All posts by jstephen

James Stephen Smith is a vested member of the legacy media. These days, I am assistant news editor for Newsday in suburban NYC, focusing on — figure this — business news. My young daughter Sarah teaches me more than I teach her. When not in the newsroom, I usually can be spotted playing with my Labrador retrievers, watching the beloved New York Football Giants or searching Long Island for the best IPA. Got any recommendations?

“Have you read by blog today?”

“300 million little USAs”

After only Springsteen and U2, Five for Fighting is among my favorite bands. Yet, I have no idea if John Ondrasik had been reading Rosenstiel and Kovach when he added those lines to his song “Slice” a decade ago.

Ondrasik’s ironic commentary on the consequences of the social media phenomenon seemed perfectly in “tune”  with the thinking put forth by the authors in Blur, who in their last few chapters seemed wistful for the days before this social media thing made everything so damn complicated.

Ondrasik sees it too. At its best, social media serves a basic human need to connect. We humans are social animals and love nothing more than to feel bonded with those who have brought joy to our lives.

Of course, the “B side” is that social media has muddied the waters of clarity so profoundly that we quickly are becoming “300 million little USAs,” each with his or her own blog of opinions and nothing left to unite us. How ironic: While feeding our desire to bond, social media has left us very little over which to bond.

I do wonder about a culture lacking in unifying realities, including an appreciation for the First Amendment. Because without a shared heritage or values, what happens when an overzealous high school administrator decides that his students have enjoyed enough of the First Amendment? Will those students rally around a unique American liberty or find the principle not worth getting bothered over? And if that happens, will crusader journalism disappear from high school or college programs?

I hope not. Because while I am on the back nine of my career, I still care enough about the profession to make sure it doesn’t become just another “slice” of American pie, destined for quaintness like a Don McLean song.


A mentor’s new mission

I had to chuckle this week when one of the assigned readings referenced Howard Schneider, formerly of Newsday and now at Stony Brook University here on Long Island. Howard was for a long time my boss at Newsday and the grand poobah of the newsroom. His dismissal from the paper sent shock waves across the community that still are felt today.

I am not trying to offer a career retrospective here, but in many ways I learned more in five years as his graphics editor than at any time in my career. He was demanding, eccentric and sometimes a bit over the top, but you always sensed he had the readers’ best interest at heart. That’s a person you want to work for.

As a newsroom manager, he was, well, energizing. And I can only imagine how inspired his students feel after one of his lectures. I’ve never sat in on one, but I am sure his wisdom serves students well. (For the record, Howard was let go by Newsday when he refused to lay off 20-plus newsroom employees; in falling on his sword he said it would be foolish to think Newsday could make the kind of civic contribution it has minus those assets. History has proven him right: We won 18 Pulitzers from 1947-2007; only one since.)

But as to his message, it surprises me little that he and associate Jim Klurfeld would advocate for a culture rooted in the values of journalism. He always was a champion of critical thinking mixed with personal creativity, and what industry does a better job of cultivating that? Good for them too that they cherish verifiable information over the propaganda that filters through the Internet. If Stony Brook’s news literacy course teaches students anything, I am sure it is, that in this misinformation age we must be active skeptics and not passive recipients.

I did stutter when I read that my former boss would seem to minimize the gatekeeper responsibility of journalists, passing that off instead to a more educated class of news consumers. Howard, when I knew him, was a fierce defender of traditional journalism against a rising tide of user-generated content that he (and I don’t mean to speak for him) sensed lacked perspective.

Perhaps that’s where Howard is now as an educator; perhaps that’s where journalism is an industry. In framing political revolution, Yeats observed  that the best “seem to lack conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Such thoughts seem perfectly timed for the fundamental transformation under way now in traditional media.

Humility and Defiance: The Legacy of Bob Woodward

I am old enough to remember Watergate as it unfolded. I remember the investigations, the Congressional hearings and, most of all, the landmark work done by the Washington Post and, in particular reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.

In fact, I would not be lying if I suggested that my admiration for the pair,  especially Woodward, was fundamental to my decision to pursue a career in print media. If Gina found a hero in Edward R. Murrow, I found one in that parking garage crusader Woodward.

I have always admired Bob Woodward, perhaps even more now as an elder statesman for the profession of journalism. His takes on securing and verifying information reinforce what I have always believed about the industry: that among the best qualities to possess as a reporter are doggedness of purpose, humility and respect for the readership.

This week we debated media excess. Well, If ever a story threatened the future of a news organization it was Watergate. How much more excessive could a story be than one that triggers a Constitutional crisis and takes down a president? As the great Jason Robards said in “All the President’s Men”: “There’s nothing riding on this story … Just the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.”

Predictably, the Nixon White accused the Post of practicing shoddy, near reprehensible journalism. It was precisely the kind of ad hominem attack used by administrations (perhaps even high school administrators) who know the facts will not defend them.

Years ago, a mentor—in fact, a real guiding light to an aspiring editor—offered this bit of advice: “James, remember this: The more you think you know, the less you do.” His point was well-made: This industry can humble you in a hurry, so make sure things are true; make sure they are right.

That was in 1984. In the post-first, think-later world  of 21st-century instant media, I can think of few things more  enduring.

Am I Really Defending The Donald?

I can’t believe I am writing this, but it seems rather clear to me that Donald Trump, America’s favorite presidential blowhard, was wronged by the media this week. Especially the instant media, which latched onto his abortion comments faster than a drunk grabs another New Year’s Eve cocktail.

Trump was, of course, pilloried for his statements advocating penalties for women who have abortions. While he was light on specifics  — Trump always is — he was also rather clear in suggesting that these penalties would apply only if abortion was made illegal, which is unlikely since Roe v. Wade is the settled law of the land.

Not that such a distinction should matter to the tweet-first, post-first media, whose operating methodology seems to be headline now, context later (if at all). And didn’t we all read this week about the need for context and authentication even in the digital age?

Full disclosure: I can’t stand abortion. But as squeamish as I am about the subject I don’t think reasonable people want to imprison women who have them. For that matter, I don’t think Trump does either, as long as Roe v. Wade remains in force.

And that was the context Chris Matthews of MSNBC offered in the interview. Yet, the anti-Trumpsters in the nation’s instant press would have voters believe the candidate would do worse for women than a return to back-alley procedures. He’d actually send them away, as in to prison.

Look, I can’t stand Trump and at this stage it would take an act of heaven to inspire me to vote for him. But in this instance I believe he was wronged. And I believe he was wronged in  a way precisely outlined in our assigned readings, namely media senses blood, media posts chum, feeding frenzy follows.

Who cares if the information is as light on context as Trump is on policy specifics? The only things riding on such information are a presidential election, the First Amendment and the future of the republic, not that any of that matters.

Apologies for paraphrasing the great Jason Robards, but it’s worth repeating: We in the press wield enormous power, both in what we say, how we say it and these days how quickly it’s repeated. It would nice to have it all right on occasion.

Revisiting the Duke Case 10 Years Later

A few weeks ago, a student asked me if I remembered what happened in the Duke University lacrosse rape case. He was an athlete himself and had heard of an upcoming ESPN documentary on that sad event.

That question served as the motivation behind my second project of the semester — a look at all that went wrong 10 years ago and how a journalism of accountability (similar to what we have been reading about) might have prevented that miscarriage of justice.

If you don’t remember, the Duke case had all the elements of a percolating media volcano — white kids, presumably wealthy white kids, at an elite university taking advantage of a poor uneducated African-American dancer hired to work at a team party. The players were arrested and cries of disgust resonated from all corners of the media landscape.

The problem was, none of it was true, especially not the rape.

I’m not trying to piggyback on my project here, but one thing that did occur to me later was, wouldn’t this have been a perfect case for a watchdog to be watching the media. Because it seems to me this is a perfect example of what happens when news organizations surrender their watchdog responsibilities in exchange for a story too salacious to pass up.

Without getting too far off point — I do recommend the ESPN documentary “Fantastic Lies” if you like to refresh your memories — the media so badly failed the public here that it’s a wonder people trust us at all anymore. Hardly any investigative work was done until one paper, the Raleigh News and Observer, months later realized the facts may not square with the accuser’s story.  Of course, by then the indicted players were Public Enemies No. 1, 2 and 3, tossed off the team and told never to return to the Duke campus. What happened to the presumption of innocence?

Well,  it seemed that disappeared the moment the media fixed its wagon to the charismatic district attorney prosecuting the case. The problem was, Michael Nifong was as corrupt as he was charming: He made the whole case up and was later jailed and disbarred for it.

The watchdog role sometimes means we in the media have to look at ourselves too. What responsibilities do we bear when we don’t do the required due diligence; when we buy into a story not because it’s factually accurate but because it fits an ideal narrative?

In the case of the Duke lacrosse players, the potential consequences were quite real — 15 years to life real. But what did that matter to CNN, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times and others who were so quick to buy into the prosecutor’s manufactured reality?

As I said in my project, I hope we learned something from this case. I remain unconvinced that we have.

The “illegal immigrant” debate and more

Words mean things, at least that’s what I  tell my students. And my daughters, and my co-workers. How we choose to say what we say, says plenty about our priorities and values.

So last week we read almost parenthetically how several years ago The Associated Press made a dramatic change to its stylebook, redefining for all the news services  that follow it the nature of immigration in America. No longer would the AP use the term “illegal immigrant,” preferring instead some hybrid of “person living in the country without proper documentation” or “legal permission.”

Quite a politically correct mouthful, yes? Well, no, not really.

I can’t describe the chaos that ensued as newsrooms across the country scrambled to find a suitable language alternative, including the calamity at Newsday, where we in NYC confront this issue almost as much as they do on the southern border.

I get the AP’s point and, in fact, remember defending it at the time. By definition, people cannot be “illegal,” only actions, so why refer to people as such? Yet to me it remains one of the mysteries of the English language that we have not come up with better words to define “those who live here in violation of the law.”

The quotes above are intentional since that is the  phrase Newsday settled on to describe this group and their circumstances. It makes for clunky writing, but if we are to remain consistent in our commitment to journalistic equity, it’s probably the best description. And kudos for not just accepting use of the equally overused “undocumented,” since that conjurs up images of totalitarianism no American ought to feel comfortable with. (And it might not be accurate in all cases anyway.)

As a watchdog for all media, the AP has done a wonderful job of ridding its stylebook of labels such as “schizophrenic” “mentally ill,” “cancer-stricken” and the like, preferring the more authentic “person afllicted with schizophrenia” etc.

In this sweeping gesture, the AP pushed media forward. Let’s hope we as media leaders can push society along as well.

On Trump, the Times and off-the-record conversations

It seems to me The New York Times did the impossible this week: It made Donald Trump appear sympathetic.

In a meeting with members of the Times’ editorial  board and a representative from the news desk, the Donald offered his vision of a Trump presidency. That vision appeared strikingly more reasonable on the subject of illegal immigration than we citizens had been led to believe.

Or did it? We don’t really know because the conversation was considered “off the record.” It made its way into the public domain (and Thursday’s GOP debate) because it was leaked, presumably by the Times. One can only imagine why, but whatever the reason it hardly seems appropriate behavior for America’s newspaper of record.

This class explores the relationship between the media and the society it serves. Fundamental to the free flow of information is the notion that once in a while news organizations allow interview subjects latitude in discussing matters too premature, volatile or sensitive for publication. In the case of a political candidate, even a candidate for president, these “off-the-record” dialogues can offer insight into policy positions and more leading to an endorsement, or not.

“Off the record” is a central element of journalistic tradition, with the idea being that these insights remain private unless and until the source decides it is appropriate to release them. To my knowledge, Trump did no such thing yet innuendo from the meeting was front and center Thursday night, interrupting for a moment debate over the size of Trump’s body parts and Marco Rubio’s future as a dogcatcher in Florida.

Indeed, the role of the journalist in a presidential campaign became a political football Thursday as Rubio and Ted Cruz challenged Trump to release tapes of the Times meeting. This followed by a day Trump’s ignorant assertion that he and his minions will “open up the libel laws” so they can sue news organizations for so-called hatchet jobs.

That shows you where Trump’s head is: Ever hear of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court or New York Times vs. Sullivan?

The Times explained that because Trump had OK’d a blended interview, that is, a mix of on- and off-the-record conversations, the meeting was fair game for news coverage. But if that’s the standard,  then promises be damned, why wasn’t his backing off that silly wall plan front page, above-the-fold news? If you’re going to violate a journalistic confidence,  at least go all in for the sake of an informed electorate.

It further explained that the presence of its executive editor / newsroom leader made it a meeting unique from other potential endorsement sessions. Cavalierly, the Times suggested it would not conduct a leak investigation.

It’s hard to imagine the Times endorsing Trump. But it has a moral obligation to hear him out, and good that it did. But Trump has a right also to expect the Times to adhere to the established practices of the industry regardless of who is in the meeting and for what reason. What are we teaching the next generation of journalists when we professionals play fast and loose with best practices?

There is much to love about the Gray Lady — it’s abhorrence of gossip journalism, its multimedia business model and more. I root for it to succeed every day. But I am inclined to think the Times blew it here and its explanations sound more like alibis.