Friday, April 24, 2009

Columbine, I will not forget

Friday, April 16, 1999, was my last day on the job as a reporter for the Jefferson Sentinel newspapers. It had been a great run. Nine years of covering anything and everything that happened in Jefferson County, the huge area that encompasses Denver’s western suburbs. I knew the territory, not just from being on the newspaper staff, but from growing up there.
Little did I know what would happen the following week after I started as a publicist for a Denver public relations firm.
That next Monday, April 19, I learned that I’d be playing an important role in a press conference scheduled Tuesday at the city of Lakewood, one of several municipalities in "Jeffco."
But wouldn’t you know? Monday night my daughter Kira (@pookachino on Twitter) started running a high fever, and as every single parent knows, some times there are no back-up systems.
I called in sick Tuesday, apologizing profusely and hoping I wouldn't get canned before my first paycheck.
While Kira slept on the living room couch, I dozed in my bedroom. Around noon the phone rang, jolting me out of the twilight zone.
It was my sister.
“Why aren’t you at work?” Julie asked.
“Kira got sick. I had to stay home. I’m suppose to be running a press conference at 2 today,” I said.
Before I could get all the words out, Julie said, “That isn’t going to happen. You need to turn on your TV right now.”
Columbine High School was under siege. Shots were fired. Bloodied bodies marred the school grounds. A slaughter was underway.
Julie lived in a neighborhood a mile or two south of the carnage. My niece, her daughter, attended Columbine, but had graduated. Thankfully. Still, Columbine in many ways was very close to home.
I covered the Jefferson County School District, which included Columbine High. I covered the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, which responded to the shooting. I covered crime and courts and John Stone, the county commissioner turned sheriff. But I would not be covering the story of the century in Jeffco. Instead, I would be a grieving observer just like most everyone else. It still seems like a terrible nightmare.
Now, ten years later I am reading Columbine, a journalist’s account of what really happened before, during and after Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed and wounded their classmates and teacher Dave Sanders.
The book is a stunning indictment of how Denver newspapers and television stations latched onto rumor and innuendo, sacrificing truth and journalistic integrity in the process. They carried the national press along wild rapids of speculation and sensationalism. It appears that few, if any, media really questioned the labels and assumptions they had attached hastily to pictures and processes.
Herd mentality is a constant danger for journalists. We need to challenge it every step of the way. Columbine has been an excellent reminder for me to guard against the always tempting rush to judgment.
I’m about halfway through the 417-page book and I’ve learned a lot of stuff I didn’t know before. Sometimes the details are shocking and infuriating.
One aspect of the book I'm not keen on is how much attention is given to the killers. While I appreciate knowing more about these kids and especially their unfairly demonized parents, author Dave Cullen belabors their character oddities. The speculative psychoanalysis, I doubt, is as compelling or accurate as Cullen implies.
Kudos to him, however, for shining a concentrated spotlight on the grave misdeeds of Jeffco government officials, from the sheriff to the district attorney to the county commissioners...all of whom I knew fairly well.
It's sickening to ponder their lies and cover ups. They were unscrupulous public servants who didn't have the guts to come clean.
I'm heading back to the sofa to read the rest of the story, however ugly it might get.
Columbine, I will never forget.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The State of Play and other pressing matters

