Tag Archives: journalism

Shooting The Messenger

A recent report from the Brookings Institution began rather predictably:

A leader who portrays himself as one of the persecuted, the target of an incessant witch-hunt by the so-called deep state. A liberal media intent on revisiting an election gone badly. And a left-wing political machine supposedly out to get him.

The surprise came in the next sentence. “This leader, of course, is Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel.” The article was an investigation into what the author called “the politics of grievance” employed by both Netanyahu and Trump.

According to the article, at a recent rally in Israel,

Netanyahu seemed to channel Donald Trump. He even explicitly (mis)used the English phrase “fake news” to attack the supposedly biased mainstream media that’s out to get him. While Netanyahu and Trump are profoundly different—Bibi’s many faults aside, he is erudite, cautious, and experienced—the two men share an approach to confronting political adversity: divide and conquer, turn the spotlight on the “other,” create an other when none is available, and always, always, feed the base.

The parallels between these two flawed leaders include explicit attacks on so-called “elites,” including –prominently, especially–the press. And that assault is no small matter, because in democratic societies, the press is an essential watchdog, the only institution that mediates between the governed and their government. Imperfect, uneven and beleaguered as it is, the media is our only window into the world of politics and policy.

Autocrats want to break that window.

On “Meet the Press,” John McCain recently underlined the danger of attacks on the press.

“I hate the press. I hate you especially,” McCain told NBC’s Chuck Todd, according to excerpts of the interview set to air Sunday. “But the fact is we need you. We need a free press. We must have it. It’s vital. If you want to preserve – I’m very serious now – if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”

McCain’s comments came in response to a question about Trump’s recent declaration, made via Twitter, that the press is the “enemy of the American People.”

A recent article in Newsweek considered the nature of Trump’s persistent assaults on the press, and considered the potential consequences:

The President’s attacks may be reckless – who knows whether someone in his audience will take the President’s word as license to take action against enemies of the American people ? – but they are not without purpose.

They have concrete aims: to intimidate reporters into certain kinds of coverage, or clarify for his favored outlets what coverage he desires, or plant the seeds of doubt about news stories (such as the Russia investigation led by Robert Mueller).

The article goes on to detail the ways in which Trump’s hostility to investigative journalism is driving policy–efforts to shut down whistleblowers and others who might provide the press with information about government wrongdoing, and attacks on net neutrality:

For instance, the FCC’s proposal to undo network neutrality rules – those rules that implement a policy disfavoring content-discrimination by digital network operators – threatens the long-term viability of independent media, and does most damage to reporters and outlets that lack the audience and resources of existing media powerhouses.

These attacks on the media are reinforced by the proliferating propaganda sites on line, and by the ability to choose the “news” that reinforces one’s preferred worldview. Educators desperately need to teach news literacy, the ability to distinguish between responsible journalism and irresponsible click-bait.

In our political environment characterized by civic ignorance, hyper-partisanship and confirmation bias, how effective are the efforts by would-be autocrats and political partisans to undermine genuine journalism? How effective is persistent propaganda?

Unfortunately, as Vox tells us, a lot more effective than we like to think.

Encouraging Signs

Doctors and psychologists are reporting spikes in depression and other psychosomatic responses among the general citizenry in response to the daily reports of dysfunction, corruption and regression in Washington.

Those responses are understandable. But as I keep reminding myself, the news isn’t all bad. We are seeing a genuine resurgence of civic engagement at a level I have never previously seen, and there are growing indications that announcements of the death of journalism may also have been premature.

Despite concerns that “outrage fatigue” would cause activism to dwindle, groups opposed to Trumpism have continued to proliferate–even in red states like Indiana.

For example, Women4Change Indiana was formed immediately after the election. It has four task forces, focused upon guaranteeing the dignity and safety of all women, especially in regard to sexual assault, reproductive health, and LGBTQ rights; mentoring and empowering women to achieve greater political leadership; fighting racism and promoting civility in political discourse; fighting against gerrymandering and voter suppression and improving civics education.

Formed just five months ago, it currently has 14,000 members across the state. In Indiana.

In even more good news from Indiana; “old school” Republicans (not old chronologically, just advocates for what used to be Republican values) have formed a group called “Enterprise Republicans,” which they describe as “diverse and inclusive” and devoted to protecting the human rights of all Hoosiers. I’m told they plan to primary selected Republican culture warriors, a welcome tactic in Indiana, where gerrymandering has created so many safe Republican seats that there has been no politically realistic way to effectively counter the most rabid rightwing zealots.

Then there’s journalism. According to the Washington Post,

The philanthropy established by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar will contribute $100 million to support investigative journalism, fight misinformation and counteract hate speech around the world…

“We think it’s really important to act now to keep dangerous trends from becoming the norm,” Stephen King, who heads the Omidyar Network’s civic engagement initiative, told The Washington Post in the philanthropic group’s first public comments on the three-year funding commitment….

The newly announced funding is intended to address “a worrying resurgence of authoritarian politics that is undermining progress toward a more open and inclusive society,” said Omidyar Network managing partner Matt Bannick.

The network is also concerned about the declining trust in democratic institutions around the world, including the news media, he said.

“Increasingly, facts are being devalued, misinformation spread, accountability ignored and channels that give citizens a voice withdrawn,” he said. “These trends cannot become the norm.”

The story–which is very encouraging–ended with a recitation of other philanthropic efforts to bolster legitimate journalism and combat “alternative facts.”

On Monday, a group including Facebook and Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, announced the News Integrity Initiative, a $14 million effort to advance news literacy and increase trust in journalism. It will be based at City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism in Manhattan.

And last month, the Democracy Fund and First Look Media, both founded by Omidyar, announced that they would award $12 million to news organizations including the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Public Integrity and ProPublica.

We can only hope that these efforts reach the Indianapolis Star at some point….

There are also encouraging signs that local governments are stepping up to address pressing issues. Cities across the globe have increased their efforts to protect the environment and advance social justice.  Cityscope reports that in Toronto, for example, the city is using its contracting clout to encourage the employment of disadvantaged populations, and cities in the U.S. are looking to follow suit. Cities are protecting immigrants, addressing police misconduct (even as Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department retreats from Obama-era oversight agreements), and investigating  other ways to compensate for the damage being done in Washington.

The Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Question, of course, is whether these efforts, and the many other promising movements and activism tools that are emerging, will be able to turn a very threatening tide of authoritarian incompetence.

As David Brooks wrote this week, in a scathing (and laugh-out-loud funny) column,

The human imagination is not capacious enough to comprehend all the many ways the Trumpians can find to screw this thing up.

It’s We the People versus the Trumpians, and I wouldn’t count us out.

 

 

Do We Dare to Hope?

Has Amazon’s Jeff Bezos developed a workable business model for real journalism? According to Politico and other sources, the Washington Post–which Bezos bought three years ago–plans to add sixty reporters in the first quarter of 2017.

That’s not a typo–the Post really is hiring sixty new reporters.

The Post newsroom will grow by more than 60 jobs — or 8 percent — an astounding number in this day and age. Such contrarian additions, of course, come at a time when newsroom staff reductions are the rule across daily journalism.

The Post newsroom will number more than 750, third among the national newspaper-based press and moving it closer to the Times, with which it increasingly competes for high-end talent. The Times complement stands at about 1,307, the company says. USA Today’s newsroom stands at about 450, while the Journal, after its recent buyouts, tells me it employs 1,500.

Furthermore, subscriptions are evidently up at the Times, Journal and USA Today.

According to the story, Bezos believes that old-fashioned journalism — increasingly delivered via a variety of digital platforms from smartphone apps to the Kindle to Facebook — sells.

The Post has seen a 75 percent increase in new subscribers since the first of the year and says it has doubled digital subscription revenue over the year. Many of those new subscribers prove out Bezos’ theory that a mass market of low-price (generally around $36 a year for the national edition, after up to six months of “free trial”) subscription sales will form the leading revenue source for the Post in the years ahead.

In a time of journalistic business desperation worldwide, that’s a hugely important lesson being retaught to all news publishers by both the Post and the Times this year.

This is an incredibly important development. It is not an exaggeration to say that the displacement of genuine journalism by today’s fragmented and inadequate media bears much of the blame for today’s toxic and broken politics. Increasingly, as legitimate journalism has ceded its place to less-than-credible outlets, people don’t know whether they can trust what they read and so they read–and believe–what confirms their pre-existing biases.

As formerly reputable newspapers have competed online for eyeballs and “clicks,” far too many have eliminated sound reporting and substituted “infotainment,” celebrity news, the “bar beat” and sports. They have fired reporters and reduced substantive news coverage (which is more expensive to produce) in an effort to protect their bottom lines. It hasn’t worked.

The Post’s experience vindicates those of us who have insisted that any successful business plan would necessarily begin with a return to quality content–to what used to be called the journalism of verification.

Dare we hope that this “discovery” by national news outlets–their renewed recognition that the public wants substantive content and a return to journalism’s “watchdog” role–might encourage a similar trend locally?

As promising as this news is–and it is–it only addresses the deficit in national news. In Indianapolis and similar communities, we are still without anything approximating adequate coverage of local and state government. Gannett is still chasing those eyeballs by telling us more than most of us want to know about Colts’ games and bar openings.

Fingers crossed; maybe even Gannett will figure out that success in the news business requires…what was that they used to provide? Oh, yeah…news.

What We Lost When We Lost Newspapers

I recently read an article on Resilience–an aggregator website–that struck a chord.

The author was bemoaning, as so many of us do, the disappearance of what I’ve referred to previously as the “journalism of verification.” These are the paragraphs that really resonated with me:

Our modern culture tells us that we have more information today than anyone in history, because of the internet – but that assumes that data that could theoretically appear on a screen has the same value as words read from paper. In truth, few web sites will cover the library board meeting or the public works department, and if they do they are likely to be a blog by a single unpaid individual. Yet these ordinary entities shape our children’s minds and our present health, and as such are infinitely more important than any celebrity gossip — possibly more important then presidential campaigns.

Even if a blogger were to cover the library board or water board, no editors would exist to review the material for quality or readability, and the writer would be under no social, financial or legal pressure to be accurate or professional, or to publish consistently, or to pass on their duties to another once they resign.

Recently, former programmers at Facebook accused the site of manipulating the identity of “trending” stories. I have no idea whether this is true (actually, I sort of doubt it, for a number of reasons not relevant to this post), but in a culture permeated by suspicion, I’m sure the accusation will get traction–and add to our already high levels of paranoia.

One of the most daunting challenges of contemporary governance–really, of contemporary life–is the pervasiveness of distrust. Americans no longer know who or what to believe, are no longer able to separate fact from opinion, and no longer feel confident that they can know the agendas and evaluate the performance of their social and political institutions.

We live in an era when spin has become propaganda, and reputable sources of information must compete with “click bait” designed to appeal to pre-existing prejudices. Partisans of all sorts play on well-known human frailties like confirmation bias. 

The result, of course, is that Americans increasingly occupy different realities, making communication–let alone rational problem-solving, negotiation and compromise–virtually impossible.

Just one recent example, among too many to count: Sean Hannity of Fox “News” recently cited an “authoritative report” to the effect that the Kremlin had hacked Hillary Clinton’s emails, and was debating whether to release them. And where did this “authoritative report” originate? On WhatDoesItMean.com.

Currently, WhatDoesItMean.com boasts front page headlines such as “Northern England Stunned After British Fighter Jets Battle UFO,” “Russia Warned Of ‘Wrath Of God’ Event As West Prepares To Honor New Planet With Satanic Ritual,” “Music Icon Prince Dies After Obama Regime Fails To Heed Russian Warning,” and “Mysterious Planet Ejected From Black Hole At Center Of Galaxy Warned Could Soon Impact Earth.”

Look, I don’t think anyone wants to return to the era of the “gate-keeper,” where reporters and editors got to decide what news was–what merited coverage and what could safely be ignored. But we desperately need to identify methods that will allow consumers of media to recognize what’s wheat and what’s chaff– to distinguish spin, propaganda and opinion from factual information.

The emergence of Donald Trump as the nominee of a once-respectable political party should be all the evidence we need that the extent of media coverage and the value, accuracy and relevance of that coverage are very different things.

What we lost when we lost the journalism of verification is our ability to engage in responsible self-government.

My Students Continue to Teach Me…

I’ve posted previously about teaching an undergraduate class in Media and Public Policy. I have also posted–frequently–about the loss of real journalism in our current media environment.

Abbreviated version: we are positively marinating in information, but losing the “journalism of verification” required by a democratic society.

When we came to the point in the semester when students share their research with the class, one presentation compared our local newspaper’s coverage of the just-concluded municipal election with that same paper’s coverage of the municipal elections held in 1991. In both years, the only offices on the ballot were the local ones; In Indiana, we elect Mayors and Councilors in “off” years, when neither statewide nor federal candidates are on the ballot. Also in both years, there was no incumbent running.

The numbers are telling.

In 1991, the  Indianapolis Star ran 63 articles focused upon general election coverage. This year, it ran 11. In 1991, there were 36 articles devoted to the issues involved in the mayoral and council races; this year, there were 16. In 1991, there were 26 articles explaining the electoral process; this year, 11. Stories devoted solely to the City-County Council races declined from 14 to 5.

Even coverage of election results declined; in 1991, there were 15 articles, this year, 6.

The one category in which there was an increase in coverage? Elections unrelated to Indiana. That category went from 56 stories in 1991 to 101 this year.

The editorial staff layoffs that have characterized newspaper operations in the intervening years have clearly played a part in the decline of local coverage: there were 32 different reporters with bylines covering the 1991 election; this year, there were 14.

Local newspapers aren’t just neglecting to cover City Hall. They aren’t even reporting on the (far easier and accessible) “horse race.”

Which leaves us with some questions: where are citizens supposed to get the credible, verified information we need? How are we supposed to keep local government accountable?