Tag Archives: bad reporting

More on the Press Not Doing Its Job

[Note: this story starts out being about sports but really isn’t, so The Curmudgeon hopes non-sports fans will hang in there.]

We expect good reporters to be smart, to be strong, critical thinkers. Sometimes they live up to our expectations but sometimes they don’t.

A month ago the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles football team fired his head coach, a man named Chip Kelly. Kelly was with the team for three years, the first two pretty successful and the third decidedly not. The Curmudgeon has his own thoughts on whether the firing was a good or bad decision but that’s not the subject at hand today.

No, the subject is a bunch of television, radio, and newspaper reporters and commentators who let the team’s owner get away with a disingenuous explanation of his decision to fire Kelly based on an assertion of fact that was not even remotely a fact.

In firing Kelly, the owner stated that his decision to hire Kelly in the first place had been “a bold choice,” implying that he deserved credit for making that bold choice, but that once he decided that his bold choice had proven to be a mistaken choice, he acted swiftly to correct it.

It’s the assertion that the owner’s decision to hire Kelly was “a bold choice” that The Curmudgeon – and pretty much anyone who understands football – realizes was simply wrong, at best, and at worst, intentionally misleading. When the press passively and unquestioningly accepting the owner’s explanation, it surrendered to that owner control of the dialogue surrounding his decision to fire his coach – and in the process of doing so, did a great disservice to the fans who were looking to the media for information and insight.

Kelly’s hiring was not a bold choice. Bold would have been if Kelly had been a massive failure in the past and was being hired anyway. Bold would have been if no one had ever heard of him. Bold would have been if everyone knew who Kelly was but no one else thought of him as head coach material.

But Kelly was none of these things. He had never coached at the professional level but had been extremely successful as a college coach. He had never been fired from a coaching job. And, most important, almost everyone thought of him as head coach material. That year, eight National Football League teams hired new head coaches, and of the other seven coaches hired, the only one who was arguably more attractive to those other teams was the man Kelly was hired to replace.   Three of the teams with coaching vacancies interviewed Kelly, all of them wanted to hire him, and eventually he was hired by Philadelphia.

A bold choice? No. Actually, the consensus choice. Even a safe choice that was more widely praised than his later firing.

Yet today, the Philadelphia Eagles continue to refer to Kelly as a bold choice – and the press never, ever challenges this assertion. In fact, the Philadelphia-area sporting press and media not only continue to mention it but also use the assertion to explain why the owner, this time around, made what is considered a very safe and conservative choice – a man who, his ultimate ability aside, has nowhere near the credentials Kelly brought to the job and is, for that very reason, actually a much bolder choice than Kelly.

But the sporting press and media in Philadelphia rolled over and played dead at the owner’s feet, accepting his fallacious assertion as fact.

But The Curmudgeon promised that this isn’t about football, and it isn’t.

Remember when things in Iraq were going badly for the George W. Bush administration in the 2000s and the president announced a “surge” of U.S. participation in the fighting there? That “surge” meant sending more soldiers. Those of us of a certain age almost surely remember sitting in front of our televisions in the late 1960s, during the Johnson and Nixon administrations, when decisions to send more soldiers to Vietnam were always described as an “escalation” of the war effort, and those escalations inspired enormous anti-war protests across the country.

But when George W. Bush called his escalation a “surge” the press immediately and obediently adopted his terminology and the surge/escalation inspired little in the way of protest. Even today, the press routinely refers to that event as a surge in the U.S. role in the Iraq war.

And one more recent example. During one of the Republican presidential debates late last year, one of the questioners asked Donald Trump about something he had said recently. You know – you absolutely know – that the reporter had the quote in hand when asking the question. But when Trump challenged the reporter, insisting that the premise of the question was inaccurate, the reporter backed down, apologized, and asked another question. This has happened on a number of occasions between reporters and Trump on the campaign trail: they call him on past statements, even on text from his web site, and when he challenges them they meekly back down.

On the old television series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip there was a scene in which an experienced comedy writer who is coaching two young writers interrupts them as they’re explaining a sketch they’re working on and tells them that he still doesn’t understand what the sketch is about.

“Buy the premise, buy the bit,” he says, explaining that despite their explanations they still haven’t told him what their sketch is about.

The American press needs to do a better job than it’s doing today. At a time when public officials, candidates for public office, and public figures, whether business leaders or performers, have more and more ways to talk to us directly, without press intervention – ways like Facebook, Twitter, web sites, Instagram, YouTube, direct mail, and more – it’s never been more important for the press to do a better job of asking public figures good questions, holding them accountable for their words and their deeds, and not backing down like cowards or fools every time they’re challenged.

And that should start by not automatically buying the premise.

