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Cable News Note: From Tulsa to the NFL, cable keeps failing

This week began with the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, a moment in American history that has been whited out. Last year, after George Floyd was killed and Donald Trump planned his first campaign rally after the lockdowns in Tulsa, Oklahoma on the weekend of Juneteenth, I read Michele Norris’s commentary in the Washington Post, “The Diabolical Irony of Trump in Tulsa.” On Twitter, I read how an NPR Morning Edition host did not know that history. That week, when I was at MSNBC, I pitched the story (and guest) to the senior producers. I thought they would consider it especially because Donald Trump was involved, so they could frame the segment around him, as they always try to do because that is what they think rates the best. I felt like the senior staff on my show ignored the topic.

Exacerbated, I pleaded with Phil Griffin, then President of MSNBC, during a video meeting for the network to do more. As BLM protests were growing throughout the nation, discussion of that lost history could have helped explain the deep-seeded anger some expressed in the streets. He responded if they couldn't cover that topic under those circumstances, then that was "sad." Last year, Joy Reid hosted to feature a segment discussing that American tragedy but I couldn't find it anywhere else on the network. That was sad. From my perspective, MSNBC missed an important opportunity to foster or start a healing dialogue, which struck me as especially ironic since they present themselves as an outlet with a reputation for “leaning forward.”

This year, coverage of the Tulsa massacre was much more prevalent in all media but the emphasis again returned to politics rather than historical context and recovery. Cable news leapt to discussions about Voting Rights and the ongoing political battles in places like Texas (not unworthy, but not at the expense of other productive conversations). What we needed to hear were victims and families who never received justice. As a human, I wonder how that feels, to endure such symbolic violence. No one was prosecuted for the massacre and no one was compensated for the financial losses. As a journalist, that would have been an obvious discussion to facilitate, however cable news neglected their duty, yet again. I can't help but still expect more from my former colleagues at MSNBC.

To its credit, CNN produced a documentary about the Tulsa Massacre, which it aired last weekend (though, not during the week when audiences are larger). On Tuesday, most of CNN’s coverage focused on Joe Biden’s visit to the city -- certainly noteworthy, but again focused on politics.

Since we're on the subject, we could have learned more this week about other massacres African Americans suffered but have not been taught in schools or discussed in broadcast media. This piece in the Washington Post spotlights several violent attacks against Black Americans. I wonder when cable news will get around to discussing those tragedies. What are they waiting for?

Current racism ignored

As it is, I can hear some of my former colleagues groaning. Maybe they would argue that’s not their job. They focus on news and politics, not history. Maybe they would say that there were other more important stories to cover this week. Unfortunately, I counter-argue the 24-hour networks have the luxury of time. Certainly, they could have foregone one of the hourly segments about GOP dysfunction to allow some room for crucial historical context. But they didn’t, mostly. Likewise, they could have dedicated time to a new story released this week, one of the ugliest examples of systemic discrimination we’ve witnessed recently. But guess what? They mostly didn’t. And for the life of me, I can’t understand why.

The AP reported: “The NFL on Wednesday pledged to halt the use of ‘race-norming’ — which assumed Black players started out with lower cognitive function — in the $1 billion settlement of brain injury claims and review past scores for any potential race bias. The practice made it harder for Black retirees to show a deficit and qualify for an award.”

It’s astonishing that policy of "race-norming" was ever a codified by a major organization, much less still in use today. And from what I could tell, coverage on cable news was barely existent. Joy Reid covered it on MSNBC and Don Lemon discussed it near the end of his second hour on CNN on Thursday. Good for them.

But this reminds me of another harmful trend, especially prevalent in cable news. People of color can’t and shouldn't be the only journalists to cover stories about people of color. Yes, that’s one reason to feature more diverse hosts on air, to diversify the content. But over time, if you leave it to minority journalists to cover stories about minorities, then it’s damaging to the public – to their perceptions of the anchors and perceived legitimacy of the content. White journalists should cover those important and newsworthy topics just the same. Otherwise, you racialize that content as if it’s for minorities only.

Lastly, I have to mention these media stories this week.

My friends at Columbia Journalism Review wrote about the dearth of reporting on climate change, highlighting, “most news coverage, especially on television, continues to underplay the climate story, regarding it as too complicated, or disheartening, or controversial.” I have to reemphasize how terrible cable news has treated the topic. Last Thursday, on a day when there were several significant stories of consequence, CNN did not cover them at all. On MSNBC, only Rachel Maddow dedicated a segment to the topic. Instead, a majority of their coverage filled the air with hate. Usually, cable avoids climate change – as MSNBC host Chris Hayes argued in 2018, climate coverage is a “palpable ratings killer. so the incentives are not great” – but last week, there were positives stories of progress (not to mention, the perception that climate tanks the ratings might not be accurate). Yet they still didn’t allot time to discussing the news nor what it means going forward. If anyone says climate change is the biggest existential threat to the country, I argue cable news just makes that threat worse.

Also, this week, CJR wrote about how news outlets across the board failed on the coronavirus lab-leak story. Bret Stephens argued that “good journalism, like good science, should follow evidence, not narratives.” The narrative he mentions was to oppose whatever Donald Trump said. Those knee-jerk reactions were as bad on cable news as anywhere, and driven by the lure of attracting a large audience (which in turn lines their pockets with advertising dollars). In fairness, I understand that instinct: the more a person lies, the less you are inclined to believe them and for the sake of time, form conclusions quickly. But on that story, I had to stop myself early because the possibility that the virus escaped a nearby lab where they were testing those exact viruses was too plausible to disregard out of hand. Unfortunately, most of the reporting about Wuhan has been based on anonymous sources – another weakness in our news ecosystem -- so it's been difficult to decipher either way. But in short, journalists didn’t do their jobs, least of all cable news, and there isn't any good justification for it.

Two last points today. OK, actually three. Ish.

1. It seems obvious, but as local news continues to die off, polarization gets worse. If your main news sources become MSNBC, CNN, or FOX News, because those are the main sources left available, then it’s not hard to imagine how we get siloed into alternative news universes, unable to communicate to each other. This study by FiveThirtyEight quantifies how “Local News Coverage Is Declining — And That Could Be Bad For American Politics.”

2. How may we counter that? For Poynter, Report for America president Steve Waldman argues that local news should be included in the Congressional infrastructure bill.: “The reason to support local news is not primarily helping journalists put food on the table, it’s helping communities to thrive.”

3. Writing for CJR, Victor Pickard and Timothy Neff argued that strengthening our democracy requires funding public media.

As I see it, TV news consumers don't have a choice outside of cable news. Public broadcasting could provide more reliable and trustworthy choices.

On that note, happy Friday! Have a good weekend and try listening to some NPR if that wasn’t already in your plans. Then ask yourself: did you hear more useful facts, or more hatred?

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2 comentarios

05 jun 2021

Noone wants to admit that they are biased. Noone. And none of us want to take the blame for what our ancestors did, and that we still perpetuate those wrongs today. We wait to see real black leadership rise up, but stifle them when they do.

I'm an old white male. I have black family. I have black friends. I have fought for my black brothers...but it is not enough. I am biased but despise it, and rail inside against it.

My hometown, Binghamton NY was a KKK hub in the 1920s. Although I had nothing to do with it, it shames me. What we have done with our black brothers should shame us all. And perhaps goad us…

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04 jun 2021

I do find your perspectives illuminating, and I enjoy reading them because you present an inside look at the news media. You lament the lack of historical context in the presentation of the anniversary of the Tulsa massacre. Bear in mind that the large majority of American history is deconstructed--taken out of context rather than studied in context. I agree with your assessment of the MSM though and I applaud you for your frank and forthright criticisms.

Roger L. Johnson

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