The Buffalo horror raises thorny issues about hate speech and the media

Image via Today’s Front Pages at FreedomForum.org.

Correction: An earlier version of this post identified 4chan’s hosting service. In fact, it was a porn site that uses the name 4chan but is otherwise unrelated.

Our thoughts at this time need to be with the Black community of Buffalo — and everywhere — as we process the horror of one of the worst mass murders of recent years. We need to do something substantive about guns, racism and white supremacy. What actually happened, and what we can do to prevent such horrific events from happening again, must be at the top of our agenda.

This blog, though, is primarily about the media and often about free speech. So let me address some of the secondary issues. The shootings intersect with notions of hate speech, social media and the role of Fox News in mainstreaming dangerous racist ideologies such as so-called replacement theory, which holds that the left is trying to push out white people in favor of non-white immigrants in order to obtain an electoral advantage.

First, keep in mind that hate speech is legal. The New York Times today says this about New York Gov. Kathy Hochul:

When pressed on how she planned to confront such hate speech online, without impinging on First Amendment rights, Ms. Hochul noted that “hate speech is not protected” and said she would soon be calling meetings with social media companies.

Hochul is wrong, and the Times shouldn’t have used “noted,” which implies that she knows what she’s talking about. If hate speech were illegal, Tucker Carlson would have been kicked off Fox long ago.

What’s illegal is incitement to violence, and you might think whipping up racist hatred would qualify. In fact, it does not — and the very Supreme Court case that made that clear was about a speaker at a rally who whipped up racist hatred. Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) held that a ranting Ku Klux Klan thug demanding “revengeance” against Jews and Black people had not engaged in incitement because his threats were non-specific.

Hochul can cajole and threaten. And she should. But it’s going to be difficult to do much more than that.

As for the media themselves, that’s a morass, and it’s too early to start sorting this out. But the shooter reportedly fell down the 4chan hole during the pandemic, immersing himself in the racism and hate that permeate the dark corners of the internet. There are a lot of moving parts here, but it seems unlikely that a young mass murder-in-the-making was sitting around watching Fox, even if some of his rants paralleled Carlson’s rhetoric. Fox’s role is to mainstream such hatred for its frightened, elderly viewers. The radicalization itself happens elsewhere.

So, are we going to ban 4chan? How would that even work? If the government tried to shut them down, they could just go somewhere else. I’m sure Vladimir Putin would be happy to play host.

4chan represents the bottom of this toxic food chain; Fox News is at the top. In the middle are the mainstream social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter, Twitch (which allowed the shooter to livestream his rampage for nearly two minutes before taking it down) and the like. It’s too early to say what, if anything, will happen on that front. But it’s probably not a good time to be a billionaire who wants to buy Twitter so that there will be less moderation on the platform than there is currently.

As it turns out, that billionaire, Elon Musk, may be backing away.

The new ‘Beat the Press’ examines Zelenskyy’s use of social media

Image (cc) 2022 by id-iom

The latest edition of the “Beat the Press” podcast takes a look at how Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy’s brilliant use of social media has helped rally the world to his country’s side. Other topics include the Biden administration’s botched rollout of a disinformation governance board and The New York Times’ massive dive into Tucker Carlson — and more, including our Rants & Raves.

Emily Rooney is in the anchor chair, joined by Lylah Alphonse, Jon Keller and me. Please subscribe and give us a listen.

A New York Times editor will take charge of the Globe’s opinion section

The day after The Boston Globe was named a Pulitzer finalist in editorial writing, the paper has announced that it’s hired a new editorial page editor — James Dao, a senior editor at The New York Times. The announcement, reported in the Globe this afternoon, was made by chief executive Linda Henry.

Dao replaces Bina Venkataraman, who stepped down several months ago and is now a Globe editor at large. Venkataraman was involved in the launch of The Emancipator, the racial-justice website the Globe publishes jointly with Boston University.

