I’m not going to try to defend The New York Times’ decision to punt and endorse two Democratic candidates for president.
In watching the endorsement process play out Sunday night on “The Weekly,” it seemed to me that the editorial board members’ main goal was to stop the frontrunner, Joe Biden, whom they see as too old and too vague. By endorsing both Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, the Times diluted the boost it might have given to Warren, who is — along with Bernie Sanders — the strongest challenger to Biden.
There will be those dissatisfied that this page is not throwing its weight behind a single candidate, favoring centrists or progressives. But it’s a fight the party itself has been itching to have since Mrs. Clinton’s defeat in 2016, and one that should be played out in the public arena and in the privacy of the voting booth. That’s the very purpose of primaries, to test-market strategies and ideas that can galvanize and inspire the country.
Essentially the Times sees itself as endorsing candidates in two separate Democratic primaries — the progressive primary and the moderate primary. Seen in this light, the Times is hoping ahead of the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses to give a boost to Warren against Sanders and to Klobuchar against Biden and Pete Buttigieg. That makes some sense, though I still think a single endorsement would have been better. Still, if the two-primaries argument had been stated more explicitly, in the lead, the Times could have spared itself some of the head-scratching and mockery it’s being subjected to today.
As for “The Weekly,” I found the hour fascinating, with the participants — led by deputy editorial-page editor Katie Kingsbury, subbing for James Bennet, whose brother Michael is (believe it or not) a presidential candidate — coming across as thoughtful and serious. I saw some Twitter chatter suggesting that the participants seemed elitist and out of touch, but that strikes me as an inevitable consequence of the the setting and the process. How could it be otherwise?
And let’s give the Times credit for dragging the traditionally secretive endorsement process out into the open, including transcripts of the interviews with each of the candidates.
Let’s just hope the Times restricts itself to one endorsement this fall.
Elizabeth Warren rose above her dispute with Bernie Sanders over who said what and offered a powerful argument about gender and politics at Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate. But it might be too late to matter.
That, at least, appears to be the consensus in my quick scan of political punditry following the final candidates’ forum before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3.
The New York Times today profiles Prager University, a right-wing meme factory founded by media figure Dennis Prager. In case you don’t know anything about Prager, I thought you’d be interested in some background.
In 2017, I gave a WGBH News New England Muzzle Award to YouTube and its owner, Google, for restricting access to a pro-Israel video made by Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz for Prager University. The video could still be accessed, but by installing a speed bump, YouTube sent a clear signal that there was something transgressive about it — a ridiculous stance regardless of what you think of Dershowitz’s views.
In 2016, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby mixed it up with Prager after Jacoby accused his fellow conservatives of hypocrisy for throwing in with Donald Trump despite his well-documented moral depravity. That led to some back-and-forth between Prager and Jacoby in which Prager accused Jacoby of “gratuitous hatred.” Jacoby responded:
For me, the most disheartening aspect of the whole Trump phenomenon has been the sight of so many good, principled people deciding that their good principles need not keep them from marching behind Trump’s squalid banner.
As you’ll see from Nellie Bowles’ Times story, Prager is quite a piece of work.
For observers of the media, there are few spectacles more dispiriting than the way the press covers presidential campaigns. Rather than digging into what really matters, such as the candidates’ experience, leadership ability and positions on important issues, reporters focus on controversies, attacks on one another, gotcha moments and, of course, polls, polls and more polls.
Now a study conducted by the School of Journalism at Northeastern University has quantified just how bad things are. Looking at about 10,000 news articles from 28 ideologically diverse news outlets published between March and October, my colleagues and I found that coverage of the Democratic candidates “tracks with the ebbs and flows of scandals, viral moments and news items.”
Our findings were posted last week at Storybench, a vertical published by the School of Journalism that covers media innovation. The data analysis was performed by Aleszu Bajak with an assist from John Wihbey. Among the key points in our report:
• The televised debates have driven some of the issues-based coverage. For instance, mentions of the candidates’ positions on immigration and health care increased during and immediately after the debates but then quickly subsided.
