Friday, December 19, 2008

Defending NJ Against All Odds

New Jersey often is the butt of jokes and the target of harsh criticism. Sometimes the comments that come our way are unfair. But at other times, it is not too difficult to understand why the rest of the country takes a dim view of the Garden State. Consider these recent news items:

A New Jersey couple who named their son Adolph Hitler made international headlines when a local ShopRite refused to put the boy’s name on a birthday cake. READ

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an emergency appeal from a New Jersey man who claimed that President-elect Barack Obama is not qualified for the presidency because he was not born in the United States. READ

After the Securities and Exchange Commission suspended trading of National Lampoon stock and accused chief executive officer Daniel Laikin of stock manipulation, the media reported that National Lampoon's largest outside stockholder, besides Laikin and his fellow insiders, is the New Jersey Division of Investments. READ
Not that any of this is new. Recently, while reading Lawrence and Cornelia Levine’s book on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, I could not help but notice that the authors noted that although Roosevelt received thousands of letters commending his fireside chats, there also was some negative feedback, including this comment from a New Jersey resident: “I wouldn’t urinate on you if you were burning at the stake.”

Blaming the Media - Again

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to hear M. William Howard Jr. speak at a luncheon. His talk was compelling and captured the attention of a group of people who had busy agendas and heavy schedules.

Because of this experience, I found it especially disturbing for Howard to take pot shots at the media in – of all things – a holiday email sent to the Rutgers University community in his role as Chair of the Rutgers Board of Governors.

In the email, Howard writes:

Rutgers has been much in the news and sadly too prominently about things that cast our great university in a negative light. Of course, we know that this is only a small part of our story. While there is much to do to continue improving how we do our work, excellence abounds here at Rutgers and only skewed coverage in the media would tell us otherwise.
It wasn’t the media that gave Rutgers football coach Greg Schiano an additional $250,000 a year in compensation, unlimited use of jet and helicopter services for university business, and an escape clause from his contract without publicly disclosing these actions.

Howard is correct that there are many good things happening at Rutgers. But instead of blaming the media, the school should be taking responsibility for its mistakes and missteps.

Read an old, but related post

Caroline Kennedy, the Author

Prior to her interest in the U.S. Senate seat, Caroline Kennedy has shied away from the public spotlight throughout most of her life – an issue that has been raised by critics of her possible appointment to the seat. We don’t know how all this eventually will play out, but I do know that Caroline Kennedy is the author of a fascinating book on the issue of privacy, which I cited in a study I conducted in 2006 on news coverage of the private lives of public figures. Included in my report was this passage from The Right to Privacy, the book Kennedy co-authored with Ellen Alderman:

Privacy covers many things.It protects the solitude necessary for creative thought. It allows us the independence that is part of raising a family. It protects our right to be secure in our own homes and possessions, assured that the government cannot come barging in. Privacy also encompasses our right to self-determination and who we are. Although we live in a world of self-confession, privacy allows us to keep certain facts to ourselves if we choose. The right to privacy, it seems, is what makes us civilized.

The Year's Top Public Policy Developments

It is that time again when lists of the year’s top stories begin to emerge in newspapers and magazines, on radio and TV stations, and online in websites, blogs and emails. My list is a little different. Instead of news stories, I decided to take a crack at identifying the top public policy developments that took place in New Jersey during 2008.

This poses somewhat of a different challenge. Rather than selecting the top stories from a group of existing news reports, it requires speculating about the long-term impact of decisions made this year. And that is made even more difficult by the unusual and unexpected twists that can alter our future.

Consider for a moment the case of Charles Ingram Courtenay Wood, 2nd Earl of Halifax. When Neville Chamberlain resigned as British Prime Minister in 1940, Halifax was considered a likely successor, but Winston Churchill was selected for the post instead. As Alan Bennett relates in The History Boys, on the afternoon the decision was taken, Halifax chose to go the dentist instead. “If Halifax had had better teeth, we might have lost the war,” the Dakin character in Bennett’s film remarks.

So barring the likes of an unforeseen trip to the dentist, here are what I consider the most significant public policy developments that took place in New Jersey this year:

The Disappearing Media


The Record decided to close its main office and rely on “mobile reporters”; the New York Times shut down its State House Bureau and severely curtailed its coverage of New Jersey; the Star-Ledger nearly went up for sale and only survived by buying out some 200 employees; Gannett has laid off reporters at newspapers around the state, and retirements at New Jersey Network are shaking up the structure of the television station.

Cutbacks, layoffs and consolidation generally result in less scrutiny by news organization and coverage that is more homogenous. This is bad news for a state such as New Jersey, where an aggressive press corps has played an important role in years past. But for those who see the changing media landscape as a glass that is half full, the events of 2008 also can present an opportunity for New Jersey to emerge as a leader by developing a new model for the delivery of news and information in the 21st Century. The jury still is out on this one.

The ARC Tunnel

Governor Corzine’s ambitious and controversial plan to fund transportation infrastructure projects and pay down state debt with revenue generated by rate increases on state toll roads dominated the headlines in the early part of the year, but the project failed to gain the support it needed. Instead a more modest plan to raise tolls was enacted with much less fanfare in the fall.

While the immediate effect is the increase in tolls, the long-term impact involves a new rail tunnel to New York that will double capacity and help the regional economy. A portion of the revenue from the state’s toll roads will be used to help fund the tunnel. The tunnel is about 10 years away and there are questions about its funding on both sides of the Hudson, but if it becomes a reality, it will have a major impact on transportation, commuting, and jobs in the region.

Progressive Legislation

New Jersey cemented its position as one of the most progressive states in the nation this year by enacting laws for universal health care and paid family leave. This came on the heels of abolishing the death penalty and legalizing same sex civil unions in 2007. With gay marriage legislation on the horizon for 2009, the state is likely to remain at the forefront of progressive initiatives for years to come.

Public Pension and Health Benefit Reform

Efforts to reform New Jersey’s pension and health benefit system had their fair share of critics, but the legislation enacted in 2008 will result in substantial dividends for the state over the long-term. The Governor’s Office estimates the reforms will save $6.4 billion through 2022.

The changes, which include a higher retirement age and new income eligibility for enrollment in the major pension systems, are in addition to a series of statutory changes resulting from contract negotiations.

Higher Education

Higher education could be one of the biggest losers from this year’s economic downturn. Think about it. If the choice comes down to putting food on the table or paying college tuitions, financially-strapped families will opt to feed their bellies and not their minds.

Likewise, the state is taking a similar approach with its limited funds and the many programs and services it must finance. Higher education funding, while considered important, has become a target for cuts during each budget cycle.

In addition, the New Jersey Higher Education Students Assistance Authority has decided it no longer will allow students to defer payments until after graduation, and the state is in the process of cutting back NJ STARS, which rewarded good academic performance with free tuition and scholarships. Add in the growing impression that New Jersey colleges are fiscally irresponsible – a result of controversies involving the likes of Rutgers athletics and UMDNJ -- and the prospects are slim that the state will be providing higher education institutions with additional public monies.

This is unfortunate because, in the long run, it means more than just the fact that less kids will go to college. As Hall Institute Trustee Robert P. Haney Jr. wrote in a white paper on higher education costs:

An educated, highly productive population benefits New Jersey in the form of increased tax revenues and decreased spending on social programs like welfare. Educated citizens also make better health and retirement choices, further reducing the demand on public resources. New Jersey exceeds the national average in personal and family income in part because we have a larger proportion of households and families headed by parents with college degrees. Holding a college or graduate degree increases average household income by 35 percent.
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Play related podcast

Monday, December 15, 2008

We Can't Let This Bank Fail

I am departing from my usual topics today to take part in an important and innovative campaign to increase public awareness of the need to keep our food pantries well-stocked. As part of Blogging Out Hunger, bloggers from all over New Jersey are posting information today about the increased demand being put on the food pantries in our state and how everyone can help.

More than 35 million Americans, including 12 million children, either live with or are on the verge of hunger. In New Jersey alone, an estimated 250,000 new clients will be seeking sustenance this year from the state's food banks. But recently, as requests for food assistance have risen, food donations are on the decline, leaving food bank shelves almost empty and hungry families waiting for something to eat.

The situation is dire, no more so than at the Community FoodBank of New Jersey (CFBNJ), the largest food bank in the state, where requests for food have gone up 30 percent, but donations are down by 25 percent. Warehouse shelves that are typically stocked with food are bare and supplies have gotten so low that, for the first time in its 25 year history, the food bank is developing a rationing mechanism.

