Friday, October 30, 2015

10 TIPS for Moderators to Improve Political Debates

1.  Ask a direct question about a specific issue.

     Example:  Should there be mandatory prison time for corporate executives who 
     knowingly approve for sale products with potentially lethal safety defects?  Why or why

     Example:   What specific steps need to be taken to solve the student debt crisis?

2.  Ask every candidate the same question.  It might be called a debate, but it's not possible with ten candidates on stage to have a debate.   So at least get each candidate to address specific issues.  

3.  When the candidate ignores the question and talks about something totally different as John Kasich did with his first question, cut him off.  His time to answer is done.  When candidates know they can't talk when refusing to answer a question, behavior will hopefully change.  This is an easy rule for candidates to understand.   If the candidate doesn't immediately address the question asked, the candidate's mic will be cut.    Currently, candidates know they can ignore the question and make any political speech they choose.   It's not surprising that's what they do.  The loser is the voting public. 

4.  When asked a specific question about a specific issue, and the candidate talks in generalities, ask for specifics.  Ask for evidence.

5.  Do not ask the candidate about another candidate.  Do not ask the candidate about what he said about another candidate.   

6.  Ask no questions about polls.   They have nothing to do with a candidate's position on a specific issue.  

7.  Remember the two-fold goal.   It's to get the candidate's specific position on specific issues, and to hold the candidate accountable for those positions be the issue the budget or climate change or Syria or the Iran Nuclear Deal.   If the candidate has no facts and no evidence to support his or her position, that should become apparent when the moderator asks for specifics and evidence and there isn't any. 

8.  Remember, a candidate debate is NOT about you the moderator.   You're not the star. The star is the direct question requiring a specific answer.   Ask direct questions.

9.  Invite someone from the BBC's HARDtalk to come to your network to give a seminar on how to ask questions. 

10.  For levity, if any candidate mentions the liberal media, LAUGH.   We have a status quo media, and we have a highly profitable propaganda network those who don't require facts or rational thought like to watch.  Liberal media?   Nope. 


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Two Questions for Two Stories

Watch University Presidents Tackle Football's Future and ask yourself two questions that
can both lead to excellent stories for any news organization.  

1.  Where are the reporters?

2.  In this day of record student debt, why is there no transparency on the student bill?

Parents and students should demand transparency.   At many universities the highest fee the student pays goes to fund the athletic department.   The academic students take out loans and incur debt, and then they pay to fund the athletes who go to college for free.  Most college athletic departments lose millions of dollars every year.  

Are ethics important at a university? Is it ethical to send a bill that doesn't provide line-item detail?  

Try calling your university; call the bursar's office.   Ask for a line-item breakdown of student fees. Both parents and reporters can do this.  Good luck.


Saturday, October 3, 2015

College Sports Reporting: Time to Put Down the Pom Poms

There's no other sport like college football.   It causes brain damage, poses a high risk of litigation, it's about the only area of the university where the instructors are given free cars, and it's a sport that at most universities loses millions of dollars at a time of record student debt.  In other words, it's a sport that provides any reporter serious stories to pursue and provides serious challenges for any university president. 

That's why we asked every Division I university president "what's the future of football at your university?"   The result is a project Bobby Makar, Bob Baumann and I produced with Brave New Films:   University Presidents Tackle Football's Future

What is far more distressing than the response from the presidents is what we discovered about the nation's news organizations.

In producing this project, we wanted to know what university presidents had already said about the issues surrounding college football.   We asked a first-rate researcher to find every single news article where a reporter was questioning a university president about college football.   Guess what the researcher found?


That's right, nothing.

Not a single article, not from a sports reporter, not from a medical reporter, not from an education reporter, not from a business reporter, not from a media reporter.   NOTHING!

That total lack of reporting reminds me of the ESPN-MAC contract.   This is a 13 year multimillion dollar sports production deal involving every university in the Mid-American Conference and the MAC Commissioner confirms a copy of the contract was never sent to any of the universities, each of which approved the deal.   How does a public university agree to a multimillion dollar business deal without having a copy of the contract?   How do news organizations fail to question university presidents about doing business like that?

It's time for sports reporters to put down their pom poms and pick up their pens.   It's time for news organizations to hire sports reporters, not cheerleaders.  

When journalism fails, bad things happen. 


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

U of Akron: Will It Waste Money on a Lawsuit?

Why do so many university lawyers in Ohio fail to understand public records law?  

Akron Beacon Journal reporter Rick Armon made a public records request for a slideshow administration officials at the University of Akron were presenting, a slideshow that featured a football player with a jersey showing a new name for the school, Ohio Tech.

