The media today: Parkland and Russia—two stories, intertwined narratives

The massacre of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has stuck at the top of the news cycle for almost a week now, thanks in no small part to the inspiring activism of many of its survivors. Only one story rivaled its dominance over the weekend: Robert Mueller’s dramatic handing down Friday of indictments charging 13 Russians and three companies with conspiracy to subvert the 2016 election, most notably via social media.

ICYMI: “She identified herself as a reporter. He then walked behind her and punched her in the side of the head”

On the face of it, the Parkland and Russia stories have little in common, but they became intertwined over the weekend. As CNN’s Oliver Darcy and Hadas Gold noted, the dual Parkland–Russia narrative swelled through anti-FBI screeds in the far-right mediasphere, before the president gave it a megaphone—tweeting that the FBI hadn’t stopped the Parkland massacre because “they are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign.” The Gateway Pundit plumbed a foul new low in this genre on Monday, smearing one particularly vocal and articulate Parkland student—David Hogg, whose dad used to work for the FBI—as a planted anti-Trump “pawn.”

The lines dividing these stories further blurred in a jarring New York Times story on Monday night. Scarcely an hour after the Parkland shooting last Wednesday, Twitter bots tied to Russia seized on a fresh opportunity to aggravate divisions on social media. Using hashtags like #guncontrolnow and #gunreformnow, the accounts attempted to use a raw, ongoing tragedy to turn Americans against one another.

ICYMI: “Suddenly, the car jerks back as a fiery explosion rips through the front seats”

The tweets reminded Americans that their worldviews differ, at a moment that ought to have united them in horror. The FBI narrative, meanwhile, cast Parkland as a wilful failure of law enforcement priorities, pinning 17 unnecessary murders on the “deep state,” rather than inadequate gun laws. Both these stories contain clear truths—the school shooting was a national tragedy that could have been prevented, and Russia is actively working to undermine American democracy. By tying them together with a whiff of conspiracy, these truths become muddied. And those who would avoid accountability, be it for their firearms stance or for the alliances they make during an election campaign, benefit.

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Below, further reading on the two stories still driving the news cycle:

  • Regulating a savage market: In a column for The Guardian on Facebook and friends’ struggle to moderate quickfire content at scale, Emily Bell writes that both Parkland and the Mueller indictments “centered on the use of social media as a platform to spread chaos and undermine security.”
  • Flak attack: For CJR, Todd Gitlin urges the media to see through self-interested right-wing efforts to discredit the Russia investigation by bombardment. “The point of flak is not to win the war. The point of flak is to distract the pilot,” he writes.
  • License to brainwash: The Times’s Neil MacFarquhar spoke to former employees of the now-notorious Internet Research Agency troll farm. One described the work as “like turning people into zombies.”
  • A delicate task: The Guardian’s Oliver Laughland spoke for a second time with the father of a Parkland survivor after he reached out to clarify apparently pro-gun quotes he gave in the aftermath of the shooting. Laughland reflects on whether it was fair to ask tough questions in a moment of intense pressure and shock.
  • An urgent appeal: The Times opinion section over the weekend featured this moving article by Parkland student Christine Yared, who used the platform to demand a conversation on tightening gun laws. Her classmates are planning to march on Washington next month.
  • “The greater tragedy”: For CJR, Meg Kissinger says the Florida shooting should be a rallying point for another type of reporting: the neglected mental health beat.


Other notable stories

  • For the Times, Ben Sisario looks at why the #MeToo reckoning has had particularly sharp consequences for public radio, felling stars like John Hockenberry, Garrison Keillor, and, last week, Tom Ashbrook. “The relationships that people have with the presenters and reporters on NPR feel very personal,” former NPR CEO Vivian Schiller told him. “The potential for backlash is that much greater if you feel that you have been betrayed.”
  • The Times’s Steven Lee Myers and French photographer Gilles Sabrié spent 17 hours in the custody of Chinese police as they tried to report on the Tibetan New Year. “China is a country that exudes confidence in its rising place on the world stage—and yet its officials belie that confidence with their hypersensitivity to what a foreign correspondent might encounter traveling untethered, and thus uncensored,” Myers writes.
  • Fox News is launching a new subscription streaming service, Fox Nation, with hours of original content. The network framed the service as a gift to “superfans”—not a sop to cord-cutters.
  • Facebook is handing a trove of its users’ data to a team of researchers studying economic inequality in America. In the latest print issue of CJR, Mathew Ingram nailed the backdrop to this type of move: “Facebook is like a band of revolutionaries who don’t know what to do once they manage to topple the dictator and actually become the government.”
  • Also in our print issue, I looked at the dangerous work of America’s newspaper carriers. Twenty-three have been murdered or violently killed on the job since 1992—more than twice the number of journalists killed on US soil in the same period.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.