In solidarity with Melissa Harris-Perry

Professor Melissa Harris-Perry, MSNBC host and noted Unitarian Universalist (she wrote the foreword to the newest edition of the UU Pocket Guide), has walked off her show after being preempted again and again in favor on endless election coverage.

She said she had not appeared on the network at all “for weeks” and that she was mostly sidelined during recent election coverage in South Carolina and New Hampshire. (She was asked to return this weekend.)

In her email, Ms. Harris-Perry wrote that she was not sure if the NBC News chairman, Andrew Lack, or Phil Griffin, the MSNBC president, were involved in the way her show was handled recently, but she directed blame toward both.

“I will not be used as a tool for their purposes,” she wrote. “I am not a token, mammy, or little brown bobble head. I am not owned by Lack, Griffin or MSNBC. I love our show. I want it back.”

Prof. Harris-Perry is one of the few black women with a major position in TV news. Often the “election coverage” that pre-empts her show is just showing stump speeches live and other things that could be ignored or condensed.

I stand in solidarity with lack of respect for her show and the work she does. Her show has by far the most people of color as guests.

CcK4xFtWIAATF2q

News shouldn’t just show candidates yelling at each other. it needs to explore how their policies and ideologies will affect communities of regular people. Only through diversity can that be analyzed.

From @existentialfish (link)

Journalism, propaganda, and the police

“Reporters are faced with the daily choice of painstakingly researching stories or writing whatever people tell them. Both approaches pay the same.” – Scott Adams 

Since a very young age (like the age of eight), I have considered myself a journalist. I made classroom newspapers in fourth grade, created the Pine Lane Linguist in seventh grade by roping in some friends and forcing Microsoft Word to cooperate with my plans. My senior project in high school was to create a news magazine, The Legionnaire, which was a bunch of really smart people I met in summer programs providing copy to something that’s like The Economist, but by a diverse cast of young people. And I’ve maintained this blog for over three years.

So I’ve long since internalized the norms of journalism, as taught to us in handbooks and All The President’s Men. Get the facts. Weigh the sources. Don’t get suckered. And for the love of god, don’t become a tool of outside forces.Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 12.07.45 AM

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 12.07.51 AMThe body-cam footage of Ray Tensing shooting Sam Dubose once- clearly and intentionally- in the head, is horrifying. If you do want to see it, here’s The Stranger with the best short breakdown of what happened. What has happened since shows how the rest of society bails out the police when it shouldn’t.

A claim repeated over and over in every media story was that Tensing was dragged by the car prior to the shooting. This despite the fact that early on it was established that there was a body-cam recording of the traffic stop, and early reactions from people involved in the case were that the video was very, very bad. The only reason these media outlets reported this initial sequence of events was because Tensing and another officer, Eric Wiebel, said it was what happened. Dubose wasn’t available for comment on the story because he was shot once in the head at point-blank range.

This is the norm, both in cases where the victim was killed or when they are still alive and have their own account. The first narrative is the police narrative, which sinks into the consciousness. A later correction to “oh, the main claims by the officers were nonsense” doesn’t erase the mark set. How many people have you talked to that know about some current event but not the newest developments? Huge numbers of people still think Tensing was dragged by Dubose, prompting the shooting. It can never be fully cleansed from people’s minds.

Because of this acceptance of police testimony, in cases of rival narratives we often doubt the victim. There is a built in sense that even if they did nothing wrong, they have a criminal nature. A recurring tactic is to leak information about a victim’s drug history, asking the media to speculate from there. This happened (and its importance later debunked) with Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin, using three high-profile examples. These cases become referendum on the behavior of those who have been beaten or killed- something the media is willingly complicit in. I’m pretty tired of stories with leading questions as their title. Nowhere near the amount of speculation is made about police officers, and their lives are never picked over the in the same crass manner.

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 1.10.47 AM

Shaun King is a nice source of sanity- his Twitter account is a great resource for those of us who are passionate activists, but also loyal to getting things right in a particular, ethical way. Journalists should always factor in the one huge, monumental elephant in the room. If an unarmed person is killed by the police, the officer(s) involved, and their bosses have every reason in the world to lie. Maybe the police are a good source of information about the number of arrests made at a drunk driving checkpoint. But often they have their careers at stake.

Treating the police and the justice system as an rock-solid authoritative source is dangerous, and leads to the current fiasco with Dubose. A guy selling you his used car off of Craigslist would like you to take his story at face value. However, it would be more sensible to go to a third-party mechanic and ask their opinion. A third-party can evaluate the car and establish facts, independent of the stakes involved.

Journalists are supposed to be the mechanic, not a booster of the story the buyer wants to spin.

In the days of the original muckrakers, journalism was a force for liberation and taking down the powerful. It spoke for those who are not represented in the rest of society. Writing is a weapon, which can be used for good or evil.

The good fight: a farewell to Olbermann

There is no media journeyman like Keith Olbermann. Over the past three decades he has left or been fired from shows, both sports (including an almost uncountable number of stints at ESPN). His Countdown show enjoyed popularity on MSNBC, before being exiled to Current TV- the Siberian gulag where journalists went and were never heard from again.

After a two-year contract, he’s been let go from Olbermann, an obscure ESPN2 program that generally competed with marquee live sports on the other ESPN channels. I’m not surprised it’s ending, as nobody watched it live and the YouTube content (which was most of my exposure) had pretty dire viewing numbers.

Plenty of people are sick of Keith and his shtick, and while he’s never been able to pick his battles, some of his battles were important and I’m glad he gave them due coverage. It had excellent coverage of the NFL’s negligence on domestic violence, the griminess of the Angels’ treatment of recently-relapsed drug user Josh Hamilton, and how many sports teams took money from the military in order to showcase seemingly-altruistic ceremonies to honor veterans. These are important things, and Olbermann was a merger of the pundit-heavy cable news style of sports show, and the more serious and provocative Outside the Lines. However, Outside the Lines never compared bizarre player statements and press releases by teams to the church scene in Blazing Saddles, where the minister thanks a crotchety old sourdough for his “authentic frontier gibberish”.

July, 8 2015 show https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZSNS79kuHc
July, 8 2015 show
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZSNS79kuHc

So maybe that’s why I liked the show and many people did not. It had that strange mix of culture callbacks and jokes that I find funny, material that was intentionally dated and different from most sports shows, that tend to stay near to the present.

Thanks for letting this show run for two years. While his material on MSNBC was pretty forgettable once Rachel Maddow became a better alternative for liberal pundit shows (if you were into that sort of thing), this was the best in its field, mostly because it made its own niche that nothing else quite fits into.

Bad journalism, better journalism

The Columbia Journalism Review has issued its list of the worst journalism of 2014. Despite the popular focus on how terrible the Big 3 cable news channels are, the article emphasizes that hack-level reporting can pop up anywhere. Network, print, even outlets I rather enjoy, like Grantland, and New York, who failed to stick the year-end landing and got played by a bunch of teenagers for their December feature.

I feel bad for these outlets- who either produce good, analytical journalism, or used to, or are Fox News. In all of them there are great professionals with the education and experience to produce great work, but they are often stymied by executives and a suffocating business culture.

Though investigative journalism has fallen on hard times, it is great to see outlets like the Center for Investigative Reporting out. The corporate cronyism and corruption is still there, as it was in the days of the original muckrakers. All that’s needed are smart people, funds to keep them going, and a desire to do the unsexy work that leads to big, need-to-know stories. And for the love of god, no clickbait please.

Journalism is the first rough draft of history

“Journalism is the first rough draft of history.”

This line has over time become a maxim within the industry as a whole. It connects what explains unfolding events with events that have unfolded and must be explained. I thought this quote had an obvious origin in former Washington Post president Philip Graham, however a feature on Slate pointed out that it comes out of the 1940s and has been said by many people in the same era that Philip did.

One news trope that has emerged, most egregiously at Vox, are articles about big issues stating that they are “everything you need to know”. Several red flags come from titles like that. In some cases it comes off as empty swagger; does anybody really think that this article explains everything you need to know about the Israel-Palestine conflict? This attitude about big issues has received criticism (examples here for fairly apolitical and here for a conservative response). When media outlets go big-scale, they run into the maxim: journalism is not equivalent to history, rather they are two points connected within the same space but quite different times.

Vox is a fun site. WonkBlog was a place for very smart people to analyze really dumb, ineffective legislation. In contrast, Vox is more free-flowing and creative. Still, they run into a wall when it comes to big, long-standing issues. What many data-driven news sites attempt to do (538 is another, though narrower in focus) is explain historical issues within the style and vocabulary of news. Any deference to history would see “everything you need to know” stricken from article titles. Israel-Palestine is still unfolding, so is the war on terror and the Eurozone crisis. One thing that history guarantees us is that more significant events are around the corner, and it will take time to see if this news reporting supports or conflicts with prior history.

If there is anything that history teaches us, it is the complexity of events, even those that seem straightforward. Journalism has neither the space nor the context to accommodate deep complexity. News is like soda- produced to exacting standards, each unit identical in quality and makeup. History is wine- full of variation and changing over time. It is important to bring historical context to new events- how else can you understand why ISIS exists, and has gained such power in a few short years? But that’s just a thumbnail. To claim to be comprehensive is dishonest, and stunts the intellectual growth of readers. After all, if Vox really had everything I needed to know about Israel-Palestine, why do any more research on the subject?

From the mass incarceration state: San Quentin News

The staff of the San Quentin News and its advisers.

A fascinating feature in the New York Times entitled “Inmates’ Newspaper Covers a World Behind San Quentin’s Walls” shines a light on one of the very few newspapers in the world published by prisoners.

The work they do is fantastic (check out their current issue), and even if you’ve never done time, the focus on the justice system, appeals, parole, and what it’s like to live through American mass incarceration is incredible. They are looking to expand their circulation and allow more inmates to get copies for free. You can donate to them here – $25 gets you a year of the print newspaper, one issue a month.

As someone who runs reddit’s main prison reform community (/r/prisonreform), I was ecstatic to learn about this, and pitched in to help them in their mission. It’s difficult to get one’s head around how strange and twisted the US prison system has becomes, with California constantly fighting off court rulings telling them to address crippling overcrowding and an inadequate health system. The state prison mental and physical healthcare apparatus have been under federal control for almost nine years now, and may never return until the state has less than 137.5% capacity (you think this wouldn’t be hard, but mandatory minimums have made the system burst at the seams).

Give ’em a look.

 

If it’s not journalism, what is it?

One of the first examples of crowdsourced current events was on the Wikimedia sites in 2005. On July 7th that year a series of bombs went off in London, killing over fifty people. Starting with those that lived within earshot of the explosions, users attempted to create a Wikinews report, and then once it became clear that these were deliberate attacks, a Wikipedia article. Since these sites list all edits made to a page, you could see the evolution of knowledge. The initial edit is by a user with very little to go on. Two hours later the page has pictures, sources, and the beginnings of a timeline. Two hours after that, there are sections and a statement by the Prime Minister indicating a possible terrorist attack.

What this first example showed me was that the process of assembling a coherent (and factually accurate) narrative is ugly. You start with very little, and without fact-checking and additional, independent reports everything is by nature speculative. However, given some determination it is possible to put things together in an impressive bit of time. But the beginning is ugly and you’re going to be wrong quite a bit.

The shooting at the D.C Navy shipyard brings to the surface an inconvenient truth about major media outlets- especially TV news channels. John King’s on-air blunder in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings is only the most prominent recent case of this kind of grasping, speculative form of infotainment. CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, among others, have ditched many of the cornerstones of journalism. It’s so egregious in the case of rapidly-changing current events that the question arises: is this even journalism anymore? And if it is not, what is it?

A couple key developments that strain credibility. First, the time-honored tradition of multiple independent sources, where two or more separate accounts of an event are required prior to reporting, is largely ignored. One sources often suffices, or the anchors simply interpret what is happening based on live camera footage. Instead of several people on the ground with local knowledge and different perspectives to the event, there are a couple news figures whose main job is to increase dramatic tension.

With the rise of social media juggernauts, verifiable sources are often replaced with the speculation and reports of the public at large. While this does have some use- it can give a more raw, immediate idea of what is happening. But a Twitter account that, for instance, states that they are within blocks of the shooting/flood/police raid cannot be quickly verified. Ultimately to accept the truth of a tweet posted three minutes ago, you have to accept the location, accuracy, and competence of the poster by faith.

Watching CNN deal with the Boston bombing and the ensuing manhunt gives the clear impression that there is no method or due diligence in their programming. On July 7th, 2005 information about what happened trickled in over hours for the more easily verifiable material, and days or weeks for things such as who conducted the bombing and why they did it. What 24-hour news channels have a habit of doing is filling in this gap with metaphorical sawdust. An important event does not always have news associated with it. Sometimes all that is known has been reported, and there is a gap until existing information is modified (say, a causality count) or new information appears (an apparent extra gunman, for instance).

So what is CNN and its ilk? In some cases it’s theater. Anchors hype up storylines that may or may not exist, and ascribe importance and meaning to events that are not clearly connected. During the election season CNN sported not one, but two tables of analysts. They each had a role to play- the intellectual, the smartass, the aww-shucks Cajun. One could also be less charitable still and call it bullshit. An hour of cable news can feel like a high school junior trying to write an eight page essay on a book they did not read. The crafting of artificial narratives (ascribing motive ten minutes after a crime is reported) also makes it feel like a séance. Instead of hard sources, why not pretend to be a mind-reader?

This is for the most part beating a dead horse. It is widely accepted that cable news is drivel. The takeover of MSNBC and Fox News by ideologues in place of standard news programming garners a lot of attention, but it overlooks how in the modern environment of social media and creating dramatic tension to increase ratings the regular news programming itself is less impartial and more speculative that one might think.

When we look at lessons from the slow death in print journalism, we should change the medium rather than the process. Journalism in the Internet age still exists (look at ProPublica, or the Center for Investigative Reporting) but discarding what made journalism so vital in the 20th century is dangerous. When it’s a rag-tag group of Wikinews volunteers, some sloppy reporting is excusable. When a large media outlet with researchers and an established set of standards do the same thing, it questions what they do with all those resources.