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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Barreling through the mine field

UPDATE: The ,a href="http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5jqwi0TSVtxC458-6AKpUuaTpH5FgD99N2MB00""target=_blank">911 tapes indicate the neighbor who called might not have been a neighbor, just a passerby ho had been hailed by another woman, and that she didn't delve into the race of the men at the door until pressed. The more we know, the murkier it gets.

The Henry Louis Gates, Jr.-Cambridge PD showdown caught my eye when it first cropped up -- Facebook friends might remember I posted it there -- and I planned to just ignore it afterward. But that's proven impossible, since you can't escape it. And that echo effect is what has been preying on my mind.

The back story: Gates returned to his rented home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He was with a male friend -- both of them black. He had trouble entering his own front door, so used his shoulder to force it, an action that caught the eye of a neighbor (I think she was white based on scene photo when this first broke that I can't find now). She phoned police, reporting a possible break-in.

The first cop to arrive, Sgt. James Crowley, spotted Gates -- whom he didn't know -- standing in the foyer. He identified himself through the front door, said he was investigating a possible break in and asked Gates to step outside. Gates opened the door and said, "Why, because I'm a black man in America?" The discussion deteriorated from there, all of it inside the house (Gates during the encounter eventually provided the cop with ID). Crowley's version of events are in the police report, available in several places on the Internet, including here.

Context is key. I won't pretend to know what it is like to go through life as a black man in America, but the hurdles, prejudices and lifelong encounters are pretty clear. Like all of us, Gates responded to the situation framed by his personal experience and expectations. As, one presumes, did Crowley, augmented by professional training. It seems to me as though he was doing his job fine until this point -- responding to a call, ascertaining whether there was indeed a crime being committed.

Where he stumbled was when, with Gates yelling, he asked the professor to step outside (ostensibly because Crowley couldn't hear his radio in the loud confines of the house). Once outside he told Gates, in essence, to pipe down. And when Gates didn't, he arrested him for creating a public nuisance. Gates wasn't creating a public nuisance until he obeyed the officer's request to step outside. Inside his own home, Gates was committing no public nuisance -- unless his voice really resonates (the charge eventually was dropped).

I won't go into all the political fallout from this -- it's been as much a distraction as whether Miss California hates gays -- including President Obama's decision a couple of hours ago to skin back his defense of Gates (or at least the words he used). But it's frustrating to see it soaking up so much of our attention -- driven in part by asinine media questions. I am dismayed that this caught fire after a reporter raised the issue during a press conference about health care -- why can't my fellow journos stick to a topic, rather than light a political fire that does not need lighting?

Missed in all of this is who exactly may have been guilty of racial profiling. My nominee: The woman who didn't recognize her own neighbor and mistook him for a burglar. Gates over-reacted, the cop appears to have entrapped him (asking him to step outside where his bellowing could be a crime) and now the news cycle is dominated not by efforts to fix a health care system that is helping bankrupt the country, or even over the scope of racial profiling in America, but over whether the president dissed a cop.

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Trying to have it both ways

I missed this when it cropped up last week, but a judge in San Francisco has upheld that a freelance student journalist working a story without an outlet for it is still covered by California's Shield Law. Under the ruling, the reporter is not required to share notes and film with police investigating a murder witnessed in the course of covering a story.

Good decision, that, though I know folks less enamored with journalists and the work we do won't see it that way. But if people perceive that whatever they tell a reporter is tantamount to telling the cops, reporters will find it much harder to report stories involving crimes. And while witnessing a murder is an extreme case, the Shield Law also precludes prosecutors and police from going on fishing expeditions of journalists' notes from street demonstrations, political events and other less incendiary junctures of civic engagement and improper acts by law enforcement. It' a good law.

And this is where I'd tell you the student's name -- but I can't, because the court has sealed that part of the record and, at the request of his lawyer, the San Francisco Chronicle isn't publishing it. It's unclear from the bits I've seen, but the journalist apparently fears retaliation from people involved in the murder.

