journalism

A (Not So) Tiny Letter

I've been reading a lot of letters. It seems all I do these days is read letters.

But here's a letter for you. I wish I could send it to you on the onion-skin I so often find myself reading, the translucent sheets etched with the black ink of a an old Hermes's or Corona Portable's hammer-strikes, the sheet carefully folded into an envelope covered with bright stamps and decorated with a picture of a DC-3 and bold capitals reading "VIA AIR MAIL." 

Of course, I can't, but I still want to say hello, because it's been a while (probably) and I miss you (certainly) and connecting beyond the superficial digital zones where we encounter one another. You may know where I've been, but perhaps something will settle on this screen. Letters, whatever their substrate, allow thoughts to steep better than ever-flowing streams of information we feel we must address and process now. Right now. Always now.

So feel free to read this and whatever letters follow at your leisure.

A Reunion of Sorts

A Reunion of Sorts

California, here I come, right back where I started from. In a little less than two weeks I'll hit the road for Palo Alto, California, the home of Stanford University. That's where Melville Jacoby earned his bachelor and master's degrees in the 1930s (it's also where his wife, Annalee Whitmore Jacoby Fadiman was the first female managing editor of the daily student newspaper and where other close friends, such as Shelley Smith Mydans, studied). It's a trip I've long been waiting for, and one that wouldn't be possible without the support, encouragement and financial contributions I've received since I first launched my Kickstarter campaign and then launched the current fundraising campaign. Yes, I'll be retracing Mel's footsteps and digging through archives, but I'm most excited for what might best be described as a reunion when we meet the children of Mel's best friend from his time in China ...

Journalism of the Unknown Unknowns

It's complicated ... and that's the point. Journalism doesn't have all the answers, and we shouldn't expect it to. We shouldn't expect our stories to solve things for us.

Journalists' primary role is not to answer the challenges that face our society: it's to bring light to those challenges, so that those with the proper tools to solve a given problem will know that the challenge exists. In a sense, we're brokers, we're middle-men, we're matchmakers between problems and solutions. But those problems and solutions still have to get to know one another, find the right match. We can't consummate their relationships, we can just help them find one another.

A Letter From Melville Jacoby's Best Friend

I was digging through the collection of materials I have at my place related to Melville Jacoby and found a photocopy of a lovely letter written to Mel 74 years ago today. The note was sent by Chan Ka Yik, one of Mel's best friends. The two were roommates at Lingnan University in Canton (now Guangzhou) while Mel was an exchange student there. The letter responds to an earlier mailing Mel had sent. It describes Chan's fondness for his roommate, and, in many ways, is the sort of letter anyone might send to catch up with an old friend. But these greetings are described against a backdrop of war. Though calm seemed to have returned when Chan wrote the letter, it was clearly still a presence.

All Things Not Considered in NPR's Oil Drilling Coverage

Yesterday afternoon President Obama shocked the country when he announced plans to open parts of the Atlantic and Alaskan coasts to oil drilling. Though the Pacific Coast was left untouched, the move could open up huge expanses of ocean elsewhere.

Many environmentalists treated the news as a betrayal and yet another delay in the move away from a fossil fuel economy. Business leaders were generally heartened by the news. Some Republicans expressed cautious optimism about the President's willingness to compromise, though others saw the move as thinly-veiled politics.

News organizations, meanwhile, treated the news as the surprise it was, with banner headlines and lead stories on broadcasts. You can read about the decision many places on the Web. I'd like to discuss, instead, how the news has been covered, particularly by National Public Radio. I believe NPR missed a chance to thoroughly cover the story. Listeners who first learned about the decision during their commutes home yesterday afternoon and on their way to work today, thus, missed a chance to fully understand a decision whose implications may reverberate for decades.

National Public Radio rightly decided to lead All Things Considered with Scott Horseley's report on Obama's decision on offshore drilling. As NPR's White House correspondent, Horseley focused primarily on the politics of the announcement. His report included Obama's statements justifying the decision as well as a sound bite from Florida Senator Lindsey Graham expressing what it meant for Republicans. It also included a reaction to the announcement by energy industry analyst Phil Flynn.

Horsely's four minute piece described the decision as one “sure to turn some green energy advocates red” and briefly included two of those advocates' voices: a snippet of a statement from the League of Conservation Voters and part of an interview with National Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke. Beinecke expressed her organization's concern about “some of the most sensitive marine environments in the country.”

Missing from NPR's follow-up coverage, though, was significant analysis of the decision from those advocates' perspectives or from other, perhaps more neutral analysts. By contrast, NPR has since devoted much of its coverage to oil industry reaction beyond Flynn's analysis in the initial story.

Immediately following Horseley's report, NPR aired four and a half minutes of discussion between All Things Considered Host Robert Siegel and Ben Cahill, an oil industry analyst from PFC Energy, about what the news meant for the oil business. What NPR didn't do is find someone who could talk about what the decision means for the ocean, for the global environment, and for economies and community health near the proposed drilling areas. Such a source needed not be Beinecke or other environmentalists. A marine scientist, a climatologist, or a geologist could have provided valuable analysis of the decision's implications. If a news outlet wants to consider all things related to a society, it must not only consider that society's business, but its politics, its people, and its natural surroundings. All of those forces and more – business included – shape a society, a country and a world.

