Citizen Journalism

Commentary: What I Learned At Ohio’s Citizen Watchdog Training

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

By Maggie Thurber | Special to Ohio Watchdog

Maggie Thurber

COLUMBUS — This past Saturday I participated in a full day of training on how to be a good watchdog of your government and how to hold elected officials accountable.

The sessions were sponsored by The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity and the Ohio Chapter of Americans For Prosperity. There were about 100 people participating throughout the day.

Here are some of the key things we learned:

  • The reputation of the main stream media is declining; traditional news sources have declining audiences and budgets. This is a wonderful opportunity for citizens to fill the void.
  • From Todd Shepherd, Independence Institute: Investigative reporting isn’t that hard – sometimes it’s just a matter of having a question and finding an answer. Random public records requests often reveal major stories.
  • From Greg Lawson, Buckeye Institute: We have a high rate of local taxation in Ohio; on average, there are more than 41 taxing authorities per county; the average Ohio home has an ‘eye-popping’ 25 levies on it; our schools are in dire fiscal shape. Lucas County is 5th in projected deficits with a whopping $399 million projected for all schools in the county. Only Hamilton, Summit, Franklin and Cuyahoga (1st in projected deficits in the state) are worse.
  • Also from Lawson: Buckeye Institute has a wealth of terrific information and policy papers on their website and is a good resource when local communities want to implement bad policy.
  • From James O’Keefe, Project Veritas: exposing the lies isn’t very hard because no one else is actually doing it; legalities are important and video is a good way to tell a story, especially when what you’re showing is the truth and not something you’ve added your opinion to. Often, the best negative exposure is to let people say what they want and then share it. There’s no defense when they stick their foot in their mouth.
  • From Jason Hart, MediaTrackers.org: using video to tell a story is easier than I thought; numerous online tools let you capture key comments in YouTube videos or edit your own into manageable clips for sharing with others.
  • From Chris Finney, Citizens Against Spending and Taxation (COAST): Using the law against officials who are doing something wrong is easier than expected. If a school system sends out pro-levy literature in student packets or puts pro-levy signs on their property, just ask for equal opportunity to send out or post your anti-levy lit and signs. When they say no, sue them for equal access. You might not be able to prevent them from taking advantage of students by pushing pro-levy positions, but you can insist on equal time for the opposing view.
  • From Maurice Thompson, 1851 Center for Constitutional Law: When your constitutional rights are being violated, there’s no greater friend than the 1851 Center. Their work on the Healthcare Freedom Amendment, the Workplace Freedom Amendment and school tax issues is vital to ensuring that government does not abuse its citizens and their rights.
  • From Tabitha Hale, Franklin Center: Social media is a powerful tool in building public pressure urging elected officials to do the right thing. While Twitter and Facebook may seem similar, they have different audiences and it takes both to effectively engage others in the fight for accountability.
  • From the education panel – Holding Your Local School District Accountable: I’ve already used what I heard from this panel when I decided to call for a performance audit of Toledo Public Schools before we vote to give them a new, permanent 6.9 mill levy. Also, understanding the school fiscal reports and audits is critical; the five-year budget forecast and Cupp Report are important tools in asking the right questions of your school board.
  • From the other attendees: There is considerable interest and enthusiasm for actively participating in our local governments and holding our elected officials accountable to the people they are supposed to serve.
  • Being a watchdog is easier than you think.

ALEC and Misleading Journalism: A Case Study

By
Friday, April 27th, 2012

Originally posted at Breitbart.com

NEW YORK — According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, “journalists should be as transparent as possible about sources and methods so audiences can make their own assessment of the information. Even in a world of expanding voices, accuracy is the foundation upon which everything else is built–context, interpretation, comment, criticism, analysis and debate.” Such journalism standards are understood by every college student who passed Journalism 101. That’s why it’s very troubling when the prestigious New York Times publishes articles that fail a basic journalism litmus test.

On April 21, 2012 the “Gray Lady” published “Conservative Nonprofit Acts as a Stealth Business Lobbyist” by Mike McIntire. This article is the latest in media attacks against the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a nonprofit group of state legislators that promotes free-market legislation. What makes this article different than other recent agenda-driven articles attacking the group is that it came from what is supposed to be the “newspaper of record.”

Common Cause is a “501(c)(4) lobbying organization” that bills itself as “committed to honest, open and accountable government, as well as encouraging citizen participation in democracy.” National Public Radio recently referred to it as a “good government” group. But taking five minutes to research the organization on the Internet reveals it to be a partisan progressive organization that is heavily funded by billionaire George Soros.

