Van Jones should acknowledge that he was wrong about Clinton and Gabbard

Tulsi Gabbard earlier this year. Photo (cc) by Marc Nozell.

Van Jones is ripping Hillary Clinton for suggesting that Russian interests are seeking to use Tulsi Gabbard’s fringe presidential campaign to divide Democrats and help President Trump get re-elected. Here’s what Jones said on CNN:

If you’re concerned about disinformation … that is what just happened, just throw out some information, disinformation, smear somebody. She is Hillary Clinton. She’s a legend. She’s going to be in the history books, she’s a former nominee of our party, and she just came out against a sitting U.S. congresswoman, a decorated war veteran, and somebody who’s running for the nomination of our party with a complete smear and no facts.

In fact, there was nothing novel about Clinton’s contention. NBC News reported on Russian interest in Gabbard’s candidacy last February (via Sue O’Connell) in a detailed investigative report that begins:

The Russian propaganda machine that tried to influence the 2016 U.S. election is now promoting the presidential aspirations of a controversial Hawaii Democrat who earlier this month declared her intention to run for president in 2020.

An NBC News analysis of the main English-language news sites employed by Russia in its 2016 election meddling shows Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who is set to make her formal announcement Saturday, has become a favorite of the sites Moscow used when it interfered in 2016.

Now, I realize that CNN talking heads are required to speak many words, and sometimes things go haywire. But for Jones not to be aware of longstanding concerns about Gabbard and Russian propaganda is unacceptable.

Here is what Clinton said on David Plouffe’s podcast, in which she doesn’t name Gabbard but clearly points to her:

I think they [the Russians Republicans] have got their eye somebody who’s currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate. She’s a favorite of the Russians. They have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far.

Clinton also said Jill Stein, who ran a third-party campaign in 2016, was a “Russian asset,” which is an uncontroversial assertion to anyone who paid attention. As with Gabbard, we can’t know what Stein was thinking, but it’s simply a fact that Stein’s candidacy was pushed by RT and other elements of Russian’s propaganda machine.

What Clinton said was the opposite of fake news, and Jones should acknowledge it. Then again, liberal commentators like Jones have a huge incentive to rip other liberals so they will be seen as “fair.” And the Clintons have been everyone’s favorite punching bag for such exercises for nearly 30 years.

Correction and update: Thanks to this Wall Street Journal story and Dylan Smith’s transcript of the Clinton-Plouffe exchange, we now know that Clinton said Gabbard was being groomed by the Republicans, not by the Russians, and that she did not call Gabbard a “Russian asset” (that was reserved solely for Stein). So Jones was even more unprepared and offbase than I originally thought.

Cable pundits agree: Tuesday was a big night for Klobuchar and Buttigieg. Will it matter?

Amy Klobuchar earlier this year. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.

Amy Klobuchar was having her moment. The Minnesota senator, an also-ran since entering the presidential race in the middle of a snowstorm last February, turned in her strongest debate performance Tuesday night. And now she was pressing her advantage, appearing on all three cable news outlets to repeat her message that Elizabeth Warren isn’t the only candidate with big ideas. Moderates can have them, too.

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As the Herald sheds jobs, its hedge-fund parent embraces overseas outsourcing and AI

The news from MediaNews Group (formerly known as Digital First Media) just gets worse and worse. Jim Clark writes that not only has he been laid off from his position as a sports copy editor at the Boston Herald, but that the Herald is “eliminating its copy desk positions.”

Meanwhile, Julie Reynolds, the go-to source for all things MediaNews, reports for The Intercept that the chain — owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital — is moving in the direction of outsourcing its page-design jobs overseas and covering high school sports with artificial intelligence.

“Now it’s outsourcing California news design to the Philippines, paying pennies on the dollar for work that once employed professionals who lived in the communities they served,” Reynolds writes.

There is no bottom.

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A local news experiment in Haverhill may fall victim to economic woes

Tim Coco in the WHAV studio. Photo (cc) 2014 by Dan Kennedy.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

At a time when local news is in danger of being snuffed out by corporate chain ownership, WHAV Radio in Haverhill has established itself as a worthy alternative. Built by a journalist and advertising executive named Tim Coco, the independent nonprofit provides news and community information over the air and online.

Now, though, the station is in crisis. Annual costs have risen to about $300,000, considerably more than the $200,000 Coco — who runs the station without a salary — has been able to generate in revenue. If there isn’t a turnaround by Thanksgiving, he says, the station may cease operations.

