The Washington Post has weighed in with a shocking story on the Trump administration’s dereliction of duty in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic — a looming catastrophe that should have become our top priority starting in the early days of January, but which President Trump continued to downplay right into early March.
The focus is on the White House’s miserable response, as it should be. But I was also struck by the roadblocks put up by the Chinese government and by the incompetence of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Also: The Post gives some credit to Trump for clamping down on travel from China early on. Yet as we learn today in The New York Times, government officials managed to botch that as well.
It is mind-boggling to think about how much worse the pandemic is going to be because of Trump’s malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance.
Back in those golden days of, say, early March, Pickard’s agenda would likely have been dismissed, at best, as intriguing but unrealistic and, at worst, as representing an unacceptable intrusion by government that would inevitably compromise journalism’s watchdog role.
But then came the instant recession caused by COVID-19 and, with it, alarmed calls for federal action to save journalism — especially local journalism, already in extremis. Among those demanding action: Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan; Craig Aaron, the co-CEO of the media-reform organization Free Press; and Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott, the co-founders of Report for America.
How bad is it? The news-business analyst Ken Doctor, writing at the Nieman Journalism Lab, reports that readership of newspaper websites is exploding — yet advertising is plummeting so quickly that losses are piling up. Every day, it seems, comes news of more papers eliminating print editions, cutting wages and laying off reporters. Which is actually the ideal set of circumstances for Pickard to make his argument that the contradictions of for-profit media have reached something of an endpoint. As an alternative, he proposes what he calls a “social democratic” model for journalism.
An associate professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, Pickard is a protégé of Robert McChesney and a former fellow at the aforementioned Free Press and the New America Foundation. The case he puts forth is that not only should government play a much bigger role in ensuring the health of journalism, but that the extreme market libertarianism that rules the media today is a relatively new phenomenon.
As Paul Starr (in “The Creation of the Media,” 2004) and others have before him, Pickard observes that the American press got an enormous boost starting in Colonial times by way of generous postal subsidies — a benefit that lasted until several decades ago, when market fundamentalists began demanding that the Postal Service cover its expenses.
Moreover, various regulatory efforts aimed at reducing commercialism in radio and television bore little fruit. By the late 1940s, Pickard says, they had pretty much run their course, and some of the forward-looking leaders of that era were pushed out of public service during the McCarthy-era crusade against progressives and reformers. “The alarm bells quieted, plans for bold reforms receded, and the status quo quietly but assuredly reasserted itself,” Pickard writes. “Nevertheless, it is important to recall that none of this was inevitable; it could have gone quite differently.”
One theme that Pickard turns to repeatedly is the idea that “positive rights,” as he calls them, should be regarded as important as “negative rights” when thinking about media policy. What are negative rights? As Pickard describes them, they protect a media owner from government regulation, something that has come to be seen in many circles as guaranteed by the First Amendment.
But negative rights matter a great deal, as they involve First Amendment protections such as the freedom not to be censored, protection against abusive libel cases and the right not to have limits put on political speech, including the endorsement of candidates. Unfortunately, endorsements are already endangered given the increasing prominence of nonprofit news organizations, which are prohibited from boosting candidates as a condition of keeping their tax-exempt status.
By contrast, positive rights, in Pickard’s formulation, involve the public’s right to a diverse, democratic media. Here’s how he describes it: “True inclusion means that communities are not only receiving high-quality news, but are also deeply engaged in the news-making process itself. Community members should be involved in the governing process and empowered to organize their own newsrooms and collaborate in participatory journalism. Community engagement in the news-making process is the best way to create a new kind of journalism, one that is accountable and trustworthy.”
This sounds worthy, but I’m concerned about what it would look like in practice. A strong news organization is often the result of one person’s vision, or that of a small group of people. Opening things up to democratic governance runs the risk of lowest-common-denominator journalism in which some members of the community demand that certain stories be covered, or not covered, because of individual or group sensitivities.
