Profanity and Politics

You may have missed the 72nd Annual Tony Awards broadcast last week…actually, based on ratings you almost certainly missed it…but even so you may have heard that movie star Robert De Niro dropped the f-bomb in a political statement directed at President Trump. Networks censors were ready and bleeped the offending word, as required by the FCC, but viewers at home still got the message.

While LA and New York are known for liberal politics, it still came as a bit of a surprise when De Niro’s condemnation of President Trump was followed by a standing ovation. The famous Michelle Obama dictum, “when they go low, we go high” was nowhere to be seen.

This is not the first time that awards programs have drawn attention for outrageous or profane statements. U2’s Bono, Cher, Nichole Richie, and others have uttered “fleeting expletives” on awards shows in the past.

Profane political speech comes with a special challenge . According to Frank Bruni, opinion writer for the New York Times,

When you answer name-calling with name-calling and tantrums with tantrums, you’re not resisting him. You’re mirroring him. You’re not diminishing him. You’re demeaning yourselves.

The stunt by De Niro reminds me of a similar statement made by the editorial staff of the CSU student newspaper, The Rocky Mountain Collegian, back in 2007. After publishing a very brief editorial very similar in tone to De Niro’s statement, reactions from the community and alumni led to the student newspaper being moved off-campus where it is now published by the independent 501(c)3 non-profit Rocky Mountain Student Media Corporation.

The paper’s editor-in-chief J. David McSwane said in response to the controversy, “While the editorial board feels strongly with regard to first amendment issues, we have found the unintended consequences of such a bold statement to be extremely disheartening.”

Many would agree that the tone of political debate has indeed become “extremely disheartening” on many levels.

Spotify’s Values

Spotify provides a streaming music service to millions of users, and like any media platform is legally entitled to pick and choose which artists and content to carry and feature. In what is very likely a response to the #TimesUp and #MuteRKelly movements, Spotify’s recent decision has become the subject of debate by both artists and listeners.

According to Billboard magazine’s website,

As part of the new policy, Spotify also de-playlisted works by R. Kelly, who has faced a slew of sexual abuse allegations he denies but who “never has been convicted of a crime, nor does he have any pending criminal charges against him,” Kelly’s team said in a statement Thursday, noting that the “lyrics he writes express love and desire” while Spotify “promotes numerous other artists who are convicted felons, others who have been arrested on charges of domestic violence and artists who sing lyrics that are violent and anti-women in nature.”

To be clear, I’m not a fan of R. Kelly, or XXXTentacion, but this new policy by Spotify raises some important questions about how sanctions are applied to artists/performers who have been accused of bad behavior. In the past it was often a criminal conviction that was the tipping point that led to censure. But in the absence of a criminal charge, on what basis is Spotify making this decision? And will this move by Spotify be followed by similar action by Apple Music, RCA, and Ticketmaster: other entities that have a stake in Kelly’s music? And what about other artists that have been accused of mis-behavior?

Spotify is trying to make clear their decision-making process and published a webpage for artists that details what kinds of private behavior may lead to censure by the company. According to Spotify,

We don’t censor content because of an artist’s or creator’s behavior, but we want our editorial decisions – what we choose to program – to reflect our values. When an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful (for example, violence against children and sexual violence), it may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator.

This problem is not limited to Spotify and we can expect to see similar responses from social media sites, especially content-communities such as YouTube and Reddit, when cultural norms are breached and offended individuals/groups bring complaints.

 

 

 

Pulitzer for Kendrick

The Onion, satirical website

This is an actual screen shot from The Onion website. While the headline may be outrageous, it’s actually true. Not until you get to the two quotes does The Onion’s trademark satire kick in.

But seriously, who would have thought that the Pulitzer Prize in Music for 2018 would go to a rapper from Compton. According to National Public Radio, “It’s the first time in the prize’s history that it has been given to an artist outside of the classical or jazz community.” And the song DAMN is, according to The New Yorker, “the first hip-hop composition to be honored since the establishment of the music prize, in 1943.”

Others have noted that this award is further indication that pop culture is finally being recognized instead of stigmatized by the culturally elite crowd. Just as Bob Dylan’s receipt of a Nobel Prize for Literature last year shook up the Nobel crowd, this may be the ultimate affirmation for a music genre that has typically mocked conventional and institutional values. And while this decision by the Pulitzer judges may be political, it is clearly not satirical.

