Should we hear the lies and the hate?

Andrew Neil of BBC’s “Politics Live” and Ben Shapiro

Andrew Neil of BBC’s “Politics Live” and Ben Shapiro

Whenever White House adviser Kellyanne Conway appears on a TV news or talk show, I switch the channel to more useful programming, such as the Home Shopping Network selling something in which I have no interest. Conway, who traffics in distortion and lies, is among the media circuit regulars who has spawned industry debate as to whether some people deserve an interview and appearance ban. A combative December appearance by Conway on Chris Cuomo’s CNN news talk show, for instance, produced a live, long and lively argument between Cuomo and CNN news anchor Don Lemon.

 A more recent repeat of the same issue, but involving a more offensive individual, occurred two weeks ago when conservative commentator and author Ben Shapiro, who could less politely be described as a hateful troll, was aggressively questioned by an interviewer on a BBC politics show. Shapiro, who unlike Conway does not advise a national decision maker (but who is popular enough that he filled the lecture room at a February appearance at the University of Alabama), abruptly walked out of the interview on live TV. Nesrine Malik, a columnist for The Guardian, wrote: “No matter how much those with regressive, prejudiced or simply dishonest views are challenged, it is pointless if they are constantly provided a venue. It is the platform that legitimizes them, not how they perform when they are on that platform.”

People worse than Shapiro sometimes get big platforms, too. Megyn Kelly controversially chose to begin her now-defunct primetime talk show on NBC in 2017 by interviewing InfoWars’ odious Alex Jones, who was recently banned from Facebook. It’s not just an issue for TV, either. The New York Times was heavily criticized for its 2017 feature story on an Ohio white nationalist following the infamous white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Much of the criticism was about how the story was done, but much was that the story even existed at all. NYT national editor Marc Lacey responded: “The point of the story was not to normalize anything but to describe the degree to which hate and extremism have become far more normal in American life than many of us want to think.”

 There is no question that effective civics requires a wide range of social and political viewpoints in public discourse. Hate speech is constitutionally protected. But that is a restriction on government action. Media are able to do mostly as they please in sharing or not sharing extreme opinions, and these days the range of opinions that some segments of the public are willing to receive and espouse is growing wider, including public airing of viewpoints that once were confined to corners and shadows.

 The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists says an ethical journalist or organization will “support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.” But SPJ also demands consideration of the potential harm done when repugnant views get aired, and when some politicians or commentators leave the realm of merely controversial statements and enter the realm of hate ideology or documentable falsehoods (which often go together), harm does occur. The harm of hate is evident, at least to people with a sense of empathy for demographic groups that are not like them. The harm of exposure for provable falsehoods is that too many people take such statements as truth, especially if the information squares with their existing beliefs. And then these statements go for a speed ride on social media, where they find more people who are gullible or looking for validation.

 But media outlets continue to give attention to speakers with track records of vitriol or inaccuracy. They do so in part because most journalists still worship the traditional industry values of balance (“both sideism”) and objectivity. Further, they see great benefit to presenting the reality of the world: That politicians distort and lie, that society is not free of hate. All the better to enable skepticism and resistance among the audience, and perhaps as the first step toward solutions. This view is bolstered by the ideal that a good interviewer can reveal truth by challenging and counterarguing with facts. That is noble and necessary (and can be good for ratings too), but it is not easy to do, as interviewers face constraints of time and format, and some don’t prepare well enough to pull it off. 

How to handle this journalistic dilemma may come down to one’s conception of the literacy and will of the audience. Public exposure for extremism and unethical persuasion may help to kill them, or may help to breed them. A lot of the evidence about large segments of media consumers today is disheartening in this regard. But an open marketplace of ideas can resist a few bad vendors. We need to know who they are and what they sell. And then we each can make our own choice of where to buy.


The Louisiana Purchase (Journalism Edition)


The New Orleans newspaper war ended Thursday with the owner of The New Orleans Advocate buying The Times-Picayune, or, as one writer put it, with David conquering Goliath. That’s true – if Goliath were missing one arm and one leg.

The Times-Picayune’s owner, the Newhouse family’s Advance Local Media (for which I worked for 30 years), gave up several years ago on daily newspapers as having a viable long-term financial future when it reduced print publication from seven days a week to three in New Orleans, Birmingham and other cities. Marketers dream and toil and spend in hopes that their product becomes part of the daily ritual of a mass of people. In New Orleans and elsewhere, that’s what daily newspapers once were. Even as expensive as newspapers were to produce and distribute, and even with readership trends working against them, what marketing sense did it make to take that product away four days a week and let people discover sooner rather than later that they didn’t really need it after all? But that’s what Advance did.

That move gave an avenue for the Baton Rouge Advocate in 2013 to create the daily New Orleans Advocate, which has since competed well with the Times-Picayune journalistically and economically. Also working in favor of The Advocate was the chance to hire some of the sadly large number of talented and community-connected journalists laid off by The Times-Picayune as part of its emphasis switch from print to its digital platform (which was also sold). The Advocate lured some other top talent from the T-P, as well. Soon, a potential wide gap in quality between the established outlet and the newcomer disappeared.

Advance is well known for its reluctance to sell its regional news organizations (New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson tried to buy the T-P but was told no). Still, for a company that was, like almost all newspaper companies, shedding expenses, it apparently didn’t want to continue competing in the fractured New Orleans market that it helped to create. (The lucrativeness of the sales price as a factor is uncertain because both companies are privately owned.)

The situation is different elsewhere. Advance does not face similar competition from a large-scale print rival in its other locations. Other sales are unlikely, especially as Advance has continued to seek an acceptable bottom line by significantly and alarmingly reducing its newsroom costs, primarily personnel, for all its local news organizations.

The sale in New Orleans unfortunately represents yet more lost personnel, as the entire Times-Picayune newsroom lost their jobs. I know some of them and know of others. That’s a lot of good journalism walking out the door. Ideally, though, The Advocate will fill the space in coverage, and it has pledged to offer a daily newspaper that is home delivered in addition to the current rack sales. I believe Advance isn’t wrong about the dire long-term future of print. But timing is everything. Other major news companies still print every day. They haven’t yet followed the Advance model. And now it’s heartening that a city the size of New Orleans gets back a daily doorstep paper.

Newspaper wars motivate good journalism, produce more voices and benefit a community. Anyone remember The Birmingham News and The Birmingham Post-Herald? But such competitions are economically untenable in all but the largest markets. A shakeout in New Orleans was inevitable. Still, in these days of numerically receding local and regional journalism, the key question shouldn’t be who’s the better medium, but rather does the community know everything it needs to know?


Carol Robinson: Crime boss

When I taught one semester of journalism at Samford University in Birmingham and was still trying to figure out this college teaching business, I’d occasionally ask students if they liked the course. I recall asking this of one student who said she liked it very much. And why? My lectures, perhaps? Umm, no. The very first reason out of her mouth: “That woman from The Birmingham News was great!” That woman was the Alabama Media Group’s iconic crime reporter, Carol Robinson, who kindly came as a guest speaker, regaled the students with stories, and left them mesmerized. Oh, she also gave each of them her business card, so if there ever were a big crime on campus they’d know who to contact. Yet another example of why Carol is so good at what she does.

Carol cover photo.png

 Carol, one of my first reporters at The News many years ago, is deservedly and deftly profiled by my friend and former colleague Alec Harvey in the latest edition of Auburn Magazine, the publication of the Auburn University Alumni Association. It’s worth your time just for the understanding of the life of a dedicated beat reporter (full disclosure: I’m in it).

For reasons I’ve never understood, many news organizations and individual journalists view the police beat as a temporary, entry-level position, maybe because of the uncontrollable and undesirable hours (I did it for a year). It’s a beat that will sap a reporter, in part because of the hours and in part because of tension with sources who often consider publicity an obstacle to crime solving. Mainly, though, the beat’s burden is the cynicism and perhaps psychological trauma of constant first hand exposure to the awfulness of life. Yet Carol has done it – superbly – for 23 years.

Among many other plaudits, Carol is AMG’s page view queen, a result of her remarkable volume of work and her more remarkable quality of work. Sure, she has the advantage of covering crime, which most research, including my own, shows is the No. 1 most-read topic among broad audiences. But good crime reporters such as Carol make something more of their beat than an endless series of sensationalistic headlines for the voyeuristic tendencies of readers. Crime reporting at its most basic provides essential information – kinds of crime, patterns and trends, locations – for residents to make informed decisions about self-protection. Beyond that, it is an opportunity to bridge gaps and suspicions between law enforcement and community, or perhaps in some cases to temporarily widen those differences with necessary watchdog reporting about law enforcement misconduct, with the ultimate aim of correcting failures and eventually strengthening perceptions and relationships as a result. 

 Another of crime reporting’s public services may be its most difficult and quixotic – and what Carol does best – which is to starkly and impactfully portray the human toll of crime. Bringing humanity to the stats and written reports is a chance to stir the community conscience, so that the next time, say, a 2-year-old boy or a 16-year-old girl senselessly loses their life, we might feel the compassion, outrage and, most importantly, the motivation to try to do something about it.


College admission decisions sometimes need a do-over


College admissions have never been a strict academic merit system. Consider the extra weight given to demographic diversity of the student body (a good thing), or to student athletic ability (a controversial but justifiable thing), or to family ability to pay (a college budget thing). At some universities, add considerations of political connections, or legacy enrollments or past or predicted family donations to the school (none of those a good thing but irresistible to some administrations). This reality, though, shouldn’t lessen the outrage over FBI allegations that 50 wealthy parents, entrance test administrators, college administrators and college coaches used bribery and fraud to gain student admissions into selective universities.

 Part of the visceral reaction comes from the galling notion that these families weren’t satisfied with the inherent advantages they already enjoyed from being wealthy and white. The other part was well articulated by prosecutor Andrew Lelling: That for every student admitted by deceit, some deserving student somewhere was denied. 

For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected.
— Federal prosecutor Andrew Lelling

 Lelling’s description of a “zero-sum game” has relevance to another group of college students – an extremely small group -- who did nothing fraudulent but nonetheless leave professors such as myself baffled and annoyed. These are students for whom academics are not a priority. At all. They exist at every university – they are not readily apparent during the admissions process – and they are most easily identified by their abysmal class attendance record. More than once, usually speaking generically, I have told students that if they wish to waste their money and educational opportunity, that’s their (unwise) choice. But I’m not sure I’m right about that. Because each of those students took the spot of some other applicant who would presumably be putting forth the effort to gain something from the educational chance they’d been given. If you’re there instead of someone else, do you not have some responsibility and obligation to appreciate the opportunity and to give a flip?

 Whether talking about uninterested students or the students in Operation Varsity Blues, it’s necessary to think about who they might have bumped out, though that’s unknowable outside an admissions office. Maybe it was another rich, white, accomplished applicant who worked just as hard or harder in high school. Or maybe it was an average achiever trying to overcome an impoverished home life and a failing high school and who just needed a break and a scholarship to become the first in the family to go to college. Any scenario is unfortunate, but when I imagine the latter kind of case, I despair.


Course: Ethics 101. Student: ESPN. Grade: F.

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The revolving door of personnel between journalism and the institutions of coverage is an old story at both the national and local levels. Expertise and contacts prompt individuals to change careers from one to the other, a pattern that these days is increasingly becoming one-sided as journalists depart the field involuntarily or, frustrated by deteriorating work conditions, voluntarily. Thankfully, news organizations that practice ethics insist on no simultaneous overlap. So it is both mystifying and appalling to witness the flimsy ethics of national sports TV networks, especially ESPN.

ESPN has not only endorsed but encouraged the New York Mets’ hiring last week of Sunday Night Baseball analyst Jessica Mendoza as a baseball operations adviser who will assist with “player evaluation, roster construction, technological advancement and health and performance,” according to a club statement. That is not a ceremonial role. Meanwhile, her fellow analyst, Alex Rodriguez, is an adviser to one of his former teams, the New York Yankees. David Ross, another ESPN analyst, is a special assistant to the Chicago Cubs, one of his previous teams. Over at Fox Sports, studio hosts Frank Thomas and David Ortiz have advisory roles with their former clubs.

In a public statement about Mendoza, an ESPN spokesman referred to multiple such examples “across networks” and pledged that ESPN “will be fully transparent about Jessica’s relationship with the Mets.” I therefore expect nothing less than every name identification chyron for the entire season to say “Adviser to New York Mets.”

Certainly, transparency is a cornerstone of ethical communications in media. There’s a too-long history of compromising relationships and payments that were not initially disclosed. But transparency isn’t credibility. News outlets and commentators who work for clubs can claim that their remarks are completely unaffected by their team affiliation, and that may even be true. Doesn’t matter. Credibility is only what the audience perceives it to be. No matter how forthcoming and even-handed Mendoza or any other similarly situated analyst may be, I will always wonder if there’s any skewing of perspective about teams the Mets play against or may trade with. Which would be every team in Major League Baseball. Same goes for commentary about players. And gracious, at this point, ESPN doesn’t even seem to have a problem with Mendoza working games in which the Mets play or Rodriguez working games involving the Yankees.

Would a news division allow a regular on-air employee to simultaneously get paid by a subject of coverage? Don’t think so. And that’s a big part of the frustration here. In the world of TV sports, media credibility already gets pressured by the lucrative deals for broadcast rights. When certain outlets walk the plank even farther with formalized and fundamental conflicts of interest, it revives the (mostly) unfair aspersion that the sports media – all of them – don’t take their journalism seriously.


Winging (it) over the air

I dusted off my media appearance skills this week and was quickly reminded how hard it is to wing it on live broadcasts. Live TV and radio shows work best if spontaneous, but spontaneously making comments that are intelligent, accurate, complete, fair, nuanced, composed, comprehensible, thought provoking, unexpected, fresh and maybe even halfway funny is no easy feat. Renewed respect for journalists and other experts who do this regularly. And I recommend that every journalist do this at least once, just to be sure they have an appreciation for how hard it can be on the other side of the Q&A.


Punishing the press at UNA

The flor-ala logo

The flor-ala logo

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education last week picked the University of North Alabama for a spot on its highly competitive annual list of the 10 worst colleges in the nation for free speech. I know the history and track record of UNA’s campus newspaper, The Flor-Ala, so this is a truly sad achievement by the university’s administration. The primary case for inclusion began in September, when The Flor-Ala published a negative article about the university’s refusal to comply with open-records requests related to an administrator and a professor who were no longer on campus. One week later, student editors and the Flor-Ala’s staff adviser, Scott Morris, were summoned to a meeting at which a university administrator complained about that story. Two weeks later, the administration informed Morris that the adviser’s job description would be changed to require a doctorate and that the position would become part of an academic department. Thus, Morris is out of a job at the end of this semester. Morris, the Flor-Ala staff, and members of UNA’s Student Publications Board, including board chairman Glenn Stephens, a former colleague of mine, believe these actions are retribution for bad press. The administration denies that.

In addition to punishing Morris, the newly configured job description for student media adviser will enhance the administration’s ability to limit future negative coverage, in my view. Faculty members tend to be outspoken and independent. But I fear a faculty adviser of student media who has not yet been granted tenure, and knowing this current episode, would be naturally reluctant to enable administration-bashing articles when such a vital career decision looms. To be fair, UNA’s job revamp is not an outlier. A 2014 academic article by Carol Terracina-Hartman of Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and Robert G. Nulph of Missouri Western State University (cleverly subheaded “Is there a doctor in the newsroom?”) reports that making the student media adviser job into a tenure-track faculty position is a trend among universities. (That’s not the case here at UA, by the way.) Upping the doctorate count is one part of impressing accreditors. But that 2014 study also raises this question: Is it a good idea? The authors report that a “strong majority” of the advisers for award-winning student media have 15 or more years of professional experience (which Morris does). But “university administrations often sacrifice professional media experience for doctorates in advertising new hires.” (The valid, underlying premise is that the pool of candidates with a terminal degree and years of newsroom battle scars is relatively small.) No one is saying an adviser with a Ph.D. wouldn’t know what they were doing. Far from it. But it’s a job best suited for someone like Morris who has been in the trenches of journalism a long time. UNA should prioritize that for the good of the students, but the administration has other motives here, which is a shame.

College administrations facing undesired stories often count on student media to lose reportorial momentum through the churn of graduation. The Flor-Ala’s best response isn’t an easy one, but it’s the same best response as elsewhere in journalism: Don’t quit till you get the story.


Yes, a scandal rag can be sued out of existence


The National Enquirer occasionally and remarkably unearths truths that reverberate through politics and journalism. It wasn’t wrong, for instance, about presidential candidate John Edwards and his affair, or about presidential candidate Gary Hart and his affair, or about O.J. and his … Bruno Magli shoes. It’s not wrong about Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos’ affair, either. But Bezos’ evidence that the Enquirer sought to blackmail him with threats of publishing intimate texts and photos, along with revelations of its practice to “catch and kill” negative stories about favored public figures, reminds us that at its heart, this publication is journalistic and ethical garbage. And maybe a criminal enterprise. If you think, though, that the Enquirer is the most outrageous scandal magazine ever, you’d be wrong. Although it didn’t intersect with national politics as the Enquirer manages to do, the now-defunct Confidential magazine of the late 1950s was equally controversial. As documented by Samantha Barbas of the University at Buffalo School of Law in 2016, Confidential was the most popular and most despised magazine of its era. Using hidden tape recorders, private investigators and prostitutes as informants, the magazine “destroyed celebrities’ reputations, relationships and careers.” And like the Enquirer, it sometimes withheld negative information to use as future leverage over celebrities and agents. Although most of the magazine’s headlines were true, celebrities sued, and the State of California, operating at a time when laws and attitudes were not as protective of a free press as today, charged Confidential with criminal libel and publication of obscenity. The criminal case ended favorably for the magazine with a split jury, but that obscures the real impact. Confidential abandoned its stock in trade in 1958 because of the decimating costs of fighting all that litigation. Which brings us to now. Bezos has a strong invasion of privacy case against the Enquirer, should he wish to pursue it. He could fund lawsuits by others, too. Journalists understandably recoil at the notion of wealthy plaintiffs sidetracking the press’ mission with harassing and expensive court actions. Bezos himself was critical of PayPal founder Peter Thiel when Thiel secretly bankrolled the Hulk Hogan lawsuit that folded Gawker. But this view suggests that the price of a free press must include all thresholds of tabloid excess. And now it’s Bezos himself in the crosshairs, and he’s really angry. It may turn out that federal prosecutors will inflict sufficient damage on the Enquirer. But if Bezos wishes to take it further, the Enquirer may end up wondering regretfully why it decided to take on the richest man in the world.

Preserving journalism's history -- the good and the bad

The First Amendment on the facade of the Newseum in Washington (photo by Mike Peel,

The First Amendment on the facade of the Newseum in Washington (photo by Mike Peel,

Were it not for the increasingly frequent and very adamant sounding public announcements that the museum was closing in 15 … 10 … 5 … minutes, I’d probably have missed dinner, the plane home and possibly the start of the semester. Because I’d still be trying to read all the exhibits in the Newseum in Washington, D.C. I hope anyone interested in journalism, or functioning democracy, gets a chance to tour the museum dedicated to journalism and the First Amendment before it closes at its current location sometime in 2020 and moves to a presumably smaller building somewhere else in D.C. The Newseum blends narratives, visuals and artifacts on an array of topics about journalism and major news events, an eclectic mix that includes 9/11, the Unabomber, the Beltway Snipers, Pulitzer Prize winners, journalism history and threats to press freedom around the globe. Several exhibits arise from the state of Alabama. A section dedicated to the FBI includes the 2013 rescue of a kidnapped 5-year-old boy held in an underground bunker in Midland City. (The FBI smuggled a camera inside the bunker by hiding it inside a toy dinosaur intended to entertain the boy. Clever.) The most notable ones, though, come from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In that regard, my former organization, The Birmingham News, is memorialized in both a good light and a disgracing one. Part of an exhibit correctly notes The News’ shameful see-no-evil coverage of nationally historic protests and clashes in Birmingham. Various accounts have laid out details over the years. Believing (wrongly) that it would help to de-escalate tensions, The News relegated major stories to Page 2 and refused to quote any of the black activists. Worrying foremost about the city’s image, The News’ assistant publisher squashed publication of many of the dramatic photos – attack dogs, fire hoses – captured by the newspaper’s photographers. “Do Not Publish,” he would write on the prints. The Newseum exhibit grants some amount of rehabilitation to The News by featuring its 2006 publication of a collection of civil rights era photos found by chance in a box in a closet of the News’ building. The gallery, titled “Unseen, Unforgotten,” highlighted photos that, remarkably, had never been published. Whether the Newseum continues to exist or not, the performance of journalism will be enshrined forever, if for no other reasons than the fixed nature of its platforms and the vital work of historians and researchers. There’s never a bad time for any news organization – especially community ones whose readers have limited local news options – to step back, self-assess and ask how history will judge it.

EXPLOSIVE STORY! (Sure'd be nice for journalism if it were true)


Commentary from news journalists about the meteoric but now suspect BuzzFeed News report that President Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress has been a strange mix of implied exoneration and muted dread. The sense of exoneration comes from frustration and puzzlement that a competitor broke a huge story that their organizations didn’t have and still don’t have. The dread comes from the knowledge that if the story is wrong, media critics and Trump supporters will use it (and already are) to condemn the news media as a whole. Their job will just have gotten a whole lot harder. The fairest, most valid way to judge media performance and credibility is organization by organization, not the field as a whole. But it won’t happen that way. While news consumers have traditionally rated their local media higher in trust and credibility than the national media, the national media get broad brushed based on preconceived biases supposedly validated by any gaffe of a single news outlet. Certainly, there is substantial reason to question the accuracy of the BuzzFeed story — the rare and stunning (though vague) public rebuke by the special counsel’s office and, probably more telling, the inability of any other news organization to independently corroborate the story. I think it’s safe to say, nonetheless, that BuzzFeed News did not take publication of a story of this magnitude cavalierly. Further, this is an outlet with a good track record of reporting on Trump/Russia connections and other issues, plus a Pulitzer Prize finalist recognition for stories about Russian assassinations. One of the reporters on the current story in question, Anthony Cormier, is a Pulitzer Prize winner. And this story may yet turn out to be true. Still, I spot some journalistic alarms. I’m doubtful most news organizations would have published a story with such far-reaching implications with only two anonymous sources (though BuzzFeed says there’s other sourcing not in the story). I’m doubtful most organizations would have sought response from the special counsel’s office in the brief, casual manner than BuzzFeed News did. I’m doubtful most outlets would even have hired reporter Jason Leopold in the first place (and I say that based only on his past documented reporting failures). It’s relevant, too, I think, that BuzzFeed News was the only news outlet that chose to publish full details of the unverified Steele dossier. BuzzFeed News, being a relatively young operation birthed from a medium of memes and clickbait, may approach publication standards with an unconventional mindset. Let’s hope any misapplications of a tried-and-true legacy news vetting process don’t end up damaging BuzzFeed News — and everyone in journalism.

UPDATE (1/20): Cormier says on CNN’s Reliable Sources that BuzzFeed News is trying to determine the language that was used between Cohen and Trump “in the room.” Knowing the language seems like a really vital element to substantiating the story’s crucial word choice of “directed.” That would be another journalistic alarm.