It is not exactly an objective source for an article targeting an organization that supports limited government and free-market ideals.

But that is exactly who the New York Times sourced for an entire article about ALEC.

Reporter McIntire could still use Common Cause as a source. But he has an obligation to accurately inform the readers of the group’s agenda and relevant funding sources, especially when they are readily available. A quick glance at the Common Cause Web site shows the organization is obsessed with ALEC, which is not an objective goal.

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Calif. Blog Regulations Could Hit Drudge, Citizen Journalists

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

By John Hrabe | CalWatchdog

SACRAMENTO — California’s chief political watchdog, Ann Ravel, recently announced plans to regulate political websites that accept payments from campaigns. Last year Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her to head the Fair Political Practices Commission.

California bloggers right, left and center quickly criticized the proposal for quashing free speech and putting them at a disadvantage to out-of-state competitors.

“The Internet is global,” wrote Mark Paul on his blog, the California Fix. “The commission’s jurisdiction is limited to California. If campaigns find it useful to make payments to online sock puppets, won’t they funnel the dollars to bloggers living outside the state? Do we want to send jobs out of California?” Paul also is the co-author of the new book, “California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It.”

Out-of-state competition might not be a problem, say some legal experts, because California’s Fair Political Practices Commission could cross state lines and police out-of-state blogs and websites, including international news aggregators like the Drudge Report, regardless of their location. And there is adequate case law to back it up.

Pavlovich Precedent: The ‘Effects Test’

UCLA law professor Stephen C. Yeazell argues that Pavlovich vs. Superior Court, a 2002 California Supreme Court case, established an “effects test” for evaluating jurisdictional claims in the Internet age. He believes it could provide a legal justification for the FPPC’s regulation of out-of-state bloggers, if the sites featured ads from California campaigns.

“Under the Pavlovich test, the question is whether or not the speech is aimed at California,” Yeazell said, when asked if California had jurisdiction to regulate an out-of-state website like the Drudge Report. “On the one hand, the website’s speech is aimed at California by advertising California campaigns and posting links about California stories.”

“Internet jurisdiction is a mess,” added Samuel Issacharoff, Professor of Constitutional Law at New York University School of Law, who shared Yeazell’s interpretation of the Pavlovich precedent.

Aggregators, Bloggers and News Sites Affected

National political websites and news aggregators, such as the Drudge Report, the Huffington Post, the Daily Caller and Real Clear Politics commonly feature stories on California while also running advertisements from California candidates, initiatives and campaigns. Matt Drudge, now a Florida resident, founded his website while based in California.

“What kinds of content would trigger the disclosure?” asked Paul. “Any sort of favorable comment about a campaign or critical comment about a rival campaign? Links to news reports favorable or damaging to a campaign?” They were questions raised by many California bloggers.

An FPPC spokeswoman told CalWatchDog.com that the specific details have yet to be determined. She added that Ravel was currently traveling out of the country and would be available for an interview on Friday.

Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine of CalBuzz, who are the only bloggers to interview Ravel on the subject, wrote on Monday, “We’re happy to report, after our conversation, we think she agrees with us that the best way to confront secret payments to websites that propagandize for their retainers lies in stricter, more timely and precise reporting of campaign expenditures.”

Critics of the state’s regulatory agency are less optimistic and warn that the proposal is a first step toward more regulations of political speech. Continue reading at CalWatchdog.

Andrew Breitbart (1969-2012)

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

By Jason Stverak | Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity

ALEXANDRIA – Today, we mourn the loss of Andrew Breitbart – author, commentator, publisher, and one of the nation’s top citizen journalists – who challenged the establishment media with boldness and ignited a grassroots movement of online activism.  (more…)

First Amendment protects bloggers, too

Saturday, February 18th, 2012

By Jason Stverak | President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity

WASHINGTON EXAMINER — This past December, federal judge Marco Hernandez of Oregon issued a ruling in the libel trial of Obsidian Finance Group v. Cox that has dangerous First Amendment implications.
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Attacking the Fifth Estate: Bloggers legally belittled

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

By Jason Stverak | Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity

ALEXANDRIA – Bloggers in Oregon, watch out. That’s because this month an Oregon court ruled that bloggers do not have same protection as the “media.”

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Should Government Bailout Newspaper?

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

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The Changing Face of Journalism

By
Thursday, February 11th, 2010

National Review Online

Corruption and scandal are not simply bred in D.C. — crooked politicians have to start somewhere. Gone unnoticed, scandal-plagued local politicians sometimes escalate to Congress or other federal positions.

