Washington News Council upholds complaints from Leschi School Community and IUOE Local 609 against KIRO7 Eyewitness News

The Washington News Council held a hearing on Saturday, June 16, from 9 am to noon at Town Hall (downstairs) to consider multiple complaints against KIRO7 Eyewitness News. After hearing detailed presentations from the complainants, the WNC’s Hearings Board voted to uphold the complaints almost unanimously.

NOTE: You can watch the original KIRO story here. You can also watch a full video of the News Council hearing itself, thanks to TVW.

See coverage on this story from The Stranger, (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4) Crosscut, The Seattle Weekly (Part 1 and Part 2), Seattle Schools Community Forum, NW Daily Marker (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) as well as the special feature from imediaethics.org

Chris Halsne (left) on KIRO7, talking about Chester Harris (right). Click the image to visit the KIRO story in question. No representatives from KIRO attended the hearing, although they were invited to come. Media participation is voluntary.

The complaints concerned two [CORRECTION: actually, three] stories that aired on May 10-11 about an African-American custodian at Leschi Elementary School, Chester Harris. The stories alleged that Harris had “manhandled” or “bullied” children at the school. They also questioned Harris’ past history, which included several arrests but only one conviction.

However, after the stories aired the Leschi School principal, staff, teachers, parents and International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 609, which represents custodians and other school support staff, defended Harris and criticized the KIRO stories. They flooded KIRO with phone calls and emails, contending that the stories were inaccurate, unfair, sensationalized and unethical. They noted that Harris was merely trying to break up a potential fight between two boys, and asked that the stories be retracted and removed from KIRO’s website, which did not occur. Not satisfied with the response from KIRO7, they turned to the Washington News Council and begin filing formal written complaints, plus signing the WNC waiver form pledging not to sue KIRO7 for defamation, as we require.

At the hearing, which was open to the public and the media, WNC President John Hamer welcomed the crowd and briefly described the mission and programs of the News Council, and thanked TVW for filming the hearing for broadcast statewide and posting on the TVW website. Hearings Board Chair Karen Seinfeld explained the hearing schedule and WNC procedures. WNC Hearings Board members then introduced themselves.

Panel members were: John Hamer, Chuck Rehberg, John Knowlton, David Schaefer, Steve Boyer, Eddie Reed, Sandy Schoolfield, Ted Van Dyk, and Stephen Silha. All are current or emeritus members of the WNC’s Board of Directors. Seven worked as professional journalists for many years. Four are past presidents of the WNC’s Board.

Videos of two of the KIRO stories were then shown on a big screen, with help from Jacob Caggiano, WNC communications strategist. [NOTE: The third story was not available for viewing; it had never been placed on KIRO's website. A copy has been requested.]

To begin the hearing testimony, presentations were made by Mike McBee, recording and corresponding secretary for the IUOE, Local 609; Teresa Stout, administrative secretary at Leschi Elementary School; and Laura McMahon, mother of a Leschi Elementary School student. Dozens of IUOE union members, Leschi staff and teachers, and parents of Leschi students attended the event. Many, including Principal Cashel Toner, wore Leschi School sweatshirts to show their solidarity. Custodian Chester Harris also attended, with his son, Brandon.

After the complainants’ statements, WNC Hearings Board members asked questions to get more detail and clarify issues. They then discussed the stories and allegations openly, in what Chair Seinfeld described as “a peek into the jury room.” Finally, after brief closing statements by the complainants, the panel voted on several questions. [NOTE: WNC President and Executive Director John Hamer participated in the discussion but did not vote, explaining that he had expressed strong opinions about KIRO7 and Chris Halsne in the past and thus could be perceived as being biased.] Votes were collected and counted by Kathy Schrier, WNC executive assistant, with help from Teresa Hunt, former WNC executive assistant.

WNC HEARINGS BOARD FINAL VOTES

1. Did the KIRO7 Eyewitness News stories of May 10 and 11, 2012, accurately describe the actions of custodian Chester Harris when it contended he was “manhandling” or “bullying” students at Leschi Elementary School and that he “grabbed” a student without cause? VOTE: 8 No, 0 Yes.

2. Did KIRO7′s use of a hidden camera to film Leschi Elementary School students without obtaining permission from the principal, administration or parents violate the privacy of the students or put some students at potential risk? VOTE: 7 Yes, 1 did not vote.

