Friday, December 3, 2010

The Growing Positive Role of the Alaska Dispatch in Alaska Media

I. This is a difficult post to write.

Mostly because I cannot separate the intense loathing I have for David Rubenstein, the husband of Alice Rogoff, from my feelings about Alaska's most important web-based media source. Without Rogoff's financial and behind-the-scenes support, the Dispatch would most likely be going through the same downward spiral experienced two years ago by Dennis Zaki's Alaska Report. I'm trying to set that loathing aside as my appreciation of the growing positive role of the Dispatch in Alaska media deepens.

Two articles came out late Thursday and early Friday that help illustrate the growing importance of the Dispatch. Late yesterday, Jill Burke posted a detailed article about continuing legal ramifications Fairbanks divorce attorney Joe Miller may have to endure as a result of scrutiny directed toward the Fairbanks North Star Borough during Miller's 2010 U.S. Senate campaign. If it weren't for the Dispatch, that scrutiny might not be occurring now.

Early Friday, the
American Journalism Review published their on-line version of an article they will print in their upcoming Winter 2010 edition. The AJR article, titled Dispatches from the Last Frontier, is probably the most in-depth look yet by a national professional journal at recent changes in Alaska media.

The last in-depth look at our media by a highly regarded writer was that of Eric Boehlert, in his 2009 book, Bloggers on the Bus, which devoted chapter 13 to Alaska bloggers' coverage of the 2008 McCain-Palin campaign. As much ink and electrons as have been spent nationally and internationally on Sarah Palin since late August 2008, little of it has been focused on what kind of a job our Alaska old-school and new-school media are doing.

II. Jill Burke's Dispatch article needs to be compared to Becky Bohrer's Associated Press article, posted this morning, to give one a solid idea of how important the role of the Dispatch is becoming in coverage of developing stories here. Bohrer's article is less than 500 words. Burke's is 1,994 words. Bohrer's article, coming out about a half day after Burke's lacks information that would have made the former's piece better, had she been able to follow through on some of the information already revelaed in Burke's article. Bohrer's article gave Palin-Miller attorney Thomas van Flein far more credibility on this issue than he deserves:

Van Flein did not immediately return a phone message Friday. But Miller's spokesman provided a letter that the attorney sent the borough, dated Oct. 28, in which Van Flein said Miller complied with a policy that encourages employees to "delete and clean out" their inboxes but to save or print out messages of "legal or historical value."

The letter said it was in response to an Oct. 7 inquiry from an assistant borough attorney, Jill Dolan.

Van Flein said Miller printed hard copies of "any e-mail correspondence that was material to any matter he was working on," and noted that the borough had copies of e-mails Miller sent in its personnel file for him.

"It is hard to reconcile the fact that the Borough produced all these e-mails in hard copy with the accusation that they are all 'missing,'" Van Flein wrote. He questioned whether the purpose of the inquiry was to "intimidate him (Miller) so he would stand down his campaign?"

Burke's earlier article puts this issue into far more detailed, one might say far more honest context, as she gives a lengthy history of van Flein's questionable accounting of what Miller did in his e-mail deletion activities that are bieng investigated here:

Within three days of receiving notification from the borough that it was looking into the e-mail issue, Miller attorney Thomas Van Flein fired back. He accused the borough of interfering with the election, and also took issue with the borough's fears that important documents might have gone missing. It's the Internet, and "all along the electronic highway, servers are dutifully copying the email, the replies, the entire chain," Van Flein told the borough in his response. Deleting an e-mail doesn't eliminate its existence altogether, he reasoned.

Besides, Miller printed copies of everything for the borough's "hard files." And the borough's e-mail policy encourages employees to maintain clean accounts. "If, as Ms. Dolan states, the deletion of an e-mail is now a criminal offense at the Borough, it looks like everyone at the Borough will have to be indicted, and the Borough itself will be complicit in soliciting such ‘crimes'," he wrote.

