100 Years and 600 Miles Apart on the Arkansas River

This is a special edition of the Media Matters blog. True to the mission of this blog, this post is about media; about a documentary film project and about sensational and scurrilous media that contributed to a literal conflagration fueled by racial hatred. But is is also about much more than that.

Photo by Ken Sciacca

In recent months I have been researching and writing a script for a historical documentary about the Great Flood that struck the city of Pueblo on June 3 of 1921. The program is finished and the episode of Colorado Experience will air on RMPBS this Thursday evening; 100 years, to the day and nearly to the hour, after that tragic event.

But in researching the Pueblo flood I also learned about a tragedy that happened 72 hours earlier in a city 600 miles downstream of Pueblo, also on the Arkansas River. Tulsa, Oklahoma was the site of perhaps the worst incident of racial violence in the history of the United States. And despite efforts to sweep it under the rug, the reality of that injustice is slowly coming to light. Oklahoma finally commissioned a study of the 1921 event in 2001; 80 years after the fact. Recent focus on racial justice (and injustice) is shining a new light on the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 and previously hidden stories of horrific deeds are finally coming to light. In fact Tulsa is the scene for the HBO’s Watchmen series, giving the historic narrative a superhero treatment and much greater exposure than any textbook or documentary. You can also read more about Tulsa in this “graphic novel” sponsored content at The Atlantic magazine.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

It is important to view historical events through the lens of the cultural and ethical norms of the time. While not an excuse for racial bigotry and oppression, it is important to understand that norms have changed substantially in the past 100 years. And of course one of the clearest markers of how far we’ve come is to compare the mass media then and now.

Promotional poster, public domain

Mass media in various forms contributed to the cultural climate in the late 1910’s and early ’20s and, in some cases, contributed directly to the actions that followed. The Birth of a Nation, by D. W. Griffin, was a major cinematic accomplishment and blockbuster when it was released in 1915. At the same time it was a viciously racist film that led to demonstrations and condemnation.

The film was hailed by critics and was given a private screening by President Woodrow Wilson in the Whitehouse. President Wilson remarked about the film, “It’s like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” But like the destructive and deadly nature of lightening, the film not only captured the racists sentiment of the time, it likely contributed to the Red Summer and growing racial unrest of the late 1910s.

Tulsa Tribune, page 1 story

Another example of the media’s role in setting the stage for Tulsa’s tragedy is more direct. The day after the alleged assault by a black teenager boy on a white teenage girl, the local newspaper, the Tulsa Tribune, ran a short article on the front page calling for action. At this time in this part of the country this was clearly a call for vigilante justice in the form of a lynching.

To be fair, Pueblo was also familiar with lynchings. Just two years earlier two Mexican men accused of murder were busted out of jail and hung from the 4th Street bridge over the Arkansas River.

The idea of vigilante justice may seem like something from our past, but recent apps like Citizen and Vigilante suggest that there will always be a market for incitement to direct action outside the bounds of the criminal justice system.

Allow me to first draw a few parallels between the events 100 years ago in Tulsa and Pueblo, and then we’ll turn our attention to the differences. As mentioned, both cites were built on the banks of the Arkansas River. Similar in size, the racial/ethnic makeup of the two cities was quite different. Tulsa was majority white, but with a large Black population. Pueblo was a melting pot of ethnicities with a small Black population. Pueblo was ethnically diverse because of immigrants from Old and New Mexico, southern and eastern Europe, and literally dozens of other countries. In fact the CF&I steel mill recorded more than 40 languages spoken by its employees, and the town of Pueblo had about 24 foreign-language newspapers at the beginning of the 20th century.

After the Race Massacre in Tulsa and the Great Flood in Pueblo, victims were likely buried in mass graves. In Tulsa the mayor has requested a study to determine if a mass grave exists and if it contains the bodies of murder victims. In Pueblo, recent studies using ground-penetrating radar have given researchers reason to believe that a mass grave at Roselawn Cemetery on the southeast side of town may hold victims of the flood.

