An ugly week of cuts at The Washington Post, CNN and — of course — Gannett

It’s an ugly week for cuts in the media, including two news organizations that had been flying high in recent years and one that just keeps sinking lower and lower.

First up is The Washington Post, where executive editor Sally Buzbee announced Wednesday that its Sunday magazine will be shut down at the end of the year. Ten staff members will lose their jobs.

Now, you could make an argument that Sunday newspaper magazines have outlived their usefulness. The Boston Globe has kept its alive, but only because its lifestyle-oriented content appeals to advertisers. It seems like 40 times a year the cover is devoted to Your Home, Your Wedding, Your Home Wedding or whatever. But it is also an occasional outlet for serious long-form journalism. So, too, with the Post’s Sunday magazine. According to the Post’s Sarah Ellison:

Five of the 40 Washington Post stories that drew the most online readers over the past year were produced by the magazine. They include a profile of then-Senate candidate J.D. Vance, the tangled saga of several separated siblings reunited through DNA testing, and longtime staff writer David Montgomery’s portrait of the shifting political demographic in Wyoming, “the Trumpiest state in the nation,” as its voters turned on Rep. Liz Cheney.

In 2020, the magazine won a National Magazine Award in the single-issue category for the special issue “Prison.” The issue “was written, illustrated and photographed by people who have been — or are currently — incarcerated, allowing readers to hear from voices that are often invisible in the debate around prison and criminal justice,” The Post said at the time.

Can stories like these appear elsewhere in the Post? Sure, and I hope they will. But Buzbee is shutting down something that’s working. She described the cut as part of the Post’s ongoing “global and digital transformation,” and said some of the magazine’s content will move to “a revitalized Style section” that will be unveiled in a few months. But let’s not forget that this move comes not long after Buzbee got rid of the Post’s venerable Sunday Outlook section; at least that was accompanied by a return to a standalone Book World.

***

I want to think well of CNN’s newish chief executive, Chris Licht. His predecessor, Jeff Zucker, may have been beloved by the staff, but he left behind a profoundly broken institution.

Licht has made some moves that I really don’t like, such as getting rid of Brian Stelter’s “Reliable Sources” media program and, for that matter, Brian Stelter. But Licht has also talked about returning CNN to less opinion and more reporting, which I’d love to see. I found much of what Licht told Kara Swisher on a recent podcast encouraging, although I don’t think he grasps the crisis of democracy in which we find ourselves when he talks about bringing on more Republican voices. Still, Licht isn’t Elon Musk; he seems like an earnest, well-meaning executive who wants to do well but who must also negotiate some treacherous terrain, such as keeping right-wing investor John Malone happy.

Now, in a move that had been telegraphed well in advance, CNN is implementing some pretty major cuts that will claim the jobs of possibly hundreds of staff members at a media company that employs about 4,000 people. Tom Jones of Poynter has the details.

CNN is one of our great news organizations — far better than what you see on prime time every night. As Licht told Swisher, one reason he got rid of CNN Plus, among the more ludicrous of Zucker’s debacles (along with the Chris and Andrew Cuomo Show, of course), is that the excellent CNN Digital is already the most trafficked news website in the U.S., and he didn’t want to shift attention away from that asset. But it’s hard to see how Licht can move ahead with a renewed emphasis on reporting if he’s working with a drastically downsized news division. Opinion is cheap; news is expensive. And Licht is going to be sorely tempted to take the path of least resistance.

One final note: The Boston Globe’s Mark Shanahan today interviews Randolph’s own Audie Cornish about her new CNN podcast. Cornish was lured away from NPR earlier this year as part of Zucker’s push to staff up CNN Plus and has been at loose ends every since the shutdown. But a podcast? Really? How about making her the anchor of a prime-time newscast, as I suggested earlier this year?

***

Today’s the day for yet another in an endless round of layoffs at Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds estimated that the body count could be around 200 of the chain’s 3,400 news employees.

Gannett publishes more than 200 daily newspapers around the country, including a number of titles in the Boston metro area. At one time it published dozens of weeklies as well, but many of those have been closed or merged, with virtually all of their reporters reassigned to regional beats.

