Journalism in Many Forms

Richard Harding Davis, Source: Wikipedia

As I walked my dog down 21st Street in Center City Philadelphia the other night, a plaque on an otherwise undistinguished townhouse grabbed my eye. The place, it said, was the boyhood home of Richard Harding Davis, an exceptional fin de siecle author and journalist whose work would humble most modern reporters.

Davis covered six wars, including the Spanish-American War, the Boer War and World War I. Strains from his war correspondence may have contributed to a heart attack that killed him just shy of age 52, , according to the report of his death in 1916 in The New York Times, His adventures got him arrested a few times as he ventured to the British and French fronts, even though he backed the Allies.

By today’s standards, Davis would hardly be called an objective observer. His forte was Yellow Journalism, the sort that provoked anti-Spanish sentiments in the U.S., particularly with reporting about Cuba. Apparently happy with his sympathetic coverage, Col. Teddy Roosevelt regarded Davis as a close friend and had made him an honorary member of the Rough Riders, the regiment Roosevelt led in the Cuban campaign. Before his adventures covering various wars, in one of his earliest reporting jobs, Davis put on what the Times called “rough clothing” to gain the confidence of burglars in a saloon, proving to be instrumental in the arrests of several of them.

Much of the journalism of his day was opinionated and its practices would never fly today. And Davis also ventured into areas where opinion and points of view were the explicit stock-in-trade. He served as managing editor of Harper’s Weekly in the mid-1890s, for instance. Moving beyond fact-based work, he also wrote a bevy of books and plays, including a long list of pieces that were turned into movies.

Over the decades since, plenty of reporters have turned their hands to books, of course, including both fiction and nonfiction. Ernest Hemingway’s early days in newspapering shaped his later writing (coincidentally Hemingway developed an affection for Cuba, much as Davis did decades before). More recently, so-called New Journalism practitioners such as Joan Didion blended fiction and nonfiction to write revealingly about American culture. The New York Times recently shed light on some of Didion’s experiences and views in the polarized 1960s.

Joan Didion

And former journalists, such as David Simon of The Wire fame, have used the skills they developed in newspapers to enormous advantage. TV has benefitted richly from him and his likes.

Journalists who hew more closely to observable facts (and accounts by insiders involved in events) include such names as Bob Woodwardwhose non-newspaper work may not equal Davis’ output in volume but certainly does in impact. Others of this sort are Jane MayerJohn Carreyrou and Janet Malcolm. Many such folks have worked for outlets of varying sorts. New York Times senior writer David Leonhardt, for instance, won awards at BusinessWeek before going on to win a Pulitzer Prize at the Times. So far, he has authored two books, including a fresh take on the American economy.

Despite the prominence today of such star journalists and former journalists, one wonders about the future. Will it include more of the distinguished work of the sort they’ve done or less; more such star writers or fewer? They forged their skills in news outlets now under siege by economics, the rise of social media, cable TV and distractions of all sorts. Where will tomorrow’s writers hone their skills?

It’s hard to be optimistic at a time of such ferment in media. Certainly, the output of today’s stars is impressive. And, no doubt, some of the stars of tomorrow are toiling away now in news operations that hang on all across the country. But how long we will get to enjoy them, and how brightly they will shine in coming years, is anyone’s guess.

Decades hence, plaques may be placed on the childhood homes of some of today’s stars. Will folks walking by such places have journalists then working, using similar talents, to think about?

All That Is Old Is New Again

Source: The Michigan Daily

Couples who have been married a long time repeat the same arguments again and again. Denied resolution, they bicker over a husband’s habit of putting keys and wallets on shelves meant for artwork. They fight over whether he listens enough to her. They scrap over whether she is too critical. The arguments grow so familiar that they should, perhaps, be numbered so a wife can say “No. 13,” instead of berating the husband over the wallet, or “No. 17” over the listening issue, perhaps “No. 3” over whether she criticizes too much.

Some publications have sought to be helpful in seeking a way out of the never-ending battles. See the Guardian on this.

Lately, we’ve seen a similar dynamic at work in the argument over journalistic objectivity. Journalists and some non-journalists have beaten this horse for decades and lately the argument is getting a fresh airing by a generation that, apparently, is discovering the debate anew.

A.G. Sulzberger, source: The New Yorker

The latest missile to fly comes from A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times, whose long discussion appears in the Columbia Journalism Review. To boil it down, he argues that objectivity should remain as a journalistic ideal. He argues: “I continue to believe that objectivity—or if the word is simply too much of a distraction, open-minded inquiry—remains a value worth striving for.”

But he avoids the term, mostly characterizing it as a hoary notion espoused by philosopher and journalist Walter Lippmann, who detailed the objectivity idea in the early decades of the last century. Indeed, Sulzberger prefers that media instead regard itself instead as “independent.” Sulzberger’s view: “But independence, the word we use inside the Times, better captures the full breadth of this journalistic approach and its promise to the public at large.”

By independent, he means reporting without fear or favor, as his great-great-grandfather put it, enshrining the ideal so much that it became the motto of The Times.

“It means Independence is the increasingly contested journalistic commitment to following facts wherever they lead. It places the truth—and the search for it with an open yet skeptical mind—above all else,” Sulzberger writes. “Independence asks reporters to adopt a posture of searching, rather than knowing. It demands that we reflect the world as it is, not the world as we may wish it to be. It requires journalists to be willing to exonerate someone deemed a villain or interrogate someone regarded as a hero. It insists on sharing what we learn—fully and fairly—regardless of whom it may upset or what the political consequences might be.”

