Category Archives: Blog

The Hazards Of Amateur Journalism


              canadian press handout photo   

Think anybody with a notebook or a camera is a journalist?  Think again.   Years of training and fine tuning go into creating  the kind of experienced reporter who knows how to separate the wheat from the chaff while retaining an objective point of view, crafting it into an interesting story and not getting killed in the process.   A piece by Ian Austen in this morning’s NY Times about Canadian waitress turned “citizen journalist” Amanda Lindhout, who was held by Somali kidnappers for 15 months speaks directly to the safety issue.   Being kidnapped and possibly killed are a couple of minor issues any number of aspiring “citizen journalists” may not be thinking about as they pack up their little cameras and head for parts of the world that could be hazardous to one’s health.

I’ve always found the term “citizen journalist” to be insulting at best.   “Amateur journalists” or journalist wannabees” would be more more accurate descriptions.  Journalists who spend years honing their skills can’t be replaced by wide-eyed newbies, lacking credentials but armed with handy-cams and notebooks or gallons of hairspray and buckets of makeup who think journalism is something anybody can do.  What nonsense.   That kind of naivete leads to the type of situation Austen writes about in the Times.   It is also destroying the news “filter” that once determined what is and is not, legitimate news.   Losing that filter is the bigger danger.   It threatens the survival of our Republic, which will not stand without the open flow of honest and accurate information about our political process and national, state and local institutions.  What we used to call the news.

The filter was made up of professional journalists who spent years learning the traditions and standards that defined the difference between meat-and-potatoes journalism and what passes for news today.   So much of it is nothing but sanguine, superficial junk.  Particularly on the broadcast side where young women no longer dress in business attire.  Here in Los Angeles, some of them look like they are headed for either a backyard barbecue or a high-end cocktail party at Hollywood and Highland.  We’re supposed to take them seriously as they stand there grinning broadly,  clad in cocktail dresses with faux diamond earrings hanging down to their shoulders?   Friends, credibility just flies out the window.

There are lots of  “See spot!  See spot run!  Spot runs fast!! “reporters” out there.  Lots of entertainment, product promotion and mind-numbing meaningless minor criminal activity posing as news.   Anything that’s inexpensive but offers good eye-candy.  At the same time, there appear to be fewer and fewer real journalists trying to determine who Spot is, what made him run, where he is running to, why he’s running, when he might get there and what the larger context of the story might be.  Never mind getting into the “how” factor.

Why not just give it up and animate the whole thing?  We can go to Tweety Bird reporting live from the field and Daffy Duck at the weather map back in the studio.  The really scary thing is, there are news executives who will read this and think it might be a good idea.

Much of the push away from news and into entertainment can be blamed on a largely unregulated system that puts the decision about what journalists should be doing and how it should be done in the hands of Wall Street speculators who demand increased profitability each and every quarter and sales departments all over America that are supposed to meet Wall Street’s insane demands.  Marshall McLuhan and P.T. Barnum were both right.

Changes For The NewsHour On PBS

 Jim Lehrer

             photo: PBS 

Changes are coming for the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer on PBS.  Howard Kurtz reports in the Washington Post that Lehrer’s name is being dropped from the title.   The long-time PBS anchor will also start sharing the spotlight with a rotating set of correspondents including Judy Wodruff and Gwen Ifill, as the news switches from “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” to “PBS Newshour.”

Report: How The U.S. Missed Its Shot At Osama bin Laden

 A report put together for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and scheduled to be released tomorrow, says the United States blew its opportunity to get Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora back in 2001.   Nobody should be all that surprised.

I clearly remember getting the call.   It was a network photographer friend calling from Tora Bora, via satellite phone.   I could hear what sounded like bombs exploding in the background.  He confirmed for me that the bombing had started.  He said that from his perspective it felt like our troops were closing in on Osama bin Laden.  After a short conversation the frequency of  the bombing increased and he had to get off the line.   I remember thinking it probably wouldn’t be long before bin Laden was either dead or captured with the former being the more likely outcome.   Neither, of course, ever happened.

And then came the book “Kill bin Laden,” and the report from CBS News Correspondent Scott Pelley about “Dalton Fury” on CBS-TV.   It was “60 Minutes” that ran the story on”Fury,” a nom de plume used by the commander in charge of a Delta Force unit sent in to get bin Laden.  According to “Fury” the U.S. could have taken bin Laden at Tora Bora, but missed the chance because higher-ups refused to approve requests that would have given U.S. forces the ability to get the job done.

