While President Trump makes for a convenient scapegoat, traditional press at all levels isn’t dying because of him, or because of the internet; the traditional press is dying because, some time ago, they started to drink the same alluring poisons that they assail politicians and the cartoonishly wealthy for drinking — prioritizing the accumulation of power and wealth above all else. And now, like an unhinged alcoholic, they just drink more and more and lash out at those who tell them they’ve got a problem; and in the ultimate clueless act of self-betrayal, they fight like mad to ensure they’re never given the cure for what ails them: the ability to be held accountable.
Let me be an example
In just a few days, it will be the four year anniversary of the day my local paper, the La Crosse Tribune, turned my life to rubble — destroying my life, reputation, and mental health through a completely bogus story — while the La Crosse community watched me crumble with detached, child-like amusement as if they were watching a lifeless, decrepit highrise succumb to the awesome power of an expertly orchestrated controlled-demolition.
I recently chronicled my four-year struggle to reemerge or perhaps rebuild from the dust and debris and whatever else was left behind of the beautiful life I once had, after all was laid to waste by my local paper.
How a Local Paper Destroyed My Life and My Mental Health
What happened to me could happen to anyone, is likely to happen to more people more often, and has already — silently —…
Just two days after I published my story exposing the rotting core at the center of the Tribune — and by extension, 21st Century “Journalism” as a whole — something happened that knocked me off my feet: the La Crosse Tribune’s longtime editor “retired”!
“Maybe,” I thought, “just maybe the Tribune and modern “journalism” isn’t as putrid as I had come to believe!”
Could it be that the Tribune is finally delivering some belated accountability for the remarkably obvious and utterly nauseating laziness of their initial “reporting” about me and the ghoulish disinterest they had for correcting even their most obvious errors for years?
Unfortunately, I would soon find out that the whole enterprise is as rotten as I feared, if not, somehow, an order of magnitude worse.
But for a brief moment, I felt a once familiar feeling of hope.
And why shouldn’t I have felt hopeful?
Finally, after all this time… gone was the Tribune’s longtime editor who seemed to take special enjoyment in being able to screw up a story so gloriously, destroy a young man’s life so easily, escape any form of accountability, and enjoy profound amusement at the scene of seeing that young man — who used to take great joy in poking the Old Guard in town — now grovel at his feet asking for some pity and be given none.
In his place, a new editor came to town!
Replacing Statler with Waldorf
Unfortunately, the new editor is just another privileged old-white-dude, equally untethered to any ethical standards or publicly accessible publishing policies governing what constitutes decent reporting as compared to foul garbage… just like the last editor.
In fact, the Tribune’s new editor was only available to be picked up by the Tribune because he “left” the editorial helm of Kenosha News just a month after his gross mishandling of, arguably, the most consequential and sensitivity-demanding story in Wisconsin’s recent history: the horrific shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha Wisconsin.
Blake was shot in the back seven times by Kenosha Police, all in front of his three children, leaving Blake paralyzed, and his children almost certainly (and obviously Jacob Blake) psychologically scarred for the rest of their lives.
Heisse’s tenure as editor of The Kenosha News included a controversy over an incendiary headline that resulted in the only full-time black staffer at that newspaper resigning.
Daniel Thompson, who was the newspaper’s digital editor, quit because he thought a headline inaccurately portrayed a demonstration in support of Blake’s family, with potentially dangerous consequences.
Patch News, outlined the events leading to Thompson’s resignation this way:
Thompson said he messaged Kenosha News Executive Editor Bob Heisse to strongly express that the headline needed to be changed. According to a text message exchange from Saturday that Thompson posted on Facebook, Heisse at the paper urged him to “calm down” citing the quote as a “threat and an exact quote” that was “totally on message with the rally.”
Thompson later resigned, saying the headline did not reflect the otherwise peaceful message from Saturday’s rally.
