News & Publishing

Watchdog journalism is worth it

investigation-702x336By Gretchen A. Peck

Investigative journalism is often the stuff of drama. Exposing corruption, abuse, inequality and crimes are inherently good, juicy stories—not to mention a core competency and duty for newspapers. It wouldn’t surprise anyone in news to hear that investigative journalism is not just popular among broadcast audiences, but with people who read newspapers in print and online. After all, investigative reporting helps people; it informs communities; it changes things; and thankfully, for the news organization, it brings in revenue.

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News & Publishing

Headlines always fall short

The New York Times published a bad headline.

In the newspaper’s defense, headline writing is sometimes problematic. At the 12th hour, before the presses roll, when you’re tasked with finite space, painfully few characters and a need to quote a President’s national address, this stuff happens.

The headline was misleading as it read, but there was a lack of space to lay out the “backgrounder” context that puritanical media critics wanted. They wanted a headline that called the President a “racist.”

They wanted the headline to scream: He said this stuff, but of course he doesn’t really mean it. 

They wanted the headline to tell the full story. Headlines never do.

And, of course, this particular headline was never going to meet that expectation. It was never going to say, “Today, the President spoke insincerely about racism and gun culture.”

It was never going to say that a.) Because that’s a full sentence. b.) It’s editorializing in what is intended to be a straight news piece.

Critics, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say, “The media is biased!” And then, at the same time, expect us to be biased, to make a qualification or judgment — and blatantly, on the front page, above the fold.

Certain members of the media (looking at you, Joan Walsh) piled on and stoked the embers of a digital subscription revolt against the Times. Never mind that 2,000 newspapers have shuttered in just a few years. Never mind that 95% of the time, The New York Times masthead somehow, incredibly, produces important deep-diving work that smaller papers cannot, because they lack the resources.

Never mind all the other good work by staff not tasked with political coverage. Never mind that many of them are trying to decide tonight whether they should pay their rent or buy groceries this month.

Never mind that every day is a mental, physical and spiritual succubus on journalists trying to cover this Administration.

This anger against The New York Times is misplaced. It’s bubbling up because of a President, who is never held to account for his words, his policies, his opacity and gaslighting, his indecency, and his criminal conduct. Of course, the President was insincere when he read his scripted statement. His uncomfortable body language. The sniffing. The stumbling over the words. The legacy of racist, violent rhetoric, archived and freely searchable on the Internet. The predictable 180-degree spin on Twitter the very next day.

Does The New York Times need to spell it all out for the American people in a pithy 15-character headline?

Are we that daft? ~ G.A. Peck

Here’s what The New York Times had to say about it:

News & Publishing

Preparing for 2020: News Organizations Ramp Up for an Election Cycle Certain to be Dynamic, Fast-Paced and Combative

By Gretchen A. Peck

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, the press received some rather harsh criticism about its national coverage. Type in “press failures of 2016,” and Google will unkindly deliver a long list of critical analysis about the media and how it handled the Trump vs. Clinton battle for the White House.

Disillusioned voters blamed the press for a failure to present Trump as a viable nominee, let alone as their likely future president. Some declared that journalists missed the story of the Trump voter entirely.

That type of criticism—that the press had missed the Trump story—wasn’t entirely fair, according to Peter Wallsten, senior politics editor at the Washington Post.

Read more at:


Politics & Public Policy

Farewell, Sarah

Farewell, Sarah

As Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ tenure as the White House Press Secretary wanes, I am cognizant of how much time has passed since she was named to the position, and all of the former Trump Administration personnel and cabinet members she’s seen come and go.

Indicted former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn lasted a mere 24 days on the job. Chief of Staff Reince Preibus tried to manage a Trump White House for 192 days. Sean Spicer got a pink slip at 182 days. Former White House Communications Director Michael Dubke was only there for 88 days.

For perspective, it has been 94 days since the Press Secretary held her last official briefing with the White House Press Corp. That’s her primary duty.

