Tag Archives: journalism

That’s A Clown Question, Bro

I spent the better part of 20 years being the primary spokesman for a large company, BFGoodrich. During that time, I had the opportunity to work with some exceptional journalists who were knowledgeable, ethical and fair. And I had the misfortune to work with some who couldn’t find their asses with both hands in the dark.

Every time I received a call from someone in that latter group I had to strap on the blood pressure cuff and bite my tongue. Nothing to be gained by stating the obvious: You’re an asshat. But it did cross my mind.

So I read with interest the retort of Washington Nationals outfield Bryce Harper to a question posed by a scribbler in Toronto. Here’s the backstory, from Yahoo sports:

Bryce Harper‘s comebacks look ready for the big leagues, too.

The 19-year-old Washington Nationals outfielder quipped ”That’s a clown question, bro” to a Toronto TV reporter who asked if he planned to take advantage of Canada’s lower drinking age after belting a long home run in a win over the Blue Jays.

For a brief time, the highest trending topic on Twitter was Harper’s response: ”That’s a clown question, bro.” The outfielder’s name was also among the site’s most popular subjects.

Sweet. Wonder if Harper has ever taken any formal training courses in news media relations? Probably no need.

Anyway, what got me thinking about this was a story that made its way out of the Rose Garden last week when Prez O was essentially heckled by a reporter as he was announcing a change in immigration policy. Here’s from the NYT:

As Mr. Obama was making a statement from the Rose Garden about a new immigration policy on Friday afternoon, a reporter from The Daily Caller, a conservative news Web site, repeatedly raised his voice and tried to interrupt. The reporter, Neil Munro, tried to ask whether the policy — intended to help young illegal immigrants get work — was good for legal American workers.

“Excuse me, sir,” Mr. Obama said when Mr. Munro initially spoke up. He put his hand in the air and raised a finger, as if to say “wait.”

“It’s not time for questions, sir,” Mr. Obama continued. “Not while I’m speaking.”

A few minutes later, Mr. Obama referenced the incident by saying, “And the answer to your question, sir, and the next time I’d prefer you let me finish my statements before you ask that question, is this is the right thing to do for the American people.”

Mr. Munro then apparently interrupted again.

“I didn’t ask for an argument, I’m answering your question,” Mr. Obama said.

OK. One of the failings of journalism these days is that the mainstream media — especially those reporters based inside the power alleys of DC and New York — are more lapdogs for those in power than watchdogs for the public. So by all means, ask some tough questions.

But hey. Let’s have a little civility. The President reading a statement in the Rose Garden is not the same as when the British Prime Minister stands in the well at the House of Commons. Sheesh.

But the Prez could have shut Munro up and won the 24/7 news cycle just by replying:

“That’s a clown question, bro.”


College Grad But No Job

OK. I’ll admit to fretting about plenty of things these days, most being totally out of my ability to control. One involves the continuing lack of good-paying, sustainable jobs as the nation’s economy continues its slow climb out of the deep hole of recession. Recent — or soon to be recent — college grads are among the many who are caught in the squeeze of too many chasing too few jobs.

Another involves the trend to abandon liberal arts education in favor of preparing students for what in many cases are low-paying jobs in health care and retail.

Here’s from an AP story on The Huffington Post, “In Weak Job Market, One In Two College Graduates are Jobless or Underemployed“:

The college class of 2012 is in for a rude welcome to the world of work.

A weak labor market already has left half of young college graduates either jobless or underemployed in positions that don’t fully use their skills and knowledge.

Young adults with bachelor’s degrees are increasingly scraping by in lower-wage jobs – waiter or waitress, bartender, retail clerk or receptionist, for example – and that’s confounding their hopes a degree would pay off despite higher tuition and mounting student loans.

An analysis of government data conducted for The Associated Press lays bare the highly uneven prospects for holders of bachelor’s degrees.

Opportunities for college graduates vary widely.