As the state's key distributor of food to local banks – serving more than 500,000 people a year and providing assistance to nearly 1,700 non-profits in the state – the stability of replenishment of the CFBNJ is essential to ensuring that individuals in need have access to food.

If everyone could just do a little, it would help those in need a lot. To help, people can:

- Make a monetary contribution: Visit www.njfoodbank.org.
- Donate food: Drop off a bag of food at your local food pantry.
- Organize a food drive: Call 908-355-FOOD.
- Help "Check Out Hunger:" Look for the "Check Out Hunger" coupons at your local supermarket and donate. No donation is too small.

Below is a list of participating blogs. Given all the layoffs and cutbacks at New Jersey news organizations this year, blogs are likely to become an even more important means of obtaining information in the Garden State.

Participating Bloggers for “We Can’t Let This Bank Fail” campaign

1) JerseyBites.com

2) RedBankGreen.com

3) Jersey Girl Cooks

4) Simply Sable

5) John and Lisa are eating in South Jersey

6) Padma's Kitchen

7) Chefdruck

8) Life Lightly Salted

9) My Italian Grandmother

10) Cook Appeal

11) Crotchety Old Man Yells at Cars

12) Mommy Vents

13) This Full House

14) Paper Bridges

15) Motherhood Avenue

16) The Kamienski Chronicles

17) Down the Shore with Jen

18) Fits and Giggles

19) House Hubbies Home Cooking

20) Nourish Ourselves

21) Partybluprints.com

22) Tommyeats.com

23) Off the broiler

24) Mrs. Mo’s New Jersey Baby

25) IamNotaChef.com

26) SimplyBeer.com

27) HistoryGeek.com

28) Savy Source Newark

29) Momlogic New Jersey

30) SurvivingNJ.com/blog

31) SurvivingNJ.blogspot.com

32) JerseyGirlGuide.com

33) Best of Roxy

34) Citizen Mom.net

35) Lynetteradio.com

36) Jersey Beat

37) Pop Vulture Phil

38) JerseySmarts.com

39) LongBeachIslandSummers.com

40) WildwoodSummers.com

41) Mike Halfacres Blog

42) Somerset08873

43) Family, Friends and Food

44) KateSpot.com

45) NewJerseyMomsBlog.com

46) JCRegister.com

47) New Jersey Real Estate Report

48) Riverviewobserver.com

49) More Monmouth Musings

50) Man of Infirmity

51) Another Delco Guy in South Jersey

52) SweetNicks.com

53) Average Noone

54) Cleary’s Notebook

55) Welcome to my Planet

56) The Center of New Jersey Life

57) Sharon’s Food Blog

58) Morristown, Chatham, Summit, and Madison NJ Real Estate

59) Midtown Direct Real Estate News

60) New Jersey Real Estate

61) BlowUpRadio.com

62) LazlosDen.com

63) The Ridgewood Blog

64) Book a Week with Jen

65) Banannie

66) Cartoongoddess.com

67) Matawan Advocate

68) Take Back the Kitchen

69) The Joy of Toast

70) Route 55

71) Montclair Kids.com

72) SaveJersey

73) Stompbox

74) Joe the Blogger

75) Environmental Republican

76) Stacey Snacks

77) Subversive Garden

78) New Jersey Pathfinder

79) Cooking With Friends Blog

80) Triple Venti

81) Read All About It

82) Rich Lee on Media

83) Likelihood of Success

84) Cape Cuisine

85) The Business At Hand

86) NewJerseyTaxRevolution

87) Figmentations

88) MiddletownMike

89) Caviar and Codfish

90) A Day in the Life

91) Mack’s Journey Through Life

92) Alice’s Restaurant

93) Tiger Hawk

94)Politics Patrol, The Bob Ingle Blog

95) The Food Chain

96) Henson’s Hell

97) Cranbury Conservative

98) Baristanet

99) New Jersey: Politics Unusual

100) Jersey Shore Blog

101) Plainfield Today

102) Beacon Bulletin

103) Journal Square Jersey City 07306

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Lesiure Time, Pseudo Events and Politics

The emergence of leisure time decreased public interest and involvement at the end of the 19th Century and the start of the 20th, but leisure time may also have much to do with the current state of politics and journalism in the U.S.

It should come as no surprise that leisure time was a relatively new phenomena at the turn of the century. Just mention America’s old time work ethic and it is likely to conjure up images of farmers who worked in the hot sun from dawn to dusk and laborers who relied on their physical strength and endurance to put bread on the table. These are not the type of folks expected to have a lot of spare time. But as the nature of the nation’s economy changed and inventions lessened the work burden, Americans found themselves with more time on their hands and began to enjoy sports, the arts, and Sunday drives in those new horseless carriages.

In his book, The Decline of Popular Politics: The American North, 1865-1928, historian Michael McGerr (1986) explains how political participation declined as Americans relaxed their work ethic and took advantage of new options for leisure and recreation such as vaudeville, sports, movies and radio. “Political theater could not compete with these new diversions as a source of leisure,” he writes (p. 149). “Neither could politics monopolize the attention of men and women lured by the pleasures of consumption.” Indeed, voter turnout peaked just prior to 1900 and then declined steadily in the new century.

Placed in context of the entire book, however, McGerr’s argument is not so simple. Yes, Americans did have more leisure time -- and more choices for how to use it -- in the 20th Century. In fact, it was just prior to the turn of the century that sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen authored his classic book The Theory of the Leisure Class, in which he suggested that the working-class Americans aspired to become part of a new “leisure” class.

But McGerr makes it clear that the hard-working farmers and laborers in the 19th Century also had some free time (p. 29). They just chose to use much of that time at rallies, parades and other political events. In part, this was because they did not have the same variety of options available to Americans in the 20th Century. But in large part, it was due to changes taking place in the worlds of journalism and politics before and after the turn of the century.

According to McGerr, newspapers moved further away from the blatant partisanship they practiced in the 19th Century. Improvements in the technology used to print and distribute newspapers made turning a profit less reliant on political allegiances. With advertising revenue increasing rapidly, publications flourished. No longer a tool for politicians, journalism became a business and a profession in its own right (p. 108). Newspapers also broadened their content to attract more readers. They added stories on sports for men, fashion and cooking for women, and sex and crime to capture people’s attention. The impact on political participation was largely negative. “Once the centerpiece of party journalism, politics became engulfed in a sea of sports, gossip, murder, and scandal,” McGerr explains. “The sense that elections held a special place in public life ebbed away” (p. 126).

In politics, McGreer contends that the strategy for winning elections and amassing power changed too. In the latter part of the 19th Century, political participation was a “spectacle” process that involved rallies, parades and strict party loyalty. But as newspapers became less partisan, voters began to act more independently, forcing political leaders to seek new methods of garnering support (p. 70). These methods, developed and implemented over a period of several election cycles, were the forerunners of many present-day election techniques, among them strong national organizations, voter polls, direct mail appeals and targeted campaign literature. Whereas political participation once had been a process in which voters actively engaged, it became a more passive activity with the advent of what McGerr labels “educational politics.”

These changes in politics and journalism -- in conjunction with a variety of factors such as new opportunities and choices for leisure -- helped to shape today’s news and political systems and the manner in which they interact.

For example, with politicians no longer in control of newspapers and their content, the field of public relations emerged as a means to obtain news coverage. As sociologist Michael Schudson relates in Discovering the News, A Social History of American Newspapers (1978), although journalists found public relations practitioners distasteful and intrusive, they began to rely on their news releases, events and assistance to produce the content that filled their publications. Schudson cites several estimates which claim that 50 percent or more of the content in The New York Times and other major publications originated from the work of public relations professionals (p. 144)

Government made great use of public relations. As presidents, Theodore Roosevelt set up a press room in the White House and Woodrow Wilson conducted regular press conferences (p. 139). The net effect was mixed and continues to have similar consequences for both the media and government today. “Reporters thus gained a more secure relationship to White House news, but one more formal than it had been, and more easily organized and manipulated by the president or his secretaries,” Schudson writes (pp. 139-140).

Public relations also led to a proliferation of manufactured events that to this day help fill news holes when there is an insufficient volume of hard news. In The Image, A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961), historian Daniel Boorstin explains how these “pseudo-events” are planned and conducted primarily to obtain news coverage. He traces their origins to changes that took place in 19th Century journalism, including the decline in partisan political material, which left newspapers in need of more copy.

