In my latest for WGBHNews.org, I write about the heartfelt apology that appears in today’s Boston Herald from editorial-page editor Rachelle Cohen over the infamous watermelon toothpaste cartoon — and explain why the real issue is a lack of diversity in the Herald newsroom.
Smart move by the Boston Herald: The paper will work with the NAACP following publication of the racist cartoon involving President Obama and watermelon-flavored toothpaste. More links:
If you think New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is right in arguing that impeachment is just a “game” that President Obama is playing, you need to get up to speed by reading this, this and this. Republicans have been calling for Obama’s impeachment almost from the day he took office in 2009.
What’s really going on: Establishment Republicans are trying to divert attention from their own wingnut base. And Douthat is happy to give them cover.
Once again, the Obama White House has demonstrated its contempt for journalism and other forms of independent inquiry.
As we should all know by now, journalists do not have a First Amendment right to protect their anonymous sources. Following the same principle, academic researchers have no constitutional protection if they wish to keep secret the identities of people who provide them with evidence about serious crimes.
Thus it should be no surprise that U.S. District Judge William Young last year ordered Boston College to turn over parts of the Belfast Tapes, an oral-history project involving members of the Irish Republican Army. Those tapes led to the arrest Wednesday of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, who has been accused of involvement in the notorious 1972 murder of an innocent woman named Jean McConville. (Adams denies the charges.)
The struggle for Irish independence was a decades-long guerrilla war. All sides, including the British military, conducted themselves shamefully. When seeking a resolution to such horrors, the parties generally agree that reconciliation requires them to overlook acts that would never be tolerated in normal times. Nelson Mandela’s magnanimity in South Africa is the best-known example, but there are many others.
But the British government leaned on the White House, and Attorney General Eric Holder subpoenaed the tapes. There was little either BC or the courts could have done about it once Obama and Holder made up their minds to go along with British demands rather than stand up for free academic inquiry. As former lieutenant governor (and former BC trustee) Tom O’Neill puts it:
In the Boston College case, our “special relationship’’ with Britain is raising serious and troubling questions: Are we abridging academic freedom in ways that will prevent participants in major international issues from stepping forward with their stories? Is the British demand for documents, and its search for alleged wrongdoing, driven as much by the politics of Ireland today as it is by the search for justice for past crimes? And why, when both sides in the Troubles were guilty of so much wrongdoing, is the British prosecution seemingly intent on only pursuing crimes allegedly committed by only one side?
As the journalist Ed Moloney, a leader of the Belfast Tapes project, tells The Boston Globe, “The damage is done. The whole process of conducting academic research in the United States of America on sensitive subjects with confidential sources has been dealt a death blow by the Obama Department of Justice.”
Finally, I should note that the legal case involving the Belfast Tapes has been enormously complex and marked by enmity between Moloney and Boston College officials. If you would like to learn more, Beth McMurtrie wrote a long piece earlier this year for The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Normally I’m not a big fan of journalists’ signing petitions. But preserving net neutrality is so fundamental to what we do that we should all send President Obama a strong message. We need net neutrality to provide the public with the information it needs for self-government — it’s that basic.
This particular petition is endorsed by Tim Wu, who literally coined the phrase. I haven’t checked out all the prominent supporters, but I know that Jeff Jarvis is among them. If the possibility of democratic media is important to you, please sign.
And here is some background on net neutrality from Free Press.
James Risen is a free-press hero. Whether he will also prove to be a First Amendment hero depends on the U.S. Supreme Court.
On Friday, Risen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times, was presented with the 2014 Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award by the New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC), which is affiliated with Northeastern University. (I wish I’d been able to attend, but I was teaching.) Risen faces prison for refusing to identify an anonymous CIA source who helped inform Risen’s reporting on a failed operation to interfere with Iran’s nuclear program — a story Risen told in his 2006 book, “State of War.”
Both the Bush and the Obama administrations have pushed for Risen to give up his source, but Risen has refused. “The choice is get out of the business — give up everything I believe in — or go to jail. They’ve backed me into a corner,” Risen was quoted as saying in this Boston Globe article by Eric Moskowitz. Also weighing in with a detailed account of the NEFAC event is Tom Mooney of The Providence Journal.
My Northeastern colleague Walter Robinson, a former Globe reporter and editor, said this of Risen:
There’s no one anywhere on the vast landscape of American journalism who merits this award more than you do. It is hard to imagine a more principled and patriotic defense of the First Amendment.
Unfortunately, Risen has little in the way of legal protection. The Supreme Court, in its 1972 Branzburg v. Hayes decision, ruled that the First Amendment does not protect journalists from having to reveal their confidential sources. In addition, there is no federal shield law. Thus journalists like Risen must hope that the attorney general — and, ultimately, the president — respect the role of a free press in a democratic society sufficiently not to take reporters to court. President Obama has failed that test in spectacular fashion.
Risen has asked the Supreme Court to take his case, giving the justices an opportunity to overturn or at least modify the Branzburg decision. But if the court declines to take the case, the president should order Attorney General Eric Holder to call off the dogs.
