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A Difficult Nexus of Modern Justice, Social Media, News and Crisis PR Today

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George Bernard Shaw wrote "beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance" and in 2022 his words could not be more relevant. The past decade has seen a monumental shift in the way information is delivered, from 'news' outlets moving from reporting on events to editorializing about them and in many cases, supporting them. The era of unbiased judgement, be it in a court of law or within America's newsrooms, is over; enter the era where misinformation or worse, disinformation is peddled as fact in order to add to the legitimacy of 'social justice' movements.

Take the protests and movements that sprouted up in the past ten years, and peaking just prior to the last Presidential election as an example. In many cases, the video evidence showed buildings on fire, property being destroyed and people being beaten, and yet many media outlets tried portraying them as pivotal, using words like 'relatively peaceful' to describe the events. Media narratives are now shaped by vocal social opinion, and they try to push it as popular opinion. Often it is loud and aggressive, but not necessarily representative of a majority.

This can easily be seen in the media's coverage of President Donald J. Trump. For nearly two years, former attorney Michael Avenatti, who was pursuing a civil suit against Trump on behalf his client, Stephanie Gregory Clifford (aka Stormy Daniels), was hailed as a thought leader by the media - primarily because he was taking up strong positions against Trump. Many media openly fawned over him and even referred to him a serious contender for the highest office in the nation. Few, however, reported on who Avenatti was; a controversial attorney who was being challenged by past clients for malpractice. In fact, he was recently convicted of stealing from the very client who catapulted him into the spotlight. Still, few in the media issued retractions to their previous coverage of him.

The trial of Kyle Rittenhouse is noteworthy as well to the blind spot today's media has for 'popular opinion'. Many who were tasked with reporting on this matter made erroneous and judgmental statements about the teenager who sadly killed three people during the riots that plagued Kenosha, Wisconsin, after Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old black man, was shot and seriously injured by a police officer. Even after Rittenhouse was acquitted politicians and media pundits continued to misrepresent the events despite trial evidence not supporting their allegations. America is polarized today, and it shows. Terms like racist, white supremacists and anarchists are thrown around haphazardly to further an agenda or narrative. The visceral nature of these allegations is troubling and the steering towards points of view is dangerous. When media and politicians jump on the proverbial 'bandwagon' to support a cause it contributes to the powder keg that threatens every citizen.

In the last few years American legislatures have passed laws in response to the cries of these social movements, often due to corroborating media narratives, and in many cases, it has had dire consequences. Bail reform, for example, has led to spikes in crimes of all classifications and those spikes are dismissed by politicians and echoed by media outlets that speak to the same audiences. What we think today as "news" is merely an echo and amplification of the social justice advocates' calls, and eventually, with enough repetition, it becomes the "legitimate" narratives of "news media:, hence, creating facts, albeit false facts, and it is this that is most concerning.

In my work as a Crisis Manager, it is the battle against false allegations, assertions and conjecture which has me most concerned. Take the controversy over Andrew Cuomo, the former governor of New York who resigned in disgrace over reports he sexually harassed employees throughout his many years in public service. Let's be quite clear here, Cuomo's demise was led by political rivals, and yet collaborating media amplified the allegations without delving deeper into the actual issues and allegations. His accusers were paraded on news and talk shows and treated as if their allegations were all but certain to end in felony charges, maybe even convictions against the governor. In fact, as of today all criminal probes into Cuomo have been closed, with no charges ever filed. Let's recall that for nearly one year before the first abuse allegation was made, Cuomo was a darling of the media, hailed for his daily televised COVID updates and leadership through the pandemic. In fact, even this narrative was false.

The way the media turned on Cuomo was shocking, given that few media outlets were inclined to push the matter of Covid-19-related nursing home deaths, or even dove into Cuomo's self-promoting book about his leadership though a pandemic that as of this publication, is still going on (although the Russia-Ukraine matter seems to have upended the pandemic).

