Saturday, January 23, 2010

"The Supreme Court Calls for Increased Investigative Reporting"

It might as well have been the headline. As if the news of this past week wasn't already keeping journalists running at full speed (i.e., the Haitian earthquake, a Republican elected from Massachusetts, escalating joblessness, Roe v Wade anniversary, etc.), the Supreme Court made a stunning announcement that surely will demand more of reporters in the future. In a 5-4 decision, it repealed a decades-old law that banned the federal government from limiting corporate spending on campaigns.

As if the latest campaign ads weren't ugly enough, the ruling can be seen as a wide open door for big businesses to spend big bucks on attacks ads in order to get what—and who—they want. The 5 judges in favor said the decision enhanced the First Amendment, allowing 'companies and unions' the right to free speech; the 4 dissenters said such corporate money would muddy the waters of democracy.

In his 90-page opinion, dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens, an 89-year old soft-spoken Republican and former antitrust lawyer from Chicago, wrote that, "The court's blinkered and aphoristic approach to the First Amendment may well promote corporate power at the cost of the individual and collective self-expression." His 5 colleagues, in other words, were wrong to treat corporate speech the same as that of human beings.

I'll say. What this means for journalism, of course, is that its role as a watchdog of already greedy powers will become all the more essential—and probably dangerous. If corporate America spends more of its advertising money to elect its officials of choice, reporters are going to have to scramble all the harder to make sure the public knows—really knows—what candidates stand for, who's backing them and why. Their investigating will become crucial linchpins to a democratic lifestyle; their work will be harder than ever, in part because it will have to compete against what will surely be louder, more mean-spirited and well-funded campaigns.

Which worries me. Considering the economic disarray of journalism today, how will we afford to pay reporters to do the one thing most necessary for a democracy: report? But with this new ruling, maybe the better question is, how can we afford not to? Because ultimately it will be the majority of citizens across the country—the 'human beings'—who will be the losers here.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Clarity, People, Please!

Okay, I'm a wreck. Haiti has long been on my radar, especially after two attempts in the 1990s to travel there with service groups and both times denied access because of the political upheavals. I have followed its issues and overthrows ever since, and barraged workers from NGOs or mission agencies with questions. I have supported friends who've cared for people there. So when I went to find out more about the unbelievable devastation that's hit the already troubled island, I came instead across one too many stories not on the shattered country, but on Pat Robertson and some comments he's made about it.

This is not news. The news is the earthquake, the grieving families, the leveled homes, the enormous loss of lives and gifts and assets to an already impoverished people. Maybe editors or reporters themselves did not know how to process the sheer horror of the story so they looked instead to an off-the-cuff comment from a man with a lifetime of personal convictions and public expressions of them. Maybe he'd sell papers, they thought. So their coverage of Robertson spiraled to an absurdity as senseless as the one they claimed of him; in short, it was a whole lot of thoughtless reporting, more tired attempts to paint evangelicals as insensitive morons.

Really, who cares what a television host believes about such a tragedy? We need updates on the rescue efforts, not distractions. We need information about relief and families—much of which will be coming from workers in Christian agencies—not stereotypes. We need stories of what's happened and how we can help. Not little comments of why it happened at all.

SO at the risk of sounding, well, preachy, the media is in need of a renewed sense of purpose. Lately, many of its representatives seemed to have suffered from a memory lapse of their primary role in reporting the real news.  For journalism's success will never be found in economic terms, but only in useful service to its readers.  God help us. God help Haiti.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Best Wishes for a Newer Year

A new year is news. Any paper, magazine, radio or television show worth its salt confirmed that this past week with its endless spotlight on 'new as news.' So are resolutions, which are code for hoping the coming year is not like the last. And then there are the lists. The top stories that changed and moved and shocked the world.

It's an odd but interesting tradition in journalism to pause (for a nano-second) at the year's major stories, in hopes, I guess, of gaining some fresh perspective we might have missed the first time around. Sort of like glancing at an abstract painting in a gallery where we notice the lines and colors, shapes and patterns, but we don't necessarily 'get' it. So we go back to it, lean in close to the canvas, put our hands on our hips and say, "Hmm, that's interesting."

There's no doubt the stories of this past year do require some more reflection: an African American leader birthed into office while hate crimes and racial threats escalated across the country. A moonwalking singing icon died but few concerns about prescription-drug addiction seemed to emerge. Town Hall shouting matches over how to care for sick people drowned out the treatable but still-killer illnesses of millions of families in developing countries, not to mention the children in this country who've never seen a doctor, all while celebrity affairs, political sex scandals and desperate grasps at fame distracted us from the bullets and famines, poverty and machetes of communities beyond our borders.

Of course, there were a few noble reporters who narrowed in on these otherwise absent stories. But maybe the better year-end list by the mainstream media should not be what stories were reported in 2009 but which weren't. And maybe the resolution for 2010 could be to pay more attention—all of us, reporter and reader alike—to those that really need to be told. That would be a resolution worth holding to.