Safeguarding News in the Era of Disruptive Sources

Published in Journal of Media Ethics, Vol. 2, Issue 2, April-June 2017. Expanded version appeared in After Snowden, Privacy, Secrecy and Security in the Information Age, Ronald Goldfarb, ed. (NY: St. Martin’s, 2015.)  ABSTRACT Obligations and loyalties that develop between reporter and source both enable and enrich—and impede and corrupt—the flow of publicly significant information to […]

The media’s helping hand in enabling the Trump electoral win

Published in The San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 14, 2016

The news media have assigned themselves a generous role in getting Donald J. Trump elected, which by my count would be the third time this century that press failure produced what many people, myself included, regard as a civic calamity. This isn’t like the first time, the 2003 Iraq war, where few journalists had the sources to challenge the false claim of national peril. And it’s not like the second, the 2008 financial collapse, where the extent of the system’s rickety dependency on reckless lending was hard to discern beforehand.

This time, there was nothing hidden about the realties. They couldn’t have been more public. Trump was thoroughly out there, brazen, outspoken, in your face. And the press—not just the legacy press, but tough-minded internet natives too—did their due diligence. They rummaged his flaky business past, exposed his frat-house squalor and his spectacular mendacity, put his cruelties on daily display, left his policy ignorance and lack of qualification for high office unmistakable.

And he did lose the electorate by a non-trivial 2.9 million votes. So a substantial audience was paying attention.

Still, the conclusion that the election represents a historic moment of press failure is warranted, and this is the right moment to reflect on the nature of that failure before the media lurch into covering Trump’s presidency in the same flawed ways that they covered his candidacy.

Lessons learned?

First, exposure trumps substance. Donald Trump was the most charismatic and telegenic of the GOP primary candidates, and his on-air presence was a crowd-pleaser—for the debates, for cable news, for network news talk shows. Bookers may have thought of him as a clownish longshot, but he drew audiences, and the saturation exposure of his rallies conferred stature and credibility on him. Trump essentially applied his business model to the campaign: Instead of licensing his brand in return for cash royalties, with TV news, he offered his presence and collected his royalties in votes.

Second, evenhandedness has its limits. It became apparent, as the general campaign heated up, that the style of Trump’s electioneering—the sheer velocity of insults, falsehoods, fabrications and squirrelly accusations—demanded skeptical treatment and even real-time refutation. But the conventional standards of journalistic professionalism also required some measure of balance. That meant paying equivalent attention to Hillary Clinton’s wrongdoing, and giving outlandish play to partisan drama over an internet server she used during her tenure as secretary of state four years before, and which apparently caused no discernible harm to national security. Likewise, petty sniping among Democratic campaign workers exposed in hacked emails drew extravagant coverage—not because it mattered, but because it was unfavorable to Clinton and could be cited as evidence of balance.

Finally, covering politics isn’t just covering politicians. It’s reporting on the electorate and what voters see, fear, demand and long for. The most spectacular evidence of press failure was the universal astonishment over the outcome among the organizations that purport to be the best informed. Some of that cluelessness was attributable to the destruction of the regional press, the traditional conduits of authoritative reporting on the sentiments of the provinces. Even the best reporters from out-of-town news organizations cannot match the authority with which local reporters can speak. The extent of disgust with national political elites, with marginalization of the heartland, with trade and immigration policies, fueled a cultural insurgency of which Trump became the flag-bearer, and which was simmering, largely unnoticed, by elite media.

So what now? Trump’s enthusiastic use of Twitter to share hunches, thoughts, Continue reading “The media’s helping hand in enabling the Trump electoral win”

Why plagiarism matters

Published on, July 19, 2016 I hail from the world of journalism, which has seen its fair share of plagiarism scandals in the past decade or so, starting with the Jayson Blair affair at The New York Times in 2003. But plagiarism in the news business is a different animal from what’s being alleged […]

Why the Media Have Been Greasing Trump’s Wheels

How to explain the indispensable role of the news media in lubricating the unfathomable rise of Donald Trump? It can’t be favoritism. I venture to say that a survey of U.S. journalists taken at the start of the primary season would have found support among the working press for the idea that Trump was a […]

Images of real, violent death are now routine on screens big and small, and nobody knows what they’re doing to us

I was pretty young, but I remember with fascination and horror the stills from the Zapruder film of the John Kennedy assassination. Frame by frame, Life Magazine, which in those days defined news photography, in early 1964 ran the grainy color 8mm images of the murder—Kennedy grabbing his throat as the first bullet hit him, then Jackie cradling him, finally a red blur as the killing round went through his head.

There must have been comparable, mass-circulated, images of death from before JFK’s, but I don’t remember any. The ones that came after I do remember well: Martin Luther King Jr. crumpled on the Memphis balcony; Bobby Kennedy dying, his face almost luminous as he’s comforted by the Filipino waiter in Los Angeles; the Viet Cong commando executed during Tet; the anguished girl crouching, screaming, alongside the dead student at Kent State.

They were signature moments from a world gone mad, and they left a mark because they were rare. They were rare because the news media shied away from pictures of death and dying. That was never because the pictures weren’t readily available. No metro newspaper ever complained about a shortage of grisly pictures. Images of shotgunned murder victims, limbs severed in car wrecks, impaled motorists were never hard to come by.

But the pictures were considered distasteful, more likely to cost subscriptions than to sell papers. I once asked an editor from the National Enquirer why his tabloid hadn’t published photos of Princess Diana dying in her wrecked limousine in Paris, by all accounts a harrowing scene captured by a platoon of paparazzi. Two reasons, he said: Our readers would hate us, and we’d get thrown out of the supermarkets.

Beyond that, the logic went, such images were rarely ever needed to tell the story. That was the thinking.

But that was then. We have entered a new age when it comes to images of death. Video of violent killings has become routine. Round-the-clock news channels, lacking fresh video, run continuous loops of snuff film.

How many times have I seen the 12-year-old in Cleveland with a toy gun shot dead by a cop with a real one; the teenager in Chicago as he’s shot and shot again, incredibly, 16 times, by a policeman; the Paris club-goers running into the alleyway, filmed from above, some dying, others stumbling past the bodies; the ISIS videos of hostage slaughter, images generally carried by our media right up to the moment when blade meets throat.

And the inexhaustible supply of surveillance video, a mainstay of local news now, more images of beatings and shootings. Our public records  Continue reading “Images of real, violent death are now routine on screens big and small, and nobody knows what they’re doing to us”