YOU ARE NOT THE STORY

As fed up as many reporters might be with President Trump, they do the public and their fellow journalists a disservice when they steal the spotlight at a press conference

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop  

“Walk and talk!  Walk and talk!  That’s all you kids know how to do!”

I was in my 20’s, a radio news editor turned TV reporter, in the office of a New York news director who was looking to hire me.  He was watching a standup where my producer had urged me to walk about 10 paces from location A to location B, pause, point at B, then look earnestly back at the camera and ask a question of the audience.

 Steve Dunlop reporting from Central Park in 1984, about a year after he was told to give up the walking talking standup.

Steve Dunlop reporting from Central Park in 1984, about a year after he was told to give up the walking talking standup.

The walk and talk thing did strike me as a bit theatrical.  But hey, I thought.  I’m not in radio anymore.  This is television. 

The news director ejected my videotape from the screening machine and looked me in the eye. 

“Dunlop, always remember,” he said.  “YOU are NOT the story.” 

It was a lesson I never forgot, but apparently a few members of today’s White House press corps never learned it at all. 

At bottom, “you are not the story” is the rule that CNN’s Jim Acosta has been violating at White House press conferences. Asking tough questions is his job.  Dominating the floor is not.  Wrestling a White House intern for control of a wireless microphone crossed a line.  Interrupting another reporter in the middle of a question crossed another line.  So did interrupting the president.  The White House Press Office was right to suspend his credentials. 

Television is a medium that thrives on drama, and we all crave a dollop of electronic confrontation.  People of a certain age will remember ABC’s Sam Donaldson shouting questions to President Ronald Reagan over the din of a helicopter on the South Lawn.  Reagan would smile, wave, and motion that he could not hear.

Then there was Dan Rather’s Watergate-era TV exchange with President Richard Nixon, who, when the CBS correspondent was greeted with applause from a supportive audience, asked him, “Are you running for something?”

“No, sir, Mr. President,” Rather replied. “Are you?”

But those exchanges were as civilized as high tea at the Savoy, compared to Acosta’s actions in the East Room.  

President Trump deserves his share of the blame for goading the media with his “CNN is fake news” mantra and all that’s surrounded it.  But his dismissive tactics are not unprecedented.  In fact, they are reminiscent of the more freewheeling press conferences I covered in New York’s City Hall when Ed Koch was mayor in the 1980’s.

 Former New York mayor Ed Koch handling the media, as only he could, in the 1980’s. From an article in  New York Magazine .

Former New York mayor Ed Koch handling the media, as only he could, in the 1980’s. From an article in New York Magazine.

We would routinely ask pointed questions that Koch called out of bounds.  If we were fortunate, we might get one follow up question.  But then another reporter had another question, so Koch would move on.  We all got that.  After all, you’re not the only journalist in the room. 

But today’s wireless hand-held mics have changed that dynamic.  Similar devices of 30 years ago had too limited a range and were subject to too much interference, so they were useless to capture reporters’ questions at a press conference.  We simply had to wait to be acknowledged - and then speak loudly enough for everyone to hear. 

But just as the iPhone changed the way we communicate, the wireless mic has changed the press briefing.  It has become a holy grail of control – in this case, between Donald Trump and Jim Acosta.  (Or, to be more precise, between Acosta and the intern transporting the mic around the room.)   

Recall the objective of a White House press conference.  It is to ask the president tough questions and hear candid answers.  The story is Donald Trump.  The story is not Jim Acosta. 

CNN called the lifting of Acosta’s White House credentials “unprecedented” and a “threat to our democracy.”  But the network does the journalistic community a disservice when it positions reportorial grandstanding as defending the people’s right to know.  There were some 50 other journalists in the East Room, many with hands raised, waiting patiently and politely to be recognized.  Presumably they all have brains. 

And presumably they all recognize - as combative and hostile as Washington politics has become - that they serve the public the best when they are not the story.

 

 

WHAT FAKE NEWS IS - AND ISN’T

We find it difficult to define one of the most popular hashtags of our time - because we are part of the problem

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop

 "Real Fake" street art installation at Wacker Drive and Wabash Avenue, Chicago.  Image courtesy  Wikimedia Commons .

