House Cameras Should Have Full Rein, Democracy On Parade Good For Nation

Politicos had the week of their lives as the House of Representatives slogged through a 15-ballot process to determine a Speaker, an epic-sized drama with a cast of characters and plot twists that famed author Allen Drury (Advise and Consent series) would have had a hard time creating. It was an adrenaline rush, that once concluded very late Friday night, allowing for the nation of television watchers and social media followers to lean back deep in their sofas and truly exclaim “Wow!”

There was no way for even casual viewers or the most lackadaisical of citizens not to have been aware history was being made.  The nation soon was talking about the fact it had been nearly a century that a Speaker election at the Capitol required more than a single ballot.  Tension mounted so that reporters spoke openly and even somewhat thrillingly that no one knew how the events would play out.  This was after all, why they wished to join the journalism profession. Soon those in the land who thought they were not interested in history started talking about Nathaniel Prentice Banks, who in 1855 required 133 ballots over two months to secure the gavel. It was that type of week.

As the politics were playing out with spirited nominating speeches on the chaotic House floor, while the ratings for all news channels increased, Americans realized something truly quite fascinating was occurring in front of their eyes. Gone were the stale and formalized offerings from the C-SPAN cameras that only allowed for the House member speaking to be viewed, or the chair of the Speaker to be focused upon.  Rather there was a freewheeling display for the citizens to watch, as the cameras caught every angle of the story and made sure the main players and the supporting roles in the drama had plenty of air-time. On the first day, there was lonely George Santos, who got a break in his highly troubling running narrative due to a much larger headline overshadowing him. There were animated discussions where Matt Gaetz was the focal point for viewers. Friday night there was nearly a brawl that was captured by the cameras.  Though this was not legislative sausage being made, the nation was better understanding what was happening so as to elect the main meat grinder.

Congressman Mike Rogers was physically restrained by another member while going after Matt Gaetz Friday night.

Needless to say, there are news stories to be seen and told regarding the working coalitions of House members via the interactions on the floor.  Accounts that can only be presented fully to the nation if House cameras are allowed to record such moments. But all that was lost again once the House passed its rules and again abides by the most outdated and self-protecting rules in Washington.  (Other than at the Supreme Court.)

Brain Stelter, former anchor of CNN’s Reliable Sources is a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. He made a very compelling argument for the cameras to operate in an open and transparent fashion in a must-read column in the Boston Globe.

But consider what the public is usually unable to see: The joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, was not deemed deserving of independent TV coverage. So when the proceedings were adjourned due to the mob at the doors, the cameras were immediately turned off. Viewers should have been able to see the attack as it happened on the House floor — and the imagery would have made it harder for hard-right media personalities to deny the reality of that day.

But the desire to treat the House as a private workspace is superseded by the very public nature of the job. As a compromise of sorts, congressional leaders should allow a pool of journalists’ cameras for major news events and legislative debates — and the news media should determine what counts as major, not the government.

Sound journalism demands that the cameras operate for the benefit of the public’s right to know and better understand how their government functions. Or fails.  There really is no better or more sound argument to be made.  What politicos and everyone else were able to see and react to, be it with a partisan tinge, a historic perspective, or just from a ‘can not take my eyes off the crash scene’ mentality’ is that having more information is always a better route to take.

The fortunate lack of rules at the start of the year in the House allowed the cameras to give our nation insight into how a legislative body actually looks, feels, and reacts to the minute-by-minute tumult. It may not be pretty, but it is our government ‘working’. It is, for better or worse, democracy on full parade.

Judy Woodruff To Depart PBS’ NewsHour, Diversity And Generational Change in 2023

Judy Woodruff is soon to depart from the PBS NewsHour and another chapter in this decade’s long news show mainstay on public television will unfold.  It has been my pleasure to tune in Woodruff over the many years, first on CNN’s Inside Politics with cohost Bernie Shaw, a reporter I simply could never say enough good things about in his career. Woodruff proved repeatedly with interviews and her professional grinding down of a story to the essential ingredients why she was ideally suited for the NewsHour. I so respect her work and will miss her being a part of the ones we invited into our home via television.

