Media Nation

By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

An assassination attempt that could have been prevented

Donald Trump at a 2016 campaign event in Arkansas. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.

The New York Times has published a visual investigation into the attempted assassination of Donald Trump that is absolutely unnerving. It’s impossible not to conclude that it could have been prevented; if it had, Corey Comperatore would still be alive. Here’s the video as well as the accompanying story. I’m pretty sure that both are free. And maybe it’s time to revisit The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of scandal at the Secret Service.

I’m not questioning the courage of either the Secret Service agents or of local police officers. What the Times’ reporting and other accounts are calling into question is their judgment. Their job is to anticipate and to act before the worst happens. In this case, the shooter was spotted ahead of time and flagged as suspicious — and then the Secret Service allowed the rally to go ahead after they lost sight of him. A police officer climbed up and spotted the shooter, by then wielding an assault rifle, only to fall back. Another opportunity to stop the rally.

Finally, a witness yelled out, “He’s on the roof! He’s got a gun!” By then, it was too late. From the Times report:

The call to let the rally go ahead while law enforcement looked for a potentially dangerous person is one of many Secret Service decisions now being called into question. The agency is also under scrutiny for allowing a building within a rifle’s range to be excluded from its secure perimeter, creating a blind spot close to the former president that the gunman exploited.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the main criticism of the Secret Service was that they allowed Trump to pop back up and rally the crowd rather than hustling him off immediately. And yes, that was a significant failure given that no one could be sure that the shooter had been disabled (in fact, he’d been shot and killed by that point). But this never had to happen.

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Former GBH News GM Pam Johnston to lead RI’s public TV and radio operations

Pam Johnston. Photo © 2021 by Dominic Gagliardo Chavez/GBH.

Following a tumultuous four years as general manager of GBH News, Pam Johnston has been named CEO of Rhode Island’s public television and radio operations, according to a report by Ian Donnis and Pamela Watts for The Public’s Radio.

Johnston left GBH in May, nearly four months after Mark Shanahan of The Boston Globe reported on discontent among some employees over her management style. Within days, GBH announced that the station’s three local television programs on public affairs, “Greater Boston,” “Basic Black” and “Talking Politics,” would be canceled, though they may be back as digital offerings at some point.

In Rhode Island, Johnston’s duties will be similar to those she had at GBH News, the local news arm comprising radio, digital and — until recently — television. She will head up both Rhode Island PBS and The Public’s Radio, outlets that have merged during the past year. In a statement, Johnston said:

I am honored to be stepping into this role at such a vital moment. At a time when trust in the media is eroding and societal gaps are widening, public media can play a critical role in fostering understanding, goodwill, and connection. I believe that here in Rhode Island we have the team, talent, and resources to redefine the very best of what public media can be.

In 2022 Johnston was a guest on “What Works: The Future of Local News,” a podcast that I host with Ellen Clegg.

My standard disclosure: I was a paid part-time contributor to GBH News for many years, mainly as a panelist on “Beat the Press with Emily Rooney,” a weekly TV show that was canceled under Johnston’s watch in 2021.

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Northeastern’s Mike Beaudet talks with E&P about reinventing TV news

Our Reinventing Local TV News project, which is part of Northeastern’s School of Journalism, is getting a lot of attention from the trade publication Editor & Publisher. Professor Mike Beaudet, who heads the project, is the subject of a feature story in E&P and is the guest on this week’s E&P vodcast.

Beaudet, who’s also an investigative reporter with WCVB-TV (Channel 5), tells E&P’s Gretchen Peck and Mike Blinder that the goal is to come up with new ways of storytelling to appeal to younger audiences — a demographic that gets its news almost entirely by smartphone rather than a traditional television screen. Here’s how Beaudet puts it in an interview with Peck:

People are cutting the cord, and the whole idea of having “appointment television” has gone out the window, especially for younger people. That’s the challenge: We can’t rely on this audience to find local TV like you could in years past, as they get older, because they’re not consuming content the same way.

