Eric Deggans


Bob Schieffer, Howard Kurtz

Sizing up Howard Kurtz’s new show against ‘Reliable Sources’

As a recent member of the conga line of guest hosts for CNN’s media-analysis show “Reliable Sources,” I took interest in the Sunday debut of ex-host Howard Kurtz’s new Fox News program “Media Buzz.”

Airing at the same time as “Reliable Sources,” Kurtz’s show offered the same kind of media discussions as the CNN show he hosted for 15 years, presenting a chance for anyone with a DVR or twitchy TV remote finger to get two different visions of the week’s media news in one hour.

Kurtz’s inaugural show offered a fast-paced, technology-tinged overview of media stories that felt like a, well, buzzier version of the slightly more contemplative — OK, wonkier — edition of “Reliable Sources” guest-hosted by another former CNN staffer, Frank Sesno.

“We are going to hold the media accountable in a fair, aggressive and unbiased way,” said Kurtz, offering a mission statement of sorts at the show’s start. “We won’t be shy about calling out people for mistakes, conflicts, sensationalism or acknowledging our own errors when they happen.”

(Kurtz got a chance to live up to that manifesto later in the show, when he corrected a panelist who suggested New York Times investigative reporter Judith Miller lost her job for discredited reporting in the lead-up to the war in Iraq. He noted she resigned from the paper a few years later and is now a Fox News analyst.)

With longtime on-air partner Lauren Ashburn at his right hand, Kurtz launched into a discussion of President Obama’s attempt to win congressional approval for military action in Syria, using the president’s scheduled interviews with six network-news anchors today and an address to the American people Tuesday as the media angle. Other segments touched on the media fascination with floundering New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner; a visit by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to the newspaper he just bought, The Washington Post; and questions of sexism in media reporting about Yahoo president and CEO Marissa Mayer.

In guest-hosting “Reliable Sources” on Aug. 25, I found a striking amount of the show’s direction depends on who you can get in front of the cameras. Getting the journalists at the heart of big stories in the show — along with less-familiar sources who can talk about media well — can be the difference between a flat segment and one that shines.

To that end, Kurtz welcomed a roster of panelists familiar to regular “Reliable Sources” viewers, including Baltimore Sun TV critic David Zurawik, Washington Post reporter Nia-Malika Henderson and Ashburn. (Full disclosure: I was a frequent guest on Kurtz’s CNN show, but haven’t spoken to him about his new program.)

The biggest difference between “Media Buzz” and “Reliable Sources” however, was the new venture’s Fox-style production values. Instead of the relaxed piano tones introducing “Reliable Sources,” Fox viewers got electric guitars — as well as bright flashing graphics, names for segments such as “Spin Cycle” and “Buzz Alert,” lots of encouragement to engage online and a perkier host, seemingly invigorated after weeks away from regular hosting duties.

You could nitpick about some choices — one of the show’s longer segments centered on why media outlets were spending so much time talking about Weiner’s long-shot mayoral campaign, embodying the very dynamic being critiqued. And the segment on coverage of Mayer alluded to sexism in media coverage but only specifically detailed a piece both Ashburn and Kurtz said was well done: a 20,000-word story by Business Insider.

Kurtz left CNN less than two months after he submitted to a 15-minute segment on “Reliable Sources” in which two other media critics asked him about mistakes he made in a piece for the Daily Beast (he said back then the timing of his departure was not connected to that incident).

But in a move that mirrored similar hires of former NPR news analyst Juan Williams and former MSNBC morning personality Don Imus, Fox News picked up Kurtz to take over its media-analysis show “Fox News Watch,” moving the program from Saturdays into direct competition with “Reliable Sources” on Sunday morning.

At CNN, Sesno touched on similar subjects as Kurtz’s show, kicking off with a discussion of Syria that included an interview with CNN correspondent Arwa Damon; Shibley Telhami, an expert on Middle Eastern politics from the University of Maryland; and Len Downie, the former executive editor of The Washington Post.

Sesno, now leading the school of media and public affairs at George Washington University, came across as a bit less urgent than Kurtz, quizzing CNN correspondent Peter Hamby on whether Twitter is killing campaign journalism (short answer: yes) and getting a first-hand report from Downie on Bezos’ visit to the Post. (Downie said the new owner liked investigative journalism, loved the printed newspaper and talked a lot about the possibilities of tablet computers.)

With a succession of guest hosts filling in for Kurtz, it’s tough to know how “Reliable Sources” may stack up against “Media Buzz” in weeks to come.

But Sunday’s episodes offered two different flavors of the same ice cream cone — a welcome diversity of approaches in a medium that often doesn’t even like to acknowledge the media competition, much less spend an entire hour dissecting it for viewers. Read more


Ebony editor: ‘The extremists are the ones with the megaphone’

When a Florida jury pronounced George Zimmerman not guilty in the shooting death of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin on July 13, Ebony magazine Editor-in-Chief Amy Barnett had to cope with two surprises:

First, she didn’t expect that the former neighborhood watch captain would completely escape punishment for shooting Martin, famously bearing just a can of iced tea and a bag of candy.

And she had a magazine which had to be put to bed in just eight days. What to do?

What Barnett eventually did, was scramble her staff to pull together an 18-page look at the issues raised by the verdict, including four separate cover shots featuring Martin’s parents and their surviving son, along with NBA star Dwayne Wade, filmmaker Spike Lee and actor Boris Kodjoe — each posing with their sons in gray, hooded sweatshirts to symbolize the “hoodie” Martin wore the night of his death.

The headline on each: “We are Trayvon” (excepting the cover featuring Martin’s parents, which reads: “We are all Trayvon.”)

“It was a team effort,” Barnett said of the decision to go with the four covers. “We were thinking about what society would be talking about. Trayvon has become a symbol for African American youth… The idea is that all our kids are Trayvon.” Read more

Hong Kong Iceland Snowden

Snowden’s leaks force media self-examination

Besides forcing government and national-security institutions to face the public about their spying efforts, Edward Snowden’s decision to release information on America’s massive public surveillance efforts has thrown another system into a flurry of self-examination:

The American news media.

As New York Times columnist David Carr explored on Monday, Snowden’s leaks raise the question of who actually qualifies as a journalist. It’s not just a philosophical question: the government tends to shy from prosecuting reporters for the kind of information gathering that gets a spy or public citizen jailed. Carr and the Times public editor Margaret Sullivan both tackled discussions about who gets to be a journalist and the implications of how that question is answered.

I tend to side with thinkers such as New York University’s Jay Rosen and City University of New York’s Jeff Jarvis, who note that tools available through smartphones and the Internet allow anyone to become a reporter. Given that, the question changes from “Who is a journalist?” to “What is journalism?”

I talked about this nearly two years ago, as the first speaker at the Poynter Institute’s debut TEDx event, in a presentation titled “Journalism as an act.” The title came from an observation I made after watching a local “hot talk” radio personality and a woman who usually makes adult videos turn briefly into news reporters, relaying information publicly about a police standoff with a man who had shot three officers in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Journalism, I noted then, was turning from a craft into an act.

That may be tough to swallow for those of us who do this work all day, every day. There is, no doubt, a craft to the unearthing of information, the assembling of words and the placing of events in context with as much fairness as possible. People using their smartphone to record video of a fire or riot likely don’t have any of those skills at hand.

But media figures who are also advocates for a point of view utilize those skills, too. Take Glenn Greenwald, the blogger/writer who reported on Snowden’s leaks for The Guardian at the same time as the traditional journalists at The Washington Post. Greenwald’s perspective and history of advocacy don’t invalidate his journalism work, but they do require readers to come to his reporting with a knowledge of that history, letting them judge for themselves if his work is fair and accurate enough to be trusted.

That’s why I think any talk of a shield law for journalists needs to center on the work done, not the job title. If the point of a shield law is to keep the public as informed as possible by protecting journalists from prosecution for keeping their sources secret, it makes sense to extend that privilege to people practicing journalism, who otherwise might not be considered members of the club.

Debate over these issues has gotten heated, with critics assailing NBC’s David Gregory and The New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin for suggesting in various ways that Greenwald should or could be arrested for his work (Sorkin has since apologized for saying on CNBC that he would “almost arrest” Greenwald; he also called him a journalist).

In a piece titled “Meet the ‘Journalists Against Journalism’ club,” Salon columnist David Sirota criticized Gregory, Sorkin and others as “a group of reporters and pundits who are outraged that whistle-blowers and news organizations are colluding to expose illegal government surveillance.”

Sirota also slammed The Washington Post’s editorial board for suggesting the Obama administration cut a deal with Snowden which forgoes prosecution to get him back to America and stop the leaks that the newspaper’s own journalists have helped reveal to the world. Fred Hiatt, the Washington Post’s editorial-page editor, said in an email to Adweek that he saw no conflict between noting the journalistic usefulness of Snowden’s early leaks and urging the government to stop leaks that could harm legal anti-terrorism efforts.

At issue is the question of whether some of the country’s top journalists have become part of a chummy club that supports government power rather than challenging it. Focusing on journalism as an act helps defuse that argument, too: if anyone can benefit from the protections of reporting on whistle-blowers, there is less power in being among the chosen.

Still, Snowden’s efforts to avoid prosecution remind me of a conversation I once had with a civil-rights activist at the Martin Luther King Center who said followers of Dr. King’s non-violent protest strategy saw accepting arrest and prosecution as an important part of their movement.

Accepting such punishment not only showed the public that protesters were largely law-abiding, but also offered a chance to show how unfair such laws could be through court challenges and publicity.

It’s a good reminder that, as much as journalists want access to those with important information and valuable as whistle-blowing can be, sometimes those who practice civil disobedience by leaking to us must also face the consequences of breaking the law. Read more

Paula Deen

Lauer’s interview with Paula Deen missed the real questions

Celebrity chef Paula Deen’s tearful interview on NBC’s “Today” show Wednesday morning doesn’t seem to have changed many minds, leaving some critics suspicious that she’s hiding deeper problems with racial issues after admitting that she once used the n-word.

But her 13-minute conversation with host Matt Lauer did prove one thing: journalists still often concentrate on the wrong issues in talking about the controversy currently threatening her brand.

The first problem: The n-word isn’t necessarily the biggest issue. Lauer’s interview seemed to focus on whether Deen considered herself racist and whether she had used the racial epithet at any point in her past. “Are you a racist?” he asked at one point, going on to ask, “by birth, by choice, by osmosis, you don’t feel you have racist tendencies?”

But the reason this issue has become public is because Deen admitted using the n-word in her past during a deposition in a lawsuit brought by a former employee. That ex-staffer claimed an atmosphere of sexual harassment and racial discrimination existed at the restaurant she managed, which was owned by Deen and run by her brother.

An attorney for the Rainbow/PUSH organization, a civil-rights advocacy group founded by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, said over the weekend that three other people have come forward to say black staffers were treated unfairly at Deen’s restaurants.

The newsworthy question is whether an internationally known celebrity chef enabled or turned a blind eye to such an atmosphere in her restaurants. During her Today show interview, Deen seemed to blame her younger employees for such language, saying that “it’s distressing for me to go into my kitchens and I hear what these young people are calling each other.”

But as the owner, doesn’t she have the ability to insist her employees not use such language? Is it possible this was part of the environment the former manager was criticizing? And why didn’t Lauer ask about any of that?

Too much coverage has focused on the easy hook of Deen admitting she used the n-word to describe a black man who put a gun in her face nearly 30 years ago. Not enough has delved into the more substantive issues behind her admission.

The next problem: Coverage which misses details or exaggerates Deen’s testimony. In her Today show interview, Deen said the only time she used the n-word was in describing the gun incident. But in the deposition, when asked if she has used the racial epithet since then, she said  “I’m sure I have,” though she said she couldn’t recall the specific circumstances.

Why was she so sure in May that she’d used the word more than once and so adamant on Wednesday that she hadn’t? Lauer didn’t ask.

If Lauer missed opportunities to challenge Deen, the original National Enquirer report that turned the chef’s admission into a public controversy offered the harshest possible reading of her words, creating a narrative other news outlets echoed before the transcripts were made public.

The Enquirer said Deen “confesses to using the N-word on several occasions and even wanting black waiters to play the role of slave in a wedding party she was planning.” But the chef said she could only specifically remember using the n-word once and resisted calling the black waiters at her “plantation”-style wedding slaves.

Too much of the coverage has missed the complicated context of Deen’s mistakes. What has some critics incensed is Deen’s seemingly casual dismissal in her deposition of having used the n-word.

When asked then if she ever used the n-word, her response was “yes, of course.” The lawyer later asked if she was aware her brother had admitted engaging in “racially and sexually inappropriate behavior in the workplace.” Her response, in part: “Have we told jokes? Have we said things that we should not have said, that — yes, we all have. We all have done that, every one of us.”

That sounds suspiciously like defending her brother’s use of racial jokes. But Deen was testifying in a lawsuit and defending a multi-million-dollar brand. Under those circumstances, it seems likely she would try to downplay the impact of her brother’s actions.

On top of this, add the complexity of a woman who seems to admit admiring the opulence and glamour of the antebellum South, saying she hoped to arrange a wedding party in that style without acknowledging that time in history means something very different for black people.

Some have wondered about Deen’s success and issues of race before this latest controversy. As Michael Twitty wrote on his Afroculinaria blog,  “We are surrounded by culinary injustice where some Southerners take credit for things that enslaved Africans and their descendants played key roles in innovating.” For some in the food world, Deen was a symbol of that dynamic, building an empire for herself and her family on a culinary style developed by black people.

As we see with so many other incidents, the furor over Deen’s controversy has opened the door to lots of commentary about race, food and Southern culture, some of it not-so-strongly connected to her current situation.

Easy as it may be to hone in on Deen’s use of the n-word, the controversy is more complex and far-reaching than that. Here’s hoping Deen eventually sits down for an interview in which the deeper questions are asked, producing journalism that informs rather than just provoking more questions. Read more

George Zimmerman

Pointers journalists should keep in mind when covering the Zimmerman trial

As media coverage of George Zimmerman’s murder trial begins this week, we already know a few things that will happen.

Tiny Sanford, Fla., will become the center of the media universe, with hundreds of journalists expected to travel to the Seminole County Courthouse for the trial of the Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed unarmed 17-year-old black teenager Trayvon Martin, kicking off international protests when police hesitated to prosecute him.

Media outlets, which staked out a position on the incident when coverage exploded in March 2012, will likely echo it in their work now. So expect liberal-focused MSNBC to follow the lead of anchor Rev. Al Sharpton, who was a spokesman for Martin’s family while also hosting his 6 p.m. show on the newschannel last year. As Mediaite columnist Matt Wilstein noted, MSNBC needs the ratings boost from people of color, which could come from championing the Martin family’s perspective now.

Similarly, conservative Fox News Channel anchor Sean Hannity, who has been close to Zimmerman from the case’s earliest days, will likely echo the right-leaning channel’s skepticism that Zimmerman racially profiled Martin, backing his claim of self-defense.

And CNN sister channel HLN, which saw daytime ratings spike 111 percent last month during coverage of Jodi Arias’ murder trial, will seek to capture lightning in a bottle again with saturation Zimmerman coverage. (Already Monday, as potential jurors filled out questionnaires and prepared for questions, the channel had a special graphic image assuring viewers it is “Watching Zimmerman trial” even when there’s no footage or reporting from that proceeding onscreen).

Despite telling me that he expected Zimmerman coverage to boost HLN’s ratings, top executive Scot Safon demurred when asked how star Nancy Grace — known for favoring prosecutors in her coverage of most trials — might land on this case.

But despite what we know will happen, there are a few lessons for journalists in what has already happened in Zimmerman/Martin coverage.

Here’s my list of stuff I hope journalists and pundits keep in mind while trying to fill time during what some commentators are already trying to dub the civil rights trial of the decade.

Easy as it is to focus on racial issues, the case’s legal issues may be very different. There will be lots of talk about the racial issues raised by the Zimmerman/Martin case, for two reasons: it’s very hard to get people to focus on difficult conversations about race, and the trial’s early days will focus on the tedious process of jury selection.

Did police drag their feet in investigating the case because of Martin’s race? Did Florida officials cave to public pressure and bring an unfair prosecution? Did the state’s controversial Stand Your Ground law encourage police to move slowly? Is this just another case of a black person killed in Florida for being in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Those are valid questions, but the verdict in this case will mostly depend on the answer to a simpler one: Can prosecutors prove Zimmerman was the aggressor in the fight that ended with Martin’s death?

They will certainly ask if Zimmerman zeroed in on Martin because of his race, youth and appearance. And the lawyers may tussle — without admitting it directly, of course — over the racial makeup of the jury, knowing people of color may be more sympathetic to charges of racial profiling. But with Zimmerman’s defense so far declining to use the Stand your Ground law as a defense, some of the biggest issues raised by the shooting regarding race and law enforcement may not come into play without a witness or proof that refutes Zimmerman’s claim of how the fight started.

Consumers will need journalism that gets to the heart of the legal case presented, without getting lost in the ancillary issues referenced by the case, important though they are. Spending too much time on those outside issues may leave consumers so ill-informed about the actual case that the jury’s decision will come as a surprise, as happened in the Casey Anthony trial.

Different media outlets take on different roles in the Zimmerman/Martin case. Last year, the print media offered some of the best coverage of facts in the case, especially as newspapers such as The Orlando Sentinel and The Miami Herald competed to own the story. Television was a home for more emotional coverage, especially in morning television and cable TV newschannels, where pundits could argue through endless segments, using arguments that may or may not have been accurate.

Blogs were a home for some of the most obsessive coverage on the case, as independent writers sifted through mountains of publicly available evidence in ways even professional journalists didn’t necessarily have time to attempt. Social media became an area for activism and a quick way to push people to sign petitions, show up for protests, spread word about controversial statements and marshal public response.

Knowing how these platforms worked last year can help consumers and journalist sort through coverage now. Especially as the trial heats up and the opinions fly.

Media should be careful about being used. Zimmerman attorney Mark O’Mara’s release of controversial pictures from Martin’s cellphone produced the coverage you’d expect, highlighting photos of guns, marijuana plants and the teen flipping off the camera.

But as O’Mara argued a futile motion last week to include the material in his opening statements, his actions seemed to go beyond trying to reach potential members of the jury pool with damaging information about the teen through news coverage.

His actions also sent a message to prosecutors: This is the material we have if you try to make Martin look like a saint. Since potential jurors aren’t sequestered, media coverage may still have an impact during jury selection; journalists seeking to be fair should be careful about what they report and providing a balanced picture.

Diversity can add context and accuracy, but only when balanced with other journalism values. Last year, journalists of color were indispensable in spreading word about the situation as authorities let 44 days pass before charging Zimmerman with second-degree murder.

The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart, The New York Times’ Charles Blow, The Associated Press’ Jesse Washington and Trymaine Lee (then at The Huffington Post’s Black Voices website, now at MSNBC) are all African American columnists who spread word early about the Zimmerman case and/or developed potent stories about the racial implications of the case. But such perspectives also have to be balanced with accuracy and fairness.

NBC News, facing a lawsuit from Zimmerman for errors made in editing audio of his 911 call to police for broadcast, now finds itself regularly announcing during its current coverage on MSNBC and other outlets that the network faces legal action from the guy it’s reporting on.

Having to remind viewers of a huge past mistake every time you cover one of the biggest stories of the day is a good argument for keeping an eye on the facts in this case, even amid the pressure for scoops and impact.

There are more details on race and media coverage in the Zimmerman/Martin case within my new book, “Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation”; details here. Read more

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Chris Christie

PETA reaches out to news outlets that exaggerate its position on Chris Christie killing a spider

In early May, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie killed a spider during an event with several schoolchildren. That prompted a journalist with the website Talking Points Memo to call People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to see what their reaction might be. TPM summed up the animal-rights organization’s two-sentence statement as calling the governor “thoughtless.”

Here’s the statement PETA emailed to reporter Hunter Walker: “He probably did it without thinking. Some people put the spider outside, but spiders are often scary to people, and that can prevent them from pondering their worth.”

When a host of other news outlets followed TPM’s story, descriptions of PETA’s reaction varied — and, in some cases, veered into inaccuracy. Some news organizations said PETA “slams” Christie or was “crying foul” or was “angered” over the incident, playing up the group’s image as a zealous — or overzealous — advocate for animals. The New York Daily News said that PETA “portrayed the insect-killing governor as a thoughtless villain”; WABC-TV in New York said the group was “outraged” and Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin observed at the end of a notes column that the governor was likely “delighted at being the recipient of the wackos’ anger.”

This has happened before to PETA, usually involving small stories on relatively minor subjects. So this time, senior vice president of communications Lisa Lange decided to contact every news outlet that had seemed to overstate the group’s reaction.

“A reporter will call, and sometimes they’ll have their story written in their mind, [thinking] ‘We’re sure PETA is going to give us an inflammatory statement,’ ” said Lange, who noted that PETA felt Walker’s story for Talking Points Memo was relatively fair, but that many other news outlets exaggerated his reporting. “But we gave a measured statement. They wrote the story they wanted to write.”

According to Lange, PETA wrote emails to 60 media outlets. Forty-five didn’t respond, six changed their stories, seven refused to change their stories and two published snarky updates noting the group’s objections. CNN, the Associated Press and Fox News Channel’s Special Report with Bret Baier were among those who got the story right, Lange said.

Judy Kurtz, who wrote a piece for The Hill headlined “PETA goes after Christie for killing a spider,” said she wasn’t responsible for the headline but stood by her story, which characterized PETA as “crying foul.” “I can understand their concerns,” said Kurtz, who spoke with the group, but declined to change her story. “But with my story, I think they may be overreacting.”

According to PETA, the Daily News dropped the word “villain” from their story’s online version after the group contacted them. And Breitbart News wrote a correction, which read, in part, “contrary to our original reportage, it is inaccurate to say that PETA ‘blasted’ Christie or that he was ‘in hot water’ with the group.”

One problem for groups such as PETA: stories like these are easy filler for TV newscasts or blog posts, leading some journalists to cobble together a few paragraphs without the research they might devote to a longer story.

“The phenomenon of needing to add spin to things is almost an inherent issue with aggregated news,” said Walker of TPM, who also stood by his report. “It’s interesting to me that rather than adding a layer of reporting or analysis, maybe putting an item into context, the easiest thing for a lot of people seems to be to add a layer of snark.”

Lange said something similar happened in 2009, when PETA wrote a light-hearted response to President Obama killing a fly during an interview, only to find reports focused on the group’s use of the phrase “executive insect execution.”

So why comment? “I think there will come a time when we won’t answer because we know we can’t be guaranteed that we’ll be quoted [accurately],” Lange said. “Years ago, we responded to every single press entity. But there’s been a shift in how people report the news.” Read more


Is Truth-O-Meter the real issue in Maddow’s latest blast at PolitiFact?

The Tampa Bay Times’ fact-checking site PolitiFact has drawn another heated rebuke from MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow, who accuses it of “ruining fact checking” and being “truly terrible.”

But at the risk of looking like a homer — the Times signs my checks as its media critic — I think Maddow’s gripe with PolitiFact boils down to the same thing that’s rankled other critics: the site’s Truth-O-Meter rulings. (Additional disclaimer: Poynter owns the Tampa Bay Times.)

On Tuesday, Maddow took issue with PolitiFact ruling as “Half True” a statement from tennis legend Martina Navratilova that “in 29 states in this country you can still get fired for not just being gay but if your employer thinks you are gay.” That number is the amount of states with no statewide law banning employment discrimination for sexual orientation.

But PolitiFact noted that several factors work against making blanket statements based on a lack of state laws. Some government employees have protections against sexual-orientation discrimination even in those 29 states. Cities in states lacking such laws have passed their own legislation banning workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are two examples.) Some employers have union rules and written internal policies barring such discrimination. And some laws banning gender discrimination can also protect gay people, depending on how a case is argued.

But are such exceptions enough to make Navratilova’s statement “Half True”?

I’m betting that’s what bothered some who read the PolitiFact analysis. I would have given Navratilova’s words a rating of “Mostly True,” since a) PolitiFact didn’t seem to calculate how many people might be protected by these exceptions; and b) the exceptions seem like minor ones. As I see it, “Half True” overstates the case because it implies a substantial error or falsity.

The Truth-O-Meter, which assigns statements to six categories on a scale from “True” to “Pants on Fire” for out-and-out falsehoods, has been both PolitiFact’s most successful and most controversial element.

On the one hand, it provides a handy, quick method for branding PolitiFact, recognizing its rulings and communicating its decisions. Anyone looking to laud or blast a statement can use this shorthand; Daily Show host Jon Stewart even used his smartphone to read former GOP candidate Herman Cain a “Pants on Fire” ruling during the program’s visit to the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

But on the other hand, the Truth-O-Meter can provide an easy source of criticism. Maddow also blew up at PolitiFact in February 2012 when the site ruled “Mostly True” a claim by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio that “Americans are majority conservative,” citing a 2011 Gallup poll that found 40 percent of Americans identified as conservative, compared to 21 percent liberal and 35 percent moderate.

Again, this is ruling I would dispute, because 40 percent is a long way from 51 percent. I probably would have ruled it “Mostly False,” because the real number isn’t a majority, even though it is the largest category of the three measured by the poll. (After taking a lot of criticism, PolitiFact eventually changed its ruling to “Half True.”)

PolitiFact’s explanations of its rulings are an effort to go beyond the literal truth of a fact or set of facts to judge the overall impact of a statement. In politics, it is easy to lay out three true statements and reach a false conclusion; the subjective Truth-o-Meter rulings are a way of addressing this issue. And by laying out the facts it weighed in reaching a ruling, PolitiFact lets the reader make his or her own decision. As long as the facts PolitiFact presents in its arguments are true, criticism that the site is “ruining fact-checking” overlooks much of what it does.

Some critics have asked whether PolitiFact has set out to tweak liberal sensibilities with some of its rulings, perhaps offering a harsher Truth-O-Meter setting to look even-handed in political squabbles. People who work on the site insist that isn’t happening, but readers can look over PolitiFact’s rulings and decide for themselves.

That’s an important difference between PolitiFact and Maddow’s latest critique of it. Even while lambasting PolitiFact for a supposed error, Maddow never fairly explained the facts assembled by the site to challenge Navratilova’s statement, dismissing them as “unrelated information.” And that makes it tougher for Maddow’s viewers to judge if her analysis was fair.

So in this case, it seems, both sides might have a little to learn about fair arguments and rulings. Read more


Charles Ramsey interviews reveal risks of jumping on a good story too soon

What big media gives, it can take away just as quickly.

That’s the feeling in the air as some news outlets continue chewing over the story of Charles Ramsey, the struggling dishwasher who became a media hero and Internet sensation after telling his story of helping save Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight from 10 years of captivity in an Ohio home.

But what Ramsey’s tale may really reveal for journalists is the danger of jumping on a good story too soon with too little information.

Ramsey was hailed as an entertaining, compelling figure after attention-getting interviews with WEWS-TV in Cleveland and CNN’s Anderson Cooper in which he vividly described helping Berry crawl through the door of a Cleveland home where she and the two other women had been held captive.

First, the Smoking Gun website revealed Ramsey was a convicted felon with three domestic violence convictions to his name, resulting in prison time. Then WEWS interviewed a second neighbor, Angel Cordero, who said he was the one who helped Berry break free of the house and that Ramsey showed up after she was already outside. (Cordero may not have gotten as much attention because he spoke to a TV reporter in Spanish.)

Both stories reveal the dangers in lionizing someone at the heart of a breaking news event too soon. As a writer for Time magazine noted, even a tweet from McDonald’s acknowledging Ramsey could backfire if his story changes course too much. (He talked about eating a Big Mac before hearing Berry’s screams for help).

But TV outlets, flooding Cleveland for any scrap of information about the case, could hardly resist an expressive, talkative guy given to calling every interviewer “bruh” and using colorful metaphors to make his case. “I knew something was wrong when a little, pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms,” he told WEWS. “Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway.”

Some critics saw something more troubling in all the interest. Slate writer Aisha Harris decried the way Ramsey began to look like a stereotypical example of the “hilarious black neighbor,” whose street slang, eccentric behavior and bedraggled appearance offered a comedic tinge to a horrific story.

Harris writes that “it’s difficult to watch these videos and not sense that their popularity has something to do with a persistent, if unconscious, desire to see black people perform.” The videos perpetuate the “most basic stereotyping of blacks as simple-minded ramblers living in the ‘ghetto,’ socially out of step with the rest of educated America.”

Indeed, the fuss over Ramsey seemed to dwarf the reaction to another eccentric media figure, Paul Kevin Curtis, the oddball Elvis impersonator first arrested on suspicion of sending ricin-laced letters to President Obama and a U.S. Senator.

“I heard the word ‘ricin’ for the first time in my life by a federal agent Homeland Security while being interrogated for four hours,” Curtis told CNN’s Piers Morgan in an interview the host later tweeted was the weirdest he’d ever experienced. “I thought he said ‘rice’ … I said I don’t even eat rice usually. You know, I’m not even a rice lover.” Why did Ramsey’s words become an auto-tuned Internet sensation while Curtis’s didn’t?

As Ramsey’s neighbor and former school-bus driver Ariel Castro faces rape and kidnapping charges, it seems obvious that there are race and class issues bubbling beneath this story that journalists may overlook in the rush to get interviews.

Ramsey’s story seemed to fulfill a couple of needs in the news cycle. First, he was the most willing source of information in the early moments of a horrific story in which police, victims and suspected perpetrators were not yet talking at length. He was a natural storyteller, and his detailed account filled in lots of early blanks — provided he was telling the whole truth about the circumstances.

But he also let viewers process a horrific crime in a way that was less jarring and even entertaining. Those watching his interviews could chuckle at his lines and laud his heroism while skirting a basic fact — a woman emerging from a house after 10 years of captivity with a 6-year-old child is likely a victim of sexual assault. As news outlets relay more alleged details of the women’s captivity, the extent of what the women endured as sexual slaves is shockingly apparent.

Ramsey himself seemed to display a camera-ready attitude that was surprising. It’s as if, after many years of seeing bystanders and participants in crime and emergency stories interviewed by TV cameras, people now know how they are expected to react if they ever find themselves connected to a major news story.

In some ways, Ramsey seemed ready for his closeup. Whether the news media was ready to handle such a compelling, complicated figure at the center of a hot news story, remains an open question. Read more

Robert Lipstye

New ESPN ombud Robert Lipsyte talks about his role

Ask if Robert Lipsyte is going to be particularly critical as ESPN’s new ombudsman, and he mentions a little piece he penned for Slate magazine back in June 2011. The piece dismantles the 763-page oral history of ESPN, “Those Guys Have All the Fun.”

In that review, Lipsyte — who once worked on ESPN’s SportsCentury and Classic Sports Reporters shows, among many prestigious sports journalism jobs — criticized the authors for not being tough enough on the Worldwide Leader in Sports.

Why didn’t they look at how ESPN’s cheerleading affected America’s perception of celebrity athlete, or its problems covering athletes it also pays? (“The phrase ‘conflict of interest’ seems flabby,” he wrote then.)

Robert Lipstye

Turns out, when top ESPN executive John A. Walsh called to ask if he would be interested in the job, Lipsyte eventually sent him that column — which also indirectly called Walsh “controlling,” “Machiavellian” and “a genius.”

It was an example of the type of work he’d be doing as the outlet’s fifth ombudsman; an independent columnist who reviews ESPN’s journalism on ESPN’s website. It’s also a job that involves, first and foremost, being the audience’s advocate.

“It’s very clear that I’m representing an audience, an audience that needs to understand how ESPN works,” said Lipsyte, 75, who found out on Monday that he finally had the gig. “I really do believe the definitions and values of sports have value in society. The way that the media, including ESPN, covers sports, adds to or detracts from our understanding of the world. And that’s my job. Explaining that to people who want to know how it works.”

ESPN spent about five months without an ombudsman; a break that brought some buzz in sports media circles. But Patrick Stiegman,’s vice president and editor-in-chief, said Walsh led a team that considered two dozen names for the job, winnowed down to a few candidates they interviewed in person.

“We struck gold with Mr. Lipsyte. … he’s a legend in the field,” Stiegman said. “He was provocative, was mindful of what ESPN’s business goals were, mindful of ESPN’s goals as a journalistic entity and he challenged us. … He offered a tremendous analogy: He sees the role as being a window washer for ESPN. … It’s about transparency; his job is to keep those windows clean.”

Connected to journalism since his job as a copy boy for The New York Times in 1957, Lipsyte has worked for the Times, CBS and NBC as an columnist and reporter, along with PBS, National Public Radio and the New York Post. He has also penned 10 books.

Lipsyte will succeed the Poynter Project, a revolving roster of writers from the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which last served as ombudsman (Full disclosure: Poynter owns the newspaper where I work, the Tampa Bay Times). Previous ESPN ombudsmen/women include former NBC and ABC sports and entertainment executive Don Ohlmeyer, ex-Washington Post sports editor George Solomon and Le Anne Schreiber, a onetime sports editor at the New York Times.

There are no concrete plans worked out, but Lipsyte also hopes to create a blog and Twitter page for the ombudsman’s work, using Margaret Sullivan, the cyber-savvy ombudsman for the New York Times, as an inspiration.

“I like the way she’s structuring it; finding a topic, reporting on it and gently giving her take,” he said of Sullivan, noting he’d mostly use Twitter to promote work published elsewhere — at least at first. “I think, now, Twitter is just a little too reactive. An ombudsman is supposed to be a little reflective, maybe wait a beat.”

After a moment, he drops the punchline. “Two months from now, come back and tell me how full of s— I was,” he adds, laughing.

Besides confirming Lipsyte’s old school talent for salty newsroom language, the moment also demonstrates there’s little set in stone for this job at the outset. With no firm date in mind, he’s set to start sometime in June, producing at least two pieces each month under an 18-month contract.

His output will focus on columns for — where every other ombudsman has appeared — though he could also helm audio or video podcasts and surface on other multimedia platforms, Stiegman said.

The most interesting tidbit: Lipsyte could be the first ombudsman for ESPN who might actually appear on its most-watched platform, the television channels.

“The ombudsman should be everywhere ESPN is, (and) it would be better to respond on the platform the story is about,” Lipsyte said, suggesting that he might pop up in an interview or debate segment to speak on a major issue. “I don’t see Outside the Lines giving me my own airtime. … but as somebody who loves to get made up, I’m more than happy to go on TV.”

Asked if he’ll work from ESPN’s Bristol, Conn. Headquarters, Lipsyte answers almost by reflex (“God, no!”), noting he’ll stay in his New York area homebase and travel north when needed.

He acknowledges slipping into an old fashioned job with new media potential.

“There does seem something comfortably old fashioned about an ombudsman; someone who is holding an institution accountable or holding the door open to let others hold them accountable,” Lipsyte said.

“I think ESPN seems like this monolith (to outsiders). … They forget it’s all these different platforms populated by all these different people with these conflicting goals and ambitions. When you break it down, it’s really just people; which is far more human and interesting than people would think from the outside.” Read more


Studies: Women candidates pay political price for any mention of their looks

Name It. Change It.

For many years, some media critics have insisted that press coverage that refers to female politicians’ looks — particularly when there’s no similar reference to male politicos — trivializes and damages them in the eyes of potential voters.

Now the Women’s Media Center and She Should Run have released studies they say prove those criticisms, developed in a joint project called Name It. Change It. In one survey, conducted online, they reached 1,500 likely voters to gauge what would happen to female candidate’s electoral chances if she were described in news stories that outlined her appearance. In another, they used an online dial survey to sample 1,000 likely voters on the effects of sexist coverage for female candidates who were white, black, Latina and Asian American.

The first survey found that news stories that mentioned female candidate “Jane Smith” ‘s appearance hurt her chances of getting votes against male candidate “Dan Jones,” regardless of whether the description was neutral, positive or negative.

In fact, positive descriptions of the candidate’s appearance hurt her more than neutral ones; among respondents who heard a flattering description of Jane, she had an 11 percent disadvantage to Dan, compared to a 5 percent disadvantage after a neutral description (the two were evenly supported by respondents who heard no physical description. Read more

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