Near the Alewife Brook T station in Cambridge just before sunset earlier today.
President Trump, whose multifarious assaults on basic decency include mocking a disabled reporter in front of a crowd of hooting supporters, may have hit yet another new low. Neomi Rao, Trump’s choice to replace Brett Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, is an enthusiastic supporter of dwarf-tossing. Rao’s peculiar obsession with the practice of throwing short-statured people against Velcro walls was reported late last week by Stephanie Mencimer in Mother Jones.
As you might imagine, Rao, a veteran right-wing activist currently serving in the Trump administration, does not claim to take part in this humiliating and dangerous practice. Rather, she has argued on several occasions that dwarf-tossing should be a matter of choice, writing that it should be up to the tossee whether picking up a few bucks in some shady barroom is worth the risk to his health and his self-respect.
Rao explained her views several years ago at The Volokh Conspiracy, a libertarian legal blog, in which she criticized a ruling in France against a little person who wanted to take part in dwarf-tossing. Rao wrote that it “demonstrates how a substantive understanding of dignity can be used to coerce individuals by forcing upon them a particular understanding of dignity irrespective of their individual choices.” She added:
The issue is not whether laws prohibiting dwarf throwing, burqa wearing, prostitution, or pornography may be desirable social policy. Rather these examples demonstrate that the conception of dignity used to defend such policies is not that of human agency and freedom of choice, but rather represents a particular moral view of what dignity requires. These laws do not purport to maximize individual freedom, but instead regulate how individuals must behave in order to maintain dignity (and in the case of criminal prohibitions, stay out of jail).
The individual-rights argument may seem appealing. But it ignores all kinds of activities that society has decided to ban or regulate in order to protect not just the person taking part in those activities but also the rest of us — prostitution, as Rao notes, as well as drug use, cockfighting, underage drinking, casino gambling (until recently), practicing medicine without a license, and driving on the wrong side of the street. So it is with dwarf-tossing, which not only puts the person being tossed at risk of injury because of the spinal abnormalities present in most forms of dwarfism but also places others with dwarfism in harm’s way by normalizing a practice that should be considered beyond the pale.
I have skin in this game, though I hardly consider it a game. Our daughter, Rebecca, has achondroplasia, the most common type of dwarfism. My 2003 book, “Little People,” examines the culture and history of the dwarfism. Among the people I interviewed was Doyle Harris, a dispatcher at the University of Louisville and a former official with Little People of America, an organization for dwarfs and their families. As I wrote in the book:
Nearly twenty years ago, he [Harris] and some friends were waiting outside a Louisville nightclub. It was right around the time that dwarf-tossing — an Australian import that rears its ugly head wherever drunk, stupid men in their twenties gather — had first come to the attention of the media. “One of these guys came out — he was a little inebriated — and he went, ‘Oh, they’re going to have dwarf-tossing tonight. Well, let me practice,'” Harris recalled. “And the next thing I know, the guy literally picks me up and throws me out onto the grass. It was not a good situation. It was very demeaning to me. I was in fairly nice clothes, I was looking to go out, and I’m out in the grass, rolling around, getting grass stains and muddy. It was totally against my will.”
Florida, at one time the locus of dwarf-tossing in the United States, banned the practice in 1989. Incredibly, a state legislator proposed lifting the ban in 2011, dredging up the tiresome freedom-of-choice argument. As Angela Van Etten, a lawyer with dwarfism whose work helped lead to the original ban, wrote in The Huffington Post: “Dwarf tossing appeals to a lower instinct in people and creates a hostile environment in which Little People are disrespected and ridiculed. It legitimizes bully behavior.”
Exactly. Yet we now live in an environment in which bullying is not only condoned but indulged in by the president. In that respect, Neomi Rao seems like the perfect Trump appointment. According to Mother Jones, in addition to her fervor for dwarf-tossing, she holds retrograde views on LGBTQ rights and affirmative action and is an anti-regulation zealot. She should not be confirmed. But who will stop her?
Former Boston Globe editor Matt Storin once said there was nothing wrong with newspaper circulation that a depression and the return of the military draft couldn’t cure.
