Media roundup: Sulzberger sends a message; tech and layoffs; and the return of Woodward and Bernstein

The patriarch: Adolph Ochs

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

A.G. Sulzberger passed the audition.

Two Fridays ago the 37-year-old New York Times publisher met with President Trump at the White House for what he thought was an off-the-record discussion. Trump, as is his wont, later tweeted out his own dubious version of what had happened. “Spent much time talking about the vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media & how that Fake News has morphed into phrase, ‘Enemy of the People,’” the president wrote. “Sad!”

Which created a dilemma for Sulzberger. Should he act as though their off-the-record agreement was still in effect? Or should he push back at what he regarded as the president’s false characterization of their conversation? He chose the latter.

“I told the president directly that I thought that his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous,” Sulzberger said in a statement he issued this past Sunday, which the Times itself reported on. “I told him that although the phrase ‘fake news’ is untrue and harmful, I am far more concerned about his labeling journalists ‘the enemy of the people,’ I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.”

Sulzberger’s reaction set exactly the right tone. By disclosing what he had said but not what Trump had said, he took the high road. But the Times also reported that Sulzberger and editorial-page editor James Bennet, who was also at the meeting, took “extensive notes” — a clear warning to Trump in the event that he decides to extend his Twitter war with the paper.

Sulzberger became publisher on Jan. 1. He was the latest member of Sulzberger-Ochs family to ascend to the top of the masthead, an unbroken chain that extends back to Adolph Ochs’ purchase of the Times in 1896. His father and predecessor, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., presided over the paper to mixed reviews. As Ken Auletta put it in a tough New Yorker profile in 2005, “Although he occupies perhaps the most august position in the nation’s press establishment, he seems to lack the weighty seriousness of his predecessors.”

A.G., by contrast, has struck observers as both serious and wise beyond his years. “The publisher of the Times sits in direct contrast to the president of the United States: demure, private, vegetarian, self-effacing, and reliant on proving himself through hard work rather than trading on his famous surname,” according to The Washington Post.

The lead author of the Times’ celebrated 2014 innovation report, A.G. is perhaps the ideal publisher to continue the paper’s metamorphosis into a primarily digital news organization. And unlike virtually all of his predecessors, he has a significant background in journalism, having worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal, The Oregonian, and the Times itself.

The Times is far from perfect. Though its coverage of the Trump White House has been admirably tough, the paper still lapses — as I wrote last January — into episodes of normalizing this abnormal president and of succumbing too readily to the temptations of access journalism. For instance, a substance-free story about Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner that appeared over the weekend was widely derided, with New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen writing that “it feels like a report smuggled out of the summer castle after the ladies in waiting started talking.”

But the continued health of the Times is crucial to democracy. So far, A.G. Sulzberger seems like the right person at the right time to stand up to the Trump White House as well as for journalistic values.

Squint really hard and you can almost see a silver lining

A report issued Monday by the Pew Research Center documents the horrifying drop in newsroom employment over the past 10 years, with newspapers having by far the worst of it. The number of full-time newspaper journalists fell from 71,000 in 2008 to 39,000 in 2017, a decline of 45 percent. A modest increase in the number of journalists at digital-only outlets did not come close to making up the difference.

I’m not going to try to sugarcoat what’s happening. And we should always keep in mind that greedy corporate owners like Digital First and tronc are at least as responsible for the drop as the collapse of newspaper advertising. But I do want to offer a small countervailing data point: Because of technology, reporters today are far more efficient and can produce more useful work in the same amount of time than was previously possible.

A couple of examples from my own career will suffice. When I was a community newspaper reporter in the 1980s, I had to drive to Beacon Hill for campaign-finance reports. Once I had them, my options were to take notes by hand or, if I had enough quarters, make copies, assuming the copy machine was working. (And imagine if you worked in Western Massachusetts rather than 12 miles from Boston, as I did.) Now you can just look them up. Later, as the media columnist for The Boston Phoenix, I once spent an entire afternoon searching through unindexed microfilm for a half-remembered article that I wanted to write about. Today, I would have it in a few minutes.