Remarkably, Huckabee Sanders has been on the job for nearly two years now, as others have come and gone. Like another familiar Mark Burnett Production, she outwitted and outlasted.

The 36-year-old was born in Hope, Arkansas, hometown to one William Jefferson Clinton. Some might say she had two strikes against her growing up. Her father – Mike Huckabee – was both a preacher and a politician. He is also a musician, so take from that what you will.

The youngest of his children, Sarah grew up in the public purview, and clearly paid close attention to her father’s political maneuvering. She studied political science at university, despite those observations.

Huckabee Sanders isn’t just tough, she’s smart – and almost immediately, she proved measurably sharper, quicker-witted and less inclined to defensive anger than her Press Secretary predecessor. She also proved a good student and a quick study, picking up Trump’s formulaic song-and-dancing nearly out of the gate.

You’ll spot the pattern now, too:

1. Overstate a problem.
2. Credit the Trump as being the only one who can solve it. Speak in grandiose, superlative terms.
3. When asked a question, double down. Restate the problem; restate the President’s solution.
4. When asked again, restate it, more emphatically. Appear annoyed.
5. When challenged again, interrupt and feign offense – as in, how dare you ask me that question/waste my time. Then, insult the questioner, implying that the person is daft, biased or nefariously motivated.
6. Cut off line of questioning.

These rhetorical shell games are second nature to New York-native Trump. They likely didn’t come as easily to an Arkansas gal.

But she applied herself.

If the President is the confidence man, Huckabee Sanders sometimes felt like his hungry street-scrappy eager-to-learn protégé. When she spoke on behalf of the President, it felt practiced, rehearsed, drilled in.

Though the climate in the briefing room might lead spectators to think that there was real deep-seeded animosity between the Press Secretary and the Press, that sentiment perhaps was one-sided. She is, after all, the Press Secretary who refused to denounce her boss’ assertions that media is an “enemy of the people,” while standing in a room with them.

Still, the Press Corps rushes to assemble and sit still before her and raise their hands and ask mostly softball questions, because they’re only granted two.

They didn’t expect her to be a perfectly honest broker. They realize it’s her job to spin. But they do hope for professionalism, access to her, and a baseline agreement that the Press is there as a representative of – not the enemy of — the American people.

Many of Huckabee Sanders’ critics have labeled her a liar and propagandist. They say it as if it’s somehow novel and new. But that’s the job, isn’t it? The President is entitled to have PR representation, after all. That she does it with skill and aplomb is what makes those critics even more infuriated.

Though she proved to be sharp and nimble on her feet, Huckabee Sanders was never smarter nor faster than most of the people wearing Press passes in that room, who detect and adjudicate corruption, slick personality, rhetorical subterfuge and disinformation, day in and day out.

There were plenty of moments when I and others in the media felt kinship with and empathy for the Press Secretary. None of us wished for her to be harassed at a restaurant. If any segment of the population sympathizes with what it’s like to be belittled, verbally assaulted, threatened or even violently victimized just for doing your job, it’s the Press.

In the aftermath of that dinner interruptus, Huckabee Sanders was granted Secret Service protection – a first for a White House Press Secretary – and the incident became just more political nonsense, more American-versus-American cannon fodder. Sadly, she let that happen.

By contrast, Kamala Harris, a sitting U.S. Senator and Presidential candidate had to be protected by host Karine Jean-Pierre when an animal rights protester recently jumped on stage at a speaking event and grabbed a mic from the Senator’s hand before he was “escorted out.”

None of this behavior is acceptable; that should be a bipartisan position. Sarah missed the opportunity to be the voice to say so.

My most sympathetic-to-Sarah moment came on Anthony Scaramucci’s notorious first day on the job. Cute and dimple-cheeked, with a dazzling smile and a gift of gab that had certainly opened many doors for the new White House Communications Director, Scaramucci brought a guy-you’d-like-to-have-a-beer-with demeanor and convivial candor to the podium.

He immediately squandered all of that favorable equity when he invited the Press Secretary up to the podium with him – fresh from a photo shoot, hair blown out, cheeks thickly rouged, contouring lines cartoonish under the unforgiving lighting, and a smoky eye that became the subject of a joke at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner that year, sparking outrage and forever ending comic participation at the annual event.

I wonder if she thinks about that now – that her hurt feelings smothered a 105-year tradition, an annual event that represents a temporary cease-fire between politicians and Press, in the interest of charity.

I’ve often wondered why her feelings didn’t seem hurt when Scaramucci brought her up on the podium that day and told the world how much more appealing she was with her new vamped-up look. When he advised her to keep the glam squad on staff full time, I cringed. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

And she never needed the eyeliner. She was perfectly lovely without all the gunk on her face. More so.

In the end, bad judgment – or karma – got Scaramucci six days later. He was out, but she endured.

Huckabee Sanders didn’t just survive the role, she thrived in it. And, in her, Trump got both an accomplished spin doctor and an Evangelical Whisperer. What the President himself lacks in spirituality and religious discipline, he makes up for with a deep bullpen of zealots. They pray over him and lay hands on him. They anoint him and empower him. And when one of his disciplines speaks to them – no matter the veracity or absurdity of her message to them – they believe her, because she is one of them.

Huckabee Sanders’ legacy as Press Secretary will sadly include a petty crackdown on the White House Press Corps and threats of rescinded press credentials and impeded access. She will also be remembered for lying to the Special Counsel and having to issue a mea culpa for it. If that were you and me, we’d be jailed for perjury.

None of us in news will easily forget the time she knowingly tweeted out a “deep fake” video, to falsely accuse CNN’s Jim Acosta of assaulting a young female aid. It was vicious, and even when she was lambasted for perpetuating it, she refused to delete the video and refused to apologize for the defamatory intent.

There was also the time she denied the United States was detaining kids in cages at the border – despite Jacob Soboroff’s exemplary first-hand reporting to the fact – and later asserted that inhumane border policy, with children dying under our watch, was sanctioned by God because the Bible says people should obey laws.

During Huckabee Sanders’ time as Press Secretary, plenty of us media types have opined about the value to tasking reporters and tech crews to the Briefing Room if the lies are so unvarnished, so garish, so dangerous, that reporting on them – on what she says, on what the President asserts – feels like a betrayal of our oath to accurately and intelligently inform the public. And yet, when Sarah Huckabee Sanders (infrequently) comes to the podium, there they are, ready to fulfill their end of the pact.

Post Huckabee Sanders, the notion of the crafty, calculating, but mostly noble Press Secretary portrayed in The West Wing by Allison Janney seems contrived and romanticized, quaint now – a thing of the past, like black-and-white TVs, paper boys slinging the news, and people who can’t wait to “read all about it.”

It is remarkable that Huckabee Sanders lasted a couple of years in this role – not 3.5 years, as the President alleged in a tweet yesterday. After all, he hasn’t yet been President for that long.

Though she graciously said that the gig was “the honor of a lifetime,” I imagine the constant scrutiny and a mad-king boss might leave a person shaken, exhausted and uncertain how to personally heal and professionally follow it up.

I also imagine that she’ll have some atoning to do, this preacher’s daughter – that is, if lying is still considered sinful per the Baptist Church. Conservative estimates put the President at a remarkable 10,000+ lies told since his inauguration. She echoed thousands of them. Now someone else will.

Godspeed, Sarah.

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

Robert Mueller Speaks

Caught off guard by this presser today, but here are some of the things we’ll be talking about in newsrooms in the aftermath:

Quick takeaways:

• Right on time. No dramatic delay. All business – true to character.

• Investigation is formally closed. Mueller has resigned as the Special Counsel.

• Wants the report to speak for itself. (How many Americans have actually read it?)

• Stressed conclusions: Russian operatives launched a concerted, multipronged attack on the American election and election systems. They hacked computers, including voter registration systems in several States (see: Florida, where they had notable success) and the DNC’s email system, where they obtained, weaponized and disseminated damaging information on a Presidential candidate.

• Another conclusion: Posing as patriotic Americans on social media channels, Russians created a highly effective disinformation campaign that expressly seeded resentment and pitted Americans against Americans.

• The Special Counsel’s investigation was legally instated, because it was vital to the nation that we understood these attempts to politically destabilize the country, manipulate American voters and exert control over public/foreign policy.

• The investigation did not find the President of the United States “guilty” of criminal conspiracy/obstruction, NOT because there was no evidence to support that allegation but because the Special Counsel and the Department of Justice’s hands were tied in a long-standing rule that allows for the investigation of a sitting President but absolutely prohibits the criminal prosecution of a sitting President (while in Office). The Department of Justice protocol also requires that a President be removed from Office not by way of the Department of Justice alone, but through an Act of Congress. The Special Counsel, therefore, provided the findings of the report and entrusted members of Congress to digest it and make the determination if Impeachment of the President is warranted.

• Mueller credited his new boss, AG Barr, for making the majority of the report public. He stated that he has not been encouraged nor prohibited from providing public or Congressional testimony by anyone, including AG Barr.

• If he is called to testify before Congress, he will stay within the content of the report. “The report is my testimony,” he said.

• He thanked the members of his team – the attorneys, the staff, the FBI – for their work. He said they are “of the highest integrity.”

• Robert Mueller’s last words to the American people as his job comes to an end: Foreign agents attempted to fuck with (paraphrasing) your Nation. They came for you. They came at you. And they’re going to do it again. “[This] deserves the attention of every American,” he concluded.


Donald Harding Peck, a eulogy

Eulogy for Donald Harding Peck

We all consider ourselves fortunate to have had all these years with Don – Dad, to us.

Some people write their own obituaries. When Dad passed away last week, we found ourselves without one in hand for the newspapers.

But then we realized that we had the obituary, after all. Dad had been dictating the story of his life to us for years, through his favorite tales and memories.

And it is a remarkable story – from beginning to end.

Born on August 2nd, 1923 – the third of five boys for Tilly & Harry Peck – he was named after President Warren G. Harding, who’d died the day he was born. We recently came upon a letter that his older brothers George and Fred penned to their mother after his birth. It read: “Dear Mom, we hope you get better real soon. Grandpa thought that ‘Spark Plug’ would be a good name for the baby.”

Dad shared with us fond memories of his childhood. From an early age, he found he loved to read. He had special memories of trips to the movies with his older brothers. He recounted trips to New York City to see relatives – all the way down the Merritt Parkway in an unforgiving rumble seat.

When the Great Depression descended on the nation, even the bare necessities were hard to come by for the Pecks. Dad often credited his grandfather’s Mt. Carmel farm with feeding the family while so many others went hungry.

The Depression – and War – gave him perspective.

A million times, we’ve tried to put ourselves in my father’s shoes when, at the tender age of 19, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps – knowingly giving himself to war.

All five of the Peck brothers mustered for their grateful nation and served during WWII.

George and Fred joined the Army and saw unspeakable action in Europe. Harold and Cecil took to the seas with the United States Navy.

And Dad chose the Marine Corps.

Before he enlisted, Dad went to his father, Harry, and told him about his plan.

His father advised him to seek out a guy from the neighborhood who’d been a Marine and get his insight about what to expect.

The guy told him, “Keep your mouth closed, your eyes open, and don’t volunteer for anything.”

A few years back, Healy and Gretchen, and David and Harold accompanied Don to Washington DC, so that he could see the solemn Friday night Marine Corps “parade,” at the oldest Marine Corps barracks in the United States.

They took the train to DC and got in line outside the barracks before the event.

Almost immediately, a pair of Marines approached and asked if Don would do them the honor of accompanying them to the Officers’ club.

There, Don and Harold met some of the base officers and enjoyed a glass of wine. One of the officers pulled Gretchen aside and tasked her with getting Don and Harold back to the Club after the parade, because they wanted to honor the brothers.

In front of a room packed with Marines, our family’s living heroes were honored with a certificate of service and rousing applause.

