Jennifer Rubin gets burned with her not-off-the-record email to Politico

Jennifer Rubin

Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin ignored one of the most basic rules of going off the record this week — and got burned as a result.

Politico’s West Wing Playbook on Thursday ran a longish item on Rubin’s favorable coverage of the Biden White House, including her adopting some of the same complaints about media coverage used by administration officials.

“One Post employee said some people in the newsroom are increasingly frustrated that Rubin is parroting the administration’s critiques of the media, which they believe emboldens the administration to push back on journalists even further,” write Politico’s Alex Thompson and Nick Niedzwiadek. “Two others say they just try to ignore her or don’t read her columns.”

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Thompson and Niedzwiadek write that they contacted Rubin for comment, and she responded with an email whose subject line was “OFF THE RECORD.” They proceeded to publish her response in full:

How utterly predictable that Politico would run the zillionth hit piece on a prominent woman, especially one candid in her critiques of Politico’s hysterical, clickbait style of coverage. The notion that I am polarizing in a newsroom (as opposed to any of the dozens of other opinion writers) is a “take” only Politico could come up with — by of course running around to ask the question in the first place. I trust the Post’s superb news side folks spend zero time thinking about me (as is entirely appropriate). My only surprise is that Sam [Stein, POLITICO’s White House editor], a very good journalist, would become enmeshed in such an obviously misogynistic publication. Surely there are finer publications that would have him.

And btw, what a low class move to do this on Yom Kippur at the last moment.

So what’s going on here? Both parties have to agree in order for something to be off the record. Thompson and Niedzwiadek write that they had no such agreement with Rubin — she simply sent her email assuming they would respect her wishes. They didn’t, nor should they. Journalists sometimes going along with such requests, especially if they come from a source with whom they have a longstanding relationship. But it should never be taken for granted. Rubin knows that, of course, and I wonder if she wrote her response half-expecting that Politico would use it.

In case you’re not familiar with her, Rubin has morphed over the years from a staunch conservative to a Never Trump conservative and now into a moderate liberal.

Finally, the Politico item is very Politico, snarky and assuming without evidence that Rubin is somehow acting in bad faith by writing favorably about President Biden and agreeing with the White House’s often-valid gripes about the media. Without her not-off-the-record quote, it wouldn’t be worth a read.

What 9/11 hath wrought: A polarized country, a toxic media environment and a crisis of democracy

Department of Defense photo (cc) 2009 by Tech. Sgt. Jerry Morrison, U.S. Air Force

Previously published at GBH News.

Like all of us who are old enough, I have vivid memories of Sept. 11, 2001, just as our older brothers and sisters do about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and as our parents and grandparents did about the attack on Pearl Harbor. As others have said over and over again, it was a cool, clear morning, a preview of fall. I was working at The Boston Phoenix, where I covered media and politics. I stepped outside to get coffee and ran into an old acquaintance.

“Isn’t it terrible what happened at the World Trade Center?” she asked.

I didn’t know what she was talking about. I hurried inside. American Airlines Flight 11, which originated at Logan Airport in Boston, had crashed into the North Tower. There was talk of terrorism.

The Phoenix did not have what you would call a well-equipped newsroom. We had a TV that got a handful of channels but no cable. It was obvious what I would be writing about, so I raced to my car and hurried home to the North Shore. I turned on the radio and listened to coverage of the second tower’s collapse just as I was rounding the bend to Route 1. And then I sat down in front of the television set, watching for hour after hour and wondering how I would make sense of it all. Finally, sometime well after midnight, I started to write.

The piece I came up with was headlined “The End of Decadence.” In it, I expressed my hope that the media would finally return to a sense of purpose and seriousness after a decade of wallowing in celebrity culture, the O.J. Simpson trial and the theater-of-the-absurd impeachment of a president over his tawdry sex life.

In fact, the media did change after 9/11, but not for the better. The downward slide didn’t happen immediately. At first, the press diligently covered the aftermath of the attacks. The New York Times ran a wonderful series on the victims called “Portraits of Grief.” Journalists sought to make sense of how security measures aimed at preventing such attacks had so thoroughly broken down. The hunt for Osama bin Laden was covered with great enterprise and courage.

