Monthly Archives: February 2020

Missing the point of the State of the Union

An online search of the State of the Union yields 2.9 billion results. What do the results have in common? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ripped up President Donald J. Trump’s speech. Trump refused to shake Pelosi’s hand as he walked onto the podium. Trump awarded the medal of freedom to Rush Limbaugh. A Parkland shooting victim’s father was escorted out of the State of the Union audience for his outburst about gun violence.

An analysis of State of the Union coverage showed that most of the headlines had nothing to do with the content of the address and mainly discussed the drama that occurred throughout the evening. The Constitution states that president is supposed to share information with Congress about the status of the country and key issues facing the American public. Another objective of the speech is for the president to propose solutions for the nation’s problems. 

During his speech, Trump asserted that the economy was the “best it has ever been.” He claimed to reverse “years of economic delay and failed economic policies.” He characterized Democrats who support universal healthcare as “socialists.” He bragged about his choice to order the killing of the top Iranian Commander Qassem Soliemani. He promised to protect patients with preexisting conditions and claimed that health care plans were less expensive during his administration. There were few moments in the evening that generated applause from both sides of the aisle, such as when Trump commended Venezuelan leader Juan Guaidó on his efforts to restore democracy.

The media missed the mark on covering Trump’s policies and future propositions, deciding to focus on the theatrics of the event instead. Unfortunately, the main takeaway from the address was that Pelosi ripped up the president’s speech. 

Kobe Bryant and Buddy Holly have more in common than the way they died

By Richard Lee

In a busy media week that included the Super Bowl, the Iowa Caucuses and the State of the Union, the anniversary of one of the music world’s most tragic events did not receive the attention it usually garners.

Feb. 3 was the 61st anniversary of the plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and JP ‘The Big Bopper’ Richardson. The plane crashed in Iowa, but that is not the accident’s only connection with current events.

The Jan. 26 helicopter crash that claimed the life of Kobe Bryant and eight others re-focused attention on the need to notify family members in a timely manner when a death occurs.

TMZ was first news outlet to report Bryant’s death, and the website’s information was accurate. In that respect, TMZ complied with a basic tenet of good journalism: Get it first and get it right.

But apparently the website broke the news before law enforcement authorities had an opportunity to inform Bryant’s family.

“It would be extremely disrespectful to understand your loved one has perished and to learn about it from TMZ,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva told reporters at a news conference a few hours after the crash. “That is just wholly inappropriate.”

In cases such as the helicopter crash, journalists generally respect the privacy of loved ones and wait until authorities have informed them of the news. But there are exceptions and gray areas that will always be debated.

Back in 1959, practices and policies for notifying loved ones were different – for journalists and for law enforcement.

“In Texas, a neighbor told Holly’s mother to turn on the radio. When the news report came out, she screamed and collapsed,” Time reporter Claire Suddath wrote in a 2009 article about the 50th anniversary of the crash. “In Greenwich Village, Buddy Holly’s pregnant wife heard the news on television and suffered a miscarriage the following day, reportedly due to ‘psychological trauma.'”

According to Suddath, it was after the accident that authorities adopted a policy against releasing victims’ names until the families had been notified. It’s a policy that made sense in 1959 when Holly, Valens and Richardson perished. And despite the speed with which news travels today, it’s still the right policy for 2020.

The simple math behind Trump’s Super Bowl ad

By Richard Lee

I’ll admit it: Donald Trump’s first quarter Super Bowl ad took me by surprise.

No talk of fake news, hoaxes or witch-hunts. No shots of cheering Trump supporters at a MAGA rally.

Instead the ad featured Alice Johnson emotionally expressing thanks to the president for commuting the life sentence she received in 1996 for her role in a drug trafficking operation.

Social media was quickly populated with comments pro and con, offering conflicting opinions about the topic in context of Trump’s record on civil justice reform.

I won’t wade into that debate, but I will weigh in on the strategy of the ad since I’ve been involved in numerous political campaigns during my career

Many years ago when I was a junior staffer in the New Jersey General Assembly, one of the longtime Assembly members shared his re-election strategy with a group of freshmen lawmakers.

Although he represented a strong Democratic district that virtually assured his election every two years, he began every election season by campaigning with his strongest supporters.

“Make sure your base is strong,” I recall him saying. “Then try for some new voters.”

That conversation from years ago came to mind as I watched Trump’s first quarter Super Bowl ad. For three years, he has been charging up and strengthening his base with actions, words and tweets that resonate with his most ardent supporters. His base is not going anywhere. With their votes already in the bank, he can start picking up support from more moderate voters by appealing to issues that resonate with them.

The Super Bowl was the perfect place for Trump to start. When he speaks at a rallies in red states, he is preaching to the choir. When the Super Bowl is on, about 100 million people with divergent political ideologies are watching.

The math is simple.

Richard Lee is executive director of the Jandoli Institute and an associate professor in the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University.

Authorship matters; sources matter

By Chris Mackowski

Last week, frothing with impeachment fever, a relative forwarded to me a Facebook meme purportedly authored by Clint Eastwood.

“People message me why I stick my neck out for Trump,” the meme said. “Why do I tarnish my reputation with a man that’s hated by so many?” The meme then went on to elucidate the many reasons Eastwood thought Donald Trump was worthy of support.

Except Eastwood didn’t write it.

I quickly verified Eastwood’s (lack of) authorship with Snopes.com.

But when I pointed this out to my relative, he said, “Doesn’t matter.”

“What do you mean, it doesn’t matter?” I asked. “Certainly something as fundamental as authorship matters, doesn’t it?” If the author was willing to play fast and loose with authorship, what else was the author willing to play fast and loose with? “Don’t you see,” I asked, “that lying at the beginning casts doubt over the credibility of everything that followed?”

To my relative, the answer was a simple “No.” Authorship didn’t matter. The material in the meme spoke to him, so the source of the material didn’t matter. It was a classic example of Stephen Colbert’s “Truthiness”: so long as it feels truth, then it’s true, whether it’s factually accurate or not. And much of the meme was, upon further investigation, flat-out wrong and other parts were intentionally misleading — but it spoke to my relative and so, despite the misrepresentation at the outset, was nonetheless valid.

To me, this underscored the vital importance of sources, which in turn got me to thinking about a question the Jandoli Institute posed just before the New Year: “How can we restore public confidence in journalism?” I didn’t answer at the time because, honestly, I’ve been flummoxed by this very question these days and could not come up with a credible answer. After all, this same relative told me a few weeks ago, “I don’t trust a thing I read,” and as a result, he tended to not read anything — except memes and Facebook posts forwarded to him by like-minded, right-minded people.

My default reaction is to encourage people to investigate things for themselves. Don’t take my word for anything, look around for yourself. Check multiple sources of different political leanings. Use Snopes and other fact-checkers. What can you learn about the source and their agendas and who funds them and their authority to speak on a particular topic? Put in the time rather than rely on the knee-jerk, self-satisfying gratification offered by memes and echo-chambers. As the old saying goes, if your mom tells you she loves you, get a second source. “Trust but verify,” Reagan said.

But if someone just flat-out doesn’t believe a thing he reads, how does any of that work?

This circled back to the dubious authorship of the Eastwood meme (and a similar one my relative had sent a week earlier purportedly written by comedian Tim Allen).

Authorship matters. Sources matter.

That’s Journalism School 101. We hammer into our students the need to attribute their sources. When I write historical pieces, I also have to be careful to source my material.

Journalists need to retrench around this idea. Specifically, we need to use far more discretion when relying on unnamed sources.

I realize many sources will only speak on the condition of anonymity for many reasons, including justified fears of reprisal, so it’s tempting to content ourselves with that knowledge and then just quote away. We’re protecting our sources, we reassure ourselves.

While that might be true, it also encourages shortcut reporting in a 24-hour news cycle that demands content RIGHT NOW. Instead of working a story to confirm the words of an unnamed source with additional reporting, reporters are under tremendous pressure to get their stories to air or to press. In that context, an unnamed source, corroborated by other unnamed sources, might be an easy-out.

A reader used to rely on a reporter’s credibility and good judgement in order to weigh the credibility of an unnamed source. Readers would also weigh the credibility of the reporter’s newspaper or TV station as part of that calculus. But now we’re in an era where public trust in the media is lower than it’s ever been in modern times. Reporters and editors and media don’t have the public’s trust the way they once did. That means “anonymous sources” are less trustworthy than ever, not just by the nature of their anonymity but because of the very people using those sources.

Other factors play into this, too. We all know how easy it is to say anything we want online due to the anonymity offered by the internet. That anonymity has eroded civil discourse. People can be obscene, vulgar, hateful. They can have a mean-spiritedness they would never let out in person. The internet has taught us that anonymity can be easily abused.

Anonymity can cut both ways, too, benefiting not just the media but the sources. I recall a scene from the TV show The West Wing in which a cadre of White House clerks, secretaries, and interns were all about to be sent out to speak with reporters as part of an aggressive public relations effort. “Why would anyone want to talk to me?” one lowly intern asks. The answer: Because, today, you’re “a senior White House official.” Whenever I see that term in print, I am reminded that there’s a vast difference between the White House Chief of Staff — an actual “senior White House official” — and a lowly intern merely told to call himself that as part of a propaganda effort.

We used to rely on reporters to use their judgement and make the call for us: Is a particular anonymous source trustworthy? People don’t trust the reporters to make that call anymore. The titillating story and juicy gossip seems to trump the need for credibility, as least in the cynical and untrusting eye of the modern reader and viewer.

Do I think journalists should abandon the anonymous source altogether? No. But I think journalists need to use it more sparingly. If that means a journalist has to work harder, then so be it; the times have changed and journalism needs to change with them, in ways that raise the bar, not lower it. If that means some bits of information can’t get reported right away, then perhaps it also means journalists aren’t stirring the pot with innuendo and rumor. That, in turn, might help cut through the noise rather than add to it.

As my relative demonstrates, people are glad to make cognitive shortcuts, even if they mistrust the media to make those shortcuts for us. Incorporating more transparency into our reporting, although hard work, can show people that we’re not taking shortcuts at all.

Chris Mackowski is a professor of journalism and mass communication at St. Bonaventure University’s Jandoli School of Communication, where he serves as associate dean of undergraduate programs. He is also the editor-in-chief of Emerging Civil War (www.emergingcivilwar.com) and the author of more than a dozen books about the Civil War.