January 29, 2020

If you’re a journalist in 2020, you could fill several thick notebooks with the reasons you have to be scared, demoralised, beaten-down, disillusioned… really, insert any negative emotion you can imagine. These are terrible times for this line of work, especially in the United States.

The field is being hit with wave after wave of contraction, and local and regional newspapers are dying to the point where all that’s left, with the exception of a handful of the biggest cities, is a giant news desert dotted with tiny puddles. Countless layoffs have ravaged the industry, leading to many heartbreaking cases of journalists being marooned, midlife, in an unforgiving labour landscape. 

My theory is that Learn to code, a meme often hurled at laid-off journalists by Twitter trolls, cuts particularly deep because of how neatly it capture the sheer desolation that engulfs journalism’s professionally dispossessed. I’m sorry to be a professional chauvinist, but there is something unique about what we do: it requires such a specific skillset, and, when done right, it feels so meaningful and serves an indispensable societal role.

But not everyone recognises that; we’re easy to hate. So there they are, those faceless online hordes, thrilling at the idea of us having to chase employment in another field — a field in which, in the very best-case scenario, we’ll somehow succeed in beating out countless energetic 22-year-olds for a chance to work for an on-demand dogfood-delivery app destined for bankruptcy three months post-launch.

And yet, despite the profound structural emergency engulfing my field, I’d like to victim-blame just a little. My desire to do so stems from the fact that we just passed the first anniversary of the Covington Catholic High School debacle in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. It was genuinely one of the worst, most embarrassing recent moments in professional journalism, and there was never any real reckoning among those who screwed it up. Would such a reckoning save the industry? Of course not. But if we don’t grapple with what the Covington debacle revealed about where journalism is right now, we won’t have much worth saving, anyway.

In January of last year, you might recall, someone posted a short video of what appeared to be a group of jeering, cheering white kids — some in pro-Donald-Trump MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) hats — surrounding an older Native American man banging a drum in front of the Lincoln Memorial. These, it was quickly revealed, were students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, in town for the anti-abortion March for Life. The Native American man, it turned out, was a longtime activist named Nathan Phillips.

In an interview with the Detroit Free Press published on 20 January, Phillips explained that he had ended up surrounded after trying to aid a group of black activists who were engaged in some sort of confrontation with the Covington kids. While acknowledging that those activists hadn’t been entirely blameless, Phillips presented himself as a de-escalator trying to prevent the white kids from getting out of hand.

“They were in the process of attacking these four black individuals,” Phillips said of the teens. “There was that moment when I realised I’ve put myself between beast and prey. These young men were beastly and these old black individuals was their prey, and I stood in between them and so they needed their pounds of flesh and they were looking at me for that.”

This was the narrative that took hold: white predators and black and Native prey. Immediately, online outrage exploded, with internet harassment, death threats and every other form of digital outrage swamping everyone in the Covington orbit. The boys’ behavior was also — quickly — condemned by the Covington Catholic diocese.

But a video covering a longer span of the Covington kids’ experiences in DC, posted the same day as the Detroit Free Press article and almost two hours long, revealed a much different and more complicated story. The difference between what happened during the key moments, and what many journalists said happened, was capably summed up by Cathy Young and others, but is worth reviewing in detail. 

The longer video showed the kids wandering the Washington Mall, being yelled at and ocassionally yelling back at a racist and homophobic religious sect, the Black Hebrew Israelites, known by the denizens of some major American cities for its generally crazy and aggressive street-preaching (and later implicated in a horrific attack on a Kosher market in Jersey City)— these were the black activists in question and the filmer was one of their members.

At 1:12:35 in the video, after protracted jawing between the two groups, the Covington kids are clearly seen in a closed circle and are doing some sort of chant or cheer. Phillips doesn’t, as he claimed, place himself between the Covington kids and the Black Hebrew Israelites mid-confrontation — he works his way right to the edge of into the closed Covington circle, until he is noticed on account of his drumming.

This is completely incompatible with Phillips’ version of what happened, but to acknowledge this would  have toppled a viral narrative that was carried far and wide on the wings of morally satisfying good-guys-versus-bad-guys outrage.

So while some conservative and centrist and even liberal journalists did revise their accounts, apologise on Twitter and so on, and while the Kentucky diocese publicly apologised for its initial condemnation, the more common response was to simply either pretend this video didn’t show what it clearly showed, retreat to a different claim — Phillips caused himself to be surrounded by a circle of Covington kids, but was horribly mistreated by them once he was — or both.

But just as there’s no video evidence to suggest any sort of real harassment or threat, Phillips was surrounded by the kids. A handful of the Covington kids did do the Tomahawk chop: it’s an offensive gesture to Native Americans, but one unfortunately done by countless fans of not one but three major American teams, many times every year. And there’s dancing and chanting and cheering in time with the drumbeat — a perfectly normal human reaction to the presence of a drumbeat. (In fact, some non-Covington bystanders and activists appear to be clapping and dancing in time with the drum before there’s any interaction with Phillips and the Covington kids.)

The most serious allegations confirmed by an in-depth investigation by a private detective agency hired by the Covington diocese involved the Tomahawk Chop and the kids chanting along with Phillips — that’s it. And Certain feverish internet rumors, like that the kids had chanted “Build the wall,” were proven totally false.

But both before and after the longer video was released, many journalists zeroed in on an infamous, brief moment during which Phillips and one of the Covington students, Nick Sandmann, are standing about a foot from one another, Phillips chanting and banging his drump, Sandmann grinning at him with a hard-to-decipher expression.

“The grin” quickly became notorious, and this was where the media really got out of control, tipping over into what can only be characterised as truly disgraceful behavior. “Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?” asked Reza Aslan, an otherwise smart writer and commentator. Others agreed that this grin told us everything we needed to know about the story, while some of the tweets from journalists, like these from Kurt Eichenwald, come across as deeply deranged.

Much of the published coverage wasn’t much better. “The MAGA Teenager Who Harassed a Native American Veteran Is Still Unnamed,” went the headline of a Slate article, “but We’ve Seen His Face Before.” In that one, Ruth Graham — another person who is a deeply thoughtful writer in other contexts — called it the face “of a clutch of white young men crowding around a single black man at a lunch counter sit-in in Virginia in the 1960s”, of men making Nazi salutes and of “Brett Kavanaugh — then a student at an all-boys Catholic prep school — “drunkenly laughing” as he allegedly held down Christine Blasey Ford. Anyone who knew the popular white boys in high school recognized it: the confident gaze, the eyes twinkling with menace, the smirk.”

This is from a brief clip in which a Native American activist bangs a drum and chants, and a kid stands there, doing nothing but grinning strangely.

Now, Graham’s piece, and some of the other more embarrassing observations made by professional journalists and writers, did come before the full video dropped. So the single most important article one needs to read to understand the ridiculous, embarrassing extent to which journalists doubled down after the release of that video came a couple days later — written by Laura Wagner, then of Deadspin.

“Don’t Doubt What You Saw With Your Own Eyes,” was the headline of her 21 January piece, which racked up more than a million views as my fellow left-of-center journalists eagerly passed it around to prove to one another, and themselves, that they’d done nothing wrong.

Posted a day after that video went online, Wagner criticised those who had backtracked from their earlier condemnation of the Covington kids, deriding them for “doing the work of the gibbering masturbators who had risen up in defense of the MAGA teens”. Bizarrely, it continued to take Phillips’ account as accurate, simply ignoring the evidence to the contrary: the new video, Wagner claimed, showed “that Phillips and other demonstrators present for the Indigenous Peoples’ March were interposing themselves between between teens draped in racist, misogynist paraphernalia and members of the Black Israelite cult,” strongly implying there was an ongoing confrontation at that precise moment.

Wagner’s article was an outrageous misinterpretation, and a particularly strange one in its insistence that it was others failing to respect the truth, but she was no outlier. Hence the million-plus views. Hence the lack, in most left-of-center quarters, of any sort of real reckoning with what a journalistic disaster this was. Once the outrage has set in, there’s very little incentive to let it go, because it feels unsatisfying and ego-threatening to admit such strong, morally charged feelings were unwarranted, that one’s own tribe was in error.

More than anything else, it sums up the increasingly potent belief among journalists that we must always be on guard about public instances of wrongspeak, that it’s potentially career suicide to be seen as falling on the wrong side of a given day’s most white-hot controversy (and, of course, every such controversy always has two sides and two sides only: a right one and a wrong one).

