DJWriter
The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Friday, September 11, 2009
 
Freight & Fark
A Thousand Miles from Nowhere: Trucking Two Continents by Graham Coster - The English author rides along with a truck driver from the U.K. to Moscow and back, and then he comes to the U.S. to make a couple of cross-country runs. The first half about Europe was pretty interesting, especially the hard luck stories such as drivers waiting in line for days at border crossings and a guy making a run from the U.K. to Iran only to discover that his employer has gone out of business and can't give him money to get home (he carried freight locally in Iran until he could afford the return trip). In one chapter, Coster takes driving lessons. Like many would-be truckers, he struggles with backing up. I found his solution ingenious -- he buys a toy truck and watches what happens to the trailer as the tractor makes various maneuvers. Part Two about U.S. trucking is less interesting mainly because I already know a fair amount about the industry here, but the foreigner's perspective is sometimes illuminating. All in all, this book is okay, maybe good but not great. Anyone interested in trucking culture would probably enjoy it, but it's not engrossing enough to recommend to a general audience.

It's Not News, It's Fark: How Mass Media Tries to Pass Off Crap As News by Drew Curtis - Based on the popular Web site, this book combines media criticism with a sort of "best of Fark.com." Parts are hilarious; I cheered up my wife on several occasions by reading this to her. As media criticism, however, the book overstays its welcome. Most readers will get the gist of what Curtis is saying long before he finishes saying it. More Fark examples (plus the snarky Farker comments) and less explanation would have made this book much better. Still, any book that trains the mind to look more critically at mass media is worthwhile.

Current tally: 70 books finished, 62 books acquired

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009
 
News Junkie
Readers of this blog know that one of my pet peeves is when a book purports to be about a particular subject but turns into a memoir. That doesn't mean, however, that I don't enjoy a good memoir every so often, as long as it isn't disguised as something else.

Jason Leopold was one of the reporters who covered the California energy crisis and exposed Enron. Before he became a reporter, he was addicted to cocaine and stole to support his habit. News Junkie is about falling into addiction and trying to start over with the constant fear that the past will be exposed. This fear leads him into a self-destructive cycle, and his life falls apart multiple times. He eventually discovers that the thrill of writing an exclusive news story is almost as exciting as scoring a line of coke, the classic case of replacing one addiction with another.

News Junkie offers advice and inspiration for beat reporters everywhere. Leopold explains how one cultivates trusted sources, which is probably even more important than writing well. Indeed, in spite of the front cover art, I picture the author talking on the phone rather than typing at a keyboard. He also describes how he sometimes manipulated sources by playing them against each other, but he takes the viewpoint that it's okay as long as the story is true (some journalism ethicists may disagree with this aggressive perspective).

Leopold's memoir illustrates a complex, realistic character. He isn't entirely likable -- he confesses to doing some pretty rotten things -- yet the reader can't help rooting for him. It's refreshing to read a memoir where the author doesn't carry on about how great he is, although the self-criticism can get a bit whiny at times. This book also describes the California energy crisis, Enron's demise, and the reporting behind it all. Leopold was definitely fortunate to be "in the right place at the right time." Overall, it's an entertaining page-turner. I actually finished the last 20 pages in a parking lot because I couldn't wait until I got home!

UPDATE 08/17/2009 - For anyone interested in further exploring the "junkie journalist memoir" genre, see The Night of the Gun.

Current tally: 47 books finished, 41 books acquired

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Saturday, February 09, 2008
 
Hopelessly Late Post About New Year's Day
On New Year's Eve, in the midst of Fighting Illini Rose Bowl fever, Chicago's Channel 7 showed a photo of my parents' dog Molly dressed up in Illini garb:

There is a yellow labrador beneath all that orange. Yes, she looks ridiculous, but oddly enough, she seems to go along with whatever goofy costumes my mom puts on her. My mom sends us pictures of Molly dressed for every occasion... Except she thought I didn't care about the Illini in the Rose Bowl so she didn't send this one.

