Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Tuesday, September 10, 2019 7:30 pm

UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media: $25 million — for a mission or a mess of pottage?

I’m not going to lie: The naming gift of $25 million to my alma mater, the University of North Carolina’s journalism school, got my attention. Even for UNC, this is a big gift, something to celebrate, and so much more so for the j-school, with its invaluable mission of public service. Dean Susan King and the faculty, staff, students and alumni should be very proud. The school will be known henceforth as the Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

Before today I had never heard of the donor, Walter Hussman Jr., chairman of WEHCO Media Inc., which owns newspapers, cable television systems, and magazines in a number of states. I had, however, heard of the work of some of the WEHCO newspapers, notably the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and the Chattanooga Times Free Press. To my knowledge and that of some friends in those markets, those papers have tried to maintain credible news coverage at a time when creditors and banksters have been forcing a lot of other papers to eat their seed corn and worse. So, maybe he really understands the value of aggressive accountability journalism and its indispensability in a constitutional republic and intends to help the j-school better teach students how to carry out that mission.

He says his top goal is “restoring the bond of trust between media and the public,” and he says he believes that the way to do that is to abide by the “core values” that undergird, and are printed daily in, his newspapers. They are:

Impartiality means reporting, editing, and delivering the news honestly, fairly, objectively, and without personal opinion or bias.

Credibility is the greatest asset of any news medium, and impartiality is the greatest source of credibility.

To provide the most complete report, a news organization must not just cover the news, but uncover it. It must follow the story wherever it leads, regardless of any preconceived ideas on what might be most newsworthy.

The pursuit of truth is a noble goal of journalism. But the truth is not always apparent or known immediately. Journalists’ role is therefore not to determine what they believe at that time to be the truth and reveal only that to their readers, but rather to report as completely and impartially as possible all verifiable facts so that readers can, based on their own knowledge and experience, determine what they believe to be the truth.

When a newspaper delivers both news and opinions, the impartiality and credibility of the news organization can be questioned. To minimize this as much as possible there needs to be a sharp and clear distinction between news and opinion, both to those providing and consuming the news.

Sounds nice, right? Well, as always, the devil is in the details.

Devil the first: “Objectivity” is a myth; true objectivity is rarer than true love. The best a journalist can do is to be aware of his/her own biases and test them whenever possible.

Devil the second: “Impartiality” has remained, for decades too long, an imperfect goal because in so many cases “impartiality” has been interpreted as the need to provide a platform for nonsense. Pointing out that gravity is “only a theory,” while true, isn’t impartial: If you step off the ledge, you’re going to fall to your death no matter what you think of that theory. Pointing that out not only does not make one partial; it fulfills the journalist’s duty to the reader not only to produce accurate journalism but also to filter out dangerous bullshit. (This Twitter thread, which I just happened upon today, is a fine example of the latter.)

Accordingly, devil the third: Impartiality is NOT the greatest source of credibility. Truth-telling, without fear and particularly in the face of hostile opposition, is the greatest source of credibility. When your reporting accurately reflects people’s lived, experienced realities, that is when you are seen as credible. This is particularly crucial for journalists who report on the communities in which they live; if they get something wrong, they’re  likely to hear about it, quite possibly live and in concert.

Which brings us to devil the fourth: Hussman says that truth is “not always apparent or immediately known.” Two responses to that: 1) Yeah, sometimes it is. Frequently, it is. It only seems like it isn’t because this era is rife with grifters who will blithely say to journalists and the public alike, “Who you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ eyes?” Journalists must not ever allow themselves to be misled or intimidated by them. 2) A good journalist will always tell readers not only what he/she knows but also what he/she does not know but needs, or has tried unsuccessfully, to find out. He/she might even enlist the public’s help in getting it.

Devil the fifth: Hussman says, “Journalists’ role is therefore not to determine what they believe at that time to be the truth and reveal only that to their readers, but rather to report as completely and impartially as possible all verifiable facts so that readers can, based on their own knowledge and experience, determine what they believe to be the truth.” Well, no; not all possible verifiable facts are relevant. But grifters have spent decades convincing the American public, and way too large a segment of American journalism, that they are; thus the rise of the tu quoque logical fallacy known as “whataboutism.”  Journalists do not owe their readers all the facts; rather, they owe their readers contextual accuracy and must ensure not only that their facts are accurate and complete but also that the context in which they place those facts accurately reflects the conditions in which those facts occur.

