Go ahead: Break election laws and violate tax rules, inviting federal fines you never pay.
You might just end up like civil rights leader Al Sharpton, who now hosts MSNBC’s “PoliticsNation,” a nightly news show that serves as a de facto soapbox for his liberal political views.
On the program, Sharpton regularly defends the IRS, a division of the U.S. Treasury Department, against conservatives’ criticism that the agency gave special scrutiny to right-leaning nonprofit groups,
“There was no conspiracy for the IRS to target conservatives. So why are some Republicans so obsessed about all of them?” Sharpton shouted during a show last February.
What Sharpton doesn’t tell viewers is that his 2004 presidential committee owes the U.S. Treasury $19,500 a decade after being caught accepting illegal campaign contributions, according to federal records. It also owes the Federal Election Commission several thousand dollars in unpaid fines, even after paying off a separate $208,000 penalty in 2009 for several campaign violations.
Sharpton’s saga, while extreme, is hardly unique.
Dozens of political committees together owe government agencies — and therefore, taxpayers — more than $1 million in outstanding penalties, back taxes and other liabilities, a Center for Public Integrity analysis of federal records shows. Some debts are more than 15 years old.
The government’s anemic campaign law enforcement efforts and plodding debt collections process are largely to blame for this growing cache of overdue debt, owed by Democrats and Republicans alike. Overburdened regulators spend little time chasing offenders, especially political committees that fade into insolvency and irrelevancy after violating the law.
Consider the FEC: Tasked by law with fining political committees that break election laws, the agency itself has no real power to make them pay.
And the way the laws are written, the politicians themselves, including also-ran presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Gary Bauer, aren’t personally responsible for the debts their campaign committees have incurred.
Debtor political committees offer various reasons — no money, no staff, standing on principle against the government — for not paying money federal officials say they owe. Some offer no reason at all.
The situation is “disturbing,” said FEC Chairwoman Ann Ravel, a Democrat, who acknowledged the FEC can’t do much about political committees that don’t voluntarily pay their fines.
“Only when there are real consequences is there respect for the law,” Ravel said. “There aren’t real consequences now.”
Don’t expect Sharpton to pay the government anytime soon.
Sharpton spokeswoman Jacky Johnson this week offered no timetable for payment of the lingering debts, which rank among Sharpton’s numerous financial woes, both personal and political.
Former Sharpton spokeswoman Rachel Noerdlinger told the Center for Public Integrity in 2013 that Sharpton intended to address his campaign debt problems. But as of late last year, his old campaign still owed a host of creditors more than $880,000.
MSNBC spokeswoman Rachel Racusen declined to comment on Sharpton’s situation or the money his presidential committee owes the Treasury and FEC.
Gingrich, for his part, is Sharpton’s debt-dodging analogue among Republicans.
Federal records from October indicate Gingrich’s “Newt 2012” presidential campaign owed the IRS $26,507 for an “income tax liability” and “income tax payment” as of Sept. 30.
Newt 2012's IRS debt is just one of dozens that his campaign still owes to entities ranging from Comcast to Twitter to Herman Cain Solutions, a political and consulting organization run by its namesake, the former 2012 Republican presidential candidate. The debts are together worth more than $4.6 million; Newt 2012 raised a meager $37,822 during 2014's fourth quarter, with about half that money coming from the campaign renting the personal information of supporters to a data broker.
Taylor Swindle, chief financial officer for Gingrich’s media company Gingrich Productions, said this week the Newt 2012 committee has “paid off the IRS since that October filing.” An updated disclosure Newt 2012 made Wednesday with the FEC indicates the committee paid off most of its IRS debts in late 2014 but still owed the tax agency $1,007 as the new year began.
Gingrich until last year served as co-host of CNN’s now-defunct “Crossfire.” He remains a regular commentator for the news network and a staunch critic of the IRS in recent years,writing in 2013 that “President Obama owes Americans an explanation as to why he looked the other way while the IRS continued its evasion and dishonesty” following revelations that the agency targeted some conservative nonprofits with extra scrutiny.
CNN spokespeople did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
Cain, in all likelihood, would welcome the $16,525 Gingrich’s campaign owes him.
That’s because Cain’s own 2012 presidential campaign committee, Friends of Herman Cain, still owes the FEC $12,500 stemming from a fine for accepting more than $186,000 in improper campaign contributions, then not refunding them in a timely manner. The Cain committee on March 27 settled with the FEC and agreed to pay a $19,000 penalty, which is due in full two months from now.
Friends of Herman Cain spokesman Mark Block, who earned minor fame during 2011 thanks to a quirky Cain campaign commercial where he smokes a cigarette, said in an email that the committee “will be in compliance” with its debt payment agreement come March.
Cain now hosts a syndicated, self-titled radio show that airs weekdays.
One of the oldest debts still on the federal government’s books belongs to the 2000 presidential campaign committee of Bauer, a Republican and longtime political operative who now leads Virginia-based conservative nonprofit group American Values.
Bauer’s campaign owes the IRS $10,454, federal records show. Bauer spokeswoman Kristi Hamrick said, “The plan is to repay that.”
In recent years, Bauer, like Gingrich, has been an outspoken critic of the IRS. In a 2014 message to supporters, for example, Bauer accused the IRS of “left-wing corruption.”
Long collection process
Many political committees pay their FEC fines and IRS taxes promptly.
But those who don’t should expect a protracted collection process that, in the end, doesn’t amount to much.
For fines generated by the FEC, here’s how the collection process works — or doesn’t: Once the FEC slaps a political committee with a penalty, its legal office drafts an agreement that usually demands full payment in 30 days.
If a committee doesn’t pay, the FEC sends a warning letter.
After 180 days, the FEC refers the offending committee to the Treasury and eventually transfers the unpaid fine to that agency for collection.
At that point, the FEC, which hasn't had a general counsel since mid-2013, more or less gives up on collecting on its fine, unless it chooses to sue a committee in federal court, which these days, it almost never does.
