In ‘The Post,’ Spielberg offers a hopeful message for our Trumpian times

Spielberg’s Nixon is the proto-Trump. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Movies about historical events are often meant to tell us more about the present than the past, especially in the hands of an overly earnest director like Steven Spielberg. His 2012 film “Lincoln,” for instance, depicted a president who didn’t let his high principles get in the way of some down-and-dirty dealmaking with recalcitrant members of Congress. You know, just like Obama should have been doing.

Spielberg’s latest, “The Post,” is more deft and subtle than “Lincoln.” Still, it serves as much as a commentary on current-day events as it does as a drama about the press and the Pentagon Papers. Then as now, The New York Times and The Washington Post were competing to expose high-level government wrongdoing. Then as now, their nemesis was a vindictive president who hated the press. The message, at least for the anti-Trump audience that is most likely to be enthralled by “The Post,” is that journalism will save us. Help is on the way.

The Pentagon Papers were the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War. The documents showed that President Lyndon Johnson and other administration officials were aware that the war was going badly even as they publicly professed optimism — and thus allowed American soldiers to be killed for what they knew was a lost cause. This was especially galling to Richard Nixon, who was president in 1971, when the documents were leaked, and who was prosecuting the war with cruel gusto. The Times got and published the papers first, and Times partisans are grousing that Spielberg should have made a movie about that instead. For instance, Roy Harris wrote for Poynter that “the overall story of the Pentagon Papers as journalism seems somehow twisted by the Post-centric focus of the movie.”

Critics are missing the point. The Times gets its full due in “The Post” for breaking the story. But Post executive editor Ben Bradlee’s fierce attempt to play catch-up, and publisher Katharine Graham’s courageous decision to publish the documents against the advice of her lawyers and advisers, was a signal moment in American journalism, establishing the Post as the near-equal of the mighty Times.

The script for “The Post” reads like it was ripped from the pages of Graham’s autobiography, “Personal History,” and from David Halberstam’s magnum opus about The Washington Post and several other media institutions, “The Powers That Be.” The Post of 1971 was a financially marginal regional paper with more in common with The Boston Globe or The Philadelphia Inquirer than with the Times. Graham decided to raise much-needed cash by reorganizing the paper as a publicly traded company. The crisis over the Pentagon Papers blew up at exactly the same moment, putting the Post in real danger: if it published the documents and was found to have broken the law, its initial public offering could go down the tubes and the company could go out of business.

Graham made her decision after being called away from a social event, a sequence that is depicted faithfully in the movie. “Frightened and tense, I took a big gulp and said, ‘Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead. Let’s go. Let’s publish,’” Graham wrote in “Personal History.” And she quotes Bradlee as saying later:

That was a key moment in the life of this paper. It was just sort of the graduation of the Post into the highest ranks. One of our unspoken goals was to get the world to refer to the Post and The New York Times in the same breath, which they previously hadn’t done. After the Pentagon Papers, they did.

The U.S. Supreme Court ended up vindicating both the Times and the Post by ruling, 6-3, that the Nixon administration’s attempts to prevent publication were an unconstitutional abridgement of the First Amendment. As my WGBH News fellow contributor Harvey Silverglate wrote in The Boston Phoenix some years ago, that didn’t stop Nixon from attempting to prosecute the newspapers under the Espionage Act, a relic of World War I that is still with us. But Nixon’s efforts went nowhere.

“The Post” is not an eat-your-broccoli movie. It’s highly entertaining. Tom Hanks is terrific as Bradlee, and Meryl Streep turns in an accurate Graham, though it sometimes feels more like an elaborate impersonation than a fully realized role.

Streep’s Graham is the center of a subplot that, again, has as much to do with 2018 as it does with 1971. Although Graham had been leading the Post since 1963, when her husband, Phil Graham, shot himself in an apparent suicide, in “The Post” we see her grow and, finally, embrace her leadership role in a way that she hadn’t before. It’s a tale of female empowerment that is especially relevant right now. As my Northeastern colleague Meg Heckman wrote for USA Today:

In a refreshing departure from the shallow, oversexualized way Hollywood typically depicts women in journalism, Meryl Streep portrays Graham as a serious newspaperwoman navigating complex social and political challenges. Her role should be a blueprint for a new kind of popular culture, one that helps repair a climate where, as the #MeToo movement has revealed, media companies routinely get away with allowing sexual harassment and assault to fester.

One of my favorite characters in “The Post” is Nixon himself, whom we see back-to through a White House window, talking on the phone and threatening his enemies in the press. (We hear actual tapes of the Trickster.) And that brings me back to what “The Post” is really about.

In Donald Trump we have a president who hates the media and threatens his enemies like none since Nixon. Like Nixon, Trump is being investigated on multiple fronts — by House and Senate committees, by a special counsel, and by The New York Times and The Washington Post. Spielberg, in effect, is offering us a soothing message: Our institutions work. Look at what happened the last time.

But the past is not always prologue. The world of the 1970s was one without Fox, without alternative facts, and without a president who denounced press coverage he didn’t like as “fake news.” This time around, not only is it unclear whether the truth will be revealed — it’s even more unclear whether it will even matter.

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Wolff’s book confirms what we already knew: that Trump is unfit for office

Michael Wolff. Photo (cc) 2008 by Eirik Solheim.

