W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Journalism education’ Category

The shame of the press

In Debunking, Error, Journalism education, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Scandal, War of the Worlds, Washington Post on October 31, 2020 at 11:26 pm

Eighty-two years ago, the front pages of American newspapers told of panic and hysteria which, they said, had swept the country the night before, during, and immediately after a radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds.

The program starred and was directed by 23-year-old Orson Welles who made clever use of simulated news bulletins to tell of waves of attacking Martians wielding deadly heat rays. So vivid and frightening was the program that tens of thousands of Americans were convulsed in panic and driven to hysteria.

Or so the newspapers said on October 31, 1938.

“For an hour, hysterical pandemonium gripped the Nation’s Capital and the Nation itself,” declared the Washington Post, while offering few specifics to support the dramatic claim.

“Thousands of persons in New Jersey and the metropolitan area, as well as all over the nation, were pitched into mass hysteria … by the broadcast,” the New York Herald Tribune asserted. It, too, offered little supporting evidence.

“Hysteria among radio listeners through the nation … resulted from a too realistic radio program … describing a fictitious and devastating visitation of strange men from Mars,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle.

And so it went.

As I described in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, reports of widespread panic and hysteria were wildly exaggerated “and did not occur on anything approaching a nationwide scale.”

Had Americans been convulsed in panic and hysteria that night, the resulting turmoil and mayhem surely would have resulted in deaths, including suicides, and in serious injuries. But nothing of the sort was conclusively linked to the show.

The overheated press accounts were almost entirely anecdotal — and driven by an eagerness to question the reliability and legitimacy of radio, then an upstart rival medium.

There was no nationwide panic that long ago night before Halloween and the day-after coverage was an episode of collective misreporting that contributed to the rise of a tenacious media myth.

Eighty-two years later, much of mainstream corporate news media is indulging in another, even more consequential episode of misconduct that’s defined not by overheated misreporting but by willful blindness on an extraordinary scale.

Corporate media, with few exceptions on the political right, have ignored and declined to pursue allegations of international influence-peddling by the son of Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, so as to shield the flawed and feeble candidate from scrutiny and help him defeat the incumbent they so profoundly loathe.

Their contempt for President Donald Trump runs deep. Corporate media obviously recognize they cannot investigate and publish critical reporting — they cannot do searching journalism — about Biden so close to the November election without jeopardizing his candidacy and boosting Trump’s chances of reelection.

This neglect by corporate media represents an abdication of fundamental journalistic values of detachment, and impartiality. A defining ethos of American journalism that emerged during the second half of the Twentieth Century emphasized even-handed treatment of the news and an avoidance of overt, blatant partisanship.

Rank-and-file journalists tended to regard politicians of both major parties with a mixture of suspicion and mild contempt. It was a kind of “fie on both houses” attitude. Running interference for a politician was considered more than a little unsavory.

Not so much anymore. Not in American corporate media, where an overt partisanship has become not only acceptable but unmistakable.

The suspicions about Biden stem from his son’s efforts to line up lucrative, pay-for-play business arrangements in Ukraine — supposedly without the knowledge of Joe Biden. Reporting in the New York Post in mid-October was based on emails that undercut Biden’s claim of ignorance about the son’s dealings. Notably, the Bidens have not disputed the authenticity of the emails. Nor have they substantively addressed the allegations.

Subsequent reports have suggested Biden’s secret financial involvement in his son’s attempts to arrange a lucrative deal with a Chinese energy company tied to the country’s communist government.

The narratives are detailed, with many dimensions and potential implications — all which make media scrutiny all the more urgent.

But the response largely has been to shun and ignore. Or to block or impede distribution, as Twitter and Facebook did with the New York Post’s mid-October report. Or to dismiss it as so much Russian disinformation. Or scoff that it’s just a distraction. That’s what National Public Radio claimed, in a remarkably obtuse statement by its public editor (or internal critic), Kelly McBride. “We don’t want to waste our time,” she wrote, ” … on stories that are just pure distractions.”

Matt Taibbi, who is perhaps the most searching critic these days of contemporary American media and their failings, noted recently that the “least curious people in the country right now appear to be the credentialed news media, a situation normally unique to tinpot authoritarian societies.”

The inclination to shield Biden may partly stem from the shifting business model for corporate news organizations. The model used to be largely advertising-based, which encouraged news organizations to seek wide audiences by offering what was passably impartial reporting.

With the decline of advertising revenues, the business model has moved toward a digital-subscriber base. As readers pay, they are prone to make clear their preferences, and the news report tilts to reflect their partisan expectations.

