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.

A Tale of Two Conferences

I have been away from home more than I have been at home so far this month (I am not complaining), because I have attended two different journalism conferences. Both gave me different views on issues facing our field and our nation, and I have recapped my experiences below.

EDUCATION WRITERS ASSOCIATION NATIONAL SEMINAR

The first conference I attended was the Education Writers Association National Seminar, which was held in D.C. May 31-June 2. The EWA is made up mostly of education beat reporters from newspapers, websites, trade publications, and radio stations across the country, as well as people who work in higher education communications and those who contract with schools to provide services. I attended the conference because my day job is at a university and I wanted to get a high-level view of the issues facing our education system, and I left knowing so much more than I knew before. There are more education reporters than I thought, and they are doing everything from attending school board meetings to interviewing parents and teachers about the education experiences students are having in their community. I was particularly impressed by The Seattle Times Ignite Education Lab, where they hosted a TED Talk-like event with educators, parents, and students giving fast talks on their experiences in Seattle Public Schools.

I was also impressed by a session called “Top 10 Higher Ed Stories of 2017” where the editor of Inside HigherEd gave a rundown of stories that he believes every higher education reporter should cover. Based on his talk, it looks like our nation’s liberal arts colleges are in trouble. Many of them are selling off land, discounting tuition, and eliminating tenured faculty positions in order to keep the doors open. The reason why is because with pushes toward STEM, students are afraid of getting a liberal arts education. They are afraid that the end won’t justify the means. To me, this is a dangerous attitude. I wouldn’t trade my liberal arts education for anything, and I am still clothed, fed, and able to go on vacations. We have elevated STEM at the expense of the arts and humanities, and we will pay for it in the future. Art is the cornerstone of innovation and the liberal arts emphasize empathy, which is something we can sure use a heavy dose of today. I hope that we can reverse this trend in order to create more opportunities for students to do what they love and know that money will always follow hard work.

I also must say that it was astonishing to me that in last year’s election, and even right now, education does not seem to be a priority for anyone. But, we have school systems in Detroit and Chicago– two essential American cities– that could barely finish the school year because they were so broke. We know that a good education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty, and therefore the school-to-prison pipeline and teen pregnancy, so why have we spent all of our time scrutinizing Betsy DeVos instead of demanding that she do the job she has been appointed to do? Secretary DeVos is the first sitting secretary of education to not speak to the EWA in the seminar’s 70-year history, though the seminar happened just after the Bethune-Cookman incident where Class of 2017 graduates booed during her speech and turned their backs to her in protest. When we talk about holding our politicians accountable, we must do more than criticize them, and instead challenge them to act. Make them earn those six-figure paychecks by working on our behalf. The leaders of tomorrow need you!

AMERICAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION CONFERENCE

A week and a half after I attended EWA, I flew to San Francisco for the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) Conference.  ATCA is made up of theater critics across the country, both retired and actively working. I have been a freelance arts journalist and theater critic for the past six years, and I entered the field at the height of the doom and gloom. Full-time critics and arts reporter jobs have been disappearing from newsrooms at an alarming rate for the past decade, and most freelance gigs pay between nothing and $200 for a review. My two favorite sessions at this conference were the sessions on reviewing Shakespeare and on how to include design elements (light, sound, set, props, costumes, etc) into reviews. I found both really helpful, especially since lighting design is, to me, the hardest thing to describe. I also got to see five shows in the Bay Area, which is always a treat: Grandeur (Magic Theater), As You Like It (California Shakespeare), Brownsville Song: b-side for Tray (Shotgun Players), The Roommate (San Francisco Playhouse), and You Mean To Do Me Harm (San Francisco Playhouse). There are more than 20 professional theaters in the Bay Area and only two full-time professional theater critics (who work for two different newspapers). That is more than one person can handle and they constantly have to fight to justify their jobs.

