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Tragedy in the 24/7 News Media

7:02 am in Uncategorized by brasch

 

by Walter Brasch

CNN is the 24/7 media trumpet for news about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that is presumed to have crashed in the Southern Indian Ocean, southwest of Australia. On that flight were 227 passengers and 12 crew members.

CNN grabbed every iota of information, pumped it full of digital frequencies, and broadcast it to what it thought was a world salivating for every syllable of thought.
CNN Satellite News Truck - Atlanta
When there was news, CNN broadcast it. When there was no news, CNN broadcast it. When there were outrageous theories, CNN was the source to find out who was saying what. When there was a rumor, CNN broadcast that, only to have to retract it hours later. Through chatter and repetition, CNN kept the story alive.

This wasn’t the first time the media became fixated on a story. It certainly won’t be the last. There was non-stop coverage of the death of Princess Diana, the O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson trials. Fox News grabbed onto Obamacare, President Obama’s alleged birth in Kenya, and the Benghazi story, even when the facts didn’t support its preconceived conclusions. More recently, MSNBC’s evening anchors have given non-stop wall-to-wall coverage of the Chris Christie “Bridgegate” story, another story that was hyped by constant repetition.

“All News-All Day” isn’t new. During the Yellow Journalism age and circulation wars in the late 19th century, media giants William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer often sent to press several editions a day. Hearst, whose jingoistic determination helped bring about the Spanish-American War in 1898, was not adverse to publishing as many as 30 editions a day to “update” his million subscribers and millions more readers of the New York Journal, all of whom were willing to pay three cents per edition to get even more news each day.

In the early 1960s, the radio medium developed all-news stations. However, the news package was often a prepackaged cycle that ran every seven, nine, 11, or 20 minutes, with new content every now and then.

The 24/7 news cycle, as we now know it, was initiated by CNN more than three decades ago, and became a necessary part of information dissemination during the first Gulf War in 1990-1991. CNN had correspondents in Baghdad; the coverage was critical in keeping Americans, especially family members of combat troops, informed of the reasons for the war and numerous issues that developed from that war, as well as hour-by-hour coverage of the war itself.

Since then, the CNN concept of all-day coverage, which had been spoofed and held as an example of what not to do in news, has been successfully copied by MSNBC, Fox News, other cable news operations, and dozens of web-only news-commentary operations.

Newspapers, which have often lagged in innovation, began to go 24/7 by a combination of once-a-day print production and continuous updates in their web editions. Reporters at one time wrote a story, turned it in to the “desk,” forgot it and went to other stories. Copyeditors often improved the story, gave it a headline, put it onto the page, and sent it to the “back shop” where it became a part of pre-press composition and the “press run.” However, in the “we want news right now—and make it short because we don’t have the attention span” world, reporters are writing the story for the print edition, while also recording it on cell phones and digital cameras, sometimes narrating the footage, for the web edition. If anything changes during the day, the reporter then spends the rest of the day juggling other stories and updates on the original story.

But there is a major problem when the media—print or visual—become fixated upon one story, such as Flight 370. Other stories are swept aside. The mudslide near Oso, Wash., that killed 30, with at least a dozen still missing, is one of those stories that should have dominated the news media. The cascade of a 600-foot hillside is the most deadly landslide in U.S. history. Yet, it was often the second or third story on evening news, behind what still wasn’t known about Flight 370.

Dozens of stories, both breaking news and features, could have—and should have—been written and broadcast. While local media did exemplary work in keeping the story fresh, the national news media—apparently believing Washington state is only on the fringe of the continental United States—gave significantly less coverage to the mudslide than to the missing flight or the latest Hollywood gossip.

Among stories that should have been reported, but were either given minimal coverage or shoved aside for the airline story, were reasons why the hill collapsed and the ecological and environmental harm it caused. There should have been stories about why the hillside wasn’t protected and the political reasons why. There should have been stories directed to people in other parts of the nation on how to protect yourself against various kinds of natural disasters. There should have been stories about the emergency management agency and its responsibilities, about the first responders and the 400 search and rescue workers, including their training, what they were doing, how they were doing it, and how they overcame innumerable problems. There were dozens of unreported stories about the work of the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and other social service agencies. There should have been extensive reporting about the psychological trauma affecting workers and residents. There should have been stories about the city itself, its businesses, and how they responded. There should have been stories about the effects of the mudslide upon the schools, and how the youth unselfishly helped. Yes, there were dozens of stories that could have, and should have, been reported to a national audience.

