“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” ― Mary Harris (Mother) Jones

Posts tagged ‘journalism’

Review: Rendezvous with Oblivion by Thomas Frank

Rendezvous_OblivionRendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society is a collection of essays from 2011 to the present that provides a travelogue of the downward journey of the US. Not that it starts at the top of the hill, because for the bulk of the population that’s been forbidden territory for several decades—only the nobility gets to occupy the castles.

That’s sort of the metaphor used in title of the first set of essays, “Many Vibrant Mansions,” and the subject of the second piece, “The Architecture of Inequality.” Describing his trek through the world of the McMansion, he observes they are “houses that seemed to have been designed by Stanford White after a debilitating brain injury.”

Those unfamiliar with Mr. Frank’s work should consider reading his earlier books The Wrecking Crew and Listen, Liberal! before joining him on this trip. The former answers the question many who only became politically involved during the 2016 election keep asking, which is “What are the Republicans doing?” The latter explains that it isn’t just the Republicans, and why.

In politics, of course, the scam and the fib are as old as the earth itself. Even so, the past decade has been a time of extraordinary innovation in the field…Millions of Americans came to believe that everything was political and that therefore everything was faked; that everyone was a false accuser so why not accuse people falsely; than any complaint or objection could ultimately be confounded by some clever meme; that they or their TV heroes had discovered the made-up argument by which they could drown out that still small voice of reality.

So, the first part describes how we came to accept escalating inequality, encouraged by politicians on both sides of the aisle who lied and obfuscated to ensure we stayed convinced there was really nothing wrong. That if the benefits of the tax cuts and the trade deals and the bank deregulation somehow missed us…well, it was our fault for not working hard enough, or for making bad choices, or not getting the proper education. Supported by news media and TV and movies that bombarded us with the message that the billionaires were the above-mentioned heroes we must needs struggle to emulate.

Meanwhile, the first African-American president, who promised us hope and change, saved the banks and the Wall Streeters while millions of the middle-class lost their homes and/or their retirement funds.

The one percent got the of both [“a brief experience with deficit spending” then President Obama’s “famous turn to austerity”]: not only were they bailed out, but the also chalked up some of their best years ever under Barack Obama, taking home 95 percent of the nation’s income growth during the recovery.

And speaking of not getting the proper education, that’s the topic of Part 2: “Too Smart to Fail.” This section covers the encroachment of neoliberalism on campus, which has led to a decrease in the number of tenured professors and an increase in the number of adjuncts most of whom can’t live on what they’re paid and don’t know from one week to the next if they’ll even have a job. In fact, a writer I know who works as an adjunct had a class he was counting on to pay his living expenses cancelled four days before it was scheduled to start, with no compensation.

And then there is soaring tuition, which more and more goes to pay inflated salaries for legions of unnecessary administrators while services (and those tenured professors) are cut back. Four-year college graduates are re-entering the world carrying a massive load of debt, which is not just stressful but a major drain on the economy both because wages and salaries have stagnated or actually declined in the last four decades and because money that goes into the vaults of lenders isn’t being spent in the economy.

[E]very democratic movement from the Civil War to the 1960s aimed to bring higher ed to an ever widening circle, to make it more affordable. Ours is the generation that stood by gawking while a handful of parasites and billionaires smashed it for their own benefit.

Part 3, “The Poverty of Centrism,” traces the path by which, beginning in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan and continued unabated by those administrations that followed him, the rich got filthy rich and the 90% were tricked into believing keeping them that way was good for us

To a Washington notable of the pre-Trump era, a team of rivals was a glorious thing: it meant that elections had virtually no consequences for members of the consensus. No one was sentenced to political exile because he or she was on the wrong side; the presidency changed hands, but all the players still got a seat at the table.

The only ones left out of this warm bipartisan circle of friendship were the voters, who woke up one fine day to discover what they thought they’d rejected wasn’t rejected in the least.

In this section, Mr. Frank also talks about the role the news media have played in enabling this mess. I don’t share his admiration for the Washington Post, but I have to wonder if his informal analysis of the way they undermined Sen. Bernie Sanders during the 2016 primaries wasn’t a bit painful. Or even disillusioning. He also seems unwilling to admit the collusion between the DNC and the Clinton campaign and the news media to achieve that goal; he avoids referring to the email leaks that revealed just that, and sadly, he seems to at least partly believe the so-far unsupported insistence on “Russian influence.”

Even so, his criticism of the Democrats was apparently sufficient to get him blackballed by those major news media he tries hard not to accuse of bias.

The final section, “The Explosion” addresses the why of the election of Donald Trump and why it was the direct result of the Democrat Party’s refusal to accept that they could no longer take their traditional working-class and minority base for granted. Which brings us to this year.

Trump succeeded by pretending to be the heir of populists past, acting the role of a rough-hewn reformer who detested the powerful and cared about working-class people. Now it is the turn of Democrats to take it back from him. They may have to fire their consultants.

As I said earlier, I wouldn’t recommend this as an introduction to Thomas Frank’s work. The broad scope of the subject matter is easier to take in context if one has a background in what he’s written at length. For those familiar with that body of writing, these essays are sharp-tongued snippets of the history of the last seven years, with reference to those that preceded them. They do require personal honesty, in that we who allowed this mess to come as far as it has must take the responsibility for not paying attention and staying informed.

Well done, Mr. Frank. May we please have some more?

How to analyze the news, Pt. 2

Headlines Lie

When I worked at a flagship daily for a major media conglomerate, I covered the story of how one of the businesses on my beat managed to overcome a huge operating debt and become profitable. My city editor, however, had a personal grudge against that particular form of business; and when the story broke,  not only did the headline make it sound as if the business were still deeply in debt but he had rewritten the lede paragraph to support the misleading headline.

In these days when independent blogs and aggregator sites vie with the mainstream media for attention, one of the major elements used to try to trigger a viral response is to use a provocative headline. That’s because it’s an established that 40% of readers never make it past that headline. Another 20-30% may go so far as to read the first three paragraphs. If you want the reason why bad information gets spread so quickly, that’s it.

As an example, let’s take a story that broke on 5 May in Los Angeles. Democratic primary candidate Hillary Clinton was scheduled to speak at a small college. Prior to her speech, a fair-sized crowd made up of local Latino organizations and activists and Bernie Sanders supporters arrived to demonstrate. There was some shouting back and forth, but the protest was otherwise peaceful. In other words, it was a simple exercise of the right to assemble and of free speech.

TV station KNBC had a reporter on the ground and put the story on its website with the following headline at 5 p.m PDT.:

Protesters Gather Outside Hillary Clinton Rally

The following day, the internet news site Raw Story launched their version of the article, and for reasons I’m sure I don’t have to explain, the headline not only quickly had it circulating on social media but was rousing a slew of anti-Sanders and anti-protestor comment:

Hordes of Sanders supporters shut down Clinton event in LA: ‘She’s not with us!’

There’s only one thing wrong with that: it didn’t happen, as the video clip and the report on KNBC’s website make perfectly clear. Ms. Clinton’s speech went on as planned, and the demonstration was a bit too peaceful for the crowd to describe it as a “horde,” which carries a very warlike connotation.

To make matters worse, the author of the story said:

“The Democratic presidential frontrunner was repeatedly interrupted Thursday as she spoke to a largely Latino crowd in Monterey Park, where Union del Barrio organized a protest against Clinton over her immigration policies and opposition to a national $15 hourly minimum wage, reported KNBC-TV.”

In other words, the article at Raw Story is a hit piece in which the author took facts from the original story, embellished it with allegations for which no support is offered, then topped it with a misleading headline. I mean, does anyone seriously believe KNBC wouldn’t have mentioned if those protestors had forced Ms. Clinton to “cut short her scheduled speech,” as the story claims?

Still, anyone predisposed to be upset had already expressed outrage and passed the link along.

By Saturday, 7 May, at least one other clickbait site had embraced the shut-down fiction, which also showed up on social media. By then, even people highly favorable to Sen. Sanders were in speaking against the demonstrators over their alleged lack of respect for his opponent. The name “Trump,” of course, was quickly dredged up.

Why did so many otherwise thoughtful people believe a crowd of Sanders supporters had shouted down Ms. Clinton? Because none of them did what I did, something so simple it should be standard procedure whenever something with a provocative headline springs forth on Twitter or Facebook.

They didn’t click on the link to the original story.

One of the major problems for internet reporting is that, like their print and broadcast cousins, the media have to be self-supporting. Most of the time, that’s done by selling advertising, and for it to work requires getting as many clicks bringing readers to their sites as possible. Hence, the term clickbait. It’s often used in a derogatory sense, but it’s simply fact. If you can’t afford to pay the bills, you’re done; and if paying the bills means getting eyes on your site for your advertisers, any business is going to do whatever they can to ensure that happens.

People have been conditioned to react with outrage before they check on the facts. And some just don’t want to be bothered, especially if the bait suits their own opinions or prejudices. It’s time-consuming, because sometimes the sad fact is a provocative story may have been spun from milkweed and dewdrops. Worse, since Google is set up to show us search results based on our interests, as stored in their databases from our online activity, we may have to dig through a slew of results pages to confirm the facts.

Still, in this era of corporate-owned media, where the only news we get is what the people in charge have decided is what we need to know, falling for a headline specifically designed to trigger our reflex reactions means something important may be missed. And while there are plenty of reliable alternate sources for news, we must still be wary of believing everything we read.

All the News that Fits

The role that modern media have undertaken–or in the opinion of some, not taken–with regard to ensuring that the people in the United States are kept aware of the things that they should be kept aware of seems to have moved from the dissemination of actual useful knowledge to providing a barrage of what has come to be called “infotainment.”

All sorts of conspiracy theories have been offered to explain this journalistic dereliction of duty, but having spent nine years as a journalist, I think I can safely say that there is no great conspiracy to keep the American public stupid and ignorant. The thing is, a great many journalists already believe the American public is stupid and ignorant, that there’s no point in providing them with anything remotely resembling balanced facts because they don’t care enough about what’s going on to bother reading them.

Anyone who has ever spent any significant amount of time in your average modern newsroom quickly becomes aware that those who are occupying it consider themselves intellectually superior to the vast majority of the people for whom they’re writing. Oh, it’s nothing overt—they don’t stand around the water cooler plotting how to mess with the rubes today—but there is nevertheless a pervasive undercurrent that the reporters and editors just know so much more than the bulk of their readers.

That this supposed breadth of knowledge is largely imaginary doesn’t lessen the effect of their belief in it. Their obsession with the Tea Party, for example, has nothing to do with the political, social and cultural implications of the movement and everything to do with the belief held by those observing them that they’re all a bunch of morons. That’s why there’s been so much attention paid to misspelled signs and so little to the very real impact this political movement has already shown it can effect.

I don’t say this attitude is deliberate. It’s of the sort fostered by any closed community—a case of media ivory-tower syndrome, if you will—engendered by rules established with the intent of avoiding the appearance of bias. Emphasis on the word appearance, because it’s the rare human being who can actually divorce himself or herself from their own ideas and beliefs completely. It’s ironic that all these rules really do is so isolate those compelled to observe them from the grass roots of their communities that the aforementioned sense of superiority is inevitable.

Exacerbating this is that the bottom line when it comes to modern journalism is, sadly, the bottom line. It’s not about keeping the public informed; it’s about making money. Since advertising has become a losing proposition—for the most part, anyway—they have no choice but to focus on selling as many copies as they can, and they decided the way to do that is to avoid writing about anything that might require their customers to do anything more than enjoy themselves.

The really sad thing is, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Those who actually want factual information so they can make informed opinions have long since abandoned the newspapers in favor of the Internet and other sources. So, the only ones who continue to purchase newspapers–or so, it seems, those in charge of today’s newspapers believe–are the ones who are more interested in knowing the latest adventures of whatever pop star has crashed and burned this week.

I think you can see how it vicious circle quickly develops in this kind of situation. The newspapers aren’t providing the public with the information it wants in the fair and balanced way they’re supposed to, so the portion of the public that wants that information stops buying newspapers. When the latest scandal erupts, the people who may not otherwise buy newspapers do so, with the result that those who make the decisions decide the best way to keep selling newspapers is to keep reporting on scandals. And if there aren’t enough of those happening, it’s not that hard to make a mountain out of a mole hill, at least not when your tools are words.

So, if you really want to know where to place the blame, in part we have to blame ourselves, and in part we have to blame the fact that our media–news and otherwise–are largely in the hands of huge corporate entities whose only concern is that their stockholders and their executives make lots of money.

Joseph de Maistre wrote, in 1811, that every nation has the government it deserves. That applies equally to this situation. If we who deplore the current state of what passes for news these days continue to support it by paying for it, even if only to add more fuel to our criticism, we have to shoulder some of the blame for the existence of that which we’re criticizing.

Fortunately, the role the mainstream media has abjured is being assumed by bloggers. Unfortunately, many of these are as lacking in their willingness to work at providing actual balanced information as their mainstream peers. That those mainstream peers have chosen to be one-sided doesn’t mean it’s acceptable journalism, and any news blogger who truly wants to be taken seriously as a journalist knows this and acts accordingly. I, for one, appreciate every one of them who does.