As higher education institutions undertake pandemic-related layoffs and furloughs at remarkably high rates, Howard University is moving in a different direction by adding a national news anchor to the school’s faculty this semester. Along with exploring the Internet’s capacity to help journalists reveal racial injustice, uncover sexual assault, and ignite the downfall of an American president, students can also learn from MSNBC host Joy Reid when her journalism "master class" “Covering Race, Gender & Politics in the Digital Age” begins Jan. 25.
A Howard press release from December indicates that the upcoming course will focus on "digital disinformation," a topic with which the Hearst Visiting Professor is intimately familiar. On a June 2018 episode of her MSNBC morning show, Ms. Reid provided one of multiple apologies for posts from her defunct blog that were written during the mid-to-late 2000s. Entries of the blog have included conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and attempts to expose the sexuality of politicians.
One post contained a photoshopped image of former Sen. John McCain’s head on the body of the Virginia Tech student who committed the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. There was also an entry that accused the author’s future colleague Rachel Maddow of holding views “at the left-most end of the political spectrum.” Though she had originally claimed to be the victim of hackers, Ms. Reid later acknowledged that her hired team of cybersecurity experts found no hard evidence that any of the controversial posts had been manipulated.
Revelations of the blog and the unproven hacking claims did not lead to negative repercussions from MSNBC, and Ms. Reid was promoted to one of the network’s coveted primetime slots in July 2020. “TheReidout” was ushered in as the replacement for “Hardball with Chris Matthews” after the veteran commentator was pressured to retire following allegations of sexist comments toward a GQ columnist and an on-air remark in which he compared Sen. Bernie Sanders’ victory in the Nevada caucuses to the Nazi takeover of France during the Second World War. Ms. Reid’s evening show is notably followed each night by Brian Williams, who was removed from NBC’s flagship “Nightly News” broadcast for repeatedly providing a fictionalized account of his involvement on board a helicopter encountering enemy fire during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Reid is hardly the first questionable hire by a media department. In 2019, students at New York University filed a complaint against former Teen Vogue writer Lauren Duca in which they claimed that she was more interested in personal branding than on imparting knowledge during a six-week “Feminist Journalist” class.
That same year, the university was forced to cancel a course titled "Reporting on the Far Right" due to lack of enrollment. The class was scheduled to be taught by a former fact-checker for The New Yorker named Talia Lavin, who had resigned from the magazine in 2018 after falsely tweeting that an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent had a Nazi tattoo. Ms. Lavin deleted the tweet and expressed regret after ICE released a statement to clarify that the agent in question had a tattoo of his platoon’s symbol from when he fought in Afghanistan as a U.S. Marine.
Reid’s impending course is geared toward upperclassmen studying journalism. These students will be starting their careers at a time when technology companies are establishing stricter limits on free speech, and online shaming holds increasing power in getting public figures suspended and terminated. Such developments make it hard to imagine a scenario in which Ms. Reid’s career could stay afloat if her blog posts were published today. Future journalists would be wise to avoid the pitfalls that lead to internet outrage and focus instead on bringing integrity back to the profession.
Gallup's annual Governance poll from September discovered that the percentage of Americans with no confidence in the media (33%) reached the highest level recorded since the question of trust in news coverage was first asked in 1972. This comes at a time when the country is relying strongly on accuracy regarding an international pandemic and a national government in chaos.
Such a trend can only be reversed with a commitment to transparency and objectivity in reporting. Journalism students can succeed in this endeavor under the guidance of experts in the field who are dedicated to upholding these principles. The challenge lies in finding them.
Ryan Navarro works as a therapist with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. His articles have appeared in The Washington Times, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Cincinnati Herald, and The Altoona Mirror.