Journalism

Sexual Harassment and the Single Story

Sexual harassment allegations continue to dominate the news. I applaud the social movement to change our culture on this issue, but there is something in our national discourse that has been troubling me.

The individual tales of bad behavior are being merged into one story. There is no distinction between transgressions, whether they are isolated or part of a pattern, whether with adults or people under age, whether in a social setting or at work, whether a rebuff was followed by retaliation or not, whether it was decades ago or ongoing, whether the accusation has been carefully vetted or is just something someone posted on social media with a MeToo hashtag. All transgressions are equal, none can be examined deeply without accusations of victim blaming, and the only remedy on offer is firing the perpetrator and permanent ostracization.

The noted scholar Mary Beard wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that she is “conflicted” on the issue of public shamings.

When I say ‘conflicted’ I mean exactly that. Part of me feels that the majority of the allegations that have followed since the Harvey Weinstein cases are probably true, and — in the absence of any real likelihood of criminal prosecutions  (even in cases where that would be a technical possibility) — a bit of public naming and shaming might be the best way of changing the culture on this (and, as I said before, changing the culture in ordinary workplaces as much as in celebrity culture).

But another part of me feels that some of these allegations are probably not true (or at least there is another side to them) — and that no newspaper account is ever going to let us judge which those (albeit minority) cases are. And those innocents have no way  of putting their side of it (at least a legal trial allows you to do that).

In a recent article in Jezebel, Stassa Edwards argues against appeals to due process or any talk of redemption for the accused. She makes the case that such talk is an attempt to sweep the problem under the rug and to return to a comfortable status quo. Certainly such arguments can be, but they are not by definition, and we should not be so quick to dismiss the idea of giving the accused a fair hearing. We need to be especially careful precisely in cases where emotions and stakes are high.

Edwards argues against a New Yorker piece by Masha Gessen, who she quotes here:

“The affirmative-consent and preponderance-of-the-evidence regimes shift the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused, eliminating the presumption of innocence,” she writes, never pausing to consider that jail, suspension or expulsion from school, or job loss are hardly synonymous, or that their long-term repercussions are the same.

Indeed, jail and losing a job are not the same. But we should not be too quick to minimize the impact of social shaming, loss of career and personal identity.

Jon Ronson, who studied those who have been publicly shamed found that years later, the shamers had gone on with their lives and assumed the forgotten targets of their public shamings had too. They’d just lost a job, what’s the big deal? But, he reported, “…we want to think they’re fine, but they’re not fine. The people I met were mangled.”

So “only a job” is not a good excuse to abandon the presumption of innocence. If you were accused of something, you would want an opportunity to respond and be heard whether in court or in the court of public opinion– whether the stakes were jail or losing your job or simply a loss of face, wouldn’t you?

Are we not sophisticated enough to hold these two thoughts at once: that these offenses represent a serious, far-reaching, systemic problem and that we need to be fair to the people who are accused as well as the accusers?

Those who have, at some period in our lives, experienced unwanted sexual advances and want change, should be the most concerned with giving the accused a fair shake. Exaggerating and conflating undermine our own efforts by making us easy to dismiss. Every example of over-zealousness provides an excuse for someone to say the problem doesn’t really exist.

We are a culture that uses celebrities as symbols in our shared mythology, much as we once told tales of the gods. Politicians and film stars are a common point of reference to talk about our dreams, aspirations and values. So the celebrity who transgresses is shunned in order to demonstrate our cultural values. Symbolically, if Louis CK’s actions are forgivable, then so are your wretched boss’s, and therefore we cannot yield.

Nor do we welcome much nuance if it disturbs the important process of myth-making. If individual cases do not quite fit the pattern, they are sometimes made to. Let me give you an example. I believe Anthony Rapp’s accusation against Kevin Spacey. Spacey did not deny it. What was outrageous in that case was Rapp’s age– 14 at the time Spacey allegedly made a move on him.

