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Pushing Consumers to Amazon Is Baked In to NYT’s Business Model

FAIR - June 17, 2021 - 4:51pm


The New York Times (6/15/21) examines the sinister side of one of its major business partners.

The New York Times (6/15/21) recently published a lengthy investigative report about working conditions at Amazon‘s Staten Island, New York, warehouse. Among the major takeaways:

Amid the pandemic, Amazon’s system burned through workers, resulted in inadvertent firings and stalled benefits, and impeded communication, casting a shadow over a business success story for the ages.

One former Amazon human resources VP interviewed gave some context for the company’s sky-high 150% yearly turnover rate, saying CEO Jeff Bezos “didn’t want hourly workers to stick around for long, viewing ‘a large, disgruntled’ work force as a threat.” In other words, high turnover is a feature, not a bug, of this “success story for the ages.”

It’s the kind of reporting that might make Times readers rethink their Prime membership. Except, if they click over to another section of the Times‘ website, they’ll find a prominent blue banner that follows them as they scroll, announcing that “Prime Day starts June 21.” It’s not an Amazon ad—it’s a message from the Times, encouraging readers to sign up for alerts telling them the best ways to spend their money on Amazon‘s biggest marketing day of the year.

‘Merging of content and commerce’

Alerting readers about Amazon‘s sales events appears to be a prime mission for the New York Times and Wirecutter (6/15/21).

That section is Wirecutter, a product review site that the Times acquired for some $30 million in 2016 (Recode, 10/24/16). It’s a digital section of the paper, though its content frequently appears in the print edition. For instance, the most recent Sunday paper (6/13/21) ran a Wirecutter article on page 3—”Here to Help; How to Prepare for Amazon Prime Day”—that gave readers tips on how best to give Amazon their money.

“It’s the merging of content and commerce,” a retail strategist told the LA Times (10/24/16) at the time of the acquisition. “Respected publications and websites have real potential power as sales-drivers because they have readers who trust them.”

The Times would have you believe there’s nothing untoward about this arrangement. “We work with total editorial independence,” Wirecutter‘s About Us page professes, and claims that “of course, our writers and editors are never made aware of or influenced by which companies have affiliate relationships with our business team.” But anyone who spends any time on Wirecutter knows that an overwhelming number of affiliate links point to Amazon; surely its own staff are not oblivious to this.

That’s not to say Wirecutter intentionally gives Amazon preference. As the outlet (5/10/21) explains, “Revenue isn’t part of our team’s deal-assessment rubric at all—the best price from a reliable retailer is what we aim to post every time.” But Amazon has essentially rigged the system so that it will almost always have that “best price.”

As the Times‘ own Karen Weise (12/19/19) pointed out more than a year ago, Amazon initially lured businesses into its shopping ecosystem with relatively relaxed rules and its big customer base, but as its online dominance has grown, so have its rules. The company started pushing its own warehouses, requiring sellers to use Amazon‘s fulfillment services if they wanted access to the coveted Prime members (who spend much more money on Amazon). And, crucially, it punishes sellers who list their product elsewhere at a lower price than at Amazon.

That means if something’s available on Amazon among other places—and it usually is, since the website sells more than 350 million products—it’s almost certain to have the best price.

As Matt Stoller (Big, 5/30/21) points out, since Amazon takes a big cut of third-party sellers’ earnings, and requires them to offer “free shipping” to Prime members, those retailers are forced to raise their Amazon prices to come out in the black—and since they can’t list their prices any lower elsewhere or they’ll be essentially cut off by Amazon, consumers pay inflated prices, whether they buy from Amazon or not. This is at the heart of the recent antitrust suit filed against the online giant (Wired, 5/25/21).

The lure of affiliate links

While an anti-trust suit alleging that Amazon artificially boosts prices undercuts its pro-consumer branding (Wired, 5/25/21), features that present Amazon over and over as having the “best price” serve to bolster it.

The distorting influence of advertising on corporate media has long been obvious (which is why FAIR has always rejected an advertiser-funded model for our own work). Advertiser-funded news that regularly criticizes major advertisers, or the capitalist system in general, is at risk of losing its funding sources.

Much less attention has been paid to affiliate links. But if you try to estimate the amount of money the Times gets from Amazon every month through its Wirecutter links, it’s almost certainly on par with or more than any other individual advertiser in the paper. In its annual earnings report, the paper showed about $400 million in 2020 advertising revenue. The year the Times acquired Wirecutter, the startup’s annual profit was estimated to be around $10 million, and two years later the paper had claimed 50% year-over-year revenue growth for the unit. It apparently makes up the most profitable portion of the company’s “other revenue” category, which netted just under $200 million last year.

But affiliate link revenue is different from advertising revenue in one important sense. If people see an ad in the Times for a car and they don’t buy that car, it makes no difference to the Times’ bottom line. Car companies can’t track which ad placements drive individual sales; an ad in the Times is more about building or sustaining a brand’s reputation than it is about direct translation to sales.

But if people see an affiliate link to Amazon on Wirecutter and don’t click through to buy the product, that directly hurts the Times’ bottom line. And any dings to Amazon’s reputation could impact that as well. So in that sense, it’s an even more dependent and conflicted relationship.

Would the Times‘ coverage of Amazon—which, as we’ve pointed out, is occasionally quite good—be tougher and more frequent if a less significant portion of its revenue didn’t come straight from the retail behemoth? It’s impossible to say—and that’s a problem. But perhaps more importantly, anodyne Wirecutter articles that instruct Times readers how best to shop at Amazon serve to blunt any impact from critical coverage from reporters like Weise. Indeed, it’s hard to hold the powerful to account while simultaneously pushing customers their way.


The post Pushing Consumers to Amazon Is Baked In to NYT’s Business Model appeared first on FAIR.

Outrage at ProPublica Tax Leaks Underscores Their Importance

FAIR - June 17, 2021 - 12:15pm


ProPublica‘s report (6/8/21) explored “how the ultrawealthy avoid taxes, exploit loopholes and escape scrutiny from federal auditors.”

A ProPublica report (6/8/21) on the leaked federal tax documents of super-wealthy individuals has bolstered the economic left’s argument that the US economy is set up in favor of the wealthiest. The report doesn’t show illegal activity; that’s what makes it so damning.

According to ProPublica, it “demolishes the cornerstone myth…that everyone pays their fair share and the richest Americans pay the most.” Examining the leaked taxes of billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Warren Buffett and Elon Musk, the investigation found that the

wealthiest can—perfectly legally—pay income taxes that are only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions, if not billions, their fortunes grow each year.

The source of the leaks is anonymous, and the nonprofit outlet (6/8/21) addressed questions about the ethics of publishing such a vast trove of personal information:

We are doing so—quite selectively and carefully—because we believe it serves the public interest in fundamental ways, allowing readers to see patterns that were until now hidden.

While alumni of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign embrace the disclosures as proof that the system is rigged for the rich against the 99 Percent, the political and media class are fuming at ProPublica and whomever leaked the information.

Attorney General Merrick Garland (CNBC, 6/9/21) compared the ProPublica story to “what President Nixon did in the Watergate period — the creation of enemies lists and the punishment of people through reviewing their tax returns.”

Top-ranking Democrats and Republicans have said they will seek justice, not for what the leaks exposed about wealth inequality, but by catching the leaker who supplied the information. CNBC (6/9/21) reported that Attorney General Merrick Garland told members of Congress that “investigating the source of a massive leak of taxpayer information behind an article by investigative news outlet ProPublica will be one of his top priorities.” Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Charles Rettig likewise “told lawmakers that internal and external investigators are working to determine whether the data ProPublica used was illegally obtained” (Forbes, 6/8/21).

According to Fox News (6/14/21):

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley and Mike Crapo are demanding the Justice Department and the FBI investigate the disclosure of confidential tax information of some of the country’s wealthiest taxpayers.

The GOP leaders insisted that “those responsible be prosecuted and ‘punished to the furthest extent the law permits.’”

“The real scandal,” wrote the Wall Street Journal (6/8/21), “is that someone leaked confidential IRS information about individuals to serve a political agenda.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board (6/8/21) saw the leaks as a well-timed political hit, coming “amid the Biden administration’s effort to pass the largest tax increase as a share of the economy since 1968. Noting that the “main Democratic argument for a tax hike is that the rich should pay their ‘fair share,’” the Journal insisted, “The timing here is no coincidence, comrade.”

Edward Luce of the Financial Times (6/10/21) also smelled a rat, advancing a “reasonable suspicion” that the IRS was hacked by an “entity that does not wish US democracy well.” Whoever the leaker is, they “would know it would deepen public cynicism about America’s creed of playing fair and working hard.” Cynicism is already pretty deep when pundits think it more likely that revelations of systemic economic injustice are a foreign plot than a sincere attempt to provoke reform, or at least debate.

The attack on both the leak itself and ProPublica’s willingness to publish the information is chilling, especially when one considers the fate of leakers targeted by the United States government. Edward Snowden is still living in Russia because of his disclosure of National Security Agency surveillance to the Guardian. As Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman (6/14/21) recently said, the “US State Department [is] still pushing to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from Britain, where he’s been locked up for over two years.” The leaker or leakers will be very lucky if they avoid a a visit from federal agents, if not much worse.

But ProPublica should welcome the attacks from the highest levels of government, and from the business press, as a backhanded compliment. The idea that the outlet compromised the privacy of individuals is farcical. These people are the literal economic, cultural and political elite, whose accumulated wealth—greater in some cases than the GDPs of most countries—gives them enormous power and influence over the lives of the rest of us.

Bloomberg is a media baron who used his wealth to buy himself not just the New York City mayoralty, but an otherwise illegal third term (FAIR.org, 10/2/08)—and spent his way into being taken seriously as a Democratic presidential contender (FAIR.org, 2/14/20). Bezos, Amazon‘s founder and the world’s richest human, bought the leading newspaper in the nation’s capital, which coincidentally has developed a habit of defending its owner against charges that he’s too wealthy (Washington Post, 6/9/20; FAIR.org, 7/25/18, 10/3/17).

The outrage by Republicans toward the leak also exposes the party’s attempt to rebrand itself as populist and anti-corporate. Senators Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio like to paint US corporate leaders as the financers of big, bad cultural liberalism (New York, 3/12/21). But the party’s rallying to the defense of the super rich shows where their sympathies really lie.

The post Outrage at ProPublica Tax Leaks Underscores Their Importance appeared first on FAIR.

Our creaky social media policies are no match for today’s trolls

Columbia Journalism Review - June 17, 2021 - 8:32am
Read enough social-media policies, and you’ll wonder if you’ve torn a page out of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. The New York Times tells its staff that if they “engage in editorializing on social media, that can undercut the credibility of the entire newsroom.” The Associated Press warns employees that they “must be mindful that […]

Andreessen Horowitz’s new media entity is an op-ed page

Columbia Journalism Review - June 17, 2021 - 6:59am

At the beginning of the year, an otherwise innocuous job ad—for an executive editor to oversee a site about technology — got more than its fair share of attention. Why? Because the entity that posted the ad wasn’t a traditional media company. The opening was for a job at Andreessen Horowitz, an influential venture capital firm in Silicon Valley that has developed a reputation for avoiding the traditional technology press. This raised a number of questions. Was the proposed site another way to do an end run around the media industry, from a powerful investor who believes that traditional industries need to be disrupted by technology? A former analyst at Andreessen Horowitz, Benedict Evans, famously described it as “a media company that monetizes through venture capital.” The firm’s assets under management—the stakes it holds in companies like Airbnb, Stripe, and Instacart—are worth about $16 billion. If such an organization really wanted to disrupt an industry like the media, it clearly has the power to do so.

