How The Denver Post stood up to McCarthy and exposed the limits of mindless balance

The Denver Post’s former downtown headquarters looms over the Colorado Statehouse. The Post itself now operates out of its printing plant in the suburbs. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

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.

Why our crisis of democracy is suddenly having its moment in the media spotlight

“Storm the Capitol” event at the governor’s residence in St. Paul, Minn., on Jan. 6. Photo (cc) 2021 by Chad Davis.

Previously published at GBH News.

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.

The Wall Street Journal exposes Facebook’s lies about content moderation

Comet Ping Pong. Photo (cc) 2016 by DOCLVHUGO.

What could shock us about Facebook at this point? That Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg are getting ready to shut it down and donate all of their wealth because of their anguish over how toxic the platform has become?

No, we all know there is no bottom to Facebook. So Jeff Horwitz’s investigative report in The Wall Street Journal on Monday — revealing the extent to which celebrities and politicians are allowed to break rules the rest of us must follow — was more confirmatory than revelatory.

That’s not to say it lacks value. Seeing it all laid out in internal company documents is pretty stunning, even if the information isn’t especially surprising.

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The story involves a program called XCheck, under which VIP users are given special treatment. Incredibly, there are 5.8 million people who fall into this category, so I guess you could say they’re not all that special. Horwitz explains: “Some users are ‘whitelisted’ — rendered immune from enforcement actions — while others are allowed to post rule-violating material pending Facebook employee reviews that often never come.”

And here’s the killer paragraph, quoting a 2019 internal review:

“We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly,” said the confidential review. It called the company’s actions “a breach of trust” and added: “Unlike the rest of our community, these people can violate our standards without any consequences.”

Among other things, the story reveals that Facebook has lied to the Oversight Board it set up to review its content-moderation decisions — news that should prompt the entire board to resign.

Perhaps the worst abuse documented by Horwitz involves the Brazilian soccer star Neymar:

After a woman accused Neymar of rape in 2019, he posted Facebook and Instagram videos defending himself — and showing viewers his WhatsApp correspondence with his accuser, which included her name and nude photos of her. He accused the woman of extorting him.

Facebook’s standard procedure for handling the posting of “nonconsensual intimate imagery” is simple: Delete it. But Neymar was protected by XCheck.

For more than a day, the system blocked Facebook’s moderators from removing the video. An internal review of the incident found that 56 million Facebook and Instagram users saw what Facebook described in a separate document as “revenge porn,” exposing the woman to what an employee referred to in the review as abuse from other users.

“This included the video being reposted more than 6,000 times, bullying and harassment about her character,” the review found.

As good a story as this is, there’s a weird instance of both-sides-ism near the top. Horwitz writes: “Whitelisted accounts shared inflammatory claims that Facebook’s fact checkers deemed false, including that vaccines are deadly, that Hillary Clinton had covered up ‘pedophile rings,’ and that then-President Donald Trump had called all refugees seeking asylum ‘animals,’ according to the documents.”

The pedophile claim, of course, is better known as Pizzagate, the ur-conspiracy theory promulgated by QAnon, which led to an infamous shooting incident at the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington in 2016. Trump, on the other hand, had this to say in 2018, according to USA Today: “We have people coming into the country or trying to come in, we’re stopping a lot of them, but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.”

Apparently the claim about Trump was rated as false because he appeared to be referring specifically to gang members, not to “all” refugees. But that “all” is doing a lot of work.

The Journal series continues today with a look at how Instagram is having a damaging effect on the self-esteem of teenage girls — and that Facebook, which owns the service, knows about it and isn’t doing anything.

The Supreme Court’s vote to uphold the Texas abortion law is an affront to democracy

Photo (cc) 2006 by OZinOH

In analyzing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 vote not to overturn Texas’ drastic new abortion restrictions, a number of commentators have focused on the role played by the three justices nominated by Donald Trump — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

All three, needless to say, are wildly controversial. Gorsuch was chosen after then-Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell refused even to take up Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, who’s now attorney general. Kavanaugh was confirmed despite serious and credible allegations of sexual assault. Barrett was rushed through before the 2020 election following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

But there is a more systemic problem, and that’s the failure of democracy that made last’s week’s decision possible. Trump, as we all know, lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016 by about 3 million votes. He won only because the Electoral College, a relic of slavery, provides small rural states with disproportionate power. Yet he got to appoint one-third of the current court.

