On the day Glenn Greenwald, once a darling of the U.S. media but increasingly an outcast, ripped into a predominately blue media’s coverage of the red half of America, Alaska’s largest newspaper made a show of trying to reach out to the 49th state’s predominately conservative population.
Alaska was then headed toward the end of the coldest March in more than a decade, and the 10th coldest in the local climate record, but the local media appeared more interested in the early blooming cherry trees in Japan as “a sign of climate change.”
Maybe they were enjoying the snowflake-protective nature of the cold as Greenwald scolded the profession beneath a headline that read “Journalists Attack the Powerless, Then Self-Victimize to Bar Criticisms of Themselves.”
“…The primary target of the Trump-era media has become private citizens and people who wield no power, yet who these media outlets believe must have their lives ruined because they have adopted the wrong political ideology,’ he charged. “So many corporate journalists now use their huge megaphones to humiliate and wreck the lives of ordinary private citizens who they judge to have bad political opinions (meaning: opinions that deviate from establishment liberalism orthodoxies which these media outlets exist to enforce).”
Greenwald arguably went way too far. Most of today’s “news” largely ignores “private citizens” given that it is comprised of rewrites of communiqués from government agencies. The Alaska media has become so dominated by such news that one retired 49th state journalist joked that “if they defunded the Anchorage Police Department, there would be no news.”
There is no doubt, however, that the bulk of the Alaska media shares the national ideology Greenwald described. Led by the Anchorage Daily News (ADN), it leans left, and the latter has gone after a person or two on the borderline between private life and public power.
The late Andy Teuber comes immediately to mind. His position on the Alaska Board of Regents made him a public figure and thus fair game for an ADN probe into his private life, but the newspaper’s coverage of sexual accusations – none of which appeared to involve any illegal acts – leveled against him by a former employee was shoddy and had nothing to do with his public position.
Sports Illustrated, for those interested, has now provided an example of how to professionally handle such stories. It demonstrates how journalists should go about trying to substantiate accusations. The ADN not only failed to do this; it ignored information indicating that Teuber’s accuser might have motives to publicly dox him.
But going after private citizens isn’t really the paper’s biggest trust problem nor that of any other Alaska media. Most suffer mainly from national media spillover in a right-leaning state influenced, as are most right-leaning states, by the national media circus, which Greenwald summarized more fairly:
“They do not criticize or investigate real power centers, but serve them. And what makes it worse – so, so much worse – is that, as they assault, dox and harass private citizens, these journalistic bullies depict themselves as the real marginalized people, as those who are so fragile, voiceless, powerless, and vulnerable that criticizing them is tantamount to bullying, harassment, and violence.”
All of the latter, holier than thou behavior has helped American journalism create for itself the mother of all trust problems.
A Gallup poll in September found that 60 percent of Americans now distrust the media and if one removes the fanboys and fangirls (liberals reading the reporting of liberal publications with blinders on in the way most conservatives watch Fox News), the numbers really plummet.
The poll found 73 percent of Democrats trust the mainstream media. The combined and averaged score of Republicans and non-party affiliated Americans is 23; that leaves a whopping 77 percent in the do not trust category.
Enter ADN editor David Hulen with his appeal to those who consider themselves “right-leaning or conservative? If so, we want you to consider participating in a survey about news coverage, especially local and regional coverage.
“The Anchorage Daily News/adn.com is working with the Trusting News project, the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin and around 30 other newsrooms as part of a national effort focused on the political divide and trust in journalism.”
Left-leaning and liberal readers are apparently considered to be locked into that 73 percent trust bucket and thus need not participate.
Who, what, where
Journalism is at its root a very simple business hard to practice. Like science, it does however have a defined method for sorting information.
Journalists are trained to look for the who, what, where, when, how and, if possible, the why of the stories they cover. Whys, often the most intriguing part of the equation, are usually difficult and sometimes impossible to find.
As a young reporter, I was fascinated with why people engaged in random acts of violence. Over time, I came to understand there is no rational way to decipher the behavior of those who think irrationally.
That understanding did help to later explain the actions of a couple of different bosses, and it forced me to realize that sometimes the answer to the question why is that there is no answer.
Luckily, in the case of the ADN’s appeal to right leaners and conservatives the why is obvious, and near plainly stated. Hulen couldn’t bring himself to flat out say, “we know you don’t trust us, and we’re plotting to regain your trust.”
But, he came close.
All of which leaves unanswered mainly the questions of who, what and where are involved here. Hulen apparently never asked these questions himself or thought right-leaning, conservative readers too dumb to ask them because the who, what and where raise some interesting issues.
Before unpacking that box, which is almost sure to trigger some accusations of bashing the ADN as if journalists constitute some protected class that shouldn’t be judged on how they do their job, let me make it clear there are plenty of things the state’s largest newspaper does well.
It is daily good at aggregating the news generated by Alaska law enforcement, public agencies and politicians. In recent days, it has done an excellent job of tracking what investigators have learned about a deadly Knik Glacier helicopter crash and a nearby avalanche death.
It almost always does a fine job of handling what is called “breaking news,” and it would appear most of its employees truly want to be fair and impartial though some seem to have so little self-awareness of their biases that might be impossible.
And thus we return to the Trusting New survey.
If you click the survey link provided by the ADN, the first thing you discover is that the survey isn’t really a survey at all. It is a request for participation in a “research study” that appears mainly aimed at determining how right-leaning and conservative people think.
The study is being led by Professor Gina Chen at the University of Texas at Austin more than 3,000 miles from Anchorage (if anyone is measuring) near the opposite end of the continent.
Anyone who Googles Chen will quickly discover that among the latest papers she authored is one that concluded female journalists suffer “harassment (that) disrupts the routinized practice of reciprocal journalism because it limits how much these women can interact with the audience in mutually beneficial ways without being attacked or undermined sexually.”
Good luck deciphering that sentence but maybe a look at this study on “reciprocal journalism,” which sounds something like reporters talking to people either verbally or via text, will help. It would appear “reciprocal journalism” is all about journalists interacting as “community builders” rather than just being reporters.
Older Alaskans and those familiar with 49th state history might recall Bob Atwood, the late publisher of the Anchorage Times. He was all about “community building” in an earlier period when the Times was the state’s largest newspaper by far, and there was no social media to complicate the hell out of community building.
A sizable minority of Alaskans at that time frowned on Atwood’s community building because his idea of a large community enriched with oil money ran counter to their belief the last great American wilderness should remain so. There is no telling how Times reporters might have been treated if social media had been around back then when the state was full of rough talkers.
Even today, social media can be an inherently dangerous world in which to navigate as is known to anyone who is on Facebook regularly or gets down into the sewer of Twitter on a day-to-day basis. It’s a lot easier to start an argument in the tubes than move a discussion toward those things upon which most people agree, or should be able to agree.
And then there are the trolls. The tubes are literally crawling with trolls.
It’s pretty much a given that journalists who interact with readers in the tubes are going to end up in disagreements, and that some of these are likely to turn nasty and disintegrate into name-calling because, well, name-calling is what many in the tubes are most about.
Chen argued they can become so fearful they might “even change how they report on stories by doing such things as leaving out certain facts because ‘Oh, if I put that in, I’m really going to be bashed online.’ Or being super careful to include a lot of viewpoints so that they can sort of challenge any harassment that they face.”
Ament and Hart, to their credit, countered this conclusion with the observation that “some say that this actually makes them better reporters because they’re so cautious about the language and the type of sources they use.”
Chen’s reply to that was this:
“Where I think it does harm journalism is that it makes women less likely to want to continue doing this job. Because if you’re being attacked all the time, who wants to keep doing that?”
Unfortunately, there is no statistical evidence women are fleeing journalism because of this alleged harassment. There is a greater percentage of women in newsrooms today than at the start of the new millennium and while newspapers remain dominated by men, the American Society of Newspaper Editors reported way back in 2016 that online news jobs were split near 50-50 between males and females.
The differences in numbers there might have something to do with the tendency of old, paper-bound news operations to employ more editors in “management” positions, and the greater tendency of men to seek jobs they believe grant them power. Some women seem to shy away from such jobs.
When the ADN tried to hire a female editor after it was bought by Alice Rogoff in 2014, the woman decided that whatever power came with running Alaska’s largest newspaper wasn’t as attractive as the job she then held in Oregon and the life she’d established there after moving south. She remains in journalism.
Obviously now, too, a lot of young women want to do journalism or something somewhat like journalism. Most of the students in the country’s journalism schools are female these days, and the Payscale website says women have reached pay equity with men at journalism’s entry level.
That women have yet to dominate newsrooms might also have something to do with that pay. The equitable starting salary for a female journalist is $13,000 less than that for a female computer scientist, who on average starts the job with her pay at only 89 percent that of a comparable male.
The monetary incentives provided female journalists only get worse when compared to engineers who earn $17,000 to $24,000 per year more to start; nurses, $18,000 more; occupational therapists, twice the salary at entry; and even marketers.
The starting salary for women in marketing is $5,300 below the average $44,800 paid men to start, according to Payscale, but still $3,400 more than an entry-level journalism job, and the marketing job comes free of the inevitable flack all journalists endure.
As for the flack aimed at journalists – male or female – it has always been there but has no doubt been heightened by social media and the country’s increasingly partisan politics.
“…As 2016 dawned, snowflake made its way to the mainstream and, in the process, evolved into something more vicious,” the liberal website Think Progress says. “The insult expanded to encompass not just the young but liberals of all ages; it became the epithet of choice for right-wingers to fling at anyone who could be accused of being too easily offended, too in need of ‘safe spaces,’ too fragile.”
On the right of American politics, snowflake has become a synonym for “overly sensitive liberal.” So imagine the reaction of conservatives asked to participate in a study of right-wing views of journalism being led by someone who authored what looks a lot like a paper about the hard lives of snowflake journalists.
This is not a criticism of Chen personally or dismissal of any real threats some female journalists might have faced. I know nothing about Chen. She might be the most objective analyst in the country. But in the world we live in today impressions are quickly formed on the information found in the tubes, and Chen doesn’t present a good look there.
Suffice to say, she is no Lara Logan, who was brutally raped by a mob of men while covering the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt for CBS News in 2011, but continued working as a journalist only to be bashed (to use Chen’s word) by fellow journalists in 2019 after bluntly stating that a “left-leaning” media had “abandoned our pretense or at least the effort to be objective today. “
Though Logan’s comments got little coverage in the mainstream media in the U.S., they are well-known to most conservatives, many of whom appear to share her view that some in the mainstream have transitioned from reporters to propagandists.
There’s no sense detouring into a discussion of how readers reached that conclusion. The lines are too blurry these days with the blend of journalistic news and propaganda surrounding face coverings, which may or may not lower the number of cases of COVID-19, and vaccines, which clearly will help stem the pandemic but could have future consequences now unknown.
The Food and Drug Administration approved the combination drug fenfluramine and phentermine – “fen-phen” – in 1996 thinking big pharma had found a magical cure to the country’s obesity epidemic. Only later was the drugs’ corrosive effect on heart valves discovered.
Wrongs and rights
No, I’m not some anti-vaxer. I’ve been vaxed with both doses of Pfizer/BioNTech. But I can understand why someone might decide to avoid injecting messenger RNA (mRNA) into their body.
The issue of new and unknown drugs is raised here only to provide an example of how people can make wholly different, well-reasoned decisions on the vax – as they do on GMO foods and many other subjects – without either choice being “wrong” or “right.”
The Pfizer/BioNTech product is nothing like previous vaccines based on the dead cells of pathogens. Some have even argued mRNA should be considered a “medical device,” not a vaccine.
In a long and well-done story detailing how this scientific breakthrough came to be, STAT News’ Damian Garde fairly describes this treatment as “a tiny snip of genetic code that (can) be deployed into cells to stimulate a coronavirus immune response.”
Whether there are any long-term consequences to this sort of genetic manipulation is unknown because there is no long-term data on mRNA use. It is that new.
But if it’s OK for people, including Alaska’s senior U.S. Senator, to freak out over genetically modified “Frankenfish,” which have undergone a lot more testing than mRNA vaccines, people certainly ought to be allowed to freak out over injecting new genetic code into their bodies without being subject to all sorts of name-calling.
Right now, mRNA weapons against the pandemic look nothing but good. Any future consequences, if there are future consequences, are out there in the future. We cannot know what we don’t know.
The future is an unknown for all of us, and even the here and now is full of more gray knowledge than that clearly black and white. Still, there are some blacks and whites.
Fading faith in the mainstream media is, sadly, one of them.
Against this backdrop of trust lost for whatever reason, how journalists approach disaffected readers – those being conservatives, right-leaners, or independents – matters, and matters a lot.
Trust is something you earn back. It isn’t something you regain by ranting about how much better you report the news than “blogs” or social media. And it can’t be bought by investing in a “trusting news project.”
In this case, the latter might just make things worse. The optics of telling readers to filter their opinions through some academic 3,000 miles away are bad. They only gets worse when that academic appears to be a snowflake-protective professor at what the Houston Chronicle has judged the most liberal university in the state of Texas.
Sending right-leaning/conservative readers there appears tantamount to directing disaffected liberal and left-leaning readers to participate in a study of their views being conducted by a professor at the Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University.
It’s likely to make them more suspicious of the newspaper’s agenda rather than less suspicious.
Now, it is possible the ADN did no checking on the project it was joining. It is also possible the newspaper is so out of touch with the online world (there are times when you wonder if some reporters there can spell Google) that it didn’t think anyone would bother backgrounding Chen and UT at Austin.
Or it could be the ADN thought right-leaning/conservative readers are so stupid none of those people would search for information on the trust project.
Which of these possibilities look better?
Then again, maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s time for the ADN to just give up worrying about trust, and throw the remaining non-believers over the side: “If you don’t trust us, go check out Must Read Alaska. It does your kind of journalism, and we’re above that.”
On some levels, this does seem to be the general direction in which the entire business of journalism is headed. The national media has done a nice job of tribalizing almost everything.
MSNBC and CNN have angry tribes of fearful libs hanging onto their every word as if it were gospel, and Fox News has a gang of bible-thumping, gun-toting, beer-drinking fanboys and girls doing likewise.
Or at least this is how these parties view each other on those days when they’re at their nicest.
On their worst days, MSNBC looks at Fox as the news source for white supremacists and fascists, and Fox looks at MSNBC/CNN as the go-to website for socialist totalitarians and the entrenched aristocracy.
The U.S. isn’t there yet, but the right did manage to storm the Capitol and the left is demanding a harsh crackdown. There are some parallels with how the German republic went to hell in a handbasket and ended up electing the psychopath who took over that country.
The fundamental need for tolerance – the cornerstone of survival for a democracy – now seems to be fading farther and farther into the rearview mirror in this country as a new journalism fueled by fear-mongering and a growing focus on the minutia of “unfairness” drives the nation’s culture war.
In this environment, it’s understandable some journalists want to hide behind that shield of victimhood Greenwald describes. Look at it from their side: They’re only doing their job, and doing it fairly in their minds, and now they’re being attacked as partisans and propagandists.
When you live in a world defined by good guys and bad guys, and you believe you’re on the side of the good guys, this is how you think.
The problem is that there are very few whole and truly good guys or bad guys. Earth’s planetary life is defined by nature, and nature by law has only winners and losers.
Some humans might like to believe the species has escaped nature’s rule, but it hasn’t as the SARS-CoV-2 virus should remind us all.
We can bend the rules of nature and have, but we can’t fundamentally change them. No matter how we shape our economic, political and social systems, there are always going to be winners and losers.
As a result, somebody somewhere is always going to be treated unfairly. Many people deal with this daily now. Whatever unfairness journalists face is small by comparison, but….
“The main takeaway for journalists and news organizations is that harassment of female journalists is a serious problem that needs to be addressed,” Chen told Journalists Resource. “The women in our study really wanted more support from the editors and supervisors. They wanted to be believed. They wanted their news organizations to take action – from deleting comments quickly to training journalists on how to deal with the abuse. Many of the women we interviewed felt unsupported or even afraid to complain about the problems to their supervisors. That suggests that newsroom leaders need to change the culture at their organizations to deal with this issue.”
Stop the whining
Oh my. Unsupportive working environments. So what’s new?
Sadly none of that. Support from editors is and always has been an issue at news organizations. Some editors support no reporters. Some editors support some reporters. But no editors support all reporters.
I know a former ADN journalist who years ago suffered through a scathing job review because she asked Anchorage police “too many questions.” The police chief called the editor to complain, and the editor, now long gone, didn’t like taking heat from the chief.
The woman’s direct supervisor, Hulen, sat through the job review nodding his head, according to the woman’s account, and later explained that it wasn’t really that she asked too many questions “it was how you ask the questions.”
This “how you ask the questions” problem has only grown worse in the years since. God forbid a CNN reporter today starts asking President Joe Biden questions the way CNN reporters asked former President Donald Trump questions. That could be a job ender even though it was a career-maker for at least one CNN reporter.
Greenwald describes a “demented framework that allowed CNN’s coddled, blow-dried, manicured and pedicured millionaire TV personality Jim Acosta, with a straight face, to write an entire book casting himself on the cover as someone in danger. What enabled Jim Acosta of all people to cast himself as a victim, to the point where so many liberals bought this book that it ended up on The New York Times bestseller list? He was criticized by the President and his supporters for his journalism. That’s it.
“And just like that, the real victims in America are not the jobless or the homeless or residents of addiction-ravaged communities or victims of violent crime but, instead, the rich, famous TV personalities for CNN. This is the fictitious melodrama – with themselves cast as the stars – that they are demanding you ingest to treat them with deference and respect.”
Acosta, it should be noted, is a male who has, according to Good Reads, written “an explosive, first-hand account of the dangers he faces reporting on the current White House while fighting on the front lines in President Trump’s war on truth.”
Journalists under fire? Imagine that. But isn’t this what one should expect after poking a stick into a hornet’s nest?
The real world
Personally, my last stint at the ADN, where I was the outdoor editor and a reporter for several decades before joining the online only and now extinct Alaska Dispatch only to return to the ADN, ended after I ignored an order to stop investigating a public official and uncovered evidence that led to his being charged with a string of felonies accusing him of trying to rip off the Permanent Fund.
When I did this, it was clear some hornets were going to be set loose. Hulen and his boss, Rogoff, were already taking heat for publishing a story I’d written about Board of Fisheries member Roland Maw’s bogus but somewhat hilarious claim to having discovered an endangered species.
Being under fire bothered Hulen and Rogoff. As someone who’d been under fire plenty of times before, it all seemed rather normal to me until Hulen refused to publish the story explaining why Maw had suddenly resigned from the Board after an Alaska State Trooper was asked to check on indications that he was claiming to be a resident of Montana while also serving as a public official in Alaska.
That wasn’t funny. That was cowardly. But clearly the story didn’t fit with the ADN’s agenda. I was offered a buy-out of the job that paid me for six months to do nothing.
Everyone moved on. Such is life. Working for the then-Rogoff-owned ADN, Hulen didn’t want any more hornets turned loose by a reporter to swarm around him or his boss.
This is understandable enough. This is how journalism works and has worked for a long time.
Sometimes reporters are put in the position of weighing what is best for them personally against what is right. It is what it is.
Another ADN editor once threatened my job because I wrote about the problems Alaskans were having getting early Ford F250 diesel trucks to start in extreme cold.
That editor expressed the view the story wasn’t legitimate news, although the real issue was that it angered Cal Worthington Ford, then one of the newspaper’s major advertisers. I never wrote another story about Ford diesels in the cold.
It was legitimate news, but it wasn’t big news. And for the record, I bought a Ford F250 diesel several years later and still own it. It is a bitch to start in the cold. I might say potentially dangerous if you’re living in the Interior unless you pack a gas-powered generator in back in case you need to plug in the block heater. But the truck is now old. Maybe the new ones are better.
When Chen frets about pressures that make reporters “change how they report on stories” as if that is something new, you can only wonder what sort of sheltered newsrooms she has worked in.
There are all sorts of pressures on reporters and those coming from outside the newsroom are often the least of them. I can’t imagine how uncomfortable things might be for a philosophically right-leaning reporter to go to work at the ADN today.
The culture is decidedly left of center. When I was still there, one of the paper’s political reporters confessed “I could never vote for a Republican.”
The statement was as absurd as it was ignorant. Never is a long time. Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. The president who preceded him, James Buchanan Jr., was a Democrat and is widely considered by historians to be the worst president in the country’s history.
In defense of said reporter, who is not being named because he is still working in Alaska journalism, his coverage of Republicans and conservatives always appeared to be generally fair.
But then it’s hard to know what he chose not to report because of his personal feelings or left out of his stories for the same reason, and as the Teuber story illustrates, what is left out can be telling.
Reporters might do a lot to further trust if they talked about the how and why in their reporting of stories that turn out to be controversial, but you’re unlikely to see that happening. They and their bosses don’t want to have that discussion though there are reportorial values on which all American can or should be able to agree.
Honesty is not a liberal value or a conservative value, a Muslim value or a Christian value, a rich woman’s value or a poor man’s value. It is an American value.
Fairness, likewise, is not a European value or an Asian value, a purebred value or a mixed-race value, a rural value or an urban value. Fairness is, or should be, an American value.
Unfortunately, a lot of American journalists seem to have forgotten these things. They function now in a world viewed through kaleidoscopic goggles where almost everything is observed, distorted and judged by politics, race, sex, ethnicity, geography, color, gender and more.
Worse, they accept no responsibility for involvement in how we got here. And now the ADN wants to know what right-leaners and conservatives think should be done about this as if somehow what right-leaning or conservative Alaskans want out of the news should be something different than what left-leaning or liberal Alaskans want out of the news?
What everyone should want is a news organization that tries its best to tell the truth and is honest about the difficulty of that task. But the ADN couldn’t even bring itself to be wholly honest about its so-called “survey” of reader views.
The leaders of The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind., – four women and a man – were more forthcoming in stating that their newspaper “is participating in a research project designed to provide more insight about how news is perceived. The newspaper is one of about 30 U.S. media outlets selected to participate in the ‘Re-engaging the Right’ project that the organization Trusting News is coordinating.”
It will be most interesting to see how that insight is used. Give the mountain of data to which we all add everytime we doing someting in the tubes, maybe some news organizatoin could tailor emailed editions of its to spin left or spin right to fit the desires of readers.
Nobody has tried that yet to my knowledge.