After what she's endured with Michigan State University, ESPN investigative reporter Paula Lavigne actually can wax nostalgic about Mike Pence. More on that in a minute, but let's explore how bad her experience with Michigan State has been in coming clean with information about sexual assault allegations against athletes.
Following on the heels of Michigan State's spinelessness in the monstrous Larry Nassar gymnastics case — and do see Monica Davey's Sunday New York Times tale on an esteemed lawyer assisting a morally deficient MSU on its gymnastics horror — Lavigne and Nicole Noren broke word Friday on an Outside the Lines episode of a "pattern of widespread denial, inaction and information suppression" of sexual assault allegations against football and basketball players.
But when we spoke late Saturday, Lavigne couldn't help but harken to ESPN's fight on another story, which entailed getting documents out of the University of Notre Dame. That experience at least underscored how then-Indiana Gov. Pence was pretty admirable on some press issues (his previous record in Congress was good, too, notably on so-called shield laws) and, in fact, vetoed legislation that would have further limited access to police records at Notre Dame and other private colleges and universities.
If only Pence had magically supplanted one of the many long-stonewalling Michigan State officials who premeditatedly frustrated the ESPN reporters' lives for more than three years. Those officials offered a bureaucratic version of the long-gone four-corners stall in college basketball that is surely recalled by legendary MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo (one of many who may prove to have been supporting players). And, unlike Notre Dame, it didn't have the legal luxury, and easier defense, of being a private institution.
All you really need to know is this: Michigan State continually fought release of relevant documents, even redacting names readily disclosed to the network by the East Lansing, Michigan Police Department. Its conduct was deemed so egregious that it was ordered to pay ESPN's attorney fees. Not the least bit humbled, the university even proactively sued ESPN last year on another records request — and again was spurned by a state judicial system that one might have assumed to be reflexively partial to a prominent Michigan institution.
Lavigne has been with the network for a decade and previous worked at the Des Moines Register and Dallas Morning News. The ESPN investigation, which began in 2014, targeted basketball and football players at 10 major universities. Michigan State's rope-a-dope strategy was apparent early. "The East Lansing Police Department responded faster and more comprehensively than any department we worked with on the story. It was amazing. But MSU charged us thousands of dollars and, when we got the records, had redacted all the names, regardless of whether the cases had been disposed of," Lavigne said.
Michigan State is a casebook study in a media strategy known all too well to lots of institutions, public and private, and their communications officials, as well as Freedom of Information Act officials (in the case of public institutions). Delay. Delay. Delay. Then delay some more. And, just to be even more belligerent, and waste more taxpayer funds on outside lawyers, delay even more.
And, these days, bog down things more and more knowing that resources of many media organizations are declining, in-house legal staffs are pruned or eliminated and the money isn't there to pay $1,200-an-hour outside attorneys. There are honorable nonprofits, like the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, but they can't assist everybody. They're not a 24-hour Walgreens.
And, as you delay, those documents originally requested may get dated. The story may start losing energy or relevance, and a newsroom may turn to other tales. Thus, as Michigan State dawdled and strained to justify a bogus legal position, there was lots of other work for Lavigne to do, including assisting in exposes of outrages involving athletes at Baylor University.
It's reassuring, isn't it, that American higher education — a symbol of envy worldwide — provides an ongoing cottage industry for journalism and both state and federal prosecutors?
Michigan State fought ESPN at every turn. It was exhausting but, in the end, Lavigne is "really glad we could hold people accountable over the issue of transparency and that's what this was about. At the end of the day nobody can say they were transparent."
And one can understand her gratitude to an employer willing to not be cowed. "In this era where we are seeing reporters struggle with public records requests and public entities taking proactive actions against journalists, we are in an environment where we are fortunate to have the resources to pursue these things."
"Unfortunately, there are journalism organizations that can't, even with help of nonprofit organizations. And that is frightening."
It's a trepidation that the likes of Michigan State Univeristy know well. As Jon Batiste sang during a tribute to Fats Domino at the Grammys, ain't that a shame.
New editor in L.A., sex harassment in lower Manhattan
No sooner had embattled Tronc moved Jim Kirk from Los Angeles, where he was helping to run the newsroom, to New York to be interim editor at the Daily News than things hit the fan in both places, prompting me to suggest that Kirk quickly return to L.A., where the publisher is suspended amid sex harassment allegations, and attempt to steady that ship. It happened quicker than I imagined (or half-jested about).
So within a week after arriving in New York, he'll now retrace his steps to LAX and be the new full-time editor of the paper there. That ends the abysmal, brief tenure of Lewis D’Vorkin, "whose brief stint atop one of the country’s most prominent newspapers touched off widespread unrest in the newsroom," as The New York Times aptly phrases it. The price of failure for D'Vorkin? He becomes the chief content officer of Tronc, formerly Tribune Co., meaning he'll have an even more strategic role after his utter failure. Only in corporate America, as Tronc displays what's either brilliant problem-solving or head-turning personnel and tactical confusion.
Meanwhile, the list of media sex harassment cases continues to bend to the horizon, at least back in lower Manhattan. Rob Moore, the Daily News managing editor, was suspended pending the conclusion of an internal investigation, while Alexander (Doc) Jones, who oversaw the Sunday edition, was involuntarily shown out of the newsroom and suspended, too, amid allegations of sexual harassment. That was to have been Kirk's inherited untidiness to handle, but you can't do everything in less than a week, which was the extent of his New York tour.
The Daily News is now owned by Tronc, which has significant strategic challenges at the News and Los Angeles Times, with the Southern California mess the more high stakes and so very vivid, as underscored by Variety.
The company's hierarchy does not appear to have a deep bench, so those A-listers who are around will be severely tested, with all roads ultimately leading to company chief Michael Ferro. His well-known ambition to be an influential media player now meets fundamental and arduous challenges, not just essentially cleaning up the milk bottle a child drops on the kitchen floor before it seeps into the boards and really smells.
Can he disprove his many naysayers and now exhibit vision, strategic acumen and far better personnel judgment and turn things around? The honeymoon for hyperbole is definitely over. The Kirk 180-degree turn, though, is quick and smart, certainly in the short-term, and one wishes luck to Kirk — my former colleague at two stops and a solid fellow — in dealing with his failed predecessor, now the new chief content officer of a major media company.
Trump takeover of the 5G network?
Axios reports, "Trump national security officials are considering an unprecedented federal takeover of a portion of the nation’s mobile network to guard against China, according to sensitive documents obtained by Axios."
"We’ve got our hands on a PowerPoint deck and a memo — both produced by a senior National Security Council official — which were presented recently to senior officials at other agencies in the Trump administration."
But there's also this "reality check" with which it concludes: "The U.S. wireless industry is already working on deploying 5G networks, with AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, for example, investing heavily in this area. The process for setting 5G standards is well underway. Korea has been at the forefront of testing, as have Japan and others. It's not clear a national strategy would yield a 5G network faster or by the memo’s 3-year goal."
The Morning Babel
"Trump & Friends" assured its pre-sunrise acolytes that their favorite viewer is hard at work on his State of the Union address (though taking a shot Sunday at Jay-Z in a tweet over his CNN interview) and that Democrats will be inviting as guests those kids in the country illegally, yes, the Dreamers. And they informed us that the president will underscore that "we are a nation of immigrants and, as every nation, has the right to control its own borders," as co-host Steve Doocy enlightened the audience. And in what you knew would be a slow, fat pitch across the plate for the show, Hillary Clinton's mockery of President Trump at the Grammys, reading a portion of Michael Wolff's book, was a target of derision, as was the whole show itself (translated: liberal artists running amok).
CNN's "New Day" debated the propriety and political impact of releasing the memo written by Republican Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes and whether Robert Mueller has enough evidence to charge Trump with obstruction of justice. Which was very similar to its discussions on many preceding days. If you wanted to know what was going on elsewhere on the planet, you were out of luck in the early going. Trump, Trump, Trump with your Honey Nut Cheerios, English muffins and O.J.
"Morning Joe" on MSNBC was a breath of relief dissecting how Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are now clearer than Lake Superior, saying the the emergence of invasive mussels "which number in the trillions and have the ability to filter the enter volume of Lake Michigan in four to six days" has had a giant and negative impact on marine life and decimated a single-celled, green algae at the base of the food chain." Oops, that wasn't "Morning Joe" but the Chicago Tribune as it lays out why it's not good that Lake Michigan, especially, is way clearer but at a huge cost.
"Morning Joe" explored Trump's fear and what it deems as paranoia over "the deep state" as imperiling his presidency, criticism over Clinton's prime time reading and more on what it deems questionable Trump real estate dealings. Trump, Trump,Trump. It dumped on Trump's shot at Jay-Z, which turned on Trump taking credit for a decline in black unemployment.
What's rotten in the state of technology
In TechCrunch Natasha Lomas writes, "Amid all the hand-wringing over fake news, the cries of election deforming Kremlin disinformation plots, the calls from political podia for tech giants to locate a social conscience, a knottier realization is taking shape."
"Fake news and disinformation are just a few of the symptoms of what’s wrong and what’s rotten. The problem with platform giants is something far more fundamental. The problem is these vastly powerful algorithmic engines are blackboxes. And, at the business end of the operation, each individual user only sees what each individual user sees."
"The great lie of social media has been to claim it shows us the world. And their follow-on deception: That their technology products bring us closer together."
The Alex Rodriguez 'Media Makeover'
Writing in the Los Angeles Daily News, Tom Hoffarth critiques a just-disclosed partnership between Fox Sports and ESPN in utilizing the services of ethically challenged former baseball superstar Alex Rodriguez.
"A media that once relished in debate about Rodriguez’s toxicity levels long before and continuing after he was benched for the entire 2014 season — the longest suspension in baseball history for performance-enhancing drug use — must be gagging on its hazmat hankies. In less than two months, Rodriguez will jump in with Matt Vasgersian and Jessica Mendoza and start with two Dodgers-Giants games at Dodger Stadium — the March 29 opener, followed by the April 1 finale to the four-game series. Rodriguez will then jump into the other side of the batters’ box and keep his Fox post-season analyst role in the studio."
"How has this Homer Simpson with a stick of glowing plutonium in his back pocket been melted down and transformed into MLB TV gold standard?" Well, here's the rest of his take.
The grand era of comic strips (for most)
"Cartoon Country: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make Believe" by Cullen Murphy, a reminder of the potency comics once had in American culture and newspapers, gets a strong review in The National Book Review (check this interview of Murphy by Terry Gross on "Fresh Air"). Meanwhile, a profile of the great back intellectual Alain Locke, a spearhead of the Harlem Renaissance, in The Wall Street Journal, includes this:
" 'By age four,' Mr Stewart writes, Alain 'was already serious, so unconcerned with humor and frivolity that he later recalled that, when given the task of going downstairs on Sunday morning to retrieve the paper, he first cut out the comics section before bringing it upstairs.' "
Facebook unveiled a seemingly austere, two-question survey of readers on the hot topic of rating news sites, with an explanation in this BuzzFeed opus. It sum, it asks if you recognize various websites it lists and then how much does one trust those domains.
Last week three Indiana university academics — Alan Dennis, Antino Kim and Tricia Moravec — had taken to BuzzFeed to share with a larger audience their own research on the same topic and raised doubts about crowdsourced ratings. Over the weekend Dennis said he think the results from these questions "would not be reliable or valid. Trust is something that is conveyed to a person or thing for a specific transaction. Research shows trust is based on these elements: ability; can the trustee do what it claims; integrity, does it do what it says; and benevolence, does it consider my interests?
He's planning a new study on the topic, with a goal of slowing the spread of fake news and even nudge some users to get a bit more thoughtful about what they believe. So they may put a single question on stories, focusing on the story, not necessarily the source. The question is: How truthful is this story?
"Your choices would be: (a) I have personal knowledge of the story and it is true (b) I have personal knowledge of the story and it is false (c) I do not have personal knowledge, but I believe the story is true (d) I do not have personal knowledge, but I believe the story is false and (e) I am uncertain."
"Individuals are heavily swayed by their pre-existing beliefs (confirmation bias), so the responses would be matched to the users’ pre-existing political beliefs (which Facebook knows in great detail from tracking what everyone reads and likes) and weighted by the pre-existing beliefs to produce a score for each story. It would also be easy for Facebook to follow people who routinely claim to have personal knowledge of every story and discard their ratings as biased."
Tracking changes in Twitter bios
Writing in Recode, Eric Johnson touts Spoonbill, which each day "sends me an email with a rundown of the changes the people I follow on Twitter have made to their bios, names and locations. It’s a readable digest of how people are choosing to present themselves to the public, which is fascinating for a nosy so-and-so like me."
A win for songwriters
"Songwriters will get a larger cut of revenue from streaming services after a court handed technology companies a big defeat," reports Bloomberg. "The Copyright Royalty Board ruled that songwriters will get at least a 15.1 percent share of streaming revenues over the next five years, from a previous 10.5 percent. That’s the largest rate increase in CRB history, according to a statement from the National Music Publishers’ Association."
Hollywood and literary agents, take note
The Chicago Sun-Times chronicles how the arrest of El Chapo, the Mexican drug lord, had a lot more to it than that visit from Sean Penn. Indeed, "Authorities have never revealed that the case against the man who some believe was the biggest drug kingpin in the world began with (Christopher) Baines, a mid-level dealer whose father owned a grocery store in Austin and also drove a bus for the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority)."
A key source here is Thomas Shakeshaft, a former federal prosecutor intimately involved in the case. "The El Chapo case was the highlight of Shakeshaft’s career as a prosecutor. And it exacted an enormous toll. He says the pressure of keeping witnesses alive while overseeing an international drug investigation drove him to drink and led to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder."
Aftermath of a TV interview
In the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan picked up on a British TV interview with University of Toronto clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson that got a lot of attention because of interviewer Cathy Newman being taken aback by some of his views (which really aren't that outrageous and, indeed, heralded by Noonan). But many days before, The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf was smart in indicating that what struck him far more than any of Peterson's positions "was the method his interviewer employed. It was the most prominent, striking example I’ve seen yet of an unfortunate trend in modern communication."
"First, a person says something. Then, another person restates what they purportedly said so as to make it seem as if their view is as offensive, hostile, or absurd."
"Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and various Fox News hosts all feature and reward this rhetorical technique. And the Peterson interview has so many moments of this kind that each successive example calls attention to itself until the attentive viewer can’t help but wonder what drives the interviewer to keep inflating the nature of Peterson’s claims, instead of addressing what he actually said."
A note to readers
For two and a half years Poynter has given me a wonderful opportunity to make vague sense of a complex media landscape undergoing tumultuous change. The resulting reader response, including to this daily newsletter, has been truly heartening. Yes, yes, every once in while somebody got miffed and vented my way. More often, I have been amazed by the number of people we were able to engage, including a fair number on other continents. Your comments, pro and con, were thoughtful and appreciated.
Under its new president, Neil Brown, Poynter is taking a fresh look at its efforts and recalibrating some resources. In that process, my position is being eliminated. I hope to soon have news about my next chapter. I remain a contributing editor to U.S. News & World Report and will be on board for Poynter, including this newsletter, until Feb. 2. Here's an early shout-out for your wonderful loyalty.