The Decline Of “On The Media” Is Very Sad And Very Illustrative
It’s remarkable to see the differences between how the show covered the Pulse and Club Q shootings
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For a long time, I listened to WNYC’s On The Media because it was an incisive source of media criticism — a show that wasn’t afraid to go against the grain in its calls for caution and accuracy in journalism.
Mass shootings are a particularly important area for careful reporting given how emotionally charged they are, and given the tendency of misinformation to flourish in their wake. So OTM has made a point of advocating for responsible journalism — and news consumption — in that area.
“This week's shooting at the DC Navy Yard was the latest in a long string of breaking news reporting to get many of the essential facts wrong,” the show noted in 2014. “In fact, the rampant misreporting that follows shootings like this is so predictable that OTM has unintentionally developed a formula for covering them. We look at how all the bad information came out. We suggest ways that the news media could better report breaking news. This time, we’re doing something different.”
That thing was the “Breaking News Consumer's Handbook,” consisting of tips, in handy PDF form, of how news consumers “can sort good information from bad” in the wake of a major event like a mass shooting:
These tips are all useful, and they can be summed up as “Don’t accept stuff that hasn’t been carefully vetted by responsible journalists.” Or, as the last point puts it, “Beware reflexive retweeting.”
In 2018, OTM put these principles into practice in an important segment about the 2016 shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Then-host Bob Garfield interviewed Melissa Jeltsen, who was then a senior reporter at The Huffington Post. (I know Jeltsen a bit but haven’t seen her since before the pandemic.) Jeltsen had just published an article headlined “Everyone Got The Pulse Massacre Story Completely Wrong.” In it, she explained how there was effectively no evidence to support the prevailing narrative explaining that shooting, which was that the perpetrator, Omar Mateen (killed in a shootout with police afterward), was motivated by anti-LGBT animus.
Even prosecutors acknowledged in their closing statement that Pulse was not his original target; it was the Disney Springs shopping and entertainment complex. They presented evidence demonstrating that Mateen chose Pulse randomly less than an hour before the attack. It is not clear he even knew it was a gay bar. A security guard recalled Mateen asking where all the women were, apparently in earnest, in the minutes before he began his slaughter.
Jeltsen also explained that Mateen’s wife, Noor Salman, who was herself allegedly abused by Mateen, was railroaded as an accomplice by overzealous federal prosecutors before her eventual acquittal due to a complete lack of any evidence she played any role in the attack.
It made perfect sense for OTM to have Jeltsen on, because she published some crucial media criticism. In the interview, she and Garfield discussed how certain false claims solidified as truths in the public imagination:
BOB GARFIELD: Huffington Post reporter Melissa Jeltsen covered the trial and she says that much of the initial media coverage of the shooting followed red herrings and let the narrative be dominated by gay activists and the police. She saw one theory that Mateen had committed the atrocity because he was a self-denying, self-hating gay man take hold soon after the attack.
MELISSA JELTSEN: Within days, people came forward who believed they had seen him at Pulse before. Others thought they recognized his face from Grindr, a gay dating app. One person even went on Univision wearing a mask and said they had had sex with him. So the narrative was driven by eyewitnesses who came forward, plus the natural human instinct to believe that it must have been a targeted attack against the gay community. I mean, this is a community that has historically been marginalized and been persecuted. There was an instinct to believe that he chose them because of who they loved and he purposely set out that night to kill gay people.
BOB GARFIELD: This quickly mutated from speculation or theory to a kind of righteous certainty.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Investigators know Mateen was homophobic.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Omar Mateen was a regular at gay clubs, including the site of the attacked Pulse, for years.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: —homophobic, even a closeted gay man.
MELISSA JELTSEN: Yeah, it just became the accepted narrative, and this is despite Omar Mateen’s own statements during the crimes. He was on the phone with hostage negotiators and he said, I pledge allegiance to ISIS. I am doing this to avenge airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. He didn't make any gay slurs while he was there. He didn't mention anything about the LGBT community. He was very specific about it being an attack during Ramadan to protest US intervention in the Middle East.
BOB GARFIELD: But to paraphrase what we say in journalism, never let the facts get in the way of a good explanation. Sure enough, at the widow’s trial, the actual facts cited in testimony blew that theory apart altogether.
