DOUG LANE WRITES: 

WHAT’S NEW AND STRANGE? (THE BLOG)

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 7, 2016

ROPE. TREE. JOURNALIST.

At a rally for Republican candidate Donald Trump--whose made more than a few bones this election season demonizing the members of the press with whom he disagrees--in Minneapolis on Sunday, Reuters photographer Jonathan Ernst captured images of a Trump supporter wearing a t-shirt bearing the legend, "Rope. Tree. Journalist. SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED." 

As Daffy Duck might say, ho ho. How droll. 

I may not be practicing the trade, but as someone who went back to school as an adult for a Masters in Journalism, whose first real job was writing sports copy for the Catskill Daily Mail, I find this every bit as unacceptable in message as anything the Trump campaign has put out along this long, annoying road to the White House regarding religious, ethnic, or gender groups.

I'm sure somewhere out there, someone has already begun to blubber, "But the media is corrupt!"

And if I see you take a sample from the bulk bin when the sign says not to, I should cut off your hand? Because the implication of the shirt is pretty straightforward: lynch journalists. Let's promote murder because our candidate says this group is bad, and we agree, and they should be punished to death as a result. Welcome to the state of discourse 2016.

I don't deny there are elements of the media that are biased. Bias is a constant struggle for journalists, because journalists are people, with feelings and opinions and hot buttons and all the other things every other person has; they're just not supposed to let those things get between them and the job. Real journalists struggle with this every day. On the local level, it means having to put truth ahead of emotion, to be objective when you know the person whose name shows up in the police blotter or the court docket or the tragedy unfolding before your eyes. On the national level, it's resisting the temptation to use your medium as a bully pulpit for things with which you agree, to tailor news to the viewer demographic or to where the ratings or advertising are.

Does it happen? Of course it does. You can see it on display with multiple outlets, from 'lean' to 'outright propaganda.' It's a struggle as old as journalism itself, and something that news agencies need to actively work to improve to their benefit.

That said, the phrase "the media is corrupt" is a bunch of slack-jawed, Star-Bellied Sneetch generalization bullshit, as useful as any other blanket statement uttered by people with lazy minds and narrow world-views. These come from the same people who spout them about other groups of people based on social status, race, heritage, background, who would be just as quick to *dismiss* such a generalization leveled against their own backgrounds or experiences. Someone from a law enforcement family may have no issue saying, "The media is corrupt!" or "Muslims are dangerous!" but will immediately begin to lecture how "The cops are corrupt!" is wrong and demonizes hundred of thousands of good cops for the actions of a small group of malcontents. It's a fascinating cognitive dissonance.

Generalizations lead to the shirt below. And the message on that shirt, at that rally, for that candidate, may be what Trump is pushing, but it's also reprehensible. It threatens a free press with death because someone disagrees with the message. Not that that will prove a deterrent--real journalists, the kind who have the guts to walk into a war zone knowing they could get a bullet for their troubles in trying to report the truth, have a long history to speaking that truth to power and walking into danger so the public can be informed, accurately and, hopefully, without bias. A real journalist doesn't fear a knuckle-dragging sentiment on the back of a t-shirt.

But the sentiment at the root of that slogan is the real threat--not the suggestion of violence, but the unspoken acceptance of a press muzzled by government, in which only state-approved stories can run. When the state controls the story, you hear what the state wants you to hear, across the board. In a state-run news system, you never hear of a Watergate, you never hear of Flint's water crisis or the Standing Rock protests or anything that suggests unrest. And if you have the temerity to report something that doesn't support the state, that runs contrary to the state's goals, you're a lucky reporter with a strong organization behind you, you may only get hauled to jail or to court for reporting the truth. Bad news to the citizen journalist: *you* probably just disappear one day, like smoke. If you think it can't happen, ask anyone who survived Pinochet's rule over Chile about how easily people can vanish--especially people the state doesn't like.

There is zero accountability without a free press. Complain all you want about bias, the fact remains that you actually know about the train-wreck elements of both candidates in this election because of a free press.

Is there a lot of background noise, posturing, opinion passed off as fact out there? Yes. And this is the unfortunate by-product of the 24 hour news cycle and the need to fill time. I'd be over the moon if a CNN or MSNBC spent five fewer hours a day on the same story, repeating the same five facts and three talking-head opinions, and instead used them to report other things going on, globally and locally. I suspect the 24 hour news cycle has destroyed some of our empathy for our fellow Americans; I think we could all benefit from actually knowing what each other are dealing with regionally, and at times other than when a natural disaster hits or a marquee story breaks.

There's also a fair amount of agenda-based and even willfully inaccurate reporting. We're a long way from Frank Reynolds taking a single source at his word, reporting Reagan was dead in Hinkley's assassination attempt, having to retract that shortly thereafter on live television, and then at least once barking into his mic *on air* at someone trying to feed him facts that he didn't want anything that hadn't been confirmed (and you could tell how angry he was at having made an incorrect report of that magnitude based on a lack of confirmation.) When a network can air a story based on one anonymous source and push it hard for what appear to be political purposes, and get away with an 'oops, our bad' when it's shown to be utterly false? That needs to change, and quickly. What level of accurate reporting would we get, I wonder, if the recourse for sloppy work that willfully breaks the public trust was to lose an hour of prime airtime? How about if you intentionally mislead the public with a story proven to be badly-sourced, tossed together for quick ratings, or put out for political purposes, you lose the 7PM hour to a nonprofit organization for their use? Wasn't that the point of someone demanding a full-page retraction from newspapers back in the day: the loss of the ad revenue generated by that page? How much motivation would that provide for honest reporting? Because right now, there's almost no recourse against press elements that willfully run wild aside from shutting them out and ignoring them.

The news industry need to re-find its footing in a world where it's trying to compete with an accelerated, even hyperactive, news cycle, in which any jackass with a blog and two friends inside the firewall can beat them to the punch. It's time to stop worrying about being the first and highest-rated, and focus on being the best, the most accurate, the most trustworthy. Less speed and more precision; fewer pointless debates between paid talking heads and more in-depth and unbiased facts about more stories; less hype and hyperbole, more useful information; more news, less bloviating on what little news is reported.

But in the interim, until the large media outlets can figure out where they fit in the ever-shifting landscape, it's incumbent upon anyone - ANYONE - taking in news to understand the level of quality behind what they're reading, and what is fact versus fiction. The situation is this: you have news agencies that research, double-source, and report, with and without some lean; and others that research, single-source, and report with some lean; you have some that are strictly partisan and report along those lines; you have some that take one fact and run with opinions about it dressed as news; you have satirical sites with stories written with better tone and balance than some actual news stories; you have sites that seamlessly mix real news, fake news, some real news with fake additive, who really don't care if you're informed or not, so long as they get their click, their upvote, their attention -- they live to be mistaken as something real; and then you have the bloggers, who run the gamut from straight-up reporting to those who read something, digest it, and then unpack their baggage while telling you what they think it means. (Please see any alt-right reporting on how Jade Helm was a plot for martial law in Texas, and taking away guns, and so on. If this is martial law, I'll be honest: the food quality hasn't changed, but we could use a little more rain.)

For the foreseeable future, with the landscape I've just described, it's YOUR JOB to cut through the dross, the lean, the lies, the opinions disguised as fact, et. al., to be as well-informed as possible, to recognize who you can trust, to ferret out the original sources of things (pro tip: if the site is one you've never heard of, and they're reporting what another site you've never heard of said, you're probably not on solid reporting ground), to lean on professional fact checkers (and check them), to reject the places that substitute emotion for fact, and to make sure you're not confusing hating the messenger with hating the message. A reporter with whom you disagree may be different from a reporter that is biased. A reporter with whom you agree may be different from a reporter who is honest. And it's a poor reason, to reject something you neither like nor agree with simply because you're absolutely certain, despite all the available outlets doing honest journalistic work, that "the media is corrupt."

As for Mister 'Rope.Tree.Journalist.' in the photo, I think it's a very small man who needs to advocate via t-shirt that murder is his solution to a problem he perceives. And while I respect his right to express himself, I believe his opinion is both irresponsible and short-sighted. I expect if he was poisoned by contaminated groundwater compliments of a major corporation, or his kid went missing, or he stumbled into evidence of massive corruption in the Minnesota state house, or they started rounding up his friends and trucking them off in the middle of the night, he'd be the first person to want a journalist to listen to his side of things when the authorities shrugged him off.

Fortunately for him, most journalists recognize the critical importance of free speech and a free press, and would look past his asinine, ignorant, empty-headed and downright dangerous t-shirt slogan to hear him fairly, report his situation honestly, and get some wheels turning on his problem where none were before.

I suspect the irony of this poor wretch's attire in such a situation would slide right past him.

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