Bernie Sanders is an unlikely savior of journalism.
The iconoclastic senator has long had a prickly relationship with the press in his home state. According to Paul Heintz, a staff writer with the alt-weekly Seven Days, Sanders hasn’t granted a full-fledged interview in more than four years to the paper, which touts itself as the state’s largest. And Seven Days is not alone. “I would say that it’s highly unusual for an elected official in Vermont to not regularly speak to Vermont reporters,” Heintz said. “I think it’s problematic.”
Then, last month, Sanders claimed without evidence that The Washington Post covered him critically because of his attacks on Amazon, whose founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, also owns the Post. “The remark sounded an awful lot like the kind of criticism leveled by someone else,” said NPR’s Domenico Montanaro. That someone else: President Trump.
But apparently you don’t have to love the media to appreciate its vital role in a democracy. Because last week Sanders, an independent socialist who is once again seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, outlined a solid media-reform proposal in an essay for the Columbia Journalism Review.
“Real journalism requires significant resources,” he wrote. “One reason we do not have enough real journalism in America right now is because many outlets are being gutted by the same forces of greed that are pillaging our economy.”
Sanders devoted much of his piece to rehashing the financial crisis that has brought news organizations to their knees, especially at the local level. But he also offered some specific ideas that fall into three categories:
• Opposing media mergers such as the proposed combination of the GateHouse Media and Gannett newspaper chains as well as the CBS-Viacom deal. Media companies would be required to detail how many journalism jobs would be lost in such mergers. Employees would have an opportunity to buy their media companies. Unions would be strengthened. And ownership caps would be re-imposed on broadcast outlets for the first time since 1996 in the hopes of restoring localism and diversity.
• Swinging the antitrust club at Google and Facebook, which, as Sanders observed, now vacuum up some 60 percent of all digital advertising revenues. It’s not clear how any actions Sanders might take against the two internet giants would benefit journalism. He doesn’t help his cause by citing a flawed study claiming that, in 2018, “Google made $4.7 billion off reporting that Google did not pay for.” (Well, no, not really.) But there’s little question that both companies have benefited from free content provided by newspapers and other media outlets. At the very least, Sanders seems likely to support a temporary antitrust exemption that would allow the news business to negotiate some sort of revenue-sharing deal.
• Taxing targeted advertising — that is, ads served up based on the data that has been collected about you — and using it to fund “nonprofit civic-minded media.” This is an idea that has been promoted by the media-reform organization Free Press “to support local-news startups, sustain investigative projects, seed civic-engagement initiatives, and lift up diverse voices that have long been excluded from traditional media coverage.” Government funding of journalism is bound to be controversial, even though it already takes place to a limited degree with public radio and television. But there are ways to insulate such funding from political interference — though skepticism is certainly warranted.
But parts of Sanders’ plan are likely to resonate with the public — especially his targeting of Google and Facebook, which are increasingly unpopular for violating our privacy and harming democracy. Indeed, Sanders’ rival Elizabeth Warren beat Sanders to the punch by many months in proposing to break up Google, Facebook and Amazon.
One way that corporate media owners succeed in defending their turf is by controlling the terms of the debate. Thus you will hear that Sanders proposes to impose new regulations on an industry that, for the sake of the First Amendment, ought to be as unregulated as possible. But as the media scholar Robert McChesney has observed, the alternatives are not regulation or deregulation; rather, they come down to what kind of regulation we want — in the public interest, or in the corporate interest?
This is especially true in the case of broadcast media, which must be regulated because there are only a limited number of frequencies available. Sanders, to his credit, is not proposing the return of anti-free-speech policies such as the Fairness Doctrine and equal-time provisions. Rather, he seeks to ensure diversity of ownership while letting the content take care of itself.
Sanders may not like journalists very much, but he understands the importance of journalism. Far from being radical, his plan pulls together some strands that have been around for quite a while. Teddy Roosevelt would praise his stance against mergers and in favor of taking some sort of action against the monopolistic practices of Facebook and Google.
Whether Sanders becomes our next president or not, his proposals amount to a serious attempt to wrestle with the forces that have harmed journalism and have concentrated media power in the hands of a few. Voters and his fellow candidates should take notice.
The story of Madeleine Westerhout, the 28-year-old aide to President Trump who was fired for sharing nasty gossip about the Trump family after having a few drinks with reporters, is fascinating (the original Politico story is here; some background from The New York Times is here).
Westerhout reportedly despised Trump so much that she burst into tears the night he was elected. Yet she went to work for him, brought into the White House by former chief of staff Reince Priebus despite an exceedingly thin résumé. She grasped for more power. And she showed no loyalty to the president whatsoever.
These are the kinds of people Trump surrounds himself with, because no one with integrity will have anything to do with him.
It would be interesting to learn how her off-the-record remarks became public. Daniel Lippman of Politico, who broke the story, wasn’t there, so he’s in the clear. Trump ally Arthur Schwartz, he of the media attack squad, has pointed the finger at Philip Rucker of The Washington Post, who was there. His editor issued a statement vouching for Rucker’s integrity without quite denying that Rucker was the source. Rucker has not written about the incident.
Most likely we’re not going to get to the bottom of this.
We’ve become accustomed to Trump outrages that seem OMG in the moment only to fade quickly into obscurity — replaced, as such things inevitably are, by the next insult, outburst or tweet. But even by those standards, a New York Times story reporting that Republican operatives with White House ties were seeking to embarrass President Trump’s adversaries in the media had an unusually short half-life.