Since then, many additional accounts of bad behavior have been levied against Spacey, but they have mostly been by adults, although you would be forgiven for not noticing that. To be clear here, I am not dismissing any of the accusations against Spacey here or arguing that they are not truthful or serious. I simply wish to make a point about how the various cases have been synthesized in the reporting to create a seamless narrative.

Consider this passage in a USA Today article on another Spacey accuser. I have edited it to remove the name and some identifying information of the accuser:

It was July in New York and [he] was just 27, in his first major job out of college [at a theater where] he was running the fledgling film program. He was in his office one day, phone in hand, when Spacey walked in and sat down at an empty desk.

 [He] knew who [Spacey] was. Then 22, Spacey was an up-and-coming actor, playing a minor role in Henry IV Part 1, according to records.

The narrator goes on to report that Spacey groped him and became angry when he was rebuffed.

The article goes on “… he was shocked, then freaked out. Would Spacey get him fired?”

I removed the accuser’s name because I do not want to make this about him or to make it appear I am trying to minimize his experience or call his story into question. That is not my point. Rather, I have some questions on how USA Today chose to relate his story.

If you scanned the article quickly, you’d be forgiven for not noticing a few things. The victim is described as being “just 27.” The word “just” emphasizes his youth, although 27 is an adult in anyone’s book.  Spacey’s age does not earn a “just” even though– take note– he was five years younger than the other man. Note also that Spacey is described as an “up-and-coming” actor. This makes him sound notable. This is in contrast to the language used to describe the 27-year-old’s job: his first out of college, a fledgling program.

Other language could have been used to describe an actor who was not-yet-famous and who had only managed to land a “minor role” in a Shakespeare production. You might go so far as to call him a “struggling actor.”

It is not clear whether the victim’s concerns about being fired were his own. They were not presented in the form of a direct quotation. Was this 27 year old, who ran the film program at the theater really worried that a 22 year-old, then-unknown actor in a minor (easy to recast) role would get him fired? Was that what was on his mind? Or did he simply describe behavior that he found notably aggressive and the reporter speculated on his feelings? Perhaps the writer decided that a story of an awkward and unpleasant sexual advance between two co-workers (in which the person who made the advance arguably had lower status) did not fit the growing narrative of male abuses of power well enough.

These stories get reported under headlines saying that “a new accuser” has appeared.  Six out of ten people share news stories having only read the headline, which means most people will naturally assume that the stories that follow are more of the same even if there are important differences. To people who see headlines flashed across their newsfeeds, they are all Anthony Rapps.

A person does not have to be innocent to be a scapegoat. A scapegoat is someone who is made to carry the sins of others, to take on the burden of punishment to absolve an entire group. We use our celebrities this way, as symbols. We have always used them this way. They deserve it, we feel, because they courted fame in the first place. They get to be treated as small gods, and when they fall, they take on the sins of all who shared their transgressions.

But celebrities are just people. They should be held accountable for their actions in proportion to their severity, not in proportion to the severity of the social problem as a whole. Each accuser should be listened to and judged on the basis of her own story, not as a representative of the collective sufferings of women.

Edwards writes “what’s at issue here is civil rights—freedom from discrimination in the form of harassment because of gender or sex.”

She is right. Civil rights is the issue.

We can’t be champions of civil rights without having a concern for fair treatment of both the accused and the accuser.

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A Symbolic Age

We are living in a symbolic age. Recently, as Puerto Rico had just been hit by hurricane Maria and tensions were mounting between our president and North Korea, I watched as a serious televised news panel show devoted its first 40 minutes to discussion of kneeling for the national anthem at NFL games. Over that weekend, just about every social media contact I have felt compelled to weigh in on the controversy– right to free speech vs. respect for country and flag.

Now symbols are layered upon symbols as apparently the vice president, in a pre-planned PR stunt, attended a football game in order to be seen standing during the national anthem and then walking out to protest the protestors.

