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UPDATE: A case study in unethical journalism Judd Legum

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On September 26, Popular Information reported that librarians in Charlotte County, Florida, public schools were instructed to remove books with LGBTQ characters from school and classroom libraries. This report was based on the following:

1. A document provided by Charlotte County public schools in response to a public records request, which memorialized guidance given to school librarians by Charlotte County Superintendent Mark Vianello and the school board’s attorney, Michael McKinley. According to the document, librarians were told to remove books in K-12 libraries that had any LGBTQ characters. 

2. Popular Information contacted Charlotte County school district spokesperson Claudette Smith and asked if the guidance was “still valid” and whether “all books with LGBTQ characters… have been removed from Charlotte County schools.” In a lengthy response, Smith defended the guidance and said it was necessary “to ensure compliance with state law and state board rule.” (According to lawyers for the DeSantis administration, however, these laws and rules do not apply to library books.) At no point did Smith say the guidance had been altered or that books with LGBTQ characters were available in any schools. 

After Popular Informatino’s report was published at 6:30 AM, it circulated rapidly on social media. At 2:15 PM, Smith contacted Popular Information again and said that, “[b]ooks, including LBGTQ characters and themes, are available in high school media centers.” This claim was not included in Smith’s original statement, but, at 3:30 PM, it was added as an update to the article. 

Popular Information then obtained the logs of the books that were removed from Charlotte County high schools after the guidance was issued. The logs reveal that many books with LGBTQ characters were, in fact, removed from Charlotte County high school libraries just prior to the start of the school year. Popular Information asked Smith why these books were removed. Smith said she would look into it but never followed up with a response. 

Popular Information’s reporting was picked up widely by the state and national media, which confirmed the accuracy of the story. 

The Associated Press

Top officials at a Florida school district ordered the removal of all books and material containing LBGTQ+ characters and themes from classrooms and campus libraries, saying that was needed to conform to a state law backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that critics have dubbed “Don’t Say Gay”… The district later backed off a bit, allowing some exceptions for high school libraries.

The Tallahassee Democrat:

A Southwest Florida school district has removed books with LGBTQ characters and themes from its elementary and middle school libraries…Smith said books with LGBTQ characters and themes are being kept in high school libraries, backpedaling on the July document.

The report was also confirmed by numerous other local and national media outlets. 

But ABC7 and NBC2 in Fort Myers, Florida, two television stations owned by Hearst Communications, presented a very different story to their audience. Reporter Samantha Serbin published an article that claimed she had “confirmed” that Popular Information’s reporting was “grossly inaccurate.” According to Serbin, only books that were “pornographic, sexually explicit or overall inappropriate” were removed. She quoted Smith, saying, “we have never ordered librarians to purge LGBTQ+ books.” 

All of this was directly contradicted by the guidance document and Smith’s previous statements. But Serbin didn’t mention any of that in her story. 

Numerous versions of the story, which included screenshots of Popular Information’s report, were broadcast on ABC7 and NBC2. Viewers were presented with allegations that Popular Information’s story was “wildly inaccurate” and “false.” Serbin never contacted Popular Information. Videos of these broadcasts were posted online along with the articles. 

Efforts to contact Serbin were unsuccessful. On September 29, Popular Information contacted ABC7 and NBC2 News Director Tim Klutsarits and noted that Serbin’s report — and her claims about Popular Information — were false. In response, Klutsarits said he “disagree[s]” with Popular Information, but “in our editorial discretion we have taken the story down.” Klutsarits made no effort to substantively defend Serbin’s report. Both Serbin’s story and her video report are no longer available online. 

On October 2, Popular Information contacted Klutsarits again and asked if he intended to correct the record for his station’s broadcast and viewing audience. Klutsarits responded by saying he believed that Serbin’s story was “a fair and accurate report of a public body’s statements regarding the removal of books from public school libraries, including its assertion and view that the claims in your Popular Information post that all school libraries are being stripped of books with LGBTQ+ themes were inaccurate.” 

The “basis” for these claims, Klutsarits said, was “that books with LGBTQ+ themes are available in high school libraries.” This makes little sense. The district’s questionable claim that some books with LGBTQ themes are available in high school libraries was included in Popular Information’s report shortly after Smith first made it, and before Serbin published her report. “We stand behind the story,” Klutsarits concluded.

Of course, deleting all traces of the story from the internet is the opposite of standing behind a story. Worse, the audience of ABC7 and NBC2 have been misinformed about what is occurring in their local school district. Anyone watching Serbin’s report or reading it online would be under the false impression that books were not removed simply because they had LGBTQ characters. But, by the district’s own admission, all books with LGBTQ characters were removed from K-8 libraries. And Popular Information’s own reporting shows that many books with LGBTQ characters were removed from high school libraries. 

NPR’s former managing editor, Mark Memmott, explained why his newsroom has a policy against removing content from its website:

We are guided by a newsroom policy that says it is inappropriate to remove content from our Website. If a report is inaccurate, we will correct it and state why it has been altered. If relevant new information emerges, we will update or do a follow-up story.

But our content is a matter of public record and is part of our contract with our audience. To simply remove it from the archive diminishes transparency and trust and, in effect, erases history. This is not a practice engaged in by credible news organizations or in line with ethical journalism.

Philip Corbett, the New York Times’ associate managing editor for standards, explains why his paper does not simply delete stories:

We do make mistakes and it’s really important that we not just fix what was wrong but make it clear to readers that we made a mistake. This is the reason why we wouldn’t go in and just make something go away or unpublish something. We tell the reader what the right information is rather than making the wrong information or the story disappear.

Hearst’s own Television News Policy is similar: “Hearst Television is committed to accuracy and transparency in reporting. When mistakes are identified, we seek to quickly and thoughtfully acknowledge and address errors. Stories published to our websites note when a correction has been made.”

In this case, Hearst went in a very different direction.

 

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TGIF: WWIII May Come Tomorrow, But. . . Nellie Bowles

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Google employees protesting at the office. They were later fired. (Via X)

Welcome back. World War III watch over here continues. The Axis of Resistance seemed ready to kick off a major war, but then our Ayatollah stood down. The Houthi Youth at Columbia University camped out in solidarity, but the rebellion was short. Then, at press time, Israel struck back against Iran, so World War Watch resumed. You know what helps my stress? A good book. This one, by your faithful soldier, is out May 14.

→ Trump’s Gettysburg Address: Before Trump hit the campaign trail, I’d forgotten a little what he sounds like. In the amber of my mind, he was just “MAGA” and “Shithole countries” on a loop. Now, thanks to a campaign speech Saturday in Schnecksville, PA, we are back in the game with the craziest American orator who’s ever been in the game. The topic was Gettysburg. And our former president gave an impromptu slam poetry interpretation that left me snapping. 

Gettysburg, what an unbelievable battle that was. I mean, it was so much and so interesting and so vicious and horrible and so beautiful in so many different ways. It represented such a big portion of the success of this country. Gettysburg, wow. I go to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to look and to watch. And the statement of Robert E. Lee—who’s no longer in favor—did you ever notice that? He’s no longer in favor. “Never fight uphill, me boys, never fight uphill.” They were fighting uphill. He said, “Wow, that was a big mistake.” He lost his great general. They were fighting, “Never fight uphill, me boys,” but it was too late.

Vicious and horrible and beautiful. And the sun that blazes over the October sky. Who will watch the watcher? Who will sing the song of the lonely? Check out my self-published novel in the back, Trump says. 

→ Biden continues paying off successful young voters: Sorry, I mean “forgiving student debt.” Biden this week paid off another $7.4 billion in student loans, making his total student loan cancellation something like $153 billion. And by cancellation, I mean tax dollars were used to make the ledger go to zero. How much exactly? From Penn Wharton’s analysis: “We estimate that President Biden’s recently announced ‘New Plans’ to provide relief to student borrowers will cost $84 billion, in addition to the $475 billion that we previously estimated for President Biden’s SAVE plan.” But that goes to really needy people, right? Well, actually, at least 750,000 of those households are “making over $312,000 in average household income.” Meanwhile, to anyone who questions this allocation of resources, the White House answer is to shame them from official White House accounts by listing how much in pandemic loans were forgiven for House Republicans who own individual small business, which is weird because the reason businesses needed pandemic relief was because the White House banned them from operating. It’s a trap! And the only answer is to pay off every Media Studies PhD student’s loan. Colleges, for their part, are now charging up to $100,000 a year. Yes, literally. And since that’s ultimately going to be paid for by the taxpayers, why work to make it less expensive? Why cut corners when you need to remodel the cafeteria?

→ Oh, RFK’s running mate: For a flash I was thinking, Am I an RFK voter? I’m a mom who worries about plastics, and no, I don’t like how our national conversation is getting so divisive these days. And those steely blue eyes. It just felt right. But this week, my love affair hit a snag. Here’s RFK’s new vice-presidential pick, Nicole Shanahan, arguing that the Covid vaccine is not just bad, that it’s not just something she personally doesn’t want and should have the freedom to choose not to take, but that it should be banned. Over to Nicole: “Here is the devastating reality: it is not a safe vaccine, and must be recalled immediately. Many people are suffering who took it.” I guess this is really the agenda: RFK Jr. might be just asking questions, but if Nicole is chief executive, it sounds like she’s going to be executing. And that looks like legally required sound baths and astrology readings. The government understands that you want to take antibiotics, but you haven’t even tried rubbing yourself in honey yet. 

→ Wow, Kari Lake comes out as really pro-choice: Kari Lake, the Republican running for Senate in Arizona, has released a video about how she disagrees with Arizona’s total abortion ban, a ban she previously supported. I’m all for mind-changing. I actually want our politicians to put their finger to the wind every once in a while. Here’s Lake: “We as American people don’t agree on everything all of the time. But if you look at where the population is on this—a full ban on abortion is not where the people are.” 

She says, “I chose life, but I’m not every woman.” She pivots to Europe, which has all those annoyingly sensible abortion laws, and which is my exact same move: “I had the opportunity to visit Hungary, and it completely changed my view of how we should deal with this complicated, difficult issue.”

Is this Kari Lake sounding normal? In case you need to be reminded of the old Kari, here she is shaking hands with a statue. 

→ Oh no, “get out the vote” helps. . . Trump? Now that young people are for Trump and old people are for Biden, there’s another switcheroo: those who vote less or have never voted are more likely to be Trumpers. Call off the Rock the Vote campaigners! Return the blue t-shirts! The new message for Democrats to win needs to be: do not register new voters. Keep on keeping on. Stay home, save lives.


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April 18, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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I will not spend the rest of 2024 focusing on Trump and the chaos in the Republican Party, but today it has been impossible to look away.

In Trump’s election interference trial in Manhattan, Judge Juan Merchan this morning dismissed one of the selected jurors after she expressed concern for her anonymity and thus for her safety. All of the reporters in the courtroom have shared so much information about the jurors that they seemed at risk of being identified, but Fox News Channel host Jesse Watters not only ran a video segment about a juror, he suggested she was “concerning.” Trump shared the video on social media.

The juror told the judge that so much information about her had become public that her friends and family had begun to ask her if she was one of the jurors. Legal analyst Joyce White Vance noted jurors’ fear for their safety was a concern normally seen only “in a case involving violent organized crime.”

Nonetheless, by the end of the day, twelve people had been chosen to serve as jurors. Tomorrow the process will continue in order to find six alternate jurors. 

It is a courtesy for the two sides at a trial to share with each other the names of their next witnesses so the other team can prepare for them. Today the prosecution declined to provide the names of their first three witnesses to the defense lawyers out of concern that Trump would broadcast them on social media. “Mr. Trump has been tweeting about the witnesses. We’re not telling them who the witnesses are,” prosecutor Joshua Steinglass said. 

Merchan said he “can’t blame them.” Trump’s defense attorney Todd Blanche offered to “commit to the court and the [prosecution] that President Trump will not [post] about any witness” on social media. “I don’t think you can make that representation,” Merchan said, in a recognition that Trump cannot be trusted, even by his own lawyers.

An article in the New York Times today confirmed that the trial will give Trump plenty of publicity, but not the kind that he prefers. Lawyer Norman L. Eisen walked through questions about what a prison sentence for Trump could look like.

Trump’s popular image is taking a hit in other ways, as well. Zac Anderson and Erin Mansfield of USA Today reported that Trump is funneling money from his campaign fundraising directly into his businesses. According to a new report filed with the Federal Election Commission, in February and March the campaign wrote checks totaling $411,287 to Mar-a-Lago and in March a check for $62,337 to Trump National Doral Miami.

Experts say it is legal for candidates to pay their own businesses for services used by the campaign so long as they pay fair market value. At the same time, they note that since Trump appears to be desperate for money, “it looks bad.”

Astonishingly, Trump’s trial was not the biggest domestic story today. Republicans in Congress were in chaos as members of the extremist Freedom Caucus worked to derail the national security supplemental bills that House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) has introduced in place of the Senate bill, although they track that bill closely. 

The House Rules Committee spent the day debating the foreign aid package, which appropriates aid for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan separately. The Israel bill also contains $9.1 billion in humanitarian aid for Gaza and other countries. A fourth bill focuses on forcing the Chinese owners of TikTok to sell the company, as well as on imposing sanctions on Russia and Iran. 

