Sunday, September 24, 2006

An Open Letter to Brian Lewis and my other Countless Critics

As a member of the media and a political reporter I expect criticism, but I don't always respond to it. When it is serious and measured criticism, I take it seriously and think about it a lot. It weighs on my mind. It makes me ponder how I can become a better journalist. I'd never claim to be right all the time. Here's a scoop: I even learn from my critics. They are good for journalism and a free press. But even when I vehemently disagree with the criticism, I still struggle about whether to defend myself and my work, or keep my thoughts to myself.

This weekend, the Springfield News-Leader's Associate Editorial Page Editor Brian Lewis targeted me (without using my name) in a piece about the questions I asked at a recent press conference with Alan Keyes and Rick Scarborough on embryonic stem cell research. Because this was done in such a public fashion, I felt I needed to respond. I also thought I'd use this opportunity to respond not only to Lewis, but to my countless critics in a broad way, who are viewers and bloggers.

Lewis began his piece with this lede: I hate news conferences when television personalities start hunting for soundbites.

First, I don't consider myself a TV personality. That's much too complimentary. I'm just a lowly reporter. But I do love my job. And yes, you caught me . . . I'm still fascinated by the power of television.

But the main argument Lewis makes in his editorial is that I wasn't asking relevant questions at a news conference in a church about embryonic stem cell research.

Lewis questions why I asked Keyes and Scarborough to define cloning. To me, that is a basic question every journalist should ask any person they are interviewing about stem cell research. In this high-charged debate, language is key. It defines the debate. What is human cloning? Cloning an embryo? Cloning a sheep? Cloning a human being? I believe it was imperative to ask them their definition. I just respectfully disagree with Lewis that I was "hunting for a soundbite."

Now, God knows I do love me some good sound! Television is a different medium than print. We have to get in, get out, all in 2 minutes. It's something I struggle with every night. So, yes, sometimes I look for a concise soundbite that makes it easier for people to understand. But I don't ask questions, especially political ones, for soundbites. I ask questions to better understand an argument, or pin a politician down on a position. If the response becomes a soundbite . . . even better! Again, to me, that is the essence of my job.

Lewis then takes me to task for asking the duo if it would be a sin to vote for amendment 2. Again, I believe that is a relevant question. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research have called it "sinful and devilish." These are two moral leaders of our time. As they sit in a church talking about the issue of when life begins, how can that not be a relevant inquiry?

And I did ask it 3 times . . . at least. But that's what I usually do when a politician doesn't answer my question directly. I re-ask. And then ask it again. And then again. Sure, it may make me look obnoxious. But follow-ups are the most important parts of interviews. I think it is really important not to let your interview subjects dodge you. Maybe that's not a journalistic technique Lewis admires or respects.

In his writing, Lewis also seems to imply that I am being unfair to Keyes and Scarborough. That I am out to get some "religious folks . . . shouting some irrational hoodoo." I've heard that before. To be honest, I'm a little surprise that Lewis would level that charge. Anytime I go to a press conference and attempt to ask tough questions to one side or the other, someone screams "BIAS." It's tough, because sometimes during tough questioning, you may look like you don't agree with the person you are questioning. But that's just a interviewing technique. I mistakenly assumed Lewis was familiar with it. It's pretty basic devil's advocate questioning. It's almost like I am having an argument with you about the issue, but you don't know my opinion. Heck, I may even agree with the person I'm grilling or I may not have formed an opinion. Whichever it is, I always try to conduct my questioning in a respectful manner. Still, sometimes a reporter has to get a little rough or even rude to get an answer and gain respect.

But I hope people understand that I use the same technique on all sides. I try to be equally tough on Republicans and Democrats, and all other political species. Does it always come out exactly equal in fairness and toughness . . . I would hope so, but probably not. My work is certainly not always perceived fair by partisans and others who have strong opinions one way or another. But I try to make a commitment to be equally fair and equally tough. Then again, objectivity is in the eye of the beholder.

Just for full disclosure, here are some of the other questions (paraphrased) that I posed at the press conference and you can decide if it's "gotcha journalism," as Lewis alleges.

*Why should Missourians believe two out- of-state political and religious leaders over Missouri doctors like the state medical association who have signed on to embryonic stem cell research?

