Fake News and the art of doubt

I’ll start this the way that most of these types of posts start. I normally don’t write about politics, mostly because I don’t want to add to the noise and I’d rather spread joy. But, also because having an outward political opinion and keeping a job usually don’t go hand-in-hand, and today happens to Amazon Prime Day, so…yeah…(I needed those makeup brushes y’all, all 32 of them). However, what I will speak on is a conversation that I have been having with journalists since the phrases “fake news” and “alternative facts” entered our vernacular.

Yesterday, The New York Times published an article called “Trump Jr. Was Told in Email of Russian Effort to Aid Campaign.” The article alleged that Donald Trump Jr. exchanged emails with Russia before agreeing to meet with a representative of the Russian government to discuss ways to sabotage the 2016 Presidential Election. And today, Trump Jr. tweeted screenshots of those emails for the world to read. However, I am not interested in discussing these emails, their relevance, impeachment, or collusion. I want to talk about not being able to believe what you see.

The Trump campaign, and subsequently the Democratic and Republican parties, has done a masterful job of disseminating doubt. From the moment Trump questioned Obama’s country of birth to today, he has leveraged the power of the media, on every airwave and every screen, to cast doubt in people’s minds about the messages that are being pushed in their faces in our 24-hour news cycle world. Other politicians, in both parties, have followed suit in order to win recent mid-term elections. As a freelance journalist who primarily writes about arts & culture, I’m used to people not believing what they see, but when we’re talking about domestic and world news it becomes a different story.

When I heard about the Times article and read it, honestly I thought, ‘what difference does it make?’ The reason why is because we have so allowed people’s perceptions to become their realities that nothing that does not align with that perception matters anymore. If you are a person who despises Trump, you will say “Finally! Proof for impeachment! They colluded with Russia. Clinton should have won,” and if you are someone who supports his presidency, you will say “The New York Times is an anti-democratic liberal propaganda machine that has it out for the President because they are mad that the former senator from their state lost!” And there it is. There are only alternative facts on both sides and no one cares about the truth, only what is true to them. Even with Trump Jr. tweeting photos of the emails, there’s a way to spin that. Those emails don’t really prove anything, his Twitter account was hacked, someone who hates Trump leaked them. He was smart to tweet them because he got ahead of the story. The ways to raise doubt are innumerable and so is the frequency.

Now, I’m not letting the media off the hook here. They helped create distrust in themselves, especially in the early 2000s when there were a handful of high-profile cases where journalists at reputable newspapers fabricated stories. Cable news (CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, etc) is also a huge part of the problem as they have done another masterful job of conflating the words “news magazine” and “talk show” with actual news. Most of the time, these networks are obliged to advertisers, and the news they tell is the news they sell. Lack of diversity in newsrooms didn’t help, because people in marginalized communities couldn’t believe the stories they were reading about their own communities, and no one ever interviewed them. In addition, in all aspects of the news, the notions of objectivity and fair and balanced reporting are somewhere with the baby and the bathwater. As newsrooms began to shrink by the thousands 10 years ago, journalists did a piss poor job of advocating for, and helping the public to realize the importance of, journalism. They assumed that because they had always been there, they were entitled to be there, which is why they are now drawing pictures of Sean Spicer giving press conferences.

This brings me to the conversations I have been having with some journalist friends. As much as I give journalists a hard time, I also moonlight as one, and let me tell you that it is clearer than ever that people don’t understand what journalists do and how they do it. There seems to be this impression that journalists sit at their desks and create tales in the same way as novelists. This is fake news. Generally speaking, a reported story for a reputable news outlet has a minimum of three credible sources who have exchanged emails, had phone conversations with, and/or met in-person with the reporter. Sometimes, those people refuse to go on the record. At that point, most reporters try to find someone who will, but if they can’t, they use that anonymous source. Anonymous sources are only used when the information they have to offer is so essential that it cannot be attained elsewhere. An article can take anywhere from 12 hours to 12 months to write, depending on its scope, and in the end, the paper trail of spreadsheets, documents, emails, audio recordings, and notebooks is long and windy. For a publication such as the Times, the fact-checking process for an article like the one published yesterday, is probably grueling.

