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, January 25, 2007

Excoriating corporate media in America

MEMPHIS, Tenn.--Celebrities and media critics savaged corporate media here recently for polluting American democracy.
Bill Moyers, keynote speaker for at the third annual Media Reform Conference, set the theme: “a fight for a free and independent media in America.”
He spoke of media monopoly that is choking the channels of communication, deceiving the people with lies and distortions, manipulating opinion, regurgitating government propaganda, laying off staff and cutting costs to serve Holy Wall Street.
Moyers wrought tears of truth from this bitter cynic. Yet his effort to “awaken America’s conscience” will fail. Nothing can be done to change “this sorry scheme of things entire,” as FitzGerald put in the Rubáiyát.
The Media Barons will always rule. Digital media, websites, text messaging, podcasts, YouTube and blogs are unlikely ever to have the impact of Establishment media.
Nevertheless, the 3,500 delegates here were hardly discouraged. They applauded wildly over the thrusts at corporate media, shouting out their approval with the fervor of revivalist meetings. One speaker after another ripped corporate media.
Helen Thomas, the 86-year-old White House reporter, has the fire of youth in her belly. She told attendees: “There’s no reason the media played along with the administration’s shifting rationales, all untrue, in the runup to the catastrophic war in Iraq.”
Jesse Jackson bounded on stage, raising a clenched fist before delivering a fire and brimstone speech. He rightly deplored President Bush for escalation of the war in Iraq and his horribly reactionary adminstration. Jackson noted how media challengers are marginalized by being called leftists as it was once common to call any progressive measure communistic.
He concluded by urging his audience to “light a match and let it glow.” It reminded this listener of presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson saying of Eleanor Roosevelt: “She would rather light candles than curse the darkness.”
But to this pessimist, the darkness of corporate media will not be dispelled with millions of candles.
Phil Donahue, discussing the iron grip of corporate media bosses, told how he had been fired from his MSNBC talk show because he told the truth about the Iraq War. His antiwar stance was not good for business. Besides, his bosses feared being called anti-American. Donahue noted how MSNBC required him to have two conservatives for every liberal on his show.
Media critic Jeff Cohen, also fired by MSNBC, remarked that in corporate media “the least principled rise to the top,” giving charlatans lofty perches. The spectrum of opinion on corporate media runs from “GE to GM.”
Moyers’ recommendation to read Cohen’s book, “Cable News Confidential,” proved nearly as potent as a recommendation by Oprah. The Cohen book immediately became a best seller at the conference.
Cohen points out in his book that the three biggest distortionists and cheerleaders for Bush in cable media are CNN, Fox and MSNBC. They focus on the bottom line. The politicians “have allowed a handful of moneyed elites to privatize our media and control America’s televised dialogue.”
They have the power “to keep important news and viewpoints off the air”…“Cable’s ‘newscasters’ rarely reflected the vibrant debate going on in our country over the war--or the extent of active and organized dissents.”
More Cohen: cable news has gone from “politics to tabloid to fluff.” It is in “the business of entertainment, using traditional Hollywood genres to attract viewers: lurid crime dramas (O.J., JonBenet, Laci Peterson), sex farce (Clinton/Lewinsky), suspense thrillers (Beltway sniper) and war (with special theme music and graphics).”
Cohen, founder of the watchdog group, Fairness and Accuracy in Media, continued: corporate news is nutritionless, “a processed product brought to market by distant and soulless corporations.” Local TV news programs across the nation are no better, filled with undernourshing soundbites.
Cohen quotes the CEO of radio colossus, Clear Channel, as saying that he cares about ad sales, not program quality. “We’re simply in the business of selling our customers products.”
The greedheads rule. The Gannett newspaper chain has a 26 percent profit, the Hearst empire 24 percent.
One panelist indicated that the media were just as responsible as Bush for starting the war in Iraq. Or, as Jane Fonda said: “A truly powerful media is one that can stop a war--not only start one.”
Amy Goodman, dynamic conference speaker, wrote in “Static,” a book written with her brother, David: “The American media (are) little more than a megaphone for those in power.”
So much of what is wrong with America is the fault of the media.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

