4 journalism-based rules Washington and Cleveland need to follow in renaming their teams

The Washington NFL Football Team announced earlier this month that it would engage in a name change, after decades of protests from people who found the moniker “Redskins” racist. All it took was a demand from a multi-million-dollar sponsor, and suddenly, the team was all about doing the right thing.

Shortly there after, the Cleveland Major League Baseball Team announced it would be looking into whether “Indians” should still be part of the sporting zeitgeist. About two years earlier, the team mostly retired its long-time mascot Chief Wahoo from its merchandise and apparel.

(As a long-time and long-suffering Cleveland fan of multiple sports, I have to say one was well overdue. It’s been tough to wear baseball gear supporting the team I have loved since I was 10 in this day and age. That said, and this isn’t a defense, but it likely used to be a hell of a lot worse when they had this logo.)

Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves have decided that tradition is too strong for a team that has called at least two other cities home and features the mascot “Chief Noc-A-Homa” as well as the “chant and tomahawk chop” routine to consider making a change. Must be a lot of money in those foam tomahawks…

I guess, as Meatloaf once opined, “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.” That said, while trying to fix one stupid thing, there is always the risk of creating other stupid things. Bad nickname choices can lead to awkward double meaning, stupid logos and some very difficult editorial decisions for writers.

With all of this in mind, here are the four journalism-based requests for Washington and Cleveland as they begin their quest for better nomenclature:

DODGE GRAMMAR PROBLEMS: The first thing we need to make clear is that the name has to be plural, and I mean VISIBLY plural with an “S” on the end of whatever the teams pick. (Sorry, no Mice or Moose.)

Some of the dumbest grammar arguments come out of singular team names like the Colorado Avalanche, the Minnesota Wild, the Miami Heat or the Orlando Magic. As a team grammatically operates as a gender-neutral single entity, the singular team names get the same treatment. That means when the Bucks play the Heat, the pronouns would be “They play it.” Of course, it’s grammatically correct and yet it makes absolutely no sense at all.

Unless the players can form into one entity like Voltron or use a single collective consciousness like the Borg, you MUST use a pluralized name for the sake of all of us.

Also, no names that can be read as a verb. We don’t need another Thunder or Jazz to make for some really bad headlines like “Bucks deal Thunder third-straight loss.” A bad headline break in that can make them sound like Zeus tossing bolts around.

Another verb-based moment of stupidity would be “Raptors play Jazz tonight,” which would look something like this, I’m sure:

 

AVOID HEADLINE HEADACHES: Journalists have to think about how things will look in the big type, so please keep in mind that certain words don’t work all that well. Case in point is the old San Diego team from the American Basketball Association:

Conquist

It was a lousy team, (and the term has its own awkward past) but it did have a really cool logo. The problem was trying to squeeze “CONQUISTADORS” into any kind of head specs. When the designer gave you a one-column headline for a game between these guys and the Dallas Chaparrals, it was a safe bet that he thought you were having an affair with his wife.

To solve that brain-bending problem, journalists started referring to the team as “The Q’s” which made about as much sense as anything else in the ABA.

THINK LIKE A 12-YEAR-OLD BOY: A team name like the “Lumberjacks” can seem like a great idea at the time, but it definitely puts headline writers in a pickle, as we noted above. Those scribes trying to fit 10 pounds of stuff in a 5-pound bag can end up making things worse if they fail to have a dirty mind:

JacksOff

Do I dare ask about the “position changes?”

Before you get too far into the idea of what the next name should be for either of these franchises, have an intern in the PR department Google every potential euphemism for male and female genitalia as well as doing a deep dive into every possible corner of the internet for references for disturbing sex acts.

That means, despite the city’s proud history of shipbuilding, you do not want to go with the “Cleveland Steamers.”

Also, consider every possible noun and verb you plan to use as part of a social media campaign or every potential permutation of your name when placed into a hashtag.  (I can imagine the Oakland A’s doing a promotion where plating a certain number of runs could lead to free meal or something. The result would be the #asscorefour hashtag, which sounds like one of many sequels to a porn film.)

RESEARCH THE HELL OUT OF IT BEFORE YOU DECIDE:  Anything you pick should go through the standard vetting process for copyright, fan engagement and such, no doubt. However, if you get only one good swing at this name change thing, you better dig a lot deeper to ensure you aren’t accidentally stepping on a racial, sexist or homophobic landmine.

Here’s what I mean: A Texas PR firm that specialized in food and drink was looking for a fun and engaging name back in 2012. The two women, who are white, came up with what they saw as a quirky, on-point moniker, so they did a quick Google search to see if anyone else had used it. Turned out, it was the title of a Billie Holiday song from the 1930s, but they figured it was so far afield, it wouldn’t be a problem, so they went with it.

The name? “Strange Fruit.”

A bit more than a quick search might have helped this PR firm avoid two years of bad PR. The song is about the lynching of African Americans and the lyrics aren’t opaque on that point. The women eventually rebranded as “Perennial PR,” but even that had problems when they failed to grab social media accounts by that name. Someone else did and had a lot of fun at their expense.

That means you start looking for everything that ever was when it comes to any name you want to pick. You think something like the “Washington Potomacs” seems cool and safe, make sure you’re not ticking off people with a sense of Negro League Baseball history. Pretty sure you don’t want to name them the “Washington Marshals,” as law-enforcement names aren’t really getting much love these days, plus it could seem to be a minor nod to former owner George Preston Marshall (yes, the spelling is different), who didn’t have an open mind on issues of race.

And for the love of God, avoid the “Washington Woodsmen.” No, I didn’t know this was a thing. Yes, I looked through the entire Urban Dictionary’s “W” section, which is something Dan Snyder’s people should do as well.

No, you don’t want to know what it means.

 

 

Non-Denominational Skeptic: COVID Party Edition

A year or so ago, we introduced the concept of being a “non-denominational skeptic” on the blog, as it related to covering the news. In short, it comes down to the idea that whether something fits your world view or runs counter to it, you owe it to your readers to be skeptical of claims of others before you report them as fact.

It’s time to break this club out of the bag again, as we deal with the media’s latest coronavirus-related obsession: COVID parties.

(Full disclosure: When this story first emerged, I shared it with some folks on Facebook. As friends noted, it seemed like BS, but I figured it came from CNN, so it was likely not as BS as it seems. Not exactly the standards I’m asking for here. Mea Culpa.)

According to multiple media reports, “young people” in Alabama are hosting parties where people do all sorts of stupid things in an attempt to get the coronavirus and be the first among their peers to test positive. The story finds its roots with a city official in Tuscaloosa, who made this statement:

Tuscaloosa City Councilor Sonya McKinstry said students have been organizing “COVID parties” as a game to intentionally infect each other with the contagion that has killed more than 127,000 people in the United States. She said she recently learned of the behavior and informed the city council of the parties occurring in the city.

She said the organizers of the parties are purposely inviting guests who have COVID-19.

“They put money in a pot and they try to get COVID. Whoever gets COVID first gets the pot. It makes no sense,” McKinstry said. “They’re intentionally doing it.”

McKinstry’s statement seemed to gain traction with support from Fire Chief Randy Smith, who spoke at a council session about the issue:

“We thought that was kind of a rumor at first,” Smith told the council members. “We did some research. Not only do the doctors’ offices confirm it but the state confirmed they also had the same information.”

Having been a college-age person and having spent the better part of my life around them, there is very little that would surprise me anymore. When you mix in the Bizzaro-style world we seem to be living through these days, almost every bet I would make as being a “no-brainer” seems to have a “except for that one time” caveat to it.

