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Journalism, where for art thou? 

The once venerated Fourth Estate has fallen on hard times. 

I mean, being a journalist used to be an honorable profession. Think of the greats! Margaret Bourke-White, the first female war journalist. Elijah Parish Lovejoy, martyred for his stand against slavery. Walter Winchell, the first American journalist to openly criticize Hitler on radio. Joseph Pulitzer, the great grandfather of modern journalism. Legends all!

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Today when people think of journalists, they think of disgraced NBC news anchor Brian Williams and his self-aggrandizing falsehood about his helicopter being shot or Stephen Glass whose stories for The New Republic turned out to be largely fabrications or Jayson Blair who resigned from the New York Times for plagiarism or Janet Cooke whose Pulitzer Prize was revoked when her award-winning Washington Post article about an 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy turned out to be pure imagination.

Is it any wonder that public confidence in the media is low and dropping. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll found just 36 percent of Americans believe news organizations present accurate facts, down from 54 percent in 1989. And let’s face it, 54 percent is pretty pathetic too.

And then there’re the sensationalism charges against media.

An American Society of News Editors poll discovered than 80 percent of the public believes journalists purposely focus on “sensational” stories to sell papers, 85 percent believe papers “over-dramatize” stories, 78 percent believe journalists “enjoy” reporting on public officials’ personal failings, yet only 19 percent of Americans know the meaning of the German word schadenfreude, and just 10 percent of Americans know I just made up that 19 percent stat about schadenfreude. I have no idea how many Americans know that schadenfreude means deriving pleasure from others’ misfortunes. Germans—they have a word for everything!

Even little old SLO County is experiencing journalism woes. In one corner, we have self-described family man and online community news publisher Scott “David” Brennan, and in the other is News Media Corporation President John “Goliath” Tompkins. Brennan’s Access Publishing operates online publications A-Town Daily News (atowndailynews.com) and Paso Robles Daily News (pasoroblesdailynews.com). Tompkins’ News Media Corp. owns and operates the print and online publications Atascadero News (atascaderonews.com) and the Paso Robles Press (pasoroblespress.com), as well as more than 70 other community newspapers across the country.

“I’ll be coming after you, and personally. You want to go to war with us, we’ll go to war,” Tompkins said in a voice mail to Brennan, a recording of which was posted to YouTube and from which Brennan quotes in an A-Town Daily News story titled “Corporate owner of Atascadero News threatens ‘war’ on this newspaper.” 

The story explains that Brennan started his online news sources to “address a serious deficiency in local news,” and Brennan is quoted as saying, “This is clearly an attempt by a big media conglomerate to intimidate a local business and stifle an independent news source. We are not going to be bullied by some corporation from Chicago that thinks they have a monopoly on the news media in North SLO County.”

Sensationalize much?

Oh, and did I mention Brennan used to work for Tompkins and News Media Corp? Yeah, he rose through the ranks of Tompkins’ company before leaving in 2006 and starting the competing Paso Robles Daily News in 2012.

In his own publication, the Paso Robles Press, Tompkins responded: “I find it ironic that this comes out the day after he was contacted by our lawyers to stop using our name—Atascadero News and Atascadero Daily News. He’s had the voice mail for more than a month now and coincidentally released it. We don’t want to silence his publication, but we can’t allow him to infringe on our trademarks by using our name.”

Yes, it appears to be true that Atascadero News also owns the domain atascaderodailynews.com, which may be why Brennan secured atowndailynews.com instead of spelling out “Atascadero.” Or maybe “Atascadero” is too hard to spell.

These sorts of squabbles do nothing to restore journalistic integrity, and infringing on publication names creates confusion and smacks of ethical problems. It reminds me of another German word, backpfeifengesicht, which literally means “cheek whistling face” but figuratively translates as a face that’s begging to be slapped … hard!

And though I’m loath to mention their names for fear New Times will be pilloried on “journalists” Karen Velie and Daniel Blackburn’s blog or worse on Dave Congalton’s KVEC blab-fest, CalCoastNews and UncoveredSLO were just denied their anti-SLAPP motion against Charles Tenborg, who’s suing the online “news” sources for libel.

I know some SLO County residents believe CalCoastNews.com and UncoveredSLO.com are helmed by tireless journalists doing the hard investigative work other local media refuse to cover, while others believe the sites revel in unsubstantiated sensationalism and lack even a modicum of journalistic ethics. 

All I know is that these problems with journalism—local and national—are giving me a serious case of fuchsteufelswild, which translated directly means “fox-devil wild” but really means “unadulterated rage.” I got me some of that.

The Shredder misses the good old days. Send ideas and comments to shredder@newtimesslo.com.

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