Again, I’m not trying to argue that the collapse of newsrooms doesn’t matter. It matters a lot, and of course there’s no substitute for having actual human beings to sit through municipal meetings and develop sources. What I am saying is that the effects of this collapse would be even worse without the digital tools that have become available over the past 20 years.

Woodward and Bernstein back on the beat

How cosmically appropriate is it that just as special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign and related issues nears its conclusion (or not), the two legendary Washington Post reporters who did more than anyone to bring down the Nixon presidency are back on the beat?

Carl Bernstein was one of three CNN reporters whose byline appeared on a devastating report that, according to former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, the then-candidate knew in advance about a 2016 meeting at Trump Tower at which Russians had promised to reveal “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. And this week we learned that Bob Woodward is wrapping up a book called “Fear: Trump in the White House,” scheduled to be released on Sept. 11.

As I always tell my students: Everything — everything — can be traced back to Richard Nixon.

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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.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

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.

Details about the Post’s Trump project, which will include a book, emanated from the lips of Post associate editor Bob Woodward, a twist that made it all the more cosmically significant. For it was Woodward, along with fellow Post reporter Carl Bernstein, who helped end Nixon’s presidency in 1974—but not before the Post had endured some fearsome attacks from the Nixon White House that threatened not just the newspaper but the First Amendment’s guarantee of a free press.

As you may have heard, Bezos’s day job is running Amazon, the online retailing behemoth that he founded. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, told Fox News host Sean Hannity that Amazon has “a huge antitrust problem” and “is getting away with murder, tax-wise.” He added that Bezos is “using the Washington Post for power so that the politicians in Washington don’t tax Amazon like they should be taxed.”

Never mind that there is zero evidence for Trump’s accusation. His implied threat was utterly Nixonian in its stark assertion that he’d use the powers of government to harm Bezos in retaliation for journalism that he doesn’t like.

The roots of Nixon’s hatred for the Post extend back to the 1950s. David Halberstam, in his book The Powers That Be, wrote that it began over the cartoonist Herbert Block. Herblock, as he was known, regularly portrayed Nixon as a malign figure with a perpetual five-o’clock shadow, and his work was syndicated in hundreds of papers around the country. According to Halberstam, Herblock’s cartoons “became part of Nixon’s permanent dossier, reflecting all the public doubts and questions about him.”

It wasn’t until the 1970s, though, that Nixon attempted to translate that anger into action. In 1971, the Post joined the New York Times in publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War, which showed that American officials had continued the fighting out of political cowardice for years after concluding that it was unwinnable.

According to then-publisher Katharine Graham in her autobiography, Personal History, the Nixon White House issued “a not very veiled threat” that the paper might face a criminal prosecution if it didn’t turn over its copy of the Pentagon Papers to the government. At the time, the Post was on the verge of becoming a publicly traded company, and it would have been devastating to the paper’s plan to raise money from the stock market if it had been convicted of a crime. And as my fellow WGBH News contributor Harvey Silverglate wrote for the Phoenix newspapers some years back, the Nixon administration actually considered prosecuting the Times and the Post even after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the papers’ right to publish.

Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting on the Watergate scandal brought about perhaps the most infamous threat ever made against a newspaper. When Bernstein asked Nixon henchman John Mitchell to comment on a particularly damaging story, Mitchell responded: “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” More substantively, Nixon allies arose from the swamp to challenge the Post’s ownership of two television stations in Florida—challenges that faded away once Nixon had resigned from office.

“Henry Kissinger told me he felt that Nixon had always hated the Post,” Graham wrote, quoting Kissinger as saying of Nixon: “He was convinced that the Post had it in for him.” As Graham described it, the Post’s reporting on Nixon during the Watergate years became an existential crisis. If the paper hadn’t been able to prove Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate break-in and related crimes and thus force Nixon from office, the Post itself would have been destroyed.

Although the showdown between Nixon and the Post is the most dramatic example of the government’s attempting to destroy its journalistic adversaries, it is not the only one.