Previously published at WGBH News.

The idea that Donald Trump is too mentally unstable to serve as president is not new. Just a few weeks after the 2016 election, the liberal commentator Keith Olbermann thundered that Trump should be removed from office under the 25th Amendment — and never mind that Trump wouldn’t actually be sworn in for two more months.

“For my money, he’s nuts — couldn’t pass a sanity test, open book,” Olbermann said in a GQ video viewed more than 840,000 times.

Olbermann was hardly alone. During the past year President Trump’s psychological fitness has been regular fodder for the media. Stat, the Boston Globe-owned health and life-sciences news service, tracked the deterioration of the president’s verbal abilities and gave a platform to a physician who speculated that Trump has an “organic brain disorder.” CNN media reporter Brian Stelter has asked repeatedly if Trump is “fit for office.” Last Wednesday, Politico revealed that a Yale psychiatrist, Bandy X. Lee, the editor of a book titled “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” had met with members of Congress and told them, “He’s going to unravel, and we are seeing the signs.”

All of which is to say that when Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” was released late last week, the ground was already plowed and well-fertilized. So it’s no surprise that it became an immediate sensation. If Wolff were providing us with new information, we would need time to process it, to assess the truthfulness of his reporting (something that’s happening anyway), to weigh it against other accounts of the president’s behavior. Instead, it confirms and adds detail to the story of the childish, impetuous, cruel, and supremely self-centered bully who has dominated our public discourse from the moment that he rode down that escalator some two and a half years ago.

Note, by the way, that I did not write that Trump has “narcissistic personality disorder” or “organic brain disease” or any of the other psychological and medical conditions that have been ascribed to him. I’m not qualified, of course. But neither is a highly credentialed psychiatrist unless he or she has actually peered inside the presidential skull. Whether Trump is suffering from a diagnosable psychological disorder is beside the point — we can observe his horrendous and frightening behavior on a daily basis. This is, after all, a man who took to Twitter just last week to assert that his nuclear button is bigger than Kim Jong Un’s. (Sometimes a cigar really isn’t just a cigar.) Is the why really that important? As Josh Marshall put it at Talking Points Memo:

All the diagnosis of a mental illness could tell us is that Trump might be prone to act in ways that we literally see him acting in every day: impulsive, erratic, driven by petty aggressions and paranoia, showing poor impulsive control, an inability to moderate self-destructive behavior. He is frequently either frighteningly out of touch with reality or sufficiently pathological in his lying that it is impossible to tell. Both are very bad.

You may have heard that there are errors in “Fire and Fury.” That Wolff must have been wrong when he claimed that Trump didn’t know who John Boehner was. That a few names and facts are mixed up and that some Trump officials claim they were misquoted. At such a fraught moment, it’s too bad that Wolff wasn’t more careful given that Trump and his supporters (and, sadly, New York Times reporter Ken Vogel) will seize upon anything to discredit him. But having read the book over the weekend, I was struck by how much of it was already publicly known, and how much of what wasn’t known came from the exceedingly careless lips of Trump’s thuggish former mastermind, Stephen Bannon, who hasn’t denied anything — including his description of a meeting between a Russian contact and Trump campaign officials Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner as “treasonous.”

Moreover, the president’s attempts to discredit the book have only bolstered Wolff’s standing — especially Trump’s threat to sue Bannon for violating a nondisclosure agreement, a tacit acknowledgment that what Bannon told Wolff was true. Nor did it help that the president bizarrely tweeted that he is a “very stable genius” in response to Wolff’s evidence that he is, well, unstable and is thought by some of his associates to be borderline illiterate.

Last Friday, on NBC’s “Today” show, Wolff said that “100 percent of the people around” Trump, “senior advisers, family members, every single one of them, questions his intelligence and fitness for office.” Do you doubt that? Recall that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the president a “fucking moron.” Consider that former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg concedes he probably told Wolff that Trump is an “idiot.” Remember how mortified the president’s staff was when Trump defendedthe “many good people” in the white nationalist movement.

The media need not offer a clinical diagnosis of the president in order to tell us about his state of mind. What news organizations have been doing, and should be doing more of, is reporting on whether Trump is fit for office. Michael Wolff has done all of us a service by moving that subject from chatter on the periphery to the center of the public conversation.

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The timid Times: What’s wrong with political coverage at our leading newspaper

Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

I’ve been trying for a while to think through a column on what’s wrong with The New York Times’ political coverage. The topic is so broad that it defies easy analysis. The Times is too big and too good to disparage in categorical terms. For every example I could come up with of a story that should have been framed differently, a defender of the Times could point to several that were pitch perfect. And yet something is off. Sometimes it’s a matter of tone and emphasis. Sometimes it’s more serious.

A couple of years ago I made The Washington Post my first read, along with The Boston Globe. Partly it was because I was starting to research my forthcoming book, “The Return of the Moguls,” much of which is about how the Post and the Globe have fared under the ownership of billionaires Jeff Bezos and John Henry. But partly it was because I simply found the Post more compelling than the Times.

I read the Post because of its fierce and authoritative coverage of national politics, especially of President Trump. It was, after all, the Post that broke the two most important Trump stories of the 2016 campaign: the fraudulent nature of his charitable foundation and the existence of the “Access Hollywood” tape, on which he is heard crudely boasting about sexual assault. And it has continued. Without the Post’s reporting, a credibly accused child molester, Roy Moore, would be taking his place in the Senate this month.