The Stephen Hamblett Award is named for the late chairman, chief executive officer and publisher of The Providence Journal. Previous recipients have been the late New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, then-Boston Globe editor Marty Baron (now executive editor of The Washington Post) and Phil Balboni, founder of GlobalPost and, previously, New England Cable News.
More: On this week’s “Beat the Press,” my WGBH colleague Margery Eagan paid tribute to Risen in the “Rants & Raves” segment.
President Obama’s fifth State of the Union speech wasn’t his best, but it may have been his most entertaining. Freed from the illusion that Republicans will ever work with him, the president last night was upbeat, funny and slashingly partisan.
He paid tribute to House Speaker John Boehner as “the son of a barkeep,” forcing a pained smile and upraised thumb from his longtime nemesis. He rambled about the glories of Obamacare so that Republicans could be seen sitting on their hands for as long as possible. And, in my favorite moment, he pulled a rhetorical switcheroo that put Republicans in the position of having to applaud gay people if they also wanted to be seen paying tribute to our Olympic athletes.
“We believe in the inherent dignity and equality of every human being, regardless of race or religion, creed or sexual orientation,” Obama said. “And next week the world will see one expression of that commitment when Team USA marches the red, white and blue into the Olympic stadium and brings home the gold.” USA! USA!
It was an interesting gambit — a way for a president whose poll numbers have fallen to show dominance over a group of people who are even less popular than he is. According to the most recent ABC News/Washington Post survey, 49 percent of the public hold a favorable view of Obama and 50 percent hold an unfavorable view — down from the 60-37 spread he enjoyed about this time a year ago. But an ABC/Post poll also found recently that 71 percent of Americans disapprove of how congressional Republicans are doing their jobs, compared to just 25 percent who approve. (Congressional Democrats do only slightly better, but they were not Obama’s target Tuesday night.)
The pundit class, both liberal and conservative, took note of Obama’s loose mood.
“Gone from the speech was what I’d heard in pretty much every other Obama State of the Union, pressing bipartisan cooperation, finding common ground, pushing points of agreement,” wrote Josh Marshall, editor of the left-leaning Talking Points Memo. “There wasn’t a contrary note. It was more just ignoring the whole thing, as though the President were saying, ‘Okay, guys, I get it. You won’t do anything. Okay. Fine.’ Basically, let’s not play that charade anymore.”
Observing the same phenomenon through the other end of the ideological prism was Rich Lowry of the conservative National Review, who put it this way: “If this is the imperial presidency, it wasn’t a very imperial speech. It was small in every way. It wasn’t eloquent and didn’t even seem to try. Instead it was conversational, including a joke about calling your mother.” Added Ron Fournier of the nonpartisan National Journal: “Is that all there is? … It was a good speech about a modest agenda delivered by a diminished leader.”
On the more substantive elements of the State of the Union, media reaction focused mainly on the president’s determination to work around congressional gridlock through the use of executive orders to raise the wages of employees who work for federal contractors and to combat climate change, among other things. On this front there is some confusion. Is it no big deal given that Obama has actually used such orders far less frequently than his predecessors, as Dan Amira of New York magazine has noted? Or has he exceeded his authority by taking bold actions such as rewriting parts of the Affordable Care Act without the necessary congressional approval, as conservatives such as Charles Krauthammer argue?
Leave it to Wall Street Journal columnist Ted Cruz — wait, that Ted Cruz? — to offer a distinctly nuance-free perspective. “Of all the troubling aspects of the Obama presidency,” he wrote, “none is more dangerous than the president’s persistent pattern of lawlessness, his willingness to disregard the written law and instead enforce his own policies via executive fiat.” Expect to hear a lot of that in the days and weeks ahead.
Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the State of the Union was Obama’s near-silence on gun violence, a year after he tried and failed to push Congress into acting following the school massacre in Newtown, Conn. “Obama devoted a whole 67 words to gun control, offering no specifics in a speech that was stuffed with specifics on other issues,” complained Roger Simon of Politico.
And without question, the most memorable and emotional part of the evening came toward the end, when the president acknowledged Army Ranger Cory Remsburg, recovering from grievous injuries suffered in Afghanistan during his 10th deployment, as described by Ernesto Londoño of The Washington Post. We’ll remember that long after Obama’s words are forgotten.
The immediate reaction to the speech was favorable. According to a CNN/ORC snap poll, 76 percent had either a “very positive” or “somewhat positive” reaction to the State of the Union, and the president got a 17 percent bump — from 52 percent before the speech to 69 percent after — in terms of whether his policies would move the country in the right direction.
But such findings tend to be ephemeral at best. If we know one thing about the Obama era, it’s that the president can give a good speech and that it rarely makes a difference in his ability to move congressional Republicans.
“A man who entered the White House yearning for sweeping achievements finds himself five years later threatening an end run around gridlock on Capitol Hill by using executive orders, essentially acknowledging both the limits of his ability to push an agenda through Congress and the likelihood that future accomplishments would be narrow,” wrote Carl Hulse of The New York Times.
On Twitter, John Robinson, former editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina, put it much more succinctly:
Official White House photo by Pete Souza.