University officials now say the university's name is not going to be changed.   But Rick got something besides a visual that documented what the university had been planning.  He got another example of how universities violate public records law.

The University refused to provide three slides.    The University claims the slides, part of a presentation made to multiple audiences, are proprietary and under attorney-client privilege.
A first-year law student could explain that's not possible.  This is a presentation made by officials of a public university to staff at a public university, donors and others.   It's a public record. 

Now, what happens when the Beacon Journal files suit?   Well, the University knows it will lose the case. Will it waste money arguing a case it knows it will lose? 

What is it with university lawyers?   

A few months ago, Rick requested a copy of a contract from Kent State University.   University lawyers redacted the financial terms of the contract.  A first-year law school student could have explained to Kent's legal counsel that the financial terms of a contract with a public agency in Ohio are public record.   A few days later, Kent State did relent and provide Rick an un-redacted version of the contract, something that should have been done initially.    

Here's a suggestion for both universities.   Call Dave Marburger at BakerHostetler, the number one expert on Ohio's public records law.  (disclosure:  I've worked with Dave for years and he and I wrote a book on Ohio's public records law - Access With Attitude:  An Advocate's Guide to Freedom of Information in Ohio.)  Ask Dave to spend a day explaining Ohio's public records law to legal counsel at the University of Akron and Kent State University.  

Then both universities can start obeying the law and providing the transparency that's required under the law instead of embarrassing themselves and fighting the public's right to know. 

Great work by Rick Armon; he's doing what a journalist is supposed to do. 


Saturday, August 15, 2015

Pandering Misleading Headlines

The University of Akron is a mess.  It has a $60 million budget hole.   To address that budget problem it has eliminated 213 positions including the entire staff of the Akron community's premier performing arts center, EJ Thomas Hall.  

The headline on the front page of the print version of the the Akron Beacon Journal reads:  PROENZA SPEAKS ON UA - former president defends financial record during 15-year tenure in aftermath of current budget cuts.  

That's not a headline that holds a public official accountable.   It's an excuse.  It is also rather misleading.   

A more accurate headline would be:  Proenza refuses to be interviewed; issues self-serving statement.   My, my, he defends what he did.   Surprise, surprise.   With no follow up questions, he's able to say whatever he wants unchallenged.  Another more accurate headline for the front page would be:  Beacon Journal copies and pastes Proenza's press release for the front page.

The Beacon Journal writes, "when asked to respond to questions about the university's current financial problems, UA past president Luis Proenza issued a statement..."

Interview by email is NOT an interview.

Whenever a public official refuses to be interviewed, that needs to be highlighted.  

It's understandable public officials refuse to be interviewed.   They don't want to be held accountable.   They know they can get away with it for a simple reason:  the press allows it. 

As lots of university employees get fired, it's understandable several faculty members are upset that one area that didn't get touched is football, a program that loses 8 million a year. How come?   You don't find any accountability questioning there.  As the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported, Scarborough said the football program is a "marketing asset that brings in students." 

Where is the follow up question?   Who is dumb enough to believe that statement?

What evidence is there the football program with the lowest Division I attendance in the country attracts students?   The follow up question is essential.   Without the follow up question there is no accountability.

At Kent State where I teach, I give a lot of student tours.   I've never had a student say "gee, I was watching a Kent State (football/basketball) game and decided I want to go to Kent State School of Journalism where I get charged $24 per credit hour to help pay for college athletics "  

Whenever university officials refuse to be interviewed, that needs to be reported prominently.   When university officials refuse to answer questions, that needs to be reported and highlighted.   And when a university president makes a statement that is totally nonsensical, i.e, the football program is a "marketing asset that brings in students," the reporter needs to ask the follow up question.

Copying and pasting a press release is not reporting.  If you're not doing accountability journalism, it's not journalism. 


Thursday, August 6, 2015

Debate Reminders (that will probably be ignored)

Ask direct questions.   

Ask relevant questions.

That means the moderator must ask the candidate's specific position on climate change, the one issue that affects every citizen of the globe. 

When questioning the candidate's position to his opposition to the Iran deal, the moderator must ask for the candidate's specific recommendations.  The candidate saying we need "a better deal" does not suffice.   Political rhetoric does not suffice.  This will be difficult for Fox as it will have to ask for specific facts.   And this is a network that doesn't like or deal in facts.  Ideology doesn't require facts; journalism does. 

When the candidate doesn't answer the question, the moderator needs to point that out and ask the question again.

