Sports and justice

The question is what else will and should the players do beyond boycotting games? The NBA has some real leaders, from LeBron James to Jaylen Brown. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

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Biden nails it: Why Kamala Harris is both a historic first and the safest choice

As nearly every political observer has said, Kamala Harris was the “safe” choice to be Joe Biden’s running mate. And though that’s almost certainly true, it’s pretty amazing that the first Black woman named to a presidential ticket is also considered the least controversial.

That a Black, first-generation American is described that way says everything about where the Democratic Party stands in 2020,” writes Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker. “Harris wouldn’t have been the least bit safe four years ago.”

I think the reason that Harris is seen as the safe choice is that Biden had already promised to pick a woman — and, by the time he got around to making his pick, the moment had shifted in favor of a Black woman. The police killing of George Floyd and the revival of the Black Lives Matter movement combined to create an environment that was just right for Harris. Several other Black women were in the mix, but none had Harris’ stature, experience or, frankly, ideological flexibility, which sounds like a bad thing but really isn’t.

Way back when the presidential campaign was just getting under way, I thought Harris might make the strongest contender. Her trajectory, though, zig-zagged, then bottomed out. She started out well, faded, then revived her campaign with her attack on Biden at the first debate.

Then, at the second debate, she seemed unable to explain her own health-care plan. It only got worse from there. At one point Harris used her time in the post-debate spin room to demand that Elizabeth Warren join her in calling on Twitter to cancel President Trump’s account. Seriously.

But Harris is smart and charismatic. She should make a fine running mate, just as Biden did despite having two comically inept presidential campaigns on his résumé when Barack Obama chose him in 2008. I can’t wait to see her debate Mike Pence.

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At Whole Foods, a failure of the imagination over Black Lives Matter face masks

A Whole Foods store in West Hartford, Connecticut. Photo (cc) 2014 by Mike Mozart.

The Boston Globe reports that Whole Foods is sending employees home if they show up to work wearing face masks emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter.” Katie Johnston writes:

After seeing reports of Whole Foods workers in other states being sent home for refusing to take off Black Lives Matter face masks, Savannah Kinzer decided to bring the movement to Cambridge. And, sure enough, when she and her colleagues put on masks emblazoned with the phrase Wednesday afternoon, the manager told them they either had to remove the masks or go home. So seven of them walked out.

As is often the case with such public-relations disasters, at root is a failure of the imagination. How can management not understand that this will end with them apologizing and backing down?

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Trump was losing bigly even before COVID, economic collapse and BLM protests

Trump’s FiveThirtyEight approval/disapproval ratings.

According to a number of recent national polls, Joe Biden has moved out to a sizable lead over President Trump — so sizable that, if the election were held now, Biden would probably win the presidency by a substantial margin, since his lead is large enough to overcome Trump’s structural advantage in the Electoral College.

What I want to address here is the assumption some observers are making that Biden wouldn’t be ahead by nearly as much (or even at all) if it weren’t for COVID-19, the resultant economic catastrophe and the Black Lives Matter protests.

Yes, those would be huge challenges for any president. But with COVID, in particular, a compassionate, reasonably competent response wouldn’t have necessarily hurt Trump and might have even helped him. Look at Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, who continues to receive high marks for his response to the pandemic, according to a new Suffolk University poll.

Likewise, the reason that the Black Lives Matter protests represent such an existential threat to Trump is that he’s a stone-cold racist who’s responded by advocating violence and embracing Confederate symbols — and no one outside his base wants to hear that anymore.

The reality is that any president’s re-election campaign is a referendum on the incumbent. And Trump has been historically unpopular from his first days in office. Biden’s lead merely tracks Trump’s approval/disapproval rating. It’s currently at 41% approve/55% disapprove, according to the FiveThirtyEight averages, and that’s right in line with most of his presidency.

Biden may be uninspiring to many, but he’s a consensus figure who’s bound to attract nearly all of the voters who disapprove of Trump. It’s not like anyone is going to hold their nose and vote for Trump because Biden scares them. If you look at the FiveThirtyEight graph, you’ll see that Biden would have been far ahead of Trump at almost any point in the past three and a half years.

The triple threat of COVID, the economy and protests against racism have made Trump’s re-election that much harder. But the dynamic is the same as it ever was.