Bernie Shaw

What the public knows now as the best one hour in broadcast news on television started when I was just a year away from entering my freshman year in high school.  In 1975, The Robert MacNeil Report, a week-night half-hour news program provided in-depth coverage of a different single issue each evening.  When I was a teenager dinner would be over in our Hancock home and the evening network news and the local news would have come to an end.   It would be 6:30 P.M. and time to change the channel (by walking to the set and manually turning the dial!) to Wisconsin Public Television for the half-hour program which devoted itself to one news story each night.  It might be the reason for a major jet crash or diving into the religious turmoil in the Middle East.  The show was informative and so well done with insight and professionalism.  And I learned so much.  It piqued my interest to want to know even more.  I suspect some of my wonkiness about details and policy was formed by this show and its reporters.

Now that iconic nightly news program has alerted us that Judy Woodruff will sign off from the anchor desk on Friday, December 30. And with equal interest, we want to know what follows. 

Taking Woodruff’s place at the anchor desk will be Amna Nawaz and Geoff Bennett. It goes without saying that this change is more than a new anchor and managing editor taking charge, but also a true generational shift and more diversity for a large tumultuous nation that is growing more multicultural. Bennett, 42, is Black and Nawaz, 43, is the first-generation American daughter of Pakistani parents.

Geoff Bennett and Amna Nawaz

The solid center of viewers to this program really demands continuity with a deep dive into hard news and serious analysis. The background of new anchors will add a fresh layer of understanding and questions about the topics of the day, and that is to be applauded.  We gain much by listening to others and having fresh perspectives.  It is reported that one change to the show which will begin at the top of the new year will be avenues opened to allow younger viewers to access the news in ways that mesh with their daily use of social media.  For decades-long viewers such as myself, we are promised to have the same journalistic professionalism that was the reason we started our journey with the program back when President Carter was in the White House.   

A Weekend Read Of History And News Reporters, Harold Holzer Delights (Again)

Looking for a weekend read that is timely, filled with history and press relations galore? Governing on the one hand is very important while understanding at the same time the absolute necessity of having a Fourth Estate as the ultimate “guarantor of freedom”.

President George Washington had the nation’s longest honeymoon in the White House, but with his second term the press, in part, turned their ink towards him in ways that stunned and scarred. He mostly stayed above the fray, above the articles, as opposed to how later presidents, who were even more thin-skinned would rebuke reporters and snarl on camera at them, such as with President Richard Nixon. “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

The press was rash and fresh in 1792 and just as the executive branch took root and gained power and federal reckoning over the decades, so too did the journalism profession mature and strengthen into what can only be correctly termed, as the British do, the Fourth Estate. I am finding the book perfect as I have a long and deep interest in the dual rise of the American presidency and the media that shaped it. As I am reading it I just know that Bill Safire, the wordsmith and media-oriented writer, would thrill to the book. There is no way not to feel drawn back into the time when Abraham Lincoln made use of the new “instant communication” technology of telegraphy. No way not to smile and read on and just warm to the narrative.

If you know Harold Holzer from his Abe Lincoln and Civil War books you are most aware of his keen intellect, a research knack that shows in his works, and a narrative style that draws a reader into the pages. I very much think for the history and media types who are readers of this page The Presidents vs. The Press will be a real delight.

Remembering Bill Plante With Lesson About Why Journalism Matters in America

Though several days late there was no way I could not pay tribute on this blog to a solid reporter that most of my readers watched countless times from the White House on CBS News.  Bill Plante, who died last week at the age of 84, was one of those voices and faces that our nation turned to in times of turmoil and high drama that would play out at the White House regardless of the person sitting in the Oval Office, or the political party in power. As I will demonstrate Plante’s professional moves as a journalist underscore some basic truths about reporting and politics in our nation.