“Our current membership drive isn’t gaining much traction,” Coco said via email. “Some cite the lack of tax deductibility with higher allowed standard deductions. Our major sponsors are as much as four months late in fulfilling pledges, and we have lost some others as they merge with larger organizations.” (Click here for my full Q&A with Coco.)

WHAV traces its Haverhill roots to the years after World War II, when the station was founded by The Haverhill Gazette, then an independent daily newspaper. Coco fell in love with the station when he was a high school student and began covering news there. The morning DJ in those years was the future television personality Tom Bergeron, who has come home on several occasions to help Coco with fundraising drives.

The original WHAV went off the air in 2002, but Coco acquired the call letters and began operating it as an internet station in 2004. Ten years later he ramped up his ambitions, reorganizing it as a nonprofit and, in 2016, adding a low-power FM signal at 97.9 FM. The station features news, community call-in shows and classic-hits music.

WHAV’s expansion coincided with the shrinkage of the city’s newspapers. Today The Haverhill Gazette is a weekly that is part of the daily Eagle-Tribune, headquartered in nearby North Andover. Their corporate owner is CNHI, a national chain of daily and weekly newspapers based in Montgomery, Alabama. The papers no longer have an office in Haverhill.

Although you couldn’t call Haverhill a “news desert,” the term used to describe communities without any news coverage, there is no question that WHAV has helped fill a gap that widened as the city’s newspapers reduced their presence. (In 2013 I wrote about WHAV and Haverhill’s newspapers as part of an assessment of the city’s media. In 2014 I recorded a video interview with Coco.)

“The need for a vibrant, competitive and thorough local news source was clear,” Coco said. “These have been WHAV’s goals in providing expanded online coverage with text, photographs and streaming audio at WHAV.net in 2014, simultaneous postings on all major social media, cable television affiliates and the permitting and launch of 97.9 WHAV-FM in 2016. The restoration of WHAV on radio also returned local news twice-an-hour weekdays, weather, community calendar every hour around the clock, a live morning show, local talk and live broadcasts of city council and school committee meetings and all Haverhill High School football games — home and away.”

And WHAV has developed an audience. According to internal metrics that Coco shared with me, some 184,000 unique visitors accessed the station’s website during the past 30 days — an impressive figure given the operation’s small geographic footprint. “Local news is a web traffic driver,” Coco said. “Our original reporting of breaking news, particularly a murder Saturday at a nursing home, drove web numbers to a new high.”

My own interest in Haverhill was originally rooted in a different local news concept — the Banyan Project, an idea developed by Tom Stites, a veteran journalist who has worked as an editor at The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune. Stites hoped to begin cooperatively owned local news sites across the country, starting in Haverhill. Unfortunately, after years in the planning stages, Haverhill Matters, as the site is known, has yet to make it off the launching pad. Here, for instance, is a story I wrote about Banyan for Nieman Lab in 2014. Not much has happened since then.

Coco was originally a member of the steering committee for Haverhill Matters but left in frustration. “I hoped Haverhill Matters and WHAV could launch together — you know, strength in numbers,” he said. “That group got lost in analysis paralysis and never published a single news story. In the end, Haverhill Matters tied up many donors with the promise of an imminent launch. Some are still waiting even though WHAV sure could use their support.”

But the notion that Banyan somehow steered revenues away from WHAV is disputed by John Cuneo, who serves as president of the Haverhill Matters board. “I do not believe we are a threat to WHAV.net,” Cuneo told me, adding that, if anything, WHAV’s presence made it more difficult for Haverhill Matters to raise money. “I wish Tim all success,” Cuneo said. “He’s been very dedicated for many years in successfully bringing local news to Haverhillians.”

Stites, despite multiple setbacks over the years, still remains hopeful that grant money will materialize that would enable the Haverhill co-op to begin covering news. “A new Banyan suitor has appeared,” Stites said. “What was looking like the end of the road might not be the end.” The idea of a news co-op run in a way similar to that of a food co-op or a credit union remains intriguing, and I hope Stites and the Haverhill Matters folks finally get to try it out. But it has been an awfully long time.

As for WHAV, Coco hopes that going public might shake loose some money and allow him to keep covering the news. “The people at the foundations need to give nonprofit, local news radio another look, especially those stations like WHAV that have committed to multimedia approaches and in poorer and, if I may be so bold, undereducated communities,” he said. “It took 20 years to restore WHAV, so it may take time.”

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Teamsters to protest what they call ‘outsourcing’ of union mailroom work at the Globe

Labor unrest continues at The Boston Globe as the Teamsters schedule a rally outside the Taunton printing plant for today at 4 p.m. to protest what they call a plan to outsource union mailroom work.