Both Flight 370 and the mudslide are tragedies. But, CNN was fixated on a missing airline, taking a few hours off to cover the Fort Hood shootings; Fox was fixated upon attacking President Obama; and MSNBC was fixated upon a New Jersey scandal.

Although those stories may be important, not one of them matter as much as what happened in Oso, Wash.

[Walter Brasch is an award-winning journalist and author. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation into the process and health and environmental effects of horizontal hydraulic fracturing to mine gas.]
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Delayed Deliveries Are Not a Crisis

9:26 am in Uncategorized by brasch

by Walter Brasch

 

It’s been about two weeks since the news media began smothering the nation with stories about UPS and FedEx delivering packages late during the holiday season.

A short shopping season of less than 30 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, combined with extraordinary numbers of deliveries and extreme weather problems caused thousands of packages not to be delivered by Christmas. For some media, this was the top story.

FedEx says it delivered more than 275 million packages in that one month period. UPS doesn’t say how many it delivered or how many were late. But it does say that if customers sent their packages by ground and hoped they would arrive by Christmas, the cut-off date was December 11. For air service, UPS temporarily added 29 planes to its fleet.

Understandably, there are several hundred thousand senders and receivers who are unhappy their packages were not delivered by Christmas. However, people got their gifts, even if a day or two late.

It doesn’t require myriad news stories, many of which led the nation’s TV news. It doesn’t require a U.S. senator to be indignant and demand that UPS and FedEx refund all costs for all packages.

A crisis is that more than 125,000 people in Michigan, New England, and parts of Canada suffered more than a week without electricity after a major storm took down power lines. Electric company employees, emergency management staffs, the Red Cross and other social service agencies worked with little sleep to help the people. A second storm this past weekend added to the myriad problems.

A crisis is that 25 have already died from effects of the storm.

A crisis is that more than a million are homeless, many of whom are still on the streets in bitter cold.

A crisis is that almost 50 million Americans, almost 17 million of them children, live in poverty.

A crisis is that Congress increased the federal minimum wage by only $2.10 an hour in the past 15 years, but in the past decade found enough tax funds to increase its own salaries $20,000 a year to its current $174,000 minimum plus expenses.

A crisis is that Congress abandoned its job and went home early without passing legislation to continue unemployment benefits for more than a million Americans who, even in an economy that is in recovery, still haven’t been able to find work.

A crisis is that this may be the least productive Congress in history—and that includes the “Do-Nothing Congress” that had infuriated Harry Truman in the late 1940s. By comparison, that Congress passed more than twice the number of bills than the current Congress, including legislation to create the Department of Defense and initiate the Marshall Plan to stimulate economic recovery to Europe after World War II.

A crisis is that this Congress, led by a minority of the minority party, succeeded in shutting down government, blocked critical judicial appointments, spent much of its time whining about the Affordable Care Act and brought up more than 40 votes, all of which failed, to repeal the Act. This is the same Act that had been passed by a previous Congress and ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court.

A crisis is that more than a year after the murders in Newtown, Conn., there have been more than 12,000 deaths by guns—and politicians are still swayed more by an affluent special interest lobby than by the people who elected them.

A crisis is that the nation’s infrastructure has deteriorated to a point that the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave it a D+. More specifically, the ASCE gave grades of D-, D, or D+ to the nation’s dams and levees, inland waterways, drinking water quality, hazardous waste systems, roads, transit systems, airports, school facilities, electrical grid and pipeline distribution systems. Only bridges, ports, and railroads received C ratings.

The only bright spot is solid waste recycling improved to a B-. If anyone is to blame for the nation’s below-average performance it’s the elected politicians who decided they didn’t want to raise taxes to take care of the nation in order to appear to be fiscal conservatives, but spend lavishly on junkets and pet projects that only special interests that dribble campaign funds care about.

These are crises.

