On Facebook this morning, Norma Delia — a woman who spent a good part of her life living remote in the tiny, way-off-the-road community of Skwenta with plenty of time to think — posted a simple and somewhat disturbing question about how we get our news today.
“What good is the News if it isn’t going to be reported accurately?,” Delia asked. “They don’t get to pick and chose, but need to report the whole story. This makes other stories suspect, doesn’t it?”
These are not questions easily answered by someone who has spent almost his entire adult life in journalism and in that time read many stories that appeared suspect. Journalism is, was and always will be an imperfect and error-plagued business.
Too many journalists never learn to acknowledge how little they know, which is key (or used to be) to becoming a good journalist in the first place. Journalists invariably find themselves on the outside of stories looking in and they rarely get to see the full picture. A healthy dose of skepticism mixed with critical thought is key in deciphering the bits and pieces we do get.
Covering the news well is a little like being an intelligence analyst. You try to figure out what’s really going on from fragments of information from varying sources of varying degrees of credibility. Or at least that’s the way journalism used to work.
Things have changed today. Increasingly, there is a tendency to abdicate all of the hard work of journalism to officialdom. We have seen the transition in spades here in Alaska where the media is limited to a handful of outlets. They are good at rewriting press releases.
Most of today’s Alaska journalists devote a large portion of their coverage to recording what they are told. Most of today’s Alaska journalists are honest, hard-working and conscientious in there own ways. They do a good job of covering crime and breaking news; those are stories over which the little competition left in the game still competes.
These days, though, there isn’t much of what we used to impolitely call “digging around in shit” in the search of what isn’t being told. There is no competition for this news. It isn’t wanted by most news outlets. Sometimes it is clearly unwanted.
Some friends, colleagues, former colleagues and others couldn’t understand why I was more than a little irritated when no media went after the true story behind the “bear-killed fish” of which President Obama consumed a piece on the Bear Grylls reality TV show, or unreality show, when visiting Alaska this fall.
It didn’t take much work to find out the fish was actually obtained from a seafood company and doctored to appear “bear-killed.” Under the eyes of the Secret Service, the fish was touched up for TV at the Alaska Vocational Technical Center (AVTEC) in Seward.
The story Grylls later told in cooperation with the president, a story about finding a bear-killed salmon on the banks of Alaska stream, was a lie, plain and simple. Grylls knew it. The president knew it. And they both got in front of a camera and lied to everyone. It was a stunt.
Obviously, the President of the United States and of course Grylls considered this sort of lie OK. I later talked to an Alaska Dispatch News reporter who knew the true story behind the lie, but never reported it. Why? Well, the attitude seemed to be this: “It’s not that big of a deal. It’s only a stupid fish in a stupid TV show. We don’t want to be looking like we’re picking on the president. It’s not worth it. It could have been killed by a bear.”
The show really is a stupid TV show, and yes, if Grylls had looked hard enough he might have been able to find a salmon actually killed and abandoned by a bear. If a good enough lab had been able to test that salmon for safety, the Secret Service might even have been talked into letting POTUS taste it.
But that isn’t what happened. The president participated in a cheap deception, and that is worth reporting. Or at least it’s worth reporting before you look at the bigger picture.
POTUS had already attended a private dinner at your boss’s house. Judging from the guest list, which your boss tried to keep secret but was leaking out everywhere, Obama clearly had to have heard mention of how he could lead America into the Arctic by backing development of Port Clarence as the nation’s first real Arctic port. This conversation, you had to assume, was most likely spearheaded and facilitated by your boss who would like to make that Arctic port her Alaska legacy.
Add in knowledge as to a former colleague kicked to the curb because he stirred up minor shit about a petty politician, well, it’s pretty easy to get from all of this to “it’s not that big of a deal.” Because what else can you do?
Does an Alaska Dispatch News reporter really need Alaska Dispatch News publisher Alice Rogoff ticked at her or him if — and that’s a giant if — she or he can even push the story past ADN editors to get it up online or in the newspaper?
This is not to accuse ADN editors of taking orders from Ms. Rogoff. I never saw any indication of that when I was there. But they know what she wants, and they generally try to accommodate her desires. On some level, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that either.
Alaska Dispatch News is Ms. Rogoff’s business. She owns it. She should be to able to do with it what she wants.