It almost comes across as strange in 2022 that a major media source would so openly acknowledge that there could be tension, or at least misaligned incentives, between activists supporting a righteous cause and journalists at a mainstream outlet. But the duo return to that theme later in the interview as well:
BOB GARFIELD: The Advocate, the gay weekly magazine, has been quite critical of your coverage. It insists that no matter what was proven at the trial, the events of June 2016 were, indeed, an act of violent homophobia.
MELISSA JELTSEN: Yes, so the argument is that no matter if he picked it at random, if he didn't know he was gonna end up killing gay people that night, that when he made the decision to do it, it was an act of homophobia. Now, I don't claim to know what was in his heart, and we know he aligned himself with ISIS, which is obviously no friend to the gay community, so he may very well have been homophobic in terms of his personal feelings but we have no evidence that that drove his actions that night. It was such a horrific painful attack on the LGBT community, and we’re learning that it was just bad luck that they became the victims that night. That can be really difficult to grapple with.
Garfield is obviously not homophobic. Jeltsen is obviously not homophobic. But they’re journalists, so they realize that activists and journalists — even specific members of the two tribes who might otherwise be simpatico — don’t always see the world the same way, don’t evaluate evidence the same way, and aren’t always going to get along.
As Garfield mentions, The Advocate went after Jeltsen with an article that, if you read it closely, offers no evidence the Pulse shooting was a hate crime other than a lot of hand-waving and speculation about what Mateen might have thought at various moments. (That article also targets Jane Coaston, another good reporter, now at The New York Times, who wrote a contemporaneous piece highlighting the lack of evidence that the Pulse massacre was a homophobic hate crime.)
It’s telling that the first sentence of the Advocate article repeats the claim that Matthew Shepard’s killing was a hate crime, which it almost certainly wasn’t — or at least that’s my view after having read Stephen Jimenez’s exhaustively researched The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard. After that killing, too, journalists who deviated from the accepted narrative, among them Jimenez and Andrew Sullivan, were attacked by LGBT groups.
There’s nothing unusual about this. Activists, even ones advocating for otherwise worthy causes, sometimes go after journalists who disseminate claims that are inconvenient to their cause. If you are an LGBT organization, it is beneficial to treat ambiguous cases as homophobic hate crimes rather than something else. This is not due to anything nefarious on the part of LGBT activists per se; it is, at the risk of repeating myself, what activists of all stripes are supposed to do. Anti-immigration activists overhype stories that support immigration restriction, anti-abortion activists overhype stories about the horrors of abortion, and on and on.
So that was On The Media in 2018. I don’t want to pretend the show was in fantastic shape even back then — the show’s ridiculous sliming of Josh Harkinson occurred that same year, and was a foreboding sign of where things were headed — but it’s rather gobsmacking to compare the show’s coverage of the Pulse tragedy to how it handled the November 19–20 shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs in its most recent episode.
That segment is called “How Anti-LGBTQ Rhetoric Foreshadowed a Deadly Shooting,” and it consists mostly of an interview between host Brooke Gladstone and NBC Out’s Jo Yurcaba. As far as I can tell, the segment is a truly gonzo performance art piece in which OTM attempts to disregard as much of its own ethos on mass shootings as possible, in as obvious a manner as possible.
Okay, that’s probably not true. But you can forgive me for getting confused given that the entire segment is dedicated to amplifying, and in certain ways building upon, the unproven theory that Anderson Lee Aldrich was motivated by recent right-wing rhetoric about LGBT people emanating from personalities like Matt Walsh and LibsofTikTok.
As I pointed out in my newsletter about Ben Collins last week, there’s no evidence this was what motivated Aldrich (who, through a lawyer, said they use they/them pronouns). Nothing has changed since I wrote that, though one neighbor and former friend of Aldrich’s, according to The Daily Beast, said that they would use antigay slurs:
“There would be times where he and his mom would get into fights, arguments, because he would be saying hateful things about whoever he was angry with,” [Xavier] Kraus told The Daily Beast. “He said things sometimes that probably should have been alarming to me. He used the term “f*ggot” a lot. Most of the time it came from a place of anger.”
I should have mentioned this in my earlier post, but I don’t think that, on its own, is much evidence of anything. A lot of people still use that term — I heard it a lot on the playground even in deep-blue Massachusetts growing up — and Aldrich was a disturbed and violent individual, at least based on one incident involving his mother that clearly had nothing to do with homophobia, well before he committed this massacre.
The fact is we still don’t even have the evidence we’d need to establish this as a homophobic hate crime, let alone to establish the more specific case that Aldrich was radicalized by recent talk of groomers or drag queen story hour or such social media fare. That doesn’t stop OTM from promoting exactly that theory.
