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After Decades of Reporting, Jim Avila is Enjoying Giving His Opinion

Throughout his amazingly diverse and essentially unparalleled career, Avila covered the White House during Obama’s second administration beginning in 2012.

Jim Cryns

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Jim Avila is a man who thinks before he speaks. He measures his answers before responding. 

Throughout his amazingly diverse and essentially unparalleled career, Avila covered the White House during Obama’s second administration beginning in 2012. Before that, he covered agencies in Washington D.C. for the ABC bureau, mostly assigned to international issues. 

Working for WBBM television in Chicago, Avila got to know Barack Obama when he was a community organizer on the South Side. 

“I did an investigative story about asbestos in a housing project for WBBM television,” Avila said. “Obama was part of the community organization that was going to change things. He had an ongoing professional relationship with Martha Allen, a reporter for the Chicago Reporter. I got to know him through her.”

That investigation stemmed from Allen and Obama peeling up a tile from a kitchen floor and sending it to a lab, which found it contained between 30 and 50 percent chrysotile asbestos. Allen’s muckraking exposé was picked up by the Tribune and Channel 2’s Walter Jacobson, creating a PR ruckus that eventually forced the Chicago Housing Authority to remove asbestos from five projects.

Avila won an Edward R. Murrow award for that investigation. In Chicago, he also covered the mayoral administrations of Harold Washington, Jane Byrne, and Richard Daley. 

During his coverage of Obama, he grew to know David Axelrod, and they played basketball together. Axelrod had a long relationship with Obama, going back to his organizing days and was an advisor on his presidential campaigns. 

“I knew David well,” Avila said. “He was very influential in Obama’s career and had been with him since Obama was a state senator. Ax was an advisor to some of the biggest political names in Chicago. Over the years I kept in touch with him. I was out of day-to-day news when Obama ran for president. But I kept in touch.”

After Avila returned to day-to-day news, he reconnected with Axelrod, oftentimes at White House press conferences. When asked if he thought the Obama he knew as an organizer and state senator in Illinois could be President of the United States, Avila wasn’t quite sure.

“I always knew Obama was charismatic,” Avila said. “I think the first time I really knew he was going somewhere was when he gave the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. I was 35, Obama was about 28 years old. You never know for sure, but I always knew he had the charisma.” 

Avila said he wasn’t surprised when President Obama became the first Black elected president, he said he is still surprised a woman hasn’t been elected. 

There was a huge hatred for Hilary Clinton by so many people. Avila said she would have made a solid president, but was lacking in the charisma department that both her husband and Obama possessed.

“The Republicans made Hilary a huge target, just like Nancy Pelosi,” Avila explained. “These were powerful and marked people who were targeted over and over. When people do it for a long time that enters the psyche of the American public.”

He said there is always a danger to a democracy when 30 percent of the country has gone off the deep end. “They’ll respond to that kind of rhetoric, legitimizing a hatred that was already out there,” Avila said. 

Covering the White House was on Avila’s bucket list. After his family, for Avila, covering the White House during the Obama administration was the highlight of his career. The icing on the proverbial career cake. He said he still vividly remembers walking up the driveway to the White House.

“Not just the first time I did it. I felt chills every single time I went there,” Avila said. “You walk up to the secret service shack, show them what is called a hard pass. They put your stuff through the magnetometer. After that you walk up the driveway toward the press room. It was the White House, with the Marine standing outside the door. There is no experience like it. I was always aware that I was one of the lucky few. I was the first Latino correspondent to sit in the front row of the White House press room, and it has brought me to tears several times. It was one of the most gratifying and patriotic feelings I’ve ever had.”

While covering President Obama, Avila said he didn’t take it easy on him, even though he’d known him years before. 

“He knew our job was to ask him the tough questions,” Avila said. “I never experienced any pushback personally. I did a one-on-one interview with him when I first became a White House correspondent. When I asked the first question, he’d say, ‘There’s Jim Avila, someone I’ve known for a long time.’

Avila said that doesn’t mean it was always a feel-good interaction. “One time I referred to him as the Deporter in Chief, and he wasn’t happy with that. He didn’t attack me. He didn’t call my bosses or anything like that.”

In 2012 while the President was in Malaysia, he warned if Syria used chemical weapons against their own people, that would be a ‘red line’ and the United States would require a U.S. military response. Syria did cross the ‘red line’ and used chemical weapons on their own people. 

