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This news media blog explores the nexus between the press, the public and technology with two missions. One, to engage citizens in an online conversation about the role of the news media in their lives, in the hope that they will use and critique the media more effectively. And secondly to explore how the press can remain relevant, essential and accountable to citizens and communities.

Mike Fancher is Editor at Large of The Seattle Times.

E-mail Mike Fancher | 206.464.2330 | RSS feeds Subscribe | Blog Home

January 31, 2008 4:50 PM

Eight questions each for Romney, McCain and Clinton

Posted by Mike Fancher

Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, is posting a series of significant questions journalists should ask of the presidential candidates. An earlier post guided readers to questions for Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama.

Press Here for the Mitt Romney questions on working moms, abstinence-only sex, voter ID requirements, the Bush Doctrine, military spending, Iran and Afghanistan, lessons from the Iraq invasion and Guantanamo.

Press Here for the McCain questions on Iraq, international alliances, North Korea, federal spending and privatizing parts of government.


Press Here for the Clinton questions on American bases in Iraq, Iran's Revolutionary Guard, working with the Senate on treaties, government secrecy, federal spending after Iraq, labor organizing, drug company patents.

In my original post, I said it would be refreshing for the candidates to bypass the press and provide answers directly to Gitlin. No sign that is happening.

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January 31, 2008 4:05 PM

Being in the right place at the right time

Posted by Mike Fancher


Mike Siegel / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Mike Siegel was in the right place at the right time.

Monday's Seattle Times included this photo with a story about the Navy's plans to have a marksman shoot the coyote that has been prowling Seattle's Discovery Park. I asked photographer Mike Siegel how he got the picture:


"I was at the park on Friday shooting something for Northwest Weekend. I saw the coyote running behind the visitor center so I parked and grabbed my telephoto lens and started walking behind where I saw it go. It was just standing there looking at me. Gave me time to get focused and fire off several shots. It was beautiful. As I was walking towards it a woman with two dogs on leashes walked past the coyote and the coyote just stood there. One of the dogs was a pit bull. Then the coyote walked into the woods."

Stay tuned for reaction to the Navy's plans.

Update: That didn't take long. The Times just posted a story saying, "The coyote that has been roaming Discovery Park won't be shot after all, the federal Department of Agriculture (USDA) said this morning."

Update: Not only will the coyote not be shot, it will be left in the park, at least for now. Press Here to see the latest story.

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January 31, 2008 10:10 AM

Should government support journalism?

Posted by Mike Fancher

The worsening economic threat to independent, public-service journalism is greater than I ever imagined it could be. Equally unimaginable has been the notion that government might be the savior, intervening to preserve journalism for the good of democracy.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Look for some radical ideas to emerge, including economic support from a government that is constitutionally prohibited from infringing on a free press.

Minnesota Public Radio's "Future Tense" offers a conversation with Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Here's some of what he said:

Direct subsidies to me would be kind of a last resort. And if you did them what you'd want is to build in very strong safeguards to preserve the journalistic independence. But I will say that does exist pretty well in other realms. I happen to be on the board of the National Academy of Science, and that's a great example. It's a truly trustworthy organization that is government-funded but often attacks the government. The National Institutes of Health is another example. National Science Foundation is another example. The BBC in Britain is another example. So you can build walls meant to protect the folks getting the grant.

Arguing that funding doesn't necessarily mean control, Lemann addressed the question of what kind of journalism would warrant government support:

It's journalism concerned with public policy matters. Public affairs or politics is not the most market-supported part of journalism. ESPN does not need any help. Ditto for celebrity journalism. But there's lots of parts of journalism that have a tremendous social value that it's very hard to find anywhere that they are truly market-supported.
"Future Tense" promises to continue the conversation. Tune in.

Footnote: Minnesota Public Radio is consistently one of the innovators in engaging the public in journalism. Its approach to "public insight journalism" should be come a model for other civic-minded news organizations.

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January 31, 2008 8:05 AM

Kudos to UW for handling of public records request

Posted by Mike Fancher

Yesterday's Seattle Times story about UW President Mark Emmert's reaction to the series "Victory and Ruins" reminded me to post a comment about the university's handling of an earlier public records request from The Times.