When I make the Times my first read, it’s because the writing is better, it offers a broader range of topics, and it carries greater social currency. For all the Post’s success under Bezos and executive editor Marty Baron, it just hasn’t become part of the national conversation to the same extent as the Times. But there is a timidity to some of the Times’ political coverage — a deep institutional need to offer balance when the truth is overwhelmingly on one side, to cover Trump as though he is an undisciplined, falsehood-spewing, but essentially normal president.

In the Times, Trump’s awfulness is too often portrayed as a matter of degree rather than of evidence that our media and political system is fundamentally broken. The picture that emerges is of a news organization often out of sync with its mostly liberal audience and that is way too concerned about what conservatives might say. The media observer Jay Rosen recently criticized executive editor Dean Baquet’s quest for balance in his reporters’ use of social media. Although I largely agreed with Baquet’s order that straight-news reporters refrain from opinionated tweets, Rosen’s assessment of the Times’ and the Post’s use of social media spoke to deeper truths about both news organizations:

The New York Times and the Washington Post are known to keep a close watch on each other. Dean Baquet should be asking himself: why isn’t the Post choking and wheezing on its social media policy? Why is he spending entire days trying to discipline his troops? Is Marty Baron investing his time that way? I doubt it. Baron and the Post exude confidence — in their reporting and the voices that bring it to life on other platforms.

Let me offer an example that gets at some of what I’m talking about: Times reporter Michael Schmidt’s remarkable interview with Trump last week at the president’s golf club in West Palm Beach, Florida. On the one hand, their conversation produced all sorts of news, the most important of which was Trump’s apparent signal that he would not fire special counsel Robert Mueller (but who knows?). On the other hand, the interview was an exercise in pure access journalism at a paper that has come to overvalue access (see: Maggie Haberman). Schmidt contented himself with asking questions and recording Trump’s answers rather than challenging his numerous falsehoods. It certainly didn’t help that Schmidt, with Emily Cochrane, followed up with a story on Trump’s New Year’s Eve gala at Mar-a-Lago that read like a fanzine report on who was wearing what at the Oscars.

Schmidt’s passivity in his interview with Trump sparked outrage among liberals on Twitter, and Schmidt defended himself in a separate article. “I believed it was more important to continue to allow the president to speak and let people make their own judgments about his statements,” he wrote. As for the falsehoods, the Times dealt with those in yet another story. Personally, I thought Schmidt’s interview with Trump was valuable. Access journalism has its uses as long as it is supplemented with investigative reporting, and there has been no shortage of that in the Times. Yet it’s hard to forget that Schmidt was the lead reporter on a story in July 2015 that falsely claimed Hillary Clinton was under criminal investigation for her use of a private email server, leading to two corrections, an editor’s note, and a tough column by then-public editor Margaret Sullivan, now a media columnist at The Washington Post. Then again, the Times’ quarter-century obsession with mostly nonexistent wrongdoing by the Clintons is worthy of a separate column — or a book.

Even great journalism by the Times calls to mind past problems. On Saturday the paper published a devastating report that the FBI began its Russia inquiry in July 2016 after a Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, drunkenly bragged to an Australian diplomat that the Russians had “political dirt” on Clinton. But as Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple noted, the Times had dismissed the idea that the FBI was investigating Trump just days before the 2016 election. Granted, there was much that was unknown then. But Wemple argued that the earlier story drew “relatively sweeping conclusions” about the FBI’s alleged non-involvement when a more open-ended approach was called for. Sullivan’s successor as public editor, Liz Spayd, followed up with a highly critical column that reportedly enraged Baquet. The public editor’s position was later eliminated.

On New Year’s Day the Times’ new publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, greeted his audience with a message paying tribute to his family’s heritage dating back to Adolph Ochs, who bought the paper in 1896. Sulzberger said all the right things, including this:

The Times will continue to resist polarization and groupthink by giving voice to the breadth of ideas and experiences — because we believe journalism should help people think for themselves. The Times will hold itself to the highest standards of independence, rigor and fairness — because we believe trust is the most precious asset we have. The Times will do all of this without fear or favor — because we believe truth should be pursued wherever it leads.

This is a restatement of New York Times journalism at its best: truth over balance, independence over access, courage over fear of criticism. Even now, these values characterize much of what the Times publishes. But the lapses are frustrating and unnecessary.

I don’t mean to make too much of the Times’ shortcomings. If there’s a smoking gun with regard to Trump and the Russia investigation, I think the “failing New York Times” is as likely to expose it as the “Amazon Washington Post.” Both are indispensable news organizations and both are producing great work. But journalists at the Post give the impression of knowing who they are, why they’re here, and what they’re doing. I wish I could say the same about the Times — and I hope the day will come when I can.

Friday updates

1. Shortly after my column was published, Washington Post media columnist (and former New York Times public editor) Margaret Sullivan weighed in with some similar observations. In her case as well as mine, the trigger was Times reporter Michael Schmidt’s recent interview with President Trump in which Schmidt was content to take dictation rather than challenge Trump over any of the numerous falsehoods that came tumbling out of his mouth. I particularly liked this Sullivan soundbite:

The Times is distinctively defensive. Often great and sometimes wrong, it mostly likes to talk about that first part, and has trouble acknowledging the second, which may be one reason its public-editor position lasted less than 14 years.

