New on ‘Beat the Press’: The media and the mass shooting dilemma

Photo (cc) 2013 by Maryland GovPics

The new “Beat the Press” podcast is up, and this week we have a single-theme program: the mass murders in Uvalde, Texas, and what role the media play — and should play — in covering what has become a long string of such incidents.

Also on tap are our panel’s Rants & Raves. Mine is on the social media meltdown at The Washington Post, recorded after reporter David Weigel was suspended for retweeting a homophobic, sexist joke but before Felicia Sonmez was fired for continuing to criticize the Post after she’d been asked not to.

Hosted, as always, by Emily Rooney, along with Lylah Alphonse of The Boston Globe, Joanna Weiss of Experience magazine and me. You can listen here and subscribe in your podcast app.

A Washington Post reporter is suspended after his sexist retweet blows up

Washington Post executive editor Sally Buzbee. Photo (cc) 2022 by the World Economic Forum.

The use and misuse of social media platforms — especially Twitter — continue to torment newsrooms. The latest news organization to have a mess on its hands is The Washington Post, which is no stranger to past Twitter controversies.

Let’s start at the end: political reporter David Weigel was suspended for a month without pay after retweeting a horrendously sexist joke for which he had already apologized. The joke — and yes, God Almighty, Weigel should have known better: “Every girl is bi. You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual.”

CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy has a good overview of the entire controversy, which included pointed criticism of Weigel by a fellow Post reporter, Felicia Sonmez (on Twitter, naturally) and criticism of Sonmez by reporter Jose Del Real, who was upset that Sonmez had unleashed the Twitter mob on Weigel.

Post executive editor Sally Buzbee weighed in on Sunday, writing an internal memo calling on Post journalists “to treat each other with respect and kindness both in the newsroom and online.” That might have been the end of it, but obviously Buzbee thought she needed to make a statement about what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

We are all tempted to push the envelope on Twitter to get attention, measured by like and retweets. But at this late date, you’d think a reporter for a respected news organization would have figured it out. We don’t always know where the lines are, but it was pretty obvious in this case.

Twitter has its uses in journalism — mainly to follow people and organizations who are useful for your beat. If you read 10 times more frequently than you post, you’re probably doing it right. I’d say that journalists ought to restrict their Twitter activities to posting links to their work and that of their news organization; sharing other work they think is worthwhile; and engaging in light banter, because we’re all human. But if light banter is what Weigel thought he was doing, maybe he needs to take a long, long break from Twitter.

Weigel, by the way, lost an earlier gig at the Post back in 2010 after it was revealed that he’d been disparaging conservatives on a private forum called Journolist. And Sonmez was suspended after she took to Twitter in the immediate aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s death to remind everyone of his past sexual assaults.

As they say: Never tweet.

Chris Cuomo has left the building

From Oliver Darcy and Brian Stelter of CNN:

CNN said Tuesday that it has suspended Chris Cuomo “indefinitely” after new documents released this week indicated that the anchor was more intimately involved than previously known in helping his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, craft a defense amid a flurry of sexual misconduct allegations.

I can’t imagine Cuomo will be back, but who knows?

Earlier: CNN needs to punish Chris Cuomo severely — and to consider firing him

Why you should become a member of Media Nation

Samuel Johnson

More than two centuries ago, Samuel Johnson explained why you should become a member of Media Nation: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

Nearly a year ago I added a membership option to Media Nation. Partly it was an experiment. Partly it was a chance to offer members something different — a weekly newsletter with exclusive early content, a round-up of the week’s posts, photography and a song of the week. Mainly, though, it seemed to me that I was cranking out a lot of stuff here and that it was only fair that I get paid for it.

So far, I’d pronounce the experiment a success. But I’d like it to be an even bigger success. If you’re a Media Nation reader — and you must be since you’re reading this — I hope you’ll consider becoming a member for just $5 a month. All you need to do is click here.

Thank you.

Bari Weiss, James Bennet and the selective omission of relevant facts

I had a chance on Monday to listen to Brian Stelter’s CNN podcast with Bari Weiss, the semi-conservative journalist who left The New York Times over what she perceived as an overabundance of left-wing groupthink.

It was an interesting conversation. I agreed with some of what Weiss had to say and disagreed with some of it. But I was put off by the revisionist history she espoused about the resignation of James Bennet as editorial-page editor of The New York Times. Stelter didn’t push back. I will.

Become a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month!

Weiss offered up as fact the notion that Bennet was forced out of the Times in 2020 solely because he published an op-ed piece by Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, calling for military force to be used against Black Lives Matter protesters. She described a letter signed by Times staffers saying that Cotton’s op-ed put their lives in danger as “craziness.”

