In Kazakhstan, the hopes of 2009 have given way to greater repression

Yevgeniya Plakhina at the 2009 Eurasian Media Forum

My international travel portfolio is odd, to say the least. It consists of two countries: Canada — and Kazakhstan. I visited the former Soviet republic in the spring of 2009 after being invited to take part in the Eurasian Media Forum, which brought together several hundred journalists, academics and political figures.

At the time, Kazakhstan was a semi-authoritarian country that, we all hoped, was starting to open itself up to the West. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. The longtime president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, tightened his control over the years. And now Nazarbaev’s successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has cracked down on protests and appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin for help.

The country has slid from 125th on Reporters without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index in 2009 to 155th today. The organization’s report for 2021 says that

the state is modernizing its methods of repression and, in particular, exercising more control over the Internet, where surveillance is now widespread, news sites, social media and messaging services are now subjected to more “effective” periodic cuts, and bloggers have been jailed or confined to psychiatric clinics.

The Eurasian Media Forum was organized by Nazarbaev’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, who fancied herself as something of an intellectual. The event was aimed at providing the regime with some respectability. The most memorable part of the conference, though, was a protest by a group of young activists over Nazarbaev’s censorship of the internet, a protest that led to several arrests.

Adil Nurmakov in 2009

One of the activists, a young woman named Yevgeniya Plakhina, disrupted the proceedings and demanded that her friends be released. My friend the late Danny Schechter and I interviewed Plakhina, and I wrote about it for The Guardian. It was not exactly the sort of publicity the regime was hoping for. I also interviewed Adil Nurmakov, a political activist who at that time was an editor for Global Voices Online, a project then based at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center that tracks citizen media around the world.

The conference ended with a party sponsored by the International Herald Tribune (owned by the New York Times Co.) and CNN International — a conflict of interest they would have been better off avoiding. We were treated to a troupe of scantily clad go-go dancers (“This is a nominally Muslim country!” Schechter yelled at me over the noise, laughing) and a chorus of singers anchored by none other than Dariga Nazarbayeva. Below is a video I recorded of their performance.

Needless to say, Kazakhstan is hardly alone in backsliding on the way to democracy. We’re not doing that well in the United States, either. Neverthess, it’s sad to see that the hopes people had a dozen years ago have ended in violence and the arrival of Russian troops.

Trump’s semi-departure fuels decline in news consumption

Photo (cc) by Seth Anderson

It was obvious to just about everyone that the media were going to face a challenging year after losing the artificial stimulant provided by the Trump presidency. “Will audience and revenue resume the downward track they had been on for years before Trump demanded everyone’s unwavering attention?” I asked last January.

The answer: Yes, indeed.

David Bauder of The Associated Press has pulled together the numbers. The situation is especially grim on cable news, where weekday prime-time viewership was down 38% at CNN, 34% at Fox News and 25% at MSNBC. (Fox still has by far the largest audience of the three.)

I’m not shedding any tears, crocodile or otherwise. Cable news is bad for you. The formula at all three consists of keeping you riled up and angry so that you don’t change the channel. Fox adds weaponized right-wing propaganda about COVID, the Jan. 6 insurrection, critical race theory and more. So please, touch that dial.

Then again, everything’s down, not just cable news. Viewership of the three network evening newscasts — higher quality than their cable brethren — declined 12% to 14%. Unique monthly visitors to the websites of The New York Times and The Washington Post dropped — although paid digital subscriptions to the Times are up, and that’s the metric that really matters. The Post, on the other hand, reportedly dropped from about 3 million to 2.7 million digital subscriptions toward the end of the year.

None of these numbers is inherently bad. We were glued to the news to an unhealthy extent during Trump’s presidency, as we all wondered what demented action he was going to take next. Then, in 2020, we had COVID to deal with as well.

There is still plenty of news taking place. COVID remains with us, the Republican Party has gone full-bore authoritarian and Trump has never really gone away. But things are a bit calmer, if not necessarily calm.

With national news commanding fewer eyeballs, will some of that attention be diverted to local journalism? I’d like to hope so. But with hedge funds and corporate chains hollowing out hundreds of community newspapers, in a lot of places there just isn’t enough to command attention.

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Fox News loses its last fig leaf as Chris Wallace leaves for a gig at CNN

Chris Wallace. U.S. Army photo (cc) 2010 by Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill.

Chris Wallace has finally stopped providing undeserved cover for Fox News, announcing at the end of his show today that he was leaving. He’ll host a show on CNN’s new streaming service.