 ‘Delta developed an audacious plan to come at bin Laden from the one direction he would never expect.

“We want to come in on the back door,” Fury explains. “The original plan that we sent up through our higher headquarters, Delta Force wants to come in over the mountain with oxygen, coming from the Pakistan side, over the mountains and come in and get a drop on bin Laden from behind.”

But they didn’t take that route, because Fury says they didn’t get approval from a higher level. “Whether that was Central Command all the way up to the president of the United States, I’m not sure,” he says.

The next option that Delta wanted to employ was to drop hundreds of landmines in the mountain passes that led to Pakistan, which was bin Laden’s escape route.

“First guy blows his leg off, everybody else stops. That allows aircraft overhead to find them. They see all these heat sources out there. Okay, there a big large group of Al Qaeda moving south. They can engage that,” Fury explains.

But they didn’t do that either, because Fury says that plan was also disapproved. He says he has “no idea” why.

“How often does Delta come up with a tactical plan that’s disapproved by higher headquarters?” Pelley asks.

“In my experience, in my five years at Delta, never before,” Fury says.’  -CBS News

There are other accounts as well,  including the book “Jawbreaker” by former CIA field commander Gary Berntsen, who complains that higher-ups refused to listen to the CIA, which wanted to use U.S. troops to seal off the passes into Pakistan, and instead decided to leave the job in the hands of Afghan warlords, many of whom had ties to bin Laden and his fighters.

And now comes the new report prepared for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that appears to support what others have been saying, that the U.S. missed its shot at getting bin Laden at Tora Bora because of poor decision making by “higher-ups.”

Among other things, the report charges that  “The vast array of American military power, from sniper teams to the most mobile divisions of the Marine Corps and the Army, was kept on the sidelines.”  According to the AP, the report is highly critical of former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and General Tommy Franks.

The new report is expected to provide some support to President Obama, who will soon announce his intention to send additional troops into Afghanistan.   Nobody should be all that surprised.

Canadians Stop Reporter At The Border

U.S. journalist, Amy Goodman, was stopped and questioned by the Canadian authorities as she was crossing over into Canada for speaking engagements in Vancouver and Victoria.  Apparently they were worried she might say something about the 2010 Olympics.   The CBC reports that Goodman was stopped and questioned for 90 minutes.

“Goodman says Canadian Border Services Agency officials ultimately allowed her to enter Canada but returned her passport with a document demanding she leave the country within 48 hours.” -CBC

According to Goodman, the Canadian cops let her go, once she told them was going to be speaking about  health care and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and not about the 2010 Olympics in Canada.    The border police searched Goodman’s car and demanded to see her notes and her computer.

I know Goodman is politically progressive but she’s not the Taliban.   I’m pretty sure she’s not related to any of the bin Ladens.  She’s an American journalist.  It almost sounds like they’ve put together an enemies list so that the border cops will know who to stop and harass?  What if she had been crossing over to talk about the Olympics?  Would she have been denied entry?   Should the U.S. start denying Canadian journalists entry to the United States because they might be coming into the country to talk about (or cover)  something our government might deem to be controversial?   I’m not all that familiar with the Canadian system but I was under the impression that Canada stood in defense of free speech?

England Turned On By American Actors

Nicolas Cage

         photo – wikipedia

American actors are turning on the British.  Well, turning their Christmas lights on, anyway.  First it was Jim Carrey, flipping the switch on the Christmas lights on Oxford Street in London as a promotion vehicle for Disney’s animated motion picture version of Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol.”    Okay, I can understand that.  It was a movie promotion. Dickens, London, I get it.  But then Nicolas Cage showed up to flip the switch on the city lights in Bath, where the actor apparently owns property. Guess he just likes the place and wanted to go along with the holiday spirit thing?   It’s now being suggested (tongue-in-cheek) that maybe the City of Bath should permanently mark the occasion with a statue of Cage.  Gotta love the Brit’s dry humor.  Maybe we should reciprocate by having Michael Cane turn on the lights at Rockefeller Center in New York while Daniel Radcliffe can flip the switch on the lights in LA’s Griffith Park?   Is Thanksgiving over yet?