3. Should the KIRO7 story about Chester Harris have included comments from Leschi School officials noting that a previous charge against him by one of the station’s primary sources was found to be false and groundless after thorough investigation? VOTE: 8 Yes, 0 No.

4. Should the KIRO7 story have included comments from school officials noting that another of the station’s primary sources has a restraining order against her from coming onto the Leschi Elementary School grounds? VOTE: 8 Yes, 0 No.

5. Was the KIRO7 story’s report that “little has been done” in response to previous complaints a fair characterization of the actions by the Leschi School staff and Seattle Public Schools? VOTE: 8 No, 0 Yes.

6. Did KIRO7 delete comments from Leschi community members from its website that were critical of its May 10 story and defended Chester Harris? VOTE: 7 Yes, 1 did not vote.

7. Did KIRO7′s May 11 story, an interview with the mother of the boy who was allegedly “grabbed,” sufficiently offset any unfairness in the May 10 and [earlier] May 11 stories? VOTE: 8 No, 0 Yes.

8. Did KIRO7′S story [stories] unfairly damage the reputations of:

a) Chester Harris? VOTE: 8 Yes, 0 No.

b) the Leschi School Community? VOTE: 8 Yes, 0 No.

c) Seattle Public Schools? VOTE: 5 Yes, 3 No.

d) the IUOE, Local 609? VOTE: 3 Yes, 5 No.

9. Does KIRO7 have any obligation, under generally accepted media-ethics codes, to:

a) Retract its stories? VOTE: 4 Yes, 4 did not vote.

b) Remove the stories from its website? VOTE: 4 Yes, 4 did not vote.

c) Air a follow-up story setting the record straight? VOTE: 3 Yes, 5 did not vote.

d) Apologize to all those whose reputations were damaged? VOTE: 4 Yes, 4 did not vote.

e) All of the above? VOTE: 7 Yes, 1 did not vote.

f) None of the above? VOTE: 0 votes Yes or No.

Members of the audience were also given ballots and invited to vote. A total of 40 ballots were received. Not all voters voted on every question. (Members of the public were also invited to vote and comment online. Voting was open until June 30; results are posted below.)

AUDIENCE VOTES ON JUNE 16:

1.Yes 0, No 39
2.Yes 38, No 1
3.Yes 39, No 0
4.Yes 36, No 3
5.Yes 0, No 38
6.Yes 37, No 2
7.Yes 2, No 36
8.a) Yes 39, No 0 b) Yes 38, No 1 c) Yes 35, No 2 d)Yes 35, No 0
9.a) 0 b) 1 c) 5 d) 2 e) 33 f) 0

We also invited members of the public who were not able to attend the June 16 hearing to vote online on the same questions. More than half of the 45 who voted online were not connected to the school, the union, or the media. Again, not everyone voted on every question. Here are the results of these votes:

ONLINE VOTES FROM JUNE 16-30:

1.Yes 2, No 40

2.Yes 40, No 2

3.Yes 43, No 2

4.Yes 43, No 1

5.Yes 3, No 41

6.Yes 35, No 0

7.Yes 4, No 35

8.a) Yes 41, b) Yes 39, c) Yes 33, d) Yes 23

9.a) 17 b) 17 c) 18 d) 17 e) 39 f) 2

BACKGROUND

The Washington News Council first received a formal written complaint on May 14 from the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 609, which represents Harris and other staff in Seattle Public Schools (see their letter to KIRO, summary of the case, and WNC complaint form). The WNC also received numerous individual complaints from the Leschi School administration (see their letter to KIRO), staff and teachers, followed by complaints from many individual parents, and finally from the Leschi PTA. The number of complaints totaled 15 [UPDATE: 16] – which is the largest number of complaints against any stories in the WNC’s history. After reviewing the complaints, and deciding that they raised “serious questions of journalistic performance and ethics,” the WNC accepted them for its process. The first step was to notify KIRO that the complaints had been received and accepted.

The complaints were hand-delivered to KIRO’s front desk on May 25, addressed to Todd Mokhtari, news director. [NOTE: Mokhtari was then still employed by KIRO but subsequently left for another job in Los Angeles.] An addendum including the PTA’s complaint and a list of requests to KIRO were hand-delivered on May 31. KIRO was asked to respond to the complainants and to the WNC by June 1. However, KIRO did not respond to the WNC’s phone calls, emails or written letters.

Many parents and teachers also expressed concern because KIRO did not get permission to film students whose faces are clearly visible in the broadcasts. Some families had domestic-violence issues, so showing students’ faces on TV put them at risk, complainants said.