Treasury’s Bureau of the Fiscal Service might use any of several methods to compel debtors to pay up. They include reporting them to credit bureaus, garnishing wages, siccing private collection agencies on them or “referring debts to the Department of Justice for action.”
The Department of Justice, however, rarely takes action against deadbeat political committees except in the most extreme circumstances. In 2013, it pursued Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from his campaign to buy high-end electronics, a Rolex watch and the like. (Jackson’s campaign committee also owes the government more than $16,000 for election law violations.)
Most FEC fines only name a political committee, not a human being, as responsible for paying, rendering threats like garnishing wages or dinging credit toothless. The FEC does not have statutory power to make a political candidate responsible for the debts of his or her political committee.
The Bureau of the Fiscal Service also lacks the resources to pursue every debt under its purview with equal vigor. It employed the equivalent of 108 full-timers during 2014 to handle all federal debt collection efforts, according to federal budget records. IRS spokesman Bruce Friedland declined to comment. Treasury spokesman Daniel Watson said his agency's debt collection efforts, detailed in a document on its website, speaks for itself.
“Some of the debts are too small for them to consider worthwhile,” said Larry Noble, who served as the FEC’s general counsel from 1987 to 2000. “Meanwhile, meaningful enforcement for groups that don’t comply [with the law] has pretty much broken down.”
Ravel, the FEC chairwoman, said she plans to contact Treasury officials to discuss options for more aggressively collecting political committees’ debts. Matthew Petersen, the FEC’s Republican vice chairman, could not be reached for comment.
Fight the debt
Leaders of some political committees say they’re going to fight, or even ignore, their government debts.
Julien Modica, a Democrat who unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in Virginia in 2012, says the FEC failed to consider he was caring for his dying father in Great Britain when it fined his campaign for three election law violations.
The FEC says Modica’s committee owes nearly $27,000.
Modica, whose Modica for Senate committee is broke, says he will fight the FEC in federal court in a bid to clear the fines.
“I’m an asshole when it comes to paying people off who don’t deserve to be paid,” Modica said. “They took advantage of me. I’m frustrated. You don’t know the effort I put into telling these FEC people to knock it off, and they wouldn’t listen. It’s harassment.”
Joseph R. John, chairman of the Combat Veterans for Congress PAC, contends former IRS nonprofit division chief Lois Lerner — a scourge of many conservative activists for her staff’s role in the conservative nonprofit targeting scandal — is responsible for convincing the FEC in 2011 to fine his political action committee.
As far as the federal government is concerned, the California-based committee, which reported about $5,600 in available cash through Dec. 31, owes it about $8,700.
“We were absolutely blameless of all charges and have not recognized or paid the illegal fine imposed because of Lois Lerner's influence,” John said.
Dan Backer, a conservative election law attorney who represents Combat Veterans for Congress PAC, says the committee will continue to fight the fines as long as it has recourse. A hearing on the fine is scheduled for next week in federal court.
Strength and Liberty PAC, which spent $20,000 to oppose Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney during 2012, is pleading poverty for not paying $3,300 it’s owed the government for more than two years after not filing campaign disclosures on time.
“The committee has no money,” Strength and Liberty PAC treasurer Louis Barnett said. “I don’t know what else to tell you.”
Then there’s the Missouri Democratic State Committee. Officials there said they aren’t exactly sure why they owe $5,675 to the IRS.
Their own disclosures last year to the FEC indicate the debt is related to it receiving “excessive contributions” it never disgorged. It’s one of a dozen debts on the committee’s books.
Michael Toner, a Republican lawyer and former FEC chairman, says the government must balance holding political committees accountable with the value of investing time and resources into making small-time political actors pay them money they won’t ever have.
“You can’t get blood out of a turnip,” Toner said.
But Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., who’s sponsored numerous pieces of campaign finance reform legislation, disagrees.
“There ought to be aggressive enforcement because there should be consequences for going against the law regardless of who you are,” Sarbanes said. “For too many committees, fines are just a cost of doing business to them.”
If all else fails, there’s one sure-fire way to avoid paying an FEC fine: die.
That’s what 85-year-old Abe Hirschfeld did in 2005, the year after the FEC fined his “Honest Abe Hirschfeld for United States Senate” committee more than $105,000 for six separate campaign finance violations.
A decade later, Honest Abe still appears in no hurry to pay his penalties.
The latest victim of the crackdown that the authorities began last summer is the well-known journalist Seymour Khazi, who was sentenced to five years in prison on a trumped-up charge of aggravated hooliganism at the end of a sham trial yesterday.
A reporter for the opposition daily Azadlig and one of the presenters of “Azerbaycan Saati,” a TV programme critical of the government that is broadcast from abroad, he had been in pre-trial detention for the past five months.
Reporters Without Borders is appalled by the absurdity of this verdict and its tragic consequences.
Khazi (whose full surname is Khaziyev) was arrested on a hooliganism charge on 29 August after defending himself when suddenly attacked by a complete stranger, Maherram Hasanov. After an outcry, Hasanov was also arrested for hooliganism five days later.
At yesterday's trial, marked by a lack of evidence and many procedural errors, the prosecution requested six years for Khazi and nine months for his assailant, who ended up being sentenced to six months in prison.
Khazi repeatedly denounced the charges as politically motivated. Before the court issued its verdict yesterday, he accused President Ilham Aliyev and chief of staff Ramiz Mehdyev of ordering his arrest.
Outspoken journalists and civil society representatives have been the victims of an unprecedented crackdown since last summer.
On 19 January, Khazi released a letter paying tribute to Azerbaijan's leading independent journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, who was arrested on 5 December and was being held in a cell just a few metres from his.
Previous releases by Reporters Without Borders on this subject:
- Opposition journalist latest victim in Azerbaijan crackdown
- Imprisoned journalist pays tribute to colleague held in the same jail
(Photo : Radio Azadlig)
Editor’s Note: Professional journalists worldwide are facing pushback from dictators, autocrats, and one-time reformers keen to centralize power and control information. The fight is going on from Hungary to Hong Kong, from Cairo to Caracas. And journalists everywhere aren't backing down --they're publishing exposes, fighting harassment, and watchdogging the worst abuses of power.
