Surprise, Surprise

It’s no surprise when reporters are surprised by a major breaking story on their beats.

Jun 10, 2015 at 11:16 am

It’s no surprise when reporters are surprised by a major breaking story on their beats. 

Too many reporters have become captives of their sources, turning to the usual suspects when a story breaks, regardless of who breaks it.  A recent example involves Cincinnati City Hall and police beat reporters who apparently were surprised by the kerfuffle between Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell and the mayor and city manager. Discord and mistrust at that level can compromise public safety. It is a big story. 

As Sunday’s Enquirer page 1 conceded, “few outside City Hall or police headquarters saw it coming.” That includes reporters. 

If personal and professional relations were so sour, didn’t anyone tell Enquirer reporters? Where were their usual sources? Or was that the problem? The usual sources didn’t know or weren’t talking. Local news on WCPO and WVXU didn’t do better. 

Were there no hints, no red flags, nothing that should have led reporters to more than playing catch-up to the Business Courier? Sunday, the Enquirer finally began to tell us what we should know about the internal workings of the police department. One assistant chief has already quit to take an industrial security job. He wanted the top job and didn’t get it. 

Whether that was the usual departure of a disappointed candidate or a sign of something more toxic is something we might learn. 

The city manager has called for a study of the “climate” within CPD. The chief has been ordered to produce a plan to reduce shootings and homicides … as though police can stop thugs from resolving business and interpersonal differences with deadly force.

This kind of missed story isn’t unique to Cincinnati, but national and international examples typically reflect not only reliance on familiar sources, but also writing to cultivate those sources rather than informing readers, viewers and listeners.  

Examples include Saddam Hussein’s lack of Weapons of Mass Destruction before Americans decided to punish him for having WMDs. Most stenographic news media repeated White House and Pentagon assurances and were embarrassed — if possible in elite newsrooms — when no WMD was found. 

Judith Miller’s explanation for missing the story and leading the New York Times into ignominy was that no reporter is better than her sources. True, but in her case, the most generous explanation is that she was a captive of her sources. They knew she would push to get on page 1 if her stories reflected “leaks” from top White House and Pentagon officials. 

In short, she and the Times carried their polluted water. Reporters on a few papers had better sources and weren’t embarrassed when their  sources proved to be better informed than Miller’s. 

More recently, the financial journalism community was surprised when bad or criminal mortgages gave birth to the Great Recession. 

That something was horribly wrong was plain to anyone listening to Cincinnati talk radio during which hosts pimped mortgages that required no down payment or allowed interest-only payments and/or promised more than the house was worth. Even a casual listener had to ask how these money lenders would be repaid by borrowers who took out these subprime loans. It was a replay of financial reporters’ blindness to the shenanigans of Enron and other industries that have gone belly-up before journalists noticed. 

Or, as in the case of WMD or bad mortgages, editors appeared to distrust the outlier sources and were more comfortable with stories that quoted the usual famous sources and their conventional wisdom.  

It’s what I’ve called “blackbird journalism.” One flies off the wire and the rest usually follow. Most recently, the nonpartisan, nonprofit ProPublica and NPR have made a cottage industry of exposing deceptive, if not criminal, activity by the American Red Cross. 

Most news media frame Red Cross stories in the context of immediate disaster relief and seemingly selfless volunteers. That’s what the usual sources hope.ProPublica and NPR follow the money — into the opaque Red Cross accounting and dubious sense of accountability.

In recent years, the Red Cross has been hit by internal scandals, usually involving failures in the executive suite, inept use of volunteers and the lack of accountability for donations by millions of Americans. 

I’ve written at length about the ProPublica and NPR probe of the scandal over the Red Cross response to Hurricane Sandy. Some traditional news media followed ProPublica and NPR on that story. Others ignored it. 

The latest ProPublica and NPR expose on Red Cross shenanigans involves promised relief for Haitian quake victims. As NPR’s Laura Sullivan explained, new sources approached them after the hurricane stories. They noticed that spending numbers weren’t adding up, and the Red Cross changed the language it used to explain those figures. 

An example, Sullivan said, involved Red Cross claims about housing aid in Haiti. 

“The Red Cross told us that it provided homes for more than 130,000 people. So we thought, great, it shouldn’t be hard to find tens of thousands of homes,” Sullivan said. 

“Well, it turned out, after a lengthy series of email exchanges, that the vast majority of that number is made up of people who went to a seminar on how to fix their own homes, people who got temporary rental assistance and people who received temporary shelters that, according to the Red Cross, start to disintegrate after three to five years.” 

Typically, news media promote the Red Cross and other do-gooders who say they are helping disaster victims. Too often, the coverage is uncritical, as though editors fear the backlash of volunteers. 

And this timidity is compounded by the reflexive reliance on Red Cross officials and public relations people: the usual sources. 

The Red Cross isn’t the only purportedly altruistic and  tax-exempt charity that is more than a little lower than the angels. And when that happens, it’s usually another NGO that blows the whistle, not the reporters who were supposed to be covering the groups or disasters. 

Informed coverage requires reporters with smarts, broadly varied sources and, above all, time to wander the halls, sit in the bars, bullshit with cops, clergy, aid workers and others, and then tell the rest of us what they’ve learned.

Otherwise, don’t be surprised when we’re surprised again.  ©