Fortunately, Gannett’s withdrawal from community journalism in Eastern Massachusetts has led to a number of independent start-ups. Christopher Galvin had a good piece in Boston.com earlier this week about several of those projects. (He interviewed me.) And here is a link to a spreadsheet I maintain of independent local news organizations in Massachusetts. As you’ll see, the numbers are impressive.

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John Harwood’s brand of truth-telling is no longer welcome at CNN

Chris Licht, left, hanging out with a notable truth-teller. Photo (cc) 2017 by Arforv

The way forward for CNN was less talk, more news. Instead, Chris Licht, the new chairman and CEO, seems to have embarked on a campaign of less truth, more pandering to the Trumpist right wing of the Republican Party.

Last month Licht canceled “Reliable Sources,” CNN’s long running media-criticism program. That led to the departure of its host, Brian Stelter, who had emerged as an outspoken defender of the press and the First Amendment in the face of Donald Trump’s attacks on the media as “enemies of the people.”

Then, on Friday, came another blow. In analyzing President Biden’s Thursday night speech, White House correspondent John Harwood told the simple truth about the state of our politics. Within two hours, Harwood announced that he was leaving CNN. As Dan Froomkin reported, “A source with knowledge about Harwood’s situation told me that Harwood was informed last month that Friday would be his last day, even though he was on a long-term contract. ‘He used one of his last live-shots to send a message,’ the source told me.”

Here’s what Harwood said in what turned out to be his last appearance on CNN (click through to Froomkin’s post to watch the video):

The core point he made in that political speech about a threat to democracy is true. Now, that’s something that’s not easy for us, as journalists, to say. We’re brought up to believe there’s two different political parties with different points of view and we don’t take sides in honest disagreements between them. But that’s not what we’re talking about. These are not honest disagreements. The Republican Party right now is led by a dishonest demagogue. Many, many Republicans are rallying behind his lies about the 2020 election and other things as well. And a significant portion — or a sufficient portion — of the constituency that they’re leading attacked the Capitol on January 6th. Violently. By offering pardons or suggesting pardons for those people who violently attacked the Capitol, which you’ve been pointing out numerous times this morning, Donald Trump made Joe Biden’s point for him.

I was willing to give Licht some room after he replaced Jeff Zucker, who transformed CNN’s prime-time bloc into an endless stream of Trump-bashing and who had presided over and enabled the Chris Cuomo scandal. Zucker was said to be popular with the troops; given how bad much of the programming was, I didn’t think it was necessarily a bad thing that they were unhappy over his departure.

But Stelter and Harwood’s departures signal that Licht’s goal is to move CNN back to the center at a time when there no longer is a center. Eliana Johnson reported for the right-wing website Free Beacon that Licht has been sucking up to Republicans with the message “We want to win back your trust.” But as Harwood pointed out, you can’t have that kind of balance at a time when the Republican Party has devolved into “semi-fascism,” as Biden put it recently, by refusing to abide by the clear results of the 2020 election and indulging the insurrectionists who stormed Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2021.

The biggest unanswered question is how much of this is being driven by John Malone, a billionaire investor who owns a large chunk of CNN’s new parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery. As Peter Kafka recently wrote in Vox, Malone has been quite explicit in saying that CNN should be more like Fox News, but he’s also denied that he’s had anything to do with the recent changes at CNN. Then again, does he really have to say anything? Licht knows who’s calling the shots.

In the early days of the war in Ukraine, we all learned something we might have forgotten — CNN is a great news organization, with skilled, courageous reporters around the world dedicated to bringing us the news. It was a stark contrast to the hours of talk the network foists on us every evening. More news would be an admirable direction to pursue.

The danger, instead, is that CNN is going to stick with talk, give us some weird amalgam of small-d democrats and insurrectionists, and try to convince us that they’re now balanced. Who is this supposed to appeal to? It’s not going to attract current Fox News viewers. It’s hard to see who this will benefit other than MSNBC, which has stuck with its prime-time liberal talk-show lineup and which will probably attract some share of disaffected CNN viewers.

