Saturday, April 24, 2010

Dugout Dick: A rememberance

This post was published in the Post Register April 27, 2010.

In one of his last media interviews, Richard Zimmerman reminisced last summer about the days he had an orchard outside his self-made caves along the Salmon River and proudly displayed dozens of articles written about him over the years.

At 93, he was thin, frail and hunched. His hearing was nearly gone and his speech difficult to understand. He’d just come out of a stay in a rehabilitation center to recover from a broken hip. It was one of the few times in the prior 60-plus years that he’d stayed somewhere other than his caves near Elk Bend south of Salmon.

Yet, there he was, making his way up the zigzag trail to his main cave, where he welcomed his visitors into his home. It was cluttered but comfortable, cool in the summer, reasonably warm in the winter, lit only occasionally by a single small light bulb powered by a solar battery.

His lease on the land died with him last week when he passed away of natural causes just the way he would have wanted to -- in his cave. It now reverts to the federal government which, if it follows through on announced plans, will turn Dick’s series of caves into an interpretive area celebrating Zimmerman’s life and ingenuity. There is no reasonable alternative to this -- we won’t see Dick’s sort again anytime soon.

Zimmerman became a living oxymoron, a famous hermit. He clearly relished the role. Over the years he had hosted National Geographic, film crews and dozens of journalists, a nearly imperceptible twinkle in his eye. He knew his story was unique, and he had no qualms about making a little pocket change in exchange for telling it.

While he was an interesting story to journalists and people who read their stories about him, the people around Salmon just knew him as “Mr. Zimmerman.” They clearly felt protective of him, taking great care to tell stories about Dick that exposed his humanity and tenderness instead of focusing on how different he was from the rest of us.

As Post Register writer and longtime Salmon resident Laura Zuckerman wrote last week: “While tales of Zimmerman's alternative lifestyle were the stuff of friendly curiosity from outsiders, Salmon area residents tended to see him less as an anachronism and more as a rugged individualist in a community that honors that status.”

Salmon runs deep with stories about Dick, and they’re likely to grow to myth with his passing. For a hermit, he was known personally to many. For years he’d hitchhike into town nearly every day, until he finally bought a pickup and would drive himself. He was treated with kindness and respect, not as a curiosity.

By last summer, his body tired and his faculties waning, he continued to welcome guests without the least sign of wariness or resentment. He was proud of the life he’d quite literally carved out of the side of a mountain with his bare hands. His legacy will outlast those of many people who are more conventionally famous, and that is as it should be.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Craigslist scams hit Pocatello

But it's not Craigslist's fault ...

Read all about it.

Pass-along -- try that with your web site

A version of the post was published in the Post Register April 25, 2010.

Six days a week nearly 80,000 people in eastern Idaho read a copy of the Post Register and another nearly 3,000 go to our web site.

Those are big numbers -- never big enough as far as we’re concerned, but big nonetheless. More interesting, total readership of the Post Register and other daily newspapers, contrary to the popular myth, is growing.

National polling firm Scarborough Research recently completed a survey of what we call the “pass-along rate” -- the number of people who read each copy of a printed edition of the newspaper. The result was, to some, surprising. The pass-along rate has grown from 3.07 adult readers per copy in 2007 to 3.3 readers per copy today -- an increase of 7.5 percent. Add this to the many millions of people who read newspapers online every day and you’ve got a growing readership.

The Post Register’s daily paid circulation is about 24,000. Assuming the pass-along rate here is the same as the national average (if anything, it would be higher, given eastern Idaho larger families), that makes 79,200 readers per edition, not counting the additional 3,000 or so who read us online.

We don’t want to brag, but that’s a lot of folks at a time when you might think that newspapers are an endangered species, if you aren’t paying close attention. Even as the Internet continues to grow as a purveyor of information, printed newspapers remain the most important medium for local news and advertising.

Two other findings of note from the save survey:
Daily printed newspaper readers are 16% more likely than all adults to be college graduates.

Daily printed newspaper readers are 11% more likely than all adults to be home owners.
There may yet come a day when printing presses are silenced and the information local newspaper provide will be exclusively delivered digitally. But predicting the death of printed newspapers is a slippery business. In 1981, for example, Ted Turner predicted newspapers wouldn’t survive a decade. (It is perhaps apocryphal, but newspaper legend has it that some newspaper editor responded that newspapers would be printing Turner’s obituary one day.)

Turner, not known for giving in easily, repeated his refrain in 2006 when he told the National Press Club that, “When I die, they’ll (newspapers) will die with me.” That, of course, was 15 years after Turner had said that newspapers would be done.

Also of note on this topic, a recent survey indicates that only 3 percent of newspaper reading takes place online. I'll leave it to you to interpret that information.

But I digress. Not only are newspapers alive and well, their readership continues to make them the essential local medium and the future looks pretty darn good.

