Fair pay and fair play

Fair PayToday is fair pay day. Here’s my part:

I got into the journalism racket back in 1975, when the newbies were relegated to the manual typewriters and when it was considered too demeaning for a male reporter to be assigned to the “Womens” section of the newspaper.

Although I’d completed one meager semester of journalism in college, my gender was enough to qualify me to fill in for the Womens Editor at the Vineland Times Journal. I learned on the job how to describe the design, fabric and lace on the wedding dresses of the prominent daughters in town. I selected recipes, and crossed my fingers that the kind people in the back shop would save me from my non-existent headline and layout skills.

I couldn’t change it, but I never forgot.

When the women’s editor returned from leave, the paper assigned me to fill in for one of the two staff photographers who was out for surgery for a month. My qualifications? I owned my own Cannon FTB and a lens or two, and I could develop film and make black and white prints (thank you Dad!).

I was pretty proud to be in the elite crew until I walked into the darkroom and saw the pinup calenders with half nekkid women on every vertical surface of the room. No, I was told, I could not take them down during my month in that job. That just wouldn’t be respectful of the men photographers, now would it?

I couldn’t change it, but I never forgot.

Fast forward about ten years to the Dallas Times Herald newsroom, where my editor, Ernie Makovy,  was giving me my annual review. Makovy was a friend and teacher every day, so there wasn’t much for him to add. He told me to stop splitting infinitives, and said I wasn’t doing bad otherwise.

Well, OK, I’d been on a team of reporters who were named finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service Journalism, so I guess I wasn’t screwing up too bad.

Makovy reached in his pocket and pulled out a little folded piece of paper. He opened it, looked down at the scribbled number on it and said, “You’re getting a raise to $35,000 a year.”

Holy cow! That was more than $5,000 a year more than I was making at the time. But it wasn’t for prize-winning journalism.

“That’s to bring you to parity with the guys,” Ernie said, still looking down at the paper. Seems there had been a class action lawsuit, and the paper had either lost or settled, I still don’t know.

I couldn’t change it, but I never forgot.

Fast forward to 2004, when I was hired to be Content Director of MySanAntonio.com. I looked at the roster of people working for me. I looked at their qualifications. Their experience. Their gender. And their pay.

The gender gap glared up at me from the page.

I hadn’t forgotten. And finally, I could change it.

So I did.

Raising hell and having fun

So keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it.

Lord, let your laughter ring forth.

Molly Ivins

I am one lucky journo.

So many times in the past 30 years I paused, looked up to the heavens, and thanked the stars that someone was actually paying me to do this fabulous journalism thing.

But as my friend Amy Gahran lamented today in her E-Media Tidbits column, that spirit is long gone from newspaper newsrooms today.

As I know from up-close and personal experience, many newsrooms have been poisoned by a hateful blend of slash, blame and holier-than-thou attitude.

May they all be encased in amber. Soon.

As my friend Molly Ivins once wrote, “I don’t so much mind that newspapers are dying – it’s watching them commit suicide that pisses me off.”

That’s not the culture that lured me into this business, but it is what drove me away.

Once again, though, I got lucky.

My students at UNLV are wonderfully enthusiastic about committing solid, ethical, world-changing and interesting journalism.

They are curious sponges, soaking up every “how-to” and “why” as fast as I can dish it out. They’re excited about experimenting with cell phones and useful tools with wacky names like Twitter and Netvibes and Utterz and Drupal. (Lookout guys, Ning‘s next!)

In this faux town, they chose grounded and interesting beats, including poverty, health and nutrition, women’s health, feminism, the diverse neighborhood near the university, celebrity philanthropy, animals, parking, podcasting, social networking, UNLV basketball, Rebel sports, street racing in Vegas, (update) a local’s guide to Vegas entertainment, a critical look at cosmetic surgery, the NFL Draft and the environment.

They understand that there may be no “man” to go work for, and that they are responsible for establishing their credibility, their brand.

Their stories are relevant, engaging, full of facts, context and staying power.

They are the future.

And ya’ know what, Molly?

We’re having fun!

One of my friends named Kim


What’s Happening Cover

Originally uploaded by Something To See
Thanks to Facebook and LinkedIn, I’ve been stumbling across a bunch of not-so-old friends, people I haven’t seen in many, many moons.

Many of them have gone on to do wonderful things while I was in another time zone, doing something else.

That’s the case with my friend Kim Carney, who I worked with at the late, great, Dallas Times Herald way back in the 1980s.
Kim’s an illustrator, photographer and designer up there in that Redmond, Washington place, working with MSNBC.

She has a lovely blog here, which has great links to a lot of neato stuff, including this illustration that just reached out and said “blog me.”
And so I did.

