The modern press conference is a farce: What the Trump-Ramos dust-up says about U.S. journalism

By Robert Mann

When I heard that Donald Trump had booted Univision’s Jorge Ramos from a press conference on Tuesday in Dubuque, Iowa, I couldn’t wait to watch the indignant response of the other journalists in the room.

That’s because I was ejected from a press conference many years ago in Louisiana, where I was political writer for the Shreveport Journal. A quirky, minor candidate for the U.S. Senate – Larry “Boogaloo” Cooper – took offense at my questions. He angrily ordered me to leave the room. I got up and left. When I reached the lobby, however, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the other journalists had followed me. In solidarity with a fellow reporter, they had all walked out on the petulant candidate. The press conference was over.

As I started the Trump video, I wondered, how would Ramos’ colleagues in the press respond? Having once been on the other side of the podium as a press secretary for several prominent elected officials, I should not have been surprised by what I saw – but I was. As one of Trump’s security guards hustled Ramos from the room, nary a reporter followed him in protest. In fact, no one immediately objected or questioned Trump about the incident.

After an awkward pause, the reporters went back to the business of politely raising their hands, waiting like trained seals for Trump to call upon them. They continued asking him questions, dutifully recording his answers and tweeting them to their readers. CNN continued to broadcast the event, no doubt gleeful about the drama and the extra viewers the incident would attract.

Sure, the assembled later mentioned that Ramos had been ejected and that Trump had told him to “go back to Univision.” But they stayed in the room. They didn’t protest as Trump tossed one of their colleagues from a press conference. (Finally, one journalist did speak up. MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt valiantly asked Trump to readmit Ramos. He did.)

The next day, however, Ramos had few defenders among the news media. MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski observed that Ramos made the room “awkward and uncomfortable with other reporters.” On CNN, Chris Cuomo arrogantly lectured Ramos: “It’s his press conference. He runs the rules. You jumped the queue.”

On Fox News, Jesse Watters of “The Five” observed, “Ramos acted like an illegal alien and got treated like one. He cut the line, was disruptive and then was deported and then Trump let him back in.” In a column, Fox’s Howard Kurtz complained, “Ramos broke in without being called on—and I’m sorry, that’s not some polite society rule, that’s basic civility when a presidential candidate is taking questions.”

“Sorry” is the right word, but only to describe the collective media behavior during and after the episode. It confirmed what many of us already know: American political journalism is a pitiful, cowardly shell of its former self.

Every week, political blowhards appear on the network news shows to spout their very predictable talking points. The hosts rarely subject them to uncomfortable questions. “Ye gads,” I imagine them thinking, “ what if I pissed off John McCain and he refused to come on my show again?”

Sometimes I wonder if we are just two steps away from these “news” shows finally morphing into a Barbara Walters interview. (“Senator, if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?”)

The political press conference was once a high-stakes affair. The president or some other political figure would enter the room, girded for pitched battle with the assembled journalists. There was sometimes true drama as the reporters jumped up, shouted, threw sharp elbows and muscled themselves into position to fire tough questions at the president or a candidate. 

Continue reading on Salon.com at this link.

Champion for Mississippi Coast, editor Stan Tiner retires

Stan Tiner, editor of the Biloxi Sun Herald, will retire at the end of August. (Photo by John Fitzhugh, courtesy of Sun Herald)
Stan Tiner, editor of the Biloxi Sun Herald, will retire at the end of August. (Photo by John Fitzhugh, courtesy of Sun Herald)

By Robert Mann

It was one of my luckiest days, but I didn’t know it yet. That was the morning in early 1983 when I stepped into the newsroom of The Shreveport Journal and entered the world of its dynamic editor, Stan Tiner.

I was the Journal’s new political writer. I still have no idea why Stan entrusted his paper’s political coverage to a kid who thought he knew more about politics than he really did. My confidence clearly exceeded my qualifications.

Nonetheless, Stan let me dive into the deep end of the state’s political pool before I had learned to swim. I was soon covering the epic 1983 governor’s race between then-incumbent Dave Treen and former Gov. Edwin Edwards.

I thought this new job would change my life and career. It did, but not exactly how I had imagined. My work at the Journal made me a better writer and journalist and taught me volumes about Louisiana politics. It wasn’t until years later, however, that I realized the true gift of the job was working for and learning from Stan.

I’m reflecting on Stan this week because, at the age of 73, he is retiring. At the end of August, he will step down as executive editor and vice president of the Biloxi Sun Herald, the paper he has led since 2000.

Stan is a bear of a man, a tall, solid ex-Marine who served in Vietnam as a combat correspondent. At first, I found him quite intimidating. He was “Mr. Tiner” for months. Finally, I screwed up the courage to call him “Stan,” but he was still my editor and sometimes-forbidding boss. Now, 30 years later, he’s a mentor and father figure.

