Friday, December 21, 2007

The AG, the Ledger and Jo Bo

Mercer County Prosecutor Joe Bocchini's comments on the much-publicized case of alleged sex assault by state troopers were a refreshing change of pace from the usual legalese that surrounds these events. At a time when the public is rightfully demanding more transparency in government, Bochinni provided a rare insight into how his office is dealing with this high profile case – on a professional and personal basis. While Attorney General Anne Milgram may have a valid legal reason for her decision to re-assign the case to another county, we may never know. Unlike Bocchini, her comments in today’s Star-Ledger were brief and vague.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Creating News?

Two unusual stories involving New Jersey are receiving coverage across the nation. The first centers on Francisco Nava, a Princeton University student who admitted e-mailing threats to himself and some friends, then faking an attack of himself. The other is about Max Weisberg and his efforts to get a Cherry Hill dry cleaner to reimburse him for a Santa Claus suit that was accidentally given to another customer.

In both cases, the principals managed to successfully create news that was widely covered by the media. Nava first wrote a column for the Princeton student newspaper criticizing the school for giving out free condoms and then fabricated the e-mail threats and attack. Weisberg decided the best way to confront the dry cleaner was to don a new Santa suit and go to the shop in person – after his wife’s public relations firm notified the news media.

Troopers and Accountants

In an Associated Press story about the seven New Jersey state troopers who were suspended with pay over a woman's claim that they sexually assaulted her, an attorney representing one of the troopers contends that the activity was consensual and that the troopers were off-duty when they met the woman in question. "They could have been seven accountants," the attorney, Charles J. Sciarra, said.

Is what these men do for a living relevant? They’re either guilty or not guilty, whether they’re state troopers, accountants, attorneys or members of any other profession.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Different Stories on Fort Monmouth

How did Wednesday’s Congressional hearing on the decision to close Fort Monmouth go? It depends on which news reports you read because they vary widely.

The Star-Ledger and Associated Press both reported that there is little chance the fort will remain open:

AP: Pentagon officials aren't budging on plans to close Fort Monmouth despite criticism from New Jersey's congressional delegation. Testimony before a House subcommittee Wednesday is unlikely to change the Base Realignment and Closure Commission's recommendation.

Star-Ledger: Supporters of Fort Monmouth went before a congressional committee yesterday to restate their arguments and vent their frustration about plans to close the New Jersey Army base and move its communications research operations to Maryland by 2011. But New Jersey lawmakers and community advocates got a clear message from the Pentagon and from the House Armed Services Committee: The 2005 decision by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission to close Fort Mon mouth was ratified by Congress, is now law and will not be changed.

The Asbury Park Press, however, painted a much more optimistic picture:

New Jersey congressmen are expressing guarded optimism following a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing yesterday that probed the skyrocketing costs of the Pentagon's 2005 military base shake-up. The lawmakers called for continued inquiries. There is some reason to believe the subcommittee on readiness hearing would not be the last session in an investigation of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process that recommended the closure of Fort Monmouth and the transfer of much of its mission to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

Why the difference? Read my study, Media Coverage of Domestic U.S. Military Bases and How It Supports the Military Industrial Complex, to see examples of how the Asbury Park Press coverage of the Fort Monmouth issue is flawed.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Emails and Privacy

While the debate and litigation continues over whether Governor Corzine's emails with Carla Katz should be made public, a federal agency has released a series of email exchanges from employees who once were romantically involved. The emails were made public by NASA and they involve a love triangle that made headlines earlier this year.

Monday, December 10, 2007

New Jersey and 1968

New Jersey was featured frequently on the History Channel's special on 1968.

New Jerseyans Bruce Springsteen and Jon Stewart were among the people who shared their thoughts on that year with host Tom Brokaw. And the program also featured a segments on former Weatherman Mark Rudd (a native of Maplewood) and feminist protests at the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City.

Even Arlo Guthrie go into the act. While talking about Vietnam and the domino theory, Guthrie discussed the possibility of an enemy finding its way into New Jersey. Noting that he has had trouble maneuvering through the roads of the Garden State, Guthrie told Brokaw he had doubts about enemy troops finding their way through the state.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Runway Safety - A Tale of Two Papers

It’s interesting to examine the different ways New Jersey newspapers chose to report the results of a new federal study that concluded that air travelers face a high risk of a catastrophic collision on U.S. airport runways.

The best reporting came from the Bergen Record’s Tom Davis and Herb Jackson, whose lead provided New Jerseyans with the part of the study most relevant to them:

Newark Liberty International Airport ranks among the worst in the nation for runway close calls.

By contrast, the Star-Ledger’s J. Scott Orr took a broader approach and began his story with several paragraphs summarizing the report.

Newark, the home of the Star-Ledger, didn’t get mentioned until the mid-point of the story:

Though the report did not specifically identify any near-accidents at Newark Liberty International Airport, it did rank Newark -- the nation's 13th busiest airport -- ninth in the number of incursions from 2001 through 2006 with 25.

In November 2006, a loaded passenger jet taxiing to a runway at Newark Airport clipped wings with another jet. A few days earlier a Continental Boeing 757 landed on a taxiway instead of a runway. No one was hurt in either incident and both are being investigated by federal authorities.

In addition, the Ledger – unlike the Record -- relied heavily on a press release for the quotes it used from U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), one of the lawmakers who requested the study.

Meanwhile, the Asbury Park Press and most other New Jersey newspapers used a wire story that contained no details specific to New Jersey. Newark Liberty International Airport may not be in these papers’ circulation areas, but odds are their readers use it when they fly.

One notable exception was the Atlantic City Press. Thomas Barlas’ story included information on runway safety at Atlantic City International Airport, along with comments about the local facility from airport officials as well the FAA.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Sometimes the Public Gets What It Deserves - Part 2

What if there was a revolt against toll increases and nobody came? Well almost nobody.

Despite all we hear and read about toll increases and public anger these days, the Port Authority’s first public hearing on its plans to raise tolls on the bridges and tunnels that connect New Jersey and New York attracted just eight people. Read Star-Ledger story.

Sometimes the Public Gets What It Deserves - Part 1

Earlier this week, a group of leading political journalists gathered at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., for a forum on media coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign.

In response to an audience member who asked why there seemed to be more coverage of personalities than issues, ABC News Senior Political Correspondent Jake Tapper suggested that issues may not be what consumers want to watch.

“It would be great if ABC, NBC and CBS news could each do an hour devoted to each candidate’s health care proposal and be guaranteed that 30 to 40 million Americans would watch it, but that’s not the world we live in.”

Tapper’s point is well taken. His comments came during the Newseum’s Journalists’ Roundtable on the 2008 Election. The event was televised on C-Span and is available online on the C-Span Campaign 2008 Page.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Recommended Reading

Jonathan Tilove of the Newhouse News Service has written an excellent piece on the tone of today’s political campaigns. While Tilove focuses on Hillary Clinton and the personal attacks being directed against her, the article should provoke some needed soul-searching for anyone involved in political campaigns, especially those taking place in New Jersey.

The article, Hillary Hatred Finds Its Misogynistic Voice, ran in the Trenton Times today, but you can find it online at

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Return of the I-Man

Nearly eight months after being fired for comments about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, Don Imus returns to the airwaves on Monday as 77WABC’s new morning host. Author Dave Zirin recently wrote an intriguing op-ed on the I-Man’s return for the Los Angeles Times titled Why is Imus back in the game?

In a similar vein, I explore the recent controversy over fan behavior at Giants Stadium in a piece for the Hall Institute of Public Policy this week. In Mixed Signals from the World of Football, I suggest that the sports world maintains a double standard for women.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A Picture is Not Always What It Seems

The controversy over the Asbury Park Press photo illustration on the Governor Corzine’s asset monetization plan reminded me that even an unaltered photo can lead to debate.

This photo, taken in Beirut in 2006, earned photographer Spencer Platt the 2006 Photo of the Year 2006 award from World Press Photo for capturing “the complexity and contradiction of real life, amidst chaos." Indeed, the Getty Images caption that accompanied photo read: "Affluent Lebanese drive down the street to look at a destroyed neighborhood Aug. 15, 2006, in southern Beirut, Lebanon."

It turned out, however, that the young women were not “disaster tourists” whose dress and demeanor was out of place. Instead, they were residents of the area returning to their neighborhood after it was bombed.

To learn more about their story, read World Press Photo Mix-Up. To hear photographer Spencer Platt comments on the issue, visit Award-Winning Photo Draws Criticism for Subjects on NPR.

Monday, November 26, 2007

A Chance To Speak Up

If you feel that television is shortchanging New Jersey residents, you’ll have a chance to let the FCC know this week. The commission will hold a public forum in Newark on Wednesday to receive input on WWOR’s request to renew its license. Several organizations are opposing the renewal, arguing that the station fails to adequately cover the Garden State. U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg is among those scheduled to testify. The hearing will run from from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Paul Robeson Campus Center at Rutgers-Newark, 350 Dr Martin Luther King Boulevard. More details are available in the official FCC announcement and on the Voice for New Jersey website.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Power of the (Asbury Park) Press

The Senate Law and Public Safety and Veterans' Affairs Committee is scheduled to vote on a resolution next Thursday (November 29) urging Congress and the President to reverse the decision to close the Fort Monmouth. According to the resolution, the decision should be reversed because of information uncovered by an Asbury Park Press investigation.

For a different take on the manner in which the Asbury Park Press covered the Fort Monmouth issue, read Media Coverage of Domestic U.S. Military Bases and How It Supports the Military Industrial Complex, the paper I presented at the National Communication Association Convention in Chicago last weekend.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

For Christie, the Best Defense is A Good Offense

Anyone who has seen Chris Christie at a press conference outside a courtroom as part of his ongoing crusade to root out corruption in New Jersey knows that his PR skills may be just as sharp and his legal expertise.

Now he finds himself playing defense since the Star-Ledger today reported that the law firm of former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft (who previously was Christie’s boss) could earn more than $52 million because Christie hand-picked the firm to serve as a federal monitor in a case involving kickbacks by manufacturers of knee and hip replacements.

But so far Christie still seems to be succeeding in managing the press.

First he washes his hands by saying he wasn’t involved in setting Ashcroft’s fee.

Next he punts to Ashcroft to respond to questions and take some of the focus off his office.

Then he put the onus for the huge payout on the company that’s being monitored. "If they're being cooperative and timely in their compliance as required in the agreement, there'll be much less work for the monitor to do," he told the Associated Press.

And in the Ledger story, he labeled the $52 million figure “a real bargain” because of what he expects it to save taxpayers if the industry changes its practices as a result of the case.

He also declined to make the agreement with Ashcroft public, citing privacy concerns.

Some of his quotes are provocative, to say the least:

"I certainly don't think it's a problem to hire somebody who used to be your boss but no longer is. What am I getting out of this exactly? I can tell you, I'm getting nothing, except the comfort in hiring people I know I can trust to do the job.”

"I picked these five people because I have worked with them and I trust them and I know that they will approach their job in a responsible way both in terms of the fees they charge and the effort that they put in.”

Christie may well be within rights. Ashcroft’s firm may in fact be the most qualified firm to serve as a monitor in this case. And perhaps its work will someday pay for itself in savings for taxpayers.

But for an individual who has made ethics and transparency a priority in his campaign against corruption and cronyism, it is disconcerting to hear him say that one of his reasons in awarding a $52 million no-bid contract was that he knew the people involved.

This story has just broken. It will be interesting to see how it plays out over the next few days. Will the media be aggressive in challenging Christie’s statements and attempting to unearth some of the details he’s keeping from? Or will he continue to be a Teflon public figure to whom no charge ever sticks?

Stay tuned.

More Than Her 15 Minutes of Fame

Back in September, I asked the students in my public relations class at Mercer County Community College how they would react to the following scenario:

You are in charge of public relations for Southwest Airlines. On Labor Day, Gerry Braun, a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune calls your cell phone to ask for the airline’s comment on a story he is writing for the next day’s paper. His story is about Kyla Ebbert, a 23-year-old woman who lives in the San Diego area. She clams that after boarding a Southwest flight from San Diego to Tucson, an airline employee escorted her off the plane and informed her she was dressed too provocatively and would not be able to take the flight unless she changed her clothes. Kyla contends there was nothing offensive about her outfit -- a white denim miniskirt, high-heel sandals and a turquoise summer sweater over a tank top over a bra -- and that it was similar to what many young women wear today. She said she was embarrassed by the manner in which she was treated and would like Southwest to apologize.

From a PR standpoint, I thought Southwest took a bad situation and made it worse by giving the reporter conflicting information and failing to follow through on a promise to call him back with the information he needed – after promising to do so. (His story is online at

Now comes the latest twist. The young woman in question, Kyla Ebbert, came off as a victim when the incident first came to light. Now she is using it to gain additional notoriety by posing nude for Playboy.

Trenton Times Op-Ed

The Trenton Times published my op-ed on why Joe Torre fares better with the press than the media today: Why We Love Joe Torre.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Daily Record Op-Ed

The Daily Record published my op-ed on why Joe Torre fares better with the press than the media today: Why We Love Joe Torre.

Al Leiter, Jon Bon Jovi and More

With the names of celebrities like Al Leiter and Jon Bon Jovi being tossed around as potential political candidates in New Jersey, it's a good time to take a look at how celebrities fare in politics. Authors Darrell West and John Orman address the subject in thir book Celebrity Politics. There's an excerpt online at In it, they discuss why celebrities run for office, what affects their prospects, and how they perform in office.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

U.S. 1

My article on how New Jersey newspapers used the Internet to report the results of the November 6 elections was published in U.S. 1 today. The paper does not post all of its articles online, but there is a version acessible here.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Death Penalty Debate

Looks like there will be a lively debate over the death penalty now that Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts and Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo have announced plans to make New Jersey the first state in the country to legislatively abolish capital punishment.

Regardless of how you feel about the death penalty, the issue was the basis for one of the best examples of advocacy journalism in recent years. After the Chicago Tribune published a multi-part series that exposed flaws in the state’s legal system that may have led to individuals being wrongly sentenced to death, then-Illinois Governor Ryan announced a moratorium on executions and the creation of a special commission to study death penalty reform. The series, which may have literally saved innocent peoples’ lives, won a Pulitzer Prize.

Mark Your Calendars

Two interesting events coming up at Rutgers:

Running with the Pack (and Going it Alone), an ethics forum sponsored by the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists, the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University and the Rutgers Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. A panel of veteran journalists will discuss what it's like to cover major stories that attract hordes of national media. The session is scheduled for Thursday, November 15, in Room 212 of the SCILS Building at 4 Huntington Street in New Brunswick.

In December, the Rutgers University Association of Black Journalists will present its annual media symposium. This year's topic is Minorities and the Business of the Media. It will take place Tuesday, December 4, in the Graduate Student Lounge at the Rutgers College Student Center, 126 College Avenue, in New Brunswick.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Covering Election Coverage

With each election, the role played by the internet increases in volume and expands into new dimensions. In HAS ELECTION COVERAGE ENTERED A BRAVE NEW WORLD? on the Hall Institute website, I examine the online reporting conducted by New Jersey newspapers on election night.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

5-1-1, the DOT and the Ledger

Since Tom Feeney’s story on the N.J. Department of Transportation’s new 5-1-1 traffic information system appeared in the Star-Ledger on Election Day, you may have missed it. But Feeney deserves credit for providing New Jersey motorists with a valuable piece of information that the DOT apparently was sitting on.

The new system provides real-time information about accidents, construction delays and other incidents on highways throughout New Jersey. Although it’s fully operational, the DOT wasn’t planning to announce it until next spring, along with some other new projects designed to provide motorists with traffic information. That’s all well and good, but I think that those of us who struggle with New Jersey’s traffic congestion on a daily basis would rather know about a service that makes our lives easier NOW -- not when the DOT and a bunch of state officials decide to schedule a photo op to announce it next spring.

Kudos to Feeney for taking the initiative to report the story now and not wait for the official announcement from the DOT.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Is A Picture Worth 600 Votes?

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When the courts ruled – on the day before election day -- that Hamilton Township’s annual financial statement had to be made public, it created a thorny issue for the Trenton Times.

On one hand, since the statement revealed that the township was facing a $5 million budget shortfall, it was a legitimate news story – and a big one at that. On the other hand, with Hamilton’s election for mayor’s taking place on the day the story would run, the newspaper’s approach to coverage and the article’s placement were likely to impact voters going to the polls.

When the paper came out Election Day morning, the shortfall was its lead story with a headline proclaiming $5M shortfall for Hamilton on the top of page one. Later in the day, when the votes were tallied, incumbent Mayor Glen Gilmore, who had opposed the efforts to release the financial statement, had lost the election by about 600 votes.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

What Year Is This?

Lest there be any doubt that today’s elections are already being eclipsed by next year’s presidential contest, NPR’s lead political stories today (Election Day ’07) all were about the ’08 presidential campaign, beginning with leads such as: Today is Election Day 2007, a year from the quadrennial election when voters choose the 44th President of the United States.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Windy City

The National Communication Association will hold its annual conference in Chicago from November 15 to 18. I'll be speaking on Sunday morning (November 18), presenting my paper on the media's coverage of military base closings. The paper, Media Coverage of Domestic U.S. Military Bases and How It Supports the Military Industrial Complex, includes an analysis of The Asbury Park Press’s coverage of the decision to close Fort Monmouth.

Blame It On the Stones (and the Media)

Hillary Clinton’s campaign is blaming the press for making her look bad in last week’s Democratic debate, and here in New Jersey State Senate candidate Seema Singh is whining that the unfair coverage from the media has damaged her chances of winning election. Now CWA 1035 President Carla Katz is ripping into the Star-Ledger’s Josh Margolin in a blog posting that has generated more than 50 responses, almost all of them anti-press.

Reminds me of Blame It On the Stones, an old Kris Kristofferson song in which the Rolling Stones took the fall for just about all of society’s ills.

Blame it on the stones; blame it on the stones
You'll feel so much better knowing you dont stand alone
Join the accusation; same the bleeding nation
Get it off your shoulders; blame it on the stones


Why We Love Joe Torre (and Hate Politicians)

Managing a baseball team is a far different job than holding public office. Yet there are some valuable lessons that politicians can learn from the manner in which Joe Torre conducted himself with Yankee management, with his players, with the fans and with the press. To learn what they are, read my Hall Institute paper titled WHY WE LOVE JOE TORRE (AND HATE POLITICIANS).

Friday, November 2, 2007

Bob Woodward at Rutgers

Bob Woodward spoke at Rutgers today and shared several stories from his long and distingushed career in journalism. As one would expect, his comments and insight were educational, entertaining and thought-provoking. But perhaps the most valuable piece of information he relayed to an audience that included manhy college students preparing for careers in journalism was the value and importance of getting out of the office to learn and confirm facts firsthand.

Before he broke the Watergate story with Carl Bernstein, Woodward wrote a story about a popular Washington, D.C., hotel coffee shop that was being closed for health violations, and he relied upon a city Health Department report for his information. Only after a city editor told him to get out of the office and go to the coffee shop himself did he learn that although the coffee shop shared the same name as the hotel, it was not located there -- as he had written in his story. Fortunately, he had time to correct the error before the paper went to press and he avoided an error that could have derailed his career.

More than 30 years later, the lesson Woodward learned is still a valuable one, especially in today's internet environment when information is readily available, but not always confirmable.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Fair and Fair Alike

Since I was critical of the New Jersey press corps in my recent essay on asset monetization for focusing too heavily on the politics of the issue instead of the substance, it’s only fair that I point out when they do a good job too. Case in point: Joe Donohue’s Star-Ledger story on the trials and tribulations Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell endured in attempting to push through a similar plan in Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Troubling Story

I’m a little troubled by the Courier Post story on the farmland assessment tax break Vernon Hill is receiving on his property in Moorestown.

The headline proclaims Hill's farm assessment cuts tax bill by $60,000 and the first three paragraphs tell us that Hill owns the largest residence in New Jersey and only pays $295.98 per year in property taxes on the land around his six-bedroom, 10-bath home. In the fourth paragraph, we have an angry quote from a local homeowner: "It doesn't seem fair. He probably has people who can find all the little loopholes that ordinary people can't find." Next we learn that the farmland assessment saves Hill about $60,000 a year.

Clearly, the impression from the headline and the first few paragraphs of the story is that Hill, a man with more money than most of us, is paying a few hundred dollars in property taxes when he should be forking over about $60,000.

Not until the sixth paragraph of the story (a point many readers never reach) are we informed that Hill actually pays more than $270,000 in property taxes each year. That’s what he owes on the property on which his home sits. The tax break is for the land around his home.

Yes, he is getting a tax break, but it’s substantially less than the story implies. And those who do keep reading – all the way to paragraph 15 – will eventually learn that Hill’s tax break is perfectly legal in New Jersey.

Should a man of his means be receiving a tax break because he meets the state's requirements by selling a few cords of wood? No, the law clearly needs to be amended. But that’s a job for lawmakers in Trenton. Vernon Hill is not the villain here.