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Update: Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal reports that the Teamsters worry that the outsourcing of Globe mailroom jobs could be the first step toward eventually closing the Taunton plant. (They may be right.)

7 stories you might have missed while the media went wild over impeachement

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Impeachment has swallowed the news whole. In a world beset by climate change, right-wing populism, and rising tides of immigration, the overwhelming issue in the U.S. media is the burgeoning Ukraine scandal and whether it will take down President Trump.

As compelling as the impeachment story is, there’s a danger that these other issues will be overlooked. In the long run, the fate of our planet is considerably more important than the fate of our president.

Last week I asked my Northeastern University journalism students to identify an undercovered story and to explain their choice. Some of what they told me was predictable; some of it was surprising. Greta Thunberg’s climate activism? Of course. Gender-neutral Barbie dolls? Who knew? (And how cool is that?)

What follows is a list of seven major stories my students thought should have gotten more attention. The rankings are mine, but the ideas are all theirs.

7. Climate change. The question of whether the world will still be inhabitable decades from now comes in last on my list simply because it did get quite a bit of coverage last week. A major United Nations report and Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN Climate Action Summit were both major news events. But even though those topics weren’t exactly undercovered, climate change might have been — and probably should have been — the top story of the week.

“The warming climate is killing coral reefs, supercharging monster storms, and fueling deadly marine heat waves and record losses of sea ice” is how The Washington Post summarized the new report.

By week’s end, The Boston Globe published a massive multimedia feature on how climate change is affecting Cape Cod. There seems to be little doubt that global warming has emerged as a major issue for the media. Even so, it should be treated as by far the biggest story of our time — and last week’s developments should have received more attention than they did.

6. The vaping crisis. As with climate change, there was no shortage of stories about the vaping crisis, which has led to unexplained illnesses and deaths across the country. President Trump is seeking to ban most types of flavored e-cigarettes. In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker has imposed a four-month moratorium.

As with climate change, the vaping crisis would rank higher on our undercovered list except that it has in fact received a great deal of coverage. But has it been enough? Given how prevalent vaping has become, especially among young people, the story arguably deserves even more attention than it has received.

5. Gender-neutral Barbie. The toymaker Mattel announced last week that it would introduce a new set of gender-neutral dolls for, as The New York Times put it, “boys, girls and children in between.” The new line, called Creatable World, comes in different skin tones and hair styles and may be dressed any way a child likes.

“Toys are a reflection of culture and as the world continues to celebrate the positive impact of inclusivity, we felt it was time to create a doll line free of labels,” said Kim Culmone, a Mattel senior vice president, in a statement on the company’s website. “Through research, we heard that kids don’t want their toys dictated by gender norms. This line allows all kids to express themselves freely which is why it resonates so strongly with them.”

In a culture in which it’s still difficult, even dangerous, to be transgender (as we will see below), Mattel has taken a major leap forward toward celebrating all kids.

4. Unrest in Venezuela. Several months ago, the rising opposition to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was a daily news story. Then again, at that time the U.S. government was paying a great deal of attention to the unrest, with members of the Trump administration even suggesting that the United States might intervene militarily.

The White House has lost interest, and thus so, too, have the media. But the standoff between the authoritarian Maduro government and the opposition has not been resolved. As recently as late last week, the BBC reported that the U.N. Human Rights Council would investigate reports of violations, “including executions, disappearances and torture.”

It is often said that the U.S. press doesn’t cover the world; rather, it covers the United States in the world. The situation in Venezuela is every bit as disturbing as when the White House was interested in it. The media should cover it accordingly.

3. The right to be forgotten. The Court of Justice of the European Union last week issued a ruling that will have a significant, positive impact on free speech in the United States: the court ruled that European laws mandating the “right to be forgotten” could not be enforced outside the E.U.

The right to be forgotten requires Google and other search engines to delete information about certain people “when their privacy rights outweigh the public’s interest in having continued access to the information,” according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a U.S.-based free-speech organization. The court ruled that such laws cannot be enforced outside the E.U., which means that search results in the U.S. and elsewhere will remain intact.

“The ability of one nation to require a search engine to delist results globally would prevent users around the world from accessing information they have a legal right to receive under their own country’s laws,” said the EFF in a statement hailing the ruling. “That would allow the most speech-restrictive laws to be applied globally.” Thankfully, the European court decided otherwise.

