Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Investigative journalism and the blogsphere, by gimleteye

The nation’s investigative reporters are in Miami for a conference, in time for The Miami Herald editorial by Michael Putney, “Local watchdogs struggle to survive.” In the editorial, Putney makes the case our democracy cannot survive without a strong and independent free press and print journalism, in particular, in the form of newspapers. From the blogsphere, we have made the same case.

Putney makes several other points I agree with: that the concentration of media within large corporations is a threat to the survival of journalism, that declining advertising has forced reductions in staff and the capacity of newspapers to deliver the news for which the free blogsphere cannot substitute. Except.

Except that newspapers like The Miami Herald have failed to acknowledge to their readers how they have contributed themselves to loss of readership by swerving and dodging some of the toughest issues affecting our daily lives—like the origin of the housing crash, for instance. If you were to read The Miami Herald only, and not observe the goings-on as we are able to freely do on the blogsphere, you would think that the housing crash sprang from thin air, like spontaneous creation.

Even today, The Herald has been careful to the point of invisibility on the matter of explaining the origin of the housing market chaos that is wrecking and impacting so many people.

The bubble and crash that wraps up the political and economic elite of Miami was never reported in The Miami Herald because top managers of the paper were either too close to business leaders in the community, or, too concerned for the effect of negative coverage of the housing boom on its advertising base. This is not a point of nuance but central to the problem of the mainstream media: how often have presidential candidates, for instance, been asked by journalists to explain their views on the housing crash, what circumstances and politics lead to it, and what is reasonably to be done?

This issue-- the current state of our economy-- is going to define the election in November, and yet mainstream newspapers who had been asleep at the switch during the housing boom and AWOL on the issue, even today.

Maybe an even better example of where newspapers have failed their readership: reporting out the vapid politics of Detroit and gasoline; a core US industry that put the entire economy at risk when it chased down SUV's. Newspapers have been notoriously silent about criticizing the automotive industry, another key part of their revenue stream.

Putney is right on the mark, when he says that what should concern readers most is the loss of a newspaper’s capacity to publish investigative journalism related to that “sweetheart deal on a government contract, thanks to generous contributions to the mayor’s last reelection campaign.”

Many Miami Herald readers believe that the newspaper shies away from bad news stories, or negative portrayals of power, and that it is not the watchdog that it could be.

For instance, at eyeonmiami, we have focused on the issue of the relationship of the Urban Development Boundary to the nasty politics of the housing boom and crash in far greater detail than any mainstream publication. True, The Miami Herald has taken strong stands on the overarching UDB issues, but it has avoided an in-depth and consistent review of pressures of overdevelopment, advancing the fiscal irresponsibility that has turned our region as some would say, into "the Rust Belt of Florida".

We have identified, for instance, the patterns of land ownership adjacent to the dreams of big developers to plow more platted subdivisions in open space, farmland, and Everglades buffer areas and their relationship to the power structure in Miami Dade. These facts disclose the underlying power structure in a way that The Miami Herald will not do. So it is off-base for Putney to claim that stories of importance “can be ferreted out only by an experienced local reporter who’s got the talent, time and resources to nail it down.” It is not exactly the case.

We have been much tougher on rock miners, for instance, than The Miami Herald ever has. And we have specifically criticized the close, long-term relationship between the paper and Big Sugar, whose paid media professionals include former Herald executives like Joanna Wragg.

So, writing from the blogsphere; I feel torn. Torn exactly the way Leonard Pitts, the Herald’s outstanding columnist feels today, in the editorial next to Putney’s. Pitts is writing about his anger that former White House press spokesman Scott McCellan has now come clean in a tell-all book savaged Richard Clarke, former White House counterterrorism expert at the time, “a man who did have the integrity to speak truth to power in the moment when it mattered”. McClellan, today, is only now admitting to the truth we have all known for years; that this White House is the most dishonest, disheartening expression of failed national leadership we have known in our lifetimes.

Pitts writes, “You may think that’s harsh. I think there are few things less satisfying than being validated in what you already knew, too late to make a difference.”