The fear is understandable, but the argument to keep private the name of the journalist is not. Instead of acceding to the student's lawyer's request for anonymity, the Chron should be fighting the court decision to seal the name. This is an open court proceeding involving a case of significant public interest -- the rights of journalists -- and all aspects of it should be completely open.

The student journalist can't have it both ways. Sometimes doing our work gets us into dangerous situations. But the principles of free speech and openness are our lifeblood. We can't fight for public access to the courts on the one hand, and hide ourselves on the other. Imagine how this story would be playing out if the witness in this case wasn't a journalist -- would the Bay Area media be granting him or her anonymity during court appearances?  Read More 
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So, where'd they all go?

Well, as long as we're getting all nostalgic about loss of income, family stresses, careers under threat and the occasional bruise and run-in with pepper gas (see posting below), I thought it might be useful to give a sense of where some of the Detroit striking journalists went.

I've wrestled with the concept of measuring a void, which of course is damn near impossible. How can one quantify what isn't there? I look at current coverage of the California budget crisis by a capital press corps that is a shadow of what it was three years ago. Given the breadth of the crisis, there is much in the way of enterprise reporting that is not even being conceived. How does that lack of outside spotlight affect our democracy? Darkness has never been good for the public welfare.

There really is no way to measure the impact of the Detroit newspaper strike on journalism in Detroit, except to note that about half of the striking Newspaper Guild members crossed the line and returned to work, and scores more -- such as recent Pulitzer winner Jim Schaefer, music and pop culture writer Sue Whitall and investigative reporter Norm Sinclair -- went back in good graces as the strike ended. So some of the institutional memory and reporting chops of veterans were there.

Others left, myself included. I wound up at the Los Angeles Times until this past fall, and had a good run of interesting stories and assignments (and, as with every career, some dogs). Now I'm in a hybrid role of freelance journalism, writing history books and teaching journalism at Chapman University and a nonfiction storytelling workshop at UC Irvine (both part-time).

I'm not sure what my individual departure meant for journalism in Detroit -- some might argue it improved things. But I tried to focus there on the stories others weren't telling, the narratives that helped explain Detroit to itself.

I think other departures were probably more significant. These are focused on former Detroit News writers, because they are the ones I know best. Allan Lengel, who went on to the Washington Post and now runs his Tickle the Wire site watching federal law-enforcement, was wired in with the feds in Detroit and broke many stories. Bob Ourlian, now with the Tribune's DC office, did great journalism in Detroit on development issues, among other things. Philip Kennicott has become an influential culture critic at the Post and now a blogger, as well -- after being a Pulitzer finalist in editorial writing in St. Louis. Paula Yoo went to People magazine for awhile but now writes children's books and young-adult novels. (*I was reminded, watching a couple of old West Wing episodes tonight that Paula also was a scriptwriter there and for a few other TV shows). Robin Mather Jenkins worked at Cooking Light and then the Chicago Tribune before getting laid off recently, and now is starting a freelance career.

Janet Wilson, Reed Johnson and Marla Dickerson all wound up out here at the LA Times, as well, though Janet has since been laid off, too.

It's a long list of ex-patriates and there is no way of knowing what was lost by the departures, beyond the financial stability of a few bars. But we, and Detroit, are different because of it.

Feel free to add "where are they now" [*former strikers only, please] updates in the comments section ....

*updated Read More 
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Happy anniversary, Detroit newspaper strike

Fourteen years ago today the union I belonged to, Newspaper Guild Local 22, walked out on strike at The Detroit News in response to the paper unilaterally imposing work conditions after it declared contract talks at an impasse. In reality, Gannett and Knight-Ridder, owners of The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, had been laying plans to drive the unions out of their businesses for many months.

Most of the media coverage at the time focused on a list of contract points that were in dispute, but in reality the strike was about the survival of the six unions representing workers there, from the Teamsters covering the truck drivers to the GCIU handling folks in the back shop.

It was a long and nasty affair, with occasional flashes of violence. You can see some wonderful photography by fellow strikers Daymon Hartley and George Waldman on their web sites (and George sells copies of his book, Voices From the Strike, though his).

