Part 1—Is the press corps minimally competent: As a general matter, we agree with David Carr’s assessment of the press corps’ work in the matter of Trayvon Martin.
In this morning’s New York Times, Carr devotes his “Media Equation” column to the coverage of this important event. As a general matter, we agree with this assessment, which is found near the start of his piece:
CARR (4/2/12): That the public is rendering its verdict immediately and firmly may be routine, but choosing sides takes on a deeper, more dangerous meaning when race is at the heart of the story. Race as an explosive issue is nothing new, but it’s been staggering to see it simmer and boil over in our hyperdivided media environment where nonstop coverage on the Web and cable television creates a rush to judgment every day.As a general matter, we agree with those assessments. There have been “rushes to judgment” in this matter in many parts of the media. especially so on cable TV. Evocative language to the side, many major media figures have engaged in the same sorts of rushes to judgment “that some are attributing [rightly or wrongly] to George Zimmerman.”
Partisan politics and far-flung conflicts fit nicely into that world—who’s ahead, who’s behind, should we stay or go?—but racial conflict? Not so much.
That hasn’t stopped many in the media from displaying the same reflexive vigilantism that some are attributing to George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon. All over the Internet and on cable TV, posses are forming, positions are hardening and misinformation is flourishing. Instead of debating how we as a culture are going to proceed, an increasingly partisan system of news and social media has factionalized and curdled.
Elementary facts have been misstated. Facts not in evidence have been widely assumed. In some instances, the better evidence has been discarded in favor of the murkier evidence—murkier “evidence” which can be used to advance a pre-approved judgment.
As a general matter, we agree with Carr’s assessment. In our view, this has been one of the most unvarnished media breakdowns of the modern era. For us, the problem with Carr’s analysis begins when he starts to name names—when he starts naming the names of those in the media have behaved in these unfortunate ways.
In our view, a funny thing happens when Carr names names. He starts by quoting a media figure who has, as far as we know, done nothing wrong in his own coverage of this topic:
CARR (continuing directly): “It has been depressing to watch something as important as this get run through the American polarization machine,” said Chris Hayes, the host of “Up With Chris Hayes,” a weekend political talk show on MSNBC. “The first week after it became national news, Act 1, seemed to be built on a shared agreement that what happened was outrageous and upsetting no matter what the facts ended up showing. But then came the backlash and now you’ve got people picking sides.”To us, that passage is slightly odd. Few news orgs have been “picking sides” as aggressively as MSNBC, where Hayes has his own weekend show. But Carr lets Hayes define the problem—and Carr never says a word at any point about this channel’s work.
Has MSNBC done bad work? If so, that isn’t Hayes’ fault, of course. As far as we know, he himself has done nothing “wrong” in his treatment of this story. On the other hand, we haven’t heard that Hayes has ever challenged the conduct at MSNBC, his own cable channel. In the modern media landscape, “professionals” simply don’t do that!
Crackers, please! It was odd to see Carr pick someone from MSNBC when it came time to voice the complaint against the press corps’ conduct. And uh-oh! Here’s what happened when Carr started naming the names of the major news orgs who have done wrong in this case:
CARR: As if the overheated cable news debate weren’t enough, social media are fueling the story with misinformation, along with incendiary calls to action. There is a Twitter account called “@killzimmerman” that suggested George Zimmerman needed to be “shot dead in the street.” On Twitter, the movie director Spike Lee passed on what he thought was Mr. Zimmerman’s address, but it was wrong and an elderly couple was forced to flee from their home. And what if Mr. Lee had gotten it right? (Mr. Lee has since apologized and reached a settlement with the couple.)Carr refers to “the overheated cable news debate” at various points in his column. But when he starts to name names, he cites only one cable channel, Fox, citing an absurdly overstated, but rather limited, comment by Rivera. In fact, all four news orgs cited by Carr are news orgs which come from the right. (We’re including Drudge as a news site.) Concerning that overheated cable debate, Carr’s readers are never told about anything which may have occurred on CNN or MSNBC.
Early last week, thanks to Fox News and Geraldo Rivera, coverage pivoted around the preponderance of hoodies rather than the ubiquity of handguns. By the end of last week, the Drudge Report was in lurid, link-driven dudgeon, suggesting that the real victim was George Zimmerman. On Thursday afternoon, there were more than 10 links at the top of the site to articles casting doubt on just how much of a victim Trayvon was, including an interview with Mr. Zimmerman’s father accusing President Obama of spreading hate. It’s ugly out there and getting uglier.
The victim is being subjected to the full media pat-down. The Daily Caller, a conservative Web site, published 152 pages of what it plausibly represented as Trayvon’s Twitter feed. His handle on Twitter was built on a racial epithet, and his penchant for objectifying his female peers in profane ways was on lurid display. The facile implication was that the young man was obviously well-acquainted with thug life.
Business Insider, which would seem to have no ideological skin in the game save clickability, blithely published one of the photos that later turned out to be misidentified that they had cadged from a neo-Nazi Web site. Nice work, guys.
Everyone named is from the right. MSNBC’s conduct gets disappeared—actually glossed, due to the inclusion of Hayes. This is a remarkable decision, since Al Sharpton’s dual role in this case as both journalist and activist is very unusual by American norms, whatever one might think of the work he has done on his nightly MSNBC program. (On a journalistic basis, we think his work has been awful—and we've long been fans of Sharpton.)
In the course of his column, Carr compliments two major news orgs, People magazine and ABC News. He extends a blanket of implied approbation to MSNBC and the Atlantic by dint of the people he quotes from those orgs. When he goes in search of the press corps’ bad actors, he names four conservative orgs—but fails to criticize any liberal or mainstream news org for its role in this giant breakdown.
And not only that! Carr even excuses his own New York Times, a newspaper which has made major mistakes in its basic reporting, while making little attempt to help the public sort out the mess he describes.
Is David Carr minimally competent? Even as he laments an ideology-fueled rush to judgment, he seems to be picking and choosing his villains based on ideology. In general terms, he correctly describes a remarkable mess—a remarkable breakdown in journalistic procedure.
But when he starts to get specific, he seems to join the breakdown himself.
Some thoughts about basic competence:
On Saturday night, we entertained a group of medical specialists who were conducting their annual national conference. These people have saved and extended many lives through their remarkable competence in a highly specialized form of medical practice.
Another thought about competence:
Some years ago, we entertained an industry group from the building trade. They too were holding their annual conference. Their conference had an unusual theme that year: “Balcony failure.”
We’ve never forgotten that term.
Reading through the group’s conference schedule, we recall being struck by the very large number of ways a balcony can fall off a building. But in truth, this sort of thing rarely occurs. To all appearances, the people who build our hotels and apartment buildings possess a high degree of basic competence too.
That said, does the American “press corps” possess even minimal competence? All week long, we’ll ask that question in the context of Trayvon Martin’s death.
We’ll review the work of CNN’s Soledad O’Brien—and the work of Carr’s New York Times. We’ll look at what Kathleen Parker wrote in the Washington post. We’ll compare MSNBC to Fox. We’ll talk about broken noses.
We'll discuss this pathetic performance by someone at NBC News. They've been like this for a long time.
Does your “press corps” possess even minimal competence? We’ve been asking that question at this site since the spring of 1998. During that time, very few cases have defined this problem quite as starkly as this case has.
Does your “press corps” possess even minimal competence? Many other major groups do.
Who lost the American “press corps?” Can this guild be saved?
Tomorrow: Is the New York Times minimally competent?