• Kirsten Gillibrand made reproductive choice one of her signature issues — and after she dropped out of the race, that issue faded from media coverage. Similarly, coverage of gun control was tied mainly to Beto O’Rourke’s now-defunct campaign. LGBTQ rights and climate change have been virtually ignored.
• The Ukraine story has dominated recently coverage of the Democratic candidates, with much of it focused on President Trump’s false accusations that Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden acted corruptly.
Of course, to some extent the media can’t help but be reactive. It would be irresponsible not to cover what the candidates are saying about themselves and each other. But the press’ urge to chase controversies at the expense of more substantive matters shows that little has been learned since its disastrous performance four years ago.
As Thomas Patterson of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy wrote in an analysis of the 2016 campaign, coverage of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was unrelentingly negative, creating the impression that the controversy over Clinton’s emails was somehow equivalent to massive corruption at Trump’s charitable foundation, his racist remarks and his boasting about sexual assault as revealed on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape.
“The real bias of the press is not that it’s liberal,” Patterson wrote. “Its bias is a decided preference for the negative.”
It doesn’t have to be that way. Earlier this year, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen proposed campaign coverage built around a “citizens agenda.” Rosen proposed that news organizations should identify their audience, listen to what they believe the candidates should be focusing on, and cover the race accordingly.
“Given a chance to ask questions of the people competing for office, you can turn to the citizens agenda,” Rosen wrote on his influential blog, Press Think. “And if you need a way of declining the controversy of the day, there it is. The agenda you got by listening to voters helps you hold to mission when temptation is to ride the latest media storm.”
Some coverage of presidential politics has been quite good. Quality news organizations such as The New York Times and The Washington Post have published in-depth articles on challenges the candidates have overcome and how that helps shape their approach to governing. The Boston Globe has been running a series called “Back to the Battleground” in which it has reported on four key states that unexpectedly went with Trump in 2016. Reports aimed at making sense of the Ukraine story, explaining Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare for All plan and the like are worthy examples of campaign journalism aimed at informing the public. But such efforts tend to be overshadowed by day-to-day horse-race coverage.
The latest poll-driven narrative is the rise of Pete Buttigieg, who’s emerged as the clear frontrunner in Iowa, according to a Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom survey. You can be sure that he’ll be watched closely at this week’s televised debate. Will his rivals attack him? Will he fight back? Can he take the heat?
Little of it will have much to do with what kind of president Buttigieg or any of the other candidates would be. The horse race is paramount. Who’s up, who’s down and the latest controversies are what matter to the political press.
The data my Northeastern colleagues have compiled provides a measurement of how badly political coverage has run off the rails. What’s needed is a commitment on the part of the media to do a better job of serving the public interest.
It’s a paradox of examining political coverage. Are news media just reporting what the political candidates are talking about? Or does political journalism really set the agenda by selecting stories around specific news items, scandals and issues du jour?
Our topic analysis of ~10,000 news articles on the 2020 Democratic candidates, published between March and October in an ideological diverse range of 28 news outlets, reveals that political coverage, at least this cycle, tracks with the ebbs and flows of scandals, viral moments and news items, from accusations of Joe Biden’s inappropriate behavior towards women to President Trump’s phone call with Ukraine.
If nothing else, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey proved himself to be a master of timing when he announced last week that his social network will ban all political ads.
Anger was still raging over Mark Zuckerberg’s recent statement that Facebook would not attempt to fact-check political advertising, thus opening the door to a flood of falsehoods. Taking direct aim at Zuckerberg, Dorsey tweeted: “It‘s not credible for us to say: ‘We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, buuut if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad…well…they can say whatever they want!’”
For instance, it‘s not credible for us to say: “We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, buuut if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad…well…they can say whatever they want! 😉”
Not surprisingly, Twitter’s ad ban won widespread praise.