Andreessen Horowitz may have a master plan to overturn established media, but for now at least, members of the press can probably rest easy. On Tuesday, the firm launched the site, which is simply called Future, and the only thing that stands to be disrupted is the universe of technology op-eds. Sonal Chokshi, a former senior editor at Wired and the editor-in-chief of all Andreessen Horowitz’s media ventures, including Future, told CJR the venture firm has no intention of trying to use its new offering to publish reported stories. “We’re not going to do what good reporters do, in terms of investigative journalism etc.,” she said. “Others are already doing a good job of that.”

The idea behind Future is to “go for the first person and get the voices out there directly, undiluted,” Chokshi said. “And we’re talking about more nuanced, long takes, not just someone saying ‘I believe this.’ ” The site aims to cover technology such as gaming and cryptocurrency in a “deep and kind of wonky” way, she said, but also to make it more accessible. “We’re at the center of a bunch of networks—policy makers, technologists, and so on—and we believe we can help curate some of those sources.” The executive editor job was ultimately filled by Maggie Leung, a former journalist who has worked for the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and CNN.

So will Andreessen Horowitz censor some of the content on the site, or shape it in ways that would promote the firm’s investments? “I absolutely hate when people say we are just going to be relentlessly positive because we’ve invested in it,” Chokshi said. “Someone said we had the best explainer on Section 230”—referring to the clause in the Communications Decency Act that protects digital platforms from liability for the content they host—and that kind of thing really matters to me, that editorial rigor. We’re not just going to run some essay by some rich guy without interrogating it.”

For the moment at least, Future doesn’t really look like it has the resources of a $16 billion investment giant behind it. The site is relatively drab by current web publishing standards, with a front page that is more or less just a list of article headlines like “Well-Behaved Bubbles Often Make History,” and “Designing Internet-Native Economies: A Guide to Crypto Tokens.” There are few images to accompany the articles. Chokshi said that both of these things are deliberate. “For the home page, there’s definitely a bias for information density,” she said. “And for articles, I like images, but not gratuitous ones. They should support or illustrate or advance the narrative.” Disruptive? Perhaps. But only to the advertising and traffic-driven nature of the web, which might actually be a good thing. Another benefit of being owned by billionaires.

Here’s more on Andreessen Horowitz:

  • Silence is tactical: Eric Newcomer writes about how Andreessen Horowitz’s media strategy began to shift as public opinion started to turn against technology. The firm has “largely stopped cooperating with the media…I’ve talked to a number of reporters at top outlets and that’s the consensus,” Newcomer said. “For the past couple years, the firm has been quiet even anonymously.” Newcomer said the firm’s comments about the press raised questions: “How much of the firm’s silence is tactical? And how much simply reflects an anti-media ethos that has penetrated the firm’s leaders?”
  • Risk of going direct: Former Fortune magazine writer David Morris, who now works for the crypto news site CoinDesk, writes that as innocuous as it seems, there is a risk to the kind of direct-to-audience writing Andreessen Horowitz is doing. “It does risk reducing the traditional press’s ability to ask hard questions of the businesses themselves,” Morris said. “This has already happened with Tesla, a company that can communicate directly with its rabid fanbase so effectively that it actually disbanded its public relations department in 2020. There’s literally nobody there anymore to answer questions from the press, a situation that ultimately increases the risk for Tesla stockholders.”
  • Eating the world: Writer Tad Friend’s 2015 profile of Andreessen in The New Yorker paints the billionaire as someone who had a relatively poor and unfulfilling upbringing in the wilderness of Wisconsin (something Andreessen refuses to talk much about), and who became convinced that technology had to reinvent not just music or movies or software, but virtually everything—education, politics, government, medicine, and yes, media. This would eventually become the theme of the venture capitalist’s influential op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in 2011, entitled “Why Software Is Eating The World.”

Other notable stories:

  • Hong Kong police used a sweeping national security law Thursday to arrest five editors and executives of Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper, on charges of colluding with foreign powers, the Associated Press reported Thursday, in what it said was a sign of an intensifying crackdown by Chinese authorities in the city. The Hong Kong authorities said they had evidence that more than 30 articles published by Apple Daily played a “crucial part” in what they called a conspiracy with foreign countries to impose sanctions against China and Hong Kong. Earlier this year, Elaine Yu reported for CJR on the loss of press freedoms in Hong Kong. 
  • After more than two years’ worth of talks, including a recent protest outside Anna Wintour’s house in Greenwich Village, union employees at The New Yorker have reached a deal with their parent company, Condé Nast, the New York Times reports. “The deal with Condé Nast includes base pay of $55,000 for employees at all three unions, rising to $60,000 by April 2023,” the paper says. Under the agreement, many employees at the three publications will receive wage increases of at least 10 percent, the unions said in a statement.
  • Bill Adair, the founder of Politifact, writes about lessons learned from Squash, a 12-year project to create an automated engine to check political facts in real time. Although the project “has been a remarkable success,” Adair says, there have been some problems as well. “Squash also makes lots of mistakes,” he admits. “It converts politicians’ speech to the wrong text (often with funny results) and it frequently stays idle because there simply aren’t enough claims that have been checked by the nation’s fact-checking organizations. It isn’t quite ready for prime time.”
  • Carrie Budoff Brown, the top editor at Politico, is leaving to join NBC and run editorial programming for the network’s “Meet The Press” franchise. Budoff Brown will be responsible for all programming on television, digital, and streaming services, “and will work to expand the iconic brand’s reach and impact even further,” Noah Oppenheim, NBC News president, said in a memo to staff obtained by The Washingtonian. Budoff Brown joined Politico in 2007; she has been a staff writer covering the Senate, and the White House, and the managing editor of Politico Europe. She became editor in 2016.
  • Savannah Jacobson writes for CJR about the New York mayoral race, and interviews seven residents of the city about how they have been following the election. “Age seemed to be the best predictor of news habits: older people looked to traditional outlets—the Times, the tabloids, TV—while their younger neighbors followed the race through social media. The politically engaged among us rattled off a list of local news outlets; others expressed frustration with what they viewed as inadequate coverage, especially compared with the wall-to-wall presidential election news they’d seen a few months ago.”
  • One of the people being recognized for the role she played in the publication of the Pentagon Papers at the New York Times in 1971 is Linda Amster, who was a 33-year-old researcher for the newspaper at the time. Despite spending eight weeks helping to catalog and decipher the information in the documents, Amster was not given any credit in print when they were originally published, according to Washington Post media columnist Eric Wemple. Her supervisor at the time recalls that her name was left off the credits because editors were afraid they might be arrested, and they didn’t want Amster to go to prison.
  • Newsrooms need to treat coordinated online attacks on their reporters—such as the recent attacks on Mara Gay, of the New York Times editorial board—as though they were propaganda, writes former journalist and PR consultant Ed Zitron. “This is not a case of people being mean to other people, it’s coordinated, anti-democratic, anti-free press propaganda, ironically weaponizing the language and methods of the free press. It is a form of warfare, except it’s not engineered by countries to attack other countries—it’s private enterprises and individuals bringing war to the doorsteps of reporters.”
  • Former foreign correspondent Natacha Yazbeck writes for CJR about the research she has done into the use of local stringers and fixers for reporting on Syria, and how that takes a toll on them and on journalism in general. “The picture that emerges from this research is a complex, hierarchical ecology of newsmaking that marginalizes those it depends on for coverage,” Yazbeck writes. “Stringers face forms of precarity that further compound the difficulties that already confront foreign freelancers.”
  • Canada’s national broadcaster, the CBC, says it is shutting down comments on its Facebook page for a month as an experiment, in part because of the abuse that the broadcaster says its journalists get for their reporting. “If public discourse is a litmus test of the health of a society, the conversation on social media suggests we have a problem,” writes Brodie Fenlon, CBC editor-in-chief. “It’s one thing for our journalists to deal with toxicity on these platforms. It’s another for our audience members who try to engage with and discuss our journalism to encounter it on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, where they are almost guaranteed to be confronted by hate, racism and abuse.”

Behind the Byline: The human toll of how we (still) get news out of Syria

Columbia Journalism Review - June 16, 2021 - 9:59am
 On February 22, 2012, journalists Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik were killed in a government attack on a media center in Baba Amr, Syria. On August 19, 2014, a video of the beheading of journalist James Foley in Syria was released to the public. Less than a month later, the recorded beheading of Steven Sotloff, […]

We need to complicate the “save local news” mantra

Columbia Journalism Review - June 16, 2021 - 7:31am

On Saturday, Politico media reporter Jack Shafer wrote a column arguing that the primary challenge facing local newsrooms is not supply, but demand. “It’s not that nobody wants to read local news; it’s just that not enough people do to make it a viable business,” Shafer wrote. “Maybe the surfeit of local news of yesteryear was the product of an economic accident, a moment that cannot be reclaimed.” Shafer’s identification of declining demand is a worthy point, complicating overly simplistic calls to “save local news.” But placing too many eggs in the “demand” basket, and over-emphasizing economics,  risks dismissing needs and desires that aren’t being met in the current system, warped as it is. Declining readership, after all, is also an impact problem.

Shafer’s column follows a rise in national coverage and political discourse lamenting the degradation of many local news outlets across the United States. Penny Abernathy—the researcher behind the oft-cited news desert map—told me last August that “there has been a real awakening in the industry, among community activists, and among certain politicians as to what is at stake if we lose the local newspaper, in whatever form it is delivered.”

Shafer is right to say that discussions about the stakes often place an outsized emphasis on supply, equating the presence of any local outlet with public good. He’s also right that declining demand is a big part of the problem; local reporters have made similar points themselves. In January, Pat Rynard, the founder and managing editor of digital local politics site Iowa Starting Line, wrote an anguished post to explain that the publication was going on hiatus because he was deeply discouraged by the limits of journalism’s impact in Iowa. “Good journalism should hold the powerful accountable, but it should do so in reality, not just theory,” Rynard wrote. “And if voters aren’t listening to it, then what are we doing here?” When he spoke with me in January, Rynard expressed frustration with the national emphasis on the supply of local news over its ability to reach readers. “It’s all about, How do we keep this stuff surviving? and not so much, Is it having its full impact?” The local news industry, he added, needs “a lot of new and more imaginative thinking.”(Iowa Starting Line returned to publication in February, after a hiatus lasting just under a month.)

