Self-published books make cancellation a non-issue

Photo via Wallpaper Flare

The New York Times has yet another story on the pressures being placed on publishers to cancel controversial books. The example in question is by Jonathan Mattingly, one of the Louisville police officers who took part in the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor.

Probably the best known of such incidents was Simon & Schuster’s decision to cancel a contract with Sen. Josh Hawley earlier this year after he essentially endorsed the Jan. 6. insurrection. Hawley’s book was instantly picked up by the right-wing publisher Regnery, and Hawley has been talking ever since to whine about how he’s been silenced.

The Hawley situation shows that the marketplace can resolve disputes over speech. But I want to push it one step further by pointing out that publishing and distributing a book has become absolutely frictionless. Self-publishing a book, either in print or online, is cheap and easy — I’ve done it myself.

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And though it is true that Amazon will occasionally decline to carry a book, as was the case recently with a work that had come under attack by the transgender community, DIY methods are always available, starting with the web, email lists and the like. (I’m leaving out Facebook because the service has been making efforts to take down disinformation and hate speech.)

What this comes down to is that fringe right-wing books will continue to be published and will continue to be promoted by fringe right-wing media, with the most prominent authors finding a voice on Fox News.

And even lesser authors can find creative ways to make money from their books. Just ask Sen. Ted Cruz, now facing allegations that he used campaign funds to promote his tome.

Postscript: A white nationalist group tweets enthusiastically about Carlson

Kristen Clarke. Photo (cc) 2016 by Senate Democrats.

A couple of additional data points since I submitted my column on Tucker Carlson to GBH News.

• The white nationalist organization VDARE tweeted enthusiastically about Carlson’s endorsement of ideas that sound very much like “white replacement theory”: “This segment is one of the best things Fox News has ever aired and was filled with ideas and talking points VDARE.com pioneered many years ago. You should watch the whole thing.” (See the Southern Poverty Law Center’s take on VDARE.)

• New York Times columnist Farah Stockman reports that Carlson has been fueling opposition to President Biden’s nominee to run the civil rights division of the Department of Justice, Kristen Clarke, with a blizzard of lies. Among them:

He [Carlson] also claimed she was a purveyor of hate who wrote a “shocking” letter to Harvard’s student newspaper promoting the genetic superiority of Black people. In fact, the letter was a satirical response to “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,” a book that, among other things, portrayed Black people as intellectually inferior. Mr. Carlson might as well have done an exclusive investigation about cannibalism in Ireland following the publication of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”

Carlson is flying awfully close to the sun. The Murdochs will put up with him until it’s no longer in their economic interest to do so.

Tucker Carlson is a white supremacist. And he’s giving Fox viewers exactly what they want.

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

Not too long ago, Tucker Carlson would go on vacation — always long-planned, of course — whenever one of his rancid descents into racism and white supremacy made life momentarily uncomfortable for his overlords at Fox News. He’d disappear for a few days, come back once the heat had died down and resume his hate-mongering ways.

Read the rest at GBH News.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine announcement and the limits of journalism

The suspension of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine over concerns about a vanishingly small number of blood-clotting issues is a perfect illustration of the limits of journalism.

My Twitter feed is filled with admonitions to the media saying that we should remind our audience of how rare this side effect has been — six total cases out of nearly 7 million vaccines. That’s much lower than the risk women face using birth control pills or, for that matter, much rarer than the risk of dying or becoming seriously ill from COVID. Just one example:

Fair enough. We should always strive to be responsible. But it was the government, not the media, that made this announcement. And if people become unnecessarily frightened into rejecting the J&J vaccine, or any vaccine, that’s on the government, not the media.

We get many things wrong. But we’re actually pretty good at passing along frightening announcements from official sources.

Words are inadequate to describe the ongoing police assault on Black lives

The must-see video clip from Monday night’s protests in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, features CNN reporter Sara Sidner. Though she makes the interview about herself to an uncomfortable degree, there’s also some real power in hearing her unnamed interview subject describe what’s going on in plain and profane language.

