The media frenzy over Kobe Bryant’s death

Note: An edited version of this blog item appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on Feb. 3, 2020.

The controversy over the suspension and rapid reinstatement of a Washington Post reporter after a social media firestorm over coverage of Kobe Bryant’s death illustrates all too well where we are in the passion and often bad decision making of the digital age. In the hours after the initial report that the NBA legend had died in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles, reporter Felicia Sonmez sent a tweet with a link to a story on a years-old sexual assault allegation. 

There is a fundamental journalistic issue that has vexed obituary writers for generations. When a person dies, the general rule is to speak kindly and with reverence. Yet, many who die have bad things in their past. 

Bryant in 2003 was accused of sexual assault of a 19-year-old hotel employee in Edwards, Colo., not far from the celebrated ski areas of Vail and Beaver Creek.  The criminal charges eventually were dropped. A civil lawsuit resulted in an undisclosed settlement. Bryant maintained that the sex was consensual. It should be noted that Bryant in 2001 had married Vanessa Lane, the mother of his four children. One of the daughters, Gianna, 13, also died in the crash, as did seven others.

The tweet by Sonmez linked to a Daily Beast story published in 2016, “Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story, and the Half-Confession.” In an email sent to her and later released by Sonmez, executive editor Marty Baron said: “A real lack of judgment to tweet this. Please stop. You’re hurting this institution by doing this.” 

Perhaps reacting to the thousands of negative and often threating tweets and other social media comments, the paper placed Sonmez on administrative leave. Members of the paper’s Newspaper Guild protested the decision, saying that she should have been offered protection in light of the threats she received. The Washington Post isn’t the first mainstream news organization to cope with ethical complexities of social media, and it won’t be the last. The paper has made the right decision in reinstating Sonmez.

The day after the suspension, I posed the question to a class of 90 undergraduate students in my Media Ethics course at SMU in Dallas. A number of students spoke up. The consensus seemed to be that the reporter shouldn’t have sent out the tweet. There was clear sensitivity to the emotion of the moment when a beloved athlete with global standing was lost in a tragedy. And yet, there was clear sentiment that the suspension of the reporter was overreaction. I agree with the students on both counts. Any discussion of the sexual assault allegation would have been better handled with time and thoughtful consideration of the full picture of Bryant’s life. Unfortunately, the digital age doesn’t allow for that.

So much of what happens now is a digital moment. Social media and the immediacy of the Internet seem to dictate action and reaction with little thought. Good, solid reporting that is factual and sensitive gets overwhelmed in the news cycle. The mistakes and the controversies linger. There were factual mistakes made by mainstream media as well as social media. We’ve gotten accustomed to those mistakes since the world of Twitter became a prime news source. And the website TMZ announced quickly, before any family could be notified, that Kobe Bryant was dead. TMZ has never played by the norms of traditional media. 

The Newspaper Guild statement protesting the suspension noted that it is the responsibility of journalists to publish the whole picture of individuals and institutions, including that of a negative nature. And that’s certainly true. Yet social media seems only to encourage and exacerbate overreaction. Negativity reigns in making the snap judgments. Threats, insults and harsh conclusions have become the standards in communication, especially in the aftermath of major news stories.

Mainstream news media, print and broadcast, have for some years encouraged reporters and editors to engage in social media. Social media is used to link to stories that can build audience and help alleviate the economic cataclysm that has struck most traditional news organizations, especially newspapers. That miscues and even disastrous communications occur when responsible journalists are encouraged to make snap communications over social media should be no surprise. 

We have now had the 24-hour news cycle wrought by cable news for more than a generation. The idea that news was never complete and got on the air immediately with little or no vetting became the standard. Not only did reporting and journalism change, our very perception of the news changed. 

The same dramatic change is now taking place with social media and digital technology. The standards and ethics of the past no longer mean anything. News and reaction are even more instantaneous and less vetted than cable news. We interpret major news events through the brief sentences that often have truncated spellings, millennial-style initialisms and emojis, and horrible grammar.  Whatever we may think of these changes, they are here to stay. 

The sad state of media and Congress

The following op-ed was published in TheHill.com on Sept. 30, 2019.

Just as the 2020 presidential election has begun with Democratic candidate debates and the nation more polarized than ever, we add to the mix the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. Just when we need excellent journalism the most, the nation’s news media are more incapable of informing and enlightening the public than at any time in modern history. It is a sad and in many respects tragic time for the nation’s news media, marginalized by the economics of the digital age as well as by government, politics, and even the biases of the American people.