Yet on New Year's Day, I watched the Fighing Illini get trounced by the USC Trojans. While it is true that I don't watch much sports anymore, my mom forgot a few things:

With all those connections to Champaign, how could I not watch the Rose Bowl? But as I said, it sucked, or more specifically, the Farting Illini sucked. I can't believe I waited nearly a quarter of a century to see that dismal performance. At least Mom finally sent us a picture of Molly Illiniwek after I told her I watched every miserable minute of the debacle (in their defense, no one dreamed they'd be as good as they were this year, so just making it to the Rose Bowl was sort of a victory).

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Friday, February 08, 2008
 
Eric Zorn, Please Change the Subject!
I understand that the concept of Chicagoans reserving shoveled-out street parking with old furniture must be fascinating to a Michigan native, but you've milked the subject for far too many Chicago Tribune columns and "Change of Subject" blog entries* over the years. And while the Chicago Reader's Ben Joravsky probably takes some pride in being "Mr. TIF" (though I may be the only person who refers to him by that name), I don't think you want to be known as "Mr. Dibs." Let's move on...

EZ, you were right about the above illustration coming in handy!

On the other hand, I like the first sentence of your "Bootlegging H2O" entry:

We don't go through a lot of bottled water at the Zorns, really -- Chicago tap water is plenty potable, just not particularly portable.
Nice alliteration. Alas, the right wingers had a field day commenting on that post with their peculiar belief that "liberals" are supposed to love all taxes and pay them with glee. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised anymore.


* The Google search includes some other uses of dibs, but the majority of the results relate to this topic.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007
 
I Wasn't Going to Get Into This...
I've been reading some of the 313 comments on Eric Zorn's column about the Aurora Planned Parenthood clinic. I could say a dozen things about that, and frankly none of you would care. I know that I won't change anyone's mind about the matter, and I suspect Zorn doesn't really expect to change many minds, either. Such is the abortion debate in America.

But I do want to take issue with commenters who accuse Zorn of making biased statements or who scorn the Tribune for letting his bias appear in print and online. Some people who read newspapers apparently don't understand the nature of newspaper columns (and blogs, for that matter). Although sometimes a columnist will use his or her forum to report a story that has been neglected elsewhere, generally a column is intended to present the columnist's point of view. The Tribune pays Zorn to express his opinions, which are usually well-researched and coherently argued. It's a bit like having a reserved spot on the "letters to the editor" page.

I'm not defending Zorn personally (he can defend himself just fine) so much as the role of a columnist. Zorn's job is to present his opinions. Any bias you detect should not surprise you. He is not a news reporter, he is a columnist.

UPDATED 09/30/2007 - A week and several hundred more comments later, Eric Zorn has come to the same basic conclusion I recognized in the first paragraph above:

As I started hunting for quotes, I found not only that I couldn't begin to sum up the passionate range of views on both sides of the abortion debate with a few snippets, but that all the sound and fury left me feeling that the debate itself is hopeless and pointless, and therefore inevitably endless and ultimately tedious.

