a Tuesday, January 28th, 2020

On Cheer, and journalism beyond news pegs

The joy in journalism, for a writer, is the opportunity to take some subject or event or hobby or happening you might not ordinarily care about—maybe even one you actively hate or willfully misunderstand—and make it, suddenly, the most interesting and urgent thing in your life. But our compulsive need to justify even basic joy, for everything to have a “news peg”—a euphemism which masks the unearned power we wield, as self-appointed gatekeepers, to decide which thrills matter, and in what ways—dilutes journalism’s ability to cater to this most basic human need: to be surprised, and delighted.

Our media appetites have changed with our attention spans; with this shift have come concerns about thought silos—worries that we, especially young people, are disinterested in the many worlds that rub up against the ones we hunker ourselves into. But what role do we, the journalists, play in failing to present these many worlds in ways that lack pretense, that delight, that push people to care about things they think they do not, that abandon the flawed hierarchy of news judgment in favor of the interesting? 

THE MEDIA TODAY: But Hunter Biden…

On Netflix, the documentary boom fills a space that perhaps magazine journalism once did. Where engaging with journalism is today often seen as labor—stories are too long, too boring, too hard to understand, too much and not the mood—Netflix provides a salve: the sweet nothingness of a binge watch.

Some have held the platform responsible for the end of television as a collective human activity; gone are the days when, in the morning, upon arrival at school or work, everyone rages about the same show, which they had all watched the previous night. Conversations today are more likely to begin with caution: What episode are you up to? But every so often, and despite concerns about quality control, Netflix enables what television used to: a collective watching and, in the case of documentaries, a collective learning. Such an event is not niche, and does what other modes of journalism often hope to, but don’t.

And so the story of my dreams had to happen on Netflix, despite my latent desire to write about it. It was the perfect medium for Cheer, the recent docuseries directed by Greg Whitely about Navarro College, a tiny junior college in Corsicana, Texas, with a dynastic competitive cheerleading program headed by the venerable coach Monica Aldama. On Netflix, this documentary did what no magazine story on the topic could have: entice viewers who, undoubtedly, still harbored silly and outdated ideas about the sport, to spend six hours in a layered, insular world with its own vocabulary, celebrities, and rich history. (Regrettably, the documentary did not comment on a 2018 lawsuit in which a former Navarro cheerleader accused a volunteer coach of rape. The athlete said that Aldama was informed of the abuse; Aldama denies that.)

Reading long stories that must always be justified and intellectualized can be a chore. But the point of Netflix is to escape all that. The best binge watches reframe education as couch-based discovery.

For those of us already deep in this world—I began the sport in middle school and cheered on sideline and competitive high school, college, and all-star teams—it was a thrilling, if disorienting, mainstreaming of a rabid but invisible love. Think for a moment: When is the last time you showed up in social spaces free of journalists and media-adjacent folks to excited, smart, frenetic chatter about a thing that was neither a domestic nor an international crisis, and that nobody in the room was an expert on?

One cold Monday night earlier this month, I met with friends from my running crew. We spent the first of three frigid miles discussing what would become of Lexi, the power tumbler from Houston featured on the show. We ran through Fort Tryon Park, three of us abreast in the road, and bantered about the athleticism on display throughout the show—about just how impressive it was, these kids’ dedication to their coach, to routine, to themselves, to each other. Here, unlike so many conversations I’ve had before, cheerleading required no qualifier, no explainer, no tired debate about whether what is obviously a difficult sport was one at all. This was the success of the documentary; it was at once an overview of the rules and regulations of competitive collegiate cheerleading, a historical look at its evolution as both a sport and a big business, and a humanized saga about a team of elite athletes, each with disparate backgrounds, working hard toward a goal that, unlike in any other sport, comes with devastating consequences in the absence of true collective effort. 

