Carol Robinson: Crime boss

When I taught one semester of journalism at Samford University in Birmingham and was still trying to figure out this college teaching business, I’d occasionally ask students if they liked the course. I recall asking this of one student who said she liked it very much. And why? My lectures, perhaps? Umm, no. The very first reason out of her mouth: “That woman from The Birmingham News was great!” That woman was the Alabama Media Group’s iconic crime reporter, Carol Robinson, who kindly came as a guest speaker, regaled the students with stories, and left them mesmerized. Oh, she also gave each of them her business card, so if there ever were a big crime on campus they’d know who to contact. Yet another example of why Carol is so good at what she does.

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 Carol, one of my first reporters at The News many years ago, is deservedly and deftly profiled by my friend and former colleague Alec Harvey in the latest edition of Auburn Magazine, the publication of the Auburn University Alumni Association. It’s worth your time just for the understanding of the life of a dedicated beat reporter (full disclosure: I’m in it).

For reasons I’ve never understood, many news organizations and individual journalists view the police beat as a temporary, entry-level position, maybe because of the uncontrollable and undesirable hours (I did it for a year). It’s a beat that will sap a reporter, in part because of the hours and in part because of tension with sources who often consider publicity an obstacle to crime solving. Mainly, though, the beat’s burden is the cynicism and perhaps psychological trauma of constant first hand exposure to the awfulness of life. Yet Carol has done it – superbly – for 23 years.

Among many other plaudits, Carol is AMG’s page view queen, a result of her remarkable volume of work and her more remarkable quality of work. Sure, she has the advantage of covering crime, which most research, including my own, shows is the No. 1 most-read topic among broad audiences. But good crime reporters such as Carol make something more of their beat than an endless series of sensationalistic headlines for the voyeuristic tendencies of readers. Crime reporting at its most basic provides essential information – kinds of crime, patterns and trends, locations – for residents to make informed decisions about self-protection. Beyond that, it is an opportunity to bridge gaps and suspicions between law enforcement and community, or perhaps in some cases to temporarily widen those differences with necessary watchdog reporting about law enforcement misconduct, with the ultimate aim of correcting failures and eventually strengthening perceptions and relationships as a result. 

 Another of crime reporting’s public services may be its most difficult and quixotic – and what Carol does best – which is to starkly and impactfully portray the human toll of crime. Bringing humanity to the stats and written reports is a chance to stir the community conscience, so that the next time, say, a 2-year-old boy or a 16-year-old girl senselessly loses their life, we might feel the compassion, outrage and, most importantly, the motivation to try to do something about it.

 

College admission decisions sometimes need a do-over

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College admissions have never been a strict academic merit system. Consider the extra weight given to demographic diversity of the student body (a good thing), or to student athletic ability (a controversial but justifiable thing), or to family ability to pay (a college budget thing). At some universities, add considerations of political connections, or legacy enrollments or past or predicted family donations to the school (none of those a good thing but irresistible to some administrations). This reality, though, shouldn’t lessen the outrage over FBI allegations that 50 wealthy parents, entrance test administrators, college administrators and college coaches used bribery and fraud to gain student admissions into selective universities.

 Part of the visceral reaction comes from the galling notion that these families weren’t satisfied with the inherent advantages they already enjoyed from being wealthy and white. The other part was well articulated by prosecutor Andrew Lelling: That for every student admitted by deceit, some deserving student somewhere was denied. 

For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected.
— Federal prosecutor Andrew Lelling

 Lelling’s description of a “zero-sum game” has relevance to another group of college students – an extremely small group -- who did nothing fraudulent but nonetheless leave professors such as myself baffled and annoyed. These are students for whom academics are not a priority. At all. They exist at every university – they are not readily apparent during the admissions process – and they are most easily identified by their abysmal class attendance record. More than once, usually speaking generically, I have told students that if they wish to waste their money and educational opportunity, that’s their (unwise) choice. But I’m not sure I’m right about that. Because each of those students took the spot of some other applicant who would presumably be putting forth the effort to gain something from the educational chance they’d been given. If you’re there instead of someone else, do you not have some responsibility and obligation to appreciate the opportunity and to give a flip?