Devil the sixth: Hussman insists on keeping a sharp and clear distinction at all times between news and opinion, “both to those providing and consuming the news.” In general that is true, but it is not a universal truth. Indeed, it ignores the strong tradition in the past half-century or so of advocacy journalism. For just one example, no one ever will accuse the late Hunter S. Thompson of keeping a sharp and clear distinction at all times between news and opinion, but Nixon scholars still read Thompson 50 years after Nixon took office and will still be reading Thompson 100 years after Nixon died. Such journalism is hard to pull off well, particularly for new journalists, but as long as journalists are forthcoming with their readers about their sources, methods, and motivations, readers of good will will find their reports credible even if they don’t agree with the message. (And for readers who lack good will? Nothing a journalist can do will ever be enough to convince them. Give up on them.)

Which brings us to devil the last: Perhaps I am wrong, but I fear it is but a short step from Hussman’s “core values” to the kind of journalistic silence that is ethically insupportable. If the First Amendment means anything, it means that the people — and not just working journalists, but all of us — are to use our powers of expression to hold the powerful to account for their actions. But for too many people in and outside of journalism, objectivity too often means silence, even when silence is assent. Any news outlet that remains silent in the face of attempts to deny human beings their human rights, to convert our country to fascism, to lead us down the road to genocide, to ignore the apocalyptic climate change that likely will destroy much of civilization, is intellectually exhausted, morally bankrupt, and unworthy of the freedoms and powers granted it by the Framers.

If Hussman has given a second’s thought to the media ecosystem in which we now live — one that blurs news and entertainment, one that skews heavily toward the perspectives of the wealthy, one in which politicians and media figures alike happily work to destroy the notion of objective reality in which Hussman places such value, one in which news-media officers are perfectly happy to mislead the public to rob that same public and damage our democratic underpinnings — his values do not reflect it. Sure, pointing a live TV camera at a Donald Trump and letting him rant for an hour is “impartial” and “objective,” but it’s awful journalism. Recall what CBS CEO Les Moonves said in 2016 of his network’s coverage of then-presidential candidate Trump, which ran long on live shots of Trump’s racist, fact-free ravings without any sort of challenge or attempt to contextualize: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

We live in an era in which our own intelligence services believe that the Oval Office is occupied by an agent of a hostile foreign power. We live in an era in which $27 trillion in proven carbon resources remain in the ground, with industry bribing the government to be able to monetize every last bit and lying to the public without consequences about the likely damages. We live in an era in which actual Holocaust survivors, as well as Ben Ferencz, the last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremberg war-crimes trials, and most Holocaust experts, believe that not only are we on the same road Nazi Germany traveled, we are farther down it than most people understand. Our journalism has a constitutional duty to be more than equal to those challenges.

Does Hussman intend to see to it that the journalists and academicians he employs and the students his money helps train will not only be truthful, fair and accurate, but also be morally and ethically upright — and that they will push their respective bosses, instructors, students, and institutions to be as well?

If so, then his $25 million gift will end up being worth far more than that. But as they say, if your mother says she loves you, check it out.

 

 

 

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Monday, July 31, 2017 6:50 pm

What I would like to do on my summer vacation

The summer of 1981 should have been so much better for me than it was. But it could have been so much worse than it was, too.

As Tony, who has his own take on it, describes, he and I were sharing an apartment in Chapel Hill, trying to hold down jobs while also raising as much hell as humanly possible. At least that was the plan. Go read his post; it’s worth it, and I’ll wait.

You back? Good.

As he says, I only lasted about a month. He’s correct that being a day laborer didn’t agree with me, but I’ll add something to that: With the exception of 1980, when I got to be a full-time disc jockey in air-conditioned comfort, I’d spent every summer for the previous decade doing manual labor in the hot sun or slaving over deep fryers in fast-food joints at Carowinds that either weren’t air-conditioned or may as well not have been. Hard physical work wasn’t the issue.

Another thing he’s not telling you, because he’s such a good friend: I bailed on him. In the middle of the night, while he was at work, leaving him in the lurch rent-wise. Without, as I recall, even leaving a note. It was a dick move, no question. But I did it because at that point, I saw that as one of only two options, the other being suicide.

Depression runs in my father’s family. In hindsight I had had symptoms as early as age 12, and I’d already thought a great deal about suicide, including exactly how to go about it so as to minimize the mess I’d leave behind for whoever found me, well before graduating from high school.

