BREAKING NEWS: AP, Media Fumble News Story

 

by Walter Brasch

 

On the Sunday before the final presidential debate, Mitt Romney and some of his senior staffers played a flag football game with members of the Press Corps on Delray Beach, Fla.

Ashley Parker of the Associated Press, apparently mistaking fashion reporting for news, reported that Mitt Romney was “wearing black shorts, a black Adidas T-shirt and gray sneakers.” Romney’s team, composed of senior campaign staff whom Parker identified, was “clad in red T-shirts.” She didn’t report what the members of the press wore, their names, or how many were on a team, but did acknowledge she “also played, winning the coin toss for her team, but doing little else by way of yardage accrual.” Yardage accrual? If this was Newswriting 101, and she put that phrase into a news story, there wouldn’t be one college prof anywhere in the country who wouldn’t have red-marked it, and suggested she stop trying to be cute.

Romney was a starter—we don’t know which position he played—made a “brief beach appearance” and left when “the game was in full swing,” possibly not wanting to get too mussed up by having to interact with commoners. There is so much a reporter could have done with Romney’s failure to finish the game, but didn’t. Parker, however, did tell readers breathlessly awaiting the next “factoid” that Ann Romney “made a brief appearance . . . after cheerleading from the sidelines.” She was protected by the Secret Service who served as the offensive line, undeniably allowing her to take enough time to do her nails, brush her hair, put on another coat of makeup for the AP camera, and then throw a touchdown pass to tie the game at 7–7. At 14–14, the game was called because, reported Parker, “Mr. Romney’s aides needed to get to debate prep, and the reporters had stories to file.” Obviously, stories about a beach flag football game on a Sunday afternoon was critical enough breaking news to stop the game and breathlessly inform the nation.


Amidst the sand, Parker reported, “There is a long history of candidates and their staff members occasionally interacting with reporters on a social level.” She referred to a couple events during the 2008 campaign; Sen. Barack Obama played Taboo with reporters; Sen. John McCain hosted a barbeque for the media. Those facts alone should have kept any alert comedy writer, satirist, or political pundit in material for the next four years.

A beach football game between politician and press may seem innocent enough—a couple of hours of fun to break the stress of a long, and usually annoying, political campaign. But there’s far more than flags pulled from shorts.
Reporters who socialize with the power elite—and this happens far more than it doesn’t happen—often fail to do their primary job: challenge authority, as the Founding fathers so eloquently asked. It wasn’t White House reporters who broke the Watergate story that eventually led to the resignation of Richard Nixon, it was two police reporters at the Washington Post, who took abuse heaped upon them by the White House reporters and hundreds of others, including some of their own newspaper, for going on what was called a vindictive witch hunt.  It was the media who proved they were better stenographers than reporters who dutifully chowed down whatever crumbs they were fed by the Bush–Cheney administration, and seldom questioned why the U.S. was invading Iraq. A few from the major media and many from the alternative press who did question authority were dismissed as mere gadflies. It was the sycophantic press that also didn’t question the destruction of civil liberties by the passage of the PATRIOT Act.
Against policy wonk/environmentalist Al Gore in 2000, Americans said they would rather have a beer with George W. Bush. Many of the press did have beers with candidate Bush, who once invited the media onto his ranch to watch him shoot and then barbeque pigeons for a group barbecue.

Every year in the nation’s capital is a high society event, the “Gridiron dinner.” Everyone—politicians, members of the press, and a horde of actors and singers—dress up in ball gowns and white-tie tuxedos to drink and schmooze. When it isn’t Gridiron Season, there’s all kinds of social events at all kinds of places that reporters just have to attend in order to get their stories, they simplistically justify.

Sports reporters who are too close to the teams or the sports they cover are derisively known as “homers,” not for Homer Simpson, who some of them act like, but because they favor the home team. Entertainment reporters and arts critics feel important because publicists will often go to extraordinary lengths to get them face-time with celebrities. To prove how “independent” they are, some, who have no discernible creative talent, will write snarky columns about celebrities and their works, thinking they are clever rather than the pompous self-aggrandizing jerks they really are. Many in the media—especially those in television and the print reporters who often do TV talk-show commentaries—probably should drop the pretense they’re journalists and just accept the appellations that they are celebrities.

