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

Confidential_Magazine_cover_July_1957.jpg

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, www.mikepeel.net)

The First Amendment on the facade of the Newseum in Washington (photo by Mike Peel, www.mikepeel.net)

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)

Buzzfeed+blog+post+II.jpg

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.

There goes Bob Costas again

I have high standards for sports broadcasters, a natural consequence of having grown up in St. Louis, Missouri, listening to Jack Buck, Harry Caray, Joe Garagiola, Dan Kelly and others. I heard Eli Gold call St. Louis Blues hockey games almost a decade before he ever did an Alabama football game. Another was Bob Costas, who began his professional career calling games of the Spirits of St. Louis of the defunct American Basketball Association. I well remember sports fans calling in to mega radio station KMOX to complain madly about this kid from New York who had the temerity at the time to hold Mickey Mantle in higher regard than Stan Musial. I thought, whoa, this kid’s career is over before it even started. Umm, not quite so, as four decades later Costas departs NBC Sports (by buyout) as its icon of football and Olympic coverage. A lot of sports fans liked Costas … as long he stuck to sports. Which he didn’t. On air, he broached issues such as gun control, Russian politics, offensive mascots and — an issue that needs as much airing as possible — the dangers of head injuries in football. Sports and politics have always intersected, and always will. It’s not merely because sports figures and broadcasters have an immense platform they could use for advocacy if they wish. It’s because sports are part of society’s fabric, and so they reflect its ills and divides. As long as some athletes engage in guns and violence and get coddled for their crimes, as long as Olympic committees make horrific choices of hosts, as long as games mentally and physically cripple some athletes for the sake of someone else’s money and entertainment, reputable sports journalists such as Costas will want to at least occasionally make us pause the fun and escapism to consider the serious issues before our eyes. And that isn’t always popular or easy. Costas did it, though, and that is despite his network owning broadcast rights purchased from the very leagues or organizations he criticized. Usually, especially on the regional and local levels, nothing can squelch necessary sports commentary quite like a business relationship.

This game destroys people’s brains. ... Not everyone, but a substantial number. ... That’s the fundamental fact of football. That is the biggest story in American sports.
— Bob Costas, November 2017, University of Maryland panel

Not everyone can be a news photographer (even if management thinks so)

Chicago photo compare.jpg

Occasionally I like to highlight recent interesting (and relevant) research into journalism because, frankly, academic researchers do a sadly average job of delivering findings in understandable and widespread form to the practitioners who would benefit from them.

Many news organizations forced to save money in recent years decided they didn’t need all those professional photographers, because after all, any reporter or even any citizen with a smartphone could take a photo or a video good enough to publish. Wish they had been able to read the conclusion of researchers Tara M. Mortensen of the University of South Carolina and Peter J. Gade of the University of Oklahoma. They studied photos published by a medium-sized newspaper in New York before and after the paper laid off its entire photo staff in 2013. Their findings: Compared to non-professionals (citizens, PR), pro photographers “are better at capturing intimate, emotional and graphically appealing images” (Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 2018). While non-professional photos were “purely informational images of people and places,” pro images more often included “conflict, action, human element (and) timeliness.” They further concluded: “These findings refute suggestions that enhanced digital technology and rapid-fire cameras allow non-professionals to routinely produce photojournalism on par with professionals.” The study also found that photos by reporters remained rare after the layoffs, “suggesting that reporters were seldom expected or capable of shooting photography while on reporting assignments.” But for all the validation of professional photographers, the researchers’ ultimate conclusion was a sad one: Pro photographers had not established enough worth (“legitimacy”) in the minds of management to withstand organizations’ desperate rush to slash the payroll (not unlike assignment editors, copy editors, statehouse reporters, neighborhoods reporters and anyone over 50 who was making a lot of money). Certainly managers knew photo quality would suffer, but they believed marginal yet acceptable alternative sources existed. In other words, they deemed the degree of decline in quality as less than the degree of gain in wealth, and that’s all that mattered. For famous anecdotal support, I’ve posted comparison photos (sized based on their actual page display) from the Chicago Tribune (top) and the Chicago Sun-Times showing the Blackhawks bringing the Stanley Cup to town in 2013. I’m thinking you can figure out which one laid off its photo staff one month earlier.


UAB football: Birmingham’s Team

For awhile now, some UAB football fans have needed to quit worrying about whether the Blazers do or don’t get the same Birmingham media coverage as Alabama and Auburn and do what they finally did in 2018: Ramp up the money and attendance to support the program. Coach Bill Clark, who remarkably chose to stay at UAB despite the shutdown of the program, deserves every piece of praise for producing the most amazing story in college football this season. Hear my December 4, 2018 interview about UAB’s season with WBHM public radio station News Director Gigi Douban. Gigi, a former colleague at The Birmingham News, asked excellent questions, which was no surprise. She’s a terrific journalist who is one of the best examples I’ve seen of how a good journalist can learn and excel on different platforms.

WBHM STORY / INTERVIEW

New UAB photo.jpg

Rooting for my student-athletes

Jalen-Hurts-Graduation.jpg

After years of profession-mandated detachment and objectivity, it’s just not in my nature to fervently root for any particular college sports team, not even the Crimson Tide. I’d prefer that Alabama wins everything, but it’s not that big of a deal if it doesn’t. I do, however, fervently root for the student-athletes who’ve been students of mine. I root, for instance, for Jalen Hurts — to play well, which he has, to graduate, which he did, and to play for whatever freakin’ college he wants to regardless of what anyone has to say about it (kinda like, you know, the way coaches go to whatever freakin’ school they wish). After Jalen’s you-wouldn’t-dream-of-this-even-if-you-were-writing-fiction comeback tale in the 2018 SEC Championship Game, I mentioned Jalen in the same large lecture class that Jalen took in a previous semester. Jalen, I told them, always sat in the front row. Jalen, I told them, didn’t even use all the free class absences that I allow. They applauded. To which I offer a fervent “Yay.”