Martin Baron, source; The Washington Post

This eloquent round of the argument was preceded by similar thoughts from Martin Baron, a former Washington Post executive editor. In late March, he weighed in with a straightforward – if similarly nuanced — defense of objectivity, relying on the rhetorical device of comparing journalists to professional of various sorts. The public demands objectivity in judgments by judges, police officers, government regulators and, perhaps most persuasively, by doctors, he argued.

“We want doctors to be objective in their diagnoses of the medical conditions of their patients,” Baron wrote. “We don’t want them recommending treatments based on hunches or superficial, subjective judgments about their patients. We want doctors to make a fair, honest, honorable, accurate, rigorous, impartial, open-minded evaluation of the clinical evidence.”

Neither Baron nor Sulzberger were naïve in their contentions, though. They acknowledged the arguments that reporters’ backgrounds shaped their viewpoints and their familiarity or unfamiliarity with communities they write about would be important. They recognized the problems posed by bias.

Still, Baron suggested that certain practices, well-honed by earlier generations of journalists, can elevate one above the limits. Also citing Lippman, Baron wrote: “Our job as journalists, as he saw it, was to determine the facts and place them in context. The goal should be to have our work be as scientific as we could make it. Our research would be conscientious and careful. We would be guided by what the evidence showed. That meant we had to be generous listeners and eager learners, especially conscious of our own suppositions, prejudices, preexisting opinions and limited knowledge.”

And Baron defined objectivity in negative terms, arguing: “Objectivity is not neutrality. It is not on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand journalism. It is not false balance or both-sidesism. It is not giving equal weight to opposing arguments when the evidence points overwhelmingly in one direction. It does not suggest that we as journalists should engage in meticulous, thorough research only to surrender to cowardice by failing to report the facts we’ve worked so hard to discover.”

“The goal is not to avoid criticism, pander to partisans or appease the public. The aim is not to win affection from readers and viewers. It does not require us to fall back on euphemisms when we should be speaking plainly. It does not mean we as a profession labor without moral conviction about right and wrong.”

Putting the ideas positively, Baron echoed what journalism teachers have taught for years. “The idea is to be open-minded when we begin our research and to do that work as conscientiously as possible,” he held. “It demands a willingness to listen, an eagerness to learn — and an awareness that there is much for us to know. We don’t start with the answers. We go seeking them, first with the already formidable challenge of asking the right questions and finally with the arduous task of verification.”

Leonard Downie Jr., source: Twitter

These spirited and much-detailed arguments were all kickstarted anew in January by Leonard Downie Jr. His view, distilled, goes like this: we all are prisoners of our racial, gender, socio-economic and political backgrounds and thus cannot hope to report objectively on anything, so why bother trying? Instead, just own up to the biases and, indeed, own them.

Downie, another former executive editor at The Washington Post who now is a professor at Arizona State University, argued in a Washington Post piece that objectivity is obsolete. He and a colleague quizzed newspeople and concluded: “What we found has convinced us that truth-seeking news media must move beyond whatever ‘objectivity’ once meant to produce more trustworthy news. We interviewed more than 75 news leaders, journalists and other experts in mainstream print, broadcast and digital news media, many of whom also advocate such a change. This appears to be the beginning of another generational shift in American journalism.”

He suggested that one’s biases can’t be readily shelved and that identity is central.

“But increasingly, reporters, editors and media critics argue that the concept of journalistic objectivity is a distortion of reality,” Downie wrote. “They point out that the standard was dictated over decades by male editors in predominantly White newsrooms and reinforced their own view of the world. They believe that pursuing objectivity can lead to false balance or misleading ‘bothsidesism’ in covering stories about race, the treatment of women, LGBTQ+ rights, income inequality, climate change and many other subjects. And, in today’s diversifying newsrooms, they feel it negates many of their own identities, life experiences and cultural contexts, keeping them from pursuing truth in their work.”

Indeed, newsrooms need to “move beyond” objectivity, he argued, though just how that would look seemed a bit gauzy.

“We urge news organizations to, first, strive not just for accuracy based on verifiable facts but also for truth — what Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward have called ‘the best obtainable version of the truth.’ This means original journalism that includes investigating and reporting on all aspects of American life.”

These debates, including the question of whether to deep-six the term “objectivity,” remind me of the contention of my former editor at BusinessWeek, Stephen Shepard. Because BW was a magazine – a venue in which readers expected a point of view in coverage – Shepard maintained that fairness was really the attainable goal. Our reporters were not akin to cameras, unblinkingly recording reality, but rather we were making judgments constantly. But our judgments and arguments had to be fact-based and fair to all views involved.

Demonstrating a few years earlier just how old this argument is, I wrote about this all in an academic piece published in 2015 in Journalism and Mass Communication Educator. The piece detailed the development of the objectivity ideal –- which is really only about a century old — and the arguments that have raged about it. The debate, as I say, is hardly new.

The bottom line, I believe, is that objectivity is a myth and an ideal. It is as unattainable as the beauty of a Greek god or goddess — but that doesn’t mean we can’t keep trying, striving to reach the grandeur of a David or the loveliness of an Athena.

We owe it to readers to report the facts thoroughly and fairly, acknowledging differing views. We need to pursue the truth as best we can determine it, quoting responsible voices on all sides of the issues we write about. That doesn’t mean showcasing “alternative facts,” or failing to call out misstatements or untruths (indeed, Trump coverage is a sorry example of the need to make such callouts). And it does mean reporting on things that might go against one’s own views and doing so well and with appropriate distance.

But we also can’t forget that it is often outrage at or discomfort with things we cover that drive us. We get angry at injustice. We are stirred to write about wrongdoing. Why? Because we judge that it’s wrong. And it may be that who we are informs our passion or judgment about what is right and wrong. That is hardly objective, but it can make for great journalism.