It isn’t just reporters who cover national stories who get too close to their sources. There are now state and metropolitan gridiron dinners. At a local level, Reporters who cover the police and city council are often on a first-name basis with their sources. Even if they honestly believe they are objective, and will knock down lies and deceptions, they often don’t. They believe they need these sources to get more news, and are afraid that if they become too tough, the news, which is fed to them, will somehow dry up. They often accept “background” and “off-the-record” comments, which they never report or attribute, because somehow it makes them feel that they, unlike their readers of a lesser level, are “in the know.” And yet, every reporter will swear upon a stack of style manuals that he or she is objective and independent.

Don’t believe that? Put yourself in the position of being a reporter. You’re sitting at your desk in the bullpen of a newsroom, now decimated by layoffs. In walks a man in a three-piece suit and a woman in fashionably-acceptable skirt, blouse, blazer, and two-inch heels. They have a story to tell. Now, you may think that because they are PR people or middle-management executives for a large corporation, they are suspect to begin with, but they, like you, are college graduates; they are eloquent; they have a news release with the story laid out. Want anything else? They’re more than pleased to get it for you.

Now, the next day, while walking outside your office, a bag lady accosts you. She’s wearing little more than rags. Her hair is unkempt; her breath stinks. It’s doubtful she was ever a sorority president. “You a reporter?” she barks, knowing that if you’re wearing jeans, a nice but not expensive shirt and a tie you probably aren’t a corporate executive or big-shot politician. She wants to tell you a story—something about a corporation that did something very unethical and possibly illegal. You’re running late to your appointment with a physical trainer who has promised to keep you fit and attractive. You just want to get past this obstacle.

Who do you relate to? Those who look, act, and think more like you—or those who you probably wouldn’t have a drink with after work?

Don’t expect the media to stop having social encounters with their sources; it will never happen. But, do expect that maybe some will heed the call of the Founding Fathers and be independent of the sources they are expected to cover.

[Walter Brasch spent more than 40 years as a journalist and university professor, covering everything from local school board meetings to the White House.  He is currently a syndicated columnist and book author. He acknowledges that in his early 20s he was enamored by being at the same parties as the “power elite,” but quickly got over it, and has been fiercely independent from the power-elites, including the power-media, whether at local, state, or national levels. His current book is the critically-acclaimed Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution.]

           

 

 

 

BREAKING NEWS: AP, Media Fumble News Story

 

by Walter Brasch

 

On the Sunday before the final presidential debate, Mitt Romney and some of his senior staffers played a flag football game with members of the Press Corps on Delray Beach, Fla.

Ashley Parker of the Associated Press, apparently mistaking fashion reporting for news, reported that Mitt Romney was “wearing black shorts, a black Adidas T-shirt and gray sneakers.” Romney’s team, composed of senior campaign staff whom Parker identified, was “clad in red T-shirts.” She didn’t report what the members of the press wore, their names, or how many were on a team, but did acknowledge she “also played, winning the coin toss for her team, but doing little else by way of yardage accrual.” Yardage accrual? If this was Newswriting 101, and she put that phrase into a news story, there wouldn’t be one college prof anywhere in the country who wouldn’t have red-marked it, and suggested she stop trying to be cute.

Romney was a starter—we don’t know which position he played—made a “brief beach appearance” and left when “the game was in full swing,” possibly not wanting to get too mussed up by having to interact with commoners. There is so much a reporter could have done with Romney’s failure to finish the game, but didn’t. Parker, however, did tell readers breathlessly awaiting the next “factoid” that Ann Romney “made a brief appearance . . . after cheerleading from the sidelines.” She was protected by the Secret Service who served as the offensive line, undeniably allowing her to take enough time to do her nails, brush her hair, put on another coat of makeup for the AP camera, and then throw a touchdown pass to tie the game at 7–7. At 14–14, the game was called because, reported Parker, “Mr. Romney’s aides needed to get to debate prep, and the reporters had stories to file.” Obviously, stories about a beach flag football game on a Sunday afternoon was critical enough breaking news to stop the game and breathlessly inform the nation.


