Dark Days for Democracy, Dangerous Days for Journalism

Asked to choose “whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government,” Thomas Jefferson stated, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Today, Jefferson wouldn’t have that choice; due to economics, electronic media and the internet, newspapers face extinction. In their stead, according to the Pew Research Center, about 45 percent of US adults get their “news” from Facebook, while Fox is the most viewed cable news network.

But both Facebook and Fox have stated that their business is entertainment, not news.

All contracts — including the social contract we call democracy — require “informed consent.” But millions of Americans are deeply un-informed: 34 percent of Americans reject evolution; 22 percent of millenials are unaware of the Holocaust!

There’s good reason why children, lunatics and those of “diminished capacity” — folks who can’t understand what they’re signing up for — are legally barred from signing contracts. There’s reason to worry that gobs of us now fall into that “diminished capacity” category — folks who vote without understanding what they’re signing up for.

Upon retiring after 40 years of newspapering in the Roaring Fork Valley, John Colson told The Sun that, “people need newspapers or some equivalent…to keep them informed about what’s going on around them, so people can make educated decisions about politics, about society. I believe an informed electorate is critical to the American Experiment at the very least, and maybe to the future of the world.”

Corey Hutchins, Columbia Journalism Review’s Rocky Mountain correspondent, says that Colorado provides a microcosm for journalism nationwide. Here, he writes, “We have elusive billionaire newspaper owners, secretive hedge-fund owners, reader-supported nonprofits and family owners.”

For years, the Pulitzer-prize-winning Denver Post was the only news organization that covered statewide politics and elected officials. But more than two-thirds of the Post’s newsroom has been axed in the past decade. Last April, when the paper’s hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital, demanded deeper cuts despite profitability, staff rebelled, penning an editorial describing Alden managers as “vulture capitalists.”

In the last 10 years, the loss of half of Colorado’s press corps has predictably led to “a new generation of public officials…accustomed to fielding fewer tough questions, handling fewer open records requests, and having fewer cameras pointed at them than their predecessors.” That observation comes from Colorado Independent Editor Susan Greene.

Greene is alarmed. Not only was a reporter handcuffed for photographing Denver cops arresting a naked panhandler, but Colorado’s Supreme Court has also refused to open records about a prosecutor’s misconduct. The Court’s decision in the Mario Owens case, Greene writes, “has made Colorado the only state without a presumptive First Amendment right to review any court documents. No other court in the nation has gone so far.”

Since 1733, when New York Weekly Journal publisher John Peter Zenger was imprisoned for criticizing a corrupt royal governor, reporting has at times proved  hazardous: In 1984, neo-Nazis murdered Denver radio host Alan Berg. Reporter Chauncey Bailey was murdered in Oakland in 2007. But last April’s shooting of five staffers at the Annapolis Capital Gazette thrust us into foreign territory — the US now ranks among the top nations in journalists killed on the job!

Although Trump expressed sympathy for the Gazette, he nonetheless instigates. He calls the press “the enemy of the people” and rails against “fake news” while having told 4,229 documented lies since assuming the presidency. Supporters at his campaign rallies wore T-shirts that read: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.”

The Washington Post’s motto puts the danger succinctly: democracy dies in darkness.

Through the murk, I do see a couple of rays of sunshine: Sept. 10 marked the dawning of the Colorado Sun, a statewide, online news organization formed by 10 journalists who fled the Denver Post. Last week, The Sopris Sun published its 500th issue.

Although I count this valley fortunate in still having local newspapers, they’re all financially fragile. Greene explains that “a free press is a financially sustainable press that’s independent enough to keep asking hard questions of people in power, regardless of fallout from funding sources.” None of our local news outlets are robust enough to ask hard questions, let alone powerful enough to investigate local businesses that buy ads.

That’s why I’m taking Greene’s advice and paying for my news. In addition to subscribing to the New York Times and Washington Post, I donate annually to The Sopris Sun and KDNK radio. I also have added a Colorado Sun subscription.

If you value democracy, I urge you to do likewise. Also, plan to attend KDNK’s Your News, Your Community forum, at 4 p.m. Oct. 13, to hear from Western Slope newspapers in the Colorado Media Alliance about these topics.

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Originally published in the “Seeking Higher Ground” column in the Sopris Sun on September 20, 2018

Lessons from ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’

The president slammed her hand down on the table and thundered, “These leaks must stop. I’m going to find out who’s leaking, and there will be serious — very serious — repercussions!”

Sound like our nation’s current president? It’s not. There are two tip-offs here: first the pronoun “her”, second, the language is far too coherent to have come from Trump.

But this column is a parable about leaks — and why Trump and Sessions can’t plug them. At Trump’s behest, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced that that the F.B.I. had created a new counterintelligence unit to track down those who leak classified information and that the Justice Department “wouldn’t hesitate to bring criminal charges” against leakers.

 I suspect their results will be similar to those Mickey Mouse got as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. For those too young to remember Fantasia, apprentice Mickey is weary of fetching water. He casts a spell on a magical, bucket-carrying broom, then splits it with an axe. Each splinter becomes a new broom. The multiplying brooms each grab water pails, and with dizzying speed, flood the place.

That’s pretty much what happened when the president of the private university I worked for threatened dire consequences for leaking. The president – I will call her Judy White – had hired me to promote the university to the media. My first day on the job, a long-time faculty member pulled me into a broom closet (ironic but true!) and asked if President White had shown me the university’s accreditation report.

She hadn’t.

Within hours, the report was in my hands.

Soon, other faculty and board members began making clandestine visits and inviting me off campus “for coffee”.

The report made clear that accreditation was hanging by a thread, the administration had somehow blown an $8 million endowment, its computerized enrollment system didn’t work and faculty on multiple campuses had taken official votes of “no confidence” in President White. None of this had been mentioned when I had been hired to serve as media counsel, a position somewhat analogous to the White House press secretary.

Back in 1946, New York Times political reporter James Reston observed that “governments are the only vessels that leak from the top.” That’s been true through multiple administrations. Truman, Bush and Clinton fought leaks. Via Watergate, Nixon found that hiring “plumbers” can backfire rather dramatically. The Obama administration used the Espionage Act to prosecute eight individuals for disclosing sensitive information, more than all previous presidencies combined. Not one president stopped leaks.

As Reagan once replied when asked how his administration could control leaks, “I’ve been told you don’t. Everybody who has been around here for a while tells me it is just the nature of the place.”

I haven’t served as a governmental press secretary, but my time in academia revealed why those dedicated to public service would risk both careers and censure to leak information; ethics.

In the university’s case, the underlying issue was safeguarding the nonprofit status of a school that idealistic faculty members had devoted many (underpaid) years serving. President White, pressed by finances, was attempting to sell the place to a for-profit corporation. Every inquiry she opened was leaked.

Faculty members, board members and staff who divulged (and sabotaged) her quest did so out of a deep commitment to teaching and public service, ethical values that were being threatened. They held that converting publicly-held assets for private profit was unethical. They acted on values they held sacred. They considered themselves whistle-blowers. And they proved unstoppable, ultimately toppling the president.

Those in the Trump administration who are handing news to the press — recordings of back-room meetings on healthcare, hastily written (and badly spelled) executive orders, transcripts of presidential phone calls, accounts of White House infighting — are doing so largely out of ethics and professionalism. And that’s why they won’t stop.

As David Frum recently wrote in the Atlantic, “Senior national-security professionals regard Trump as something between (at best) a reckless incompetent doofus and (at worst) an outright Russian espionage asset.” Fear of a possible “Russian mole” in the White House is prompting intelligence leaks.

Similarly, at the EPA, staffers fear that climate-denial policies and Scott Pruitt’s leadership amount to fiddling while Rome burns. But it’s not Rome, it’s the planet and the future of our species. That’s why a draft report that concludes that Americans are already suffering the effects of global warming — including Sourcerer’s Apprentice-style flooding in coastal cities — was secretly advanced to the New York Times.