The New York Times wrote of his boyhood in Chicago, attending Loyola, and being hired as the assistant news director of WISN-TV in Milwaukee. He joined CBS News in 1964 and was quickly sent to Vietnam; it was one of four times, through the fall of Saigon in 1975, that he reported from there.

Shouting questions was a necessary part of the press corps’s job, even if that behavior appeared rude, Mr. Plante told the streaming service CBSN; if reporters did not, he said, “we’d be walking away from our First Amendment role — and then we really would be the shills we’re so often accused of being.”

One of Mr. Plante’s most disquieting moments as a White House correspondent occurred in late October 1983, when he learned that the United States was about to invade the Caribbean island of Grenada. Before going on the air with his exclusive, he asked Larry Speakes, President Reagan’s acting press secretary at the time, to confirm his information.

Mr. Speakes denied it, and CBS killed the story.

“Larry said something like, ‘Preposterous — where did you get that?’” Lesley Stahl, then a fellow White House correspondent for CBS News, said in a phone interview for this obituary last year. “And the next morning there was an invasion. At the briefing the next day, Bill was furious, and justifiably so, and, in that big booming voice of his, accused Larry Speakes of misleading him.”

The reason Plante knew the story should be reported, and why he was furious with the White House Press Secretary (acting or not and one who should never outright lie to a reporter), was because the military adventure in Grenada was a “look over there’ move by the Reagan Administration to deflect from the massive loss of American lives two days earlier in Beirut.

Fundamentalist militants attacked the US Marine barracks in Beirut with a truck bomb on October 23, 1983, which killed 241 American servicemen. History recorded that as the deadliest single attack on Americans overseas since World War II. Reagan did not, however, send additional troops to Lebanon, which was the theatre of obvious attention, but rather 7,000 troops to invade Grenada, the smallest independent country in the Western Hemisphere. Reagan would claim in a national television address about “fighting communism” but Plante was well aware this was nothing more than a political face-saving moment after the loss of hundreds of American soldiers.  Plante also understood the absurdity of needlessly “rescuing” around 800 American medical students on the island for the most dubious of reasons. The matter was far more about expedient politics than foreign policy.

Our national government allows for reporters to be very close to the seat of power.  Closer than any other leader provides for reporters in any other country around the globe.  The White House Press room is located just steps from the office of the press secretary. The relationship between White House reporters and the leader of our nation, regardless of political party or decade, is often tense and difficult.  As it should be.  As it needs to be.

To provide our democracy with the information, insight, and analysis needed for citizens to be able to evaluate the direction of the nation a robust press corps needs to probe and question all our leaders.  That often makes every White House uncomfortable.  That is one price of attaining power that each president must deal with.  The fact that reporters unearth and report on issues that otherwise would never come to light such as the famed example of the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s underscores the need for an energized press as they report and help secure the foundations of our nation.  Too often the public forgets that the press in our nation is as much a part of why we are free today as the soldiers in uniform. 

Bill Plante was most aware that when the flare-ups between the people who wield power, and those who report on them seem most tense, we are actually witnessing the strength of our nation. Think of the many nations where a free working press cannot exist within their boundaries, let alone in the same building or close proximity to where the leader works and lives.  To pepper any president with tough questions, or demand accountability from the government, is the very task that these reporters should do on a daily basis. And Plante did that job with a single focus under Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. At times these actions can royally irritate some in the seats of power and others while watching in their living rooms, but history shows we are better served by being truly informed citizens.  That can only happen with many intrepid reporters on the beat.  Especially at the White House.

Bill Plante showed America how it was done. 

Bernie Shaw Dead At 82, Remarkable Newsman And Perfect Rolemodel For Journalists

When it comes to television news reporters there is a special mantle on which I place Bernie Shaw.  The famed newsman died today at the age of 82.