 Whether talking about uninterested students or the students in Operation Varsity Blues, it’s necessary to think about who they might have bumped out, though that’s unknowable outside an admissions office. Maybe it was another rich, white, accomplished applicant who worked just as hard or harder in high school. Or maybe it was an average achiever trying to overcome an impoverished home life and a failing high school and who just needed a break and a scholarship to become the first in the family to go to college. Any scenario is unfortunate, but when I imagine the latter kind of case, I despair.

 

Course: Ethics 101. Student: ESPN. Grade: F.

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The revolving door of personnel between journalism and the institutions of coverage is an old story at both the national and local levels. Expertise and contacts prompt individuals to change careers from one to the other, a pattern that these days is increasingly becoming one-sided as journalists depart the field involuntarily or, frustrated by deteriorating work conditions, voluntarily. Thankfully, news organizations that practice ethics insist on no simultaneous overlap. So it is both mystifying and appalling to witness the flimsy ethics of national sports TV networks, especially ESPN.

ESPN has not only endorsed but encouraged the New York Mets’ hiring last week of Sunday Night Baseball analyst Jessica Mendoza as a baseball operations adviser who will assist with “player evaluation, roster construction, technological advancement and health and performance,” according to a club statement. That is not a ceremonial role. Meanwhile, her fellow analyst, Alex Rodriguez, is an adviser to one of his former teams, the New York Yankees. David Ross, another ESPN analyst, is a special assistant to the Chicago Cubs, one of his previous teams. Over at Fox Sports, studio hosts Frank Thomas and David Ortiz have advisory roles with their former clubs.

In a public statement about Mendoza, an ESPN spokesman referred to multiple such examples “across networks” and pledged that ESPN “will be fully transparent about Jessica’s relationship with the Mets.” I therefore expect nothing less than every name identification chyron for the entire season to say “Adviser to New York Mets.”

Certainly, transparency is a cornerstone of ethical communications in media. There’s a too-long history of compromising relationships and payments that were not initially disclosed. But transparency isn’t credibility. News outlets and commentators who work for clubs can claim that their remarks are completely unaffected by their team affiliation, and that may even be true. Doesn’t matter. Credibility is only what the audience perceives it to be. No matter how forthcoming and even-handed Mendoza or any other similarly situated analyst may be, I will always wonder if there’s any skewing of perspective about teams the Mets play against or may trade with. Which would be every team in Major League Baseball. Same goes for commentary about players. And gracious, at this point, ESPN doesn’t even seem to have a problem with Mendoza working games in which the Mets play or Rodriguez working games involving the Yankees.

Would a news division allow a regular on-air employee to simultaneously get paid by a subject of coverage? Don’t think so. And that’s a big part of the frustration here. In the world of TV sports, media credibility already gets pressured by the lucrative deals for broadcast rights. When certain outlets walk the plank even farther with formalized and fundamental conflicts of interest, it revives the (mostly) unfair aspersion that the sports media – all of them – don’t take their journalism seriously.

 

Winging (it) over the air

I dusted off my media appearance skills this week and was quickly reminded how hard it is to wing it on live broadcasts. Live TV and radio shows work best if spontaneous, but spontaneously making comments that are intelligent, accurate, complete, fair, nuanced, composed, comprehensible, thought provoking, unexpected, fresh and maybe even halfway funny is no easy feat. Renewed respect for journalists and other experts who do this regularly. And I recommend that every journalist do this at least once, just to be sure they have an appreciation for how hard it can be on the other side of the Q&A.

HERE’S THE AUDIO OF MY APPEARANCE ON THE JAY BARKER SHOW (2/19/19). WE TALKED ABOUT CHANGES IN SPORTS MEDIA, PAUL FINEBAUM AND, OF COURSE, UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA FOOTBALL. MY THANKS TO JAY, LARS ANDERSON, ANTONIO LANGHAM AND KERRY ADAMS FOR THE SMART QUESTIONS.

Punishing the press at UNA

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The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education last week picked the University of North Alabama for a spot on its highly competitive annual list of the 10 worst colleges in the nation for free speech. I know the history and track record of UNA’s campus newspaper, The Flor-Ala, so this is a truly sad achievement by the university’s administration. The primary case for inclusion began in September, when The Flor-Ala published a negative article about the university’s refusal to comply with open-records requests related to an administrator and a professor who were no longer on campus. One week later, student editors and the Flor-Ala’s staff adviser, Scott Morris, were summoned to a meeting at which a university administrator complained about that story. Two weeks later, the administration informed Morris that the adviser’s job description would be changed to require a doctorate and that the position would become part of an academic department. Thus, Morris is out of a job at the end of this semester. Morris, the Flor-Ala staff, and members of UNA’s Student Publications Board, including board chairman Glenn Stephens, a former colleague of mine, believe these actions are retribution for bad press. The administration denies that.