While there’s strong demand in science, education and health fields, arts and humanities flounder. Median wages for those with bachelor’s degrees are down from 2000, hit by technological changes that are eliminating midlevel jobs such as bank tellers. Most future job openings are projected to be in lower-skilled positions such as home health aides, who can provide personalized attention as the U.S. population ages.

Oh boy. A nation of bedpan changers. Really?

I always be an advocate for education — and I still believe that a liberal arts education has value. But as tuition and fees continue to increase — and students take on substantial debt — I expect we are entering an era when a college education will be viewed primarily as a training program that offers some hope of employment.

And I believe that stories like this one also from The Huffington Post — “The 13 Most Useless Majors, From Philosophy to Journalism” — will begin to attract considerably more attention from students and parents.

Of course, what do I know? I have an undergraduate and graduate degree in journalism. But hey. In the long run, do we really want colleges and universities to be nothing more than trade schools? And if students are forced to abandon the study of liberal arts, what will our culture reflect without writers, artists, musicians and so on?

Something tells me that reflecting on the great accomplishments in accounting is not going to be all that satisfying.


Ethics, Journalism and the End of the World

I’m a strong advocate for an independent, vigorous and financially competitive news media — traditional, new, dead tree, online, whatever. I would also like to add the word responsible, but that concept strikes me as something that is becoming more and more blurred.

The situation involving the British tabloid News of the World, which went silent yesterday after 168 years, provides a real-life lesson that unethical and illegal conduct can have serious consequences and that the public really doesn’t have a need or right to know everything particularly when the privacy of ordinary people is at risk.

Here’s the backstory from the WSJ, “British Tabloid News of the World Bids Farewell“:

Felled by a scandal over its illegal reporting tactics, News Corp.’s News of the World published a final issue filled with its greatest hits from 168 years of muckraking and just a few nods to the problems that brought it down.

The British tabloid’s front page on Sunday bore a simple headline—”Thank You & Goodbye”—and images of some of the paper’s most notable stories, from titillating scoops about soccer stars’ extramarital affairs to a recent undercover sting that caught the Duchess of York selling access to her former husband, Prince Andrew, for £500,000 ($802,000).

“After 168 years, we finally say a sad but very proud farewell to our 7.5 [million] loyal readers,” the paper said.

The tabloid made fairly brief mention of the reason News Corp. gave last week for abruptly closing the paper: evidence that some of its reporters, and private investigators working for them, broke into the mobile-phone voice-mail boxes of celebrities and others in an effort to obtain stories—an illegal practice known as phone hacking. Allegations emerged last week that even a murder victim’s voice mail had been hacked. Mounting evidence about the scope of the problem led to widespread calls last week for greater oversight of the nation’s powerful newspapers, and the sometimes cozy relationships politicians forge with them in an effort to keep them on friendly terms.

“Quite simply, we lost our way. Phones were hacked, and for that this newspaper is truly sorry. There is no justification for this appalling wrongdoing,” the News of the World said.

A corporate “oops, my bad.” And there is speculation that the parent company, News. Corp. owned by Rupert Murdoch, had other reasons to close the tabloid beyond taking responsibility for ethical lapses.

Just an isolated example of a rogue publication and unethical management and reporters?


Here’s from Howard Kurtz, opining in WaPo, “British tabloid tactics are rampant in American journalism, too“:

It takes some doing to get an entire country up in arms about media misconduct, but News of the World rose to the occasion.

By hacking into the phones of terror victims and a missing 13-year-old girl later found murdered, the London tabloid became such a despicable symbol of journalism gone bad that media titan Rupert Murdoch felt compelled to close it on Sunday.

But the debacle is just an extreme example of a news business that increasingly pushes the ethical envelope — and perhaps of a public that wants the juicy stuff and isn’t too particular about how it gets unearthed.