Palin Visit Nearly Slaughters Turkey Grower’s Biz

Remember that incident last Thanksgiving, when then Alaska Governor Sarah Palin arrived to pardon a turkey and then hold a news conference at a turkey farm in Palmer, Alaska?  Remember the shots of Palin on camera while a worker was slaughtering turkeys in the background?

It was a major faux pas on several fronts.   One, of course, is that no politician really wants to be associated with slaughtering anything.  Not even mavericky Sarah Palin wants to go that rogue.  Another, is that Palin was there to “pardon” a turkey and not to watch it die.    It turns out there was a third problem as well, as the turkey farmer Palin was visiting says the incident nearly wrecked his business.   Politico reports the Palin visit “just about killed” Anthony Schmidt’s  Triple D Farm and Hatchery, which raises free roaming, antibiotic and hormone-free turkeys.

Lobbyists Put Words In Their Mouths

A piece published by the NY Times on  the 14th continues to be worth reading as it shows the influence lobbyists have over the nation’s leaders.   In this case, they appear to have literally put words in their mouths.   And so, I’m posting a note about it now, even though I missed it when it first appeared in the paper.  Click on the quote below to read the entire story.

 “Statements by more than a dozen lawmakers were ghostwritten, in whole or in part, by Washington lobbyists working for Genentech, one of the world’s largest biotechnology companies.”  -NY Times

Those same ghostwriters are probably spending the Thanksgiving holiday working on talking points for the upcoming debate in the Senate?

Dispute Over Who Will Reorganize The Tribune Co.

A large group of investment funds have gone into bankruptcy court challenging the right of Tribune Company management to file an exclusive plan to control the company’s reorganization.   The Chicago Tribune  reports that the funds hold $4.4 billion of Tribune’s $8.6 billion debt.   Among Tribune’s holdings are The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, WPIX-TV in New York, KTLA-TV, Los Angeles and WGN-TV, Chicago.

Zeppelin Returns To Los Angeles

I went for a walk the other day and saw what I thought was just another “blimp” in the sky above Los Angeles.  Turns out, it was an actual Zeppelin airship, back over L.A. for the first time since 1929.  The Los Angeles Times reports that the 246 foot long airship “Eureka,” is considerably bigger than a blimp.  It can carry thirteen passengers and a crew of two and is one of only three Zeppelins in existence.  Unlike its infamous hydrogen filled ancestor the Hindenburg, this new airship is filled with non-explosive helium.  The paper reports that “A half-hour trip costs $199; a two-hour flight $950. A daylong excursion between Los Angeles and San Francisco runs $1,500.”

Here’s a video clip from the Times-

Rogue Times Two

 MIchele BachmannSarah Palin

Glenn Thrush  in Politico and The Minnesota Independent are reporting that Michele Bachmann will be heading to Nashville in February to hook up with Sarah Palin for a Tea Party event at the Opryland Hotel.

‘Organizers of the National Tea Party Convention tweeted that Bachmann would be a speaker at the Feb. 4–6 event in Nashville. Palin keynotes the convention, which is “aimed at bringing the Tea Party Movement leaders together from around the nation for the purpose of networking and supporting the movements’ multiple organizations principle goals.”’  -The Minnesota Independent

Palin and Bachmann and teabaggers, oh my.

Students Under Arrest In Iran

The theocracy in Iran continues to come crashing down on anyone who might stand in opposition to their puppet president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.    The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reports that scores of students have been arrested and prosecuted in recent days in an apparent effort to curtail anti-government protests expected to occur during Student Day commemorations on December 7th.

Apparently alumni are also coming under the heavy fascist heel of the cleric led government.   On November 19th The Campaign for Human Rights reported that “Iranian authorities have arbitrarily arrested another member of the leading student alumni group ADVAR, and sentenced its spokesperson to an eight-year prison term, while other detained members are being mistreated, unfairly tried and sentenced to jail terms.”

Reuters reports that “thousands” have been arrested for their part in protests over the re-election of of Ahmadinejad.  The wire service reports that 81 have been sentenced to jail terms of up to 15 years and 5 have been sentenced to death.  No word on how many others may have died as the result of injuries suffered at the hands of theocracy-supported thugs, riding around Tehran on motorcycles and beating people at will.

Washington Post Closing Regional Bureaus

In another blow to an industry under siege, the Washington Post has announced that it’s closing regional bureaus in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.  The paper, it’s owners and editors say, will focus more on politics and local news.