Moreover, all three of Trump’s justices were confirmed by a Senate controlled by the Republicans even though they represented fewer people than the Democrats. Gorsuch and Kavanaugh were confirmed during the first two years of Trump’s term, when the Democratic senators represented 56% of the population nationwide compared to the Republican share of 44%. That margin had narrowed slightly by the time Barrett was confirmed, but 53% of the population was still represented by Democratic senators compared to 47% by Republicans. (See my analysis.)

The other two justices who voted to uphold the Texas law were Clarence Thomas, appointed by George H.W. Bush, who was a majority president, and Samuel Alito, appointed by George W. Bush during his second term, which he won by a majority after losing the popular vote the first time around. But that’s just two votes. If Obama and Clinton had named three justices instead of Trump, it’s easy to imagine that the Texas law would have been suspended by a 7-2 vote. It’s just as easy to imagine that the Texas legislature wouldn’t have passed such a perverse and draconian law in the first place.

This is not democracy. Nor is it republicanism, since a properly designed republic is supposed to represent a majority of the electorate by proxy. It’s fair to ask how long this can go on before the majority stands up and demands an end to government by the minority.

What the media are getting wrong about Biden and Afghanistan

Photo (cc) 2011 by the U.S. Army

Previously published at GBH News.

The United States’ 20-year war in Afghanistan has finally come to its painful conclusion. “America’s Longest War Ends as Last Troops Leave Afghanistan” proclaimed The New York Times home page Monday evening.

There is, however, one dimension to the conflict that is still being fought — the role of the media in reporting on President Joe Biden’s management, or mismanagement, of the final chaotic and deadly weeks. Surely, many journalists said, Biden could have ensured a more dignified exit than a mad crush at Hamid Karzai International Airport, with desperate Afghans plunging to their deaths from transport planes, culminating in last week’s terrorist attack.

Increasingly, though, others have been making the case that, once Biden decided to end American involvement in Afghanistan once and for all, there was no alternative to the monumental ugliness that played out on our TV screens.

“Biden does not deserve the cheap shots that critics have taken at him when they postulate that his administration screwed up what would otherwise have been an orderly withdrawal,” writes Daniel McCarthy, a vociferous Biden critic and a conservative, in The Spectator World. “Even if the withdrawal had been much better executed, as indeed it should have been, it would still have been a disgusting spectacle, a ripe occasion for media posturing and partisan sniping.”

The end — or a least a temporary pause — of the liberal-leaning mainstream media’s honeymoon with Biden can be traced to systemic flaws in the way that the press covers Washington. Three of those flaws have been on vivid display in recent weeks.

• First, there is the media’s primordial need for balance — for treating Democrats and Republicans as if they are both legitimate actors even though the Democrats, for all their flaws, continue to act as a normal political party while the Republicans have descended into authoritarianism and lies. The media cling to both-sides-ism despite four years of a raging sociopath in the White House, an attempted insurrection by his supporters, and dangerous denialism about COVID-19.

Thus, after five years of harshly negative coverage of Donald Trump (negative coverage that he richly deserved), you can almost hear the press breathe a collective sigh of relief that it can finally go after Biden and even up the score.

Here’s a data point that shows how ingrained this is. Last Friday, Amna Nawaz, filling in as anchor of the “PBS NewsHour,” noted in a conversation with political analysts Jonathan Capehart and David Brooks that a number of Republicans have criticized Biden over his handling of the war.

“It really does run the spectrum of Republicans,” she said. “You have everyone from Sen. Ben Sasse, to Sen. Ted Cruz, Congresswoman Liz Cheney, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and, of course, President Trump.”

Marjorie Taylor Greene? The QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theorist from Georgia who continues to defend the insurrectionists? Well, she’s a duly elected member of Congress, and according to the both-sides formula, she needs to be normalized. It’s crazy, but that’s the way the game is played. Too bad it’s not a game.

• Second, maybe it really is a game. Because, in too many cases, the Washington press corps glides past the substance of an issue and wallows in the political implications. Partly it’s because politics is what they know and are most comfortable with. Partly it’s a way to avoid taking sides by focusing instead on who’s winning and who’s losing.

The caricature version of this type of pundit is political analyst Chris Cillizza of CNN. Last week, several days before the terrorist attack, Cillizza wrote a piece that dwelled entirely on the political ramifications of Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan, reveling in polling numbers and in what New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen derides as the “savvy” style of political journalism.