Nearly 50 years after Boorstin coined the term, pseudo-events have become commonplace occurrences that take place in the form of news conferences and other planned activities. To cite a recent example, during the 2008 Democratic primary, there was considerable speculation over whether Hillary Clinton’s teary comments prior to the New Hampshire primary were genuine or just a pre-planned and scripted activity designed to obtain sympathetic news coverage.

Boorstin warns that the proliferation of pseudo-events can have a damaging effect on democracy, illustrating his point with an example made all the more relevant by this year’s presidential campaign and the long primary season that preceded it: “Pseudo-events thus lead to emphasis on pseudo-qualifications. Again the self-fulfilling prophecy. If we test Presidential candidates by their talents on TV quiz performances, we will, of course, choose presidents for precisely these qualifications. In a democracy, reality tends to conform to the pseudo-event. Nature imitates art” (pp. 43-44).

Pseudo-events and public relations are but two of the elements that evolved from the changes in journalism and politics around the end of the 19th Century and the start of the 20th -- changes that were sparked in part by the end of “All work and no play” as a work ethic and the availability of more time for leisure and recreation.

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Thursday, November 6, 2008

One Campaign Over, A New One Begins

While Barack Obama assembles his cabinet and works on other transition issues, New Jersey already is thinking about another election – the state’s 2009 campaign for Governor.

On the Democratic side, there is little drama. Unless he is offered a cabinet post in the Obama Administration, incumbent Jon Corzine in all likelihood will be on the ballot seeking his second term.

For Republicans, several party members have expressed interest in the Governor’s Office, but U.S. Attorney Chris Christie is regarded as the GOP’s leading candidate. It is easy to see why. As U.S. Attorney, Christie has built a strong reputation cracking down on public corruption, successfully prosecuting some of the most the state’s most powerful political leaders.

All things considered, however, Christie may be better off if he sits out the 2009 race and sets his sites on 2013 instead. Here’s why.

At the moment, New Jersey Democrats are flexing their muscle. Barack Obama carried the state by a comfortable margin on Tuesday and Frank Lautenberg cruised to re-election in the U.S. Senate. Democrats also gained control of a Congressional seat that has been in GOP hands since 1882. And don’t forget that in addition to having a Democrat in the Governor’s Office, the party also holds majorities in both houses of the State Legislature. Add an Obama presidency into the mix and it may not be the most opportune time for a Republican challenger, especially if the Democratic president’s favorability numbers are still riding high next year. Only New Jersey and Virginia will be holding gubernatorial elections next year, so it is conceivable that Obama could come into the Garden State to boost the Democrat cause.

Secondly, at the present time Christie is a one issue candidate and that issue – corruption – seldom resonates with New Jersey voters. It did not work for Tom Kean Jr. when he ran for U.S. Senate two years ago, and Doug Forrester’s attempts to paint Corzine as a candidate created by political bosses failed to take hold in the 2005 gubernatorial campaign. This year, Republicans were unable to win any freeholder seats in Bergen County even though two of the county’s most powerful Democratic leaders were under indictment. Likewise, campaign ads raising questions about John Adler’s connection to a controversial state grant program failed to keep victory out of his hands on Tuesday.

So what does Chris Christie do for the next few years? He should take a lesson from two former Governors.

After Jim Florio lost the 1981 Governor’s election by the narrowest margin in state history, he was considered the frontrunner for the 1985 contest. But with incumbent Governor Tom Kean enjoying great popularity with the New Jersey citizenry, Florio sat out the race and chose instead to run in 1989 when there would be no incumbent on the gubernatorial ballot. The decision proved to be the correct one. He was elected Governor in 1989 with 61 percent of the vote.

There also is a lesson to be learned from Christine Todd Whitman. After she almost upset Bill Bradley in the 1990 U.S. Senate campaign, she used her time wisely to build support for her successful run for Governor in 1993. Hosting a radio talk show (as Whitman did) may not be in the U.S. Attorney’s future, but there are plenty of ways he could make good use of the time between gubernatorial elections.

With a Democratic Administration about to take hold in Washington, D.C., Christie’s days as U.S. attorney are numbered. He can return to private practice with a law firm that will give him the time he needs to sow the seeds for a run in 2013. In the interim, he plays the good soldier in the 2009 gubernatorial race, raising money, delivering surrogate speeches and building goodwill for the GOP standard bearer.

If Corzine wins the election, Christie then has four full years to wage his campaign for Governor. During this time, he can expand his platform beyond the single issue of corruption. He can become a vocal and visible critic of the Democratic Administration, using the populist appeal that has served him well as U.S. Attorney. He can travel around New Jersey and build a stronger statewide identity by speaking at Kiwanis Club luncheons, VFW meetings, county fairs and the like.

From a strategic standpoint, Christie would be at an advantage by not holding a public office where he would be forced to vote on controversial issues. Instead, his public record would be his long list of successful prosecutions as U.S. Attorney. And he gets a few more years to put some distance between a run for Governor and the most serious controversy of his career – the $52 million contract awarded to former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's company to monitor t a criminal settlement.

The big question, however, is whether Christie has the patience to wait until 2013. Politics is a world in which people want things now. But Chris Christie has experience at being patient. Among his hobbies and interests outside the office, he is a fan of New York Mets, a team whose last few seasons have tried the patience of even its most ardent followers.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Brave Old World?

Last year, I conducted a mini-study on Election Night to learn how quickly the state’s newspapers were posting results online. I found that the newspaper websites were providing the information just as quickly as radio and TV. The results of my mini-study are online in a paper titled Has Election Coverage Entered a Brave New World?

This year, however, I found it much more difficult to navigate the newspaper websites and obtain results. Not only did electronic media such as NJN have the results of the key races faster, the station also had them accurately. For example, long after John Adler had delivered his victory speech in the Third District Congressional election, the Courier Post still had incomplete results on its website indicating Chris Meyers was ahead in the race.

Perhaps we can chalk this up to the cutbacks and layoffs that have the news industry in New Jersey this year. If so, we may have taken a step away from the brave new world that election reporting entered last year.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Quick Take at the Election Results

For New Jersey, the most significant developments took place at the Congressional level. As anticipated, Barack Obama carried the state by a comfortable margin and Frank Lautenberg cruised to victory. Although coattails from the top of ticket helped Democrats win the third district seat, they failed to materialize in either the fifth or seventh districts. This is a slight warning sign for Democrats who must defend the Governor’s Office and their Assembly seats next year. And it offers a very dim light of hope for Republicans on a rather dark evening for the GOP.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Book Chapter

A chapter I wrote about protest music and the Vietnam War will be included in an upcoming anthology on war, media and communication. The book is scheduled to be published next year by McFarland & Company, Inc., of Jefferson, N.C.

In the chapter, I explain how protest songs functioned as alternative media during the Vietnam War era, raising issues and asking questions that were absent from, or downplayed by, mainstream media. It evolved from a shorter piece I authored a few years ago – The Ability Of Protest Music To Serve As An Alternative Media And Effect Social Change.

Monday, October 27, 2008

State House Discussion

Earlier today, I moderated a panel on New Jersey’s System of Government at the State House.

The session was part of Montclair State University’s Student Leader Day. Panelists included staff members from the legislative and executive branches of state government, as well as Assemblymen Thomas Giblin and Frederick Scalera.

Governor Jon Corzine made a surprise visit and spoke briefly to the students and panelists.

Friday, October 17, 2008

At the Movies

Votes on controversial legislation often are split along partylines. Expect a similar reaction to W., Oliver Stone’s new movie chronicling the life and times of George W. Bush.

Conservatives are likely to protest that the film presents an unfair and inaccurate picture of our 43rd President and is yet another example of the liberal media and Hollywood elite. Meanwhile, we can expect those on the left to cite it as one more piece of evidence that the Bush presidency has been a disaster for America.

But for people of all political persuasions, W. offers the opportunity for a welcome diversion from the intense and serious business of politics and elections that has dominated the national agenda during the longest presidential campaign in U.S. history. If you’re inclined to take advantage of this opportunity and opt for the celluloid version of politics over the real thing, here are some other political films to satisfy your appetite between now and Election Day:

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

More than four decades after its release, the original Manchurian Candidate remains one of the most powerful and suspenseful films involving the world of politics. With a plot that features a presidential campaign driven by ambition, a decorated war hero who becomes an assassin, and tales of brainwashing during the Cold War, followers of New Jersey politics will be right at home.