Van Flein, who has also been Sarah Palin's lawyer, raised the stakes even further. "It is rather transparent that the Borough has no legitimate concern over these e-mails, and the fact that it has waited 14 months to now mention it, contemporaneously with an election, ties the threatening letter temporally with this election," he said. "What was your purpose -- to falsely threaten Mr. Miller with criminal prosecution to intimidate him so he would stand down his campaign? I can tell you that is how the letter reads.

Threatening to accuse someone of a crime and to hurt their reputation is a crime under federal law, Van Flein said. And he noted that under state law, spreading false information about a candidate is considered campaign misconduct and a misdemeanor.

Later that same day -- Oct. 28 -- the borough told Van Flein his accusations of election tampering were "preposterous" and took exception to Van Flein's version of Miller's e-mail habits. The borough never found the hard copies of files that Miller claimed he'd made, Dolan said in a letter responding to Van Flein. The borough "has no evidence that this ever occurred," she wrote, adding "in fact, Mr. Miller completely cleaned out his office prior to his alleged unplanned resignation from FNSB employment and no hard copies of e-mails were found."

Dolan continued: "Mr. Miller was not regularly deleting e-mails -- the evidence is that he deleted all of his e-mails around the same time, just shortly before he resigned. Mr. Miller has an ethical duty to preserve files both during and after his representation of the FNSB because it was his client, and he has a duty to surrender to his client any papers and property to which the client is entitled."

In interviews Thursday, Dolan and Broker said they've heard nothing further from Miller or his attorneys and that the investigation into the deleted e-mails remains under way.

III. David Saleh Rauf's article in the American Journalism Review is, as noted above, a detailed look at the Dispatch from a highly respected journal. Rauf interviewed a number of people in October and November, as he sought many viewpoints on what the advent of the Dispatch here might mean. Along with Dispatch writers, he spoke with Paul Jenkins, Lynne Snifka, Pat Dougherty and me. He brings Dan Fagan and me into the mix thusly:
When it comes to the state's bloggers, "on any given day they'll rake us through the coals," Hopfinger says. For example: Conservative radio show host Dan Fagan recently blasted the Dispatch on his blog,, calling its staff a group of "well-funded left wing activists." And it's not just those on the right taking shots at the Dispatch.

"They're getting kudos from the left and the right, and they're getting damned from the left and the right," says Philip Munger, a composer and editor of the Progressive Alaska blog.
Rauf's article, though estimable, is close to fluff, especially in the way it praises Craig Medred's BP Gulf of Mexico coverage, without actually looking into those articles:
As the Deepwater Horizon rig began gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico in late April, an online reporting outfit in Anchorage started pumping out stories.

The Alaska Dispatch initially published a three-part series that explored what the spill could mean for future offshore drilling in Alaska. But the Web site's next set of stories was a testament to its dedication to chasing down major news affecting the Last Frontier.

Intent on continuing to localize the disaster in the gulf, the Dispatch did what none of Alaska's newspapers had the will to do: It put boots on the ground, sending a reporter about 3,400 miles to cover the story firsthand.

No corporate OK needed. No layers of bosses and bureaucracy to slice through. The final decision was made over beer and wine at the editor's house. Call it the elegance of a small news startup.

"We were like, 'Screw it, let's whip out the credit card and send someone,' " says Tony Hopfinger, the Dispatch's 36-year-old cofounder and editor.
They didn't get their money's worth. Medred's articles will not stand the test of time. I've written about them here. He can't seem to grow beyond limiting emotional baggage he takes from media job to media job against commercial fishers and their advocates, especially Cordovans. The Dispatch, through Medred's writings (and one article last winter by Maia Nolan), seemed to have recently retired University of Alaska professor Rick Steiner in the crosshairs more than BP:

My old buddy Rick Steiner is having a field day down in the Gulf. His name and that of Riki Ott, the biologist from Cordova, pop up everywhere. They are among the chief purveyors of the message that crude in the water is as almost as dangerous as lead, PCBs or other persistent organic pollutants. This sounds good, but it isn't quite true. Steiner and Ott regularly overstate things, but that's OK because they're the good guys.

