This is an incredibly powerful piece by Michael Powell of the New York Times involving Smith College and the employees there who had their lives turned upside down by baseless charges of racism. The article unsparingly notes how Smith President Kathleen McCartney tolerated and even enabled the mistreatment of said employees.
In the current environment of the New York Times newsroom, where woke Millennials have increasing sway in promoting their illiberal points of view, it took courage for Powell to write this article. It’s quality journalism.
NOTE: THIS BLOG POST WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MAY 2019 ON A DIFFERENT SITE. IT IS REPUBLISHED HERE FOR ARCHIVING PURPOSES.
On May 10, San Francisco police raided the home of a freelance journalist who had provided information to several local TV stations regarding the death of an area public defender. The journalist, Brian Carmody, apparently had obtained and distributed a copy of the police report on the public defender’s death. Citing the need to identify the source of the leak within the police department, police officers raided Carmody’s home. Although they had a warrant, the raid still caused outrage among many (myself included) who saw this as an egregious violation of First Amendment protections vis a vis freedom of the press, to say nothing of a reporter’s right to protect his or her sources.
Since then, the San Francisco Chronicle has done an outstanding job of covering this troubling incident. Anyone interested in reading their coverage can follow this link. That said, looking at this matter from my perspective outside the Bay Area, what struck me was the near dearth of coverage at the national level. Shamefully (and self-defeatingly), far too many of the national media dragged their heels noticeably on this story before begrudgingly (and minimally) acknowledging that this travesty even happened. Among the more flagrant examples were CNN, which has made a business model out of criticizing President Trump 24/7 for, among other things, his verbal abuse of the news media. Mind you, a great many of those criticisms of the president’s rhetoric concerning journalists are well founded. But where was the outrage from Brian Stelter, Chris Cuomo et al in this case where actual government force was misapplied to a journalist?
This incident provides legitimate fodder to those who argue that press outrage over government abuse is selective. Consider the media coverage and trends at the national level on this subject.
Obama abuses of the press: Covered, but mostly “Meh. Oooh, btw, did you see him slow jam the news with Fallon?!?”
Police in Democrat-run San Francisco raid a reporters home and seize files: “New phone, who dis?”
Trump says mean things re press: “THE REPUBLIC IS FALLING!!!”
To be sure, the above analysis is exaggerated for effect…but not THAT exaggerated. If a local unit of ICE – a federal agency under the Trump administration – led the exact same raid on on the exact same journalist on the exact same day – does anyone want to suggest that the reaction from the national media would have been anywhere as muted as it was in this case?
If we want news media to be more trusted and held in higher esteem by the public – and we DO if we care about democracy – then journalists and media figures at the highest and most-visible levels (i.e., the national media, particularly broadcasters) need to stop being selectively outraged and cherry picking coverage like this. This is especially true regarding the way they report on government…and themselves.
Ultimately, principles like freedom of the press are NOT principles if they are only applied when it’s convenient or supportive of one’s sociopolitical narrative.
This piece was originally posted October 1, 2020; it is permanently affixed to the top of this blog for the benefit of newcomers.
Given the provocative title on the site, a note of explanation is warranted.
Media bashing has been trendy for a very long time. While it has certainly gone to new heights in the age of Trump, it would be historically ignorant to suggest that this trend began in 2015 when Donald Trump came down the elevator in Trump Tower. Media criticism – and more specifically, criticism of news media and journalism – have existed for as long as journalism itself. In my lifetime, it became very trendy (and for some, very profitable) in the early 1990s with the rise of conservative talk radio. In the current environment, it would be understandable if somebody saw a website with a name like “pornewsgraphy” (or the closely related term that I also use – “pornolism”) and assumed that this is some right wing, Trump-supporting, “fake news’-invoking website.