Consider the case of Serbia. A growing number of reports of self-censorship, hacked websites and intimidation and arrest of writers has prompted public warnings by the European Union, the U.S. government, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The Balkan state’s media “remains constrained by pervasive corruption, regulatory setbacks, and economic difficulties,” Freedom House says. Conditions have worsened under the country’s new prime minister, Aleksandar Vučić. A former ultranationalist who served as information minister in the late 1990s, Vučić led a crackdown on criticism of then-strongman Slobodan Milošević. Vučić says he’s renounced his past and has been a vocal supporter of EU membership for Serbia, but his actions are spreading unease among those who believe in press freedom.
For nearly a year, an ugly campaign by Vučić’s supporters has targeted one of GIJN’s members, the award-winning Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. In an attempt to discredit BIRN's work, critics are calling the journalism nonprofit a “spy” organization and its members foreign mercenaries. The charges reached a peak on January 9 when Vučić himself lashed out at BIRN, in response to the group’s digging into a controversial government coal mine tender.
Now, one of Serbia’s top journalists fires back -- Branko Čečen, director of the Serbian Center for Investigative Journalism (CINS), another GIJN member. In this hard-hitting critique, Čečen looks at Vučić’s attack and the sorry state of the nation's media, and asks who’s really interested in accountability and honest reporting in Serbia today.
Serbian media users are torn these days. On one side, there are tabloids openly and uncritically supporting a very powerful prime minister, breaking what little is left of professional standards in Serbian media while attracting less educated readers. On the other side, civil society organizations practicing investigative journalism are exposing corruption, but find themselves under open attack by the very same tabloids and the prime minister himself as “spies” and “foreign mercenaries.” All of the mainstream Serbian media is either silent or on the prime minister’s side. Times are hard for professional journalists in Serbia, but some good can come out of this: the Serbian public is in a great position to understand what is this thing, previously ignored but now suddenly mentioned, called “investigative journalism”?The Serbian public is in a great position to understand what is this thing, previously ignored but now suddenly mentioned, called “investigative journalism”?
The Balkan Investigative Reporters Network is a non-governmental, nonprofit organization dedicated to professional and investigative journalism, with a network of branches in several countries of Southeast Europe. BIRN’s recent story on a suspicious and costly public procurement -- which the state electricity monopoly awarded to a company belonging to, among others, a person close to the Serbian Prime Minister -- has done a great deal to raise the frequency of use of the term “investigative journalism” in the media, on social networks, and elsewhere. However, the Serbian Prime Minister, Alexandar Vučić, has done much, much more with just a handful of insulting, arrogant sentences he used to react to reporters question about it: “Tell those liars they lied again… It is important that people know (who published the story)… those who have got the money from (Chief of the EU Delegation to Serbia) Devenport to speak against the Government of Serbia.” [Note: BIRN has received support over the years from 50 foundations, NGOs, and government agencies, including the European Commission.]
Mainstream media hurried to look into BIRN and the donations it received, instead of what BIRN published, keeping quiet and ignoring its revelations of abuse of public money. Their behavior made a mockery of investigative journalism.
To make these events, already quite unbelievable, even stranger, a tabloid newspaper, “Informer,” which openly supports the prime minister, has been making unsubstantiated and slanderous attacks against those who criticize Vučić, inventing dramatic plots to kill or dethrone him. Then, suddenly, images surfaced allegedly from a sex tape of the newly-elected woman president of neighboring Croatia, having sex with a Serbian diplomat in Brussels. It took just a few hours for social media users to reveal that the images were doctored, taken from a cheap porn video available online. TK
So, the media beloved by Serbia’s prime minister blunders beyond belief, while investigative journalists are making him terribly angry. The Serbian public, left completely uninformed and misled by subtly controlled mainstream media, was left with many questions, of which, at least, to one we can give the answer: “What is that thing - investigative journalism”?
So, what is investigative journalism? There are two basic types of definitions – ostensive and stipulative. Ostensive definitions are those we had to study in school, which involve singling out a term or a phrase and narrowing the circle of related terms or phrases around it, from general to individual. A cow is firstly an animal, then a mammal, an herbivore and so on. A stipulative definition is, to put it quite simply, when a child asks: “What is a cow?” and you take it to the countryside, find a cow, point your finger at it, and say: “This.”
In the cacophony of echoes of the Prime Minister’s accusations, absolutely no one has refuted a single fact in BIRN’s story. This would not be easy to, anyway, because -- for each one -- BIRN has also published a PDF document that you can click on. It opens and -- behold -- there are facts from the state institutions themselves.
If we were to take an imaginary child and show it investigative journalism, in Serbia we would be quite fortunate because we have Brankica Stanković, the correspondent for B92’s influential and excellent investigative TV show “Insajder” (Insider). Stankovic has lived for five years under 24/7 police protection because there is a contract on her life. We would show the child a TV, play one of the “Insider” shows, and say: “This.” But, since “Insider” does not run year-round, right now we might also show the child a more actual example -- the investigative story, “Pumping Out the Open Pit and the Budget” by BIRN.
To older consumers of thorough information, however, we would have to offer an ostensive definition.
Here we come across an obstacle. Journalism isn’t a science or a philosophical discipline. It’s more of a trade with an important social function and responsibilities. It changes constantly and varies in time to a great extent from one medium to another, from one city to another and from one country to the next.Journalism isn’t a science or a philosophical discipline. It’s more of a trade with an important social function and responsibilities.
In France, is it quite acceptable for a journalist with investigative ambitions to include political comments in a story that he/she has painstakingly worked on, along with all the overwhelming evidence and facts. In almost all other developed democracies with a mature media, comments and facts are physically separated from reporting. The former are clearly marked so as to avoid confusion.