A late Christmas gift, while annoying, isn’t. Read the rest of this entry →

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Depth Takes a Holiday in Mass Media

2:35 pm in Uncategorized by brasch

by Walter Brasch

 

The mass media have a fixation upon throwing up lists.

Sports editors run innumerable lists of the “Top 10” high school and college teams.

Arts and entertainment editors run lists of the top books, movies, songs, and even video games.

Financial and business editors tell us who they believe are the “most important” moguls, and rank each on a scale that has no meaning to anyone, especially the moguls themselves.

Fashion editors love making lists of “best dressed” and “worst dressed” celebrities.

News editors love making end-of-the-year lists of the “Top 10 Headlines.” Like the other editors, they don’t tell us why their pick of the top news story was more important than the No. 2 story—or why the No. 10 story was any more important than the thousands that did not make the list.

TV Guide also loves lists. This month, it threw out a list of what some of their editors irrationally believe are the “60 Greatest Shows on Earth,” complete with a sentence describing each show. And, like most lists, it’s little more than annoying static.

The top three shows, according to TV Guide, are “The Sopranos,” “Seinfeld,” and “I Love Lucy.” Squeezing into the list at the bottom are “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” “The Good Wife,” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.” In between—and completely without any logic, except for the editors’ over-ripe egos that they actually know something—are numerous shows, some great, some better than mediocre. For instance, “Saturday Night Live,” which believes stretching out a good one minute comedy sketch to five minutes makes it five times better, is the 18th best “greatest show on earth.” The editors, who seem to be in a time warp that left them in junior high, placed “SNL” above “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (no. 20), “The Tonight Show, starring Johnny Carson” (no. 22), “Friends” (no. 28), “Taxi” (no. 35), “Barney Miller” (no. 46), “The Bob Newhart Show” (no. 49), and “The Daily Show, with Jon Stewart” (no. 53.) No one at TV Guide can explain how “The Daily Show” was 35 places below “SNL” or why “The Colbert Report” never made the list. The editors also didn’t explain how “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” by all accounts one of the best comedies on TV, was rated no. 7, while Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” a 90-minute live comedy show in the early 1950s that exposed America to the acting and writing talents of Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Howard Morris and dozens of others, was 37th on the list, 19 below “SNL,” which should have used the Sid Caesar show—or even its own first half-dozen years—as models of comedic genius. Missing from the list of the “60 Greatest” is “The Tonight Show, with Steve Allen,” which established the standard by which all other late night show operate.

“60 Minutes,” which has often been the top-rated show, made the list at no. 24. But, “See It Now,” with Edward R. Murrow, one of the nation’s most important and influential journalists, did not make the list, an oversight that could be attributed to the fact that TV Guide editors probably slept through most of their college journalism lectures, days after their after drug-induced high while watching “SNL.”

“Sesame Street” made the list, but “The Muppet Show” did not, nor did “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” “Captain Kangaroo,” “Howdy Doody Time,” “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle,” and the pioneering, “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie” from the 1940s.

Soupy Sales, who showed how to reach two different audiences—youth and adults with the same gags—isn’t on the list, possibly because his humor was more sophisticated than some of the mindless prattle of “SNL.”

Also missing from the “60 greatest” list—and indicative of TV Guide’s lack of understanding that America extends beyond the polluted Hudson River— is “NCIS.” TV Guide editors freely mark the best prime time shows to watch each day; they usually don’t give “NCIS” that distinction. Only in the past couple of years, exhausted by seeing “NCIS” at the top of the ratings week after week, have they published major features about “NCIS,” while constantly gushing over shows and stars that have no chance of lasting a decade in prime time.

For 10 years, the actors and crew of TV’s most-watched show have just done their jobs, and they have done it well.  Every actor is someone who could be on Broadway or handle a major film role.

The writing on “NCIS” is fast-paced and thought-provoking, wringing emotion from its 20 million viewers each week. Unlike many procedural dramas, this CBS show’s writers layer a fine coat of humor that is far better than what passes as half-hour sitcoms these days.

The production values exceed most other shows—from lighting to camera movement to even prop placement. The behind-the-scenes crew may be among the best professionals in the industry.

Behind the scenes, the cast and crew are family. They work together. They care about each other. Numerous shows claim this is true with them. But, the reality is their claims are little more than PR sludge. With “NCIS,” the claims are true.

