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!

Recapture your dynamism

I recently finished listening to the book Abundance Now by Lisa Nichols on Audible and I thought I’d share some of my favorite quotes from the book below.

  1. The universe does not recognize someday on the calendar.
  2. Don’t engage in wishful thinking. Set believable goals for the state you are in.
  3. Treat your present career as an investor in your future.
  4. I am the first example of how the world is supposed to love me.
  5. It’s never crowded along the extra mile. -Wayne Dwyer
  6. It is easier to dream from a place of abundance than from a place of lack.
  7. Get comfortable with playing big.
  8. Abundant thinkers avoid spending their dollar time on penny tasks.
  9. Be willing to fall forward. Parachutists have to fall before they pull the parachute to soar.
  10. The universe celebrates what is already being celebrated.
  11. Be grateful for the small things and the spectacular things will show up.

I recently interviewed bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert

I interviewed Elizabeth Gilbert, the New York Times bestselling author of Eat Pray Love,  about her latest book Big Magic ahead of her talk in Atlanta later this month. Elizabeth was incredibly generous in her interview and is a quote a minute. Not everything could make it into my 875-word article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, so I included some of my favorite moments from our conversation below.

“I see people behave toward their creativity in ways that I recognize as being self-destructive or counterproductive to them. I see a culture where certain things are ingrained in us, like the Romanov of the tormented artist, and I rejected it long before I had success. I was not going to be an art martyr. I had an ethic around creativity.”

“Ideas are a divine invitation and the work itself is a reward. It’s a reward because of the way it changes you, not necessarily because of the way it changes the world. At the end of a creative encounter you will be different than you were before, and that in itself makes it worth doing.”

She also shared a story about a 95-year-old former New York City show girl who she interviewed as a part of her research for an upcoming novel. Elizabeth says that she originally thought that getting older women to talk about sex would be difficult, and now she can’t get them to stop. The woman has never been married and does not have any children. She had many lovers in her lifetime, including the actor John Wayne. One night at a bar she picked up a man and spent the night with him. The next morning she saw that he left money for her and she was appalled. She left the money and went across the street to Bergdorf Goodman to purchase the man a nice tie. She left it on his dresser with a note saying that she had a nice time.

Finally saw #GetOut…a white woman was choked…

*CONTAINS SPOILERS*

I went to see the movie Get Out with my bestie last night and I think the internet hyped the revolutionary nature of this film more than it warranted. I have to admit that I am not a horror movie fan in general. Suspense I can do, but thrillers and purposefully scary movies just don’t do it for me. But, when I went to see Get Out I was expecting a movie that was a side step from the norm of the horror/thriller genre, but instead I got a film that fit in its box of predictable plots and contrived characters perfectly. It’s not that Get Out is not a good movie– it is and Jordan Peele has mastered the balance of creepy and comedic. However, this movie does not tackle any “-ism” in a unique way. Peele borrowed techniques and plot devices from a lot of movies before him to give us  Get Out, which he himself has said in a number of TV interviews. A lot of people compare the movie to Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, but with twists added by the sadistic use of hypnosis by white women.

In the movie, photographer Chris (Daniel Akaluuya) goes to meet his girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) parents for what seems to be a relaxing weekend upstate. Rose has not told her parents that Chris is black, but insists that everything will be fine, because her dad would have voted for Obama a third time. But, when they arrive, Rose is forced to confront the fact that her liberal parents are not as open-minded as she thought. Or, so we think…Turns out, this family has actually been kidnapping and hypnotizing black artists and transplanting their brains and brawn onto white people who wish they could be like them. Still with me?

That said, I will give the director/writer and cast accolades on the utter mind-boggle of one particular scene. Toward the end of the movie, when Chris is escaping from the Armitage compound in a vintage white Porsche, there is a scene where his girlfriend-turned-assailant is shooting at him with a rifle. The black groundskeeper, who is in the “sunken place” comes to her aid to capture Chris, until through the miracle of “snapping out of it” (invoked by the flash of a cell phone camera), the black groundskeeper manages to come to his senses. He wrestles the gun away from Rose and shoots her before taking his own life. However, the shot does not kill her, and soon Chris and Rose find themselves in a fight over who gets the gun.

Chris starts choking Rose to death and that’s where the mind-boggle happened to me. This black man who is bigger and stronger than this  “Becky with the Good Hair” has his hands around her neck and is cutting off her airways, and every stereotype I had ever been shown and told about black men as aggressors welled up inside of me. Somebody save Rose! He’s going to kill her! But wait, she lured him to a plantation, took his phone, had him drugged and hypnotized, and submitted his body to psycho medicine, right? So why then is it so uncomfortable to see him in an act of self defense against her? In it’s last 15 minutes the movie shoves in our faces how we see who and how detrimental that misinformed vision can be, especially when gender and race are involved. I still haven’t processed that feeling of “she’s in danger” even though I knew he was the victim– I’ll report back when I have had time with my therapist on this one.

This was the highlight of the movie for me and I can see professors pulling that last 10-15 minutes as a demonstration in future lectures. Academia seems to love to apply pop culture to idea whirling these days. I would be remiss to not mention that comedian Lil Rel, who plays Chris’ friend Rod, a TSA agent with all of the qualifications of a detective, really makes the movie. I have been a fan of his for years and if you haven’t seen him and comedienne Tiffany Haddish as husband and wife on NBC’s The Carmichael Show, you are missing out.

Overall though, the acting was fine and the chemistry among the cast was definitely there, but if the Academy is searching for their next black movie darling, I hope they wait until a little later in the year before they launch this one into the stratosphere.

My Top 5 Favorite Oscars 2017 Moments

Let’s just jump right in.

  1. Gary from Chicago. Chris Jones at the Chicago Tribune once said something to me I will never forget. He said when you invite the public you get the  public. Jimmy Kimmel hosted the 2017 Academy Awards and surprised a group of tourists with entry to the Academy Awards on their bus tour. One of those tourists was a man named Gary from Chicago who was on vacation with his fiancee. He proceeded to kiss Halle Berry and Nicole Kidman’s hands, wave to Meryl Streep, hold Mahershala Ali’s Oscar while taking a selfie with him, and get a picture and fake wedding ceremony with Denzel Washington, all while holding his fiancee’s overflowing purse. We are all Gary from Chicago.
  2. Moonlight wins…sort of! Unless you live under a rock, you have probably heard that the wrong movie was announced for Best Picture and mid thank you speech the cast of La La Land had to give back the Oscars and get off stage to make room for the cast of Moonlight to accept their award. Yes, it was as awkward and unbelievable as it sounds. I saw Moonlight and La La Land and liked both movies, but what I found most impressive about Moonlight is that with a small cast and very few visual effects it managed to keep me hooked and wanting more. La La Land has some beautiful cinematography and an even more beautiful message about art and the people who make it, but the last 15 minutes are the best 15 minutes of that movie. It’s not that La La Land wasn’t Oscar-worthy, because it definitely was, it’s just that Moonlight managed to move me just as much with less stage business. Tarell Alvin McCraney and Barry Jenkins deserve their rounds of applause and whoever gave Warren Beatty the wrong envelope is probably out of a job. I have never felt so overjoyed for one group of people and devastated for another group of people so much in my life. Kudos to the cast of La La Land for being gracious in spite of the flub– they would have had to pry that Oscar out of my cold dead hands.
  3. Whoever is responsible for the Twitter account @HallesWig. I’m not sure what was going on with Halle Berry’s hair at this year’s awards ceremony. Halle has been giving us a perfect short cut for decades, but this year she went Frankie & Alice on us. The curls were pretty but the wig was lopsided and it seemed like the hair got bigger over the course of the evening. However, Halle’s beautiful dress more than made up for the wig fiasco.
  4. The musical performances. Everyone knows that the Oscars are best when they go Tonys. Performances by Lin Manuel Miranda, John Legend, Sara Bareilles, and Auli’i Cravahlo,  the star of Moana, made this year’s show especially delightful.
  5. Parachutes of snacks. Chris Rock delivered Girl Scout cookies. Ellen delivered pizza. Jimmy Kimmel sent little parachutes of Junior Mints, doughnuts, cookies, popcorn to the hungry celebs. Cutting those Spanx off was probably pure hell for some folks this morning.

Sundance Film Festival recap and reflections

One of the most satisfying things in life is to dream of doing something and actually getting to do it. I am still on a high from such an experience, since I just came back from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. When I was 16 years old I decided that I wanted to go to the Sundance Film Festival, and a little over a decade later I made it as credentialed media. The experience was enchanted and the setting of picturesque, ice sickle covered buildings nestled in the snow-capped Rocky Mountains didn’t hurt. Here’s a day-by-day play-by-play.

Day 1: We landed in Salt Lake City am checked into the hotel. Then, we headed up to Park City for dinner in Deer Valley at the Royal Street Cafe. The grilled ciabatta bread was tasty. After dinner, I went to a screening of a new documentary called Whose Streets, which follows the conflict in St. Louis and Ferguson after the shooting of Mike Brown. The cinematographer was incredibly brave and never put the camera down, even as grenades flew and tear gas covered the crowds.

Day 2: The day started with a visit to the festival headquarters to pick up my media credentials and then a shuttle ride into Main Street. After exploring Main Street, we ate lunch at The Eating Establishment (the BLT with garlic aioli was delicious). Then, we stopped by the AT&T lounge and took photos of an Acura model made from ice before heading to a Diversity Reception at The Blackhouse Foundation. We ended the night at the Waldorf-Astoria at a party hosted by BET and sponsored by Patron. The hot chocolate and brownie pops were divine.

Day 3: On Saturday morning, we headed to Midway, Utah to the Homestead Resort to experience the ice castles. They are giant formations made from ice sickles, complete with a slide made from ice. An unexpected treat was the sight of white horses galloping in the snow. Then, we had lunch at Bandits Grill & Bar before checking out the ASCAP Cafe and attending a talk with the cast of Underground hosted by The Blackhouse Foundation. The day didn’t stop there. We continued on to a screening of a docuseries called Rise about modern day injustices against Native American communities in the United States, including the recent Dakota Access Pipeline. This was by far my favorite screening and the men and women who are fighting for Native American rights are truly admirable.

Day 4: For the final day of the festival, we did some souvenir shopping and explored Salt Lake City. What an awesome city! It is easily navigable, with sidewalks, bike lanes, and public transit. I also loved that there are so many locally-owned boutiques and restaurants, and not a ton of chains.

More than the parties, celebrity sightings, and movies, I walked away rejuvenated and with a renewed commitment to my creativity. I met so many kind and generous people and had enriching conversations with them. Seeing so many up-and-coming actors and budding filmmakers made me commit to stepping up my game and living bigger. Forget shoes and clothes– I’m investing all of my resources into becoming the woman and author that has always inside of me to be. I ordered new business cards, re-did my website, and locked in some new stories all within 24 hours of coming back to town. I once heard life coach Lisa Nichols say “Energy grows where energy goes,” and she was definitely right. At the top of the mountains I started to believe that I too could reach my peak.