 

 

 

Weakened Denver Post Struggles to Survive

The Denver Post, the flagship newspaper of the Centennial State, is suffering crippling layoffs and downsizing at the hands of its hedge-fund manager owners Alden Global Capital. In an editorial posted over the weekend, the Denver Post pleaded for help. “Reduction in quality leads to a reduction of trust.” “It’s time for those Coloradans who care most about their civic future to get involved and see to it that Denver gets the newsroom it deserves.’’

Evidence of the “reduction in quality” that results when editorial positions are eliminated can be found in a glaring mistake that was made in last week’s paper. Announcing the Colorado Rockies 2018 season opener to be played at Coors Field, a half-page photo used was for a ballpark in Philadelphia, PA.

That may feel like an inconsequential error in light of the bigger issues of politics and world affairs, but it does illustrate the loss that Denver, the state of Colorado, and the country are facing as media corporations chase the bottom line while ignoring the communities that they’re supposed to serve.

Sinclair Stumbles

Sinclair Broadcast Group owns 193 local TV stations in 89 markets around the US. As the largest owner of local TV stations, they wield enormous influence and are closely watched by those who are concerned about media convergence and consolidation.

If you were paying any attention to social media this past few days you probably saw a short video (edited by Timothy Burke of Deadspin) that mashed up recordings of Sinclair anchors/reporters reading from the script that was sent to affiliate stations. Here’s the script that Sinclair’s management asked each station’s news department to read on-air:

“Hi, I’m (anchor A) ____________, and I’m (anchor B) _______________…
(B) Our greatest responsibility is to serve our (station location) communities. We are extremely proud of the quality, balanced journalism that (station call letters) News produces.
(A) But we’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country. The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media.
(B) More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories… stories that just aren’t true, without checking facts first.
(A) Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think’…This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.
(B) At (station call letters) it’s our responsibility to pursue and report the truth. We understand Truth is neither politically ‘left nor right.’ Our commitment to factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility, now more than ever.
(A) But we are human and sometimes our reporting might fall short. If you believe our coverage is unfair please reach out to us by going to (station call letters)news.com and clicking on CONTENT CONCERNS. We value your comments. We will respond back to you.
(B) We work very hard to seek the truth and strive to be fair, balanced and factual… We consider it our honor, our privilege to responsibly deliver the news every day.
(A) Thank you for watching and we appreciate your feedback”

When you just read the script there’s not much that raises concern. Fake news and biased reporting shared on social media ARE, in fact, “threats to democracy.”  And few would argue the idea that truth is “neither politically left nor right.” And in fairness to Sinclair the editing of the video was manipulative. The repetitiveness of certain phrases and the omission of the call for input and feedback was intentionally designed to create its own bias.

But the optics tell another story. Comedian and provocateur Jon Oliver said, “Nothing says ‘we value independent media’ like dozens of reporters forced to repeat the same message over and over again, like members of a brainwashed cult.”

The idea that a network of local TV stations, and their news departments, would be directed by their corporate owners to fall in line and deliver a commentary decrying “fake news” is problematic. For one, it sounds too much like the weaponization of the term “fake news” that President Trump has perfected in his first year in office. Add to that the fact that Sinclair leans to the conservative side of the political spectrum. And finally, Sinclair is asking the FCC to allow the acquisition of an additional 42 stations as part of their purchase of Tribune Media. All of this combined makes it look like a political maneuver rather than a sincere call to action.

Fake news and bias are real problems…but they won’t be solved by empty promises or by using the issue as a political weapon. What we need is a serious discussion about how we got ourselves into this mess, and how we can get ourselves out.

 

Net Neutrality Regulations Under Review

Network neutrality is back in the news as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has announced plans to review the Obama-era regulation. An upcoming vote by the five FCC commissioners will likely overturn the rules that attempt to level the playing field for businesses that depend on the internet to deliver their content to users. According to the Washington Post, Pai claims that his proposal would,

…restore a ‘light-touch’ regulatory framework for Internet services and would stop the government from micromanaging the Internet.