“More people are reading each printed copy, further enhancing the value of the newspaper as an advertising medium, and increasing exposure for advertisers,” said Gary Meo, a senior vice president at Scarborough.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

I’m not a betting man, but I’ll bet you a buck that in another 15 years, the Post Register’s presses will still be running.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Consuming information requires a little common sense, a lot of effort

One of the great challenges for information consumers in the 21st century is figuring out whether to believe what they read, see or hear.

The first rule of thumb is that no information source is infallible. Usually reliable sources like the Wall Street Journal, the BBC, the Economist or the nation’s major magazines and newspapers miss the mark from time to time and publish a story that’s either insufficiently researched or is too influenced by a the writer’s personal bias. Journalism involves human beings, which means it’s subject to human error.

In the case of usually reliable and credible information sources, the best way to ensure that what you’re reading is accurate is to check it against other usually reliable, credible information sources.

Perhaps understandably, we are all too eager to accept as gospel information or stories that conform to our personal politics or values, regardless of the veracity of the source. We tend to drift toward sources that skew toward our value set. Sources that want to be seen as credible all too often insert a particular political spin to their coverage include such TV networks and web sites as MSNBC, Fox, Huffington Post, and The Drudge Report.

Of course all the national political magazines like The Nation, New Republic, American Conservative and National Review, among many others, make no pretense of applying any standards of journalism to their work – they are opinion, pure and simple. Take them for what they are.

Then there are the information sources that are filled with nothing but conjecture, innuendo, spin, blather and even hatred and lies. Many of the chain e-mails so popular nowadays fall into this category – they come across as credible information when they are essentially complete fiction. But how to tell?

One good rule of thumb is the same one we apply to food that may have been in the refrigerator too long but looks OK – when in doubt, throw it out. Unless an unsolicited e-mail provides sufficient sourcing and background information for a claim, it’s probably bogus.

We’ve all received these – debunked claims that Pres. Barrack Obama isn’t an American citizen, or that the New World Order is secretly controlling the global economy. While this is perfect fodder for conspiracy theorists, the information is almost always just plain wrong.

If you aren’t willing to just hit “delete” on this sort of material, there are a number of Web sites that specialize in investigating urban myths and other nonsensical material floating around the Internet, including these two: Snopes.com and factcheck.org, the latter which is run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

The bottom line is, not all “news” is created equal. It's the responsibility of the consumer to learn the skills necessary to differentiate fact from fiction, and it's the job of newspapers to differentiate themselves from other media by providing credible and reliable journalism.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

What to make of Twitter?

UPDATE: Take a look at how seriously Twitter takes itself.

Twitter has recently announced its latest statistics on registered users and traffic. The challenge is to interpret that data. As always, I'm here to help.

First, the data:

* Twitter has 105,779,710 registered users.

* It gets 300,000 new users a day.

* It receives 180 million unique visitors a month.

* And 75% of traffic comes from outside of Twitter.com.

So. what does this data tell us? Just about nothing.

For example, it combines terminology in a way that doesn't allow for any meaningful comparisons. Twitter gets 180 million unique visitors a month. The generally agreed-upon definition of "unique visitor" is one person who makes one or more visits during the tracking period. So, by that interpretation, 180 million different people visit Twitter at least once during any given month.

How many of those are registered users? Don't know. How many times does the average unique visitor visit? Don't know. What percentage of the unique visitor number comes from registered uses? Don't know. We are told, however, that 75 percent of Twitter's traffic comes from "outside Twitter," or by visitors who aren't registered users.

At a conference I attended last fall someone estimated that a vast majority of people who register for Twitter never actually go back and use it -- that more than 90 percent of its traffic comes from less than 10 percent of its registered users. Now we learn from Twitter itself that 75 percent of its traffic comes from non-registered users.

We understand that this is somehow significant, but how? First, it means that many, many visitors to Twitter are lurkers -- people who pop in for a quick look-see and then leave. Second, it confirms that a good share -- a significant majority, at least -- of Twitter's registered users aren't regular users. Third, it adds urgency to the question, "How will Twitter ever make any money?" If its registered users who don't pay for the privilege don't use the site, how can Twitter expect to ask people to pay to use the site? And, forget about ad revenue -- so far, it just doesn't generate nearly enough money to cover Twitter's operating costs. (Have you ever looked at a Twitter ad?)

What Twitter continues to be is an application without a business model, sort of like online news sources -- without that legacy business (newspaper, TV, magazine) to support the operation, there's no business model. (If you're a media type and you've read this far, finish reading and then move over to Daily Patricia for some schooling on why it's really stupid for us to be asking advice from folks in the Internet business.)

What about Facebook, you ask? Good question! Facebook claims 400 million registered users, and claims that about half of those "log on" in any given day. It claims that 35 million users update their status on any given day, creating a total of 60 million status updates a day. The average users spends 55 minutes a day of Facebook. So what can we learn from these numbers?

First, that if you are a user who does status updates, you're likely to do just under two a day. You're six times more likely to be a "lurker" (someone who looks at the site but doesn't post an update) than an active participant. If the "average user" (I presume this means the mean, not the median) is on for 55 minutes a day, and most users don't even post a status update, it's likely that a small percentage of very active users account for the significant majority of time spent on the site -- at the very least an example of the 80/20 rule; 80 percent of the use comes from 20 percent of the users.

Given its flexibility -- many businesses, including mine, now have a Facebook page as a free promotional tool, for example -- Facebook feels more likely to be able to develop into a business model. However, there's no evidence to suggest that advertising will make up its largest revenue stream. At some point, a subscription fee is in the works, and at that point all the lurkers will go away as will a good share of the occasional posters.

The upshot? Just like free news online, free Twitter and free Facebook aren't sustainable. Without a drastic change in the model. Twitter and Facebook can't survive forever on the good graces of venture capital infusions.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

All hail small newspapers and web sites

A small newspaper about one-quarter larger than the Post Register has won this year's most prized of the Pulitzer Prizes -- the one for public service.

The 33,000-circulation Bristol Herald Courier, which employs seven full-time news reporters (the PR has five, in addition to our features and sports writers) beat out newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post. It was one of two prizes of note, the other being one won by a non-profit investigative journalism web site, ProPublica.

Here's what I love about the Courier Journal -- when I went to its web site the day the Pulitzer was announced, the lead story was about a road closure caused by a traffic accident, not the newspaper's historic Pulitzer Prize, and the story elsewhere on the site about the prize was provided by the Associated Press. That is a local newspaper doing its thing.

The winning series documented how Virginia homeowners are being routinely ripped off by the state of natural gas royalties they should be earning. The coverage included a complete and sophisticated database that accounts for the money.

ProPublica won for its coverage of the unimaginable life-and-death choices that doctors had to make at a New Orleans hospital in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This, too, represents journalism at its finest.

If nothing else, this shows that journalism isn't about the medium -- it's about the quality of the work. A small-town newspaper in the coalfields of Virginia and a non-profit web site each won recognition in the nation's top journalism competition. There are those who think that investigative journalism among newspapers, especially small ones, is in real trouble. While the resources required to do this sort of journalism are undoubtedly shrinking, real journalism continues to happen at newspapers large and small.

And speaking of coalfields, of note in the coverage of the recent mining disaster in Virginia and its aftermath is the hard-nosed and comprehensive reporting of the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette, particularly that of staff writer Ken Ward Jr. The best reporting on the disaster and its aftermath is coming from the small newspapers of Appalachia, not the big papers or TV stations. A year from now, 60 Minutes or another national TV news magazine will do a comprehensive report on the disaster. Rest assured, that report will be based largely on the reporting being done now in small newsrooms committed to serving their local communities.

Journalism is journalism, regardless of how it is disseminated.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Newspaper publishers feeling optimistic

A newspaper broker that acts as an intermediary in the buying and selling of newspapers conducts regular surveys of newspaper publishers to gauge their optimism of the near future.

Based on the early results of the latest survey, things are looking up. Last time I checked (UPDATED 4/11/10), of the 146 respondents:

94 percent said their local economy was either improving or staying about the same.

69 percent expected 2011 profits to be better than those for 2010. Only 4 percent expected them to be worse.

40 percent said their bottom line will be better in the future than it was before the downtown, while 36 percent said it would be worse (count me in that latter category).

71 percent said ad revenues will be up in 2011.

Particularly lately, we've been notoriously and reliably wrong in our predictions, but it's a good sign that most of us are increasingly optimistic.

I'll update the results as they continue to come in.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Do you really believe in free speech?

My remarks at Utah State University as part of the Media and Society Lecture series, Feb. 23, 2005

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

By a raise of hands, how many of you are in favor of free speech?

Now let’s test your tolerance for free speech. Consider these two statements:

Ward Churchill, University of Colorado professor:
“True enough (those in the World Trade Center) were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire – the ‘mighty engine of profit’ to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved – and they did so both willingly and knowingly. Recourse to ‘ignorance’ – a derivative, after all, of the word ‘ignore’ – counts as less than an excuse among this relatively well-educated elite. To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in – and in many cases excelling at – it was because of their absolute refusal to see. More likely, it was because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it.”
Michael Savage, radio talk show host:
“When you hear ‘human rights,’ think gays. ... [T]hink only one thing: someone who wants to rape your son. When you hear ‘human rights,’ think only someone who wants to molest your son, and send you to jail if you defend him. Write that down, make a note of it.”
Are you outraged? I hope so. Do you believe that these statements deserve the protection of the First Amendment?

