The Facebook problem

It finally happened. Video of a murder has been uploaded on Facebook. It was only a matter of time. A grandfather from Cleveland, Ohio, Robert Godwin Sr., 74 years old, was approached by a sick gunman and killed. The gunman recorded the video, including audio of what apparently is the killer’s voice just before shooting Godwin. Two days later, the alleged assailant, Steve W. Stephens, 37, shot and killed himself. The video of the murder was online for about two hours and of course seen and shared.

After I wrote a piece about fake news recently and cited Facebook as a continuing source, I had a query from a young family member asking me if I thought Facebook had any responsibility for cleaning up the fake news. My response was that Facebook only had a responsibility for continuing as the cesspool for political hysteria that it had become. I noted in the piece, originally published in the Houston Chronicle, that people who depended on Facebook or any other social media outlet for real news deserved what they got. Which frequently was garbage.

The posting of a video showing a murder is another matter. Facebook does screen and remove sick and objectionable content. But the fact that this video remained online for any length of time is reprehensible. There must be better mechanisms for screening content, and they must be found immediately. It’s one thing for news of a political nature to be totally fabricated and put online. I say, Who cares? The quality of the standard political dialogue on Facebook is not just lacking in accuracy but is shrill, inane and often nonsensical.  I was pleased when I asked my media ethics students, in a class of about 70, how many were using Facebook less than they did two years ago. Nearly every hand went up. Snapchat, it appears, is quickly taking over the college-age group as the social medium of choice, along with Instagram.

I am reminded of the case of former Pennsylvania Treasurer Budd Dwyer who killed himself in the state capital in 1987. He had been convicted of accepting a bribe. He called a news conference in which he said he had been framed. He then pulled out a .357 Magnum and shot himself in the mouth. I discuss this in ethics each semester. There were photographs and video taken of his suicide. And the handling of his case by news media is still an excellent teaching tool for students wanting to be journalists. Believe it or not, there are still some of us who believe that news media can and should be ethical. The photos and video of Dwyer are of course available on the Internet.  I have read that the video has been played in late-night clubs. That is another matter of societal sickness, but it’s really beyond the scope of this post.

The tragedy recorded and posted on Facebook is related only because of the media context. One can only feel the deepest sympathy for the family of Robert Godwin. And we perhaps will never know the added anguish over the fact that the tragic end of his life apparently was thought to be entertainment by a twisted mind. The various tools of social media have connected a world in ways never before imagined. But the potential damage and societal harm that they can create must also be dealt with by those responsible for the tools. Censorship is an awful and damaging tool of tyranny and corruption, and I remain as much a staunch advocate of free speech as ever. But there is nothing of a philosophical or legal nature that creates a right for those with sick minds to inflict their criminal activity on a digital public.

Trump and the media

Note: An edited version of this post ran as an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle on Feb. 12, 2017 under the headline “When Facts Become Optional.” The piece is online on the SMU website under “Fake News and Alternate Facts.”

Fake news and alternate facts have become the discussion du jour of the nascent Donald Trump presidency.  One might suppose, even hope, that if Hillary Clinton had won the election the world of Democrats and Progressives would have remained in its tidy orbit and we could have been spared this journalistic and political crisis. Instead, the erratic and even angry campaign of Trump has morphed into a presidency of like tendencies.

There were several key moments of concocted news during the campaign, perhaps the most recognized being the bulletin of Pope Francis endorsing Trump. Didn’t happen. We also had from The New York Times the headline “How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study.” The piece detailed a tweet sent the day after the election from a marketing company co-founder in Austin with about 40 Twitter followers. The tweet concerned busloads of anti-Trump protesters who were being paid to protest the election. The tweet was shared, according to the Times, 16,000 times on Twitter and 350,000 times on Facebook. Then President-elect Trump took to his own Twitter account to denounce the protests as “incited by the media” and “very unfair.” Discussion groups and blogs picked up the details, all shared thousands of more times on social media. Of course, there were never actually busloads of paid protesters. The original tweet was finally taken down, but to little notice.

In a cold and perhaps even elitist analysis, I might say that people depending on Facebook and Twitter for news deserve what they get. That we even consider Facebook a source of news says  more about the damaged and deeply flawed psyche of American democracy than it does about social media.

But in a larger context of the free flow of information essential to self-governance, legitimate questions must be asked. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump campaigned on major changes in the First Amendment and our concept of a free press. Clinton bought into the loopy concept of rewriting the First Amendment in order to change the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United in 2010. Trump pledged to change libel laws to make it easier for public officials to sue news organizations. That would presumably change the Supreme Court’s landmark 1964 decision on press freedom in Times v. Sullivan.

We could also digress to another discussion of serious damage already done to the First Amendment by the two previous administrations. While we all understand a legitimate need for national security, the USA Patriot Act passed in the weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 has created a disruption in the flow of information from government agencies as well as an extraordinary level of government secrecy. And there was the seizure of phone records of the Associated Press by the Eric Holder Justice Department, as well as the record-setting prosecution of leaks by the Obama administration.

This is a bit of a digression, but none of it bodes well for real news in a politically polarized environment where every news angle, legitimate or not, is taken as an affront by someone. The fact is that government in the last 16 years has shown a hostile and heavy-handed approach to the news media, and it looks like that won’t be changing anytime soon.

How does this relate to fake news? It seems like fake news is just a continuation of the pattern where traditional news media are being undermined. With the economic calamity that has hit the news media, especially newspapers but also including broadcast, there are far fewer reporters and editors to do the basic fact checking and editing of solid news. And in too many cases, the reporters and editors who have been retained are younger, less experienced, and can be paid lower salaries.

It would seem that fake news might be the emergent replacement. But the fact is that we have had fake news as long as we’ve had news media. Newspapers of the 19th Century often printed hoaxes, simply for entertainment purposes. One of the most famous was the so-called Moon Hoax, printed in 1835 by The Sun in New York. The stories detailed a British scientist who had made significant advances in telescope technology and had found that there were men on the moon. The men had wings. The paper even concocted drawings showing the creatures.

Two major contributors to American letters, Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain, were among the famous writers who wrote hoaxes. Sometimes the hoaxes would continue for months and spread to other newspapers in a 19th-Century version of viral media. Perhaps the most famous hoax in our history was the War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938 by Orson Welles. That hoax concerned a Martian invasion in New Jersey.

One can argue, and certainly it’s a legitimate concern, that the digital age with social media has opened up many more opportunities for fake news and serious harm from posts that go viral in minutes. That is quite different than printing hoaxes in a newspaper sold on the streets.

And Trump’s critics legitimately point to his relentless Twitter posts and his administration’s claim to “alternate facts.” There is real danger here with both the new president and with his White House press spokesman Sean Spicer. It’s one thing to spin stories, and all recent White House press spokespersons have done so. It’s another to state matters from the White House press podium that are demonstrably false. We are entering uncharted waters both in politics and technology.

But there’s no replacement for discerning and concerned citizens reading carefully to educate themselves in basic media literacy. One of the foundations of the Enlightenment was that human beings were rational creatures and could discern fact from falsehood. It doesn’t take a scholar to understand that Facebook and most other social media are only what they are: sometimes interesting and entertaining tools for keeping people in contact. That is, after all, the definition of social media.

It also reminds us of the legendary writer and critic A.J. Liebling of The New Yorker who said that freedom of the press belongs only to those who own one. Now anyone with a smart phone is a publisher in a global context never before imagined. Caveat lector.

Tarantino, microaggressions and free speech

Note: This op-ed was first published online by The Dallas Morning News Dec. 8, 2015.

Like many university professors, I’ve been thinking about the potential for microaggression in my lectures. For the uninitiated, microaggression is part of the current university jargon for subtle but offensive comments or actions, deliberate or not, that reinforce a racial stereotype.

I teach media ethics, and I am thinking about my regular lecture on media violence. Even as a near-absolutist supporter of the First Amendment, I have concerns about the violence that we see in media. In the lecture I show a violent, profane 20-minute segment from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction that includes frequent use of the N-word.

Why do I show this? Tarantino, in my opinion, is one of the most important film directors of the post-World War II era, and the context of language and violence in his films is important for university students to understand.

Coverage of news events from a number of our universities has created heartfelt soul searching among students, professors and administrators. But the situation at Princeton is troubling: Students there seek to remove the name of former president Woodrow Wilson from a distinguished school of public affairs because his legacy includes segregating the federal work force. Yet he was a Nobel Peace Prize winner and appointed the first Jewish justice to the Supreme Court.

Where would a decision like this lead? Do we take slave-owner Thomas Jefferson’s name off every school, street, bridge and building in the country? Do we scrub the image of George Washington, also a slave owner, from the currency that is a world standard in commerce? What about Franklin D. Roosevelt, who interned more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II?

Many of our historical figures had very real flaws, and democracy is a messy, imperfect, continuing process.

As previously reported, two SMU fraternities that planned a party with a racially insensitive theme cancelled it in October after strong criticism from the SMU community. Even though the Wesleyan tradition at SMU has embraced a long and distinguished history of free speech and academic freedom, SMU President R. Gerald Turner was correct to condemn the party as abhorrent. As we have seen too often, fraternity members, especially when fueled by alcohol, can do idiotic things.

