October 3, 2017

Good morning. Here's our morning roundup of all the media news you need to know. Want to get this briefing in your inbox every morning? Subscribe here.

Even a mass shooting seems so familiar

Brian Williams was in fine professional form Monday as he anchored much of MSNBC's breaking news coverage. I mentioned that to a New York Times friend. I then realized I'd said the same in previous years about Williams to the same friend. And, I realized, about the same topic: a mass shooting.

Sadly, practice makes perfect.

Indeed, it's like watching Tom Brady down by five points with two minutes left. A lot of the specifics (of the defense) don't seem to matter. The size of the crowd (home or away). The individuals on the scene may be different. But you've seen this before. Many times. An unruffled anchor guiding us through the latest insanity.

Indeed, there's a certain media auto-pilot at play, with the past a virtual prologue for coverage. The chyrons, logos, the speculating terrorism specialists, the instant search for motive, the repetition of others' reporting and rumors, the show hosts airlifted into the scene, shocked victims' families, the befuddled perpetuators' kin, the at times unedited video of onlookers, the anchors' well-practiced thank you's to those corralled during moments of grief and the inevitable broaching of whether this event will shock the nation into prodding legislators to enact new gun control laws.

Oh, the succinct comments melding cliche and horror: "It Was Like a Kill Box" was one of yesterday's. And, "It was like a war zone." There's a melancholy monotony to the rhetoric of calamity.

Comic Trevor Noah told his "Daily Show" audience that he's lived in the U.S. for two years and there have been 30 mass shootings since. He feels "people are becoming more accustomed to the news. We're shocked, we're sad, thoughts and prayers, then people will say whatever you do in talking about the shootings, don't talk about guns. "

There was talk of guns, including by Stephen Colbert in his opening last night. It was a call for sensible gun legislation. As Danny Hayes, a George Washington University political scientist who's studied the media and mass shootings, reminds me every time these shootings play out, there'll be Colbert-like calls for gun control. And the media will focus on the issue for a few days. But unless political leaders, perhaps spurred by gun control advocates, decide to make a concerted push for policy change, the issue will fade from view pretty quickly. It almost always does,  especially with greater cohesion and impact of the pro-gun lobby.

Mass shootings are now turned into a routine, with editors and producers demonstrating a reflexive ability to create the needed structures and categories of coverage. It's not that the fault of Williams and others — no matter how professional and adroit — but they now sound similar because this has all become so systemized and organized. Its as if the Container Store chain has a subsidiary to assist with the arranging of media coverage. One box for this topic, another for a second. Former FBI agents are in one corner, victims rights advocates in another. Former White House spokesman are stage left, with  former diplomats exiled at think tanks now stage right.

It was almost a relief when Williams and a guest from Las Vegas, a former law enforcement officer for the city, were apparently confronted with a nearby street fracas unrelated to the shootings. The guest excused himself on live television and Williams seamlessly segued elsewhere (leaving us to wonder if somebody just beat the crap out of somebody else). But the utterly unexpected, unscripted moment was a certain relief.

Otherwise, the predictable rules, including the TV hosts who constantly ask guests to offer us a "psychological profile" of the suspect or rank speculation on motive. It doesn't matter how many seminars and op-eds (and Poynter pieces like this from colleague Al Tompkins on the perils of simplistic explanations) underscore the absurdity of speculation on motive or mental stability, the TV guys, especially, can't help themselves. It's like the Peter Sellers character in "Dr. Strangelove" who reflexively raises his arm in the Nazi salute.

And it just seemed like the other day that I was rounding up my group of usual suspect experts after the morning shootings of the Republican congressman on a Virginia ball field. So I tracked down a few again last evening and heard many of the same responses.

Said Nathan Kalmoe, a Louisiana State University professor of political communication, "Generally, print media tend to be more responsible about what they present to audiences than cable news, and social media is just a free-for-all of rumors and innuendo among partisan axe-grinders and overconfident reddit sleuths. All outlets sometimes get details wrong, but print sources tend to have more discretion."

"Print, cable, and broadcast each have different news norms and different types of audiences to appeal to. The drive in cable news to share something 30 seconds before a competitor — and to upend the monotony of repeating the same sparse facts and footage ad nauseam — leads to some pretty bad journalism that serves no one well."

Then there was … ah, well, forget it. You've seen and heard it before.

Tom Petty dies after no small confusion

A variety of news organizations, starting with CBS News, prematurely killed off Tom Petty for a while yesterday, or at least before confirmation of the passing of the rock star, 66. CBS News and the Los Angeles Police Department  dueled over what one might have told the other. As CBS accurately phrases the error:

"CBS News reported information obtained officially from the LAPD about Tom Petty. The LAPD later said it was not in a position to confirm information about the singer and that "initial information was inadvertently provided to some media sources." In that statement, the LAPD also apologized for "any inconvenience in this reporting."

The LAPD seemed to be in increasingly defensive mode as the day wore on about Petty, who apparently suffered cardiac arrest and was rushed to a hospital.  As CBS and Variety embarrassingly initially retracted obituaries, Rolling Stone was having it both ways, namely running a story about the ambiguity of it all and stories premised on his death.

There was "Tom Petty's Greatest Songs," which informed, "And he was writing classic songs right up to the end." And there was the wonderful opportunity to "Watch Tom Petty Play 'American Girl' at His Final Concert."

The came the sad word that he indeed died. The muddled preceding hours reminded how these lapses happen. Bloomberg once accidentally killed off Steve Jobs. In fact, I was once dining with a high-ranking Bloomberg executive when Jobs called him and complained about another health-related story about him. 

And then there's the tale of Vito Marzullo, then the 91-year-old dean of the Chicago City Council, whom the Chicago Tribune killed off wrongly in 1989. Guess who had to write the story about the mess for the Tribune (on the very day that the newspaper publishers were starting their annual meeting in Chicago)? Yes, yes. So I called around and found the following:

A long trusted source had called the paper late on a Saturday night and said Marzullo had died. The paper had 45 minutes until what it's next so-called replate for what was only a print product. The Fire Department spokesman wasn't around but a message said to call the main communications center. There, a dispatcher said that the ambulance was still in the driveway of the four-flat apartment but, yes, it was true, Vito Marzullo had died. The paper started quickly calling dignitaries for comment.

Well, somebody had died, but it was Marzullo's 83-year-old brother-in-law. By the time I called him Sunday for my Monday story (in a world before the Internet), he'd already had breakfast — and read his obituary in the Tribune.

The paper self-immolated due to deadline pressure and circumstances that editors and reporters still cross their fingers they don't fall prey to — all the more so in the social media age. It will happen again, even as one might have wished to see Petty on stage just one more time.

The Russians get bang for their buck (or ruble)

As Recode summarizes, "Roughly 10 million Facebook users in the United States saw advertisements purchased by Russian-backed sources before and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the company revealed on Monday, as it admitted it faces a daunting task in balancing foreign election meddling with sincere public debate.

Fake news and Vegas

"As law enforcement and news organizations raced to piece together what happened during the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history Sunday night in Las Vegas, web denizens less wedded to the truth rushed in to provide details of their own — which quickly went viral." (Bloomberg

"Links to the 4chan website that falsely identified the shooter and called him a leftist and Democratic supporter were showing up on the top of Google search results, according to tweets by Buzzfeed News reporter Ryan Broderick. Conservative writer Joe Hoft pounced, publishing and then retracting an article about the misidentified man. Police later identified a different person, Stephen Paddock, as the shooter."

Fact-checking Sarah Sanders

At yesterday's White House press briefing:

Q: If I could follow — before he was elected President, some 15 or 16 years ago, he did have a different view on guns than he had during the campaign. Does he believe that this is something that he could lead a bipartisan effort on at some point?  At what point would that be appropriate?
Ms. Sanders: I think that's something that we can talk about in the coming days and see what that looks like moving forward. I think one of the things that we don't want to do is try to create laws that won't stop these types of things from happening. 
I think if you look to Chicago, where you had over 4,000 victims of gun-related crimes last year, they have the strictest gun laws in the country. That certainly hasn't helped there, so I think we have to — when that time comes for those conversations to take place, then I think we need to look at things that may actually have that real impact.

Fact-check: The one very strict Chicago law was the total ban on handguns that the U.S. Supreme Court threw out as a violation of the Second Amendment. The reality is that it was largely unenforceable and never enforced. Other state laws aren't that broad and, in what's a real problem, the laws in nearby states aren't strong at all, like Indiana. Lots of guns flow from outside the city. There's also an issue of a largely spineless judiciary on gun crimes. New York City, by comparison, has tougher law, enforces them more diligently and has less crime (for many reasons).

The markets

Wrote CNBC's hyperkinetic Jim Cramer after the Las Vegas shootings:

"We live in sadly cynical times. We get a horrendous event from Las Vegas and our hearts burst and our shoulders heave and we feel nothing but sadness. We know, though, that it's a continuum. This isn't the end. There will be others. Is that cynical? I don't think so." 

"What's ironic, though, is that this market is about as uncynical as you can get. As we start the fourth quarter, I see rallies in stocks that you would only see if you believe in progress and believe in the ability of companies to navigate waters that heretofore would be considered un-navigable if only because of the terror of the time and the inability, seemingly, of anyone to make sense of things."

And, as Neil Cavuto on Fox News was talking to Scott Martin of Kingsview Asset Management, the crawl at the bottom read, "Stocks Hit All-Time Highs Despite Las Vegas Massacre." Martin said, "The market is starting to shrug these things off."

Covering Puerto Rico

Antonio Mora, a good guy who is a former "Good Morning America" news anchor, CBS local anchor, show host on the late Al Jazeera America and a Latin America analyst, was on Howard Kurtz's Fox News show on media Sunday and, he says,  taken aback by the response, be it from liberal or conservatives, as he raised doubts about coverage of Puerto Rico.

First, he found it notable how media folks defended the networks' coverage of Puerto Rico, even though, as he emailed, "1) it was a proven fraction of the Harvey and Irma coverage (a Media Matters analysis showed the five network Sunday talk shows gave Puerto Rico one minute total among them, four days after the storm hit); and 2) the networks sent far fewer (and less high-profile) reporters to cover Maria before it hit."

Second, "You'd think conservatives would have been happy I criticized the media, their favorite bogeyman. Instead, they weren't happy that I raised the absence of Latinos at the networks as one cause of the lesser coverage."

Finally, "Liberals were upset that I hadn't attacked President Trump enough. The segment was cut off just as I was about to focus on how he had no problem tweeting ad nauseam about the NFL while letting five days go by between tweets about a devastated Puerto Rico."

And then there's the increase in Puerto Rico-related coverage when Trump started tweeting about it on Sept. 25. "If there was ever a doubt that the networks have fallen into a symbiotic vicious circle with the president, Puerto Rico proves it. The networks don't seem to want to cover much that Trump doesn't tweet about and Trump doesn't tweet about anything the media doesn't cover."

Gun control

It was very much on the minds of at least two late-night show hosts, Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel, whose openings (here's Kimmel, here's Colbert) urged support for new federal legislation. But it was notable to see a reminder of the congressional reality in an email from Bloomberg News, which is run by a man who spends large sums fighting the National Rifle Association:

"Ultimately few minds are likely to change. Even Steve Scalise — the House Republican whip who was gravely injured in a June shooting — showed no signs of backing down from his pro-gun stance. His statement didn't even mention gun control."

Tone deaf

Editors who are confronted by local horror need to be conscious of tone in presentation, especially online. There was thus reason to do a double-take when the Las Vegas Review-Journal still had a pre-massacre weekend entertainment fluff column by Robin Leach (yes, that Robin Leach) on its site Monday morning. Okay, we cut them some slack, since they'd probably just been harried and distracted and didn't think to move it.

Well, it did disappear by the afternoon, only to be replaced by a new prominently displayed column by Leach, the former high-flying host of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

"On Oct. 5 at 9 p.m. when the curtain goes up on the 'Crazy Girls' burlesque show at the Sin City Theater in Planet Hollywood it will mark the incredible 30th anniversary of the longest-running topless show on the Strip. Guys, don’t worry the cast is all new and there are no holdovers from three decades ago!"

The story still had great play this morning.

Oh, getting even better play online by mid-afternoon was a banner advertorial smack in the middle of the home page: "Trump Prophet Speaks Out: Man who predicted Trump win makes next surprising prediction."

I thought it might be that Sheldon Adelson would sell the Review-Journal. Nope.

Polarization of news

Poynter assesses a new Pew Research study on Trump coverage:

"A cluster of outlets with right-leaning audiences were at least five times more likely to carry positive assessments of the president and his administration than those that were left-leaning or mixed in their audience composition." 

"Conversely, sites and broadcasts with left-leaning audiences were ten times as likely to run negative rather than positive assessments of the administration. In addition, direct refutations of a statement by Trump or his administration were seven times more likely to appear in the outlets with left-leaning audiences, compared to those with an audience that tilted right."

Vice on Vegas

"Vice News Tonight" on HBO means to be a distinct substantive and atmospheric alternative to the fairly predictable evening news broadcasts in both story selection and pacing. But there is always the Water Cooler problem for even self-styled renegades; namely, what do you do when everybody but everybody is talking about just one thing?

So it was interesting to see last night's so-called cold open, just the black words "Las Vegas" on a background, then video of the concert as the shots started coming. No announcer. Then video of an entertainer on stage, then gunfire,  the entertainer running from the stage, some disembodied voice screaming, "Oh, my god" and across the screen were the words of a police officer ("One-six-nine-two we got shots fired, fourteen A.S.O."). No omnipresent voice, just a patchwork of people's videos and screams. "Is there somebody out there? … Everybody is bloody … Right now we need your truck to get people over to the hospital. …"

It went on and on for about three minutes before the image segued to the concert area the next day, in the sun as a a disembodied voice — it eschews the traditional host behind-a-desk, or host-standing-up format — was finally heard: "Stephen Craig Paddock's motives are unknown but his intent is clear …." (Notice how it echoed that curious media tradition of inserting middle names of mass killers?)

The segment concluded a few second later with word of that legislation making its way through Congress that would facilitate purchasing of silencers. It concluded the opening segment with a shot of a "Welcome to Nevada Sign." And, then, rather than have the one story dominate, it shifted to a very solid update on Puerto Rico. That included following cops as they rode to help protect a FEMA food delivery. Then there was word of the U.S. Supreme Court's return to action and its initial two oral arguments as well as a concluding tale on a master falconer who helps reduce nuisance birds who prey on vineyards and other ranches. To that extent, it did provide an alternative and confirmation that other things are happening in the world.

The hierarchy of tragedy

Richard Gizbert, who hosts a terrific London-based Al Jazeera show on the press called "The Listening Post," brings this New Statesman piece to our attention. Its speculates on why we care more about some tragedies than others. And he offers his own rough notion on "the hierarchy of disasters:"

"Hurricanes are near the top of that pyramid, although earthquakes are No. 1 – because both are so visual."

"A flood can affect a much wider region, many more people and ultimately cost more to recover from, but the media don’t like floods that much – because it is hard to capture the scale of the event and most of the damage is submerged and therefore unseen."

"The media love earthquakes and hurricanes because the damage is so visible, so raw."

Headline of the day

"King's College Football Coach Sued For Copyright Infringement For Retweeting A Book Page 2 Years Ago"

As TechDirt makes clear, it's the legal system run amok.

Corrections? Tips? Please email me: jwarren@poynter.org. Would you like to get this roundup emailed to you every morning? Sign up here.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
James Warren

More News

Back to News