Also, if you have watched ANY coverage of ANY events involving ANY human beings where youth, alcohol and questionable clothing choices are involved, you will no longer doubt that ANYTHING is off the table when it comes to stupidity. To wit:

That said, we need to break this down:

  • McKinstry gives no source for her information. I know that we have the right to quote official sources in an official capacity without fear, but if I’m thinking of publishing this content (as multiple outlets including CNN and ABC have) I’d like to know where she heard this.
  • I don’t know anything about McKinstry. In fact, trying to Google her, all I could get was coverage from all over the world about this statement. What else I could find told me that she has about 20 Twitter followers, she represents District 7 and she was elected in 2013. I could make the argument that this is good, in that she’s not like Louie Gohmert, whose consistent, random stupidity is the stuff of political legend. That said, if I’m spreading a “viral” story, I want to know a little more about the source.
  • Randy Smith’s statement wasn’t filled with blinding specificity, either. His “we did some research” line is the kind of thing you’d expect to hear on “Pawn Stars” before a dude named Jethro asked for $10,000 on his mint condition Sam Horn rookie card. Also, I’d love to know how doctors and “the state” confirmed this.

Could this be true? Sure. Could it be equally likely that it’s false? You bet. Which is where the skeptics like Gilad Edelman of Wired come in:

You’ll notice immediately that Smith didn’t say anything about people trying to get sick, let alone betting on who could do it first. So why is everyone saying that’s what happened? The notion seems to have originated with McKinstry, who shared it with ABC News after the meeting. It’s not clear whether McKinstry had a source for this idea, and she did not reply to WIRED’s request for comment. The Alabama Department of Health responded with a statement that it “has not been able to verify such parties have taken place.” It’s not even clear that the fire chief had it right about kids going to parties while knowing they were sick. (The Tuscaloosa Fire Department did not reply to a request for comment, either.) But that didn’t stop the dogpile of national media outlets repeating and amplifying the Covid betting-pot story as if it were fact.

He’s right on all of this, citing previous “the sky is falling” stories of COVID parties all across the country. That said, what Edelman has is not proof, but a pile of people not getting back to him and a precedent of this not happening elsewhere. The headline of “COVID Parties are not a Thing” would seem to indicate he disproved something in a definitive form. That’s not the case here.

Just because something affirms your world view (We should trust local officials, college students are drunken idiots, Alabama is Charles Darwin’s waiting room etc.) or runs counter to it, it doesn’t mean you should jump to conclusions. This is where being a non-denominational skeptic comes into play.

So, going forward, here are three tips to consider when covering a story like this:

  • If your mother says she loves you, go check it out: Stories gain traction in some cases because other people have reported on them, so we figure it must be fine. That’s how a lot of stupid stuff gets spread rapidly and it doesn’t cover any of us with any glory. Go get the information you want to publish for yourself and adhere to the standard of the non-denominational skeptic. “Where did you get this?” is a fine question to ask. If you are unsatisfied with the answer, you can make some choices about what to do next, which leads us to the second point…
  • The duty to report is not the duty to publish: When it comes to a story like this, if it is true, you should publish the hell out of it. People who are doing dumb things that are potentially lethal should be stopped at all cost, especially given the transmission and fatality rates surrounding this virus. That said, if you report and report and report and you can’t meet a standard of certainty that this is happening, you don’t HAVE TO publish it. Journalists have a duty to report, but not necessarily the duty to publish content. Publishing stuff you are iffy about just because you gathered it has the same internal logic as eating a plate of rotten food that you know will make you sick because, “I paid $5 for this and I’m getting my money’s worth!”
  • Check your biases: Some things tend to feel right because they represent a pattern that meshes with our sense of reality. That’s where we owe it to our readers to be doubly careful. Not every story we hear that fits a pattern is truthful and not every incident we encounter that reinforces our way of thinking should be considered evidence. Credibility is not a boomerang; if you throw it away, it isn’t coming back. Go after each and every assertion you gather with the same vigor, regardless of how you feel about it personally. Your readers will reap the benefits.

 

Two years after five staffers were killed, The Capital Gazette is still “putting out a damn paper”

Two years ago today, the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, arrived on the porches and stoops of subscribers and filled the racks and boxes of distributors throughout the area, just like any other day.

However, it wasn’t any other day. And the paper hadn’t published just any story.

CapGazetteA man who had a long-standing feud with the paper used a shotgun to blast his way into the newsroom, killing five staff members and injuring two others.

Those who lived to tell the tale decided to tell it as their fallen colleagues would have wanted them to. They used portable equipment, huddled up in a parking garage and reported on the deadliest attack on a U.S. newsroom in history.

Two years later, those connected to the Capital Gazette shooting continue to feel the ache of loss. The family and friends of those five people move forward through “painful milestones”as they recall those they lost and look to a continued future with out them.

As for those who remain at the paper, the work has taken on an additional level of importance. An editorial in Sunday’s paper explained how the staff members pressed forward, forever changed by the violence and yet they remain unrelentingly committed to their duty to the community:

We work hard to keep their legacy alive in the work we do every day. As we cover some of the most important news this community has ever faced, we find ourselves wondering how they might have influenced our coverage on the coronavirus pandemic? What stories would they want to see on the Black Lives Matter movement so passionately playing out on our streets? Where would their curiosity take them?

Each of them changed this organization and the lives they touched here. Their legacy at The Capital lives on in those who knew them as friends and colleagues.

About six months after the shooting, I was working on the “First-Person Target” series for the blog, when a friend helped me connect with one of the reporters from that newsroom, Chase Cook. Cook worked with fellow staff members to cover the shooting and inform the public about it. However, it was his tweet regarding the paper’s resilience that became part of journalism legend:

CookTweet

Cook, now an assistant editor at the paper, was gracious enough to do an interview with me for the series right around the time the Capital Gazette staff received “Person of the Year” honors from Time magazine. In revisiting the interview, I found myself struck by the strength Cook had in that time of crisis, but also the humanity he exuded in recalling both the traumatic and the mundane moments he experienced.

Both in that initial interview and in listening to it again, I came to the conclusion that Cook was exactly the kind of journalist and person I would want any one of my students to become.

Determined and human. Even-handed and reflective. Honest and hopeful.

What follows are the excerpts from Day 3 of the series, featuring Cook’s thoughts and recollections. Any errors are mine alone. Everything else is his:

When Jarrod Ramos began his attack on the Annapolis Capital Gazette on June 28, 2018, reporter Chase Cook wasn’t there. His request for an extra day of vacation might have saved his life.

“I wasn’t in the office that day…” he said. “Rob Hiaasen, who is now dead, gave me the day off because I worked 16 hours covering a primary election on the 26th. I was supposed to work Thursday and I sat at his desk on Wednesday and asked for an extra day off because I was exhausted.”

Ramos had a long-standing feud with the newspaper, which included an unsuccessful defamation of character suit and a series of ongoing social media attacks. He arrived at the newsroom on that Thursday in late June carrying a 12-gauge, pump-action shotgun, which he used to blow apart the office’s glass doors. He had planned the attack for some time, officials said, noting that he had barricaded a back exit to prevent people from escaping.

The shooting left five dead and two others injured. In addition to Hiaasen, staff members Wendi Winters, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara and Rebecca Smith died in the attack.

Cook was at home when he heard about the attack. He immediately changed into his work clothes and headed to the newsroom.

“I was kind of there to cover it and also make sure my friends and colleagues were OK,” he said. “It was kind of a balancing act.”

Cook and several of his colleagues gathered in a nearby parking ramp and set up their computers in the bed of a pickup truck, preparing to cover an incident that had ended the lives of several of their colleagues.

“I just remember meeting Pat (Furgurson) and Josh (McKerrow) at that truck…” he said. “I remember asking Rick (Hutzell) to put as many bylines on it as he could because I felt strongly that this was a group effort. It wasn’t just me.”

As he gathered information and helped construct the main news story on the shooting, Cook found himself having to go to a nearby mall for supplies.