There is much wisdom in the pieces by Sulzberger and Baron and, it must be admitted, in the Downie piece — even if one disagrees with his conclusions. Reflecting the journalistic traditions these three were reared in, the arguments they make are balanced, thorough and smart. They are worth pondering.

Trump TV Starts a New Season

Source; Vanity Fair

Donald J. Trump is slated to appear on CNN on Wednesday night for what is being billed as a town hall. This raises a host of journalistic questions that I suspect will persist throughout the campaign. Already, folks are weighing in on the propriety of CNN granting this showcase.

As Kyle Pope of Columbia Journalism Review asks, for instance: “Do you give Donald Trump airtime or ignore him? Fact-check him in real time or let him discredit himself? Pick apart his most noxious ideas or hope they go away?”

So, let me join the parade with a few matters media outlets – and viewers — need to consider. First, of course, is whether the man is newsworthy. That’s an easy one – he’s currently the frontrunner in GOP circles in the race for the presidency and, like it or not, he did occupy that office. By definition, he’s newsworthy and many viewers – perhaps especially those who shun CNN – would want to see him.

This is different, of course, from the 2016 campaign – at least in its early stages. Back then, he had clown appeal and few, probably including many in his inner circle, thought his efforts were anything but a PR stunt. He offered comic relief. Now, he needs to be taken seriously.

The question then becomes: if he is to be taken seriously, how is he best dealt with? He is almost certain to lie, perhaps about the election results and certainly about the various legal problems piling up for him. One technique, of course, would be to call on various pundits who could disembowel him with facts.

Women who have alleged improprieties by Trump. Source: Time

But Trump is so shameless and effective at bluster – a master salesman who at least appears to believe his own pabulum — that he won’t respond the way a normal candidate would. A normal candidate would be set back on his heels by the truth. But he’ll barrel on through, keeping the limelight focused on his untruths as if they were real (likely to the applause of his supporters, who want nothing to do with a normal candidate).

Indeed, the problem raised by CNN allowing disinformation on the air was suggested in a CNBC piece. The author, Alex Sherman, referred to a promise that CNN chief Chris Licht made last year when he took over the outlet, a pledge to avoid putting on anyone who engaged in disinformation.

“The analogy I love to use is some people like rain, some people don’t like rain. We should give space to that. But we will not have someone who comes on and says it’s not raining,” Licht said in an October interview with CNBC.

He was referring to election denier nonsense, in particular, there.

But, as Sherman suggested, Licht appears to be backtracking. “This seems to be a case of Licht bending his own rules,” he wrote. “Clearly, CNN has different standards for Trump than it does spokespeople for Trump that cycle through cable news networks as daily guests.”

Still, CNN does want to treat this appearance in serious journalistic fashion. That will mean fact-checking of some sort, as CNN officials have acknowledged.

“We obviously can’t control what Donald Trump says—that’s up to him,” CNN Political Director David Chalian told Vanity Fair. “What we can do is prod, ask questions, follow up, and try to get as revealing answers as possible.”

That certainly sounds reasonable. The problem, of course, is what is reasonable in dealing with Donald Trump?

The sad fact is that in modern times we’ve never had a president like Trump or a candidate like him, either. In recent memory, extramarital shenanigans – or something as benign as tears — would disqualify a contender. Now, even an indictment (much less two impeachment proceedings) is insufficient. How low have we sunk?

Source: Britain’s Got Talent Wiki

So, let me make a modest proposal. On one of the innumerable TV talent competitions, whenever a judge finds someone unacceptable, he or she hits a button that puts a big red X on the screen. If a majority of the judges hits such buttons, the auditioner is bounced.

What if CNN did something like this with Trump? Each time he lies, a big red X and a loud buzzer could sound. As soon as he hit, say, six red Xs, he’d be escorted off the stage to the tune of the Beatles “Nowhere Man.”

The host would explain the rules in advance – perhaps in an effort to confine Trump to true statements. And after each lie, the host would explain the truth.

The only problem with this approach would likely be that Trump’s appearance would be short and CNN would then need to find a way to fill the airtime. Perhaps the network could then put on a credible candidate, from either party. Almost certainly, that would better serve the public than this town hall is likely to.

Making Enemies

Doni Chamberlain, Source: The Guardian


For decades, journalists have made enemies as they report on corrupt politicians, companies that behave illegally and criminals infuriated by coverage of their misdeeds. Nowadays, however, some reporters have become the target of right-wing zealots who, in some places at least, seem to be on the ascent in the seemingly never-ending, stunningly vile Trump era.

Consider the case of Doni Chamberlain, a 66-year-old small-town journalist in northern California. The Guardian profiled the challenges she is facing in publishing a news site, A News Cafe, that has covered the rise of a motley bunch of conservatives in Shasta County, the home of about 250,000 people some 250 miles north of San Francisco.

As the outlet reports, Chamberlain has seen a nasty turn in the atmosphere over her nearly 30 years reporting on the area. Some critics have called her a communist who doesn’t deserve to live and a radio host suggested she should be hanged. “Her writing has made her a public enemy of the conservative crowd intent on remaking the county,” The Guardian account says. “Far-right leaders have confronted her at rallies and public meetings, mocking and berating her. At a militia-organized protest in 2021, the crowd screamed insults.”

As a result, Chamberlain has to watch over her shoulder. “No meeting sources in public,” the outlet reports. “She livestreams rowdy events where the crowd is less than friendly and doesn’t walk to her car without scanning the street. Sometimes, restraining orders can be necessary tools.”

With her critical coverage, Chamberlain has earned the enmity of a new majority that has arisen in a county that was long red but in recent times has tilted into the Twilight Zone. The group, The Guardian reports, is “backed by militia members, anti-vaxxers, election deniers and residents who have long felt forgotten by governments in Sacramento and Washington.” This group has “fired the county health officer and done away with the region’s voting system. Politically moderate public officials have faced bullying, intimidation and threats of violence. County meetings have turned into hours-long shouting matches.”