In addition to punishing Morris, the newly configured job description for student media adviser will enhance the administration’s ability to limit future negative coverage, in my view. Faculty members tend to be outspoken and independent. But I fear a faculty adviser of student media who has not yet been granted tenure, and knowing this current episode, would be naturally reluctant to enable administration-bashing articles when such a vital career decision looms. To be fair, UNA’s job revamp is not an outlier. A 2014 academic article by Carol Terracina-Hartman of Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and Robert G. Nulph of Missouri Western State University (cleverly subheaded “Is there a doctor in the newsroom?”) reports that making the student media adviser job into a tenure-track faculty position is a trend among universities. (That’s not the case here at UA, by the way.) Upping the doctorate count is one part of impressing accreditors. But that 2014 study also raises this question: Is it a good idea? The authors report that a “strong majority” of the advisers for award-winning student media have 15 or more years of professional experience (which Morris does). But “university administrations often sacrifice professional media experience for doctorates in advertising new hires.” (The valid, underlying premise is that the pool of candidates with a terminal degree and years of newsroom battle scars is relatively small.) No one is saying an adviser with a Ph.D. wouldn’t know what they were doing. Far from it. But it’s a job best suited for someone like Morris who has been in the trenches of journalism a long time. UNA should prioritize that for the good of the students, but the administration has other motives here, which is a shame.

College administrations facing undesired stories often count on student media to lose reportorial momentum through the churn of graduation. The Flor-Ala’s best response isn’t an easy one, but it’s the same best response as elsewhere in journalism: Don’t quit till you get the story.

 

Yes, a scandal rag can be sued out of existence

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The National Enquirer occasionally and remarkably unearths truths that reverberate through politics and journalism. It wasn’t wrong, for instance, about presidential candidate John Edwards and his affair, or about presidential candidate Gary Hart and his affair, or about O.J. and his … Bruno Magli shoes. It’s not wrong about Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos’ affair, either. But Bezos’ evidence that the Enquirer sought to blackmail him with threats of publishing intimate texts and photos, along with revelations of its practice to “catch and kill” negative stories about favored public figures, reminds us that at its heart, this publication is journalistic and ethical garbage. And maybe a criminal enterprise. If you think, though, that the Enquirer is the most outrageous scandal magazine ever, you’d be wrong. Although it didn’t intersect with national politics as the Enquirer manages to do, the now-defunct Confidential magazine of the late 1950s was equally controversial. As documented by Samantha Barbas of the University at Buffalo School of Law in 2016, Confidential was the most popular and most despised magazine of its era. Using hidden tape recorders, private investigators and prostitutes as informants, the magazine “destroyed celebrities’ reputations, relationships and careers.” And like the Enquirer, it sometimes withheld negative information to use as future leverage over celebrities and agents. Although most of the magazine’s headlines were true, celebrities sued, and the State of California, operating at a time when laws and attitudes were not as protective of a free press as today, charged Confidential with criminal libel and publication of obscenity. The criminal case ended favorably for the magazine with a split jury, but that obscures the real impact. Confidential abandoned its stock in trade in 1958 because of the decimating costs of fighting all that litigation. Which brings us to now. Bezos has a strong invasion of privacy case against the Enquirer, should he wish to pursue it. He could fund lawsuits by others, too. Journalists understandably recoil at the notion of wealthy plaintiffs sidetracking the press’ mission with harassing and expensive court actions. Bezos himself was critical of PayPal founder Peter Thiel when Thiel secretly bankrolled the Hulk Hogan lawsuit that folded Gawker. But this view suggests that the price of a free press must include all thresholds of tabloid excess. And now it’s Bezos himself in the crosshairs, and he’s really angry. It may turn out that federal prosecutors will inflict sufficient damage on the Enquirer. But if Bezos wishes to take it further, the Enquirer may end up wondering regretfully why it decided to take on the richest man in the world.