But it wasn’t long before President George W. Bush, a unifying figure in the days immediately after the attacks, began leading the nation in a divisive direction. His uplifting rhetoric about Muslims was offset by the government’s treatment of Muslims as a security risk. He went to war not just in Afghanistan but in Iraq, claiming — falsely, as it turned out — that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction.

And the media went along for the ride. Few questioned the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq, and few questioned why our incursion into Afghanistan had turned into a full-fledged war to transform a place we didn’t understand into a Western-style democracy. The Times in particular disgraced itself with its credulous, gung-ho coverage, but so did most other news outlets — especially cable news. My late friend Danny Schechter, the “News Dissector,” called it “militainment,” a construction he borrowed from James Poniewozik, then with Time magazine, now with the Times.

Over the next few years, the wars and the Bush White House both lost support, and the media began to fracture into what we see today — a reflection of the polarization that has made it nearly impossible for Democrats and Republicans even to speak to each other. On one side we have the mainstream media, hardly perfect but dedicated to reporting the truth, trusted by about 60% of the country. On the other side we have right-wing propaganda that has convinced 40% of the country that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, vaccines are dangerous and critical race theory is the most serious threat facing us.

Last month, the 20-year misadventure set off by 9/11 was finally brought to an end as the United States pulled its last remaining troops out of Afghanistan. It was a chaotic, ugly finish, and President Joe Biden has received quite a bit of criticism for it. But it does bring a close to the story that began on that clear September day in 2001.

The conclusion of the war in Afghanistan ends an era in journalism as well. Think back to where we were. Fox News was barely a blip on the radar. CNN consisted of straight news rather than opinionated talk shows. There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no broadband. The internet-driven collapse of newspapers was still in the future. In other words, it was a time of consensus in the media and in the culture, at least compared with what was to come.

Over the weekend, Bush was praised for his forthright denunciation of the Trump-inspired domestic terrorists of 2021. “There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home,” he said. “But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit. And it is our continuing duty to confront them.”

That’s all well and good. But it was Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld who started us down the road to Jan. 6 with their catastrophic wars, their trampling of civil liberties in this country and their use of torture abroad. And it was a combination of cowardice and gullibility on the part of too many in the media that helped bring us to the crisis of democracy we are dealing with today.

The Wall Street Journal exposes Facebook’s lies about content moderation

Comet Ping Pong. Photo (cc) 2016 by DOCLVHUGO.

What could shock us about Facebook at this point? That Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg are getting ready to shut it down and donate all of their wealth because of their anguish over how toxic the platform has become?

No, we all know there is no bottom to Facebook. So Jeff Horwitz’s investigative report in The Wall Street Journal on Monday — revealing the extent to which celebrities and politicians are allowed to break rules the rest of us must follow — was more confirmatory than revelatory.

That’s not to say it lacks value. Seeing it all laid out in internal company documents is pretty stunning, even if the information isn’t especially surprising.

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The story involves a program called XCheck, under which VIP users are given special treatment. Incredibly, there are 5.8 million people who fall into this category, so I guess you could say they’re not all that special. Horwitz explains: “Some users are ‘whitelisted’ — rendered immune from enforcement actions — while others are allowed to post rule-violating material pending Facebook employee reviews that often never come.”

And here’s the killer paragraph, quoting a 2019 internal review:

“We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly,” said the confidential review. It called the company’s actions “a breach of trust” and added: “Unlike the rest of our community, these people can violate our standards without any consequences.”

Among other things, the story reveals that Facebook has lied to the Oversight Board it set up to review its content-moderation decisions — news that should prompt the entire board to resign.

Perhaps the worst abuse documented by Horwitz involves the Brazilian soccer star Neymar:

After a woman accused Neymar of rape in 2019, he posted Facebook and Instagram videos defending himself — and showing viewers his WhatsApp correspondence with his accuser, which included her name and nude photos of her. He accused the woman of extorting him.

Facebook’s standard procedure for handling the posting of “nonconsensual intimate imagery” is simple: Delete it. But Neymar was protected by XCheck.

For more than a day, the system blocked Facebook’s moderators from removing the video. An internal review of the incident found that 56 million Facebook and Instagram users saw what Facebook described in a separate document as “revenge porn,” exposing the woman to what an employee referred to in the review as abuse from other users.

“This included the video being reposted more than 6,000 times, bullying and harassment about her character,” the review found.