Yes, there were stern condemnations from the usual suspects. Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger posted a memo to the staff calling it “an unprecedented campaign,” saying of the operatives: “Their goal is to silence critics and undermine the public’s faith in independent journalism.” A CNN spokesman said that when government officials and their allies “threaten and retaliate against reporters as a means of suppression, it’s a clear abandonment of democracy for something very dangerous.”
Others, though, were less impressed with this latest so-called threat to the First Amendment. Will Sommer of The Daily Beast tweeted, “This piece sure makes a big deal about a couple of guys using Twitter Advanced Search.”
CNN’s Oliver Darcy wrote that another Daily Beast reporter, Maxwell Tani, had actually revealed the existence of the campaign, and of Trump fanboy Arthur Schwartz’s involvement, many months ago. And Jack Shafer of Politico saw no problem with digging up social-media dirt on journalists, citing similar efforts by watchdog groups such as Media Matters for America on the left and, many years earlier, Accuracy in Media on the right.
“As much as I would like to sympathize with my fellow journalists,” Shafer wrote, “it doesn’t strike me as unreasonable to ask them to own or repudiate vile or impolitic things they might have stated in the past. Nor is it remotely unfair for the president’s supporters to demand that journalists, who are forever denouncing him as a racist (because he is), be held accountable for their bigoted speech, on Twitter or anywhere else.”
Here’s the background according to the Times story, reported by Kenneth P. Vogel and Jeremy W. Peters. Schwartz, an ally of Donald Trump Jr. and former Trump-whisperer Steve Bannon, has reportedly gathered material on journalists at several news organizations perceived to be hostile to the president, including the Times, The Washington Post, and CNN. The fruits of Schwartz’s labors were on display recently when a Times editor named Tom Wright-Piersanti was forced to apologize after Breitbart reported that he had posted anti-Semitic tweets many years earlier.
The Breitbart hit, in turn, was supposedly in retaliation for a Times story on the checkered past of Trump’s new press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, who reportedly has a history of unethical workplace behavior as well as two drunken-driving arrests.
“If the @nytimes thinks this settles the matter we can expose a few of their other bigots,” Schwartz tweeted after the Breitbart story on Wright-Piersanti was published. “Lots more where this came from.”
What’s fair is fair? Not quite. There are, in fact, some troubling aspects to all this. Unlike Shafer’s examples, Media Matters and Accuracy in Media, Schwartz’s shop has ties to the White House. It’s not entirely clear how close those ties are, but they’re close enough that we ought to be concerned. The First Amendment, after all, was designed to protect the press so it could monitor the powerful, not protect the powerful so they can monitor the press.
Moreover, we expect our leaders and the people who work for them to meet certain basic moral and ethical standards, or at least we used to. Journalists, on the other hand, are judged by their work. If what they report is true and fair, then it should be irrelevant whether they drink to excess, jaywalk, or posted embarrassing and offensive tweets years ago.
Tom Jones put it this way in The Poynter Report: “Yes, absolutely, the media should be held accountable, too. But stories published or aired by reputable news organizations stand up to scrutiny through the use of facts, sources and citations. Because this [Schwartz’s] operation can’t discredit such stories, the next best thing to do is discredit the journalists and outlets by combing through tweets and Facebook and Instagram posts from years gone by.”
As attacks on the media go, this is fairly small. It’s not as serious as calling news organizations “Enemies of the People,” or banning reporters from the White House, or putting the safety of journalists at risk by whipping up angry mobs at Trump rallies.
But it erodes the norms of democracy around the edges, contributing to Trump’s meta-narrative that the press is just another partisan player that his devoted followers need not take seriously.
And here is the NewsGuild’s response to Boston Globe management. I have redacted the names.
You may have seen the company’s email regarding the status of our contraction negotiations.
Here’s what’s really been happening:
The Guild asked the company to start negotiations in Sept. 2018. Company officials did not make themselves available until December 6.
On that day the company, represented by Trish Dunn of Jones Day, presented us with a proposal that would, among many, many problematic things:
Give the company the ability to outsource our jobs.
Eliminate overtime for most members.
Strip us of seniority in layoffs.
Remove wage steps that guarantee annual pay increases for employees who otherwise would receive no raises unless their managers agreed to them.
Take away our ability to defend ourselves against abuses.
Take away our ability to fight back if the company denies an employee’s claim of harassment against a supervisor.
Remove the clause in our current contract that would require any future owner from honoring the bargaining agreement.
Weaken, if not cut entirely, language in our contract that calls on the Globe to recruit and promote women and minorities.
Slash our severance.
What would we get in return? Two percent annual wage increases for two years and a 401k match increase of 3 percent that came with a huge draw-back.
The company proposed language that would allow it to reduce and even eliminate the match without having to negotiate with the Guild, which it must do under our current contract.
Yes, the company has proposed changes to healthcare that would reduce costs for some members. But according to the Guild’s calculations, the changes would significantly increase healthcare costs for many of our other members, a fact we have reminded the company of repeatedly at the table.
The company wanted us to agree to this lopsided deal within two months. Then, when their deadline passed, the Globe withdrew its previous proposal and replaced it with one that would still cut our rights under the current contract but without any increases to our wages or 401k match.
As for the ten-week family leave we now have, the company seems to have forgotten that it was Guild members who proposed this to management in 2017 and had to prod the company for 18 months before it would join the ranks of other news organizations and provide a decent family leave package. This finally happened at the negotiation table after the Guild agreed to give up some of its sick days.