Amidst the sand, Parker reported, “There is a long history of candidates and their staff members occasionally interacting with reporters on a social level.” She referred to a couple events during the 2008 campaign; Sen. Barack Obama played Taboo with reporters; Sen. John McCain hosted a barbeque for the media. Those facts alone should have kept any alert comedy writer, satirist, or political pundit in material for the next four years.

A beach football game between politician and press may seem innocent enough—a couple of hours of fun to break the stress of a long, and usually annoying, political campaign. But there’s far more than flags pulled from shorts.
Reporters who socialize with the power elite—and this happens far more than it doesn’t happen—often fail to do their primary job: challenge authority, as the Founding fathers so eloquently asked. It wasn’t White House reporters who broke the Watergate story that eventually led to the resignation of Richard Nixon, it was two police reporters at the Washington Post, who took abuse heaped upon them by the White House reporters and hundreds of others, including some of their own newspaper, for going on what was called a vindictive witch hunt.  It was the media who proved they were better stenographers than reporters who dutifully chowed down whatever crumbs they were fed by the Bush–Cheney administration, and seldom questioned why the U.S. was invading Iraq. A few from the major media and many from the alternative press who did question authority were dismissed as mere gadflies. It was the sycophantic press that also didn’t question the destruction of civil liberties by the passage of the PATRIOT Act.
Against policy wonk/environmentalist Al Gore in 2000, Americans said they would rather have a beer with George W. Bush. Many of the press did have beers with candidate Bush, who once invited the media onto his ranch to watch him shoot and then barbeque pigeons for a group barbecue.

Every year in the nation’s capital is a high society event, the “Gridiron dinner.” Everyone—politicians, members of the press, and a horde of actors and singers—dress up in ball gowns and white-tie tuxedos to drink and schmooze. When it isn’t Gridiron Season, there’s all kinds of social events at all kinds of places that reporters just have to attend in order to get their stories, they simplistically justify.

Sports reporters who are too close to the teams or the sports they cover are derisively known as “homers,” not for Homer Simpson, who some of them act like, but because they favor the home team. Entertainment reporters and arts critics feel important because publicists will often go to extraordinary lengths to get them face-time with celebrities. To prove how “independent” they are, some, who have no discernible creative talent, will write snarky columns about celebrities and their works, thinking they are clever rather than the pompous self-aggrandizing jerks they really are. Many in the media—especially those in television and the print reporters who often do TV talk-show commentaries—probably should drop the pretense they’re journalists and just accept the appellations that they are celebrities.

It isn’t just reporters who cover national stories who get too close to their sources. There are now state and metropolitan gridiron dinners. At a local level, Reporters who cover the police and city council are often on a first-name basis with their sources. Even if they honestly believe they are objective, and will knock down lies and deceptions, they often don’t. They believe they need these sources to get more news, and are afraid that if they become too tough, the news, which is fed to them, will somehow dry up. They often accept “background” and “off-the-record” comments, which they never report or attribute, because somehow it makes them feel that they, unlike their readers of a lesser level, are “in the know.” And yet, every reporter will swear upon a stack of style manuals that he or she is objective and independent.

Don’t believe that? Put yourself in the position of being a reporter. You’re sitting at your desk in the bullpen of a newsroom, now decimated by layoffs. In walks a man in a three-piece suit and a woman in fashionably-acceptable skirt, blouse, blazer, and two-inch heels. They have a story to tell. Now, you may think that because they are PR people or middle-management executives for a large corporation, they are suspect to begin with, but they, like you, are college graduates; they are eloquent; they have a news release with the story laid out. Want anything else? They’re more than pleased to get it for you.