Not only that, but OTM ignores… OTM. Here’s Gladstone early on in the segment:
BROOKE GLADSTONE Apparently, Matt Walsh is emotionally manipulated by the sight of blood. But even before Club Q was sprayed with bullets in Colorado Springs, the intensity and volume and vehemence of the rhetoric left some in the LGBTQ community – reporters included reflecting on a previous tragedy in 2016. The massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub in downtown Orlando.
NEWS REPORT That mass shooting leaves 50 people dead, 53 others wounded. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And they were just waiting for another violent inflection point.
This is quite an excerpt. Gladstone’s own show debunked the idea that the Pulse massacre was driven by homophobia. Now, years later, it’s important, for the sake of the narrative she and her show are attempting to weave, that it was a homophobic hate crime. So the old coverage is simply memory-holed. That should tell you everything you need to know about OTM’s present standards.
Gladstone’s segment includes plenty of excerpts of right-wingers making genuinely scaremongering statements about LGBT people, youth gender medicine, and so on. All of which is bad. But the show never provides any evidence that this motivated Aldrich, because there isn’t any. All we get, evidence-wise, is Yurcaba saying that LGBT folks in Colorado Springs felt the climate was getting worse. Which is sad and a valid thing to report on, but, again, doesn’t constitute evidence about Aldrich’s motives.
The nadir of the segment comes when Yurcaba significantly expands the circle of blame. Turns out it isn’t just those dastardly right-wingers who motivated this mass shooting — the call is also coming from inside the house:
BROOKE GLADSTONE The narratives that we hear, the anti LGBTQ narratives tend to be about how people in that community are dangerous groomers, so they pose a threat both to children and to the culture, that kind of thing. I'm just wondering where they're hearing these narratives, where they're coming from, and what news sources are propagating them. Is it still purely the province of niche right wing media, or has it begun to filter out?
JO YUCARBA [update: sic throughout on Yurcaba’s name — this is from OTM’s own transcript] Yeah, I think it's absolutely started to filter out. You mentioned Lauren Boebert earlier and a report earlier cited that she, along with nine other politicians, are driving rhetoric that labels LGBTQ people as grooming children. So it's coming from these people who have huge platforms on national platforms, and then the media is reporting on that. And so their messages are getting spread that way. But then we're also seeing increased coverage of, for example, gender affirming medical care for minors and advocates. And people I speak to every day have told me that what really troubles them is coverage, for example, in The New York Times that paints gender affirming care for minors as something that is debatable, as something where the medical community is split 50/50 and doesn't agree on it, when in reality that isn't accurate. All relevant major medical associations believe that this is necessary care and life saving care. And so this like false narrative in some media sources that's painting it as you know, there's a debate can be really troubling and dangerous.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So when The New York Times reports on something like this, there are people who legitimately have concerns in certain instances. I mean, is that not true?
JO YUCARBA Yeah, no, that's absolutely true. And there are doctors who definitely don't agree with providing gender affirming care to minors, but they're absolutely in the minority. I've spoken to, you know, dozens of doctors who provide this care, who say that it's been provided for decades. It's backed by research and that there really isn't a 50/50 type of debate within the medical community. And what's happened is that the small number of people who disagree with it has been distorted by religious groups, by far right groups, and played up to make it seem like it's more significant.
This is asinine, factually challenged, and a slap in the face to the journalists at the Times who have finally started to report on this controversy, among them Azeen Ghorayshi, Emily Bazelon, Megan Twohey, and Christina Jewett. Youth gender medicine is a controversy. This won’t be news to most readers of this newsletter, but we’re now at a point where not one but three different European countries have, as a result of investigations into the evidence base for puberty blockers and hormones, scaled back access to them (though I think England and Wales are going to end up in a slightly less conservative place than Finland or Sweden). Abysmal studies are regularly circulated as evidence that these treatments improve outcomes for trans youth, to the point where the debunk-y science podcast Science Vs disseminated the claim that there’s “no controversy” over these treatments while citing a half-dozen studies that show no such thing. No fair-minded reporter could look at the present state of this issue and argue that there is no legitimate debate here.