At stake in the House Rules Committee was Johnson’s plan to allow the House to debate and vote on each measure separately, and then recombine them all into a single measure if they all pass. This would allow extremist Republicans to vote against aid to Ukraine, while still tying the pieces all together to send to the Senate. As Robert Jimison outlined in the New York Times, this complicated plan meant that the Rules Committee vote to allow such a maneuver was crucial to the bill’s passage.

The extremist House Republicans were adamantly opposed to the plan because of their staunch opposition to aid for Ukraine. They wrote in a memo on Wednesday: “This tactic allows Johnson to pass priorities favored by President Biden, the swamp and the Ukraine war machine with a supermajority of House members, leaving conservatives out to dry.”

Extremists Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY) vowed to throw House speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) out of the speakership, but Democrats Tom Suozzi of New York and Jared Moskowitz of Florida have said they would vote to keep him in his seat, thereby defanging the attack on his leadership.

So the extremists instead tried to load the measures up with amendments prohibiting funds from being used for abortion, removing humanitarian aid for Gaza, opposing a two-state solution to the Hamas-Israel war, calling for a wall at the southern border of the U.S., defunding the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and so on.

Greene was especially active in opposition to aid to Ukraine. She tried to amend the bill to direct the president to withdraw the U.S. from NATO and demanded that any members of Congress voting for aid to Ukraine be conscripted into the Ukraine army as well as have their salaries taken to offset funding. She wanted to stop funding until Ukraine “turns over all information related to Hunter Biden and Burisma,” and to require Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to resign. More curiously, she suggested amending the Ukraine bill so that funding would require “restrictions on ethnic minorities’, including Hungarians in Transcarpathia, right to use their native languages in schools are lifted.” This language echoes a very specific piece of Russian propaganda.

Finally, Moskowitz proposed “that Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene…should be appointed as Vladimir Putin’s Special Envoy to the United States Congress.” 

Many congress members have left Washington, D.C., since Friday was to be the first day of a planned recess. This meant the partisan majority on the floor fluctuated. Olivia Beavers of Politico reported that that instability made Freedom Caucus members nervous enough to put together a Floor Action Response Team (FART—I am not making this up) to make sure other Republicans didn’t limit the power of the extremists when they were off the floor.

The name of their response team seems likely to be their way to signal their disrespect for the entire Congress. Their fellow Republicans are returning the heat. Today Mike Turner (R-OH) referred to the extremists as the Bully Caucus on MSNBC and said, “We need to get back to professionalism, we need to get back to governing, we need to get back to legislating.” Derrick Van Orden (R-WI) told Juliegrace Brufke of Axios:  “The vast majority of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives…are sick and tired of having people who…constantly blackmail the speaker of the House.”

Another Republican representative, Jake LaTurner of Kansas, announced today he will not run for reelection. He joins more than 20 other Republican representatives heading for the exits.

After all the drama, the House Rules Committee voted 6–3 tonight to advance the foreign aid package to the House floor. Three Republicans voted nay. While it is customary for the opposition party to vote against advancing bills out of the committee, the Democrats broke with tradition and voted in favor.

Notes:

https://www.nytimes.com/2024/04/18/opinion/donald-trump-trial-prison.html

https://www.politico.com/live-updates/2024/04/18/congress/hfc-on-alert-00153097

https://www.jns.org/house-rules-committee-debates-israel-aid-package-as-house-speaker-confronts-right-flank/

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/donald-trump-new-york-court-criminal-trial/

https://www.thedailybeast.com/jesse-watters-goes-juror-by-juror-to-sow-doubt-in-trump-hush-money-case

https://www.salon.com/2024/04/18/juror-quits-over-fear-of-being-outed-after-fox-news-host-singled-her-out/

https://www.rawstory.com/jake-laturner/#cxrecs_s

https://www.cnn.com/2024/04/18/politics/mike-johnson-speakership-rules

https://www.rawstory.com/freedom-caucus-2667810851/

https://rules.house.gov/bill/118/hr-8034

https://rules.house.gov/bill/118/hr-8035

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2024/04/18/trump-campaign-funnels-money-to-his-businesses/73344744007/

https://www.axios.com/2024/04/18/mike-johnson-gaetz-motion-to-vacate-ukraine

https://www.axios.com/2024/04/18/jake-laturner-retire-house-gop-kansas

https://www.axios.com/2024/03/27/house-members-retiring-quitting-productivity

https://www.nytimes.com/2024/04/18/us/politics/house-israel-ukraine-aid-package-explainer.html

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April 17, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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