“I remember going to buy a charging cable for my phone because it was going to die and I didn’t have a charging cable with me,” he said. “I must have looked insane to the person I bought it from because I was sweaty, I had been crying, I was tired and I was like frantic and I must have looked like I was on drugs or something.”

“It was weird, too, because being in the mall, everybody was kind of going through their day,” he added. “They were living a normal experience and my whole life felt paranoid. I thought this guy was following me in the mall I got really paranoid because I kept seeing him everywhere I went.”

In the wake of the shooting, the most famous words that emerged came from Cook’s Twitter account when he declared, “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.” Cook said the paper was a group effort involving the staff of the paper, the folks at the home office of the Baltimore Sun, the press workers and countless others, and he thought it was important to let people know the Capital Gazette would still publish.

“For me personally it was kind of a 50/50 of my own personal resolve. I was really upset and I was there working and I wasn’t going to let that stop us from running a newspaper…,” Cook said. “The other part of it was this was news. Nobody knew if we would have a newspaper tomorrow. I was sitting there thinking, ‘Well, I don’t have anything to tell people except that this was a targeted attack. We’re the local paper. We should know more, this happened literally in our office.’ So, I confirmed it with Josh and them that we were still going to have the paper tomorrow.”

“I felt that nothing would have prevented any of us from putting out a newspaper the next day,” he added later. “Even if I had been dead inside the building, somebody would have done it.”

Accolades for the staff’s work have poured in from a wide array of sources. Time magazine named the staff of the paper among its “Person of the Year” winners in December, interviewing its members at a hotel near the Newseum. Cook said he begged out of that trip, because he is still having difficulty reflecting on his work on the shooting.

“I did not go to the Newseum with the staff because I still had some anxiety seeing the words that I had written, even if they were in a tweet, being on the wall of the most popular news museum in the country,” he said. “I wasn’t ready to do that.”

As much as the staff feels honored, Cook said he has trouble coming to grips with the attention and the praise.

“We internally reconcile with, ‘This is awesome we should be happy but why can’t Wendi, Rob, John, Rebecca and Gerald be here to enjoy it with us?’ And they can’t be,” he said.

“I struggle with feeling good or proud about what I did on the 28th and every day since then,” he added. “There’s no room in me to feel proud about that, it’s really just grief.”

 

******

Statistics state their case plainly and simply, but fear’s whisper grows louder with each outburst of gunfire and media report of massive death. As the frequency of these shootings grows, so does the number of people who feel the ripple effect.

“I’m so much more intimately familiar with the wave of destruction that happens after (another shooting),” Cook said. “It’s not just to the bodies of the people who are shot but how it proliferates throughout the community that I just feel depressed and sad.”

Cook continued working at the paper for days and weeks after the shooting, using work to help him cope with the tragedy. He said he didn’t really feel the full impact of the attack until he took a week or so of vacation and the adrenaline surge subsided.

He said he is still working to acclimate to daily life in some ways.

“I have a hard time in movie theaters now,” he said. “I get anxious when the lights go out, which is a bummer because I love going to the movies. I think about it a lot when I’m in really crowded places… That fear factor has kind of permeated through everything. I’m at work, I’m in danger. I’m at school, I’m in danger. I’m at church, I’m in danger. I have to convince myself that I’m not because while mass shootings are a problem in the country and they’re up, they’re still a rare crime.”

Cook said the most dangerous thing anyone does on a daily basis is drive a car, something he hasn’t stopped doing. He uses this logical approach to keep his mind quiet when it begins to spiral with fear.

“I try not to live that way but still people knock on the door or ring the bell or something unexpected happens, I get anxious there’s no way to not do that. It happens subconsciously,” he said. “I just try to say, hey, recognize how you’re feeling… Be honest with yourself and how you feel.”

“I think my general sense of safety is different now because I’m constantly having to have that conversation with myself of convincing myself that I’m not in an immediate threat,” he added. “That was not something I thought about before this happened.”

Cook said as he works toward feeling safer, he wouldn’t be inclined to turn to a gun for his own for protection, even though he has spent much of his life around them.

“I don’t know if I would feel safer with more people with guns in the room,” he said. “I’m from Oklahoma. I’ve shot guns. Shooting guns is not a thing you just show up and do. Shooting is a skill and it degrades so if you are going to have a gun, how often are you training with it? Are you confident that you can do something? Are you confident that you can kill somebody? There’s so much more to it than just having it.”

Over the course of his career, Cook has written stories about gun deaths, recalling one about a child finding a gun and accidentally shooting himself with it, which makes him leery of owning a firearm.

“For me personally, I have massive respect for guns,” he said. “That’s how my dad raised me. He’s in the Marines. He carries everywhere he goes… So, I’m intimately familiar with guns. I don’t personally own one. I don’t want to own one, only because I’m so aware of their destructive power that I’m afraid of making a mistake and I would rather just remove that possibility from my life by not having a gun.”

As he continues to move forward from his experiences on June 28, Cook said he sees an important conversation that needs to take place, with citizens demanding more of their leaders on this topic.

“It’s an incredibly complicated thing that I think at the basic level citizens should be demanding that their politicians and their newspapers do something about it,” Cook said. “Write about it. Talk to politicians. Demand they have a stance. Make the politician who thinks every teacher should be armed make that stance… explain to people why you think that would solve the problem and start that conversation.”

“It always turns out where people say, ‘Oh, you just want gun control,’” he added. “That’s not it. It doesn’t work that way. I’m not smart enough to come up with a solution on my own. I want to hear about it. I want to write about it. I want somebody to convince me that this will solve the problem, and use data, and we’re just not having that conversation.”

Dead Ducks: How a minor-league baseball team made a major-league screw-up while trying to be funny during a pandemic

Dead Ducks

I never know how to take it when former students tell me things like, “I saw this massive media screw-up and immediately thought of you!” That said, I’m grateful for the help in identifying the face-palm moments of life that keep the blog humming.

UPDATE: The president of the organization got back to me on this. I posted his response in full below.

 

Like many other sports franchises, the Madison Mallards baseball team in Wisconsin is coming to terms with what to make of a lost season. The Northwoods League team decided Wednesday to formally cancel its entire schedule, announcing the decision with an approach that could politely be referred to as “tone-deaf:

In Memoriam: Madison Mallards 2020 Season (2020-2020)
The 2020 Mallards Baseball season, a highly anticipated summer mainstay on the cusp of its 20th season, ended before it even had a chance to start on Wednesday, June 24th at 5:00 pm.

Survived by its mascots, Maynard, Millie, and Bonehead, a dedicated staff, supportive corporate partners, and a city full of fans, the season will be dearly missed by many. The Mallards, born in 2001, have provided decades of fun, community, and wieners. Their 20th season in Madison would have been no different.

The cause of the “death” of this season is, of course, the coronavirus pandemic that has sickened more than 2.3 million people in the United States as of the latest count. The death toll has reached past the 120,000 mark for the country, with more than 750 of those in the state of Wisconsin. Dane County, where the Mallards play, is listed as a hot spot for the virus, one of 22 counties in the state registering spikes in the “high” range, according to state DHS data.

So, maybe the obituary approach wasn’t exactly the wisest of ways to alert the readers on this one. (Also, and I know it’s a minor point, but how in the hell did the Mallards provide “decades of fun” if the team is short of its 20th season? I get that journalists aren’t good at math, but you gotta get at least two of something, in this case it would be decades, before you can pluralize something.)

The closing paragraphs of the “obituary” decided to take the concept of “EEEESHHH” to a major-league level:

A Celebration of Life will take place at the Duck Pond on June 29th, 2020 from 5:00pm to 8:00pm. Entry will be free for fans, with beer and concessions for purchase, and the opening of our new Team Store.