The Times had asked for e-mails written to Emmert, football coach Tyrone Willingham and former athletic director Todd Turner over a four-month period. The newspaper wanted to know what had been communicated in the days leading up to Turner's leaving the university.

Admirably, UW officials responded quickly and fully -- they followed the law. That shouldn't be surprising, but these days many public agencies play all kinds of games to avoid disclosure. Or, they mount a public relations effort to deflect the sting of whatever will result from the disclosure.

The request generated about 1,000 e-mails, which the university had to review to be sure they didn't divulge information that should rightly be withheld, such as student records.

What resulted was a Times story saying a booster had pledged $100,000 in law school scholarship money if Emmert would fire Willingham and another $100,000 for firing Turner.

The story also said:

At least 100 e-mails came from fans threatening to pull or withhold financial support if Willingham or Turner, or both, were not fired. Those threats ranged from a refusal to renew season tickets to Hansen's $200,000 offer...


Emmert said he disregards any e-mails that include financial threats or inducements tied to personnel decisions. "Those are the kind of commentary I don't take seriously at all," he said.

He doesn't even remember seeing the e-mail from Hansen offering $100,000 apiece for Willingham's and Turner's termination, Emmert said. But such offers, Emmert said, are "grossly inappropriate."

In reporting on the various e-mails, The Times named only people who are public figures or who threaten action. In those cases the individuals were contacted to ensure that they had written the messages. It was felt that naming people who are not public figures wouldn't add anything meaningful to the story.

Kudos to Emmert and Norman Arkans, executive director of UW media relations, for full cooperation on the records request.

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January 30, 2008 7:31 PM

What's red and blue in the middle of the road?

Posted by Mike Fancher

It's not some version of the South Lake Union trolley; it's a new Web site called redblueamerica.com, with the subtitle "Best thinking. Both sides."

The site is the brainchild of John Temple, editor and publisher of Denver's Rocky Mountain News. He writes:

Redblueamerica.com is a place for people interested in what the other half thinks on the important and compelling issues of the day. It's a place where they'll always find the best thinkers on their own side stacked up against the best thinkers on the other side, a place for a lively and civil conversation about the topics people are talking about - or should be talking about.


My experience as a journalist has taught me that it's far too common today for people to listen only to voices that reinforce their own views.

Thoughtful people on both sides have lamented this problem...I don't think that's where we want to be as a country.

Press Here to read his column about the origin of the site.

Is there a middle place in a time of hyper-partisanship? I hope so. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Update: I asked John Temple to comment on the new site. He wrote:

"It’s been an enormous amount of work. We’ve learned a lot. And continue to learn. The response has been gratifying, but at the same time whenever you launch a new web site you’re always faced with the challenge of building traffic. It’s a competitive world.


"We had a major ad agency contact us on the first or second day, one that represented big-name national companies, interested in the concept. So they got it and saw that it might attract a good audience. We’ve had many readers tell us they appreciate the approach. But we’ve also found that some readers don’t find it easy to use the site - this even though we first did focus groups, then did usability tests - and we’re working on making it easier to use."

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January 29, 2008 4:40 PM

Naming suspects is a journalistic balancing act

Posted by Mike Fancher

Days after The Seattle Times first published his name as a suspect, James Anthony Williams today was charged with murder in the New Year's Eve stabbing death of Shannon Harps outside her Capitol Hill condominium.

The Times typically does not name people who have been arrested but not charged. In an earlier posting I explained The Times' decision not to name a person of interest in the case who later was eliminated from suspicion when his DNA didn't match that found at the crime scene.

So why did The Times name Williams before he was charged? To understand the answer, it helps to understand the thinking behind the general practice of not naming suspects.

My thoughts follow.

Continue reading this post ...


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January 29, 2008 9:20 AM

What's wrong with this picture?

Posted by Mike Fancher

A parent asks for release of documents that should be public under state law.

The Seattle School District prepares to release the documents, in compliance with the law.

The teachers union sues the district to block the release.

The school district, the defendant in the case, offers no argument in court.

Absent any argument, the judge rules in favor of the union and denies release of the documents.

How can the district offer nothing on behalf of the parent, the public or the law?

"We didn't have an active position on this," was the explanation offered by David Tucker, Seattle Public Schools spokesman.

Press Here to see the story.