I don’t know much about Dao except that, according to the Globe, he had a role in the Times’ decision to publish an op-ed piece by Sen. Tom Cotton in 2020 arguing that military force should be used against violent Black Lives Matter protesters. The episode led to the departure of editorial page editor James Bennet after it was revealed he had not read the Cotton op-ed before it was published. Dao stepped down as deputy opinion editor and took a high-ranking editing job in the newsroom.

Also of significance is that Dao is 64. I’m not saying that’s old (hey, he’s younger than I am), but he’s at an age where he probably wouldn’t be seeking to settle in for a lengthy stint. Perhaps Henry is hoping that he’ll identify and mentor a possible replacement. Henry’s full statement, forwarded to me by a trusted source, follows.

Hi team,

I am thrilled to announce that James Dao will be the Globe’s next editorial page editor, effective on July 5.

Jim brings great perspective to the Globe from his vast leadership experience across three decades and multiple news desks at The New York Times. Most recently, as the Metro editor, he oversaw coverage of one of the most consequential mayoral races in New York City’s history while leading a team of over 60 journalists in covering the ongoing challenges of the pandemic on the nation’s largest city. Previously, he oversaw the paper’s Op-Ed section and has served roles in leadership and in the trenches as an editor on the National desk, as the Times’s Albany bureau chief, a Washington correspondent, national correspondent and military affairs writer.

He is an award-winning journalist and has a passion for pushing the envelope on multimedia storytelling, an area in which we too, are deeply investing in as we aim to reach new audiences and amplify our powerful journalism in new media. Jim’s 2011 multimedia series, “A Year at War,” about the yearlong deployment of an Army battalion in Afghanistan, won numerous awards — including an Emmy — and he also was executive producer on the Netflix documentary, “Father Solider [sic] Son,” which was based on the life of an Amy sergeant first profiled in his series.

I’ve had the great honor of diving deep into conversation with Jim, and in that time, he has shared that his priorities in this role are bringing new approaches — from newsletters to podcasts — to an already outstanding opinion report. He plans for our editorial page to be at the forefront of sharing the groundbreaking ideas and innovation unfolding in our region, while continuing to hold our leaders accountable to the high standards that we expect.

As a proud Editorial Board member, I see first-hand the thoughtful dedication and passion our board has for the work that it does each day and the impact it has all across our region. In the last two years alone, Globe Opinion writers Alan Wirzbicki & Shelly Cohen and Abdallah Fayyad have been recognized as Pulitzer Prize finalists in Editorial Writing – truly remarkable accomplishments, and a testament to the talent and incredible contributions at all levels on this team.

I am grateful to Bina Venkataraman for her bold approach and leadership in this role over the last two years. Globe Opinion has grown and strengthened the editorial board, launched The Emancipator with BU, and has drawn national attention to further the impact of our content and voices. Thank you to the entire team for their commitment and patience while we conducted this thoughtful process to find the next leader who will steer Globe Opinion forward in new and exciting ways. Everyone stepped up, but I would like to particularly thank Marjorie Pritchard and Alan Wirzbicki for their leadership and extra effort to keep Opinion sharp and relevant.

Jim will now lead the charge in this exciting new chapter for the board, and we are so excited to have him get started in early July. He is copied on this note, so please join me in welcoming him to the Globe; he would welcome local bike route suggestions.

Thank you,

Linda

The Globe is named a Pulitzer finalist for editorials about post-Trump reforms

Photo (cc) 2021 by Brett Davis

A great editorial should persuade and effect change. But what if there is little or no chance that urgently needed reforms will be enacted? That was the challenge facing The Boston Globe editorial board last year when it published a series of essays arguing that the loopholes enabling Donald Trump’s corruption as president need to be closed so that nothing like it can happen again.

