Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Annals of Local Journalism

So, I hope you all have had the chance to read the monstrosity of a train wreck which was today's Northwestern article on the finals for the interim city manager position. If you haven't, enjoy.

Oh, where to begin ... How about the title? In the print edition the article is entitled "Five vie to be interim manager" and there's a subheading that reads "Pearson a finalist, two others fired from previous post." This, by the way, is on page A1. Above the fold. The online edition, however, reads "Two Oshkosh interim manager candidates fired from previous jobs; read the five finalists resumes." So, basically, the first thing anyone knows about this crew before they know anything else is that two of them got once got canned.

But wait a minute ... how many of them have been fired? Two, right? No. The article actually says three of the candidates have been fired in the past. Mr. Sparks, the hurricane dude, and Mr. Dinley, the guy who had the temerity to stand up to a corrupt official, were both discussed in the main body of the piece, but in the brief bios section readers discover that Mr. Fine was also once "fired."

Which brigs us the matter of what exactly constitutes being fired. I'm going to leave Sparks' situation alone for the moment and focus on Dinley and Fine. Can anyone honestly say that they were "fired" from their previous posts? In one case the person was apparently caught up in something of a local political scandal against his will; in the other, the position was eliminated. I would hardly say either of these situations constitute being "fired" (which is the word the NW used for both candidates).

Now, let's go back for a second and examine how the two candidates who were singled out because they were "fired" from previous positions were treated. The piece states that both Dinley and Sparks were contacted by the NW, but nowhere in the article are they allowed to tell their version of events. In fact, they aren't quoted saying anything at all. The only "defense" they kinda, sorta get is when Mayor Tower acknowledges that there are "differences of opinions for individuals when they're employed."

Being "fired" from a job is no small deal. Using the word so flippantly can do tremendous damage to someone's reputation, especially when someone has a career in the public arena. The NW would do well to take more care with its diction in the future. Any clown can Google these guys and get the story for him or herself, but how often do you think that happens in Oshkosh? Part of the responsibility of a local newspaper is to synthesize that information of its audience and present it to readers and repackage it in a coherent manner. It's perfectly conceivable that a reader can walk away from this piece not know if one, two, or three of the candidates have been "fired" from a prior job.

Moving on ...

What's with the bizarre use of scare quotes in this graf:

Councilor Jessica King said councilors knew about the dismissals through their own "independent research."

What, are council members not allowed to conduct their own research? If this isn't insulting to the council, then it's at least unnecessarily condescending. I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they can use Google just as well as a reporter can. They may even be able to use a telephone to call the candidates' previous employers and discuss their job performances. Maybe the younger members even explained how "the e-mail" is used to the older guys ...

Then there's the finalists' bios. If I'm Doug Pearson, I've got to be walking away from this article feeling pretty good. He's clearly treated in a obviously more favorable light than the other. Pearson get to pimp his resume, display his townie bona fides, and even drop a few civic sounding quotes:

He said he was approached by several local officials who encouraged him to apply for the position.

"These people felt, and I felt, that I could bring to (the job) the ability to talk to all sectors of the community in a way that makes sense — with openness," he said.

Hell, he's even got the endorsement of unnamed local leaders! What else does he have?

Pearson said his history at Chamco shows that he can help the city overcome its current problems.

"We have sort of a crisis of confidence in the public business development and economic development process in our community as well as the openness and leadership in the city administration, except for industrial development," he said.

Translation: Yeah, development's been kind of slow around here lately, except for the development I was in charge of.

Now, I'm having a little fun at Pearson expense. I don't know the guy at all -- he could be God's gift to civic management for all I know. But if that's the case, and Pearson is the favorite, then the NW should come out and say it and drop the pretense of trying to give the other candidates a fair shake. None of the other candidates are afforded such a positive bio. Just look at the way the next four guys are described:
Bachelor #2: Fired.

Bachelor #3: Fired.

Bachelor #4: Fired.

Bachelor #5: Well, we couldn't get a hold of him and are starting to run out of column space, so fuck him.

This is no way to cover local affairs. It's a confusing mess that can only continue to muddle a civic discourse in this town that already blows. Oshkosh needs clarity from its information and that takes a certain degree of work that certainly did not happen here. This article reads like it was written by someone who has no clue what's going and was okayed by an editor who failed to recognize that flaw in the reporter.

In a way this is a warm-up for when the permanent city manager is selected, and if part of that process is going to be half-ass attempts to explain the issues by the NW, then we should just pick a name out of the phone book at random and just give that guy the keys to City Hall.

MORE: Jesus H. Christ ... Please check out the reader comments section to the article, which is already starting to prove my point about reader confusion.


CJ said...

"They may even be able to use a telephone to call the candidates' previous employers and discuss their job performances."

Probably not. Legally, the only thing HR personnel truly can say is whether they would or would not re-hire the person in question.


Love your blog. Intelligent, provocative, witty. Very sharp and well spoken commentary.

Very refreshing change from the usual blatantly biased, whiny crap the majority of Oshkosh's blog masters churn out.

Jb said...

Interesting thing note about the HR dept....

Does that also apply to people in positions wherein they are hired, overseen, supervised, etc. by elected officials? and if that's the case, do the same rules apply?

Thanks for the compliment -- if I ever feel the need to start posting blurbs on the side bar this will be the first place I'm going!

Teresa Thiel said...

cj said "Legally, the only thing HR personnel truly can say is whether they would or would not re-hire the person in question. "

That statement is not accurate, while it is true that many HR people, for fear of lawsuits, only state whether a person worked for them and whether they would re-hire them, I do not believe it is the "law" and I would like to see the actual statute from the various states (or federal law) saying it is illegal for an HR person to discuss why someone left their employment.

Also, HR personnel are not the only sources of information about candidates for employment, most also have a list of references you can talk to as part of their application.

CJ said...

theresa, I agree. I also don't know if there is a law, but there is definitely LIABILITY (read: lawsuit).

In doing a bit of online research here's the info in a nutshell:

"Often a potential employer will contact an applicant's past employers. A former boss can say anything [truthful] about your performance. However, most employers have a policy to only confirm dates of employment, final salary, and other limited information. Laws prohibit employers from intentionally interfering with former employees' attempts to find jobs by giving out false or misleading references...Jobs such as truck driver positions fall under regulations of the federal Department of Transportation. Employers are required to accurately respond to an inquiry from a prospective employer about whether you took a drug test, refused a drug test, or tested positive in a drug test with the former or current employer.

Prospective employers can do further backround checks including public records, character and personal references.

Hope that offers a little more clarity than my original statement."