Monday, October 22, 2012

Commentary: Journalism and Electoral Politics, Round Two

Last week I pointed out that the only female candidate in next month’s presidential election, the Green Party’s Jill Stein, had been arrested and handcuffed to a chair for eight hours during the presidential debate, and then gagged by local media. The episode was indicative, I argued, of a general tendency among political reporters to parrot the two dominate parties. I pleaded for fairer coverage of the wider spectrum of American political thought.

Brian Mann, the Adirondack-North Country region’s most active political reporter, responded with a string of arguments that painted me as a partisan conspiracy theorist, and a hypocrite for failing to report on the Green Party here at Adirondack Almanack.

Apparently, Brian Mann has forgotten that I’m not a paid political reporter. He’s also forgotten the language of the Public Broadcasting Act, designed “to encourage public telecommunications services which will… constitute an expression of diversity and excellence, and… a source of alternative telecommunications services for all the citizens of the Nation; it is in the public interest to encourage the development of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences.”

In short, of all political reporters in our region, Brian Mann has a unique responsibility to present a diversity of political views, particularly as they relate to unserved and underserved audiences. So when he writes “Yes, Stein is irrelevant in the 2012 presidential race,” he misses the point entirely about why taxpayers fund public radio and provide it space on our public airwaves.  At the very least, according to his Congressional mandate, he ought to be covering when the only woman in the presidential race is handcuffed to a chair during a debate restricted to the views of two men. At a bare minimum he should realize who among us has the duty of political reporting. Here’s a hint – it’s not me.

Brian Mann’s vision of his role as political gate keeper does not surprise me. Despite his continued efforts to portray himself in heroic terms, engaged in a  “good, noble fight… against the tide of popular taste,” it is a fact of American political life that our media generally frames the context of debate no wider than two political parties now in popular fashion.

I’ve been around and around with Brian on this point. I stand with generations of media critics, professional journalists, and academic journalism programs across the nation. For example, the day after my piece ran here at the Almanack, one of Brian Mann’s own, the Washington Post‘s ombudsman Peter Pexton,  echoed my arguments. You can read that piece here, but Pexton concluded with a basic premise I share: “it is part of our First Amendment franchise to hear people out and to give voice to the voiceless, even if they can’t win and register only in single digits in the polls.”  Partisan conspiracy theorist? You decide. There’s no point in me making that argument again.

Finally, resorting to the argument that the ideas of presidential candidates – or forget the ideas, that a presidential candidate was held incommunicado in handcuffs during the debate – is not worth reporting because she does not have the electoral support of the majority of Americans, is a dreadful corruption of the fundamental role of journalism to inform.  It’s exactly the kind of journalism Brian Mann decries, a journalism where only “public taste” matters.  There is nothing noble about that.

If readers still believe third party candidates should be denied inclusion in debates, I encourage them to watch Democracy Now‘s re-airing of parts of the second presidential debate, which provides an opportunity for the third-party candidates to respond to the same questions put to the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. You can watch that version of the debate here.

NOTICE:  No voters (or political reporters) were harmed during the inclusion of third party candidates in Democracy Now‘s debate mash-up. That’s more than the televised debate of the two dominate candidates can say.

Photo: (l to r) Dr. Jill Stein, Green Party 2012 presidential nominee; Virgil Goode, former six-term Virginia congressman and Constitution Party presidential nominee; and Rocky Anderson, former mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah running on the Justice Party ticket. Photo courtesy DemorcacyNow.org

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John Warren

John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for almost 50 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded the geolocation services company Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John remains active in traditional media. His Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on the stations of North Country Public Radio and on 93.3 / 102.1 The Mix. Since 2008, John has been a media specialist on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute.

John is also a professional researcher and historian with a M.A. in Public History. He edits The New York History Blog and is the author of two books of regional history. As a Grant Consultant for the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, he has reviewed hundreds of historic roadside marker grant applications from around New York State for historical accuracy.




34 Responses

  1. Guest says:

    Warren, I’ve basically despised you for years now, but you’re on track with this one!

    You are absolutely correct.

  2. John, I’m one who echoed Brian’s opinion that the Green candidate was irrelevant. The reality is that we have a “majority wins” system that does not take minority ideas and views into account. To my mind allowing candidates for parties that poll in the single digits to participate in national debates is like wearing sky blue green orange toques to promote awareness of baldness syndrome. It might give the wearers a warm fuzzy feeling (their heads at least) but it does nothing to resolve the problem. If the minority wants its views and ideas addressed, why not engage with a party that is big enough to win. The Tea Partiers have shown that approach can be surprisingly successful even when the ideas are pretty far out. For my part I want to hear from and about those who are actually likely to have an effect of my life.