The movie actually does have connections with New Jersey. One of the characters has a recurring dream that he is in Spring Lake listening to a lecture from the Spring Lake Garden Club. The surname of a key presidential aspirant is Iselin, which also is the name of a section of Woodbridge Township. And one of the stars of the film is Hoboken’s own Frank Sinatra.
All the Presidents Men (1976)
This story of Watergate and Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward reminds us that there once was a time when people considered journalists the good guys in the white hats. It also reminds us of what it was like to be an investigative reporter before the Internet put research at our fingertips. In one scene, we see Woodward and Bernstein looking through every phone book in the Washington Post newsroom to track down a lead. In another, Bernstein spends the better part of a day waiting for his one chance to question a reluctant official who holds a key to unraveling the Watergate story.

A slight New Jersey connection here too: Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy is a New Jersey native who grew up in West Caldwell and graduated from Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark.
Wag the Dog (1997)
A chief executive involved in a sex scandal also has a familiar ring for New Jerseyans. In this film, however, a political consultant creates a fake war to divert attention elsewhere. The story is farfetched (hopefully), but the plotting, the bumps in the road, the charges and counter-charges and the need to act quickly to counter them should be familiar processes for anyone who has been involved in a political campaign at any level.

An even more tenuous New Jersey connection: The movie features scenes of many popular Washington landmarks, including one in which a limousine departs from the historic Hay Adams Hotel. The hotel was the site of former Governor McGreevey’s wedding to Dina Matos.
Street Fight (2005)
Why settle for fiction when you can get the real thing? This documentary on the 2002 mayoral campaign in Newark captures the essence of politicking in New Jersey -- the powerbrokers, the threats, the paybacks and more. If you’ve spent anytime in government or politics in the state, you’re sure to spot a familiar face, location or event, maybe even yourself.
Recount (2008)
In the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, so many things occurred so quickly that it is valuable to have a film preserving these historic weeks in American history. Just how accurate the film is, however, has been the subject of much debate and discussion.

But on a broader scale, Recount does provide an accurate picture of 21st Century American politics. We see partisanship, polarization and two parties so obsessed with winning that they forget that government, as Lincoln said, should be of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Bonus:
Running on Empty (1988)
On the surface, this may have more to do with New Jersey than politics. Most of the plot takes place in New Jersey, parts of it were filmed in Tenafly, and there is a scene that features a closeup of the front page of The Star-Ledger.

As for the politics, the movie is about Arthur and Annie Pope, two Vietnam era radicals who have been living underground since they blew up a napalm lab to protest the war. The fictional Popes were modeled after Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn of the Weather Underground. Ayers, as anyone who follows presidential politics should know, now is a college professor who has become a campaign issue because of his association with Barack Obama.
As you can see, the line between fiction and real life often is a thin one. When it comes to politics, it may not matter whether you're on the campaign trail or at the movies.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Improving Presidential Debates

General consensus is that there is plenty of room for improvement in the format of presidential debates. Let’s hope that changes are made before the 2012 campaign.

One item I would addressed is the selection of the debate moderators. Nothing against those who handled the task this year. But between them, Jim Lehrer, 74, Tom Brokaw, 68, and Bob Schieffer, 71, have a combined age of 71. If we’re trying to engage more young people in the electoral process, it would be nice to see at least one moderator who was born after FDR was president.

While we’re at it, let’s also take into consideration how people get their news and information these days. Fewer and fewer of us are relying on traditional news outlets, where journalists such as Lehrer, Brokaw and Schieffer honed their crafts. Having a moderator from the world of new media also would be a welcome addition.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Guaranteed Method of Avoiding Misquotes

When a reporter quotes a public official (or anyone else for that matter), the person being quoted does not get an opportunity to see the quote before it is printed, aired or posted. That’s basic journalism.

But things weren’t always this way.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, reporters “freely acquiesced” to requests to clear quotes with their sources, according to Charles L. Ponce de Leon, author of Self-Exposure, Human Interest Journalism and the Emergence of Celebrity in America, 1890-1940.

And as de Leon relates in a passage from his book, New Jersey was a model for the practice.

"In a book entitled Adventures in Interviewing (1919) the veteran journalist Issac Marcosson endorsed this practice, recalling his first interview with Woodrow Wilson, then the governor of New Jersey, when Wilson had asked to see a copy of the article that Marcosson had produced from their long talk. “It was a wise precaution” Marcosson observed. 'If more public men would examine and revise what they say for publication before it is printed they would save themselves and other people much trouble.'"
Just imagine what things would be like in New Jersey today if this practice was still in place.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Hall Institute TV

The changing landscape of New Jersey media will be the focus of The Hall Institute Forum when the 30-minute public affairs television program begins a new season this week.

In this week's Hall Institute Forum, I discuss the state of the news industry with Jerome Aumente, a Professor Emeritus of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University. Aumente also is the author of a book about the history of New Jersey newspapers, From Ink on Paper to the Internet: Past Challenges and Future Transformations for New Jersey's Newspapers.

In the second program of the season, I will interview Debbie Holtz, who writes a media blog for PolitickerNJ.

The Hall Institute Forum airs at 8 p.m. on Mondays and Saturdays on MCTV-26 , a cable TV network operated by Mercer County Community College.

Friday, October 10, 2008

It’s Time to Get Serious About Comedy

By gaining concessions from two labor unions and buyouts from some 200 of its non-union employees, The Star-Ledger has managed to stay in business. Now, in the words of Ledger editor Jim Willse, it is time “to start making plans for the paper going forward.”

But with about a third of its newsroom staff gone, can the state’s largest newspaper continue to survive in an era in which the internet and 24-hour cable news threaten to make the print media extinct?

The dilemma is not unique to The Star-Ledger. Newspapers all across the nation are finding themselves with less resources and less personnel at a time when competition from internet news sites, blogs and other new media is increasing.

In New Jersey, Gannett has eliminated more than 50 jobs at its six New Jersey papers this year, while The Record is abandoning its longtime headquarters in Hackensack and making most of its reporters "mobile journalists" who will work outside of a traditional office. Meanwhile, The New York Times has drastically cut back its coverage of the Garden State, and retirements at New Jersey Network are changing the landscape of the state’s public television news operation.

How do you stop the bleeding? Comedy.

If you think that’s a joke, just consider the following:

Viewership is up for programs such as Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report.

Although these are comedy shows, they also provide information -- albeit in a humorous manner -- about the major news stories in the nation.

Young people -- the same demographic group that rarely reads newspapers -- are relying on these comedy programs as a source for news.
Need more proof? Take a closer look at the facts.

Ratings for Comedy

With a heavy focus on the 2008 presidential campaign, Saturday Night Live is off to its best start in years. Overall ratings are up 49 percent over last year. The September 13 premier, which began with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler portraying Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, had the highest ratings for any SNL show since December 12, 2002, when former Vice President Al Gore hosted the program.

SNL’s September 27 parody of Katie Couric’s interview with Sarah Palin has been viewed online 4.6 million times, attracting nearly four times as many page views as the actual interview. Is it any wonder why Saturday Night Live began a series of primetime election season specials last night?

Ratings for Traditional News

According to a Pew Research Center study, audiences for traditional news programs are dwindling. Between 1993 and 2002, viewership for nightly network news dropped by 46 percent. Network news magazines fell by 54 percent, local news by 26 percent.

The sharpest decline took place among 18 to 24-year-olds. Only 40 percent of the individuals in this age group reported watching any television news in the day before they took part in the survey. And they are reading newspapers even less. “Only nineteen per cent of Americans between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four claim even to look at a daily newspaper,” Eric Alterman wrote in The New Yorker earlier this year. “The average age of the American newspaper reader is fifty-five and rising.”

A more recent Pew Center study that focused on the four years between the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns found that the percentages of 18 to 29-years olds who said they regularly learned something from network news decreased from 39 to 23 percent. Local news fared even worse, dropping from 42 to 29 percent.

Where People Go for News

With the audiences for traditional news outlets shrinking, where are people turning for news?

To comedy.

The 2002 Pew Center study found that 21 percent of those between 18 and 29 said they regularly learned about news and politics from comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live, while 13 percent cited late-night talk shows such as the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and the Late Show with David Letterman as their regular news sources.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was identified as a rising source of political information. (The Colbert Report had not yet debuted when the study was conducted.) During the 2004 U.S. presidential election, the Daily Show received more male viewers in the 18 to 34 year old age demographic than Nightline, Meet the Press, Hannity & Colmes and all of the evening news broadcasts.