I often get asked at speaking engagements whether my involvement in the strike radicalized me, and I have to say no. But it did energize me. Before the strike I had a long and deep interest in progressive history, and labor history, something i trace back to reading John Dos Passos' USA trilogy, which first exposed me to those slices of America's past. And I believed in unions as a mechanism for workers to unite their voices to work for their common good -- same as businesses working together through chambers of commerce and other organizations to amplify their voices.

But before the strike I personally was an indifferent union member, never active, attending only informational meetings about contract negotiations, etc. My take at that point was that, as a journalist, I shouldn't belong to any organization, including a union (I made an exception for the Dearborn Rovers, my soccer team). But as the machinations made a strike, or union capitulation, the only two options, I changed my view. One could, I decided, be an objective, conscientious journalist and still work with fellow journalists for our common interests.

As timing had it, I was on vacation in Rochester, New York, with my wife and sons when my unit of the Guild walked out rather than accept the imposed working conditions in what we believed to be an illegal act by Gannett management. When we returned to Detroit a week later I became active in the strike, walking the picket lines and getting my share of bumps, jostles, pepper spray and, on one occasion, a scab trying to run me down with his car (I managed to hop and roll over the hood/fender -- shades of the running of the bulls). After 18 months, and after deciding that even if we won a contract I couldn't in good conscience work for that management again, I left to join the Los Angeles Times as a staff writer.

Oddly, nine months later, while living in Irvine, I received letter from The Detroit News telling me I had been fired for picket line behavior. Odd timing, that. It turns out they were firing all the activists they could, fearing a series of legal decisions that had gone against them would mean they'd have to take us all back (ultimately the unions lost the legal fight, no real surprise given how the deck is stacked against labor).

Some six years after the strike began, after hundreds of lives were radically altered, some for the better, most for the worst, the unions finally won new contracts. They were watered down, and included provisions for an open shop to replace the closed shop that existed before. But they were contracts nonetheless. The papers never did recover, and to this day are viewed with suspicion and skepticism among many of Detroit's fervent union supporters. In the end, I see the strike as a draw.

Ultimately, though, for journalists it turned out to be a test. Of the six unions involved, five held firm. But about half of the Newspaper Guild members -- my fellow journalists -- crossed their own picket lines and went back to work. On an individual level it was a trial of character: Do you live up to your commitment to stand together, or do you cut and run for personal gain? The truck drivers, press workers, layout folks, etc., almost to a person stuck to their commitment. My usually idealistic fellow journalists, not so much.

For those of us who stayed firm, it was an invigorating experience. As professionally detached journalists we don't often get a chance to act on our beliefs. So it was good to be engaged, as painful and life-disrupting as it was. Some marriages crumbled under it; others were forged. Mine grew stronger.

So that's another little slice of history. Fascinating to me because it's mine, and I hope at least passing interest to you. Our of these small moments lives, and countries, are made. Read More 
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Chris Anderson, Wikipedia and borrowed passages

A blogger at Virginia Quarterly Review (one of the best periodicals out there) dug into Chris Anderson, of Wired fame, and his book Free: The Future of a Radical Idea, and found Anderson had lifted portions of it from Wikipedia. (Ironically, I lifted this book jacket from Anderson's blog page).

Anderson copped to the problems in an email with VQR (the magazine was preparing a review of the book), blaming it on a last-minute decision to not use footnotes. Beyond the fact that nonfiction books without footnotes always make me suspicious, for the life of me I can't figure out why deciding late in the process to drop the footnotes makes a difference. Lifting passages verbatim and then footnoting is just as lazy -- and dishonest -- as cribbing them in the first place, as Ed Champion also notes on his blog.

But Wikipedia? I mean, if you're going to steal ...
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A bit about ethics: Yeah, what he says

My morning crawl around the Internet led me to a link to this blog post by Gary Switzer calling out the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Press Foundation for what seem to be some rather bone-headed ethical lapses.

