The roots of Bob Dylan: Homer? Virgil? Try blues, country, and rock and roll

Bob Dylan in London’s Finsbury Park, 2013. Photo (cc) by Francisco Antunes.

I had been looking forward to the “On Point” Bob Dylan special during the long Thanksgiving drive. It was a disappointment. The guest was a Harvard professor named Richard F. Thomas, who’s written a new book, “Why Bob Dylan Matters.” Thomas’ main argument — as is generally the case with academic Dylanologists — is that Dylan matters because he is one of the great classic poets, on a par with Homer and Virgil. Thomas made the case mainly by pointing out how much Dylan has copied and pasted Virgil into his songs, which I’m pretty sure isn’t the same thing as writing poetry.

What I did like: Thomas and host Anthony Brooks quickly moved beyond the 1960s and treated the entire span of Dylan’s work as a unified whole, touching on songs like “Changing of the Guard,” his Christian period, and his great 2001 album “Love and Theft.” But rather than obsessing over Homer and Virgil, Thomas ought to think about the ways in which Dylan is the natural extension of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, of Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. Yes, Dylan’s ambitions were greater than those of his predecessors. But to invent some High Art tradition for Dylan rather than to deal with the tradition he actually comes out of does a disservice to what he actually accomplished.

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WBZ Radio’s new corporate owner fires program director on Thanksgiving eve

The dismantling of WBZ Radio (AM 1030) has begun. New owner iHeartMedia, the corporate behemoth formerly known as Clear Channel, has fired veteran program director Peter Casey on the day before Thanksgiving. Boston Radio Watch got the memo:

Best wishes to Casey, a good guy who has presided over a successful operation for many years. There is a bit more to Sprague’s memo, and since a source just sent it to me, I’m posting the full text below:

This past weekend marked the beginning of the transition of WBZ-AM to iHeartMedia, and I want to let you know how excited we all are to have the WBZ-AM team join the iHeart family. WBZ is a Boston institution, and we have enormous respect and admiration for what you have accomplished to date — and what we know you will continue to accomplish.

I also wanted to update you on a change in programming leadership as we continue this transition.  Bill Flaherty, WBZ-AM’s Assistant Program Director, will now serve as interim Program Director for WBZ-AM.  I am impressed with Bill’s operational knowledge, strategic thinking and can-do attitude, and believe he will be the perfect leader to guide us through the transition. I also know that change can be hard, but when we embrace change we often discover fresh opportunities for growth and innovation. I am excited for what the future will bring for you, for us and for this great brand, and I’m committed to working with you to ensure that WBZ continues on its path as Boston’s most respected news and information leader.

I also want to say a few words about Peter Casey. There is no doubt that under his leadership this brand has excelled and established its leadership in the market. We deeply respect Peter and the contributions he has made to WBZ-AM over the years, and the impact he has left on WBZ and Boston radio will be felt for years to come. I also know that the WBZ-AM brand is strong and will continue to be powered by a team of expert, skilled professionals performing at the highest level, and I look forward to partnering with you to help WBZ reach its full potential.

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The final days of net neutrality?

We may be in the final days of net neutrality if President Trump’s FCC gets its way. I wrote this for WGBH News last April.

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How Boston media were shaped by the FCC and dirty politics

Tip O’Neill (center) and the Kennedy family were on opposite sides in the battle that gave rise to modern Boston media. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The Federal Communications Commission overturned a decades-old rule last week that prohibited common ownership of a television or radio station and a daily newspaper in the same city. At a time when newspapers are hemorrhaging money and the broadcast news business is shrinking, the FCC argued, the so-called cross-ownership ban had become obsolete, and was standing in the way of possible joint enterprises that could reinvigorate news coverage.

The more likely outcome of such hybrids would be combined newsrooms, layoffs, and a dumbed-down product. Here in Boston, it would mean something else as well: the end of a regulatory regime that was instrumental in shaping our media environment. It was an epic battle over cross-ownership that led to the rise of The Boston Globe, the Boston Herald’s slide into perpetual also-ran status, and the emergence of WCVB-TV (Channel 5) as one of the best local television stations in the country. The story is told in three books: “Common Ground,” J. Anthony Lukas’ monumental history of Boston during the busing era; “Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century,” by John A. Farrell; and “Newspaper Story: One Hundred Years of the Boston Globe,” by Louis M. Lyons.

The origins of this tale goes back to January 1956, at a lunch at the Somerset Club on Beacon Hill attended by, among others, Herald publisher Robert “Beanie” Choate and Globe publisher Davis Taylor. The once-dominant Boston Post was about to fold, and Choate proposed that the Herald and the Globe — the largest and most influential of the city’s remaining papers — combine their forces and thus avoid an expensive newspaper war. When Taylor refused, Choate reportedly told him: “You fellows are stubborn. Worse than that, you’re arrogant. You better listen to us or we’ll teach you a lesson. I’m going to get Channel 5, and with my television revenues I’ll put you out of business.”

Two commercial TV channels were already on the air in Boston. Under FCC guidelines, the third license — that is, Channel 5 — should not have been awarded to the Herald, which already owned two radio stations. Yet it was, after a furious round of lobbying by Choate. When Davis Taylor and his cousin John Taylor made the rounds in Washington to find out what had gone wrong, they were told by House Minority Leader Joe Martin, a North Attleborough Republican, “I’m afraid you fellas have just been outpoliticked.”

Indeed they had been. It seemed that Joe Kennedy was determined to win his son Jack a Pulitzer Prize for his book “Profiles in Courage.” The judges in the biography category were so unimpressed with “Profiles” that it did not even appear among the eight books they nominated, so Kennedy and his friend Arthur Krock — a veteran New York Times columnist who had stepped down as chairman of the Pulitzer board several years earlier — worked to persuade board members to overrule the judges and award the prize to Jack Kennedy. Joe Kennedy and Krock succeeded.

Among the Pulitzer board members who concluded that “Profiles in Courage” deserved a Pulitzer was none other than Beanie Choate. No surprise there. Joe Kennedy had dispatched one of his coat-holders, Francis Xavier Morrissey, a municipal-court judge, to assure Choate that he would get the license to Channel 5 if he voted to give JFK a Pulitzer. And Joe Kennedy was as good as his word. By a four-to-two vote, the FCC granted the license to Choate; siding with the majority were two commissioners with close ties to Kennedy.

Choate’s victory represented an existential threat to the Globe. Its young Washington bureau chief, future executive editor Robert Healy, was assigned the task of trying to unearth information that could reverse the FCC’s decision. Healy cultivated an unlikely source: Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, then a rising Cambridge congressman, who was interested in higher office but was afraid he would be blocked by the Republican-leaning Herald if the Globe went out of business. With O’Neill’s help, Healy got access to the inner workings of a congressional investigation into federal regulatory agencies. Healy was able to report the existence of telephone records that showed FCC chairman George McConnaughey had improper contacts with Choate. That, along with several other stories, led the FCC in 1972 to strip the Herald of its television license.

Without a television station to prop it up, the Herald Traveler, as it was then known, could not survive. It was sold to Hearst’s Record American, which published the paper as the Herald American until 1981, when a rising press baron named Rupert Murdoch rescued it. Channel 5, meanwhile, was acquired by a civic-minded community group called Boston Broadcasters, who adopted the call letters WCVB, pumped up its news operation, and innovated with local programming such as “Chronicle,” a magazine-style show that survives to this day. WCVB was sold in 1982, leaving its founders very wealthy but the station itself less ambitious and more focused on the bottom line. Even now, though, the Boston television market is widely considered to be smarter than is the case in most areas of the country, a situation that can be attributed in part to the legacy of Channel 5.

Perhaps one of the more surprising elements of the Globe-Herald struggle was that O’Neill and the Kennedy family found themselves on opposite sides, and that the Kennedys’ interests were aligned with the Herald rather than the Globe. Eventually, O’Neill and the Kennedys formed a tight bond, and the Globe was often regarded as close — inappropriately in some cases — with both the future House speaker and the members of the Kennedy dynasty.