There are no scandals and there doesn’t seem to be much ego among the actors.

In 11 seasons, Mark Harmon, who can evoke an emotion in the audience merely by a slight look and no words, has never been nominated for an Emmy. As every good actor knows, true acting is when people don’t know you’re acting.

Portraying the fine nuances of a character is a quality that sustained James Garner’s career for five decades. Like Mark Harmon, Garner never won an Emmy, and his popular show, “The Rockford Files” never made it to TV Guide’s “60 Greatest” splash of nonsense.

Mark Harmon and James Garner, both masters of their craft, may not even care they’ve never won an Emmy. They, like millions of us already know, a spot on TV Guide’s “60 greatest shows on earth” is not the recognition they crave – but probably deserve.

[Dr. Brasch, a journalist four decades, is also a media analyst and critic. He is also the author of 18 books, most fusing history with contemporary social issues. His latest in Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation not only of the economics, environmental, and health impact of fracking in the country, but also the Collusion between the oil/gas lobby and the nation’s politicians.]

by brasch

Government Should Not Define What a Reporter Is – or Isn’t

6:13 pm in Uncategorized by brasch

Sen. Diane Feinstein and a horde of members of Congress of both parties want to decide who is and who isn’t a reporter. Sen. Feinstein says a “real” reporter is a “salaried agent of a media company.”

aka Silence Do-Good

She mentions the usual suspects—New York Times, ABC News. She dismisses part-time staff. She dismisses freelancers. She dismisses those who write, often without pay, for the hundreds of alternative publications, and often break news and investigative stories well ahead of the mainstream media. She dismisses anyone who, she says, “have no professional qualifications.”

The reason she wants to define what a reporter is or isn’t is because there’s a federal Media Shield Law that protects reporters from revealing their sources. She wants to amend that to take away existing First Amendment protections from anyone not involved in—apparently—salaried establishment media.

There are people who have minimal qualifications to be a reporter. Many write nothing but screeds. Many have problems with basic language skills. Many have little familiarity with the AP Style Book. Many have an inability to ask probing questions of government officials; many merely transcribe what they’re told, whether from the president, a council member, or a local reader who is the focus of a feature. Some of them are paid salaries and are agents of media companies, which Sen. Feinstein believes are acceptable requirements.

There are also those who frequently allow “deep background” and “off-the-record” comments. Many news media won’t allow sources to go “off-the-record.” If the information isn’t available to the general public, it shouldn’t be available only to reporters. Access to news sources is something reporters enjoy that the average reader doesn’t; but there is a responsibility to the reader and viewer and listener not to hide information.

There are those who overuse the “veiled news source,” which is a part of the Shield Law. A veiled news source could be someone whom the reporter identifies as, “Sources close to the Governor state . . .” Often, the reporter doesn’t question a source’s motives for why she or he wants to give anonymous information, or if it is merely a “trial balloon” to use the media to put out information; if the people agree, sources become identified; if the public disagrees with a proposal, no one traces the “leak” to politicians or their staffs.

On more than a few occasions, reporters—whether “salaried agents” of a media company, part-timers for that company or for any of thousands of alternative publications or electronic media, or freelancers—have filled in holes in their stories with false identities—“A 55-year-old housewife in Podunka, who asked not to be identified, says . . . ” Good reporters seldom  use a veiled news source and then have to protect them should there be a court order to divulge the source of information.

On rare occasions, however, a reporter, in consultation with an editor, will allow a news source to be anonymous. Granting veiled news source status should not be given unless a source’s information and identity puts her or him into significant personal jeopardy—and the information can be verified.

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The No-News Media Cover a Royal Birth

1:51 pm in Uncategorized by brasch

 

 

by Walter Brasch

 

Long after the American colonials broke away from the British monarchy, long after George Washington refused to take the title of “king,” Americans are still fascinated by anything British and royal.

The media incessantly pumped out news and features about the royal birth. TV networks gave us several “special reports” when Kate Middleton checked into the hospital, and then even more reports when the birth was announced, and then when Middleton, Prince William, and their baby went home.  The 30-minute network evening news devoted as much as half of its time to the royal birth.