Footnote: The judge's order says the district shall not be liable under the state's public records act for withholding the documents.

Case closed.

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January 25, 2008 4:25 PM

The person of interest who wasn't, and another chance for the press

Posted by Mike Fancher

There is a good reason The Seattle Times is careful about naming criminal suspects or persons of interest who haven't been charged. We were reminded of that this week in connection with the New Year's Eve slaying of Shannon Harps, who was stabbed to death outside her Capitol Hill condominium.

The Times and others had reported the previous week that police were questioning a person of interest, and some news outlets reported as if there were near certainty police had their man. The Times didn't name the 29-year-old man and took a relatively cautious approach to its reporting, although there seemed to be good reasons to suspect him. He had a violent criminal past, lived in Harps' neighborhood and was said to look like the bearded man in a stocking cap whom witnesses saw running from the crime scene.

But last Wednesday, a source close to the investigation told reporters that DNA testing of the man didn't link him to the slaying. Press Here to see the story.

The case offers a good glimpse behind the scenes of news judgment and the pressures of news competition, which is more intense than ever because of the Internet.


Continue reading this post ...


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January 25, 2008 10:00 AM

Eight questions each for Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama

Posted by Mike Fancher

Now that the presidential election is in full gear, where can voters go for something more thoughtful than horse-race polls? Todd Gitlin proposes starting with some really good questions.

Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, is posting a series of significant questions journalists should ask of the presidential candidates. So far the list includes questions about religion, taxes, Wal-Mart, illegal immigrants and abortion for Mike Huckabee, and about Iraq, Iran, nuclear testing, health insurance, criticism of Hillary Clinton, vote fraud and voters' rights for Barack Obama.

In the coming weeks, Gitlin says, he will post questions for others, alternating Democrats and Republicans. How refreshing it would be for the candidates to bypass the national press and provide answers directly to Gitlin. Stay tuned.



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January 24, 2008 1:32 PM

Where was the press on the path to war? Charles Lewis comments.

Posted by Mike Fancher

I asked Charles Lewis to comment on press coverage of the Bush administration's statements leading up to the war in Iraq. Here is part of his e-mail response:

We have more whistleblowers and leaky sources in this Iraq war than Washington usually has, it seems to me, greatly helpful to the public and obviously to journalists digging out the truth. However, what we had less of was real-time truth, skepticism and tough scrutiny of policymakers and their pronouncements, and with everyone on message, singing the same note, same page, together, it made independent reporting very, very difficult. Most wars, and even most national scandals, I have noticed, we find out the truth literally years later, after decisions have been made, officials may have moved on, the media for the most part has moved on….The world is moving too fast, and the manipulation of information and public perceptions has gotten far easier, all deleterious to serious, accountability journalism. Especially when there are fewer reporters and media owners (except for the Seattle Times and your enlightened owner, whom I have met) committed to investigative reporting.

Lewis is founder of the Center for Public Integrity and co-author of a new report called "The War Card: Orchestrated Deception on the Path to War." (See earlier post.)

The full text of his e-mail, including comments about the book he is writing, follows.

Continue reading this post ...


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January 24, 2008 9:42 AM

Where was the press on the path to war?

Posted by Mike Fancher

Listening to National Public Radio as I drove to work Wednesday morning, I heard an interview with Charles Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity and co-author of a new report called "The War Card: Orchestrated Deception on the Path to War." The report is a thorough look at statements by senior Bush administration officials in the run-up to war in Iraq. It concludes:

President George W. Bush and seven of his administration's top officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, made at least 935 false statements in the two years following September 11, 2001, about the national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Nearly five years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, an exhaustive examination of the record shows that the statements were part of an orchestrated campaign that effectively galvanized public opinion and, in the process, led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses.

The most amazing aspect of the report is a searchable database of "380,000 words of Iraq-related pronouncements." Administration critics may get hooked searching who said what and when.

I was hoping the report would address the role of the press on the path to war. Unfortunately, that wasn't the report's focus. An overview says only:

The cumulative effect of these false statements — amplified by thousands of news stories and broadcasts — was massive, with the media coverage creating an almost impenetrable din for several critical months in the run-up to war. Some journalists — indeed, even some entire news organizations — have since acknowledged that their coverage during those prewar months was far too deferential and uncritical. These mea culpas notwithstanding, much of the wall-to-wall media coverage provided additional, "independent" validation of the Bush administration's false statements about Iraq.