This is exactly the type of thing that thrives in our current journalistic environment. More and more people get their news from social media, the same place we go to advance our public personas (personae?). The stories that thrive in that environment are stories that allow people to express their identities. Two years ago, when I first wrote about the phenomenon of news stories as identity expression, no one was taking a knee but we were debating the merits of Starbucks coffee cup design in regards to the “War on Christmas.”

The types of stories that thrive in this environment are those that lend themselves to some kind of identity building. For example, people post political stories that identify them as being like or unlike the Tea Party, or the religious, or the liberals. “I am a person who stands for…”  A story about Kim Davis who wouldn’t issue marriage licenses to same sex couples is the perfect story for this kind of news environment because it gives people an opportunity to post their commentary and present themselves as an upstanding fundamentalist or as the type of person who favors gay rights.

Do you remember the Starbucks cups? Kim Davis? Symbolic stories catch fire and burn out quickly. Unlike major policy issues such as taxation, health care, foreign relations, they are uncomplicated and require little expertise. It is easy to take sides.

Television news takes its cues from social media when determining what its audience cares about.  They call this “spicy, watchable coverage.”  But what if the public is being manipulated? What if our differences are smaller than we are led to believe and they are being stoked by trolls, bots, media personalities who thrive on conflict and international bad actors? Somehow though we can’t seem to resist playing along, using the cues to make identity claims and to associate with one tribe or another.

And by the way, I can’t stand that expression “the base” and its cousin “playing to the base.” If I were Lord High Commander of the Universe I would ban them.

When I look up polarization and culture wars I find blogs and news sources across the political spectrum lamenting the state of affairs. That we have a polarization problem is one thing we seem to agree on.

A fair portion of the commentary, however, blames the problem on “the other side.” “We need to put an end to this polarization, if only those guys would drop their misguided views…”

An example of this comes from The Federalist, which combines a straightforward call for transcending our differences with a hefty dose of blame and finger pointing, ” the radicalization of Democrats is something qualitatively different, and much more dangerous, than the radicalization of Republicans.”

A Columbia Journalism Review study meanwhile shows that polarization is “mainly a right-wing phenomenon.”

We now read and share different media sources, so those who identify with one point of view or the other each have support for the notion that it’s the other side’s fault. But really, who cares who’s fault it is? Isn’t trying to attribute blame part of the problem? If you really long for people to come together then you have to give up on the fun pass time of assigning blame for the nation’s problems on “those guys.”

It gets my back up whenever arguments devolve into talk about “liberals” or “conservatives.” If you’re arguing about what kind of person supports an idea you’re no longer talking about the idea. In fact, the act of defining a point of view as belonging to “the left” or “the right” skews our perception of how polarized we are. As The Washington Post explained in 2014, “This stems from the underlying psychology of categorization: merely labeling groups makes people see them as more distinctive than they actually are. So when people think about where ‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans’ stand, they will tend to place Democrats too far to the left, and Republicans too far to the right, which psychologists term ‘false polarization.’”

Across several different surveys, we find a large degree of false polarization. That is, when we ask subjects about where they think the “average Democratic voter” and “average Republican voter” stand, they think they are further apart than the average Democratic and Republican voters actually are. For example, on the issue of capital gains tax cuts, respondents think ordinary Americans are 84 percent more polarized than they actually are (see the second row of the graph above)… We randomly assigned some subjects to read media accounts of a polarized electorate and others to read accounts of a more moderate electorate. When subjects are exposed to media coverage suggesting electoral polarization and division, they perceive greater electoral polarization–as measured by where they place typical Republican and Democratic voters on issue scales (readers interested in the details of the analysis can consult our paper). This suggests that media coverage can make people think the U.S. is a politically polarized country even if it is not.

In many respects, calling this cultural trend “political polarization” is missing the point. To a large extent these symbolic claims have nothing to do with actual politics.