Wallace deserves some credit for remaining a bastion of sanity on a network that’s embraced the hardcore Trumpist right and all of its lies and fantasies. But he’s 74 and has made a lot of money at Fox; let’s not get carried away.

Questions remain after the fall of the House of Cuomo

I’ve heard three questions come up since CNN suspended, then fired, Chris Cuomo for his inappropriate involvement in his brother Andrew’s defense against charges that he’d sexually harassed and assaulted women. I don’t know the answers to any of them. But they’re worth framing as we think about the extraordinary events of the past week.

1. Why did it take so long for CNN to act? The original bad actor in all of this was CNN head Jeff Zucker, who allowed Chris to host Andrew on his show when Andrew, as governor of New York, was winning widespread praise for how he had handled the early stages of the COVID pandemic.

It may have struck many people at the time as a harmless diversion during a very dark period. You may recall that Chris himself contracted the virus. But it was unethical, and in the months to come we learned just how unethical. Remember, Andrew ended up being accused not just of groping women but of grossly mismanaging the pandemic as well.

Then the drip, drip, drip started, as we learned that Chris had advised his brother and taken part in meetings as the sexual-misconduct scandal became increasingly serious. Zucker may have worried that suspending or firing one of his stars would have only called attention to his own role, so he let it go.

The revelations that were reported last week, though, weren’t just more but were also different. They showed that Chris had abused his position by, for instance, trying to find out what stories other journalists were working on. This went way beyond anything Zucker could have reasonably foreseen, and thus may have given him the freedom he needed to do what he should have done earlier.

No doubt Zucker’s hand was strengthened further when Chris Cuomo was hit during the past few days with a sexual misconduct allegation of his own — his second.

2. What about Sean Hannity? I’ve heard a number of people ask why Chris Cuomo has to go when Fox News did nothing about Hannity’s close relationship with Donald Trump. To which I can only respond that Fox, notwithstanding good work by a few of its journalists, is not really a news operation. It’s a propaganda outlet whose stock in trade is lies and ginned-up culture-war stories about issues such as race and the evils of vaccinations.

CNN is not what it used to be, and I’m not a fan of its prime-time line-up of opinionated talk shows. But it’s good to see that management still cares enough about the network’s reputation that it’s not going to stand for a host who breaks all journalistic boundaries — even if he didn’t do much journalism on the air. To imagine that Fox News would take similar action is to believe that Fox and CNN are in the same business. They’re not.

And wouldn’t it be great if CNN ultimately decides to replace Cuomo’s 9 p.m. talk show with an actual newscast? I’m not holding my breath.

3. What about Jeffrey Toobin? You may recall that CNN suspended Toobin as its legal analyst after he was caught pleasuring himself during a Zoom meeting. Many observers were surprised when the network took him back eight months later.

I’m not sure what that was about except to note that the incident took place during a New Yorker staff meeting, where Toobin was a writer. The New Yorker fired Toobin and shows no signs of being willing to take him back. CNN may have figured that it would be unfair to banish Toobin permanently for something he did for another employer. Still, it’s hard to watch Toobin without going “ewww.” And I say that as someone who liked his work both at The New Yorker and on CNN.

Finally: What an extraordinary downfall for the House of Cuomo. I revered their father, Mario; long before 2020, though, I was aware of Andrew’s thuggish reputation as governor. Chris struck me as an amiable lightweight. Scandals like this have a human dimension that can’t be overlooked. Andrew and Chris got what they deserved — but I feel bad for their mother, Matilda, who, at 90, is still very much with us.

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Chris Cuomo has left the building

From Oliver Darcy and Brian Stelter of CNN:

CNN said Tuesday that it has suspended Chris Cuomo “indefinitely” after new documents released this week indicated that the anchor was more intimately involved than previously known in helping his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, craft a defense amid a flurry of sexual misconduct allegations.

I can’t imagine Cuomo will be back, but who knows?

Earlier: CNN needs to punish Chris Cuomo severely — and to consider firing him

CNN needs to punish Chris Cuomo severely — and to consider firing him

Chris Cuomo

I’ve been defending CNN’s Chris Cuomo ever since we learned that he had been advising his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, about how to respond to allegations of sexual harassment and assault.

It’s not that I like his program especially; I don’t. It’s that the misguided decision to let Chris host Andrew during the early days of the COVID pandemic was more a failing by management than it was something that could be blamed on Chris, and that it wasn’t fair to criticize him for acting like a brother.

