Op-Ed

Op ed: FOIA lawsuits a threat to our democracy, insult to our time

By
Friday, September 29th, 2017

by Chris Krug, president of Franklin Center and publisher of Watchdog.org

Let’s talk about time, if only for a moment so as not to waste too much of yours.

More precious than gold, more fleeting than beauty, nobody who’s living a life worth living has an excess of time. Whether it is God, family, work or community, we’re allocating our time to things that further the American way.

So I don’t flinch when I read stories about low attendance – or no attendance – at community board meetings, legislative hearings or any other kind of governmental activities that legacy media outlets rag on the public for not showing up to watch it.

We the people, well, we’ve got other things going on. We simply do not have the hours in a day to be present to watch government work (or not work). We trust that it is functioning, but verification is a must.

Most of us are busy working to come up with the money the bureaucrats in those meetings are bleeding from us, one buried fee or required registration at a time.

Most times, when a community shows up en masse at an open governmental meeting is when professional activists round up their regulars – posing as authentic grassroots – to make a point. And I couldn’t possibly care less what they have to say when it’s their time to speak in public forum because someone else scripted that puppet show.

But let’s not wander too far from a point about meetings, and tracking government activity. Suffice to say, we don’t have much additional time in our lives to monitor the daily business of elected and appointed officials – even on those rare occasions when public meetings become a theater of the absurd.

And then there’s the business that is conducted next to the mushrooms that grow in the basements of our governmental haunts, deep in the darkness and away from the light of day. While we are throwing fits over the known public issues, the real terrors lie somewhere in a filing cabinet and on a spreadsheet.

Those dark dealings are unknown to the public without the protection of state sunshine laws.

Our journalists at Watchdog.org have been on the receiving end of silence when making FOIA requests for years. The paperwork was misfiled. The request was too broad. The request was too specific. The request was too onerous. Baloney, all of it. Some governmental bodies will do or say anything to keep the truth at bay.

So when I see stories such as the one published this week by The Associated Press about governments suing people who file Freedom of Information Act requests as a means of cloaking their activity, it sends shivers down my spine.

The only thing worse than a government that hides its decisions is one that slaps down those who question them. It’s difficult enough to pry the truth from government without them beating back journalists and interested citizens with bogus lawsuits.

Seems that there has been a rash of suits filed by governmental agencies. In a little-ballyhooed story that the Poynter Institute wrote in 2016, the Obama administration – self declared the most transparent administration in U.S. history –established a new high-water mark for FOIA denials, disregarding requests more than 100,000 times in 2015.

In addition to that, it was reported that Obama’s team had spent more than $36 million in federal court to block FOIA requests in 2016. That this action would come from the top has signaled a permission among lower levels of government to simply sue away requests that local officials deem to be a nuisance.

President Donald Trump said that he would drain the swamp, and we’re still waiting to see what that means with regard to our access to public information.

If you work for government, or are elected to conduct its business, you enter into the public domain. Your actions are accountable to those who fund it. You are not an independent business owner or operator, and your work, actions and directives are within the public’s right to know.

Mr. Mayor, you are not the king of our town. Ms. School Superintendent, this district is not your fiefdom. Doesn’t matter if you are the governor or the borough dogcatcher, the taxpayers fund your endeavors and you are accountable to them.

Local government directly affects the lives of Americans. It is local government’s hand that guides our daily lives, and is closest to our prosperity and wellbeing.

Government simply should not be allowed to sue those who seek to understand its activity as a deterrent.

Chris Krug is president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity and publisher of Watchdog.org. Contact Chris at [email protected].

Opinion: Let’s get real about fake news

By
Friday, August 25th, 2017

by Chris Krug, president of Franklin Center and publisher of Watchdog.org

Fake news is so passé, but we can’t get past it.

Seriously, it’s been probably, what, at least 15 seconds since someone accused someone else of stretching a story to suit their needs, twisting a fact, a comment or an image to fit nicely into their narrative, or engaging in an all-out peddling of baloney.

Or is it bologna? No matter.

The reason we can’t get past fake news is that we secretly love it. And we love to accuse each other of selling it. Yes, baloney and fake news. And neither is too terribly good for us, but that doesn’t stop us from consuming them when nobody is looking.

