COVID Diary #7: Our worst week as a nation since 9/11 and 1968

We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.

This was the week that everything seemed to come apart. The death toll from COVID-19 passed 100,000. And yet, briefly, that terrible milestone has been overshadowed by the latest in a long series of reckonings over what it means to be Black in America.

The day began with Omar Jimenez, a Black Latino journalist for CNN, being arrested by white police officers in Minneapolis even as a white CNN reporter stood not far away, unmolested by cops. The journalists were there to cover the protests that have broken out over the killing of an African American man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white officer. That officer, Derek Chauvin, has been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. No word yet on the fate of the three officers who stood by and let it happen.

The day ended with televised images across the country, from Minneapolis to Atlanta, from New York to California, as thousands of people protested against racist violence against African Americans. Sadly, some of those protests turned violent. But as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” This week the unheard were intent on being heard — not just on behalf of Floyd, but also many others, including Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and, yes, even Christian Cooper, who was not physically injured but who was humiliated by a privileged white woman when he asked her to leash her dog.

And let’s not forget for a moment that President Trump is pouring gasoline on the fire by tweeting out such incendiary calls to violence that Twitter finally had to crack down on him, sparking a confrontation over the First Amendment.

I was struck last night by David Brooks’ demeanor on the PBS NewsHour. I’d never seen him as agitated and upset. I thought he might start crying — and who could blame him? And I was moved deeply by the African American scholar Eddie Glaude Jr. of Princeton University, who was interviewed earlier in the NewsHour by Amna Nawaz. I’ve embedded it above, and you should watch it all. Speaking of Floyd’s killing, Glaude closes with this:

He cried out for his mother. She’s been dead for two years. She’s been dead. He basically told someone to tell my kids that I love them, because I’m going to die. And that man, that moral monster kept his knee on his neck. I didn’t — I couldn’t process it. It broke me.

I’m currently reading John M. Barry’s “The Great Influenza,” his 2004 book about the deadly flu pandemic of 1918. You might think that wouldn’t be the most relaxing thing to curl up with in the midst of the current pandemic. But the 1918 flu eventually ended, which is a good reminder amid what seems like an endless tragedy.

Last week was the worst in our country’s history since 9/11. Before that, you’d have to go back to the war, assassinations and riots of 1968. Back then, our political leadership was not up to the task. Today, the president and his fellow Republicans are actively making things worse.

We have to hope that there will be better days ahead — and, to the extent that we can, work to make those better days happen.

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The arrest of CNN journalists was shocking, but less unusual than you might think

The arrest and brief detention of a CNN crew on live television in Minneapolis early this morning was a stunning blow to the First Amendment. They were literally handcuffed and led away for doing their jobs in reporting on protests over the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer.

As the video reveals, the journalists were respectful, and correspondent Omar Jimenez clearly identified himself as a reporter. He told the state police officers several times that he and his crew would move wherever they were told.

That said, what happened to Jimenez and his colleagues was more common than you might realize — and more common than it should be. Last year, we bestowed a New England Muzzle Award upon Police Chief Armando Perez of Bridgeport, Connecticut for arresting and detaining Tara O’Neill, a reporter for Hearst Connecticut Media, during a Black Lives Matter protest.

“This is a public sidewalk and I’m the press,” O’Neill later recalled telling the officer who arrested her, according to media reports. “He said, ‘OK,’ and cuffed me.”

As with this morning’s Minneapolis arrests, the misconduct by police enabled them to operate without being watched by O’Neill and her pesky smartphone. Nevertheless, she was able to film her own arrest:

 

In a better-known case, Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly were arrested at a McDonald’s in Ferguson, Missouri, during the demonstrations in 2014 over the killing of Michael Brown, a young African American man, by a white police officer.

Before that, Josh Stearns, now director of the Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund, put together a massive compilation of social-media posts documenting the arrest of journalists at Occupy protests around the country. (Here is a very small slice of what was going on from the Committee to Protect Journalists.) Storify, a tool for aggregating social media, recognized Stearns’ efforts with a “Storify of the Year” award.

Unfortunately, Storify later shut down, taking much of Stearns’ work with it.

Update. Stearns has posted a Twitter thread offering more background.

 

Update II. Noting that Jimenez is Black and Latino. A white CNN reporter standing nearby was not arrested.

 

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Does Twitter need Trump? Not as much as you might think.

Statistic: Number of monthly active Twitter users worldwide from 1st quarter 2010 to 1st quarter 2019 (in millions) | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista.

You might think that Twitter would have a financial incentive to cave in to President Trump’s incoherent, unconstitutional threats over the platform’s decision to label some of his false tweets as, you know, false. In fact, Trump’s presence on Twitter is not as big a deal to the company as you might think.

First, we often hear that Trump has 80 million followers. But is that really the case? According to analytics from the Fake Followers Audit, 70.2% of his followers are fake, which is defined as “accounts that are unreachable and will not see the account’s tweets (either because they’re spam, bots, propaganda, etc. or because they’re no longer active on Twitter).”

That’s not especially unusual among high-profile tweeters. For instance, 43% of former President Barack Obama‘s 118 million followers are fake. But it’s important to understand that Trump has about 24 million followers, not 80 million. That’s a big difference.

Even more important, Trump’s presence on Twitter has not had a huge effect on its total audience. According to Statista, the number of worldwide active monthly users hovered between a low of 302 million and a high of 336 million between the first quarter of 2015 and the first quarter of 2019. (Zephoria reports that Twitter hasn’t released similar numbers since then.)

The bottom line is that Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey could probably afford to throw Trump off the platform for repeatedly violating its terms of service. Still, he probably wouldn’t want to risk the outrage that would ensue from MAGA Country if Trump lost his favorite outlet for smearing the memory of a dead woman with his horrendous lies about MSNBC host Joe Scarborough.

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With Biden pulling ahead, the media must avoid the poll-driven mistakes of 2016

Jill and Joe Biden in Des Moines last Fourth of July. Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore.

From the moment that former Vice President Joe Biden emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee, political observers have been proceeding on the assumption that this year’s presidential election will be close.

But what if the dynamics are changing? What if President Donald Trump — behind in the polls even before the COVID-19 pandemic and falling further behind now — is written off as a political goner? Can the media handle it? Or will we see a repeat of 2016, when Hillary Clinton was subjected to a disproportionate amount of negative scrutiny on the grounds that Trump, as we all thought we knew, had no chance of winning?

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Album #24: Christopher Parkening, ‘Parkening Plays Bach’

During the summer and fall of 1975, I was working as a Northeastern co-op student at the United Way, then located on Beacon Hill in a building that is now a Suffolk dorm. That much I remember. What I don’t remember is why I came back from my lunch break one day with a copy of the classical guitarist Christopher Parkening‘s 1971 album “Parkening Plays Bach.” But I’m glad I did.

When it came to my own guitar-playing skills, I was at the peak of what proved to be a very tiny hill, so that might have had something to do with it. I mainly liked rock and blues, and I played bass in a band. But I also had acquired a book on how to play classical guitar, and I did some messing around with that.

I can’t say I made much progress. But I loved listening to Parkening play Bach. The great composer wrote for the harpsichord and ensembles, but Parkening made those pieces sound like they were always meant for the guitar. And he made them sound effortless. For an example, listen to “Sheep May Safely Graze.”

Even today, I don’t listen to a lot of classical music, and my tastes tend to be on the lite side — Bach, Vivaldi (my apologies), a little Mozart. I love Rudolf Serkin’s recording of the Andante in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 so much that I almost chose that for this list instead of Parkening. We’ve seen live performances of Handel’s “Messiah” and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. But, at home, when we choose classical music it’s mainly for background.

Still, I have Parkening to thank for opening up my musical vistas a bit.

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Album #25: Mavis Staples, ‘We Get By’

Like many people, I recently took the 10-album challenge on Facebook. It was fun, but I found it too limiting. Only 10? Plus you’re discouraged from offering any commentary, and the albums are supposed to be those that influenced your musical tastes, not necessarily the ones you think are the best.

Given all that, I thought I would write about my top 25. It’s a fluid list — ask me six months from now and it might be different. But these are 25 albums that mean a lot to me, and I’m going to try to rank them in some kind of order. My only self-imposed rule is that I won’t choose more than one album by any particular musician or band.

I’ll start with Mavis Staples’ 2019 album “We Get By,” which will certainly be the most recent entry on the list. A few years ago WUMB Radio (91.9 FM) reintroduced me to Staples. I’m in my 60s, so the Staple Singers were a radio, ah, staple when I was a teenager in the 1970s. Back then, though, I didn’t pay much attention. It turns out that they were great, and that Mavis, at 80, is still going strong. Indeed, we saw her in 2017 at UMass Boston and in 2019 at the Cabot in Beverly, and I swear she had more stamina at the second show.

I like all of Staples’ albums from recent years, but “We Get By” is the strongest. Written and produced by Ben Harper, it features a crack hard-rock trio, as does her terrific live album, also released in 2019, called “Live in London.” The standout track on “We Get By” is “Sometime,” which would have been a Staple Singers hit in 1971.

The Mavis Staples revival has sent me back into the Staple Singers catalog. And there are days when I think “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me)” is the last song I want to hear before they turn off the lights once and for all.

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COVID Diary #6: Three discouraging updates on religious gatherings

We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.

Rather than writing a personal essay, I thought I’d follow up Diary #5 with some updates on religious gatherings during the pandemic. The early returns are discouraging.

In Mendocino County, California, a church that was apparently doing everything right has ended up fostering an outbreak of COVID-19. According to The Mendocino Voice, only three or four people were at the Redwood Valley Assembly of God Church for a live-streamed service that took place on May 10. Three, including the pastor, have been hospitalized, and the service has now been implicated in the infection of six people.

Ironically, the day after the service Pastor Jack McMilin posted on Facebook a photo of someone holding a sign reading “Why Can We Go to Walmart but Not to Church!??” Still, McMilin can’t be blamed for what happened. Live-streaming is the responsible way to hold religious gatherings these days, and we’ll be tuning in to our church’s service in a few minutes.

• Today’s New York Times — which has published a dramatic front page commemorating the nearly 100,000 Americans who have died — reports that 40 people who attended a service at a Baptist church in Frankfurt have become infected despite practicing social-distancing.

“We followed all the rules,” said a church leader, Wladimir Pritzkau. Ironically, the service was held on May 10, the same day as the Redwood Valley service. Based on the photo accompanying the story, the German service looks as safe as anyone could expect. But it wasn’t — something to think about as religious gatherings resume in Massachusetts.

• Finally, I don’t want to overlook White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s despicable performance at a briefing on Friday. Pressed repeatedly on President Trump’s demand that churches be allowed to reopen, she said, “Boy, it is interesting to be in a room that desperately wants to seem to see these churches and houses of worship stay closed.” Oh, those godless commies in the media.

Fortunately, Reuters reporter Jeff Mason pushed back, saying:

I object to that. I go to church. I’m dying to go back to church. The question we are asking you and would have liked to have asked the president and Dr. [Deborah] Birx is, is it safe? If it is not safe, is the president trying to encourage that, or does the president agree with Dr. Birx that people should wait.

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The Atlantic is growing. So why is billionaire owner Laurene Jobs gutting it?

Laurene Powell Jobs. Photo (cc) 2018 by TED Conference.

There are good billionaire media owners and bad. Laurene Powell Jobs has now crossed the line from good to bad.

The Atlantic on Thursday laid off 68 employees, amounting to 17% of its staff, because advertising and its lucrative events business have cratered. Twenty-two of those employees worked in editorial. At the same time, though, the magazine has added 90,000 paid subscribers (including me) since the beginning of March on the strength of its excellent COVID-19 coverage. To cut now strikes me as the equivalent of consumer fraud.

The big question is why Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, would buy a venerable media property if not to provide it with some runway during a crisis. I get that even billionaires want to build sustainable businesses. But that’s not what this is about. This is a short-term move and an insult to all those new subscribers that Jobs presumably wants to retain — not to mention the staff members who worked so hard to attract those new readers.

Another billionaire owner, the celebrity surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong, recently started slashing and burning at the Los Angeles Times at the first sign of COVID-related trouble, tearing down what he had only recently built up. Again, it makes no sense. If they believed in their strategy before the pandemic, then owners should keep doing what they were doing, provided they can afford it. Jobs and Soon-Shiong can afford it.

Other billionaire owners have taken a different approach. Jeff Bezos has stayed the course at The Washington Post. John Henry has made some cuts here and there at The Boston Globe, but there have been no reports of full-time newsroom staffers being let go, even though ad revenues are down 35%. Then again, Henry wants to hold on to the Globe’s new digital subscribers. Glen Taylor, the billionaire who owns the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, has kept his newsroom intact as well.

