By:
September 25, 2020

The biggest media story at the moment is …

I ran into a friend from the journalism world on Thursday whom I had not seen since before the coronavirus shut down everything. After our hellos and how-are-yous, we said what all of us say these days.

“Strange times, eh?” my friend said.

I answered, “Yeah. And the past couple of days have been just heartbreaking, right?”

And he said, “Yes.” Then there was a pause. Then he said, “Wait, which story are you talking about?”

His question was apropos.

I could have been talking about the Breonna Taylor grand jury decision, and the subsequent protests. I could have been referring to the United States passing 200,000 coronavirus deaths. I could have been talking about the death of icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I could have been referring to President Trump’s disconcerting refusal to say he would peacefully accept the results of the 2020 presidential election.

I was actually talking about the Taylor case, but all of these stories were heartbreaking and all dominated the news cycle at one point or another this week.

And the news keeps coming at us at a dizzying pace. Trump could name a Supreme Court nominee this weekend, the first presidential debate is next Tuesday and who knows what else could happen at any moment?

Even for those who stay on top of the news, when we ask, “Did you see the big news today?,” we have no idea what that might be.

Zooming around the media world

Also on Thursday, I gave a Zoom presentation to the donors of the Poynter Institute. I talked about things such as media coverage of Trump, media bias, and attempted to address a simple, yet complicated question: What is “media?”

When asking if there is media bias, I said I wasn’t trying to be a wise guy, but before answering the question of “Is the media biased?,” I have to know the definition of two words: “media” and “bias.”

Seriously, what is “media?” It’s a hard word to wrap your arms around. On one hand, yes, cable news pundits such as Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Rachel Maddow and Joy Reid are “media.” But they are a far cry from “the media” that covers city council for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch or schools for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution or consumer affairs for WRAL-TV in Raleigh, North Carolina. That’s why it’s so frustrating to hear people criticize the media as “biased” when practically every reporter at a local level will never type the names “Donald Trump” or “Joe Biden.”

For example, I live in St. Petersburg, Florida. The local newspaper (The Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times) does remarkable work every day, but especially has turned in amazing projects on big stories. Some examples: their work covering Scientology, a bombshell that uncovered gross malpractice at a local children’s hospital and a Pulitzer Prize-winning project on local schools.

These are critical pieces of journalism that serve the community and, again, have nothing to do with who the president is or who the next Supreme Court justice will be.

If people’s opinions of “the media” are based on what the primetime cable news pundits — Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Joy Reid, Rachel Maddow, Chris Cuomo, Don Lemon — say and do, then viewers are off track. They should realize that those pundits don’t represent all media. Heck, they don’t even represent their networks, when you consider the objective work turned in by the likes of, say, Fox News’ Chris Wallace and MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, just to name a couple.

Meanwhile, that word: “bias.” As a former sports columnist, I used to get angry emails from readers whenever I criticized their favorite college football team. To them, it wasn’t that the criticism might be valid. They were convinced that it was because I was secretly a fan of their rivals.

I find political followers to be the same.

Just because the president is called out for something that he might have done wrong doesn’t necessarily mean the media is biased. It’s not biased to point out when the president lies. It’s not biased to look into how Trump has handled the coronavirus or really delve into his comments on race. Terms like bias and even fake news are often simply news items that someone doesn’t like. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Is there bias in the media? Of course there is. But I truly don’t believe it’s widespread as people would like to believe. And if a reporter ever does show bias, one hopes that the checks and balances of editing can tap that down, if not erase it.

What else are readers asking?

As part of that Zoom call, audience members could ask questions.

They represent the questions I most often get: Which news outlets can I trust? Why is the media so biased against Donald Trump? How can I keep from being overwhelmed by the news?

Just something to keep in mind for journalists who read this column. This is what readers are thinking about.

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Kudos to Playboy report

Well done by Playboy’s Brian Karem. He’s the one who pressed Trump on whether he will commit to making sure there’s a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the election to Joe Biden.

When Trump said, “Well, we’re going to have to wait to see what happens,” Karem pushed back hard, saying, “People are rioting” and asking again about the transfer of power.

Trump’s answer — was it trolling or is he serious? It’s a topic that Trump will be pressed on moving forward, and it was smart that Karem got the topic rolling.

Not sticking to sports

A depiction of Breonna Taylor is seen on the shoes of Denver Nuggets’ Jamal Murray during a recent NBA game. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

That idea of ESPN sticking to sports? Not this week. The Breonna Taylor grand jury discussion has sparked lots of conversation on the network, and not just in how it intersects with sports. The topic was discussed on various shows, including “First Take.” In addition, as the network was going to commercial break during its NBA pregame show Wednesday night, analyst Jalen Rose shouted, “It’d also be a great day to arrest the cops that murdered Breonna Taylor.”

ESPN has always said it has never had a “stick to sports” edict and that it is willing to discuss politics and society when it intersects with sports. But this week, ESPN has not shied away from talking about the Taylor story even when it didn’t relate to sports.

Speaking of which, there was an emotional moment when reporter Malika Andrews, who is inside the NBA bubble at Disney in Florida, reported on the NBA’s reaction to the Taylor grand jury during an appearance on Scott Van Pelt’s “SportsCenter.” As The Big Lead’s Kyle Koster notes, Andrews’ report was powerful.

She said, “I’m sorry that I’m getting choked up here because this is about the players and their response. We’ve talked before, Scott, about how my job here is to objectively cover the truth and to share what these players are going through. Today what they’re going through is that they’re hurting. I have prided myself in being able to be objective and cover these sorts of issues. But when it is so clear that the system of objectivity in journalism is so whitewashed and doesn’t account for the fact that when I am walking up the hill my wonderful producer Melinda reminds me that Breonna Taylor was 26 and I am 25 and that could have been me, it is very hard to continue to go to work.”

Koster put it well when he said he understands why some fans don’t like mixing politics and societal issues with sports, but added, “It is harder to understand how that principle takes precedent over empathy. Or, at the very least, admission that there are human beings on the other side of the television screen or outlet pass who are struggling. Insisting they stick to breaking down pick-and-roll numbers or 19-foot baseline jumpers shows a level of selfishness that is only appreciated with a little self-reflection.”

Fall Voyages

Photo courtesy of The New York Times.

Cool stuff coming out Sunday in The New York Times Magazine. It’s the “Fall Voyages” issue, which takes readers on an audiovisual trip to places around the globe. If you get the actual print version of the magazine, you will be able to use Google Lens to find additional content by pointing your smartphone at the magazine cover and throughout the magazine.

The issue includes:

A new boss

Pete Bevacqua has been named NBC Sports Group chairman. He replaces Mark Lazarus, who is now chairman of NBCUniversal Television and Streaming. Bevacqua becomes just the third NBC Sports Group chairman following Lazarus and Dick Ebersol. Bevacqua joined NBC Sports in 2018 after stints at the PGA Tour, CAA and the United States Golf Association. He is being promoted from his job as president of the NBC Sports Group.

Hot type

Fascinating work by The Washington Post in association with Lupa and the Google News Initiative: What if all the Covid deaths in the United States happened in your neighborhood? As the Post writes: “Find out what would happen if your neighborhood was the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.” You type in your address and then see how many people around you would have died. Chilling stuff.

Deadline’s Ted Johnson interviews the Mankiewicz brothers — “Dateline’s” Josh Mankiewicz and Turner Classic Movie host Ben Mankiewicz.

Poynter’s Kristen Hare talks to Tampa Bay Times columnist Stephanie Hayes on “How to Be Funny in a Pandemic.”

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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