2. Deal struck on asylum-seekers. According to the Associated Press, five European countries — France, Germany, Italy, Malta and Finland — agreed to allow migrants fleeing Libya to disembark from the ships that had rescued them. The deal, under which the migrants will be spread across the five countries, expires Oct. 8. But officials from the five countries hope other E.U. members will soon join them.

“Migrants aboard the Ocean Viking jumped in joy and relief after hearing that they will be allowed to disembark at the port of Messina, Sicily, a week after rescue,” the AP reported. “The 182 men, women, and children, including a newborn, aboard the humanitarian ship run by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders were expected to arrive by Tuesday [Sept. 24].”

With massive waves of immigration from poorer to richer countries emerging as one of the defining narratives of our era, the five-nation agreement represented a rare, if temporary, piece of good news.

1. An “epidemic” of transgender killings. The New York Times last Friday published a chilling report: at least 18 transgender people, most of them women of color, have been killed in the United States since the start of 2019. The American Medical Association is referring to the killings as an “epidemic.”

Although the Times deserves credit for shining a spotlight on the violence, it should be noted that the story appeared on page 11 of the print edition — the very definition of undercovered. Nor have other news organizations given the story the attention it deserves.

The killings come at a moment when transgender people are more visible and mainstream than ever before. Unfortunately, that may be part of the problem, with LGBTQ activists saying that the killings could be in reaction to that trend. “The increased visibility is a signal for them that they need to double down in fighting back,” Beverly Tillery, executive director of the Anti-Violence Project in New York, told the Times. “We’re definitely seeing what we would call a backlash.”

The seven stories I’ve listed here are admittedly somewhat random. There were more chosen by my students that I could have picked from — an investigation by U.S. officials that found Syria used chemical weapons last May; the ongoing, nearly forgotten recovery from Hurricane Dorian; unresolved political stalemates in Britain and Israelforest fires in Indonesia, perhaps related to climate change; EEE, a serious mosquito-borne illness that has broken out in parts of New England; and the news (OK, not exactly new) that U.S. cities are losing 36 million trees each year.

No doubt you could come up with your own list. The point is that it’s a big world out there. The media aren’t exactly ignoring these stories; everything on my list received some mainstream coverage. These days, though, you have to chop through the impeachment weeds to see what’s underneath. Let’s start chopping.

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How the press is helping to turn the Ukraine scandal into just another partisan brawl

Joe Biden in Iowa earlier this year. Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

For the first time in Donald Trump’s 33-month presidency, his impeachment seems possible — maybe even probable. The dam that withstood the Mueller Report has broken in recent days over the news that Trump may have withheld military aid from Ukraine in order to strong-arm that country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, into investigating Joe Biden. As “Never Trump” conservative Tom Nichols put it in The Atlantic: “If this in itself is not impeachable, then the concept has no meaning.”

Yet media fecklessness (and worse) has already pretty much guaranteed that the scandal will be seen in entirely partisan terms. To wit:

• In an appearance on MSNBC last Friday, New York Times reporter Kenneth Vogel breathed life into a discredited theory promoted by Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani that the real story is Biden and his son Hunter’s dealings with Ukraine. Vogel called it “a significant liability for Joe Biden,” adding that Giuliani should back off “and just kind of leave the reporters to do the work on it.”

• On Monday, NPR.org published a headline that was a parody of false equivalence: “What’s The Ukraine Story About? Trump Says It’s Biden. Democrats Say It’s Trump.” I captured an image of it as I was gathering string for this column. Good thing. Because within a few hours, someone had the sense to change it to “Trump And The Ukraine Call — What Happened And What’s Next?” (The old headline is still in the URL.)

• In the fever swamps of the right, Trump’s enablers are working hard to transform this into another Benghazi/ Uranium One/ “her emails” distraction. In The Hill, John Solomon wrote that the Obama administration leaned on Ukrainian officials to drop an investigation into Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company that had Hunter Biden on retainer. “Politics. Pressure. Opposition research,” Solomon wrote. “All were part of the Democrats’ playbook on Ukraine long before Trump ever called Zelensky this summer.” Naturally, Solomon popped up on Fox News on Monday evening, sharing his conspiracy theories with a rapt Sean Hannity.

As Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan put it: “Instead of snuffing out false and misleading claims, news stories give them oxygen. Then pundits come along to fan the flames — while simultaneously bemoaning what’s happened to our democratic norms.”

