Diomedes visits the Times: The overall point of the Atlantic essay was perhaps a bit hard to define. On the other hand, its intended point was perfectly clear.
The author opened by recalling the shooting deaths of four men. Each man had been shot and killed by a police officer.
Three of these deaths, readers were told, constituted a "gruesome cycle." The author's description of that cycle made it sound like the deaths had resulted from wanton, uncaring police conduct.
The author didn't offer evidence to that effect, but the implication was clear. As the essay continued, the author focused on shooting deaths in which black people were shot and killed by police.
That, of course, is a deeply serious topic. That said, the essay published by The Atlantic may have left something to be desired.
Before long, the author was referring to "a reality in which black people [are] routinely robbed of their livelihoods and lives by armed government agents."
Eventually, the thoroughly admirable activist around whom the essay had been constructed was quoted saying this:
LOWERY (6/10/20): “We want justice for George Floyd, but we know justice isn’t enough,” Noor said. “That’s why we’re demanding bigger and bolder things. Now is the time to defund the police and actually invest in our communities.An obvious picture was being painted, with potential solutions included. As for the author himself, his identity line read like this:
“These systems were created to hunt, to maim, and to kill black people, and the police have always been an uncontrollable source of violence that terrorizes our communities without accountability,” Noor added. “Black communities have been and are living in persistent fear of being killed by state authorities.”
Many reformers, especially black reformers, have long viewed incremental policy changes as a way to reduce police abuse and killings in the short term while they work toward their true goal: fully remaking the entire criminal-justice system.
WESLEY LOWERY is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and the author of They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement..."They Can’t Kill Us All?" Journalistically, does that title suggest the possibility that some such plan is in effect? Is that what terrified children will hear?
We take it as obvious that Wesley Lowery is a good, decent person. That said, we can't say that we're giant fans of his journalism, or of its possible effect on the world.
That said, this style of journalism is currently hot, as is Lowery's topic. In the upper-end mainstream press, the children are always prepared to stampede in some preapproved direction, and the impetus for the current stampede is the sudden desire to exhibit vast interest in racial justice.
In the current stampede, journalists and news orgs race to display a heartfelt interest in racial justice—a heartfelt interest rarely put on display in the recent past. Other journalistic stampedes have turned out extremely poorly in recent decades.
One of these journalistic stampedes sent George W. Bush to the White House and the United States army into Iraq.
A second related journalistic stampede—the one in which our high-minded journalists and orgs sat around as Hillary Clinton was derided by their colleagues in openly misogynistic terms—helped send Donald J. Trump to the White House and covid-19 all over the U.S.
This new stampede may turn out better. But skepticism should be advised.
We didn't think much of Lowery's essay when we initially read it. Personally, we thought the instant reference to Michael Brown was a (very familiar) mark of the current purveyor of novelized news designed for the liberal audience.
It's certainly true that everyone is currently telling these novelized stories, at least within our own blue tribe. On a journalistic basis, that doesn't make it right.
In our view, editors at The Atlantic should have challenged Lowery as early as paragraph 2. After that, they should have challenged paragraphs 3 and 4, and much that came after that.
That said, it wasn't until we read Lowery's essay in last Sunday's New York Times that we thought of Nestor, the seasoned charioteer, and his rebuke to headstrong Diomedes not far from the walls of Troy.
"How young you are," Nestor famously said. For now, we'll just leave it at that.
In his essay for the Times, the fiery young journalist tried to write some rules for the future road of his craft. Were we grading, we'd be forced to grade his essay as D-minus work.
Inevitably, this meant that Lowery's lengthy essay had to be the featured piece in last weekend's Sunday Review. That's how they play at the Times.
What was wrong with Lowery's essay? Let us count just a few of the ways:
In one strand of his essay, Lowery makes a claim for which he presents no real evidence. He says the powers-that-be at major news orgs don't listen to their black employees enough.
That may well be the case. That said, Lowery makes no real attempt to offer evidence in support of the claim. For that reason, we have no way to assess it.
Lowery makes a larger claim which also could be correct. He claims that news orgs are mainly concerned with seeming to be objective—with "the neutral objectivity model."
According to Lowery, news orgs would rather seem objective than tell the actual truth. And when they try to seem objective, he says, they are trying to seem objective to their white readers.
Once again, these claims could be true. But no serious evidence or discussion is offered.
Do news orgs try to seem objective, even at the expense of stating basic facts and telling the basic truth? It would be interesting to hear first-person accounts of such decision-making, but Lowery doesn't provide them.
For the most part, Lowery proceeds to offer a list of overall do's and don'ts for the modern journalist to follow. In some ways, the advice he provides borders on the comical.
He starts by citing journalistic advice offered by Alex S. Jones way back when, in a 2009 bool. Lowery agrees with these basic ideas—but then again, who doesn't?:
The stated views of Alex S. Jones:Would anyone on the face of the earth disagree with those principles? We don't offer this as a criticism of Jones, but already several analysts were crying as Lowery ladled this stew.
Journalists should make a genuine effort to be honest brokers when it comes to news
Journalists should play it straight without favoring one side when the facts are in dispute, regardless of their own views and preferences
Journalists shouldn't create the illusion of fairness by letting advocates pretend that there is a debate about the facts when the weight of truth is clear
From there, Lowery began to adumbrate his own journalistic principles. As with the stated views of Jones, we'll eschew the use of quotations marks, but a simple review of the text will show that we're basically cutting-and-pasting.
Lowery offered his do's and his don'ts. Let's list some of the things the modern journalist should do:
Four things Lowery says journalists should do:Would anyone disagree with those views? As before, we're just asking!
We should be telling hard truths
Reporters should focus on being fair and telling the truth, as best as one can, based on the given context and available facts
We should devote ourselves to accuracy
We should stop doing things like reflexively hiding behind euphemisms that obfuscate the truth
Below, we list two more things the journalist ought to do. We'll return to these points below:
Two additional things Lowery says journalists should do:Did Lowery honor these fair-and-balanced ideas at any point in his Atlantic essay? Did the magazine ask him to do so? More on these questions below.
We should diligently seek out the perspectives of those with whom we personally may be inclined to disagree
We should ask hard questions of those with whom we’re inclined to agree.
We've listed six things the new, improved journo should do. Here is a list of some don'ts:
Several things Lowery says journalists shouldn't do:Journalists shouldn't avoid telling the truth. They shouldn't deprive readers of facts.
We shouldn't deprive our readers of plainly stated facts
We shouldn't find ways to avoid telling the truth.
We shouldn't make decisions that potentially let powerful bad actors off the hook and harm the public we serve.
Also, journalists shouldn't harm the public. They shouldn't let bad actors off the hook!
We're going to guess that Lowery will find wide agreement within the profession concerning these basic ideas. The problem comes when Lowery attempts to apply these comically obvious principles to actual questions which may arise when news orgs report on painful events—events which occur in the dead of night in a complex, murky world.
His first example is utterly trivial. He says news orgs should stop using the allegedly euphemistic phrase, "officer-involved shootings."
Few suggestions will be more pointless—or more jumbled. This is the full presentation:
LOWERY: Neutral objectivity trips over itself to find ways to avoid telling the truth. Neutral objectivity insists we use clunky euphemisms like “officer-involved shooting.” Moral clarity, and a faithful adherence to grammar and syntax, would demand we use words that most precisely mean the thing we’re trying to communicate: “the police shot someone.”If that doesn't bring on the revolution, nothing ever will!
Question: Did "the police" shoot the late Michael Brown, or did Officer Darren Wilson? Even when he tries to be high-minded in pursuit of "telling the truth," Lowery defaults to a suggestion of collective action and collective (alleged) guilt.
That first suggestion is just basically sad. Lowery's second suggestion makes zero sense when applied to the four incidents with which he started his Atlantic essay:
LOWERY: In coverage of policing, adherents to the neutral objectivity model create journalism so deferential to the police that entire articles are rendered meaningless. True fairness would, in fact, go as far as requiring that editors seriously consider not publishing any significant account of a police shooting until the staff has tracked down the perspective—the “side”—of the person the police had shot. That way beat reporters aren’t left simply rewriting a law enforcement news release.It's certainly true that official accounts of police shootings will sometimes be grossly inaccurate. But with respect to this new rule, what if the person "the police" shot was actually shot and killed?
In these, the most serious cases, the perspective of the person "the police" shot will in fact never be heard. Somehow, editors have to soldier on. Presumably, editors can do the same, where necessary, in shootings which aren't fatal.
Those are Lowery's first attempts to apply the new principles, and so far we're pinning our wheels. With his third attempt, the rubber finally met the road—and we thought we heard Nestor calling:
LOWERY: Moral clarity would insist that politicians who traffic in racist stereotypes and tropes—however cleverly—be labeled such [sic] with clear language and unburied evidence. Racism, as we know, is not about what lies in the depths of a human’s heart. It is about word and deed. And a more aggressive commitment to truth from the press would empower our industry to finally admit that.When politicians traffic in racist stereotypes, news orgs should step up and say so! To the mind of the child, this will seem to make perfect sense—but the child may not realize that the question of what constitutes "racist" speech will always be a matter of judgment.
Lowery provides no examples of real reporting he would change in line with this new rule. Nor does he seem to realize that some reporter's "racist stereotype" may be some editor's "racial insinuation," or possibly something else.
Who will decide what it actually is? In the end, these will always be matters of judgment. We can state our principles as much as we like; there will never be a scientific formula which tells a news org what to decide in matters of this type.
To some extent, this obvious fact doesn't seem to have entered the fiery author's head. That said, he may know who's best equipped to be making such judgments:
LOWERY: Black journalists are speaking out because one of the nation’s major political parties and the current presidential administration are providing refuge to white supremacist rhetoric and policies, and our industry’s gatekeepers are preoccupied with seeming balanced, even ordering up glossy profiles of complicit actors. All the while, black and brown lives and livelihoods remain imperiled.As always, Lowery makes a striking charge while offering no examples. He says the industry's gatekeepers have been "preoccupied with seeming balanced, even ordering up glossy profiles of complicit actors."
Ideally, the group of journalists given the power to decide what and whom to give a platform in this moment would both understand this era’s gravity and reflect the diversity of the country. Unfortunately, too often that is not the case.
He says the industry has been doing this even as the Republican Party and the Trump administration are "providing refuge to white supremacist rhetoric and policies."
So far, so pleasing! But who has been writing these glossy profiles? Who are these profiles profiles of? Where have these profiles been appearing? No information is given.
Meanwhile, what are the white supremacist policies being proposed by these bad actors even as they're glossily profiled in the manner described? Even as he makes a thrilling charge, Lowery offers no example.
Lowery seems to say there'd be less of this mess if the (largely white) gatekeepers consulted with a more diverse group of decision makers—and who'd want to argue with that! At some point, though, someone has to decide. Why not name the names of the current gatekeepers who are creating this mess?
We're sure that Lowery is a good person, but this is semi-loudmouth work. On the brighter side, it's the type of loudmouth work mainstream orgs are now rushing to offer, much as they once stood in line to invent the latest weird statement by the very weird Candidate Gore.
This the way these idiots play. This may not turn out to be more helpful even when it's applied to this thoroughly recent new cause.
In fairness, Lowery finally gives one semi-example of what he's talking about. He becomes the ten millionth member of the tribe to complain about the fact that the New York Times published that column by Tom Cotton, concerning which Lowery says this:
LOWERY: Perhaps the most recent controversy to erupt because of such thoughtlessness and lack of inclusion was provided by The New York Times Opinion section, when it published an essay by Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, calling for, among other things, an “overwhelming show of force” by the American military in order to quell civil unrest at protests that, while at times violent, have largely been made up of peaceful demonstrations.Absolutely! Because here's no one who hates "overstatements and unsubstantiated assertions" in New York Times opinion columns quite the way Lowery does!
A method of moral clarity would have required that leadership think very hard before providing the section’s deeply influential platform to any elected official—allowing him or her to opine, without the buffer of a reporter’s follow-up questions, using inflammatory rhetoric. It would require, at the very least, that such an article not contain several overstatements and unsubstantiated assertions.
Lowery's piece was classic New York Times-level work. Along the way, it made us think of Nestor. It struck us as very unimpressive work—as the journalism of unearned confidence and true belief.
In closing, let's return to two of Lowery's principles which we've listed above. We refer to the principles which emerge from his "fair and balanced" side:
We should diligently seek out the perspectives of those with whom we personally may be inclined to disagreeWe should ask hard questions of those with whom we’re inclined to agree?
We should ask hard questions of those with whom we’re inclined to agree
Question: Do you think Lowery challenged Noor with hard questions when she made the statements posted above from the Atlantic essay?
We're not saying that Noor's statements were wrong. We're asking if her statements were challenged, in the manner Lowery recommends for everyone but himself.
Did Lowery challenge Noor's sweeping representations? Did Lowery, for example, ask Noor to talk about this?
People shot and killed by police officers in Minnesota,Every progressive knows what to say when presented with data like those. Chris Hayes said it on Wednesday night. Next week, we'll spend time exploring such data.
2015 to the present
White victims: 37
Black victims: 10
That said, do you think, for even one minute, that Lowery asked Noor to justify her overall presentation in the face of data like those? We're going to guess that the answer is no. We'll also make this guess:
We'll guess that The Atlantic didn't challenge Lowery's instant reference to Michael Brown's unfortunate death. We'll guess they didn't challenge his citation in light of the findings within the formal Justice Department report about that unfortunate incident.
We'll guess he wasn't asked to explain why the shooting death of Robert Christen—in which a female police officer stopped a former Big Ten fullback from killing his former girl friend—should be presented in The Atlantic as part of a "gruesome cycle."
Did it make sense to present that incident that way? We'll guess Lowery wasn't challenged with hard questions about any such topic as that.
We'll guess that Lowery wasn't challenged with respect to his presentation of the shooting death of Jamar Clark. Did the police officer who shot and killed Clark that night actually do something wrong?
We don't know how to answer that question, and we feel fairly sure that Lowery doesn't know either. But Lowery wasn't really performing journalism for The Atlantic.
He was telling a preapproved "story." He was telling a story his readers would recognize and feel that they very much liked.
Last Sunday, Lowery's piece in the New York Times was straight out of Nestor and Diomedes. His earlier essay for The Atlantic was novelized tribal story-telling pretty much all the whole way down.
Our journalism has routinely been "novelized news" over the past several decades. Our journalists have staged stampedes in which certain preapproved stories get told and retold and retold once again, with formulations becoming more pleasing and more simple-minded every step of the way.
One of these novelized group stampedes sent the U.S. army into Iraq. Another set of novelized stories helped put Donald Trump where he is. He was running against Nurse Ratched! Major figures had said such things for years, and none of these news orgs complained.
Lowery writes with youthful ardor; where others are now derided as "Karens," he's a Diomedes. That said, his story is currently selling quite well, and you will continue to hear it.
It also could be that no real change occurs within the help of this "journalism of the saints"—without a bunch of self-impressed lunkheads inducing the public to stampede off in a way which may turn out well. (Or not.)
That may be the only way revolutionary change ever occurs. For the record, many revolutions of the saints have turned out quite poorly around the globe, and other journalistic stampedes in recent decades haven't turned out real well at all.
Next week: Numbers
What Professor Cobb said: The number of killings in Minnesota make us think of what Professor Cobb recently said.
We'll revisit his statement next week. His statement—it concerned police shootings—went exactly like this:
COBB (6/10/20): One other point that I have been making a lot, I have been making all the time, is that one of the reasons that this problem has been allowed to persist is that people have the perception that this is a black and brown problem.Did Lowery ask Noor to respond to that statement? Did editors at The Atlantic present some such comment to Lowery?
But if you were to discard all of the incidents involving black and brown people, what you would find is, there are a heck of a lot of white people, unarmed white people, who are killed by police each year.
We have a fundamental problem with policing in this country, whose most extreme violent forms are witnessed in how we see black and brown people treated by law enforcement.
Dearest darlings, use your heads! That just isn't the way "story" work, and the news you see each night on TV is novelized all the way down.