So, liberal media should report on an event more or less the same as conservative ones, but comments placed in a specially framed space will often lean toward one or the other political side. The idea is to allow readers to form their own opinions based on bare facts and if they want someone else’s opinion, to look for comments.
Attempts to define investigative journalism are, therefore, always sensitive and have uncertain prospects of success. Still, some prove to be better and more resistant to change than others.
David Kaplan, director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network, and an influential investigative reporter and editor, in his report “Global Investigative Journalism: Strategies for Support,” says the definitions vary. However, there is broad agreement on its major components: “Systematic, in-depth, and original research and reporting, often involving the unearthing of secrets.”
In our circumstances, it is easy to establish that “Pumping Out the Open Pit and the Budget” goes in-depth into the process of pumping out water from the most expensive single casualty of the floods – a source of a high percentage of Serbia’s electricity – the Tamnava open pit coal mine.
It was impossible to do this in any other way but systematically. BIRN approached all relevant sources, all of whom chose to keep silent in spite of their responsibility to, as public officers, answer questions about the spending of public money. Even the World Bank, which has rules binding it to this kind of approach to public information, decided not to answer very precise questions posed by BIRN.
The Serbian media were silent on all of this, including the entire BIRN story. This is almost unbelievable because a free media should jump at such findings and, on behalf of the people, should shower state bodies with thousands of questions. That they did not do so has something to do with the local media pathology, subtle control through scarce advertisement money, and the state being the chief source of most business in a rather poor country.
However, by not doing their job, the Serbian media only emphasized one of our points -- BIRN’s investigation was completely original. A big secret was exposed. Those who decided to carry out a tender for which there was no need -- as a result of which almost a million euro a day were lost over many months, while the pit was flooded -- did not want this known. Also, those who won the tender did not have any relevant experience at all although this was one of the requirements for participation.
BIRN’s story, therefore, fully meets Kaplan’s definition.That’s a topic for investigative journalism: if the state decides to carry out an unnecessary tender and awards the job...to the Prime Minister's best man.
Now let’s look at the Informer story on the doctored porn video. If “a source with whom the editor-in-chief has been working for two years and who has never deceived him” (as Informer Editor-In-Chief and co-owner Dragan Vučićević explained at a rather unpleasant press conference) has given you a pornographic video of a newly elected woman president of the latest EU member state… And if, after weighing the gravity of the situation, you spend an entire two or three days “checking” the video’s authenticity and then put it on the front page of your tabloid… then you are not an investigative journalist.
Perhaps more interesting, however, is the way in which the oldest investigative journalism organization in the world, Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), tried to arrive at a definition of their trade, and how their findings reflect on Serbian media chaos.
IRE sent to hundreds of reputable investigative reporters and editors a request to define what they do. They ultimately singled out three common elements:
- Investigative journalism focuses on matters of importance
This means that a car accident with several casualties is very important to people linked with it but not to the whole of society. However, if the accident took place on a section of a road where too many accidents occur, then this is important to a large number of people and hence a legitimate media topic, but still not necessarily a topic for investigative journalists.
However, if the accidents are a consequence of cheating on the quality of road construction, or a road company’s lax behavior or because of corruption in the ministry of transport, which is waiting for the company of someone’s uncle to muster the strength to win a tender for road overhaul while people are getting killed – that’s a topic for investigative journalism.
So now consider a country like Serbia –which has suffered a Biblical flood and its open pit coal mine from which it gets coal for an amazing 25% of the nation’s electricity is now a lake waiting for the state to start pumping the water out. If the state then decides to carry out an unnecessary tender and awards the job -- while violating its own tender requirements – to, among others, the Prime Minister’s best man… that’s a topic for investigative journalism.
- Investigative journalism reveals something that is unknown, most often hidden by someone
This is the same as in Kaplan’s definition. We’ll just add that this is also important to investigative journalists because they usually work on a story for months, or years, so it would be stupid for it not to be exclusive. That would diminish the point of sacrificing such a large portion of one’s career.
In Serbia, every investigative story concerning the prime minister would expose you to criticism and slander by media close to the government, and sometimes, unfortunately, to real danger. It would be stupid to expose yourself to all that for the sake of something that everyone already knows.
The World Bank decided to approve the loan for de-watering the coal mine, but after the fact, when the Serbian state electricity monopoly had already awarded the contract. However, the World Bank spokeperson in Serbia decided to join the attack on BIRN, claiming trhat that Bank’s experts “…looked into all the decisions, all the procedures and established that all was done in accordance with Serbian regulations.”
The World Bank wasn’t even mentioned in BIRN’s investigative story because, at the time of the tender, the Bank hadn’t signed the agreement to finance the de-watering, and because, when previously addressed by BIRN, it distanced itself from everything and referred inquiries to the state power.
As to why the World Bank, or its staff in Serbia, subsequently decided to actively link this whole suspicious and dangerous story to their reputable institution, is something that only the World Bank heads and their spokesperson know. Since its unfortunate public reaction, the Bank has sunk into complete silence on the issue, although it owes us a lot of answers, it seems.
- Investigative journalists arrive at their findings and proof on their own.
In other words if, say, a source gives you a porn video of a neighboring country’s newly elected woman president, and you spend two or three days “checking” the video’s authenticity and then put this on the front page of your tabloid… you are not an investigative journalist.There is broad agreement on investigative journalism's components: “Systematic, in-depth, and original research and reporting, often involving the unearthing of secrets.”
You did not arrive at your findings on your own, you did not prove them on your own, and you found no social problem that required months of work to collect evidence, gather facts, and document the process. Because a sex tape of a neighboring country’s president is not a social problem. We obviously need to discuss the quality of our tabloids and who controls our media, but not the sex tape.
You also never wondered, “Why are these people giving us something that could disrupt relations between the two countries and destroy someone’s career and life?” Instead, you published something that, within hours, with the help of a relatively simple search, users of social media established as wrong.
If that’s what you did… then you’re not an investigative journalist. You also failed to honor the basic professional standards for any kind of journalism, which investigative journalists stick to religiously – so that once the story is published someone cannot “poke holes in” a project that you have worked on for months.