*When do you believe life begins?

*Why shouldn't this issue be settled by lawmakers? Isn't it their job? Didn't they pass the buck to voters because it's too politically complicated and touchy?

Even though I find his complaints baseless, I thank Lewis for sparking a heck of a debate. There is nothing more I like than a rich, passionate debate about big ideas, like embryonic stem cell research and journalism. That's why I like asking tough questions . . . to have a debate. Don't we serve our viewers and readers better that way?

Finally, in his piece, Lewis also asks about the brainstorming sessions in our newsroom. I would say we argue about these same exact issues all the time. Which issues to cover? What questions to ask? What to lead the newscast with? Why would our viewers care? We debate, we argue. Sometimes we even shout. So to answer Lewis, it's a pretty vibrant, thought-provoking environment . . . even for a bunch of TV personalities.


Steven Reed said...






bobicus tomatocus said...

Sorry Steve, you are incorrect. The tone of the blog and how Dave has carried him self in interviews may very well have hurt the political process.

I am not sure how I fall on this particular issue since I wasnt at the press conference and do not have the transcript to judge my self. I do believe the finished product, posted here, seemed to be a balanced piece.

However, after reading how some of the questions were asked at the press conference and knowing how some of the Republican candidates were treated in the past by Dave, I can see Lewis's point. Its not just me either.

What Lewis is stating in his editorial is what I have heard from many people. Some you have interviewed, some who are just average citizens.

Taking sides, or even playing like you taking sides, in a debate in this part of the country does not go over too well.

In fact it inhibits open and honest debate.

In order to have open and honest debate, both sides of the story need to be told in their proper, dignified context.

I have seen glimmers of that here and it is improving, but it seems to be the exception, not the rule.

Dave, to the letter of the law you may be correct. However perception of neutrality is just as important as being able to get the truth in a story.

Case in point is Tim Russert of NBC. For the most part people take him as being neutral because in the past he has asked hard, dignified questions of both sides the the isle.

Now, take a look at say, the New York Times who has consistently leaked classified and slanted information to try and help Democrats get elected.

Who am I going to trust?

Somthing to think about.

Anonymous said...


You seemed to catch Scarborough in a blatant attempt at moral equivalence:

"Purpose matters. If you study the science, agree that innocent human life is created and destroyed and vote to support the amendment, then that is a serious sin. If your conclusion after studying the science differs, that's a different type of moral situation."

Thank you, Mr. Scarborough, my conscience is now perfectly clear as I vote for Amendment 2, especially since I know it is not a "sin."

Anonymous said...

"Case in point is Tim Russert of NBC. For the most part people take him as being neutral because in the past he has asked hard, dignified questions of both sides the the isle."

Neutral...right. During the 2004 election, Russert would ask questions such as these of John Kerry: "If you were elected one year from now, will there be 100,000 American troops in Iraq?" "Could you accept a Shiite theocracy running Iraq similar to what we have in Iran?" Russert never asked such questions of Bush during the campaign.

"Now, take a look at say, the New York Times who has consistently leaked classified and slanted information to try and help Democrats get elected."

You mean the story about the Bush administration illegally wiretapping American citizens that the Times had before the November 2004 elections but chose to sit on until this past summer? Yes, I do remember the massive wave of Democratic officals elected in the wake of that strategy. Damn, those Times staffers are clever!

Brian Lewis, Associate Editorial Page Editor said...

Mr. Catanese: The reason I did not mention your name in my column is that it wasn't a personal attack.

I'm sorry that you didn't know how Keyes and Scarborough define cloning before the press conference. Research before the event would have improved your questions and their answers.

Also, you not only asked the question more than three times - you argued with Keyes and Scarborough and didn't understand what they were saying. I wondered if you had any definition for sin.

If you read the column again, I did not say that your questions were irrelevant. I said they were "theologically illiterate." Again, it's a matter of research and understanding the issues you are reporting on. Your questions were relevant but they were superficial. You quoted religious leaders who say that stem cell research is "sinful and devilish." Well what does "sinful and devilish" mean? It may sound simple, but some people use that phrase to describe research, some people use it to describe barbecue or cheesecake.