I’ll give you two examples from the world of fluff that I write in, and not to sound arrogant, but I’m a good reporter. I wrote an article for a local magazine about the National Museum of African American History & Culture. After reading it, my editor highlighted all of the sections where he either had questions, or thought we needed to cite the source. I then had to go back and answer his questions, add in a couple more sources, and even had to go back and do some extra reporting to answer one of his questions. From there, the article went to a copyeditor and a fact checker.

Another example is an article I wrote for a national publication about artist and arts administrator salaries in regional theatres across the country. I started off by asking actors in different cities which theatres paid the most and which theaters paid the least. None would go on the record, because they were afraid of losing work in the future, but they all gave me leads and tips (mostly through Facebook message conversations). I then interviewed artistic and managing directors of theatres across the country about the wages they pay actors. I checked figures to the best of my ability against their Form 990s, which are the financial forms that all 501c3 organizations must complete. Once I turned in the article, we went through three rounds of intense edits to ensure accuracy.

Those are just two examples, and journalists who work on politics, local government, education, and science articles can offer a whole lot more insight about how reporting works. That said, I also am sure that this pandemic distrust in the media is more rampant than ever, it’s not new, and it’s not going away. After all, how do you know I’m being forthcoming about my process if I haven’t published the notes from my interviews? There’s that doubt creeping in…

But, here’s the truth: Hillary’s emails, Trump Jr.’s emails, and who met with Russia or emailed Russia matters, but it is also a distraction. Americans will spend so much time outraged (4-8 years, maybe), that they won’t notice that healthcare, agricultural, environmental, education, and economic reforms are not happening. Who helped you when you needed time off to heal from a health crisis or care for a loved one? Where was your elected official when you lost your house and job and had to file for bankruptcy? What jobs that pay $15 or more per hour and don’t require a college education have come to your community? When did it become acceptable for the people who make between $65,000-$250,000 per year to have to shoulder the debt for everyone, with no reprieve? What laws have been passed to help your family in the past 15 years? Name them. The issue is not fake news, the issue is fake people making fake promises.

So, where do we go from here? To the polls in 2018 is a good idea, but it’s not where we start. We start with a recommitment to the truth, no matter how much it disturbs our perceptions. We start by bringing back humanistic value and truly believing that every human life matters. We start by seeking out information on our own and not believing only what we are fed. We commit ourselves to questioning why someone else’s perception disturbs our own. And most of all, we commit to valuing discernment (which is a measure of trust) over doubt (which is a measure of distrust). If we become a discerning public, instead of a doubtful public, we hold the power. Then, we can start a fruitful discussion about policy, instead of a flailing discussion about perception.

Why everyone is wrong about why Donald Trump won and no one will say it

Donald Trump, a notorious real estate investor and reality television star, is the president-elect of the United States of America and everyone is losing their minds. His supporters aren’t happy, his opposition is furious, and everyone else is suppressing their outrage under a cloak of apathy. Today, he was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year, which has sparked more outcry, but I personally think it was a smart move on Time’s part. Appeal to his ego, gain access– reporters have been doing this for years. But there’s a truth that no one is telling, so I am going to say it. Donald Trump did not win because all white people are racist, all men are sexists, and all of the young people stayed home. Donald Trump won because of the elimination of the middle man during the recession.

Allow me to explain. This won’t take long. When the sky started falling in 2008 and 2009 with the banking crisis, auto industry bailout, rising fuel prices, and crash of the stock market, hundreds of businesses closed and the ones that stayed open cut positions, put employees on furlough, and scaled back on perks and benefits. Then, when the economy bounced back and the recession ended they didn’t replace those jobs or those perks and benefits.

This created a new world order, because fewer people were expected to do more work for an indefinite period of time. It used to be that when the economy tanked and people were laid off, when the economy bounced back they got their jobs back. That no longer happens. Companies got greedy and outsourced their labor to other countries or didn’t bother to replace that labor pool at all– and it happened in EVERY sector of business and government. Now, no one stays in a job long because they are expected to do the jobs of three people and increase revenue, but the only people can get decent jobs are people with college degrees. And the kids are starting to notice– when’s the last time you heard a young person say they want to be a police officer, firefighter, or EMT?

What does this mean? This means that there are entry level positions that pay $35,000/year and executive level positions that pay six figure salaries and there is no one in between. The $50k-$70k job is gone and no one is pressuring anyone to bring it back and I don’t understand why not? This has created a new work environment where college graduates are doing jobs that were once reserved for those without degrees and you have to have a graduate degree to make anything above an entry level salary. This left all of those people who used to be secretaries, administrators, mailmen, custodians, and receptionists, with low paying service industry and retail jobs as their only employment options, and those jobs are not paying the bills.

Even worse, there is no way out of those jobs. The time when a secretary could become the lead copywriter at an ad agency, like Peggy in Mad Men, are gone and they are not coming back. No matter how many tax cuts a politician promises Carrier, Chrysler, Firestone, or anyone else, the ruins that those companies left behind when they first exited, left such a huge mess in America’s rust belt cities that they no longer have the infrastructure to support the jobs. Furthermore, when our president elect says that he is restoring jobs and creating jobs, just like with President Obama, no one is asking the question: WHAT KIND OF JOBS? Because let’s be honest, anyone making less than $25/hour is living in poverty.

Then, to add insult to injury this might be the first election in modern history where education reform was not discussed in-depth by any candidate– read: you’re poor, you’re stupid, and no one cares. And what makes it so bad is that people were so angry and fed up that they didn’t even call the candidates out on the omission. Combine that with America’s always lingering struggles with racism and sexism, and you’ve got a lethal combination of resentment and poverty, which over the past month has led to an uptick in violent crimes.

I’m not sure where we go from here, but I believe that first we have to tell the truth, and the truth is that no one likes to live in poverty while watching other people prosper. I can only hope that we will eventually find some common ground, but right now there are cracks in the sidewalk and we don’t have any public works dollars left to fill them. Keep marching, America. Let’s just try not to step on each other’s feet.

The day everything changed: Fifteen years after 9/11

I remember exactly where I was the moment I heard about the 9/11 terrorist attacks– and so do you. I was in 7th grade at Peachtree Charter Middle School in P.E. class, dressed out in the school’s standard gray t-shirt and navy shorts. I was standing with a group of girls on the kickball field, and one of them asked “Do you think they’re flying over us?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

She replied, “You haven’t heard? Somebody flew a plane into the World Trade Center.”

At that point in the day, the second tower had not been hit yet and no questions had been answered about the attacks. P.E. was my first class of the day in middle school, and by fifth period the school was emptying out as petrified parents came to save their children from terrorists. My science teacher decided that instead of finishing our lesson on the ventricles in heart, that we should listen to National Public Radio. However, I didn’t get to listen for long, because my parents came and got me from school (their anniversary is September 10 and they had taken the day off of work). I remember riding in the van to go home, but I don’t remember much else from that day. What I do remember are the days and decade after.

When I was in middle school I had never been to New York City and had never heard of the World Trade Center. New York City in my imagination was all bright lights and Broadway, and back then, I thought that I was going to move there and become the editor-in-chief of Seventeen magazine. (I’ve since been to NYC several times, visited the 9/11 Memorial, and decided that being a fiction writer suits me more than being a magazine editor.)

The magazine covers with the towers side-by-side looking like the number 11 and never-ending news cycle showing a soot covered, dark city are etched in most people’s minds, but I would like to start with the yellow ribbons.

Today, we hear from sociologists, psychologists, economists, scientists, theologians, and everyone else that our country is more divided than ever, and I have often pondered over this past election year what is different today than in trying times before. The answer I have rested upon is faith– but not faith in God– I mean faith in each other.

