Pornewsgraphy

The New York Times has jumped the shark

The “Old Gray Lady” is turning blue…code blue.

The once venerable New York Times – supposedly the nation’s premier newspaper – today published an op-ed calling for the harassment of low-level government employees as part of the ongoing immigration issue at the border.

Let that sink in. This is not some radical partisan ragsite like Vox or Infowars. It was The New York TimesAmerica’s “newspaper of record” did this.

image.pngThey provided a platform on their opinion pages for an open-throated call to identify, shun and – let’s be realistic here – harass ICE employees at all levels. The article specifically noted that “foot soldiers” (low-level employees) should also be targeted. The author – a humanities professor and attorney in the United Kingdom – claims she is not calling for doxxing. Apparently, she naively believes that her recommendation would not lead to doxxing, cyberbullying and perhaps even violence.

The author’s dangerous and objectionable suggestion is not what primarily concerned me, reprehensible though it was. The fact that such a reckless call to action could find sanctuary in a presumably responsible newspaper is what raised red flags. Is this what journalism and media at the national level in America has come to?

Multiple polls like this one show that Americans increasingly distrust media sources. Even polling that reflects modest rebounds still show an anemic level of trust in American news media. I would argue that this sentiment is both understandable and appropriate if we are talking about the national news media in America – i.e., national newspapers and the national news broadcasters. I would also include most online “news” sites in this assessment. (I still maintain that local journalism is a profession where reporters are producing a good product that gets it right more often than wrong. The “elite” in the national and online news media could benefit from emulating their local peers more often.)

And what has happened to make the media seem so untrustworthy? A number of factors are involved, but I would posit that a large part of the dynamic is financial. In an age where more and more pressure is placed on news media organizations and the journalists within them to turn a profit, standards seems to be increasingly giving way to an emphasis on website visits and social media engagement – i.e., “clicks” – which can be monetized vis a vis ad revenues. This might explain why a presumably responsible editorial board like the one at The New York Times would provide a platform for a de facto incitement to harassment and perhaps even violence. Then again, maybe they like what the author suggested. It is impossible to say.

Of course, op-ed columns do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editorial boards that approve them. But does the editorial leadership not ultimately decide what does and does not get space on their pages, digital and otherwise? Presumably, they have criteria and standards they apply to this decision-making process, and they don’t let just anybody argue their cases in their opinion section. Whether Times editors agreed or disagreed with the positions that this author took is immaterial. But do they actually believe that her commentary was responsible…particularly in the context of today’s hyper-polarized, tinder box environment? Or, has the need to drive clicks and revenue pushed even the Times to the point where such questions are secondary?

The column in question makes me wonder.

If this is the beginning of a trend, what is next? For example, I noticed recently that there is an emerging debate in and around the LGBT community about promoting children in drag. It came up several times in recent weeks during the Pride Month observance. (As with the immigration issue in the Times op-ed piece, I do not mention this to take sides on the issue of drag kids. Both issues are separate from the point of this blog post.) However, the drag kid controversy suggests an informative analogy here. While responsible newspapers and media outlets can and should provide a platform for commentary on both sides of the day’s issues, where should the line be drawn regarding what is acceptable fare? The reprobates at NAMBLA have been vocal on the drag kid issue. Would America’s newspaper of record offer a spokesman for that organization a byline on its pages? Until recently, I would’ve laughed at an idea like that. Now… I’m not laughing. Whatever else one could say about a NAMBLA-bylined op-ed in a major newspaper or outlet, it would unquestionably prompt a tsunami of clicks, social media buzz, and so on if it were allowed. And that seems to be the overriding goal in more and more of what the national and online news media do.

image.pngMost Boomers and GenXers know the origin of the phrase “jump the shark”. It stems back to an episode of the once-wildly popular ABC series “Happy Days”. Long story short – “jumping the shark” is shorthand for when a TV show starts engaging in desperate (and sometimes embarrassing) attempts to maintain its viability. Over time, this phrase has evolved for use beyond the small screen.

If today’s New York Times column is an indication of things to come, perhaps the Old Gray Lady and the editors at some other once-prestigious media outlets should start waxing their water skis.

 

Free speech… how do some people STILL not get it?

Having lacked the time in recent months to do any blogging, I’ve been looking forward to the summer break so that I could get back to the practice. Fortuitously – though somewhat unfortunately, given this post – a recent incident provided a timely impetus to start typing.

