How local news can ease the angry polarization of the Trump era

Photo via Max Pixel.

Previously published at GBH News.

At the dawn of the Trump presidency four years ago, the journalist James Fallows offered a prescription for overcoming the anger and divisiveness that had given rise to Donald Trump’s toxic brand of right-wing populism: a renewed engagement with community life.

“At the level of politics where people’s judgments are based on direct observation rather than media-fueled fear,” Fallows wrote in The Atlantic, “Americans still trust democratic processes and observe long-respected norms.”

Fallows and his wife, Deborah Fallows, later wrote an entire book on the topic. But their advice was not heeded. President Trump sucked up every bit of oxygen and energy, from the Resistance to impeachment, from COVID and economic collapse to his racist rhetoric, his cruel policies and his sociopathic Twitter feed.

“We need a world in which we talk less about the president,” lamented Cardozo School of Law professor Ekow Yankah last week. “It’s not healthy.” That Yankah was being interviewed on a podcast called “Trumpcast” suggests the depth of the problem. Even now, Trump is dominating the news to a far greater extent than President-elect Joe Biden — and not in a good way. Rather than living locally, we spend all our time thinking nationally. It’s exhausting and leaves us feeling angry and alienated.

Our media in many ways are a reflection of our politics. The Trump years were very good for national news organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR and, God help us, cable news, especially Fox. And they were very bad for local media, especially community newspapers.

To renew civic life, you first need to renew local, independently owned newspapers and other media. I’m not talking about major regional newspapers, public radio or local TV newscasts. I’m talking about the hard but rewarding work of keeping tabs on city councils, school committees, zoning, police, development, neighborhoods and racial justice.

“There is a direct correspondence between the closing of newspapers and the polarization of people formerly served by those newspapers,” wrote Marc Ambinder, a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center for Communication Leadership and Policy, in a recent essay for MSNBC.com. He added: “If we want a society where we can accurately understand the preferences and behaviors of everyone, we need more local journalism.”

Unfortunately, it has become nearly impossible to pay for such journalism. The causes are familiar, from the collapse of digital advertising for everyone except Google and Facebook to the rise of corporate and hedge-fund ownership that bleeds local newspapers dry.

The COVID pandemic has made the financial situation facing news organizations that much worse. According to CNN reporter Kerry Flynn, two major publicly traded chain newspaper owners, Gannett and Tribune Publishing, are near collapse. Gannett’s ad revenues were down 38% in the second quarter over the previous year and down 23% in the third quarter. Tribune was down 48% in the second quarter and down 38% in the third.

Between them, the two companies own hundreds of local papers that had been hollowed out even before the pandemic. And unlike national papers like the Times, the Post and The Wall Street Journal, these companies have barely gotten started on charging readers for digital access.

So what is to be done? As I’ve written a number of times previously, I think we need a variety of solutions; one approach is not going to work in every community. For-profit, nonprofit, cooperative ownership, even volunteer-driven projects are all doing good work in cities and towns across the country. But they remain the exception, and the overall picture continues to darken.

Rick Edmonds of Poynter reported recently that Congress is considering a number of ideas, including tax credits for subscribing to a local news source, tax relief for publishers, advertising subsidies, and an antitrust exemption that would allow the news business to negotiate as one in an attempt to extract some revenues from Google and Facebook.

“Congress has pretty much decided it should come to the aid of local news,” Edmonds wrote. “The question of how remains, together with making the help timely.”

In Massachusetts, a bill that would create a special commission of journalists, academics and legislators to study the extent of the local-news crisis has gotten bogged down in committee, though I’m told that it could pass before the end of the year. (Disclosure: I’ve worked on the measure with state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, and would be a member of the commission.)

Needless to say, a commission isn’t going to fix what’s ailing local news. Yet if we’re going to have any chance of revitalizing civic engagement and closing the chasm that has come to separate us, we need to find a way.

