Archive - December, 2016

Hope in a Post-truth World

In a helpful analysis of the uses of social media by the water protectors at Standing Rock, Ginny Underwood points out how social media were used to tell the story of the people protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The analysis was published by United Methodist News Service, the news arm of The United Methodist Church.

Ginny points out how the water protectors used social media strategically to overcome lack of coverage by mainstream media. In doing this, she notes the people were enabled to tell their own story, something that’s been more difficult in the past because of lack of access to media controlled by others.

Key to Success

A key to the success of the resistance was the strategic use of social media to tell a story that for many weeks was not told by mainstream media. The water protectors built a movement through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media from a remote hillside in the middle of the country far from the communication hubs of the established media.

They told a story that was easy to understand and with which anyone could identify. When dogs and rubber bullets were used by local authorities and water cannons turned on the protestors, it was on Facebook within minutes. 

Creating a Movement

Out of this communication a movement was built. A movement can defeat the establishment almost every time if it holds together and if it communicates effectively.

There are other components of this story that bear attention.

UMNS published this analysis before any other media outlet recognized the importance of the communication strategy. This is an important and appropriate role for the church’s communication arm to fulfill.

UMNS (for which I once had executive responsibility) should be an authoritative information source for the stories of those without voice, on the margins, and otherwise at a disadvantage in a media environment dominated by big money and big corporations.

It’s not a public relations function that serves on behalf of the church.

Truth-telling Rooted in the Gospel

It is the truth-teller rooted in the church’s claim of the Gospel of Jesus that the truth will set us free.

In the post-truth world of Trump, and the fact-free disinformation of fake news, the mainline religious traditions should be standing in the breach doing truth-telling and fact-finding, and enabling those who lack the capacity to tell their own stories without an assist to do so.

Mainstream electronic media, subject to the greed of corporate executives and the demand for ratings, failed us at truth telling in the past election. Don’t look for this to change.

Mainstream Fail

Mainstream religious institutions have failed and continue to fail to engage the public conversation about just treatment of people, fair wages, economic justice, humane ways to resolve conflict, and the global environmental crisis.

The mainline denominations have decimated their news services. In doing so they have removed their capacity to fulfill one of their most sacred responsibilities, to speak truth to power, and to do what Jesus asked us to do, to identify with the poor and oppressed and to raise our voice on their behalf for justice and equity.

When religious institutions fail to protect us from the principalities and powers, other means must be found. In the DAPL issue, the water protectors are playing that important role.

And it’s important that communicators like Ginny Underwood and services like United Methodist News Service fulfill their responsibilities to tell the stories of the people.

Sacred Stories, Spirit Movement

That’s because these are sacred stories. They will be overlooked by those who serve corporate masters and moneyed interests.

At this moment in global history, there may be no more important role for religious communicators than to be the story-tellers who inform us of the movement of the Spirit to protect, heal and save us from our own hubris, greed and false worship of power.

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Postscript: Faith in Public Life (FPL) is providing religious leaders with the means to speak to moral issues by providing a platform for exposure. The Rev. William Barber, for example, is an effective public voice for justice and FPL has assisted him and others with media access. I am a board member of FPL.

The Failure of TV News, Or Why I Have Given Up on TV Journalism

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-7-57-10-pmI have watched one news program on television since the election, BBC America.

I’ve kept up wth the news through online reading and Reuters video among others.

When I started writing this post my intent was to explain why I was turning away from watching TV news. After the way television news programs handled the Trump campaign I resolved to personally boycott TV news. Given a plethora of options for information today, that’s not a radical step, I admit.

But it’s a big change me.  For most of my life I’ve been an information junkie. I’ve worked in and around TV news for most of my adult life.

I devoured newspapers and TV news programs. But, that has come to an end.

Rather than a total boycott, I’ve become a cautious skeptic, watching only to get information about those stories that I know are current and unfolding. (The fires in the Smoky Mountains are the most recent example.)

And I rely on other media for substance and perspective.

Election coverage turned me off TV news. Here’s why.

1.The willingness of TV executives to allow Trump to dominate airtime.

Trump manipulated the media and many TV journalists and program executives were willing accomplices in his manipulation. CBS President Les Moonves made a boast that was irresponsible, greedy, and lacking in civic principles when he said of Donald Trump, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

NBC decided to put Matt Lauer, an entertainment show host, in a primetime role as host of a “candidate forum” which had the effect of mixing politics and entertainment, and subsequently blew up in Lauer’s face when he failed to fact-check Trump and shorted Sec. Clinton.

According to one study, Trump received $3 billion in free air time. This started even before he had begun to raise funds for his campaign and was invisible in the Republican primaries.

He dominated the airwaves not because he had better ideas but because his outlandish comments, media savvy, and constant availability drew an audience and made the TV networks money.

Journalism is about more than money and entertainment. It’s about providing accurate information so people can be well-informed and make considered decisions.

What we got with coverage of Trump was politics as entertainment laced with lies and extremism.

2. Unfiltered airing of Trump speeches including outrageous claims made with virtually no fact-checking until after the claims had circled the world.

Media exposure has a legitimizing effect. It’s invisible, subtle, and often denied. But I learned early in my career as a journalist that when I told the stories of people in poverty in the U.S. and the developing world, it was validating and legitimizing.

Journalism isn’t only about reporting what’s happening. 

It’s about exposure. Under certain circumstances exposure can mean a platform for presenting your ideas. It cannot be otherwise. How this is managed is crucial, and for too long in the primaries and for the early months of the election, this crucial management was treated too lightly by TV news.

By providing a platform for Trump to tell his stories unchecked to millions of people, media exposure served to legitimize extremism and bring it into the mainstream.

3. Applying euphemisms to Trump’s remarks and treating Trump as if he were a political candidate like traditional candidates of the past—as if he had a platform and vision.

The traditional journalistic practice is to present at least two opposing claims with quotes from both sides, giving each equal attention. But Trump is a liar and a demagogue. To give his conspiracy claims status equal to the policy proposals of his primary opponents, and later to Sec. Clinton, was to elevate a charlatan to respectability, and to diminish serious policy discussion.

The traditional journalism model and its business plan undermined responsible decision-making in this election. Where it will lead us is still open to question.

4. Covering the campaign as a horse race without pressing the candidates for substance.

By emphasizing polls and ignoring policy discussions, this campaign lacked vital substance. Polls over policy.

We face a global environmental crisis. We’re hearing about potential mass extinction of wildlife. But the environmental crisis, along with many other critical issues affecting us, was completely invisible during this campaign. Not one question was posed in any debate about our common environmental global future. This was irresponsibility to the maximum.

Journalists covered the election as if it were a horse race. They have done this before. In this election, however, it put us at peril.

5. The hunt for scandal.

Subjecting Sec. Clinton to a higher level of scrutiny over email practices, as if this were scandalous, not to mention a major indicator of integrity (when it was not), diverted attention from a body of historical reporting about Trump that told us exactly who he is.

Past Secretaries of State had followed the same practices as Clinton and Snopes clarified that roughly 22 million White House e-mails exchanged via private servers during the G.W. Bush administration were deleted instead of being archived in accordance with the Presidential Records Act.

The electronic media emphasis on an email scandal that wasn’t created a straw man that continued as a diversion throughout the campaign.

6. Repeating the politically generated claim that Clinton could not be trusted.

This became a self-fulfilling loop.

Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times, who has extensive experience covering the Clintons, wrote in The Guardian, that “Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest and trustworthy.”

Such reporting, however, was not the norm. The norm was to repeat the polls that showed voters believed the trumped up claim that she was dishonest. Couple this with the on-going crudeness of Donald Trump’s “lying Hillary” mantra and the media provided a platform to undermine the integrity of Sec. Clinton.

And so, we now have President-elect Donald Trump. An idea once laughable is now a reality.

Are the media the sole reason for Trump’s election? No. But they are a significant player through the misapplication of traditional journalistic practices applied uncritically to an untraditional, dangerous, and manipulative candidate. Trump played the media, especially the television journalists.

TV executives who let greed lead them over principled civic responsibility played along. They now bear a burden that they must face as Trump threatens a free press.

There was too much stenography and too little truth-telling, too much greed and too little concern for the common good. Too much entertainment value and too little concern for policies that will shape our lives and the well-being of the world.

This is not good for America nor CBS.

There were journalists, print and electronic, who did not fall victim to the manipulation. David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post provided a lesson in investigative reporting on the Trump Foundation, for example.

But in this election, the media lost and foremost among the losers was TV news.