The editorials, by board member Abdallah Fayyad, were recognized Monday with a Pulitzer Prize finalist’s citation for “a persuasive editorial series arguing that the president of the United States could be prosecuted for crimes committed in office.” It was the closest that the Globe came to winning a 2022 Pulitzer. As Fayyad wrote:

Presidents in a democratic system of government are not meant to be able to extract personal profits from government service — or hand out pardons to imprisoned buddies, pervert justice, or foment an insurrection. That’s the promise of democracy: that it will be superior to these authoritarian tendencies of tyrants and kings. When these laws and norms are violated, they should be backed up by severe consequences if that democracy is to maintain its integrity. But right now, as it stands after Trump’s four years in office, American presidents can, in fact, commit all those abuses — and suffer little more than losing their Twitter account.

Nothing has changed. And given Trump’s continued vice grip on the Republican Party, which exercises effective veto power over any reform Congress might try to enact, nothing is going to change — at least not anytime soon.

Still, it’s worth laying down some markers. It was undeniably a good thing for a major journalistic institution like the Globe to explain why Trump was able to get away with all of it, and what it would take to prevent a future president (perhaps Trump himself) from engaging in the same kind of misconduct.

In the Globe’s own coverage of Monday’s announcement, Fayyad said: “It was surreal seeing my name up there on the broadcast alongside such great journalists. But I knew the project was deserving of this recognition because it wasn’t just my work; it took a whole team to make the series what it was — an amazing team at that.”

By the way, it looks like even the minor slap on the wrist Trump received by having his Twitter account canceled was only a temporary setback. Elon Musk, who’s poised to buy Twitter, said earlier today that he would allow the former president back onto the platform.

The New York Times is about to kill off its Today’s Paper web app

Some will mourn. Most probably didn’t even know it existed.

The New York Times is sunsetting its Today’s Paper web app on May 16. A simple listing of every story in that day’s Times, with a minimum of distractions, the app — which works on computers and tablets, but not on phones — has been a solid platform for readers who like to view the paper as it was published that day without a steady stream of updates and extra, non-print content.

I use it occasionally, but it’s been obvious for a while that no development resources were being put into it. The app looks pretty much the same (OK, exactly the same) as it did when it was unveiled in late 2013. The photos are muddy, too. There are better ways to access a listing of today’s Times — here’s one way, and there’s a section in the tablet and mobile apps as well. (There’s also a really bad replica edition that’s almost impossible to access.)

Here’s part of what Dante D’Orazio wrote at The Verge when the Today’s Paper app made its debut:

The web app seems designed for readers who appreciate the benefits offered by digital but miss the experience of reading a definitive daily edition. By limiting itself to content that’s selected to go into the paper each day, Today’s Paper should appeal to those who feel a bit overwhelmed by the full breadth of The New York Times‘ reporting. And for purists of the print edition, the app brings the Times‘ true sections, like the once-weekly “Sunday Styles” and “Science Times,” to the fore (the paper’s website and traditional apps are split into many generic sections). As a nice touch, users are presented with an image of each day’s print edition when they open the app, and select one to download for offline reading. Each section, meanwhile, offers a small glimpse at what the print layout looks like.

I believe there’s great value in offering that day’s paper, fixed in time. The Boston Globe offers two — count ’em! — replica editions, one accessible from the website and one as a standalone app. I’d give both of them a B-plus; they’d get a higher grade if you got a better view when you tapped on a story to read it. The Globe’s got a Today’s Paper listing on its website as well, but I never use it because it’s always missing things, like corrections.

The best Today’s Paper replica edition is offered by The Washington Post on its mobile and tablet apps — it’s smooth, and when you tap on a story, it opens up into a beautifully rendered article with photos. I wish every paper would do something like it.

Politico’s extraordinary scoop on the end of Roe signals dark days ahead

Photo (cc) 2014 by Thomas Hawk

A few words about the extraordinary scoop broken Monday evening by Politico that the U.S. Supreme Court has put together a draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, thus freeing states to ban abortion.