Since this is Fox News (the "who do we hate today network," and  "the cause of every problem in the world is caused by President Obama - soon to be the every problem in the world is caused by Hillary Clinton" network), the moderator should apologize to the American people for Roger Ailes, the man who has done more than anyone in history to degrade and debase thoughtful political discussion so necessary in a democracy.

When journalism fails, bad things happen.   Welcome to Fox News, the network that appears to have not followed its own requirements for determining the top 10 candidates. Had Fox followed its original guidelines for selecting candidates, it doesn't appear the Governor of Ohio would be.   

Fox - the "we really hate fact-based thoughtful reasoning" network.   


Sunday, August 2, 2015

Jonathan Karl: Worst Interviews of Presidential Candidates Ever

I may have witnessed a broadcast first:  a network reporter interviewing two presidential candidates and failing to ask a single question about a single substantive issue. 

On ABC's This Week, Jonathan Karl didn't ask Donald Trump about climate change or inequality or ISIS or racism or student debt or any major issue.   He asked Donald Trump about what Donald Trump has said about other candidates.   And he asked whether Trump would select Sarah Palin as a running mate.  That doesn't qualify as asking a serious question. 

Next up on the show was Rick Santorum.   Jonathan Karl didn't ask him about any substantive issue either.   He just asked him about the polls.  

If you want to find out what a presidential candidate thinks about specific issues facing the country, don't bother watching a Jonathan Karl interview.  You watch a Jonathan Karl interview if you want a lesson on how not to interview a presidential candidate.

When journalism fails, bad things happen (and embarrassing things happen on network television).


Sunday, July 19, 2015

Trump: Masturbation Improves the Mind

If Donald Trump said "masturbation improves the mind," nearly every political journalist would do what they consistently do.   They'd ask all the other candidates the same question: "Donald Trump said masturbation improves the mind, what do you think of that?"

Masturbation Contest reported by the Tony Nwajei Post - There's No Indication if Trump is There to say "You've Fired." 

Attention political reporters:  what Donald Trump says does not matter.

What matters are crucial issues facing the country.   What will each candidate do about them?

Why have our political reporters apparently forgotten how to ask a candidate his/her position on specific issues?  Why aren't our political reporters holding candidates accountable on specific issues?

Forget Donald Trump.  Ask each candidate specific questions about specific issues.  And when they avoid and sidestep the question, ask the question again.  Ask for specifics.  

What specific legislative and regulatory action needs to be taken regarding climate change? (Reminder:   any presidential debate moderator who doesn't immediately question candidates about climate change needs to be replaced, during, not after the debate).

What specific actions need to be taken to confront ISIS?

The United States is the only industrialized nation that does not provide paid maternity leave.   Do you agree with that, and if not, what should be done? 

Why is healthcare far more expensive in the United States than anywhere else in the world, and what needs to be done about that?  (It's not because we provide better care; we don't.)

Should government officials who approve torture be held accountable?   Should government consultants who assisted with torture be held accountable?

What needs to be done with corporate executives who knowingly approve for a sale a product with a potential fatal safety defect that leads to multiple deaths?  

What specific actions do you recommend to address the current unequal justice system?

What needs to done about ever increasing income inequality?   

What specific actions do you recommend to address the high cost of college education?  Do you agree with the current priorities of Division I universities where the football team gets more full scholarships than any academic department, school or college? 

How much of a threat to democracy is the secret government approved by the secret court funded with the secret budget where there's no accountability?   

Start asking specific questions about specific issues and it's pretty easy to see that asking candidates what they think of Donald Trump saying masturbation improves the mind is meaningless.   Unfortunately, much of the current political reporting is meaningless.  What Donald Trump says doesn't matter.   What matters is what a specific candidate wants to do about specific issues and problems facing the country.   

When journalism fails, bad things happen.


Thursday, June 18, 2015

Questions to Ask Your University Researchers About Gun Violence

The Washington Post's Todd Frankel has a story that gives every public health reporter, every education reporter, every crime reporter an easy accountability story to go do.

As the Post article points out, the CDC has not examined gun violence since 1996 when Congress threatened to strip the agency of its funding if it dared to study and examine the carnage being caused by all the gun deaths in the United States.   But for local reporters, a more important point from the article is this:

     "The CDC's self-imposed ban dried up a powerful funding source and had a
      chilling effect felt far beyond the agency.   Almost no one wanted to pay for
      gun violence studies, researchers say.  Young academics were warned that
      joining the field was a good way to kill their careers.  And the odd gun study
      that got published went through linguistic gymnastics to hide any connection
      to firearms."

Gun violence kills someone in the United States every 15 minutes.   This is a country where someone with a gun kills school children, kills movie goers, kills people in a church.   What do our great research universities do?   They're afraid to study the problem.  Young academics are warned to avoid the topic.

With automobile deaths we studied the problem.  We collected facts.   Those facts allowed us to change designs for both cars and roads.   Automobile deaths went down.

For reporters, go interview the heads of any school of public health.   Go interview the presidents of those universities.   Why aren't they studying a problem that kills someone ever 15 minutes?

Go interview the members of your Congressional delegation.    Are they in favor or opposed to doing substantive, serious research on a public health issue that kills someone every 15 minutes?   Or are they too afraid to even talk about it?   When my journalism students a few years ago tried to get the Ohio Congressional delegation's positions on gun control, most members wouldn't even respond.    

When journalism fails, bad things happen.  


Sunday, June 7, 2015

Where Journalism is Fun and Rewarding

It's not difficult for a news organization to produce great journalism.   Management simply has to hire actual journalists. Journalists by their very nature want to do great work.   Journalists want to ask the questions that need to be asked.  Journalists enjoy holding the powerful accountable.  Journalists are always going after and developing great stories. Journalists are driven.  They are passionate about their work.  

It's always a joy to work with the various services at Radio Free Asia - people doing journalism for all the right reasons.    I just had the pleasure of working with a great
group at RFA Myanmar.


What a great group!


Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Mother's Day Story Every Reporter Should Do.

Happy Mother's Day in the only industrialized nation that does NOT provide paid maternity leave.  Read the article in the Guardian.  That's a story that reporters in every market in this country should be doing, but they aren't.  

My Mom (89) and Mia
Come on local reporters!!!   Call up your members of Congress.   Ask  if he/she is in favor of or opposed to paid maternity leave.   Ask the member why he/she thinks the United States is the ONLY industrialized nation that does NOT provide paid maternity leave.  Ask the member what not having paid maternity leave does to the family economy and to the family.

And for mothers and fathers, call the general managers of your local TV stations and ask why their reporters never hold their members of Congress accountable on any substantive issue.   Ask the General Managers why their license to broadcast should be renewed.   If their reporters aren't holding their members of Congress accountable, that license should be yanked and given to a corporate owner who understands that a television station has an obligation and responsibility to operate in the public interest.   

And we all have an obligation to act in the interest of mothers. 

Happy Mother's Day. 


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Where Were the Lawyers?

Rolling Stone got it wrong for a simple reason:   it forgot how to do basic fact checking.   Journalists are not human microphone stands.   When someone tells a compelling and riveting story (think Bill O'Reilly), a journalist doesn't just believe it.   A journalist ALWAYS wants verification.  

So if there's a gang rape at a fraternity, there are lots of people at the frat to go see and lots of questions to ask them.   The victim has friends she told.   A journalist goes to talk with them.   What were they told by the victim, when, how?   Do the stories match or are there major inconsistencies which raise questions about the truth of what the journalist has been told by the victim?

The Rolling Stone reporter didn't interview the friends.   And I won't recount the numerous basic reporting mistakes pointed out in Columbia Journalism School's report on Rolling Stone's near total lack of proper editorial oversight.  There's another question. 

Where were the lawyers?

If journalists have forgotten how to do basic fact checking,  why did the lawyers fail to do their jobs?  

At CBS, Lara Logan's story on Benghazi demonstrated the basic point:  CBS news managers have forgotten how to do basic fact checking.  The scene is described as Al Qaeda fighters everywhere.  Morgan Jones (real name - Dylan Davies) tells Lara Logan that in this incredibly dangerous situation an Al Qaeda fighter just walks up to him so Jones hits him with the butt of his rifle.  Oh sure.  It's an incredibly violent situation.  And the Al Qaeda fighter walks up to say howdie-do and just lets himself be hit in the face.  Listen to this segment of the interview and ask yourself one question:  who is dumb enough to believe this?   


Lara Logan's story could have been blown up with 15 minutes of checking the CBS news archive.   But let's give the news managers the benefit of the doubt.   They've simply forgotten how to do basic fact checking.   They've forgotten that a  journalist is not supposed to be a human microphone stand.   They've forgotten that journalism requires verification. The question remains:   where were the lawyers?   

Legal review is fairly basic.   You go sentence by sentence.  How do we know this is true?   How do we know it is fair?   What is the evidence?   Who are the sources?  Who witnessed this?   What documentation is there? 