I know some people may say that if their beat does not get as much attention from readers as sports, world news, or education, then shouldn’t we take that as a sign that no one cares about theater? To me, the answer to that question is no. I remember in J-school one of my professors said of photojournalism “When the camera is pointed toward something, it is pointed away from something else.” News outlets are masters of directing attention, and if people’s attentions were directed to art more than the antics of celebrities, they would think it matters. When we talk about bringing jobs back home and economic growth, we would be remiss to not think about the way the arts positively affect both of these things. The arts employ a lot of people, because in art people cannot be replaced by machines. From customer service agents to marketing professionals to the artist themselves, the arts are an economic catalyst. Plus, arts patrons typically support local restaurants and boutiques while they are attending arts events.

The other thing that stood out to me at this conference is diversity (or the lack thereof). Most of the critics in the organization, and those who attended the conference, are white men over the age of 50. I might be the only African American woman theater critic in the country and I believe Karen D’Souza is the only Latina theater critic in the country. This is a huge issue, because it means that there is much work to do to bring communities of color into the theater, so that we can start grooming critics of color. I’m not for the extreme notion that you have to share the same ethnic background as the artist in order to review their work, but I know that our lived experiences affect the way we view a work of art. In order to provide fair and balanced criticism, we must have multitude of voices.

I feel more committed than ever to moving the needle any way that I can. I won’t stop documenting the work of the people who are holding up mirrors to our souls so that 100 years from now people will know that we did more than take pictures of our food for the glory of the internet. Journalism ain’t easy, especially because everyone thinks they can do it, but for my fellow storytellers out there, I encourage you to keep on keepin’ on!

Interview with “The Butler” author, Wil Haygood

I9780307957191 recently interviewed journalist/historian Wil Haygood in anticipation of his visit to the Atlanta History Center. He is best known for writing The Butler, and he has recently written a biography about Thurgood Marshall, the nation’s first African American Supreme Court justice. Haygood was inspired to write about Marshall, because Marshall won Brown v. Board in 1954– the same year Haygood was born, and he considers Marshall to be the most influential figure from his birth year. Here’s a tidbit from our chat:

ArtsATL: You have written biographies about Sammy Davis, Jr., Sugar Ray Robinson, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and, most famously, the White House butler Eugene Allen. What inspired you to write a book about Marshall?

 Wil Haygood: Lawyers spend a lot of time in their offices, but Marshall spent a lot of time out in the field, in the South, way before the 1965 Civil Rights Act. He had faith in the ultimate moral muscle of this country, even while drinking out of separate water fountains and staying at segregated hotels. His faith never dimmed. That’s very powerful. When he won the school case in 1954, there was a wave of resentment, and many of those schools stayed all white. And he went back and filed more lawsuits against school districts. He stayed the course.

Read the full interview here: http://www.artsatl.com/2015/09/qa-wil-haygoods-showdown-thurgood-marshall/

Reflections after attending the National Critics Institute

I spent the past two weeks at the O’Neill Theatre Center in New London, Conn. at the National Critics Institute— the only writing workshop for early and mid-career theatre critics. In a cottage in New England I pondered about the state of theatre, the state of journalism, writing about people of color, how to incorporate dining content into theatre journalism, and how to find my voice. The latter was my greatest revelation– the disconnection between the way I speak and the way that I write hinders my ability to develop my voice as a writer. This voice is critical to me making this a career, so I better invest a good chunk of my time into finding it.

I left with a sense of clarity and action items. I am going to meet with my mentor, put together a pitch for an arts column, and use the friends I have with telecommunications degrees to help me put together an interview reel, so that I can pitch myself to cover the arts in broadcast news outlets.

Here are some gems from the Institute:

“Theater is about getting under the skin of different types of people.” -Linda Winer, Theater Critic, Newsday

“Be good to yourself as a critic when you watch a show. Be in a place that is fair to the work and to your ability to respond to the work.” -Matt Wolf, Theatre Critic, The Guardian and The Times London

If you’re doing something worthwhile, isn’t it worthy of analysis? If you’re not supporting criticism, what are you saying about your art form?” -Robert Simonson, Cocktail Writer, New York Times

“Competition is good, but if it flatlines, then no one knows what’s going on. Criticism is good, because it makes you better.” -Ann Nyberg, WTNH, ABC Affiliate, Connecticut

“Travel widely. Explore lots. Read lots. Eat lots.” -Sam Sifton, Deputy Food Editor, New York Times

“Appetizers are the off-Broadway of the food world” -Chris Jones, Theater Critic, The Chicago Tribune

“I didn’t get into this business to kill art; I got into this business to create art.” -David Stone, Producer, Wicked, If/Then, Next to Normal

“I don’t buy the idea that a good, solid play that does not wow the New York critics will not have a life a life after that.” -Dan Sullivan, retired theater critic, LA Times

“Theater that is not written about well is not going to make people want to go.” -Charles Isherwood, Theater Critic, New York Times

“Broadway is mostly singing animals and movie stars.” -Charles Isherwood

“Make yourself an interesting autobiography.” -Linda Winer

Race Reads

    • Millennials are less tolerant than you think “The fact of the matter is that millennials who are white — that is, members of the group that has always had the most regressive racial beliefs, and who will constitute a majority of U.S. voters for at least another couple of decades — are, on key questions involving race, no more open-minded than their parents. The only real difference, in fact, is that they think they are.” http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2015/01/millennials-are-less-tolerant-than-you-think.html

 

“Even though arts leaders and arts journalists don’t always work in tandem, their goals are usually the same: to raise awareness of work that reflects our society”

“There’s been a gradual erosion of local news reporting—not just in the arts, but in all areas—as media outlets have cut back on their reporting staffs,” he says. “This doesn’t mean that people aren’t interested in their communities. It just shows that the economics of the digital age make it harder for local outlets to compete against national and international ones in garnering audiences and ad dollars. Arts leaders can’t rely on third parties anymore to tell their stories.”

http://news.syr.edu/strike-up-the-brand-25404/

I’m a black ARTS journalist. I’m not a myth.

https://i1.wp.com/www.thehollywoodnews.com/wp-content/uploads/The-Newsroom1.jpg

“I’m tired of jockeying for position in a profession that never hesitates to finger “racists” in public, but can’t see the very real racism in its own newsrooms.”

As I was scrolling through my Facbook news feed I noticed one of my friends posted a link to an article whose headline pierced me like the tusks of an ox: I’m A Black Journalist. I’m Quitting Because I’m Tired of Newsroom Racism,” written by Rebecca Carroll.

The photo that ran with the article is a promotional image from Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series The Newsroom. There are no black people at the fictional ACN network either. And all the women on staff are irrational workaholics who can’t maintain a healthy relationship with anyone and speak in falsetto all the time…but I digress…

I went to J-School twice–undergrad and grad–and have been a freelance journalist for three years. My beat is the arts, I write in print and online, and in my three post grad school years in the field I have not met a single other black print journalist. All of my editors have been middle aged white men and women. I personally know of one other black woman arts journalist and her name is Valerie Boyd, and she was my magazine writing professor in college.

What I have encountered over the past three years is A LOT of middle-aged white men who claim that they are too liberal to have any ethnic blind spots as it relates to reviewing and criticizing art. I have also encountered people who are surprised, and dare I say intimidated, by the fact that I can write in the first place. I graduated from two of the best journalism schools in the country, and when white people find out they look at me as if I am a Siren or cyclops or unicorn or big foot. I am none of the above.

As a matter of fact when I went to a theater conference last summer, the director of a black theater company in Texas said to me “Whoa! You’re the only one!” He might be right.

Currently I freelance for various arts publications and sites when I can, and work full-time at a magazine. However, I am not on the editorial staff, and there is only one person of color on the editorial staff. Why am I not on the editorial staff you may ask? Well, you try finding a full-time writing or editing job at a magazine and let me know how that goes. But, I do have a foot in the door and the ear of the publisher, and that’s a start.

This is why it disheartens me that Rebecca Carroll is leaving the newsroom. There is no Lean In with a “How to deal with racism and sexism at the same time” addendum for black women, but Sheryl Sandberg’s principles still apply: Every woman who throws in the towel makes it harder for the next one to get in the door. Ms. Carroll has paid her dues in this industry, so she will continue to be able to work, but what about the people just getting started?

I am by no means blaming her. After doing something for so long, you deserve not to have to deal with bullshit. Suffering for the art is cute and idealistic when you’re 20 and infuriating by the time you’re 40. I just wish things were different.

Read her article here: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/119912/black-female-journalist-quits-media-decries-newsroom-racism