In lieu of flowers, fans are encouraged to support by attending upcoming events at the Duck Pond, shopping in our online team store, or sending condolences and fan mail to info@mallardsbaseball.com.

Let’s unpack this:

  • We are having a “funeral” for a season that was essentially “stillborn,” to carry out the writer’s death metaphor to its most disturbing and yet accurate end.
  • The writer is encouraging people to come out en masse for this “funeral” during a pandemic in which social distancing is the primary way of avoiding contracting an actual illness that has the potential to be fatal.
  • What’s the draw? A free admission to an empty ball field in celebration of a NEW TEAM SHOP where you can buy stuff for a team that’s not playing. Oh, and you can buy beer and hotdogs as well.
  • The “in lieu of flowers” line had me shaking my head. Also, I’m not sure why I’m sending you “condolences” at this time…

I put in a note to the “Info” address above, asking for some thoughts and rationale on their approach here. The president of the organization got back to me with this note:

 

Professor,

Thanks for your note. The Mallards role in our community for 20 years has been to provide a place for people to escape from their day-to-day routine. One of our old ad slogans was actually “Welcome to your 9-inning vacation.”
As we grapple with the real challenges of 2020 for our world, our community and our business, we thought it was important for the Mallards to continue to do what we do & hopefully provide a bit of levity for our fans. As evidence of us most likely being on the right path, I still haven’t seen a negative comment on social media related to the obituary part of what we did. I think our fans understand our satirical tone & that we would never intend to offend anyone. And, when we have delivered the wrong message in the past (which we have done) our fans have been quick to point it out & scold us on social media, as you would expect.
We will have more measures in place than simply socially distancing people at our Monday event. We didn’t feel the need to outline all the protocols in this post, but we will be clarifying them as we move forward. We’ve worked extremely closely with the Health Dept here & we know how to execute safe events and we will not allow a scene to develop similar to what has been seen at bars across the country. We have one of the largest venues in Madison & we’ll have plenty of room for people to safely gather.
Thanks for your time & consideration of our position on this. I authentically hope to see you at the ballpark next summer!
Vern Stenman
President
Big Top Sports + Entertainment

I have to say, I appreciate that the guy who runs the show would actually take time to respond to me, basically a chimp with a blog. I’m not exactly sure I’m buying into the “we haven’t seen a negative comment” defense, because a) not having seen something doesn’t mean it’s not there and b) the word “yet” should be clearly implied there… Granted, this isn’t as horrible as some of the other gaffes we’ve covered on the blog before, but “This could have been worse” isn’t exactly the target I’m thinking you want to be shooting for.

He’s standing by his approach, which is fine. Maybe I’m wrong about this, having lost a family friend to the coronavirus and knowing other immuno-compromised people I worry about every day. (It must be a cold day in hell right now, as I’m potentially being overly sensitive to something…) If I’m not, I’m sure the more people who see this will tell him. And to be fair, he did say if this gets ugly and they were wrong, they’d pony up. That’s a fair and fine strategy.

I’ll also stick by my two points below, made prior to Mr. Stenman’s email:

You aren’t as clever as you think you are: The idea of trying to “spice” up dull copy is an admirable one, but some situations call for straight-forward information dissemination. It’s the reason we don’t note that people who died during an explosion “went out with a bang” or that a drug overdose victim “failed the Pepsi Challenge and went with coke.”

I got smoked on a lead to a story once like that when I was filling in for a day-side cops reporter. The PIO at the station clued me into a burglary where this guy stole some tools and about 20 cases of soda from a local business. It was hot outside and we were talking about being too thirsty for their own good, so I wrote a lead that played on this idea, focusing on the soda.

The owner of the business called to complain that the true loss was the high-end manufacturing tools, worth tens of thousands of dollars, not the soda from the break room. He felt we were mocking his situation and that I wasn’t taking the burglary seriously. My managing editor crawled inside me with his shoes on, and I deserved it.

The point is that, yes, you write a seemingly interminable number of “noun-verb-object” leads that just give people the facts and you desperately want to do something more amazing than that. That said, this isn’t about you. It’s about your readers. Think about what happens when a Madison Mallards fan who lost a family member or a friend to the coronavirus reads this. Whatever you’ve got in your head, I bet it’s not good.

 

Paranoia is your best friend: I think I say this at least once per week during regular class periods, and it bears repeating here. A really good way of avoiding problems in your writing, reporting and publishing is to first consider what you are doing and then ask, “What are the infinite number of ways this could go wrong and make me look like a complete idiot?”

I joke about the voices in my head arguing about stuff quite a bit, but I’ll honestly tell you this: I do listen to specific voices when I’m writing. When I come across an issue of race, I think about a friend of mine who is an expert on this and another friend who deals with racist stuff on a way-too-frequent basis. When I come across an issue that could be seen as sexist, I have another friend’s voice in my head, arguing that there is a better way to write whatever it is I’m writing. When I start cursing on the blog, I can hear my publisher’s voice, yelling, “Vince, people from small religious schools read this!” (I then quietly delete the cussing and find a euphemism like “chucklehead” to replace what I really want to say.)

The paranoia that something could turn me into a tragic tale of wasted youth… er… middle-age… keeps me from doing a lot of tragically stupid things. Keeping your paranoia meter finely tuned won’t prevent every problem, but it will keep you from walking off a 20-foot ledge directly into a lava pool populated by robot sharks. Or whatever your recurring nightmare is…

 

 

AP issues new rules on race; “Black” and “Indigenous” get capitalization

Over the past several years, the Associated Press has made a number of changes that left style geeks in a panic. The decision to go with “%” instead of “percent” made no sense as a key change. The rule that told us how to quote emojishad us wondering if we’d officially slipped into hell. The biggest disaster, however, was its flip-flop-a-thon on compound modifiers and hyphenation, which had a few of us asking if “dumb-ass idea” was still hyphenated.

This time around, AP looked at a bigger issue and made a good call. The folks there announced Friday that it would be shifting to the use of a capital “B” in the word “Black,” in reference to issues of race. John Daniszewski, the vice president of standards, noted in his blog post that this decision came after two years of research and discussions on the topic:

These changes align with long-standing capitalization of other racial and ethnic identifiers such as Latino, Asian American and Native American. Our discussions on style and language consider many points, including the need to be inclusive and respectful in our storytelling and the evolution of language. We believe this change serves those ends.

Several other organizations had already made in-house style changes, capitalizing the word and offering similar rationale for it. Although the AP has been criticized for acting slowly on this, the announcement came about a week after the National Association of Black Journalists made its style position clear in a press release:

For the last year, the National Association of Black Journalists(NABJ) has been integrating the capitalization of the word “Black” into its communications.

However, it is equally important that the word is capitalized in news coverage and reporting about Black people, Black communities, Black culture, Black institutions, etc.

NABJ’s Board of Directors has adopted this approach, as well as many of our members, and recommends that it be used across the industry.

As is usually the case, AP made dozens of other changes as well for the upcoming style edition, so it’s probably worth it to update your subscription and mutter to yourself, “Don’t these people have anything better to do?” However, in the case of “Black,” AP did the right thing for a good reason and reflected the needs and interests of journalists and readers.

The Kindergarten Survival Guide

IMG_2219

I did this about 40 years ago. My mother still has it on display in the kitchen. Unfortunately, it’s probably still the best thing I’ve ever drawn, which is why I’m grateful that SAGE employs actual artists for my books.

Today is my birthday and it dawned on me that I’ve now spent more than half my life teaching college students. (Really, I have. The math checks out and everything).

One of the many benefits of spending this much time Peter Pan-ing my way through life is that I get to see a lot of my former students grow into adulthood, family life and parenthood. Seeing the updates of graduations, jobs, weddings and children is one of the best things this job offers as a continually renewing benefit.

Two of my former students, who have been immensely helpful to my book-writing and blog-pimping careers, got married a number of years ago, became parents and raised one heck of an amazing kid. As he completed his pre-school career, his mom asked if anyone on Facebook had any advice for him regarding kindergarten.

In an attempt to be helpful, and maybe amuse his parents, I sent the following “Kindergarten Survival Guide” to this young man and I figured I’d share it here as well. Enjoy:

1) Make sure the teacher knows your name for all the good reasons (good napper, drinks milk well, doesn’t fight) as opposed to all the bad reasons (makes noise, does not work and play well with others)

2) Always be nice to the kid who doesn’t seem to have any friends. If you pick on that kid or be mean to him/her, it will haunt you for the rest of your life.

3) Put time and effort into ANY major project that your teacher tells you is “going home for your parents to keep.”

My mother STILL displays the drawing I did for her that was turned into a plastic plate, and had I known that, I would have put more time into coloring it and I wouldn’t have drawn the tree so big.

(It STILL pisses me off that I forgot to color in that guy’s shoe…)

4) There’s nothing wrong with doing your own thing. Just because the bossy girl says, “We are ALL playing kitchen and I’M the chef” doesn’t make it so. Feel free to wander away and read or play with cars or something. You are under no obligation to feed into her delusions of grandeur.

5) Nobody likes a tattletale. Don’t run to the teacher for every minor grievance. Save your tattling for when it counts. Like when a kid accuses you of setting fire to the reading nook or when the milk money goes missing.

6) Kindergarten is not a competition over whose family is more dysfunctional. Feel free not to share everything that goes on at home.

7) You have the coolest mom and dad in the world. You know it, the teacher knows it and your parents know it.

8) Nobody really sleeps during nap time. Except the teacher. Let her snore. She’ll wake up eventually.

9) The kid who says he saw a leprechaun on St. Patrick’s Day is LYING TO YOU ALL. MAYBE he saw his dad drunk on green beer, but that doesn’t count. Don’t feel bad you didn’t see one. (OK, maybe that’s my own personal scar coming through, but still…)

10) Enjoy every minute of it. You are a great kid and don’t let anyone ever tell you any different.

‘Can you?’ vs. ‘Should you?’ A secret recording of a Wisconsin government phone call that inspired five random thoughts for journalism students

In trying to explain ethics to my intro writing students, I often fall back on the line that, “Ethics basically deal with things that aren’t illegal, but can get you in a lot of trouble, anyway.” Another way we separate law and ethics is the line between, “Can I do X?” vs. “Should I do X?”

This concept came into focus in a strange way last week, as Wisconsin continued to put the “fun” in “dysfunction” at the state government level:

MADISON – Republican legislative leaders lashed out Wednesday at Democratic Gov. Tony Evers after his staff secretly recorded a May 14 phone conversation over how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic the day after the state Supreme Court struck down the state’s stay-at-home order.

The recording and the reaction to it all but ensures a permanently broken relationship between Evers and Republicans who control the Legislature. The two sides have rarely gotten along since Evers was elected in 2018 and Wednesday’s episode was characterized by GOP leaders as unprecedented.

Republicans referred to the recording effort as “Nixonesque,” referring to former Republican President Richard Nixon’s desire to record everything involving him at the White House. I’m uncertain if this is irony, self-loathing behavior or something just randomly laughable, but I’m at a loss for words while watching a Republican use the name of a former two-term (almost) president as an insult. I guess I’m also pretty sure that the relationship between Evers and the Republicans was permanently shattered like Waterford Crystal thrown off the top of the Empire State Building waaaaaaay before this incident.

In any case, here are a few random thoughts for journalism students that don’t delve into the political grandstanding in this case that makes soccer “injuries” look honest by comparison:

 

THIS SHOULD HAVE BEEN PUBLIC ANYWAY: Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, made the best point about this situation. Why the hell was this a “private phone call” among three key governmental officials?

(Lueders) said recording a conversation without alerting the other parties isn’t illegal in this state, but is in bad form — and that the nature of the meeting should have pushed the three to talk publicly instead of privately.

“I wouldn’t do that as a journalist, to record someone without them knowing,” Lueders said. “On the other hand, I don’t know what would have been said in that meeting that needed to be kept private.”

Maybe if this is a public meeting, none of this becomes an issue in the first place. Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant, and it would appear to be so in this case.

 

RECORD EVERYTHING, BUT BE HONEST: According to the numerous accounts I’ve read, Richard Nixon was paranoid as hell and believed people were always out to screw him over. If you have spent any time as a reporter in this day and age, I bet Tricky Dick starts making a little more sense in that regard.

I can’t tell you how many times I have written something I got from a source, quoted a source or provide information I got about a source, only to have the person who gave me that information tell me I was wrong. And I did most of my work before the era of people in power calling everything they don’t like “fake news.”

Thus, my advice to students? “Record everything.”

That said, recording is one of those key areas where law and ethics diverge. According to the Digital Media Law Project, 38 states plus the District of Columbia have what is known as one-party consent. This means that if you are on a phone call with another person, you may record it legally without letting that other person know. The other 12 states have two-party consent, which means BOTH parties on the call must know and agree to the recording before it happens. (You can read more on your state’s rules and what happens if your recording across state lines etc. here.)

The law says, “Record them all. Let God sort them out.” Ethics, however, would dictate that secretly recording people kind of undermines trust, as Lueders pointed out. This is why I always tell the students to be up front about their recording. Tell the source, “I would like to record this interview. Is that a problem?” In most cases, sources will be fine with it.

Some folks will be reticent, so I tell the students to explain WHY they want to record the interview: “I want to make sure I don’t make a mistake,” or “I want to be sure the quotes are accurate,” or “I want to protect both of us.” However, the students want to explain it is fine, but at the end of the day, it’s about having a permanent record of what occurred so if the stuff hits the fan, and suddenly everyone is pulling a “Shaggy” on this situation, you have a complete record of what happened.

 

STILL, WATCH OUT FOR YOU FIRST: I totally get why the person recorded the conversation: The Evers administration and the Republicans out here who will rule the assembly in perpetuity, thanks to gerrymandering the likes of which we’ve never seen before, are constantly in a bombastic struggle to define “truth” for the public. I’ll read one story one day and think, “OK, they’re doing X” only to read the next day some recasting of the situation that makes me think it was a dream.

In the end, if you know someone’s going to try to screw you, get a permanent record of reality.

Honestly, I’ve recorded people without their knowledge. I don’t say this with a great deal of pride, but this is what happens when you run a crime beat in an area where people felt no compunction about calling you up to scream at you about coverage. After I almost got smoked once, I considered it an insurance policy.

The first time this happened, a person called the main desk at the newspaper, asking to talk to the person in charge of crime stuff. The staffer sent the person to me, and the caller spent at least five minutes screaming at me about a story we ran. It turns out her kid/brother/friend/whatever was “illegally arrested” (a phrase I still love to this day) and what we wrote needed to be retracted RIGHT NOW.

After mentioning places that I could put my head, which defied the laws of physics, and questioning the lineage of my parents, this woman was not happy with my decision not to acquiesce to her demands. She wanted to speak to my boss.

I gave her his number and he got a much different treatment: A lot of “sir” mentions and some polite questions and so forth. She mentioned how horrible I was and how I said horrible and unspeakable things to her. Of course, my boss brought me in to ask me about this. He bought my version of events, but I swore it would be the last “he said/she said” thing I dealt with at that paper.

I hooked up a tape recorder to the phone and kept it at the ready. When I got the next call transferred, questioning my approach to crime news, I recorded it. After my boss got the complaint about me, I offered to let him listen to the recording. Eventually, that became our routine:

Him: “I got a complaint that you were horrible to (SOMEONE) who was complaining about (WHATEVER I DID).”
Me: “Uh… No… Would you like to hear the recording of the call?”
Him: “Fair enough…”

Still, the most important moment of recording I can recall came when I was an adviser at Ball State University. The school was in the middle of a provost search when one of the three candidates pulled out. The remaining two candidates were relatively polarizing: The president clearly favored one and the faculty and staff favored the other.

Just to back up her notes, the reporter borrowed my recorder for the phone call with the president. She asked the obvious question if the president had planned to restart the search. I can still remember to this day hearing the reporter as, “Is that even an option in your mind?”

The answer was no. We have two qualified candidates and we’re moving forward.

That was the story we ran, and then all hell broke loose.

Faculty were outraged, figuring they were going to get screwed, so they started talking. The president, clearly not wanting this to be a mess, decided the best thing to do was throw the newspaper under the bus.

She issued a statement via email to faculty and staff that basically said, “Look, the kids at the newspaper try really hard, but they’re kids and they screw up stuff. I never said we wouldn’t restart this. In fact, that’s what I’m doing right now. So, relax and don’t worry about the mistakes of children.”

Her problem was, we had it recorded. She didn’t know.

To be fair, the student SHOULD have told her we were recording her, and that was a lesson we made clear in the post-game analysis with the reporter. Thus, we gave the president a chance to do the right thing. The editor-in-chief called her and told her that she made us look stupid and that we were asking for a retraction. We’d let it go if she fessed up. She immediately went back to her talking points about the reporter screwing up and how this happens with cub reporters and how she wasn’t mad, but she had to set the record straight.

At that point, he let the cat out of the bag. She paused, said some unprintable things and then asked, “Are you recording me now?”

I remember thinking, “No, but I wish we were…”

In the end, she held firm. We ran her email alongside a transcript of the phone call along with an editorial on the whole thing. She was displeased, but that was on her. If the primary complaint someone has about you recording them is that you’ll report exactly what they said and they don’t like what they said, I have very little sympathy for them.

This leads to the next point…

 

IT’S NOT OUR FAULT YOU’RE A DIPSTICK: The reason we know about this recording in the first place is because the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel put in an open records request for everything associated with a coronavirus meeting between the two sides. Once they asked for everything, including recordings of the meeting, the recording came to light.

(Good side note: In open-records requests, ask for stuff that MIGHT exist, even if you don’t think it does. You might get lucky. In this request, the reporter apparently asked for any recordings of the meeting when requesting documents from Vos as well and got nothing because he didn’t record anything. The request sent to Evers yielded the tape. Short version: It never hurts to ask for stuff.)

Evers did the right thing in turning over the file, even though I’m sure he really didn’t want to. It had to be like that scene in “Silence of the Lambs” when the moth flies out of the basement and basically the killer knew he was screwed. The game was over at that point, and he basically had to brace for impact.

The recording was what I would have expected of divorced parents who were forced into a dinner with their kid at graduation: A lot of people talking past one another, some pointed jabs and the essential “How much longer must we endure this fool?” vibe. One thing that did pop up as a story was Assembly Speaker Robin Vos blaming immigrants for the coronavirus:

MADISON – Assembly Speaker Robin Vos blamed the culture of immigrant populations for a coronavirus outbreak in Racine County, according to a secret recording of his meeting last month with Gov. Tony Evers.

“I know the reason at least in my region is because of a large immigrant population where it’s just a difference in culture where people are living much closer and working much closer,” the Rochester Republican said of an outbreak in Racine County.

Of course, Vos didn’t like the story that pointed this out and tried to move the discussion back to how shameful Evers was for recording the call. He also tried to spin this to make it about how he had a deep concern for people of color who were disproportionately suffering the effects of the virus.

(Hang on… I’m dealing with the vertigo caused by that spin… OK… Phew…)

At the end of the day, neither group looks good and Vos has to deal with what would appear to every Latino group the MJS contacted as a dog-whistle, anti-immigrant blame-fest.

What’s important to remember, however, if you record something as a journalist and someone says something stupid, it’s not your fault.

This is one of the few cases where people aren’t blaming journalists, because the journalist didn’t make the recording. Vos comes the closest, in accusing the paper of not keeping its eye on the ball with the whole “Nixon-esque” recording. However, usually, in a story in which someone records something (telling the source or not) and it turns out the source says something horrible, the outrage is more over the recording or the choice to run the story than it is the horrible thing the person said.

It shouldn’t be, and you shouldn’t feel bad about it.

Your job is to report the facts, getting as close as you can to the purity of truth, in an attempt to inform your readers of something important. Rarely are those revelations something pretty and happy, so someone will be upset.

If a state rep or a city council member or a school board president says something offensive about race, gender, sexual-orientation, socio-economic status or some dude named Chad’s little brother, and you think your readers need to know about it, that’s called editorial discretion. Use it to guide you in your choices.

ALWAYS ASK, “IS THE JUICE WORTH THE SQUEEZE?”: In looking at ethical behavior, I sometimes find myself being a pragmatist more than I would like. Still, that’s because I know I have to live in the real world and not in an ivory tower, subsisting on creeds and mottoes. What I “can” do versus what I “should” do often comes down to a weighing of my options and examination of the ramifications.

(This situation is weird, in that the journalists didn’t make recording, so whatever they picked out of the open record was less on them than it was on the person making the comments and the staffer who recorded it.)

If I record a source, and the source knows the information is on the record, and the source knows I’m recording it, I pretty much have carte blanche to do as I see fit. That’s where editorial discretion comes in. What am I trying to do here?

If I run a story based on one part of an hour-long interview that makes a long-time and trusted source look bad, will I be cutting off my nose to spite my face? Probably. Some folks would say that ethics demand the unveiling of any ill that could showcase the true nature of public figures. Others would say that, short of watching that source kill a guy, you’re not ratting him out because sources like that are hard to find.

This is where I spend more time bean-counting than I might otherwise like. Is one flashy story worth not getting another story again from this source? Is my ability to tell people important things, thanks largely to this source, going to be undermined by me taking a shot across the bow at this guy? Am I protecting a person I shouldn’t be protecting, primarily because he makes me job easier?

This is why journalists who have ethics tend to drink like fish and chew Xanax like Tic-Tacs.

As a journalist, what you do is up to you (and to that extent, your publication/boss/editor/whomever runs the show), so you need to decide for yourself if the juice is worth the squeeze.

 

Racism Reaction Recap: Amazing stories, horrid headlines and the semantics of tear-inducing organic-chemical-agent deployment

To borrow a phrase from author and former major league pitcher Jim Bouton, there was a lot of week in this week, particularly in regard to journalism. Let’s dive right in and look at some of the best, worst and weirdest moments in the week that was:

AND I THOUGHT DEAN WORMER WAS BAD…

The student newspaper at Arizona State University published an incredibly detailed and damning story last week about the incoming dean of its journalism school. Using interviews with more than 20 former students at Loyola University New Orleans, The State Press outlined dozens of cases of racist behavior by Sonya Forte Duhe. The paper also got a copy of a formal bias complaint a student filed against Duhe, outlining similar allegations.

This story is an amazing read and is a much stronger overall piece than those published in other media outlets for a number of reasons that are worth examining:

1) The reporting is incredible. If you look at the stories in the Phoenix New Times, the Arizona Republic and other places that covered this story, they relied heavily on Whitney Woods as a source but didn’t go much beyond that. Woods’ Twitter thread did jump start this entire process, but when these publications relied primarily (or only) on her, it sounded a lot like a “she said/she said” story: One disgruntled student against one former professor. The State News story shows that this goes WAY beyond that.

2) The allegations are specific. I remember once reading a story about a small-town mayor who was under pressure to resign after he made a “racist statement” during a town board meeting. The city manager, who was leading the charge, called it a horrifying statement that demanded the mayor immediately leave office. The mayor responded by saying he had no idea what the problem was. His statement was just an old turn of phrase people had said for years and was in no way racist.

The problem for the readers? The journalist didn’t tell us WHAT that statement was, or even give us a clue about it, so that we could judge for ourselves.

In the State Press story, the journalists got specific and detailed on what happened. It wasn’t a case of “She just kind of seemed kind of racist toward me” or some mealy mouthed guesswork. It was damning. Here are some of the “greatest hits” from the story in terms of specificity:

  • In a classroom setting and privately, Woods said Duhé told her that her hair was messy and admitted after years of schooling, she didn’t know Woods was Black because Woods didn’t act like it.
  • Andrew Ketcham attended Loyola in 2015, but did not complete his degree at the school because of the loss of a grant. Ketcham, a gay student, said Duhé was very critical about the sound of his voice.

    “I’ll never forget her advice to me that my voice was too theatrical and that I should stick with print,” Ketcham said.

  • Bonner said Duhé’s comments included telling a student they should have their mole removed to be more presentable for television and that during events Black students should not have “natural hair.”
  • Hutchinson said that when she told Duhé her problems, she responded that Hutchinson had gained a lot of weight, and she thought it would help if she lost weight.
  • Outside of the School of Mass Communication building before a school break, 2017 graduate Caroline Gonzalez was with her dad and Duhé who was giving guidance on how she could improve for the upcoming year.

    Gonzalez said the conversation shifted to one about makeup and clothes and Duhé even suggested Gonzalez “do something” about her nose.

  • In addition to a conversation about a nose job, Gonzalez said Duhé suggested she straighten her “curly, thick hair” before class and undergo a boob job.
  • That student, who wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution, said that during a meeting to discuss a project, Duhé said no one would want to hire them because they may have a heart attack at work due to their weight.

That level of specificity gives this piece the kind of traction that most others don’t have and it makes it an astonishing piece of quality journalism.

A quick postscript: Arizona State University announced Sunday that the college pulled its offer to Duhe and she will not take over as the dean of the school on July 1. This was less than a week after Woods’ tweet was posted and the subsequent story ran in the State Press. Never doubt the power of media outlets to shine a light on important topics and instigate change.

 

HEADLINE HELL

I’ve frequently written here about the word “allegedly” and why it makes me break into hives whenever I see it. As a legal scholar once told me, “allegedly” and its many variations will offer you no legal protection and is “why libel lawyers can afford a second yacht.”

As godawful as it normally is, the use of “allegedly” in the Duhe coverage had some specific problems that bear digging into. Consider the headline on the State Press piece:

AllegedHistory

The reason “alleged” isn’t a great idea here is because it hides the source of the complaints and operates from a position of weakness that belies the strength of the piece. When I first read that head, I thought, “Oh boy… here comes a ‘Simone story‘ on how this person might have sort of, kind of done something… maybe.” Instead, it was a rock-solid piece that was packed with reporting. A headline that makes that case in a noun-verb-object form would do a better job here:

More than 20 students say incoming Cronkite dean has history of racist, homophobic behavior

This has almost the same number of characters (78 vs. 79) and tells the story from a position of strength.

A more problematic version of an “allegedly” headline ran in the Phoenix New Times:

AllegedlyRacist

We talk a lot about misplaced modifiers here on the blog, and this is a case where the placement of the modifier changes the meaning of the head. What the article says is that there are allegations of racism, but that’s not what the head says. What the head says is that statements are “allegedly racist.” That means that the racism of the statements is up for debate. Here’s the difference:

Allegations of making racist statements: Smith said Jones used racial slurs to describe a black student, a charge Jones denies.

Allegedly racist statements: Smith said Jones told him to “call a spade, a spade,” which Smith said is racist. Jones said the statement is not about race and actually dates back to ancient Greece, directing someone to “tell it like it is.”

However, the winner in the “What The Hell?” Sweepstakes this week is the Philadelphia Inquirer for its “unique angle” on the damage demonstrators have caused while protesting the death of George Floyd:

BuildingsMatter

A couple things to ponder after you finish reading that headline and while you pick your jaw up off the floor:

  • Anyone who has been alive lately has probably already seen explanations as to why the response of “All Lives Matter” to the statement “Black Lives Matter” is insulting and infuriating. Taking that into account, I have no idea what someone thought the reaction was going to be to a headline that seemed to say, “Yes, black people have the right to live, but WHAT ABOUT MY WALGREEN’S?”
  • I get the idea that in the middle of a major story, every publication is looking for an approach to make its coverage unique. That said, I’m not sure an “architecture-centric” viewpoint (to borrow a term from the piece’s writer) is the way to go. Not since Rand Paul essentially blamed a tobacco tax for the death of Eric Garner have I seen a worse angle on a story.
  • Stan Wischnowski, the paper’s top editor, resigned late last week in the wake of this, but it isn’t the only reason for his departure. After a Zoom call to discuss issues of race, 50 journalists of color at the paper signed a letter, pressing the paper to do more and work harder to address these and other similar concerns.

 

I CALL “SOLID, MALE-BOVINE EXCREMENT” ON THIS

Journalists are always held to a higher standard when it comes to accuracy because we craft the first version of history. If we’re wrong, the error gets perpetuated and warped over time to the point in which the truth itself is in question.

That said, there are limits to the semantic contortions we should be forced to make.

Law enforcement officials drove protesters out of Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. last week so President Donald Trump could walk to a church for a photo op. To disperse the crowd, the officials used a series of “less lethal” weapons that left protesters “coughing and limping, their eyes burning amid clouds of smoke.” However, the White House and federal officials disputed reports that these officers used rubber bullets or tear gas on the protester:

What the White House did acknowledge was that it used “‘pepper balls,’ a projectile munition that lofts irritant powder into the air, and “smoke canisters” to scatter the crowd Monday.” “How is that different?” you might ask. Well, according to the CDC, it really isn’t:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, riot-control agents are “chemical compounds that temporarily make people unable to function by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin.”

Several compounds fall under this category, according to the CDC. Among others, they include chloroacetophenone (CN), more commonly referred to as mace or pepper spray. Such compounds are all typically referred to as “tear gas” because their most prominent effect is to irritate mucus membranes, including the eyes, which secrete tears as a protective response.

This reminded me of a story I did about 25 years ago (Crap… I’m getting old…) when a giant block party got out of hand and police had to come in and clear the streets. Drunks  lit giant bonfires in the middle of the road and caused $60,000 damage to a fire truck when firefighters arrived to put it out. They set a car on fire and they fought the police with rocks, cans, bottles and more. Several people were injured and several people were arrested.

I got on the phone with the officer in charge that next morning and I wanted to know if they called out a 10-33: Riot in progress.

“Don’t you dare call this a riot!” he told me.

I outlined all of the above information, also noting that police donned riot gear for the first time since the Vietnam War protests on the campus decades earlier. If this wasn’t a riot, what the hell was it?

“It was a large, prolonged disturbance,” he said, before hanging up on me.

AND I’M STILL NOT CURT LENZ, BUT I’M GLAD HE’S OK

Finally, a shout-out to a friend in the field in this scary time for journalists.

Way back in college, I had half of a notion that I might want to be a broadcaster, so I took all the broadcast classes and even got the “broadcast sequence” in my journalism major. In my very first radio news broadcast, I was anchoring the news with Curt Lenz and we had prepared like crazy to do this perfectly. Eight minutes of stellar journalism, ready to hit the airwaves.

Curt was to lead off the news cast, introduce himself and then throw it to me so I could introduce myself and hit the first story. We go live to tape and Curt intones:

“Welcome to Campus Update. I’m Curt Lenz and I’m Vince Filak and here is the news…”

It was pretty much all downhill from there for both of us that day.

Curt stuck with broadcast and became an amazing broadcast reporter and photographer, while I decided I had a face for writing books.