Asked to say a few words, Dad recounted the advice that Marine gave him all those years ago: “Keep your mouth shut, your eyes open, and don’t volunteer for anything.”

The room erupted in applause and Oohrahs!

Then Harold was asked to say a few words, and in the good-natured way they had with one another, Harold one-upped Dad and said, “The Marines couldn’t have done it without the Navy!”

The cheers and applause rang out even louder.

So at 19, Dad took that advice he’d been given and shipped off to Parris Island.

After boot camp was behind him, the platoon got their assignments, and Dad and another soldier were told they were headed to radar school. They had to ask their drill instructor what radar was. He barked back: “How would I know? I think it has something to do with submarines.”

Dad went to the South Pacific, where he spent time “island hopping” around Guadacanal and Guam.

He landed on Guam in one of those floating tin cans you may be familiar with from the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan. Mortar shells rained down around them.

Don knew to keep his head down, but the platoon’s Corpsman momentarily lost his focus and lifted his – long enough to take some shrapnel to his shoulder. The landing craft bounced on the waves, while several of the Marines tried to size up the extent of the wound, cutting at the fabric of his uniform to see how bad it was.

Don lost track of him after that. They reached the beach, and the front flap of the vehicle opened and they ran toward the incoming artillery and rifle fire.

Don saw a crate on the beach up ahead and ran for it, taking shelter and momentary reprieve behind it.

There was printing on the crate. He focused in on the writing. GRENADES, it read.

So Don kept moving, and they took that beach and then the island.

His first night, he got tasked to a fox hole with another fellow, and the two worked it out that they would take shifts sleeping and being on lookout. Don recalled using his helmet as his pillow while a monsoon pummeled the island with relentless rains and turning the foxhole to a mud pit. When his buddy finally woke him, he’d been asleep for hours, right through that rainstorm, as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Donald Peck always handled adversity like that. He just soldiered through it.

The Corpsman who took the shrapnel to the arm crossed paths with Don several days later, and said, “You all cut me up worse than that shrapnel!” Don told that story a thousand times in the years since. Even in that horrific memory he couldn’t shake, he found the humor.

After the War, Dad traveled to Ohio, where he enrolled at Defiance College and earned his Associates degree. He worked his way through college; he got a job cleaning up a restaurant at the end of the night. Part of his compensation was being able to cook whatever he wanted to in the kitchen – as long as he cleaned up before the morning shift – free rein of the kitchen. He became quite the master of his kitchen from then on.

After college, Dad returned to New Haven, where good jobs were hard to come by. As a kid, he’d been fascinated with flight, and re-enlisted – this time, with the Army Air Corps, the predecessor to the United States Air Force. Though he had a hardboiled fear of heights, he recalled feeling no fear when he was in the air, high above Texas. He loved the thrill of it, and often told the story of how his flight instructor introduced him to upside down, inverted flying.

Dad was proud of his accomplishment, flying solo, and perhaps forever disappointed that his poor night vision caused him to “wash out” of flight school, he used to say. Still, he had big dreams becoming a commercial pilot, and he specifically wanted to fly bush planes in the Alaska wild – an adventuresome, curious spirit he passed on to his sons.

He’d never make it to Alaska.

Instead, he came back to New Haven and over a chance encounter at Polo’s Ice Cream, he met and began to court his true love, Connie, and the Pecks and the Cronins were forever united, too.

Don & Con were married for more than 60 years – a love that endured the very best of times and the very worst of times. They had their share of hardships, but also great joy. There were the births of their three sons – Brian, David and Healy, and their grandchildren, Emily, Gil, Susannah and Joaquin.

There were the enumerable parties and Hibernian balls, and festive occasions that brought out the whole family, dressed in their finest attire. There were summer days and nights on Indian Neck, with the family gathered, wet and salty from the Sound, enjoying clams and Hull’s and laughs.

