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.


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.