 

Great Reporting (Not)

In Philadelphia, a guy who’s been doing a daily radio sports talk show for twenty years recently was elbowed aside for some younger blood.  Not to worry, it’ll be a soft landing:  he’s part of a radio conglomerate that owns half of the stations that broadcast in Philadelphia, and the guy who seemingly was demoted is now going to appear on most of them.

But that’s not what The Curmudgeon is writing about.

Replacing the displaced guy involved shuffling around some people who already work at the station and adding one new person:  a young guy named Josh Innes who currently works in Houston.

So what do we know about this young guy who currently works in Houston?

Well, intrepid Philadelphia Daily News reporter Molly Eichel – well, she’s the paper’s gossip columnist, which means she may not be a real reporter – offers her readers this news:

From his Facebook page, Innes hails from Poplar Bluff, Mo., and is a graduate of Louisiana State University.

Her source is…Facebook?  Yikes!  What about those reporting skills that landed her a juicy assignment at one of the bigger newspapers in the country?

Well, Molly tried – sort of – to learn more, but it apparently did not go well.  Here’s her explanation:

I tried to reach out to Innes via Facebook but did not get a response.

Great reporting, Molly.  The folks who taught her journalism should just be sooooooo very, very proud.

The Press Falls Short (Yet Again)

(Note to non-sports fans:  while the primary example used in this piece is about a situation in the world of sports, the piece itself is not about sports.  Please be patient.)

In early June, the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles football team fired his team’s president.  Oh, they said it was a mutual parting of the ways, but make no mistake about it, the guy was fired.

The guy, Joe Banner, was a long-time friend of the owner.  He ran the football organization on a day-to-day basis, and while he was not a football guy in the strictest sense, the financial parameters he established regarding the value of players – that is, how much the team could afford to spend on an individual player, or a specific position, before the price was too great – had a significant and very positive impact on the team.  Because he was the money man, and because sports fans in Philadelphia are especially stupid, those fans continually attributed too much of their disappointment – their anger, really – about the team’s shortcomings to Banner.  Banner, in turn, didn’t make things any easier for himself:  he looks like an unpleasant guy, he gave grudging, unpleasant interviews, and he came across as arrogant in his certainty that his way was the best way, the only way, and that he had no interest in hearing about any other ways.

But that’s not why The Curmudgeon is writing about his firing today.

The Curmudgeon’s interest in the firing – he pretty much gave up following football a few years ago after a lifetime as a pretty serious fan – derives from the reaction of the local sporting press to the firing.

The fans, you see, were shocked – pleased, mind you, bordering on delighted – but genuinely shocked by this development.

The local press?  Downright blasé.  They saw it coming, they wrote.  They saw the struggles over power he was losing; they saw him distancing himself from certain team and public activities; they saw a lessening of his role in some of the core parts of the business that used to be his domain almost exclusively.

This raises a good question:  if they saw this, why were the fans so surprised when the guy was fired?

And that, in turn, leads to a pretty clear answer:  because even though they say they saw it coming, the reporters never wrote about it.

Which leads to yet another good question:  Why not?

For that matter, what good are they if they don’t write about such things?

Here you have a group of reporters who have a very narrow focus in their professional pursuits:  they write entirely about football, almost entirely about football, or entirely about sports.  They are around the team and team management and the players all the time.

How could they see all this and never write about it?

We have seen other instances of this kind of non-reporting in the past, of course.  We are told that millions of Americans did not really comprehend that FDR couldn’t walk.  Reporters knew of JFK’s numerous dalliances with women other than his wife but chose not to write about them.  Some also apparently knew that he was not well and also decided not to write about that, either.  In May and June of this year, newspapers in Pennsylvania began reporting on discord between the state’s Republican governor and its Republican legislative leaders – and made it clear that this has been going on for a while.  So why were they just getting around to writing about it?

And what else is going on out there that may be important, that maybe we should know, that reporters for some reason have decided not to share with us?

The Curmudgeon first started thinking about this kind of thing about twenty years ago, and this, too, arose in a sports context:  the local professional hockey team, the Philadelphia Flyers – The Curmudgeon is a pretty serious hockey fan – traded a player, and one of the local newspapers’ hockey writers noted when reporting the trade that the team’s coach had long been frustrated about one specific aspect of the player’s performance.  This player was not new to the team; he had been around for a while.  This left The Curmudgeon wondering:  how long had the reporter known this and why hadn’t he written about it before?  Why did it take the team trading the player for this reporter to decide to share a pretty significant insight with his readers?

