The Brian Williams Saga: When the Mob is Worse than the Crime

    The scandal engulfing NBC’s Brian Williams should trouble all of us—as much for the way that the media and social media have handled it as for its’ substance. 

    Only further investigation will determine whether Williams simply suffered from a flawed memory, as many of us do, or whether he violated journalism’s most sacred creeds.

    Yet, before NBC completed a full investigation, a media and social media driven mob called for, and received, Williams’ head when NBC executives suspended the anchor for six months (the odds that he returns in six months are lower than the odds of Jon Stewart replacing him). 

    This feeding frenzy occurred in spite of Williams’ long and decorated record. In discussing the case, even Rush Limbaugh, no fan of the mainstream broadcasters, noted that Williams was one of the few members of the mainstream media who had been fair to him. 

    The story also commanded disproportionate and unprecedented coverage throughout the media. Williams trended on Twitter for days. Outlets ranging from the New York Times to CNN to Limbaugh offered blow-by-blow coverage. Many newspaper print editions even placed the story on the front page.

    Countless stories with far more impact on the lives of Americans, including developments in the war against ISIS and a new jobs report, received less attention. The disproportionate amount of coverage devoted to Williams raises significant questions about whether our insatiable desire for scandal, celebrity, and conflict prevent the press from serving the public well. 

    Repeated surveys and scholarly research demonstrate that the public is ill-informed about the workings of government and the substance of policy battles. Yet, stories such as the Williams scandal, the recent “deflategate,” and tales of plane crashes all too often dominate the news (I'm looking at you CNN). 

    Many might argue that media outlets are simply giving viewers and readers what they desire. After all, media enterprises need to generate readers, viewers, and listeners or risk ceasing to exist. Yet, the success of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, with its focus on humorous long form journalism about dense policy topics ranging from payday lending to net neutrality, should dispel the myth that the media must stick to scandals and controversy to succeed. 

    Critics might believe that I’m downplaying the Williams scandal. Yet, even NBC’s suspension announcement mentioned only concerns about comments that Williams made with other outlets about his experiences in the field. Outside of an incorrect recounting of his time in Iraq in 2003 on Nightly News two weeks ago (twelve years after the fact) no one has offered any evidence that any of Williams’ reporting has been tainted. 

    Make no mistake, Williams should lose his job if he fabricated or embellished any story that he reported in real time on Nightly News (as opposed to retelling twelve years later). But to this point, no evidence exists that he did. I wonder how many members of the media could withstand the scrutiny being applied to Williams—how many have done far worse things journalistically, including (especially on cable news) slanting a story in such a way as to distort facts? 

    The witch hunt has now extended to Williams’ retelling of events that predate his time at NBC News, and even his career as a newsman. These events, and Williams’ retelling of them in speeches, interviews, and talk show appearances have little to do with how he did his job at NBC. 

    Another deeply troubling aspect of the coverage of the Williams story demonstrates the substantial changes in the media over the last thirty years. Since the controversy erupted, the New Orleans Advocate and other media outlets have questioned Williams’ reporting on Hurricane Katrina, most especially the claim that he saw a dead body floating by his hotel window in the French Quarter. Yet, the story in the Advocate relied upon no actual hard evidence to make its accusations, just suppositions. In fact, evidence in a follow up story seemed to show that Williams’ contention was plausible. 

    Despite this lack of hard evidence, a story in Saturday’s New York Times noted, “Some blogs and media outlets questioned Mr. Williams’s description of what he saw while reporting on Hurricane Katrina.” Thus, simply because others raised unsubstantiated doubts about Williams’ Katrina reporting, the national paper of record repeated these claims without verifying them. 

    As media outlets have proliferated, the bar for when sufficient factual support exists to report something has been dramatically lowered. Gone are the days when journalists served as gatekeepers, only reporting on something when they had the facts verified.

    Now, a story can start in an entertainment medium (like talk radio), on an ideologically-driven outlet, on a blog with no editorial standards, or in a tweet, and work its way through a conveyor belt of social media until it lands in the most respectable outlets. As a claim works its way up the media ladder, major outlets, who might have ignored it thirty years ago, face pressure to cover it because others are. 

    In this case, it appears likely that Williams will lose his job thanks to the feeding frenzy. This outcome should profoundly trouble people because of its broader implications.

    Increasingly, social media breathlessly determines guilt and innocence long before the facts are in, whether the accused is a television news anchor, a sports star, a politician, or an average Joe. Further, there is an almost perverse glee to sentencing the “guilty” party to social and professional death.

     I concur wholeheartedly with Jon Ronson who describes  “marvel[ing] at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment. It almost felt as if shamings were now happening for their own sake, as if they were following a script.” 