The scary truth is that Americans don’t know what to think about free speech. A recent survey by the First Amendment Center found:
• 30% of Americans agreed with the statement that the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.
• 42% of Americans said the press has too much freedom.
• 77% said it is important that the news media act as a watchdog on government.
• 44% disagreed with the statement that people should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to religious groups.
• 63% disagreed with the statement that people should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to racial groups.
• 45% said the U.S. Constitution should be amended to prohibit burning or desecrating the American flag.
• 56% said newspapers should be allowed to freely criticize the U.S. military about its strategy and performance.
• 51% agreed that, as part of its war on terrorism, the government should be allowed to monitor certain religious groups even if that means infringing upon the religious freedom of those groups’ members.
In another survey of high school students by the Knight Foundation, more than a third said the First Amendment’s guarantees went too far. Only half said newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories. Three in four said flag burning is illegal (which it is not). About half said the government can restrict any indecent material on the Internet. (It cannot.) About one in five students said people should not be allowed to express unpopular views.

That, folks, is very, very frightening.

Supporting the First Amendment, and specifically its guarantees of freedom of speech and the press, is easy when we agree with the speech in question. The real test is when we disagree with or fear what’s being expressed.

One of the most difficult issues confronting any community newspaper is reconciling its role as a protector and implementer of the First Amendment with its desire to facilitate a civil and respectful community discourse. What to one person may be a simple and frank exchange of ideas is offensive and outrageous to another. How far should a newspaper go in policing this exchange?

Here’s one view from someone whose name should be familiar to you:
“The First Amendment generally, and freedom of expression in particular, are not absolute concepts, and that is why they are at once so difficult to administer and so essential to a free society and an educated citizenry. Community interests and civility have always to be weighed in the balance.” (Kermit Hall, former president of Utah State University)
This is a compelling argument. Unfortunately, too often demands for civility mask a more troubling intent – to curtail speech with which we disagree. In other instances, the intent is good but the issue gives rise to many difficult questions. Who decides what’s offensive? Even if speech is nearly universally considered offensive, should it really be against the law? Which is a higher value, free expression or enforced civility? What exactly are we afraid of?

The mere existence of the Orwellian term “free speech zone” – demarcated plots for “free speech” in areas near where President Bush gives public speeches – should give us great pause. As 65-year-old retired steelworker Bill Neel commented after being arrested for speaking his mind outside one of the “free speech zones”: “I thought the entire country was a free speech zone.” By definition, what exists outside a free speech zone? It’s not just the Republicans, of course. The Democrats set up similar zones during their national convention in Boston.

But we fear that the speech may get out of hand, right? The trouble is, we shouldn’t censor speech out of a fear of what it might lead to. If protestors go beyond the First Amendment’s guarantee “peaceably to assemble,” arrest them, and good riddance. Until they reach that point, leave them alone.

Speech codes are all the rage on college campuses today – an ill-advised attempt to impose political correctness at the very venues where the First Amendment should be revered and upheld most generously. Consider these examples, taken from the web site for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, all of which I have personally confirmed. I should note that some of these have actually been enacted while others are just proposed:
• Brown University wants to ban "verbal behavior" that produces "feelings of impotence, anger, or disenfranchisement," whether "intentional or unintentional." What is “verbal behavior?” It’s either verbal, or it’s behavior. And if I say to someone, “you’re such a wuss,” have I produced “feelings of impotence” in that person making me subject to some kind of censure, or worse?

• The University of Connecticut requires that “all members must accept responsibility for creating an environment that promotes individual growth and builds community through the safe, respectful exchange of diverse thought, opinion, and feeling.” Guess what: A real exchange of diverse thought, opinion and feeling can never be safe. It’s risky, personal, difficult, messy stuff.

• Syracuse University’s handbook states that “Students have the right to express themselves freely on any subject provided they do so in a manner that does not violate the Code of Student Conduct.”
I’d suggest that any free speech policy that includes the words “provided” or “so long as” is more likely a censorship policy. It further prohibits “harassment, whether physical or verbal, oral or written, which is beyond the bounds of protected free speech, directed at a specific individual(s), easily construed as ‘fighting words,’ and likely to cause an immediate breach of the peace.” By extension, one must assume that if I were to step on campus and shout the words, “the Orangemen suck,” I’d be breaking the student code. I don’t know any more provocative fighting words than those. Basketball games at Syracuse must be deathly quiet. Wouldn’t a cheer encouraging the team to “beat Notre Dame” be considered “fighting words?” More seriously, what if I said, “All overweight white 46-year-old men with facial hair should be imprisoned without delay?” That’s outrageous, inflammatory and just wrong. But it’s also Constitutionally protected speech. If someone actually takes steps to follow through on that suggestion, now we’ve likely got a violation of law.
• At one point West Virginia University enforced "free speech zones" that comprised only one percent of the public campus.

• The University of North Dakota’s student code prohibits “any action, activities, or situations intentionally created to produce unnecessary or undue mental or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harassment, ridicule, excessive fatigue, interference with scholastic or personal lives, or exposure to situations wherein one’s physical or mental well-being may be in danger.” Intended to restrict hazing, this policy appears to me to put serious limits on football practice, too. Another part of the code states: “This section is not violated by actions that amount to expression protected by the state or federal constitutions or by related principles of academic freedom.”
Good luck figuring out what that means.

