a Thursday, March 12th, 2020

No, Trump did not ban travel from ‘Europe’

President Trump’s address to the nation last night was a mess. He announced that the US “will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days” starting tomorrow, when in fact, certain classes of individuals—not least US citizens and permanent residents—will be allowed to make the journey. (This caused mass confusion at several major airports.)

Trump stated that restrictions would also be applied to “trade and cargo” coming from Europe, when in fact, they won’t be. (This caused mass confusion on the markets.) He asserted that health insurance providers “have agreed to waive all co-payments for coronavirus treatments,” when in fact, they’ve agreed to waive co-payments for coronavirus testing. (All of these errors caused mass confusion among journalists.)

Leaving aside, for now, that the ban is spuriously predicated and unlikely to be effective, there’s another issue here—Trump’s use of the term “Europe.” In his defense, “Europe” is a contested, ever-shifting, multifaceted concept. (It’s a long story involving Zeus turning into a bull, and, much more recently, Charles de Gaulle, Jacques Delors, and Boris Johnson; Kazakhstan is in Europe for soccer purposes, and Israel and Australia compete in the Eurovision Song Contest.)

Under almost any common definition, however, Trump has not banned travel from “Europe.” Rather, he has banned “all aliens who were physically present within the Schengen Area during the 14-day period preceding their entry or attempted entry into the United States.” The Schengen Area, named after an agreement signed in Luxembourg in 1985, is a bloc of 26 countries—Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland—between which movement is not (generally) restricted. 

While the Schengen Agreement has been incorporated into European Union law, it is not coterminous with the EU. Several EU countries—including the Republic of Ireland, Croatia, and Romania—aren’t in Schengen, and several Schengen countries—including Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland—aren’t in the EU. Britain has never been in Schengen, and since January, it isn’t in the EU, either. And many other countries—Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Albania, the list goes on—don’t belong to either institution, but are very much in Europe.

None of these nuances stopped Trump from asserting a “Europe” travel ban, and some headline writers don’t appear to have been deterred, either. Many articles on the ban articulate, correctly, that it affects, on a temporary basis, foreign nationals (from any country) who have been present in any of 26 European countries in recent weeks. Yet many toplines and tweets use the phrase “Europe travel ban” as shorthand. That’s regrettable, in part because precision matters in journalism. (In this case, the phrase “Trump’s Europe travel ban” excludes the convenient fact—noticed by many outlets—that countries containing Trump golf clubs won’t be affected.)

But there’s something deeper at stake here, too. Travel bans like this one are dehumanizing. They lump complicated, disparate groups of people into arbitrarily-drawn buckets; their purpose is to define human beings—and, in this case, countries—into division, to stigmatize them, to make them the other. The shorthand we use to refer to these efforts really matters—if it’s lazy, we risk doing the divider’s work for them, and then some. To parrot Trump’s claim that he “suspended all travel from Europe” risks implying all sorts of fraught identity connotations. Are countries not covered by the ban—Britain, Ireland, Serbia, and so on—not really “in Europe”? This may seem pedantic—but Britain just had a four-year political war over a similar question.

In 2017, I argued that reporters should call Trump’s Muslim travel ban a “Muslim ban”—it was neither a ban on all Muslims, or even people from all Muslim countries, and yet the spirit of the policy, I wrote, was to discriminate and stigmatize on religious grounds, and we should not lose sight of that. The circumstances here are not entirely different—with his coronavirus travel ban, as with his Muslim one, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Trump is seeking to create a scapegoat for rising American fear.

But European countries, clearly, are not subject to the same discrimination that Muslims are, from Trump or anyone else. What’s important, when choosing shorthand terms for complex policies, is to try and communicate something of the forces behind them. Unlike “Muslim travel ban,” “Europe travel ban,” as well as being wrong, doesn’t explain much about what Trump is trying to do here.

a Wednesday, February 26th, 2020

What Martha Graham can teach us about covering the election

The dancer and choreographer Martha Graham and her company toured twenty five countries as cultural ambassadors for the United States during the Cold War. But it was important to Graham, as high-profile as dancers get, that her audiences understood she was not a propagandist for her country. “My dances are not political,” she announced, as her company arrived in India in 1955.