Curt and his reporter, Amelia Jones, were covering the aftermath of protests in downtown Madison. A man who had previously yelled at them not to film him, crossed the street and attacked them while they tried to do their jobs. The man was arrested a short time later and booked into the jail on suspicion of battery, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and a probation violation.

Journalists know that every time they go into the field, something unexpected can happen. However, you can only prepare for so much or worry about so many things without getting paralyzed by fear. It can be tough to go back out there after something like this, kind of like it’s tough to step back in the batter’s box after getting beaned in a previous at bat.

Although they were a bit shaken, Curt and Amelia were unhurt and back on the job later that day, recounting the story for the viewers.

 

Welcome to the field of journalism: Pen? Check. Recorder? Check. Bulletproof vest?

As I was working on book chapters Sunday and planning our move to a new house, a Facebook message from a former student brought me back to reality:

“Did you ever get around to putting that vest in the mail?”

Almost two years ago, I borrowed a bulletproof vest from him so that I could work on my First-Person Target series. I wore the vest everywhere for a week and then did some interviewing to help me understand the issues of guns, safety and fear in this country. I used the vest in November 2018, but I didn’t finish the series until January 2019. I hung onto it in case I needed a sequel or a follow-up piece.

Like the absent-minded professor I am, I eventually boxed it up, addressed it and managed to forget it in the basement for another year. He should get it back, no doubt, but I wondered why he thought about it on that given day. Was he OK?

“I’m doing fine, not covering riots…yet. I was thinking about it and watching the world burn last night and realized I had no idea where it was. But as long as you’re safe and don’t need it, that would be great.”

He lives in Florida, more than 1,500 miles from the rioting’s flashpoint of Minnesota, but the riots aren’t just in the Land of 10,000 Lakes (and for good reason). George Floyd died Monday in Minneapolis while police arrested him on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 to buy cigarettes. A video of the arrest shows a police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck, as Floyd pleads with him for minute after minute to let him breathe. Bystanders begged officer Derek Chauvin to stop as well. Instead, he continued his assault on Floyd. He has since been fired and charged with murder.

I don’t know if my former student will need to cover these spasms of violence, but I do worry his safety and that of so many others in the field who need to ply their trade during this unfathomable time in history.

Safety has always been a watchword within journalism, even as we learn how to go against our natural instincts when it comes to fear and security. Like many folks in other fields, we have to learn how to run TOWARD danger instead of running away from it. We need to learn how to see a house fire and think, “That looks dangerous. I need to go over there.” We develop a sense that says, “People are shooting at each other on Smith Street. I need to get out there.” The goal for good journalists isn’t gold and glory (clearly not the case, if you’ve been following the cuts, furloughs and bloodletting in the field these days).

The goal is to help the readers and viewers experience real life as it is unfolding, regardless of if that reality is safe or not.

I usually like to start each academic term on the blog with something inspirational, but it’s not easy to do that today. The people in our field are covering pandemics from their own homes. They are covering protesters who are begging… literally begging… for some level of accountability that will make it a little less likely that black people will be killed for the “crime” of being black.  They are covering violent clashes between rioters and police, often getting caught in the crossfire for their trouble.

CNN reporter Omar Jimenez was covering the events in Minnesota with a camera crew on Friday. He showed the police his press pass. He had a microphone and a camera that probably cost more than my first car, so there was no “confusion” over who he was and that he was a national reporter.

He was standing where police told him to stand. He was complying with the orders police had given him before he went out there. He repeatedly told the police he was more than willing to go wherever they wanted him to go and do whatever they wanted him to do.

Instead, this happened live on the air:

The governor issued an apology and the crew was released after a short time in jail, but none of this makes any sense. If one of my students had told me, “I need to cover this thing in Minnesota. What should I do to be safe?” I would have told that student to do EVERYTHING Jimenez did. It was the perfect example of how to be safe and not get hurt or arrested.

It didn’t matter.

It didn’t matter for WAVE 3 News reporter Kaitlin Rust and photojournalist James Dobson either, who were covering protests in Kentucky. They had their gear, their press passes and they were LIVE ON AIR when an officer opened fire on them with “less lethal rounds.”

At first, Rust thought the police officer was actually shooting live rounds at her. She then noted they were “rubber bullets.” In responding to this situation, police officials stepped up and made something important abundantly clear:

It was previously reported that the officer was firing rubber bullets, but LMPD spokeswoman Jessie Halladay said the department’s officers do not use rubber bullets, and it was likely that was Rust and Dobson were hit with pepper balls.

Right. Because that’s the important thing. Semantics over exactly WHAT this chucklehead was shooting at two journalists from less than 20 feet away for no good reason. Glad we cleared that up…

Also, in case you are unfamiliar with pepper bullets, here’s the Pepperball company website. It promotes these types of items noting the following frightening statement:

With multiple payload options and a proprietary chemical irritant that’s proven more effective from even greater distances, PepperBall® projectiles offer the protection and versatility for any situation. Available in both round and VXR versions, PepperBall projectiles can be operated at virtually any temperature from as far away as 150 feet and with an area saturation of up to 50 meters.

In other words, this thing can drill you hard enough at 150 feet to deploy a giant pepper-spray bomb about the size of the Arc de Triomphe.  And this officer not only fired it at the journalists, but he or she reloaded and fired again. And again. And THEN told the crew to move back.

It was clear these people were journalists. They were not making any threatening moves or acting in a way that would indicate their desire to antagonize the police.

It didn’t matter.

It didn’t matter to police who pepper sprayed Andrea Sahouri, of the Des Moines Register, after she repeatedly told police, “I’m press! I’m press! I’m press!” It didn’t matter to police who pepper sprayed Detroit Free Press reporter JC Reindl, who was showing his press credentials to an officer at the time. It didn’t matter to the dozens of other people who decided journalists were good targets for violence and anger.

It is impossible to explain to any sane individual why it is that journalists would put up with any of this, all while being called the “enemy of the people” by people in power. It makes no sense that they are risking their health and their lives to enter an area of total danger, just so other people could safely see what was happening around them. It makes even less sense when you realize that every day, they fear getting fired in a cost-cutting maneuver because some hedge fund manager will decide it’s time to tweak the company’s stock portfolio.

Those that remain will do more work, over longer hours and for insultingly meager pay.

Why?

Because these strong, brave and decent individuals know in their hearts that what they do provides a record of reality. Their work captures things that some people would like to wash away and forget happened. Their efforts add them to the fraternity of people who refuse to be cowed into submission or look the other way out of expedience.

What they do DOES matter.

Somehow. In some way. For someone.

And for that moment, that’s enough for them to press on.

Welcome to journalism.

Gone Fishin’: Safer-At-Home Edition

AtariFishing

Remember to keep a safe distance from other people while engaging in any activity, even virtual fishing. And watch out for that shark.

With the understatement of the year, I’d like to say that this has been a very different semester. (In doing so, my former manager Cliff is probably going to hunt me down, as “very” and “different” were among his least-favorite words to be included in the paper.)

I didn’t take a week off at spring break, as per usual, because there was no real spring break. I tended to write longer things and add more exercises to the blog because it had to happen. The normal things we get to do around this time of year (for me, rummage sales) aren’t around, so it doesn’t feel like we’re at the end or beginning of anything.

If I had a dollar for every time I asked Amy, “OK, what DAY is it?” I’d probably be set for life.

With the semester coming to a close, it’s time to take a short break from the blog before the summer session starts. The blog will go on hiatus until early June, when the summer session starts up for us. If anything “breaking” happens that needs some attention, I’ll post it as needed, so you aren’t entirely rid of me yet.

The Corona Hotline page is still active if you need any exercises and I’m happy to help anyone who needs it. Just hit me up on the contact page.

In the mean time, be safe and be well.

Vince (a.k.a. The Doctor of Paper)