DAVE VORLAND: It Occurs To Me — Being A Reporter

The other day, Dorette and I watched a television interview with the journalist Seymour M. Hersh, broadcast in connection with the release of his new book “Reporter.”

It’s getting great reviews. So Wednesday, I hustled over to the nearest Barnes and Noble. The book had just arrived and was already sold out in the store. But a clerk was kind enough to retrieve one from the warehouse. It now sits on my nightstand.

I can’t wait to dig into it.

Way back when I thought I would become a reporter myself. Some of my favorite memories are of working summers at the Harvey (N.D.) Herald and Friday and Saturday nights at the Grand Forks Herald (my task there was to telephone small town high school coaches for their basketball scores).

I majored in journalism at the University of North Dakota and later earned a master’s degree at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, always assuming I would work on newspapers.

But fate decreed otherwise. Instead I became an instructor at UND and St. Cloud State University.

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — Travels With Tony

Our first Uber driver was a former journalist, so the midnight conversation from Pittsburgh International Airport turned to the unprecedented attacks on the press by the president.

Wearied by weather delays, airport sprints and the uncertainty of our travels, India and I were content to let him deliver a treatise I knew by rote — the preposterous notion journalists intentionally get things wrong … the differences between the opinion page and the front page … the top secret cabal that keeps conservatives out of journalism school … the incurious nature of sheep and men …

We counted 11 Uber drivers, a microcosm of America, as part of our four-day trek around Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where India will attend West Virgina University in the fall.

There was beautiful Chinita with the splendid braids, who was recovering from a car accident and was driving because she could no longer handle physical labor … there were college students picking up money for tuition … and Russell, a West Virginia lifer whose Uber profile said he was a great conversationalist but wasn’t.

A former FBI agent from D.C. shared his insights into the bureau as he ferried us across Morgantown. Comey had botched things by skewing the trajectory of the election with the Hillary email announcement, he said. And the two fired agents who displayed unprofessional disdain for Trump? “They had it coming.”

I had one question. “Is Bob Mueller a straight shooter?” He looked over at me intensely as the light changed. “Absolutely. Incorruptible.”

My favorite was the retired ballerina, who had danced professionally for 21 years in the company of luminaries like Baryshnikov and Nureyev and now taught other dancers. She was tiny and lithe, blonde-gray hair in a ballerina’s bun, lively eyes, with a boisterous laugh I was delighted to coax out of her several times with prairie wisecracks.

Later, I wondered why she was driving. Boredom? Financial necessity? If so the latter, it wouldn’t surprise me. Art is so seldom justly rewarded — this wondrous thing that illuminates the very best in humanity, showing our species in full bloom, like tulips in the spring, providing hope, beauty, inspiration, perspective, truth and mystery. I wished I had seen her dance.

Jahm from Uzbekistan and I engaged in discourse about Russian history, from the Mongols to the Romanovs. A gold tooth flashed when he spoke from a bearded jaw. I mined the words from his rich accent like gemstones. That ride wasn’t long enough.

The longest ride, but not in miles, was with Thomas, a patriot driving a Nissan. Well dressed in a button down shirt and slacks, he was a former coal miner, failed restauranteur and air conditioning specialist who, at 58, couldn’t land another job.

Early in the ride, because we were from North Dakota, I assume, he floated a comment about the unfair treatment Trump was receiving in the press and said something disparaging about Hillary. “Well, I really wasn’t a fan of either candidate,” I said noncommittally, and that shut him down for a while.

But later, another entreaty about the media’s attacks on the president, and this time I took the bait. The president, I said, was acting on some conservative principles I could live with. “But I despair over what he’s doing to the office — the ugliness and divisiveness he encourages. His dishonesty. His intellectual laziness. The way he alienates our allies.”

And so it came, like a flood, the rebuttal. Thomas told me he listened to a lot of conservative talk radio and so seemed well-schooled on the Deep State. Along with his defense of the president, he opined that 9/11 was an inside job, Obama, the Manchurian Candidate, was a Muslim born in Kenya, and that climate change was a hoax.