Yurcaba goes even further than that. Not only is there no debate here, they argue, channeling their (anonymous) sources, but even saying that there's a debate “can be really troubling and dangerous.” Jo Yurcaba, as far as I can tell, has basically none of the background one needs to be able to parse these studies and tell the good ones from the bad ones (I’m no expert myself — although I’m solid on the basics and know how to read a regression table, I often have to rely on experts for the more complicated stories I write). Rather, they seem to see it as their job to take whatever prominent LGBT activists tell them and to treat it as true. I know this sounds harsh, but what else are they doing here? Yurcaba is literally saying “These [unnamed] activists told me that The New York Times is partly responsible for the Club Q massacre by covering the youth gender medicine controversy,” and Gladstone, with only the most tepid pushback, is allowing this deranged view to be broadcast to the show’s large audience. (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this issue framed as a 50-50 debate between doctors who are “for” or “against” these treatments, but either way, that’s a total red herring. First, we have no data on how doctors feel about youth gender medicine, and there’s no reason to take Yurcaba’s sample of clinicians as representative. Second, if just 30 percent of doctors had significant concerns, would that render this a non-controversy? Third, among mainstream clinicians, or at least the ones I’ve spoken with and the ones writing critical pieces or giving critical quotes in major outlets, there’s significantly more debate on the question of exactly what the diagnostic process should look like and how often blockers and hormones should be prescribed than on the question of whether these drugs should be banned outright.)
It’s really striking to compare the 2018 segment to the 2022 one, especially when it comes to the question of how OTM treats activists. In 2018, the show was able to acknowledge openly — albeit tactfully, without really throwing any unnecessary punches — conflict between the imperatives of journalism and activism. In 2022? The show is indistinguishable from mainstream LGBT activism. Indistinguishable. The entire segment is devoted to propagating an unproven narrative that would be beneficial to LGBT groups, who for justified reasons want there to be less anti-LGBT rhetoric on the right, and who for much less justified reasons would prefer if no one looked too closely into the evidentiary questions surrounding youth gender medicine.
I don’t think this sort of data is public, but I bet On The Media’s audience has shrunk in recent years (this is anecdotal, but it wouldn’t shock me if it captured a widespread sentiment among longtime OTM fans such as myself). Why would you tune in to a media criticism show that is nothing more than another activist organization? Where’s the value-added? Where is Gladstone’s pride in the field she’s chosen, which she has been in for decades? This whole thing is very sad and demoralizing, but it offers an exceptionally useful, tightly constructed case study in what has happened to journalism and why trust in it is plummeting.
To be clear, we could find out tomorrow that Anderson Lee Aldrich was motivated by exactly the figures OTM is blaming. It could turn out that he wrote a note beforehand saying “I, Anderson Lee Aldrich, am going to shoot up Club Q because of Matt Walsh.” It would still be the case that OTM and countless other journalists jumped the gun here in a very irresponsible manner. This just isn’t how journalism is supposed to work; you are not supposed to speculate, even if the speculation feels logical and righteous.
Melissa Jeltsen, by the way, was laid off from Huffington Post last year (though you can find her on Twitter here, or listen to an investigative podcast she hosts here that will soon release a second season). Bob Garfield, meanwhile, was ousted as OTM cohost under circumstances I find highly suspect, and which centered in part on his principled resistance to running overly predictable and simplistic segments likely to win kudos from activist groups.
At this point most of the real journalists have left the building. The product that remains frequently speaks for itself.
Questions? Comments? Wild speculation about events you don’t know anything about? I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jessesingal. Image: COLORADO SPRINGS, CO - NOVEMBER 29 : Gov. Jared Polis visit Club Q and pay respects at the memorial for the victims of the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Tuesday, November 29, 2022. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post).
I said in my last newsletter I wasn’t going to call Aldrich they unless and until more information came in showing that they had previously identified as nonbinary. I think it’s just easier to go along with their preference, to be honest; otherwise that, rather than the more substantive issues, will become the focal point of anything I write or say about this subject. I’m on the record as being sympathetic to certain critiques of the hardline version of self-ID, but I’d rather keep the two conversations separate.
NPR used to accompany me on all my drives. But I stopped listening a few years ago as it became… well, unlistenable. I know many others share that experience. I’m sure I’ve missed good reporting and interesting interviews that undoubtedly still trickle through. But I’ve saved myself from pounding my forehead to bits against the steering wheel.
OTM was my very favorite podcast for years, and during the Trump years it seemed to shift increasingly to activism, and I found myself no longer listening. I do wonder whether it always had some issues, I remember them turning to the SLPC frequently as an authoritative source on who's a baddy - so maybe it's part their slipping standards, and part me becoming more aware of the risk of activist capture... In any case, I really appreciate the coverage on this.