Noah Rothman, writing in today’s Commentary, critiques a Washington Post article by Michael Gerson:

Unmentioned in Gerson’s column, however, is anything having to do with the structure of American government. He deals with race, technology, social alienation, and individualism, but the word “Constitution” does not appear in the piece. Governmental policy prescriptions of any kind are peripheral to the all-consuming conflicts he inventories. The kind of separatist, ethnographic language that would typify conflicts like these in other nations is utterly absent from respectable American political discourse.

Gerson has hit on exactly why politically active Americans (as opposed to those who shrewdly ignore the fractious day-to-day on cable news) are at one another’s throats. He has also, though, identified why this factionalism is shallower than it appears. None of it is really about government.

In identifying two divergent “trends,” Business Insider senior editor Josh Barro incisively identifies the extent to which America’s political dialogue has become divorced from actual politics:

One is a fixation on small concerns that have little or nothing to do with official actions of governments, such as whose statues should be displayed in public and what NFL players do during the national anthem. The other is a fixation on concerns so large and amorphous they cannot obviously be addressed by public policy: for example, the more expansive versions of the ideas of white supremacy and structural oppression for the left; a sense of “losing our country” for the right.

Both trends have led to a politics that’s not very much about government anymore — and a politics where politicians make promises about cultural matters outside their control, setting themselves up to disappoint the voters.

Voters are responding to social trends—both the piddling and unfathomably complex—but nothing that the U.S. government can or should do anything to address.

Research published in Political Psychology by scholars Schatz and Levine found that “national symbolism evokes a psychological attachment to the nation as an abstracted social entity, but not as a concrete functional system.”

And by the way, I have a pet peeve about the notion that there actually are two distinct poles on any issue. Most of the things that we have to decide as a nation are far more complex than that. There are many sides, and by making them into team sport, where there are only two sides and you must agree with one or the other, you limit discourse and constrain the ways of looking at a problem.

The way we talk about these issues increases our perception that there is no room for agreement and that the only answer, therefore, is to eliminate the opposition.

I would make the humble suggestion that as a start the cable news networks could stop following internet trends to decide what stories should lead. Leave the identity building symbolic stories to thrive in their natural environment, social networks, and don’t dignify them with lead story status. Especially as it seems clear that these divisions are being amplified by outside forces.

Alain de Botton, writing in News: A User’s Manual said:

The most significant fact of political life, which almost no news organization will dare to acknowledge – because it would at a stroke exclude half of its speculations and disappointments – is that in some key areas of politics, nothing can be achieved very quickly by any one person or party; it would be impossible for anyone – not simply this fool or that group of cretins – to change matters at a pace that would flatter the expectations of the news cycle; and that in the case of certain problems, the only so-called ‘solutions’ will have to await a hundred years or more of incremental change, rather than a messianic leader, an international conference or a quick war.

Noah Rothman, over at Commentary, calls this making politics boring again:

It would help Americans to have a realistic understanding of governmental functions in a country that no longer teaches its citizens basic civics. It would also allow the press to neutralize the efforts of politicians to incite controversies that exacerbate these tensions. In the process, however, that approach would murder a lucrative industry that has turned societal divisiveness into a sport.

On the basic structure of their government and the conduct of public affairs by its civil servants as outlined in the Constitution, Americans might find more common ground than they’d suspect.

Have you no sense of decency, sir?

Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?