You may ask how Utah State University fares. The answer is mixed. USU’s student code begins with this contradictory paragraph: “As members of the academic community at Utah State University, students share responsibility for its growth and continued well being and for maintaining an environment which encourages free inquiry and expression.” So far, so good. “Students are expected to engage in reasonable and substantial preparation for their coursework and to follow course and class guidelines as set forth in syllabi and as enunciated by their instructors.” No problem there. Now, however, here comes the politically correct censorship language. “All interactions with faculty members, staff members, and other students shall be conducted with courtesy, civility, decency, and a concern for personal dignity.” Oh, brother. Oops, sorry. I hope I haven’t injured anyone’s personal dignity with that uncivil remark.

There is a more positive clause later in the code, which guarantees “The right, subject to time, place, and manner restrictions, to express personal opinions on campus, to support or oppose causes, to arrange public assemblies, and to hold rallies, demonstrations, and pickets which do not materially and substantially interfere with normal university activities or the rights of others. Institutional control of facilities shall not be used as a censorship device. Any institutional regulation regarding time, place, and manner of expression must be content-neutral, must be narrowly tailored to serve a significant university interest, and must leave open ample alternative channels of communication.” That’s not bad, though still too restrictive in my book. It is interesting that one section of USU’s student code is called “Procedures for Freedom of Expression.” Hmmm. It’s not really freedom of expression if it involves procedures, is it?

Conservatives’ instinct is to legislate their version of morality. Liberals’ tendency is to legislate their type of civility. Either effort does violence to civil liberties. I like what former Chief Justice Warren Burger once wrote on the subject: "A responsible press is an undoubtedly desirable goal, but press responsibility is not mandated by the Constitution and, like many other virtues, it cannot be legislated."

California will find itself confronting this issue after the passage last year of new hate crime legislation that targets certain types of speech. Here’s some of the language of that new law: “Speech alone is not sufficient to support an action brought [under this law] except upon a showing that the speech itself threatens violence against a specific person or group of persons; and the person or group of persons against whom the threat is directed reasonably fears that, because of the speech, violence will be committed against them or their property and that the person threatening violence had the apparent ability to carry out the threat.”

This is a Pandora’s Box. Who gets to decide what constitutes speech that “threatens violence against a specific person or group of persons?” This, in my view, is a classic example of well-intentioned lawmaking gone horribly wrong. For example, if a street preacher proclaims, “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord,” should he be thrown in jail? Perhaps so long as it’s the Lord threatening violence we can get away with it.

I beg your indulgence for a few moments while I review a little Supreme Court history. For starters, it should be noted that laws like the new hate speech law in California have generally been upheld by our Supreme Court. In a case going back to 1942, the court ruled that:
“(I)t is well understood that the right of free speech is not absolute at all times and under all circumstances. There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or ‘fighting’ words – those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.”

It should also be noted, however, that the Court generally has been reluctant to uphold convictions of persons prosecuted under such laws, often finding that the language or administration of the law was too vague. One analysis puts it this way: “(It is) not clear … whether only actual disorder or a clear and present danger of disorder will entitle the authorities to terminate the speech or other expressive conduct. Neither, in the absence of incitement to illegal action, may government punish mere expression or proscribe ideas, regardless of the trifling or annoying caliber of the expression.” In other words, the courts are still trying to figure out what it means to not abridge freedom of speech, but at the very least annoying, obnoxious or objectionable speech is protected.

While I’m certainly no Constitutional scholar, it’s clear to me that the standards established by university speech codes and the new California law go well beyond the threshold set by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who coined the phrase “clear and present danger” to determine when speech should be regulated. The famous analogy he used was falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, which would present a clear and present danger to those in the building. Ironically, Holmes used this phrase in a dissenting opinion, but it eventually came to be accepted by the Supreme Court as the standard test for restricting free speech. The “clear and present danger” test certainly is a far higher standard than California’s threshold that an individual “reasonably fears” that violence will be committed against them as a result of someone’s speech.

Underlying all of this talk of free speech is a relatively simple but sublime concept: The marketplace of ideas. This, too, comes from a famous dissent by Oliver Wendell Holmes, in which he wrote:
“Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power and want a certain result with all your heart you naturally express your wishes in law and sweep away all opposition ... But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas – that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution.”
But, you say, haven’t our political campaigns gotten out of hand?

Take this exchange, for example:

Candidate A: My opponent represents "cut-throats who walk in rags and sleep amidst filth and vermin."

Candidate B: My opponent has two mistresses from Europe and plans to nullify the Constitution and name his son King.

