Tag Archives: breaking news

Journalism and Democracy

I have just finished Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now by Alan Rusbridger.

Based on the title, you might think this book is all about Donald Trump and his attempt to sell the idea that the press is the “enemy of the people.” While the Trump menace to freedom of the press is mentioned, the book is not mainly about that. It’s about the process by which The Guardian, one of the UK’s most storied newspapers, has navigated, with varying success, the rocky path from the traditional ways of journalism to the world brought about by the internet and the digital globalization of information.

Rusbridger is not a household name in the United States like, perhaps, Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post. Rusbridger was editor-in-chief of The Guardian from 1995 to 2015, the seminal period during which the digital challenge to top-down journalism manifested and ran roughshod over traditional ways of delivering the “news.” He is, among other things, a hell of a great writer and a compelling storyteller who confesses throughout that he was usually at a loss to know what to do to save The Guardian from financial destruction and from loss of its moral compass.

Rusbridger’s book is a remarkable explanation of the transition from a news operation funded by a trust, but still dependent upon advertising revenues for survival, to a multi-element news machine adapting to the digital age. Some of the financial details may challenge your interest, but the overall story line is as powerful as anything in great fiction. But, of course, it’s not fiction, not fake news, but truth.

Along the way, Rusbridger explores the meaning of “news” in a digital world, how news is discovered, vetted for importance and interest, and delivered to a global audience still interested in “truth” mediated by trusted investigators, writers, editors and publishers. He narrates the stories of Wikileaks (Julian Assange) and Edward Snowden and the issues their pilfered documents raised about what was responsible to publish, how governments attempted to prevent publication and much else. Readers from my generation will, of course, remember Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers, the New York Times and the ultimate victory in court that enabled the world to understand how the United States government had misled the people about the Vietnam War. Even then, the Nixon administration tried to imprison Neal Sheehan under the Espionage Act for his journalism in breaking the story.

The struggle over the Snowden documents was no less dramatic with the special twist – something I did not know – that the United Kingdom has no equivalent to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing freedom of the press. In the UK publishers, editors and even individual journalists are subject to lawsuits by “offended” parties, including giant corporations, who object to unfavorable news being published about them. Even members of Parliament and the British government itself were ominously threatening to punish difficult publish/don’t publish decisions about matters to which they took serious umbrage. Editors could go to jail for publishing the “wrong stories.”

Early in the book, Rusbridger discusses the period during which UK competitors of The Guardian began to dumb down their news to attract eyes, with considerable success and adverse effects on more traditional news organization that continued to publish in the old style. The conflict is described as “an ongoing concern for complexity, facts and nuance versus a drift towards impact, opinion and simplicity.” [Breaking News at 91] In ruminating about the divergent paths before them, Rusbridger raises question to which no ready answers existed at the time or even now [Id. at 92-93]

“What … should a news organization do, faced with legions of apathetic readers?

Did we have any kind of responsibility to tell our readers things they might not think they wanted to know?

Would a move to less complexity end up reinforcing a pattern of ignorance, or carelessness about things that ultimately do matter to us all? … Most of public life was not faithfully representable in either black or white. Somebody – surely – had the duty to paint in the greys.

Fast-forwarding to the second decade of this century, Rusbridger observes that “an ever-more polarized public – favouring either black or white answers to complicated problems – had lost either interest or trust in a world of greys.”

Another interesting observation lies in the discussion of the “long tail” of news. In traditional newspaper journalism, the story was developed during the day, published late and delivered for morning consumption. The story was effectively “over” until at least the next day’s paper was distributed. In the digital world of social media, however, “a story had a life independent of the news organization which created it.” Breaking News at 157. The story “was now a living thing – being shared, critiqued, rubbished, celebrated, clarified, responded to, rendered irrelevant, added to, challenged – maybe all of the above – while [the reporter] was trying to take a well-earned break.”

The battle that ensued after The Guardian published some of Snowden’s documents led many UK papers to line up against The Guardian. Rusbridger listed a series of legal challenges over the years to newspapers’ publication of controversial material, almost always sustained by the courts. Rusbridger:

“Journalists may often make wrong  decisions – but the assumption has to be that newspapers are free to make those wrong decisions and, if necessary, be held responsible afterwards. It was so strange to see writers and editors in 2013 willing to concede this principle when judges had, in general, been so much more robust in their defence of the press.” [Breaking News 321]

The attacks on The Guardian will look familiar to anyone paying attention to the rhetoric of Donald Trump who, in his paranoid desperation to deflect criticism, has labeled the press the “enemy of the people.” Rusbridger discusses that and the issue of “fake news” at length in the Epilogue to the book. Of course, his views will be of no interest to people who have forfeited their ability to think in favor of abject adoration of everything Trump. For the rest, though, whom I still believe to be the majority, the centrality of a free press to the survival of democracy will resonate. The current challenge to genuine journalism is deadly serious, one among many such threats that now arise from the kleptocracy that Trump and his family, with full support of the Republican Party, seeks to establish in the United States.

The story of The Guardian is our story as well and should be read by everyone who cares about the survival of democracy and personal freedom in America.

Media Incompetence Rampant

I well understand how difficult traditional news reporting is in the current times. I have just starting reading Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism & Why It Matters Now to get the perspective of Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian during the most tumultuous period of digital disruption beginning in the late 1990s.

One consequence of the shift to electronic news distribution seems to have been a marked decline in the quality of the writing, reflecting in many cases a decline in the underlying thinking involved in learning, writing about and disseminating the “news.” It may be that the real cause of this change is the speed with which digital news output must be delivered in order to compete and be relevant in a landscape where there are literally dozens of outlets immediately available with versions, true or otherwise, of any given story. Another factor likely is that some stories are reported before they are “ripe,” in the sense that there has not been time enough to verify everything and the media entities figure they’ll just update the story when more information becomes available. Sometimes, the update never happens because everyone involved has moved on to other “breaking” stories. Everything is always “breaking” in this environment. “Breaking News” has become one of the most used and least meaningful headlines ever conceived. When every story is “breaking,” nothing is “breaking.”

Often the errors are subtle but still very important, particularly if they lend credence to versions of truth that are, in reality, questionable or outright false. A case in point, that inspired this post and is but one of many instances I’ve seen, is a recent article in Newsweek, https://bit.ly/2OP3KTY, entitled “Poll: More Than Half of Americans Say They Definitely Won’t Vote for Donald Trump in 2020 Despite Mueller Findings,” authored by Alexandra Hutzler on 3/28/19. I want to emphasize here that I am not picking on her; she is not alone in making the terrible mistake I am about to describe. Her article caught my attention because it seemed to contain some good news in the midst of what looked like, for a while, the Mueller debacle.

The thrust of the piece is that “fifty-three percent of voters say they will “definitely will not” cast their ballot for Trump in the 2020 election if he is the Republican Party’s nominee, according to a new poll by Quinnipiac University.” Fine; that’s great news from where I sit, though one would hope that by now the percentage of people who see through the criminal façade of the Trump administration would be must higher.

In any case, the article includes these lines:

“Despite special counsel Robert Mueller’s finding that there was no collusion between Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia, more than half of Americans say they definitely won’t be voting for the president in 2020 …. While the dark cloud of the Mueller investigation has been lifted from Trump’s presidency, the Quinnipiac survey showed that his Democratic rivals are gaining popularity in the 2020 race.” [emphasis added]

It is a fact that there is no evidence that Mueller made a finding of “no collusion” other than the “summary” declaration by the recently appointed Trump appointee Attorney General Barr who auditioned for the job through a gratuitous memo asserting, in essence, the total immunity of the president from accountability while in office and perhaps thereafter as well. No one other than Mueller and his team and various people in the Justice Department have seen the actual Mueller report. [I am assuming here that copies have not been surreptitiously provided to the White House, a proposition in which I have only limited confidence.]

Furthermore, we now have reports from inside the Mueller team expressing deep concern about the extent to which AG Barr has gamed the situation with overly generous (to Trump) interpretations of what the Mueller report actually says. There is simply no basis in reality for the media to take Barr’s version of the Mueller report as definitive or even reliable to any degree. To have done otherwise is at best sloppy journalism and at worst a form of pandering that raises serious questions about the trustworthiness of a news “institution” like Newsweek.

Perhaps Ms. Hutzler can be forgiven for a “rookie mistake,” as she graduated from college and was hired by Newsweek only last year. I’m happy to assume that with respect to her, but not with respect to the editors at Newsweek. This is one of the reasons for having editors, to ferret out implicit bias in stories. This mistake was not particularly subtle and, in the context of the immediate controversy surrounding the Barr gambit, it should have been caught and fixed before publication.

I emphasize again that this incident is just one of many that I have observed in reading the “news” about the Mueller report and the Barr flim-flam. Trump is, of course, delighted to see stories like this that support the “complete exoneration” theme he has been so desperate to reach for the past two years. But there is no exoneration, just more questions. All the more so as the Mueller investigators are now talking about the Barr maneuver. The least the mainstream media can do is avoid supporting a grossly false narrative until the evidence is in. This issue will be crucially important in the run-up to the 2020 reckoning when, it seems certain, there are going to be issues of further foreign interference, voter suppression and false claims of a “rigged election if I lose” by Trump.