Jan 23, 2012

Wallowing in the Media Slime

Last year, two pals of mine were arrested for drunk driving in separate states. Both were without prior such charges, and after undergoing the requisite legal, financial and emotional nightmare that accompanies such an occurrence, both were disposed of by the system in similar manners.

One of them, Mr A, happens to be gainfully employed in the private sector, while Mr B is a public servant for a suburban township. It is because of this difference that one's nightmare continues forward.

Mr A's means of connecting this personal matter to his workplace went like this: the Monday morning after the incident, he disclosed it to his fellow managers in the coffee room of their 75-person technology business. He was offered both sympathetic and “you dumb idiot” type responses, as well as referrals to a good lawyer and future ride-shares, if needed. There was no need to take it to the Board of Directors or the shareholders or to disseminate it to the whole building. That was pretty much the end of it.

Our friend Mr B, however, didn't need to worry about breaking the news to his co-workers: the local daily paper did this job for him, complete with a front page headline, story and photo. It also opened up an online comment section and poll asking whether the gentleman should be fired or not. The Town Supervisor had him into his office immediately, and the governing board was already matching schedules for the purpose of convening an emergency session on the matter. B's job – and professional future — hung in the balance. After being put through the ringer for three weeks, he was able to retain it, but it was a very close call. We've all read of many officials not faring as well.

Faithful readers of this column can no doubt predict where this is about to go: we're on the road to some heavy handed media bashing, right? Yes sir, we are. Those same readers will also know that we are all about 'disconnects' here at the 'Burgh. Let's run with that theme here:

Apologists for the current version of our legacy news media will argue that public officials work for the citizenry, therefore the latter is entitled to receiving a more micro-level of scrutiny and reporting on the former's indiscretions.
Meanwhile. most of that same citizenry longs for seeing private sector–like smarts, efficiencies and productivity making its way into the public sector culture.
But the private sector does not feel the urge to subject its personnel to the aforementioned scrutiny, especially for offenses with little or no relationship to the offender's job responsibilities (note: my friend is a town clerk).
Therefore, the legacy news media is disconnected from logic

This BS is any easy one to call. The local print news franchise in his sleepy little town has as its editorial model – which in turn becomes part of its business model – a willingness and eagerness to report (and emphasize) the twin pillars of SCANDAL and CONFLICT in its reporting of local affairs. Illicit affairs uncovered? Check. Somebody got into a heated argument with a neighbor? Yep. Somone yelled at someone else during a meeting? Bring it on! DWI? Paydirt!

The arena in which they are best able to play this little “caught ya” game, then, is the public/governmental sector, where they can hide behind “public servants/public service” shield as cover for their wallowing in this mud. Again, except for the most profile individuals in the private sector (think a Bill Gates), these “reveleations' won't fly and will have minimal effect ad far as causing various consequences to the offenders. But major damage can be inflicted to those in government jobs, so let 'er rip, goes the logic.

Why anyone would want to serve in a public capacity, given this type of nonsense, is beyond me. So we have Reason #432 as to why the best and the brightest among us opt not to. Not to mention the fact, that is type of reporting normally unleashes a fury of nonproductive distractions within the town/city/state office, as witnessed by my friend's situation. Tax dollars get wasted, but the newspaper at least gets to play its red meat card and hope it sticks to the worst aspects of its dwindling readership's tastes.

In a classic local example of this deterioration of the news media's role in our communities, we have a local (Greater Capital Region) daily and its targeted campaign against a sitting official in that city's government. Apparently, this individual had a problem fifteen years ago; one which resulted in a jail sentence. Time was served and afterwords a life was turned around in the most positive of ways with a new career and a new family . By all reports, this person is performing the public function in an exemplary manner since the local appointment. But that's not the story that needs to be told, at least to this newspaper. Not when that fifteen year old story is suddenly thrust into their lap, courtesy of “an anonymous email.”

As if the Page One publication of this trash is not enough, the fact that this rag allows itself to be 'played' by someone with an apparent personal grudge is equally disturbing – yet not surprising. Thankfully, that city's Mayor is doing the right thing and basically telling the paper to “get real here.” The few people in the general public who are now freshly aware of the back story obviously feel the same, as apparent from published comments and their general “who the hell cares?” replies. But it has succeeded in no doubt destroying this person's professional career (future advancement into larger cities) as well as no doubt causing family turmoil. Congratulations, folks, on a job well done.

Finally, this particular newspaper has prominently displayed on its masthead its receipt of a particular journalism prize;, the result of one of its columnist's receiving that accolade for some good works. I'd suggest it add the tag “Perfect Example of the Decline of the American News Media” right below it.


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