Tuesday, December 23, 2008

For Zenger’s Newsmagazine 12-7-08


By Leo E. Laurence • Copyright © 2008 by Leo E. Laurence for San Diego News Service

Our San Diego mainstream media is a mixed bag, at best, both in print and broadcast journalism.

Fortunately, there are lots of first-rate reporters, photojournalists, newspaper page-designers and editors in “America’s Finest City.”

But, unfortunately, and particularly in television news, some of the coverage is abysmal.

San Diego Union Tribune

Staffers at the Union-Tribune have it almost as rough as people going through a foreclosure. Their future is unclear, and their morale consequently is very low.

The family-owned newspaper has long been for sale; but with the economy so bad, nobody is buying. Some have shown interest. Several reliable sources inside the U-T say they believe a sale of the Copley paper is imminent if — and that is a mountainous if — credit again becomes available.

As a result of advertising revenue that is plunging faster than women’s breast-lines, the bosses at the U-T have been cutting the staff dramatically. About half of their best journalistic talent have re-signed, either as a result of the paper’s buy-outs offered to expensive, experienced staffers with seniority; or the elimination of newsroom positions.

Rumors of the pending sale are running rampant throughout the U-T’s large, headquarters office building in Mission Valley and in its numerous branch offices dotting the county from Chula Vista to North County.

Nonetheless, some of the best of journalism are still hard at work at the U-T. The newspaper has some of the most creative photojournalists in the business, and their remaining writers are among the best.

And Some of the Worst!

Unfortunately, the U-T has also been producing some the very worst in American journalism: specifically, its dogmatic and thoroughly unprofessional “hit” job on former City Attorney Mike Aguirre.

The U-T has long been an integral part of the very Republican, downtown Establishment. It controls City Hall (but not the City Council … yet) and controls the County Board of Supervisors.

The U-T will do — and has regularly been doing — anything to protect their sweet control of the city’s business Establishment.

A good example was grabbing former police chief Jerry Sanders to serve as Mayor, a position for which he is really ill-suited and in which he often appears uncomfortable (except for the power, which Sanders loves).

The downtown business Establishment was totally freaked out by the possibility of having the very-popular maverick, Councilmember Donna Frye, serve as Mayor; so it used the U-T to make sure she lost.

More recently, the U-T used — or, really, abused — the power-of-the-press to unseat the equally popular City Attorney Mike Aguirre.

The U-T’s relentless campaign against Aguirre violated many of the most basic, ethical rules of modern journalism as found in the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Reporting only the truth, and verifying questionable facts, is basic to good journalism.

But in their acid (and successful) campaign to remove Aguirre from the City Attorney’s office and replace him with an inexperienced member of the Establishment, the U-T printed anything — including outright falsehoods.

“Mike has a videotape recounting President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s heroics playing in an endless loop in his office,” the U-T reported on November 19, 2007.

Having been in his office many times, I know that report by the U-T was flat-out false.

Because of the ten years I spent in the law, the U-T’s Op-Ed department asked me to write a report on what really went on in Aguirre’s office.

But, because the Op-Ed piece I wrote was the truth, and not another flaky attack on Aguirre, the editor wasn’t interested in it.

In its defense, most of what is in the U-T is good journalism.

I personally know many of the newspaper’s reporters and photo-journalists; and admire them.

The newspaper did a great job kicking Congressman “Randy” Cunningham out of office, but he deserved it. The paper deservedly won a Pulitzer for that coverage.

Local TV “News”

If you eliminate police and fire news stories from the three major TV newscasts (Ch. 7, Ch. 8, Ch. 10), there would be almost nothing left.

And in many of those police/fire stories, all you will see is video of a firefighter walking at the scene of a fire. Now that’s real news.

Or you will see the video of a close-up of the red lights on a fire truck or a police car flashing. And, that, too, is real news!

At the scene of the shooting of a teenager, the mother was asked by a TV news reporter, “How do you feel?” Now, that’s a penetrating question to ask a mother who just lost her son. The young, cute, shapely, TV “reporter” didn’t ask, “What did you see?” Or, “What happened?” Those would be questions of substance.

If you wonder what stories will be covered on local, network TV newscasts in the evening, just look at the morning Union-Tribune. They take those stories, shoot some video of the story and that be-comes part of the evening “news”-cast.

While I dislike their national news coverage and programming, the local Fox news operations does cover stories other than police and fire incidents.

TV News Anchors

The job of a TV news anchor is simply to move the show along, the segue from one story to the next. That should be easy, and it’s done professionally by the national anchors.

But locally, they’re a mess.

The banter between the news anchors is boring. They laugh at each other’s “jokes,” which even a school kid would find boring, boring, boring — and definitely not funny.

Those “cute” comments are never funny, though the anchors laugh at each other’s stupid, yes stupid, side comments.

Maybe the anchors think — or are deluded into believing — that their private exchanges between stories is witty banter, described by “Pickles” in the Sunday comics as “clever back and forth conver-sation.”

Unfortunately, the exchanges between news anchors seen on local TV newscasts is neither witty nor clever.

Sometimes one anchor — talking to another at the anchor table — will even comment on the sub-stance of a story after it has aired, which is basically an editorial and should be identified as such.

Just give us the news, anchors, and eliminate the boring banter, the unfunny jokes and the editorial comments.

The bottom line is that neither the substance, nor the presentation, of most local TV news shows are professional, nor entertaining (but, news shouldn’t be an entertainment show, anyway).

Grade for most, local TV newscasts: F-.

Zenger’s associate editor Leo E. Laurence is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, Latino Journalists of California and National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association. For comment, contact Leo Laurence at (619) 757-4909 or at leopowerhere@msn.com