“Biden’s bet,” Cillizza writes, “is that while Afghanistan is top-of-mind for most voters right now, it will fade as a priority — as foreign policy often does — when it is no longer the lead story in the news every day. That if Americans get out safely, that the public will lose interest in what’s happening in a faraway country and return to domestic issues like the state of the economy and our ongoing battle against COVID-19.”

Hey, it’s all politics, right?

• Third, too many establishment journalists, supposedly paid to cover the news rather than express their opinions, were in favor of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and opposed to Biden’s decision to end it once and for all.

“Much of the problems with the press coverage lie in the coziness between foreign policy elites and reporters who rely on them for information,” writes Alex Shephard in a perceptive New Republic piece. “The biases of interventionists and hawks flow frictionlessly into news coverage, treating the exit from Afghanistan as a capitulation and outrage, rather than as one — and perhaps the best — of a number of bad options.”

A telling example is Peter Baker’s widely criticized “news analysis” for The New York Times in which he quotes George W. Bush alum Meghan O’Sullivan and Gen. David Petraeus to argue that Biden could have achieved a different outcome. Describing Biden’s own framing of the options he had before him as “either complete withdrawal or endless escalation,” Baker writes, “Critics consider that either disingenuous or at the very least unimaginative, arguing that there were viable alternatives, even if not especially satisfying ones, that may not have ever led to outright victory but could have avoided the disaster now unfolding in Kabul and the provinces.”

Another example plays out on television, where a variety of former officials from the George W. Bush administration and former generals have been given air time to criticize Biden, notwithstanding their direct role in sucking us into what was, until recently, an endless war.

There is one other factor that needs to be considered when analyzing media coverage, and that’s the asymmetric role played by the mainstream media and the right-wing propaganda machine headed by Fox News.

As Jonathan Chait points out in New York magazine, Democrats and liberals can’t always count on sympathy from the mainstream because journalists want to be seen as skeptical and even-handed. Fox, on the other hand, is going to espouse a mindless pro-Republican, pro-Trump line no matter what the issue, even if it is exactly the opposite of the line it took a week earlier. At moments like this, the entire weight of the media is coming down on Biden, whereas Republicans can count on Fox being in their corner even in the worst of times.

“Even the most dishonest, incompetent, and scandal-ridden Republican presidency imaginable — which more or less describes the one we just had — will still have a media environment divided almost equally between scorching criticism and obsequious fawning,” Chait writes, adding: “In recent days, CNN and MSNBC looked a lot like Fox News, all hyping chaos in Afghanistan 24/7. That is the kind of comprehensive media hostility Trump never had to worry about.”

Now, none of this means that critical coverage of Biden was entirely misplaced. Few presidents have ever come into office with his depth of foreign-policy experience and, seven months in, he’s no longer a new president. We’ve all seen reports that U.S. intelligence officials believed the Afghan government could hang on for a year or two before its inevitable collapse. Surely a more orderly withdrawal could have been planned if they had been right. Why was Biden so seemingly unaware that his own advisers didn’t know what they were talking about? What is he doing about it?

Last Friday, on “Washington Week,” host Yamiche Alcindor replayed Biden’s embarrassing answer to her question earlier this summer that there would be no repeat of the rooftop evacuation that marked the end of the Vietnam War. Biden was right — what happened in Kabul was considerably worse.

But one of Alcindor’s panelists, Ayesha Rascoe of NPR, made an important point that has too often been overlooked by the media in its eagerness to pillory the president: “I do think this is an American tragedy, though. This is 20 years. This is four administrations. This is not just on the Biden administration.”

Indeed. The war in Afghanistan was a generation-long tragedy. Bush could have launched a targeted attack aimed at capturing or killing Osama bin Laden rather than a full-scale war to remake Afghan society. Barack Obama could have declared victory and pulled out after bin Laden was killed.

Instead, it was left to Trump to question our ongoing commitment and Biden to bring it to an end. That doesn’t mean Biden got everything right and shouldn’t be subjected to tough scrutiny. It does mean that our flawed media system was inadequate to the moment — and that we need to think about how we can do better.

Garland makes good on Biden’s promise to stop harassing the press

Attorney General Merrick Garland. Photo (cc) 2016 by Senate Democrats.

Give President Joe Biden credit for having a keen understanding of what it takes to hold together his Democratic-liberal-progressive coalition.

When he said in May that it was “simply, simply wrong” for the government to spy on journalists, I was skeptical that he would follow up his sentiment with concrete action. After all, he was vice president under Barack Obama, whose harassment of reporters in his campaign against leaks was legendary. Other presidents also thought nothing about going after reporters, including Donald Trump, George W. Bush and, of course, Richard Nixon.

But press secretary Jen Psaki followed up by assuring reporters that Biden meant what he said. And, on Monday, it came to fruition with Attorney General Merrick Garland’s announcement that the administration would stop attempting to seize journalists’ records in nearly all circumstances. In a memo quoted by The New York Times, Garland wrote:

The Department of Justice will no longer use compulsory legal process for the purpose of obtaining information from or records of members of the news media acting within the scope of news-gathering activities.

Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, issued a statement of approval, saying:

The attorney general has taken a necessary and momentous step to protect press freedom at a critical time. This historic new policy will ensure that journalists can do their job of informing the public without fear of federal government intrusion into their relationships with confidential sources.

Technically, Garland was acting on his own. The attorney general is supposed to be independent of the president. But Garland could hardly continue with the anti-press policies of Biden’s predecessors after Biden himself had spoken out so strongly in favor of reform.

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Garland’s actions come in response to some truly shocking actions undertaken by the Trump administration, some of which spilled over into the first few months of the Biden presidency. Acting on what appeared to be political motivations, the Trump Justice Department sought phone and email records from journalists at The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN. Judging from the timeline, the Trumpsters seemed to be looking into those news organizations’ reporting on the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to Russian interests.

There are some exceptions to Garland’s order in the case of life-or-death situations, or if a reporter is believed to be actively helping a source obtain classified information. But these exceptions strike me as reasonable rather than being easily exploited loopholes.

Garland’s memo also says that the Justice Department will support efforts to pass legislation making the guidelines permanent so that they don’t expire as soon as Biden leaves office. That’s really the key, since future presidents and attorneys general would otherwise not be bound by Biden and Garland’s good intentions.

Muzzle follow-up: New Hampshire adopts ban on ‘divisive’ antiracism education

I posted this at the bottom of my GBH News column for today, but I want to publish it here as well.

The GBH News 2021 New England Muzzle Awards, published on July 1, singled out former President Donald Trump for whipping up fears about race in the classroom. As I noted at the time, New Hampshire was one of several states considering a ban on the teaching of “divisive concepts” about race and gender in public schools and in the workplace.

Trump won. Last Friday, the Portsmouth Herald reported that the ban was inserted into the state budget by Republican legislators, and Gov. Chris Sununu, also a Republican, signed it into law. Oyster River Superintendent James Morse called the new law “a fundamental affront to academic freedom in teaching in terms of teachers making decisions on how they apply the curriculum set by the school board.”

This is a blow against local autonomy, coming from the “Live Free or Die” state.

In a related development, Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham starts to connect the dots with Parents United, a group of wealthy white parents who are so, so concerned about antiracism education. Follow the money, as they say, and Abraham documents ties to the Club for Growth and the Federalist, two formerly conservative organizations that have moved to the Trumpist right in recent years.

The Supreme Court may be poised to weaken libel protections for the press

Photo (cc) 2005 by zacklur

Previously published at GBH News.

If we’ve learned anything about right-wing politics in the Age of Trump, it’s that what once seemed impossible becomes plausible — and then morphs into a new reality. We’ve seen it with the refusal to accept the outcome of a democratic election. We’ve seen it with attacks on face masks and vaccines. And now we may be seeing it with libel law.

For more than half a century, protections enacted by the U.S. Supreme Court have shielded the press by enabling journalists to hold the powerful to account without having to worry about frivolous libel suits. The 1964 case of New York Times v. Sullivan established the principle that a public official would have to prove a news organization acted with “actual malice” — meaning that the offending material was known to be false or was published with “reckless disregard for the truth.” That standard was later extended to public figures as well. The decision provided journalism with the armor it needed to report fearlessly, enabling stories such as the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.

It seemed impossible that this bulwark would fall when, during the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump promised to “open up libel laws” in order to make it easier for people to sue media outlets. And it seemed only slightly less impossible in early 2019, when Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote an intemperate dissent arguing that Times v. Sullivan should be overturned in its entirety, returning libel law to the tender mercies of the states.

After all, the actual malice standard was enacted because the racist white power structure in the South had weaponized libel during the civil rights era as a way to intimidate the press. Surely Thomas’ fellow justices had no desire to return to those blighted days. Besides, a strong First Amendment appeared to be one of the few areas on which liberal and conservative judges agreed.

But weakening those protections began to seem more plausible several months ago when Judge Laurence Silberman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia praised Thomas — and joined his call to overturn Times v. Sullivan. Silberman threw a judicial tantrum, blasting what he viewed as liberal media bias and writing that “when the media has proven its willingness — if not eagerness — to so distort, it is a profound mistake to stand by unjustified legal rules that serve only to enhance the press’ power.”

Impossible. Then plausible. And, now, a glimmer of a potential coming reality: Earlier this month, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch joined Thomas in dissenting from a decision not to hear a case brought by the son of a former Albanian president against the author of a book who’d accused him of illegal gunrunning. Thomas’ opinion bristles with indignation and approvingly cites Silberman. Gorsuch, in turn, cites Thomas. But unlike Silberman and Thomas, Gorsuch’s opinion is all sweet reasonableness, discussing how much the media have changed since 1964 and asking, gosh darn it, why we shouldn’t acknowledge that social media, cable news and clickbait websites require a different approach to libel.

Arguing — correctly, I should note — that the actual malice standard allows media outlets to escape a libel judgment if they can prove they believed the defamatory falsehoods they published were true, Gorsuch writes: “It seems that publishing without investigation, fact-checking, or editing has become the optimal legal strategy…. Under the actual malice regime as it has evolved, ‘ignorance is bliss.’”

Gorsuch’s conclusion oozes good intentions. “I do not profess any sure answers,” he writes. “I am not even certain of all the questions we should be asking. But given the momentous changes in the Nation’s media landscape since 1964, I cannot help but think the Court would profit from returning its attention, whether in this case or another, to a field so vital to the ‘safe deposit’ of our liberties.”

Gorsuch’s opinion relies heavily on an academic paper titled “Rescuing Our Democracy by Rethinking New York Times Co. v. Sullivan,” by David A. Logan, a professor at the Roger Williams University School of Law. Logan writes that actual malice has provided the media with “what amounts to an absolute immunity from damages actions for false statements,” which in turn has “facilitated a torrent of false information entering our public square.”

Logan’s examination of the data shows that libel judgments have plunged in the years since Times v. Sullivan, suggesting that the decision has created a nearly insurmountable obstacle to public officials and public figures who’ve been wronged. He suggests several possible remedies, such as narrowing the definition of a public figure or devising a system that would allow plaintiffs to “secure a judgment of falsehood in return for giving up a claim for damages.”

And he closes with the big one: getting rid of the actual malice standard altogether and replacing it with something easier to prove, such as “highly unreasonable conduct.”

Changes that result in fewer protections for the press make me queasy. But if the Supreme Court is serious about revisiting actual malice, then adopting something like a juiced-up negligence standard, as Logan proposes, wouldn’t necessarily be the worst outcome. Negligence is already the standard for private figures in most states, as laid out in the 1974 case of Gertz v. Robert Welch. It would certainly be better than overturning Times v. Sullivan altogether.

But remember: What seems impossible today may become reality in the not-too-distant future. Changes to libel protections that we had long taken for granted are starting to look inevitable, especially in the hands of a Supreme Court built by Trump and Mitch McConnell. Let’s just hope the justices don’t do too much damage to the press’ ability to hold the powerful to account.

Muzzle follow-up

Well, it happened. The 2021 New England Muzzle Awards, published on July 1, singled out former President Donald Trump for whipping up fears about race in the classroom. As I noted, New Hampshire was one of several states considering a ban on the teaching of “divisive concepts” about race and gender in public schools and in the workplace.

Trump won. Last Friday, the Portsmouth Herald reported that the ban was inserted into the state budget by Republican legislators, and Gov. Chris Sununu, also a Republican, signed it into law. Oyster River Superintendent James Morse called the new law “a fundamental affront to academic freedom in teaching in terms of teachers making decisions on how they apply the curriculum set by the school board.”

Trump’s postmaster general targets journalism with a devastating rate hike

Painting by J.C. Leyendecker (1874-1951). Uploaded (cc) 2020 by Halloween HJB.

As scholars from Paul Starr to Victor Pickard have observed, newspapers in the United States have benefited mightily from postal subsidies since the earliest days of the republic.