The cure for a dishonest politician is an investigative reporter willing to allocate the time to expose the truth. However, the decline of resources at newspapers around the nation has increased the vacuum in state-based coverage. As such, newspapers around the country are curbing reporters’ ability to spend the time or money to investigate a story in addition to the daily beat they write. This growing hole in investigative journalism is now being filled by non-profit organizations that have the capacity to spend time becoming immersed in a story.

The formula for success for the non-profits is to hire straight-shooting professionals and provide them the opportunity and training to reemerge as the beat reporters from yesteryear. With local focuses, specific targets, a commitment to using highly trained and professional journalists, and a strategic approach to using and distributing resources, online non-profits are the future of journalism.

Just recently, a series of state-based watchdog groups have demonstrated that online news websites can churn out substantive investigative pieces. Jim Scarantino, the New Mexico Watchdog at the Rio Grande Foundation, found that N.M.’s lieutenant governor was utilizing tax dollars to buy Christmas cards for her political committee. Joe Jordan, a dedicated state-based reporter at NebraskaWatchdog.org, uncovered that their state’s educators were using taxpayer-funded credit cards to purchase a first-class plane tickets to China for $11,000. And it was a Watchdog in Ohio that publicized a candidate’s attempt to pay for votes among college students.

Kathy Hoekstra, a watchdog from Michigan, found herself investigating a union day-care scandal when her organization, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, sued Michigan’s Department of Human Services. The lawsuit stemmed from the two home day-care owners receiving a notification that they were members of a union, and that dues would be taken out of the subsidy checks they receive on behalf of low-income parents who qualify for aid. The lawsuit alleged that these home day-care owners are businesses, not government employees, and therefore it is illegal to siphon union dues from government-subsidy checks. Weeks of investigating the details of this case paid off when Kathy’s article was welcomed with open arms in all the major news outlets in Michigan, exposing this story to millions of readers.

Although many of the state-based watchdogs are local in focus, on several occasions, one watchdog’s local discovery has led to a major news story. This past November, Jim Scarantino was doing research on Recovery.gov when he noticed that a few of the congressional districts that received stimulus funding in New Mexico did not exist. The story he wrote about that obvious error prompted a watchdog in another state to look into his own state’s information. As more and more watchdogs looked into their own state’s data on recovery.gov, more congressional districts proved to be fabricated. What came to be known as the “Phantom Congressional District Scandal” lead to the discovery of more than 440 phantom congressional districts nationwide and hearings on Capitol Hill. The Colbert Report even refashioned its popular “Better Known as a District” into a new segment, “Know Your Made-Up District.”

Non-profit journalism organizations are changing the conversation in politics, the media, and for news consumers around the nation. Benjamin Franklin, a printer by trade, once said that “a newspaper in every home” was the “principle support of . . . morality” in civic life. The decline of American newspapers might sadden Mr. Franklin, but the pursuit of greatness in journalism by online non-profits would without a doubt bring him pride.

Jason Stverak is president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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Howard Kurtz on New Media Journalism

By
Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

Franklin Center is on the cutting edge of New Media Journalism, empowering the citizen journalist to engage in news reporting.  Howard Kurtz of CNN and has made note of the dramatic changes in the news business.  He has especially noticed the rise of groups that do what Franklin Center has started to master.  From the Washington Post online:

News organizations may be shrinking, as you have heard ad nauseam, but journalism is being revived and reinvented in some encouraging ways, a new report says.

Despite the “immediate disaster” striking newspapers, says Michael Schudson, a professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, he was struck by “the really stunning enthusiasm and excitement of people engaged in many of these startups, who were just bubbling over with what they were doing.” Schudson wrote the report with Leonard Downie Jr., The Washington Post’s former executive editor who is now a professor at Arizona State University.

Their recommendations — particularly for a federally financed fund to subsidize local reporting — might not fly. But amid all the hand-wringing over newspaper deaths and bankruptcies, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism” makes clear that a thousand media flowers are, if not blooming, at least popping up.(emphasis mine)

Franklin Center is one of those blooming flowers.  Already we have had success with Watchdog.org, Oklahoma Watchdog, Nebraska Watchdog, West Virginia Watchdog, and several others.  Our services will be one of those people will soon look to without a thought, when searching for online reporting on government activity.

These new ventures “are actually re-creating the kind of competition that used to exist in local news reporting a long time ago,” says Downie, now a Post Co. vice president at large. He’s not worried about their quality because “most of them have been started by seasoned professionals who used to work for newspapers. My greater concern is the fragility of their economic base.”

