Media Structures & Regulations

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  • This 1968 Report Highlights Exactly Why Reporting On Race Is Still A Disaster

    Fifty Years Later, The "White Perspective" Still Dominates Media Coverage Of Race, Racism, And Violence

    Blog ››› ››› TYLER CHERRY

    In 1967, responding to a number of riots in black neighborhoods of cities including Detroit, Los Angeles, and Chicago, President Lyndon Johnson convened an investigatory commission to figure out how and why the riots had occurred.

    Seven months later, the commission published the informally named Kerner Report, spotlighting how institutional and explicit anti-black racism, police brutality, concentrated poverty, and political disenfranchisement had come together to spark the riots.

    The report also strongly criticized major media's shoddy coverage of the riots, warning that a "significant imbalance" between reality and news reports of the riots was exacerbating the schism between the country's "two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal." The report concluded:

    Along with the country as a whole, the press has too long basked in a white world, looking out of it, if at all, with white men's eyes and a white perspective. That is no longer good enough. The painful process of readjustment that is required of the American news media must begin now. They must make a reality of integration--in both their product and personnel. They must insist on the highest standards of accuracy--not only reporting single events with care and skepticism, but placing each event into meaningful perspective. They must report the travail of our cities with compassion and depth.

    Fifty years later, mainstream media continues to be defined by the "white perspective" that the Kerner Report hoped to challenge. And the media circus that surrounded the protests against police brutality in Ferguson, MO, in August 2014 and Baltimore, MD, in April 2015 shows how little has changed in the broken way the mainstream media talks about race, violence, and systemic inequality.

    Exaggerating The "Scope And Intensity" Of Protests

    The Kerner Report criticized media coverage of the 1967 riots for exaggerating the "scope and intensity of the disorders," which created "an impression at odds with the overall reality of events":

    ... there were instances of gross flaws in presenting news of the 1967 riots. Some newspapers printed scare headlines unsupported by the mild stories that followed. All media reported rumors that had no basis in fact.

    [...]

    This is not "just another story." It should not be treated like one. ... Reporters and editors must be sure that descriptions and pictures of violence, and emotional or inflammatory sequences or articles, even though "true" in isolation, are really representative and do not convey an impression at odds with the overall reality of events.

    Following Michael Brown's high-profile death at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO, and Freddie Gray's death while in the custody of Baltimore's police department, protests over the use of excessive police force and racial discrimination erupted. Though protesters clashed with police at times, the demonstrations largely consisted of civil rights leaders, activists, politicians, and residents coming together to mourn the injustices and raise awareness of the circumstances.

    TV and print media flooded their coverage of the Baltimore and Ferguson unrest with incendiary imagery, misleadingly casting the demonstration sites as war zones. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News rolled videos on loop of Baltimore buildings ablaze, police cars destroyed, and protesters in gas masks. Print newspapers led their front-page coverage with "fiery images of angry protesters attacking police vehicles, looting and burning buildings ... police in riot gear and tense moments between law enforcement and demonstrators," according to American Journalism Review. Online publications continuously posted incendiary pictures showing lawlessness and destruction.

    (Photo courtesy of American Journalism Review)

    But the sensationalized images that dominated cable and print media coverage of Baltimore and Ferguson painted a misleading picture of the crises there. As many commentators noted, the scenes in Baltimore and Ferguson were significantly calmer and less sensational than media watchers would likely have realized. ColorOfChange.org warned reporters covering Ferguson that "stories coming out of many major media outlets [painting] a picture of total lawlessness ... could not be further from the truth." The Daily Show also mocked the breathless media coverage of disorder in Baltimore.

    Baltimore resident Danielle Williams also called out this type of selective reporting during an on-the-street interview with MSNBC's Thomas Roberts, saying "when we were out here protesting all last week for six days straight peacefully, there were no news cameras, there were no helicopters, there was no riot gear, and nobody heard us. So now that we've burned down buildings and set businesses on fire and looted buildings, now all of the sudden everybody wants to hear us."