The Globe’s relationship with the Kennedys played itself out in a faint echo of the Channel 5 story in 1988, when Rupert Murdoch purchased Channel 25. Sen. Ted Kennedy quietly slipped a provision into a bill that made it almost impossible for the FCC to grant a waiver allowing Murdoch to own both a TV station and a newspaper in Boston. Murdoch chose to sell off Channel 25, thus saving the Herald. Several years later Murdoch repurchased Channel 25 and sold the Herald to his longtime protégé Pat Purcell, who continues as the Herald’s publisher to this day. Thus did the cross-ownership ban not only pave the way for the Globe’s rise to dominance but it ended Rupert Murdoch’s years in the city’s newspaper market as well.

Now the cross-ownership ban is gone. How will that change the Boston media scene? The current Globe owner, John Henry, has long been interested in television. Both the Globe and the Herald operate internet radio stations that feature music and talk, respectively. Might they seek to purchase terrestrial radio stations? Or could the owner of one of the city’s TV stations buy one or both newspapers?

There’s no question that the rise of digital technology has hollowed out traditional media, rendering the cross-ownership ban archaic in some respects. On balance, though, the ban has been good for Boston news consumers. What comes next is likely to have a lot more to do with profits than with the public interest.

Barbara Howard of WGBH Radio’s “All Things Considered” and I talked about the FCC’s regulatory changes last week. Click here if you’d like to give it a listen.

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The Batavian moves to bolster its ad-supported free site with a subscription-based app

The Batavian, a hyperlocal news project in western New York, has long been among the more successful independent for-profit ventures  in community journalism. Launched by GateHouse Media in 2008 and operated by former GateHouse executive Howard Owens after the company eliminated his job the following year, the free site is an intriguing jumble of news, press releases, photos, promotions and vast amounts of local advertising. (The Batavian is prominently featured in “The Wired City,” my 2013 book about new forms of online local and regional journalism.)

Now Owens is trying something new — an ad-free mobile app designed with the idea of signing up paid subscribers. In a recent interview with Tom Grubisich of StreetFight, Owens said it took him two years to hone the app. The challenge, he said, is that though The Batavian is profitable, it has stopped growing. His goal for the app is not only to come up with a new revenue stream but to expand into other communities. He told Grubisich:

I’m interested in building a more native experience, which means it’s built around the feed, allows for more personalization and makes engagement more seamless. I’ll either do that for The Batavian, or if I’m fortunate enough to acquire funding, we’ll look for ways to expand that model into other communities. I’m most interested in being able to help aspiring local publishers get into the game and providing them the resources to be successful but we’ll also look software as a service and whole ownership of local news businesses.

At a moment when big, sexy digital media projects such as BuzzFeed are facing possible financial troubles, it’s important to keep an eye on the go-it-slow approach taken by independent publishers like Owens.

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Approving the AT&T-Time Warner deal would save CNN, enrage Trump and leave Murdoch out in the cold

CNN’s Jim Acosta. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Thanks to the U.S. Department of Justice, AT&T’s monopolistic dreams may not come true after all. According to media reports, the government may block AT&T’s proposed $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner. Even if the deal is approved, AT&T may be required to sell off CNN, one of Time Warner’s crown jewels.

Under normal circumstances, such action would be welcome news for those who have long opposed media concentration and its accompanying ills: fewer choices, higher prices, and more power for corporate executives to control what we watch, listen to, and read. But nothing is normal in the Age of Trump. And in this case, it appears that opposition to the deal may be driven less by antitrust law and more by the president’s ongoing fury at CNN.

Who, after all, can forget Trump’s outburst after CNN revealed the existence (though not the contents) of the infamous dossier of raw Russian intelligence, which claimed the president-elect had engaged in financial shenanigans and embarrassing personal behavior? “Your organization is terrible,” Trump told CNN’s Jim Acosta at a news conference last January, adding: “You are fake news.” The relationship has not improved since then.

Thus anti-monopolists find themselves in the awkward position of supporting Trump’s Justice Department on the AT&T-Time Warner merger while feeling obliged to point out that federal regulators may well be doing the right thing for all the wrong reasons. Timothy Karr of Free Press, a prominent media-reform organization that opposes the merger, nevertheless writes that “Trump would be dead wrong, however, to pull the levers of government to force more favorable coverage from CNN.” Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik, who also argues that the merger should be rejected, worries that Trump’s loose lips and tawdry tweets may end up working to AT&T’s advantage: “Trump’s rhetoric about the deal, which dates back to his presidential campaign, has muddled the issues — and may even have increased the chances that the deal will go through with all its negative aspects intact.”

I’ve been writing about the threats posed by media concentration since the 1990s. Given the circumstances, though, I think the AT&T-Time Warner deal ought to be approved — and not because (or not just because) it would infuriate Trump. Much as I agree with Karr and Hiltzik in the abstract, I can think of three very good reasons why we might be better off if AT&T winds up as CNN’s corporate overlord.

• Rupert Murdoch — yes, that Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Fox News Channel and friend of Trump — has reportedly indicated an eagerness to add CNN to his empire should it become available. According to Jessica Toonkel of Reuters, Murdoch called AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson twice during the past six months to discuss a possible deal should AT&T be forced to sell off CNN.

• A deal that would allow Sinclair Broadcast Group to acquire Tribune Media’s television stations appears to be on track, giving the company control of more than 200 stations around the country. And Sinclair is notorious for using its power in local markets to advance a right-wing, pro-Trump agenda. Over the weekend, for instance, David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun detailed how a Sinclair-owned station in Alabama ran a deceptive report in its local newscast to try to discredit The Washington Post’s coverage of women who say they were sexually assaulted by Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s.

• Bigger is not better — far from it. But given the enormous power over content and distribution amassed by the platform giants Facebook and Google, it may be that traditional concerns about media concentration are obsolete. Perhaps the best way to fight the new media giants is by empowering the old. As Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo notes, AT&T’s Stephenson made exactly that point recently. “Essentially,” Marshall wrote, “he argued that only by combining a company with a dominant position in distribution (AT&T) with a content company (Time Warner) could anyone hope to compete with the platform monopolies Google and Facebook in the advertising business.”

Earlier this week, Bloomberg’s David McLaughlin, Scott Moritz, and Sara Forden reported that AT&T will ask a judge to provide the company with communications between the White House and the Justice Department if the government sues to stop the merger. That could make for some very interesting reading.

Murdoch lurking in the wings. A super-empowered Sinclair wreaking havoc in television markets around the country. Traditional media being hamstrung by old laws while Facebook and Google continue to reign unchecked. Those would be reasons enough to approve the AT&T-Time Warner merger. But the specter that President Trump is attempting to orchestrate this as a way to punish a journalistic enemy looms over all of this.

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Bob Schieffer writes the book on old journalism, new media and #fakenews

Bob Schieffer recently talked with WGBH News’ Emily Rooney in this Facebook Live interview.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Is there a more amiable personality in television news than Bob Schieffer? The longtime CBS News journalist, who turned 80 earlier this year, harks back to a time when social consensus of a sort prevailed over the bitter polarization that defines the Age of Trump. Rather than get left behind, though, Schieffer has worked to understand the forces that are shaping the new media environment.

Now Schieffer and several of his colleagues have written a book that serves as a quick and useful survey of the current moment. “Overload: Finding the Truth in Today’s Deluge of News” is part guidebook, part lament for an era when people could at least agree on what they were arguing about. Schieffer quotes the late New York Times reporter Jim Naughton, who described the effects of the media fragmentation caused by the rise of Fox News and talk radio:

Now, we’re no longer basing our opinions on the same stuff — some folks get one set of facts from one outlet and other folks get another set of facts from another outlet, no wonder they come to different conclusions.

In retrospect, of course, the fragmentation described by Naughton seems rather benign compared to more recent developments such as the rise of white-nationalist outlets like Breitbart News and conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones of Infowars. And Schieffer does not like what he sees. Though Schieffer celebrates the cornucopia of news that digital media have made possible, he understands the problems that have come with that as well. As he once put it before a gathering at Harvard, “Now all the nuts can find each other.”

Parts of “Overload” are repurposed from “About the News,” a podcast that Schieffer hosts with his co-author, H. Andrew Schwartz of the Center for Strategic & International Studies. I cannot offer an unbiased view of “Overload.” In 2016 Schieffer and I overlapped as fellows at the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy, part of the Harvard Kennedy School. He and Schwartz interviewed me on “About the News” to talk about my Shorenstein paper on Jeff Bezos’ ownership of The Washington Post. Schieffer also quotes me in “Overload” and blurbed “The Return of the Moguls,” my forthcoming book on Bezos, John Henry of The Boston Globe, and other wealthy newspaper publishers.

Schieffer examines the passing of the old, the rise of the new, and the phenomenon of “fake news,” which took the form of falsehoods and rumors even before the internet was flooded with viral content farms and Russian propaganda. “Since 9/11, we have come to realize that reporting accurate information is only part of our job; equally important is our responsibility to knock down false and misleading information and to do it as quickly as possible,” Schieffer writes. Then, too, we live at a time when the president of the United States denounces journalism he doesn’t like as “fake news,” thus reinforcing in the minds of his supporters that there is no fundamental difference between, say, the “failing” New York Times and the latest foolishness that Tucker Carlson is attempting to foist upon his viewers.

Among the journalists Schieffer interviews are Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron, New York Times Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller, Texas Tribune founder Evan Smith, and the veteran digital journalist Walt Mossberg. It is Mossberg who reminds us that the good old days weren’t always so good (“If an idealistic reporter wanted to write a story about how a local car dealer was ripping off the public and the car dealer was the newspaper’s biggest advertiser, a lot of those papers would have killed the story”) and who neatly describes the most serious problem created by the explosion of digital media outlets: “Today we have way more journalists, way more information providers, and way less curation.”

Schieffer closes on a note of humility, reminding his readers of the role of a free press at a time when the White House has labeled news organizations as “the enemy of the American People!”

“We are not the opposition party. We are reporters,” Schieffer writes. “Our role is simply to ask questions and to keep asking until we get an answer.” It’s no longer that simple, of course, and Schieffer knows it. But we would all be better off if we could return to a time when the president and the public understood as well as Schieffer does exactly what journalism’s role is. And isn’t.

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Boston Globe Media president Vinay Mehra weighs in on sexual harassment

At a moment when large swaths of the entertainment business and news media are melting down as long-suppressed tales of sexual harassment are coming out into the open, Boston Globe Media president and chief financial officer Vinay Mehra has sent a memo to the staff on how the Globe would handle such issues. Among other things, Mehra said that employees will undergo mandatory training, and that anyone who has been subjected to harassment “should not hesitate to speak confidentially and without fear of retaliation with whomever you feel comfortable.”

The Globe recently published a couple of important articles on sexual harassment at the Statehouse (by columnist Yvonne Abraham) and in the restaurant business (by food critic Devra First). No institution is immune, of course, and it would be interesting to see how the Globe — or any news organization — would report on itself if such accusations were leveled. NPR has certainly had to dive deeply into this with the exposure and subsequent firing of top news executive Michael Oreskes. NPR chief executive Jarl Mohn, who has come under criticism for his handling of the Oreskes matter, said Tuesday that he will take a health-related leave of absence.

A source sent a copy of Mehra’s memo to me a short time ago. Here is the full text.

Dear Staff,

I’m reaching out to address the many conversations that are happening in and outside of Boston Globe Media about sexual harassment and overall conduct in the workplace, particularly in the media industry.

We are a company that deeply values equality, diversity, and individuality. We know that we thrive individually and collectively when everyone feels safe and respected. We do not tolerate harassment of any kind, and we have a set of policies and processes for reporting and responding to misconduct, which I’d like to lay out here.

We will look into all allegations of harassment and related conduct, and will act on them accordingly. Please find attached, the company’s sexual harassment policy that has been in effect since ownership under the New York Times. We have made updates to make our policy more comprehensive and have identified specific individuals within HR to address issues.

You should not hesitate to speak confidentially and without fear of retaliation with whomever you feel comfortable — your manager, HR, Legal, or with any team leader or executive in this company.  If you experience misconduct of any kind, we want to give you every opportunity to be heard through a vehicle of your choice so that we can attempt to address your concerns promptly and confidentially.

We also hope you’ll take seriously the workplace conduct trainings we will be conducting online and in person over the next few months. Employees will receive an invitation from HR within the next month to a mandatory online training.

We are a stronger and more inclusive company when these issues are raised and acted on. Thank you as always for your hard work and your commitment to our organization.

Vinay

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Globe editor McGrory talks numbers at First Amendment gathering

Because I get memos, this blog is perhaps more dedicated to the words and thoughts of Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory than is strictly necessary. But he does lead New England’s largest news organization, and we all care about the fate of the Globe at a time of economic uncertainty. So I thought I’d pass along a bit of what McGrory had to say at last week’s New England First Amendment Institute.

First, some numbers. McGrory said the newsroom currently employs about 225 full-time journalists, down considerably from its heyday of about 540 at the turn of the century. Last spring, when I was wrapping up reporting for “The Return of the Moguls,” my not-yet-published book on Globe owner John Henry, Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos and other wealthy newspaper publishers, the number I heard was 240. Counting bodies is more difficult than you might imagine. I don’t think there has been any significant change since last spring — just different ways of measuring the size of the staff.

McGrory also said that classified-ad revenue has dropped from $180 million a year when the newspaper business was at its peak to about $10 million today. Again, nothing that will surprise people who watch the newspaper business, but a reminder of why newspapers are not what they used to be.

On a more positive note, the Globe has signed up 92,000 digital-only subscribers, continuing its momentum from the spring, when it was around 80,000. Despite the Globe’s progress, McGrory acknowledged that it no longer has the largest number of digital-only subscribers among regional dailies. That distinction now belongs to the Los Angeles Times. But of course the LA area is far larger than Greater Boston, and digital subscriptions to the LA Times are much cheaper than they are to the Globe, which charges $30 a month.

McGrory attributed this rise to the Trump effect, which has driven paid subscriptions to The New York Times over the 2 million mark and another 1 million at The Washington Post. Though the Globe has focused mainly on local and regional news in response to the changing economics of journalism, it maintains a robust Washington bureau. In fact, McGrory said the bureau is actually adding a person, bringing it to six.

Finally, and perhaps of the greatest significance, he said that 87 people have different jobs in the Globe newsroom since the staff-led reinvention that went into effect earlier this year. The two ideas behind the reinvention: (1) to report the news online throughout the day and move away from the habits formed by the daily cycle of the print edition; and (2) to focus on being a “paper of interest” rather than a “paper of record” that dutifully cranks out stories that few people read.

Nothing about the Globe’s ongoing print problems, but McGrory had addressed that just a few days earlier in a memo to the staff. McGrory essentially described the problem as having eased. That comports with what I’ve heard, though there are still plenty of complaints from longtime customers about missed papers, early editions without scores from the previous night’s game, missing sections and the like.

Despite the difficulties facing daily papers, McGrory told the NEFAI crowd, “We have more readers of Boston Globe journalism than we have ever had in the history of the Globe,” an assertion that takes into account the paper’s print and digital readers, Boston.com and Stat, a health- and life-sciences vertical that’s part of Boston Globe Media.

As John Henry ponders the huge expenses he has no doubt incurred from the print fiasco, I hope he’ll keep in mind that people will not pay for a diminishing product. It could be disastrous if he offsets those expenses with another big cut in the newsroom. The upward momentum in digital subscriptions is the key to the Globe’s future. But that momentum will stall quickly if people start to believe that they’re not getting their money’s worth.

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Crooked Hillary redux: Making sense of the Uranium One distraction

Photo (cc) 2014 by clement127

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

To understand the current Trumpist obsession with Hillary Clinton and the Uranium One story, you first need to know what it is not. Uranium One is not a scandal or even a discrete set of facts that can be weighed and assessed. Rather, it is a talisman wielded by President Trump’s most ardent defenders in the hope of warding off the burgeoning Russia scandal.

Thus we have absurd characters like Sean Hannity of Fox News calling it “one of the biggest scandals in American history involving another country.” And The Daily Signal, a right-wing website published by the Heritage Foundation, asking, “Why isn’t the mainstream media covering Uranium One?” And Conrad Black, who speculates in The New York Sun that special counsel Robert Mueller will — or at least should — go after Clinton’s allies the Podesta brothers for their role in Uranium One now that the Russia inquiry has fallen apart. Because, you know, nothing says fallen apart quite like the indictment of two former Trump campaign officials and a guilty plea from a third, with the promise of more to come.

David French, a prominent anti-Trump conservative, explained in The New York Times what’s going on:

The desire to think the best of Mr. Trump combined with the deep distaste for Democrats grants extraordinary power to two phrases: “fake news” and “the other side is worse.” “Fake news” erects a shield of disbelief against the worst allegations and allows a person to believe that Mr. Trump is better than he is. For too many Republicans, every single troubling element of the Russia investigation — including multiple administration falsehoods about contacts with Russian officials — represents “fake news.”

The Trump supporters pushing the Uranium One story are impervious to facts not because they’re stupid but because the purpose of telling it is to put the media on the defensive. Nevertheless, there are facts, and I’ve endeavored to find out what they are by consulting the nonpartisan website FactCheck.org.

The verdict: There’s nothing to the claim, first made by then-candidate Trump in 2016, that the United States gave away 20 percent of its uranium to Russia and that Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, was responsible. The facts are incredibly convoluted —we are, after all, talking about the Clintons. The full narrative encompasses the Clinton Foundation, a speaking fee paid to Bill Clinton, and a dubious book called “Clinton Cash,” written by a conservative activist named Peter Schweizer, promoted by Stephen Bannon, and, for reasons that have never been credibly explained, used by The New York Times as the basis for some of its reporting on the Clintons. But, FactCheck.org says:

It may be that individuals and companies sought to curry favor with Hillary Clinton and even influence her department’s decision on the Uranium One sale. But, as we’ve written before, there is no evidence that donations to the Clinton Foundation from people with ties to Uranium One or Bill Clinton’s speaking fee influenced Hillary Clinton’s official actions. That’s still the case.

Vox has a shorter, easier-to-follow take on the deal that calls the Republican conspiracy theory involving Uranium One “a thoroughly debunked and verifiably false charge.” Vox, in turn, cites a report by yet another nonpartisan fact-checking site, PolitiFact, which rated Trump’s accusations against Clinton as “mostly false.”

It’s also worth keeping in mind that Trump, not Clinton, is president — something that you might forget if you get pulled into the Fox News rabbit hole. (Hannity went so far as to call Hillary “President Clinton” the other day.) Even if there were reason to believe Clinton had been involved in wrongdoing (again, there isn’t), the value to the public of pursuing her at this point is not very high. On the other hand, the question of whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians goes to the very heart of our democracy.

“The right-wing response to Robert Mueller’s investigation is to change the subject, preferably to an alleged ‘scandal’ involving Hillary Clinton,” writes CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, who adds: “This creates a thick layer of fog, making it hard to see what really matters. Maybe this is the goal. Regardless, it poses a challenge for journalists who are trying to convey the truth.”

The truth is that the Uranium One story isn’t about the truth. The Trump White House and its allies are essentially gaming the media’s old-fashioned dedication to balance — regardless of the facts — by flinging unsupportable charges that will be reported alongside the Russia news in the name of being fair and objective. Trump’s allies, who despise Clinton, will grab onto those stories and denounce everything else as “fake news.”

It’s an ugly and depressing situation with no clear solution.

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