These claims were made by surrogates for John Adams and Thomas Jefferson during the campaign of 1800. And you thought taking the low road was a modern phenomenon. Hardly. The rhetoric used by our Founding Fathers makes the 2004 campaign look like a race for home room president. And it got worse.

Here’s an excerpt from a wonderful column by Tamim Ansary, author of the critically acclaimed memoir West of Kabul, East of New York and 38 nonfiction books for children.
In 1820, “Andrew Jackson was running against the incumbent president, John Quincy Adams. Jackson's people nicknamed Adams ‘The Pimp’ because he introduced the czar of Russia to a young woman, with whom the czar later had an affair. They also charged that Adams had installed ‘gambling furniture’ in the White House (he had bought a pool table).”

“From the president's followers came this mature rejoinder: ‘General Jackson's mother was a COMMON PROSTITUTE brought to this country by British soldiers! She afterward married a MULATTO MAN, with whom she had several children, one of whom was Andrew Jackson!

“Moving along now to Abraham Lincoln, arguably our greatest president. His opponents made a campaign issue of his looks. To be blunt, they called him ugly. Remember the nickname Honest Abe? Democratic newspapers called him ‘Honest Ape’ and ran cartoons depicting the great man as a monkey! Racist innuendo? You bet--and unblushingly so! Lincoln's opponents calculated that more than a few people at the time regarded racism as respectable.

“The election of 1876 (if you believed the dueling campaign literature) came down to a choice between an alcoholic, syphilitic con artist (Samuel Tilden) and a man so venal he robbed corpses on the battlefield during the Civil War and once shot a gun at his own mother (Rutherford B. Hayes).

“In short, American politics was never an elegant debating club guided by the values of Miss Manners.”
Truly unfettered speech may be untidy, but we have no business regulating it unduly. We should demand civil discourse by supporting reasonable cultural standards, not by passing laws against bad language. Our well-meaning attempts to enforce civil and proper debate put in jeopardy a higher value – unrestricted expression. As our Founding Fathers expressly stated: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Could they have been any clearer?

But in this post-9/11 era, isn’t it worth giving up some freedom in exchange for safety? Here’s what Benjamin Franklin had to say on the subject: “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.” I couldn’t agree more.

Of course, the really dicey issues involve obscenity, pornography and violence. What is acceptable? The most famous view is that of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who wrote in a concurring opinion: “
It is possible to read the Court's opinion in Roth v. United States and Alberts v. California, 354 U.S. 476, in a variety of ways. In saying this, I imply no criticism of the Court, which in those cases was faced with the task of trying to define what may be indefinable. I have reached the conclusion, which I think is confirmed at least by negative implication in the Court's decisions since Roth and Alberts, that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments criminal laws in this area are constitutionally limited to hard-core pornography. I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”
The “I know it when I see it” definition of obscenity is a dangerous one for what I think are obvious reasons. This definition depends on the cultural, religious, and intellectual prisms through which the viewer experiences the speech in question. For example, some years after the Potter opinion, a Utah Supreme Court Justice wrote the following in an opinion about a pornographic movie:
“A more sickening, disgusting, depraved showing cannot be imagined. However, certain justices of the Supreme Court of the United States have said that before a matter can be held to be obscene, it must be ‘... when taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.’

“Some state judges, acting the part of sycophants, echo that doctrine. It would appear that such an argument ought only to be advanced by depraved, mentally deficient, mind-warped queers. Judges who seek to find technical excuses to permit such pictures to be shown under the pretense of finding some intrinsic value to it are reminiscent of a dog that returns to his vomit in search of some morsel in the filth which may have some redeeming value to his own taste. If those judges have not the good sense and decency to resign from their positions as judges, they should be removed either by impeachment or by the vote of the decent people of their constituency.”
Well, now, there’s a calm, rational point of view!

In general, more speech is better than less. Even when I believe that a letter to the editor or comment in a guest column casts me or my newspaper in an unfair or unflattering light, my instinct and general practice is to print it. I believe that the readers of the Post Register in eastern Idaho, if given information clearly and in context, can arrive at their own conclusions regarding what is said. If the choice is between messy free speech and tidy muzzled speech, I will lean toward the former. I recognize that I draw a less restrictive line than some of our readers would like.

Before I close, please forgive a brief digression into a semi-related issue: confidential sources. Too many newspapers – the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times most recently – attempt to equate the use and protection of confidential sources with the First Amendment. This is nonsense. Guarantees of press freedom are not absolute, and they certainly don’t extend to protecting sources. Some states have shield laws, which protect reporters from prosecution if they don’t want to divulge their confidential sources. Unfortunately, this protection encourages reporters and their sources to play fast and loose with the facts, including the publication of grand jury testimony (in the case of the Chronicle) that wasn’t subject to cross-examination or other scrutiny. The First Amendment does not give us the right to use confidential sources, and it is a dangerous practice that threatens the credibility of journalists. It should be reserved for only the most extraordinary situations.