    These judgments and the attendant feeding frenzy contributes to ever increasing public cynicism about all major institutions that dates back to the late 1960s. This cynicism makes it harder to govern, and encourages Americans to discount any reporting, with which they do not agree, thereby furthering polarization. 

    This culture also enables those with nefarious, selfish, or political motivates to take advantage of legitimate questions or criticisms to attempt to tear down public figures or entire institutions. The result has been a constant parade of scandals that drag people down, sometimes unfairly, and with little regard for guilt or innocence.     

    We need to step back and ask ourselves whether this culture, and the standards that go along with it, are beneficial or detrimental to society, and whether it is time to rein in the digital mob. Even if we might countenance holding public figures to high standards, we should fret  about a society in which one poorly conceived joke or misunderstood sarcastic remark has been enough to upend the lives of countless Americans

Why the Chris Stigall Comments Shouldn't Surprise Anyone

WPHT Philadelphia morning host Chris Stigall found himself in hot water last week. Stigall mused that Julie Kramer, a cancer-stricken Philadelphia Phillies fan who had been surprised by Phillies star second baseman Chase Utley on the Ellen show, would not live through the entire 2015 baseball season. 

The comments made it into the blogosphere and got picked up by local news. Stigall apologized, while simultaneously accusing people who he considered to be out to get him of taking his comments out of context (as many members of the media and politicians who stick a foot in their mouths so often do). 

It remains to be seen if WPHT will discipline Stigall for the remarks, which were completely inappropriate, and yet completely predictable. 

To an extent, this sort of comment is imbedded in the DNA of talk radio. Before everyone who works in the business attacks me, or assumes that I am slamming hosts or denigrating the medium, hear me out. 

The best talk radio is edgy, unpredictable, and pushes boundaries. That is part of what makes it entertaining. It's not all that different than the funniest stand up comedy. Richard Pryor offended lots of people. So did George Carlin. Indeed other entertainment forms (especially spontaneous ones) including The Daily Show, Conan, and standup comedy, can also be raunchy, edgy, or inappropriate at times, but hilarious. 

But there is an inherent risk when an entertainer pushes the boundaries of propriety. Thus, it should not surprise anyone when hosts occasionally stray over the line. Radio hosts are imperfect beings like the rest of us humans.

Giving Stigall the benefit of the doubt, he probably wished that he had the words back as soon as his brain fully processed what he said. We all have moments where we say things, and think, oh bleep, I bet I just offended someone, or that didn't come out at all like I meant it! 

Now imagine trying to be entertaining and edgy fifteen hours a week, skirting the line without crossing it, and having no script or safety net. Additionally, every word you say is recorded and uploaded onto the web, so that your comments not only have to avoid offending your listening audience, but also have to pass the test of someone who might only hear a twenty second clip. 

Under these circumstances, hosts are bound to cross the line every now and again. The longer that a host has been on the air, the more likely it is that he or she will have said things on multiple occasions that would offend at least some, if not all, people. 

You would hope that someone would know that talking about a cancer victim is begging to get himself in trouble. It's the sort of topic that should have flashing warning lights attached to it. But we should be lenient towards talk radio hosts in these situations. When a comic makes an inappropriate joke in a live show, the audience typically just sits silently, or laughs half-heartedly and nervously in an oh-my-god-did-he-just-say-that-sort-of-way. 

Typically (though not always in a world of camera phones) the comic gets away with the line and goes back to the drawing board before his next performance. The talk radio host is a similar style of entertainer. Yet, he/she does not have this luxury. 

The difference between a talk radio host and a comic is that because the core content of so many talk radio programs is political, hosts face far more scrutiny than comics, because there is a huge group of people that consider hosts to be part of the political opposition, and thus, a target. Additionally, hosts operate in a mass medium, whereas even the most popular standup comics perform before a few thousand people per night.  

This difference explains why standup comics often get in trouble when they venture into the political realm.  For example, comedian Louis CK withdrew from his role as the host of the White House Correspondents dinner in 2012 after Fox NewsGreta Van Susteren called for a boycott of the dinner because of offensive comments that CK made about Sarah Palin. All of a sudden, comments that CK's usual audience might have found funny, drew a very different reaction from a very different audience. 

Offering this information is not to defend Stigall. He probably should have known to avoid the minefield, and I certainly would have preferred an apology that didn't try to blame people for taking his comments out of context. There really is no good context. We all make mistakes, and hosts need to be willing to say I screwed up, I'm sorry.

But we should understand the difficult job that hosts have, and recognize that if every host who crossed the line got fired, radio would be far less entertaining. It also would not be much of a stretch to start censoring broadcast comics and taking away material that brings laughter to lots of people. 

