Chad Blair: Aloha everybody and welcome to another installment of the Pod Squad, as always Chad Blair with Honolulu Civil Beat. Today joining me is our reader rep, Brett Oppegaard. Did I pronounce that correctly, Oppegaard?
Brett Oppegaard: You did. Thank you for having me.
Blair: Brett you’re perhaps our most controversial columnist, at least since Denby Fawcett and Ian Lind (we got a whole bunch of good columnists). To put it mildly, your Reader Rep column has gotten under the skin of a lot of folks locally, particularly people like me that are plugged in to the local social media and journalism scene. Obviously, I’m a journalist too.
But before I get into some of the reactions to the column, tell me what you envision Reader Rep to be. What is its purpose do you believe?
Oppegaard: Well I think the primary purpose is for the readers to have a representative in the newsroom who looks out for their interests. The typical relationship is that journalists speak in one direction toward their audience and often are not accountable for their actions. So I think Civil Beat has given us a great opportunity to open up that channel to a two-way discussion.
Blair: OK well let me ask you right now, are journalists too thin skinned?
Oppegaard: In Hawaii or in general?
Blair: Let’s focus on Hawaii.
Oppegaard: I think they have been thinner skinned than I pictured here, and I’m not sure why that is. Maybe because of the culture that’s developed.
But generally speaking I think journalists are pretty thick skinned, particularly with the advent of reader comments where people are allowed to post basically anything they want at the end of their stories and journalists for the most part let those comments just ride.
In this case I think in Hawaii those dynamics are a little bit different.
Blair: Well you mentioned because of the culture, and I wonder if you could expand on that a little bit. What do you mean by the culture here?
Oppegaard: It seems to be somewhat of a closed culture in terms of most of the journalists know each other, most of the journalists have spent their whole life in Hawaii and they seem to have kind of a cozy relationship in general with a lot of the different government officials and people with power.
Blair: Well there’s no question about that. I mean there are couples that are married to each other that are journalists and there are people that are working that have “gone the circuit,” is the way I like to put this. And you’ve commented on this as well, Mr. Garcia for example, someone who has been an elected official, someone who has been a PR person, someone who has worked for a newspaper or a TV station or radio station. It’s an interesting revolving door. I myself have yet to cross into the line of PR and into government work, but one never knows. I’m very lucky to have a job that I love.
But I wonder if there’s a sense that you shouldn’t criticize each other here, particularly among the journalists, that it’s almost an affront like how dare you ask or question the things that I’m doing on my newspaper or my TV station or radio station.
Oppegaard: Yeah, I think that has been the general reaction from a lot of the journalists in town — who are you to criticize me, who are you to even raise criticism about journalism in this community, who is anybody to do that? We should be able to produce whatever we want, however we want and nobody seems to want to have any kind of feedback on that.
Blair: Well tell me more about who you are. Obviously your bio says where you’ve worked and what you’re doing, you’re at the UH communications department right now, but tell me a little bit about your experience in journalism that lends you this this credibility, this authority, to be able to comment and when others are doing.
Oppegaard: Sure. Well I’ve studied journalism as an undergraduate, a graduate student and as a doctoral student. I’ve worked in newsrooms for about 20 years, including freelancing, toward the end of my real active journalism career. I started out as a sports writer. I moved into public affairs reporting. I did investigative reporting, feature writing, arts criticism, business writing.
Blair: Oh you’ve ran the gamut.
Oppegaard: I’ve worked in just about every genre of journalism. So I think in that respect I have a good overview of the field.
Blair: OK, what’s the best story you ever wrote? The biggest scoop, maybe it’s another way to put it.
Oppegaard: Well I mean I’ve had a lot of them, but I think one of the most interesting stories was right at the start of my journalism career when I received a receipt in the mail from an anonymous person that showed a credit card charge. And it was kind of mysterious so I looked into it. It turned out that a Superior Court judge had been bilking elderly widows and becoming the executor of their wills when they died with no, you know, they never had any sort of beneficiaries. He would kind of waltz off at the end of these relationships with hundreds of thousands of dollars. And this particular receipt was a receipt from a gas credit card he was using of a woman who had died a year or two earlier. So he was still using her credit cards.
