Once again, the Times bends over backwards for Trump while the Post lets him have it

It seems that every day The New York Times finds a way to say something hopeful about President Trump while The Washington Post sticks with reality as we can all see it. There are many examples I could dredge up, but let’s start with today’s papers. First the Times’ Glenn Thrush:

Harvey Gives Trump a Chance to Reclaim Power to Unify

Hurricane Harvey was the rarest of disasters to strike during the Trump presidency — a maelstrom not of Mr. Trump’s making, and one that offers him an opportunity to recapture some of the unifying power of his office he has squandered in recent weeks.

Now a tropical storm as it continues to inundate the Texas and Louisiana coasts, Harvey is foremost a human disaster, a stop-motion catastrophe that has already claimed at least 10 lives and destroyed thousands of structures. But hurricanes in the post-Katrina era are also political events, benchmarks by which a president’s abilities are measured.

Mr. Trump is behaving like a man whose future depends on getting this right.

Now the Post’s Jenna Johnson:

Even in visiting hurricane-ravaged Texas, Trump keeps the focus on himself

As rescuers continued their exhausting and heartbreaking work in southeastern Texas on Tuesday afternoon, as the rain continued to fall and a reservoir near Houston spilled over, President Trump grabbed a microphone to address hundreds of supporters who had gathered outside a firehouse near Corpus Christi and were chanting: “USA! USA! USA!”

‘Thank you, everybody,” the president said, sporting one of the white “USA” caps that are being sold on his campaign website for $40. “I just want to say: We love you. You are special…. What a crowd. What a turnout.”

Yet again, Trump managed to turn attention on himself. His responses to the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey have been more focused on the power of the storm and his administration’s response than on the millions of Texans whose lives have been dramatically altered by the floodwaters.

As I said, these contrasts are a regular occurrence. I don’t know what to attribute them to, but I wonder if the Times’ bend-over-backwards approach to Trump is the flip side of its decades-long obsession with Clinton non-scandals, from Whitewater to emails. Yes, the Times has done plenty of great investigative reporting on Trump, and it seems to be locked in a steel-cage death match with the Post to see which paper can dig up the most dirt on him. But then there are these weird tonal lapses.

The Times and the Post are great papers. The Times features better writing and has a much broader mandate. But the Post’s fierce coverage of national politics and its unapologetic attitude toward Trump have long since made the Post my first read, along with The Boston Globe.

Update. From my Northeastern colleague Alan Schroeder:

I’m sure that has something to do with it. Yet Trump has been known to pick up the phone and call Post reporters, too. There’s no question that the Times is the paper Trump, a New Yorker, most cares about. I don’t know how much of a factor that is.

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It may not be over until the Republican House votes

Mitt Romney in 2012. Photo (cc) by Mark Taylor.
Mitt Romney in 2012. Photo (cc) by Mark Taylor.

Instant update: Well, no. As several friends have pointed out to me, the Twelfth Amendment specifies that the House would have to choose among the top three finishers. Someone who didn’t run would not be eligible.

Now that we know Bill Kristol’s efforts to draft a serious independent candidate come down to some guy named David French, who may not even say yes, it strikes me that the Libertarian ticket of Gary Johnson and Bill Weld is in a position to do very well indeed.

How well? Ross Perot got 19 percent in 1992. I think he could have gotten at least 25 percent if he hadn’t wigged out, quit and then returned to the race. And Johnson is running against major-party candidates who are far less appealing than George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. This isn’t really fair to Hillary Clinton, whose main problem is that she’s been viciously attacked for 25 years, but there you go.

The real issue, of course, isn’t Clinton; it’s that there are plenty of principled conservatives and Republicans (like Tom Nichols) who are never going to vote for a racist demagogue like Donald Trump. How many? We’ll find out. But possibly enough to throw the election into the Republican-controlled House.

Which means that the Romney 2016 campaign isn’t quite dead yet.

David Brooks’ semi-mea culpa on the war in Iraq

It’s easy to make fun of David Brooks’ semi-mea culpa on the war in Iraq. But let’s not forget that liberals like John Kerry and Hillary Clinton voted for the war, and if you think they did it solely for political posturing, then you’re more cynical than I am.

Personally, I was against the invasion, but I thought it was a close call. And if you go back to Bill Clinton’s presidency, you may recall that horror stories about sick and starving Iraqi children — a consequence of U.S. sanctions — led some liberals to call for a humanitarian intervention.

Finally, in 1998 Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, which committed the United States to regime change.

Brooks was always the most thoughtful among the war’s supporters. What he has to say today is worth reading.

George Stephanopoulos has (had) a secret

Funny. Just yesterday I was discussing with my students why journalists don’t give money to politicians. Of course, George Stephanopoulos only plays one on TV.

Dylan Byers of Politico reports that Stephanopoulos has donated $50,000 to the Clinton Foundation. He notes:

Stephanopoulos never disclosed this information to viewers, even when interviewing author Peter Schweizer last month about his book “Clinton Cash,” which alleges that donations to the Foundation may have influenced some of Hillary Clinton’s actions as Secretary of State.

So far ABC News says it’s standing behind Stephanopoulos. It’s certainly not a Brian Williams-level transgression, but there’s no question that this is unethical and that he deprived viewers of important information. (And to be clear: Disclosure is necessary but insufficient. He never should have given the money in the first place.)

Will he be able to brazen it out? Probably. The fact that he was donating to a politically wired charity rather than to a political campaign will help. But still.

A better way of covering the Indiana discrimination story

It's all about the cake.
It’s all about the cake.

In a frustratingly inconclusive Washington Post column today on Indiana’s religious-freedom law, Kathleen Parker writes, “Without diving into the weeds, the law aims to protect religious freedom against government action that abridges deeply held convictions.”

Trouble is, the weeds are exactly where we need to be. The public perception is that the law would discriminate against the LGBT community. Yet Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who supports the legislation (though he now wants to add clarifying language), has insisted that it would not discriminate. For instance, Tony Cook and Tim Evans quote Pence in today’s Indianapolis Star as saying that the law “does not give anyone a license to deny services to gay and lesbian couples.”

For someone trying to follow this story, the problem appears to be two-fold. First, the law itself is vaguely worded and could be interpreted in a variety of different ways. Second, the media for the most part have covered this as a political story, more interested in traditional narratives about winners and losers than in what effect the law might actually have on people.

Bits of background emerge here and there. For instance, we’re regularly told that the Indiana law is similar (though not identical) to the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, signed by Bill Clinton in 1993, and that 19 other states already have such laws on the books. We know that Arkansas is on the brink of joining those states. For the most part, though, coverage is framed in terms of pure politics.

My frustration spilled over this morning in reading the latest from The New York Times and The Washington Post. I don’t mean to single them out. It’s just that I’ve been thinking about this in recent days, and today’s coverage crystallized my sense that the public is not being as well-served by journalism as it could be.

The Times story, by Campbell Robertson and Richard Pérez-Peña, and the Post story, by Philip Rucker and Robert Costa, are mainly about politics. You learn a lot from both of them. The Post strikes me as particularly insightful, as Rucker and Costa observe in their lede that the controversy over the Indiana law “has drawn the entire field of Republican presidential contenders into the divisive culture wars, which badly damaged Mitt Romney in 2012 and which GOP leaders eagerly sought to avoid in the 2016 race.” The Post also notes that Pence may harbor presidential ambitions of his own.

But if you want to know what, exactly, the law would do, you’re out of luck, unless you want to latch onto Gov. Pence’s assurances that it won’t do much of anything (then why pass it?) or the warnings of civil-rights groups that it would legalize discrimination against sexual minorities.

Here is how I’d define what we need to know.

Does the Indiana law merely (for instance) prohibit the government from requiring a member of the clergy to perform same-sex marriages? No; the wording of the law makes it pretty clear that the door is open to actions that would go well beyond that. In any case, the clergy is already protected by the First Amendment.

So where does the law draw the line? What it comes down to, as Kathleen Parker and others have pointed out, is cake. Would the law allow a bakery to refuse to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple? And here is where the coverage has tended to devolve into a one-side-says-this/the-other-side-says-that morass.

Maybe the Indiana law is just too vague to provide a clear answer to that question. Nevertheless, I think German Lopez of Vox deserves a lot of credit for trying. In a lengthy article published on Tuesday, Lopez pulls together all known facts — the background, the threatened boycotts — and points out that, historically, laws such as Indiana’s have not been used to engage in the sort of discrimination LGBT advocates are worried about. (My favorite example involves the Amish, who were exempted from a law requiring them to put fluorescent lights on their buggies.)

Nevertheless, Lopez notes that supporters of the Indiana law have celebrated the idea that “Christian bakers, florists and photographers” would not have to “participate in a homosexual marriage!” So the intent to discriminate is clearly there. Countering that, though, is University of Illinois law professor Robin Wilson, who tells Lopez that it is unlikely the courts would uphold such discrimination. And yet, as Lopez observes, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision raises the specter that Wilson’s sanguinity might prove unwarranted.

Of course, Vox’s self-styled mission is to explain. But I would argue that even a daily update in a developing story like this ought to explain as clearly as possible what the law is about, or at least link to such an explanation.

In his book “Informing the News,” Thomas E. Patterson writes that journalists need to add a third tool — knowledge — to their traditional tools of direct observation and interviews. In the case of Indiana, telling us what the religious-freedom law would actually do is at least as important as telling us what people are saying about it.

Note: If you find any particularly good explainers about the Indiana law, let me know and I’ll post links to them here. And here we go:

• This article, by Stephanie Wang of the Indianapolis Star, is quite good. (Thanks to Mike Stucka.)

• Here’s an explainer in Q&A form that’s in today’s Times. (Thanks to Kris Olson.)

• In the comments, Steve Stein flags this article by Kristine Guerra and Tim Evans of the Indy Star that explains the differences between federal and state law.

On Twitter, I got recommendations for several worthwhile pieces — one from the liberal website ThinkProgress and two from more conservative sources, The Weekly Standard and Commonweal:

This commentary was also published at WGBHNews.org.

Photo (cc) by D&K and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

The Post digs into the Clintons’ dubious fundraising ties

I continue to be astonished that Hillary Clinton has no serious opposition for the Democratic presidential nomination. This time eight years ago, Barack Obama was mounting a full-scale challenge. Now, there are occasional noises from the likes of Jim Webb, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, but that’s about it. (Sorry, folks. Elizabeth Warren isn’t running.)

The latest piece of appalling news about the Clintons is a front-page story in today’s Washington Post revealing that the Clinton Foundation, run by her husband, Bill, took in millions of dollars from foreign governments while Hillary was secretary of state. Much of the money, write the Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger, “came from countries with complicated diplomatic, military and financial relationships with the U.S. government, including Kuwait, Qatar and Oman.”

The story is a follow-up to an earlier, equally appalling Post story about the Clinton Foundation’s dubious fundraising.

Caveat: Yes, the foundation’s money goes to good causes like earthquake relief, lowering the cost of drugs used to treat AIDS and HIV, and alleviating climate change. But it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that foreign governments seeking to curry favor with the Obama administration funneled money to Bill Clinton in order to receive more favorable treatment from Hillary Clinton.

Exposed! Check out this comment from Bob Gardner: “Not surprised that this story would get traction from an employee of the Koch-funded WGBH.”

Flashback: The state of digital culture in 1993

In the spring of 1993 I attended a conference on journalism and technology at Columbia University. It was a time when the digital culture that was to emerge was right on the brink: the Internet was not nearly as much of a force in the lives of ordinary people as were commercial services like Prodigy, and Mosaic, the first graphical Web browser, had just been released. With The Boston Globe just having run an image of the story I wrote for The Boston Phoenix after that conference, I thought I’d reproduce it here in full.

Future Watch: Lost in space

Why the electronic village may be a very lonely place

Copyright © 1993 by the Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.

May 7, 1993: From 500-channel interactive TV to portable electronic newspapers, an unprecedented explosion of information technology awaits us in the next several years. These services, media analysts say, will allow you to tailor news programming to your own interests, do your banking and shopping at home, and make restaurant reservations with a hand-held computer while you’re sitting at a bus stop.

Certainly the speakers were bullish at this past week’s conference on “Newsroom Technology: The Next Generation,” sponsored by the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, at Columbia University, in New York. Expert after expert talked in rapturous tones about the “information highway,” fiber optics, coaxial cable, digital compression, and the like.

But there’s a dark side to the emerging electronic village, acknowledged almost as an afterthought amid the glowing financial projections and the futuristic technobabble. And that dark side is this: as information becomes increasingly decentralized, there’s a danger that consumers of that information — all of us, in other words — will become more and more isolated from society and from each other.

