More Lessons in Public Interest Journalism: The Fiduciary Rule

April 19th, 2016 · financial coverage, journalism, labor, regulation, role of government

By Arthur Alpert

As I was saying last time, seeing “Spotlight”, the Oscar winning film about the Boston Globe’s exposé of widespread abuse of children in the local Archdiocese, reminded me that many newspapers set themselves the goal of serving the public interest.

But what is the public interest?

Well, a commonsense definition might be “the welfare of the general public in contrast to the selfish interest of a person, group or firm.”

Or, if you prefer:

“The welfare or well-being of the general public; commonwealth.”

I found both definitions on the Web, selecting them from millions, many along the same lines. It’s about most of us, not a few.

Of course, when we get down to specifics, citizens will differ on what’s in the public interest and how to reach it. Yet whether we situate ourselves on the left or right, most of us would agree a public interest exists. (Some libertarians, for whom there are only individual struggles in a Hobbesian world, might dissent.)

I’m telling you all this because the public interest came to mind when I read the story –and headline – the Albuquerque Journal ran on the first Business page Thursday, April 7. Atop the Associated Press (Washington) piece by Marcy Gordon, the editors placed this rubric:

“Retirement investment brokers face tightened rules.”

That grabbed me. You see, Ms. Gordon’s lead said “The Obama administration acted Wednesday to require that brokers who recommend investments for retirement savers meet a stricter standard that now applies to registered advisers. They must act as fiduciaries – trustees who are obligated to put their clients’ best interests above all.”

(Journal editors put the fiduciary part in a second deck.)

Not a great lead, convoluted, but it did tell us the Administration promulgated new rules forcing these advisers to put our interests before theirs.

So how come the headline writer highlighted the brokers’ new situation?

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Lessons in Public Interest Journalism from “Spotlight” and “The Big Short”

April 14th, 2016 · economy, financial coverage, journalism, regulation

By Arthur Alpert

I’m so old I prefer to see movies in movie houses, so when the 2016 Oscar winner, “Spotlight” and one of its competitors, “The Big Short” finally arrived at the dollar theater (which isn’t a buck anymore), I caught both of them in one week.

“The Big Short” sought to turn Michael Lewis’s excellent book about the few investors who foresaw the global financial shock of 2008 into a feature film. Gutsy effort, I thought, boldly done, but limited by Lewis’ initial decision to focus on the handful of contrarian seers instead of on how Wall Street banks, brokerages, credit raters and their buddies, including the captured regulators, stole from the rest of us.

Too little attention paid, that is, to how politically powerful, greedy, ignorant and sometimes criminal perpetrators of the rip-off got away with it and in some cases, were bailed out with my money and yours.

Of course, I mused, the Albuquerque Journal reported this story minimally. Also, it continues to ignore how Wall Street works in both news coverage and published opinions. This is not happenstance. It’s policy. Management’s political agenda (government bad, Corporate America noble) determines what is and isn’t newsworthy.

Not even when Neel Kashkari warns that we have banks “still too big to fail” does the Journal pay attention. Yes, that’s the same Kashkari tasked with saving the banks as a Treasury Department official in the George W. Bush administration. He’s just become president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

His warning was reported by Binyamin Appelbaum in the Feb.16 N.Y. Times and elsewhere, of course, but not in the Journal.

And today (April 14) when Nathaniel Popper and Peter Eavis reported in the N.Y. Times that the Federal Reserve and FDIC said five of the nation’s eight largest banks are “still too big to fail,” there was nothing in the Journal.

Oh, I’m certain they’ll print a paragraph or two any day now.

“Spotlight” was more impressive, probably because it reminded me that at its best, the press operates in the public interest. That was why the Boston Globe, a newspaper business, took on the local Roman Catholic Archdiocese on behalf of victimized kids. In fact, lots of excellent journalism emerges from newspaper businesses whose owners allow their news people to pursue the news.

Those owners risk economic retaliation, of course, but they may gain financially when readers and advertisers respect the journalistic integrity they demonstrate.

Win or lose financially, these owners erect a wall between the news and the business sides of the enterprise to ensure news coverage in the public interest.

That is one way to do business. In another, publishers use their newspapers to advance their personal or class political interests, sometimes boldly and without shame.

