Monday, April 21, 2014

We're Embarrassed.

We're embarrassed by a university that favors secrecy over transparency.    I'm also proud of the best editorial I've ever seen in Kent State University's student paper, starting with the headline:   

"The worst public transparency crisis since the last time around"

Student journalist Daniel Moore writes with force and precision.   Let me retype here the first four graphs of a powerful editorial.

From the DKS Editorial:  

University officials have declared they're done talking about the presidential search that found President-Elect Beverly Warren.  We wish we could be done too.

We wish we didn't have to remind the top lawyer at a state-funded institution of public records law.   But when General Counsel Vice President Willis Walker referred questions of public record to a private firm earlier this month, we feel something has gone horribly awry.

It's the latest in a series of progressively more-head-scratching offenses that won't go away until the school proves that a quarter-million dollars of public money was spent correctly.  By refusing to release any receipts or copies of any invoices that indicate finalists' names or identifying information, Walker is failing to provide proof that those funds were properly spent.  

Walker said Storbeck/Pimental & Associates, the university's private contractor who assisted the school in finding Warren, has been given all the records and the authority to release them if it wants.   He even suggested the firm could have already destroyed some of the records.

You read that right, Kent State University signed a contract that lets a search firm in Pennsylvania determine what is a public record in Ohio.  Akron Beacon Journal reporter Carol Biliczky reported that fact more than a week ago along with details on how Kent State officials had shredded documents.   How did Governor John Kasich react to a public institution shredding public records documenting the search for the top position at a state university, an action approved by the governor-appointed Board of Trustees?   He didn't.  

What does Governor John Kasich plan to do about a public institution signing a contract that allows a firm in Pennsylvania to determine what is public record in Ohio?    

Although I'm embarrassed by and ashamed of my employer, a university that thumbs its nose at Ohio's public records law, I'm proud of Kent State student journalists pushing for transparency and for holding university officials accountable.  I trust both student journalists and the Akron Beacon Journal will be asking for an interview with the Governor. 


Monday, April 14, 2014

Come to Ohio and Cheat

In her story on Kent State University shredding documents to prevent the public from seeing how the Presidential Search Committee selected its new president, Akron Beacon Journal reporter Carol Biliczky may have come up with the ideal way for students to improve their GPA.

Thankfully, Ohio has a fairly strong public records law.   Every public agency must have a records retention schedule that indicates what documents must be kept and for how long.
When it comes to hiring, the law requires transparency in the public sector.   Material received from job applicants, like those applying to be president of a state university, are public records, and hiring an outside firm to do the search doesn't change that.   The Supreme Court of Ohio settled that in Plain Dealer Publishing Co, v. City of Cleveland and ordered the city to release the records on all applicants because the private firm conducting the search "acted for a public purpose."

As the headline of Carol Beliczky's report states:  "Kent State Shredded Documents to Hide Information About Presidential Search."  But for the Kent State Presidential Search Committee that wasn't sufficient.   It decided to write its own contract to specifically ignore Ohio's Public Records Law.   As Carol reports, "...the university signed a contract addendum giving its private search firm, Storbeck Pementel and Associates of Media, Pa, the power to decide what records are released to the public."

Any first-year law student would be able to explain to members of the Presidential Search Committee that laws are passed by the legislature and become law after being signed by the governor or upon the legislature overriding a gubernatorial veto.   Private parties can't simply write a contract to decide to change the law.   Neither the Kent State Presidential Search Committee nor its hired contractor can decide what is a public record.   The law does that. 

But given the Presidential Search Committee's actions, its behavior provides a fabulous template for students so they can all graduate with honors.   Kent State students should just follow the example set by the Presidential Search Committee.  They can ignore whatever is in a course syllabus.   They can just write their own agreement on what is necessary to get an A.   If they want, they could be like athletes at North Carolina and get an A for a class they don't even have to attend.    

