Archive for March, 2010

Newspaper bailouts a bad idea

Ryan Blethen

Newspaper bailouts are a bad idea, but there are better ways government can help save struggling newspapers, says Ryan Blethen, editorial page editor for The Seattle Times.

Here is an interesting perspective from an heir to one of the great family newspaper traditions in America on the future of journalism.

We can't run from scourge of drugs

This is an updated version of an editorial I wrote and published in the Sun last week at the conclusion of our series on the drug problem in Clark County.

Editorial — The Winchester Sun

This photo and others published as part of our series on drugs last week upset at least one reader. It is an illustration. The needle isn't actually going into the man's arm. (Sun photo by James Mann)

A mother of a young child who left a message on the publisher’s voice mail last week was understandably disturbed by the graphic images that accompanied our series on the drug problem in Clark County.
But that’s the whole point: We all should be disturbed.
For too long, too many people have been in denial about the scourge of drug and alcohol addiction in their midst.
While we have no reason to believe the problem is any worse in Clark County than anywhere else, it serves no useful purpose to deny that it exists.
There is a serious drug problem in our country, and it is in every community, every neighborhood and every high school, including ours — and, like cancer, it touches almost every family.
Ron Kibbey, director of the Comprehensive Care Center, said it well:
“Everybody has to acknowledge that this community has a problem,” he said. “Everybody has to acknowledge the potential devastation of this problem to our community and our loved ones, and everybody has to take some role in battling it.”
This is no time to run, or hide our heads in the sand. We must fight.
Admitting that we have a problem is the first step toward solving it.
Just how bad is the problem? Consider these facts that our series revealed:
— Probably the most poignant reminder of the tragedy of drug addiction was the memorial service March 14 at First United Methodist Church, where 46 candles represented 46 lives lost in Clark County due to drugs.
— According to statistics from the County Coroner’s Office, from September 2008 to December 2009 alone, 32 people in Clark County died of drug overdoses, mostly from prescription drugs.
— A generation ago, the most prevalent drug abuse involved marijuana and cocaine, which are harmful enough, but pale in comparison to the deadly  prescription drugs like Oxycontin and Percocet, which now account for most of the trafficking arrests in and around Winchester.
— The problem is growing. 2007 was a record year for drug arrests here: 842. In 2008, the number was almost as high.
— Many of the drugs are coming through the “Florida pipeline,” in which people getting prescriptions for pain killers in a state where regulations are lax, then sell those pills on the black market here for enormous sums.
— These drugs are costly enough to bankrupt most families or drive addicts to commit other crimes. We’ve seen an example of that recently in the arrest of drug addicts who were stealing copper from air conditioners.
— A local district judge estimated that more than 90 percent of cases that end up in court in Clark County are drug-related.
There are a few bright spots in this dark story.
— Police are increasing their efforts, as shown by the recent round-up of mostly small-time drug dealers.
— Statewide, suspensions for drugs have fallen in public schools, and Clark County Superintendent Elaine Farris said she thinks the situation is improving locally due to policies such as drug-testing of athletes, mentoring and having police officers patrol schools.
— Local courts are embracing comprehensive recovery programs, and public meetings have focused on drugs.
But treatment programs remain underfunded, and not enough people are helping police catch traffickers.
If we are to alleviate this costly and destructive problem, more of us are going to have to be part of the solution. We can’t just assume it’s someone else’s problem. If it hasn’t affected us, it will.

Dan Rather on 'lap dog journalism'

Veteran news man Dan Rather

Just to follow up on my recent post about the trivialization of the news and the broadcast media’s failure to provide enough watchdog journalism, I want to note that this morning as I was dressing for work, I turned on the TV, and George Stephanopoulous on ABC News was talking about Congress’s passage of the historic health care reform legislation Sunday.

All I heard, however, was that this was only the beginning of the fight between Democrats and Republicans in Congress, who hope to repeal the legislation. Then ABC switched to a story about celebrity  golfer Tiger Woods’ return after his recent sex scandal. I switched to NBC, and there was an “exclusive” interview with Tiger, and then to  CBS, where there was also an interview with the golfer. For the next five or 10 minutes, there was nothing but Tiger Woods on every network.

This illustrates my view — and the view of many journalists — that the media needs to have some perspective. The passage of the health care reform bill was the biggest change to health care in 40 years,  the most important vote on a domestic policy issue since the passage of the Medicaid and Voting Rights Acts in 1965, and involved the biggest political debate in the country since the civil rights era. And it gets pre-empted by a story about a golfer who can’t keep his pants zipped? For Pete’s sake, let’s have a little PERSPECTIVE here. It isn’t all about the ratings!