That’s a potential hazard with cooperatively owned news organizations, an idea that Pickard supports. I’m currently tracking The Mendocino Voice, a digital news outlet that is transitioning to the co-op model. I’m interested to see if they can pull it off, and I wish them well. But a healthy news ecosystem requires different models — for-profit, nonprofit, co-ops, volunteer projects and the like. On several occasions Pickard suggests that we’ve hit the limit with regard to for-profits and even traditional nonprofits. I’m not willing to go that far.
Where I would agree wholeheartedly with Pickard is that our public media system is woefully underfunded. Not only does Pickard document the exponentially greater sums spent on public television and radio in virtually every other Western democracy, but he also comes up with the perfect anecdote to illustrate his point: he tells us the federal government’s annual contribution to PBS — about $445 million a year — is considerably less than the $626 million the Pentagon spends on its public-relations office.
A well-funded PBS and NPR, insulated from political pressure, Pickard says, could go a long way toward solving the local-news crisis by ramping up coverage of communities that have been abandoned by legacy newspapers.
“Transforming the U.S. media system into a democratic force,” Pickard writes in conclusion, “requires a robust policy program of regulating or breaking up information monopolies, creating public alternatives to commercial news media, and empowering media workers, consumers, and communities to engage with and create their own media.”
The journalism crisis has been with us for a decade and a half, and it’s only become more acute over time. The coronavirus pandemic underscores two realities: we need local news, and there may be no reliable way to pay for it through traditional market forces.
Pickard outlines one set of possible solutions. Policymakers would do well to consider his ideas — and to act before the news we need to govern ourselves becomes one more victim of the virus that is currently upending our way of life.
The already-barebones Gannett newspaper chain has announced massive COVID-19-related cost reductions through June, according to a memo to the staff from Maribel Perez Wadsworth, president of news and publisher of USA Today.
Employees making more than $38,000 will be furloughed for five days during each of the three months. Wadsworth says she will take a 25% pay cut, although I don’t know what she’s making now.
Wadsworth’s portfolio includes Gannett’s local newspapers and websites, including the former GateHouse properties in Eastern Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. Here is a list. The memo, which I obtained from a trusted source, was accompanied by an FAQ, which you can read here. The full text of her email is as follows:
Let me first acknowledge all the incredible work you’ve done in the face of this pandemic that is, without a doubt, also taking a toll on your personal lives. Our strong audience and subscriber response this month show how much people rely on our news and information to make key, critical decisions that impact themselves and their loved ones.
As you’ve seen the havoc wreaked on our nation’s and the world’s economy, so too, is the uncertainty around the coronavirus outbreak increasing financial pressure on our own company. As businesses close and live events cancel across the globe for the next few months, we are seeing many advertisers and sponsors reducing or even eliminating their marketing spend. With the current pressures and so much uncertainty, it’s difficult to chart our next steps for more than the next few months.
To meet this unprecedented challenge, we are instituting a series of immediate cost reductions, including a furlough program in April, May and June across our division.
We do not take this action lightly; we know furloughs cause hardship. All of Gannett’s divisions are approaching this challenge differently, but after careful consideration of other options, we felt this was the best approach for our team.
Importantly, we will not furlough employees who earn less than $38,000 annually, and different policies will apply to a few teams whose business was impacted more severely by recent events. We are asking union representatives for their support of the furloughs as well. Senior leaders whose absence would put our integration timeline and key business operations at risk have agreed to a pay cut in lieu of a furlough (but equal to the amount each month). I will be taking a 25 percent reduction in salary during the quarter.
Furloughs will be for five business days each month of the second quarter. Exempt employees must schedule each furlough for the full business week, while non-exempt employees can be scheduled by the week or in full-day increments. Managers will approve furlough schedules to balance business needs during this time.
Your supervisor will be sharing more specifics and working with you to schedule your furlough as soon as possible. The attached FAQ should also help answer many of the questions you might have. You will see an invite from me momentarily for an Ask Me Anything session this afternoon at 2 p.m. Eastern. Please join if you can, and please submit any questions in advance to xxx.
