The New York Times buries a story about antisemitism in Tennessee

Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram (via the Tennessean)

I.F. Stone liked to say that The New York Times was the world’s most exciting newspaper, because you never knew where you were going to find a front-page story.

That’s certainly the case today, as the Times buries what might be the most important and disturbing news of the day at the bottom of page A22. That’s where we learn that Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram, a Tennessee couple, were refused their request to adopt a child from a state-funded agency because they’re Jewish. The agency, the Holston United Methodist Home for Children, which claims to be Christian, insists that adoptive couples adhere to “Christian biblical principles.” The Rutan-Rams, who had sought to adopt a 3-year-old boy living in Florida, are now suing the state with the help of Americans United for the Separation of Church and state.

“I felt like I’d been punched in the gut,” Elizabeth Rutan-Ram said in a news release quoted by the Knoxville News Sentinel, which reported on the case last week. “It was the first time I felt discriminated against because I am Jewish. It was very shocking. And it was very hurtful that the agency seemed to think that a child would be better off in state custody than with a loving family like us.”

What could be enabling this grotesque antisemitism? According to the Times, the case “comes nearly two years after Gov. Bill Lee signed a law that allows state-funded child-placement agencies to decline to assist in cases that ‘would violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions or policies.'” Lee, a Republican, acted despite being warned by the ACLU that it was unconstitutional.

I’m glad that the Times at least picked up on this. And I realize that print placement doesn’t mean a whole lot these days. But it’s still a signal of what the editors think is important, and the Times remains a cheat sheet for other news organizations across the country. This is an enormously important story — a further indication of the dark places into which the Republican right is dragging us.

My Northeastern colleague Laurel Leff wrote a book some years back called “Buried by the Times,” which detailed how the Times played down news about the Holocaust during World War II. Though the two situations can hardly be compared, it is nevertheless disturbing to see the Times today giving such short shrift to a modern case of antisemitism.

The plight of the Rutan-Rams — and the role of Tennessee officials — should be in the headlines for days to come. And the Times should follow up. On page one.

Jan. 6, 2021

The media are filled with one-year retrospectives about the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021. I can’t say I’m paying much attention to them. We’ve had a firehose of coverage from the moment it happened, and appropriately so. An anniversary doesn’t add anything to what we already know, and to what we still need to know.

Will we remember Jan. 6 the way we remember Sept. 11, 2001, or the way our parents and grandparents remembered Dec. 7, 1941? Probably not, though neither will it soon be forgotten. And one of the acts of remembering is recalling what we were doing on that day.

I was hiking in the Middlesex Fells, as I often do. I took a photo of two signs on a tree because I thought they were funny: one said “Keep Out”; the other urged hikers to maintain social distancing, which seemed like an odd admonition if you weren’t supposed to be there in the first place.

I emerged from the woods around 3 p.m. and turned on the car radio. NPR was carrying audio from the “PBS NewsHour,” and Judy Woodruff was freaking out. At first I figured the Republicans were trying to disrupt the counting of the electoral votes to delay Joe Biden’s being declared the official winner of the presidential election. That, after all, had been predicted.

Within a few moments, though, I learned the truth: that a mob of rioters had descended on the Capitol, had broken inside and were rampaging through the halls of Congress. It was our first attempted coup, aided and abetted by Donald Trump, and it may not be the last.

These are dark times, and I’m not optimistic about what the next few years will bring.

Why the Jan. 6 panel should tread carefully in seeking Sean Hannity’s testimony

Photo (cc) 2015 by Gage Skidmore

The Jan. 6 select committee’s decision to ask Sean Hannity to testify carries with it a few nettlesome details.

The Fox News star’s lawyer, Jay Sekulow, has already invoked the First Amendment. But there is, in fact, no constitutional protection for journalists who are called to testify in court or, in this case, before a congressional committee. The problem, as the Supreme Court explained in its 1972 Branzburg v. Hayes decision, is that granting such a privilege requires defining who’s a journalist and who isn’t. And the First Amendment belongs to everyone.

That said, the government is generally loath to force journalists to testify because of the chilling effect it would have on the ability of news organizations to operate as independent monitors of power. It would be well within bounds for the committee to decide that Hannity is not a journalist. He was a close confidant of Donald Trump when Trump was president, was a featured speaker at a Trump rally and, in his communications with the White House, made it clear that he was a member of Team Trump.

But this brings us back to one of the central dilemmas of the Trump years. Hannity’s behavior was so over the top that it’s easy to say he’s not a journalist. Still, you can be sure that Trump’s defenders will point to far more ambiguous situations and say, “What about?” Ben Bradlee’s friendship with President John F. Kennedy comes to mind, as does Walter Lippmann, the ultimate insider.