I call this the difference between rightside norms and accuracy norms. This is an oversimplified model, of course, but within a given community, accuracy norms incentivise people to seek out and state out loud the truth — to be the insufferable nerd who watches the video frame by frame, and who relies on that and only that if that’s what needs to be done — while rightside norms encourage people to loudly broadcast that they are on the right side of the issue, even if that requires twisting the evidence: Video be damned, I am not siding with those MAGA sickos!

Of course there are conservative rightside norms, too, and a great deal of climate-change denialism falls into that same bucket — a point Yale’s Dan Kahan has done some important work on. In fact, there’s a case to be made that Right-wing journalism has, in the not too recent past, suffered from a bigger rightside-norms problem than its left-of-center counterpart. This, at least, is the credible argument Mother Jones writer Kevin Drum has been making for a long time. “The hack gap is a liberal problem of long standing,” he wrote in 2012: “Conservatives outscore us considerably in the number of bloggers/pundits/columnists/talking heads who are willing to cheerfully say whatever it takes to advance the party line, no matter how ridiculous it is.”

I think the hack gap is shrinking, though. As social media has carved out a bigger and bigger part of the daily existence of progressive journalists, and as mainstream outlets have shuttered, shed their older, more traditionally journalistic staffers  — with the new blood flowing into the industry being generally younger, more privileged, more partisan, and less interested in or well-trained to do what is seen as “old-school” journalism — rightside norms have begun infecting mainstream journalism and spreading within it like a plague.

That’s my diagnosis, at least. But if you disagree, just go on Twitter, which is where just about every left-of-center journalist 40 and under spends a big chunk of each and every working day. Over and over and over, you will see people whose job is to report the truth responding with strong half-baked opinions, or retweeting their friends’ and colleagues’ strong half-baked opinions, in response to breaking-news events about which very little is known so far.

This is a problem for obvious reasons. Imagine you’ve just finished watching a film. You loved it. But when the lights come up your three friends all begin whinging about how much they hated it. When this happens, unless you have superpowers, you will inevitably tamp down on your own professed enthusiasm for the film. It’s very hard to publicly go against the crowd, even in a low-stakes situation like that one.

Social media makes it much harder, because you are never more than a few seconds away from knowing what the “right” stance is on a given issue. In the case of Covington, which did not feel low-stakes, we progressive journalists were presented with such a starkly moralised template — white kids in red MAGA hats versus Native protester — that rightside norms quickly piloted many of us into an iceberg.

These dynamics have a real chilling effect on journalism. Freddie deBoer wrote eloquently of them in an essay about “the backchannel,” explaining how social-justice-oriented communities will inevitably rot from the inside when public disagreement on certain sacred subjects is verboten.

“When within-group criticism is only voiced privately,” he wrote, “there’s no opportunity for the group to evolve, to shore up its weakness, to evaluate its own problems, to correct its own course. And political movements have to evolve or die. It’s a classic cause of political self-destruction, when a group’s inner dynamics become so ossified and conformist that no one is willing to point out the group’s problems. That’s the condition in far too many left spaces today: a near-total inability to point out the cracks in the foundation for fear of being shamed yourself.”

I want to be crystal clear about what I am not arguing here, lest I be misinterpreted. I am not arguing for a return to some sort of view-from-nowhere style of journalism. I have no problem identifying as both a journalist but also as a progressive and someone who dislikes Trump rather fiercely. There is nothing wrong with having your journalism be driven by a sense of general ideological mission; some of the best journalists covering the working poor care deeply about the working poor, believe they are treated unfairly, and want to see their station improved. They’re still capable of, and produce, honest journalism.

What I am saying is that if you call yourself a journalist, there needs to be some distance, somewhere, between your tribal allegiances and the way you do your job.

To be clear, a return to a slightly more “traditional” understanding of journalism’s mission won’t save us. We’re probably doomed either way, but our doom is only going to come sooner, and be far uglier, if we can’t demonstrate our ability to add value, if we advertise, loudly and sanctimoniously, that we have nothing to offer an increasingly hyperkinetic and confusing informational ecosystem other than just another set of screaming outraged Twitter avatars.