“Don’t Take No From Someone Who Isn’t Empowered To Say Yes”

My friend Allison used the quote in the headline this weekend when we were teaching her daughter/my goddaughter how to negotiate for better prices at a flea market in South Haven, Michigan. It turned out to be a golden bit of advice she learned from Peter Greenberg, a Emmy-award-winning journalist who was talking to the students at our old college newspaper.

Here’s the story as relayed by Allison (Greenberg himself recalled this story during a guest appearance on the “Destination Everywhere” Podcast):

Greenberg was explaining how to get an important story and how to persist when people didn’t want to be helpful.

He wanted access to a nuclear attack sub as part of a story he was working on. This was in the late 1980s when this was happening, which happened to be when we were still in the middle of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, so letting a journalist wander around a nuclear sub was laughable at best.

Greenberg kept poking at Naval officials for access, each one basically telling him, “There is no way this is happening.” At one point he asked, “OK, if this COULD be done, who would be the one person who could allow it to happen?” It turned out to be the commander-in-chief in the Pacific, stationed in Pearl Harbor.

Greenberg got the Navy to agree to give him the meeting, which was supposed to be kind of a 10-minute, “we had a meeting” meeting. Instead, Greenberg noticed a photo of a ship on the admiral’s wall and Greenberg knew a lot about that particular ship. Instead of talking about sub access, they started talking about the boat. By the time the 10 minutes had ended, the admiral invited Greenberg to lunch and eventually granted him the permission he sought.

“Don’t take ‘No’ from someone who isn’t empowered to say ‘Yes,'” he told the group.

At the heart of his story were three key things that can be helpful to you as a journalist:

TAKE A SHOT: When Greenberg kept hearing “no,” he asked for a meeting that the people essentially told him wasn’t going to lead anywhere. In the podcast mentioned earlier in this post, Greenberg said the people setting up the meeting for him basically asked him why he’d want to fly all the way to Pearl Harbor just to hear “no” from one more person. He figured he had nothing at this point, so he might as well take a shot in person with the one person who could get him what he needed. What was the worst thing that could happen? He might have no story and a case of jet lag and that’s about it.

If the story is important enough to you, you need to take a shot at it before deciding it’s not going to happen. You never know what you might get if you give up before you give it a chance to succeed.

FIND COMMON GROUND: The thing that made this work was a bit of serendipity. If the admiral had a picture of a sunset, a poster of Porsche or a velvet Elvis on his wall, Greenberg might have not found his in. However, as he explained in the podcast, he realized he needed a connection and he found it:

They gave me a ten-minute appointment at 9:00 in the morning on a Monday. I flew up on a Saturday. I walked in to see him. He could care less about me. I was told to have a meeting. He didn’t want to be there. It was an office the size of Grand Central Station. Everybody was in their dress whites. They didn’t want me to be there. It was like a courtesy call, give him a commemorative coin and get him out.

This is the difference. You seek out common ground and I knew that I had maybe fifteen seconds to figure out what the common ground was. I got lucky because behind his desk was a photograph of a boat and it turned out I knew the boat well.

I said to him, “Is that a Bertram 31?” He said, “Damn straight.” I said, “That’s the best boat they ever built.” He said, “You’re not kidding?” I said, “Let me guess. When you make a hard right turn, the engine cavitates and the water pump overflows?” He goes, “Yeah.” I said, “Here’s how you fix it. You’re going to do a bypass on the impeller.”

We start talking like that and ten minutes later, the officer is going to say, “Admiral, your time is up.” He looked at me and said, “Do you got lunch plans?” I said, “I’m all yours.”

<SNIP>

That’s called chutzpah and luck.

If I’d walked into his office for that ten-minute meeting, he’s like, “Can I go on a sub?” “Get the hell out of here.”

You want to look for ways to connect with a source during an interview. That’s why doing it in person is often so valuable. You can look around and see things that they have around them to help you size up your subject. Starting with a discussion about a picture or a plaque or even a baseball card they have on display can get you an “in” that makes them see you as a kindred spirit as opposed to a pain the butt.

GO TO WHO CAN SAY YES: I think I’m going to use that quote with every interviewing class for as long as I live now, in that it perfectly captures what we should be doing when it comes to getting key information.

“Don’t take ‘No’ from someone who isn’t empowered to say ‘Yes'” is simple, direct and yet amazingly mind-blowing, as it dawns on me that I’ve probably failed in this regard myriad times in my journalism career and my daily life.

When you want permission for something, you need to go to the person who can grant it. Unfortunately, there are often underlings, minions and other pencil-pushers who get put in your path and try to dissuade you from getting that permission. If it’s important enough for you to pursue that permission, get past those people and go find the person who is empowered to grant it.

Like many things, this can be taken too far or in the wrong way. I am in no way saying you should become the snotty person who is holding up the line at the store, loudly proclaiming, “I need to speak to your manager!” because the bananas are ringing up at 39 cents per pound when the sign clearly said 36 cents per pound. However, I am saying most folks take the first “no” as a reason to give up far too easily.

Find the person empowered to say yes and see what that person says. If it’s still “no” at least you’ll know that nobody else is getting your story. If it’s “yes,” you got what you came here to get.

The Junk Drawer: Raiders and Haters edition

“No, I don’t know where your mask went…”

Welcome to this edition of the junk drawer. As we have outlined in previous junk drawer posts, this is a random collection of stuff that is important but didn’t fit anywhere else, much like that drawer in the kitchen of most of our homes.

Let’s take a spin:

I SUPPOSE ALL NUMBER 16s LOOK ALIKE TO SOME PEOPLE:

A friend forwarded this to me to point out the truly awful nature of Brett Favre’s accuracy issues:

Point taken. Brett made Vinny Testaverde look like a pin-point passer. However, that’s not the only thing I noticed here.

