Last week I was asked a provocative question. What prompted it was a panel discussion of The New York Times’ 14,000-word exposé of how President Trump built his fortune on the dual foundations of his father’s wealth and of legally dubious tax schemes. The story was such a sensation that the Times printed it twice — once on Oct. 3 and again the following Sunday. Yet it seems to have barely resonated beyond the Times’ core readership.
I’m not sure what can be done. But New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, one of our most perceptive media observers, thinks he knows what’s behind much of it: a deliberate blizzard of lying by our president aimed at burying stories beneath an avalanche of falsehoods; a right-wing populist movement in the United States and Europe that dismisses anything coming out of the mainstream press as corrupt and elitist; and the decline of trust in the media, accompanied and exacerbated by the ongoing deterioration of journalism’s business model.
If something can’t go on forever, then it won’t. And so it is with the current state of our democracy, which awards disproportionate power to an ever-shrinking slice of the electorate. Today the president, the Senate, and the Supreme Court reflect the will of a minority of voters. The majority is left out in the cold. At some point that has to change, even if it’s not at all clear how it’s going to happen.
Now, some of you are already sharpening your sticks and getting ready to poke holes in my argument. We’re not a democracy, you’ll say. We’re a constitutional republic. Well, you’re half-right. Living in a constitutional republic means that our democratic rights are sometimes exercised indirectly, and that there are certain protections that the majority may not take away from us. What it’s not supposed to mean is that some people’s votes counts more than others.
A couple of good-news items from The Boston Globe.
First, the paper is reporting that it has passed the 100,000 level for digital-only subscriptions, a benchmark the paper’s executives had originally hoped to reach by the end of June. Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal has the details.
When I interviewed Globe editor Brian McGrory for “The Return of the Moguls” nearly two years ago, he said the paper would start to look like a sustainable business if it could hit 200,000. My mother always told me that the first 100,000 is the hardest. But the Globe’s digital presence is in the midst of getting an upgrade as it adopts The Washington Post’s Arc content-management system this fall. If the Arc transition goes smoothly, then perhaps another circulation boost will follow.
Second, the Globe is announcing today that it has finally replaced Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Sebastian Smee, who left for the Post nearly a year ago. The Globe’s new critic is Murray Whyte, currently at The Star of Toronto, whose arrival in Boston, I’m told, was delayed because of immigration issues.
In an email to the Globe’s staff, deputy managing editor for arts and newsroom innovation Janice Page and arts editor Rebecca Ostriker call Whyte “a truly extraordinary writer” who “brings a unique combination of keen insight, wide-ranging expertise, superb judgment, and an ability to recognize and write about what really matters.” The full text of their message follows.
We are delighted to announce that Murray Whyte is joining the Globe as art critic, starting next month.
Murray was born in Winnipeg and grew up partly in Calgary, and he will completely understand if you have no idea where those places are (directly north — way north — of Minnesota and Montana, respectively). He’s spent the better part of two decades in Toronto, and the last 10 of those as the art critic at the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest daily newspaper, where he is a recent winner of Canada’s National Newspaper Award, the country’s highest journalistic honor.
As Globe readers will soon learn, Murray is a truly extraordinary writer. He brings a unique combination of keen insight, wide-ranging expertise, superb judgment, and an ability to recognize and write about what really matters. He does not focus on art for art’s sake, but rather connects art to what can make a difference to people living in the world — to society, to ideas, to our culture as a whole.
Murray’s eclectic background also extends beyond arts journalism, including a stint as a producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In fact, he may be the only journalist in North America who has reported from the oil sands in northern Alberta and Uranium City in Saskatchewan as well as the Venice Biennale.
But the visual arts have always been in his bones. As a journalism graduate student at New York University, his refuge was the Museum of Modern Art, where he could exult in the stillness of Mark Rothko or the luminescence of Claude Monet. Art museums, he says, are his version of a walk in the woods — a rejuvenating, almost transcendent communion with the sublime.
He’s also a huge hockey fan — another kind of sublime — and would appreciate any spare tickets when the Calgary Flames come to town, because surely, he says, there can’t be anyone else here as interested in the progress of Dillon Dube on left wing this year. Can there?
Murray will be making his home in the Boston area with his wife, photographer Sian Richards, and their two children. He’ll arrive at the Globe in mid-November. Please join us in giving him a very warm welcome.
