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ProPublica and NBC show how righteous media serve democracy

ProPublica and NBC show how righteous media serve democracy
U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is swarmed by the media after touring a Border Patrol facility housing children on July 1, 2019 in Clint, Texas. Reports of inhumane conditions have plagued the facility where migrant children are being held. (Christ Chavez / Getty Images)

With an administration pumping out the most virulent anti-press messages since the White House team of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, it’s important for critics to remind readers of the righteous work some media outlets do in service to democracy and the highest ideals of this nation.

We have two great examples in recent days that offer important takeaways for both media workers and the citizens who read, watch and listen to what we produce: ProPublica’s reporting on an anti-immigrant hate-filled Facebook group of former and current Border Patrol agents and NBC’s all-out, spare-no-cost effort in televising two nights of the Democratic debates last week.

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I praised NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo in several posts last week, but there is more to think about it in terms of the way NBC focused the attention of tens of millions of viewers on this crucial presidential election even as Trump was throwing up one shiny photo-op after another on his Asia trip in part to distract attention from Democrats and problems at home like the horrible abuse of migrants taking place on our southern border.

But let’s start with the reporting of ProPublica that has revealed the racism, sexism and cruelty voiced by some government border guards who posted as part of a Facebook group that has been in existence since 2016, according to the non-profit news site.

I was not surprised to see the byline of A.C. Thompson on ProPublica’s investigation of the Facebook group.

Thompson has been chronicling the rise of hate in the Trump era like no other reporter going. He was the correspondent on two superb co-productions between ProPublica and Frontline that aired last year on PBS.

In Documenting Hate: Charlottesville, he tracked down white supremacists responsible for the Tiki torch parade and violence in that Virginia city in the summer of 2017, something law enforcement authorities had not bothered to do until his report.

And then, In “Documenting Hate: New American Nazis,” he took viewers inside the mindset of a neo-Nazi group that includes former and current members from the U.S. military. The group advocates lone wolf terrorist attacks on Jews like the one at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Again, he was doing what law enforcement officials weren’t.

This week’s ProPublica report on the border guards is headlined, “Inside the Secret Border Patrol Facebook Group Where Agents Joke About Migrant Deaths and Post Sexist Memes.”

I urge you to read that rather than all the recapping and follow-ups in places like the New York Times, which should have done this kind of original reporting in the first place given its resources.

Thompson reported that “members joked about the deaths of migrants, discussed throwing burritos at Latino members of Congress visiting a detention facility in Texas on Monday and posted a vulgar illustration depicting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez engaged in oral sex with a detained migrant, according to screenshots of their postings.” They called Latina members of Congress “scum buckets” and “hoes.”

Thompson also wrote that “group members responded with indifference and wisecracks to the post of a news story about a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy who died in May while in custody at a Border Patrol station.

According to the ProPublica report, “The Facebook group called 10-15 boasts roughly 9,500 members from across the country. (10-15 is Border Patrol code for ‘aliens in custody.’)”

Officials of the Customs and Border Protection agency, which oversees the border stations, said they will investigate the Facebook postings brought to light by ProPublica. But where were these officials the last three years, and why did a relatively small, non-profit journalistic enterprise have to do their work of exposing such vile behavior for them?

My answer as to why ProPublica is doing such great work in its reporting of hate starts with its mission statement of “using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.”

We in the mainstream media don’t talk much about morality. I wonder if some think about it at all. Maybe that’s because taking a moral position seems somehow at odds with the notion of reporting objectively, dispassionately, down the middle or any of the other adverbs and terms we use to describe what is generally thought of as the traditional stance of mainstream journalism.

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But we do need to conceive of ourselves as a moral force — just as ProPublica does in its mission statement — when there is a lack of moral behavior in our leaders.

And has any administration since Nixon’s shown such disdain for moral behavior as Trump’s? Have you ever heard this president say he did something because it was the “right” thing to do? Remember his explanation for not pressing the Saudis on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi? He had to go easy, he said, because they spend billions on weapons with U.S. defense contractors and he didn’t want to jeopardize those contracts.

Americans still have a capacity for moral outrage, and it is the job of the media to tap into it and make it part of the civic conversation when political, religious, judicial and educational leaders will not.

Another takeaway from ProPublica’s reporting this week is the way journalists and elected officials can work together on occasion. There was a media synergy between ProPublica’s Monday report and the same-day trip to border stations by a congressional delegation that included Ocasio-Cortez. In tandem the report and trip created a spotlight effect neither would have generated on its own.

“Officers were keeping women in cells w/no water & had told them to drink out of the toilets,” she tweeted, offering information that resonated with the ProPublica accounts of officers’ attitude toward the migrants.

I hope ProPublica and Frontline will team up again for a PBS documentary on the border guards’ Facebook group, bringing the story to an even larger audience.

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NBC didn’t need any partners or synergy to drive last week’s debates to the top of the national conversation.

Using the network, the cable channels MSNBC and Telemundo, as well as their huge digital sites, the debates became the most viewed in Democratic primary history.

That audience size matters because every network, cable channel and website involved in political coverage will now be inclined to increase the resources put into their election coverage based on the belief that there is an audience of tens of millions of voters looking for content about the candidates. You might not get 15 and 18 million TV viewers, as the NBC channels did Wednesday and Thursday, but even a piece of that means you will be making money.

I cannot wait to see what CNN does to try and top NBC July 30 and 31 when it hosts debates in Detroit. I hope it, too, will keep the focus on the Democratic candidates and not let Trump distract them.

TV debates can raise political and historical consciousness, which I believe was the case last week with NBC’s.

While millions were talking about the drama of Sen. Kamala Harris taking down former Vice President Joe Biden in Thursday’s debate and the effect it might have on his poll numbers, others were looking for more information on school busing in the 1970s and how Biden’s opposition to it in the Senate was part of an attempt led by southern senators to thwart the integration mandated by by the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling two decades earlier.

You can dismiss a TV debate as pseudo-event or spectacle and lament the effect of the medium’s conventions on the political process, but the same criticisms could have been leveled to some extent against the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Was it what the candidates said or was it the way they said and performed their words that mattered most?

We can no longer talk about national politics as being separate from media. They have merged to the point where they are equal parts of the same whole. NBC recognized the responsibility inherent in that convergence and pushed the candidates to real answers on issues important to the American public. This was a place to discover the candidates’ views on the merits and disadvantages of single-payer health care, for example, not to watch Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio compare their anatomy.

Some of the candidates have been campaigning for months with little or no movement in the polls. Harris calls out Biden on his school busing history during a few moments in prime time, and the first poll to indicate the debate’s effect (CNN’s on Monday) shows him down by 10 points and her up by nine from where they were a month ago. That's the power of this medium that has been labeled a dinosaur for the last 20 years.

I believe NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo served democracy well by bringing an additional 18 million viewers into the hall to witness that moment.

Here’s hoping we have more media outlets thinking about their duty to democracy and how they can be a moral force for reform in these troubled times.

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