a Wednesday, April 21st, 2021

What it looks like to decenter the official story

Among the many browser tabs I toggled between yesterday in nervous anticipation of a verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial were two video livestreams. One showed a static, unfocused close-up of the Minnesota state seal, at the courthouse. The image was quiet, still, neutral-looking, as if the world were waiting in silence for the judge to appear and make a definitive pronouncement of the truth. This video was from the New York Times. The other frame couldn’t have been more different: it was crowded, busy, and filled with noise from protest chants, speeches, and conversation in George Floyd Square, a memorial to Floyd at the site of his death. This video came from Unicorn Riot, a decentralized media collective. The camera, moving from the rally’s speakers to a mural on the wall of Cup Foods to chalk drawings and flowers, never showed a reporter; the camera’s operator spoke only to give bare exposition and interview people at the scene. 

Screenshot from Derek Chauvin Trial Day 28, Jury Verdict, on Unicorn Riot’s YouTube channel

 

Like most major news outlets, Unicorn Riot had streamed from inside the courthouse for the duration of the trial. But alongside that footage it had also provided extensive live coverage of demonstrations. In doing so, it provided an alternative to the picture viewers saw on cable news. In the past year, professional journalists have become more aware of their complicity in police narratives—especially the practice of basing stories on official statements and shrouding police violence in obfuscating language like “officer-involved shooting.” But even as copy style and headlines have changed, the imagery widely shown upon the announcement of Chauvin’s verdict revolved, still, around the activities of the state—the courthouse, the legal actors—and the opinions of media pundits. By contrast, Unicorn Riot’s ongoing presentation of resistance, documented without commentary or narrative shaping, put protest on equal footing with the trial itself. It is of course meaningful that Chauvin was convicted of murder (now, some journalists observed wryly, we can finally use the word “murder” and drop the “alleged”), but it is just as important to show the emotion unleashed within Floyd’s community—relief, grief, celebration, “revolutionary joy.” This is what it looks like to treat coverage of the “official” story as just one story among many.

This article has been updated to correct a description of Unicorn Riot.

a Wednesday, January 20th, 2021

The Trump press corps prepares for a new era

As the Trump administration ends, and the Biden administration begins, major news networks and outlets are shaking up their White House reporting staff.

At the New York Times, Maggie Haberman will be stepping down from her role as White House correspondent to write a book about the Trump presidency. She will continue covering politics. The Washington Post announced yesterday that Ashley Parker, who covered the Trump administration closely, will become the paper’s new White House bureau chief, replacing Philip Rucker. And at CNN, Kaitlan Collins will be replacing Jim Acosta as chief White House correspondent. Acosta will become the network’s chief domestic correspondent. ABC, CBS, NPR, and others have also shuffled their staffs.  

At PBS’s NewsHour, White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor, producer Meredith Lee, and anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff will remain in position for the Biden administration. “It would be great to be able to take a vacation and go out, but we’re living in the middle of a pandemic,” says Alcindor.

Reflecting on the past four years, Alcindor said she felt particularly proud of a November 2018 exchange in which she asked Trump whether he was emboldening white supremacists. Trump called the question racist. “It was a question that revealed where the president stood,” she says. 

“I think the Trump presidency really revealed that journalism is a core part of our society and a critically important part of our democracy,” Alcindor said. “If we don’t embrace journalism in a way that’s fearless, and in a way that is blunt, and in a way that pushes this country to really look at itself fully, then we’re not doing it right.”

She hopes that covering the Biden administration will provide the opportunity to focus less on the president’s behavior and more on policy. “We were all kind of drinking out of a firehose, trying to process all of the different things that were happening,” Alcindor says of the past four years. The challenge, she says, is to address “the different aspects of our society that we just haven’t spent time delving into, because we were instead focused on sort of reality TV, and rhetoric, and rallies.”

a Friday, January 8th, 2021

The mob that stormed the Capitol was its own media 

As a mob swarmed the Capitol building on Wednesday, images and videos of the event spread across social media in close to real time, many going viral on Twitter and Facebook before cable news networks covering the events could verify or report them. One video showed a group of rioters surrounding a pile of Associated Press equipment, trying to burn or damage it. “We are the news now,” they shouted. Many in the circle were capturing the moment with cellphones.

