Biden flinches after report ties Saudi leader to the murder of a journalist

Photo (cc) 2019 by POMED

On Friday, shortly after the Biden administration declassified documents tying the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi to the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists released statements urging President Joe Biden to take action.

Sadly, Biden flinched, imposing a variety of lesser sanctions but leaving Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman alone — even though Biden, during the 2020 campaign, had referred to Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state with “no redeeming social value.” As the Post reported:

The Biden administration will impose no direct punishment on Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, despite the conclusion of a long-awaited intelligence report released Friday that he “approved” the operation, administration officials said.

Here’s what the Committee to Protect Journalists had to say before it became clear that Biden was not going to do anything to punish MBS, as the crown prince is known:

“By releasing this intelligence report, President Joe Biden’s administration has reinforced what we have long believed: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” said CPJ Senior Middle East and North Africa Researcher Justin Shilad. “Now, the U.S. and its allies should sanction the crown prince and other royal court members to show the world that there are tangible consequences for assassinating journalists, no matter who you are.”

And here’s the Society of Professional Journalists:

“Many Americans have now read — and all should read — the four-page declassified intelligence report on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi,” said Matthew T. Hall, SPJ national president. “Seeing its conclusions in print under government letterhead make me angry all over again. This reprehensible action needs a strong response from the Biden administration. We appreciate Biden Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s recent assurances that ‘a range of actions’ are ‘on the table.’ But we hope the president chooses one quickly and decisively to send the message to Saudi Arabian leaders and people everywhere that the killing of a journalist is unacceptable anywhere on this planet.”

(My emphasis above.)

Sadly, Biden’s actions parallel those of his predecessor, Donald Trump, although for different reasons. Trump didn’t care; Biden is too tied up in outmoded considerations about alliances and interests, such the supposed need to placate Saudis so they’ll help us in our confrontation with Iran.

As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof puts it:

It’s precisely because Saudi Arabia is so important that Biden should stand strong and send signals — now, while there is a window for change — that the kingdom is better off with a new crown prince who doesn’t dismember journalists.

Friday was the worst day so far for President Biden — and for anyone who cares about the U.S. commitment to human rights and to the fate of journalists at the hands of repressive governments.

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Rush Limbaugh’s career was made possible by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton

Rush Limbaugh. Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore.

Rush Limbaugh, the toxic right-wing talk show host who died Wednesday at the age of 70, came out of a regulatory environment that had changed utterly from what had come before. Although I like to tell my students that everything can be traced back to Richard Nixon, it was changes implemented by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton that gave us decades of Rush.

Starting in the 1930s and ’40s, the Federal Communications Commission required radio and, later, television stations to be operated in the public interest. The theory was that the broadcast spectrum was limited, so station operators were licensed and required to abide by rules such as the fairness doctrine. Right-wing talk would have been unimaginable during those years, since station executives would have been obliged to let the targets of Limbaugh’s attacks respond and to provide airtime to liberal hosts.

Reagan simply let those regulations lapse, and Limbaugh’s rise coincided with Reagan’s presidency. All of a sudden, a hate-monger like Rush was free to spew his bile every day without putting the stations that carried his show in any jeopardy.

The next step in Limbaugh’s rise was the Telecommunications Act of 1996, signed into law by Bill Clinton. The law was mainly seen as a way to regulate cable TV prices and encourage competition. But the act also removed any meaningful restrictions on the number of radio stations any one company could own in a given market or nationally.

The law led the rise of massive corporate radio chains such as Clear Channel and Cumulus. These companies had in many cases taken on substantial debt in order to build their empires, and the way they serviced that debt was by slicing local programming and loading up on cheap national content like Limbaugh’s show. It’s a dynamic that continues to play out. As recently as a year ago, iHeartMedia, the successor company to Clear Channel, decimated WBZ (AM 1030), Boston’s only commercial news station.

Although some folks call for the restoration of the fairness doctrine, that no longer makes sense. The scarcity rationale that provided the legal basis for regulation is long gone, with satellite and internet radio offering hundreds if not thousands of choices. Podcasts have eaten significantly into the audience. Radio has fractured, just like most forms of media. Though I would like to see ownership caps restored, even that seems less relevant than it did a quarter-century ago given the multiplicity of audio options that are out there today.

That fracturing also means a radio show like Limbaugh’s could never become such a massive phenomenon today. Fox News long since surpassed Limbaugh in terms of audience and influence — and now they’re being threatened by new competitors like Newsmax, OANN and conspiracy-minded internet programming such as Alex Jones’ InfoWars. Rather than one big Rush, the mediascape is littered with a bunch of little Rushes. It’s not an improvement.

Limbaugh, of course, helped give rise to Donald Trump, and the two men have a lot in common — towering self-regard served up with heaping doses of racism, misogyny and homophobia. It’s no wonder that Trump presented Limbaugh with the Medal of Freedom. This piece, published by HuffPost shortly after Limbaugh’s death, is brutal but accurate.

It’s a terrible legacy. But Limbaugh seemed content with his choices right up until the end of his life.

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Biden is trying to move on from Trump. Will the media let him?

Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore

Previously published at GBH News.

President Joe Biden spoke for many of us about 30 minutes into his town hall event on CNN Tuesday night.

“I’m tired of Donald Trump,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about him anymore.”

This week marks the true beginning of Biden’s presidency. Trump is gone, holed up in Mar-a-Lago. We’ve put impeachment behind us, if not the insurrection that sparked it. Surely it’s time to get on with the business of vaccinating the country, dealing with Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief bill and debating issues such as the reopening of schools.

It remains to be seen, though, whether the media can move past their lucrative obsession with Trump. For instance, a little after 4 a.m. today, the lead political story on The Washington Post’s home page was about Biden’s swing through Wisconsin — and immediately below it was the headline “Trump attacks McConnell as ‘political hack,’ says he will back pro-Trump candidates.” At The New York Times, a story headlined “In Milwaukee, Biden Offers Reassurance and Optimism” actually appeared below an account of Michigan Republicans’ ongoing love for the former president.

Breaking up is hard to do.

Biden’s hour-plus appearance before a socially distanced audience of about 50, moderated by Anderson Cooper, felt weirdly normal after four years of belligerence, bluster and boasting. The president frequently got bogged down by details — so much so that he apologized several times for his meandering answers. But he projected decency and compassion, which was no small thing for a nation staggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and economic disaster.

Like many viewers, I was especially struck by his exchange with a mother who said her young children frequently talk about their fear of catching COVID and dying. Her daughter stood with her.

“Kids don’t get COVID very often. It’s unusual for that to happen,” Biden answered before taking a more personal approach, telling the girl she was unlikely to spread COVID to “Mommy and Daddy,” nor them to her. “I wouldn’t worry about it, baby, I promise you,” he said. “Don’t be scared, honey. Don’t be scared. You’re going to be fine. And Mommy is going to be fine, too.” A little cringe-worthy? Sure. But also a demonstration of empathy that resonated with the crowd, which applauded Biden’s answer.

Biden the retail politician was on display in other ways as well. He asked the mother of a 19-year-old who hasn’t been able to get vaccinated despite severe pulmonary problems to meet with him after the event. He told the owner of a microbrewery that he would send him a breakdown of his relief plan for small business if he’d provide his address.

And he made some news, saying there would be enough vaccines for everyone in the U.S. by the end of July, and that he hoped the country would be more or less back to normal by Christmas. He also addressed the threat posed by white supremacists and made a couple of statements sure to displease the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, although he merely repeated what he’s said in the past: he opposes defunding the police, and in fact supports more funds for better screening and training; and he will not go along with calls for massive student-debt cancellation.

That latter issue was the subject of an unusually blunt exchange with a young woman who asked Biden about proposals to eliminate $50,000 worth of student debt. “What will you do to make that happen?” she asked.

“I will not make that happen,” Biden responded, countering with proposals for free tuition for community college and state universities, debt cancellation of up to $10,000 and opportunities for students to work off their debt through public-service jobs.

So far, Biden and his proposals seem to be resonating. His popularity rating at FiveThirtyEight is 54.8% approve and 37.4% disapprove. Yes, it’s early, but that’s essentially the opposite of Trump’s ratings from the day he took office until he left. According to a Quinnipiac University poll, 68% support Biden’s economic relief package, and 61% support his call for a $15 minimum wage. There may be something to Biden’s statement that the nation is “not nearly as divided as we make it out to be.”

But for Biden to succeed, the media need to move on from Trump. I don’t mean they should stand back and applaud Biden’s every move. Skeptical coverage and tough scrutiny are warranted, as with any president. Biden doesn’t deserve a free ride.

What he does deserve, though, is a political press that covers his agenda as the top story of the day, and the Republican Party’s ongoing meltdown as a sideshow — worthy of attention, but hardly worth the massive energy and resources that are being devoted to it at the moment.

“For four years, all the news has been about Trump,” Biden said Tuesday night. “For the next four years, I want the news to be about the American people.”

The media are going to have to change their ingrained habits for that to happen. It’s not going to be easy. But it’s crucial if we’re to have any hope of getting back to some semblance of normal.

McConnell’s hypocrisy shows why Democrats made the right call on witnesses

Mitch McConnell. Photo (cc) 2014 by Gage Skidmore.

And so it’s over. In the aftermath of Impeachment II, the main controversy is about whether the Democrats did the right thing in reversing themselves over calling witnesses. I think they made a wise judgment. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s hypocrisy shows why.

In a blistering speech, McConnell endorsed the entire factual basis of the Democrats’ case against Trump. “There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day,” McConnell said. “The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president.” And there was this:

Even after it was clear to any reasonable observer that Vice President Pence was in danger, even as the mob carrying Trump banners was beating cops and breaching perimeters, the president sent a further tweet attacking his vice president. Predictably and foreseeably under the circumstances, members of the mob seemed to interpret this as further inspiration to lawlessness and violence.

Yet McConnell still voted against conviction, relying on the bogus argument that a vote to convict was unconstitutional because Trump is no longer in office.

At the end of all this, no reasonable person doubts that Trump incited the mob — not just on Jan. 6, but over the course of many months. No reasonable person doubts that he was reveling in the destruction, or that Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler was telling the truth about a toxic exchange between House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Trump. Seven Republicans voted to convict Trump, making this the most bipartisan impeachment in history.

Given all that, it’s time for the Democrats to move on and let the center of gravity finally shift from Donald Trump to President Joe Biden.

Not everyone agrees, of course. The normally pragmatic Josh Marshall was apoplectic Saturday, writing in Talking Points Memo that the decision not to call witnesses was “inexplicable and maddening, to many or most Democrats outside the chamber because Democrats appeared to hold all the cards and all the votes and yet capitulated entirely.”

But I thought Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson made a better argument:

While it’s reasonable to imagine that witnesses would illustrate Trump’s depravity, it seems entirely likely that, as Trump’s lawyers continued simply to lie and their lies got spread through right-wing media as truth, Americans would have learned the opposite of what they should have.

Instead, the issue of Trump’s guilt on January 6 will play out in a courtroom, where there are actual rules about telling the truth.

We have lived through a terrible time, and it’s not over yet. The future direction of the Republican Party is far from certain, and it’s easy to imagine a thoroughly Trumpified party recapturing the House in 2022 as a result of gerrymandering and low voter turnout.

What we all need to concentrate on for the next two years is good governance — pushing for policies and programs that help people and, as best we can, putting the Trump era behind us. Biden is off to a good start, but a continuing obsession with Trump will hold him back. And that will hurt everyone.

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Myth and reality about the Capitol Police

I heard a lot of unsupported criticism of the Capitol Police immediately after the Jan. 6 insurrection, much of it to the effect that they were in on it. Well, maybe a few were. But what I saw at the time, and what’s become even more clear during the impeachment trial this week, is that the vast majority of them did their jobs courageously even though they were badly outnumbered — maybe by design.

Long knives, short tempers — and ridiculous theories about the election

Gen. Michael Flynn. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

On Monday, The New York Times published the results of a massive investigation into Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the election.

Today comes the tragicomic conclusion: a report by Axios on an insane meeting that took place at the White House on Dec. 18 at which the conspiracy-addled lawyer Sidney Powell tried to get herself named a special counsel to investigate Dominion voting machines while Gen. Michael Flynn (he of the two guilty pleas) and the White House staff screamed profanities at each other.

The reporters are Jonathan Swan, who conducted a hard-hitting interview of Trump last year, and Zachary Basu. The whole thing is so crazy that it’s hard to pick any one excerpt, but this will do. Below, Byrne is Patrick Byrne, the chief executive of Overstock.com and a Trump backer. Herschmann is Eric Herschmann, a White House senior adviser. Patrick Cipollone was the White House counsel. Swain and Basu write:

At one point, with Flynn shouting, Byrne raised his hand to talk. He stood up and turned around to face Herschmann. “You’re a quitter,” he said. “You’ve been interfering with everything. You’ve been cutting us off.”

“Do you even know who the fuck I am, you idiot?” Herschmann snapped back.

“Yeah, you’re Patrick Cipollone,” Byrne said.

“Wrong! Wrong, you idiot!”

Herschmann and others who were at least partly tethered to reality were afraid that Trump was going to go along with Powell and unleash her upon state and local election officials. As Swain and Basu write, “Trump expressed skepticism at various points about Powell’s theories, but he said, ‘At least she’s out there fighting.'”

In the end, though, Trump was somehow coaxed into listening to reason. How bad was it? Toward the end, we see that Rudy Giuliani actually had a calming effect on the situation, which is surely the first time anyone has said that about him in many years.

Correction: I originally misspelled Jonathan Swan’s name.

Axios perpetuates #bothsides journalism in the midst of insanity

Marjorie Taylor Greene. Photo (cc) 2020 by FYNTV FetchYourNews.

Many mainstream news organizations are genuinely struggling to come to terms with the current dynamic in Washington: an often feckless Democratic Party opposed by crazy and dangerous Republicans. It’s not an entirely new scenario, and has in fact been building since Newt Gingrich’s speakership in the mid-1990s. But it’s become acute since the Trump-inspired insurrection of Jan. 6 and the embrace of QAnon and sedition by large swaths of the GOP.

But while responsible journalists are trying to figure out how to navigate this reality, there’s another group that continues to embrace #bothsides-ism at its most mindless. At the center of this is Axios, which combines the politics-as-sports sensibility of Politico, whence it sprang, with bullet points and lots of boldface.

Take, for instance, “The Mischief Makers.” According to Axios reporters Alayna Treene and Kadia Goba, leaders in each of the two major parties are being tormented by “troublemakers” and “political thorns” within their ranks. And who are these feisty backbenchers?

Well, on the Republican side is House member Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has called for the execution of  Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats and who believes that wildfires are caused by a Jewish-controlled laser in outer space. Also getting a nod are Matt Gaetz, Louie Gohmert and Mo Brooks, all of whom supported the insurrection.

What Democrats could possibly be as dastardly as that? Why, the Squad, of course! Because they’re liberal and/or progressive. So Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley all get a shoutout, as well as like-minded newcomers such as Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush.

In the Senate, Republicans Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Josh Hawley, all of whom supported Trump’s coup attempt, are equated with Democrats Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, who are more conservative than most of their party peers, and independent Bernie Sanders, who’s to the left of most of his colleagues but who’s been notably supportive of President Joe Biden.

But wait! There’s to-be-sure paragraph buried amid all this:

Not all are created equal. Democrats often contend with an outspoken, very progressive wing of their caucus and try to keep centrists from crossing party lines. Republicans have senators who led efforts to invalidate the 2020 election results and flirted with the same conspiracy theories that fueled groups involved in the Capitol siege.

No kidding.

So, does anything Axios publishes cause genuine harm? It’s hard to say. But Axios is aimed primarily at insiders — congressional staff members, lobbyists and other journalists. And many of them would love nothing more than validation that they can return to business as usual.

Cynical takes such as this can serve to normalize what’s going on in Washington, providing the narcotic drip we need to help us forget that many powerful Republicans attempted to overthrow the results of the election less than a month ago. Five people died, and we haven’t even begun to get to the bottom of what happened.

Charlie Baker’s missed opportunity

Walt Whitman in 1863. Photo via the Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images.

I thought Gov. Charlie Baker missed an important opportunity at the end of his State of the Commonwealth speech Tuesday night. Instead of calling out those among his fellow Republicans who’ve decided to support Donald Trump’s deadly insurrection, or announcing that he’s leaving the Republican Party to become an independent or to start something new, he — what?

Besides putting COVID in the rear-view mirror once and for all, my biggest wish for 2021 is for all of us to take Walt Whitman’s charge to heart. Be curious — not judgmental.

This was preceded by “Before I close, I want to offer some thought on the mood of the nation and the events of the past year.” And then he went into a long spiel about “Saturday Night Live,” social media and Walt Whitman. To put it mildly, he failed to deliver on the expectations he had raised. And it’s OK to be judgmental about a failed coup attempt.

For five years, Trump outrage has fueled media profits. So now what?

Trump supporter in North Carolina last September. Photo (cc) 2020 by Anthony Crider.

Previously published at GBH News.

Last Friday, The New York Times published the sort of story we’ve become quite familiar with — a blockbuster about Donald Trump. Times reporter Katie Benner revealed that, during Trump’s final days as president, he’d considered removing the acting attorney general as part of a plot to overturn the election results in Georgia.

For the past five years, such reporting has been very, very good for national news organizations. Trump outrage has provided elite newspapers, cable news stations and other prominent outlets with a jolt they hadn’t seen since the internet began eating away at their audience and revenue several decades earlier. But now it’s coming to an end.

The question is whether the Trump-era boost can outlast Trump.

In an interview with the public radio program “On The Media” over the weekend, co-host Brooke Gladstone asked McKay Coppins of The Atlantic — a news organization that has done especially well during the Trump years — if “Trump was good for the journalism business or bad?”

Coppins’ answer: “Well, from a bottom-line perspective, almost certainly good.”

The numbers tell quite a story. Consider The Times and The Washington Post, the two national newspapers that became most closely associated with covering the chaos and corruption of the Trump presidency. Between early 2017 and November 2020, The Times’ digital circulation grew from about 2 million to more than 7 million; 4.7 million are paying for the core news product, with the rest signed up for cheaper extras such as the crossword puzzle and the cooking app.

Growth has been equally impressive at The Post — from perhaps 100,000 to 200,000 in early 2016, according to an estimate by the newspaper industry analyst Ken Doctor, to 1 million at the end of 2017, to 3 million in November 2020, Axios reported.

Or consider cable news, which has experienced an enormous upsurge in audience throughout the Trump years. Figures compiled by Heidi Legg, a journalist and a research fellow at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, show that the combined prime-time audience of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News rose from about 3.1 million in 2015 to nearly 7.2 million in 2020, with the Trump-friendly Fox far ahead of the pack for most of that period.

In a similar vein, it’s instructive to look at what happened last February after NPR journalist Mary Louise Kelly conducted a contentious interview with Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who falsely claimed that Kelly had broken ground rules and angrily brought the proceedings to an abrupt end. The Post’s Erik Wemple reported that donations to NPR and member stations soared immediately afterward, though no numbers were available.

With Trump giving way to President Joe Biden, a far more low-key and disciplined politician, many journalists are breathing a massive sigh of relief as they contemplate returning to something like a normal life. But will audience and revenue resume the downward track they had been on for years before Trump demanded everyone’s unwavering attention?

There are reasons for hope. Following the November election, CNN — the highest quality of the three cable outlets, flawed though it is by the same talk-show mentality as its competitors — moved solidly into first place following years of ratings dominance by Fox News. And there are signs that it may stay there.

As CNN media reporter Brian Stelter wrote in his “Reliable Sources” newsletter, only a portion of the Fox audience has gravitated to the even Trumpier outlets Newsmax and OANN. More have given up on cable news altogether, most likely shifting to entertainment programming. If a larger share of the viewing public is watching CNN and its liberal counterpart, MSNBC, then that’s a boost for factual information.

Moreover, when Trump was running for president in 2015 and 2016, the public was still getting used to the idea that everything on the internet wasn’t free. Five years later, we are becoming accustomed to paying not just for news but for video services like Netflix and music apps like Spotify. Even with Biden slowing down the metabolism of the news cycle, media habits developed during the Trump years may be ingrained at this point. And it’s not as though there’s a shortage of crises to stay informed about, from COVID-19 and the economy to racial justice and the aftermath of the Jan. 6 Trumpist insurrection.

One last point: The Trump era may have been good for the business of journalism, at least on the national level (the local news crisis grows worse and worse). But it may not have been so good for the practice of journalism. In his interview with Brooke Gladstone, McKay Coppins spoke ruefully about how easy it was for reporters like him to gain a national following simply by trashing Trump.

“How do we move forward when you don’t have a president who’s shattering norms and breaking precedent and doing outlandish things every day?,” he asked, adding: “It’s really important that we not have our business models depend on that being the case. Because if they are, all of us are going to be pushed to insert artificial drama into every story we do, and that’s not good for anyone.”

The real story in Washington is dramatic enough. A Democratic president with razor-thin margins in Congress will attempt to govern while many of the most prominent members of the Republican opposition appear to favor authoritarianism over democracy — and who, like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., continue to spout lies about election fraud. Trump aside, we may be moving through the country’s most dangerous moment since the Civil War.

That ought to be enough to hold anyone’s interest — and to keep the revenues flowing so that we can pay for the journalism that we need.

At last: President Biden and Vice President Harris

That was a deeply moving, even emotional, event. Like many of us, I had waited for this day for four years. We still have a long way to go. But with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in office, and with the worst president in history now gone, we have a chance at a new beginning.