Harry Reid, who died Tuesday, was among the few characters I liked in Mark Leibovich’s book “This Town.” Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, was a bare-knuckles brawler with no interest in the money-and-lobbyist culture that rendered Washington a teetering wreck before Donald Trump came along and toppled it over — while he and those close to him pursued their own corrupt schemes.
There is, though, one weird blemish on Reid’s record — his claims during the 2012 presidential campaign that Republican candidate Mitt Romney hadn’t paid any taxes. “So the word is out that he hasn’t paid any taxes for 10 years. Let him prove that he has paid taxes, because he hasn’t,” Reid said on the Senate floor that August. It wasn’t true, and Reid’s only justification was to tell CNN in 2015, “Romney didn’t win, did he?”
So I found myself wondering if there was anything more to Reid’s false claim. The answer: yes, a bit. Maybe not enough to justify Reid’s lies, but more than you might recall.
In more than three decades, no other nominees for either party have released fewer than five years’ worth of returns. Romney’s own father released a dozen years’ worth when he ran for the GOP nomination in 1968.
Romney has been under mounting public pressure to release tax returns — largely due to the Obama campaign raising questions about Swiss bank accounts and investments in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven. Romney has released his tax returns for 2010 and an estimate for 2011 (the full return of which he says he will release later). He says that’s enough.
So here you have Romney, a noted liar in his own right, refusing to release tax returns that might have blown his campaign out of the water. Someone needed to put the pressure on him. The Obama campaign could only say so much. Reid took the hit, making up a false accusation that Romney wasn’t paying any taxes and essentially saying: Prove I’m lying.
Four years later, Romney enthusiastically embraced the Reid line of attack in his efforts to derail Trump’s candidacy. Trump, as we all know, wouldn’t release any of his tax returns. Here’s what Romney said: “There is only one logical explanation for Mr. Trump’s refusal to release his returns: There is a bombshell in them. Given Mr. Trump’s equanimity with other flaws in his history, we can only assume it’s a bombshell of unusual size.”
Expressed in Mitt-speak rather than with Reid’s pugnacity, but essentially the same thing.
Romney finally released a fuller set of tax returns in September 2012. At that point, though, the damage had already been done. And no, Reid did not cover himself with glory in that episode. But Romney could have done the right thing at the start of his campaign rather than opening himself up to charges that there must be hiding a “bombshell” — as Romney himself would put it four years later.
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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Hopes were running high when we all turned the calendar to 2021. Would the worst 12 months in anyone’s memory give way to the best year of our lives?
Not quite. Yes, it was better than 2020, but 2021 was hardly a return to paradise. The joy of vaccinations gave way to the reality that COVID-19 is likely to be with us for a long time. The economy recovered rapidly — accompanied by the highest rate of inflation in 40 years. Worst of all, the end of the Trump presidency morphed into a crisis of democracy that is starting to look as ominous as the run-up to the Civil War.
During the past year, I’ve been struggling to make sense of the highs, the lows and the in-betweens through the prism of the media. Below are 10 of my GBH News columns from 2021. They’re in chronological order, with updates on many of the pieces posted earlier this year. If there’s a unifying theme, it’s that we’re in real trouble — but that, together, we can get through this.
• The end of the Trump bump, Jan. 27. Even as he was denouncing journalists as “enemies of the people,” Donald Trump, both before and during his presidency, was very, very good for the media. Cable TV ratings soared. The New York Times and The Washington Post signed up subscribers by the bucketload. Several weeks after Trump departed from the White House, though, there were questions about what would happen once he was gone. We soon got an answer. Even though Trump never really left, news consumption shrank considerably. That may be good for our mental health. But for media executives trying to make next quarter’s numbers, it was an unpleasant new reality.
• Local news in crisis, Feb. 23. The plague of hedge funds undermining community journalism continued unabated in 2021. The worst newspaper owner of them all, Alden Global Capital, acquired Tribune Publishing and its eight major-market papers, which include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and, closer to home, the Hartford Courant. When the bid was first announced, there was at least some hope that one of those papers, The Baltimore Sun, would be spun off. Unfortunately, an epic battle between Alden and Baltimore hotel mogul Stewart Bainum resulted in Alden grabbing all of them. Bainum, meanwhile, is planning to launch a nonprofit website to compete with the Sun that will be called The Baltimore Banner.
• The devolution of Tucker Carlson, April 15. How did a stylish magazine writer with a libertarian bent reinvent himself as a white-supremacist Fox News personality in thrall to Trump and catering to dangerous conspiracy theories ranging from vaccines (bad) to the Jan. 6 insurrection (good)? There are millions of possible explanations, and every one of them has a picture of George Washington on it. Carlson got in trouble last spring — or would have gotten in trouble if anyone at Fox cared — when he endorsed “replacement theory,” a toxic trope that liberal elites are deliberately encouraging immigration in order to dilute the power of white voters. A multitude of advertisers have bailed on Carlson, but it doesn’t matter — Fox today makes most of its money from cable fees. And Carlson continues to spew his hate.
• How Black Lives Matter exposed journalism, May 26. A teenager named Darnella Frazier exposed an important truth about how reporters cover the police. The video she recorded of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin literally squeezing the life out of George Floyd as he lay on the pavement proved that the police lied in their official report of what led to Floyd’s death. For generations, journalists have relied on law enforcement as their principal — and often only — source for news involving the police. That’s no longer good enough; in fact, it was never good enough. Frazier won a Pulitzer Prize for her courageous truth-telling. And journalists everywhere were confronted with the reality that they need to change the way they do their jobs.
• The 24th annual New England Muzzle Awards, July 1. For 24 years, the Muzzle Awards have singled out enemies of free speech. The Fourth of July feature made its debut in The Boston Phoenix in 1998 and has been hosted by GBH News since 2013, the year that the Phoenix shut down. This year’s lead item was about police brutality directed at Black Lives Matter protesters in Boston and Worcester the year before — actions that had escaped scrutiny at the time but that were exposed by bodycam video obtained by The Appeal, a nonprofit news organization. Other winners of this dubious distinction included former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, retired Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz and the aforementioned Tucker Carlson, who unleashed his mob to terrorize two freelance journalists in Maine.
• How to help save local news, July 28. Since 2004, some 2,100 newspapers have closed, leaving around 1,800 communities across the country bereft of coverage. It’s a disaster for democracy, and the situation is only growing worse. The Local Journalism Sustainability Act, a bipartisan proposal to provide indirect government assistance in the form of tax credits for subscribers, advertisers and publishers, could help. The bill is hardly perfect. Among other things, it would direct funds to corporate chains as well as to independent operators, thus rewarding owners who are hollowing out their papers. Nevertheless, the idea may well be worth trying. At year’s end, the legislation was in limbo, but it may be revived in early 2022.
• Democracy in crisis, Sept. 29. As summer turned to fall, the media began devoting some serious attention to a truly frightening development: the deterioration of the Republican Party into an authoritarian tool of Trump and Trumpism, ready to hand the presidency back to their leader in 2024 through a combination of antidemocratic tactics. These include the disenfranchisement of Black voters through partisan gerrymandering, the passage of new laws aimed at suppressing the vote and the handing of state electoral authority over to Trump loyalists. With polls showing that a majority of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen, it’s only going to get worse in the months ahead.
• Exposing Facebook’s depravity, Oct. 27. The social media giant’s role in subverting democracy in the United States and fomenting chaos and violence around the world is by now well understood, so it takes a lot to rise to the level of OMG news. Frances Haugen, though, created a sensation. The former Facebook executive leaked thousands of documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission and spoke out — at first anonymously, in The Wall Street Journal, and later on “60 Minutes” and before a congressional committee. Among other things, the documents showed that Facebook’s leaders were well aware of how much damage the service’s algorithmic amplification of conspiracy theories and hate speech was causing. By year’s end, lawyers for Rohingya refugees from Myanmar were using the documents to sue Facebook for $150 billion, claiming that Mark Zuckerberg and company had whipped up a campaign of rape and murder.
• COVID-19 and the new normal, Nov. 17. By late fall, the optimism of June and July had long since given way to the reality of delta. I wrote about my own experience of trying to live as normally as possible — volunteering at Northeastern University’s long-delayed 2020 commencement and taking the train for a reporting trip in New Haven. Now, of course, we are in the midst of omicron. The new variant may prove disastrous, or it may end up being mild enough that it’s just another blip on our seemingly endless pandemic journey. In any case, omicron was a reminder — as if we needed one — that boosters, masking and testing are not going away any time soon.
• How journalism is failing us, Dec. 7. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank created a sensation when he reported the results of a content analysis he had commissioned. The numbers showed that coverage of President Joe Biden from August to November 2021 was just as negative, if not more so, than coverage of then-President Trump had been during the same four-month period a year earlier. Though some criticized the study’s methodology, it spoke to a very real problem: Too many elements of the media are continuing to cover Trump and the Republicans as legitimate political actors rather than as what they’ve become: malign forces attempting to subvert democracy. The challenge is to find ways to hold Biden to account while avoiding mindless “both sides” coverage and false equivalence.
A year ago at this time we may have felt a sense of optimism that proved to be at least partly unrealistic. Next year, we’ll have no excuses — we know that COVID-19, the economy and Trumpism will continue to present enormous challenges. I hope that, at the end of 2022, we can all say that we met those challenges successfully.
Finally, my thanks to GBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2022.
One president lied about COVID-19 (the country’s and his own), embraced white supremacists and tried to overturn the results of an election that he lost. Another president has hit a few bumps in the road as he attempts to persuade Congress to pass his agenda. Can you guess which one received more negative news coverage?
If you guessed President Joe Biden, then come on down. According to an analysis of 65 news websites, Biden’s treatment by the media was as harsh or harsher from August through November of this year than then-President Donald Trump’s was during the same four-month period in 2020.
On one level, it’s inconceivable. On another, though, it’s all too predictable. Large swaths of the media simply cannot or will not move beyond both-sides journalism, equating the frustratingly hapless Democrats with a Republican Party that has embraced authoritarianism and voter suppression.
“My colleagues in the media are serving as accessories to the murder of democracy,” wrote Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who ordered up the study. He concluded: “Too many journalists are caught in a mindless neutrality between democracy and its saboteurs, between fact and fiction. It’s time to take a stand.”
As I’ve written before, and as many others have said, we’re in the midst of a crisis of democracy. The Republican Party, already disproportionately empowered because of the Constitution’s small-state bias and the Senate filibuster (the latter, of course, could be abolished tomorrow), is working to strengthen its advantage through partisan gerrymandering and the passage of voter-suppression laws. The result could be white minority rule for years to come.
The situation has deteriorated to the point that the European think tank International IDEA now regards the United States as a “backsliding democracy.” To quote from IDEA’s report directly, “the United States, the bastion of global democracy, fell victim to authoritarian tendencies itself, and was knocked down a significant number of steps on the democratic scale.”
And the media remain wedded to their old tropes, covering political campaigns as though they were horse races and treating the two major parties as equally legitimate players with different views.
It’s a topic that was discussed at length recently on Ezra Klein’s New York Times podcast by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen and guest host Nicole Hemmer, a scholar who studies right-wing media. Their conversation defies easy summary (the whole episode can be found here), but essentially, Rosen argued that the political press falls back on its old habits because breaking out of them is just too difficult.
“The horse race absorbs a lot of abuse from people like me,” he said. “But it can take that abuse, because it is such a problem-solver. It checks so many other boxes that even when people know it’s kind of bankrupt, it stays on.” As an alternative, Rosen proposes coverage based on a “citizens agenda,” which he has written about at his blog, PressThink. But he admitted to Hemmer that we may lose our democracy before his ideas are adopted by more than a fraction of journalists.
What I find especially frustrating is that the media have not been ignoring the Republican threat to our democracy. Far from it. As just one small example, the Times on Sunday published a front-page story by Nick Corasaniti on a multitude of actions being taken at the state level to suppress the vote and put Trump loyalists in charge of the election machinery.
“Democrats and voting rights groups say some of the Republican measures will suppress voting, especially by people of color,” Corasaniti wrote. “They warn that other bills will increase the influence of politicians and other partisans in what had been relatively routine election administration. Some measures, they argue, raise the prospect of elections being thrown into chaos or even overturned.”
So why am I frustrated? Because this sort of valuable enterprise reporting is walled off from day-to-day political coverage. We are routinely served up stories about the congressional Republican leaders, Rep. Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Mitch McConnell, going about their business as though they were latter-day versions of the late Bob Dole, sharply partisan but ultimately dedicated to the business of seeking compromise and governing. In fact, whether through cowardice or conviction, they are enabling our slide into authoritarianism by undermining the investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection as well as by failing to call out Trump and the excesses of their worst members.
Earlier this year, Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan endorsed the idea of a “democracy beat,” which would look closely at attempts to subvert voting rights. Sullivan would go further than that, too. “The democracy beat shouldn’t be some kind of specialized innovation,” she wrote, “but a widespread rethinking across the mainstream media,” permeating every aspect of political and governmental coverage.
If Trump runs again, he may very well end up being installed as president even if he loses both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Who would stop him? In the aftermath of the 2020 election, there were still enough Republican state and local officials with integrity who refused to go along with Trump’s demands that they overturn the results. That is not likely to be the case in 2024. As Barton Gellman wrote in a new Atlantic cover story, “The prospect of this democratic collapse is not remote. People with the motive to make it happen are manufacturing the means. Given the opportunity, they will act. They are acting already.”
Meanwhile, the media go about covering President Biden and his travails as though our politics hadn’t changed over the past 40 years. Of course Biden needs to be held accountable. The ugly withdrawal from Afghanistan, confusing White House messaging about COVID and his inability to bring Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to heel are all worthy of tough coverage. (But not inflation because, please, don’t be stupid.) But it needs to be done in a way that we don’t lose sight of the big picture. And the big picture is that we are in real danger of losing our country.
As the Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan put it on Twitter, “The problem is the media failing to distinguish threats to democracy from normal negative coverage (an important form of democratic accountability!).”
The problem is the media failing to distinguish threats to democracy from normal negative coverage (an important form of democratic accountability!).
In other words, the fundamental problem isn't the Biden coverage (however imperfect); it's the Trump coverage. https://t.co/Qw7Z1ntfZC
Five years ago Thomas Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School issued a report showing that coverage of Trump and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 general-election campaign had been equally negative — a finding that he found disturbing. Patterson wrote that “indiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions. Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it.”
Well, here we go again. Next time, though, it’s the future of democracy that is likely to be at stake.
The death of Fred Hiatt ends a period of remarkable stability at the top of The Washington Post’s masthead. Hiatt, the editorial-page editor, had served in that position since 1999. Marty Baron, who was hired as executive editor in 2012, retired earlier this year. Hiatt and Baron predated Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of the Post in 2013, and their continuation in those roles was a signal that Amazon’s founder was determined not to interfere with either the newsroom or the opinion operation.
Baron was replaced by Sally Buzbee, previously the top editor at The Associated Press. It will be interesting to see who replaces Hiatt — though I suspect it could be a while given that his sudden death at 66 was unanticipated. When Buzbee was interviewed recently by Kara Swisher on her New York Times podcast, she gave the impression that publisher Fred Ryan was more involved in her hiring than Bezos was. We’ll see if Bezos follows the same pattern in hiring a new opinion editor. Not that he has to — the ethical standard good news organizations follow is that the owner should stay out of the newsroom but is free to meddle with the editorial pages.
Hiatt’s retention was noteworthy, as new owners often want to exert their influence on the opinion pages. But even though Bezos’ politics were thought to be generally libertarian, the Post’s editorial stance — which could be described as moderately liberal with a taste for foreign intervention — did not change under Bezos’ ownership.
Looking back over the course of Hiatt’s career, I’d say that observation has held up. The Post is, indeed, moderately liberal. But his unsigned editorials called for war following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and — more controversially — against Iraq, which then-President George W. Bush wrongly claimed had weapons of mass destruction. The Post, of course, was hardly the only newspaper to endorse what proved to be a horrendous foreign-policy blunder. But it’s the job of a great newspaper to take unpopular stands when warranted. In fact, the Times came out against going to war in Iraq, if rather grudgingly.
I’m not sure what Hiatt thought such drivel added to his section. Maybe he just wanted his readers to see what the pro-Trump argument was without having to seek it out on Fox News. In any case, the Times took a different approach, restricting its in-house conservatives to Never Trumpers like Ross Douthat and Bret Stephens. (I’d mention David Brooks, too, except that he really isn’t much a conservative these days.)
Hiatt was a strong supporter of human rights around the world and spoke out forthrightly against the Saudi regime following the murder of one of his columnists, Jamal Khashoggi. By all accounts, he was also a very nice guy, which counts for a lot. A Post editorial put it this way: “Mr. Hiatt made it possible for The Post’s opinion writers and the content they produce to encompass a wide range of views on virtually every subject of public debate, without the rancor, personal enmity and bad faith that have become so prevalent elsewhere in Washington and the nation. Our respect for and loyalty to Mr. Hiatt, and his for us, held this staff together.”
Hiatt served long enough in his position to watch the Post shrink under Graham family ownership from a viable competitor with the Times to a regional paper forced to cut its staff year after year; and then to preside over its rebirth and growth under Bezos. He was an honorable servant of the Washington establishment, which I mean in both a positive and a negative sense. Given the fractures that are now tearing the country apart, we may not see the likes of him again.
Previously published at GBH News. This is ostensibly a column about the Steele dossier. But it’s really a column about the media — or, rather, what we mean when we talk about “the media.”
You remember the Steele dossier, right? Just before Donald Trump’s inauguration as president in 2017, we learned that intelligence officials had briefed both Trump and outgoing President Barack Obama about a report that contained some lurid accusations. The most famous: that there was a video of Trump consorting with prostitutes in a Russian hotel room, which became known far and wide as “the pee tape.”
The dossier, we learned, had been compiled at the behest of Trump’s opponents for the Republican presidential nomination and later on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent, arrived on the scene at some point after it became a Clinton operation.
Now that special counsel John Durham, appointed by then-Attorney General Bill Barr in the waning days of the Trump administration, has indicted a crucial source and thus discredited the dossier, we are being subjected to some serious handwringing over the media’s credulous reporting.
Sara Fischer of Axios called it “one of the most egregious journalistic errors in modern history.” Writing in The New York Times, Bill Grueskin of the Columbia Journalism School lamented that “so many [journalists] were taken in so easily because the dossier seemed to confirm what they already suspected.” Needless to say, Fox News has been having a field day.
But there’s a huge problem with the narrative that the Steele dossier drove the story that Trump’s 2016 campaign colluded with the Russians, and that the media pushed it in order to destroy Trump’s presidency: that’s not what happened. Or, to be more precise, a few media outlets pushed it, but more didn’t. And most serious people understood from the beginning that the dossier comprised raw intelligence, some of which might be true, some of which almost certainly wasn’t, and some of which probably consisted of outright disinformation.
CNN, the first outlet to report that Trump and Obama had been briefed, left out any details in its initial story even though it had the 35-page dossier in hand. BuzzFeed News, which remains the only major news organization to publish the full dossier (a mistake, as I said at the time), called it “unverified” and noted that it included “some clear errors.” The New York Times reported that the dossier was “unsubstantiated” and “generated by political operatives seeking to derail Mr. Trump’s candidacy.” The Washington Post: “unconfirmed” and “unsubstantiated.”
To be fair, these articles also said that the allegations contained therein might be true, and that the intelligence officials who briefed the two presidents were taking them seriously. But that’s just accurate reporting.
By the time the dossier was made public, we already knew that Trump’s then-lawyer, Michael Cohen, had vociferously denied he’d held a meeting in Prague with Russian operatives. But as the national security blogger Marcy Wheeler noted in a Columbia Journalism Review podcast last week, at the same time Cohen was telling the truth about the Prague meeting, he was also lying about meeting with Russian officials regarding a deal to build a Trump tower and lying about paying off women to keep quiet about their sexual liaisons with Trump. (How can you tell Cohen isn’t lying? When he’s not talking.) Wheeler, I should point out, has been casting doubt on the Steele dossier for a long time, so she’s hardly an apologist for the media.
Were there some media outlets that irresponsibly ran with the Steele dossier? Of course. On the CJR podcast, Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple, who’s been indefatigable in his efforts to debunk the dossier, cited MSNBC, CNN and the McClatchy newspapers. Grueskin pointed to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg and McClatchy.
To which I would respond that MSNBC and CNN’s prime-time lineups consist of liberal talk shows aimed at keeping their viewers riled up so they won’t change the channel. They are certainly more careful with the facts than Fox News, but they are hardly the journalistic gold standard. I don’t think I ever saw McClatchy’s reporting at the time, and I don’t believe it made its way very far up the journalistic food chain. The Washington Post recently corrected and removed parts of two articles after Durham announced the indictment, thus making it clear that its sourcing had been wrong.
But how important was the Steele dossier to our understanding of Trump’s relationship with Russia? Not very, I would argue. Over the weekend, CNN.com published a lengthy overview by Marshall Cohen showing that the FBI began its investigation before it had any knowledge of the dossier. Cohen also reported that the dossier was not used as the basis for any part of the investigation except a probe into the activities of a minor Trump operative named Carter Page.
And let’s not forget that ties between the Trump campaign and the Russians were right out in the open. Donald Trump Jr. and other campaign officials met with a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower in Manhattan after being promised “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. The Mueller report found that Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had multiple contacts with Russian agents. WikiLeaks, almost certainly under Russian influence by 2016, released emails that had been stolen from the Democratic National Committee to damage the Clinton campaign — and Trump publicly expressed the hope that more of her emails would be dumped into public view. And on and on. Given all this, the Steele dossier was just one piece of the puzzle, and not an especially important one. I mean, come on. Trump engaging in water sports with prostitutes? Did anyone ever really believe that?
Which brings me back to the point I want to make about the media: there really isn’t any such thing as “the media.” Rather, there are a myriad of outlets, and at any given time some are acting responsibly and some are acting irresponsibly. Pointing to something that Rachel Maddow said as evidence of media malfeasance makes no more sense than blaming the media because Tucker Carlson used his Fox News streaming program to push the lie that the Jan. 6 insurrection was a false-flag operation. No, I’m not equating Maddow with Carlson. She tries to be careful with the facts, whereas Carlson just makes stuff up. But she’s the host of an opinionated talk show, not an investigative reporter.
“The ‘mainstream media’ — I’m going to stop putting that in quotes, but keep imagining that I’m saying it sarcastically — is probably made up of several thousand individuals and then a three-figure number of institutions,” the conservative commentator Jonathan V. Last wrote for The Bulwark recently. “At any given moment, on any given story, some number of these people and institutions will communicate facts that are eventually understood to be misleading or incorrect. Some of these people and institutions are better at their jobs than others.
“The point is that the MSM universe is so large that you’re always going to be able to cherry-pick examples to support the notion that ‘they’ are feeding ‘us’ false narratives.”
Most of the media handled the Steele dossier responsibly right from the start, even if much of what it contained turned out to be even less credible than it originally appeared. A few journalists and commentators got carried away. And, in any case, the dossier played only a minor role in the investigations into Trump’s ties to Russia.
Attempts to conflate it into more than that are not only silly but play into Trumpworld’s lies that the entire collusion story was a “hoax.” It was not a hoax, and I suspect we haven’t heard the last of it.
The Washington Post last week published a massive investigative report on the insurrection of Jan. 6 and its aftermath. The story is filled with horrifying details, but there’s little that we didn’t already know — that Donald Trump incited the deadly violence both before and during the attack, and that the people around him as well as nearly all Republican members of Congress didn’t dare to challenge him. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell comes off as deeply cynical, a soulless shell. His House counterpart, Kevin McCarthy, is depicted as a worthless tool. Again, nothing new.
Then came the elections this past Tuesday and the triumph of Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin in Virginia over Democrat Terry McAuliffe. We all sensed it might be coming, but it left me with a feeling of something approaching despair. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. I don’t like McAuliffe, a Big Money ally of the Clintons who represents a lot of what’s wrong with his party. I’m not a Democrat. I don’t live in Virginia.
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As I thought about it, I concluded that my reaction was connected to Jan. 6. There’s been a lot of stupid talk about how Youngkin is charting a new course for the Republicans by showing that you can distance yourself from Trump and win. The problem, though, is that he didn’t distance himself from Trumpism. He appealed to racists with his false claims that critical race theory, an obsession on the right, is being taught in public schools and by running an ad in which a white supporter talks about how her precious child was so, so disturbed at having to read Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” He also benefited from a story circulating in right-wing circles that a boy in a skirt sexually assaulted a girl in a school bathroom. The story was false, but it fanned the flames of hatred toward transgender people.
More to the point, Youngkin isn’t a Republican who’s trying to tear down Trumpism and build something new, like U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney. He’s a Trumper. And that wing of the party — which, let’s face it, is most of them — should be banished, shunned, defeated, consigned to the dustbin of history. Instead, voters are treating them as normal politicians, and the media can’t resist their primal urge to get back to business-as-usual, both-sides political coverage. It’s nauseating. As Jon Allsop wrote in his newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review:
Youngkin was too often characterized as a passive actor who deftly rode abstract culture-war forces rather than driving them himself, and hailed for his political savviness more than scrutinized for the substance of his message. As many media watchers have argued, that lens has failed much coverage of racial issues, in particular.
We all know that democracy is in crisis. Authoritarianism looms. It doesn’t matter whether you like the Democratic Party or not. At this point, it is the one major party that, for all its flaws, is dedicated to small-“d” democracy. The Republican Party, sadly, is seeking to tear everything down. The public should consider all but the most anti-Trump Republicans to be disqualified from public office until further notice. Instead, they’re voting for them. And the media are more interested in what that means for the politics of the reconciliation bill and the midterms than for the future of the country.
Did a member of Donald Trump’s inner circle tell a woman he was trying to pick up that he’d killed two men during his misspent youth? And if he did say that, was he telling the truth — or was he merely boasting?
The answers to those questions could presumably be obtained through a vigorous probe by law enforcement officials as well as some dogged investigative reporting. But the story slipped beneath the surface almost as soon as it broke three weeks ago.
That lassitude stands in contrast to the endless updates we’ve been subjected to on what is rattling around inside Sens. Joe Manchin’s and Kyrsten Sinema’s heads at any given moment. Then again, “Dems in Disarray” is a narrative the media never tire of. Who cares if someone who may yet play a prominent role in Trump’s comeback is a killer, or likes to play one when he’s trying to impress women?
Our story begins on Sept. 29, when Alex Isenstadt of Politico reported that a well-connected Republican donor named Trashelle Odom was claiming that Corey Lewandowski — one of Trump’s 2016 campaign managers and still someone who has the former president’s ear — had made “unwanted sexual advances toward her at a Las Vegas charity event over the weekend.”
Isenstadt’s article included a number of disturbing allegations Odom had made about Lewandowski — that he had crudely bragged about the size of his endowment, that he had stalked and touched her and that “she grew fearful for her personal safety as Lewandowski described incidents of violence that took place earlier in his life.”
Isenstadt followed up on Oct. 1 with a report that Odom had filed a statement with police. Details, though, were lacking.
And here we come to the most problematic part of this saga. Because the following day the full text of Odom’s statement was made public — not by a reputable news organization, but by the Daily Mail, a sleazy tabloid based in the U.K. The statement contained all the salacious details, including Lewandowski’s alleged claim that he had killed two men by stabbing them in the back of the head, once when he was just a wee lad of 10, and again at some unspecified time when he was older.
Was the statement for real?
The quality media, understandably, have approached the document with rubber gloves and tweezers, alluding to Odom’s claims in general terms (remember, Politico had already reported on them) while staying away from the details contained in the alleged police statement. Neither The New York Times nor The Washington Post has reported Odom’s supposed claim about Lewandowski’s homicidal boasting.
Among those that have taken the plunge by citing the Daily Mail’s story are The Daily Beast, Salon, Mediaite and The Bulwark, an anti-Trump conservative website that ran a piece by Tim Miller mocking Lewandowki. But Miller also asked a serious question, and it’s one we all ought to ponder:
“Maybe the whole thing will turn out to be a hilarious mixup, the kind of sitcom setup that everyone laughs about later. Ross said to Rachel, ‘I stabbed five guys!’ And Chandler says, ‘Ix-nay on the abby-stay!’
“But also: Maybe not?”
Indeed. Maybe not. Assuming the police report is genuine and that Odom was telling the truth, it seems more likely than not that Lewandowski was lying, just as he was lying about running 400 miles a week and staying in “the Elvis suite.” But Lewandowski has a thuggish reputation as well as a history of women filing assault claims against him. So who knows?
Almost as soon as the Politico story was published, Lewandowski was removed from the Trump-aligned Super PAC he had been running. “He will no longer be associated with Trump World,” a Trump spokesman was quoted as saying. But as Maggie Haberman wrote in The New York Times, “Whether Mr. Lewandowski remains permanently banished from Mr. Trump’s orbit remains to be seen.”
The next day, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem announced that Lewandowki was being cut off from his role as an unpaid adviser to her campaign. Noem’s statement cited Odom’s allegations as the reason. Michael Scherer of The Washington Post noted, though, that Noem has also been hit with allegations that she and Lewandowski had an extramarital affair — rumors that she called “total garbage and a disgusting lie.”
After that, the story all but vanished.
Any day now, it seems, Trump will announce he’s running for president in 2024. Will Lewandowski be at his side once again?
Maybe Trump’s supporters, who don’t care that he was impeached twice and now praises the Jan. 6 insurrection he helped incite, also won’t care if one of his advisers may have boasted that he had fatally knifed two men. Maybe they won’t even care if it’s actually true.
But journalists ought to care. This isn’t a matter of political commentators gaming out how murder plays with undecided voters in swing states. This is as serious as it gets. I hope that teams of investigative reporters are looking into it right now.
The McCarthy era is often cited as a time when the limits of journalistic objectivity were exposed for all to see. For years, the press reported Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s false claims that he had a list of communists in a straight-up, deadpan manner, reasoning that it was their job to inform the country of what a United States senator was saying, not to offer any judgments.
But that’s not what Walter Lippmann had in mind when he first defined objective reporting a century ago. As he conceived it, objectivity was not acting as a conveyor belt for the lies of the powerful; nor was it mindless balance. Rather, it was an objective, fair-minded pursuit of the truth. Once you had determined the truth to the best of your ability, your job was to report it.
“We tell people in a forthright and unflinching way what we have learned because we’ve done the reporting,” retired Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron said at a virtual appearance at Northeastern earlier this year. Baron defined objectivity as “independence and open-mindedness and a posture of listening and learning.”
Recently I read a book as part of my research into local news that is about as obscure as you can imagine: “Thunder in the Rockies: The Incredible Denver Post,” written by Post staffer Bill Hosokawa and published in 1976. And I was struck by how courageously the Post stood up to McCarthy — especially since, in previous decades, the Post had been mired in corruption and racism.
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By the time McCarthy came along, the Post’s editor was a stand-up guy named Palmer Hoyt, who was unflinching in his insistence on holding the Wisconsin senator to account. In a memo to his staff, he defined true objectivity in such a compelling way that it ought to be taught to every reporter. I’m not going to quote the entire memo, but here’s a key excerpt:
It is obvious that many charges made by reckless impulsive officials cannot and should not be ignored, but it seems to me that news stories and headlines can be presented in such a manner that the reading public will be able to measure the real worth or value and the true meaning of the stories.
For example, when it is possible and practical, we should remind the public in case of a wild accusation by Senator McCarthy that this particular senator’s name is synonymous with poor documentation and irresponsible conduct and that he has made many charges that have been insupportable under due process.
In 1954, Hoyt received the John Peter Zenger Freedom of the Press Award. In his acceptance speech, Hoyt continued to speak boldly, turning media critic: “It is true that the number of newspapers critical of McCarthy has grown during the last year or two. But there are still many of them who are his supporters, his apologists, even his devotees.” And he singled out the Chicago Tribune and the Hearst papers as particularly egregious offenders.
It hardly needs to be said that we are facing a crisis of democracy today — perhaps the most serious since the Civil War, as Robert Kagan recently wrote in The Washington Post (free link). The brainless objectivity of the 1950s has morphed into something else. As Thomas Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School has written, Donald Trump received an enormous assist from the press in 2016 by portraying his grotesque behavior and corruption as being equal to Hillary Clinton’s shortcomings — you know, her emails.
Today, Trump and his supporters, who seek to destroy the integrity of our elections in order to pave the way for an illegitimate second Trump term, are getting plenty of harsh coverage, as they should. But to absorb this through the media is to see it balanced against the Democrats’ struggles over its infrastructure bills and chaos at the border. It’s all both sides and false equivalence.
As New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has said over and over again, the press is not equipped to cover a reality in which one of our two major political parties remains its normal self and the other has lurched into authoritarianism. You can see it in the headlines this week describing the debt-limit crisis as something the Democrats are struggling to solve — as if it’s a given that the Republicans have descended into madness and therefore can’t be blamed.
We are living through an incredibly ugly time. At the very least, we should remember what Palmer Hoyt said about the media’s obligation to tell the truth.
All of a sudden, our crisis of democracy has moved to center stage. Building since 2016, when Donald Trump refused to say whether he’d accept the results of the election if he lost, and boiling since the Jan. 6 insurrection, the rising specter of authoritarian rule is now a lead story in much of our media.
From The Washington Post to Politico, from The Philadelphia Inquirer to The Boston Globe, from CNN to public radio’s “On the Media,” the conversation for the past week has revolved around the likelihood that Trump will run for president in 2024 — and the very real possibility that Republican functionaries at the state level and in Congress will reinstall him in the White House regardless of how the election actually turns out.
Perhaps the most chilling assessment was offered in the Post by Robert Kagan, a “Never Trump” conservative who began his must-read 5,800-word essay like this: “The United States is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves.”
Appearing on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” Yale historian Timothy Snyder, the author of the 2017 book “On Tyranny,” said it was long past time for the press to cover Trump and Trumpism as an existential threat to democracy.
“If we’re not prepared for the attempt for people to take power undemocratically in 2024, then we’re just at this point pathetically naive,” he said. “Preparing for that and getting the facts out so that people can prepare for that and prevent it is what … journalism should be doing.”
Kagan, Snyder and others are right to be alarmed. But what accounts for this moment of media synchronicity? Why have they suddenly gone DEFCON 1 after months and years of covering the Trump movement all too often as a bunch of economically anxious white men in Ohio diners? I think there are three precipitating factors.
• First, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s new book, “Peril,” makes it clear that Trump was actively involved in trying to overturn the election in ways that we didn’t quite understand previously. Perhaps the most bizarre and disturbing of their findings is that a discredited lawyer, John Eastman, concocted a scheme for Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the results of the election. If Pence had wavered, who knows what might have happened?
• Second, the results of the fraudulent Arizona “audit” actually gave President Joe Biden a bigger lead over Trump than he had previously — and it didn’t make a bit of difference. As Will Bunch of The Philadelphia Inquirer observed, copycat attempts are now under way in Texas and Pennsylvania. It’s now obvious, if it wasn’t before (actually, it was), that the purpose of these ridiculous exercises is not to prove that Trump won but to keep his supporters stirred up and angry.
• Third, University of California Irvine law professor Rick Hasen, who’s been ringing the democracy alarm for years, recently published a paper and helped run a conference that generated widespread attention. That, in turn, led to an interview with Hasen by Politico Magazine and an appearance on “On the Media.”
Hasen bluntly described the threat in his interview with Politico, saying that the widespread, false belief among Republicans that the 2020 election was stolen could lead them to steal the 2024 election.
“The rhetoric is so overheated that I think it provides the basis for millions of people to accept an actual stolen election as payback for the falsely claimed earlier ‘stolen’ election,” Hasen said. “People are going to be more willing to cheat if they think they’ve been cheated out of their just desserts. And if [you believe] Trump really won, then you might take whatever steps are necessary to assure that he is not cheated the next time — even if that means cheating yourself. That’s really the new danger that this wave of voter fraud claims presents.”
Politico media critic Jack Shafer, trying to be his usual contrarian self, argued that Trump’s increasingly unhinged behavior and Republican attempts to rig the 2024 election through voter suppression and outright theft by state legislatures they control is actually a sign of weakness, not of strength.
“By signaling an attempt to regain power by any means necessary,” Shafer wrote, “Trump essentially confesses that Trumpism is not and is not likely to become a majoritarian movement.” He added that a fraudulent Trump victory would essentially amount to a coup, which “would only inspire a counter-coup by the majority, and maybe a counter-counter coup, and a counter-counter-counter coup. Trump is crazy enough to invite this fight, and narcissistic enough not to care what it does to the country. But is he shrewd enough to win it?”
Shafer is right that a Trump coup would lead to outrage on the part of the majority. But what would that look like? It could get incredibly ugly, as Kagan warned. The best way to deal with the Republicans’ assault on democracy is to make sure it fails. Sadly, the Democrat-controlled Congress can’t do much about it unless they abolish the filibuster, regardless of how Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe and his colleagues, writing in The Boston Globe, might wish otherwise. And Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema show no signs of yielding.
So what can and should the media do? Their current focus on the overriding crisis of our time is welcome and long overdue. From the false balance of focusing on lesser stories like Democratic bickering over the infrastructure bills to the situation at the border, the media have demonstrated a maddening impulse to return to business as usual following the chaos of the Trump years.
At the same time, though, the press’ influence is limited. Roughly speaking, 60% of the country is appalled by Trump and 40% is in thrall to him. But thanks to inequities in the Electoral College and the Senate, gerrymandering in the House and increasingly aggressive attempts to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning voters, the 40% may well succeed in shoving aside the 60%.
The press needs to tell that story, fearlessly and fairly. But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s not going to penetrate Fox News, Breitbart or Facebook. In the end, there may be little that journalism can do to stop our slide into autocracy.