UNR prof writes excellent history of sports

By Richard Davies
447 pp. Blackwell. $44.95

The greatest thing about being a college professor is that you get paid well for doing what you love: teaching, writing, researching. The worst is faculty meetings.
Faculty gabfests are boring. They last twice as long as necessary. They repeat ad nauseam what has been said for years. And some faculty members love to hear their own voices.
On the other hand, serving on the University of Nevada, Reno, Promotion and Tenure Committee is a pleasure. It leaves you in awe at the caliber of UNR professors.
People like Dick Davies, UNR history professor, fine teacher and excellent researcher. He is one of the top five sports historians in America.
His latest book, “Sports in American Life,” is spritely, informative and evocative for long-time sports fans. But he is no starry-eyed sports lover. He tells bald truths about sports in America today. Namely:
• Universities have adopted the shameful professional model as opposed to British collegiate amateurism. “The principles that underpinned the rise of intercollegiate sports were the same that guided the American system of capitalism:…the primacy of profits (and) capitalistic greed.” The commercialism gainsays everything universities should mean.
• Student athlete is an oxymoron. “Fabricated admissions documents, the funneling of players into special classes in which a professor is known to look kindly on athletes, ghost-written term papers…and other fraudulent academic schemes abound.”
• Professional sports teams threaten to move if cities don’t build them new stadiums. Cities almost always yield to the blackmail. The taxpayers lose.
• Boxing has become like professional wrestling: a joke. No boxing commissioner, an absurd proliferation of “champions” and an equally absurd proliferation of weight divisions.
• The Olympics are more about “international politics, social dogma or religion” than sports.
• No other country approaches America in its “massive sports enterprise,” its spending of “astronomical sums” and its $50 million annual sports budgets.
His book teems with fascinating stories. The courageous boxer who fought for 119 rounds and was knocked down 80 times before collapsing and dying. Satch Paige, the greatest pitcher ever, even if he exaggerated when he said he had pitched 300 shutouts, 55 no-hitters and won 2,000 games.
And Ben Hogan. He was a natural left-hander but could not afford left-handed clubs. So he became one of America’s greatest golfers by playing right-handed. Then there is Jim Thorpe, Olympic hero and football star, called America’s greatest athlete. That’s endless Hot Stove League talk. But there is no argument about the greatest baseball player: Babe Ruth. He was a brilliant pitcher as well as a legendary home run hitter.
Davies is particularly good on the terrible discrimination of blacks in sports. He portrays the monumental sagas of Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. Not black heros. American heroes. Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball and Ali, with Thoreauvian civil disobedience, beat the constant white hopes--and even the black white hope, Floyd Patterson.
Davies is also a good debunker. He notes that baseball was not invented by Abner Doubleday. He finds no evidence that Knute Rockne ever urged Notre Dame to win one for the Gipper. But he needs more radicalism.
While he rightly excoriates the White Sox players who threw the 1919 World Series, he devotes just seven words to their scandalous low pay. College athletes should be paid, ending the hypocrisy of calling them amateurs. Coaches get rich and their schools reap huge TV revenues while players toil 40 hours a week at their jobs.
As William Rhoden wrote in a recent New York Times column: “What’s persistently galling is our approach to the big-time, blood-money intercollegiate sports of football and basketball. Adults make millions and the ‘kids’ ” get nothing but the pittance of scholarships.
And, yes, admit Pete Rose and Mark McGwire to the Hall of Fame. And, yes, Shoeless Joe Jackson and, when he is eligible, Barry Bonds, one of the greatest hitters ever. The Hall honors baseball prowess--not ethics.
Davies also needs a tough editor as does everyone who writes. He also should reread Strunk and White annually as all writers should. He uses lame modifiers like somewhat, greasy words like utilized, Latinized expressions like prior to and archaic usages like upon instead of on. Davies is positively addicted to unneeded of courses.
Nevertheless, this is a fine history.
Sports provide what Davies calls “a useful diversion from the pressures of daily life.” Sports entertain, give the delight of “your” team winning and the one you hate losing. They also provide blessed relief from the grim political climate under President Bush.