Let’s skip right past the blatantly awful and contrived stories that have no basis in fact. These are the clickbait stories of inland sharks, miracle pills and most outright political condemnations. These stories are so transparently untrue that a person of average wherewithal and news savvy can immediately determine they are false.

From there, they may have entertainment value in their creativity, but they present no reason for readers to accept them as factual.

Nonetheless, stories such as these entrap the casual news consumer, and those unwilling to think at a level that requires more than the ability to swipe left or right, or communicate effectively without emojis.

If this is you, and you can’t – or won’t – see through stories such as the ones I have illustrated, and still consider them as part of fake news, stop reading here. Please.

I can’t help you. You can’t help you. Nobody can help you, and you can return to whatever it was before I wasted the past four minutes of your happy existence.

No, when I think of criteria for fake news, I stop to ponder stories that have been twisted, manipulated or presented without regard for fairness or accuracy.

These stories would seem plausible, resonate as possibly containing the truth, but – upon closer inspection – are missing some details or pieces, or lack in context and completeness. They require further reasoning or research to confirm initial suspicion that the story is too good (or too bad) to be true. Remember the old game “Two truths and a lie?”

It’s reasonable to expect that a roomful of reporters can participate in the same news conference, take comparable notes, capture the quotations correctly and come away with different stories. Reportage is, after all, a human function.

Perhaps the reporters’ angles are different. Perhaps they represent publications with a specific focus or niche audience that cares intensively about a single issue. Perhaps their news outlet assigned them to focus on a subject that only was a small piece of the news conference because it has special import to their defined geography.

Or maybe these men and women with the notebooks and pens came with their story already written and weren’t really interested in what was said as much as what they think they heard. To think that some journalists don’t start with a story before their reporting begins is to be naïve.  We’ll leave that noble but insulated perspective to academia.

If you hold yourself to a journalistic standard, the goal always is to present your story truthfully. So if the reporter who authored the story you are reading consistently skips facts, lacks the intellectual ability to hold seemingly opposing concepts in their mind and then weigh them fairly or just wants to get home for dinner by 6 each night, well, their stories will fall short of the ideal.

And while there certainly are acts of commission in creating fake news, lazy reporting and inherent bias that goes unrecognized would be key contributors to why it continues to plague journalism.

Before this lands as an outright condemnation of reporters and their ability to perform without prejudice, consider that the rope they walk has been pushed farther away from the safety net. While your local news outlet may have managed to maintain the veneer of health by holding on to its top reporters, or replacing them when they’ve moved on, the backline defense of copy editors and fact-checking has all but evaporated. At the same time, the stakes for error-proof reporting have gotten higher.

In the context of a news operation, the vast majority of the content should be news. That is to say original reporting, or source-cited material, that attempts to identify the news fairly and with context.

Television and digital media are frankly awful at maintaining this measure, and for obvious reasons: Most do not have the financial capacity to invest in reporting, and instead lean on “experts” to riff on the news rather than report it. Newsgathering is expensive, relative to other forms of content for publication.

News ahead of an opinion on the news is good practice. Opinion leading news? Not so much. If your news source subscribes to this pattern, metaphorically (or perhaps euphorically), find a better source.

Reporters have to work hard to fairly create the stories on the beats or within the niche they cover. A story that took you 5 or 10 minutes to read may have taken 5 or 10 hours – and in some cases much longer – to report. They intrude into people’s lives for a living. Some do it far better and far more professionally than others. Some make the world a better place to live in by exposing truth. Some don’t and operate as if they are tenured and untouchable.

Journalism is challenging work. It requires intelligent people with curiosity, confidence and mental dexterity. It takes long hours, and the courage to ask difficult questions to people who oftentimes are difficult. Said another way, you have to give a damn about things that matter, while not giving a damn about what people think of you.

But don’t cry for people in the media. They know the job and its demands before they get into it, or soon after they start. They’re not providing a volunteer service, haven’t answered a calling from a higher power, and are compensated for their time and quality of work. The market determines their value, and they have the opportunity to apply for jobs doing something else, somewhere else anytime they’d like. Nobody is stuck in a journalism job that doesn’t want to be stuck in a journalism job.

In just about every conversation I have with someone who wants to know what they can do about fake news, I offer the same advice: Call it out as false, and detail why. Point out the flaws. Identify the errors of commission as well as those of omission, accuracy and context.

