Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Sign Form 180 & Help The Press Do The Job It Won't

Come one Johnny boy, sign the 180 and let the voters see what you are trying to hide. - Sailor

Sign Form 180 & Help The Press Do The Job It Won't
Posted September 22, 2004
By Paul M. Rodriguez

Bias? What Bias?

If the press (in general) and the public at large have learned anything from the latest debacle over at CBS and with its anchor/managing editor Dan Rather, then certainly it must be that standards are important.

For example: Whatever story is being pursued then thatstandard must be applied evenly which, concerning George W. Bush and John F. Kerry, certainly is not happening.

The result, not just among Republicans but so too among a growing number of Democrats, is that the press is distrusted. And this is troubling to me both as a newsman and as a consumer of news.

Nostalgia aside about the "good old days" of bare-knuckled journalism, the truth is that since the waning days of Vietnam and post the Watergate era, news operations in this country moved light years forward ... for a time. That's not to say that all the news was "fit for print" during those heady times - or even today amidst the plague of 24/7 instantaneous news feeds.

Rather (no pun intended), the push for hard news and the elevation of journalists and news outlets as arbiters of political, social and cultural ethics and norms certainly took on a more vigorous purpose.

So too the now beaten to death moniker of objective journalism and investigative news. Politicians and institutions were to be held accountable on behalf of the great masses, which for a time seemed to appreciate that someone other than they were fighting city hall, exposing corruption and generally holding elected leaders accountable.

The reality, of course, was both then and now this wasn't quite so. But as a newsman during the past 30 or so years, the esprit de corps amongst us certainly was buoyed by our own senses of doing a public service in the best traditions of our mythical heroes - either from the good old days or more current as celebrities emerged within the tribe, especially with the advent of expanded news feeds, magazine talk shows, radio and cable.

Notwithstanding expanding news holes and technological advances, not to mention a growing appetite for more gotcha journalism and racy news, there seems to have occurred a loss of some basic tenants in our profession - and I think this shows clearly in declining readerships and audiences and the advent of the Internet. People generally have more places to get their news and, equally important, to fact check news stories and to discuss the importance of news unfiltered by the so-called mainstream press.

What once were considered to be fringe publications or news outlets now churn out stories by the thousands on a daily basis in direct competition with the traditional news outlets. And to counteract some if not the tide of such competition, main-stream news organizations feel the pressure to put a fresh face on a story, provide breaking news throughout the day and, frankly, to puff up stories through repetition that makes unimportant and fleeting "stories" larger or more important than deserved.

For a while I thought that the result of such marketplace competition actually would bolster the value of newspapers and magazines because the very mechanics of being daily or weekly print products would provide a safe haven for thoughtful, concise, more in-depth and better-reported stories. Even analysis stories to help make sense of often confusing and contradictory news bombarding us all, not to mention snippets of "news" populating the Internet every day.

I thought all these things - and still cling to this bias - because I firmly believe in the value of my tradecraft and that honed by many a skilled newsman over many years trained to ask simple hard questions and then to report the context.

I've been a firm believer for a long time that rather than rely on objectivity, a good newsman accepts his bias but then works hard to assemble the facts as they emerge and then through good reporting, put context to the facts.

One measure for gauging the success of a newsman (or a news organization) is whether he (or it) applies what I call the "Old Hickory Bat" approach. For example, if it's good enough to swat Bush on his Air National Guard service records then it should be good enough to smack Kerry on his Navy records.

Believe it or not, it's not just Bush who has gaps in his service records but that's hard to figure out in so many news reports - such as those aired by CBS. But it's not just CBS - it's virtually all of the traditional press that seems to omit references to Kerry when reporting on questions about Bush. This is dishonest. And it's bad journalism.

I've spent much time trolling the Internet in recent weeks and visited many a blog, as well as speaking to a lot of people. And I've concluded that my tribe has failed badly to do its job - at least the job many claim to work at hard. To wit: Fairness and balance.