"Real Fake" street art installation at Wacker Drive and Wabash Avenue, Chicago.  Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” - Big Brother
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

 

Big Brother may have routinely turned truth on its head in George Orwell’s landmark novel.  But he did have one thing right:  If you control the language, he said, you control the argument.  

Orwell died 58 years ago, but in today’s media landscape he would recognize the increasingly indiscriminate descriptors that we attach to the facts around us.  Our choice of language seems motivated not by what the facts actually are, but by what we wish they were.   

To you, it’s healthcare reform; to me, it’s socialized medicine.   One person’s “fetid swamp” is another’s “sensitive wetland.”  Is that individual crossing the border an “illegal alien” or an “undocumented immigrant”?    Words have always been missiles, but increasingly in social media, they carry no payload.  Our subjective passions outflank objective reality.

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Take the term “fake news,” which in a previous post I noted is really nothing new.  That should be obvious to anyone who’s ever tucked a supermarket tabloid between the green beans and the paper towels.    

But what is new - and Orwellian - is the conflating of very different phenomena under that single, volatile banner.  Add in the proclivity of some public figures (no need to name names) to attach the “fake news” moniker to news they simply don’t happen to like, and further down the rabbit hole we go.  

The Newseum Institute recently took a stab at a desperately-needed elaboration on the term.  “Fake news IS deliberately misleading or false information,” the Institute wrote on Twitter. “Fake news IS NOT a biased news story, or a news story that contains errors.  We all have a responsibility to understand the difference, and help prevent the spread of fake news on social media.”

All of that is true - as far as it goes.  But it doesn’t go far enough.  Here are four reasons why:  

“Fake news is NOT a biased news story.”  True - but bias is real.  Good journalists may do their best to stamp it out, but bias, deliberate or unconscious, has always been a fact of media life.  “In the nineteenth century, overtly partisan newspapers were the norm,” writes Niskanen Institute senior fellow Matt Grossman.  The Washington Post recently wrote about the reality of media bias on both the left and the right, citing a study concluding nevertheless that the net effect is close to zero.     But within individual newsrooms, bias can and does impact coverage - especially when it comes to what stories get covered in the first place.  A former NPR News executive noted that liberals significantly outnumber conservatives in that network’s newsroom, and “when you are liberal, and everyone else is as well, it is easy to fall into groupthink."


“Fake news IS deliberately misleading or false information.” True - but as any detective can tell you, understanding the motive is critical.  History has shown that disinformation is most often motivated not by bias, but by financial gain.  One of the most notorious “clickbait” episodes of 2017 was “Morgue Worker Arrested After Giving Birth to a Dead Man’s Baby” (I dare you not to click on that link).   No political motive on display - and the item itself was a total fabrication  - but it made for an irresistible, and highly profitable, headline.  


Established outlets aren’t immune to fake news.  In rare cases - and this is fake news in the purest sense of the term - so-called journalists have disgraced themselves and their craft by simply making things up.  Intercept reporter Juan Thompson was fired in 2016 for fabricating quotes in his articles, creating bogus email accounts pretending to be sources, and then lying to his editor about what he was doing.   The New York Times’s reputation was similarly tarnished by the Jayson Blair episode in 2003. 


There is reality, and there is interpretation.   Take the “fetid swamp” versus “sensitive wetland” example above.  Both describe a stagnant body of water, but in ideologically loaded ways.  Hyperbolic adjectives do not themselves make for “fake news.”   But they do help to build a more receptive audience, as people self-select to media outlets that reflect their own world views.  

You could argue that all of this should be self-evident.  But we have trouble seeing it today, precisely because our impulsive, reflexive social media culture thrives on the kind of doublespeak Orwell warned about.  It rewards sensational claims without facts.  Separate claims from facts, and you’ve created precisely the kind of environment Orwell presaged.   

Pogo, a comic strip character from the heyday of newspapers, is remembered today mostly for saying, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”   A smartphone and some Twitter followers may give us the basic trappings of a journalist.  But we fail to do the actual work of journalism. 

Which means we’ll probably continue to get all the fake news we deserve.

