How do you tell real war heroes from frauds? Listen for the silence

February 24, 2015

What is it about some successful men that they feel a need to be war heroes, too?

There is a long tradition of prominent men exaggerating their military service for no good reason. And there is an equally long tradition of journalists and veterans’ groups exposing them to public ridicule.

But it keeps on happening.

Robert McDonald, the secretary of veterans affairs, apologized this week after a TV news crew caught him telling a homeless man that he had served in special forces. McDonald graduated from West Point and Ranger school and served in the 82nd Airborne, but he wasn’t in special forces.

And then there are the TV stars who embellish their experiences as war correspondents.

This is a big deal because good journalism is about accuracy and the search for truth. Making up things destroys credibility, and without credibility, a journalist has nothing.

Brian Williams. AP Photo

Brian Williams. AP Photo

NBC News anchor Brian Williams was suspended earlier this month after he apologized for repeatedly telling how a helicopter in which he was riding while covering the Iraq War was hit by enemy fire. Actually, it was another helicopter in Williams’ group that was hit.

Williams said he “made a mistake in recalling” that key detail. NBC executives have reacted appropriately by suspending their top-rated anchor for six months. Many journalists think he should never return to that job.

Even more interesting is the case of Bill O’Reilly, the bombastic Fox News talk show host and commentator.

Mother Jones magazine last week called out O’Reilly for repeatedly stretching the truth about his experiences as a CBS correspondent in Argentina during the 1982 Falklands War.

In his 2001 book “The No Spin Zone,” and on his show, O’Reilly has claimed to have “survived a combat situation” and reported from “active war zones.” In reality, O’Reilly and other non-British journalists were kept hundreds of miles away from the fighting in the Falkland Islands during Great Britain’s 74-day war with Argentina.

What O’Reilly was referring to was a demonstration he covered in Buenos Aires that turned violent. He claims to have seen Argentine troops shoot and kill civilians. And on his show in 2013, he told a guest, “My photographer got run down and then hit his head and was bleeding from the ear on the concrete.”

Bill O'Reilly. AP Photo

Bill O’Reilly. AP Photo

O’Reilly’s former CBS colleagues have refuted his claims. They don’t recall any of their photographers being injured, and they note that there were no reports of civilian deaths that day.

Rather than apologize, O’Reilly has doubled-down on his claims and hurled insults at his critics and former colleagues. He called David Corn, the Mother Jones bureau chief in Washington who co-authored the story, “a liar”, “a despicable guttersnipe” and “a left-wing assassin.”

O’Reilly told a New York Times reporter who interviewed him about the controversy this week that if he didn’t like the story, “I am coming after you with everything I have. You can take it as a threat.”

What O’Reilly has not done is offer any evidence to support his claims or refute the Mother Jones story. But rather than suspend him, Fox News executives so far have given O’Reilly their full support.

O’Reilly and Fox News may not be concerned about their journalistic credibility, since they don’t really have any beyond their loyal base of conservative viewers.

But they may be underestimating the military combat veterans in their audience who will be offended by O’Reilly’s manufactured heroism.

That’s because combat veterans and war correspondents who have performed bravely under fire don’t go around bragging about it. Even when asked, many would rather not discuss it.

I have seen this many, many times. But the one I will always remember involved the most famous hero of World War I, Sgt. Alvin York of Tennessee.

I interviewed York’s widow, Gracie, four months before she died in 1984. She told me her husband never wanted to talk about the deeds that earned him the Medal of Honor.

“He never would, not even to me or the kids,” she said. “I guess he didn’t want to think about how bad it was in the war.”


Lexington should stand firm on protections for cable customers

October 11, 2014

timewarnerAssociated Press Photo by Mark Lennahan

 

Bravo to Mayor Jim Gray and a unanimous Urban County Council for taking on Time Warner Cable. It’s about time somebody stood up to the giant cable television and Internet companies and their frustrating game of monopoly.

