Letters to the editor

Readers respond to our March/April issue

Say it ain’t so
Thank you for the article “Who cares if it’s true?” in the March/April edition.

During my 30-year career as a daily news reporter in suburban New York (including beats in Newark and Jersey City), I came to believe that my superiors were increasingly more concerned about who said something was true rather than whether it was true or not.

Thus the reader is frequently left with the confusing “he said” point vs counterpoint reportage.

R. Clinton Taplin
South Nyack, New York

Seemingly forgotten in the internet journalism age is the psychological rule of primacy: The first fact someone learns about a topic, person or event can be very difficult to later “correct.” People have a tendency to cling to first-learned facts even if exposed to overwhelming evidence to the contrary later. The assumption that it’s somehow okay to post “news” without fact-checking because if it’s false it’ll later be debunked ignores this phenomenon and does a real disservice to readers. Combine this with professional opinion manipulators trying to rig the public debate for reasons ranging from “viral,” corporate, advertising to political issues, and you have a system inviting abuse. Digital “journalists” who subscribe to the post-fast-post-first mentality really aren’t worthy of the name. And outsourcing your own credibility to news aggregators doesn’t solve the problem.

Lawrence Pearlman
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If current media outlets today think people really consider their news truth . . . they are living in their own world (i.e., Hollywood). Freedom of speech allows for variations of one’s independent take on current news, and our world is large enough we allow room for error. Just don’t expect people to believe and feel inspired by what we hear as “news.” We free people require truth, though there is little in the news arena . . . it is now up to individuals to delve into various news media outlets . . . gather information, then attempt to ascertain the truth of the matter. Very difficult, however we grin and bear it . . . and try to find reason out of the madness.

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Thumbs up, Gannett
As a longtime Gannett critic, this move deserves a measure of applause (“Place a bet on USA Today,” CJR, March/April). But it cannot be read as a business model available to all American newspapers. Given that media corporations have spun off their newspapers into different divisions from broadcast, and given that few of those corporations have a national kingpin like USA Today, Gannett’s model appears to be suited only to itself . . . and no one else. Still, even in Gannett-only towns, the prospect of better local news coverage is enticing.

Denny Wilkins
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Not invited or never showed up?
Having read Alexis Sobel Fitts’ March/April article about Fox News twice (“And from the left . . . Fox News”), I remain puzzled.

She offers both positive and negative information about Fox but, by comparison, only barbed asides for MSNBC. Leaving quibbling aside, it’s unfair to complain that there “the debates happen with villains who are not in the studio.” I have lost count of the number of times Rachel Maddow has asserted that her show invited X or Y on to debate the issue, to no avail. Sometimes she adds that she would welcome these folks at any time, so far with few takers.

If conservatives are afraid to appear with hosts who aren’t ideological allies or at least beltway bloviators, is that MSNBC’s fault?

More importantly for an article in CJR, Fitts never raises the question of factual accuracy, an area where Fox hosts as well as guests often fail miserably. Media monitoring groups could offer many examples of dishonest coverage on Fox, but here are two that are hard to explain, so Fox hopes people simply forget:

1. During Wisconsin demonstrations against Gov. Scott Walker, Fox ran footage of unruly protesters, bolstering the idea that they were contemptible. The problem was that there were palm trees in the background—in Wisconsin in the winter.

2. During the 2008 campaign, some daytime Fox host referred to the Obamas giving each other a “terrorist fist bump” to celebrate how well things were going. Effectively accusing a leading politician of treasonous support for al-Qaeda was beyond any boundaries of journalistic accuracy or decency. The response of the mainstream media then was amusingly subtle: In the weeks that followed, they printed without commentary pictures of sports teammates, Dubya, and members of the US military giving each other these un-American signals. I have yet to hear about a Fox apology.

If CJR’s goal is “to speak out for what’s right, fair, and decent,” it should be less concerned about how much opinion airs on MSNBC than about how much factual misinformation airs on Fox, the video equivalent of the worst excesses of the Hearst press.