Now, the next day, while walking outside your office, a bag lady accosts you. She’s wearing little more than rags. Her hair is unkempt; her breath stinks. It’s doubtful she was ever a sorority president. “You a reporter?” she barks, knowing that if you’re wearing jeans, a nice but not expensive shirt and a tie you probably aren’t a corporate executive or big-shot politician. She wants to tell you a story—something about a corporation that did something very unethical and possibly illegal. You’re running late to your appointment with a physical trainer who has promised to keep you fit and attractive. You just want to get past this obstacle.

Who do you relate to? Those who look, act, and think more like you—or those who you probably wouldn’t have a drink with after work?

Don’t expect the media to stop having social encounters with their sources; it will never happen. But, do expect that maybe some will heed the call of the Founding Fathers and be independent of the sources they are expected to cover.

[Walter Brasch spent more than 40 years as a journalist and university professor, covering everything from local school board meetings to the White House.  He is currently a syndicated columnist and book author. He acknowledges that in his early 20s he was enamored by being at the same parties as the “power elite,” but quickly got over it, and has been fiercely independent from the power-elites, including the power-media, whether at local, state, or national levels. His current book is the critically-acclaimed Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution.]

           

 

 

 

Blood on the Lens

 

                                  by WALTER BRASCH

 “If it bleeds, it leads” is local TV’s aphorism that dictates its belief that fires, car crashes, and shootings lead off the nightly newscast. These stories, of course, are more “visual” and easier to cover than poverty, worker exploitation, and the health care crisis.

But, now and then, it’s hard to find an assortment of adrenaline-enhanced stories. And so it was that WOW-TV’s panicked station manager met with his news director late one afternoon to go over the final line-up for the 6 O’clock news, which, with few variants would be the same news the station would run in its “expanded news coverage” shows over the next 24 hours. The station manager wasn’t happy.

“What do you mean leading off the news with a report that some jokers at the Public Health Service found the cure for AIDS? Weren’t there any accidents? Fires? Murders!”

“Sorry, Boss, there’s nothing out there.”

“NOTHING?! ‘Nothing’ as in ‘no accidents,’ or ‘nothing’ as in ‘You’re about to get a job at Kwik-E-Mart’?!”

“Boss, we really tried. I have five camera crews running around right now.”

“Think you can get two of them to run into each other? We’d pay the hospital bills.”

“Boss, don’t you remember? The union made us agree to a six-month moratorium on stories that involve us maiming our crews just for the sake of ratings?”

“Some union,” the station manager huffed. “Doesn’t even want its members to get more air time.”

“It’s only for six months,” said the news director. “After that, maybe we could cut the brake linings on Unit 3 and have Unit 4 cover it. But for right now, the news scanner is dead.”

“What happened to that fatality on Honeysuckle?”

“By the time we scrambled the chopper, the drivers had exchanged insurance numbers and left.”

“Left!?” thundered the station manager. “No one leaves when there’s a camera crew on the way!”

“Best we could figure out, it was just a few paint scratches.”

“Any of the cars red? If you got there faster, it might  have looked like blood. Check the cops again. They might be covering up something.”

“Sorry, Boss. Even Philly’s not reporting any murders in the past 24 hours.”

“Then go out and shoot someone!” the station manager demanded.

“Sorry, Boss, I can’t do that.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” said the station manager. “Tell Susie Sweetwater to do it. Her ratings are down. This should help.”

“Susie’s in the middle of her reading class right now, and you know how she hates to be disturbed when she’s learning new words.”

“Then Heartthrob! Audiences salivate whenever he’s on. The public would back him even if he had assault weapons and made welsh rarebit out of the Easter Bunny.”

“It’s an hour until air,” the news director reminded the station manager. “Hearthrob’s already in Makeup. They’re darkening his hair tonight.”

 “Celebrities!” shouted the station manager. “Audiences love train wrecks, and celebrities do it better than anyone! Find me Lindsay Lohan!”

“We have two crews on her now,” said the news director, “but all she’s doing is drinking and partying. Besides, we’ve done that story five times this month.”

“What about the Jersey Shore morons.”    