Since December, the Guild has continued to meet and schedule new dates for negotiations at a steady pace. The Guild has made proposals and movement, while the company has barely budged off of any of the major concessions it has demanded. These actions are in large part why the Guild has been compelled to file a bad faith bargaining charge against the Globe for violating the National Labor Relations Act.
In its email, the company accused us of failing to schedule enough meetings and abruptly canceling on Tuesday.
This requires some context. The company was unable to meet for a three-week stretch in July because one person on its seven-member team was on vacation. And at the most recent negotiating meeting, the company did not make a single proposal, saying it had nothing for us, even though the company owed us responses on several proposals.
The Guild did cancel one bargaining session, the first such cancellation during eight months of negotiations, because the Guild’s president, Scott Steeves, a critical member of our bargaining team, had to fill in for his manager, who has recently left the company and has yet to be replaced.
The Guild’s negotiating team did meet on its own this week to draft more proposals and responses that will be provided to the company at the next bargaining session in September. The company knows this.
We’ve asked the company repeatedly to explain how provisions in the current contract are an impediment — financial or otherwise — to the Globe’s sustainability and growth. We are repeatedly met with the same vague response: “We want to be more flexible and nimble.”
Well, that’s not good enough. It’s not good enough for employees who have tirelessly worked for this company even as it made monumental mistakes that threatened the health and future of the Globe. We were there for the company when its short-sighted decision to switch newspaper delivery vendors failed spectacularly and we were there for the company when the faulty printing machines it purchased led to delays in putting out the paper.
And we were there for the company even when our lives were threatened by a heavily armed man in California.
We’re not asking for much in return. But the company is demanding too much of people who have still not recovered from the drastic wage cuts the New York Times imposed in 2009.
We hope this helps set the record straight. We invite you to approach our team with questions or comments. Your feedback is critical to us.
And if you’d like to share your thoughts with the company’s negotiating team, here are their names and contact information:
Boston Globe executives sent a memo of more than 1,300 words to the staff last Friday giving them their side of the ongoing negotiations between the paper and the NewsGuild, formerly known as the Newspaper Guild. A trusted source sent it along earlier this morning, and I’m posting the full text below.
The email comes several weeks after the Guild filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board claiming unfair labor practices “given the slow pace of contract negotiations and the insulting strong-arm tactics used by the company’s lawyers.” The union staged a brief walkout as well. Interestingly, management now claims that it’s the union that’s dragging its feet.
Given that the Globe claims to have achieved profitability at the end of 2018, it strikes me as fair to ask why staff members, who’ve sacrificed in order to improve the Globe’s bottom line, shouldn’t share in that success. In the memo, management replies that those profits will disappear if costs aren’t kept under control.
“As we communicated in our 2018 year-end note to staff,” the email says, “we ended the year in the black precisely because we aggressively targeted savings across many facets of our business and carefully managed expenses to stay ahead of the structural declines we continue to see in our industry, including continued circulation and revenue declines. Most of that expense reduction has come from our production side, and it is not sustainable to continue significant cuts to the operations and staff that print, assemble and distribute the Globe every day. Rather, we must continue our vigilance in looking for efficiencies and identifying areas of real and sustainable growth in our editorial and commercial departments as well, just as all media companies are doing in today’s world to remain viable and relevant.”
The full text of the memo follows:
In an effort to keep you apprised of our negotiations with the Guild, we want to share an update on the current status of the negotiations after 19 bargaining sessions over eight months.
As we noted back in January, we provided the Guild’s bargaining committee with two complete contract proposals for consideration on December 6, 2018 — our first bargaining session. The first was a traditional proposal without any economics embedded, but with important operational and cleanup changes. The other was called a conditional alternative proposal, which included the same important operational and cleanup changes, but also included guaranteed annual wage increases of 2% for everyone, a 3% increase in the current 2% 401k company match, and 10 weeks of paid parental leave. The alternative proposal would have added up to 5% annually to employees’ compensation through wage increases and an increased 401k match. This alternative proposal was contingent on getting the contract settled quickly in early 2019.
The proposed 2% annual wage increases in the alternative proposal were in line with, or exceeded, annual increases at other major newspaper companies. The proposed 5% 401k match exceeded the match that most other major newspaper companies offer. The Guild rejected both, ending the possibility of an early 2019 contract settlement. At that time, we made it clear to the Guild that the Globe would not be willing to make any wage and benefit increases later agreed upon retroactive to January 1.
The one exception to that was paid parental leave. In its December 2018 proposals, the Globe offered, and the Guild accepted, 10 weeks of paid parental leave on the same terms as non-represented employees. In January, the Globe moved ahead with providing all of its employees with up to 10 weeks of paid parental leave.
The Globe has also put forth proposals to:
Continue providing employees with generous paid time off for vacations, sick leave and holidays — up to 47 paid days off a year, in excess of most other large city newspaper companies. Those 47 days are in addition to paid bereavement leave or short-term disability benefits, which the Globe also provides.
Provide the same health insurance benefits that it provides to its managers and other non-union employees, with a progressive premium cost-sharing arrangement that would allow lower paid employees to pay just 17% of the premiums and higher paid employees to pay 25%-30% of the premiums. The Globe’s proposed premium shares are, in most instances, lower than what other major newspaper companies require employees to contribute to their premiums. And, they compare favorably to national averages where employees pay about 29% of the premiums for family coverage and 18% of the premiums for single coverage (according to the Kaiser Family Foundation Survey of Employer Health Benefits).
