One tweet too many
X marks the spot where Denis Finley, editor of the paper in Bernie Sanders' hometown, screwed up. If Oprah Winfrey was the media's Big Winner for her Golden Globes peroration on sexual harassment, Finley was a (fortunately less-publicized) Big Loser due to ham-handed tweets.
Even the most sober of mainstream media get bollixed up over page views and reader engagement as they seek to be more refined P.T. Barnums of a digital age. Being provocative for provocation's sake is increasingly rationalized as a way to promote your handiwork, no matter how tenuous and fleeting the actual loyalty manifested (perhaps with help from a Drudge Report link) might be.
But, as Finley, executive editor of the Gannett-owned Burlington Free Press, unwittingly reminds us, there's a difference between being responsibly provocative and perhaps tone deaf to your audience — especially in the digital age.
Vermont plans to join Oregon and Washington, D.C., in offering drivers a third option in listing gender on licenses. So M, F or X. In liberal Burlington, where Sanders was mayor, it's not unpopular. And it just prompted one citizen's tweet, "This is awesome! // #VT Is One Step Closer To Offering A Third Gender On Driver's Licenses." But Finley, who came to the Free Press from Virginia in 2016 after a long stint as Norfolk Virginian-Pilot editor (and, briefly, as publicist for a Norfolk museum), felt compelled to respond: "Awesome! That makes us one step closer to the apocalypse."
If Winfrey played brilliantly to her audience, Finley fumbled in recognizing his. The Vermont online universe is now filled with mostly outrage, and claims of canceling subscriptions. In fact, it was only the third in a succession of curious tweets by Finley. They underscored the tempting perils of journalists, even newsroom bosses, who feel compelled to opine on, well, just about anything.Thus, Finley saw an Associated Press tweet on how fans of Frank Lloyd Wright are seeking to prevent the demolition of a Montana office building designed in 1958. This inspired a response: "I don't care who designed them, destroy all office buildings."
Fine. Chalk that up to lame humor. Then, after word from none other than The New York Times that "Former President Barack Obama is to be the first guest on David Letterman's new monthly Netflix talk show," he sought to exhibit his inner Jimmy Kimmel with this: "Another reason not to subscribe to Netflix." That was lame, with a smidgen of the obtuse.
As outrage quickly manifested itself over the gender matter, Finley seemed to dig a deeper hole. A Tim Sinnott tweeted that the state policy was awesome "because recognition is awesome" and Finley responded, "All recognition? Any recognition, Tim? What if someone said it's awesome they are going to recognize pedophiliacs on licenses? I'm not being snarky, I'm just asking. Not all recognition is awesome."
Finley was either high-mindedly engaged in a Socratic inquiry, as if teaching a constitutional law seminar, or manifesting Jonesean (as in Alex Jones, of InfoWars) subtlety cum derision. If I'm a top Gannett official, I might now be wondering if a second bomb cyclone affecting New England is actually on my payroll.
"So you think trans people are the equivalent of pedophiles?" Anderson asked.
When tracked down by Vermont's Seven Days about the flap (He declined comment when I contacted him, saying, "Maybe in a few days"), Finley said, "I really just wanted to ask the question: 'Why is that awesome? And why is that necessary?' That’s all, and I think any journalist would ask that question." He said use of the word apocalypse was inspired by a Sports Illustrated feature, "Signs of the Apocalypse."
When I passed through Burlington last summer, there were still Sanders T-shirts in store windows. How long before some retail outlets offer a tie-dyed image of Finley with a big, fat "X"?
"Denis Finley doesn't seem to care that, when he enters the arena as executive editor, he carries the reputation of his news organization with him. 'Reader engagement' is not making provocative statements and then picking fights with people who disagree," says Tom Kearney, deputy managing editor of the Stowe Reporter, Waterbury Record and News & Citizen of Morrisville, and executive editor of the Shelburne News and The Citizen, which serves Charlotte and Hinesburg.
Then there's Jon Margolis, who was an A-list national political writer during his heyday with The Chicago Tribune. That was a pre-internet world where reporters and editors weren't tweeting their views on everything from whom they'd seen at lunch, a referee's call in the NFL game they were watching or, of course, every breathing moment of Donald Trump.
"Why this urge to tweet so often?" asks Margolis, who is retired in South Burlington, a few blocks from the Burlington city line. "I do not think the world breathlessly awaits my latest witty aphorism or my personal take on what happened today. If I have something to offer that’s worthwhile, I’ll write a piece about it. That means reporting — online, on the phone, at somebody’s office. And then writing, as well as possible, which means as succinctly as possible but always more than 280 clicks of the keyboard."
"Tweeting is like artificial turf. The technology makes it possible, not advisable. That would apply even where the tweet is not as aggressively ignorant as Finley’s. But just think: Were he writing an article instead of a blurt (essentially what a tweet is) he might have read it over and then altered (or deep-sixed) it. Or had somebody else edit it, which even the boss should always do. Amazing how the conventional processes of newspapers can save us from ourselves."
Jake Tapper vs. Stephen Miller
Jousting between cable TV hosts and guests is now a performance fixture. Bill O'Reilly rode it to riches before his sexual harassment self-immolation. In its most pedestrian post-O'Reilly form, it brings some well intentioned but weak liberal saps served up as red meat for Fox's Tucker Carlson.
In a fairer tussle, it brought us CNN's Jake Tapper and White House aide Stephen Miller. And Tapper giving him the boot.
Tapper is evolving into his network's prime skeptic of all things Trump and, unlike Carlson, not reflexively given to pillorying lightweight guests. And Miller is the unbridled partisan who has reveled in public combat ever since his high school days at a largely liberal Los Angeles high school
As The New York Times' Matt Flegenheimer has put it in a profile of Miller, his life "is a triumph of unbending convictions and at least occasional contrivance. It is a story of beliefs that congealed early in a home that he helped nudge to the right of its blue-state ZIP code, and of an ideology that became an identity for a spindly agitator at a large and racially divided public high school."
"These formative years supplied the template for the life Mr. Miller has carved out for himself in Washington, where he remains the hard-line jouster many of Mr. Trump’s most zealous supporters trust most in the White House — and many former peers fear."
This all began with the equally pro forma, and dungeon's host salutation, "Stephen, thanks so much for joining us and happy new year, good to see you."
On Sunday, Miller called Michael Wolff the "garbage author of a garbage book," a rather mediocre pre-meditated line for someone of his acerbic and calculating essence. He called Trump a "political genius." He called it a "work of pure fiction." And "a pile of trash."
It was mostly solid, fair-minded inquisition by Tapper for about six minutes, until it first got a tad personal and each started cutting off the other. Miller referred to CNN's Trump coverage as hysterical, and Tapper suggested it was Miller who was being hysterical. As if Miler were a child, Tapper asked him to "settle down, settle down."
At the nine-minute mark, what had seemed a small lull turned sour as Tapper brought up a letter that Miller wrote on the subject of firing then-FBI Director James Comey. Miller stumbled a tad before Tapper broached the president's bizarre Saturday tweet on his own purported genius.
Tapper correctly persisted in broaching the public discourse on Trump's rationality, as Miller sought to divert the topic to his theme of CNN being out of touch with a working America that his boss understands and CNN doesn't.
Then, Tapper had enough. He said that Miller was being "obsequious," playing to an audience of one (Trump) and not answering his question. He simply cut him off. It was rather abrupt and could have been executed in a less peremptory manner. It came off as a host losing control, as much as Trump critics loved the scene and think Miller deserved it. But if you don't want to fight the lions, stay away from their pen.
Regardless, both Miller and Tapper surely came away thinking they'd won (maybe all the more so as Miller was escorted out by security). Predictably, Trump soon tweeted some venom Tapper's way: "Jake Tapper of Fake News CNN just got destroyed in his interview with Stephen Miller of the Trump Administration. Watch the hatred and unfairness of this CNN flunky!"
New York Times unveils ad on Golden Globes
Truly salute The New York Times for actually trying to market excellence in a way that's about 20 years late for most of the newspaper industry. It unveiled the next part of its "The Truth is Hard" brand campaign during NBC's Golden Globes broadcast.
Similar to its first ad on last year's Oscars, the ad features black type against a white background. "He said, she said" are the first words you see. Then they are repeated multiple times until it's just, "She said, she said, she said, she said," with the ad ending "The truth has power. The truth will not be threatened. The truth has a voice."
The "truth has a voice" is a simple and potent notion. But, as a TV spot, it falls a bit flat. As one top advertising executive told me, it's unlikely that most viewers connected the paper's incredible sex harassment reporting, including on Harvey Weinstein, and the ad. For those who who did — the event was filled with unavoidable talk of sex harassment in Hollywood, including Seth Meyers' opening monologue — the ad was preaching to the choir.
Potency of advertising involves melding the right media and the right audience. In a narrow sense, the Golden Globes might seem a good target — but only in a narrow sense. The Times has a great narrative to spin as to why it should be trusted, including its admirable attention to fact-checking and precision (even with some hotly disputed cuts in the copy editing force). Perhaps a larger campaign can include such factors.
It's because the challenge for quality media involves more than the mere declaration of virtue. As with changing the attitudes of Americans toward sex harassment, changing attitudes toward even the best of media — especially when it comes to people paying for content — will involve a military-like campaign, with no one-size-fits-all-messages and the unavoidable (and very expensive) need to make the case with unprecedented regularity and persistence.
TV news viewing continues to head south, Trump aside
As Poynter reports, "Until now, local TV news viewership has been declining slowly. But a new Pew research study shows that from 2016 to 2017, the decline picked up speed."
Younger Americans' turn from TV news is important. But, somewhere in the mix, is surely ideology, though the study does not point explicitly to what's been previously shown to be the sharp decline in Republicans' confidence in "mass media."
A revealing photo history
The Associated Press put together a gallery of photos of what actresses have tended to wear at the Golden Globe Awards over the years, as opposed to the black dresses they pointedly wore last night.
The morning Babel
CNN opened with Trump defending his mental fitness and, no surprise, a very brief take at colleague Tapper's spat with Miller. It gave rather more time to social media hurrahs about Winfrey's Golden Globes speech and the notion of her running for president.
"When you think of the Democratic lineup for 2020 … you pretty quickly run out of star power," said Brian Stelter, media reporter cum political analyst. "If you want to fight fire with fire, Trump is a reality TV star and Oprah Winfrey has been on TV in some ways longer than he has. There are a lot of reasons why this might make sense to Democratic insiders. That speech if anything, gave people more reason to dream it up." For sure, there was a smattering of speculation. But, one might hope, it quickly encounters recognition of what's playing out before us: the obvious limits of electing somebody with no experience in the arena.
MSNBC's "Morning Joe" backed Tapper's performance ("I would have cut it short after the second answer," said Mika Brzezinski) and was the latest to get time with author Michael Wolff. And, before then, there was Axios' Jonathan Swan on what appears to be Trump's shrinking work schedule and also the co-hosts' riff on Trump's insecurity. The latter included the co-hosts venturing into the topic of TV stars, no names mentioned, being self-absorbed ("We've met a lot of people in television who are narcissistic and stupid," Brzezinski said). Hmmm.
But it was a different tone on Trump's favorite morning show, "Trump & Friends," where co-host Brian Kilmeade surfaced at Pancake Pantry in Nashville, Tenn., for breakfast and generally supportive Trump chat. Oh, he was also giving away free to diners copies of new books both by himself and co-host Ainsley Earhardt. Call it a celebration of American commerce.
Sending individuals back to harm
Sarah Stillman, who heads the Global Migration Project at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has been compiling a database of individuals essentially deported to harm, even death in Central America. With the help of a dozen students, and lots of activists involved in immigrant rights, humanitarian aid and other organizations, she's now uncovered patterns of awful consequences to what can at times seem almost frivolous infractions and, too, insufficient government due diligence and articulation to individuals of their rights. The melancholy bottom line is underscored in this New Yorker piece.
Terrific women in a mostly male soccer universe
Watching loads of English soccer over the past week, I was reminded of the terrific in-studio hosting work of Brit Rebecca Lowe for NBC's fine coverage of Premier League matches, as well as Brit Kate Abdo (who is also fluent in Spanish, German and French) for Fox Sports' solid (not quite as strong and measured as NBC's) coverage of the related FA Cup tournament. The latter is one in which the top rank teams are thrown into a mix with lower division ones in frequent David vs. Goliath contests (often at the very quaint fields of the Davids). Sunday, mighty Arsenal was such a victim.
And yet, they are surrounded by a sea of men, in studio and out, with all the match announcers men and, with a single seeming exception, glimpsed in an Arsenal-Nottingham Forest match yesterday, all the refs and linesman are male (there was a female linesman).
New England hoopla
New England Patriots fans have reason to be suspicious of ESPN, as Boston.com columnist Chad Finn, underscores. An us-versus-the-world mindset is partly fueled by some inaccurate reporting on the Patriots by ESPN. But when it comes to its chronicle of rising tensions among the owner, coach and star quarterback, Finn defends reporter Seth Wickersham
The reflexive doubts are too bad, he writes, since "if the story is read with clear eyes and all rooting interests aside, it’s far more illuminating than it is salacious."
Are we so sure that Mueller is investigating Trump for obstruction?
Writing in the excellent Lawfare blog, Harvard Law's Jack Goldsmith raises the possibility that the seeming lack of recusal by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in the Mueller Russia investigation might suggest that there's not the obstruction investigation that folks assume (speculation fueled further by a Michael Schmidt opus in The New York Times last week).
"One possibility is that Rosenstein has no conflict because Mueller is not actually investigating the president for obstruction. It has been widely reported for months in multiple reputable outlets that Mueller is conducting such an investigation. Schmidt’s story implies that he is, and reports that Mueller has evidence in his possession that appears relevant only to an obstruction investigation."
The reader over your shoulder
There's unavoidable counsel to journalists in a blog in the Paris Review, the literary bastion founded by the late George Plimpton, as Patricia O'Conner an author and former staff writer at The New York Times Book Review, discusses a 1940s work by poet-novelist Robert Graves, "The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose.”
The book turned on the notion that writers should imagine a bunch of readers standing over their shoulder, in the process laying out 41 core principles and, then, annealing 50 excerpts of writing from famous authors to school headmasters. Graves was pretty fearless in underscoring lack of clarity.
As O'Conner puts it, "Those forty-one principles work both ways; they make for better reading as well as better writing. They can show a reader what’s wrong with something that rings false or doesn’t make sense or leaves questions unanswered. In a climate where rumors, impressions, and outright lies are sometimes treated as fact, informed readers are more important than ever. No democracy can afford to be without readers who can ask the right questions, who can critically judge what they read, who can mentally peer over an author’s shoulder."
And tonight's big college football championship game
It's Alabama versus Georgia and, reports The Wall Street Journal this morning, "ESPN, armed with new data about its viewers, is more aggressively selling its female audience, starting with the College Football Playoff, which culminates in Monday’s championship game. The timing couldn’t be better. Advertisers are looking for new ways to reach women, and more efficiently reach broader audiences, as consumer viewing habits change."
"Financial services firm Northwestern Mutual is among the advertisers using college football to reach women and families. The company wasn’t new to the playoff, and knew that the sporting event reached a 'healthy mix of men and women and families,' but a new pitch and compelling data from ESPN helped the company 'come up with different ad spots' targeting women and families, said Aditi Gokhale, Northwestern Mutual’s chief marketing officer."