How the Virginia shooter’s hometown paper covered his attack
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What demons drove James Hodgkinson?
You needn't have been glued to the cable and broadcast news networks Wednesday morning as they displayed their depressingly well-practiced coverage of violence. (Poynter) You know: live on the scene, grim-faced anchors, inevitably ambiguous early claims, families of victims, eyewitness grainy smartphone videos, medical and legal experts, gun control advocates, etc.
There was also the 30,000-circulation McClatchy-owned Belleville, Illinois News-Democrat, the shooter's hometown paper, if you wanted to know about Hodgkinson and mull his motives.
As soon as it got word that a local guy was the suspect, the instincts of a very seasoned staff kicked in. The elite papers and TV outlets don't monopolize professional savvy, even if they dominate resources, and a 30-person staff pivoted from others matters on a busy week.
"I said, ‘What?!’" recounted Editor Jeffry Couch about the moment word got to him about Hodgkinson.
A reporter and videographer quickly sped to his home, while a data search found his letters to the editor, mostly between 2007 and 2011. The editor of that section had retired but it was clear that there were no signs of dangers embedded in them, only ideological passion.
It worked quickly and hard and soon had one story with 14,000 readers, a big number for the paper. The day before had been significant for the digital side, with 100,000 visitors. By day's end Wednesday, they were up to 762,453 story views due to the Virginia shooting, a daily record for bnd.com., and 66,458 video views
They assembled a very solid biography. Among the discoveries:
"The Hodgkinsons’ foster daughter, Wanda Ashley Stock, killed herself at the age of 17 in a brutal manner: Ashley doused herself with gasoline and set herself on fire inside her car on a rural road south of Belleville."
And this: "Then, in December 2002, the Hodgkinsons assumed legal guardianship for their 12-year-old great-niece, Cathy Lynn Putnam. Cathy’s biological parents’ rights had been revoked, and she had been in foster care or with the Hodgkinsons since she was 4 years old. Her name was eventually changed to Cathy Hodgkinson."
"However, in the couple’s last annual report regarding the girl, they said she was returned to state custody on July 7, 2006; court documents did not state why the judge took that action."
There were other facts. A letter to the judge, making clear their chagrin over the guardianship decision. And his shotgun being confiscated after a domestic quarrel among him, his daughter and two of the daughter's chums. There were DUI and resisting arrest charges, too.
The staff worked hard into the night, offering a wealth of detail, if not a resolution about the underlying catalyst. And the professional lessons of the day were profoundly simple: good editing counts.
There were huge pressures, especially given the national nature of their labor, but Couch's staff strove "to make sure we stopped, took a breath and asked, 'What else do we need to check?'"
"If I were to pass on anything," he said in a later afternoon chat, "it's that during a story like this, with all hands on deck, just make sure to read through everything from beginning to end and be certain that everything checks out."
A slogan is retired
"As Fox News moves further into the post–Roger Ailes era, the network is shedding one of its most iconic elements. According to network executives, Fox News has abandoned the marketing slogan 'Fair & Balanced.'" (New York)
"The decision was made last August after Ailes’s ouster by Fox News co-president Jack Abernethy, because the phrase had 'been mocked,' one insider said. Another executive explained that the tagline was 'too closely associated with Roger.' Fox executives have been instructed by management to market the network by its other tagline: “'Most Watched. Most Trusted.'”
Rachel Maddow in Rolling Stone
In a flattering profile and Q-and-A, Rachel Maddow says this about her interest in the Republican Party:
"The Republican Party is like an old burned-out husk of a Ford Pinto that blew up 'cause its gas tank was in the wrong place, but it's attached to a giant jet engine. The Democratic Party is like a Honda Civic. It putters through the world in a predictable way, and you like it or not depending on if you find small, unpowerful things cute. But the Republican Party has this incredible propulsion and no way to steer it." (Rolling Stone)
The press and the GOP healthcare bill
In a New York Times opinion newsletter, David Leonhardt writes, "Senate leaders have gone to extraordinary lengths to keep their health care bill secret, and the media has been too accommodating of the secrecy."
"The Senate is rushing to pass a health care bill within the next three weeks — a bill that would rewrite the rules for one-sixth of the economy and directly affect tens of millions of Americans. Yet prominent media coverage of the story has slowed to a trickle in recent weeks."
Cheery news: bots getting smarter
"Facebook says its machines are getting more and more human. The social giant released research Wednesday outlining its efforts to train artificially intelligent chatbots to negotiate with real humans — a skill that requires bots to actually plan a few steps ahead." (Recode)
Kamala Harris, media darling
The California freshman senator is a press flavor of the month due to what it regards as courageous questioning of Trump administration officials. Just check out pieces in Salon and The Washington Post.
Alex Jones' handiwork
Some of the crap peddled by Jones, who will be given a prime-time platform with a Sunday night interview by Megyn Kelly, included Wednesday's "LEFTISTS MOCK VICTIMS OF GOP SHOOTING: Tolerant liberals go to social media to attack Republicans." (InfoWars)
Or there was "LIBERAL HATE BECOMES REAL TERROR: Radical anti-Trump leftist goes on shooting spree." (InfoWars)
And this: "CNN JUSTIFIES VIOLENCE AGAINST REPUBLICANS." (InfoWars)
We're fortunate that NBC and Kelly will help us delve further into such intellectual subtlety Sunday night.
Working from home
Wall Street Journal columnist Christopher Mims, who's been working from home for a decade, argues on a Bloomberg podcast that the trend will not be stopped. (Bloomberg)
Meanwhile, "crisis meetings" at NBC
Fuzzy attribution runs amok in a Page Six item claiming virtual hysteria at NBC and "crisis meetings" over the backlash to the Kelly interview. (New York Post)
Google seeks to assist home-need employees
"Google will buy modular homes to address housing crunch — Silicon Valley giant aims to buy 300 apartment units amid stiff Bay Area market." (The Wall Street Journal)
The economics of podcasts
From the tech newsletter Stratechery:
"For podcasts there is neither data nor scale. The data part is obvious: while podcasters can (self-)report download numbers, no one knows whether or not a podcast is played, or if the ads are skipped."
"The scale bit is more subtle: podcasts are both too small and too big. They are too small in that it is difficult to buy ads at scale (and there is virtually no quality control, even with centralized ad sellers like Midroll); they are too large in that the audience, which may be located anywhere in the world listening at any time, is impossible to survey in order to measure ad effectiveness."
"That is why the vast majority of podcast advertisers are actually quite similar: nearly all are transaction-initiated subscription-based services....In other words, the only products that find podcast advertising worthwhile are those that expect to convert a listener in a measurable way and make a significant amount of money off of them, justifying the hassle."
Headline of day
"Washington preaches unity — yet again: Six years ago it was Giffords, now Scalise, but neither the politics nor the rhetoric are likely to change." (Politico)
"Actors are, by definition, an exhibitionist bunch. But they can also be deeply protective of a process that requires them to dive inside themselves before resurfacing with pearls of performance." (The New Yorker)
That's the opening of a neat online piece on the Broadway show photography of Brigitte Lacombe, who's had astonishing access for decades. Just check out the 1992 shot of Jessica Lange and bare-chested Alec Baldwin in "A Streetcar Named Desire."
Vice News Tonight
For all its appealingly iconoclastic bent, on some days the Vice evening newscast on HBO can't avoid what everybody is talking about. But it finds its way to part company.
So reporter Evan McMorris-Santoro opened with that through-the-fence video of the Virginia shooting, but then noted Hodgkinson is "a White guy born in America. So we avoided the immediate shit show over terrorism and Trump's travel ban." But it underscored that neither congressional unity nor productive discussion of guns "is coming anytime soon."
The morning babble
On CNN's "New Day," Sanjay Gupta was sharp on the worsening conditioning of Rep. Steve Scalise and magnitude of blood loss on his way to the hospital. It then went into the speculation about motive of the shooter, again conceding no one knew for sure.
MSNBC's "Morning Joe" was quickly back with the Russia investigation, heavily relying on Washington Post and New York Times disclosures that Robert Mueller is widening his probe and looking into possible obstruction by Trump himself, and even money laundering by unidentified people in dealing with Russians.
"Trump & Friends" on Fox chided those who broached the subject of gun control. "Dems turn attack into gun control issue." But it did fall short of blaming Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi or Sen. Charles Schumer for the incident.