A cautionary note here:  if students acted like the Presidential Search Committee, they'd probably get into trouble.

Since it's the law that dictates what public records are and the records retention schedule dictates what records must be kept and for how long, do you think the actions of the Kent State University  Presidential Search Committee may generate an investigation from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation?  Will the State of Ohio simply do nothing about a state agency that has decided a firm in Pennsylvania can determine what records are public in Ohio?

Keep reading the Akron Beacon Journal, the only news organization that is continuing to push on an important story.

The threat to democracy is NOT terrorism.   The threat to democracy is government secrecy at whatever level it exists.


Sunday, April 6, 2014

Another Coach Hired, Another Missed Story

Ohio University has hired a new basketball coach for only $550 thousand a year, a sum that would allow a university to hire half a dozen or more tenure track professors.   One question you won't hear the sports reporters ask is who pays for that?   It's a story the sports reporters will ignore again.  It's the academic students who pay.  The highest student fee charged to students at OU goes to fund athletics.    And college athletic budget crisis time is coming to our universities.    Sports reporters may ignore the stories; university presidents may ignore the problem.   But what can't be ignored too much longer is economic reality.  

With Monday's night Final Four championship game, it's a good time to remind university presidents, teachers, and taxpayers of the economic reality of college sports, a topic Dr. Andrew Zimbalist has been studying and analyzing for years.   

As he points out, most programs lose millions of dollars a year now.     Click and listen to what he predicts is coming.  


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Is March Madness Academic Madness?

One story you probably won't find in the local sports section or on local TV as everyone cheers on the team, is how many classes athletes miss.

The NCAA says academics is a “core priority” for it and its member institutions.  Is March Madness actually academic madness?   

How many classes do student athletes miss due to game schedules and injuries?   How many classes and study days do athletes suffering from concussions miss?   With a concussion, medical experts say a student should refrain from studying because the brain needs rest.  What are the numbers like for the Mid American Conference?   Click and watch this report from Kent State University student journalist Jason Kostura.    For you reporters, go ask your university's athletic director to do an interview about how the department analyzes class absence and the impact missing class has on academic performance.   Unfortunately, not a single athletic director in the Mid American Conference would agree to an interview on the topic.   

Monday, March 24, 2014

A Journalist Stands Up for Journalism

Ben Richardson resigns from Bloomberg News for all the right reasons.   Every student journalist, every journalism professor, every j-school director, every working professional journalist should read this post on Romenesko.

Bloomberg owes the country an apology.     We all owe Ben a salute.  

We live in challenging times when there's never been greater need for thoughtful, in depth reporting.   When Bloomberg had a chance to deliver, it did what General Motors and Toyota have done, decided profit was far more important than doing what was right. From government to universities to car companies to media companies we've witnessed ethics being flushed down the toilet.  As a society, we're paying an incredibly high price. 

Thank goodness for people like Ben Richardson, people who are willing to stand up for what is right and what is ethical.    


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

CNN vs The News

When Ted Turner started CNN he had a simple, basic and crucially important philosophy: news is the star.

Want the news?   You won't find out what's going on in the world with CNN.

I need to clarify.  CNN International always has and still does cover the news.  But CNN domestic, the CNN we watch in the United States has for the most part stopped reporting the news, it just reports the story of the day. 

For the past week and who knows for how many more, CNN covers one story, a missing airplane. A few weeks ago it was Chris Christie.

On Fox,  one might expect a group of semi hysterical commentators suggesting that Obama was responsible for the plane's disappearance, that it was actually heading to Benghazi for a meeting with Hillary at directions of the President who had gotten secret orders from Muslims in Kenya. But what's happened to CNN, the network where fact-based news from around the country and around the world used to be the star?  From a news organization, one expects an examination of facts and of evidence being verified.    