The Biden-Ukraine story is incredibly complicated, but the simplified version is this: Then-Vice President Biden served as the point man to pressure the Ukrainian government into removing that country’s prosecutor general, Victor Shokin, who had been investigating Burisma. Officials in both the United States and the United Kingdom were frustrated with Shokin for not moving aggressively enough in pursuing corruption. Shokin was in fact removed, and Biden took credit for it — more than he deserved, but that’s our Uncle Joe. There is no evidence that Hunter Biden benefited in any way or that the elder and younger Bidens even talked about the Burisma matter beyond one brief, non-substantive exchange.

Now this is where you, the fair-minded reader, probably find yourself wondering if there really is anything to the Biden angle. I wondered myself. What I discovered is every major fact-checking organization has concluded that neither of the Bidens did anything wrong. It’s fair to observe that Hunter Biden traded on his family connections in an unseemly way, collecting some $50,000 a month to serve on the Burisma board of directors. But as best as journalists have been able to determine, nothing illegal or corrupt took place.

You can check for yourself: Here is what Vox (“bogus”), PolitiFact (“nothing”), The Washington Post (“no equivalency”), The New York Times (“no evidence”; by Ken Vogel, no less) and The Wall Street Journal (“Neither Mr. Biden nor his son have been accused of any wrongdoing”) have had to say about the allegations against the Bidens.

It seems like a long time ago now, but this all started coming into focus two weeks ago, when U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, publicly charged the Trump administration with violating the federal whistleblower law by not allowing an official who reportedly had damaging information about the president to come forward.

It all unraveled pretty quickly last week, with the Post and the Times moving the story forward and the Journal hitting what the Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop called “the motherlode”: the news that Trump had pressured Zelensky in a phone call last July, repeating about eight times that Zelensky should investigate the Bidens.

Trump’s various explanations for what happened have shifted. He’s admitted to putting the squeeze on Zelensky to go after the Bidens, but his latest explanation for suspending some $400 million in military aid was that he wanted the Europeans to contribute more. He also has promised to release the transcript of his call with Zelensky sometime today. It’s not clear what if any steps are being taken to ensure that the transcript is accurate. Nor has the whistleblower information been turned over to Congress.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced late Tuesday afternoon that the House will begin a formal impeachment inquiry. In the weeks and months ahead, it is crucial that journalists do their job and not let themselves be sidetracked by Trump’s diversionary tactics about Joe and Hunter Biden.

Trump has actually admitted to demanding that a foreign government investigate one of his political opponents — as shocking a development as anything we have learned about Trump in his four-plus years as a national political figure. It remains to be seen if he also threatened to withhold military aid if the Ukrainians failed to comply, though the evidence suggests that’s exactly what he did.

Of course, if any legitimate concerns about the Bidens emerge, they should be investigated. What the press needs to avoid, though, is the urge to balance truthful information about Trump with his false accusations about one of his leading Democratic challengers.

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Fact-checking in the Age of Trump: Why false equivalence is harming democracy

Image (cc) by PolitiFact

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Have the media engaged in false equivalence when it comes to political lying? Do fact-checkers nitpick statements by Democrats in order to seem fair and balanced when they go after President Trump’s numerous and blatant falsehoods?

That proposition might seem ludicrous. After all, The Washington Post last month announced that Trump had made more than 12,000 false or misleading statements since his inauguration in 2017. Daniel Dale of CNN tracks every Trumpian falsehood — writing, for example, that the president “made at least 26 false claims” at a rally in New Mexico on Monday. PolitiFact has rated fully 69 percent of Trump’s public utterances as false to some degree, and 14 percent as being so at odds with reality that they have earned the coveted “Pants on Fire” rating.

And that’s just the tip of the journalistic iceberg. Indeed, if the media have told us anything about Trump over these past few years, it’s that he spews lies so freely that his every word and every tweet is suspect. So what do Democrats have to complain about?

This: Despite the media’s admirably tough-minded stance on Trump’s falsehoods, they are nevertheless holding Democrats to a much higher standard. Most politicians exaggerate, butcher the facts or shade the truth, and journalists should take note when they do. But the press should also be careful to point out the difference between standard-issue rhetorical excesses and the sort of gaslighting that Trump engages in on a daily basis.

Last week Michael Calderone of Politico wrote an important story about Democratic complaints regarding the fact-checkers’ embrace of false equivalence. He began with the example of Bernie Sanders’ claim that “500,000 Americans will go bankrupt this year from medical bills.” The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column awarded three Pinocchios (out of a possible four) to Sanders — not because he was completely wrong, but because medical bills were only one factor in those 500,000 bankruptcies. Meanwhile, Calderone noted, the Post also gave Trump three Pinocchios for claiming that large swaths of his border wall have been already built when, in fact, none of it has.

