What Was He Thinking? A Cautionary Tale

December 15th, 2011 · No Comments · Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

I’ve never met Phil Parker, but I’ve read his stories in the Albuquerque Journal, most of which have appeared in the North edition because he’s based in Santa Fe. If, back in June, you read the Journal’s front-page coverage of the fires near Los Alamos, you’ve read Phil Parker.

From what I’ve seen of his work, he seems a pretty solid reporter, able to write straight news but also capable of color and vividness when needed to transport the reader to the scene, as was appropriate with his coverage of this summer’s devastating fires.

On Nov. 22, the Journal fired him. We know this because he let everyone know in a Dec. 1 blog post entitled, “Fired by the Journal.”

Firing is pretty rare at the state’s leading newspaper.

According to his blog post, Parker lost his job because of a letter he sent to the press aides of three U.S. congressmen who represent New Mexico’s northern constituency. The text of the offending letter is included in the post, so readers may judge for themselves whether the missive constitutes a firing offense.

From a journalist’s standpoint, here’s my take: Parker’s challenge to these aides was a legitimate idea; in fact, done right, with backing information, it could have been an interesting “Open Letter to Congressional Aides” column. But it was executed all wrong.

The part that could have worked was his request for aides to share with readers a beyond-the-press-release, West Wing-like narrative of what’s really going on in Washington, including, but not limited to addressing this question, as posed by Parker:

So what was your guy up to yesterday or today to make things better for the middle-class in New Mexico?

But any legitimacy was blasted away by the tone of the request, or in this case, Parker’s near-demand. It’s OK to present a congressional aide with a “challenge”, but not wise to insult them and then expect them to turn in an assignment. He even might have gotten away with calling the press aides “flacks” (which he did) had the rest of the proposal been presented with some finesse. But there was none. And he wasn’t asking for a sit-down interview, from which he could write a column; he was putting the writing effort on the aides, too:

This really is going to be an article, or at least a column, but feel free to take a few days to respond. And I don’t want to talk about it face to face, or over the phone. Only by e-mail. En guarde.

His blog post doesn’t mention this, but Parker’s request to the aides also would be problematic for the Journal if it was done independently, without consulting an editor. Reporters are free to engage in enterprise reporting, follow leads and ocassionally ponder topics (in the column or UpFront format). But usually, the reporter lets his editor know, especially if the topic involves someone else’s beat. In this case, there would have been at least some cursory mention of the project to the Journal’s Washington reporter, Michael Coleman, had Parker followed protocol. And maybe Parker did follow protocol.

Like I said before, his project idea had merit.

Weekly Alibi Managing Editor Marisa Demarco agrees, according to the comment she made on Parker’s blog post. Demarco noted that people are hungry for information about what’s really going on in Washington, and that Parker was tapping into this. She added:

Political news releases are often dull, self-serving, a quarter of the story and not really newsworthy. Though it’s clear that there’s real news happening in there somewhere. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that PIOs (public information officers) get better at telling the truth, and reporters get better at telling the story. We would all do well to turn off the cruise control.

But even if Parker’s project had editor approval – and even if Parker was trying to get this story for a less conservative publication, such as the Alibi – his letter to the aides was problematic, to the point of potantially sabotaging the project by endangering the prospect of cooperation by the aides.

People are hungry for information on what is really happening in Washington , and some of the best reporting of our times on that subject (and on Wall Street and the world) is being done by writers like Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone. Taibbi’s stories are informative, entertaining and enraging, and they are not the kinds of articles you can clip out and send to grandma. They have an edge; they cross the line; they’re ripe with profanity. One RS letter writer even complained about the profanity in Taibbi’s stories as an obstacle, because there’s so much in those stories a reader wishes s/he could forward and put to use to initiate a dialog with fellow citizens and family members who hold completely different views – dialog we desperately need  in these times that threaten national unity.

I bring up Rolling Stone because Parker’s letter to the press aides referred to a recent RS piece on President Obama’s handling of Libyan rebels (an article not by Taibbi, but by Michael Hastings), which leads me to surmise that Parker was all hopped up and ready to go with his own make-a-splash writing project after reading Rolling Stone.

His writing platform was the Albuquerque Journal, but he apparently was in RS mode.

Once again, this kind of passion can be appropriately channeled for the medium at hand, which in this case, was the Journal. But more important than remembering who you work for (and it goes without saying that writing for the Albuquerque Journal is planets away from the freedom of expression encouraged at Rolling Stone), you must remember who you’re writing for – the readers – and make your point without coming off as flippant or overly critical, and without resorting to profanity.

Herein lies the problem with Parker’s letter. It’s framed as if it was written for readers of say, Rolling Stone, but his readers, in this case, were aides to Sens. Tom Udall and Jeff Bingaman, and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan. It’s easy to see how Parker’s letter would be a turn-off to the recipient, not to mention a line crossed for editors at the Journal. From his letter:

Don’t ignore this email. This is a challenge. A duel. You’re a congressional flack and I’m a newspaper reporter, so let’s dance. Give me some good, interesting news that out-awesomes the depressing crap we get coming out of D.C. on a daily basis. We have been slovenly in our professions, we flacks and reporters. Society is suffering for it.

Congress’s approval rating is nine percent. As a congressional spokesperson, that’s on you too.

It’s hard to remain an objective reporter in volatile times. In essence, one has to suppress the exercise of one’s rights as a citizen to preserve that semblance of objectivity. And it’s a challenge as a writer to write objectively and stand out amid the cacophony of voices out there, as the so-called news media becomes saturated with opinion, “beliefs” and observations from bloggers, “citizen journalists” and highly paid faux news celebrities who often show no such restraint.

But that is what reporters have to do to remain respected reporters. One can be persuasive while employing finesse and restraint. And one can be provocative without losing credibility and objectivity. But when you cross over, you have crossed over, and it’s almost impossible to go back.

Parker crossed the line by injecting too much of himself and his passion into his request – and he did it as a representative of the Albuquerque Journal.  It’s a shame all around.

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  • Jim Baca

    If he erred by injecting to much of himself into the letter then shouldn’t the editor of the Journal just resign too for his bias on fossil fuels and everything else? Just another double standard.

  • Phil

    I’m a Taibbi junkie, so this was really cool to read.

    I know I erred, and I know how. I get ideas in my head and fire them off half-cocked when I mistakenly think I’m being super clever. I apologized and begged to be allowed to simply get back to work, but the brass wanted me gone. No benefit of the doubt.

    I screwed up, but after three-and-a-half very productive years in a really difficult job that pays less than peanuts I didn’t think I deserved the death penalty. Reporters going rogue sometimes in pursuit of an idea shouldn’t terrify editors. I deserved to get yelled at, maybe, or written up or suspended or something. Not fired. I need my health insurance during ski season. I have bills and rent to pay.

    For all the offending I did, I’m the only one who was hurt in any way by this. I doubt the Congressmen ever saw my letter, or even know about it.

    Any anyway, it’s insane their approval rating is nine percent. It’s absolutely insane. Founding Fathers would be furious. I just wanted to write something interesting about that. The smarmy tone was an attempt to engage a lively conversation.

    It was a stupid idea, but they didn’t need to fire me. They chose to. Wanted to. Oh well.

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