In the days since, I’ve watched other friends and strangers become suddenly engrossed in this crazy, unique, impressive sport. My phone is full of texts from people who weren’t sold on the sport after years of my pleading via YouTube link, but who were ready, finally, to talk after watching Cheer. We were obsessed with Jerry’s infectious laugh, and we learned what mat talk is. We could not believe the stunts, or the injuries. Many of us had cried through some episodes, and almost all of us had lost our breath when the team finally took the mat in Daytona. We craved more. Ultimately, we are learning, together, about a thing that, to most of us, did not matter at all yesterday. And now it does. People! Care! About! Cheerleading! 

There was no news peg—no pressing reason for this documentary, or for people to watch it—other than that it exists, and it is magic, and it is fun, and we had a little time to fill. Imagine a world where all journalism could again do that.

RECENTLY: Intimidation is a form of violence

a Wednesday, January 22nd, 2020

Intimidation is a form of violence

Earlier this week more than twenty thousand people, many of them armed, converged on Richmond, Virginia, to protest legislative efforts meant to reduce gun violence. Those efforts include a one-per-month cap on handgun purchases; universal background checks; and limits on firearm possession in public spaces, to be determined by local governments. The Virginia General Assembly is expected to pass those measures, which polls suggest are popular with Virginia residents. In Richmond, the state capital, the number of shootings reported last year rose by 65 percent; the number of homicides, most of which were gun-related, rose, too

That Monday was a “lobby day,” during which state residents were encouraged to petition their elected officials. But for many Virginians it was supplanted by the gun-rights rally, whose cheerleaders included anti-government and white-supremacist organizations. Citing credible threats, Virginia governor Ralph Northam temporarily banned firearms from the capitol. In the days ahead of the rally, the FBI arrested men who belong to white-supremacist organizations, and who, according to one FBI spokesman, might “potentially conduct violent acts down in Richmond.” 

The specter of violence shaped the day. One Democratic lawmaker declined to attend the scheduled lobbying day at the capitol. He had received multiple threats after proposing a bill that would enable state and local government employees to strike. Some opponents of the bill had incorrectly claimed it would be used “to fire law enforcement officers in ‘Second Amendment sanctuary’ counties who decline to enforce new gun laws,” according to the Prince William Times, a local newspaper. (Coverage of the bill, including a December op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, lacked necessary context, the Times noted; law enforcement “have been banned from striking in Virginia for over 50 years.”)

Another Democratic representative disguised herself in order to travel safely to the capitol; a Richmond reporter said the legislator “was afraid of being recognized and shot.” A group of students who also planned to lobby lawmakers spent the night before in the offices of two state representatives. The Virginia Center for Public Safety, a nonprofit that works to reduce gun violence, canceled its annual memorial vigil for victims of gun violence.

The day came and went; there was no Civil War, no second Charlottesville. In the absence of actual physical violence, however, many national news outlets ultimately proclaimed the day to be one of peace.

“Pro-gun rally by thousands in Virginia ends peacefully,” read the headline of a twelve-hundred-word Associated Press story, which ran on the front pages of several local newspapers throughout the state. Numerous national outlets echoed the sentiment. The rally, according to Vice, was “ultimately peaceful” and “went off without a hitch.” One CNN story, headlined “Virginia gun-rights rally concludes peacefully despite earlier fears of extremist violence,” provided a tidy formula for interpreting the day: an absence of reported physical violence means a tranquil event.

Such proclamations were ripe for selective use by conservative media. “Even the liberal hacks over at CNN reported that the rally ‘concluded peacefully,’ ” wrote a Media Research Center contributor who then attributed a lack of physical violence to the presence of guns. At Fox News, Dan Gainor, another MRC contributor, painted an idyllic scene, sullied only by what he called “media lunacy.” 

Superficial coverage obscured many of the rally’s effects, including its potential to chill civic engagement. “Everyone’s been saying, ‘Don’t go outside—it’s not worth it,’ ” a local college student told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Virginia journalists better acquainted with the state’s laws spotted numerous violations. National outlets hardly took the time to mention the local rise in shootings, or the pre-legislation surge in firearm purchases. With the streets largely cleared of contrary viewpoints, reporters sopped up simplistic talking points from pro-gun ralliers, then effectively congratulated them for not killing anyone. They then constructed a vague notion of peace—one uncomplicated by trauma or intimidation—and gawked at it. 

