I’d like to let you know about a special program coming up on the crisis in community journalism. Titled “The Decline of Local News and the Rise of Polarization,” the event is part of the Masterman Speaker Series and the Ford Hall Forum at Suffolk Law School. It will be held next Thursday, Sept. 29, at 5 p.m. in Sargent Hall, 120 Tremont St., in the Blue Sky Lounge on the fifth floor.
I’ll be moderating, and I promise to inject some optimism into the proceedings. We’ve got a great panel:
Joshua Darr, associate professor of political communication at Louisiana State University. Ellen Clegg and I interviewed Darr earlier this year on the “What Works” podcast about his research into polarization and local opinion.
Renée Loth, an opinion columnist for The Boston Globe and a former editorial-page editor of the Globe.She is currently an adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Charles St. Amand, practioner in residence in Suffolk’s communication and journalism department and a 31-year veteran of community journalism, most recently as editor of the Sentinel & Enterprise in Fitchburg.
On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Ethan Zuckerman, associate professor of public policy, communication and information at UMass-Amherst. He’s also founder of the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure, which is studying how to build alternatives to the commercial internet. And Ethan co-founded a local news initiative with global reach, a blogging community called Global Voices.
An alum of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard and the MIT Media Lab, he is the author of two books. The latest is titled “Mistrust: Why Losing Faith in Institutions Provides the Tools to Transform Them.” It’s a powerful look at the rise of mistrust in institutions, especially media, and how that mistrust is provoking a crisis for representative democracy.
Ethan will be visiting Northeastern’s campus later this fall, so stay tuned for details.
I’ve got a Quick Take on Brian McGrory’s announcement that he will step down as editor of The Boston Globe to become chair of the journalism program at Boston University. Ellen checks out The Daily Catch, a hyperlocal news outlook covering Red Hook, New York.
On the latest “Beat the Press” podcast, we talk about Putin’s media pals in the U.S.; TikTok influencers getting the White House treatment; right-wing lies and libel; that New York Times editorial on free speech; and media outlets that adopt the language of advocacy. Plus our Rants & Raves.
Hosted, as always, by Emily Rooney, with Experience magazine editor Joanna Weiss, media strategist Susie Banikarim and me. Available on Apple and wherever fine podcasts are found.
I finished the audio version of it earlier this week — read by Andersen, a welcome touch. You can’t properly review an audio book, of course. You’re not bookmarking pages or making notes. So my observations here are impressionistic, and I’m sure I’m leaving stuff out that struck me as important at the time but that I’ve since forgotten.
First, Andersen deals a blow to my Richard Nixon Unified Theory of Everything. Andersen rightly points out that Nixon governed as a liberal on domestic policy, even embracing the left-wing notion of wage-and-price controls. Nixon wasn’t as liberal as the Northern Democrats of his era, but as someone who didn’t really care about anything except Richard Nixon, he was willing to go with the flow as long as it helped him maintain power.
I’m not sure that Andersen assigns Nixon enough blame, though, for his vicious prosecution of the war in Vietnam and Cambodia, a prelude of what was to come, or of beginning the transformation of the Republican Party into an amoral force for destruction, as it clearly is today. Ideologically, however, he is right that you can trace a direct line from Goldwater to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush to Trump. Nixon was an outlier; George H.W. Bush was only a partial outlier given the role of Bush’s chief of staff, John Sununu, in fostering climate denialism, something I didn’t know about until I heard Andersen describe it.
Second, this move to the right has had important intellectual underpinnings, starting in 1970 with an essay by the economist Milton Friedman in The New York Times Magazine arguing — as Andersen puts it — that it was actually Mr. Potter, not George Bailey, who was the hero of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Another important contribution to the movement was made by Lewis Powell in his pre-Supreme Court days. All of this has been extremely well funded by the Koch brothers and their ilk, thus moving fringe right-wing ideas into the mainstream.
Third, and to my mind most controversially, this long move back to the past has been accompanied by a cultural embrace of nostalgia, starting in the 1970s with the ’50s revival and continuing to the present. The idea is that we’ve turned to the political and economic norms of pre-New Deal America as a wistful yearning for old values, just as we have with music and fashion, and are only now beginning to realize just how toxic those times really were. There’s something to this, but I think Andersen pushes it too hard.
I can’t say that Andersen offers much in the way of solutions except that we need to re-energize ourselves and start electing left-leaning politicians. (He tells us repeatedly that Bernie Sanders nearly defeated Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, but saying it over and over doesn’t make it so.) He also favors a universal basic income as a counterbalance to the decline of decent full-time work fueled by artificial intelligence.
“Evil Geniuses” provides an exhaustive — and, at times, exhausting — overview of what’s gone wrong in these United States over the past 50 years. If Andersen’s ideas on how to get out of this mess are inadequate, it may be because the challenges are so daunting.
As I write this, Joe Biden seems likely to be elected president and the Senate to flip to the Democrats. That may staunch the Trump-induced bleeding of the past four years. But it’s going to take a lot more than that to solve political polarization, economic inequality, climate change, racial injustice and all the rest.
We can’t begin that work until we understand how we got here, though. Andersen has provided a useful guide.
Two days before President Trump delivered his first State of the Union address, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen issued a plea/prediction/warning. “I hope you’re ready for three days of ‘presidential,’” he tweeted. “Because they’re coming.”
In fact, much of the day-after media commentary took Trump’s relatively normal speech for what it was: a performance entirely at odds with his outrageous pronouncements and actions over the past year. Lede-of-the-day honors go to John Barron of the Australian Broadcasting Corp., who wrote:
If Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address had been a true reflection of his first chaotic, headline-grabbing year in office it would have been delivered in 280-character bursts on Twitter from his bed with a Filet-o-Fish in one hand and a TV remote in the other.
A strong whiff of won’t-get-fooled again permeated much of the post-speech analysis. Last year, Trump’s first joint address to Congress was greeted by rapturous reviews. According to Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury,” First Son-in-Law Jared Kushner saw it as “a total reset.” Perhaps no one was more smitten that night than Van Jones, a liberal commentator on CNN, who said of Trump’s tribute to the widow of a fallen Navy Seal: “He became president of the United States in that moment, period.” A year later, Jones was having none of it, tearing into Trump’s latest immigration proposal as “sweet-tasting candy with poison in it.”
Nothing characterized Trump’s first year in office so much as his racist demagoguery, from his description of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, as “some very fine people” to his angry outburst that Haitians and Africans seeking to immigrate to the United States live in “shithole countries.” In keeping with that theme, Trump’s subdued delivery Tuesday night barely masked the racial dog whistles. I was particularly struck by his remark that “Americans are dreamers, too,” an unsubtle echo of the “All Lives Matter” retort that is so often used to rebuke the #BlackLivesMatter movement. As Rebecca Morin reported in Politico, Trump’s words were immediately hailed by David Duke and Richard Spencer, the two best-known figures of the racist far right.
Trump also equated immigration with the vicious MS-13 gang and exploited a patriotic little kid to renew his criticism of African-American NFL players who kneel during the National Anthem to protest police shootings. “For all of his gestures toward unity,” wrote Jamelle Bouie of Slate, “the substance of Trump’s speech rested on the same racism and demagoguery that has marked his entire career in political life.” Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo characterized the speech as “aggressive ethno-nationalism,” and continued:
The key theme is the extreme valorization of soldiers, police officers and immigration patrol officers as the central element of patriotism. Each of these are merited as part of a range of beliefs and values and commitments that make us American. Trump makes them central and almost sacral in a way that is at war with elemental American traditions, though we would be naive and dishonest to say his reactionary posture doesn’t also have deep roots in our history. We must remember both realities.
Conservative pundits, for the most part, have leaned anti-Trump from the start of his presidential campaign. Although there has been an uptick of support on the right following the recent tax cuts, enthusiasm remains in short supply. At National Review, Jim Talent gave pro-Trumpism a shot, calling the speech “a very strong effort, both substantively and emotionally powerful” as well as the capstone to “a good week for the Trump administration.” Dan McLaughlin was less enamored, writing that “just as hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, Trump’s periodic efforts to speak in the language of normal American politics is a reminder of why normal American politics remains a thing of value worth preserving.”
John Podhoretz, a leading anti-Trump conservative, had some fun with the first half of Trump’s speech, in which he gave shout-outs to so many heroes and other admirable folks in the crowd that you might have wondered if he was there to give a speech or to emcee a charity event. “The true inspiration for Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech was not Ronald Reagan or Abraham Lincoln. It was Paul Harvey,” Podhoretz wrote in the New York Post, adding: “So maybe this is what Trump should do. He was a TV star. Maybe he needs an actual TV show.”
And just in case you were wondering if Trump’s conciliatory rhetoric on immigration reform might lead to an actual deal, his old friends at Breitbart — now 99 and 44/100 percent Bannon-free — called the president “Donny DACA” on its home page this morning. If you missed the point, Neil Munro drove it home: “Pro-American reformers describe his amnesty offer as ill-timed, counterproductive and as a betrayal of his voters and his supporters on Capitol Hill.”
It has long since become a cliché, but Trump’s main purpose Tuesday night was to play to his base — to come across as a “warm glass of milk,” as The Washington Post’s Marc Fisher put it, to deliver a fundamentally extremist message, especially regarding the threat posed by foreigners of all sorts.
And it worked, sort of. A CBS News instant poll revealed that 75 percent of viewers approved of Trump’s speech. But the viewing audience was 42 percent Republican and only 25 percent Democratic, an indication of the extent to which the president’s divisiveness has super-charged the polarization that has characterized American politics for the past several decades.
Trump remains deeply unpopular. In the latest Gallup tracking poll, 58 percent disapprove of his job performance while just 38 percent approve. The Russia investigation has descended into chaos. Trump may be getting ready to fire special counsel Robert Mueller or Mueller’s boss, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Congressional Republicans, goaded by Trump, may release a memo containing classified information aimed at impugning the integrity of the FBI.
For one night, Trump was able to set that aside. With few exceptions, though, Jay Rosen’s pessimistic prediction did not come true. After all, we’ve been watching this act for a long time, and we know what always comes next.
Should journalists be allowed to express their opinions on social media? Among the tiny circle of people who think about such things, it is a fraught debate. Some say no — including the editors of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, both of which recently issued updated social-media guidelines. Others argue that objectivity is a myth, and that it’s long past time for news organizations to move away from old-fashioned neutrality.
Falling squarely into the latter camp is the veteran digital journalist Mathew Ingram, who recently took his talents to the Columbia Journalism Review. In a column posted last week, Ingram wrote that the new Times and Journal policies, like similar rules at other news organizations, are bound to fail. Moreover, he added, a ban on opinionated tweets stops media outlets from taking advantage of what makes social networks interesting. Ingram wrote:
If someone tells you that they have no opinion, even on serious issues, that they are totally objective and that they also never make a mistake, you would probably think they are either a liar or a sociopath. And yet that is what social-media policies like the ones at the Times and the Journal are asking people to believe.
Now, Ingram is among our sharpest media observers, and he makes some strong points in favor of being transparent about our biases rather than trying to pretend they don’t exist. And yet at the risk of coming off as an old fogey, I have to disagree with him. I think it makes all the sense in the world for journalists to bring the same sensibility to social media that they do to their day jobs. A reporter who makes her living providing neutral coverage of, say, the pharmaceutical industry shouldn’t mock industry executives on Twitter. Likewise, a commentator who is paid to give his opinions should obviously be free to opinionate on social media as well.
Essentially I think Ingram is making a category error. He tells us that he’s writing about how news organizations should use social media, but in fact he’s making a much larger argument. Read what he wrote again: If someone tells you that they have no opinion, even on serious issues, that they are totally objective and that they also never make a mistake, you would probably think they are either a liar or a sociopath. This statement is obviously true, but, properly understood, it applies just as readily to a news organization’s journalistic output in general, not just to its use of social media. If a reporter covering the governor’s proposed budget thinks the governor is an idiot, well, why not say so? Wouldn’t that be more transparent? Isn’t that information our audience should have in assessing the fairness and accuracy of our journalism?
No, it’s not. Here’s the problem. Providing tough, fair-minded coverage is a discipline that is undermined once you disclose your own biases. It’s not just that your audience’s view of your work changes; it’s that you change, too. No longer are you a reporter who can be counted on to provide accurate, neutral coverage of state politics. You’re the reporter who thinks the governor is an idiot, and you are going to start slanting your journalism in ways that you wouldn’t if you’d kept your opinion to yourself.
There is a fine line. Even beat reporters are expected to be provocative and edgy on social media in a way that they wouldn’t on other platforms. Their employers want this because it attracts attention and clicks. Too often, though, journalists are expected to serve up generous dollops of snark and attitude without having received sufficient guidance as to what’s acceptable and what isn’t. That’s why every news organization should consider adopting a set of guidelines. Even better: a group like the Online News Association should develop a model policy, much as many media outlets already use the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.
Here’s the heart of the Times’ policy: “In social media posts, our journalists must not express partisan opinions, promote political views, endorse candidates, make offensive comments or do anything else that undercuts The Times’s journalistic reputation.” It’s hard to see how anyone would disagree. Even opinion journalists should refrain from endorsing candidates and making offensive comments.
Nearly all of our major news organizations have adopted a stance of strict neutrality. That doesn’t mean their journalists lack opinions. It does mean that they are craftspeople paid to do a job as well as they can; expressing their opinions would interfere with that job. Seen in that light, social media is just another platform for their work — and the standards should remain the same.
… And you can listen to the results on SoundCloud. Thank you to Jeff Semon and Ed Lyons for inviting me onto “The Lincoln Review.” We talked for more than an hour about media and politics. But it was OK, because we were all drinking. You can subscribe to their podcast on iTunes. I understand that video will be up in a few days as well. God help us.
A source just passed this along from Mike Sheehan, the chief executive officer of Boston Globe Media Partners:
In a quiet corner of the third floor, Pete Doucette has spent the past ten years managing every conceivable aspect of our circulation. To say the least, it’s been a challenging task during challenging times. Balancing the science of market data with the art of consumer engagement—and doing so with limited resources—the job he’s done is nothing short of remarkable: we have essentially the same number of paid subscribers as we had five years ago.
Pete helped create the two-site strategy for Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com, and in doing so set us on a path to charge a premium price for premium journalism. We now have over 72,000 digital-only subscribers, which is the No. 1 digital subscription business of any metro daily publisher, and behind only two national publications, the New York Times and the Washington Post. He’s also overseen successful efforts to retain and attract print subscribers who remain an important cornerstone of our business.
Pete will be the first to say that he’s fortunate to have the increasingly relevant and interesting journalism of the Boston Globe to attract subscribers. Thanks to Brian [McGrory], Ellen [Clegg], and everyone in the newsroom for their tireless efforts to create such important work. To demonstrate the relationship between our journalism and our business, digital subscriptions rose 66% in the 10 days following the Presidential election compared with the 10 days prior to the election.
Starting today, Pete will be our Chief Consumer Revenue Officer. While he’ll still oversee our circulation efforts, the product and development teams, led by Anthony Bonfiglio, will report to him. In his new role, he will weave together business strategy, digital strategy, and operations which is a critical step as we continue to aggressively attract new digital subscribers.
If you see Pete, be sure to congratulate him. Or pay him a visit on the third floor. It’s time he got accustomed to it being a little less quiet up there.
Despite the dry weather this year, there was a bumper crop of pumpkins.
This massive hog has a name, but I can’t remember what it is.
The sign said that these guys bite.
Tea for two.
In another couple of months, this may be a snow scene.
Click on the first image to view a slideshow.
On Sunday we headed north to Russell Orchards in Ipswich to buy pumpkins, eat cider donuts, and check out the animals. We always made this trip when the kids were little, so it was fun to see that nothing had changed.