Adam Hochberg, Bill Krueger, Steve Myers and Latoya Peterson explain the emerging ways that information is created and consumed, from the Fourth Estate to the Fifth Estate.

Would you snap a picture or pull the man to safety?

The Internet blew up with righteous criticism of the New York Post for publishing a photo of a man about to be crushed by a subway train and the photographer who took that picture.

Any one of us could be that photographer, standing on that subway platform, forced to make a choice between taking a picture and trying to help the man.

On several occasions I’ve counseled photographers and reporters working in war zones, natural disasters, and the Third World. They often are troubled by this question of when to put the camera down.

Here’s what I tell them: We are all morally obligated to help our fellow human beings, when death or serious injury is imminent and when we are the most competent person available to help.

In some cases, you are the most competent person because you are the only adult, sometimes because you are the closest, or the only person who can swim, or the only person with a phone.

The Post has explained that the freelance photographer who took the picture was trying to alert the conductor by strobing his flash. The photographer elaborated on his explanation in interviews with the Post and The New York Times: “I was not aiming to take a photograph of the man on the track … If I had reached him in time, I would have pulled him up.”

It’s tricky to second-guess people making life and death decisions and I’m not about to do it here. Instead, it’s more helpful to ask yourself about your own instincts.

Would you whip out your phone, or a make dash for the edge of the platform? Are you thinking more about how likely this is to go viral, or how likely this man is to die?

It’s a lot easier to condemn the NY Post than it is to condemn the photog. Even for The Post, the photo crossed the boundaries of journalism ethics standards. Editors there aren’t saying much about why they published it. Maybe they were thinking about iconic images like Nick Ut’s 1972 photo of children running from the chemical attacks in Vietnam or Kevin Carter’s 1993 picture of a vulture hovering near a starving Sudanese child.

In both of those cases we look at a moment of trauma and terror, where photographers had to make tough calls. Carter shooed the vulture away, but later was tormented by his failure to do more. Ut poured water over the injured girl and drove her and her family to a hospital.

But in both of those cases, editors could argue the photos held significant journalistic purpose of informing the public of gross tragedies and holding the powerful accountable. This photo doesn’t have any of those redeeming journalistic qualities. But it causes great harm, to the family of the man, to those of us who view it and to the community of New York. It is sensational and voyeuristic and nothing more.

When you publish or pass along photos of pending death without purpose, you might as well be posting a snuff film. There is no redeeming value.

Related: New York Post faces backlash | Irby: Blame NY Post editors, not photographer | Photog speaks: “Every time I close my eyes, I see the image of death.” Read more


Sunday, Dec. 02, 2012

NY newspapers follow story of cop, boots and barefoot man

(Updated Monday morning with NYT interview of the homeless man.)

Some stories break. Others, as legendary editor Gene Roberts famously observed, ooze. The story of a New York City police officer’s kindness to a homeless man broke last week, went viral on social media and attracted widespread coverage from the established media. It began oozing on Friday.

[<a href="//" target="_blank">View the story "Next chapter in story of cop, boots and barefoot man" on Storify</a>]<br /> <h1>Next chapter in story of cop, boots and barefoot man</h1> <h2>Some stories break. Others, as legendary editor Gene Roberts famously observed, ooze. The story of a New York City police officer’s kindness to a homeless man broke last week, went viral on social media and attracted widespread coverage from the established media. It began oozing on Friday.</h2> <p>Storified by Bill Mitchell · Sun, Dec 02 2012 03:37:38</p> <div>I was prompted to check back in on this story by <a href=”″ class=””>a skeptical comment</a> attached early this morning to my <a href=”” class=””>tracking of the first 24 hours in the tale</a> of Arizona tourist Jennifer Foster’s cell phone photo of officer Lawrence DePrimo providing new boots to a barefoot man near Times Square. The comment underlines the importance of an important stage in the process I refer to as <a href=”” class=””>Next Step Journalism</a>: verification. The comment links to the first report I’ve seen attaching a name to the boots’ recipient. In a story published Friday, the New York Daily News identified him as 54 year-old Jeffery Hillman.</div> <div>NYPD Officer Larry DePrimo, who gave homeless man a pair of boots, shares ‘once in lifetime’ momentNBC NewsWire/Peter Kramer/NBC Pictured: (l-r) Jennifer Foster, Larry Deprimo and Savannah Guthrie appear on NBC News’ "Today" show The ki…</div> <div>But it wasn’t until Sunday that the New York Post shifted the focus from the officer to Hillman. The Post’s headline is a bit of a stretch (“Shoe tale comes as a sock”), but its lead is a classic: “They were clueless he was shoeless.”</div> <div>Shoe tale comes as a sockThey were clueless he was shoeless. The family of the homeless man aided by a selfless cop in Times Square was shocked to find out yester…</div> <div>It wasn’t the tabs but <a href=”″ class=””>the police department’s Facebook page</a> that gave the story its initial traction. The New York Times appeared to be the first established media outlet to <a href=”” class=””>break the story on Thursday</a>. In a <a href=”″ class=””>story published Friday</a> in its New York edition, the Times described encounters that others reporting having with the man, including at least one woman who said she also bought him a pair of shoes. But I could find nothing in the Times in my driveway Sunday morning nor in the paper’s online edition — at least as of 6 a.m. — indicating that the paper had caught up with this next chapter. To be continued, I’m sure. </div> Read more

Friday, Nov. 30, 2012


How a photo spread of NYPD officer helping homeless man

During a visit to New York’s Times Square this week, tourist Jennifer Foster snapped a cell phone photo of a police officer helping a homeless man. That photo became a story that unfolded for me like this. Read more


Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012

New website helps viewers see how news is skewed

With 60 percent of Americans saying they do not trust mainstream media to fully, accurately or fairly report the news, Colleen Bradford Krantz launched, a project that she hopes will help the public identify why a news story seems biased.

Still in its early stages, the project launched last week and targets high school, middle school and college students, Bradford Krantz told Poynter by phone.

“Teachers have told us that these are the groups who are really bad at critical news viewing,” she said. “But it’s not just limited to young viewers. A lot of people think that most journalists are out to slant news.”

The site focuses on video for now. “That’s what young people are using more and more,” Bradford Krantz said.

The project compares three versions of a news story: One neutral news report followed by two deliberately slanted versions. One of the two slanted versions uses pop-up balloons to show how seemingly unimportant changes — in background music, in how a source is identified — can affect the message.

Even changes in tone of voice and the use of certain phrases can demonstrate bias, Bradford Krantz said. In the skewed versions of the current video collection posted on YouTube, users see how changes in camera angles even affect what viewers perceive.

For example, a story about animal housing shows how a camera angle of a less crowded shot can lead to a positive emotional connection to the story, while a more crowded shot or one featuring a sick cow instead of a healthy one can lead to a negative feeling. Similarly, a bright yellow background may lead viewers to perceive a news report positively, while a gray, gloomy background can make a story feel negative. A more ominous tone of voice, or a narration backed by moody music, can make a story seem negative, compared to a brighter tone of voice and livelier music.

A former reporter for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Des Moines Register as well as a documentary filmmaker, Bradford Krantz used to argue that much of the public’s claims of bias were exaggerated or tied to misunderstanding how newsrooms work. While careful journalists outnumber the careless ones, she now acknowledges that more and more news sources provide a mix of news and opinion without labeling the reports as commentary.

The skewed news tutorial also trains viewers on how to call into newsrooms to convey their concerns. Good news managers will listen, Bradford Krantz said.

The project contains a tip sheet that journalists can use to identify triggers, such as upbringing, that may influence how they report or write about a topic. This part of the project also asks journalists how they plan to overcome possible influences that may skew their reports.

“This might be controversial,” Bradford Krantz explains. “Backgrounds can be a positive thing, but they can also be problematic when it comes to who journalists choose to be in a story, for example. What I tell people about the Journalism Bias Sheet is that it provides transparency that will be a reassurance to the public if nothing else.”

In addition to posting videos every few months, Bradford Krantz plans to develop a mobile app. Read more


Thursday, Nov. 08, 2012


What Nate Silver’s success says about the 4th and 5th estates

Many are declaring the 2012 presidential election a victory for Nate Silver and his FiveThirtyEight blog. His success this political season — in both predicting the electoral college vote and in driving traffic to the New York Times — is a validation for the independent Fifth Estate, as well as the reassertion of journalism as a discipline of verification.

It might seem a bit heretical to link those two ideas — the rise of independent voices and the rebirth of verification — in the same sentence. After all, the spread of unfettered opinion seemed to coincide with an escalation in the amount of suspect information populating the marketplace of ideas. But they are, in fact, related.

Silver’s rise fits neatly with the other big trend of this election: fact checking. In both instances, journalism drove a stake in the ground for what Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel call the journalism of verification, in their book, “The Elements of Journalism.” While Silver used an algorithm to analyze lots of statistical models, weighting those with historical accuracy, to come up with his assertions, the fact checkers used old-fashioned research.

Both solved a problem created by the changing media ecosystem.

Silver first trained his mathematical prowess on baseball, creating a predictive algorithm to assess performance and later sold that to Baseball Prospectus, a statistics-based website with an annual book geared toward fantasy players and gamblers. From my observations, it looks like the sports journalism world is approximately three years ahead of the rest of journalism in many trends, including the ability to create a universe of talking heads to pontificate ad nauseum and in using statistics to drive the narrative. So it made sense that Silver would take what he learned in sports journalism and bring it to political journalism.

Silver is a true Fifth Estate success story. He started his political blogging career as an anonymous voice on the Daily Kos. But in 2008, he created FiveThirtyEight. He garnered a lot of media attention during the Democratic primary, when polls were wildly inconsistent and pundits seemed to be favoring Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama.

The Times signed Silver to a three-year contract in 2010, transforming him from an outsider to an insider. But his blog was well established as a legitimate source – for many people the legitimate source – of reconciling and interpreting conflicting polling data, long before his association with the grey lady.

Silver hardly needed The New York Times. Other organizations were actively courting him. Penguin gave him a $700,000 advance for his book, which came out this year. It was clear he was going places.

Back in 2008, both Silver’s FiveThirtyEight and PolitiFact (operated by Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times) with its pants-on-fire icon, seemed kind of gimmicky.

Both were a reaction to the cacophony that had become political discourse. Both were dismissed as liberally biased by conservatives. And both have weathered the criticism, mostly by being right but also by being popular with the audience.

FiveThirtyEight’s genius was to slay the pundits, who make predictions based on theories or notions, and suggest that those predictions have the same weight as statistical analysis.

PolitiFact’s genius was to slow down the political churn enough to point out the truths, half-truths and lies. And to do it in way that can be quickly digested and easily shared.

That brings us to the Huffington Post, which last presidential election was a three-year-old scrappy disrupter, with bloggers like Mayhill Fowler breaking stories like Obama’s “clinging to their guns and religion” statement.

Certainly the Huffington Post is no PolitiFact or FiveThirtyEight. If anything, HuffPo is contributing to the noise that Silver and the fact-checkers are trying to cut through. But HuffPo rivals its traditional media competitors in both influence and audience.

In fact, the popularity of FiveThirtyEight, PolitiFact and HuffPo reflect two desires among the audience, that might seem mutually exclusive, but in fact are co-existing quite well.

First, people want to cut through the partisan posturing. They want political analysis rooted not in political desire, but in knowable facts. PolitiFact provides that. But traffic to Huffington Post suggests some people also want information through an ideological lens — they just want it delivered by a brand that is transparent about its ideology. HuffPo does that. And Silver does both. He’s honest about his personal views (a registered Democrat), and when he offers his predictions, he does so based on math, not ideology.

What happens four years from now? We’re in for a new cycle of upstarts who will mature to powerhouses. Silver may move on from the Times, or maybe he will work a deal where the Times continues to benefit from his algorithm, but he isn’t personally as involved. PolitiFact and the other fact-checkers will continue to refine their craft, starting with the rhetoric around the pending fiscal cliff.

And Huffington Post will certainly continue to thrive. One of Silver’s more interesting posts was an analysis of HuffPo’s business model after it was acquired by AOL.

In that post, Silver addresses aspiring bloggers who want to become the next big thing.

“Look beyond a site’s traffic numbers and consider how it presents your material and how prominently it is featured, as well as the sort of audience it is likely to attract,” he wrote. “Being a small fish in a very, very big pond isn’t always the way to build up a name for yourself.”

Where will the next Nate Silver come from? She’s probably already out there, churning out something unique, solving a problem we can’t yet articulate. Read more


Why pundits will continue arguing about whether Obama won a mandate

One of the most heated post-election memes revolved about a simple question with a complicated answer: Did the President win a mandate Tuesday?

Factually, no.

That’s because an electoral mandate is a claim; there’s no clear or quantifiable definition. It’s a term that presidents and other politicians embrace because it’s a potent weapon in arguing that there’s clear support for his or her policies.

And so it was that pundits contended that President Obama’s re-election means that a majority of Americans supports the president’s economic policies, the Affordable Health Care Act, same-sex marriage, and many of his other priorities.

Others insisted that the president’s ability to stitch together support from a range of Americans is the practical definition of a mandate. (He won the female vote by 12 points, the Latino vote by 40 points, and the African-American vote by 80 points.)

In fact, the meaning of an electoral mandate is malleable. Some analysts and politicians define it as a simply majority; others believe it has to be a landslide.

For those who argue that a candidate has won a mandate, the threshold is often “the percentage your candidate has surpassed,” said Marjorie Randon Hershey, a political science professor at Indiana University.

And still others believe it depends on whether one party sweeps an election, or whether the results were so surprising as to be a clear message from an electorate. Hershey says politicians can never claim a mandate because they can never really know why voters supported them.

“People have many reasons for their votes,” said Hershey, who has written about mandates. “Some people supported the president because they feel the same way he does about many issues. … But some people voted for him just because he’s a Democrat, and they’re a member of the Democratic Party. There’s no way to know how every voter feels about all of the president’s policies.”

The debate over mandates stretches back to the 1800s, when Andrew Jackson became the first president to claim one, and it’s become a tradition since then. As Ron Fournier points out in a National Journal piece that argues Obama has no mandate, presidents such as FDR, Lyndon B. Johnson, and George W. Bush all claimed mandates during times of great crisis. Ronald Reagan insisted he had a mandate in 1980, as did the Republicans in 1994, when that party won control of Congress for the first time in four decades. And so did Barack Obama in 2008.

Today’s controversy only suggests that the power of the concept lives on — as will the debate around it. Read more

1 Comment
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney delivers his concession speech at his election night rally in Boston, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Gaffes defined and defied campaign narratives, but did they affect who won?

As Mitt Romney visited Poland this summer, Washington Post reporter Phil Rucker shouted a question to the candidate that revealed a lot about the media’s coverage of the campaign.

“What about your gaffes?” Rucker called out, as Gov. Romney walked to his car in Warsaw.

The governor didn’t answer, but the question highlighted the focus of much of the media’s day-to-day narrative. Journalists, bloggers, pundits — and sometimes the campaigns themselves — gleefully piled on after either candidate committed a perceived misstep or uttered an inelegant statement.

From President Obama’s declaration that “the private sector is doing fine” (labeled as an “economic gaffe” by ABC News) to Gov. Romney’s admission that “I’m not concerned about the very poor” (a possible “monster gaffe,” declared The Week), the campaign narrative often centered more on the candidates’ offhand ad libs than their platforms or policy records.

Many of the verbal miscues provided media fodder only for a couple of news cycles before being quickly forgotten. (Neither Obama’s August “spelling gaffe” nor Romney’s “CookieGate” comments got much attention outside of partisan media.)

But a handful of the unscripted statements had major roles in setting — or changing — the media narrative of the campaign. While it’s not clear whether any of the remarks had a lasting impact on voters, several received extensive attention in the mainstream media, on blogs, and in social media.

“The gaffes are easy to cover,” said Southern Methodist University Journalism Professor Tony Pederson. “They don’t require a lot of digging; they’re just a quick and dirty story.”

Among the candidate utterances that became campaign memes:

“Corporations are people, my friend”

Romney’s response to protesters at the Iowa State Fair came early in the campaign, long before he secured the Republican nomination. But almost immediately, pundits accurately predicted it would provide fodder for Democratic attack ads. While Romney seemed to be trying to say that corporate profits benefit shareholders, the retort helped form his public persona as a rich businessman who identified more with Wall Street than Main Street – an image he continued to foster through later comments including his out-of-context remark that, “I like being able to fire people,” his proposed $10,000 bet with Texas governor Rick Perry, and his secretly recorded dismissal of “47 percent of the people.

“One of Romney’s problems is that a number of these gaffes helped develop a storyline,” said Steve Frantzich, a U.S. Naval Academy political scientist and author of “OOPS: Observing Our Politicians Stumble.”

“There are 47 percent of the people … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims”

About that secret video, originally obtained by Mother Jones: It led the evening newscasts on the broadcast networks, was reported on the front page of The New York Times, reverberated through social media, and even had the pro-Republican Wall Street Journal editorial page suggesting that Romney deserved to lose if he couldn’t express a more inclusive political vision.

The video had several elements that helped it break through the noise of a continuously-covered campaign. Not only did it tend to reinforce concerns from some voters about Romney’s ability to relate to them, it also had an element of “reality television” to it. Covertly recorded inside a high-dollar fund-raiser, it allowed Americans to see the candidate speaking frankly at a time he believed he was out of broad public view.

Romney briefly slipped in the polls after the release of the video, and his campaign was forced to spend time and resources on damage control. Still, “the 47%” remained a major theme of political coverage – and Obama’s campaign – until Election Day.

AP Caption: “Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney delivers his concession speech at his election night rally in Boston, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012.” (Charles Dharapak/AP)

“You didn’t build that”

Obama’s campaign experienced its own diversion following a July speech in which he spoke about the role of schools, roads, bridges, and other public infrastructure. “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen,” the President said.

While the Obama campaign claimed his comment was taken out of context, the quote became a sensation. While Obama made TV commercials attempting to explain his remarks, Romney adopted a campaign theme of, “We Built It.”

There’s no evidence that Obama’s remarks affected his poll numbers. But a LexisNexis search found more than 800 news stories, interviews, and talk shows that referenced the controversial comments. Radio and television hosts Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck were among the first to mention them, and after Romney personally called out Obama for the speech, it exploded into the mainstream media.

“They brought us whole binders full of women”

Perhaps as much for its unusual imagery as its policy content, Romney’s anecdote at the second presidential debate sparked a sudden social media frenzy. Within hours after Romney used the phrase to describe his effort to recruit female cabinet secretaries in Massachusetts, the hashtag #bindersfullofwomen began trending on Twitter, while the phrase sparked a popular Tumblr account and became a top search term on Google.

It also led to more than 1,400 news stories and helped rekindle a wider discussion of women’s issues in the campaign, where Democrats had for months been accusing Republicans of waging a “war on women.” Romney already had repudiated Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin, whose comments about “legitimate rape” Romney termed “offensive.” He would later try to distance himself from Indiana GOP Senate hopeful Richard Mourdock, who said that if a woman becomes pregnant as a result of rape, “that is something God intended to happen.” Both Akin and Mourdock lost.

Though it’s again not clear whether the specific comments changed people’s votes, exit polls suggested that Romney struggled to connect with female voters. Obama attracted the support of 55 percent of women, while Romney won 44 percent.

“You said in the rose garden the day after the attack it was an act of terror?” Compared with most of the other narrative-changers, the candidates’ exchange over the Benghazi embassy attack in the same debate was neither as brief nor as easily edited into sound bites and political ads. But it was a leading topic of post-debate analysis, and it likely helped the President regain support after a weak performance in the previous debate.

Romney got tripped up while criticizing Obama’s immediate reaction to the attack, and moderator Candy Crowley – in a controversial interjection – largely supported the President’s version of events. The exchange was highlighted in much of the post-debate coverage, with the Denver Post calling it a “major gaffe” and CNN saying, “Romney left voters with the impression that he wasn’t familiar with all the facts.”

The Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism found that the media narrative of the race shifted following the debate. Coverage of Romney was largely balanced prior to the event, with 23 percent of news stories judged as “positive,” 23 percent “negative,” and the rest “mixed.” After the second debate, the positive number fell to 14 percent, with 45 percent negative. Obama’s positive/negative percentages improved slightly from 12/37 before the debate to 17/34 afterward.

Romney largely avoided the issue of the embassy attack in the final debate, sidestepping a topic that many pundits felt was among Obama’s greatest liabilities.

Throughout the campaign, media observers – and even Romney himself — expressed dismay about the degree to which so-called gaffes propelled the political coverage. At the same time, though, the campaigns, the mainstream media, and the social media community all had reasons to promote a gaffe-fueled narrative.

Candidates hoped that exploiting their opponent’s inarticulate ad-libs would motivate base voters, put the other side on the defensive, and allow the campaign to talk about something other than controversial policy issues.

TV networks and other traditional media organizations with 24-hour news cycles hoped to parlay each provocative utterance into hours of news stories and talking-head fodder.

And in an online environment where political punditry is dispensed 140 characters at a time, gaffes and tweets seemed made for each other.

“They’re just such appealing kinds of stories and so easy to jump on,” Frantzich said, predicting that this year’s election may provide a new model for campaigns and political coverage – one that’s driven less by big ideas and policy debates, and more by opportunistic scrutiny of each candidate’s misstatements.

“We can blame the media slightly, but the audience is really attracted to these kinds of stories,” Frantzich said. Read more


Monday, Oct. 29, 2012

Hello, Deadspin was duped by AT&T

On Friday morning, Deadspin posted an article and a link to a high school scrimmage of “The Most Athletic Football Play of the Year.” Deadspin pushed it out via Facebook, where I saw it and followed the link to a video of a running back on a practice field doing a flip over a defender and running into the endzone.

Deadspin pointed out that it didn’t know anything about the video and wasn’t really going to try to find out. Here’s the entire post:

If you care about things like “context” and “names,” this highlight isn’t for you. We don’t know who’s the running back who executes this flawless 180° flip, we don’t even know what school this is. We contacted the uploader for more info, but got no response. Since the video was uploaded more than three weeks ago, and barely has 400 views, it’s safe to say it’s either legit or the worst-marketed viral video ever.

Sure enough during NCAA and NFL football games this weekend, AT&T debuted a new commercial which starts with the video, tells a story of the video going viral, and ends with the high school player getting a heartwarming introduction to University of Oklahoma’s Head Coach Bob Stoops.

Deadspin Editor Tommy Craggs seemed genuinely surprised when I emailed him to ask if he knew the video was part of a commercial. “Crap. We didn’t. God, that’s depressing,” he replied to my email.

Deadspin commenters figured it out, though. Even before the commercials ran, many were calling it fake, both on the Deadspin page and on the YouTube video.

It’s a minor hit to Deadspin. But the accumulation of deliberate fakeries makes the audience more and more jaded.

Barry Petchesky, who wrote the post, counts himself among the cynical. “I did raise the possibility in our brief write-up, but it seemed unlikely since the video had been on YouTube for three weeks before their marketing team started spreading the word,” he said by email. “I’ll be sure to take every opportunity to bash AT&T products in the future, though.”

A link to the video was emailed to him on Friday morning. He said he tried to email back, but got no response from the emailer, or the person who uploaded the video to YouTube, so he posted the video. I “did AT&T’s dirty work for them,” he said.

Read more


Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012


As 4 stations cancel his show, is Tavis Smiley’s advocacy journalism too political for public radio?

One week after Tavis Smiley was yanked off the air by Chicago Public Media for being too much of an advocate, the veteran broadcaster slammed President Barack Obama in a New York Times story published over the weekend.

“Tragically, it seems the president feels boxed in by his blackness. It has, at times, been painful to watch this particular president’s calibrated, cautious and sometimes callous treatment of his most loyal constituency,” Smiley told Jodi Kantor of the Times by email. “African Americans will have lost ground in the Obama era.”

That’s the kind of talk that a week ago led Torey Malatia, President and CEO of Chicago Public Media to cancel “Smiley & West,” a public affairs show hosted by Smiley and Princeton Professor Cornel West. That’s also the kind of talk most journalists shy away from; but an unapologetic Smiley tells Poynter in a phone interview that he’s an advocate journalist who knows when to advocate on issues and when to interrogate on them. He does either/or – or both – depending on the platform.

Smiley says, for example, that he does not advocate for things he believes in on his public television show, his “Tavis Smiley Show” from Public Radio International or through his foundation, which seeks to mentor and develop youth; but he does advocate in his best selling books, in speeches and on the other public radio program he hosts with West.

The advocate journalist

“I am not Brian Williams, Bob Schieffer, Scott Pelley, or Diane Sawyer. I am not trying to be a journalist,” said Smiley, who was born to a single mother in Gulfport, Miss.

“If people want to use the word journalist with me in the title, they have to call me an advocacy journalist in the tradition of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Monroe Trotter. What I try to do is raise issues that unsettle people, unhouse people, that challenge folks to re-examine their assumptions, expand their inventory of ideas and give them a new way of seeing the world, a new prism from which to look.

“I don’t think that anybody who has followed my work is surprised by the fact that advocacy matters to me. I don’t think that advocacy is a spectator sport. You have to get off the sideline and get involved in the game,” he continued. “I’ve always been that way. And because I wear so many hats, there are spaces and places where I don’t advocate, but there are other spaces and places where I do. So some spaces are for interrogation, some spaces are for advocacy and I don’t mix the two.”

Smiley bristled when asked whether audience members might get confused about when he’s advocating and when he’s interrogating. “I think the exact opposite,” he said. “It provides a level of clarity for the listener and for the viewer. They know what they’re watching and they know what they’re listening to.”

“At some point those who steward public media must stop insulting those who support public media. People are not stupid. They know what they’re watching, they know what they’re listening to and they can tune in or tune out. But they know spin when they hear spin, and they know truth when they hear truth. And at some point, if you’re lying, it’s going to eventually catch up with you. Ask Lance Armstrong. People aren’t confused about what they’re watching.

Earlier this year Smiley and West launched a nationwide poverty tour to coincide with the election. The two have traveled from city to city talking about the plight of the poor, promoting their book, “The Rich and The Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto” and lambasting the presidential candidates, especially Obama, for not directly addressing the issue.

“You listen to an hour of ‘Smiley & West’ and you listen to ‘The Tavis Smiley Show,’ you will hear the difference in the programs. And that’s okay because people have different tastes. I’m offering them a variety of things to watch and listen to. The audience isn’t confused about that. I just don’t like when we insult the intellect of the audience,” he said.

In response to email complaints about the cancellation, WBEZ’s Malatia compared Smiley’s brand of opinion journalism to that of Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly, which Smiley took as an insult and responded to via an open letter, defending his work.

“At least with me, you know where I stand. What I don’t like are persons who are sitting in news chairs who are supposed to be objective, but you can hear the slant in the storytelling, you can hear the slant in the snarkiness in the delivery, you can hear the slant when the commentary creeps in,” Smiley told Poynter. “With me, one doesn’t have to do that.”

Why WBEZ canceled

It’s not that there are issues too political for Smiley to tackle in his various forums, the treatment is what differs for him. “The treatment of those issues is important but different depending on the forum,” he said via email. “In one instance I will offer my personal commentary about a said issue (“Smiley & West”); in another forum (PBS show or “The Tavis Smiley Show” on PRI) my job is to interrogate the issue and interrogate the guest on whatever issue they’re pushing.”

Chicago Public Media accused “Smiley & West” of being too one-sided, but Smiley says “our program is as democratic as anything on the radio. We want to give people a chance to respond to us. We don’t believe that we have a monopoly on the truth.”

Smiley and West pitched their radio show to public radio executives two years ago as something different from the staid fare the stations usually offer; the show would be all opinion. The two men even developed an online component called the Speak Out Network, a place for listeners to voice their disagreement or agreement with issues discussed on the show via voice mail, text messages, or blog posts.

“The Tavis Smiley Show” (with just Smiley) airs on 85 stations nationwide, while “Smiley & West” airs on 72 stations. “Smiley & West” is being marketed as the second hour of “The Tavis Smiley Show” so that stations can test it out, a PRI spokeswoman told Poynter by phone. Smiley’s public television show airs in more than 200 markets, about 97 percent of PBS stations, a spokesman said.

Both Smiley and a spokesman for WBEZ agree that the show he hosts with Professor West is an experiment for public radio that might not work in all markets.

With its large ethnic population, Smiley just doesn’t believe Chicago is one of those markets.

Daniel Ash, Vice President of Strategic Communications for Chicago Public Media, told Poynter that while Smiley told the public media community about his intentions with the show, “we’ve always felt that it didn’t offer the type of inclusiveness that we would want our programming to reflect.”

Ash and CEO Malatia expressed concern about audience decline and said that the “style of programming wasn’t consistent with our overall approach to programming and service to the community.” Ash added that while he’s not saying the program isn’t valuable, “it just didn’t meet the criteria we set for WBEZ.”

The station received more public reaction when it cancelled its nighttime jazz music programming, Ash said. But more media feedback concerning the cancellation of Smiley’s show, which Ash attributes largely to the deficit of people of color who host public media programs, media programs period.

“When you choose to cancel one of the few shows out there with a person of color, then you’re going to hear about it,” added Ash. Smiley became the first African American to host a show on National Public Radio in 2002. He left abruptly in 2004, questioning NPR’s commitment to reaching diverse audiences. Smiley then went to work for Public Radio International.

WBEZ is not the first to unceremoniously dump Smiley due to his outspoken views, or look sideways at him when he’s come close to crossing the line.

In 2008, he parted company with “The Tom Joyner Morning Show,” which helped make him a national household name. Smiley, who had been with the show since 1996, said he was leaving to explore other opportunities, but Joyner told listeners it was because Smiley couldn’t “take the heat” for criticizing President Obama.

In 2009, historically black Texas Southern University stripped Smiley’s name from its school of communication. School officials said it was because the TV and radio host had not fully met financial promises to the university; Smiley said the offer to name the school after him pre-dated his pledge to help the school raise money. He said the economy had hurt him financially just as it had hurt others, but that he still planned to raise money for the school before his name was removed.

In 2010, PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler, publicly chastised Smiley for going off course on his television show “in a way that was guaranteed to be inflammatory” in an interview with a Somali-born author and activist who warned about extremist and violent aspects of the Muslim faith.

Earlier this year Smiley, who previously earned a hefty sum for speaking engagements, was booted from a luncheon honoring Martin Luther King after he said the president had not done enough for the black community.

Prior to the 2008 election, Obama had appeared on Smiley’s show numerous times. But during the 2008 presidential primary, then-candidate Obama rejected the host’s invitation to speak at the then-annual State of the Black Union, an event Smiley held to discuss issues impacting black Americans. Hillary Clinton attended the event, which aired on C-SPAN.

Since criticizing the president, Smiley hasn’t gotten an invite to the White House, let alone a personal interview with the president, something Smiley has publicly complained about.

Writing for Politico, Dylan Byers reported that Smiley suggested “the president doesn’t like being critiqued, ‘especially from black folks.’”

Smiley believes the WBEZ cancellation is also politically motivated. “For people to pop up now and say that the show is too opinionated, that it has a certain slant to it… My response in a word is, ‘Duh.’ We told you that two years ago,” said Smiley, who lives in Los Angeles. “Six or seven weeks before election day in Chicago, we got dropped. Now you read between the lines. Now I was born at night but it wasn’t last night.”

WBEZ is the fourth radio station to drop “Smiley & West” in as many weeks. That may be the nature of the business, and Smiley adds that within 24 hours of the WBEZ cancellation, two other public radio stations in Chicago contacted him about picking up the show.

“We’ll be back on the air in Chicago,” Smiley said confidently. “PBS has seen death threats and bomb threats because of me and because of things we discuss on the show. By the same token, they see the ratings every day. We bring people on who otherwise wouldn’t get on TV. PRI and PBS know who I am. PBS and PRI have always stood by me because they know me and they know my integrity.” Read more

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Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012


Five things we’re watching for in tonight’s Vice Presidential debate

Normally, the vice presidential debate hardly matters, but in light of the close polls following last week’s debate between the two presidential candidates, the spotlight will likely be brighter than usual on Vice President Joe Biden and Republican challenger Rep. Paul Ryan when the two square off at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky tonight.

Here are five things we’ll be watching for in tonight’s vice presidential debate.

1. It’s the questions, stupid. Last week moderator Jim Lehrer said he ran out of time before he could ask about several issues important to Americans. This week, ABC News Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent Martha Raddatz will moderate the 90-minute vice presidential debate that will cover international and domestic policies. It will be divided into nine segments of about 10 minutes each. Raddatz will ask an opening question, after which each candidate will have two minutes to respond. Raddatz will use the remaining time to further probe the candidates’ positions on the topics.

Raddatz took to Twitter last month to solicit questions from her followers; leaders representing Hispanic, Asian American, Native American and black journalism associations also sent questions to Raddatz or to the Commission on Presidential Debates to be forwarded to the moderator. The National Association of Black Journalists submitted the same 15 questions on domestic policy that they sent to Lehrer, plus eight more questions on foreign policy, according to Sonya Ross, chair of the organization’s Political Journalism Task Force.

The American Civil Liberties Union sent queries about women’s reproductive rights as well as other topics and then asked supporters to press Raddatz to ask them during the debate. Raddatz declined to respond to Poynter on whether she was in receipt of all these questions and whether she would ask them.

2. How the candidates frame their answers. While Lehrer, a longtime anchor of PBS and veteran moderator, was roundly criticized by both liberals and conservatives for his performance, Romney and Obama did not always do their job in answering the few questions the PBS executive editor and veteran moderator did ask. Christopher Medina, the director of the Tolson/Washington Forensic Society at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas – which inspired the critically acclaimed 2007 movie, “The Great Debaters” starring Denzel Washington – said the moderator has very little to do with a candidate getting real with the audience.

“It’s how the candidates frame their responses to the questions themselves,” he said. “The questions typically should not be leading questions because then a moderator is not doing their job if they are leading a candidate one way or the other. Really a moderator wants to ask very open-ended questions so that they can understand a candidate’s true response.”

3. Practice. Practice. Practice. Medina said getting the candidates to “be real” is actually more about practice. “Connecting with an audience is a debater’s number one job,” Medina told Poynter in a telephone interview. “The audience has to understand what you’re trying to convey to them. If you don’t do that, then you will lose the debate much like President Obama did. He did not connect with the audience whatsoever. Mitt Romney did a much better job with telling stories, which connects with an audience. With the vice presidential debate, what the candidates will have to do is practice, practice, practice connecting with an audience.”

4. Keeping it orderly. While the moderator may have little to do with how the candidates connect with the audience and answer questions, it is incumbent upon him or her to keep order. The moderator got rolled over by the candidates last week and that can’t happen in the other debates, Medina said.

“Lehrer was supposed to keep time and keep the candidates in check in terms of the time it took them to respond. He did not do that, and because he did not do that the candidates started becoming more and more aggressive because they knew if they took more time that they would be allowed to do that. Right off the bat from the first two questions when they took more time than they were allotted, the moderator did nothing,” Medina said. “The candidates felt they could go ahead and take as much time as they wanted and steamrolled the moderator.”

The pressure is on for Raddatz and the other moderators to maintain order.

5. Higher viewership. Last week’s presidential debate had a viewership of about 67.2 million, according to Nielsen ratings. Four years ago, Nielsen reported a viewership of 69.9 million for the vice presidential debate between Biden and Republican nominee Sarah Palin. More viewers are expected to watch the vice presidential candidates go head-to-head tonight, according to “The Prospector,” the student newspaper at The University of Texas-El Paso.

Medina expects this vice presidential debate to be more highly watched because of the attention the election is getting. And David Jackson of USA Today reminds readers vice presidential debates usually produce the most memorable moments. Jackson counts such catch-phrases as Bob Dole’s 1976 comment about ‘Democrat Wars,’ ‘Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,’ uttered by then-Senator Lloyd Bentsen in 1988, and Admiral James Stockdale’s opening ‘Who am I? Why am I here?’ in 1992.

Americans might not vote based on the vice presidential candidates, but they — and journalists — may tune into this debate for the sheer entertainment value alone. Read more

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