Just Jake

Jake Highton is a journalism professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada, Reno. He teaches media law, history of journalism and advanced reporting. Highton is the author of numerous books, including "Nevada Newspaper Days." He writes a weekly column for the Daily Sparks Tribune.

Location: United States

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Anonymous sources sometimes essential

Newspapers can be categorized as an editor’s newspaper or a reporter’s newspaper. In an editor’s newspaper, the editors exercise almost dictatorial control. In a reporter’s newspaper, the reporters are given their head, have much greater leeway.
Inevitably, a reporter’s newspaper is a better newspaper. It is more innovative, more dynamic. An editor’s newspaper stifles creativity. It is cautious and conservative in both a sense of judgment and a political sense.
With an editor’s newspaper you often have third-rate minds at the helm. You cannot have a good newspaper run by third-raters. Indeed, one of the many problems of the newspaper business is editors. Case in point: the Reno Gazette-Journal. It is a bad newspaper.
The RGJ sports page recently led with a story headlined: “Pack pitcher in serious condition.” Why? Read another newspaper.
I know. There is no other daily newspaper in Reno. It’s a sad example of monopoly journalism. No competition leads in most cases to bad newspapering.
The first-day story in the RGJ quoted the athletic director as saying that the pitcher was in the hospital after “an unfortunate incident.” The AD would not elaborate, citing the “family’s request for privacy.”
But there is no privacy when a university athlete is involved in a news story. The public is entitled to details of “the unfortunate incident.” The family is naturally grieved but it is not a private matter. Every reader of the story asks plaintively: what happened?
Which leads to another question: who is the sports writer working for, the reader or the families and athletic department? If the reason for the serious condition is left out of the story, it leaves a gaping hole. Reporters should never leave an unanswered question in a story if possible.
Oh, well. Maybe we would get the answer the next day. Nope. The headline on the second-day story: “Wolf Pack freshman dies.” Why? Read, listen or see another media outlet.
Finally, on the third day of the story we read that a memorial service was scheduled for the pitcher. In the second paragraph we read that he died. Not till the sixth paragraph did the reader learn that the pitcher shot himself.
I sent an email to Chad Hartley, veteran sports writer who wrote the stories, asking why he did not give the cause of death sooner. He replied that the sheriff’s office and the coroner’s office refused to comment. Hartley added: “I had it as suicide from a number of sources. But none would go on the record and my paper does not allow unnamed sources.”
Et voila: an editor’s newspaper. Hartley, as the good reporter he is, had cultivated sources. He found out why but was not allowed to inform readers.
Note to editors of the RGJ: if you don’t tell the cause of death you omit an extremely important fact.
Yes, anonymous sourcing is a concern. It allows newspapers to be used and the readers abused. Anonymous sources can push their own agendas. They can undermine credibility. Reporters can be co-opted, becoming a PR flack for that source. And, yes, some newspaper reporters have used anonymous sources to write fiction in the guise of news.
But whistleblowers, for example, must be protected or they will not talk to the media. The public good is not being served if such sources are barred. Good newspapers like the New York Times use anonymous sources constantly--to the great benefit of readers.
Recent examples from Times stories: a Republican senator’s aide was granted anonymity “to openly discuss” a gas rebate plan. A Special Forces officer “was granted anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publically on military matters.” Federal investigators of influence-peddling “were granted anonymity so they could speak more candidly.”
In short, if reporters have cultivated sources as Chad Hartley did and they know the source is credible, they can give the readers valuable information by promising anonymity. Example from a sports story in the San Francisco Chronicle: “The Oakland Tribune cited anonymous sources in the clubhouse,” calling a player, who was named in the story, a team cancer.
Anonymous-source reporting illuminates situations. But city side reporters at the Gazette-Journal are restricted in use of anonymous sources. They must get approval of editors—and that approval is extremely rare.
Anonymous sourcing requires cultivating sources, developing rapport and getting people to like and trust reporters. And it requires that the reporter knows, repects and trusts sources. Media outlets that won’t report stories if people do not speak on the record are doing themselves and their readers a gross disservice.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Open letter to columnist Ira Hansen