Together, the Globe and the Guild have made progress in negotiations. We achieved tentative agreements on four full articles within the contract — including union security and dues check off that protect the Guild — and more than fifty tentative agreements on subsections, including those relating to:
Protection of grievants
Career development and training
Labor Management Committee
Joint Committee on Workplace Equity and Diversity
Reduced work week policy
Part-time employees’ sick leave
Part-time employees’ vacation
Dangerous conditions policy
The Globe has consistently tried to schedule regular meetings to bargain the contract. On Tuesday, the Guild committee cancelled this week’s bargaining session — a session that had been on the books since June 6. Moreover, they have been refusing to book regular bargaining dates through the rest of the year and has made its committee available only one or two dates each month, even though the Globe’s negotiators have requested to meet weekly. In fact, in our August 9th session, the Guild’s chief negotiator told us at the table that the Guild committee has only one single date available in October and has “nothing else to offer” for bargaining in October. The result: the Guild committee is available just three days for on-the-record bargaining between now and the end of October, after cancelling this week’s session.
We all share the common big picture goal of strengthening our newsroom and company for the challenges and opportunities we face in an ever-changing media industry. In the past few years we have undertaken a lot of new initiatives, made big investments for the long term sustainability, and went through all of our costs to be as efficient and focused as possible on fulfilling our mission. This hard work and patient endurance of a lot of change by each of us worked, with the company having revenues exceed expenses for the first time in 2018 after many, many years of operating at a loss. This is a major step towards the long-term sustainability of this institution that we are all striving for. However, we are not fully there. This step was a result of cost control, not revenue growth. We are working on new revenue generation opportunities and we need to be creative, nimble, and efficient to get there. No small part of the work we need to do is to ensure our collective bargaining contracts are structured in a way that both allows us to operate in this kind of a nimble, flexible way and provides the kinds of protections and security that the Guild is seeking.
To that end, as we have told the Guild leadership, our primary goal has not changed: modernizing our labor contract to match the realities of our business and to more closely mirror the terms of our peers in the media industry so that we can remain operationally flexible and competitive. The changes sought by the company have been accepted by unions, including the Guild, in other newsrooms in Boston and across the country. In addition, we continue to seek in negotiations to eliminate provisions in the contract that impede our commitment to diversity as the use of seniority in layoffs does; to treat our professional staff as professionals by providing strong total compensation packages, classifying employees appropriately and in alignment with others in our industry; and to have policies in place that reflect our support of working parents at BGMP [Boston Globe Media Partners, the Globe’s owner of record]. We’ve made concrete proposals to address the Guild’s concerns about our proposal to eliminate overtime for creative professionals. Keeping in perspective that most unit employees work no overtime, our proposals provide for comp time and premium pay when employees are required to work on their days off and make a commitment to adjust the salaries of some staff members who are consistently called upon to work longer hours.
To achieve these goals, Globe management is committed to continuing to bargain in good faith to reach an agreement that will allow the company to remain focused on the important work with which our community and region have entrusted us. We have and will always respect all bargaining units across our organization as we continue to drive the kind of transformation required to be a dynamic media company with a sustainable future for all our employees.
As we communicated in our 2018 year-end note to staff, we ended the year in the black precisely because we aggressively targeted savings across many facets of our business and carefully managed expenses to stay ahead of the structural declines we continue to see in our industry, including continued circulation and revenue declines. Most of that expense reduction has come from our production side, and it is not sustainable to continue significant cuts to the operations and staff that print, assemble and distribute the Globe every day. Rather, we must continue our vigilance in looking for efficiencies and identifying areas of real and sustainable growth in our editorial and commercial departments as well, just as all media companies are doing in today’s world to remain viable and relevant.
We will continue to be transparent as we proceed, just as we will continue to push for the ability to be nimble and flexible as an organization given the pace of change in our industry. We look forward to continuing to discuss these important proposals with the Guild.
It has been an extraordinary few weeks for The New York Times.
From an outcry over a headline that blandly reported President Trump’s denunciation of racism in El Paso without acknowledging his own history of racist comments, to the demotion of an editor for several racially clueless tweets, to a fraught meeting with the staff called by executive editor Dean Baquet, the Times has found itself in an unaccustomed position: under fire from its core audience of liberal readers.
In sifting through Baquet’s remarks as well as those of the Times’ critics and defenders, it strikes me that the dispute is over two conflicting views of journalism’s role in covering a uniquely awful and dangerous presidency. The two sides are talking past each other, in large measure because much of what they say sounds similar. That is, they are on parallel tracks that never quite meet.
The Baquet side is that the Times is aggressively covering a terrible president, and is now in the midst of shifting from the Russia investigation to race. In this view, the coverage has been relentlessly harsh and negative (and accurate) but based on traditional journalistic values such as the respect accorded any president and the reality that Trump’s supporters need to be understood and explained.
“Our role is not to be the leader of the resistance,” Baquet said at the town hall meeting. In fact, that’s pretty much the same view expressed by Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron when he said, “We’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work.” Like many other observers, I give the Post higher marks than the Times in not normalizing this most abnormal of presidents. But, fundamentally, Baquet and Baron are on the same page.
The critics’ view is that even tough-minded accountability journalism is not enough for a president who regularly expresses racist opinions and enacts racist policies, who gladly accepted foreign intervention in the 2016 election, and who is undermining democratic norms through his lies, his attacks on the media, and his false claims that the electoral system is rigged against him.