Now, instead of doing news, CNN has decided to join the breathless hysteria seekers. Chris Goodfellow, a pilot with 20 years experience, makes some thoughtful observations based on his 20 years of flying.    His thoughtful, rational and reasonable analysis hasn't gotten much play on the Oh My God network.    Perhaps if he had suggested a UFO had snatched the plane, he'd be featured.  

When journalism fails, wild speculation ensues.


Friday, February 28, 2014

Whistleblower = Truth Teller (Reporters Need Them)

What a shame there wasn't a whistleblower at the Chevy Cobalt plant back in 2004.   As reports, General Motors knew before the first Cobalt was sold that there was a problem with the ignition.   

"GM concedes it knew in 2004, before launching the 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt, that the ignition switch might inadvertently move from "run" to "accessory," stalling the engine and cutting power to safety systems."

It wasn't the fault of the engineers.   They suggested solutions.   None was adopted.  What else could they have done?   They could have been a truth teller, a whistleblower, and it would have been a whistle that would have saved lives.   This country, any democracy, needs whistleblowers.   But it's getting harder for those who want to tell the truth.

We have an administration attacking and doing everything it can to silence whistleblowers.   From Der Spiegel to Salon from blogs to the Washington Post, you can read the disappointing news of an administration dedicated to punishing those so appalled by what they've seen they are compelled to tell the truth.   What the administration should be doing is saying it's time to get tough on crime.    The corporate executive who makes the decision to sell a product with a known safety defect, particularly one that can kill people, shouldn't be getting a bonus.   The executive should be getting prosecuted.

For reporters, the GM recall gives them an easy question for their members of Congress.   Should corporate executives be punished, should they be prosecuted, for knowingly selling a product with a known safety defect?   In most cases since we have the best Congress money can buy, the answer will be no.   But ask the simple follow-up question:  why?  

Read the articles on the North Carolina coal ash spill.   Three paragraphs from the New York Times article demonstrate again why public safety so requires whistleblowers.

     From the NYT:   Last year, the environment agency's budget for water pollution programs
                               was cut by 10.2 percent, a bipartisan commission that approves regulations
                               was reorganized to include only Republican appointees, and the governor
                               vastly expanded the number of agency exempt from civil service protections
                               to 179 from 24. 

                               The effect, said midlevel supervisors who now serve at the pleasure of
                               the governor, is that they are hesitant to crack down on polluters who 
                               might complaint to Mr. Skvarla or a lawmaker, at the risk of their jobs.
                               Several spoke anonymously out of fear of being fired.

                               "They want to have a hammer to come down on anybody who hinders
                               developers by enforcing regulations," said a supervisor whose department
                               is supposed to regulate businesses under laws devised to protect water
                               quality.  "We're scared to death to say no to anyone anymore."

Think of that.  Employees are afraid to do what's right to protect public safety out of fear of losing their jobs.   A whistleblower may have prevented the North Carolina disaster.   We'll have a safer and more honest world if we encourage and reward whistleblowers and enact mandatory prison time for corporate executives who make decisions that intentionally put public safety at risk.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Leadership Silence and Freedom of the Press

Terrorism is not a threat to American democracy.   Terrorism doesn't have a chance against democracy.   What can destroy a democracy is government secrecy, that combined with the failure of the press to do its job poses a real threat.

Government secrecy becomes a greater threat when government attacks the press, and that's what we've been witnessing.   Reporters Without Borders has noticed.   In its latest rankings of press freedom, the United States has dropped significantly and deservedly so. 

