Media Effects: Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, and the Justice of Journalism

Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman

Justice, impartiality, and the editorial process have all practically become the headlines in recent months because of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin story. Meanwhile, justice seems more elusive and harder to define with each passing report.

Page One: Inside The New York Times

Director: Andrew Rossi
Cast: Gay Talese, Sarah Ellison, David Carr
Distributor: Magnolia
Rated: R
Release date: 2011-10-18

Active media watchers are difficult to please. They are an audience for whom the story itself rarely suffices. They look for the story behind the story. They’re interested in media effects. Such considerations separate them from average readers/viewers/consumers of media. Is this an elitist position to claim? Yes, perhaps. But it also defines the gatekeeping role of an editor, the moral deliberation of a whistle blower, and the ideal mindset of an informed citizen. To gather all facts -- not merely those convenient to a predisposed viewpoint -- is one major step towards an ethical engagement with media and its impact on the public whose interest it serves.

Andrew Rossi’s Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011) is an understatedly insightful exploration of this continuum of media reception, with a specific outlet at its center. Commendably non-partisan, Page One mostly avoids the trap of attaching the paper to any single political outlook and instead focuses on how the New York Times struggles to keep its status as an important channel of information that connects the individual reader to the events of the world. The forces of antagonism in the film are the threats of thieving news aggregators, short attention spans, unserious journalism, and above all the Wild West of the Internet, which despite its virtues enables all of the above to flourish. The film asks, how will this longstanding institution of journalism maintain its cultural value in a culture that no longer values its mission?

While the film does address the paper’s recent scandals (somewhat problematically equating Judith Miller’s momentary folly with Jayson Blair’s pattern of fabrication), there’s refreshingly little sensationalism in the series of events it observes and presents. The characters populating its newsroom represent a range of perspectives on newsgathering. Some are glimpsed in transition, fighting tears as they accept being laid off. By contrast, others are asserting their indispensability, none more so than young media reporter Brian Stelter and hardboiled media columnist David Carr. These two characters are most emblematic of the pivotal moment in which the paper finds itself, as they use the venerable outlet of the New York Times to report and to narrativize events happening at the forefront of new media.

So Stelter and Carr don’t merely stand at the intersection of old and new. They are that intersection. Media desk editor Bruce Headlam and executive editor Bill Keller are in the position of watching these watchmen, and the interaction between the four men provides goalposts for honest journalism and illustrates the importance of the editorial process. A couple episodes from Page One seem prescient in parsing the role of justice among the many functions of journalism -- a framework presently at fever pitch regarding the sad case of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. Though before investigating the specifics of that story, it's helpful to review the good model established by the characters of Page One.

One of the biggest stories to come across the desk while cameras were rolling was the controversial release of a video by whistleblower site WikiLeaks. Stelter and Noam Cohen covered the release of the video footage, which chronicled a 12 July 2007 Baghdad airstrike that resulted in 12 deaths, including two Reuters employees. Stelter and Cohen’s article, "Iraq Video Brings Notice to a Web Site", effectively brought WikiLeaks boss Julian Assange’s agenda into focus and allowed the reader to understand the impact of the story through that lens:

“WikiLeaks did not merely post the 38-minute video, it used the label “Collateral Murder” and said it depicted “indiscriminate” and “unprovoked” killing… The Website also posted a 17-minute edited version, which proved to be much more widely viewed on YouTube than the full version. Critics contend that the shorter video was misleading because it did not make clear that the attacks took place amid clashes in the neighborhood and that one of the men was carrying a rocket-propelled grenade.”

Page One reveals the process that produced such a fine-tuned article. Stelter doesn’t merely speculate. He doesn’t advocate. He investigates. Talking directly with Julian Assange on speakerphone, Stelter asks if he perceives himself as a journalist. Assange answers, “The journalism is just a tool. We use a tool to get to the goal.” When pressed by Stelter to define the goal, Assange says, “Broadly, our goal is justice.”

In a later interview promoting the film, Stelter would say of Page One, “The film fundamentally is about editing. You see reporters and editors figuring out what’s news and what’s not news… WikiLeaks does sometimes redact material and decide what not to post, but fundamentally they’re not bringing to bear those judgment calls that journalists are.” In other words, Assange fulfills a self-determined “justice” imperative but often fails to provide his audience with the necessary context for sorting through his agenda-driven information dumps.

Former editor Keller has since written a detailed account of the Times’ relationship with Assange, and Page One reveals that from the very beginning, his approach to the WikiLeaks story was one of caution and transparency. In a scene that takes viewers inside the “page one” meeting, we see Keller instructing his writers to ensure that readers understand there are two versions of the leaked video. Deputy Foreign Editor Ian Fisher characterizes the shorter video as having been “edited in a way that did not show the full story.”

Here, Keller and Fisher embody the best practices of the editorial process. They respect that Assange has chosen their publication as an outlet for his goal of carrying out justice, but they do not allow their subject’s advocacy to cloud the facts for their readers, who rightfully hold an expectation of impartial reportage. These media issues -- justice, impartiality, and the editorial process -- have all practically become the headlines in recent months because of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin story.

To begin: Martin is dead. There's no doubt whatever about that. Nearly everything else about the case has been up for debate, and the narrative and visual dimensions of the debate have played out in the media with a level of passion rarely seen in the American press. The Martin affair -- in which the unarmed 17-year-old died after being shot by neighborhood watchman volunteer Zimmerman -- is far from being resolved in any legal sense. But as a news story, the spectacle of the coverage has created a flashpoint for ethics in journalism.

One of the complicating factors in the case was the length of time that passed between the incident (on 26 February 2012) and the filing of charges against Zimmerman (on April 11). This window of time allowed tensions to rise and a variety of rough impressions to persist. Although some media outlets were responsible in their treatment of the facts of the case, the popular narrative that grew up around the case was often shortsighted and ill researched. Compared to the comprehensive gathering of facts on display in Page One and (one hopes) practiced every day by newsrooms operating under press freedom, many outlets chose to stick to an impossibly undeveloped binary context for this particular story: that of white versus black.

It goes without saying that any coverage of this incident should remain open to the possibility of race as a motivating factor for the actions of Zimmerman and/or Martin. However, to frame the story solely in those terms is to risk another media misadventure in the tradition of media “events” like the Rodney King beating/trial/aftermath and the trials of O.J. Simpson and the Duke Lacrosse players. In such situations, the temptation to reduce the story to such divisive terms in order to lure the eyes of readers/viewers has tragic and wide-scale ramifications for both race relations and the legal process.

Additionally, while angry exhortations of both private individuals and public figures are understandable responses to the preventable ending of a young life, the media’s job is not to incite those already agitated voices. “Justice for Trayvon”, a popular phrase, has taken on several meanings, some positive and life affirming, others depressing and deadly.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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