Coronavirus panic was a political party-particular narrative that was in vogue, and Cuomo represented that party and the soothing voice that cajoled a nation and economy into the calculated, claimed as necessary, pandemic lockdown. So, instead, media focused on allegations of abuse and impropriety because it was "a better story" for them given the weight of the #MeToo movement.

The fact is it can be argued that Andrew Cuomo was despised by many in his party who saw him as the old guard, autocratic, and needed to be replaced.

The result of the current climate is that my job has become considerably more challenging. I was raised in a world where 'benefit of the doubt' was the standard by which the media reported allegations, where American schools taught civics, and we all learned that American justice operates on the premise that an accused is 'innocent until proven guilty.' That notion has since been replaced with the caveat that it only applies for those of non-privileged "races". I was also raised in a world where news media and journalists operated with a different set of ethics from today, one where singular truth and absolute facts mattered, not the rendering of opinions in what should otherwise be 'matter-of-fact journalism.' Opinions are not a "news story," and yet today, when statistics show most people get their news from social media, most 'stories' are just that. "His Truth" or "Her Truth" were once considered feelings, sensitivities or just perspective, now there are different "truths". If you say it enough, the meaning of the word will change to suit new generations.

My father was an investigative journalist who believed in pursuing truths before writing. In his award-winning career, he spent weeks, sometimes months or years getting to the facts so he could report. From the Ford Pinto scandal to the criminal behavior of one of America's largest pharmaceutical companies, A.H. Robbins over hiding known dangers caused by their Dalkon Shield I.U.D. device, he took the time to be certain the information he reported was correct. It was known as journalistic integrity, and is a rare commodity today.

One things my father said rings loudly in my ears today, "getting a story out before anyone else before it was right was always wrong."

Today, one viral post on Twitter or Facebook can lead to the demise of a career, a reputation, or even worse, an entire city. Facts no longer matter; it is a sentiment that does, and the media understands this all too well, and they have joined in exploiting it for ads, click-throughs and subscription sales. Sadly, as this new normal solidifies, we see politicians, prosecutors, and even judges wielding misinformation and 'popular opinion' to help feed their career aspirations or, even worse, appease a mob so that their lives and those of their families are safe.

Many in the public spotlight are under immense pressure. Long ago were the days when a judge was respected and not harassed at their homes by people clambering for the justice they believed a case deserved. Nothing is private anymore; nothing is sacred, and the lines between decency and debauchery have been blurred to the point where even judges yield to a social climate for justice instead of meting out actual, American legal justice. I have seen instances where a judge ruled based on what the protesters outside were chanting, and I have had clients who have suffered as a result.

The treatment of Clare Bronfman by her judge in the NXIVM trial, in my opinion, was influenced by the public outcry over the alleged sex-cult rather than her actual involvement. In fact, those convicted of heinous crimes like sex-trafficking were given lighter sentence than Ms. Bronfman, who was convicted of racketeering charges and sentenced to seven years, two years longer than the prosecution recommended. In fact, to demonstrate the assertion that the media is somewhat complicit, even the once infallible New York Times used the term sex-trafficking in their title when Bronfman was sentenced, despite her conviction for identity theft and immigration offenses and the judge "agree[d] with Ms. Bronfman that the available evidence does not establish that she was aware of DOS... or that she directly or knowingly funded DOS or other sex trafficking activities."

Then there is Indian American Nikesh Patel, a person-of-color, who was sentenced to more than double that of his white co-conspirator, Timothy Fisher, in a financial-fraud case. The sentencing was disproportionate with Fisher getting ten years and Patel being sentenced to 25 years despite his extensive cooperation with investigators. In fact, Nikesh is still in prison while his partner was 'compassionately released' during the height of the COVID virus.

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Juda Engelmayer is the president of HeraldPR and Emerald Digital, and now a managing partner with Converge Public Strategies. His expertise are in the Corporate communications/Public Affairs/Crisis Communications areas of Public Relations, and (more...)

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