The Capitol Press Corps: There's Life in Old Mediums

February 1st, 2012 · No Comments · Uncategorized

By Arthur Alpert

Fogey. Fossil. Geezer.

We have lots of words for older folks who seem to live in the past. This past week I joined that club.

First, I was time-machined back some 50 years to the New York City newspaper scene by the powerful opening chapter of Pete Hamill’s 2011 novel, “Tabloid City”.

I was there and that’s how it was.

Next, because I spent a day at the Round House last week, my mind’s eye flashed on pictures and sound from 1983-4, when I lived and worked in Santa Fe.

I remembered colleagues, all of them gone now, with whom I shared coffee, food and talk – Ernie Mills, Fred McCaffrey and my dear friend, Bob Barth.

And I recalled my shock at the togetherness of legislators, lobbyists and hangers-on, their intimacy facilitated by alcohol at the Bull Ring, then steps away on Old Santa Fe Trail.

If our Big Apple sin was cynicism, in Santa Fe, it was clannishness. (Or deficiency of doubt). Reporters collaborated with the politicos, rarely challenged them, did little digging. So what they brewed for their readers and radio listeners was frothy, lacking body.

(The 1980 State Prison riot, to use a horrific example, was a surprise because nobody had reported the scandalous mismanagement.)

But that was 25 years ago. The picture probably is quite different in the City Different. Statewide, too.

Political power is more dispersed in this generation. Also, we have the Internet. Web sites monitor the Capitol as well as local politics, among them Heath Haussamen’s outstanding NMPolitics.net.

And, as I realized while exchanging pleasantries last week with some old hands in the Capitol press corps and meeting some new people, there’s life in the old news mediums, too.

The Santa Fe New Mexican, in particular, is well positioned to do a bang-up job with two exceptional reporters, Trip Jennings and Steve Terrell.

Also, I bumped into veterans working for small newspapers; e.g., Sherry Robinson for the Gallup Independent and Milan Simonich representing a half-dozen downstate papers. The Associated Press, too. The presence of ageless Stuart Dyson of KOB-TV was a reminder that TV pays attention. So does public radio.

Obviously, the more eyes the better, but the quality of coverage also matters, which brings us, finally, to a major player and our subject – the Albuquerque Journal.

The topic isn’t simple, but let’s begin on a positive note – the apparent metamorphosis of longtime political editor/reporter John Robertson.

For some time now, the Journal has given reporters room to humanize and interpret via the UpFront opinion columns and, inside, the reporter’s “Notebooks”. It’s my impression, though, that Mr. Robertson kept working in the old “just the facts” tradition.

In his January 21 (A4) piece, however, he reversed field, telling us what he’s thinking and why. Consider this:

“Are there any real conservatives in the Legislature in an election year? Or in the governor’s office?”

“Anyway, it’s sure looking to me like the most conservative thing to do with the $250 million in “new” money the Legislature and Governor Susana Martinez are banking on for the next budget year might be to just sit on it. At least most of it. At least for now.”

What followed was a thoughtful discussion, animated by Robertson’s conservatism, of the state’s financial situation and options. It culminated with this personal statement:

“After the past several years, I’m just plain spooked. And more conservative.”

You don’t have to agree with Robertson to applaud. It’s useful to state a mindset and use it to illuminate your subject. That way, readers can evaluate not just the evidence but how the author puts it in context.

To echo Oliver Twist, “ Please sir, I want some more.”

So Robertson is on the right track. And Journal staff reporters are at least competent and sometimes excellent. Still, top Journal editors determine the legislative coverage and that’s where I become less sanguine.

I distrust their decisions on which stories to cover and which to ignore, where to place and how to play them and their headlining.

Later this week I will offer a case study here that, sadly, justifies my skepticism.

If I can evade those time machines, that is.

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