Finally, I recognize that this is more art than science. No one understood that more than Thomas Jefferson, who in 1823 wrote this to his friend Lafayette: "The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure." This is the same man who, as president, said on several occasions that “the advertisement is the most truthful part of a newspaper.”

Here’s my view: Except in the rarest of instances – those that constitute a “clear and present danger” – the government and its entities, including our public universities (or private universities receiving public funding), must let speech happen. Draw the line when someone acts in a way that deprives others of their safety or freedom. If the speech simply makes others uncomfortable, let it rip. That will sort itself out. Among other things, it’s how we sort out the kooks from the rational people.

I believe in the advice of that famous revolutionary pamphleteer, Thomas Paine, who wrote:
“I have always strenuously supported the right of every man to his own opinion, however different that opinion may be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.”

That messy First Amendment

Originally published in the Post Register in 2004.
I'm with you on the free press. It's the newspapers I can't stand."

- From Tom Stoppard's play "Night and Day"
It's pretty easy to support the lofty ideal of free speech in the abstract.

Putting the principle into practice isn't so simple.

There's no secret manual on free speech. Obviously, newspapers are unabashed First Amendment supporters, but that leaves much unresolved.

What does free speech really mean? Is it no holds barred? What degree of civility should we impose on those who write for us, whether they work for us or not? How strict should our filtering process be?

There are no easy answers.

Some folks would prefer that we sift out any disturbing images, controversial opinions or material that to some is divisive or otherwise unsettling.

Others are comfortable sorting through diverse material on their own.

As recent history reminds us, the Post Register is a frequent target for criticism on its own pages. If we were to insist on a more civil public debate, it's reasonable to assume that we'd start by restricting negative comments about us. Instead, we choose to honor the long history of lively, unrestrained, even occasionally divisive debate. Indeed, we celebrate the process. We acknowledge that it sometimes ruffles some feathers (including ours).

We believe that in such a dynamic environment, people of goodwill are more than capable of making intelligent, informed decisions.

We know that the pages of this newspaper occasionally contain columns, stories, guest commentaries or even letters to the editor with a hard edge or a provocative sense of humor, some written by our employees and many not. Some readers find this disturbing or even offensive. This is not our intent.

Our role on these occasions is to make the newspaper available to widely divergent views. Sometimes the aim of the writer is imprecise, and for those near-misses we apologize.

Perhaps the greatest test is what each of us chooses to do when someone else exercises his or her freedom of speech.

"The right to be heard," said former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, "does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously."

Pointed public debate is hardly a new phenomenon. Perhaps the nastiest presidential campaign in our history was between incumbent John Adams and challenger Thomas Jefferson in 1800, which included language shocking even by today's standards. The country ultimately benefited from the passionate debate that preceded the election, divisive though it may have been.

To their true credit, these two great men never fully reconciled their philosophical differences but mended their friendship, renewing a correspondence that continued until their nearly simultaneous deaths on July 4, 1826.

The lessons? That the unfettered exchange of views has a high purpose. That the passions of the moment can be overcome. That stifling free speech in the name of political correctness or unity is a temptation to be avoided.

Yes, we endorse a reasonable level of civility and restraint. But if the choice is between messy free speech and tidy muzzled speech, give us the former.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Scandals, boycotts, and shooting the messenger

Five years ago the Post Register published a series of articles called "Scouts' Honor" about a pedophile who had abused local Boy Scouts and essentially gotten away with it. The series ran for six days, but the backlash went on for years.

We were vilified by many in the community, called anti-Mormon (one of our stories described how a Mormon bishop had missed opportunities to stop the abuse, and most of the molested boys were members of troops sponsored by the LDS Church). One local man took out a series of full-page ads in our paper criticizing our work, and even hired a local law firm to review our conclusions (naturally, they came to different conclusions than we had). The lead reporter on the series was called out for being gay, the implication being that his sexual orientation in some way influenced how he wrote the series.

Often lost in the debate was this simple fact -- no story of this sort ever sees the light of day in the Post Register without my personal review and approval and, usually, that of legal counsel. I grew up LDS and am proud to hold the Boy Scout rank of Eagle Scout. I once served as a Scoutmaster. Our attorney won't mind my telling you that he's a faithful Mormon and he and his boys participate in Scouting. I was personally involved in the entire process of reporting, writing and editing this series and personally stand by every word to this day.

At no point did anyone we wrote about ask for a correction or retraction. A new law was passed changing the statute of limitation on child sexual abuse. Many people came up to me personally to say the same thing had happened to them, that they'd been afraid to go public, and encouraging us to continue our reporting. Two were public officials.

Through it all, our readership actually increased, advertising was mostly unaffected, and a community was changed, if ever so slightly. For our work, we were given the Scripps Howard National Journalism Award for Protection of the First Amendment, the smallest paper ever so honored.

