Category Archives: Uncategorized

Can we have a better sexual-harassment conversation?

Boy, is this ever a moment: Sexual harassment has come out of the dark.  That’s a great thing. But it’s worrisome. too. The conversations – and the events – are raging like wildfire on terrain that is utterly unfamiliar. Could we think about some guidelines to keep things as fair and truthful as possible? Some considerations to help us generate more light and less heat?

Here are four possibilities:

  1. Accusations should not be anonymous. We should do everything we can (I’m looking at you, fellow journalists) to encourage the people who make sexual harassment accusations to do so under their own names. This honors a longtime journalistic commitment to render information verifiable and to prevent people from harming others with impunity. It’s a good rule for society to follow more broadly. There will be exceptions on this difficult topic (several women making credible claims together anonymously against a very powerful public man?) but the fewer the exceptions, the more progress we’ll make. The fact that so many women have been willing to go on the record lately is an enormous part of why we are where we are today.
  1. Not all sins are equivalent. The term sexual harassment seems to be stretching to cover an awful lot of ground: From a wink and a whistle, through an uncomfortable conversation or an unwelcome kiss, to an erection pressed against you, having your breasts grabbed or a hand thrown under your skirt – all the way up to sexual assault. Throwing all offenders together is unfair and inaccurate. It is essential that we get as close as we can to the truth of each report, uncomfortable as the details may be.
  1. Consider a statute of limitations for minor offenses. A guy who brushed his hand against you in the wrong place 30 years ago may still be messing around years later, or he may not be. You didn’t report it then, times have changed, the culture has changed. Sharing experiences (as in the #metoo social media exchanges lately) is valuable in raising awareness about how common harassment is. But an expiration date for shining the light individually on a man whose sins are minor and lost in time may be in order.
  1. Men need to help in sorting all this out. This is surely not just a women’s issue; in fact, it’s really much more of a men’s issue. That these conversations are happening is great, but they can’t be just among women. We’ll all be much better off with men involved.

(I should note here that I do understand that men prey on men, women on women and some women on men. I’m employing language that is too narrow. But I’ll leave that guideline for someone else’s contribution.)

 

How the media lost the public’s trust — and how they’ll earn it back

(Note: I wrote this post for LinkedIn, with whom I did a video interview on these topics)

A tangle of questions troubles journalists these days: Why are we so distrusted? Can we survive the loss of the advertising that supports us? How do we stand up against the control that behemoths like Facebook and Google have over our futures? And what do we do about the growing assaults on truth telling from bots and hackers, viral deception and foreign meddling – let alone our own president?

I want to add this to the tangle: How can we bring these questions to you? And how can we bring you into the discussions? I want to do this because I worry that, unless journalism matters to the people it exists to serve, it may not exist at all for long. So, if you think that being able to count on a fundamentally reliable supply of information in the public interest is critical to you and to our democracy, here are four things I’d ask you to think about:

