Trump’s Amazon-Post vendetta reflects his corrupting sense of victimization

If you care to read one more example of President Trump’s fundamentally corrupt way of looking at the world, I recommend Jon Lee Anderson’s profile of the former ambassador to Panama, John Feeley, which appears in the current New Yorker. Anderson begins with a shocking anecdote — or, rather, an anecdote that would be shocking if we had not long since gone numb. Feeley was sitting outside the Oval Office in June 2017, waiting for a meeting with Trump. He heard the president drop an F-bomb in the midst of a tirade, then was led in. Vice President Mike Pence and future chief of staff John Kelly were with the president. Anderson continues:

As he took a seat, Trump asked, “So tell me — what do we get from Panama? What’s in it for us?” Feeley presented a litany of benefits: help with counter-narcotics work and migration control, commercial efforts linked to the Panama Canal, a close relationship with the current President, Juan Carlos Varela. When he finished, Trump chuckled and said, “Who knew?” He then turned the conversation to the Trump International Hotel and Tower, in Panama City. “How about the hotel?” he said. “We still have the tallest building on the skyline down there?”

I offer this to illuminate a different story — one that was nearly overlooked last weekend amid an unusually weird and disturbing outburst of Trumpian mishegas.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Advertisements

Trump’s revenge: How tariffs on Canadian paper are killing journalism

Illustration via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It is the height of irony. President Trump, who detests the news media so much that he labeled them “the enemy of the American people,” has proved to be better for the journalism business than free scratch tickets tucked inside the “A” section. Thanks to the so-called Trump effect, newspapers and magazines have reported digital-subscription gains, cable news audiences have grown, and nonprofits such as NPR and ProPublica have gotten a boost.

But now Trump is getting his revenge. The U.S. Department of Commerce imposed tariffs on Canadian newsprint, as the grade of paper used in newspaper publishing is known, earlier this year, according to CNN.com. The tariffs have resulted in a 30 percent rise in the price of newsprint, which is the last thing the struggling business needs.

How bad is it? According to Tampa Bay Times chairman and chief executive Paul Tash, the tariff could increase the amount of money his paper spends on newsprint by $3 million for the year. As a result, the Times is eliminating about 50 jobs.

“These tariffs will hurt our readers, because they create pressure to raise our prices, and they will force publishers to re-examine every other expense,” Tash wrote, adding: “These tariffs will also hurt our employees, because payroll is the only expense that is bigger than newsprint.”

And in case you’re wondering, the Tampa Bay Times is not one of those corporate chain dailies controlled by a hedge fund. Rather, the Times is owned by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism education organization, and is one of our more highly regarded papers. Tash would not be cutting unless there were no alternative.

At one time the price of newsprint was a regularly recurring lament in the newspaper business. From the 1970s until about 2000, as papers expanded their coverage and classified-ad sections grew fat, the cost of paper exerted a drag on what otherwise would have been even higher profits. Newspaper owners responded by shrinking the size of their pages. The modern broadsheet is not very broad. I recently got a copy of the Mashpee Enterprise, one of a small group of old-fashioned community weeklies on Cape Cod. The width was enormous — nearly 14 inches — and it reminded me of what newspapers looked like when I was growing up. By contrast, The Boston Globe is 12 inches across, typical for the industry these days but tiny by historical standards.

Then, too, the price of newsprint wasn’t supposed to matter by 2018. Surely papers would have gone all-digital by now. As we know, it hasn’t happened. Although papers like the Globe, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others have bet the future on digital subscriptions, they remain tied at the present to the revenues generated by their print editions. Print advertising, though plummeting, has maintained its value better than digital advertising, and it exists outside the death grip of Facebook and Google. Print subscribers still outnumber digital subscribers, too, and they pay a lot more — although obviously the cost of printing and distribution is higher too.