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Monday, July 30, 2007
 
Bastard of the Day
Every so often, the capitalist pigs on the Chicago Tribune editorial staff get under my skin (alas, the only daily that annoys me more is the Chicago Sun-Times). Check out today's editorial claiming that American workers don't really want time off. Look at the facts used to support this ridiculous premise:
Even when vacation days are offered, Americans don't use them all. The average working adult American will fail to use three vacation days this year, according to the annual "vacation deprivation" survey by Expedia.com. That's down one day from last year's survey.
I have news for the editors: people aren't leaving vacation days on the table because they want to. With all the downsizing of the past couple of decades, people have more work to do than ever, and often there is no one to cover for them while they are gone. And of course, if the work doesn't get done, the employee is risking a bad review or even termination. There is tremendous pressure from management discouraging workers from using the vacation time they have earned. The next paragraph is just as weak:
Fewer Americans take long vacation trips, for example, and more take their vacation time as long weekends rather than full weeks. Their reasons: higher gas prices, unceasing customer needs and the difficulties faced by two-income couples in coordinating their vacation schedules.
How does this argue against offering more vacation time? Americans don't take longer trips because management rarely lets workers take more than a week off at a time. We were able to take a three-week vacation because I'm a freelancer and my wife is a police officer. Corporate America frowns on long vacations because there's usually no one else to do the work. They encourage long weekends because then people can work harder when they get back until they are caught up. "Unceasing customer needs" is not a reason for a worker to skip vacation; it's a reason management gives workers to discourage vacations. And couples would be able to coordinate their vacation schedules much more easily if the bosses gave them more time off or more flexibility in taking it. Employees don't suddenly love their jobs so much that they cannot bear to be away from them for more than a long weekend. This myth of "the happy workaholic" is ludicrous. It's all driven by anxiety -- fear of losing one's job or fear of losing one's pay (i.e., commissions, equity, bonuses, etc.). But wait, there's more...
Lest people in small business think they're slaving away while the boss is sunning in St. Barths, be assured they're not. A little more than half of the small-business owners in a Discover Financial Services survey took no more than one week of vacation last year, compared with 36 percent of the general population.
I have news for the editors: nobody in small business thinks that way. Why would they? Many small business owners put in well over 40 hours per week, and their employees know that. They often can't afford to hire people to do all that work in their absence. They also have too much personally at stake to risk having it fall apart while they are away for an extended period. Heck, lots of small businesses are one-person operations, like mine. If I go on vacation, nobody pays me or does my job. If we had a less secure financial position, I'd never take vacations.

When the bastards at the Tribune express their opinion, I expect better support than this ill-conceived editorial fluffed out with misinterpreted data. Do the editors really have no clue about how the rank and file feel, or is this just propaganda to try to convince them that they want to work hard and skip vacations?

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007
 
News Items

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Saturday, July 14, 2007
 
A Study in Media Bias
Chicago Police officer Michael Mette was recently sentenced to five years in prison for punching out a drunken college student in Dubuque, Iowa two years ago. The judge did not dispute the facts about the incident. The drunk and a friend followed Mette, his brother, and some friends to Mette's brother's house. The drunk started the fight with two or three pushes to Mette's chest, which Mette answered with one solid punch to the jaw of the drunk, knocking him to the ground. Yet the judge thinks Mette should have walked away, even though Mette was being attacked on his own brother's front lawn.

The Chicago Tribune doesn't report it as a news story, but there is an opinion piece by John Kass bluntly headlined "This officer's sentence is hogwash." He tells Mette's side of the story -- again, the judge did not dispute the facts -- and portrays the drunken student as a child of privilege being protected by the court. A Chuck Goudie report on WLS-Channel 7 (Chicago's ABC affiliate) presents a very similar story with the headline "CPD officer sentenced to 5 years in Iowa." The other major television stations apparently did not cover the story (I'm not going to bother checking radio stations).

The Chicago Sun-Times takes a radically different approach. Their news story bears the headline "Cop gets 5 years in beating of student." In fact, staff reporter Norman Parish uses the word beating three times in his short article though it's conspicuously absent from the Tribune and WLS coverage (except in a quote from Mette about getting, not giving, a beating). It's just another police brutality story to Parish, concluding with this sentence: "This latest incident follows a string of allegations of beatings of civilians by off-duty Chicago Police officers."

Now, I don't know any more about this story than what I've read from these three sources, so I can't say who is correct. But the treatments by the Tribune and the Sun-Times are so different that clearly someone is advancing an agenda. Choose your news sources carefully, everyone!

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Thursday, June 28, 2007
 
I Don't Have Cable TV...
...But if I did, I think I'd watch Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC. She's the only person I've seen with the sort of news values I learned in journalism class:

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Sunday, June 25, 2006
 
Wycliff Finally Takes a Stand
As the Chicago Tribune's Public Editor, Don Wycliff struck me as a mealy-mouthed milquetoast. His examinations of the newspaper's coverage on behalf of readers inevitably played both sides and rarely drew a meaningful conclusion. Maybe he didn't want to piss off his bosses. Maybe he had too many friends at the Trib to properly critique the paper. Of course, the Farm Aid debacle was the best example, but it was consistent with his non-stance regarding other stories as well. His public editor columns made me want to shake him by the shoulders and shout, "Will you please pick a side?!"

