Too windy for birds this morning. And for me, when it comes to the latest debates in journalism, too windy to haul rocks.
Maybe I finally have a grasp of that cryptic phrase often heard from a late photojournalist friend, Richard Pipes, a real pro who hailed from the gusty plains of West Texas. I’m not sure, but I’m still keeping my head low.
I have been trying to sort out my feelings about debates over news coverage, especially recent firings and resignations of editors over coverage involving justice, racism and coronavirus — in addition to whether the media should even cover Donald Trump’s White House briefings.
I’m trying to do more than just dodge rocks. My mostly conventional 1974-to-2015 newspaper career often pulls me back, but at least I am trying to be smarter than I was yesterday. At the same time, I am only an observer. I am retired and my armchair feelings really don’t matter. They are not the issue: People in the streets are. And these journalism things are going to be decided anyway by a progressive, younger generation of journalists shaking up newsrooms now. I guess readers, too.
Ben Smith, media columnist for the New York Times, wrote June 7 in “Inside the Revolts Erupting in America’s Big Newsrooms”:
“Now, as America is wrestling with the surging of a moment that began in August 2014, its biggest newsrooms are trying to find common ground between a tradition that aims to persuade the widest possible audience that its reporting is neutral and journalists who believe that fairness on issues from race to Donald Trump requires clear moral calls.”
I think Smith is referring to Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement, but I think at least the journalism revolution was rumbling before 2014. I think I saw glimmers of it at a Poynter seminar in Oakland in the late 90s, and even then I probably was late to the game. But the arguments and events have grown exponentially even since the March 21 column by Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post’s media writer, on covering Trump briefings.
Though it dealt with understanding in general rather than just journalism, one of the most helpful things to me so far was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s May 30 op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times on the Black Lives Matters protests. Jabbar reminded me of the importance of truly understanding the views of others, particularly of those most directly affected by current events. I learned the importance of of simple respect a long time ago, that giving respect usually results in respect returned. But Jabbar was writing more deeply about seeing things as others would.
“If you’re white, you may be thinking, ‘They certainly aren’t social distancing,'” Jabbar wrote about protesters in the Los Angeles Times. “What you should see when you see black protesters in the age of Trump and coronavirus is people pushed to the edge, not because they want bars and nail salons open, but because they want to live. To breathe.”
Then I read a Michelle Goldberg June 4 column in the New York Times about the controversy over the Times publishing a June 3 opinion piece by conservative Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas.
” … when I first saw the Cotton Op-Ed I wasn’t as horrified as perhaps I should have been,” Goldberg wrote. “I figured he’d helpfully revealed himself as a dangerous authoritarian. But as I’ve seen my colleagues’ anguished reaction, I’ve started to doubt my debating-club approach to the question of when to air proto-fascist opinions.”
But Goldberg concludes: “So the value of airing Cotton’s argument has to be weighed against the message The Times sends, in this incendiary moment, by including it within the bounds of legitimate debate. Everyone agrees that The Times draws those boundaries. The question is where.
“I could be wrong, but I don’t believe The Times would have published a defense of family separation by former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen during the height of that atrocity, or a piece by the senior Trump aide Stephen Miller about the necessity of curbing nonwhite immigration. In both cases, I’m pretty sure the liberal inclination to hear all sides would have smacked up against sheer moral abhorrence.”
I, maybe like Goldberg, was used to thinking that people would eventually see the truth even through straight, deadline reporting of possibly controversial speech and events. I often think of American reporters in early-Hitler Germany in the 1930s. But the wind has been changing for some time. I remember being challenged by other journalists in 2013, before retirement, when I blogged live John Bolton statements from a Pete Domenici conference at New Mexico State University for the Albuquerque Journal. A couple of critics told me my quick, real-time reports should have included context, fact-checking and counterpoint. I figured Bolton’s obviously controversial statements could be assessed on their face.
Maybe my Bolton anecdote and revolts in today’s newsroom are different stories — one practical and the other moral — but they are at least related in terms of current debates over directions in journalism.
Just two nights ago, I had a surprising editorial experience here at home when writing about my father’s coverage of the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march in 1965. The San Francisco Chronicle gave him a loose rein and he sometimes wrote in the first-person and quoted the crude and profane language of what then were called “segregationists” and today would be called racists or white-supremacists.
I was too squeamish to repeat their offensive quotes about black marchers. I admired the grit of my father’s on-the-ground reporting 55 years ago, but I worried about how the words might hit contemporary readers.
Then I remembered a long-ago Poynter seminar in Oakland, filled with sharp reporters and editors from the LA Times, Boston Globe, Sacramento Bee, Des Moines Register, Minneapolis Star Tribune and other papers, including at least a couple of Pulitzer Prize winners, some participants still big names in newspapers today. One day the question was whether we would publish a photo — as someone just had — of California farmworkers stripped to their underwear and being hosed down after a day in insecticide-laden fields.
I unwisely picked up the seminar throw too quickly, suggesting it would be valuable for the treatment of farmworkers in the long run to show publicly how they were being treated by employers.
Most of the room said they wouldn’t publish the photograph, citing how the farmworkers might feel about appearing mostly naked on the front page of a newspaper, men and womeni in public, roughly washed down by expedient bosses. They also suggested that most of us in the all or mostly white room would readily defer to the sensitivities of country club members.
Today, in retirement but still following the news, I keep coming back to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and that recent LA Times piece.
He wrote: “So what you see when you see black protesters depends on whether you’re living in that burning building or watching it on TV with a bowl of corn chips in your lap waiting for ‘NCIS’ to start.”