If you are my age and enjoy politics the memory of Bernie Shaw and his remarkable work on CNN will easily come to mind.  One of the shows he worked on, and in time would be joined by the equally professional Judy Woodruff, was Inside Politics.  With deep analysis and pointed interviews, the show was designed to not only report on the current events with politicians but look ahead and try to better determine what might next be occurring in the world of politics.  I absolutely loved the show and recorded it each day so I could watch it later in the evening.

I have always felt the question asked by Shaw in a 1988 presidential debate of Democratic nominee Mike Dukakis was not only perfectly aimed but one that allowed the nation insight into the candidate. The death penalty was an issue, and while it might be termed startling to have it asked of a candidate in the way Shaw did, the deer in the headlight’s response from the nominee did aid the nation in making an electoral decision. The question was whether Dukakis would support the death penalty should his wife, Kitty, be raped and murdered. Dukakis responded with “No, I don’t, Bernard, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.”   While I supported Dukakis and opposed the death penalty it was very clear from his response the election was over.  

Over the years I commented on Shaw and in 1988 noted as the race for Wisconsin’s First Assembly seat grew more intense, and the GOP made it historic for that time by throwing over $50,000 into the Republican’s campaign, I started to stress out. I had started to work in Representative Lary Swoboda’s office the year prior as his Administrative Assistant, By the morning before the election, I was ill to my stomach and spent the day at my home in Madison.  While drinking tea and eating soft foods I watched Bernie Shaw on CNN and knew the polls would be dreadful for the Dukakis campaign.  But on Election Night I was back in the First Assembly District where we secured a comfortable victory.

In 2006, I noted how I felt when Bernie Shaw had left CNN years prior as if  I had lost a friend.  The well-respected reporter, along with his co-anchor Judy Woodruff, made politics and campaigns pop and sizzle with insight and energy on the first all-news cable network.  Their program “Inside Politics” was truly must-see TV.  CNN has changed over the years because of downsizing and altering its news focus, and as a result, the caliber of its political reporting has suffered.

I am hoping that in newsrooms tonight in America there is the memory of the work Bernie Shaw provided our nation, and then use those recollections as a template on how news should be gathered and reported.

Joseph Lindsley Is Modern-Day Edward R. Murrow, Listen To Ukraine Reporting From”Edge Of The Free World”

“Not even for a second could I imagine abandoning the country in that moment, especially as a journalist,” Joe Lindsley said.

If you know of my deep respect for the wartime reporting of Edward R. Murrow on the radio it will be clear that I do not place the headline on this post lightly. Having first listened to the recordings as a teenager of Murrow painting epic-sized images over the airwaves of the carnage and fear from WWII, and then over the past decades as I studied various aspects of history allows me to properly conclude that Joseph Lindsley now walks in Murrow’s shoes.  If you know of and listen to the Ukraine-based reporter you already likely agree with my assessment.  If you are not aware of Lindsley’s work, please continue reading.

The reason I write today is due to Lindsley’s latest on-air coverage provided this morning on WGN radio’s Bob Sirott morning show. Listen to it here. The obvious nerves and stress and fast pacing of his words and details are a stark reminder of the work that today placed him in the heart of the battle.  The bombed and shelled buildings which are rubble around him and the warnings that are given about when to stay indoors are underscored by his descriptions from “the edge of the free world”.  Safety in Ukraine is termed by this reporter as “Russian roulette, if it hits your building it hits your building”.

Like most people who were born after WWII, it is hard to truly understand the fear and uncertainty that was engendered from that international calamity, or the way radio news announcers like Charles Collingwood, Bill Shirer, and of course, Edward Murrow reported the grit and hardness of scenes in Europe as Germany destroyed the social fabric. Many of us likely recall the scenes from the television show The Waltons, sitting around the living room radio hearing about Hitler’s military might and the rise of Nazism. Their dread and powerlessness were best registered on the face of Grandma. But that same sense of over-powering emotions has come through the radio over the past six months as Lindsley gives his accounts of Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Listening to Edward Murrow’s recordings at least 25 years after they were reported from Europe while enjoying my larger bedroom back home after my brother left home, further confirmed why radio enthralled me. Now many a weekday morning as I listen to Lindsley from Ukraine on WGN I find that same intimacy with the medium to be again as strong as I know it was for the listeners around the world who heard Murrow from London.

Journalists and reporters are the reason our democracy thrives.  That has long been a point made on this blog. But their professional role in providing a world with news and facts on a daily basis, as Lindsley does, requires we honor and salute their intrepid efforts.

Julaine Appling Carps On Madison LGBTQ+ Church Event, TV News Erred Using Her Reaction

UPDATED with reaction from WKOW-27.

Thursday night WKOW-TV reported in their late news broadcast how the faith community united for a focused message of inclusion for the LGBTQ+ community.  It was a remarkable and truly uplifting event where 22 different faith organizations gathered for an interfaith assembly.

The need for bridge-building by various faiths along with their places of worship is due to the long history of bigotry against the gay community. The denial of basic humanity from many religious organizations has caused much harm to families and communities. As a result, it comes as no surprise that many people in the LGBTQ+ community feel estranged from houses of worship along with finding it difficult to locate friendly faith options in their community.

So, taking concrete steps to help remedy that longtime problem an assembly of faiths hosted an event at the First Baptist Church of Madison.  The optics were most wonderful for a television news crew to capture the mood and tone of the interfaith pride event.

But then 27 news reporter Grace Ulch included Julaine Appling, President of Wisconsin Family Action, into the segment. The reporter noted that Appling “says this event veers from thousands of years of tradition”. The lobbyist stated that the faiths involved in the gathering “are not faithful to the teaching of the word of God”.  Well, that certainly underscores precisely what the church event was aiming at overcoming.  Was Appling making the case for the interfaith gathering, or trying to score one more quip for her side?

While getting contrasting views can certainly make a news story more insightful, using Appling, the source of too many years of hard-edged comments against gay people, was just not good journalism. It looked like a reporter was seeking the usual low-hanging-ever-ready-to-talk-in-front-of-a microphone possibility for this news story. Would it not have been more germane to the report to speak with a minister who feels compelled to hold onto more fundamentalist views? Or seek out a UW professor of religion about how institutions of faith adapt to changing times in society? 

I certainly understand news reporting deadlines and packaging a segment for air that has more than one perspective.  But placing the usual scold in the report looked like the ‘rolodex’ of contacts for news stories at Channel 27 needs updating.  Appling again proved she has never turned down a chance before a microphone to be dismissive of gay people or that being mean-spirited, for the sake of such, is still her card of choice to play. News operations have an obligation to report the news and then add useful perspectives to better inform viewers, listeners, and readers.  That was not fully achieved with the report on the interfaith pride event.

I reached out to the news director of Channel 27, Dani Maxwell, and expressed my concerns. She responded with brevity, but as I had hoped understood the issue that needs addressing. “Hi Gregory, I agree and have already addressed that with Grace. Thank you.”

Chicago Sun-Times Reporter Lynn Sweet At Highland Park, “Worst Mass Attack In Recent Illinois History”

When it comes to news reporting from the Windy City along with political insight few come better than Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times. To say I have respected this reporter for decades would be an understatement. When it comes to solid writing and a tenaciousness for getting information Sweet is the type of journalist who always gets praised on this blog.

While I enjoy newspapers between my fingers after they land on my front stoop the decades-long appreciation I have for the Sun-Times makes it the only digital paper to be read daily at our home.

So very early this morning—or very late last night–I read a most impressive article by Sweet, who was at the Highland Park parade when hell opened up. One that I will post below in its entirety, something I seldom do. But given a paywall and the power of her words, I take this exception and simply ask that you read the following.

You know why I’m writing this.

I was at the Highland Park Fourth of July parade.