There was live coverage. There was taped coverage.

Radio gave us near-instant updates.

Just about anyone in London with a cell phone camera sent visuals to TV or YouTube. Twitter was all a-flutter with messages of 140 characters or less; instant messaging swamped almost every known hand-held device. FaceBook lit up with pre-announcements and announcements. Newspapers and magazines opened up full pages for pictures. All of this media coverage is for an infant who is three generations from being king.

Speculation about the unannounced royal name briefly dominated headlines. The royal couple had nine months to determine a name, but still needed an additional two days—fast by past royal naming practices—to come up with a royal monicker, something that would be dignified yet carry on British tradition.

The infant is George Alexander Louis, to be formally known as His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge. The “George” carries on a tradition of six previous British kings, including George VI, Queen Elizabeth’s father, who ably and courageously led his nation during the darkest part of World War II. “Louis” is for Lord Louis Mountbatten, admiral of the British fleet, a war hero who later became a diplomat. Lord Mountbatten was a mentor and close friend of Prince Charles, the infant’s grandfather.

As for “Alexander,” it could be for Alexander the Great who didn’t invade England. It could also be for British poet Alexander Pope; for Alexander Graham Bell, a Scot whose invention of the telephone led to the iPadization of world communications or for Alexander Fleming, a Scot who discovered penicillin. It’s even possible that the Infant Royal was named for Alex(ander) Trebeck, who always manages to get a question about Canada into every “Jeopardy” show.

It’s doubtful that the future king would be named for any of the seven popes named Alexander, since Henry VIII, an ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II, separated England from the Catholic church.

But let’s think about all of this coverage and speculation a bit longer.

While the media are fixated upon the birth of a future monarch, they have cut back their incessant incoherently babbling about the lives and misfortunes of American celebrities. Because of time constraints, they aren’t broadcasting or printing as many of the latest fashions, work-out plans, celebrity diets, and food crazes.

They aren’t devoting as much air time or column inches to whatever it is that New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner is or isn’t doing with his Twitter.

They aren’t splashing multiple-column headlines across every fender-bender or marijuana arrest story. They aren’t repeating, without verification, incessant lies and half-truths told by politicians and the corporate PR cartels.

They aren’t the vehicle for the endless spreading the nonsense and rants about the George Zimmerman verdict or trying to give us pseudo-sociological explanations about race issues in America. They aren’t reminding us that the federal government is bugging us—in so many ways. They aren’t making fools of themselves trying to find where Edward Snowden is or where he’s planning to go, or even if he’s a hero or traitor.

Because it’s August, Congress is on vacation. Media coverage shouldn’t change—they’ve been reporting that Congress, hamstrung by the obstructionist minority, hasn’t done anything for the past four years.

So, for a few days, coverage of a royal birth is a welcome relief to what now passes as news.

[Dr. Brasch’s latest book is the critically-acclaimed Fracking Pennsylvania, which looks at health, environmental, economic, agricultural, and political issues.]

 

by brasch

MyFDL Diarist Wins Journalism Awards

8:32 am in Uncategorized by brasch

MyFDL Diarist Walter Brasch has recently won several state and national awards for work published in 2012.

Against statewide competition, the Pennsylvania Press Club honored him with first place awards for his column, special series (for articles about problems with the state’s new law on gas exploration), and religion. Also against state competition, he received first place in radio commentary from the Pennsylvania Associated Press Broadcasters Association.

The National Federation of Press Women awarded him 3rd place for his column, 3rd for social issues reporting, and honorable mention in special series. The National Society of Newspaper Columnist awarded him honorable mention for his column.

In a four decade career as a journalist, Dr. Brasch has won more than 200 awards from state and national media organizations.

He is the author of 17 books. The latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania. Combining both scientific evidence and extensive interviews with those affected by fracking throughout the country, as well as those who work in the industry, he looks at the effects upon public health and the environment, as well as problems from fracking that also affect agriculture, wildlife, and livestock. The book also explores the collusion between Big Energy and Pennsylvania’s politicians. The book is available at local bookstores, amazon.com, and www.greeleyandstone.com

 

by brasch

America’s Culture Is Signing on the Dotted Line

6:04 am in Uncategorized by brasch

by Walter Brasch

The signing season has begun.