Like me, Sullivan was impressed with new publisher A.G. Sulzberger’s introductory message. I hope Sulzberger translates his rhetoric into action.

2. Give Schmidt his due. On Thursday the Times published his latest, which may prove to be among the most significant of the Russia investigation: a report that Trump told White House counsel Don McGahn to order Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the government’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. Sessions, who really had no choice, recused himself anyway. The story is full of choice details, such as Trump angrily asking “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” and an underling’s trying to mislead Trump into believing that he did not have the authority to fire FBI director James Comey. As Blake Hounshell, editor-in-chief of Politico Magazine, put it:

3. Good Times, bad Times. A story about Steve Bannon’s swift fall after he got caught telling Michael Wolff what he really thinks about the Trumps mentions a project co-founded by Bannon called the Government Accountability Institute. Among other things, the institute published a 2015 book called “Clinton Cash,” which the Times describes as having “damaged Hillary Clinton’s then-nascent presidential campaign.” The book was written by Peter Schweizer, who also writes for Breitbart News. What the Times does not mention is that is that both the Times and the Post partnered with Bannon’s institute in obtaining early access to the book, described as riddled with errors by the liberal advocacy group ThinkProgress. Aaron Rupar of ThinkProgress wrote shortly after the 2016 election:

Instead of fact-checking, the Times and Post ignored Clinton Cash’s errors Schweizer’s history of inaccuracy and amplified the book’s anti-Clinton innuendos — material Trump himself used to attack Hillary, win the presidency, and empower white nationalists like Bannon. Now, in the wake of a campaign where fake news outperformed legitimate reporting, the country’s two largest papers are left penning editorials condemning Trump for elevating a man whose flawed work they amplified.

Rupar did not claim that the Times or the Post passed along any false information from Schweizer’s book. Nevertheless, if the Times is going to bring up “Clinton Cash” in a story about Bannon, it ought to mention its own involvement.

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Approving the AT&T-Time Warner deal would save CNN, enrage Trump and leave Murdoch out in the cold

CNN’s Jim Acosta. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Thanks to the U.S. Department of Justice, AT&T’s monopolistic dreams may not come true after all. According to media reports, the government may block AT&T’s proposed $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner. Even if the deal is approved, AT&T may be required to sell off CNN, one of Time Warner’s crown jewels.

Under normal circumstances, such action would be welcome news for those who have long opposed media concentration and its accompanying ills: fewer choices, higher prices, and more power for corporate executives to control what we watch, listen to, and read. But nothing is normal in the Age of Trump. And in this case, it appears that opposition to the deal may be driven less by antitrust law and more by the president’s ongoing fury at CNN.

Who, after all, can forget Trump’s outburst after CNN revealed the existence (though not the contents) of the infamous dossier of raw Russian intelligence, which claimed the president-elect had engaged in financial shenanigans and embarrassing personal behavior? “Your organization is terrible,” Trump told CNN’s Jim Acosta at a news conference last January, adding: “You are fake news.” The relationship has not improved since then.

Thus anti-monopolists find themselves in the awkward position of supporting Trump’s Justice Department on the AT&T-Time Warner merger while feeling obliged to point out that federal regulators may well be doing the right thing for all the wrong reasons. Timothy Karr of Free Press, a prominent media-reform organization that opposes the merger, nevertheless writes that “Trump would be dead wrong, however, to pull the levers of government to force more favorable coverage from CNN.” Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik, who also argues that the merger should be rejected, worries that Trump’s loose lips and tawdry tweets may end up working to AT&T’s advantage: “Trump’s rhetoric about the deal, which dates back to his presidential campaign, has muddled the issues — and may even have increased the chances that the deal will go through with all its negative aspects intact.”

I’ve been writing about the threats posed by media concentration since the 1990s. Given the circumstances, though, I think the AT&T-Time Warner deal ought to be approved — and not because (or not just because) it would infuriate Trump. Much as I agree with Karr and Hiltzik in the abstract, I can think of three very good reasons why we might be better off if AT&T winds up as CNN’s corporate overlord.

• Rupert Murdoch — yes, that Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Fox News Channel and friend of Trump — has reportedly indicated an eagerness to add CNN to his empire should it become available. According to Jessica Toonkel of Reuters, Murdoch called AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson twice during the past six months to discuss a possible deal should AT&T be forced to sell off CNN.

• A deal that would allow Sinclair Broadcast Group to acquire Tribune Media’s television stations appears to be on track, giving the company control of more than 200 stations around the country. And Sinclair is notorious for using its power in local markets to advance a right-wing, pro-Trump agenda. Over the weekend, for instance, David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun detailed how a Sinclair-owned station in Alabama ran a deceptive report in its local newscast to try to discredit The Washington Post’s coverage of women who say they were sexually assaulted by Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s.

• Bigger is not better — far from it. But given the enormous power over content and distribution amassed by the platform giants Facebook and Google, it may be that traditional concerns about media concentration are obsolete. Perhaps the best way to fight the new media giants is by empowering the old. As Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo notes, AT&T’s Stephenson made exactly that point recently. “Essentially,” Marshall wrote, “he argued that only by combining a company with a dominant position in distribution (AT&T) with a content company (Time Warner) could anyone hope to compete with the platform monopolies Google and Facebook in the advertising business.”

