Letters to the Editor

Reader's congratulations, and reactions from our September/October issue

Fifty Candles

Journalism the world over is in the midst of profound, transformative change, and it is not yet clear what forms will eventually emerge and become dominant.

What will not change is the importance of the function of journalism in the lives of everyone. Ordinary citizens and their leaders; the politically and economically oppressed; tycoons and Main Street merchants; the faithful and the doubters—wherever we fit in the large and small construct of humanity, we need truth-tellers.

Personally, I am grateful that the Columbia Journalism Review will be around to help lead us through this meteor shower of change. It’s been an invaluable resource for journalists for a half century, and we need it now more than ever.

Tom Brokaw
New York, NY

Congratulations on your fiftieth anniversary. I’m proud to say I was a reader back when CJR was a tyke, moderating debates on whether it was possible to pound out a story on an electric typewriter. Perhaps you guys knew that we’d eventually wind up covering wars via Twitter, but I never had a clue, and I’m grateful you were around to help get us through all the drama. Now, I’m looking forward to reading the CJR take on news transmission by telepathy.

Gail Collins
New York, NY

My admiration for the Columbia Journalism Review—and the indispensable role it plays in fostering journalistic excellence—goes back more than two decades. I was a CJR intern in the summer of 1984, while a student at Columbia College.

In the short term, my summer at CJR helped inspire me to re-establish Columbia’s first student newspaper, Acta Columbiana. In the longer term, it taught me enduring lessons about the importance of critical analysis in journalism and the value of a strong and free press.

CJR’s commitments to engaging in fact-based criticism, fostering a vibrant marketplace of ideas, and preserving the spirit of the First Amendment in American society help make our nation’s press more effective and our democracy stronger.

I congratulate CJR on five decades of imparting those values to readers and interns alike. We all look forward to at least another half century of success.

Julius Genachowski
Chairman, Federal Communications Commission
Washington, DC

Is there anyone more thin-skinned than a reporter whose career revolves around flaying others (for only the best of reasons, of course), but who treats the most constructive (and accurate) criticism as a personal affront? On the other hand, is there any business as bitchy and as competitive as our business? When I was a kid reporter covering the Pentagon for The Associated Press in the 1960s, I grew to become, via on-the-job training, a violent critic of that senseless, murderous war. And yet, if one of the major newspapers scooped the wire with a critical story about the war, and I was ordered to match it, I can still—more than four decades later—remember the temptation to dash into the Pentagon’s public-affairs office to grab the invariable pro forma denial . . . and sometimes did so. You guys at CJR have a most thankless job—to tell the truth to the journalistic powers that be. I sure hope you have a dog to kick at night.

Seymour Hersh

Washington, DC

I began reading the Columbia Journalism Review almost with its first edition half a century ago and once I became publisher of Newsday, I never stopped. I’d rather miss a meal than an edition. CJR is the journalism about journalism that has inspired my own journalism over many years now. And it just keeps getting better, stronger, and more essential.

Bill Moyers
New York, NY

At a time when much of the debate around the future of journalism centers on new business models, the Columbia Journalism Review has been a constant reminder that journalism is so much more than a business. Since its founding, CJR has understood that a strong press is essential to a functioning democracy.

CJR has always been a fervent defender of our free press, while never letting it off the hook. We also appreciate its willingness to wade into the world of media policy, recognizing the profound impact that decisions too often made behind closed doors in Washington have on journalism in America, and consequently on the nation itself.

CJR started the same year that FCC Chairman Newton Minow delivered his famous “vast wasteland” speech. “You must re-examine some fundamentals of your industry,” Minow challenged the media. “You must open your minds and open your hearts to the limitless horizons of tomorrow. . . . You must help prepare a generation for great decisions. You must help a great nation fulfill its future.”

At its best, CJR has met that challenge, which is just as essential today as it was fifty years ago. Here’s hoping you will continue to hold the media accountable and open our hearts and minds for another fifty years or more.

Craig Aaron
President and CEO, Free Press
Josh Stearns
Associate program director, Free Press
Washington, DC

I always looked forward to CJR—it was the one place where I could depend on getting real insight into real things that were going on in my world. From way back in the halcyon days when our biggest challenges simply seemed to be how to get better and better at what we did, to the really dark days when it seemed like everything we knew was disappearing, to the search for new business models, it was always fun to see what CJR had to say. And I have to say that even today, it’s fun to read The Audit. We don’t always agree, but we always like the reasoning behind the choices.

It’s pretty humbling for journalists when they find themselves the subjects of journalism. The experience—which often bears little resemblance to reality—usually makes us realize just how much we must be getting wrong. Not so with CJR. Not only were the stories accurate, they were insightful. I found myself in the magazine’s sights a couple of times and always came away learning something new about myself and whatever situation I found myself in.