KIRO also had deleted negative comments about the story from its website, upsetting parents and teachers who had commented online. Several complainants noted that KIRO relied on sources who had previous conflicts with school administrators, and relied on sources from members of the same family though presented them as being from two separate families.

WNC hearings are not a legal proceeding, but an open public discussion of media ethics and performance. There are no sanctions for the news media other than publicity. Media participation in the WNC’s process is entirely voluntary, but under News Council guidelines, hearings will proceed with or without the media organization’s attendance. Their non-participation does not prejudice the Hearings Board’s votes. A table with KIRO’s name on it was available in case the station’s representatives decided to attend. They did not.

The entire hearing was filmed by TVW and may be viewed at tvw.org. It was also aired on TVW stations statewide, and is available on DVD. It will be used in high-school and college journalism classes statewide as a case study in media performance and ethics. If KIRO decides to respond to the hearing results in any way, their response will be posted on the WNC’s website and added to any instructional materials used in classes. We cordially invite KIRO and Cox Media Group executives to respond, by phone, email, written letter or on the air.

You can see the complete packet of complaint materials, a total 26 different documents regarding the case. Please call the WNC office at 206.262.9793 with any questions.

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Sam Reed Stood Up to KIRO7′s Media Malpractice

Secretary of State Sam Reed, who announced his retirement recently, is being hailed for standing up for transparency, accessibility and openness in government — and justifiably so.

Reed received the Washington Coalition for Open Government’s coveted James Madison Award last week in recognition of his work. [FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m a member of WCOG’s advisory committee but had no role in the Reed award.]

The awards breakfast just happened to fall on International Media Ethics Day, sponsored by the Center for International Media Ethics .

That struck me as highly ironic, because Reed brought a complaint to the Washington News Council three years ago for some of the most unethical media behavior I have seen in more than 40 years as a journalist, media critic and news-council president.

Don’t take my word for it. Read what happened and make up your own mind.

As part of a national CBS-affiliate series of stories on voter fraud, KIRO7 ran two stories in the fall of 2008, shortly before Election Day. The first story, which ran on Oct. 15, 2008, alleged that thousands of felons had been issued ballots and many had already voted, although felons are not supposed to have voting rights. KIRO “investigative” reporter Chris Halsne interviewed a woman who supposedly was a convicted felon but said she had voted anyway. The second story, which ran on Nov. 3, 2008, alleged that more than 100 dead voters were still on Washington’s active voter rolls, with 15 of them actually casting “ghost” ballots. On her front porch, Halsne interviewed the widow of a man who supposedly had “voted” although he’d been dead since 1996. You can watch both stories below as will as read the transcripts (October 15th story, November 3rd story)

However, both stories contained egregious factual errors, including these:

  1. The “felon” was not a felon. She had been convicted only of a misdemeanor, so she never lost her right to vote. KIRO failed to doublecheck that simple fact.
  2. The “dead” voter was not dead. The deceased man’s son, who has the same name, had voted. KIRO had confused the two men and ignored the widow’s statement to that effect.

Reed and his staff had tried to make KIRO aware of these facts before the stories aired, but to no avail. After the stories aired, Reed’s office was deluged with angry phone calls and emails from citizens who had watched KIRO and believed what they saw on TV. Reed protested to KIRO, but the station “stood by its stories.”

So Reed filed a written complaint (page 1 & page 2) in December 2008 with the Washington News Council. He also signed our waiver form pledging not to sue KIRO, which we require of all complainants.

In his complaint, Reed declared that two KIRO stories were “factually incorrect, incomplete, misleading, sensationalized, inflammatory, and unfair.” He said the stories “wrongly damaged” his office and “failed to include balancing facts or information.” In a 10-page attached letter to the WNC and cc’d to KIRO, Reed wrote:

“[W]e were distressed when Chris Halsne, KIRO 7 Eyewitness News Investigative Reporter, aired two election-related news stories that fell far short of the most basic standards of journalism for accuracy, balance and fairness. This occurred despite our repeated efforts to correct some of his assumptions and methodology and errors before he aired his reports. To have someone purposely proceed with incorrect and misleading information after all of this was just unconscionable and had the negative effect of undermining trust and confidence in our elections process.”

The News Council accepted Reed’s complaint for our process and hand-delivered it to KIRO on Dec. 31, 2008. Under our guidelines, we asked for a written response from KIRO within 10 days. KIRO did not respond and never returned repeated calls or emails.