Look through your local newspaper for the next few weeks, and you’ll see a lot of posed pictures of high school athletes.

Everyone will be at a desk or table.

Around each one will be their parents and their coach. In some cases, add in an athletic director, a principal, and someone representing a college the young athlete is planning to attend.

It makes no difference if it’s a Division I or Division II school; sometimes it’s even a Division III school. Star athletes at the end of their high school careers get photos and applause. They can even get special financial aid and scholarships just for being able to play a sport well. At Division I universities, they also receive special academic tutoring to make sure they stay eligible.

Excel on an athletic field, and the local media will take your picture and write stories about you. If you’re good enough, the sportswriters might name you “Athlete of the Week” and present you with a certificate or small plaque.

At the end of the season—it makes little difference what season or what sport—you might be named to an all-district or all-regional or all-state team. You might even be voted by the sports writers in your area “Player of the Year” for your sport.

If you do extremely well in college sports, at the age of 22 you might be able to command a six- or seven-figure salary in a professional sport. Become a coach of a major sport at a Division I school, and even if your team is only mildly successful you’ll earn several times what professors earn.

Now, let’s pretend you’re a scholar. Even in the world of rampant grade inflation, you’re running an “A” average and are in the top 5 percent of your class. You just aced the SATs and are heading to a Division I university.

You probably won’t get your picture in the paper, surrounded by parents, counselor, mentor, or anyone from that Division I university. It just isn’t done. Newspapers have Sports sections, sometimes 8–12 pages; they don’t have Education sections.

Although some editors may claim that “education” is spread throughout the newspaper, the reality is that column inches devoted to sports coverage is significantly greater than column inches devoted to education news.

The American educational system rated just 17th among 50 industrialized countries, according to an analysis by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The countries with the leading educational systems, according to the EIU, were Scandinavian and Asian. The EIU analysis looked at both quantitative data (including class size, facilities, and government spending per pupil) and qualitative data (including development of cognitive skills.)

In another major study, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) revealed that U.S. students were average in reading and science skills, and below average in math skills. Fifteen-year-old students, according to the report, ranked 14th of 34 countries in reading abilities, 17th in science, and 25th in math. As for writing and cognitive skills abilities—just look at any letter to the editor to find out how well students command those subjects. The PISA testing requires students to take knowledge of a subject and apply it to solving real-world problems.

“This is an absolute wake-up call for America,” Dr. Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education, told the AP. He said the study was “extraordinarily challenging to us and we have to deal with the brutal truth [and] get much more serious about investing in education.”

There are innumerable problems in America’s educational systems. One is that the gap between the higher performing students and the lower performing students in all areas (including humanities, arts, and sciences) is increasing. Another is that educational systems, spurred by taxpayers who don’t want higher taxes, have learned not how to effectively cut expenses but have sacrificed education by packing more students into a classroom; almost every study (including the PISA testing) shows a link between class size and educational achievement.

Another link is the workload of the average teacher. Many taxpayers and some in the media believe teachers are overpaid and work “only” six or seven hours a day for only 180 days a year. However, the evidence doesn’t support the public perception. Teacher pay averages about 12 percent less than for professionals in comparable jobs, according to a recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute; in some states, the pay is 25 percent less than for comparable jobs. The average teacher workload is significantly greater than the number of hours in the classroom. According to a recent study by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation, teachers average about 53 hours a week, including time spent on class preparation, student evaluation, and discussions with students and their parents. Even during breaks, teachers are usually developing classroom materials or attending conferences and in-service training. The PISA report links general public respect for teachers with greater educational success.

And, yes, in the educational system are weak and ineffective teachers, school administrators, and school board members who are part of a system that may have become more lethargic than revolutionary.

But, a look at American society, as seen in the pages of the local newspaper, is a reflection of what Americans think is important. When you’re looking at a four-column picture of a smiling athlete at a signing ceremony, ask yourself why do we wring our hands, furrow our brows, and complain about low educational scores.

The answer might be that while athletes are photographed signing on the dotted line, highly-talented  student musicians, artists, writers, and future scientists, among several hundred thousand others, are also signing on dotted lines—but, these are dotted lines on financial loan statements.

