Saturday, August 11, 2018

Insights on war, work, newspapers, hate groups, money and more

Depending on your perspective, this ephemera blog focuses on current events either too much or too little. I'll leave that to the future sociologists and archaeologists at Io & Hera College to decide, as they churn out their mid-term papers on the topic of early 21st century bloggers.

But I am going to post about the present tonight. Because I'm a newspaper journalist/editor battling through the summer of 2018 during the Trump presidency, and that's no simple thing. I'm also, as you know, a historian. And I like to tuck away interesting threads and essays that I come across, before they become Lost Corners. So, with that as the context, here are some things I've read recently on Twitter that are worth sharing and preserving, even if they don't necessarily lead to comfortable conclusions or easy answers. The process of trying to find our way is worth preserving, too.

"We’re not at war; we’re at work"
This first thread is from Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at NYU. It starts with this tweet.

Here is Rosen's full Twitter thread:
Here I share some thoughts about what has become a famous phrase. It originates with Marty Baron, editor of the Washington Post, whom I regard as the unofficial leader of the American press, the tribal chieftain. His famous phrase is this: "We’re not at war; we're at work." Baron is referring, of course, to Trump's "war" on the press. And he's reacting to statements like Steve Bannon's: “The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States."

I am a doubter as well, but I have a lot of respect for @PostBaron's phrase. “We’re not at war; we’re at work" is a formidable adversary. It's great word smithing, a little gem of English composition. It has compression, rhythm, insight, alliteration. And it is memorable. More impressive is how Baron's phrase, "We’re not at war; we’re at work" captures the consensus in American journalism, striking his colleagues as the very definition of wisdom about how to cover Trump — and respond to his provocations, his insults, his trolling, his attacks.

The latest to express admiration for the drop dead wisdom in Baron's phrase is Todd Purdum, an experienced political reporter, who wrote this in the Atlantic about CNN's Jim Acosta demanding that @PressSec disavow Trump's 'enemy of the people' language.
"Perhaps the best advice for Acosta (and the rest of us) comes from Martin Baron, the executive editor of The Washington Post and one of contemporary America’s most respected journalists, on his acceptance of a leadership award last year. 'The president has said he is at war with the press,' Baron said then. 'I can say this: We are not at war. We are at work—just doing our jobs.'"
In Purdum's disapproving tone toward Acosta a lot is revealed about the culture of the American press. You're supposed to stay cool. Letting your emotions show is unprofessional and unwise. The right pose to strike is unrattled, laconic. Serene and detached when under attack. If we click on it, like an icon on the desktop, "We're not at war; we're at work" displays its contents. He's trying to throw you off your game. Don't take the bait. And do not get caught up in the politics of the moment. You're not a hero of the resistance. Just do your job.

Hard to overstate how seductive "just do your job" is. It combines the myth of taciturn manliness (Gary Cooper) with the appeal of the humble public servant (I'm no hero, ma'am, just doin' my job.) Very difficult to argue against that. Again: "We’re not at war; we’re at work."

The problem, of course, is that there is war on the press being conducted by the president of the United States and his supporters. To say otherwise would violate a different commandment. Yes, it's imperative to keep your cool. It is equally imperative to state what is true.

"We’re not at war; we’re at work" is genius. But its genius is incomplete. It doesn't speak to the problem @Acosta was getting at. If the press is the enemy, that crashes the whole premise of the White House press corps: that we're all trying to inform the American public.

So I will. There is alive in the United States a campaign to discredit the American press and turn as many people as possible against it. It is led from the top. This campaign is succeeding. Before journalists log on in the morning, about 30% of their public is already gone. It is not easy to know what to do under these conditions. I certainly don't. But to say "we're not at war; we're at work" does not speak to the enormity of the problem. Somehow the press has to figure out how to fight back. Making fun of Acosta's emotional plea isn't helping.

Here's the way I put it in @nybooks. "I think our top journalists are correct that if they become the political opposition to Trump, they will lose. And yet, they have to go to war against a political style in which power gets to write its own story."

