The Journal Is Not What Mr. Dooley Had in Mind

May 18th, 2015 · journalism

By Arthur Alpert

I’ve always known some journalists believed the purpose of a newspaper was “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” but not until a few days ago did I learn the source of the quote.

Finley Peter Dunne, the 1890s-era humorist, wrote it in the voice of Martin Dooley, his famous bartender/political commentator, as Dooley’s granddaughter told the NY Times Book Review May 10.

Mind you, few publishers agreed. In the early 1900s most newspapers reflected their owners’ class interests, notwithstanding Teddy Roosevelt’s muckrakers. Then about midway through the 20th century, publishers adopted a kind of professionalism. Out with the most sensational and fictional (bye-bye, “Front Page”) and in with relative sobriety, accuracy and “objectivity.”

This professionalism was tilted toward the status quo, relying heavily on Establishment sources, “balance” and little questioning of the powerful. Nothing surprising there; a newspaper, like life, is hierarchical and owners, not reporters, call the shots.

At this mid-century point I got into the business, captivated by the joy of getting paid to learn how the world worked, innocent of the history.

Since then, beginning with the collapse (after Richard Nixon) of the liberal consensus that had prevailed since the Great Depression, we’ve experienced challenges to that professional model.

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Carrying Water for the Right. . .and Other Blunders

May 3rd, 2015 · campaign finance reform, climate change, environment, foreign policy, inequality, journalism

By Denise Tessier

Ideas for ABQJournalWatch posts have far surpassed my time to write of late, and rather than let them get too moldy to use (as has often been the case in the past), the following are brief riffs on (fairly) recent Albuquerque Journal eyebrow raisers.

It’s OK for Susana but Not the Dems

We weren’t the only ones to notice when the Journal pounced on Attorney General Hector Balderas and Auditor Tim Keller in an April 29 editorial that criticized the two for sending email donation requests to fellow Democrats in advance of next year’s elections. Joe Monahan’s newmexicoblogspot of April 30 noted that the two Democrats had been “singled out for an editorial bashing”.

The editorial said Balderas and Keller “should take the high ground” and refrain from “scrounging for donations”, saying the two men are “supposed to be governed by rule of law and protect the taxpayers’ bottom line” and therefore “should be above partisan politics.”

The editorial questioned whether either man plans “to treat New Mexicans of all political stripes equitably and fairly” in their official duties, considering their letters ask for donations to not only defeat Republicans but help fellow Democrats.

Funny thing is, the Journal didn’t concern itself enough to editorialize when Gov. Susana Martinez sent out email solicitations for donations when announcing her formation of Susana PAC! a few years ago.

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‘New’ Media Making Newsworthy In-Roads

May 1st, 2015 · environment, journalism

By Denise Tessier

For the second time in as many days, this morning’s Albuquerque Journal carried a front-page story that had been covered first by other New Mexico media.

In “DA Fears for her safety after charging APD officers,” the Journal directly quoted District Attorney Kari Brandenburg’s comments that had been published in last week’s ABQ Free Press:

I fear for my safety because other Albuquerque Police Department officers have told me that I should. I don’t think they’re going to kill me, but I have been told to fear for my safety.

The previous day, the Journal reported on plans for construction of a 32-acre “interim” commercial nuclear waste storage site for southeastern New Mexico, five days after the Santa Fe New Mexican advanced the story (the subject of yesterday’s ABQJournalWatch post.)

The district attorney’s comments, made during what ABQ Free Press reporter Dennis Domrzalski had called a “wide-ranging interview,” were important enough to warrant a story and follow-up by other media, including the Journal. And the Journal noted in its story that Brandenburg has declined to talk to anyone else:

Brandenburg, through a spokeswoman, declined to discuss the issue with the Journal and has not done interviews with local television stations on the subject.

This is not to chide the Journal (again) for calling itself “New Mexico’s Leading News Source”. Nor is it to remake the point that “scooping” the competition – so important decades ago, when local TV was a rival rather than a partner and the daily Albuquerque Tribune was robust – is not so important to the Journal these days.

In fact, the Journal story about Brandenburg’s comments contained new information: that the U.S. Attorney’s Office was ready to make a referral to the FBI to investigate any threats, but Brandenburg told them not to pursue the matter, and that Albuquerque Police Department officials first learned about the DA’s fears from the ABQ Free Press interview; it received no request from the DA’s office to investigate.

What is noteworthy here is that ABQ Free Press has “made the news” in this way.