“We didn’t do anything about it,” Avila said. “I was the first reporter to ask the President a question on this topic. I reminded him that he said he would respond and he didn’t. I asked him how he could explain that.”

Immediately afterward, Avila said three other reporters from different networks asked the President the exact same question. President Obama was clearly frustrated, he didn’t get angry. He didn’t call them enemies of the state.

While President Obama didn’t call the press corps out on that repetitive question, someone else did. 

“One of the White House traditions, when you’re overseas, is you have dinner with the White House staff,” Avila explained. “Susan Rice, who was Obama’s foreign policy advisor, was not so understanding. She told us we overdid it that day with that particular question. She said we dragged the issue to the ground, and the president had answered it. Why was it asked five times? I had no problem asking tough questions. I had no problems asking press secretary Jay Carney tough questions. Same thing with John Earnest.’ 

Now years later, Avila said he does think the question was asked too many times.

“Here’s the dynamic in that,” he explained. “Especially when the president is in the room the reporters want to be seen asking a tough question for their broadcast. Even if it was the same as the previous question. Susan Rice had the right to say what she did.”

Since he ended his coverage of the White House, things have changed. When the Trump administration suspended CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s press credentials, Avila said if he’d still been there, he would have stood up for Acosta’s questions. 

“Jim Acosta is a friend of mine,” Avila said. “He would have had an ally. I would have held Trump’s feet to the fire. I would have objected to every lie, and corrected him after every lie he told.”

Now retired, Avila can be an average citizen, taking a position on anything he chooses and voicing it. He’s personal friends with Mark Thompson, a longtime host on KGO in San Francisco, and now the host of his YouTub show. 

“He’s got lots of energy. He’s a smart guy,” Avila said of Thompson. “I mostly go on his show because I get to say what I want to. As a reporter, I never had the luxury of revealing my own thoughts. Now I have the freedom to do that.’

The life of a network correspondent is demanding, at times it can push you to a breaking point. It certainly has costs and demands you make tough choices. 

“There was so much traveling and everything else, it was tough on the family,” Avila said. The pressures and the demands of the job took its toll on his marriage. He and his wife divorced. 

“We continue to raise the kids together,” he said. “We go on vacation together once a year with the kids. We did our best to keep it together, but the life of a correspondent is difficult for a family. I think I’m forgiven for that. It certainly was difficult for them to not have their dad around all the time. I did most of the traveling when they were kids, one was very young. I made sure after the divorce I only lived a block away from the family house in Oak Park, Illinois.”

Avila keeps up with former colleagues and their work. This past weekend he watched Chuck Todd’s interview with former Vice President Mike Pence.

“While I’m not a big fan of Chuck Todd, and am usually critical, I felt sorry for him during the Pence interview,” Avila said. “Pence lied, made overstatements and exaggerations. I felt bad for Chuck. How often could he be expected to continue to interrupt Pence to correct him. It’s a no-win situation for an interviewer.”

Avila believes Pence could be equally as dangerous to the country as Trump. 

“He made one good call by helping save our country, and he deserves some respect for that,” Avila explained.  It may have pissed off Trump’s base, but he said Pence did the right thing. 

“If Pence decides to run for president, I don’t think he’ll win,” Avila said. “He was complicit in so many things. His stance on abortion will end his run with 70 percent of the population who are pro-choice.”

Regarding the midterms, Avila said the youth in America, many voting for the first time, were critical in the outcome. 

“The kids showed up for the midterms,” Avila said. “I talked to Mark Thompson about this on his show a couple of weeks prior to the election. He’s a pessimist and I tend to be more of an optimist. Mark said there would be the predicted ‘red wave’ in the elections. I was convinced the American people would make the right choices. I told him I thought the ‘red wave’ talk was B.S. Women were registering to vote in record numbers. I don’t know about you, but I know the women in my life don’t easily forget things. If you do something to hurt them, they’re not going to forgive that in a few months. I also think Biden made a shrewd move in forgiving some of the student debt. That brought a lot of younger voters to the Democratic side.”

Avila thinks Republicans were out of touch when it came to abortion. 

“They kidded themselves and figured things would break even,” Avila said. “Especially with women, it was a big mistake. I think that and the disregard for democracy cost them the midterms.”

In regards to gun control, Avila thinks as a country we’ll come to terms with some regulations, but not immediately.

