When the News is for Sale

In journalism, it’s the equivalent of selling your soul to the devil.

Or just not giving a damn.

Not that it doesn’t happen all around, every single day. You just hate it when it strikes so close to home. And so blatantly.

My hometown newspaper is The Jonesboro Sun. It’s  been around more than 100 years.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m an alumnus of The Sun, and spent eight years working there as a general assignment reporter from 1989 to 1997. After that, I was involved in more than one journalistic enterprise that competed with The Sun for both news and advertising dollars.

As a matter of further disclosure, the newspaper’s top management has never particularly cared for me, and I don’t necessarily love them with all my heart either. Oh, the humanity.

With that disclosure, I believe it’s still quite possible to address the following topic objectively. And that’s what I now aspire to do.

If you live in Northeast Arkansas, and you are one of the few remaining people who subscribes to The Jonesboro Sun, or just believe in the importance untainted journalism, you should be aware of what I’m about to explain.

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This is the paid advertisement that creates the conflict of interest on today's front page of The Jonesboro Sun.

This is the paid advertisement that creates the conflict of interest on today’s front page of The Jonesboro Sun.

Today, is the day your local newspaper sunk to an all-time low.

Allow me to elucidate.

Journalistic vehicles (i.e., newspapers, radio, television, et al) exist for multiple reasons, top among which is to hold those in the public trust accountable. It’s an honorable profession, and a demanding one, and because it’s so important as to be addressed in the Bill of Rights, the public, at large, should hold the media accountable as well. When the media becomes corrupt, all is lost.

From the beginning of their educations, journalists are taught that the “news hole” (all the space not dedicated to paid advertisements) is sacred. That space is to be approached without consideration to anything that could affect its content. It’s at the heart of journalistic integrity and objectivity.

This is the point where you should understand how many media outlets sacrifice their integrity. It’s all about the money, and only those who are truly dedicated to quality journalism avoid this at all costs.

A newspaper makes its money in two ways. Subscriptions and advertising. Subscription revenue amounts to almost nothing. Paid advertising is the bread and butter of any print publication. It pays the production, the salaries, everything. So you can imagine how important advertisers are to any newspaper.

Let’s imagine a very large and influential commercial entity with deep pockets makes a 12-month commitment to advertise in a newspaper. Depending on certain variables, that commitment amounts to several tens of thousands of dollars.

And let’s further imagine that at the signing of that advertising contract, the corporate representative of the advertiser hints at the possibility of some nice news coverage of their upcoming grand opening.

The seed is planted and the vision for real journalism now becomes blurry.

Major advertisers wield huge power over editorial content. It happens all the time. It shouldn’t but it does. Weak journalism management (usually with a less than average product) caves to this practice regularly.

It’s a “this for that.” And news should never be for sale.

A broader perspective of the May 30, 2013, front page of The Jonesboro Sun and the proximity of the paid advertisement (at bottom) to a related news story headlined Great Expectations.

A broader perspective of the May 30, 2013, front page of The Jonesboro Sun and the proximity of the paid advertisement (at bottom) to a related news story headlined Great Expectations.

It happened today in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Not that it’s the first time, or that it will be the last.

It’s just never been quite so blatant.

Among the most precious of a newspaper’s commodities is its front page. If you read a newspaper today, I’ll bet you can’t recite a single headline from page A8, but I’ll bet you can recall at least one or two stories from the front page. Everyone sees the front page, if but for a moment.

News on the front page is the ultimate placement.  The judgment for what goes on that space carries the ultimate responsibility and it’s held by the publisher and editor.

A number of years ago, unfortunately, many newspapers went in a bad direction as they started experimenting with paid advertisements on their front pages.

It’s not right, and it was a bad road to go down, but they did it and many still do. Today, you can buy almost anything on the front page of some publications.

It’s a bad idea for the explanation given earlier. Let’s further imagine this fictional scenario.

The county government spends $100,000 a year in the local newspaper promoting tourism. Midway though the contract a county official is accused of sexually harassing multiple county employees. The newspaper is about to break the story and the county treasurer reminds the newspaper publisher that there is $50,000 remaining on their contract, which could be pulled at any moment. Ultimately, the published story isn’t nearly as factual and sharp as it should have been. It was tainted. Less than 100 percent truth.

It’s an extreme, and fictional example, but you get the point.

Today’s front page of The Jonesboro Sun exhibits something I’ve honestly never seen. It includes a paid advertisement for a local hospital in a banner strip across the bottom … and the most prominent news story on the page is about that very hospital, and the headline is not one that you would exactly call objective. It should have had a big Smiley Face beside it.smiley

The photo that accompanies the story even captures the newspaper publisher touring the facility.

It’s the ultimate disregard for a journalists’ responsibility to his reader.

If The Jonesboro Sun can be swayed to sacrifice any integrity it has, and giving this for that by something as harmless as the opening of a new hospital, what can its readers expect when it really matters?

We should demand better.

(Blogger’s Note: As a point of clarification, and before anyone wants to go down this road, I am in no way asserting that the hospital did anything wrong in this case. A marketing department should do everything it can to put its organization in a good place in the public eye. The newspaper, on the other hand, should know how to contain this.)

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Remembering the Day AFTER 9-11 and Our Present Hypocricy

What I remember most, is not the day itself, but the days that followed.

I was one of the lucky ones, I suppose. I lost no family members, no friends, no colleagues in the triad of disaster that day. As so many others, I simply watched in disbelief.

bush and chief of staff at school on 9-11I was 36 on September 11, 2001, and pretty much numb to our nation’s divisiveness. Uncomfortable as it all felt, it was a privilege freedom carried, I’d somehow come to reason.

But the precious days that followed, at least in my small hometown, gave birth to a feeling I’d never before experienced. For a few short days, things were just different.

I think it must have been what it’s supposed to be to feel like an American.

On the day after 9-11, cars proudly displayed American flags waiving through the rush-hour commute. And there was no road rage. If someone cut you off that day – well, it was no big deal. We had our families and our futures ahead. We were alive and safe so we let it all slide.

In the few short days that followed 9-11, handshakes were firmer, hugs were tighter – we were actually civil, united, kinder and gentler.

The day after 9-11 all politics were cast aside. We all supported President Bush. And we wanted him to kill Osama bin Laden. He was the commander-in-chief and we stood united in his leading the charge.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if we could’ve somehow captured our collective sentiment and made time stand still? But time moved on. And eventually, we returned to our former selves.

Yesterday, Americans across the country shared the memories of 9-11. We gaveremembering 9-11 tribute and honor to the fallen, and we celebrated our resiliency as a people. It’s an honorable thing we do in our remembrance. But I can only think about how much we’ve forgotten.

In the days that followed 9-11 we were so … well … together. It’s quite the paradox that we remember a former time of unity during such a present time of divisiveness.

Today, we cast outright hate toward our commander-in-chief. And as the election approaches, we also question the morals of his opponent.

Politically, we disrespect the beliefs of our friends. Racially and ethnically we continue to build impenetrable walls. Economically, we endorse growing the margin between the wealthy and the poor while children go hungry.

Yesterday we all talked about our memories of that day. We made endless social media posts with powerful visuals recalling the day we came together as a nation and we made ourselves feel good for a brief moment in time.

Today, history will repeat itself, and yesterday will be forgotten. How does that happen?

I think about all those who gave their lives, and what they might say about our current state of affairs.

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Obama vs. Romney: What Would Jesus Do?

signing of declaration of independence

My personal struggle with the issue between separation of church and state dates to a real experience in 1998.

I was campaign press secretary for Democratic congressional candidate Marion Berry, and at the time, a member of a Southern Baptist Church. Interestingly, my counterpart, the communications director for our Republican opponent, attended the same church. We were even in the same Sunday school class.

