Everything you know is wrong (Facebook edition)

Like many observers, I have often cited Facebook, along with Fox News, as one of the most dangerous forces promoting disinformation and polarization. Its algorithms feed you what keeps you engaged, and what keeps you engaged is what makes you angry and upset.

But what if most Facebook users don’t even see news? Nieman Lab editor Laura Hazard Owen conducted a real-world experiment. And what she found ought to give us pause:

Even using a very generous definition of news (“Guy rollerblades with 75-pound dog on his back”), the majority of people in our survey (54%) saw no news within the first 10 posts in their feeds at all.

Moreover, the top three most frequently seen news sources weren’t the likes of Newsmax, Breitbart and Infowars — they were CNN, The New York Times and NBC News, which epitomize the mainstream.

I asked Owen to clarify whether her definition of news popping up in people’s feeds was restricted to content that came directly from news organizations or whether it included news stories shared by friends. “It was ALL news,” she replied, “whether shared by a news organization or a friend.”

Is it possible that we all misunderstand the effect that Facebook is having (or not having) on our democracy?

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HuffPost hasn’t died, but it sure did fade away. Here are three reasons why.

HuffPost founder Arianna Huffington. Photo (cc) 2010 by JD Lasica.

Maybe BuzzFeed will save The Huffington Post. Frankly, though, it feels more like the end than a new beginning. Who has given much thought to HuffPost in recent years? Even with a sharp editor, Lydia Polgreen, at the top until recently, the site hasn’t seemed relevant for a long time.

So what happened? Your guess is as good as mine. But I’d argue that HuffPost was built on three pillars, and all of them are gone:

Unpaid contributions. For a long time, HuffPost was a blogging platform as much as it was a publisher. The site took a lot of heat for not paying its writers, but I always thought that critics were making a category error. If you’re going to blog and not get paid for it, why not do it at a site where you’re more likely to be seen rather than on your own?

Maybe eight or so years ago, when I was between paid column-writing gigs, I wrote a few free pieces for HuffPost just to keep my hand in. There was a huge variety of contributions to HuffPost, some great, some terrible. They gave the site a vibrancy that it has lacked ever since such content was discontinued.

Abusive aggregation. The Huffington Post originally made its mark with extremely aggressive aggregation — it would, for example, summarize a 5,000-word investigative piece published by another news organization in so much detail that you really didn’t need to click through to the original. As Jeff Bezos lamented shortly after announcing he would buy The Washington Post, HuffPost could rewrite a story “in 17 minutes” that had taken the originating media outlet weeks or months to report and write.

Over time, HuffPost’s approach to aggregation became more conservative even as it added more original reporting. That may have been the ethical thing to do, but I’m sure it cost them a substantial part of their audience.

Social over search. HuffPost absolutely nailed search back when that mattered above all else. Remember the infamous “What time does the Superbowl start?” headline, which the rest of the internet reacted to with a mixture of rage and awe?

Well, search-engine optimization has long since given way to social-media engagement as the metric that really matters. And BuzzFeed perfected the latter, which is why it’s the senior partner in this particular deal. What the two sites have in common is BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti, who helped HuffPost master SEO before founding BuzzFeed and embracing social.

All of this is why I’m not particularly optimistic about HuffPost staging a comeback. It was hugely influential for about a half-dozen years after Arianna Huffington launched it in 2005. But it was a creature of its time, and that time may have expired.

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3 reasons why it matters that Linda Pizzuti Henry was named CEO of the Globe

Previously published at GBH News.

Surprising though the news may have been, there was a certain inevitability to Linda Pizzuti Henry’s being named chief executive officer of The Boston Globe’s parent company.

She had long held the title of managing director, and it has become increasingly clear over the past few years that she and her husband, publisher John Henry, were determined to impose their will on the media properties they own. Indeed, the Henrys have been calling pretty much all the shots on the business side since the summer, when Vinay Mehra exited as president and was not replaced.

These are the best and worst of times for media organizations. The COVID-19 epidemic and the presidential campaign have resulted in renewed interest in the news as well as growing audiences. But advertising, already in long-term decline, has fallen off a cliff.

The Globe is no exception to those trends. Earlier this year, the Globe passed the 200,000 mark for digital-only subscriptions, a long-sought-after goal. Another Globe Media property, Stat News, has established itself as one of a handful of go-to sites for news about COVID.