“The biggest problem is money in politics,” he said. “The money given to politicians from groups like the NRA is staggering. I’m a little more pessimistic about gun issues. As long as the Republicans control the house we won’t see much change. I do think in a couple of years we may see background checks. 

I hate to sound like the old guy who tells kids to get off his lawn, but I’m not optimistic about the future of either television or radio. I only see people watching local television for news and sports. They have too many options. They can get everything streamed to them.” 

BNM Writers

Airing The Tyre Nichols Video Was A Necessity

There were hard moments to watch in those videos, hard sounds to hear. But they aired.

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Far be it for me not to address this outrageous and embarrassing instance in humanity. After the videos of Memphis police brutally beating Tyre Nichols were shown on television there really seemed to be more outrage emerging from society this time than from the media, for a change. One would think that’s how we wish things to be.

In instances like this, where the video and audio images are far from brief but are instead chaptered as they unfold, there are few options other than to let them run their course. Clocks — breaks hard and soft — are out the window, just as in live coverage.

Because that’s what this was, only the live this time was us, and as we all absorbed and reacted to actions disapprovingly familiar yet somehow foreign at the same time, the impact was still becoming apparent even though we already knew the outcome.

It’s happened before.

Not always like this but we’ve seen it before, police encounters shown on the news overtakes and become the news.

It takes effect as the sights and sounds are digested, dissected, and discussed, often before their potential impact could really be imagined.

In 1991, when the Handycam footage crossed screens for the first time and we learned Rodney King’s name, we didn’t know then but we had a feeling.

We were on the right track, though as newsrooms evolved and street reporting incorporated a different type of storytelling.

I was a cop in 1991. Changes came. Some.

It’s 2023, I’m no longer a cop. Changes will come again. Some.

Turning points — or the overused watershed moments — mean just as much to the news media as they do to law enforcement.

The “why’s” that make this a turning point are more society and community based this time around than they were in 1991.

At least I think so. And I don’t think it makes a bit of difference who’s involved this time.

There were hard moments to watch in those videos, and hard sounds to hear. But they aired. Where they couldn’t air, they were described in great detail; descriptions sometimes can be worse than the real thing. Sometimes, not this time.

And they should air, they shouldn’t stop airing. This is what happened and this is what people need to see and hear and this is exactly why we are here.

Warn them, provide them with a heads up that they’re not going to like what happens next. It’s life and we show life, and we show what some of us do with it when it’s someone else’s.

Overall, I would say the news platforms held their composure, even after the videos were released. I saw, read, and heard some refreshingly neutral coverage, even from outlets where I expected hard turns into the lanes on either side of the road.

Legitimate questions were asked by anchors and reporters and much of the time, the off-balance issues were raised more by those on the sidewalks and those on the other side of the cameras and microphones.

As much as I find myself in disagreement with what I often see on the cable networks — all the cable networks — I did find a sense of symmetry watching CNN’s Don Lemon speak with Memphis City Council Chair Martavius Jones in the hours after the videos were released.

Regular protocols be damned, Lemon and producers lingered patiently as Jones, visibly overcome by emotion, struggled to regain breath and composure enough to be able to speak. Rather than cut away or move to other elements, they stood fast and it became an example of what often requires no words.

There were fewer punches pulled on other platforms as well.

The sounds of the screams, the impacts, and the hate-filled commands were broadcast through car radios.

As were Tyre Nichol’s calls for his mom. They aired. They had to.

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BNM Writers

Does the Republican Establishment Get It?

For many it seemed that the Republican establishment stood idly by as Democrats changed the rules and worked behind the scenes to alter elections.

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In a move that seemed to go against the wishes of the patriotic American grassroots, the Republican party on Friday re-elected RNC Chairperson Ronna McDaniel. 

The media immediately took notice, as many on television and radio are now wondering why the party would re-elect a chairperson who has been so unpopular with the base of its party. 

Grant Stinchfield discussed this issue Friday night on his program, Stinchfield Tonight, which airs on Real America’s Voice network.

“Ronna McDaniel holds on to her chairmanship of the Republican Party. By a whopping total of — what were the numbers– 111 to 54. Harmeet Dhillon only received 54 votes. Mike Lindell 4 votes. This is proof to me that the Republican establishment is dug in,” Stinchfield — formerly of Newsmax — said. “Don’t tell me they’re out of touch. See, you tell me they’re out of touch, that implies ignorance. They’re not ignorant about anything.”