If CJR didn’t exist, I think we should be compelled to invent it!

Amanda Bennett
Special projects editor, Bloomberg
New York, NY

The Tail Wags the Badger

The University of Wisconsin football “program” has always congratulated itself on developing its own players, but this fall, the Badgers’ starting quarterback is a twenty-two-year-old college graduate and professional baseball player who was developed somewhere else. Russell Wilson bailed out at North Carolina State University, where he starred for three years and earned a baccalaureate degree, with one year of football eligibility left. Effectively a free agent, he was hotly recruited by both Auburn and Wisconsin, which got the nod largely because Wilson was awed by its imposing offensive line. The Wilson situation is a breathtaking example of the cynicism and hypocrisy of big-time college football, but since it involves no infraction of NCAA rules, not an eyebrow has been raised by the sports press in Madison—or anywhere else, for that matter.

It may be true that the “Scandal Beat” reporters Daniel Libit writes about in the September/October CJR focus on crumbs and ignore the muffin, as Rick Telander puts it, but an even bigger problem is that the football-crazy public in general and alumni fans in particular think the muffin is finger-lickin’ good. The commercialization and corporatization of college sports, the huge amounts of money involved, and the slick marketing campaigns have made athletic departments bigger than the schools they represent. The tail is wagging the dog, and except for a few spoilsport journalists, hardly anyone sees anything wrong with that. Just win, baby!

Wisconsin’s hired gun from North Carolina will play only one season in Madison, but if he takes his fellow “student athletes” to a big bowl game or, who knows, a national championship, he’ll go down as the greatest Badger athlete who never set foot in a UW undergraduate classroom.

Jim Doherty
Spring Green, WI

I have known several world-class musicians who have been recruited to university music schools with offers of full scholarship plus expenses (essentially the same deal that scholarship varsity athletes receive). These young musicians are not only allowed, but encouraged, to take as many outside, paid performance jobs as they can handle. Indeed, I knew some who played in the local symphony, at full wages, while in school. Why is it acceptable for an oboe player but not a football, basketball, or tennis player to earn outside income, even unrelated to the sport, while making considerable income for the university?

Peter Ross
Cumberland, RI

Talk Is Cheap

Dave Marash has been a master storyteller for half a century. “Fade to Black” (CJR, September/October) is one of his most important—and most disturbing.

Jeff Kamen
Washington, DC

If anything, David is being a little too kind in his observations (he always has been a gentleman). CNN’s Jonathan Klein and his counterparts state that intelligent talk can be more informative than crafted video reporting. In theory, that may be true. Unfortunately, in practice it’s a different matter. Frequently, the “talk” to be found on television news programs is utter banality. For their next project, perhaps Dave’s team can tally the number of statements per hour that are uninformed, off-point, or just outright silly. I suggest purchasing a calculator that has an exponent function.

Bryan Myers
New York, NY

The irony here is so deep as to be painful. As the technology of video and television production has gotten increasingly simpler and cheaper to make, TV networks have run away from it instead of embracing it. For nearly twenty-five years, I have been preaching the gospel of the video journalist (VJ), as well as building TV networks and stations around the world based on this simple principle: give reporters laptops and cameras and show them the door. In many places in the world, this concept has been eagerly embraced—it is both less expensive (cutting the cost by as much as 80 percent) and at the same time, it delivers far more and better material.

At the BBC, we took their national network from fielding sixty-four beta crews a day to cover the country to fielding more than a thousand cameras a day—all in the hands of BBC journalists.

At NY1 (which we built in 1990/1!), we put forty-two cameras on the street of New York every day, while WCBS, where Dave Marash was then working, I believe, was fielding eight crews.

When I started Current TV with Al Gore, we unleashed literally millions of VJs with cameras and let them tell their stories—and still we are only at the beginning of this revolution. Yet, having just had meetings with all of the major networks, I can tell you that they would rather go out of business than embrace this concept. And why?

I think it has to do with the idea that “real” reporters don’t carry cameras, and that, in fact, if anyone can shoot and edit video, then they are no longer so “special.”

I saw this many years ago at Channel 1 in London, when Nick Pollard, who later went on to run Sky, replaced the small mobile video cameras with Betacams and all the accompanying gear. His reason: “I will not have my people laughed at in the streets.” It didn’t look “professional” to him.

Twenty years later and nothing has changed.

Michael Rosenblum
New York, NY

Open the Door!