We will get through this unprecedented challenge together. We will emerge stronger. We will continue to do important, impactful, essential journalism to serve our readers and communities. I am deeply grateful to each of you.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to bar a reporter for the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times from a news conference that was otherwise open to the press was a flat-out violation of the First Amendment.
Although the question of whether public officials can ban specific journalists from media events has never been taken up by the Supreme Court, a 1974 federal district court ruling is generally regarded as good law. I wrote about it a few years ago when a similar situation arose in New Hampshire.
Several decades ago, a similar situation unfolded in Hawaii, where an aggressive reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin named Richard Borreca butted heads with the mayor, Frank Fasi. Fasi decided to ban Borreca from regularly scheduled news conferences at his City Hall office. The Star-Bulletin went to court. And in the 1974 case of Borreca v. Fasi, U.S. District Court Judge Samuel King ruled that Fasi had to open his news conferences to all reporters. King wrote:
A free press is not necessarily an angelic press. Newspapers take sides, especially in political contests. Newspaper reporters are not always accurate and objective. They are subject to criticism, and the right of a governmental official to criticize is within First Amendment guarantees.
But when criticism transforms into an attempt to use the powers of governmental office to intimidate or to discipline the press or one of its members because of what appears in print, a compelling governmental interest that cannot be served by less restrictive means must be shown for such use to meet Constitutional standards. No compelling governmental interest has been shown or even claimed here.
Judge King made it clear that no member of the press was entitled to special privileges. If the mayor wanted to grant interviews to some reporters but not others, that was his prerogative. If he refused to answer a reporter’s questions, that was within his rights as well. But he could not discriminate against some members of the press when scheduling a formal, official event such as a news conference.
Already under pressure from changes in technology and the decline of advertising, alternative weeklies and small dailies are teetering on the brink. Reporters have been laid off. Print editions have been suspended or cut back. Donations are being sought. And journalists everywhere are wondering if they have a future.
For the past 15 years or so, local, digital-only start-ups have stood out as a countervailing trend compared to the overall decline of the newspaper business. Though small in both number and scope, these entrepreneurial news organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit, have provided coverage that their communities would otherwise lack. Yet they, too, have been battered by the novel coronavirus.
“They’re stretching their journalistic capacity,” said Chris Krewson, executive director of the 200-member LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers, at a virtual conference last week sponsored by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, where I’m a faculty member. “Everyone’s seeing incredible jumps in traffic and audience and [newsletter] open rates and things like that. And the volume of stories has never been higher.
“At the same time,” he added, “the sorts of things that everyone has built their business around, certainly since 2010, are a challenge. You have a business built around where to go and what to do, and there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do. So you’re looking at the first waves of cancellations from advertisers.”
Over the weekend, I emailed a number of editors and publishers at free, digital-only news outlets to see how they were faring. Though they all said they are pushing ahead, they added that the economic and logistical challenges of covering the COVID-19 story have proved daunting. (Please click here for a complete transcript of our conversation.)
At least for the moment, the nonprofits have an advantage, since their funding — from grants, foundations and donations — tends to be in place months in advance.
“We operate on a tight budget, and are always scrambling for money for our long-term sustainability,” says Paul Bass, who runs the nonprofit New Haven Independent and WNHH Community Radio. “But we seek to set our budget each year at a level that can be supported by current deposits and a few multi-year commitments by our deepest-pocket long-term supporters, so that people know 12 months at a time that they have a job and the lights stay on.”
Dylan Smith, publisher of the nonprofit Tucson Sentinel in Arizona, worries about the long-term effect on his site — but adds that, for now, the reaction has been positive.
“We’ve been sent quite a number of three-figure donations out of the blue, and seen a substantial uptick in people signing up to contribute monthly,” he says. “That community support has really been heartening. Not only will it help keep the lights on, but the kind words and cold hard cash we’ve gotten let us know we’re doing something meaningful to help.”
By contrast, The Batavian, a for-profit site that serves Genesee County in western New York, is scrambling, according to publisher Howard Owens. “Two top-tier advertisers have dropped,” he says. “Our revenue is 95% advertising. I expect we’ll take a big hit before this is over.” He adds: “I’m more worried about my business’ ability to survive than I am worried about my own health. We have a PressPatron button on our site if anybody wishes to make a contribution.”
