Do Media Report the News or Make the News?

I was invited to address participants in the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Program in an upcoming event. The topic: “Do the media report the news or make the news?”

My invite came on short notice (as I’m replacing a speaker who had to cancel), and I wondered how much time I could free up for preparation. But then it occurred to me that it would be both easier for me and more useful for the students if I simply asked some of Colorado’s journalists what they thought. While I was at it, I figured, I might as well compile the answers for the web page.

I contacted around twenty people, expecting only a few replies (especially given the short notice). I’ll update this page if I get additional responses. I asked journalists to mention their top media successes and to answer the question about reporting versus making the news. (By the way, if you’re a Colorado journalist and I did not contact you, feel free to send me your answers anyway.)

Please note that the text beneath a writer’s name was written by that writer, not by me, and I may not agree with all the comments.

*** Jason Salzman ***

“Do the media report the news or make the news?”

Both. Media outlets are not passive transmitters. They are run by people who make decisions about whom to investigate, what to feature, how to allocate staff time. The staff at mainstream news outlets reflects prevailing values and norms, so the decisions of media staff, on what to cover, are often in line with prevailing opinion of what might be considered news.

Here are a few successes.

1. BigMedia Investigation Leads to Release of McInnis Water Articles. In May, BigMedia pointed out that Scott McInnis divulged, in a radio interview, that he’d received $150,000 from the Hasan Foundation to write a series of articles on Colorado Water issues. It was known that he’d received Hasan money, but what he’d actually done for the foundation was a mystery. BigMedia called on reporters to ask McInnis and the Hasans to release the articles. Journalists didn’t do this, so BigMedia wrote a series of articles, like this one, trying to find the missing articles.

BigMedia was almost certainly first media entity to interview the Hasan Foundation and the McInnis campaign about the articles and to ask for their release. BigMedia was the first media entity to report that McInnis was paid $300,000 to write the water articles, not $150,000, as had been previously reported in the Denver Post. The early BigMedia investigation, pushing for the release of the articles, was cited by the Denver Post’s Ed Quillen, whose June 3 column contained the first mention of the water articles that appeared in The Denver Post:

“Scott McInnis, a Republican candidate for governor… received approximately $150,000 from the Hassan Family Foundation, for which, as he explained on a radio program, ‘I wrote a series of in-depth articles on water’ that ‘could be used in a series for education on water in Colorado.’ I follow water stuff fairly closely, and I never saw the work. Jason Salzman, former media critic for the Rocky Mountain News, talked to everybody who might have reasonably encountered this hydrologic epic, and came up empty; McInnis’ office did not respond to his questions.”

Aliya Hasan, daughter of Malik Hasan and board member of the Hasan Family Foundation, told BigMedia that she didn’t think McInnis’ water articles, which later were found to be plagiarized, would have been released without the media criticism from BigMedia. [Editor’s Note: See my article about more recent developments in the case. -AA]

2. BigMedia Pushes Media to Illuminate Buck As Extreme Social Conservative. BigMedia had been monitoring talk radio shows and pressuring the hosts to ask tougher questions of conservative guests. So, when Ken Buck won the GOP primary and little was known about his social agenda, BigMedia was positioned to report what Ken Buck had been getting away with saying on talk radio and to push the mainstream media to report on Buck’s virtually unknown right-wing agenda. In August, two days after Buck won the primary, in a blog post titled, “Talk Radio Does Great Job of Illuminating Buck as a Deep Social Conservative,” BigMedia was the first media entity to lay out, for mainstream journalists, Buck’s positions on social issues and to call on major media to inform readers of his right-wing views.

When the media refused to do this, BigMedia documented that major media, including the Denver Post (as well as local TV news), had ignored Buck’s position that, for example, abortion should be banned, even in the case of rape and incest. BigMedia continued to push journalists to report views that Buck had expressed on talk radio early in the year versus the views he articulated later in the campaign. And when the media claimed that Buck’s critics were the only ones talking about social issues, BigMedia corrected reporters, pointing out the fact that Buck talked about themearly and often during the primary.

3. BigMedia’s Report, “Jane’s Free Ride,” Pushes Denver Post to Quote Norton More Often. In April, the project spotlighted the Denver Post’salmost complete failure to quote U.S. Senate candidate Jane Norton directly. This report, and subsequent updates, led to more frequent and direct quotations of Norton.

4. Associated Press reports that co-speaker at Palin event had history of bigotry. In April, the project called on the media to report that Sarah Palin would be appearing in Denver with a retired general, William Boykin, who had a history of making bigoted statement about Muslims. Subsequently, the Associated Press reported, “Sarah Palin is used to drawing opposition, but it’s someone else on stage with her Monday in Colorado that has people talking.” That person was Boykin, who said that America’s Islamic enemy was “Satan,” the AP pointed out, using research that appeared in the project’s blog postings.

5. Business Journal reporter agrees to investigate State Rep. Conti’s false claims in newspaper. In February, after the Denver Business Journal ran an article reporting Rep. Conti’s assertion that vending companies lost jobs due to legislative action, the project researched the topic andshowed Conti’s claim was not supported. The Journal’s reporter agreed to investigate, time permitting, but the issue never surfaced in the legislature, so follow-up was not called for.

*** Michael Sandoval ***

Successes include:

Ariel Attack and “smashtroturfing” from 2009.

National blogosphere exposure of the Danny Dietz memorial controversy — beating the Denver Post.

Sen. Michael Bennet and “nothing to show for it” — two attack ads and above the fold on Drudge.