Blair: And what happened?
Oppegaard: He was removed from the bench and he threatened to punch me in the nose. It was a pretty exciting ride. Well that was right in the beginning of my career and I had a lot of other investigative stories that I did.
Interesting by the way that you brought up anonymous sources, although it’s different with someone providing you something versus quoting anonymous sources, and that’s something that you’ve actually dinged me on saying you shouldn’t be relying on those period. Journalists should not be over relying on that because it’s a disservice to the reader.
The thing I always keep in mind is those anonymous sources probably have an agenda of their own and that was kind of the point that you made on a story I did on Josh Green.
Well, you know let me ask you this, let’s turn to the column now. The column that’s up right now has to do with Joan Conrow and Patti Epler, our editor, was mentioned in there. I don’t want to go into the details of the column. Folks can read it for themselves. It’s a very good one. But I was surprised about the lengthy comment section that has followed and it’s included a lot of responses directly from you to what people are saying.
Have you been surprised by the outpouring of interest and comment on the stories that you’ve written?
Oppegaard: Well, my hope from the beginning has been that this column creates a conversation about journalism.
Blair: You did that.
Oppegaard: I feel like this is a part of my role as a public servant and as an educator in journalism to reach out and try to create these discussions and also add context and depth to the discussions — so not to be right or wrong, but to help people see the nuances and complexity of journalism.
Blair: It seems to take a lot of time for you to do that. That must be a bit of a burden.
Oppegaard: It’s a burden, but I think it’s part of my role in this community.
Blair: Do you feel the journalists in general should be responding more to those comments? I know some reporters are comfortable doing that, some feel an obligation. I myself comment as much as I can, although there’s always a time constraint. But do you feel that it’s something journalists in general should be doing now given the way we are online you can put comments? Is that something we should be taking responsibility for?
Oppegaard: I think in an ideal world we should. There are pragmatic concerns. There’s only so many hours in the day and if journalists are asked to write several stories and create videos and keep track of social media and post on social media, I mean there is a certain limit to what any person can do. So I think the bigger discussion would be where are the journalists putting their resources.
I think responding to reader comments is a really important part of that job because if you can engage a reader in a conversation, that’s one of the higher goals of the craft. And I think of it as an opportunity to continue discussion about journalism and help people understand it better. So I feel like that is a very very important and critical part of how we get better journalism in the community.
Blair: What if they say something nasty about you? I’ll give you a couple of examples. There’s been some stories about GMOs and Anita Hofschneider has gotten a lot of flak for that. There’s been stories about Tulsi Gabbard, defenders of her saying, hey you shouldn’t be saying this. I’ve gotten folks in all sorts of capacities commenting on stories that I write particularly about Native Hawaiian issues.
What does the reporter do when someone is saying you’re full of it or you’re wrong or you’re a shill for the Monsanto companies and so forth like that? How do you handle that? I’m seeking advice here.
Oppegaard: To begin with, I think journalists, you have to have kind of a thick skin to survive no doubt about that.
I don’t mind the name calling so much, but I like to push the discussions back into whatever the topic is as opposed to responding to the name calling.
Like I said earlier, when the Superior Court judge saw my stories in the paper and knew his days were limited there in terms of being a judge anymore, he literally said to me on the phone, next time I see you I’m going to punch you in the face. And I’ve had people threaten to shoot me in the parking lot. I mean these are not funny things. Really they’re very serious things. But it is part of what I think our obligation is to stand up to the forces that are trying to really kind of bully society into their bad behaviors.
Blair: You know one criticism of journalists is that they’re on this sort of high horse, that they are morally above other people and then feel superior and look down and therefore criticize others. Is that a fair criticism?
