About Our Guest
Bob Gibson is a 1972 graduate of the University of Virginia with a B.A. in government and foreign affairs. After serving as news director of WCHV radio, he joined The Daily Progress in August 1976 and has held a number of positions with the newspaper. He began his career covering police and local courts and has covered state and local politics and government. He was named city editor in 1982 and later special projects editor in 1992 when he wrote a series about racial disparities and justice in local courts.
In addition to his newspaper work, Bob hosted a weekly political call-in show on WINA radio in Charlottesville for seven years. He has also hosted a public radio talk show since 2001 on WVTF-FM in Roanoke and Charlottesville. He has been a regular contributor and guest on public radio station WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show in Washington and often serves as host of Evening Edition on public radio WVTF.
Bob is the winner of several Virginia Press Association awards, the 1993 Virginia Bar Association Award in the Field of Law and Justice and the 1993 Southern Journalism Award for investigative reporting.
Jan Paynter: Hello… I’m Jan Paynter and I would like to welcome you again to our program Politics Matters.
Bob Gibson is a graduate from the University of Virginia and grew up in Arlington County. In 1972 he graduated from the University of Virginia with a B.A. degree in Government and Foreign Affairs. Before coming to Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership in March of 2008, Bob Gibson was a political writer, columnist and editor at the Charlottesville Daily Progress for 30 years, where he specialized in covering local, state, and national politics.
He has won numerous Virginia Press Association awards, the 1993 Virginia Bar Association Award in the Field of Law and Justice and the 1993 Southern Journalism Award for investigative reporting concerning racial inequities in sentencing. He is a frequent guest on public radio WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show in Washington and serves as a host of WVTF’s Evening Edition on public radio. He also authors the enlightening Daily Progress’ “Blogging Virginia Politics with Bob Gibson”.
Now, more than ever, there is a strong need in our nation for an informed and knowledgeable citizenry, for voters to be paying attention. To fail to do so is to imperil our democracy and threaten its demise through passivity and apathy. We quite literally, at this moment, cannot afford it. How and where we receive our news is a matter of personal choice but in a free society, we need to keep our options and eyes open. Journalism matters because it aids us in making informed decisions based on verifiable information not supposition, fancy or outright fabrication. We need the news in order to better understand who we are as human beings, as parents, children, husbands and wives, employers and caregivers. In a very real way, we ARE the news and we need to preserve and protect access to it in all its daunting complexity.
Now we all understand that the manner in which we receive our news is changing and in the 21st Century we need to remain flexible and open to any and all new opportunities for good information.
We are fortunate to have with us today a man who has devoted his career to the open and free exchange of ideas both in traditional print media, in radio, the blogosphere, and now in a foundation which engages in training our future leaders and lawmakers in the Commonwealth. So, where do we go from here with respect to how we receive our news…?
Mr. Gibson will be our guide today on that sometimes disorienting path in the service of truth.
Bob Gibson: Thank you for having me on the program.
Jan Paynter: First of all Bob, tell us a little about your background. What lead you to journalism as a career?
Bob Gibson: When I came to the University of Virginia from Arlington, where I had graduated from high school, UVA was all male and it was quite a different institution, much smaller than it is today. It didn’t have journalism, it had the traditional academic curriculum but no journalism school, no journalism taught. But it had journalism in terms of the Cavalier Daily and student radio stations, two very active student stations, and I got involved in those and just loved it, just ate it up, and spent as much time, maybe more, doing radio news than I did work in various classes, so I caught the bug at an early age.
Jan Paynter: Bob, how did the Sorensen Institute come into being? Who founded it? When was it begun, and what are some of the ethical focuses for the program?
Bob Gibson: Well, 17 years ago, two Charlottesville businessmen, Michael Bills and Leigh Middleditch, had the same idea at roughly the same time. They thought that Virginia could use an institute for political leadership that trained individuals from both political parties and taught them how to get along together and work across the aisle, because there was a great deal of worry then and there still is today about partisanship becoming so overbearing that the two sides can’t work together. They looked at the University of North Carolina, which has a leadership institute with some good training, and they found a model there and the University of North Carolina program actually introduced them to each other, so they founded the Sorensen Institute in Charlottesville. We go all over the state of Virginia and we find young men and young women, and college leaders and high school leaders, who are in the business of caring about their community and getting involved. We teach them ethics, they all learn the difference between the short term and the long term good, which is really one of the basic ethical problems that we wrestle with in our politics today. Are we going to do something that is good for the country or community ten years down the road, or are we going to do something that matters only for the next election? Unfortunately, we’ve become more of a short-term body politic, that we care only about what’s right around the corner and what’s immediately on the table, and we don’t have as much interest in the long term as we should. So we get these groups of roughly equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans together and they learn to enjoy talking to each other, and getting to know each other, and working together across the aisle, and that‘s what Sorensen is really about.
Jan Paynter: I know when we were talking before the program, you mentioned that graduates of the program form long lasting friendships, and business and personal relationships as a result.
Bob Gibson: We have 1,300 people who have graduated from the Sorensen programs over the last 17 years, and 17 of them are in the Virginia General Assembly, two of them are in the US Congress, and about 125 have been elected to city councils and boards of supervisors. Ann Mallek, the Chair of the Albemarle County Board, James Brown, the sheriff of Charlottesville, Chip Harding the sheriff of Albemarle, are all graduates of our programs, and they learned to work together. They really do a good job of thinking across the aisle and including people. More people are being included in local decision making, which is a good thing.
Jan Paynter: How do you see funding for it, moving forward?
Bob Gibson: We fund roughly half our programs with tuition and it’s relatively inexpensive, and the rest we go out and we raise money from foundations, from individuals, from businesses, from groups, community groups. We have a fundraiser every year in April in the Richmond area now, where we bring together the leadership of the General Assembly and celebrate that and raise money. Probably $200,000 will be raised at our April Gala.
Jan Paynter: Well, this is great. I think it’s wonderful for people to know about this. Now let’s turn to our topic for today’s discussion: why journalism matters and the striking changes to news coverage that we all experience everyday. So much has been written about the imminent demise of traditional newspapers in our country, and we of course see them shrink and go out of business. Something I think a lot of people think about is Twain: “Are the reports of the death of journalism in papers greatly exaggerated?” What do you think?
Bob Gibson: I hope they are greatly exaggerated. I think our journalism and our politics are changing at an ever-increasing rate. The rapid change in journalism is very unsettling to the business. They are finding new business models that can work for newspapers in the internet age. Radio and television are also cutting back as advertising has shifted. They have to find working business models. They’ve also started cooperating with non-profit groups, as the Daily Progress has done with the Charlottesville Tomorrow outfit. So I think new partnerships are going to change the way the media is covering the news and the way the platforms are for reporting the news.
Jan Paynter: Talk, if you would, a little bit about the history of journalism. Were papers fully autonomous at the beginning of our republic? Who ran them, and how were they funded?
Bob Gibson: They were. Many of them were party organs, as the system has developed in many European countries, where you buy a liberal paper or a conservative paper and in our national media there is a great trend in that direction. More Republicans will watch their news on Fox News, more Democrats will watch their news on MSNBC Today, because we all tend to live in communities where we live with, and talk to, folks who agree with us. We tend to self-select our news from outlets that don’t challenge us as much as we perhaps should be challenged. We tend to go for opinions that we agree with. I think it’s very helpful for individuals to look at all of the media that’s available and to pick and choose not just things that we agree with, but outlets that perhaps challenge us.
Jan Paynter: I think it’s also important for people to understand just what you just talked about. In our history, there were a lot of dirty tricks that go all the way back to the time of the Founders. This is, as you point out, human nature. Sometimes we tend to idealize the way it was. Did papers in the late eighteenth century focus more on local or international news, as a rule?
Bob Gibson: They focused on politics a great deal. They covered speeches in their entirety. They would print presidential candidates and debates as if that was the news of the day. Presidential debates often lasted hours, they weren’t the ninety minute or sixty minute TV events that we see today with candidates just sort of spouting out headlines. They tended to be real debates where real positions would be developed, and challenged, and defended. These were reported in great detail in the newspapers of the day, and the newspapers, as I said, tended to be partisan, so many individuals would buy a paper and know the partisan leaning of the news outlet. You don’t always see that today, you don’t know, in many cases, what the biases of the new media outlets are. I think Americans are learning new news sources and coming to trust some and not trust others, and that’s a very difficult and unsettling process.
Jan Paynter: Turning back to the present, what is meant by the term, specifically I think for people, “advocacy journalism” and as we are coming to understand it now?
Bob Gibson: Advocacy journalism can be a very valuable thing: people with a cause, people who want to change the world, people who want to take the country in a different direction. And there is more of that. There are more organizations that are doing long-term investigative reporting and generally they do buy into advocacy journalism. There are others that are forming that are taking the traditional tact of pursuing the truth wherever it leads, without a preordained direction, and we tend to trust those, I think, a little bit more because they have a track record — the good ones — of being balanced.
Jan Paynter: Can the traditional watchdog function of the Fourth Estate survive, given this proliferation of varying forms of media, would you say?
Bob Gibson: It has to. If we don’t have a watchdog function, then we have a lapdog function, and that doesn’t serve the voter very well. We need journalism that goes out and challenges what is being given reporters as the facts. We need to look behind the facts and find out where they’re coming from, and what the interests are of the people who are giving us those facts. Local government and state government and the federal government today are even more than ever in the news business themselves. They are putting out news as if it was the entire package and expecting people to buy it and I think Americans have to be a little bit skeptical and have to look behind where those governments are putting out facts.
Jan Paynter: You raise an interesting point. When I was preparing for this program I was looking at Alex Jones’ very helpful book, “Loosing the News”, and he cites an example with a very good journalist, Ron Suskind, who is discussing with a White House Operative what he should do and whether he can go ahead with this article in spite of the fact there were some objections to it and so forth. He was told, “Well, you guys really work in the reality-based profession”, and he said, “Well, actually, I thought that was the definition of what journalism was.” That’s an interesting and somewhat disturbing point, and maybe now more than ever we do need the Fourth Estate.
Bob Gibson: We definitely do. People who spin the news in one direction or another are paid a lot more than people who actually cover the news as reporters. If you are interested in journalism, it’s a wonderful field to get into, but you’re not going to get rich doing it. You’re going to do it because of your passion for reporting and following the truth wherever it takes you. People who spend a lot of time in the news business and then go into the spin business get paid a heck of a lot more money to tell you which way you should be reporting. Reporters have to follow, in various forms, other people, so that they are presenting a balanced viewpoint rather than just being spun by whomever is paying the most money to spin the news.
Jan Paynter: Well, it just means that journalism morphs into advertising.
Bob Gibson: There are so many lines that have disappeared, unfortunately, that used to be observed. The line between news and entertainment: there used to be a solid line there. It is completely gone. Politics and so much of our news is covered as entertainment. It’s more important than that.
Jan Paynter: One of the things I think you have written very eloquently about is the need for civility, to bring that back. I wondered, are you beginning to see the seedlings of that starting up?
Bob Gibson: I think we are. I think there is a recognition among political leaders at all levels that we have gone past a line that makes politics cheap, and tawdry, and untrustworthy, and more combative than it has to be. There has to be a time in our country for elections, and there has to be a time in our county for governing. Right now we’ve strayed too far over into the permanent campaign, where actions in government are being taken more with regard to how they will play in the next election than perhaps for the long-term good of the people who they are supposed to be serving.
Jan Paynter: Right now there is a lot of discussion about net neutrality and how it might relate to the First Amendment. What is meant by that term, Bob?
Bob Gibson: Well, it’s a debate that is going on in the Congress, and it’s really: Is the Internet going to be something that everyone has free and open access to, or, is it going to be something that is sort of controlled? What we don’t need is a lot of government control in the businesses of the internet. I think what we need is more of what we have with National Public Radio, which is a really true and balanced set of reporting that unfortunately has become politicized. What we are seeing is a shift from “anything goes” on the Internet to a shift where major corporations are shaping the news outlets and buying up more and more of the news outlets and putting them under corporate control and one set of a small number of hands.
Jan Paynter: And, of course, controlling the speed of transmission, which will damp down people staying with any particular issue.
Bob Gibson: We need freeware, we need shareware, and we need open access. People need to be able to trust sources that they can find on the internet, rather than have them controlled in a small number of hands or by the government.
Jan Paynter: I thought it was interesting, Al Franken, a lot of people know is very active in this area right now, and I think it’s important because then, it seems to me, that you potentially end up with two classes. You have different economic classes. Now you have the class of the informed versus the uninformed, which again falls, not surprisingly, into the “who has money” and “who doesn’t”. And obviously for electing leaders, it seems to me, you must have an informed citizenry.
Bob Gibson: It’s everyone’s obligation to follow the news as best they can, as they understand it, as they want to become involved in their communities. What we need are people who are going to find outlets that they trust and participate in their community’s affairs. The more people who are turned off by politics and turned off by the news of politics, it just leaves politics in the hands of fewer and fewer special interests. The more people who become involved and stay informed, the better off we are. We have that. We are very lucky in Charlottesville and Albemarle to have the kind of community that is well-read, well-informed, and largely involved. Not every community has that and I think we are very fortunate here that as much of our community stays involved.
Jan Paynter: As everyone knows, I think, NPR is going, perhaps, to lose its funding. How do you think that is going to affect public radio going forward?
Bob Gibson: There are lots of funding sources for an organization as well-respected as National Public Radio. It’s unfortunate that it has become sort of a political football. Eventually that football will get kicked entirely into private funding. It’s a wedge issue that one party has sort of taken advantage of to talk about biases and yet most people find it a very informative source. It doesn’t need a lot of public funding. There are stations that do, however, need public funding to survive. So after public radio is defunded, which I think will happen within years, then we will see probably a smaller number of National Public Radio outlets, but more on the Internet.
Jan Paynter: So into that breach, philanthropy and foundations will step in to help augment funding, do you think?
Bob Gibson: I think they have to, and I think they are. NPR has a great number of funders and it’s the stations that are going to suffer in the short run as the federal funding dries up.
Jan Paynter: One of the things we discussed also before the program: I think we each received emails from the New York Times saying that they will begin charging for unlimited access and, as I was telling you, they want to sweeten the deal by saying, you know, you’ll have apps for your iPad if you do this. Well, you know, I have no plans to have an iPad at the moment, it doesn’t seem to sway me, but this is quite a change, and I know it’s been tried before.
Bob Gibson: The New York Times tried it before, with their opinion makers and their columnists, and that editorial product was not widely subscribed to, so they backed away. They are stepping back into the subscription field again and I guess they have a business model that they think will work. Everyone is trying new business models because old print newspaper empires will die if they view themselves as old print newspaper empires. They are either in the news business or in the newspaper business, and if they are in the news business they will adapt a new business model and survive. If they are in the newspaper business, they’ll just go out of business.
Jan Paynter: What do you see, Bob, as the role of universities in news reporting. Should they actively engage in the business of news gathering in a more institutionalized way?
Bob Gibson: Given what we have at UVA, which is not a traditional journalism school by any means, but the opportunity for students to either study media, which many do, or to get involved in covering news. I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for students at every college and university who can find a way to dip their toe in the water of journalism and see if the temperature is good and see if they enjoy. You have to love it. You can’t do it unless you love it. You find out whether you’re any good at it, whether you found a career you want to pursue. The platform for delivering news is going to keep changing. When I was leaving the Daily Progress three years ago, I was being trained in videography, well as having started a blog, as well as reporting things instantly on the Internet as well as in the newspaper, so those platforms keep evolving as technology changes. The opportunity in college is to study all of these platforms and find out if you are really interested in news. Many students get the advantage of good experience at places like the Cavalier Daily or WVA where I worked.
Jan Paynter: What do you see as the future role of non-profits in helping facilitate the survival of news organizations?
Bob Gibson: The non-profit world is coming to the defense of, and the support of, the news business in many innovative ways. We are a non-profit at the Sorensen Institute, we are part of the University of Virginia, which is a non-profit, and we see many people getting into investigative reporting, where the newspaper business has cut back investigative reporting. ProPublica and other groups are aligning themselves in the long-term investigative business with CBS, and NBC, and ABC, and the other outlets, major newspapers, that had to cut back their own foreign bureaus and had to cut back their own investigative teams. So I think we are going to see increasing cooperation between very creative new non-profit news organizations that will establish, as many of them have started to, real reputations as solid deliverers of the news product.
Jan Paynter: So, to sort of analogize in a way, going forward for survival you see news organizations really cooperating and being very independent, sort of having a kind of basket of mutual funds, if you will, of the news which they share.
Bob Gibson: Newspapers that used to be truly only competitors are now cooperating. There is a series of papers in Ohio, the largest dailies in the state of Ohio, that actually share their product with each other. Media General, which owns the Richmond Times Dispatch, the Daily Progress, the Lynchburg paper, and a number of other papers in western Virginia and a number of weeklies, is sharing its own product with more and more papers. So, I think you are seeing organizations cooperate that solely used to be competitors. That can be a good thing, it can be a troubling thing. You need enough people in the business so that you have true competition. That is where the new boys starting up on the internet are providing a very interesting challenge to the old boys who are in the gray print business, and it’s becoming a better business because of that competition.
Jan Paynter: I know we mentioned also you’re seeing a lot of seasoned reporters and journalists going to work online, in blogs. You have a wonderful, wonderful blog. So, cross-polinization sounds like it is going to be in our future very much.
Bob Gibson: I think the obligation of the reader is to find the best ones and support them, go to them, use them, comment. News is becoming evermore interactive today and I am frankly somewhat disappointed by the comments that I see on a lot of the news organization’s comment blogs or comments under news articles, because they tend to be off-point, nasty, and anonymous. I think what we need is a more responsible readership that will put their name next to their comments, put honest comments that they really believe online and engage, challenge the news reporter to do better, rather than pick and snipe from the side anonymously.
Jan Paynter: One of the difficulties has always been this tremendous amount of information online. I think we all see that, but verifying things in cyberspace is quite a challenge, and of course, with the stroke of a key, things can be radically altered to benefit one side or the other. This is a real concern.
Bob Gibson: Who has the time to run back behind all the reporting and do the fact checking, and how do you do it well? Most people don’t, so you have to have news sources that you trust, and there are those. And you have to have ways of communicating with them and helping them improve so that you drive the ones that are sleazy and inaccurate out of business, and you keep the ones that are accurate in business.
Jan Paynter: Thank you very much, Bob, for doing this today. I think it is very important for people to think about and also to hear about the Sorensen Institute, which is a marvelous organization.
Bob Gibson: It was my pleasure to join you, thank you.
Jan Paynter: In the 1940’s film, “Gentleman’s Agreement”, a reporter does a story on anti-Semitism posing as a Jewish citizen in order to better understand the nature of discrimination, bigotry and hatred. At the end of the film, his mother reads his story with pride noting that the tree of our democracy is always known by its fruit and speaking truth to power or (to our neighbors which might actually be harder in some cases) is worth the risk- however difficult.
Journalism is a noble profession even though, at times, what we view on the air and cyber waves may tempt us to think of it as the oldest one.
A future filled with varying combinations of all media- papers, radio, web news sites, blogs and phones manned by citizen reporters- can also function as the guardians of our democracy if… we can get creative. Our Founders used intellect and insight to create an elastic, enduring Republic. Preserving our first Amendment right to a free, unfettered, diverse press respects their efforts and in so doing we honor ourselves and future generations. In staying fully informed about our world we make it possible to choose our leaders wisely- not blindly or recklessly.
I would like to thank Bob Gibson for his very informative discussion today…
Thank you at home for joining our conversation…
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Thank you again and until next time…I’m Jan Paynter and this is ‘Politics Matters’.