News of the World didn’t exactly discover phone hacking. Back in 1998, the Cincinnati Enquirer paid $10 million and apologized to Chiquita Brands after a reporter obtained voice-mail messages from a company executive “in violation of the law,” the paper acknowledged.

We may look down our noses at tabloids paying for stories, but American networks essentially do the same thing. In 2008, ABC paid Casey Anthony $200,000 for an exclusive interview under the guise of buying photos and video of her missing 2-year-old daughter, Caylee. Anthony was charged with child neglect and endangerment the next day and indicted for murder the following month. (She was acquitted last week in a highly controversial verdict.)

Last month ABC paid $15,000 to Meagan Broussard, one of the women who was texted by then-congressman Anthony Weiner, for her photos (and an interview). But the network got burned when it offered $10,000 to Sheena Upton, who claimed to have injected her 8-year-old daughter with Botox, and rescinded the offer after the woman admitted it was a hoax. NBC Entertainment forked over $2.5 million for the rights to the Concert for Diana in 2007, and Matt Lauer just happened to land exclusives with Prince William and Prince Harry ahead of the remembrance of their mother.

Princess Diana, of course, would probably be alive today if paparazzi hadn’t chased her car into a Paris tunnel — the most notorious legacy of a profession that routinely harasses celebrities for shots peddled to mainstream publications.

From Dan Rather’s report on George W. Bush and the National Guard, retracted by CBS, to NBC’s “Dateline” rigging a fiery truck explosion years earlier, there are episodes of reckless American journalism that would not seem out of place at a British tabloid. Then there is the parade of fabricators, such as Jayson Blair of the New York Times and Jack Kelley of USA Today, who deceived their publications, with editors later found to have missed blatant warning signs. And the journalists fired or suspended for plagiarism are too numerous to mention.

Even old-fashioned news organizations operate these days in a bubbling tabloid culture in which sensational tales (Weiner, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Tiger Woods, Casey Anthony) crowd out coverage of, say, health care and deficit talks. The line between high-minded and low-road journalism has all but vanished. When the Los Angeles Times reported that Arnold Schwarzenegger fathered a child with his housekeeper, it refused to name the woman — but Radar Online published her name and picture and other outlets, from ABC to the New York Times, quickly followed suit. The slippery slope of the Web makes it easier to justify our voyeurism.

In the end, the public’s indifference to how salacious stories are procured creates this lucrative market. When a News of the World reporter posed as a fake sheik last year, taping Sarah Ferguson as she offered access to her ex-husband, Prince Andrew, for a huge payoff, almost no one focused on the paper’s lying and deception. Most folks had a great laugh instead at the hapless duchess of York. It was only when such sleazy tactics were employed against ordinary Brits that politicians such as Prime Minister David Cameron (who had hired the former News of the World editor arrested Friday in the scandal) felt compelled to demand an investigation.

Murdoch, whose empire stretches from Fox News to the Wall Street Journal to the Times of London, is engaging in corporate damage control by shuttering Britain’s best-selling newspaper.

If media ethics were his primary concern, he would have fired his top London executive, who ran the paper during the phone hacking. Maybe someone should put up a statue of the media mogul outside the News of the World building, to remind us of the dangers of corrupt journalism.

To say the obvious, journalism in all its forms will continue to change and evolve, driven in part by new technology as well as the ageless competitive and financial issues. But ethics matter. And the word responsible really does need to be attached to strong, independent and financially competitive.

Just sayin’.


Would You Like Fries With That?

OK. I’m an advocate for a liberal arts education. Both my undergraduate and graduate degrees are in journalism. And I always considered journalism to be a liberal arts major that offered the prospect of a job and a career. Don’t know if that is still true in today’s economy and job market.

But I do know that students graduating with liberal arts degrees these days are having a tough go of it. And many are beginning to question the value of college at all, especially given the cost involved and the amount of debt many students are accumulating as they work their way toward graduation.

Here’s an informative article in WaPo this morning, “On path to riches, no sign of fluffy majors“:

An old joke in academia gets at the precarious economics of majoring in the humanities.