As Ashley Feinberg put it in Slate, “the problem for the Times is not whether it can navigate social-media controversies or satisfy an appetite for #resistance-based outrage, both of which it can tell itself are not a newspaper’s job to do. It’s whether it has the tools to make sense of the world. On this point, Baquet was not reassuring or convincing.”
Liberal criticism of the Times may have reached the point of absurdity with Sunday’s unsparing profile of Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s thuggish anti-immigration policies. The headline in the print edition, “Shift Against Immigration Lifted a Young Firebrand,” drew howls from the left for not clearly labeling Miller a racist. The comedian Frank Conniff tweeted: “NY Times today called Stephen Miller a ‘young firebrand.’ Also once described Norman Bates as the ‘reclusive iconoclast of the hospitality industry.’”
NY Times today called Stephen Miller a "young firebrand." Also once described Norman Bates as the "reclusive iconoclast of the hospitality industry."
In fact, the headline wasn’t nearly as bad as the one from El Paso that caused such an uproar earlier this month: “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism.” And, as with that first headline, the digital version was better, if more neutral than Trump critics might like: “How Stephen Miller Seized the Moment to Battle Immigration.” Besides, the story, by Jason DeParle, was first-rate.
The real issue over the two headlines may be the declining importance of the print product as well as the difficulty of writing good headlines in small spaces. As Baron once said, “ I mean newspaper headlines are terrible, right? They all have to be constrained within column sizes, so if you have a one-column head it’s all headline-ese. People don’t speak in headline-ese.”
There are larger forces at work in the liberal critique of the Times as well. As New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen observes, the Times, like all newspapers, is far more dependent on revenues from its readers as it shifts its business model from advertising to digital subscriptions. And many of those customers have taken to social media to let the Times know it when they don’t like what they see.
More to the point, the Times may very well have gotten Trump elected because of its obsession with Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server for official business. The Times’ coverage of the email story reached its ludicrous apogee with an over-the-top front page after then-FBI Director James Comey announced he had reopened the investigation just before the election — a blow from which her campaign did not recover, even after Comey said “never mind” a week later.
In Rosen’s view, the Times’ coverage of Clinton amounts almost to an original sin, and the paper has never come to terms with its readers — who, he writes, “are appalled by Trump and want to see his dark sides further exposed. They want the Times to be tougher on his supporters and more relentless in calling out his lying, his racism, his misogyny, his xenophobia. They want Times journalists to see what they see — an assault on democratic institutions — and to act accordingly. And they want a reckoning with the coverage of Hillary Clinton in 2016 because they know that somehow this is in the way of all other things.”
Of course, the reason that the Times has come under fire from liberals is that they see it as their paper. Whatever criticisms they give voice to are mild compared to the vitriol from the right — as we’ve experienced in recent days with the reaction of Newt Gingrich and others to the Times’ 1619 Project, marking the 400th anniversary of slavery in what became the United States. The 1619 Project promises to be a landmark achievement for the Times, which makes it all the more appalling that right-wing critics would rather defend white supremacy than come to terms with slavery’s legacy.
As Baquet said during the meeting with his staff, “Look, we are scrutinized. I ran another newspaper [the Los Angeles Times]. I’ve never seen anything like this. We are scrutinized more than any other news organization in the country, in the world probably. To be frank, some of that comes with being the biggest and, I would argue, the best. And as hard as it is to do this, I think we have to accept it.”
Baquet is right. As good as The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal are, the Times is still our best, most comprehensive general-interest newspaper. It is far from perfect. I’m still angry about the way it covered the run-up to the war in Iraq, the Whitewater non-scandal, and, yes, the 2016 campaign. If you’d like to go back a century, Walter Lippmann wrote that it blew the Russian Revolution and its aftermath as well.
But the Times’ journalistic values — offering a tough but straight report on what its editors have judged to be the most important news of the day — are always going to clash with the wishes of some of its audience to see their opinions and beliefs affirmed rather than challenged.
The Times has gone too far in normalizing Trump and Trumpism, and it often falls short on tone and emphasis. But you know what? We can adjust for that. It’s worth it.
The crisis we are living through is, as Walter Lippmann would have said, a crisis of journalism.* Never before have we had such ready access to high-quality sources of news and information (at least at the national level; local journalism, sadly, is in freefall). At the same time, those sources have been under constant attack since Spiro Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativism” speech of 1969, culminating in President Trump’s denigration of journalists as “Enemies of the People” and their work product as “fake news.”
The frequently stated truism that the public has lost trust in the news media is misunderstood. In fact, we trust the media we use, but the explosion of opinionated sources of news has led to an ideological sorting-out that has harmed democracy and civic discourse. As the Pew Research Center found a few years ago, a majority of liberals trust NPR, PBS, and the New York Times, whereas conservatives put their faith in Fox News, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh. It hardly needs to be said that the so-called liberal sources of news are practicing actual journalism, however imperfectly, whereas the conservative sources serve up a toxic brew of falsehoods, propaganda, and conspiracy theories.
This polarized, choose-your-own-facts media environment is very different from the one proposed by Lippmann. A towering figure in 20th-century American journalism who was, among other things, a co-founder of The New Republic, Lippmann nearly a century ago reimagined newsgathering as a profession encompassing educational and ethical standards. Lippmann also conceived of the notion of objectivity, which, properly understood, refers to a “disinterested” pursuit of the truth. What matters, according to Lippmann, is a reporter’s independence: “Emphatically he ought not to be serving a cause, no matter how good.” Unfortunately, objectivity later came to be seen as balance without regard for the facts. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel wrote in The Elements of Journalism, first published in 2001, “the concept of objectivity became so mangled it began to be used to describe the very problem it was conceived to correct.”