The problem facing members of the select committee is that if they subpoena Hannity and other Fox News personalities, they would do so in the certain knowledge that Republicans will claim a precedent has been set and abuse it as soon as they’re in a position to do so. I have little doubt, for instance, that New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet and former Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron would be forced to testify about their papers’ coverage of the Russia scandal.

Which is why the select committee is hoping that Hannity will accept its invitation to testify voluntarily. If he refuses (as he almost certainly will), then it will have to decide whether to issue a subpoena — a move that could have far-reaching consequences.

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N.H.’s retiring secretary of state won a Muzzle Award and was an early Big Lie enabler

Photo (cc) 2016 by Charlene McBride

Bill Gardner, who announced Monday that he won’t seek re-election as New Hampshire’s secretary of state after nearly a half-century in office, won a New England Muzzle Award from GBH News in 2017 for his obsession with cracking down on “ballot selfies.” Here’s the item:

Who would have thought that we’d end up awarding two Muzzles in connection with a New Hampshire ban on “ballot selfies”? Yet the absurd law, under which you could be fined $1,000 for taking a photo of your completed ballot and posting it on social media, simply will not die.

In 2015 we gave a Muzzle to the prime mover behind the legislation. This year we are awarding the statuette to New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who lost in the U.S. Court of Appeals last fall and then, this past April, failed to persuade the Supreme Court to take up the case. Even that wasn’t enough to stop his crusade. “There are other ways to deal with this, and there are people across the country that are addressing this,” Gardner told New Hampshire Public Radio. Has anyone got a wooden stake?

A little background: In 2015 the Muzzle went to Timothy Horrigan, a Democratic state legislator from Durham, who pushed the ban as a way of preventing vote-buying and voter coercion — never mind that there hadn’t been any reported instances of ballot selfies being linked to those nefarious practices.

Selfie-posting voters protested, including State Representative Leon Rideout, a Lancaster Republican. The federal courts got involved. Rather than backing off, the state continued to fight for the law, none more ardently than Gardner.

Theoretically, the concerns raised by Horrigan, Gardner, and others could become reality. But there is no evidence that they have, and the courts do no look favorably upon abridgements of the First Amendment without having a very good reason. New Hampshire is not the only state to ban ballot selfies, so the Supreme Court’s refusal to take up the case could have national implications.

The appeals court’s ruling said in part: “New Hampshire may not impose such a broad restriction on speech by banning ballot selfies in order to combat an unsubstantiated and hypothetical danger. We repeat the old adage: a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Gardner, nominally a Democrat, also came under fire for refusing to step down from President Donald Trump’s bogus voting commission after the chair of that commission wrote a piece for the right-wing website Breitbart falsely claiming that Trump had actually won New Hampshire in 2016.

Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Mr. Secretary.

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Did Harry Reid lie about Mitt Romney’s taxes? Yes. But it’s a bit more complicated.

Harry Reid. Photo (cc) 2010 by the Center for American Progress.

Harry Reid, who died Tuesday, was among the few characters I liked in Mark Leibovich’s book “This Town.” Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, was a bare-knuckles brawler with no interest in the money-and-lobbyist culture that rendered Washington a teetering wreck before Donald Trump came along and toppled it over — while he and those close to him pursued their own corrupt schemes.

There is, though, one weird blemish on Reid’s record — his claims during the 2012 presidential campaign that Republican candidate Mitt Romney hadn’t paid any taxes. “So the word is out that he hasn’t paid any taxes for 10 years. Let him prove that he has paid taxes, because he hasn’t,” Reid said on the Senate floor that August. It wasn’t true, and Reid’s only justification was to tell CNN in 2015, “Romney didn’t win, did he?”

So I found myself wondering if there was anything more to Reid’s false claim. The answer: yes, a bit. Maybe not enough to justify Reid’s lies, but more than you might recall.

Unlike virtually all of his modern predecessors, Romney released just two years of tax returns. He cited John McCain as a precedent, but FactCheck.org found that excuse to be lacking. FactCheck’s Robert Farley wrote in July 2012:

In more than three decades, no other nominees for either party have released fewer than five years’ worth of returns. Romney’s own father released a dozen years’ worth when he ran for the GOP nomination in 1968.

Romney has been under mounting public pressure to release tax returns — largely due to the Obama campaign raising questions about Swiss bank accounts and investments in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven. Romney has released his tax returns for 2010 and an estimate for 2011 (the full return of which he says he will release later). He says that’s enough.