Preserving journalism's history -- the good and the bad

The First Amendment on the facade of the Newseum in Washington (photo by Mike Peel, www.mikepeel.net)

The First Amendment on the facade of the Newseum in Washington (photo by Mike Peel, www.mikepeel.net)

Were it not for the increasingly frequent and very adamant sounding public announcements that the museum was closing in 15 … 10 … 5 … minutes, I’d probably have missed dinner, the plane home and possibly the start of the semester. Because I’d still be trying to read all the exhibits in the Newseum in Washington, D.C. I hope anyone interested in journalism, or functioning democracy, gets a chance to tour the museum dedicated to journalism and the First Amendment before it closes at its current location sometime in 2020 and moves to a presumably smaller building somewhere else in D.C. The Newseum blends narratives, visuals and artifacts on an array of topics about journalism and major news events, an eclectic mix that includes 9/11, the Unabomber, the Beltway Snipers, Pulitzer Prize winners, journalism history and threats to press freedom around the globe. Several exhibits arise from the state of Alabama. A section dedicated to the FBI includes the 2013 rescue of a kidnapped 5-year-old boy held in an underground bunker in Midland City. (The FBI smuggled a camera inside the bunker by hiding it inside a toy dinosaur intended to entertain the boy. Clever.) The most notable ones, though, come from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In that regard, my former organization, The Birmingham News, is memorialized in both a good light and a disgracing one. Part of an exhibit correctly notes The News’ shameful see-no-evil coverage of nationally historic protests and clashes in Birmingham. Various accounts have laid out details over the years. Believing (wrongly) that it would help to de-escalate tensions, The News relegated major stories to Page 2 and refused to quote any of the black activists. Worrying foremost about the city’s image, The News’ assistant publisher squashed publication of many of the dramatic photos – attack dogs, fire hoses – captured by the newspaper’s photographers. “Do Not Publish,” he would write on the prints. The Newseum exhibit grants some amount of rehabilitation to The News by featuring its 2006 publication of a collection of civil rights era photos found by chance in a box in a closet of the News’ building. The gallery, titled “Unseen, Unforgotten,” highlighted photos that, remarkably, had never been published. Whether the Newseum continues to exist or not, the performance of journalism will be enshrined forever, if for no other reasons than the fixed nature of its platforms and the vital work of historians and researchers. There’s never a bad time for any news organization – especially community ones whose readers have limited local news options – to step back, self-assess and ask how history will judge it.

EXPLOSIVE STORY! (Sure'd be nice for journalism if it were true)

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Commentary from news journalists about the meteoric but now suspect BuzzFeed News report that President Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress has been a strange mix of implied exoneration and muted dread. The sense of exoneration comes from frustration and puzzlement that a competitor broke a huge story that their organizations didn’t have and still don’t have. The dread comes from the knowledge that if the story is wrong, media critics and Trump supporters will use it (and already are) to condemn the news media as a whole. Their job will just have gotten a whole lot harder. The fairest, most valid way to judge media performance and credibility is organization by organization, not the field as a whole. But it won’t happen that way. While news consumers have traditionally rated their local media higher in trust and credibility than the national media, the national media get broad brushed based on preconceived biases supposedly validated by any gaffe of a single news outlet. Certainly, there is substantial reason to question the accuracy of the BuzzFeed story — the rare and stunning (though vague) public rebuke by the special counsel’s office and, probably more telling, the inability of any other news organization to independently corroborate the story. I think it’s safe to say, nonetheless, that BuzzFeed News did not take publication of a story of this magnitude cavalierly. Further, this is an outlet with a good track record of reporting on Trump/Russia connections and other issues, plus a Pulitzer Prize finalist recognition for stories about Russian assassinations. One of the reporters on the current story in question, Anthony Cormier, is a Pulitzer Prize winner. And this story may yet turn out to be true. Still, I spot some journalistic alarms. I’m doubtful most news organizations would have published a story with such far-reaching implications with only two anonymous sources (though BuzzFeed says there’s other sourcing not in the story). I’m doubtful most organizations would have sought response from the special counsel’s office in the brief, casual manner than BuzzFeed News did. I’m doubtful most outlets would even have hired reporter Jason Leopold in the first place (and I say that based only on his past documented reporting failures). It’s relevant, too, I think, that BuzzFeed News was the only news outlet that chose to publish full details of the unverified Steele dossier. BuzzFeed News, being a relatively young operation birthed from a medium of memes and clickbait, may approach publication standards with an unconventional mindset. Let’s hope any misapplications of a tried-and-true legacy news vetting process don’t end up damaging BuzzFeed News — and everyone in journalism.

