How a super-empowered minority and our outmoded Constitution upended Roe

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is so huge and terrible that it’s difficult to get our arms around it. So let me just look at a small chunk of it — the deeply undemocratic nature of our electoral system. You can find various polls with differently worded questions, but, in general, the public was firmly in favor of retaining Roe before Thursday’s decision. So how did we get here?

I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth repeating. A healthy modern democracy is based on the will of the majority, with protections in place for the minority. That’s why we have the Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, we now have a situation where a minority of voters is so super-empowered that how the majority votes almost doesn’t matter. Consider:

  • Donald Trump’s three Supreme Court justices — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — were nominated by a president who lost the popular vote in 2016 by nearly 3 million votes. That’s a significant margin. But because the Electoral College favors small states, which are mostly Republican, Trump was able to defeat Hillary Clinton.
  • Those three justices were confirmed by a Republican Senate that represented far fewer Americans than the Democratic senators did. In the current 50-50 Senate, Democrats represent nearly 42 million more people than Republicans. That’s because each state gets two senators, regardless of population.
  • The skew is only getting worse as liberals move to more urban areas. Indeed, you can expect that one of the effects of the Roe decision is that young people will flock to urban areas in blue states — thus empowering small-state Republicans even more.

If something can’t go on forever, then it won’t. More than half the country isn’t going to put up with being permanently disempowered. I don’t know how we get from here to there, and make the changes we need to our outmoded 18th-century Constitution, but I’m confident that we will. Change looks impossible — then, suddenly, everything changes all at once.

The Globe is named a Pulitzer finalist for editorials about post-Trump reforms

Photo (cc) 2021 by Brett Davis

A great editorial should persuade and effect change. But what if there is little or no chance that urgently needed reforms will be enacted? That was the challenge facing The Boston Globe editorial board last year when it published a series of essays arguing that the loopholes enabling Donald Trump’s corruption as president need to be closed so that nothing like it can happen again.

The editorials, by board member Abdallah Fayyad, were recognized Monday with a Pulitzer Prize finalist’s citation for “a persuasive editorial series arguing that the president of the United States could be prosecuted for crimes committed in office.” It was the closest that the Globe came to winning a 2022 Pulitzer. As Fayyad wrote:

Presidents in a democratic system of government are not meant to be able to extract personal profits from government service — or hand out pardons to imprisoned buddies, pervert justice, or foment an insurrection. That’s the promise of democracy: that it will be superior to these authoritarian tendencies of tyrants and kings. When these laws and norms are violated, they should be backed up by severe consequences if that democracy is to maintain its integrity. But right now, as it stands after Trump’s four years in office, American presidents can, in fact, commit all those abuses — and suffer little more than losing their Twitter account.

Nothing has changed. And given Trump’s continued vice grip on the Republican Party, which exercises effective veto power over any reform Congress might try to enact, nothing is going to change — at least not anytime soon.

Still, it’s worth laying down some markers. It was undeniably a good thing for a major journalistic institution like the Globe to explain why Trump was able to get away with all of it, and what it would take to prevent a future president (perhaps Trump himself) from engaging in the same kind of misconduct.

In the Globe’s own coverage of Monday’s announcement, Fayyad said: “It was surreal seeing my name up there on the broadcast alongside such great journalists. But I knew the project was deserving of this recognition because it wasn’t just my work; it took a whole team to make the series what it was — an amazing team at that.”

By the way, it looks like even the minor slap on the wrist Trump received by having his Twitter account canceled was only a temporary setback. Elon Musk, who’s poised to buy Twitter, said earlier today that he would allow the former president back onto the platform.

Politico’s extraordinary scoop on the end of Roe signals dark days ahead

Photo (cc) 2014 by Thomas Hawk

A few words about the extraordinary scoop broken Monday evening by Politico that the U.S. Supreme Court has put together a draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, thus freeing states to ban abortion.

First, we all make fun of Politico. I make fun of Politico. It succeeded by taking the horse-race approach to politics and amping it up on steroids, which hasn’t been good for anyone. But Politico is a large news organization with many talented journalists, most definitely including Josh Gerstein and Alexander Ward, who broke the Roe story. It is possible to both generalize about Politico’s shortcomings and praise it when it produces extraordinary work.