Lippmann laid out his vision in Liberty and the News (1920), a collection of essays in which he vividly described the rancid state of journalism in the early part of the 20th century as well as his prescription for making it better. No one is likely to improve on his description of journalism’s importance in a democratic society:
The news of the day as it reaches the newspaper office is an incredible medley of fact, propaganda, rumor, suspicion, clues, hopes, and fears, and the task of selecting and ordering that news is one of the truly sacred and priestly offices in a democracy. For the newspaper, is in all literalness the bible of democracy, the book out of which a people determine its conduct. It is the only serious book most people read. It is the only book they read every day. Now the power to determine each day what shall seem important and what shall be neglected is a power unlike any that has been exercised since the Pope lost his hold on the secular mind.
He added: “There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the information by which to detect lies.”
Lippmann’s main concern was public opinion and how it is produced, for it is what we think of events, rather than the events themselves, that forms the basis of politics and policy. He takes us through philosophers from John Milton to John Stuart Mill, who espoused various forms of toleration for opinions, and he acidly observes that their indulgence of toleration tended to be in direct proportion to the inoffensiveness of those opinions. In that view, ideas are fine as long as they pose no threat to the established order. Which is to say that ideas that truly matter are not fine at all.
A better basis for public opinion, Lippmann argued, is fact — and that’s where an improved, more substantive journalism comes in. Journalists trained to use authoritative sources of information, to make sense of the torrent of news and non-news being spewed in every direction, and to report truthfully and with the proper context are vital to self-government, he wrote.
Interestingly, Lippmann predicted that if the news media could not reform themselves, they faced the specter of government regulation. “There is everywhere,” he wrote, “an increasingly angry disillusionment about the press, a growing sense of being baffled and misled; and wise publishers will not pooh-pooh these omens.” Some things never change. Yet, at the time Lippmann was writing, the Supreme Court was about to embark on a series of rulings that had the effect of greatly expanding freedom of speech and of the press by erecting high barriers for prior restraint, allowing virtually all criticism of the government, and making it nearly impossible for public officials and public figures to win frivolous libel suits.
Around the time that Lippmann was writing, the news business began adopting professional standards, partly in response to his ideas, partly as a natural outgrowth of the increasing complexity and specialization of the industrial age. Codes of ethics were promulgated, the organization that became the Society of Professional Journalists was founded, and schools of journalism were established at many universities. This was elite journalism designed to lead public opinion — a prospect that met with Lippmann’s approval. He disparaged the typical newsroom as comprising men for whom “reporting is not a dignified profession” but was, rather, an “underpaid, insecure, anonymous form of drudgery, conducted on catch-as-catch-can principles.” He added:
How far can we go in turning newspaper enterprise from a haphazard trade into a disciplined profession? Quite far, I imagine, for it is altogether unthinkable that a society like ours should remain forever dependent upon untrained accidental witnesses.
In Liberty and the News, Lippmann balanced his fundamental elitism with his concern for the informational needs of the public. In his later writings, though, the balance tipped in favor of elitism at the expense of the public. As described by Jay Rosen in What Are Journalists For? (1999), Lippmann, starting with his best-known book, Public Opinion (1922), argued that the purpose of journalism was to mold opinion — to “manufacture consent” — for a public that lacked the time and the inclination to seek out the truth for itself. Public opinion, Lippmann wrote, was “an irrational force,” adding: “With the substance of the problem it can do nothing but meddle ignorantly or tyrannically.”
Speaking up in opposition to this pessimistic view, Rosen wrote, was the philosopher John Dewey, who answered Lippmann in his book The Public and Its Problems (1927). In Dewey’s view, the role of journalism was not to shut out public participation but, rather, to find ways for the public to participate, especially at the community level. “Democracy for Dewey,” according to Rosen, “meant not a system of government but a society organized around certain principles: that every individual has something to contribute, that people are capable of making their own decisions, that given the chance they can understand their predicament well enough to puzzle through it, that the world is knowable if we teach ourselves how study and discuss it.”
Today we can see the harmful effects of Lippmann-style elitism run amok. For one thing, “elite” has long since entered the vocabulary as a dirty word. Expertise itself is denigrated, and the so-called wisdom of the common people is held up as a virtuous alternative to decadent journalists and intellectuals who are allegedly out of touch with the concerns of everyday life. If we had followed Dewey instead of Lippmann, that alienation might not exist.
Here’s how the media scholar James W. Carey, in his essay “Reconceiving ‘Mass’ and ‘Media’” (reprinted in his Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, 1989), summarized Dewey’s disagreement with Lippmann: “Public opinion is not formed when individuals possess correct representations of the environment [as Lippmann would have it], even if correct representations were possible. It is formed only in discussion, when it is made active in community life.” Imagine if journalism were a participatory process rather than a monologue driven from the top — the promise, still unfulfilled, of internet-based news. If we were in better touch with the public we ostensibly serve, it might be more apparent that the Washington Post is not the liberal equivalent of Fox News but, rather, is engaged in an entirely different sort of enterprise.
Lippmann lived a long and influential life. As David Halberstam wrote in The Powers That Be (1979), Lippmann urged Katharine Graham to consider hiring Ben Bradlee as executive editor of the Washington Post, a move that transformed the paper into a serious rival of the New York Times and helped bring down Richard Nixon’s presidency. As a syndicated columnist, Lippmann supported the Vietnam War and later turned against it once it became clear that the experts of whom he was so enamored had promoted a ruinous policy.