This is the Journal’s approach, of course, as we will document further next time when we return to “Spotlight” for further guidance.

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Ignoring History

April 4th, 2016 · journalism

By Arthur Alpert

“The Journal is complicit is helping shrink women’s access to health services (and putting roadblocks in front of life-saving stem cell research) and appears to be doing so purposefully by putting on appearances of thoroughly covering an issue, while withholding critical information.”

That was how Denise Tessier summed up her persuasive analysis here (March 24) of the Albuquerque Journal’s recent coverage of women’s health care, including abortion services.

And as I read it, I couldn’t help but wonder how does that happen? How do people who present themselves as journalists perpetrate what Denise so brilliantly described.

Oh, it would be easy to call them names and leave it at that, but that’s what they do – make moral judgments rather than try to understand. Besides, the folks we call bad or evil almost never think of themselves that way. We humans have a great capacity for messing up with excellent intentions.

So why do they do what they do?

I suspect it begins with that species of ignorance we call lack of self-knowledge.

The top of the Journal hierarchy, for that’s who I am writing about, must not know, for example, Faulkner’s oft-quoted:

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

(I’ve always assumed he said it at the Nobel ceremony. Wrong! Turns out it’s from his “Requiem for a Nun”.)

Not knowing that we live in history helps the editors ignore history, at least the parts that contradict its editorial agenda, or rewrite the past so that it buoys the Journal’s agenda.

Victor Davis Hanson is best at this chore but the daily buys the work of several other syndicated columnists (most egregiously Krauthammer, Thomas, Will and Goldberg) who themselves ignore history or adapt it to their narrow purposes.

So, for example, it would be futile to consult the Journal’s syndicated columns in search of the history of the Political Right globally or in the US.

It’s not there. The Journal never examines it. This makes a strange kind of sense, because the Journal is that Political Right. Refusing to look in the mirror may be essential to preserving ignorance.

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‘Hotly Disputed,’ Outright Misleading: More on the Journal’s Anti-Planned Parenthood Campaign

March 24th, 2016 · budget policy, civil rights, Congress, inequality, role of government, social safety net

By Denise Tessier

After nearly a year’s hiatus from writing for ABQJournalWatch, I am compelled to add to the points my colleague Arthur Alpert made Tuesday in his post about the Journal’s anti-Planned Parenthood campaign.

The impetus is Wednesday’s UpFront column – “100 years of fighting for reproductive rights”.

At first, the front-page headline prompted thoughts that the Journal was injecting some months-overdue fairness into its generous coverage of the pro-birth, anti-choice movement and its attacks designed to cripple and even eliminate Planned Parenthood, an organization that for decades has done much to improve women’s health.

That the UpFront had been written by the exceptional Joline Gutierrez Krueger held promise that the article would be fair and enlightening. It was just coincidence that the column appeared the day after Arthur’s post, as it was clear she had been working on it before.

But the column in fact served to obfuscate one critical point – the damning and oft-repeated allegations that the women health’s organization was selling fetal parts.

“Hotly disputed” is the weak description chosen to characterize allegations of fetal tissue sales, keeping Planned Parenthood in the defensive position for purposes of the Journal column.

From the column:

Planned Parenthood . . . has been lashed lately by a host of bad press: allegations – hotly disputed – of selling fetal body parts for profit, defunding threats by Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates and the shooting deaths of three people at a Colorado Springs clinic in November by a self-described “warrior for the babies.”

There is no mention of the fact that in January a Texas grand jury cleared Planned Parenthood of any wrongdoing and actually indicted two anti-abortion extremists for allegedly trying to buy fetal body parts. The extremists were also charged with tampering with a governmental record after they made videos edited to mislead viewers into believing a Texas Planned Parenthood clinic was engaged in fetal parts sales.

Those allegations weren’t just “hotly disputed,” they were essentially put to rest by a conservative Texas court.

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Politicizing The News: Albuquerque Journal uses front page to launch its latest political campaign

March 22nd, 2016 · journalism

By Arthur Alpert

Sorry about my long silence, but I’ve been ill. Almost at full strength now, but because the Albuquerque Journal never took a break from politicizing the news, the backlog of critiques facing me is sky high.

