Trump channels his inner Nixon in attacks on the press

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Now more than ever: Nixon campaigning in Philadelphia in 1968. Photo (cc) via Wikipedia.

More than 40 years after he resigned as president, Richard Nixon remains the lodestar for political skullduggery. And so it was when Donald Trump threatened to retaliate against Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos in response to news that the Post is siccing 20 reporters on Trump to look into every aspect of his life and career.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org.

Iran, nukes, and fear: A potent op-ed combo platter

Compare and contrast. In the New York Times, Senator Ted Cruz whips up the fear regarding the nuclear deal between the United States and Iran:

The mullahs’ policy is, by their own admission, unchanged. It is the same one that inspired the so-called revolutionaries of 1979 to take 52 Americans as hostages for 444 days, and motivated murderous attacks on Israelis and Americans from Buenos Aires to Beirut to Baghdad over the subsequent decades. The only thing that is changing now is the potential scale of this violence, as they seek to replace truck bombs and roadside explosive devices with the most destructive weapons on the planet and the means to deliver them.

In the Boston Globe, Stephen Kinzer writes that what hardliners in both countries really fear is that the nuclear deal might actually work:

Extremists in the United States and Iran have joined to derail this 10-month-old deal. They share a horror scenario: an Iran that is successfully integrated into the Middle East and the wider world, increasingly free at home and responsible in its neighborhood. Militants in Washington fear that this would give Iran a regional role commensurate with its history, size, and power, while they wish to see it tied down forever. Militants in Tehran fear that cooperating with the outside world will erode their authority and possibly lead to collapse of the Islamic Republic. These are reasonable fears.

Why print nostalgia won’t save the news business

New York Times newsroom, 1942. Photo via Wikipedia.

New York Times newsroom, 1942. Photo via Wikipedia.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Editor & Publisher, a trade magazine that covers the newspaper business, posted a story last week predicting a startling technological change in the way we consume news. Believe it or not, it would involve grinding trees into pulp, transforming that pulp into paper, printing news articles, photos, and ads on that paper, and then loading the finished product onto trucks so that it could be delivered hither and yon.

“With the saturation of news, the toxicity of online harassment, and the amount of poor Web experiences, readers will soon want to come back to print,” wrote Nu Yang in an article headlined “As Digital Fatigue Sets In, Readers are Waking Up to Newspapers.”

Yang’s yearnings aside, print newspapers are no more likely to come back than the proverbial horse and buggy. Yes, they have proved more enduring than we might have expected 10 years ago, and Yang may be right they they’ll persist as “a premium, boutique product” for some time to come.

And the shortcomings of digital news that Yang describes are real enough. Too much information really does leave us feeling overwhelmed. Ad-blocking software is depriving digital news publishers of one of their very few routes for paying for the journalism they produce.

At root, though, Yang’s article represents little more than an assertion that because the post-print era has proved disastrous for the economics of news, then the answer must be to dial back the clock.

I wish I could be more optimistic about the road in front of us. In January I sketched out a starkly dystopian future for newspapers headlined “Print Is Dying, Digital Is No Savior: The Long, Ugly Decline Of The Newspaper Business Continues Apace.” Most of it had to do with the collapse of advertising-funded news.

Recently Nicco Mele, former senior vice president and deputy publisher of the Los Angeles Times and the incoming director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, spoke at a Shorenstein seminar and outlined just how grim the advertising situation has become. Consider some figures he offered:

  • The cost of a full-page weekday ad in the print edition of the LA Times, reaching 500,000 people, is about $50,000.
  • The cost of an ad on LATimes.com to reach the same 500,000 people is about $7,000.
  • The cost of an ad reaching 500,000 people that’s served up by Google and appears on LATimes.com might be as little as (are you sitting down?) $20.

“Digital advertising rates … have done nothing but decline for a decade, and they’re only going to keep declining,” Mele said, “because Google has basically arbitraged the price of advertising to such a bargain basement.”

One possible solution, Mele added, is for Google and Facebook to pay for the news content they make so much use of. But there are obvious problems with that, starting with the fact that Google and Facebook don’t want to pay, and that news organizations don’t dare withdraw from such massive distribution platforms.

A more promising possibility is to charge digital advertisers for time spent with an article rather than on how many times people click. The Financial Times is one of a growing number of news organizations now trying out this new model. “The only way you can actually look at the amount of value someone’s placed on content is how much time they’re spending with it,” the FT’s Brendan Spain was quoted as telling the International Business Times.

Given the challenges facing news organizations trying to get by with digital advertising, many newspapers in recent years have switched from free websites to an online-subscription model. Yet here, too, success has been limited.

The New York Times reported last week that it now has 1.2 million digital subscribers, which is far more than any other general-interest newspaper. But because print and online advertising revenues continue to fall, the paper lost $16 million during the first quarter of 2016.

The New York Post has reported that the Times may lay off hundreds from its newsroom of 1,300 people later this year—and though executive editor Dean Baquet denied it, Emily Jane Fox recently observed in Vanity Fair that on other occasions Baquet has acknowledged the need to get smaller (as it recently did by eliminating 70 jobs in Paris).

Given all this, it’s understandable that some people in the newspaper business are nostalgic for print. You can charge quite a bit. It’s finite and self-contained, which means that the advertising has maintained some value. And a lot of people like their print newspaper.

A lot—but not enough. The paid print circulation of virtually every newspaper continues to plummet. Overall, print advertising revenues dropped from about $47 billion in 2004 to about $16 billion in 2014, and there’s no bottom in sight. The digital share of that total has been stuck just north of $3 billion since 2007.

Back to the Future was a fun movie—but it was also a fantasy. In the search for a sustainable business model for journalism, there is no going back to print. Nor is there any substitute for the hard and painful work of experimenting in the hopes that a new idea or a combination of new ideas will stop the financial slide.

The Globe takes on a new pedophile scandal

On Sunday, more than 14 years after the Boston Globe launched its Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles on the pedophile-priest crisis in the Catholic Church, the paper’s Spotlight Team produced a harrowing account of sexual abuse in New England’s private schools.

The new story, as with the earlier coverage, may prove to be the tip of a very large iceberg. The Globe is soliciting tips for follow-ups, conjuring up images of the way the movie Spotlight ends, with reporters overwhelmed with phone calls from victims.

Sadly, we’ve become so accustomed to the notion that predators will sexually prey on children that the details sometimes seem to blend together. But I found this paragraph to be absolutely riveting in its evocation of a dystopian alternate universe:

One winter day around 1964, Hooper said, he wet his bed, infuriating his dorm master, Claude Hasbrouck, who was also the school’s glee club and drama director. Children feared Hasbrouck, who was known for squeezing the flesh under boys’ chins—“chinnies,” he called them—and for his Nazi memorabilia collection, including a Nazi flag on his apartment wall.

It gets worse. But can you imagine being 13 years old, as one of his victims was, and to have your entire world defined by that horrifying environment?

Facebook to conservatives: Drop dead

If Facebook wanted to call its trending news section “Editors’ Picks” or some such thing, then it wouldn’t matter if the stories reflected liberal leanings, conservative leanings, or whatever. In fact, it is simply called “Trending.” And it’s not illogical for us to believe that it’s an accurate reflection of news that Facebook users are sharing.

Now the tech site Gizmodo is reporting that Facebook editors have actually manipulated the trending-news list to suppress stories that are favorable to conservatives or critical of Facebook. Michael Nunez reports that a source told him “that workers prevented stories about the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential section, even though they were organically trending among the site’s users.”

Let’s be clear about what was going on. This wasn’t the New York Times putting together a front page that reflects the liberal biases of its editors. This was much more like the phone company deciding to blocks calls from people and organizations if it doesn’t like their views.

It’s bad enough that we don’t understand the algorithms that go into deciding what we see in the news feed. Trending news is supposed to be transparent and on the level. I can’t say I’m surprised to learn that it isn’t, but I’m horrified nevertheless.

Gizmodo reports that no one from Facebook would comment on its story. So we don’t know whether the company admits this took place in the past or, if it is, if it’s still going on.

Update: Facebook has issued a statement in which it says that it’s taking the Gizmodo allegations “very seriously.”

If Romney runs as an independent, he could win

It wasn't time for Romney in 2008 (or 2012). But 2016 could be a different story. Photo (cc) by Talk Radio News Service.

Could it finally be time for Mitt Romney? Photo (cc) 2008 by Talk Radio News Service.

Here we go! From Robert Costa in the Washington Post:

In spite of his insistence that he will not run, Mitt Romney is being courted this week by a leading conservative commentator to reconsider and jump into the volatile 2016 presidential race as an independent candidate.

William Kristol, the longtime editor of the Weekly Standard magazine and a leading voice on the right, met privately with the 2012 nominee on Thursday afternoon to discuss the possibility of launching an independent bid, potentially with Romney as its standard-bearer.

I think Romney could win if he got on the ballot in all 50 states. He’s smarter and tougher than Jeb!, and he’s absolutely shameless, which is important. Romney says he won’t run, but that’s only because he hasn’t worked through the math.

Republicans and the media greet ‘the new normal’

There he is again. Photo (cc) 2015 by Matt Johnson.

There he is again. Photo (cc) 2015 by Matt Johnson.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Now that only the most literal-minded (or John Kasich) would call Donald Trump anything other than the presumptive nominee, the media are ready to turn to the next storyline in this bizarre, disturbingly dark campaign. Based on the morning-after chatter, the big question that’s emerging is whether Republicans will fall in line behind the demagogue or if, instead, the party will fracture.

In a Twitter back-and-forth that National Journal’s Ron Brownstein called “the GOP debate after the #IndianaPrimary in a single exchange,” former George W. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer wrote:

 The way forward for anti-Trump Republicans is unclear. As Sean Sullivan and Katie Zezima report in the Washington Post, Republicans who would like to run a third-party candidate against the nominee of their own party face significant logistical and psychological hurdles—although, elsewhere in the Post, former Bush I and Bush II official Eliot Cohen argues for exactly that, calling Trump “utterly unfit for the position by temperament, values and policy preferences.”

But since a high-profile third-party effort would only strengthen Hillary Clinton’s already strong hand against Trump (never mind her weaknesses as a candidate, underscored by her loss to Bernie Sanders in Indiana), why shouldn’t anti-Trump Republicans simply endorse Clinton? That’s the route Michael Barbaro explores in the New York Times, noting that John McCain strategist Mark Salter and RedState.com contributor Ben Howe have said they’ll support her.

Of course, we’re a long way from knowing whether any of these gasps of pain will translate into something more substantive. Liberal editorial pages such as those of the Times, the Post, and the Boston Globe have all lamented the Republican Party’s descent into Trumpism. But the Wall Street Journal, to which actual Republicans pay attention, offers only a mildly worded rebuke to Trump, instructing him “that the responsibility for unification is now his,” and leaving little doubt that the Journal is prepared to live with him as the party’s standard-bearer.

Frankly, the more likely scenario is that most Republicans will unite behind Trump. In the Journal’s news pages, Beth Reinhard writes that longtime party stalwarts such as former Republican chairman Haley Barbour and former Ronald Reagan operative Ed Rollins have climbed aboard the Trump bandwagon. “I don’t want to roll over and play dead,” Rollins is quoted as saying. “I want to beat Hillary Clinton, and I don’t want to lose the Senate.”

Yes, as Trump himself as observed, it’s all about winning. So much winning.

There are several problems with the anti-Trump movement. One is that there is a sharp division between the sort of establishment Republicans who would have preferred Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio and the right-wingers who wanted Ted Cruz. If a third-party challenge develops, it will almost certainly come from the right, with members of the establishment comforting themselves with the thought that Clinton is likely to be the most unpopular president-elect in history.

The other problem is that some of the most eloquent voices of anti-Trumpism belong to people whom Trump supporters most despise—“the GOP’s donor class and Washington-based establishment,” as Eli Stokols puts it in Politico.

For instance, the most forceful argument against Trump in recent days was offered in New York magazine by Andrew Sullivan, who writes that “hyperdemocracy” has fueled Trump’s rise, and that a Trump presidency would usher in something that looks very much like fascism. But as a Brit, as a conservative who’s not all that conservative, and as a gay man, Sullivan is not exactly well-positioned to sway the Trumpoid base.

By any measure, Clinton should not only beat Trump, but should send him to a historic defeat, possibly ushering in a Democratic majority in the Senate and maybe the House as well. As Chris Cillizza notes in the Post, even a normal Republican would have a huge challenge given the Electoral College realities of 2016. But “Crooked Hillary,” as Trump calls her, has plenty of problems of her own, and it’s not difficult to imagine her getting bogged down between now and November. A smart prediction is that she will almost certainly win, with the emphasis on almost.

Then, too, there’s the media’s responsibility in making sure that Trump is not treated like a normal candidate. This is a man who has hurled racist invective toward Latinos and Muslims, who has called for torture in the interrogation of suspected terrorists, and who has called for murdering the families of terrorists just to send a message.

On Tuesday, Trump began his day by linking Ted Cruz’s father to JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald on the basis of an evidence-free story in the National Enquirer. By the time the polls had closed in Indiana, his latest bizarre outburst had been all but forgotten—as had Trump’s numerous other transgressions. As Isaac Chotiner writes in Slate:

CNN, MSNBC, and Fox contented themselves with bright chatter about Ted Cruz’s hurt feelings, about Donald Trump’s political skill, about the feckless, pathetic Republican establishment. None of the commentators I saw mentioned the import of what was happening. Large chunks of the media have spent so long domesticating Trump that his victory no longer appeared momentous. He is the new normal.

There is, or should be, nothing normal about Trump’s rise. Sadly, the political instinct is to make nice with the victor, while the media’s instinct is find and occupy middle ground—and when there isn’t any, pretend otherwise.