Earlier this month, sixty-five years after Graham’s first diplomatic tour, a panel of historians and journalists met at Columbia University to discuss a new book that argued the opposite. “Martha Graham’s Cold War: the Dance of American Diplomacy” by Victoria Phillips, (Oxford University Press, 2019), came out this December.

Despite Graham’s disavowal, her lifelong refusal to be defined as a modernist, a feminist, or a member of any political movement, Phillips touts her book as the “first to frame [Graham’s] particular brand of dance modernism as pro-Western Cold War propaganda.” 

I trained and performed with the Graham Center from 1995 to 1999. In her choreography, Graham often focused on classic myths or universal themes like love, religious worship or the ritual of daily work, to create a language of archetypes and symbols. In “Cave of the Heart” (1946) the Greek goddess Medea is “a study in jealousy and hate,” wrote Anna Kisselgoff, the widely respected chief dance critic of the New York Times. In Graham’s best-known work, “Appalachian Spring” (1944), she found another archetype—the boundless possibility of youth, as represented by a bride on the American frontier. 

To Phillips, this was evidence that Graham was, despite her protestations, a propagandist for America. That she saw its myths as universal. But she also argued that Graham was a “fellow traveler”–a phrase that, in the forties and fifties, meant a person sympathetic to the Communist party. The only constant apparent in Phillips’ rendering of Graham was that she simply must have worked with political intent.

At the panel, a voice rose from the back row. It was Kisselgoff, the former Times critic, herself. “I have to say a few things,” she began. Kisselgoff invoked her decades of interviews with Graham to argue that she was that most baffling and controversial of things in modern America: beyond easy political definition. 

“I would like to define her in the following way,” Kisselgoff said. “In 1923, Martha went to the Art Institute of Chicago, and she saw a painting by Kandinsky. She said, ‘I saw a splash of red against a field of blue. And I will dance like that.’ That is not political in the sectarian sense, and that’s who she was.”

It struck me, as a former dancer, now a journalist, that Kisselgoff and Phillips were outlining a key struggle the press has in 2020: journalists cannot understand that most people don’t care that much about politics and certainly don’t define themselves entirely by it. 

A Politico piece last week wondered why 92 million eligible voters don’t cast ballots. In September, the New York Times traveled to swing states, only to report the constituents who live there are more concerned with how to make rent than they are with politics. Fifty-four percent of Americans “either hold a roughly equal mix of conservative and liberal positions or say they don’t follow the news most of the time,” the piece quotes from an Upshot analysis of 2017 data from Pew Research. 

The Knight Foundation released the results of “The 100 Million Project,” last week too, which studied 12,000 chronic non-voters, many from swing states. Such studies tend to make archetypes of us all. “The average chronic nonvoter is a married, nonreligious white woman between 56 and 73 who works full time but makes less than $50,000 a year,” read Politico’s analysis. 

But the piece also finds those who decide not to engage in politics are really a pretty eclectic bunch—some are wealthy, but more are poor. Most live in families and communities that don’t vote either. And most express feelings of alienation from American politics—they don’t believe that they can make a difference, or they don’t trust those who run the system, or they can’t stand the din of the press, or it’s all just too much work to understand. 

Is it really so surprising that more than half of Americans agree with points on both sides of center? That constituents’ lives are too full of immediate, concrete problems for them to express political views online, to engage politically in person, and, often, to vote? Perhaps what we journalists–embattled, working in a dying industry–mean really when we fail to understand is, “Aren’t you angry?” 

“Miss Graham,” Kisselgoff wrote once, “never works so much with specifics as she does with universals.” Maybe we should take her example. 

a Friday, January 31st, 2020

The Knewz reviews Knewz

We in the CJR newsroom were discussing the new NewsCorp aggregation site—somewhere between the Drudge Report and Google News—that is absurdly named Knewz. One of us attempted to load the site, which is knewz.com, but instead went to theknewz.com, which is the site of a polka band called The Knewz. So we thought we’d ask them about their namesake. Bandleader Tom Picciano answered our questions; our conversation has been edited for clarity.


So can you tell me a little bit about the Knewz, the band? 