Wycliff teaches media criticism at Notre Dame now, and the Tribune recently published his commentary, "The impenetrable fog of Bill O'Reilly." I was shocked to see Wycliff take an aggressive position, the first I've ever seen under his byline. One might think I am making a point of this simply because he skewers one of the media figures I hate the most, and I did relish that aspect. But as long as Wycliff actually stands for something in his commentary, I will probably enjoy reading it.

O'Reilly predictably took great offense to having someone call him on the games he plays. When Clarence Page went on The O'Reilly Factor to defend Wycliff's position (Wycliff apparently canceled at the last minute), Mr. "We don't do personal attacks on this show" was apoplectic, repeatedly referring to Wycliff as a coward. Way to take the high road, Bill. For what it's worth, Page did a good job of defending Wycliff while skewering O'Reilly. Naturally, O'Reilly spent more time dissing Wycliff than he did honestly refuting Wycliff's contentions.

If you can bear to watch Fox's most obnoxious commentator , click here to see his "debate" with Page (there is no such thing as real debate on The O'Reilly Factor, but this comes close). Most amusing is the way O'Reilly goes back two years to cite an example of himself criticizing the government's approach in Iraq (Wycliff had called him a "cheerleader" for the administration). Be sure to read the Media Matters commentary (O'Reilly loves to call them a "far left wing smear site"), which demonstrates that O'Reilly's arguments and denials are pure "bull," to use his own word against him.

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Monday, March 13, 2006
 
Bye Bye Wycliff
The Chicago Tribune's public editor, Don Wycliff, posted a farewell column last week. Perhaps it is fitting that it lacked any real substance, for that has been Wycliff's flaw all along. In fact, if the next public editor is going to be like him, the Tribune Company should just save their money.

I won't say Wycliff is a bad person (notice this is not a "Bastard of the Day" award), but his contributions were worthless at best, damaging at worst. Rarely did his investigations into Tribune reporting venture beyond his own navel. Wycliff was the most wishy-washy writer I ever saw in the Tribune. When someone questioned the Tribune's coverage, he would write about both sides but rarely take a position (and if he did it was usually half-hearted). Is that what a public editor is supposed to do? If it is, then what is the point?

I only contacted Wycliff twice about obvious reporting errors in the newspaper. He blew off one entirely, but his treatment of the infamous Farm Aid smear was downright unconscionable. The reporter clearly made a mistake because he did not understand accounting practices for non-profits, giving the impression that the charity was far below the recommended standard for fiscal responsibility. The reporter's editor stood behind him, and the spineless Wycliff fell right into line. The best he could do after having a month to mull it over was to say that it wasn't clear that the Tribune had reported anything meaningful. But it was meaningful; it was an uninformed hatchet job, and people who didn't understand the underlying details took the reporter's implications as truth. The Reader's Michael Miner got to the bottom of the story. He even called the reporter's sources to verify that the reporter screwed up. Why the hell couldn't Wycliff do that?

I was not surprised to hear that Wycliff was taking a job outside of journalism. I can't speak for his previous work, but as public editor, he always sounded like somebody bullshitting his way through, biding his time until he could find something better. If Wycliff really cared about being public editor, he sure didn't show it. Goodbye and good riddance.

