Normalizing Marjorie Taylor Greene, coddling Scott Walker: Your liberal media at work

Last night, on the “PBS NewsHour,” anchor Amna Nawaz noted in a conversation with political analysts Jonathan Capehart and David Brooks that a number of Republicans have criticized President Biden over the way he’s handled the evacuation from Kabul. Fair enough. But let’s listen in:

You have a number of Republicans coming out recently speaking very critically about the president’s leadership, or lack thereof, as they say, but it really does run the spectrum of Republicans. You have everyone from Senator Ben Sasse, to Senator Ted Cruz, Congresswoman Liz Cheney, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, and, of course, former President Trump.

Wait, what was that? Marjorie Taylor Greene is, of course, the QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theorist from Georgia who continues to defend the Jan. 6 insurrectionists. Are we normalizing her now? Why, yes, of course we are. The “NewsHour” even threw up a helpful graphic to underscore the point. Good Lord. I wish Capehart or Brooks had said something, but they both let it slide.

Then, in today’s New York Times, former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who was defeated for re-election in 2018, claims a sizable chunk of op-ed space in order to bash teachers unions, whom he targeted repeatedly during his benighted eight years as his state’s chief executive, and to tell us how awesome he was during his time in office. He writes:

Overall, our reforms did more than just help schools and local governments. During my time in office, unemployment in Wisconsin dropped below the previous record low of 3 percent as more people were working than ever before. Median household income was up, as were wages. We balanced the budget every year with a surplus, fully funded our retirement system and had a rainy-day fund 190 times as large as when we started.

You know, we have low unemployment, high income and budget surpluses in Massachusetts, too, and we somehow manage to do it with strong teachers unions. But that’s not my point. My point is: Why? Why Walker? Why now? What is the context? I can’t think of anything taking place in the news right now that would lead an editor either to track down Scott Walker and ask him to write an op-ed or to run something he sent in over the transom.

Then again, the perceived need by liberal-oriented news organizations to bend over backwards to show that they’re fair — even to people who don’t deserve it, like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Scott Walker — is primordial.

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A leading media ethicist picks up the pieces of the David Brooks story

Edward Wasserman. Photo (cc) 2019 by the Knight Foundation.

The controversy over New York Times columnist and “PBS NewsHour” commentator David Brooks’ conflicts of interest has all but faded away. But before everyone just, you know, moves on, I’d like to share with you a new blog post by Edward Wasserman, former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and one of the country’s leading media ethicists. If you’ve forgotten the backstory, Wasserman has recapitulated it for you.

Wasserman begins with the valuable observation that conflicts tend to arise at the opposite ends of the economic spectrum — low-paid journalists caught in the realities of a shrinking news business have to take on outside work, meaning that “every story we read may be an audition for future work (or a thank-you for past employment), and we’re left to wonder how single-minded the writer’s commitment to us can be.” Or, for that matter, they might have an incentive to write nice things about McDonald’s. That, at least is understandable.

On the Brooksian end of the spectrum, though, the corruption is much more clear. Wasserman writes:

Star journalists cash in on notoriety from their day jobs, and the lead commentator for a prestige publication who moonlights on cable TV can make tens of thousands to speak at a trade association confab or corporate retreat. That’s a powerful incentive to pick subjects and grind axes that sharpen the journalist’s brand — which again raises the question, when we read their work, of who else they’re working for.

Another important point Wasserman makes is that the full disclosure Brooks failed to provide until he was caught by BuzzFeed News is no substitute for avoiding the conflict in the first place. Now, I’m among a younger (not that young) generation of media critics influenced by New York University Jay Rosen, which means that I tend to favor full disclosure without worrying quite as much about conflicts as earlier generations did.

But it’s hard to disagree with Wasserman when he writes: “Disclosure can never cleanse work of its bias; it can only alert readers to the possibility that bias exists and dare them to find it.” I would differ with Wasserman on his use of the word “bias.” Of course Brooks is biased. He’s an opinion journalist. But Brooks does owe us his independence, and he compromised that through his entanglements with Facebook and the Bezos family, among others.

I’m not sure whether Brooks could have survived this if he hadn’t apparently disclosed his conflicts to his previous editors (though not to readers or viewers). In any case, he’s still standing, and though he can drive me crazy sometimes, I agree with Wasserman that he is “a lucid and humane writer.” I’d miss him if he were gone. But I don’t know that I’ll ever trust him again — and there were already reasons to approach Brooks’ work with tweezers and a pair of rubber gloves.