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Wall St. Journal’s newsroom calls out opinion section over Pence’s COVID falsehoods

The Wall Street Journal’s excellent newsroom is calling out its often-nutty opinion section. The Journal’s Rebecca Ballhaus reports that an op-ed by Vice President Mike Pence earlier this week in which he praised the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 had some, uh, problems:

Mr. Pence wrote that as of June 12, Project Airbridge had delivered more than 143 million N95 masks, 598 million surgical and procedural masks, 20 million eye and face shields, 265 million gowns and coveralls and 14 billion gloves.

According to FEMA data, through June 18 the program had delivered 1.5 million N95 masks, 113.4 million surgical masks, 2.5 million face shields, 50.9 million gowns, 1.4 million coveralls and 937 million gloves. The total number of those supplies is about 7% — or one-thirteenth — of the numbers cited in Mr. Pence’s article.

We talked about the Journal’s decision to publish Pence’s dubious propaganda Friday on “Beat the Press” (above). At the time, I thought the problem was more a matter of absurdly optimistic spin in the face of rising infection rates in many states rather than factual inaccuracies. I may be been giving Pence too much credit.

I still think Sen. Tom Cotton’s recently op-ed in The New York Times was worse, since he falsely claimed antifa involvement in Black Lives Matter protests in order to justify military attacks on Americans.

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Sorting through the racially charged wreckage of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Even as national attention was focused on the latest internal drama at The New York Times, a disturbing, racially charged crackdown was playing out in a newsroom nearly 400 miles to the west. Pay attention, because what’s happening at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette threatens the ability of journalists everywhere to exercise their conscience and cover their communities with integrity and empathy. Consider:

• Alexis Johnson, an African American reporter, was taken off the Black Lives Matter beat as punishment for an innocuous tweet about litter.

• Michael Santiago, a Black photographer who expressed his support for her, quit after he, too, was pulled from covering the protests.

• Stories by other reporters who’d retweeted Johnson in solidarity were removed from the web.

• A supermarket chain announced that it would stop carrying the paper.

• The union that represents some 140 of the Post-Gazette’s employees called on the editor and the managing editor to resign.

The story is still playing out — but it’s only the latest misstep by a paper that has been in turmoil for several years as it has lurched to the political right.

While the chattering classes have obsessed over the departure of New York Times editorial-page editor James Bennet and Philadelphia Inquirer executive editor Stan Wischnowski, both of whom misjudged the rising anger in their newsrooms over issues of race, diversity and privilege, what’s happening in Pittsburgh may prove to be more important. Ultimately, the Post-Gazette is a story about what happens when a newspaper’s ownership becomes so insular and out of touch that its ability to serve the community is called into question.

Some background. On June 4, the alternative Pittsburgh City Paper reported on a memo from the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh that Johnson had been yanked from demonstrations protesting the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Her offense: a tweet in which she humorously — but pointedly — compared the damage caused by looters to the mess left behind by tailgaters at a Kenny Chesney concert:

“Horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS who don’t care about this city!!!!! …. oh wait sorry. No, these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate. Whoops.”

 

The situation quickly spun out of control, blossoming into a national story and attracting the attention of The New York Times. Johnson said she was told by the paper’s managing editor, Karen Kane, as well as other editors that she was being taken off the protest beat because she had expressed an opinion in her tweet that showed she couldn’t be fair.

That, in turn, led to accusations that Johnson was being punished for reporting while Black — drawing a blistering response from the paper’s editor, Keith Burris.

“Editors at this newspaper did not single out a black reporter and a black photographer and ban them from covering Pittsburgh protests after the killing of George Floyd,” Burris wrote in a column published by the Post-Gazette. “And we certainly did not single out two people and keep them from covering local protests because they were black. That is an outrageous lie — a defamation, in fact.”

Johnson wasn’t buying Burris’ explanation. In an interview with CNN’s Brian Stelter on the “Reliable Sources” podcast, she accused her bosses of being simultaneously clueless and self-serving. “I can only conclude that it was because I was a Black woman and I was speaking on an issue that involves Black Lives Matter,” she said. “I said that to them at that moment, ‘I feel like it’s because it’s a Black issue that you feel like I have this bias.’”

Management’s contention that her Kenny Chesney tweet expressed an opinion about an issue that she was covering seems like a considerable stretch. But even if you grant that it was inappropriate (which I don’t), Johnson had a compelling retort. “Keith Burris is still head of our editorial board. And he’s also our executive editor of the newsroom,” she told Stelter. “So for them to claim that I have a bias is pretty ironic. And not only that, he continues to write columns for us, he continues to give his opinion, and then comes over to the news and tells us what to write and what angles he wants us to have. So it’s just a lot of hypocrisy.”

For the Post-Gazette, it’s been a rapid descent. As recently as 2019 the paper won a Pulitzer Prize for its heart-breaking coverage of the mass shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue. But the paper’s respected editor, David Shribman, a former Washington bureau chief for The Boston Globe, took early retirement, paving the way for Burris to claim the top newsroom job while keeping his hand in on the opinion side as well.

In late 2019, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan documented a series of bizarre and disturbing incidents, including a newsroom tirade by publisher John Block; the firing of cartoonist Rob Rogers for harshly lampooning President Donald Trump; and an editorial written by Burris that defended Trump against charges of racism following Trump’s outburst over “shithole countries.” The editorial was published on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The Post-Gazette has been owned for decades by the Block family, which also owns The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, as well as television stations and cable holdings. Even though there has been no change in ownership, the Post-Gazette was regarded as generally liberal for most of its recent history. Indeed, the late right-wing financier Richard Mellon Scaife, a conspiracy theorist who promoted the false story that Hillary Clinton was involved in the death of Vincent Foster, launched the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review to provide a conservative alternative to the Post-Gazette.

In recent years, though, John Block, known as “J.R.,” has become increasingly enamored of President Trump, turning the Post-Gazette into a right-wing mouthpiece. In a sense, the Pittsburgh newspaper war is now over, and Scaife won. Media ownership is haphazard, and it’s the luck of the draw as to whether a community is served by a civic-minded business leader, a cost-cutting corporate chain or — as appears to be the case in Pittsburgh — a family publisher who puts his personal politics above journalism.

As is the case in many cities, the newspaper economics of Pittsburgh have proved daunting. The Post-Gazette appears in print only three days a week — Thursday, Friday and Sunday — while relying on digital distribution the other four days. The Tribune-Review lives on, sort of, as a digital-only publication called TRIB Live.

At this point, the question for readers of the Post-Gazette is: What’s next? Much of the staff has risen up in revolt over the treatment accorded to Johnson, and management shows no sign of backing down. What happens in the days ahead will tell us a lot about the future of a once-excellent newspaper.

As Johnson put it in her interview with CNN: “The Post-Gazette has chosen to be on the wrong side of history.”

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More than 1,000 turn out for Black Lives Matter rally in Medford

Grace Episcopal Church. Photos (cc) 2020 by Dan Kennedy.

We just got back from a huge Black Lives Matter protest and march organized by Mobilize Medford. A crowd that I’d estimate at well over 1,000 people gathered in front of City Hall to protest against racism and police brutality. Afterwards, the protesters marched and chanted along High Street — Paul Revere’s route — to West Medford. We left the march at Grace Episcopal Church, where we’d parked our car. It was an impressive turnout for an important cause.

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Bennet’s out as newsrooms come to terms (or not) with Black Lives Matter

Photo (cc) 2010 by samchills.

At least at the moment, I have little to add to the story of James Bennet’s departure as editorial-page editor of The New York Times beyond what Ben Smith of the Times, Tom Jones of the Poynter Institute and Jon Allsop of the Columbia Journalism Review have written, and what I wrote last week.

As Smith, Jones and Allsop point out, Bennet’s misguided decision to run Sen. Tom Cotton’s ugly commentary advocating violence against protesters should be seen as part of a larger story that encompasses Wesley Lowery’s unfortunate experience at The Washington Post, the resignation of Philadelphia Inquirer executive editor Stan Wischnowski over his paper’s horrendous “Buildings Matter, Too” headline, and the right-wing Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s meltdown over Alexis Johnson, a Black reporter whom they claimed couldn’t be trusted to cover Black Lives Matter protests because of an innocuous tweet she had posted.

Because of the Times’ central place in our media culture, Bennet’s departure is the big story. As the coverage makes clear, Bennet lurched from one misstep to another during his time as editorial-page editor, so it would be a mistake to attribute his departure solely to the Cotton op-ed. I don’t think he ever fully recovered from his mishandling of a Bret Stephens column in which Stephens came very close to endorsing a genetic basis for intelligence.

Bennet will be replaced through the election on an interim basis by deputy editorial-page editor Katie Kingsbury, who won a Pulitzer when she was at The Boston Globe. Kingsbury is terrific, and I hope she’s given a chance to earn the job.

Finally, a semi-related incident involving the Globe. You may have seen this on the front of Sunday’s print edition:

There’s no question that the cover, which you can see here, would have been considered entirely inoffensive before a police officer killed George Floyd. Even now I’m not sure how many readers would have been outraged. Still, I think the Globe made the right call. An abundance of caution and sensitivity is what’s needed at the moment.

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Why a lawsuit against a Black Lives Matter activist threatens the First Amendment

DeRay Mckesson earlier this year. Public domain photo by the LBJ Library.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

In September 2018, President Donald Trump won an important First Amendment victory. By a 3-0 vote, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled that neither Trump nor his campaign could be held liable for injuries suffered by protesters at the hands of Trump supporters during a March 2016 rally even though the then-candidate had yelled to “get ’em out of here.”

The court’s reasoning was based on the straightforward application of free-speech principles: Trump had not advocated violence at the Kentucky rally (in fact, he had also said “don’t hurt ’em”), and therefore he couldn’t be successfully sued even though some people were roughed up.

The decision may have been a disappointment for those who thought Trump should be held accountable for his careless words. But under the First Amendment, political speech receives the highest level of protection except in the most extreme circumstances.

Now, though, those principles are in danger. Based on a similar set of facts, the 5th Circuit ruled recently that a police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, can sue Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson for injuries he received at the hands of a rock-throwing protester — even though, as The Washington Post reported, “Mckesson did not throw the rock or tell anyone else to throw it.”

Mckesson had organized the 2016 demonstration following the police killing of a black man named Alton Sterling. The police officer, whose identity has not been revealed, claims that Mckesson acted negligently by not foreseeing that the demonstration could become violent.

“The goal of lawsuits like these is to prevent people from showing up at a protest out of the fear that they might be held responsible if anything happens,” Mckesson said in a statement released by the ACLU, which earlier this month asked the Supreme Court to take up the case. “If this precedent lasts, it could make organizers all across the country responsible for all types of things they have no control over, such as random people coming into a protest and causing problems. We can’t let that happen.”

The Supreme Court precedent that protected Trump and that, by all rights, should protect Mckesson is NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., a case decided in 1982. The NAACP in 1966 called for a boycott of white-owned businesses in Claiborne County, Mississippi — a nonviolent form of protest that nevertheless led to some acts of violence. In 1969, several of the business owners sued the NAACP and were successful in the state courts. But the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the NAACP could not be held liable for engaging in nonviolent free-speech activities regardless of actions taken by people not under the organization’s control.

Although the cases against Trump and Mckesson, like the case against NAACP, were for alleged civil offenses, it’s also worth noting the high bar the Supreme Court has set for incitement to violence in criminal cases. In the landmark 1969 case of Brandenburg v. Ohio, the court threw out the conviction of Ku Klux Klan leader Clarence Brandenburg because the threats he made at a rally against African Americans and Jews were non-specific and would not result in imminent violence.

In their petition to the Supreme Court, the ACLU’s lawyers argue that allowing the lawsuit against Mckesson to proceed would have a chilling effect on anyone who might wish to organize a nonviolent protest.

“Given the regularity with which violence and First Amendment activity co-occur and the vagaries of state law liability rules,” the lawyers wrote, “only the most intrepid citizens would exercise their rights and risk ruinous liability if they could be held liable for the wrongful acts of others.”

Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, put it this way in the Washington Post story: “If this is allowed to stand, anybody can show up and throw a rock at a protest to bankrupt a movement they disagree with. People know when they step into the street that they might have to spend some hours in jail or pay a fine. But if they might have to pay a multi-million dollar civil judgment — that’s something they’re not prepared for, and can’t possibly be expected to prepare for.”

The case should prove to be a telling indicator of where the Supreme Court stands on free speech now that it has swung sharply to the right. Only four of the nine justices are needed take up the case.

Traditionally, even the court’s more conservative members have proved to be staunch advocates of the First Amendment. But if Trump’s justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, were to break with that tradition, the case of DeRay Mckesson v. John Doe could prove to be a signal moment in our march to a less open, less free society.

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What does Facebook Live mean for journalism?

Diamond Reynolds, who live-streamed the last moments of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, on Facebook Live. Photo (cc) by Laurie Schaull.
Diamond Reynolds, who live-streamed the last moments of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, on Facebook Live. Photo (cc) by Lorie Schaull.

In April Facebook Live was launched, allowing users to broadcast live and tap the social media giant’s colossal audience. But it was last week, as the world now knows, that Facebook Live had its watershed, technology-transforming-history moment in the broadcast of Philando Castile’s final moments as filmed and narrated by his girlfriend after he was shot by a police officer.

To understand what Facebook Live might mean for newsrooms, Storybench sat down with Northeastern University journalism professors Dan Kennedy and John Wihbey.

Read the rest at Storybench.