As good a story as this is, there’s a weird instance of both-sides-ism near the top. Horwitz writes: “Whitelisted accounts shared inflammatory claims that Facebook’s fact checkers deemed false, including that vaccines are deadly, that Hillary Clinton had covered up ‘pedophile rings,’ and that then-President Donald Trump had called all refugees seeking asylum ‘animals,’ according to the documents.”

The pedophile claim, of course, is better known as Pizzagate, the ur-conspiracy theory promulgated by QAnon, which led to an infamous shooting incident at the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington in 2016. Trump, on the other hand, had this to say in 2018, according to USA Today: “We have people coming into the country or trying to come in, we’re stopping a lot of them, but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.”

Apparently the claim about Trump was rated as false because he appeared to be referring specifically to gang members, not to “all” refugees. But that “all” is doing a lot of work.

The Journal series continues today with a look at how Instagram is having a damaging effect on the self-esteem of teenage girls — and that Facebook, which owns the service, knows about it and isn’t doing anything.

How to sell newspapers

A black-tailed jackrabbit. Photo (cc) 2006 by Jim Harper.

Now this is how you sell newspapers. I just finished reading Bill Hosokawa’s 1976 book “Thunder in the Rockies: The Incredible Denver Post.” Much of it focuses on the early days under the ownership of Harry Tammen and Frederick Bonfils, who bought the struggling daily in 1895 and ran it for its first several decades. This anecdote, though undated, would appear to be from the 1920s or earlier:

While every newspaper has its promotions, many of The Post’s were unique. Periodically jackrabbits would proliferate alarmingly on Colorado’s eastern plains, decimating what crops could survive drought and hail and threatening the livelihood of the farmers. With The Post’s encouragement these farmers would round up the rabbits in wintertime drives covering many square miles, clubbing them to death by the thousands. But the meat wasn’t wasted. The carcasses, quickly frozen by the cold, would be sent to Denver in donated railroad cars, trucked to The Post, and distributed free to queued-up lines of the poor. To stimulate the goodwill of ranchers, The Post also offered a bounty on mountain lions which preyed on sheep and cattle. Many a mountain man, smelling pungently of a hunting camp, would make his way to The Post with a dead lion in the back of his truck, there to be photographed claiming his bounty.

Given the proliferation of rabbits in Greater Boston, would some enterprising media entrepreneur here try a similar promotion?

The demise of Adobe Flash broke the 9/11 web. But it’s just the tip of a bigger issue.

This is an important story — not just because some crucial 9/11 coverage has been lost or even because the demise of Adobe Flash means that parts of the internet are now broken. Rather, it illustrates that the internet is, in many ways, an ephemeral medium, meaning that we simply can’t preserve and archive our history the way we could during the print era.

Clare Duffy and Kerry Flynn report for CNN.com that The Washington Post, ABC News and CNN itself are among the news organizations whose interactive presentations in the aftermath of 9/11 no longer work properly.

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As they recount, Flash was a real advance in the early days of the web, as it was an important step forward for video and interactive graphics. But the late Steve Jobs, criticizing Flash’s security flaws, decreed that Apple’s iPhone and iPad would not run Flash. At that point the platform began to crumble, and Adobe pulled support for it at the end of 2020.

Duffy and Flynn write that some efforts are under way to use Flash emulators in order to bring some old content back to life. Adobe, which is worth $314 billion, ought to spend a few nickels to help with that effort.

More broadly, though, the problem with Flash illustrates how the internet decays over time. Link rot is an ongoing frustration — you link to something, go back a year or five later, and find that the content has moved or been taken down. Publications go out of business, taking their websites with them. Or they change content-management systems, resulting in new URLs for everything.

We’re all grateful for the work that the Internet Archive does in preserving as much as it can. Here, for instance, is the home page of The New York Times on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001.

But what’s available online isn’t nearly as complete as what’s in print. For the moment, at least, we can still go to the library and look at microfilm of print editions for publications that pay little attention to preserving their digital past. It won’t be too many years, though, before digital is all we’ve got.