I could begin with the Journal’s frenzied attacks on Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the news and opinion pages. At the Journal, a political pamphlet in newspaper garb, there’s no need to consult the editorials to know what management thinks. It’s all politics, all the time, everywhere.

Or, I could document management’s see-no-evil coverage of the Governor and her policies. Remind me to point out how what looks bad for the Journal’s friends in Santa Fe is spiked or, at best, relegated to C2.

Also, while I was away, the political commissars maintained their near-absolute ban on mainstream economics; I could begin there or with their absolute ban on “demand-side” economics.

I’ll try to get to all those topics but today let’s mark the arrival of a new Journal editorial campaign, which, like its eternal war on Obamacare, will be conducted in the “pretend” news pages.

Be forewarned. The editors will –if their treatment of Obamacare is a precedent – use their power to assign (or opt to ignore) local stories for coverage, to publish or deep-six wire copy, to write accurate (or inaccurate, biased or muddy) headlines and to run stories up front or bury them depending solely on management’s political druthers.

And if you listen carefully, you will hear William Randolph Hearst chortling in his grave, “I’m not dead yet.”

Oh, but I haven’t named the campaign. Sorry. The Journal favors restricting abortion rights. How do I know this?

Sunday, Jan. 31, the Journal ran a story by reporter Rick Nathanson. An editor composed this top headline:


(Note the bold capitals.)

The second deck read:

“Bud and Tara Shaver take no prisoners in their ‘culture of life campaign.”

This was Nathanson’s lead:

“Think June and Ward Cleaver with a soapbox and a megaphone.”

Good lead. It tells us this is going to be a profile, basically, a friendly profile.

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National vs. Local

February 15th, 2016 · budget policy, Congress, Fact Check, journalism, Washington

By Arthur Alpert

About a week go I bumped into a former Albuquerque Journal reporter who said – I paraphrase – we’re essentially on target in our critiques of the daily but I write too often on national and global stories, not enough about the daily’s local coverage.

My reaction to the “on target” was to exhale. The endorsement was welcome because I’m always fearful of getting it wrong, misunderstanding or in some way being unfair to the Journal.

As for not spending sufficient time on local coverage, well, that ex-Journal staffer is correct. I plead guilty, Your Honor, and will try to improve, but may I explain?

My explanation may not get me of the hook, but it should give readers a better idea of how I approach the job.

You see, Your Honor, it’s easier to demonstrate how the Journal substitutes politicking for journalism when the topics are national or international. That’s because the editors can skew the news to fit management’s agenda without ever talking to a staffer.

There’s zero need to deal with the professional reporters and columnists on staff when the issue is what wire copy will run, what stories, analyses and opinions on happenings in Washington, the nation and around the world

Editors can and do discard wire copy on their own. And as I’ve often tried to demonstrate, they throw out what doesn’t fit the party line.

(Example: search the Journal website for a story on what the Iranians gave up in the nuke deal and, please, let me know what you find. Me, I found one glancing reference. One.)

Editors can and do chose what wire copy to publish on their own, then edit it on their own (I almost wrote, “fiddle” with it) and headline it on their own.

That is why the Journal’s politics come through so loud and so clear in its coverage (if that’s the word) of national and international affairs. The editors make it conform to the newspapers’ political line with no interference from the staff.
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Marketing Plutocracy

February 1st, 2016 · budget policy, economy, Fact Check, financial coverage, journalism, social safety net, tax policy

By Arthur Alpert

It may not be much of a newspaper but – credit where credit is due – in its marketing of plutocracy, the Albuquerque Journal is single-minded.

Today, Monday, Feb. 1, there’s Page One box headlined “Bad news for NM permanent funds”. It refers readers to a story in the Business Outlook section, which inspires the lead editorial on A6. They add up to an argument against using public funds to better fund the public schools for fear the state’s permanent funds will be depleted.

The editorial sits next to a Robert Samuelson column chastising the leading candidates for playing “Russian roulette” by ignoring the “economic dangers of excessive debt.”

This, two days after George Will’s latest foray into economics, wherein he urges tax reforms (breaks for corporations) to jump start economic growth by a full percentage point.