Tom Jones of Poynter put it this way:

The language was R-rated, and yet credit CNN for staying with the interview. Most networks would have dumped out after someone started repeating expletives, but CNN wisely hung in there because it felt as if the man had something important to say. Sidner did a good job keeping the interview going and allowing the man to say what he wanted to say.

If you back up and try to look at the big picture, it’s so overwhelming that words are inadequate. The protests were in response to the police killing of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man whose car had been pulled over, reportedly because the license tags had expired. There was a struggle after police discovered a warrant for Wright’s arrest and they tried to take him into custody. One officer, Kim Potter, fatally shot Wright because, we are told, she meant to use her Taser and pulled her gun by mistake — an excuse that clearly needs thorough investigation.

All of this was playing out as the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the ex-police offer who killed George Floyd, was taking place nearby, and against a backdrop of Black men (and a few women) being killed or harassed by police officers. Among them: National Guard officer and war veteran Isiah Jones, who was assaulted by police in Virginia last year as he was politely asking why he had been pulled over. Video of that encounter recent went viral.

No, giving away the news in the mid-’90s was not a misguided strategy

There are a few problems with the premise of New York Times reporter Edmund Lee’s long Sunday feature on reinvention efforts at The Wall Street Journal. We’ve been talking about this on Twitter, and I thought I’d share what I and a few others have been saying. Here’s the paragraph that Lee uses to frame his story:

The Journal got digital publishing right before anyone else. It was one of the few news organizations to charge readers for online access starting in 1996, during the days of dial-up internet. At the time, most other publications, including The New York Times, bought into the mantra that “information wants to be free” and ended up paying dearly for what turned out to be a misguided business strategy.

This is wrong in virtually every respect.

First, in the early days of the web, there was no reason to think a general interest newspaper couldn’t thrive by giving away its journalism and supporting it with advertising. This was, after all, before Craigslist, Google and Facebook came along, and newspaper executives’ heads were filled with visions of multimedia ads that they would control. It wasn’t at all obvious in the mid-’90s that it wouldn’t work out.

Second, the Journal is not a general interest newspaper. It’s a specialty publication, and even in the days of the free web it was understood that actionable financial information was one of the few things that people would pay for.

Third, many if not most subscribers pay for the Journal through their expense accounts. Their employers wanted them to switch from expensive print subscriptions to relatively cheap digital.

Finally, and most important, is Lee’s truncating of Stewart Brand’s famous 1984 quote. Lee is hardly the first reporter to do that and thus leave a false impression. But in the case of the Journal, the part that gets left out is more important than the “information wants to be free” canard. Here is what Brand said:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.*

The Journal epitomizes the “information wants to be expensive” part of Brand’s quote, because news that you can use to make money is by definition “valuable.”

The rest of Lee’s story is well-reported and interesting. But the paragraph he uses to frame it, fairly high up in the piece, is just a mess.

*Update: As Donna Halper points out in the comments, I used the cleaned-up version of Brand’s full quote that is usually cited. But, in fact, it’s not quite word for word — and Brand’s use of “almost” shades the meaning even further:

On the one hand you have — the point you’re making Woz [Brand was replying to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak] — is that information sort of wants to be expensive because it is so valuable — the right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information almost wants to be free because the costs of getting it out is getting lower and lower all of the time. So you have these two things fighting against each other.

The Washington Post establishes a three-pronged international news hub

Sara Sorcher. Photo (cc) 2016 by New America.

The Washington Post has established breaking-news hubs in London and Seoul, South Korea, which gives the growing news operation 24-hour worldwide coverage.

The Press Gazette, which tracks media developments in the U.K., interviewed Sara Sorcher, the London hub editor, who says she hopes the move can help the Post expand its digital subscription base. Already, she said, about 10% of the paper’s 3 million or so digital subscribers are outside the U.S. Sorcher has also worked for USA Today and for the Boston-based Christian Science Monitor.