So what happens if the 30 percent that rejects the mainstream press on principle becomes 40, or 45 because the campaign to discredit the institution is succeeding? Will "we’re not at war; we’re at work" remain as persuasive as it is today? Will it still be drop dead wisdom? Despite what I have said in challenge to it, I think "we’re not at war; we’re at work" conveys an important truth. Don't play his game. Don't get sucked into a tit for tat. Don't get distracted from your task. These are vital reminders. They make sense. They steady the ship.

Finally... In the degree that "we're not at war; we're at work" synchs up with the emotional style preferred within the American newsroom, there is a risk that the wisdom captured in Baron's remark will be over-valued by that room's inhabitants. I write to warn you of that.

* * *

Doomed to repeat history?

Felix Harcourt is an assistant professor at Austin College and the author of Ku Klux Kulture: America and the Klan in the 1920s. Here are excerpts from his short essay, which started with this tweet:
In the wake of the widely criticized [NPR] interview with Jason Kessler, it's probably worth talking about this again...

In Congressional hearings, Imperial Wizard William Joseph Simmons declared "Our plan or custom — it is not a plan — has been that wherever a Klan has been organized, the first announcement is that they will have a parade."

It very much was a plan. The Grand Dragon of Alabama reiterated this in a speech at a national meeting, declaring that "Klansmen throughout your realm should be encouraged in holding public events as often as possible." Why? Because the Klan knew that — especially in the early days of the revival of the 1920s — parading would gain valuable publicity for the organization that it would not otherwise have received.

While it was not the intent of many of the journalists who covered these events, this coverage was a vital factor in the Klan's rapid growth to an estimated four million members, with chapters in virtually every state.

As Klan officials gleefully crowed, "From the press the Klan has received gratis what a million dollars worth of its own advertisements wouldn’t have done."

"Never in the history have shrewd news writers everywhere so materially misjudged the effect of publicity, overshot their mark, and where they sought to destroy, merely built up, and where they tried to annihilate, create a firmer foundation."

Even if the parade went wrong and descended into violence (as they often did), the Klan was often able to rely on local press to condemn the "mob violence" of the anti-Klan protestors, further normalizing the bigoted organization.

Klan officials astutely exploited access journalism and the desire for scoops to garner even greater coverage in print and on radio.

The publicity around a parade through Birmingham, Alabama, in September 1926, for example, was leveraged into having WBRC air Klan speakers as one of the city’s first night broadcasts. Participants in a Klan rally in Boise, Idaho, were directed to speak particularly loudly and clearly "so that press representatives might hear." Of course, this was a privilege granted only to journalists who promised favorable – or at least ostensibly neutral – reporting. Those reporters seen as friendly to the organization would be offered invitations, and often allowed closer access, to large Klan initiation ceremonies. ...

All of these processes came to a head when some forty thousand men and women of the Klan marched through Washington, DC, in August 1925 – a stunt designed in the hopes of sparking new growth in a declining organization. While the Klan's decline in membership was not wholly arrested, the march did succeed in garnering valuable national publicity, as newspapers around the country described the parade in pages of detail. The New York Times, for example, breathlessly described "the greatest demonstration ever staged by the Ku Klux," and claimed that such was "admitted tonight, even by the enemies of the order." The Imperial Wizard, meanwhile, was a "resplendent figure in royal purple robe." The parade saw "Americanism...emphasized at every moment," and was praised for its peacefulness and for the "absence of drunkenness in the crowd." ...

The press repeatedly fell for this nonsense in the 1920s, and in doing so cemented the Ku Klux Klan as a fixture in modern American history. Let's not do it again.

* * *

On the other hand...

Kristian Blom — described in his Twitter biography as "Founder & Chief Investment Officer of Blom Levy & Co. Student of life, markets and the humans" — had a response to Felix Harcourt that is also worth sharing.

Blom's full response:
"There is a fundamental misunderstanding in this thread and in the logic behind the idea that stonewalling abhorrent ideas is the right strategy. Abhorrent ideas are already in people's heads, exposing the ideas to the general public starts a process. Initially, people that are dysfunctional to various degrees will be attracted to the abhorrent ideas because the ideas provide a sense of identity for dysfunctional people that are to various degrees rejected by society at large. Once out in the open, the people embracing abhorrent ideas are exposed to the opinions and cultural norms of the greater, functional society. Shame and persuasion is then applied to the outgroups and if society is in a healthy well functioning state, something which is highly dependent on the diversity of the education system, the outgroups will implode and once again become marginalized. This is an ongoing, cyclical and healing process that must not be interrupted. Problems only arise when the education system (transmission of knowledge) of the society becomes dysfunctional itself."

* * *

Paying for journalism

Intertwined with the news media having its credibility and very livelihood attacked daily by POTUS and most of those who support POTUS, newspapers are still grasping to determine the best model to survive financially, in the wake of a decade of declining print-advertisement revenue. Online subscription models, dubbed paywalls by many, are growing more prevalent, including the one launched here in Lancaster this summer. Subscriptions for web content, however, remain bitterly controversial.

There are many staunch defenders of journalists being paid for their work. For example, my always-passionate friend and former roommate Jason Plotkin wrote this on Facebook late last month:
"Can someone please help a poor, ignorant person like myself understand something? As I read posts on the YDR Facebook page, I'm constantly noticing comments about people offended about having to pay to read articles on their website. Folks, you receive up to date news/photographs and videos on a round the clock basis. Can you walk into a department store and take whatever you want for free? Can you go into a restaurant and not pay for the food that they prepared and served you? People in the newsroom work tirelessly to provide the most accurate, up to date information as they humanly can. I guarantee you one thing: if you continue to not support your local newsrooms, eventually all you will have are national news organizations to lean on. And they sure as hell are not going to do a better job than the people who live and serve this community to provide the news you need. If you don't like how the YDR or any service provides your news, then go somewhere else. But don't begrudge a room of hardworking, talented, dedicated people for wanted to get paid for what they do."
And then there was this tweet, another of many examples...

Emmanuel Martinez responded to Joanna Chadwick's tweet with this twist:
"I understand this argument. The work that other journalists and I do is hard and it takes time, sometimes it takes lots of time. Plus, journalists gotta eat too, and pay bills, and sometimes they have small human beings to feed. And everyone should be compensated for their work. But the argument that news should be or should not be free is more nuanced and complex. Putting news behind paywalls or requiring subscriptions is kinda elitist. It favors those who have enough disposable income to pay for this, those who have privilege. Someone who barely has enough to eat and pay bills isn’t gonna pay for news. Because they can’t. And what happens when the communities we write about don’t have access to news, to the stories that can empower them? In this case, isn’t journalism just perpetuating the same injustices it seeks to uncover by limiting who gets to see information and who doesn’t? And one could make the argument that making news more accessible is more important now than ever before because of the internet, because of social media, because of fake news. After all, you need access to news and media to promote news/media literacy. Saying that all news should be paid for creates barriers to information. But, I also understand that making this stuff free undercuts the work that journalists do. Maybe the answer is libraries. You can get free access to @nytimes , @Forbes (Hahaha), @TheAtlantic , and many other publications with an @SFPL library card, for example. This is a complex problem that requires a lot of thinking because favoring one side over the other has serious consequences either way you look at it."
So, round and round we go. There are no easy agreements or answers on so much of this. One of my former co-workers surprised me earlier today with the way in which he came out strongly against paywalls, writing: "I've never worked in news for a paycheck. It's not that type of business. News is a public service. If it's behind a paywall, it's really not much of a service or a value. ... Writers need a paycheck, but paywalls aren't the way to go ... Especially for local newspapers. ... I honestly feel newspapers should be nonprofit businesses. The for-profit model simply doesnt serve the public as it should and serves its shareholders instead."

Like I said, no easy answers...

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