You summed up clearly our biggest area of disagreement when you wrote: "Still, sometimes a reporter has to get a little rough or even rude to get an answer and gain respect."

I strongly disagree. Rudeness has never done anything except give journalists and journalism a bad name. It's also unprofessional to treat someone rudely just because you don't like the answers that they give you.

Anyhow, I do enjoy the blog and think you do a good job here providing info on state politics. As I said, I didn't mention your name in the column because it wasn't personal.

thank you,
Brian Lewis

Retiredreporter said...

Set, game and match to Brian Lewis. That clarifies his column even further. Yep, TV is all about the sound bite. And, many reporters do approach interviews with a pre-determined notion of what they are going to write or broadcast. That is lazy journalism and there are plenty of offenders. I wonder who KY3 would react if a politician got rude with them? Oh, I know, barbarque them with 3-minute slam story. Brian Lewis hits the nail on the head here. And, if you look at national surveys among journalists, his comment that journalists are illerate when it comes to religion is correct too. Personally, I think that is why the national media is missing the mark with coverage of the War on Terrorism. They seem to religion is something you put on and take off. Muslims don't feel that way.

Old Iconoclast said...

Rudeness has never done anything except give journalists and journalism a bad name.

It was rude - that is, socially unacceptable - to use unnamed sources to uncover Watergate. It was rude of the Washington Post and New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers. Nixon even said so. According to people like Tomato Bob, it is rude of the New York Times to publish classified material.

Yep, rudeness has never done anything good for journalism. Brian Lewis, do you even understand the watchdog role of journalism? Or is your watchdog not rude?

fightingback said...

"TV is all about the sound bite. And, many reporters do approach interviews with a pre-determined notion of what they are going to write or broadcast. That is lazy journalism and there are plenty of offenders."

What a low blow. You are insulting David for being rough and rude and then you turn around and do the exact same thing.

Have you ever actually worked in TV news? It's funny how it's always print journalists insulting broadcast journalists and not the other way around. So broadcast journalists are always looking for the soundbite? Why are print journalists always asking too many questions and publishing needless information just to fill an inch quota? Is that a low blow? Perhaps, but let's consider the reality of the situation. People turn to TV news for the nuts and bolts -- instant gratification if you will. They go to the newspaper the next morning for more information. Some would consider this a great partnership. Unforunately, there are too many people on the print side that consider it a competition. Just imagine what we could accomplish if they worked together...

Broadcast journalists are as educated, work as many hours, spend as much time on their stories, and have as much passion as their print counterparts. If you disagree, try spending the day in any broadcast newsroom in the country -- I think the experience will quickly change your mind.

Furthermore, if you have so little respect for television journalists, I challenge you to turn off your television. Let's see how lazy you think they are when there's breaking news or severe weather and the newspaper doesn't get delivered for another 6 hours.

Brian Lewis, Associate Editorial Page Editor said...

Mr. Iconoclast: Published material cannot be rude.

Reporters should not have to be rude to the people they interview.

bobicus tomatocus said...

Furthermore, if you have so little respect for television journalists, I challenge you to turn off your television.


News flash, many of us already have. There are now alternative forms of getting the news, thank God.

Ignore the advice if you may, but Mr. Lewis is correct...

And Strannix, Russert has drilled the Bush administration over and over and over again. He is presently on a tear against Republicans in general, or at least so it seems with the debates he has moderated recently.

bobicus tomatocus said...

One other thing. Old IC, it is illegal to distribute classified information, especially in times of war. FDR almost closed down the Chicago tribune during WW2 because it reported that we had broken the japanese code during the battle at Coral Sea.

In fact, what the NYT has done is out right treason. It does violate the same law which many left wingers tried to get Rove with, giving information to our enemies about our tactics and communiques.

But that never matters, just as long as Bush is impeached, right?

I am still waiting to see how many people will die because of the media's wrecklessness.

Old Iconoclast said...

Brian Lewis: Why the strawman? Of course published material shouldn't be rude. But the journey to the publication of that material often involves sharp elbows and you know it. Or you should.