So here you have Romney, a noted liar in his own right, refusing to release tax returns that might have blown his campaign out of the water. Someone needed to put the pressure on him. The Obama campaign could only say so much. Reid took the hit, making up a false accusation that Romney wasn’t paying any taxes and essentially saying: Prove I’m lying.

Four years later, Romney enthusiastically embraced the Reid line of attack in his efforts to derail Trump’s candidacy. Trump, as we all know, wouldn’t release any of his tax returns. Here’s what Romney said: “There is only one logical explanation for Mr. Trump’s refusal to release his returns: There is a bombshell in them. Given Mr. Trump’s equanimity with other flaws in his history, we can only assume it’s a bombshell of unusual size.”

Expressed in Mitt-speak rather than with Reid’s pugnacity, but essentially the same thing.

Romney finally released a fuller set of tax returns in September 2012. At that point, though, the damage had already been done. And no, Reid did not cover himself with glory in that episode. But Romney could have done the right thing at the start of his campaign rather than opening himself up to charges that there must be hiding a “bombshell” — as Romney himself would put it four years later.

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From COVID to our crisis of democracy, 2021 turned out to be a scant improvement over 2020

Photo (cc) 2021 by Blink O’fanaye

Previously published at GBH News.

Hopes were running high when we all turned the calendar to 2021. Would the worst 12 months in anyone’s memory give way to the best year of our lives?

Not quite. Yes, it was better than 2020, but 2021 was hardly a return to paradise. The joy of vaccinations gave way to the reality that COVID-19 is likely to be with us for a long time. The economy recovered rapidly — accompanied by the highest rate of inflation in 40 years. Worst of all, the end of the Trump presidency morphed into a crisis of democracy that is starting to look as ominous as the run-up to the Civil War.

During the past year, I’ve been struggling to make sense of the highs, the lows and the in-betweens through the prism of the media. Below are 10 of my GBH News columns from 2021. They’re in chronological order, with updates on many of the pieces posted earlier this year. If there’s a unifying theme, it’s that we’re in real trouble — but that, together, we can get through this.

The end of the Trump bump, Jan. 27. Even as he was denouncing journalists as “enemies of the people,” Donald Trump, both before and during his presidency, was very, very good for the media. Cable TV ratings soared. The New York Times and The Washington Post signed up subscribers by the bucketload. Several weeks after Trump departed from the White House, though, there were questions about what would happen once he was gone. We soon got an answer. Even though Trump never really left, news consumption shrank considerably. That may be good for our mental health. But for media executives trying to make next quarter’s numbers, it was an unpleasant new reality.

Local news in crisis, Feb. 23. The plague of hedge funds undermining community journalism continued unabated in 2021. The worst newspaper owner of them all, Alden Global Capital, acquired Tribune Publishing and its eight major-market papers, which include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and, closer to home, the Hartford Courant. When the bid was first announced, there was at least some hope that one of those papers, The Baltimore Sun, would be spun off. Unfortunately, an epic battle between Alden and Baltimore hotel mogul Stewart Bainum resulted in Alden grabbing all of them. Bainum, meanwhile, is planning to launch a nonprofit website to compete with the Sun that will be called The Baltimore Banner.

The devolution of Tucker Carlson, April 15. How did a stylish magazine writer with a libertarian bent reinvent himself as a white-supremacist Fox News personality in thrall to Trump and catering to dangerous conspiracy theories ranging from vaccines (bad) to the Jan. 6 insurrection (good)? There are millions of possible explanations, and every one of them has a picture of George Washington on it. Carlson got in trouble last spring — or would have gotten in trouble if anyone at Fox cared — when he endorsed “replacement theory,” a toxic trope that liberal elites are deliberately encouraging immigration in order to dilute the power of white voters. A multitude of advertisers have bailed on Carlson, but it doesn’t matter — Fox today makes most of its money from cable fees. And Carlson continues to spew his hate.

How Black Lives Matter exposed journalism, May 26. A teenager named Darnella Frazier exposed an important truth about how reporters cover the police. The video she recorded of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin literally squeezing the life out of George Floyd as he lay on the pavement proved that the police lied in their official report of what led to Floyd’s death. For generations, journalists have relied on law enforcement as their principal — and often only — source for news involving the police. That’s no longer good enough; in fact, it was never good enough. Frazier won a Pulitzer Prize for her courageous truth-telling. And journalists everywhere were confronted with the reality that they need to change the way they do their jobs.