Nevada journalism from Twain to Pulitzers

(An Online Nevada Encyclopedia is being readied. Here is shorter version of the entry under history of Nevada journalism.)
The Territorial Enterprise, the best and most influential newspaper in the West during the 1860s, published Nevada’s first newspaper in Genoa in 1858. It moved to Carson City as the rush to Washoe began. Then, when the silver fever gripped the Comstock, it moved to Virginia City.
Giants of Western journalism roamed the Comstock in those days: Mark Twain, Dan De Quille, Joe Goodman, Alf Doten and Wells Drury. Twain, who gained an international reputation as a writer, admitted that in his Enterprise reporting he “let fancy get the upper hand of fact too often when there was a dearth of news.” He once put an emigrant wagon “through an Indian fight that…has no parallel in history.”
Hoaxes were perfect for mining camp journalism. Twain’s hoaxing masterpiece was the Empire City Massacre, a multiple slaying in a log cabin. The Enterprise headine screamed: “Scalps His Wife and Dashes Out the Brains of Six Helpless Children.” The rival Gold Hill Daily News reprinted the hoax as fact.
Mining gave Nevada more ghost towns than live ones. Towns sprang up hastily and died quickly as mining camps went from boom to bust. Mining camp newspapers followed the same pattern: bonanza to borrasca.
In rugged 19th century Nevada journalism, duels and shootouts sometimes took the place of the sedate libel suits of today. But fire was the greatest hazard. A devastating fire roared through Virginia City Oct. 26, 1875, killing three people and destroying 1,000 homes and 300 buildings.
The Chinese and blacks were targets of racism and hatred after the Civil War. The Humboldt Register in Unionville denounced the owner of the Reno Crescent as the “nigger and Chinese worshipping editor.” Black experience in Nevada reflected the national history: affronts, discrimination and Jim Crow. The Tonopah Bonanza wrote in 1906: “The coon promptly pleaded guilty.”
One of the most colorful Nevada journalists was Jack McCloskey, publisher of the Mineral County Independent and Hawthorne News. He was garrulous, yes, but witty, full of anecdotes and tales of yesteryear. He wrote a front-page column, “Jasper,” from 1931 almost until his death in 2000.
The best journalist ever produced in Nevada was Frank McCulloch. He was chief of two bureaus for Time magazine. In 1960 he became managing editor of the Los Angeles Times but quit to cover the Vietnam War for Time. All told, McCulloch wrote 120 coveted Time cover stories. He came out of retirement to become managing editor of the Sacramento Bee. Retiring again, he was lured back to newspapering, becoming m.e. of the San Francisco Examiner.
The Pulitzer Prize, the highest honor in journalism, was awarded to the Reno Evening Gazette and Nevada State Journal in 1977. The executive editor of both papers, Warren Lerude, shared the prize in editorial writing with Foster Church and Norman Cardoza.
Edward Montgomery, who studied journalism under A.L. Higginbotham at the University of Nevada, won a Pulitzer in 1951 as a reporter for the Examiner. Another “Higgy” student, Howard Sheerin, won in 1956 for meritorous public service by leading, as city editor, a team of reporters for the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian in California.
Three other UNR journalism grads claimed Pulitzers. They were Ron Einstoss of the Los Angeles Times in 1966 for local staff reporting, Susie Forrest in 1988 as a reporter for the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune of Massachusetts and Kristin Go, a staffer at the Denver Post which won in 2000 for breaking news.
The one genuine giant of modern newspapering was Hank Greenspun, publisher of the Las Vegas Sun. He took on demagogic Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin who gripped the nation in the early 1950s with red-baiting and fearmongering. Greenspun’s vehicle was his page one column, “Where I Stand.” He founded the Sun in 1950, his powerful presence looming over Las Vegas until he died in 1989.
The commanding newspaper in Northern Nevada today is the Reno Gazette-Journal. Three of its fixtures are columnist Cory Farley, investigative reporter Frank Mullen and veteran reporter Lenita Powers. In Southern Nevada, the Las Vegas Review-Journal rules.
The Gazette-Journal is part of the Gannett chain where money is more important than the quality of the paper. The Review-Journal is even more conservative than most Nevadans.
Finally, Let Us Now Praise the Sparks Tribune, which was founded in 1910. The Trib has the courage to print columns that would never appear in any other Establishment newspaper.
Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. He has published a history of Nevada journalism, “Nevada Newspaper Days.”