Throughout the campaign, my counterpart, who was also a personal friend, proudly wore a button to church each Sunday in support of his candidate. It’s no particular criticism of him. It was just something I couldn’t do. Personally, I felt more at peace leaving politics at home than bringing attention to them at church.

Fast forward 12 years to the upcoming presidential election and it seems we’re all struggling with the separation of church and state issue more than ever. It’s creating a huge divide that causes me to wonder where it all may go.

Perhaps the biggest news to come out of the Democratic National Convention this week was whether the party would make the slightest mention of the word “God” in its platform. At the outset, the Democrat’s original platform made no mention of God. On Wednesday, they slipped in a mention of the divine creator.

I can imagine God sitting on his throne in Heaven wiping his brow. “Whew,” he must have exclaimed. “That was a close one!”

Within the last couple of years, I’ve actually found myself in the midst of “Christian” gatherings where in one breath leaders would pray for the safety of our troops abroad, only in the next breath to label our Commander-in-Chief as the anti-Christ.

It’s difficult to explain what that causes me to feel, so I won’t even try.

Right or wrong, statistics show more than half the American population believes President Obama to be a subscriber of the Muslim faith. He declares himself Christian.

On the other hand, Republican candidate Mitt Romney is Mormon. And many of the Christian evangelicals I know would say under their breath that to be Mormon is not to be Christian. I really don’t know. It’s not for me to decide.

Is God a Democrat or Republican? Romney or Obama? What would Jesus do?

As a nation, it seems we’ve never been more divided along the lines of race, the issue of right to life and the rights, or lack thereof, in the lesbian/gay community.

racial divide in politics

We stand to the extreme left, or the extreme right. Those who stand anywhere in between are labeled as heretics, unbelievers or a hateful people void of love for others.

I confess to find myself in the greyness of uncertainty between the two extremes and don’t believe I’m any of those things. What’s wrong with a simple confession that we just don’t know the mind of God?

Is it wrong to take the life of an unborn child. Yes, I think so. Yet is it wrong to deny a woman her freedom of choice for her own well being as a result of certain circumstances? I simply can’t deny that right. So, I just don’t know. It’s not for me to judge and I don’t believe that makes me a heretic or a coward. I just don’t know.

Evangelicals to the extreme right declare the sanctity of the right to life, yet in his years as governor of Texas, George W. Bush presided over the execution of 153president george w. bush prison inmates who were condemned to death. Many will argue there’s a huge difference. Personally, I don’t see it. Is strapping someone to a gurney and injecting them with medication that stops their heart from beating somehow not a violation of the sanctity of life?

Thou shalt not kill except behind thy prison walls?

It’s a double-edged sword we wield.

Can a gay or lesbian couple live together in the bonds of matrimony and yet declare themselves as members of the Christian faith? My read of the bible says that marriage is between man and woman, and that any such act would be one of sin. Nothing more, nothing less. And yet, I know God also disapproves of the many sinful acts of which I’ve been guilty over my 46 years. Am I unforgiven of those sins? I don’t believe it for a minute. Who am I to judge, or to know the mind of God?

Earlier this week, Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan declared the Obama presidency to be the most failed period of governance since Jimmy Carter’s term in office.

president jimmy carterI’m reminded of a 1976 interview Carter did with Playboy magazine in which he confessed his shortcomings. Policy and party politics aside, I think Carter was on to something when he acknowledged this about our society’s moralistic judgment:

“Because I’m just human and I’m tempted and Christ set some almost impossible standards for us. The Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ Christ said, I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust has in his heart already committed adultery. I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times…. This is something that God recognizes, that I will do and have done, and God forgives me for it. But that doesn’t mean that I condemn someone who not only looks on a woman with lust but who leaves his wife and shacks up with somebody out of wedlock. Christ says, don’t consider yourself better than someone else because one guy screws a whole bunch of women while the other guy is loyal to his wife. The guy who’s loyal to his wife ought not to be condescending or proud because of the relative degree of sinfulness.”