Telling the truth, not just the facts

Note: I was asked to be on Nevada Public Radio’s KNPR State of Nevada program on Oct. 2 with host Dave Berns and Marvin Kitman discuss Kitman’s piece in The Nation Magazine proposing that CBS Evening News hire Keith Olbermann, the opinionated host of Countdown on MSNBC. Here’s a link to the audio from the show. which also included a lively discussion of whether the notion of “objectivity” in journalism is still valid. Below is what I wrote about in advance of the conversation:

In a corner of my jewelry box, tucked inside a fold of pink velvet fabric, lies a small, gold-colored pin in the shape of a motorcycle.

Motorcycle pin

Someone on Texas Governor Ann Richards’ staff handed me that pin during a particularly broiling day on the campaign trail in the summer of 1994.

I was a business reporter for the Dallas Morning News and had flown that morning to the Texas border town of McAllen to watch her speak and to wait in the wings until I could interview her on the flight back to Austin.

It was well past dark, but her trademark bouffant was still impeccable when she finally climbed into the small plane, slid wearily into a bench seat, and then used her toes to push her shoes off under the table between us.

Looking back, it’s clear that was a pivotal moment in history. Richards’ race for re-election against challenger George W. Bush marked the first statewide election since the 1991 demise of the Dallas Times Herald, where many of us worked in the 1980s. Over on the Gulf Coast, the once powerful Houston Post was taking its final gasps on life support, thanks to the blood-sucking ways of Billie Dean Singleton. In the spring of 1995, Hearst Corp. would buy the Post’s corpse and eliminate any competition for the legendarily lethargic Houston Chronicle. In South Texas, Hearst had already bought the San Antonio Express-News from Rupert Murdoch in 1992 and then extinguished its own paper across the street, the Light.

It was the end of the great Texas newspaper wars, a 20-year run that began when Los Angeles-based Times Mirror bought the Times Herald and lit a fire under the newsroom, releasing an energy that produced some dazzlingly superb journalism there, across the street and across the state. Snuffing that spirit marked the beginning of the overthinking, overcautious, underdelivering, arrogantly boring era of newspapers. The survivors embarked on a death march to become the least offensive to the powers-that-be and the most irrelevant to their readers.

The motorcycle pin, a trinket for Richards’ donors, was a souvenir of the irreverence and the spunk that had pervaded Texas journalism. It was a nod to the July 1992 Texas Monthly magazine cover that depicted Richards in a fringed white leather outfit, astride a Harley-Davidson Motorcycle, framed by the headline, “White Hot Mama.”

She’d gotten a motorcycle license for her 60th birthday (here’s a picture) and the Monthly immortalized (and romanticized ) the moment.

Richards was tougher than leather. She could wield words like a stiletto, and never lose her smile. “Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth,” she famously said of George W.’s father during her keynote speech at the 1988 Democratic Convention.

But that night on the plane, she was the opposite of a sound bite. Asked about “bidness,” as some called it in Texas, she talked about education. She couldn’t say enough about the importance of investing in children’s education today to ensure the economy’s health tomorrow. The former schoolteacher didn’t lecture, she just talked.

I remember being struck by how much “there” there was beneath the silver hair. While the engines droned on through the dark Texas sky, Richards the philosopher spoke clearly, thoughtfully, and in long, articulate sentences that showed her deep appreciation for the complexity of people, the economy, the state of Texas and life.

That didn’t interest my editors in the least.

My first draft, which quoted her extensively, was, in their view, not properly critical. To rectify that, the story went through the food processor of a committee-edit. What emerged included one paraphrase of one sentence from Richards, lots of remarks from her “critics” and a statement in her defense from an aide. The editors were then satisfied that the story was suitably fair and balanced.

The story that was published did many things, but it didn’t tell the truth.

Ann Richards lost the election. She was replaced in the governor’s mansion by a swaggering young man who pretends to this day to be a Texan.

In March of 1995, the New York Times Magazine published a lengthy question and answer article on some newly private citizens, including Richards with New York’s Mario Coumo and Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut.

My husband read that piece at the time and pointed it out to me as something worth reading.

“I had no idea she was so philosophical,” he said. I winced, wishing for a do-over.

In the years since then, the little motorcycle pin hasn’t tarnished.

But newspapers have continued to shed their luster and their verve, going out of their way to avoid the kind of smart, fearless journalism practiced almost to her dying day by my onetime colleague, Times Herald alum and loyal friend of Ann Richards, Molly Ivins.

Without the truth serum of competition, the ideal at newspapers seems to be toothlessness and truthlessness.

Stories are recitations of “he-said, she-said,” while a sanctimonious cloak of objectivity is supposed to somehow justify the lack of context, perspective or real meaning. Any article that dares suggest straightforwardly that the president is lying is tucked into an inside page.

If the truth gets out, perhaps that is because the reporter slipped the essence of the story in the graphic next to the article to “sneak” it into the paper, as a friend of mine once did at the Dallas Morning News.