The scientist asks, “Why does it work?”

The engineer asks, “How does it work?”

The English major asks, “Would you like fries with that?”

Ouch. But in all too many cases, true.

Here’s the meat of the WaPo article by Peter Whoriskey:

But exactly what an English major makes in a lifetime has never been clear, and some defenders of the humanities have said that their students are endowed with “critical thinking” and other skills that could enable them to catch up to other students in earnings.

Turns out, on average, they were wrong.

Over a lifetime, the earnings of workers who have majored in engineering, computer science or business are as much as 50 percent higher than the earnings of those who major in the humanities, the arts, education and psychology, according to an analysis by researchers at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

“I don’t want to slight Shakespeare,” said Anthony Carnevale, one of the report’s authors. “But this study slights Shakespeare.”

The report is based on previously unreported census data that definitively links college majors to career earnings. Earlier studies have looked at salaries immediately after graduation, but the new report covers earnings across a person’s working life and is based on a much larger survey.

The report comes as the recession and escalating college costs have renewed questions about the value of a college degree. During the past two decades, the average amount of debt a student takes on has roughly doubled in real terms, leading more parents and students to focus on the financial returns of their college investments.

According to the study, the median annual earnings for someone with a bachelor’s degree in engineering was $75,000. The median wage was $47,000 in the humanities, $44,000 in the arts and $42,000 in education or in psychology.

The individual major with the highest median earnings was petroleum engineering, at $120,000, followed by pharmaceutical sciences at $105,000, and math and computer sciences at $98,000.

The lowest earnings median was for those majoring in counseling or psychology, at $29,000, and early childhood education, at $36,000. Workers with a bachelor’s degree in English language and literature, the most popular major within the humanities, have median earnings of $48,000.

These figures do not include workers who went on to complete advanced degrees, and the study does not investigate the value of such degrees.

In general, the study found that a college degree is a good investment. It showed that a worker with a bachelor’s degree can expect to make 84 percent more in a lifetime than a colleague who has only a high school diploma.

“Education is so off-the-charts expensive now,” said poet and Florida International University professor Campbell McGrath. who noted that his son is considering an anthropology degree. “You are making a really weird decision if you decide to send your kids off to study philosophy. It would be a better world if we all studied the humanities. But it’s not a good dollars-and-cents decision.”

I expect that attending college and selecting a major will become in the years ahead even more of a “dollars-and-cents decision.” And we may be seeing this playing out now with the increase in students attending community colleges.

I would like to believe that there is still value in education just for the sake of being educated — and there is value in studying the humanities and pursuing a liberal arts degree.

But many will have to swallow hard if the result is a job that requires you to say: “Would you like fries with that?”

Pippa, Lara Logan and Journalism

Well, I enjoyed the weekend. I managed to get in two long runs as I look ahead to running this Sunday the half marathon in Pittsburgh. And I’m convinced that spring will be here in Northeast Ohio in another month or so. Yesterday provided a preview. So what’s this have to do with Pippa, Lara Logan and journalism?

When I run I noodle about what I’m going to write. I’ve done that for decades. The time on the concrete — spent totally alone these days — allows me to concentrate and many times even outline on my mind’s computer a blog post, article and so on. And I chuckled yesterday about the weird nature of blogging, especially when you are doing it for no apparent career-enhancing, commercial, political or monetary reason. Note to self: Don’t tell my wife this. She’ll think I’m wasting my time.

Many days I’ll get up and either before or immediately after a run in the early a.m. try to write and post something with at least a modest amount of substance and insight on topics that I believe are important: education, jobs, the economy, civility and so on. Hey, isn’t that the role of a pajama-clad citizen journalist — and journalism in general?


What I do know is that when I opine about Pippa’s underwear — or lack thereof — the number of readers spike to the point that my fingers start to sweat. Gee. I might actually be attracting an audience. Then reality returns when I get back to education, jobs, the economy, civility an so on.