All of which created a situation that left the newspaper business vulnerable to the latest depredations of the Trump administration. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, the current situation originated with a complaint filed with the Commerce Department by the North Pacific Paper Company, known as Norpac, which is based in Washington State. Norpac claimed that Canadian newsprint manufacturers have an unfair advantage over their American counterparts. But though Norpac argued that the Canadians paper mills should be punished because they receive government subsidies, other American newsprint manufacturers disagree — and argue that Norpac is seeking short-term profits for the benefit of its (you guessed it) hedge-fund owner. The details were reported by Bloombergin late December.

Norpac’s single plant employs about 300 people, the CNN report says. Meanwhile, the News Media Alliance, which represents some 2,000 newspapers in North America, says that some 600,000 American workers are dependent on Canadian paper for their jobs at newspapers and in commercial printing. Norpac, according to an op-ed piece written by David Chavern, president and CEO of the alliance, “is not acting in the best interests of newsprint consumers or the U.S. paper industry at large — it is acting in its own interest and no one else’s.”

The alliance is hoping to persuade the Trump administration to reverse the tariff on Canadian newsprint. We’ll see what happens. On the one hand, the president has been flexible to the point of chaotic with his on-again, off-again approach to which tariffs he wants to impose and which countries he wants to punish. On the other hand, he may see the newsprint tariff as a two-fer: Not only does he get to make life more difficult for the newspapers he so loathes, but the move benefits his fellow wealthy plutocrats as well.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Misdiagnosing what’s wrong with The New York Times

Joe Pompeo has a new piece in Vanity Fair about all the unhappy people inside The New York Times. It’s deeply reported and interesting, but it also strikes me as a diversion from the main problem with the Times these days.

Pompeo’s thesis is that the Times is riven by factionalism that can largely (though not exclusively) be defined as younger “woke” staff members who would like to see the paper pursue a more explicitly liberal and anti-Trump path versus older, more traditional journalists who value balance and neutrality. The money quote is from Times manager editor Joe Kahn:

We do not see ourselves, and we do not wish to be seen, as partisan media. That means that the news and opinion divide, and things like social-media guidelines and some of our traditional restrictions on political activity by employees, may feel cumbersome to some people at this point in our evolution.

Pompeo did the reporting and I didn’t. So he may well be right about what people talk about inside the Times. Outside, though, the Times’ loyal and largely liberal readership is talking about other issues — such as the paper’s equally negative coverage of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign in the face of mountainous evidence that their transgressions were not remotely equal; the Times’ harsh but ultimately normalizing coverage of the Trump presidency (in contrast to The Washington Post, which has been relentless); and its weirdly gentle treatment of people on the far right, such as the notorious profile of the Nazi next door.

I wrote about these issues for WGBH News in January. I don’t think things have gotten better at the Times since then.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Trump’s attacks on the ‘Fake Washington Post’ show how he’s different from Nixon

Illustration (cc) 2012 by AK Rockefeller.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

A little less than two years ago, as Donald Trump was moving ever closer to wrapping up the Republican presidential nomination, Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos made a rather remarkable promise. “I have a lot of very sensitive and vulnerable body parts,” he said in a public conversation with the paper’s executive editor, Marty Baron. “If need be, they can all go through the wringer rather than do the wrong thing.”

At the time, Trump was attacking the Post and Amazon, the retail behemoth that Bezos had founded, by threatening to launch an antitrust investigation and end Amazon’s (nonexistent) tax breaks. So Bezos’ promise carried with it a very specific meaning, especially for those steeped in Watergate lore. When Post reporter Carl Bernstein asked one of Richard Nixon’s thugs, John Mitchell, to comment on a particularly damaging story, Mitchell famously responded: “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” And here was Bezos, all those years later, pledging to stand tall in the face of threats from the powerful — as tall as Katharine Graham had in the 1970s. It was a promise that is now being put to the test.

President Trump, of course, has attacked the “fake news” media relentlessly. Last week, he turned his attention, as he sometimes does, to the Post.

In a subsequent tweet, Trump claimed that Bezos should be required to register the Post as a “lobbyist” for Amazon. He also referred to the paper as the “Fake Washington Post.” For those of us who are connoisseurs of such things, that’s a major improvement over his previous derogatory nickname, the “Amazon Washington Post,” though still not quite a match for the truly inspired “Failing New York Times.”

Of course, it’s easy to mock Trump. But his attacks on the Post go beyond buffoonery — they potentially represent real trouble. Imagine what would happen if the Trump administration launched an investigation into Amazon with the intent of harming the Post. The supine Republican Congress wouldn’t do anything but vaguely express concern. The Fox News-led right-wing media would bray for the Post’s demise.

And yet Trump isn’t Nixon. I don’t mean Trump isn’t as bad as Nixon; give him time, and he could prove to be worse. I mean that, stylistically, they are very different people with diametrically opposite ways of looking at the world. Nixon, for all his faults, fundamentally understood the legitimacy of the institutions he was seeking to undermine. He acted in secret, and the actions he considered taking against the Post — hitting the paper with a criminal complaint in order to undermine its public stock offering, challenging the licenses of the TV stations it held — would have hurt the Post in real, measurable ways.

By contrast, it’s hard to know how seriously to take Trump’s threats, based as they are on falsehoods so blatant that they can only be called lies. Amazon is not costing the post office money; it’s actually a boon. The Post is not a lobbyist for Amazon; Bezos has allowed the paper to operate independently, keeping his distance from both the news operation and the editorial pages. Trump is right about Amazon’s harming brick-and-mortar retailers, but it has paid state and local taxes just like any other company for some years now.

Also in contrast to Nixon’s skullduggery, Trump voices his threats in public. And that’s the key to what is really going on. Trump understands that in the current media environment, he doesn’t have to harm the business prospects of his enemies in the press (although Gabriel Sherman, writing in Vanity Fair, reports that he might try to go after the Post). He merely has to delegitimize them in the eyes of the 35 to 40 percent of the public that continues to support him. The Post, the Times, and other news organizations are benefiting from the “Trump effect,” as anti-Trump audiences are rewarding them not just with clicks but with paid subscriptions. Trump doesn’t care as long as he is able to convince his followers that he and his sycophants at Fox News and Breibart are the source of all the reality that they need.

In the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign, at a time when it looked like Trump was going to lose, Bezos spoke out against Trump for suggesting he wouldn’t respect the results of the election unless he won. “One of the things that makes this country so amazing is that we are allowed to criticize and scrutinize our elected leaders,” Bezos said. “There are other countries where if you criticize the elected leader you might go to jail. Or worse, you may just disappear.”

In fact, Trump is making his enemies in the media disappear — not to all of us, and certainly not to the majority who are appalled by his presidency. But he is making the mainstream media disappear to his followers and replacing them with himself as the ultimate arbiter of reality. The Fake Washington Post and the Failing New York Times aren’t going anywhere. For the Trump minority, though, they have ceased to exist.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

The Stormy Daniels interview moves her story to center stage. How will Trump react?

Stormy Daniels and Anderson Cooper. Photo via CBS News.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

For those of us who follow this stuff obsessively, there was little new information in the “60 Minutes” interview with porn star Stormy Daniels. The alleged physical threat against Daniels if she told anyone about her alleged 2006 dalliance with Donald Trump? Her lawyer leveled that charge on CNN more than a week ago. The possibility that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s $130,000 payment to Daniels just before the 2016 election violated campaign-finance laws? That had already been reported by The Washington Post, among others. For that matter, many of the details we heard Sunday go back to The Wall Street Journal’s original story of Jan. 12.

But that doesn’t mean there was no news value in Daniels’ sitdown with Anderson Cooper. For one thing, there was the simple fact that we were hearing all this for the first time from Daniels herself. For another, in an era when it is increasingly difficult to be heard above the media din, “60 Minutes” remains one of the few outlets in which it is still possible to reach a mass audience. Viewers who knew little about this before learned a lot. Daniels’ story has now moved to center stage.

