Media Watch: New York Times Magazine

Tyler LePard

In an opinion piece published last Sunday, Byron Calame (the New York Times' reader representative) wrote about a key component in a New York Times Magazine article on abortion in El Salvador: "Accuracy and fairness were not pursued with the vigor Times readers have a right to expect." The original article, written by Jack Hitt, had several interviews with women who had abortions in El Salvador - where the medical procedure is illegal and anyone who participates in one can get sentenced with up to 30 years jail time.

The controversy is over one of the women, Carmen Climaco, who is currently serving time in prison; the debate is whether she was punished for ending her pregnancy (as Hitt reported) or for killing her full-term baby after it was born (as court documents suggest). Calame contends that Hitt and his editors did not fact check thoroughly, and then denied their mistake when questioned about Climaco.

In an opinion piece published last Sunday, Byron Calame (the New York Times' reader representative) wrote about a key component in a New York Times Magazine article on abortion in El Salvador: "Accuracy and fairness were not pursued with the vigor Times readers have a right to expect." The original article, written by Jack Hitt, had several interviews with women who had abortions in El Salvador – where the medical procedure is illegal and anyone who participates in one can get sentenced with up to 30 years jail time.

The controversy is over one of the women, Carmen Climaco, who is currently serving time in prison; the debate is whether she was punished for ending her pregnancy (as Hitt reported) or for killing her full-term baby after it was born (as court documents suggest). Calame contends that Hitt and his editors did not fact check thoroughly, and then denied their mistake when questioned about Climaco.

Calame cited the anti-abortion web site, LifeSiteNews, as the source that brought this issue to readers' attention and caused an outcry to the New York Times. It's really too bad that Calame gives that site credibility, as most of what they publish is filled with misinformation (I'll let you guess where their articles fall in our fact vs. fiction section). Here are some of their recent headlines:

  • Priest Says Beware of Science Experts Quoting Statistics and Saying Sky is Falling
  • Plan B Manufacturer for New Zealand Admits it Causes Abortion
  • African Nation of Togo Succumbs to UN Pressure and Expands Abortion Access
  • Christian Groups Protest Wal-Mart Support for Homosexuality, Abortifacient Birth Control
  • College Women at Risk for Psychiatric Illness at Politically Correct Campuses

Ann on Feministing makes a great point about the New York Times Magazine sending Jack Hitt, "an old white dude and entrenched member of the elite lefty media" who doesn't speak Spanish, to cover the delicate and complex story in El Salvador. Why didn't they send a Spanish-speaking, woman reporter?

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Calame stressed that sensitive issues such as abortion require exceptional care to ensure that reporters get the facts right. Additionally, the error should have been acknowledged earlier and corrected. What is really disappointing in this situation is that anti-abortion advocates will take this one mistake in reporting and editing to invalidate the rest of Hitt's article, which is a compelling historical analysis with legitimate personal stories from several women who have suffered in El Salvador.

Commentary Media

David Daleiden Is Not an Investigative Reporter, Says New Legal Filing Confirming What We Knew Already

Sharona Coutts

An amicus brief filed in a federal court case provided an opportunity for journalists to state in clear terms why David Daleiden's claims to be an investigative reporter endanger the profession and its goal: to safeguard democracy by holding the powerful to account and keeping the public informed.

Last week, 18 of the nation’s preeminent journalists and journalism scholars put their names to a filing in a federal court case between the National Abortion Federation and the Center for Medical Progress, the sham nonprofit set up by anti-choice activist David Daleiden.

From the minute he released his deceptively edited videos, Daleiden has styled himself as a “citizen” or “investigative journalist.” Indeed, upon releasing the footage, Daleiden changed the stated purpose on the website of the Center for Medical Progress to be about investigative reporting instead of tissue brokering, as he had earlier claimed.

The amicus brief provided an opportunity for journalists to state in clear terms why David Daleiden’s claims to be an investigative reporter endanger the profession and its goal: to safeguard democracy by holding the powerful to account and keeping the public informed.

“By calling himself an ‘investigative journalist,’ Appellant David Daleiden does not make it so,” the journalists and academics wrote. “We believe that accepting Mr. Daleiden’s claim that he merely engaged in ‘standard undercover journalism techniques’ would be both wrong and damaging to the vital role that journalism serves in our society.”

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The signatories included former and current professors and deans from the nation’s top journalism schools, who have collectively trained hundreds, if not thousands, of reporters. They included women and men with storied careers in investigative journalism, whose credentials to speak with authority about what journalism is and how we do it cannot be doubted.

Their message is clear: David Daleiden is not an investigative journalist, and what he did is, in fact, at odds with the fundamentals of our craft.

Daleiden’s motivation for claiming the status of an investigative reporter is clear. In order to avoid financial ruin and potential jail time, he seeks to cloak himself in the protection of the First Amendment, arguing that everything he did was in his capacity as a reporter, and that the Constitution protects him as a member of the free press.

In so doing, Daleiden threatens to inflict yet more damage than his campaigns have already done, this time to the field of journalism. For if the court were to accept Daleiden’s claims, it would be endorsing his message to the public—that journalists routinely lie, break the law, get people drunk in order to elicit information, and distort quotes and video footage so dramatically that people appear to be saying the exact opposite to what they said. What hope would reporters then have of preserving the already tenuous trust that the public places in our word and our work?

This is not the first time some of the nation’s most decorated reporters have carefully reviewed Daleiden’s claims and the techniques he used to gather the footage for his videos, and concluded that he is not a reporter.

Last month, the Columbia Journalism Review published an article titled “Why the undercover Planned Parenthood videos aren’t journalism,” which was based on the results of a collaboration between the Los Angeles Times and the University of California, Berkeley’s graduate program in journalism.

That study was led by Lowell Bergman, a legendary investigative reporter whose career over the past few decades has been symbiotic with the evolution of the field. Bergman’s team and the LA Times concluded that:

Daleiden, head of the Irvine-based Center for Medical Progress, and his associates contend that they were acting as investigative journalists, seeking to expose illegal conduct. That is one of their defenses in lawsuits brought by Planned Parenthood and other groups, accusing them of fraud and invasion of privacy.

But unpublicized footage and court records show that the activists’ methods were geared more toward political provocation than journalism.

The team found what we already knew: Daleiden and his co-conspirators attempted to plant phrases in their targets’ mouths in the hopes of making them sound bad, hoping to drum up “political pressure,” according to a memo obtained by Bergman’s group that Daleiden wrote to his supporters. The activists’ use of fraud was so extensive and enthusiastic, and their deliberate splicing of videos so manipulative and dishonest, that they in no way reflected the methods or goals of real reporters.

The brief submitted in the NAF lawsuit last week echoes these findings and resoundingly makes the same point: Daleiden is not an investigative reporter. The main arguments in the brief boil down to the following, which can be understood as the pillars of investigative journalism:

  • Reporters do not falsify or distort evidence. Daleiden spliced and manipulated his videos and transcripts to give the false impression that they captured illegal conduct. A reporter’s job is to uncover and convey the truth, not to concoct false claims and peddle them as facts.
  • Reporters must use deception as a last resort, not a first resort, if they use it at all. Any use of deception—even in the service of obtaining the truth—tends to undermine the public’s trust in any of the reporter’s work. For this reason, even investigations that have uncovered serious abuses of power are often criticized, if not condemned, by the profession if they have obtained their information through deceptive means. As the brief noted, in 1978, the Chicago Sun-Times was barred as a finalist from the Pulitzer Prize because the truth it exposed was obtained through elaborate deception—Sun-Times reporters opened a bar called The Mirage for the purposes of documenting very real public graft. No one doubted that the evidence they found was both true and of great public importance. But, led by Ben Bradlee, the journalism establishment rejected the Sun-Times’ use of deception because of the long-term damage it would cause to the profession.
  • Reporters follow the law. Daleiden and his co-conspirators created fake government identification which they used to gain access into private events. No legitimate news organization would permit their reporters to take such steps.
  • Reporters do not deceive subjects into making statements to support a “predetermined theory.” Daleiden used alcohol to try to manipulate subjects into using words and phrases that he believed would sound bad on tape. Real journalists try to report against their own biases, instead of manufacturing evidence to prove their own theories.
  • Reporters seek to highlight or prevent a harm to the public. Daleiden caused great harm but exposed none.

A point that wasn’t mentioned in the legal filings is that Daleiden failed to follow a rule that student journalists learn in their first weeks of school: You must afford the subject of your reporting a full opportunity to respond to the allegations made against them. Daleiden’s videos came as a surprise attack against Planned Parenthood and NAF (but not, apparently, to certain Republican members of Congress). No reputable reporter would conduct herself in such a fashion. That is an ambush, not an article.

To many readers, these arguments may seem academic. But the reality is that real reporters take their obligations more seriously than the public might realize, to the point of risking—and sometimes losing—their lives in the service of this job, which many consider to be a calling.

One of the best investigative reporters of my generation, A.C. Thompson of ProPublica, recently reported on a group of assassins that operated on U.S. soil in the 1980s, who murdered Vietnamese-American journalists for political reasons.

To report that story, Thompson attended events held by members of the groups he believed to be linked to—or were actual parts of—these networks of killers. He did phone interviews with them. He met with them in person. And he did all of that on camera, using his real name.

Make no mistake: Thompson potentially put his life at risk to do this work, but he did it because he believed that these men had been able to murder his fellow reporters with impunity, and with possible—if tacit—support from the U.S. government.

Contrast that to Daleiden’s conduct. As noted in the legal brief:

Daleiden may think Planned Parenthood kills babies, but there was no risk whatsoever that its managers would have killed him, or even slapped him, if he approached them openly.

Daleiden’s arguments are, in some ways, the natural extension to the existential crisis that gripped journalism more than a decade ago, with the rise of blogging. What followed was a years-long debate over who could be labeled a “journalist.” The dawn of smartphones contributed to the confusion, as nearly anyone could snap a photo and publish it via Twitter.

It is therefore a tonic to read these clear defenses of the “what” and “why” of investigative journalism, and to see luminaries of the field explaining that journalism is a discipline with norms and rules. When these norms are articulated clearly, it is easy to show that Daleiden’s work does not fall within journalism’s bounds.

At times like this, the absence of David Carr’s raspy voice makes itself painfully felt. One can only imagine the field day he would have with Daleiden’s pretensions to be committing acts of journalism. Judging by this legendary exchange between Carr and Shane Smith, one of the founders of VICE news, from Page One, the 2011 documentary about the New York Times, Carr would not have minced words.

The exchange came after Smith’s self-aggrandizing assessment of his team’s work covering Liberia—where they uncovered cannibalism and a beach that locals were using as a latrine—and then mocked the New York Times’ coverage of the country.

Here’s Carr:

Just a sec, time out. Before you ever went there, we’ve had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide. Just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and went and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do.

To paraphrase: Just because Daleiden got some hidden cameras and editing software, and called himself a reporter, doesn’t mean he was doing journalism.

It’s important that both the public and the courts recognize that reality.

Disclosures: A.C. Thompson is a former colleague of the author. The author also appeared, extremely briefly, in the Page One documentary. 

Culture & Conversation Media

Bitch Magazine Co-Founder Probes ‘the Buying and Selling’ of Feminism in New Book

Amy Littlefield

In We Were Feminists Once, Andi Zeisler argues that a 2014 Beyoncé performance signaled feminism's "arrival" as a mainstream movement. But, the gender equality promised by feminist imagery in pop culture and the market​ has not trickled down.

Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and Emma Watson are feminists. So is Miss Piggy from the Muppets. Chanel’s 2014 runway show flaunted feminist imagery, and even Katy Perry’s signature perfume is feminist.

Something has happened to feminism.

“It was hot,” Andi Zeisler writes in the introduction to her new book, We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. “And, perhaps most important, it was sellable.”

It’s the moment Zeisler, one of the founders of Bitch magazine, has been fighting for for 20 years: the tipping point. Feminism has arrived.

“I always believed that the realm of media and popular culture was where feminism would truly change hearts and minds,” Zeisler writes. “Theoretically, this was exactly the breakthrough my cofounders and I had always hoped to see.”

But as you may have guessed from the subtitle, there’s a catch. Like the wealth promised by President Ronald Reagan, the gender equality promised by feminist imagery in pop culture and the market has not trickled down.

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Here’s how Zeisler sums up the disconnect:

As we celebrate the increasing number of female TV showrunners and writers, Senate Republicans have twice unanimously voted against an act designed to close the gendered wage gap. As our tabloid magazines documented every blessed step of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition, an anti-discrimination ballot measure in Houston, Texas was defeated thanks largely to TV ads that painted transgender women as child predators, warning, “Any man at any time could enter a women’s bathroom simply by claiming to be a woman.” As we excitedly binge-watch a Netflix series about life and love in a women’s prison, dozens of black women have died in police custody in recent years, with no satisfactory explanation as to why.

In this deeply researched account, Zeisler charts the co-optation of feminism and women’s empowerment over the decades, and shows how this process reached a peak in 2014. In 1929, Lucky Strikes cigarettes were cast as “torches of freedom,” a co-optation echoed in perhaps my favorite of Zeisler’s examples: the 1970 billing of the Liberated Wool Sweater as the “embodiment of the new freedom.” In 1998, First USA offered a Mastercard celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Seneca Falls women’s rights convention. But while corporations and popular culture have always tried to sell their ideas of what women want, Zeisler identifies 2014 as The Year It Happened.

It was Beyoncé. On stage at the MTV Video Music Awards, Beyoncé sampled Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and posed in front of the bright, white, glowing word: “FEMINIST.” In a 2014 Bitch post after Beyoncé’s performance that presaged some of the ideas in her new book, Zeisler wrote that the performance “positioned feminism as Beyoncé’s official brand.” While its impact was undeniable, Zeisler wrote that “the branding of feminism as an attractive product for consumption is very different than the work of feminism as a progressive movement.”

To be clear, Zeisler’s book doesn’t diss Beyoncé; it draws a distinction between what she calls “marketplace feminism”—the “mainstream, celebrity, consumer embrace of feminism,” which is often about selling us something—and the less visible work feminists (including Beyoncé) do every day to advance gender justice. In fact, the best part about Zeisler’s writing on pop culture is that she doesn’t hate it; she’s a connoisseur, which makes her the most entertaining, well-informed of critics.

She applies an almost encyclopedic knowledge of film, television, music, and advertising to reveal the funhouse-mirrorlike results of mainstream culture’s co-optation of radical ideas. Take what pop culture did to the punk movement Riot Grrrl, with its out-of-bounds, anti-capitalist, “girls to the front!” ethos: “The phrase ‘Girl Power’ was harvested from Riot Grrrl zines and re-emerged, a marketplace-feminist Frankenstein’s monster, in the juggernaut of the Spice Girls.” And what happens when even consumer products like underwear can become feminist? An “uncanny valley,” filled with objects that kind of look feminist: “In the uncanny valley, those granny panties are feminist because they say so on the butt.”

In one of the book’s strongest sections, Zeisler unpacks how even feminist ideas like choice and empowerment have been co-opted to sell damaging mythologies, like poverty as an individual, not a societal failing, or the notion that women make choices about work and family in a vacuum. Zeisler writes that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, “shifted the language of bodily rights from demands to choices.” After that, “the advent of neoliberalism did the rest, normalizing the self-focus and singularity made ever more possible by a booming free market. The parlance of the marketplace became the default way to talk about almost all choices made by women.”

So what happens when neoliberalism—with its ethos of privatization, deregulation, and individualism—co-opts feminism? You end up with figureheads like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose “lean-in” feminism masks the failings of capitalism by implying that women who fail to break through systemic barriers simply aren’t leaning hard enough. As Zeisler notes, the neoliberal approach to feminism obscures racism, classism, and other barriers that “make grabbing status-quo balls almost impossible for anyone other than the people who are already in closest proximity to them.”

By tackling the false promises of “marketplace feminism,” Zeisler has provided a much-needed counterpoint to Sandberg’s classist vision. Her critique of this exclusive iteration of feminism—and its cozy ties to the corporate powers that be—reaches its peak during her description of the 2014 MAKERS Conference, a corporate-sponsored, invitation-only event attended by Sandberg, Martha Stewart, actress Geena Davis, and more, or what Zeisler sums up as a gathering of “very elite women patting other very elite women on the back for their individual achievements in highly rarefied fields.”

What Zeisler calls “marketplace feminism” could, at times, have simply been called “capitalist feminism” or maybe just capitalism. Its co-optation of social movements is hardly new or unique to feminism. But in an email to Rewire, Zeisler said she coined “marketplace feminism” as a more specific term, “because of the way it invokes picking and choosing, taking on the parts of an ideology or practice that appeal to you and ignoring those that don’t.” In co-opting feminism, pop culture and the market have taken the sellable and left the “thorny, unsexy realities” behind.

Still, Zeisler misses an opportunity to fully articulate an alternative to “marketplace feminism,” perhaps one that encompasses its logical counterpoint: socialism, another idea that’s arguably having its Beyoncé moment right now. For many on the Left, watching Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders criticize capitalism on a national debate stage has been akin—and bear with me here—to what happened at the VMAs in 2014, albeit … well, not nearly as … hot. The number of young women identifying with socialist principles suggests many potential readers would appreciate an explicit discussion of alternatives to capitalist feminism—beyond equal pay, what about basic income?—but Zeisler largely avoids this conversation, instead alluding more broadly to the need for a “post-marketplace-feminism world.”

In the end, the book’s greatest weakness is that it sidelines today’s grassroots feminist and intersectional social movements, many of which oppose capitalism. While she acknowledges organizations like Know Your IX and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Zeisler’s only explicit mention of Black Lives Matter is to cite the hashtag as a branded entity, lumped in with “Barack Obama’s presidential campaign” and “one-for-one TOMS shoes.” (“By a branded entity, I don’t mean that #BLM is actively selling a product,” Zeisler wrote, when I asked her about this in an email, “but that it has leaders and language and imagery that are associated with it, and the words have become shorthand for something that people feel deeply invested in.”) Yet, it feels like an oversight of one of this generation’s most defining social movements. #BlackLivesMatter caught fire like a brand, but it was created by women of color, not by tobacco or shoe companies. It’s a surprising blind spot for a book that reckons with how “marketplace feminism” can obscure racial and economic injustice.

Zeisler ultimately falls into her own trap, focusing too much on the very things on which, she suggests, we are too focused. In critiquing the fixation on celebrity spokespeople, she writes: “It’s as though feminists are becoming part of a celebrity movement, rather than celebrities joining up with a feminist one.” But the opposite is true: Celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, Lena Dunham, and Miley Cyrus are responding to a movement that has pushed some feminist ideas into the mainstream. That doesn’t mean feminism has been bought. Beyond the rarefied MAKERS Conference, feminists are protesting on behalf of women killed by police and against anti-transgender legislation. The feminists I know watch Beyoncé’s “Formation” video on repeat, but they don’t think the battle’s over because Beyoncé tipped her hat.

I learned a lot from Zeisler’s witty, well-informed prose, and it was refreshing to read a feminist book so openly critical of capitalism. But in the end, I just can’t buy the idea that feminism has been sold. Maybe it’s because I was there on March 2, as thousands of feminists gathered outside the Supreme Court while it heard the most significant abortion case in a generation. People who had had abortions told their stories, on their own terms, and so did abortion providers. That was feminism—not defined by Sheryl Sandberg or even by Beyoncé.