Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Press-Citizen Wins Wendy

September 5, 2007, 6:00 a.m.

"The Most Important News Stories in the World!"

MSNBC's Keith Olbermann has a daily feature he calls "The worst person in the world."

The Iowa City Press-Citizen has a weekly feature each Saturday it calls "Our Quick Take on Last Week's News Stories" -- its version of what Keith Olbermann might call "The Most Important News Stories in the World!"

I have a feature called a "Wendy."

Newspapers and television, constitutionally protected as the citizen's watchdog on government and other major institutions, need a watchdog of their own. In many communities it takes the form of a "journalism review" -- such as the granddaddy of journalism reviews, the Columbia Journalism Review.

So far as I know, we don't have a journalism review in eastern Iowa -- or anywhere else in the state, for that matter. And I'm certainly not inclined to take on that more-than-full-time role myself.

But I do award the Wendy.

What's the Wendy?

Newspapers (and television) are for-profit enterprises funded, for the most part, by advertisers. I understand that.

But there has historically been a wall, as high and strong as the old Berlin wall, between the advertising department and the news department. Reporters were free to do investigative journalism, revealing faults of local corporations that were also major advertisers -- over the objection of the advertising department, and occasionally resulting in the loss of a major account. Promotion of products on television took the form of commercials, not "product placement." Not only was advertising kept out of newspapers' stories -- let alone editorials -- it was kept off the front page.

With the merger of media firms into five or six major owners of most of our major media outlets -- and corporate decisions being driven by stock prices and the Wall Street financial community more than the nostalgia of "the public interest" and a democracy's need for news -- the mice have been gnawing away at that wall, leaving it in less stable condition than many of our nation's bridges. [Although the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics still contains the admonition, "Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two," it was last revised in 1996 and needs to be brought up-to-date with the deletion of that long-forgotten standard.]

The original Wendy was awarded to The Gazette. (So it's only appropriate the Press-Citizen should get one, too.) The Gazette won for a full news story -- with pictures -- promoting the delights of a new imitation milk shake: Wendy's Vanilla Frosty. Nicholas Johnson, "Mr. Editor, tear down this wall!" August 8, 2006. (Not incidentally, the story was hyped by the paper on its front page.)

So how and why has the Press-Citizen achieved this distinction?

Because two of the three "most important news stories in the world" turned out to be Panchero's $1.00 burritos, and Dunkin' Donuts' new donut formula. (That issue of the paper also gave over news space to an ad on page one.)

The paper gets extra points toward its Wendy award for the fact that this information about Panchero's and Dunkin' Donuts was provided to readers, not as advertisements, not even on the news pages, but in an editorial!

Here are the excerpts from that editorial, as they appeared, followed by some suggestions for possible alternative stories that might have been selected instead as "The Most Important News Stories in the World!":

Standing in the heat for burritos

The local chain Panchero's Mexican Grill celebrated its 15th anniversary Tuesday by selling $1 burritos and handing out free T-shirts at its Iowa City downtown location at 32 S. Clinton St. ("Panchero's notes 15 years; Hundreds wait in long line for $1 burritos," Aug. 29). The line stretched almost an entire block as hundreds of students waited in 90-degree heat for their turn. In two hours, workers doled out 1,500 burritos and gave out 1,500 black-and-gold T-shirts.

Panchero's opened at the corner of Clinton and Washington streets in 1992. It quickly became a staple downtown, and in particular, for University of Iowa students. Since its opening, the eatery has expanded to more than 45 locations in 13 states. There are plans this year to open about 25 new locations.

We're glad that Panchero's remains firmly rooted in Iowa City as its branches keep extending outward.

None vs. zero

Dunkin' Donuts announced last week that it has developed an alternative cooking oil and reformulated more than 50 menu items -- doughnuts included -- so that its 5,400 U.S. restaurants will go "zero grams trans fat" by Oct. 15. In no way are company officials suggesting that they are making healthy donuts, but they are making their confections less unhealthy by phasing out the artery-clogging trans fat. Baskin-Robbins, another unit of Dunkin' Brands Inc., plans to be "zero grams trans fat" by Jan. 1.

Anyone concerned with his or her trans fat intake, however, needs to know the difference between "no" and "zero" trans fat. The first indicates that there is no trans fat at all in the food. The second indicates that there is less than a half-gram of trans fat per serving -- and those near half-grams can add up quickly.
Editorial, "Our Quick Take on Last Week's News Stories," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 1, 2007.

What were some of the alternative choices for "Most Important News Stories in the World"?

International news, in addition to the GAO report on the failure of Iraq's government to meet the benchmarks, and the increased levels of violence in Pakistan, might have included significant political shifts -- of great relevance to Americans -- in Pakistan, Turkey and Iran.

Don't want to look abroad?

National news -- much of which occurred in, or affected, Iowa, and would have had local news pegs -- might have included the boost to Senator Dodd's campaign from the endorsement of Iowa City's fire fighters; the declaration of all the Democratic candidates that they will skip states that try to leapfrog Iowa's caucus date; the expected entrance of Fred Thompson; some shift in public reaction following the Republicans throwing Senator Larry Craig under the bus; Alberto Gonzales' resignation; new revelations regarding insurance companies' performance in New Orleans; the delays and decline in quality of airline service; the significance of the housing and mortgage markets stumble to the future of the American economy; and the record $87.1 billion in national net farm income.

Other Iowa, even Iowa City, stories would have included the unprecedented three UI campus bomb threats; the census report on median income and poverty (and Iowa's rank); the court case declaring Iowa's ban on gay marriage to be unconstitutional; and the bacteria warnings at six state park beaches (some of which were found to be 30 times levels thought safe for swimming).

The Register and Gazette gave at least a little, back-page coverage to the UNI faculty's thoughtful, analytical rejection of an armed campus police. The Press-Citizen mentioned it not at all -- anywhere that I noticed, not just in its Saturday round-up. That omission may well have contributed -- at least in some small way -- to this morning's news that it looks like the UI faculty is going to support an armed campus.

[Not incidentally, if you're truly interested in understanding the armed campus issues -- given that the reports circulating in Iowa are primarily simply advocacy briefs for bringing guns on campus -- one of the most thoroughly researched, and balanced, reports I've seen is the recent SUNY Courtland, "Report of the University Police Arming Task Force."]

For ignoring these stories, for helping tear down the iron curtain between advertising and news (and in this case even editorials), and for exalting the news value of Panchero's burritos and Dunkin' Donuts' sweet and greasy dough -- we proudly award a coveted Wendy to the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

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Anonymous said...

Come on! It's the end of summer, Labor Day weekend...doesn't the PC deserve a little intellectual vacation?

Anonymous said...

Headlines in the DI today say that U of Iowa faculty members voted to favor arming campus police.

Incredible. The article pointed to the Va Tech incident, where nothing armed campus police could have done, would have made any difference at all.

The Iowa City police cannot stop a sexual deviant from attacking 28 times (give or take 11). Can we focus on the little things like making the campus and city safe for women, before we start talking arming campus police (a very bad escalation of the local weapons race)?