Evidence of the tilt was striking enough four years ago, when Liz Spayd, an advocate of even-handedness in reporting, was public editor at the New York Times. She lasted less than a year before the position was dissolved and she was let go.

Spayd, whom I favorably mention in my latest book, Lost in a Gallup: Polling Failure in U.S. Presidential Elections, hadn’t been on the job a month when she wrote this about the Times in July 2016:

“Imagine what would be missed by journalists who felt no pressing need to see the world through others’ eyes. Imagine the stories they might miss, like the groundswell of isolation that propelled a candidate like Donald Trump to his party’s nomination. Imagine a country where the greatest, most powerful newsroom in the free world was viewed not as a voice that speaks to all but as one that has taken sides.

“Or has that already happened?”

It no doubt had. And overt partisanship has become all the more evident in the past four years as the Times and other corporate media pursued such stories as Trump’s conspiring with Russia to steal the 2016 election. It was a bizarre, exaggerated tale that obsessed corporate media for three years before finally coming a cropper.

Corporate media may well protect Biden long enough for the gaffe-prone 77-year-old to gain the presidency. But the shameful exhibition of willful blindness may not end well for corporate media. Their abdication may leave them besmirched. And diminished.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Nat Geo’s cartoonish treatment of Hearst v. Pulitzer

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Journalism education, Newspapers, Reviews, Spanish-American War on June 9, 2015 at 9:31 am

National Geographic’s docudrama last night about the rivalry between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer was, predictably, long on stereotype, highly selective, and misleading in its superficial treatment of its protagonists.

The show, one of eight installments in a not-so-acclaimed series called “American Genius,” was cartoonish in depicting Hearst as a callow and strutting rich kid, extravagant with money, and eager to imitate the techniques of the older and, at least according to National Geographic’s program, more virtuous Joseph Pulitzer.

Pulitzer bust

Pulitzer: Mean-spirited ways ignored

Hearst, the son of a millionaire miner turned U.S. senator, was 32 when he came to New York from California in 1895, a time when the city’s journalism had gone stagnant. Its leading publishers and editors were aging, infirm, or absentee. Or in Pulitzer’s case, all of the above.

Hearst promptly shook up New York’s journalism establishment, and earned its enmity in doing so.

But National Geographic offered little discussion about the seismic character of Hearst’s entry into New York, or how success in New York was crucial to his goal of building a lasting media empire.

Significantly, the docudrama failed to mention a key component in the supposed Pulitzer-Hearst rivalry: Pulitzer was almost entirely absent from New York journalism after 1891 — years before Hearst came to Gotham to acquire and run the New York Journal. The rivalry was not directly between the owners, but between their newspapers.

Likewise, the program made no mention at all about how Pulitzer tried to run his New York World remotely, through a steady stream of telegrams and letters sent to his editors and business managers from Maine, Georgia, Europe, or wherever the peripatetic Pulitzer sought comfort as his health worsened and his eyesight failed.

Similarly, there was no mention that Pulitzer was a harsh and mean-spirited taskmaster who often treated his senior staff like so many incompetents. He drove away talent as much as Hearst recruited it from the World. Or as National Geographic put it, stole from the World.

Perhaps most important of the program’s flaws was its silence about the activist concept that inspired and animated Hearst’s journalism in the mid- and late-1890s.

Contrary to the program’s frequent claims, Hearst was not so much an imitator of Pulitzer as the adapter of a theory of participatory journalism advanced by William T. Stead in Britain in the mid-1880s. “Government by journalism,” Stead called it, arguing that newspapers had a central role in guiding civic life, given their presumed capacity to frame and shape public opinion.

Hearst clearly borrowed from Stead’s “government by journalism” in pursuing a model his newspaper called the “journalism of action.” It was a breathtaking vision of participatory journalism that went well beyond the stunts (such as Nellie Bly’s race round the world in 1888) organized by Pulitzer’s newspaper.

As I wrote in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the “journalism of action” envisioned that newspapers should and could go beyond merely gathering, publishing, and commenting on the news. Instead, I noted, the “journalism of action” asserted that newspapers had an obligation “to inject themselves, conspicuously and vigorously, in righting the wrongs of public life, and in filling the void of government inaction and incompetence.”

evangelina_oct10_trim

‘Jailbreaking journalism,’ 1897

There was no more dramatic or celebrated manifestation of the “journalism of action” than the case of “jailbreaking journalism” in 1897.

That was when Karl Decker, a reporter Hearst dispatched to Cuba, helped to organize the escape of Evangelina Cisneros, a 19-year-old political prisoner jailed in Havana for nearly 15 months, during the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule.

