Tuesday, February 19, 2013

National Apology Day

The other night, Rachel Maddow devoted her show to reporting on a book every voting citizen should read:  Hubris - The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the the Iraq War.   David Corn and Michael Isikoff do a superb job of disaster-response journalism.   And that's the problem.

It's not until the disaster hits that reporters start asking questions that should have been asked long before the disaster.   This country had a war in Iraq for one primary reason:  journalism failed. The press played cheerleader.

We need to add a national holiday, National Apology Day.  It's the day the press apologizes to the American public for failing to do its job.

Our financial crisis is another example.   The press played cheerleader.  What do you think will be the consequences of dismantling the financial controls put in place following the Great Depression?  Is there any reason to believe eliminating those controls will somehow cause the financial industry to act responsibly and in the best interest of society?  What do you think will be the consequences of making it perfectly legal to securitize tens of thousands of liars loans? Where was the press asking the questions that needed to be asked?

Remember the hearings held on the Gulf Oil Spill?  Congressman Ed Markey grilled BP executives on the company's emergency response plans, response plans that called for saving walruses.   Just imagine if reporters, recognizing there are two major industries in the the Gulf - oil and tourism - had asked a basic question:  what happens if there's a spill?   Reporters doing what reporters are supposed to do would have found those emergency response plans.  They would have reported that BP was planning to save a species that has not been present in the Gulf for three million years.  Reporters would have had a great story, one that could have prevented a disaster and Congress would have done necessary oversight.

Remember the Presidential Debates?   Not a single question about climate change.  Insurance companies believe in science; so should journalists.

Remember Jim Tressel, the football coach who arrived at Ohio State with a history of NCAA violations at his previous job at YSU?   There was no more obvious story for any sports reporter.   What would Tressel's first annual performance review show?   You guessed it.  He was in violation again.   Did the local reporters, excuse me - I mean cheerleaders - report that?  Of course not.   When Tressel resigned, his performance evaluations showed multiple violations.  Those evaluations, all of which are public record, had never been disturbed by a reporter.   Ohio State told me nobody had ever requested them, a fact confirmed by the editor of the Columbus Dispatch. When I questioned the paper's lack of reporting,  editor Ben Marrison wrote to me:  "Our research indicates none of the approximately 600 journalists credentialed to cover Ohio State football requested Jim Tressel's evaluations.   In hindsight, I wish the Dispatch would have, as they would have led to some good stories."  Duh!

On National Apology Day, Ben Marrison can join the heads of CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX the NEW YORK TIMES and the WASHINGTON POST.  From college scandals to financial security to national security, when journalism fails, bad things happen.


Thursday, February 14, 2013

The One-Question Story Waiting to be Told

Doug Brown - a grad student at Kent State and a former student in my computer-assisted reporting class - has done some excellent reporting for Deadspin.   His report on the track coach at the University of Toledo  details a man who appears to have spent a career sexually harassing his female athletes.

A comparison between Doug's report and that in the Toledo Blade is a worthwhile editorial exercise.   Doug reports in detail on Coach Kevin Hadsell.   The Blade either hadn't done nearly as much reporting and therefore didn't have as much material or it intentionally minimized the behavior of a coach no responsible program would want anywhere near a woman's team or behind the wheel with a load of student athletes.

But there's one direct question that needs to be answered by the University of Toledo.   What steps is it taking to encourage other victims to come forward (and will some of those victims say they reported problems to university officials who did nothing)?   Whatever the answer, it's a story.

I'm sure Doug will be asking the question.   What about the Blade?  

One reason we see so many scandals in college athletics is because the press fails to do its job.   Too often, the local press doesn't report; it plays cheerleader.   When it comes to college athletics, in many newsrooms reporters don't even control their own story.  As sports commentator Bruce Hooley explains, the team decides.

Actual reporters, reporters like Doug Brown, don't play that game.   Reporters like Doug Brown follow the information and ask the questions that need to be asked.     With all the problems in college athletics, it's time local sports reporters put down their pom poms and pick up their pens.


Saturday, February 2, 2013

Super Bowl Questions for Parents & Reporters

For possibly the first time ever during all the Super Bowl super hype, there are finally questions about brain trauma and concussions.   USA Today did a worthwhile piece.

Read the complaint filed by the players against the league.   It's truly astounding how much information the league had about the risks of concussions and how it withheld that information from players.  To examine the risk of concussions, it chose someone with no expertise in brain trauma to head up its study team.   It reminds one of how the tobacco companies sponsored junk science to fight the real science that showed how dangerous it is to smoke cigarettes.

The NFL, a multibillion dollar business, withheld vital safety information from its employees.  How would you feel about working at a company where management knew of serious risks and withheld that information from you?

At the professional level in many occupations there's a risk, and often, the higher the risk the higher the pay.   Years ago I had the opportunity for an interesting position in Iraq.   Lots of money.  Appealing.   My daughter said, "I'll tackle you at the plane if you go."    I didn't go.   Professional football players now know the risks.    Professionals can make the decision.   They can take the money and take the risks.    

But what about colleges and high schools?   Their mission isn't the same as the NFL; their mission isn't to make money.   Their mission is education.   So with the knowledge we now have, where even the professionals get asked about the risks before the biggest game of the year, where are the reporters at the local level?
Where are the questions from sports reporters and education reporters and health reporters to college presidents and high school superintendents? College presidents and superintendents are supposed to be concerned about education and the development, not the bashing, of a young person's brain.   How is a university's mission of education consistent with a sport medical science has shown causes brain damage?    Why aren't reporters asking more questions and pressing for answers?    If you're concerned about the brain development of your child, it's something to think about on Super Bowl Sunday.

When journalism fails, bad things happen.