We live in an era of abundant news and information – some of it reliable, some of it much less so.  Public figures – elected officials, actors, musicians, athletes, and others – also now have unprecedented opportunities to go around the press and communicate directly with the public.  All of this easily accessible information has contributed to the decline of newspapers.  It’s not the only cause of that decline, to be sure – Craigslist, for example, has permanently destroyed a major source of newspaper revenue.  In addition, the decision of many newspapers to make their content free on the web, and the parasitic pursuits of shameless aggregators like (but not limited to) Huffington Post, have made it easier than ever to stay informed without spending any money aside from what you’re already paying for your internet connection.

That’s why it’s never been more important for reporters to be good at what they do.  Anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection can write about last night’s big game – or share his views on what the President should do about the economy or illegal immigration or any other subject.  If you don’t believe this, just look at what you’re reading right now.  But those of us with this platform lack something that’s incredibly important for a complete understanding of what’s going on – whether “what’s going on” involves the state of the nation, life in your own community, what’s happening in the world of sports, or even whether the Kardashian sisters can possibly be as vacuous as they appear on television.  That something is access.  Reporters can talk to the people in the administration who are trying to figure out what to do, can attend the sessions of Congress and town councils, can talk to the players and get their insight into why the game unfolded as it did.

And if they’re any good at what they do, they’ll write about it.  They won’t sit on their hands and keep quiet because they don’t want to rock the boat.  They won’t stifle what they know because they’re afraid that the people about whom they write won’t like them anymore or won’t share information with them anymore or will deny that what they’ve written is true.  They’ll report what they know, when they know it, and not pretend afterward that they knew it all along.

And sports fans won’t be blindsided when the top executive of the most popular team in town is suddenly gone one day.

Bad Reporting and an Unfortunate Choice of Words

One of the greatest challenges that law enforcement faces in urban areas these days is getting the victims of crime, and those who witness crimes, to attest to what they’ve seen to the police, prosecutors, and the courts.  Somewhere along the line, some people decided that they were willing to suffer in silence as their friends and families and neighbors were robbed, beaten, hooked on drugs, or even killed with impunity rather than speak to the police and say “Hey, I saw it.  That guy over there did it.”

Talking to the authorities is taboo in some communities; it’s called “snitching,” and it’s so unacceptable in these places that people wear t-shirts that say “don’t snitch.”  The last thing some people want is to be discovered “ratting out” a criminal – even if that criminal raped their sister, killed their mother, or sold narcotics to their best friend.

That’s why The Curmudgeon was so surprised and so dismayed earlier this week when he heard a radio news story in which the reporter, describing the arrest of LSD dealers on a Philadelphia university campus, explained that after the first person was arrested, he “ratted out” his fellow criminals.

This report was broadcast on KYW radio in Philadelphia, a station that plays news all day and all night.  To listen to KYW is normally to recognize that it’s possible for some people to go through life pretending to have no personality at all.  The reporting is decent, if unenterprising, but most of it is utterly devoid of any sense of personality at all.  A few news readers and reporters attempt to inject some personality into their work, but as far as The Curmudgeon can tell, only two of them do so successfully; the rest come off sounding obnoxious.

That’s why it was so surprising to hear the reporter on this story – normally one of the more colorless people on the station – use the term “ratted out.”  This was a judgment on his part, not a news report, and he stepped far outside his usual on-air personality to make it.  He wasn’t reporting the story; he was condemning the person.  By using the term “ratted out,” he was telling his listeners that the criminal in question, in addition to being a criminal, is a dishonorable person.  In so doing, The Curmudgeon believes, he implicitly conveyed his support for the “don’t snitch” sentiment that pervades so many urban communities.

The following morning, The Curmudgeon went to the radio station’s web site to see if the story there used the same inappropriate language.  It didn’t; apparently, someone noticed it and softened the language – but not quite enough, The Curmudgeon thinks.  Instead of saying the prisoner “ratted out” his colleagues, the reporter wrote that “…he immediately started spilling his guts” about his partners’ activities.  This was yet another value judgment on the reporter’s part – and yet another clear attempt to convey that his sentiments lay with the criminals who would be in trouble because their partner told of their activities. (By the way, The Curmudgeon isn’t naming the reporter because reporters don’t have the last word on what goes on the air, someone else obviously approved this, and it wouldn’t be fair to place all of the blame for this on one person when at least two people are at fault.)

In Philadelphia – as is almost certainly the case elsewhere – a lot of responsible and determined people are working hard to break the cycle of refusing to bear witness to the kind of criminal activity that destroys individuals, destroys families, and destroys communities.  Apparently, one radio station opposes this effort and believes it’s wrong for people to point out offenders and, if necessary, stand up and testify against them.

This radio station, KYW in Philadelphia, apparently is uncomfortable with the idea that police could put a dent in crime if they had the support of the community.  Maybe the people who run the station are afraid they won’t have enough exciting stories to cover; maybe they really do believe it’s more honorable to be victimized by criminals and remain silent than to stand up to them; or maybe they’re just plain bad people.