First, we all make fun of Politico. I make fun of Politico. It succeeded by taking the horse-race approach to politics and amping it up on steroids, which hasn’t been good for anyone. But Politico is a large news organization with many talented journalists, most definitely including Josh Gerstein and Alexander Ward, who broke the Roe story. It is possible to both generalize about Politico’s shortcomings and praise it when it produces extraordinary work.

Second, Brian Stelter, writing for CNN’s “Reliable Sources” newsletter, flagged a tweet from SCOTUSblog that is worth pondering: “It’s impossible to overstate the earthquake this will cause inside the Court, in terms of the destruction of trust among the Justices and staff. This leak is the gravest, most unforgivable sin.

Good. If the right-wing majority is going to turn back the clock on reproductive rights by 50 years, then let the entire court descend into scorpions in a bottle. The interests of society as a whole may be better served by the spectacle of a court in chaos. We all need to understand that this is now a rogue institution, undone by Donald Trump’s illegitimate choices of Neil Gorsuch, who holds the seat that should have gone to Merrick Garland, and Amy Coney Barrett, rushed through at the last minute.

Third, the draft decision cites the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson as a case whose outcome was so egregiously wrong that it had to be overturned in its entirety. Plessy failed to recognize the rights of Black Americans under the 14th Amendment and was in fact reversed in Brown v. Board of Education 58 years later. The decision to overturn Roe, though, is more like Plessy than Brown in that it takes away long-established constitutional rights.

Historian Heather Cox Richardson compares the draft opinion to the infamous Dred Scott decision, the 1857 Supreme Court case that took away what few rights Black Americans had at that time and paved the way for the Civil War. She writes in her newsletter:

And so here we are. A minority, placed in control of the U.S. Supreme Court by a president who received a minority of the popular vote and then, when he lost reelection, tried to overturn our democracy, is explicitly taking away a constitutional right that has been protected for fifty years. Its attack on federal protection of civil rights applies not just to abortion, but to all the protections put in place since World War II: the right to use birth control, marry whomever you wish, live in desegregated spaces, and so on.

The decision isn’t final yet, but I don’t see how we can expect it to change. This is a dark day in American history — the latest in many dark days. God help us all.

The Times’ Tucker Carlson series is a triumph of explanatory journalism

Tucker Carlson. Photo (cc) 2020 by Gage Skidmore.

Yes, I read The New York Times’ massive deep dive into Tucker Carlson, whose Fox News program was dubbed — accurately — as “what may be the most racist show in the history of cable news.”

Something as lengthy and detailed as this defies summary. If you don’t have the time or the inclination to slog through the whole thing, the “key takeaways” sidebar is quite good. I also recommend that you interact with the digital version of part three, in which you’ll hear Carlson’s own words, taken from more than 1,100 episodes.

Times reporter Nicholas Confessore has done a remarkable job of combing through Carlson’s past and present in an attempt to explain his rise from stylish but obscure magazine writer and failed television host to the most powerful force in cable. And Confessore offers partial answers, at least, to some aspects of the Carlson phenomenon. For instance:

Did Carlson change? Or has he always been this way and we just didn’t see it? Several years ago I wrote a piece for GBH News in which I recounted my own long-ago experience with Carlson, who came across as a charming raconteur with mainstream conservative-libertarian views.

Confessore’s answer, I think, is that Carlson really did change, although the seeds of his transformation were always there. His childhood sounds like it was truly miserable. And, in looking back, I have to say that my only personal experience with him was in how he interacted with a fellow white man. It doesn’t sound like he’s spent much time at all with people of color.

Does he really believe the terrible things he says? Or is it all an act? This comes up in conversation with friends and associates all the time — again, mainly because he seemed to be someone entirely different a generation ago. Confessore’s answer: it’s a little of both.