“It’s a term or a phrase we’ve heard from QAnon supporters for a while now,” said Sharon Kann, research director at Media Matters for America, referring to the adherents of a sprawling conspiracy theory that has come to believe Donald Trump is waging a war against the forces of darkness, or Satan himself. And it means, she said, that they mistrust expertise and particularly reporting. 

What we saw on Wednesday is that they have created their own media: unfiltered, unedited, and by, for, and to each other in the form of posts, images, videos, and, most notably, livestreams. What much of the mob was actually doing in the Capitol, if you looked closely, was capturing images of itself for other members of the mob. And for a brief moment, the images on their screens were being reflected throughout the world.

One of the first images of the destruction of Associated Press gear to spread on Twitter was captured in a livestream hosted on a platform called DLive, initially a competitor to the video game streaming service Twitch, that has become a hub for white supremacist influencers. A major draw of the platform is the ease with which streamers can collect donations from their viewers, through a virtual currency called “lemons,” with each worth a fraction of a cent in real terms. 

Megan Squire, a computer science professor and researcher at Elon University and a fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, has been following the alt-right on DLive since last April. The Southern Poverty Law Center published several articles based on Squire’s research, which found that at least five of the site’s streamers were broadcasting live from the riots. 

Sure enough, journalists spotted a number of influencers from this alternative media ecosystem on Wednesday. Many built their followings on mainstream platforms like YouTube and Facebook before being removed and forced to find more obscure alternatives. (Even so, many of their followers still gather on Facebook pages and groups. Facebook was one of several platforms used to plan and rally people ahead of the riot.) 

One such user, Tim Gionet, who streams under the moniker Baked Alaska, earned at least $222 while streaming at the Capitol riots, not including profits from some videos that were removed. The total did not include donations solicited through other platforms. Gionet was among the rioters whom images show in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and was heard in the stream telling viewers, “Trust the plan,” a common QAnon slogan.

DLive streamers who weren’t in the Capitol also jumped in on the action. One simply broadcast a split screen of other live feeds from this alternative media, side by side with traditional news broadcasts. It was like a watch party, while viewers filled their comments sections with calls for war and murder. There was a palpable sense of excitement and awe at the visual similarity between their own streams and the news broadcasts. The channel earned $530 over twelve hours online. The user had made similar videos broadcasting news footage and livestreams during Kyle Rittenhouse’s January court hearings and in the immediate aftermath of the Nashville bombing in December. One of DLive’s most profitable streamers, Nicholas Fuentes, a Holocaust denier and Trump adherent, made over $43,000 on the platform in the last two months of 2020 alone. He has admitted he attended the riot but has denied reports he entered the Capitol building. 

“A lot of these guys are online and they’re watching streams almost twenty-four hours a day,” Squire said of the viewers. She remembers logging on to DLive at eight-thirty in the morning on December 22 to find Fuentes streaming himself playing video games. He began after his weeknight broadcast and had apparently stayed up the whole night. “His followers watched him the whole time and then went to another stream as soon as he was done,” Squire said. “This is their world, just to watch content, in this video format, all the time.” 

After coming under scrutiny following the streams from Washington on Wednesday, DLive released a statement saying that it had “zero tolerance towards any forms of violence and illegal activities.” The statement also said that “we have suspended 3 accounts, forced offline 5 channels, banned 2 accounts from live streaming and permanently removed over 100 past broadcasts from our platform.” Gionet’s videos from DC remain available, as does one from Fuentes yesterday telling people who were in the Capitol to “keep that to yourself” to avoid legal trouble.