Brooks has undermined trust in the Times, the “NewsHour” and himself. I guess the calculation is that he still has value; otherwise, he’d be gone. But he’s definitely moved himself to the discount rack, perhaps permanently.

Previous coverage.

The David Brooks matter comes to an end (probably)

I just want to put a “-30-” on this. The New York Times reported earlier today that disclosures will be added to David Brooks’ past columns in which he had a conflict of interest (background here). He’s resigned from his paid position at the Aspen Institute. Most important, I think, is this:

Mr. Brooks had received approval to take the paid position at Aspen in 2018, according to Eileen Murphy, a Times spokeswoman, but the current editors of the opinion section did not know about the arrangement.

Presumably this means that Brooks’ outside work was approved by former editorial-page editor James Bennet, who apparently saw nothing wrong with Brooks’ writing about Facebook and other Aspen funders without disclosing that to readers. Bennet is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

Brooks should have been more forthcoming than he was in his modified limited hangout on the “PBS NewsHour” Friday night. But barring any further disclosures, this story feels like it’s over.

And kudos to Craig Silverman and Ryan Mac of BuzzFeed News for their dogged reporting.

David Brooks addresses the Weave controversy

Move ahead to 8:48

New York Times columnist David Brooks addressed the Weave matter Friday evening durng his regular appearance on the “PBS NewsHour” — which places Judy Woodruff and company several steps ahead of the Times when it comes to transparency.

Brooks was nervous through the segment, which began with his usual back-and-forth with Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart. At the end, in the clip that I’ve bookmarked above (start at 8:48 if it doesn’t happen automatically), Woodruff gave Brooks a chance to explain himself. I thought he seemed sincerely interested in trying to set things right, but that he wasn’t entirely forthcoming.

He began by saying, “First, we did totally disclose it,” referring to his salary at the Aspen Institute, where he runs Weave, a civic-engagement initiative. Later, he seemed to say that what he meant was he’d disclosed it to his superiors at the Times. Certainly his readers and viewers didn’t know it.

He also said he had “not meaningfully written” about any of Weave’s funders, including Facebook, even though BuzzFeed News — which broke the story — has presented evidence to the contrary. Nor did he mention a post he wrote for Facebook’s blog in which he sang the praises of Facebook Groups, also revealed by BuzzFeed.

“It has not affected my journalism,” he insisted. Nevertheless, he conceded that his critics have a point and said he’ll be making changes over the next week.

How will this end? I suspect the Times will announce a policy pertaining to all of their in-house opinion journalists, and that will be the end of it — especially if Brooks can prove that management knew about his Weave salary.

Earlier:

Update: BuzzFeed News reporter Craig Silverman rebuts Brooks point by point in this Twitter thread:

Update II: Brooks has resigned from his position at the Aspen Institute as more conflicts of interest surface. BuzzFeed News reports.

Did David Brooks’ former superiors know about his conflicts of interest?

The New York Times posted David Brooks’ Friday column last night without any suggestion that something was amiss. Meanwhile, Paul Farhi’s report in The Washington Post raises the possibility that Brooks had let his superiors know he was drawing a salary from Weave, the civic-engagement project he’s affiliated with at the Aspen Institute, but that the new regime, led by opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury, may have been unaware:

People at the Times said Brooks informed at least some of his previous bosses about the details of the Weave project. But last summer saw the departure of the Times’s top editorial-page editors, and Brooks’s current editors were unaware of the arrangement. Officially, the Times has declined to say whether it knew about Brooks’s outside employment.

Needless to say, it would be interesting to go back and see if he wrote any columns about Facebook and other organizations with which he had a financial relationship while James Bennet was the editorial-page editor. Bennet might have known, but those ties weren’t disclosed to readers. Which is, after all, what really matters.

Earlier:

The New York Times has a David Brooks problem

David Brooks. Photo (cc) 2011 by the Miller Center.

The New York Times’ David Brooks problem has ratcheted up from “uh, oh” to “holy cow.”

Craig Silverman and Ryan Mac of BuzzFeed News reported on Wednesday that Brooks, a prominent Times columnist, is getting paid for his work at Weave, a civic-engagement project that’s part of the Aspen Institute. Among Weave’s funders is Facebook.

A week earlier, BuzzFeed reported that Brooks had written a post on Facebook’s blog singing the praises of Facebook Groups without letting his editors at the Times know about it. That was bad enough. But now that there’s money involved, the Times is going to have to take action.

It’s unclear whether the Times knows he’s been getting a second salary. If they do, then perhaps Brooks can avoid being disciplined. But whether they know or not, what about the rest of us? Every time Brooks writes about an organization in which he has a financial stake, that needs to be appended to the bottom of his column. Needless to say, the problem with that is it would look ridiculous. I’m sure the Times doesn’t want to run a piece by one of its own staff columnists that reveals he’s in the tank to someone else.

As someone who has worked in opinion journalism for many years, and who teaches it, I feel like I have a stake in calling out Brooks’ misbehavior. I stress to my students repeatedly that we have the same ethical obligations as straight-news reporters. We don’t make political contributions. We don’t put signs on our lawns. And we maintain our independence.

One of the four tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is to “act independently.” The code explains further: “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.” Brooks’ conflict seems avoidable enough, but at the very least he should have disclosed it.

A summary of Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s “The Elements of Journalism” has this to say about independence and opinion journalism:

Journalistic independence, write Kovach and Rosenstiel, is not neutrality. While editorialists and commentators are not neutral, the source of their credibility is still their accuracy, intellectual fairness and ability to inform — not their devotion to a certain group or outcome. In our independence, however, journalists must avoid straying into arrogance, elitism, isolation or nihilism.

I assume the Times is going to take this seriously. It may be bad for Brooks that the Times’ opinion editor, Kathleen Kingsbury, is just a few weeks into her job and may want to send a message to the rest of her staff.

But I’m troubled by a statement BuzzFeed got from Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy. Silverman and Mac write: “Murphy said other Times columnists have roles outside the paper. When asked for an example, she cited Paul Krugman, who was a professor of economics at Princeton and is currently a distinguished professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.”

Seriously? Krugman is not a columnist who scored an academic gig. He’s a professor who was so highly regarded that the Times hired him as a columnist. The Times is his second job (or was; he seems to be semi-retired now), just as the Aspen Institute is Brooks’ second. And everyone knows about Krugman’s academic background. It was hardly a secret when he won the Nobel Prize in Economics.

I hope this can be resolved. Brooks is reviled in many circles, but I value his work. He often shows himself to be out of touch, and he can drive me crazy sometimes. But at his best he’s very good, and I’d hate to see him go, or set up a Substack.

It will be interesting to see what happens when Brooks and Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart kick the week’s news around on the “PBS NewsHour” tomorrow evening. Brooks should address it.

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

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

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

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

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

David Brooks, 140 characters at a time

David Brooks speaking at the Kennedy School. Photo by Lauren Schaad. Original in the Storify referenced below.

New York Times columnist David Brooks ripped into the Republican Party for failing to come to grips with a country whose diversity is on the rise. The Republicans, he said Thursday evening at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, were “a lagging indicator” in the demographic changes that have taken place over the past several decades, and that helped shape the election results last week.

Brooks delivered the Theodore H. White Lecture on Press and Politics, an annual program presented by the Kennedy Schools’ Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. His talk was precededed by the presentation of the David Nyhan Prize for Political Journalism to Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Cynthia Tucker.

A lot of people were live-tweeting the event, and the Shorenstein Center put together a Storify that you can read by clicking here. My own tweets follow.

Bruce Springsteen and the ghosts we live with

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in Spain earlier this year.

The emotional heart of Bruce Springsteen’s three-and-a-half-hour show at Fenway Park last night came about an hour in. As the E Street Band played the opening chords to “My City of Ruins,” Springsteen told the crowd that he’d written it about his “adopted hometown” (Asbury Park, N.J.), but that it had evolved into a song about “living with ghosts.”

At that point, he asked that a light be shone on the right-field foul pole. No one had to be told what that was about, and we all responded with warm, sustained applause.

Trying to describe what happened next cannot possibly do justice to the moment. “My City of Ruins” is a pure gospel song. It’s by far the best Springsteen has written in the latter part of his career, and one of the very few that would hold up to his classic work of the 1970s and early ’80s. In the middle, he took a long break in order to recognize his bandmates. Then he called out — repeatedly — “Are we missing anybody?” The moment carried all the more power because Springsteen did not mention Clarence Clemons or Danny Federici (or Johnny Pesky, for that matter) by name. And he acknowledged that everyone in Fenway Park was missing someone. (David Remnick describes a similar moment in his recent New Yorker profile of Springsteen.)

It was chilling, moving, spiritual, inspirational — possibly the single most intense moment I’ve ever experienced at a concert. And I write that as someone who has a track record with Springsteen.

I’d brought my 21-year-old son and a lot of baggage with me to Fenway Park. I consider myself close to an original Springsteen fan, having been turned on to his second album, “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle,” by Jon Landau’s famous review in the Real Paper. I’d seen him in 1974, ’75, ’78, ’80, ’84 and ’92, but not since. And I’ve thought his albums in recent years were hit-or-miss — mostly miss, marred by simplistic lyrics and hack production.

In truth, I also didn’t like the fact that Springsteen concerts had become places to be seen by swells who vaguely remember liking “Born in the U.S.A.,” though that’s hardly Springsteen’s fault. (This, though, is definitely David Brooks’ fault.)

Despite all that, our night ended up ranking with those earlier concerts. Springsteen skillfully mixed songs from his new album, “Wrecking Ball,” with a generous helping of his classics. Even the new stuff sounded a lot better than it does on the album, partly because the cheesy production was blown away, partly because Springsteen’s obvious enthusiasm for the new material overcame the weak spots. Besides, “We Take Care of Our Own” is pretty good.

Another high point was a masterful performance of “Thunder Road,” maybe the best song Springsteen has ever written. He seemed to be choked up at the end; I know I was. It’s hard to describe what that song meant to me when I was 19, waiting to escape from my own “town full of losers.” It means something totally different now, as most of those in the crowd were old enough and wise enough to know that there is no escape.

Finally, I have to mention “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” which used to end with an embrace and a kiss with Clarence Clemons. I was a little uneasy with all the attention and cheering focused on Clemons’ nephew Jake Clemons, who’s taken over the sax parts. And I was worried that Bruce would overdo it with Jake — maybe not kiss him, but bring him out for a star turn. I shouldn’t have. At “the Big Man joined the band,” everything stopped, and a slideshow of scenes from Clarence Clemons’ life was projected on the video screens. Then the song concluded. Perfect.

There was so much else that to keep writing would be to devolve into list-making. “The E Street Shuffle,” an old favorite. A phenomenal cover of the old John Lee Hooker song “Boom Boom.” Rave-up, full-band versions of “Atlantic City” and “Johnny 99,” a couple of truly dangerous songs from his album “Nebraska.” Closing with “Dirty Water” and “Twist & Shout” (and fireworks!), complete with a James Brown-style collapse and revival on the stage. (Here’s the full set list.)

My only complaint was the venue. This was my first Fenway Park show, and it was less than an ideal place to see a concert. We were in the grandstands behind home plate. The net was never lifted. The band members, in center field, were barely specks. The video and sound were adequate, but no more than that.

Still, the show itself was nearly as thrilling as the first time I saw Springsteen in the old Music Hall, the night that Muhammad Ali would shock the world by beating George Foreman — announced on stage after midnight, just after Springsteen had finished his final encore. Back then, Springsteen was a skinny, bearded 25-year-old who came out and opened, audaciously, by singing “Incident on 57th Street” almost a cappella, accompanied only by a young woman on a violin. “Born to Run” was still in front of him. So were the covers of Time and Newsweek and all the fame and hype that have marked and occasionally marred his long career.

Last night he was 62, with the energy and stamina of a much younger man, still singing and playing and performing like his life, and ours, depended on it. Maybe it did.

Photo (cc) by Juan Ramon Rodriguez Sosa and reproduced here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Say it ain’t so, Frank Rich

Frank Rich

When you get to my age, you look for your thrills where you can find them. Come Saturday night, I usually find myself asking … Should I read Frank Rich now, or save it until the morning?

So I was shocked to learn this morning that Rich, one of our leading liberal commentators, is leaving the New York Times for New York Magazine, where he’ll write a monthly essay. He’ll edit and lead some online conversations as well.

It’s not the first time Rich has grown restless. He was the Times’ chief drama critic from 1980 to 1993, and I think it’s his theatrical sense that makes his political commentary so sharp and entertaining.

This is not good news for me, and I’m sure many other Times readers feel the same way. New York Magazine has a good reputation, but I can’t picture myself subscribing or seeking it out online. Other than the occasional must-read media feature, it just isn’t compelling enough for me to change longstanding habits.

In 2000 I ran into Rich at an event for gay Republicans at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, which I was covering for the Boston Phoenix. I asked him about the collective nervous breakdown the media were having over the lack of news at George W. Bush’s coronation. Here’s what he told me:

Not to be too Freudian about it, but what you’re seeing is a sort of displacement. There are 15,000 reporters here and no story. What are they going to talk about? Themselves and their own anxiety.

It will be interesting to see whether the Times tries to recruit a big-name replacement for Rich. (Maybe it will be Joe Nocera, who’s moving from the business pages to the op-ed section.) With the exception of Paul Krugman and David Brooks, I just don’t find the rest of the paper’s opinion writers all that compelling.

Rich had one of the best jobs in journalism. I guess it shows that anything can get boring after a while.