Second, Brian Stelter, writing for CNN’s “Reliable Sources” newsletter, flagged a tweet from SCOTUSblog that is worth pondering: “It’s impossible to overstate the earthquake this will cause inside the Court, in terms of the destruction of trust among the Justices and staff. This leak is the gravest, most unforgivable sin.

Good. If the right-wing majority is going to turn back the clock on reproductive rights by 50 years, then let the entire court descend into scorpions in a bottle. The interests of society as a whole may be better served by the spectacle of a court in chaos. We all need to understand that this is now a rogue institution, undone by Donald Trump’s illegitimate choices of Neil Gorsuch, who holds the seat that should have gone to Merrick Garland, and Amy Coney Barrett, rushed through at the last minute.

Third, the draft decision cites the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson as a case whose outcome was so egregiously wrong that it had to be overturned in its entirety. Plessy failed to recognize the rights of Black Americans under the 14th Amendment and was in fact reversed in Brown v. Board of Education 58 years later. The decision to overturn Roe, though, is more like Plessy than Brown in that it takes away long-established constitutional rights.

Historian Heather Cox Richardson compares the draft opinion to the infamous Dred Scott decision, the 1857 Supreme Court case that took away what few rights Black Americans had at that time and paved the way for the Civil War. She writes in her newsletter:

And so here we are. A minority, placed in control of the U.S. Supreme Court by a president who received a minority of the popular vote and then, when he lost reelection, tried to overturn our democracy, is explicitly taking away a constitutional right that has been protected for fifty years. Its attack on federal protection of civil rights applies not just to abortion, but to all the protections put in place since World War II: the right to use birth control, marry whomever you wish, live in desegregated spaces, and so on.

The decision isn’t final yet, but I don’t see how we can expect it to change. This is a dark day in American history — the latest in many dark days. God help us all.

Republicans have a Putin problem — and the media need to stop glossing over it

Madison Cawthorn. Photo (cc) 2020 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at GBH News.

Madison Cawthorn didn’t get the memo.

Sometime in early March, the extremist Republican congressman from North Carolina decided to go off on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “Remember that Zelenskyy is a thug,” Cawthorn told supporters. “Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and is incredibly evil and has been pushing woke ideologies.”

If Cawthorn had spoken, say, a month earlier, he might have earned the praise of former President Donald Trump and gotten invited to trash Zelenskyy some more on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program. But that was before Zelenskyy had emerged as a heroic figure, standing up to Russia’s invasion of his country with a combination of eloquence and courage. “I need ammunition, not a ride,” he said to those who thought he should flee.

So former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, the sort of establishment Republican who was frozen out during the Trump era, used his Wall Street Journal column to let his readers know that Republicans like Cawthorn and Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance (“I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another”) are outliers — and that the party is oh-so-very supportive of Zelenskyy. “Republican members of Congress, candidates and commentators echoing Mr. Trump’s isolationism and Kremlin apologetics are out of sync with GOP voters,” Rove wrote.

WRAL.com of North Carolina, which obtained video of Cawthorn taking the Kremlin line, pushed that message even harder, stressing in its lead that Cawthorn’s vile rhetoric was at odds with his party and calling it “a comment that runs counter to the overwhelming share of Republicans with a favorable view of the leader fending off a military invasion from Russia.”

Oh, please. Can we get real for a moment? Yes, Rove and WRAL cited poll numbers that show Republicans, like most Americans, are now pro-Zelenskyy and support Ukraine in fending off the massive Russian invasion. But that is an exceptionally recent phenomenon.

In January, for instance, a poll by The Economist and YouGov found that Republicans viewed Vladimir Putin more favorably than President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — hardly surprising after years of pro-Putin pronouncements by Trump.

No wonder former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who’d like to run for president, told Fox News that Putin is “a very talented statesman” with “lots of gifts” who “knows how to use power,” as Eric Boehlert, who tracks conservative bias on the part of the mainstream media, took note of.