While Rush Limbaugh or Chris Stigall might offend you or I, and Jon Stewart might seem hilarious, it's easy to envision Stewart offending plenty of people. The same goes for scores of performers from every different demographic group and with every different type of worldview. 

We're better off as a society avoiding media censorship, and instead making choices about what media we consume. If people find a host offensive, they can vote with their listening/viewing habits. If enough people agree with them, the host will be unemployed soon enough. 

That does not mean that a host should avoid sanction when he/she crosses such a clear line. If I was Stigall's boss, I would probably suspend him without pay through the end of the year to make it clear that such comments are not acceptable. It also does not mean that a host who repeatedly crosses such clear lines should not eventually lose his/her job. 

But it does mean that people need to stop holding radio hosts to the standard that if any group is offended by some of their comments or jokes, that host should face sanctions, boycotts, etc. The result would be a very boring, vanilla product that didn't thrill anyone but also didn't offend anyone. 

No one would benefit from that. And I say that as someone who disagrees with Chris Stigall far more than I agree, and who would prefer to see far greater diversity of opinion on the talk radio airwaves. 

 

The Sin of Silence

Inga Saffron of the Philadelphia Inquirer alerted us two weeks ago to an abomination in process. One of Philadelphia's true development success stories has a good chance of being derailed because of a recalcitrant politician. 

In brief, developers U3 Ventures and the Thylan Group consulted early and often with neighborhood groups regarding a development project at 43rd and Baltimore Avenue. This process resulted in an outstanding design that actually excited neighbors (a stark contrast to the usual complaints about lack of consultation, concerns about the impact of development on a neighborhood, etc). According to Saffron, the City Planning Commission also applauded the design. 

So we have a fairy tale complete with a happily ever after ending, right? Not so fast. In order for the development to proceed, the zoning for the block needs to change. Because of Philadelphia's arcane, unwritten rules, that requires the support of local City Councilwoman, Jannie Blackwell. To date, she has refused to support the change. 

Now I'm tempted to skewer Blackwell for this opposition/inaction. After all, I can't think of a single good reason to oppose/derail this development. But I'll refrain because we have no idea what Blackwell's thoughts on the project are.

Instead, I'll skewer her for refusing to explain why she has not acted on the request for a zoning change. Blackwell's refusal to comment/return calls when contacted both by Saffron, and subsequently by a reporter for the Daily Pennsylvanian represents an utter abdication of duty. She owes it to her constituents to explain her thinking if she is going to derail what looks like it would be a positive development for the neighborhood. 

If she continues to refuse to do so, the local media needs to continue to draw attention to her behavior, and a concerted campaign needs to begin (led by media voices like the Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Board, as well as community groups) to encourage voters to remove Blackwell from office. One cannot credibly claim to represent people when she will not explain her rationale for seemingly opposing the wishes of her constituents. 

I've written a fair amount about what I wish the media would refrain from doing in terms of "holding politicians accountable (see yesterday's blog)." But this is the perfect case for investigative journalism and the media watchdog function.

If Blackwell won't answer questions, then it is incumbent on the local press to investigate why she is standing in the way of this development. Sadly, constituents are not likely to get an answer from the Councilwoman without media intervention that forces her hand. 

Maybe her opposition is legitimate. I might not agree with her judgment, but we don't elect our representatives with the expectation that they will agree with us 100% of the time. But it is also possible that her refusal to explain her thinking is indicative of something far more nefarious, and that is why the press cannot let this story rest. Doing so, would send the wrong message to developers, neighborhood groups, and politicians throughout the city. 

Blackwell's behavior is nothing new from members of Philadelphia's City Council, who often take advantage of a lack of scrutiny to play favorites, make demands, and run their districts as fiefdoms. But it cannot continue to be acceptable. 

If we want a city propelled by forward thinking development and planning, we must reward U3 Ventures, the Thylan Group, and the neighborhood groups that participated in this process. We must let politicians know that encouraging and taking part in such efforts will be met with praise, and attempting to derail them will draw scorn, skepticism, and electoral defeats. 

Is Everything About A Candidate Fair Game?

I posted dueling views from Chris Cillizza and Matt Bai on the impact of reporting on the personal lives of politicians on the sidebar a few weeks ago. I didn't intend to comment on the topic myself, because I thought that both made good points. 

Last week, however, I became increasingly irked by the willingness of reporters to serve as the conduits for opposition research. On Friday, we got stories on how South Dakota Independent Senate Candidate Larry Pressler (a former 3 term senator), owns homes in Washington and New York, but not South Dakota, and on Oregon's First Lady accepting $5,000 to take part in a sham marriage to help an 18 year old Ethiopian stay in the country in 1997. 