In at least one instance, the crisis has forced a publisher to postpone collecting any money at all. Jennifer Lord Paluzzi, a veteran journalist who recently launched her second start-up, Grafton Common, in the Worcester area, was hoping to ask for donations, but has decided to wait until the pandemic subsides.
“I was about to put a tip jar on my site that people could just put money in and help fund it,” she said at the Northeastern event. “But with everything that’s going on right now, with businesses closing, I’m like, OK, we’re going to skip the tip jar and entertain everybody.”
The need for social distancing may prove challenging to The Mendocino Voice, a for-profit site in California that is in the process of shifting to an employee- and member-owned co-op. The founders, publisher Kate Maxwell and managing editor Adrian Fernandez Baumann, had envisioned a series of meetings across Mendocino County to whip up enthusiasm and to refine the details of what the co-op would look like. But now they have to figure out other ways to do that.
“The challenge is how to work with the funders and re-create our plan for a series of community forums and member meetings virtually,” Maxwell says. “However, we cover a large area and are always looking for ways to better reach remote readers, so in the end this shift could be very valuable to refining the tools we use to engage with our readers and strengthen our membership campaign.”
Despite such difficulties, the journalists I reached all expressed enthusiasm for covering what may prove to be the biggest story of our lifetime.
“As an organization that focuses a lot of our effort on covering state and local government, it’s a massive story for us,” says Andrew Putz, editor of the Minneapolis-based nonprofit MinnPost. “I just looked, and we did 34 stories in the last week tied in some way to Minnesota’s response to the pandemic. So to answer your question more directly: We’re throwing everything we have at it.”
Adds Smith: “We’re working our asses off. I think I had 14 or 15 bylines in one day last week. And that’s not counting multiple updates to some stories.”
Although most of these small news organizations have offices, working at home is nothing new. Both Putz and Smith say they’ve been communicating with reporters via Slack. “We’ve been working remotely for a decade already,” says Smith. “I have a couple of reporters I haven’t even seen face-to-face yet in 2020.”
And all agree that health and safety come first. “If they feel like they must attend a meeting/press conference/interview,” says Putz of his reporters, “we’ve asked them to exercise their judgment — and to make sure they know that there’s no story that’s worth them jeopardizing their health.”
For the time being, Owens has abandoned his office in downtown Batavia. He says he and his wife, Billie Owens, the site’s editor, have an agreement that neither can leave the house without the other’s permission. Their one staff member as well as freelancers are all working from home.
“It’s not just about keeping them/us safe,” he says. “It’s about flattening the curve. We need to give our government, health-care systems and private sector time to build capacity to deal with a pandemic that will last for a year or two.”
The exception is Bass, who has not yet stopped his reporters (except for one in his 70s) from covering stories in person. He says his journalists have been instructed to stay six feet away from people they’re interviewing and photographing, and he will continue to reassess.
“My guess is, especially as government meetings shift online, we will be doing fewer in-person interviews,” Bass says. “Also, math suggests that some of us will get sick, which will certainly diminish our reporting capacity. But for now it’s full steam ahead, with fingers crossed. We love our community and feel we have an important role in strengthening it.”
The toxic combination of President Trump and Fox News has reached dangerous new levels, as the network has shifted from dismissing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, to (briefly) acknowledging its virulence, to pushing Trump to end the extraordinary measures being taken to slow its spread. Three data points:
On Monday, New York Times columnist Ben Smith wrote that Fox major domo Rupert Murdoch has made a bad situation worse by leaving his hands-off son Lachlan in charge: “Fox failed its viewers and the broader public in ways both revealing and potentially lethal. In particular, Lachlan Murdoch failed to pry its most important voices away from their embrace of the president’s early line: that the virus was not a big threat in the United States.”