Her battle with the new right has commanded the attention of news outlets elsewhere. The Los Angeles Times in a 2021 profile called her a “one-woman watchdog” and explained how she had reported for and then wrote a column for a local newspaper, Redding’s Record Searchlight, until she and an editor in 2007 split on the direction her writing should take. She was so popular back then that 100 supporters picketed the paper in protest of her departure. Soon, she started the blog that grew into A News Cafe.

To be sure, as an opinion-writer (someone once quaintly called a columnist), Chamberlain has been vocally unhappy with the changes she has seen in Shasta County. She has documented the turn away from civility in an era where a president made it acceptable to insult critics and the media in what once were intolerably coarse terms. “As the shit storm of civil unrest piles up, the North State has become a tinderbox at the ready, on the verge of ignition,” she wrote she wrote in August 2020. “Slogans and memes are the kindling. Calls to action, aggression and civil war are often found on the same Facebook pages as family photos, holiday greetings and birthday wishes.”

Mike Lindell, Source: Denver Post


More recently, she wrote critically about a local district supervisor, Kevin Crye, who, she said, “has racked up a host of stunningly destructive decisions at breakneck speed. He gallivanted to Minnesota on the county’s tab to visit MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell for hand-counted-ballot advice. (Although the public paid for his jaunt, Crye has still not disclosed exactly that happened on that trip.) Following his Lindell visit, in short order Crye introduced to Shasta County a number of election-machine-denying Lindell pals, such as Alexander Haberbush and Clint Curtis, each of whom were graciously granted by Chair Jones permission to speak well over the public’s 3-minute allotments.”

There’s no question that Chamberlain has little use for election-deniers and the rest, much as they have no use for her. So, perhaps, she should not be surprised by the hostility she runs into. Still, as with any good journalist, her work is fact-based, something even that district supervisor would be hard pressed to deny. And the question then arises: why would reporting such facts be objectionable to right wingers, so unsettling that some would call for her to be hanged?

Whether the material it uses is opinionated or a matter of straightforward reporting, the press shines a light on news developments and trends that may make some blanch. It illuminates hypocrisy and nonsense. It uncovers abuses and misuses of public money. That, it seems, is enough to earn the hostility – perhaps the unprecedented venom — of some who apparently cannot abide the glare.

Local news, of course, has been under assault by economic forces, as well as political ones, for a long time now. The answer in many places has been the creation of online outlets that have spread far and wide across the country (Nebraska, for instance, has Flatwater Free Press and the Nebraska Examiner. Colorado has outfits including The Colorado Sun and, more locally, the Boulder Reporting Lab).

One must hope that outlets like those and A News Café can long brave the storms and that journalists such as Chamberlain can endure.

Muzzling the Press

Image credit: The STAR/KJ Rosales

Freedom of the press, a revolutionary idea pioneered in Britain by courageous government critics in the 1720s and then enshrined in the American Bill of Rights in 1791, is under extraordinary assault at home in the United States and elsewhere. That’s no wonder; the right to free expression threatens politicians everywhere who equate criticism of them with criticism of all that’s right and proper.

Of course, the assault is driven partly by ego — “L’etat, c’est moi,” said King Louis XIV, a phrase echoed in various forms by Donald J. Trump and his imitators (see Ron DeSantis) who seek to tame a rambunctious press. And, in places such as Russia and China, it reflects longstanding state policy that lately is growing more troublesome. Elsewhere, the threats to journalists are from literally murderous non-state actors.

Kyle Pope of the Columbia Journalism Review outlines the varying (and vastly unequal) threats around the world. He focuses on Russia, where Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich is a victim of Vladimir Putin’s ego and the fragility of the Russian military, but he sets that into a global context. “The fact is that journalism and democracy are in retreat around the world, including in the United States. The Committee to Protect Journalists, in its annual tally, reported that at least sixty-seven journalists and media workers were killed in 2022, the highest number in four years and a 50 percent jump from the previous year,” Pope writes. “Nearly as many journalists were killed in Mexico as in Ukraine.”

Jeff German, source: Las Vegas Review-Journal

Thankfully, threats to journalists’ lives are not as much an issue in the United States (though isolated assassinations have occurred, such as that last year of Jeff German of the Las Vegas Review-Journal). But other threats to American journalism are more subtle, including such matters as technological change and economic forces that are killing newspapers nationwide, as well as efforts by DeSantis and others to change laws that have protected journalism. As Pope notes, DeSantis “has proposed a series of measures that hobble reporters’ ability to do their jobs, including one that would ensure comments made by anonymous sources would be presumed false in defamation lawsuits.”

Pope also notes that threats to the media come from within, from a decline in credibility. He points to Fox’s settlement with Dominion Voting Systems, suggesting that Fox News had “essentially abandoned its role as an independent chronicler of the news.” He went on: “Here we had executives and on-air anchors at the most-watched cable network in the country admitting that their devotion was more to advancing a cause—the easily disputed notion that Donald Trump had won the presidential election—than in reporting the facts. Fox’s viewers cheered the lie along. Journalism was not what they had in mind when they turned on the television.”

In that regard, it’s heartening that in the wake of embarrassing disclosures in that case Tucker Carlson is now leaving Fox. He shredded his credibility by publicly embracing Trump while privately saying he hated the man “passionately” and calling the voter fraud claims “insane.”

Yes, there are bad actors in journalism as in any other field. Carlson’s departure suggests that the marketplace — when it includes the proper functioning of the legal system — gets things right, at least over time.

Wuhan Market, source: CNN

Matters of life and death are at stake in censorship. State restrictions and their cousins — efforts to rewrite the past — ill serve history and the lessons we can learn from it. Some governments have sought to maintain private histories at times (one thinks of The Pentagon Papers), presumably with plans to keep such accounts secret until some undisclosed time in the future. But such efforts risk bias by the authors and deprive the public of vital information on a timely basis.

Leaders of all sorts, though particularly government officials, are threatened by free expression, of course. When the public learns of their failures, it can cost them their coveted positions, something few politicians can abide. That is why the separation of media and government must be preserved.

A Chinese colleague and I in 2016 published a study in Human Rights Quarterly, “How Chinese Journalism Students View Domestic and Foreign Media: A Survey on Credibility, Censorship, and the Role of the Communist Party in Media,” detailing how idealistic young people in China at the time valued independent thought and the freedom to publish information. Since then, the leashes have been tightening around journalism there and elsewhere and, while that may serve politicians in the short run, it shortchanges the citizens of particular countries and the world.

For a couple decades, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders has published a World Press Freedom Index that assesses the state of journalism globally. In 2022, it ranked 180 nations and territories based on the health of their media environments. Some of the results are surprising (the United States, for instance, placed 42nd, with the group explaining that “chronic issues impacting journalists remain unaddressed. These include the disappearance of local newspapers, the systematic polarisation of the media, and the erosion of journalism by digital platforms amid a climate of animosity and aggression towards journalists, among others.”) Other results are more predictable: China placed 175th and Hong Kong fell 68 places to 148th, as a result of Beijing’s crackdown there. Russia ranked 155th.

Citizens across the globe are hurt when press freedom suffers. Britain, now ranked 24th in the world index, taught the world that centuries ago. It’s a lesson best never forgotten.

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Fox News Could Have Made Things Right

Source: NBC News

Fox’s settlement of the defamation case brought by Dominion Voting Systems comes as a great disappointment to anyone interested in truthful, accurate and fair journalism.

For those who stand against demagoguery and ignorance — the stock-in-trade in the journalistic Potemkin village that is Fox News — the chance to see Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Maria Bartiromo (among others) squirm on the courtroom stand would have been a great consolation. Having them admit their dishonesty and hypocrisy under the aggressive questioning of the brilliant Dominion legal team would have gone far to correct the public record for those who still cling to Trump’s Big Lie about the 2020 election.

As of this writing, full terms of the settlement have not been disclosed. Certainly, the $787.5 million that Fox reportedly will pay will be welcomed by Dominion, which asked for $1.6 billion. But here are a few suggestions that would have been helpful to everyone else:

  • have each host say on the air that they lied and misrepresented the truth about that election.
  • have them say that they routinely did so to pander to their audiences’ demands, chasing ratings, no matter how irrational those demands were.
  • have them say that they, in fact, repudiate Donald J. Trump and all he stands for and that they hope he is convicted of the various crimes for which he stands accused.
  • have them urge the man to never run again and say they will speak only ill of him in any future commentaries, on the air or off.
Source: The Boston Globe

Ideally, the hosts would make these statements while wearing signs around their necks that say “I am a liar.” And they would do so during each show for a month. Such repetition – perhaps matching the repetition of their untruths – may be required for the message to sink in with the Fox audience.

In addition, Fox owner Rupert Murdoch would publicly apologize for his refusal to rein in the dishonest impulses of his staff and he should commit to turn Fox News into a genuine news source after this month of public shaming. The new Fox would be recast into a true fair and balanced entity, not a mouthpiece for the partisan biases of any political party or racist right-wing group in the United States.

The new Fox would be staffed by decent, fair-minded journalists and commentators. They would reject support of dictators far and wide, domestic and foreign. And, in the new Fox, commentary would be the least of its offerings. Instead, straight reporting would fill the airwaves for all but an hour or so a night — with none of the aforementioned commentators on board.

Does any of this seem unreasonable, in light of the potent influence that Fox had in the rise of Trump and his continuing support? Is it unreasonable to demand such contrition for the outlet’s role in leading up to the potential overthrow of the government on that infamous Jan. 6, its spreading of untruth at the behest and in the service of Trump, its feeding of misinformation to the mob and to the broader electorate among its viewers?

Source: Fox News

Such terms, of course, would be impossible. Indeed, Fox’s statement about the settlement conspicuously avoided any detailed admissions, other than to say “We acknowledge the Court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false.” Then, Fox added the gaslighting and ludicrous sentence: “This settlement reflects FOX’s continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards.”

For those who believed the election falsehoods, it will be all too easy to dismiss the Dominion settlement as a bow to pressure from the Deep State. They likely will gin up some conspiracy theory to buttress such beliefs.

Fox owed Dominion an enormous amount for its perfidy. But it owes far more to the American public, to the preservation of democracy at home and abroad, and to our system of government. The outlet is responsible for a host of woes that it had the opportunity to correct with at least some form of public contrition. It failed in even that.

Language is Powerful


Source: Artistry House

Language is central to journalism, of course. That’s true whether we work with the printed word or the spoken one. So, a couple very different recent pieces showcase the power – and perversion – of words. They are worth pondering as a host of new terms worm their way into the public prints and airwaves — or are likely to do so.

Both pieces are exceptional. George Packer, making “The Moral Case Against Equity Language” in The Atlantic, inveighs against the diminishment of words in so-called equity-language guides. These publications take what used to be called political correctness to new depths as they counsel myriad ways to avoid offending. “Enslaved persons” replaces “slave,” for example. And “people with limited resources” replaces “the poor.”

And, in The Washington Post’s “Much of the 2024 GOP field focuses on dark, apocalyptic themes,” Ashley Parker and some colleagues enumerate the dire warnings that some Republican candidates hope will sweep them into the White House. While reminiscent of Trump’s “American carnage,” the phrases are new and improved, as the contenders excoriate “the woke mob” and attack President Biden’s “blueprint to ruin America.”

Tackling Packer’s theme first, there’s no question that offensive terms deserve to be junked. Does anyone use “gypped” or “jewed” anymore? But language guides such as “A Progressive’s Style Guide” and the Racial Equity Tools glossary seem like parodies, as does the guidance of groups such as the Sierra Club. Did you know that “urban,” “vibrant,” “hardworking” and “brown bag” are all subtly racist? And, in San Francisco, some officials no longer refer to “felons,” but rather to “justice-involved persons.” Elsewhere, “stand” is barred for fear of offending those who can’t do so. (We should “protect our rights,” but never “stand up” for them, we’re told.)

Will such tortured or simply bland phrases slip into common parlance? It’s very likely they will, perhaps through universities where folks keenly jump on the latest linguistic trends. Many of my colleagues in the academy now routinely end their emails with counsel on which pronouns – he, she, they, ze — they prefer for themselves. And how long will it be before The Associated Press Stylebook embraces the new lingo, just as it grew to love “they” instead of “he or she?” Going even further, NPR nowadays seems to refer to every individual as “they,” even when he or she is named and his or her distinctly gendered voice is aired (I keep waiting for the second voice to chime in).

Certainly, language must evolve. And dehumanizing or pejorative terms are best sent the way of Shakespeare’s obsolete phrases. AP, for instance, is correct to ban “illegals” and “illegal immigrant,” preferring the wordy but more precise “immigrants lacking permanent legal status.” And the outfit wisely and sensitively favors “people with disabilities” or “disabled people” over “the disabled.” In a recent class, one of my talented students educated me when she said the term “the Blacks” or “Blacks” made her skin crawl; “Black people,” she held, makes it clear we are dealing with people, not objects. That seems like something always worth remembering, whatever group we deal with. For that matter, if someone wants to be called “they,” instead of “he” or “she,” that seems fine – just don’t mandate such vagueness for everyone.

For his part, Packer offers trenchant insights into the motivations and troubling effects of the latest language distortion. “The rationale for equity-language guides is hard to fault,” he writes. “They seek a world without oppression and injustice…. Avoiding slurs, calling attention to inadvertent insults, and speaking to people with dignity are essential things in any decent society.” But the risk is that soft or absurdly complex terms serve to mask the truth. As he writes, prison is no less brutal for “a person experiencing the criminal-justice system.” And obesity isn’t any healthier for people with “high weight.”

Source: DemCast

As for the political distortions that Parker et al. point out, it was shocking to many when Trump’s belittlement of his opponents and his bemoaning of America’s state under President Obama helped him win in 2016. Denigration in the coarse terms he used was uncommon among serious candidates in recent political history (though not in the earliest days of the Republic, of course). Nowadays, ridiculing and labeling one’s competitors is as common as Congress members indecorously (and inaccurately) shouting “liar” at a president in a national speech. Trump was said, by his supporters, merely to be telling it like it is, but was referring to Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” just telling it more like racists would have it?

Parker’s report, describing how GOP aspirants are busy alerting us all to how Democrats plan to “ruin” and “destroy” America, offers a distinctly post-2016 take. Nikki Haley recently warned that “the Democrats are destroying our people’s patriotism and swapping it out for dangerous self-loathing.” Ron DeSantis exalted his state, Florida, as an alternative to a Democratic “dystopia, where people’s rights were curtailed and their livelihoods were destroyed.” And Trump menacingly asserted that he would be “your warrior” and “your justice,” vowing: “And to those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.” It was only he who could “fix it” in the nation’s last presidential election, of course.

Yes, some Democrats are indulging in strong language, too, but does much of that not seem more rooted in reality? With the anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection still top of mind, Biden recently intoned: “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.” Hyperbole? Perhaps not, in light of the aims of those who invaded the Capitol dressed in military garb and wielding staves and pepper-spray as they called for the execution of the Vice President.

What’s unsettling about the GOP rhetoric, in addition to its heat, is that it seems untethered to facts or events. Jobless rates remain at historic lows. Patriotism remains in vogue in both parties. Rights – to such things as voting and abortion – would not be curtailed by Democrats, in fact, but very much would be limited by Republicans. And as for Trump’s seeming intention to be everyone’s “justice,” is he not really just hoping to wreak vengeance on those he believes have wronged him?

In the past, heated political language could be easily dismissed, especially when read critically in print or avoided by national TV networks. Nowadays, in our conflict-driven cable TV world, it gets lots of airplay. The more vile the crack, the more attention it gets, stoking the anger of the apparently very many angry folks out there. Such language helped get an otherwise undistinguished New York developer and political naif elected once already. For better or worse, it may help him – or an imitator of his — get to the White House once again.

Source: Fluency King

The job of the media, however, is to point out when such language goes over the top. When it’s baseless, that needs to be illuminated. And, as they do so, the media need, too, to shun euphemism and vagueness (indeed, Packer’s piece is titled “The Moral Case Against Euphemism” in the print magazine, but the editors were likely mindful of search engines in retitling it online). Clarity and plainspokenness do not mean coarseness and, indeed, they are the stock-in-trade of good journalism.

Is J School Moral?

Source: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

When I began this blog back in 2009, newspapers and magazines were endangered, journalism jobs were disappearing and students were rethinking their futures. It was all enough to make me wonder whether keeping J Schools open was immoral. After all, how could we ethically take money from students, train them for the fading types of careers we older journalists had enjoyed, and send them out to flip burgers instead of produce news stories?

Now, as my time in academia is nearing its end, many things have gotten worse. Newspapers and magazines continue to die, journalism jobs continue to fade away (or get hacked away by vulture capitalists and others), and J School students are wise to think about alternative futures. So, the question is even more compelling: is it moral for J Schools to stay open?

My answer then – and still – is yes. Why? Well, first, while lots of traditional journalism jobs are going away, alternative media outlets have been surging. Online outfits, often operating as nonprofits, have sprouted all over the country. Many of them cover things more narrowly than general-interest newspapers, focusing on state legislatures, for instance. Some for-profit ventures, with broader missions, have emerged, too.

There has been so much growth that I led a special-topics course about it in the spring of 2022. I had many leaders of such programs speak to my students. They hailed from new outfits such as The Texas Tribune, The Colorado Sun, Nebraska Examiner, Flatwater Free Press, The Oaklandside, and Boulder Reporting Lab and older ones taking innovative paths, such as Chicago Public Media. Sure, such outfits will provide fewer jobs than the once-robust newsrooms veteran faculty members were used to, but as fewer students seek traditional reporting jobs, the smaller numbers are tolerable.

And let’s not forget the big-name outfits, whose brands have become only more important lately. Even more than before, the big-name outlets are available to students. Yes, The Washington Post and even The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are under pressure. But they still offer opportunities, especially internships. And specialized media, such as Bloomberg News and Reuters, remain vibrant, thank you.

Second, J School is not just about job training for reporters. Most students in such schools nowadays major in PR and advertising, where opportunity abounds. And, within journalism, the skills students acquire would serve them well in whatever field they go into. These skills include researching, analyzing, seeing different viewpoints and writing clearly. Remember that critical thinking – in such short supply throughout society – is at the base of what journalism faculty teach.

Source: Columbia Journalism Review

J School remains great preparation for particular professions, too. Several of my students went into law, for instance (some did so after stints in journalism and some went directly to law school). The skills they learned in our classes were essential. Similarly, some of my business journalism students went into accounting and related fields, where their writing skills were enhanced by training they got from us.

Think about the parallel with another endangered academic species – the English major, my own focus as an undergraduate. I studied the works of 18th and 20th century writers, in particular – works with as much practical value as philately, at least in terms of occupations. And yet, the tightly written prose and verses of Swift, Pope and Johnson taught me how to write with economy. Certainly, the work of Hemingway – who got his professional start as a reporter — was inspirational and worth trying to emulate.

For a time, I considered grad school in English, even gaining admission to a fine program. But the paucity of academic jobs on the horizon in the field back then (in the 1970s), helped me to choose graduate J School instead. Much as my heart may have been in literature, the public prints were my destiny. Even so, that training in the most impractical area of English proved helpful – enriching me personally and professionally.

Source: Study.com

Moreover, J Schools usually require students to take many courses outside of the field. The way I described this to prospective students was that journalism classes can teach you how to say something well, but other academic areas help give you something to say. Along with Journalism 101, students should take classes in such areas as law, business and economics. Indeed, the most intellectually adventurous might want to double-major in English.

So, should J Schools endure? Is it moral to train students in journalism? I believe so. The faculty must keep close tabs on the rapid changes in the field and make sure students are equipped with the skills they will need. But the core skills remain essential, whether the students wind up covering news, toiling in the courts, running businesses or doing anything else where good writing and clear thinking are vital.

Time to be smart, not a smartass

HedgeFundFlouting convention has its uses. An outrageous image can provoke debate, prompt action or, at a minimum, win attention. And all those things are vital to any media organization in our infoglutted age. When so many magazines vie for notice, after all, it takes a lot to grab a reader’s eye on a crowded newsstand, stand out in a towering mail pile or merit a crucial split-second’s notice on a computer screen.

But does that mean sacrificing taste? Sure, Penthouse gets a second glance every time. But will that translate into lasting buzz or just a dismissive, “ah, there they go again?” Does a magazine want to be known as smart and sassy or as juvenile and sassy? What happens to the “smart” when a puerile cover image sullies the book’s impact?

So this brings us to Bloomberg Businessweek. There’s no question the magazine has done impressive work since 2009, when McGraw-Hill sold BusinessWeek after thinning its journalism ranks over several financially troubled years. One would expect no less than excellence from Bloomberg, the preeminent business-news operation of the day. A friend who toils abroad for the news service points out that BB won the 2012 National Magazine Award for General Excellence – the magazine world’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize — something the magazine hadn’t done since 1996, an earlier time of superb journalism at BW.

InfidelityBut one must wonder whether BB has won despite some of its new approaches, rather than because of them. Much of the reporting and writing remains superb – its economic coverage, for instance, has won awards from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, and I know from serving as a judge that the work was best in class. Some of BB’s contrarian ideas, fleshed out well in text that intelligently challenges conventional wisdom, are compelling. At its best, its work is as good as the best material BW was known for over decades, work that won 10 National Magazine Awards in various categories from 1973-2008, all before the latest general excellence prize. BW and its staffers won a slew of other prizes for foreign and domestic work over those years, too.

MatingJetsThe risk for BB is that its drive to be edgy, particularly in its cover imagery, could easily thrust it over a cliff’s edge. It could all too easily slip from provocative to prurient, as it has at times already. Disturbingly, the distance from smart to smartass is not all that great.

Already, the editors have had to apologize for the art in a cover piece. They ran a smart housing story, only to have its impact undercut by racial insensitivity in the cover art. At best, the drawing seemed goofy anyway.Housing

BB today, like BW before it, does have to distinguish itself both in its journalism and in the artwork it uses to make its points. And, as my friend from Bloomberg points out, the magazine has been recognized for its design successes by such outfits as Britain’s Design and Art Direction. Apparently, though, what caught the eye of folks at D&AD was one of the more elegant covers, which used a stark and simple photo of Steve Jobs. This seems a case of BB earning recognition for being classy rather than déclassé. That’s something any editor should feel proud of.