Yet the paper, reportedly profitable before the pandemic, has been forced to trim its budget to adjust to the pandemic economy, cutting back on its use of freelancers and paid interns, for example, as well as implementing some business-side reductions.

Time will tell what the Linda Henry era will bring. But here are three thoughts that I think are worth keeping in mind:

There is no longer any middleman. With co-owners John and Linda Henry holding the top two positions, all the heat will now be directed their way, for better or worse. When Mehra was in charge — and, before him, Doug Franklin and Mike Sheehan — both credit and blame could be deflected.

Now the Globe is the Henrys’ paper in every respect. That extends into the editorial operations as well given that editor Brian McGrory was actually involved in recruiting John Henry to buy the paper and that editorial-page editor Bina Venkataraman was hired by the Henrys.

For a useful contrast, consider The Washington Post. Although owner Jeff Bezos does involve himself in business strategy to a degree, he hired a publisher, Fred Ryan, to run the paper on a day-to-day basis, and left the executive editor (Marty Baron), the editorial-page editor (Fred Hiatt) and the top technology executive (Shailesh Prakash) in place after he acquired the paper.

The Henrys must now settle an ugly labor dispute on their own. Earlier today the Boston Newspaper Guild, involved for quite some time in acrimonious contract talks with management, issued a statement ripping the Henrys for using the law firm of Jones Day, which critics say has a reputation for union-busting.

That’s not new. What is new is that Jones Day has been involved in representing Republicans in their attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election. “How can the Globe’s political journalists be asked to continue to endure such workplace attacks from the very law firm whose actions they are now reporting on and investigating?,” the union’s letter asks.

The Globe is not for sale. From time to time, rumors have circulated within the newsroom and in the larger community that the Henrys are looking to get out. This happened most recently last fall, when Linda Henry presided over a town hall-style meeting on Zoom at which she was asked about a replacement for Mehra.

When I asked her about it, she replied via email, “The Globe is not for sale, I’m pretty sure you would have picked up on if it was.” After that, the rumors appeared to fade away. Now, by occupying the top two operational roles at the Globe, the Henrys, seven years into their ownership, clearly seem to be sending a signal that they’re in it for the long term.

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Globe union rips management for using Trump law firm in contract negotiations

In a press release sent out earlier today, the Boston Newspaper Guild rips John Henry, Linda Pizzuti Henry and Boston Globe management for using the controversial law firm of Jones Day in contract negotiations.

This is not a new complaint, as Jones Day is sometimes characterized as a union-busting operation. But now the firm has been called out for representing President Trump in his efforts to overturn the election results.

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The New York Times cites a pro-charter school group without disclosing its ties

The New York Times, in a story on President-elect Joe Biden’s education priorities, quotes Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, as saying she’s “worried that the Biden administration might stack the government with people who are ‘interested in fortifying the status quo that has been failing so many of our kids.’” Rodrigues continues:

This is the biggest table right now, and I don’t see parent groups, family groups, community groups present…. It seems we’re back to the same old, “We’re going to do things to you, not with you.”

So what is the National Parents Union? All the Times has to say is that it “represents low-income parents and parents of color.” But here’s what UMass Boston Professor Maurice Cunningham reported when the organization was getting off the ground in April 2019:

Keri Rodrigues of Massachusetts Parents United, the highly subsidized-by-the-Walton-family front in the education privatization business, is pitching a new organization called the National Parents Union. It’s got elements that should appeal to the WalMart heirs — hidden money, infiltration of the Democratic Party, pro-charters, privatization of public goods, and virulently anti-union.

In 2016 Rodrigues was the head of a group called Families for Excellent Schools, which pushed a ballot question that would have greatly expanded the number of charter schools in the state, thus inflicting further damage on the vast majority of kids who’d be left behind. Fortunately, that measure was defeated decisively.

The Times needs to do a better job of vetting — and describing — its sources. (Disclosure: My wife is teaches in a public school and is a proud union member.)

Correction: This item originally misidentified the organization behind the 2016 ballot question.

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The media’s slow call

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

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

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

Photo (cc) 2008 by H2Woah!

Previously published at GBH News.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A couple of other points.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to watch video.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Correction. Kelly’s first name now fixed.

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