As anyone who follows me on Twitter (@MikeBreslin815) or reads my blog knows, two things that I am passionate about are free speech and media studies. As a career communicator who spent much of his career before academics dealing with the news media, I’ve always had a fascination with the industry. My interest in free speech should be somewhat self-evident given my profession, though I would hope that everyone cares about free speech, regardless of their vocation. Given all that, an online encounter I had with the editor of a leading educational news website gave me pause.

In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of coverage, both in academic and mainstream media, about an article written by Rebecca Tuvel, an assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College in Tennessee. In it, she compared and contrasted the cases of Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal, posing some thought-provoking questions on issues of transgenderism and transracialism. In sadly predictable fashion, many in academe reacted furiously, claiming that Dr. Tuvel and the editors of Hypatia, the journal where it appeared, were products of “white and cisgender privilege” for daring to write/print the article. Hundreds of academics signed a petition calling for the article to be retracted, forcing the journal to offer a groveling apology.   So much for the spirit of open and free inquiry in academics. But I digress…

While perusing my weekly news email from Inside Higher Ed earlier today, I came across an article that I mistakenly thought was about the Tuvel situation. Upon opening it, I discovered it was about a different person, a professor at Texas A&M, who had raised the ire of some because of comments he made on racial issues several years ago. What struck me as interesting about the article was the fact that the editors of IHE had closed off the comments section that went with it, despite the fact that the article had only been posted two days earlier. Out of curiosity, I looked up the most recent IHE articles on Tuvel situation, only to discover that those comment sections were still open despite the fact that they had been online for more than a week. Upon seeing that, I posted a question for the editors (see graphic) in the comments for one of the Tuvel articles. Within minutes, I received the reply noted in the graphic.

IMG_8745

I replied to the editor as follows:

“Appreciate your quick response. However, the latter half of your point is troublesome, to put it mildly. “Usefulness” in whose opinion? Considering the highly sensitive topics at play here (and in many other cases), it seems antithetical to the ideas of free expression, free speech, etc. to engage in such a practice, especially when inconsistencies are so easily identifiable. In an era where the media are under more fire than ever, I would hope that journalists (i.e., practitioners whose very profession relies on related freedoms, vis a vis freedom of the press) would be more disinclined than ever to do anything that could be construed as contrary to the principles expressed in the First Amendment. My two cents.”

I realized rather quickly that my hopes about journalists and their attitudes towards free speech were misplaced, at least in this case. My pending comment was deleted and not posted. Two subsequent comments that I made on this matter, pointing out the problematic nature of such censorship, were also deleted without posting. (Perhaps my comment  about the linkage between free speech and free press hit a little too close to a sensitive area.) It was only later, after I complained further through the publication’s Twitter feed, that my post finally went live.

Now, let me be clear about a few things before I go further. First, I fully recognize the right of any website owner to monitor/censor/edit anything on that site, including user comments. I, like anyone else who spent more than 10 minutes online in the last 10 years, realize how toxic the environment can become on comments pages, social media and the like. However, as a matter of journalistic principle, I would hope that all news media outlets and editors would be reluctant in the extreme to engage in anything that could even seem like censorship, particularly given the times we live in. Public confidence is already badly shaken in the media, via “fake news”, bias, sensationalism, infotainment (or pornewsgraphy®, as I termed it in a previous blog). As such, it seems counterintuitive that anyone in a profession that depends on the protections of the First Amendment, and which is under more negative scrutiny than ever, would be anything but supportive of those same rights for others.

Further, I am not suggesting that this incident or the actions of this editor are indicative of every journalist out there. I would like to think the truth is far from that. But this is certainly not the only time that I’ve seen instances of people engaging in behavior that is contrary to the ideas of free speech and open dialogue – many of whom should know better. I increasingly see it in news reports about higher education, where some professors and students posit that the answer to objectionable speech is not more speech, but censorship, disruption and/or (in extreme cases) violence.  Sadly, the people engaging in such behavior don’t realize that the solution to “bad speech” is not censorship or less speech; it is more speech.  Please note, I said more “speech”, as in words – not violence, childish behavior and the like, which some people mistakenly think constitutes acceptable expression. Sorry, but if you can’t make your point effectively without shouting people down or limiting their ability to be heard, there’s an excellent chance your  position is flawed to begin with. And, on the off chance it’s not, you’re simply defeating your own cause in the long term by making it anathema to reasonable people. That’s the sad part about such efforts – they are ultimately self-defeating, but the people behind them seem oblivious to that fact.