Earlier this week, Bloomberg’s David McLaughlin, Scott Moritz, and Sara Forden reported that AT&T will ask a judge to provide the company with communications between the White House and the Justice Department if the government sues to stop the merger. That could make for some very interesting reading.

Murdoch lurking in the wings. A super-empowered Sinclair wreaking havoc in television markets around the country. Traditional media being hamstrung by old laws while Facebook and Google continue to reign unchecked. Those would be reasons enough to approve the AT&T-Time Warner merger. But the specter that President Trump is attempting to orchestrate this as a way to punish a journalistic enemy looms over all of this.

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Crooked Hillary redux: Making sense of the Uranium One distraction

Photo (cc) 2014 by clement127

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

To understand the current Trumpist obsession with Hillary Clinton and the Uranium One story, you first need to know what it is not. Uranium One is not a scandal or even a discrete set of facts that can be weighed and assessed. Rather, it is a talisman wielded by President Trump’s most ardent defenders in the hope of warding off the burgeoning Russia scandal.

Thus we have absurd characters like Sean Hannity of Fox News calling it “one of the biggest scandals in American history involving another country.” And The Daily Signal, a right-wing website published by the Heritage Foundation, asking, “Why isn’t the mainstream media covering Uranium One?” And Conrad Black, who speculates in The New York Sun that special counsel Robert Mueller will — or at least should — go after Clinton’s allies the Podesta brothers for their role in Uranium One now that the Russia inquiry has fallen apart. Because, you know, nothing says fallen apart quite like the indictment of two former Trump campaign officials and a guilty plea from a third, with the promise of more to come.

David French, a prominent anti-Trump conservative, explained in The New York Times what’s going on:

The desire to think the best of Mr. Trump combined with the deep distaste for Democrats grants extraordinary power to two phrases: “fake news” and “the other side is worse.” “Fake news” erects a shield of disbelief against the worst allegations and allows a person to believe that Mr. Trump is better than he is. For too many Republicans, every single troubling element of the Russia investigation — including multiple administration falsehoods about contacts with Russian officials — represents “fake news.”

The Trump supporters pushing the Uranium One story are impervious to facts not because they’re stupid but because the purpose of telling it is to put the media on the defensive. Nevertheless, there are facts, and I’ve endeavored to find out what they are by consulting the nonpartisan website FactCheck.org.

The verdict: There’s nothing to the claim, first made by then-candidate Trump in 2016, that the United States gave away 20 percent of its uranium to Russia and that Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, was responsible. The facts are incredibly convoluted —we are, after all, talking about the Clintons. The full narrative encompasses the Clinton Foundation, a speaking fee paid to Bill Clinton, and a dubious book called “Clinton Cash,” written by a conservative activist named Peter Schweizer, promoted by Stephen Bannon, and, for reasons that have never been credibly explained, used by The New York Times as the basis for some of its reporting on the Clintons. But, FactCheck.org says:

It may be that individuals and companies sought to curry favor with Hillary Clinton and even influence her department’s decision on the Uranium One sale. But, as we’ve written before, there is no evidence that donations to the Clinton Foundation from people with ties to Uranium One or Bill Clinton’s speaking fee influenced Hillary Clinton’s official actions. That’s still the case.

Vox has a shorter, easier-to-follow take on the deal that calls the Republican conspiracy theory involving Uranium One “a thoroughly debunked and verifiably false charge.” Vox, in turn, cites a report by yet another nonpartisan fact-checking site, PolitiFact, which rated Trump’s accusations against Clinton as “mostly false.”

It’s also worth keeping in mind that Trump, not Clinton, is president — something that you might forget if you get pulled into the Fox News rabbit hole. (Hannity went so far as to call Hillary “President Clinton” the other day.) Even if there were reason to believe Clinton had been involved in wrongdoing (again, there isn’t), the value to the public of pursuing her at this point is not very high. On the other hand, the question of whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians goes to the very heart of our democracy.

“The right-wing response to Robert Mueller’s investigation is to change the subject, preferably to an alleged ‘scandal’ involving Hillary Clinton,” writes CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, who adds: “This creates a thick layer of fog, making it hard to see what really matters. Maybe this is the goal. Regardless, it poses a challenge for journalists who are trying to convey the truth.”

The truth is that the Uranium One story isn’t about the truth. The Trump White House and its allies are essentially gaming the media’s old-fashioned dedication to balance — regardless of the facts — by flinging unsupportable charges that will be reported alongside the Russia news in the name of being fair and objective. Trump’s allies, who despise Clinton, will grab onto those stories and denounce everything else as “fake news.”

It’s an ugly and depressing situation with no clear solution.

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Trump’s accidental transparency does not negate his anti-free speech agenda

“Censorship” (cc) 2006 by Bill Kerr

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Talk is cheap. If President Trump actually followed through on his multifarious threats against the First Amendment, then those of us who report and comment on the news would already be on our way to a detention camp — a beautiful detention camp, for sure — somewhere in the empty spaces of Oklahoma.

He has, after all, threatened to undo the laws that protect journalists from frivolous libel suits. He has said that he would revoke Amazon’s (nonexistent) tax breaks in retaliation for the harsh coverage he’s gotten from The Washington Post, owned by Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos. His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has said that he may unleash a wave of subpoenas that would force reporters to identify anonymous leakers. And just recently, Trump demanded a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into media organizations that report what he calls “fake news” and suggested that the broadcast licenses held by NBC should be revoked.

But Trump in theory and Trump in practice are two entirely different things. Though his anti-press rhetoric can be frightening at times, his follow-through has been pretty much nonexistent. Meanwhile, as First Amendment expert Jameel Jaffer says, Trump could legitimately if inadvertently lay claim to presiding over “the most transparent administration in history,” to invoke a solemn promise by Barack Obama that unfortunately preceded eight years of stonewalling on public records as well as an unprecedented crackdown on leakers.

“To say that the Trump administration leaks like a sieve would be very unfair to sieves,” Jaffer said Tuesday evening at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Moreover, Trump’s Twitter feed — he has tweeted more than 2,000 times since Election Day — offers a look into “the unvarnished presidential id,” Jaffer said, quoting Nixon biographer John Farrell.

Jaffer, currently the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, had previously served as deputy legal director for the ACLU. His work on a lawsuit aimed at shaking loose documents from the George W. Bush administration resulted in the publication of the so-called torture memos — the legal rationale produced by the White House to justify waterboarding and other inhumane tactics used in questioning terrorism suspects.

Despite Jaffer’s backhanded praise for Trump, he is hardly sanguine. For one thing, he noted, Trump’s tweets come at us in such volume that they distract us and distort the public discourse. “We should be careful not to mistake noise for transparency,” he said. In addition, seeming openness in one realm is often used to mask efforts to cover up information elsewhere. For instance, the White House recently released an eight-minute video on its efforts to deal with the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico while simultaneously removing statistics related to the relief effort from government websites.

Trump’s rhetorical attacks on the press — including his references to news organizations as “the enemy of the American people” — need to be taken seriously as well, Jaffer said. He called those attacks “an assault on transparency” aimed at undermining faith in the media, calling into question even “provable truths.” The effect, he said, is to replace journalists with Trump himself as the arbiter of what is true and false. And at least among his strongest supporters, he’s had some success. For instance, a Morning Consult/Politico poll released on Wednesday found that 46 percent of those surveyed “believe major news organizations fabricate stories about Trump.” That proportion rises to a stunning 76 percent among Republicans. (For a full breakdown, click here and turn to page 146.)

“If this is transparency at all,” Jaffer said, “it is transparency we should distrust and interrogate rather than applaud.”

My own fear — and I think Jaffer would agree — is that Trump has stirred up such hatred for the media (not that we were ever popular) that basic press protections could be in danger. Yes, you can believe that the courts will protect us; Trump’s Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, whatever his other shortcomings, seems as likely to support a robust First Amendment as his colleagues. But as Charles Pierce recently noted at Esquire.com, we are closer than you might think to the unthinkable prospect of a constitutional convention at which everything would be up for grabs, including the Bill of Rights. I do not assume that basic constitutional guarantees would survive in the current environment.

As I said, talk is cheap. But talk such as Trump’s cheapens the public discourse, giving people permission to indulge their hatreds and prejudices. We’re already seeing it happen.

At the end of Jaffer’s lecture, he was asked what makes him hopeful in this dark time. His response: The outpouring of protest against the racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, including tens of thousands of people in Boston who demonstrated against hate. “It’s a great relief to me to see people coalescing around this stuff,” he said.

So is Trump a threat or a menace to the First Amendment? I think it’s important to separate Trump’s words from his actions. To this point, at least, the president’s anti-media rhetoric has had no more effect than his attacks on Obamacare (dismantledlast Thursday; revived with his support on Tuesday), or his ever-shifting views on tax cuts. My philosophy: Keep a close ear out for what he says — but don’t panic until he actually does something.

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Trumping his measured rhetoric, president goes off at the United Nations

The morning print headlines:

  • “Muted Trump Embraces U.N. Before Speech” (New York Times)
  • “Trump plans pragmatic U.N. speech” (Washington Post)
  • “Trump shifts global tone, engagement” (Boston Globe)

The afternoon web headlines:

  • “At U.N., Trump Threatens to ‘Totally Destroy North Korea’” (New York Times)

  • “Trump threatens to ‘destroy North Korea,’ calls Kim ‘Rocket Man’” (Washington Post)
  • “Trump threatens to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea in UN speech” (Boston Globe)

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Ta-Nehisi Coates’ eloquent, angry polemic on racism in the age of Trump

Ta-Nehisi Coates. Photo (cc) 2015 by Sean Carter Photography.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

For liberals and progressives trying to make sense of President Trump’s victory last November, the role of race has posed something of a dilemma. On the one hand, Trump’s racist rhetoric clearly played into pre-existing resentments on the populist right, thus boosting turnout among his more deplorable (to coin a phrase) supporters. On the other hand, if an African-American could be elected president twice, how could a white woman have lost because of racial animosity?

The answer, according to Ta-Nehisi Coates, is that Trump — unlike all previous presidential candidates — campaigned specifically as the candidate of white identity politics. Unlike Barack Obama’s opponents, John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, Trump rallied supporters who believed that white people comprised an oppressed group under siege. Thus it was Hillary Clinton rather than Obama who reaped the whirlwind of white backlash. As Coates puts it: “It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true — his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.”

Coates carefully builds his case in an 8,200-word essay in The Atlantic titled “The First White President.” It is, in some respects, a companion piece to his 2012 article “Fear of a Black President,” in which he argued that Obama was not as effective on issues of race as he could have been because he dared not show any real emotion lest he frighten White America. Even so, Coates wrote, simply having a black president served to racialize virtually everything that Obama touched, including his embrace of a health-care plan that had previously been associated with Republicans. Glenn Beck went so far as to castigate Obamacare as “reparations” for slavery.

For a white liberal like myself who wants to believe that racism, though ever-present, is in long-term decline, Coates’ new essay makes for painful reading. Littered with the N-word and informed by historical fears about white slavery (too complex to get into here), the article makes a thorough and devastating case that Trump won because he was supported by an overwhelming majority of white people — and not just the white working class, but whites across the educational and economic spectrum. “Trump,” Coates writes, “assembled a broad white coalition that ran the gamut from Joe the Dishwasher to Joe the Plumber to Joe the Banker.” Citing the magazine Mother Jones, Coates points out that if only white voters had been allowed to cast ballots, Trump would have won the Electoral College by a margin of 389 to 81.

Although Coates reserves his real outrage for Trump, he is not especially kind to Clinton or her Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders. Coates criticizes Sanders for his naive view that economics are more important than race, answering Sanders’ assertion that not all Trump supporters are racist or homophobic with this: “Certainly not every Trump voter is a white supremacist, just as not every white person in the Jim Crow South was a white supremacist. But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.” As for Clinton, Coates credits her for acknowledging “the existence of systemic racism more explicitly than any of her modern Democratic predecessors.” But he attributes that mainly to her need to atone for her own and her husband’s rhetoric and policies, which, among other things, led to an increase in the incarceration rate.

With his long, deeply researched essays on race, politics, and history, as well as a well-regarded series of books (his Trump article is excerpted from his forthcoming “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy”), Coates has established himself as a leading intellectual on American social culture. He is not admired in all circles, of course. Ben Shapiro, an anti-Trump conservative, wrote several years agoin Breitbart News (then in its pre-Trumpist phase) that Coates espouses a “nihilistic and counterfactual viewpoint” that “demonstrates the media’s obsession with racism as a point of American conflict — a conflict that must be kept fresh, an open wound, so as to maximize the power of the government.”

Far more sympathetic is the liberal journalist Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo. But even he has reservations. Though Marshall agrees with the thrust of Coates’ argument regarding the continued centrality of race in politics and culture, he finds something tonally off about “The First White President” — namely, the conceit that Coates, and Coates alone, has identified race as the true reason that Trump prevailed in the 2016 election. “Coates’ piece is a great essay that brings together a wealth of data and characteristically penetrating analysis. I recommend it highly,” Marshall writes. “But I could not read it without thinking there are a lot of voices — hardly little heard or without megaphones — he’s simply not hearing.”

“The First White President” is an important piece of work that Democrats should examine carefully as they look ahead. White resentment is a powerful force. It’s been present in Republican politics for a long time, from Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority” to Ronald Reagan’s denunciation of “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks” to George H.W. Bush’s infamous exploitation of a black criminal named Willie Horton. Now Trump has upped the ante considerably. How effectively Democrats will respond remains to be seen. But as Coates shows, anyone who thinks that the problem can be solved merely through efforts to win over the white working class is sadly mistaken.

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Once again, the Times bends over backwards for Trump while the Post lets him have it

It seems that every day The New York Times finds a way to say something hopeful about President Trump while The Washington Post sticks with reality as we can all see it. There are many examples I could dredge up, but let’s start with today’s papers. First the Times’ Glenn Thrush:

Harvey Gives Trump a Chance to Reclaim Power to Unify

Hurricane Harvey was the rarest of disasters to strike during the Trump presidency — a maelstrom not of Mr. Trump’s making, and one that offers him an opportunity to recapture some of the unifying power of his office he has squandered in recent weeks.

Now a tropical storm as it continues to inundate the Texas and Louisiana coasts, Harvey is foremost a human disaster, a stop-motion catastrophe that has already claimed at least 10 lives and destroyed thousands of structures. But hurricanes in the post-Katrina era are also political events, benchmarks by which a president’s abilities are measured.

Mr. Trump is behaving like a man whose future depends on getting this right.

Now the Post’s Jenna Johnson:

Even in visiting hurricane-ravaged Texas, Trump keeps the focus on himself

As rescuers continued their exhausting and heartbreaking work in southeastern Texas on Tuesday afternoon, as the rain continued to fall and a reservoir near Houston spilled over, President Trump grabbed a microphone to address hundreds of supporters who had gathered outside a firehouse near Corpus Christi and were chanting: “USA! USA! USA!”

‘Thank you, everybody,” the president said, sporting one of the white “USA” caps that are being sold on his campaign website for $40. “I just want to say: We love you. You are special…. What a crowd. What a turnout.”

Yet again, Trump managed to turn attention on himself. His responses to the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey have been more focused on the power of the storm and his administration’s response than on the millions of Texans whose lives have been dramatically altered by the floodwaters.