Mike and his collaborator, Professor John Wihbey, presented at our What Works local news conference at Northeastern last March. Given that local television is in relatively good financial health compared to the newspaper business, it’s vitally important that people like Beaudet and Wihbey come up with solutions before the problems of an aging audience become acute.

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Lester Holt inadvertently provides Biden with his best moment since the debate

In case you missed it, Lester Holt really got under Biden’s skin and inadvertently did the president a big favor in  Monday night’s interview. It was Biden’s best moment by far since June 27. Not such a great moment for Holt, though, as he was aggressive, which was fine, but also asked questions that were dumb and repetitive.

My favorite part was when Holt kept asking Biden if he had watched video of the debate, which became a point of contention after Biden told George Stephanopoulos that he couldn’t remember. Biden’s exasperated response to Holt: “I was there!”

Biden offered some pointed media criticism as well, flashing some anger and demanding that Holt explain why he and other members of the media weren’t doing more to hold Donald Trump to account. Overall, a good night for Biden.

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The stench of corruption

Judge Aileen Cannon throws out the stolen-documents against Donald Trump because, well, she just feels like it. The stench of corruption emanating from her courtroom would nauseate a jackal.

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Boston 25 is shrinking. You won’t be surprised to learn that private equity is to blame.

I knew that the news staff at Boston 25 was getting squeezed, but I didn’t realize how deeply until I read Aidan Ryan’s report in The Boston Globe (I’m briefly quoted). Ryan writes:

… at least 13 staffers, including reporters, producers, salespeople, and a news director, who have left the station since the start of the year, according to interviews and workers’ LinkedIn profiles. Those exits at WFXT-TV (Channel 25) came on top of a steady trickle of departures stretching back years.

Eight current and former employees who spoke to the Globe cited a confluence of factors driving people out, including issues with the quality of the station’s content, overwhelming workloads, pay cuts, layoffs, and uncertainty over whether its private equity owners will keep the lights on. Most spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears of retribution.

You will not be surprised to learn that many of these cuts coincide with the station’s 2019 acquisition by a private equity firm, Apollo Global Management. Private equity has destroyed much of the journalistic landscape, especially local newspapers. Unlike newspapers, though, local television news is still a fairly lucrative business, as well as where a large proportion of Americans get their news, according to the Pew Research Center. If you look at this chart, you’ll see that advertising revenues have held fairly steady, with increases in digital offsetting some of the decline in over-the-air ads.

Private equity firms and hedge funds, though, care about only one thing: how much profit they can wring out before walking away and letting the next owner clean up the mess. In fact, Ryan reports that Apollo tried to sell Boston 25 to another hedge fund in 2022, but that deal fell through.

Boston 25 — formally WFXT-TV (Channel 25) — has a long history tied up in the convoluted tale of Rupert Murdoch’s one-time ownership of the Boston Herald. As I wrote for GBH News back in 2014, Hearst’s Herald American was on the verge of collapse in 1982 when Murdoch swooped in, rescued the tabloid and infused it with new energy. Murdoch added it to his Boston holdings in the late 1980s, acquiring Channel 25 and seeking a waiver from the FCC so that he could continue to own both.

One day as that story was unfolding, then-Sen. Ted Kennedy was making a campaign swing through suburban Burlington. As a reporter for the local daily, I was following him from stop to stop. Kennedy had just snuck an amendment into a bill to deny Murdoch the regulatory waiver he was seeking that would allow him to own both the Herald and Channel 25 (the amendment prohibited a similar arrangement in New York). At every stop, Herald reporter Wayne Woodlief would ask him, “Senator, why are you trying to kill the Herald?”

The episode also led Kennedy’s most caustic critic at the Herald, columnist Howie Carr, to write a particularly memorable lead: “Was it something I said, Fat Boy?” Years later, Carr remained bitter, telling me, “Ted was trying to kill the paper in order to deliver the monopoly to his friends” at The Boston Globe.