The Sanders example is a matter of factual interpretation. The Trump example is somewhere between a hallucination and a lie. Yet they each got the same rating. How can this be?

One explanation is that journalism, steeped as it is in notions of fairness and balance, is unequipped for the extraordinary challenge of the Trump era. Calderone offered several other instances of Democrats’ words being parsed for shades of nuance so that they could be labeled as lies. He also wrote that “several prominent fact checkers said they don’t believe their job has changed when it comes to holding politicians accountable for their words on the stump and in TV studios, despite Trump’s persistence falsehoods.” And he quoted PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan as saying, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” OK. But everything is not the same.

Consider an example that Calderone didn’t cite: Joe Biden’s recent mixing up of three separate stories about honoring a heroic soldier who had tried to save a comrade in Afghanistan. Yes, Biden botched it pretty badly, but the essential truth of what he was trying to say came through. Yet The Washington Post headlined it, “As he campaigns for president, Joe Biden tells a moving but false war story.” False? Not really. More like Biden being Biden, lacking the discipline to master the details and not understanding why it matters.

Or how about two years of obsessing over Hillary Clinton’s private email server while the news that Trump uses an unsecured cell phone, reported last October in The New York Times, got about two minutes’ worth of attention — even though Chinese and Russian spies were reportedly listening in on Trump’s calls.

Those last examples aren’t about lies and fact-checking. But all of this is grounded in a larger, more enduring issue — accusations of liberal bias on the part of conservatives, and the duck-and-cover response from too many journalists whose politics may indeed be liberal but who bend over backwards to torment liberal politicians. Eric Alterman, in his 2003 book, “What Liberal Media?,” called it “working the refs,” and it goes back at least to Spiro Agnew’s famous nattering nabobs of negativism speech of 1970.

In 2012 — a more innocent time — I wrote in The Huffington Post that one of the big problems with fact-checking was that politicians’ false or partly false statements were rarely full-blown lies, but that ratings like Pinocchios or “Pants on Fire” suggested that every falsehood was a lie. “The fact-checkers are shifting from judging facts to indulging in opinion, but they’re not necessarily doing it because they want to,” I wrote. “They’re doing it because politicians don’t flat-out lie as frequently as we might suppose.” Now we have a president who lies so promiscuously that the fact-checkers seek out minor factual discrepancies among Democrats so it won’t seem like they’re picking on Trump.

In a report for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Thomas Patterson found that press coverage of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign was actually more negative than that of Trump. In other words, her emails were treated the same as or worse than her opponent’s racist outbursts, the “Access Hollywood” tapecorruption at the Trump Foundation and so much more.

“Indiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions,” Patterson wrote. “Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it.”

Now we are moving into yet another presidential election season. The problem for 2020, as it was for 2016, isn’t that the media won’t report negative information about Trump. It’s that they will report negative information about his opponents in such a way that it all looks the same. In that respect, Democratic complaints about fact-checking that may seem trivial are actually emblematic of a much deeper problem with journalism: the primal urge to treat both sides equally, to be seen as fair, to avoid accusations of liberal bias.

It’s going to be an ugly, brutal campaign, and Trump’s going to drive the agenda once again. Are the media up to the challenge? The evidence suggests that the answer to that question is no.

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Three questions still to be answered about the meltdown of the MIT Media Lab

Joi Ito. Photo (cc) 2017 by the MIT Media Lab.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

An ethical breakdown at one of our great universities. A media maelstrom involving secret emails and possible conflicts of interest. And hints that there may be more to come.

The weeks-long drama over former MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito’s financial entanglements with the late financier Jeffrey Epstein, who recently committed suicide while facing charges that he had sexually abused underage girls, came to a sickening head over the weekend. Ito resigned after Ronan Farrow reported in The New Yorker that Ito and the Media Lab had taken more money from Epstein than he had previously admitted to, and had gone to great lengths to conceal the source of that money — with lab employees referring to Epstein in emails as “Voldemort” and “he who must not be named.”

Despite Ito’s departure, we may be still closer to the beginning of this story than the end. Many unanswered questions remain. Here, then, are three lines of inquiry that I hope will be pursued in the days and weeks ahead.

• How did Ronan Farrow manage to do it again? Followers of the technology journalist Xeni Jardin knew The New York Times was working on a major story about Ito’s ties to Epstein. Those ties became a public issue in mid-August, at which point one of the lab’s most prominent researchers, Ethan Zuckerman, announced he would leave in protest. Adding to the buzz about the impending Times story was Ito’s status as a member of the New York Times Co.’s board.