The rally, wrote Virginia-based journalist Jonathan Katz, “was not so much about guns as a signal of who has, and who can be entrusted to wield, power.” He continued:

The absence of overt white-supremacist symbols—and media-bait reminders of term-limited Virginia Gov. Northam’s own racist scandal—was a victory of messaging. The carnival-like atmosphere, punctuated by friendly “militias” greeting each other in the streets (“You’re all kings. You’re all fucking kings,” one armed group yelled at the other shorts-wearing militia pictured up top), was to be read as proof of the protesters’ law-abiding natures. But it was all wrapped in a muffled threat.

“It went really smoothly,” one demonstrator told The Trace. “I think it’s going to look really great for our movement.” 

 

a Wednesday, January 8th, 2020

Journalism still has power. But not the way you’d hope. 

Pete Hegseth, the Fox News personality, Iraq War veteran, and one-time guard at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, often receives compliments for his commentary on Fox & Friends, the popular morning show Hegseth frequently guest-hosts, from President Trump.

Hegseth was briefly considered by Trump to head the Department of Veterans Affairs. Instead he has used his platform on the president’s favorite show—and access to the man himself—to run the kind of journalistic campaign that used, more usually, to be pointed at water contamination in Flint, Michigan or public corruption in Bell, California. 

It has centered on the cases of three men accused or convicted of murder while deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan: Eddie Gallagher, Clint Lorance, and Matt Golsteyn. Hegseth’s attitude was that the men accused had done nothing less noble than falter slightly and understandably in the fog of war. 

Hegseth’s successful campaign ran contrary to the very clear wishes of the Pentagon in all three cases; the secretary of the Navy, Richard V. Spencer, was fired in November over his pursuit of the Gallagher case, and has not been replaced as of this writing.

The campaign appears to have started on December 15, 2018, on Fox & Friends Saturday, during a segment about Army Major Golsteyn, who was being prosecuted following an admission he made in 2016, on camera during an interview with Fox’s Bret Baier. 

In 2010, Golsteyn said, he had hunted down and killed a man he suspected of making bombs for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Golsteyn had also admitted to the murder in a job interview with the CIA. 

The Baier interview led to the immediate reopening of the case against him and ultimately his prosecution; a previous investigation based on the CIA interview had taken away his Silver Star medal and his Special Forces “tab.” Hegseth briefly mentioned Gallagher in the December 15 report, which ran under the chyron “US Military Hero Charged With Murder.” 

The next day, Trump tweeted, “At the request of many, I will be reviewing the case of a ‘U.S. Military hero,’ Major Matt Golsteyn, who is charged with murder. He could face the death penalty from our own government after he admitted to killing a Terrorist bomb maker while overseas. @PeteHegseth @FoxNews.” 

A week later, an apparently encouraged Hegseth returned with a segment interviewing Golsteyn’s and Gallagher’s wives alongside Lorance’s mother, primarily about the emotional strain placed on the men and their families by their arrest and prosecution for “a split-second decision he made on the battlefield,” as Hegseth characterized Lorance’s two killings. 

Nine soldiers from Lorance’s Army platoon, most of whom were not granted immunity from prosecution, testified against him, saying he ordered them to shoot three unarmed men who did not pose a threat to them. Two of the victims died from their wounds, and Lorance was convicted of murder and, for which he was stripped of his rank of first lieutenant and imprisoned at Fort Leavenworth from 2013 until last year.

But it was Gallagher, whose high-profile trial began last January, who would prove to be the star of the show. A Navy SEAL chief petty officer, Gallagher was accused by his platoon-mates of especially gruesome crimes: stabbing a wounded 15-year-old combatant to death while he was receiving medical treatment, shooting a “school-age” girl and an elderly man from a sniper’s nest, and “Indiscriminately spraying neighborhoods with rockets and machine-gun fire,” according to the New York Times’s Dave Philipps, who has led the news media on the stories of killings and their legal fallout in much the same way that Hegseth has led the conservative media in marathon apologies for their perpetrators. 

