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

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.

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.

Is Twitter’s Cropping Algorithm Racially Biased?

Recent reports are suggesting that the algorithm that controls image cropping on the Twitter app does not respond to images of dark-skinned people in the same way it does for light-skinned people. According to the TNW website, people have been noticing cropping anomalies that may have to do with the color of the featured person’s skin-tones. If you read the article, you’ll see that the jury is still out on accusation of bias, but it does raise interesting questions about our reliance on AI (Artificial Intelligence) software and how the results may reflect unconscious bias of the programmers.

While the concern about bias by Twitter’s algorithm may be unfounded, it raises additional questions about AI and facial recognition software. According to The Next Web, “Light skin bias in algorithms is well documented in fields ranging from healthcare to law enforcement.”

If you want to know more about implicit bias, see this website and take a test (I recommend the Skin-tone IAT). You may find that the best place to begin the war against bias is not Twitter’s AI software, but our own “natural intelligence.”

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!

Cancel Culture Just Got Real

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

Remember the saying “live and let live”? Another variation was, “to each his own.” Those were quaint ideas. I suppose the latest iteration is “you do you” or something to that effect. However you choose to express it, the idea is to give individuals personal space to hold their own opinions, ideas, preferences, and even actions (to a point) without judgement or condescension. Those days are long gone.

You may have heard the phrase “cancel culture” bandied about in conversation. Depending on who’s wielding it, the phrase itself can be a put-down intended to stifle an opposing view. But at its core the idea of cancel culture is the illiberal or fundamentalist notion that opinions and ideas outside of the accepted norm must be squelched. Fundamentalism is another useful idea to explain what’s going on. Fundamentalism is often used to describe religious extremism, and in fact the Taliban and other extreme religious groups demonstrate the kind of intolerance that we’re talking about. One might even think of this current movement as a type of religious adherence to modern tenets of “faith” that privilege feelings and identity over contrary facts. Cancel culture results in speakers being disinvited or shouted down. It results in reporters and editors being dismissed from their jobs for writing or publishing something that is interpreted as hurtful. It results in academics and researchers being reprimanded for researching or teaching ideas that have fallen out of favor among the “woke” class.

A very recent example of this “illiberal” mindset can be seen in the reaction to A Letter on Justice and Open Debate, to be published in the October edition of Harper’s magazine. A firestorm of controversy erupted when it became apparent that the letter, and its signatories, transgressed the bounds of accepted thought…which, of course, was inevitable since the letter was intended to push back on narrow-minded views of what is acceptable discourse. Jesse Singal, one of the signers of the letter, wrote an interesting piece in Reason that makes this point. Twitter has been abuzz with opinions on the letter and the fallout from both conservative and progressive points of view.

This debate is really about the conflict between traditional liberals and those to their left who have prioritized social justice reforms. Freddie de Boer addresses the tension between those who traditionally support free speech and those who see free speech as an unfortunate feature/bug that allows their adversaries a platform. But ultimately, like most cultural debates, it comes down to power. Who has it, who wants it, and how traditional and new media can be harnessed to shape the narratives that tip the balance.

* https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/
* https://reason.com/2020/07/08/the-reaction-to-the-harpers-letter-on-cancel-culture-proves-why-it-was-necessary/
* https://fredrikdeboer.com/2020/07/07/ending-the-charade/

You just need to look it up!

Peaceful protests, demonstrations, rioting and looting…all are forms of speech but not all are protected by the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. If you’re a journalists, it is important that you understand what is, and what isn’t, protected speech. If you don’t you risk having some ramen noodle-eating dude call you out on TikTok.


someone should let them know about the amendments

♬ original sound – J-Dizzle

So how exactly did CNN anchor Chris Cuomo get it so wrong? As much as you might support the cause of BLM and as passionate as you might be about the evil of police brutality, “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (emphasis added, but unnecessary) is pretty obvious to even the casual reader of the Bill of Rights.

While I share no sympathy for Confederate generals and the flag that has become a symbol of white supremacy, I also respect the rule of law that protects the rights of those who see that same flag as a symbol of their heritage. Hate speech is not (yet) a crime, and the 1st Amendment protects the rights of some pretty awful people who hold on to some very bad ideas.

So what about the destruction of monuments in recent days? Should protesters be allowed to tear down images that they oppose or should they patiently wait for due process to run its course? We might argue that we’ve waited too long already, and now is the time for action. But you can also imagine an unruly mob of protesters in the future tearing down a statue or memorial that celebrates a person or a cause that you support. Would you respect those protesters and their “right” to express themselves?