This week’s BCC Interview is with Wesley Lowery, a correspondent at CBS News and Quibi’s 60 in 6. I’ve appreciated Lowery’s work for awhile, both as a journalist and as an introspective observer of the field – with a willingness to engage with those who don’t share every opinion. I’m glad to have him as a reader of Fourth Watch.
Lowery and I emailed this week about the problems with journalism in 2020, his “moral clarity” stance, the media’s Twitter issues, and a lot more. And then, with all BCC Interviews, I published it in full, below. Check out past BCC Interviews with Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld or Ben Smith of the New York Times, and subscribe to Fourth Watch here. Read the full interview below…
From: Steve Krakauer
To: Wesley Lowery
Thanks so much for agreeing to do this. I want to talk about a lot of things – Twitter, “moral clarity,” and more – but let’s start with where we did the last time we emailed.
It was two months ago and the George Floyd protests were the singular story in the media, and rightfully so. At the time, you talked about some of the mistakes the media was making, like when coverage veered into “riot porn” territory. As you look two months later, how do you think the substance was covered, and do you believe the public has an accurate representation of what led to the millions who protested for social justice?
It’s almost mind-boggling to think that stories over the past few weeks like the violent clashes with federal officers in Portland, or even like CHAZ in Seattle, were actually tangentially related to the George Floyd protests. It seems at some point the media focus has shifted, whether that’s because the protest focus has or the media focus has is an open question.
Similarly, one of my main critiques in Fourth Watch is that the Acela Media – based largely in NYC and DC – don’t necessarily have a political bias but a geographic bias. Blind spots and preconceived notions, usually negative or patronizing, about the country that’s not on the East or West Coast. I’m struck that few reporters spend as much time away from the coasts as you. Recently in Minnesota reporting for 60 on 6, and obviously in Ferguson, Missouri for so long. People sometimes think my critique of geographic bias is like “talk to more Trump voters” but I think it’s deeper than that. Many people in America who lean left and lean right that I talk to feel the media coverage they see from legacy media outlets largely is not reflective of their point of view. Do you see that in your reporting, in getting to know the people in these cities? What do you see as some of the problems with coverage that’s largely based in newsrooms and green rooms that don’t interact with significant portions of America?
And feel free to throw anything my way…
From: Wesley Lowery
To: Steve Krakauer
Good to be chatting with you again! I think you’re right — the conversation has definitely shifted. Some of that is natural. In the media we tend to have a timeliness bias. The news is what’s happening right now, even if we haven’t yet fully explained or contextualized what happened yesterday. I think that’s some of what we’ve seen with Seattle and Portland. Both are stories that unquestionably newsworthy (Portland, in particular, is fascinating to me because the city has seen consistent street protests throughout the Trump administration and I’m not sure that much of the national coverage has properly contextualized what is happening now through that lens), but those narratives have consumed the media attention even as plenty of other cities are still seeing significant, peaceful yet forceful policing protests. Given the speed with which we move from story to story, narrative to narrative, it’s hard to imagine the average reader or viewer ever has the chance to fully absorb the intricacies and nuances of these stories. Cities across the country are still engaged in these conversations about police use of force policies, what defunding could or can look like, and what to do next. I’m not sure how much of that is reflected in the day to day coverage we’re seeing at this point, certainly not on cable. (Pieces like this great Hannah Drier dispatch from Huntsville, AL in WaPo are the exceptions that prove the rule.)
One of my broad critiques of how we cover issues like race and policing is that we cover them through a lens of politics, not policy. Even in a post-George Floyd world, much of our conversation has been about optics. Is “defund the police” a politically toxic phrase? Are the protesters setting themselves up to be demagogued? How does “defund the police” poll? Etc etc. This type of coverage is what my friend Jamelle Bouie refers to as “theater criticism.” We’re guessing and opining and “analyzing,” focusing on style not substance. There is certainly room for that in the media ecosystem. But I think the balance is out of whack.
And I think the hyper focus on politics is downstream from that type of geographic bias you’re talking about. It shows up in my reporting less about point of view, but rather about prioritization. A lot of the things we spend a lot of time focused on (the Harper’s letter, Alan Dershowitz’s comings and goings, the President’s latest mean tweet about a cable news anchor) feel divorced from the priorities of normal people. I don’t dispute your premise about the coasts — but also, that shorthand can overlook millions of real people who live along the east coast and even in major cities. I spend a lot of time in Baltimore, for example, which other than the occasional “shootings spike this weekend” story on Fox, doesn’t get a ton of national media attention despite being in the Acela corridor. It’s a city that is overflowing with stories, the kind of stories where good journalism could make a real difference (The local press does a heroic job in Baltimore, but they’ve been so crippled in recent years they just can’t do it all). Yet, despite being an Uber ride away from Washington, there isn’t a ton national media attention given to those stories. I’m biased because I live here, but I also think the District of Columbia — the half a million people who live here, the culture, the local politics and history, the rapid development and conflicts that arise from it — is one of the most undercovered stories in the nation, despite being home to the second largest media market in the country. And for me, a lot of this comes down to the media broadly focusing on daily politics, as opposed to policy and people.
From: Steve Krakauer
To: Wesley Lowery
I totally agree with you about the intra-beltway focus. One of the reasons I prefer the Acela Media in my framing is because I used to take the Acela when I was at CNN all the time – back and forth from NYC to DC – zooming extra fast by the rest of the corridor. And that was the point too – there were lots of little towns along the way, in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland – that are in theory on the East Coast but are also not reflected in the coverage priorities of the media.
But you mention the Harper’s letter, and I’d say besides the ongoing conversation with that, the 2nd most talked about story in media circles is related to objectivity and your term “moral clarity.” In your excellent NYT column. (In an ironic twist, when I Google “moral clarity” the first thing I get is the book that Bill Bennett wrote about Ronald Reagan!) You I think hit on the most important issue with the media today, and that’s this veil of “objectivity” – a standard that’s essentially impossible to achieve, and the public doesn’t believe exists anyway. Instead, the media should strive for truth. I think that makes sense, but I wonder if you see, as I do, a move not just toward more truthful coverage in the Trump Era, but less “fair” coverage. From CNN to the Washington Post, I see not only an instinct to call “racism” racism, but also a push to signal a kind of opinion (“we’re with you in this fight against Trump”) that seems like a pendulum swing too far in the direction away from the false neutrality/objectivity. Do you agree?
And I will say – I think part of the problem is Twitter. I love Twitter, and am on it too much, but I also kind of hate Twitter. It is such a poor mechanism for actual discussion and debate and conversation. But I also think it serves to not only reveal “bias” of reporters, but it gives a sort of real-time window into their focus, their perceptions, their thoughts and opinions. Do you think this is ultimately a good thing or a bad thing? Because it’s one thing to exhibit a sort of moral clarity in your reporting (full of context and nuance) and another to pop out a 280-character burst of opinion on a topic you’re, in theory, attempting to cover fairly. Do you think it gives consumers (and critics) a peek behind the curtain…too far?
From: Wesley Lowery
To: Steve Krakauer
What’s interesting is that I really didn’t want to write that column. Initially I had sent a tweet, if I recall correctly in response to the New York Times’ Tom Cotton op-ed, in which I used the term “moral clarity” and before long a set of relatively prominent folks began opining that I was calling for the end of fact-based news reporting — which, is pretty far from what I want or would ever advocate. So, it felt like I might as well correct the record as it relates to my outlook on journalism.
To your point about the public’s perception as it relates to media objectivity and bias, Gallup and the Knight Foundation released new polling today about trust in media. While the vast majority of Americans think the news media is critical or very important to democracy, 73 percent of Americans see bias in what is supposed to be straight reporting as a “major problem.” All of that is despite the fact that many of our legacy media organizations (not all of them — I’ll get to that in a minute) are internally obsessed with projecting political neutrality. Clearly something is not working.
There are a few caveats here, I think. The first and probably most important is that much of the American media — or at least much of the most prominent and powerful American media — does in fact operate as a partisan press. Routinely the most shared articles on Facebook are from hyper-partisan sources (The Daily Wire, the Blue Lives Matter facebook page, Breitbart and their counterparts on the left). I think it’s pretty indisputable that Fox News is the most influential media outlet in the country — and equally indisputable that, on balance, it is not a source of politically unbiased news. Even beyond Fox, though, I do think American perceptions of media bias are grounded pretty firmly in their perceptions of cable news coverage. And, across all of the cable news channels, there is a hyper focus on politics (perhaps especially in the Trump era). Making every story and every segment about politics in a way invites accusations of political bias, whether it is present — which too often it can be argue it is — or not.
Outside of the cable, though, I think on balance the newsrooms doing the best work — the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, LA Times, etc — do strive for fairness and achieve something pretty close to it more often than not. Not that there aren’t missteps or places where there might be reasonable debate or quibbles. But from where I sit, it seems that often missteps are primarily driven not by a politically-motivated desire or decision making, but rather by the speed with which most journalism is produced: hitting publish before interviewing enough people, overwriting or overstating findings and conclusions, framing policy and people stories exclusively or primarily through the lens of daily politics, and too often bending to whatever narrative is forming on Twitter (you won’t find a political reporter who hasn’t gotten a “have you seen so and so’s tweet?!” email from an editor).
Oh Twitter. I love and hate Twitter. I learn a lot on that site, and encounter a ton of people and perspectives (and journalism) that I might not otherwise. But the site plays to all of our worst human impulses. Speed. Hyperbole. Emotion. Bad Faith. The draw is that it’s an assembly of a diverse, intelligent people. The drawback is that it is possibly the least productive way for different types of people to have intelligent conversations — sentence fragments, often encountered by readers out of their original context, playing out in public where there is an incentive to be uncharitable or ungenerous in our interpretations and engagements. In an ideal world, we’d probably all delete our Twitter accounts, but that genie doesn’t seem like it’s going back in the bottle. And so, I’m not sure what exactly the solution is here. I agree that often reporters are our own worst enemies on that platform — there are so many tweets or exchanges I wish I could take back — and also, there is a large set of people out there who seem to be searching for ways to misunderstand reporter’s tweets or what they are trying to communicate. Do we show too much of our hand too often? Probably. At least personally, I’ve recently been trying hard to remind myself to base my perception of a reporter or writer more on their written and edited work and less on their unedited tweets. But still, I get how that’s probably not a standard we can necessarily expect from the public at-large.
From: Steve Krakauer
To: Wesley Lowery
I totally agree that speed is such an enormously detrimental force in the media today – and that goes both for the speed in which journalism must be accomplished due to the news cycle, but also the speed of Twitter, where I know I feel like if I don’t tweet something in the moment, I might as well just never tweet it because everyone will have moved on in a few hours. And yet, slowing down could be so productive. Success metrics in the media are tied to what rates, or what gets traffic, or, in theory, what wins awards. But if you’re not winning awards, you need to file, and churn, because your bosses aren’t super excited by “I did some great reporting today that I may use down the road!” (Generally, from my experience.) So let me ask you a hypothetical. Let’s say I gave you 10 million dollars and told you to create some sort of media property – do you have an idea where you’d start? Is there something you’ve wanted to do that you haven’t been able to because of time, resources or just buy-in from the top?
Last thing – I appreciate that you’ve been willing to engage with people who don’t always see everything exactly how you do. Your podcast with the 5th Column guys was great, even this (and I’ve always appreciated that you read Fourth Watch). Are there people out there that you say – ‘this person is someone I’m watching’? This person is bringing something interesting or unique to the table?
Thanks so much for doing this…and let’s talk again soon.
From: Wesley Lowery
To: Steve Krakauer
I’ve definitely got some ideas. The idea I’ll pitch here to your deep-pocketed readers is something that sits at the intersection of the local media crisis and the black press crisis. Honestly, I’d probably take that $10 million back to my hometown of Cleveland (where the Plain Dealer has been decimated), and build a newsroom around justice and accountability reporting. High end stuff, written from across the state of Ohio. Often focused on, but not exclusively covering, the black communities in Ohio’s major cities (Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Akron-Canton, Toledo, Youngstown) and their suburbs. Something that’s a cross between The Triibe in Chicago or MLK50 in Memphis and The Atlantic or New Yorker. Investigations. Magazine style features. Non-profit/member model, with the aim being that every piece has impact, and no piece is published until it’s ready — until we’ve reached everyone, gotten to the bottom of the story, uncovered something new. The journalistic theory is that most American communities are overflowing with major, important stories to tell and are starving for a journalist who is given the time and resources to tell them. The hope would then be to take the next $10 million and replica the model in another state, and then another…
The 5th Column podcast was a great convo, and I really do enjoy mixing it up with different types of folks who challenge and expand my thinking. I’ve been reading a fair amount of The Dispatch and the Bulwark, where I generally think the quality of work and argument is a bit higher than some of the other conservative publications I read. And I’m really interested to see what The 19th does now that it’s launched. They’ve already had a few pieces that have made waves. In terms of specific people, Osita Nwanevu at The New Republic has quickly become an immediate click whenever I see his byline. And Elamin Abdelmahmoud’s two most recent pieces at Buzzfeed News, on Kanye West and tech companies’ roles in cancel culture, are perhaps the smartest pieces I’ve ever read on either subject.
Also: I’m finishing up a book on the rise in white supremacist terror in the decade following Barack Obama’s election, and reporting from folks like ProPublica’s Documenting Hate project and reporters like Jared Holt have been such valuable sources.