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Tag: Journalism

Time to Bury It: Journalism, RIP

Time to Bury It: Journalism, RIP

Just when you thought the state of journalism in this country couldn’t sink any lower, along comes a week like this past one. I’ve been trying not to say this, trying hard for a very long time, but I think it’s become inescapable. It’s time, I’m afraid, to declare journalism dead, and to give it a burial, decent or not.

This is coming from a recovering journalist. I was a practicing journalist for many years, got a hard-earned masters degree in the field, and later went on to teach journalism at the university level. But that was a different journalism. It was before its untimely demise, back in an age when facts and fairness and accuracy and balance all actually mattered. When a journalist’s ethics and credibility went hand-in-hand. Sadly, it seems these things no longer count in this post-journalism era, otherwise known as the Age of Fake News, we find ourselves in.

I’ll concede there are outposts of journalism that still live. But they have become few and far between. If the profession is twitching in those places, it’s certainly not kicking more generally.

There are some things that went down this past week that top all the general level of noise we’ve become accustomed to. Two stories in particular lead me to, at last, pronounce the profession dead. But beyond those stories, I think it’s more the result of a feeling I’ve had in my heart, a heaviness of spirit, that has become inescapable when I see or read most of what passes for journalism today. A chronic feeling has turned acute.

The thing that first put my hand to signing the death certificate was the report carried by BuzzFeed – BuzzFeed! – late last Thursday, Jan. 17, in which it was stated unequivocally, based on unnamed sources, that the President had directed his attorney, the now discredited and sentenced Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress. It would be a pretty big story, I suppose, if only it were true. Which, as it turns out, it apparently isn’t. It’s not the first time, nor will it be the last, that a journalist gets something wrong. But that’s not even the thing about this story and how it was treated by others in the so-called profession that initially grabbed my attention and caused me to become so despondent about the state of journalism.

The first thing that struck me was the source of this story. I mean, really, BuzzFeed? We’re supposed to take this to be a serious source for news? That seems ludicrous to me, and then, to my shock and dismay, here were other ostensibly serious journalists quoting the BuzzFeed story as if it were real journalism. One big nail in the profession’s coffin.

In case you can’t tell, I don’t take pop feeds like BuzzFeed seriously. Maybe every now and then a source like that, such as, for instance, the National Enquirer, gets things right, more or less the way a broken clock is right by default twice a day. But overall, this is not a serious source for news. We used to make fun of my grandmother for reading the Enquirer and the Globe, but here were national journalists actually copping to following BuzzFeed and treating it seriously. I think that said as much about the state of journalism as anything.

To prove my point, I took a look at the lead stories on BuzzFeed – just a random sample, mind you, but typical. Here is what they were, in descending order:

  • “If You Grew Up Listening To These 24 Songs Then You Are 100% Gay Now”
  • “29 Useful Kitchen Gadgets That People Actually Swear By”
  • “People Can’t Even With the Announcement Of This Gender Reveal Lasagna” (No, I don’t have a clue what it means, either, but that was the actual headline)
  • “Everything You Need To Know About The Drama Surrounding The British Royal Family Making Headlines in New Zealand” (Silly me, I heretofore didn’t think there was anything I needed to know about any drama or anything else concerning the British Royal Family, much less that merits headlines in New Zealand)
  • “Trending” – trending, mind you! – “The Entire World Is Obsessed That Americans Drink Out Of These”
  • “Get 3/10 On This Quiz And You Know More Than Most About Immuno-Oncology” (That sounded at least a little serious, until I noticed it was “Promoted by Bristol-Meyers Squibb” – that is, paid advertising by the pharma giant, stuck in among the headlines)
  • “Congress Wants To Know Whether Matthew Whitaker Talked To The White House About The Special Counsel’s Response To A BuzzFeed News Report”

Now if you look at that last headline and you’re astute enough to decipher it, you’ll see that the story is essentially political propaganda masquerading as news. Dissecting, briefly, the etymology of it, BuzzFeed, relying on unnamed sources, published a story saying something concerning the Special Counsel, the Special Counsel immediately said the story wasn’t true, BuzzFeed stuck by the reporters’ story (more on that in a sec) despite the Special Counsel’s denial, and then the Dems in Congress (portrayed in the headline as “Congress”) jumped on the false story told by BuzzFeed to further their political agenda, and that is what this story is about. Therefore, the translation of that headline is: “Our Sources Weren’t So Hot After All, But It’s Bad For Trump, So We’re Sticking By It, And So Are the Dems In Congress.”

Okay, I know what some of you are going to say. BuzzFeed News is a separate part of the operation and is a serious (sic) news organization. Putting aside for the moment that it was BuzzFeed News that broke what is likely to turn out to be a bogus story but won’t retract it, here were the headlines when I looked on this serious “news” side of the house:

  • “President Trump Directed His Attorney Michael Cohen To Lie To Congress About The Moscow Tower Project” (Yup, there it is, the story the Special Counsel has said isn’t true, right there at the top of BuzzFeed News’s “news” feed. Even The New York Times has the decency to publish retractions and corrections, albeit buried inside the body of the paper.)
  • “Transgender Soldiers Are Terrified And Disappointed After The Supreme Court’s Ruling On Trump’s Ban”
  • “Cardi B Clapped Back Against Accusations That Her ‘Twerk’ Video Doesn’t Empower Women In the #MeToo Era” (Pardon my ignorance, but who the hell is Cardi B? And in what obscure way is this news?)
  • “The Biggest Surprises From This Year’s Oscar Nominations” (Not among them, I am sure, is that even fewer people will watch the Oscars this year than last, and the one before that, and the one before that, and . . . )
  • “The Campaign For A People’s Vote On Brexit Has Descended Into Infighting And Splits” (News Flash: And there is coal in Newcastle!)
  • “The Big Design Change For 2020: An Explosion Of Colors Beyond Red And Blue!” (A cross between more thinly veiled propaganda for Dems and a big bunch of “who cares?”)

Okay, now let’s look at the reporters – and one in particular, Jason Leopold – who produced this journalistic masterpiece that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has denied. Leopold, billed as a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and based in Los Angeles, has a checkered past that includes previous false reports, making stuff up as he went along, and even plagiarism (about the worst crime a writer can commit). Salon, after an extended series of unsuccessful attempts to get Leopold to document claims contained in a 2002 story about Navy Secretary Thomas White when he formerly was Vice Chairman of Enron Energy Services, wound up pulling the story and apologizing to readers. I won’t detail the lengths Salon went to to get Leopold to document his reporting, but you can read all about it on the New Zealand site Scoop. Leopold’s rebuttal, which reads like a petulant and self-justifying denial of the facts, is there, too. That, incidentally, also was the story where Leopold was credibly accused of plagiarizing several paragraphs from a Financial Times story.

That wasn’t the end of Jason Leopold’s missteps, either. In 2006, Leopold, again relying on unnamed sources, reported on Truthout.org that Presidential Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove was being indicted on charges related to the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. The only problem with the story, since taken down by the site, was that it wasn’t true. Columbia Journalism Review called the story “Leopold’s latest addition to his application for membership in the Stephen Glass school of journalism,” a reference to The New Republic writer who just made things up in his stories written over a three-year period with the publication. Further, Leopold’s history includes being fired by The Los Angeles Times for creating a newsroom fracas with a colleague, and the would-be publisher of Leopold’s first memoir, Off the Record, canceling the publication after being threatened with a lawsuit for alleged misstatements made in the book.

Now if the Special Counsel’s denials weren’t enough, and Leopold’s questionable track record didn’t raise questions, public disagreement between the two authors of Thursday’s story about whether they actually viewed the evidence corroborating the allegations cited in the article might have put up red flags. While co-author Anthony Cormier – formerly of The Tampa Bay Times – told both CNN and NPR he had not actually seen the evidence, Leopold later insisted that they had in fact seen the evidence. Is this some minor point that might have been mis-remembered by the co-authors? Not likely. But as startling is what Cormier told NPR’s Steve Inskeep. After insisting in his CNN interview that he was “rock solid” on the story, Cormier told Inskeep, “This is a crime, if it’s true. And our reporting suggests that it is.” What? Full stop. “This is a crime, if it’s true.” If it’s true? What the hell kind of reporting insists something is true when there remains an “if” involved? I don’t know if that would cut it at The Tampa Bay Times, but apparently it does at BuzzFeed. Big nail number two in the coffin.

As if they’re all in an echo chamber, which apparently they are, a slew of Dems in Congress, in tweets and statements, picked up not only on the BuzzFeed piece but on Cormier’s very words, “if it’s true,” and ran with that making assorted threats of impeachment against the President. Quelle surprise!

Wouldn’t all this give an editor cause for concern? Apparently not BuzzFeed’s editors. BuzzFeed stood by the story, and its Editor-in-Chief, Ben Smith, later tweeted on Friday: “In response to the statement tonight from the Special Counsel’s spokesman: We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he’s disputing.”

Okay. That was one of the two stories this past week that led me to declare journalism dead. The other is the story, such as it is, of the standoff between the kid from Covington, Kentucky, and the Native American guy originally from Nebraska. The incident actually took place last Friday, Jan. 18, but it was only after a video of the standoff went viral that the story took off, and the reportage (again, sic) this week has been rabid.

When I first heard this story at the beginning of the week, my initial reaction was, “Why are we supposed to care about this?” If this had happened anywhere else except in Washington, D.C., and in any time other than the one in which we live, it probably wouldn’t even have made the local news. I was gratified to hear someone else – I regret that I don’t recall who – on the radio ask the same question, “Who cares?”

Well, apparently lots of people cared. Not enough to actually get the facts straight, and that includes most in the national media, but they cared. After all, the story – at least as it was perceived – had all the hallmarks of what I’m afraid has come to make stories considered newsworthy in this age of post-journalism: Racism, angry confrontation, demonstrations, and – more than anything – Trumpism v. anti-Trumpism. The media was all over the story: Angry kids wearing MAGA – “Make America Great Again,” the Trump motto – hats confront Native American elder near the Lincoln Memorial. They are in his face, ready to tear him apart, a bunch of racists who hated blacks, Native Americans, anyone except white Americans. They came to Washington to oppose abortion (labeled, in PC terms, “a woman’s right to choose”), and now they were spreading their racism by getting in the face of this poor Vietnam vet.

The only problem with the story was . . . it wasn’t true. But that didn’t stop a maelstrom of national debate, name calling, accusations, death threats, and who knows how many millions of dollars of air time from being dedicated to it. And, as much as we might wish it would just go away, we’re probably going to be hearing about this story for days, even weeks, until something more scintillating comes along to displace it. And then it will just disappear.

Even in an age of biased media, this story stands out for how one-sided the media coverage of it has been. Whether it is CNN, MSNBC, or just about every other news outlet, the only side of the story that was told for days was that of Nathan Phillips, the Native American man. It was as if there was no other version of events. Even CNN’s URL for the interview with Nathan Phillips – still up as of this writing – gives a hint of the bias:

//www.cnn.com/2019/01/21/us/nathan-phillips-maga-teens-interview/index.html

I was especially distraught to see stories carried in USA TODAY, written by reporters with Gannett’s Cincinnati Enquirer local newspaper, that were entirely single-source stories, quoting only Phillips, without even an apparent attempt to contact Nick Sandmann, the Covington Catholic High student facing off against Phillips in the actual incident. I used to work for Gannett at the paper, TODAY, now FLORIDA TODAY, that served as the model for USA TODAY, and even though Gannett, even then in the 1980s, was not the paradigm of journalism, I don’t think single-source stories on such a controversial topic would have been acceptable to my editors. But today they are. And the whole country gets to read them.

If you haven’t been in a coma the past few days you know of the death threats made against Sandmann and the other students involved. You know how they have been accused of being racists, how Sandmann “got in the face” of Phillips, how the students chanted “the wall, the wall,” how everyone from members of Congress to state representatives to the usual gaggle of Hollywood celebrities put out terribly nasty tweets critical of Sandmann. One so-called journalist wished the kids would die (he got fired). It didn’t help that the Catholic Diocese of Covington piled on with criticism and threats against the Covington students before they had the facts, either. That’s the kind of age we live in, being first counting more than being right, with the kind of moral righteousness that might otherwise be seen as the less-than-desirable quality of being holier-than-thou.

But if you watched the full video of what went down, you would have seen that the account given by Phillips wasn’t at all accurate. You would have seen Sandmann, smiling silently, facing a man banging a drum in his face, and periodically signaling to this classmates to cool their antics, and those same classmates, most just kids, not even old enough to grow facial hair, being, well, kids.

And if you just paid attention to the national media, you also might not know that the Native American group, some 50 individuals led by Phillips and his drum, attempted to disrupt a mass being held at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington on Sunday night. Or that Nathan Phillips has a violent criminal record, including assault and jail break, or that he never served in Vietnam (a fact you might have picked up on by his carefully nuanced statements about his service, but not by the banners run across the screens of CNN or the questions of TV interviewers). And you certainly can be excused for not knowing about the group that may be the real racists involved in the subject incident, the Black Hebrew Israelites, whom the students said were shouting hateful things at them before the incident involving Phillips took place. Though, if you follow TMZ – another prime example of the state of journalism in 2019 – you might have learned that the venerable Phillips has turned down Sandmann’s invitation to meet and talk things out. Oh, and if you want to see that it’s not just journalism but the state of the readership that has gone down the toilet, just read the comments on that piece. I mean, why bother? All in all, a third nail in the coffin of journalism.

Thus ends a helluva week and, with it, a formerly venerable profession. RIP.

Shouting Past Each Other

Shouting Past Each Other

For several years now, I have been in the habit of listening to the liberals in the morning and the conservatives in the afternoon. My rationale for this is that I want to hear both sides of various current arguments and issues. Not being an adherent to either political persuasion – I consider myself both a libertarian and independent – I find lots of cause for annoyance across the political spectrum, though in truth I find lots more grounds for annoyance originating from the left than from the right. It has been this way for some time, but the trend seems to be accelerating lately.

What has increasingly occurred to me is that there not only seem to be at least two entirely different conversations going on, with some sub-sets within each, but those conversations are based on entirely different sets of facts and, without doubt, vastly different world views. And as this trend continues and deepens, the conversations – again, especially on the liberal side – seem to be degrading into shouting matches.

I’ve always believed that we all can disagree, but that disagreement is based on the same sets of facts. Now, listening in to these two camps, one increasingly begins to wonder if there are even such things as facts any more, and what facts there might be seem to be mutable, with each side holding and citing two almost completely different sets of them. And that’s ostensibly on the news and news analysis side of things. In the realm of entertainment, the divisions appear to be even greater, and sub-sets of divisions, between the coasts and what is called fly-over country, between white and black, between younger and older, between cities and rural areas, and even schisms between and among residents of the same cities and the same states become ever more evident.

While I listen to these things daily, becoming somewhat inured to them, someone coasting in from out there somewhere and catching these battling views for the first time might be justified to conclude that we are going through a kind of societal crack up.

Without a basis in common facts, the arguments become self-justifying. Each side builds its logic like competing jenga towers teetering atop bases of illusory blocks, seemingly ignoring the laws of physics and the pull of reality. When things become too difficult to justify based on factuality, the next step is simply to raise the volume. Speech rises to shouting and shouting to screaming, as if decibels are a stand-in for rationality. See me, the shouters seem to say, I can yell louder than you so I must be right and you must be wrong.

We’ve seen this in street demonstrations, where one almost comes to expect such behavior. We’ve seen it on cable TV, with panelists shouting at each other to the point no one, least of all the viewers, can make out what is being said. And now we see it in Congressional hearings, where raising one’s voice and speaking over the subject of one’s disdain appears to be a substitute for actually seeking answers to questions. We saw this during Tuesday’s hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, with Democrats like California’s Sen. Kamala Harris insistently speaking over Attorney General Jeff Sessions, her grandstanding meant to block out whatever Sessions might actually have to say and, ostensibly, to discredit him. And then Sessions is later heckled by the liberal media for becoming flustered and stymied by such obviously pre-planned tirades and Harris painted as some sort of victim because she’s a woman and black.

This dismissal of inconvenient facts seems to be a hallmark of the 21st Century in this country. If we come to realize that the Iraq War was a folly, we dismiss the fact that Hillary Clinton and other Democrats voted in support of it. If the IRS abuses its power in going after conservative groups, we look the other way and ignore it as if it never happened. If the Obama Administration failed to protect or attempt to rescue Americans under attack in Benghazi, we say there is no there there and don’t question why the Administration found it necessary to concoct and promulgate a lie about what actually happened. And if Hillary Clinton violated federal law and jeopardized the country’s security, we ignore it and her non-prosecution and justify voting for her anyway. And when facts turn out differently than we have been told they are, such as that there is no chance Donald Trump can ever be elected President, we throw a tantrum and question his legitimacy and hold his bloody head in our hands. How dare reality intrude on our manufactured view of how things should turn out?

Like I said, I find lots more to annoy me on the left than on the right, but the right is not without its own sets of facts and fictions. I think at this point there is little question but that Trump can be his own worst enemy, despite the efforts of many on the right to defend his every misstep, and even many of his supporters hope someone will take away his phone and throw it in the toilet. And while he gets no credit on the left for what he does right, there is little criticism from the right of what he does wrong. And let’s not forget that, despite years of bellyaching about the ills of Obamacare, the Republicans showed themselves utterly bereft of a viable alternative plan.

While I can understand the urge to overcompensate on the right to counter the venom spewing like a volcano from the left and the anti-Trump crowd, there is truth in what many of us were taught as children, which is that two wrongs do not a right make.

But my assertion remains, which is that we’re not arguing over the same facts and realities, but over completely different sets of facts, completely different realities. And therein lies much of the problem.

How did this state come to be? I think there are a number of factors in play, some of which are the result of changes in technology and how we communicate, and some of which go back much further and are rooted in the same sources that have led to the general alienation and disconnectedness we have come to take for granted in our society, and to the coarsening and degradation of dialogue.

In past decades, as recently as the 1990s but going back well before that, we had a basis for a common dialogue. Not that everyone agreed, which they didn’t, but at least there was a common set of facts we could and would debate over. We had three primary television networks, three primary sets of national news reporting, and, in effect, three focal points for a national audience. Locally, we might have had one or two or three newspapers which, while they might have diverged somewhat in viewpoint, made an effort to at least deal in common facts. And one could make one’s views known through a letter to the editor which had a decent chance of showing up on the editorial page.

All that has changed in the past 20 years. While the three TV networks prevail, there is now cable television with new sources and new, and often radically divergent, views on the news. There is social media, like Facebook and Twitter. And there are hundreds and thousands of online so-called news sites and blogs (full disclosure: including this one), where there is no prevailing view or even any prevailing agreement on the facts. Daily newspaper readership has dwindled to the point that it’s not clear how long newspapers will even remain viable. Our news sources have become fractured almost beyond description, as has our national dialogue. Anyone can spout any sort of nonsense one wants, any sort of venom, any set of facts, real or fabricated, and there is a place for it on the Internet. Try to express one’s views, like one could before with a letter to the editor or even in some online forums, and there is a high likelihood it will be lost in a flood of conflicting and often nutty comments, and diluted by multiple places to even post one’s views. What if one doesn’t use Twitter? One’s views might never see light. And have you read much on Twitter? The same 140-character vision of reality (whatever that might be) repeated 100 times.

With all this fracturing of communication, there also is a tendency toward recycling. When I was trained as a journalist 30-some years ago, it was considered tacky, if not downright improper, for journalists to interview other journalists. It was expected that one would go out and find original sources for stories, or even commentary, and that one would at least make an effort at balancing one’s stories. Now journalists interview other journalists incessantly, with little or no effort at balance, and this incestuous relationship just builds on and furthers this tendency toward competing and non-overlapping conversations. So-and-so at the New York Times or the Washington Post reported this, so it must be correct, and I’ll base my reporting and blathering on those reports (which more often than not are based on anonymous sources readers or viewers or listeners have no means of vetting for themselves).

Going back further, we see how things like air conditioning in our homes and the rise of the automobile moved people indoors and off public transport, breeding the kind of alienation and social separation that has been with us and growing for many decades. Now we have people with their noses buried in their devices – it’s common to see even friends and lovers incommunicado with one another as they focus on their smart phones – and our interpersonal distance simply grows exponentially and, along with it, any sense of a common dialogue. The Culture of the Id seems to prevail over all.

While all this was going on, our dialogue also seems to have become coarsened. We no longer seem capable of conducting civil discussions with those with whom we disagree. Whether in Congress, or in the media, or in our personal interactions, it’s become acceptable to spout all sorts of untruths and distortions, to issue threats, and to cut off communication, simply because we might disagree. This seems to be mostly, if not exclusively, a tendency on the left, and I have had supposedly “liberal” friends going back half a century break off contact with me simply since I didn’t agree with everything that came out of their mouths or off their keyboards, no matter how logically flawed or factually incorrect it might be.

I like to see the bright side of things and a way out of dark places and times, but I confess I’m at a bit of a loss on this one. In some ways we appear to be on the verge of a Vietnam Era breakdown, and I guess the one bright side might be that our discourse has become so fragmented that even that kind of two-sided split may no longer be possible. But I think that is false optimism. We see battling demonstrations, people being gunned down for their perceived views, looting and lawlessness, widespread dissent across the political spectrum and, along with all these things, competing realities that make any common effort at resolution virtually impossible. Given current trends, I’m afraid I just see more of what we have, and that’s not positive.

I’ll probably continue to listen to the liberals in the morning and the conservatives in the afternoon, knowing that ultimately we all need to form our own judgments and, to the extent we can, protect ourselves from whatever the latest new cause either side might concoct that will come raining down on our heads.

I’d love to hear dissenting views and maybe some insights on ways forward. I’m open to having my mind changed, as challenging as that might be. But that’s how I see things from here.

 

This piece also appears on Medium. Follow me there and here.