Storin was right about scary news driving circulation. The crisis (or the excitement, if you prefer) created by Donald Trump’s presidency has led to a substantial increase in the audience for journalism. Paid circulation has reached 4 million at the “failing” New York Times. The Washington Post last year reported it had signed up more than a million digital subscribers, a number that is presumably much higher today. Audience and contributions have risen at places like NPR and ProPublica.
But hold the applause. The flip side of Storin’s observation is that the improved fortunes for purveyors of high-quality journalism are fundamentally the consequence of national interest in national news. At the local level it’s a different story. Storin’s old paper, the Globe, reached 100,000 paid digital subscribers recently. That’s a significant milestone, but publisher John Henry continues to cut in order to minimize his losses. And a steady stream of Globe journalists has departed in recent months for the Times and the Post.
The situation is considerably worse elsewhere. The journalism business analyst Ken Doctor wrote at the Nieman Journalism Lab last week that the economics of local newspaperscontinues to deteriorate:
The year has already been marked by an unforeseen acceleration of decline in the core local daily newspaper business, both in advertising and in circulation. At the same time, the hushed whispers of a local news emergency have grown louder. There’s talk — both public and private — of the need to raise huge amounts of money in order to address a crisis a decade in the making.
In casting about for solutions, Doctor looks mainly at the supply side, such as initiatives from the likes of Report for America (co-founded by Charles Sennott’s GroundTruth Project, a WGBH affiliate), which is placing young journalists in underserved areas along much the same lines as Teach for America. And there’s no question that such ideas are needed, along with new forms of nonprofit and for-profit funding.
But what about the demand side? Storin’s sardonic observation as well as the success of high-profile news organizations suggest that interest in news has been nationalized in a way that is similar to other aspects of American culture. These days, voters are more likely to choose congressional candidates based on whether they support or oppose President Trump than on local issues. We shop at Amazon, eat at chain restaurants, and write columns just like this one at Starbucks rather than, say, the local library or independent coffee shop. Given the nationalization of just about everything, how many people still care about what is taking place in their neighborhood or their community?
This is not a new phenomenon. Years ago, before the internet became the primary way by which we engage with news, an academic study found that consumption of local journalism decreased among the educated elite whenever the national edition of The New York Times expanded into a new region. After all, it’s hard for the latest wrangling among city council members to compete with the outrage of the day from Washington.
Yet we live in neighborhoods and communities, not Washington, and what happens at the local level matters a great deal. Like other media observers, I have written about the need to bolster local journalism and save newspapers from the clutches of corporate chains controlled by hedge funds. But getting ordinary people to care about what’s happening in their backyard may prove to be just as much of a challenge.
“It’s not that educated people have ceased thinking it’s important to get news,” the journalist Mark Oppenheimer once told me. “It’s that now they feel that NPR fills that vision.”
So what is to be done? These days you hear a lot about encouraging media literacy. And certainly it’s important to help people understand what’s quality and what’s crap, what’s real and what’s fake. But civic literacy matters even more. After all, you can’t get people interested in news about what’s taking place at city hall and at local neighborhood councils unless they understand why they matter.
The Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam wrote in his landmark 2000 book on the decline of civic engagement, “Bowling Alone,” that people who are engaged in civic life — voting in local elections, taking part in volunteer activities, attending religious services, or engaging in any number of other activities — are also more likely to read newspapers. “Newspaper readers,” he wrote, “are machers and schmoozers.”
What we need today is to turn those machers and schmoozers back into readers of their local newspapers.
I was puzzled as I watched the returns roll in from Tuesday’s midterm elections. For weeks, the polls had pointed to a solid Democratic win in the House, continued Republican control of the Senate, and a tough slog for rising Democratic stars in Texas, Georgia, and Florida. That’s exactly how it played out. And yet the pundit class was acting as though Hillary Clinton had just lost again.
“This is not a blue wave. This is not a wave knocking out all sorts of Republican incumbents,” said CNN’s Jake Tapper. NBC News’ Chuck Todd agreed: “It is not a blue wave.” Added New York Times columnist Paul Krugman: “Clearly Republicans are doing better than expected after a closing argument based entirely on fear and lies. This is going to be grim.” (Quotes compiled by Alex Shephard of The New Republic and Ryan Saavedra of The Daily Wire.)