If you’re still unsure about what Net Neutrality is all about, or want to hear about the debate from multiple points of view, see this excellent card stack by Vox. MediaShift also has a nice 2017 guide on the topic.

As with any debate, the heated rhetoric on the margins often overlooks the nuance that captures the real issues at stake. You owe it to yourself to read carefully before taking a position on this divisive topic.

Thanksgiving Week Update

Although we’re off this week, breaking news is not letting up. Here’s a quick recap of media-related news stories of interest to Media & Society…

  • Charlie Rose (CBS, PBS) and Glenn Thrush (New York Times White House correspondent) are new additions to the growing list of media professionals accused of sexual harassment or misconduct. Both have been suspended.
  • The Department of Justice is attempting to block the proposed $85 billion deal between AT&T (a telecom company) and Time Warner (a content producer) on the basis of anti-trust violation. This is despite a similar deal in 2011 when Comcast bought NBC/Universal.
  • FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is considering a roll-back of Net Neutrality policies that were put in place during the Obama administration. More at Politico.
  • Multiple former insiders at Facebook are coming out to accuse FB of building a platform designed to compromise its users. Former engineers, designers, and investors are admitting their own involvement in aiding the tech giant in creating something that has become too big and too powerful for our own good. The person who created FB’s “like” button was quoted as saying, “It is very common for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences.” There’s an old saying, “Confession is good for the soul.”

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

 

Paying for Media

Paying for media is both unavoidable and, at the same time, pretty unusual. All media content is paid for by someone, but for the end user that “cost” is not always visible. It used to be very obvious every time you bought a book or a movie ticket or a CD (remember those?). But most folks don’t buy books, movie tickets or CDs anymore. And a lot of our media content appears to be free. It’s not, but the cost is hidden from view and only apparent in the form of annoyingly-hard-to-avoid advertising.

According to an article in Politico, some of this is changing. Partly because of the gradual acceptance of online services that have a small monthly fee (e.g. Netflix and ad-free streaming music services) Millennials are starting to consider paying for other forms of media.

The other contributing factor that the article identifies is the election of President Trump. It appears that online journalism is getting a boost from those opposed to Trump, and that has been good news for online news providers…especially those that have taken an aggressive stance  to the current administration. The ideological factor is substantial according the following excerpt from the article.

Newman said that 29 percent of Americans responded to the survey that their reason for paying for news was, “wanting to help support or fund journalism,” which was twice the average for all countries included in the study. Americans on the political left were four times more likely than those on the right to cite supporting journalism as their reason for paying, Newman said.

But there are still concerns. Again, according to Politico…

For all the good news, the truth remains that those willing to pay for journalism still represent a relatively small group—according to the Reuters Institute study, 84 percent of Americans do not pay for online news. Subscriptions are not cheap, and Newman pointed out that there is danger in quality journalism becoming an increasingly elite product. “The danger is that you get a two-tiered system,” he said.

This notion of two classes–information “haves” and information “have nots”–is disconcerting for those who see income inequality as a barrier to political engagement.

Still, for an industry that has been pummeled for more than a decade by terrible financial news and, for the last 10 months, by the President of the United States, the growing willingness of millennials to open their wallets is welcome news.

 

Trust and Credibility Issues Growing for Journalists

Last fall a Gallup poll found that Americans’ trust in mass media had reached a new low at 32%. A new study out this week led Politico to write a story with the following headline: “Poll: 46 percent think media make up stories about Trump“.  Here’s the question that produced the polling data.

Of course President Trump tweeted the poll results blaming the media’s loss of credibility on what he labels “fake news.”

Even if you’re not a journalist this should be cause for concern, and here’s why. Journalism is a profession that serves the public by reporting the news of the day with fairness and accuracy. It is important that reporters get their information from multiple reliable sources, contextualize the facts based on other relevant information, and present it to the public in a timely manner. It is good to be fast, but never at the expense of being right…in other words, journalists need to take time to double-check their facts and do everything within their power to strive for accuracy. If they make a mistake there should be a correction and an apology. If they make too many mistakes, they become accountants (sorry, I couldn’t resist). No seriously, if they screw up too many times they’ll be looking for a new profession.

