The New York Times today has a fascinating story about how former Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith has reinvented herself as an acclaimed poet. The end of Smith’s newspaper career was ugly, and reporter Rachel Swarns spares no details. But Smith was always a talented writer, and her tale of redemption is inspiring.
There’s plenty of fulminating in conservative media circles today over President Barack Obama’s unabashedly liberal State of the Union address.
Some of it is offered in world-weary tones suggesting that, once again, the grown-ups have to explain to the kids that the president doesn’t know what he’s talking about. “Mr. Obama’s income-redistribution themes are familiar,” The Wall Street Journal editorializes, “though they are amusingly detached from the reality of the largest GOP majority in Congress since 1949.”
Some of it is angry. “The president continues to count on and to exploit the ignorance of many of our fellow citizens,” thumps Scott Johnson of Power Line.
And some of it is just petulant. Breitbart’s Ben Shapiro concludes a long adolescent rant about Obama with this unmemorable line: “the state of his union sucks.”
Leave it to David Frum of The Atlantic, though, to explain what might have really been going on Tuesday night. A former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, Frum is the closest thing we’ve got these days to a moderate Republican commentator. And he thinks Obama was aiming his proposals — tax hikes for the rich, tax cuts for the middle class and new governmental benefits such as free community college — at an audience of one: Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“The intent, pretty obviously, is to box in his presumptive successor as head of the Democratic Party,” Frum writes. “Every time the president advances a concept that thrills his party’s liberal base, he creates a dilemma for Hillary Clinton. Does she agree or not? Any time she is obliged to answer, her scope to define herself is constricted.”
The effect, Frum predicts, will be to push the pro-business Clinton to the left and thereby hand an opportunity to the Republican presidential aspirants.
Whatever Obama’s motivation, there’s no question that his demeanor was that of a conquering hero rather than a weakened president facing the first all-Republican Congress of his tenure.
“Obama delivered an hour-long defense of his policies that at times sounded like a victory lap,” is how David Nakamura puts it in his lead story for The Washington Post. In The New York Times, Michael D. Shear calls Obama “confident and at times cocky.” Matt Viser of The Boston Globe says the president was “confident, brash, and upbeat.”
If nothing else, Obama demonstrated that he understood the atmospherics of the State of the Union. It’s a TV show, with all the entertainment values that implies. And thus there was no need for him to acknowledge the Democrats’ brutal performance in the November elections, or that the proposals he offered Tuesday have no more chance of passing than, say, Canadian-style health care. He had the podium, and the Republicans could applaud or not.
The timing was right for Obama as well. With the economy finally showing real improvement, the president’s job-approval ratings are up a bit. An ABC News/Washington Post poll puts Obama at 50 percent approve/44 percent disapprove, while an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey has him at 46 percent approve/48 percent disapprove. Meanwhile, the public detests Congress as much as ever.
As for how the State of the Union was received, that’s a little harder to figure out. The only survey I’ve seen, from CNN/ORC, shows that 51 percent of viewers had a “very positive” reaction to Obama’s speech and 30 percent were “somewhat positive.” That’s sounds like a big thumbs-up until you look more closely at the numbers. It turns out that 39 percent of those surveyed were Democrats and just 20 percent were Republicans — a reflection of who watched the speech, not of public sentiment as a whole.
Another way of looking at that, though, is that Obama knew he was speaking to a friendly audience — not in Congress, but at home, as Democrats were far more likely to tune in than Republicans. So why not use the occasion to energize his supporters — and drive his enemies to distraction?
Obama’s detractors at Fox News were fairly restrained Tuesday night and online this morning. But you can be sure Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, et al. will be at it tonight. Meanwhile, consider this, from Charles Hurt of The Washington Times: “President Obama dedicated his State of the Union address to illegal aliens, college students and communist Cuba. In other words, all those imaginary supporters he claims to be hearing from ever since the actual American electorate denounced him, his party and his policies in last year’s beat-down election.”
More to the point, John Podhoretz writes in the New York Post that “in the most substantive speech he’s given in a long time, he has committed his presidency toward policies that have no hope of a serious hearing from the legislatures whose job it is to turn policies into law.”
Obama knows that, of course. The real message of the State of the Union was that the 2016 campaign has begun. Having long since concluded that the Republicans won’t compromise with him, the president delivered a political speech, aimed electing a Democratic president and Congress.
