PersuadeInk: Maura Casey's Blog

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The Press under Donald Trump

Sunday, January 15, 2017  by Maura Casey

 This is a speech I gave at the request of Temple Emanu-El, Waterford, Jan. 15, 2017

My friend Paul Greenberg, Pulitzer prize winner and EPE of the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock, says that nothing good ever came out of committee except for the King James version of the Bible and the 1st Amendment, and neither of them count because both were miracles.

The First Amendment is indeed miraculous in its precision of writing and its incredible paucity of words. In 45 words it guarantees to the people FIVE rights, two of which are freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and I will applaud anyone who can tell me the other three without consulting Google (assembly, right to petition government, and freedom of worship. 

That said, even with a beautiful amendment like the first which has stood for more than 200 years as the bulwork of the American media,  I believe that the Trump administration will prove to be among  most challenging eras for journalism in my lifetime.

His election was a shock to many, but I submit it was part of a worldwide trend and one that has been growing in America for years.  Let me lay the groundwork for this discussion.

The rise of populism and distrust of institutions, many of which were previously held in far greater respect, is a worldwide phenomenon, not just something that is just happening here. It brings with it a thirst for change. It brought Great Britain Brexit and brought us Donald Trump. Admittedly, that is the kind of change that is a little like deciding you don’t want to take out the garbage so it would be a good idea to crash a bulldozer through the walls of the kitchen instead, as my friend, NYT columnist Gail Collins pointed out.

The Gallup survey has chronicled trust over the last 40 years. During that time the only institution that has gone up in any significant way in American trust is the US military. Every other institution - Congress, the presidency, even churches - have gone down. OK, big business has gone up a little. 

The press has never won a popularity contest. The percentage of the public   expressing “very high” confidence in the press peaked around 1976 at about 30 percent, according to Gallup. Gallup made a distinction between TV reporters and the rest of the media with TV reporters coming in at under 20 percent. In 2014 just about 10 percent of the public said it had “very high” confidence in the press.

Where we get our news, of course, has changed. Forty years ago, 70 percent of people reported reading a daily newspaper. Now, not so much. Just 20 percent of people get their news from newspapers. Most - 57 percent - get their news from television, 28 percent from news apps, 18 percent from social media, 25 percent from radio. These statistics are from Pew's survey on the state of the media, released June of 2016. 

Meanwhile, the Internet has caused the advertising newspapers depended upon to melt away. The result?  Newsroom jobs have tumbled by nearly 50 percent in 10 years – from nearly 60,000 to 32,000 at the end of 2015.

Another thing weakened the institution of American journalism – the administration of Barack Hussein Obama.

Obama used a WWI relic, the Espionage Act, to prosecute nine government whistleblowers who leaked information to reporters. He used this odious power – to arrest people who talk to reporters - more than all previous presidents put together. His justice department, through the FBI,  threatened to imprison reporters if they didn’t reveal their confidential sources. The Obama administration also won an important, and damaging Fourth Circuit court ruling in 2014 to challenge the right of journalists not to testify about their confidential sources.  The Supreme Court declined to hear the case, which involved a New York Times supporter who was subpoenaed. This court ruling makes it easier to imprison reporters unless they reveal sources.

Obama also restricted the presence of photographers in the White House and substituted his own, hand-picked photographer’s shots to distribute as “news.” Those shots were  not news, of course, and he’s too smart not to know it. It was PR from the get go, control of the media.  

So at the beginning of the 2016 campaign, journalism was in a weakened state. At the same time, Donald Trump understood as no other candidate did that ours has become an economy that monetizes attention – not facts, not policy pronouncements and not politics as usual.  Trump knew what to say to get attention, because attention was the most important thing to him about running.

Trump preferred twitter to press conferences, off the cuff remarks to written speeches, and lies to truth. Politifact said that more of his statements were untrue than not. He is also among the most combative, thin-skinned men to ever run for and become elected president and unless the media grovels before him Trump has a disturbing tendency to threaten reporters from the podium. He’s threatened to weaken the libel laws so it is easier for public figures to sue journalists for stories they don’t like. I have no doubt he will follow through.

Trump won because of a frustration with the status quo, a lack of trust in the established institutions, because he a Democratic candidate who had very high negatives and, fair or not, was simply not trusted by many voters, and an economic downturn that left people in the Rust belt and the Midwest Behind, and you have the foundation for a political earthquake.