However, in early January 2009 KIRO General Manager Eric Lerner called Reed’s office to schedule a face-to-face meeting. Lerner, News Director Todd Mokhtari, Investigative Reporter Chris Halsne, and Producer Bill Benson drove to Olympia on Jan. 21, 2009. At that meeting, Reed and his staff documented the serious inaccuracies in Halsne’s two stories.

According to Dave Ammons, Reed’s communications director and former Associated Press political writer and columnist in Olympia, the KIRO delegation listened, but then declared that they would not run corrections or clarifications, nor would they remove the stories from the KIRO website.

Reed and state Elections Director Nick Handy were stunned, according to Ammons. In an email to KIRO, Reed said: “We continue to believe that, at the least, KIRO should remove these stories from the KIRO website. Whether KIRO chooses to take other action is a matter to be determined by KIRO’s own journalistic standards.”

Incredibly, according to Reed and Ammons, the KIRO managers then offered to remove the stories if Reed would agree not to inform the News Council or the public. [Italics mine.] To his credit, Reed refused that unethical request. KIRO later removed the stories from its website without notifying Reed or the News Council. However, Reed’s office and the WNC had taped the two stories. We put them on our website, where they remain available for viewing.

The News Council then began preparing to hold a public hearing, to be broadcast statewide by TVW, at which the WNC board would publicly discuss and vote on the merits of the complaint. That’s our standard procedure when serious complaints cannot be resolved, and we’ve held several of them over the years.

However, on Feb. 17, Sam Reed asked that the hearing not go forward. He wrote:

“After much careful consideration, we at the Secretary of State’s Office have reluctantly decided not to pursue our complaint against KIRO-TV to the full hearing stage.

“We remain convinced that we presented a compelling argument, both in our written Washington News Council submission and in direct conversations with KIRO-TV management and staff, that significant errors in fact and in tone were made in two special reports by reporter Chris Halsne….

“We asked for clarification, for corrections, and for the incorrect and overblown stories to be taken down from the KIRO website, and got zero acknowledgement that anything was amiss or that the journalistic standards required more than a dismissive brush-off of the state’s chief elections officer….

“After several conversations as part of the News Council negotiating period, KIRO eventually agreed to pull down their stories from the Web site if we would muzzle ourselves and not inform the News Council of the nature of this accommodation. This we cannot agree to, since this leaves KIRO offering very little and conceding nothing.

“At the same time, we weary of this frustrating battle and the countless man-hours devoted to researching chapter and verse of this sorry episode, and we see little value in continuing to bang our head against the wall, knowing that KIRO will boycott the proceedings and will not acknowledge errors in fact and in tone, much less fix the problem. A News Council finding in our favor would not change the dynamic; properly, in a nation that so values the First Amendment, the council cannot order KIRO to do anything….

“We close by expressing our sincere thanks to the Council…for accepting our complaint and for professionalism in walking with us through the process, including the most recent negotiating period with KIRO. It is through no fault of the Council…that we have decided to suspend our complaint.”

The News Council reluctantly accepted Reed’s decision not to proceed with a hearing. However, the WNC then invited the public to participate in an unprecedented “Citizens Online News Council” to help judge KIRO’s journalistic ethics and performance. No news council in the world (and there are dozens of them, most members of the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe) had ever done that before. We called it a “virtual hearing.”

The KIRO stories, Reed’s complaint and letter, and key questions for discussion were posted on our website. Members of the public were invited to view the stories, read the complaint, and “vote” on several issues regarding the KIRO stories that the full News Council would have considered had this case gone to a hearing. You can read the full list of the questions and total votes HERE.

The voting deadline was April 30, 2009, during national “Media Ethics Week” sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists. (Although inexplicably, the head of the SPJ’s national ethics committee objected to the virtual hearing. You can read his reasons, and our response, HERE.)

KIRO got hammered. The votes were nearly all highly critical of KIRO and upheld Reed’s complaint (see vote results and comments). Of  all those who voted online, only a few defended KIRO. Most voters added critical comments.

As president and executive director of the Washington News Council, I still find this case one of the most shocking examples of unprofessional, irresponsible journalism that I have ever seen.  KIRO even got criticized by The Stranger and earned a “Dart” in Columbia Journalism Review.

KIRO played fast and loose with the facts, disregarding the truth. They refused to set the record straight even after being confronted with incontrovertible evidence that they were wrong. Then they tried to “bury” the stories by sneaking them off their website without telling anyone or admitting any errors. Yikes.