JobsBB has had some impressive successes. It has held onto 4.7 million readers worldwide when so many others have lost the readership battle. It can draw on the work of 2,300 journalists in 72 countries, a couple thousand more journalists and support staffers than BW ever had. If it is to keep up its record of success in readership and influence, the book should work to be known for top-flight economic and business coverage and high-quality artwork that makes the coverage come alive. This is its inheritance, its bloodline. The editors shouldn’t be weighed down by the magazine’s stellar list of alumni and their work as they sort out what to put in the book each week, what imagery to adorn its cover with. But, if they do pause for a second to consider the book’s distinguished history, they might feel a useful nudge in the right direction.

What do the editors, staffers and art folks want the book to be known for anyway? What do they want their legacy to be? Flout convention, sure. Be provocative. Kick up dust. But do it with style and intelligence. A little grace can carry you a lot farther than an adolescent smirk or an unwelcome dollop of snark.

Prosecute Snowden, not the press

article-0-1A78A5A4000005DC-767_634x362As Edward Snowden wings his way toward whoever he thinks will shield him from American prosecutors, his bizarre story keeps metastasizing. This noxious growth is now tainting the press. The latest turn: the suggestion that not only should the former NSA contractor be prosecuted but so should a recipient of his leaks, Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald.

NBC “Meet the Press” host David Gregory today asked Greenwald: “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?” So, was Gregory siding with some politicians who have called for a journalist to be prosecuted for doing his job? Certainly seemed so, though the TV host did later say he was merely asking a question, however pointedly.

Have we come to that in journalism? Are we now dining on our own? Would Gregory have raised the same question to the late Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, and his editors when in mid-1971 they decided to publish the Pentagon Papers? Then, as now, national security concerns were at issue in the publication of explosive secret material — in that case classified material dealing with the ongoing Vietnam War.

Sulzberger

Sulzberger

The Snowden case is a knotty one. There’s no question for me that the former trusted intelligence analyst should be prosecuted for his crime. He betrayed his employers and violated his oaths. His acts could be considered treasonous in a time of war, albeit an undeclared war with terrorists. He should be brought to account for them.

But it’s also clear that he brought to light a practice that deserves national scrutiny. Indeed, the shame of it is that the debate hasn’t happened until now. Do we want the government reading our email or, however much buried in massive data-collection practices, scanning our phone calls? Certainly, we want it rooting out terrorist plots, using wiretapping or whatever technology works. But should it cast its net so wide that it ropes in everyone? These are important questions and, sadly, it took Snowden’s actions to bring them forward.

Snowden, however, didn’t have to blow his whistle quite the way he did. He had alternatives for bringing his case forward. He could have found a friendly congressman or senator, perhaps a libertarian who might have found the NSA practices just as dubious as he did. Questions then could have been asked and debated, perhaps behind closed doors in deference to national security. Policy could have been changed quietly. Is it naïve to think so? Perhaps. But Snowden didn’t even try this route.

Would he have broken laws in talking with an elected government official about a government program? That’s one for the lawyers to decide. Certainly, he would have spared the government the international black eye it has suffered from his leaks. To much of the world now, the U.S. respects its citizens’ rights to privacy no more than China does. But, if Snowden found a courageous legislator to work with, he might have forced changes to happen without making the U.S. look like a global snoop, hardly a beacon of freedom.

TimeIf Snowden got nowhere with the legislators, he could then have turned to the press, it seems. That was the route former military analyst and ex-Pentagon staffer Daniel Ellsberg took. He shared copies of the Pentagon Papers first with legislators and moved beyond them only when none would make them public in the halls of the Capitol. He felt they had to be exposed. Ultimately – two weeks after the Times began printing the Papers and was enjoined temporarily from doing so – a senator, Mike Gravel, did publish the documents in the official record of the Senate.

But Snowden chose otherwise, rushing outside government to make his case. He broke the laws and violated the trust of his colleagues. Whether he is prosecuted or not, history will judge whether his acts were heroic or merely treasonous. Ellsberg has largely been judged a hero. But Ellsberg had the guts to face the consequences of his actions. Unlike Snowden, he stayed in the U.S. and was tried for espionage in court. The charges were dismissed, as it turned out, because of governmental misconduct that, ironically, included illegal wiretaps on the former analyst. But the risk for Ellsberg’s act of conscience was very real.

Now Snowden will live as a fugitive, likely to spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder. Is that heroic? Ellsberg also tried at first to stay out of the limelight, leaking his documents anonymously until he was outed. By contrast, Snowden seems to crave the attention, lionizing himself for his actions. Again, heroic? The more apt word might be narcissistic.

As for the press, the Times was right to print the Pentagon Papers. They proved invaluable to understanding how dishonest the politicians were in pursuing a war that was foul and doomed from the start. Similarly, the Guardian and the Washington Post were right in publishing Snowden’s leaked documents, even though the war we are currently fighting – the battle against terrorists – is just, is impossible to avoid and is one we must win.

The argument this time is over whether the government’s intrusions are massive overkill. Are the security services deploying a nuclear bomb when well-aimed rifles might work better? Certainly, we all want them stopping terrorist plots. But can they not just ID the bad guys and go and get ‘em without ensnaring all Americans and plenty of foreigners in their net? Do the terrorists win when we give up something as precious as privacy, the cherished right of all Americans to be left alone?

Snowden went about this all wrong. But the debate he triggered is necessary and vital and so, too, are the journalists who have brought his story to light. Gregory’s pointed question to Greenwald deserves a loud answer: no, the journalist should not be prosecuted for doing his job. Instead, the policymakers need to be held to account for falling down on theirs.