  1. Journalists increasingly (I could add, belatedly) understand that we need to do a better job of serving the public’s needs. There are scores of efforts underway to get at the question of how to win the public trust. Some are focused on being more transparent or more inclusive of different viewpoints and voices. Others emphasize listening better and engaging with their communities in creating the news. There is a recommitment to ensuring that journalism is fair, balanced, verifiable and proportional, as well as a new awareness that we must focus not just on what goes wrong, but on the equally newsworthy (and hope-inspiring) things that go right. Perhaps most important, there is a growing understanding that we must direct our fast dwindling resources toward watchdogging government and business, probing the dark corners of poverty and injustice, and providing the basic information needed for effective citizenship.
  2. You – Mr. and Ms. Public – also have a responsibility, one that is unfamiliar to most: to be the curators of your own media diet. Until recently, news simply came to you (for free or cheaply), and you received it. Nobody felt the need to teach her kid how to be mindful of seeking the balanced diet that would produce civic health, choosing what was best for her, demanding better when it didn’t satisfy. Now that the top-down model is gone, it’s little wonder that we live in a chaotic world of half-truths and worse, or that we have trouble figuring out what information came from where — whether the author was a trustworthy source or a kid in Macedonia making a buck off our gullibility. All of us now shape our common news world through the choices we make about what to read or watch or view – and about what we write or share or like. But few of us understand how potent that responsibility is.
  3. If news is going to survive, it will be because the public views it as a civic good, a democratic necessity, and thus is willing to support it. We know that education is essential to a self-governing people, so we fund public schools. We know that human beings need art, so we pony up for admission. Our journalism has long been paid for by advertisers – you, the reader/viewer/listener were the product, not the customer, which made things run effectively but also had some unfortunate aspects, such as disconnecting journalists from readers. Now that advertising tied to news is collapsing, and unlikely ever to return to its previously vigorous state, someone is going to have to pay for this often costly thing that is original journalism. Philanthropy has a role (community foundations, for example, as well as wealthy individuals), and we are already seeing it come into play. But I am convinced that the best journalism will be the journalism that is supported in substantial part by those whom it serves.
  4. Journalists’ failures, and the public’s obliviousness to the challenges, have contributed to the parlous state of news today. But there are other potent forces arrayed against the public’s ability to receive a reliable and fair-minded news report. Powerful critics, backed by individuals of enormous wealth who feel inconvenienced by a free and independent press, seek to weaken it. Intrusions from other nations, as well as individuals making money off falsehoods and deceptions, thrive in the largely human-judgment-free zones of our social-media platforms. Facebook and Google may at long last have acknowledged that they are indeed in the business of providing information – along with the viral deception that infests it – but their responses to date are baby steps. Meanwhile, they sap advertising from traditional journalism organizations, and strip them of their ability to project their own brands – a huge challenge to building trust (not to mention to building an economic model). Extremist publications, poor in truth but rich in demagoguery, render the essential democratic necessity of coming together around common facts a near impossibility. These forces, arrayed against the time-honored notion that “the truth will out,” are not sufficiently understood. And they are far from being adequately addressed.

It’s clear that Americans widely distrust institutions generally, and media organizations in particular. And we seem intent on dividing bitterly along partisan lines, putting our faith (such as it is) in different news sources. So maybe an appeal to join in a common effort seems doomed. But I’m talking about something well beyond today’s dissatisfying landscape. What if you truly felt that there was no source of information that you could rely on to sort fact from fiction? No one to turn to, in a disaster, to find out what really happened? No source you trusted to certify a quote, or a death toll, or determine whether your city council had passed a law that will change your life?

Such a situation is far from unimaginable today. Indeed, I think I can see it on the horizon. And the main thing standing between now and that looming possibility is whether the public begins to see it, too.

 

Journalism failed us badly. Here’s how.

People will be parsing this election for years to come. Here’s one thing I know: Journalism failed us badly. Since we are going to need good journalism more than ever in the days ahead, I offer some thoughts about what went wrong:

  1. The bottomless well of Trump coverage early on. This is mostly attributable to cable, but it was true of television more broadly, and it influenced print and online media as well.

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I included this chart from the New York Times in my March 28 blogpost: A tough test for Journalism and the Midterm Grades Aren’t Good.

As the Times story said, “Over the course of the campaign, he has earned close to $2 billion worth of media attention, about twice the all-in price of the most expensive presidential campaigns in history. It is also twice the estimated $746 million that Hillary Clinton, the next best at earning media, took in.”

Of this development, CBS Chairman Les Moonves famously said: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”  Here’s what else he said: “Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

He did. So did they.

Continue reading Journalism failed us badly. Here’s how.

More lessons from civic journalism for today’s disengaged media

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Democracy Fund has published a white paper I wrote: “How to Best Serve Communities: Reflections on Civic Journalism.”  I conclude that “today’s engaged journalism, civic journalism’s replacement in this digital age, enjoys an utterly different environment from the one that confronted civic journalists — one in which disruption prevails, change is the new constant, and innovation is seen, almost universally, as essential. The contemporary movement is landing on far more fertile terrain.”

DF’s Paul Waters blogged about it here, saying:  “Our belief is that this reorientation of local journalism towards engaged journalism is critical to fostering a thriving journalism landscape and a more engaged democracy.”

Civic Journalism, Engaged Journalism: Tracing the Connections

Geneva Overholser's photo
By Geneva Overholser / 2016 August 3rd

“Want to attract more readers? Try listening to them.” That’s the headline on Liz Spayd’s debut as the New York Times’ new public editor. That she devoted her first column to the need to pay attention to readers’ views shows how central the idea of engagement has become for journalists.

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Please see article as published by the Democracy Fund.

 

 

At the Rumble in the Jungle — and hanging with Ali

Here was a heavyweight fight for the ages, and I was sitting in the second row. It was 4 a.m. in Kinshasa – timed to suit American television viewers – on October 30, 1974, and the sweat of George Foreman and Muhammad Ali was hitting me directly in the face.

The then-president of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Mobutu Sese Seko, had lured the two to Kinshasa to help put his country on the map. It worked. I was a few weeks into a two-year stay in Kinshasa when the famous began to arrive: entertainers like B. B. King and Miriam Makeba, writers like George Plimpton, Hunter Thompson and Norman Mailer.

And of course the fighters themselves. Ali had beaten Foreman to Zaire, and quickly worked his charm on the people. He got off the plane, bent to kiss the ground, and declared himself “Glad to be in the land of the brother.” By the time Foreman flew in, the waiting crowd was already yelling, “Ali, boma ye!” (“Kill him, Ali!”).

Then a sparring partner cut Foreman above his eye, and the fight was postponed for six weeks. Foreman was reclusive, but Ali often left his villa to go running, and occasionally to hang out at café/bars – even a couple of times with a few of us teachers from the American School of Kinshasa. We’d drink that good Belgian beer (Ali drank Orange Fanta) and talk about things back home. One day, Ali stopped the conversation to complain that the delay was dragging on too long. “To hell with the land of the brother,” he said to us. “Take me back to the land of the MUTHAH!”

The main thing I remember about the fight itself is that what Ali called his rope-a-dope technique meant that he was regularly leaning back over the ropes above us, taking hit after hit. And I remember feeling astonished at how he seemed to surge with strength at the moment he knocked out Foreman, the heavy favorite and the reigning champion.

After the fight we went back to the Intercontinental Hotel, where most of the visiting foreigners had been staying. The postponement  had had everyone fearing for weeks that the outdoor fight would have to be cancelled because of the imminent arrival of the rainy season (rains in Zaire are rains of a different order). But the season had held off – until just after the fight.  As we gathered for the after-party in the Intercontinental’s courtyard, the winds swept in, the palms swayed, and thunder and lightning were loosed.

It was this Intercontinental bar that had been the journalists’ hangout – especially Plimpton’s and Mailer’s.  Over the weeks, I’d had a couple of rounds with Mailer, thumb wrestling and talking about writing. One night, I gave him some pieces I’d written. The next time I saw him, he told me my problem was that I was too “protean.” I wasn’t sure what he meant, but he was exactly right. The Rumble in the Jungle was one ineradicable memory in a rich and scattered life.

The Media Revolution: What It Means for You

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As part of the University at Buffalo’s International Education Week, I gave a keynote address about what’s happening in the media world today — what we’re losing, what we’re gaining, and what the students ought to do about it.  I urged the students to “seize the opportunity to make contributions.  And take responsibility for the contributions you make.”

Here is the text:

University at Buffalo, International Education week, November 2015

“The Media Revolution: What It Means for You”

It’s a pleasure for me to be here as part of International Education Week. And I’m especially delighted that you have made media your focus. Nothing could be more essential to an understanding of this fast-globalizing world than media.

You know, we say that we are what we eat. More generally, we are what we consume. And that surely goes for media. Our media diet, like our food diet, shapes us every day – for good and for ill. If we select wisely, we nourish ourselves and contribute to good health. If we choose junk, we pay for it. Moreover, our society pays for it. Just as the nation’s health and economy are affected when people eat poorly, our democracy is undermined when people fail to nourish their understanding of the world around them. A government of the people, by the people and for the people is only as good as the thinking and participation OF the people. A democracy of know-nothings will get what it deserves: poor public policy, an inability to progress, a loss of international standing. You, individually, are part of the recipe for good health – for yourself, and for the society of which you are a part.