Instead of flailing against the Internet, television, talk radio, bloggers or the external demon du jour, perhaps newspaper editors should give up the shallow facade of objectivity and reinject some old fashioned truth-seeking and truth-telling. (Here at PolitiFact, for instance, they’re even brave enough to call things true or false!)

Because thanks to the moveable type of publishing technology, the competition’s back in town. And they will win readers away with the simple siren song of truth.

Free speech in peril in Paris, Texas

A ruling today by a judge in Paris, Texas looks to me like it could have serious ramifications for the First Amendment rights of bloggers and whistleblowers.

I first read about the case of The-Paris-site in this article by R. G. Ratcliffe (thanks for the onpass, Willie!):

AUSTIN — Paris, Texas, population 26,490, has become an unlikely Internet frontier with the filing of a defamation lawsuit by the local hospital against a critical anonymous blogger.

The lawsuit is testing the bounds of Internet privacy, First Amendment freedom of speech and whistle-blower rights.

(read more)

The next chapter is posted today on The-Paris-site, prefaced by a lovely quote from the courtroom scene in Arlo Guthrie’s song, Alice’s Restaurant, which seems absurdly appropriate.

I’d love to read some reaction to this from some of my favorite lawyers, including the folks who hang out in the First Amendment corner. While I’ve exercised that amendment as much as possible in my career, I certainly don’t have my ticket to practice.

Somebody tell me: Is this as troubling as it looks?

I was “Rove’d,” but he didn’t leave prints

Jay Rosen has some provocative things to say today about how well Karl Rove played the press corps and how, in his opinion, members of the media aren’t writing everything they know about Rove’s wily ways.

I really, really respect Jay, but I think he’s gone coastal on us here — East Coastal. News flash: There is a media outside of D.C. and New York, and we sometimes do work that’s above average.

My former colleague at the Dallas Morning News, Wayne Slater, co-authored a dandy little book about Rove called “Bush’s Brain.” The book is loaded with detailed stories of how Rove worked the media, and how members of the Texas media wrote about what Rove did and how he used them or tried to use them against his political opponents.

The book quotes an article Slater wrote for the News in 1999, in which he named Rove as the newspaper’s source of damaging information about a former Texas State Railroad Commissioner. When that news was published in 1992, it ended the woman’s political career.

And take this paragraph from “Bush’s Brain,” in the chapter Battles and Wars:

As Slater and other journalists traveling on the Bush Campaign knew, using operatives to attack opponents, leaking harmful information, or turning rumors into weapons, as was being done against McCain, was not a new tactic for Karl Rove. If traveling reporters did not know how Rove had used those tactics in the past, they did now. In campaigns at the state level, he had also used surrogates to blast opponents with leaks, whisper campaigns, and rumors while his clients remained above the fray. A Rove candidate was always able to honestly argue that he was running a clean, issues-oriented campaign because Rove stirred up the dirt without involving his client. He made phone calls to reporters, supplied documents, and produced third-party groups with damaging allegations. This approach, already a template for the modern electoral campaign, was refined by Rove with a deadly new precision.

There are many instances in the book where Slater names names and quotes reporters talking about specific things Rove did. Slater also quotes Rove in a sizzlingly threatening conversation over an article that Slater wrote about him in the News in 1999.

I’m not among the reporters quoted in the book, because when I was “Rove’d” he left no fingerprints, only whispers. It was 1994, and I had just finished interviewing Texas gubernatorial candidate George W. Bush for an article about his business background. Among other things, I asked Bush if he was aware that Harken Energy, where he was a director, was about to report a lousy quarter when he sold his stake in the company. When Bush sold 212,140 shares in June 1990, Harken stock was $4 a share. Weeks later, when the company announced staggering losses for the second quarter, the stock tumbled to $2.38 on the news.

Bush had maintained that even though he was on the Harken board’s audit committee, he wasn’t privvy to the company’s financial woes, and therefore hadn’t purposely sold ahead of the bad news. But fellow board member Stuart Watson had told me in an earlier interview that he and Bush had insisted on being kept abreast of all gory details of the struggling company.

“You bet we were. We were both trying to keep that company on the straight and narrow,” Watson had told me.

Watson subsequently told me he got a phone call from someone in the Bush campaign and at the urging of the caller, he telephoned my editors at the Dallas Morning News to say he hadn’t said what I quoted him saying.

Fortunately, the tape recorder I had put in plain view on the coffee table in the Watson’s living room when I interviewed him was working just fine. I had Watson’s words preserved, and quoted him accurately in the article I wrote.

Can I say for sure that it was a Rove “disinformation” trick? No. And that’s my alibi for not writing about it at the time.

But some folks in the Texas media did write about Rove’s bullying and disinformation tactics with reporters, both in news articles at the time and later in books. It irritates me no end that people in other time zones weren’t paying attention.

And that brings to mind another one of Molly Ivins’ fabulous lines:

“The next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States,” she wrote, “please, pay attention.”