Monthly Archives: October 2008

State House Discussion

Earlier today, I moderated a panel on New Jersey’s System of Government at the State House.

The session was part of Montclair State University’s Student Leader Day. Panelists included staff members from the legislative and executive branches of state government, as well as Assemblymen Thomas Giblin and Frederick Scalera.

Governor Jon Corzine made a surprise visit and spoke briefly to the students and panelists.

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At the Movies

Votes on controversial legislation often are split along partylines. Expect a similar reaction to W., Oliver Stone’s new movie chronicling the life and times of George W. Bush.

Conservatives are likely to protest that the film presents an unfair and inaccurate picture of our 43rd President and is yet another example of the liberal media and Hollywood elite. Meanwhile, we can expect those on the left to cite it as one more piece of evidence that the Bush presidency has been a disaster for America.

But for people of all political persuasions, W. offers the opportunity for a welcome diversion from the intense and serious business of politics and elections that has dominated the national agenda during the longest presidential campaign in U.S. history. If you’re inclined to take advantage of this opportunity and opt for the celluloid version of politics over the real thing, here are some other political films to satisfy your appetite between now and Election Day:

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

More than four decades after its release, the original Manchurian Candidate remains one of the most powerful and suspenseful films involving the world of politics. With a plot that features a presidential campaign driven by ambition, a decorated war hero who becomes an assassin, and tales of brainwashing during the Cold War, followers of New Jersey politics will be right at home.

The movie actually does have connections with New Jersey. One of the characters has a recurring dream that he is in Spring Lake listening to a lecture from the Spring Lake Garden Club. The surname of a key presidential aspirant is Iselin, which also is the name of a section of Woodbridge Township. And one of the stars of the film is Hoboken’s own Frank Sinatra.

All the Presidents Men (1976)

This story of Watergate and Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward reminds us that there once was a time when people considered journalists the good guys in the white hats. It also reminds us of what it was like to be an investigative reporter before the Internet put research at our fingertips. In one scene, we see Woodward and Bernstein looking through every phone book in the Washington Post newsroom to track down a lead. In another, Bernstein spends the better part of a day waiting for his one chance to question a reluctant official who holds a key to unraveling the Watergate story.

A slight New Jersey connection here too: Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy is a New Jersey native who grew up in West Caldwell and graduated from Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark.

Wag the Dog (1997)

A chief executive involved in a sex scandal also has a familiar ring for New Jerseyans. In this film, however, a political consultant creates a fake war to divert attention elsewhere. The story is farfetched (hopefully), but the plotting, the bumps in the road, the charges and counter-charges and the need to act quickly to counter them should be familiar processes for anyone who has been involved in a political campaign at any level.

An even more tenuous New Jersey connection: The movie features scenes of many popular Washington landmarks, including one in which a limousine departs from the historic Hay Adams Hotel. The hotel was the site of former Governor McGreevey’s wedding to Dina Matos.

Street Fight (2005)

Why settle for fiction when you can get the real thing? This documentary on the 2002 mayoral campaign in Newark captures the essence of politicking in New Jersey — the powerbrokers, the threats, the paybacks and more. If you’ve spent anytime in government or politics in the state, you’re sure to spot a familiar face, location or event, maybe even yourself.

Recount (2008)

In the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, so many things occurred so quickly that it is valuable to have a film preserving these historic weeks in American history. Just how accurate the film is, however, has been the subject of much debate and discussion.

But on a broader scale, Recount does provide an accurate picture of 21st Century American politics. We see partisanship, polarization and two parties so obsessed with winning that they forget that government, as Lincoln said, should be of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Bonus:
Running on Empty (1988)

On the surface, this may have more to do with New Jersey than politics. Most of the plot takes place in New Jersey, parts of it were filmed in Tenafly, and there is a scene that features a closeup of the front page of The Star-Ledger.

As for the politics, the movie is about Arthur and Annie Pope, two Vietnam era radicals who have been living underground since they blew up a napalm lab to protest the war. The fictional Popes were modeled after Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn of the Weather Underground. Ayers, as anyone who follows presidential politics should know, now is a college professor who has become a campaign issue because of his association with Barack Obama.

As you can see, the line between fiction and real life often is a thin one. When it comes to politics, it may not matter whether you’re on the campaign trail or at the movies.

Improving Presidential Debates

General consensus is that there is plenty of room for improvement in the format of presidential debates. Let’s hope that changes are made before the 2012 campaign.

