Saturday, October 24, 2009

OFF THE RIM: Obama, Roundup awards both shams

By Jim Keyworth
Gazette Editor

Let’s talk about awards, a subject that has dominated the international, national and local stages of late.

President Barack Obama, of course, won the Nobel Peace Prize, setting off a firestorm of criticism. Coming in for their respective shares of that criticism were the prize itself, the committee that awarded it, and (no surprise at all) President Obama for being President Obama.

It seems there are those among us who can find nothing to like about the 44th President of the United States. Everything he does or has done to him (aka the Nobel Peace Prize) is roundly ridiculed by the right.

Their hatred totally defies logic, but don’t suggest racism – nothing raises the hackles on the anti-Obama crowd more than the R word.

Shortly after Obama’s Nobel hit the front pages around the world, your local newspaper blasted its own horn in a front page story announcing it had won the best little newspaper in the state award from the Arizona Newspapers Association (ANA) for the 11th consecutive year.

Leading the charge to disparage the significance of that award is none other than yours truly. Like the R word associated so often with hatred of the President, I have my own R word for the Roundup. It stands for Really Slanted.

I know. There I go again. Can’t get past it. Won’t let go.

But I have a proposition for you. If you will allow me to explain why those who believe President Obama should not have received the Nobel Peace Prize are absolutely correct, then you must allow me to explain why the Roundup’s award is a total and unequivocal sham. Fair enough? Let’s begin.

The Nobel Peace Prize is named after Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. He created it so he would be remembered for something other than inventing the original weapon of mass destruction.

It is awarded each year by a committee comprised of Scandinavians, a people that collectively can be said, at least tongue in cheek, to know quite a bit about peace.

They gave it to President Obama, as they have other heads of state including Russia’s Mikhail Gorbachev and West Germany’s Willy Brandt, “to enhance the ongoing work of sitting heads of government.” But Gorbachev and Brandt were considerably further along in their terms than President Obama is, and therefore had made inroads toward peace that the president has not yet had time to accomplish.

According to Newsweek magazine, “We thus find ourselves in a rather peculiar universe where good intentions are rewarded before they have undergone the strenuous metamorphosis of being translated into good deeds, or hard facts.”

So there you have it. A world enthralled with an American president who is once again engaging the international community has led to his premature recognition for achievements yet to be realized.

Now let us turn to the other “front page” award story because there are some things you need to know about how the ANA competition works – things that are, of course, absent from the Roundup’s front page account.

First let me point out that during five of those 11 consecutive best paper awards, I was a reporter for the Roundup. The string started a few years before I arrived and it has continued for the few years since I was fired.

Also there for several of those years was my buddy Mike Burkett, arguably the best writer the Roundup has ever had. Those who remember Mike and his wonderful work will agree. He had Pete Aleshire’s gift for verbosity, but also brought substance and insight to the table.

Mike and I spent two years together at the Roundup, and one of the things we hated most was the ANA contest – not only because it was time consuming to enter, but also because we both recognized it for what it was – a competition that was weighted toward the tired old, traditional-looking papers like the Roundup and that was so easy to win it wasn’t really a competition at all.

Also understand that the ANA competition does not evaluate a paper’s actual fairness and balance – critical components of its worth to the community. They don’t do that because of the way their competition is structured.

Editors and reporters submit what they want to submit, rather than a representative body of their work. The ANA does not ask for a random sampling so it might also see some of the mediocre stuff, or the stuff that was obviously biased, or the stuff that might have contained inaccuracies.

With one exception, that is also true of the categories by which the entire newspaper is judged. The paper picks out which issues to submit for its editorial page, its front page, etc. The ANA does request, I believe, three random issues – hardly a large enough sample to judge how well a newspaper is fulfilling its critical mission to be fearless and fair.

Consider the following:

The year Mike Burkett was told he couldn’t write a story exposing one of the Roundup’s biggest advertisers, the Roundup was still named newspaper of the year.

The year I was fired for my coverage of the Star Valley water theft, the Roundup was still named newspaper of the year.

The year my successor Michael Maresh wrote the absolutely false and libelous front page story about local realtor and upstanding citizen John Hanna, the Roundup was still named newspaper of the year. You can bet Maresh’s story was not entered in the competition that year.