“This is a good call,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who had only recently tormented Zuckerberg at a congressional hearing. “Technology — and social media especially — has a powerful responsibility in preserving the integrity of our elections. Not allowing for paid disinformation is one of the most basic, ethical decisions a company can make.”
Added Hillary Clinton: “This is the right thing to do for democracy in America and all over the world. What say you, @Facebook?”
Oh, but if only it were that simple. Advertising on social media is a cheap and effective way for underfunded candidates seeking less prominent offices to reach prospective voters. No, it’s not good for democracy if we are overwhelmed with lies. But, with some controls in place, Facebook and Twitter can be crucial for political candidates who can’t afford television ads. To get rid of all political advertising would be to favor incumbents over outsiders and longshots.
And let’s be clear: Facebook, not Twitter, is what really matters. Journalists pay a lot of attention to Twitter because other journalists use it — as do politicians, bots and sociopaths. Facebook, with more than 2 billion active users around the world, is exponentially larger and much richer. For instance, the 2020 presidential candidates so far have spent an estimated $46 million on political ads on Facebook, compared to less than $3 million spent by all candidates on Twitter ads during the 2018 midterms.
But is political advertising on Facebook worth saving given the falsehoods, the attempts to deceive, that go way beyond anything you’re likely to see on TV?
In fact, there are some common-sense steps that might help fix Facebook ads.
Writing in The Boston Globe, technology journalist Josh Bernoff suggested that Facebook ban all targeting for political ads except for geography. In other words, candidates for statewide office ought to be able to target their ads so they’re not paying to reach Facebook users in other states. But they shouldn’t be able to target certain slices of the electorate, like liberals or conservatives, homeowners or renters, white people or African Americans (or “Jew haters,” as ProPublica discovered was possible in a nauseating exposé a couple of years ago.)
Bernoff also suggested that politicians be required to provide documentation to back up the facts in their ads. It’s a good idea, though it may prove impractical.
But we may not have to go that far. The reason ads spreading disinformation are so effective on Facebook is that they fly under the radar, seen by tiny slices of the electorate and thus evading broader scrutiny. In an op-ed piece in The Washington Post, Ellen L. Weintraub, chair of the Federal Election Commission, argued that the elimination of microtargeting could result in more truthful, less toxic advertising.
“Ads that are more widely available will contribute to the robust and wide-open debate that is central to our First Amendment values,” Weintraub wrote. “Political advertisers will have greater incentives to be truthful in ads when they can more easily and publicly be called to account for them.”
Calling for political ads to be banned on Facebook is futile. We live our lives on the internet these days, and Facebook has become (God help us) our most important distributor of news and information.
Earlier this week The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the IRS had approved its application to become a nonprofit organization, making it the first daily newspaper to take that step. Unlike The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Tampa Bay Times, for-profit newspapers owned by nonprofit foundations, the Tribune will be fully nonprofit, making it eligible for tax-deductible donations.
Nonprofit news isn’t exactly a novelty. Public media organizations like PBS, NPR and, yes, WGBH are nonprofit organizations. So are a number of pioneering community websites such as the New Haven Independent and Voice of San Diego. And if the Tribune succeeds, it could pave the way for other legacy newspapers.
Last May I wrote about what nonprofit status in Salt Lake could mean for the struggling newspaper business. This week’s announcement is a huge step forward.
Van Jones is ripping Hillary Clinton for suggesting that Russian interests are seeking to use Tulsi Gabbard’s fringe presidential campaign to divide Democrats and help President Trump get re-elected. Here’s what Jones said on CNN:
If you’re concerned about disinformation … that is what just happened, just throw out some information, disinformation, smear somebody. She is Hillary Clinton. She’s a legend. She’s going to be in the history books, she’s a former nominee of our party, and she just came out against a sitting U.S. congresswoman, a decorated war veteran, and somebody who’s running for the nomination of our party with a complete smear and no facts.
In fact, there was nothing novel about Clinton’s contention. NBC News reported on Russian interest in Gabbard’s candidacy last February (via Sue O’Connell) in a detailed investigative report that begins:
The Russian propaganda machine that tried to influence the 2016 U.S. election is now promoting the presidential aspirations of a controversial Hawaii Democrat who earlier this month declared her intention to run for president in 2020.
An NBC News analysis of the main English-language news sites employed by Russia in its 2016 election meddling shows Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who is set to make her formal announcement Saturday, has become a favorite of the sites Moscow used when it interfered in 2016.
Now, I realize that CNN talking heads are required to speak many words, and sometimes things go haywire. But for Jones not to be aware of longstanding concerns about Gabbard and Russian propaganda is unacceptable.
I think they [the Russians Republicans] have got their eye somebody who’s currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate. She’s a favorite of the Russians. They have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far.
Clinton also said Jill Stein, who ran a third-party campaign in 2016, was a “Russian asset,” which is an uncontroversial assertion to anyone who paid attention. As with Gabbard, we can’t know what Stein was thinking, but it’s simply a fact that Stein’s candidacy was pushed by RT and other elements of Russian’s propaganda machine.
What Clinton said was the opposite of fake news, and Jones should acknowledge it. Then again, liberal commentators like Jones have a huge incentive to rip other liberals so they will be seen as “fair.” And the Clintons have been everyone’s favorite punching bag for such exercises for nearly 30 years.
Correction and update: Thanks to this Wall Street Journal story and Dylan Smith’s transcript of the Clinton-Plouffe exchange, we now know that Clinton said Gabbard was being groomed by the Republicans, not by the Russians, and that she did not call Gabbard a “Russian asset” (that was reserved solely for Stein). So Jones was even more unprepared and offbase than I originally thought.
Amy Klobuchar was having her moment. The Minnesota senator, an also-ran since entering the presidential race in the middle of a snowstorm last February, turned in her strongest debate performance Tuesday night. And now she was pressing her advantage, appearing on all three cable news outlets to repeat her message that Elizabeth Warren isn’t the only candidate with big ideas. Moderates can have them, too.
“There’s not just one idea out there. There are many,” she said on CNN. Klobuchar offered some pointed criticism of Warren as the night wore on, telling MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, “Her way or no way is how it feels every single time,” and Fox News’ Shannon Bream, “Your idea is not the only idea.”
Following Tuesday’s marathon Democratic debate, I spent an hour — 20 minutes each — with CNN, MSNBC and Fox News to get a feel for the instant take on what had just transpired. What I heard may or may not shape the conversation about the campaign in the days ahead. But the consensus was that Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg had a good night — and that, given Joe Biden’s continued inability to take charge of the race, one of them may emerge as the moderate challenger to Warren and Bernie Sanders, the leading progressives.
“To the extent that they gain, it could be at Biden’s expense,” Democratic analyst David Axelrod said on CNN. Added his nonpartisan colleague Gloria Borger: “In some ways Buttigieg explains Biden better than Biden explains Biden.”
On MSNBC, the message was the same, with Washington Post political reporter Robert Costa saying there was “a real impression tonight about Mayor Buttigieg trying to compete for that Biden vote.”
On Fox News, Bret Baier showed some clips of Biden’s “word salad” performance and said, “Joe Biden did not have a good night.” If Biden continues to fade, Baier added, Democrats will want to have the option of a moderate like Klobuchar or Buttigieg to go up against Warren or Sanders — who, Baier said (this was Fox, after all), are part of “the progressive far left.”
The big question is whether these predictions of a Klobuchar and/or Buttigieg breakout will become reality, or if they’re wishful thinking. Klobuchar may not even qualify for the next debate. The media thrive on conflict and a simple story line. In the most recent polls, Warren and Biden have established themselves as the front-runners, with Sanders not too far behind. A Biden-versus-Warren race satisfies the media’s desire for a clash between an establishment moderate trying to hang on against an insurgent progressive — but not if Biden can’t hold up his end.