Despite Lippmann’s embrace of elitism, he remained convinced that the public needed reliable news. In 1971, when the New York Times and the Washington Post were under fire for publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s own secret history of the Vietnam War, Times columnist James Reston quoted at length from a speech his old friend had given eleven years earlier about the role of the press.
“If the country is to be governed with the consent of the governed,” Lippmann said, “then the governed must arrive at opinions about what their governors want them to consent to. … Here we correspondents perform an essential service. In some field of interest, we make it our business to find out what is going on under the surface and beyond the horizon. …
“In this we do what every sovereign citizen is supposed to do, but has not the time or the interest to do for himself. This is our job. It is no mean calling. We have a right to be proud of it, and to be glad that it is our work.”
Yet Lippmann could be withering about journalism that fell short of his standards. In 1920 he and Charles Merz published an in-depth analysis of how the New York Times had covered the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. They found that the Times had consistently skewed coverage in favor of what its editors wished would happen — that the Bolsheviks would continue Russia’s involvement in the war against Germany, and then, after the war, that the various White Army factions would defeat the Bolsheviks.
“In the large,” they wrote, “the news about Russia is a case of seeing not what was, but what men wished to see.” They added: “From the point of view of professional journalism the reporting of the Russian Revolution is nothing short of a disaster. On the essential questions the net effect was almost always misleading, and misleading news is worse than none at all.”
Lippmann would be dispirited to see that these flaws are still with us, and that they have played out to disastrous effect over and over again. That was especially true during the run-up to the war in Iraq, when most news organizations accepted at face value the George W. Bush administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction. You could also see it in coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign, when Hillary Clinton’s reliance on a private email server was held up as an example of wrongdoing equal to Donald Trump’s racism, his boasts of sexual assault, and his corrupt dealings with his family’s charitable foundation.
Ninety-nine years after the publication of Liberty and the News, journalists are better educated, have higher professional standards, and are more likely to adhere to basic ethical rules. Lippmann surely played an important role in those developments. Yet deference to power and false notions of objectivity continue to plague the press, leading to coverage that falls short of serving even that portion of the public that seeks journalism rather than propaganda. Lippmann’s hopes remain unfulfilled.
*About a week and a half after this essay was published, I was paging through Thomas E. Patterson’s Informing the News when I came across this quote from Liberty and the News: “In an exact sense the present crisis in Western democracy is a crisis in journalism.” I have revised my lead sentence to credit Lippmann. Obviously I had seen the sentence and it had stuck in my head, but not so completely that I had remembered where I got it. Not surprisingly, Lippmann put it far better than I could have.
Amid the carnage in El Paso and Dayton, a smaller story played out this week. It’s worth recounting because it has much to tell us about where we are at as a nation — and about the challenges facing journalism as we try to figure out how to cover this awful moment in our history.
The story is about Cesar Sayoc, a Florida man who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for sending pipe bombs to a number of well-known Democrats and media organizations. Fortunately, the bombs did not detonate. In a pre-sentencing letter to the judge, his lawyers wrote that Sayoc was motivated in part by his devotion to President Trump.
“He truly believed wild conspiracy theories he read on the internet, many of which vilified Democrats and spread rumors that Trump supporters were in danger because of them,” according to the letter. “He heard it from the President of the United States. A man with whom he felt he had a deep personal connection.”
Sayoc, needless to say, is responsible for his own actions. But the particular direction in which his demons took him is worth pondering. For many years now, long before he began running for president, Donald Trump has been inflaming the passions of racial hatred, from the Central Park Five to the four congresswomen known as “the Squad.”
Sayoc’s case is important because it bears directly on the massacre in El Paso, where a shooter killed 22 people in the name of a warped, racist ideology that sounded very much like what we hear from Trump on a daily basis — anti-immigrant and anti-“invasion,” with allusions to the so-called replacement theory popular on the far right that elites want to supplant white people with people of color. (No motive has been established in the Dayton shootings, which claimed nine lives.)
In the midst of all this, our leading news organizations remain perplexed at what to do. The New York Times, which on Monday published a valuable, eye-opening front-page story by Peter Baker and Michael D. Shear documenting the parallels between the shooter’s language and Trump’s, lapsed into normalizing this most abnormal of presidents just a few hours later.
Here’s how the lead headline for the next day’s print edition summarized Trump’s remarks, in which he denounced the very white supremacist forces he has fueled: “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism.” It was tone-deaf and offensive, and it was soon changed to “Assailing Hate but Not Guns.” But considerable damage had already been done, as the first headline set off a firestorm in media circles and on Twitter.
Jon Allsop, who writes the Columbia Journalism Review’s daily newsletter, called the original headline “particularly egregious” and quoted a tweet from the freelance journalist Yashar Ali: “I have never received more texts from furious NYT reporters/writers than I have tonight. They feel like their hard work is being sullied by a horrible headline. And they’re all blaming [executive editor] Dean Baquet.” As I’ve written previously, even though the Times’ reporting is unmatched, its tone in covering Trump is sometimes weirdly timid and deferential, as if it were covering a speech by Dwight Eisenhower in 1957.