There’s an old story that during World War II, when newsprint was rationed, the New York Herald Tribune decided to cut its news coverage so that it could keep its advertising. The New York Times did the opposite — it doubled down on journalism and cut advertising instead. After the war, the Times built a lead that it never relinquished, while the Herald Tribune entered a long decline and went out of business in 1966.

It’s a lesson that Jobs, Soon-Shiong and other billionaire owners ought to ponder. The pandemic will end at some point. If they’re unwilling to sustain their media properties through these bad times, you have to wonder why they bought them.

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Conspiracy Nation: Why Trump Jr.’s smear of Biden was even worse than it seemed

WGBH News illustration by Emily Judem.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Over the weekend, Donald Trump Jr. posted a shockingly offensive message on Instagram claiming that former Vice President Joe Biden is a child molester. Next to an image of Biden appeared the words “See you later, alligator!” Below was a photo of an alligator with the retort “In a while, pedophile!” (No, I won’t link to it.)

Outrage came swiftly. “The dangerous and untrue charge of pedophilia is the new marker — so far — of how low the Trump campaign will go to smear Biden,” wrote Chris Cillizza at CNN.com. Jonathan Martin of The New York Times called it “an incendiary and baseless charge.” In The Guardian, Martin Pengelly said “most observers” (was that qualifier really necessary?) regarded it as “beyond the pale even in America’s toxic political climate.”

What few analysts noticed, though, was that Trump Jr.’s vile accusation, which he later claimed was a joke, lined up perfectly with a conspiracy theory known as QAnon. Bubbling out of the darkest corners of the internet, the theory claims, in broad strokes, that President Donald Trump is secretly working to destroy a plot led by the Clintons — but of course! — and other Democrats who engage in child abuse and cannibalism. And in order to defeat these malign forces we must heed the cryptic messages of Q, an insider who is helping Trump rout the forces of evil and save the world.

QAnon, in effect, is the ur-theory connecting everything from Pizzagate to paranoia about the “deep state” to regarding impeachment as a “hoax,” as Trump has put it. The Trumps have dabbled in QAnon from time to time as a way of signaling their most wild-eyed supporters that they’re on board. But there’s no exaggerating how dangerous all of this is.

We are living, unfortunately, in a golden age of conspiracy theories. Some, like Alex Jones of Infowars infamy, claim that mass shootings are actually carried out by “crisis actors” in order to give the government a rationale to seize everyone’s guns. Then there’s the anti-vaccine movement, currently standing in the way of any rational response to the COVID-19 epidemic. Indeed, a widely watched video called “Plandemic” falsely claims, among other things, that face masks make you sick and that people who’ve had flu shots are more likely to get COVID.

There’s nothing new about conspiracy theories, just as there’s nothing new about so-called fake news. Never mind the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the subject of a new, weirdly compelling 17-minute song-poem by Bob Dylan called “Murder Most Foul.” A century earlier, there were those who blamed (take your pick) Confederate President Jefferson Davis or Pope Pius IX for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

But conspiracy theorizing in the 21st century is supercharged by the internet, with a significant assist from Trump. Trump has indulged not just QAnon but also Alex Jones, the anti-vaxxers and all manner of foolishness about the deep state — the belief that the U.S. government is run by a shadowy cabal of bureaucrats and military officials who are seeking to undermine the president. At its heart, that’s what Trump seems to be referring to when he tweets about “Obamagate!,” a scandalous crime lacking both a scandal and a crime. And let’s not forget that Trump began his political career with a conspiracy theory that he made his own: falsely claiming that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and was thus ineligible to serve as president.

In recent days, the media have converged in an attempt to explain and debunk these various conspiracy theories. Last week, public radio’s “On the Media” devoted a segment to QAnon and “Plandemic.” The investigative website ProPublica has published a guide on how to reason with believers. The American Press Institute has offered tips for reporters. The Conversation, which brings academic research to a wider public, has posted an article headlined “Coronavirus, ‘Plandemic’ and the seven traits of conspiratorial thinking.”

By far the most ambitious journalistic effort is a special project published by The Atlantic called “Shadowland.” And the heart of it is a nearly 10,000-word article by the executive editor, Adrienne LaFrance, profiling the QAnon phenomenon and how it has infected thousands of ordinary people.

“QAnon is emblematic of modern America’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories, and its enthusiasm for them,” LaFrance writes. “But it is also already much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants. It is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. And we are likely closer to the beginning of its story than the end.”