The new movie State of Play should have been titled State of the Press. Within a twisted plot that weaves in and out of politics, corporate corruption and intimate relationships, the story is really about the changing nature of print journalism.
Russell Crowe plays veteran newspaper reporter Cal McAffrey. A classic slob, Cal's desk in the Washington Globe newsroom is overrun by stacks of paper and yellowed press clips tacked to the wall. He drives a beat up car littered with reporters note pads, junk food wrappers and crap du jour.
The cynical, unkempt McAffrey isn’t without his fans, though. He’s managed to attract a slew of trustworthy inside sources who are willing to help him find the good stuff even at the risk of their own hides. McAffrey doesn’t care whether he looks good or wins any popularity contests. His mission is more than skin deep. He’s got to find the truth and tell the story. Even at the risk of getting shot or getting fired or losing close friends or losing sight of some journalistic mores.
He is, after all, pursuing truth. I'm not defending some of his choices, but how many journalists distill their mission down to those two words? "Pursuing truth." Not many, I fear.
Recently my fellow reporter Chris Casacchia estimated that of all journalism graduate students at Arizona State University at least 70 percent are planning careers in public relations. Not reporting. I was stunned.
A fatter paycheck awaits in PR, of course. Plus, the reality is that newspapers are going out of business quicker than you can yell, “Extra. Extra. Read all about it!” It's also a very stressful profession. According to research conducted at the University of Manchester in England, being a journalist is as stressful as being a prison guard or an airline pilot.
Deadlines are called deadlines for a reason.
In the movie, McAffrey knows the journalism landscape is shifting. The Globe has hired a beautiful young cub reporter to write a political “lite” blog. He doesn’t take her too seriously at first, but then challenges her to be more than a journalistic lightweight. The dialog between McAffrey and newbie Della Frye allows them to touch on some timely issues facing the fourth estate. But not too much. This is entertainment, after all.
So, I will state the obvious.
Media conglomerates that are publicly-held corporations own most of the newspapers. For them, it’s the earnings, stupid. Truth and disclosure might be nice, but not at the expense of profit and keeping shareholders content.
Plus, it’s really getting expensive to keep those industrial age newspaper presses running in this age of online accessibility. That's just fact.
The movie, as we all know, isn't fact, but it is fun. In the end, the oldster and youngster team up to get the scoop, risking life and limb in the process. The exclusive is pounded out just in the nick of time. The presses roll and the front page shouts to the masses that once again serious journalism has performed an heroic duty.
God, it made me feel wonderful. I love being a journalist. What an awesome career.
Not that it’s a safe one. Nor should it be.
Take, for example, tomorrow. There may be a pink slip waiting. Reporters have been let go in droves the past several years. The economics of newsprint aren’t working any more. Then, there's the issue of diminishing ad revenues due to the bad economy. But also, there are so many other advertising vehicles. Never again will newspapers be the only game in town. In fact, it hasn't been that way for a long time.
In the meantime there will be a revolution of sorts. There will be blood, or at least rivers of ink no longer needed in the age of cyberspace. Somehow the profession will survive. But will it survive with integrity?
Journalists, this is our moment to speak. Investigative reporting still matters. Thoughtful storytelling still matters. Passion still matters. Pursuing the truth is an honorable mission.
Publishers, this is your moment to invest in truth and commit to the cost of employing quality journalists who aren’t afraid to chase the truth. Stop the presses, if you must, but don’t stop pressing for reporting that matters.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Of McCain, Libertarians and HAWGS

Last night John McCain appeared on Jay Leno looking tan, rested and comfortable in his own wrinkles. He displayed the proper amount of humor, humility and chutzpah. And he officially announced that once again he is running for the Senate.
Really? For the sake of the country, why don't these old timers make their mission to mentor and support some young politicians? Arizona needs some fresh faces. Not the same tired images of the Wild West Posse or the Old Boys' Network.
Let's train, mentor and encourage young people to run for political office, and throw our support around them rather than discourage them with the status quo. A status quo that is held firmly in place by big bucks and little creativity.
Seriously, John, this would be a great time to take someone under your wing and move on. Give some youngsters a chance at serving their country. Find a worthy young veteran and show that man or woman the way.
Now on to the topic of Libertarians. I've known many of them during my years as a reporter. The Independence Institute is very big in Denver. Former Congressman Tom Tancredo ran the Independence Institute for many years, pushing his agenda to slam the doors shut on illegal immigration. I remember back in the early 1990s when he invited me to an Independence Institute breakfast. It was packed with people listening to the many evils of illegal immigration.
Looking around at the early morning crowd, it was clear that I was in the minority, surrounded by a phalanx of middle-aged white guys in the requisite suits and ties.
They seemed to ooze with a certain self-assurance. Then I it came to me.
"I shall call these smug dudes 'The HAWGS.'" The heartless, affluent white guys.
Seriously, how many poor people, women or minorities do you know who call themselves Libertarians?
Hey, I welcome the debate, but I do not need a HAWG to save me from myself.
Not that I'm bitter, though. I've enjoyed some spirited discussions with Libertarians over the years, and their arguments against things like public transportation and universal health care sound very rational. But also lack empathy and compassion.
There is, however, one area where I kind of agree with them. They're usually ardent supporters of term limits. If eight years is enough for the President of the United States then that's probably enough for members of Congress.
In case you're wondering, McCain has been in the House and the Senate for 27 years. Time's up.