As sentiment for Dhillon grew in the days leading up to Friday’s vote, many influential politicians and party donors publicly offered her their support and endorsement. These included Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), as well as donors Mike Rydin, Dick Uihlein, and Bernie Marcus.

Also on board were musician and outspoken conservative John Rich, along with the state GOP of Nebraska and Washington State. Countless journalists and media personalities, such as Charlie Kirk, Miranda Divine, and Lou Dobbs, also came out publicly in support of Dhillon. Former President Donald Trump remained neutral, not making a public choice of either of the three candidates.

For many of Dhillon’s supporters, the deciding factor was public sentiment across the party’s base.

“They’re reading the same chat boards. They’re getting the same emails I’m reading. I will literally post something about this race when I was supporting Harmeet Dhillon. There was not one comment – not one – that supported Ronna McDaniel. Everyone wanted change,” Stinchfield said, noting that the party elite saw the same groundswell of support for change.

“Now, nobody has an issue as Ronna McDaniel is some evil kind of person. I don’t believe she is. I believe, though, that she is part of the establishment. She’s been around too long as far as the establishment goes. And she’s been ingrained in doing business as usual. It’s not working.”

In making their choices known, many Dhillon supporters simply pointed to the scoreboard during McDaniel’s reign.

“Think about where we are. 2018, we lost the House. 2020, we lost everything. 2022, we won the House, but we should have really steamrolled the House and we should have taken back the Senate, which we didn’t do,” Stinchfield said. “That means we’re on a real losing track since she took over. I don’t like being on a losing track. I like being on a winning track.

“Something has got to change when you talk about all of this. So how does Ronna McDaniel get 111 votes and Harmeet Dhillon only get 54 votes, when everyone, every Republican voter I talk to said it was time for change?” pondered Stinchfield.

And even more than the losses, for many it seemed that the Republican establishment stood idly by as Democrats changed the rules and worked behind the scenes to alter elections. The most recent example of which came in Arizona, where presumptive gubernatorial favorite, Kari Lake, was “defeated” when countless voting irregularities occurred in some of the state’s most deep-red areas.

“Under her watch, Democrats instituted a mail-in ballot scheme. That may be even worse than losing, when you talk about the House and the Senate and all these things. The fact that we now have a junk mail-in ballot scheme across the country under Ronna McDaniel’s watch is serious trouble. Very serious trouble,” Stinchfield said on Friday. “And so the reason it is is because the Democrats are rigging the system.”

For years – until Donald Trump descended the golden escalator and took the world by storm – the Republican party had the reputation of being the party of the rich. Rush Limbaugh used to refer to this wing of Republicans as “the country club crowd.” President Donald Trump flipped the narrative completely, offering a clear vision of hope and patriotism to working-class America.

Reputable polling — such as Richard Baris’ Big Data Poll — consistently showed Trump running well ahead of almost every Republican candidate during the 2022 mid-term election cycle. In other words, Trump still maintains considerably more support across the country than most of the individual Senate or House candidates experienced.

Many experts believe this is because voters still view Trump as an outsider, while they view the Republican party much less favorably.

“Let’s tell you how out of touch they are, how elitist they are,” Stinchfield said, calling out the GOP establishment. “This meeting that went on, do you know where it is? It’s at the Waldorf Astoria Monarch in California. One of the most expensive resorts in America. You’re lucky if you get a room for a thousand dollars a night down there on Dana Point. Now, it’s a beautiful hotel, but why is the Republican Party holding an event there? Then I went back and I looked at what RedState did. RedState went back and looked at some of the expenses that the Republican Party under Ronna McDaniel’s leadership was spending money on.

“Take a look at this. $3.1 million on private jets. $1.3 million on limousine and chauffeur services. $17.1 million on donor mementos. $750,000 on floral arrangements. Now you compare this to the Democrats. The Democrats spent $35,000 on private airfare. A thousand dollars on floral arrangements. A thousand. Not $750,000. A thousand. And the $17.1 million they spent on donor mementos, the Democrats spent $1.5 million.

“Democrats know where to put the money. It’s not giving donors gifts. Donors shouldn’t want gifts. If you give money, give money. You don’t need the fancy pin to put on your lapel.”