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Friday, January 06, 2006
 
Newspaper Writers: Full Time Vs. Freelance
In response to a reader who was disgusted by the writing of one of the Chicago Tribune's newest freelancers, disc jockey Steve Dahl, Eric Zorn made this comment in his blog:

...in general, it's scary for us and not good for the reading public when freelancers and stringers begin to fill roles and space in the paper traditionally or formerly filled by full timers. Freelancers and stringers can be very talented, of course, but in the long run newspaper journalism, if it's to continue to attract talent and keep the quality high, has to be a steady gig that pays OK.
Now perhaps I am biased as a potential Tribune freelancer, but the former computer programmer in me wonders, Why should you guys be so special? Why shouldn't you have the same anxieties about your decent middle-class jobs being farmed out to people willing to work without paid benefits? That's where the rest of America's middle class is right now -- either already outsourced, afraid of being outsourced, or working as a freelancer, consultant, etc. It just strikes me as naive to expect oneself or one's profession to be exempt from the new rules of American business. That is not to say that outsourcing is necessarily a good thing -- often it just plain sucks -- but it's a reality.

I also take issue with Zorn's contention that it is "not good for the reading public." There are plenty of magazines out there that produce consistent, high quality publications using mostly freelance writers. Why couldn't a newspaper achieve this? All it takes is an editor with a keen sense of his/her readership who can assemble a solid stable of writers. One could argue that readers benefit from a broader range of opinions. That's one reason the Tribune publishes guest editorials. And of course, freelancers cast a wider net, which is why the Tribune uses freelancers in sections like Travel. Undoubtedly benefits can be cited for staff and freelancers, but the claim that freelancers aren't good for the readers reeks of elitism (incidentally the same sort of elitist contempt that some journalists (not Zorn, to his credit) harbor toward bloggers).

At least Zorn admits that "it's scary" -- damn right, it's scary. Just ask my former colleagues in information technology. First employees feared losing their jobs to consultants. Not long after that happened, domestic consultants feared losing their jobs to consultants with H-1B visas (essentially indentured servants, they often work for much lower pay). And then when that came to pass, H-1B workers eventually lost their jobs (and their visas) when companies shifted to off-shore resources. (One could compare this to the progression of factory jobs from union to non-union to Mexico/China.) For me the writing was on the wall when I started seeing consulting gigs that began with six months here and ended with six months in Bangalore (the latter to be paid in Indian rupees!). At least newspaper journalism is safe in that respect -- it would be hard to write about Chicago from New Delhi.

What about the original outsourced journalism, wire services (i.e, Associated Press)? While I appreciate reading a diversity of voices telling a story, each offering a different take and employing a different mix of facts, one could argue whether there is much to be gained by multiple newspapers paying their own reporters to be on the scene when they could run wire copy instead. I suspect that many newspapers with smaller budgets or less competition do just that. And of course, columnists are often syndicated, which is just another flavor of freelancing. The Tribune uses plenty of Associated Press stories and syndicated columnists already.

I know that Zorn wants to justify and keep his job. But the attitude that staff cannot be replaced is such a tired lament in the 2000s. Many professions went through this in the 1990s, and factory workers have been behind this eight ball for 20-30 years. Outsourcing can be done well or poorly, but it is virtually inevitable in today's business environment. When freelancers are writing 90% of the articles in the Tribune, will we look back at Zorn's words the way we look at those of American autoworkers who once claimed the Japanese would never build better cars?

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Thursday, September 29, 2005
 
Public Editor Tackles Farm Aid Story
Well, the Tribune's Don Wycliff doesn't really tackle the story, but he sort of forces it out of bounds. His analysis comes a bit late considering the the original article ran almost two weeks ago, but it's better than nothing. Let's start with this:

The story does not say that grantmaking is Farm Aid's only programmatic activity; in fact it says quite the opposite. But it implies that only grantmaking is or would be a legitimate activity...
This ignores the comparison of grants to the standard for program expenses, which makes it sound as though the two numbers are equivalent measurements. The story may say "quite the opposite" about Farm Aid, but it is buried several paragraphs further down. And Wycliff surely knows that not everyone reads through an entire story to see if it contradicts itself later. I would like to hear from Naomi Levine, who was paraphrased (not directly quoted) as saying, "An organization should be giving away at least 65 percent of its revenue to be considered performing adequately." I'll bet that "giving away" isn't really what she said, or at least not what she meant. Plenty of worthy charities don't "give away" most of their money. Does a food pantry or a homeless shelter give money away? No, they use the money to provide food and shelter to the needy. At least Wycliff notes the false implication that grantmaking is the only good thing a charity can do. Next...