I thought Confessore was especially strong in his explanation of Carlson’s attempt to reinvent himself after his failed stints at CNN and MSNBC by launching The Daily Caller, a conservative news outlet that moved increasingly to the fringe right. Carlson comes across as someone who embraced extremism partly out of conviction and partly as a way to amuse himself. He does not seem like someone who ever gives much thought to the consequences of what he writes and says.

He is also portrayed as really, really wanting to make it in television, and he was probably willing to do just about anything to make his Fox gig a success. The late Fox impresario Roger Ailes reportedly once said that Fox was Carlson’s “last chance.” So Carlson’s shtick could be seen as a poisonous combination of his own flirtation with extremist ideas; delight at provoking the “elites” whom he hates; and desperate ambition.

What’s next? Would Carlson run for president? Confessore doesn’t get into that, even though he portrays Carlson as the logical successor to Trump — “Trumpism without Trump,” as he puts it. I don’t see why Carlson would take the next step given the riches and fame that have already come his way. But we don’t know whether he lusts for power, just as we didn’t know that Trump would aspire to authoritarian rule once he got past the novelty stage of what started out as a celebrity candidacy in 2015.

Confessore also does a good job of explaining how Fox has overcome the problems with advertisers that Carlson has experienced, and the role played by Lachlan Murdoch, who is far more ideological and extreme than his cynical, greed-crazed father, Rupert. The Times has produced a triumph of explanatory journalism.

William Loeb’s stepdaughter says the toxic publisher was also a child molester

William Loeb in 1974. Photo via the Spencer Grant Collection / Boston Public Library.

The stepdaughter of William Loeb has accused the infamously toxic right-wing Manchester Union Leader publisher of sexually molesting her when she was just 7 years old. Nackey Gallowhur Scagliotti, 76, also said that Loeb sexually abused his 6-year-old daughter, the late Edie Tomasko.

“I am now in my seventies and, when I am gone, there may well be nobody left with a first-hand account of Loeb’s abuse,” Scagliotti wrote in a statement that was reported by Loeb’s old paper, since renamed the New Hampshire Union Leader. “It took me many years to learn this one true thing about family dynamics: when dark secrets are kept they have a caustic effect, not just for those who were participants or bystanders at the time, but across generations.”

In response, the Union Leader has removed Loeb’s name from its masthead. This is a huge deal. Even though Loeb died 40 years ago, the paper had never repudiated the caustic hate he espoused on his pages, and its editorial page remains an important (if toned-down) voice of New Hampshire conservatism. As the editorial puts it:

William Loeb has nothing to do with the current New Hampshire Union Leader, but he has much to do with its history. Loeb famously said, “I don’t care what people think of me, just so long as they think.” We are certainly thinking now.

We know now that William Loeb is not a man to be celebrated.

My Northeastern colleague Meg Heckman, who wrote an excellent biography of Loeb’s widow and successor as publisher, Nackey Scripps Loeb, called “Political Godmother,” tweeted out a thread that offers some further insights:

William Loeb had such disdain for New Hampshire that he wouldn’t even live there — he lived in a mansion on Boston’s North Shore. Despite his patrician background, he was a racist from the old school, once publishing his birth certificate on the front page of the Union Leader in an attempt to prove he wasn’t Jewish. He also published a headline that read “Kissinger the Kike?” For more on Loeb, I recommend Kevin Cash’s 1976 book “Who the Hell Is William Loeb?” Among other things, Cash hints that Loeb may have had Nackey Loeb’s first husband murdered. Who knows? But it seems significant that Cash was not sued for libel.

In 1972, Loeb published a letter from then-President Richard Nixon’s dirty-tricks operation falsely claiming that Sen. Ed Muskie, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, had poked fun at “Canucks,” a derogatory term for French-Americans, a large ethnic group in New Hampshire. Muskie showed up outside the Union Leader’s headquarters and raged against Loeb — and, depending on whose account you believe, started to cry. Muskie’s campaign unraveled after that, leading to the nomination of Nixon’s preferred opponent, Sen. George McGovern.