To Louisiana political veterans, Stan is a legend. A native of Springhill in Webster Parish, he graduated with his journalism degree from Louisiana Tech in 1969 (his college career delayed by his stint in the Marines). By 1970, Stan was the political writer for The Shreveport Times. A gifted writer with a keen eye and an uncanny ability to converse with anyone, Stan quickly emerged as one of Louisiana’s preeminent political journalists.

In 1974, the publisher of The Shreveport Journal (then the city’s afternoon paper) hired him as editor. Stan was only 32. Although he was great reporter, Stan was born to run a newsroom. Under his aggressive, exacting leadership, the small afternoon newspaper became a powerful force in Louisiana journalism.

Now, more than 40 years later – having also led The Daily Oklahoman and the Mobile Press-Register – Stan retires knowing that his place in the history of American journalism is secure. In 2006, his paper, along with The Times-Picayune, won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for “its valorous and comprehensive coverage of Hurricane Katrina.” Stan and two Sun Herald colleagues were also finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing “for their passionate editorials . . . that empathized with victims while pleading for relief from the outside world.”

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Some questions for candidates who use faith as a campaign issue

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By Robert Mann

Like it or not, it’s now widely accepted that running for public office means not only sharing one’s policy ideas but also professing a deep and abiding faith in God and, usually, Jesus Christ. The Republican presidential candidates each declare they are Christians. For some, that declaration is a regular feature of their stump speeches, pitched as a qualification for higher office.

Look at the polls, and it’s easy to understand why. The Pew Research Center found that 68 percent of evangelicals said political leaders should talk more about their faith. Too many voters are easy marks for slick politicians with a prayer and emotional story about their decision to follow Jesus. As for me, I’m more skeptical. If these candidates ask us to vote for them in part because they are people of faith, aren’t we at least entitled to know how that faith influences their policies?

Gov. Bobby Jindal, who often shares his conversion story with audiences, is among the most vocal in professing his Christian faith. At a prayer rally on the LSU campus last January, Jindal took it a step further. He called for a national spiritual revival. “We can’t just pass a law to fix what ails our country,” Jindal told the evangelical crowd. “We need a spiritual revival to fix what ails our country.” Jindal, presumably, hopes to lead that renewal.

But back to our original question: Assuming that Jindal and the rest are Christians, how much should that matter to us? And what does it mean, in a political context, to profess, “I am a follower of Christ”?

In other words, it’s fine that Jindal found his Christian faith as a teenager after reading a Bible by flashlight in his closet, but what does that tell us about how he lives his faith today? And what, exactly, does Jindal believe his faith obligates him to do as he leads the country’s spiritual revival? We know how Jindal’s Christian faith informs his opinions about same-sex marriage and abortion, but what about matters of justice and attitudes toward the poor, two themes Jesus emphasized above almost all others?

Because Jindal and fellow candidates aggressively tout their Christianity, voters also have every right to question their devotion to two central tenants of the Christian faith long accepted by scripture and tradition — our sacred obligation to the poor and oppressed.

If a candidate brags, “I’m a believer in smaller government and balanced budgets,” it’s reasonable to ask, “Well, then, let’s examine your budgets. Show us the evidence.”

In the same way, when Jindal or another candidate implies that he is qualified because of his faith, it’s fair to respond, as the Apostle James did in his epistle, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”

The evidence thus far indicates that Jindal is a follower of Jesus, selectively. He seems to care much about piety (something Jesus detested) but less about those whom Jesus called “the least of these.” He talks about his conversion but rarely, if ever, about how God has prompted him to care for the poor, the disabled, the sick, the immigrant and the victim of injustice.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

I worked for the governor of Louisiana during Katrina. Here are 5 things I learned

I published a piece on Vox.com today about some of the lessons I learned from Hurricane Katrina while working for Gov. Kathleen Blanco. I thought I would share the link with you here: http://www.vox.com/2015/8/20/9176225/hurricane-katrina-government

-Bob Mann

Payday lenders prey on Louisiana’s working poor

By Robert Mann

It should be among the easiest promises the candidates for Louisiana governor could make: “I will rein in the vultures who run payday lending operations and stop them from preying on the working poor.”

Every day across Louisiana, hundreds of people fall upon hard times. As the saying goes, they have more month left than paycheck. Imagine your car breaks down. If you can’t make it to work, you’ll lose your job, but you don’t have $100 for repairs. Instead of going to friends or relatives, you enter a payday loan office to borrow the money until you get paid again.

That’s your first mistake because most payday lenders impose outrageous interest rates compared to traditional lenders (banks that don’t make small loans or that won’t lend to someone with poor or no credit). According to Credit.com, “In most cases the annual percentage rate (APR) on a payday loan averages about 400%, but the [effective] APR is often as high as 5,000%.”

However, it’s not the hideous interest rates that most hurts borrowers; it’s their abuse at the hands of lenders who know – and hope – that these loans will not be repaid within the usual 14 days. The real money is the rollovers or “loan churn,” as the lenders call it. According to a September 2013 report by the Center for Responsible Lending, “borrowers on average take out nine loans per year, paying back $504 in fees alone for $346 in non-churn principal.”

But, back to that $100 you need to fix your car. Once inside a payday lending office, here’s what often happens, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC): You write a check for $115 (the extra $15 is the fee to borrow the money). “The check casher or payday lender agrees to hold your check until your next payday. When that day comes around, either the lender deposits the check and you redeem it by paying the $115 in cash, or you roll-over the loan and are charged $15 more to extend the financing for 14 more days.”

These loans are usually rolled over several times because borrower often cannot repay the loan and the fee. Thus begins a vicious cycle. “The cost of the initial $100 loan is a $15 finance charge and an annual percentage rate of 391 percent,” the FTC says. “If you roll-over the loan three times, the finance charge would climb to $60 to borrow the $100.”

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Ghost writer: Look who’s writing racially charged blog posts for Louisiana’s secretary of state

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By Robert Mann

If you’re a black Democrat who supports automatic voter registration – an idea recently enacted in Oregon and gaining traction across the country – are you advocating voter fraud?

According to Secretary of State Tom Schedler’s campaign, yes, you are.

As of late Thursday afternoon, Schedler’s website prominently featured a column, which levels some harsh, racially charged allegations against his Democratic opponent, Chris Tyson, an LSU Law Center professor, who is black.

The column is headlined, “We Now Have A Campaign Issue In The Secretary Of State Race…” In the un-bylined column on Schedler’s website, Tyson is labeled “a partisan Democrat and an apologist for vote fraud.”

Nobody really believes that Tom Schedler has anything to worry about from Chris Tyson, the young law professor at LSU and former Mary Landrieu staffer who has been running for the job for over a year. Tyson is only sitting on about $80,000 as of the financial disclosure form he filed last week, compared to the $398,000 Schedler has in the bank.

Tyson would probably be on par with Schedler in the money race had he not be [sic] spending more than he took in over the last three months; the veteran incumbent knows that in most cases, a down-ballot statewide race draws little to no attention until the late stages of the campaign and as such it’s a poor use of one’s resources to spend a great deal of campaign funds.

Tyson’s money, of course, is not “the issue” in the race, as the column soon reveals [emphasis added].

And therefore, there is no particular reason why a black Democrat would mount a serious challenge to a Republican incumbent in a race like the one for Secretary of State.

Particularly when Tyson decides he wants to run on automatic voter registration, which is about as open an invitation to fraud and abuse as you can imagine. Continue reading

Candidates for Louisiana governor should leave no college student behind

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Photo by Kiri Walton, courtesy of NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

By Robert Mann

Whoever moves into Louisiana’s Governor’s Mansion in January will replace a chief executive who not only ignored college students but also made their lives harder and more expensive. It will take years for our new governor to repair the tangible and psychological damage Gov. Bobby Jindal inflicted on higher education. What this year’s gubernatorial candidates propose for our colleges and universities should concern us all.

First, the good news: The candidates have released their proposals. It’s no surprise that each promises to prioritize funding for colleges and universities. U.S. Sen. David Vitter suggests a “Commission on Streamlining and Building Excellence in Higher Education” to craft various reforms, including “reducing unnecessary duplication and inefficiencies in academic programs.” State Rep. John Bel Edwards proposes a “balanced funding mix for higher education to include 50% state funding and 50% tuition.”

Vitter and Edwards are reasonably specific about what they would do. Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, however, is vague. His proposal is a sketchy, rough outline, not a real plan. Dardenne does, however, promise he will focus on “stabilizing and prioritizing funding for higher education.” How, he doesn’t say.

Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle (who also serves on the LSU Board of Supervisors) has released no formal plan, but his press secretary emailed me an outline of his positions and told me he will fully fund the state’s tuition assistance program (TOPS) and “properly fund higher-ed through structural fiscal reform.”

Now, the bad news: All the candidates’ “plans” lack the detail a reasonable person might expect. That ambiguity will make it difficult to hold the winner fully accountable. So, it falls to journalists covering the race, especially those who moderate the debates, to demand more specifics.

Finally, the awful news – especially if you care about struggling middle-income and working poor families: None of the candidates says anything about the fundamental right of an academically prepared student to a college education. Put another way, no one states, plainly, “If you have the ability to make it in college but cannot afford it, Louisiana won’t leave you behind.”

While they might all perform better than Jindal on higher education, none of the candidates mentions a simple idea that could transform the lives of thousands of low-income students. Surprisingly, not one of them mentions the need to fund fully Go Grants, a state program for disadvantaged college students that can offer an annual award of up to $3,000. Sadly, Jindal never found more than half the money this worthy and important program requires.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.