Is Comedy A Valid News Source?

Earlier this year, the Project for Excellence in Journalism released a content analysis report suggesting that The Daily Show comes close to providing the complete daily news. Likewise , a 2006 Indiana University study compared the information in The Daily Show with prime time network news broadcasts and found little difference in substance.

The findings are supported by audience studies. In late 2004, the National Annenberg Election Survey at the University of Pennsylvania ran a study of American television viewers and found that viewers of The Daily Show were more educated, followed the news more regularly and were more politically knowledgeable than the general public.

The study also showed that Daily Show viewers had more accurate knowledge of the issues in the 2004 presidential election than most others, including individuals who relied on network news shows and newspapers for information.

Conclusion

Can comedy save the New Jersey media?

Perhaps not by itself, but as publishers, editors and news directors chart a course for the future, they can learn a lesson or two from the comedy programs that young people are turning to for news. To reach today’s younger audiences, media organizations need to reexamine the manner in which the news is gathered and reported. With more and more options competing for our attention, the news needs not only to be important, but also entertaining.

As Geoffrey Baym wrote in Political Communication, “The Daily Show represents an important experiment in journalism, one that contains much significance for the ongoing redefinition of news… Lying just beneath or perhaps imbricated within the laughter is a quite serious demand for fact, accountability, and reason in political discourse.”

And aren't facts, accountability and reason the very things we hope to gain when we open a newspaper, turn on a television newscast or log onto an internet news site?

(Listen to a Hall Institute Podcast on this topic.)

References

Alterman, A. (2008, March 31). Out of Print. The New Yorker.

Baym, G. (2005) The Daily Show: Discursive Integration and the Reinvention of Political Journalism. Political Communication, No. 22, pp. 259–276.

Carter, B. (2008, September 30). Palin Effect on Ratings Only Modest for CBS, New York Times.

Chambers, S. (2008, October 8). Star-Ledger truck drivers ratify labor agreement. The Star-Ledger.

Fox, J., Koloen, G., and Sahin, V. (2007, June). No joke: a comparison of substance in The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and broadcast network television coverage of the 2004 presidential election campaign. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media.

Gough, P. (2008, October 6). Politics and Palin lure viewers to SNL.

Journalism, satire or just laughs? (2008, May 8) Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Koblin, J. (2008, August 12). Welcome to New Jersey, Media Wasteland. New York Observer.

News Audiences Increasingly Politicized. (2004, June 8). Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Public Knowledge of Current Affairs Little Changed by News and Information Revolutions. (2007, April 15), Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

The Record shifting staff from centralized office. (2008, July 2). The Record.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Does the End Justify the Means?

Postings on PolitickertNJ about a Bergen Record reporter and whether he improperly removed public documents from the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection raise an interesting journalism ethical question.

Regardless of what the circumstances of this particular case (and the reporter claims he mistakenly mixed them in with his own materials and returned them immediately), just when does the end justify the means?

For example, the Star-Ledger and nj.com are boasting about an exclusive video of a man confessing a murder to State and Hunterdon County law enforcement officials. The news story says the video was “obtained exclusively by The Star-Ledger,” but does not mention how the newspaper obtained it.

The confession appears to be an official video recorded by the law enforcement authorities. It is compelling and newsworthy, but should the Ledger be allowed to say it “obtained” it without any further disclosure? If the circumstances were reversed, would the newspaper allow a public official to get by with a similarly worded answer?

Missing from the 'Rat' Story

Today’s Star-Ledger and Trenton Times include a story about a court case involving a giant inflatable rat that labor unions use in protests against anti-union activities The article notes that a union official was issued a summons and fined for using the rat at a protest in Lawrence Township, which has a law banning the use of inflatable signs. A state appellate court upheld the decision and the case now has been appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

The news story correctly identifies the union official as Wayne DeAngelo, assistant business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 269 in Lawrence Township. But no where does it mention that DeAngelo is a state Assemblyman.

While his role as an elected official may no bearing on this particular story, it would have been a nice piece of information to include in the article, especially in the Trenton Times version since DeAngelo’s Legislative District is in the heart of the newspaper’s circulation area.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Last Time A Woman Debated for VP

The last and only time a man and woman faced each other in a vice-presidential debate was 1984 when Geraldine Ferraro was the Democratic candidate and George H. W. Bush the Republican. Earlier this year while I was working on a study of media coverage of female politicians in New Jersey, I came across an interesting paper on that 1984 debate.

The author, Patricia Sullivan, found that Bush repeatedly used sports metaphors throughout the debate, framing the discourse in masculine terms that suggested Ferraro was out of place – a frame that carried over into many of the news reports on the event. “Ferraro seemed like an intruder on the debate stage,” Sullivan wrote.

If you’re interested in reading more, her paper, The 1984 Vice-Presidential Debate: A Case Study of Female and Male Framing in Political Campaigns, was in the Communication Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 4, Fall 1989, pages 329-343.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A New First for Sarah Palin

Today, Sarah Palin managed to accomplish something that many us thought would never happen. She has managed to get MSNBC and the Fox News Channel to agree.

The Palin campaign was criticized from both the left and the right for barring reporters from her meetings with meetings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, and Former Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger. Only photos and video were permitted, which as Fox’s Shushannah Walshe explained:

“This means that the Palin camp has the benefit of pictures of her shaking hands with world leaders and have that video broadcast all over the world, but there would be no risk of her having to answer even one question from a reporter at the beginning of the meetings. It is many television network’s policy, including Fox News Channel to not provide a camera if an editorial presence is not allowed in.”
Over at MSNBC, Matthew Berger reported that the campaign eventually relented and allowed a CNN pool producer to view the beginning of Palin's meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. According to Berger, members of the press were in the room for a total of 29 seconds.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Family Affair?

Near the end of Saturday’s Rutgers-Navy football game, Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel took a swing at one of his teammates. Afterward, Scarlet Knights coach Greg Schiano and the players characterized the incident as "a family matter."

That’s all well and good. From all indications, it was an unfortunate incident that resulted from the frustration of losing a third consecutive game. But when an incident takes place in front of 37,000 people during a televised football game, it is a public matter.

Perhaps, the Scarlet Knights are taking lessons from politicians who use their families to score political points, but cry “foul” and “off-limits” when the press raises legitimate questions about those same family members.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

What's Wrong With This Picture?

This photo (or variations of it) appeared in news reports about the nation’s economic crisis yesterday and today. It shows the officials who are working to address the problem - (from left) Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, President Bush, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox.

As such, it is an accurate representation. But it also sends a different message to hundreds of thousands of Americans. Here we have four middle-aged white men in suits making decisions that will impact the nation for years to come. I have nothing against middle-aged white men; I’m one myself. But the nation is more diverse. African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and women all are part of our culture.

These four people may in fact be the best four to deal with the current situation and it would be tokenism to diversify the group just for the sake of diversity. But there are gaps in our gaps in our nation. Large segments of the population feel a disconnect with government. And items such as this only make that gap a little wider.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Economy & the Race for Governor

This week’s economic developments have fueled speculation about how the nation’s faltering fiscal health will impact the 2008 presidential election. But looking further ahead to 2009, what does the fiscal crisis mean for New Jersey's next gubernatorial race? I made an attempt to answer this question in a piece I wrote for the Hall Institute this week: The Economic Crisis and the 2009 Campaign for Governor in New Jersey.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Strange Bedfellows

Today's revelation that a computer hacker had broken into Sarah Palin's personal email account could have some interesting repercussions in New Jersey.

Supporters of the Republican vice-presidential candidate contend that this represents an invasion of privacy, but others have no problem with disclosure of the emails since several of them apparently were about official government business in Alaska. This latter argument sounds surprisingly similar to the case being made by New Jersey Republicans, who are in court attempting to have some of the Democratic governor's email made public.

If the Palin emails continue to be an issue, could the NJ Republicans back off their case -- at least until after election day -- for fear of sending conflicting messages to the public during what most likely will be an extremely clse presidential election?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Media Bias in the Political Process

Last week, I had the honor of speaking at Ocean County College’s Fall Colloquium on the topic media Media Bias in the Political Process. In my talk, I took the position that there is no widespread bias in the media today. However, I did outline what I perceive to be a series of major problems and issues confronting the news industry.