And yes, Bennet’s departure came shortly thereafter. But here are a few facts that neither Weiss nor Stelter brought up:

  • After Bennet defended Cotton’s op-ed, it was learned that he hadn’t even bothered to read it before it was published — an inexcusable dereliction of duty.
  • Shortly before the Times published Cotton’s op-ed, Cotton called for the government to give “no quarter” to looters. As The Bulwark, a conservative website pointed out, giving no quarter in military terms means to kill indiscriminately — a war crime. Cotton, a veteran, knows that. Unfortunately, neither Bennet nor any other Times editor asked Cotton to address that in his op-ed.
  • In late 2019, Times columnist Bret Stephens suggested that Ashkenazi Jews might be genetically more intelligent than other people. Bennet allowed him to clean it up unscathed, although Stephens did have to suffer the indignity of an Editor’s Note being appended to his column. As Politico media critic Jack Shafer wrote at the time, “The Times disavowal and re-edit (tellingly neither co-signed nor acknowledged by Stephens) was too little and too late — if you’re going to edit a piece, the smart move is to edit before it publishes.” That, ahem, would be Bennet’s job. Wonder if he read that one before it was published?
  • Sarah Palin has sued the Times for libel over a 2017 editorial in which Bennet personally added language suggesting that a map published by Palin’s PAC, festooned with crosshairs, incited the shooting that severely wounded then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others. There is no evidence — none — that the mentally ill shooter ever even saw the map. The lawsuit is still pending.

In other words, the mishandled Tom Cotton op-ed was merely the last in a series of banana peels that Bennet stepped on. It’s a wonder he lasted as long as he did.

After leaving the Times, Weiss moved to Substack and started the newsletter Common Sense. She is currently in the process of hiring a team of opinion writers to create what she told Stelter will be “the op-ed page that I want to read.”

Well, if the selective omission of relevant facts is what she wants to read — and wants to publish — then  you can count me out.

This week’s members newsletter: The wayward Times, Otis Redding and more

Otis Redding. Photo in the public domain.

Tomorrow’s Media Nation members newsletter includes some thoughts on The New York Times’ appalling story about Joe Biden’s grief, a round-up of the week’s posts, a Celtics-friendly photo and some music from the great Otis Redding. To become a member for just $5 a month, please click here.

Dog days hit Media Nation

Happy August! We’re going on vacation this week, and blogging will be light. I’ll be semi-working the week of Aug. 9, and then it’s back to the salt mine the following week. Behave yourselves.

(Not) the Weekly World News

At the same time that Gannett is taking a principled stand by refusing to turn over IP data to the FBI, its executives are also making fools of themselves. I tend to be fairly relaxed about front-page ads on the grounds that the money’s got to come from somewhere. But get a load of this:

Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker promoted to an associate editor’s position

Adrian Walker

Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker has been promoted to associate editor, according to an email sent to the staff by editor Brian McGrory, managing editor Jennifer Peter and managing editor for digital Jason Tuohey. I obtained a copy of the email from a trusted source a little while ago.

Walker, a longtime state and local government reporter and editor, has been a columnist since 1998, when the Globe’s star metro columnists, Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith, were forced out after they were caught fabricating and, in Barnicle’s case, plagiarizing as well. (McGrory himself was the other reporter who became a columnist at that time.)

As one of the more prominent Black journalists at the Globe, Walker’s increased clout should help with ongoing efforts to diversify the newsroom.

Walker has brought a reporter’s sensibility to his column, deftly combining news and opinion. According to the memo, he’ll continue to write his column. The full memo follows:

We’re delighted to share the news that Adrian Walker will ascend to the role of associate editor at the Globe.

Adrian is obviously an enduring voice in this community, having helmed a metro column for 22 years and running. More importantly, he’s a vital voice. Few columnists face the test of time with the spectacular success of Adrian. These days, he is at the peak of his relevance, with deeply reported pieces that time and again offer an authoritative look at what was, what is, and what needs to be. He knows Boston like few others — the people, the places, the problems, the possibilities. And he is at once logical, unpredictable, and fearless in his approach. When Adrian speaks, people listen. Before he speaks, they await his thoughts.

Same goes for inside the Globe. Adrian has been a valuable source of counsel to many staffers, including us, ever since he arrived here from Miami in 1989. He’s covered City Hall and the State House, served as a deputy political editor, written about four different Boston mayors and six governors, and was, of course, a key part of the Pulitzer-finalist team on the race project in 2017. He’s been a thoughtful colleague and an important mentor to hundreds of people over the years.

We look forward to many more columns from Adrian, with an even broader impact within our newsroom.

Brian, Jen, and Jason

A teenager’s video of George Floyd’s murder changed the world. It should change journalism, too.

Photo (cc) 2020 by Chad Davis

Previously published at GBH News.