Digital First Media’s latest round of cuts at the Boston Herald was the talk of local media Twitter on Thursday. The most shocking was that photographer Mark Garfinkel, perhaps the paper’s best journalist, was among those told that his services were no longer needed.
Disclosure: Mark is a friend who has spoken to my students on several occasions. He worked as a stringer at the former Beverly Times (long since merged with The Salem News) near the start of his career — and the photo editor at that time was none other than Mrs. Media Nation.
Both Jack Sullivan at CommonWealth Magazine and Jon Chesto of The Boston Globe have weighed in on the cuts. Sullivan puts the body count at about 20; Chesto says 14. Chesto also reports that the Herald now employs about a total of 100 people, less than half the 240 who worked there before former owner Pat Purcell declared bankruptcy.
Some of the cuts don’t necessarily diminish the Herald’s journalism. The copy editing jobs, for instance, are being outsourced to a Digital First facility in Denver. (Not that we should expect distant copy editors to do as good a job as local people who know the area.) Overall, though, this is terrible news. Garfinkel was one of two photographers let go on Thursday. How can you have a viable tabloid without great photography?
I had a great time today speaking at Northeastern with Latin American journalists about “The Return of the Moguls.” Their trip to the Boston area was sponsored by WorldBoston, which collaborates with the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program. A great group with lots of smart questions.
Recently I proposed to fix our state elections by adopting ranked voter choice, moving the primaries to June, and making them nonpartisan. (You’re welcome.) Today I’m back with the exponentially more difficult task of repairing our broken Supreme Court confirmation process. My plan, I think, is simple and logical. But I’d be the first to concede that it has virtually no chance of happening.
Alex Jones is the sort of dangerous crank that freedom of speech was designed to protect. When the late Anthony Lewis wrote his “biography” of the First Amendment, he titled it “Freedom for the Thought That We Hate.” We don’t need constitutional protections to report on the church picnic. We need them to make sure that the most loathsome among us are allowed to spread conspiracy theories, spout vile insults, and stage outrageous demonstrations of hatred and prejudice.
And no, Jones is not in danger of losing his First Amendment rights. The government has not attempted to silence him. His website, InfoWars, continues to be a popular stop for those on the extreme right. He is facing a lawsuit from several of the Sandy Hook families, whom he had cruelly accused of staging an elaborate hoax. But that, too, is part of the First Amendment.
The problem is that Jones illustrates perfectly a dilemma that some of us have been warning about for years: the privatization of free speech. As you may know, Jones in recent months has been banned from Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms. Last Friday he was cut off by PayPal as well. He’s going to need to find another way for his customers to pay him for those InfoWars Life Super Male Vitality supplements.
Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser now has a name and a harrowing story to tell. Over the next few days, we can expect an avalanche of news stories and cable talk about Christine Blasey Ford and whether her allegations are enough to topple the Kavanaugh nomination.
But there’s a broader context to all of this, and journalists would be negligent if they fail to explore it. Simply put, Kavanaugh has been in close proximity to, and in some cases has benefited from, a cultural of sexual harassment and assault his entire life.
Following a summer hiatus, I’ll be doing some book events this fall. The first will be held this Wednesday, Sept. 19, at 7 p.m. at the Parlin Memorial Library, located at 410 Broadway in Everett, where I’ll be reading from and signing “The Return of the Moguls.” I hope to see you there.
We are in the midst of a book-inspired frenzy over Donald Trump’s the cruelty and mendacity. The legendary journalist Bob Woodward’s latest, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” has renewed our anguished questions over how this petulant, foul-mouthed racist could be elected president.
But though Woodward has described the what and the how of the Trump presidency, we must look elsewhere for the why. Trump did not spring out of nowhere; we had been slouching in his direction for a long time. As former president Barack Obama put it the other day: “It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause.” But a symptom of what, exactly?
Attempting to give us some answers is Michiko Kakutani. Her new book, “The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump,” provides some much-needed context to help us understand what happened to our democracy. The tools wielded by Kakutani, the former weekday book critic for The New York Times, are deep reading and cultural criticism. The result is not entirely satisfying. But she does offer some provocative observations the about social changes that made Trump not just possible, but inevitable.