As Reporters Without Borders reports in its assessment of the United States:

"Rather than pursuing journalists, the emphasis has been on going after their sources, but often using the journalist to identify them. No fewer that eight individuals have been charged under the Espionage Act since Obama became president, compared with three during Bush’s two terms. While 2012 was in part the year of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, 2013 will be remember for the National Security Agency computer specialist Edward Snowden, who exposed the mass surveillance methods developed by the US intelligence agencies.
The whistleblower is the enemy. Hence the 35-year jail term imposed on Private Chelsea/Bradley Manning for being the big WikiLeaks source, an extremely long sentence but nonetheless small in comparison with the 105-year sentence requested for freelance journalist Barrett Brown in a hacking case. Amid an all-out hunt for leaks and sources, 2013 will also be the year of the Associated Press scandal, which came to light when the Department of Justice acknowledged that it had seized the news agency’s phone records."
Why are America's leaders silent about this administration's attacks on information, on sources, on its concerted effort to maximize secrecy in government?
Why are university presidents silent?
Why aren't directors of journalism schools across the country raising their voices?
Why aren't business leaders objecting?   A country without a free and vigorous press is a country in decline, and that's bad for business.
There have been a few light whimpers from those objecting to the Obama Administration's penchant for punishment, but why aren't the CEO's of every major media organization raising hell?   
Why are most members of Congress more upset with a whistleblower telling the truth than they are with a member of the secret government lying to Congress?   Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives should all be outraged at the conduct of a government that now has the United States rated 46th in press freedom.   
Think about it.  
The world's leading democracy is rated 46th in press freedom and our educational leaders don't make a peep?    The CEO's of our tech companies who turned over data for years without objection don't make a peep.   Business leaders don't make a peep.  Professional journalism schools don't object? The heads of every major media organization aren't raising holy hell?   We need more than the Guardian and Propublica and the Center for Public Integrity and Romenesko to show concern for press freedom.
The silence of America is a silence that threatens democracy.   Terrorists aren't the threat to American democracy.   Leadership silence is.   

Monday, February 10, 2014


Public relations, advertising,  and promotion are all admirable professions.   But our democracy is not dependent upon PR or advertising.   It does require journalism.  A free and vigorous press is essential.

Journalism is different than PR or advertising.   Journalism requires verification.   

Last week, we witnessed that the Washington Press Corps has forgotten how to do that.   After the Congressional Budget Office put out its report on the impact of the Affordable Care Act, news organization after news organization had to update their initial stories with major rewrites and corrections.   

Journalism requires accountability.   

When the head of the House Committee on Intelligence says Edward Snowden had help from the Russians, a journalist doesn't just accept that.   The journalist asks for evidence. What proof do you have?   What evidence do you have?   What facts do you have to substantiate the claim you just made?  Journalists hold people accountable.  If you're not doing accountability journalism, it's NOT journalism.    We've all witnessed what happens when journalists fail.   We had a war in Iraq because rather than asking for evidence, rather than questioning the Bush Administration, the bulk of the press played cheerleader.

Today's multimedia journalists have to develop multiple skills, but all the technology is worthless if the journalism isn't solid.   For our democracy, it's essential that we train professional journalists. 

A key and crucial training ground for university student journalists where they should be learning, refining and applying their professional abilities is student media.   Are they learning to be journalists or is student media simply a promotional mouthpiece for the university?  Are advisors encouraging students to do what journalists are supposed to do, or are advisors, particularly tenure-track professors, afraid to rock the boat?   Keep in mind, journalism is not about rocking the boat.   Journalism is about turning the boat over and shaking it so the public can see what's happening.  

Is your university actually committed to having first-rate student media?

Here are some basic quality control questions to ask:

1.  Are the student journalists aggressive?   

2.  Are student journalists questioning school administrators and holding them accountable?

3.  Is student media independent or controlled by the administration?

4.  Does the university abide by or consistently violate public records law? 

5.  Are university administrators available for on-the-record, and increasingly, on-camera interviews? 

6.  Are student journalists breaking stories that other media outlets have to cover?

7.  Are faculty advisors encouraging student journalists to be aggressive and to ask questions of their university officials and hold them accountable?

8.  Does the university reward or punish investigative reporting?

9.  How many full scholarships does the university give to journalism students - as many as they give to the golf team?

10.  In this age of ever-changing technology, does student media have sufficient technical support and expertise?

A university that wants a first-rate journalism program wants first-rate student media.    
What's the status of student media at your university?   Post below or send me an email.  