The hubs come as the Post is in the midst of hiring another 150 or so journalists, which will bring the number of full-timers to more than 1,000, the most in the paper’s history.

Here’s how Sorcher says the three-city breaking-news team will work:

The idea is for a fast and seamless, round-the-clock operation.

Breaking news responsibilities will be handed off every night from the Washington newsroom to Seoul and then to London and then back to Washington in their morning.

I call it a news relay. That’s the vision for it. As part of the newsroom’s 24-hour workflow, a London editor will take a turn each day as point for those global coverage decisions, and the hub will operate seven days a week.

This strikes me as a pretty smart strategy, and it suggests that the Post, which for a while seemed to have stalled in its rivalry with The New York Times (which has 7.5 million digital and print subscriptions), is intent on catching up again.

When you add The Wall Street Journal, we have three great daily newspapers in the U.S. All of them grew during the Trump era, and all of them now need to pivot to what’s next. A renewed focus on serious international news seems like a good direction to try — as long as the notoriously parochial American audience can be persuaded to engage.

The ‘60 Minutes’ report on DeSantis is an unusually clear case of liberal media bias

It’s a rare day when we encounter as blatant an example of liberal media bias as in the “60 Minutes” report last Sunday on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. It’s not that the mainstream media aren’t broadly liberal — they are. But such bias normally affects things like story selection and tone, and does not interfere with a fair presentation of the facts. Unfortunately, the botched story on DeSantis, a Republican, will be cited by conservatives for a long time as evidence that you just can’t trust the media.

So what happened? “60 Minutes” reported that DeSantis awarded a contract to the supermarket chain Publix to distribute COVID vaccines after Publix had made a $100,000 campaign donation to the governor’s political action committee. The governor refused to give “60 Minutes” an interview. But in a confrontation at a DeSantis news conference, “60 Minutes” reporter Sharyn Alfonsi asserted that the vaccine contract was a “reward” and asked him: “How is that not pay to play?”

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There are two problems here. First, the story accurately describes the quid but never manages to nail down the quo. It would be strange indeed if Publix did not make campaign contributions to DeSantis, as he is a major political figure. Large businesses do what they have to do to get along. Moreover, Publix stores would be obvious, logical places for administering vaccines.

The system was far from perfect. The report points out that, in some cases, Publix markets are far from communities of color, requiring two bus rides in one example. But that doesn’t prove DeSantis acted as he did because Publix had given him money. As media ethics expert Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute puts it:

In the story, there was a direct line between the campaign contribution and the rewarding. And they never proved that. I think they owe it to everybody — they owe it to the governor, they owe it to Publix, they owe it to the public — to explain to us how they came to that conclusion.

Second, having watched the news conference confrontation as edited for broadcast and compared it to the full, unedited version (above), I think it’s clear that DeSantis’ remarks were edited to cast him in the worst possible light. Journalists are free to use as little or as much as they like of an interview or, in this case, remarks at a news conference. But they are not free to edit those remarks in a way that changes their meaning or leaves out important context.

Among the people who have come to DeSantis’ defense, according to The Palm Beach Post, is Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner, a Democrat. “They are hellbent on dividing us for cheap views and clicks,” Kerner said in a written statement. “‘60 Minutes’ should be ashamed.” (Not every elected Democrat agrees with Kerner, including County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay.)

I doubt the problems with this story were the result of liberal bias in the sense of deliberately making things up in order to make DeSantis look bad. Nor do I think it was the only form of bias at work. There is the bias for confrontation and controversy, which is the most pervasive type of media bias that there is. There is the bias in favor of producing a “gotcha” story.

As for how liberal bias figures into this, I would say — and this is only guesswork, of course — that “60 Minutes” decided DeSantis had done a bad job of managing the COVID pandemic in Florida, and that he had been getting undeserved praise for reopening the state at a time when numbers are continuing to rise. So when Alfonsi confronted DeSantis with the revelation about Publix’s campaign contribution, she and her crew had already come to a conclusion and were simply looking for some good video to go with it.