Don had a remarkable work ethic. Whether it was cooking on the line at the Three Judges Restaurant or working for 25 years as a design engineer for the State of Connecticut, he relished his day-to-day responsibilities, and was especially fond of the camaraderie with his co-workers. He took pride in his work – his slide rule calculations from 50 years ago have been confirmed by today’s technology.

Dad enjoyed a good “survey party” – like the time the State was intent on putting in a new stretch of road, and his team was tasked with the planning. The problem was, there were homes in the way of the planned road, and one day, while going door to door to ask for permission to assess the land, he had to knock at the house with the sign in front that said: Psychic. Phrenologist.

This was a specialized psychic who could foretell the future by reading the bumps on your head.

The woman opened the door and Don explained that he was with the DOT and needed access to her property. She became very upset and pleaded with Don to tell her, “Am I going to have to move? Are they going to take my house?”

Not missing a beat, Don suggested: “Why don’t you just read the bumps on your own head and find out?” The psychic was not amused.

Don certainly saw the humor in everything.

As a father, he was engaged, spending one-on-one time with each of his boys – fishing, teaching them how to drive. He could make even the most mundane tasks – a home repair project, or making the rounds to Joe’s Produce and The Prime Market; or getting a haircut at Nick’s Barbershop, feel like the best day ever. His Sunday dinners of Short Ribs, Beef Soup or Clam Chowder were something we all looked forward to.

Don was a curious man. He read everything he could get his hands on.

His brother, Harold, will attest that he has almost single-handedly kept the magazine industry in business. He subscribed to National Geographic, Readers Digest, and every title about science, space, archeology and history that a person can still subscribe to in print.

He appreciated a good car, too. His favorite, he recalled, was a yellow VW Bus, but the most often fabled car of Don’s was the notorious AMC Green Hornet.

One day, he and Connie were out driving and red and blue lights began to flash. From the cop-car loudspeaker came the instruction: “Green Hornet, pull over!”

Immediately, his wife accused him, “Don! What did you do wrong?”

When the police officer sidled up to his window and informed him that he had a taillight out and wondered if Don had known about it, Don jokingly retorted, “No. How could I? I’m up here, and it’s back there.” He had a point.

Don had the gift of gab. He could make easy conversation with anyone. He was positively charming. He called that charm “a blessing and a curse – the Peck Curse.”

During his runs and errands around Branford, he could stop into any establishment and know the people who worked there by name and vice versa. They could all count on Don Peck for a laugh or a limerick.

He retained that sense of humor throughout his life. In fact, just a few weeks before he died, when one of the nurses tending to him came to his room to give him medicine, he toasted her.

Before taking the pill, he lifted the plastic cup to her and said, “Here’s to the girl who lives down the hill. She won’t do it, but her sister will. Here’s to her sister.”

Above all, he was a family man. And so it was fitting that when he became a widow, he found comfort in family– especially at the side of his “kid brother,” Harold.

It would have been understandable for Don to be consumed by grief and lonely, but Harold saved him from that – opening his home and offering care, companionship, devotion and love.

Together, they soldiered on.

In many ways, Don was truly remarkable, special, outstanding, exceptional, even heroic – all the adjectives that come to mind when you think of his Greatest Generation. They all apply to Don.

And in other ways, he was beautifully ordinary. He was humble, frugal, simple, practical.

He had a talent for distilling life’s most complicated dilemmas down to pragmatic choices of right and wrong.

Don’s wisdom was sage. He had the perspective of a man who’d seen the very worst of humans during war, but came back from it to lead a life that exemplified the very best of humanity.

And now, in his honor, we must all soldier on.

News & Publishing

In Turbulent Media Climate, National and State Press Associations Continue to Serve as Advocates and Educators for Their Members

By Gretchen A. Peck

The business of newspapers is no longer competitive. While most towns may still have a local community newspaper, very few have two. Now, the culture is more collaborative, with publishers willing to work together, and share both their challenges and successes with one another.

Bringing them together are national and state press associations. They’ve felt the same struggles as their members, but they are proving to be invaluable allies in the quest to overcome them.

Read more at Editor & Publisher magazine: