Thursday, January 24, 2019

Let's Learn From Our Covington Mistakes

As I said when I first weighed in on this, we must do better. You can think any way you want about what happened near the Lincoln Memorial. But as a member of the media for 30 years whose job it is to ensure accuracy and fairness in news articles -- and to speak up when something doesn't smell right -- I'm ashamed and tried to sound the alarm about how badly many journalists and bloggers failed here. (Yes, I have a serious job away from being a fan of all things Debbie Harry, tennis, cats and hot men.) The Covington Catholic story was never about “defending” anyone. It was about defending my profession -- already under assault in ways I never dreamed possible -- from further fuel against it. If I had to alienate a few friends and lose some followers as a result, it was worth it. I just find it so painfully ironic that so many liberals and reporters repeatedly shared misinformation (disinformation?) about what transpired -- even when faced with evidence that they were wrong -- in the same fashion that put Mr. MAGA in the White House to begin with. Have we learned nothing or will we fall prey again in 2020?

And as my boyfriend wisely asked, can we stop to consider from a political stance that this sort of outrage machine turns off potential allies? How about leading by example rather than mob mentality? Doubling down and moving goalposts should remain the province of the rabid right. (Sadly I can already hear people saying when confronted with the fact that the media never verified that Nathan Phillips is in fact a Vietnam vet (he’s not), "Well, they were STILL disrespectful to an older gentleman!" -- never mind that this person was the single source of a story that had to be completely rewritten.) The point is the media has a duty to report facts, and consumers should be basing their opinions on correct information. Hating a smarmy-looking kid in a MAGA hat is easy; reporting what actually happened is the hard part. Let's maybe hit pause for a few moments when the next viral outrage comes our way, and try to focus on common goals rather than targets.

P.S. No, rehashing won't change anything. But an autopsy of how reporters took everything at face value and ran with it is necessary. The article is harrowing to anyone who's ever worked in media. This is the kind of thing people get fired for. Read Caitlin Flanagan's depressing piece HERE.

While I have your attention:

Can we please not follow Donald Trump's example of co-opting words to suit our needs? "Fake news" is a real thing for when scumbags in Macedonia and the like write deliberately false news articles (propaganda, disinformation) for the purpose of sharing on social media to influence the outcome of an election, etc. It DOES NOT mean a story that you don't like or a story that puts you in an unfavorable light. What many people do not understand is that it also does not even mean a news story with a huge error in it. A legitimate story with an error gets corrected the moment the error is noticed -- and an explanation of what was corrected remains duly noted on the original piece. Having a mistake does not make it "fake news." (In short, nothing in the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, etc. can be fake news.)

Which brings me to my newest concern. With #Smirkgate I've seen what I imagine are well-meaning people using the term "gaslighting" incorrectly. Gaslighting is defined as "causing someone to doubt his or her sanity through the use of psychological manipulation." When Trump spends three years telling us Mexico will pay for the wall and then starts to say he never said that, one might call this gaslighting. When my stepfather hides my ailing mom's phone from her and insists she must have misplaced it, that's gaslighting. :-)

When two people observe a highly subjective video of people interacting and see two different things, that is NOT gaslighting. Telling your friend that your opinion and how you saw things is different from what they saw is not gaslighting.

Eyewitness testimony shows that people perceive things in all kinds of ways and they're not doing it to mess with other people's minds -- it's just how the human brain works. Could we please not ruin an extremely useful term by screaming "gaslighting" every time someone doesn't share your point of view? It's a little too you-know-who.


Larry said...

You haven't lost me, just confirmed I can trust you. I don't work in your field but in a field that also requires transparency and accuracy. I have learned to not not trust anything "viral" until I learn more info and angles, other than the one being pushed on me. This didn't pass the smell test for me and I agree that the media must do better about verifying a story from all sides without a predetermined stance on the outcome. I appreciate your commitment to honesty and integrity. The Savannah Guthrie interviews were excruciating and fueled more confusion than anything else.

Have a great day!

Danny said...

This is the kind of thing people SHOULD get fired for.

I've also noticed, a while back that most of the Damning videos we've seen in the past are also just a portion of what has occurred, not the whole incident. As you say, it's not a question of what people's opinions of the incident are, it's how the incident is reported. (gone are the days of unbiased, fact-based reporting)

northalabama said...

kenneth, i trusted your questioning the story from the start - it's one of the reasons i frequent your site - i know you wouldn't without good reason. it's not because you're always right or i always agree with you, it's because you're not afraid to look at stories objectively while asking important questions.

this is also why i avoid facebook and twitter, and when social media outrage explodes into mainstream media, i generally ignore the outrage for at least a week for the truth to rise to the surface.

i determined many years ago there are those, such as yourself, that do a much better job at researching and eventually reaching the truth, and if it means i'm behind the outrage curve, so be it - being aware doesn't mean i must always be actively involved.

Rix said...

By VA standards he is a vet. They changed the rules about having to be in country to direct support of the action after Korea, I believe.

Kenneth M. Walsh said...

@Rix: No one is saying he's not a military vet. The media called him a "Vietnam vet," which implies he fought in Vietnam.

Phillips apparently spent most of his time in the Marines as a refrigerator technician after initially being an anti-tank missileman for four months. According to the Marines, he was never deployed outside the U.S. and never saw combat.

Rix said...

I know his MOS and his stationing, but neither of us know what his duties were.

By the VA's definition, and they are the authority and have full access to his records, he is a Vietnam vet.

I understand that many if not most people, including me at one time, make the same assumptions, but it isn't factually accurate.

Would the guys that did support work on the carriers get to call themselves Vietnam vets? What about the loaders in Tokyo or Manila? How about at Pearl? Where is the line?

Kenneth M. Walsh said...

If you say so.

Kenneth M. Walsh said...

Nathan Phillips, the Native American activist involved in a now-viral scuffle with Catholic high school students in Washington, D.C., falsely claimed on video to have been a Vietnam veteran.

jaragon said...

Images and videos can be manipulated - we never get to see what the "victim" was doing before

Robert Rhea said...

Your life’s work is not under assault [as you say on Facebook] because [of] a quick - and mostly correct - reaction to the covington catholic issue ( I tend to think that the initial reaction was correct, the PR company hired by Sandmann is doing its job). Your life’s work is under attack by a huge percentage of. the population being told by the - mostly-fundamentalist right that facts don’t matter - all that matters is how they feel.

I think Caitlin was wrong to say that the NY Times helped Trump get elected by playing to a percentage that believes the media is against them. The Media helped Trump get elected by giving him Oxygen - they breathlessly covered every tweet, every invented drama, every KFC meal. In having too much integrity they rarely called him out for what he was in no uncertain terms - liar, predator, traitor. Instead they acted like he was reasonable and treated his outrages as if they were worthy of discussion and thoughtful consideration. They helped Trump get elected by treating him as if he were viable.

Kenneth M. Walsh said...

@Robert Rhea: Hey there! I was looking forward to a MAGA-free Friday, but since you went to the trouble of writing this thoughtful and measured comment, I figured I owed you a response.

I agree with a lot of what you said, I just think you're off on a few key points. First, I never said my profession was under assault because of the Covington coverage. I agree with what you said is the real reason the media is under assault. I said the (shoddy, quick-take) coverage was adding fuel to the assault, something we hardly need right now. Second, the backlash -- from a lot of people I respect -- began long before a public relations firm was involved, so I don't see how that is to be credited in any meaningful way. I find it most curious that all of my friends -- many of whom work in PR and crisis management(!) -- are pointing to hiring a firm as some sort of smoking gun, though. (What does Kathy Griffin or anyone receiving death threats do in this kind of situation?)

But most of all, if you think a story saying that a group of students clashed with four black men who were preaching God's word (um, no), crashed an indigenous people's march (no), subjected the indigenous people to a hideous tirade of racist insults and fantasies (no, that was those other guys), while chanting "build a wall" (no evidence so far), corned a Native American who was trying to pass (no), who is a Vietnam veteran (no) and then mocked him (highly subjective) is "mostly correct," then I guess we in the journalism world should demand that Janet Cooke be given back her Pulitzer Prize, because I'm sure there was an 8-year-old who used heroin at least once somewhere.

Moving goalposts (what about the kids/school doing XYZ not at the event?) and accepting things based on truthiness used to be the right's M.O. But somehow because the only thing that's not in dispute is that they were wearing MAGA hats, no one can think straight here. That's fine for the public -- but journalists must do better.

P.S. I totally agree with your take on the media and Trump. (Boy was it exhausting to watch.) But I think Caitlin Flanagan is right about The New York Times, most notably when it had to roll back a story about the FBI opening a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton. They tried so hard to be fair that they wound up being anything but.

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