In the current environment, where so many people are speaking out about perceived losses of freedom, it seems ironic that so many of those same people are trying to erode the very rights that allow them to speak. In such cases, it seems apropos to note the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for – you might get it.”

Nurse unite…and the prognosis for free speech dims further

So, unless you’ve completely avoided the “news” this week, you have no doubt heard about the latest outrage du jour. The ladies at ABC’s “The View” were poking fun at a contestant on the Miss America pageant last weekend. Miss Colorado Kelley Johnson chose an unconventional approach for the pageant’s talent portion, and appeared on stage in her nursing uniform (scrubs and a stethoscope) and talked about her work with Alzheimer’s patients.

kelley-johnson-miss-colorado

The next Monday, the ladies on The View talked about the pageant and Ms. Johnson’s appearance. Comedian and co-host Joy Behar asked why Johnson wore a “doctor’s stethoscope.” Her colleague, Michelle Johnson, added:

“And she came out in a nurse’s uniform and basically read her e-mails out loud. And shockingly did not win. I was like, that (emphasis added) is not a real talent…” I think that anyone paying attention would realize that the “that” in Collins’ sentence was a reference to Johnson’s monologue (that is, her choice to talk about her profession vs. singing, dancing, etc.), not her choice of profession. After all, “that” was rather obvious given the context of the discussion.

Oh, did I just invoke context? Silly me! No one on social media cares about context any more (if they ever did). After all, considering context is time consuming and…well, hard! So (insert beleaguered sigh here), cue up the digital outrage machine! It’s morning in America again, and someone needs a hot, steaming cup of righteous indignation – facts and context be damned! And the #NursesUnite “movement” was born. I place movement in quotes because while nursing has been, is, and will continue to be a vital profession, the kerfuffle over the non-existent View slight will be soon forgotten in favor of whatever “controversy” next week’s offended group pushes on the rest of us. Said future outrage will, of course, be dutifully reported on/promoted by the 24/7 “All news that fits, we’ll print” media.

As the week progressed, the typical cycle ensued. The View hosts apologized, advertisers pulled ads, The View groveled further by hosting a show with nurses to demonstrate that they really didn’t mean what they didn’t actually say, etc. (BTW, the irony of advertisers supporting a move to quell speech is rich with irony, but that’s for a separate blog post.) And one more time, society’s collective free speech rights eroded. In the effort to ensure that people need NEVER be offended, people banded together once again to punish someone for something that they said. Actually, the people in question didn’t really say it, but let’s not quibble.

The point is, even if they did say something negative about the nursing profession, would this be the appropriate response? I’m not suggesting that in such a case, a response would not be warranted. Correcting inaccuracies – Behar’s stethoscope comment, for example – is absolutely appropriate and called for. But rather than seeing this situation as a chance for the initiation of a rational dialogue on a valid subject – i.e., the important role that nurses play in society – the collective response by those involved was primal – rage, boycott, cancel, crush, destroy, repeat.

A society that values such primal reactions over rational discussion – in fact, a society that revels in such inflamed discourse, and which has the digital means to engage in it at will – is a society that cannot sustain free speech. Paradoxically – since those engaging in the response would argue that they are merely exercising their free speech rights – the repeated beatdown of anyone who dares says something that offends a big enough, loud enough group ultimately discourages free expression. Have something controversial to say…or something that might be mistakenly seen as such? Better ask your self who is going to use it as a club on your head before speaking. Want to further an important, but unpopular, view? Hmm, can you afford to lose your job? Chilling thoughts like these and others, which are more and more necessary in today’s outrage-addicted culture, are poison to a society that claims to host the “marketplace of ideas and free expression.”

Two last points are important here. In that latter stages of the week, reports have surfaced alleging that Collins made genuinely disparaging remarks about nurses backstage after apologizing for the initial remarks. View guest Nicole Arbour (she the target of the previous week’s outrage du jour, stemming from her “Dear Fat People” video) says that after airing, Collins remarked that nursing was not a real profession, and that nurses were “wannabe doctors.” However, in considering these alleged remarks, it is important to note that A) They are alleged, not proven, and B) Even if they ultimately prove to be real, they don’t justify the reaction to the original remarks. The #NursesUnite movement was already blasting away by the time this supposedly happened. Or, would one argue that outrage/reaction can be retroactively justified? If so, that is a truly dangerous principle.