A clear-eyed rant about Gawker for anyone who remembers or cares

Ethan Strauss has written a really fine piece on the old and new Gawker. Never mind Hulk Hogan and Peter Thiel. What they did to that female college student caught having drunken sex in a bathroom stall should shock anyone with a conscience. I particularly like this except:

Gawker’s bills were paid by its commodification of humiliation. Sure, it helped the brand that they occasionally posted lucid essays and broke meaningful stories. It helped in the way that the highbrow articles at Playboy allowed men of a different era to buy magazines, guilt free. But at bottom, prurient privacy invasion was the core of the business.

Yes, the manner in which Theil’s secret money was used to put Gawker out of business remains troublesome, as I wrote for GBH News in 2016. But let’s not pretend that the world was a lesser place when the site went under, or is a better place now that it’s back.

Australian libel ruling shows what happens without Section 230 protections

Photo (cc) 2011 by Scott Calleja

I’m not familiar with the fine points of Australian libel law. But a decision this week by the High Court of Australia that publishers are liable for third-party comments posted on their Facebook pages demonstrates the power of Section 230 in the United States.

Section 230, part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, does two things. First, it carves out an exception to the principle that publishers are legally responsible for all content, including advertisements and letters to the editor. By contrast, publishers are not liable for online comments in any way.

Second, in what is sometimes called the “Good Samaritan” provision, publishers may remove some third-party content without taking on liability for other content. For example, a lawyer might argue that a news organization that removed a libelous comment has taken on an editing role and could therefore be sued for other libelous comments that weren’t removed. Under Section 230, you can’t do that.

The Australian court’s ruling strikes me as a straightforward application of libel law in the absence of Section 230. Mike Cherney of The Wall Street Journal puts it this way:

The High Court of Australia determined that media companies, by creating a public Facebook page and posting content on that page, facilitated and encouraged comments from other users on those posts. That means the media companies should be considered publishers of the comments and are therefore responsible for any defamatory content that appears in them, according to a summary of the judgment from the court.

Over at the Nieman Journalism Lab, Joshua Benton has a markedly different take, arguing that the court is holding publishers responsible for content they did not publish. Benton writes:

Pandora’s box isn’t big enough to hold all the potential implications of that idea. That a news publisher should be held accountable for the journalism it publishes is obvious. That it should be held accountable for reader comments left on its own website (which it fully controls) is, at a minimum, debatable.

But that it should be held legally liable for the comments of every rando who visits its Facebook page — in other words, the speech of people it doesn’t control, on a platform it doesn’t control — is a big, big step.

I disagree. As I said, publishers are traditionally liable for every piece of content that appears under their name. Section 230 was a deviation from that tradition — a special carve-out providing publishers with immunity they wouldn’t otherwise have. If Benton is right, then we never needed 230. But of course we did. There’s a reason that the Electronic Frontier Foundation calls 230 “the most important law protecting internet speech.”

I also don’t see much difference between comments posted on a publisher’s website or on its Facebook page. A Facebook page is something you set up, add content to and manage. It’s not yours in the same way as your website, but it is part of your brand and under your control. If you should be liable for third-party content on your website, then it’s hardly a stretch to say that you should also be liable for third-party content on your Facebook page.

As the role of social media in our political discourse has become increasingly fraught, there have been a number of calls to abolish or reform 230. Abolition would mean the end of Facebook — and, for that matter, the comments sections on websites. (There are days when I’m tempted…) Personally, I’d look into abolishing 230 protections for sites that use algorithms to drive engagement and, thus, divisiveness. Such a change would make Facebook less profitable, but I think we could live with that.

Australia, meanwhile, has a dilemma on its hands. Maybe Parliament will pass a law equivalent to Section 230, but (I hope) with less sweeping protections. In any case, Australia should serve as an interesting test case to see what happens when toxic, often libelous third-party comments no longer get a free pass.

What’s wrong with Politico

In one sentence: Politico provides insider gossip at a time when democracy faces an existential threat. Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon Jr. explains:

The Politico approach is probably fine if you are covering parties and politicians who share some values and norms. And the election of Barack Obama looked like it could usher in a politics that was less divisive than George W. Bush’s presidency and a full break from the conflicts over race and identity that had in many ways defined U.S. politics since the 1960s.

But early in the Obama years, it became clear that the fights of the past weren’t over; they were, instead, perhaps becoming even more tense.