Many students of color, especially African-Americans on predominately white campuses, can feel an isolation that hinders academic performance as well as full inclusion into campus life. Despite years of progress on civil rights, this remains a delicate issue, including on the SMU campus.

Yet somehow “comfort” has crept into the national discussion. University students, according to some of the protesters, need to feel comfortable. All students of color need to feel that they belong and have a sense of security in their place as a part of university life. But the discussion vis-à-vis the microaggressions seems to include a freedom from ideas that might offend.

Since when did a university education guarantee such comfort? When did challenging a student’s ideas and assumptions vanish from our mission as professors? Have we lost the concept of a truly “liberal” education, in the sense that liberal has nothing to do with politics? I hope not.

Another of my regular lectures includes a discussion of the 2006 Duke lacrosse case – one of the most racially charged incidents on a university campus in my memory. Three white members of the Duke lacrosse team were accused of rape by an African-American dancer hired to perform at a team party.

The party should never have happened, but the players were charged on virtually no credible evidence. The performance of much of the media was reprehensible, with too many reporters buying into the “guilty, of course” narrative put forward by a local district attorney and some professors on the Duke campus. The charges were eventually dismissed and the district attorney disbarred. It took a sensitive and thorough 60 Minutes investigative report by the late Ed Bradley, an African-American, to question assumptions made in the case.

A national narrative that fits a politically correct scenario can be wrong. In the current national narrative on race, let’s address the problems with candor and sincerity. But let’s also safeguard free speech and open intellectual inquiry that are the lifeblood of universities and democracy. The Tarantino and Duke lectures will be on my syllabus next semester.

A eulogy for Jack Loftis

Note: This eulogy for former Houston Chronicle editor Jack Loftis was first published on my earlier blog after his memorial service in January 2015. The accompanying art was done especially for Jack’s memorial service by longtime friend and artist Bill Hinds.

About 10 years ago, Jack called me one morning on my cell phone. I was in Los Angeles at an SMU event, and when he called it was about 6:30 local time and I was a bit startled. Jack would always say, “Tony, this is Jack,” to start our conversations. This time, literally the first words out of his mouth were, “Better get your blue suit pressed.” I knew that was Hillsboro-speak at its best. In Hillsboro, if you had a suit, it was dark blue. And getting your dark blue suit pressed meant getting ready for a funeral. It turned out that Jack was facing some difficult surgery dealing with a faulty heart valve, and he was getting himself and his friends prepared. He openly joked about his death, and as we all know he faced several life-threatening medical issues over the last 20 years. And I think it was his wonderful sense of humor that helped him cope with them and come through them the way he did.

***

In fact Jack had some interesting experiences with his medical issues. He loved to talk about what had happened to him and give details about his ailments and treatments. He seemed to have strange reactions to medications, especially the pain medications after surgery. After one of his difficult procedures at St. Luke’s, one night he had a dream, or perhaps more accurately a vision, about an argument that took place in the next room. Jack heard what was a loud disagreement, and he could relate specific dialogue between two people, right up until the time that a woman was killed, including a description of her scream. Chronicle managing editor Tommy Miller happened to be the next visitor to Jack, as Tommy stopped off at the hospital early the next morning on his way to work. Jack related in detail what he had heard, and he made Tommy open the door to what Jack thought was the room next door. The opened door only revealed an empty storage closet, and Jack became even more agitated. He was convinced that hospital staff had come in, cleaned up the crime scene and in fact had rearranged the structure of the room just to trick him. He told that story for years afterward.

 ***

I met Jack in 1974. Our friendship developed immediately. We had similar roots in terms of the families we came from, the geography of Central Texas and of course Baylor. On one of the first times we had lunch, Jack shared with me his favorite story. And it’s one we’ve all heard, and I’ll never forget his telling it to me. It’s the story of a man sitting on a park bench. There’s a dog sitting on the ground beside him. Another man approaches, and asks if the man’s dog bites. The man on the park bench replies no. The second man sits down on the end of the bench, whereupon the dog nails the man with a sharp bite on the hand. The startled man says, “I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite.” The man on the bench replies, “That’s not my dog.” I’ve thought about that lunch, and that story many times over the years. Of course it involved Jack’s love of dogs, but it also spoke of a man with a simple and straightforward approach to life, work and relationships. Jack had respect for everyone. I think I knew him about as well as anyone ever did. I saw him in good times and bad. I saw him make difficult decisions.   He was approachable, likeable and by any measure he was a product of his upbringing in Central Texas. He treated everyone the same, whether that person was the president of the United States, the governor of the state of Texas, a nervous intern covering City Hall, or a street person who crept into a downtown hamburger joint and wanted the French fries Jack had left on his plate. True story, by the way. He was the most decent man I’ve ever known in my life.

***

There’s a story my uncle used to tell. He was the storyteller in my family in Waco, and he loved to tell stories that would make my very proper Methodist mother cringe. I told Jack this story once, and he appreciated it. He liked stories about church, and I can’t tell you how many times he reminded me that he was an old Church of Christ boy from Hillsboro. This story is about the old man, bent over and rail thin and with a full mop of gray hair, and he sat on the front row of the Baptist church every Sunday. One Sunday morning the preacher was getting started on a stem-winder of a sermon, and he told the congregation he wanted to talk about the forgiveness of enemies.   Whereupon the old man got up and walked briskly down the isle toward the back door. The preacher was stunned, and he said, “Excuse me, sir, are you leaving?” The old man replied, “Yes, preacher, I’m leaving.” The preacher was even more perplexed, and he said, “Do you mean, sir, that you don’t need to hear about how we should treat our enemies?” “No, preacher,” the old man said. The preacher was now a bit incredulous, and said, “Sir, do you mean to tell me that you don’t have any enemies?” “No preacher,” the old man replied, continuing toward the door. “I’ve outlived every one of those sons of bitches.”

If Jack had enemies, he indeed outlived them. But the truth is, he simply didn’t have any. That really is the measure of the man whose life we remember today.

 ***

Jack and I never really talked much about newspapers or even the Chronicle after I left and moved to Dallas to teach at SMU. He did that with others who were here in Houston, but not really with me. He tried to engage me a bit in the first couple of years I lived in Dallas, but I usually changed the subject. One day he finally said to me, “You’ve really left Houston and the newspaper business, haven’t you?” And I said, “Of course I have. I face a bunch of 20-year-old students every day who are a lot smarter than I am. They don’t care about the past, certainly not mine. They only care about the future, and it’s a good lesson.” The last time I saw him was about three weeks ago, and he was in the nursing home. And we did for some reason get into newspapers and the economic struggles that newspapers have had. And he talked about what we had done here in Houston, and I think it fair to say that working together we had some degree of success.  As most of you know, it was my honor to be with Jack as his managing editor and then executive editor until I left the paper in 2003. On this occasion, Jack looked at me and said, “I think what worked for us was that you and I had a pretty good good-cop-bad-cop routine. You were the bad cop and I was the good cop.” And it was true. Jack was always reluctant to fire anyone. He was the good cop in every sense. It’s because he saw the best in everyone, and the potential in each individual, pretty much regardless of what had happened.

***

Sometimes after events like this, people get together and there’s a toast or a celebration of some kind in remembrance. You might be tempted, tonight or in the next few days, to have some nice Champagne, or even some Scotch, which Jack used to drink. Which is actually another interesting story. Jack consumed more than his share of Scotch in the first two-thirds of his life. He realized it was a problem. And he stopped when he became editor of the Chronicle in 1987. He simply never wanted to do anything that might embarrass the paper. From then on, when we were at social events, he’d have perhaps half a glass of wine poured at dinner. He might take a sip. Some might think he was just being social. I think he didn’t want people to speculate that he had perhaps fallen back into his Church of Christ upbringing, or, even worse, converted to become a tee-totaling Baptist. As much as he loved Baylor, Jack didn’t really appreciate some of the Baptist beliefs, especially those of the fundamentalists. And if I may digress just a bit further, the other major change in Jack’s life about that time was to marry Beverly Blake. I was with Jack just about every day for 30 years, and hardly a day would go by that he wouldn’t mention Beverly. Beverly, he loved you dearly, and to you and the family I offer my deepest and most heartfelt sympathies.

But let me conclude by returning to the toast. I say skip the Champagne or fancy Scotch or anything else that might be a bit pretentious. Here’s what I’m going to do. Sometime in the next couple of weeks, I’ll get takeout pizza. Pepperoni, of course. I’ll save a piece and put it in the fridge, without wrapping. The next morning, I’ll take the cold and crusted piece of pizza out of the fridge, and I won’t dare put it in the microwave. And I’ll have Diet Dr Pepper on hand. It was one of Jack’s favorite breakfasts. I’ll eat the cold pizza and drink the Diet Dr Pepper and remember that the man who was editor of a powerful newspaper was really a pretty simple man from Central Texas, and he enjoyed the simple things in life. And today, for all the great things Jack did, more than anything he would want us to remember that he was just one of the guys from Hillsboro.

I’ve got my dark blue suit on today, Jack. And I had it pressed, just for you my dear friend.