Some of the former newspaper and magazine journalists are acting out of necessity, others as mid-career entrepreneurs. Former Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith has raised part of a $3.5 million budget from donors in the state, including T. Boone Pickens, to start the nonprofit Texas Tribune in Austin. Former Washington Post and Baltimore Sun reporter Fern Shen recently launched the Baltimore Brew blog, from her kitchen table, with other ex-Sun journalists….

I have been a fan of Howard Kurtz for a few years.  I think he has hit the nail on the head when it comes to the new world of journalism.  Please read the rest of his article here.

Law now is not on bloggers’ side

By
Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

Hey, watchdog citizens: Welcome to America’s civic arena of “uninhibited, robust and wide-open ” debate on public issues. Just be careful what you say.

That’s right, self-proclaimed journalists; you wander into a trackless, dangerous swamp.

Within it information democracy growing from the fertile World Wide Web like a radiant flower has some sharp and venomous thorns. They have power to prick and poison free expression instead of enhancing it.

Go ahead; put your words out for all to read. You shall be held accountable not just in the court of public opinion but possibly in a real court, even in jail.

Citizen Media Law Project ’s “Lawsuits involving Blogs” database lists more than 100 cases.

One of those is against 53-year-old grandmother and Realtor Lyndal Harrington who spent three nights behind Texas bars in May for contempt of court in a mere libel suit involving some toss-off celebrity gossip opinion she posted on a Blog.

According to houstonbestrealty.com, Harrington said, “I just voiced my opinion. … I got into this because my business had fallen apart in this economy and it was something to do.”

More insidious is the capacity of public officials and powerful special interests to crush dissent through abuse of libel laws.

Consider Butler University administrators suing student Jess Zimmerman for criticizing them, according to Inside Higher Education.

Or Cape Cod blogger Peter Robbins who had the temerity to comment on a dredging project. He got sued. The offending comments disappeared.

If you think that is chilling, freeze on this: The Austin Statesman-American reports Police Chief Art Acevedo claims he has broad subpoena and search powers to investigate what he claims are postings of defamatory comments on public Web forums by people using others’ names.

Apparently protecting his own thin skin is the highest law enforcement priority in Austin.

It ever is thus. God forbid in a free country some grandmother would jump into celebrity gossip, a student would criticize college officials, a citizen comment on a public project or that those we empower to arrest us and use lethal force against us would be subject to our criticism.

Know this, citizen watchdogs: The worst of those from any party or persuasion who hold public power are smart, ruthless and universally deluded that they somehow are entitled to the privileges – legal and otherwise – of office.

They absolutely will abuse all powers of government ferociously to protect their turf and insulate themselves from even the slightest criticism.

You think not? No less an icon of freedom than Thomas Jefferson, while president, sued for libel all the way to the Supreme Court (he lost) and is suspected of being behind state prosecutions of criminal seditious libel.

So, if you choose to publish controversial information – as fact or opinion — impose upon yourself the highest standard not just of professional journalistic ethics, but of personal honesty and conduct: for if you actually happen to get close to serious corruption, you shall be tested.

The best preparation is to follow general ethics and practices of professional journalists. Plenty of information is on the Web, including from the American Society of News Editors and Society of Professional Journalists .

The U.S. Supreme Court allows expression that would get you fired from any newsroom in America. Professional journalists hold themselves to the highest ethical standards in history. Those standards are self-inflicted, but they are much tougher than the law requires.

Fundamentally those standards all boil down to the old city editor’s dictum: Check everything out. If your mother says she loves you, check it out. To which we now add: If she says it in an email, double check it. If she says it on the Web, triple check it.

Even “truth,” supposedly the ultimate shaky defense against defamation claims, does not protect you from the huge expense and life-disrupting impact of a lawsuit. Too often, even if you ultimately win, you lose.

Rest assured, if you actually ever stumble close to real corruption, things will get very ugly. When they do, you are on your own. Everybody backs away.

When a judge says you go to jail, you go directly to jail. When a police officer says you are under arrest, you are immediately in his power.

At that moment, you have no rights. Government power acts instantaneously. Citizen rights engage ever so slowly, if ever at all.

Most importantly if you are going to publish: Learn a little bit about journalism and the law; snuggle up to the ACLU; get some insurance.

Here are more links to help:

Media Law Resource Center

Electronic Frontiers Foundation

Media Bloggers Association

Citizen Media Law Project

The Associated Press Stylebook

Society of Professional Journalists

American Civil Liberties Union

First Amendment Center

World Press Freedom Committee

International Freedom of Expression eXchange

The Thomas Jefferson Center

Free Expression Network

Frank Keegan is the Senior Editor of Watchdog.org

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