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State of the Media

No Foundation

When I was reporting years ago in Nicaragua and traveling with a squad of Sandinista soldiers, a weary woman in a village in the middle of a battle zone told me that I had “the face of a priest.” That didn’t necessarily mean that she liked me. After years of war, neglect and poverty, she had grown skeptical of newcomers, including priests coming to relay her impoverished reality to a higher power.

I told her I was a reporter, but that didn’t erase the look of aching resignation on her face. History, no doubt, constantly reaffirmed her suspicions—here was another liberal anthropologist, this one posing as a member of the media, who had hacked through the jungle to study her. Like another sanctimonious ghost, another false promise, he’d be gone in a few days.

It wasn’t hard to see that same resignation in the media moments emerging from this year’s Haitian nightmare. The parallels to Katrina and New Orleans are not to be ignored: A natural disaster hits a region that—because it has been designed by slavery and racism—is filled with people acutely aware of their place in the caste system.

And like Katrina and New Orleans, the media faced a crucial debate: how to convey the symptomatic, grisly, turmoil…and how to hover above it and give the long, contextual (and, yes, condemning) view of Haiti’s wretched evolution. How to connect the breaking news to the land grabs, exploitation and dictatorships that the United States had supported for decades. Haiti was vulnerable long before the earthquake struck, and its history is almost a perfect microcosm of the lingering ruin left in the wake of super-powers hell bent on cornering the market on…you name it…sugar, spices, cotton and human beings. It was almost a pet phrase in the media for years and years—“poorest nation in the Western hemisphere.”

A nonscientific view of the Texas media’s coverage of Haiti suggests plenty of symptomatic “first responder” coverage—the front-page images of bodies and snaking lines for food and water. And the usual scrambles to find “local” angles (Texans who perished in Haiti, Texans tied to the adoption of Haitian children, Texans doing relief work—often through church groups). The challenge, of course, was simply being able to hold a mirror to the immediate reality.

“I give reporters a pass,” says John Burnett, the veteran Texas-based correspondent for National Public Radio, who just returned from Haiti. “Logistically, just getting around the shattered capital, finding officials who knew something, and holding one’s emotions in check were a challenge every day.

“As in New Orleans after Katrina, it was the journalists that alerted the world that this is a bad one. Send help. And when the aid agencies and the U.S. government assured us that help was on the way, the journalists showed that it might be on the way, but it wasn’t getting to the squalid tent camps where it was desperately needed. The aid distribution was paralyzed by disorganization, violent crowds, lack of security and inadequate supplies. So I guess I feel like we did our job.”

The images on TV were especially ceaseless and grinding, and millions of Americans sent money to help. But could the media have done more to affix blame for the conditions in pre-earthquake Haiti?

“What’s largely missing…has been the analysis,” says veteran Texas journalist and author R.A. “Jake” Dyer, who has reported extensively in Haiti.

“The public has a voracious appetite for constant Web updates, and so the pressure on reporters to produce fresh copy has been enormous. Making the call to remove a reporter from the daily action … and instead allow that reporter to spend several days or a week on analysis—that’s a very difficult call for an editor.”

Now the story has moved on. In Houston, the erudite Gabrielle Cosgriff—who has written many crusading editorials in the Houston Chronicle—had a stinging indictment. She perused her regular daily newspapers on the first Friday in February—and found that they had confined almost all their coverage to the American missionaries accused of child trafficking.

“So, apart from the American connection,” she wrote to me, “we’re done with Haiti, knowing little more than that a terrible natural disaster occurred, God knows how many people died, and a poor country is now even poorer.”

Full-Court Cyberpress

LBJ once breezily put it this way: “The press helps me … the press is one of the best servants I have.”

Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison still would like to swear by what Big Brother LBJ preached in Texas. It’s just that they know that the mechanisms they’re using to pursue so-called servitude have changed a bit since 1965. Back then LBJ was happy to manipulate the press with tumblers of scotch or sometimes a clenched fist. Today it’s RSS feeds, Twitter blurts, carefully forwarded e-mails and Facebook leaks used by political operatives in Austin, so many of them with freshly minted public-affairs degrees and multimedia expertise. The tactics are different, but the goal is the same—control the coverage.

