Press Pushback

NY TimesYesterday was a good day for a journalism junkie. Heeding a call from The Boston Globe, more than 300 newspapers across the country ran editorials reminding readers, as The New York Times put it, “of the value of America’s free press” and affirming “a fundamental American institution.” The Times ran a full page of excerpts of many of these and encouraged readers to read fuller versions on the individual publications’ websites. In all, it made for inspirational reading and served as a helpful antidote to the press’s near-daily disparagement by our current president.

The Los Angeles Times did not participate in yesterday’s exercise but appeared to make amends by including on today’s Op-Ed page a piece by Northwestern University journalism professor Alex Kotlowitz titled “OK, Now It’s Your Turn To Defend Press Freedom.” Citing threats of death and injury to journalists by individuals taken in by the “enemy of the people” slur and how journalists are dealing with them, Kotlowitz writes, “Journalists are doing a remarkable job defending their profession. Where is everyone else?”

He told of Elijah Lovejoy, “a 19th century newspaper publisher and abolitionist who was killed by a mob while defending his printing press. ” The Newseum describes Lovejoy as the “first American martyr for the press,” and his story is worth contemplating. After an anti-abolitionist mob destroyed his press in St. Louis and authorities refused to acknowledge his Constitutional right to express his views, Lovejoy relocated across the Mississippi to Alton IL. Again townspeople destroyed his press. Authorities condemned the violence but urged Lovejoy to refrain from printing “incendiary doctrines which…have a tendency to disturb the quiet of our citizens and neighbors.” In response, Kotliowitz writes, “Lovejoy took to task not those who opposed his views but rather those who questioned his right to speak his mind and to publish the truth…”

Lovejoy said, “I know that I have the right to freely speak and publish my sentiments.  “What I wish to know of you is whether you will protect me in the exercise of this right.”

Few came forward, Kotlowitz writes, and “four days later, while trying to protect his new printing press from being set on fire, he was shot and killed by a mob. In his final days what so distressed Lovejoy was not his ideological opponents but rather the decent people of Alton who refused to take a stand…(He) recognized the need for citizens to speak out in defense of a free press. That need has become urgent once again…”

Kotlowitz concludes, “Journalism is not an easy institution to rally around. But if there were ever a time for citizens to defend the press, this is it.”




Me & My MSNBC Friends

It’s always a comfort when something you have an affinity for — and which friends and family members imply you are addicted to — shows up as a page one feature in The New York Times Sunday Review section. Case in point: “The Age of the MSNBC Mom” by Kat Stoeffel.

Observing life these days in the home of her retired, empty-nester parents, Stoeffel notes that MSNBC reporters and commentators seem to have become an ubiquitous presence, whether speaking or muted on one TV screen or another, or by being increasingly referenced in mother-daughter conversations. Her mother, Maggie Stoeffel, has become an MSNBC mom: “a liberal woman whose retirement years coincide with the rise of Donald Trump and who seeks solace, companionship and righteous indignation in cable news.”  Her father, whom she describes as “a Republican-turned-independent, absorbed in his iPad pretends to be out of earshot.”

Like Maggie Stoeffel, MSNBC is not my only source of news. I start the day with NPR and, while the coffee brews, retrieve three daily newspapers to read (excessive, I know, but I’m a former journalist). After that, a news/politics junkie like me could spend the entire day with MSNBC and in fact, during my hospitalization a year ago, I complained loudly about the unfairness of providing TV that broadcast Fox News and not MSNBC.  But back in the land of the healthy, life intervenes and other things must be done. Nevertheless, I do tune in a lot.

As women in the past sometimes formed attachments to the characters in their daily soap operas, I consider the MSNBC anchors and their guests almost as friends. I notice when one changes a hairstyle or improves her makeup. But most important, are their words — intelligent, informed, frequently witty.  And they care fervently about our country and the direction it’s headed in. They are people I’d like to invite to dinner if I still gave dinner parties.

Since I live on the West Coast, I am able to eat lunch while watching the program of the delightful and continually astonished Nicolle Wallace, a Republican and alumna of the George W. Bush White House. She frequently invites as a guest her former colleague, GOP strategist Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain’s presidential campaign and who has the further distinction of being the person who prevented Sarah Palin from forcing herself onto the stage when McCain delivered his concession speech. These days Schmidt’s anger about our current governmental situation is righteous, and his articulate rants about the danger to our democracy are suitable for framing.

After lunch, even though I’d love to continue watching Chuck Todd, Ari Melber, Chris Matthews et al, I try to hold off  until the 5 o’clock wine hour when I’m joined by Chris Hayes whose work I remember from The Nation magazine. Then I fix dinner with the brilliant Rachel Maddow, a onetime Rhodes Scholar, and eat dinner with Lawrence O’Donnell whose knowledge of the workings of Congress stems from his years as an aide to the late Daniel Patrick Monahan. And finally, wrapping it all up is “The 11th Hour with Brian Williams.” Except that here when it ends it’s 9 p.m., still plenty of time for reading.