Oppegaard: That’s an interesting thought. I would say that journalists are often idealists and I consider myself an idealist in a lot of ways. Like when I write about journalists not following the SPJ Code of Ethics — the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics — which is kind of our binding code, our ideology that we’re supposed to follow that that identifies us as professional journalists rather than amateur journalists or citizen journalists. I understand that pragmatically that can be tough at times, but if we don’t reach for that high ground then we’re really failing in our occupation.
Blair: You know social media reporters are required to use Twitter and Facebook or Snapchat or Instagram all sorts of things. Are reporters allowed to have opinions and express them in such a public forum?
Oppegaard: I think journalists should be very careful about that because it does create the perception that they are biased in a way that they cannot overcome when they’re writing their stories. Of course everybody has opinions and when they go home and they’re in their living room they can have whatever kind of discussions about political topics they want.
Blair: Or the newsroom for that matter.
Oppegaard: Or the newsroom, I mean they’re safe spaces. And that’s not to say journalists are hiding or veiling their thoughts, but professionally we’re trained to put those ideas and those thoughts in our pocket when we come to the job in the morning and to give our sources a fair treatment.
Blair: A couple of more questions, what should Civil Beat be doing better to make its journalism better to serve its readers better?
Oppegaard: Well I think Civil Beat is really a beacon of great journalism in this community and I am continually impressed with what is produced here and also the mission seems to be untainted by, obviously, advertising concerns or corporate special interests or any of the other things that tend to plague for-profit publications and journalism organizations. I mean journalism is one of those arts like writing where you can always be better tomorrow, you just have to keep trying to get better. I think Civil Beat really pushes this community to have more deeper and more interesting conversations.
Blair: Are you on our payroll?
Oppegaard: Well as a freelancer.
Blair: Alright, just transparent accountability.
Oppegaard: That’s right.
Blair: I too am on the payroll.
Oppegaard: That message was not sponsored by Civil Beat. That’s my real opinion.
Blair: Hey the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, our Rui Kaneya reported on the cutbacks that are happening there, we don’t know the extent of it yet but it looks like a number of people maybe losing their job, and I was thinking of the John Oliver piece that was on the other day about newspapers are the lifeblood of journalism and absolutely critical to a democracy. What are your thoughts your concerns as a resident of Honolulu about the — you know this is the paper of record for the state of Hawaii.
Oppegaard: The Star-Advertiser is an incredibly important news resource in our community. And you know as much as like I said I commend Civil Beat and what they’re doing here, the Star-Advertiser really is the lead horse in this journalism community in terms of its power and resources. So a weaker Star-Advertiser makes a weaker community.
I think it’s been it’s been really a terrible few years for newspapers but in particular this past year has been really hard. Essentially this shifting from printed products to mobile delivery has kind of converted the interests with the profit system — meaning that most of the audience is on a mobile device while most of the profit comes from the paper that’s delivered to the doorstep, and that is creating a lot of tension in the industry.
Blair: As John Oliver pointed out. And for those who haven’t seen the John Oliver clip, just Google it. You know you’ll love it.
Brett, I’ve really enjoyed having you on here today and taking these questions. Any final point that you want to make about the state of journalism in general but always more specific to Hawaii or Honolulu, anything that we haven’t covered?
Oppegaard: I just think people as John Oliver said in his clip and you should listen to it, people need to support the kind of information they want in their community. If they want great journalism, they need to support great journalism. If they do not support journalism with donations or paying your subscription to the Star-Advertiser or you know donating to Hawaii Public Radio or whatever it is you value, then that news source will dwindle and go away and they will be left with basically a lot of people trying to manipulate your thoughts to either support their point of view or buy their product or any other number of things so you probably don’t necessarily want to have happen to you.
Blair: “So call now, 955-8821. Free for the neighbor islands…” I’m kidding, I’m already thinking about pledge drives for public radio.
Brett Oppegaard, Reader Rep columnist, professor of communications at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, as well as a former journalist, thank you so much for being on the podcast today, the Pod Squad.
Oppegaard: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
Blair: And you can visit us at civilbeat.org and follow us on Twitter and Facebook. As always Chad Blair with the Pod Squad and Honolulu Civil Beat, take care and aloha.