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exploring how the world works and why it works that way …

Archive for May 2005

Democrats and ‘agenda’ survey = failure to impress

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The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee thinks I’m either a true-blue state Democrat or a blithering idiot. It might be right on the latter, but this idiot will not be contributing to the DCCC any time soon.

The DCCC, over the signature of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, sent me the “2005 Democratic Agenda Survey.” The envelope’s exterior told me “here’s your chance to let Democratic leaders know your concerns about the future.”

Silly me. I actually believed – until I opened the survey – that the Democratic Party wanted to know what I think.

Here are some of the questions the DCCC asked me:
Read the rest of this entry »


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

May 31, 2005 at 9:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Selling a dream? Hardly

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If you graduated — or are about to — with an undergraduate journalism degree this year, you got screwed.

Weaving together the collected wisdom of philosopher Pierre Bourdieu, the naivete of Romenesko-trounced intern Krystal Grow, the we-don’t-need-no-stinkin’ J-schools alarmism of Michael Lewis, mediabistro’s Greg Lindsay tells young J grads that they wasted $30,000 a year on tuition.

Says Lindsay, billed by mediabistro as a freelance writer in Brooklyn who writes about the media:

You thought you were buying a set of skills, credentials, and quality time with the placement office. And you did. But your professors also sold you a mindset, a worldview, an ideology—one in which newspapers are God’s work, bloggers are pagans, and your career trajectory is a long, steep, but ultimately meritocratic climb to a heavenly desk at The New York Times or 60 Minutes. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

May 24, 2005 at 3:34 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A defender of anonymice speaks up

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For those of you less addicted to Romenesko than I am, Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post offers a spirited defense of the use of anonymous sources in today’s edition.

Using the notion of magician’s assistant to describe the relationship between journalists and the White House, Robinson argues that the Bushies are so well-versed at getting the media to talk about themselves and their vetting and editing processes that the real questions go unanswered.

It’s a worthwhile read.

Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

May 24, 2005 at 10:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

On getting it right …

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I teach journalism, and I have in my newswriting courses a grading policy that my students would call … well, draconian.

If a student — any student of any capability, including the very best — misspells a proper name, I stop reading and assign an automatic “F” to the story. And remember, a proper name is more than just someone’s name. It’s any word with an initial capital letter (uppercase to us literate geeks). That’s product names. Street names. City and towns. States. Get it wrong; get an “F.”

I don’t stop there. If a student — again, any student — commits an error in fact, then each error in fact will result in a third-of-a-letter grade deduction.

So it’s possible for students to misspell and illfactualize (a new word I just made up; it’s a new game you can play at home) themselves into grading oblivion — a minus score.

So why should I subject you, my loyal readers, to this drivel? Because, it seems, I am an about-to-be-extinct dinosaur trying to cope with an evolution in the meaning of such words as “fact,” “accuracy,” “truth” and “credibility.” Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

May 23, 2005 at 3:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

To the moon? Mars?

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President Bush, you’ll recall, wants Americans to return to the moon and head for Mars after that. (See CNN story.)

That would take billions and billions of dollars and a few decades, of course (and we know how accurate government guesstimation is).

Today, I lunched with an astronaut (name drop alert!), Dr. Kathryn Sullivan. She’ll deliver my university’s commencement address Sunday. An oceanographer, she has been at least 8,500 feet deep in the ocean in the submersible Alvin as well as being the first American woman to walk in space.

In speaking about space as well as undersea exploration since the Trieste dove to the bottom of the Marianas Trench (35,800 feet below sea level) in 1960, she made an interesting observation:

“There is no nation on earth today that can place a person on the moon or at the bottom of the deepest ocean,” she said. The technology isn’t there anymore, she said.

That took me aback. But consider:

Energy and treasure have been directed at the construction of an international space station, which has its own political, technological and economic problems.

Undersea exploration has been concentrated on commercial enterprise as much as basic scientific curiosity.

As a kid who watched every shuttle mission liftoff and watched every Jacques Cousteau underwater special on TV, I’m somewhat aghast.

Dr. Sullivan’s observation left me saddened. Just as science these days seems to focus more on applications than pure scientific desire to know how the world works and why it works that way, it troubles me that exploration writ large appears to have fallen out of our cultural makeup.

What say you?

Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

May 13, 2005 at 3:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The ethical low road? Or a necessary evil?

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When the Spokesman Review used a computer expert to pose as a teenager in a gay chat room to confirm that the Spokane, Wash., mayor trolled a gay web site for young men, did it cross the line?

A variety of ethical experts have chimed in, most, it appears, decrying the S-R’s tactic. (See Seattle Times account.)

Did the Spokesman-Review practice deceit in its attempt to nail down persuasive details about the hypocrisy of Spokane’s mayor?


Was the manner of deceit successful?


Was the manner of deceit the sole tool available for the task?

Probably not.

Frank Sesno, speaking with Wolf Blitzer on CNN early this week, said this particular ethical quandary isn’t easy to resolve, pointing out that the level of mayoral duplicity may have required a higher level of investigative means on the part of the newspaper.

I’ve taught media ethics for the past decade or so, and I’ve discussed this case with my students. They’re divided. Some argue the deceit is intolerable. Others say that governments lie and cheat, and an equal level of lying and cheating is needed to catch bureaucratic miscreants.