Above all else, stop sharing baloney.

  • Chris Krug is president of Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Contact him at [email protected].

Trump disrupting news consumption, bringing in more women

By
Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017

by Chris Krug, president of Franklin Center and publisher of Watchdog.org

This just in: President Donald Trump is polarizing.

Some love him. Some hate him. Hate is a strong word, but they hate him.

There are probably some who are too busy watching “The Price Is Right” or rainbow-vomiting cat videos to care. But they still might make time to check in on Trump.

Regardless of your thoughts on his presidency, Trump’s effect on media has been fascinating to witness.

No presidential candidate more masterfully usurped the mainstream media’s system to create his own narrative. Unquestionably, this disruption – primarily through the 140-characters-or-less social feed Twitter – is a byproduct of Trump’s ability to demean the mainstream media and leverage social media to allow for direct communication with the citizenry.

The so-called Trump effect has been stunning with regard to a renewed interest in national news. What audience segment is growing the fastest?

A recent Pew Research Center study says that American women represent the largest-growing demographic of national news consumers. Trump has stimulated a wave of new interest in media and current events among women, despite his past comments about women that have drawn the ire of the left (and, frankly, some on the right).

The study suggests that 58 percent of American women say they are paying more attention to politics since Trump was elected. That same research showed that 63 percent of women who identify as Democrats have increased their interest in U.S. political news. Interest in domestic political news among women who identify themselves as Republicans is up 54 percent.

Overall, Trump’s presidency has increased U.S. interest in political news by 52 percent.

Former President Barack Obama compares in numbers, but not in impact. Obama has about 93 million Twitter followers – nearly 55 million more than Trump. Together, they are the two most followed politicians in the world, but the winner on impact is decidedly lopsided – and there is nobody in politics who’s even close to Trump.

Trump’s Twitter feed is hyperactive, rarely boring and often the root of stories that aren’t reported exactly the same elsewhere. He’s randomly on Twitter, occasionally around the clock. This began well ahead of the past election cycle, and hasn’t slowed down. Trump vowed nobody would take away his phone. Nobody has.

In a completely unscientific polling of people I know who are dialed into social media, there seems to be equal measures of left- and right-leaning followers who mind his feed. And people from all walks of life seem to speak of Trump with corresponding degrees of disgust and curiosity.

Set aside the messaging for a moment and purely consider the impact to media: He’s demonstrated that news can be a business-to-consumer proposition for politicians, following the path of entertainers Katy Perry and Justin Bieber.

Trump is cutting a new path in that regard – utilizing direct-to-market bursts of commentary to prompt behavior and create news narratives that the media is only too willing to follow. At its purest, it’s business-to-business communication.

He has, effectively, bypassed the permission of the press. He stays in the news by creating the news and discounts the media’s account of his story. Take a step back, and it’s difficult to argue that he isn’t setting the news agenda masterfully.

When you have the same tools as multi-billion-dollar media companies that could cloud your message, why bother offering the stories to them when you could skip the distributor and sell to the customer? Question Trump’s business acumen if you will, but his ability to promote and draw attention are changing the way that we think of presidential communication.

Since his election, which seemingly came against every legacy media prediction or poll, Trump has continued to be a boon to coverage of national affairs. If people didn’t care about national news in the smooth-jazz presidency of his predecessor, they care now.

And they are following.

Amid the otherwise awful news of decline of the mainstream press, New York Times CEO Mark Thompson told MSNBC in May that the company had added 308,000 digital subscribers in the first quarter (the company reports that is most in its history in a given quarter), and another 93,000 net subscribers in the second quarter. That was after the company reported that it increased 276,000 digital readers in the fourth quarter of 2016.

Newsonomics author Ken Doctor reported in a May article for The Street that, “The Washington Post said that January generated more subscription starts than any other month, beating what had been a record-setting November, with the Post overall seeing ‘doubled digital subscription revenue in the past 12 months, with a 75 [percent] increase in new subscribers.’ “

The news will always matter.

Where you get it, how you get it, and from whom you get it, though, may matter substantially more.

  • Chris Krug is President of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.

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

By
Monday, July 17th, 2017

by Chris Krug, president of Franklin Center and publisher of Watchdog.org

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

by Chris Krug, president of Franklin Center and publisher of Watchdog.org

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.