Not as the Sun-Times Washington bureau chief. As a civilian. I’m staying with my sister over this holiday. She lives in Highland Park, which is approximately 25 miles north of Chicago’s downtown. More than 30,000 people live there.

I just wanted to go to this parade and enjoy the day. Hang out with friends. Maybe after the parade, go to one of the stunning Lake Michigan beaches that hug this North Shore suburb. Or maybe have a swim at the Highland Park pool, next to the fire station. That fire station transformed into an emergency operations center after the unimaginable — is this a cliché? — happened.

In a matter of seconds, a sniper — using a high-powered, rapid-fire weapon — slaughtered six people and wounded dozens of others as the parade made its way down Central Avenue in downtown Highland Park.

The parade started about 10 a.m. I’m at the start of the route.

Leading off the parade were fire engines from Highland Park, sirens blaring in a good way — before the world changed in this suburban city at 10:14 a.m., when the sniper started shooting from a rooftop.

There was a color guard — four sailors, two with rifles on their shoulders. Soon after that, the Highland Park City Council marched, led by Mayor Nancy Rotering — who a few minutes after she passed me would be dealing with a massacre on what was supposed to be a day of celebration.

The blue-shirted members of the Highland Park High School band stepped off playing “It’s a Grand Old Flag.” Then the marchers from the League of Women Voters from Highland Park and Highwood.

It was all so delightfully normal.

Then it wasn’t.

I was watching and listening to the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band perform on top of a flatbed truck when I saw people running away from Central Avenue. “A shooter,” someone said. I saw terrified people run into an underground garage, looking for safety from the bullets.

As people were fleeing the scene, I hustled toward it. Please don’t make a big deal that I did it. I’m a reporter.

I saw, frozen in time, what people left when they fled. So many baby carriages. Folding chairs. Backpacks. Water bottles. Towels. Blankets. Police were asking people to leave the active shooting scene.

As I approached Port Clinton Square, by the reviewing stand, I saw a woman down. I don’t know if she was dead or alive. Two people were leaning over her. I saw another woman on the ground.

Then, near a bench in the square, I came upon a pool of blood, ruby red blood. There was so much blood, that the blood puddle was lumpy because so much already coagulated. The shape of the blood — was this a twisted Rorschach test? — looked like a handgun to me.

I’m going into this gruesome detail because this is what gun violence from a rapid-fire weapon with an apparent high capacity magazine looks like. My sister, Neesa, on Central near the railroad tracks, heard two sequences of rapid fire. The pause is likely when the shooter switched out magazines.

I saw my first body of the day. A blanket covered the top of the man. His shorts were soaked with blood. His legs were bloody and blood was still flowing out of him. Two more bodies were on the steps leading into Port Clinton. Thankfully, someone threw blankets over their torsos.

We know that a “person of interest” has been apprehended. He’s local, 22 years old, grew up here. We all wonder about his motive.

As I’m writing this, a friend just sent me a note from his rabbi about a member of North Shore Congregation Israel who was murdered Monday.

Both President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke about the horror in Highland Park. Harris will be in Chicago on Tuesday and it’s likely she will further address gun violence. Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, with Rotering and many law enforcement officials, gave a press briefing from that firehouse — the one next to the city’s pool, where we were supposed to be celebrating our nation’s independence.

The Highland Park mass shooting is getting global attention, as it should: It’s the worst mass attack in recent Illinois history.

As we mourn the Highland Park victims, let’s not forget the chronic loss of life in Chicago happening almost every day from gun violence.

On Chicago’s South and West sides, nine people were killed and at least 52 others were wounded by gunfire in Chicago as of Monday evening on this Fourth of July weekend.

In May, the massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde were added to the tragically growing list of mass shootings in the U.S.

And now Highland Park.

I’ve been reporting on gun massacres for years — since the 1999 Columbine school shootings. But always from a distance. I wasn’t there when the killing happened.

Until this July Fourth.

When I was.

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