Monday, April 25, 2011

Learned Helplessness in the Maine Press

It's worth taking a couple of minutes to unpack what happens at the 13:30 mark in Pat Callaghan's recent interview with Sen. Collins.

After a lobbing a few simple, open-ended questions at the junior senator (i.e. softballs) a discussion of port security ensues. Then we get the following:

Callaghan: What about preparations and protection from cyber attack on this country--I mean this is the kind of thing that, when you think about it, could take down your electrical grid, it could shut down water supplies. There's all sorts of problems that the right computer hacker could really wreak on this country.
The question--really a statement and an invitation for a response--seems unremarkable as long as you know nothing about the context.

But given that Collins recently reintroduced extremely controversial cybersecurity legislation, panned by prominent commentators and institutions across the political spectrum (even after a spin campaign was launched to muddy the issues) Callaghan's way into the topic is just plain weird. And telling.

He doesn't inform viewers about the controversy or the substance of the critiques of the proposed bill. Instead, he simply tees the topic up for Collins. And he lards up his formulation with questionable, Collins-friendly premises. (Is it really true that hackers can take down "your electrical grid"? Does Callaghan know this for a fact?)

Don't get me wrong: I'm used to Maine reporters treating Sen. Collins more like a visiting dignitary than an accountable pol, and internalizing the idea that she should be handled with kid gloves.

But here Callaghan is taking that cowed, sycophantic posture a step further, playing something closer to the role of infomercial sidekick than classic journalist: Collins has a product to sell (cybersecurity legislation and, more generally, the notion that she's a "serious" legislator) and he clearly does his best to frame the issue in a way that will make her shine.

This is journalism?

I e-mailed Callaghan to ask how he came to choose the cybersecurity question and how he decided to frame it the way he did. Here's his response:

The topic was not suggested by the senator or anyone on her staff. And I don't tell anyone specifically what questions I will ask in advance.

I did tell her communications director Kevin Kelley that I would be asking questions about the budget, homeland security and whatever else came up.

The internet security question was just something that seemed worth discussing, especially in light of the fact that it is a homeland security matter, something with which Sen. Collins is very involved.

The "In The Arena" segment is an opportunity for the guest to talk about a subject at greater length than the typical news story allows. So, I brought the question up in a general way and let her have her say.

I don't think the context was obscured. Viewers can judge for themselves whether they think her proposal is a good idea or not.
I take Callaghan at his word. And maybe he didn't know about the controversy swirling around the legislation.

But either way, there's simply no place in legitimate political journalism for the cozy, collaborative approach that Callaghan adopts here.


Steven said...

Below is the letter I submitted to the BDN, if you're interested:

To the editor,

I was surprised to see an ad in Wednesday's edition of the Bangor Daily News applauding Senator Susan Collins for voting to protect the Clean Air Act.

In fact, Senator Collins voted in favor of an amendment offered by Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, one of the biggest allies of the coal industry, to block enforcement of the Clean Air Act for carbon dioxide for at least two years.

This was an unprecedented attack on the Clean Air Act, the landmark environmental law authored by Senator Ed Muskie, attempting for the first time ever to take one specific pollutant and put it outside the reach of the Clean Air Act.

If the amendment Senator Collins voted for had passed, that would have meant more air pollution for Maine. We don't use much coal for electricity, but we get all the pollution that comes downwind from Midwest and Southeast.

I also noticed that the ad was paid for not by a public health or environmental organization, but by a coalition of corporations including Ben & Jerry's and Stonyfield Farms. I'd be very interested in learning why these companies, which I usually think of as socially responsible, would be supporting an effort to block enforcement of the Clean Air Act.

Steven Biel

Steven said...

Young is saying now that her issue was disclosure, that I should be required to identify myself as an employee of if I'm going to have a letter to the editor printed on a local issue. I don't agree with that, if I'm speaking out as an individual, as is the case here, but regardless, that's not what she said when she declined the letter.

Here's the exchange:

On Fri, Apr 22, 2011 at 11:24 AM, Steven Biel wrote:

Hi Susan--I just spoke to you on the phone about the letter I submitted on the webform. I looked around on my computer and it looks like I forgot to save it, so I went ahead and wrote it up again here. (Just fyi in case you find it in the system and notice that this letter and the previous version are a little different--either would be fine.)

I know space is always tight for letters, but I hope this meets your standards and you can find room. Definitely let me know if you want me to try to shorten it or anything like that.

On Apr 22, 2011, at 4:04 PM, Susan Young wrote:

Are you affiliated with any organization with an interest in this issue?

On Apr 22, 2011, at 4:07 PM, Steven Biel wrote:

I am employed by, which is a political advocacy group, but I'm writing this letter on my own, and our organization hasn't done anything to support or oppose this bill.


On Apr 22, 2011, at 4:19 PM, Susan Young wrote:

Thanks for your response. I understand that you wrote it on your own, but those who know your affiliation -- for good or bad -- will use that to judge whether you are doing the bidding of MoveOn on this issue. I'd rather not go down that path.

On Fri, Apr 22, 2011 at 4:21 PM, Steven Biel wrote:

Does that mean I'm not eligible to write letters to the editor to the Bangor Daily News?

On Apr 22, 2011, at 4:25 PM, Susan Young wrote:

No. But on issues where people will be disinclined to read what you have to say because of the views of the group you work for, it is not really worth both our efforts.

Anonymous said...

Steve conveniently left out part of his email: "To be clear, this letter should NOT be printed with any organizational affiliation. I'm not authorized to speak for MoveOn on this."
In other words, don't print my letter if you have to include that I work for MoveOn. He made the choice, no demand, that his affiliation not be disclosed.
Susan Young

@benpottle said...

I fail to see how his request to have a signature of "Steven Biel, Portland" instead of "Steven Biel," precludes his letter from being published. It was a personal opinion he didn't want construed as the opinion of the organization he works for. What part of that request is unreasonable?

Nancy said...

I don't read it that way, Ms Young. I see Mr. Beil simply saying that his organizational affiliation should not be mentioned when publishing the letter since he's not authorized to speak for them, not that the letter shouldn't be published at all.

I have seen other letters by other writers that don't include their organizational affiliation. If the BDN doesn't check on everyone's employer, then it shouldn't check on anyone's.

Steven said...

Susan's addition is perfectly accurate, and I didn't leave it out on purpose--it just wasn't in the thread I copied and pasted. I stand corrected--but it makes no difference at all.

She only came up with the disclosure explanation for rejecting after I tweeted her outrageous email. As anyone can read, she denied my letter based on her judgment that "people will be disinclined to read what you have to say because of the views of the group you work for."

Moreover, she never gave me the option of having the letter printed with disclosure, as everyone now can see for themselves.

The sad reality here is that Susan Young clearly made the decision to censor a letter from a taxpayer, homeowner, parent, voter here in Maine because of how I work for. That's a blacklist, and it has no place in journalism.

Steven said...

One last thing, addressed to Susan since you seem to be reading this comment but told me you wouldn't read any more emails from me...

Don't print my letter. Instead, how about you provide some coverage of the fact that Susan Collins voted to block enforcement of the Clean Air Act for global warming pollution for 2 years. And that Olympia Snowe voted to block enforcement permanently.

I'll put you in touch with plenty of people who work for organizations that REALLY DID work on this vote and can speak on behalf of their employers. (Or, if you just want comment from a voter speaking for themselves, you know where to reach me.)