Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Can Reporters Committ Treason By Doing Their Jobs?

It was an incendiary news report about a top-secret government eavesdropping program that sparked punitive legislation from Congress and calls for treason prosecution from admintration officials.

But, as University of Minnesota law professor Jane Kirtley noted a month ago in a letter to U.S. House members, government officials in 1986 eventually got over an NBC report that an accused spy may have tipped the Soviets to a submarine-based listening effort and stories on intercepts of Libyan government communications.

Back then, CIA director William Casey wanted to prosecute news organizations for treason and U.S. Sen. Ted "bridge to nowhere" Stevens wanted to pass a law requiring those convicted of espionage to forfeit all property tied to the crime -- meaning news outlets found guilty might have to surrender their businesses to the government.

And now that least one Congressman has called for the New York Times to be prosecuted on charges of treason -- just one month after Attorney General Alberto Gonzales refused to rule out such a prosecution for the newspaper's revelations on domestic spying by the National Security Agency -- Kirtley wonders if we have not traveled back to the future in a striking way.

"It's kind of spooky that almost exactly 20 years ago this happened...(and) although the espionage laws have never been used to prosecute the press (in America), that's not to say someone, somewhere, might not try," she said. "And if we are going to allow the prosecution of the press for publication of certain facts, what we've done is create an official Secrets Act. I have to think that criminalizing certain types of information is not what the founders of this country had in mind."

But in the wake of stories last week in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times detailing a global effort to track terrorist funds, some politicians and pundits were advocating exactly that -- with the New York Times taking the brunt of criticism as the lead news organization in reporting the story and for its perceived history as a symbol of liberal news bias.

"The New York Times Just Doesn't Give a Damn About National Security" read the headline on a dispatch from the conservative Media Research Center advocating the Times be prosecuted for treason. Republican U.S. Rep. Peter King -- who once accused the Times of colluding with then-Presidential candidate John Kerry to bolster his arguments against the Iraq war -- said the newspaper was "more concerned about a left-wing elitist agenda than it is about the security of the American people." Even local radio personality Tedd Webb advocated charging "anybody who derails a top secret government program designed to protect us" with treasion and executing them.

Administration officials from President Bush to vice president Dick Cheney and outgoing treasury secretary John Snow have all condomned the stories, saying their publication has reduced the program's effectiveness. In a letter to readers Sunday, Times editor Bill Keller noted the newspaper had consulted with administration officials for weeks, considering their pleas that they hold the story, ultimately concluding "our default position -- our job -- is to publish information if we are convinced it is fair nd accurate, and our biggest failures have generally been when we failed to dig deep enough or report fully enough."

Strip away the election-year posturing and partisan catcalls, and you find a tension Kirtley said has always existed between government, which works to keep its secrets, and the press, which seeks to expose them. One question that surfaces -- as government officials and supporters ratchet up the criticism of news organizations which reported the banking story, do they run the risk of permanently hampering independent reporting on national security issues?

It's one thing to say the Times should have respected national security enough to hold a story on a program which seems legal, if invasive. It's another to say they should face criminal charges for making the decision to publish. But in the ever-heated national debate on these issues, the two positions are growing tougher to distinguish.

"One of the things the government has worked hard at doing is convincing people the press is irrelevant at best and at worst is the enemy," she said, noting some called for the Chicago Tribune to be prosecuted when it revealed that allies had cracked a Japanese cipher code in World War II. "The question is: Who decides what information should be kept secret? Are you going to take Dick Cheney at his word, or are you going to want to find out for yourself?"

But reporters thought they had a legal right to keep confidential sources secret, until a series of court decisions winnowed away that priviledge at the federal level. And though the war on terror is conflict with no clear end or defined conclusion -- will every terrorist who wants America destroyed ever be vanquished? -- arguments that rules of reporting should be different at a time of war carry weight with some people.

Still, when I searched Google on the terms "journalism" and "treason," the countries which surfaced read like a who's who of media oppression: China, Russia, Ethiopia, Peru. (Times business reporter Kris Hundley had a moving story Sunday on a Chinese man whose speech to western media earned him a beating which took away his ability to walk). Is this the tradition of press freedom America should be emulating?

"I find it very distressing when folks don't seem to recognize the importance on an independent media," said Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press. "I've got this notion that somebody should keep an eye on what government is doing -- and that job falls to the press."

New Website for local Fox affiliate WTVT-Ch. 13

For many long years, local Fox affiliate WTVT-Ch. 13 has offered a web site a step behind other area Tv stations. But that will change soon, with the debut of a redesigned site in line with the company's goal of developing a souped-up, common style for web pages of every station. With the URL myfoxtampabay.com, the new site offers a greater mix of news stories and features -- still in beta testing...

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Can Cancer Struggle Make Good Radio?

Like a lot of media reporters, I got to know Leroy Sievers when he took over as executive producer of ABC's Nightline. Unusually forthright about issues involving the show, he was a creative storyteller, great interview subject and even presaged all the behind-the-scenes blogs now deployed by network TV news departments with a widely-read email update that truly pulled back the curtain on decisions at Nightline.

Squeezed out of working on the show amid the tumultuous revamp that also, eventually, encouraged longtime host Ted Koppel to hit the road, Sievers spent a year teaching, volunteering with the Red Cross and helping Non-Governmental Organizations in Africa before planning to come back to the news biz.

But his cancer had other ideas. He thought he had beaten colon cancer five years ago, but problems with slurred speech last December ("I thought no one noticed...but a friend thought I was drunk when we went to the movies together," Sievers says now) led to a chilling diagnosis: six months to live.

All of this wouldn't have risen above the level of news business gossip if Sievers hadn't also decided to share his struggle with National Public Radio's audience, crafting a pair of evocative, emotional commentaries on his struggle with cancer that Sievers says brought more public response than anything he did on Nightline.

On Monday, NPR will unveil a ramped-up version of Sievers' reports, debuting the first of a series of monthly commentaries for Morning Edition, along with weekly podcasts and a daily blog, all contained under the heading, My Cancer.

"One of the things you face is quality of life vs. quantity of life," said Sievers, who now has a 13-month prognosis and inspiration from a friend who has survived 10 years with a similar ailment. "Do you stay on chemotherapy and feel (bad) all the time? Do I get those new eyeglasses I need? I haven't bought clothes, because I'm not sure I really need them."

Given all the tumult in the media industry these days, this is a story that seems too small for consideration, I'm sure. But Sievers' commentaries have been moving and compelling, and I think if you spend a little tiem checking them out, you may find the education about life with a terminal illness worthwhile.

Traitor or Truth Teller? New York Times in the Cross Hairs Again

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum echoed the administration's strategy for handling yet another national security scoop by the New York Times: play the liberal media bias/national security card.

"I think it would be hard to come closer to the classic definition of publishing the departure time of a troop ship in war time and inviting the enemy to shoot a torpedo at it than this," said Frum today on Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz's CNN show Reliable Sources. "Here's a program where there's no allegation of abuse....Yes, look, there are a lot of people in the government who are disgruntled about the Bush administration's approach, and they have taken on a program of sabotage and leaking, but it wouldn't work without the complicity of the papers. This is as big a media scandal as it's possible to be."

The NYT angered administration officials by denying their request to kill a story on how they have kept tabs on the international flow of terrorist money by examining records of wire transfers using a wordwide network of bankers. The bankers have defended handing over the info to the U.S., and conservative pundits have gone apoplectic over the exposure of another spying program they believe is necessary to hold terrorists at bay.

New York Times columnist Frank Rich responded by noting that the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times also published accounts of the same program, and that the administration didn't begin to brief Congress about it, until they realized the newspapers were going to publish the story.

It's a classic conundrum for journalists, and one that I think the general public is often too dismissive of. Perhaps people assume their financial records won't be examined, but this Washington Post article examines the privacy implications of such a program.

Freedom of speech and privacy vs. security? This seems to be the question continually at hand as a secretive administration pushes more invasive surveillance programs and an aggressive press works harder to ferret them out -- facing subpoeanas for confidential sources and diminishing protection in the courts.

Supporters of the administration say the war on terror requires such measures. But this is a war with no geographic boundaries and no timetable. America-hating terrorists have existed for a long time: are we to accept secretive, undisclosed extensions of presidential and intelligence power until the last al-qaeda cell is vanquished? Or beyond?

I know that as a journalist I'm biased toward good stories and skeptical of government. But such revelations seem to me the only way to ensure such programs are implemented the way they are supposed to be. And, in the end, that's part of our job -- isn't it?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Pay-to-Play Content Becomes SOP in Media

The same day Mother Times published a piece by me about a new morning show coming to WTSP-Ch. 10 in which advertisers will pay to be featured, Advertising Age published the results of a poll conducted by PR Week indicating "that nearly half -- 48.9% -- of senior marketing executives admit they have paid to have commercial messages integrated into print and broadcast editorial content."

Certainly, that was my perception in researching Wednesday's story, which noted Gannett Corp. has made a particular priority of bringing these shows to its stations, creating such shows in St. Louis, Denver, Sacramento and Tulsa.

Less than three years ago, when Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz wrote about the same activity at WFLA-Ch. 8's Daytime, Sen. John McCain threatened Congressional action and trade publications mistakenly accused local media of ignoring the story.

The fact is, both Tribune TV critic Walt Belcher and I had done stories outlining WFLA's pay-to-play provisions in Daytime when it debuted, but no one seemed to care. TV executives, in particular, like to accuse me of nitpicking and unfairly criticizing their actions when these subjects come up -- as if it was the height of naivete to expect TV stations not to try confusing their viewers with barely-disguised infomercials.

As media fragments throughout the digital sphere, perhaps it is naive to expect TV stations won't work hard to wring every last dollar from their airwaves. But at a time when media and journalism crediblity is near rock-bottom levels, do viewers really need another reason to mistrust what they see onscreen?

Dave Chappelle Preview

I didn't have much room in today's Floridian article on Dave Chappelle to recount many of the jokes I saw during his opening night stand at the Tabernacle in Atlanta Saturday.

Which was just as well, because when I tried writing down his routine, I found that vocal inflection and profanity adds so much to his work, that many of his bits didn't make any sense when reproduced for a family newspaper.

Still, if you want a taste of what you might see during his shows tonight or Saturday -- or what you might be missing -- here's a few choice quotes.

"Everyone got mad at Bush for the war because he lied. Let me tell you something about this war. First of all, maybe its all of our faults. Yeah, I said that. Maybe Bush can't do something like that all by himself...(And) what if Bush came out and told us the truth....In 10 years we're broke. We have nothing. But I have a plan. We're going to rob Iraq...You want nice things, you want big cars, well this is how we pay for this s--- America. The whole country would be shocked...nobody wants to hear the truth."

"Two years ago, I used to make fun of celebrities, until I saw what they were actually going through. All that s--- that happens in the press, that is called corporate discipline...Look how they do Britney Spears. She's a mother for the first time in her life and the media's like, (in official-sounding voice) 'She's a bad mother. Look at her driving with the baby in her lap with no car seat.' So? Remember when we were kids? Our parents used to smoke in the car didn't have no f---ing seat belts on. All kinds of s---. Leave her the f--- alone."

On why legendary pimp Iceberg Slim perfectly captured how capitalism subjugates people: "A good pimp knows, there's a finite amount of s--- a woman can do before she loses her...mind. So a good pimp can read her miles. That sounds bad, but they do it to all of us. That's why so many of us work from nine of five. Because nine to six might kill a b-----."

MySpace Keeps Trying to Convince the World it's Safe

In between deleting unsolicited requests from porn stars to join my MySpace friends circle, I've been asking representatives of the service repeatedly for an interview with its new Chief Security officer Hermanshu Nigam, a former federal prosecutor.

Unfortunately, the good folks at MySpace haven't seen fit to make him available yet, but they did release news of new security measures designed to make the sprawling social networking service more teen-friendly.

Let's check out the big advances, and consider how well they might work in the real cyber-world.

1) Those over 18 must know the full name or email address of minors in order to connect with them as friends. Problem: Few people on MySpace are honest about their ages. So a pedophile is likely already registered as a minor in order to win teens' trust. And experienced cyberstalkers know how to get even wary users to divulge enough information to get around this stricture.

2) All MySpace members can put their pages on a private setting, which would restrict access to personal details to those inside your friendship circle. Problem: You can't control who your friends allow into their friendship circles, which may give them access to your information as well. And as for a feature allowing people to restrict access to people within their own age groups; see previous problem.

3) MySpace is creating advertisements and promotions within the service which will be age-appropriate. Problem: Most teens will probably avoid those sites like chaperones at the school prom.

I have no desire to see concerns over safety curb MySpace's growth. But the service seems more intent on combating perceptions than implementing effective safeguards. And the service remains too drenched in sex and oddballs to be a place for teens to congregate unsupervised.


I keep forgetting to note this, but Mother Times is in the process of changing the URL for the blogs. Eventually, the URLs which were originally used for the blog may not work, or may lead you to an older version. So refresh your favorites entry for this space with this URL:


Kinda slick how I insinuated you might want to put me in your favorites list, huh?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Could This Be the Key to Katherine Harris' Campaign?

I saw this on YouTube and couldn't resist linking it. As a big fan of The Waitresses and finely-honed political satire, it was irresistible...

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Rather Gone, Germaise Disciplined: Tough Day for TV News

Thanks to a quirk in the various systems here at Mother Times, my short piece detailing the one-month suspension of local TV reporter Don Germaise did not make it online -- prompting at least one web outlet to proclaim his discipline a quiet one.

I'm told the memo issued by management at WFTS-Ch. 28 regarding the whole thing was plastered all over the newsroom. Don basically agreed to submit to an interview in exchange for getting an interview with a local white separatist for a story in May-- confirming the setup in emails, a video clip and a signed release form. Of course, the separatist edited the video to make it look as if Don agreed with his philosopy and posted it on the Internet.

"After a thorough review of the events, we have determined the newsgathering process for the story had serious breaches of our company policy and our ethical and journalistic standards," the memo read, in part, saying Germaise would return to work July 16.

Though Germaise first insisted to me, and presumably his bosses, that he didn't agree to a quid pro quo arrangement, the separatist then posted all his evidence that Don knew what he was agreeing to and was enthusiastic about the arrangement. As this memo makes clear, however, Don was disciplined for making the arrangement, not for lying to his bosses or me -- suspended for a month starting last Friday. Blame corporate red tape for the delay between publicity over Don's actions and the punishment.

I'm told there's some anger at WFTS over the way our free tabloid tbt* handled my story -- the headline IDIOT was plastered on the front cover -- and I think they have a point. I tried hard in my reporting to present an evenhanded account, which was scuttled by a pointed headline and blurb in tbt* making fun of Germaise.

It is a troubling dynamic -- tbt*-style readers want us to draw the obvious conclusions in stories (I had quotes in which Germaise himself admitted he hadn't acted intelligently) but sometimes those conclusions take what some subjects believe are cheap shots at people already in difficult circumstances. Can a newspaper owned by a school for journalists which resists such practices also print a tabloid which crosses that line?

Rather Moseys Into the Sunset

Such is the shape of modern media that we all knew this was coming long before it ws announced.

It started with stories placed in various high-profile media outlets announcing that CBS executives were downplaying their connection to longtime anchor Dan Rather, refusing to extend his contract. Then Rather himself provided interviews about his negotiations. And word leaked that his leading alternative job offer was from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban's nascent HDNet channel.

Now, it's official. Rather is capping 44 years at CBS News still engulfed in the cloud of disrepute that colored his exit from the CBS Evening News.

Is it Karma for a guy who reportedly pushed out Walter Cronkite and elbowed aside Roger Mudd to get the top job? A final swipe for a dude who progressively became too weird for a TV audience to tolerate? Or an ignominious end for a top anchor and reporter who gave his professional life for the Tiffany Network's news division?

Since Rather has turned down my requests for an interview, I may not have those answers for a while. But CBS News has long wanted to put the stink of Memogate behind them, and I'm not surprised that a barely-ceremonious exit for Rather is part of the prescription. (Check Harry Shearer's wry aural satire on the whole situation here)

Courage, Dan. I've a feeling that's something you're going to need for a while.


I'm on Ed Gordon's News and Notes after a long absence, discussing expaned police search powers, crime in New Orleans and Jay-Z's problems with Cristal. (Former St. Petersburg Times reporter Marcus Franklin busts open the Cristal controversy for the Associated Press here)

Monday, June 19, 2006

Connie Chung Leaves Awful Memories

Hard to believe this woman -- who single-handedly proves here why MSNBC never should have given her and hubby Maury Povich a show to begin with -- once co-anchored a major network newscast...

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Dave Chappelle and Me: Two Brothers Meeting in a Pop Culture Whirlwind

It wasn’t like a visit to Lourdes. Or even a visit to Graceland.

But I still feel a little differently about life, after meeting Dave Chappelle.

I had the pleasure in Atlanta last night. Mother Times was cool enough to jump at my idea of advancing his sold-out Tampa-area shows this week by reporting on one of his first performances in a brief bust of Southern stand-up dates -- jetting me to the A-T-L for the second of six sold-out shows at The Tabernacle, a reconditioned, downtown church.

The real story drops in Thursday’s Floridian, where I’ll try dissecting Dave’s latest bit of madness while figuring out why fans still love this guy – who essentially walked away from them and $50-million, scuttling one of TV’s most groundbreaking new comedies. But I can slip a few spoilers here for those nice enough to put up with my blog blather.

The first surprise of the evening was seeing Mos Def, Chappelle’s buddy from his kickass concert film Block Party and a talented actor/rapper in his own right. Def later refused to speak on why he was helping open Dave’s shows with about 40 minutes of his own songs – or even to confirm whether he would be joining Dave here at Ruth Eckerd Hall – but he offered a pointed defense of his friend during the show.

“He said f--- being a star; I want to be a man,” said Def, drawing sustained applause from the sold-out crowd. “That’s about being a human being – one of my favorite groups out there.”

To those of us who have covered showbiz for a while, it sounded like one of those typically self-conscious justifications celebrities use to explain their latest excess. But, after braving an hourlong wait after the late show to quiz him while he signed autographs for the faithful few waiting by his tour bus, I’m convinced its what Chappelle believes, even as he struggles to explain a career-halting move he barely understands, even now.

Answering that question – explaining why he walked away from a lucrative contract with Comedy Central on the cusp of Eddie Murphy/Chris Rock-level fame – proved the backdrop of Saturday’s show; a theme to which he would return, again and again.

Meeting someone like Chappelle is always an odd experience for me. He doesn’t know me from Adam, though I have interviewed him a couple of times and have written several extensive pieces about his life and career. As a fan, I worried another unique comedy talent was being lost to the horrible vortex of high-level showbusiness and white-hot public attention; as a journalist, I was bummed that a major subject wasn’t available to me.

Indeed, my ATL trip was made necessary by the fact that Chappelle isn’t doing any press for his shows, these days (Why should he? Tickets for the Hotlanta shows were selling at $150 each last time I checked online -- double the $73 face value -- and Ruth Eckerd seemed to sell out his gigs fast as they could add them). His publicist ignored an email and three phone calls; even the tour’s promoter pointedly refused to speak with me on telephone to arrange my paid-for press ticket, sending just one email with nothing but the time of the show for my ticket. (at least he didn't hang up on me in mid-interview, as happened here)

But to his credit, Chappelle was friendly, if guarded, when we finally did meet, confiding that his departure wasn’t about succumbing to pressure as much as it was about refusing to give in to “The Game” – an exploitive relationship with the Hollywood powers that be which he explains during his show with voluminous references to legendary literary pimp Iceberg Slim.

His wide swath of newfound fans don’t always get his heady mix of streetwise philosophy and showbiz cynicism – the nosering-wearing woman sitting next to me Saturday was less-than impressed with Mos Def, Iceberg Slim or the fact that Dave’s actual stage time clocked in at about 60 minutes (and, of course, some bonehead had to interrupt Dave' flo to scream "I'm Rick James, bitch," evoking a bit the guy laid to rest two years ago).

But their heady devotion proves his career has some hang time yet – as comedy’s brainiest slacker struggles to find a career that can advance his art while reaching a crowd larger than a nightclub audience.

As Dave himself probably knows, that struggle is as compelling as any story he’s ever told onstage – a fitting Father’s Day present for a media/pop culture writer who is heartened by the thought of Chappelle continuing to subvert the Hollywood entertainment/exploitation machine from within.