What makes QAnon, “Plandemic” and other conspiracies so powerful is that believers have an explanation for every countervailing truth. Experts and others in a position of authority are automatically cast as part of the conspiracy, whether you’re talking about Dr. Anthony Fauci, Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden.

“For QAnon, every contradiction can be explained away; no form of argument can prevail against it,” LaFrance writes. This type of belief system is sometimes referred to as “epistemic closure” — the idea is that believers live in a self-contained bubble that explains everything and that can’t be penetrated by contrary facts.

What can the media do in the face of such intense beliefs? In all likelihood, the answer is: not much. There is a school of thought among some press critics that if only news organizations would push harder, prevaricate less and devote themselves more fully to truth-telling rather than to reporting “both sides,” then a new dawn of rationality would surely follow. But that fundamentally misunderstands the problem, because the mainstream, reality-based media are regarded as part of the conspiracy. Journalism is grounded in the Enlightenment values that LaFrance invokes — the expectation that false beliefs will give way when confronted by facts and truth. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in today.

It should be noted that after Donald Trump Jr. posted his hideous attack on Joe Biden, Instagram neither deleted his post nor took down his account. Instagram, as you probably know, is owned by Facebook and is thus firmly ensconced within the Zuckerborg, which wants us all to believe that it is so very much concerned about truth and hate speech.

Thus does such garbage become normalized. You see a reference to Biden as a pedophile, and it seems off the wall. But then you remember he’s apologized for being handsy with women. And wasn’t he accused of sexual assault? And now look — there’s something on the internet about Democrats and pedophilia. Gosh, how are we supposed to know what to think?

Welcome to our nightmare.

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In a new book, political scientist Andrew Hacker argues that Trump can’t win

Nearly every poll says the same thing: Joe Biden is beating Donald Trump nationally, but it’s closer in the swing states, and by no means should we rule out a second term for Trump. For those of us who believe Trump represents an existential threat, it’s a nerve-wracking prospect, conjuring up nightmares from 2016 all over again.

But not to worry, writes Andrew Hacker in his new book, “Downfall: The Demise of a President and His Party.” Hacker, a political scientist based at Queens College who’s best known for his book “Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal,” argues that 2016 was a fluke that won’t be repeated. He opens thusly:

There is not even a long-odds chance that Donald Trump will gain a second term. Nor is this wishful thinking. Compelling evidence abounds that anyone the Democrats nominate will win the popular vote, and by a margin to easily carry the Electoral College. Republicans down the ballot will suffer a similar demise, losing even more House seats, and very likely the Senate.

Among other things, Hacker argues that Hillary Clinton was a uniquely unappealing candidate who combined arrogance with a sense of entitlement (I don’t agree, but I know plenty of people who do); that massive Democratic turnout in the 2018 midterm elections foreshadows a blue wave this November; and that the electorate continues to favor the Democrats demographically as it becomes less white, less straight and better educated.

Hacker wrote “Downfall” before the Democrats had settled on Biden as their presumptive nominee and before anyone had heard of COVID-19. It remains to be seen whether Biden was the best choice to do battle with Trump. But polling shows that the president’s cruel and incompetent response to the pandemic is harming whatever chances he had of being re-elected.

The argument that Hacker offers is in line with that of Rachel Bitecofer, a political scientist based at the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank. Bitecofer made a splash earlier this year with a new election model that said Trump has virtually no chance of winning, mainly because unusually high Democratic turnout this fall is assured.

“In the polarized era, the outcome isn’t really about the candidates,” Bitecofer was quoted as saying in Politico Magazine. “What matters is what percentage of the electorate is Republican and Republican leaners, and what percentage is Democratic and Democratic leaners, and how they get activated.”

Another political scientist, Thomas Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School, argues in a new book that the Republican Party has guaranteed its demise by moving to the extreme right, by ignoring demographic trends, by taking dictation from right-wing media, by showering tax cuts upon the wealthy, and by disregarding democratic norms such as voting rights, through which “it has made lasting enemies and created instruments of power that can be used against it.”

In so doing, Patterson writes in “Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?,” the GOP has abdicated its role as the necessary center-right counterbalance to the center-left Democrats.

All of this is encouraging if you want to see Trump leave office next January. And the data suggesting that he’ll lose is compelling. But we’ve all been here before, haven’t we? Patterson, after all, is also the author of the definitive analysis of how media malpractice contributed to Trump’s election four years ago — and, as Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan laments, here we go again. So let’s see how it plays out.

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