What It Is, Is Not Journalism

Photo credit: Bob Brown, Richmond Times-Dispatch

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

I never thought that I would agree with Jim Bacon on the slant of the RTD’s news coverage, but an article on evictions today just really irritated me.

It was the usual article about activists demonstrating at the Richmond courthouse and protesting evictions. (At least the demonstration on Thursday was peaceful; no smashed windows, no pepper spray, no arrests.)  The article was a cut and paste job, recounting the familiar history of the how many evictions are pending and how a moratorium on evictions has been lifted. It concluded with several quotes from college-age demonstrators talking about the corrupt capitalist society. (I had another flashback to the 1960s).

I have great sympathy for folks who are having trouble paying their rent due to the economic problems created by the pandemic. What irritated me about the article are the unasked questions. Questions such as: How many actual eviction hearings have been held since the expiration of the moratorium? What were the results of those hearings? Did the tenants have legal representation? What is the status of the pilot eviction diversion program authorize to be established in Richmond? Supposedly, the Northam administration was working on getting the program, authorized in 2019 legislation, organized and ready to go by the effective date of July 1. What is going on with that? How about the $6 million pledged by the city for eviction diversion? How is that being distributed? Or has the Stoney administration even gotten around to trying to figure out how to implement the program?

It is easy to cut and paste old stories and interview a few students who will provide provocative quotes. But, that is not journalism.

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32 responses to “What It Is, Is Not Journalism

  1. RTD apparently is rolling downhill…

  2. How is this different from the hate-filled article, should I say rant, you posted excoriating Conservatives for your inferred conviction that they oppose all regulation?

    Notwithstanding the flawed basis on which you purported to determine what all conservatives think and notwithstanding easily determined facts that Conservative do not oppose all regulation, didn’t you patch together some “inflammatory” quotations to press your anti-conservative narrative?

    Hasn’t the concept of journalism throughout the media propagated by Democrats, Progressives, Liberals or whatever you want to call yourselves morphed to selling a narrative which is unalterably anti-Conservative, anti-Republican, increasingly anti-white, anti-America and a lot of other anti-‘s?

    • As Larry would say: Geez, Gillespie. What were you trying to prove with that post? I’ve called others out for “And so’s yo’ mamma”- style argumentation on this blog and I’ll call you out as well, though I’m generally on your side of the argument. “How’s this different from the hate-filled article” etc. C’mon. I understand your frustrations, but take them out another way.

      Nancy, still waiting to here about your experience in Rocquencourt.

  3. Actually, I have not found any of Dicks articles to be “hate filled” – by a long shot.

    Getting rough in BR these days.

  4. People wonder why newspapers are collapsing…this is why. Dick brings up excellent questions which should be asked.

    But the poster child for bad journalism in Virginia is the Daily Progress. Just a wretched excuse for a newspaper at this point. Take a look at this “journalism”:

    https://www.dailyprogress.com/news/local/majority-of-cpds-use-of-force-was-against-black-suspects/article_4448b659-00dc-58ef-a6f4-e803eac23144.html?fbclid=IwAR1ssvHebUEyb2XEDO8_RT4IfiT4VnWAARzXwlMwpEoXHvAbkEEpZvf9Txc

    When I read this, the first thought that comes to mind is, “Wow, that’s an exceptionally low amount of use of force cases for a city of almost 50,000 people.”

    Does the reporter inquire about the specifics of the uses of force? Does the reporter look at other cities of 50K people and compare their use of force statistics with Charlottesville’s? Does the reporter have any conception of whether this number is abnormal? Does the reporter compare use of force incidents to total number of contacts the police department has with citizens in a year? Does the reporter think to compare the racial statistics with other cities of a similar size? Does the reporter even ask if 17 total incidents can be statistically relevant?

    No. Instead, the entire article is slanted to make it sound like there is a “problem” with CPD’s use of force. Though, literally not a scintilla of evidence that there is one.

    The only people that actually pay to read the newspaper are older white males. Yet, newspapers do their absolute best to make sure the readership cancels their subscriptions. News is a business. Businesses are supposed to cater to their customers. A newspaper should present a story in at least a slightly factual way rather than print pure propaganda aimed to alienate its readership.