The Post is making cuts for the same reason cuts were carried out at the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.   Ad revenues continue to decline as advertising dollars are drained away by cable, satellite and the Internet, leaving newspapers less money to spend on news.   Remember news?   The kind of traditional journalism that requires weeks or months of digging by experienced reporters and editors?  The kind of credible, balanced and objective reporting we’ve come to rely on our major newspapers to provide?  And that of course, begs the question —  where will the news come from when the professional journalists who once went out and got it are no longer there?

The answer is that we will be getting less meat and potatoes news and more sugary and superficial “news lite.”   Fewer reporters and editors being told to do more with less will  mean less investigative reporting.  Fewer newspapers will go to the mat to pry open court proceedings to give us some idea of what’s happening inside our judicial system.    Newspapers will increasingly feature pool reports, wire service stories and even news releases disguised as news while more expensive investigative reporting is set aside.   And don’t look for more international news.  Many overseas bureaus have been shuttered and their correspondents called home.

While things aren’t what they used to be,  Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab reports that the problem isn’t that some papers aren’t still making money.  They are.  According to Nieman:  “The problem is that newspaper owners have leveraged their cash flow to the hilt to make risky, ill-considered acquisitions that have now put many of them at, or over, the brink of bankruptcy.  Their larger assets — most of the top 100 or so papers (those over 90,000 or so in circulation) —  are probably in the red on an operating revenue basis, because they lack the grass-roots small-business advertising support the small dailies have, and are saddled with expensive real estate, distribution arrangements and union contracts.  Hence threats to close papers like the Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle.  But even if all the chains go bankrupt, operationally profitable assets like small-town dailies will be sold off intact, not shut down.”

Well okay, some of the small town dailies will survive,  those that are “operationally profitable,” but that doesn’t answer the question about the news vacuum that’s being created by cutbacks at every major paper from L.A. to New York.    I was on hand for three rounds of layoffs in four and one-half years at the Los Angeles Times as the Tribune Company slid into bankruptcy.  The editorial staff  kept getting smaller even though the Times is one of those Pulitzer Prize winning papers that goes out and does all the digging.  It’s one of the papers that come up with the stories that are tomorrow’s news on television, the wire services and the Internet.   It’s one of the papers that act as a societal watchdog in D.C. and the state capitol.  What if the Los Angeles Times and the other major papers get to a point where they can’t do the job we have come to expect?  Or are they already there?   According to “Newspaper Deathwatch,” the American newspaper industry is half the size it was in 2006.  A few of those small town dailies the Nieman Lab is writing about must have gone under after all?

In an article published in “The Nation” John Nichols and Robert Mcchesney contend that it’s not just newspapers that are in crisis,  “…it is the institution of journalism itself. By any measure, journalism is missing from most commercial radio. TV news operations have become celebrity- and weather-obsessed “profit centers” rather than the journalistic icons of the Murrow and Cronkite eras. Cable channels “fill the gap” with numberless pundits and “business reporters,” who got everything about the last decade wrong but now complain that the government doesn’t know how to set things right. Cable news is defensible only because of the occasional newspaper reporter moonlighting as a talking head. But what happens when the last reporter stops collecting a newspaper paycheck and goes into PR or lobbying? She’ll leave cable an empty vessel and take the public’s right to know anything more than a rhetorical flourish with her.”

Welcome to the future.  This new era of  “news lite” will be great for greedy corporate fatcats and shady politicians.   It will be a boon to anyone who fears the truth and justice that journalism brings to a culture.    I almost wrote “truth, justice and the American way.”  Well, if ever we needed Clark Kent, Lord knows we need him now.

Ron Olsen

Canada Pulls Batch Of Swine Flu Vaccine After 200 Deaths?

A vast difference in what several news organizations are reporting about the recall of a batch of swine flu vaccine in Canada.

The AP and AFP are both reporting that a batch has been recalled by GlaxoSmithKline, because it might be causing an allergic reaction is some people.  Specifically, the AP reports that the vaccine may have caused more allergic reactions than normal.”

However,  Euronews reports that “36 Canadians suffered severe allergic reactions” and that “200 others died.”  Severe reactions?  200 died?  You have to wonder if Euronews got it wrong, or if the AP and AFP both completely missed the story.