Dear Ira:
Many thanks for your kind comments about my column in your column in the Sparks Tribune. I especially appreciated the words “envy and awe at how much punch he can pack in each sentence.” I don’t remember if I ever had a nicer compliment about my columns.
But I am not writing to boast. I am writing to explain myself, to clarify. And, believe it or not, to praise you despite the yawning gap between our stands on most issues.
One of the sadder aspects of our daily lives is that most of us live in a tiny circle. We really don’t know people outside that circle. We seldom know “the other guy.”
I recall hearing former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor talk informally a few years ago at the judicial college on the University of Nevada, Reno, campus.
I had frequently criticized her in my column and would do so again and again because she was so often part of the Reactionary Five on the Rehnquist Court. But listening to her, I liked her in spite of myself. She had a modest, soft-spoken and, yes, wise-sounding manner.
You asked, Ira: “How can we ever find common ground?” We don’t have to. But what we do share in common is humanity.
I recall the words of Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice”: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?…If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh?”
And another quotation from Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”: “As adversaries do in law, / Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.”
You strive mightily, Ira. You argue your case forcefully. You know your American history. Your research is solid. And your column surely has more sympathetic readers than I have. (One letter writer to the Trib said I should go back to Moscow “where I came from.” After the Soviet Union collapsed, another letter writer said I should go back to Havana.)
Then, Ira, you say your “formal education is limited to a high school diploma from Sparks High School.” No apologies needed. I have known PhDs with little common sense. You say you’re a plumber. So what? You must be a good plumber (and that is saying much in these days of slipshod work, shoddy merchandise and flawed new clothing). You certainly must work hard. You certainly must give honest measure. You certainly must have great integrity.
If people give the best of their talents, that is sufficient unto the day. I recall my newspaper days at a Baltimore newspaper. I was often assigned unimportant feature stories. Yet I always tried to make the stories “sing.”
I suspect, too, Ira, that you are an autodidact, a self-taught man who never stops reading, never stops learning.
I have a master’s degree. So what? (I know many PhDs who are knowledgeable about narrow specialties, like salamanders, say, but who are limited in conversation and turgid in prose.)
Most real education begins outside formal schooling. I read constantly. I am constantly learning. I learn from a dear faculty friend, learn from my wife. I also learn from my students, sometimes getting valuable insights that I note in future classes.
Sure, Ira, on most issues we are diametrically opposed. You believe the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired. Need I remind you that four out of the first five presidents--Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe--held slaves? Was slavery divinely inspired?
You believe, Ira, that “America and its traditions” are “the best possible for mankind.” Oh? More than 100 wars and interventions in other lands, most of them unjustified? No national health insurance despite the enormous wealth in this country? A Manifest Destiny that first destroyed native American peoples and then grabbed vast chunks of the land from Mexico? A terribly flawed democracy? A nation so uncivilized in many ways? A country were money rules?
As for hedonism, Ira, I do take pleasures in wine, food and my wonderful wife. But I don’t live wholly for those, which a hedonist does. Far more important, as a teacher I try to do as much good as possible for students. I hope in a small way I achieve the ideal of teachers defined by Henry Adams: “A teacher affects eternity. He can never tell where his influence stops.”
In any case, your column is a credit to the Sparks Tribune publisher and editors who run it. It speaks highly of the Trib that it runs Hansen from the Right and Highton from the Left.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Bush: ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’