This statement, by Joseph Welch, special counsel to the U.S. Army is remembered as the turning point in Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt in the 1950s.  The History Channel’s blog summarizes the events:

Senator McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) experienced a meteoric rise to fame and power in the U.S. Senate when he charged in February 1950 that “hundreds” of “known communists” were in the Department of State. In the years that followed, McCarthy became the acknowledged leader of the so-called Red Scare, a time when millions of Americans became convinced that communists had infiltrated every aspect of American life. Behind closed-door hearings, McCarthy bullied, lied, and smeared his way to power, destroying many careers and lives in the process. Prior to 1953, the Republican Party tolerated his antics because his attacks were directed against the Democratic administration of Harry S. Truman. When Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower entered the White House in 1953, however, McCarthy’s recklessness and increasingly erratic behavior became unacceptable and the senator saw his clout slowly ebbing away. In a last-ditch effort to revitalize his anticommunist crusade, McCarthy made a crucial mistake. He charged in early 1954 that the U.S. Army was “soft” on communism. As Chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee, McCarthy opened hearings into the Army.

One of McCarthy’s bullying tactics was to accuse the people he wished to marginalize of having ties to communists. If he could link an opponent, however tenuously, to communism, he could paint him as a dangerous enemy who should not be heard.

During McCarthy’s army hearings, he charged Frederick G. Fisher, a young associate in Welch’s law firm, with being a long-time member of an organization that was a “legal arm of the Communist Party.”

When facing such accusations, most people instinctively responded by denying the content of the attack, proclaiming their patriotism and distancing themselves from accusations of communist sympathy.

Welch did not do this. “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness,” he said. “…Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

McCarthy, in his responses, demonstrated no sense of shame over his tactics, but the public was tiring of them and Welch had voiced a growing public sentiment.

Welch had refused to accept McCarthy’s framing– that his concern was rooting out communism– and highlighted the underlying truth that McCarthy’s real interest was his own aggrandizement.

Last night the President went on one of his predictable Twitter rants. (Somehow, even though his behavior is so consistent, it never seems to lose its power to shock.) As per usual, he picked on someone weaker than himself, in this case, the mayor of San Juan who is struggling to deal with the emergency on the ground every day. Yesterday she implored the President to somehow cut through the bureaucracy that has stifled rescue attempts.

“I will do what I never thought I was going to do. I am begging, begging anyone who can hear us to save us from dying. If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency,” Carmen Yulín Cruz said.

The message was powerful. When the President saw this on television he was struck to his core. He was determined to do something to eliminate the problem. The thing is, the problem, in his mind, was that he was being embarrassed.

And so he tweeted. He blasted the mayor and accused her of conspiring with Democrats to humiliate him and for good measure blamed the people of Puerto Rico who “want everything done for them when it should be a community job.”

What a bleak window this is into the man’s soul. The degree of his self-focus is boundless and stunning. As human beings with normal senses of empathy and collective responsibility, we’re both appalled and fascinated that someone could actually react this way to a human tragedy. It is hard to look away.

Of course social media has been abuzz with the outrageous pronouncements (and the trolls and bots are chiming in as they’re programmed to do).  I haven’t tuned into the TV news, but I assume it is full of outraged people responding to the content of those messages pointing to the many ways that the community in Puerto Rico has responded. CBS correspondent David Begnaud, just back from Puerto Rico, posted a video on this subject that has been making the rounds. Yet I can’t help but wish we could stop responding to these outbursts. I am tired of living in a world where our national discourse is framed by twitter tantrums,  a house of mirrors where everything is a reflection of Trump. Can’t we somehow stop taking the bait?

Instead of saying, “How dare you? Look at how selflessly people in Puerto Rico have been trying to help their neighbors in the face of incredible hardship,” we should respond with a collective “Have you no sense of decency?”

Did you get that off your chest, Mr. President? I’m sorry your feelings were hurt. But this is not actually about you. So, let’s talk about organizing the distribution of supplies.

How do we do this?

I searched online to read what other people might have said on this question. I found an article in the Columbia Journalism Review with the headline “What We Miss When We Obsess Over Trump’s Tweets.” It is specifically addressed to journalists and asks them to stop taking the bait when they are personally attacked by the Commander in Chief. One line jumped out at me. Here is the context:

Remember when we used to obsess about every presidential tweet? When every story was about us? When Donald Trump’s war with the media was, really, the only thing that mattered?