For far too long, the cable industry has abused the local franchise system across America to provide mediocre service at ever-increasing prices.

Meanwhile, cities have become pawns in the industry’s merger-and-acquisition game, which has left fewer companies owning more of the nation’s critical broadband infrastructure.

The Urban County Council last Thursday gave first reading to resolutions that would deny transfer of ownership of the local cable system as part of the industry’s latest deal, which would split Time Warner’s assets between Comcast and Charter Communications in a $45 billion stock swap. The systems in Lexington, Louisville and Cincinnati would go to Charter.

Gray’s re-election campaign also is tapping into public anger at Time Warner. The campaign is urging voters to sign a petition demanding that the company “improve customer service, deliver better speeds and give us what we pay for.”

Few cities have taken as aggressive a stand as Lexington has. Not that others aren’t concerned.

The Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Justice Department are both reviewing the deal proposed by Comcast, Time Warner and Charter, which are, respectively, the nation’s first, second and fourth-largest cable operators. Dozens of consumer advocacy groups have spoken out against it.

It’s hard to say how all of this will end. But here is how we got to this point:

Time Warner bought Insight Communications in 2012, but never negotiated a new franchise agreement with the city. It also has ignored some consumer-protection provisions of Insight’s franchise agreement, which the city has never enforced.

Since the acquisition, Time Warner has invested little in Lexington’s infrastructure while steadily raising prices. The company’s cost-cutting measures have hurt customer service, and public frustration has been rising. City officials say they have been flooded with citizens’ complaints about cable service and pricing.

Time Warner officials claim they have improved service, and their own surveys show high rankings for customer satisfaction. Yea, right. A J.D. Power & Associates’ survey last month of residential television service providers in the South ranked Time Warner dead last. (Comcast was second-to-last.)

Lexington officials say they are not seeking any new consumer protections in the franchise agreement negotiations — they just want to preserve the things Insight agreed to. Those include staffing the company’s customer service center beyond normal business hours, so customers with day jobs can actually get there.

The city also wants to preserve some way of holding the cable company financially accountable for service problems short of canceling the franchise agreement. Currently, the city can fine Time Warner $100 a day — although officials say that has never actually happened.

Time Warner has not been willing to agree to those modest terms, nor does it want to continue paying for the public-access television studio. It’s all pretty small potatoes, considering that Time Warner’s Lexington revenues probably exceed $100 million a year and the company has made little investment in its system.

If Time Warner and Lexington officials are unable to reach agreement by Oct. 23, when the council could take a final vote on the ownership transfer resolutions, it is unclear what will happen. Mostly likely, the issue would end up in federal court.

Time Warner, Comcast and Charter have deep pockets, but Lexington officials should not back down. Citizens these days need more protection from corporate abuse, not less.

More importantly, city officials need to make sure whatever agreements they reach leave the door open for more competition. With only two major Internet providers — Time Warner and Windstream — Lexington needs more broadband competition.

Cities such as Chattanooga, which are lucky enough to have municipally owned utilities, have invested public dollars in creating high-speed fiber-optic networks. Those networks are attracting entrepreneurs who are creating the high-tech jobs of the future. Unfortunately, that’s not a practical option in Lexington, whose existing utility infrastructure is privately owned.

Lexington officials must embrace creative approaches for seeking private investment in new fiber-optic networks, such as Gray’s proposed Gigabit City initiative. And they must stand firm in trying to hold accountable the revolving door of local cable and telephone monopolies.


Story magazine founder wanted to tell Kentucky stories

May 4, 2014

story1 Julie Wilson is founder, publisher and editor of Story magazine. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

How does a woman born in Detroit become the founder, editor and publisher of a magazine dedicated to telling Kentucky stories? Well, there’s a story there.

Julie Wilson’s father was born into a big family in the Harlan County community of Pathfork. Like thousands of Kentuckians after World War II, he migrated north to seek his fortune. And, like many of those thousands, he eventually got homesick and returned to Kentucky.