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Reminder: Journalism Requires Verification

The Huffington Post's Jason Linkins makes a superb point in his review of what we witnessed as pathetic reporting on the Congressional Budget Office report on the impact of the Affordable Care Act.

As he writes, "...the media totally ganked on the story."

For the Washington press corps, it's time for basic remedial journalism education.   

1.  Journalism requires verification.

2.  Before you write about a government report, read it.

3.  When a politician claims something is true, ask for the evidence.  Ask for FACTS, not spin.

4.  Fact Check!   If Sports Illustrated had done that, it never would have done a cover story about a football player whose poor dead girlfriend never existed and 60 Minutes never would have embarrassed itself with its mistake-riddled Benghazi report and news organization after news organization wouldn't have gotten the CBO story wrong. 

Obviously, the above only applies to organizations wanting to do journalism, not to propaganda organizations or to political parties or to someone like Chuck Todd.   As Linkins writes, "the gut feelings that the CBO report generates are more important to Chuck Todd than the actual facts."   For a journalist, that's not the case.   For a journalist, facts, and verifying those facts are what's important, essential and required.

When journalism fails, really embarrassing things happen.


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

How Did Newsrooms Ignore Such an Obvious Story?

As is being reported everywhere, CVS is going to stop selling cigarettes.   Congratulations CVS.   

But how did newsroom after newsroom not go after such an obvious story before?  Why weren't reporters questioning  an industry supposedly concerned with health about why they continued to sell death?

Now they can do that story.   Go interview the other drug stores.   Easy story.   Excellent business story.  Excellent health story.  Excellent local story everywhere.  And with today's technology, every local newsroom can do a videoskype interview with the corporate official.
Ask them to explain why making money from selling death is more important to their corporation than taking the same step as CVS.

Congratulations CVS.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

CEO v Press Lapdog Contest

As The Guardian reports, America's largest tech companies have been nodding their silent corporate heads and turning over whatever the secret court has requested.  For anyone concerned about privacy and personal freedom, this paragraph from The Guardian raises one basic question:

 "Tens of thousands of accounts associated with customers of Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Yahoo have their data turned over to US government authorities every six months as the result of secret court orders, the tech giants disclosed for the first time on Monday."

Why wasn't a single corporate CEO raising holy hell about these requests?  Which raises a second question:  in the land of the secret government approved by the secret court, who has been a bigger lapdog, the corporate CEO's of America's tech companies or the American press? Why hasn't the American press been pushing for transparency from government and questioning CEO's for a long time?   Without Edward Snowden and the Guardian, we'd probably still be seeing no discussion. 

Google's law director is quoted in the Guardian article saying "more transparency" is needed.   Oh really?  If that's the case, why has Google been so silent?

What else are our tech companies providing?   As the Guardian reports, "Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo also gave the FBI certain customer records – not content – under a type of non-judicial subpoena called a national security letter."   The tech companies have responded to hundreds of such requests.

Yes, companies have a duty to respond to proper legal requests.   But they are under no duty to be totally silent when the government comes knocking.   What do you think would have happened had these been German companies and the German government came knocking?   How do you think the German corporate CEO's and the German press would have responded?  With silence?   With submission?   

When journalism fails, bad things happen.    And when corporate CEO's take no action against government intrusion, they fail their customers, their shareholders and the citizens of this country.   Who's a bigger lapdog in America, corporate CEO's or the press?  Wow,  that's a real toss up. 


Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Solution for the Sunday Morning Shows

The Sunday Morning Shows may be laughable with their lack of serious questioning, but they are not supposed to be comedy programs.    When a politician makes a statement asserting something truly astounding, such as when a politician states a country poses an imminent threat to the United States or a politician says Edward Snowden was encouraged by a foreign power, a journalist isn't supposed to just sit there like a human microphone stand.

