Tag Archives: journalism

Journalism Declines And Scandals Rise

I know I harp a lot on the importance of accurate, credible journalism–especially at the local level, but it is really, really important.

Believe it or not, the ongoing scandals in Virginia, which have embroiled the top three state officeholders, are illustrations of what happens when local coverage goes missing.

As Amanda Marcotte observed in Salon, 

The Virginia scandal is a reflection of a larger trend where politics will be driven more and more by revelations, gotcha moments and resulting scandals. The decline in robust, in-depth journalism, particularly on the local level — coupled with the rise of social media and well-funded partisan opposition research — is creating an atmosphere where political scandals, legitimate or not, will increasingly dominate politics and media.

“You have this degradation of resources in local journalism, which has been going on for a while now,” said Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, which is currently offering a fellowshipfor local investigative journalism. “You also have this counterpart, which is that it’s easier than before for opposition researchers on all sides to dig up dirt of this sort.”

Benton explained that the decline in local journalism allows politicians in the early stages of their careers, when they are likely to be running for school board or city council,  to escape the scrutiny they would previously have gotten from the relevant local media.

Philip Napoli, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, added that this trend has coincided with another, “the rise of social media and the ways that political candidates are able to communicate with their constituencies directly” and present a version of themselves that’s more to their own liking.

The result is that politicians simply don’t get the vetting they might once have received as they climb the career ladder from smaller offices to statewide and even national offices. Red flags that might have been noticed before a politician reached a position of significant power get overlooked, because local papers simply don’t have the resources to catch them.

The decline in local coverage has coincided with the rise of partisan outlets– not just national networks like Fox and Sinclair, but local talk radio and blogs less concerned with accuracy than with scoring points.  Add to that the gift of the internet– the wealth of materials that vigorous opposition research can now unearth– and you have a recipe for ongoing scandals appearing at extremely “inconvenient” times in politicians’ careers.

In the “old model,” Benton said, people  who wanted to share damning information like sexual assault allegations or past episodes of racist conduct would “go to a reporter and hand him or her the documents or the evidence,” and that reporter would “determine whether the information that’s being handed to them is correct or not.”

 “Now, increasingly you can just post it online and skip that step in the process,” he added. So questions about whether the information is true and legitimately newsworthy don’t get answered in advance.

It appears that the Virginia accusations are all true, although the stories were “broken” by a sleazy partisan web site. But in other cases, innocent parties and organizations sustained real (and sometimes permanent) damage before manufactured allegations could be debunked. Remember when Breitbart accused the nonprofit ACORN of being involved in sex trafficking? Its story was entirely false, but it led to the group’s collapse. A doctored video was used to accuse Planned Parenthood of selling “baby parts” from aborted fetuses and was gleefully spread far and wide. It was later shown to be part of the ongoing, deceptive effort to convince lawmakers to stop funding Planned Parenthood, but pro-life groups continue to cite it as “evidence” of the organization’s evil doings.

In the absence of adequate, reliable reporting, conspiracy theories and partisan invention will fill the void. And citizens won’t know what they can and can’t believe.

The problem is national, but far more prevalent at the local level.

Balancing Act

There may not be any sport in America more popular than media-bashing, and I am a frequent participant. We do live in a confusing, changing and sometimes overwhelming media environment; it sometimes seems we are “marinating” in information. In such an environment, it’s easy to lose sight of the differences between journalism, entertainment and propaganda– to forget what journalists are supposed to do and why it is that what they are supposed to do is so important.

The reason this country’s founders specifically protected journalism in the First Amendment is that we depend upon reporters to tell us what government is doing. If we don’t know what decisions are being made, what actions are being taken and who is taking them, we have no basis upon which to evaluate our elected officials, cast our votes or otherwise participate in self-government.

And that brings me to Fox News.

It’s bad enough that Fox is little more than a propaganda arm of the GOP, but I want to argue that slanting and misrepresenting reality isn’t the worst thing Fox has done. Fox has misrepresented the essential task of journalists. Its slogan, “Fair and Balanced” has led to a widespread understanding of journalism as stenography (he said/she said) and a belief that if a story isn’t “balanced,” it isn’t fair.

Should reporters investigate the claims of all sides of a dispute or controversy? Certainly. But they should do so in order to determine what the facts actually are, so that they can produce an accurate accounting of those facts. We count on reporters to investigate contending claims and perspectives  because we citizens have neither the time nor expertise to do so, and we rely on them to tell us whose claims are verifiable and accurate.

As British reporter Gavin Esler recently argued, how can any news organization “balance” the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion about vaccines or climate change with the crackpot anti-vaccine theories of Andrew Wakefield, or those who claim that climate change is “fake news”?  We don’t “balance” arguments on child protection by giving equal time and space to advocates of pedophilia.

Esler writes that we face a crisis in democracy, “because maintaining quaint ideas of ‘balance’ in a world filled with systematic disinformation is now an existential threat to the country we love, the Britain of the Enlightenment, a place of facts, science and reasoned argument.” That observation applies with equal force to the United States.

The Fox News version of balance plays to the anti-intellectualism that, as Isaac Asimov tellingly observed, has long been a part of American culture, “nourished by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

As David Niose wrote a few years ago in Psychology Today, anti-intellectualism is killing America.

In a country where a sitting congressman told a crowd that evolution and the Big Bang are “lies straight from the pit of hell,” where the chairman of a Senate environmental panel brought a snowball into the chamber as evidence that climate change is a hoax, where almost one in three citizens can’t name the vice president, it is beyond dispute that critical thinking has been abandoned as a cultural value. Our failure as a society to connect the dots, to see that such anti-intellectualism comes with a huge price, could eventually be our downfall.

Americans desperately need good, responsible journalism. We also need to understand that good journalism strives for accuracy rather than “balance.”

And a little respect for competence and knowledge wouldn’t hurt.

 

Local Journalism Matters–And We’re Losing It

Ever since the 2016 Presidential election, most Americans who follow the news have been fixated on Washington, D.C., and the antics of our increasingly surreal federal government. That’s entirely understandable–but while we’ve been tuning in to the national soap-opera, we have continued to lose track of equally important matters closer to home.

Americans depend upon local news sources–newspapers, broadcast news organizations–to tell us what is happening in our communities. How is local government responding to challenges from potholes to policing? How is the local school board addressing deficits in civics education? Is the Secretary of State purging voter rolls, and if so, is that process being handled properly or with partisan intent?

The measures taken by our state legislatures and City Councils affect us more dramatically and immediately than even Trump’s disasters (assuming he doesn’t blow up the world). Recently, the Shorenstein Center held a symposium exploring the continued loss of local news and the consequences of that loss.

When Setti Warren first took office as mayor of Newton, Massachusetts in 2010, the local paper, the Newton Tab, had an editor, a publisher and two reporters dedicated to covering the mayor’s office.  When he left office after his second term in 2018, the paper had lost its editor; its one remaining reporter covered multiple cities. Also during this time, the Boston Globe eliminated its regional editions, including the Globe West, which covered Newton and other parts of the MetroWest region.

The problem isn’t limited to Newton, Massachusetts.

Nationwide, many local news outlets have shuttered entirely – a March 2018 study published in the Newspaper Research Journal finds that from 2004 to 2015, the U.S. newspaper industry lost over 1,800 print outlets as a result of closures and mergers. As Warren suggested, this portends danger — studies show that areas with fewer local news outlets and declining coverage also have lower levels of civic engagement and voter turnout.

Lack of local news can occur without the complete shuttering of a local newspaper; here in Indianapolis, the Star now devotes its (dwindling) column inches primarily to sports and “the bar beat.” Coverage of city hall and the statehouse is sporadic and woefully inadequate.

As I noted in a previous blog, lack of local journalism doesn’t simply frustrate accountability; it even translates into higher costs for taxpayers. “Due diligence” by institutions that purchase municipal bonds  includes investigation of the fiscal probity of the issuer. When no local journalists are covering city hall, buyers demand a higher interest rate to offset the increased risk of the unknown.

At the symposium, Mayor Warren was blunt:

I am gravely concerned about the fact that we don’t have journalists covering city hall, policy decisions, political decisions in an in-depth way, because the citizenry of my own hometown, Newton, Mass., as well as the citizens of the Commonwealth, if they don’t have the facts, they can’t make sound decisions on what directions they want their politicians to go in. So if there’s an absence of good investigative journalism, and there’s a vacuum of having data and facts and reporting, what could get filled into that vacuum is information that is not accurate. Misinformation, disinformation and opinions, not straight reporting. So we are in danger, at the local level, at the state level, and certainly at the national level if we don’t have journalists on the ground doing the interviews, double, triple checking sources. We’re not going to make sound decisions on our policy, whether it’s housing, education, transportation or the ability to protect.

In the absence of good information, a dangerous combination of social media, special interests and people who simply have an ax to grind will fill the void, making it nearly impossible to deliver genuinely responsive governance.

Without legitimate journalism–what has been called the “journalism of verification”–we can’t hold elected or appointed officials accountable.

When no one is watching the store, it’s easy to rob.

When no one is watching government, taxpayers, too, can be robbed. Even under the “best case” scenario, however, if no one is watching, it won’t function properly.

False Equivalence 101

An article by Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker references a new book on right-wing media, written by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts. The book–to be published next month by Oxford University Press– is titled, “Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics.

It debunks a favorite belief of politicians and journalists. As Toobin writes,

The Washington conventional wisdom presupposes a kind of symmetry between our polarized political parties. Liberals and conservatives, it is said, live in separate bubbles, where they watch different television networks, frequent different Web sites, and absorb different realities. The implication of this view is that both sides resemble each other in their twisted views of reality. Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity, in other words, represent two sides of the same coin.

This view is precisely wrong.

The two sides are not, in fact, equal when it comes to evaluating “news” stories, or even in how they view reality. Liberals want facts; conservatives want their biases reinforced. Liberals embrace journalism; conservatives believe propaganda. In the more measured but still emphatic words of the authors, “the right-wing media ecosystem differs categorically from the rest of the media environment,” and has been much more susceptible to “disinformation, lies and half-truths.”

This assertion sounds as if it is itself the result of propaganda–liberal propaganda, in this case. But as Toobin reports,

“Network Propaganda” is an academic work at the crossroads of law, sociology, and media studies. Benkler is a law professor at Harvard and a co-director of the university’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, where Faris and Roberts both conduct research. The book is not a work of media criticism but, rather, of data analysis—a study of millions of online stories, tweets, and Facebook-sharing data points. The authors’ conclusion is that “something very different was happening in right-wing media than in centrist, center-left and left-wing media.” Accordingly, they wrote the book “to shine a light on the right-wing media ecosystem itself as the primary culprit in sowing confusion and distrust in the broader American ecosystem.”

The book examines the way in which that right-wing “ecosystem” works. Stories frequently begin on conspiracy theory sites like Infowars; if they remained there, most people would either fail to encounter them or see them for what they are. But they “migrate” to outlets like Fox News, that claim to follow principles of objective journalism. The authors note that there simply aren’t significant sites on the left that mirror those on the right by trafficking in “chronic falsity;”  furthermore, the “upstream sources” in the center and on the left do adhere to traditional journalistic standards, so they debunk rather than parrot the stories contrived by those few sites that  crank out leftwing propaganda.

This lack of symmetry is why “Pizzagate”–accusing Hillary Clinton of pedophilia and of molesting children in the basement of a pizza parlor–was widely reported, while unverifiable allegations that Trump had raped a 15-year-old quickly died.

The authors’ telling conclusion, based upon their data analysis, was that Trump’s election wasn’t the result of Russia’s (admitted) interference, nor to Cambridge Analytica’s manipulation of Facebook.

Rather, it was the feedback loop of right-wing quasi-journalism that had the most impact—and that hypothesis has profound implications not only for the study of the recent past but also for predictions about the not-so-distant future.

This analysis confirms the suspicions of several of my colleagues who have “lost” their previously rational parents to Fox News.

The sixty-four thousand dollar question is: in a country committed to freedom of speech and the press, what can we do about it?

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.