WVXU’s decision to hire retiring Enquirer politics reporter Howard Wilkinson is the rare bright spot in the increasingly constricted world of local news gathering.
Adding him to WVXU’s reporting staff scored a twofer for news director Maryanne Zeleznik. In addition to his sense of local and state politics, Howard is as passionate and knowledgable about the Reds.
Howard’s a friend and former colleague during our decades at The Enquirer. When Zeleznik was at WNKU, Howard was her Ohio politics guest maven. It’s a role he retained when she moved to WVXU. Now, he’ll be on staff, and what better time to start than a presidential election?
Zeleznik said, “Bringing him to WVXU where he can continue his political blog, provide expert analysis on our Impact Cincinnati show, interview some of the key city and state leaders for Cincinnati Edition, and still be able to follow his beloved Reds, it was too good to be true.”
I expect he’ll take his metal card file boxes and contents with him. They always were there for us to use. He only asked that we copy the information and leave the cards where we found them . . . on his desk.
Howard’s departure from the daily where he spent most of his career was prompted by a recent Gannett decision to get rid of some older employees. Unlike recent layoffs, this one was “early retirement.” I wasn’t surprised at the veterans who took it; better than severance amid seemingly endless staff-cutting in pursuit of profit. Local management could accept or reject requests for early retirement under this latest program.
I won’t even guess why The Enquirer figured Howard wasn’t needed this year. I’d love to be a fly on the wall, however, if Enquirer execs voice second thoughts if Rob Portman of Terrace Park is Mitt’s running mate. Or maybe not. They can always listen to WVXU.
After some scary budgets that kept Katie Orr’s position open after she left, WVXU has been hiring and now has the strongest local newsroom, second only to The Enquirer. Not long ago, Tana Weingartner joined WVXU veterans Jay Hanselman, Ann Thompson and Mark Heyne. Now, add Howard. They all do real reporting, unlike AM hosts who spend their time frightening the faithful with apocalyptic interpretations of others’ legwork.
Coincidentally, WVXU’s audience has increased to the point where it’s almost a burden, as Zeleznik points out during on-air fundraisers: NPR charges stations according to the number of listeners, and most don’t donate.
But that’s not my point. Public radio — and that includes more than NPR — is growing for various reasons. Chief among them are the quality and scope of public radio reporting and the decline of such traditional authoritative sources as daily newspapers and non-Fox TV network news.
The corollary? WVXU is building audiences and financial resources as our Sole Surviving Daily wanes. It would be an easy graph to understand: one curve up, one curve down.
WVXU receives one of our family’s largest donations each year. The station, 91.7, is the default setting on every radio in the house, on my HD portable radio (a WVXU fundraising premium) and in our cars. That tiny portable also brings in BBC World Service and WGUC.
I don’t expect WVXU’s newsroom to grow to where it challenges The Enquirer as we know it. Size matters. But the key here is “as we know it.”
Enquirer circulation has been falling for years, despite a recent tiny increase in Sunday sales. Ad revenues are tied to circulation and cover most expenses. Online revenues haven’t made up what’s lost because most merchants believe online ad impact is dramatically less than print.
So? Firings and retirements from the newsroom. Stories from other Ohio dailies are welcome but they don’t compensate for the lost local smarts.
Then there are the implications of a recent national Pew Research Center study. It found heavy users of local news rely on dailies but most wouldn’t be crushed if their local newspaper folded. It wasn’t so long ago that The Cincinnati Post folded and its readers didn’t stream over to The Enquirer.
Pew also found that adults who follow local news closely tend to be older, female, African-American, politically conservative and religious.
Well, I’m older. Age takes its toll, but other studies find that Americans are reading more, especially on smart phones and tablets, notebooks and laptops.
And to end as I started, on a cheery note, those readers include the young.
• Titanic trivia: Saturday’s Enquirer story by Barry Horstman reflects local suspicions that everything revolves around Cincinnati. No, Horstman is not contradicting the scientific consensus about a heliocentric universe, just that Cincinnatians seem to be involved in just about every tragedy that matters. Or believe they are. Read it.
It reminded me of a challenge when religion reporters were talking shop over drinks after a meeting of the nation’s Catholic bishops. I was taking some friendly jibes for always finding a newsworthy local angle in these sometimes-sleep inducing annual meetings.
“How would you find a local angle if Christ returned,” a friend challenged. “Easy. ‘A messiah expected by some Cincinnatians . . . ‘“ That’s as far as it got.