It's happening all over again in Portland, Oregon, only on a larger scale. Not only is the Portland Oregonian covering a trial involving the alleged molestation of Boy Scouts in that area (the LDS Church has settled a lawsuit related to these allegations, but the Boy Scouts of America is the defendant in a civil trial), it has had the audacity to call on the Catholic Church to "transform itself" in light of the latest allegations of sexual abuse by priests.

It also published a pretty tough political cartoon that clearly got under the skin of church leaders; so much so that the Portland archbishop is calling for a boycott of the Oregonian.

Catholics, Mormons, and all people of good faith and who care about the free flow of information should publicly stand behind the Oregonian and the need for journalism unfettered by the threats from advertisers and political or religious leaders. Even if you think the Oregonian went too far with its cartoon (I don't, but I understand that political cartoons are intended to provoke and challenge by using hyperbole and a sharp edge), a boycott is the worst possible reaction. It makes the church look like it prefers to hide the truth, that it wants to deflect the issue away from the church and to the newspaper. This never works, and it almost always make things worse.

The Oregonian deserves praise, not criticism and certainly not a boycott, for its good work on child sexual abuse. That is the issue here -- the abuse of innocents. Inciting the faithful to stop reading the newspaper is the wrong response.

By the way, as a direct result of our coverage, the man who abused all those children went to prison and is still there. Sometimes the only way to begin the healing is to expose the disease.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

That pinko Post Register

In the 31 years that I’ve been involved in the newspaper business, starting all the way back in 1976 -- the year of my high school graduation -- I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of nasty phone calls, letters and, in the last 20 years or so, e-mails.

When I was a sports writer back in the early 1980s, for example, I’d occasionally get a call from an irate mother whose son I had written about unflatteringly. In fact, I got more nasty calls as a sports writer than I have as a reporter, editor or publisher.

Voice mail allows us to re-listen to particularly interesting calls, and two such voice mail messages stand out. First, there’s this one (please don’t continue reading if you are offended by mildly coarse language):
“Yeah, hi Roger, uh, uh, this is Michael ***. We’ve been longtime subscribers, you know, over 20 years. Anyway, I just had a comment on the new quiz you guys got going. Uh, I think it kinda sucks, you know. Uh, you know, the other one you didn’t have to be a genius to answer the questions, you know. This one makes you feel kinda stupid, and, uh, people don’t like to feel stupid, you know. So, why don’t you go back to the old quiz? It was a lot better. And, you know, it was fun. I had fun doing it in the mornings, you know. This one, I’m going, ‘what in the hell’? You know, and there was a multiple choice, so even if you didn’t know the answer, you know, you could at least guess one, you know. And this other one, it sucks, Roger, it absolutely, totally sucks. All right? That’s my two cents’ worth. And if you want to call me back, that’s fine, the number’s ***-****. But it really does suck, and I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking that. So go back to the old quiz, please. Thank you.”
I love this phone call. Here’s a guy who is not only willing to be painfully and unabashedly honest, but he leaves both his full name and his phone number. This is almost unprecedented in the annals of angry calls to the publisher.

The second sample from just last week is more typical -- the caller declines to give either his name or phone number, and he clearly doesn’t want to engage in a constructive dialogue:
“Hey, I’d like to leave a message there that you could maybe give Mr. Brady. You know he’s never, over all these years, doesn’t have a clue why subscription is way down and everything, you know. I tried a newspaper over the weekend, was reading it and that, and it just reminded me how biased, pinko liberal your newspaper is, um, every single article and story in there, everything, leans towards your liberal tendencies, you know, and people just resent that, especially in this part of the country. If you were in New York, or someplace like that, San Francisco and everything, you’d fit right in perfectly; but you’re not, and I’ll tell you what, a lot of people resent that, and you’re just a bunch of, just a bunch of pinko liberals. I mean, geez, wake up and get your head out of your *****.”
Clearly, this caller is conveying a sentiment that is shared by others in eastern Idaho (though he’s wrong when he assumes readership is down -- it’s up). What I like about this call, though, is that he uses the term “pinko” not once, but twice.

I confess that I’ve heard the term “pinko” used in movies and TV shows, but never in real life that I can recall. In fact, I had to look it up. Here’s the Merriam-Webster definition: “A person who holds advanced liberal or moderately radical political or economic views.”

No surprise there, since “pinko” and “liberal” are usually used in tandem. But every single story in a rather large Sunday edition? I had to check it out. To be fair, there were some wildly liberal-leaning stories -- a piece about President Obama’s “good week” (with the passage of health care reform legislation), a feature on a man who used to work at the Idaho National Laboratory who thinks his exposure to radiation might have caused his cancer, and a short story about the impending cancellation of the TV series “24.”

And then there was this pinko coverage: A story about a new bakery in Salmon, an in-depth investigation into a coin-collecting meeting, and a shocking guest commentary about how to improve downtown Idaho Falls.

So it turns out, my anonymous caller was correct.