After 9/11 the prevalence of American flags, yellow ribbons, and business marquees reading “God Bless America” sent a sweeping sense of national pride and unity from the Appalachians to the Rockies.  As a matter of fact, I had never seen a yellow ribbon around a tree until after 9/11, and my parents had to explain to me the significance of them and they let me hear the classic song. Unfortunately, that sense of unity was short-lived and has not since been restored.

Yellow ribbons turned into terrorism threat levels being broadcast and measured by red versus green heat maps, a divisive declaration of war on Iraq, freedom fries over French fries, and corporate corruption at Enron, all in a nation that was suffering from a severe case of PTSD. Then, to add insult to injury, we had to start taking our shoes off at the airport and couldn’t carry toiletries in bottles larger than 3 ounces.

But it didn’t stop there. We created a turban and hijab garbed universal enemy once Islamic terrorist organization the Taliban took responsibility for the attacks. The same fear that made us tense up every time a Muslim, or someone who appeared remotely middle eastern, walked into a room, is the same fear that as been controlling this country for the past 15 years. We fear our neighbors and categorize anyone who doesn’t think like us as an enemy.

As if the heightened fear of terrorism, rising body count of war and elimination of the middle man from the private sector due to Enron were not enough, then everything else had to happen. Over the past 15 years we have seen: half of the Senate be caught cheating on their spouses with various individuals, the implosion of the newspaper industry, a hurricane wreak havoc on the Crescent City, earthquakes, tsunamis, a Congresswoman be shot in the head, the Arab Spring, a laundry list of mass shootings from an elementary school to the Boston Marathon– and that’s not even the half of it.

Then, the housing market crashed, due to unethical lending practices, adding to the skepticism and fear. Now, everyone is afraid to purchase a home, because they saw too many of their parents, friends, and relatives lose homes that they had visited their whole lives up until that point.

The auto industry needed a bailout. Thousands of Midwestern assembly line workers lost their jobs at GM, Ford, and Dodge plants. Now, no one stays at a job long, because they saw too many of their parents, friends, and relatives lose jobs that they had worked their whole lives up until that point.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks were the first big loss and we haven’t stopped losing. Those who grew up during the Depression or during the Civil Rights Movement may say, no way. There’s nothing today that hasn’t happened before. But, today is different because before the 2001 attacks and subsequent declaration of war in 2002, we had faith in each other to fix the problem. Politicians have always been corrupt, but we trusted that our neighbors were good. There has been war in the Middle East since Moses, but we trusted that our neighbors were good. There have been racism and domestic terrorist attacks before, but we trusted that our neighbors were good.

But post-9/11, everyone became an enemy to be feared or defeated. Today, we don’t know whether our neighbors are good or not, because we don’t bother to get to know them. So here we are, in the midst of one of the most volatile election cycles we’ve seen in the past 40 years wondering how to pick up the pieces without having to look each other in the eye. But that is the very thing we need to do today more than ever. We need a yellow ribbon.

I challenge anyone who is reading this post to look a person in the eye and believe that they are good with no questions asked today. Go meet your neighbors. Assume that everyone you see is doing the best they can and that they are on your team, and in my experience I have found that they usually are. The past 15 years have been tumultuous, but that does not mean we have to be defined by the ruins. After all, if Pompeii can be beautiful years after a destructive volcano, then certainly we can be beautiful, even after the fall of the towers.

Affirmative Action

The Abigail Fisher affirmative action case has been making its way through the courts for years, and since the Supreme Court hearings start soon, it is now all over the news. Abigail Fisher graduated from high school in 2008 and during her senior year, she applied to the University of Texas. Her parents and siblings all went to UT, but much to her chagrin, she was not admitted, but believed that other students (students of color, in particular) with lower GPA’s and less impressive resumes were admitted to the university. After this, a family friend approached her about pleading her case in court to knock down affirmative action. And here we are.

Affirmative action has been under siege from the very beginning and cases like this come around every 10 years to shake up the courts. The last one I can recall was a student who was not admitted to the University of Michigan making the same argument. However, given the racial, social, and economic climate in our country today, the timing of this case is remarkable. I have always been a proponent of affirmative action, because I believe that until we remove the parts of our system that keep people of color at a disadvantage, then we need to help “the least of these.” (for my evangelicals, see God: “the first shall be last and the last shall be first”)

I’ll make the case for me: I graduated from high school with a 3.85 GPA, lots of extracurricular activities (with leadership roles), and was in the Top 10 percent of my class. I went on to graduate Magna Cum Laude from The University of Georgia, another PWI like UT, and afterward I got a master’s degree from Syracuse University. If a white student whose undergraduate admissions application looked just like mine, save for the fact that they had a 3.9 GPA (or even a 4.0), was not admitted to UGA, and it was because of race, I took nothing from them, my space was not wasted, and I don’t feel bad. And, even if I had a 3.4 or a 3.5, I would feel the same way.

Why not? Because representation is important and thousands of students of color now have the power of my example. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote in Lean In, that “we must raise the ceiling and the floor.” I’m sure that that white student with a 3.9 GPA had seen plenty of people who looked like them doing what they wanted to do and that that person is just fine and went to some other university, even if it wasn’t their first choice. When they graduated, they raised the ceiling– when I graduated, I raised the ceiling and the floor, because now other young women of color who want to work in media see that it’s possible. This matters, because education uplifts marginalized communities by empowering people financially (through broader career choices and higher incomes) and socially (by allowing them to shake hands with the right people in order to influence positive change).

There’s been a lot of outcry from those opposed to, and from those for, affirmative action, and to be honest, I can’t believe we’re still dealing with this in 2015. However to all of the “Abigail’s” of the world, know this: just because you want something, does not mean you are entitled to get it. In life there is no “way” to anywhere, there are just the choices you make and the people you love. Imagine, if you put your efforts over the past seven years into something other than this case? You’d probably be a lot happier. #StayMadAbby

BONUS: Grey’s Anatomy just handled a similar issue beautifully in two recent episodes.

What if they helped, instead of recorded?

Fight videos. They are all over the internet, from news outlets to blogs to Instagram. Sites like World Star Hip Hop were built on them. But, while we’re all watching someone be pulverized, has anyone ever stopped to ask why the person who recorded the video chose to record it?

I was listening to the radio this morning and the DJ was talking about an incident in Clayton County, Georgia where a girl was jumped by another girl and several students stood around the fight and recorded it. They then posted their recordings online. Despite the girl who was jumped sustaining injuries, the girl who started the fight was only suspended for a few days and the students who recorded the video went on about their lives. Now, the parents of the girl who was jumped are calling for the school and law enforcement to punish the students who recorded the fight just as, and potentially more harshly, than the girl who started the fight.

I have always wondered, what if the people recording the incident for a few hundred more followers on social media, instead decided to help the person being beaten? I have never been the type of person who could stand idly by and watch another person be jumped, slapped, humiliated, and beaten up. I find it hard to watch boxing because of the sound of the impact of the boxing glove hitting flesh (I literally wince).  Why did these students stand and watch instead of alerting a teacher, school resource officer, or administrator? What is the appeal of seeing someone else’s blood shed? And how do you face that person in the lunchroom or restroom the next day?

This “better him/her than me” mentality that I see among tweens and teens today is so disturbing, and it really comes down to humanistic value. My mother and father would have beat my ass when I was 13 if I recorded another girl being beaten in the hallway at school, because being a heartless bitch was not allowed in their home. << And that’s the key– my mother and father would not have allowed it, because they taught me humanistic value. It was never okay for me to take pleasure in someone else’s pain and it sickens me that we have just become so okay with this voyeuristic violence. What do you think? Is this battery via bystanding?

IF it is true, this is how I feel about Rachel Dolezal…it’s almost funny…but it’s not

On Friday, June 12 the internet and cable news outlets exploded with the news that Rachel Dolezal, the president of the Spokane, Washington Chapter of the NAACP is a white woman who has been living her life dressed in blackface for the last 10 years. Dolezal teaches Africana Studies at a university in Washington and stated in her bio that she graduated from Howard University, a prestigious historically black college. It sounds like an article from The Onion, but at this point, it appears to be true.

So now, the think pieces have begun about race, gender, white privilege, blackface, and the intersectionality of all of them. How was a white woman who was born in Montana allowed to do blackness for 10 years? Who is the hair stylist that was doing her sew-ins, so that her naturally straight tresses would appear kinky? Do the ends justify the means. How mad can we be at Rachel Dolezal if she was doing the work to better the lives of people of color? Why didn’t anyone check her resume and background before making her the face of colored people’s oppression?

There are so many things at play here, I don’t know where to start. We have a white privilege problem and a colorism problem. The fact that Dolezal was able to wake up one day and decide to be black is the penultimate example of white privilege. She was able to choose to don the hair styles, wear the kente cloth, talk the talk– all without actually having to experience the realities of being a black woman. Then, we have the white savior problem. A white woman (or presumably light-skinned woman) was allowed to rise to a position of leadership in an organization designed to advance the rights of people of color without anyone questioning her credentials. No one checked to see whether she graduated from Howard, really????!!! Because she was light-eyed and light-skinned, her truth was presumed to be the truth. This is our biggest national problem.

Then, I can’t even get started on the mental health issues at play here. She has a personality disorder. I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist, so I cannot say which one, but there’s is definitely something off there. I don’t where this story will take us as it unfolds, but I am a culture and not a costume. Blackface is never okay, whether you’re doing the work to advance the rights of people of color or not. This is 2015 and it feels more like 1965 everyday. I will be following this story.

Grief, Lean In, and Haters

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is best known for her controversial book Lean In, which is all about women in the workplace. Recently, her husband Dave Goldberg, died unexpectedly from a treadmill accident in Mexico. A few articles about her “lean in” mantra as it relates to his death have been published. The couple have two young children, and many of these articles are asking “What will Sheryl Sandberg do as a single mother? Will she still be able to lean in now that she is raising two kids without a spouse?” (Here’s one: http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2015/05/04/death_of_sheryl_sandberg_s_husband_lean_in_prepares_you_for_a_worst_case.html) (and another: http://www.sfchronicle.com/business/article/After-Dave-Goldberg-s-death-what-it-means-to-6253468.php) (there’s also one on May 11 copy of the Atlanta Journal Constitution that is print-only)

On the surface, these articles seem expected, just fine, wavering in expressing a clear opinion, but there’s a tone in these articles I don’t like. It’s the same tone I hear from women who won’t support Hilary Clinton or do not agree with affirmative action. It’s a tone that asks “What are you going to do now, bitch?” It’s as if people want to see her fail, not realizing that she has already won. Newsflash: Sheryl Sandberg leaned in, with a silver spoon in her mouth, but she leaned in nonetheless << did you catch that tone, that’s the tone?!

She can leave Facebook today and never go back, and because she has made a sizable salary there, her husband’s benefits and Social Security check from Survey Monkey will be more than enough to support her children, and she has sold millions of copies of two books. Sheryl Sandberg leaned in and she will be fine. She won’t fall on her face and fail, because she did the work upfront. No matter what she chooses to do from here on, she has already achieved the American Dream, and sparked a national conversation about feminism and women in the workplace at the same time.

Haters gonna hate, but I hope to see fewer op-ed pieces where women are hating on each other. Sheryl Sandberg deserves a high five, a congratulations, and a hug, not hate. She dared to tell the truth, which is that for every woman who opts-out, she makes it harder for other women to opt-in. It’s not a bad choice, but it is a choice, and whether a woman chooses to opt-out or lean in, when her husband dies, it shouldn’t matter.