The Times’ story came out last Thursday. In the main, it was sympathetic to Ito, who was cast as apologetic for his ties to Epstein. Ito also made it clear he was angry that the lab’s co-founder, Nicholas Negroponte, had strongly defended Ito’s decision to take Epstein’s money, a move that Ito believed had undermined his own attempts to make amends. The Negroponte angle had been reported the day before by the MIT Technology Review.

A day later Farrow, who has broken a number of #MeToo stories, blew Ito out of the water with documents provided by a whistle blower, former Media Lab employee Signe Swenson. Farrow’s article contained some harrowing details. One that struck me in particular was that, while Epstein was touring the lab, female employees talked about what they should do if one of the two attractive young women who had accompanied Epstein came to them and asked for help.

Within hours of publication on The New Yorker’s website, Ito had resigned from MIT and from the Times Co.’s board.

How could it be that the Times did not have the documents or the details that Farrow had? “I told the @nytimes everything,” tweeted Jardin. “So did whistleblowers I was in touch with inside @MIT and @Edge [another organization she’s been keeping tabs on]. They printed none of the most damning truths. @joi is on the board of the NYT. THANK GOD FOR @RonanFarrow.”

Was Jardin saying that the Times had the same emails and documents as Farrow but had chosen not to report on them? Not explicitly — but New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, a prominent media observer, thought that’s what she meant, and he said so on Twitter. It turned out that was not the case, and Rosen responded by issuing a retraction and correction. Rosen was then called out by the Times’ Michael Barbaro, host of “The Daily,” who tweeted at Rosen: “How about doing a lot more reporting and a lot less tweeting.”

There but for the grace of God etc. I was among those who retweeted Jardin’s “THANK GOD FOR @RonanFarrow” tweet, although I refrained from publicly assuming the Times had the documents. Still, that seemed to be a reasonable interpretation of what Jardin was saying.

So what’s next? I think the Times owes us an explanation about what it had and what it didn’t have. I don’t believe the news side would cover for a board member (if anything, the reporters and editors would probably have liked to claim a pelt), but the fact remains that the Times got beaten on an important story with a tie to its own corporate board and that it had devoted considerable resources to.

• Was Ito’s behavior an aberration — or business as usual? Not to give Ito a pass on dealing with someone as uniquely awful as Epstein. According to all reliable accounts, Epstein destroyed the lives of many girls and young women. Still, Ito is hardly the first person to accept money from dubious sources.

For instance, MIT (and Harvard) have played host to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, believed by U.S. intelligence to be responsible for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (The visit took place before Khashoggi’s death, but bin Sultan was already developing a reputation as a tyrant.) Some of the top cultural and educational institutions in the country have wrestled with what to do about donations from the Sackler family, whose fortune derives from sales of OxyContin.

It’s probably fair to say that within the world of philanthropy, there is an overall sense that one person’s money is as green as another’s, and that there’s no reason not to take it as long as donors understand they are not buying influence. Few hands are clean. For instance, the late David Koch was, for a time, a member of WGBH’s board, a matter of some controversy given his and his brother Charles’ well-funded campaign on behalf of climate-change denial.

A friend of Ito’s, Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, went so far as to write an essay defending not just Ito’s decision to take Epstein’s money but to maintain Epstein’s anonymity as well. Lessig comes across as genuinely anguished over the events of the past month, so I don’t want to suggest that he made light of the donations. But he does make an interesting argument: that anonymity, rather than being additional evidence of sleaze, was actually appropriate because it prevented Epstein from using his donations to improve his public image.

“I think that universities should not be the launderers of reputation,” Lessig wrote. “I think that they should not accept blood money. Or more precisely, I believe that if they are going to accept blood money …, they should only ever accept that money anonymously.”

Taking a more conventional (and, frankly, more defensible) view was New York Times technology columnist Kara Swisher, who describes herself as a friendly acquaintance of Ito’s. “Mr. Ito’s plummet this weekend was much deserved, certainly swift, and also shocking,” she wrote, adding: “These corner-cutting ethics have too often become part and parcel to the way business is done in the top echelons of tech, allowing those who violate clear rules and flout decent behavior to thrive and those who object to such behavior to endure exhausting pushback.”

