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Friday
Jun292018

TRIAL BY HEADLINE

It’s nothing new for newspapers to indulge in sensationalism and to publish articles that will create a furor without providing trustworthy facts. William Randolph Hearst earned a place in history by (among other things) saying, “You furnish me the pictures and I’ll furnish you the war.”

But, in another era, that style of publishing was labeled “yellow journalism” and there was understood to be a clear division between Hearst-style publications (and the tabloids that followed his lead) and media outlets like The New York Times, the Washington Post and The New Yorker, which set themselves up in opposition to trashy, irresponsible and exploitative outlets as respectable, well-documented and meticulously fact-checked.

Today, though, the line between respectable outlets and the tabloid, Yellow press often seems to have been erased. It’s as though respectable media outlets are now determined to have it both ways. They want to publish scandalous, click-baiting stories — to create impact for impact’s own sake — yet to do it without sacrificing their reputations as sober-sided, trustworthy establishment institutions.

In a previous blog posting I wrote at length about a recent front page article in The New York Times titled The Equestrian Who Minted Olympians, and Left Behind a Trail of Child Molestation, by Sarah Maslin Nir.

I found the article appalling on many levels. To begin with, I question the editorial judgement that led to The Times featuring the story on their front page. I understand the convention of The Times running a grabby human-interest story among the front page’s heavyweight tales of wars and natural disasters. But even granting that sexual abuse, especially in women’s sports, is nothing if not a trendy theme, it still strikes me as more of a National Enquirer-style decision than a traditional Times one to feature this particular article. In what universe is a story about a largely-unknown man who died twenty-five years ago a pressing one?

To turn to the headline: notice the words “child molestation.” I think it’s fair to say that such a headline will lead most readers to anticipate learning about a trail of events. Yet the piece makes mention of precisely one instance of purported child molestation by a woman who claims Williams molested her when she was eleven. The other women were teenagers. Are teenagers now considered children? "Underage" might have been a more appropriate word than "child" for the headline, but it wouldn't have been as grabby. 

This isn't to say Williams is not guilty of sexual abuse. He's dead and can't be tried in a real court. So I have no idea. It's to say that journalistic truth should not be based on hearsay. In the body of her article, Sarah Maslin Nir makes only the most cursory efforts to supply other dimensions to her story. In the current fashion, she lets “many women are making similar accusations” do the work of establishing proof, as though women never lie, or misremember, or change their minds, or rewrite their histories, or climb on a bandwagon in order to validate each other. And as for context — hey, this was the ‘60s and ‘70s we’re talking about. People’s standards were very different than they are now. Yet the article makes almost no effort to convey what life on the circuit was like in those days. Can we assume that it’s now open season on the rock stars of that era, nearly all of whom enjoyed nights and flings with teenaged girls? 

And yet, because of these accusations, Jimmy Williams, a genuinely great horse trainer, has already been stripped of all his honors and his association with the Flintridge Riding Club, an institution that he led to glory. He’s not alive to defend himself, but for all intents and purposes he’s been found guilty and punished nonetheless.

For another example of a more general sort, consider a recent Washington Post piece called Half of women in science experience harassment, a sweeping new report finds, by Sarah Kaplan and Ben Guarino. The piece relates the findings and recommendations of a recent study conducted by a sub-committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Half of women in these fields report having been sexually harassed, we learn. Drastic reform measures are required. 

What’s stunning about the Post’s article is how credulous it is. If you look for opinions about the research and the study from non-partisans, you won’t find any. You won’t, in fact, find any remarks in the article from any male scientists at all. Only one male is mentioned by name, and he’s just one of the study’s researchers. In the article, in other words, men are present only as shadowy bad guys.

The article also slides slickly from statistics to recommendations with no pause to examine values. Let’s examine a few instances in the article’s language. 

“The findings help explain how harassment can push women out of science or create an environment so hostile that their work suffers,” Kaplan and Guarino write. A reader might wonder: Do the findings really explain this? No proof is offered. 

“Medical students were the most likely to be harassed by faculty or staff,” say Kaplan and Guarino. It’s hard not to notice the absence of the words “to say,” as in these women said they’d been harassed. Is it really true that all women who feel they’ve been harassed in fact have suffered harassment?

And what does the article (and the study it’s reporting on) mean by harassment anyway? If you look for a definition of how the study defined “harassment,” you won’t find one. The closest thing, you’ll find, is a mere hint: the category apparently includes “sexist remarks, jokes and inappropriate comments,” or maybe “mind games.” What to make of those of us who consider jokes, remarks and mind games to be rather unimportant things?

In other words, while the article is no doubt reporting the study’s stats accurately, it’s also notable for completely ignoring and questioning the study’s values, definitions, interpretations and recommendations. It offers nothing but implicit endorsement, and zero perspective.

What could really be going on in this case? The article hints at what I’m guessing the answer is: the report and the article are pieces of Gender-Studies-style activism. The article includes a quote from Kathryn Clancy, one of the report’s authors. She says about the study and the field, that if she had the power to do so, “I would say, ‘Burn it all down, and let's start over.’”

Any sensible person would recognize that as the language of a true-believing revolutionary. Why is no one in the article responding to such a sentiment? Would it in fact be a good idea to burn the whole field of science down?

But the article is so credulous that it in fact hands its resonant last words to Kathryn Clancy: “Scientists have equated rigor and being critical with being cruel,” Clancy said. “If we can move away from that cultural norm, toward understanding that rigor and criticism come from collaboration and cooperation, we're just going to be so much better off.”

How long will it be before he's taken out of the history books by the feminists?

Is that really a good idea? Why are we given no one who disagrees?

And who is Kathryn Clancy? I confess that I wasn’t entirely surprised to learn that she’s a professor not of physics or math but of anthropology — and isn’t whether anthropology is a science or not under perpetual hot debate? — and that she has a degree in Gender Studies. 

Even when a publication makes a big show these days of presenting a piece on a hot topic in a seemingly balanced way, the internal slant is often severe. Time magazine recently ran a piece by Katie Reilly titled A Yale Student Accused Her Classmate of Rape. His Lawyers Asked What She Was Wearing and How Much She Drank.

Let’s skip over the cleverly incendiary headline, obviously meant to make us feel that an outrage has been committed. (Poor girl, subjected to such unfairness!) 

In brief: Yale student Saifullah Khan, was accused of rape in 2015 by a female Yalie. After being accused and suspended from school pending disciplinary hearings, Khan was acquitted early this year in a non-college court — those places where trials take place in the traditional way, not kangaroo-style.

The piece makes excruciatingly careful efforts to be balanced in the old “on the one hand … on the other hand …” Time magazine way. We’re meant to find the case interesting because it highlights certain current hot, difficult issues. How interesting that we’re living through “a moment when the very definition of consent and sexual assault is being debated on college campuses.”

Yet on closer examination, the piece’s slant starts to look more and more outrageous. Three objective-seeming authority figures from official-sounding groups like the National Women’s Law Center are quoted in support of the “victim,” while the only figure is quoted in support of Khan. That one figure in Khan’s corner is his lawyer, by the way. Being his lawyer, we’re all instantly skeptical of him. 

The slant is given away finally by the piece’s big finale: “This case is every survivor’s worst victim-blaming nightmare,” says Jess Davidson, described as “interim executive director of the group End Rape on Campus.” Where’s the spokesperson for the accused male’s team?

Compulsive researcher that I am, I found out that Katie Reilly, the article’s author, graduated from college three years ago, and that, during her years as a student at UNC Chapel Hill, she was co-director of the college’s Social Justice Center. For a different view of the Khan trial, read Cynthia Garrett who attended the trial. You will learn, through Garrett, that in fact, Khan was subjected to as much interrogation about his character as was his accuser.

And Khan will be subjected to more interrogation when Yale conducts their own trial. For a blast of arrogant stupidity and inaccurate ramblings about the courtroom trial of Khan (she gets nearly everything wrong), and about how superior Yale's justice system is than our mere traditional courtrooms, read college senior Amelia Nierenberg in Yale News. I bet she'd even think that Ruth Bader Ginsburg could learn from Yale's wonderful court system in which accusers are not interrogated because that's a "misogynistic tactic that men habitually use to silence women." As opposed to being due process, which one gathers Nierenberg thinks is just more white male supremacy. It's terrifying to think that Nierenberg has won awards for spewing this dangerous nonsense -- and guess what? -- she's headed towards a career in journalism! Just what we need, another bad journalist convinced she knows what the world needs from their headlines.

How important is all this? Extremely. I run into its effects nearly every time I hang out with friends. This is especially common among Boomer and older people, who remain convinced that a Times piece or a New Yorker piece still carries the same weight that such a thing did back in 1975.

I think it’s important not to forget how crazy and bad things can get. One of the old media’s most shameful recent episodes was the Satanic ritual abuse hysteria of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. From the mid-80s to the early 90s, publications (respectable and otherwise) and the readers who trusted them were convinced that sexual abuse of the most outrageous and absurd kind was taking place at day-care centers all across America. (The most famous case was the McMartin preschool case.) According to many mainstream accounts, children were being anally raped every day, with adults wielding crosses in subterranean corridors. 

As a result of these reports, and of everyday people’s credulousness about them, dozens of hardworking day-care workers lost their businesses; many of them spent years in jail. None — let me repeat, NONE — of these sentences have held up on appeal or on further investigation. (Wikipedia’s entry on the episode is very good.) 

It was a shameful episode in journalism in an era when journalism was generally more grounded and substantial than it is today. But am I dreaming? Was the American mainstream journalism of the past as substantial as I remember it? Am I nothing but (horrors) a nostalgic Boomer? 

Struck repeatedly by how shallow and juvenile so much of today’s high-visibility mainstream media stories have been, I recently spent a couple of days poking through the archives at The Times, The Post and the L.A. Times, along with other magazines and newspapers. Was their legendary journalism from the ‘60s and ‘70s as impressive as I remember it being?

Verdict: yes, absolutely. Whether covering Vietnam, Watergate or developments in Hollywood, the articles in the ‘60s or ‘80s were usually layered and substantial. Reading them, you felt you were in the hands of tough-minded professionals who knew how the world worked — instead of starry-eyed recent Gender Study grads — and who’d done their homework. Whether or not you agreed with the thrust and angle of the coverage, there was an amazing amount of substance to it. 

What we’re not seeing enough these days is work by someone like Debbie Nathan, almost unique among the reporters who were on the Satanic-ritual-abuse case. Writing mostly for the Village Voice, Nathan blew the whistle on the craziness we were being subjected to. (Her book about the episode is great.) Nathan did what we hope a real reporter will do: she examined the facts and uncovered actual truth, instead of going into writing a story with a preset idea of who’s the bad person and who’s the victim.

In the late ‘80s, the country seemed to be caught up in hysteria, a frenzy of fear. Women were working and perhaps feeling a combination of guilt and jealousy about the day-care substitute parents who were taking care of their children. Anti-sexual feminism was bizarrely merging with fundamentalist Christianity. The upshot was a vulnerability to absurdities and a genuine witch-hunt. We were, in short, living through what Marshall McLuhan and later Stanley Cohen termed a “moral panic.”

Could we be living through something similar today? I’d say yes. For all the licentiousness of today’s popular culture, there’s a sexual prissiness in the air that’s very judgmental and dismaying. But our era has its own distinctive characteristics too. Practically speaking: at publications, fact-checking departments have vanished. MSM outlets have, for budgetary reasons, been shedding old time reporters who, whatever their shortcomings, had hides and had seen it all, and have been hiring (at half the salaries) ambitious, eager-beaver Gender-Studies grads to fill those spots.

But what’s really behind the current craziness may mostly be desperation and hysteria: desperation on the part of the political/journalism class, who sense themselves losing control of the conversation. This class has been furious ever since they flubbed their chance to get Hillary into the White House. They were humiliated and shown up by the election, and they’ve been scrambling ever since to reclaim their traditional power. If they can’t get Trump impeached, they’ll settle for dethroning as many other people — preferably straight white males, of course — as they can: filmmakers, scientists, students, even long-dead horse trainers. And then they'll blame their shoddy journalism on Trump. Whether or not one likes Trump, shoddy journalism is just shoddy journalism. Could we possibly return to the days of Woodward and Bernstein when standards were higher and bad journalism wasn't blamed on Nixon?

The upshot is loads of cheap, shallow stories being run in publications that are exploiting their legendary, hard-won brands to lend legitimacy to lousy work.

I doubt these same people who trust the integrity of these mainstream newspapers and magazines would ever give any credence to articles and headlines in The National Enquirer or other tabloids. And yet, if you pick up one of these magazines and compare the reporting in them to what’s being peddled by the respectable outlets, they’ve become quite similar. Actually, I often find the reporting in the tabloids to be more measured and to bear more of a semblance to traditional reporting than the reporting in the respectable outlets. 

What’s really disturbing to me is how many educated people will read a headline that calls someone a “child molester” these days and simply accept the verdict. Forget being presumed innocent until proven guilty when you’re tried in the pages of the The Times, New Yorker or Washington Post. Why don’t the people who haven’t worked in the business not recognize the signs of how shoddy standards in today’s respectable reporting has become? 

The old outlets, the ones respectable people still trust, the ones who are doing their best to scare all of us about “fake news,” are no longer what they were back in the ‘60s or ‘80s. These days, they’re living on the credit they built up over decades past while acting these days like the most exploitative publications. OK, yes, they’re still running occasional good substantial pieces. But in far too many cases they’re simply using their brands and imprimaturs to lend credence to the least credible articles.

The New Yorker, Time, The Times, the Washington Post … They don’t just want current day justice on their terms. They want to show they can have statues and honors stripped from people of the past. They want to show they can rewrite history. They no longer want to be mere newspapers and magazines. They want to be courts of law.

***

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Reader Comments (4)

Good piece, but question your lumping "Time" magazine in with The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Washington Post. "Time" long ago gave up any semblance of objectivity. It is strictly a practitioner of advocacy journalism at this point and has moved into the "Enquirer" category, where its true competition lies.

June 30, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJames Buckley

Good point, Jim. However, Time still attempts an "even-handed" approach, and while you may see through it, many readers don't, which is why I included it.

June 30, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPolly Frost

Congratulations! You are saying things that need to be said!
The integrity of the press we once trusted is now in question.
Gross mistakes are made on a regular basis and it is nearly impossible to get both sides of a story. Fairness has evolved into “My way or no way”.
On the rare occasion there is an apology you find it well hidden on a back page.
Thank you for your wise words on this troubling topic!

June 30, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBarbara Bocher Henry

Another home run. Your posts make me nod in agreement and shake my head remembering all the pseudo-intellectual conversations I've had to sit through, hearing others quote "an article I read in the ...." to back up their point of view. In addition, people need to realize the term "impeach" does not mean, "to remove from office". (Hello, Clinton era?) Another example of people jumping on bandwagons and not doing research (or even a quick Webster's check)!

July 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMegan Waldrep

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