Accuracy in Media

Remember all those stories about the heroic liberal media in Alabama, who courageously stood against Roy Moore even in their deeply red communities?

It turns out this courage is honored only if it is in service of liberal causes. Ask Denis Finley.

Finley was fired Monday as executive editor of the Burlington Free Press, the Gannett-owned paper in the town where Bernie Sanders once served as mayor, because he did not join in the celebration for Vermont offering a third option for listing gender on driver’s licenses – M, F or the newest option, X.

After a citizen tweeted, “This is awesome! #VT Is One Step Closer To Offering A Third Gender on Driver’s Licenses,” Finley responded, “Awesome! That makes us one step closer to the apocalypse.”

One tweet too many,” intoned a story on the Poynter Institute website. Poynter is a journalism school in Florida that owns the Tampa Times, home of the notoriously liberal FactCheck, and covers the journalism industry on its website.

“Even the most sober of mainstream media get bolloxed up over page views and reader engagement as they seek to be more refined P.T. Barnums of a digital age,” Poynter’s James Warren wrote. “Being provocative for provocation’s sake is increasingly rationalized as a way to promote your handiwork, no matter how tenuous and fleeting the actual loyalty manifested (perhaps with help from a Drudge Report link) might be.

“But as Finley … unwittingly reminds us, there’s a difference between being responsibly provocative and perhaps tone deaf to your audience – especially in the digital age.”

So it was OK for newspapers in Alabama to be tone-deaf to their audiences in endorsing Moore … indeed it was being “responsibly provocative.” But when it comes to standing against gender politics, it is nothing of the sort.

Warren then goes further in explaining his real problems with Finley.

Finley came from Norfolk, Va., where he served as editor of the Virginian-Pilot for nearly two decades. As a result, Finley “fumbled in recognizing his audience,” according to Warren and “was just a bad fit,” said Tom Kearney, deputy managing editor of a group of competing papers.

“You wonder what goes into corporate decisions to hire a specific editor for a specific community.”

Finley took on a variety of readers over Twitter after his comment. 

“Why is this awesome?” he asked.

One reader answered, “It’s awesome because recognition is awesome. Your turn.”

Finley responded, “All recognition? Any recognition, Tim? What if someone said it’s awesome they are going to recognize pedophiliacs on licenses? I’m not being snarky. I’m just asking. Not all recognition is awesome.”

But engaging with readers, challenging them to think beyond their beliefs, is appropriate in Alabama but not Vermont, apparently.

“[Finley] ran the paper in a liberal city where Bernie Sanders was mayor,” wrote Poynter in its daily newsletter. “So it constituted either a premeditated act of provocation (heaven forbid journalist provoke) or tone deafness – or perhaps both – to respond to one citizen’s tweet about the move being ‘awesome’ by tweeting, ‘Awesome! That makes us one step closer to the apocalypse.’”

Poynter then took the opportunity to make another point – that journalists should resist stooping to Twitter and focus on their 800-word tomes.

“The episode in the Green Mountain State will stand as a case study in self-defeated reader engagement and the perils of social media for journalists, all the more so for managers who oversee newsrooms striving to be fair-minded in covering communities,” the Poynter newsletter stated.

Randy Lovely, a Gannett executive, said Finley was fired because “the company’s journalists strive for accurate and unbiased reporting, and Finley’s tweets failed to adhere to the company’s code of conduct and ethics policy.”

“It’s perhaps reassuring to know that private industry can be more efficient in undoing what can appear to be hiring mistakes than a representative democracy.”

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