• More Titanic trivia: A wise man at The Minneapolis Star and I were talking about serendipity. As I recall his tale, he’d been at The Star since the night the Titanic sank. He was the telegraph messenger boy who brought the multipage sheaf of passengers’ names. Struggling to get out a paper with the stunning news, an editor asked the boy if he could type. He couldn’t but said “yes” and found himself hunting-and-pecking as he turned the telegraph list into something that could be sent to the printers for the next edition. Fifty-plus years later, he still was at The Star, a much loved honored columnist and storyteller.
• My tale? I was hired after The Star’s managing editor recalled that when he was a young, new reporter, he’d written the retraction of another reporter’s libel of my maternal grandfather. He’d figured that connection from my middle name and a couple questions. Oh, and I could pronounce “Wayzata,” a posh suburb then on Lake Minnetonka (as in moccasins and toys). Clue: every “a” in Wayzata is pronounced differently.
• Monday’s Enquirer described why Findlay Market is making its three parking lots into 24/7 pay lots later this month. That’s a useful story although the plan is hardly new. I was left wondering, however, why no one who shops there was quoted by name. We’re the ones who’ll pay or go somewhere else. I’m sure there was no shortage of customers at Findlay if a reporter went there. In the same way, it wasn’t clear from The Enquirer article whether there will be a loss of customer parking as Over-the-Rhine residents and market vendors and their employees buy monthly parking passes. And will more spaces be lost to penny-pinching downtown workers who buy the monthly parking passes and take the streetcar?
• You don’t have to be a major daily to win a Pulitzer. The prize for 2011 local reporting went to Sara Ganim and The Patriot-News. A beat reporter, she spent months dogging sexual abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant football coach and founder of the charity, The Second Mile. No one other than her editors noticed her first stories, in March 2011, that a grand jury was probing allegations against Sandusky. The news media, however, poured into State College and nearby Penn State after he was arrested late last year.
• A West Coast federal appeals court ruled that public radio and TV may broadcast paid political ads. The Ninth Circuit majority said the federal ban on ads — as opposed to ads posing as “support” and sales pretending to be “events” — violated the First Amendment. “(I)ts restriction on advertising was not narrowly tailored to the government’s interest in preserving the educational programs on public broadcast stations,” the court said. Should financially strapped public broadcasters choose to run such political ads, it would give them a chance at the gazillions being spent this year on presidential, House and Senate races.
• Joe Nocera eviscerates GOP lies about the Chevy Volt and Republican efforts to link Obama to a technology that threatens the party’s indebtedness to the oil patch. In his regular New York Times op/ed column, Nocera asked, “What is the connection between President Obama and the Volt? There is none. The car was the brainchild of Bob Lutz, a legendary auto executive who is about as liberal as the (libertarian billionaire) Koch brothers. The tax credit — which is part of the reason conservatives hate the car — became law during the Bush administration.
“It’s nuts,” Lutz told Nocera. “This is a significant achievement in the auto industry. There are so many legitimate things to criticize Obama about. It is inexplicable that the right would feel the need to tell lies about the Volt to attack the president.”
Nocera continued, saying that in Lutz’s regular blog at Forbes, Lutz has tried to counter what he has called the “rabid, sadly misinformed Right.” But Lutz has largely given up, Nocera continued. The last straw came when Lutz’s conservative intellectual hero, Charles Krauthammer, described the Volt as “flammable.” Krauthammer, Lutz said, had to know better. Although he remains deeply conservative, Lutz told Nocera that he has become disenchanted with the Right’s willingness to spread lies to aid the cause.
• Fox News — the intellectual core of the GOP — also has been attacking the Volt and trying to link it to Obama (above). Nocera said Neil Cavuto, the Fox News business editor, helps lead the partisan hue and cry. “With seven months to go before the election, Cavuto and his Fox News brethren will have plenty of opportunities to denigrate an innovative car, employing American technology and creating American jobs, in order to besmirch a president who had nothing to do with it. It is, after all, what they do.”
• Reporters frequently quote sources without insisting they define their terms, especially when belief and scientific consensus clash. So it was with delight that I found this in The New York Review during an exchange of letters to the editor over climate change and human involvement.
It is attributed to physicist Richard Feynman: “Some years ago, I had a conversation with a layman about flying saucers . . . I said, ‘I don’t think there are flying saucers.’ So my antagonist said, ‘Is it impossible that there are flying saucers? Can you prove that it’s impossible?’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘I can’t prove it’s impossible. It’s just very unlikely.’ At that he said, ‘You are very unscientific. If you can’t prove it impossible, then how can you say that it’s unlikely?’ But that is the way that is scientific. It is scientific only to say what is more likely and what less likely, and not to be proving all the time the possible and impossible.”
