Just Say No

I don’t plan to read Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff any time soon. (To confess, Jonathan Eig’s bio of Muhammad Ali is my current sustenance.)

Yes, Wolff’s content, and his uncommitted relationship with accuracy, has caused its own firestorm. For me, however, the lessons to be learned are in public relations, not narrative pseudo-journalism.

Mistake #1: Wolff’s White House access, which created much of the book’s tastiest morsels, seems to be the result of organizational chaos (the Trump White House’s sustenance). With no clear permission or denial, and a vague endorsement from Trump, Wolff was granted access to observe, while Bannon assumed Priebus approved, while Priebus assumed Kushner … , etc.

A clear center of decision-making authority in these access requests, though an impossibility in the Trump White House, is the remedy.

While it’s disturbing to consider that these political professionals were more concerned with their own survival than the President or the country, such is the amoral worst of high-level politics.

It should not be accepted as reasonable, professional behavior, regardless of how close to the apex of political power it occurs.

Mistake #2: A peremptory Internet search would have alerted Trump’s White House staff that Wolff was not a good fly-on-the-wall candidate.  His take-down pieces on everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Christopher Hitchens were there for the Googling.

In 1990, I was director of public information for Azusa Pacific University. A local news radio personality asked if we were interested in hosting a discussion of Malathion, a controversial insecticide being sprayed to control an invasion of Mediterranean fruit flies. Sounded good, so I agreed.

The personality, it turned out, was shock jock Tom Leykis, at his last stop before nationwide syndication. I should have known better, but I didn’t.

Alerted by a frantic APU alum, I turned on Leykis to hear him announce the anti-Malathion rally at Azusa Pacific, timed for an actual spraying. Attendees would stand in the open and dare the helicopters to spray them. Standard academic discourse.

After I canceled the “rally,” Leykis characterized my reversal as a weak-spined concession to alumni pressure. I suppose that was charitable, considering the real reason was my inept unprofessional stupidity.

In the same way, allowing an author like Wolff such access is a doubly-incompetent media relations breakdown by the White House, thus creating an avoidable public image crisis.

My master’s degree from Cal State Fullerton is in public relations, particularly agenda building in the media, and many of my students are public relations majors. I try to pass along advice to them from my experience and studies, while teaching them their required journalism courses.

The best advice I give them overall is, “just say no.” They don’t have to do journalists’ jobs for them (echoing journalists’ complaint that they don’t do law enforcement’s work for them, either). PR folks don’t have to allow journalists access to private property, even if a crime is being investigated. And they certainly don’t have to give a best-selling author access to secure government offices, due diligent Googling or not.

Sure, overall, they will do their organizations wisely by counseling access at appropriate times and not locking down the media 100 percent. It’s a tough balance to work out, but it’s possible.

Their main responsibility is to their organization, however, and an automatic “yes” to media access can cause much more damage than an initial “no”–as the Bannon-Priebus-Kushner brain trust demonstrated in creating this Fire and Fury.

Advertisements

My Bias About Bias

I’m not sure I agree with Tim Layden’s remarks on the decline of objectivity yesterday. But I realize, different biases on my part play in.

I respect and appreciate Tim on a lot of levels, but I’m disagreeing with him here.

First, as I’ll confess and move on, his examples come from broadcasting, and I’ll admit that I don’t consider ESPN’s talking head folks to be journalists, regardless of their backgrounds.

In my typology, once Wilbon, Greenberg, or Stephen A cross that line, they become entertainers, co-opted by a media company in business with the sports organizations they discuss, and there to promote interest in broadcasts more than inform sports fans.

ESPN still employs plenty of journalists like Don Van Natta Jr. and Gene Wojciechowski, but they stay on the other side of that line the above three have crossed. Even Woj’s College GameDay work shares the same firm roots as his other work.

And I do not see the sports reporting profession moving in that direction. Yes, transgressions exist–and I have heard about but not personally observed partisan press boxes, particularly in CFB–but these are recognized as transgressions.

Plus, I discount the notion that sports journalists are 100% objective, uncaring whether the teams they report on win or lose.

They are not cheerleaders, but I do acknowledge that the needle moves a little toward the home team, though it remains within a healthy, “objective-enough” range.

It all relates to the concept researchers refer to as “salience,” which within agenda setting measures the perceived importance of issues or subjects.

Applying this to sports journalism (at the risk of sounding like Professor Obvious), sports journalists can still be objective while also recognizing home team salience to their audience.

Yes, audience members are happier and more positive when the home team does well, and sports journalists report with that in mind. Audience members are unhappy and want their team to be better when they lose, and sports journalists also reflect that side of salience.

It’s not 100% objective. Sports journalists aren’t shaking their heads and sanctimoniously noting that the idea of sports is that someone’s gotta lose, so deal with it.

It’s also not biased, however, because the professional sports journalists still report courageously about deficiencies, instead of ignoring them in a flash of sunshine.

So if they realize that it’s better for their audience, and the community, for the home team to succeed, that is not bias. The audience can cheer, as long as the reporters themselves do not.

It’s the same as with umpires. By nature, umpires are lifelong baseball fans and had their favorite teams and heroes growing up. And they know the fans at the game have their favorite teams, and that’s what keeps the umps working.

Media outlets could drag disinterested outsiders to cover important games to get an objective view. But audiences are also looking for a level of engagement over articles with terms like “militaristic” and “bourgeoisie.”

They can get that, and a sufficient level of objectivity, from sports journalists today–at least from those who remain on the right side of the journalism/entertainment line.

 

When to Panic

When the recent ESPN report on Auburn came out, it was quickly accompanied by the usual wailing and gnashing and harbinging of doom.

The article did catch my attention, I’ll admit. But before I reacted, I decided to read through it. Then I read through it again.

My response?

At least for now, that restraint was justified, as no new developments emerged to increase the need for panic.

But rather than go deep on one article, I’ll explain the info standards I follow before inducing panic using several examples. Yes, some stories have sent me into a funk. Others pass without justifying much beyond a shrug and a shake of the head.

So here is a guide on when to panic and when to shrug.

I. Single anonymous source: Attention only

This applies both to this week’s story and to Kevin Scarbinsky’s story about a conference call to fire Jay Jacobs.  Anonymous sourcing is allowed within ethical journalism, but the accepted standard is two anonymous sources.

Scarbinsky’s article relied on one anonymous source. Regardless of how credible that source might be, it’s safer to get two, even if one merely confirms the information without adding to it.

So while I found the Scarbinsky article interesting, if objectionable on other grounds, I adopted the wait and see attitude.  What we saw was a denial from Auburn President Dr. Steven Leath and nothing further.

Similarly, the ESPN report included one anonymous source. I did note that Auburn itself served as the other source, confirming the situation, but that’s an unusual case.

That Auburn would confirm it, rather than offer the “personnel issues” perceived stonewall, was also a source of assurance on the story for Auburn fans, but that’s another interesting side to it.

It seems that the Auburn athletics department has followed a strategy of “aggressive transparency” on certain stories, similar to their response when Shawn Assael of ESPN focused on Dakota Mosley, in his article on the 2011 arrest of four Auburn players.

When they have nothing to hide, they don’t act like they do.  They seem to realize that in such cases, openness solves more problems than a stonewalling approach avoids.

II. Named source/AU beat involvement: Moderate concern

Now, when a source is willing to openly attach his/her name to information, that takes it to a different level (and a single credible named source is acceptable in such cases).

The individual might have an unfair ax to grind, but when they grind the ax publicly, it takes the concern to a higher level.

I think about the 2006 NY Times report about the misuse of sociology independent studies.  Jim Gundlach, a sociology professor, was credited as the source of the information.  And ultimately it was worth worrying about.

This was an important story, and for all the grief he received, I give Dr. Gundlach a lot of credit for bringing it to light.  It was a UNC-level academic problem that needed to be addressed, and it was appropriately problematic for Auburn’s academic reputation. (Yes, I will die on this hill.)

So when that story came out, yes, it deserved our attention. It was bad. As I recall, I first heard about it on the WSFA evening news (this was 2006, after all), and I realized I was eventually standing in front of the TV and yelling at it.

Another consideration: take note of how the Auburn beat writers follow up on the story. Auburn is blessed with some top-notch journalism pros covering the athletics programs.

I know fans wish they would be as passive as the beat writers covering other CFB programs.  But given their aggressiveness (which ultimately is a positive), their response to such stories will let you know if something is there.

When such stories come out, regardless, all of the Auburn outlets will link to it and summarize it. They’re expected to, even if the process seems like a waste of time.

They might add an official reply from Athletics or Auburn University, but beyond that, they don’t consider the juice worth the squeeze.  That is an indication of how far the story could go and could allay your fears.

Now, if their reporting starts to uncover their own layers to the story, you might want to pay attention.  The concern level is likely to rise from moderate and approach panic.

III. Indictments/arrests: Panic

When the U.S. Attorney’s office in NYC announced that Chuck Person was indicted on a variety of charges, yeah, it was bad.  I won’t go much beyond that in discussing this case, since much is yet to be revealed.

No one knows where that case is going to end up, but yeah–when it reaches that stage, it’s bad. It’s for real.

So how to respond?

I did see a lot of anger and frustration once the ESPN report published. As time went on, and the first wave was the only wave, it was replaced by indignation and anger directed at the writers, particularly Mark Schlabach (some of it justified, but not all of it fair).

My main concern is when we assign face value to such journalistic transactions, and it overvalues the information given.

If it doesn’t involve federal or state charges or a named source, it might be worth waiting on.  That way, if it goes no further, you’ll ride a straight line from mellow to mellow, with no frantic, unnecessary up-then-down detour in between.