We need to stop.

When I first scanned this opening, a different meaning emerged. Right now everything that happens in the world is eventually reframed as a story about Trump.

Remember when every story was about us?

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Open Letter to the Media

120604093148-tsr-king-new-electoral-map-00002708-story-topDear Media:

Seems like it’s been a rough week for you. I’ve been reading your mea culpas, and I am pleased to see your soul searching about the effect of the economy on the working class, the amount of coverage you give to rural issues and labor issues. I hope that these post-election realizations lead to real action on your part. And I’m glad to see the issue of fake news circulating on Facebook coming to the fore. It turns out all those “media elite” gatekeepers do perform a needed service, helping us to know what is fiction and what is news. I’m sure you take some comfort in the idea that it is the delivery system and not the coverage that is broken.

Before these narratives get too locked in, I would like to ask you to do a bit of soul searching about another kind of media bias– the bias for drama and suspense. I will admit that by addressing this to “the media” I am being overly broad. What I am responding to mostly is television coverage of this election. While more people may see stories by passing them around social media, television still sets the stage for water cooler talk, and gives certain stories prominence by covering them or not. What did the major news outlets cover? Not policy issues.

In watching TV news coverage of the campaigns, which I did a lot of, I saw two things. Controversy and pundits reactions to it, and predictions of who would win the horse race based on demographic stereotypes of different regions. (I’m a woman from Michigan and I’m kind of tired of being seen as a rust belt, suburban, female, college educated…blah, blah, blah)  This is all exciting, and perhaps it succeeds in getting clicks, in the case of newspapers, and steals viewers from American Idol in the case of TV, but it doesn’t help voters make informed decisions.

I am suddenly seeing lots of coverage of potential conflicts of interest with Trump’s businesses. I recall one news cycle and one well-publicized story about that in the twelve years or so (at least that is how long I think it was) leading up to the election. Suddenly there are lots of stories about it. It is late to start focusing on that now, isn’t it? Was the fact that Trump’s organization did business with an Iranian bank linked to terrorism out there before the election? Because I don’t recall seeing any stories about it, and I watched the news every day.

Perhaps the lack of this scrutiny was due to your original sin of not taking seriously the possibility that Trump could win. If you had believed that, I have to believe, you would have given more thought to the conflicts and issues that would arise if Trump was elected and brought them more to the fore. Wouldn’t you? God, I hope so. Or were they just too boring and not tied enough to the Red/Blue culture wars to generate clicks, likes, shares and viewers?

There must have been some time you could have taken away from the big board speculations to ferret out some of these issues.

Now, I have to say that I am a writer myself and I’ve worked as a journalist and I am writing to you because I respect you so much and value what you do. The “media” is made up of a lot of individuals who are doing great work– many of you agree with all I am saying. Keep fighting the good fight.

Before I let you go, there is another thing I’d like to mention. Election turn out was down this year, contrary to predictions. Democratic turnout especially was down, and this more than anything sealed Clinton’s fate. I know you see your job as explaining the results and creating a narrative. What I am hearing is a lot of analysis on how Clinton failed to speak to voters. But is it possible you might yourselves have played a hand in this? What impact might it have had when, a month or so before the election, when the pussygate bus tape came out, you declared the election over, and said Clinton had a 90% chance of winning? If you like Clinton, but you have a couple of kids you have to get to school, and you work the kind of job where you don’t get paid if you take time off to vote, and you have been told that there is a 90% chance that the candidate you like is going to win anyway, that there is really no chance the other guy can win– how motivated will you be to get to the polls? How much will you believe your individual vote matters?

So yeah, you missed some things. Try to to better next time, won’t you? Because it’s kind of important.

Respectfully yours,

Laura Lee

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“Spicy, Watchable Coverage”

I happened to notice today on Facebook that a particular story was trending, a story about a reporter who was suspended over something she tweeted.