Reporters shouldn't be rude to the people they interview. The people who are interviewed shouldn't be rude, either. They shouldn't lie, dodge the truth or try to smother facts in layers of deception. That's rude. Politicians from both major parties do it, and they should be called to account when they try to use the media to further their spin.

Again, a watchdog is supposed to be rude.

To Tomato Bob, you do know that you and other conservatives are on the wrong side of history when it comes to World War II, FDR and the Tribune's Robert McCormick. As this Business Week article notes:

A Republican activist, McCormick often clashed with Democrats, particularly President Franklin D. Roosevelt. For years, the Trib smeared FDR, first likening him to Hitler, then labeling him a communist. (Meanwhile, until the U.S. entered the war, the newspaper made apologies for the Fuhrer, despite solid evidence of Nazi horrors.) In 1942, the feud with FDR took a dramatic turn following a sensational Tribune scoop. An account of the battle of Midway gave evidence that victorious U.S. Navy commanders had known of the Japanese battle plans in advance--possibly by breaking their codes. The story, which ran unvetted by Navy censors, caused a furor: FDR threatened to send Marines to occupy Tribune Tower, then pushed the Justice Dept. to indict his bitter foe under the Espionage Act. But the Navy's reluctance to publicly discuss code-breaking led, in the end, to a dismissal of charges.

Damned liberal media.

bobicus tomatocus said...

@old ic: Republicans and Democrats then were completely different.

Let me put it this way, until the antiwar wing took over my family voted straight Democrat.

Democrats used to believe in national defense and was broad based enough to be driven at least in part by some God-fearing conservative principles.

Back then there was a fight not so much between parties but between isolationist and those like FDR.

Nevertheless, all those things are besides the point.

The point is that you have a national publication leaking classified intellegence reports on a regular basis directly to our enemies. The only reason is in an attempt to bring down a President which they do not like.

In either case was there an effected party except terrorist and those who they call states side. Ironically, many may very well be journalist.

Just as back in the forties during World War Two, I believe that the same legal standard applies. Without a doubt the Times today, like the Tribune then, is acting within treason.

Had Bush threatened like FDR threatened the Tribune I am sure there would be impeachment hearings the next day.

The sad thing is, though, the impact upon our and our military's safety is the same. It endangers us and it clearly breaks the afforementioned espionage act.

Thank you for proving my point.

TommyGuns said...

Wow, I don't care how you fall on the argument between Printies or Broadcasters, you have to give one thing to Mr. Catanese, he has started one heck of a dialog. Well done sir and keep up the good work!

Retiredreporter said...

Dear "fightingback," yes, I have worked in TV news (for about 2 years back in the late 1980s) so I do know what I am talking about both as a journalist and a consumer. My comments were not the least bit rude. It is lazy journalism. Many news associations are saying the same type of things. That is not rude, it is factual. And, as for turning off the TV news, I haven't watched TV news in over 3 years, thank you very much. Talk about a timesaver!

Anonymous said...

bobicus tomatocus said...
"And Strannix, Russert has drilled the Bush administration over and over and over again. He is presently on a tear against Republicans in general, or at least so it seems with the debates he has moderated recently.

And yet, you include not even one example of this current drilling or he is conducting this tear against Republicans in general.

fightingback said...

"I haven't watched TV news in over 3 years, thank you very much."

If you haven't watched tv news in over 3 years I'd hardly call you an expert on the subject.

Steven Reed said...

We are looking for Technology Companies who might like to locate to Missouri and also any companies wanting to put some funding into our efforts. I recently spoke at two Springfield City Council meetings about the possibility of establishing and developing a technology park. This project could bring more and better business and job opportunities for all of southwest Missouri. That is why we want people from across the area to consider joining the effort. To help or learn more please go to: and watch for updates that are coming.

This project could bring benefits to the nearly half million people in southwest Missouri and more business and revenues to the state in general.

We must work to compete against other states and nations for the jobs of the future. These technology parks allow incubators which allow for start up companies and they also create new products and processes for making life easier for people. I also think we need to include all the colleges in the area who may want to be part of it. College of the Ozarks, Drury, Evangel, MSU, OTC and others.

Deborah Jean Atwood
1441 South Estate Avenue
Springfield, MO 65804

Deborah J. Atwood