The ugly tale told by Nackey Scagliotti adds to the Loeb lore, and certainly not in a good way. According to the Union Leader account, as well as conversations I’ve had with Meg, the story had been making the rounds for years, but couldn’t be pinned down as long as Scagliotti was unwilling to go on the record.

Now she finally has.

Just up at ‘Beat the Press’: Elon Musk, CNN+ and more

Elon Musk. Photo (cc) 2019 by Daniel Oberhaus.

The brand spanking new “Beat the Press” podcast is up, with our smoking hot takes on Elon Musk and Twitter, @LibsOfTikTok, the ethics of journalists who save the good stuff for their books, and the demise of CNN+. Plus our Rants & Raves. Hosted, as always, by Emily Rooney, with Joanna Weiss, Jon Keller and me. Available wherever you get your podcasts.

Looking back at the early promise of Twitter with Andy Carvin and the Arab Spring

With Twitter apparently on the verge of falling into the hands of billionaire troll Elon Musk (or maybe not), I thought back to a time when we thought it could be used as a force for good. More specifically, I thought back to a story broadcast on the “PBS NewsHour” 11 years ago (above) in which Andy Carvin, then with NPR, talked about how he was using it to track the Arab Spring uprisings that engulfed Tunisia and, later, Egypt and beyond.

This is a great story, and I hope you’ll take a few minutes to watch it. I used to show it to my students as a demonstration of how Twitter could be used to track news in real time. If I showed it to them now, it would be as a historical artifact.

Carvin began with about a half dozen people in the Middle East who he was already following on Twitter — what interviewer Hari Sreenivasan called Carvin’s “first ring of trust.” From there, Carvin looked at who those people were following. He’d engage in private conversations via DM to add to his circle, building a “mental map” and explaining: “It doesn’t mean that they’re all reliable. It does mean that they’re all talking to each other.”

Carvin also discussed his methods, some of which I would not recommend today given the toxic cesspool that Twitter has become. “I see my Twitter feed as an open newsgathering operation,” he said, explaining he would often retweet items with comments such as “Source?” or “Verified?”

In one such instance, he said he retweeted a sign being held by protesters in Iran that showed three prominent politicians photoshopped to make it appear they were about to be hanged. He was able to verify that the sign was real. Today, given that Twitter has long since grown beyond a small conversation among a fairly sophisticated community, that sort of activity would be called out for promoting misinformation and probably removed by Twitter. (But maybe not after Musk takes over.)

Carvin talked about what was then the surreal experience, now fairly common, of watching live coverage of the protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square while using Twitter to follow people on the ground. “You don’t necessarily get complete situational awareness,” he said. “But you get a pretty close proximity to it.” Just a few years later, in 2014, many of us followed the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement on Twitter as protests broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police killing of Michael Brown — protests that television didn’t catch up with for many hours.

Carvin also discussed the overwhelming nature of social media, saying he would check tweets on his phone while making dinner, lay off while eating with his family and reading to his kids, and then go back to TweetDeck until nearly midnight to keep up with the latest. Of course, Carvin was a journalist covering vitally important live events, and his routine was certainly less exhausting than being a reporter on the scene. If you leave that aside, though, it speaks to the difficulty we’ve all had of achieving any sort of work-life balance in the age of always-on digital technology.

“I don’t know how to juggle all this,” he said. “I’m kind of hoping that others will be able to come in and do similar things. I probably will reach some saturation point at some point. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting pretty close.”

Twitter remains a valuable tool for journalists, but it’s fallen far short of its initial promise. It’s hard to see how Musk is going to make it better. Even after reaching a deal to buy the platform, he was attacking top executives at Twitter, unleashing his army of trolls. It has not been a good week — or, as the Carvin video reminds us — a good decade for any of us who are interested in preserving some sliver of civil online discourse.