In light of all the charges and counter-charges we’ve heard about the media over the past few days, I thought a few words from the close of my speech might be relevant to the current discussion and hopefully of some value for guidance as we move forward with this year’s historic presidential campaign:

"We have more news outlets than ever. And no one is going to sort out the good, the bad and the ugly for you. To make intelligent, informed decisions, we need to be open to all viewpoints.

"One of the downsides about all the media outlets available today is that we can choose to never read, listen or view anything with which we disagree. If you lean to the right, you can get what you want from Fox News. Lean to the left and you’re likely to have much in common with MSNBC.

"When there were fewer news outlets than we have today, we had no choice but to be exposed to different perspectives and ideologies. Today, we have to make a conscious effort to do this.

"So I leave you with a challenge of sorts.

"Watch the news on a different station tonight. Or read a different newspaper tomorrow morning.

Visit the websites for the Columbia Journalism Review, the PEW Research Center or one of the other organizations regularly producing research, analyses and critiques of the news media.

"Or just watch a few episodes of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.

"The bottom line is that there is more information available to us than ever before. Take advantage of it to make the best decisions you possibly can."

Monday, August 25, 2008

In The News

My opinion piece on the historical significance of this week's Democratic National Convention was published in the Bergen Record on Sunday. Click to read "Historical dimensions."

In addition, U.S. 1 Newspaper was kind enough to print my research essay on the private lives of public officials, a paper that became topical again with the revelation that former Senator John Edwards had engaged in an extra-marital affair. Click to read "The Press and the Private Lives of Public Officials."

Friday, August 8, 2008

Is There More to Olympic Coverage Than Meeets the Eye?

Today’s official opening of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing brings to mind a study I found several years ago while I was writing a paper about The West Wing.

One of the areas I was exploring was whether the popular television program promoted nationalism. While conducting my research, I came across an article in Critical Studies in Mass Communication titled Manufactured Conflict in the 1992 Olympics.

In it, the authors suggested that television can unknowingly contribute to the social construction of an American identity. Their analysis of television coverage of the 1992 Winter Olympics, concluded that “political nationalism is completely woven into the fabric of the greater discourse.”

The study cited numerous examples in which team and individual performances were presented in terms of nation-states’ relation with the United States. For example, TV commentators described the American hockey team as the “unheralded heroes of Team U.S.A.” and said the following about the Unified Team: “Do you think anything’s changed because of the dismantling of the Soviet Union? You’ve watched the old Soviet team, the Big Red Machine, and now, of course, that sports system is in shambles.”

Sixteen years later, it will be interesting to see if similar commentary finds its way into the coverage of the 2008 Olympics.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Summertime Blues

The months of July and August are traditionally slow times for news. Although New Jersey has had a few significant stories break this summer (such as child pornography allegations involving a state legislator), for the most part it has been a slow time for news in the Garden State.

Ironically, it has been New Jersey news organizations themselves that have emerged as the subject matter of several news accounts this summer. Collectively, these developments could very well change the face of journalism in New Jersey.

At the start of July, The (Bergen) Record announced plans to have most of its reporters working as "mobile journalists" before the end of the year and to leave its longtime Hackensack office in the next two to three years.

Later in the month, two major figures at NJN News -- anchor Kent Manahan and Director of News and Public Affairs William Jobes announced they were retiring. Senior Political Correspondent Michael Aron will take over Jobes’ job on an interim basis. No word yet on the anchor position.

And before July was over came word that Newhouse News Service, the Washington, D.C. bureau for Advance Publications (which includes The Star-Ledger) will close on Nov. 7.

This was followed a few days later by an announcement from the owners of The Star-Ledger that they are seeking buyouts from 200 of its non-union employees by October 1 – or they will put the state’s largest newspaper up for sale. A similar scenario is taking place at The Trenton Times, which like the Ledger is owned by Advance Publications.
One final item. This won’t have the impact of the other developments, but two Bergen Record reporters also made it into the news this summer. The New York Post on July 17 reported that billionaire Manhattan hotelier Patrick Denihan tried to chase the two reporters off a public beach near his house in Bay Head, N.J.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Fifty-seven channels (and nothing on)

The nation’s floundering economy, the war in Iraq, and the need to improve our healthcare system are at the top of the long list of challenges that New Jersey’s next U.S. Senator will confront in Washington, D.C. But you would never know that from reading the state’s daily newspapers over the past few weeks.

Ever since The Record reported that the Lautenberg campaign was planning a fundraiser in which donors who paid $1,500 would receive tickets (which were obtained at face value, or $108 each) to see Bruce Springsteen perform at Giants Stadium, this is the topic that has dominated the coverage of Senate race.

A search of the Access World News database shows between July 20, when The Record’s Charlie Stile broke the story, and today, 13 articles mentioning Democratic incumbent Frank Lautenberg and/or his GOP opponent Dick Zimmer appeared in New Jersey dailies and the Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Times. All but three of them were about the Springsteen tickets.

The three that dealt with other topics all appeared in The Press of Atlantic City. One was a story about an open house Zimmer conducted in Egg Harbor Township and one was a short advance that ran prior to the event. The third story focused on off-shore drilling, but it dealt mostly with Congressional candidates and pundits. Brief prepared statements from Lautenberg and Zimmer appeared at the end of the piece.

Journalists covering New Jersey were not alone in their interest in the campaign’s use of Springsteen tickets. Among the news outlets that the story found its way into were the Houston Chronicle, the Olympian (in Washington State) and the Washington Times.

Back in New Jersey as the coverage continued, The Record reported that New Jersey Democrats had conducted this type of fundraiser in the past. Apparently, they were not alone. In his 2005 re-election campaign, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger offered donors a chance to attend a private pre-concert reception and sit in prime seats for a Rolling Stones' concert at Boston's Fenway Park in exchange for contributions of $10,000.

In this case, the tickets came not from a government agency, but from Ameriquest, a mortgage lender and the lead sponsor of the Stones' 2005 tour. Ameriquest, based in California, donated the tickets to Schwarzenegger’s campaign, raising eyebrows back home where the company was under legal scrutiny for its business practices in the sub-prime lending market. In addition to the concert tickets, Ameriquest contributed $1.5 million to the Schwarzenegger campaign.

Censorship at the Olympics

Journalists covering the 2008 Olympics will not have access to websites considered sensitive by the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games (BOGOG), such as the website for Amnesty International, which has been critical of China’s policies on human rights. Compounding the issue is the fact that the ban runs counter to promises BOGOG had made about providing the media with the same freedom as had been provided at previous Olympics.

"I regret that it now appears BOCOG has announced that there will be limitations on website access during Games time," Kevan Gosper, a spokesman for the International Olympic Committee told reporters.

Keeping controversial arrangements secret is nothing new for New Jerseyans these days. As reported by the Star-Ledger, Rutgers University agreed to a secret deal that will allow head football coach Greg Schiano to break his contract without penalty if the school failed to complete a major expansion of its football stadium by 2009.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

EPA Gag Order

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued what amounts to a gag order to its employees, instructing them not to respond to questions from reporters. A memo obtained by the Associated Press shows that EPA workers are being directed to forward emails and calls from the media to the agency’s press officers. Such policies are commonplace in large agencies and – from the organization’s standpoint – usually make sense (one voice, one message, etc.). But rarely are the policies stated so bluntly in a memo or other document or file that can potentially be made public.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Springsteen Returns to NJ

With Bruce Springsteen coming to town, we posted a series of papers about “The Boss” and his impact on NJ on the Hall Institute website today. Links to the papers – as well as a few extras -- are below:

Friday, July 18, 2008

A Victory for the Tillerman

Sometimes, stories that seem plausible often are as accepted as fact – because they fit a logical storyline, not because they are substantiated. In their book, The Press Effect, Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman suggest several examples of how the media has framed stories to fit the expected storylines.

Perhaps that is why the World Entertainment News Network reported that Yusuf Islam, the singer known as Cat Stevens prior to his conversion to the Islamic faith, had refused to speak to - or even acknowledge - women who were not wearing veils during an awards ceremony. It turns out the allegations were false and Islam today was awarded a substantial undisclosed sum in libel damages by London’s High Court.

READ MORE

NJN, Gannett and the Cincinnati Reds

Kent Manahan’s impending retirement as anchor of New Jersey Network news has reignited discussion about the propriety of a news organization funded by the government it covers. But the relationship between NJN and New Jersey state government is just one example of the many strange bedfellows resulting from the media consolidation that has taken place in recent years.