I attempted to gently amend some of the more egregious misstatements. I cited facts about the death of coral reefs, rising sea levels, melting ice caps, the increased intensity of storms and the acceleration of CO2 in the atmosphere that coincided with the Industrial Revolution — the reality that the growing season in North Dakota had gotten longer in my lifetime.

“Most scientists agree climate change is happening,” I said.

“They’ve been bought off,” he countered.

“All of them? And to what end? Not everything is a conspiracy, Thomas. Read.”

He didn’t read newspapers. It’s all fake news, anyway, he said, repeating the president’s mantra, and then he went off on CNN.

“You’re killing me, Thomas,” I said, and that’s when I revealed my occupation.

“Why would you support attacks on the First Amendment, which is more critical to your freedom than any other part of the Constitution?” I asked.

“Journalists defend your freedom every day, just as soldiers do. You think six-shooters and the Second Amendment will save you from a corrupt government? You know what will? Truth. Facts. They’re out there. You just have to be willing to open your eyes.”

By then, we were at the motel. We pulled the bags out of the trunk and wished each other well. I slapped him on the back and said, “Keep an open mind, Thomas.”

He smiled and chuckled. I liked him. I really did. And I think he liked me.

“I’ll keep an open mind, too,” I added, as I turned away.

I tipped him well. But not as much as the ballerina.

© Tony Bender, 2018

CHRIS ALLEN: Afghanistan Journal — Another Group Of Journalists Killed; Another Note Of Condolences

In January 2016. I sent off an email to an acquaintance of mine, Saad Mohseni, one of three brothers who own Tolo-TV in Kabul, Afghanistan. Tolo is the most-watched television station in the country. It creates its own information and entertainment programs and has a vast dubbing operation to give Dari soundtracks to Western programs.

It also has a large and aggressive newsroom. And in 2016, seven Tolo journalists were riding in a van when it was broadsided by a suicide driver in a car bomb. All seven were killed.

At the time, I sent Saad, who manages the station for his brothers, a note expressing my deep condolences. I’ve done it twice since then.

The latest was April 30, when journalists were again the target of terrorist bombers. The killers deliberately attacked the journalists and rescue workers by setting off a device during morning rush, and then as rescue workers and journalists congregated on the scene, detonated another. Eight journalists were killed immediately, and one died later of his injuries. In an unrelated attack, a reporter was shot to death in Kandahar the same day.

One of the reporters killed in Kabul was a Tolo reporter. Another was Shah Marai, chief photographer in Afghanistan for Agence France Presse.

Afghanistan has a free press clause in its constitution, and the journalists and journalism teachers I know there say the government abides by it. There are multiple threats to the media in Afghanistan, but the government is not one of them. There is very little persecution or even harassment of journalists by the government. However, greater threats come from beyond the government.

And no matter how legitimate the government is, it is nonetheless weak; Afghanistan is dominated more by warlords than by any orderly federal or local system of governance.

In addition, the Taliban still control huge swatches of the country. Reuters reports about 43 percent of the country’s districts are either controlled by the Taliban or are being contested. The threats to journalists come from the Taliban presence and the warlords as well as other terrorist groups operating there. Physical threats, actual assaults and even assassinations have resulted from media stories about people who would prefer their names and their work be kept out of the media.

In fact two of the watchdog groups that track press freedom around the world rate Afghanistan poorly. Reporters sans Frontier rates Afghanistan as 118th out of 180 countries and says the press is not free. Freedom House rates Afghanistan as partly-free, but right on the cusp of not free.

If the threat is not from the government, then where?

A look at last month’s attack is revealing. A branch of the Islamic State claimed responsibility. The Taliban have been known to exact revenge, as it did in the Tolo attack back in January 2016. Tolo had recently done a story critical of the Taliban’s techniques, and it paid with seven lives.

