Zombie Journalism

There are too many journalists who are merely going through the motions, like zombies

By Dave Skinner

A couple of weeks ago, Montanans got the bad news that Lee Newspapers was sacking two of its most-experienced reporters, Mike Dennison and Chuck Johnson. Along with John Adams and Eve Byron, that’s at least four “name” Montana journalists gone the past year or so.

Frankly, as a conservative, I could only count on getting about half of any story – I learned how to dig up the rest. But now, what was bad news is turning into no news at all.

I was already upset when another news item caught my eye. The Beacon headline was “Group Asks States to Investigate Utah Lawmaker’s Lands Push,” written by Michelle Price of Associated Press.

A “watchdog” group called the Campaign for Accountability announced it had asked three state attorneys general (in Utah, Arizona and Montana) to investigate Utah legislator Ken Ivory (R) for fraud.

One or another version of the AP’s original ran in at least 58 outlets, with many using CFA spokeswoman Anne Weismann’s claims of “fraud” and “snake oil” either in headlines or verbatim, full quotes, with return quotes from ambushed-and-outgunned Ken Ivory. Some local reporters chose to add some “local color,” with the basic outline unchanged.

Um, did any of these reporters think to watchdog the “watchdog?” Nope, so I did. Within one minute, I’d found CFA’s website, and a minute later learned it was first registered on Jan. 21, 2015 by Ben Fortney, who used a New York address and a Washington, D.C. phone number assigned to a woman. That should get the journalistic sniffer going, right?

CFA happens to be so new (Karl Puckett of the Great Falls Tribune did note CFA “opened its doors a month ago”) with the first public hint of CFA existence occurring May 13, regarding a lawsuit over corporate political activity. Then, on June 1, the lawsuits against Ivory’s activities.

Now, how can a puppy-new “watchdog” nobody has ever heard of crank out multi-state news coverage? It uses experienced operatives, silly!

One is Mr. Fortney. According to LinkedIn, until September 2014, he was New Media Director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). CFA spokesman and executive director Anne Weismann has 10 years as chief counsel of a nonprofit – Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. What a coincidence!

Now, CREW is famous inside the Beltway (and with political geeks) for taking down Republican politicians (some justifiably so) for general sleaze and self-dealing. But the “nonpartisan” CREW leaves Democrat hairballs mostly alone.

In August 2014, Megan Wilson of The Hill reported that “Democratic operative David Brock has become the chairman” of CREW. Brock is famed as a former Clinton-hating conservative journalist turned Bolshevik, the founder of both that trusted, credible news source Media Matters for America, which “takes aim at conservative media,” and the American Bridge super PAC, “which does opposition research for Democrats.”

Basically, Brock took over and some CREW people either left in a huff, or CFA is a friendly spinoff. Might a decent reporter find that context relevant for readers?

Finally, all the stories covered American Lands Council’s income ($209,888) and how much went to Mr. Ivory ($95,000 in 2013). What about CREW and Ms. Weismann, since records for CFA don’t yet exist? Try $2.6 million total in 2013, with $1.8 million going to salaries – including $174,000 in salary plus $15,000 in benefits for Weismann. Pot, meet kettle!

It only took me 20 minutes to find all this guff, and much more. Yet this “news” story sailed past at least 58 editors, and a possible 58 reporters, who took what “she said,” added some token lines of “he said,” and called it journalism.

No wonder journalism is in a world of self-inflicted hurt for myriad reasons – including gross lack of initiative. I can understand why so many reporters pretend to report in response to media companies that pretend to pay.

So now there are too many journalists who are merely going through the motions, like zombies. Trouble is, while everyone else knows zombies are dead and don’t know it, I guess I can look forward to when the zombies of journalism figure it out for themselves.

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