The media trust gap between Democrats and Republicans continues to widen

The latest findings from the Pew Research Center about trust in journalism are depressing but not surprising. Pew’s report, written by Jeffrey Gottfried and Jacob Liedke and published last week, shows that the gap between Democrats and Republicans continues to widen.

Over the past five years, the percentage of Republicans and Republican leaners who have some trust in national news has dropped from 70% to 35%. Meanwhile, 78% of Democrats and Democratic leaners say they have “a lot” or “some” trust in national news organizations.

The problem, as always, is the asymmetric polarization that has come to define our politics and our media consumption. If you spend all your time engaging with media outlets that tell you Donald Trump won the 2020 election, the Jan. 6 insurrection was no big deal, vaccines are dangerous and critical race theory is poisoning your (white) children’s minds, then you are going to distrust any news to the contrary. Essentially it’s a small number of right-wing sources of propaganda, led by Fox News, versus everyone else. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen put it this way:

Trust is higher for local news organizations than it is for the national media, but even here there’s a partisan gap. Two weeks ago I wrote about ways that community journalists could connect with conservatives, and yes, they should try. If we are ever going to overcome the partisan divide, it’s going to have to start at the local level. At the same time, though, we can’t pander to false beliefs. So it’s a dilemma with no obvious solution.

Facebook’s tortured relationship with journalism gets a few more tweaks

Facebook has long had a tortured relationship with journalism. When I was reporting for “The Return of the Moguls” in 2015 and ’16, news publishers were embracing Instant Articles, news stories that would load quickly but that would also live on Facebook’s platform rather than the publisher’s.

The Washington Post was so committed to the project that it published every single piece of content as an Instant Article. Shailesh Prakash, the Post’s chief technologist, would talk about the “Facebook barbell,” a strategy that aimed to convert users at the Facebook end of the barbell into paying subscribers at the Post end.

Instant Articles never really went away, but enthusiasm waned — especially when, in 2018, Facebook began downgrading news in its algorithm in favor of posts from family and friends.

Nor was that the first time Facebook pulled a bait-and-switch. Earlier it had something called the Social Reader, inviting news organizations to develop apps that would live within that space. Then, in 2012, it made changes that resulted in a collapse in traffic. Former Post digital editor David Beard told me that’s when he began turning his attention to newsletters, which the Post could control directly rather than having to depend on Mark Zuckerberg’s whims.

Now they’re doing it again. Mathew Ingram of the Columbia Journalism Review reports that Facebook is experimenting with its news feed to see what the effect would be of showing users less political news as well as the way it measures how users interact with the site. The change, needless to say, comes after years of controversy over Facebook’s role in promoting misinformation and disinformation about politics, the Jan. 6 insurrection and the COVID-19 pandemic.

I’m sure Zuckerberg would be very happy if Facebook could serve solely as a platform for people to share uplifting personal news and cat photos. It would make his life a lot easier. But I’m also sure that he would be unwilling to see Facebook’s revenues drop even a little in order to make that happen. Remember that story about Facebook tweaking its algorithm to favor reliable news just before the 2020 election — and then changing it back afterwards because they found that users spent less time on the platform? So he keeps trying this and that, hoping to alight up on the magic formula that will make him and his company less hated, and less likely to be hauled before congressional committees, without hurting his bottom line.

One of the latest efforts is his foray into local news. If Facebook can be a solution to the local news crisis, well, what’s not to like? Earlier this year Facebook and Substack announced initiatives to bring local news projects to their platforms for some very, very short money.

Earlier today, Sarah Scire of the Nieman Journalism Lab profiled some of the 25 local journalists who are setting up shop on Bulletin, Facebook’s new newsletter platform. They seem like an idealistic lot, with about half the newsletters being produced by journalists of color. But there are warning signs. Scire writes:

Facebook says it’s providing “licensing fees” to the local journalists as part of a “multi-year commitment” but spokesperson Erin Miller would not specify how much the company is paying the writers or for how long. The company has said it won’t take a cut of subscription revenue “for the length of these partnerships.” But, again, it’s not saying how long those partnerships will last.

How long will Facebook’s commitment to local news last before it goes the way of the Social Reader and Instant Articles? I don’t like playing the cynic, especially about a program that could help community journalists and the audiences they serve. But cynicism about Facebook is the only stance that seems realistic after years of bad behavior and broken promises.