It is precisely the type of story that tends to trend in social media (as I mentioned in my last post). It gives sharers the opportunity to make an identity statement– agreeing with the original tweet: “House passes bill that could limit Syrian refugees. Statue of Liberty bows head in anguish.” Or arguing vociferously against it. It allows people to express outrage either at her suspension or at her opinion.

Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple was the reporter who called the tweet out as an example of partisan bias. He said it was out of character for CNN, which positions itself as the nonpartisan news channel. This is what set the whole thing in motion.  I agree. It was editorializing, and it did not sit well with how CNN wants to position itself. CNN wants to be the unbiased netowork. This is how it distinguishes itself from its competition FOX and MSNBC.

There is something that troubles me in this, however, and it is a bit difficult to articulate. It is the whole question of what is “partisan.” There is something disconcerting in how we assume people will respond to particular issues and that they will have clear political or ideological poles. This comes from our social media use of news as a vehicle for self-expression and fears of expressing points of view that differ from our peers.

It bothers me that responses are predictable enough that expressing an opinion on certain kinds of stories will inevitably identify you– rightly or wrongly– with a particular “team.” So a person might not express a point of view out of fear of assumption creep. If I express an opinion that you associate with a particular political pole you will assume that I am saying everything else that people in that camp are also saying. The fear of offending team A or team B accepts and reinforces existing polarities. We accept, en masse, that certain topics are by nature fodder for partisan confrontation. By making something “partisan” then you can avoid dissent by anyone but people who are assumed to be your enemies and they can just be written off.

The Huffington Post ran a story comparing another opinionated tweet by the same reporter criticizing President Obama that did not result in a suspension. I do not believe the difference was a political bias on the part of management. It was simply that a well-known media critic called out one of the tweets and not the other, which could simply be a product of when he happened to log on to twitter on a particular day.

Thanks to CNN suspending the reporter, her statement got far more exposure than the tweet ever would have.  (I happen to agree with her assessment, but that is not really the point for my current purposes.)

What really struck me in the commentary on this story was a description of CNN’s editorial policy from media critic Wemple in New York Magazine.

“CNN strives for a tricky balance in its news programming. It wants spicy, watchable coverage enlivened by perspectives and opinions — but no partisan biases from its corps of reporters and anchors.”

“Spicy, watchable coverage” is perhaps the best– and also the most worrisome–summation of the “entertainment” bias in television news I was describing in a previous post.

I couldn’t really put my finger on what I found so troubling in the notion of “spicy coverage” until later in the day when I happened to turn on MSNBC where I saw a reporter talking about the latest ISIS propaganda video, a slick, well-produced video showing a Hollywood quality special effect of the Eiffel Tower being downed.

The talking head tried to downplay the threat in the video by saying that it was created as propaganda. “They are designed to grab attention and to get the media to show them,” she said and then with seemingly no self-consciousness whatsoever she played the video and it played on a continuous loop on a split screen as she interviewed an expert on the other end of the screen. Incidentally, studies show that news viewers react more strongly to the images on television than to the verbal content. It didn’t matter much what the talking head on the other side of the screen had to say. What people saw and internalized was a vision of ISIS taking down a beloved landmark in a way that conjured memories of the destruction of the Twin Towers.

Let me repeat this point: She said “ISIS created this video so the media will show it” and then went on to carry out ISIS’s wishes as if the network had no say in the matter. We have to put it on, it’s really dramatic, and if we don’t, people will tune into CNN or FOX to see it…

Modern war of the ISIS variety is made up of a series of television friendly events. Mass shootings are media events. They are performed by angry, violent young men who feel powerless and ignored and they want attention.

I don’t care much that Elise Labott thinks that the House vote to make it more difficult for refugees to come to America is contrary to our values. Nor do I much care that the same reporter thought Obama was “wining” at the G-20 summit instead of proposing real solutions.