It’s all too easy, though, to confuse “imagination” with “innovation,” that elusive capitalist promise that working harder and being smarter will yield economic benefits. The past decade has proven that the traditional local news model cannot innovate itself out of the mess it’s in: innovation cannot reverse vulture investments, break up tech monopolies, or compete with ubiquitous free junk news. And while innovation measures the financial benefit of making things better, imagination might tether improvement to public service instead. As Heather Bryant, deputy director of News Catalyst, tweeted, “We can ask ‘how do we get people to pay for journalism’ or we can ask ‘how do we cover the cost of producing and providing access to useful news and information.’ These are different problems.” To add to Shafer’s point, “saving local news” is a good mantra, but we should be clear about which of its functions are valuable and which we can discard.

There is significant evidence that localized, trustworthy information is essential to democracy, but it does not have to take the form of a traditional print newspaper. Abernathy’s work documenting news deserts was instrumental in bringing public attention to a real problem, but its metrics are limited—measuring the loss of print newspapers across geographic regions—and national coverage depending on the “news deserts” research has become uncritically fixated upon those limited variables. As a result, we suffer from a lack of imagination about what local news can be, both in format and in funding model.

There’s also an important distinction between what people want and what people need; readers might not pay for coverage of election infrastructure as readily as they pay for Disney+, but that doesn’t mean a Disney subscription is more valuable. Victor Pickard, who has written extensively on the value of journalism as a public good, wrote on Twitter,”If there was an ‘accident,’ it was that an advertising revenue-driven business model and newspaper publishers’ monopolistic power over local markets created the illusion that journalism should always be highly profitable.” At present, a lot of local reporting suffers from a feedback loop in which margins shrink, coverage declines, and margins shrink some more. The problem is not an unworthy goal, but the inability to produce a worthwhile result using a broken system.

Something must change in order to connect readers to the democratic value that robust, localized reporting can offer, and that’s a challenge worthy of extra attention. There’s not a single solution, but there are a host of possibilities that can be used in concert—some of which are already taking place at publications across the country—eliminating barriers to access, reimagining the relationship between journalism and its audience, finding new funding models, getting government support, better explaining local journalism’s value proposition, or humbly accepting that it may be far from the traditional past we cling to. “Improve and support the function accessible localized information plays in undergirding democracy, and educate people about its value” is a much less pithy mantra than “save local news,” but perhaps it is what “save local news” can come to mean.

Below, more on the economics of information:

  • Opportunity: A recent report from the International News Media Association found that business subscriptions are an under-tapped resource for news publishers, as PressGazette reported. Some publishers indicated finding businesses increasingly willing to pay for subscriptions.
  • Nonprofits: Two-thirds of nonprofit news outlets saw an increase in foundation funding and individual giving in 2020, NiemanLab reported, with individual donors playing an increasingly large role in lending support. (Half of nonprofit outlets experienced lower earnings from revenue alone.) For more on the state of nonprofit news, read INN’s annual index report.
  • Bouncing back: Thanks to swift and sudden growth in advertising, in addition to the return of live events, many media companies are rebounding, with hundreds of new media hires, Axios reported.
  • On “value”:  For The Atlantic, Kaitlyn Tiffany wrote about the monetization of the attention economy. “We might also wonder what follows from the understanding that every little thing we do—every second of our time, every funny thought that pops into our mind—is something to be owned or sold,” she writes. Ensuring that people are paid for their labor is important; still “when a market value is assigned to every utterance, we’re acquiescing to the premise that no other sort of value matters as much.

Other notable stories:

The press waves Netanyahu goodbye

Columbia Journalism Review - June 15, 2021 - 7:17am

On Sunday the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, reached an agreement to eject Benjamin Netanyahu after twelve years, the longest time any prime minister has held power in the country. Coverage described a fraught legacy: the New York Times called him a “polarizing figure”; per the Washington Post, “he leaves a country more divided”; CNN reported that he made “a wealthier, more divided Israel.” Many outlets remarked on the strange cooperation among those who removed Netanyahu from office. “They lead an eight-party alliance ranging from left to right, from secular to religious, that agrees on little but a desire to oust Mr. Netanyahu,” Richard Pérez-Peña wrote, in the Times. For The New Yorker, Ruth Margalit noted that “under a government that delegitimized any form of dissent, traditional concepts of left and right have become somewhat meaningless.” Naftali Bennett, a hard-right nationalist who was once Netanyahu’s chief of staff, has now taken his place as prime minister; Yair Lapid, a centrist and former journalist, is set to take over in 2023.

Netanyahu’s relationship with the press has long been combative. For CJR’s global issue, Margalit wrote about his journey from a “master of television,” in his early career, to seasoned press antagonist. In 1999, after his first election loss, when Netanyahu sought to boost his media influence, his friend Ronald Lauder, the American cosmetics magnate, bought a majority stake in Israel’s Channel 10; in 2007, another ally, Sheldon Adelson, the casino-owning mega-donor, launched a free tabloid that amplified Netanyahu’s voice and views. By 2014, Israel got Channel 20 (“The Heritage Channel”), a mirror of Fox News with the motto: “Really Balanced Television”; soon, it was the only network with which Netanyahu sat for interviews. The same year, he sidelined his communications minister and took over the role himself. “Among analysts of Israeli politics,” Margalit observed, “the most common word used to describe Netanyahu’s view of the press is ‘obsession.’”

Then, in February of 2019, ahead of his next bid for reelection, Netanyahu was slammed with three major corruption cases; the most serious alleged that a media executive had taken down a story criticizing the First Lady in exchange for Netanyahu’s approval of a merger that would offset the executive’s corporate debt. Netanyahu fought to maintain his grip as long as he could: through indictments for breach of trust, accepting bribes, and fraud; through a bid for immunity; through an extended trial. By the end of December, the Knesset dissolved, and Israel’s election became a campaign to unseat him.

While lawmakers scrambled to form a new coalition, Netanyahu took aggressive action against Palestine. In May, Israel went on a bombing spree; when missiles hit press offices in Gaza, Netanyahu insisted that Hamas had an intelligence office in the building. Soon after, Haaretz reported that, amid protests, Netanyahu had proposed a social media crackdown. Even as his tenure as prime minister spun out of control, the press had trouble resisting his hold over messaging; as Jon Allsop wrote in a recent newsletter, “Much of the top-line coverage in the United States has used fuzzy, passive language—‘warlike violence erupts’; ‘the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, reignited’—that obscures who has done what to whom.” In an open letter last week, a group of media professionals called for more strongly worded coverage of Israel’s hostility against Palestine.

Under Bennett, the outlook for the press remains to be seen. From Jerusalem, Noga Tarnopolsky, who covers Israel and Palestine as a freelance reporter, tweeted that “much of the media is breathing a sigh of relief with the exit of a PM who referred to us as enemies of the people & treated journalists with sneering contempt,” calling Bennett’s administration a “breath of fresh air.” Still, Mairav Zonszein, a writer and analyst for the Crisis Group, noted that the new administration “does not mark a defeat of the right.” And Al Jazeera observed that, as Bennett replaces Netanyahu, Palestinians are “not counting on change.” Reporters like Givara Budeiri—who, according to the International Federation of Journalists, was arrested and assaulted by Israeli police, then released with a broken hand, even after a cease-fire was declared—can only hope for better days. They can’t count on them.

Below, more on news coverage and Israel:

    • “Israeli media’s one-woman show”: For CJR last summer, Zonszein interviewed Or-ly Barlev, an independent journalist and activist in Israel who broadcasts via Facebook Live to hundreds of thousands. Barlev described living in a media landscape dominated by Netanyahu—or “Bibi,” as he’s known. “He has planted people in every panel, every studio; there is always someone speaking on behalf of Bibi,” Barlev said. “Not representatives of the right. Not right-wing intellectuals. Mouthpieces. Propagandists. And he feeds the media spins, which some journalists eat up.” Still, in August, she saw some signs of hope: “One of Bibi’s tools is to divide and fracture, and people are uniting. The contra has started.”
    • “All stick, no carrot”: For the Canadaland podcast, Jesse Brown spoke with Dalya al-Masri, a Palestinian writer and researcher based in Vancover, about media coverage of Israel and Palestine. They agreed that ambivalent coverage of Israel and Palestine is overly governed by fear (in Brown’s words, “all stick and no carrot”). “Journalists have the obligation and the duty to morally and ethically represent the truth and to represent the communities they cover,” Masri said. “There is a rightful fear. But most of this fear is driven by the silence. When we stay silent, and when journalists and newsrooms don’t really cover these issues, it starts to get really pushed under the rug.”
    • Out in the open: In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Yousef Munayyer wrote that Bennett’s policies “won’t mean justice or peace for Palestinians,” citing Bennett’s shameless opposition to a Palestinian state. “Bennett will not only continue to act as Netanyahu did, he is unafraid to tell the world about it too,” Munayyer argued.


Other notable stories:

Carole Cadwalladr, Covid-19, and the fight against collective amnesia

Columbia Journalism Review - June 14, 2021 - 7:32am
At the start of the pandemic, the UK government’s suppression of data prompted Carole Cadwalladr and her colleagues at All the Citizens to found Independent SAGE, a group of scientists who shadow official government scientists. Now, as the UK hurtles towards a June 21 reopening that now looks unlikely to happen, the group’s findings are […]

Summit coverage highlights the tension between global and domestic affairs

Columbia Journalism Review - June 14, 2021 - 7:04am

This weekend, global leaders of the seven wealthy democratic nations known as the G-7—the US, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the UK—met for their annual summit, along with leaders from Australia, India, South Korea, and South Africa. Those who spent the past year heralding the transformation effect the pandemic might catalyze across the world may find themselves disappointed; much of the coverage emphasized a return to convention, with some modest markers of change. Pew surveys showed that, under the Biden presidency, public opinion has rebounded significantly in at least a dozen countries, including all of the six other countries included in the G-7; CNN reported “sighs of relief.” The US is “back at the table,” Biden said, and the group recycled the Biden campaign slogan in their infrastructure aid program, calling it “Build Back Better for the World.” Three subjects rose to the top of summit coverage: the group’s pandemic response, commitments to climate action, and foreign policy toward China.

On Friday, the first day of the meetings, the group announced that it would donate one billion vaccine doses to other countries over the next year, a headlinegrabbing move that vows to add 870 million new doses to those already promised or funded since last February’s summit. The International Monetary Fund and the World Health Organization both quickly responded to say the plan was not ambitious enough, the WHO suggesting that eleven billion doses would be necessary to end the pandemic. The United Nations echoed the sentiment, saying “we need more.”

On climate action, critics also noticed the group’s disproportionate power in the world and felt that its action failed to match its influence. Though the Times called the G-7 climate action “aggressive”, the BBC reported that the group “disappointed activists.” Reversing some of the US stonewalling on climate that marked the status quo of the Trump era, the Group of Seven promised to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030; they agreed on the need to end the use of coal, but did not choose a deadline by which to do so. Recently, Mark Hertsgaard at The Nation (and executive director of Covering Climate Now, the media collaborative co-founded with CJR) wrote that most media coverage has focused on such emissions cuts, though a Paris Agreement promise to provide $100 billion to under-resourced countries has not been fulfilled; the pledge, Hertsgaard wrote, is “equally important, though much less discussed,” despite “the truism that climate change is overwhelmingly caused by the rich but disproportionately punishes the poor.”