    Media also often printed exaggerated headlines that were unsubstantiated by the article body. An April 2015 Economist article describing the Baltimore protests was headlined "It's Chaos" and said the demonstrations were "best described not as a riot but as anarchy."

    But the article noted that "few protesters or people [were] fighting the police or hurling stones" and that "people standing around [were] mostly taking photos on their phones." What was first labeled as "anarchy" was then chronicled as "groups of young men, boys really, wearing bandanas and hoodies ... staring at anyone passing, and occasionally throwing projectiles at cars."

    Likewise, a Wall Street Journal article was headlined "Arrests in Baltimore as Freddie Gray Protests Turn Violent." But the piece mostly hyped what was otherwise non-violent protesting, including an "impromptu 'die-in'" and "a small group [throwing] cans and plastic bottles in the direction of police officers."

    Newsrooms covering Baltimore and Ferguson also disseminated misinformation that often originated from local city and police department officials. On April 27, 2015, The Baltimore Sun reported that a mass police presence had been pre-emptively convened near a Baltimore mall because of a "flier that circulated widely" among students online advocating a "purge," referencing the 2013 movie The Purge that dramatized a night of lawlessness and anarchy.

    After Baltimore students finished school and headed toward the mall, they were greeted by police in riot gear. Because of the purge rumors, the police allegedly shut down the subway and blocked buses from leaving, leaving hundreds of students on the streets unable to get home. A violent clash ensued. Baltimore Police Department Capt. Kowalczyk said the police would identify and arrest "lawless individuals with no regard" for safety.

    But the purge rumor was immediately disputed. Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) tried tracing The Baltimore Sun's account of the flier's distribution and said the evidence was "murky at best." FAIR noted how the Sun's shaky reporting ended up "creat[ing] a perception of actual danger that the proffered evidence doesn't substantiate." Mother Jones poked holes in the police's narrative that they responded to a "rumored plan" of students executing a purge, noting that "many of the kids, according to eyewitnesses, were stuck there because of police actions" -- not because they wanted to fight.

    Such shoddy reporting does more than run counter to journalistic ethics and best practices. Back in 1968, the Kerner report said the commission was "deeply concerned that millions of Americans, who must rely on the mass media, ... formed incorrect impressions and judgments about what went on in many American cities." 

    Ignoring Systemic Inequality Behind Unrest And Protests

    The Kerner Commission also harangued media for failing to investigate how systemic and institutional racism contributed to the riots:

    The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man's world. The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negro's burning sense of grievance, are seldom conveyed.

    [...]

    The media--especially television--also have failed to present and analyze to a sufficient extent the basic reasons for the disorders. ... [C]overage during the riot period itself gives far more emphasis to control of rioters and black-white confrontation than to the underlying causes of the disturbances.

    In 2014, Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation analyzed over a thousand national and local newspapers articles and cable television news transcripts to determine what percentage of race and racism coverage was "systemically aware" -- meaning it "mentions or highlights policies and/or practices that lead to racial disparities; describes the root causes of disparities including the history and compounding effects of institutions; and/or describes or challenges the aforementioned."

    The study concluded that "most of the mainstream media's racism content is not 'systemically aware,'" finding that "about two out of three articles on race and racism failed to include a perspective with any insight on systemic-level racism." It also concluded that "very rarely" did media "feature prominent, robust coverage of racial justice advocacy or solutions."

    Media coverage of the events in Baltimore and Ferguson similarly failed to investigate the role systemic inequality and institutional racism played in creating unrest, denying audiences the ability to understand those news events in context.

    A second Race Forward analysis examined media's race coverage specific to the Ferguson protests, seeking to determine "how much attention [race is] actually getting in the coverage."

    The study found that media overwhelmingly failed to contextualize the Ferguson protests in a broader discussion of racist policing practices. The Race Forward report found that although nearly half of the articles included "terms such as 'race,' 'racial,' 'racism,' 'racist,' and 'diversity,'" "only 34 of 994 articles analyzed led with a minimally systemically aware perspective."

    During a contentious interview with Fox's Sean Hannity, Adam Jackson, CEO of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, explained how this kind of reporting skewed understandings of the protests in Baltimore:

    ADAM JACKSON: The fundamental problem with the coverage of these stories is that it's mired with racist subterfuge, because to talk about the violence that's going on in Baltimore, and not talking about the systemic inequalities and racist policing practices that have led us to this point, it posits a situation where we're talking about either high violence in our communities or racist police when ... the task should be to fix both.

    Following unrest in Ferguson after Darren Wilson was not indicted, NPR TV critic Eric Deggans noted that cable news coverage of Brown's death had largely avoided a broader discussion of systemic issues like "poverty, urban gangs, aggressive drug enforcement and more":

    [T]ackling a difficult story about race in a panel debate format doesn't serve the issue and distracts from the serious questions at hand. It only serves television news networks' need for conflict among well-known opinionators.

    Trying to talk about systemic racial issues during a crisis is always much harder.

    Lack Of Diversity In Newsrooms And Reporting

    The Kerner Commission also attributed media's distorted race coverage to a lack of diversity in the newsroom:

    The journalistic profession has been shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training, and promoting Negroes.

    [...]

    If the media are to report with understanding, wisdom and sympathy on the problems of cities and problems of the black man -- for the two are increasingly intertwined -- they must employ, promote and listen to Negro journalists.

    The lack of newsroom diversity is just as germane and dire in 2015 as it was nearly 50 years ago. In 1967, "fewer than 5 percent of the people employed by the news business" were black, according to the Kerner Report. In 2015, 4.74 percent of newspaper employees were black, according to the latest data from the American Society of News Editors. Since 2000, the number of black journalists in newspaper newsrooms -- including supervisors, copy editors, producers, reporters, and photographers -- has dropped 52.3 percent.

    Some media leaders have sought to justify, or at least explain, these dismal numbers on newsroom diversity. Former Slate editor David Plotz said the recession caused newsrooms to go into "survival mode" and prioritize "saving ... jobs" over ensuring diversity. NYMag.com's Ben Williams said, "It's well-established that, in part due to economic reasons, not enough 'diverse' candidates enter journalism on the ground floor to begin with. So the biggest factor in improving newsroom diversity is getting more non-white male employees into the profession to begin with."

    But these arguments and others that invoke a so-called pipeline problem are "hollow," in the words of the Kerner Report. "The number of minorities graduating from journalism programs and applying for jobs doesn't seem to be the problem after all," Alex Williams wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review in 2015. According to his study, non-white graduates who "specialized in print or broadcasting" were 17 percent less likely to be hired by print and broadcast journalism organizations than non-minorities. "The problem," he wrote, "is that these candidates are not being hired."

    The Media As "Instruments Of The White Power Structure"

    The Kerner Report determined that the sweeping failure of media's race coverage in the 1960s had fostered a far-reaching sentiment of "distrust" in the black community for the media:

    [Persons interviewed] believe ... that the media are instruments of the white power structure. They think that these white interests guide the entire white community, from the journalists' friends and neighbors to city officials, police officers, and department store owners.

    Fifty years later, similar distrust of mainstream news media persists. A September 2014 survey by the American Press Institute found that 75 percent of African-Americans thought the press accurately portrayed African-American people and issues "moderately," "slightly," or "not at all." The authors posited that the "news ecosystem itself" -- one where the black community has scant access to black-centered news sources -- "is uneven, potentially creating uneven perceptions."

    Another survey, by the Pew Research Center, found that nearly 60 percent of African-Americans "say that news coverage of blacks is generally too negative." Conversely, 75 percent said coverage of whites was "too positive" or "generally fair." And a majority of African-Americans said the "amount of coverage news organizations give to race relations" is "too little."

    The media's flawed race coverage has real consequences. The Kerner Report warned, "If what the white American reads in the newspapers or sees on television conditions his expectation of what is ordinary and normal in the larger society, he will neither understand nor accept the black American." Today's flawed reporting continues to pose an obstacle to educating broader audiences about the realities of racial injustice, police brutality, and systemic inequality. 

    It Doesn't Have To Be This Way 

    The media hasn't always provided such skewed coverage of race, racism, and violence. During the 1950s and 1960s, the press played a key role in bringing to light the systematic discrimination of black Americans, helping to galvanize widespread reform.

    As detailed in Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff's book The Race Beat, a history of reporting during the Civil Rights era, Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish economist and sociologist sent by the Carnegie Corporation to the American South, reported in the 1940s that the plight of black Americans could be improved only if white Americans in the North became aware of their struggle. Consequently, Myrdal wrote in the book An American Dilemma, "the future of race relations ... rested largely in the hands of the American press" exposing these racial crises.

    As the civil rights movement swept the nation, the press listened. Roberts and Klibanoff explained that the way the white press reported on race conspicuously improved over the next two decades, with newspapers opening new bureaus in the South, assigning full-time staff to cover the movement, and hiring black reporters. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a prominent civil rights leader during the time, told the authors, "If it hadn't been for the media -- the print media and television -- the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings, a choir without a song."

    But when the demonstrations turned violent in the latter half of the 1960s, the authors write, the improvements in coverage slipped away. Whereas "white journalists" reporting on civil rights in the South "were threatened by white mobs and found safety in black neighborhoods," the journalists investigating rioting in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965 "fled black mobs" and reported on the strife "from a distance, from outside the ghetto looking in." As the riots raged on, according to the book, black people saw the news "portray[ing] the militancy of black power" and "'simplistically' focusing on the violence and mayhem of the riots" without examining the underlying problems, leading to the problems detailed by the Kerner Commission and the way the media continues to report on race now.

    Fifty years ago, the Kerner Report urged the American media to begin the "painful process" of fixing its racial justice reporting. The fact that its criticisms are still so pertinent, and the historical example of responsible reporting throughout the civil rights movement, point to the need for higher standards in accurate, appropriate, and inclusive race coverage.

  • What Megyn Kelly's Positive Press Tour Keeps Getting Wrong

    Blog ››› ››› OLIVIA KITTEL & BRENNAN SUEN

    The Fox News PR machine has capitalized on Megyn Kelly's charade as a debate moderator, parlaying it into high-profile interviews on late night talk shows and morning news shows, and a new book she has in the works promises another round of media attention later this year. These interviews provide the media with an opportunity to question her about the misinformation she promotes on her own show, when she's out of the national spotlight, but few are taking advantage.

    Kelly's supposed persona as a breath of fresh air and an unbiased journalist on Fox News -- bolstered by her position moderating the network's presidential debates -- has led to a series of laudatory profiles that have often willfully ignored her troubled past pushing conservative misinformation and bigotry.

    Kelly has been called a "take-no-prisoners newswoman" who "isn't afraid to throw hardballs at Republicans" and "the brightest star at Fox News." That pretense was reinforced by the journalists and pundits across the political spectrum who stepped up to defend Kelly after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attacked her, kicking off a feud with the network and then declining to participate in its January 28 presidential debate.

    Late night talk shows and morning news shows have not been immune to Kelly's hardball-throwing façade.

    On the February 5 edition of ABC's Good Morning America, host George Stephanopoulos gave Kelly a platform to gratuitously boost her credibility as a political journalist and respond to Donald Trump's attacks without asking about any of her controversial remarks.

    Kelly has also appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and has an upcoming high-profile scheduled appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert's post-Super Bowl episode, as well as a new book deal. In his interview, Fallon told Kelly that he didn't "really know your work as much until I saw you for the first Republican debate -- you were fantastic in that ... People that don't know you have to be like, 'Oh who is this person? She's phenomenal.'"

    Megyn Kelly's so-called "phenomenal" reputation in the media lacks important context, found in the full spectrum of her time at Fox, including her problematic history on subjects including race and gender.

    In the first two weeks of 2016, Kelly spent over 1 hour and 22 minutes promoting Michael Bay's myth-filled Benghazi movie "13 Hours" as "the gripping new film that may pose a threat to Hillary Clinton's hopes for the White House." She's used her prime-time Fox show to push falsehoods about Planned Parenthood, most recently asking whether a "political hit job" was at play in the grand jury indictment of two members of the group that released deceptively edited smear videos to attack the organization.

    She regularly hosts Tony Perkins, the leader of an anti-LGBT hate group, and has shown a penchant for inflammatory rhetoric on race, ranging from blaming a 14-year-old black teenager who was the victim of a police officer's use of excessive force to calling Black Lives Matter protesters "beyond the bounds of decency."

    When positive press praises Kelly's "occasionally, yet highly entertaining, bucking of the conservative party line," they downplay the fact that her show "is made up largely of the kind of stories you'd find on many other Fox News shows." Even the writer of Vanity Fair's glowing cover story, after making those observations, eventually noted that Kelly's "talent for fearmongering may be even more insidious than Trump's own. She, after all, is considered by many to be the reasonable one at Fox."

  • A Month Later, The Writer Of Vanity Fair's Fawning Megyn Kelly Cover Finally Writes About The Bad Stuff

    Blog ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN

    Vanity Fair's Evgenia Peretz wrote a glowing cover story on Megyn Kelly for the February edition of the magazine, praising her as "the brightest star at Fox News" and even a "feminist icon of sorts." Nearly a month later, Peretz followed up with some of the less laudatory aspects of Kelly's right-wing rhetoric that was left out of the original piece, noting that Kelly and GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump "have more in common than you think" and that Kelly's "talent for fearmongering may be even more insidious than Trump's own."

    Peretz's original profile was the latest in a series of laudatory profiles that similarly describe Kelly as someone who "buck[s] the conservative party line" while often ignoring her history of problematic coverage. One such example is how Kelly has obsessed about issues surrounding race, including the New Black Panther Party, to which she devoted "45 segments and 3.5 hours to hyping politically motivated and completely discredited allegations" during a two-week stretch of time. Kelly's history of inflammatory remarks about minorities, such as calling a 14-year-old black girl who was violently manhandled by a police officer "no saint either," has been well documented.

    In the midst of Donald Trump dropping out of Fox's January 28 Republican debate over Kelly's role as a moderator, Peretz penned another piece: "Megyn Kelly And Donald Trump Have More In Common Than You Think." In a sharp contrast, Peretz includes what was left out of the original profile, that "Kelly, like Trump, is not above playing to her audience's fears on dog-whistle topics when it suits her." As an example, Peretz writes that she questioned Kelly over the Black Lives Matter movement during her original interview, whose protesters Kelly called "obviously beyond the bounds of decency." This was not published in Peretz's high-profile cover story. Peretz also acknowledges what was inadvertently apparent in her original piece, that Kelly's "talent for fearmongering may be even more insidious than Trump's own. She, after all, is considered by many to be the reasonable one at Fox":

    As I wrote in my cover profile about her, Kelly is seeking to accomplish something far greater with her career than simply staring down Trump: she would like to become an influential and sought-after interview host, akin to Charlie Rose, or even Oprah Winfrey. To pull that off, she has strived to prove she can handle our thorniest national issues with the nuance and measure that they require, and not just her trademark "toughness." Yet Kelly, like Trump, is not above playing to her audience's fears on dog-whistle topics when it suits her.

    One of these topics--the Black Lives Matter movement--came up during the course of our interview for my piece. Kelly's perspective on the the issue was pointedly firm. "They're going out there and yelling in the cop's face 'Pigs in a blanket. Fry 'em like bacon.' It's obviously beyond the bounds of decency," she said of the protestors. "You don't want to say that, that's your business. If you think that's not an Edward R. Murrow moment, great. Good for you. Enjoy being that anchor. I'm a different kind of anchor." It seemed like classic Kelly defiance, but fair enough. There is a radical component to any protest movement, and reasonable people can debate how much media attention should be given to the fringe.

    [...]

    Kelly has chided guests for "adding to the hate," but in these moments, her talent for fearmongering may be even more insidious than Trump's own. She, after all, is considered by many to be the reasonable one at Fox.

    If Kelly truly wants to improve the level of discourse in this country, to elevate the conversation and indeed lay claim to the mantle of Rose or Winfrey, tomorrow night's debate--Trump or no Trump--is a good place to start. Indeed, Kelly told me that she has a "spiritual side," under-utilized at Fox, that she would like to dig into in the future. "I'm not talking about self-help exactly, but just the improvement of one's life. Those segments are interesting to me, how to improve one's own life and our world and our children's world." Perhaps she can tap into that.

  • With Donald Trump Abandoning Its Debate, Fox News Scorched By Its Own Chicanery

    Blog ››› ››› ANGELO CARUSONE

    Donald Trump

    GOP Presidential candidate Donald Trump backing out of Fox News' debate is a damning indictment of the creature that the right-wing media helped create and that the rest of the media enabled for far too long.

    Not only did Fox News and the rest of the right-wing media manufacture many of the lies that serve as the refrain of Trump's campaign, but they also fomented much of the racial antipathy and sexism that Trump is using to fuel his campaign.

    In this conservative universe, facts don't matter. Which is exactly why Donald Trump can claim that he is backing out of the Thursday's debate due to the fact that Fox News doesn't treat him well, despite the fact that Trump has appeared on Fox News at least two and a half times more than any of his GOP primary opponents. (I'll save the irony of Fox News being burned by the same kind of fact free attacks that the network conditioned its audience to respond to for another day.)

    In his rationale, Trump also cited concerns about the debate being moderated by Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. Trump has openly attacked Kelly since the first Fox News debate in August. But make no mistake, Donald Trump does not have a problem with Megyn Kelly because she's a serious journalist who asks really tough questions (she isn't). Nor is it because she challenges Trump's policies. Remember, Kelly was one of the first media figures to defend Donald Trump's claim that Mexican immigrants are rapists and killers.

    Trump has a problem with Megyn Kelly because at the first Republican primary debate, Kelly asked Trump about his misogyny and his long record of sexists attacks against women. Trump reacted by attacking Kelly, suggesting that she was on her period and subsequently threatening to boycott Fox News.

    Media Matters' John Whitehouse succinctly summed up the connection between the Kelly/Trump dynamic at play here and the right-wing media: "For decades, conservatives have not only made it clear that misogyny is allowed and acceptable, but that any attempts to silence it are wrong." Indeed. In 2012, Rush Limbaugh went on a multi-day tirade against then law school student Sandra Fluke, calling her a "slut," a "prostitute" and demanding that she post sex videos online among other attacks. Instead of condemning the attacks, conservatives lined up to defend Limbaugh's comments (including Megyn Kelly and then presidential candidate Mitt Romney.)

    Kelly's confrontation of Trump's misogyny was inconsistent with the values that the right-wing media audience has been steeped in. In this universe, facts don't matter, sexism is acceptable, and trying to stop misogyny is a punishable offense. Trump made gains within the conservative movement because of his prolific misogynistic offensive against Kelly, not in spite of it. With this latest gambit, I suspect his calculus is that he'll either make additional gains or suffer no consequences.

    Meanwhile, the rest of the news media has enabled Trump's bigoted bullying and chicanery by creating a consequence-free climate for Trump to operate in. Put aside that they have not given the Republican front-runner any meaningful scrutiny consistent with front-runners in previous elections. And, put aside the perverse incentive they advance by rewarding Trump with attention for each drop of vitriol. They have sat mostly idle while Trump intimidates and suppresses the news media in a way not seen in modern politics. Trump has thrown reporters out of events, had security guards threaten journalists not to interview rally attendees and banning entire media outlets from attending his public events. Instead of standing up for their colleagues and profession, the rest of the news media not only ignored Trump's attacks on the 4th Estate, but tripped over each other to give Trump even more attention.

    As this campaign season unfolded, we have seen the coalescence of fact free and consequence free.

    Just a few days ago, Donald Trump (who is fond of reminding people that he often carries a gun on his person) bragged that he believes his supporters are so devoted that he could shoot someone in cold blood in the middle of Fifth Avenue and in cold blood and not suffer any political consequences. Is it any wonder that he thinks he can get away with skipping this debate, especially among an audience that is already conditioned not to care about the facts?