The role of the press is to cut through the "impenetrable din," not to create it. Why that didn't happen remains relatively unexamined.

Lewis told NPR's Steve Inskeep that he is working on a book about truth, information, and how facts are disseminated through our society. That will be must reading for those of us concerned about the future of the press.

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January 23, 2008 4:10 PM

Citizens are taking journalism into their own hands

Posted by Mike Fancher

Citizen Journalism is catching hold in Seattle and getting mainstream attention.

The West Seattle Blog was featured in a recent Seattle Times column by Danny Westneat, who called it "the most thorough chronicling of what's going on in a neighborhood I've ever seen." The blog was created by Tracy Record, who formerly worked at KCPQ Q13 but now works on the blog 18 hours a day, seven days a week. She plans to run it as a small business.

Sleepless in Magnolia, a community-action site, was featured in a story today by Times reporter Christine Clarridge. Magnolia residents use the site to share their stories of break-ins and car prowls, and to put pressure on Seattle City Hall to do something.

Sleepless isn't trying to be a business; in fact a note on the site says the citizen who started it decided he didn't like the clutter of the ads on the site so he is paying $20 a month to get rid of them. He wrote, "If you see my wife, tell her not to get mad :-)"

A group of 4th and 5th grade students in the Science/Technology Magnet program at Clark Elementary School in Issaquah sent an e-mail to me today explaining what they are doing to help the environment. They've posted an online video to "inform, educate, and inspire others to make be a positive eco-friendly influence in our community." They're working on a Web site that will consist of articles they've written to explain the importance of using eco-friendly products.

The small business, the community-action network and the class project are all examples of Citizen Journalism, people using new technologies to tell their stories.

Press Here to see a 15-minute video called "Citizen Journalism: From Pamphlet to Blog," which includes comments from people who are following this phenomenon closely:

* Lisa Williams says the best one-line description she's heard of Citizen Journalism is, "People who are non-journalists committing random acts of journalism." Williams should know. She is the founder of H2OTown.info, a robust news and community site for Watertown, Massachusetts.

* Bill Densmore, director of the Media Giraffe Project at the University of Maryland, appears in the video, saying there is a re-emergence of people being empowered by getting involved in journalism. "For a long time, you couldn't get involved with journalism because it was all big money, big outfits."

* Chris Daly, professor of journalism at Boston University, says the significance of what is happening is that it is in the hands of regular people. He says the future is being made today by millions of men and women in an uncoordinated way all around the world.

Steve Simpson isn't in the video, but he saw this coming when he was a graduate student in communications at the University of Washington in the early 1990s. He says he told his fellow classmates that anyone’s voice and opinion could be heard.

All they needed to do was open a Web site and hand out some flyers on the corner. As an example, I used my own education related Web site, www.edbriefs.com, opened as an experiment with $1,500 as a way to provide education news summaries to teachers who did not have time to read full articles. With little money, and even less business sense, I was able to have my voice heard.

"I have been publishing my newsletter for 12 years. The circulation has been as high as 100,000 when I published only news summaries and is now around 25,000 now that I publish only my own original education columns, as near as I can figure it out. I told my fellow grad students that anyone with an opinion and a few hundred dollars could be heard. They may not have access to the hundreds of thousands of readers big newspapers have spent a century building, but they can be heard. I think your new blog is another example of new media providing a voice at little cost." I


Simpson's advice to The Times:
"I wish you would decentralize. I wish you would break up your reporters and turn each of them loose. You will have to give up the safety and familiarity of the giant structure you now have, but you would still be The Seattle Times, just different...The WestSeattleBlog did it. I even did it with my little education voice, Ed.Net.

I don’t know what it would look like, but the marketplace of ideas is not found in your newsrooms and hallways. Turn your people loose, let them build their own networks of sources. A hundred trained journalists wandering around will provide readers with more powerful, timely, relevant small bits of news than any centralized publication ever could."


The full text of Simpson's e-mail to me follows:

Continue reading this post ...