When Favre threw his 278th pick of his career, he passed longevity legend George Blanda, who did spend an appreciable part of his career with the Oakland Raiders. The problem here? That’s not a picture of Blanda. It’s fellow Raider and fellow Number 16, Jim Plunkett.

Jim Plunkett - All-Time Roster - History | Raiders.com

Plunkett, the guy in the first picture, only threw 198 picks while Blanda, the guy in the second picture, who started his career before Favre was born, threw 277.

I suppose there’s something to be said for being accurate when you’re trying to pick on someone else…

THE GREATEST HEADLINE EVER (AT LEAST I THINK SO):

When you get to my age, you start to wonder if you actually saw some of the things you saw, or if you are literally stuck in “legend mode.” (As in, “I swear to GOD that happened… It didn’t? Where the hell did I get that from?”)

Case in point, I’ve often talked about one of the most clever and off the cuff headlines I’ve ever seen, even though I never could find a copy of it. When  up-and-coming-performer Jason Mraz played a concert at Ball State in the early 2000s, it was a disaster witnessed by one of our newsroom design vets. He promised to not only write a review for it, but he had the headline picked out.

Given the student and given the performance, I spent a week fearing what he would come up with. When it ran, I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d seen in years.

Somewhere along the way, I lost my copy of that paper and no one else seemed to have it. Eventually, I figured I just made it up. However, another former student let me know that Ball State just digitized all sorts of archives, including the student paper. I did a little digging and I”m so glad I did.

Behold the glory of Emmet Smith’s snark:

Speaking of great headlines…

YOU HAD ME AT “VASECTOMIES”…

To keep up with what’s going on the PR side of the business, I signed up for a press release service that literally sends me about a half dozen emails a day. Every one of them is some organization promoting something or other and I’d say that when I’m not working on PR stuff for a book or a class, 99.99% of them end up in the trash without a second thought.

Then there was this:

I have to admit it was a good release and campaign, in that, it did the following:

  • Drew my attention with a headline that had me thinking, “What the heck is this? I gotta find out.”
  • Fulfilled the promise set out in the headline.
  • Clearly and in descending order of importance told me what was going on, why it was going on and why it mattered.
  • Tied two things that could seemingly not be further apart together in a coherent and logical way, once I actually read into it.
  • Took a risk, but a calculated one that probably paid off better than if these folks soft-peddled it.

And, finally, speaking of things take some testicular fortitude…

HATERS GONNA HATE, TEXTBOOK AUTHORS GONNA TEXTBOOK, I GUESS…

I’m in a number of teaching groups online where we to our best to help each other out. I didn’t think I was overdrawn at the favor bank, so I asked for some help to find a textbook for a freelancing class I’m going to teach in the fall.

Here was the one response that kind of bugged me (I cut the name off to save the embarrassment):

Couple things:

  1. I was looking at trying to find a book, so you telling me not to bother isn’t really helpful. It would be like calling Triple A for a tow after my car broke down and the operator saying, “You really should just use public transportation. It’s safer and more ecologically friendly.” Maybe, but that’s not the point right now.
  2. Saying “In my humble opinion” doesn’t make it humble when you say it this way. In fact, it’s rarely humble. It’s like whenever someone says, “I’m not racist, but…” I’m bracing for some stuff that would make Archie Bunker blush.
  3. “Too expensive and useless…” Um… Dude? The very first chapter in all of my textbooks I’ve done for SAGE is about how to know you’re audience. Maybe if you read one of them, you’d know why this statement kind of rubs me the wrong way. Then again, maybe not.

HATERS GON HATE soul train haters gun hate haters gonna hate dance trending GIF

Time to go back to writing another chapter for an expensive and useless textbook I’m working on. I’m guessing I shouldn’t ask this guy for a back cover blurb…

Vince (A.K.A. The Doctor of Paper)

Throwback Thursday: Revisiting some insights from a journalism hiring manager on how to succeed in applying for jobs and internships

Based on the success of the other day’s post on people freaking out, I’m guessing more than a few students are concerned about graduation coming up and getting a job.

With that in mind, I dug out a piece I did back in 2019, where I interviewed a friend who has hired journalism folks for a living. Tim Stephens was the first person to help me see better what life looks like for people on the other side of the looking glass in terms of hiring our students.

His thoughts here might be helpful to your students as well

 

“Your resume is not about you:” Insights from a journalism hiring manager on how to succeed in applying for internships and jobs

Tim Stephens has spent more than a quarter of a century at various media companies, including the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Orlando Sentinel and CBSSports.com, where he helped recruit, hire and develop talent.

“I placed a high premium on being connected in the industry and knowing what other outlets were developing track records in terms of producing quality journalists who could fit into our fast-paced, evolving newsroom culture,” he said. “Your organization will only be as good as the people working for it, and I didn’t want to miss on hires. I wanted a pipeline of talent.”

Stephens said that no matter who he hired or how long they worked for his organization, he was always looking to put the best people in the best positions when he hired someone.

“I was never afraid of losing talent…” he said. “I wanted ambitious, high-achieving performers to have opportunities to move up in their careers. Every time I lost an employee to a larger organization or an expanded role, I took it as an opportunity to find the next high achiever.”

A few years back, Stephens and I were at a convention where we talked about a massive disconnect between college-age applicants and places that hired them for internships and jobs. His insights shaped how I work with students as they build their application packages, resumes and cover letters

Last week,  I asked him some questions via email so that he could share some additional thoughts about how hiring works, what he looks for as a hiring manager and other things that might help you get where you want to go in this field.

 

What is/was life like as a person responsible for hiring interns and employees? What goes on behind the scenes that students or newly minted graduates don’t know about between the time they send in an application and the time a person gets hired?

I planned for openings months before I had them. Part of that was because I was accustomed to large organizations making occasional raids on our staff, and part of that was because of the shrinking nature of the newsroom made it extremely important to make strong hires when you had an opportunity to do so.