There was a vice president under Hamid Karzai who journalists there knew to be quite hostile if his name ever appeared in the news. He had been known to send thugs to break the kneecaps of any reporter foolish enough to use his name in any context — good or bad.

The other sad fact of Afghan media is the matter of money. There is simply not enough of it to support an independent press. Many media are owned by religious groups, political parties, and even warlords. Afghanistan’s literacy rate is less than 40 percent overall, making newspapers generally useless except among the more elite. Television is expensive to make, transmit and receive. That leaves radio, cheap and ubiquitous, to deliver the news, especially in rural areas.

So although Afghanistan’s constitution guarantees a free press, the real challenge is putting that into practice.

There is so much more that stands in the way of press freedom than a simple phrase. Censorship is not only a threat from government; it  often comes in the form of outside threats, economic hardship, and the influence of ownership and money.

Afghanistan is a petri dish of that statement. Anyone who places his or her own self-interests above those of the country hate and fear the light a free press shines on them.

That includes oligarchs, dictators, monarchs, terrorists and warlords. Cockroaches hate light. The tendency among almost all political leaders is toward less information. Resisting encroachment on freedom of expression is a constant battle just about everywhere. Some countries are more successful than others. Afghan media are fighting that good fight even though the fight has been costly.

But this one truth remains — a country cannot be truly free, cannot truly provide opportunities for all its people, and cannot guarantee free, open and informed elections — if the press is not free.

And I fear that in six, or 12 or 18 months, I will be sending yet another note to Saad Mohseni once again expressing my condolences.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — UND Writers Conference 2018

Jim and I attended the 49th Annual UND Writers Conference this week, where he was a presenter on a panel entitled “What’s News? The State of Journalism in North Dakota and Beyond,” convened by Chuck Haga of Grand Forks.

I seized the opportunity to do some research at UND’s Chester Fritz Library, reading from dozens of reels of microfilm on a topic of interest to me. I also visited the Special Collections department, a treasure house of North Dakota information.

Here is a video of what Jim Fuglie and Mike Jacobs, longtime North Dakota journalists, had to say. While all of the panelists’ thoughts were fascinating, my arms got tired, so I didn’t film the entire 45 minutes of the program. Jim and Mike get the last word as far as this blog is concerned.

LIZ FEDOR: Journalism And The Grand Forks Flood

Fake news is a phrase that wasn’t uttered in April 1997 when the Red River swamped the neighborhoods of Grand Forks, N.D., and East Grand Forks, Minn.

When my Grand Forks Herald colleagues and I reported on the devastating flood damage and the fire that ravaged 11 downtown Grand Forks buildings, nobody took to social media to attack our news stories. After tens of thousands of residents fled their homes because of the onslaught of water, they turned to the news media to learn when the water would recede and when they could return to rebuild their homes and neighborhoods.

Most of our newsroom staff remained in the Red River Valley to report on events as they unfolded. We worked out of a makeshift newsroom in a Manvel, N.D., school, and several of us felt fortunate to have a place to sleep on the floor in a house outside Manvel.

Liz Fedor, former political reporter and editorial page editor for the Grand Forks Herald, wrote a commentary about journalism’s role in the age of social media. She examined that issue by reflecting on how journalists served the Grand Forks and East Grand Forks communities during and after the 1997 flood. Her commentary was published Wednesday on the MinnPost website that is based in Minneapolis.

You can find the rest of the opinion article here:

MIKE BRUE: Just The Facts, M’am

NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Why I Won’t Cancel My Newspaper Next Time I’m All Riled Up, Either

I’ve been thinking lately about what I really want for Christmas … especially this year, when “peace on earth, good will to all” seems in such short supply.

My family tells me I’m tough to shop for. I like what I have; I certainly don’t need more. So in the interest of making life easy for anyone who’s thinking of sending me presents, I’ve pondered long. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Please subscribe — or resubscribe — to your local daily newspaper.

Not for me, exactly, nor precisely for yourself.

Do it for all of us. Do it for the America we want to live in.