 

THE SLOW DEATH OF THINKING

Fake news isn’t a disease, it’s a symptom.  The real diagnosis starts between your ears

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop

 Satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), from a portrait in the National Gallery, London, by Francis Bindon (died 1770) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), from a portrait in the National Gallery, London, by Francis Bindon (died 1770) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

“Falsehood flies,” wrote the Anglo-Irish essayist Jonathan Swift, “and the truth comes limping after it.”  Swift, whose specialty was satire, made that powerful observation way back in 1710.  Were he alive today, Swift would be thoroughly amused by our blithe assumption that the phenomenon we call “fake news” is somehow new. 

In recent months, we’ve heard of all kinds of technological fixes for fake news.   There are moves afoot to delete it before it shows up on our news feeds, and to filter it out before it hits our Facebook accounts. 

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But these well-intentioned innovations miss the mark.  What’s urgently needed is a strategy for separating reality from fakery in that ultimate inbox: the human brain. 

We used to have that, back in the day, when our brains were just about all we had.  But in the 21st century, when knowledge of all kinds seems to be just a few search terms away, critical thinking – an evidence based, analytical and open-minded thought process that was once the principal purpose of an education - is on life support around the world.  

Some would blame the rise of today’s toxic political culture for the decline of critical thinking.  I believe it’s the other way around. 

When I was a high school senior, I was fortunate enough to take an elective in critical thinking.  “This course will impact you for the rest of your life,” said my teacher, Mr. Valenti, with a sincere smile to complement his hipster beard and without a hint of Swiftian irony.  And he was right.

Contrary to popular belief, I learned that critical thinking is not just shooting holes in someone else’s ideas.  True critical thinking leaves the realm of opinion, and looks behind fundamental facts that we all take for granted. 

I learned about syllogisms and the nature of formal logic.  I learned about the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning.  And I first encountered the term “metaphysics,” which sounds arcane and elitist, but which in fact describes the hidden reality that undergirds all of what actually is. 

Without a metaphysics grounded in the innate capacity of human reason to grasp reality, we could make no sense of the world.  Our surroundings are unintelligible unless we can absorb and accurately interpret sensory data. 

There is a reason these concepts were once givens in higher education.  If our senses are not reliable in a factual empirical sense, there goes math.  There goes language and a common vocabulary.  There goes science. 

And if you define journalism as a search for truth as opposed to fiction, there goes journalism, too.  Not to mention any serious, grounded objections to fake news.

But we have slowly abandoned these ideas, first in education, and now as a culture.  And to our chagrin, we are learning that the relativism that followed - hey, I don’t care what you say, that news isn’t fake to me! – has led only to a descent into what New York Times columnist David Brooks called “a free-form demolition derby of moral confrontation...the furious intensity at every town-hall meeting on every subject.” 

This should not surprise us.  Everyone is convinced that they are objectively correct, precisely because we have allowed ourselves to become ignorant on what objective correctness really is. 

I recently spent the better part of a week training two separate groups of scientists.  Their missions were different, but both teams were struggling to explain the reams of data in front of them in terms the public would understand.  Without reason, their data would just be symbols and numbers - inaccessible, as all symbols and numbers are, until our brains receive, decode and evaluate them.

This is not a mere parlor debate.  PayScale and Future Workplace recently reported that only half of all hiring managers consider recent college graduates to be ready for the workplace.  Their biggest flaw?  Some 60 percent of employers say new grads are bereft of critical thinking skills. 

I built on my critical thinking class in high school with a college course in epistemology, which is the study of what separates truth from opinion.  Don’t know and can’t know?   Sorry, my friend - that sounds like a cop-out.   

Critical thinking, formal logic, epistemology and metaphysics were once required building blocks across much of academia.  It should be little wonder that in sidelining these disciplines of understanding, we’ve forgotten how to think. 

Restoring them to their previous place of honor will eventually go a long way toward healing the rifts in society, let alone minimizing the scourge of fake news.  And Jonathan Swift’s limping truth just might throw its crutches away. 

ETAN PATZ: A BIG SMALL STORY

The conviction of the 6-year old's killer, 38 years after the boy's unsolved disappearance, is a reminder that seemingly insignificant stories can get big, fast - and have a very long shelf life

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop

 WOR newscaster Peter Roberts, circa 1966.

WOR newscaster Peter Roberts, circa 1966.

On Tuesday, May 29, 1979, at 5:15 in the morning, the veteran New York newscaster Peter Roberts is beginning to write.   I am three years out of college, and in the unlikely position of being his supervisor.  I am the morning news editor at WOR, one of the most listened-to radio stations in the country, and easily the most profitable. 

I am trying hard not to seem too green for my job.  And then Roberts speaks up.

“We should really include a few lines about Etan Patz,” he tells me.    

 Etan Patz as photographed in 1978, from a  Wikipedia page  on his disappearance.

Etan Patz as photographed in 1978, from a Wikipedia page on his disappearance.

At first, I don’t know what Roberts is talking about.   Sure, I had read over the Memorial Day weekend about the neighborhood search for the 6-year old SoHo boy who had disappeared, while walking the two blocks from his family’s loft to catch a school bus.  Hundreds of SoHo residents joined the hunt, almost spontaneously.  (Imagine Manhattanites responding to such a call today without Foursquare and smartphones?)

Etan who? The name means nothing to me.  Having read the story, and not heard it on the radio, I assume the name is pronounced Eton Pats (rhymes with seat and slats).

Roberts is a news institution on WOR.  A genteel Anglophone from Montreal, he is also a stickler for pronunciation. 

“It’s Ay-tuhn Paytz,” he says.  “Lots of people are following it, Steve.   We should, too.  It’s an important story.”

Etan Patz hasn’t made the cut for our morning rundown, and I don't see how it can.   It is already a busy Tuesday.  The NTSB is investigating the cause of a plane crash in Chicago that killed 275 people.   Israel has begun returning the Sinai to Egypt.  Margaret Thatcher is in her first month as British Prime Minister, and Pope John Paul II is preparing to visit Poland.

Besides, I know, kids go missing all the time in New York.  Many simply lose their way, and are rediscovered in a matter of minutes, or hours.  Some are taken by one parent or another, caught up in custody disputes.  A disproportionate number of these cases emanate from troubled neighborhoods, and in 1979, New York had a long list of those.

 West Broadway in New York's SoHo neighborhood as it appeared in 1974.  Courtesy  therealdeal.com .

West Broadway in New York's SoHo neighborhood as it appeared in 1974.  Courtesy therealdeal.com.

SoHo wasn’t exactly the South Bronx, of course.  But neither was it what it is today: a glossy, artsy, urban shopping center. 

Today, near the corner of Prince and Wooster Streets where young Etan disappeared, you have a Club Monaco, an Apple Store, and boutiques by designers such as Diane Von Furstenberg.   Storefronts are painted in politically correct earth tones - subdued wines, greys, and khakis.   The only clues to the neighborhood’s low-rent past are the back of a stop sign covered with bumper stickers, and a couple of mail storage boxes festooned with graffiti.

 Prince Street at the corner of Wooster Street in SoHo, as it appears today.  Image from Google Maps.

Prince Street at the corner of Wooster Street in SoHo, as it appears today.  Image from Google Maps.

But if SoHo wasn’t yet a typically upscale neighborhood in 1979, Etan’s parents weren’t typical, either. Stanley and Julie Patz were media savvy before that term became a cliche.  (Patz’s father, Stanley, was a professional photographer.)

Within hours of their son’s disappearance, they had organized an urban posse to search for him. They plastered the city with pictures of him.  They called in the papers to report on him. 

They pushed every button that existed back then – and even some buttons they had to create.  Patz’s case was critical to the establishment of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.  Etan was the first missing child ever to appear on a milk carton.

And of course, they'd gotten the attention of WOR, thanks to Peter Roberts.  Because of him, we went with the story. 

On that May morning 38 years ago, my youthful instinct was that Etan Patz was a routine missing person case that would be solved quickly.  Many other big stories of that day have long been forgotten, but this one remains all too familiar. 

I carried the lesson into a long career in news.  Sometimes, it isn't just about reporting what's already big.  It's about recognizing what might become big.