What’s being lost is the sense of shared cultural experience — the nationwide community that gathered to watch, say, the Vietnam War, in the 1960s, or the Watergate hearings, in the 1970s. Media analyst Les Brown, a former television reporter for the New York Times, believes that for all their “insufferable arrogance” during that era, the Big Three networks “served the needs of democracy very well.” With 500 channels, he fears, users will choose news programming that suits their political biases — if they choose any news programming at all.

“Whatever happened to everybody talking to each other?” he asked during the Freedom Forum gathering. “What happened to this big tent we used to have? As the media become more democratized, they may serve the needs of democracy less well.” Continue reading “Flashback: The state of digital culture in 1993”

How Kennedy and Obama are alike, for good and for ill

Kennedy with Nikita Khrushchev in 1961

I’m most of the way through Robert Caro’s “The Passage of Power,” the latest in his series of Lyndon Johnson biographies. And I’ve been struck by his description of John F. Kennedy’s governing style, and of the similarities to President Obama.

What they share is a daunting intelligence; level-headedness in moments of confusion and  anxiety, which served them in good stead when high-stakes foreign-policy decisions had to be made quickly (the Cuban missile crisis, the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound); and the ability to give a terrific speech, undermined to some degree by their aloof detachment.

The downside? Kennedy comes across as utterly clueless in working the levers of power with Congress, a failing he shares with Obama. Yes, it often appears that the Republicans are going to say no to Obama regardless of what he proposes. But Caro describes a coalition of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats in the early 1960s that was no less intractable than the Tea Party Republicans of today.

Kennedy, Caro writes, concluded that working with Congress was hopeless as he watched his tax-cut bill and civil-rights legislation go nowhere. But when Johnson became president, he engaged in a combination of cajoling, flattery and threats that he mastered in the 1950s as Senate majority leader. What Kennedy had seen as the pragmatic acceptance of reality turned out to be a rationalization of his own shortcomings.

Could Obama have gotten more than he has from Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and Eric Cantor? It seems unlikely. But given Bob Woodward’s description of the president’s hapless dealings with the Republican leadership, perhaps a leader more willing to engage with the opposition could have had better results.

Not to get carried away. It’s hard to imagine a better schmoozer in the White House than Bill Clinton. Yet his tax plan was approved without a single Republican vote — and on health care, Obama succeeded where Clinton failed. (I enjoyed Clinton’s speech last week as much as anyone, but his invocation of the 1990s as a time of bipartisan cooperation was pure fiction. I assume the Big Dog hasn’t forgotten that he was impeached for his personal behavior.)

Still, it’s interesting to think about how the past four years might have been different if Obama was a little less JFK and a little more LBJ.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons, from the U.S. Department of State in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Why Anthony Weiner shouldn’t resign

Anthony Weiner

At this moment I think there’s at least an even chance that Anthony Weiner will resign from Congress. The supposed posting of an “X-rated” photo (I haven’t seen it, but Andrew Breitbart, who had said he wouldn’t release it, claims he was set up or something), coupled with the news that Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, is pregnant, raise the possibility that we are going to be treated to revelation after revelation. Certainly many of Weiner’s Democratic colleagues want him to resign, if only to change the subject.

But should he? Weiner stands exposed as a pathetic creep, but he’s been accused of no crime. I guess we can call this a sex scandal, although it doesn’t seem that anyone actually had sex. I’ve heard it said that Republicans at least have the decency to resign, but that’s ridiculous. Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford stayed in office after he was caught hiking on the Appalachian Trail, and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., has stuck around despite the revelation that he likes to visit hookers (a crime, by the way, even if you think it shouldn’t be one). On the other hand, former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, couldn’t resign quickly enough after his sleazy behavior was exposed. You could spend hours compiling a list of Democrats and Republicans who did or didn’t resign after getting caught up in sex scandals.

The New York Times’ anonymously sourced tidbit that the Clintons, of all people, are unhappy with Weiner shows how ridiculous this has all become.

Unless Weiner is credibly accused of breaking the law, I say he should tough it out. And if party leaders want him gone, then they should recruit a good candidate to run against him in 2012.

From the Dept. of You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

“The Clintons are deeply unhappy about the situation and with Mr. Weiner, people who had been told of their thinking said.” (From today’s New York Times)