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Grade inflation ravages college campuses

Just as apparent as the greenhouse effect is to everyone but President Bush, so it is apparent that grade inflation is ravaging the nation’s colleges.
At some universities, especially at elite schools like Harvard, Yale and Stanford, an A or A- is the standard grade.
Part of the reason is pandering to students, professors getting better evaluations if they give high grades. And, sadly, universities are becoming more and more consumer-oriented. Grade inflation is a violation of everything higher education should stand for: seeking “knowledge and excellence,” as Dante puts it. It certainly is not to bolster self-esteem for second-rate work.
University administrators are aware of the plague but can do little to stop it. Princeton is battling the tidal wave. For two years it has been instituting a grade deflation policy.
Concerned that 46 percent of its students were getting an A or A-, Princeton officials have been requiring all academic units to reduce that number to 35 percent. The policy is working but having scant national impact.
The journalism school at the University of Nevada, Reno, graded 619 students last spring semester. Of that number, 27.3 percent got an A and 16.3 percent A-. An incredible 43.6 percent were rated superior or near superior.
Few students in my classes are excellent or near excellent. In the semester just ended, I had 15 students in an advanced reporting class. None got an A. I had 18 students in a media law class. Just two got A’s.
Sally Echeto, journalism student coordinator, said that last spring 37.9 got either B+, B or B-. In short, an unbelievable 81.5 percent got good grades.
Again my contrasting reality. In my reporting class last fall, I had two B’s and two grades of B- (26.6 percent). In the media law class, I had one B and three with a B- (22.2 percent).
Finally, Ms. Echeto said 14.1 percent of journalism students got C’s in the spring semester. (C these days means failure.) In contrast, in my reporting class last fall I had five Cs (33.3 percent). In my media law class, 38.8 percent got C’s.
This is not to say that I begrudge giving good grades. Nothing pleases me more than to have students excel. But I refuse to lower standards.
One of my favorite students--a bright guy who reads books constantly--was doing miserably in one of my classes. I asked him how he was doing in his other classes. Oh, he replied, he will probably ace them.
Joe Crowley, former UNR president, admits stratospheric grading is a serious national problem. But: “We put our students at risk in the national competition for graduate or professional school placement and, I suppose, even for jobs” if grades are deflated.
Crowley also notes that more and more “poor kids, minority kids, women in their 30s and 40s and second career folks” are now going to college. That has been “part of the genius of American higher education, the open door at work.”
Fine. Let everyone in. But students should not be graded softly and made to feel better than they are.
Too many students seem to think they are entitled to a college degree and just coast along getting it. Not so. Not many deserve A’s. Any university worthy of its name must be elitist. It must hold to the highest standards.

That the United States beats up and/or bullies the whole world is well-known. It is also the world’s leading cheapskate. Its embassy in London refuses to pay $1.6 million it owes for its cars entering central London. Embassies are tax exempt. But the London charge is a toll, not a tax. British diplomats pay road tolls in America.

Writing a weekly column is hard for me. I struggle for the right word, the right phrase, the right sentence. I rewrite constantly. I strive for absolute accuracy with names, facts and quotations. Double- and triple-checking. I try to cut superfluous words, phrases and sentences.
So I wonder what writing is like for some of my favorite columnists: Molly Ivins, E.J. Dionne and Robert Scheer. Do columns just roll easily from their computers?
Red Smith, the great sports writer of yesteryear, was a bleeder at the typewriter. Writing did not come easy for him. Maybe that is why his prose sparkled.
Flaubert, great French novelist of the 19th century, was obsessed with the craft of writing, struggling over his manuscripts for hours seeking le mot juste (the exact word). Too many writers today do not have similar reverence for the language.