Starting in the Reagan era, though, the U.S. Postal Service has been run under the misguided notion that it should break even or turn a profit rather than be operated as a public service. As a result, postal rates for periodicals have been rising for more than a generation, putting additional pressure on newspaper and magazine publishers who are already straining under the economic challenges posed by technology, cultural shifts — and, now, the post-pandemic recovery.

The latest bad news comes in the form of a report from The Associated Press that rates on periodicals are scheduled to rise by more than 8% on Aug. 29. The AP story, by David Bauder and Anthony Izaguirre, says the increase is “part of a broad plan pushed by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to overhaul mail operations.”

DeJoy, you may recall, is the ethically challenged Trump appointee who slowed down mail service last year, thus imperiling vote-by-mail efforts in the midst of the pandemic. For some reason, he appears to have more job security than Vladimir Putin.

Speaking of subsidies, you can support Media Nation — and receive a weekly newsletter with exclusive early content — by becoming a member for just $5 a month. Just click here.

Now, you might think that rising postal rates would simply push publishers to hasten their transition to digital. But it’s a simple matter of reality that print advertising continues to play an important role in keeping newspapers and magazines afloat. For instance, earlier this year, Ed Miller, the co-founder and editor of start-up Provincetown Independent, explained that he offers a print edition alongside a robust website because otherwise it would be just too difficult to make money.

Northwestern University Professor Penelope Muse Abernathy tells the AP that the effect of higher postal rates could be devastating for small local news projects that are already struggling. “It is one of several nicks and slashes that can damage the bottom line, especially if you are an independent publisher who is operating at break even or in the low single digits of profitability,” she says. “And most are.”

Ironically, a section of the Postal Service’s website sings the glories of how subsidies helped foster robust journalism, quoting George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The essay starts like this:

From the beginning of the American republic, the Founding Fathers recognized that the widespread dissemination of information was central to national unity. They realized that to succeed, a democratic government required an informed electorate, which in turn depended upon a healthy exchange of news, ideas, and opinions.

At a time when the idea of government funding for journalism is being debated in the public square, postal subsidies stand out as a particularly benign way to go about doing that. As with tax benefits for nonprofit news organizations, postal subsidies are indirect. That makes it difficult for the government to punish individual media outlets for tough coverage — as is happening right now in Western Pennsylvania, where the Republican-dominated state legislature has eliminated funding for public broadcasters even as one station has persisted in calling out the Republicans for touting the “big lie” about the 2020 election. (Republican officials deny there’s a connection.)

It’s long past time for Louis DeJoy to hit the bricks and for the post office to be reorganized as a public service. Foremost among those services should be helping to provide the public with reliable, affordable journalism.

In Georgia, a partisan news site replaces local journalism with false election claims

Here’s what happens when you don’t have a reliable source of local news in your community: partisan websites that look like local news pop up in order to push a political point of view. Most of them are right-wing, although there are also a few that lean left.

Last week NPR’s Stephen Fowler had a terrific piece about The Georgia Star News, a Trump-oriented project that is aligned with Steve Bannon, although it doesn’t sound like Bannon has an official role. “It’s very populist, it’s very nationalist, it’s very MAGA, it’s very American First,” Bannon reportedly said.

The lead story right now: “Merrick Garland’s Case Against Georgia Is a Loser, According to Legal Scholars and Journalists,” aggregated from The Federalist and opinion pieces in The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

What the Star News and sites like it do is work the media food chain. The website’s publisher, John Fredericks, has a radio talk show whose guests have included Bannon and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Fredericks’ talk show and website haved pushed false information about absentee ballots. (According to Fredericks’ website, his show was recently booted off YouTube. Gee, I wonder why?)

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who stood up for the integrity of Georgia’s elections when it really mattered, nevertheless called for an investigation based on the Star News’ story. From there the story was injected into the mainstream, since legitimate media outlets are in the habit of quoting Raffensperger. And, before you know it, Trump himself was praising the Star News for “the incredible reporting you have done.”

Fredericks claims his operation is profitable thanks to an injection of ads from Republican politicians.

As these “pink slime” operations go, Fredericks’ is rather modest — eight sites, compared to the 1,300 documented last fall by The New York Times. And Fredericks’ sites are statewide — they’re not promising the sort of hyperlocal news that, say, a right-wing site like the Macon (Georgia) Times does.

Still, the Star News points to the dangers of what can happen when we lose reliable local and regional news.