Monday, April 10, 2006

Press for the Truth

Guest Blogging: Glenn T. Hubbard

What is my motivation for stepping into the controversy over the Watauga County Sheriff's Office (WCSO)?

It comes down to three things:

1) I'm sick and tired of seeing Watauga County politics manipulated by slanderous whisper campaigns. I've seen some very good, well-intentioned people get hurt just because they had the courage to run for public office. I've also seen important policy initiatives killed through the deliberate spreading of false information.

2) On the other hand, I'm also sick and tired of seeing corruption prevail in local government and politics. I'm proud to have been part of exposing problems with the Watauga Ambulance Service contract in the late '90s, and I think local government needs more of this kind of scrutiny.

3) Perhaps most importantly, I consider myself a media watchdog. I blame the local press -- not for causing the above problems, but for allowing them to fester.

I've been there myself, so I feel qualified to say the following:

News reporters in Watauga County are badly overworked because there are so few of them. As a result, they become journalistically lazy. They only cover the stories that are easy to confirm -- the relatively uncontroversial stories that take very little time to research and for which sources will gladly talk on the record. Unfortunately, these are not the stories through which the press could do the most good. In order to clean up the problem I outlined in point #1, news reporters would have to sort out the facts and report that "despite rumors to the contrary, here is the real story..." But that's not easy for journalists to do given the miniscule amounts of time allotted for the huge numbers of stories they're expected to produce. It's easier just to rewrite press releases on uncontroversial topics and move on.

As for point #2, it takes more than just time for a reporter to expose corruption; it takes courage. This kind of courage is extremely difficult to muster when your boss hangs out at Chamber of Commerce or Kiwanis Club meetings with the very people you're supposed to be investigating. This is a problem in national news and big city news, but it's absolutely stifling in a small town. One car dealership can
easily account for 20 to 30 percent of a media outlet's budget. Hypothetically, if that dealership happens to be owned by the best friend of a corrupt politician, I can guarantee that the corruption will NEVER be exposed by local media. Forget about it.

The point of my crusade is that I think blogs are our best hope, because they don't rely on advertising dollars, and they don't require reporters to fill space with pointless stories that keep them from focusing on more important topics. But the key is, in order to fill a role all too often neglected by traditional media outlets, blogs must achieve a high degree of credibility. Some bloggers, including JW, have already accomplished this to a large extent. Even so, I consider the WCSO controversy an opportunity to experiment with a new level of journalistic blogging in Watauga County. It might not amount to anything, but it'' worth a try.

So, again I ask, if you have solid evidence on either side of the WCSO controversy, please email me -- anonymously if you prefer:

Thank you for reading my rants.

Guest-Blogger Glenn T. Hubbard is an award-winning broadcast journalist who worked most recently at 700 WLW in Cincinnati. He has filed national stories for CBS, ABC, AP and Clear Channel Worldwide radio networks and is currently working on reports for an NPR station in Knoxville, TN. He spent 15 years in local media in Watauga County, including stints as a news anchor/reporter for WATA and WECR. He also has experience as a video producer and an advertising account executive. Glenn is a
second-year Ph.D. student in Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and he also teaches journalism courses at UT. When in graduate school at ASU and not working in local news media, Glenn was active as a volunteer media consultant for the Watauga County Democratic Party. In 1998, he played a key role in the party's efforts to expose possible corruption involving the Watauga Ambulance Service contract.

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