An investigative journalist will do the exact opposite of what our tabloid did. One will do what BIRN did.
Starting from the initial information that something is odd about the tender for the de-watering of pits- - or merely carrying out routine checks of various tenders, which is something that all journalists should be doing when millions of citizen’s euros are at issue -- you start a months-long process of requesting official documents from the state. You then give them to neutral experts to interpret, check everything five times, and you continue to do so until the facts form a story that is proven beyond doubt, and which can be defended in court.Investigative journalism reveals something that is unknown, most often hidden by someone.
As was stated earlier, in the cacophony of echoes of the Prime Minister’s accusations, absolutely no one has refuted a single fact in BIRN’s story, the World Bank included. But the share of the Serbian public which learns its news through mainstream media could perceive only that there is something very wrong with the story and BIRN as an organization. A story that no mainstream media republished or even quoted, but many have criticized and defamed and quoted the World Bank that the tender was just fine.
Of course, investigative journalists wouldn’t even consider investigating the topic on the woman president of a neighboring state and her porn video in the first place. It does not concern the people that journalists represent, it doesn’t influence their lives, ergo – it is just not important.
So what is the conclusion? Well, these are the basic elements of investigative journalism. An in-depth approach of one’s own discovering and proving socially important facts that are unknown, or which someone is hiding. So, the next time someone in Serbia mentions investigative journalism, media users should ask themselves whether they mean BIRN, or an irresponsible tabloid that betrays the trust of people who believe its editors and journalists know what’s important. That they know, or at least believe they know, what is true should go without saying. If they decided not to care about it, that would be truly outrageous.
Branko Čečen (@BrankoCecen) is director of the Center for Investigative Journalism in Serbia (CINS). Most recently, he taught journalism at Singidunum University in Belgrade. He has worked as a reporter and editor, covering wars and crime, with experience at dailies, weeklies, monthlies, and online media. This article is adapted from a story originally published in Serbian by Cenzolovka.
Amy Wallace’s detailing in GQ magazine of the sad, final days of Casey Kasem begs the following, resounding question: Why did he put up with second wife Jean for all those years? She was difficult and, more importantly, extremely rude from the get-go to his three kids from a previous marriage. Though not in a way that could ever prepare the siblings for what transpired in 2013-14 in Holmby Hills, Santa Monica, Las Vegas, Seattle, Montreal and Oslo.
Maybe that long-distance dedication business on January 24, 1981 was an omen. On that day’s edition of American Top 40, just a month after Casey and Jean Kasem had tied the knot in Beverly Hills, the host read a long-distance dedication of Wayne Newton’s \"Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast\" and then, towards the end of the program, revisited some previous correspondence. From Pete Battistini’s book American Top 40 with Casey Kasem: The 80s:
\"You know, occasionally we get letters from listeners whose long-distance dedications have been read on the show. Usually, they want to tell us about the effect the dedication has had on their lives. I’d like to read you one of these follow-up letters. It’s from a woman in New Zealand. And she writes…\"
Dear Casey: About two years ago, I wrote and asked you for a long-distance dedication to a guy named Calem. I told of how I’d come to the States to look around, but gotten mixed up with the wrong people and drugs. When Calem found me, I was a mess. I didn’t care about anything, least of all, living. Calem helped me to get by without drugs, and to find all the beautiful things in the world again. He then used his savings to get me back home.
It wasn’t until I’d been home a few months that I realized how much I missed and loved him. A friend of Calem’s wrote me and said that Cal felt the same way. Anyway, I asked you for the long-distance dedication \"You Needed Me\" by Anne Murray. And you played it.
To cut a long story short, Cal and I are now happily married, and have been for a year. We have a three-month old baby girl named Casey, after you. We want to thank you. For without that dedication, none of this could’ve happened. We’re the three happiest people in the world. Signed with love, Tinny, Calem and Casey.
\"Well, Tinny, Calem and Casey, thanks for letting us know how great things worked out for you. Now, on with the countdown.\"
Vintage Top 40 stuff, right? The only problem is that when Battistini went back and looked at the times the referenced Murray song had been long-distance dedicated (September 1978, August 1979 and October 1980 – yes, Murray was that popular), none of the letter writers were named Tinny. And no dedication info matched up with what Kasem read on the air that January 24, 1981.
Battistini tells us that outside of his 80s book, one of a pair he has written about American Top 40, no one has ever been able to disprove his conclusion that this was a bogus long-distance dedication.
\"As far as I know, it was a fake,\" the author tells FishbowlNY via email. \"Were there other faked letters to Casey? Odds are certainly in favor that there were. But if true, they’d be much more difficult to prove. And I’m not aware of any other examples.\"[Top photo of Casey, Jean and Liberty Kasem, 1991: Vicki L. Miller/Shutterstock.com; bottom photo of Kerri Kasem protesting in Holmby Hills October 1, 2013: s_bukley/Shutterstock.com]
So what happens when these two name-brand stars are combined? Well, there’s no actual first episode of the weekly PodcastOne offering PO’DCast yet. But per the screen grab on the right, the 30-second promo for the show debuting this weekend has vaulted to the top of the iTunes Comedy Podcasts chart, as folks check in and subscribe.
In the 30-second tease, Miller explains that as far as “whose voice most mirrors what’s in my head, it’s this cat…” E.g. Carolla. Beginning Saturday, we’ll all get to hear what the pairing sounds like.
On a recent Miller Time, the host revisited with guest Kenny G the days in the 1980s when the saxophonist opened for Miles Davis and got Davis’ seal of peer approval. “You would think that the critics would take that and not be so hard on my music,” G suggested with a laugh. Responded Miller: “Once Miles tells you you’re OK, I would elicit the disapproval of the critics. I would feed off of it.”
G also related the hilarity of now accompanying his son Max to Megadeth concerts. “Picture me inside the mosh pit…” he told Miller. “All these metal heads are going, ‘Hey man, my mom really loves your music. Can I take your picture?'”