If DLive takes more drastic measures, there are always other options. Many, including the YouTube alternative BitChute, allow for some form of monetization. “The fragmentation of not just media platforms but information ecosystems is something that’s extremely challenging to deal with,” Kann says.

After Wednesday’s events, a since-deleted video taken by Derrick Evans, a West Virginia lawmaker and participant in the storming of the Capitol, spread across social media. “I was simply there as an independent member of the media to film history,” Evans said in a statement posted to his Facebook account. 

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to accurately reflect Megan Squire’s university affiliation.

a Friday, January 8th, 2021

MSNBC public editor: Accountability for everyone except MSNBC itself

Watching MSNBC in the hours since Wednesday’s mob attack on the Capitol has been dizzying.

The enormity of this history-rattling event was impossible to spin, downplay, or trivialize, even for cable news. And so the network’s coverage summarily imploded, splintering in real time, losing the glossy veneer of corporate imperturbability as its hosts veered wildly between prim expressions of astonishment, ostrich-like attempts at “business as usual,” and passionate demands for Trump’s immediate ouster.

Calls for “accountability” have come from nearly every talking head: congressmen, academics, retired generals, and the hosts themselves. In MSNBC parlance, “accountability” is a dignified-sounding word with no exact meaning. But IRL the word means facing consequences for your decisions and actions.

Real accountability, for MSNBC, means a clear and distinct demand for each of its hosts to come clean about his or her own complicity in building and enabling the increasingly violent and extremist Republican Party that led, inexorably, to the ruinous Trump administration. Joe Scarborough, for example, who on Thursday called for the president to be arrested, was not so long ago a frequent guest at Mar-a-Lago, and a staunch ally of Trump the candidate in 2016, as CNN reported at the time:

Scarborough has spoken about Trump in increasingly glowing terms, praising him as “a masterful politician” and defending him against his political opponents and media critics. The Washington Post has noted that Trump has received “a tremendous degree of warmth from the [Scarborough] show,” and [said] that his appearances on the show, in person and over the phone, often feel like “a cozy social club.”

What would “accountability” look like for Scarborough and his cohost, Mika Brzezinski? What would it look like for Nicolle Wallace, whose work on behalf of George W. Bush in the Florida recount—a key moment in the degradation of the Republican Party—led to a high-profile job in Washington?

True to form, Chuck Todd brought the most openly cynical and dim-witted take to the party. On Meet the Press Thursday, he spoke with Andrea Mitchell and Katy Tur about the possible motivations of Elaine Chao, Trump’s transportation secretary, who had announced her resignation. “I’m sort of torn on the effectiveness,” he began.

But let’s put yourself… I’m going to try to put myself in her shoes. And maybe you don’t have enough people to do the Twenty-fifth Amendment.… And you want to stand up, and do something, and say something.… But at the end of the day, is it still better symbolically to publicly rebuke him, even if it’s in the last thirteen days, even if it does look like you’re trying to launder yourself a bit, so that maybe you’ll be invited to a better law firm or a better cocktail party, but the rebuke may be still necessary anyway?

I have nothing whatsoever to add to that.

a Thursday, January 7th, 2021

The Capitol invasion, shown around the world

Coverage of yesterday’s invasion of the US Capitol by Trump supporters has since led news reports the world over.

In the UK, The Guardian referred to the invaders as a “mob.” So did the BBC, in recent coverage, though at least one earlier report called them “Trump supporters”—a phrase widely used in other outlets, including the Times of London, Australia’s Herald Sun, and Canada’s Toronto Star, as noted in an Axios roundup

Axios also noted a “pivot” in terms used by US news outlets—from calling the demonstrators “protesters” to “mobs” and “rioters.” The same pivot was visible in international coverage during the past twenty-four hours. A BBC headline from yesterday afternoon described “turmoil” at the Capitol as “violent Trump supporters breach building.” A more recent story referred to the event as a “siege,” and to its perpetrators as a “pro-Trump mob”—a term that also featured in coverage by Al Jazeera and The Mainichi, in Japan. 