And there you have the Journal’s total marketing message. Spending is very bad. Deficits are evil. Economic revival depends on making the rich richer.

This is the plutocrats’ story, with a few caveats. Spending is not bad when it subsidizes mega-enterprises or transfers public money into private hands. Deficits are not evil when they result from gifts to the One Percent, including tax transfers.

The Journal can and should make those arguments in its editorials. Journalism, however, rests on fairness and requires that newspapers present a range of opinion. And it most definitely precludes campaigns like the one I’m describing where the editors deceptively spin news stories, opinion and editorials to promote an agenda.

And spin it is.

Look at that headline on the front-page box. How bad is the news? Well, as I read Kevin Robinson-Avila’s story, not very.

Yes, the funds were down 1.2 percent in 2015 and things could get worse if the economy weakens. But, he writes in paragraph nine, “On the plus side the permanent funds are coming off a prolonged run up in value from the oil boom and from previously robust stock markets that helped drive /up total assets to all-time records.”

This was in his 10th graph:

“Today, the permanent funds are 24 percent higher than before the recession.”

The front-page rubric wasn’t quite right.

As for the editorial, once again the Journal rested its case on the back of John Arthur Smith, the conservative Democrat from Deming. It’s a favorite ploy, using Smith to suggest something’s wise because, look, both parties agree.

The Journal never reports that New Mexico has two conservative political parties. Instead, management promotes the fiction that we can grasp New Mexico politics through the party prism.

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A Win for Win

January 28th, 2016 · economy, journalism, role of government

By Arthur Alpert

I’ve just finished reading Winthrop Quigley’s thoughtful Thursday, Jan. 28 UpFront column tying New Mexico’s population losses to the state’s failing economy and I still cannot decide if he’s a super journalist or simply very good.

You understand the problem – seen in contrast to what the Journal does day in and out, his work clearly deserves an A+. But it might earn only an A silhouetted against the background of a competent journalistic vehicle.

Just today, the daily gave us another series of stories from Santa Fe with not one mention of the role of money in the annual legislative session. Not one.

Of course, in Albuquerque Journal-world, politics is about what is moral and rational, not about power and definitely not about who is spending what to promote whose interest.

Which makes Quigley look very good.

And then there is the newspaper’s brainless reporting of legislative efforts to “get tough on crime.”

We’ll save for another time comment on the Journal’s outrage at violent crime in the streets and its inability to even make out crime in Wall Street suites. No, let’s just ask:

How often you have read about politicians getting tough on crime?

How often have you noticed crime diminishing as a result of their brave statements?

Or diminishing as a result of laws enacted to punish criminals more severely?

I thought so.

Brainless is the word because getting tough on crime doesn’t work except in authoritarian states.

Yet the Journal front-paged this yesterday, Wednesday:

“Bills get tough on crime, but can we afford them?”

Notice the framing. We can get tough on crime or save money.

This is how Journal editors think.

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Chalk This One Up to Incompetence

January 20th, 2016 · journalism, NM Legislature

By Arthur Alpert

Regular readers will remember my references to the veteran New Mexico journalist who cautioned me against finding political motives for all the Albuquerque Journal’s missteps. It’s often youth and inexperience, he said, or amateurism.

I think about that advice often, but sadly, political decisions by the editors are the rule and incompetence, the exceptions that prove it. Not today, though. Today, Wednesday, Jan. 20, a doff of the hat to the Old Pro is in order.

I refer to the big headline over the daily’s Page One story on the Governor’s State of the State speech.

Here’s the rubric:  “Governor: Future of NM at stake in session”.

There’s a second deck or sub-head, too, with which we’ll deal in a moment.

First, about the primary headline, Governor Martinez is correct, of course. The state’s future is at stake. It’s at stake whenever the legislature meets. That’s what they do in the Capitol they debate and enact (or reject) legislation to affect the future. Duh.

So despite the Journal’s partnership with the governor, whoever decided her rhetoric deserved a headline was not doing her any favors.

Next, note that the editor who chose that gubernatorial wordplay preferred it to a conventional rubric based on Dan Boyd’s lead paragraph. Boyd opened by characterizing Gov. Martinez’s tone as “stern.” Then he listed what she wanted from the lawmakers, specifically “tougher criminal penalties,” “bills aimed at job creation” and “demand more than mediocrity” in public schools.

Why the headline writer ignored all that to find inspiration in the jump on page 6, paragraph 15, is beyond me, but I see no political motivation. (Let me know if you do.)

That second deck to which I referred did deal with specifics. It read, “Economy, education, crime and Real ID top priorities for Martinez.”

But this, too, is puzzling. First, Boyd listed the priorities differently. He put crime on top, then devoted the next 11 graphs of the story to the Governor’s anti-crime proposals and reaction from Democratic leaders.

Secondly, Boyd never mentioned Real ID; reporter Deborah Baker dealt with that issue in a sidebar on protests outside the Roundhouse.

My powers of divination are limited. I don’t understand why most of this happened. It looks, however, like routine incompetence and nothing like the work of the Journal’s political commissars.

Chalk this one up as a win for the Old Pro.

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Kochtopus Tentacle in [INSERT STATE NAME HERE]

January 19th, 2016 · journalism, Koch brothers

By Arthur Alpert

As an avid follower of politics, it’s my impression the political Left makes too much of the Koch brothers’ efforts to shape the nation. They’re not the only billionaires out to conform the nation to their private interests.

As an avid reader of the Albuquerque Journal for purposes of journalistic criticism, I’m struck by how hard management works to obscure the family’s political role and, simultaneously, provide the Kochs a pulpit from which to preach their doctrines.

Thus does the Journal reveal its political agenda and thus does it make clear it feels no need to confine that agenda to the editorials. Management politics determine – suffuse, saturate, permeate – the news and opinion pages.

William Randolph Hearst would approve.

Case in point – Washington Post reporter Tom Hamburger’s report on “Dark Money”, a new book about the Koch brothers’ impact on the American political system, ran in his paper Jan. 15. Other newspapers and magazines and Web sites also have found newsworthy what New Yorker writer Jane Mayer dug up.

Unsurprisingly, the Albuquerque Journal has not, even as the editors did find deserving of print, Jan. 17, another essay by Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, an organization that belongs to the Koch political network.

Not incidentally, the editors eschewed the usual boilerplate italics at the bottom of Gessing’s piece, about the RGF’s independence and nonpartisanship.  This contrasted neatly with what they did the next day, Monday the18th, with an essay lauding the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from Darryl Lorenzo Washington. They gave him this ID:

“Darryl Lorenzo Washington is a poet and critic living in Santa Fe. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues. It is affiliated with the Progressive Magazine. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.”

I approve. Nice to know, to borrow a phrase from younger people, where he’s coming from.

Funny, though, the Journal’s editors don’t do likewise for Gessing or the many other Koch-inspired authors on the Op Ed page. Fairness (if you’ll forgive the word) would suggest Gessing be described as a laissez-faire-ist employed by the Kochs (and other monied interests) to advance their view that big business should dominate government.

Something along those lines, anyway. No need to drag in the historical connections between corporatism and fascism. Just a few facts.

Speaking of fairness, though, I would be remiss if I implied the Journal always hides the source of Koch propaganda. That’s not so.  Sometimes the Kochs step out from behind their front groups, so no cloaking is required.

For example, Mark Holden, General Counsel and Senior VP, Koch Industries, argued under his own name and title that New Mexico should roll back “burdensome occupational licensing regulations” in an Op Ed the Journal ran Dec. 30, 12015.

Ah, but even that admirable forthrightness was accompanied by a slight deception. “What should New Mexico lawmakers’ New Year’s resolutions be?” asked Mr. Holden, addressing us Enchanted folks.

Turns out, Mr. Holden’s message was localized to some 35 newspapers across the country. What we read in New Mexico was what readers from Anchorage to Portland, Maine by way of Charleston read, with only a few words like the name of the state changed, so as to make us think Koch Industries cares. Andy Cush wrote about that at Jan. 13 (“Koch Industries Has a Very Special Personalized Message for [INSERT STATE NAME HERE]“). He also noted that Holden rested his case in part on the “Institute of Justice” without informing us that it is yet another Koch-funded operation.

And so it goes. As the Kochtopus swims, the Albuquerque Journal opts to be a tentacle, political not journalistic.

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