As a result of Ted Kennedy’s amendment, Murdoch sold the Herald to his longtime protégé Pat Purcell, who operated it until 2018, when the paper declared bankruptcy and was delivered unto the hands of Alden. Murdoch, meanwhile, continued to operate Fox 25.

In those days Fox 25 was a well-staffed operation with a real Boston flavor, running a satellite bureau across the street from the Statehouse and featuring segments such as “The Heavy Hitters” — commentary by local media guys Peter Kadzis, Cosmo Macero and Doug Goudie. Among the station’s journalists were anchor Maria Stephanos and investigative reporter Mike Beaudet, both of whom are now at WCVB-TV (Channel 5). Mike is also a colleague at Northeastern University. And no, despite Murdoch’s involvement, the station bore no resemblance to the Fox News Channel.

The station was acquired by Cox Media Group in 2014, and the station slowly became less distinctive and more generic. “The Heavy Hitters” was eliminated, as was the Beacon Hill bureau. Cutting began and then accelerated after Cox sold itself to Apollo in 2019. That said, I still like what I see whenever I tune in the Boston 25 newscast, and I hope there’s a way forward. Anchor-reporter Kerry Kavanaugh has been generous in helping us with several mayoral debates in Medford.

Boston is fortunate to still have a number of local TV newscasts, and some of them are quite good. Still, the fading away of Boston 25 is sad as well as a loss for both the community and the people who work there — and for those who are no longer at the station.

Correction: Updated to note that Doug Goudie was one of “The Heavy Hitters.” I had the wrong Doug.

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After the shooting: Security questions, loathsome rhetoric and attacks on the press

There is still so much that we don’t know about the assassination attempt on Donald Trump, which claimed the lives of an innocent bystander as well as the suspected gunman. What a lot of us want to know is why the building where the shooter apparently stationed himself wasn’t secured by the Secret Service. Michael Biesecker of The Associated Press reports:

The U.S. Secret Service is investigating how a gunman armed with an AR-style rifle was able to get close enough to shoot and injure former President Donald Trump at a rally Saturday in Pennsylvania, a monumental failure of one the agency’s core duties.

From the moment that the shootings took place, right-wing figures, including elected officials, have been blaming this on anti-Trump rhetoric from President Biden and his supporters, as if Trump himself was any stranger to dangerously incendiary attacks on his opponents. David Corn has a roundup for Mother Jones, writing that “MAGA was out in full-force to blame President Joe Biden, Democrats, and progressives for this shooting by stirring up anti-Trump sentiment.”

Probably the two worst have been U.S. Rep. Mike Collins, R-Ga., who demanded that Biden be arrested and charged with “inciting an assassination,” and U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, who tweeted:

Today is not just some isolated incident. The central premise of the Biden campaign is that President Donald Trump is an authoritarian fascist who must be stopped at all costs. That rhetoric led directly to President Trump’s attempted assassination.

I’m also appalled at some of the comments on social media that I’ve seen from liberals and progressives who, from the moment that the shots were fired, felt compelled to declare that it was a fake aimed at ginning up sympathy for the insurrectionist former president. But I’m not both-sides-ing this — the right-wing outburst has come from name-brand Republicans, whereas on the Democratic side virtually all commentary from elected officials, from President Biden on down, has either been sympathetic or has stressed the need for greater gun control.

Another angle that bears watching: rising hatred for the media. In his eyewitness account for The Boston Globe, James Pindell writes that not long after the shooting, some members of the crowd began targeting the reporters who were there to cover the rally:

After Trump had been escorted to his car and people sensed the rally was over and they were safe, the crowd turned on the media.

The crowd was angry. Middle fingers were everywhere. They asked the press if they were happy and blamed the media.

“You did this,” they said to reporters.