The shootings also pose a dilemma because they weave together several different threads, each of which arguably ought to be covered in different ways. There is the publicity-seeking-gunman angle, which suggests that the media should minimize coverage to the extent possible so as not to inspire copycats. There is the white nationalist angle, which suggests just the opposite — that we need to know as much as we can about home-grown terrorism inspired by racism and hate. And, of course, there is the ever-present gun-control angle.
The story of how white nationalism has emerged as our leading terrorist threat appears to be breaking through. This Axios round-up shows how extensive the coverage has been in recent days. Never mind that white supremacists have always been more of a danger in the United States than Muslim extremists. What matters is that the media and public officials are finally talking about it, and the message appears to be resonating.
Gun control is another matter. We’ve been covering the story of government’s refusal to do anything significant about gun violence for many years now. If the public doesn’t understand that the main obstacles are the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party, then it just hasn’t been paying attention. Still, we can always do better.
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wonders if the time has come for journalists to take on more of an advocacy role. “Can the news media really go on a righteous crusade about gun laws — or about identifying white supremacy — while maintaining their roles as truth-tellers?” she asks. Her answer: “Maybe we in the news media don’t really expect to help achieve different results. But if journalism is to be true to its public-service role, we must.”
Sullivan’s view is ultimately an optimistic one, so perhaps I should end this right there. But we all know that the hopeful approach isn’t always the right approach. And so I’ll leave you with this essay in The Atlantic by John Temple, who was editor of the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News in Denver at the time of Columbine shootings in 1999 — the incident that, along with the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, set off the modern era of mass killings.
Temple tell us that “despite our dedication to the work, despite the countless investigations, projects, and special reports, it feels like nothing has changed. Columbine, if anything, opened a door that we can’t close. Copycats saw what happened and learned their own lessons.” He concludes: “Journalists feel the need to bear witness. But to the same horror, again and again? I can’t say anymore that I believe we learn from terrible things. I can say that I’ve seen the limits of journalism — and of hope. And I’m struggling with what to do about it.”
So here’s my short list of what we ought to do: Stop normalizing Trump and his hateful rhetoric. Tell the story of white nationalist terrorism. Push for gun-control laws, guided by experts who understand what works and what doesn’t.
And be humble enough to realize, as Temple does, that journalism can only accomplish so much.
The increasingly ugly contract negotiations between the Boston Newspaper Guild and Boston Globe management have taken a turn for the worse. According to Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal, union employees were scheduled to stage a lunchtime walkout today.
Meanwhile, the Guild’s executive committee announced this morning that it would file an unfair labor practices complaint against management with the National Labor Relations Board. The executive committee’s statement is as follows:
Contract negotiations between the Boston Newspaper Guild and Boston Globe Media Partners show the company has no intention of backing down from its draconian proposals.
After eight months of bargaining, the company still expects us to give up overtime, seniority, pay scales, job descriptions, severance, protections from having our jobs outsourced, and more.
The union would also lose the right to defend its members against management abuses.
The company has also stated that any wage increases would not be retroactive. Their negotiators even turned down a simple union request to extend the time vacations could be rolled over even though it would cost the company nothing.
All this is being done under the guise of creating a more “flexible and nimble” company. What it will do is create a more rigid working atmosphere with fewer rights for workers.
Given the slow pace of contract negotiations and the insulting strong-arm tactics used by the company’s lawyers, the Guild has decided file an unfair labor practice charge against the Globe.
We will accept nothing but a fair contract.
The Boston Newspaper Guild Executive Committee
The Guild represents about 300 employees. (Note: I’ve deleted a copy of the Guild’s complaint. It included several email addresses and phone numbers, and the content added nothing to the statement above.)
Following the completion of a long-anticipated deal to merge GateHouse Media with Gannett, GateHouse’s top two executives, Mike Reed and Kirk Davis, sent a confidential message to the troops, a copy of which was forwarded to me by a trusted source.
GateHouse and Gannett are the two largest newspaper publishers in the United States. By coming together, they have created a media colossus, albeit one whose decline continues apace. Reed and Davis’ message says in part:
We are incredibly proud of this team’s commitment to high-quality journalism and community leadership; this mission will remain at our core. The Gannett acquisition positions us as the leader in community journalism in the United States. In addition, we believe that together, we are well-positioned to address the profound changes our industry has faced in media consumption habits and advertising spend.
As you can see for yourself, the memo is mainly corporate boilerplate (and I don’t just mean the literal boilerplate on the second and third pages). For me, the main takeaway is that they say nice things about Gannett’s flagship, USA Today, which suggests that GateHouse — clearly the lead player despite being smaller than Gannett — isn’t going to mess around with Al Neuharth’s baby, at least not right away.
By the way, you’ll see a reference in the memo to BridgeTower Media, a name I was not familiar with. It turns out that’s the name for a GateHouse division that publishes B2B titles such as Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.
The newspaper analyst Ken Doctor broke the news of the impending merger over the weekend. Keep an eye on the debt the combined company is taking on. Doctor estimates that it could be as high as $2 billion, which would seem to suggest further cuts ahead regardless of what kinds of cost efficiencies GateHouse-Gannett is able to achieve. As I wrote for WGBHNews.org two months ago, when it first became clear that the two companies would merge:
When a chain takes on debt to keep buying more properties and extracts revenues from its individual papers in order to satisfy shareholders, there is simply less money available for journalism than there would be with independent ownership.
I don’t think this was necessarily a terrible day for local journalism. MNG Enterprises, the hedge fund-owned chain formerly known as Digital First, was kept at bay, and that’s not nothing. But neither was it a good day. Committed local ownership is the key, and this merger moves us that much farther away from it.