I consider these the top media successes given the legs that each had in their respective category. The “smashtroturfing” story had national implications (it was the summer of townhall angst against Obamacare) and Dem Chair Pat Waak blamed Tea Party “hate” for the incident, when in fact it was a far left transgendered anarchist paid $500 in 2008 to canvas for Democrats by an SEIU-front 527 supported by CoDA donors Stryker and Gill. This combined on-the-fly investigative reporting and social media crowdsourcing.

The Danny Dietz memorial story was a barely a blip on the radar until national-level bloggers, steered by my original blog post, began to swarm on the issue, prompting a story in the Denver Post, reaction from then Rep. Tancredo, and a general consensus that the memorial was entirely appropriate. This story was a combination of news gathering from various sources before the FB/Twitter era, and pushing the story out to national level bloggers who could force local media to react.

As for Sen. Bennet, merely calling him on something he had said at campaign events all year but failed to get much notice by local media was a big story — here’s an appointed senator saying that for $14 trillion in debt, the USA had little to show — and I found the audio that confirmed him saying it. The impact was at least two separate attack ads on Bennet — independent and certainly not coordinated — after the story made it to Drudge. Numerous other articles and coverage followed.

Regarding the nature of the media:

A good journalists finds or undercovers the real story, whether through meaningful questions, hard-nosed investigative reporting, or by ferreting out angles or themes that might be missed by an average “beat” reporter. When it comes to political news, it is often less a question of “making” news than it is a question of story choice. The criticism of media, both left and right, is not “commission” of making the news or manufacturing outrage — though that is often the case. It is more a question of what is “omitted” — the unflattering stories that go unreported in favor of one side or the other. Good journalists do more than simply chase the ambulance, they try to find the smoking gun, the critical witness, or the key evidence to a story, eschewing a simple regurgitation of he said, she said press releases. If they “make” the news, it is in the sense that they give a story legs, and drive the news cycle until the next story replaces it.

*** Ed Quillen ***

Two recent columns may have affected public policy. One criticized Scott Gessler’s request for more authority to investigate the almost non-existent prolem of non-citizens voting (the legislature did not act) and another hit on the proposal to make pseudoephedrine available only by prescription (the notion died, and I think was the only one to write about it).

Going back to 2003, as best I know I was the only columnist, at least in a Denver paper, to oppose the Referendum A water grab, and it went down by a 2-1 margin. It’s rare that I feel that good about an election.

Regarding the media, there’s a common saying in the trade that “Newspapers don’t tell people what to think, but they do tell people what to think about.” I can’t say much about other media, as I’ve never worked outside of print.

The correct answer is likely “both.” There’s lots of news you don’t make — police blotter, public meetings, courts, the routine stuff you cover. And there’s some you generate with investigative reporting or good feature-writing, bringing something new to public attention.

These days, so many events are not spontaneous, but more or less staged and scripted and you’re not doing your readers any favors if you just report the event — in that case you’re being manipulated by the choreographers.

My personal attitude, when I’m practicing journalism instead of punditry, is that if I encounter another reporter, I should look for a different story. I abhor pack journalism, and I can see why Sarah Palin has so little respect for the business when there are so many folks assigned to follow her bus around. Of course, if you ignored her, you’d get angry phone calls about how you were conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to silence a great patriotic voice or whatever.

So a lot of the crap you find in the news is there because squeaky wheels get greased.

*** Ken Clark*** 

I have only been in the media a very short time; so far my biggest success has been pulling off the “Grass Roots Radio Colorado” contract with Crawford Broadcasting. I was told that it could not be done, especially by two guys with zero radio experience and more importantly, in a “major market.” Well, we proved them wrong by hosting the show for over six weeks straight (an audition if you will), after which Crawford agreed to a contract. Now Jason Worley and I are permanent fixtures on 560 KLZ.

Beyond that, we are gaining quite a following by attacking issues that no one else on radio will go after. Now, I’m told, all of the elected officials holding state office either listen to the show or assign staffers to keep them informed of the issues we dissect. Our success is attributed to the fact that we stand on principle and will carry the water for no party or elected official. We are equal opportunity attack dogs. That being said, we much prefer going after progressives, it’s just sad that some of them are on “our side.” Plus, we like to have fun.

Second, although Liberty Ink Journal is no longer in print, this was my first venture into media. Stephanie Anderson and I decided that there was a need for a publication that actually spoke the truth about issues and could help inform the masses as to what was happening to them. In that regard we were a huge success as we had quite a following and people still remember the magazine, and we still have the online version.

Regarding the media: The “media” neither make the news nor do they report the news, or should I say facts. They decide what the best way to “sell” their position is and that is what they report as news.

If the media reported the news the way that it was intended to during our founding and the drafting of the First Amendment to the Constitution, we would not be in the mess that we are, our society would not be made up of 47 percent takers, and there never would have been a need for the “Liberty Movement.”

The media are every bit as corrupt as the Federal Government and they have morphed into what I like to refer to as the “Ruling Class” along with elected officials in both parties. [Editor’s note: presumably Clark is referring to the major print and television media. -AA] They decide what we need to know, they decide what the truth is, they decide what society should think, and the sheep swallow it hook line and sinker. …

That is why it is imperative that the internet and sites like the PPC, talk radio, blogs, etc. remain engaged and continue to get the truth about what is happening to this country out. This is the only way we will ever win back our Republic. The truth is out there, we just need to find it and make the masses understand it.

*** David Harsayni ***

Does media report or make the news? Both. But there is no such thing as “media” or at least there is no such thing as a media that acts as one voice. It’s too democratized. So, sometimes it makes it, sometimes it doesn’t. It depends on the sensibilities of the outlet.