One item I would addressed is the selection of the debate moderators. Nothing against those who handled the task this year. But between them, Jim Lehrer, 74, Tom Brokaw, 68, and Bob Schieffer, 71, have a combined age of 71. If we’re trying to engage more young people in the electoral process, it would be nice to see at least one moderator who was born after FDR was president.

While we’re at it, let’s also take into consideration how people get their news and information these days. Fewer and fewer of us are relying on traditional news outlets, where journalists such as Lehrer, Brokaw and Schieffer honed their crafts. Having a moderator from the world of new media also would be a welcome addition.

A Guaranteed Method of Avoiding Misquotes

When a reporter quotes a public official (or anyone else for that matter), the person being quoted does not get an opportunity to see the quote before it is printed, aired or posted. That’s basic journalism.

But things weren’t always this way.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, reporters “freely acquiesced” to requests to clear quotes with their sources, according to Charles L. Ponce de Leon, author of Self-Exposure, Human Interest Journalism and the Emergence of Celebrity in America, 1890-1940.

And as de Leon relates in a passage from his book, New Jersey was a model for the practice.

“In a book entitled Adventures in Interviewing (1919) the veteran journalist Issac Marcosson endorsed this practice, recalling his first interview with Woodrow Wilson, then the governor of New Jersey, when Wilson had asked to see a copy of the article that Marcosson had produced from their long talk. “It was a wise precaution” Marcosson observed. ‘If more public men would examine and revise what they say for publication before it is printed they would save themselves and other people much trouble.'”

Just imagine what things would be like in New Jersey today if this practice was still in place.

Hall Institute TV

The changing landscape of New Jersey media will be the focus of The Hall Institute Forum when the 30-minute public affairs television program begins a new season this week.

In this week’s Hall Institute Forum, I discuss the state of the news industry with Jerome Aumente, a Professor Emeritus of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University. Aumente also is the author of a book about the history of New Jersey newspapers, From Ink on Paper to the Internet: Past Challenges and Future Transformations for New Jersey’s Newspapers.

In the second program of the season, I will interview Debbie Holtz, who writes a media blog for PolitickerNJ.

The Hall Institute Forum airs at 8 p.m. on Mondays and Saturdays on MCTV-26 , a cable TV network operated by Mercer County Community College.

It’s Time to Get Serious About Comedy

By gaining concessions from two labor unions and buyouts from some 200 of its non-union employees, The Star-Ledger has managed to stay in business. Now, in the words of Ledger editor Jim Willse, it is time “to start making plans for the paper going forward.”

But with about a third of its newsroom staff gone, can the state’s largest newspaper continue to survive in an era in which the internet and 24-hour cable news threaten to make the print media extinct?

The dilemma is not unique to The Star-Ledger. Newspapers all across the nation are finding themselves with less resources and less personnel at a time when competition from internet news sites, blogs and other new media is increasing.

In New Jersey, Gannett has eliminated more than 50 jobs at its six New Jersey papers this year, while The Record is abandoning its longtime headquarters in Hackensack and making most of its reporters “mobile journalists” who will work outside of a traditional office. Meanwhile, The New York Times has drastically cut back its coverage of the Garden State, and retirements at New Jersey Network are changing the landscape of the state’s public television news operation.

How do you stop the bleeding? Comedy.

If you think that’s a joke, just consider the following:

Viewership is up for programs such as Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report.

Although these are comedy shows, they also provide information — albeit in a humorous manner — about the major news stories in the nation.

Young people — the same demographic group that rarely reads newspapers — are relying on these comedy programs as a source for news.

Need more proof? Take a closer look at the facts.

Ratings for Comedy

With a heavy focus on the 2008 presidential campaign, Saturday Night Live is off to its best start in years. Overall ratings are up 49 percent over last year. The September 13 premier, which began with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler portraying Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, had the highest ratings for any SNL show since December 12, 2002, when former Vice President Al Gore hosted the program.

SNL’s September 27 parody of Katie Couric’s interview with Sarah Palin has been viewed online 4.6 million times, attracting nearly four times as many page views as the actual interview. Is it any wonder why Saturday Night Live began a series of primetime election season specials last night?

Ratings for Traditional News

According to a Pew Research Center study, audiences for traditional news programs are dwindling. Between 1993 and 2002, viewership for nightly network news dropped by 46 percent. Network news magazines fell by 54 percent, local news by 26 percent.