I read both stories and immediately thought WHO CARES?!?!?! (okay the actual thought probably involved more profanity than is appropriate on a family blog). 

Elections should be decided on policy differences. Are character issues and background relevant? Sure. Learning about a politician's background and values does lend insight into who that person is. I also want to know if a candidate has done anything illegal in the past (not his/her spouse or children), and/or whether he/she has been hypocritical. 

For example, I don't care if a candidate cheats on his/her spouse unless he/she claims to be a champion of family values. Why? Because a person's sexual life is no business of the voters and has little bearing on the ability to serve effectively. By contrast, hypocrisy matters and tells us about how genuine beliefs are or are not.  

Don't get me wrong— I'd prefer virtuous and moral public servants. But we've had plenty of unsavory characters who have been outstanding public servants and done a lot of good for the country. 

But the press has gone far beyond that. The increased emphasis on horserace coverage that comes from outlets like Politico that focus primarily on politics (full disclosure: I wrote an op-ed for Politico in June, and I think their magazine has done some wonderful long form journalism) and the 24/7 news cycle seem to have changed reporters' mentality. 

I don't get the sense that the journalists who report these "stories" ever stop to think— does this matter? Now one can argue that the decision on whether something is relevant to a campaign should be made by voters, not journalists. On the surface, that perspective seems quite reasonable, and indeed, appropriate. Yet, it ignores reality.

Every time one of these stories affects a campaign, voters become that much more cynical, and campaigns move further and further away from being fought over issues and competing visions for the country. Additionally, these stories deter potentially capable public servants from putting  themselves up for election. Why have your family dragged through the mud?

The residency question is one that repeatedly pops up. DC homes or the lack of a home in one's state hurt House Speaker Tom Foley, Senate Minority Leader Tom Dasche, Senator Richard Lugar, and this cycle, Senator Pat Roberts, among others. Yet, the truth is, having a home in Washington simply reflects COMMON SENSE. Why would elected officials wish to be separated from their families if they can avoid it? 

Even with Congress' often absurdly light work schedule, most members of Congress still have to be in Washington from Monday night to Thursday night or Friday morning. Why shouldn't they want to be with their families during that period? Should they really have to help kids with homework through Skype in order to prove that they still understand the needs of their home state and relate to constituents? It's nonsense. 

Similarly, for long serving members of Congress, doesn't it make sense to own a home in the place where you have spent at least 50% of the time for years and years? Would we really do anything different? Does owning a home in one's home state really tell us anything about how well someone relates to the state? Of course not. It simply indicates a) that the person is a good politician, b) that the person has enough money to afford two homes, and c) that the person doesn't mind being on airplanes a whole heck of a lot. 

Now, I understand why reporters cover these stories. First, in the world of 24/7 media and social media, they understand that even if they say no to proffered opposition research, someone will publish it. Thus, why not get the scoop? Also, they face pressure from ideological media (especially on cable news), and ideological outlets accuse the mainstream media of being partisan or biased for far less than ignoring this sort of story. 

Nonetheless, I wish these stories would get less attention. They damage our political system, degrade the quality of our elected officials, and make it harder to hold a national conversation about what sort of government and society we wish to have. 

People are not perfect. Let's acknowledge that every candidate has done or said things about which they are not proud. Unless some folly reflects hypocrisy, or clear unfitness to serve in office (for example, someone with a serious drug addiction or substantial gambling debts that might make him/her susceptible to pressure), let's avoid breathlessly reporting it in the last month before the election. 

I'd even go further— I'd like to see reporters call out campaigns for peddling this sort of garbage, instead of having a substantive debate about the issues.

Where I'd like to see reporters (and debate moderators) more aggressive is in pushing candidates on the issues. To me, their opinions and truthfulness when discussing policy are a far more important indication of fitness for office than whatever small scandal or mistake exists in their past. 

Are Daily Show, Colbert, and Last Week Tonight Good News Sources?

There are endless scholarly debates as to whether the comedy news programs are good sources of news or not (and whether their viewers are better informed than other segments of the population, or not).

I suspect that the public could care less about these debates, and just enjoys these shows because they are funny, if often also a source of valuable information. 

Much of the evidence and analysis that I've seen (see for example Jeff Jones' Entertaining Politics and this Annenberg Public Policy Center Report on the Colbert Report) indicate that these programs provide outstanding news coverage, and that people do learn from watching them, especially if they watch them to be informed, as well as entertained.