    • Ron Vanselow says:

      Jim,

      The tea party is perhaps not the best example for your argument. If you will remember, the tea party was funded (and still is) by the multi-billionaire Koch brothers with the assistance of former republican leader Dick Army. They also had a major news corporation (Fox)orchestrating and promoting their events nationwide. On at least one occasion, Fox “reporters’ were caught on camera coaching the tea party demonstrators on what they should be chanting. In addition, CNN had a tea party express bus following those people around, promoting their agenda. There never was any day light between the tea party and the far-right members of the republican party leadership. In other words, the tea party didn’t engage the republicans, they were a creation of the republicans.

  3. Lily says:

    John –
    I am completely, 100% and totally in agreement with you on this issue. Good for you for speaking up so skillfully.

  4. Guest says:

    Ralph Nader said that if we continue to vote for the “least worse”, then we will perpetuate a field of mediocre candidates. I agree, and I think we have done so. We need better choices than the two-party system.

  5. Brian Mann Brian Mann says:

    John –

    I don’t think you are a conspiracy theorist. I just think you’re wrong.

    Your original argument was based on ideas about our political and media cultures in America which I believe are factually, demonstrably false.

    I also think third party candidates have a responsibility to actually organize and demonstrate relevance – and I don’t share your view that they face insurmountable hurdles.

    Thirdly, I think our news organization has a strong record of covering non-traditional candidates and movements when they do become, well, newsworthy.

    Finally, and this is where your latest argument is most squidgy, I think it goes without saying that new media organizations like the Almanack have a responsibility to model and practice what they preach.

    Your credibility suffers so long as the Almanack is willing to publish a list grading North Country media, without acknowledging that the Almanack would fail the same test.

    The simple truth is that you and your large stable of authors — who write well about environmental politics all the time — have ignored the Greens and other third parties completely.

    You have whole sections of the Almanack devoted to “local politics” and to environmental issues. But not a peep about Ms. Stein or, so far as I can tell, the Green Party.

    That may be awkward and difficult to explain, but I think you should try.

    –Brian, NCPR

    • There’s a simple answer: Dr. Stein is not a candidate for local office. The Almanack is a local/regional themed blog.

      And for that matter, the Almanack has, to my knowledge, done hardly any reporting on electoral politics. It’s just not what the blog focuses on.

    • I suspect the answer’s pretty simple. NCPR receives hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in donations from the public plus tax money from CPB plus money from sponsors (“underwriters”). Warren can correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the Almanack’s budget, at least for content, is zero.

      So you claim your hundreds of thousands of dollars in resources are too scant to cover a couple of smaller party candidates but you want the Almanack with its budget of zero to do so?

    • John Warren John Warren says:

      Brian,

      These candidates have “actually organized” and represent millions of Americans. They’re all on the ballot in more than 30 states. One of them, the only woman in the race, was arrested and held through the debate handcuffed to a chair. If that’s not a insurmountable hurdle, I’m not sure what is.

      I used the example of Jill Stein’s arrest to illustrate how profound the situation is. Not only is it apparently OK to largely ignore third party candidates in the press, and to block their access to public debates, but also now to handcuff them to a chair like a common criminal during a debate which could decide the election, but access to which they are denied.

      Only in a world where the ideas of only two parties matter could that not rise to the level of news worthiness.

      This has been another political season of pretending there are only two candidates, only two ideas about how to solve our nation’s biggest problems. That’s completely wrong-headed. You want to lay some of the blame on Adirondack Almanack, but our reporting budget is zero and our contributors are all volunteers. You are the professional reporter Brian, part of a trusted class, deciding who is covered and who is not. Every time you argue that third-parties are unpopular, and so irrelevant and unworthy of our consideration, you break that trust.

      • And Brian M also has a special responsibility beyond that of commercial journalists. The entire point of public broadcasting is to offer a venue for views not lowest common denominator enough to make it onto commercial airwaves. By ignoring or marginalizing these views, he is betraying the central mission, the raison d’etre, of public broadcasting. Public broadcasting exists to offer views that are different than what is available everywhere else, not more of the same.

  6. Jimmy says:

    John Warren is right on this issue. Added to that, I often feel that in recent years news reporters have become less professional journalists and more like celebrities in the spotlight. I’d prefer less theatre and entertainment value in my news and a deeper, broader story. Of course, that is why I read a lot from many sources.

  7. No surprise here that I agree. But Warren is quite right to point out something that I and most others have completely missed: the unique responsibility of NCPR and other public broadcasters.