“I have officially resigned from the Kenosha News effective immediately because of this headline and response from my boss,” Thompson wrote. “I can stand for being unemployed. I cannot stand for this.”
You can read more about Heisse’s astoundingly insensitive, clueless, gross mishandling of the Jacob Blake story and his arrogant dismissal of Thompson’s well-founded concerns, here, here, here, and here.
So for anyone who would take a blase attitude to my critiques and characterizations of Bob Heisse and those of his kin:
If you think I’m being too harsh. I wish I were, but I’m not.
If you think what I am saying is almost too hard to believe? It should be (hard to believe). Unfortunately, it’s the truth.
EXPOSED: Inaccurate Reporting Approved by Leadership of the Tribune & Lee Enterprises
See the unbelievable emails below, and take an up close look at journalistic rot in action…
4 Disturbing Truths These Emails Reveal About The Tribune
(and likely hold true with most “local” newspapers, including yours)
1 — A Correction Policy does not exist
The above emails show that there is no hard-and-fast policy and procedure for handling corrections at the Tribune and, critically, what happens when those policies and procedures are not in place.
The only alternative would be that the Tribune does indeed have such policies and procedures but has chosen not to make them available to the public and also inexplicably withheld them from me despite my numerous requests to view them.
Neither option is good, though. Either they don’t have a Correction Policy which would be very bad, or they are withholding it from the public which would also be very bad.
These emails make it painfully obvious, however, what was really going on here. The Tribune was shamelessly making up their “process” on the fly the entire time, which is truly horrifying — and then they have the gall to try to dismiss me for ‘taking too long’ to guess how on earth I am supposed to adhere to a Correction Policy which doesn’t exist!
Sadly, a 2010 examination by the Columbia Journalism Review, titled, “The State of Online Corrections” paints an even bleaker picture, in even starker terms, drawing conclusions far more troubling even than my own assessment:
We in the press talk a great game about correcting our errors, but in the end do a piss-poor job backing it up. (An academic study of corrections found that only two per cent of verified factual errors were corrected by newspapers. Perhaps piss-poor is too generous…)
The overall picture is a depressing one: news organizations at the local and national level are not putting thought, action, or commitment into online corrections or error reporting. The medium is advancing without one of the essential elements of journalism.
“I really do find it to be a worse state of affairs than I’d even expected.”
…the bottom line is that “corrections are an afterthought — if there’s any thought there at all.”
… there is a gap between what journalists say about the importance of accuracy and correction, and what we do.
“Any editor will tell you accuracy is important and corrections are important, but that’s not what I found,”
2 — No Ethical Guidelines to be guided by and held to
Here again, the Tribune either does not have a set of ethical standards to guide their reporting and other conduct as a publisher, OR they are withholding it from public view.
And again, one must wonder, why?
Newspapers are supposed to provide a valuable public service — one which requires the public trusts the paper and what they publish. So then, why would a paper choose not to tell the public what ethical standards they adhere to?
Why would they choose that path when there are terrific boilerplate ethical guidelines already produced, readily available, and which are regularly updated, such as The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics?
Probably because just like every other major industry, the last thing “news” outlets like the Tribune want is for there to be a way they can be held accountable — and what would happen if publications like the Tribune were to maintain correction policies as well as ethical standards, and allow the public to have at-will access to those documents? Well, they’d be able to be held accountable for their work.
And if that’s true and that’s how it’s going to be, then there is no reason the public should grant their invaluable trust to publications like the Tribune since they don’t trust the public enough to know how their product is made.
Side Note About The La Crosse Tribune’s publisher, Lee Enterprises:
A cursory review revealed that few if any of the 75 “local” daily newspapers owned by the publishing conglomerate known as Lee Enterprises maintain correction policies and/or ethical standards and publish those policies on their websites for their readers to see — and considering the vast reach of the Lee Empire (see graphic below), the implications of this are immense.
Now, back to the “4 Disturbing Truths These Emails Reveal About The Tribune”
3 — The Tribune can’t or won’t answer some simple, yet vitally important questions
In my email exchange with Heisse and the Tribune’s Publisher, Sean Burke, I presented them with several fundamental questions they should have been able to answer quickly and easily — yet, they didn’t answer them at all.
The unanswered questions were:
- Does the accuracy of your reporting matter to The Tribune / Lee Enterprises? If so, does that importance have an expiration date?
- Do the consequences of your reporting matter to you (particularly when you get it wrong)?
- Are you uncomfortable knowing you continue to publish and make available for consumption information that is verifiably false?
- If I or another subject of a story published by The Tribune (or another paper owned by Lee Enterprises) were to tell you, “Hey, you’ve got a lot wrong in this story, and I can prove it…” do you not allow them to prove it and then correct it or take down the story?
- Can you explain why the Tribune’s website does not offer a page / pages devoted to expressly stating to their readers what standards of ethical journalism you adhere to and what policies and procedures are in place regarding corrections and resolving any issues with your reporting?
The shameful truth is that the answer to every one of the above questions is: No.
And when the answer to the above questions is such a deafening no, let me be an example of what struggles a person can expect to go through if they discover something needing correction, no matter how much proof you have to support your position… It’s Hell.
4 — There are no real systems of accountability for the Tribune and they know it and they act like it
When human beings are allowed to operate without fair, transparent, impartial accountability, the end result is never good — and things are always worse when accountability is absent when power is involved.
Few industries have a longer history of wielding great power and such easy access and proximity to it, as the traditional American Press. And as the old saying goes, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
For my part, I have reached out to dozens of individuals and organizations and have gone down every avenue I could think of to find a way to hold the Tribune to account for their inaccurate reporting, brazen laziness and lack of ethical grounding. I have yet to find anyone willing to stand up to them in a meaningful way, let alone force them to acknowledge their wrongs and see to it that they are made right.
In a society where Freedom of The Press is such an incredibly powerful and important cornerstone, our inability to stop the self-destructing death-spiral of once-respected journalistic institutions is a tragedy — and not so much for the publications as much as for ourselves.
Is it really all the Press’ fault?
My story is emblematic of a much bigger one: a movement away from ethical, accountable, well-informed journalism, rooted in the 1st Amendment guarantee of the “Freedom of The Press” towards something very different: press that is free to consume but, frankly, makes you dumber if you do.
Stories like mine involve many other characters beyond the Statlers and Waldorfs that look down on the rest of us from their posh editorial balconies; there are the gullible keyboard warriors who convince themselves they can save the world through likes, blind retweets, and clueless negative comments cast from behind the safety of their favorite screen and online anonymity; low-life trolls craving attention and an escape from their own miserable existence; an indifferent public body that blindly trusts their local rag… and many more.
And sure, it is definitely true that all of those characters are at fault by some measure as well.
It is also true that “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink.” So who knows if traditional press outlets would even take a single sip if they were delivered to Accountability Springs, but hardly anyone has even bothered to try to make that dying horse drink, let alone take on the arduous task of leading that stubborn horse on that long unglamorous journey. And that, above all else, is the real failing for those of us outside the walls of the many failing media institutions all around us.
“Where do we go from here, then? What can I do?”
There’s a lot you can do!
- Demand more from your local press and make them earn your patronage.
- Prioritize support for individual journalists instead of entire publications; give extra love to journalists that take on the grave misdeeds of contemporary media and culture.
- Call out and educate those who wear the ugly look of denialism around cancel culture and similarly toxic trends — even when, and especially when, the one in denial is someone you respect and hold in high regard.
The list of things you can do is endless, and I don’t have all the answers. But if you want to connect with me and share your thoughts and ideas on any of this stuff — especially on “where we go from here” — I’d love to hear from you!
It’s a daunting task to fix the Press, but in the words of President Kennedy, “One person can make a difference. And everyone should try.”