Fenwick Anderson
Takoma Park, MD

Too bad this magazine ran a long article portraying cable TV’s narrow political spectrum as a full range of views. The piece flatly reports that James Carville “has been one of television’s most visible progressives for decades”—and goes on to tell readers that Fox News regular Juan Williams “was hired as one of the network’s first progressives.” But the likes of Carville and Williams are “progressive” only to journalists who can’t venture far from the corporate bubble that’s home to outfits such as Fox, CNN, and MSNBC.

Norman Solomon
Point Reyes Station, CA

Contrary to what Alexis Sobel Fitts writes, there are no bona fide liberals on Fox News.

These so-called liberals that may have had a connection with the Democratic party in the past are no longer liberal and that is why they feel comfortable appearing on Fox News.

Kirsten Powers, who is mentioned in the article, is not a liberal. I have read her writings on The Daily Beast and have seen her on Fox News Sunday, where she is always attacking President Obama using the talking points from Fox News. She qualifies as a right-wing crackpot. Over the years I have sent her many hostile emails because of the outrageous right-wing things that she writes or says. Ms. Powers qualifies to be on Fox News because she is a pretty blonde.

Juan Williams, who is also mentioned, is at best a moderate; he certainly is not a liberal.

Only a true liberal like myself is qualified to call someone a liberal.

Based on this article, Ms. Fitts does not fit into that category.

No true liberal would ever refer to Joe Scarborough as a moderate conservative when he is in fact a foot soldier of the radical right.

Reba Shimansky
New York, NY

Fox is successful because they respond to the market. Outlets driven by “corporate approval” do not garner the approval of the viewers. Witness the #lack of #success of progressive radio and television. Fox’s ratio of conservative to progressive reflects the population’s center-right position on most issues.

Ken Talbott
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Fox News (and the rest of Cable News’ PT Barnum circuses) is the World Wrestling Federation of political thought and discourse. Why even give Roger Ailes the bandwidth on CJR? It is hardly journalism.

Tim Schreier
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Turn off the tap
Good job on “How dry I am” (CJR, March/April).

I cover energy at the Dallas Business Journal and I’ve written about water and drought. You are right. Readers have apathy toward a water crisis because their taps still work in the big city. And we have the numbers to back it up.

We track hits on our online stories here and time and time again water stories by me and others fell flat. They’d get a few hundred hits, probably from the same folks who are already engaged, like you said.

It’s never the blockbuster that gets 2,000 or 5,000 hits that a story about Chesapeake Energy or Exxon would pull in. It’s barely even worth the effort, but we wrote extensively about when Texas had the constitutional amendment election in November. That passed so the state water plan is funded.

Prior to my job here, I did community journalism covering some affluent suburbs here in Dallas/Fort Worth. You hit the nail on the head. When it comes to their city, you better believe they cared when you talk about water restrictions because that means the lawn dies.

But looking at the statewide picture, it’s hard to garner any interest.

Nicholas Sakelaris
Dallas, TX

Thrilled to see this piece, having tried to persuade two young journalists to develop a global water beat. One tried but could not find a sound enough economic base to sustain the work.

Local editors and reporters looking for a story should examine the finances of their municipal water systems, often starved for funds to maintain the system (see “Draining Pockets” chapter in The Fine Print). When the breaks and leaks get really bad these systems are often sold for a song, resulting in much costlier water than had watchdogs identified the lack of reinvestment and it had stayed on public ownership.

Water quality, storage systems, mining of aquifers, wasteful practices in agricultural and landscaping (Vegas golf courses!), and the highly profitable business of selling water by the bottle at four times the price of gasoline all deserve scrutiny. And readers will respond, especially to stories written from their perspective.

David Cay Johnston
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In “And from the left . . . Fox News,” from the March/April issue, we misspelled Kirsten Powers’ name. In “Place a bet on USA Today” from the same issue, we misprinted the name of a newspaper. The correct name is the Palm Springs Desert Sun.

The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.