How Not to Do Journalism
Don McNeil, Paloma Media, "Watchmen," Matt cuts his hair
Good morning from the Amtrak heading south along the Hudson River, which is frozen over as far as the eye can see, including around a little lighthouse past which late last summer I took a river trip, but I digress.
Which! Might make some of you happy, might be a relief, might have you wondering if the bowl of lug nuts I had for breakfast, which in fact I figuratively did, has been ground down to a somewhat smoother form. (Sound up, sorry; people were sleeping.)
You can say the story of Don McNeil was what started the engines this morning, but the engines, they’ve been revving all week/month/year(s), set in motion by the immolations we see made of people’s careers, usually based on no more than whisper campaigns that some journalist, who might make a career of such campaigns, decides to *light* *it* *up*, decides to click “post” at an opportune and tender moment, preferably when someone is riding high, getting accolades, getting sunshine that might (the theory goes) otherwise go to other people. Make the story glow! Feel its mighty and self-validating warmth! Look! the fire-starter says. Look how I can make institutions and people quake at the very idea they might be next! And they might be. Try me.
I read the New York Times piece, read the accusation against McNeil, read that during a “Student Journeys, a series featuring experts from the paper’s roster of staff members and contributors” in Peru in 2019, McNeil - one of the paper’s star science reporters and at the Times since 1976 - is believed to have used “a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist language.”
The reader is left to surmise what this slur might be, whether it was a quote from a song or a book or a TV show and when/where it might have occurred. There is no more context than what I posted above. There is a good deal of handwringing from the Times, including from executive editor Dean Baquet, whose job these days seems to be to apologize and hold internal meetings wherein his staff yells at him.
“I still get thrown by the thing where [McNeil] is described as ‘using’ a slur when what he actually did was ~refer~ to it by name (in order to identify it as a bad word).” Kat Rosenfield tweeted this morning. “Is this a journalistic norm now? Do people just genuinely believe there’s no difference?”
To which I commented that to see a difference requires perspective and reporting. That's not what these stories are doing, not what they’re interested in. These stories are more about reporters pre-setting rope traps and seeing who will get caught. Make the loops wide and wider; make them able to encompass both real and phantom transgressions, elastic enough to cover years, decades, centuries. Make sure the audience has a hunger for the public demolition of others and then, satisfy that hunger. I might not have any idea why you would, with all the grace given and hand-won talents you might offer the world, place audience response above complex and multifaceted truth-telling, why you would practice what Scott Greenfield labels, “Conclusory journalism: if we tell you what the conclusion is, you don't have to decide for yourself. Problem solved.”
Those who want to further "solve” the problem in this manner might give themselves some extra insurance, might gather stories of a similar ilk and run for the end zone. The Daily Beast is a fan of this method:
McNeil’s racist remarks have come to light during a period of controversy for the paper. Its award-winning podcast Caliphate has now been debunked; questions about its Pulitzer finalist host, star reporter Rukmini Callimachi, and her body of work for the paper remain unanswered…
A longtime reporter at the Times, McNeil has won numerous awards for his hard-hitting and incisive reporting on infectious diseases, including his coverage of the Zika and Ebola outbreaks, along with the AIDS crisis and has served as a foreign correspondent reporting from Africa and Europe.
It is good of the reporter to include that encomium, to add the weight of a 45-year career to the other side of the scale. Not that it matters. That’s not the point of the story, not what’s on offer. What’s offered is another portion of shame pudding, god help us if we’ve developed a taste for it; if we ourselves, sensing the heat of the match-head, start to say nothing. As a fellow journalist just emailed, “We will soon get to the point where even looking at the word will be considered an act of unimaginable racism.”
Do I know whether McNeil said something egregious? I don’t, and neither do you. Maybe someone will do the reporting to find out. Not that people will believe it; not when there are those who, showing their own predilections, consider the piece, “phenomenal reporting.”
It’s not phenomenal reporting; it is superficial and relies on outraged tweets to amplify the story so that it becomes a story, whose impact depends on how well you respond to outrage-fueled stories. It’s like an old movie pitches, “If you liked our takedown of Bari Weiss, you’ll love what we’re doing with Don McNeil!”
And here, I think, is where the writers, at the Daily Beast at least, make a fatal error. Into their pot of credibility they toss “Caliphate,” which they state “has now been debunked.” Well, no. Nothing in “Caliphate” has been debunked because nothing needed to be debunked. Go ahead and Google “caliphate” and “controversy” and you will read the outrage-artists amplifying the takedown. Then go listen to the series. Hear how it was always the case that the correspondents considered their main subject less than reliable, that he was perhaps a fabulist. Listen to the extraordinary work they do interviewing kidnapped and raped girls; how they give these girls voice and some measure of justice. Listen to the caginess of Canadian authorities refusing to answer Rukmini Callimachi’s questions about the possible fabulist, the same authorities who now have put that fabulist in an impossible legal bind, for which Callimachi’s and Andy Mills’ colleagues inside the New York Times have decided, they must pay. Listen to The Fifth Column episode (starting at 01.12.00) discuss the important and groundbreaking work of “Caliphate” and why media people might want to bring it creators down. Which is really not hard to understand, seeing their devotion to and success they’ve had with their rope tricks.
What might we journalists do instead, hm, let me see… how about we don’t shut up (as previously mentioned, #nevershuttingup™), how about we have these folks to the table? Which we will do. You come too! Yesterday, we set up both a YouTube channel and an Instagram for Paloma Media, so we can start pumping out more juicy goodness from the studio. And speaking of…
While for me a perk of Corona has been the Boys and their Long Hair, alas, it’s time for Matt Welch (above, on Mornin’!!!) to cut his. Let’s make it a party, shall we? This Sunday, we will livestream Welch getting his hair cut by a hot-shot hairstylist, the kind that gets flown to the Oscars to do Gwyneth Paltrow’s hair. Will I blast out ways for you to partake (as soon as we figure them out)? I will! Until then, go subscribe/follow on the ‘tube and the ‘gram.
Speaking of Mornin’!!!, I was on last week and gave a little kissing tutorial
No baking vid today (upcoming this weekend: an easy blueberry pie and peanut butter cookies), but I DID get this tweet-back from Alison Roman which, be still my heart.
Late to this but have been watching Watchmen with the kid and, it’s pretty great, incredible production values, and that music!
Speaking of the kid, the latest What Tafv Sent:
With love and hot pie xx