The 24th annual New England Muzzle Awards, July 1. For 24 years, the Muzzle Awards have singled out enemies of free speech. The Fourth of July feature made its debut in The Boston Phoenix in 1998 and has been hosted by GBH News since 2013, the year that the Phoenix shut down. This year’s lead item was about police brutality directed at Black Lives Matter protesters in Boston and Worcester the year before — actions that had escaped scrutiny at the time but that were exposed by bodycam video obtained by The Appeal, a nonprofit news organization. Other winners of this dubious distinction included former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, retired Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz and the aforementioned Tucker Carlson, who unleashed his mob to terrorize two freelance journalists in Maine.

How to help save local news, July 28. Since 2004, some 2,100 newspapers have closed, leaving around 1,800 communities across the country bereft of coverage. It’s a disaster for democracy, and the situation is only growing worse. The Local Journalism Sustainability Act, a bipartisan proposal to provide indirect government assistance in the form of tax credits for subscribers, advertisers and publishers, could help. The bill is hardly perfect. Among other things, it would direct funds to corporate chains as well as to independent operators, thus rewarding owners who are hollowing out their papers. Nevertheless, the idea may well be worth trying. At year’s end, the legislation was in limbo, but it may be revived in early 2022.

Democracy in crisis, Sept. 29. As summer turned to fall, the media began devoting some serious attention to a truly frightening development: the deterioration of the Republican Party into an authoritarian tool of Trump and Trumpism, ready to hand the presidency back to their leader in 2024 through a combination of antidemocratic tactics. These include the disenfranchisement of Black voters through partisan gerrymandering, the passage of new laws aimed at suppressing the vote and the handing of state electoral authority over to Trump loyalists. With polls showing that a majority of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen, it’s only going to get worse in the months ahead.

Exposing Facebook’s depravity, Oct. 27. The social media giant’s role in subverting democracy in the United States and fomenting chaos and violence around the world is by now well understood, so it takes a lot to rise to the level of OMG news. Frances Haugen, though, created a sensation. The former Facebook executive leaked thousands of documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission and spoke out — at first anonymously, in The Wall Street Journal, and later on “60 Minutes” and before a congressional committee. Among other things, the documents showed that Facebook’s leaders were well aware of how much damage the service’s algorithmic amplification of conspiracy theories and hate speech was causing. By year’s end, lawyers for Rohingya refugees from Myanmar were using the documents to sue Facebook for $150 billion, claiming that Mark Zuckerberg and company had whipped up a campaign of rape and murder.

COVID-19 and the new normal, Nov. 17. By late fall, the optimism of June and July had long since given way to the reality of delta. I wrote about my own experience of trying to live as normally as possible — volunteering at Northeastern University’s long-delayed 2020 commencement and taking the train for a reporting trip in New Haven. Now, of course, we are in the midst of omicron. The new variant may prove disastrous, or it may end up being mild enough that it’s just another blip on our seemingly endless pandemic journey. In any case, omicron was a reminder — as if we needed one — that boosters, masking and testing are not going away any time soon.

How journalism is failing us, Dec. 7. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank created a sensation when he reported the results of a content analysis he had commissioned. The numbers showed that coverage of President Joe Biden from August to November 2021 was just as negative, if not more so, than coverage of then-President Trump had been during the same four-month period a year earlier. Though some criticized the study’s methodology, it spoke to a very real problem: Too many elements of the media are continuing to cover Trump and the Republicans as legitimate political actors rather than as what they’ve become: malign forces attempting to subvert democracy. The challenge is to find ways to hold Biden to account while avoiding mindless “both sides” coverage and false equivalence.

A year ago at this time we may have felt a sense of optimism that proved to be at least partly unrealistic. Next year, we’ll have no excuses — we know that COVID-19, the economy and Trumpism will continue to present enormous challenges. I hope that, at the end of 2022, we can all say that we met those challenges successfully.

Finally, my thanks to GBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2022.

Manchin kills Build Back Better, doing what he could have done six months ago

Sen. Joe Manchin. Photo (cc) 2017 by Third Way Think Tank.

Sen. Joe Manchin has finally done what he was obviously planning to do all along — he’s killed the Build Back Better bill. Naturally, he made his announcement during an appearance on Fox News.

This is why I was upset with progressives like Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for holding the infrastructure bill hostage until Build Back Better was passed. To what end? Manchin was never going to vote for BBB, no matter how many programs were cut out of it. At least we got the infrastructure bill anyway. But I hate to be right — BBB would have done an immense amount of good.

The protracted process did enormous damage to President Joe Biden’s political standing. He and his advisers need to think about how they got themselves in a position where they rolled all the dice in a very public way on something that was never going to pass.

It’s time also to think about how individual chunks of BBB might be salvaged. It won’t be easy. But the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, part of which had been folded into BBB, stands out as something that has actual bipartisan support. Let’s get it done.

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What’s wrong with the Democrats? That’s really the wrong question.

Steven Levitsky

Thomas Edsall’s latest, on what the Democrats need to do to regain power (I suppose I should say “maintain,” but it feels like they’ve already lost it), is filled with valuable insights from a variety scholars, many of them built around the theme of moving to the center and appealing more to working-class voters.

But I want to call your attention to this section, from Harvard’s Steven Levitsky, the co-author of “How Democracies Die,” which to my mind is one of the most important books of recent years. As Levitsky points out in a message to Edsall, there’s more wrong with our constitutional structure than there is with the Democratic Party:

“The Democrats have been amazingly successful in national elections over the last 20 years,” Levitsky wrote in an email.

They have won the popular vote in 7 out of 8 presidential elections — that’s almost unthinkable. They have also won the popular vote in the Senate in every six-year cycle since 2000. You cannot look at a party in a democracy that has won the popular vote almost without fail for two decades and say, gee, that party really has to get it together and address its “liabilities.”

Instead, he argued,

the liabilities lie in undemocratic electoral institutions such as the Electoral College, the structure of the Senate (where underpopulated states have an obscene amount of power that should be unacceptable in any democracy), gerrymandered state and federal legislative districts in many states, and recent political demographic trends — the concentration of Democratic votes in cities — that favor Republicans.

“Until our parties are competing on a level playing field,” Levitsky added, “I am going to insist that our institutions are a bigger problem for democracy than liberal elitism and ‘wokeness.’”

You really have to wonder how long a majority of the country is going to accept being relegated to minority status.

A unified theory of Jan. 6, Glenn Youngkin and existential dread

Glenn Youngkin. Photo (cc) 2021 by Glenn Youngkin.

The Washington Post last week published a massive investigative report on the insurrection of Jan. 6 and its aftermath. The story is filled with horrifying details, but there’s little that we didn’t already know — that Donald Trump incited the deadly violence both before and during the attack, and that the people around him as well as nearly all Republican members of Congress didn’t dare to challenge him. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell comes off as deeply cynical, a soulless shell. His House counterpart, Kevin McCarthy, is depicted as a worthless tool. Again, nothing new.

Then came the elections this past Tuesday and the triumph of Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin in Virginia over Democrat Terry McAuliffe. We all sensed it might be coming, but it left me with a feeling of something approaching despair. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. I don’t like McAuliffe, a Big Money ally of the Clintons who represents a lot of what’s wrong with his party. I’m not a Democrat. I don’t live in Virginia.

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As I thought about it, I concluded that my reaction was connected to Jan. 6. There’s been a lot of stupid talk about how Youngkin is charting a new course for the Republicans by showing that you can distance yourself from Trump and win. The problem, though, is that he didn’t distance himself from Trumpism. He appealed to racists with his false claims that critical race theory, an obsession on the right, is being taught in public schools and by running an ad in which a white supporter talks about how her precious child was so, so disturbed at having to read Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” He also benefited from a story circulating in right-wing circles that a boy in a skirt sexually assaulted a girl in a school bathroom. The story was false, but it fanned the flames of hatred toward transgender people.

More to the point, Youngkin isn’t a Republican who’s trying to tear down Trumpism and build something new, like U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney. He’s a Trumper. And that wing of the party — which, let’s face it, is most of them — should be banished, shunned, defeated, consigned to the dustbin of history. Instead, voters are treating them as normal politicians, and the media can’t resist their primal urge to get back to business-as-usual, both-sides political coverage. It’s nauseating. As Jon Allsop wrote in his newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review:

Youngkin was too often characterized as a passive actor who deftly rode abstract culture-war forces rather than driving them himself, and hailed for his political savviness more than scrutinized for the substance of his message. As many media watchers have argued, that lens has failed much coverage of racial issues, in particular.

We all know that democracy is in crisis. Authoritarianism looms. It doesn’t matter whether you like the Democratic Party or not. At this point, it is the one major party that, for all its flaws, is dedicated to small-“d” democracy. The Republican Party, sadly, is seeking to tear everything down. The public should consider all but the  most anti-Trump Republicans to be disqualified from public office until further notice. Instead, they’re voting for them. And the media are more interested in what that means for the politics of the reconciliation bill and the midterms than for the future of the country.

The Globe gets on the Wu train

No surprise, but The Boston Globe editorial board has endorsed Michelle Wu for mayor over Annissa Essaibi George.