Regardless of the topic, any journalist who is a journalist and not a lapdog says something like, "what evidence do you have of that," or, "upon what do you base that" or,  "how do you know that is true?"

When the politician admits he has no evidence, the journalist needs to confirm that fact, saying something like, "So Mr. Rogers, you sit here and suggest that Edward Snowden has been encouraged by Russia to provide information and you have absolutely no evidence of that at all, correct?"   Then the journalist would ask why the head of the House Intelligence Committee would make such an outrageous assertion with no evidence.   

Our Sunday Shows (and now 60 Minutes) have demonstrated the network hosts and producers are in need of basic journalism training.   They're certainly welcome to come to Kent State, but here's another solution. 

Charter a plane.   Fly them all to sit in the studio for BBC's Hardtalk.   Be sure David Gregory sits in the front row.   Tell them to pay attention to how the journalist asks direct questions.   Tell them to pay specific attention to what happens when the subject sidesteps the question or makes what appears to be an assertion unsupported by any facts.   They'll witness the journalist holding the subject accountable.   Had American journalists done that with politicians, we never would have had a war in Iraq.

When journalism fails, bad things happen.


Thursday, January 2, 2014

Snowden: Time for Reporters to be Journalists, not Human Microphone Stands

With the New York Times and the Guardian editorial boards calling for clemency for Edward Snowden, it's essential for reporters to stop being human microphone stands for politicians.   

Reporters know what certain politicians are going to say, that Snowden should have made his complaints through official channels.   Previous whistleblowers who took that route did not get rewarded for doing what was right; they got punished.   It's essential the reporter point that fact out to the politician.   It's essential the reporter actually ask the logical follow up question.   Why would any thoughtful person knowing the history of what had happened to whistleblowers trying to do the right thing, take an action that he knew would be a waste of time?

So when someone like Rep. Rogers says, "He didn't use any of the whistleblower protection avenues laid out before him. None. Zero" the reporter can't just sit there and fail to put such a comment in proper context, i.e., that the whistleblower protections don't work and that government officials who don't provide whistleblower protections are not being held accountable.

Any news organization writing about such a comment should link to the articles reminding America's citizens how the secret government has beaten up those trying to do the right things.   USA Today did an excellent piece, so did US News. 

Reporters need to ask politicians to explain why they're more upset with Edward Snowden telling the truth than they are with the Director of National Intelligence lying to Congress.   

The only way to hold the secret government accountable is for the American press to follow the example set by the Guardian.    It's time for the American press to stop being such lapdogs.   It's time for American reporters to start being journalists and stop being human microphone stands. 


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Journalistic Hopes for the New Year

Here's hoping....

...that 60 Minutes decides it should do journalism again and remembers how to do basic fact checking.

---that Fox News adds a laugh track to most of what it does to put it in proper context for  viewers.

...that local TV sports reporters put down their pom poms and pick up their pens and do some reporting instead of cheerleading.

...that members of Congress get more outraged with members of the secret government who lie to Congress than they do with whistleblowers who tell the truth.

...that members of Congress who don't believe in science lose their next election.

---that local reporters question their members of Congress about inequality, gun regulation, climate change, money in politics, education, stronger protection for government whistleblowers, and the dangers of the secret government.

...that newspapers invest in training their reporters how to do an on-camera interview.

...that newspapers buy some microphones and use two microphones, not just one when doing an interview.

...that newspaper owners recognize news photography requires skill, not just an iPhone.

...that The Guardian, Mother Jones, the Nation, Slate, Salon, the Center for Public Integrity, Frontline, and ProPublica continue to do great work. 

...that K-12 schools provide some basic education in how to question and verify information.

---that J-schools encourage student journalists to investigate their own universities.
...that the Daily Show gets some competition from a news organization for thoughtful commentary (keep up the great work Daily Show).

If that were to happen, what a truly Happy New Year it would be for journalism.