Ethics of poverty coverage

This originally appeared in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, June 2013, vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 138-140. There is historical precedent for the critique known as poverty porn, in this case the objection that contemporary media are drawn to the slow-motion collapse of Detroit by the unsavory appeal of a picturesque and compelling misery. […]

A rebirth of media heroism

This column originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 17, 2020: It has been a dark time for American journalism. Reporters are routinely scorned (if not beaten) by politicians and cops, to public applause. Their employers are pauperized by the monster online platforms and ravaged by vulture investors, and struggle with emaciated payrolls that no longer deliver mainstay local coverage. Prescriptions for industrial recovery look like variations on a theme of beggary, and metrics that track public trust […]

Julian Assange and the Woeful State of Whistle-Blowers

As the media’s indispensable helpmates, don’t they deserve constitutional protection too? This column originally appeared in The New York Times, April 26, 2019 Credit…Illustration by Adam Maida; Photographs by aaaaimages and Boris Roessler/picture alliance, via Getty Images To the journalism mainstream, Julian Assange, newly imprisoned founder of WikiLeaks, is less a hero than a conundrum. […]

Did the story on Aziz Ansari’s awful date cross the journalistic line?

This column originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 30, 2018.

The story on, an online news site styled for hip young women, was long and lurid. Its title: “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned out to be the worst night of my life.”

It was, at best, an epically bad date, according to the account, with heavy-handed sexual advances made, partly rewarded and finally rebuffed, and it ended with the woman leaving Ansari’s Manhattan apartment in tears of outrage and humiliation. But the article is more than a sob story. Suddenly, the account of that evening in September has achieved an incendiary cultural renown in the wider furor over gender bullying–“a critical flashpoint in our reckoning with sexual violence,” as Slate describes it, and as writer James Hamblin says, “crystallizing debate over an entire movement.”

Aziz Ansari is an accomplished and popular actor, author and comedian, the star of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” creator of a well-regarded Netflix series, a winner of Emmy and Golden Globes awards. He has feminist cred for gestures in support of the #metoo movement.

In the portrayal offered by, he is also a bit of a swine, oblivious to clear signs of sexual refusal, forcing himself on an unwilling young woman who found herself in a situation she plainly couldn’t handle.

My interest isn’t in adjudicating his behavior, nor in exploring whether his accuser failed to assert herself clearly and unambiguously. There’s plenty of commentary on that. The question I want to address is whether any of this is newsworthy and whether the account of it that ran in constitutes responsible journalism.

Those aren’t easy questions. The problems with the story are manifold and obvious. First, the evidentiary issue: Its sourcing is wafer thin—a single informant. Her identity is concealed (she’s renamed “Grace”), so her credibility can’t be appraised. Second, the question of taste: The account is driven by a description of sexual doings that’s so detailed it’s practically pornographic.

Finally, above all looms the privacy issue: The incident it chronicles isn’t offered up as fitting a pattern either of sexual predation on Ansari’s part or of institutional coercion— Continue reading “Did the story on Aziz Ansari’s awful date cross the journalistic line?”