Op-Ed

Editors and publishers fail when transparency is absent in reader “comments”

By
Monday, July 17th, 2017

Where the media falls down so badly so often is in its approach to stories.

Slanted and misleading headlines, hyperbolic and unsubstantiated reporting that’s short on facts and long on opinion, and manufactured outrage probably are the worst of what stands for journalism today.

But that’s simply the content that lives above the comment line. What of the interactive, social aspects of today’s journalism?

Well, that can be all forms of awful, too.

According to a report released July 12 by the Pew Institute, four of 10 Americans have experienced online harassment, 18 percent have been threatened in some way for sharing their point of view, and more than 60 percent consider this form of harassment a problem.

If you operate a news media site and allow the online forums to fester with hateful comments when matters are less important, they implode when real issues arise.

Most traditional media companies are so stripped down that they don’t have the resources to monitor comments and, as a matter of creating some visibility, have turned to Facebook comments to create some transparency. Oh, sure, they’ll take the clicks, but the responsibility for the environment? Not so much.

Others, well, I am not sure what they’re doing or if they are adhering to their own criteria because the inclusions and extractions appear arbitrary and capricious. One moment, a seemingly innocuous comment is there. The next time you might visit the site to see how people responded to your comment, but what you wrote is gone. Why? Nobody knows. For readers, the absence of continuity is jarring.

More than a decade ago, a daily newspaper and digital news site in greater Chicago I oversaw became one of the first in the country to allow comments on stories. We had this functionality and interactivity before any of the U.S. metropolitan newspapers had entered into the space. At that time, there was great debate whether the voice of the reader belonged alongside the journalism that had been published.

During my tenure as executive editor there, I saw comments as a meaningful way to interact with readers, and it provided explosive online growth at what was the onramp to the internet for most newspapers seeking to grow a digital presence.

We wanted to engage with the communities that we served. We believed, correctly, that our reporting was not the final word. We were part of a discussion – a significant part, but a part nonetheless. And we wanted meaningful conversations to occur around our reporting, because that is what journalists should strive to achieve.

We opened our online comments – I believe in 2005 – without rules, without filters, without any parameters at all really. It was a new frontier, so nobody knew what to expect.

Iterations ensued that required registration with a confirmed email, a profanity filter, and comments to remain in line with the subject of the story. It was an early handle on this key element of community building, interaction and balancing the newspaper’s standards with the community’s contributions that earned the 2007 Chicago Headline Club’s Lisagor Award for best website (over the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, et. al.) and an innovator of the year award from Local Media Association (an organization that then was called Suburban Newspapers of America).

The online community on our news site was vibrant, somewhat civil, oftentimes humorous, and with balanced and interesting points of view that – on occasion – brought new information or insight to the story. Because we served to include our community, we welcomed a reasonable amount of readers who came in without bringing their flaming torches or pitchforks.

There is nothing more essential to our democracy than the protections provided by the First Amendment. But if you want to hijack a discussion and run away with it on someone else’s news site, you’re not practicing discourse. Stay with the story. Participate in the discussion germane to that story. Be civil. Be frank, but be civil.

Civility may be too much to ask, though, as a story as innocuous as a local lemonade stand could elicit tangential commentary from trolls and wing nuts. Any digital forum, in particular those that welcome comments without accountability for them, can be hijacked by people far less interested in discussion and far more interested in hit-and-run bomb-throwing.

For publishers, a hands-off approach to comments on your site isn’t good ethical practice. It’s malpractice.

If you operate a site, and welcome guests to comment, your guests should adhere to house rules. So, as a site operator, basic rules should be determined that welcome discussion. Be clear about them; and fairly apply them.

And, to evolve the thinking, any organization that would seek to control the comments on their site through deceptive means (cloaking, fire-starting provocation, et al) is equally bad practice and, frankly, unethical.

Anyone who administers a site that allows comments knows the value of comments. And the law is on the side of the site owner. A site owner incurs no more responsibility for what is written on their “wall” than the landlord of a building whose alley-facing fence would for the scrawling from a graffiti artist. It’s actually one of my favorite aspects of digital news, because light reveals truth – right there in front of God and everyone else.