The core issue: Accepting arrangements with drug companies for programs for journalists, including all-expenses trips for conferences aimed at informing the journalists about health care issues. Paid for by the drug companies.

I know the journalism world is on its heels, but wrong is wrong. And this is wrong. Read More 
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American newspapers: The incredible shrinking iceberg

This is always a striking -- and depressing -- web site to visit. It's an interactive map of newspaper jobs lost so far this year, with other tabs to look at losses in previous years and one tracking newspapers that have shut down altogether.

There's an irony, of course, in tracking such devastation to the industry through a free online site. Read More 
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Obama, Cheney, Palin and the politics of distraction

Remember back in November, when Barack Obama won the White House, a victory equally notable for its historic context as for what it supposedly said about a nation sick of politics as usual?

Well, one out of two isn't bad.

Over the past few weeks we've seen a disappointing throwback to the politics of distraction. First some online celebrity gossip asked a real question of a Miss America contestant -- her opinion on a political issue -- and instantly created a martyr for the political right. Never mind that the context for the question, and the political weight of Miss California's answer were completely meaningless (other than as a barometer of the fact that Americans do indeed disagree on some issues).

Add a dose of Dick Cheney, who has shown a remarkable inability to fade into the sunset. So much so, in fact, that one has to wonder whether he's fighting for historical legacy or aligning himself for the future -- a 2012 presidential run, bad ticker, bad polls and all. Then David Letterman cracks a bad joke about Sarah Palin's daughter and Alex Rodriguez, which Palin and conservative commentators twist out of context to extend her 15 minutes of political life.

Now John McCain is back in the fray, spinning off a foolish comment by Leon Panetta that Cheney might be wishing the U.S. gets attacked to validate his stance on the efficacy of torture. Panetta, McCain gravely informs us, must retract his comment.

The economy remains trashed; the Obama Administration has yet to address in a meaningful way the legacy of American policies that led to Guantanamo Bay, illegal detentions and torture; no progress has been made on health care reform; North Korea is nuke-rattling; the streets of Iran are teeming with protesters -- and this is what the political elite focus on?

One unavoidable reality of democracy is that we always get the political leaders we deserve. Read More 
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A new local news site worth watching

A former colleague, Bill Lobdell, is involved in a new venture in Newport Beach, California, the next city from us in Irvine, that I suspect points the way toward how the Internet-sparked explosion of newspapering will finally settle out.

The project is The Daily Voice, and it's a paperless news sites devoted to hyper-local news.

Lobdell and his partner, Tom Johnson, are both former news executives at The Daily Pilot, the Los Angeles Times-owned local paper in Newport Beach-Costa Mesa. Lobdell also was a religion writer at the LA Times for a while, was a former deskmate of mine there and we shared bylines on a few stories. And he has this book out about losing his religion.

What's telling in Johnson's opening statement is that they couldn't find investors to launch the project -- a sign, no doubt, of the skittishness of the investing market right now, and the absolute confusion over the profitability of media outlets.

But this strikes me as a sensible model (in fact, I've been having similar conversations with other fellow journalists about the theme). No big bucks, to be sure, but it seems like a logical way to start rebuilding news organizations one locality at a time. Local people want local news, and local business owners and managers want a reliable conduit for local ads.

Seems like a match to me, Read More 
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There I go getting all multimedia

The travel piece that ran the other day in the Los Angeles Times landed me a fun moment with San Diego radio station KBZT-FM 94.9 this morning, with hosts Hansen and Tommy.

Every Friday morning they do a session with folks from the Stone Brewing Co., which brews some great ales, with smart marketing, i.e., Arrogant Bastard Ale, with the label that warns, "You're not worthy."

After seeing the travel piece the other day, Tommy got in touch and they book me for a short chat about the story. So I got to relive -- briefly -- the road trip I took with Steve Dollar. This is the audio here.

Turns out Hansen and Tommy are doing a July 3 remote broadcast from the Stone brewery, and they suggested I stop down. Though 7 a.m. is a little early for an Arrogant Bastard -- read that any way you want -- I might just show up. Could be fun. Read More 
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