The 2016 presidential campaign is handing journalism an extraordinary challenge: How to deal with so many remarkable developments — a mold-breaking Republican front-runner, a former first lady in the lead for the Democrats, an extremely volatile electorate — all at a time of disruption for news organizations.
Given the importance of this election, trying to figure out what is happening in time for some mid-course correction feels critical. Toward that goal, here are a few thoughts about some of the factors at play:
1. All Trump, much of the time.
The catnip of Donald Trump’s candidacy has been irresistible to the media, resulting in coverage that is unprecedentedly cockeyed. As a recent New York Times article put it, “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.”
This chart, from the Times article, shows how utterly out-of-whack Trump’s “free-media” coverage has been:
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Rolling Stone’s indefensible University of Virginia gang-rape story felt like a punch in the gut to anyone feeling hopeful about progress against sexual assault. But hopeful I remain. This fight is (finally) too vigorous to be stopped by flawed journalism.
News and social-media coverage over recent weeks, from the serial rape allegations against Bill Cosby to reports of sexual assault in the military and on campuses across the nation, would indicate that rape is at last being recognized — as an unacceptable reality that we have accepted for far too long. A lot of people seem to have decided no longer to acquiesce in the notion that rape and silence go hand in hand.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of folks poised to seize on any sign that a rape claim might be false. Rolling Stone gave these folks a huge assist: A spectacular gang-rape story, almost entirely free of attribution, quickly collapsing under its own weight. Continue reading Rape and anonymity: A fateful pairing→
During my engagement with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, on their Open Journalism project, I learned a lot about press freedom issues in OSCE’s 57 member nations. Among the many interesting folks I got to know is Boro Kontic, director of the Media Centre in Sarajevo. Boro told me his site features stories of press-freedom issues — primarily from his own part of the world. Boro and I talked about the fact that, for all the ways in which we are fortunate, we in the U.S. have our own press-freedom problems. He asked me if I’d do a post for the site. Here it is: “Instead of transparency and openness – an ever-deepening secrecy.”
The fall continued to be a lively season for the topic of women in leadership in media. A conversation I moderated at the Society of American News Editors in Chicago proved lively and productive, focusing on the future and drawing one of the convention’s biggest crowds.
The panel came just as the fine Nieman Reports cover story on the topic was published online.
All such conversations are greatly enriched by the comprehensive report by the Women’s Media Center, for which I had the pleasure, as a new board member, of writing the postscript, including this thought:
“The decision-makers at these news organizations are at fault. They share in that familiar human tendency to self-replicate, hiring and advancing people who remind them of themselves. But we whose voices aren’t being heard are also at fault. We too often think our views are not valuable. It’s true that the absence of our voices in the media seems to send the signal that our views aren’t valued. But we know that they are valuable. We need to try harder to make them heard.”