Why such gloom over being right all along? I’d attribute it to irrational exuberance followed by the dope slap of cold, harsh reality. Even though the data predicted the outcome pretty accurately, I think a lot of commentators — rightly horrified by the deeply unpopular president’s lies, racist outbursts, and attacks on the media — believed in their heart of hearts that a hidden surge of new Democratic voters would sweep the countryside.
It didn’t happen. Nor should anyone have expected it. And by this morning, commentators appeared to have regained their equilibrium. “Republicans will pitch this as a split decision, because they gain seats in the Senate,” wrote Aaron Blake of The Washington Post. “It’s not; the Senate map was highly favorable to them, meaning that maintaining control of it was expected. Democrats just took over a chamber of Congress, and that’s a big thing for them, period.” Michael Brendan Dougherty put it this way at the conservative (but mostly anti-Trump) National Review:
No one should kid themselves. Republicans may have been more resilient in the Senate and in governor’s mansions than people expected, but it’s a big night for Democrats. Early exit polls show that polarization along the lines of sex is real, and a real problem for Republicans. Republicans have turned off women.
It would have been an even bigger night for Democrats were it not for structural disadvantages that artificially boost the Republican vote. As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne pointed out, Democrats won the popular vote in House contests Tuesday by about 9.2 percent — more than Republicans won in their big midterm victories of 1994 (7.1 percent), 2010 (7.2 percent), and 2014 (5.7 percent). The votes are still being counted, but if that 9.2 percent margin could be applied nationally, then Democrats would control the House by a margin of 237 to 201. The actual margin will fall well short of that.
House seats aren’t assigned on the basis of a national vote, of course. But partisan gerrymandering that favors Republicans, coupled by a Democratic electorate that is increasingly concentrated in overwhelmingly blue urban areas, means that Democratic victories invariably fall short of the party’s actual vote total. And that’s not even counting the enormous built-in problems they face in presidential and Senate elections, which I wrote about recently.
Three other quick observations about Tuesday’s returns:
1. Democrats prevailed in the House despite what is often described as the strongest economy in years, something that generally favors the party in power. Perhaps the economy wasn’t as much of an issue as it might have been because Trump is so unpopular. Or maybe it’s because the topline economic numbers mask the continued erosion of wages and widening income inequality. Most likely: both.
2. The most significant win for Democrats may have taken place in Florida, where voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to restore voting rights to 1.2 million ex-felons. Samantha J. Gross reported in the Miami Herald that Florida was only one of three states that permanently banned felons from voting. Given the vast racial disparities in the criminal-justice system, the change should provide a large boost for the Democratic vote in 2020.
3. Two Democratic African-American gubernatorial candidates, Stacey Abrams of Georgia and Andrew Gillum of Florida, appear to have fallen just short of victory. (Abrams, also victimized by voter-suppression efforts, had not yet conceded as of this morning, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.) Both candidates were the subject of over-the-top racist attacks. The Washington Post reported, “Robo-calls in Georgia featured a voice impersonating Oprah Winfrey and calling Abrams ‘a poor man’s Aunt Jemima.’ In Florida, robo-calls mimicked Gillum as jungle sounds and chimpanzee noises were heard in the background.” Nauseating — but also effective with the white racists Republicans needed in order to win.
The most important takeaway from the midterms is that the Trump presidency has been significantly diminished, and that investigations into possible wrongdoing on his part and that of his administration have gotten a new jolt of life. As David A. Graham wrote at The Atlantic, “While it will be all but impossible for Democrats to actually turn any of their priorities into law, House control provides them a position to conduct strict oversight of the Trump administration and to further bog down an already sclerotic presidency.”
The punditocracy’s initial reaction was wrong, but that’s hardly a surprise. If you’re a progressive, a Democrat, or just an appalled critic of the president, imagine what today would be like if Republicans had hung on to the House. Tuesday’s results were good for accountability — and, thus, for the country.
For local and regional news organizations, nothing is more expensive — or more important — than investigative journalism aimed at holding government and other large institutions to account. Despite the economic challenges that continue to shrink the newspaper business, The Boston Globe continues to provide a steady stream of such stories. And over the past few days, the paper demonstrated the results of two innovative ways to fund such reporting.