The economic calamity that has befallen news media, especially newspapers, has been well documented. The Pew Research Center reports that, in 2008, there were 114,000 journalists working in U.S. newsrooms including print, broadcast, and digital. In 2018, that number was 86,000, a decline of 25 percent. That change was particularly harsh for newspapers, with the number of newsroom employees declining to 38,000 from 71,000, a decline of 47 percent. Once-great metro newspapers in Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, Denver, Dallas, and Atlanta have experienced dramatic decreases in circulation and news staffs. And frequently when news media have been forced to lay off employees, older and more experienced journalists are the ones out the door. Younger, less experienced and cheaper journalists fill the gaps. 

In generations past, we had feisty secondary newspapers in major markets. Today, most are closed. In the few markets where secondary newspapers exist, they are just hanging on with barebones news staffs. 

The University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism reported last year that almost 1,800 newspapers — 60 dailies and 1,700 weeklies — have closed in the last 14 years. Many of the closures occurred in small towns and rural areas creating what university researchers call  “news deserts,” areas where people had no access to information about local and civic news.

Local television news has become more trivialized as viewership continues to decline. Network morning news programs are more devoted to breezy and brief news coverage with more emphasis on celebrity news and promotion of the prime-time lineup, especially programs such as “The Bachelorette” and “Love Island.” 

The political damage that has been done to news media can’t be underestimated. President Trump has consistent applause lines in referring to journalists as “enemies of the people” and noting “fake news.” Both Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton made changes to the First Amendment part of their campaigns in 2016. Trump proposed making it easier for public figures to sue media for damages, presumably eliminating the historic protections in the landmark Supreme Court decision in Times v. Sullivan in 1964. Clinton bought into the notion of changes that might overturn the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. Neither proposal had any chance of becoming reality, of course, but playing to the political base is now more important than discussions of substantive issues. The fact that major political candidates and the dominant political parties are even discussing First Amendment changes shows how little regard exists for the protections and rights considered a foundation of our liberty. Not to mention a lack of respect for the role of the press as a check on government.

But the threats to the free flow of information and access to government didn’t begin in 2016. We shouldn’t forget that the Justice Department under Eric Holder in the Obama administration seized telephone records of the Associated Press in a leak investigation in 2013. It apparently escaped administration notice that the action violated agreements protecting journalists published by the Justice Department in the 1970s.

Even earlier, the USA Patriot Act, passed within weeks of the terrorist attacks in 2001, closed off thousands of documents that had customarily been accessible, including many online. The act also provided government with a major loophole for “national security” that made it acceptable for government agencies to deny open records requests. Many state legislatures followed suit in creating new exemptions for security. 

All of us appreciate government actions to keep us safe. But many journalists and First Amendment advocates found that the federal Freedom of Information Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966, became virtually useless. The Associated Press reported that the Obama administration set records for refusals to the media and the public for information and also set records in tax money spent defending lawsuits over the refusals.

The track record for the Trump administration is no better and, in many cases, worse. Trump has even broken with tradition in refusing to release his tax returns. Transparency in the Trump White House seems more or less limited to opinions expressed on Twitter. 

Overall trust in the nation’s news media remains low, according to recent Gallup polling that  has tracked the confidence level since 1972. Only 41 percent of people surveyed have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of confidence in news media to report events fairly and accurately. When political views are considered, the data are even more troubling. Among Democrats, 69 percent have confidence in the news media; among Republicans, only 15 percent have confidence. 

The “echo chamber” effect of news consumption has also been made clear in polling by various organizations. Conservatives have their news sources, and liberals have theirs. Watching the same story on Fox News and CNN is often like watching news from two different planets. We seem to want only news that confirms what we believe.

Congress fares even worse than the news media in polling of confidence levels. As the impeachment process focuses on the House, Americans are sure to have even more sharply divided opinions about government and the news media. The charges that President Trump asked a foreign government to investigate a political opponent are serious and deserve serious consideration from the Congress and serious, factual reporting from the nation’s news media. Don’t count on the public having much confidence in either. 

Tiger and the Masters

Accolades and comparisons with history have been flowing since Tigers Woods’ one-stroke victory yesterday in the Masters, his 15th major. There had been 22 years pass since his first Masters win in 1997, 14 years since his last Masters win in 2005, and almost 11 years since his last win in a major, the U.S. Open in 2008. I had predicted in this blog a couple of years ago that Tiger was finished as a major title contender. A failed marriage, publicity over multiple affairs, and health issues resulting in major back and knee surgeries all had made such prospects dim. This is not, to me, comparable to Joe Namath and the New York Jets winning Super Bowl III over the Baltimore Colts in 1969. Joe Namath was a personal hero, and the fact that he predicted a win while his team was such an underdog ranks very high in my sports history catalog. Nor did Tiger’s win have the global impact and national catharsis of the U.S. hockey team beating the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid. I have never witnessed such collective emotion in sports as seen after that event.

Tiger Woods sinks a short putt to claim his 15th major golf championship.

As to my prediction two years ago, I hereby eat my words. And I apologize to the greatest golfer of his era. I have followed sports and especially golf since I was eight years old in 1958. Tiger’s win yesterday is the most extraordinary individual comeback I’ve ever witnessed. We all like comebacks, and this is one for the ages. At the age of 43, after all his personal turmoil and health issues, he won against a generation of players he helped inspire who are stronger and every bit as capable as he ever was. Tiger is no longer the longest off the tee. There have always been better drivers of the golf ball, better short iron players, even better putters. But no one ever put all of the elements of golf together better than did Tiger in his glory years. Nor has any other golfer had such a flair for the dramatic, pulling off incredible shots at exactly the right time.

When he first came onto the tour in the 1990s, swing analysts noted the likelihood of injury with the aggressive and even violent movement he made over the golf ball. He had extraordinary hip rotation, creating club head speed and making him always at or near the top in tour driving distance. The swing took a toll on his lower back and left knee, which absorbed the pressure of the movement. Sure enough, a rebuilt left knee and multiple back surgeries followed. His swing is a bit more controlled than it was in the past, although he still seems to hit shots wide to the right. Whether the back and the knee continue to hold up is anyone’s guess, as is whether or not Tiger can approach the record of Jack Nicklaus with 18 major titles.

This week is a time to celebrate what sport has always meant when sport is at its best. It’s a drive to succeed against the longest of odds, the ability to overcome obstacles, and to demonstrate the fierce will to win that all champions have. I saw very little in the way of social media that was against Tiger. Clearly, some people maintain a bit of a grudge against him for his actions, and clearly some of his problems were his own doing. But golf creates the crucible for individual pressure, grace, and intensity that no other sport offers. It is an individual sport, and what happens is entirely of a player’s own doing. Yesterday, we saw the brilliant Italian Francesco Molinari fail when he hit shots into the water on the famous 12th hole and then again on the 15th at Augusta, ending with double bogeys on both. It was painful to watch, but then we were reminded again what grace is when Molinari patiently answered questions after his loss. “Sometimes it’s your day,” he said. “Sometimes it isn’t.”

The legendary golf writer for The New Yorker, Herbert Warren Wind, perhaps said it best: “Beyond the fact that it is a limitless arena for the full play of human nature, there is no sure accounting for golf’s fascination. Perhaps it is nothing more than the best game man has ever devised.”

Honor servir como presidente de CLAEP

Ha sido un gran honor servir como president de CLAEP, el consejo de acreditación para las escuelas en periodismo y comunicación en América Latina. Aquí es el texto de mi discurso final:

VIII ENCUENTRO DE PROGRAMAS ACREDITADOS POR CLAEP

Abril 15,16 y 17 de 2018

Quito, Campus Universidad de Los Hemisferios

Gracias a todos ustedes por asistir a este octavo encuentro de escuelas de periodismo y comunicación de América Latina, acreditadas por CLAEP.

Debo un agradecimiento especial a la Universidad de los Hemisferios en Quito, al Dr. Daniel López y a todo su equipo de trabajo, por su inestimable apoyo  y por abrir las puertas de su casa para sede de este encuentro. También quiero agradecer la colaboración de la escuela de Comunicación de la Universidad Técnica Particular de Loja.

Antes de nada, quiero mencionar lamentablemente el asesinato de tres personas en el área de la frontera con Ecuador y Colombia. Me refiero al periodista Javier Ortega, al fotógrafo Paúl Rivas y el conductor Efraín Segarra de El Comercio de Quito. Personalmente les envío mis más sinceras condolencias a mis colegas en El Comercio y especialmente a las familias y muchos queridos amigos de los tres.  La Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa, en reunión de medio año en Medellín, Colombia, ha hecho una condena muy fuerte. Hace muchos años, Ecuador ha sido un país sin violencia contra periodistas. Ojalá que este acto de violencia no sea un cambio para el futuro.

Mis colegas, nos encontramos en un momento de grandes cambios y retos en la educación en periodismo y comunicación. Nunca hubo más necesidad de considerar cuidadosamente cómo enseñamos y qué enseñamos a nuestros estudiantes. Estamos en un momento de transición en los medios de comunicación muy distinta de cualquier otra en nuestra historia.

El populismo en todo el mundo ha cambiado el panorama político. Veo el cambio en Europa, pero especialmente en Inglaterra y su transición con Brexit. Los retos políticos y los cambios grandes están ocurriendo en muchos países de América Latina, incluso aquí en Ecuador. Como ustedes saben, estamos pasando por un momento especialmente difícil en los Estados Unidos. Además de los retos económicos que han afectado a todos los medios de comunicación, tenemos amenazas políticas específicas, así como la nueva acusación de noticias falsas, o fake news. La credibilidad de nuestros medios de comunicación nunca habían estado en duda antes. Los periodistas y los medios de comunicación nunca habían estado en baja estima por la opinión pública. Pero esto cambió.

En esta reunión, vamos a escuchar presentaciones sobre nuevas tecnologías, cómo monetizar el contenido en el Internet, las fuerzas del autoritarismo que limitan la libertad de expresión y la libertad de prensa, los cambios provocados por las redes sociales en el gobierno y el público, y, tal vez lo más importante, escucharemos a nuestros estudiantes.

Escucharemos informes sobre investigaciones académicas realizadas por nuestras universidades acreditadas. Quiero enfatizar la importancia de nuestra investigación y cómo nuestra investigación debe ser una parte integral de la enseñanza. Si hay estudiantes, profesores, investigación y docencia, entonces tendremos las características adecuadas de una universidad.

Este será el último discurso que haga en un encuentro de CLAEP, como su presidente.

Ha sido uno de los más altos honores de mi vida profesional servir como su presidente. Como ustedes saben,  anteriormente fui editor del Houston Chronicle y también presidente de la Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa en el 2000.

Recuerdo bien la formación de CLAEP y mi participación personal, que comenzó con una conferencia hemisférica de la SIP en Cantigny, Illinois en 1995. En 2003,  comencé la segunda parte de mi carrera profesional como profesor de periodismo en Southern Methodist University en Dallas, Texas. He trabajado más de 40 años en periodismo. Ha sido un honor y un privilegio trabajar todos los días de estos años en el periodismo.

Mañana, mi colega Aurellio Collado va a presentar un discurso de la clausura de este encuentro. Aurellio serå el proximo presidente de CLAEP. Aurellio ha trabajado hace muchos años en CLAEP. Yo observé Aurellio en muchas situaciones. Es un muy buen amigo, y les pido a ustedes para todo su apoyo en todos los proyectos que él está planeando. Él hablará mañana sobre el future de CLAEP.  Escuchen bien, por favor. Aurellio, te felicito, y te agradezo.

Los dejo con dos afirmaciones que creo con todo mi corazón.

1. Sin una prensa libre, la gente nunca será libre. La libertad de prensa está intrínsicamente ligada a la democracia, y la democracia nunca sobrevivirá a largo plazo sin una prensa libre.

2. Es común y popular criticar a nuestros jóvenes en todas partes del mundo. Hay dudas sobre su ambición de mejorar el mundo, escepticismo sobre su capacidad de aprender. Nuestros jóvenes son llamados perezosos e irresponsables. Mis colegas, no crean ni una palabra de esto. Si hay algo que es fake news en el mundo, es eso.

Aquí van las noticias reales para ustedes:  nuestros jóvenes, nuestros estudiantes, nuestros hijos y nuestros nietos, son más inteligentes y están mejor preparados para el mundo en el que vivirán. Enseñémosles bien y esperamos que vivamos lo suficiente para ver cómo estos jóvenes pueden cambiar el mundo.

Finalmente, gracias a ustedes por su apoyo y su participación durante estos años. Mi especial agradecimiento a Suzy Mitchell, quien como siempre, ha organizado esta reunión y que ha sido una gran amiga para mí. Desde mi corazón, Suzy, muchas gracias.

CLAEP va a crecer y será un gran éxito con el compromiso de la gente en este encuentro y otros que responderán al llamado de la excelencia en los próximos años.

Les deseo solo lo mejor. Godspeed to you all.

 

SMU Student Media Inc. to dissolve

The following column was published earlier today on www.smudailycampus.com.

Student and alumni reaction has been strong and emotional regarding the closing of Student Media Company Inc. at Southern Methodist University. Formed almost 90 years ago, the independent company publishes the SMU Campus Weekly (formerly The Daily Campus) student newspaper and the Rotunda yearbook. Declining ad revenue is forcing the change. The concerns have centered on loss of independence and the possibility that free speech by students will be lost and that censorship by the SMU administration could be a factor in future publications.

The print newspaper will cease to exist with its last edition next month. The online version of the paper, SMUDailyCampus.com, will continue under the supervision of the Division of Journalism. The future of the Rotunda is uncertain.

I am pleased by the reaction from students and alumni. It means that in our journalism classes, we have taught them the value of the First Amendment and the dangers of limiting press freedom. The historical lesson, from every part of the world, is that democracy suffers when freedom of expression is restricted.

I hope, too, that our students have learned the history of SMU, and some of the tradition of its Wesleyan founding. There is a seminal story frequently told by the late SMU Professor Emeritus Marshall Terry. It concerned an incident in the 1950s when Cold War tensions were running high and the fear of communism was palpable. Willis Tate was president of SMU, and unbeknownst to him, a student group had invited John Gates, an avowed Communist and former editor of the Daily Worker, to speak.  Tate only found out about the invitation by reading the SMU Daily Campus, and he was not pleased.

In his history of SMU titled From High on the Hilltop, Terry put it this way: “These were Joe McCarthy times and, in Dallas, John Birch times of ultraconservatism when SMU already seemed scary pinko to many.”  The “pinko” reference had been directed personally at President Tate by a columnist in The Dallas Morning News, and Tate had already been heavily criticized by the Ku Klux Klan for permitting the integration of SMU.  Once word circulated about Gates, civic groups were quick to criticize the event.  Even the SMU Mothers Club expressed opposition to the Gates appearance.

Tate withstood the firestorm. Gates spoke on campus. In recalling the incident years later, Tate said he believed it essential for a university to serve as a marketplace of ideas.  Tate is remembered for his firm commitment to academic freedom as well as free speech. Today the Willis M. Tate Distinguished Lecture Series is one of SMU’s signature events.

Just in the last year, questions have been raised about speakers, some conservative, on the SMU campus. Yet speeches have been made, and the discourse has been civil. SMUDailyCampus.com was first to report about the controversy to move an annual 9/11 display from in front of Dallas Hall. There was miscommunication involved, but it was a bad move and everyone knew it. President R. Gerald Turner apologized in a letter to the SMU community.

Economic realities have, sadly, affected virtually every news media organization in the United States. Student media operations at many universities have been forced to change. Every member of our journalism faculty at one point worked in professional news media. We are disheartened by the changes but committed to preserving freedom of the press in every facet of the classroom and newsroom.

I personally have spent the last 40 years working for press freedom issues in Latin America. While president of the Inter American Press Association in 2000, I led a press freedom forum in Bogotá, Colombia. The civil war and narcotrafficking at the time were taking the lives of dozens of journalists every year. I’ll never forget a question posed by a young newspaper reporter at the forum. “What kind of a choice is it,” he asked, “when you have to choose between a story you know is important and your life?”

The choices we are making on press freedom in the United States, and on every college campus, are fortunately not life threatening. But they are no less profound.

 

The Oscars go swimming, and drown

The Academy Awards ceremony Sunday night was excruciating. I love movies, and I fear the Oscars are only serving to further alienate the film industry from the American public. I realize I’m starting to sound like a commentator on Fox News, and that really isn’t my intent. But for Pete’s sake. They get a script about a woman falling for a fish, make a movie out of it, and it wins the Oscar for Best Picture. I sent out a tweet a few months back after I saw The Shape of Water. I think I said something like it was beyond me, and maybe I wasn’t smart enough to get it. Of course we all get it. It’s about inclusion, acceptance, being warm and fuzzy in the Era of Trump. (Everything’s targeted to the Era of Trump these days.) It was so transparent, in fact, it’s banal. Inclusion and acceptance are hardly new themes for film. It’s been done many times before, and better.

The ratings for the show continue to plummet faster than those for the National Football League. This year’s ratings were 20 percent below the show of 2017 and the worst ever for the ceremony. The show itself is widely panned, the monologues aren’t funny, the entertainment quality of the show is marginal at best, and, oh yes, the show is way too long and way too filled with Hollywood types trying to affirm their own self-importance. And how many breathless, worthless red-carpet interviews do we really need to sit through? A bunch of films to which the public had little commercial response are awarded, and the people in Hollywood continue on their parallel universe.

There were a few tidbits of justice mixed in with the nonsense. Frances McDormand won Best Actress and Sam Rockwell Best Supporting Actor for superb performances in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. For my money, Three Billboards was the best film of the year. Gary Oldman won Best Actor for a masterful portrayal of Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour, a film that seemed to lack any real punch. And who can argue with James Ivory’s Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Call Me By Your Name? Aaron Sorkin was also nominated in the adapted screenplay category for Molly’s Game, an entertaining and well-paced film in which Jessica Chastain gave an excellent performance as a leading actress that the Oscars somehow didn’t notice.  Also largely overlooked was The Greatest Showman, a lively film loved by the public and that was a huge commercial success. But it was too simple and straightforward for critics and the Academy. The Greatest Showman received one Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song, and lost.

I noted earlier that inclusion and acceptance have been done in films many times before. I could name a number of films, but for reference see Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, released in 1967 and that earned a Best Actress Oscar for Katharine Hepburn. The film also starred Sidney Poitier and Spencer Tracy in his last movie. Tracy died just days after filming ended. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is recognized by the American Film Institute in its 100 Years…100 Movies list. The movie also contributed significantly to an ongoing and badly needed discussion of race in America. Maybe I’ve just missed it, but I haven’t detected much of an ongoing discussion or even a need to discuss relationships with fish.

 

Salute to Dudley Althaus

Dudley Althaus, one of the best journalists ever to report from Latin America.

My friend and former Houston Chronicle colleague Dudley Althaus is retiring today.  One of the smartest things I ever did was to approve his hiring as Mexico City Bureau chief for the Chronicle while I was managing editor.  He was already based in Mexico City, and he had wonderful and detailed institutional knowledge of the country and its government. After budget cuts in Houston, Dudley went to work for The Wall Street Journal. His detailed reporting and elegant prose have ceased to be published in U.S. journalism. I hope that is only temporary, but having communicated with Dudley recently I fear his retirement will really mean retirement. It’s a shame. His last story appeared today in the Journal.  Sam Quinones today has published a very nice blog item on Dudley in which he describes Dudley’s role as the leader of the Mexico City press corps. I share Sam’s concern that newspapers have cut budgets to the bone. Democracy will suffer. Unfortunately, international coverage has been among the items editors have found easiest to cut. What has happened to news media and, specifically, newspapers, is one of the great tragedies of journalism history. I hope, somehow, a recovery will be made in the ongoing transition to the Digital Age, but I doubt it.

Dudley was like most great writers I ever worked with. He fretted every detail. He was meticulous in fact checking. He was always concerned with fairness. He developed a deep and abiding love and respect for the people of Mexico and all of Latin America. He lamented the poverty he saw daily. He taught me a great deal about Latin America and helped stimulate my own learning and love for the Latin American culture.  At the Chronicle, he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his reporting on the cholera epidemic in Peru. Back in the 1990s, the Chronicle had resources to allow Dudley to travel widely. He loved the job, and I gave him wide latitude. He never failed to produce journalism of relevance and interest to our readers in Houston.

On my last day of work at the Chronicle, in late May of 2003, Dudley happened to be in Houston, and I was honored to have drinks with him when I left the office. I always have a room for you in Dallas, my friend. And, as you know, I keep a nice supply of tequila for such special occasions.

Trump and his language

The news today is full of accounts of a White House meeting yesterday on immigration. Trump, apparently after becoming agitated, made strong comments about some nations, including Haiti, El Salvador and some African countries.  Early news accounts said he referred to the nations as “shithole countries.” In a follow-up story today in The Washington Post, Trump seemed to deny the use of the profane term.  My very proper Methodist mother, were she alive, would say that she would like to wash the president’s mouth out with a bar of soap. Democrats and some Republicans are understandably outraged by the remark, if it were made. Rights groups have also condemned such comments. The pattern of Trump’s harsh language and insulting references to people, including some world leaders, unfortunately continues.

Democrats have been floating for months the idea that Trump is unstable, possibly suffering early Alzheimer’s, and in any case is unfit to be president. Their fantasy involves some scenario, impeachment or possibly the people in the White House uniting in the effort, where Trump would be removed from office. Any such scenario seems a remote possibility, at best. The Trump presidency continues to be erratic and at times irrational, despite regrouping at the end of 2017 to pass a major rewrite of the tax code. Democrats are fearful that the tax cuts will turn out to be popular with the public, which they probably will.

Nonetheless, Trump damages his presidency and his own standing by the crudeness of his language. Several months ago, his rant against NFL players who won’t stand for the National Anthem is such an example. His desire to “get that son of a bitch off the field” is just not necessary. And this was well after the release of audio recorded before his campaign in which he referenced grabbing a certain women’s body part. Now, I try not to be a prude about language. The level of profanity used by both young men and women frequently strikes me as vulgar, disrespectful and unnecessary. Trump is not only setting a bad example, but he plays into the hands of opponents who believe he has brought a mean-spiritedness to the White House. Whether mean spirited or not, Trump displays a rude and crude nature that is unbecoming of a president.

Returning professionalism to journalism

Bruce Sanford, partner at BakerHostetler in Washington, D.C., presented the 18th annual Sammons Lecture in Media Ethics last evening on the SMU campus. Bruce is one of the top First Amendment and media lawyers in the United States. The title of his lecture was “Trusting the Media in the Age of Trump.” A complete text of his lecture can be found here:  2017 Sammons Lecture in Media Ethics 

Bruce Sanford, partner at Baker Hostetler in Washington, D.C.

Bruce has represented the top news organizations in the United States on a variety of matters including libel defense and freedom of information. I have known him for many years, and he is a passionate and articulate voice for government transparency as well as professional and responsible news reporting. It was a challenging lecture for journalism students, and honestly a bit more optimistic that I am regarding the future of news media.  But he gave several excellent examples of innovative journalism that have created new avenues for accountability and integrity in news reporting.

We remain in a strange and difficult time in American politics, and the relationship between the government and the media has shifted significantly in the last 20 years. These changes have been chronicled in the mainstream press, academic work, and also in this blog. As Bruce noted in his lecture, confidence in the news media is at an all-time low. And often with good reason. “The sobering reality about the public’s relationship with the media is that, like an ugly divorce, there are contributions to the unhappiness from both sides,” he said. “As consumers of news, there are some things we bring to the dysfunction that only we can change.”

We didn’t reach this fragile place overnight, and no doubt both our political environment and the news media will require long-term repair. From the media standpoint, the digital age has wrought change no one could have imagined at the turn of the millennium. And the only certainty is that change will continue at a rapid pace. Thoughtful and reasoned consideration about a free press and its function in democracy will be needed from both our political class and our leaders in news media.

A salute to women in newspapers

Vivian Castleberry, who was in the vanguard of women in newspaper journalism.

Today we mourn the passing of the legendary Dallas journalist Vivian Castleberry. She was 95. The Dallas Morning News marked her death with a beautifully written story on her career.  The piece noted but some of the skepticism, sexism and discrimination she experienced when beginning in the newspaper business at a time when it was dominated by men. The story caused me to reflect on the handful of women I knew and worked with at the Houston Chronicle who had come into newspapers at the same time Vivian did. It was a group of women who graduated from college in the 1940s and entered the workforce in the era immediately after World War II.  Vivian graduated from high school in 1940 and was awarded a scholarship at SMU. She studied journalism, and served as editor of The Campus, the student newspaper.

I never met Vivian until I began teaching at SMU in 2003. But I could tell she was cut from the same cloth as the women I had known and admired in Houston. They came from a time when women in newspapers were generally limited to work in the Women’s News departments. The sections they produced were dominated by news of homemaking, fashion, child rearing and the basic domestic responsibilities thought to belong to women in those days. But what they proved over time, and Vivian was certainly in this group, is that they were damned fine reporters. They brought a different perspective to the stories they covered, the questions they asked, and how they wrote.  Ultimately they won the highest awards in journalism. Many went on to become fine editors, and the newspaper business, slowly but surely, changed for the better.

In the times I was with Vivian, she was never without that infectious smile. She was unfailingly kind and gracious. And even into her 90s, she had an enthusiasm and an intellectual curiosity that made her the journalist she was. She will be missed, but her contributions to journalism will never be forgotten.