The second point is that, as some nurses note, the inappropriateness of the remarks is underscored by the fact that they were made as part of a dialogue meant to be humorous. The infusion of humor, the argument goes, is a sign of an underlying disrespect for the profession – i.e., “How dare you not take what we do seriously?!?” As noted above, such a reaction overlooks the context of the remarks. But let’s put the issue of context aside for the moment. If we accept that inappropriate humor argument and the condemnation/censure/punishment that goes with it, it means that were are endorsing a policy whereby certain topics are off limits to even the lightest of teasing/joking. If that becomes the case, who decides what is and is not an “acceptable” topic for humor? What groups become our “sacred cows?” I’m not arguing that there is no such thing as inappropriate humor in certain contexts. But when we, as a society, revel in the punishment and censure of anyone who dares to tell a joke that offends us, how can free speech endure? What ever happened to the liberty-minded ideal behind the quote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” from Evelyn Beatrice Hall? (No, it wasn’t Voltaire who said it – it was Hall)

Speaking of comedy and quotes, comedian and radio host Jim Norton said something recently that is an apropos close to this. In his most recent special, “Contextually Inadequate,” Norton, himself no stranger to irreverent humor and the controversy it can generate, hit the nail on the head when he noted that people are mistaken when they say our free speech rights are being taken away. They are not being taken away.

We are giving them away. One outraged tweet at a time.

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UPDATE (Sept. 26): In rereading this, I noted that I inadvertently put words in Jim Norton’s mouth. His comments about society giving away their rights were more focused on privacy rights than free speech, though he did mention the latter in making his point. That said, given Norton’s many comments in recent years about the erosion of respect for, and the importance of, free speech, I suspect he wouldn’t take umbrage with my point above.

PorNEWSgraphy: It’s airing 24/7 in the Fourth Estate

In 30 years as a career communicator and public relations specialist, I’ve become a media junkie. I track developments in the media, particularly news media or the “Fourth Estate,” in the same way that some people play golf or follow their favorite college sports team. I suspect that many of my fellow “flacks” share a similar passion.

That said, I’ve grown increasingly dismayed in recent years about the ongoing – and accelerating – devolution of journalism in the United States. Trends like infotainment, sensationalism, “advocacy journalism” (an oxymoron, to be sure), and unapologetic political bias in reporting (thank YOU, Fox News, MSNBC and others) have made it difficult in the extreme to rely on national news reporting as a source of objective, accurate information. To be sure, there are still many good journalists out there who are eager to practice their trade in an objective, reliable way. The sad irony of this is that, in too many cases, forces beyond their control won’t let them.

Consider this alternate definition of “pornography” from Merriam-Webster.com:  “:  the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction <the pornography of violence>” (emphasis added). Applying the same cause-effect paradigm to the way most “reporting” nowadays is geared toward pathos (emotions) rather than logos (rational thinking), isn’t it fair to apply the term “porNEWSgraphyTM?” Given the dreck that spills forth daily from many of the new operations in America today, is the term unreasonable?

Meet the Press - Dana Carvey

NBC’s Chuck Todd of “Meet the Press” discusses political impressions with comedian Dana Carvey. Apparently, it was a REALLY slow news week.

One does not have to look far for examples of pornewsgraphy. As I type this, NBC’s “Meet the Press” has just finished airing an interview with renowned statesman Dana Carvey regarding the impressions he does of George H.W. Bush and others. Yes, that’s Meet the Press – the iconic Sunday morning news program that has provided insights on key issues and access to world leaders since 1947 – acting as a promotional vehicle for “Saturday Night Live.” What’s next? Former presidential advisor David Axelrod juggling to promote his new book? New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand reading a few steamy passages from “50 Shades of Grey” before discussing women in the military? Apple CEO Tim Cook plugging PornHub as part of a discussion on online privacy and data breaches? Somewhere, Tim Russert is banging his journalistic halo against a wall.

In fairness, NBC and MTP are by no means alone in offering such pathetic fare under the guise of “news.” The aggregate total of this problem on a daily basis is stupefying, particularly in terms of its implications. Whether one looks at it from the vantage point of a communications professional, a journalist, or “just” a citizen, the long-term damage caused by the lack of a credible journalism industry is ponderous.

So, sit back and tune in to your favorite news program. Regardless of what network you watch, it’s bound to be “entertaining.”