The New York Times Style section published a story this week on This.cm, the Atlantic Media funded social platform we wrote about this summer. While there’s no doubt the platform has grown since August, not everyone agreed with the headline.
— Owen Williams (@ow) January 28, 2015
RELATED ARTICLEThis: Why Atlantic Media is funding a social platform for sharing links, one at a timeAugust 20, 2014Meanwhile, independent media journalist Simon Owens had a story on his website that took a slightly less rosy view of the network. Owens points out that a network meant for sharing high-quality, longer pieces of journalism is most likely to be used in the evening hours, when users are looking for the lean-back experience associated with mobile devices. The problem, Owens pointed out to founder Andrew Golis, is that right now This.cm is optimized for desktop and clunky to use on mobile. Here’s what Golis had to say to that:
“All the decisions about how to approach it were premised on what is the most flexible and inexpensive way to test the idea,” he said. “There are a few problems that go with launching something as an app. One is you live and die by the Apple App Store. Secondly, it’s very hard to originate sharing inside of a mobile app. There’s tons of resharing inside mobile apps, but if you look at Tumblr, Pinterest and Twitter, a lot of the original sharing has to start somewhere else, because it’s so hard to copy a link, leave the app, go into another app, and then paste it.”
Owens story has This.cm’s membership at around 4,800 users, a figure which undoubtedly increased with the Times story. (I can say for certain that my remaining six invitations to the platform were quickly snapped up.) But it’s not clear whether the exclusive vibe of the boutique platform will be enough to propel This.cm to the heights Golis has planned.
PRNewser: We tried (and failed) to not laugh at Comcast referring to a customer as “Asshole Brown.”
GalleyCat: Michael Fassbender will play Steve Jobs in the film about his life. Good luck satisfying Apple fans Mikey!
TVNewser: NBC News foreign correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin described Navy SEAL Chris Kyle as a “racist” who went on “killing sprees.” Safe to assume Mohyeldin gave American Sniper two thumbs down.
Last year was a period of transformation for Time Out New York. Terri White, who joined the publication last January as editor-in-chief, restructured the editorial staff and brought on a new award-winning art director, Chris Deacon. “I really believe the success of Time Out meant becoming a true multiplatform brand in New York. So instead of having two separate teams [print and digital], we built one big content team, and I brought in a lot of new senior staff,” said White. The result was an aesthetic change and a refresh of the content that really spoke to New Yorkers.
“Time Out’s always been a great source of information, but to me, it should also take the temperature of a city,” explained White. “So we started to do these new city identity pieces… about why we love this city so much. But also, I thought it would be interesting to delve into the good, bad and the very, very ugly of New York. We did an issue on anxiety, we did features on sleep [and] on the perils of dating.”
Here, White answers five questions on Time Out’s social success, a day in her life, her favorite NYC neighborhood and more.
FBNY: TONY recently won Folio’s Eddie & Ozzie Award for Best Use of Instagram for your Food & Drink Awards 2014 cover contest. How did that idea come about?
White: We have a lot of annual franchises at Time Out we’re famous for, and Food & Drink Awards is one of them. And my thing is they’re brilliant and they mean a lot to the reader, but how can we reinvent them each year. So we started off with a brainstorm of what’s happening with food and drinks in 2014. How can we execute it in a way that reflects that it’s 2014 and not 2004? We got talking about how some of the best food imagery you see these days is on Instagram, and we’re not talking about a photographer’s Instagram; we’re talking about your friends or somebody you know or somebody you follow. We thought it would be really interesting to capture that and bring the reader into the creation of that content. So we sent out a challenge and we said, OK, here are the finalists in the Food & Drink Awards. We want to put a reader’s photograph on the cover, our first-ever Instagram cover.
It’s no longer an us versus them sort of culture, in terms of we give you information and then you consume that information. To me it’s about how can we create a community in which we’re part of it and then the reader’s part of it. We’re a brand for New Yorkers by New Yorkers. The thing that we share with the readers is we all live in New York, we’re all experiencing New York, and so we want to bring them even closer to the brand than they ever have been before, and the Instagram contest did that really well.
FBNY: Describe your average workday.
White: It’s pretty hectic. I wanted Time Out New York to feel like a brand that people can zip into every hour, every day, every week. So for that reason we have a morning meeting about 10:15, which is just a quick standup meeting. The editors all come and they pitch ideas for digital that day, especially for the blog. So that gives us a chance to really talk about things that are happening right there and then in New York. If we hear of an amazing new opening or people talking about Taylor Swift is the ambassador for New York or Bushwick is named one of the coolest places in the city, we can start that dialog with our reader immediately.
And then I’ll have meetings with my senior editors, we’ll talk about how the website performed the day before and how we’re pacing to our target for the month, is there anything we need to do in terms of the content strategy to change how we’re doing — do we need more page reads, for example, is there something we should be running this week, next week? And then there’s obviously a natural production cycle with the actual physical print mag, which goes out on a Friday.
I spend most of my day just immersed in content. No day’s really the same, which is part of what I love about working for a brand like Time Out — it’s like an idea factory, a creation factory. We’re always brainstorming, we’re always trying to think of new and cool and exciting ways to do things. It’s pretty much the world’s greatest job.
FBNY: What are some lessons you’ve learned in your editorial career that you’re applying to your current position?
White: I’ve previously worked on teams that have had separate digital and print entities. And I’m a very firm believer — and I have to say we’ve seen success with this at Time Out — of everybody working across every platform. For a brand to really be powerful you have to execute content to such a high standard in a full 360-degree approach. What will [the reader] enjoy in print which then inspires them to go online, and then what will they see on social, which then drives them to pick up the print magazine?
FBNY: What is your favorite part of New York?
White: Well I live in Alphabet City — and it’s funny because a lot of my friends live in Brooklyn. They’re like, ‘Come and live in Brooklyn; it’s really cool.’ But I love Alphabet City. It’s got such a sense of community. There are lots of public parks out there. I came home one day, and I was looking out my window and there’s a woman rolling around on a wooden box in a leotard, and I still to this day have no idea what was going on, but I was like, ‘This is awesome.’ To me [the neighborhood] feels like real New York.