I had my eye on candidates who were often 2 or 3 moves away from a position on our staff. I talked to hiring managers at other companies all the time, picking their brains for potential candidates. I referred people who impressed me to hiring managers who had openings when I didn’t, with a special eye for matching those talents to newsrooms where their best attributes would be developed.

Bottom line is that it’s a small industry and you are rarely more than two or three people removed from knowing someone who knows someone.

 

One of the things you mentioned to me a long time ago was that students don’t really understand the point of their resume from a hiring-manager’s perspective. What are the problematic things students or new job seekers do in terms of creating documents or applying and how can they fix that to improve their odds of impressing an employer?

Your resume is not about you. It’s about ME, the hiring manager. If I move your resume through the stack, I am attaching my reputation to yours. I am being judged in large part by my hires. Don’t ever forget that. When I am looking at a resume, cover letter and portfolio, I am not looking at what you’ve done. Frankly, I don’t care.

What I care about is how what you have done translates into what you will DO if I hire you. Big difference. I have always tried to encourage job hopefuls to try to view the search from the perspective of the person doing the hiring.

First, you have to find out who that is. Be a reporter and do some digging. What is this person’s track record? What attributes do they value? Who previously held the job I am going for? Do your homework and help me project you into the job rather than simply to view you as an applicant.

 

If you had any key advice for students or one thing you would want to tell them about this whole process, what would it be?

Network. Always be professional — always. You never know who someone knows … or who they will become in this industry. And last, when you get an interview, try to flip that conversation toward how you’ll do the job you’re applying for, and you will take a big step toward landing it. You want me leaving that conversation feeling like you’re already part of the team.

 

Is there anything you think I missed or anything else you’d like to add?

Where you start in your career isn’t as important as who you are starting with. Do your homework on the hiring managers and the person or people who will supervise you.

Who has a track record of investing in and developing talent? Who has a track record of sending people on to bigger and better things? Who gives young journalists prime opportunities to shine when they earn them? Will you get feedback? Will you have a strong cast around you who will support your development? The most prestigious media company isn’t necessarily the best opportunity to advance.

Cardi B’s “Invasion of Privacy” prequel gets her sued on allegations of invasion of privacy (and two things you can learn from this debacle)

Trying to find fresh and relevant cases involving “misappropriation” or “false light” claims of invasion of privacy can be difficult.

Thank God for Cardi B.

A suit that is headed to trial later this year will determine if the rapper engaged in both of these acts when she included a distinctive tattoo on one of her album covers:

A federal judge in Santa Ana, California, has refused to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that a man’s distinctive back tattoo was used without his permission in a sexual picture on an album cover by rapper Cardi B.

U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney of the Central District of California refused to dismiss the suit by plaintiff Kevin Michael Brophy Jr., who sports a full back tattoo that shows a tiger battling a snake.

<SNIP>

Brophy said his likeness was misappropriated in the photoshopped image in “a misleading, offensive, humiliating and provocatively sexual way.” He alleges misappropriation of likeness or identity, violation of the right to publicity under California law, and false light invasion of privacy.

Based on the decency standards my editors have for me here, I can’t include a copy of the album cover (I tried adding it to a Facebook post on this and I got flagged for violating community standards…). I also can’t mention the title of the album cover or even EXPLAIN what it is that is happening ON the album cover here.

Just Google “Cardi B,” “album cover” and “Gangsta” and you’ll like find it.

Essentially, let’s just say that Cardi B is drinking a beer while the male model upon whom Brophy’s back tattoo has been superimposed is doing something where the tattoo is fully visible and the man’s face is not.

The concept of misappropriation is the use of someone’s image without their approval. A simple example of this would be if one of my students was running for student body president and thought my endorsement would be valuable to him. Thus, he grabbed a photo of me teaching and included it on his posters without asking for my endorsement.

False light claims tend to put two true things close enough together that people will see them as related, even if they’re not. In cases like these, the court is looking at the “gist” of the material to see if a falsehood is implied. For example, in Solano v. Playgirl, Inc., actor Jose Solano won a false-light suit after the magazine published his photo along with headlines implying he posed nude in the magazine, which he did not.

Some states, like Colorado, don’t recognize these kinds of legal nuances, rolling them instead into either general defamation or copyright claims, depending on what is at the core of the case. In other cases, the claims are without merit and get tossed quickly, leaving few true battles over who has the right to control a personal image.

In this case, it’s a daily double, in that the “misappropriation” claim of Brophy’s image (it’s a heck of a tattoo…) and the “false light” claim (that isn’t Brophy on the cover, but anyone who knows him and that tattoo would be hard-pressed to determine that on first glance) seem to fit the definitions perfectly.

The rapper’s legal team asked a federal judge to toss the suit back in December, arguing the album art was covered under a fair-use claim, in that the reworking of the tattoo into the piece made the work transformative. The court disagreed and the case will move forward to trial in the near future.

To say Cardi B is displeased with these allegations would be a slight understatement, based on her deposition:

“I’m really upset because I really have to be with my kid. All because of some bulls**t trying to get money and then $5,000,000. Are you f***ing kidding me? That mixtape didn’t even make, not even a million dollars.” Cardi added, “I got real lawsuits with real sh**, and I got to deal with this bulls**t. This is four hours long taking away from my time, my job, my motherhood.”

Ah, yes… If I close my eyes, I can almost hear my own mother’s voice uttering those exact words…

In any case, regardless of how this turns out, here are two key things you can learn from just watching this train wreck take place:

Permission for use solves almost everything: In reading through the coverage of this case and the depositions, it turns out the guy who designed the cover just Googled “back tattoo” and grabbed this one at random. (It also turns out he was paid $50 to build the cover, which could be the cautionary tale of “You get what you pay for,” I suppose.)

I would bet every dollar in my pocket right now against a pile of nothing that when this guy built the cover, he NEVER thought anyone would complain about their image being used in this fashion. The… let’s call it “up close with Cardi B”… nature of this image would likely be bragging rights for almost every human male on the planet, I would imagine.

In this case, he appears to have found the one guy with the one tat who didn’t feel this way. That’s why it’s important to ask people for permission to use their stuff. I could assume that any journalism outlet would LOVE to have its stories or photos or illustrations included in a textbook to illustrate how the true greats of the field operate. However, my publisher believes in covering its keester, so we have permission forms that get signed and stored.

Maybe Brophy is making a power play and could care less how he would be portrayed on an album cover, so long as he got paid. Maybe Brophy is truly a man who views this representation of him as “misleading, offensive, humiliating and provocatively sexual,” and is truly upset by this. Who knows? The key is that it’s his right to have his body portrayed as he sees fit, which is why this is going to court.

Permission would have made this much easier to figure out, so make sure you get it.

“But it’s JUST for X” is never an excuse: Somewhere in the sprawling field of asterisks that populate Cardi B’s quote above is the notion that the album only made $1 million, so to have to pay out $5 million is ridiculous. The problem here is that she’s not being sued for a portion of revenue. She’s being sued to penalize her for her actions.

The law can be more or less forgiving in certain situations, but it is the law. Therefore, deciding to steal something and then say, “but it was JUST…” isn’t necessarily going to keep you out of trouble. I can’t remember how many times I’ve critiqued a high school or college paper that basically stole an image and published it. (Writing “Photo courtesy of Google” didn’t make it any better.) When I pointed out how much trouble this could create, I got the “Well, it’s JUST for a HIGH SCHOOL newspaper. I’m sure people have better things to do that try to sue us.”

Maybe. But a) Is that a risk you want to take? and b) Is that the lesson you want to teach your students? (“Steal small, kids, and you’ll never have to take responsibility for it!”)

I’ve seen this happen both ways, with bigger news outlets stealing from student newspapers (One told my photographer, “You’re just a student publication. You should be happy we’re using your work…” Um… No…) and student papers stealing from the big dogs. Both cases are wrong and in both cases, you can get into trouble for doing it.

I’m sure this guy who got paid $50 to design this thing for one of the myriad women who would likely crash and burn on “Love and Hip Hop” was thinking, “I’m just doing this thing for beer money. No way anyone buys this stupid thing.” However, he hit big, so now everyone is paying the price.

It’s like speeding: Sure, you might get away with five over, but when the cop in Rosendale pulls you over for doing 31 in a 30, the “But I was just speeding a little!” excuse is not going to fly.

 

Throwback Thursday: A shout-out for gender-equity and making sure you’re sure after Baylor’s NCAA men’s basketball title

A lot of hoops-la (sorry, I had to) was made of the Baylor Bears winning the NCAA men’s basketball title this week. The men’s team had never won a title before and was at least seven decades removed from its last championship game.

However, when writers started talking about it, they did so in a way that wasn’t entirely accurate:

Baylor routs Gonzaga as Bears win first national title, end Zags’ perfect season

‘Make a movie out of it’: Go behind the scenes of Baylor’s first national championship celebration

They did it! Baylor Bears dominate Gonzaga to capture first NCAA basketball championship

The problem? Baylor actually had three previous national championships in basketball… all of them on the women’s side.

Some publications did make the distinction for the readers, but more than a few did not.

So with that in mind, we throw back back to another “first” that wasn’t from three years ago to give people a few helpful hints on reporting sports achievements of this type.

 

3 lessons beginning sports writers should learn from the 16-seeded UMBC Retrievers win over No. 1 Virginia

Sports journalism thrives on record-setting performances, amazing finishes and moments when the impossible occurs. As the NCAA men’s Division I tournament began last week, one “unbreakable” record appeared safe: No 16 seed in that tournament had ever defeated a 1 seed in the tournament. In 135 chances, the 16 seed was 0-135.

The Retrievers of the University of Maryland Baltimore County ended that streak on Friday, defeating the top-ranked team in the tournament, the Virginia Cavaliers, by 20 points. People poured on to social media to relish the moment and celebrate the “David” who just took down “Goliath.” However, in calling the Retrievers the “first 16 seed to ever defeat a 1 seed,” people were factually inaccurate.

The women’s team at Harvard came to the NCAA tournament in 1998 as a 16 seed and defeated the number one team from Stanford, 71-67. Thus, the Retrievers were the first men to accomplish this task and yet not the first team to pull it off.

This leads to three simple lessons to take forward:

  • Don’t assume only men play: In a number of sports, men and women participate and women have the edge when it comes to records. For example, the person with the most open-era singles wins at Wimbledon isn’t Roger Federer with eight, but rather Martina Navratilova with nine. The person with the most goals in Olympic soccer history is Cristiane, a player for the Brazilian women’s national team. If you think something is a first, a last or an only, make sure to check both sides of the gender ledger before calling it a one-of-a-kind event.

 

  • Don’t assume  your level of competition is the only level out there: Sports have multiple divisions at the collegiate level (D-I, D-II and D-III), so just because a D-I team hasn’t pulled something off, don’t assume no one else ever has. When an NFL record is broken, keep in mind it isn’t the only “pro” league to ever exist, so if you are making a statement about all professional football history, make sure to check back on things like the WFL and the USFL. Or, just stick to calling it an NFL record.

 

  • Don’t assume that because “everybody said” something that “everybody is right: Watching the “first-ever 16 seed” (a redundancy that was almost as bad as the error itself) story fly around the internet had people piling on until someone decided to set the record straight:Harvard2

 

This leads to the main point of this post and the bigger overall lesson: Say ONLY what you KNOW for SURE. Don’t get caught up in the hype or assume something has NEVER happened just because you don’t know that it happened before or because “everyone knows” that something hasn’t happened. Instead, write what you can prove: No 16-seeded men’s team in this history of the NCAA D-I tournament had beaten a 1 seed in 135 attempts before UMBC defeated Virginia.

Your readers will still enjoy your work, the outcome is still impressive and you will have the benefit of being accurate.

A rock star with a heroin problem, the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” guy and a foul-mouthed cheerleader: The Suicide Squad of free speech court cases

A frequent joke told among lawyers is that the best case is the one with a carload of nuns as your client and a busload of priests as your witnesses. In most cases, however, it seems more like this scene from “The Wire.”

 

When it comes to First Amendment law, it would be great if we had more cases in which polite, articulate young people like Mary Beth Tinker who quietly wore a black armband to school to protest the Vietnam War. Her choice led to hate mail and threats, but also a ground-breaking Supreme Court case regarding student free-speech rights. And, looking back on it now, people can understand better her underlying concerns about the war as well as her relatively mild statement against it.

Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) established that students do not shed their Constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate. It also provided protections for students who wish to express themselves against intrusion from school overreach.

Unfortunately, an upcoming case in which a high school student did her best “Scarface” dialogue on Snapchat could be the case that undoes a lot of those protections in a digital age:

In 2017, ninth-grader Brandi Levy said on Snapchat some version of what stressed-out students have been saying on the back of the school bus since the invention of buses: “Fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything.”

The post was shared on a Saturday afternoon during a trip to the local convenience store, disappeared from Snapchat by Sunday afternoon, and caused no disturbance at school whatsoever—except to irritate the cheerleading coach, who banned Levy from the squad for a year.

She filed suit, and in June 2020, a federal appeals court ruled that school authorities violated the First Amendment by disciplining her for the off-campus speech. Now, the Mahanoy district is asking the Supreme Court to overturn that ruling.

The case doesn’t matter in regard to that single incident anymore. Levy is now a college student, the cheer team has had a complete turnover in terms of membership and nothing the court could do would change what happened in regard to the punishment levied at the time.

However, if the court decides to overturn that appeals court’s ruling, it could mean that schools can now actively monitor social media and punish students for ANYTHING that appears to be “objectionable.” If that doesn’t scare you, you probably had one of the six “really cool” high school principals I was always told existed somewhere.

Me? I dealt with a lot of nuns and balding guys who wore short-sleeve shirts with brown ties. This is terrifying…

This leads to the point of the post: It seems like we NEVER get the perfect Supreme Court case that perfectly showcases speech that deserves to be protected for the betterment of society. It’s never the student newspaper that was censored for reporting that the principal had stolen money or the kid with the bullhorn outside the school telling people not to eat cafeteria food because the workers were being abused.

It’s always something with an F-bomb, a nude pick or a drug reference that we get to stand behind and say, “Hey, look… You CAN’T censor this because… well… geez…”

We don’t get Superman, Batman, Aquaman or Wonder Woman as our defenders of freedom.

We get The Suicide Squad:

In other words, we get a “mental defective dressed as a court jester,” a “guy who wears a toilet seat on his head” and a “shark with hands,” to quote the red-band trailer I’m not allowed to show you here…

If you think I’m kidding about this, consider the following court cases on important topics:

The landmark case for online speech and defamation? Rocker/Actress/Woman I’d be most scared of meeting in a dark alley Courtney Love won and survived an appeal of her “twibel” case (Twitter plus libel) in 2014. Love, whose outlandish behavior and heroin abuse have long been the subject of media coverage, stated that an attorney had been “bought off” instead of helping Love recoup parts of her late husband’s estate.

A crucial Supreme Court case regarding speech at school sponsored events? Morse v. Frederick, also known as the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case. A student held up a sign at an event proclaiming the cryptic message. When the sign was taken away by school administrators, the student later sued claiming his First-Amendment rights had been violated. The SCOTUS ruled that schools have the right to remove pro-drug messages, even though students have some free speech rights at school.

The case that dealt directly with a reporter’s right to maintain confidential sources? Branzburg v. Hayes, which dealt with reporters being forced to disclose the names of sources who were manufacturing hashish.

And, of course, the case involving satire and hyperbole in regard to public figures comes from the apparent patron saint of this blog, pornographer Larry Flynt.

Now, the question of whether students can get smacked around for writing things on their own time on their own social media that school officials dislike comes down to one foul-mouthed 14-year-old cheerleader.

The problem with all of these cases is that it becomes so much easier to suppress speech that is unpopular, vulgar or otherwise disagreeable.

If the reporters in Branzburg were protecting whistleblowers who had uncovered some sort of dark plot by a foreign government to go all “Red Dawn” on the U.S., it would likely feel better to the courts to support their interests in remaining anonymous.

If the school was trying to suppress speech about the superintendent stealing money from the district to buy weed, maybe a “No Bong Hits 4 Superintendent Smith” sign would have garnered a different outcome.

If Sally Fields had tweeted about potential legal malfeasance (while wearing her “Flying Nun” costume), it might not have felt like the entire future of online free speech hinged on whether the defendant was going to lose her mind on the stand and start throwing things at the jury.

If the cheerleader had done her rant without the f-bomb, maybe the courts would be more inclined to side with her at every level.

However, we don’t get to choose the cases that decide our fate, which is why it’s important to make sure that we stand up for all speech because what one person thinks is a felony charge, others might consider a misdemeanor at best. In the mean time, keep an eye on this one, as it’s got a lot more at stake than a lot of people think.

It’s all fun and games until Dominion Voting Systems sues you for a couple billion dollars

During the 2020 presidential election, multiple people made claims that the voting systems had been rigged to favor Democrat candidate Joe Biden. Several of then-President Donald Trump’s allies and associates took to various media platforms to repeat these allegations, arguing that the voting systems had been compromised and that any outcome which did not place Trump back in the White House was a result of fraud.

Dominion Voting Systems, which produces many of the electronic voting machines used in the election, apparently isn’t too thrilled about this, as the folks there have filed several lawsuits regarding these claims. It’s gotten so bad that some media outlets are keeping track of who is being sued, for how much and for what reason, like ESPN tracking the movement of NFL free agents.

The most recent suit is one that is most likely of interest to the folks reading the blog, as Dominion filed a $1.6 billion suit Friday against Fox News, alleging the company knew it was allowing lies about the election to proliferate:

In the lawsuit, Dominion argued that Fox and several of its on-air personalities elevated baseless claims about the voting company rigging the 2020 election and allowed falsehoods by their guests to go unchecked, including a wild claim that the company’s machines were manufactured in “Venezuela to rig elections for the dictator Hugo Chávez” and that Dominion’s algorithm manipulated votes so that then-President Trump would lose.

“Fox engaged in this knowing and reckless propagation of these enormous falsehoods in order to profit off these lies,” reads the lawsuit. “Fox wanted to continue to protect its broadcast ratings, catering to an audience deeply loyal to President Trump.”

The lawsuit argues that there are actual damages to the company’s brand, but also to the workers who are just trying to make a living. The suit notes that Fox’s conduct not only will cost the company more than $600 million in the next eight years, but also that front-line workers have been threatened.

Fox has noted that it will defend itself, having already filed several motions to dismiss and that the company “is proud of our 2020 election coverage, which stands in the highest tradition of American journalism.”

Here are a few things to take away from this and several other lawsuits filed in regard to the voting systems:

A FREE PRESS IS NOT A CONSEQUENCE-FREE PRESS: A lot of folks misinterpret the First Amendment to mean you are protected against all sorts of things when you publish content. The truth is that all the amendment guarantees is that the government shall not prevent you from publishing material. That’s basically it.

It doesn’t mean that other people can’t stop you, like the owner of a website where you post content, the publisher of a newspaper or a producer at a broadcast station. It also doesn’t mean you can get away with whatever you want without paying the price.

When you say something that is false and harmful, you can be in a lot of trouble, which is why professors push so hard on students to make ABSOLUTELY SURE on every fact in a story. It’s also why editors pick and pick and pick at stories with reporters, as to avoid any potential landmines.

If I get up on Fox News and tell the world that I have information supporting the notion that the chancellor of my university is running a cocaine ring out of the student union in exchange for getting away with a murder he committed in 1987, I’m going to be in a HECK of a lot of trouble because it’s not true and it’s going to harm him.

It also leads to the second point…

UNLIKELY, UNREAL AND COMPLETELY UNBELIEVABLE ARE ALL DIFFERENT THINGS: One of the dumber defenses in a Dominion suit is that of former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell. The company is suing her for $1.3 billion, arguing she knowingly spread a baseless claim that Dominion and another voting system company were working with the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela to rig the election.

Powell has argued in motions to dismiss that her claims were so outlandish that nobody in their right mind would believe them:

It was just conjecture. No reasonable person would conclude those allegations were true statements of fact. Besides, in heated political arguments, people tend to exaggerate. You should dismiss the lawsuit or at least move it to my home state.

That’s essentially the defense offered by Sidney Powell’s lawyers to the $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit brought by Denver-based voting Dominion Voting Systems, Inc. Dominion provides voting equipment to more than 1,300 jurisdictions in 28 states including Colorado.

We’ve talked about this kind of claim earlier this year when porn mogul Larry Flynt died. The “no reasonable person” defense was at the core of his Supreme Court appeal, when the Rev. Jerry Falwell sued Flynt for publishing a spoof advertisement involving him. Flynt won the appeal with a unanimous decision, but before Powell pops open the champagne, I’d consider these issues:

  • Flynt was publishing a porn mag, known for all sorts of really outlandish stuff, including a photo of a woman being stuffed into a meat grinder. Powell was on nightly news outlets and other media platforms purporting to deliver truthful information gathered from inside sources.
  • Flynt’s ad claimed that the highly religious Falwell lost his virginity by having sex with his mother and a goat in an outhouse, which is almost the textbook definition of outlandish. Powell was claiming election fraud, something other countries had experienced and something that people within the government were also stating as fact.
  • Flynt was a strip-club owner who published pictures of naked people in magazines that had been banned in multiple cities. Powell had been a counselor to the president of the United States.

When it comes to the idea of hyperbole and satire, or otherwise outlandish things, you have a pretty high bar to clear if you want to be on safe side of that argument. Had Flynt claimed that Falwell stole money from his congregation, he would have likely been on much shakier ground, given that other high-profile preachers had been accused or convicted of such things. The same thing could be said had he claimed Falwell had slept with prostitutes or committed adultery, given the climate of the time. However, nobody reading the Campari spoof thought, “Wow! Reverend Jerry is a really kinky guy! Guess you learn something new every day…”

Powell’s defense in this case is that nobody could have believed a legal expert who worked with the president in regard to voting irregularities when she said the company responsible for voting reliability failed in its task. I’m really interested to see how that plays out, but more out of morbid curiosity to see if the judge can keep a straight face throughout the trial, not because it’ll set a new precedent.

THE MUDDLING OF OPINION AND FACT IS ALWAYS A CONCERN: When I teach basic media writing to students, one of the hardest things for them to figure out is what is an opinion and what is a fact. It often comes down to me scrawling “SAYS WHO?” on their paper 183 times before they understand what they can say and what they shouldn’t say. Occasionally, we would have the discussion of “You are wearing a black shirt. That is a fact. You are wearing a NICE black shirt. That is my opinion.”

Cable news organizations have long muddied the waters of what is opinion and what is fact, almost to the point where people either don’t know the difference or don’t care as long as it matches up with what they believe. I often wonder if a lot of high-profile people end up buying their own BS to the point that they themselves think, “If I believe it, it must be true.”

Journalism pushes harder on people to verify information, clarify where the information originated and remain rigorous in reporting only what we can prove. At least, that’s the goal we have in mind when it comes to separating opinion from fact.

To help us clarify the distinctions a bit better, the U.S. Court of Appeals offered a four-step examination as part of its ruling in Ollman v. Evans (1984) to help people see if a statement falls into the realm of fact or opinion:

Can the statement be proved true or false? Courts have held that factual statements can be proved true or false. A statement like “The New York Yankees have won 27 World Series championships” can be proved true or false by examining their records in the annals of baseball. The truth or falsity of a statement like “The New York Yankees are the best baseball team ever” cannot be determined, because it lacks several key elements for us to examine. In a defamation case, the plaintiff must prove that the material is false, and this can be the case only if the material of a factual, as opposed to an opinion-based, nature.

What is the common or ordinary meaning of the words? People often use euphemistic language in their daily discourse. If you referred to a sloppy person as a pig, that person might be upset, but they can’t win a libel suit by demonstrating that they are not “an omnivorous domesticated hoofed mammal with sparse bristly hair and a flat snout for rooting in the soil, kept for its meat.” The common meaning that the person has poor personal hygiene or fails to keep their home neat and clean is clearly the way in which most people would interpret that remark.

What is the journalistic context of the remark? Who is saying something and the way in which they are saying it matter greatly in determining if something is a fact or not. For example, if you’re telling a joke involving two men walking into a bar, people are clearly expecting something different than if you are testifying in front of Congress. Content published on the news pages of a legacy media outlet is contextually different from a series of blog posts on a goofball-based website that would make the staff at the National Enquirer roll their eyes. The statements made on air during a newscast are contextually different from those made on a “morning zoo” radio show.

What is the social context of the remark? Where we tend to see opinions and where we tend to see facts often help define which are which. For example, a lecture on the biology related to procreation is expected to be based in facts, while two groups of protesters confronting each other outside an abortion clinic will be a more heated and opinionated exchange.

 

 

Why “when asked” is the dumbest thing you can write and ways to avoid using it

(Are you the most important thing in the story? Probably not. So stop telling me you asked people stuff…)

 

One of the weaker writing trends that’s been popping up in a lot of writing lately has been the use of “when asked” as part of a lead-in to a quote, or in some cases, as part of a quote:

When asked if he supported the bill, the mayor said, “Not this stupid version.”

When asked about the how best to improve relations between the university and the town, the chancellor said, “We need to work together on this.”

When asked if New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo should resign amid allegations of sexual harassment, President Joe Biden had this to say.

Here’s What Alex Rodriguez Said When Asked If He Was Single Amid Jennifer Lopez Relationship Drama

This is dumb for about a dozen reasons, but here are a few that might matter to you as a journalist:

  1. It’s passive voice: “When asked” implies “by someone,” which means you’re introducing the quote from a weak grammatical position.
  2. It’s first person: “When asked by… ME! LOOK! I ASKED A QUESTION!” Are we that thirsty that we need to mention that we had the temerity to ask a guy at the fair how the corn dogs were this year?
  3. It’s a “No duh” moment: Of COURSE they said it when they were asked. Isn’t that how this normally works in life? Think about how weirded out you’d be if some random stranger just ran up to you and said, “Hey, I just wanted to tell you and all the readers of whatever story that you’ll be publishing that the corn dogs at this fair are FRICKIN’ AMAZING!” I don’t know about you, but I’d be backing away slowly or reaching for some pepper spray.

In the examples above, we have a few other problems as well:

  1. The setup incorporates lousy quoted material: In the first two versions, you get really bad quotes that don’t do a lot for the piece or for the reader. Neither of those quotes add value or quality in a complete quote kind of way. The chancellor quote is lame, while the mayor quote isn’t a full sentence. You can actually make these better through the use of either straight paraphrase or a partial quote:
    1. Mayor Jane Smith said she sees value in a voting-security bill but “not this stupid version,” which would require citizens to cite the pledge of allegiance backwards before casting a ballot.
    2. North Texarkansas State University and the city will continue to clash over parking restrictions unless the city council and the college can work together to resolve ticketing protocols, Chancellor Arlene Selridge said Tuesday.
  2. The set up tells me that you’re going to tell me something: In the latter two, you have actual examples of journalists telling us that they’re going to tell us something. In the Cuomo example, the build up to what the president had to say is the bulk of what’s going on in the sentence. It then leaves us with a “commercial cliffhanger” for that second paragraph. In the A-Rod/J-Lo one, we don’t even get the decency of a full chunk of information as to what that “drama” entails.

    Think about it like this: If your professor walked into the classroom and said, “I have graded your midterms.” Would that be the ONLY thing you’d want to know? Probably not. Then imagine the professor saying, “I have graded your midterms. When asked by my wife how well people did, here’s what I had to say!” Is it getting any better or are you thinking, “Can I use The Force to pull mine out of the pile or an X-power to read his mind and just get my damn grade?”

The reason that paraphrase-quote works well is because each chunk of that structure has a job: The paraphrase tells you something important that will get you deeper into the piece. The quote then provides flavor, color and “sparkle” to that topic of interest while not repeating what you already know.

“When asked” takes away the best parts of both of those elements.

At least, that’s what I’d say if I were asked…

Throwback Thursday: Trouble finding a lead? Look for the “vomit moment.”

A friend of mine sent me a message about how her students were struggling with lead writing because they kept thinking chronologically, missing bigger issues or generally just wandering through the news like a kid who lost their mom at Walmart.

So, for this Throwback Thursday, I picked through all my lead-writing posts for something inspirational and I think I found it.

Of all the lead suggestions I have given over the years, this one might be the best: Look for the “vomit moment.” I hope it helps.


Trouble finding a lead? Look for the “vomit moment.”

Trigger warning: Don’t read this near breakfast, lunch, dinner or especially a snack table.

 

After almost a semester of media writing, some of my students still have trouble finding the lead for their pieces. I get the “held a meeting” lead, the “chronological order” lead, the “date it happened” lead, “firefighters arrived at the fire” lead and a dozen other cliche or problematic leads we discuss in the books.

Of all the stories I dealt with on Friday, whether I was grading papers or sitting through meetings, only one of them really nailed the point of getting to the point.

And it started with vomit.

Zoe spent the whole day at school, where she had tests and homework to make up from her extended Thanksgiving break. She then volunteered to serve dinner to help raise money for the high school’s madrigal choir, as part of her eighth-grade service requirement. It was about 10 p.m. when I picked her up from the school and this was our conversation:

Me: “So how was your day? How did the tests go? How was the dinner? Did you get to wear a costume? What kinds of things did they serve? Was it fun?”
Her: “Mason puked at the end of the dinner and a couple other kids were feeling sick too.”
Me: “Um…”
Her: “I didn’t eat anything so I didn’t puke, but after Mason puked, everyone else seemed to feel like they were gonna…”
Me: “YEAH! HEY! Let’s see what’s on the radio…”

Say what you want to about the subject matter, but she nailed that lead.

It didn’t matter that the kid threw up at the very end of the day. It was the first thing she noted.

It didn’t matter how cool the costumes were or how much she worked or even if she finished her test. Those things happen all the time. Vomit, however, is odd, immediate and has an impact (pun intended). You could even argue conflict (stomach vs. gullet) fits in there and that fame will now follow “that one kid who puked at the madrigal dinner.”

It seemed that every time someone decided to “reverse course on food consumption,” that’s all the kids talk about. I remember picking her up from 4K one day and all I heard about was how “Katie puked on the snack table during morning snack, so we couldn’t have snack and I was hungry, but they wouldn’t let us have snack because of the puke on the snack table.”

She nailed the 5Ws and 1H pretty well there. She also aided and abetted my desire to avoid Goldfish crackers for a few months.

The point is that kids don’t bury the lead and quite often they figure out what it is that makes something memorable pretty quickly. Somewhere along the way, we lose that ability or we figure that since it’s college or formal writing that we need to stuffy up the structure and lead into the key elements with 19 other things before we get to the “Great Snack Table Debacle of Tuesday Morning.”

When you strip away everything else, lead writing is basically just this: Tell me what happened and tell me why I care. Look for action, uniqueness, immediacy and relevance.

In short, look for the “vomit moment” and you’ll be in pretty good shape.

 

SLAPPing around a grocery clerk: A prominent Georgia family decided to sue a service-industry worker for saying accurate things about them on social media

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a bully.

Saying that, however, could have some pretty costly consequences if the Cagle family of Pickens County, Georgia has its way.

The Cagles have filed a suit against Rayven Goolsby, a grocery clerk, for criticizing them on social media for their presence at the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and other statements they made on Facebook about various political and social concerns.

Goolsby’s remarks focused on Kathryn and Thelma Cagle for their alleged “central roles” in organizing busloads of attendees through the “Women for America First” tour; they also touched on William Cagle, husband of Thelma and father to Kathryn, calling him a homophobic “loser.”

Goolsby’s remarks, made in various community Facebook groups, were in reference to William Cagle musing on Facebook when the county was mulling separate bathrooms for transgender people that he did “not appreciate his tax dollars being spent on supporting indecency and a couple of FREAKS that can’t make up their mind where to take a leak.”

(Goolsby’s lawyer Andrew) Fleischman said the defamation suit against Goolsby is a way of making it expensive to criticize the Cagles — “even if the criticism is true.”

“We shouldn’t be afraid that criticizing an important person in our community could cost us thousands of dollars,” Fleischman told The Washington Post. He argued that Goolsby has truth and public interest on her side.

One of the primary things we emphasize in journalism is that if you present information that is factually accurate, you are safe from harm when it comes to libel suits and other claims of defamation. What we really mean is that you’re not going to lose a suit if you write that your governor stole $6 million from the state to build a replica of Graceland in his backyard, if you can prove that this actually happened.

That said, getting sued itself can be a painful process that will costs you time and money, while subjecting you to a great deal of anxiety and aggravation. The only real saving grace of being sued as a staff reporter is that you are working for an organization that has lawyers and managers who will take on the brunt of the costs and work with you.

As an individual operating on a social media platform, you take on the role of “publisher” without having all those helping hands and financial backstops to make life a little less terrible. That said, what we have here is pretty clearly a case of a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or a SLAPP case, as anti-slapp.org explains:

These damaging suits chill free speech and healthy debate by targeting those who communicate with their government or speak out on issues of public interest.

SLAPPs are used to silence and harass critics by forcing them to spend money to defend these baseless suits. SLAPP filers don’t go to court to seek justice. Rather, SLAPPS are intended to intimidate those who disagree with them or their activities by draining the target’s financial resources.

SLAPPs are effective because even a meritless lawsuit can take years and many thousands of dollars to defend. To end or prevent a SLAPP, those who speak out on issues of public interest frequently agree to muzzle themselves, apologize, or “correct” statements.

We’ve talked about SLAPPs before on the blog, including the one that comedian John Oliver faced involving a coal magnate and a giant talking squirrel. To prevent this kind of thing, 30 states and Washington, D.C. have anti-SLAPP laws, which can force plaintiffs to prove they’re not using the courts as a cudgel to shut people up.

According to anti-SLAPP.org, Georgia actually has a pretty good anti-SLAPP law on its books, which states that if a person is found to have engaged in a SLAPP suit, the case will be dismissed and that person is on the hook for legal fees and costs incurred by the person they “SLAPPed.”

In other words, if you have a great deal of money and plan to use it to sue someone into silence, it might end up costing you some additional cash in a way you hadn’t planned on.