On Tuesday night, Paul Farhi and Sarah Ellison of The Washington Post reported that Trump’s bizarre, potentially lethal embrace of ending COVID-19 restrictions weeks or months sooner than medical experts recommend — even if the oldsters die — comes straight from Fox: “Early this week, the cable network’s most prominent figures began urging the president to ditch the restrictions and get people back to work, even if doing so risks the public’s health. The commentary dovetails with, and may even have encouraged, Trump’s expressing a desire for businesses to start reopening after the federal government’s 15-day, stay-at-home period ends on Monday.”
This morning, Tom Jones, who writes the Poynter Institute’s morning newsletter, took Fox to task for hosting a Trump town hall without challenging any of his dubious assertions: “Mostly because of the incompetence and softball approach from host Bill Hemmer, the two-hour town hall produced little in the way of accountability, clarity and specifics. Once again, Trump’s message to the American people felt more like the substitute for one of his rallies than a Q&A to inform them about one of the worst crises we have ever seen.”
You have to wonder what the late Roger Ailes would have done if he were still in charge. Yes, under Ailes, Fox spouted Republican propaganda and claimed it was “fair and balanced.” But Ailes’ version of Fox was at least nominally tethered to reality, even flirting with the “Never Trump” movement during the 2016 Republican primary campaign.
What’s happening now is incredibly dangerous and is going to get people killed.
The COVID-19 pandemic presents a particularly difficult challenge for publishers of community online-only news sites, whether they are for-profit or nonprofit. Over the weekend I emailed editors and publishers of several such news organizations to see how they are getting along. Below are their lightly edited answers in full.
Q: How are you dealing with the challenge of covering the COVID-19 pandemic in your community?
Paul Bass, who runs the New Haven Independent and WNHH Community Radio, which are both nonprofit organizations: We’re working like maniacs. We feel this is the time when the work we do — informing as well as stitching together community — is more important than ever.
Kate Maxwell, publisher of The Mendocino Voice, a for-profit that is moving toward a cooperative ownership model: We are covering it in all the ways we can come up with! We do have experience with prolonged breaking emergency coverage through wildfires and power shutdowns, unfortunately. We created a central landing page and are using multiple social media platforms to reach people, including livestreaming press conferences, interviews with public health officials and medical experts, and live tours of preparedness at medical facilities.
We’re writing multiple daily updates, creating several guides to information and resources, increasing our newsletter, live-tweeting important forums, increasing our Spanish translations and Spanish language interviews, and regularly surveying our readers, as well as taking live questions during events and interviews. We’re being careful to make our updates clearly dated, sharing information about state and federal changes, and keeping coverage in digestible and clear formats. We’ve gotten some great ideas from other LION publishers as well.
We are hiring formerly underemployed but experienced local freelance reporters to expand our coverage.We are working quickly to hire even more reporters and implement ideas we had considered previously and in other sustained emergencies, such as text services. We are reaching out to public officials, business leaders and community groups to discuss how to best fact-check evolving information moving forward. We are also talking with everyone about how we can best support our community to provide a service that also lessens the blow of economic impacts of this pandemic, which will be hard on our already struggling local economy and health-care system. This includes considering what might happen in the case of multiple emergencies as we approach “wildfire season.”
Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, a for-profit in Genesee County, New York: Early on, even before orders were issued, I recognized that I probably wouldn’t be going out of the house much to cover things. I had never done livestreaming before. I had never done a video interview and recorded it or livestreamed it. So I quickly figured out how to do all of that, and we did our first livestream interview on March 15. We’ve done 15 or so since.Continue reading “Local online news publishers and editors speak out about the COVID-19 crisis”→
Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen writes that he held out for a long time before coming to the conclusion that the media should stop covering President Trump in real time. Now COVID-19 and Trump’s news conferences, filled with lies and falsehoods, have tipped Cohen over the edge.
“At a moment of true national cataclysm, allowing him to use the bully pulpit in such an irresponsible manner is a risk we can’t afford to take,” Cohen writes. I agree. And he quotes me as telling him, “We can’t knowingly put out disinformation and misinformation. We have to put the public first.”