Many years later, I was talking with my mother about that, and said, “Well, son, it was the ’70s, everybody was crazy, and frankly, you just didn’t stick out all that much.” She was joking, but there was more than a kernel of truth to that. Even in my fairly well-off, fairly well-adjusted neighborhood, I saw and heard things.

And in 1981, the summer before our senior year of college, I was still 15 years from being formally diagnosed (and farther still from getting on the medications that have kept me alive). And there you have it: the context in which I experienced my worst depressive episode yet, without even the words to say what was going on.

Sure, some events in my life contributed. That spring I broke up with a woman, regretted it immediately, then couldn’t walk it back. The woman I started dating after that dumped me unceremoniously within weeks. I ran for three different positions in my fraternity and lost all three. I drew dead last in the frat-house room lottery, leaving me with no place to live for my senior year. My full-time deejaying hours, which I had been counting on to allow me to graduate from college with merely manageable student-loan debt instead of the bankrupting kind, got cut back by half. I’d have been having a tough time even without chronic depression. With it, I was lucky I lived.

So, yeah, I took off in the middle of the night, leaving what was supposed to have been an idyllic summer in Chapel Hill with my best bud to try to figure out which disastrous aspect of my life I was going to try to fix first IF I didn’t kill myself. And I left Chapel Hill because I figured the closer I was to home, the less likely I was to kill myself. I can’t explain that logic, but it made sense at the time.

Long story short, I didn’t kill myself — not because I got help, but because, by luck or fluctuations in brain chemistry or the grace of God or a combination of all three, the pit I was in got a little shallower. Not a lot, but enough for me at least to climb a little farther from the darkness.

Tony also was kind enough not to mention that we didn’t speak for months after that. I think I finally called him that fall because another friend of mine nagged me into it; God knows I was too ashamed to do it on my own. Let’s just say he was way more gracious about it than I deserved.

And, slowly, bit by bit, piece by piece — and, again, with luck, fluctuations of brain chemistry, and/or the grace of God — I started pulling things back together. A couple of my frat brothers who had won a room in the house ahead of me bailed, and the alumni board offered me the double room as a single to cut their losses. The chapter treasurer bailed, and the alumni board offered me that gig, too — an executive for what’s now Bank of America made the pitch in New Orleans later that summer at my frat’s national convention; I remember I was drinking tequila when he made the offer and I about snorted it out my nose. My social life, well, it took more time and more work, but long story short, I ended up having an uneven but pretty sociable senior year. And I got enough work hours back that by the time I graduated, my student-loan debt was still manageable even for a kid with an English degree.

I tell you all of this not to justify my behavior at the time, but as a kind of public-service announcement. Behavioral disorders — things like bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and so on — often manifest in really severe ways for the first time in people who are of college age. (I noted that my depression wasn’t formally diagnosed for another 15 years. Well, my generalized anxiety disorder, which in hindsight was manifesting quite nicely even in my teens, thank you very much, wasn’t diagnosed for another 32.) If you’re a college student, you need to know that. If you’re the parent of a college student, you really need to know that. I don’t recall that this was common knowledge in 1981; certainly, I didn’t know it, and I don’t think my well-educated parents did, either. But people need to know it. They need to be aware. And, particularly if such disorders run in the family, they should be on the watch for signs and get help, or see that a loved one gets help, when those signs become evident.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). And there are a lot of other resources on the Internet for people with these problems, or who think they might have these problems, that didn’t exist when I was 21. If you’re in the pit or think someone you care for might be, say something, do something, anything. I never believed that college is the best years of your life, but it shouldn’t be the worst, either, and God knows it shouldn’t be the end.

As for the idyllic summer month in Chapel Hill that Tony advocates, I long for it, too, and I’m fortunate to have a job now where, if he and I can get all the moving parts lined up, we might even be able to make it happen next year or the year after — to do 1981 over again and do it right this time. Or maybe that’s a pipe dream. The point is, we’re both here and in a position at least to see if it’s doable. As it is, this weekend or soon thereafter, we’ll be toasting 40 years of friendship, our wives with us and the shadows, at least for now, at bay.

Friday, March 6, 2015 8:11 pm

Odds and ends for March 6

America has a cop violence problem. And, as is so often the case with America, we have to admit we have a problem before we can fix it.

One of the reasons you don’t order people to commit war crimes is because of the damage it does to those who must carry out those orders … as Israel is now finding out.