The year the Roundup decided to sell its front page to advertisers, it was still named newspaper of the year. Incidentally, half the points in the newspaper of the year competition are awarded for advertising – and it’s always their advertising points that make up the Roundup’s margin of victory rather than their editorial content.

The two years the Roundup proudly declared the drought over (droughts are not good for growth, you know), it was still named newspaper of the year.

The year the Roundup stole the mayoral election by running a biased profile of Bob Edwards on the front page next to a fluff piece about Kenny Evans, the Roundup was still named newspaper of the year.

And most recently, the year the Roundup allowed its cow manure columnist Jinx Pyle to play fast and loose with the truth, including a large number of outright falsehoods, it was still named newspaper of the year.

And so, I refuse to put a lot of stock in their award having any real significance. But wait, there’s more.

One year when Mike and I were at the Roundup, then publisher Richard Haddad worried one year that ANA board members could influence which random issues were selected for judging, and that one specific board member had it in for the Roundup and actually went to the trouble to select issues he knew were weak ones for the Roundup. At the time I thought Haddad was being paranoid, but guess who is currently on the ANA board. That’s right, Haddad’s successor John Naughton – that man of many, many boards.

Anyway, during the years Mike and I were there, we would go to the ANA awards ceremony, usually at some posh Scottsdale resort, and yawn through it all, knowing that this was not the competition to judge our worth as journalists – a responsibility we both took very seriously, to the point that we both left the Roundup for refusing to compromise our integrity.

That is the reason, in fact, that I feel so strongly about the Roundup. Mike and I were both penalized for trying to be honest, for trying to do what good journalists do. That, my friends, is unforgivable to somebody who takes his responsibility as a journalist seriously. It’s not something you just “get over.”

Mike and I much preferred the annual competition sponsored by the Arizona Press Club, a much tougher competition that attracts the real journalists in the state. At an ANA awards ceremony you never find the big boys – the Goodykoontzes and Bommersbachs and Bensons and Montinis and Laceys – but they wouldn’t miss a Press Club ceremony.

The Roundup has never won much of anything in the Press Club competition, with one exception. In 2003, when I was still with the Roundup, I won the Community Journalist of the Year award in that competition – the top award for a small newspaper journalist. Nobody, including Pete Aleshire, has ever won that award. (The ANA has since added its own journalist of the year award, the one given to Aleshire this year.) Of course, the Roundup will never again mention my receiving that award, although I can still remember an exuberant Haddad saying that night, “Jim, I don’t think you realize what a big deal this is.”

Of all the awards I have received, there are just two that really mean something to me. The first was the Community Journalist of the Year. The second was a first place from the Arizona Press Club competition for the series of stories I wrote about your Rim Country Chamber of Commerce that brought down then-director Tina Breuss.

They are the awards that matter to me because they truly reflect what I have tried to stand for as a journalist – being fair and digging for the truth no matter the consequences.

That a newspaper that purports to be fair inflicted the consequences (by firing me) in one case and continues to be the benefactor of the chamber’s biased largesse is something I have a problem dismissing. It strikes at the very heart of what is fair and right.

My ANA awards line the walls in the Gazette office, but I have decided to simply toss them when we shut down the office for good. They just don’t mean that much.

As for the Roundup’s 11th consecutive newspaper of the year award, I can only say that it is a sad, sorry commentary on the state of small town journalism in Arizona.

The Gazette chose this year to not even participate in the ANA competition. Now you know why.


The Butcher said...


Glad you mentioned that John Naughton was on the ANA Board. In fact, he is the board member representing non-daily newspapers. Now, now, what a coincidence that Pete Aleshire's award was for reporting in, you guessed it - non-daily newspapers! Of course, I am certain that John Naughton MUST HAVE recused himself from the vote. Sure he did!

dc said...

Considering who 'won' the last Noble Peace Prize this should not be surprising, but good for you to shine the light it and your other "findings" and local experiences!

When we were told, "He played on our fears ..." What was really being said is, "WE are going to control you by fear." How many school kids were forced to watch that indoctrinating lying movie resulting in nightmares?

It's a battle you find yourself in, but we need you to stay the course! Keep up the "Good" work!

"Keep shining the light of Truth Jim!"

You don't need those 'dust collectors' anyway!