Garland makes good on Biden’s promise to stop harassing the press

Attorney General Merrick Garland. Photo (cc) 2016 by Senate Democrats.

Give President Joe Biden credit for having a keen understanding of what it takes to hold together his Democratic-liberal-progressive coalition.

When he said in May that it was “simply, simply wrong” for the government to spy on journalists, I was skeptical that he would follow up his sentiment with concrete action. After all, he was vice president under Barack Obama, whose harassment of reporters in his campaign against leaks was legendary. Other presidents also thought nothing about going after reporters, including Donald Trump, George W. Bush and, of course, Richard Nixon.

But press secretary Jen Psaki followed up by assuring reporters that Biden meant what he said. And, on Monday, it came to fruition with Attorney General Merrick Garland’s announcement that the administration would stop attempting to seize journalists’ records in nearly all circumstances. In a memo quoted by The New York Times, Garland wrote:

The Department of Justice will no longer use compulsory legal process for the purpose of obtaining information from or records of members of the news media acting within the scope of news-gathering activities.

Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, issued a statement of approval, saying:

The attorney general has taken a necessary and momentous step to protect press freedom at a critical time. This historic new policy will ensure that journalists can do their job of informing the public without fear of federal government intrusion into their relationships with confidential sources.

Technically, Garland was acting on his own. The attorney general is supposed to be independent of the president. But Garland could hardly continue with the anti-press policies of Biden’s predecessors after Biden himself had spoken out so strongly in favor of reform.

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Garland’s actions come in response to some truly shocking actions undertaken by the Trump administration, some of which spilled over into the first few months of the Biden presidency. Acting on what appeared to be political motivations, the Trump Justice Department sought phone and email records from journalists at The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN. Judging from the timeline, the Trumpsters seemed to be looking into those news organizations’ reporting on the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to Russian interests.

There are some exceptions to Garland’s order in the case of life-or-death situations, or if a reporter is believed to be actively helping a source obtain classified information. But these exceptions strike me as reasonable rather than being easily exploited loopholes.

Garland’s memo also says that the Justice Department will support efforts to pass legislation making the guidelines permanent so that they don’t expire as soon as Biden leaves office. That’s really the key, since future presidents and attorneys general would otherwise not be bound by Biden and Garland’s good intentions.

The Massachusetts GOP is becoming more extreme and authoritarian

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As the Massachusetts Republican Party becomes more extreme, it’s moving further and further toward authoritarianism in order to intimidate those with whom its leaders disagree.

Just a few weeks ago it seemed beyond the pale when a member of the state committee, Deborah Martell, wrote emails in which she said she was “sickened” that a gay Republican candidate for Congress, Jeffrey Sossa-Paquette, had adopted children along with his husband.

Since then, the party has targeted a Drag Queen Story Hour at the Plymouth Public Library under the caption “Is this really the new normal?,” republishing the library’s phone number on its public Facebook page just in case anyone wants to, you know, express their constitutionally protected views. And last week the party revealed the shocking (!) information that Emma Platoff, a recently hired Boston Globe reporter who’s been covering the party’s meltdown, is a registered Democrat.

“The Boston Globe’s nonstop negative portrayal of Massachusetts Republicans sure makes sense now,” wrote party chair Jim Lyons in an email to members. “Today I learned that the reporter assigned to cover us is a registered Democrat. Journalists, registered as members of the Democratic Party, working in news media, covering Massachusetts Republicans. Well, knock me over with a feather.”

For more details, I refer you to this Twitter thread by Ed Lyons, a political activist from the moderate wing of the Republican Party. As Lyons shows, the GOP makes it appear that finding out Platoff’s party affiliation was as easy as plugging her name into an online form in Connecticut, where she used to live. In fact, you also have to enter someone’s date of birth and town or city of residence, raising the possibility that confidential information was used improperly in order to discover that she’s a Democrat.

Now, a few words about a reporter declaring a party affiliation. It’s no big deal. Ethical codes would forbid a journalist from serving as an active member of a political party by, say, serving on a city or town committee. We can’t make political donations, put political signs on our yards, or take part in any other partisan political activity. But a party affiliation is meaningless. We can declare ourselves as Democrats, Republicans, independents, Greens, whatever. We can vote, although some journalists choose not to.

Up until 2000, I was a registered Democrat. I switched my party affiliation to “unenrolled” that spring so I could take a Republican ballot in the presidential primary. I decided I liked it and never switched back. But it made no difference in how I reported on politics.

It appears that Lyons and company are attempting to intimidate Platoff, just as they were attempting to intimidate librarians in Plymouth. The goal is to divert attention from their descent into Trumpism.

From time to time I tweet a humorous (but serious) message that it’s time for Gov. Charlie Baker to leave the Republican Party. To his credit, he’s been critical of the Lyons wing. But he needs to say and do more.

Ron DeSantis’ latest stunt would make Joe McCarthy proud

Joseph McCarthy. Painting via the National Portrait Gallery.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s running hard for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, signed a bill this week that is a masterpiece of performative McCarthyism. Ana Ceballos of the Tampa Bay Times reports that the legislation will require the state’s public colleges and universities to conduct an intrusive survey into the beliefs of students, faculty and staff.

The survey, Ceballos writes, will be used to determine “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented” and whether “intellectual diversity” is supported on campus. The new law could be the basis for budget cuts “if universities and colleges are found to be ‘indoctrinating’ students,” according to Ceballos.

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Josh Kovensky of Talking Points Memo reports that, at a news conference following the signing, DeSantis castigated many colleges and universities as “intellectually repressive environments. You have orthodoxies that are promoted and other viewpoints are shunned or even suppressed.”

DeSantis’ action, needless to say, is a grotesque violation of the First Amendment. But that’s nothing new for him, as I’ve written previously.

DeSantis has also banned public school curriculum based on The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which he falsely calls “false history,” as well as instruction in critical race theory — an academic concept that, as Kovensky notes, has little to do with the diversity training and teaching about systemic racism that school systems actually engage in.

In a straw poll of potential 2024 candidates held last weekend at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver, DeSantis narrowly beat Donald Trump, according to The Hill. But first he has to win re-election as governor.

Florida had been trending bluish in recent years but appears to be moving back into the Republican column based on the past several elections. Still, a number of Democrats are lining up to challenge DeSantis, including Democratic congressman Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor himself.

The problem with McCarthy-style populism is that it’s popular — until it isn’t. We’ll see how DeSantis’ latest attack on freedom of expression plays with Florida voters.

How minority rule is turning the U.S. into an undemocratic country

Photo (cc) 2014 by the National Museum of American History

This essay was first published in the Media Nation member newsletter. To become a member for $5 a month, please click here.

Like many of us, I worry about the state of our democracy. I write about it from time to time, but what concerns me especially is that it’s almost impossible to see any way out of our dilemma. That’s because we need systemic reform in order to move toward democracy. Not only is it in the interest of Republicans to oppose that reform, but there’s also no way of overcoming their opposition.

Obviously a lot of attention has been focused on Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s opposition to getting rid of the filibuster, which means that President Joe Biden won’t be able to pass any of his non-budget priorities through a simple majority. But we all know the problem goes deeper than that, because the Constitution is heavily tilted toward the small-population states, which are overwhelmingly Republican.

At the presidential level, we need to get rid of the Electoral College, a vestige of slavery that resulted in the elections of George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016 even though they lost the popular vote. Yes, the Electoral College has always been with us. But before Bush, the last time a candidate was elected president despite losing the popular vote was in 1888. Because of shifting demographics, such outcomes have become increasingly likely.

Nor is the problem solely at the presidential level. The 50 Republican senators represent just 43.5% of the electorate, according to calculations by the Daily Kos, whereas the 50 Democratic senators represent 56.5%. That’s an enormous gap, yet between the filibuster’s requirement of 60 votes to move forward on anything and the small-state advantage, Chuck Schumer might as well hand his gavel over to Mitch McConnell.

The House is at least theoretically democratic since districts are drawn on the basis of population. But partisan gerrymandering has resulted in Republicans having more seats to which they should be entitled. That will certainly prove to be a factor in the midterm elections, when the Republicans will in all likelihood regain their majority.

And I haven’t even mentioned Republican efforts across the country to pass voter-suppression laws that would disproportionately affect people of color.

This state of affairs would be bad enough if Republicans were committed to our democratic system. But we can see that they’re not, and their willingness to repeat the Big Lie that Trump won re-election last fall has become a loyalty test within the party.

We can all think of ways to solve these problems, but even to write about them seems like an exercise in futility. The Republicans would block any changes that would diminish their power. And we will continue to move deeper into minority rule.

Reporting by DigBoston and BINJ helps delay snooping by surveillance cameras

Reporting by DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism helped stave off a serious violation of civil liberties — at least for now.

Dan Atkinson reported on March 25 that “city officials are quietly looking to hire consultants to maintain a linked network of more than 1,000 video cameras across the Metro Boston area, with remote access shared across nine cities.”

The move came, Atkinson noted, even as Boston City Council members were pushing for greater oversight of surveillance technology.

On Friday, The Boston Globe reported that Acting Mayor Kim Janey will not move forward with the plan, though she declined to kill the proposal altogether. The Globe’s Danny McDonald quoted a Janey spokeswoman as saying that she “is directing her staff to take a fresh look at this request…. Mayor Janey remains committed to strengthening public safety, transparency and accountability for the City of Boston.”

So kudos to DigBoston, the city’s last alternative weekly, and BINJ. And if you’d like to get a better sense of how the two organizations work together, check out this story from November 2019 by Adrian Ma at WBUR.org.

Four years later, getting to the bottom of the Steele dossier

The alleged Moscow hotel room where it all didn’t happen. Photo (cc) 2017 by quapan.

The New York Times on Sunday published an excerpt from “Spooked: The Trump Dossier, Black Cube and the Rise of Private Spies,” by former Times reporter Barry Meier. The excerpt makes explicit something that has long been obvious: that the much-ballyhooed Steele dossier contained little that was actually true.

You remember the Steele dossier, right? Compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele as opposition research on Donald Trump, first paid for by anti-Trump Republican interests and later by the Hillary Clinton campaign, the dossier contained all kinds of salacious details, including an alleged romp in a Russian hotel room involving Trump, prostitutes, urine and a bed the Obamas had once slept in.

The value Meier brings to the tale, other than a wealth of details, is a reality check: How could Steele, who had been hired by the private intelligence firm Fusion GPS, know so much that had eluded everyone else? Here’s a particularly telling passage:

Over dinner in Moscow in 2019, Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer who met with Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign, offered her take on the matter. Ms. Veselnitskaya had worked alongside Mr. Simpson when she represented a Russian-owned real estate firm called Prevezon Holdings and said she regarded him as a skilled investigator. [Glenn Simpson, a former journalist, is the co-founder of Fusion GPS.] As for Mr. Steele and the dossier, she had nothing but contempt.

“If you take this fake stuff for real, then you just have to be brave enough to believe, to completely dismiss all your special services, all your intelligence staff,” she said rapidly through an interpreter. She suggested how odd it was that all those people and agencies “were never able to find out what that talented person found out without ever leaving his room.”

No kidding. Meier also reminds us that when the identity of Steele’s informant was finally revealed last year, he turned out to be less than impressive — Igor Danchenko, a Russian-born lawyer living in the United States whose “contacts within Russia appeared to be not Kremlin A-listers but instead childhood friends, college buddies or drinking pals.”

As Trump was taking office in January 2017, CNN reported that both Trump and outgoing President Barack Obama had been briefed on the Steele Dossier’s contents, giving it a shiny aura of believability. BuzzFeed News went one step further, actually publishing the entire dossier. As I said at the time, I thought BuzzFeed made the wrong call, explaining:

The documents reflect raw intelligence of the sort that is often wrong. Apparently a number of news organizations have had this material for quite some time, and none of them published because they could not verify their truthfulness…. Essentially BuzzFeed played right into the narrative being pushed by Trump and his supporters — that the media cannot be trusted and are out to get him by promoting “fake news.”

Interestingly, the editor of BuzzFeed News at that time was Ben Smith, who is now the Times’ media columnist.

As Meier suggests, Trump was so flagrantly corrupt that journalists were willing to believe anything about his ties with Russia. The trouble is that not every bad thing you hear about a bad person is true.

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Some truth-telling from Paul Krugman about those April jobless numbers

Paul Krugman. Photo (cc) 2011 by 00Joshi.

No doubt you’re aware that the media have been mindless repeating the phony Republican talking point that the April job numbers fell short because the unemployment benefits in President Biden’s rescue package are too generous.

“The disappointing jobs report makes it clear that paying people not to work is dampening what should be a stronger jobs market,” according to chamber’s chief policy officer, Neal Bradley, who was quoted by Business Insider.

So it was bracing to encounter some reality in today’s New York Times column by Paul Krugman, surely the only full-time pundit with a Nobel Prize in economics. Here are some facts:

  • The economy actually added more than 1 million jobs in April, not the 266,000 officially reported. What explains the discrepancy? The number was “seasonally adjusted,” with the true number revised downward “because the economy normally adds a lot of jobs in the spring.” That’s standard practice, so it is in fact true that the April numbers were disappointing. But we are only just now coming out of the pandemic. Let’s see what happens in the following months.
  • “The expiration of the $600-a week-benefit introduced in March 2020,” Krugman says, “didn’t lead to any visible rise in overall employment; in particular, states with low wages, for whom the benefit should have created a big incentive to turn down job offers, didn’t see more employment than higher-wage states when it was removed.”
  • “If unemployment benefits were holding job growth back,” Krugman adds, “you’d expect the worst performance in low-wage industries, where benefits are large relative to wages. The actual pattern was the reverse: big job gains in low-wage sectors like leisure and hospitality, job losses in high-wage sectors like professional services.”

The Republicans are tearing themselves apart, trying to pump up their white rural base by attacking transgender kids and preparing to toss Liz Cheney off the House leadership team for having the temerity to tell the truth about Donald Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Meanwhile, Biden’s approval rating has hit 63%.

Biden has made a big bet that he can build a winning Democratic coalition by proving that government can work again. Republican criticism of his economic policies less than four months into his presidency is a sign that they fear he might succeed.

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Why I’m boycotting Home Depot — and why you should, too

Photo (cc) 2018 by AnnetteWho

I’m generally not a huge supporter of boycotts. They tend to be ineffective, and for every business you walk away from, there are others whose practices are equally worthy of condemnation. Walmart is the only place I won’t shop, yet I order from Amazon all the time. I’m well aware that makes no sense.

Now, though, I’m adding a second: Home Depot. I’m doing so at the urging of Georgia ministers who say the company has been taking a pass on protesting the state’s restrictive new voting laws aimed at disenfranchising Black Georgians. According to NBC News:

Standing outside of a Home Depot in Decatur, the religious leaders blasted Home Depot both for not speaking out against the legislation before it was passed into law and for refusing to meet with activists in the weeks since. They contrasted Home Depot’s actions to companies like Delta and Coca-Cola, which they said have been more willing to hear their concerns and attend roundtables to discuss issues like voting rights.

Your local hardware store has what you need.

A hair-raising tale about the late Walter Mondale

Joan and Walter Mondale with Boston Mayor Ray Flynn. Photo (cc) Boston City Archives.

My favorite story about Walter Mondale (and how many people can say they have a favorite story about Walter Mondale?) has to do with something he supposedly said when a staffer from Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign complained to him about his haircut.

Those of us who’ve reached a certain age may remember that one of Carter’s claims to fame was that he had really, really good hair. And apparently it just wouldn’t do that the Democratic nominee’s newly chosen running mate was, to put it mildly, tonsorially challenged. Mondale’s alleged retort: “The people of Minnesota like shitty haircuts.”

Mondale, often described as the first vice president who actually mattered, died on Monday at the age of 93. I recommend Steven R. Weisman’s masterful obituary in The New York Times.

Now, did my Mondale anecdote play out exactly as I’ve described it? It’s hard to say. But I found something very close in a 1992 book by Steven M. Gillon titled “The Democrats’ Dilemma: Walter F. Mondale and the Liberal Legacy.” Apparently once Mondale became vice president, he took to having his hair cut by a stylist in his office, a move that was seen by some as a sign that Fritz was leaving his humble roots behind. Gillon writes:

While in the Senate, Mondale had his hair cut by a local Washington barber. “The people in Minnesota like shitty haircuts,” he told friends. Now, a hair stylist came directly to the Vice President’s office. “He thinks he doesn’t have time” to go to a barber, a friend remarked skeptically.

Mondale was one of the finest people ever to win a presidential nomination — a model of personal rectitude and dedication to public service. I would say that we won’t see his likes again except that I think we have a pretty good example of that in the White House right now.

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The smoking gun bursts into flames

Gosh, it’s almost as if Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign colluded with the Russians. Now, remind me. Who hired Paul Manafort to run the campaign? Big guy … orange hair … give me a moment, OK?