I’m not saying Trump shouldn’t be covered. If media outlets want to carry his news conferences in full, that’s fine — as long as they wait until they can fact-check his statements. Or simply cover his statements as we would any other news story, being especially careful to vet anything he says that isn’t obviously true.
It’s impossible to fact-check Trump in real time. For instance, who could have imagined that he wasn’t telling the truth about Google? Now he’s putting out false information at the podium and on Twitter (an entirely different problem) about completely unproven remedies that may be dangerous and that are depriving those who really need them.
We’re in the midst of a crisis. No one should be given free rein to spout dangerous nonsense — even if that person is the president of the United States.
I knew the Apocalypse was at hand when I walked through the nearly empty Ruggles T station Monday morning — and there were no Jehovah’s Witnesses. Not that I suspected these smiling, well-dressed folks with their posters and pamphlets were afraid of catching COVID-19. They probably just figured there was no point in standing in the cold all by themselves while the city was shutting down around them.
As a journalism professor at Northeastern University, I’m well aware of how fortunate I am. Our paychecks and benefits won’t be threatened unless the worst of the worst-case scenarios become a reality. For us, the pandemic means trying to figure out how to move our classes online so that our students’ education isn’t thrown off track any more than absolutely necessary.
Even so, it’s been a challenging week.
I’d spent the first week of March — spring break at Northeastern — in Mendocino County, California, reporting on The Mendocino Voice, a small news organization moving toward cooperative ownership. While I was out there, I attended a news conference on the coronavirus called by county officials. It was clear that things were about to explode.
Classes actually resumed March 9, but we all had a sense that was likely to change at any moment. And it did. During our faculty meeting on March 11, we got an email from the administration telling us we were moving to online instruction the next day.
It seemed possible that the shift wouldn’t be too disruptive. At least initially, students were not asked to leave university housing — something that would be a logistical nightmare given our large number of international students as well as students living on campus while working at co-op jobs in the Boston area. I taught my final in-person class that night and got ready to go virtual.
My plan for Thursday was a workshopping session with my opinion-journalism class. It seemed like more of a technical challenge than I was comfortable taking on, but a colleague recommended Zoom video-conferencing software, and I gave it a try. I was stunned at how easy it was — for an hour and a half, my 15 students and I had something very close to a normal class. I don’t hear especially well, so I was pleasantly surprised that I could hear them better through my earbuds than I normally do in the classroom.
But if we’ve learned anything in the past week, it’s that what we hope will be the “new normal” only lasts for a few hours. First, one of my international graduate students told me she was flying home to Ecuador. Then, on Saturday, the university reversed course and ordered everyone out of the residence halls by Tuesday, March 17, at 5 p.m. Social-media panic ensured. Within a few hours, the university sent an update — students would be given some leeway on when they moved out, the remainder of the semester’s room and board would be refunded, and students with a demonstrated hardship could stay.
That helped. But it left us wondering how much of the semester we could salvage with nearly everyone scrambling to leave. Ruggles may have been empty on Monday, but cars were lined up all over campus as students got ready to head home. Despite the confusion, I don’t see how it could have been otherwise. What came across as draconian on Saturday seemed like the responsible thing to do by Monday.
So now what? Why was I on campus Monday when I should have been hunkering down at home? Because I’d decided to come in one last time in case any of my students wanted to see me before leaving. As it turned out, most of them found electronic communication sufficient — and safer.
But one of my students, a young woman from Hong Kong, dropped by for some advice on her final project in my ethics class. We kicked around some ideas and talked about what would happen next. She’s a senior. The last few weeks of her classes are gone. Commencement, scheduled for May 1, is almost certainly gone as well. She’ll walk away with an education, but without any of the memories she should have had.
So now President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign is filing SLAPP suits against news organizations — that is, libel suits with no legal merit whose goal is to intimidate rather than to expose the truth.
The lawsuits have targeted The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN, all of which have the resources to defend themselves. But the Trump campaign’s tactics raise a larger question: Will these suits embolden others to weaponize the courts against media outlets that lack the financial wherewithal to fight back against deep-pocketed opponents?