[Dr. Brasch, who has mixed teaching and journalism for more than three decades, is an award-winning journalist and the author of 17 books. His latest is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation of the effects of fracking upon public health, safety, and the environment. The book is available from amazon.com or www.greeleyandstone.com. Assisting on this column was Rosemary R. Brasch.] Read the rest of this entry →

by brasch

Weathering a Blizzard of News Media Bravado

6:41 am in Uncategorized by brasch

 

by WALTER BRASCH

 

Ginger Zee is an ABC News weather person. She’s 32 years old, has a B.S. in meteorology, and says even in high school she wanted to be a TV network weatherperson. Not a scientist in a lab studying and analyzing weather, but a TV weather person. For more than a decade, she worked local and regional markets, mostly in Michigan and Chicago.

Her other qualifications are that she is photogenic, has a somewhat bubbly personality, wears a size 4 dress, weighs 125 pounds, and was her high school homecoming queen. If she wasn’t on TV, she says she’d have loved to be a bartender.

It’s entirely possible she’s competent. But, it’s also possible that TV execs bypassed thousands of other competent meteorologists to find someone who knows weather–and looks good on camera. For meeting those qualifications, ABC-TV gives her significant air time. She is the weather person for the weekend editions of “Good Morning America.” If there’s a snow storm, blizzard, or heavy rain, you can see her—or any of a few dozen other TV personalities—male and female—on air, under an umbrella or in a parka, trying not to freeze any of their six-figure salary assets. It’s a good visual, as they say in TV.

It’s also bad journalism.

There is absolutely no need to put someone onto a deserted street with a hill of snow and wind to tell us there is a hill of snow and wind, and to stay off the roads.

First, it’s just not the weather person who may be in danger. On local news, there’s usually an all-purpose staff person who combines driving the SUV or van with responsibilities as a sound and video technician and who endures the same conditions as the weather person. On network TV, there may be a mini-crew of four others to get the picture on air. We don’t see them, and none make anywhere close to the salaries of the on-air talent. But they’re the ones driving, setting up the equipment, coordinating with the studio, and making sure the live performance during a blizzard appears to be not only as dangerous as it looks, but that the weather person also looks good.

Second, technology has given us the ability to station remote cameras. The weather person could stay indoors, among computers, telephones, charts, and maps and tell us the same thing—without being the only ones dumb enough to be blown into a snow bank.

We understand why local news gives us this visual, and leads off almost every non-prime time newscast with a weather report and usually erroneous predictions. But, now network TV not only gives us the same thing, it also leads off the evening news with same information we get from local news. Last weekend, Ginger Zee and weather people from the news networks were bundled up somewhere in New England, facing the cameras and wind gusts of 75 miles per hour. Some weather people were in Times Square showing us that the “crossroads of the world” was pedestrian free because of the blizzard. They had the easier job—there was less snow, less wind, and Times Square was a limousine ride from the network studios.
Newspapers aren’t immune from the “bravado syndrome.” Editors sitting in windowless offices have no hesitation in sending out eager photographers, salivating at getting that one great weather shot, even if it’s of their company car being stuck in a snow bank after sliding off an icy road.

To “humanize” the story—high-paid news consultants like to throw around the concept of “humanizing a story”—some of the reporters had to find people stuck in the snow. There were many to choose from. But, the questions asked were along the lines of, “So, how did you get into this situation?” “How do you feel about this storm?” and “What do you plan to do?”

There wasn’t much reporting in New Jersey. The “Garden State” was snowed under, but didn’t get hit as bad as New England, which saw two feet of snow and near-hurricane wind gusts. But, there were stories there, which didn’t receive heavy coverage and didn’t threaten the news crews’ physical safety. New Jersey has begun to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Could someone have checked to see what the blizzard did to the people and their properties in those shore areas that were once flooded, and now snowed-in and likely to endure even more water damage if temperatures increased and the snow melted before it could be shoveled and trucked from residential and commercial areas?

Getting “the story” is good journalism. Risking your safety and health, and possibly putting others at risk for a weather story, isn’t.