Wilson, who has lived in Lexington since she was 4 years old, thinks her father’s experience nurtured her love for Kentucky in all its diversity. She now shares that love in each quarterly issue of Story magazine.

“There are so many unique stories in Kentucky,” Wilson said. “And every time we go out and talk to somebody, we get two more story ideas.”

With nearly two years of publication under their belts, Wilson and her partners are expanding Story magazine into a broader brand built around Kentucky culture and pride.

Kentucky Educational Television on May 14 will show the first episode of backStory, a quarterly program about the making of the magazine. Story is producing the show with Lexington-based Locker Public Relations.

Another project in the works, called Sessions, will feature collaborations of Kentucky musicians from a variety of genres. For that, Wilson is partnering with the magazine’s National Avenue neighbor, Duane Lundy of Shangri-La Productions.

story2Musicians scheduled up for the first session, on June 25, include Willie Breeding of The Breedings; Mark Heidiger of Vandaveer; and Stephen Trask, composer of the 1998 rock musicalHedwig and the Angry Inch, a revival of which opened recently on Broadway.

Wilson said a limited number of tickets for each session will be sold through The Morris Book Shop. An edited video will be posted online soon afterward. Event details will be available soon at Storythemagazine.com.

Wilson, 43, is a graduate of the University of Kentucky journalism program who worked as a free-lance writer for the Herald-Leader and a reporter for the Richmond Register. Then she spent a decade learning the magazine business at Host Communications, where she edited business-to-business magazines for the tour and spa industries.

After a year and a half as publisher of Kentucky Bride magazine, Wilson got to thinking about all of the interesting Kentucky stories she heard about but wasn’t seeing in other publications.

The cover of Story magazine’s first issue, which Wilson wrote, was a profile of Ashley Brock, a successful young model who travels from her home in Leslie County to do photo shoots in Europe and Asia.

“We look for how we can tell stories about Kentucky that are debunking the myths that are out there,” Wilson said.

She seeks out stories about Kentuckians doing cutting-edge things. Some are famous, such as the current issue’s cover subject, the late Louisville-born journalist Hunter S. Thompson. But many stories are about people whom readers might never have heard about otherwise, such as Dr. Joseph Yocum, a Nicholasville veterinarian who is a pioneer in animal stem-cell therapy, or Tim Hensley and Jane Post, gourmet mushroom farmers in Madison County.

story3Regular features focus on successful Kentucky expatriates, artists and craftsmen, musicians, philanthropists and people doing good things in their communities. Wilson said she tries to include features from across the state “so people won’t think we’re just a Lexington and Louisville magazine.”

She developed Story’s concept with Tim Jones, who as creative director oversees the magazine’s sophisticated design, and Laurel Cassidy, the associate publisher, who focuses on advertising sales. Bart Mahan is chief operating officer, and Allison May and Sara Plummer are account executives.

Wilson said the business is close to breaking even. The magazine has a distribution of about 18,000 copies and 2,200 paid subscribers, many of them Kentuckians living out of state. Eventually, she hopes to publish bimonthly.

Wilson’s husband, David Wilson, is chief operating officer of Yonder Interactive Neighborhoods, a sustainability education consultant. They have a daughter, who turns 9 this week.

“And, yes, her name is Story,” Julie Wilson said. “She says she was the first Story — but we didn’t name the magazine after her.”

The Lexington chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners recently gave Wilson an award as small business owner of the year.

“It has been more rewarding than I ever expected,” she said of the magazine’s first two years. “But I’m just doing this by the seat of my pants. I hope they know that.”


People ask, “What’s the future of newspapers?” Some thoughts

December 10, 2013

This is the season for holiday parties, which means several opportunities a week for someone to corner me in a crowded room and ask about the future of newspapers.

Some people tell me they worry about newspapers going away, because they like the feel of paper in their hands and the smell of ink in the morning.