FBNY: What’s next for Time Out?
White: So 2015’s our 20th anniversary, which is super exciting. I feel like we’ve made a lot of progress on the print publication, so we just won [MIN’s] Most Improved Publication award, which was great recognition for the work we’ve done. We’re about to launch a mobile responsive platform, which we’re super, super excited about. We’re going to be much more aggressive digitally, even more so than we have been. And we’re going to be rolling out a blogger network. I think we got Time Out New York back to being a talked about brand. We have people like Julian Casablancas and Karen O on the cover, Michael Cera, John Waters. It’s just been a great, great, great [past] year and I think 2015, it’s only going to get much bigger and better.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
A little over a year ago, Katharine Viner, now the editor in chief of The Guardian US, had a question for the paper’s developers: Why didn’t Ophan, The Guardian’s internal analytics tool, work on mobile?
In short order, The Guardian’s developers built a mobile version of Ophan, and Viner has integrated the mobile analytics tool into her everyday routine.
“When I wake up, I lean over, check Ophan first, then check Twitter, and email, and personal things,” Viner told me earlier this week. “A lot changes a lot the time, and it can be quite unpredictable. Things do well that we don’t predict, things do badly that we think will do well, and you’re not really in the day unless you know what’s going on, and so having it on my mobile means I can look when I’m waiting for a train, it means I can just look all the time.”
Viner isn’t the only one who obsesses over Ophan. By design, more than 900 people across The Guardian’s newsrooms in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia have access to the analytics data. The idea is that staffers can take the information and use it to improve how their stories are performing and provide additional information they think would be relevant to readers.
A few weeks ago, for example, The Guardian noticed a spike in traffic to a story from February 2013 about former Navy Seal sniper Chris Kyle’s death. The piece was receiving renewed interest because of the release of “American Sniper,” the new movie based on Kyle’s life. To capitalize on that traffic, The Guardian re-promoted the nearly two year old article. (Though some Twitter users were confused why the story was tweeted out as if it was new.)
Former Navy Seal sniper Chris Kyle shot dead at Texas gun range http://t.co/8W5blMGigV
— The Guardian (@guardian) January 9, 2015
The Guardian wants staffers to use Ophan to make even the slightest of changes to stories or locate sources of traffic. Say someone notices an influx of traffic to a story from Reddit or that users are lingering longer than usual on a story, the staff can then tweak the headline to capitalize on that social platform or add in new links to the story to give those users more information and increased exposure to Guardian content.
“Everybody can see the results that they’re having,” Mary Hamilton, the assistant editor of Guardian US said. “So a lot of people involved in the production process, so if they make a change to a headline, or if they add a link or if they add something on the front, they can now actually see the results that that’s having in real time. They can test out a gut instinct and see what happens, rather than just flying purely on that instinct.”
In order to get people to use the tool, The Guardian needed to make it easy to use and understand. The company’s developers built bookmarklets that let users paste a link and be taken to that page’s Ophan information, which shows users how a live Guardian page is performing at the moment. The tool only analyzes a week’s worth of content and focuses primarily on attention time and page views because “that’s the thing everyone can understand,” Hamilton said.
RELATED ARTICLEBuilding an analytics culture in a newsroom: How NPR is trying to expand its digital thinkingApril 30, 2014This approach isn’t uncommon among some legacy news organizations. NPR last year developed its own internal analytics tool along the same lines as The Guardian’s, which lets all staffers get a better sense of the data surrounding their stories.
RELATED ARTICLEThe leaked New York Times innovation report is one of the key documents of this media ageMay 15, 2014Other news organizations are emphasizing increased use of analytics. In its innovation report last spring, The New York Times called for better cooperation and communication between the newsroom and its “Reader Experience” departments of R&D, product, technology, analytics, and design.
It’s those types of relationships, however, that has allowed The Guardian to continue to develop Ophan since it was first created out of a hack day in 2011 by Graham Tackley, The Guardian’s head of architecture. The audience engagement and development teams constantly discuss improvements to the tool. Whenever an editorial staffer first begins using Ophan they typically suggest new features to add — much like how Viner asked for a mobile view of the site.
“We just had a consistent and really open process where editorial feedback was fed back regularly,” Hamilton said. “The development has always been very agile, so we always have gone toward the minimum possible thing and then iterated on that thing, rather than waiting for it to be beautiful and built out perfect.”
When it first launched, Ophan only held 3 minutes’ worth of traffic, but over the years The Guardian has added more functionality, so editors can examine everything from a single article, to a section front, or the entire Guardian site. Among the more recent additions to Ophan is a function that will email staffers when certain traffic conditions are met, Ian Saleh, The Guardian’s audience development editor explained, showing off his own email alerts.
Among his long list of alerts, Saleh will get an email when a page on The Guardian US site gets more than 1,000 views per minute via a referral from the Drudge Report for at least one minute or when a page gets at least 500 views per minute from an unknown site for a minute or more.
Saleh said this was a good way of simplifying the data and making sure editors and reporters are seeing the information that’s important and relevant to them.
“We know that everyone in the newsroom has a lot to do, and we know that we could build the most amazing tool in the world, but if a reporter or editor can’t access the information in Ophan without spending 20 or 30 minutes within the dashboard or being an expert, we know that’s a lot to do day in and day out,” he said.
Another experimental feature on Ophan is a live-updating ticker of what Google search terms have brought people to Guardian content. Because of the way Google is set up, The Guardian only receives between 10 and 20 percent of the search terms, but even then Hamilton said the information has been illuminating.
“It’s a really interesting way of humanizing Google traffic,” she said. “When we’re looking at some of the culture changes that have to occur in a newsroom that’s adjusting to this kind of data, getting people to understand that every single one in that massive basket Google traffic that you can’t really see into is actually just a person typing something in and hitting the Guardian.”