Jim Kirk, the Tribune's associate managing editor for business news, said the story accepted the grants/expenses dichotomy as legitimate for purposes of the Farm Aid story. It did so, he said, because grants are a relatively straightforward thing, while an organization can shove all sorts of spending under the category of "expenses," whether or not it is legitimately related to the organization's purposes and the expectations of donors.
So Kirk is saying that the inappropriate comparison is in fact "legitimate" because Farm Aid might be hiding something in its expenses? That assumption sets the bar pretty low for journalistic integrity, doesn't it? And again, would Ms. Levine agree with this "dichotomy?" (I'd ask her, but I'm sure she has better things to do than correspond with the 79,471st most popular blogger in the world.) To his credit, Wycliff goes on to note that Kirk's claim is specious because it assumes that grant recipients don't waste any money themselves and that Farm Aid isn't doing good work with the money that doesn't go to grants.

Wycliff's summation is probably the best admission we'll get from the newspaper that their story was garbage:


The Tribune's story told readers something interesting about Farm Aid. It's not clear that it told them anything very meaningful or important.
That begs the question, If something is not "very meaningful or important," is it news? I don't think so. Then why report it?

There are two problems caused by the original story. First, Farm Aid has been sullied in the minds of readers who don't pick apart stories the way I do, especially those who only read the first few paragraphs. Second, those readers might decide to judge all charities by the misleading standards used in the article. Quite frankly, that would hurt a lot (probably a majority) of the organizations out there. While I am glad to see that somebody at the Tribune is willing to publicly acknowledge some of the Farm Aid story's troublesome aspects, I lament that most readers will never see this follow-up.

UPDATE 09/29/2005 - Hmm, maybe I was too easy on Wycliff. Check out the latest from Jack Siegel at Charity Governance:
"IT'S A DREAM": CHICAGO TRIBUNE PUBLIC EDITOR SAYS THE FARM AID STORY WAS "INTERESTING," BUT WAS IT THE TRUTH?

UPDATE 09/29/2005 - The always insightful Michael Miner takes apart the Tribune's story in this week's Chicago Reader. He even talks to Naomi Levine. Guess what she said...

She told me she didn't remember talking to the Tribune and knew nothing about Farm Aid, wasn't sure she'd ever heard of it. You did speak to the Tribune, I told her, and they reported you said 28 percent was too small a cut of a nonprofit's revenues for donations. What about 75 percent of its expenses going to grants and programs?

"It seems OK to me," Levine said. "If they're giving that much in grants and programs, it's a respectable number."

In Levine's defense, I imagine that the reporter approached her for a general number without mentioning what he was saying about Farm Aid or how he was going to twist her words to imply something else. Or maybe he plucked it out of some other interview in a secondary source. Who knows? Whatever he did, he sure screwed it up.

UPDATE 10/04/2005 - Farm Aid Executive Director Carolyn Mugar finally gets her say in Voice of the People. She points out the mistake of comparing grants to the program expense standard, then goes on to discuss the concert:

The story unfairly compared Farm Aid to another benefit concert. Every benefit concert has different goals and a different financial structure. Farm Aid's concert raises funds, promotes food from family farms and highlights the importance of family farming. The concert galvanizes gifts and generates revenue. The concert has consistently achieved these goals. (I condensed these sentences into one paragraph.)
Mugar makes a good point. Perhaps Mr. George should have thought about Live 8. The sole objective of that concert series was to raise awareness with no fundraising expectations whatsoever. Farm Aid falls somewhere between Live 8 and the Bridge School concerts and shouldn't be compared to either of them.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2005
 