More: Following Zucker’s departure I offered five ideas for GBH News on how CNN could reinvent itself. So far, Licht has taken me up on exactly one of those ideas — strangling CNN Plus in the crib.

Brian Stelter’s departure is just the latest blow against media commentary

Brian Stelter. Photo (cc) 2019 by Ståle Grut.

The cancellation of CNN’s “Reliable Sources” and the departure of its host, Brian Stelter, is a development that resonates beyond one outlet and one journalist, because it takes place within the context of an ongoing decline in media commentary.

The news that Stelter was departing came Thursday evening. David Folkenflik’s account at NPR raises the possibility that Stelter was the victim of conservatives now ascendant at CNN, although the most prominent of those conservatives, John Malone, a major investor in CNN’s new owner, Warner Bros. Discovery, told Benjamin Mullin of The New York Times that he had “nothing to do with” the move.

Chris Licht, who succeeded the scandal-plagued Jeff Zucker as the head of CNN, has said on several occasions that he wants to move away from opinionated talk shows and get back to CNN’s reporting roots. That’s fine, but we’re talking about Sunday morning, which isn’t exactly prime time. Stelter will host one final edition of “Reliable Sources” this coming Sunday, but I’d be surprised if he says much. In a statement to Folkenflik, he said, “It was a rare privilege to lead a weekly show focused on the press at a time when it has never been more consequential.”

Stelter came to CNN from the Times nearly a decade ago. During the Trump presidency, in particular, he used his perch at CNN to emerge as an important and outspoken advocate of an independent press. He’ll be missed, although I have little doubt that he’ll land on his feet. Maybe he’ll even return to the Times. Frankly, I never quite understood why he left in the first place.

As for what this move represents, well, it’s just the latest in a series of blows to media commentary. CNN isn’t just showing Stelter the door — it’s getting rid of a  program that had been in rotation for some 30 years, having been previously helmed by Howard Kurtz (now the host of “Media Buzz” on Fox News) and Bernard Kalb. The media are one of our most influential institutions, and journalism is under assault. This is not the time to dial back. Yet consider these other developments.

  • Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan is leaving to take a job at Duke University. Sullivan has been one of the true giants in holding journalism accountable. Before coming to the Post, she was a fearless public editor (the ombudsman) at The New York Times — someone unafraid of standing up to powerful people in her own newsroom. The position was later eliminated, removing a vital tool for accountability. At the Post, she’s used her platform to call for courage and truth-telling amid the Trump-driven onslaught against journalism.
  • The public radio program “On the Media,” as I’ve written before, is less and less about the media and more about the whims of its host, Brooke Gladstone, and the people around her. Cohost Bob Garfield was fired last year and accused of bullying the staff — charges he mostly denied in a recent essay at Substack. But the move toward non-media topics was well under way even before Garfield’s departure. The latest, believe it or not: a three-part series on erectile dysfunction. OK, they’re showcasing another podcast while they take a few weeks off. I hope they get back to real media reporting and commentary once they resume.
  • One of the most prominent media critics on the left, Eric Boehlert, was killed earlier this year when he was struck by a train while riding his bike. Before launching his own platform on Substack, Boehlert had worked for Media Matters and Salon. His Twitter feed was a running commentary on the sins of omission and commission by the so-called liberal media.
  • As many of you know, “Beat the Press,” the media program I was part of since its inception, was canceled last summer by GBH-TV (Channel 2) after 23 years on the air. Nothing lasts forever, and I was honored to be associated with the show. But we took on important national and local topics every week, and my own biased view is that its demise was a loss. Host Emily Rooney relaunched the program as an independent podcast earlier this year; I hope you’ll check it out.

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s nothing left in terms of media coverage and commentary. The Post, which is losing Sullivan, is still home to Erik Wemple, who writes incisive media criticism for the opinion section, Paul Farhi, an outstanding journalist who covers media stories for the news section, and others. One of the greats of media criticism, Jack Shafer, continues to write for Politico. And there are plenty of independent voices out there, from New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen to liberal watchdog Dan Froomkin to, well, me. (An aside: We need people of color and more women, especially with Sullivan moving on.)

Still, there’s less than there used to be, and “Reliable Sources” was a well-regarded outlet for many years. Best wishes to Brian Stelter. And I’ll be casting a wary eye toward Licht. Zucker left him with a real mess to clean up, but this was the wrong move.

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Just up at ‘Beat the Press’: Elon Musk, CNN+ and more

Elon Musk. Photo (cc) 2019 by Daniel Oberhaus.

The brand spanking new “Beat the Press” podcast is up, with our smoking hot takes on Elon Musk and Twitter, @LibsOfTikTok, the ethics of journalists who save the good stuff for their books, and the demise of CNN+. Plus our Rants & Raves. Hosted, as always, by Emily Rooney, with Joanna Weiss, Jon Keller and me. Available wherever you get your podcasts.

Jeff Zucker’s folly comes to an end as Discovery pulls the plug on CNN+

Imagine a newspaper that required you to be a paid subscriber to the print edition if you wanted to read the paper online, and that you had to pay an additional fee for that privilege. If you weren’t a print subscriber, you wouldn’t be able to read the paper on the website, even though you were paying for digital. The only online content you’d be able to access would be repurposed programs and lite features. Needless to say, no one would sign up for such a terrible service.

Well, that’s exactly what CNN+ is. Or was. The New York Times reports that the network’s incoming owner, Warner Bros. Discovery, has pulled the plug on the weeks-old service. I’m surprised. I thought this would drag on for at least a few months. But I guess the decision was made to close it immediately rather than wait for the inevitable.

Cord-cutting is real, and CNN — like all content providers dependent on cable — needs to find a way to respond. This wasn’t it. Nice going, Jeff Zucker. I’m sure Discovery isn’t going to give up on coming up with a post-cable strategy for CNN. Wiping the slate clean was necessary for that.

One positive development coming out of this fiasco is that the new owners are reportedly planning to slot an actual newscast at 9 p.m., the old Chris Cuomo hour, according to Sara Fischer of Axios. Perhaps the anchor will be Audie Cornish, lured away from NPR to be a key part of CNN+.

The latest from ‘Beat the Press’: CNN, Joe Rogan and the return of Rants & Raves

Joe Rogan. Photo (cc) 2014 by Do512.

This week, on the second “Beat the Press” podcast, we talk about the latest mishegas at CNN, as number-two executive — make that former number-two executive — Allison Gollust walks the plank.

Other topics include a discussion of how much responsibility Spotify should take for Joe Rogan’s vaccine disinformation and n-word-spewing mouth; privacy concerns over the death of comedian Bob Saget; and a conversation with civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate, the co-founder of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Plus: Rants & Raves are back!

Hosted, as always, by Emily Rooney, with Jon Keller, Lylah Alphonse and me. You can listen to “Beat the Press” on Apple and wherever fine podcasts are found.

Five ideas to reinvent CNN after Zucker’s departure

Jeff Zucker. Photo (cc) 2013 by Fortune Live Media.

Previously published at GBH News.

Cable news is a disgrace, especially during prime time. From 8 to 11 p.m. every Monday through Friday, the three outlets offer nothing but opinionated talk shows, CNN and MSNBC from the left, Fox News from the conspiratorial far right. It is a wasted opportunity.

But now CNN, the original cable news station — the one whose middle name is “news” — has a chance to reinvent itself. Last week CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker resigned after company officials learned he was involved romantically with his second-in-command, executive vice president Allison Gollust, who remains at CNN, at least for now.

It seems likely that there’s more to it. By the end of last week, Tatiana Siegel was reporting in Rolling Stone that Zucker and Gollust may have been advising Andrew Cuomo at the same time that the then-New York governor was appearing on Chris Cuomo’s CNN show. More to come, no doubt.

But whatever the reason, now is the perfect time for CNN to try something new. What Zucker was doing certainly wasn’t working. The man who foisted Donald Trump upon the media and political world, first with “The Apprentice” and later with hours upon hours of free air time during the 2016 presidential campaign, presided over a collapse in the ratings as soon as Trump left the White House. So what’s next?

Over the weekend, I asked my followers on social media and got some great responses. CNN employs boatloads of first-rate journalists. Why not let them shine? You’re probably not going to see CNN or its incoming owner, the Discovery network, actually try any of these ideas. And I’ll admit that there’s a retro quality to some of them. My defense is that they hark back to a time when CNN was good. And so it could be again.

Let’s get after it, as Chris Cuomo liked to say.

1. Launch a prime-time newscast. Did you ever realize that there isn’t a single newscast on any of the three cable “news” channels? It’s a pretty incredible omission. An insider once told me that it wouldn’t work because people are immersed in news all day on their phones and their laptops, and they want to watch people talk about it once evening comes along. Well, I don’t buy it.

As recently as 20 years ago, CNN offered a nightly prime-time newscast anchored by Aaron Brown, and MSNBC had one helmed by Brian Williams. Granted, that was before social media, but there’s no reason it can’t work again. The network’s three nightly newscasts all have higher ratings than cable news. Why not go with a solid hour of national and international news on CNN, serious but with more reporting, fewer talking heads and higher production values than the excellent but low-budget “PBS NewsHour”?

Who would anchor the CNN nightly newscast? My choice would be Audie Cornish, who recently left NPR to join CNN+, the digital streaming service that is scheduled to be unveiled this spring. CNN+ may be the future (or not), but the cable channel is the present. Let’s face it: Cable news appeals to older viewers who have no intention of cutting the cord and going with a streaming service. Why not leverage that with something they might actually watch? I’d slot the newscast for 8 p.m.

2. Bring back Larry King. Well, OK, the mainstay of 9 p.m. is no longer available, having died a year ago at the age of 87. And though King had his quirky charms, CNN could certainly find a host who’s better informed and more engaged. I’d suggest Anderson Cooper, one of the smartest and most versatile people at the network. Who better to talk with newsmakers, entertainers, authors and the like?

And by “talk with,” I mean “have a conversation.” When CNN put King out to pasture, they replaced him with Piers Morgan, a noxious Brit who held down the post for a few years in the early 2010s. It didn’t work, and eventually CNN put Chris Cuomo in that time slot as the host of a not-very-good political talk show. An interview program hosted by Cooper would be an ideal replacement.

3. Embrace the world. After a newscast at 8 and an interview show at 9, how about an international report at 10? CNN first earned the respect of viewers with its coverage of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Even today, CNN International wins kudos for its quality and depth. Yet U.S. viewers rarely get to see any of that coverage.

Now, I realize that international news almost certainly would not be a ratings winner. But CNN’s numbers are already below water. Maybe Zucker’s replacements could figure out a way to slip past MSNBC, but are they really going to challenge Fox? Probably not. The alternative is to embrace quality in the hopes of attracting a prestige audience that will prove enticing to high-end advertisers. Capping the evening with an hour of well-reported international news is just the way to do that.

My first choice as anchor would be Christiane Amanpour, assuming her health would allow it. She’s got the history with CNN — she still holds the title of chief international anchor — and continues to be well liked by viewers.

4. Not so boldly into the future. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, but CNN+ looks like a looming disaster. I simply can’t picture why anyone, even a cord-cutter, would pay for a streaming service so they can watch Chris Wallace.

Yet CNN is already sitting on a significant digital asset — CNN.com, the top-ranked news website. According to recent figures from Comscore, CNN.com and its apps attracted 143 million unique visitors a month in 2021, putting CNN Digital way ahead of The New York Times (89 million), FoxNews.com and NBCNews.com (about 87 million each) and The Washington Post (82 million).

The danger with CNN+ is that not only will it fail to sign up cable cord-cutters, but that it will harm CNN Digital as well.

CNN Digital isn’t just successful — it’s good, one of the best free national and international news sources available. I’d merge CNN+ into CNN Digital, offering all video programming free to users with a cable TV log-in (as is currently the case) while charging an extra fee to non-cable subscribers who want to watch video. The cable providers will go nuts, but they’re doomed in the long run anyway.

And keep the non-video news free for everyone.

5. Offer some specialized programming. This is a bit of a catch-all. My followers made a lot of good suggestions for shows that might appear weekly or occasionally. Several suggested a program rounding up local news from around the country — a tough sell, but possibly worth doing if it can be demonstrated how it’s broadly relevant. An investigative hour coproduced with the nonprofit news organization ProPublica. The return of “Crossfire” (sorry, but no).

I might want to turn the Friday edition of the Anderson Cooper interview show I’ve suggested into a political roundtable, edgier than PBS’s “Washington Week” but smarter than what’s currently on CNN. No shouting and no Trumpers allowed — although intelligent conservatives would certainly be welcome.

Several people weighed in with suggestions for changes in CNN’s tone and emphasis, which would also be welcome. For instance, Alex Howard, director of the Digital Democracy Project, called for the network to improve its culture, focus on hard news, original reporting and expert analysis, and examine ethics more closely when covering government and corporations.

Jeff Jarvis, a professor at the City University of New York’s Craig Newmark School of Journalism, concluded several ideas about how to improve CNN’s offering with this: “In short, throw the damned deck chairs overboard and ask: Why are we here? What value to we bring to society? Use it as an opportunity to start over.”

The opportunity to start over doesn’t come around very often. CNN’s executives now find themselves with a blank slate. Here’s hoping against hope that they make the best of it.

Drip, drip, drip

Then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Photo (cc) 2014 by Diana Robinson.

Tatiana Siegel reports in Rolling Stone that Jeff Zucker and Allison Gollust may have been advising Andrew Cuomo at the same time that Chris Cuomo was driving his own career into a ditch by doing more or less the same thing. She indirectly quotes a source familiar with the workings of an investigation into Chris Cuomo’s behavior:

The source says the investigation suggests Zucker and Gollust were advising the governor at the beginning of the Covid pandemic in ways not dissimilar to what led to Chris Cuomo’s dismissal. As Andrew sparred on a daily basis with then-President Trump over Covid messaging, the couple provided the governor with talking points on how to respond to the president’s criticisms of the New York crisis. They also booked the governor to appear on the network exclusively, which became a ratings boon for CNN, with Chris Cuomo doing the interviewing. Cuomo and Gollust’s conduct, too, would appear to mark an ethical breach for executives acting on behalf of an impartial news outlet.

The source does not appear to be claiming that Zucker and Gollust were advising Andrew Cuomo on how to handle the sexual-harassment allegations that eventually led to his resignation as governor; that came later. Still, the behavior described by the source is wildly inappropriate. Much more to come, no doubt.

Scandal aside, Zucker gave us Trump and presided over a ratings collapse at CNN

Jeff Zucker. Photo (cc) 2013 by Fortune Live Media.

Something doesn’t make sense about Jeff Zucker’s sudden departure from CNN. He and his paramour, CNN executive vice president Allison Gollust, are consenting adults, and they’re both divorced.

There was an aha! moment Wednesday when we learned that Gollust had previously worked as Andrew Cuomo’s communications director. But that turned out to be a brief stint a decade ago. Maybe leadership concluded that Zucker had put them in an untenable position with regard to Chris Cuomo’s legal case against CNN. Or maybe Chris has something else up his sleeve. I suspect we’re going to find out more.

Meanwhile, let’s look at the record. Zucker is widely seen as a successful chief executive of CNN, well-liked by the troops. But what exactly were his accomplishments? He rode a Trump-driven rise in the ratings, the same as everyone else; ratings have collapsed since the end of the Trump presidency. Zucker accomplished little journalistically, especially in prime time, which has devolved into three hours of liberal talk shows that are not as good as those on MSNBC. Anderson Cooper, a significant asset, is badly misused.

More than anything, though, Zucker is the man who morphed Donald Trump from a failed real-estate developer into a media star, first through “The Apprentice” and then by giving him hours and hours of free air time during the 2016 presidential campaign. It’s all Trump all the time for Zucker, whether he’s for him or against him. And that’s the oxygen upon which Trump thrives.

What’s next for CNN? Its digital-streaming service, CNN+, debuts soon, and unless you think the public has been drooling with anticipation at the prospect of paying for CNN Lite, it has all the hallmarks of a disaster in the making.

My advice is to try reporting the news — especially during the key 8-to-11 p.m. time slot. Sadly, I’m sure that will go unheeded.

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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.

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