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See Something, Say Something #12

Regular Media Criticism from The Shoestring

In a media column, The Shoestring will reflect on recent local news.

“Struck by the Compassionate Tone”  

On November 8th, the Gazette published an editorial titled “Northampton’s panhandling study is compassionate, if imperfect.” The set up juxtaposed a tweet by neoliberal-think-tank-flack-cum-Politico-columnist Bill Scher with a tweet from The Shoestring. Scher said, “Not every downtown surveys panhandlers to get their perspective.” Our tweet, in response to his, dryly questioned the motives, ethics, and process of the “Panhandling Work Group,” by noting that “a task force appointed by the Mayor which studies a population in secret meetings, closed to the public, and which includes 0 representatives from the population being studied is totally forgiven by asking 18 people invasive questions in exchange for a $10 gift card.” The column, as its title suggests, went on to praise the 200-page report despite its flaws. “Overall,” the editorial wrote, “we were struck by the compassionate tone of the report, which, far from dehumanizing people who panhandle, appeals for empathy over animosity.”

Yet the report — flawed or unflawed —was the product of a government body that was shielded from public input or accountability. Not every town decides the fate of its most marginalized residents behind closed doors “without a reporter in the room”.  The problem with the framing—”The [twitter] exchange distills a lot of the conversation around the issue”—was that it implied the expertise contained within Scher’s tweet was equivalent to ours. However, while Scher was writing his masterful columns which smeared Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and immigration activists, or encouraged Chelsea Clinton to run for Senate, The Shoestring was actually reporting on the Panhandling Work Group. In fact we broke the story, reported several more, and asked the Attorney General to review the legality of the PWG; and, for his part, Scher has never reported on it during his entire career.

The editorial suggested, “It is not true, according to the Mayor, that the group formed to police or punish panhandlers for just trying to survive.” Instead, as the survey we leaked from the Mayor’s office put it, “The stated goal of the Work Group was to reduce the need for this strategy of survival among those that employ it, while also making sure that everyone has a great time downtown.” Had the editorial committee read the document (which we emailed to Gazette editor-in-chief Brooke Hauser not long before the editorial was published), they might have better understood why the group formed, beyond the Mayor’s word, rather than merely expressing “some skepticism about the motivation for studying any one group, especially a marginalized one that has been scapegoated by many for the ills of downtown life.”

After praising the report’s “compassionate tone,” the column’s last line takes a swing at us, writing, “Of course, that’s not as fun to tweet about.” But then again, using the tweets of a Politico columnist with dubious expertise to dunk on the outlet that broke the story isn’t as much fun as acknowledging—or even reading—our reporting. —Will Meyer

Lessons Yearned

On December 13, the Gazette ran a column by Joe Gannon touting “lessons to be learned from England’s election.” The title belies the fact that, for Gannon, there is really only one lesson to be learned from the election: don’t run an “ideological” (read: progressive) candidate. Gannon’s thesis comes at the end of his piece, following a selective history of the parallels between UK and US politics over the last several years: “The progressive in me cringes at the thought, but our first job is to beat Trump and restore sane government. It is not about Medicare for All, nor abolishing ICE. It is about beating Trump, first, and changing the country second.”

As the Republican party moved further and further right over the last 40 years, the Democrats refused to offer any meaningful alternative, instead allowing the right to define the terms of engagement in bad faith. 2016 was not, as Gannon puts it, “a choice between remaining in the civilized world of good government… and (relatively) honest political discourse [sic].” When the institutional left refuses to combat the greatest hoarding of wealth in history, it provides a platform for opportunistic neo-fascism.

There is little that one can compare from a single election, let alone one in a different country, no matter how similar the respective rises of neoliberalism (interestingly, not one of the similarities that Gannon mentions). There’s a reason Gannon and other pundits aren’t taking lessons from the 2016 election, in which a centrist lost to the far right, or that many neglect to mention that the UK’s centrist Liberal Democrats did much worse even than Labour. To many in the center, another four years of fascism is preferable to a radical redistribution of wealth and power.

If we are to take a lesson from the UK’s election, it should be a better understanding of just how much the deck is stacked against the left. Corbyn’s unpopularity was not helped by the staggeringly disproportionate negative coverage of his campaign by the BBC, a public corporation whose masters were willing to sacrifice its reputable name to influence an election. Meanwhile, centrists like Gannon will decry the lack of unity on the left, but refuse to back policies like Medicare for All, approval ratings for which hover at 70% when respondents are correctly informed of what the policy would do. The unspoken analogue for Corbyn in the US is Sanders, a comparison made by both those on the left and the right. Yet while the reasons for Corbyn’s unpopularity may be dubious, he was just that: unpopular. Sanders, meanwhile, is polling consistently in second place, topping the polls for groups like millennials and voters of color who may play large roles in the next election. In 2020, there will be no return to the mythical “civilized world of good government” that Gannon thinks existed before 2016. Trumpism has made even that fantasy impossible, and for the left to run a campaign that he has already defeated would be suicidal. The only hope of defeating Trumpism, if not Trump himself, is in building a multi-racial movement towards working class power. —Brian Zayatz

“Somewhat Better Shape”  

Valley Advocate editor Dave Eisenstadter wrote a November column for the alt-weekly titled “Addressing a fading news industry.” And fading it is—The Shoestring recently reported on the shuttering of yet another Newspapers of New England office in Athol. (NNE owns the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Valley Advocate, and The Greenfield Recorder.) Eisentadter’s column was in response to a feature by DigBoston editor (and friend of The Shoestring) Chris Faraone about media consolidation in the Baystate and its impact on local communities. In it Faraone cites a University of North Carolina study, writing, “Massachusetts has suffered a 27 percent decrease in the number of daily and weekly newspapers since 2004, and a 44 percent decrease in newspaper circulation during that same period.”

Yet, according to Eisenstadter, “here in Western Mass, we’re in somewhat better shape” than Worcester and other towns further east where local news has been in decline for more than a decade. The evidence includes the assertion that “through smart planning” NNE staff “have been able to maintain the health” of the weekly and flagship dailies. However, it remains unclear how Eisenstadter is measuring “health”—the Advocate’s staff has dwindled in recent years, shrinking to two editors and a graphic designer, some freelance contributions and support from the Gazette features department. This isn’t a knock on The Advocate (where I used to be a columnist), just a mere reflection of the “industry pressures” Eisenstadter says “are eroding local journalism”.

Making his case, Eisenstadter points to several stories — some of which are no doubt important, some are questionable — “other publications have left untold.” He goes on to praise national outlets like The Post and The Times for “weathering the storm” facing media and asks readers for donations. But the problem with the piece is that the stories he cites as successes are hardly the types of stories Faraone’s piece is warning about losing. Faraone’s piece is concerned with losing reporters who cover beats and through them get scoops that result in investigative reporting—something which The Advocate doesn’t do. At The  Shoestring, we’ve attended countless government meetings that have brought important scoops, namely the Panhandling Work Group and the Northampton Smoking Ban, that we wouldn’t have known about without attending such meetings—and frankly wish we were equipped to do a lot more of. I will be the first to say that Western Mass is not in “somewhat better shape,” and local journalism desperately needs more reporters. This isn’t to knock, again, important work that originates in, say, a Facebook post, like the Advocate’s story about racist comments on the Chicopee Police department’s page, but rather to reiterate Faraone’s point: local media is in crisis all over the state, and until there are reporters in every city council chamber and school board meeting, honing beats about power, corruption, and foul play, Faraone says, “the great shame is that there are important stories out there and we’re missing them.”

Still, if Faraone and I weren’t persuasive, read quotes from an oral history (towards the end) conducted by the Advocate for its 45th anniversary, where three former staffers, albeit very diplomatically, express that the paper’s investigative journalism department is lacking. All the more reason to support local journalism. —WM

“One Can Only Imagine”  

And last but not least, Western Mass News, known for stooping to tremendous lows, created a non-story. Working with the news-peg of holiday shopping, the network had one of their reporters, Briceyda Landaverde (whose name the anchor stumbled to pronounce), interview a martial arts coach about “how to protect yourself” from…thieves on “super Saturday, or as some call it, panic saturday.”

Despite the invocation of panic, the story lacked any crime statistics — crime, for what it’s worth, is down nationally, as well as in Massachusetts — or real world evidence demonstrating that such theft was rooted in any form of material reality. Instead, the news segment indulges in cosplay, allowing instructors to act out self-defense moves such as kicking or grabbing the face of the alleged thief.

It is well known that fear sells, and much of the media isn’t above trafficking hysteria. As one survey of academic literature suggests, “fear of crime is related to the overall amount of media consumption.” And, as political theorist Corey Robin argues in his book on the intellectual history of fear, it has always been weaponized towards reactionary ends.

During the segment, Jeremy Libiszewski, the martial arts instructor, stresses the importance of “awareness,” the “number one” form of theft prevention—he encourages viewers to look behind them, check the parking lot. These, he says, “are the most important things you can do while shopping.” During the story’s introduction, one anchor responds to his co-anchor’s hypothetical “what happens if someone tries to grab your items?” with a cheery “one could only imagine”—nearly acknowledging the story’s speculative nature, thus displaying the type of awareness Libiszewski might admire. —WM

Will Meyer is a co-editor of The Shoestring. Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor, who recently wrote about Northampton’s smoking ban.

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