• “Mistakes were made.” In terms of critical thinking, that cliche ranks with “shit happens.” The latest scam to use that passive voice is the Central Asia Institute, an American nonprofit related to Three Cups of Tea author Craig Mortenson.
Probes by CBS News and the Montana attorney general say Mortenson used a lot of the money for himself and must repay $1 million. People related to the foundation said Mortenson wasn’t the brightest bulb when it came to handling money and “mistakes were made.” When will reporters learn to ask, “By whom?” Mortenson and the institute came under unfamiliar scrutiny after the Montana Attorney General’s Office responded to critical reporting on CBS’s 60 Minutes.
• Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino was fired for, among other things, lying about his recent motorcycle wreck. That he had a honey was no surprise, nor that he tried to cover up their relationship. After all, he was a winner on the field and what counts for more than that when it stiffens alumni and loosens their wallets?
But Petrino was caught telling university officials — and they told the world — that it was a lonely crackup. Turns out the married coach is a liar. He had a passenger: Jessica Dorrell, a lovely blonde employee half his age. My point? We know about Petrino’s injuries, lies and dismissal, but I haven’t seen stories about the young woman’s injuries, condition, or employment status. Just another fungible blonde in the man’s world of college football coverage.
• I don’t know how many family newspapers, not to mention local TV newscasts, will tell you about the federal judge who emailed this joke from his chambers:
"A little boy said to his mother; 'Mommy, how come I'm black and you're white?' His mother replied, 'Don't even go there, Barack! From what I can remember about that party, you're lucky you don't bark!' "
USA Today says the jerk is Montana's U.S. District Chief Judge Richard Cebull, an appointee of George W. Bush. The paper says the subject line of the e-mail "A MOM'S MEMORY" and Cebull added in the email, “Normally I don't send or forward a lot of these, but even by my standards, it was a bit touching. I want all of my friends to feel what I felt when I read this. Hope it touches your heart like it did mine.”
USA Today says Cebull acknowledged the e-mail was racist but said he doesn’t consider himself racist. He said the e-mail was intended to be a private communication. "It was not intended by me in any way to become public," Cebull told the paper. "I apologize to anybody who is offended by it and I can obviously understand why people would be offended."
Cebull said his brother initially sent him the e-mail, which he forwarded to six of his "old buddies" and acquaintances. "The only reason I can explain it to you is I am not a fan of our president, but this goes beyond not being a fan," Cebull said. "I didn't send it as racist, although that's what it is. I sent it out because it's anti-Obama."
• It’s about time the news media quit pretending — along with so many other Americans — that Obama’s election brought us to some post-racial Promised Land. Since the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida, a number of African Americans have described “The Talk” they got while growing up, and now pass on to young black males, about surviving in an overwhelmingly white society.
Now, John Derbyshire, a writer for the conservative National Review, has been fired for his racist essay in the unrelated online Taki’s Magazine. It purports to be the white version of “The Talk.” Here is part of his much longer online essay:
“Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally. Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods.
“If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date. (N)eglect of that one got me the closest I have ever gotten to death by gunshot).
“Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks.
“If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible.
“Do not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians.
“Before voting for a black politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a white.
“Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway.
“If accosted by a strange black in the street, smile and say something polite but keep moving.
• An NPR newscast said millions of North Koreans suffer “food insecurity.” What happened to famine, starvation, hunger or malnutrition?
I can understand Americans switching recently from “hunger” to “food insecurity” in hopes the terminally dense wouldn’t catch on to this official and journalistic dishonesty. After all, we’re the richest, most powerful nation in the world and our people can’t be going hungry. Or we can’t admit it. So hungry Americans suffer food insecurity. But North Korea is an Orwellian dictatorship. We don’t have to share the linguistic security of food insecurity.
• A recent national survey found many religion reporters admitting ignorance of the faiths they cover. So here’s my first bit of advice to doctrinally challenged reporters covering religion: the “d” in Latter-day is lower case in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).
There’s never been a better time to add this lower case d to a reporter’s arsenal of facts. It’s part of national discourse for the first time since federal troops didn’t confront Mormons in what didn’t become the Utah War in mid-19th Century. Look it up. Then, as now, it involved wider public fears of what Mormons were up to than what Mormons really were up to.
CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]