First, on Saturday, the Globe published a major update on how Catholic bishops have failed in their response to the sexual-abuse crisis. The story, which appeared in print on Sunday, was reported and written by a team of journalists from the Globe and The Philadelphia Inquirer, with funding from the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. The institute, a nonprofit organization, owns the Inquirer and two sister media properties, the result of a gift from the late Gerry Lenfest in 2016. (I wrote about Lenfest’s legacy for the Globe after his death in August.) Here is how the Globe describes the partnership:
Boston and Philadelphia have been ground zero for the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal — both cities have endured years of church investigations, allegations, prosecutions, and lasting scars. Now, amid a rising tide of revelations about misconduct by US bishops, the Inquirer and Globe pooled their resources for a deeper look at the crisis. Reporters from the two newsrooms visited nine states, conducted scores of interviews, and reviewed thousands of pages of court and church records to produce this report. Funding for the effort came from the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Then, today, the Globe published a story by Jana Winter on attempts by hackers to penetrate voting systems across the United States. Fortunately, her reporting shows that officials are well aware of those attempts and that they appear to be on top of it. Equally interesting, though, is that Winter is the Globe’s Spotlight Fellow — a program funded by Participant Media, which produced the movie “Spotlight.” The fellowship, according to the online description, provides “awards up to $100,000 for one or more individuals or teams of journalists to work on in-depth research and reporting projects.”
As if to underscore the need for alternative funding for accountability journalism, the Globe unveiled a shrunken business section on Sunday, moving innovation columnist Scott Kirsner to Monday.
Kirsner’s column was usually the main event in the Sunday business section. Given that it will continue, this isn’t too much of a loss. But it does show that the Globe’s finances remain precarious, as publisher John Henry admitted when I interviewed him during the summer for WGBH News:
The Globe cannot ever seem to meet budgets — on either the revenue side or the expense side and I am not going to continue that. This has always been about sustainability rather than sizable, endless, annual losses. That is frustrating and due to a combination of mismanagement and a tough industry.
In such an economic environment, it’s essential that the Globe find new ways to pay for what really matters.
I’ll be back in Washington on Friday for the National Press Club’s annual book fair, which will be held from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. “The Return of the Moguls” will be among the titles featured, and sales will be handled by Politics and Prose. If you’re in the capital and would like to drop by, I’d love to see you. More information here.
It was an irresistible hook at a moment of horror: Squirrel Hill, the heavily Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh where a hate-mongering gunman killed 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday, was the home of the late Fred Rogers, the otherworldly host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
“It doesn’t just feel like a ‘Mr. Rogers kind of neighborhood’ — it was Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood,” wrote my friend and former Northeastern colleague Dina Kraft in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, whose bat mitvah was held at Tree of Life after her family’s regular synagogue burned down, recalled Jews and gentiles working together to put out the fire:
As Beth Shalom’s executive director told a reporter at the time: “I didn’t have to look — everyone came to me.” The line put me in mind of my favorite of Fred Rogers’ sayings. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”
Last summer we saw the Fred Rogers documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Rogers was not a major part of my life. I was too old for his original television show, and by the time we had kids the program was fading away. But I’ve thought about Rogers quite a lot since seeing the film and have wondered what this profoundly unhateful, uncynical children’s advocate would say about what is happening to us.
How might things be different if the Pittsburgh shooter had been exposed at the right time in his life to someone as devoted to the emotional development of children as Rogers? Or the conspiracy-minded Florida man who was arrested last week and charged with sending pipe bombs to high-profile liberal and media targets such as the Clintons, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, and CNN? Or the racist white Kentucky man who authorities say walked into a supermarket last week and murdered two elderly African-Americans — but only after he tried and failed to enter a black church?
Or — it has to be said — what if someone like Fred Rogers had been able to reach President Trump at a young age?
I find myself feeling more sad than angry. That sadness stems not just from the terrible events that have taken place during the past week but from the certainty that our president has helped stoke the right-wing lunacy that has been unleashed upon us. Trump does not care about the consequences of his words as long as he believes they will advance his own selfish interests.