No more. Monday’s revelations show that Chris Cuomo went beyond giving his brother advice, and even went beyond strategizing with other members of Andrew Cuomo’s team. According to the newly released documents, Chris Cuomo abused his position at CNN, and for that he needs to pay a steep price — maybe a long suspension, maybe termination.

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“How in the world does Chris Cuomo survive this?” asks Tom Jones of Poynter, taking note of the sordid details:

According to documents released Monday by the New York attorney general’s office, Chris used his media sources to seek out information about women who accused his brother of sexual misconduct. He then relayed some of that information to his brother’s top advisers.

Writing in The Atlantic, David A. Graham — who believes that Chris Cuomo should resign or be fired — offered this:

When Chris Cuomo simply offered advice to staff members, he failed to observe the rules CNN had set for his private behavior. But by gathering information from “sources” and passing it to his brother’s staff, Cuomo committed the more egregious step of directly mixing the journalistic work of calling sources and gathering information with his personal, familial commitments. He was wise not to go further into the realm of “oppo research” [something Chris told investigators he did not do], but he still went far beyond the bounds of propriety.

Chris Cuomo hosts an opinionated talk show that is only peripherally tied to journalism. But as Graham notes, he does, in fact, act as a journalist, and people are going to return his calls when he tells them that he’s working on a story. His behavior violated multiple rules of “The Elements of Journalism,” including reporting the truth, maintaining independence from those we cover and serving as an independent monitor of power.

I tuned in Cuomo’s show Monday at 9 p.m. to see whether he’d be on and if he’d address it. There he was, but he made no mention of the revelations — not at the beginning, not at the end.

I’ll give him this much — he seemed every bit his normal self, even though he had to know his career was hanging in the balance.

CNN seems to be taking the new allegations seriously. “The thousands of pages of additional transcripts and exhibits that were released today by the NY Attorney General deserve a thorough review and consideration,” CNN said in a statement. “We will be having conversations and seeking additional clarity about their significance as they relate to CNN over the next several days.”

The next step is to act. I doubt that we’ll see Chris Cuomo in the anchor chair tonight. The question is whether we’ll ever see him there again — or should.

In which Mike Beaudet and I try to make sense of CNN’s Chris Cuomo problem

By Peter Ramjug

Chris Cuomo is expected to be back on the air at CNN this week. Questions still swirl around him following the resignation of his older brother, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and the role the cable network star played in advising the governor through his political crisis and how the network will handle one of the biggest stories of the year going forward.

Cuomo will likely keep his job, say Northeastern journalism faculty experts Dan Kennedy and Mike Beaudet, even as media watchdog groups and others have called for him to step down or be fired for his involvement with the matter. They say network management and Chris Cuomo himself share blame for a “messy situation” that blurred personal and professional lines between the anchor and his embattled sibling.

Read the rest at News@Northeastern.

National media are thriving while locals are dying — yet there’s hope at the grassroots

Photo (cc) 2011 by Wayne Hsieh

Axios has a story on “journalism’s two Americas” — the thriving national media and struggling local news outlets, mainly newspapers. “The disparate fortunes skew what gets covered,” write Sara Fischer and Nicholas Johnston, “elevating big national political stories at the expense of local, community-focused news.”

The data they present isn’t new, but it’s striking nevertheless. Local reporters earn an average annual salary of $49,000, compared to more than $65,000 for national reporters. Of course, many of those national jobs are in the ultra-high-cost New York era, which means the disparity may not be quite as great as those two numbers suggest. Still, the national media are growing and hiring, while local newspapers — most of them owned by corporate chains and hedge funds — continue to eliminate jobs.

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Fischer and Johnston note that CNN is hiring 450 people for its new CNN+ streaming service. And Fischer reported just a little while ago that NBC is “adding hundreds of jobs to its digital organization,” mainly for news-oriented positions.

Not all news on the community journalism front is bad, though. The apocalyptic stories about what’s taking place at the grassroots invariably focus on chains owned by the likes of Gannett and Alden Global Capital. By contrast, entrepreneurs are launching for-profit and nonprofit digital startups at a dizzying rate. Chris Krewson, the executive director of LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers writes:

Research shows new newsrooms are launching fast, 50 a year for the last five years. They’re for-profit, non-profit, public-benefit corporations, and LLCs; they’re a husband-and-wife team covering a small town; they’re a staff of dozens holding politicians to account at the statewide level….

They’re not replacing the newspaper. They don’t need to. This nascent industry has the potential to grow beyond the limitations of newspapers, to truly reflect and serve communities large and small, rural, urban, Black, Brown, Indigenous, queer… and on and on. We just have to stop thinking about saving the unsaveable and build businesses that serve the needs of communities first. In fact, what these publications are starting to offer is just as good, if not better, than the legacies they’re increasingly supplanting.