When a friend questioned how I could stand all of this news and politics. I emailed back: “Not to preach, but to stay informed for the sake of our democracy. (Oh, I guess that is preaching. Sorry.)”

All the Print I’m Fit to Read

Walter Williams did a number on me. So, also, Rachel Maddow. And now just recently, Farhad  Manjoo in The New York Times. All of them, and many others, have conspired to make it exceedingly difficult for me to give up reading print editions of newspapers. This is so even though everyone — friends, family members, financial consultants — keep advising me to get my news online. Saves money, saves trees, saves time. Why am I being so old-fashioned?

I don’t know that “conspired” is the right word since none of these people has any idea that they are feeding into my dilemma. Furthermore, Walter Williams has been dead since 1935. But he’s as good a place to start as any. A journalist from Booneville, Missouri, Williams originated the concept that journalism education should be “professionalized and provided at a university,” as the University of Missouri Journalism School explains on its website.  “Toward that end,” it continues, “with the blessing of (the university) and the state legislature, and with financial help from the Missouri Press Association,” Williams started the world’s first school of journalism in September 1908. (I was there for its 50th anniversary when a World Press Congress brought journalists from around the world for discussions and seminars. I missed the 100th anniversary held a few years ago. )

Williams was the school’s first dean and later became the university’s president. Even though he was long gone by the time I was there, his inspiration lingered. A copy of his Journalist’s Creed that begins, “I believe in the profession of journalism. I believe that the public journal is a public trust, that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public…” is displayed in bronze in the National Press Club in Washington DC. Also on yellowed paper in every place my husband Ed and I lived in.

Ed and I met at the university where he was a graduate student and I was completing my Bachelor of Journalism degree. We married and set off on a lifetime of journalism-related jobs on one coast and the other back and forth several times. Always, wherever we lived, we had at least one newspaper delivered daily, and when we were working outside the home, we made it a point to rise an hour earlier to give us time for coffee and the newspaper before starting our days. (Ed died a year and a half ago so I suppose any amateur psychologist could deduce another reason for my reluctance to discontinue the practice.)

Rachel MaddowBut now for the other enablers. Rachel Maddow, whose MSNBC programs are must watching every day for me, said something during this whole intolerable mess our country is involved in now that struck me. She, whose journalistic background has been limited to broadcast, pointed out that nearly all the substantive information that has been unearthed about Russian interference in our democracy has come from print journalists, specifically, from those working for large publications with sufficient staffs and time for digging. Broadcast outlets with the tyranny of time to fill can report the result of that digging — and are doing so. But as Maddow pointed out, it takes both endeavors to get at the truth. And it’s no secret that newspapers of all sizes are struggling. She then looked directly into the camera and encouraged her audience to  help save print journalism by subscribing to their local newspapers. How can I not?

And as for Farhad  Manjoo, he wrote about his experiment in self-imposed avoidance of digital news over the past two months. “I turned off my digital news notifications, unplugged from Twitter and other social networks, and subscribed to three print newspapers…plus a weekly newsmagazine,.” he wrote. His experiment still includes podcasts, email newsletters, and books and magazines. He wanted to continue to be informed, he wrote, “but was looking for formats that prized depth and accuracy over speed.”

He continued, “It has been life-changing. Turning off the buzzing breaking-news machine I carry in my pocket was like unshackling myself from a monster who had me on speed dial, always ready to break into my day with half-baked bulletins.” Now he is embarrassed about how much free time he suddenly has.

As someone close to age 40, Manjoo reveals he always liked getting his news on screen, “available at the push of a button.” Even with his experiment, he said, he “found much to hate about print. The pages are too big, the type too small, the ink too messy, and compared with a smartphone, a newspaper is more of a hassle to consult on the go.” I guess he never got, as I did from my father, a lesson in proper folding of a paper to enable reading on a bus or subway without encroaching on your fellow passengers’ spaces. (Fold vertically and then horizontally, tucking the read pages behind one another as you go.)

Today, twice Manjoo’s age, with my newspaper-reading taking place at home sitting in a comfortable chair, I admit it’s very pleasant being able to spread the pages out between my arms and turn them. When I’m finished, however, I do replace all the sections back into their original configuration before packing the paper up for recycling. Ed did that too, and we insisted the kids approximate it. Used to drive them nuts. “Oh, you old journalists,” they’d grumble.

