Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sylvia Allen and Mandatory Church: Anatomy of a Hatchet Job

The startling allegation exploded into mainstream news headlines. It began with a single tweet.  These days, that is all it takes.

I have to hand it to Arizona State Sen. Steve Farley, Democrat from Tucson.  He did a number on Republican Sylvia Allen.  And he did it with the full and enthusiastic cooperation of the media.  News stories from coast to coast are proclaiming that Arizona State Senator Sylvia Allen “wants to make church attendance mandatory.” 

Does she really?  Well, it’s funny you should ask.  Because not one of the reporters who rushed to air or publish this story bothered to do so.  Just for grins, and to be different from the mainstream media, let’s check the facts.

On Tuesday (March 24, 2015) Allen, a Tea Party Republican from Snowflake, added her two-cents worth to the debate on a gun control issue, the question of whether to allow such weapons in public buildings.  She said that the real problem in America is the erosion of morals, and then added the following:  “Probably we should be debating a bill requiring every American to attend a church of their choice on Sunday to see if we can get back to having a moral rebirth.”

Oh, my God.  She said that?  Is she serious?  Does Sylvia Allen really want to throw people in jail who don’t go to church?  Is she ready to propose a bill to that effect?  Those are good questions.  Do you believe they deserved an answer before reporters ran with the story?  Because if you do, I would venture to guess that you could not get a job in mass media today.

Here’s what happened next.  Democratic adversary Steve Farley of Tucson posted the following via his Twitter account:  “Sen Sylvia Allen just declared in Approps that she wants a law to require all Americans to attend church on Sundays.”

That was all it took.  Boom, just like that, the story made the Phoenix news, and spread from there, with headlines proclaiming the same thing that Farley had said, that Allen “wants” to make church mandatory.  Farley then began making the media rounds pushing the same narrative.  Reporters accepted the allegation uncritically.  The New York Daily News headline is entirely typical:  “Arizona lawmaker wants church attendance to be mandatory.”  The first line in the article layers on the snark:  “Put on your Sunday clothes because an Arizona lawmaker wants to make church mandatory.”  The article goes on to claim breathlessly that Allen “detailed a solution” and then made the following statement:  “Allen said she wanted a law requiring citizens to go to church.”  Then, to be clear about the provenance of the story, it included the Steve Farley tweet that I just quoted, and wrote, “Her quip, however, quickly leaked out of the hearing when Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, shared it to social media.”

Note that the article quoted above appeared on Friday, March 27.  Despite having had four days to work on this, the article does not present Allen’s side of the story, nor does it acknowledge any attempt to do so.  Other media reports were much the same.   Does Allen have a side of the story?  She surely does.  Again, hold that thought.

Journalistically, let’s examine the tweet and what the media reported about it.  As noted, the New York Daily News states that the tweet contains her “quip.”  Other media reports made the same claim.  This line from a Phoenix TV report is typical:   “Her initial comments spread across social media.”  Like the Daily News did, to make sure we understood what he meant the TV reporter included a shot of that Farley tweet.

Here’s the problem with all of those statements—or rather I should say, “here’s the issue,” because for all the reporters involved it did not present a problem.  The Farley tweet did not contain Allen’s “quip,” nor did it contain “her initial comments.”  What it contained was Farley’s characterization of her comments, which the media then enthusiastically bought, hook, line, and sinker.  And Farley’s claim was not true.  At no point in her remarks did Allen state that she wants a law requiring church to be mandatory. 

Two days after making his initial claim, by which time the story was already spreading nationally, Farley added this tweet:  “Sen. Sylvia Allen calls for law requiring Sunday church attendance....”   This time he included a video that someone had uploaded to You Tube containing 27 seconds of her comments, which cuts her off in mid-sentence.  

Here, now, dear reader, together you and I will cross into territory where  so far only one other journalist, to my knowledge, has gone.  We’ll explore whether Allen really wants a mandatory church attendance law as all those headlines are screaming.

When I first played back the video linked to Farley’s tweet, my first reaction was, “She can’t possibly mean what it sounds like she’s implying she means.  No one really would propose a law requiring church attendance.  Because that would be KA-RAZY.  So I assumed she was simply trying to make a rhetorical point.  Had I been a journalist covering the legislature that day, my first thought would have been not to tweet out the comment, but to ask her whether she was serious.  Certainly before writing a story making the sensational claim that an Arizona legislator “wants” to make church attendance mandatory, I’d ask her whether that’s true.   As it turns out, there is an answer to that question.  You just can’t get it via mainstream media.

Here it is. Allen, via a posting on her Facebook page, says she was just being flippant.  “NO Such Bill,” she wrote.  She continues, “Sadly, once again the public is being purposely misled.  I have no bill about church attendance.  I said this in a flippant way during a very long committee meeting....”  And then she adds this:  “The senator who tweeted this and the media reporting knows there is no bill but then there is a lack of integrity among those who fuel misinformation.   I do stand by my remarks stating that we need a moral rebirth in our country.”

To understand why this is such a hatchet job, you have to understand some nuances of journalism.  It’s always dangerous to say that thus-and-so person “wants” thus-and so thing or “thinks” thus-and-such about an issue.  Why?  Because telepathy is not a recognized tool of journalism.  Reporters cannot see into someone’s mind.  If you believe U.S. Rep. Joe Blow wants to jail people who wear loud suits, you must focus on why you have reached that conclusion—and that’s exactly what it is, your conclusion, based on your reading of the facts.  So, to be accurate, you might write it this way: “U.S. Rep. Joe Blow said Tuesday he wants jail for loud suit wearers.”  Then it would be accurate—provided, of course, that he'd actually said that. 

But even then your report may not be fair, because you should not rely on that single statement as the only work you do for the story.  You should get in contact with Rep. Blow to see whether he meant it, whether he still stands by the comment, and if so what he plans to do next to advance his stated agenda.

Using that principle, could a journalist have written with confidence that State. Sen. Allen “wants” a bill making church attendance mandatory?  No.  Because she did not use those words.  You may feel she implied that she wants it.  But you have to verify that your interpretation of her remarks is accurate.  That is what journalists do.

Or rather, it’s what they used to do.  I’ve written before both about the media’s outrage industry and about how the social media age has corrupted journalism values.  Back in the old days reporters used to joke, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”   These days it’s not a joke, but a rule of thumb.

It’s my impression that not only are today’s journalists so much less inclined to check their facts, they’re much quicker to layer on the snark.   When Allen let an elevator door close in the face of a TV reporter who’d ambushed her, he described it this way:  “But today she was walking way from those comments.  Literally.”  No she wasn’t.  She was literally walking away from the reporter, a fact she made crystal clear with this statement:  “I just don’t talk to you.”  The issue of whether the reporter understood what she meant is not in doubt; he even asked, in hurt tones, “You don’t talk to me?”  To which she responded, “Nope.”  The statement that she was “walking away from those comments” implies that she was embarrassed by what she said and was repudiating her remarks or trying to pretend the whole thing never happened.  She didn’t do that either.  In fact the next thing she did was to defend her comments in the state Senate.

The snark didn’t end there.  Veteran columnist E.J. Montini of the Arizona Republic, who’s experienced enough to know better, was one of those asserting that “Sen. Allen would make church mandatory.”   Not stopping there, he makes fun of what he saw as her desire to return to the values of the 1950s, a time he said was all about “Civil rights problems. Women's rights problems. Voting rights problems. Segregated schools.”  Not only does Sylvia Allen want to make you go to church, but she’d also like to roll back women’s rights and bring back Jim Crow?  Sure.  That’s what she meant, E.J.  Montinis remarks were not just untrue and unfair, they were vicious.  I’m surprised he didn’t also throw in an accusation that Allen had endorsed homophobia, given that same-sex couples had no rights in the 50’s, either.

I have no problem with snark, and I have written plenty of snarkograms myself—when warranted, and when justified.  This one wasn’t.

I’ve only found one journalist, so far—columnist Doug MacEachern of the Republic—who had a problem with what happened here.  He pointed out that Farley had been a “jerk” to Allen, and that he had done so for no good reason.  MacEachern made it clear he’s no fan of Allen’s.  But he said the actual facts show that contrary to Farley’s assertions, Allen made no “call” for a mandatory church bill or anything like it.

What really happened here is that a Democratic lawmaker saw an opportunity to take a cheap shot across the aisle.  He took it, and the mass media piled on, eager to make a Tea Party Republican look like a whackjob.  Is there anyone who thinks this is not a favorite theme of the mainstream media?

I have liberal friends who see nothing wrong with that.  When I told one of them that Steve Farley’s tweet was false, he got loud and angry.  “Idiot” was about the most printable thing he said about her. If reporters had found a new way to emphasize that point about her, he didn't seem inclined at that moment to be fussy about their methods.

I do not defend Allen’s record as a legislator.  I do not defend her comments.   I do say that if she is such a poor legislator that the media feel the need to “get her,” then they should get her based on what she actually does.  If she’s so godawful that her opponents are desperate to pile on her in this way, then surely there must be some actual facts to prove the point.

What have we learned here today? 

For one, there is a lesson here for elected officials.  I get why Sylvia Allen stiffed the media.  She stiffed me, too.   No, you cannot trust us media types.   Nor can newsmakers control news stories under any circumstances.  They can, however, affect the coverage, but only if they participate in it.  If you are a  newsmaker and you walk away from a reporter, then he or she is likely to portray you the way that TV reporter in Phoenix portrayed Allen.  When I was a TV news director, I urged my staff to strongly challenge elected officials who refuse to answer questions (although I gave lots of mentoring on how to do it fairly).  Talk to the media, and answer questions to the best of your ability. It's good for you and good for democracy.  And if the media are reporting something about you that is not true, set the record straight.  Believe me, it matters.  An unchallenged lie becomes the accepted truth.

To reporters, I’ll only say this:  if a newsmaker refuses to comment, that does not relieve you of the obligation to be fair.  Nor does it relieve you of the obligation to continue to seek that person’s side of the story.  In today’s “gotcha” media world, this is a difficult concept for many journalists.  It really shouldn’t be.

And to news consumers, I’ve said this many times:  Not to put too fine a point on it, if you uncritically believe everything you see, hear or read in the news media, you’re a sap.  Certain elements of the media are lying to you every single day, and they’re doing it with malice aforethought, for the purpose of driving clicks, ratings, and revenue.  These practices may be good for the economy but they’re bad for our way of life.  Stories like this one that are sensationalistic but otherwise of no value serve only to further polarize and divide us.  So make sure you peruse more than one source of information, especially before you let a single story send you through the roof.  The Truth Is Out There.  You just have to find it.


In researching this story I was struck by how little of Allen's actual comments made it into TV reports and onto You Tube.  One TV report included just 8 seconds of her "church" line; another had none at all even though the entire report was about that single comment.  It took some work but I did find the source material for Sylvia Allen’s full comments.  I edited them into a clip that is longer that what was otherwise available.  You can find that, and also the full text of her Facebook response, by following this link.

Update:  It's now been more than a week since Allen made her comments--and the national press continue to pound her and spread the falsehood about what she "wants."  Columnist Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald is the latest to jump on; unless I miss my guess you'll see that in the Arizona Daily Star tomorrow.  At this point the actual facts will never catch up to this story, and for that Allen herself shares blame, since she has refused to talk to the media.  The mantra now and forevermore will be that she "wants" to throw you in jail for skipping church.

If you found this analysis useful, please share it widely.  The story certainly will not be told in the mainstream media.

And finally, you can find out more about how the media came to lose its collective mind in my novel about the TV news biz, here.

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