Lucille Corsentino, of Roselawn Cemetery in Pueblo, explains how research by Colorado School of Mines and Alpine Archeological Consulatants is attempting to discover if a mass burial site may contain victims from the Great Flood, as well as others who died in tragic events in preceding years.

Lucille Corsentino, Roselawn Cemetery

The official count of victims from the massacre and the flood is similar, with estimates in the low hundreds. However, both events have led to serious questions about under-counting of victims and estimates of the true number of deceased vary widely. In both Tulsa and Pueblo we’ll never know with certainty how many lives were lost.

Estimates of damage to buildings and infrastructure were more accurately assessed. In Pueblo the estimate is in the neighborhood of $200 million, with Tulsa not far behind. Pueblo saw the destruction of more than 600 homes and businesses, and the fires in Tulsa destroyed 35 city blocks and more than a thousand homes leaving many homeless.

In both cities martial law was declared and National Guard troops were called in. Also, in both cities able-bodied men were forced to work on clean-up efforts under threat of jail time.

The day before the flood struck Pueblo, the headline in the Pueblo Chieftain newspaper announced the death and destruction in Tulsa.

While the Tulsa Race Massacre was largely white on Black violence in the segregated neighborhood known as the Greenwood District, also known as Black Wallstreet, the Pueblo flood was indiscriminate in the way that it destroyed property and took lives. While Pueblo’s wealthier residents lived on higher ground further from the rivers, many of their businesses in the downtown area were heavily damaged. Immigrants and the poor who lived in the flood plain were subject to great loss as the roaring water washed away everything that stood in its path.

Colette Carter, professor of Political Science at CSU Pueblo, spoke with me about the nature of our response to a man-made disaster (Tulsa) versus a natural disaster (Pueblo).

Colette Carter, PhD, CSU Pueblo

A question raised by Dr. Carter remains unanswered. How long will we continue to ignore the painful episodes of our history, and can we ever move forward without a serious reckoning as a nation? According to the 2001 Tulsa Race Riot report, “Not one of these criminal acts was then or ever has been prosecuted or punished by government at any level, municipal, county, state, or federal.”

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

On some spiritual dimension I can’t help but wonder if the flood in Pueblo wasn’t caused by a deluge of tears over the injustice that had taken place in Tulsa just 72 hours earlier.

Erosion of Credibility

Journalism rests on foundations of truth and credibility. Truth is challenging enough and there are plenty of ways to stray from objective facts. People in power with access to information may do their best to hide the truth or put up smoke screens. Personal biases and laziness also contribute to failures to suss out the truth.

But even if you, as a reporter, do your absolute best to get the facts and report them accurately, the next important piece of the puzzle is credibility…and this is something that is not entirely within your control. Credibility is conferred on you, (and your reporting), by a sometimes skeptical public. Some of that skepticism is healthy and serves to keep the press honest, and some is manufactured by enemies of truth who want to erode the power of the press.

Former President Donald Trump is well known for attacking the press as “the enemy of the people” and often went after journalists in very personal ways. Members of the press were more than willing to engage in this battle as it provided a quick route to clicks and ratings. But while returning fire may have felt good, it also provided oxygen to the fire that was consuming the foundation of their craft.

As politics and social issues become more polarized, credibility is strained by in-group/out-group alliances. If you like someone, you’re very likely to disbelieve negative reports and question the motive of the source of those reports. In contrast, if you despise someone you are more than likely to believe and pass along any negative news that appears on your news feed.

A couple of weeks ago the Washington Post issued a correction to a story that contained inaccurate quotes by then President Trump. The alleged quotes were provided by an anonymous source and were later determined to be false when the Wall Street Journal obtained a recording of the phone conversation. Now we can discuss at length whether the WP reporting was sloppy or biased, and whether the conclusions that resulted from the quote and correction were justified, but the bottom line is this. Trump called the WP and other media outlets “fake news” many times. For Trump’s supporters this incident was just one more bit of evidence they now had to confirm their suspicions and agree with that assessment.

According to Tom Jones at Poynter…

The Post has been beaten up pretty good the past two days over the correction and deservedly so. With so much divisiveness across the country over Trump and the election, as well as distrust in the media, this kind of mistake is a bad one. The Post is a respectable news outlet and this was a mistake of sloppiness, not maliciousness. It trusted a source and wasn’t vigilant enough in pinning down the details. But some damage has been done. It certainly adds fuel to those MAGA types who are convinced the so-called “mainstream media” had it in for Trump.

Poynter Newsletter

If you’re a journalist you should care that this incident may have caused unfair damage to the President. But you should be even more concerned about the damage done to the profession of journalism. Journalists who contribute to the further erosion of credibility in their audience will soon find that they no longer have an audience.

Is the Press Being Too Negative in Reporting on Covid?

The Columbia Journalism Review asked some tough questions in a recent article. Increasing pessimism about the pandemic, and the vaccines, is adding to the collective stress that we’re feeling as a nation. Vaccines are being administered at a rate that will surpass President Biden’s goal of 100 million vaccinated in the first 100 days of his administration, yet members of the press continue to find a pot of coal at the end of the rainbow.

After an incredibly fast development timeline, we now have three vaccines approved by the FDA. Vaccines by Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson are being administered across the country with the latest prediction being that all American will have access to a vaccine by the end of May. Yes, there have been minor glitches and attempts by some to game the system; as would be expected. But the progress has been fairly impressive by any measure.

So why the sad faces from so many journalists? If you believe in a model for journalism that makes room for social activism, you might argue that the press must assume the role of provocateur and instigator. Prodding authority figures to do the right thing by pointing out the negative repercussions associated with failure to act is often part of the justification. A more cynical view may be that fear mongering gets clicks and views.

Or perhaps it is the notion that the public must be harangued into falling in line. If the goal is to increase vaccine acceptance, those of us in the press may need to do our part to persuade them to do the right thing. Such a low view of the public’s ability to find, consume, and act on accurate and unbiased information motivates this kind of thinking. And of course with all of the mis- and dis-information that fills our social media feeds it is no wonder that many journalists have become pessimistic about their readers’/viewers’ capabilities when it comes to news consumption.

It has been nearly a year since we were asked to take a few weeks of extreme measures to help “flatten the curve.” That few weeks has stretched into more than a year and more than 30 million Americans have now contracted the virus. And even if we haven’t, most of us know someone who has. Too many know someone who has died from this deadly virus. But despite the bad news, there has been plenty of good news as well and finding the proper balance is important. According to Allsop in CJR

As Tufekci put it, “effective communication requires a sense of proportion—distinguishing between due alarm and alarmism; warranted, measured caution and doombait; worst-case scenarios and claims of impending catastrophe.” In her view, such balance has a practical benefit: encouraging “people to dream about the end of this pandemic by talking about it more, and more concretely,” she wrote, “can help strengthen people’s resolve to endure whatever is necessary for the moment.”

Tufekci, quoted by Allsop

Passing of a Radio Legend

Love him or hate him, Rush Limbaugh was a talk radio legend. His death yesterday at the age of 70 due to complications from lung cancer marks the end of an era for conservative talk radio. Long before social media brought its brand of polarization to the political landscape, Limbaugh was a master at using the megaphone of terrestrial radio to channel and shape conservative thought.

The repeal of the fairness doctrine in 1987 made Limbaugh’s rise possible. Before that regulatory change, broadcasters were obligated to give access to opposing views. According to the Congressional Research Service, the fairness doctrine required broadcasters to, “devote a reasonable portion of broadcast time to the discussion and consideration of controversial issues of public importance” and “affirmatively endeavor to make … facilities available for the expression of contrasting viewpoints held by responsible elements with respect to the controversial issues” (cited in Poynter). Once the fairness doctrine was no longer in place, broadcasters (specifically AM radio station owners) found that partisan political talk was a viable business model.