Best wishes to Alex Jones, who’s leaving as director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy after 15 years at the helm. The center, part of the Kennedy School, is one of Harvard’s two major journalistic endeavors, the other being the Nieman Foundation.
Alex has enjoyed a long and accomplishment-filled career. He may be best known for co-writing with his wife, the late Susan Tifft, “The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times” (1999), the definitive biography of the Ochs-Sulzberger family.
Under Jones’ leadership, Shorenstein has been an important part of the conversation about journalism both locally and nationally. He’ll be missed — but I hope he’s planning on being around often enough that he won’t be missed too much.
Monday’s broadcast of “The CBS Evening News” began on a portentous note. “Good evening,” said anchor Scott Pelley. “Melting glaciers, rising sea levels, higher temperatures. If you think someone’s trying to tell us something, someone just did.”
Pelley’s introduction was followed by a report on the latest study by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. According to The Washington Post, the panel found that global warming is now “irreversible,” and that drastic steps must be taken to reduce the use of fossil fuels in order to prevent worst-case scenarios from becoming a reality.
No matter. Before the night was over, Americans had turned their backs on the planet. By handing over the Senate to Mitch McConnell and his merry band of Republicans, voters all but ensured that no progress will be made on climate change during the next two years — and that even some tenuous steps in the right direction may be reversed.
At Vox, Brad Plumer noted that Tuesday’s Alfred E. Neuman moment came about despite more than $80 million in campaign spending by environmentalists and despite natural disasters that may be related to climate change, such as the unusual destructiveness of Hurricane Sandy and the ongoing drought in the West.
“Which means that if anything’s going to change, it may have to happen outside Congress,” Plumer wrote, adding that “the 2014 election made clear that Washington, at least, isn’t going to be much help on climate policy anytime soon.”
Not much help? That would be the optimistic view. Because as Elana Schor pointed out in Politico, Republicans and conservative Democrats may now have a veto-proof majority to move ahead on the Keystone XL pipeline. The project, which would bring vast quantities of dirty oil from Canada into the United States, would amount to “the equivalent of adding six million new cars to the road,” the environmentalist Bill McKibben said in an interview with “Democracy Now” earlier this year.
The problem is that though Americans say they care about climate change, they don’t care about it very much.
In September, the Pew Research Center reported the results of a poll that showed 61 percent of the public believed there is solid evidence that the earth has been warming, and that 48 percent rated climate change as “a major threat” — well behind the Islamic State and nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.
Moreover, whereas Democrats registered 79 percent on “solid evidence” and 68 percent on “major threat,” Republicans scored just 37 percent and 25 percent. The Republican political leadership, anxious to keep its restive right-wing base happy, has every incentive to keep pursuing its science-bashing obstructionist path.
One possible solution to this mess was proposed in the New York Times a few days ago by David Schanzer and Jay Sullivan of Duke University: get rid of the midterm elections altogether by extending the terms of representatives from two to four years and by changing senatorial terms from six years to four or eight.
As Schanzer and Sullivan noted, presidential election years are marked by high turnout across a broad spectrum of the electorate. By contrast, the midterms attract a smaller, whiter, older, more conservative cohort that is bent on revenge for the setbacks it suffered two years earlier. (According to NBC News, turnout among those 60 and older Tuesday was 37 percent, compared to just 12 percent for those under 30.)
“The realities of the modern election cycle,” they wrote, “are that we spend almost two years selecting a president with a well-developed agenda, but then, less than two years after the inauguration, the midterm election cripples that same president’s ability to advance that agenda.”
There is, of course, virtually no chance of such common-sense reform happening as long as one of our two major parties benefits from it not happening.
The consequences of that inaction can be devastating. According to The Washington Post’s account of this week’s U.N. report, “some impacts of climate change will ‘continue for centuries,’ even if all emissions from fossil-fuel burning were to stop.”
Sadly, we just kicked the can down the road for at least another two years.
Correction: This commentary originally said that CBS News’ report on climate change was aired on Tuesday rather than Monday.
Several months ago I re-read what David Halberstam had to say about The Washington Post in “The Powers That Be,” his monumental 1979 book about the rise of the Post, the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine and CBS News.
As we celebrate the life and career of the Post’s legendary executive editor, Ben Bradlee, who died on Tuesday, it’s worth pondering the economic environment that made Bradlee’s charismatic brand of leadership possible: private ownership.