    The REASON PUBLIC BROADCASTING EXISTS AT ALL IS PRECISELY TO BE A FORUM FOR VIEWS NOT LOWEST COMMON DENOMINATOR enough to air on commercial broadcasters. If they won’t air such views, what’s their purpose?

  8. http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/ticket/romney-sweat-debate-143847980–election.html

    This is the sort of thing we’re subjected to instead of coverage of smaller party candidates: Romney’s sweat and Twitter’s reaction to it.

  9. Rick says:

    I love it when you guys fight!! 🙂

  10. Ann says:

    Ladies and gentleman – I watched the candidates last night, thank you C-Span, and only wished they had been afforded a platform with the chosen few. Win, lose or draw their comments would have required the money candidates to answer to the public the questions no one is asking. The only reason these other candidates are considered “not important” is that mass media have paid them no attention – including my favorite, NPR. Sad. People tell me I will be wasting my vote by not casting it in either the Dem or Rep slot, but I have to live with my own conscience and heart – maybe in another year we will see a more fair and just election. Until that time, lots of prayer is required, and studying history would not hurt either!
    Ann

  11. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/election-2012/wp/2012/10/24/surprise-donald-trumps-major-announcement-is-a-big-nothing/?wp_login_redirect=0

    John, what are you talking about? Of course the media can’t “waste” resources on trivial things like substantive ideas. The lemmings have more important things to spend their resources on: like Donald Trump’s vanity ploy of the week.

  12. Brian Mann Brian Mann says:

    You guys seem to be talking in a vacuum. And you’re also contradicting yourselves.

    John, have you read our news site lately? We talk about unpopular, challenging, difficult issues all the time.

    No, we don’t make a priority of covering third parties, though we do cover them — more than you guys do.

    And Brian – again, you can’t have it both ways.

    You can’t chastise us for not spending a lot of time covering Jill Stein’s campaign and not question the Almanack’s decision not to cover Jill Stein’s campaign — at all.

    We all make editorial decisions about what to cover with limited resources.

    The simple fact which John still hasn’t addressed:

    The Almanack covers politics and environmental issues ALL THE TIME, but has a terrible track record of covering third parties — “worse” than NCPR’s.

    Yet every couple of years, John decides that he should scold other folks for not covering these folks.

    If you think the rest of us are going in the wrong direction, lead — show us something better.

    But first acknowledge your own shortcomings.

    –Brian, NCPR

    • John Warren John Warren says:

      Brian,

      We don’t have paid reporters. We don’t cover national political elections. We link to local third party stories far more than any other website in the region.

      Your vision of political reporting – one that overwhelmingly reports on two parties and declares the ideas of other candidates “irrelevant” – is dying. The Democracy Now debate mash-up and the third-party debate aired on CNN both show that people want to hear other ideas and our changing media environment will provide increasing access. But you are behind the times on this by generally limiting your political reporting to the ideas of two parties. Jon Stewart had a hilarious take this week – he ran clips of Obama and Romney saying the same exact thing during the foreign policy debate. The false dichotomy most political reporters try to present is increasingly being shown to be a mockery of democracy. A democracy mockery .

      I’ve never asked that you make it a priority to cover third parties. I’ve asked that you cover them in a fairer way. I’ve asked that when you present the ideas of two of the candidates, you also provide the ideas of the others. I pointed to a specific example – the Jill Stein incident – which pointed to the slant in coverage around the region.

      You are pretty wrapped-up in defending your own decisions about this issue and trying to throw the stone back at me, but not a single daily newspaper in all of Northern New York has reported on Jill Stein – ever.

      That’s indefensible.

  13. Brian Mann Brian Mann says:

    John –

    1. “We don’t have paid reporters.”

    So what? Media organizations are judged on their content, not their business model.

    You write articles. You’re partnered with one of the finest environmental magazines in the region.

    If you set a standard that regional organizations (you made up the list, not me) should cover Jill Stein, then you should acknowledge that you’re unwilling to cover her campaign yourself.

    2. “We link to local third party stories far more than any other website in the region.”

    Sigh. This is an inherent acknowledgment that other news organizations are doing the work that you are unwilling to do.

    3. “Your vision of political reporting – one that overwhelmingly reports on two parties and declares the ideas of other candidates “irrelevant” – is dying.”

    You are literally making stuff up here.

    I have said repeatedly — clearly, transparently — that I feel that third parties and movements have a responsibility to organize and promote their own ideas.

    And I’ve said that when we deem those to be newsworthy, or interesting, or relevant, we will cover them. And we, unlike the Almanack, have done just that.

    You may quibble with where we put our editorial goal posts. That’s fine. Every media organization is different.

    But the simple, unassailable fact remains that NCPR has covered every third party candidate in the North Country far more thoroughly and aggressively than the Almanack.

    Let me say it again:

    NCPR has covered every third party candidate who has run in the North Country far more thoroughly and aggressively than the Almanack.

    –Brian, NCPR

    • John Warren John Warren says:

      Brian,

      You are funded in part by taxpayers. You are using public money – stop your nonsense and cover all the damn candidates! You are not promoting ideas by covering them. It is in your congressional mandate to cover unpopular ideas. It is your job as a paid professional reporter who accepts the money of taxpayers, and who receives unique protections and access afforded to journalists.

      We’ve had this same discussion many times over the years and your answer is always the same – third parties don’t deserve coverage. Anyone following these debates can see your claim now of covering third parties for the nonsense it is. Which is it Brian? They don’t deserve coverage or you’ve covered them thoroughly and aggressively?

      And you apparently don’t seem to care that not one daily newspaper in Northern New York has covered the only woman in the race – ever. A women who was held in handcuffs during the debate. You’ve had nothing to say about that at all. Nothing.

      BTW, I noticed that you FINALLY mentioned Jill Stein’s candidacy in your latest blog post – congratulations. Maybe now you’ll be able to move forward and consider them in more than simplistic “spoiler” terms. They have ideas too.

  14. Brian Mann Brian Mann says:

    John –

    You are, again, making things up. Out of whole cloth. I have not said that third parties are unworthy of coverage.

    What I’ve said is that third parties have an obligation to organize and mobilize support, and develop movements that warrant coverage.

    NCPR has a strong record of covering movements, activists, and third parties who meet this (common sense) test.

    The Adirondack Almanack does not.

    Rather than speak about that, honestly and with some sense of self-awareness, you keep flustering about the shortcomings of others.

    It doesn’t wash.

    Let me say again: NCPR covers third party candidates. All the time.

    Not because we fetishize third parties but because our editorial standards are such that we focus on interesting people doing interesting and important things.

    The Almanack, meanwhile, scolds other news organizations for not covering third parties — then provides absolutely zero coverage of those candidates, issues or campaigns.

    Again: The Almanack is a media site that covers politics and environmental issues all the time. Yet you have an abysmal track record of covering third parties, national ones or those campaigning in our region.

    Factual inaccuracy is the greatest failing for a media organization. Hypocrisy — that’s a close second.

    –Brian, NCPR

    • You continue to ignore my point that you will cover major party candidates that are widely assumed to have no serious chance of winning but refuse to cover smaller party candidates that are widely assumed to have no serious chance of winning. There are a few holes in your arguments but, aside from the special legal responsibility of public broadcasting to under-served views, that’s the biggest one.

  15. Jess Collier says:

    John, why do you keep mentioning that Jill Stein is the only woman in the presidential race? How is that relevant to anything?

  16. Brian Mann Brian Mann says:

    It is also factually inaccurate to suggest that Stein is the only woman running.

    Actress and activist Roseanne Barr and anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan are currently running for president and vice-president with the Peace and Freedom Party.

    http://www.peaceandfreedom2012.org/

    –Brian, NCPR

    • John Warren John Warren says:

      Who knew? I guess the reason we’ve never had a woman president is that women just haven’t done “the hard work” of organizing to make themselves relevant.

      • Jess Collier says:

        You’re not going to answer my question?

        • John Warren John Warren says:

          Jess,

          Brian Mann’s argument is that third parties don’t deserve attention because they don’t do the hard work of organizing, don’t have a message that resonates with voters, are not competitive, and so, don’t win elections and therefore have no impact.

          A woman has never been elected president. So according to the Mann Theory, women must not be doing the hard work of organizing and don’t have a message that resonates with voters. Hmmm, or maybe there is another reason? One related to popular culture, media, and political economy?

          Because none of my daily newspapers or my local public radio stations report on presidential candidates outside of two parties which receive special treatment, I didn’t realize Jill Stein was not the only woman running.

          That doesn’t discount the larger point. Women’s voices matter at election time. If there is a woman running for president, we should hear what she thinks about the issues, just like we should hear from the left and right. Particularly when the media has been making so much of women’s issues and how women will vote.

  17. Brian Mann Brian Mann says:

    Clever, John, but I’m not letting you off the hook that easily.

    (Any halfway decent reporter can see a head-fake, let’s change the subject comment…)

    So I’m going to ask again for a straight answer

    Please talk honestly and fully about the Almanack’s lack of coverage of third parties?

    You, your columnists and citizen journalists write about politics and environment constantly.