“They’re currently destroying what’s left of the Roman civilization, and we can’t afford to send a crew.”

“Get me a fire! Forest. Trailer. Stove. I don’t care!” the station manager demanded, smashing his coffee mug against his desk, and cutting his wrist. “BLOOD!” he shouted. “We have blood!”

“It’s only a scratch,” said the news director.

“It’s blood! And it’s good for a grabber. Grab a producer. Come in with an extreme close-up full-frame, and then pull back to a medium shot. Dissolve to some of the footage of the Vancouver fans rioting when their team lost the Stanley Cup. Here’s your lead: Violence in Canada leads to blood-letting in America.” He paused a moment. “Make sure you run teasers on this every five minutes.”

 

[Walter Brasch, who once worked with TV, says it’s much safer in print journalism. His latest book is Before the First Snow, which is receiving critical acclaim for its look at the American counterculture.]

 

 

 

Journalism's Role in Educating Africa About What it Eats

Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

This is the second in a two-part series of my visit to Africa Harvest in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Daniel Kamanga, the Director of Communications of Africa Harvest, and former journalist, says that journalism in Africa has to overcome many challenges, including a general lack of coverage on agriculture issues—let alone a deeper understanding about who is funding agricultural development in Africa. “No one knows who Bill [Gates] is in Africa,” lamented Kamanga. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the biggest and most influential funders of agricultural development in sub-Saharan Africa. (See Filling a Need for African-Based Reporting on Agriculture).

"You can’t have a revolution in Africa if people aren’t briefed,” says Kamanga, referring to the call for a Green Revolution in Africa by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Although agriculture makes up about 98 percent of the economy in Kenya, it’s barely covered in the country’s newspapers. And there are not any agricultural editors at any of the newspapers on the entire continent.

There's more...

Building Knowledge About Biotechnology in Africa

This is the first of a two-part series to Africa Harvest, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

In our Nourishing the Planet project we’re looking at how farmers and researchers all over the world are combining high-tech and low-tech agricultural practices to help alleviate hunger and poverty. One place they’re trying to do this is at Africa Harvest/Biotech Foundation International. The organization’s mission is “to use science and technology, especially biotechnology, to help the poor in Africa achieve food security, economic well-being and sustainable rural development.”

And while the biotechnology component of their mission may be controversial to some, Africa Harvest is determined that Africa will not be left behind when it comes to the development—and use— of the technology by African researchers and farmers. As a result, the organization is focusing on breeding African crops for Africans. “If you want to make a difference on this continent,” says Daniel Kamanga, communications director for Africa Harvest, “you have to look at African crops.” These include staples such as banana, cassava, and sorghum, which are all important sources of nutrients for millions of Africans.

But these are also crops that are heavily impacted by diseases and pests. Bananas, for example, are susceptible to sigatoka virus, fusarium, weevils, nematodes, and others. To combat these problems, Florence Wambugu, the CEO of Africa Harvest and a scientist who formerly worked with Monsanto, helped develop Tissue Culture Banana (TC banana). Banana diseases are often spread through “unclean” planting material. But TC banana technology allows scientists to use biotechnology for the “rapid and large scale multiplication” of disease free bananas—a single shoot can produce 2,000 individual banana plantlets.

Africa Harvest is also working on biofortifying sorghum with Vitamin A, creating “golden sorghum.” 

“But of course, there remains the thorny issue of control—among the biggest stumbling blocks for sharing any technology across countries and regions. Biotechnology has so far been largely owned by the private sector.” So, in addition to researching crop production, Africa Harvest is also working to improve capacity building for scientists all over Africa. “If we’re going to have GMOs on the continent,” says Kamanga, “we want scientists who know how to do it.” Along with that, Africa Harvest is working to strengthen regulatory systems for biotechnology.

And how does Africa Harvest respond to criticism about the development and use of biotechnology in agriculture? According to Kamanga, it’s an “old debate” and one that takes place in 5-star hotels, not in farmers’ fields. The issue now, he says, is how we make the best use of this technology.

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