Following her loss, Dhillon warned her party that it must listen to the base, saying, “if we ignore this message, I think it’s at our peril. It’s at our peril personally, as party leaders and it’s at our peril for our party in general.”

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BNM Writers

The State of the Radio Industry and Technology

“As the industry continues to evolve, radio broadcasters must find new ways to monetize their digital offerings and adapt to changing listener habits.”

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After writing some three-dozen columns for Barrett Media, I often hear that I don’t provide a balanced view of the radio industry. Therefore, this week, I will write about the strengths and weaknesses of the radio industry. It may be a little simplistic, but it will make sense at the end. I promise.

The radio broadcasting business continues to evolve in the digital age, with strengths and challenges to consider. One of the most significant strengths of radio is its ability to reach a broad audience. Radio waves can travel long distances, allowing local stations to reach listeners beyond their immediate area. This makes radio a powerful tool for both local and national advertisers. Radio also reaches audiences in their cars, at work, and at home, providing advertisers with multiple touchpoints. According to the Radio Advertising Bureau, radio reaches 93% of adults in the United States each week, making it one of the most widely consumed mediums. Furthermore, radio is a cost-effective form of advertising, with lower ad rates than other media forms. This allows small businesses to reach a large audience without breaking the bank.

Another strength of radio is its role in emergency communication. In times of crisis, radio can provide important information to listeners quickly and efficiently. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires all radio stations to have emergency alert systems, allowing them to disseminate critical information to the public promptly. Radio can be a lifeline for communities during natural disasters, power outages, or other emergencies, providing updates on road closures, evacuation orders, and other important information. Radio can reach remote areas where other forms of communication may not be as reliable. This makes radio a vital tool for emergency responders, who rely on it to coordinate responses and disseminate information.

Despite these strengths, the radio industry faces several challenges in the digital age. One of the biggest challenges is competition from other media outlets, such as streaming services and podcasts. The rise of these digital platforms has led to a decline in traditional radio listening, which is likely to continue. 

According to a Nielsen report, traditional radio listening among adults aged 18-34 has dropped by 20% over the last decade. Additionally, many radio stations are struggling to monetize their digital offerings, which has led to a decline in revenue. However, radio has been able to adapt by incorporating streaming services, podcasts, and other digital platforms, which allows them to reach a wider audience and cater to changing listening habits.

Another challenge is the consolidation of the radio industry. In recent years, there has been a significant amount of it, with a small number of companies owning multiple stations. This has led to less programming diversity and less market competition. This can lead to a homogenization of content, with less local flavor and less opportunity for new voices in the industry. However, many smaller independent stations have survived by providing unique and localized content catering to the needs of their community.

Despite these challenges, the radio industry continues to generate significant revenue. The Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB) says that radio advertising revenue in the United States reached $18.9 billion in 2019. The radio industry has been able to adapt to the changing market, with many stations now offering a combination of traditional and digital programming. The industry has also been able to monetize digital offerings by incorporating targeted advertising, sponsorships, and other revenue streams.In conclusion, the radio broadcasting business is facing challenges in the digital age, but it continues to have an enormous audience reach and role in emergency communication. 

Additionally, the industry continues to generate significant revenue. As the industry continues to evolve, radio broadcasters must find new ways to monetize their digital offerings and adapt to changing listener habits.

If my analysis seems a little simplistic or this column doesn’t seem like my typical style, it’s because I didn’t write it. The column was written using artificial intelligence (AI). More specifically, by the hottest tech trend these days, ChatGPT.

How hot? Here are a couple of data points from a report in Axios.

  • In June, generative AI was covered in only 152 articles. Just six months later, the topic has generated roughly 12,000 news stories, according to MuckRack data.
  • At this year’s CES trade show, 579 exhibitors were listed under the show’s “Artificial Intelligence” category — more than double of those categorized as “Metaverse” (176), “Cryptocurrency” (19), and “Blockchain” (55) combined.

ChatGPT is AI technology that allows you to have regular conversations with a chatbot that can answer questions and help with tasks such as writing columns. 

ChatGPT is what Siri wants to be when she grows up.

ChatGPT is currently open and free while it’s in its research and feedback collection phase. If it’s not perfect, it’s certainly a lot of fun. It is also quite helpful when researching a topic (as long as the information you need is pre-2021). It is much more efficient and precise than Google, any other search engine, or Siri. I find myself obsessed with seeing what it knows and can do. If you try it, you probably will be too.

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