When the Gallagher story broke, Philipps and others reported on the unusual nature of the testimony from fellow SEALs against one of their own—a personal and professional risk to the men who came forward. The case attracted prominent right-wing defenders besides Hegseth, too, notably Texas Republican Dan Crenshaw and scandal-plagued California representative Duncan Hunter, both of whom appeared on Fox to advocate for Gallagher.

Led by Hegseth, the sympathetic coverage earned Gallagher a number of special favors, even before his exoneration. Trump tweeted during the trial that he was ordering Gallagher released from the brig to the barracks at the San Diego Marine corps base where he was imprisoned, tagging Fox & Friends in the tweet. When Gallagher was acquitted of the most serious charges and allowed to remain a marine, the president congratulated Gallagher, saying he was “glad [he] could help.” 

Gallagher was acquitted of the most serious charges after another man, Corey Scott, who testified only after being granted immunity, confessed to killing the teenager, saying he had murdered the boy before Gallagher stabbed him. The confession contradicted the word of seven of Gallagher’s fellow SEALs and Scott’s own statements to prosecutors. Ultimately, Gallagher was convicted only of improperly taking a photo with a human casualty (“I got him with my hunting knife,” read a text accompanying one of the photos of the dead boy recovered from Gallagher’s phone). 

The acquittal was not enough for Hegseth, who personally lobbied Trump to restore Gallagher’s rank. This time the President did not merely speak to Hegseth but through him: “I was able to confirm yesterday from the president of the United States himself, the commander-in-chief, that action is imminent especially on the two cases of Clint Lorance and Matt Golsteyn, and restoring the rank of Eddie Gallagher,” Hegseth told the Fox & Friends audience on November 4.

Hegseth described the charges as “so-called war crimes” on November 8 before interviewing mercenary commander Erik Prince, whose soldiers of fortune were charged with some of the worst abuses during the Iraq war, and who was personally referred to the Treasury department for suspected violations of US sanctions on Venezuela last month. “They forget who the commander-in-chief is,” Prince said of Pentagon officials who had expressed worry over the president’s forthcoming pardon. “It is absolutely his right to review overreach and micromanagement of troops in combat.” Navy secretary Spencer tried to cut a deal with Gallagher that would see him retired from the SEALs; Spencer, not Gallagher, was fired as a result.

On November 15 last year, Trump intervened to free Lorance from prison for murder, halt Golsteyn’s prosecution for murder by executive fiat, and revoke all punitive action taken against Gallagher, now a Republican mascot, and, of course, occasional guest of honor on Fox & Friends

Throughout his crusade, Hegseth portrayed Gallagher and his fellow beneficiaries of Trump’s largesse as persecuted tough guys, like the renegade cops in a 1990’s action movie—mavericks who get results. It was the perfect bait. Trump tweeted on October 12, a little more than a month before pardoning Lorance and Gallagher and ending Golsteyn’s prosecution. “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill! @PeteHegseth.”

a Wednesday, December 4th, 2019

As Kamala Harris drops out, critics decry a double standard

Over Thanksgiving, the Washington Post and the New York Times both published brutal stories about the state of Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign. The Post said she was “teetering,” burdened by “indecision within her campaign, her limits as a candidate, and dwindling funds.” The Times obtained a scathing resignation letter in which Kelly Mehlenbacher, a senior aide, criticized campaign leadership for inconsiderate management, including laying off employees without notice. “This is my third presidential campaign and I have never seen an organization treat its staff so poorly,” Mehlenbacher wrote. (She has since joined Michael Bloomberg’s campaign.) On Friday, Politico’s Playbook newsletter shared both pieces, calling them “two nail-in-coffin stories for Kamala Harris.”

Yesterday, Harris called it quits. “I’ve taken stock and looked at this from every angle, and over the last few days have come to one of the hardest decisions of my life,” she told supporters. “My campaign for president simply doesn’t have the financial resources we need to continue.” The inevitable postmortems blamed the internal dysfunction and rancor; Harris’s enduring slump in the polls, aided by other candidates, including Joe Biden, eating away at her early support; her vacillation on important policy issues, most notably healthcare; and her past criminal justice record, which made her candidacy anathema to many progressives. Most centrally, they cited Harris’s failure to pick a clear message and stick with it. “Kamala Harris was never as easy to put on a bumper sticker as some of the others,” Chelsea Janes, who wrote the Post’s Thanksgiving story on Harris, said on PBS. “She sort of lost clarity in exactly who she was and why she was running.”

ICYMI: A tweet about Kamala Harris that was reposted thousands of times turned out to be false

Some commentators identified another culprit: the media. On Sunday, before we knew Harris would drop out, MSNBC’s Joy Reid said the Harris-crisis stories illustrated a broader truth about the standards to which different candidates are held: “The narrative around the Democratic primary seems to be very bullish toward white, male candidates, and lukewarm on women and minorities.” Yesterday, post-dropout, the Reverend Al Sharpton echoed Reid’s point. “I’ve never seen a candidate taken apart the way she was in the last several days,” he said, also on MSNBC. “Yes, there were organizational problems. Yes, there were financial problems. But you have people on that debate stage who have no organization at all.” On Twitter, Times columnist Frank Bruni said it had always been “curious” to him that Harris got less publicity than was afforded Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg in the early days of their respective presidential campaigns. (O’Rourke dropped out last month; Buttigieg is currently considered a front-runner.) Tanzina Vega, host of The Takeaway, replied to Bruni via Twitter that women of color “can tell you why [Harris] didn’t get the star treatment that white male candidates got in the media.”

Julián Castro, Harris’s erstwhile rival for the Democratic nomination, also came to her defense. After effusively praising Harris to CBS, Castro paused, then added, “I will say that the way that the media treated Senator Harris in this campaign has been something else.” The articles in the Times and the Post, and another in Politico, Castro said, “held her to a different standard—a double standard—[which] has been grossly unfair and unfortunate.” He elaborated in an interview with BuzzFeed’s Nidhi Prakash. “Just because somebody is willing to talk doesn’t mean that reflects a reality or that necessarily gives it front-page coverage in your publication,” he said, referring to the insider sourcing of the stories. “Donald Trump was very willing to talk to journalists in 2015 and ’16 and because of that journalists gave him a lot of coverage. There has to be more responsibility in the profession than that.”

Campaign dynamics are fair game, especially when they pertain to allegations about the treatment of staff. It’s also true that a wide range of pundits treated Harris as a very serious proposition when she launched her campaign in January (she was CNN’s first town hall invitee, right ahead of Howard Schultz) and that she made avoidable missteps since then. But the complaints of a double standard carry weight. In recent months, it does feel as if Harris has had to work harder than white, often male rivals for attention—a dynamic that has intensified as focus has started to shift decisively to Iowa and New Hampshire, the very white early nominating states. As several observers, including Castro, noted yesterday, too much campaign discussion remains fixated on “electability,” a notion that has always been friendlier to white male candidates and was only amplified by the way Trump won in 2016, and the conventional wisdom about—and stakes involved in—beating him.

Some of yesterday’s valedictory Harris coverage reflected on a perceived high point for her campaign: the first Democratic debate, in June, when she grilled Biden on race. As I wrote at the time, their exchange was both a riveting viral “moment” of the type many in the press crave, but also illuminating of crucial matters of substance. With Harris gone, the top candidates in the Democratic primary—and those who could still join them in that tier—look more homogeneous than ever. The press must ensure that its campaign coverage doesn’t echo this homogeneity.

Below, more on Kamala Harris and the Democratic primary:


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Impeachment polls and the risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy

Update: A previous version of this post included Diamond and Silk in the list of Fox News personalities who have appeared at events promoting Republican events or causes. Diamond and Silk host a show on Fox Nation, a streaming service, but are not formally employed by Fox News, and so are subject to a different set of standards. The post has been corrected.

a Monday, November 25th, 2019

The Oxford version of Trumpism

Last week, amid divisive elections in Britain, Ciaran Jenkins, a reporter with Channel 4 News, interviewed Michael Gove, a senior minister in Britain’s Conservative government, on a farm in Scotland. As cows mooed loudly in the background, Jenkins pressed Gove to justify misleading claims about government policy and Brexit. At one point, Gove suggested that Jenkins might have doctored an image to embarrass him. After Jenkins accused Gove of a lie, Gove got even more annoyed. “You use the L-word. That’s a very powerful word,” he said. “What you are attempting to do is make a polemical case… for a political viewpoint… because you have a particular outlook.”