Sometimes the dark arts emerge in plain sight: For a good part of 2010, Hutchison’s people have been harrumphing about news accounts of “widely leaked poll results from Perry pollster Mike Baselice.” The poll, wonder of wonders, miraculously showed Perry thumping Hutchison. It has been described in almost every story as the “internal Perry campaign memo circulating on blogs and among political operatives.”

Laptop CompterBy some accounts, the poll began showing up over the holidays as an attachment to forwarded e-mails from the Perry campaign to supporters. Eager bloggers began picking up on the numbers. (One blog introduced the poll results this way: “This was sent today on the letterhead of Baselice & Associates to Texans for Rick Perry.”) Fairly quickly, political reporters with audiences beyond the blogs began publishing the numbers. In what had to be the intended cause and effect, Hutchison was on her heels—crabbing that the race was actually “dead even.”

One thing is clear: The poll numbers—forget whether they are accurate—went viral very, very quickly.

“While the professional reporter could serve as a filter for the public, now everything is out there unfiltered,” says Houston Chronicle reporter R.G. Ratcliffe.

“Some in politics would say that’s a good thing, but it makes it more difficult for the occasional political visitor to know what is true, who to trust and how to tell the difference between facts and spin. I’m pretty sure the Baselice poll was intentionally leaked. But I’m not sure that’s really any different from the days when political campaigns produced their own newspapers … . The big difference in the electronic leaks is how fast they spread.”

The Politics 2.0 world, filled with so many anonymous portals, is a perfect host—it’s like seeding news arteries with hungry cancer cells. Twitter is, according to the Austin American-Statesman‘s Jason Embry, a key part of the new methodology in Texas. He points to the Perry campaign tweeting whenever The Wall Street Journal writes yet another positive opinion piece on Perry. “The Perry people are very good at using Twitter,” says Embry.

One veteran Texas reporter recently told me political insiders are also aware of the harsh economic realties in some newsrooms. News outlets can’t afford to commission as many polls as they once did, so they’re hungry for any numbers from the digital transom. They will rush to report the “internal polling” numbers, including the ones “leaked to blogs”—and they even dutifully point out that the numbers were generated by folks on a politician’s payroll. The bottom line is that they have published what the campaigns wanted leaked.

Are Baselice’s numbers bad? He has a reputation for calling races accurately. But is that the bigger issue? Hardly. The bigger consideration is how they change the pace—and direction—of coverage: Releasing poll numbers diverts attention back to horse-race campaign coverage—and away from what the hell candidates are promising to do to help small businesses in Houston’s Fifth Ward, or to bring medical coverage to millions of uninsured Texans.

One reporter, someone supportive of the upside of the new media, told me that the reality in Texas is that there is now this ongoing, gurgling “published rumor mill that we have to pay attention to.” It takes time to follow it all; it takes time to sort out the good things.

Embry, like so many political reporters in Texas, says that he works 24/7 to keep pace. He has decided that reading blogs is useful, but only to a degree—reading them, he says, is “not reporting.”

Through it all, the spin-doctors are still figuring out how to control the new paradigm. It’s no secret that many of the ones doing the figuring are longtime, hardcore Bush operatives. Karl Rove and other soulmates in Austin, like media strategists Mark McKinnon and Dan Bartlett, were among the first to get in on the new zeitgeist. A decade ago, they began dwelling on the obvious: How the hell do you use the new media to sell George W. Bush … to sell Gingrich-meets-Wolfowitz? Rove wasn’t sure where and how to begin, except to resort to the trusty jackboot of shutting down dissent. He began snapping up “scary” domain names—,–and then getting earnest GOP techies to link them to “friendly” Bush sites.

Today, the number of full-time, day-in, day-out reporters covering state politics is plummeting. Media strategists—disciples and even grudging admirers of Rove’s legacy in Texas—are working from the bottom up, not the top down. They don’t walk to the political news bureaus on Congress Avenue the way they used to—with bags of candy. They don’t have to. Now they send messages in a bottle, sometimes to anonymous bloggers, and assume the news will begin to spin.

Bill Minutaglio is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and author of several books, most recently Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life, co-authored with W. Michael Smith. His column will appear monthly in the Observer.

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