Trump abused journalists in the campaign, attacked the media constantly and he has continued a pattern of distorting the truth and outright lies in his tweets and speeches. Fake news? Trump invented it by his years-long campaign of lies that questioned where Obama was born. 

So how does the news media handle the new political reality?

We do our jobs, that’s how.

But we do it smarter.

-- HOW do we treat Trump's tweets? He’s the president so we have to cover them. But we must stop reacting like crows flying after shiny objects. The press drops  substantive stories to chase superficial tweets. Trump is a master manipulator an understands this. He is a past master at trying to deflect attention from stories he wants to bury. Case in point was the media rushing to cover his tweeted comments about Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes last week when the story of the day had been Russian interference in our elections. 

-- We need bluntness in stories and ever-more precise headlines. For example, when Trump tweeted to the House GOP that they should not choose as a first official act closing the Ethics office, most media outlets reported this as a sign of Trump’s desire to keep the Ethics office open. Nothing could be further from the truth. He said only that closing the office should not be the first act of Congress. Period. But you wouldn’t know that from the sloppy headlines, and the stories were not explicit enough.

-- I have no doubt that the White House press corps will be chased out of the White House. Already, Trump is signaling that he will move them out – a predictable disgrace.

 -- In the face of all this, the media needs to be fearless, now more than ever. Trump has more conflicts of interest than all the presidents put together. This is a man with 500 businesses worldwide, who continues his self-promotion in his tweets, who hasn’t released his taxes and probably never will, whose health history is a mystery, who refuses to put his hundreds of businesses in a blind trust, and whose election may have been helped by Russia’s intervention.

 The media has to keep exposing these problems and let the chips fall.  

-- And, more than anything, the American public must support a fearless and free press. Every person in this room must spend some money and support the media through subscriptions and news apps, and give them as gifts to your kids and their kids. Good journalism doesn’t come free. Already, journalism has been dispirited and decimated by layoffs, and it’s a danger to democracy. As my old professor, Richard Strout used to say, there are some people that you can’t take your eyes off for a minute. We need as many eyes as possible, as many feet on the street, as many tough, questioning reporters as possible if we are to get through these next few years intact as a country.  

 

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The teacher who launched my career

Tuesday, December 2, 2014  by Maura Casey

 Laird B. Anderson was a journalist, an Army veteran, but above all, a teacher. In October, he died in his sleep at the age of 78.

Laird taught journalism at The American University in Washington, D.C., and for years he chaired its graduate school of Journalism and Public Affairs.

The editorial writing class he taught inspired me - and any number of other students - to make a career of opinion writing.

Laird expected his students to be, not just good journalists, but good citizens, with a passion for the First Amendment and a desire to make the world a better place through their chosen profession.

He had a special zeal for editorial writing, sparked when, as a young newspaper reporter, he filled in for a staff editorial writer who went on vacation for a week.  Anderson loved writing opinion and his once-a-week class in editorial writing became well-known. He taught opinion writing as an art form and encouraged vigorous debate among his students for the second half of every class, when we would form an editorial board to discuss issues.

Laird chose the 8 a.m. time slot for his class deliberately – some of us suspected he would have chosen 5 a.m. if the university allowed it – and was famous for entering the classroom, a foot-high stack of editorials under his arm, and opening the windows, wide, for at least a few minutes, even in the middle of the coldest winter day. He exuded confidence and yet he was just a few inches taller than five feet in height. Because he was a colonel in the Army reserves, one male student was heard to joke that if the class didn’t do well, he might make us all do push-ups.

It never happened. Laird had a tough exterior but was a tireless advocate for his students within and beyond the classroom, helping them find places to live and lending a sympathetic ear to their troubles. He was ever-mindful of the expense of graduate school and worked hard to ease the burden, making at least a third of our class graduate assistants.

The last slot, the day before classes were to start, went to me. My job? Cleaning the typewriters once a week in the student newsroom.  (It was 1982, after all). For that, the university knocked $2,000 off the then-breathtaking tuition of $7,000; gave me a stipend of nearly $200 a month and a coveted parking space behind Mary Graydon Hall, which housed the communications program. I was over the moon.

Laird became an unofficial father to many of us and a role model in many ways. For example: when he spoke of his wife, his face would light up. It was clear that he adored her, and at the time of his death, they had been married 44 years.

While still a student, I became engaged, and I told Laird I wanted to keep my name. He wasn’t merely supportive, he was enthusiastic, telling me that he and his wife had to go to court in Florida for her to keep her name. Florence Ashby, Laird’s wife,  confirmed the story, with a twist; she said Florida law in 1970 required a woman to take her husband’s name, but statutes said nothing to prevent her from changing her name backafter marriage. When she and Laird went to court to arrange it, the judge in the case, reading the law, confirmed to the couple that their interpretation was correct. “But don’t tell my wife,” he said, and granted the request.

As graduation neared, I became increasingly nervous about my ability to find a job. My husband-to-be, Peter Panzarella, and I were going to move to Boston so Pete could obtain a graduate degree in psychology. But neither of us had any contacts there. Then as now, it was tough to find a job in journalism and I began to express my fears to Laird.

He cut me off mid-sentence. Showing an officer’s impatience with a young recruit, Laird barked, “Your job – your JOB – is not to buy into to the world’s negativity. There is no end to the number of people who will tell you that you can’t do something. Don’t listen. What you need to do – and all you need to concentrate on for the next several months – is to take the hill. Hear?” He leaned towards me, his eyes narrowing. “TAKE. THE. HILL,” he said.

His words yanked me out of my self-pity. I got busy, writing letters to every editor whose name I could find in the Boston area, and on my wedding day, while my sisters were fixing my hair, I typed one last letter to Matthew Storin, then-managing editor of the Boston Globe. When I arrived in Boston I met with Storin as well as other editors. But Storin was the biggest help; he told me I was too green for the Globe, but that I should apply to the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, 25 miles away. I did, and three weeks after moving into our basement apartment in Somerville, I started as a reporter at the Eagle-Tribune. Six weeks later, editor Dan Warner made me editorial page editor largely on the strength of editorials I had written in Laird Anderson’s class.

One memory about Laird has always guided my thinking about our profession: In class one day a student asked Laird what he considered to be the most important quality of a journalist. He could have given a hundred answers. But without hesitation, Laird replied, “Compassion.” Unless compassion drove our motives and our reporting, we wouldn’t be the professionals, or the human beings, we ought to be, he said.

The word “compassion” has its roots in two Latin words, which together mean, “to feel with.”

Laird B. Anderson “felt with” his wife, his students, his country, and any who needed him.

He touched those he met by his example as a journalist and as a man.

He made the world a better place.

 

 

 

 

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Five points to ponder before aiming your piece for The NY Times

Monday, June 24, 2013  by Maura Casey

So, you want the NY Times to publish your commentary?  Many are called, but few are chosen.

The NY Times oped page gets many hundreds of submissions for a small handful of spaces every week. In addition, because  the staffs solicits other op-eds from known experts,  the number of spaces available for your opinion piece in any given week dwindles into the single digits.

This doesn’t mean you should not try. But you need to work that much harder on your article before sending it in. 

 Consider this article that former Oped Page Editor David Shipley wrote in 2005.  In it, he pulls aside the curtain just enough to give a glimpse of the editing process of theTimes' Oped Page. 

But how can your piece get to the top of the pile? What's the decision making process? How can you write an article that will get noticed by this most-coveted commentary page? 

The answer varies with circumstances. But here are 5 points to consider before pasting your words into the body of an email (no attachments, please) and hitting the “send” button to oped@nytimes.com

  • The quality of writing is important, but your prose need not melt the stars. Great writing rarely carries dull ideas.
  • The angle on a topic can be infinitely more important than the writing. A predictable viewpoint will languish in the slush pile.
  • Timeliness matters. If you have a unique angle on a current event, write it NOW. The sooner your piece is in the hands of an editor, the better. You don't have days. Frequently, you only have hours before the starting line is crowded with competitors. 
  • If your commentary is 1,000 words or (God forbid) longer, cut it to 750 words or less. Yes, you may have to pitch overboard your favorite sentences. Welcome to the hell known as rewriting.  In the highly unlikely event the oped staff wants you to add words, they will let you know. A word to the ever-hopeful: In my 20-plus career editing opeds for two newspapers, I did this exactly once.
  • Academic credentials, offices held, or golden resumes may spark interest in your piece. But they won't help a boring article see daylight. And personal experience can trump them all. Consider 23-year-old Nicholas Peart’s commentary. His piece, titled, "Why Is The N.Y.P.D. After Me?" made the top of the “most emailed” list for several days. Peart accomplished this because he had a compelling tale to tell, and a very clear point to make. Because his oped did both, he didn't need a long list of credentials.  His ability to articulate his experience closed the deal for oped editors.  

Yours can, too.

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Why You Should Write an Oped Commentary

Friday, May 31, 2013  by Maura Casey

 Why write an oped?

Because the world deserves to hear your voice. Yes, yours. And because expressing an opinion is just the first step. Impact matters. More on that in a minute.

“Oped” is shorthand for “opposite the editorial page,” the page in weekly and daily newspapers generally reserved for bylined columns written by readers, columnists, and perhaps you. Think print media is dead? Untrue: In 2011, there were 1,405 daily newspapers in the United States and another 8,400 weeklies. The total circulation? A staggering 200 million. Most have an online presence that increases the number of eyes on copy, whether the words are printed or not.

And despite the proliferation of millions of online blogs that make the Internet cascade with opinion like an oil gusher in a B-movie, audience matters – a lot. The people with the most influence in politics, art, and media still read the op-ed columns of  “traditional” media (newspapers, magazines) and getting in print there is still some of the best ways to give your opinion the impact it deserves. Some online opinion sites (Huffington Post, Slate) also have outsized influence.

The right oped can make a measureable impact, sparking debate, establishing your credentials as an expert or thought leader. It can influence local or national policy, and can result in your getting invited to be on national television news programs or even getting offered a book contract.  Don’t believe me? Talk to anyone who has ever gotten an oped in a newspaper such as The New York Times. As soon as it’s in print, the attention can be overwhelming.

Not every oped needs to appear in The New York Times to exert influence, of course. (But if the Gray Lady is your ultimate goal, read my next blog).  Smaller newspapers are easier places to aim for and are more open to publishing local opinion now more than ever. Their budgets are much lower than even five years ago. As a result, they aren’t carrying as many expensive syndicated columns, leaving a bigger space for your opinion. 

There’s another important reason to think local when it comes to opinion. Regional issues can be just as important to your corner of the world as the “big picture” issues that affect us all. 

Sometimes, getting a traffic light placed on the intersection a block from the local elementary school or challenging your town’s noise ordinance can be a triumph – not to mention improving the quality of life in your area. Writing a persuasive oped can be the key to making change happen. So, go get ‘em.

 

 

 

 

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Gay marriage: One issue, two family members

Tuesday, March 26, 2013  by Maura Casey

same sex marriage sign    Rarely to we get to see two members of one family – one a prominent senator –    penning nearly-simultaneous columns on one of the most discussed issues of the day. But that’s what we have in Sen. Robert Portman’s column published in the Columbus Dispatch and other Ohio newspapers March 15, announcing that he changed his decades-long opposition to gay marriage since finding out that his son Will is gay. On March 25, his son, Will Portman, wrote a Yale Review column describing the process of coming out as a gay man to his parents, family and friends. 

Of the two, I much prefer Will Portman’s column. It runs a little long, but it is charming – humble, compassionate, and at one point, laugh-out-loud funny.  Yet it is easier for Will to be the more relaxed of the two. His writing reflects that. 

His dad is in a more precarious position because of his past record. Sen. Portman’s column said that his conversion experience began when his son Will came out to him and his wife two years ago, and that he had concluded that allowing couples to marry is the compassionate stance. Sen. Portman didn’t say whether or not he regrets his past, forceful, opposition to rights for gays. In the mid-1990s as a member of the House of Representatives, he co-sponsored the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal ban on same-sex marriage. In 1999, in a particularly cruel move, Sen. Portman opposed allowing gay parents to adopt children.

It isn't good to tackle too many points in one column, but Sen. Portman's  piece could have used a line reflecting on his past contradictions in more depth. He didn’t say he regretted his previous opposition, for example.

But Portman did unambiguously stand up in support of gay marriage, making him the only sitting GOP senator to do so. And for now, maybe that’s enough. 

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