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January 18, 2008 10:45 AM

MLK DAY -- The Dream endures

Posted by Mike Fancher

In 1996, The Seattle Times created a special Web site to draw attention to the national holiday celebrating the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was the holiday's 10th anniversary, and nothing like our site existed anywhere else. Twelve years later the site remains a monument to his life.

The King Web site includes articles and photos about the man, his beliefs, the civil-rights movement and the holiday. There are sound clips and a photo history of the civil-rights movement.

Over the years I have written several columns about the holiday and why The Seattle Times gives it special attention. Here are excerpts from and links to those columns:

January 17, 1993
Why Our Publisher Has A Commitment To M.L. King Day

How does a 47-year-old white guy who grew up in Arizona as a Barry Goldwater conservative come to be so personally dedicated to celebrating the memory of a slain civil-rights leader?


"I don't know if you'd call it an awakening, because it was the start of a long process," (Frank Blethen) says.
It included studying the responsibility of a newspaper to generate dialogue and to be a leader in its community. The role of the newspaper is critical to achieving the kind of inclusive society King dreamed.

Frank says his awareness of that has come into sharper focus in recent years. Today it is reinforced by demographic changes that are making our country and our community more diverse and multicultural.
"It's in our self-interest to figure out how we're going to be inclusive. It's not something we should be afraid of. It's something we should be excited about and celebrate."

January 18, 1998
King Holiday Is Time To Celebrate, Reflect On American Values

"Martin was more than a mere historical figure. He is the past, present and future of this country. His words were like those of scripture, for us to engrave within us, and live accordingly. He drew the map. We must follow."

-- Heather Sasse, Brigham Young University

"Embracing and celebrating the principles of the holiday won't solve all our problems, but it will go a long way toward creating the attitudes that help eliminate barriers to access and fairness because of race, culture and gender."
-- Frank Blethen

January 17, 1999
Lack Of Racial Diversity? America's Newsrooms Can Look Within To Find It

On the eve of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, America's newspaper editors must hang their heads for failing to fully integrate their newsrooms.

In 1978, the board of the American Society of Newspaper Editors adopted a Year 2000 goal to achieve racial parity. ASNE challenged its members to build staffs that would include minority employees in equal proportion to the U.S. minority population by 2000 or sooner. It won't happen.

January 12, 2003
Exploring the meaning of King's life and work in our uncertain world

Given that news can seem relentlessly negative, perhaps another worthy principle to keep in mind would be to have a sense of optimistic goodwill.

As King said in receiving the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize:
"I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history."

January 18, 2004
The Times' mission reflects the convictions of Martin Luther King

King's message and our mission share common ground.

The link is clear between civil rights, providing equal justice under law, and civil liberties, protecting free thought and expression. Freedom of the press can't exist without freedom of the people.

We share common cause.

We share common conviction.

We share the dream.

January 08, 2006
Celebrating MLK, a decade later

"While I've certainly had Web projects I've loved since MLK, this site has a special place in my heart because it aimed high — this was a site we hoped would inspire its viewers to become better and to dare more for the betterment of mankind.


"Pretty heady goals; pretty highfalutin for pages that started out as bulleted lists. But that for me is what the Web is about, and continues to be about. If it fulfills a tenth of its promise to bring people of different backgrounds together, we will have won."

-- Betsy Aoki, producer of our original MLK site

Press Here for a list of MLK activities in the Greater Seattle area this holiday weekend.

Press Here for information about "Our God is Marching On," a staged reading of Dr. King's speech at 2 p.m. Monday at he Center House Pavilion at Seattle Center.

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January 18, 2008 6:55 AM

Calm after the caucus

Posted by Mike Fancher

I mentioned in a recent post that the Des Moines Register Poll was spot on in regard to Barack Obama's win in the state Democratic caucuses. The newspaper reported, "The Register's Iowa Poll published Tuesday forecast the perfect storm that apparently hit Thursday night. The poll showed 60 percent of Democratic caucusgoers would be attending for the first time. It also indicated that 72 percent of Obama's support would come from first-time caucus-goers."

I asked the newspaper's editor, Carolyn Washburn, to comment on the experience of covering the nation's first presidential contest. Washburn had the unenviable task of moderating a Republican debate and was criticized for her efforts. She took it in stride in a column, in which she wrote, "I learned that I was - and this is the nice stuff - boring, school marmish, Nurse Ratchet (the battle-ax nurse from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") and had a "caboose." (Ouch! And I've been working out so religiously.)"

What's the saying about no good deed going unpunished? I suspect she joyously returned to being a newspaper editor, instead of a TV inquisitor.

I was impressed with how the Register handled the thrill ride that comes once every four years. The newspaper took full advantage of the Internet in giving readers new ways to connect with the candidates and each other. "We applied every new online tool we could think of," Washburn said.

"Most important, we stayed true to our mission. There were constant questions and sometimes criticisms from our colleagues in the national media. But we stayed focused on Iowans and their needs at the end of 10 months of campaigning, and we trusted our expertise and knowledge about the caucuses. When we did that, and tried to ignore any second-guessing from outside, we made smart decisions that served us well and did right by our readers."

Press Here to see some of what remains on their Web site.


Continue reading this post ...


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January 17, 2008 11:45 AM

Townhall.com -- A political-action powerhouse

Posted by Mike Fancher

An ongoing topic for Press Here is exploring how technology is changing the relationship between the press and the public. One clear example is the emergence of Internet sites that perform many of the traditional functions of news organizations, but with clear political leanings.

Many citizens, on the left and right, believe that the so-called mainstream media have their own political slants, which is why they turn to other sites that they regard as more credible. My aim is to examine that dynamic with you, starting with exploring what is out there.

Townhall.com. is a powerful combination of news and political action. An explanation of the site says it "was launched in 1995 as the first conservative web community." It also says:

As a part of Salem Communications Corporation, Townhall.com features Salem’s News/Talk radio hosts, Bill Bennett, Mike Gallagher, Hugh Hewitt, Michael Medved, and Dennis Prager, who are heard on over 300 stations nationwide. Of our five hosts, three are among the top 10 radio talk shows in the nation!


For the first time, the grassroots media of talk radio, the internet, blogging and podcasting will be brought together in one place to activate conservative political participation.

By providing daily news and opinion articles, sophisticated activism tools, a vibrant blog community, online radio shows and more, Townhall.com will arm conservatives with the tools and information necessary to have an impact in shaping the news.

I registered on the site to post a blog comment. Almost immediately I got a welcome e-mail from Jonathan Garthwaite, Editor-in-Chief. He wrote:

At the height of the American Revolution Edmund Burke said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Given the state of current events around the world, these words are just as true today.


At Townhall.com we've been covering dozens of stories on a daily basis: the war on terror, Iran's nuclear game of chicken, North Korea's missile tests -- not to mention news at home as the political season heats up. Television shows, movies, and the music industry seem to be pushing the limits of decency every day. What was once considered vulgar and obscene is now commonplace.

As our conservative leaders take action in defense of our values; at Townhall.com we offer you opportunities to take action right along side them.

Where the site becomes really interesting in terms of the democratic process is its Action Center, which enables citizens to:

Sign Conservative Petititons for such things a reforming the tax code.
Call Talk Radio, complete with tips and talking points to use when you call.
Write Letters to the Editor. The site includes links to local newspapers, talking points and submission forms.
Create a Newsletter. There are three easy steps: (1) Create your e-mail list; (2) Select your content, (3) Preview and send. The content areas are blogs, audio, columns, news, cartoons and photos. Your newsletters can include up to five items from the first four categories, two cartoons and one photo.
Create a Blog. You can also read thousands of blogs on topics like judges and courts, faith and family, jobs and the economy, media and culture.

Sites like this are changing how people participate in the political process. I'd like to know about similar sites you visit and why.

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January 17, 2008 9:15 AM

What goes around the blog world comes around the blog world

Posted by Mike Fancher

I'm starting to get the hang of this blogging thing -- sort of.

I spoke to a journalism class at the UW the other day. The students are exploring blogging and politics, and their primary assignment is to cover the Washington state caucuses. Press Here to see a recent Seattle Times story that includes information about the caucus system.

One student wrote about my talk on his blog. He included a link to my blog. And now I'm linking to his blog. Eventually everybody will be linked to everybody else -- one degree of separation

The site for the student's blog is Townhall.com. An explanation of the site says it "was launched in 1995 as the first conservative web community."