Among his many critics, Limbaugh was feared and reviled. According to the Washington Post,

“He saw himself as a teacher, polemicist, media critic and GOP strategist, but above all as an entertainer and salesman. Mr. Limbaugh mocked Democrats and liberals, touted a traditional Midwestern, moralistic patriotism and presented himself on the air as a biting but jovial know-it-all who pontificated ‘with half my brain tied behind my back just to make it fair,’ as he often said.”

Marc Fisher

And among is most strident critics, Limbaugh was the embodiment of all that was wrong with right-wing extremism. According to Shannon Watts, an anti-gun activist, “Rush Limbaugh helped create today’s polarized America by normalizing racism, bigotry, misogyny and mockery. He was a demagogue who got rich off of hate speech, division, lies and toxicity. That is his legacy.”

But controversy sells, and Limbaugh’s success was well documented. According to the Morning Brew newsletter, Limbaugh earned $85 million/year and his show was the most-listened-to US radio talk show in 2020, with more than 20 million monthly listeners. 

Bernie Sure Gets Around

Have you seen Bernie Sanders recently? How could you miss him? He’s everywhere…including in my classroom.

Bernie Sanders sitting in on my Media & Society class

Of course Bernie wasn’t a student in my Media & Society class from last fall, but that’s what’s so fun about this meme. It is instantly recognizable, relatable, and can be adapted to almost any setting. And Bernie’s body language is also open to interpretation. His pose could be read as bored, sad, or grumpy. And don’t forget the mittens.

According to RollingStone magazine, the photo was taken by Brendan Smialowski, a former sports photojournalist from Connecticut who documents politics for wire service Agence France-Presse. And according to Wired magazine, the Bernie meme is an indication of a “cultural reset”… a defining moment when you can feel a change or shift is happening. And this change came with a bit of levity. According to Wired, “The internet has had some good ones [memes] over the past four or five years, but often, amidst the political bickering, it’s been hard to know when to interject with a joke. On Wednesday morning, people let ’em rip—and suddenly the thing keeping everyone warm was laughter.”

Big Tech, Political Polarization, and the Assault on Democracy

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Zuboff and Why We’re Polarized by Klein

I’ve been catching up on some reading over the holiday break and two books that caught my attention are proving to be quite helpful to understanding the recent events in our nation’s capitol. What we’re witnessing is shocking, but not surprising, to those who have paid attention to the ever-increasing power exerted by Big Tech over every detail of our lives, including our political identities.

Big Tech is shorthand for the companies that control much of our everyday lives through their use of software and hardware designed to capture and hold our attention. And speaking of attention, if I were to add another recent title that addresses this concern it would be The Attention Merchants, by Tim Wu.

By gathering the massive amount of data generated every minute of every day by billions of users, these companies have tapped into a resource that they have turned against us to predict and control our future behavior. Siloing, creation of filter bubbles, nudging users towards certain behaviors, shadow-banning (and now more overt actions to disenfranchise users) are just some of the ways that Big Tech is meddling in the political process. If that sounds like a radical conspiracy theory to you, I urge you to read these books and then we can have a conversation.

And while all of us can agree that what transpired this past week in the halls of congress was both dangerous and disgusting, reasonable people continue to disagree about how to respond to controversial political speech on the leading tech platforms. The ban of the President of the United State by numerous platforms, regardless of your opinions about Trump himself, is cause for concern and should not be taken lightly.

Similarly while the attack on right-wing alternative platforms, e.g. Parler, by Amazon, Apple and Google, may feel like a reasonable and perfectly legal response to unhinged speech that calls for political violence, the danger is to further marginalize and force underground a movement that has enormous popular support.

I’m not suggesting that racists, white-nationalists, and anarchists should have a seat at the table, but I am suggesting that unelected leaders of a few massive tech companies cannot be trusted to make decisions about who gets to participate in our political discourse. This time they may appear to be on your side, but what about when the tables are turned? We’ve given these tech platforms enormous power over the future of our democracy…and that makes me very concerned.