In late October, The Inquirer and Mirror of Nantucket announced that the longtime editor and publisher, Marianne Stanton, along with a local businessman named David Worth, were buying the paper back from Gannett, which had owned it for a number of years.

“I think it’s pretty cool that two Nantucketers, both descendants of the early settlers, could work together to pull this off,” said Stanton in the announcement.

I think it’s pretty cool, too. It’s hard to know what, if anything, it will lead to. But it was a step in the right direction as well as very good news for the civic life of one community. Maybe it will be the start of something.

And share your thoughts here in the comments.

The media’s slow call

I’ve seen quite a few complaints over the past few days about the glacial pace at which the media moved toward calling the election for Joe Biden, with some suggesting it was because they didn’t want to incur the wrath of President Trump. I have no special insight, but I can think of several reasons why I’d be reluctant to pull the trigger if I were in charge of making the call.

  • Fox News and The Associated Press called Arizona for Biden with lightning speed. Yet here we are, five days later, and it’s still not 100% clear that Arizona will end up in the blue column. It now looks like Arizona was a premature call, and it may have made news orgs hesitate about calling other states.
  • News organizations may have set some benchmarks for calling Pennsylvania — and then the vote came in more slowly than expected.
  • Trump has unleashed a horde of lawyers upon the land to sue and challenge outcomes in key states. Those actions are, by all accounts, frivolous and abusive. But the courts are filled with Trump judges, right up to and including the Supreme Court. No doubt the media wanted to make sure that they didn’t call the election only to have the courts halt the count in some cases. It now seems reasonably clear that isn’t going to happen.
  • And yes, there’s no question that media decision-makers knew that calling the election for Biden would unleash a hellburst of rage from Trump. That’s not a reason to hold back. But it is a reason to make absolutely.. certain that Biden was the winner.

Please leave a civil comment. Real names are required. I’m trying this out as a test to move away from Facebook.

No surprises, really. So why do the early election returns feel like a punch to the gut?

Photo (cc) 2008 by H2Woah!

Previously published at GBH News.

Four years ago I was watching CNN as John King poked and prodded an interactive map of Florida while Wolf Blitzer looked on. King was explaining why the state was likely to go for Hillary Clinton. And then it happened — the map flipped red. Donald Trump was on his way to victory in Florida and to a narrow Electoral College win nationwide.

So it was with a deep sense of foreboding Tuesday night as I watched King and Blitzer pore over the same map. The early lead Joe Biden had built up over President Trump in that state was beginning to fade. And sure enough, Trump moved ahead in Florida while the two were talking, just as he had in 2016.

But this is not 2016. As I write this, in the early-morning hours on Wednesday following a sleepless night, the race has not yet been decided. The headline on The New York Times home page reads “Election Turns Into Nail-Biter That May Extend for Days.” Moments after I crawled out of bed and turned on the TV, a lead that Trump had maintained in Wisconsin all night suddenly went Biden’s way. The election could go in either direction, and Biden is still very much in the running.

Among those of us who are appalled by Trump, the sickening feeling we experienced last night was based entirely on Biden’s inability to break through in solidly red states that had seemed to be within his grasp. Texas was never ridin’ with Biden. Nor was Florida — not quite an all-red state, but one that has been trending increasingly Republican in recent years, a trend that has been boosted by voter suppression. Nor was Georgia (or so I thought; at the moment it’s actually trending toward Biden).

In fact, if you strip away the fantasies of a Biden landslide, the map looks very much like what we had expected, with the race coming down to the industrial states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Last night it struck me that the only real surprise was there hadn’t been any surprises. So I was reassured to see Boston College History Professor Heather Cox Richardson confirm that judgment. In her daily newsletter, “Letters from an American,” she wrote, “Tonight, we wait, as returns from this year’s election are about what we expected. … This is the scenario we all foresaw.”

