The Media Today

Ninety-nine days to do better

July 27, 2020

In recent weeks, Slow Burn, the hit history podcast from Slate, has broadcast its fourth season, on the political rise of David Duke, the far-right extremist and former Klansman, in Louisiana. In last week’s final episode, Josh Levin, the host, focused in part on the kingmaking power of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Duke’s local paper. Initially, Levin reported, the Times-Picayune skirted serious coverage of Duke, for fear of giving him oxygen. After Duke was elected to the state House of Representatives, in 1989, the paper assigned a reporter, Tyler Bridges, who covered Duke aggressively—but it remained wary of being seen to treat him unfairly.

That changed in 1991, when Duke ran for governor of Louisiana, and made the runoff. (He lost.) The paper, Levin said, held a staff meeting and decided “to treat Duke less as a politician than as a threat.” Subsequently, it assigned dozens of journalists to scrutinize Duke’s campaign, and ran a series of prominent editorials excoriating his views. “This was a major move—to be taking such a profound moral position against bigotry, against racism,” Keith Woods, then an editor at the Times-Picayune, told Levin. The paper, Woods said, had reached a tipping point in its approach to coverage: “We are not going to pretend that we’re covering an ordinary thing.”

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Nearly 30 years later, outlets across the country find themselves in an analogous moment. Since a white police officer in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, a Black man, in May, news organizations have faced calls, from outside observers and from their own Black staffers and their allies, to speak clear moral truths about racism, tyranny, and human life—all in the context of a looming, high-stakes election in which those truths are on the ballot. Yesterday marked 100 days until election day. When you take into account early voting, the countdown is even shorter.

In recent weeks and months, media critics have argued that the political press needs to do something similar to what the Times-Picayune did in ‘91—take a breath, and examine whether its election coverage is up to the moment. In CJR’s recent magazine on the election, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, wrote that the twin crises of the pandemic and systemic racism are an opportunity for the press to reset its work, and focus more consistently on structural injustice. Over the weekend, Margaret Sullivan, of the Washington Post, argued that the 100-day marker is “the last chance to get 2020 right.” In 2016, Sullivan writes, much of the political media “did things the same old way, when something quite different was demanded,” with “disastrous” results. Sullivan suggests five improvements for 2020: a greater focus on voting rights (“there is no bigger story”); more context around polling, to avoid giving the impression that one candidate is inevitable; more critical distance from Trump; the rejection of the narrative, pushed by Trump and his boosters, that Joe Biden is senile; and a better appreciation of the role of social media.

Sullivan’s advice—especially around the centrality of voting rights—is spot on. Other specific pieces of advice also come to mind. In recent weeks, cable chatter, in particular, has obsessed over the idea that Trump’s “Sleepy Joe” nickname for Biden hasn’t cut through in the same way as Trump’s 2016 nicknames (“Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “Little Marco”)—but as I’ve written before, the best way to handle Trump’s nicknames is to ignore them, not to goad him into coming up with better ones. There’s been much recent talk, too, of negative public perception around Trump’s handling of the coronavirus and race; approval numbers can be instructive, but they’re no substitute for reporting hard facts—and hard facts are the only metric by which we should judge whether Trump’s handling of these key issues improves. And while we shouldn’t assume that Trump will definitely lose, we also shouldn’t assume that he’s an electoral genius who’ll pull out a 2016-style comeback when it counts. In fact, let’s not assume anything at all.

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Ultimately, none of these tips matters more than the press clearly and truthfully framing the moral choices facing America—not just in editorials and opinion columns, nor just in investigative features, but in the nuts and bolts of our day-to-day political reporting. Much recent coverage, including of the 100-day marker, has traded in lazy tropes: the horse race, meaningless optics, the strategic framing of moral issues. (George Stephanopoulos on Trump sending federal agents into Portland and elsewhere: “Can that work for an incumbent president?”) Fairness should be central to election coverage—but we need first to understand that fairness requires highlighting systemic failures, not offering fig leaves to bad actors.

If possible, those responsible for election coverage should take a moment to ask themselves how they’d like history to assess their work, at this moment that history is sure to remember. We can’t see the future. But we already know how history views our coverage of the 2016 election. If we continue to repeat the mistakes of 2016 this year, we shouldn’t expect a kinder verdict.

Thanks to Slow Burn, we know, too, how history views coverage of the rise of David Duke. In addition to assessing the Times-Picayune’s better-late-than-never change of direction, Levin spoke with Norman Robinson, a Black New Orleans TV anchor who moderated a debate in 1991, and decided to confront Duke about his bigotry. “I am a journalist,” Robinson told Duke. “But first and foremost, I am a concerned citizen.” As Levin put it, Robinson proved he could be both a human being with an inseparable stake in Duke’s ascent, and a journalist capable of interrogating and exposing it. Following the debate, Robinson received racist abuse, and his bosses fielded complaints about his lack of objectivity. In the light of history, his approach looks courageous. In the eyes of many observers, of course, it looked that way at the time. As Woods told Levin, of the debate, “I’ve never been prouder of somebody than I was of Norman.”

Below, more on the election:

Other notable stories:

  • On Friday, CNN reported that local TV stations owned by Sinclair were planning to air an interview in which Judy Mikovits—the scientist who featured in Plandemic, a viral conspiracy video, earlier this year—told host Eric Bolling that Dr. Anthony Fauci created COVID-19. Initially, Sinclair and Bolling defended the segment, but following an outcry, they reversed course—postponing the broadcast and pledging to add “better context.” In other conspiracy news, Fox host Jesse Watters said on air Saturday that QAnon “uncovered a lot of great stuff.” (Watters was speaking at the time with Eric Trump.)
  • Following the killing of George Floyd, lawmakers in New York state repealed a law that blocked police officers’ disciplinary records from being made public. Afterward, ProPublica asked officials to hand over data on complaints against officers; yesterday, it published a searchable database containing the records of roughly 4,000 NYPD officers who have faced a substantiated complaint. Police unions went to court in a bid to keep most of the disciplinary records confidential. ProPublica is not a party to that case.
  • Creditors of Ebony magazine have moved to force the financially-troubled publication into bankruptcy following a dispute with its private-equity owner. Jacob Walthour, the new chair of Ebony’s parent company, said the creditors’ goal is to “get control of the company, not to break it up and sell it off in pieces,” and to “clean up the balance sheet.” The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Randles and Lukas I. Alpert have more details.
  • Last week, the Post settled a libel suit brought by the family of Nicholas Sandmann, the MAGA hat-wearing Kentucky teenager who found himself at the center of a viral video controversy in 2019. A judge initially dismissed the suit, before reviving part of it; in settling, the Post did not admit any fault. CNN already settled with the Sandmanns, who have also sued numerous other outlets, including NBC. The Post’s Paul Farhi has more.
  • Last year, Connecticut passed a law aimed at shielding the identities of teenagers whose alleged crimes are serious enough to be heard in adult court. The Hartford Courant and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press challenged the law. Last week, a judge took their side, ruling that it violates the First Amendment. The Courant has more.
  • Last week, Vikram Joshi, a journalist with Jansagar Today, was shot in front of his two young daughters in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Joshi subsequently died of his injuries; his family believe he was targeted because of a legal complaint he filed. He was the second reporter to be killed in Uttar Pradesh in the space of a month. RSF has more.
  • In Hungary, dozens of journalists and editors at Index, a rare remaining independent news organization, resigned en masse following the firing of Szabolcs Dull, the site’s editor in chief. Index staffers suggested that Dull’s ouster was a result of political interference. (ICYMI, I wrote recently about the precarity of press freedom in Hungary.)
  • New Zealand granted asylum to Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian writer who was detained for years in an Australian immigration detention facility on a Pacific island and documented that experience for an international audience. Australia freed Boochani late last year, and he traveled to New Zealand on an initial, short-term visa soon afterward.
  • And yesterday, John Lewis, the civil-rights leader and Georgia Congressman who died 10 days ago, made a final journey across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where he was beaten on “Bloody Sunday” in 1965. Lewis’s body will now lie in state in the US Capitol and the Georgia Capitol, ahead of his funeral in Atlanta on Thursday.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.