Continue reading The Media Revolution: What It Means for You

Changing the discussion about the future of journalism: speech text

Below is the text of a speech I delivered at Florida International University University yesterday.  You can find a Storify look at the event here — and a video soon will be archived there as well. Video and text will also be available through FIU and the Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver Center sites.

Leading from the Outside: Rethinking Journalism Leadership When Change is the New Normal

Good afternoon. Thank you, Dean Reis, for that warm introduction. And special thanks to the Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver Center – and to Lillian herself, for bringing me here. I am honored indeed to be part of your Hearst Distinguished Lecture Series.

I hope to present to you today the much-discussed topic of the future of journalism in a very different way.

My goal is to sketch out for you a media future that offers real promise to make our world a better place. A media future that could make informing ourselves more compelling, that could engage people in civic life and nourish our communities. It could make people believe in the possibilities of self-government, and cause them to feel hopeful about the future of our democracy.

Continue reading Changing the discussion about the future of journalism: speech text

Some fairness, please

The press is right to cover assiduously Hillary’s email controversy. And NOT right not to cover her important UN speech! See the fine piece here, which I found only after searching arduously for anything about the speech amid the clamor about the email: http://www.newsweek.com/hillary-clinton-two-front-war-312833

I must note, this brings up an unhappy memory. Twenty years ago, when Clinton gave her Beijing speech on the topic of women’s rights, I was ombudsman at the Washington Post. And I got a call from a staffer of Hillary’s– Lissa Muscatine, now an owner of the bookstore Politics and Prose in DC — saying that, while the coverage of the speech was terrific (and it was — noting that this was the first truly important foreign policy speech given by a First Lady), the paper had incorrectly printed accompanying excerpts from different remarks she had given that day, to a much smaller crowd, on abortion rights. Thus, the coverage touted the importance of the speech, and the printed remarks were from another address entirely.

I said I was sure the foreign desk would want to correct it, especially since the record would otherwise be wrong. She said she had already talked to them, and they had declined. Astonished, I talked to the foreign editor myself, and found him tenacioiusly resistant. Only after considerable back and forth did he reluctantly publish a “clarification,” not a correction. Such resistance to being fair about women’s words remains, clearly, today (as does that editor, at the Post — Jackson Diehl, now with the oped page.) This surely must change. It’s against the press’s own interest (not to mention the nation’s) to be so blind to fairness.

Her campaigning for women’s rights, and her efforts to explain her emails, shows how tricky it is to be Hillary.
newsweek.com|By Nina Burleigh

RIP David Carr

We have lost an extraordinary talent tonight, with David Carr’s death, far too soon.

My own little piece of this widely shared awareness began in 1997. Carr had barely arrived in DC from Minneapolis when he wrote (in the Washington City Paper) a little something more perceptive about my time as Washington Post ombudsman than I could have conjured up myself.  I chafed at his “prairie marm” reference, given my many previous hometowns.  But his eye was a keen one, and I’ve been relying on it ever since:

“Geneva Overholser, ombudsman for the Post, was elected chairwoman of the Pulitzer Prize board last month. Ombudsmanship is usually a one-way ticket to obscurity, but Overholser, the former editor of the Des Moines Register, is making a name for herself by taking on some of the paper’s most hallowed names. Last Sunday, she chided her employer for its cheesy “Issue Forum” special advertising sections, which look like news but aren’t. And she took on Bob Woodward—something that hasn’t happened since he was canonized back in the ’70s—for his use of unnamed sources in his takedown of Al Gore’s fund-raising activities. Managing editor Bob Kaiser felt compelled to respond to her critique in print, which suggests that she’s getting under somebody’s skin. Overholser’s ascension to the chair of the Pulitzers isn’t going to get any seconds in the Post newsroom, where Beltway provincialists view her as a prairie marm who just doesn’t know how business gets done in the big city.”

Carr, for so many perceptive and thoughtful and illuminating pieces, we’ll miss you sorely.