Big Numbers for Democracy, and Baby Shark

It is Friday morning, November 6th, and we still don’t know who the next President of the US will be. Several states have razor-thin margins and will likely require recounts before the lawsuits can be resolved. According to all estimates, the total number of votes cast is higher than any presidential election in about 100 years (as a percent of the population).

In other news, and I do mean OTHER, Baby Shark has now had more views on YouTube than any other video. With more than 7 BILLION views, the catchy tune has delighted preschoolers (and annoyed more than a few adults) all over the world. As reported by the New York Times, the video bumped Despacito from the top spot.

These facts may be unsurprising to anyone with young kids: The children-focused parts of YouTube are among its most lucrative. A Pew study found that videos featuring children received nearly three times as many views on average than other types of videos posted by high-subscriber channels.

The Times continued…

Repetition is one reason. Children do not get tired of watching the same video over and over. Four of the top 10 most watched YouTube videos are children’s programming. And last year, the highest earning YouTuber was 9-year-old Ryan Kaji, who reviews new toys and games on his channel. He earned $26 million in 2019

Section 230 is Under Attack

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law passed during the Clinton administration, is under attack from both the left and the right. President Trump wants to revise Section 230 because of what he believes is unfair throttling of conservative news by liberal tech platforms. And liberal legislators want to revise Section 230 to make it more difficult to post “hate speech” on these same platforms.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg have been blamed for everything wrong about these leading social media platforms. We could debate whether they deserve the blame, but we can’t deny that they are caught between a rock and a hard place. One one hand, they love Section 230 because it removes corporate responsibility for content published on their platforms by users. On the other hand, they worry about the future of a platform that could becomes a free-for-all without any ability to control the most poisonous content. They want to be free to limit obscene pornography, dangerous speech, libel, and other content not protected by the 1st Amendment, but they don’t want to be responsible for damage that might be caused by speech that comes close, without crossing, the line. According to the Recode website…

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced that his agency would “move forward with a rulemaking to clarify” the meaning of Section 230, which gives internet platforms like Facebook and Twitter immunity from lawsuits over content their users provide. That is to say, if someone defames you in a tweet, you can sue the Twitter user but not Twitter itself. This 25-year-old law is what allows websites that rely on third-party content to exist at all. It also allows those sites to moderate that content as they see fit, which has been a source of ire for conservatives who believe they are being censored when Facebook bans them, YouTube demonetizes them, or Twitter appends fact-checks to their tweets.

The most recent fuss over Section 230 involves Hunter Biden’s laptop that was left with a computer repair shop. The shop owner turned the contents of the hard drive over to an attorney with connections to former NYC major Rudy Giuliani, who turned the information over the the New York Post, a tabloid newspaper with a less-than-sterling reputation. The last-minute release of Hillary Clinton’s emails by Wikileaks, (amplified by James Comey and the FBI), just days before the 2016 election is believed to have been a factor leading to the election of President Donald Trump, and social media platforms don’t want to facilitate a repeat of that outcome. Twitter prevented sharing of the New York Post’s stories based on the idea that the data was obtained by hacking, (not technically accurate), but a few days later apologized for not communicating more clearly and then reversed their policy. Facebook continues to restrict sharing on their platform because they claim that they are unable to verify the accuracy of the claims alleged by the NY Post.

As you can see, there is no easy solution to this dilemma…and many other current debates. Facebook just recently announced they will take a tougher stance on holocaust denialism, anti-vaccine posts, and QAnon conspiracy pages. But this is a slippery slope for platforms. Once you begin deciding what is true and appropriate and permissible, you open yourself to criticism from all sides.

That’s Unbelievable

Have you found yourself wondering just what to believe? Biased and agenda-driven journalism, disinformation campaigns on social media and widespread conspiracy theories make it nearly impossible for the average media consumer to know what to believe. Our brain and heart are in a constant battle, or so it seems, to sort out facts and feelings. Our natural inclination to think fast instead of slow is part of the problem. But so is our inclination to confirmation bias and its various manifestations. These cognitive deficiencies rob us of our ability to be rational and make us more likely to fall for faulty logic.

Like many memes featuring a celebrity, it’s safe to assume that the celebrity is NOT in any way associated with the message contained therein.

This is a time of great uncertainty and conspiracy theories are thriving: 9/11 was an inside job, vaccines cause autism, the Clintons have had political opponents murdered, Antifa members are setting wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, and Covid-19 is a bio-weapon developed in a lab. These are just a few of the recent conspiracy theories that are widely dismissed as untrue. 1

Media literacy is one of the goals that I hope to achieve with the Media & Society class. And by “achieve” I don’t necessarily expect fluency after a 14-week course but rather an appreciation for the idea of media literacy and a foundational understanding of what it means to be an informed consumer and producer of media content. So much of what we know (or think we know) is based on the media we consume. And like food consumption, media consumption can be improved with a few simple practices.

  • Eat slowly (chew before swallowing)
  • Avoid junk food (e.g., sources lacking credibility)
  • Add fiber/roughage (difficult-to-digest material that actually cleanses the digestive system)
  • Practice occasional fasting (a constant connection to the information stream can be toxic)
  • Don’t share found food unless you know what you’re doing ( those mushroom may be tasty, magic, or deadly).2

With conspiracy theories so prevalent we need to be extra vigilant avoid becoming a believer, or worse, an evangelist for conspiracy theories and disinformation.

1 Worth noting that the phrase “conspiracy theory” is also a rhetorical device used to discredit an idea or belief that someone else holds. If I think your belief is unfounded, calling it a conspiracy theory is my way of dismissing your view as irrational. Take, for example, the idea that Trump’s behavior and interactions with Ukraine amounted to an abuse of power. While some (mostly Democrats) believe that the President’s actions justified impeachment, his supporters dismissed their accusations as a conspiracy theory.

2 If you’re not a mycologist, eating that fungi may change your status from “fun guy” to “dead guy.”

Will it Rate?

Journalism has been sliding down a slippery slope for many years. Recent economic hard times (first the economic collapse at end of the 2000’s and most recently the Covid- induced downturn) and the long-term erosion of advertising revenue have all contributed to a collapse of a business model that is no longer sustainable.

More and more the news departments at broadcast and cable TV networks have struggled to compete with internet start-ups that do more with less and steal away advertising revenue. The result has been more and more explicit attempts to attract and hold the attention of an audience that exhibits ADHD media consumption behavior. According to an editorial recently published in the Columbia Journalism Review, ratings have become “the only metric that matters” at cable networks like CNN.

The pursuit of eyeballs, clicks and likes frequently leads to some pretty bizarre behavior on the part of journalists and editors who are trying to appeal to their base. For example, recently CNN used this Chyron (lower third graphic) to caption a stand-up reporter’s coverage of a protest in Kenosha.

The appeal of violence, mayhem, and tragedy is natural for news organizations who adopt the “if it bleeds, it leads” approach to sensational reporting. However, because CNN knows that its left-leaning viewers largely support peaceful protesting and social justice causes, they want to avoid offending them with a critical depiction of the dynamic scene playing out before their cameras. Hence the jarring juxtaposition of image and text.

Right-leaning media companies are guilty as well. Fox News regularly targets its base with conservative-leaning perspectives on the day’s events knowing that viewers want to hear news and analysis that confirms their biases.

Pandering to partisans on either the left or the right may be good for the bottom line, but it is a recipe for disaster when it comes to a functioning democracy. Journalism needs to do better and hold to a higher standard than the one that is currently calling the shots. As Pekary, a news editor for CNN, admitted, “We’re merely there to sow conflict and make the numbers go up, to sell more ads. They [audience members] deserve better. We all deserve better. ” I’ll rate that sentiment a 10!