Students, Denver and the Fifth Estate

I’m in Denver today with a group of University of Nevada, Las Vegas students who are kind enough to call me their teacher. Fellow-learner is more like it.

Once again, we’re experimenting with the future of journalism — using the latest tools in different ways to help people get news and better connect with information, events and newsmakers.

The students are using Nokia N95 cellphones to stream video live from Denver and the Democratic National Convention straight to the Web. But that’s not all. The video is being broadcast on our Web channel at Kyte.tv that lets anyone with a computer or smart phone chat via text with the students and their video subjects live, in real time.

So if you have a question, you can type it in, and the student journalist can see the question on the phone, and pass it along to the delegate, protester, elected official or whomever. You can even ask them to change the camera angle. It’s transparent, so anyone watching can also see the question and comment on it or type in a follow up.

You can also subscribe to our Twitter feed here, where you’ll get notified every time the video stream goes live>

Historically, the Fourth Estate — the press — has been in charge of deciding what questions to ask. But this week on our channel, the Fifth Estate — the people – will have a voice and access to power.

That means the people in the East Paradise neighborhood next to UNLV — a remarkably diverse and historically underserved area — will have just as much access to their elected officials and delegates as reporters do.

I was 28 when I first got to cover a convention, and it was the utterly scripted 1984 re-coronation of Ronald Reagan in Dallas. I covered the feds — the FBI, DEA, ATF, IRS, Secret Service — and I remember trying to worm some information out of one of the agents about people being arrested. “Robert Ludlum will have it in print before you do,” he glowered.

Having been double-dog-dared, I worked as hard and as fast as I could, and just two days later, Jerry Needham and I had a double-byline story stripped across page one of the Dallas Times Herald about the supposed plot to attack the convention center via hang gliders.

For today’s reporters, news is just a nanosecond away from worldwide broadcast on the Web. And instead of talking to people, we can have a conversation about the news even as it is happening. That’s a great advantage, because as we know, the Fourth Estate commonly asks pretty clueless questions and could use all the help they can get from the Fifth Estate.

I cannot imagine a more fabulous time to be a journalist!

The students and I have many people to thank for this extraordinary opportunity, most importantly, Ardyth Sohn, Director of the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies, who lured me to Vegas, sight unseen, to teach convergence, new media, digital journalism, multiplatform reporting and Web publishing and design, even though I could barely pronounce the word syllabus and had never written one in my life.

And we couldn’t have done this without a generous grant to support civic journalism from LasVegasNow.com, KLAS-TV Channel 8. That provided students with reporters’ backpacks, MacBooks and cameras to explore and document the neighborhood. The money also supported the student-developed Website, East Paradise, and it paid the four students’ way to Denver.

I am tremendously grateful to Nokia, where some good-hearted folks had the technical chops and the vision to imagine what kinds of remarkable things can be done with the powerful N95 cellphones that only recently became available in the U.S. They loaned the students (and their lucky teacher) phones to experiment with this summer for this project.

Over at the San Francisco startup, Kyte, people went way, way far out of their way to help us load beta software and launch a classy-looking channel for the video and chats. You can make my day by embedding our Kyte.tv channel in your Website or blog and spreading the word.

And thank you to my fellow learners, Reid Geary, Ariel Gove, Sandra Herandez and Denitsa Yotova. You truly are the ATeam!

I hope you will watch, participate and tell us what you think.

Sex, texting, secrets and media lapdogs

I’m shocked (shocked, I tell ya!) at the high percentage of prudes and fraidy cat nannies in the Nevada press corps.

It’s Nevada, for crying out loud, home to Reno, divorce capitol of the world in the north, Vegas Sin City in the south, and legal brothels in between. It’s a place where even the taxicabs sport cleavage (trust me, that’s true) and everything including the nose on the faux sphinx has been “enhanced.”

In Vegas, Mayor Oscar Goodman, a former mob lawyer, hires two svelte, semi-clad woman — one for each arm — to pretend to be showgirls and enhance his image.

It’s all about sex and the economy.

Up the road in the capital of Carson City, there’s Gov. Jim Gibbons, 63, a former flyboy and back-bench congressman who’s embroiled in a messy divorce. Come to find out he sent hundreds of late-night text messages to someone else’s wife and then held a news conference to say they were not love notes — the other woman was just advising him on taxation.

So in his case, it’s not sex — the texts were about taxes!

Jimbo could use some advice in that arena, because right now, Nevada is about $1 billion short of a full tax coffer.

But such is Gibbons’ grasp of math (and reality) that he claims he had no idea that it cost extra to send 867 text messages to his alleged paramour from his taxpayer-funded phone.

For this insight into the governor’s character, we must thank Anjeanette Damon of the Reno Gazette Journal, who had the journalistic good sense to ask questions and demand public records. Here’s her story and here’s the timeline of the calls.

The RGJ’s Damon was also the first mainstream journalist to write about the Gibbons’ marital problems, when she reported online Feb. 28 that the governor’s office issued a public statement confirming a general lack of happy home and hearth. (I would link, but the article is no longer available.) That came a day after Las Vegas Gleaner blogger Hugh Jackson first wrote that the governor would be filing for divorce.

But it gets even odder: Gibbons took the unusual mid-term action of filing for divorce, then his spokesperson went on the record to talk about it and now he’s filed to keep everything secret. Does that make anyone else go hmmmm? (He didn’t seal the records the last time he divorced, when she got the kids and the Oldsmobile, and he got the Porche 911.)

