Category Archives: Bergen Record

Strange Bedfellows in the State House Press Corps

Of all the many changes taking place in New Jersey’s news organizations over the past 12 months, perhaps none carries more significance than the decision by The Star-Ledger and The Record to merge their State House bureaus.

Up until now, the layoffs, cutbacks and consolidations have taken place within the confines of individual news organizations. The merger of the Ledger/Record bureaus marks the first time that two of the state’s competing news entities will be combining forces.

The decision is not without some precedent. Continue reading

Upcoming Events

The New Jersey Political Science Association will conduct its annual meeting on Friday, February 27, at the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University.  I will be one several speakers on the panel discussing New Jersey’s 2009 campaign for Governor.

* * *

My research essay on media coverage during the Vietnam War era has been accepted for presentation at an academic conference in New York City (March 14 at Marymount Manhattan College).

* * *

I will be a panelist at the New Jersey Communication Association Conference (March 28 at Kean University), discussing personal privacy on the internet.

* * *

On April 24, I will take part in “A Fiscal Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” the Annual Symposium of the State Chapters of the Association of Government Accountants and American Society for Public Administration. I will be on a panel that will discuss “How the Media Crisis Affects the Government Crisis.”

Is the Glass Half Empty or Half Full?

With an unprecedented number of layoffs and buyouts, 2008 was a devastating year for journalism in New Jersey.

Or was it?

It all depends on whether you are looking at the glass as half empty or half full.

From the half empty perspective, it was truly sad to witness the struggles the state’s newspapers confronted in order to survive.  Likewise, it was alarming to watch so many talented journalists depart the news industry in New Jersey. Continue reading

In The News

My opinion piece on the historical significance of this week’s Democratic National Convention was published in the Bergen Record on Sunday. Click to read “Historical dimensions.”

In addition, U.S. 1 Newspaper was kind enough to print my research essay on the private lives of public officials, a paper that became topical again with the revelation that former Senator John Edwards had engaged in an extra-marital affair. Click to read “The Press and the Private Lives of Public Officials.”

Summertime Blues

The months of July and August are traditionally slow times for news. Although New Jersey has had a few significant stories break this summer (such as child pornography allegations involving a state legislator), for the most part it has been a slow time for news in the Garden State.

Ironically, it has been New Jersey news organizations themselves that have emerged as the subject matter of several news accounts this summer. Collectively, these developments could very well change the face of journalism in New Jersey.

At the start of July, The (Bergen) Record announced plans to have most of its reporters working as “mobile journalists” before the end of the year and to leave its longtime Hackensack office in the next two to three years.

Later in the month, two major figures at NJN News — anchor Kent Manahan and Director of News and Public Affairs William Jobes announced they were retiring. Senior Political Correspondent Michael Aron will take over Jobes’ job on an interim basis. No word yet on the anchor position.

And before July was over came word that Newhouse News Service, the Washington, D.C. bureau for Advance Publications (which includes The Star-Ledger) will close on Nov. 7.

This was followed a few days later by an announcement from the owners of The Star-Ledger that they are seeking buyouts from 200 of its non-union employees by October 1 – or they will put the state’s largest newspaper up for sale. A similar scenario is taking place at The Trenton Times, which like the Ledger is owned by Advance Publications.

One final item. This won’t have the impact of the other developments, but two Bergen Record reporters also made it into the news this summer. The New York Post on July 17 reported that billionaire Manhattan hotelier Patrick Denihan tried to chase the two reporters off a public beach near his house in Bay Head, N.J.

NY Follows the Garden State for a Change

New Jersey often plays second fiddle to New York in many areas, among them the media. But it was a New Jersey newspaper to first report that New York Mets manager Willie Randolph had injected race into the discussion about his performance at the helm of the club. After the story ran in the Bergen Record, it became a hot topic for media outlets in New York and beyond.

Trading Places on West State Street

The news that Star-Ledger reporter Deborah Howlett is leaving her job covering Governor Corzine to take a job working for Corzine as his Communications Director raised eyebrows in Trenton this week, especially since it came on the heels of a similar decision by another high profile Ledger writer: Columnist Tom Moran is moving to PSE&G to do public policy work.

The raised eyebrows are understandable.

How is it possible to switch roles so quickly? To go from asking aggressive questions of the Governor and challenging his statements to answering those very same questions and defending his statements?

Are journalistic ethics being compromised by reporters who know they are about to take a job that will change their relationships with the organizations and individuals they cover?

New Jersey law prohibits officials from leaving government and immediately becoming lobbyists. Should we also close the revolving door between the Fourth Estate and state government?

From my perspective – as one whose career has included stints in both journalism and government public relations – I see no problem with the moves that Howlett, Moran and hundreds of other journalists have made.

Who better to serve in a communications and public relations role than someone who has firsthand experience about what make journalists tick?

More importantly, journalism is an industry whose members police themselves. By contrast, governments pass laws to strengthen ethics, but they often are ineffective. This is because no one can legislate morality. Where there is a will, there is a way. If someone wants to ignore an ethics law, they will.

Most news organizations have ethics codes or guidelines. And although they do not carry the force of law, they work. They work because by and large the individuals who have chosen to make journalism their careers value the principles and ideals of the profession.

Back in 1990 after I gave my editors at The News Tribune notice that I was leaving my job as a Statehouse Correspondent to work for the State Assembly, I spent my last two weeks at the paper writing a feature series on the New Jersey Lottery while much more interesting and controversial events were taking place in the Legislature.

In Howlett’s case, she told Gannett that she actually has spent more time covering the presidential election than the Governor’s Office in recent weeks.

News organizations also have taken steps to prevent conflicts that may arise when spouses both have pubic identities, such as the Star-Ledger’s Robert Schwaneberg and his wife, New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Helen Hoens.

The truth is the problems with journalism today – in New Jersey and throughout the nation – are not with individual reporters and editors. Instead, the issue we should be examining is how media consolidation and the drive for profit are impacting the quality of the news we receive.

Advance Publications, which owns the Star-Ledger, the Trenton Times and several other New Jersey newspapers, also owns many major magazines, including Bon Appetit, Glamour, GQ, Modern Bride and Vogue. Is the parent company shortchanging its New Jersey news operations because there is more profit to be made by investing in its high quality magazines?

Gannett, the parent company of the Asbury Park Press, owns the Army Times Publishing Company, which publishes a series of newspapers for members of the military and their families. Is there a connection between this military company and the crusading efforts of the Asbury Park Press to keep Fort Monmouth open?

The North Jersey Media Group, which owns the Bergen Record, the Herald and News, and a large group of weekly newspapers, appeals to potential advertisers by describing its market as “an area of unprecedented wealth and retail sales.” Does this mean issues that appeal to an upper-middle class and upper class demographic are more likely to be covered than those that are important to the working poor?

I am not suggesting that the answer to any of these questions is yes. But in order to preserve quality journalism and strengthen our democracy, these are the types of issues that should be researched and explored. They are much more important than debating where on West State Street any individual reporter — or former reporter — chooses to work.

How News Frames Shaped the Super Tuesday Coverage

Almost without exception, the state’s daily newspapers led their New Jersey primary stories with language indicating that Hillary Clinton had held off a challenge from Barack Obama:

Gannett – Hillary Rodham Clinton defeated the late-surging Barack Obama in New Jersey’s Democratic presidential primary Tuesday…”

Courier-Post – Hillary Rodham Clinton overcame a fierce challenge from Barack Obama to win New Jersey’s Democratic primary Tuesday…”

The Record – Hillary Clinton held off a surging Barack Obama to win New Jersey’s Democratic presidential primary Tuesday as party power brokers, Latino voters and labor unions helped her avoid an embarrassing loss.

Star-Ledger – New York Sen. Hillary Clinton withstood a furious, final-days challenge from Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in her own backyard to win the Democratic primary in New Jersey yesterday amid a record-shattering turnout by voters.

True, Clinton had long maintained a convincing lead in the polls and Obama had narrowed that gap in recent weeks. But by portraying Obama as the challenger, these stories created the impression that Hillary Clinton already had won something in New Jersey.

That’s fine if you are writing about a prize fight in which a boxer is challenging a heavyweight champion who has won several bouts to earn his title. But in the New Jersey primary, the fact is Hillary Clinton had not won anything before Tuesday. When the polls opened at 6 a.m., she and Barack Obama had exactly the same number of votes – zero.

Yes, Clinton was ahead in virtually every voter poll conducted prior to the primary, but the credibility of polls took a beating in New Hampshire earlier this year. And as candidates are fond of saying, the only poll that matters is the one that takes place in the voting booth.

By framing stories in this manner – whether or not intentionally – journalists have the ability to shape events, according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The press both covers events and, in choosing what to report and how to report it, shapes their outcome,” she wrote in The Press Effect.

In discussing the disputed 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, Jamieson contends that the frame became one in which Bush was perceived as the winner and Gore as the challenger, even though there was no clear-cut winner. This in effect made it more difficult for the Gore team to gain support.

Moving back to New Jersey, the lead of the Star-Ledger’s national story on Super Tuesday created an air of invincibility for John McCain:

“Sen. John McCain continued his march toward the Republican presidential nomination…”

Now that Mitt Romney has bowed out of the GOP primary, it appears that McCain most likely will “march toward the Republican nomination.” But on Wednesday, when this story appeared, Romney was still a candidate, albeit a weakened one. Yes, McCain’s nomination appeared inevitable, but nothing is inevitable. Just ask the New York Mets, whose chances of playing in the 2007 post-season were considered inevitable before their historic collapse.

When journalists create a sense of inevitability, it can have a direct impact on public perception.

For example, a study by Jack Lule of Lehigh University found that news reports prior to the 2003 war in Iraq were based upon the assumption that war was inevitable. In turn, this assumption had profound implications in terms of public support for the war. This conclusion was based on six weeks of coverage by NBC Nightly News in which the network titled its reports Countdown: Iraq, Showdown: Iraq, and Target: Iraq.

“By using Countdown: Iraq as a structural metaphor, particularly in the middle of February 2003, NBC Nightly News affirmed the inevitability of conflict with Iraq at a time when many Americans and nations around the world were still attempting to prevent the conflict,” Lule wrote in Journalism Studies.

One could argue that the consequences of framing Hillary Clinton and John McCain as candidates in commanding positions on Super Tuesday may not be as great as the frames that helped build public support for the war in Iraq. That is true, but with Super Tuesday, we also are talking about a process that ultimately will determine who will serve as the nation’s next chief executive in one of the most challenging times in our history.

And that is a decision that deserves to be made carefully and thoughtfully by a well-informed electorate.

# # #

Related Post:

Has Election Coverage Entered A Brave New World?