Ironically enough, for a guy who got famous yelling “You’re fired” on a TV show called “The Apprentice”, Trump, like Nixon before him, may find that his quest to plug leaks will land him in hot water.

Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on August 17, 2017

The New Deep Throat is a Park Ranger?

During the election, as “fake news” (i.e. propaganda) flew from both the left and the right, I had several conversations with other local journalists about where they get their news and made some personal adjustments and resolutions.

With local news, it’s easier to nail down. I know most of the Roaring Fork Valley’s reporters and editors personally. I can corner them between the potatoes and the artichokes in the grocery and ask, “Why in heck did you write that?”

I have spent most of my career writing about travel, the outdoors and other supposedly nonpolitical topics. I graduated from the CU Boulder School of Journalism with honors, then worked as a feature writer, a nonprofit publicist and an ad agency copywriter. (The latter involves being paid a princely sum to crow about something readers may or not want to buy.)

But even as a copywriter, I drew the line at lying. I think Thomas Jefferson was right in asserting that a free press was (and is) essential to democracy. Writing to a delegate of the Continental Congress, Jefferson famously opined that if he had to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government”, he would not hesitate to prefer the latter.

Sadly, much has changed since my J-school days, a time when Woodward and Bernstein were heralded as heroes. Last September, a Gallup poll found that only 32 percent of Americans say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the news media. Among Republicans, that number drops to 14 percent, down from 32 percent last year.

Still, I suspect that our new president will soon learn why Mark Twain quipped that it’s poor idea to pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.

In an open letter to Trump published in the Columbia Journalism Review, the voice of the journalistic profession, CJR editor Kyle Pope warned,

“We believe there is an objective truth, and we will hold you to that…You and your staff sit in the White House, but the American government is a sprawling thing. We will fan reporters out across the government, embed them in your agencies, source up those bureaucrats.” As the White House’s webpage on climate change disappeared and the new administration barred the EPA from sharing information with the press and public, I began to wonder how many Deep Throats would appear in the coming months.

It took days, not months, to get an answer. Following White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s assertions about inaugural crowd, the press began digging and the National Park Service (NPS) tweeted out side-by-side photos of crowds at Trump’s and Obama’s inaugurations. That quickly led to the silencing of the Park Service’s official Twitter account.

 The NPS account came back some hours later, but dragon’s teeth had been sown. Badlands National Park quickly began tweeting about climate change — and soon found its Tweets deleted.

But by the end of that day, more than 50 “alt” or “rogue” Twitter accounts appeared, speaking for government agencies that deal with environment, science, health and food safety. They can be found under the hashtag #twistance (Twitter resistance).

 I’m now following “Rogue NOAA”, an unofficial National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration account that promises “research on our climate, oceans, and marine resources should be subject to peer [not political] review.” NOAA operates 17 environmental satellites and myriad land- and ocean-monitoring instruments that collect data used for everything from farming to weather forecasting to insurance.

Because I’m sure that the climate is warming, I’m also following “EPA Ungagged” for “news, links, tips, and conversation that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is unable to tell you.” And I’m wickedly cheering on the bad hombres at AltBadlandsNatPark, who tweeted that “the current pace of global average temp rise puts approximately 25 to 35 percent of plant and animal species at increased risk of extinction.”

I followed the Twitter resisters because like “Alt USDA”, I’m “resisting the censorship of facts and science.”  I too believe that “truth wins in the end.”
But these days, the truth is an endangered species. It’s no coincidence that I get news about Standing Rock from the reports of former Sopris Sun editor Terray Sylvester. Or that I have donated to our local media news outlets. Or that I have subscribed to the New York Times.

Or that I’m launching a new career as a columnist.
You’re welcome to corner me by the artichokes and ask me all about it.


Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on Feb. 2, 2017.