This is what I feel, on some days, about The Miami Herald. Not all days, because when strong investigative journalism does make the front page, like the House of Lies series on corruption in local public housing, my subscription to The Herald is validated. But there is way too much of importance that is buried in the B section or letters to the editor or Neighbors, a section tailored to specific zip codes.

In too many instances of importance, like the housing crash affecting so many South Floridians, the news should have been delivered with forcefulness even if it crossed the interests of production homebuilders, furniture sales, and so forth. Exhibit A: the way Homestead and Florida City--the last rural community in South Florida--with open space, farmland, and buffer lands to the Everglades was wrecked by political insiders/ developers. Or, when has the newspaper ever criticized Florida Power and Light for its efforts to permit new nuclear power at Turkey Point absent any critical analysis of how the units will be cooled and where the water will come from, at a time of chronic water shortage and drought.

I appreciate Putney’s observations, the same way I appreciate Ed Wasserman’s contribution to the public dialogue about the future of print journalism, but I’m not entirely convinced. And my skepticism is joined by so many others.

The case must be made, as many are making, that the life of newspapers and the survival of democracy depends on a financial formula that does not fall back to the short-term needs of Wall Street investors and financial engineers.

Again, as I have written before, the best model for journalism’s survival is ownership by non-profit foundations: that is the reason the St. Pete Times consistently outperforms its rivals.

The blogsphere is not a replacement for print journalism, but what the blogsphere can provide is a balance that newspaper executives are too timid to acknowledge for fear of tipping the scales under perilous economic conditions. Is eyeonmiami doing a better job in the blogsphere of representing that balance? I think so. Yes. And it is doesn’t make me feel any better, for saying so.


Genius of Despair said...

Some days I feel like your Costello, Abbott.

Anonymous said...


Mensa said...

Unfortunately what you say is oh so true. But until the Herald realizes that they will lose only readership if they do not print all the nasty truth and that the big guys have no where else to go to advertise to the public, nothing will change.

Anonymous said...

The SUV's today have lost all their value -- at least mine has. So not only has our home lost a lot of its value, so has the car. We can't trade it in for a car that gets better gas milage and we can't sell the house we are stuck

Anonymous said...

When Chris Matthews says Obama sends a "twitter up his leg" & Keith Olberdork is hosting NBC election night coverage with Tim Russert, Putney has a lot of cojones saying that democracy cannot surive with a strong and independent free press.

The American press for the most part has become an organ of the Democrat party. There is no more independence.

I laugh when Bill Clinton complains about how unfavorable press coverage Hillary got during the primary.

Hey Bill, welcome to the club! Republicans and conservatives have been dealing with this for the last 40 years. How does it feel?

Anonymous said...

Newspapers have a tough call; give people news that will engage them and keep them coming back or bite the developer/government hand that feeds them. I say, now with the construction machine and government in weak positions, give the people what they crave. Real hard hitting investigative journalism that exposes the dirt. Maybe they will sell more papers!

Genius of Despair said...

Republican Anonymous above: Two word:

Fox news.

swampthing said...

Think of Robert Parry, of patience and fortitude - have a cry, then continue.

Can't call it work, if you don't get paid.

Anonymous said...

Then there is ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Time, US News and World Report, Reuters all of whom share the same liberal world view.

Fox News is the only outlet than may lean right. (at least their commentators, O'Reilly, Hannity, Cavuto). Yeah that is real balance.

If Fox had such a huge influence, President Bush would have 90% approval and the House and Senate would still be in the hands of the pubbies.

The only thing Fox is doing is challenging conventional wisdom.

Anonymous said...

Fox News challenged conventional wisdom as well as Spanish language AM radio: they are both part of a spin machine that delivers a pre-packaged message. They have nothing to do with journalistic balance, but with the political whims of their owners. Rupert Murdoch is chastened, though, now that his creation has been charged with providing the media punch to the failed war in Iraq. Just watch what happens in the upcoming presidential election, how the attack dogs will be on tighter leashes. "Conventional wisdom" never was so cheap.

Anonymous said...

The Florida Lotto has gone the way of the Mutual Funds, Money Center Banks, and Ponzi schemes. Why do you think they keep rolling over week after week? This is a disgrace and the people responsible must be put in jail. You people would not know a big story if it bit you.