Anyway, if that in any way reflects the nature of journalism these days — and what readers and viewers expect of journalists — are journalism degrees useless?

Here’s Alex Alvarez in Mediate, commenting on a story in The Daily Beast that ranks the 20 most useless degrees. And the one that heads the list: journalism.

Getting into a good university, as anyone will tell you, is hard work. Harder still is mustering up the confidence that your (often all too pricey) education will be put to good use, so that one does not find oneself spending an entire semester reading The Canterbury Tales in its original middle English (True. Effing. Story.) for nothing. It’s good to know ahead of time, then, that your degree has some sort of worth, that it will eventually lead to a well-paying job rife with opportunities for advancement. Which is exactly why I will dissuade my hypothetical children from majoring in journalism, and will instead force themgently urge them to consider a more potentially lucrative career path, like as becoming a Kardashian.

Using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Payscale (a salary comparison database of sorts), The Daily Beast ranked the 20 most useless degrees. Journalism comes in at number 1, just narrowly beating out “underwater basketweaving” and “fluffer.” The site paid special attention to factors such as start and mid-career salary levels for the profession most associated with said degree (“writing brochure copy for a travel agency in suburban New Jersey”), expected change in job opportunities within a decade, and the expected percentage change in available jobs within a decade.

Well, I have two degrees in journalism. And I always figured it to be a good way to get a liberal arts education — while still developing a skill that might allow you to ask questions other than: “Dude, you want fries with that?”

And maybe The Daily Beast does have it right. Journalism degrees in this age of Twitter, Facebook, smart phones and so on may be useless.

And maybe journalist is the wrong descriptor now for those people who aren’t just sitting around in their pajamas, but who are willing to put time and effort into gathering information, checking the facts and trying to get it correct, and then conveying the stories to readers and viewers in a variety of media.

Lara Logan talked recently with 60 minutes and other news outlets including the NYT about her being sexually assaulted by a mob in Egypt while reporting about the wave that swept Mubarak from office in the early days of the Arab Spring.

And Bill Keller had an interesting and informative article in the NYT mag yesterday about the dangers facing combat photographers.

I don’t know whether Lara Logan or the combat photographers mentioned in Keller’s article have journalism degrees.

But I do know that without them — and thousands of others like them — we sure wouldn’t have much of a clue as to what is going on in the USA, let along around the world.

OK. For me, it’s back to Pippa.

Alert the search engines.

Lara Logan: “Thank You”

It’s easy to sit in the relative safety of your home or office and opine about events, big, small and Lindsay Lohan. But it’s much different to be out there on the streets, particularly when bullets and tear gas are flying or when a group of seemingly peaceful protestors decide they need to be a little less peaceful.

And, yeah, I know. It’s a Twitter and Facebook world. Still, most of the big, important stories need more context than you can get in 140 characters. So I have great appreciation and admiration for journalists who are willing to put themselves at risk to report the news.

That’s why the story about Lara Logan is so disturbing.

Logan, a CBS reporter, was covering the story in Tahir Square following Mubarak’s decision to pack his bags and head off to a retirement community. Logan was attacked, beaten and sexually assaulted. Here’s a statement by CBS, contained in a story on Mediaite, “CBS News’ Lara Logan Subjected To Brutal and Sustained Sexual Assault In Egypt“:

On Friday February 11, the day Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, CBS Correspondent Lara Logan was covering the jubilation in Tahrir Square for a 60 MINUTES story when she and her team and their security were surrounded by a dangerous element amidst the celebration. It was a mob of more than 200 people whipped into a frenzy.

In the crush of the mob, she was separated from her crew. She was surrounded and suffered a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating before being saved by a group of women and an estimated 20 Egyptian soldiers. She reconnected with the CBS team, returned to her hotel and returned to the United States on the first flight the next morning. She is currently in the hospital recovering.