    • Local newspapers are twisting in the wind. We’re expecting quality journalism when most of the barely have enough money to keep the presses running much less pay for top quality journalism.

      We’re really in trouble because who do we think is going to do that job now?

      We’ve taken for granted that reporters will cover City Council, BOS, school board meetings and other important meetings and events – but less and less and soon perhaps not at all.

      I’m not sure what we now expect or should expect anymore from many newspapers… many are going to go away and the ones that remain, 5, 10 person operations.

  5. All good questions, Dick. I know they won’t pay attention to me. Maybe you will have a more salutary effect!

  6. Mine was a rant more out of frustration than at the newspaper itself. I realize that newspapers have had to cut staffs dramatically. The kinds of questions that I asked would have required a reporter to spend time sitting in a courtroom and also asking for detailed data and information from city officials. When an editor has lots of events going on and few staff to cover them, it is a luxury for a reporter to devote several days to developing a story, even a fairly routine one.

    The RTD published an excellent series of articles last fall on guardianship and the conflicts of interest swirling around the use of guardians by the VCU medical center and the courts in Richmond. The series led to reform legislation in the GA last session. That series took a year to research, conduct interviews, and write. I fear that we are not likely to see another series on that order anytime soon.

    Concidentally, the New York Times had an excellent article yesterday about the death of small-town newspapers, particularly about the hedge fund owners who are bleeding them dry. The owner of the paper in Pottstown, Pa., which is down to one reporter operating out of his own attic, had a 30 percent profit margin on its papers in the Philadelphia area in a recent year. The Pottstown paper was the only one of its size to have won two Pulitzers. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/10/us/alden-global-capital-pottstown-mercury.html?searchResultPosition=1

    Closer to home, two of the Commonwealth’s major cities, Norfolk and Virginia Beach, are without newspapers. The Virginian Pilot, which I once considered the state’s best newspaper, has moved to the Peninsula and is a shell of its former self. For awhile, I have subscribed to the online version, mostly out of a desire to support the paper, but I am having second thoughts. The online version is pretty much duplicated in the Daily Press online edition. Why should I continue to contribute to the corporate owner’s bottom line when I am getting nothing in return?

    We are all going to be poorer as these newspapers die.

    • Why? I can get all my news from Facebook and all my intelligent discussion at Tik-Tok….it is all of a piece with the collapse of our culture, it’s capture by social media. We turn on the boob tube, choose Fox News or CNN and go into our extreme corners to stay. (Seeing more of both during the pandemic lock-in was chilling.)

      We are not just going to be poorer, we’re going to be more vulnerable to the ideologues and manipulators.

      • James Wyatt Whitehead V

        Social media, newspapers and old school outlets are very much aligned as it was in the Age of Jackson. The old Richmond Enquierer was an arm of the southern Democrats “fireaters” brand. Under John Daniels the Enquierer even dissented against Jefferson Davis. The Richmond Whig subscribed to the idealogies of the Whig Party. The New York Tribune, run by Horace Greeley, answered to Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall. The Charleston Mercury adhered to the principles of John C. Calhoun. The Liberator and the North Star appealed to Republicans, Know Nothings, and the Free Soilers. The game has not changed. Just different actors now.

    • I think what’s interesting is that people keep mentioning that RTD series (which was quite good). But, can anyone point to another article or set of articles in the past 5 years from a Virginia newspaper that you’d consider good journalism?

      It’s interesting you post this, b/c, I, too, have kept digital subscriptions to the RTD, Pilot, Daily Progress, and Roanoke Times. I have been thinking of canceling all of them (and just keeping my paper subscription to the WSJ). I’ll give them til the end of the summer, but if Labor Day rolls around and nothing’s changed in the poor practices of these papers, I’m going to cancel all four.

      • Zullo and Martz did a series on Dominion that was excellent, right before Zullo ran off to found VA Mercury.

        • Thanks!

          I think my problem with some commenters on this blog are their comments about the Mercury. TBH, I get more truly good Virginia journalism from the Mercury, RichmondBizSense, and Bacon’s Rebellion than any newspaper in the state. I get that the Mercury slants its coverage (and, I think BR has a decidedly right-of-center tilt), but….they still adhere to real journalism.

          I certainly appreciate your comments and articles as well as Mr. Bacon’s coverage of land use and energy (I wish he’d stay away from the cultural stuff) and Mr. Hall-Sizemore is also very good.

      • It was more than 5 years ago, but the Bristol Herald Courier won the Pulitzer Prize for public service coverage in 2010 for a series on how landowners were being deprived of millions of dollars in natural gas royalties.

  7. Advertising is what funded local newspapers. Advertising has not died. On the contrary, it funds legions of reporters for CNN and FOX and Google, Facebook and other social media.

    Part of what is killing local papers is the demise of locally-based businesses that bought newspaper advertising and now have been displaced by big box stores and Amazon and other online.

    Papers and News have always been biased though. It has been and remains our own responsibility to critically examine any/all news for the truth as well as our own tendencies towards confirmation bias – i.e. where we prefer information that hews to our own leanings -and that then becomes “truth” to us.

  8. Increasing public corruption at the state and local levels is perhaps the biggest threat from a decrease in reporting. Lower levels of politics have always been the most prone to corruption and adverse influence and remain so.

    Why?
    – State and local elected officials of both parties maintain a system of unlimited campaign donations in Virginia.
    – To use the example of my home town of Virginia Beach, many candidates for City Council are selected and funded in direct proportion to their likelihood to perform like trained seals for the donors. The citizens, to the degree that they understand these links through investigative reporting, can identify and defeat the Trojan horse candidates. With the disappearance of local reporting, honest public servants can survive in this system, but it is not the way to bet.
    – “Donors” can measure directly the effects of their contributions. Corruption for part time elected officials can come in the form of business deals, not just direct payments.
    – Demonstrators for causes can target part-time politicians’ personal businesses and those of their families.

    Co-opted by the hateful politics of the age, papers like the RTD only chase and frame stories that reflect badly on the policies, the party and the beliefs of politicians with whom they disagree.

    Local papers run politically-edited wire service stories to fill up their shrinking pages.

    Thus state and local politics will grow increasingly corrupt in inverse proportion to the level of investigative coverage by the press.

    The demise of local papers is but one of many threats to the republic percolating in our culture and institutions.

    • this sounds like one of those things that conservatives now days has no answer to, right?

      You don’t trust most media to not be biased, correct?

      And it’s more than campaign finance. Who finds the already-elected corrupt?

      So… “liberals” like media – the good, bad and ugly of it but Conservatives have pretty much rejected media these days so what is the answer for Conservatives – for local/regional news reporting?

      RTD used to be right-leaning media back in the day if not mistaken.

      But at this point – it appears that most Conservatives reject most local/regional media in Virginia, no? And they seem ok with it going away..i.e. they drop their subscriptions and don’t really advocate other ways for them to survive financially – just let them go away.

      correct?

    • Jim, it sounds as if you agree with the slogan of the Washington Post: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” (Sorry. I couldn’t resist.)