With the quiet help of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Cuba, and with the critical support of a clandestine smuggling network operating in Havana, Decker succeeded in early October 1897 in breaking Cisneros out of jail. She was hidden for nearly three days at the home of a Cuban-American banker, then smuggled aboard a passenger steamer bound for New York City.

There, Hearst organized a rapturous welcome for Cisneros, who knew few words of English and seemed overwhelmed by the reception.

The National Geographic show had the Cisneros character speaking fairly fluent accented English. And it characterized the jailbreak superficially, as simply “a way [for Hearst] to get his readers interested in the rebels’ cause against Spain.” It was that, but much more: the rescue, the Journal declared, was “epochal,”  a “supreme achievement” of participatory journalism.

It proved to be the zenith of the “journalism of action,” a flamboyant if now little-remembered paradigm of newsgathering and newsmaking.

Interestingly, the small stable of experts National Geographic recruited for its show did not include the leading authorities on Hearst — biographers David Nasaw, author of The Chief, and Kenneth Whyte, who wrote The Uncrowned KingBoth books are outstanding.

Had it tapped such experts, the program might have sidestepped such inaccurate claims as Hearst’s having “had more money than God.” Hearst was wealthy, but his widowed mother imposed restraints on his spending, as Nasaw describes in some detail in The Chief.

Hearst’s resources were not unlimited, National Geographic’s claims notwithstanding.

In fact, representatives of the World and the Journal met to explore jointly raising prices, to rebuild revenues depleted by coverage of the Spanish-American War in 1898.

They were effectively blocked from doing so because Adolph Ochs, publisher of the New York Times, had lowered the price of his newspaper to one cent from three cents. No way would the World and the Journal leave the one-cent market to Ochs, who came to New York in 1896. So the World and the Journal kept their cover price at a penny, which meant long-term strains on resources and revenues.

About that, of course, the docudrama made no mention.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Appealing across generations of students: The Verne Edwards Mystique

In Journalism education, Newspapers on November 23, 2014 at 9:10 pm

The following is an expansion of remarks I offered yesterday, at a memorial service in Delaware, Ohio, for Verne E. Edwards, my undergraduate journalism professor and mentor who died this month at 90-years-old. I dedicated my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, to Edwards, who for 33 years taught journalism at Ohio Wesleyan University.

VerneEdwards

Verne Edwards, mid-1970s

How was it that Verne Edwards commanded such respect, such reverence, across generations of students?

He was a professor known for rigorous expectations — and sometimes-stern appraisals. I remember writing a headline for the student newspaper, the Transcript, that referred to Mount Union College (now University of Mount Union) as “Mount Vernon.”

In his weekly markup of the Transcript, Verne circled the errant headline in red pencil and identified it as the worst he had ever seen.

Verne was exacting, and could be quirky; he sometimes addressed his classes in a sidelong manner, not making much eye contact. But he was tough, and honest, and fair. And his students tended to feel terrible when they believed they had let him down. As in mistaking Mount Union for Mount Vernon.

The question of Verne Edwards’ appeal across generations has personal dimension and relevance: I have taught at American University for 17 years and know few faculty who command the kind of respect, indeed the reverence, that Verne so clearly won from generations of students. I have puzzled about the qualities and attributes that gained for Verne Edwards such esteem.

It is a puzzle; I call it the Verne Edwards Mystique, and I cannot claim to have fathomed all its sources.

The Verne Edwards Mystique surely sprang, in measure, from the authority borne of high standards and relevant experience. Verne was a print journalist. At one time or another, he wrote editorials or edited copy at such newspapers such as the Detroit Free Press, the Milwaukee Journal, and the Toledo Blade. He wrote the textbook, too — Journalism in a Free Society, which he required in his classes for years.

It was little exaggeration that Ohio Wesleyan’s journalism program was known, to some of us, as “Vernalism.”

The Verne Edwards Mystique was rooted, too, in a deep and abiding interest in students, and a dedication to staying in touch. Verne would keep up on the accomplishments of his former students, and would welcome them back to campus.

Year after year, for many years, Verne prepared an annual alumni newsletter that he filled with details and updates about his students from across the generations. His newsletter was a highlight of the end-of-year holidays. And it created bonds among his former students, even for those who had never met one another.

What may best explain the Verne Edwards Mystique, though, is modesty, a decided modesty.

Verne was no self-promoter. He could have been, surely, given the awards and the recognition he received during his career. But his ego was kept under wraps and under control; his was a modesty that’s rather rare in the academy.

Students sensed that, too. Verne, they knew, was the real deal. And he didn’t flaunt it.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: