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What Happened To The Media

Over the past 48 hours, there have been two major press conferences from two different universes that, at the root, are about the same thing: sexual misconduct. From the world of politics, we had Herman Cain’s 30-minute steadfast denial of sexual assault charges from five women. From the world of collegiate sports, we had Penn State’s Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees, John Surma, hold a press conference announcing the firing of football coach Joe Paterno and university president, Graham Spanier, because of their lack of leadership in how they handled – or more accurately, didn’t handle – the sexual predator, Jerry Sandusky.
The Associated Press put it this way:

Both were ousted by a board of trustees fed up with the damage being done to the university’s reputation by a child sex-abuse scandal involving Paterno’s one-time heir apparent.

What is also disturbing, however, is how the press operated during these two press conferences. Journalists pride themselves on their objectivity, or at least the ability to put their emotions and philosophies in check when reporting. But the display from the press corps at both of these conferences is a slap in the face to the industry, and more importantly to the victims of the sexual assaults.

At the very end of the Herman Cain press conference, reporters did something that should raise people’s eyebrows: they clapped (at the 12:28 mark).

Applauding Herman Cain, especially in circumstances like this, make one wonder how a press corps can accurately report on news of the day. By clapping for a candidate – no matter at what level of politics – signifies approval of what he or she just said. We see tech reporters frequently applaud the CEOs they cover (watch a Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg keynote at a conference and you’ll see media clapping along with the other attendees) and it makes people question the motive of the reporter: do they have stock in the company they are covering? You will not see a White House Press Correspondent applaud the president or press secretary after a speech. The would get fired on the spot. So why did the press applaud at Cain’s conference?

In the sporting world, at least at the professional level, the notion of objectivity is embedded into the reporter. They don’t clap or cheer an athlete or a team…in public. I’m sure sports reporters have their favorite teams, but their job is cover their beat, not be a fan. At last night’s Penn State press conference, something weird was going on from the media.
From SB Nation:

As I mentioned in my last post, a number of these journalists sound downright agitated – like angry students, not like journalists. It’s incredible, really. Many are asking pointed, and obviously-angry, questions, about Joe Paterno’s legacy with Penn State and about, for example, whether the Board of Trustees has been “gunning” for him for years – as if anyone who isn’t connected to Penn State would possibly see these events that way. Pointed questions are fine, clearly, but this press conference is heading into the realm of the bizarre, as if Surma were answering questions from season-ticket holders rather than journalists.

We see two different worlds – politics and sports – enmeshed in sexual assault allegations and a press corps that seems to be crossing lines from professional journalists to everyday consumer. Are the applause and misguided questions effects of a changing media landscape where objectivity doesn’t sell papers or increase pageviews? Does this behavior from the media reflect a more confused and vitriolic society? Whatever the answers are, if there are any, it doesn’t excuse reporters for not being professional.

About joshsternberg

Josh Sternberg is the content strategist for The Washington Post. Prior to that he was the media reporter for Digiday. Additional bylines include: The Atlantic, The Awl, Pacific Standard, Mashable, Huffington Post, Mediaite.


3 thoughts on “What Happened To The Media

  1. While the second example doesn’t surprise me (sports journalists can easily fall into the “homer” trap), I would caution against jumping to conclusions on the Cain presser. Often politicians include supporters in the audience who applaud at the end. That is likely what happened here. I highly doubt the journalists were clapping.

    Posted by Jason | November 10, 2011, 4:27 pm
  2. I get your point, but, to be fair, we don’t actually see who is clapping at the end of Cain’s press conference. It might just have been his campaign aides who were clapping, and not the assembled press. I have been at plenty of press conferences where the entourage claps, while the press remain silent. Unless you actually saw the press clapping at the event – which would indeed have been seriously odd – this could be a case of mis-attribution.

    Posted by Will Stebbins | November 10, 2011, 4:31 pm
  3. Good points here.

    To it all I’d add that we as a society are vastly under-prepared to deal with issues of sexual assault & harassment. The media is the last place to look for a responsible reaction to these events.

    If people want to understand how this all could have happened, they should visit http://www.RAINN.org. If they want to recover their lost sense of innocence then, by all means, start forgetting this whole episode ever happened.

    It doesn’t take a moral monster to ignore the things PSU ignored, & that needs fixing. We need less “shock” and more awareness that sexual assault happens, and not infrequently. Shock is an alternative to a reaction. Shock is a way to erase what should not be true, but is. More education equips us to react as humans.

    Unfortunately the media only equips us to pretend to be innocents long after we should know better. Pretending JoePa was a hero, and not simply a good football coach, puts everyone automatically on the defensive.

    Posted by Pete Sheridan | November 10, 2011, 5:02 pm

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