For example, during the telecast of last night’s baseball game between the New York Mets and Cincinnati Reds, an advertisement for CareerBuilder, the nation’s largest online job site, appeared prominently on the fence behind the batter in the shots from the Reds’ Great American Ballpark. CareerBuilder is owned by the Gannett Company, which publishes 85 daily newspapers, including USA TODAY and several New Jersey publications. Among Gannett’s other holdings is partial ownership of a baseball team that just happens to be the Cincinnati Reds.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

No Charges in Trooper Case

No criminal charges will be filed in connection with allegations that State Police troopers took part in a sexual assault of a college student in Mercer County. This is a story that took some strange twists in the press after it broke late last year. For a refresher, read:

Friday, June 27, 2008

Reflecting on 1968

The AsociaciĆ³n de la Historia Actual has published an article of mine in its spring bulletin.

The article, The Music Was More Than Just A Soundtrack for the Events of 1968, is part of a special section on the anniversary of the protests of 1968. The piece explains how the messages and themes of protest music became a greater part of American culture as opposition to the Vietnam War grew.

The AsociaciĆ³n de Historia Actual bulletin is a multilingual peer-reviewed publication that promotes debate and research on historical issues. The organization is based at the Universidad de Cadiz in Spain.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Outsourcing the Newsroom

When I was a reporter at The News Tribune, we hired a copy editor from Texas. Although he knew the English language well, he was not familiar with New Jersey, and sometimes made errors, such as confusing the Garden State Parkway with the New Jersey Turnpike.

This comes to mind today because CNBC is reporting that the Orange County Register is outsourcing some of its copy-editing work to a company based in India. Given the state of the newspaper industry, publications all across the nation have been cutting costs through layoffs, consolidation and other measures -- but this is a new one.

Apparently, it is being done on a one-month trial basis. It will be very interesting to see how the trial goes and what direction the newspaper takes afterwards.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Opie Never Had A Chance

It was disappointing to learn that the Rome Diocese didn’t even bother to read the script for the film Angels and Demons before denying Ron Howard permission to shoot scenes inside two churches in Rome's historic center.

"Normally, we read the script, but this time it was not necessary," Monsignor Marco Fibbi, spokesman for the Rome Diocese, told the Ansa Italian News Agency. "The name Dan Brown was enough." Brown is the author of The Da Vinci Code, a best-selling novel that drew the ire of the Catholic Church. Angels and Demons is the prequel to the book.

Clearly, the Diocese has the right to determine what goes on inside its churches, but it also has a responsibility to not to prejudge anyone, regardless of what they may have done in the past. After all, isn’t that what Jesus taught?

Monday, June 16, 2008

NJ's Number Two Slot

Yesterday's Star-Ledger story about New Jersey's new Lieutenant Governor post provided a long list of possible contenders for the position and outlined some of the factors that will come into play in choosing a candidate. While the piece made for interesting reading, let's hope that as 2009 election draws nearer, there will be more focus on this new state office and what it means for the citizens of New Jersey.

Daddy Boot Camp Revisited

On Father's Day, the Star-Ledger ran a page one story about Daddy Boot Camp, a program that teaches fathers-to-be parenting skills. The story was generally positive in tone, unlike my April 25 posting on the program.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Question of Advertising

A two-page ad alleging that same sex marriages threaten our nation appeared simultaneously in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Times last week. The ad – and the reactions it has received – raise interesting questions.

News organizations have the right to turn down advertising, but they rarely do. As Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman noted in The Propaganda Model, one of the filters through which news passes is flak. Given the financial state of the industry, news organizations try to avoid controversies that will drain their fiscal and staff resources by having to defend their actions. In this case, turning down the ad may have generated more controversy than running it, especially for The New York Times. Whether accurate or not, the paper is viewed as liberal, so there may have been some reluctance to reject an ad from an organization espousing a conservative agenda, especially in light of the criticism The Times received for running a Move On ad – at a discounted rate -- that was critical of General David Petraeus and the war in Iraq

Another filter that Chomsky and Herman identified is advertising. News organizations rely on the revenue it generates, so they are less likely to turn down ads. Once again, it all comes down to money.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

NJ Media Covering Women Lawmakers Well, But Less Often

New Jersey’s female legislators won’t find their names in the news as often as their male colleagues, but when the state’s women lawmakers are included in media reports, they generally are treated on a par with men. That's what I found when I studied media coverage of the record number of women serving in the State Legislature. To read the report, click here.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Changing Times

Aside from who made the list and who did not, one of the most interesting things about Don Sico’s list of The 10 Best Political Journalists in New Jersey is the type of media that compromise the Top 10.

Three of the slots are filled by television reporters, two are radio journalists and one operates a newsletter that is distributed over the internet. That means only four of the Top 10 work for newspapers -- and three of them are columnists. The fourth covers New Jersey-related stories in Washington, D.C.

Newspapers have long been especially important in New Jersey because of way in which most of the television and radio available in the state emanates from New York and Philadelphia. But times have changed. People get their news and information from a variety of sources today – a reality reflected in this list.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

NY Follows the Garden State for a Change

New Jersey often plays second fiddle to New York in many areas, among them the media. But it was a New Jersey newspaper to first report that New York Mets manager Willie Randolph had injected race into the discussion about his performance at the helm of the club. After the story ran in the Bergen Record, it became a hot topic for media outlets in New York and beyond.

Reflections on Ted Kennedy

Today’s diagnosis that Senator Ted Kennedy has a malignant brain tumor is sad news for all Americans, regardless of one’s political or ideological persuasion.

Through a strange series of events, I was privileged to write a short quote for Senator Kennedy in 2001 for a press release promoting a campaign stop he was making in New Jersey for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim McGreevey. It was just a few sentences and I did not get to work with him directly before the event, but I did have the opportunity to speak with him briefly when he arrived in New Jersey. He was very gracious and I take pride in the fact that I was able to write something for a man who is a true American icon.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

News for A Sunday Afternoon - and More

Immigration was a hot topic in early days of the 2008 presidential campaign, but it has since been eclipsed by the economy and other weighty matters such as lapel pins, cleavage and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

In New Jersey, however, immigration has returned to the headlines, thanks to comments made by U.S. Attorney Chris Christie.

I’ll leave it to others to debate the pros and cons of what Christie said. On that topic, there is no shortage of opinions.

But from a media perspective, the evolution of this story is intriguing.

First of all, Christie made his comments on a Sunday afternoon at a meeting of a local chapter of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey. The group met at a church in Dover.

Chapter meetings of the Latino Leadership Alliance are not the sort of the events that the state’s largest newspaper covers on a regular basis, especially when they take place on Sunday afternoons in Morris County. But on this occasion, the Star-Ledger was there. Perhaps it was because Christie was the speaker, although it is not unusual for the state’s U.S. Attorney to have a public speaking engagement. Perhaps it was the topic. Prior to the meeting, event organizers had said Christie was expected to discuss local issues related to immigration. It also is possible that Christie – or his office – let the media know he planned to makes some comments that were likely to generate good copy.

Whatever the reason, the Star-Ledger was there when Christie, a law enforcement official known for his tough stance on crime, made some surprising comments on immigration. According to the newspaper, he said:

Being in this country without proper documentation is not a crime. The whole phrase of “illegal immigrant” connotes that the person, by just being here, is committing a crime.

Don't let people make you believe that that's a crime that the U.S. Attorney's Office should be doing something about. It is not.


He also told the audience an undocumented immigrant is not a criminal unless that person re-enters the country after being deported. He said the problem of undocumented immigration is an administrative matter that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement should address: If there are undocumented people running around, then Immigration and Customs Enforcement should do their jobs.

Regardless of how one feels about Christie, it is tough to question his ability to use the media effectively. When his office makes arrests, it is not unusual for the press to be there, capturing photos and video images of public officials in handcuffs. Although there have been exceptions, he generally comes across well in news reports. And while he tactfully dodges questions about future political ambitions, his name continues to top the list of potential GOP gubernatorial candidates.

So it is likely that an individual as media savvy as Chris Christie would have known that his comments on immigration were bound to make headlines, especially in Morris County where a local Mayor has long been outspoken on the issue.

And that’s exactly what happened.

Following the Star-Ledger’s initial report, the story was picked up by Associated Press and made its way into several other papers. Then Morristown Mayor Donald C. Cresitello, an advocate for tougher enforcement of immigration laws, demanded that Christie resign, leading to a story in the Daily Record. Next, Christie’s office issued a statement clarifying his comments, generating another Star-Ledger story, as well as an AP report. By the end of the week, the U.S. Attorney’s comments had become the topic for columnists at the Star-Ledger, the Daily Record and politickernj.com.

When I teach public relations, one of the first things I do is have my students read several newspaper articles and try to figure out how each story got into the paper. They usually can easily identify those that stemmed from press releases or conferences, as well those in which a reporter covered breaking news such as a fire or an automobile accident.

What is not so easy to spot is when circumstances and activities below the surface lead to a news report, especially one that has legs like the Christie story. Whether planned or unplanned, this is a textbook example of how a news story evolves—a valuable lesson for public relations practitioners who need to garner news coverage, and perhaps a more valuable lesson for journalists, who need to be aware of attempts to manage and manipulate the media.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Taking Issue with "Daddy Boot Camp"

The cover story in the May/June 2008 issue of Health Focus, a health magazine published by the Princeton Health Care System, describes a program that teaches fathers-to-be parenting skills. The program, although well-intentioned, reinforces sexual stereotypes and ultimately reduces, rather then increases, male involvement in substantive responsibilities of parenting.

Daddy Boot Camp is a one-day, three-hour course described in Health Focus as a “course designed for fathers-to-be to gain knowledge in parenting skills such as diapering, swaddling and feeding, and to develop hands-on skills for caring for their newborns.” It is the topic of the magazine’s lead story, featured on its cover and first two inside pages, as well as its Health Education Calendar.

As its name suggests, the Daddy Boot Camp program is based upon a military theme. Actual military boot camps are run by drill sergeants; the instructors in Daddy Boot Camps are called “drool sergeants.” Experienced fathers are known as veterans – the same term used for individuals who have completed their military service.

The theme is reinforced by the photographs accompanying the article. On the cover, two fathers, dressed in military fatigues, are pictured holding their baby daughters while a drool sergeant inspects their appearance. One of the fathers is wearing a pouch with matching military fatigue colors. But instead of weapons, the pouch contains a baby bottle and a stuffed animal. Similar photographs decorate the inside of the magazine. In one, the drool sergeant (dressed in military clothing) is holding the two infants from the cover. In another, a father wears a military helmet while feeding his daughter a bottle. The theme continues in the text of the article, which begins with “One-two-thee-four… what’s the baby crying for?”, a parody of the familiar chanting that soldiers use while marching.

Viewed collectively, the photographs and text of the Daddy Boot Camp article absolve men of the responsibility of caring for their newborn children. This is ironic because the intent of the program is to do just the opposite. To a limited extent, the program and article succeed in achieving this goal. The men who participate are taught several procedures that are helpful in caring for infants. Overall, however, the materials send a message that caring for a newborn child is not the primary responsibility of a man. Males who make a conscious decision to care for their newborns are doing something extra. They require special instruction and can be excused for not knowing (or wanting to know) how to care for babies.

The photographs depict a perfect world. The fathers and children are smiling and happy. There are no sobbing babies nor are there stressed-out parents trying to balance work, parenting and lack of sleep. The message is clear: Take one three-hour class on a Saturday morning and learn all that is needed to be a good parent. Conversely, the photos imply a negative message about mothers. Why can’t women learn care for their children with such ease and lack of stress?

The message of the photographs is reinforced throughout the text. The language makes it clear that parenting is not something that is natural for males:

“Every new father has the same fears and anxieties.”

“One of the dads was concerned he would ‘break’ his baby.”

Swaddling a baby is described as “a daunting task for almost everyone.”

Moreover, fatherhood is treated not as a joyful part of the human experience, but as a series of necessary tasks. The male instructors are described as “fathers who have been there,” a description that suggests they have been through difficult experiences. Men are urged to learn about breastfeeding and to read books about child care -- not because these are the right things to do and are part of being a responsible parent, but because these are ways to avoid arguments with their spouses.

The military theme itself is disturbing since it juxtaposes nurturing a newborn child with an organization that teaches people how to kill other human beings. On another level, however, the military theme provides men with the comfort of retaining their masculinity while engaging in activities (parenting) that they may consider feminine. Again, this underscores the message that parenting is neither a natural activity nor a primary responsibility of men.

Other than the photographs of two infant girls, women are absent from the article. This absence – viewed in conjunction with the text – suggests that men and women have separate and distinct roles in parenting. According to the article, “The group setting provides just the right atmosphere for relaxed, frank discussions about fatherhood.”

Although women have no presence in the article, the Daddy Boot Camp website does offer a link to a “What Moms Need to Know About New Dads” section. Given the message contained in the article, the title of this section suggests more of the same. Unfortunately, the link only leads to a page indicating that the content of this section will be “coming soon” – a promise that fittingly underscores the overriding message of the article.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Difficulty in Analyzing Newspaper Coverage

Although quantitative analysis has been used frequently in media research, its weaknesses often diminish its value -- something that we should all keep in mind as we follow the upcoming elections in the press.

In his book Analysing Newspapers: An Approach from Critical Discourse Analysis, John Richardson explains that there are flaws in a process that “assumes if a word is used 20 times in one newspaper and only twice in a different newspaper, this is of significance.” For example, he notes that because his own research on the representation of Islam includes words such as violence, threat and terrorism, it could be interpreted – incorrectly –as being indicative that Muslims are linked to negative social activity.

A similar observation was made more recently by the Project for Excellence in Journalism in its analysis of media coverage of presidential candidates in 2007. Following a lengthy discussion of which candidates were dominating the coverage, the report acknowledges, “It is important to note that these data speak to the quantity of coverage given to each party’s candidates, not tone of that coverage. A story about Republicans could be favorable, unfavorable or neutral to that party. Likewise for Democrats.”

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Sports and Society

My interview with Trenton Thunder General Manager is below.

Part 1



Part 2



Part 3

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Remembering Dith Pran


When New York Times photojournalist Dith Pran covered a press conference or a news event in the area, he looked like any other photographer doing his job. Unless you knew otherwise, there were no signs that Dith was the man who endured four years of starvation and torture in Cambodia and that his story was the inspiration for the 1984 film The Killing Fields.

When I learned that Dith had passed away from pancreatic cancer Sunday night, I immediately recalled a brief encounter I had had with him back in 1997. The story tells a lot about the type of a person he was.

At the time, I was working as the public information officer in Woodbridge Township and our mayor, Jim McGreevey, was embarking on his first quest for the Governor's Office. The New York Times was doing a profile on McGreevey and an editor asked me to provide some pictures of his work as mayor.

Being that this was long before the days when digital photography was commonplace, I had a stack of snapshots -- most of them taken by the police department's ID Bureau, which was much more adept (and rightfully so) at photographing crime scenes than municipal ceremonies.

I picked out about a dozen or so of what I thought were the best photos and set them aside for The Times. When Dith (who lived in Woodbridge) arrived at my office to collect them, I expected him simply to take the photos and be on his way. Instead, he carefully looked over each picture and politely informed me that I might want to reconsider my selections. He spotted things that only a photographer’s eye would see – an awkward glance, an unflattering shadow, a misplaced background object, etc. He took a look at the huge stack of pictures on my desk and explained that he had to go shoot an assignment, but would return to help me select the best photos of the mayor.

True to his word, he came back to Town Hall and spent the better part of an hour perusing pictures of press conferences, proclamation presentations and VFW dinners until he found several suitable photographs. I didn’t yet realize who he was, but I was touched by the fact that he cared enough about how the mayor would look in his newspaper that he would take time to look through several hundred photos – and explain to me why he chose some and rejected the others.

As he looked through the photos, we made small talk. When he learned that I lived in Hamilton, he asked for directions to the College of New Jersey in nearby Ewing, where he was scheduled to give a lecture. He also was interested in Woodbridge Township’s new web page. (Municipal web sites were just starting to make an appearance at the time.) He explained that he was starting his own web page and offered to show me the page while it was under construction. Still unaware of just who he was, I asked him about the subject of his web page.

“You know who I am?” he asked out of amusement.

Although I still didn’t know, I remained silent as his web page appeared on the screen of my computer revealing that he was the real life person upon whom The Killing Fields was based.

More than a decade has passed since this brief encounter, but I never forgot that Dith Pran – a man who had survived conditions more horrific than most of us will ever know –- cared enough to take time to help me do my job better.

May he rest in peace – a peace that clearly is deserved.