Photo of The Guardian’s London office by iamadonut used under a Creative Commons license.
This is one of the more unusual notations at the bottom of an article crediting additional contributions:
HuffPost software engineer Dan Fratean, who translated Chivu’s Facebook posts, contributed to this report.
The Facebook posts in question, by 25-year-old model Loredana Chivu, are in Romanian. With Fratean’s help, colleague Hilary Hanson is calling out the New York Daily News, Daily Mail and Daily Mirror for getting the story completely wrong. From the Bing translation of a message posted by Chivu earlier today:
It’s the first time in my life when I feel the need to comment on articles in the newspapers. Unfortunately the media in Italy, Spain and England published an article that is totally false…
Dad died February 27, 2008. My appearance in Playboy was in June 2009. Dad loved me enormously and never in my life have I disappointed him!
In other words, the timeline fails to support the sensational narrative that dad took his own life because of his shame over her nude pics.
P.S. The byline for the NYDN pick-up also caught our eye. It reads Cen and when we clicked to find out more about the one-name author, there was only the Chivu item listed along with zero bio information.
[Cropped cover of Chivu on the June 2009 Romanian cover courtesy: Playboy]
29.01.2015 – Reformist weekly closed “to prevent a crime”
Reporters Without Borders condemns the closure of the reformist weekly Setareh Sobh (Dawn Star) by Tehran's culture and media court on 12 January. The court said it was closed to “prevent the occurrence of a crime” under paragraph 5 of article 156 of the constitution.*
In its 10 January issue, the weekly published an open letter by Ali Motahari, a moderate conservative parliamentary representative for Tehran, to Mohammad Sadegh Amoli Larijani, the head of the Judicial Authority.
It criticized Larijani's claim that the detention of the three leaders of the protest movement against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's controversial reelection in 2009 was “legal and ordered by the High Council for National Security.”
The three detainees include two 2009 presidential candidates. They are Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister and owner of the closed newspaper Kalameh Sabaz, and Mehdi Karoubi, a former parliamentary speaker and owner of the closed newspaper Etemad Melli. The third detainee is Mousavi's wife, best-selling author Zahra Rahnavard.
Detained on 24 February 2011, they have been held under house arrest and denied all rights.
Before its closure, Setareh Sobh had been planning to publish its first issue as a national daily this week.
*Article 156 of the Iranian constitution: The judiciary is an independent power, the protector of the rights of the individual and society, responsible for the implementation of justice, and entrusted with the following duties:
1. Investigating and passing judgement on grievances, violations of rights, and complaints; the resolution of litigation; the settling of disputes; and the taking of all necessary decisions and measures in probate matters as the law may determine;
2. Restoring public rights and promoting justice and legitimate freedoms;
3. Supervising the proper enforcement of laws;
4. Uncovering crimes; prosecuting, punishing, and chastising criminals; and enacting the penalties and provisions of the Islamic penal code; and
5. Taking suitable measures to prevent the occurrence of crime and to reform criminals.
27.01.2015 - Newspaper editor charged with insulting Islam
Reporters Without Borders has learned that Mohammed Ghoochani, the editor of the reformist daily Mardom Emroz, was charged yesterday before a Tehran “media and culture” court with “insulting Islam” for publishing a front-page photo of US actor George Clooney under an “I am Charlie” headline on 13 January.
Ghoochani's lawyer, Mahmoud Alizadeh-Tabatabaie, said he was granted a provisional release pending trial after payment of 100 million toman (100,000 euros) in bail. Mardom Emroz was closed on 17 January.
Reporters Without Borders has also learned that Mehrdad Sarjoui, a Tehran-based journalist who used to work for several English-language newspapers, was released on 13 January after being deemed to have completed his main sentence.
Sarjoui was returned to prison on 28 November 2012 after getting a three-year jail sentence and a suspended seven-year sentence. He was previously arrested on 14 January 2011 and sentenced to 10 years in prison by a Tehran court on a charge of “espionage by publishing interviews of citizens of enemy countries.” An appeal court subsequently commuted the sentence.
21.01.2015 - Journalist and rights activist arrested at her home
Reporters Without Borders has learned that Zahra Khandan, a former journalist with several reformist news outlets who defends women's rights online, was arrested at her Tehran home on 19 January by Revolutionary Guard intelligence operatives in plain clothes. Her home was also searched. The authorities have not said why she was arrested or where she is being held.
According to the information obtained by Reporters Without Borders, several other women's rights activists have been arrested in Tehran after campaigning for the release of Mahdieh Golro, a fellow activist arrested during a protest outside the parliament building in Tehran on 22 October in protest against a series of acid attacks on women in Isfahan and Tehran.
20.01.2015 - Young woman arrested in court over Facebook video
Reporters Without Borders condemns young human rights activist Atena Ferghdani's arrest in a Tehran court on 11 January when she responded to a summons about the video she posted on Facebook and YouTube on 26 December in which she described what happened to her after her arrest last August.
After her arrest on 24 August, she was incarcerated in Section 2A of Tehran's Evin Prison – a section controlled by Revolutionary Guards – and was held until 2 November, when she was released on bail on 600 million toman (700,000 euros) pending trial.
“I was interrogated for nine hours a day,” she said in the video. “The questions were mainly about my activities and what I posted on Facebook (...) In the bathroom, they had installed cameras that filmed everything we did. I found it very embarrassing. When I protested, the guards said they were turned off (...) but one day I took a plastic cup back to my cell and guards arrived within two minutes and tore my blouse in order to get it back. I just wanted to use it to do drawings.”
Ferghdani is charged with “activities against national security,” “anti-government propaganda by means for performance art,” and “insulting government officials and parliamentary representatives in a published cartoon.”
Her family said that during her appearance in court she was the victim of violence by the guards who took her off to prison. “The guards slapped my daughter right in front of us,” her father told journalists. She is currently being held in Gharchak prison in Varamin, a city to the south of Tehran. It is a prison used for holding non-political detainees.