As I said, these contrasts are a regular occurrence. I don’t know what to attribute them to, but I wonder if the Times’ bend-over-backwards approach to Trump is the flip side of its decades-long obsession with Clinton non-scandals, from Whitewater to emails. Yes, the Times has done plenty of great investigative reporting on Trump, and it seems to be locked in a steel-cage death match with the Post to see which paper can dig up the most dirt on him. But then there are these weird tonal lapses.

The Times and the Post are great papers. The Times features better writing and has a much broader mandate. But the Post’s fierce coverage of national politics and its unapologetic attitude toward Trump have long since made the Post my first read, along with The Boston Globe.

Update. From my Northeastern colleague Alan Schroeder:

I’m sure that has something to do with it. Yet Trump has been known to pick up the phone and call Post reporters, too. There’s no question that the Times is the paper Trump, a New Yorker, most cares about. I don’t know how much of a factor that is.

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The real target of the Boston counter-protest was Trump

Bonita Yarboro traveled with three friends from Hamden, Connecticut, to protest against “racism, anti-Semitism, every -ism out there.” Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

There’s been so much written and said about free speech and the lack thereof at Saturday’s rally on the Boston Common that the big picture is in danger of being lost. So let me try to bring it back into focus. An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people turned out not to protest what a few right-wingers had to say or to rumble with the police. Rather, they came to express their anger and disgust with President Trump.

Lest we forget, back in May a similar event drew just a few hundred people, with the two sides being kept apart by police officers. We might have seen a similar response this past weekend. But then a motley band of white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. A fellow-traveler was accused of driving into a crowd of people who had come to protest against such hate, killing one of them, Heather Heyer. And Trump, on his third attempt to address what had happened, threw a temper tantrum of a news conference in which he placed racists and those who oppose racism on the same moral plane.

It was that reality that was on the minds of those who showed up at the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury on Saturday morning. I was among them, carrying a notebook and a smartphone with handmade press credentials around my neck so no one would think I was one of the protesters. The crowd reminded me of the folks who’d turned out in Copley Square last January to protest Trump’s first, botched Muslim ban: earnest liberals from the suburbs, Black Lives Matter activists, young people, LGBTQ people, lots of racial diversity, lots of ink (not visible last winter), and a large number of clergy. Mayor Marty Walsh, Police Commissioner Bill Evans, and Attorney General Maura Healey all put in appearances on Saturday.

There were, of course, a few political radicals on hand. Two older women who would only give me their first names held up a large banner that said “No Free Speech for Fascists” — and, in smaller type, “Progressive Labor Party,” a far-left group. I asked them if they thought their views contradicted the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. “There is no free speech,” Ruth instructed me. “Speech costs a lot of money.” Added Heidi: “We need to stop this hate speech.”

More typical was a young African-American woman named Bonita Yarboro of Hamden, Connecticut, who was holding a green sign that read “I am Black and I MATTER. Any questions?” I asked her what had brought her to Boston and what her hopes were for the counter-protest, dubbed “Fight Supremacy” by its organizers. “Four of us came up together in a Volkswagen Beetle,” she said. “I just want to stand up against racism, anti-Semitism, every -ism out there.”

We got under way a little before 11. The march down Tremont Street toward the Boston Common was a rolling celebration. The police officers who lined the route were professional and friendly. Charlie Pierce wrote in Esquire that Police Superintendent Willie Gross was posing for selfies with marchers.

By 1, with our destination still ahead of us, word started to ripple through the crowd that the rally was over and that the right-wing speakers had left. With the Common just ahead of me, I spotted state Rep. Byron Rushing, a South End Democrat, who told me he’d been prohibited from entering the 75-yard zone around the Parkman Bandstand that police had set up to protect the speakers. “I came down to hear them, and they wouldn’t let me in,” he said. “Freedom of speech should be reciprocal. If they can talk, I should be able to listen.”

In fact, there remain some legitimate concerns about how the authorities handled access to the bandstand. The police department had a genuine public-safety challenge on its hands, and the buffer zone was probably a necessity — but it wouldn’t have been as onerous if, say, a few pool reporters had been allowed in to hear what the speakers had to say. It didn’t help that Commissioner Evans issued a statement in which he said it was “a good thing” that the right-wingers couldn’t get their message out. The ACLU and others have expressed concern.

But the triumph of the counter-protest was not that it had silenced a few extremists (and it’s not even clear how extreme they were, given that some who had been scheduled didn’t show up). The triumph was that the crowd had expressed its opposition to the racism and hatred that these days is indulged, even amplified, by the president of the United States. I couldn’t help but feel a surge of patriotism in the face of such idealism.

Trump’s outrages come at us every day. But his sociopathic reaction to the events in Charlottesville seems like a watershed moment of the sort that greeted the “Access Hollywood” tape, on which he was heard profanely bragging about groping and sexually assaulting women. From business leaders to Republican officials, a new wave of people has begun moving away from him. Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, and investigative reporting legend Carl Bernstein are among the serious, careful folks who recently have questioned Trump’s mental stability. (Brinkley and Bernstein made their remarks on CNN.)

This can’t go on, but how will it end? Regardless of what comes next, I’m proud of my city for the stand it took this past weekend.

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