Trolls, flamer-throwers, and other cowards make some news media sites run. They drive more traffic than the content itself. Some editors say they deplore them. But they know readers like them, and visitors return again and again to see what the newest screed says.

Online comments have become the media’s click machine, powering their sites by blowing breath into what otherwise can be so-so stories that don’t advance the reader’s understanding of a subject. As mainstream journalism continues to wane, comments often are more interesting and insightful than the stories that prompted them.

But anyone who operates a news media site and allows anonymous attacks – or those created under the veil of pseudonyms – to stand is morally complicit in those comments.

I don’t care what your lawyer says. Lawsuits shouldn’t be the bar by which this is measured. Responsible news sites should aspire to higher standards.

And, when comments are anonymous and authors shielded by the public, the scrutiny of authenticity is not met. It harms the journalism.

  • Chris Krug is President of Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity. This column is original, but draws from his thoughts included in a column for ILNews.org that was published on July 7, 2017.

Krug: Trump hunt begs question: What is the media’s business?

By
Monday, July 3rd, 2017

Supporters said all along that President Donald Trump would be good for American business.

But many didn’t anticipate that the American media business stood to benefit from his presidency.

Currently the greatest love-hate relationship in U.S. politics, the mainstream and legacy media revels in Trump’s “fake news” claims. While they denounce his behavior publicly, reporters draw strength from Trump’s insults and use it as fuel to power their self-righteous crusade to shame the president.

They wear each hostile tweet as a badge of honor and consider it confirmation they are doing God’s work.

Trump has worked the media masterfully. He didn’t need the legacy media’s support or endorsement when he campaigned for president, and he doesn’t need them now. They are a distraction, and Trump is working them.

Historically, American media have pursued a noble mission to serve the public and keep the government in check. But that mission falls on deaf ears when the watchdogs become attack dogs. We have reached that point.

When does pursuing a story become crafting a narrative with an obvious political agenda? It starts with basic editorial decision-making. And according to the Media Research Center’s recent study, network news has decided that Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election outweighs other critical issues such as health care, tax reform, and jobs. It feels almost as if it was pulled from a season of Netflix’s “House of Cards” – only not as clever.

And then there’s CNN, the cable news network that continues to beat the Russia drum even after there is no new evidence or information to report. Their desperation to find the smoking gun resulted in the retraction of a Russia-related story and the resignation of three staffers last week.

The driver? Not truth. No, it was red meat for the left; creation of controversy. We’ll wait for the next public opinion poll, but I think it’s safe to say that the Russia investigation is not at the top of everyday Americans’ priority list.

The videos released by conservative journalist James O’Keefe, known for undercover sting operations, show CNN producers admitting that the Trump-Russia investigation is overhyped for enhanced ratings. They need something they can own to differentiate themselves from other cable-news channels. And so the love-hate cycle continues.

Although this epic rivalry can be comical at times, it’s sad to look behind the curtain and realize that Big Media has its interests too – and it doesn’t always include the American public.

For media to be credible – truly credible – it must report independently verified facts. It must seek the truth, and report with integrity. It must distill facts and straight news from opinions and insights gleaned from perceptions of original reporting.

The criteria for whether a story is good to air or publish should be somewhat higher than a corporate lawyer’s opinion on the likelihood that it opens up the organization to a lawsuit.

The lone criteria should be truth and public interest. Often, it’s not.

Television news, in particular that which appears on 24-hour cable cycle, is rife with opinion. Understandably so: There simply are not enough resources on any network or cable channel to fulfill a mission of 365-day news content that would be interesting enough to hold an audience’s attention. Without commentary, every network would resort to the C-SPAN model of airing raw footage of endless committee meetings.

Opinion is less expensive than actual reporting, and is in endless supply. It is far more economical to bring in a person from a studio in Washington, D.C., than it would be to send a correspondent and crew to Moscow. That’s a business decision that saves media brands money and costs taxpayers in reliable information.

So what is passed off as straight news often is a new take of an opinion. And with each passing “hot take,” the message is pushed further and further away from the truth.

Why does it matter? Can’t people have an opinion on the news?