There will be no further comment from CBS News and Correspondent Logan and her family respectfully request privacy at this time.

Logan was released from a New York hospital Tuesday. But the attack on her points to the dangers reporters — and I include those using Twitter and Facebook here along with traditional media — face. Here’s a story on NPR:

The attack on a CBS correspondent in Egypt covering the fall of President Hosni Mubarak highlights the dangers that journalists face every day as they cover breaking news stories in foreign countries, especially regions that restrict freedom of the press.

Lara Logan, 39, was beaten and sexually assaulted by a Cairo mob Friday in the frenzied aftermath of Mubarak’s resignation after she was separated from her TV crew. She is among more than 140 journalists who have been attacked while covering Egypt’s political upheaval, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent organization to promote press freedoms worldwide. Logan is an CPJ board member.

As I’ve been following this story for the past few days, I’ve also been disturbed about the nasty — no, not just nasty, vile — comments and commentaries about Lara Logan that have circulated through the blogosphere. Folks, this is the dark side of the Internet where people can hide behind computers and now smartphones and attack anyone or anything.

Here’s from a WaPo blog post by Melissa Bell, “A thank you to CBS reporter Lara Logan for letting her story be known“:

On Friday, the world watched a gleeful, giant celebration. History was made, President Obama told the world. Men and women danced in the street. Fireworks lit up the sky over Egypt. Although there had been bloodshed and pain, it paled in comparison with what a disparate group of people had done when they came together in peace. The people had toppled a dictator.

On Tuesday, CBS released a statement, short and straight, that punched people in the stomach with its staccato message. Amid that joyful party, there had been “a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating.”

Lara Logan, CBS News’ chief foreign correspondent, had been surrounded by more than 200 people in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, separated from her colleagues and attacked.

After the news came the responses, in three distinct categories:

• Those who blamed her for being beautiful and blond in a foreign country.

• Those who blamed the Muslim country.

• Those who blamed journalism for not doing enough to protect women.

The responses make a terrible situation so much worse. (And cost at least one man, Nir Rosen, his job.)

Here’s why this story is not just about Logan:

A 2008 study by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights found that 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women experience public sexual harassment, from groping to assault.

Here’s why this story is not just about Egypt, either:

In 2000, in New York’s Central Park, an assault similar to Logan’s occurred during a parade. Seven women were attacked. In the United States. Attacks occur everywhere, every day. Again and again.

The assault did not happen because Logan was a reporter in a dangerous country. It did not happen because that country happens to be Muslim. It happened because sexual assault occurs every single day to women everywhere in the world.

Here’s why this story is about Lara Logan:

That 2008 report also said nearly 97 percent of Egyptian women and 87 percent of foreigners do not alert police after an assault.

Logan did not stay silent. Through CBS’s statement, her story was heard. It gave voice to an incident that happens all the time, every day. Maybe it will push one more person to tell their story.

For that, I say thank you.

No question. Lara Logan, thank you and all the others like you. And among the lessons: Free societies welcome and depend on a free and vigorous press and fearless journalists.

China and a Free Press

Wow. What a great season opener for American Idol last night. I was sound asleep within the first five minutes, eclipsing any record that I may have set for dozing during a TV show last year.

What does that have to do with China and a free press?

Well, nothing. But you have to start these posts somehow. Right?

So here’s the point. Reporters, editors, pundits, TV Talking Heads, bloggers — and yes, even pajama-clad citizen journalists — often disappoint, often miss the big picture, often focus on the trivial, and often fail to challenge people in power in government, business, sports and so on.

But on occasion they do rise to the occasion — and we’re reminded how fortunate we are to live in a country where we do have a free press and we do have the ability to press those in power for answers to tough questions.

Here’s what happened in DC yesterday, as reported by Dana Milbank in his WaPo column “Hu Jintao Meets the Free Press.”

Something about human rights just doesn’t translate for Chinese President Hu Jintao.