Whether one is Republican or Democrat (and I said this during the tenure of Bill Clinton), whatever the story at hand needs to be focused on a discernable and even-handed standard in news reporting - the "OHB" standard.

Bush has ordered the release of all his military and related medical records (along with his tax records). Sure, the process of digging out old records from government archives has been ugly from the perspective that it seems every month or so yet more records are found. At least they are being found and then released to the public and the press.

In the seemingly endless stories about the Bush records, however, seldom is there mention of the "missing" Kerry records - and controversy around some known and batches yet unknown. To put context on any story involving Bush requires -- at least -- a sentence or paragraph pointing out that Kerry hasn't answered "all" the questions about his time in the Navy, including failure to release all his records.

Kerry has said he has released everything that the Navy gave him. And, supposedly, these are some of the ones found on his campaign website. But what Kerry has failed to be truthful about - and the press has played along with this game - is that he has not signed a necessary Form 180 authorizing the Navy and Pentagon archives to scour their files and then release anything found.

Reportedly, for example, there are between 30 and 100 pages being withheld by the Navy because Kerry has not authorized their release.

Then there are records allegedly out of his control that Kerry says are covered by a contract with the author of his autobiography - a contract the author himself has said does not preclude Kerry from making any and all "secret" documents available to the press. Kerry has been disingenuous on this matter but the press has not tagged him for it.

Then there are medical records stored in separate government archives, along with affiliated Navy records not held directly by the Navy that still have not been unearthed that, just as with critics of Bush claim may exist to answer some of their questions, critics of Kerry also say may exist to answer their questions about the senator.

There also appear to be FBI records on Kerry's anti-war protest activities, as well as other DOD investigative files - if not even CIA files - that might answer a variety of questions about the young reservist in the Navy in the early to mid-1970's. Ditto old Justice Department files and records in other government repositories not yet known.

Kerry easily could help the press do its job by signing the required Form 180 and waiving any Privacy Act restrictions to other records being held by the government.

But he has not - and the press has said virtually nothing at the same time that, for example, the Associated Press went to court (and properly won, I say) a Freedom of Information Act demand for Bush's records. (Of course, the reality was and is that DOD has continued to look for records and making them public when found. But the way the AP FOIA case was reported generally failed to mention such facts thus leaving the public with an impression that Bush et al were stonewalling the release of records.)

That said and unless I've missed something, the AP and other press outlets have not gone to court on FOIA requests for similar Kerry records. And they certainly have not sought to challenge Kerry and his campaign (and supporters) to cough up such records, as they demand of Bush et al.

Were it not such a hot political topic made hotter by Kerry's own supporters who accuse Bush of lying and hiding the truth (and much worse) - and the press' breathless reporting on Bush's service records - then perhaps all of this would amount to nothing but a hill of beans.

But the fact is that Kerry has made this an issue. The fact is that Kerry's supporters have made this an issue. The fact is that the press has made this an issue.

Well, if it's an issue then it needs to be an issue that applies equally to both Bush and to Kerry. And to apply an uneven standard undercuts a prime directive we in the press claim: To inform the public and let the chips fall where they fall.

But CBS apparently doesn't think so - or didn't. And the majority (if not all) of the other traditional press must not think it's important either - to apply an even standard in reporting on such matters. Otherwise there would be a hue and cry and "controversies" over Kerry records (and failures to make them public) as there is with Bush.

Raising questions about Bush - even questions raised by vile and despicable sources - is okay. But not so on Kerry when, for example, a couple of hundred former Swift Boat vets ask similar questions?

While the public must watch the ritual of the press being aghast over the CBS and Dan Rather debacle - which is both very real and very sad - the rest of the press also must be held accountable for its own failures to do its job.

I'm not advocating actually whipping up newsies and their bosses with real baseball bats. But I certainly advocate that folks write in, protest and keep blogging away and use the "OHB" standard to beat the hell out of press and media outlets for shirking their responsibilities and thus further erode what little trust remains of an otherwise noble craft called journalism.

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