ICYMI: Why Can’t We Call it an Emergency?

The group’s foreign policy toward China was less unified in message, and coverage waffled between highlighting consensus—like the group’s collective condemnation of China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and anti-democratic action in Hong Kong—and emphasizing divisions—like many leaders’ hesitance to go as far as Biden had hoped. The Times wrote that “the session had distinctly Cold War overtones — a reflection of the deepening sense that a declining Russia and rising China are forming their own adversarial bloc to challenge the West,” adding that Biden’s foreign policy doctrine is framed in terms of “a struggle between dissonant, often unruly democracies and brutally efficient but repressive autocrats,” a framing that some newsrooms accepted—especially in pieces leading up to the summit. The president even submitted an Op-Ed to the Washington Post to promote his agenda, writing, “Will the democratic alliances and institutions that shaped so much of the last century prove their capacity against modern-day threats and adversaries? I believe the answer is yes.” For its part, China pushed back, saying through a spokesman at the London embassy, “The days when global decisions were dictated by a small group of countries are long gone.”

After more than a year of domestic news coverage on global events that clearly acknowledged the interconnectedness of the world, the press in G-7 countries—many of which now find their pandemic response on more solid footing than the rest of the world—will struggle to balance the traditional framing of foreign policy news coverage against one of the epiphanies of the last year: things that happen “over there” also matter here. Climate action cannot be limited to domestic policies, or it will fail, both globally and domestically. The global vaccination effort cannot be limited to a small group of nations, or it will fail, too. Reporting for one’s audience also requires situating such coverage in collective terms, because that’s the nature of the world. The past year has shown the value of globally-minded reporting, and as the world shifts again, that’s a value to maintain.

Below, more on summit coverage:

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: What the ephemerality of the Web means for your hyperlinks

Osaka Foregoes Press Briefing to Protect Mental Health, and Press Piles On

FAIR - June 11, 2021 - 5:12pm


The response of the press to Naomi Osaka’s announcement that she would not be attending press conferences during the French Open only illustrates why athletes dread such media events in the first place.

When the 23-year-old four-time Grand Slam winner announced on May 26 that she would not be attending post-game press conferences during this year’s French Open because “people have no regard for athletes’ mental health,” she expected a fine. But, as she said in a later statement announcing her complete withdrawal from the tournament, she did not expect her decision to cause such an uproar.

Osaka’s May 31 statement announcing her withdrawal from the French Open struck an apologetic note after her initial decision earned her a $15,000 fine from the French Open, and a threat by all four Grand Slam tournaments to serve her more penalties—including suspension. In the wake of a media frenzy, she recently announced she’d be withdrawing from the Wimbledon WTA 5000 tournament as well.

Many outlets have published compassionate opinion and news pieces of Osaka’s announcement (Guardian, 5/31/21; Esquire, 6/1/21; Washington Post, 6/1/21), though the sheer amount of coverage is ironic in and of itself. But some of the press treated her decision as simply a flippant diva move meant to attack them, dismissing her explanation that it was necessary to preserve her mental health.

Making themselves the victim

The fact that this issue is even up for debate, and that journalists can so easily make themselves the victim in a story about a young athlete prioritizing her mental health, just drives Osaka’s point home.

Piers Morgan (Daily Mail, 5/31/21) went after Naomi Osaka as “an arrogant spoiled brat whose fame and fortune appears to have inflated her ego to gigantic proportions.”

British commentator Piers Morgan, who recently stormed off the set of Good Morning Britain and subsequently quit the show after being called out for his treatment of Meghan Markle, ironically called Osaka an “arrogant spoiled brat” in a Daily Mail column (5/31/21), accusing her of exploiting mental illness to silence the press.

Outlets like Al Jazeera (5/31/21), Forbes (5/30/21) and Reuters (6/1/21) referred to her decision as a “boycott” of the media, suggesting that she is choosing not to attend press conferences to express her hostility to the press. In fact, she clarified in her May 31 statement that she has had mostly positive experiences with journalists, and is opting out of press conferences because of the intense anxiety they cause her.

The New York Times (6/26/21) mentioned that she made $55 million last year right after a quote from French Tennis Federation president Gilles Moretton saying her refusal was a mistake—as if to suggest that wealth undercuts Osaka’s mental illness concerns.

Osaka’s May 31 statement outlined the depression and social anxiety she deals with:

I never wanted to be a distraction, and I accept my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer. More importantly, I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly. The truth is I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018, and I have had a really hard time coping with that. So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious, so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences. I announced it preemptively because I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts, and I wanted to highlight that.

CNN (6/2/21) responded to Osaka’s statement that excessive media attention was harming her mental health by running a highlight reel of her most vulnerable public moments.

But when someone says they’re avoiding press attention that jeopardizes their mental health, much of the press just doubles down on covering them in their most vulnerable and emotional moments. In a CNN segment (6/2/21) melodramatically headlined “2018 Photos of Naomi Osaka Take On New Meaning,” reporter Bianna Golodryga interviewed another journalist, sports writer Kavitha Davidson, about Osaka’s mental health, running a reel of photos of Osaka crying after her controversial 2018 US Open win against Serena Williams.

An MSN article (6/10/21) cited only one interview, with former British No. 1 Greg Rusedski, who argued that talking to the press is just part of the job, and that tennis players rely on journalists to bolster the sport. He was dismissive of Osaka’s argument that she needed to protect herself from depression and anxiety:

You can’t go and play without talking to the press. 99.9 percent of the journalists are fine and you are always going to get one tricky question from time to time that you might not like.

Learning to politely avoid those questions, he said, comes with “maturity.” This interview, which MSN proudly flagged as “exclusive,” had no actual reporting besides quoting Rusedski’s indifference to Osaka’s problems, and no citations of any arguments that might challenge his own.

Particularly revealing

Ben Strauss (Washington Post, 6/3/21): If athletes being allowed to decide “how and when they talk to the press…results in less journalism about the athletes, that will be a loss — for reporters and plenty of fans.”

A particularly revealing Washington Post article (6/3/21) discussed the “fight” Osaka’s move “ignites” over athletes’ post-game news conferences. Under a photo of Osaka looking particularly aloof and unamused at a 2019 press conference, reporter Ben Strauss presented Osaka’s choice as bringing to a head a high-stakes debate between the well-being of athletes and respect for the field of journalism, setting off “a firestorm over the value of the work reporters do.”

Strauss quoted Bill Babcock, who wrote the ATP Tour rule book in 1990, which includes the provision about fining players who don’t attend post-game press conferences. “It was a recognition that you can’t have players deciding not to see the press if they have a bad day,” he said. “It was an important obligation to respect and work with the media.”

Note this wasn’t because post-game news conferences offer crucial information to the public; it was because Babcock “had seen the value of a traveling press corps to promoting the sport.”

Strauss also quoted former SportsCenter anchor Keith Olbermann, who said that the press feeling entitled to constant access to athletes is not only invasive, but a misunderstanding of players’ jobs. But, Strauss noted, “Plenty of beat reporters, of course, would disagree.”

‘Minimize harm’

Presenting both points of view isn’t the problem. Presenting them both as equally legitimate is. Framing the issue as a “he said, she said” debate, in which “respect” for journalism translates into equating debilitating depression with having “a bad day,” degrades journalism. It’s always been against journalistic ethics for reporters to demand unfettered access to sources.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, the closest thing there is to a standard rulebook for the press, includes “Minimize Harm” as its second tenet. Of course, public figures sign up to be in the spotlight more than private citizens, but even so, reporters should “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

It isn’t that sports and entertainment journalism aren’t important, but reporters aren’t exactly acting as the Fourth Estate or sticking it to The Man when they raise their hands and ask players what they thought they could’ve done better after a loss, or how they plan to keep up their momentum after a win. Osaka is not running for office, exploiting workers, evading taxes or bombing Gaza. She has nothing to be held “accountable” for. Her fans—and the fabric of democracy—will be just fine if she forgoes offering quotes to journalists after her matches. Balancing the “need for information” with the potential harm or discomfort these press conferences cause athletes shouldn’t be a difficult task.

But, of course, the corporate press rarely cares about the issue of mental health unless it can profit off of it, like when it can be spun into a trend piece because a celebrity (or, recently, a pandemic) is forcing it into the foreground. (Days later, the Post published a piece, “How to Know When You Need a Mental Health Break and Ways to Make The Most of It”–3/4/21–centering and celebrating Osaka’s decision, written by Allyson Chiu, reporter on the “wellness” beat.) When it blocks their access, or they are forced to reckon with their own role in the degradation of sources’ and audiences’ well-being, it becomes an existential threat to the values of a Free Press.

Sexist absurdities

Strauss’s article highlighted the issue of Osaka’s gender, while also managing to gloss over the sexist absurdities women athletes often face in interviews. He quoted Jane McManus, sports reporter and director of the Center for Sports Communication at Marist College, who is “worried about the effect on women’s sports if the biggest stars don’t talk to reporters.”

“If she’s not talking to reporters, will there be as much coverage for the next Naomi Osaka?” she says.

But what kind of coverage? Strauss gives a brief nod to the reality that female athletes often face more invasive, insensitive and irrelevant questions from reporters, but he lets his source blame under-qualified journalists, not systemic sexism in sports and the press:

Rennae Stubbs, a former tennis pro turned ESPN commentator, said tennis majors have become over-credentialed, which has led to worse questions in the interview rooms—including journalists asking female players about their clothing. If the tournaments tightened their credential requirements, she said, the interview rooms would be more professional.

Chances are the “next Naomi Osaka” will be treated the way “previous Naomi Osakas” have been:

Journalism by consent

Another Washington Post piece (6/1/21), “At News Conferences, Male Athletes Get to Be Athletes. Female Athletes Like Naomi Osaka Get Pestered,” makes this connection, filling the void Strauss’s piece left. Like Chiu, who covered Osaka in the context of mental health, columnist Monica Hesse does not regularly cover sports; instead, her column focuses on “gender and its impact on society.”

In Strauss’s article, the subject of gender served almost entirely to argue that female athletes need the press to stay relevant. And the issue of race is nonexistent. Osaka is of Haitian and Japanese descent; we’ve seen how the press berates Black women like Serena Williams for “bad behavior,” while not batting an eye at the outbursts of men like John McEnroe.

Strauss ended his article by writing that athletes skirting the press and using their own platforms to speak to fans on their terms might result in “less journalism about the athletes”—an outcome that would “be a loss for reporters and fans.”

Reporters can find better ways to expand their portfolios—for example, by talking to athletes who actually want to be interviewed. Fans will continue to watch games, follow their favorite athletes’ social media accounts and read stories that come from actually engaging interviews, and not from exhausted players’ one-sentence post-game answers.

The field of journalism will be fine.


The post Osaka Foregoes Press Briefing to Protect Mental Health, and Press Piles On appeared first on FAIR.

Jaisal Noor on Worker Co-Ops, Duncan Meisel on Fossil Fuel Greenwashing

FAIR - June 11, 2021 - 11:09am


ChiFresh Kitchen, a worker co-op

This week on CounterSpin: In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, employees of Whole Foods—owned by the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos—were asked to give their own accrued paid sick days to co-workers who had either contracted the virus or been forced to take time out of work.  Bezos could have given every single worker unlimited paid sick leave without his bank account even noticing. But the move shows, for those who miss the message, that corporate capitalists really mean it: This is the system they support all the time, even when it means wealthy companies saying that life-saving equipment just isn’t sufficiently profitable for them to distribute, or that, yes, they’ll take “paycheck protection” money from the state and then fire workers anyway, or that actually protecting workers’ health in a pandemic just doesn’t serve their “bottom line,” so, no, they won’t do it.

Then if you’re confused or upset, here come corporate media saying, nope, that’s a completely valid point of view—and underscoring the idea that our “economy” means everyone is always on the edge of disaster, so you better show up for work, or else you’ll lose your healthcare, you won’t make your mortgage or your rent payments, you’ll be sick and on the street, and you know what? That’s just how it is.

Such a deep, encompassing, anti-human narrative calls for not just debunking points nibbling at the ankles, but a full-frontal assault on a story about how workers are powerless and deserve to be. An important part of a counter-narrative is provided by worker co-operatives: the way they treat workers, and productivity, and the balance of worker health and company success, in a pandemic and every day.  We’ll talk about the complications co-ops pose to corporate media’s economic storyline with Jaisal Noor, senior reporter at the Real News Network.

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Source: Clean Creatives

Also on the show: The Keystone XL pipeline has evidently just been killed; Enbridge’s Line 3 is, as we speak, the center of a huge gathering in Minnesota—the Treaty People Gathering—to call attention to the myriad harms it likewise poses to people and to the environment. Fossil fuel companies’ onward march is under threat—maybe not as much as many of us would like, but obviously much more than they would like. As companies get increasingly desperate—and let’s not fool ourselves; no one’s headed to the poorhouse; it’s an industry that wants to make every last penny before they close shop—we can only expect their greenwashing to get smarter and more subtle. They’ve been working on that greenwashing for a long time, with a lot of smart people.

Part of their work right now is convincing you and me that fossil fuel companies are working hard to get to the net zero emissions standard that the Paris Accord calls for and, more broadly, to give us to understand that if we’re looking for a solution to climate disruption, we ought to honor and even privilege the participation of fossil fuel companies in that conversation. We’ll start to unpack that message, and shine a light on the messengers, with Duncan Meisel, campaign director at the climate-focused, behind-the-scenes ad group Clean Creatives.

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The post Jaisal Noor on Worker Co-Ops, Duncan Meisel on Fossil Fuel Greenwashing appeared first on FAIR.

UFO coverage and journalism’s limits

Columbia Journalism Review - June 11, 2021 - 8:31am

Last year, reported sightings of unidentified flying objects increased in the US, Canada, and across the globe. In August, the Pentagon reported the formation of a task force intended to investigate UFO sightings. Recently, The New Yorker printed thirteen thousand words on the history of the US government’s approach to UFOs, in a piece titled “How the Pentagon started taking UFOs seriously.” The article explored the nature of consensus, taboo, and our collective willingness to suspend disbelief. After the publication of the New Yorker piece, The Ringer asked its author, Gideon Lewis-Kraus, whether he believed in the possibility of extraterrestrial life (he didn’t commit to a simple yes-or-no answer). Forbes wrote, “The Media is taking UFOs seriously. Should we?”

Much of the media coverage since the New Yorker feature has taken the subject more seriously. After former president Barack Obama appeared on The Late Late Show and noted that he was aware of cases in which airborne objects had not been explained or identified, news outlets amplified the exchange. A reporter asked President Joe Biden about Obama’s comments; Biden referred the reporter back to Obama. A forthcoming report from the Pentagon’s task force has prompted a flurry of coverage, from local news updates on UFO sightings to national deep dives into the possible implications of what the panel will reveal. 60 Minutes dedicated an episode to the presence of UFOs in restricted airspace. Last week, the New York Times offered a preview of the Pentagon’s report, based on interviews with anonymous sources, announcing that the “U.S. Finds No Evidence of Alien Technology in Flying Objects, but Can’t Rule It Out, Either.” Earlier this week, the Scientific American asked an astronomer, a nasa researcher, an astrophysicist, and other experts to weigh in on what is known about the report’s initial findings; CNN got Neil deGrasse Tyson’s take.

ICYMI: The lab-leak mess

Yesterday, NPR spoke to former senator Harry Reid, who has been making the media rounds, about the secret Pentagon UFO-investigation program for which he helped allocate funding in 2007. “We are in a moment right now where, all of a sudden, people are taking UFOs seriously,” NPR’s Noel King said to Reid. “I don’t exactly know what happened.”

Journalism tends to style itself as pragmatic, skeptical, rooted in reason. But when a premise that was once considered taboo becomes permissible, the relative subjectivity of our industry is revealed. The recent spate of UFO coverage points toward the difficulty of reporting on things that we, as a society, don’t yet know or understand—or, as Lewis-Kraus’s New Yorker piece examines, things we don’t interrogate because we think we already understand them.

Much of the recent coverage asks whether we should take UFOs seriously. That the answer is no longer considered a foregone conclusion could signal something about journalism’s relationship with uncertainty, or about the codependent and capricious nature of human understanding. “Report it out”—one of journalism’s core obligations—suggests that everything is, at its core, knowable. But knowledge is defined, in part, by its limits—something a year of rapidly evolving scientific guidelines has often reminded us. That doesn’t negate the possibility of good reporting; it just requires good reporters to take more into account. At times, the gap between our knowledge and the truth is wide; humility will keep us honest.

Below, more on marginal ideas going mainstream:

  • “Stranger than fiction”: For Vanity Fair, Joe Pompeo wrote about the prevalence of mainstream stories that have migrated from the fringes—including the recent UFO reporting, the “lab leak” theory, and increased attention to the possibility that various spies and diplomats have come down with a targeted neurological condition known as the Havana syndrome. He hypothesizes, among other things, that the news cycle is reeling from the loss of Donald Trump’s antics. “Compared to the headline-making train wreck that preceded him, coverage of Biden’s presidency may feel boring by comparison,” Pompeo wrote. “You know what’s not boring? UFOs. The Wuhan lab. Foreign agents allegedly targeting U.S. officials with microwave-pulse weapons.”
  • The lab leak, continued: The resurgence of attention to theories suggesting that the novel coronavirus originated in a lab has led to more journalistic investigation, but “the facts are still thin,” the Washington Post reported. For The Atlantic, Daniel Engber lined up some of the possible pitfalls in reporting out the story: placing too much significance on a lack of evidence, projecting assumed motivations, doubting sources who have demonstrated credibility. The “sudden rush of coverage,” Engber wrote, is “ensnaring readers in semantic quibbles, side points, and distractions.”
  • A hero, villainized: Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote about a smear campaign against Dr. Anthony Fauci, suggesting that the right-wing media machine, having failed to make President Biden or Vice President Harris strong targets for ire, has made Fauci out to be a substitute villain. “In a right-wing culture so often opposed to verifiable reality,” Sullivan wrote, “who better to target than a person who stands for science and facts?”

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Reading Up on the Race

WaPo Obscures Republican Role in Killing Equal Pay

FAIR - June 10, 2021 - 4:09pm


“Similar political roadblocks befell Democrats’ earlier attempt to address another economic issue affecting workers,” the Washington Post (6/9/21) passively reported.

“Democrats Hit Major Political Wall in Efforts to Close Gender Pay Gap, Raise Minimum Wage,” announced a Washington Post headline (6/9/21) yesterday.

The first paragraph in the piece, by reporter Tony Romm, laid out the situation for readers:

President Biden and Democrats in Congress suffered another setback in their push to boost millions of Americans’ paychecks, after the Senate on Tuesday opted against taking up a bill that supporters said aimed to ensure that women in the workforce earn the same as their male counterparts.

Sure, Republicans were mentioned in the subhead and in later paragraphs. But headlines and leads frame the news—and are often all people read of it. So the takeaway from the Post‘s version of the killing of equal pay for women is that the killer was…a “wall.” Or the Senate. Read as: Washington politics, in which no one and everyone is to blame for “opting against” getting things done.

It’s actually not that hard to cover this properly, as most of the Post‘s competitors showed. “Republican Filibuster Blocks Pay Equity Bill in the Senate,” declared the New York Times (6/8/21). “Senate Republicans Block Bill Targeting Gender Pay Gap,” wrote Politico (6/8/21). Even the Wall Street Journal (6/8/21) managed to pinpoint the culprit: “Gender Wage Gap Legislation Blocked by Senate Republicans.”

But Romm continued the blame-shifting euphemisms later in the piece:

Democrats possess only a tie-breaking majority, not the 60 votes required to avoid political headwinds altogether—forcing them to consider uncomfortable compromises to advance their agenda.

In Postlandia, the political culprits are inanimate objects: a wall, a wind. The problem is that Democrats “only” have a tie-breaking majority, and mysterious political headwinds in our democracy force uncomfortable compromises on those with a tie-breaking majority.

Alternatively, one might formulate that problem as being that our political system is highly undemocratic, and that Senate Republicans—who represent 43.5% of the population, and haven’t represented a majority since 1996—are brazenly abusing that system to block the majority from doing much of anything.

If it were spelled out that way, though, the solution would be obvious: Change the system. Which is exactly why the GOP no doubt cackles with delight at coverage like this, which deflects blame away from them and the undemocratic institutions they exploit, and thereby props up that system.

ACTION ALERT: You can send a message to the Washington Post at letters@washpost.com, or via Twitter @washingtonpost. Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

Featured image: The Wall Street Journal (6/8/21) illustrated its story about Senate Republicans blocking the Paycheck Fairness Act with a photo of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

The post WaPo Obscures Republican Role in Killing Equal Pay appeared first on FAIR.

The challenges of global content moderation

Columbia Journalism Review - June 10, 2021 - 7:25am
The difficulty of moderating the ocean of content that gets posted on social networks by billions of users every day was obvious even before former President Donald Trump’s trolling forced Facebook and other platforms to block his accounts earlier this year. Differentiating genuine harassment or abuse from friendly banter, identifying harmful images and videos from […]

Reading Up on the Race

Columbia Journalism Review - June 10, 2021 - 6:00am
Seven New Yorkers on how they’re following the mayoral election

Tulsa: ‘A Cover-Up Happens Because the Powers That Be Are Implicated’

FAIR - June 9, 2021 - 1:47pm



Janine Jackson interviewed Free Press’s Joseph Torres about media and the Tulsa Massacre for the June 4, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Tulsa, 1921

Janine Jackson: The night just passed of May 31 into June 1 marks a deeply painful anniversary in the lives of Black Americans. Listeners will have heard, some for the first time, of the 1921 massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma—18 hours of terrible violence in which at least 300 women, men and children were murdered. Their killings sparked by a newspaper article about a 19-year-old Black shoeshiner, Dick Rowland, falsely accused of assaulting a 17-year-old white girl, but kindled by the white supremacy endemic in US society and culture. Businesses, churches, doctor’s offices and groceries in the area known as Black Wall Street or Little Africa were destroyed, along with the homes of more than 10,000 Black Tulsans.