There has been much speculation in recent days — renewed speculation, that is — as to whether Trump is an anti-Semite, notwithstanding the fact that some members of his own family are Jews. I think that’s the wrong question. So what if, in his heart, he does not harbor anti-Semitic views? What matters is that he is willing to use anti-Semitism when it suits him, just as he is willing to use racism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and misogyny. Meanwhile, anti-Semitism is on the rise, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Rich Lowry, a callow opportunist who passes for a responsible conservative by the low standards of our times, had the temerity to sneeringly ask on Twitter: “What’s even the theory supposed to be that Trump is an anti-Semite?” That brought about a devastating retort from the journalist Mehdi Hasan, who pointed out that Trump has engaged in such dubious behavior as consorting with white nationalists and attacking “globalists,” a euphemism for educated Jews.
Much of the Trump-inspired hysteria of the past few weeks can be tied to the president’s exploitation of the so-called caravan of Honduran immigrants who have left their country to escape violence. Never mind that they are in southern Mexico and that few of them have much chance of entering the United States. Trump and his sycophants on Fox News and elsewhere have conflated this into some sort of George Soros-financed (that is to say, Jewish) plot to flood the country with illegal aliens — I am using their term, not mine — so that they can vote for Democrats on Nov. 6. The alleged Pittsburgh shooter specifically cited this bizarre theory in a post on Gab, which has been described as a social platform for anti-Semites. Adam Serwer of The Atlantic explains:
The apparent spark for the worst anti-Semitic massacre in American history was a racist hoax inflamed by a U.S. president seeking to help his party win a midterm election. There is no political gesture, no public statement, and no alteration in rhetoric or behavior that will change this fact. The shooter might have found a different reason to act on a different day. But he chose to act on Saturday, and he apparently chose to act in response to a political fiction that the president himself chose to spread and that his followers chose to amplify.
Trump himself has doubled down on his rhetoric, tweeting that “Gang Members and some very bad people” are part of the caravan and repeating his dangerous assertion that the media (oops, sorry, just the “fake news” media) are “the Enemy of the People.”
No doubt Trump is scared. If the Republicans lose one branch of Congress in November, he will finally face the prospect of a serious investigation on Capitol Hill — an investigation that is almost certain to document all manner of wrongdoing. He is willing to say anything to prevent that from happening. As ugly as his rhetoric has been, it is likely to get worse — and damn the consequences. Josh Marshall, for instance, wrote the other day about a new Trump ad that reeks of anti-Semitism.
We have come a long way from Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. And we are all the worse for it.
The state of local journalism is grim — and the hedge funds that have scooped up hundreds of newspapers over the past decade have made things even worse than they otherwise might be.
That’s the conclusion of a new report from the University of North Carolina. Titled “The Expanding News Desert,” the study finds that corporate chains controlled by private equity and hedge funds cut more deeply, shut down more papers, and demonstrate less regard for journalism’s civic mission than was the case with “the historic practices of traditional print newspaper companies.” Here’s how the report’s author, Penelope Muse Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at UNC, describes the strategies pursued by what she calls these “new media barons”:
The standard operating formula often included aggressive cost-cutting, the adoption of advertiser-friendly policies, the sale or shuttering of under-performing newspapers, and financial restructuring, including bankruptcy. At the most extreme, their strategies have led to the closure of hundreds of local papers and diminished the important civic role of newspapers in providing reliable news and information that helps residents of a community make important decisions about governance and quality of life issues.
This has enormous implications for Greater Boston, where two leading hedge-fund-owned chains, GateHouse Media and Digital First Media, already control most of the local papers, and where a third, CNHI, has put its four dailies in the Merrimack Valley and on the North Shore up for sale. Those papers — The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, The Daily News of Newburyport, The Salem News, and the Gloucester Daily Times — are at risk of falling into the hands of either GateHouse or Digital First, which are likely to double down on the deep cuts that have already been made.
Digital First, controlled by Alden Global Capital, currently owns three papers in Massachusetts — the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg, The Sun of Lowell, and its most recent acquisition, the Boston Herald. Although I’ve written about Digital First on several occasions previously (for instance, see this), I was struck in reading the UNC report by just how bad things are.
Digital First’s profit margin in 2017 was 17 percent, far higher than that of other newspaper companies, including GateHouse. And it achieved that margin by destroying newsrooms — in some cases literally. The newsroom at the Fitchburg paper was shut down last year, with the paper’s journalists being told to work out of their homes. In the suburbs of Philadelphia, reporters at two Digital First papers “must work remotely,” Abernathy writes, “because the Pottstown Mercury’s mold-infested newspaper building has been condemned.”