I think it’s one of the more transparent and honest acknowledgments of any president in modern history. Carter didn’t declare himself to be perfect, without fault or all-knowing of the difference between right or wrong.

Many would point to the notion that the framers of our country intended us to be a nation of Godly people, yet they clearly set some boundaries for our own well being that we somehow fail to grasp.

As the principal author of the United States Declaration of IndependenceThomas Jefferson articulated a statement about human rights that most Americans regard as nearly sacred. Together with James Madison, Jefferson carried on a long and successful campaign against state financial support of churches in Virginia. It is Jefferson who created the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut. During his 1800 campaign for the presidency, Jefferson had to contend with critics who argued that he was unfit to hold office because he did not have orthodox religious beliefs.

Yet with the adoption of the idea of church-state separation, Jefferson authored these words in the Declaration of Independence.

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The constitution itself says there shall be no religious standard in the qualification to hold federal office. We should stand for what we believe, but also remember the boundaries to which we say we subscribe.

Obama vs. Romney? What would Jesus Do? I don’t know.

And I’m okay with that for now.

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Jim Cantore is The Man: He Even Tebows

I’ve been an avid weather watcher since I was 14.

In 1980, farm families across the South actually prayed for a hurricane to hit the Gulf of Mexico. Farms devastated by two straight weeks of 100° degree temperatures were in desperate need of rain.

Though it never came, we watched the weather daily in hopes that a storm would blow our way and bring rain to salvage a crop. Ever since, when hurricanes like Isaac come in our direction, it reminds me of that hard time for my family and others.

Jim Cantore the weather channel

Jim Cantore

So it was with nostalgic interest that I watched The Weather Channel‘s Jim Cantore during his live broadcasts in New Orleans yesterday. Cantore is the consummate weather journalist.

In the brunt of the storm, Cantore was broadcasting live when the conditions became almost too much to bear. He didn’t run, he didn’t lose his composure. Cantore simply took a Tebow. On live TV, for one moment he said, “I’m gonna ride this one out, guys.” Then he came right back.

Cantore’s a real pro. I hope I can chase a tornado one day and check the bucket list. He’s the man.

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(Timing + Buzz) x Tags = Blog Hits

It’s a formula that will demand blog hits every time. A recent event in my home town proves it works.

Quick Background: On the evening of July 28, a young man was arrested in Jonesboro, AR, handcuffed, and placed in the back of a patrol car. Moments later, he somehow managed to commit suicide.

The arresting officers were white. The man placed under arrest was black. And for several weeks to follow a divide between races went public. National news agencies from all the major networks covered the story, only adding to the local community buzz.

Ten days ago, Rev. Jesse Jacksoncame to Jonesboro to lead a prayer vigil and a

chavis carter and jesse jackson

Chavis Carter

peaceful march questioning the details (or lack thereof) of Chavis Carter’s death.

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From a blogger’s perspective, a story like this has the perfect ingredients for a recipe that will set your blog afire.

When Jackson arrived, I spent no more than a grand total of 30 minutes snapping photos and doing a quick interview. But it was important to be there in a physical sense to observe and get a “feel” for the environment.

I came home, tired from a long day, and really didn’t feel like writing the full story, so I published an immediate tease with a photo of Jackson. The short post gave readers notice the story would appear on the blog first thing next morning. The tease story, a photo and one paragraph, generated hundred of blog hits over night while I slept soundly in bed.

Early the next morning, I wrote the full story with a headline designed to get search engine attention, tagged the photos and story with key words, and the blog lit up like a match.

Some readers even criticized the post for “stirring up a mess.” I’m okay with stirring up a mess when it’s based on facts and newsworthy events. The fact is, controversy generates attention.