Or at least I think of them as the good guys. Still, just because they're the good guys doesn't mean a reporter shouldn't try to put their statements in context.
Medred followed that opening statement with a mishmash of stuff about hydro dams, PCBs and the limited wisdom of commercial fishers, here and elsewhere. Part of his summation of this article he could have just as easily written from his home office as from the Gulf was this:
And it's why we -- at the moment -- hate BP. Because it's as easy to be mad at BP as it is easy to drive. BP is responsible for an environmental atrocity. It was BP's screwup, and we've got nothing to do with it. BP is a horrible, profit-sucking, multinational global company and the president ought to have his boot on BP's throat. It's BP's mess, and those BP people are the only ones who need to be responsible.
IV. When Rauf called me while researching his article (we talked about an hour) he seemed to think that I was universally critical of the Dispatch. That certainly isn't the case. His quote, though indicative of the overall tenor of what I told him, missed a lot. Since I spoke to Rauf, I've been very forthcoming about some Dispatch articles' effect, especially their important role in helping to define who Joe Miller really is:
Perhaps the most important turning point against Miller's "line in the sand" stance was the lawsuit initiated against the FNSB by The Alaska Dispatch, and later joined by other Alaska media outlets. Miller's reaction against the suit left a very bad taste in the mouth of moderates who had up until then been considering supporting Miller with their vote. He had, after all, declared during the primary that he had already released all revalant information, so what was the fuss?
The bizarre arrest of Dispatch editor Tony Hopfinger days after the suit was initiated brought the issues of the lawsuit to national attention. Speaking early this week with William Fulton, the man who "arrested" Hopfinger, Fulton told me he thought Hopfinger had set the encounter up. I disagreed, replying that Tony would have had to have been able to predict that Miller was using security protocols that had never been tried before in Alaska in such a campaign. Fulton replied that if he had it to do over again, he wouldn't do it any other way.

Hopefully, I'll have a chance soon to talk to Tony about the Miller campaign and his new media outlet's outstanding coverage of what may be the strangest Alaska political campaign yet.

image - Alice Rogoff and Todd Palin


Anonymous said...

Still digesting this much info Phil, but let me just say so far, EXCELLENT POST.


Anonymous said...

I understand the conflict you describe in this post. The sad state of traditional journalism is obvious. The Alaska situation is almost like a special case, only what has been missed by trad. media and exposed by the bloggers is probably not exceptional; just that it has been exposed is exceptional.

As far as Fulton-
Well Fulton fits right in with the whole gang, (but we already knew that) if he thinks that it was a plot that made him and his goons seize and control Hopfinger. WTF?!?

So the report on file at Dropzone must read like this-
'Next he reached out and took my handcuffs. Placing his hands behind his back he then placed his wrists into the cuffs thus arresting himself. Subject Hopfinger then placed a call to the real authorities requesting to be transported as a political prisoner to the nearest FEMA underground camp. By black helicopter. After reporting to Bill and Hillary.'

Maybe I misunderstand what Fulton said though.

Says a lot about the mad skillz of the Dropzone forces if they can be controlled by known liberal reporters and political activists so easily. of course explaining what happened in any logical fashion is kind of difficult.

Time to give Dewey Van Fleece E.M. and Howe a call.

AKjah said...

My eyes are open Phil.

AKPetMom said...

I always forget that the Dispatch is there until some other blogger brings it up. Then I go there and there are no commenters and it's basically a dead end news link. They very rarely have any unique stories but are another outlet to regurgitate other Alaskan stories first written by others.

Thanks for reminding me why they are not on my reader list!

Philip Munger said...


So you disagree with me that the lawsuit against the FNSB had a major impact on public perception of Miller?

HarpboyAK said...

Well, you're right about Medred. He does hate commercial fishermen (and he hates commercial guides, too).

He has always been quite a misanthrope. When he was "sports editor" (a fancy title for a lone sports reporter) at the Juneau Vampire he managed to alienate every coach, athlete, and athlete's family in Juneau with his negative reporting.

Medred is so grumpy that he only admiration he could have for such a great athlete as Olympic silver medalist Hillary Lindh could only be called "grudging".

And speaking of grudges, Craig is the ultimate holder of grudges. If someone crosses him, he never forgets.