I wasn’t sure of their rationale for such a statement, but they were looking for someone to blame. For a moment, it felt like a growing mob. I was separated by a temporary steel fence, but that wouldn’t help much if things turned violent.

That was my cue. I took off my press credentials, unplugged my equipment, and packed everything into my backpack.

If you watched live coverage Saturday night with a skeptical eye, you were wise. Here, if you haven’t seen it before, is “The Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook” from the public radio program “On the Media.” In the days ahead, stick with trusted mainstream news sources, and understand that even they’re not going to get everything right.

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One more on Biden, the media and the news conference

President Biden speaking at the NATO summit on Thursday. Photo via WhiteHouse.gov.

I joined my Northeastern colleagues Costas Panagopoulos and Nick Beauchamp in analyzing President Biden’s news conference and the media’s performance for Northeastern Global News. My take: The state of Biden’s cognitive condition is a huge and legitimate story, but it’s been marred by a journalistic feeding frenzy:

Looking back at the last several weeks, Kennedy says it’s almost as if “we’ve forgotten that anything else is going on in the entire world.”

“At some point when we look back on this, we’re going to say that there was a really important, substantive issue that had to be dealt with — that is, the question of whether the president is in cognitive decline — and yet the media still didn’t acquit itself very well,” Kennedy says.

Panagopoulos’ and Beauchamp’s assessments of the news conference itself: Biden was strong enough to help himself a little, but not strong enough to change anyone’s minds about whether he should stay in the race.

“It’s unlikely to silence calls for him to step aside,” said Panagopoulos. Added Beauchamp: “I don’t know if that’s going to be enough of a difference for people who are counting on his abilities. But I think he went out there and delivered what he was there to do.”

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The state of the race is grim

I’m using up my free New York Times links pretty quickly, but I want to share this horrifying look at the state of the race. The likelihood of President Biden’s recovering and winning is nil — and that’s assuming he doesn’t have any more senior moments.

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Biden helped himself a little. So what happens next?

If President Biden had handled himself in the debate the way he did at his news conference Thursday night, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. He was OK — far better than in the debate and better, too, than he was in his interview with George Stephanopoulos.

He navigated the weeds on foreign policy, rambling on in a way that demonstrated his deep knowledge of the international scene. I don’t care that he mixed up a few names — he always has. But he faded toward the end and lost some of his earlier coherence. I think he helped himself a little. And that creates a dilemma. It’s one thing if he’s clearly unfit to run and to serve. It’s quite another if he comes across merely as low-energy and perhaps not up to the challenge of defeating the authoritarian menace that Donald Trump represents. What do you do then?

Writing on Threads, media observer Brian Stelter put it this way: “Millions of Democratic voters watched Biden’s press conference, and now some of them are wondering, ‘why are the chattering classes trying to force this man out of office?’”

If Biden had helped himself a lot, maybe we could exhale. If he’d melted down, well, the next steps would be obvious. But by helping himself a little, he left himself in a tenuous position, insisting he’s in the race to stay while much of the media and a rising tide of Democratic officials insist that the time has come for a new candidate.

Ah, yes, the media. They’ve been providing tough coverage of a story that’s of paramount importance — and they’ve been overdoing it, too. This has especially been true of The New York Times and CNN, which have been overloading us with stories about whether Biden is still fit to serve while playing down other news. Yes, that’s a hard accusation to make stick against the Times since it publishes so much about so many topics. But, day after day, its homepage has been dominated by upwards of a half-dozen stories about the latest on whether Biden might step aside. The Times is guilty of one serious misstep as well, botching a report that the president might be under evaluation for Parkinson’s disease.

So on we go. I suggest that we all calm down. If Biden needs to step aside, it doesn’t have to happen immediately. One option is to resign, making Vice President Kamala Harris the president. That’s the cleanest solution, presumably answering any questions about ballot access and campaign funds. A short sprint to Election Day might actually help her.

In any case, there was no reason to feel especially good or bad about what happened Thursday night.

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