If Rolling Stone and CBS have decided they won't fire the reporter and news managers who failed to do journalism 101,  they should at least fire the lawyers.  

When legal review fails, really embarrassing, brand degrading and potentially costly things happen.    


Friday, April 3, 2015

To Find Great Stories Ask One Question: WHY?

The president of Al Jazeera America Kate O'Brian was just at Kent State to receive the prestigious Robert G. McGruder Award for Diversity.    Prior to Al Jazeera, Kate had spent 30 years at ABC including two stints working with Peter Jennings.    And one thing she said about Jennings that should resonate with all students and journalists everywhere is that Peter Jennings was insatiably curious.   He was, says Kate, always asking questions.

And as one reviews American journalism, there is a depressing absence of asking the one question that leads to great stories:  WHY?

WHY is the United States the only industrialized nation where thousands of families go bankrupt from medical bills?

Why is healthcare in America so much more expensive than anywhere else?

Why do local TV reporters not question their members of Congress on any issues of substance?

WHY do athletes get more full scholarships to college than academic students?  

For March Madness, WHY are the teams so black and the cheerleaders so white?  

A public policy question:  WHY is the highest paid public employee in state after state either a football coach or a basketball coach?

In the current reporting on Iran, WHY do U.S. news organizations so often fail to review the crucial historical context of our relationship with Iran?   When Iran's leader Mohammed Mosaddeq wanted to nationalize the oil fields and share the wealth with the Iranian people, the United States did not want that.   The CIA orchestrated a coup and an American puppet dictator, the Shah, was installed.   The Shah imprisoned or tortured or killed all political opposition.  WHY did the United States support such behavior?

WHY do we teach a sanitized Disneyland version of American history in our public schools?

WHY don't certain members of Congress believe in science?

WHY in the run up to the Iraq war when Rumsfeld and Bush and Cheney and Rice were running around the country saying, "Saddam Hussein used weapons of mass destructions against his own people," WHY did reporters not ask, "and what did the United States do when Saddam did that?"   Answer:  The United States continued to support Saddam Hussein.   WHY?   

Why does CNN talk about the same damn thing all day long? 

To improve the state of journalism, we need to be asking more WHY questions.   

When journalism fails, bad things happen.


Monday, March 23, 2015


In its contract with a Philadelphia consulting firm that specializes in branding, 160over90, Kent State University agreed to let the private firm hold public records hostage.  Here's the relevant portion of the contract:   
What's that black spot?   That's the number of days the private firm has to review and redact information it doesn't want the public to see.   But that's not how the law works.    

Under Ohio law, public records cannot be held hostage.  A private firm cannot have x number of days to determine when and if a portion of a public record can be released.   University counsel should review page 11 of Access With Attitude - An Advocate's Guide to Freedom of Information in Ohio by Ohio's premier 1st Amendment attorney Dave Marburger and myself. That's where university lawyers will be reminded that under Ohio law, a public agency cannot "establish a fixed period of time before the agency will respond to a request unless that period is less than eight hours."

And the university should also review the Sunshine Law Manual from the Ohio Attorney General. As it points out, "Parties to a public contract, including settlement agreements,  cannot nullify the Public Records Act’s guarantee of public access to public records. Nor can an employee handbook confidentiality provision alter the status of public records. In other words, a contract cannot nullify or restrict the public’s access to public records. Absent a statutory exception, a “public entity cannot enter into enforceable promises of confidentiality with respect to public records.”

A private firm does not have the ability to determine what is and is not a public record.   That's determined by state law.  Why did the university agree to a contract that's an obvious violation of Ohio's public records law?  Here's the timetable.  

Kent State University announced it had a hired a firm to come up with the university's strategic vision.  Akron Beacon Journal reporter Rick Armon asked for a copy of the contract.  Kent State sent Rick the contract and redacted several portions, including financial terms.  You can read Rick's story here.   

What would it cost?   How much is the public state university paying for this consultant?   Here's what the redacted contract provided by Kent State University shows.

Akron Beacon Journal reporter Rick Armon persisted, and Kent State University finally decided it should obey state law and provided the contract.   Thanks to Rick Armon, citizens of Ohio can now see the terms of a contract that had been improperly withheld from the public.   You can read his updated story here.    In the un-redacted contract, the public can now see how long (ten days) the university was going to allow the private firm to remove information from a public record.
And the public can now see the financial terms.
I've requested an on-camera interview with Kent State University's legal counsel.   So far, the university has not responded to my request.  Why would university lawyers agree to a contract that obviously violates Ohio's public records law?   I hope to post the video answering that question here.