The video of George Floyd’s murder at the hands — or, rather, at the knee — of a police officer has changed the way many of us think about law enforcement, social justice and racial equity.

It should change the way we think about journalism, too.

For nine minutes and 29 seconds, Darnella Frazier pointed her smartphone at Derek Chauvin as he squeezed the life out of Floyd. It would have been an act of great courage for anyone to keep recording; that Frazier was only 17 made it all the more remarkable. As Roy Peter Clark wrote for the Nieman Journalism Lab recently, Frazier should be awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

More than that, though, the video should force those of us in the news media to question the symbiotic relationship between reporters and the police — a relationship marked all too often by the police giving us good stories in return for our not asking too many questions.

Until this week I had spared myself the horror of watching the full video. The snippets that news organizations carried struck me as sufficient, and they are if all you’re looking for is a factual understanding of what happened. But to take in the whole scene is to be pulled into the moment — to become a frightened, angry spectator along with the crowd that gathered that day.

We see Chauvin grind his knee into Floyd’s neck as Floyd wails, “I can’t breathe!” and then “Mama, Mama.” We see Floyd fall silent and then go limp. We see Chauvin with a leer on his face while another officer, Tou Thao, impassively but menacingly keeps the bystanders back. We hear voices. “He’s not fucking moving!” “Check his pulse!” “You just really killed that man, bro.” We see an ambulance drive Floyd away.

Now consider what the official police report said. Here’s an excerpt: “Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.”

It is hard to imagine an account more false than this one. It is a foul lie. And here is where we need to think about how reporters go about doing their work and why that needs to change.

For generations, reporters at smaller news organizations — community newspapers for the most part — have covered police news by dropping by the police station, examining publicly available incident logs, interviewing the officer in charge about anything that seemed noteworthy, and then writing it up. Assaults, house break-ins, drunken driving arrests — it’s the ultimate in one-source reporting, and I did plenty of it when I was starting out in the 1980s.

That’s no longer good enough. In fact, it never was. Since the start of the Black Lives Matter movement following the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014, I think we’ve all come to understand that if police news is important enough to deserve coverage, then it is important enough to be reported thoroughly. That has only accelerated following the high-profile police killings of Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020.

A tragedy such as the murder of George Floyd wouldn’t even make the paper in a large city like Minneapolis based on false police report that was filed. Without Frazier’s video, the truth probably never would have been known. But we now realize that the police are no more or less credible than any other people in authority whom we cover, and their words and actions need to be verified.

“The authoritative source was, and for many reporters still is, considered police officers, district attorneys, law enforcement in general,” my GBH News colleague Phillip Martin said recently on “The Scrum.” He added: “Now, many Black folk and brown folk have long been suspicious and skeptical of police and refused to accept their word for it. They had to prove it. But now we’re seeing that this is permeating in a broader sense, if you will…. Let’s just say liberal America has become more and more skeptical.”

Yet even if journalists understand that the old way of doing things has to change, there are some significant challenges to transforming that understanding into something better.

There are the unknown unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld used to say — that is, the impossibility of knowing that what seems like a routine police report is anything but, as was the case with Floyd’s murder. We can’t check out everything, and if something seems non-newsworthy, it may just slip away.

There is the reality that newsrooms are becoming more and more strapped for reporting resources — a situation that became that much worse last Friday, when Tribune Publishing’s nine major-market newspapers fell into the hands of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, known for eviscerating its newsrooms.

There is the decline of the news media as a gatekeeper, with police departments themselves posting reports of arrests and other incidents on their websites and on social media with no independent verification.

Some news organizations, including the giant Gannett chain, have cut back or eliminated the publication of mugshots, especially for nonviolent crimes. A few papers, including The Boston Globe, are giving the subjects of old crime stories a chance to argue that those stories should be made invisible to search engines. Both of those steps help people who’ve been accused of crimes find employment and set their lives on a better path.

Perhaps most important, if a crime isn’t serious enough to warrant thorough reporting, then we shouldn’t report it at all.

Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, put it this way recently: “Media should not print names of arrestees unless we have their side, we have seen independent evidence corroborating the charges, an immediate threat exists to public safety requiring divulging the name, or a court has adjudicated the charge.”

Testifying at Chauvin’s trial, Darnella Frazier told the court: “It’s been nights I’ve stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life.”

But there was nothing Frazier could have done except bear witness — which she did, thus changing the world. At its best, journalism is about bearing witness as well. Can we learn from a brave teenager with a smartphone? Can we resolve to do a better job of serving the communities we cover — by listening, and by seeking truth rather than taking dictation from those in authority?

The fate of journalism depends on getting the answers right — and on not letting this moment fade, unacted upon, into our collective memory.