UPDATE (1/20): Cormier says on CNN’s Reliable Sources that BuzzFeed News is trying to determine the language that was used between Cohen and Trump “in the room.” Knowing the language seems like a really vital element to substantiating the story’s crucial word choice of “directed.” That would be another journalistic alarm.

There goes Bob Costas again

I have high standards for sports broadcasters, a natural consequence of having grown up in St. Louis, Missouri, listening to Jack Buck, Harry Caray, Joe Garagiola, Dan Kelly and others. I heard Eli Gold call St. Louis Blues hockey games almost a decade before he ever did an Alabama football game. Another was Bob Costas, who began his professional career calling games of the Spirits of St. Louis of the defunct American Basketball Association. I well remember sports fans calling in to mega radio station KMOX to complain madly about this kid from New York who had the temerity at the time to hold Mickey Mantle in higher regard than Stan Musial. I thought, whoa, this kid’s career is over before it even started. Umm, not quite so, as four decades later Costas departs NBC Sports (by buyout) as its icon of football and Olympic coverage. A lot of sports fans liked Costas … as long he stuck to sports. Which he didn’t. On air, he broached issues such as gun control, Russian politics, offensive mascots and — an issue that needs as much airing as possible — the dangers of head injuries in football. Sports and politics have always intersected, and always will. It’s not merely because sports figures and broadcasters have an immense platform they could use for advocacy if they wish. It’s because sports are part of society’s fabric, and so they reflect its ills and divides. As long as some athletes engage in guns and violence and get coddled for their crimes, as long as Olympic committees make horrific choices of hosts, as long as games mentally and physically cripple some athletes for the sake of someone else’s money and entertainment, reputable sports journalists such as Costas will want to at least occasionally make us pause the fun and escapism to consider the serious issues before our eyes. And that isn’t always popular or easy. Costas did it, though, and that is despite his network owning broadcast rights purchased from the very leagues or organizations he criticized. Usually, especially on the regional and local levels, nothing can squelch necessary sports commentary quite like a business relationship.

This game destroys people’s brains. ... Not everyone, but a substantial number. ... That’s the fundamental fact of football. That is the biggest story in American sports.
— Bob Costas, November 2017, University of Maryland panel

Not everyone can be a news photographer (even if management thinks so)

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Occasionally I like to highlight recent interesting (and relevant) research into journalism because, frankly, academic researchers do a sadly average job of delivering findings in understandable and widespread form to the practitioners who would benefit from them.

Many news organizations forced to save money in recent years decided they didn’t need all those professional photographers, because after all, any reporter or even any citizen with a smartphone could take a photo or a video good enough to publish. Wish they had been able to read the conclusion of researchers Tara M. Mortensen of the University of South Carolina and Peter J. Gade of the University of Oklahoma.

They studied photos published by a medium-sized newspaper in New York before and after the paper laid off its entire photo staff in 2013. Their findings: Compared to non-professionals (citizens, PR), pro photographers “are better at capturing intimate, emotional and graphically appealing images” (Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 2018). While non-professional photos were “purely informational images of people and places,” pro images more often included “conflict, action, human element (and) timeliness.” They further concluded: “These findings refute suggestions that enhanced digital technology and rapid-fire cameras allow non-professionals to routinely produce photojournalism on par with professionals.” The study also found that photos by reporters remained rare after the layoffs, “suggesting that reporters were seldom expected or capable of shooting photography while on reporting assignments.”

But for all the validation of professional photographers, the researchers’ ultimate conclusion was a sad one: Pro photographers had not established enough worth (“legitimacy”) in the minds of management to withstand organizations’ desperate rush to slash the payroll (not unlike assignment editors, copy editors, statehouse reporters, neighborhoods reporters and anyone over 50 who was making a lot of money). Certainly managers knew photo quality would suffer, but they believed marginal yet acceptable alternative sources existed. In other words, they deemed the degree of decline in quality as less than the degree of gain in wealth, and that’s all that mattered.

For famous anecdotal support, I’ve posted comparison photos (sized based on their actual page display) from the Chicago Tribune (top) and the Chicago Sun-Times showing the Blackhawks bringing the Stanley Cup to town in 2013. I’m thinking you can figure out which one laid off its photo staff one month earlier.