Now, some of this reflects a split between the Republican Party’s right wing and its extreme right wing. Way out on the authoritarian fringes, figures such as Carlson and Steve Bannon have long admired Putin for his unabashed, anti-democratic espousal of white Christian dominance and attacks on LGBTQ folks. Politicians such as Cawthorn, Vance and Pompeo, rather than standing up for principle, are trying to thread the needle.

Meanwhile, their less extreme counterparts, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have flipped from coddling Trump, Putin and Russia to claiming that Biden is to blame for the invasion and the high gas prices it has led to.

All of this has a historical context. As everyone knows, or ought to know, Putin has represented an existential threat to Ukraine since 2014, when he invaded the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and incorporated it into Russia. Putin appears to be gripped by the idea of a Greater Russia, of which in his mind Ukraine is a part. Ukraine was a Soviet republic, and Putin has always expressed nostalgia for the U.S.S.R. But the two countries’ ties go back centuries, and apparently no one cares about that more deeply than Putin.

Into this box of dry kindling came the spark of Trump in 2016. His numerous statements of support for Putin and pro-Russia actions couldn’t possibly all be listed here, but a few that pertain to Ukraine stand out. One of Trump’s campaign managers, Paul Manafort, had worked for a pro-Russian political faction in Ukraine and, upon being forced out, offered his services to Trump free of charge. You may also recall that a plank in that year’s Republican platform guaranteeing Ukraine’s security was mysteriously watered down — and a delegate to that year’s convention later said she was asked directly by Trump to support the change. (Manafort later went to prison for financial crimes he committed in Ukraine, only to be pardoned by Trump.)

That was followed by revelations in the fall of 2019 that Trump, in a phone call to Zelenskyy, demanded dirt on Biden in return for military assistance — assistance that Ukraine needed desperately to deter Russian aggression. Trump was impeached over that massive scandal. Yet not a single Republican House member (not even Liz Cheney) supported impeachment, and only one Republican senator — Mitt Romney — voted to remove Trump from office.

As detailed a month ago by The Washington Post, Trump has continued to praise Putin, hailing his war against Ukraine as “genius” and “savvy,” while Trumpers like U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona sneer, “We should just call ourselves Ukraine and then maybe we can get NATO to engage and protect our border.”

Mother Jones reported over the weekend that Russian media outlets have been ordered to quote Tucker Carlson as much as possible. Joe Kent, a Trump-endorsed Republican congressional candidate in Washington state, endorsed Cawthorn’s eruption this past Saturday and went him one better, tweeting: “Zelenskyy was installed via a US backed color revaluation [sic], his goal is to move his country west so he virtue signals in woke ideology while using nazi battalions to crush his enemies. He was also smart enough to cut our elite in on the graft. @CawthornforNC nailed it.”

There was a time when, as the old saying went, politics stopped at the water’s edge. That wasn’t always good policy, as elected officials came under withering attack when they dared to criticize misbegotten actions such as the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. But there was a virtue to it as well. When we go to war or, in the case of Ukraine, engage in high-wire diplomacy aimed at ending a war, it’s that much harder when critics are sniping at our leaders. Can you imagine if Republicans had gone on television in 1962 to say that Nikita Khrushchev was right to place Soviet missiles in Cuba?

Claiming that Republicans are united in supporting Ukraine doesn’t make it so. Some are, some aren’t. It’s shocking that a few fringe figures like Cawthorn and Kent are openly criticizing Zeleneskyy even now — but it’s just as shocking that praise for Putin was a mainstream Republican position as recently as a month or so ago.

Unfortunately, the media’s tendency to flatten out and normalize aberrant behavior by the Republicans will prevent this from growing into an all-out crisis for the party. We’ll move on to the next thing, whether it be expressing faux outrage over Vice President Harris and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg’s touting electric cars while gas prices are high (what better time?) or Biden’s latest miserable polling numbers.

Anything that enables our feckless media to cover politics as the same old both-sides game that it used to be.

Why Trump got off

This very long story in The New York Times on why Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg decided not to prosecute Donald Trump comes down to two things. Prosecutors couldn’t flip Trump’s money guy, Allen Weisselberg. And Bragg didn’t want to move ahead with a trial in which the star witness would be Michael Cohen, Trump’s thuggish former lawyer.