The Meyer and Graham families had been the sole owners of the Post since the 1930s. But in the early 1970s, publisher Katharine Graham decided to take her newspaper public. Here’s Halberstam:
So Katharine Graham went public. In the end she did it because she felt she had no choice. It was that or sell one of the television stations, which would provide instant cash but would narrow the base of the company. During the months that they prepared the stock issue [Post lawyer and Graham confidant] Fritz Beebe, whose office was in New York, talked frequently with the Post’s New York financial writer, Phil Greer, who was unusually knowledgeable about the workings of the market. Greer was pessimistic about the entire enterprise, and consisted it a drastic mistake. Wall Street, he believed, was a brutal partner, it was not interested in journalism or good writing, and it demanded not just profit but a relentless kind of profit; Wall Street wanted systems, and cost accounting, and a monitoring of expense accounts and higher productivity and lower expenditures. None of these things had anything to do with talent or covering the news. Greer did not believe that the Post could embrace Wall Street without changing. The Post would inevitably become, if not far more conservative on its editorial page, then far more conservative as an institution. When editors thought about covering stories or opening bureaus they would think of the accountants and the costs. What had made certain family-owned papers like The New York Times and the Postspecial in the past was a certain obliviousness to materialism, the power of the editors over the accountants, a willingness to settle for less than maximum profit. Now, however, simply being in the black would not be enough, the margin of profit would have to be larger, 15 percent or more a year to satisfy the stockholders. That was a powerful weapon for the Post’s accountants, for they could go into budget meetings and when editorial expenses were being discussed they could argue, not that the paper was losing money, but that the margin of profit was too low and that the stock might fall. The stock fall? What editor could argue back against that? Was a bureau in Johannesburg worth endangering the stock? The old paternalistic norms, some of them good and some of them bad, would be replaced by new modern computerized ones, some of them good and some of them bad, and all of them cold.
The decision had instant ramifications after the Post joined The New York Times in publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971. As Halberstam writes, the Post could have been charged with a federal crime, which would have had serious negative consequences for the paper’s upcoming stock offering. Yes, the Post was on the verge of becoming a public company. But because Graham and Bradlee continued to run it as a highly personal institution, they held firm and went to press. Here’s Halberstam again:
Watergate, like Vietnam, had obscured one of the central new facts about the role of national journalism in America, a fact that helped explain the not entirely latent discontent at places like the Post and CBS and The New York Times, rich and powerful and successful as they were. Only very rich, very powerful corporate institutions like these had the impact, the reach, and above all the resources to challenge the President of the United States. Yet the price of that external influence was high to those institutions in an internal sense. The bigger and richer and more powerful the journalistic institution, the more bureaucratic its way of dealing with its own best people, the more distant and aloof its management. The Post was now part of a big rich corporation, 452nd in the Fortune list. Its standards and goals now resembled, not the standards and goals of small old-fashioned newspapers, but those of the other giant corporations on that list. For a highly individualistic profession like journalism there was an inherent contradiction in this. Even those Post reporters who were not entirely enamored of Bradlee, who thought his attention span too short, who objected to the fact that he sometimes preferred sexy stories to what they considered more serious ones, and who thought him too star-oriented, nonetheless welcomed his presence, highly personalized as it was, as a defense against the corporation. They believed that he was buying the newsroom time, that his connect to Mrs. Graham was so close that he could secure freedom of a sort that his successor could not.
In fact, the Post was often characterized as less engaging under Graham’s successor, her son Donald, and the executive editor who followed Bradlee, Len Downie. Whether that’s fair or not, there’s no disputing the reality that public ownership finally met its limits in 2013, when Don Graham sold the Post to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.
Under executive editor Marty Baron, the Post is experiencing a revival, as Baron gets to expand coverage with the money that billionaire Bezos has proved willing to invest in the paper.
The New York Times Co.’s sale of The Boston Globe to financier John Henry in 2013 returned that paper to private ownership as well — and Henry and editor Brian McGrory have expanded the Globe’s coverage of politics and the Catholic Church, among other areas.
Neither Bezos nor Henry has been entirely benevolent. Bezos is trying to cut pension benefits for his employees. Henry has made reductions here and there, and some staff members continue to endure unpaid furloughs first instituted by the Times Co.