The Republican National Committee is only allowing “conservative” news outlets and personalities to cover the 2012 GOP primary debates. Of course, with that clown car, “conservative” probably means “batshit.”

Arkansas State Rep. Justin Harris might just be the worst person you’ll read about all year.

When the UNC Board of Governors met in closed session to fire Tom Ross, they voted for a resolution that they wouldn’t talk about the firing and would refer all questions to board chair John Fennebresque, who appears to have gotten his P.R. degree from the Iraqi Ministry of Information. Only one board member voted against the resolution: Greensboro’s Marty Kotis. Thank you, Marty.

As the GOP Klown Kar of batshit presidential candidates barrels down the road, one of the Klowns, Ben Carson, is named to speak at the Pope-Civitas Institute’s Conservative Leadership Conference. You may know Carson from such hits as “People go into prison straight and come out gay” and, “No, really, fellow Republicans, I am NOT crazy.”

Not content with screwing with Greensboro’s City Council districts, state Senate Republicans are now mucking with the Wake County Commissioners’ districts in the wake of a throw-the-bums-out election in November in which a Democratic slate sent a bunch of GOP incumbents packing. Coincidence? Like Gibbs, I don’t believe in coincidence. (Full disclosure: One of those Dems, John Burns, is an online friend of mine and fellow Davidson grad to whom I have given campaign contributions, and I’ve got two sibs who live and pay taxes in Wake County.)

State Supreme Court Justice Mark Martin recently told the legislature that the state’s courts are in very bad shape and need $30 million to fix. (Hell, their computer system was antiquated back when I was still a reporter, and that was six years ago.) So Gov. Pat McCrory’s new budget? Provides only $6 million in new money.

Former UNC offensive lineman Ryan Hoffman is living on the street, plagued by problems that might well be the result of chronic traumatic encephalopathy — brain injuries — from playing football. Ironically, some of the most cutting-edge research on CTE and brain injuries is being carried out at UNC. Here’s hoping they can help the player they once exploited.

 

Friday, February 20, 2015 7:12 pm

Odds and ends for Feb. 20

Yeah, we’re in a post-racial society now.

Having decided that hacking cell phones on a case-by-case basis wasn’t efficient enough, the NSA and its British counterpart, GCHQ, hacked a sim-card manufacturer, gaining access to billions of cell phones. (We learn of this via a leak from Edward Snowden to The Intercept, but go on, keep telling me how Snowden is nothing but a criminal.)

Some conservative PACs are fleecing their contributors, big-time: to the tune of a combined $50 million or more.

Brian Williams of NBC isn’t the only anchor with a lying-about-being-in-combat problem. Bill O’Reilly at Fox News is another one. David Corn calls him out at Salon. O’Reilly’s response, which was entirely unpredictable, was to call Corn a liar and a “despicable guttersnipe.”

Apparently North Carolina has defeated poverty, because there’s not one other damn reason why the UNC Board of Governors would close the Poverty Center. Except because they’re sociopaths, and thin-skinned ones at that.

Once again, a pesky Constitution gets in the way. This time, it’s the Wisconsin constitution, which,  a state appeals court has ruled, prevents Gov. Scott Walker from overruling administrative orders issued by the state’s elected superintendent of public instruction.

If you like what the Kochs have been trying to do in Wisconsin and here in North Carolina, you’ll love what they’re trying to do in Illinois, where the governor apparently has declared war on everyone who’s not already a millionaire.

Here’s a short, ugly lesson about the ethics of rich people. (Yeah, I know, not all rich people. Still.)

One could be forgiven for thinking that N.C. State Sen. Trudy Wade is just remarkably hard of hearing. In point of fact, the likelier explanation for her behavior is that she’s doing the bidding of a couple of wealthy, silent types who have promised her some sort of recompense even in the unlikely event she loses her Senate seat over her misbegotten, antidemocratic reorganization/redistricting plan for the Greensboro City Council. I find it unlikely to be coincidental that this plan matches up nicely with the Koch playbook for trying to get more Republicans elected even in largely to overwhelmingly Democratic cities. (Yes, the city council is nonpartisan under current law. Like that matters to the Kochs.)

If there ever will be any hope of Tar Heels and Blue Devils getting along, perhaps it will be over beer. We’ll find out early in March.

 

 

 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015 7:28 pm

Odds and ends for Feb. 10

Terrorists are winning the war on terror, primarily because, more than a decade after 9/11 and despite all the costly lessons we’ve learned since then, the U.S. persists in playing the terrorists’ game instead of its own.