Which brings us to another form of bias. As one of my graduate students said, the story also looks like an example of confirmation bias. “60 Minutes” didn’t take the necessary steps to verify its story because no one could see any problems with it. And that may be the most pernicious effect of all when it comes to having a newsroom that is populated almost exclusively by liberals.

Trust in the media is scraping the bottom, especially among Republicans. The “60 Minutes” report on DeSantis certainly doesn’t help.

Beyond scale: Looking for hope amid the media’s ongoing meltdown

Recasting a media future. Photo (cc) 2007 by Goodwin Steel Castings.

Previously published at GBH News.

Bad news about the media business is nothing new. From the moment that the commercial web slipped into view in the mid-1990s, news organizations have been on the losing end of a long war over how — and even whether — journalism should be paid for.

Some recent developments, though, offer reasons for hope amid the gloom. Consider:

• BuzzFeed recently acquired HuffPost and immediately took an axe to it, laying off 47 employees, with the threat of more cuts to come. I will concede there’s nothing positive about that. But the debacle points to the limits of media funded by venture capital and could encourage more sustainable models.

• The notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital was on the verge of acquiring Tribune Publishing, whose nine large-market daily papers include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and, locally, the Hartford Courant. But a group of billionaire investors led by Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum stepped forward to propose breaking up the chain and operating the papers locally, some of them on a nonprofit basis. And, at least at the moment, it looks like they might win.

• As media observers had long feared, the departure of former President Donald Trump from the White House led to an immediate decline in news consumption — not just at the cable news networks, but at national and regional newspapers too. Yet the post-Trump slump represents a chance to emphasize local news, which has more of an effect on readers’ actual lives and helps build community.

What a lot of this comes down to is the end of the idea that scale will save the digital news business. “Local doesn’t scale” has long been the motto of community-based entrepreneurs. But now it’s looking like scale doesn’t work at the national level, either, with a few notable exceptions like The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Josh Marshall, founder of a small but successful political website called Talking Points Memo that depends mainly on reader revenue, described the dilemma in a recent essay for The Atlantic. For years, he wrote, venture capitalists kept pouring more and more money into digital news outlets hoping that they would someday become large enough to dominate their rivals, rake in a bounty of ad revenues and give the investors a chance to cash in.

Instead, the digital ad money went to Google and Facebook, leaving these outlets without any way forward.

“The whole digital news industry has been based on lies,” Marshall wrote, adding: “Investors realized that the tantalizing prospect of ad revenue lock-in that had always appeared just over the horizon was an illusion, so they shut off the investment spigot … In digital publishing, scale was the god that failed.”

If bigger isn’t necessarily better, that points to an opportunity for local news, whose tribulations have been the subject of considerable discussion over the past several years. Last November, I wrote that reviving community journalism could help overcome the angry polarization of the Trump era. Now three scholars have conducted a study showing there may be something to it.

According to an overview by Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab, the researchers — Joshua Darr of Louisiana State University, Matthew Whitt of Colorado State University and Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M — conducted a survey of readers after The Desert Sun of Palm Springs, California, decided to drop from its opinion pages all syndicated columns and references to national politics for one month.

Darr, Whitt and Dunaway compared The Desert Sun’s readers to those of a control paper and found that polarization was less than what might otherwise have been expected. The numbers were small and didn’t really prove anything one way or the other. But, as the three wrote, the effect was notably salutary regardless of the actual numbers, since the experiment pushed the paper to pay more attention to what was taking place in its own backyard.

“Local newspapers are uniquely positioned to unite communities around shared local identities, cultivated and emphasized through a distinctive home style, and provide a civil and regulated forum for debating solutions to local problems,” they wrote. “In Palm Springs, those local issues were architectural restoration, traffic patterns and environmental conservation. The issues will differ across communities, but a localized opinion page is more beneficial for newspapers and citizens than letters and op-eds speckled with national political vitriol.”