[Walter Brasch has been a journalist more than three decades. He acknowledges while much younger, he thought nothing about rushing into danger. Now that he’s matured, he looks back and thinks that some of his bravado was just plain dumb. Dr. Brasch’s latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth analysis of the health and environmental problems associated with natural gas drilling, and an investigation of the relationship between the energy industry and politicians. It’s available through amazon.com or www.greeleyandstone.com, and local bookstores.]

by brasch

Confessions of a Juiced Journalist

8:08 am in Uncategorized by brasch

by Walter Brasch

Pill bottle

Are the writers you love using performance enhancing drugs? Probably.

Before Congress creates yet another useless special investigation committee and subpoenas me, I wish to come clean and confess.

I took steroids. Strong steroids. The kind that bulk you up and make you look like Stone Mountain. In my case, they just fattened me up, gave me rosy-red cheeks, and destroyed about half of my systems.

The first time I took steroids was for a year when I was a high school freshman. My physician prescribed it. Its side effects were that I didn’t have to worry about acne or my voice changing. The last time I took steroids was about a decade ago. For the first four or five months of what would be almost two years, it was a heavy dose. My hematologist said the drugs helped save my life. They also saved my writing career.

It was in that summer that I slept only about three or four hours a night, wrote a critically-acclaimed book plus a few articles. I even did a lot of calisthenics and more to clean the house, something that startled my wife, but kept me from committing ’roid rage.

And that’s why I must confess now. While Stephen King, Aaron Sorkin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and thousands of other great writers used coke or pot to get high and produce great works, I used steroids. There’s no question that the steroids kept me alert, and opened my mind to new ways to organize my writing. I probably couldn’t have done that book is so short a time if I hadn’t been juiced.

This past year, I was honored by the Pennsylvania Press Club with its lifetime Communicator of Achievement award, the first time it awarded it in seven years. But, it may be tainted because part of reason I earned that honor was because of increased writing and public service while under the influence of performance enhancing drugs. I’m hoping the state association won’t make me return the honor.

There were three people in their chosen profession who didn’t have a chance to be honored. Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Sammy Sosa were not voted into the baseball Hall of Fame. To be inducted into the Hall, a player must be retired at least five years and receive at least 75 percent of the vote by the Baseball Writers Association of America. Clemens received 37.6 percent. Bonds received 36.2 percent.  Sosa received just 12.5 percent. All were steroid-stained by a scandal that was enhanced by a Congress that was impotent in so many areas except outrage at athletes. None were convicted of using steroids or any related charges. The percent of members of Congress and their staffs who used non-prescribed illegal drugs is probably the same, or even greater, than athletes who used them.

Clemens was a seven-time Cy Young winner in 24 seasons as a pitcher. He recorded 354 wins and 4,672 strikeouts, third highest among all pitchers. Before Congress, he testified he never used steroids; others claimed he used them. Congress referred the case to the Department of Justice, claiming Clemens lied under oath. The jury found Clemens not guilty on all six counts of perjury.

Barry Bonds is the all-time leader in career homeruns (762) and single season homeruns (73). He was a seven-time MVP. Although he tested positive one time for using a performance enhancing drug (PED), he was never convicted of that. Before Congress, he denied knowingly using drugs. Although he was never convicted of perjury, he was convicted in court of obstruction of justice.

Sammy Sosa hit 609 home runs, 2,408 hits and ran up numerous records. He was stained by being on a list of players who used PEDs, but that list and the names of the drugs was never revealed, nor was he given an opportunity to challenge his inclusion on that list. Before Congress, he swore he never knowingly used PEDs. He was never convicted of drug usage.

The baseball writers who judged these all-time greats decided not to vote them into the Hall of Fame—at least this time. If the writers had dug deeper, they might have learned that most players, including many already enshrined in the Hall—and probably some baseball writers as well—were also tainted.

[Walter Brasch, who won most of his writing awards when not on steroids, is a syndicated columnist and author of 17 books. His current book is Before the First Snow: Tales from the Revolution. His book, Fracking Pennsylvania, is scheduled for release Feb. 14.]

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by brasch

BREAKING NEWS: AP, Media Fumble News Story

5:48 am in Uncategorized by 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.

A football

Photo: Anderson Mancini / Flickr

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.

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