Or is it? Is it accurate to say that not only television, but television news has become mainly an entertainment medium? This seems to be the view of former CBS News anchor Dan Rather in an article about a speech he gave that is posted on

“Sensationalism is winning over serious news,” Rather said in his speech as part of the Distinguished Speakers Series at the Civic Arts Plaza in Thousand Oaks , Calif., adding that the world “needs courageous, trained journalists now more than ever.”

To read the story, go to

Actually, Kennedy, the press does cover the news

Here’s an opposing point of view to follow up my column last week about Congressman Patrick Kennedy’s  rant against the press for not covering a debate on a proposal to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. It is by Gene Policinski of The First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C.

By Gene Policinski

If U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I, wants to find the news media at work, he should look past the confines of Capitol Hill, and not just upward to the House of Representatives’ press gallery.

Patrick Kennedy

Kennedy vented his frustration at the news media the other day when he turned from the podium on the House floor. “There’s two press people in this gallery,” he shouted during a discussion on the Afghanistan war. “We’re talking about (Rep.) Eric Massa (D-N.Y)  24-7 on the TV. We’re talking about war and peace, $3 billion, 1,000 lives and no press? No press. The press of the United States is not covering the most significant issue of national importance, and that’s the laying of lives down in the nation for the service of our country. It’s despicable, the national press corps right now.”
As Kennedy should know after serving eight terms, very little news comes from speeches made on House or Senate floor. Generally those remarks might produce a TV sound-bite at most. And, if we’re talking numbers of seats filled in either house, much of that rhetoric takes place for the benefit of C-SPAN cameras with few congressional members present. As Kennedy must also know, the real work of Congress takes place mostly in committee meetings, private negotiations, staff meetings and memo exchanges — and in myriad gatherings with lobbyists and other outsiders and experts.
It’s also worth noting that Congress, and even the whole of government in Washington, D.C., is not the be-all and end-all of news coverage in America. As important as are issues of war and peace, there are many more topics and challenges facing Americans in everyday life.
Every day, tens of thousands of print, broadcast and online journalists provide us with news and information on widely varied subjects — local job and housing statistics, crime, education, weather and a zillion other topics — including plenty of in-depth reporting on Afghanistan. In recent years, we’ve even been able to get those news reports in new ways, and around the clock.
Like Kennedy, I too would much rather see more journalists spending more time, and more news organizations spending more resources and providing more pages and air time, on serious subjects rather than fluff, features and celebrity news. Of course, Congress has its own critics as to focus and serious work.
I do know good journalism is being practiced all across the nation. From just the week of Feb. 19, courtesy of the Associated Press Managing Editors Web site, come some examples of “watchdog” journalism:
— In Wichita, Kan., the Eagle reported on potential tax-document misrepresentation.
— The Salt Lake Tribune reported on political contributions from defense companies seeking congressional budget earmarks.
— The Press of Atlantic City, N.J., discovered that even as state budgets are stressed more every year, about $21 billion in property — about 10 percent of the total — in several major counties is tax-exempt.
— The Post-Crescent of Appleton, Wis., reported the state program that workers rely on for unemployment checks fell below federal standards in a third of key areas.
— The San Antonio Express-News reported there were more than 2,200 claims of abuse, neglect and bad medical care against San Antonio’s 55 licensed nursing homes between 2006 and 2009.
There’s more, on issues from health care to dangerous chemicals, public pensions to prisons.
Not all news reports and not all news organizations deserve high marks, and certainly some deserve low marks. Reduced staffing has limited investigative reporting and news reporting overall, even with the additional sources and resources of online news and blogging.
But Kennedy and those who saw or read about his televised rant should recognize that thousands upon thousands of journalists nationwide aren’t sitting down — in a House gallery or elsewhere — when it comes to reporting the news we all need from a free and independent press.

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: E-mail:

The media's 'despicable' performance

Congressman Patrick Kennedy on C-SPAN

While American soldiers are laying down their lives in Afghanistan, the American media are obsessed with sex and trivia, and are not fulfilling their responsibility to their country. That was the point Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., made in a heated speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday, and I think it’s a valid one.

While I disagree with Kennedy’s support for a proposal to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan by Dec. 31 and support President Barack Obama’s troop buildup in this  major front in the war on terror, as a lifelong  journalist, I share the young congressman’s concern about the dumbing down of my profession.

During the debate over the war powers resolution, which failed by a vote of 356 to 65, Kennedy screamed and ranted until his was told that his time had expired.

Pointing toward the press gallery, the congressman pointed out that there were only two reporters covering the debate, while the media were covering another congressman’s sex scandal “24/7.” This a war, he said, that is costing 1,000 lives and $3 billion, yet the press wasn’t interested.

“You want to know why the American public is fit?” he yelled. “They’re fit because they’re not seeing their Congress do the work that they’re sent to do. It’s because the press, the press of the United States, is not covering the most significant issue of national importance, and that’s the laying of lives down in the nation for the service of our country. It’s despicable, the national press corps right now.”