In order to post a comment on the student's blog, I had to register with my name, address and telephone number. Once that information was captured, every pertinent link I clicked was place sensitive. For example, when I clicked on "Contact Elected Officials," I got links to Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell, Jim McDermott and Chris Gregoire, as well as my state representatives and state senator.

Townhall.com is a political-action powerhouse. Anyone who is interested in how online technology is affecting political communications should check it out. I'll post more about it later.

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January 16, 2008 9:55 PM

Getting smarter about statistics

Posted by Mike Fancher

A reader offers this advice:

Direct people to the wonderful little book by Darrell Huff, "How to Lie with Statistics." It's a bit misnamed; it's really not about teaching you to lie so much as it is about learning how to identify when others may be advertently or (more frequently) inadvertently misleading or lying with statistics.

If you don't know the book yourself, get it. Every reporter who ever reports any story with statistics in it should know this book. It is to statistics as Strunk and White is to writing.

Christopher Hodgkin


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January 16, 2008 9:00 AM

Polls -- Looking behind the curtain

Posted by Mike Fancher

As a beginning reporter at The Seattle Times I was burned by a public relations guy who gave me the first shot at reporting results of a poll his firm had done. I wrote a story, only to learn later that the poll responses I reported were skewed by other questions that were asked but not included in the material I had been given. My mistake was reporting on his handout without scrutinizing the entire poll. To this day, I don't trust that guy, but the shame was on me.

You can be a smarter consumer of polling information if you monitor how it is reported and explore whether journalists have done a thorough job in reporting the results. Here are "20 questions a journalist should ask about poll results," as outlined by Sheldon R. Gawiser and G. Evans Witt. Press Here for their full article explaining each question on the Web site of the National Council on Public Polls.

Who did the poll?
Who paid for the poll and why was it done?
How many people were interviewed for the survey?
How were those people chosen?
What area (nation, state, or region) or what group (teachers, lawyers, Democratic voters, etc.) were these people chosen from?
Are the results based on the answers of all the people interviewed?
Who should have been interviewed and was not? Or do response rates matter?
When was the poll done?
How were the interviews conducted?
What about polls on the Internet or World Wide Web?
What is the sampling error for the poll results?
Who’s on first? (How sampling error affects results.)
What other kinds of factors can skew poll results?
What questions were asked?
In what order were the questions asked?
What about "push polls?"
What other polls have been done on this topic? Do they say the same thing? If they are different, why are they different?
What about exit polls?
What else needs to be included in the report of the poll?
So I've asked all the questions. The answers sound good. Should we report the results?

You can find more useful information on polling at the American Association for Public Opinion Research. The Poynter Institute offers a full course on polling at its News University.

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January 15, 2008 1:45 PM

Hype over presidential polls will be back when the embarrassment subsides

Posted by Mike Fancher

Political pundits have been refreshingly quiet about horse-race polls in the presidential election since the polling debacle in New Hampshire. Unfortunately, the restraint won't continue, especially on cable news shows, because chattering about polls is a cheap substitute for actual reporting and some journalists find horse-race polls irresistible.

I'll confess I was hoping for a polling meltdown of some sort in the Iowa caucuses, if only to slow down the pundits' obsession with shifting results. Television coverage of the run-up to the first-in-the-nation contest had way to much excited speculation about who was winning from day to day. The pundits were often pontificating on changes that were within the margin of error for the polls. Something may or may not have changed in voters' sentiments, but that didn't stop the speculation.

Most polls were somewhat low in predicting Barack Obama's margin of victory in Iowa's Democratic caucuses. An exception was the Des Moines Register's poll, which was on the mark and offered an explanation for what was happening. "The Register's Iowa Poll published Tuesday forecast the perfect storm that apparently hit Thursday night. The poll showed 60 percent of Democratic
caucusgoers would be attending for the first time. It also indicated that 72 percent of Obama's support would come from first-time caucus-goers," the paper reported. (I'll post some comments from the newspaper's editor soon.)

The polls were way off in New Hampshire's Democratic primary. A variety of explanations has been offered, but none gives much comfort about how these surveys are reported. The staff of Editor & Publisher rounded up several press comments. I felt the most instructive came from Frank James of The Chicago Tribune:

New Hampshire was full of lessons. Not only did it remind Clinton of the power of emotions in politics, it also reminded us in the media of the embarassment of Dewey beats Truman and why we should never lose our skepticism when it comes to polling.

Polls are only as good as the assumptions that go into them and, clearly, there were some faulty ones that went into the polls leading into Tuesday night's Clinton win.

Maybe a lot of women and blue-collar workers who planned on voting for Clinton stopped answering their phones when they didn't recognize the number the caller ID. Maybe the pollsters factored in too many independents voting for Obama in a race where Sen. John McCain was also running. Maybe the pollsters oversampled young voters because they thought Iowa was a reliable gauge of youth turnout. That so many pollsters got the trend wrong in New Hampshire will be as big a story in the years to come and Clinton's comeback.

Also, we were warned against not reading too much into Iowa, even before the results of last Thursday's caucuses were known.

We didn't heed those warnings in part because of the pollsters' accuracy in Iowa. When they reported that Obama had a significant bounce and lead in New Hampshire, it seemed plausible. Now, we in the media have to do what the Clinton campaign did after Iowa, get up off the floor and regain our footing.

Puzzlingly to me was a piece by pollster John Zogby on The Huffington Post. Press Here to read his full article. Zogby's number one explanation was:

According to the exit polls, 18% of the voters said that they made up their minds on primary day. That is just an unprecedented number. I have polled many races, especially close ones, where 4% to 8% have said they finally decided on their vote the day of the election and that can wreak havoc on those of us who are in the business of capturing pre-election movements and trends. But nearly one in five this time?

Shouldn't the earlier polls have indicated that? If they did, shouldn't that have been the context in which the poll results were reported?

Huffington and blogger Harry Shearer called on voters to boycott polls. "So what can one person do?" Shearer asked. His answer: "Refuse to talk to pollsters, ever, anywhere, for any reason."

Huffington herself wrote a piece encouraging people to sign a Say No To Pollsters petition.

That reminded me of the days when voters were encouraged to lie in exit polls to discourage the media from reporting the outcome of elections even before the polls close. That wasn't likely to happen, but public pressure did get television networks to stop.

There will be hype over horse-race polls, so the best that voters can do is to regard them skeptically and not be swayed by them.

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January 12, 2008 10:31 AM

Welcome to Press Here

Posted by Mike Fancher

The idea of the journalist as expert in a one-way communication to the public is done. The new reality is one in which consumers of news and information have more choices and greater control than ever before.
Press Here salutes that fact and invites you to explore what it means for the future.

The American Press Institute has called what is happening "a fundamental transformation in the connection between humans and information" that will "reshape the media landscape and, over time, society itself." The change that is already happening is phenomenal. Blogs, social media and citizen journalism are on the move. Traditional media are redefining and reinventing themselves to catch up and keep up.

Michael Wesch, assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, created a video to demonstrate what is already possible on the Internet. Press Here to see the video.
Wesch says, "We'll need to rethink a few things -- copyright, authorship, identity, ethics, aesthetics, rhetorics, governance, privacy, commerce, love, family, ourselves."

Together on Press Here, we can rethink a few things about journalism -- news judgment, the free press, media ownership, media bias, freedom of information, ethics, open government, confidential sources, credibility and more. Anything you want to explore.

One of my goals for Press Here is to advance the cause of what Howard Schneider, former editor of Newsday, calls "news literacy." Press Here for his article on the subject. Schneider, now dean of the school of journalism at Stony Brook University, wrote:

"The ultimate check against an inaccurate or irresponsible press never would be just better-trained journalists, or more press critics and ethical codes. It would be a generation of news consumers who would learn how to distinguish for themselves between news and propaganda, verification and mere assertion, evidence and inference, bias and fairness, and between media bias and audience bias—consumers who could differentiate between raw, unmediated information coursing through the Internet and independent, verified journalism."
Drawing those distinctions is part of what I hope we can do together on Press Here. I hope to learn how you use news and information, what non-traditional sources you value and why you trust those sources. From there we can discuss how the press can sustain its intended role as a watchdog and public servant.

Please submit your comments below.

Posts in the works will examine:

-- What isn't being said about how the pollsters botched New Hampshire.

-- What surprised me about the story of a UW booster who offered $100,000 to encourage the firing of football coach Tyrone Willingham.

-- Why the legislative session that starts tomorrow is critical for keeping Washington state government open.

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