More About Farm Aid

Today I finally googled the Chicago Tribune-invented Farm Aid "controversy" and found another Chicago blogger who has written more extensively about it than I have. As an attorney, CPA, and author specializing in non-profit organizations, Jack Siegel has much more experience in this arena, but we make a lot of the same points. I was amused by his attempt to hold various local charities to the false financial standards implied by the article, a clever way to demonstrate the flaws in the reporter's analysis. Here are Siegel's Farm Aid entries in chronological order:

UPDATE 09/28/2005 - In private correspondence, someone suggested that my objective is to defend Farm Aid. Let me be clear: I don't have strong feelings about Farm Aid one way or the other. I think I called in a pledge while watching their first concert on TV twenty years ago, but it was probably my parents' money anyway. My ambivalence can be summed up by a critique of the board members: I like Neil Young a lot, I respect Willie Nelson but don't listen to his music much, I think John Mellencamp became irrelevant at least a decade ago, and I never paid any attention to Dave Matthews.

But seriously, my interest here is in fair and accurate journalism. Any charity could have fallen victim to the Trib reporter's misunderstanding/misuse/abuse of financial data. It just happened to be Farm Aid, and the story's publication came at a critical fundraising moment for the organization (in the business they call that the "news hook," but the false charges and flawed logic within the story made it look almost like "sabotage"). I hope that the Tribune publishes Siegel's letter because unlike the "rah-rah for Farm Aid" letter published on September 26 or Young's passionate defense, his response thoroughly addresses the problems with the story itself.

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Sunday, September 18, 2005
 
Chicago Tribune Attacks Farm Aid
When I read reporter Jason George's skewering of Farm Aid, my first instinct was to find reasons for the group's apparently poor performance. According to George, only 28% of Farm Aid revenues went toward "grants" while the standard for charities is 65% or more. That statistic was alarming enough to raise his article to the top five of most e-mailed articles since the organization's 20th anniversary concert is in the Chicago suburbs today.

Then I dug deeper. It turns out the story is flat-out wrong, based on a false premise. According to Charity Navigator, Farm Aid spent 74.2% on "program expenses." This is the category on which the 65% guideline is based. Farm Aid, like many charities, is about more than just handing out grants (awareness and advocacy being two other objectives). Now it is clear why the Farm Aid people interviewed by George seemed surprised by his accusations--he was inventing his own standards. It is hardly fair to measure a subcategory of one group's expenditures ("grants") and compare it one-to-one with the broader category ("program expenses") for other charities.

As far as I can tell, George's biggest mistake was trying to count concert expenses as "administrative" or "fundraising" rather than "program" expenses. But one of Farm Aid's primary goals is to raise awareness, and putting on the concerts is the way they achieve that goal. It doesn't generate a lot of revenue once expenses are deducted (although performers are free, Farm Aid probably has to pay for security, advertising, and many other costs), but it sure gets the word out about the plight of family farmers.

This article is a prime example of an untrained eye digging through annual reports and drawing uninformed conclusions. I expect better from a leading daily newspaper. I have contacted Mr. George and the Tribune's Public Editor about this misleading story. I'll let you know what I hear back from them. Because the story has been e-mailed so much, I fear that Farm Aid (with which I have no affiliation, by the way) will be tarnished since most recipients will never see the correction/clarification that is owed by the Tribune. I couldn't think of a less charitable 20th anniversary gift.

UPDATE 09/20/2005 - I am still waiting for the Tribune to acknowledge their mistake, but music critic Greg Kot
reports that Neil Young fought back at a press conference before the concert on Sunday.

UPDATE 09/23/2005 - As of this afternoon, the Tribune hasn't said anything with regard to this article. I was assured by one insider, however, that they are looking into it. Something curious has happened between this morning and now (3 PM): a search for "farm aid" at
www.chicagotribune.com no longer displays any of the articles surrounding last weekend's event. Let's hope a retraction is in the works.