Thank you, Curtis Brainard, for an excellent article (“Transparency Watch: A Closed Door,” CJR, September/October). The government’s press policies establish one-way information flows (them to us) and deter media efforts to get off its storyline. That’s only possible when government scientists are not afraid to publicly speak their minds on controversial matters of public interest—the last thing their bosses want to let happen.

The situation has been worsening since the Clinton administration (mostly with the FDA), and it’s heading in an Orwellian direction, which means unhealthy use of media-control techniques pioneered in totalitarian regimes (think Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union). So long as these government filters and barriers are introduced gradually and informally, rising generations of new journalists will not know better, and their acceptance will be inevitable.

Jim Dickinson
Editor, fda Webview
Mechanicsburg, PA

I found Curtis Brainard’s article very useful. I, too, am disappointed that so many people believe “transparency” has been reduced under the Obama administration. But suggesting that formalized database-access programs and use of social media are somehow being used to cover for increased clampdown on access seems a bit farfetched.

Anytime you involve press officers in trying to manage access to sensitive information—and much of the information still being researched is sensitive and has significant public-health, industry, and environmental costs associated with it—you’ll generate a belief that somehow it is possible to control access to information. What is happening, though, is that younger researchers are using social media to discuss research information more openly and in ways that end-run traditional peer review or agency policy controls.

Just as it’s unrealistic to attempt to control all agency scientists’ communication with the press, it’s unrealistic for agencies to believe that research findings can be completely bottled up until some final publication is reviewed and approved. That’s just not how science works. If we overdramatize the back-and-forth jousting of agencies and journalists, we may ignore how much communication may already be taking place on a day-to-day basis.

So, yes, I believe that a journalist (or any citizen) should be able to pick up the phone and call anyone on the government payroll and expect a civil response about what the scientist is working on without Big Brother peering over his or her shoulder. At the same time, the scientist shouldn’t be pushed to release unverified, incomplete, or preliminary information that is still undergoing analysis or scientific review. I don’t call that censorship. I call that being conservative about methodology and reporting—especially if you know the political and industrial sharks are circling.

Dennis D. McDonald (www.ddmcd.com)
Alexandria, VA

Curtis Brainard’s article about transparency in the Obama administration may leave readers with the impression that the Association of Health Care Journalists is getting nowhere in our struggle to open the doors at the Department of Health and Human Services.

On the contrary, we are encouraged by the response from Richard Sorian, who has been HHS assistant secretary for public affairs for the past year. It was Sorian who suggested the quarterly conversations with AHCJ leaders. At each one, he asks for details of our members’ experiences—positive and negative—with the media staff at the various HHS agencies. Sorian also volunteered to travel anywhere in the country to meet with local AHCJ chapters. Such efforts indicate that our complaints are being heard.

It’s true that I’m unsure whether anything has changed for reporters seeking information from the many HHS divisions. But that’s because change takes time and, in this case, is very hard to measure. It’s not because I have no hope.

Felice J. Freyer
Chair, Right to Know Committee
Association of Health Care Journalists
Columbia, MO

Where Are the Female Pundits?

I read with interest Paul Starobin’s story, “All the President’s Pundits” (CJR, September/October), but was struck by the fact that not a single woman was quoted. The only woman mentioned in the piece was Kathleen Parker, who was asked to join President Obama on Air Force One. While most of us aren’t able to travel in such company, there are many talented women writing about politics, in Washington and around the country. Are they not considered part of the nation’s punditry?

Jane Eisner
Editor, The Forward
New York, NY

Going Mobile

Thank you, Chitrangada Choudhury, for writing about this emerging form of journalism (“Urgent Call,” CJR, September/October). I am involved with a community media organization called Gram Vaani, based in the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, which in Jharkhand in July launched a news-over-mobile-phone project similar to Swara, the project Choudhury writes about.

Systems like Swara and the Jharkhand mobile news service represent a new paradigm in journalism, which is low-cost and citizen-centric, and has the potential to expand media access to the disenfranchised in India’s rural areas. In the first forty days since our launch in Jharkhand, we logged sixty thousand phone calls, and the number of unique callers exceeded six thousand. These numbers indicate the need for systems like these that provide citizens a platform to voice their concerns.

Many mainstream journalists are taking an interest in these systems because of the urgent stories they release from conflict-hit zones. Unfortunately, many journalists who use these systems to get their leads to big stories hardly acknowledge their original source.

Sadly, while journalists are willing to use these systems to get their stories, no mainstream media organization is willing to help such initiatives sustain themselves. Unless and until business models are developed to sustain these systems, such initiatives will not survive in the long run. Once donor funds run out, the project will get pushed to the side. Sustaining such projects requires a paradigm shift in the way news organizations are structured and operate.

Vidya Venkat
London, UK

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.