The top-line numbers at Digital First are breathtaking. Between 2012 and ’17, employment at 12 Digital First papers decreased by 52 percent, from 1,766 to 849, according to a survey conducted by the NewsGuild. Yet as bad as that period was for the newspaper business as a whole, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that total newspaper employment dropped by about one-fourth from 2012 to 2016 — only about half the rate of journalistic job destruction at Digital First.
GateHouse, meanwhile, has expanded massively in recent years — from 379 newspapers with a total circulation of 3.1 million in 2014 to 451 papers and 4.3 million in circulation today. The company controls well over 100 community weeklies in Greater Boston and environs as well as dailies such as the Providence Journal, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham, and The Patriot Ledger of Quincy. According to the UNC findings, GateHouse’s decimation of the ProJo, which it purchased in 2014, has been especially brutal:
By July 2018, newsroom employment had been cut by 75 percent, bringing the staffing levels below 100. According to the NewsGuild-CWA, there were fewer than 20 reporters and columnists responsible for covering both state and city government.
GateHouse has also embarked on a strategy of selling business and marketing services to advertisers through subsidiaries of its hedge-fund owner, Fortress Investment Group — “raising questions,” as the report puts it, “about the role of a local newspaper’s sales department in supporting local businesses.” Readers are fleeing GateHouse’s shriveled papers. Revenues, profits, and share prices are all down. All of that calls into question, Abernathy writes, whether GateHouse’s aggressive acquisition strategy is sustainable.
The depredations of Digital First and GateHouse are taking place amid the cratering of local journalism nationwide. Among the UNC report’s findings:
- About 60 daily newspapers and 1,700 weeklies have closed since 2004, an overall decline of about 25 percent.
- Nearly 200 of the 3,143 counties in the United States no longer have a newspaper. More than 2,000 counties have no daily paper.
- Residents in these “news deserts” — that is, areas without newspapers — “are generally poorer, older and less educated than the average American.”
What can be done about the decline of local journalism and the rise of predatory hedge-fund newspaper chains? There is no one answer. The report notes that LION Publishers (Local Independent Online News) counts about 525 local digital news operations, both for-profit and nonprofit. Some, such as the New Haven Independent, The Batavian of Batavia, New York, and VT Digger, a statewide project based in Montpelier, Vermont, do an outstanding job of covering local and regional news. Yet many such operations are tiny and, as the report notes, a 2015 survey found that one in four failed. Although you could argue that three in four surviving is actually a pretty good track record, that’s not nearly enough to water the news deserts that are spreading across the countryside.
“There is a compelling need,” Abernathy writes, “for philanthropic foundations, community activists, local government, concerned citizens and potential founders of nonprofit news organizations to work together from the beginning to identify communities most lacking coverage and the funding needed to sustain a start-up news organization in those communities.”
That would be a good start, as would programs to boost civic and media literacy, another recommendation of the report. Without quality local news, it’s hard for people to participate in their communities in a meaningful way — or even to understand why they should. Corruption runs amok. Apathy reigns. And the underpinnings of democracy rot away.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman enthusing over Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, Nov. 7, 2017:
He is much more McKinsey than Wahhabi — much more a numbers cruncher than a Quran thumper.
The New York Times reporting on Saudi Arabia’s brutal crackdown on dissidents under Salman, Oct. 20, 2018:
After the country [Saudi Arabia] announced economic austerity measures in 2015 to offset low oil prices and control a widening budget gap, McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm, measured the public reception of those policies.
In a nine-page report, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, McKinsey found that the measures received twice as much coverage on Twitter than in the country’s traditional news media or blogs, and that negative sentiment far outweighed positive reactions on social media.
Three people were driving the conversation on Twitter, the firm found: the writer Khalid al-Alkami; Mr. Abdulaziz, the young dissident living in Canada; and an anonymous user who went by Ahmad.
After the report was issued, Mr. Alkami was arrested, the human rights group ALQST said. Mr. Abdulaziz said that Saudi government officials imprisoned two of his brothers and hacked his cellphone, an account supported by a researcher at Citizen Lab. Ahmad, the anonymous account, was shut down.
