From the local-news crisis to Trump’s lies, 2019 was a year to put behind us

Tucker Carlson. Photo (cc) 2019 by Seth Anderson.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The devolution of Tucker Carlson. The MIT Media Lab’s entanglement with career sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein. The ever-present threat to free speech. And, above all, the ongoing corporate-fueled crisis afflicting local news.

These are the themes that emerged in my most-read commentaries for WGBH News from the past year. We live in difficult times, and my list might provoke pessimism. But given that four of my top 10 are about the meltdown of local news, I’m at least somewhat optimistic. People really care about this stuff. And that’s the first step toward coming up with possible solutions. So let’s get to it.

10. Whatever happened to Tucker Carlson? (March 12). When Fox News talking head Tucker Carlson began his journalistic career in the mid-1990s, he built a reputation as a smart, unconventional conservative, a stylish writer and (as I can attest) a charming lunch companion. Today he is a racist, sexist hate-monger and a full-throated apologist for President Trump. What happened? Although I can’t read Carlson’s mind, it would appear that he values fame and fortune over principle. In that sense, Carlson is a metaphor for nearly the entire conservative movement, with the few conservatives of conscience having been exiled to #NeverTrump irrelevance.

9. Corporate newspaper chains’ race to the bottom (Jan. 16). One year ago, the cost-slashing newspaper chain Gannett was fighting off a possible takeover by Digital First Media (now MediaNews Group), owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital and generally regarded as the worst of the worst. Gannett avoided that grim fate. But by the end of the year, Gannett had merged with another bottom-feeder, GateHouse Media. The first order of business: Cutting another $400 million or so from papers that had already been hollowed out, including titles that serve more than 100 cities and towns in Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

8. The move from no-profit to nonprofit journalism (May 15). A brief period of hope greeted Paul Huntsman after he bought The Salt Lake Tribune in 2016. Instead, the cutting continued, as Huntsman discovered that 21st-century newspaper economics were more of a challenge than he’d imagined. Then, last spring, he announced that he would seek to reorganize the Tribune as a nonprofit entity. Several months later, the IRS approved his application. Nonprofit ownership is not a panacea — the Tribune still must take in more money than it spends. But by removing the pressure for quarterly profits and keeping the chains at bay, Huntsman might point the way for other beleaguered newspaper owners.

7. Fact-checking and the dangers of false equivalence (Sept. 18). We have never had a president who spews falsehoods like President Trump. Much of what he says can be chalked up to old-fashioned lying; some of it consists of conspiracy theories from the fever swamps of the far right that he might actually believe. Fact-checkers at The Washington Post, CNN, PolitiFact and other news organizations have diligently kept track, with the Post reporting several weeks ago that Trump had made more than 15,000 “false or misleading claims” during his presidency. Yet the media all too often remain obsessed with balance in this most unbalanced of times. And thus Democratic presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, are inevitably held to a higher standard, being branded as liars for what are merely rhetorical excesses or even disputed facts.

6. Yes, millennials are paying attention to the news (July 24). Millennials are often, and wrongly, caricatured as self-absorbed and caring about little other than where their next slice of avocado toast is coming from. It’s not true. A study by the Knight Foundation, which surveyed 1,600 young adults, “shows that 88 percent of people ages 18-34 access news at least weekly, including 53 percent who do so every day.” The findings matched what I’ve seen in many years of teaching journalism students: they’re dubious about the news as a curated package, but they’re well-informed, highly quality-conscious and not wedded to the notion of loyalty to specific news brands. Can we put them in charge now, please?

5. Stop letting Trump take up residence inside your head (Jan. 2). I kicked off 2019 with a list of five ideas for de-Trumpifying your life. Unfortunately, the president’s bizarre, hateful rants and policies can’t be ignored completely — but surely we can save our outrage for his truly important outbursts. Looking back, I think my best piece of advice was to pay more attention to non-Trump news, especially at the local level. We live in communities, and making them work better is a great antidote to our dysfunctional president.

4. Post-Jeffrey Epstein, some questions for the MIT Media Lab (Sept. 11). Joi Ito, a celebrated star in the media world, was forced to resign as director of the MIT Media Lab after his modified limited hangout about his financial entanglements with serial rapist Jeffrey Epstein, who committed suicide while in jail, turned out to be far more extensive than he had originally admitted. That, in turn, brought the Media Lab itself under scrutiny. In the post-Ito, post-Epstein era, questions remained about exactly how dependent the lab had become on Epstein’s money — and whether it was really producing valuable work or if some of it was smoke and mirrors aimed at impressing its mega-wealthy funders.

3. Don’t blame the internet for the decline of local journalism (Nov. 27). Following yet another round on academic Twitter arguing that we need new forms of journalism in response to the damage that the internet had done to local news, I was mad as hell and couldn’t take it anymore. Yes, technology has done tremendous harm to the business model that traditionally paid for the news. But equally to blame is the rise of chain ownership intent on bleeding newspapers dry before discarding them and moving on. From Woburn, Massachusetts, to New Haven, Connecticut, independent local news organizations are thriving despite the very real economic pressures created by the rise of Craigslist, Google and Facebook. Local news isn’t dying — it’s being murdered by corporate greed.

2. Calling out New England’s enemies of free expression (July 2). Since 1998, I’ve been writing an annual Fourth of July round-up of outrages against the First Amendment called the New England Muzzle Awards. For many years, the Muzzles were hosted by the late, great Boston Phoenix. Since 2013, they’ve made their home at WGBH News. The 2019 list included school officials in Vermont who tried to silence the high school newspaper (and lost) and a police chief in Connecticut whose officers arrested a journalist during a Black Lives Matter protest to prevent her from doing her job. And don’t miss the 2019 Campus Muzzles, by Harvey Silverglate, Monika Greco and Nathan McGuire, which focus on free-speech issues on college campuses.

1. GateHouse decimates its already-decimated newspapers (June 5). As I noted above, the Gannett newspaper chain managed to fend off the depredations of Alden Global Capital. But Alden, Gannett and GateHouse Media danced around each other all year. In the spring, GateHouse, already known for taking a bonesaw to its newspapers, eliminated about 170 positions at its papers nationwide and merged 50 of its smaller weeklies in Greater Boston into 18, a surefire way to undermine customer loyalty to the local paper. “We remain positive about the future for local media but certainly acknowledge that the business model for community news is under pressure,” GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis told me. But by year’s end, GateHouse had merged with Gannett, Davis was gone — and the cutting continued.

So what will 2020 bring? Call me crazy, but I think we’re going to see some good news on the local-journalism front. As for what will happen nationally, I think I can safely predict that the political press will continue to focus on polls and campaign-trail controversies at the expense of substance, continuing a trend documented recently by my colleagues Aleszu Bajak, John Wihbey and me at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.

Finally, my thanks to WGBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2020.

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Why a lawsuit against a Black Lives Matter activist threatens the First Amendment

DeRay Mckesson earlier this year. Public domain photo by the LBJ Library.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

In September 2018, President Donald Trump won an important First Amendment victory. By a 3-0 vote, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled that neither Trump nor his campaign could be held liable for injuries suffered by protesters at the hands of Trump supporters during a March 2016 rally even though the then-candidate had yelled to “get ’em out of here.”

The court’s reasoning was based on the straightforward application of free-speech principles: Trump had not advocated violence at the Kentucky rally (in fact, he had also said “don’t hurt ’em”), and therefore he couldn’t be successfully sued even though some people were roughed up.

The decision may have been a disappointment for those who thought Trump should be held accountable for his careless words. But under the First Amendment, political speech receives the highest level of protection except in the most extreme circumstances.

Now, though, those principles are in danger. Based on a similar set of facts, the 5th Circuit ruled recently that a police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, can sue Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson for injuries he received at the hands of a rock-throwing protester — even though, as The Washington Post reported, “Mckesson did not throw the rock or tell anyone else to throw it.”

Mckesson had organized the 2016 demonstration following the police killing of a black man named Alton Sterling. The police officer, whose identity has not been revealed, claims that Mckesson acted negligently by not foreseeing that the demonstration could become violent.

“The goal of lawsuits like these is to prevent people from showing up at a protest out of the fear that they might be held responsible if anything happens,” Mckesson said in a statement released by the ACLU, which earlier this month asked the Supreme Court to take up the case. “If this precedent lasts, it could make organizers all across the country responsible for all types of things they have no control over, such as random people coming into a protest and causing problems. We can’t let that happen.”

The Supreme Court precedent that protected Trump and that, by all rights, should protect Mckesson is NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., a case decided in 1982. The NAACP in 1966 called for a boycott of white-owned businesses in Claiborne County, Mississippi — a nonviolent form of protest that nevertheless led to some acts of violence. In 1969, several of the business owners sued the NAACP and were successful in the state courts. But the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the NAACP could not be held liable for engaging in nonviolent free-speech activities regardless of actions taken by people not under the organization’s control.

Although the cases against Trump and Mckesson, like the case against NAACP, were for alleged civil offenses, it’s also worth noting the high bar the Supreme Court has set for incitement to violence in criminal cases. In the landmark 1969 case of Brandenburg v. Ohio, the court threw out the conviction of Ku Klux Klan leader Clarence Brandenburg because the threats he made at a rally against African Americans and Jews were non-specific and would not result in imminent violence.

In their petition to the Supreme Court, the ACLU’s lawyers argue that allowing the lawsuit against Mckesson to proceed would have a chilling effect on anyone who might wish to organize a nonviolent protest.

“Given the regularity with which violence and First Amendment activity co-occur and the vagaries of state law liability rules,” the lawyers wrote, “only the most intrepid citizens would exercise their rights and risk ruinous liability if they could be held liable for the wrongful acts of others.”

Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, put it this way in the Washington Post story: “If this is allowed to stand, anybody can show up and throw a rock at a protest to bankrupt a movement they disagree with. People know when they step into the street that they might have to spend some hours in jail or pay a fine. But if they might have to pay a multi-million dollar civil judgment — that’s something they’re not prepared for, and can’t possibly be expected to prepare for.”

The case should prove to be a telling indicator of where the Supreme Court stands on free speech now that it has swung sharply to the right. Only four of the nine justices are needed take up the case.

Traditionally, even the court’s more conservative members have proved to be staunch advocates of the First Amendment. But if Trump’s justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, were to break with that tradition, the case of DeRay Mckesson v. John Doe could prove to be a signal moment in our march to a less open, less free society.

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Van Jones should acknowledge that he was wrong about Clinton and Gabbard

Tulsi Gabbard earlier this year. Photo (cc) by Marc Nozell.

Van Jones is ripping Hillary Clinton for suggesting that Russian interests are seeking to use Tulsi Gabbard’s fringe presidential campaign to divide Democrats and help President Trump get re-elected. Here’s what Jones said on CNN:

If you’re concerned about disinformation … that is what just happened, just throw out some information, disinformation, smear somebody. She is Hillary Clinton. She’s a legend. She’s going to be in the history books, she’s a former nominee of our party, and she just came out against a sitting U.S. congresswoman, a decorated war veteran, and somebody who’s running for the nomination of our party with a complete smear and no facts.

In fact, there was nothing novel about Clinton’s contention. NBC News reported on Russian interest in Gabbard’s candidacy last February (via Sue O’Connell) in a detailed investigative report that begins:

The Russian propaganda machine that tried to influence the 2016 U.S. election is now promoting the presidential aspirations of a controversial Hawaii Democrat who earlier this month declared her intention to run for president in 2020.

An NBC News analysis of the main English-language news sites employed by Russia in its 2016 election meddling shows Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who is set to make her formal announcement Saturday, has become a favorite of the sites Moscow used when it interfered in 2016.

Now, I realize that CNN talking heads are required to speak many words, and sometimes things go haywire. But for Jones not to be aware of longstanding concerns about Gabbard and Russian propaganda is unacceptable.

Here is what Clinton said on David Plouffe’s podcast, in which she doesn’t name Gabbard but clearly points to her:

I think they [the Russians Republicans] have got their eye somebody who’s currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate. She’s a favorite of the Russians. They have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far.

Clinton also said Jill Stein, who ran a third-party campaign in 2016, was a “Russian asset,” which is an uncontroversial assertion to anyone who paid attention. As with Gabbard, we can’t know what Stein was thinking, but it’s simply a fact that Stein’s candidacy was pushed by RT and other elements of Russian’s propaganda machine.

What Clinton said was the opposite of fake news, and Jones should acknowledge it. Then again, liberal commentators like Jones have a huge incentive to rip other liberals so they will be seen as “fair.” And the Clintons have been everyone’s favorite punching bag for such exercises for nearly 30 years.

Correction and update: Thanks to this Wall Street Journal story and Dylan Smith’s transcript of the Clinton-Plouffe exchange, we now know that Clinton said Gabbard was being groomed by the Republicans, not by the Russians, and that she did not call Gabbard a “Russian asset” (that was reserved solely for Stein). So Jones was even more unprepared and offbase than I originally thought.

Biden’s ‘demand’ that Giuliani be silenced is an affront to the First Amendment

Joe Biden could be the next president. And he has issued a “demand” (via his campaign) that the networks stop booking Rudy Giuliani, which they have a First Amendment right to do.

Yes, Giuliani is lying about the Bidens. But Biden, who may soon have the power to appoint FCC commissioners, could have “urged” or “requested” that the networks stop giving Giuliani a platform. “Demand” suggests consequences. Does Biden want to join Trump in eroding constitutional norms?

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How the press is helping to turn the Ukraine scandal into just another partisan brawl

Joe Biden in Iowa earlier this year. Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

For the first time in Donald Trump’s 33-month presidency, his impeachment seems possible — maybe even probable. The dam that withstood the Mueller Report has broken in recent days over the news that Trump may have withheld military aid from Ukraine in order to strong-arm that country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, into investigating Joe Biden. As “Never Trump” conservative Tom Nichols put it in The Atlantic: “If this in itself is not impeachable, then the concept has no meaning.”

Yet media fecklessness (and worse) has already pretty much guaranteed that the scandal will be seen in entirely partisan terms. To wit:

• In an appearance on MSNBC last Friday, New York Times reporter Kenneth Vogel breathed life into a discredited theory promoted by Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani that the real story is Biden and his son Hunter’s dealings with Ukraine. Vogel called it “a significant liability for Joe Biden,” adding that Giuliani should back off “and just kind of leave the reporters to do the work on it.”

• On Monday, NPR.org published a headline that was a parody of false equivalence: “What’s The Ukraine Story About? Trump Says It’s Biden. Democrats Say It’s Trump.” I captured an image of it as I was gathering string for this column. Good thing. Because within a few hours, someone had the sense to change it to “Trump And The Ukraine Call — What Happened And What’s Next?” (The old headline is still in the URL.)

• In the fever swamps of the right, Trump’s enablers are working hard to transform this into another Benghazi/ Uranium One/ “her emails” distraction. In The Hill, John Solomon wrote that the Obama administration leaned on Ukrainian officials to drop an investigation into Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company that had Hunter Biden on retainer. “Politics. Pressure. Opposition research,” Solomon wrote. “All were part of the Democrats’ playbook on Ukraine long before Trump ever called Zelensky this summer.” Naturally, Solomon popped up on Fox News on Monday evening, sharing his conspiracy theories with a rapt Sean Hannity.

As Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan put it: “Instead of snuffing out false and misleading claims, news stories give them oxygen. Then pundits come along to fan the flames — while simultaneously bemoaning what’s happened to our democratic norms.”

The Biden-Ukraine story is incredibly complicated, but the simplified version is this: Then-Vice President Biden served as the point man to pressure the Ukrainian government into removing that country’s prosecutor general, Victor Shokin, who had been investigating Burisma. Officials in both the United States and the United Kingdom were frustrated with Shokin for not moving aggressively enough in pursuing corruption. Shokin was in fact removed, and Biden took credit for it — more than he deserved, but that’s our Uncle Joe. There is no evidence that Hunter Biden benefited in any way or that the elder and younger Bidens even talked about the Burisma matter beyond one brief, non-substantive exchange.

Now this is where you, the fair-minded reader, probably find yourself wondering if there really is anything to the Biden angle. I wondered myself. What I discovered is every major fact-checking organization has concluded that neither of the Bidens did anything wrong. It’s fair to observe that Hunter Biden traded on his family connections in an unseemly way, collecting some $50,000 a month to serve on the Burisma board of directors. But as best as journalists have been able to determine, nothing illegal or corrupt took place.

You can check for yourself: Here is what Vox (“bogus”), PolitiFact (“nothing”), The Washington Post (“no equivalency”), The New York Times (“no evidence”; by Ken Vogel, no less) and The Wall Street Journal (“Neither Mr. Biden nor his son have been accused of any wrongdoing”) have had to say about the allegations against the Bidens.

It seems like a long time ago now, but this all started coming into focus two weeks ago, when U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, publicly charged the Trump administration with violating the federal whistleblower law by not allowing an official who reportedly had damaging information about the president to come forward.

It all unraveled pretty quickly last week, with the Post and the Times moving the story forward and the Journal hitting what the Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop called “the motherlode”: the news that Trump had pressured Zelensky in a phone call last July, repeating about eight times that Zelensky should investigate the Bidens.

Trump’s various explanations for what happened have shifted. He’s admitted to putting the squeeze on Zelensky to go after the Bidens, but his latest explanation for suspending some $400 million in military aid was that he wanted the Europeans to contribute more. He also has promised to release the transcript of his call with Zelensky sometime today. It’s not clear what if any steps are being taken to ensure that the transcript is accurate. Nor has the whistleblower information been turned over to Congress.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced late Tuesday afternoon that the House will begin a formal impeachment inquiry. In the weeks and months ahead, it is crucial that journalists do their job and not let themselves be sidetracked by Trump’s diversionary tactics about Joe and Hunter Biden.

Trump has actually admitted to demanding that a foreign government investigate one of his political opponents — as shocking a development as anything we have learned about Trump in his four-plus years as a national political figure. It remains to be seen if he also threatened to withhold military aid if the Ukrainians failed to comply, though the evidence suggests that’s exactly what he did.

Of course, if any legitimate concerns about the Bidens emerge, they should be investigated. What the press needs to avoid, though, is the urge to balance truthful information about Trump with his false accusations about one of his leading Democratic challengers.

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Fact-checking in the Age of Trump: Why false equivalence is harming democracy

Image (cc) by PolitiFact

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Have the media engaged in false equivalence when it comes to political lying? Do fact-checkers nitpick statements by Democrats in order to seem fair and balanced when they go after President Trump’s numerous and blatant falsehoods?

That proposition might seem ludicrous. After all, The Washington Post last month announced that Trump had made more than 12,000 false or misleading statements since his inauguration in 2017. Daniel Dale of CNN tracks every Trumpian falsehood — writing, for example, that the president “made at least 26 false claims” at a rally in New Mexico on Monday. PolitiFact has rated fully 69 percent of Trump’s public utterances as false to some degree, and 14 percent as being so at odds with reality that they have earned the coveted “Pants on Fire” rating.

And that’s just the tip of the journalistic iceberg. Indeed, if the media have told us anything about Trump over these past few years, it’s that he spews lies so freely that his every word and every tweet is suspect. So what do Democrats have to complain about?

This: Despite the media’s admirably tough-minded stance on Trump’s falsehoods, they are nevertheless holding Democrats to a much higher standard. Most politicians exaggerate, butcher the facts or shade the truth, and journalists should take note when they do. But the press should also be careful to point out the difference between standard-issue rhetorical excesses and the sort of gaslighting that Trump engages in on a daily basis.

Last week Michael Calderone of Politico wrote an important story about Democratic complaints regarding the fact-checkers’ embrace of false equivalence. He began with the example of Bernie Sanders’ claim that “500,000 Americans will go bankrupt this year from medical bills.” The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column awarded three Pinocchios (out of a possible four) to Sanders — not because he was completely wrong, but because medical bills were only one factor in those 500,000 bankruptcies. Meanwhile, Calderone noted, the Post also gave Trump three Pinocchios for claiming that large swaths of his border wall have been already built when, in fact, none of it has.

The Sanders example is a matter of factual interpretation. The Trump example is somewhere between a hallucination and a lie. Yet they each got the same rating. How can this be?

One explanation is that journalism, steeped as it is in notions of fairness and balance, is unequipped for the extraordinary challenge of the Trump era. Calderone offered several other instances of Democrats’ words being parsed for shades of nuance so that they could be labeled as lies. He also wrote that “several prominent fact checkers said they don’t believe their job has changed when it comes to holding politicians accountable for their words on the stump and in TV studios, despite Trump’s persistence falsehoods.” And he quoted PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan as saying, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” OK. But everything is not the same.

Consider an example that Calderone didn’t cite: Joe Biden’s recent mixing up of three separate stories about honoring a heroic soldier who had tried to save a comrade in Afghanistan. Yes, Biden botched it pretty badly, but the essential truth of what he was trying to say came through. Yet The Washington Post headlined it, “As he campaigns for president, Joe Biden tells a moving but false war story.” False? Not really. More like Biden being Biden, lacking the discipline to master the details and not understanding why it matters.

Or how about two years of obsessing over Hillary Clinton’s private email server while the news that Trump uses an unsecured cell phone, reported last October in The New York Times, got about two minutes’ worth of attention — even though Chinese and Russian spies were reportedly listening in on Trump’s calls.

Those last examples aren’t about lies and fact-checking. But all of this is grounded in a larger, more enduring issue — accusations of liberal bias on the part of conservatives, and the duck-and-cover response from too many journalists whose politics may indeed be liberal but who bend over backwards to torment liberal politicians. Eric Alterman, in his 2003 book, “What Liberal Media?,” called it “working the refs,” and it goes back at least to Spiro Agnew’s famous nattering nabobs of negativism speech of 1970.

In 2012 — a more innocent time — I wrote in The Huffington Post that one of the big problems with fact-checking was that politicians’ false or partly false statements were rarely full-blown lies, but that ratings like Pinocchios or “Pants on Fire” suggested that every falsehood was a lie. “The fact-checkers are shifting from judging facts to indulging in opinion, but they’re not necessarily doing it because they want to,” I wrote. “They’re doing it because politicians don’t flat-out lie as frequently as we might suppose.” Now we have a president who lies so promiscuously that the fact-checkers seek out minor factual discrepancies among Democrats so it won’t seem like they’re picking on Trump.

In a report for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Thomas Patterson found that press coverage of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign was actually more negative than that of Trump. In other words, her emails were treated the same as or worse than her opponent’s racist outbursts, the “Access Hollywood” tapecorruption at the Trump Foundation and so much more.

“Indiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions,” Patterson wrote. “Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it.”

Now we are moving into yet another presidential election season. The problem for 2020, as it was for 2016, isn’t that the media won’t report negative information about Trump. It’s that they will report negative information about his opponents in such a way that it all looks the same. In that respect, Democratic complaints about fact-checking that may seem trivial are actually emblematic of a much deeper problem with journalism: the primal urge to treat both sides equally, to be seen as fair, to avoid accusations of liberal bias.

It’s going to be an ugly, brutal campaign, and Trump’s going to drive the agenda once again. Are the media up to the challenge? The evidence suggests that the answer to that question is no.

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Only the best people

Madeleine Westerhout

The story of Madeleine Westerhout, the 28-year-old aide to President Trump who was fired for sharing nasty gossip about the Trump family after having a few drinks with reporters, is fascinating (the original Politico story is here; some background from The New York Times is here).

Westerhout reportedly despised Trump so much that she burst into tears the night he was elected. Yet she went to work for him, brought into the White House by former chief of staff Reince Priebus despite an exceedingly thin résumé. She grasped for more power. And she showed no loyalty to the president whatsoever.

These are the kinds of people Trump surrounds himself with, because no one with integrity will have anything to do with him.

It would be interesting to learn how her off-the-record remarks became public. Daniel Lippman of Politico, who broke the story, wasn’t there, so he’s in the clear. Trump ally Arthur Schwartz, he of the media attack squad, has pointed the finger at Philip Rucker of The Washington Post, who was there. His editor issued a statement vouching for Rucker’s integrity without quite denying that Rucker was the source. Rucker has not written about the incident.

Most likely we’re not going to get to the bottom of this.

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Outrage fades quickly over Trump fanboy’s campaign to embarrass the media

Meet the press. 2019 White House photo.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

We’ve become accustomed to Trump outrages that seem OMG in the moment only to fade quickly into obscurity — replaced, as such things inevitably are, by the next insult, outburst or tweet. But even by those standards, a New York Times story reporting that Republican operatives with White House ties were seeking to embarrass President Trump’s adversaries in the media had an unusually short half-life.

Yes, there were stern condemnations from the usual suspects. Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger posted a memo to the staff calling it “an unprecedented campaign,” saying of the operatives: “Their goal is to silence critics and undermine the public’s faith in independent journalism.” A CNN spokesman said that when government officials and their allies “threaten and retaliate against reporters as a means of suppression, it’s a clear abandonment of democracy for something very dangerous.”

Others, though, were less impressed with this latest so-called threat to the First Amendment. Will Sommer of The Daily Beast tweeted, “This piece sure makes a big deal about a couple of guys using Twitter Advanced Search.”

CNN’s Oliver Darcy wrote that another Daily Beast reporter, Maxwell Tani, had actually revealed the existence of the campaign, and of Trump fanboy Arthur Schwartz’s involvement, many months ago. And Jack Shafer of Politico saw no problem with digging up social-media dirt on journalists, citing similar efforts by watchdog groups such as Media Matters for America on the left and, many years earlier, Accuracy in Media on the right.

“As much as I would like to sympathize with my fellow journalists,” Shafer wrote, “it doesn’t strike me as unreasonable to ask them to own or repudiate vile or impolitic things they might have stated in the past. Nor is it remotely unfair for the president’s supporters to demand that journalists, who are forever denouncing him as a racist (because he is), be held accountable for their bigoted speech, on Twitter or anywhere else.”

Here’s the background according to the Times story, reported by Kenneth P. Vogel and Jeremy W. Peters. Schwartz, an ally of Donald Trump Jr. and former Trump-whisperer Steve Bannon, has reportedly gathered material on journalists at several news organizations perceived to be hostile to the president, including the Times, The Washington Post, and CNN. The fruits of Schwartz’s labors were on display recently when a Times editor named Tom Wright-Piersanti was forced to apologize after Breitbart reported that he had posted anti-Semitic tweets many years earlier.

The Breitbart hit, in turn, was supposedly in retaliation for a Times story on the checkered past of Trump’s new press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, who reportedly has a history of unethical workplace behavior as well as two drunken-driving arrests.

“If the @nytimes thinks this settles the matter we can expose a few of their other bigots,” Schwartz tweeted after the Breitbart story on Wright-Piersanti was published. “Lots more where this came from.”

What’s fair is fair? Not quite. There are, in fact, some troubling aspects to all this. Unlike Shafer’s examples, Media Matters and Accuracy in Media, Schwartz’s shop has ties to the White House. It’s not entirely clear how close those ties are, but they’re close enough that we ought to be concerned. The First Amendment, after all, was designed to protect the press so it could monitor the powerful, not protect the powerful so they can monitor the press.

Moreover, we expect our leaders and the people who work for them to meet certain basic moral and ethical standards, or at least we used to. Journalists, on the other hand, are judged by their work. If what they report is true and fair, then it should be irrelevant whether they drink to excess, jaywalk, or posted embarrassing and offensive tweets years ago.

Tom Jones put it this way in The Poynter Report: “Yes, absolutely, the media should be held accountable, too. But stories published or aired by reputable news organizations stand up to scrutiny through the use of facts, sources and citations. Because this [Schwartz’s] operation can’t discredit such stories, the next best thing to do is discredit the journalists and outlets by combing through tweets and Facebook and Instagram posts from years gone by.”

As attacks on the media go, this is fairly small. It’s not as serious as calling news organizations “Enemies of the People,” or banning reporters from the White House, or putting the safety of journalists at risk by whipping up angry mobs at Trump rallies.

But it erodes the norms of democracy around the edges, contributing to Trump’s meta-narrative that the press is just another partisan player that his devoted followers need not take seriously.

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Thunder on the left: The New York Times gets an earful from its most loyal readers

Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It has been an extraordinary few weeks for The New York Times.

From an outcry over a headline that blandly reported President Trump’s denunciation of racism in El Paso without acknowledging his own history of racist comments, to the demotion of an editor for several racially clueless tweets, to a fraught meeting with the staff called by executive editor Dean Baquet, the Times has found itself in an unaccustomed position: under fire from its core audience of liberal readers.

In sifting through Baquet’s remarks as well as those of the Times’ critics and defenders, it strikes me that the dispute is over two conflicting views of journalism’s role in covering a uniquely awful and dangerous presidency. The two sides are talking past each other, in large measure because much of what they say sounds similar. That is, they are on parallel tracks that never quite meet.

The Baquet side is that the Times is aggressively covering a terrible president, and is now in the midst of shifting from the Russia investigation to race. In this view, the coverage has been relentlessly harsh and negative (and accurate) but based on traditional journalistic values such as the respect accorded any president and the reality that Trump’s supporters need to be understood and explained.

“Our role is not to be the leader of the resistance,” Baquet said at the town hall meeting. In fact, that’s pretty much the same view expressed by Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron when he said, “We’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work.” Like many other observers, I give the Post higher marks than the Times in not normalizing this most abnormal of presidents. But, fundamentally, Baquet and Baron are on the same page.

The critics’ view is that even tough-minded accountability journalism is not enough for a president who regularly expresses racist opinions and enacts racist policies, who gladly accepted foreign intervention in the 2016 election, and who is undermining democratic norms through his lies, his attacks on the media, and his false claims that the electoral system is rigged against him.

As Ashley Feinberg put it in Slate, “the problem for the Times is not whether it can navigate social-media controversies or satisfy an appetite for #resistance-based outrage, both of which it can tell itself are not a newspaper’s job to do. It’s whether it has the tools to make sense of the world. On this point, Baquet was not reassuring or convincing.”

Liberal criticism of the Times may have reached the point of absurdity with Sunday’s unsparing profile of Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s thuggish anti-immigration policies. The headline in the print edition, “Shift Against Immigration Lifted a Young Firebrand,” drew howls from the left for not clearly labeling Miller a racist. The comedian Frank Conniff tweeted: “NY Times today called Stephen Miller a ‘young firebrand.’ Also once described Norman Bates as the ‘reclusive iconoclast of the hospitality industry.’”

In fact, the headline wasn’t nearly as bad as the one from El Paso that caused such an uproar earlier this month: “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism.” And, as with that first headline, the digital version was better, if more neutral than Trump critics might like: “How Stephen Miller Seized the Moment to Battle Immigration.” Besides, the story, by Jason DeParle, was first-rate.

The real issue over the two headlines may be the declining importance of the print product as well as the difficulty of writing good headlines in small spaces. As Baron once said, “ I mean newspaper headlines are terrible, right? They all have to be constrained within column sizes, so if you have a one-column head it’s all headline-ese. People don’t speak in headline-ese.”

There are larger forces at work in the liberal critique of the Times as well. As New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen observes, the Times, like all newspapers, is far more dependent on revenues from its readers as it shifts its business model from advertising to digital subscriptions. And many of those customers have taken to social media to let the Times know it when they don’t like what they see.

More to the point, the Times may very well have gotten Trump elected because of its obsession with Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server for official business. The Times’ coverage of the email story reached its ludicrous apogee with an over-the-top front page after then-FBI Director James Comey announced he had reopened the investigation just before the election — a blow from which her campaign did not recover, even after Comey said “never mind” a week later.

In Rosen’s view, the Times’ coverage of Clinton amounts almost to an original sin, and the paper has never come to terms with its readers — who, he writes, “are appalled by Trump and want to see his dark sides further exposed. They want the Times to be tougher on his supporters and more relentless in calling out his lying, his racism, his misogyny, his xenophobia. They want Times journalists to see what they see — an assault on democratic institutions — and to act accordingly. And they want a reckoning with the coverage of Hillary Clinton in 2016 because they know that somehow this is in the way of all other things.”

Of course, the reason that the Times has come under fire from liberals is that they see it as their paper. Whatever criticisms they give voice to are mild compared to the vitriol from the right — as we’ve experienced in recent days with the reaction of Newt Gingrich and others to the Times’ 1619 Project, marking the 400th anniversary of slavery in what became the United States. The 1619 Project promises to be a landmark achievement for the Times, which makes it all the more appalling that right-wing critics would rather defend white supremacy than come to terms with slavery’s legacy.

As Baquet said during the meeting with his staff, “Look, we are scrutinized. I ran another newspaper [the Los Angeles Times]. I’ve never seen anything like this. We are scrutinized more than any other news organization in the country, in the world probably. To be frank, some of that comes with being the biggest and, I would argue, the best. And as hard as it is to do this, I think we have to accept it.”

Baquet is right. As good as The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal are, the Times is still our best, most comprehensive general-interest newspaper. It is far from perfect. I’m still angry about the way it covered the run-up to the war in Iraq, the Whitewater non-scandal, and, yes, the 2016 campaign. If you’d like to go back a century, Walter Lippmann wrote that it blew the Russian Revolution and its aftermath as well.

But the Times’ journalistic values — offering a tough but straight report on what its editors have judged to be the most important news of the day — are always going to clash with the wishes of some of its audience to see their opinions and beliefs affirmed rather than challenged.

The Times has gone too far in normalizing Trump and Trumpism, and it often falls short on tone and emphasis. But you know what? We can adjust for that. It’s worth it.

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Better campaign coverage: More substance, less horse race — and holding Trump to account

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Nineteen days ago, the journalist and advice columnist E. Jean Carroll leveled a credible accusation of rape against President Trump. Carroll’s claim that Trump violently assaulted her during an encounter in the 1990s created a brief stir of outrage — then all but disappeared. Meanwhile, Trump’s lies and falsehoods mount, the abuse of children at the southern border continues, and his contempt for lawful subpoenas and even Supreme Court decisions grows. The press covers all of this, of course, but with an increasingly perfunctory, what-else-is-new tone of resignation.

Compare that with the second Democratic presidential debate, at which Sen. Kamala Harris reinvigorated her campaign by challenging former Vice President Joe Biden on race and by taking a stand in favor of Medicare for all. Here we are nearly two weeks later, and we’re still discussing whether Harris was being disingenuous given her own nuanced position on the use of busing to desegregate public schools and her shifting views on private insurance. Is Harris slippery? Is she electable? Was she too tough on poor old Joe? (And — gasp! — several of the candidates attempted a little Spanish, proving, of course, that they are hopeless panderers.)

Media coverage of the 2020 presidential campaign is shaping up to be the same depressing spectacle that it always is. With few exceptions, the press focuses on polls, fundraising, who’s up, who’s down, and who made a gaffe. Two and a half years after Hillary Clinton was denied the White House despite winning nearly 3 million more votes than Trump, there’s also a lot of dangerously silly talk about whether Americans are willing to elect a woman.

On Twitter, Washington Post political reporter Dave Weigel took a shot at acknowledging legitimate questions about Harris’ shifting views while placing them within a larger Trumpian context. “The question about Harris’s debate win is if she can shake off the problem that sapped her momentum before: Twisting into a pretzel when pressed on a policy question. So far…,” Weigel tweeted. “And yes, this is another area where Trump gets to play by different rules.”

The overarching problem is the same one that defined the 2016 campaign. As Weigel noted, the media hold Trump to a different standard than the Democratic candidates. The Democrats are treated as serious political players who should be held accountable for their policy positions and for what they say. Trump is presumed to be a lying imbecile, and is therefore not covered as though his words matter.

There was at least some justification for that in the last campaign, when media organizations assumed they could exploit the Trump phenomenon for ratings and profits, safe in the knowledge that, you know, he would not actually be elected. Now there are no excuses. But the press, like the rest of us, appears to be suffering from Trump fatigue, covering the president’s latest outbursts but then dropping them almost immediately in order to chase the next shiny object.

What would better coverage look like?

First, even though Trump will be all but uncontested for the Republican nomination (sorry, Bill Weld), reporters need to understand how crucial it is that he be held accountable in exactly the same way the Democratic candidates are. That seems unlikely to happen. But at a minimum we should avoid a repeat performance of 2016, when the media feasted on emails that had been stolen from the Clinton campaign, making themselves unwitting (and witting) accomplices of Russian efforts on Trump’s behalf.

Second, the media need to stop covering politics as a sporting event and focus on what really matters. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has emerged as a leading candidate on the strength of her in-depth policy proposals on issues such as income inequality, student debt relief, and health care. But a candidate’s background, experience, character, and leadership skills are at least as important as policy. Those tend to be the subject of lengthy chin-strokers early in the campaign, supplanted by the horse race once things heat up. It shouldn’t be that way — such stories are essential, and they should be at the center of any serious news organization’s coverage right up until Election Day. On a related note: Chuck Todd of NBC News should be banned from future debates for demanding one-word answers to complex, important questions.

Third, the press should stop trying to “define the narrative.” The narrative, such as it is, is what emerges, and shouldn’t be used as a mnemonic device to make it easier for journalists to do their jobs. Yes, there are serious questions about Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s temperament. But she had long been considered a real contender, and media overkill pretty much derailed her candidacy before it could begin. Warren was described as having missed her best chance by not challenging Clinton in 2016, but here she is. Harris opened strongly! stumbled! and now is back in it! These are normal ups and downs; the press errs by taking them too seriously.

There have been some positive signs. CNN’s one-hour town halls with the Democratic candidates have encouraged thoughtfulness and depth. Unfortunately, they demand too much from all but the most committed viewers. The 10-candidate “debates” on NBC were far too superficial. How about a series of 15-minute interviews, eight a night for three nights? That should be enough time to get into some substance.

As I wrap this up, Yahoo News is reporting that the Seth Rich conspiracy madness — the false tale that the Clintonistas ordered the 2016 murder of a young Democratic operative in order to cover up their own corrupt acts — originated with Russian intelligence. This bit of toxic fakery was not taken seriously by the mainstream media, but it was promoted by Sean Hannity on Fox News and, later, by the Trump White House itself. In other words, it got wide distribution and polluted our discourse even though actual news organizations handled it responsibly.

Which brings me to my final observation. Even if political reporters can improve on their efforts to hold Trump to account, to focus more on substance and less on the horse race, and to let the larger narrative emerge rather than trying to define it for us, there are few signs that they are prepared to deal with the new media world of foreign actors, Facebook fakery, and disinformation in which we are now immersed.

That world, as much as anything, got Trump elected in 2016. If the media aren’t prepared to identify and expose such efforts in 2020, it could happen again.

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