The question now is whether the Stormy Daniels affair will eclipse all the other ugliness surrounding and involving President Trump — or if it should. Even given Daniels’ allegation that she was physically threatened, her one-time consensual encounter with Trump — still denied by the president — hardly rises to the seriousness of the numerous credible claims by women that Trump sexually assaulted them. Then, too, there is special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, which appears to be moving ever closer to the president. A possible $130,000 campaign-finance violation is trivial when seen in that light.

CBS News posted the transcript of the interview while we were all waiting for the basketball game to end, so I had a chance to read it and then watch. Several aspects of the interview struck me as worth pondering, and we’ll see how they play out in the days ahead.

• Daniels said Trump told her she reminded him of his daughter Ivanka. Trump’s sexualized talk about Ivanka has been remarked upon for years, but repetition makes it no less vile. In 2004, Trump said to Howard Stern that it was all right for Stern to call Ivanka “a piece of ass.” The future president assessed the quality of his daughter’s breasts, too. There are other examples I could cite, but I’ll simply note that, just last week, Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who says she had sex with Trump, told Anderson Cooper in a CNN interview that Trump said she was “beautiful like her” — that is, like Ivanka. This is deeply disturbing behavior if true.

• Daniels has some serious credibility issues. I found Daniels to be believable — articulate and composed, with no obvious holes in her story. But that’s not the same thing as being credible. Cooper bore in on her and her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, noting that she had signed a nondisclosure form Cohen gave her and took the $130,000, and had signed statements on other occasions saying she’s never had sex with Trump. “How do we know you’re telling the truth?,” Cooper asked Daniels. Her response: “’Cause I have no reason to lie. I’m opening myself up for, you know, possible danger and definitely a whole lot of s***.” Avenatti, speaking of his client’s past denials, conceded: “I think there’s no question that it calls into question her credibility.”

• Anderson Cooper is a first-rate interviewer. It’s too bad that Cooper’s CNN gig has been reduced to presiding over panels of empty — sorry, I mean talking — heads. He’s a fine journalist, and he did a calm, professional, and thorough job on Sunday. He managed the difficult task of letting Daniels tell her story without seeming to endorse it in any way. As I said, he pressed Daniels and Avenatti hard on the credibility issue. He also questioned Avenatti on his (distant) past as a Democratic operative. Cooper got experts to discuss the possible campaign-finance violation, and viewers came away understanding that it’s not at all clear whether that aspect of the story is especially important — although it could be.

Daniels was a tease on perhaps the most titillating question of the night — whether she has videos, photos, or other records that would prove embarrassing to Trump. Under the nondisclosure agreement, she was supposed to turn over any such documents. But she’s already violated the agreement (she and Avenatti say there is no agreement because Trump never signed it), so who knows what might come next? As The New York Times noted over the weekend, Trump has never tweeted about Daniels. We may speculate on the reasons for that.

The most likely effect of the Daniels interview is that it will feed into Trump’s towering rage and the utter chaos that is surrounding him, as reported in another Times article on Saturday. If nothing else, Daniels’ decision to wage a public battle with Trump could very well lead the president to lash out in other directions. It’s a frightening prospect, but we live in dark times.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Dr. Vox explains how Trump has exposed the right as a collection of grievances

Important thread by David Roberts of Vox on how President Trump has exposed the right for what we knew in our hearts it was all along: an inchoate collection of grievances uninterested in policy or ideas. He’s also got some smart things to say about what’s wrong with The New York Times’ conservative columnists, who are monolithically anti-Trump. Start here:

Roberts’ views are somewhat related to my recent WGBH News column on the irrelevance of the anti-Trump right, although I hold them in higher regard than he does.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Behold the irrelevance of the #NeverTrump right

The conservative movement is now a subsidiary of Trump Inc. Photo (cc) 2015 by Michael Vadon.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Is it possible to be more politically irrelevant than #NeverTrump conservatives? From the moment that Donald Trump began his presidential campaign, the conservative establishment has been in a perpetual state of horrified gobsmackery. But that hasn’t stopped the Trumpist base from taking over the Republican Party.