Others worry more about journalism itself: How can American self-government survive without a robust, credible news media?

I fall into the second group; I worry about the news, not the paper. When asked, I give people a brief synopsis of why newspapers are hurting, why good journalism is threatened and where I think the trends could lead.

Then I ask if I can get them anything from the bar, because by that time I need a drink.

So, in the interest of public curiosity and my own sanity and sobriety, here are some thoughts about the future of newspapers and journalism.

To paraphrase Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, these are the best of times and worst of times for journalism. The reasons for both are digital technology and the Internet, which have profoundly transformed the news media.

The good news is that the digital revolution has given journalists amazing reporting tools and news-delivery platforms that they could only have dreamed of a few years ago.

Rather than just being able to publish one or two print editions a day, newspaper journalists can now deliver up-to-the-minute news, photos, video and audio anywhere on websites and mobile devices. Plus, readers can instantly respond with comments, changing journalism from a lecture into a conversation.

Newspapers’ print circulation has slipped some, but growing online readership has more than made up for it. And that’s the irony: more people are reading newspaper journalism than ever before, but newspapers are making less money. A lot less.

Before the Internet, mass media was an exclusive club. Media companies needed a lot of expensive equipment and vast distribution networks, so they often became monopolies.

Technology has ended those monopolies. Now, anyone with an Internet connection and a digital device can publish information that can be seen by unlimited numbers of people around the world within seconds.

But the same technology that has created what should be journalism’s golden age has ravaged the advertising-based business model that has always paid for journalism. More than two-thirds of newspaper revenues come from advertising.

As with news, there are no longer advertising monopolies. New digital advertising platforms keep taking slices out of the pie. Newspaper print advertising is still a good business, but it’s not growing.

Traditional media companies are getting some of the online advertising, but there is a lot of competition. Much of it comes from companies that are not having to spend money to create real journalism, or even what is generically called “content.”

As advertising revenues have shrunk, so have newspaper pages and staffs. The American Society of Newspaper Editors reported in June that newsrooms have shed 18,400 jobs since 2000, with employment falling from 56,400 newspaper journalists nationally to 38,000.

Will print newspapers survive? I think so, at least in some form in most markets. Print advertising remains very effective for many kinds of advertisers. But digital is the future, which means organizations that want to continue the costly process of creating good journalism will have to find new revenue streams.

I always thought newspapers made a mistake by giving away journalism online, but that model is changing. Most newspapers have recently initiated some form of online subscription or “pay wall.” That will only increase.

The New York Times recently reported that its online subscription revenue had surpassed online advertising revenue, which is a promising sign for journalism. It costs money to pay trained journalists to do quality reporting, writing, photography, graphics and editing.

The economics of journalism will continue to be a challenge, but the future holds many new possibilities. One exciting development is small, niche journalism websites being started by entrepreneurs and non-profit organizations. They could help fill some voids being left by shrinking media companies.

What worries me, though, is the rise of entertainment, hucksterism and political propaganda masquerading as honest journalism on scores of websites and cable TV channels, such as Fox News and MSNBC.

But that’s another conversation. Happy holidays.  


Journalism is down, but hardly out

March 17, 2009

The boss’ email popped into my BlackBerry just as the smiling young lady walked into the school office to escort me to her journalism class. I would have to read it later.

I spent the next hour talking with the smart, engaged students who produce The Lamplighter at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. They wanted to discuss ways to make their monthly newspaper more interesting, relevant, inclusive and professional. I had a wonderful time.

Afterward, as I walked to my car, I read the boss’ email. It was an update on the latest round of job cuts at the Herald-Leader, which will be announced soon. It also said that, for the first time, most of those who keep their jobs will have their pay cut.

I was glad the high school students didn’t want to talk about the future of journalism, because adults ask me about it all the time. They hear about the Rocky Mountain News closing and the San Francisco Chronicle on the brink and they ask, “What’s happening to newspapers? Will the Herald-Leader survive?”