Things deteriorated from there. Jenkins insisted that he was merely trying to hold Gove to account, and pressed Gove on another Conservative claim, about the number of hospitals the government planned to build—both a material and factual issue. 

But Gove wasn’t having it. “You’re using this interview as an opportunity—and I completely understand it—to mount an argument,” he said. “Now, there’s a perfectly respectable type of journalism in which you mount an argument, you use rhetoric, you interrupt, you have a series of propositions which you believe in. That’s perfectly fair journalism. What it’s not is objective.” 

Jenkins tried again: “I’m asking you: Are there going to be forty hospitals, or six? What could be more objective than that?” Gove accused him of mounting “a rigorous left-wing case.” Later, he mock-praised Jenkins for “a good speech” that “I’m sure would go down well on any election platform.”

Compared to Donald Trump’s puce-faced rants about “FAKE NEWS” and “RADICAL DEMOCRATS,” Gove’s attack sounds ludicrously quaint. But there are depressing similarities. Trump’s anti-press rhetoric doesn’t rest on the theoretical dissection of news from “polemic,” but it does involve painting fair scrutiny from reliable sources as a partisan exercise. That’s exactly what Gove was doing here.

Politicians snapping at journalists isn’t new, and Gove’s Conservatives have particular beef (farm pun intended) with Channel 4 right now—Dorothy Byrne, the broadcaster’s head of news, recently called Gove’s boss, Boris Johnson, a “known liar” and compared his media strategy to that of Vladimir Putin. (A senior Conservative told Politico that the party doesn’t have a conscious anti-media strategy.) Still, Gove’s polite fake-news tirade is notable because he’s a wonkish, establishment figure, not a rabble-rousing populist outsider. It hasn’t gone unnoticed that Goveand some Conservative colleagues—are stealing the latter’s lines, even if they are reading them in a telephone voice more suitable to their alma mater, Oxford University.

Gove—like Johnson—used to be a journalist: he worked for the Times of London for nine years before entering Parliament, including as an editorial writer. Shamelessly, Gove returned to that experience in his exchange with Jenkins: “As someone who was a journalist in the past and wrote polemics and then became a politician… you’re well on the way to going down that route,” he said. In Britain, as in the US, people who should know better are taking a dark route indeed.

a Wednesday, November 20th, 2019

Nautilus, under new ownership, commits to paying back writers

At the end of October, an investor group of superfans announced that they had joined together to acquire Nautilus, the nonprofit literary science magazine. The group of eight investors includes former Harvard president and United States treasury secretary Larry Summers as well as Nicholas White, the chief executive of news site the Daily Dot. The latter will be the new chief executive of the now for-profit magazine NautilusNext

Shortly after the announcement, a group of former Nautilus contributors publicized that the magazine still owed writers about $186,000. In partnership with the National Writers Union, they campaigned to be made whole as part of the acquisition.

“NautilusNext’s commitment not to take any profit out until contributors are paid back was part of the actual deal to acquire the magazine. That commitment was made long before the National Writers Union issued a press release about the acquisition on November 7th. We did it because it was the right thing to do, and the right way to set a new course for the magazine’s future.”

This week White told CJR, in a phone conversation, that NautilusNext would “commit to not taking one dollar in profit until those contributors are paid back.” The commitment, he said, “was part of the actual deal to acquire the magazine. That commitment was made long before the National Writers Union issued a press release about the acquisition on November 7th. We did it because it was the right thing to do, and the right way to set a new course for the magazine’s future.” Their relationship with writers is important, he said; Nautilus has traditionally been a home for unusual, writer-driven pieces. Here’s hoping that can continue. 

This post has been updated for clarity.

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