Others took a different approach. The Times of India referred to the group as “stormtroopers,” while Israel’s Haaretz published the names of white supremacists who were present at the Capitol, some of whom had attended previous white-supremacist rallies. A headline from France’s Le Monde asked, “Complotistes, néonazis, négationnistes… qui sont les insurgés du Capitole?” Still, many outlets avoided such specificity. Coverage in the Folha de S.Paulo and O Globo, both in Brazil, referred respectively to “multidão,” a Portuguese word meaning “crowd,” and to the “manifestantes,” sometimes describing their costumes and weapons. Journalist Robert Moore, from Britain’s ITV News, referred to the invaders as the “pro-Trump crowd that fought with the police” when following them for a video segment that has since received over nine million views. 

Headlines consistently conjured the violent atmosphere of yesterday’s event. Some outlets, such as Daily News Egypt, quoted from comments made by President-elect Joe Biden to refer to “chaos” in headlines; others, including Mexico’s El Universal, used the word directly. A headline in the Bangkok Post referred to a “day of debate and tumult.” The Guardian and the Times of London both referred to the event, in headlines, as a “siege,” while several stories in Nigeria’s Punch termed it the “Capitol riot.” As in the US, “insurrection” featured in many headlines, from Canada’s Globe and Mail to South Africa’s Mail and Guardian.

Many outlets featured the responses of world leaders. An Al Jazeera headline led with the word “disgraceful,” in reference to quotes by both British prime minister Boris Johnson and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Punch, in Nigeria, published a roundup of responses from international government figures, including German foreign minister Heiko Maas, who urged Trump supporters to “stop trampling on democracy.” The Hong Kong Free Press, a nonprofit news site, assessed the response of pro-Beijing officials and state media, reporting that both groups “delight[ed] in comparing US Capitol unrest with [the] 2019 storming of [the] Hong Kong legislature.” 

A spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the day revealed “that the US electoral process is archaic,” according to the Moscow Times, which included additional comments and characterizations from several prominent Russian figures, including media personalities and political officials. President Vladimir Putin also spoke with reporters, following an Orthodox Christmas service held on an island northeast of Moscow, though, according to the Moscow Times story, he “made no statement on the unprecedented chaos in the United States.” 

 

a Thursday, January 7th, 2021

Right-wing media divided on Capitol chaos

The conservative headlines on the mob storming the Capitol were a head-twisting panorama of the opposing philosophies expressed in right-wing media, and reflective of the divisions in the Republican Party.

FoxNews.com posted not one but two editorials last night denouncing the mayhem, including a short piece by Karl Rove that placed a good part of the blame on Donald Trump for bringing the mob together. Both the Washington Examiner and National Review, two influential and prominent conservative websites that have been increasingly critical of Trump, came out swinging. Most notably, the Examiner called for his impeachment and removal from office. 

But several voices on the far right took a different view. Consider this headline from Infowars, posted last night: “Unarmed woman carrying Trump flag executed in U.S. Capitol building.” Big League Politics called Vice President Mike Pence a traitor for praising the police, especially after they shot a “patriotic woman dead.” American Thinker theorized that leftist provocateurs led the way into the Capitol.

And others just ignored the events. Newsmax’s usually robust opinion pages contained not one piece about the Capitol riots. The top story on its homepage the morning of January 7 had this bland headline: “Trump vows ‘orderly transition’ after ‘greatest 1st term’ in history.” The opinion pages of the Washington Times seemed stuck in time, with a lead editorial about the elections in Georgia.

It’s worth mentioning a piece of conservative satire from the outlet Babylon Bee, which invents news stories to make points in the manner of The Onion. It carried the headline: “Trump walks away from Republican party without even looking back at the explosion.” The piece made up a quote from Steve Bannon and Nancy Pelosi both saying: “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.”