Monday, April 13, 2009

A lame moment in PR

I've been a journalist for a long time, but today's lame PR moment was a first for me. When I arrived at work, I had both an email and a voicemail from a commercial real estate broker telling me to call him right away.
Cool, I thought. Maybe a news tip.
Ha! He was complaining about a story I wrote last week because one of the sources I quoted was his "biggest competitor."
Duh. What in the world is he talking about? Just like you readers, I had to follow this trail to find out what the problem was.
Here's the deal. I wrote about a large commercial lease deal, obtaining quotes from the developer and from the new tenant. I then got a quote from an outside source, someone who has been a trusted source for the past two years, about the current market leasing activity.
Keep in mind this story was all of 10 inches. A very quick hit.
The gentleman on the end of the phone line, however, said he should have been my third source since he actually brokered the deal. That's right. He wanted to tell me who I should quote, and since I neglected him, he wanted a printed retraction. Nevermind that the story was accurate. Just to add a little pathetic humor to the situation, he had the audacity to say, "This is the kind of news story we'd make copies of and send to clients and now I can't because you quoted my biggest competitor."
He actually thought it was my duty to aid and abet his promotional efforts.
Later I received an email from this company's long time PR consultant. She also questioned my choice of sources and wondered how she could explain this oversight to the higher ups.
I was completely befuddled. Since when are these kinds of issues my problem? And since when is someone who has been in the PR business for many years, so clueless about how a reporter puts together a story?
Ultimately she concluded that she should have been more involved in the process and that she should better educate her clients.
Fine with me. I hope she explains very pointedly that reporters aren't obligated to write about every person involved in a deal or to quote anybody specifically.
Besides, how the heck was I suppose to know that her client felt especially threatened by my outside source?
This could be fodder for a reality show/sitcom/ESP drama translated into a night time soap opera.
Desperate housewives, step aside and make way for desperate real estate brokers. Never before have so many tears been shed over martinis at the Capital Grill.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Time to apply some CPR to ASU's PR

Officals at Arizona State University say they always intended to honor President Barack Obama when he delivers the commencement address next month. Just not with an honorary doctorate degree. Instead, an important scholarship will bear the President's name.
The way the whole public relations snafu played out, I can't help but think the scholarship announcement simply was a knee jerk reaction to the bad press the school received from every corner of the country. Had ASU President Michael Crow and his doctorate committee really intended to do that from the get-go or was this just a way to save face?
Probably only a handful of insiders really knows what the dynamics were among ASU officials after news broke that ASU would not bestow Obama with an honorary doctorate degree.
Their explanation for the snub? Obama hasn't amassed a sufficient body of work to warrant the honorary degree.
C'mon. This is the first Black President of the United States. Through his childhood and career, he's survived poverty, racism and the brutality of a national political campaign. He's brought hope to millions of disenfranchised Americans. He's brought a sense a calm to a world that is reeling from the brink of economic catastrophe. That's a pretty impressive resume, even though there are bound to be failures down the road. Hey, he's human.
Still Michael Crow is not sufficiently impressed. He's one of the most powerful college presidents in the country and he's known for calling the shots. But this time Mr. Big Shot has missed the target. Perception is everything and Crow completely misjudged the public outcry that would surface when he and his minions decided to withhold this high, but largely symbolic, honor.
How many people who have received honorary doctorates really deserve them? A few, yes, but not usually. In this case, giving Obama a doctorate should have been a no-brainer. It's a matter of goodwill and public perception.
Remember when Jennifer Aniston accused Brad Pitt of lacking a sensitivity chip? I'm wondering if someone here in Tempe could use a sensitivity transplant. That might be just what the doctor ordered.