McGuire on Media

AZ journos coverage of 1070 could be ticket to heaven or hell!

My long-time friend, confidant and Minneapolis Star Tribune colleague, Kent Gardner, was always incredibly attuned to the responsibilities the journalistic craft created. Often when there was a big gnarly story with lots of complications, twists and screw-ups Kent would opine: “When we get to the Pearly Gates, St. Peter is going to ask us if we had anything to do with this story!”

When Arizona journalists of 2010 encounter St. Peter I am convinced  the gate minder is going to ask, “Did you do justice to the SB 1070 story?”

SB 1070 is, of course, the controversial Illegal Immigration bill passed by the Arizona legislature and signed last Friday by Governor Jan Brewer. It has thrust Arizona into the center of a national immigration debate. The New York Times reported why this is such a big deal. “The political debate leading up to Ms. Brewer’s decision, and Mr. Obama’s criticism of the law — presidents very rarely weigh in on state legislation — underscored the power of the immigration debate in states along the Mexican border. It presaged the polarizing arguments that await the president and Congress as they take up the issue nationally.”

The state of Arizona has been down the road of national race controversy before. Arguably it has taken years to recover from the bitter fallout surrounding the state’s reluctance to recognize the Martin Luther King holiday. It is quite possible that the firestorm over SB 1070 could make the King tumult look like, well, a tea party! Monday’s Vanity Fair says Arizona is THE most unpopular state, and that may have been the highlight of the weekend’s public relations.

Arizona and the Valley of the Sun is taking a big-time reputation hit. No matter how you view the politics of Saturday Night Live it is not good for a state when Seth Meyers soberly stares into a camera  and says, “I know there’s some people in Arizona worried that Obama is acting like Hitler, but could we all agree that there’s nothing more Nazi than saying “Show me your papers”? Now both the right and the left found the sketch outrageous, but the point is Arizona is caught in the midst of a national furor that is going to be front and center for months.

Journalists in Arizona are facing one of those career-defining coverage periods. The state’s voters are going to decide in mid-May on a blockbuster sales tax measure that could determine the future of education in Arizona.  A controversial concealed weapons bill just passed and there is a bill being debated that “would require all presidential candidates to prove they were born in the U.S. by producing their birth certificates.”

Even with all that news breaking out it is the immigration law debate that will define Arizona going forward, and it is the coverage of that debate, its causes and its effects that will define journalists and journalistic institutions in this state. SB 1070 and all its fallout demands full-court coverage. The New York Times Howell Raines  arguably gave the term “flood the zone” a bad name, but when you are sitting on a nation defining story it is time to step up.

I was disconcerted by Monday’s Arizona Republic when the newspaper responded to a weekend of national criticism by putting a small key on page 1 to a story about a local protest at the state Capitol. On Tuesday, the newspaper came back with a downpage front page story on how Arizona business is fighting back against the national criticism. I would have led with that story, but that might be a nit on my part. 

Local journalism’s problem is not the critique of a retired newspaper editor turned college professor. It’s problem is being relevant and important at a time when the state’s audience needs news, context and perspective. There are countless debates about the importance of accountability journalism in today’s news eco-system. This story is so big, so crucial to the state, that if local journalists– print, online and television,– can’t attain indispensability the bell might as well toll on meaningful journalism.

For what its worth, here are some of the things I would do if I was running an Arizona television or print newsroom intent on owning this story:

  • Read the freaking bill! –I have attempted to be very careful about my characterizations of the bill in this piece.  I have read the bill once, but I will need to read it again before I can say with absolute certainty exactly what is in it.  I think it is crucial that quality journalists restrict themselves to observable assertions. The provisions of the bill should not be copied from one story to another. That’s how errors occur and urban legends are spawned. It’s also how propaganda is spread.  As my dear friend, Gregory Favre, has famously said, “do not print one iota more than you know!”
  • The legal distinctions matter–When terms like constitutionality and unconstitutionality get thrown around like beads at Mardi Gras it is incumbent upon journalists to choose legal language very carefully.  Journalists can be clarifiers and sense-makers on these complicated legal issues or they can be reckless purveyors of popular misconceptions. That choice bears heavy responsibility.
  • Capture the historical context and avoid the oversimplifications of the national media.–The national media, comedians and partisans invariably reduce a story like this to its lowest common denominator. Local media can transcend that.  Late this afternoon published an excellent AP story headlined: How Arizona became the center of immigration debate. It is a story with texture, historical context and some real depth.  A lot more of that sort of story will be needed.
  • Avoid “he said she said.”– When the epitaph on modern journalism is written “he said, she said” reporting might be listed as the cause of death.  I call it the “one idiot speaks and the other idiot responds” syndrome. A fundamental tenet of journalism is truth-telling. Quoting hysterical voices on the polar edges of any subject impedes truth-telling. That is especially true in this case. Many outlandish assertions must be challenged. Journalists should not coddle liars, hypocrites and fear-mongers no matter which side of the issue those scalawags advocate.
  • Find answers, don’t create questions.–The genius of Politi-Fact is it holds politicians accountable.  It’s a little sad that basic tenet of journalism is considered innovative, but that kind of truth-checking should be adopted by somebody in Arizona.  Governor Jan Brewer’s statement  at the time she signed the bill needs to be investigated and explored thoroughly and so do all the opposition cries of Nazism and Fascism.  This is a clear case where somebody can do a public service, and command significant readership, by being a factual clearinghouse.
  • This a business story and don’t forget it!–The economic implications of this story are huge.  Obviously the threatened tourist and convention boycotts make it a business story, but there’s much more than that. This bill is about jobs. The plain language of the bill makes it clear that economic activity is at the core of this bill. The first paragraph of the Intent section says: “The provisions of this act are intended to work together to discourage and deter the unlawful entry and presence of aliens and economic activity by persons unlawfully present in the United States.” That makes it mandatory for journalists to examine economic data, investigate business failure rates and get beneath the surface of declining  or rising economic activity. Again, genuine illumination will only come from analysis and perspective, not cheap repetition of prejudiced beliefs.
  • Human stories must be done from all perspectives– This law, or the lack of it, takes a toll on all sorts of real people. The cheap solution is to fill news columns with sob stories. Don’t do cheap. The Southern Arizona landowners, police, small business owners, undocumented people and documented Latinos all have dramatic and legitimate stories to tell about the potential effects of this bill and the history that has led to it.  The best writers about the human condition need to be assigned to take a 360 degree look at all the vested parties and their personal stories.
  • This is a dangerous story and don’t minimize that–Local media needs to develop some firm ground rules about naming undocumented people. There are several legitimate outcomes, but the policy should deliberately balance truth-telling, minimizing harm and independence from faction.  One of my Ethics students, Kyle Daly, did a memo about the Republic naming a protester speaking at a rally who claimed he had no legal documentation. Readers are going to make judgments about that sort of decision.  Imminent harm could also become a concern as this issue grows more volatile. Ground rules about pictures, protesters and police need to be developed now. 
  • Every journalistic organization needs to be a true discussion facilitator–The temperate and intemperate comments on this issue riddle the blogosphere and commenter’s are desperately in search of places that will allow rational and irrational boos and cheers.  Major local media should not cede that conversation to the untamed wilderness of the Internet.  Rather, media organizations need to link to, and serve as a guide to, blogs that add to the richness of the discussion. In the same way rather than shutting off comments because they can be hateful, the answer is attentive, careful moderation. Hire a person who can devote full attention to keeping the conversation authentic and illuminating.
  • This is a national story, embrace it and own it. —There will be a natural human tendency to get parochial and defensive about this story and its portrayal nationally. Avoid that. Last week much was made of the fact that 70 percent of Arizonans supported the signing of this bill. Some believe that poll was the catalyst behind the governor’s signature.  As the national spotlight glare intensifies that number could harden or it could deteriorate. How Arizonans respond to the national portrayal of the state will be a crucial part of this story. It is crucial for Arizona media to report the evolution of that national attention aggressively and responsibly.