The cowardly Democrats remained frighteningly silent after the recent mild proposal by Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin to censure President Bush. Thus, any suggestion to impeach him will be considered preposterous.
Monarch and dictator Bush has shamefully disgraced America. “To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world”:
• Bush is the most reactionary president the nation has ever had. Historian Sean Wilentz, in a Rolling Stone article, says he “appears headed for colossal historical disgrace,” possibly “remembered as the very worst president in all of American history.” Wilentz rightly adds: he choose “partisanship over leadership.”
• Bush launched an unprovoked war with lies about WMD, Iraq’s threats to America and Saddam Hussein’s ties to al-Qaida. That war is as catastrophic as Vietnam was and could last as long. It has caused the senseless death of 2,405 U.S. soldiers and 17,000 wounded (with many terribly maimed). The war costs $2 billion a week. The Iraqi toll is enormous: civilian deaths in the six figures and thousands fleeing their homes to escape civil war.
• Bush has manipulated, misused and politicized intelligence. Paul Pillar, writing in Foreign Affairs, notes: “The administration used intelligence not to inform decision-making but to justify a decision already made.” The Downing Street memo says it all about Bush’s war. He wanted it--the facts be damned.
• Bush authorized the National Security Agency to snoop on phone and Internet communications of U.S. citizens without warrants as required by law. The Boston Globe estimates that Bush has broken 750 laws. This makes laughable the notion of bringing democracy and freedom to other nations. Bush doubles in spades the Nixon line: “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” The hubris, chutzpah and swagger of this mission-accomplished draft-dodger is incredible.
• Bush has seized unprecedented power. His signing statements with acts of Congress are flagrantly unconstitutional. They allow the Great He to interpret what those acts mean.
• Bush is surrounded by myrmidons like the snarling pitbull Vice President Cheney, the hawk-thug Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and the yes-man Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
• Bush openly flouts international law, most notably the Geneva Convention. He disdains the U.N. Charter. He denounces the International Criminal Court.
• Bush has caused much of the world to hate America. He has squandered America’s moral authority. His occupation of Iraq has seen the construction of permanent U.S. bases as big as small towns and an imperial embassy in Baghdad.
• Bush approves rendition, torture and abuse of prisoners, concepts alien to what America stands for. As Sen. John Kerry puts it: they are “violations of our values, violations of our principles.” Torture and inhumane treatment are rampant in U.S. detention centers in Afghanistan, Iraq and Cuba, Amnesty International reports.
• Bush outed a CIA officer whose husband had the “effrontery” to write a whistleblowing article denouncing a Bush lie about one of the many phony reasons for the war.
• Bush’s pledge to be a compassionate conservative is one more of his many lies. As columnist Bob Herbert notes: he has turned Washington into a compassion-free zone.
• Bush tax cuts for the rich are woefully regressive. Benefits from his proposed repeal of the estate tax would go the wealthest 1 percent. His budget cuts hammer Medicare, Medicaid and student loans. Nearly every decision he makes favors business rather than working people and the environment.
• Bush has stacked federal offices with cronies, misfits and losers. He packs the federal courts with ideologues.
• The Bush Republican Party has become a biblical den of thieves, riddled with sleaze and corruption: Enron, DeLay, Abramoff, Libby et al.
• Bush cashiers and smears any official who disagrees with him.
• Bush places theology and ideology over science on global warming, stem-cell research and bogus intelligent design. He suppresses findings by federal agencies and researchers that are contrary to his dogma. His removes from federal Websites scientific information about reproductive health and effectiveness of condoms in fighting AIDS. He manipulates scientific studies. Religious faith and zealotry triumph over reason.
• Bush claims to have been ordained by God to lead the country into war. Does he ever seek advice from his father? A thunderous no. “There is a higher father that I appeal to.” This so-called born-again Christian has absolutely no understanding of Christ.
• Bush got the presidency through election fraud in Florida, the anachronistic Electoral College and a egregiously partisan Supreme Court. He kept it in 2004 with fear and smear.
To borrow the title of a treatise by St. John of the Cross in 1578, Bush is causing millions of Americans to suffer “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Alas, the soulless Bush reign lasts a thousand more days.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Iraq war parallels 1812 war

"The more things change, the more they remain the same."
--Alphonse Karr, 19th century French satirical writer