We can think of these programs as the proverbial broccoli with cheese sauce. They taste good (at least unless you hate broccoli like I do) and they are good for you as well. 

But these programs have a critical flaw, at least if someone utilizes them as a primary news source. They simply don't cover many stories.

The Daily Show produces roughly 23 minutes of content per night, four nights per week. Of that content, usually six or seven minutes is devoted to an interview. That leaves a maximum of 1 hour and 8 minutes per week for covering the news. What Daily Show covers is covered well. But, typically, Jon Stewart only covers one to two stories per night. 

John Oliver's new Last Week Tonight is an even more egregious example of this paradox. Oliver may offer the best long form public policy television journalism being produced today. His lengthy deep dive pieces on meaty policy issues (see these pieces on net neutrality and payday lending) are fantastic, educational, hilarious, and unmatched anywhere else on television. Yet, Oliver only produces one thirty minute show per week, which leaves, at most, time for two to three of his lengthy segments. 

Additionally, these late night comedians often go on vacation for 1-2 weeks at a time, leaving reruns or other programming to air in their time slots. During those periods, someone who relied on these shows for their information is left without coverage (which never happens on traditional newscasts). 

Thus, I've come to two conclusions regarding these programs. First, they often produce better, harder hitting, more honest coverage than traditional television journalistic outlets (especially the slanted screamfests on cable news).

Stewart, Colbert, and Oliver are happy to point out bullshit, and are less constrained by the journalistic need to appear nonpartisan and unbiased (which often leads to false equivalencies, or to the reporting of worthless partisan talking points in an effort to be evenhanded) than traditional journalists (this is not to say that there aren't some fantastic reporters out there, because there are many of them). 

Indeed, I think that the comedy news programs provide a great model for how television news ought to reinvent itself in the era of 24/7 news cycles where everyone has either already read about a story on twitter, or gotten a cell phone alert about it before they sit down in front of the television. Add an original reporting component to the comedy news no BS model, and you have a product that would be attractive to many cynical, frustrated younger Americans. 

In fact, I've frequently mused that my choices for moderators for the next set of presidential debates are Jon Stewart, Jon Oliver, and Howard Stern, who is a similar sort of interviewer (yes I recognize that no candidate would sign off on this group, and that it lacks diversity). 

But, crucially, young people cannot be satisfied to get their news primarily from these sources because there are simply too many critical stories that they don't cover. The hosts also don't feel the same obligation that the best mainstream media reporters do to keep their viewers well informed.

Rather, more like talk radio hosts, their eye is on entertaining, even if they also care passionately about public policy and work hard to get stories right. Their priorities mean that viewers might not hear about the most important story of the day, but rather the one that lends itself best to comedy. 

It's best to consider these comedy news programs like dessert— perhaps the best part of a meal, and certain worth having, but no substitute for an entree (at least not unless there is the comedy news equivalent of an entire pint of Ben & Jerry's). 

Who Gets To Talk About Policy Issues On TV?

Tonight several people objected to a comment that I made on twitter about Phil Robertson from the reality show Duck Dynasty discussing ISIS with Sean Hannity (see Robertson's comments) so I thought that I'd blog about the issue. I argued that I could care less about Robertson's stance on the issue and that he shouldn't be operating as a commentator. 

Why? It has nothing to do with Robertson or his beliefs. Rather, what concerns me is that Robertson is commenting on a political matter on a program viewed by more than a million people (last Friday Hannity had 1.126 million viewers) not because he has some special expertise or knowledge, but instead because his celebrity, brought about by a reality television program, makes him a ratings draw worthy of interview time.

Decades of polling and surveys show us that the public is relatively poorly informed on even the most basic rudiments of American government, politics, and public policy, let alone the nuance of complicated issues (see among other surveys http://tinyurl.com/7sd49k9http://tinyurl.com/4ym4u8q, and http://tinyurl.com/puy9k5g). 

It can't be good for the country that "news" outlets put a celebrity on to discuss the issues instead of an expert who spends his/her time studying the issue, or who has some sort of special knowledge on a topic (for example, someone with long government service dealing with a topic). Robertson is certainly entitled to have and voice an opinion. But by letting him air it on a "news" network, there is an opportunity being lost for people to better understand the issues. 

Even the commentators themselves, who many ideological opponents might assert lack the requisite knowledge to comment on an issue, spend hours preparing for each show and reading about topics in the news. For those who might think I'm just airing typical liberal bias against a prominent conservative, I'm not. I'm simply arguing that the country would be better served by Hannity interviewing Dick Cheney or John Bolton on ISIS than Phil Robertson. 

To put it a little differently, with whom would you rather discuss a medical condition, your doctor or Kim Kardashian?