Fantasies about Trump in stripes aside, that sounds like a smart decision to me.

Scandal aside, Zucker gave us Trump and presided over a ratings collapse at CNN

Jeff Zucker. Photo (cc) 2013 by Fortune Live Media.

Something doesn’t make sense about Jeff Zucker’s sudden departure from CNN. He and his paramour, CNN executive vice president Allison Gollust, are consenting adults, and they’re both divorced.

There was an aha! moment Wednesday when we learned that Gollust had previously worked as Andrew Cuomo’s communications director. But that turned out to be a brief stint a decade ago. Maybe leadership concluded that Zucker had put them in an untenable position with regard to Chris Cuomo’s legal case against CNN. Or maybe Chris has something else up his sleeve. I suspect we’re going to find out more.

Meanwhile, let’s look at the record. Zucker is widely seen as a successful chief executive of CNN, well-liked by the troops. But what exactly were his accomplishments? He rode a Trump-driven rise in the ratings, the same as everyone else; ratings have collapsed since the end of the Trump presidency. Zucker accomplished little journalistically, especially in prime time, which has devolved into three hours of liberal talk shows that are not as good as those on MSNBC. Anderson Cooper, a significant asset, is badly misused.

More than anything, though, Zucker is the man who morphed Donald Trump from a failed real-estate developer into a media star, first through “The Apprentice” and then by giving him hours and hours of free air time during the 2016 presidential campaign. It’s all Trump all the time for Zucker, whether he’s for him or against him. And that’s the oxygen upon which Trump thrives.

What’s next for CNN? Its digital-streaming service, CNN+, debuts soon, and unless you think the public has been drooling with anticipation at the prospect of paying for CNN Lite, it has all the hallmarks of a disaster in the making.

My advice is to try reporting the news — especially during the key 8-to-11 p.m. time slot. Sadly, I’m sure that will go unheeded.

Please support this free source of news and commentary by becoming a member for just $5 a month.

Did Harry Reid lie about Mitt Romney’s taxes? Yes. But it’s a bit more complicated.

Harry Reid. Photo (cc) 2010 by the Center for American Progress.

Harry Reid, who died Tuesday, was among the few characters I liked in Mark Leibovich’s book “This Town.” Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, was a bare-knuckles brawler with no interest in the money-and-lobbyist culture that rendered Washington a teetering wreck before Donald Trump came along and toppled it over — while he and those close to him pursued their own corrupt schemes.

There is, though, one weird blemish on Reid’s record — his claims during the 2012 presidential campaign that Republican candidate Mitt Romney hadn’t paid any taxes. “So the word is out that he hasn’t paid any taxes for 10 years. Let him prove that he has paid taxes, because he hasn’t,” Reid said on the Senate floor that August. It wasn’t true, and Reid’s only justification was to tell CNN in 2015, “Romney didn’t win, did he?”

So I found myself wondering if there was anything more to Reid’s false claim. The answer: yes, a bit. Maybe not enough to justify Reid’s lies, but more than you might recall.

Unlike virtually all of his modern predecessors, Romney released just two years of tax returns. He cited John McCain as a precedent, but FactCheck.org found that excuse to be lacking. FactCheck’s Robert Farley wrote in July 2012:

In more than three decades, no other nominees for either party have released fewer than five years’ worth of returns. Romney’s own father released a dozen years’ worth when he ran for the GOP nomination in 1968.

Romney has been under mounting public pressure to release tax returns — largely due to the Obama campaign raising questions about Swiss bank accounts and investments in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven. Romney has released his tax returns for 2010 and an estimate for 2011 (the full return of which he says he will release later). He says that’s enough.

So here you have Romney, a noted liar in his own right, refusing to release tax returns that might have blown his campaign out of the water. Someone needed to put the pressure on him. The Obama campaign could only say so much. Reid took the hit, making up a false accusation that Romney wasn’t paying any taxes and essentially saying: Prove I’m lying.