  9. Dick,
    I can appreciate your concerns about local journalism and the great need for more in-depth reporting. I don’t completely agree with you in this example. It strikes me that the reporter was assigned to cover a protest about evictions and that was done. We don’t know the restrictions on the story, such as time allotted, how many words, etc. But if it was one of several stories I had to do that way and was given no more than 500 words, I would limit my reporting to work efficiently. What seems to be needed is a more in-depth look at the actual number of evictions and so on, but I am not sure court officials would have that data readily.
    Plus, to give the RTD a break, they have been working around the clock with a limited staff on the nightly and sometimes violent demonstrations against Confederate statues. Back when I worked for the RTD in the early 1980s, they actually had a full-time science reporter who used to go to Houston and cover space launches
    What’s happened to journalism has been a long time coming. I blame managers of outfits like Media General, former owner of the RTD, for their lack of foresight in handling the Web. If you look at advertising of three decades ago, it was chock full of full page ads by car dealers and department stores. The latter are quickly vanishing as are their ads. The backbone of any newspaper is classified and legal advertising, which are what is keeping many papers afloat today. But their days are numbered, too.
    The answer has been ,logs like Bacon’s Rebellion, which actually does do a fine job at keeping issues before the public. Right wing outlets like The Bull Elephant and the Republican Standard and left-wing ones like Blue Virginia have done the same. Another solution are non-profits like Pro-Publica and the Virginia Mercury, which have hired talented young journalists who have done a great job covering issues.
    I agree entirely that local journalism is essential for democracy. But I do not agree that there was some kind of “Golden Age” when all news reporting was “unbiased.” There’s always some element of bias in it. I try constantly to point out the difference between commentary and news on this blog, buy I haven’t been very successful. One of the reasons conservatives are so incensed about the national media goes right to Donald Trump and his manipulation of the news. Trump is a pathological liar. He’s been documented lying or misleading 19,000 or so times since he’s been in office. Leading papers like the Post and Times have made the correct policy decision not to be mere stenographers for Trump’s false statements. If he says something demonstrably false, they point that out. I applaud that and I have worked in some totalitarian places where the government outright lies.
    What’s unfortunate on this blog is the constant media bashing by people who are not professionals and know very little about it. These people don’t know the difference between a straight news story, a commentary, an editorial, a blog posting or a book or movie review. One of my closest friends is a conservative lawyer in DC. He castigated a Post review of two books on politics. He called the review “poorly reported.” But, hey, it’s a book review. There isn’t much original reporting other than what the book authors state.
    What’s a shame at BR is the personal attacks and utter viciousness with which some commenters use to batter others whose opinions they disagree with. I have watched the decline of the news industry for several decades now. I have seen many friends lose their jobs and struggle to keep reporting under terrific handicaps. There was a time when I made great money and literally could hop scotch the world reporting out a story. No longer.

    • I agree with you about not knowing the restrictions on the story and the thinner staff of newspapers. (In a follow-up comment, I tried to acknowledge those limitations, which I should have done in the original post.) As far as this particular story was concerned, it was about the third time that the essentially same story had run. The only “news” was that the demonstration had been peaceful.

      I also agree with you on the emerging practice of the national newspapers to note the statements of politicians that are demonstrably false.

  10. Unfortunately, too many “journalists” are, well, trash. They think that they exist to give the the world their views on events. There are a few that still ask all the questions and try to expose all sides of an issue or event. Tony Olivio of the Post comes to mind. Years ago when I still read the Post regularly, I was speaking with him and told him that I liked his writing because it was always very hard to figure out what he thought of the matter. There are some local reporters in Fairfax County that still engage in the same kind of writing.

    More reporters for trade press companies still try to get multiple perspectives. I did an interview last week and was asked to address both sides of an argument on a pending matter at the FCC.

    If I knew I’d get “both sides” of a story, rather than the “enlightened” views of a reporter, I’d probably start subscribing to online versions of a couple of media outlets.

  11. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Just curious Mr. Bacon. Wondering how many people actually view Bacon’s Rebellion on a daily basis? I always see the same crowd of commenters and I do appreciate all of them. I suspect there are many that view the blog but never comment. Is there a way to measure daily views?

    • I frequently get comments from people about my posts; some are from places like Bristol. So, the readership is much broader than is reflected in the comments.

      • And it’s read daily by perhaps others who like me after moving from The Beach to FL 2+ years ago, religiously peruse it daily because it covers so called local VA issues with parallels to what’s going on nationally … AND … it offers an opportunity for opposing viewpoints to be aired by highly intelligent and knowledgeable correspondents.

  12. Some of the most vocal demonstrators in the 60’s went on to careers in fields like investment banking and learned first hand the wonders of capitalism.

  13. I still believe the public, if not at the moment then soon, will be willing to pay good money for solid Wall Street Journal-type reporting. I was going to cancel WSJ, mainly because I objected to their business practice of charging 25 different prices to 25 different people. But since then, I’ve watched RTD go way downhill because of the way in which their reporters portray their opinions as fact. With my wife’s permission, which I will probably get, RTD will be toast. There are maybe 3-4 articles a day of any local interest.

    In the last two years, I thought their elevation of local interest stories had become a good business model for them. At that point, I thought their price was cheap, and I was willing to pay. Now they just seem to rely on AP for what they publish, the guardianship story being the notable exception.

  14. “Almost, but not quite, completely unlike journalism” to paraphrase the great Arthur Dent.

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