Since the time of the original post more than 30 different phrases have been plugged into various search engines leading them straight to my blog.

In all, the original post’s had more than 1,500 hits, and a day hasn’t gone by when a search engine didn’t lead a reader to the story.

It’s an opportunity that presents itself more often than you may think.

Here’s another example:

Were there more hours in the day, I’d write an additional post today about Hurricane Isaac, a story that’s dominated the news for days. The hurricane, now a tropical

hurricane isaac

Arkansans will receive much needed rain from now Tropical Depression Isaac. Just a different angle to the story.

storm, soon to be a tropical depression, is headed straight up the gut of my home state. While it’s created havoc at the point of landfall, Isaac will bring much-needed rain to hundreds of thousands of acres devastated by drought conditions over the last four months.

Isaac is actually a positive weather event in my neck of the woods, and it would be a great angle for an original blog post. There’s just not enough hours in the day. But you understand the strategic potential.

When you’re presented with an opportunity that has the elements of timing and buzz, you can choose to make a small investment of time, think “tag-strategic,” and readers will come.

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Selah…

se·lah/ˈsēlə/

Exclamation:
(in the Bible) Occurring frequently at the end of a verse in Psalms and Habakkuk, probably as a musical direction.

As a “re-dedicated Christian” sometime in the summer of 2004, I first became familiar with the word in a secular sort of way.

The “Christian” music genre became one of my favorites and I came upon the works of a group by this very name. The track “Oh, Draw Me, Lord,” from Selah‘s 2002 Press On album is still high on my song list today. It has only nine words, and it’s a song to which I often just close my eyes and get lost.

From its Hebrew origination, the word is one not easily translated. Scholars say some simple possibilities may be:

  • “stop and listen.”
  • “pause and think of that.”
  • “so be it.” (my favorite interpretation)
  • “forever.”

“Selah,” is found 73 times in the book of Psalms and another three times in Habakkuk. I think about the word a lot. These are 10 things to which today, I say, “Selah.”

1. Today, the church I attend, Fellowship Bible Church in Jonesboro, AR, will dedicate a new church plant, 25 miles down the road in Paragould. Through an intentional approach to reaching out to others through missional communities, the new church will likely begin with a bigger numerical membership than its parent. Not that numbers have anything to do with the price of beans, but it’s a great thing. Selah.

2. I’m thankful for all the things I’ve “unlearned” about the Christian faith over the last couple of years. I’m thankful that none of us, on the day of judgment, will be asked to present our resume, and that our transcript’s already been torn apart. I’m thankful we’ll be seen through the eyes of the Son, who’s completed a finished work. Selah.

3. I’m thankful for the recent opportunity and vision to gather a group of leaders from our “white” and “black” church community … to bring us together and reach

black churches and white churches

With my friend, Pastor Ray Scales of New Mt. Zion Church in Jonesboro, AR.

out across the lines of discomfort … to talk about unity … and see how we might all make a difference together. Selah.

4. As I write, the sun’s coming up in the east, and it’s a new day full of mercy and forgiveness. Joy cometh in the morning. Selah.

5. We don’t have to perform and seek anyone’s approval. I don’t have to wonder about so many things. We are already stamped with the seal of approval, and we are in right standing with God. Selah.

6. The ailing, failing body my dad left earth in seven months ago is no more. It’s perfect, and I hear him laughing with joy every day now. Selah.

7. Among all things, God designed us to have relationships. I have so many great ones all over the world. Selah.

international relationships

Dana and I with our Peruvian friends, Ceasar and Maggie in Puerto Cayo, Ecuador.

8. There’s no such thing as second chances. Our “chances” are infinite. That’s hard to comprehend, but it’s true. Selah.

9. God has given us all so many special gifts. For some unknown reason, He allowed me to be a writer and He encourages me to use that gift more each day. Selah.

10. Each of us is charged with noble ambassadorship, a charge, a mission and purpose. Wow, and Selah.

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