Seth Mnookin, a science journalist at MIT, said the Ito-Epstein connection should prompt some soul-searching. “Instead of viewing this as an isolated incident,” Mnookin wrote for Stat, “universities, colleges, and cultural institutions should use it as an impetus to take a difficult look at their own fundraising efforts. Refusing money from a convicted pedophile should be a no-brainer, but it’s time that the larger academic and scientific communities examine our willingness to accept money from donors whose actions directly oppose our values and missions, even if they’re not overtly criminal.”

Some good, tough-minded journalism could help move that process along.

• What are they doing over there? Since its founding some three decades ago, the Media Lab has been celebrated for its innovative spirit. Electronic ink, technology used in the original Amazon Kindle, was developed at the lab. Nicholas Negroponte popularized the idea of the “Daily Me,” a virtual newspaper tailored the interests of the individual reader. Negroponte was also well-known for his “One Laptop Per Child” initiative to bring computer access to poor children around the world.

But what, exactly has the lab done lately? I’m not sure I know. Several years ago Ethan Zuckerman was the co-author of a much-cited study showing that media polarization was mainly caused by right-wingers sealing themselves off from mainstream sources of information. It was important work. But, in general, it strikes me that the lab has a lower profile today than it did at one time.

And that lower profile may be the least of its problems. Several days ago, Business Insider reported that a “personal food computer” developed at the lab does not actually work, and that “staff were told to place plants grown elsewhere into the devices” before they were shown off to unwitting visitors. Is that an anomaly? Perhaps it’s an extreme example. But Justin Peters, a journalist who says that at one time he was smitten with the lab and its ethos, argued in Slate that questionable projects carried out on behalf of its corporate sponsors have become a defining characteristic.

“I realized that the things I had once found so exciting about the Media Lab — the architecturally distinct building, the quirky research teams, the robots and the canisters and the exhibits — amounted to a shrewd act of merchandising intended to lure potential donors into cutting ever-larger checks,” Peters wrote. “The lab’s leaders weren’t averse to making the world a better place, just as long as the sponsors got what they wanted in the process.”

The Business Insider report represents a good beginning. But now it’s time for other news organizations to look into what is actually taking place at the lab — and, more broadly, what happens when academic research is bent to serve the agenda of the titans of industry who fund it.

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The Boston Globe makes an unconventional hire to run its opinion pages

Bina Venkataraman (via LinkedIn)

The Boston Globe’s next editorial-page editor, Bina Venkataraman, is an unconventional hire for some interesting reasons. She’s young (39), a person of color, an outsider (notwithstanding a brief stint at the Globe some years ago), an academic associated with MIT and Harvard, and a woman (as were her two predecessors, though it’s still unusual enough to be worth noting).

More than anything, though, her intellectual orientation is very different from the politics-and-powerbrokers style that is typical of editorial-page editors generally. She’s a science journalist who’s worked for The New York Times. She was also a senior adviser for climate-change innovation in the Obama administration and is the author of a new book, “The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age.”

This is an enormously important hire. The editorial-page editor, like editor Brian McGrory, reports directly to publisher John Henry and managing director Linda Henry. I’d be very surprised if Linda Henry, in particular, was not a driving force in bringing Venkataraman back to the Globe.

Opinion journalism is everywhere these days, though much of it can’t really be considered journalism. In an interview with the Globe, Venkataraman showed that she gets it, saying, “There are a lot of opinions in our media environment right now, and a lot of people are able to offer their opinions, so it raises the bar for what we produce.”

Venkataraman’s predecessor, Ellen Clegg, who retired a little more than a year ago (disclosure: we are research partners on a project we’re not ready to announce), oversaw a vibrant redesign of the print pages, innovative and controversial projects on gun violence and a fake front page about a possible Trump presidency, and the expansion of digital-only content. After Clegg left, business columnist Shirley Leung filled in for a few months as interim editorial-page editor but didn’t really have time to leave her mark.

I would expect to see Venkataraman lead the Globe opinion pages in a more science-based direction, especially with regard to solutions-oriented journalism about climate change. I’d also like to see further expansion of digital-only content — two print pages with lots of white space really isn’t enough.

One big question is the future of the Ideas section, which will be part of Venkataraman’s portfolio. Earlier this year a sharp-eyed observer found a job ad suggesting that the Globe was going to morph it into more of a traditional Sunday week-in-review section — perhaps similar to the old Focus section that Ideas replaced, though it would need considerable updating.

Whether Ideas stays or goes, I think it needs to be made more relevant and rooted in the news. As it stands, many of the pieces strike me as too obscure. That may be a reflection of my own pedestrian tastes, although I don’t think I’m alone in that assessment. We’ll see what Venkataraman does.

Venkataraman begins in November. You can find out more about her in this online bio.

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