Afterward, papers like the Tulsa World explained things in ideas listeners will recognize, even if the language is outré. Mayor T. D. Evans was quoted:

Let the blame for this Negro uprising lie right where it belongs—on those armed Negros and their followers who started this trouble and who instigated it. And any persons who seek to put half the blame on the white people are wrong, and should be told so in no uncertain language.

The newspaper called on “the innocent, hardworking colored element of Tulsa” to “cooperate fully and with vast enthusiasm” with officials, and “band themselves together for their own protection against this element of non-working, worthless Negros.” And, yeah, there’s a lot more.

So who decides what we know about Tulsa, and what we retain of what we’re supposedly learning now—and, then, how that changes anything? We’re joined now by Joseph Torres, senior director of strategy and engagement at the group Free Press, and co-author with Juan González of the crucial book News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media. He joins us now by phone from Maryland. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Joe Torres.

Joseph Torres: Thank you, Janine. Thank you for having me.

Tulsa World (6/1/1921)

JJ: Listeners will feel the thud of recognition to hear that after the massacre in Tulsa—in which 300 overwhelmingly Black people were killed, and some 800 shot or wounded—the headline of the Tulsa World was “Two Whites Dead in Race Riot.”

The story of Tulsa, of Greenwood, then as now, is, importantly, a story about media: about what newspapers told people, and they believed, at the time; and then, afterward, what folks were told to remember and told to forget. You wrote about it recently for Free Press, and I would refer listeners to that piece, but talk a little, if you would, about the role of journalism in the Tulsa massacre.

JT: The role of the two main daily papers—the Tulsa World, which was the morning paper, and the Tulsa Tribune, the afternoon paper—were critical. The Tulsa Tribune, for example, in the so-called light that sparked the massacre, but in the initial days afterwards as well, and in going forward in the cover-up, making sure the story is basically forgotten in our society.

Joseph Torres: “When we think about white power structures in our society, when we think about hierarchies…the media companies are a part of that system, always have been.”

So the Tulsa Tribune was owned by a publisher named Richard Lloyd Jones. When we think about white power structures in our society, when we think about hierarchies and white racial hierarchies in the society, the media companies are a part of that system, always have been, and this was a case in point. So the paper is very sympathetic, the Tulsa Tribune, to the KKK, basically prints an advertisement about the KKK’s plans to come into Oklahoma. And then it focuses its coverage, more so in May, on issues of crime and criminality; they normally ignored Black folks in Tulsa, unless it dealt with crime.

JJ: Mmm-mm.

JT: But they started focusing more on a campaign of Black lawlessness in the Greenwood district. But the night, as you mentioned in the intro, the May 31 headline of the false attack of Dick Rowland on a white teenage girl, lights the spark that results in a white mob heading down to the courthouse to demand that Rowland be handed over to them and basically lynched.

JJ: Mmm-mm.

JT: There’s an editorial that many believe was actually published in that paper as well, that was predicting a lynching that night. But that editorial, in years later, and also that front-page story about the alleged rape, disappeared from the microfilm when they went to record the paper for historical purposes. But eyewitnesses and folks who were alive at the time remember that editorial.

JJ: Right.

JT: So there was this daily news story that was very sensational in its details of this alleged rape, and then predicting a lynching that night, lit the match of thousands of white people actually going to the courthouse, and the massacre itself. Thousands of white people invaded Greenwood and torched the whole place.

And then, following that, the Tulsa World—which is still in existence today; it’s still the daily paper in Tulsa—all this language, both papers are saying, you know, “We’ve got to get rid of these ‘bad n-words'” in their community, right?

JJ: Right.

Tulsa Star publisher AJ Smitherman

JT: It was a purposeful attempt to blame Black folks, because what happened as well, the last important detail, is that there was never a person who was lynched in Tulsa, I believe, who was Black, to that point. And so Black residents grabbed their arms—a lot of them were former World War I veterans—and they went down to the courthouse and asked the police if they needed help to protect Dick Rowland from being lynched. They were declined twice.

And so the newspapers blamed Black folks, who brought their guns to try to protect someone from being lynched, as the “agitators” of this, and that’s how they framed it: It was the Black community that was the reason this happened, and it brought great shame on Tulsa; now the Tulsa white community was responding and trying to rebuild, and Black folks needed to be very appreciative of this effort, and get rid of—as you were mentioning—those leaders that they followed.

And a lot of those leaders, including two Black newspapers, were burned down as well: the Tulsa Star and the Oklahoma Sun. [Star publisher] A.J. Smitherman was a very prominent member of the Black community in Tulsa, a very powerful person, and he eventually fled the state because he was actually charged, the Black folks in the community were charged, for instigating the massacre. And A.J. Smitherman left the state and he printed papers in Buffalo, New York, where he died.

JJ: You talk about the erasing of the incendiary editorial. And there’s been a kind of general erasure of what happened in Tulsa. It’s kind of strange to hear folks saying “the little-known,” you know, “this invisible history,” and I think, ‘Well, I know a lot of Black people who’ve been knowing about Tulsa.” But it’s true that it is, more widely speaking (or, among white people), it is hidden history. And that has something to do with media, too. I mean, there’s just been a lot of silence around this story.

JT: Yes, it was an intentional campaign. The Tulsa Tribune, which no longer exists, didn’t mention the massacre until 50 years later; there were efforts to cover it up. There was this white reporter, back in 1971, who was asked—unbelievably, by the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce—to write something and commemorate what happened on the 50th anniversary. And he started researching this story. And he started getting basically threatened by strangers that would approach him on the street and tell him not to write the story; calls to his house; someone wrote on his car windshield with a bar of soap, “Better look under your hood,” I believe was written, right?

JJ: Wow.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

JT: One of the things he stated in interviews is that there were still people who were alive, who might be very prominent members of the community, who actually took part in the massacre. And you just think about it: The children of those folks, because thousands of people, literally, took part in this massacre, everyday folks in Tulsa, and police deputized—we might be declined, Black folks, from trying to protect Dick Rowland, right—they deputized white folks to go into Greenwood, set the place on fire, which they did. And then they put thousands of Black folks in concentration camps following that; they just rounded up everybody. And so a lot of these folks’ children still may be alive as well, and grandchildren.

So you can see how a cover-up happens, right, because the powers that be in the city are going to be totally implicated. And for the newspapers, obviously, they played a role; they played a role in there. Matter of fact, when that publisher died, there was no mention in the paper at all of his role in the Tulsa massacre.

So this is how it happens. And how is this really different than what Nikole Hannah-Jones is going through on the issue of tenure in North Carolina? And all this attack against critical race theory; it’s all the same thing. We have to keep that stuff buried in the past and not remember it, because if we remember it, there’s a potential that you have to, when you reconcile with something, it can be a call for repair, right?

JJ: Yep.

JT: And folks don’t want to address the “repair” part, like: What do reparations look like? How do you make a community whole like Greenwood? It was a community that was self-sustaining, that had everything it needed in that community, and it was destroyed.

Again, you need a narrative, right? That’s the whole thing with media: You need narratives. You need narratives to dehumanize people, you need narratives to justify the massacre of people, and then you need narratives to talk about how white folks in this community were coming to the aid of those who were harmed, and they’re the ones who are the heroes in the narratives.

And often, not telling the story is— not only do you need a narrative to give you political cover, but then, not telling the story is another way of just total erasure, right?

JJ: Absolutely.

JT: Of course.

JJ: Yeah.

JT: It’s still going on: This whole 1619 struggle, just to recognize very basic facts in our nation’s history, and you can see the backlash. Because at the end of the day, in my personal opinion, the question is whether a multiracial democracy, which democracy has never been fully realized, is actually possible? Right?

And when you have to reconcile with these stories in history, there’s going to, of course, be calls for repair, you know? And that’s one thing we don’t want to do as a country, right? We don’t want to repair. I believe even Joe Biden (correct me if I’m wrong) yesterday, when he went to Tulsa, he didn’t even mention anything about reparations for… There are three living survivors; they are three Black folks—who are 107, 106 and 100—who survived the massacre, and one of them, Ms. Fletcher, testified in Congress that she is still financially struggling.

JJ: Viola Ford Fletcher, 107 years old…

JT: Yes.

JJ: …she was seven, saying she’s slept with the lights on ever since, “because if I don’t have the lights on, how, how will I see to get out of my house?” It’s too much to even get your brain around the harm—and it’s living history.

Wall Street Journal (5/29/21)

So I just want to come back to that question of bringing it into the present, because, OK, right now, there are stories on stories on this. Some are folks like DeNeen Brown, who’s been on it for decades, right? And then, OK, here’s the Wall Street Journal, talking about multigenerational reverberations on family wealth in Tulsa. Here’s USA Today, talking about how, oh, you know it’s “not just Tulsa”; “racist mobs” (that’s their language) have been a “widespread and constant concern.” We’ve got TV projects with LeBron James; we’ve got curricula.

All right. So everybody who is invested in wanting this country to change knows that you take your shot when there’s an opening; we need understanding all the time, but you take your shot where there’s an opening.

But right now, it seems like we’re saying, “Look at Tulsa: It’s an example of the depth and the breadth of the hatred, of the intergenerational harm…”

JT: Right.

JJ: “…of the lie, and of the silencing and gaslighting and censoring.”

And I fear that what some folks are taking via the media is, “Tulsa, what a crazy exceptional episode in US history,” you know, “Thank goodness, we aren’t like that anymore.”

It matters, not just to tell the story, but to show that it’s not just story, you know? And so I’m just wondering, like—I’m not negative on it; I appreciate the attention…

JT: Yes.

HBO‘s Watchmen

JJ: …I appreciate the spotlight; my question is: What’s going to be left behind when media move away, when they’re not talking about Watchmen, when they move away from the story of Tulsa, what’s going to be the sediment? What’s going to be learned from it?

JT: Yeah, that’s the thing. I feel privileged and honored to be able to work on a project called Media 2070 that the Black Caucus at Free Press created, which calls for media reparations for the Black community. And a part of reparations is reconciling and repair.

For us, for myself, speaking for myself, the idea is that we have to address narratives in the history of anti-Black racism in the media system, and narrative that’s been intentionally weaponized in order to further white racial hierarchies in society.

When you think about the federal government now, when we think about broadcasting, we think about broadband, it’s been a policy of exclusion; it’s been a policy of excluding Black folks and other communities of color from ownership of our nation’s infrastructure. Powerful institutions have been created by using our public airwaves, by the roads that we dig up, and the broadband that we lay underneath the ground, and that’s our rights of way, have been used to generate great wealth, and cause great harm to our communities by the stories that these institutions tell.

JJ: Media 2070—which is a project that I’m also a part of…

JT: Yes.

JJ: —it begins, at least, with dialogue, and with an understanding: Corporate news media are forever telling us we’re doing a “racial reckoning” in this country. And you think, “Well, what does that mean, an actual ‘reckoning’?” It has to mean a really dry-eyed, clear conversation that includes actual history, and not whitewashed history.

And that’s why I think Tulsa is a chance for news media, to say, “How seriously are you going to do this? Are you going to really tell the truth? Are you going to really lift this up and continue to acknowledge the lessons that come from this?” Or are you going to say, “This is a weird exception that happened in history, and we’re only going to remember it now because it’s the 100th anniversary”?

Philadelphia Inquirer (6/6/20)

JT: Well, yes, that’s how this stuff often works. People are much more comfortable with stuff that happened in the past, right?  As opposed to dealing with their own—you know, the news media have to deal with their own hierarchies, the idea of, over the year since George Floyd as well, the racial uprisings that began to happen last year, including newspapers, like the New York Times and the Tom Cotton editorial, and the Philadelphia Inquirer firing its editor after the whole “Buildings Matter, Too” headline.

JJ: Right.

JT: The idea is that even news institutions are invested in a white racial hierarchy, and so it’s difficult for them to want to address anti-Black racism when they have to address their own hierarchies. And so we have to do that to reduce harm, right?

But also, can we also dream of a world where we have an abundance of resources that fund Black-owned media platforms that control the creation and distribution of their own narratives, and that are tethered to serving their community? We have to dream of these new possibilities, while also trying to prevent further harm from happening from these institutions that continue to harm us.

It’s always a struggle to hold folks accountable, to hold institutions accountable; that’s what we have to continue to do. And I don’t know how you feel, Janine; you’ve been doing this for a long time. But at times I feel hopeful, in the sense that we’re actually having this debate. I hate to see Nikole Hannah-Jones struggling just to get tenure, but there is a public fight happening.

JJ: Absolutely. I think we’re ahead of where we’ve been. I think we’ve got a lot of forces that we can marshal as we push forward.

Free Press (5/27/21)

JT: Yeah. So that’s what we’re trying to do with Media 2070. And we had this press briefing for Media 2070 with the new Tulsa Star, which is the new platform for covering the community. So there are a lot of folks doing amazing work out there, amazing journalists who are doing justice-based journalism, movement-based journalism.

There are a lot of folks who are trying to use journalism for a force of good, and of course a lot of journalists of color and Black journalists who work at our major media institutions, who are doing their best against tough cultural circumstances within their newsrooms to continue to make sure these stories are told. All the stories we’re seeing now, which is a good thing, about Tulsa, it’s because folks are really advocating in newsrooms to make sure this story is not forgotten.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Joseph Torres. He’s senior director of strategy and engagement at the group Free Press, and co-author of the necessary book, News for All the People. His piece on Tulsa is up on FreePress.net. Joe Torres, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

JT: Thank you, Janine, appreciate it. Thank you so much.

The post Tulsa: ‘A Cover-Up Happens Because the Powers That Be Are Implicated’ appeared first on FAIR.

For the Biden administration, who counts as news media?

Columbia Journalism Review - June 9, 2021 - 1:27pm
First implemented in 1970, the Department of Justice’s news-media guidelines were meant to restrict the use of certain investigatory tools, like subpoenas and court orders, that might “unreasonably impair newsgathering activities.” The information sought by the DOJ had to be “essential” to an investigation, and the agency must have tried all other “reasonable alternative[s]” to […]

Local newsrooms can combat polarization, if only they have the margins

Columbia Journalism Review - June 9, 2021 - 7:56am

Today, CJR is pleased to share the Journalism Crisis Project newsletter with Media Today readers. The newsletter is part of a joint project between CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism that has tracked newsroom cutbacks amid the pandemic and examined the state of journalism on the ground, particularly at the local level. The Media Today will return tomorrow. 

Recently, former president Barack Obama spoke with the New York Times’ Ezra Klein about persuasion and pluralism. During his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama told Klein, “it was still possible for me to go into a disproportionately white conservative town in rural America and get a fair hearing.” As an example, Obama offered what he described as a typical interaction with a local newspaper in small-town southern Illinois. “Usually, the local paper was owned by a modestly conservative, maybe even quite conservative guy,” Obama said. “He’d call me in. We’d have a cup of coffee. We’d have a conversation about tax policy, or trade, or whatever else he cared about. He might have a small editorial board of two or three writers.” In the end, the paper would publish an amicable write-up on Obama’s candidacy.

This worked, Obama told Klein, because local people approached him without spoon-fed preconceptions. “If I went into those same places now, or if any Democrat who’s campaigning goes in those places now, almost all news is from either Fox News, Sinclair’s news stations, talk radio, or some Facebook page,” he said. “Trying to penetrate that is really difficult.”

Much has changed since 2008. The Pew Research Center reported that Republicans and Democrats have moved further apart in views on voting access, race and gender, and the value of higher education, along with the possibility of unity and compromise. Between 1994 and 2017, the first year of the Trump presidency, the average partisan gap on ten “values questions” addressing subjects such as the role of government, national security, and environmental protection more than doubled. Those partisan divides are informed, in part, by where people get their news. “Republicans who looked to former President Donald Trump for their news about the 2020 election or the coronavirus pandemic were more likely to believe false or unproven claims about these events,” Pew researchers wrote in a later study. “While Americans widely agree that misinformation is a major problem, they do not see eye to eye about what actually constitutes misinformation. In many cases, one person’s truth is another’s fiction.”

ICYMI: When misinformation meets scarcity: A Q&A with Kiera Butler

While partisan divides have increased, local newsrooms have struggled. Since 2008, the number of journalists in US newsrooms has been cut in half. At least 1,800 geographic communities that had a local newspaper in the year 2004 had no local source of original reporting left by 2020. Municipalities made up of low-income residents are twice as likely to be news deserts; rural municipalities are also more likely to be underserved. Hedge funds have squeezed local newsrooms for profit. Anticompetitive tech platforms have siphoned advertising dollars and attention; their algorithms have altered human behavior and, with it, the information ecosystem. Over the past year, the pandemic pummeled an already beleaguered media market, leading to widespread cutbacks: layoffs at local newspapers, radio and television stations, magazines, and digital publications; significant print reductions; and the closure of more than sixty news outlets. Though some local outlets have built back much of what they lost over the past year, an unstable industry has been further shaken, and the local news ecosystem is nowhere near as healthy as it was fifteen years ago.

Last week, Joshua Darr, a political-communications researcher, wrote for FiveThirtyEight about the correlation between local news and partisanship—specifically, between the absence of local news and increased partisanship. In 2018, Darr and his colleagues found that communities without local news outlets turned instead to national reporting and were more likely to vote for a single party up and down the ballot, rather than splitting their ticket. After reading Darr’s research, Julie Makinen, executive editor at the Desert Sun, decided to eliminate national politics from the paper’s opinion page for a month in 2019. The experiment attracted Darr and colleagues, who surveyed Desert Sun readers and found that their political polarization slowed, while opinion-page traffic nearly doubled. The results were encouraging; still, Darr warned in his FiveThirtyEight piece, “the market is simply not providing local newspapers the resources they need to deliver the civic benefits they’re capable of.”

The Desert Sun, for its part, has tried to carry on by prioritizing local news as the de facto standard—using wire content as little as possible, maintaining a robust local opinion section—but it hasn’t always been an easy road. The editor who was in place when the paper tried its 2019 experiment took a buyout in December; Makinen was left without an opinion editor, and without a budget to replace him. Believing strongly that Darr’s research had demonstrated the value of the role, she worked alongside a few community members to set up a new foundation supporting local journalism. Their first fundraising effort was to raise money to hire an opinion editor. They came up with $60,000 in just four months; the paper hired a new opinion editor in May.

“It’s very easy to fill your opinion page with columns from a wire service; that takes five minutes a day,” Makinen says. “But editing local columns, soliciting local columns, processing letters to the editor, going back and forth with people to refine what they’re trying to express, Zooming the local editorial board, writing editorials, and getting consensus is time consuming.” In other words: prioritizing robust, time-intensive, local-first reporting requires having the margins to do so, and that’s a luxury many local newsrooms can’t afford.

Makinen believes wholeheartedly in the value of local opinion content; in her experience, a robust opinion page creates an open line of communication between readers and newsroom staff. She has also found that, while such opinion pieces aren’t necessarily the highest-read content, they can drive subscriptions.

“I would love to see a survey of how many local newspapers still have opinion, or publish letters to the editor, have an editorial board or local columnist,” Makinen says. “The loss of these kinds of forums has not been well studied. People think that because of Twitter, we don’t need this kind of thing. But one of the values of an opinion page is that it’s a moderated space. People get to take turns, and it’s not just people in your own bubble. It’s people who live in close proximity to you, but you probably don’t know them. You can have a certain back-and-forth with them in this forum.”

It’s a complicated picture. The partisan divides that have proliferated over the past decade represent, in some cases, positive movement toward progressive social change. The shakeup of the local news ecosystem has offered opportunities for journalists to consider how to better serve all communities. Still, the nationalization of political discourse hinders such progress by flattening conversation and reducing political engagement to talking points. Local news might better support nonpartisan progress, but it needs the resources to do so. Therein lies the challenge.

Below, more on local journalism and the challenges it faces:

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Op-ed: Strengthen our democracy by funding public media

NYT’s Africa: A Place of Failure and No Leadership

FAIR - June 8, 2021 - 12:33pm


Like any African who grew up with a TV,  I’ve always been exposed to Western perceptions of Africa. Living in a postcolonial African education system that still relies heavily on Western literature, one becomes intimately aware of how the world sees Africa.  Still, I have always bristled against what is now famously called “the single story,” which presents Africa as a one-dimensional scene of tragic suffering and endless despair. Coverage of Covid-19 in Africa, despite the continent’s relatively low infection rates, is disproportionately grim and macabre compared to the rest of the world, as two New York Times articles illustrated.

When the New York Times (11/27/20) covers the fight against Covid in specific East Asian locales, officials from those places are key sources.

Last November, the Times (11/27/20) published a lengthy article about efforts in East Asia to fight Covid. Headlined “They Beat Back the Virus (Again and Again and Again),” it focused on three places (Hong Kong, Korea and Japan), outlining long histories of policy implementation and strategic tweaking by their health officials to combat wave after wave of the coronavirus.

The article interviewed an epidemiologist from Hong Kong University, quoted an infectious disease specialist at Korea University in Seoul and cited a statement from the president of the Japan Medical Association. Strategies were outlined and nuance was applied to the successes and failures that officials have faced in fighting back this deadly disease:

“We need solidarity in this kind of situation, but as everyone knows, it’s not easy,” said Dr. Kim Woo-joo, an infectious disease specialist at Korea University in Seoul.

“We’re getting better at having a large testing capacity, and we have a lot of resources for contact tracing, but the cycle repeats,” said Kwok Kin-on, an epidemiologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Photos in the article featured people wearing masks in public places in Tokyo; one showed a temperature check at the door of a business in Hong Kong, and another had staff and students standing in a line of chalk outlines that maintain social distance in Korea.