As Cox and others have pointed out, the reason that the mail-in votes are taking so long to tally in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin is that Republicans fought tooth and nail to prevent them from being counted before the polls closed. As the liberal economist Dean Baker put it, Republican complaints about the slow pace “is pretty thick hypocrisy even for Republicans.”

This is also the moment when Trump, cornered and desperate, will be at his most dangerous. Trump is attempting to capitalize, railing against the media in a middle-of-the-night speech and — as we all knew he would — falsely claiming that he’s won and threatening to take the election to the Supreme Court on some unspecified grounds.

“This is an extremely flammable situation, and the president just threw a match into it,” Fox News Anchor Chris Wallace told viewers.

In the hours and days ahead, the media must exercise all the discipline it can muster and keep reminding viewers, listeners and readers that the election isn’t over until all the ballots have been counted. We all know what happened this year — about 100 million ballots were cast early, many by mail, because of the COVID pandemic, and that has created delays and confusion. Republican leaders need to speak up for a fair election as well, but I’ve pretty much given up any hope that they’ll do the right thing.

A couple of other points.

First, Democrats must be shocked to see Hispanic voters shifting toward the Republicans. As The Texas Tribune reported, “Even as Biden performed well in large suburban counties that used to be reliably Republican, he failed to notch wide margins of victory in some critical Democratic strongholds, massively underperforming Hillary Clinton in the mostly Hispanic Rio Grande Valley. For example, Trump was leading in unofficial results in Zapata County — where Clinton won with 66% of the vote in 2016.”

Noting there were also signs that Black voters were not as monolithically with Biden as had been expected, the conservative pundit Byron York said on Fox News: “This is something the Republican Party has been trying to do for a long time.”

And yet Trump has shown in word and deed that he’s a racist, going all the way back to his earliest days as a real-estate developer. As the Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson tweeted, “No matter what happens tonight, we will have to reckon with the millions of people who chose Trump after seeing his racism, bigotry, and xenophobia over the past 4 years.” Democrats have some serious soul-searching to do as to why that’s the case.

Second, although it’s too early to pass judgment given that millions of mail-in ballots have not yet been counted, it may be that the long-predicted polling apocalypse is upon us. A lot of observers said that four years ago, too, but the polls then really weren’t that bad. Clinton’s victory in the popular vote was within the margin of error, and Trump barely squeaked by in the Electoral College.

This time, though, it feels different — although, if you look at the final RealClearPolitics polls of battleground states, it may turn out that the numbers aren’t that far off. Even so, it wasn’t supposed to be this hard, and hopes that the Democrats would take back the Senate appear to be hanging by a thread. The wildly optimistic forecasts published by polling analysts like Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight (see this and this) are a separate problem, and too complex to be dealt with at the moment.

For those of us who believe that Trump is a would-be authoritarian who poses a threat to American democracy, the results so far have been shocking. But we need to get out of our bubble. It looks like Biden may have just barely accomplished what he needed to do to win, which was all we could have realistically expected. He’ll win the popular vote by a lot. The Electoral College, on the other hand, is increasingly becoming a bulwark of Republican minority rule. A huge Biden win was probably never in the cards.

In the hours and days ahead, it’s important that all of us — not just Biden supporters, but Trump supporters as well — stay calm and wait for the final result to become clear.

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No results tonight

I’ve got to get up early and try to write something for GBH News. We’re not going to learn any more tonight, so that’s it for me. But one quick thought: The only surprise is that there haven’t been any surprises. Hopes that the Biden camp had of breaking through in Trump country have been dashed. Biden was never going to win Georgia or Texas, and probably not Florida or Ohio, either.

So it comes down to Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. And we may not know until later this week, if then, who the winner is.

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Northeastern journalism students fan out for Election Day interviews

Our Northeastern journalism students are doing a really cool project today — they’re interviewing people about whether or not they voted, taking their photos and posting them on Instagram. If you get a chance, call up the Instagram app on your phone and search for the hashtag #nujournalismelectionday.