Don’t forget this governor was sworn in during a semi-secret midnight meeting at his home with only an AP photographer present. He’s kept his cell phone number a secret from the Chancellor of Higher Education (and refused to return his calls with advice on taxes). And to the best of my knowledge, Gibbons’ reason for wanting to be governor is still a secret.

Gibbons tried to move the message from texting to taxes, calling a special session of the Nevada Legislature to take on the budget crisis. One proposal would have state workers and teachers take a pay cut by eliminating their 4 percent pay raises at a time when consumer prices are up 4.5 percent. (Full disclosure: My teaching position at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas was among those cut by a dean in response to the budget crisis.)

Outside of Nevada, the sheer number of cliches and outlandish details in this story are a non-fiction writer’s dream, as the Times Online in the United Kingdom proved in this piece. The nearby Los Angles Times called the situation a Gossip Jackpot. Even the New York Times, once known as the Gray Lady, couldn’t resist publishing the story under the headline “Nevada’s Texter-in-Chief.

Among the Nevada media, however, there’s a whole lot of mumbling and whispering, not to mention very prudie, wimpie behavior.

For the longest time, reporters were too timid to write something known to every fourth-grader in Northern Nevada who’d taken a class trip to tour the capital: That Dawn Gibbons was living in the governor’s mansion in Carson City and she’d relegated Jimbo to their home in Reno.

The governor’s personal life is a public matter and an important story, and here’s why:

  • He is a public official, whose salary (and cell phone) are paid by the taxpayers who have a right to know what he is doing.
  • Gibbons is under federal investigation for matters outlined here by TalkingPointsMemo. Up until now, his wife, Dawn, has been his defender-in-chief on those issues. If her attitude or her story changes, that could affect the investigation in a very newsworthy way.
  • Gibbons ran for office on a platform of family values. When he is accused by his wife of womanizing in office, after being accused during the campaign of drunkenly groping a woman in a Vegas parking garage, well, let’s just say, it’s a story.

From the start, some bloggers in Nevada seemed intent on protecting Gibbons, even apologizing for the fact that any story was published. Take this from conservative blogger Chuck Muth’s Muth’s Truths in February:

And the fact is many reporters, columnists and responsible bloggers in the mainstream media knew about the rumors of a possible Gibbons divorce at least a WEEK ago. So did I.

But not one of them reported on the rumors until a Gibbons-hating liberal, Las Vegas blogger wrote about it yesterday afternoon. And even then, not one mainstream newspaper that I’m aware of ran with the story this morning, despite the proverbial cat being out of the bag. That’s responsible, professional journalism – and it showed an admirable level of restraint over a story I’m sure all of them were dying to break.

Two more apologies for the story’s publication, this time from mainstream media writers, Las Vegas Sun’s Jon Ralston and Las Vegas CityLife’s Steve Sebelius, were enough to prompt this from the Las Vegas Gleaner:

All hail the magnanimous restraint of a caring media

… Both journalists, in something of a departure from their profession’s custom, seem to wish that a high-ranking official in the governor’s administration would have said “no comment.”

Both also signaled their wholehearted agreement with a Gibbons-loving professional political activist in Reno, who wrote on his website that marital strife in the governor’s mansion would not even be a story if not for the utterances of the Gibbons staffer.

Having formed a triumvirate of hyper-sensitivity, all three writers took time out from burying [Gibbons Chief Operating Officer Diane] Cornwall in opprobrium to heap varying degrees of praise on the media and themselves for showing such magnanimous responsible restraint in these difficult times.

After all, the governor’s marriage has nothing to do with how the state is governed. Well, except for the strain divorce could have on the governor’s ability (such as it is) to do his job. And the impact it could have on his political effectiveness and prospects for reelection or even his capacity to last through the remainder of his term. And how divorce proceedings might intersect with various allegations of wrongdoing lodged against both Gibbonses.

On Feb. 29, I was on Ralston’s Face to Face television show and on KNPR’s State of Nevada with host Dave Berns, emphatically saying the governor’s marital woes warrant journalistic exploration. Simply put: It’s a story!

But even as the national and international media — and the Reno Gazette Journal and KNPR’s Dave Berns — try to set an example for how to cover a story, the locals keep floundering.

In early June, KLAS-TV’s investigative reporter, George Knapp, contributed to the ongoing static by pulling another embarrassing “Don’t-ask-don’t-tell” moment in his Knappster blog in Las Vegas CityLife:

I’m all but certain that the governor has accumulated dirt of his own and could obliterate his wife’s reputation if he chose to do so. (In fact, the nature of this damaging information is already circulating in political circles. We’re talking about some salacious stuff.)

The job of a journalist is to UN-secret things, not to keep secrets!

Then on Friday the 13th, I got a call from a reporter at the Las Vegas Review Journal asking if I, in my role as professor and journalist, could please explain to him why the story about the governor’s divorce is getting traction all the way to the United Kingdom.

Dudes, stop apologizing, stop tiptoeing, and go ask some smart questions!

For instance, why in the world hasn’t a Nevada news organization challenged the divorce secrecy? What could Gibbons possibly want to hide from the people who elected (and pay) him? What made the alleged paramour’s texted tax advice better than the Chancellor of Higher Education’s? Is Gibbons going to take a pay cut, pay raise, or get paid for not showing up as he did when he was in Congress?

Reporters are being laid off in newsrooms across the country, and what is the Nevada press corps doing? Trying to ensure a second career on the governor’s protective detail?

There’s a story here and you are required as a journalist to be curious, ask questions and write stories that put things into context.

Go do your jobs.

And that means you, too, bloggers!

Correction: As originally published, this article erroneously characterized CityLife as a mainstream media publication. Its owner, Stephens Media, characterizes it as a weekly newspaper. We regret the error.