Certainly. This is America, and our speech is protected constitutionally. But it matters that the continuous news cycle rarely differentiates between straight news and opinion. The content is often indistinguishable. Context is rarely offered. Oftentimes, the crawl beneath the commentary is in clear conflict. The opinion often overwhelms the core of the story.

The result is that the news itself – the facts, the verification, the story, and the truth – has been discarded in favor of a take on the news.

A controversial or salacious quote often makes a better headline than the old journalism standby of who, what, where, when, and why. Just look at the mainstream media’s obsession with President Trump’s recent tweet about Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, or the video he posted of an old WWE appearance where Trump punches out a man with a CNN logo superimposed on his face. The exaggerated response gives President Trump an even greater villain to demonize and justification for controversial actions such as banning cameras from the White House press briefings. Veering from the facts lowers the public perception and credibility of media as a whole. It threatens our democracy.

So much so that it must be next to impossible for Americans to understand the media’s job, or what business we’re in anymore.

  • Chris Krug is president of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.
  • Also posted on Watchdog.org here.

On healthcare reform, Congress needs to learn how a legislature actually works (Bicknell op-ed)

By
Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

Watchdog.org executive editor John Bicknell critiques the Republicans on their impatience to replace Obamacare and misunderstanding of the legislative process in a Washington Examiner op-ed:

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the modern administrative state. It took the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society, Obamacare, and a vast array of deals, bills and laws most people have never heard of. Progressives fought their fights, banked their gains, then came back for more.

The conservative goal of repealing the 2010 healthcare law and replacing it with market-based reforms is noble. But nobility should not be confused with immediacy. The imperfect House bill includes provisions conservatives have tried and failed to pass for decades, including Medicaid reforms that would all but end a federal entitlement. That’s not small potatoes.

Click here for the full piece in the Washington Examiner.

The Republican healthcare bill is dead. Now the blame game starts (Glass op-ed)

By
Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

Franklin Center Director of Policy and Outreach Kevin Glass weighs in on the downfall of the American Health Care Act (AHCA) and the causes for its collapse in a Washington Examiner Op-Ed:

That Republican leadership would neglect to get all its ducks in a row on Obamacare repeal, after having seven years to come up with something they could support, was a governing gaffe of epic proportions. Republican leadership let the AHCA debacle go on for too long before shelving it. But it was better than suffering the indignity of losing a floor vote, which would have been a defeat that Obamacare repeal may not have been able to recover from. This blow, however, is going to be substantial.

There’s blame to go around everywhere here: Ryan and the rest of GOP leadership for pressing so far forward with such a flawed bill; Trump for playing both sides, risking his own capital while appearing so disinterested; a Republican caucus that refused to get on the same page for so long. AHCA was just a massive unforced error: Democrats didn’t lift a finger, and the Republican plan to repeal Obamacare went down in flames.

Click here for the full piece in the Washington Examiner.

Pennsylvania’s liquor reforms haven’t addressed the real problem (Neily Op-Ed)

By
Friday, March 24th, 2017

Franklin Center President Nicole Neily examines the effectiveness of Act 39 on Pennsylvania liquor reforms in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Op-Ed:

Reform was seriously overdue; Pennsylvania’s government-run liquor monopoly has long been one of the most stringent in the United States, because the state government owns and operates liquor stores (also known as a “control state”). Until Act 39, the state had a near-complete monopoly on all sales of wine and spirits in the state. But as the new rules have been implemented, it’s become increasingly clear that the bill merely tinkered around the edges, to the detriment of consumers.

One of the biggest reforms of Act 39 was allowing limited sales of alcohol outside of the state-owned stores. This was a step in the right direction: In recent years, many states have deregulated their liquor monopolies, introducing market competition. But the move was more symbolic than effective; studies have shown that control states both inhibit choice and raise prices — meaning customers still have a hard time getting smaller and craft brands of their favorite libations.

Click here for the full piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The choice between bureaucratic over-regulation or forward-facing tech policy (Glass op-ed)

By
Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

Franklin Center’s Kevin Glass examines how infrastructure regulations hamper technological innovation in a Washington Examiner op-ed:

The next wave in wireless technology rollout is poised to be “small cell” technology, but local regulations have hindered deployment for years. Localities have looked at this kind of infrastructure deployment as a piggy bank. But there are ways forward that governments can take to ease some of the onerous regulatory processes.

Current rules typically force wireless companies to go through regulatory procedures that were put in place for giant cellphone towers for each individual small cell, despite the fact that small cell technology will both supplement and complement the large towers going forward — and the need for dozens, if not more, small cells per each large tower.

Local governments have refused to adapt their regulatory regimes to new technologies, and small cells are no different. The permitting process typically involves mountains of paperwork for both the tech companies and the local bureaucrats. There are, of course, fees for each installation. Too many localities would prefer to keep the status quo in place and continue collecting that money, even if it means a slower rollout.

There are ways to update this. New Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has praised the 2014 Mobile BILD Act, Georgia’s statewide update of their wireless infrastructure laws. The BILD act streamlined the permitting process for wireless infrastructure and limited the fees that localities could collect from wireless infrastructure companies.

Click here for the full piece in the Washington Examiner.

Overbroad executive order threatens competitive advantage for American companies (Neily Op-Ed)

By
Friday, February 10th, 2017

Franklin Center President Nicole Neily examined how the White House’s executive order on immigration could have unintended consequences for American companies. Here’s what she wrote at RedState:

The White House’s executive order on immigration has prompted pushback from numerous American companies because of the implications it will have on their employees. Although the order was meant to protect the country, its haphazard enforcement jeopardizes the competitive advantage of some of the leading American companies – which, in turn, will impact American workers.

Both sides of the aisle have long agreed that the nation’s immigration system is broken and in need of an overhaul (how to do so, of course, is where the parties diverge). In national polls, immigration is regularly in the top 4 or 5 issues listed – and it’s an issue that also motivates voters, as the 2016 presidential election demonstrated. Throughout the campaign, President Trump emphasized strong borders and enforcement, which resonated with the electorate. Unfortunately, the President’s first executive order on the issue has been interpreted in an overbroad way and put our international competitiveness at risk.

Companies based in the United States have led the world in technological innovation for a long time, and our leadership has attracted the best and brightest from other countries to come here; now, some of those tech industry leaders are petitioning the Trump Administration to use its executive enforcement discretion to uphold our competitive advantage by not prohibiting some of its employees from travel to and from the United States.

Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon – among others, even in traditional manufacturing sectors – have sent an open letter to the Administration urging enforcement discretion for some of their employees who may be affected by the executive order. They argue that their employees who may be affected are those who hold permanent legal status through their visas, and their travel – for leisure, or to see family – could impact their work environment.

Microsoft, in particular, made a more specific and separate case from the general letter. The tech company’s chief legal officer wrote that they have 76 employees whose permanent work location is in the United States who may be impacted by the order, and of some heartbreaking conditions – cases where parents have been separated from their children, or where an employee has a critically ill family member abroad that they may be prohibited from visiting.

Click here to read the full piece at RedState.

Congress overturns some Obama regs, but there’s more to undo (Neily Op-Ed)

By
Friday, February 10th, 2017

Franklin Center President Nicole Neily pens an op-ed in The Hill about the need to undo more Obama-era regulations:

It’s always a risk that an outgoing presidential administration and the executive agencies under administration control will issue complicated and partisan rules as a last-ditch effort to preserve the president’s legacy.

In order to combat this, the Congressional Review Act (CRA) was signed into law in 1996 to expedite the process of peeling back last-minute regulations.

Obviously, it’s possible for many executive agencies to unwind some of the Obama-era regulations with standard policymaking; however, CRA review can be used for some of the big regulations that have already been put into effect that may already be hampering businesses and consumers.

Last week, Congress voted to strike down three Obama-era regulations, including environmental and gun control regulations, and they’ll use the CRA in more votes this week on education and labor rules.

But there are more executive regulations passed in the waning days of the Obama administration that Republicans could target — and ones that may be even more important.

Click her for the full piece in The Hill.

How the Left can win the culture war: Abandon their tactics (Glass op-ed)

By
Friday, February 10th, 2017

Franklin Center’s Kevin Glass weighs into the debate over free speech issues on college campuses with an op-ed in the Washington Examiner:

The culture war has turned from cold to hot in the past month on college campuses, all because of Milo Yiannopoulos, a subpar provocateur whose performance art consists of deportation jokes. At the University of Washington, a supporter shot a protester in the streets outside the performance. At the University of California, Berkeley, protesters destroyed multiple businesses in a riot against his invitation and speech.