A recent national survey by the Pew Center for the People and the Press found public trust in the news media at about its lowest level ever. Stories like KIRO’s are part of the reason for that.

Kudos to Sam Reed for having the courage to stand up to KIRO. More public officials and individual citizens who are damaged by shoddy news reporting should do the same. Otherwise, bad journalists will keep committing media malpractice — which hurts journalism, the public and democracy.

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Journalism Needs More Ombudsmen AND News Councils

Craig Silverman gives keynote speech to #ONO2011 meeting in Montreal. John Hamer of WNC (bald spot on left) listens along with Michael Getler, ombudsman of PBS (bald head on right).

“It’s really important that we have accountability mechanisms in journalism. When it comes to our own accountability, most news organizations are doing a pretty poor job, to be blunt.”

Craig Silverman, in keynote speech to Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO) annual convention, Montreal

Craig Silverman, a regular columnist for Columbia Journalism Review and The Toronto Star, is also author of “Regret the Error – How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech.” 

In his talk to the world’s ombudsmen last week, Silverman cited several studies which found that 40 to 60 percent of news stories contained some kind of error! A comprehensive survey of U.S. newspapers found the highest error rate on record.
“We’ve been telling people for literally hundreds of years that when we make a mistake we correct it,” Silverman said. But the U.S. study found a correction rate of only about 2 percent.

“That is pretty outrageous,” Silverman said. “If we’re only correcting 2 percent of errors, we’re not meeting our own standards. It represents a serious failure on the part of news organizations.”

“Reporters will be inclined to not want to run a correction, because they’ve been trained that that’s a bad thing,” Silverman said. “They need to change that attitude.” He’s right on both counts.

What’s more, errors are “now forever,” because they are cached online, and spread worldwide by Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc., Silverman noted. Dealing with complaints about errors is one of the jobs of news ombudsmen – and also of news or press councils.

I joined the Organization of News Ombudsmen as an associate member last year, partly because I love the acronym – ONO! – but also because the Washington News Council is a kind of “outside ombudsman” for news media in this state.

Unfortunately, there are no full-time ombudsmen at any news organizations in our state anymore. That’s too bad. Over the years when I was at The Seattle Times, they had four different ombudsmen. A couple of them were pretty good. I edited their columns, which ran on the editorial pages.

Ombudsmen hear and respond to complaints from readers, viewers or listeners about news stories that are arguably inaccurate, unfair, imbalanced and/or unethical. That’s also what news or press councils do – and what we have done for the past 13 years.

Some say ombudsmen – since they are employed by the news outlets, have offices in or near the newsrooms, and generally know the editors, reporters, and producers – can deal with complaints more effectively. Of course, since their salaries are paid by those they are hired to critique, some also may question their level of independence. But most try to be fair, thorough and constructively critical. Many do criticize their own newspapers, broadcast stations, and/or websites strongly – and they’re often not too popular in newsrooms.

Also, the number of ombudsmen around the world has declined over the years – especially in the United States. ONO now has about 60 members worldwide, with only 20 in the U.S. Many media organizations say they simply can’t afford the position anymore, when they don’t even have enough reporters to cover their local communities.

Ombudsmen’s jobs have been eliminated at many American newspapers in recent decades – including at The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. At the same time, some of the best American newspapers – The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today – have created or enhanced the position, although some are called “public editors” or “reader representatives.” There are also experienced ombudsmen at most major broadcast news outlets worldwide. In this country, only PBS, NPR and now ESPN have ombudsmen.

Jeffrey Dvorkin, former NPR ombudsman who now is executive director of ONO, told his colleagues in Montreal: “The ombudsman’s job is like being on the front lines of the First Amendment…We’re in between the public and the editors. We point out the warts and flaws. The [news] organization doesn’t want to hear it. We’re speaking truth to power.”

Jacob Mollerup, the current president of ONO whose title is “Listeners and Viewers Editor” at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation in Copenhagen, wryly described the job as “a lonely hell.”

He was only half joking. ONO members often say they have “the loneliest job in the newsroom.” Most journalists don’t like to hear complaints about their work and are reluctant to make corrections or explain their performance in public – which is what they always demand of those they cover. Double standard? Unquestionably.

The annual ONO conference is an opportunity for attendees to come together, swap stories, compare tactics, and commiserate with others who are in the same boat. Three days of panels, speakers and “shop talk” – with a few dinners and receptions thrown in – clearly have a therapeutic effect.