I’ve been tracking such projects since the late ’00s. From New Haven to San Diego, from Burlington, Vermont, to Batavia, New York, community journalists step up when there’s a market failure on the part of the local legacy newspaper. Ellen Clegg and I are following similar projects across the country.

There’s no question that these are tough times for local news. But there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic as well.

Garland makes good on Biden’s promise to stop harassing the press

Attorney General Merrick Garland. Photo (cc) 2016 by Senate Democrats.

Give President Joe Biden credit for having a keen understanding of what it takes to hold together his Democratic-liberal-progressive coalition.

When he said in May that it was “simply, simply wrong” for the government to spy on journalists, I was skeptical that he would follow up his sentiment with concrete action. After all, he was vice president under Barack Obama, whose harassment of reporters in his campaign against leaks was legendary. Other presidents also thought nothing about going after reporters, including Donald Trump, George W. Bush and, of course, Richard Nixon.

But press secretary Jen Psaki followed up by assuring reporters that Biden meant what he said. And, on Monday, it came to fruition with Attorney General Merrick Garland’s announcement that the administration would stop attempting to seize journalists’ records in nearly all circumstances. In a memo quoted by The New York Times, Garland wrote:

The Department of Justice will no longer use compulsory legal process for the purpose of obtaining information from or records of members of the news media acting within the scope of news-gathering activities.

Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, issued a statement of approval, saying:

The attorney general has taken a necessary and momentous step to protect press freedom at a critical time. This historic new policy will ensure that journalists can do their job of informing the public without fear of federal government intrusion into their relationships with confidential sources.

Technically, Garland was acting on his own. The attorney general is supposed to be independent of the president. But Garland could hardly continue with the anti-press policies of Biden’s predecessors after Biden himself had spoken out so strongly in favor of reform.

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Garland’s actions come in response to some truly shocking actions undertaken by the Trump administration, some of which spilled over into the first few months of the Biden presidency. Acting on what appeared to be political motivations, the Trump Justice Department sought phone and email records from journalists at The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN. Judging from the timeline, the Trumpsters seemed to be looking into those news organizations’ reporting on the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to Russian interests.

There are some exceptions to Garland’s order in the case of life-or-death situations, or if a reporter is believed to be actively helping a source obtain classified information. But these exceptions strike me as reasonable rather than being easily exploited loopholes.

Garland’s memo also says that the Justice Department will support efforts to pass legislation making the guidelines permanent so that they don’t expire as soon as Biden leaves office. That’s really the key, since future presidents and attorneys general would otherwise not be bound by Biden and Garland’s good intentions.

Mere months after his suspension, Jeffrey Toobin is back at CNN

Jeffrey Toobin. Photo (cc) 2017 by Gage Skidmore.

Jeffrey Toobin, who was suspended seven months ago after he was caught masturbating on a Zoom call, is back at CNN. Lukas I. Alpert reports for The Wall Street Journal that the legal analyst appeared on TV Thursday afternoon with anchor Alisyn Camerota. He called his behavior “deeply moronic and indefensible” but repeated his longstanding claim that it was accidental. “I didn’t think I was on the call,” he said. “I didn’t think other people could see me.”

Well, now. What are we to make of this? In addition to his CNN perch, Toobin was a high-profile writer for The New Yorker, and it was during a meeting with colleagues at the magazine that he decided to fondle himself. The New Yorker fired him. There have been no public signs that there’s been any thought given to reversing that decision.

Although Toobin’s quotes from his CNN appearance Thursday come across as contrite and sincere, he did say he thought his firing by The New Yorker was “excessive punishment,” which suggests that he still doesn’t get it.

I believe in second chances. The problem with Toobin is that his suspension — for truly appalling behavior — didn’t even last a year, and he’s picking up right where he left off rather than being asked to regain the viewers’ trust in a less visible spot. I will say that his commentary is first-rate.

Writing in today’s CNN “Reliable Sources” newsletter, Brian Stelter says, “There were a wide range of reactions to the news on Thursday afternoon. But by nightfall, I pretty much sensed that the social media conversation had moved on to other subjects.” That may be true, but I don’t think Stelter should take it as an indication that people are OK with it. Many, I’m sure, are disgusted.

Count me with Poynter media analyst Tom Jones, who writes, “Regardless of Toobin’s intentions and past history, this feels like something so egregious that it simply can’t be dismissed. Frankly, I’m stunned CNN brought him back.”