‘Where the dead are not counted’

Covering Covid in Africa, the New York Times (1/2/21) ignored local experts, turning instead to clerks and casket retailers.

In contrast, a New York Times article (1/2/21) by West Africa bureau chief Ruth Maclean, headlined “A Continent Where the Dead Are Not Counted,” compared the death toll of all 54 African nations to France, and concluded that because the former has fewer official deaths than the latter, their calculations (all 54 of them) couldn’t possibly be correct. The subtitle teased us to a possible explanation in a somewhat conspiratorial tone: “That doesn’t mean people aren’t dying from the virus.”

The first expert whose guidance is sought to make sense of Africa’s Covid response is a professor at New York University. (He has since denounced the article as unrepresentative of his research and stance on the matter.)

The next expert is a director of Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders), a French national who appears to be based in Dakar. Though his voice might be the article’s only hint at the notion that good African policies possibly reduced the spread of Covid, Maclean quickly discards his input for more exciting news out of England about secret outbreaks in Sudan. The next expert is a researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, whose “toes curl” when anybody implies “Africa has been spared.”

While the article is chock full of people talking about Africans, there are only three sources from Africa and in Africa featured in the article, all from Lagos, Nigeria. The first we meet posthumously, and he is described as a man whose entire being comes down to his desire to dance and fight.

The second is a registrar at a government office, who is described as being surrounded by “stacks of papers, registers and perforated books” in a badly-lit office, and has one line: “If they don’t need [death certificates], they will not come.”

The last is the manager of a casket store, who is pictured standing stiffly in front of his store, and is said to point out that the expensive caskets come from America. His main contribution to the article is the line: “The mortuaries were jam-packed.”

These men represent the full intellectual extent of African public health because, according to a caption under a photo of coffins, “funeral home directors and coffin salesmen often know when there is a spike in deaths.”

Caskets and corpses

The New York Times (1/2/21) illustrated its story on Covid in Africa with a photo of a dead body in Somalia, though that country is not otherwise discussed in the story.

The first photo in the African article is a row of stacked caskets captured in the dim lighting of a strip mall store. The next photo is a corpse wrapped in plastic in Mogadishu, Somalia (a city and country that are mentioned nowhere else in the article), and appears to be taken at a funeral, while the deceased’s loved ones clearly mourn the death. The next photo is of a man in Lagos standing in front of a funeral home, and another photo depicts a casket. While thousands of people had died from Covid in East Asia, the photos in the article about Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong notably feature zero corpses or caskets.

The first article was co-written by Mike Ives, Tiffany May and Mikoko Inoue, reporters who appear to be residents if not natives of Hong Kong and Japan, with additional reporting from Youmi Kim, based in South Korea. That’s four reporters covering three locations, in contrast to one reporter purporting to cover 54.

The photos in the Asia article were from the locales in question. And the experts included local academics, who were not asked to comment on the Covid strategies of every country in Asia, but were allowed the space to express nuanced reflections on their local crises.

The officials interviewed were presumed to have the correct data. There were no Western universities quoted, no Orientalists consulted. The people of Hong Kong, Japan and Korea were treated as distinct populations who could speak well enough for themselves.

Though Asia had many confirmed deaths from Covid, the article did not feature photos of Korean corpses, or Japanese people mourning a loved one, or a Hong Kong coffin seller hawking caskets decorated with “gilded reproductions of the Last Supper.” Nobody’s name was shared, and nobody’s life was summarized in a two-line characterization so cartoonish even Wainaina himself would doubt its sincerity.

Carrying on a tradition of Western inquiry spanning centuries, the Times‘ Maclean does not appear to expect to encounter locals who have solutions or have really thought about their predicament. They aren’t even given the chance to explain that Nigeria is not Sudan is not Somalia is not—oh that’s it. The article about Africa mentions only four of the 54 countries, and none of these four is the reporter’s residence.

An Africa without leaders

Maclean’s article, like countless others in Western media, took place in an Africa without leaders, without public health officials or activists. It it set in a vacuum of knowledge and strategy. No epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, no academics, no local journalists or medical associations were quoted. Just a vast maw of African horror, witnessed only by the brave souls at the United Nations and the Africa bureaus of Western papers.

Western media have a well-documented skew towards negative coverage when discussing Africa. One study found that in a 40-year period of reporting on African issues, an average of 73% of New York Times articles provided decidedly negative images. This is not without consequence. The Times is very influential, often referenced by papers all over the world when writing on international events.

Moreover, the Times has a demonstrable influence on government and private sector responses to disasters and other crises. Each appearance in a Times article corresponded to an additional $52,000 in humanitarian aid for victims of the 2004 Tsunami in South Asia, for example.

There is at least one industry invested in the repeated emphasis of disaster in Africa, and moreover in the idea of Africans being ill-prepared and in need of rescuing. There are currently at least 2,461 NGOs in Africa, and there’s money to be made and soft power to be expanded. Times articles on African issues that cited African leaders, individual nations and experts from local universities would bring into question the massive amount of aid being funneled “to Africa” via international aid agencies.

The New York Times, in its insistence on portraying Africa as a place of failure and no leadership, participates in the White Savior Industrial complex, the NGO pyramid scheme and any other manner of systems that keep nations from the Global North in positions of dominance over their “former colonies.” The only information about Africa that is worthwhile must come from foreign sources. Africans are not expected to reflect on their crises or learn from their past experiences. The only valid data comes from NGOs, whose reports simultaneously present data and ask for more donations.

A wealth of public health knowledge

There is a decided refusal to acknowledge the actions of nations like my native Botswana, which, through strict lockdown measures instituted as early as February 2020, managed to keep Covid deaths to 45 by January 2021 (when the Covid article was published). You heard me: 45 total deaths in a span of 11 months. This in a nation once reported to have the world’s highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate per capita.

It should be obvious that the very prevalence of pandemics and disease mean that many African nations were extremely cautious and quite aware of the fragility of healthcare systems in general, and often able to convince citizens to take Covid seriously much faster. There is a wealth of public health knowledge the continent has to offer.

It astounds me that so few Western authors were able to make this connection: While Western countries were paralyzed by the arrogance that those sort of diseases don’t come here, with heads of state referring to the Covid virus as “China virus” and shutting down borders to Asia, before any conclusive evidence was shown that the virus originated there. Many European countries took months before they closed entry to the US, actually the world’s most infected country, while African nations took that step as early as March 2020.

Rather than acknowledge such a reality, the Ruth Macleans of the world prefer to devote precious column space to the idea that Africans can’t count. It appears that even as the US healthcare system is brought to its knees and exposed as a hollowed-out shell of its former self, the country’s media need a world where Africa can produce no solutions, can give no knowledge and is devoid of the power to positively influence the trajectory of the world. It appears the maintainers of these structures would rather die superior than live as equals.


The post NYT’s Africa: A Place of Failure and No Leadership appeared first on FAIR.

Joe Manchin is only one part of the voting-rights story

Columbia Journalism Review - June 8, 2021 - 8:23am

Since January, Republican state lawmakers have introduced hundreds of aggressive bills to restrict voting access. In response, Congressional Democrats introduced the For the People Act to expand voting access by establishing a national baseline for ballot access and easing registration processes. On Sunday, Joe Manchin—the Democratic senator from West Virginia whose relative conservatism in a Senate with the slimmest Democratic majority gives him enormous leverage—published an op-ed in Sunday’s Charleston Gazette-Mail, announcing that he would not vote for the For the People Act, nor would he vote to eliminate the filibuster, one of a minority party’s strongest tools for obstructing legislation. The contemporary debate over the protection of voting rights, Manchin wrote, “is not about finding common ground, but seeking partisan advantage.”

The media machine whirred into action: the Manchin story was aggregated, re-posted, tweeted about, and became the subject of responding op-eds. Many headlines focused on the politics of the issue, emphasizing a blow to the Democratic Party and wondering over Manchin’s fate. “Joe Manchin just *totally* screwed Democrats,” a CNN headline announced, while a Post opinion columnist warned that Manchin’s “awful new stance could blow up in his face.” Other columnists and opinion contributors used the occasion to proclaim that Manchin “is right,” focusing their attention on Manchin’s calls for bipartisanship at a time of political polarization. At The Hill, a writer from the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank, re-raised the specter of voter fraud, which is extremely rare, for a piece whose headline argued that Manchin “may have saved America.”

Much of the coverage focused on Manchin’s “bipartisanship” premise for rejecting the bill.  (The terms “partisan” and “bipartisan” appeared in the Senator’s op-ed thirteen different times.) Several used Manchin’s framing to characterize the act itself: A Bloomberg article used the phrase “partisan voting rights bill” in its headline, as did a Newsweek article. A headline from a widely syndicated Associated Press story put the word “partisan” inside quotation marks, but fixed the term to the bill all the same. Some outlets, like the Chicago Tribune, ran the story under a slightly altered headline: “Sen. Joe Manchin says he’ll vote against Democrats’ election bill, calling it ‘partisan’.”

ICYMI: The optics of the Biden presidency

Headlines aren’t the entirety of a piece, nor are they the best place to convey complex information. Still, as many pointed out, the “partisanship” of the For the People Act is a symptom of a problem, rather than the problem itself. “I don’t recall Republicans asking for bipartisan support before they introduced 400 voter suppression bills & enacted 22 new voter suppression laws in 14 states so far this year,” Ari Berman, the voting-rights reporter for Mother Jones, tweeted. For NewsOne, Anoa Changa noted that the For the People Act has received support from nonpartisan organizations, and that the filibuster, whose end Manchin objected to, has deep roots in racist policies. Kevin Kruse, a historian, tweeted, “As we all rightfully complain about Joe Manchin’s dumb oped, don’t lose sight of the fact that federal voting rights protections have become ‘partisan’ solely because Republicans have chosen to make it so. Throw a microphone to every Republican in the Senate and ask why.”

That question—“Why?”—informs all of the best voting-rights coverage. In February, I talked with Jessica Huseman of Votebeat about the importance of covering the details of elections year-round. “People who think voting is important are not in short supply,” Huseman told me. “People who are entertained reading about voting might be.” The Manchin story has a level of conflict and intrigue that draws eyeballs, but it can be just as compelling—and arguably more important—to dig beyond the political fisticuffs and focus instead on the circumstances underlying Manchin’s position, the state of voting rights in America, and the consequence for the disenfranchised. Little more than a week ago, Democratic lawmakers in Texas left a legislative session in order to block restrictive new voting laws—a move that, Huseman reported, came “after Republicans threw out all of the previously agreed upon concessions in a closed-door session at the very end of the term last weekend and refused to allow questions about provisions they’d added.”

That episode, however, hardly registered in coverage of Manchin’s decision. And while Manchin’s belief is his own, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Reporters are responsible to test his words against the present moment as well as the past. The stakes of our voting-rights debate extend well beyond one man’s ideas; coverage ought to treat them accordingly.

Below, more on politics and telling the whole story:

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: “Photographers are the ones who see everything”


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