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Aug. 15, 2017, 10:10 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Newsonomics: Lessons for the news media from Charlottesville

“The New York Times, The Washington Post, and ProPublica, among others, have risen to the national occasion. But they can’t be expected to grapple with the real, transcendent issues state by state, community by community.”

It’s a new unexpectedly raw moment in America. We find ourselves still able to be stunned, and that in and of itself is stunning given the rapid-fire explosions of news we’ve experienced since the election.

For media, the events in Charlottesville have been more on-the-job training covering stories many thought had been relegated to the archives. Among the equivocations and equivalencies, false and true, we’ve seen re-energized efforts to keep the stories behind the story high up in the news cycle.

Let’s take a quick look at the weekend’s news, its coverage, and what it tells us about our times.

1. The “sides”? Who exactly was on both sides? That’s still a question I have a hard time answering. On TV, we saw footage, replayed in its usual endless way, of the Friday night marches and the Saturday clashes that led up to the fateful car terrorism. But we didn’t get much description of the basics that journalists need to bring to the moment. How many people were in which group? Who were they? How much of an element of anarchist-like involvement, opposing the white supremacists, was there? What was the crowd that got rammed into doing, and who was in that vicinity? We saw the younger wannabe-Aryans (as the iconic torch-carrying photos portray them), but didn’t get much of a sense of how many gray-haired baby boomers (who have populated many of the anti-Trump rallies) were among the counter-protestors. How many people like Heather Heyer were there? Some of the counter-protestors were spoiling for a fight, but how many, and who started those altercations?

As misguided as the president’s “all sides” comment had been, most of us were left without deep enough early reporting to help challenge it.

2. Young people. Some things in the world are less complex than we may think. While Trump’s election rhetoric and soft embrace of the alt-right movement has clearly provided license for these unprecedented displays of daylight racism, it’s disaffected young people that act on it. We can speculate as to the roots of the killing — for instance, why didn’t the family and friends of James Alex Fields, Jr. report his radicalization, the same question that is always asked about domestic ISIS-inspired terrorists? But the fact remains that it’s disaffected young people who most frequently move to violent extremes. Their issues, in this case, are both imagined and real. It’s the real ones — from the blue-collar income depression to the devastation of much of rural America by opiates and technological change — that need to be addressed. This is a job for local news media; The New York Times, The Washington Post, and ProPublica, among others, have risen to the national occasion. But they can’t be expected to grapple with the real, transcendent issues state by state, community by community.

3. A new spine. We’ve seen an odd reversal of form in the past few months of the Trump presidency. As many pointed out over the weekend, this was the politician who had famously demanded that others speak the words “radical Islamic terrorism.” Even before his half-hearted address to the country Saturday, cable anchors and their guests had raised the question in advance: Would he call out by name — neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Kluxers — those involved, they asked in the run-up to the talk? And then, they asked, would he call it “terrorism”? Of course, we’ve seen trickles of acquiescense since then. The man who built his wild ride on offense has become all about defense. The press here — in raising the questions and keeping them raised — is developing a spine and finding a way to define norms. Words matter, we hope — even if they may not be authentically spoken.

4. Brian Stelter continues to make a positive impact. With terror in the streets, we could expect CNN to provide hit-and-miss coverage. It did. Yet, Stelter — who came to CNN from a short but acclaimed role at The New York Times just under three years ago — steadied that coverage and raised, with appropriate ginger, questions beyond the pictures in front of us. He added media knowledge, and memory, to coverage that has often times lacked it. Meanwhile, his show Reliable Sources may sometimes be a tough hour on Sunday morning, but he continues to raise his voice in a time that demands it.

5. The new fundamental roles of well funded nonprofits in bringing us the news. While “Unite The Right” seemed like the dawning of a new political movement to much of the populace, for the Southern Poverty Law Center it was business as usual. For 46 years, long before the alt- was attached to their name, SPLC has tracked America’s far-rightists. Its leading database of hate — someone has to do that hateful job — revs into action at moments like this. What exactly is Vanguard America, which apparently provided the shield that Fields was carrying at a rally? SPLC knows and provides great help to the press in connecting the dots, the Daily Stormers to the David Dukes. SPLC’s role tells us a lot about this newer evolving system of information and analysis in the digital age. Nonprofits, in areas as diverse as health policy, climate policy, and criminal justice, now act as critical support systems to journalists in need of knowing, objective fact. Their role often goes unrecognized, but SPLC’s makes itself newly valuable now.

6. A comprehensive record of the 700 or so Confederate monuments in the country. Let’s recall that the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue served as the stated ignition point for this show of bare-knuckled alt-right strength. It’s unimaginable that African-American citizens still have to bear witness daily to the celebration of oppression in cities throughout the South. But this issue has so far only flitted in and out of the news since the Charleston church massacre that reopened the issue and led to a number of Confederate statue removals. Already, we’ve seen activists pull down a Confederate monument in Durham Monday, and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray seize the opportunity brought on by tragedy and call for the removal of two Confederate statues. These monuments — 700 or so still in place — demand a good database visualization, as was discussed a couple of years ago in Slate. Here, media’s job is to provide a comprehensive, easily sharable fact as these hot issues get hotter.

7. Voices that match the tenor of the times. Many voices have been raised to make sense of the weekend, and I’ve only so far been able to get to a relative few. The Atlantic’s Matt Thompson’s “The Hoods Are Off: The “Unite the Right” gathering wasn’t a Klan rally at all. It was a pride march” is one that stood out. In its alarm about brazen, out-in-the-open hatred, it reminded me of Aziz Ansari’s heartfelt post-Inauguration SNL opening. Then, Ansari confronted a truth, which is worth reprising today:

So, look. We’re divided. It’s O.K. We’ve always been divided by some of these big political issues. It’s fine. As long as we treat each other with respect and remember that ultimately we’re all Americans, we’ll be fine.

“But the problem is…the problem is, there’s a new group. I’m talking about this tiny slice of people that have gotten way too fired up about the Trump thing for the wrong reasons. I’m talking about these people that, as soon as Trump won, they’re like, “We don’t have to pretend like we’re not racist anymore! We don’t have to pretend anymore! We can be racist again! Whoo!”

Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! No, no! If you’re one of these people, please go back to pretending. You’ve got to go back to pretending. I’m so sorry we never thanked you for your service. We never realized how much effort you were putting into the pretending. But you gotta go back to pretending.

Then, there’s Michael Eric Dyson’s op-ed for The New York Times: “Now is the time for every decent white American to prove he or she loves this country by actively speaking out against the scourge this bigotocracy represents. If such heinous behavior is met by white silence, it will only cement the perception that as long as most white folk are not immediately at risk, then all is relatively well. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, and nothing could more clearly declare the moral bankruptcy of our country.” He has coined a new word, and one that we must all — unfortunately — grapple with.

Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick illuminated a wider sense of changing Charlottesville that affirms a society so clumsily moving forward in “They Will Not Replace Us: White supremacists can march on my hometown, but they can’t win”:

The scars and horrors endured by Charlottesville this weekend will persist, but so will its heroes. The clergy members who stood between the white supremacists and the town, the locals who sang and handed out water, the activists who civilly held their ground, the teachers and students who reclaimed the UVA campus for tolerance, our hospital workers, and Heather Heyer, who gave her life. But Charlottesville has other heroes, too: every child who watched Nickelodeon in her basement, every University of Virginia student who will arrive on campus this month, the Syrian immigrant families just settling into new homes and jobs, and the black children who will start middle school and take out library books and swim today at Meade Park. They belong here, and now they will go back to the business of paying taxes and library fines, and educating the young, and picking up dry cleaning. We will go back to working, as we’ve been doing for years, on what to do with our Confederate statues, and how to fix our still-fraught policing and housing problems, and whether our elected officials handled all this as well as they might have. But the guys who slunk away this weekend in trails of their own hateful ooze will be gone. The tiki torches from the patio furniture section are in dumpsters all over town. We aren’t “replacing” these folks. They were entitled to nothing they were demanding.

8. Replacement math. As the tiki bros marched through the streets of Charlottesville on Friday night, they chanted their fears. “You will not replace us…Jews will not replace us.” Yes, I know that the bellows were more about hatred and hyperbole than fact. Still, for news media, it’s a new teachable moment I’d like to see more accept. In fact, both declining white birth rates and increasing white death rates are among the key factors making America more multicultural everyday. There are real issues, and real woes impacting largely white communities, and it’s a time to dwell on those, after necessarily transmitting the images from Virginia. In fact, your back-of-the-mind suspicion looks like it’s true: “Trump outperformed the previous Republican candidate Mitt Romney the most in counties with the highest drug, alcohol and suicide mortality rates.”

Photo from Charlottesville by Karla Ann Coté used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 15, 2017, 10:10 a.m.
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