Behind the headlines is a story of how to win the culture war without turning to violence.

Sarah Gamble and the rest of the College Republicans of the University of Washington, who invited Yiannopoulos to speak, are not the provocateur’s target audience. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on the affair at Washington, Gamble “had supported Rand Paul in the primaries,” and “[v]ery few of the Republican club members were fans of Mr. Trump.” But Gamble felt backed into a corner: the atmosphere on campus was one of complete social sanction for non-progressive viewpoints.

“You’re put into that position were you’re either quiet, or you fight back,” she says. And when you fight back, “It’s a bit more conservative than you intend to, and it’s a bit more rash than you intend to.”

College is a formative time for anyone, and an interesting time for those who are politically conservative. It means years spent in close quarters with people likely to be several degrees more liberal than the general population, and under authority figures on the faculty and in the administrative offices who are overwhelmingly politically left-wing. For conservatives, it can feel like a constant struggle merely to justify their existence.

Click here for the full piece in the Washington Examiner.

Global businessman Trump challenges globalism’s conventional wisdom (Ward Op-ed)

By
Tuesday, February 7th, 2017

Watchdog.org reporter Kenric Ward analyzed the political backlash over President Donald Trump’s executive order on refugees and immigration in an op-ed that appeared in the Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express-News, and other Texas newspapers:

Can we all take a breath and calm down?

The political backlash over President Donald Trump’s refugee and immigrant “ban” has gone beyond knee-jerk partisanship. The furor has abandoned reason.

It’s not clear if that’s because Trump’s opponents have yet to figure out he is not going to kowtow to their cherished conventional wisdom, or because they have figured it out.

Whichever is the case, they should prepare themselves for more of the same.

Two years ago, President Barack Obama designated seven countries as a security threat for U.S. travelers. Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen were cited, based on the threat of terrorism there.

The global situation has not improved, and Trump is not convinced U.S. border security is up to the task. So he directed that individuals from the terrorist-sponsoring countries not be admitted until they can be fully vetted.

Trump’s order is temporary, with security policies being reviewed and updated over the next 90 days.

More could follow. What that is will be determined by the outcome of the review.

But rather than wait and see what evolves, the opposition went immediately into full panic mode.

Could the new administration — in its whirlwind of executive orders, initiatives and appointments — have done a better job implementing the order? Certainly. More clarity on the status of green-card holders would have helped.

But Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly on Tuesday denied news reports that he was blindsided by Trump’s order (which, by the way, is consistently identified as “controversial” in media accounts, a word never applied to Medicaid, for example, which has been just as controversial and for a lot longer).

“We knew the executive order was coming,” Kelly said. “We had people involved in the general drafting of it. Clearly this whole approach was part of what then-candidate Trump talked about for a year or two. So we knew all this was coming.”

Kelly may as well have been talking to the wind. The false narrative that the president cut corners gave his opponents all the ammunition they needed to blast the policy and point to fictional fissures inside the new administration.

Let’s be clear. Amid their reactionary harangues, left-wing ideologues — including an increasingly desperate Democratic Party that was left by the November elections without a seat at either the executive or legislative tables — have demonstrated no firm allegiance to national security. They may not wish America ill when they mouth the glib diversity-is-our-strength mantra, but their agenda sows disunity and disrespect in this country, where we all bleed red.

Trump’s robust brand of nationalism also chafes global businesses, which see international travel as a borderless right.

But entering the United States is a privilege, and the executive branch has a legal duty to safeguard this country.

While the global economy has opened new opportunities for economic growth and prosperity, we live in an era in which commercial worship of that global economy has also opened the gates to global terror and made the world a more dangerous place.

In the irony of ironies, a businessman with global connections challenges the conventional wisdom that open borders are an inevitable good. Battered by a loss of jobs and growing insecurity, Americans elected Trump to break America’s dysfunctional political duopoly.

The country wants prosperity and safety. Trump is working for both those objectives. His detractors offer only shrill objections.