Yet there’s no question that both the Post and the Globe are better off in wealthy private hands than they were under the ownership of publicly traded corporations. News organizations are unique. The relentless focus on the bottom line that Wall Street demands inevitably hurts the journalism, which, in turn, harms the bottom line as the audience is driven away. Private owners can focus on the long term in a way that publicly owned corporations simply can’t.
They say it’s better to be lucky than good. Ben Bradlee was both. And we were the beneficiaries.
Photo (cc) by John C. Abell and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.
Jill Abramson, fired (her words) last summer as New York Times executive editor, will join with Steven Brill on a startup to “give great journalists money they can live on.”
In a Boston University question-and-answer session Monday evening, she provided few details but said she and Brill — who won the National Magazine Award last year for his Time magazine cover story on medical costs — will write one story a year for the site. She said they’ve been pitching potential investors on the project.
Abramson was joined on stage by New York Times media columnist David Carr, a visiting professor at BU, who served up a steady stream of questions to his former boss.
In other remarks, Abramson praised former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee as “the most consequential editor of my lifetime” and called The New York Review of Books a “perfect publication.”
Abramson, now teaching a once-a-week class at Harvard on narrative journalism, condemned “false equivalence” — reporting “on the one hand/on the other hand” as if each side is equally credible.”
After weighing and sifting all the facts, she said, journalists have the right to determine which side is right. As an example, she cited “Strange Justice,” the 1994 book she wrote with her then Wall Street Journal colleague Jane Mayer. They concluded that Supreme Court nominee (now Justice) Clarence Thomas had lied about significant incidents in his past.
“What is the press but calling power people and institutions to account?” she asked.
Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.
It’s been a long time since I gave much thought to Gary Webb, the investigative reporter who wrote a series of articles for the San Jose Mercury News in 1996 alleging that the CIA looked the other way (or worse) when the Nicaraguan contra rebels sold cocaine in Los Angeles in the 1980s — thus leading to the crack epidemic.
Major news organizations engaged in a furious effort to discredit Webb, and he was eventually pushed into resigning from the Mercury News. He made several attempts to revive his career (including a stint with friend of Media Nation Al Giordano’s NarcoNews.com), but committed suicide in 2004.
Now a movie about Webb has come out called “Kill the Messenger.” I would like to see it. Here’s what I wrote about Webb in The Boston Phoenix in 1998 — part of a longer article on the crisis of credibility afflicting investigative reporting:
A good example of how important work can be quashed is the case of Gary Webb, a former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. In August 1996, the Mercury published a three-part series by Webb alleging that Nicaraguan contra rebels, backed by the CIA, had sold cocaine in Los Angeles in the 1980s in order to finance their guerrilla war against the leftist Sandinista government. These operations, Webb asserted, touched off the crack epidemic in black neighborhoods across the country.
The series gained a national audience, especially among African-Americans, after the Mercury republished the series on its Web site. But when the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times published their own lengthy reports rebutting many of Webb’s conclusions, the Mercury backed off. Executive editor Jerry Ceppos apologized for the reports’ flaws in 1997, and Webb was exiled to the Cupertino bureau. He ultimately resigned.
Now Webb is back, with a new book that incorporates and expands on his original series. Unfortunately, Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion (Seven Stories Press) is no guide to what went wrong unless you’re a blind Webb partisan. According to Webb, the big guns who came after him were motivated by malice and envy, and by a knee-jerk institutional need to suck up to the national security establishment. What few mistakes made it into in his stories, he asserts, were put there by boneheaded editors at the Mercury.
In fact, the anti-Webb exposés did establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Webb overreached in several key areas. Yet they never seriously challenged Webb’s central, well-documented premise: that the contras were selling cocaine in the US in order to fund their war in Nicaragua, and that their CIA sponsors looked the other way.
In October 1996, Geneva Overholser, then-ombudsman of the Washington Post, took her paper to task for putting more effort into exposing the flaws in Webb’s reporting than into following up the leads he had unearthed, and she challenged her colleagues to investigate further. No one took her up on it. Yet on Friday, the New York Times reported the existence of a classified CIA study that showed the agency “continued to work with about two dozen Nicaraguan rebels and their supporters during the 1980s despite allegations that they were trafficking in drugs.” At long last. Webb, of course, remains in the journalistic wilderness.