On social networks, Manjoo says, “every news story comes to you pre-digested. People don’t just post stories — they post their takes on stories, often quoting key parts of a story to underscore how it proves them right, so readers are never required to delve into the story to come up with their own view.” (Which is probably what I’m doing here, so I’ll stop and urge you to look at Manjoo’s story in its entirety.)

But one last plug for print. If you Google “retention of information in print versus online” you’ll see the results of several studies that give the nod to print.  People absorb and retain much better what they read in print, these studies reveal. And as someone who needs to hang onto whatever shreds of information I can, I find that comforting.

As for the paper vs. screen dilemma, my journalist daughter maintains, “Whether on paper or online, good journalism is still good journalism.”




Happy Birthday, Uncle Walter!


The person once voted “the most trusted man in America” would be 100 years old today. If he were still alive, what would the universally respected journalist Walter Cronkite have to say about the insanity of the current presidential campaign?  It’s almost over and yet, one fears the insanity will continue no matter the outcome. If Hillary Clinton wins, the thrill of electing the first woman president will be soured by Republicans’ vows to block her nominations and policy proposals just as they have for our beleaguered current president whose election was also thrilling. And if her opponent wins? It is impossible to contemplate.

You can get an idea of what Cronkite would think today by checking out how Google is celebrating the birthday.

As a respite from the campaign’s ugliness, I re-read It Can’t Happen Here the 1935 book by Sinclair Lewis, a harrowing account of how otherwise perfectly nice men and women can be lulled by complacency into believing outrageous lies and finding comfort in what they perceive as someone who will be a strong leader and protect them. Even though I was barely alive then, the book made me realize how Nazi Germany happened.

Now I’m re-reading Edge of Eternity, the third book in Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy. It follows five intertwined families’ lives in Europe and the United States from the 1960s through the 1980s. I did live through those times, and yes, they were tumultuous, but we got through them.

Will we get through the next era? After an election that has seen, as Paul Krugman writes in today’s New York Times, “almost all our political norms get destroyed,” can we put things back together? They’re now threatening impeachment before the woman has even taken the oath of office. “Can anything be done to limit the damage?” Krugman asks and answers, “It would help if the media finally learned its lesson and stopped treating Republican scandal-mongering as genuine news.

“And,” he adds, “it would also help if Democrats won the Senate, so that at least some governing could get done.”

Four more days.

Et Tu, Print Publishers?


One more dagger to the heart of journalism: The Newspaper Association of America has decided to eliminate the word “newspaper” from its official title. Henceforth, it will be called the News Media Alliance. Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times cited Sept. 7, 2016 as “the day the American newspaper as we’ve known it moved out of intensive care and into the palliative wing on its way to the Great Beyond.”

The reasons for the name change for an organization that has been in existence since 1887 are many, Rutenberg writes. The obvious reason, he notes, is the continuing drop in the number of newspapers, meaning fewer potential members. Membership “has fallen to about 2,000 from roughly 2,700 in 2008, executives there say.”

A bigger issue, the group’s chief executive told Rutenberg, “was that the word ‘newspaper’ has become meaningless in reference to many of the group’s members, including The Washington Post, The New York Times and Dow Jones. They may have newspapers, but they get large percentages of their readers online. Actually, you can’t even refer exclusively to ‘readers’ these days when so many millions are ‘viewers’ of online news video.”

journalists-creedOh, the pain of it! Walter Williams must be spinning in his grave. He founded the first  ̶  IN THE WORLD  ̶  school of journalism at my alma mater, the University of Missouri. He traveled the world extolling the principle that journalism is a profession requiring serious university study and accompanying respect. As outlined in Wikipedia, other colleges and universities began to emulate Missouri’s invention, and “Williams became increasingly concerned they would not adhere to the same high journalistic standards being taught at ‘Mizzou.’ So in 1941 he created the Journalist’s Creed, a statement of professional guidelines often evoked as the definitive code of ethics for journalists. It is posted in bronze at the National Press Club in Washington DC.”

It’s also in a frame on the wall of my office. Reading it in light of the current situation can make you cry. Or, in a week when Facebook can’t discern between child pornography and an award-winning depiction of the horrors of napalm bombing, just shake your head at how far we have strayed from Williams’ vision. The Creed begins:

“I believe in the profession of journalism. I believe that the public journal is a public trust, that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public, that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is betrayal of this trust.”  It goes on to endorse “clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness” as fundamental to good journalism, and that “a journalist should write only what he holds in his heart to be true.” It says that “suppression of the news for any consideration other than the welfare of society is indefensible.” And, in a time before we women forced ourselves into the profession, “that no one should write as a journalist what he would not say as a gentleman.”

There’s more, but you get the idea. Different times indeed.