But that is not the case. In the interest of full disclosure: I am a registered independent whose ideology could roughly be described as small-L libertarianism. I don’t like Donald Trump, and I’ve been saying so since the 1990s. (I grew up in New York and was exposed to him much earlier than most people.) Moreover, I don’t have any love for the leading politicians of the day on either side of the political aisle. In my view, ~90 percent of our political elites are disappointing, to put it kindly. As for journalism: If you’re talking about journalism as a profession or a calling, I hold that endeavor in the highest esteem, even higher than my own profession. Yes, I am a frequent and vocal (and at times, harsh) critic of individual journalists and journalism products. But I would analogize this to the way one views their family. You can love your family; you can hold your family in cherished regard; but neither of those mean you should not speak up forcefully if you see members of your family doing things that are harmful to them and others. Substitute “your family” with “journalism” in the sentence above, and you’ll have a fair approximation of how I look at the field of news reporting.
So no, this site is not designed to bash media petulantly or in order to push a political POV. In my view, the problem with journalism in modern day America transcends politics…or at least, it should.
Like any human endeavor, journalism is not perfect. But these days, far too much of it doesn’t even try to be. This is especially if we are talking about political news media, arguably the most visible sector in that field. It is saturated in infotainment, sensationalism, naked partisanship, agenda seeking, and brazen distortion. As I argued in an earlier post, news media content continues to devolve to a point that it can be described as “pornewsgraphy” in far too many cases. And here’s the real problem with that – a democracy that does not have a reliable source of information that is reasonably objective and unslanted cannot survive as a democracy. So, while this site has and will detail incidents of journalistic malpractice, please do not misread the intention. My goal is not to bash journalism as a profession. When practiced reasonably well, journalism is one of the most important professions that exists in a democracy. The point of this website is to offer something that I don’t see in many other places – a non-partisan POV on how many who call themselves “journalists” are destroying the profession and hurting the nation in the process. Posts on this site have and will look at:
— How many journalists and news media figures, while not the “enemy of the people” that Trump often labels them as, are the enemy of good journalism.
— Examples of good journalism, as highlighting these are also important if the goal is to promote better journalism.
— What we as individual citizens can do to be smarter consumers of news media content.
On that last note: One of the areas of the site that I hope to evolve in the coming months and years involves potential solutions to this problem. To be perfectly candid, I do not have much hope for the problem being solved by the people in the news media themselves. There are simply too many factors pressuring them to practice journalism badly. Many of those factors are beyond their control, but one that is not is the profound level of denial among many journalists about how bad this problem. So, as this site continues to grow, one topic that I hope to write more on is news media literacy (NML). I will spare you a lengthy definition of NML here, but suffice to say that people with high levels of news media literacy are better able to seek, identify and use the good journalism that is out there. Consequently, they can better keep themselves informed despite the deluge of pseudojournalism that currently permeates the media.
One last point: I am in the late-ish stages of my dissertation on news media literacy. For that reason, it’s likely that I won’t be posting too much between now and early 2021. Sorry about that. However, once I am done, it is my hope that I will be able to provide useful content on a regular basis.
Comments, suggestions and other input are always welcome here via the comment function below as well as through the contact button at the top of this page.
My latest commentary piece for NOQ Report: On the embarrassment that is the recent Stacey Abrams profile in the Washington Post and how it exemplifies the national news media’s devolution into partisan public relations work. (NOTE: The image below is not part of the NOQ Report article.)
Just a quick observation and prediction (of sorts) regarding two high-profile attacks involving gay men of color in 2019.
When then-“Empire” star Jussie Smollett claimed that he had been the victim of a hate crime in January – he said he was assaulted by two white men invoking Trump – it generated extensive coverage and media hand-wringing for weeks. This coverage ensued despite suspicions very early on that the attack was a hoax. Of course, those suspicions turned out to be true.
Yesterday, journalist Andy Ngo was viciously assaulted by (ironically labeled) “Antifa” thugs during protests in the increasingly dystopian city of Portland, Oregon. Ngo has been covering Antifa’s illiberal and illegal activities in that city for quite some time, documenting both the excesses of that extremist group as well as the deliberate fecklessness of Mayor Ted Wheeler in addressing the problem. Yesterday’s attack sent Ngo to the hospital; initial reports on Twitter indicated that he might have a brain bleed among other injuries.
The attack on Ngo dominated a portion of the conversation on Twitter that evening, though sadly, the outpouring of sympathy and shock was accompanied by some vile remarks lauding the assault. Even some journalists and pundits were quick to make excuses for Antifa’s thuggery. In a few cases, some went full “blame the victim”, ludicrously suggesting that Ngo was targeted not for his journalistic work but for alleged racism on his part. In other words, “he had it coming”.
The following day, Ngo’s assault got brief – and I stress “brief” – mentions on “Reliable Sources” on CNN as well as stories from CBS,Fox, and others as part of almost-as-brief coverage of the Portland protests overall. Let’s see if those accounts regarding the beatdown of a gay journalist of color doing his job are the beginning of significant media coverage or the end of a perfunctory CYA exercise on the media’s part.
But surely, this won’t be the end of the coverage, right? The media will treat this actual, on-the-job attack on a gay journalist of color at least as extensively as they did a fake attack on a gay non-journalist of color like Smollett, right? After all, how many journalists and media pundits have opined ad nauseam since the 2016 election about how it is “a dangerous time to tell the truth in America”.
If the same media “firefighters” who have railed endlessly about the dangers of journalism since 2016 are largely silent in the coming week, what does that tell us? What is different about this attack? It involved a gay man of color, a journalist at that, and it happened during this “dangerous time to tell the truth in America”.
Here’s what it will tell me: If the attack doesn’t get significant coverage in the coming week, it can be used as prima facia evidence that many in the national media don’t really care about threats to journalists unless those journalists toe the party line regarding the progressive narrative.
The once venerable New York Times – supposedly the nation’s premier newspaper – today published an op-ed calling for the harassment of low-level government employees as part of the ongoing immigration issue at the border.
Let that sink in. This is not some radical partisan ragsite like Vox or Infowars. It was The New York Times. America’s “newspaper of record” did this.
They provided a platform on their opinion pages for an open-throated call to identify, shun and – let’s be realistic here – harass ICE employees at all levels. The article specifically noted that “foot soldiers” (low-level employees) should also be targeted. The author – a humanities professor and attorney in the United Kingdom – claims she is not calling for doxxing. Apparently, she naively believes that her recommendation would not lead to doxxing, cyberbullying and perhaps even violence.
The author’s dangerous and objectionable suggestion is not what primarily concerned me, reprehensible though it was. The fact that such a reckless call to action could find sanctuary in a presumably responsible newspaper is what raised red flags. Is this what journalism and media at the national level in America has come to?
Multiple polls like this one show that Americans increasingly distrust media sources. Even polling that reflects modest rebounds still show an anemic level of trust in American news media. I would argue that this sentiment is both understandable and appropriate if we are talking about the national news media in America – i.e., national newspapers and the national news broadcasters. I would also include most online “news” sites in this assessment. (I still maintain that local journalism is a profession where reporters are producing a good product that gets it right more often than wrong. The “elite” in the national and online news media could benefit from emulating their local peers more often.)
And what has happened to make the media seem so untrustworthy? A number of factors are involved, but I would posit that a large part of the dynamic is financial. In an age where more and more pressure is placed on news media organizations and the journalists within them to turn a profit, standards seems to be increasingly giving way to an emphasis on website visits and social media engagement – i.e., “clicks” – which can be monetized vis a vis ad revenues. This might explain why a presumably responsible editorial board like the one at The New York Times would provide a platform for a de facto incitement to harassment and perhaps even violence. Then again, maybe they like what the author suggested. It is impossible to say.
Of course, op-ed columns do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editorial boards that approve them. But does the editorial leadership not ultimately decide what does and does not get space on their pages, digital and otherwise? Presumably, they have criteria and standards they apply to this decision-making process, and they don’t let just anybody argue their cases in their opinion section. Whether Times editors agreed or disagreed with the positions that this author took is immaterial. But do they actually believe that her commentary was responsible…particularly in the context of today’s hyper-polarized, tinder box environment? Or, has the need to drive clicks and revenue pushed even the Times to the point where such questions are secondary?
The column in question makes me wonder.
If this is the beginning of a trend, what is next? For example, I noticed recently that there is an emerging debate in and around the LGBT community about promoting children in drag. It came up several times in recent weeks during the Pride Month observance. (As with the immigration issue in the Times op-ed piece, I do not mention this to take sides on the issue of drag kids. Both issues are separate from the point of this blog post.) However, the drag kid controversy suggests an informative analogy here. While responsible newspapers and media outlets can and should provide a platform for commentary on both sides of the day’s issues, where should the line be drawn regarding what is acceptable fare? The reprobates at NAMBLA have been vocal on the drag kid issue. Would America’s newspaper of record offer a spokesman for that organization a byline on its pages? Until recently, I would’ve laughed at an idea like that. Now… I’m not laughing. Whatever else one could say about a NAMBLA-bylined op-ed in a major newspaper or outlet, it would unquestionably prompt a tsunami of clicks, social media buzz, and so on if it were allowed. And that seems to be the overriding goal in more and more of what the national and online news media do.
Most Boomers and GenXers know the origin of the phrase “jump the shark”. It stems back to an episode of the once-wildly popular ABC series “Happy Days”. Long story short – “jumping the shark” is shorthand for when a TV show starts engaging in desperate (and sometimes embarrassing) attempts to maintain its viability. Over time, this phrase has evolved for use beyond the small screen.
If today’s New York Times column is an indication of things to come, perhaps the Old Gray Lady and the editors at some other once-prestigious media outlets should start waxing their water skis.
In 30 years as a career communicator and public relations specialist, I’ve become a media junkie. I track developments in the media, particularly news media or the “Fourth Estate,” in the same way that some people play golf or follow their favorite college sports team. I suspect that many of my fellow “flacks” share a similar passion.
That said, I’ve grown increasingly dismayed in recent years about the ongoing – and accelerating – devolution of journalism in the United States. Trends like infotainment, sensationalism, “advocacy journalism” (an oxymoron, to be sure), and unapologetic political bias in reporting (thank YOU, Fox News, MSNBC and others) have made it difficult in the extreme to rely on national news reporting as a source of objective, accurate information. To be sure, there are still many good journalists out there who are eager to practice their trade in an objective, reliable way. The sad irony of this is that, in too many cases, forces beyond their control won’t let them.
Consider this alternate definition of “pornography” from Merriam-Webster.com: “3 : the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction<the pornography of violence>” (emphasis added). Applying the same cause-effect paradigm to the way most “reporting” nowadays is geared toward pathos (emotions) rather than logos (rational thinking), isn’t it fair to apply the term “porNEWSgraphyTM?” Given the dreck that spills forth daily from many of the new operations in America today, is the term unreasonable?
One does not have to look far for examples of pornewsgraphy. As I type this, NBC’s “Meet the Press” has just finished airing an interview with renowned statesman Dana Carvey regarding the impressions he does of George H.W. Bush and others. Yes, that’s Meet the Press – the iconic Sunday morning news program that has provided insights on key issues and access to world leaders since 1947 – acting as a promotional vehicle for “Saturday Night Live.” What’s next? Former presidential advisor David Axelrod juggling to promote his new book? New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand reading a few steamy passages from “50 Shades of Grey” before discussing women in the military? Apple CEO Tim Cook plugging PornHub as part of a discussion on online privacy and data breaches? Somewhere, Tim Russert is banging his journalistic halo against a wall.
In fairness, NBC and MTP are by no means alone in offering such pathetic fare under the guise of “news.” The aggregate total of this problem on a daily basis is stupefying, particularly in terms of its implications. Whether one looks at it from the vantage point of a communications professional, a journalist, or “just” a citizen, the long-term damage caused by the lack of a credible journalism industry is ponderous.
So, sit back and tune in to your favorite news program. Regardless of what network you watch, it’s bound to be “entertaining.”