Thus, Tuesday was the best opportunity for the second-tier candidates to emerge, with Klobuchar and Buttigieg making the most of it.
Buttigieg, oddly enough, had his best moment during the debate by going after Beto O’Rourke, who has been a non-factor in the campaign. O’Rourke is pushing a mandatory gun buyback plan that Buttigieg has called unworkable as well as a distraction from more modest measures that might actually get passed.
“Let’s … lead and not be limited by the polls and consultants and focus groups,” O’Rourke told Buttigieg during the debate — which brought a withering retort from Buttigieg.
“I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal,” Buttigieg said, a response that, among other things, was a not-so-subtle reminder of his military service.
During a post-debate appearance on CNN, Chris Cuomo tried to get Buttigieg to expand on his criticism of O’Rourke, but Buttigieg wasn’t going there. Instead, he stuck with his talking points that he is “the best positioned to beat Donald Trump,” and that Democrats win when they embrace generational change.
Klobuchar, on the other hand, was only too happy in her post-debate interviews to keep bashing Warren, for whom she has “a lot of respect.” (But of course!) In her interview with Chris Hayes, Klobuchar cast her own proposals to add a public option to the Affordable Care Act and rein in the pharmaceutical industry as ideas as worthy of discussion as Warren’s embrace of Medicare For All — and, ultimately, more practical. Of Warren’s oft-repeated contention that the moderates aren’t willing to fight, Klobuchar added, “I’ve really had it with that.”
Next it was on to Fox News, where Klobuchar repeated her criticisms in an interview with Shannon Bream. Klobuchar also made a pitch for right-leaning Fox News viewers who would presumably be out of reach for her more progressive adversary.
“There are a lot of moderate Republicans who agree with me,” she said, “and a lot of independents, and even some conservative Republicans.”
Thankfully, Klobuchar left out the right-wing conspiracy theorists who watch Fox’s prime-time lineup every night.
My own take? Warren was not perfect, but she was basically OK. The media are throwing a fit, not because she won’t answer their question about the tax increases that would be needed to pay for Medicare For All, but because she refuses to accept their framing. She’s answered the question: Medicare For All would result in lower overall costs for the middle class. She might be wrong, but you can’t call that an evasion.
Biden was so-so, showing some emotion over the false smears the Trump camp has directed at him and his son Hunter over Hunter’s business interests in Ukraine and China. Biden’s yelling at Warren and waving his hand in her face was, uh, interesting.
And Sanders, two weeks after suffering a heart attack, turned in maybe his best debate performance — making his points with his usual gusto, but also showing a warm and funny side, especially when Cory Booker noted that Sanders is in favor of medical marijuana.
Joe Biden could be the next president. And he has issued a “demand” (via his campaign) that the networks stop booking Rudy Giuliani, which they have a First Amendment right to do.
Yes, Giuliani is lying about the Bidens. But Biden, who may soon have the power to appoint FCC commissioners, could have “urged” or “requested” that the networks stop giving Giuliani a platform. “Demand” suggests consequences. Does Biden want to join Trump in eroding constitutional norms?
For the first time in Donald Trump’s 33-month presidency, his impeachment seems possible — maybe even probable. The dam that withstood the Mueller Report has broken in recent days over the news that Trump may have withheld military aid from Ukraine in order to strong-arm that country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, into investigating Joe Biden. As “Never Trump” conservative Tom Nichols put it in The Atlantic: “If this in itself is not impeachable, then the concept has no meaning.”
Yet media fecklessness (and worse) has already pretty much guaranteed that the scandal will be seen in entirely partisan terms. To wit:
• In an appearance on MSNBC last Friday, New York Times reporter Kenneth Vogel breathed life into a discredited theory promoted by Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani that the real story is Biden and his son Hunter’s dealings with Ukraine. Vogel called it “a significant liability for Joe Biden,” adding that Giuliani should back off “and just kind of leave the reporters to do the work on it.”