None of that has the kind of real world implications like the automatic nature of our reporting on the visually exciting, dramatic and cinematic. ISIS sent us a video, and it is really scary. Now that is spicy. Let’s get it on the air fast!

Conflict and fear are dramatic. Stoking them is good for ratings. It is entertaining television. It does not make for good public discourse.

As Glenn Greenwald wrote in The Intercept, “In the wake of Paris, an already-ugly and quite dangerous anti-Muslim climate has exploded. The leading GOP presidential candidate is speaking openly of forcing Muslims to register in databases, closing mosques, and requiring Muslims to carry special ID cards. Another, Rand Paul, just introduced a bill to ban refugees almost exclusively from predominantly Muslim and/or Arab countries. Others are advocating exclusion of Muslim refugees (Cruz) and religious tests to allow in only ‘proven Christians’ (Bush). That, by any measure, is a crisis of authoritarianism. And journalists have historically not only been permitted, but required, to raise their voice against such dangers. Indeed, that is one of the primary roles of journalism: to serve as a check on extremism when stoked by political demagogues.”

There is a French saying, “qui ne dit mot consent.” He who says nothing consents. To put a camera on someone as he plays to fears and to say nothing is to normalize it. To say nothing is to consent. It puts it within the realm of acceptable and reasonable discourse.

In the future will we say about this time?

“We will not walk in fear, one of another,” Edward R. Morrow said. “We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine; and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular.”

 

 

The Media Could Try… Reporting

What if
Meet the Press engaged in a bit of counter-factual speculation this morning. It produced a video to demonstrate what the coverage of the Walter Scott shooting would have looked like if a bystander had not caught it on video.

(This is my workaround for the limitations on embedding videos into Word Press. If you click on the screen cap above it should take you to the segment content, which you can then play.)

What struck me about this segment was how the media organization that produced it seemed to dismiss out of hand the idea that they could have done some independent reporting. The video represents “how television would have been stuck covering the story with no video…and it had to rely entirely from information from the North Charleston police department.”

I was struck by how little self-reflection there seemed to be on the role of journalists in facilitating a culture in which police shootings of civilians have been largely unscrutinized and rarely prosecuted. If police departments have sometimes made official statements with more concern for public relations than truth creating an environment of mistrust between police and the communities they serve, and if this has been the case for years, then surely the media, in not digging into the facts, deserves some share of the blame.

For almost six minutes the panel discusses the mis-information that was officially released by the police department as if there were only two possible options for a news organization– relying entirely on official and perhaps biased accounts or hoping a citizen will come forward with a shaky Iphone video. The panel seems to be in agreement that the only way the public can know what happens with police is to put body cameras on them. Only David Brooks near the very end of the segment suggests that it is incumbent upon journalists to independently verify reports from official sources. He expresses hope that the media would have done its job in this case. Given how little soul searching “the press” seem to have done on this program, I am skeptical that this would have been the case.

We are starting to have an important conversation about poverty, authority, policing and race. But there is an important element of his story that I think deserves a great deal more discussion. In an article last month The Guardian lamented what it called “the slow death of the great American newsroom” in an article that opened like this:

In the past decade, as a percentage, more print journalists have lost their jobs than workers in any other significant American industry. (That bad news is felt just as keenly in Britain where a third of editorial jobs in newspapers have been lost since 2001.) The worst of the cuts, on both sides of the Atlantic, have fallen on larger local daily papers at what Americans call metro titles. A dozen historic papers have disappeared entirely in the US since 2007, and many more are ghost versions of what they used to be, weekly rather than daily, freesheets rather than broadsheets, without the resources required to hold city halls to account or give citizens a trusted vantage on their community and the world.

For a decade or more we have been laying off all of the watchdogs and making professional news into an increasingly entertainment-driven medium. If TV news would have been “stuck” covering the story with only police reports it is because we’ve dismantled the means by which we could question those accounts.