He’s right — except that I think his criticism applies more to the electronic media than to the print media, which is what I usually think of when I hear the word “press.”

From local TV newscasts to the 24-hour cable networks, most of what we see on TV these days is celebrity tidbits, sex scandals and news of the weird. In fact, if Kennedy wasn’t a son of this country’s most legendary dynasty, if he hadn’t lost his cool and railed like a mad man, and if CBS News hadn’t been covering the debate, I might not have known about it at all. All I heard on TV last night was endless discussion of the drug overdose death of former child actor Corey Haim and talking heads goiing on and on about Congressman Ed Massa groping a male staffer. Not that those things aren’t important, but let’s have a little perspective, please.

To read CBS News’ coverage and watch the video of Kennedy’s speech, go to

My biggest disappointment as a journalist has been the growing tendency of the news media to take a marketing approach toward reporting the news. Give the people what they want, advocates of this approach say. But while we need to pay attention to what the numbers show people are paying attention to, that isn’t our only responsibility — or even our main one.

The single most important purpose of journalism, according to editors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel in their book “The Elements of Journalism,” is to “provide the citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.”

Nothing else even comes close. This is why we have a First Amendment in the first place: because the press plays an essential role in democracy. Without a vigorous, robust, independent news media keeping watch over our government and other institutions, “government of the people, by the people and for the people” are just empty words. Democracy cannot exist unless the media does its part and makes that role its first priority.

We forget that at our peril.

The down side of downsizing

If people are a business’s most important assets, why would you want to get rid of them? In a Feb. 15 article in Newsweek, Jeffrey Pfeffer makes a strong argument that layoffs are bad for business.

Read “Lay Off the Layoffs” at

Compromise on health reform

President Bill Clinton and Republican Senate Leader Bob Dole, shown here at a presidential debate in 1996, had an opportunity two years earlier to work together to pass health care reform. (The Washington Post)

President Clinton’s arrogance may have sealed the fate of health care reform in 1994. On Sept. 22, 1993, the president told the nation’s lawmakers they should agree that “you will pass, and I will sign legislation” the White House would write to guarantee health care security.
That didn’t happen. Opponents dug in their heels, the insurance industry poured millions of dollars into misleading TV ads to convince Americans the president’s “play or pay” plan was really a public insurance plan, and Republicans used the hysteria that generated to win a landslide in the mid-term elections.
Fast forward 16 years. The cost of health care has more than doubled, and the number of uninsured Americans has grown to more than 45 million and insurance profits have soared.
Again, an idealistic young president has proposed measures to curb some of the abuses of the private insurance system and cover the uninsured.
Again, conservatives are protesting this as “socialism.” The irony is that the Democratic plan is similar to a Republican alternative from 1994.
According to political journalist Joe Klein, that Republican plan by Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island would have attempted universal coverage through an individual mandate or tax credit system that was also favored by moderate Democrats such as Bill Bradley. Even Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole backed it. But Clinton wouldn’t give.
Years later, Clinton admitted to Klein that if he had dumped his own 1,300-page bill in the waste basket and said “I’m with him (Chafee),” he might have gotten a health care reform bill.
President Obama and the Democrats should learn from Clinton’s mistake.
Sen. Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has made it clear he’s interested in denying the Democrats success on their biggest domestic policy initiative, so we have to question his sincerity when he says, as he did again after last week’s health care summit, that the Democrats should start over on a new bill with Republicans. But I think the president should call his bluff.
The administration should scrap the Senate bill, which is unpopular and has no chance of passing unless the Democrats ramrod it through using the budget reconciliation process. Then they should go back to the table and work with moderate Republicans on an individual mandate bill like the one Republican Gov. Mitt Romney got enacted in Massachusetts. However, the White House should insist that the bill include stringent regulations to prevent insurance companies from denying sick people coverage and gouging policy holders. It should also include tax breaks or vouchers to help the working poor.
Retain the House restrictions against using public funds to pay for abortions, and drop the public option, which has been so misrepresented that it would now cause any bill to fail.
Finally, give the Republicans two things they badly want: tort reform and a provision to allow insurance companies to sell policies across state lines.
Such a compromise would be truly bipartisan and likely gain enough GOP support to get a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate and a majority in the House, and it would frustrate efforts by McConnell and other partisans to thwart the president’s agenda.
At least it’s worth trying. But if the Democrats insist on their damn-the-torpedoes, go-it-alone strategy with the current flawed Senate bill and reconciliation process, they will lose.
Then they will also lose the Senate and probably the House in November, and even if President Obama wins re-election in 2012, his agenda will be hindered by partisan gridlock.
We’ve seen it all happen before.

March 2010
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