No one there now has the agreement with Ms. Rogoff that Tony Hopfinger had when he ran Alaska Dispatch. His contract said that he controlled the news operation, and if he quit for any reason over anything that even hinted at Ms. Rogoff trying to influence the news, he would continue to collect his salary for years.
Nobody at the new organization has that safety net.
Yes, as a business matter, editors have a responsibility to tell Ms. Rogoff that credibility is a commodity and a very precious one for a news organization. And yes, editors and reporters have a responsibility to themselves to do do what is right, not just what is easy.
But they also have families and debts and kids and other obligations that make jobs look good. They don’t get paid a lot; so they don’t save a lot. They live paycheck to paycheck. They wrestle with putting their job on the line over doing the right thing, and then they rationalize.
Alaska media is no longer dominated by thirtysomethings with nothing to lose–as it was in the freewheeling heyday of the newspaper war between The Anchorage Times, now long gone, and the Anchorage Daily News. Obama’s dinner with Ms. Rogoff would not have gone largely uncovered and only marginally reported in those days. Reporters would have been fighting each other to get the story of what happened there.
Things are different today. Reporters and editors think differently. Given the world in which they work, it’s hard to argue with a reporter who says the fish story just isn’t worth any of the potential downsides. It’s easier, safer and personally more profitable to play the role of stenographer than reporter.
It is for this reason much, if not most, of what passes for Alaska reporting today is stenography.
The media echoes and catalogs the statements of officialdom. So much of that officialdom these days is government that the media, especially in this state, has almost become an arm of government. One of the columnists for the ADN was government; he was an elected official. The other is bound by blood to government; his daughter does public relations for the governor. This guy is an old college classmate mine. I respect him. I’m pretty sure he’d run over his wife to do a story if that were required. He wouldn’t run over his daughter.
And these two are the good guys, the Nick Kristoffs of Alaska, the guys who are supposed to sort the work of the stenographers, analyze it and make it interesting. The stenographers aren’t supposed to do anything but write down what is said. They’re not supposed to do any critical thinking or make any judgments.
There’s only one problem with this. If no one is willing to think critically and make a judgment, the judgment makes itself.
Doing nothing is its own judgment. Accepting fabrications as facts when you have reason to believe they are fabrications — the Obama/Grylls fish story didn’t pass the most basic of sniff tests — or have, worst yet, confirmed they are lies, makes you complicit in the deceit whether you chose to accept that or not.
This is not what journalists are supposed to do, but that’s a value judgment, another thing journalists aren’t supposed to do, and one that might reflect generational change.
I grew up during the Vietnam War and came into journalism with the Watergate generation. Journalism was then about holding government accountable.
Today? Well, two Alaska stories jump out immediately to illustrate how times have changed.
One is the prosecution of Sen. Ted Stevens wherein the Anchorage Daily News essentially acted the part of press office for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department as they bent and broke the law.
And the other involves Roland Maw, a petty government official the Alaska Dispatch News refused to investigate because it was waiting for official government pronouncements.
When Maw was finally charged, ADN wrote a perfectly adequate story. Had Maw managed to sidestep prosecution — and he was in negotiations with prosecutors in an effort to pay back (or pay off) the state to avoid court — the world would have been none the wiser to Maw’s misbehavior.
ADN knew most of the nitty-gritty of the Maw story 10 months ago. I gave defacto city editor Rich Mauer my file on Maw when I was told not to investigate him. There was plenty in there to work with. Some of it was almost gold from a journalistic point of view.
When Maw got out of the commercial fishing business, or claimed to, he transferred his limited entry permit to someone named Brooklyn Maw. She was listed as an Alaska resident. The permit was mailed back to her, or someone, at the address of Roland’s home in Kasilof.
Brooklyn is Roland’s granddaughter. She is an honest-to-God beauty queen contestant — one cannot make this stuff up — who grew up in Carson City, Nevada, and was attending college in Idaho at the time the permit was transferred. Though she has come to Alaska in the summers to work on her grandfather’s or father’s commercial fishing boats, there’s no indication she knew anything about the details of the permit transfer or did anything wrong. She seems to be an upstanding young woman. She was elected a senator at Western Nevada College before transferring to Boise State in Idaho.
Most of this was in the file Mr. Mauer threw at me as he stomped away. He wasn’t interested. The file hadn’t been handed to him by the FBI or the Justice Department, the outlets from which he has in the past gotten the news.
What good is the news? Maybe the answer is simpler than I thought when I started writing this. The news is as good as those in power want it to be.