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.
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.
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 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
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.
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The Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr has a must-read story about Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s habit of singling out journalists who’ve criticized him — or simply expressed views he doesn’t like — thus subjecting them to harassment and even death threats. Among them: NBC News reporter Brandy Zadrozny, Los Angeles Times columnist Virginia Heffernan and Grio reporter April Ryan. Barr writes:
Carlson cut his teeth jousting with the nation’s top elected officials and brand-name pundits on CNN’s “Crossfire” 20 years ago. But as his influence within the conservative media ecosystem has grown, with some calling for him to run for president in 2024, he has increasingly found fodder in criticizing lesser-known media figures whom he presents to his audience as symbols of liberalism run amok. And a subset of viewers are inspired to personally harass those journalists with threatening messages.
Nearly all the victims cited by Barr are women.
- Postscript: A white nationalist group tweets enthusiastically about Carlson (April 15)
- Tucker Carlson is a white supremacist. And he’s giving Fox viewers exactly what they want (GBH News, April 15)
- From principled conservative to Bubba the Love Sponge: The devolution of Tucker Carlson (GBH News, March 12, 2019)
Now here’s an ethical dilemma. In Livermore Falls, Maine, a man who had taken four people hostage in a home called a television news reporter who was outside covering the standoff. Police asked the reporter to hand them his phone. He complied, and an officer continued the conversation with the hostage-taker while pretending to be the reporter.
It would seem to violate any sense of journalistic ethics — and yet it was a life-or-death situation. What would you have done? I think I would have done exactly what the reporter, Taylor Cairns of CBS 13, did, and then wondered later if there might have been a better way to handle it. I definitely believe Cairns did the right thing in the moment.
Earlier this week, University of Maine journalism professor Michael Socolow and I talked with Nick Schroeder of the Bangor Daily News. As I told Schroeder, “You can see what a difficult situation everybody was in. Lives were at stake here.” But I also told him that maybe this should lead to training for both reporters and police officers aimed at coming up with a better solution if a similar situation should arise in the future.
The story came to a gruesome ending. Though none of the hostages was harmed, the hostage-taker, Donald White, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after having been shot by a state police officer, according to police.
USA Today has an account of Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri’s testimony at her trial stemming from her arrest at a Black Lives Matter protest last summer. (The Register and USA Today are both Gannett papers.)
“It’s important for journalists to be on the scene and document what’s happening,” Sahouri said as part of her testimony. “Protests erupted not just across the country but all over the world. I felt like I was playing a role in that. I know we are a small city, but I felt like I was playing a role in that.”
Here, I think, is the key:
The judge has also not ruled on a motion filed by Sahouri’s attorney during the trial for a directed verdict to decide the case in Sahouri and Robnett’s favor. [Sahouri and her then-boyfriend, Spenser Robnett, were both pepper-sprayed and arrested.]
This case should be thrown out as quickly as possible — not just to ensure that justice is done and the First Amendment is protected, but to send a message to the police and the prosecutors who are pursuing this dubious case.
At the beginning of 2021, I decided to shift my online activities — I was going to blog more and use Facebook and Twitter less. At the same time, I decided to start offering memberships to Media Nation for $5 a month, following the lead of Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson, pundits such as Andrew Sullivan, reporters such as Patrice Peck and others.
Most of these other folks are using Substack, a newsletter platform. I figured I had sunk way too many years — 16 — into writing Media Nation as a blog, and I didn’t want to switch to a platform that’s reliant on venture capital and could eventually go the way of most such companies. So here I am, still blogging at WordPress.com, and asking readers to consider becoming members by supporting me on Patreon.
And yes, I have been blogging more as I try to stay on top of various media stories, especially involving local journalism, as well as politics, culture and the news of the day. Just this week I’ve written about Larry Flynt and the First Amendment, Duke Ellington’s legacy, a new partnership between The Boston Globe and the Portland Press Herald, and a Louisiana reporter who’s been sued for — believe it or not — filing a public-records request.
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