    Why so little coverage of third parties? (Translation: Why NO coverage of third parties?)

    A conscious decision? An oversight? Is it something you plan to remedy or change?

    –Brian, NCPR

    • John Warren John Warren says:

      Brian,

      I’ve answered you at least three times. Your whole argument rests on the assumption that Adirondack Almanack enjoys the benefits of news media – it doesn’t enjoy any. We don’t have paid reporters. We don’t have a (unpaid!) writer that covers electoral politics. I am the closest thing, but I don’t cover electoral politics because to do so would be irresponsible since we don’t have the resources, let alone the resources to be fair (nor would we receive the access). We’re not a newspaper, or a news bureau – hell, we are not even listed in Google news. There are reasons you enjoy the benefits of public funding, shield laws, access, awards – you’re a professional journalist who we entrust with special responsibilities in exchange for the prominent role you play in public life.

      Instead, my view of the Adirondack Almanack (one of more than 20 no doubt) is about providing context for stories that appear elsewhere. We link to stories about third parties that are relevant to the Adirondacks. They appear as frequently as they exist – which is not that frequently.

      I do occasionally write media criticism as a columnist, not a reporter, because having spent 25 years in one form of media or another, I know a little something about it that I can contribute. You can’t have a role in public life without expecting to be criticized. I get criticized every single day. Criticism is an important part of the work of creative people. Filmmakers, authors, musicians, actors, and architects are criticized by people who are not filmmakers, authors, musicians, actors, or architects.

      I appreciate that you’d rather not be criticized. But my critique was not off-base, it’s being echoed by respected people in your own profession, and readers here and at The In Box. What’s more, given the current state of journalism, there is a need in your profession for criticism. It’s healthy, but until the last ten years or so, it was all but non-existent because the people being criticized were in control of the press, and the airwaves.

      We can fail to agree that political reporting is off-base – but attempting to call into question the integrity of the critic is simply side-stepping the serious and carefully considered issue I raised. Would you rather there were no critics of your work? The day that happens, you’ll be irrelevant.

      If you honestly believe that every daily newspaper in our region failing to report a single story about Jill Stein this election season is not a problem, we have nothing further to discuss.

      I don’t think you are that blind to the implications of what that means for our local political discourse.

      Or you can hear my argument from 14-year NPR veteran reporter Andrea Seabrook: “I realized that there is a part of covering Congress, if you’re doing daily coverage, that is actually sort of colluding with the politicians themselves because so much of what I was doing was actually recording and playing what they say or repeating what they say.”

      COLLUDING, she said. PARROTING is what I said.

    • It’s crazy. Brian M often talks about the important role journalists play in our society in terms of separating the wheat from the chaff. Yet he wants bloggers who openly support a particular candidate to do the reporting that professional journalists, who claim to be objective, can’t – nay, won’t – be bothered to do.

      If you want to be the gatekeeper, THEN ACT LIKE ONE! If you don’t, then get out of the way!

      I don’t mind if Warren or other bloggers do more stories on their favorite candidate. But if you’re saying this is a substitute for objective journalism, then you are telling me that you’re irrelevant.

    • Informed media consumer says:

      Don’t you think it’s a little bit dishonest to give the Democrats and Republicans storys every single day, give 3rd party guys 2 or 3 storys the whole campaign and pretend their is some sort of equivalency?

  18. Brian Mann Brian Mann says:

    John –

    So first, thank you. Sincerely.

    You’ve laid out a clear and specific argument for why your media site — which covers politics and environmental policy on a regular basis — doesn’t give much coverage to third parties.

    This allows everyone to reach informed views about whether your editorial policy on this issue is a sound one.

    Meanwhile, I’m not shy at all about criticism. It’s the lifeblood of honest media.

    I wouldn’t engage this conversation — which I love, by the way — if I wasn’t game.

    That doesn’t mean that I have to agree with criticism, particularly where I think it’s wrong.

    One thing I don’t do is tell people who disagree with me that “we have nothing further to discuss.”

    I’m comfortable with the idea that well-meaning and ethical people can see things in different ways.

    –Brian, NCPR

    • John Warren John Warren says:

      Brian,

      You’re right I shouldn’t have said it that way – I doubt you could get to me stop discussing media. I meant we have to agree to disagree.

      That Andrea Seabrook really got to you didn’t she? Haha

  19. Brian Mann Brian Mann says:

    No, Andrea’s quote has been floating around for a while. Her frustration is understandable. Got a lot of discussion in the pub media world, and our shop.

    Her experience is one of the reasons that I’ve been happy staying in the North Country.

    –Brian

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