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Nukes, Jobs and Money

April 30th, 2015 · environment, journalism, role of government

By Denise Tessier

Interim site for nuke fuel proposed for southern NM” –the top Page 1 story in this morning’s Albuquerque Journal – informed readers that an international company is proposing to turn 32 acres in southeastern New Mexico (about 12 miles from WIPP, the already-existing permanent nuclear defense waste disposal facility) into a site for high-level commercial nuclear waste.

Such a facility, with a proposed 100-year service life, does not yet exist in the United States.

It’s a big story, but the Journal’s account of it failed to include some pretty interesting information about the project, information that appeared five days earlier in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

One has to go to Patrick Malone’s story in the New Mexican – “New Mexico leaders push for high-level nuclear waste” – to read this:

The state took a crucial step this month toward accepting such waste, which other Western states have shunned, when Gov. Susana Martinez quietly signaled to the Obama administration that New Mexico would welcome it.

. . .backers of the plan have waged a largely silent, high-dollar campaign to influence decision-makers at the state and federal levels to support the idea.

Since 2012, the city of Carlsbad has spent about $260,000 on lobbyists to try to persuade members of Congress to consider the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance’s parcel as a waste storage site, according to analysis of lobbyist records by the Center for Responsive Politics.

The New Mexican also reported a little background on the international company proposing to build the plant – Holtec International Inc. – which didn’t appear in the Journal story.

According to the New Mexican, Holtec was “stripped” of its status as an approved government contractor “over a bribery scandal that led to felony charges and criminal conviction of a (Tennessee Valley Authority) nuclear plant manager who authorized cask purchases from Holtec. A Holtec spokeswoman declined to discuss the situation.”

The governor’s support of the project did appear in the Journal story, but none of the rest did.

Actually, the Journal published on April 26 an Associated Press report of the governor’s letter of support – but the story was just a few lines long, was posted only online and it quoted the Malone’s story, which had run in the New Mexican the day before.

The contrast between the New Mexican’s enterprise piece – Malone had obtained a copy of Martinez’s letter – and the Journal’s reportage is quite striking.

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The Journal-Koch Brothers Relationship: How tight is it?

April 29th, 2015 · campaign finance reform, journalism, Koch brothers, Uncategorized

By Arthur Alpert

I have become Pavlov’s dog and I don’t like it.

You may remember how Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) conditioned a dog to salivate at the ring of a bell. Well, editors at the Albuquerque Journal (Pavlov) have trained me (pooch) to rush from the breakfast table to the iMac. There’s no bell; what makes me move is the sight of a Journal Op Ed from an outfit called “freedom” something.

Though I haven’t finished that second mug of coffee, I gotta get to Google!

Last time it happened was Wednesday, April 15. The article was by one Andy Koenig, identified as Senior Policy adviser, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce. My conditioning kicked in and seconds later, I was exploring the Web.

My reward was learning that, yes, Freedom Partners is a Koch brothers’ organization, specifically a nonprofit 501(c)(6) organization in Arlington, Va., whose purpose is to promote “the benefits of free markets and a free society.”

Since the Journal failed to so identify Freedom Partners, allow me to sketch its role in the Koch political network. This has the virtue of exploring a category of news the Journal ignores.

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Questionable Balance

April 14th, 2015 · journalism

By Arthur Alpert

As a sophisticated consumer of journalism, you know the dangers involved when news people or institutions seek balance. Most obviously, it implies there are two sides to a story. If only the world were that simple.

And then there’s the problem of deciding what you want to balance. Years ago, when I did TV news, we joked about producing a documentary on air pollution that would be objective and balanced. We’d devote the first half to how dirty air harms living things, then use the second to show it cleaning the lungs.

You also have noticed how infrequently the Albuquerque Journal attempts balance; generally, it ignores (or covers minimally) state efforts to limit voting, the vast growth of income and wealth inequality, how the tax system aids and abets that, climate change, corporate welfare, big (and anonymous) money in politics and demonization of the poor.

And that’s just in the news columns.

So when the Journal does seek balance, I pay attention, alert for a journalistic lesson.

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Joining the ‘Best Of’ Bandwagon

April 6th, 2015 · campaign finance reform

By Denise Tessier

A year ago, if the Weekly Alibi had called its annual reader’s poll story “The Only Survey That Matters,” it would have come across as just so much Alibi tongue-in-cheek hubris.

But with the staid Albuquerque Journal now in its second year with its own reader’s survey awards, this month’s Alibi Best of Burque 2015 cover headline – “The Only Survey That Matters” — takes on a different hue.