Dean Smith‘s public memorial will be 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22, in the Smith Center. Which leads me to wonder: Where will they hold Billy Graham‘s, once he passes on? Bank of America Stadium? Charlotte Motor Speedway? The National Mall?

There’s just one teeny-weeny little problem with the four plaintiffs in King v. Burwell, the case now before the Supreme Court that could, perhaps, lead to the Affordable Care Act’s being struck down: None of the four appears to have standing to be suing in the first place.

Could the hammer at long last be coming down on rogue Swiss(-ish) bank HSBC? I’ll believe it when/if it happens, but the Honorable Senator Professor Warren is on this like white on rice. (And just how rogue? Check this out.)

Jim Crow lynchings: significantly more common than previously reported.

I’m not the brightest bulb in the fixture, but I could tell in 11th grade U.S. history that “right-to-work” was Orwellian doublespeak. Unfortunately, that ain’t all it is.

Debtors’ jail, ostensibly illegal in the U.S., apparently is alive and well in Ferguson, Missouri. A lawsuit seeks to change that.

“Trials” at Guantanamo: No, Casey, nobody here can play this game.

If you’ve never worked in newspapers, you probably thought newspaper executive editors couldn’t get any stupider, and that if they did, it wasn’t your fault as a reader. You were wrong, as Robert Price of the Bakersfield Californian is pleased to demonstrate:

Several weeks ago, [director of audience development] Louis [Amestoy] and I introduced a set of new expectations for reporters and editors. Chief among them was that reporters and editors shall write publishable content every single day. Not blow-out, eight-source 30-inchers (although they have their place), but quick-hit 4-inchers based on as few as a one source or even personal observation — “what I saw driving in to work” stories. So far I have seen almost none of these.

These are required and will be measured on your annual reviews (which are coming up). Please think about how you might start creating these. If you’re like me, you may think some stories (weather related, seen on a business marquee, etc) just don’t clear the bar of importance. Not true, in most cases. Readers gobble this stuff up. [emphasis added; along with the unmistakable sound of Our Lord and Savior weeping bitterly]

#StealAlltheGrammys According to Google, Annie Lennox, Kristen Wiig, Prince (“almost”), Kanye West, Sam Smith, Frank Ocean, and Pharrell Williams’s funky park ranger hat, among others, “stole the Grammys.” Thought you’d want to know.

 

 

Saturday, January 31, 2015 9:43 am

Odds and ends for Jan. 31

Every decent parent loves his kids. But even the best parent has days when he doesn’t much like his kids. So it is, this non-Catholic thinks, with Pope Francis and the Curia members who answer to him.

Late-night TV hosts mourn that Mitt Romney won’t be running for president again. Still a lot of clowns in that GOP car, though.

One of those clowns is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Last time around, Jindal tried to market himself for president as an unthreatening technocrat and an immigrant son of the American Dream. It didn’t work, but at least it was well-intentioned and, I think, had some appeal across party lines. This time around, though, he has gone full-metal Pat Buchanan and pulled the immigrant ladder up after himself. I’m not sorry to delight in the fact that that won’t end well for him.

You Can’t Make This Up Dept.: The House Rules Committee is having a hearing on repealing Obamacare. On Groundhog Day.

told you people on Twitter that using the hashtag #Blizzardof2015 like there would only be one was hubris. And now the impending new winter storms in New England have reduced the National Weather Service to transmitting random Whitesnake lyrics instead of forecasts.

Speaking of Twitter, for sheer joy, follow the hashtag #ThingsBetterThanScarborough. MSNBC put Joe Scarborough on in prime time last night in place of Rachel Maddow, and her regular audience was not amused. My favorite contribution to the stream was, “live interns.”

Most Facebook tiffs are just that, but this one, in which I participate with my usual (ahem) charm, is a bit more noteworthy, in that N.C. Rep. John Blust makes it clear herein that he thinks the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, to which he swore oaths of loyalty as an Army officer and a legislator, is a bunch of hooey. When I first met Blust in 1998, I found him to be a likable, if painfully naive, politician. Now he’s just trolling us.

What in the pluperfect hell was this Seattle cop thinking?

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy has had it with you wackaloon conspiracy theorists. SCIENCE, bitchez!

My Tar Heels and Wildcats both have big games today, and I’ll likely miss both for working. So it goes.

 

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