Most apparent ethical issues in my own newsroom experience had two common denominators. First, they had to be decided on a minute’s notice on deadline (which, of course, often leads to lousy decisions). Second, many, if not most, suffered from weak journalism. Usually, better and more reporting resolved what at first appeared to be an ethical concern.

Neither fits the S-R’s situation. Its editors had sufficient time to 1) do good, complete journalism and 2) carefully consider the alternatives to deceit. I’m satisfied that the S-R did not undertake its investigative method lightly and fully understood the consequences of its actions.

The ivory-tower teacher in me says, “This was wrong. Deception begets disbelief.” But the pragmatic journalism of 20 years in me says, “How much harm can a man with great power do before he’s exposed? And what is the best method for exposing him and preventing that harm?” And note, please, that the harm could be done to the most vulnerable among us — the young.

My first editor once told me: “If you shoot at the king, don’t miss.”

In this case, the S-R could not risk an errant shot and used the best alternative available to insure it didn’t.

Is this a case of the end justifies the means? Sure. And this case will end up in journalism textbooks –literally next year — that I’ll use in class. And as long as journalism has a history of Mirage bars that win reporting prizes and Food Lions that arouse the courts, and as long as politicians and corporate executives seek to harm those who cannot protect themselves, then journalists will have fewer and fewer alternatives to deceit.

Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

May 12, 2005 at 4:03 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

‘Knightfall’ imminent?

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Steve Volk’s “Media” column in this week’s Philadelphia Weekly paints an interesting picture of advertising pressures on circulation patterns at the Inquirer and Daily News, both published by Philadelphia Newspapers Inc., a unit of Knight-Ridder.

Volk offers some street-level looks at how papers are circulated — and in what neighborhoods — as well as the impact on circulation from other staff cuts.

It’s an interest read for those interested in the nitty-gritty of newspapers’ quest for higher profits (or to just hold on to what they have). If you like redlining, then you’ll appreciate Volk’s piece.

Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

May 11, 2005 at 1:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

‘Market’ your circulation woes away …

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You own a newspaper, and 1) either your circulation is falling (therefore lowering your ad rates) or 2) your profit margins are shrinking, which, of course, is an outcome of 1).

Oh, lordie, what to do, what to do …

Solution: Market your circulation/adverftising/profit problems away.

Recall, please, my earlier post on the multi-million-dollar advertising campaigns undertaken by the Newspaper Association of America and the Magazine Publishers of America to make over their media’s images.

Now one of the finest (well, it used to be) newspapers I’ve ever read, the Christian Science Monitor, has succumbed to the same thoughtless solution to its problems: cut the editorial staff and increase marketing efforts.

According to an E&P story, the Monitor will cut 10 to 15 positions from its editorial staff of 102.

E&P quoted a report on the Monitor’s web site: “There will be a reduction in editorial staff to permit the publisher to devote efforts to marketing to rebuild the paper’s circulation,” the report said.

There it is in black-and-white: Solve circulation woes by cutting the ability to produce strong editorial content to increase the ability to market weaker content to boost circulation.

This isn’t the Monitor’s first round of editorial staff cuts, either. E&P reported in July 2004 that the Monitor had cut 13 editorial positions since the beginning of that year. E&P’s story recounts circulation drops, reductions in pages per issue and increases in subscription prices, all signs of troubles at the First Church of Christ, Scientist, the newspaper’s owner.

It’s painful to watch greatness suffer the slow death of a thousand erosive cuts … especially when the proposed solution is so thoughtless.

Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

May 11, 2005 at 12:11 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

We ain’t dead yet …

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The LA Times’ Tim Rutten takes a look at the future of newspapers in his recent Regarding Media column.

In it he names the three groups trying to take down newspapers — “ideologically minded commentators,” “academics for whom migration from one novelty to another has become a kind of career path,” and “demoralized newspaper proprietors themselves, though we employ the term loosely, since nowadays a majority of them are corporate apparatchiks.”

It’s a good read, especially to watch him wield his lay-’em-bare scalpel.

Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

May 9, 2005 at 11:58 am

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Me? Ethical? Nahh …

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A recent study by two academics (at least one a former journalist) says that only doctors, seminarians and medical students outrank journalists in following ethical guidelines in their professional lives.

(Read the E&P story.)

That comes as no surprise to me (disclaimer: I teach media ethics). I know — and have trained — a great many journalists, and their ethical behavior meets professional standards. The few bad apples, of course, get the ink and taint the rest of them.

The big ethical dilemmas — and failures to get them right — get the most play in the press and the movies. What doesn’t make the headlines are the dozens of small decisions and judgments that journalists must make every day.

That’s what my colleagues and I at my university talk about in ethics classes — the continuum from “big” ethical issues to “little” issues — and that each issue, large or small, requires the same methodical attention to journalistic completeness of a story as well as appropriate ethical guidelines.

But buried in the story is the real troubling news.

Here’s what the story says (emphasis added):

“Nurses, orthopedic surgeons, and members of the Navy are among the groups that trailed journalists. Junior high school students scored lowest, with 20.0, just below prison inmates, with 23.7.”

Below prison inmates? Sheesh.

Yes, they’re young. And yes, their brains are not fully developed. But I find this worrisome.

Do you?

Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

May 5, 2005 at 11:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized