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.

Gone to the Dogs

In case you haven’t heard, the Anheuser-Busch beverage company has come out with a brew for your basset hound, a drink for your dachshund, a pour for your puppy…you get the idea. The product is Dog Brew, an alcohol-free, bone broth beverage for canines, and their current viral campaign is a search for some lucky pup to become their CTO, Chief Tasting Officer. The job comes with salary ($20K), benefits (health insurance), and all of the perks normally reserved for celebrity endorsers. (I would nominate Jasper, “America’s Dog” but I’m not sure he needs any more endorsement contracts with his already-busy schedule.)

This marketing campaign has a little bit of everything that makes me think it will be a case study in advertising/PR textbooks in the near future. There’s a contest (enter here) with social media requirements (FB, IG and Twitter) that must include cute shots of your puppy.

According to USA Today, “Busch says the responsibilities of the Chief Tasting Officer include ‘taste-testing, quality control and fulfilling duties as an ambassador for the product and a featured content creator on Busch’s social channels.'”

Veteran CNN reporter Jeanne Moos put together a report for CNN that, once again, proves that she’s one of the all-time great human-interest storytellers.


I know you’re probably not going to read the fine print in the contest rules, but here is one clause that let’s you know what you’re getting yourself (and your dog) into:

You grant Sponsor an exclusive, worldwide, perpetual, irrevocable, unrestricted, royalty-free, sub-licensable and transferrable right and license to exploit your Entry (including, without limitation, your name and likeness and the names and likenesses of any and all persons in the Entry, and any intellectual property rights (e.g. copyright, trademark, etc.) contained in the Entry) in any media now or hereafter known, without any payment or other consideration of any kind, or permission or notification, to you or any third party, for any purpose, including, without limitation, your Entry and any person’s property (physical, personal, intellectual property rights, and indicia) contained therein. The foregoing grant includes, without limitation, the right to reproduce, display, distribute, publicly perform, create derivative works of, alter, amend, broadcast, edit, publish, use, merchandise, license, sublicense, and adapt the Entry in any and all media now or hereafter known, throughout the world, for any purpose, whether commercial in nature or otherwise, including in contexts and circumstances that result in your Entry being associated with a particular Sponsor or Sponsors. Accordingly, you hereby waive any objection to, such use including without limitation, distribution, reproduction, creation of derivative works of, public performance, or display of your Entry, and any claim for compensation whatsoever in connection therewith. Such waiver shall include any claim for infringement of any so-called “Moral Right,” “Droit Moral” or similar right or interest.

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. 

What’s up with GameStop?

In case you haven’t heard, the video game store GameStop has been the talk of the town, especially if your town is an “online reading club” called Reddit. If you’re wondering what that quote is all about, enjoy this short video tweet.

Okay, that was fun, but seriously, what’s going on. Without getting bogged down in the complexities of wall street shenanigans, one lesson to take away from #gamestopgate is the enormous power of collective action organized by online forums (in this case Reddit) and the larger social media communities that jumped into the pool.

Here’s a more detailed explanation…

Robinhood democratized stock trading for the masses, and social media gave them a way to communicate and organize around a trending topic. This kind of power, rarely available to the average consumer, will become more and more common as the internet becomes injected into every area of life. Last year it was crowd-sourced journalism and police reform. This week it is “short squeezing” a video game stock and the hedge fund investors who were betting on its demise. Next month it may be decentralized healthcare and vaccine distribution. Every service that was formerly controlled by titans and elites can be disrupted by internet-empowered citizens with either a common goal or grievance. Hold on to your hats.

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.

Computer Bang for the Buck

The phrase “bang for the buck” refers to performance relative to cost. Higher bang for the buck means that you get more performance for less cost. For computer technology, this has been a logarithmic curve of greatly increasing performance with a falling price tag.

The increasing performance has largely been attributed to the gains in processor speed and reduction in size of integrated circuits, aka microchips. You may have heard of Moore’s Law, named for Gordon E. Moore of Intel. Moore predicted in 1965 that processor speed would double every 1-2 years for the foreseeable future. It has been said that if automotive technology followed the same trajectory as microchips, the average car would travel at 300,000 mph, get over 2 million mpg, and cost only $0.04 to make.

I recently decided to organize my many hard drives and was reminded of how the cost of storage has fallen at a remarkable rate over the years. My first external hard drive, purchased in the early-mid 1990s, held 1 GB (yes, gigabyte) of data at a cost of $1,000. Here’s what more than 100 TB of storage looks like today.

More than 100 TB of removable storage

If this amount of storage was purchased at early 1990s prices, it would cost $100 million! If you look back further, the numbers are even crazier.

Now, think about your smart phone and the processing power that it contains. Your phone has millions of times more computational power than the computers used in 1969 by the Apollo scientists when they put a man on the moon. If you were to pay for that much computing power at prices from just 30 years ago, you’d have to spend 10s of millions of dollars. I know the cost of a new smart phone is pretty steep when you’re trying to pay rent, tuition, your streaming media subscriptions, and an occasional trip to Chipotles…but it really is a bargain when you look at it through the lens of computer history.

Stern & Depp is not a Law Firm

Howard Stern and Johnny Depp are two familiar names in the media business…and they’re both making news. Stern, the self-proclaimed “King of All Media” just signed a new contract for SiriusXM satellite radio for something like $120M/year for 5 years. That’s a lot of $$ for a radio host who talks smack for a living. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Stern announced the deal on his show yesterday morning…

Howard Stern acknowledges the audience at the 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at Cleveland Public Auditorium, Saturday, April 14, 2018, in Cleveland. (Photo by Michael Zorn/Invision/AP)

“Fifteen years ago, I joined SiriusXM, a fledgling group of broadcasters. I had been in a toxic relationship with terrestrial radio,” Stern said. “And no matter how well I treated the medium, no matter how successful I made them, they abused me. Going to SiriusXM liberated me. I felt like Tina Turner freeing myself from Ike.”

Stern has never been at a loss for words…including spicy words that are much more welcome on satellite radio than terrestrial radio where FCC regulations placed some restraints on his speech.

But whether Stern is worth $600M is yet to be proven. Again, according to Hollywood Reporter, “…a recent report estimated that 15 percent of Stern listeners could cancel their SiriusXM subscriptions if he left the company, ‘implying a potential subscriber loss of 2.7 million.’”

Johnny Depp is also in the news, but no doubt wishes he were not. Depp had filed a defamation lawsuit against the British tabloid The Sun for an article describing him as a “wife beater.” According to the ruling judge, as reported in the Hollywood Reporter, “The claimant has not succeeded in his action for libel. Although he has proved the necessary elements of his cause of action in libel, the defendants have shown that what they published in the meaning which I have held the words to bear was substantially true.” The burden of proof for celebrities to win defamation lawsuits has always been a challenge, but in cases where the accusations are true, they’re nearly impossible. Depp plans to appeal.