Today brought Morning Edition and a story by Scott Finn titled “Environmentalists Question Offshore Drilling Plan.” Despite the headline, the only concern expressed in the three-minute piece came from Kathly Douglas, a St. Petersburg power walker and opponent of oil drilling. I don't think the power of citizen and community voices should be discounted and I'm cautious about which voices we call authoritative, but if Douglas had further background and credibility as an opponent of the drilling, Finn did not present her credentials (A simple Google search shows she's involved with a regional branch of the Sierra Club focused on coastal issues in Florida, though that background wasn't noted by Finn). As it turns out, in a piece advertised as discussing opposition to the drilling, hers was the lone voice expressing such opposition. Finn did include other St. Pete Beach visitors not as concerned as Douglas about the possibility of drilling. He also spoke with David Mica, the executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, who welcomed the President's decision. In fact, the piece also included the only scientific voice NPR has yet aired reflecting upon this story, the University of South Florida's Al Hine, who countered claims that there might not be enough oil off the Florida coast to justify the drilling.

Yesterday afternoon, Scott Neuman (Apparently only Scotts are reporting this story) wrote an accompanying story for NPR's Web site that more deeply explores this topic. He presented detailed information on government estimates of how much oil and gas might be found off the Atlantic coast. He also introduced Oceana, another environmental organization opposed to the drilling, further described the historical context of the drilling and explained what other obstacles have to be surmounted before drilling can start. Still, that's the limit of NPR's added coverage. While I applaud the network's use of the Web to deepen its coverage, I question how many listeners actually decided to pursue that further coverage. I also wonder why it hasn't used the Web to deepen its analysis (and provide interpretations beyond Cahill's).

Reporters working on tight deadlines are not obligated to devote precisely equal amounts of time to sources on different sides of controversial topics, particularly complex, ongoing discussions that involve many more than two sides. They should, however, strive to do so. Journalists must make far more complicated judgments about how they weigh the voices included in their reporting. They have to take care not to perpetuate the falsely dichotomous conflict narratives so prevalent in contemporary news coverage, but they also have to provide perspectives of comparable authority when covering controversial topics (particularly when they specifically refer to controversy in their stories).

Unless something changes by the time today's All Things Considered airs, which East Coast listeners will have heard by the time this entry posts, the network will have missed its chance to provide a thorough introduction to this very significant news. The same argument could rightly have been made if NPR spoke predominantly with Beinecke and her allies and minimized its exploration of oil industry voices.

Even if there is substantive follow-up of the story this evening, the damage has been done. NPR has already framed the decision in audiences' minds without providing thorough analysis or context.

Making the most of making the media

For years, though, as I hinted in a post last Spring, I've danced with another city. Over the past week, the motions became more certain, thanks in part to the energy I tapped into at the We Make the Media Conference at the University of Oregon's Turnbull Portland Center. When it comes to Saturday's conference, I've had to take some time to digest, get back home, and prepare my next steps. They include returning to Portland very soon — and more permanently — in part to join the community of mediamakers who emerged at the conference.

I want to reiterate this word “community.” For whatever it's worth, however hokey it might be dismissed as, I found community on Saturday. In a way I haven't been able to say for quite some time, I've found my people, at least my people for this moment. Perhaps I'm just famished, but I just haven't found these people in Los Angeles.

I'm emphasizing this for a reason. For all the critiques I have of We Make the Media, and all the many more already so eloquently articulated by other thinkers (Click here for a list of the reflections I've found, some of which I'm responding to here), I'm stunned by how, a few days later, I remain invigorated by the event. Like Abraham Hyatt and many others, I left the event quite drained, but now feel energized. Though the event may not have gone in the direction organizers hoped, perhaps it was a success anyhow.

Undercutting the competition

Publishers and other hiring managers want to succeed, they will need a committed, loyal and stable staff and to develop sharp, insightful contributors. An investment in skilled journalists ready to take risks to lead publications into the future is a wise choice. It may seem counter-intuitive to talk about investment in a time of economic malaise, but those who take such leaps of faith will be best positioned for future success. Those, however, who treat their content producers as chattel will continue to struggle to maintain a stable source of original content, and thus, they will spend all their time watching editors and writers leave for greener pastures while their competitors invest in competent, devoted teams passionate about the work their doing and the success of their organizations.

Getting these keys moving again

 few weeks ago I started typing on one of my dad's old typewriters. The arms of each key on the Royal Arrow moved slowly, as if moving through molasses. My words tripped over themselves,  caught in the machine's throat. Dust dulled the dark gray casing of the machine. Another typewriter sat on a table across the room. A portable Corona, its curved black shell was decorated with a gold-colored paint, although the decoration was muted somewhat by the years passed since the machine was owned by the journalist Melville Jacoby, a cousin of my grandmother's who died in an accident in the Pacific as he covered World War II. Also known as Mel Jack, I hope to share his story another time -- I only invoke him now because I can't help thinking about those machines, about what it feels to squeeze words onto those pages and what it feels like at this moment to string words across this screen.