It’s worth noting, too, that The Desert Sun — a Gannett paper — is small enough to be regarded as a truly local paper. According to the Alliance for Audited Media, the Sun’s combined digital and print weekday paid circulation is 15,862, and 16,993 on Sundays. But will the experiment have a lasting impact?

According to Julie Makinen, the paper’s executive editor, the answer is yes. Although the ban on national politics lasted only lasted for a month, she wrote approvingly about the study last week and added that it “is useful to us in that it helps point the way for further improving our opinion pages as we bring on a new editor for the section.”

Which brings me back to where I started. If scale is “the god that failed,” as Josh Marshall puts it, and if local news and opinions are an answer to rebuilding both journalism and civic engagement, what should come next?

Damon Kiesow of the Missouri School of Journalism, whose professional stops include a stint on the digital side at The Boston Globe, recently tweeted out a link to a piece he wrote more than a year ago that seems even more relevant now than it did then.

Because most local newspapers are owned by national chains, he wrote, those papers often end up getting caught in a strategy of pursuing scale even though it makes no sense for them. Journalistically, it means loading up on syndicated content. On the business side, it means chasing advertising dollars — or pennies — that are going to go to Google and Facebook in any case.

“To succeed,” he wrote, “local media have to abandon scale and refocus on community. Advertising remains part of the equation. But reader revenue, donations, foundation funding — yard sales if necessary — are all in the mix.” He concluded that “the internet is infinite; your community is not. Go small, or we are all going home.”

For a generation now, much of the news media have been seeking magical one-size-fits-all solutions to the economic destruction created by technology and out-of-control capitalism. The problem is that there are no easy answers, and scaling up has only made things worse. Those who have succeeded have done so through the hard work of figuring out what their communities need — and then going about the business of serving those needs.

What’s in a name? The Bay State Banner’s founder weighs in on The Emancipator

The Boston Globe and the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research should have come up with a name other than The Emancipator for the digital publication they announced last month, according to the editor and publisher of The Bay State Banner.

Melvin Miller, who founded the Banner in 1965 to cover the Black community in Greater Boston, wrote recently that The Emancipator — which takes its name from a 19th-century abolitionist newspaper — conjures up images of white people seeking to free African Americans from oppression when in fact the real need is for whites to overcome their own racism. He wrote:

Even with its best intentions, the Emancipator was an organization of substantial white men to eliminate slavery. Its objective now, apparently, is to end white racism. That is a cultural impediment of white Americans. Nonetheless, the name “Emancipator” still implies that Blacks are the ones impaired by slavery or its aftereffects.

Miller added that the Globe’s role “does little to elevate the trust and confidence of Black citizens of Boston. Over the years the Boston Globe has not been overly friendly to the development of Black institutions in Boston.”

Globe opinion editor Bina Venkataraman, who’s heading up The Emancipator along with Ibram X. Kendi, director of BU’s antiracism center, referred my inquiry to Kendi, who did not return several emails seeking comment. But in a recent interview with Ben Smith of The New York Times, Venkataraman and Kendi said they decided on the name because they wanted to evoke the great abolitionist publications of the 19th century. Their first choice was The Liberator, the legendary newspaper founded by William Lloyd Garrison, but that name was already in use.

If anything, Miller’s commentary shows why The Emancipator is needed. Boston is a city that is still haunted by its racist past. And though the atmosphere has improved to the point at which the acting mayor is a Black woman, we still have a long way to go. The venture gives the Globe an opportunity to overcome the distrust that Miller refers to as well.

And as the Banner’s senior editor, Yawu Miller (also no fan of the name), said recently of The Emancipator in an email to “Beat the Press,” “There’s never enough coverage of race, justice and inequality.”

The Emancipator is currently seeking editors-in-chief to be based at the Globe and at BU, and is scheduled to make its debut later this year.