In the early days of World War II, after Colonel Robert McCormick’s Chicago Tribune reported that the United States may have cracked Japanese codes, President Franklin Roosevelt considered trying McCormick for treason, which could have resulted in the death penalty. FDR was talked out of it only because his advisers convinced him that such a drastic measure would only serve to alert the Japanese.

More recently, President George W. Bush’s Justice Department raised the possibility that the New York Times and the Washington Post could be prosecuted under espionage laws for reporting on a National Security Agency surveillance program (the Times) and on the rendition of terrorism suspects to countries that engage in torture (the Post).

And, of course, there is President Barack Obama’s relentless pursuit of government officials who leak information to the media—a pursuit that has ensnared a number of journalists, including James Risen of the New York Times. Risen fought the government for seven years so that he wouldn’t have to reveal the identity of the sources who had told him how the CIA had sought to wreak havoc with Iran’s nuclear program. Last year Risen called the Obama administration “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.”

But note that Roosevelt’s, Bush’s, and Obama’s attacks on the press were grounded in legitimate concerns about national security, misguided though Bush may have been and Obama may be. (It’s hard to argue with FDR’s fury at McCormick, whose actions would not be protected by even the most expansive reading of the First Amendment.)

By contrast, Trump, like Nixon during Watergate, would go after the press purely for personal reasons—not by denouncing the media (or, rather, not just by denouncing the media) but by abusing his powers as president. Bring negative information to light about Nixon and you might lose your television stations. Report harshly on Trump and your tax status might be threatened—and you may even face an antitrust suit.

This is the way authoritarians reinforce their power—through fear and intimidation, the rule of law be damned. Despite all the benefit he has received in the form of free media, Trump hates the press. He has threatened to rewrite the libel laws, and now he’s threatened the owner of one of our great newspapers.

Trump is a menace on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin. But we can add this: Like Nixon, he is a threat to the First Amendment, our most important tool in holding the government accountable to the governed.

Pushing back against the White House anti-leak crusade

By Bill Kirtz

Leading news figures this weekend blasted expanding investigations of national-security leaks, detailed the dilemma of dealing with confidential sources and offered ways to restore credibility in a media universe that merges fact with fiction.

Their comments came at Boston’s Investigative Reporters and Editors conference attended by some 1,200 established and aspiring journalists.

New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson said the Obama administration’s widening probes have created an “urgent” problem because it has a “chilling effect” on confidential sources. She said the current Washington environment “has never been tougher and [confidential] information harder to dislodge.”

She said the attorney general’s latest attempts to ferret out leakers raise the question of whether the U.S. Espionage Act “is being used as a substitute for” Britain’s wide-ranging Official Secrets Act.

Using the Espionage Act, the current administration is pursuing six leak-related criminal cases. That’s twice as many as all previous administrations combined brought since the act was passed in 1917 to punish anyone who “knowingly and willfully” passes on information that hurts the country or helps a foreign power “to the detriment of the United States.”

The Official Secrets Act makes it unlawful to disclose information relating to defense, security and intelligence, international relations, intelligence gained from other departments or international organizations and intelligence useful to criminals.

Alluding to recent Times stories about U.S. drone strikes and computer attacks aimed at Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, Abramson said the government’s policy on cyber warfare is an important subject about which the public needs to know.

The vast majority of her paper’s national-security disclosures come from “old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting” and not from leaks, she said. And before they run, she said, “We give all responsible officials a chance to reply” and will hold or cut information if they raise a legitimate security objection.

Times media columnist David Carr called the government investigations an “appalling” attempt to restrict information about significant issues.

“Whistle-blowers aren’t scarce but the people who blow them are,” he said, citing as an example the indictment of a National Security Agency worker who told a Baltimore Sun reporter about a failed technology program.

“As war becomes less visible and becomes its own ‘dark ops,’ reporters are trying to punch through and bring accountability,” he said. Carr added that while it’s easy to say leak-based scoops come gift-wrapped, they usually come from reporters working hard and asking the right questions. Continue reading “Pushing back against the White House anti-leak crusade”