Yes, the Alibi has been doing the survey like, forever, and so the Journal’s decision last year to launch its own contest did come off as a bit copycat – like grandpa trying to prove he can be cool, too.

Readers following declining-sales-of-newspapers stats would have surmised correctly, however, that the Journal launch was yet another attempt at attracting more readers (maybe younger ones?) and, more importantly, at attracting more advertisers.

The Journal’s Reader’s Choice Awards is the latest in a list of measures the paper has taken in recent years in an effort to offset the collapse of the classified pages. [Read more →]

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Cognitive Dissonance

April 4th, 2015 · journalism, war and peace

By Arthur Alpert

I was listening to KUNM Radio several Friday mornings ago when Philip Connors, who wrote the highly praised “Fire Season”, recalled for interviewer Stephen Spitz his days as a Wall Street Journal reporter.

When terrorists hit the World Trade Center, Connors said, he read his own newspaper and suffered “cognitive dissonance.” What caused this mental conflict was the stark contradiction between what WSJ reporters wrote in the news pages about the events of 9/11 and the editorial page version.

Two different worlds!

Readers of the Albuquerque Journal, I mused over my breakfast coffee, never suffer that headache. Our local daily is one thing, not two. Journal editors impose their reality on the entire publication.

Or, to use classic newspaper terms, the WSJ enjoys a wall between editorial page and news operation and the Albuquerque Journal doesn’t. So those at the top of the Journal’s internal hierarchy can align the “news” with its corporate political agenda.

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Some Brief Observations

March 24th, 2015 · energy policy, environment, journalism, labor, NM Legislature, regulation

By Arthur Alpert

I’m falling behind again, so here are a few, brief observations about the Albuquerque Journal’s daily alternative to journalism:

• “Falsehoods and deception led to senator’s $50K payday” was the headline over Up Front columnist Thomas Cole’s excellent recapitulation of the Sen. Phil Griego story Sunday, March 22.

Of course, it’s eight months since Peter St.Cyr broke it in the Santa Fe Reporter. It’s odd that the Journal ignored it so long, but Democrat Griego worked well with the Journal’s allies in Santa Fe.

And the Journal is dedicated to the proposition that we can understand politics through the party prism alone, the better to ignore big money’s sway in both parties.

Also, Cole failed to credit St. Cyr and the SFR. Graceless.

• “Sen. Ted Cruz to enter GOP race for presidency” was the headline over a Monday, March 23 story attributed to “The Associated Press.”

There was no byline and I couldn’t track down the original AP piece, but when Journal editors drop the byline from an AP account it usually means they’ve edited a lot.

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Was the Journal UpFront Column About Student Letters Fair?

March 21st, 2015 · Education, inequality, journalism, role of government, state government

By Denise Tessier

A week ago (March 13), the Albuquerque Journal gave its most important front page slot – the upper right-hand column – to an UpFront opinion piece by D’Val Westphal, one of the Journal’s editorial writers. It was headlined “Students’ letters show the system isn’t working”.

In it, Westphal reported that she had obtained, via a public records request, copies of 165 letters written by Santa Fe high school students to Education Secretary Hanna Skandera. And of these letters she wrote:

They are stunning. And not in a good way.

Illustrating the story were five letters, all of which were hand-printed – not typed or written in cursive – and Westphal wrote that they “seem to be from early elementary students with a rudimentary grasp of grammar, spelling and logic,” rather than from students in high school.

Four of the five letters contained misspellings and other mistakes. The impression left by the column was that the letters being shown and others quoted in the story with similar errors were representative of the total 165 letters, not anomalies. Yet, just three days before this column ran (March 10) the Journal published a well-research and articulate letter from a Kelly Drummond of Los Lunas (the fourth in this group of letters about testing), who self-identified as a student “speaking for many students at my school.”

That left this reader wondering. And it turns out, others were wondering about the letters and the Journal column as well.

KNME’s New Mexico in Focus weekly media email, in advance of its March 20 segment, said local expert panelists on the The Line would be discussing “whether student letters published recently in the Albuquerque Journal truly represent the writing skills of New Mexico students.”

Then Friday morning, before The Line discussion aired, Joey Peters of the Santa Fe Reporter wrote about the same group of letters Westphal had obtained, but put them in a completely different light.

The story Peters posted was headlined “Dear Hanna Skandera: Student letters to education secretary about PARCC testing weren’t as bad as story portrayed” and in it he wrote:

While Westphal picked the worst excerpts of the 165 letters sent to Skandera, for this post, I’ll do the opposite and choose from the best excerpts.

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