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Monday, October 20, 2008

Meanwhile back at the old Alma Mater

I received my baccalaureate degree from Augustana in Rock Island, Ill., and I still think back on the convocations and the discussions they inspired among students in the Union. I get e-mails from the college and am happy that the tradition of involving the campus in examinations and analysis of what is going on about us still takes place somewhere. I am reproducing one of the recent press releases which provides as good a critique of journalism and current sources of information as any I have read of late.

Levey urges audience to demand better journalism

Rock Island, Ill. Oct. 15. Americans should demand more nuts-and-bolts journalism and less "American Idol" reporting from the national media, said veteran journalist Bob Levey, speaker at Thursday's Community Convocation Series at Augustana College.

Levey, a reporter, broadcaster and former Washington Post columnist, used the theme "Campaign Coverage 2008: Not the Media's Finest Hour." Pointing out that "it's almost over," he said reporters and editors soon will be looking back at how the campaign was covered. And what they see won't look good.

"We're going in an unhappy direction," he said.

Among the flaws he said editors should see in the coverage is "prognostication journalism," such as the October 2006 reporting that told the public Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani were shoo-ins for their party nominations. He said the trend toward personality journalism in the campaign coverage starting two years ago was the "first crack in the wall" of traditional reporting. Even serious media outlets have been infected by what he called "television values."

Looking back, he said reporters were not reporting candidates' plans and stands on the issues. Instead, they focused on topics such as Hillary Clinton's wardrobe, John Edwards' wife and her illness, and Giuliani's family problems and temper.

"Did you get the kind of coverage you deserved?" he asked the Augustana audience, adding that editors and producers think the audience won't care if the coverage is not delivered via gossip and personality.

Levey also decried the tendency of broadcasters to use talk show hosts -- whose political opinions are well-known -- as reporters, and not to let audiences know about potential conflicts of interest, such as allowing NBC's Andrea Mitchell, wife of former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, to report on economic affairs.

"The wall between straight reporting and opinion has begun to crumble," Levey said. News values are being lost in the struggle for market share, he added.

Levey also discussed the tensions produced by the pressure on media outlets to "get it out there" as fast as possible, and the difficulties reporters face in getting direct access to candidates.

"The worst thing to happen in the 2008 campaign is Sarah Palin's refusal to meet the press," he said.

For serious and thorough journalism to be revived, readers and viewers must get involved. "It needs a push back from you and it needs a push forward from us," Levey urged. "You have to demand it… and we have to find a way."

Getting information from the Internet may be one route, he said, citing as an example of a good news source. However, that outlet, like many others, falls into "horse race coverage," he added.
Another possibility, Levey said in answer to an audience question, is that philanthropic journalism could save the serious coverage, such as foreign reporting and investigation, that is increasingly threatened by the downtown in profit at large newspapers, . This could only work as long as the donors stayed in the background, he added, and did not dictate what would be covered.

evey was been on campus for several days, speaking to faculty and students and visiting classes. "You've got a wonderful school here," he told his audience.

Levey's column, "Bob Levey's Washington" appeared five days a week in The Washington Post From 1981-2004. During his 36-year career at the Post, Levey covered presidential politics, Congress, local news, features, and sports. His column won major awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Journalism Review. He was named one of the top columnists in Washington by Washingtonian Magazine six times, and in 1999 the magazine named him "Washingtonian of the Year."

He also has had an extensive career in electronic media and has worked for seven radio stations, four TV stations, and one Internet site. "Levey Live," an hour-long chat that appeared twice each week on the Post's website, won consistently high ratings. He recently was appointed to the Hardin Chair of Excellence in Managerial Journalism at the University of Memphis, where he will teach courses in the newspaper/magazine concentration.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States