It’s complicated, I tell them. It has to do with changes in the economy, technology and the ways people communicate. Nobody knows how it will all turn out.

The irony, I tell them, is that there has never been a bigger audience for Herald-Leader journalism. Print circulation has slipped, but online readership has soared.

The Herald-Leader staff’s work is no longer confined to once-a-day, regionally distributed ink on paper. We now report news and tell stories instantly to a worldwide audience with as much copy, photos, audio and video as we can produce.

What’s more, readers comment on stories as soon as they’re published online, offering additional information, corrections and their own views. It has made journalism better and more interesting.

But as technology has changed the way journalism works, it also has changed the way advertising works. That has dramatically changed the news media’s business model.

You see, the money to pay for journalism has never come from journalism; it has always come from advertising. Companies now have more ways to advertise and, in a bad economy, less money to do it with.

That means revenues have fallen for newspapers, radio and TV stations. Online advertising isn’t as profitable as with print or broadcast. Online ad revenues are growing, but not fast enough to make up the difference.

Blogs, social networking and video-distribution Web sites have given everyone a voice, and that’s great. But journalistic reporting and commentary have been swept up into a larger universe of “media” that has blurred the lines between journalism and entertainment, marketing and advocacy.

Much popular “journalism” these days isn’t journalism at all; it’s show business, more focused on maximizing profit than in seeking truth, informing the public or promoting healthy discussion.

Take, for example, Fox News Channel’s flag-waving, rah-rah coverage of the Iraq War, or the CNBC “personalities” who touted stocks and glorified CEOs rather than doing in-depth reporting and skeptical analysis.

It’s no wonder people are confused, because journalists haven’t done much to expose these frauds or explain journalism’s values to the public. It’s sad that some of the best media criticism lately has come not from journalists but from a comedian — The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart.

A decade ago, the Herald-Leader’s news staff stopped growing and started shrinking.

The same thing happened at radio and television stations. Lexington TV news has largely abandoned public affairs reporting to focus on crime, tragedy, sports and weather. There’s precious little reporting on commercial radio anymore; it’s all “talk.”

WVLK still has talk show hosts who discuss local issues, often based on the Herald-Leader’s reporting, but WLAP seems to have redefined its mission as right-wing political advocacy.

When people ask me if this newspaper will survive, I tell them I’m confident it will. The Herald-Leader remains profitable because no other advertising vehicle in this market comes close to its reach. As long as it has the journalistic muscle to be a must-read for Kentucky’s engaged citizens, it will maintain that reach. As the economy improves, advertising will return.

Much of the Herald-Leader’s current financial squeeze is the result of debt the newspaper’s parent, The McClatchy Co., took on a couple of years ago to buy its previous owner, Knight Ridder. I can’t complain; I welcomed the McClatchy deal.

Some people think local media ownership is always best, but I’m old enough to remember when the Herald and Leader were locally owned — and not very good. Outside ownership has some disadvantages, but it also can insulate journalism from powerful local interests and protect a news organization’s credibility.

I’m proud of the Herald-Leader. Reports about wasteful spending at Blue Grass Airport are the latest of many examples of local public-service journalism you won’t find anywhere else. I expect that work will continue, even with fewer people left to do it.

Newspapers aren’t about the paper, they’re about the news. As the old sayings go, good newspapers afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, print the news and raise hell. They celebrate success, shine a light on problems and hold government accountable to the public. They tell a community’s stories, and they provide informed commentary that sparks public discussion and makes democracy possible.

Good journalism is too important to disappear. So what’s the new business model to support it? I don’t know, but I’m confident somebody will figure it out. I’m also confident there will be plenty of young people — at Dunbar High School and elsewhere — with the intelligence and commitment to do the work.

The national perspective

The Pew Research Center puts together an annual State of the News Media report. The latest report was published his week. Click here to read it.