UPDATE 09/25/2005 - No such luck. While Greg Kot lets Neil Young defend the organization in an interview published today, the story includes this disheartening paragraph:

Clearly, Young had plenty to discuss with his visitor. But the first order of business was Farm Aid and the Tribune article. In response to Young's remarks and a phone conversation with the artist last week, James O'Shea, the Tribune's managing editor, said: "The Tribune stands by its story."
How can you stand by a financial story that shows a complete disregard for standard accounting practices? The article clearly compared Farm Aid's grants (28%) with a non-profit rule-of-thumb for program expenses (65%). George screwed up and O'Shea is standing by his screw-up. Disgusting. Maybe I should start giving to Farm Aid--I can start with the money earmarked for my Tribune subscription.

UPDATE 09/26/2005 - The Tribune finally printed a response from people familiar with Farm Aid. They note that Farm Aid does much more than pass out grants. I wish they had hammered the Trib more directly for the apples to oranges financial comparison as well. I suppose this is now a closed issue from the newspaper's standpoint. By the way, the article that sparked this entry is back in the Trib's online search results after a mysterious weekend absence.

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Thursday, April 28, 2005
 
Tribune Mobster Confusion
In a huge crackdown, a dozen Chicago mobsters were indicted on Monday in connection with murders dating back to 1970. The Chicago Tribune's coverage has been embarrassing. Yesterday a story came out that the photo the Tribune used of mobster Frank Calabrese in Tuesday's paper was actually a different Frank Calabrese who is an upstanding citizen. Oops. Although they ran a correction along with a story about the man whose photo was accidentally used, he filed a lawsuit yesterday seeking damages of $1 million for each of two counts. Okay, so people make mistakes, even people working for a nationally respected newspaper.

In another correction, the Tribune noted that it mislabeled a photo as mob murder victim Nicholas D'Andrea when in fact it was a picture of his brother. Okay, so some brothers look alike.

Then I saw today's Tribune. A photo from Wednesday's front page of a mobster riding a bicycle turned out not to be a mobster after all. The paper claimed that the man was Joseph "The Clown" Lombardo, asking in a headline, "Have you seen this 'Clown?'" It turned out to be just an ordinary Chicagoan who rides his bike to the lakefront to fish for perch.

Three strikes, you're out! The Tribune screwed up three photos in the coverage of one story! Naturally, a Chicago Sun-Times columnist is having a field day with this, and he doesn't even mention the mistaken brothers. The next time the Tribune covers a mob story, be sure to read the newspaper--you just might see your own picture!

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Wednesday, April 27, 2005
 
The Diplomacy That Dare Not Speak Its Name
This is the funniest newspaper layout I have seen in a long time. Yesterday's Dallas Morning News published two stories side by side on the front page. The first is headlined "Bush, Saudi prince talk oil." Underneath is a photo of Bush and Prince Abdullah strolling hand in hand in front of a lush, lovely field of purple wildflowers. Not that there's anything wrong with that... Next to this photo is an article titled "House bans gay unions."

I always wondered about that term "gay unions." I imagine a bunch of leather-clad Teamsters on strike or something (not that I'm opposed to them--quite the opposite, I think gays should have the right to be as miserable as most married heteros are).

Nico (not the Velvet Underground chanteuse, as far as I know) points out that while Abdullah and Bush took time to walk among the flowers and call for democracy in Lebanon, they didn't say anything about bringing democratic reforms to Saudi Arabia. It must have slipped their minds.

UPDATE 06/02/2005: I just saw a repeat of Letterman's Late Show that included a hilarious Top Ten list regarding this photo.

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Wednesday, September 29, 2004
 
Kerry Endorsed By Crawford, TX Newspaper
It's not a big endorsement since the newspaper (the Lone Star Iconoclast--gotta love that name) only has a circulation of 1,000, but I like seeing this in Bush's back yard:
The editorial's writer, Publisher W. Leon Smith, argues that no one would have voted for Bush in 2000 if he had promised to drain funding from Social Security, raise oil prices and give tax cuts to businesses shipping jobs overseas--or "involve this country in a deadly and highly questionable war."
As typical knee-jerk Republicans, several local business owners already say they won't advertise in the Iconoclast anymore.

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