Well, we’re a polka band from Buffalo, New York. There are six of us. We recorded one CD back in the early 1990s. And shortly after that, the band broke up. Then in the early 2000s, the idea comes to us that maybe we can restart the band up again. So in 2005, we started playing again with most of the original members. And then, you know, we’ve been playing ever since.


How would you describe your band’s sound?

I would describe it as lively, interactive—certainly not polka music in the traditional sense. 


What is polka music, in the traditional sense?

So I would say traditional polka music is more of your tuba bass… I guess the best way for me to describe it is “oompa, oompa” music.


So, have you heard of this website K-N-E-W-Z? They share the same name as your band.



Has anybody reached out to you about the domain name of your website, or the similarity? 

No, nope. 


Well, if you’re familiar with Google News or Apple News, it’s sort of like that: pulling different news sources together in one place. So what do you think of that huge news aggregation service that has your band name?

I don’t know…like I said, I do this for fun, and I guess I really don’t have thoughts on it. 


What are you going to do if you get sudden increased traffic to your website?

Yeah, we’ll deal with that when it comes. I’m not too worried about it. Like I said, I cap my performances to once a month. 


And how do you feel about the news?

You mean, like, the other website?


No, sorry, I mean the news. The N-E-W-S.

Well, pretty indifferent actually. As far as journalism goes, I read articles I find online. I watch the local news in the evening. 


Do you feel you have a better relationships to local news than national news?

Mmmm, nope. I wouldn’t say so.


Oh, I almost forgot my most important question. How did your band get its name?

There is a local newspaper here in Buffalo. And so we started off being the Buffalo Knewz, but we just wanted to change the spelling of the word “news” to avoid any issues.


What made you choose to name yourselves after a newspaper?

I don’t know. It’s our local paper.


And as you were tossing around band names, you were like, Why not call ourselves this?

Pretty much.

ICYMI: A surprising defense against cyber harassment

a Friday, January 31st, 2020

The harassment of Felicia Sonmez, and the ‘fake news’ chorus

A brief word about Felicia Sonmez’s tweet about Kobe Bryant, about which a great deal has been written already:

At 3:50pm on Sunday, Sonmez tweeted out a link to a 2016 Daily Beast story about Bryant’s rape case, his semi-confession, and the gruesome forensic evidence of the act itself. Shortly after, Sonmez began to receive a flood of harassment. At 4:44pm, Donald Trump, Jr., quote-tweeted Sonmez, tagging her publication. “You @washingtonpost reporters really can’t help yourselves, can you?” the president’s son asked his 4 million followers. 

Shortly after the Trump quote-tweet, the Daily Caller News Foundation’s Chuck Ross and Breitbart’s Kyle Morris added their two cents, further activating the right-wing harassment engine that uses their articles and social feeds as its fuel. Twitter-news blog Twitchy, a notoriously effective director of far-right online energy, posted a sneering article about Sonmez’s tweet at 4:51pm. (In the days that followed, it would publish five more, including one that ultimately declared Sonmez an “entitled brat.”) A Gamergate subreddit—a smaller one, with only 12,500 subscribers—published a long post about Sonmez’s tweet at 5:51pm, alleging Sonmez had lied about her own experience dealing with sexual misconduct.

Within three hours, according to one screen grab, Sonmez’s tweet had in excess of 26,000 replies. Those included a response from the National Republican Congressional Committee’s communications director, Chris Pack. 

It is easy to believe that Sonmez feared for her life—as she said, and as the Washington Post’s responses would at least seem to acknowledge. Of the hundreds of misogynistic comments directed at Sonmez, some contained graphic images and suggestions of violence. “People know your home address now,” one user tweeted to Sonmez. 

Not every reaction to Sonmez’s tweet came from the far right, but it seems that the right-wing Twitter apparatus amplified and exacerbated responses to Sonmez, many of which became far more extreme and dangerous. This apparatus includes public officials who dislike the difficult work of Sonmez and the Washington Post on principle—not just when it involves exposing sexual misconduct at moments they consider inappropriate. 

Update: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Matt Wolking, a representative for the president, had replied to Sonmez’s tweet about Kobe Bryant. Wolking replied to a different and unrelated tweet during the same period, and was not part of the harassment.

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.”