Now, maybe this seems a little out of character for someone who writes for The Extra and the blog unheralded.fish — two platforms that we love to share with you absolutely free. I believe we offer invaluable service, and I’d be most obliged if you keep on reading! But as a veteran of the traditional newspaper business and a fervent believer in an informed society, I truly hope you’ll also take me up on this helpful hint. It’s absolutely the best idea you’ll see this holiday season.

Why would I be peddling daily newspapers, pray tell? One big, fat, undeniable reason: Without the vigilance of observant professional journalists — day in, day out, in moments that are overstuffed with “news” and at others when nothing much happens — our nation will be lost.

If you’ve been paying attention lately, you’ve undoubtedly heard bits of the raging debate over “fake news” delivered on the Web. Some astute observers blame (or credit) the flurry of frankly faux headlines with tipping the outcome of the election. Even Mark Zuckerberg, the parent of the juggernaut called Facebook, concedes false content is stickier and more viral than more sober and accurate stories.

On the Saturday after the election, Zuck sought to minimize his brainchild’s impact on the tone and temper of America 2016. While pledging to sort the grains of truth from the chaff, he contended that “more than 99 percent of what people see on Facebook is authentic.” As one of the zillions addicted to his social medium, I beg to differ. But why quibble? His Facebook statement (you can read it here) means that, now, 100 percent of users acknowledge it’s bad policy to swallow everything you read online.

Of course, it’s prudent to take each word you read or hear — online, on air and on paper -— with a grain of sodium chloride. Or perhaps we all need an even larger dose, a payload of salt the size of the dump trucks that de-ice our winter highways.

But any reasonable observer must understand that differing degrees of trustworthiness are native to the news we absorb in its infinite forms. By any measure, the most reliable — the sanest — the hands-down likeliest to build its stories from actual facts, tested and found true by concrete, real-world definitions — is still the daily newspaper.

Staffed by a dedicated though dramatically shrunken corps of committed and hard-working journalists, newspapers are perhaps the last medium that still strives every day to throw a bright light on the entire truth. They still aspire to hold the front line in separating propaganda from facts embedded in promotional fluff. They work weird hours for crappy pay for a motive that’s fallen out of favor in an era of clickbait and cut-throat ratings: They toil to keep citizens — us! — in touch with what our governments, corporations and individual citizens are really up to.

Oh, yes, I recognize their stumbles. I’m at least as fierce a critic of newspaper missteps as you, and possibly far tougher. That’s because I belonged to the newsroom tribe myself for the first decade of my career. I may see their shortcomings more sharply and judge them much more harshly than a “civilian” might … at least, a civilian who reaches beyond the facile cheap shots that mobs of partisans lob around today.

But my quibbles, large and small, originate from a place of respect and trust. There is no one on Earth in whom I have more confidence, in the long run, than the smart, seasoned, tough-minded journalists who still manage — against all probability — to hang on in embattled newsrooms. No one is more aware than they of the multitude of ways that newsmakers encroach on their opportunities to observe firsthand and draw neutral, objectively honest conclusions. No one tries harder to discern and report the truth.

And no one is more aware of being an endangered species. The profession of journalism is desperately wracked by layoffs within and scorn outside traditional news organizations. Just ask them: They’ve watched dozens, hundreds, thousands of superb, wise reporters flung off the merry-go-round as the news business spins wildly in ever-more-erratic circles, attempting to survive in a digital universe where the odds are frankly stacked against it.

Sure, the newspaper can drive you nuts sometimes. Sometimes I joke that I read my morning paper just to make sure my blood pressure hasn’t sunk too low overnight. That doggoned daily edition gets me going faster than the very first drops of plasma that gurgle out of the coffeemaker. Just ask my husband! Sometimes it makes me crazy.

But that’s what good newspapers, and good journalists, are supposed to do: Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. The wise and generous editor who made me who I am today used to say that we newshounds needed to celebrate, rather than regret, the ruckus our readers occasionally kicked up in our faces: “That means they’re reading us.”

Journalists don’t always get it right, or get the whole panoramic story. But I’d trust those professional writers and editors, with their venerable, time-tested habits of questioning and reflecting and corroborating what they’ve been told, a thousand times sooner than the idle chatter and self-serving half-truths (quarter-truths? 1 percent truths?) on social media.

I’m sad to report that most of my peers (the generation that still reads ink on paper) no longer subscribe to our local daily newspaper. They’ve canceled their subscriptions for one very good reason or another — maybe a columnist they abhor, maybe the abortive SheSays, maybe an editorial endorsement or a sports match that was overlooked or a story they deemed slanted.

Or maybe they just wanted to save $59 per quarter. They figure they can read much of it for free online. Or perhaps they think that if something important happens, they’ll hear about it … somehow. Perhaps on Facebook.

Meanwhile, they’re starving the one and only profession whose highest goal is the telling of the truth. Today, instead, the big bucks go to wildly profitable enterprises that gather and profit from the very same stories that originate among the rare and priceless profession whom they no longer support.

When the newspapers vanish, so will go the lifeblood of a well-informed and responsible citizenry. Knowledge, rather than the specious ignorance spawned by “news” that is solely propaganda, is only nutrition that can keep our America healthy.

Should you do this as a gift for me? I was kidding about that. Sort of. I want you to subscribe to your local daily newspaper for yourself. We’ll all be better off in the long run.


Americans have lost confidence in just about everything

The USA, Americans say, basically sucks right now.

The latest Gallup Poll says Americans over the past two years have lost confidence in, well — name it: Congress (8 percent); the presidency (33 percent); Supreme Court (32 percent); big friggin banks (“institutions” that made $4 billion charging customers for money transactions … 28 percent, down from 40 percent); 21 percent for Big Frickin’ Business; and organized religion (42 percent). The reasons for the sour and outlook are many. Take your pick: Wars, stagnant wages, a sluggish economy, the polarization and gridlock by the clowns in Washington, etc. Only the military and small business managed to climb in the confidence rankings. Hmmmmm.


Pope Francis calls for a revolution for the sake of climate and each other

Daniel Burke, CNN religious reporter, analyzes Thursday’s “Laudato si,” Pope Francis’ “encyclical” message to 1 billion Catholics.

“What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? The question not only concerns the environment in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal.”

The environment is intimately connected to our care for each other, Francis says, and we are failing miserably at both. The pope spared few of the world’s institutions and denounced big businesses, energy companies, shortsighted politicians, scurrilous scientists, laissez faire economists, callous Christians and myopic media professionals. Hmmmmm.


‘Branding’ and other corporate b.s. is ruining journalism

Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post responds to a journalism student after she asked him how he built his personal brand over the years. Weingarten, a Pulitzer Prize-winning humor columnist, didn’t mince words. Among them: “The media is in a frantic, undignified campaign to economize while at the same time attracting more “eyeballs.” It’s a dangerous situation: Newspapers that used to allocate their resources to deposing dictators and ferreting out corruption are now using them to publish snapshots of their readers’ cats.” By the way, Americans have only 24 percent confidence in newspapers these days, down from 30 percent. Hmmmm.


Taxpayers pay through the nose to rebuild houses on the ocean’s edge — again and again and again

New England Center for Investigative Reporting uncovers a story that might echo in the Red River Valley. It’s a top shelf head scratcher.  According to NECIR, “A vacation home damaged at least 10 times by Atlantic storms will be elevated with money from a federal grant for the second time in a dozen years — this time for $180,000,” records show. “The home has emerged as a symbol of controversial federal policies that financially support the rebuilding of homes on the sea’s edge with tax dollars, no matter how vulnerable they are to climate change’s rising seas and more severe storms. The grant adds to the close to $1 million the home has received for flood damage in the past four decades through insurance payouts and grants, funded in part with taxpayer dollars.” Hmmmmm.