President Obama granted him the full state-dinner treatment that President George W. Bush denied him five years ago – but in return, Hu had to put up with a news conference, which he had refused to do when Obama visited China. For a repressive ruler, facing a free press is about as pleasant a prospect as attending the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.

After the leaders’ standard opening statements full of the blah-blah about bilateral cooperation, the Associated Press’s Ben Feller rose and asked a gutsy, forceful question.

“Can you explain to the American people how the United States can be so allied with a country that is known for treating its people so poorly, for using censorship and force to repress its people?” he asked Obama. And to Hu: “I’d like to give you a chance to respond to this issue of human rights. How do you justify China’s record, and do you think that’s any of the business of the American people?”

Obama answered. The translator translated. All eyes turned to Hu – who said nothing.

Instead, he looked to a woman from China Central Television – the state-run network that answers to the Communist Party’s propaganda department – who tossed him a softball about “friendship and mutual understanding.”

But the next questioner, Bloomberg’s Hans Nichols, gave Hu a lesson in press freedoms. “First off, my colleague asked you a question about human rights which you did not answer,” the lanky newsman advised the Chinese strongman. “I was wondering if we could get an answer to that question.”

Whoa. I expect that went over about as well as if Randy Jackson had jumped up and opined, “Yo, dawg.” I digress. Here’s the rest of Milbank’s story.

In Beijing, that impertinence would get a reporter jailed. But Hu wasn’t in Beijing. During the translation of Nichols’s question, Hu held a palm up and smiled, as if he couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. “Because of the technical translation and interpretation problem, I did not hear the question about the human rights,” he explained – falsely, as it turns out.

It was a good moment for the American press. Feller and Nichols put the Chinese leader on the spot in a way that Obama, constrained by protocol, could not have done. The White House press corps has at times been too gentle on Obama (recall the adulatory pre-Christmas news conference), but on Wednesday afternoon, Obama and the press corps were justifiably on the same side, displaying the rights of free people.

For reporters, it was a second time in a week they were unexpectedly allied with the White House against foreigners suspicious of American freedoms. In the White House briefing room last week, a reporter from Russia’s state-run Itar-Tass news agency hectored press secretary Robert Gibbs about the Tucson shooting, asking if too much freedom was to blame. Reporters, though they spend their days quarreling with Gibbs, very much supported his sharp refutation of the Russian’s challenge.

The Hu case was stranger still. Though such events are usually done with simultaneous translation (the leaders and reporters are given headsets), the Chinese delegation had requested that the Q&A portion of the news conference be translated consecutively, which takes twice as long.

Exactly why the Chinese made this request was not apparent – but a clue emerged when Hu started getting grilled about human rights. After Feller asked his question about human rights and Obama answered, Hu looked around, pointing at his ear; an aide came up and whispered something to him. According to a person in the know, Feller’s question – including the bit about human rights directed at Hu – was fully translated into Chinese.

Hu, however, ignored that question in favor of the gentler one from his employee at Chinese television. As luck would have it, Hu was perfectly prepared for the question, and, in his reply, looked down to read statistics from his notes.

Reporters glanced at each other, puzzled over Hu’s ignoring of Feller’s question. During the interminable translation into Mandarin of Hu’s answer to the Chinese reporter’s question, Obama flashed a grin at Gibbs.

Hu, his forehead shining, had another plant waiting in the crowd, a reporter from the state-run Xinhua news agency. But before Hu could get that lifeline tossed his way, the microphone went to the American side, where Nichols demanded an answer to the human-rights question. This time, Hu couldn’t claim it was lost in translation.

“China is a developing country with a huge population and also a developing country in a crucial stage of reform,” he explained. “In this context, China still faces many challenges in economic and social development, and a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights.”

No wonder Hu doesn’t like questions: He might have to give an honest answer.

Unfortunately, that’s true of many in positions of power in this country as well.

And that’s why we need a strong, vigorous and free press.

Just sayin.’