For news reporters (as opposed to commentators) it is also important that they make every effort to set aside their personal beliefs in order to report the facts without bias. No reporter can do this perfectly, but s/he must work tirelessly to eliminate bias that constantly tries to insert itself into the story. After reading a story from a seasoned journalist you should be unable to ascertain that reporter’s beliefs about politics or any other number of personal choices that they’ve made.*

In journalism, fabrication is a fireable offense. There are many journalists whose names will go down in infamy because they fabricated stories…in whole or in part. Here’s a top-10 list that should provide plenty of motivation for any young journalist who might be tempted to cut corners or embellish a story.

This is why this poll result is so startling and disturbing. The fact that nearly half of those polled think that “major news organizations fabricate news stories about President Trump  and his administration” is shocking. It reveals a deep distrust of “the press” by a significant portion of the population. Consider for a moment the fact that trust is the only thing of value for members of the press. It doesn’t matter how much information you have or how good it is, if half of your potential audience thinks that you sometimes make things up you’re wasting your time. It’s like asking people if they believe that employees at major fast food chains spit on your food before serving it. If half the people think that they do, chances are they’re not eating fast food. (My apologies to the squeamish.)

This poll, and another from Marist College, led a commentator at the Washington Post to declare that Trump has won his war against the media. While it may be too soon to make that claim, it certainly is not too soon to sound the alarm.


The poll was conducted October 12-16, surveying 1,991 registered voters. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Morning Consult is a nonpartisan media and technology company that provides data-driven research and insights on politics, policy and business strategy.

More details on the poll and its methodology can be found in these two documents — Toplines: http://politi.co/2xMOykV | Crosstabs: http://politi.co/2kU6DYm

*According to a study by Harvard University, reported in the Chicago Tribune, some of the loss of credibility by the news media may be a direct result of biased coverage of the first 100 days in office for the Trump administration.

Are the Media Complicit in Harvey Weinstein’s Sexual Abuse?

The avalanche of accusations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein continued unabated this week as more women came out to accuse him of  sexual harassment, groping, and even rape. In hindsight it appears that the only people in Hollywood who didn’t know about Weinstein’s behavior were members of the media. Or worse…perhaps they did know but couldn’t bring themselves to report it.

The abuse by Weinstein was so well known in Hollywood that it even served as a joke by Seth MacFarlane on the 2013 Academy Awards  telecast. While McFarland describes the joke as “a hard swing in his [Weinstein’s] direction”, others are describing MacFarlane’s joke as just another example of not taking these allegations seriously. Here it is…you decide:

This kind of behavior is, sadly, not new. The infamous Hollywood “casting couch” has never been so clearly revealed to anyone who cares to look past the flimsy curtain. The sad reality is that men in positions of power have been able to prey on victims who are afraid to report the crimes.

What is new here is the scope and size of the offense, and the reach and influence of the perpetrator. Few media moguls are as big as Harvey Weinstein. According to a report by PBS, “Between his work at Miramax and The Weinstein Company, which he co-founded, Weinstein’s films have received more than 300 Oscar nominations and secured 81 wins for films like ‘Pulp Fiction,’ ‘Sling Blade’ and ‘Shakespeare in Love’”.

Weinstein’s clout was not just felt in Hollywood, but also New York (the center of the news media), and Washington D.C. A long time political donor to Democratic politicians, the Clintons and Obama counted on Weinstein to deliver both dollars and votes. Michelle Obama called Weinstein “a wonderful human being, and good friend” and the Obama’s daughter Malia worked as an intern in his office.

But what really has people scratching their heads is the official silence from news organizations. Why did it take so long for the story to break in The New Yorker? Decades after the fact, reporters are now telling stories of how their reporting on Weinstein was spiked by editors and publishers who didn’t want to offend Weinstein. Why would media outlets that take seriously the oath to “seek the truth no matter where it leads” turn away when the path leads to Weinstein’s door?

According to recent reports, the sexual assault allegations have exacted a toll. Weinstein was fired by his production company, his wife left him, political friends have denounced him, and he has been expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But for the many women who were harmed by Weinstein, this is only the beginning of justice being served.

Update: After posting this I ran across this article in the Weekly Standard. More food for thought.