McKinsey said the austerity report was an internal document based on publicly available information and not prepared for any government entity.
“We are horrified by the possibility, however remote, that it could have been misused,” a McKinsey spokesman said in a statement. “We have seen no evidence to suggest that it was misused, but we are urgently investigating how and with whom the document was shared.”
Last week I was asked a provocative question. What prompted it was a panel discussion of The New York Times’ 14,000-word exposé of how President Trump built his fortune on the dual foundations of his father’s wealth and of legally dubious tax schemes. The story was such a sensation that the Times printed it twice — once on Oct. 3 and again the following Sunday. Yet it seems to have barely resonated beyond the Times’ core readership.
Why, the panelists were asked, should we care? Thanks to the Trump effect, paid subscriptions are up at mainstream newspapers like the Times and The Washington Post, listenership has grown at NPR, and donations to nonprofit news organizations like ProPublica have increased. Wasn’t that good enough?
I responded that journalists want to do more than reach an audience. They want to have impact. They want to see concrete evidence that great reporting has an effect. That doesn’t mean journalists — good ones, anyway — want to change the outcome of elections or substitute their own judgment for that of the public. But it does mean that when they do important work, they want it to resonate beyond those already inclined to believe them without having it immediately dismissed as #fakenews by those on the other side of the social and cultural divide. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens in our current hyperpolarized environment.
I’m not sure what can be done. But New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, one of our most perceptive media observers, thinks he knows what’s behind much of it: a deliberate blizzard of lying by our president aimed at burying stories beneath an avalanche of falsehoods; a right-wing populist movement in the United States and Europe that dismisses anything coming out of the mainstream press as corrupt and elitist; and the decline of trust in the media, accompanied and exacerbated by the ongoing deterioration of journalism’s business model.
The heart of Rosen’s argument is contained within a recent post at his blog, PressThink:
In the United States the President is leading a hate movement against journalism, and with his core supporters it is succeeding. They reject the product on principle. Their leading source of information about Trump is Trump, which means an authoritarian news system is for them up and running. Before journalists log on in the morning, one third of their potential public is gone. No one knows what to do about it.
Of course, Trump wouldn’t be able to wield this kind of power over the truth if he didn’t have enablers in the media, principally Fox News. But here we are some three and half years since he rode down the escalator and into the center of our political life, and too many journalists still don’t know how to cover him. Not that there are any obvious solutions. But surely the editors at USA Today knew better than to publish his falsehood-filled op-ed piece last week. And mainstream outlets too often engage in coverage that normalizes this most abnormal of presidents.
A large part of what needs to happen, Rosen says, is to acknowledge precisely what Trump is doing. I’m enough of a traditionalist that I have been more comfortable with describing Trump’s “falsehoods” rather than “lies,” mainly because we have no way of crawling inside his head to determine whether he knows the difference. Far too often, though, Trump traffics in false information that has been thoroughly debunked so many times that he has to know better. Through mid-September, he had spoken falsely more than 5,000 times as president. It’s clear that many of those falsehoods are deliberate, and that he lies for a reason. Rosen, in a Twitter thread, explained what Trump is doing:
Flooding the system with too much news, much of it misleading or simply false, not only reduces the weight of any individual story; it has the further effect of keeping opponents in a pop-eyed state of outrage, which in turns shows supporters a hateful image of the other side.
And that is why journalists care not just about reaching their own pre-determined audience but in changing hearts and minds. In decades past, reporters made a difference in how we thought about civil rights, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. Now nothing seems to matter. The Times’ tax story, Rosen wrote in his Twitter thread, “is proving to be simultaneously devastating and harmless, a news condition previously unknown to presidents facing a check-on-power press.” Trump is a historically unpopular president, yet he continues to exert a mesmerizing hold on his base — a base that has proved impervious to facts.
The Times and the Post, in particular, are doing a magnificent job of telling the story of the Trump era. Those two papers have never been more important than they are today. Yet in a fundamental way they have ceased to matter. Democracy dies in darkness. But it might also die in the clear light of day if not enough people care — no matter how much our audience has grown or how many subscriptions we’ve sold.