The sharpest decline took place among 18 to 24-year-olds. Only 40 percent of the individuals in this age group reported watching any television news in the day before they took part in the survey. And they are reading newspapers even less. “Only nineteen per cent of Americans between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four claim even to look at a daily newspaper,” Eric Alterman wrote in The New Yorker earlier this year. “The average age of the American newspaper reader is fifty-five and rising.”

A more recent Pew Center study that focused on the four years between the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns found that the percentages of 18 to 29-years olds who said they regularly learned something from network news decreased from 39 to 23 percent. Local news fared even worse, dropping from 42 to 29 percent.

Where People Go for News

With the audiences for traditional news outlets shrinking, where are people turning for news?

To comedy.

The 2002 Pew Center study found that 21 percent of those between 18 and 29 said they regularly learned about news and politics from comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live, while 13 percent cited late-night talk shows such as the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and the Late Show with David Letterman as their regular news sources.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was identified as a rising source of political information. (The Colbert Report had not yet debuted when the study was conducted.) During the 2004 U.S. presidential election, the Daily Show received more male viewers in the 18 to 34 year old age demographic than Nightline, Meet the Press, Hannity & Colmes and all of the evening news broadcasts.

Is Comedy A Valid News Source?

Earlier this year, the Project for Excellence in Journalism released a content analysis report suggesting that The Daily Show comes close to providing the complete daily news. Likewise , a 2006 Indiana University study compared the information in The Daily Show with prime time network news broadcasts and found little difference in substance.

The findings are supported by audience studies. In late 2004, the National Annenberg Election Survey at the University of Pennsylvania ran a study of American television viewers and found that viewers of The Daily Show were more educated, followed the news more regularly and were more politically knowledgeable than the general public.

The study also showed that Daily Show viewers had more accurate knowledge of the issues in the 2004 presidential election than most others, including individuals who relied on network news shows and newspapers for information.

Conclusion

Can comedy save the New Jersey media?

Perhaps not by itself, but as publishers, editors and news directors chart a course for the future, they can learn a lesson or two from the comedy programs that young people are turning to for news. To reach today’s younger audiences, media organizations need to reexamine the manner in which the news is gathered and reported. With more and more options competing for our attention, the news needs not only to be important, but also entertaining.

As Geoffrey Baym wrote in Political Communication, “The Daily Show represents an important experiment in journalism, one that contains much significance for the ongoing redefinition of news… Lying just beneath or perhaps imbricated within the laughter is a quite serious demand for fact, accountability, and reason in political discourse.”

And aren’t facts, accountability and reason the very things we hope to gain when we open a newspaper, turn on a television newscast or log onto an internet news site?

(Listen to a Hall Institute Podcast on this topic.)

References

Alterman, A. (2008, March 31). Out of Print. The New Yorker.

Baym, G. (2005) The Daily Show: Discursive Integration and the Reinvention of Political Journalism. Political Communication, No. 22, pp. 259–276.

Carter, B. (2008, September 30). Palin Effect on Ratings Only Modest for CBS, New York Times.

Chambers, S. (2008, October 8). Star-Ledger truck drivers ratify labor agreement. The Star-Ledger.

Fox, J., Koloen, G., and Sahin, V. (2007, June). No joke: a comparison of substance in The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and broadcast network television coverage of the 2004 presidential election campaign. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media.

Gough, P. (2008, October 6). Politics and Palin lure viewers to SNL.

Journalism, satire or just laughs? (2008, May 8) Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Koblin, J. (2008, August 12). Welcome to New Jersey, Media Wasteland. New York Observer.

News Audiences Increasingly Politicized. (2004, June 8). Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Public Knowledge of Current Affairs Little Changed by News and Information Revolutions. (2007, April 15), Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

The Record shifting staff from centralized office. (2008, July 2). The Record.

Does the End Justify the Means?

Postings on PolitickertNJ about a Bergen Record reporter and whether he improperly removed public documents from the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection raise an interesting journalism ethical question.

Regardless of what the circumstances of this particular case (and the reporter claims he mistakenly mixed them in with his own materials and returned them immediately), just when does the end justify the means?

For example, the Star-Ledger and nj.com are boasting about an exclusive video of a man confessing a murder to State and Hunterdon County law enforcement officials. The news story says the video was “obtained exclusively by The Star-Ledger,” but does not mention how the newspaper obtained it.

The confession appears to be an official video recorded by the law enforcement authorities. It is compelling and newsworthy, but should the Ledger be allowed to say it “obtained” it without any further disclosure? If the circumstances were reversed, would the newspaper allow a public official to get by with a similarly worded answer?