A draft business plan, sent out in advance and discussed on the final day of the gathering, notes that ONO’s first goal should be as a “meeting place and discussion forum.” The Montreal conference, for the first time, was simultaneously translated into English, French and Spanish, which was a great help to all.

Another goal is outreach – promoting ombudsmanship in cooperation with partners around the world. That includes to “be a serious partner in media projects where different organizations join forces in order to promote media accountability.”

A third is to expand the organization: “ONO should welcome members of independent press councils as associates.” I was invited to speak on a panel at their convention last year at Oxford University on how ombudsmen and press councils can work more closely together. And Mollerup recently attended the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe (AIPCE) conference.

A final goal is to keep an open mind for new projects and ways of promoting media accountability – including in cyberspace. That’s precisely what the WNC has been doing for the last few years, and I shared some of our ideas with ONO members:

  1. Report an Error. Silverman and Scott Rosenberg of MediaBugs have developed a new online “Report an Error” system now being used by about 100 news sites and blogs. The WNC has been working with them and we now have the “Report an Error” widget on this site. We invite readers to report errors in Pacific Northwest media as we test this intriguing new system.
  2. NewsTrust.net. We also invite them to nominate and review state and regional stories on our NewsTrust.net widget. You must register to become a reviewer and it’s a great tool, especially to praise high-quality stories.
  3. Online community.  People may join our online community and begin participating in discussions of various topics. Our groups have grown steadily.
  4. Online Media Guide. We’re also developing a new Online Media Guide (OMG) for Washington news and information sources, which will be a valuable resource for journalists, public-affairs professionals, politicians, academics, etc.

One of the most interesting speakers in Montreal was Guy Amyot, executive secretary of the Press Council of Quebec. His council, unlike some others in Canada and elsewhere, hears complaints about print, broadcast and online news media, not just newspapers.

“It is the liberty of the press to be independent from any power structure, but because of this freedom they have to be accountable,” Amyot said. “The media are not obliged to name ombudsmen and are also not obliged to join press councils.” But, he strongly suggested, they should do both. He’s absolutely right.

In order to maintain public trust and credibility, all those practicing journalism need to be more transparent, accountable and open. Ombudsmen and news councils can clearly help – if more journalists would only listen.

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David Gregory visits the “Other Washington”

David Gregory, Moderator, Meet The PressSomeone (probably a journalist) once said: “Journalists make the best company.”

David Gregory, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press” and longtime NBC White House correspondent, certainly was “good company” when he spoke to about 500 people at Seattle’s Town Hall on Sept. 21, at an event sponsored by CityClub.

(Full Disclosure: The Washington News Council was a co-presenter of the event, so I got in free, had an information table in the lobby, and handed out invitations to our annual Gridiron West Dinner. Was I co-opted? You decide.)

Gregory was charming, funny, engaging, informal, low-key, down-to-earth, sometimes provocative and occasionally enlightening. Just the kind of guy you’d like to have over for dinner — or at least have a glass of wine or a beer with.

Before a crowd of fairly friendly fans, being “interviewed” onstage by Jean Enersen, KING5’s iconic anchorwoman (who asked mostly softball questions), Gregory seemed to relax and enjoy himself.

Known as “the firebrand in the front row” when he was covering President
George W. Bush as part of the White House press corps, Gregory is now staking his claim as the likable-tough-guy successor to Tim Russert on “Meet the Press.” Like Russert, Gregory regular nails his guests with embarrassing quotes and clips from their past, demanding that they explain themselves on the air before a national audience.

But I sometimes wonder whether Gregory – or any journalist, for that matter – could stand up to the same kind of tough questioning about their own job performance. How solid were their decisions under pressure? What mistakes did they make? What biases influence their work? Do they confess when they are wrong and apologize? Do they ever show humility? Journalists love to hold others publicly accountable, but who holds them publicly accountable?

Enersen’s first question set the tone for the evening. Noting that Gregory was “so tall” (he’s 6’5”), she asked: “Why not the NBA? Why politics?

Gregory quipped: “I could have played baseball, but I just fell a little short.” (Laughter.) “My career in journalism started out with a love for the news….I wanted to cover the world and was really drawn to the big stories.”

Enersen asked if he “missed being the firebrand in the front row?” Modestly, Gregory said: “No. I did it for a long time.” Then he declared: “This [Meet the Press] is the ultimate front row. This is the ultimate job….We try to set the agenda. We try to move the story forward. We try to make news – and we do.”

In response to Enersen’s pretty bland questions, Gregory had some pretty bland answers:

On the economy: “This is not just a downturn…. There’s a deep psychological wound…. It may be a generational change….I think there’s a lot of people who are angry….People are just really uncertain….There’s a lack of optimism, a fear of the future.” (Anybody disagree?)

On the Tea Party: It’s a “populist, conservative, small-government, anti-Washington [D.C.] movement,” upset with “bailouts” and “too much deficit spending.” Also: “And a real antipathy toward Obama that in some cases is racism.” (Easy to say. Any clear evidence?)

On Barack Obama: “Certainly President Obama is not as popular as he would like to be – or as he was expected to be.” Gregory said Rahm Emanuel told Obama that he “had to get close to Bill Clinton,” and Obama did that. “President Obama is not going to be big enough to call on President Bush all that often.” (The guy he blames for everything?)

On political “polarization”: “We’ve always been polarized,” and that is “compounded by a media culture that has become increasingly polarized….I just don’t feel like constructive engagement with the other side is something that’s celebrated anymore….There’s a big political center in this country but we tend to write them off.” (This from the “firebrand in the front row” whose current show delights in conflict?)

On the media’s role: Meet the Press’s mission is “accountability, relevance, constructive engagement, thoughtful discussion. It’s a place to ‘put it all together.’” But, he lamented: “There ought to be more outlets where we’re really listening to each other, not waiting to pounce. We don’t have enough intellectual spontaneity. I like to see people really wrestling with issues.” (But what would that do to the ratings?)

On the “other Washington”: “I think that the farther you get from Washington [D.C.], the more things get clearer….There’s a game in Washington [D.C.] – it’s a company town: the lawyers, the journalists, the lobbyists, and the politicians….People outside Washington [D.C.] say, ‘That’s clearly not working.’” (Aren’t they right?)

On his work/family life: “I do have a certain amount of flexibility, because as my wife says, ‘You only work one hour a week.’ I like to point out that there’s at least three or four hours more that go into that.” (Actually, the guy probably does work pretty hard.)

On the Blogosphere: “I like to see what the Zeitgeist is in that community, but even with millions of people it’s a limited community. It can be an echo chamber. It can be partisan in one way or another….Is there some good reporting that goes on? Of course. But there’s also a whole lot of crap. It’s not a monolith.” (He’s right about that.)

On being well-informed: “We are in an information age where there’s so much information out there to be an informed citizen….There’s still a lot of good journalism that is helping us to be well-informed.” (Absolutely right about that.)

The Q-and-A session, when people lined up at a microphone to query Gregory, had some interesting moments.

On Jon Stewart’s upcoming “Rally to Restore Sanity”: “He’s a comedian, but he’s also got a point of view. I think what they do is serious. It’s not a joke.” However, “They are part of the media polarization.” As for Stewart: “He asks tough questions. He does a great job. I admire him a lot.” (Would he say the same of Glenn Beck?)

On former Associated Press (CORRECTION: Thomas worked for United Press International, and then for Hearst Newspapers) writer Helen Thomas: “I think Helen lost her way. I don’t know when that happened….I thought she was miscast as the ‘dean of the press corps.’ She was a polemicist. Her views in the press corps were well known.” (Oh, really? Then why weren’t they reported somewhere? Shouldn’t journalists “watchdog” each other, especially if one is anti-Semitic?)

On the “gotcha” tapes that he uses on the show: “I really don’t see those as ‘gotcha.’” (Oh, come on, David! That why people love the show!)

On Afghanistan: “American prestige is on the line” along with “the fate of radical Islam….If you allow Afghanistan to become a failed state again, all kinds of bad things could happen. The question is, at what cost are we going to keep pursuing it? We have a long history in that part of the world, but we have been incredibly short-sighted. We’re going to have a big combat presence there for a long time.” (Give him extra points for candor.)

On his personal politics: “I’m a registered Independent.” (And that settles that.)

On being in Seattle: “An evening like this for me is really constructive….The common sense outside of Washington [D.C.] is real.” He said people often ask him, “Aren’t you embarrassed that you’re working in a town where so little is accomplished?” (No.)

Will Gregory take any lessons back to the “other Washington”? Who knows? Once they’re inside the Beltway, journalists tend to fall into the same predictable patterns, conventional storylines, easy stereotypes, gross oversimplifications, crass sensationalism, and incessant scandal-mongering that have made many people angry…at the press.

Maybe D.C. journalists should get out more often. Meet the People, for a change.

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Ira Glass on broadcasting’s “failure of craft”

A radio personality filling a concert hall with fans? That’s pretty rare, but it happened Aug. 21 when Ira Glass, host of “This American Life” (TAL) on National Public Radio (NPR) appeared at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall. The place was packed.

Introducer Dan Savage, publisher of The Stranger, which co-sponsored the event along with KUOW-FM and Northwest Associated Arts, dead-panned that Glass “slept his way to the top…which sounds like fun until you remember he works in radio.”

Savage, who writes a sex-advice column, is a regular contributor to TAL. “He [Glass] keeps me around just for the sex advice,” Savage quipped, adding that “I know what Ira likes” but “I can’t tell you.”

(Glass is married. His wife is from Iraq, he said later in the program, and her family fled that country because of Saddam Hussein.)

After Savage’s intro, the house lights went out and Glass’s distinctive voice was heard: “I tried to talk them into doing the entire show in the dark, but they said no,” he joked. For those who find his voice somewhat affected, that’s really just the way he talks.

Glass described TAL – a program he originated in 1995 after 16 years as an NPR employee — as “applying journalism to things it doesn’t normally get applied to.” His goal is to add “fun,” “joyfulness,” and “surprise” to stories, he said. He noted that this “never happens in broadcast journalism,” which is “a failure of craft.”

Glass noted wryly that he used to listen to NPR stories thinking: “I would be a better person if I can get through this story.” The crowd applauded knowingly.

As TAL fans know – and they are a devoted group – Glass consistently tells interesting stories in an engaging way, unlike much of the broadcast media.

“Part of the job of journalism is not to describe what’s new, but to describe what is,” Glass said. “The world they describe is so much smaller than the real world.”

This is “one of the lousy things about doing journalism,” he added – i.e., that much reporting focuses on “massive, unsolvable” world problems. That “makes most of journalism such a drag and also makes it so inaccurate,” he said.

Describing broadcast journalists, he said that they sound like “talking robots….the esthetics of the language is so stiff” He called that “one of the reasons why journalism is having such a tough time now.” Television journalism is “doing terribly,” he said.

“The only people who are doing well is public radio,” Glass boasted – to more applause from his loyal fans. Seattle-Tacoma listeners on KUOW and KPLU make up TAL’s third-largest regional audience nationwide.

“Opinion in all its forms is kicking the ass of journalism,” he said. However, opinion and commentary – including much that is on NPR (even on TAL) – is clearly a major part of journalism. Surely Glass would acknowledge that. In fact, the lines between reporting and editorializing have crumbled, if not fallen.

Glass mentioned Glenn Beck, Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart as primarily news  commentators, adding that he’s a fan of Maddow and Stewart. As for Beck, he said: “That guy is fascinating,” but moved on without adding much detail. Too bad. Maybe Glass will do a story on Beck sometime. That would be interesting to hear.

Glass spent a lot of time talking about his approach to story-telling. A story is “not about logic, it’s not about reason, it’s about emotion,” he said. “You can use incredibly banal action to create suspense.” On radio, “you tell a story like you tell it in real life.”

He played several sample cuts, complete with the brief musical interludes that are a staple of TAL. His story about the veteran who allegedly dumped his wife’s ashes in a parking lot was fascinating; the story of the couple who went to a swingers’ party was really lame.

TAL’s basic formula is “action, action, action” followed by “thought,” Glass said. He noted wryly that he had “spent three years of [his] life inventing” that format – then realized that his rabbi did exactly the same thing, as did every other deliverer of religious sermons. In fact, he quipped, the entire Bible follows that formula!

TAL now has a staff of eight (it used to have four), and they review 25 to 30 ideas a week to produce three or four stories for the program. He invited the audience to suggest story ideas. (Hey, Ira, how about a story on the “TAO of Journalism”?)

“From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed, we’re bombarded by stories,” Glass said – on television, radio, print, and the internet – but “it’s rare to have stories that we can empathize with and that can touch you.”

That’s TAL’s goal, he said: “We live in such a divided country, it’s rare to get inside somebody else’s shoes. That’s what we try to do.”

Glass got a standing ovation. Clearly TAL fans think he succeeds — and most of the time, he does. TAL plays a unique and valuable role in American journalism and in American life. More journalists – print, broadcast and online – could take a lesson.

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