So here’s a question for you: With the proliferation of online-only publications like Salon, Slate, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Politico, Jezabel and The Daily Beast, can it still be called “journalism” when there’s not actually a journal involved? Just asking.

Good for You, Gretchen Carlson!

gretchen carlson 1That’s a headline I had been planning to write for most of this month, but the crush of daily life kept me from it. And then, day by day the story kept growing until today we learn that the sexual harassment suit filed by the former Fox News anchor against the odious Roger Ailes has led to his departure as the head of that conservative cable news network.

I don’t remember Carlson as a presence on CBS, and I certainly never saw her on Fox because I make it a point of personal pride to absolutely never watch that channel. Oh wait, I did tune in once during the most recent presidential primaries to watch a Republican debate. But I left before it ended, turned off by the sycophantic questions and reactions of the moderators.

(I suppose conservatives have a similar attitude toward my news channel of choice, the liberal MSNBC (“The Place for Politics”) and that’s just how it is in our nation’s bifurcated political climate. Even among friends, it’s much more pleasant to discuss politics with those you agree with.)

When the news broke that the recently fired Carlson was suing Ailes for sexual harassment, I took notice and thought, “Women everywhere must be quietly cheering her action.” And I read more about her. Aside from the fact that the newspaper photos showed her to be drop-dead gorgeous to look at, I read that she was no slouch when it came to brains and talent: a degree (with honors) from Stanford, study abroad at Oxford, a violin prodigy as a child in her native Minnesota, and, in fact, the first classical violinist to compete – and win – the Miss America title. And then a career in television, first at stations in Texas, Ohio and Virginia, then in New York with CBS and finally Fox, where she co-hosted the morning program “Fox & Friends with Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmead.

roger ailesIn one of the first articles about the lawsuit, The New York Times related how she was moved after 11 years to an afternoon time slot and subsequently let go because of poor ratings among the critical 18-35 age group (you know, all those people at home watching TV during those hours). Coincidentally (or not) the meeting at which she was told her contract would not be renewed took place two days after she announced on the air that it was her 50th birthday. The paper quoted her: “I know, normally folks on TV wouldn’t readily admit their age, but since there’s nothing you can do about it, you might as well own it and be happy.”

Carlson’s lawsuit prompted an internal investigation that has encouraged revelations by many women employees, past and present, of harassment at the channel that ran the gamut from denigrating comments to outright propositions. One former employee said Ailes told her, “If you want to play with the boys you have to lay with the boys.” And Carlson said that Ailes told her they both might have benefitted if she had gone to bed with him.

An atmosphere that mandated that women anchors always wear skirts on air so their legs show under the desk extended to an overall diminishing of women in general and employees in particular. Carlson claims that her co-host Doocy had an ongoing habit of treating her disrespectfully and when she complained to Ailes he brushed it off.

And now Aisles has to leave the network he created. Couldn’t happen to a better guy.


All the News You Can Absorb

“Wow! What a week for the news.”

That was how I’d planned to start this post. Until I read Gail Collins’ column in Saturday’s New York Times. “Ed!” I wailed. “Gail Collins stole my lead!”

Collins wrote: “Wow, Supreme Court – what a week…” And after some comments on Republicans’ reactions, she added “The Roberts Supreme Court is on a roll. Gay marriage, national health care and a surprising vote of support for the Fair Housing Act. Great job, guys!”

president at eulogy 2My “Wow! What a week…” was intended to be followed by acknowledgement of the momentous Court rulings, followed by my admiration for the dignity and grace with which the families in Charleston, SC handled the horrific killing of their loved ones in the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and wind up with my delight for the masterful eulogy President Obama delivered at the funeral for that church’s pastor. And the fact that he broke into singing “Amazing Grace.” Rachel Maddow’s program on MSNBC turned the entire second half of the newscast to uninterrupted video of the president’s speech which commentators are now calling “one of his presidency’s most impassioned reflections on race.”rainbowhouse

If I’d left the newscast that night and made my way to my desktop computer to write what I’d planned, then Gail Collins would have had to steal from me. But instead, I convinced Ed to join me in watching a streaming of “The Butler,” a film I’d watched the night before, even though at two hours in length it might strain my husband’s Friday night endurance. “It’s about the times in which we’ve lived,” I urged him. The movie was inspired by the real-life story of Eugene Allen, a longtime butler in the White House who is played in the film by Oscar winning actor Forest Whitaker. We both watched it, me for the second time, transfixed.

And now today’s paper tells me that my church, the Episcopal Church, has elected an African-American man for the first time as its presiding bishop. Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina succeeds the current presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, who was the first woman to lead the 1.9 million member church, the U.S. body of the Anglican Communion with 80 million members worldwide. As such, Jefferts Schori was the first woman to lead an Anglican national church.

We have indeed lived in transforming times.