And so it was that on Saturday the starboard-leaning pundit Mona Charen was booed at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) for the apostasy of suggesting that, no, it’s not OK for conservatives to make excuses for the sexual predator in the White House. And no, it’s not OK for CPAC to invite a member of the neo-fascist, Holocaust-denying Le Pen family to address the gathering.

Nor was Charen merely booed. She actually had to be escorted out of the building by security guards lest some overly enthusiastic #MAGA types decided to place themselves between her and the door.

“I spoke to a hostile audience for the sake of every person who has watched this spectacle of mendacity in disbelief and misery for the past two years,” Charen wrote in an op-ed piece for The New York Times. “Just hearing the words you know are true can serve as ballast, steadying your mind when so much seems unreal.”

Charen was followed by her fellow anti-Trumper Max Boot, who recently joined The Washington Post’s opinion section — and who, on Sunday, went so far as to say that he could no longer call himself a conservative. “I prefer to think of myself as a classical liberal,” Boot wrote, “because ‘conservative’ has become practically synonymous with ‘Trump lackey.’”

Charen, Boot, and other anti-Trump conservatives find themselves in an unusual position. On the one hand, they get plenty of attention, especially on the editorial pages of the Times and the Post, where they provide satisfying entertainment for the papers’ mostly liberal readers. On the other hand, they have been virtually cast out of the Republican Party, which these days is in thrall to the racism, nationalism, and demagoguery that have been the hallmarks of the Trump era. At least Democrats can look forward to the next election.

The marginalization of traditional conservatives has been a long time coming. Back in January 2016, National Review — founded by William F. Buckley Jr. — published a special issue titled “Against Trump.” The list of conservative pundits who oppose Trump is impressive, and includes former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum (whose year-old Atlantic piece on how Trump could build an autocracy remains must reading), Weekly Standard founding editor Bill Kristol, Commentary’s John Podhoretz, the Post’s Jennifer Rubin, Michael Gerson, and George Will, and the Times’ David Brooks, Ross Douthat, and Bret Stephens. Even farther-right pundits who share some sympathies with Trump’s positions, like Rod Dreher of The American Conservative and Ben Shapiro of The Daily Wire, always are careful to make it clear that they do not support the president himself.

In many ways, members of the non-Trumpist right have no one but themselves to blame. This moment did not come out of nowhere. Richard Nixon had his “Silent Majority.” Ronald Reagan exploited racial tensions and helped create the notion of the undeserving poor. Indeed, those members of the white working class who voted for Trump are direct descendants of the so-called Reagan Democrats. The conservative intelligentsia was only too happy to exploit these voters over issues of race, guns, and abortion so that they could pursue their real agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy, free trade, and endless war.

For traditional conservatism to be relevant again, it must first move beyond its current media platforms of liberal op-ed pages and tiny magazines. The Trumpists have their own media in the form of Fox News, Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh, and out-and-out conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones — and they reach tens of millions of people who believe their propaganda and falsehoods.

Still, nothing is forever. Although it is impossible to imagine the sequence of events that would result in the conservative establishment’s gaining ascendance over Trumpism, it was just as impossible several years ago to imagine that Trump would take over the Republican Party — and, of course, be elected president. If conservatives are going to make a comeback, though, they need to address their own rot from within.

In an essential Post article on the marginalized conservative press, National Review editor Rich Lowry sounded like he gets it. “One of the giant ironies of this whole phenomenon for us is that Trump represents a cartoonish, often exaggerated, version of the direction we wanted to see the party go in,” he was quoted as saying. “Trump was in a very different place on regulation and trade, but we had been widening the lens of mainstream conservatism and arguing that the party needed to be more populist.”

In other words, something like Trumpism — only without Trump, racism, or xenophobia. It would be a start.

Update

Last week I wrote about my frustrations with Twitter after I locked myself out through a series of mishaps and couldn’t get back in. Thanks to some human intervention, I’m back. But Twitter and other internet services need to do a much better job of helping customers who lack the connections to get beyond automated customer service.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

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

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

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk about this post on Facebook.

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

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

Previously published at WGBH News.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk about this post on Facebook.

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

Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday updates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk about this post on Facebook.