• On Monday, NPR.org published a headline that was a parody of false equivalence: “What’s The Ukraine Story About? Trump Says It’s Biden. Democrats Say It’s Trump.” I captured an image of it as I was gathering string for this column. Good thing. Because within a few hours, someone had the sense to change it to “Trump And The Ukraine Call — What Happened And What’s Next?” (The old headline is still in the URL.)
• In the fever swamps of the right, Trump’s enablers are working hard to transform this into another Benghazi/ Uranium One/ “her emails” distraction. In The Hill, John Solomon wrote that the Obama administration leaned on Ukrainian officials to drop an investigation into Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company that had Hunter Biden on retainer. “Politics. Pressure. Opposition research,” Solomon wrote. “All were part of the Democrats’ playbook on Ukraine long before Trump ever called Zelensky this summer.” Naturally, Solomon popped up on Fox News on Monday evening, sharing his conspiracy theories with a rapt Sean Hannity.
As Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan put it: “Instead of snuffing out false and misleading claims, news stories give them oxygen. Then pundits come along to fan the flames — while simultaneously bemoaning what’s happened to our democratic norms.”
The Biden-Ukraine story is incredibly complicated, but the simplified version is this: Then-Vice President Biden served as the point man to pressure the Ukrainian government into removing that country’s prosecutor general, Victor Shokin, who had been investigating Burisma. Officials in both the United States and the United Kingdom were frustrated with Shokin for not moving aggressively enough in pursuing corruption. Shokin was in fact removed, and Biden took credit for it — more than he deserved, but that’s our Uncle Joe. There is no evidence that Hunter Biden benefited in any way or that the elder and younger Bidens even talked about the Burisma matter beyond one brief, non-substantive exchange.
Now this is where you, the fair-minded reader, probably find yourself wondering if there really is anything to the Biden angle. I wondered myself. What I discovered is every major fact-checking organization has concluded that neither of the Bidens did anything wrong. It’s fair to observe that Hunter Biden traded on his family connections in an unseemly way, collecting some $50,000 a month to serve on the Burisma board of directors. But as best as journalists have been able to determine, nothing illegal or corrupt took place.
It seems like a long time ago now, but this all started coming into focus two weeks ago, when U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, publicly charged the Trump administration with violating the federal whistleblower law by not allowing an official who reportedly had damaging information about the president to come forward.
It all unraveled pretty quickly last week, with the Post and the Times moving the story forward and the Journal hitting what the Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop called “the motherlode”: the news that Trump had pressured Zelensky in a phone call last July, repeating about eight times that Zelensky should investigate the Bidens.
Trump’s various explanations for what happened have shifted. He’s admitted to putting the squeeze on Zelensky to go after the Bidens, but his latest explanation for suspending some $400 million in military aid was that he wanted the Europeans to contribute more. He also has promised to release the transcript of his call with Zelensky sometime today. It’s not clear what if any steps are being taken to ensure that the transcript is accurate. Nor has the whistleblower information been turned over to Congress.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced late Tuesday afternoon that the House will begin a formal impeachment inquiry. In the weeks and months ahead, it is crucial that journalists do their job and not let themselves be sidetracked by Trump’s diversionary tactics about Joe and Hunter Biden.
Trump has actually admitted to demanding that a foreign government investigate one of his political opponents — as shocking a development as anything we have learned about Trump in his four-plus years as a national political figure. It remains to be seen if he also threatened to withhold military aid if the Ukrainians failed to comply, though the evidence suggests that’s exactly what he did.
Of course, if any legitimate concerns about the Bidens emerge, they should be investigated. What the press needs to avoid, though, is the urge to balance truthful information about Trump with his false accusations about one of his leading Democratic challengers.