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Gannett sells Mass. Lawyers Weekly and other B2B titles to a private-equity firm

Right on the heels of Gannett’s selling The Inquirer and Mirror of Nantucket and The Pine Bluff Commercial of Arkansas, the giant chain has now announced that it’s offloading its business-to-business subsidiary, BridgeTower Media, to a private-equity firm.

BridgeTower’s local holdings include Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, Rhode Island Lawyers Weekly and Color Magazine, which “highlights topics of interest revolving around professionals of color.” The new owner, Transom Capital Group, is based in Los Angeles. Its self-description is so hilariously awful that it’s worth quoting:

Transom Capital Group is an operations-focused private equity firm in the lower-middle market. Our functional pattern recognition, access to capital, and proven ARMOR℠ Value Creation Process combine with management’s industry expertise to realize improved operational efficiency, significant top-line growth, cultural transformation and overall distinctive outcomes.

It’s too early to hope that the debt-addled Gannett chain, which has a stranglehold on most of the community newspapers in Greater Boston, Rhode Island and southern New Hampshire, is in the midst of a selloff. But if you’re thinking of making an offer on your local Gannett-owned newspaper, it looks like this might be a good time.

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With the outcome out of our hands, this would be a good time to relax — if you can

Photo (cc) 2020 by Adam Schultz/Biden for President

Twenty-eight years ago today, also a Sunday, I got up in the pre-dawn hours in order to drive a neighbor to the airport. Before returning home, I stopped at my favorite diner, ordered breakfast and spread out that day’s New York Times. The coverage pointed to a victory by Bill Clinton over President George H.W. Bush and Texas businessman Ross Perot. Which, of course, is exactly what happened.

The news in today’s Times foretells a similar outcome. The latest Times/Sienna College poll of likely voters shows Joe Biden with a lead over President Trump in four key battleground states — Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Only Florida seems close enough that it could slip away. With the FiveThirtyEight model giving Biden a 90% chance of winning and The Economist up to 95%, there is plenty of reason to be hopeful that we can finally put Trump in the rear-view mirror.

And yes, we all know what happened four years ago. Shocking as it was, though, Biden has held a larger, more durable lead over Trump than Hillary Clinton ever did. James Comey wasn’t around to deliver a late, devastating hit only to say “never mind.” The media have been smarter and more responsible about Trumpist disinformation, such as Tara Reade’s unsupportable allegations and the laptop that may or may not have belonged to Hunter Biden. Last week, NBC News even reported that documents circulating in the fever swamps of the right were not only fake, but had been produced by a fake company headed by a fake person whose fake face had been created using artificial intelligence.

In these final hours before the polls close on Tuesday, we are hearing lots of anxiety-inducing stories about voters being turned away, ballots getting lost and thugs in Texas threatening a Biden campaign bus, resulting in the cancellation of several Biden rallies. As disturbing as this is, I think we’d all be better off if we relaxed as best we can until it’s over. Have you voted? Will you vote? Good. For most of us, that’s all we can do.

Fortunately, Biden seems likely to win by a large enough margin to withstand whatever assault on the vote’s legitimacy Trump tries to mount. It’s not over till it’s over, of course. Right now, though, it looks like we can soon look forward to a victory by Biden and Kamala Harris — and to our country returning to some semblance of normal.

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‘Evil Geniuses’ traces the 50-year march of the American right

Kurt Andersen’s newest book, “Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History,” tells the story of our political culture’s long march to the right, from Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign to Donald Trump.

I finished the audio version of it earlier this week — read by Andersen, a welcome touch. You can’t properly review an audio book, of course. You’re not bookmarking pages or making notes. So my observations here are impressionistic, and I’m sure I’m leaving stuff out that struck me as important at the time but that I’ve since forgotten.

First, Andersen deals a blow to my Richard Nixon Unified Theory of Everything. Andersen rightly points out that Nixon governed as a liberal on domestic policy, even embracing the left-wing notion of wage-and-price controls. Nixon wasn’t as liberal as the Northern Democrats of his era, but as someone who didn’t really care about anything except Richard Nixon, he was willing to go with the flow as long as it helped him maintain power.

I’m not sure that Andersen assigns Nixon enough blame, though, for his vicious prosecution of the war in Vietnam and Cambodia, a prelude of what was to come, or of beginning the transformation of the Republican Party into an amoral force for destruction, as it clearly is today. Ideologically, however, he is right that you can trace a direct line from Goldwater to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush to Trump. Nixon was an outlier; George H.W. Bush was only a partial outlier given the role of Bush’s chief of staff, John Sununu, in fostering climate denialism, something I didn’t know about until I heard Andersen describe it.

Second, this move to the right has had important intellectual underpinnings, starting in 1970 with an essay by the economist Milton Friedman in The New York Times Magazine arguing — as Andersen puts it — that it was actually Mr. Potter, not George Bailey, who was the hero of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Another important contribution to the movement was made by Lewis Powell in his pre-Supreme Court days. All of this has been extremely well funded by the Koch brothers and their ilk, thus moving fringe right-wing ideas into the mainstream.

Third, and to my mind most controversially, this long move back to the past has been accompanied by a cultural embrace of nostalgia, starting in the 1970s with the ’50s revival and continuing to the present. The idea is that we’ve turned to the political and economic norms of pre-New Deal America as a wistful yearning for old values, just as we have with music and fashion, and are only now beginning to realize just how toxic those times really were. There’s something to this, but I think Andersen pushes it too hard.

I can’t say that Andersen offers much in the way of solutions except that we need to re-energize ourselves and start electing left-leaning politicians. (He tells us repeatedly that Bernie Sanders nearly defeated Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, but saying it over and over doesn’t make it so.) He also favors a universal basic income as a counterbalance to the decline of decent full-time work fueled by artificial intelligence.

“Evil Geniuses” provides an exhaustive — and, at times, exhausting — overview of what’s gone wrong in these United States over the past 50 years. If Andersen’s ideas on how to get out of this mess are inadequate, it may be because the challenges are so daunting.

As I write this, Joe Biden seems likely to be elected president and the Senate to flip to the Democrats. That may staunch the Trump-induced bleeding of the past four years. But it’s going to take a lot more than that to solve political polarization, economic inequality, climate change, racial injustice and all the rest.

We can’t begin that work until we understand how we got here, though. Andersen has provided a useful guide.

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No surprise: ‘Anonymous’ turns out to be one of Kelly’s former aides

Click here to watch video.

I had thought from the beginning that “Anonymous,” the Trump administration official who torched President Trump in a New York Times op-ed piece in 2018, was someone close to John Kelly. And so it is: Miles Taylor, the 33-year-old former chief of staff of the Department of Home Security, Kelly’s first stop before becoming Trump’s chief of staff.

Why a Kelly aide? “Anonymous” came across as enthusiastic about Trump’s vicious right-wing policies, calling to mind Josh Marshall’s description of Kelly as an example of “Total Quality Trumpism.” In other words, Kelly and his allies were mainly appalled by Trump’s behavior and indiscipline, not by his record. As “Anonymous” wrote at the time:

To be clear, ours is not the popular “resistance” of the left. We want the administration to succeed and think that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous….

Don’t get me wrong. There are bright spots that the near-ceaseless negative coverage of the administration fails to capture: effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more.

As for whether Taylor qualifies as a “senior official in the Trump administration,” as the Times described him when it published his op-ed, well, I’d say more no than yes. Chief of staff of a Cabinet department is not nothing, but I don’t think it’s what people imagine when they hear the phrase “senior official.”

I’d chalk it up as yet another in a pile of misjudgments by former editorial-page editor James Bennet.

Also: Chris Cuomo doesn’t seem to like Taylor too much. Click here or in the caption above to watch.

Correction. Kelly’s first name now fixed.

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