The parallels between the War of 1812 and the Iraq war are striking, leading to the conclusion that nothing really changes about public affairs. The lies that President Madison told in 1812 to war with Britain are paralleled by the lies that President Bush told in 2003 to war with Iraq.
Samuel Eliot Morison, hardly a radical historian, noted in “The Oxford History of the American People” that Madison, in asking Congress for a declaration of war, said that the Royal Navy was blockading the U.S. coast. It was not.
Madison also greatly exaggerated the extent of British impressment of American seamen as one of his declared reasons for the war. Indeed, for five years it was the French under Napoleon who “treated American shipping harshly and arbitrarily,” Morison writes. “Almost every mail…brought news of fresh seizures and scuttlings of American vessels by French port authorities, warships and privateers.”
The Bush lies and malfeasances were manifold: tales of weapons of mass destruction, the specter of mushroom clouds, a nonexistent al-Qaida connection, cherry-picked intelligence, a blindsided Congress and pretended diplomacy.
Both wars were totally unnecessary as indeed most of the 100 U.S. wars and incursions have been. (Can you name any justifiable U.S. wars other than the American Revolution and World War II?)
Morison called the War of 1812 “futile and unnecessary.” He noted that: “Eight senators, a large majority of congressman from the New England states, and a majority in both houses from New York, New Jersey and Maryland voted against the declaration of war.”
Today the war in Iraq is absolutely unjustified. Morison called Madison “stubborn to the point of stupidity.” No “point of stupidity” about Bush. He is stupid and stubborn. He refuses to admit publically let alone to himself that he made a grievous mistake.
Madison had his yammering war hawks: Rep. Henry Clay of Kentucky and Rep. John Calhoun of South Carolina. But Rep. John Randolph of Virginia, one of the few remaining Jeffersonian Republican faithfuls who repudiated the war, saw through the war hawks.
He scorned their “cant of patriotism.” He excoriated their chanting “like the whippoorwill” with “one monotonous tone: Canada! Canada! Canada!” (The war hawks coveted the fertile lands and forests of Canada.)
Bush has his warhawks: the twin rebarbatives, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. And Bush also had Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, carryovers from the Bush I administration, who lusted for war with Iraq long before 9/11.
Which brings these reflections to John Lowell, political writer in Madison’s day. (Yes, the Lowells of Boston, “the home of the bean and the cod, / Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots / And the Cabots talk only to God.”)
Admittedly, Lowell was a Federalist, antagonistic to Jeffersonian Republicans. But historian Morison writes that the War of 1812 “was far from popular in the United States. Not only Federalists but old-school Republicans were against it.”
Lowell’s best-known work was “Mr. Madison’s War.” Less well-known is his furious attack in 1812 on Madison’s war in a 61-page lawyer’s brief published in Boston by “a New-England Farmer.” It bore the ponderous title:
“Mr. Madison’s war: a dispassionate inquiry into the reasons alleged by Mr. Madison for declaring an offensive and ruinous war against Great Britain together with some suggestions as to a peaceable and constitutional mode of averting that dreadful calamity.”
Madison engages in “pretty rhetorik” (sic) to justify an unjust war. So did Bush and his nefarious minions about Iraq. Lowell called it “a French war not an American war.” Lowell called Madison “the man who is alone responsible for this war.” The Iraq war is Bush’s war.
“The (Madison) men have abused their trust by plunging us into an unjust war which might and ought to have been avoided,” Lowell wrote. So too did the Bush crew by lying the nation into war in Iraq.
“Every war is supposed to have some definite object,” Lowell rightly wrote. “That object ought to be a legitimate and honest one, otherwise the war is unjust.”
Lowell described the Madison manifesto for war as “a tissue of exaggeration,” deceiving the people. He wrote that Madison made “unfounded suggestions” while having documents in his possession showing that they were unfounded. Bush did the same.
The colonies were united in the Revolutionary War but not on the 1812 war. Rather, Lowell wrote, Madison’s men were “inflated with the ambition of conquest.” So was Bush.
Sparks Tribune, April 27, 2006