Four years later, Romney enthusiastically embraced the Reid line of attack in his efforts to derail Trump’s candidacy. Trump, as we all know, wouldn’t release any of his tax returns. Here’s what Romney said: “There is only one logical explanation for Mr. Trump’s refusal to release his returns: There is a bombshell in them. Given Mr. Trump’s equanimity with other flaws in his history, we can only assume it’s a bombshell of unusual size.”

Expressed in Mitt-speak rather than with Reid’s pugnacity, but essentially the same thing.

Romney finally released a fuller set of tax returns in September 2012. At that point, though, the damage had already been done. And no, Reid did not cover himself with glory in that episode. But Romney could have done the right thing at the start of his campaign rather than opening himself up to charges that there must be hiding a “bombshell” — as Romney himself would put it four years later.

Please support this free source of news and commentary by becoming a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month.

Trump’s semi-departure fuels decline in news consumption

Photo (cc) by Seth Anderson

It was obvious to just about everyone that the media were going to face a challenging year after losing the artificial stimulant provided by the Trump presidency. “Will audience and revenue resume the downward track they had been on for years before Trump demanded everyone’s unwavering attention?” I asked last January.

The answer: Yes, indeed.

David Bauder of The Associated Press has pulled together the numbers. The situation is especially grim on cable news, where weekday prime-time viewership was down 38% at CNN, 34% at Fox News and 25% at MSNBC. (Fox still has by far the largest audience of the three.)

I’m not shedding any tears, crocodile or otherwise. Cable news is bad for you. The formula at all three consists of keeping you riled up and angry so that you don’t change the channel. Fox adds weaponized right-wing propaganda about COVID, the Jan. 6 insurrection, critical race theory and more. So please, touch that dial.

Then again, everything’s down, not just cable news. Viewership of the three network evening newscasts — higher quality than their cable brethren — declined 12% to 14%. Unique monthly visitors to the websites of The New York Times and The Washington Post dropped — although paid digital subscriptions to the Times are up, and that’s the metric that really matters. The Post, on the other hand, reportedly dropped from about 3 million to 2.7 million digital subscriptions toward the end of the year.

None of these numbers is inherently bad. We were glued to the news to an unhealthy extent during Trump’s presidency, as we all wondered what demented action he was going to take next. Then, in 2020, we had COVID to deal with as well.

There is still plenty of news taking place. COVID remains with us, the Republican Party has gone full-bore authoritarian and Trump has never really gone away. But things are a bit calmer, if not necessarily calm.

With national news commanding fewer eyeballs, will some of that attention be diverted to local journalism? I’d like to hope so. But with hedge funds and corporate chains hollowing out hundreds of community newspapers, in a lot of places there just isn’t enough to command attention.

Please support this free source of news and commentary by becoming a member of Media Nation for $5 a month. Just click here.

From COVID to our crisis of democracy, 2021 turned out to be a scant improvement over 2020

Photo (cc) 2021 by Blink O’fanaye

Previously published at GBH News.

Hopes were running high when we all turned the calendar to 2021. Would the worst 12 months in anyone’s memory give way to the best year of our lives?

Not quite. Yes, it was better than 2020, but 2021 was hardly a return to paradise. The joy of vaccinations gave way to the reality that COVID-19 is likely to be with us for a long time. The economy recovered rapidly — accompanied by the highest rate of inflation in 40 years. Worst of all, the end of the Trump presidency morphed into a crisis of democracy that is starting to look as ominous as the run-up to the Civil War.

During the past year, I’ve been struggling to make sense of the highs, the lows and the in-betweens through the prism of the media. Below are 10 of my GBH News columns from 2021. They’re in chronological order, with updates on many of the pieces posted earlier this year. If there’s a unifying theme, it’s that we’re in real trouble — but that, together, we can get through this.

The end of the Trump bump, Jan. 27. Even as he was denouncing journalists as “enemies of the people,” Donald Trump, both before and during his presidency, was very, very good for the media. Cable TV ratings soared. The New York Times and The Washington Post signed up subscribers by the bucketload. Several weeks after Trump departed from the White House, though, there were questions about what would happen once he was gone. We soon got an answer. Even though Trump never really left, news consumption shrank considerably. That may be good for our mental health. But for media executives trying to make next quarter’s numbers, it was an unpleasant new reality.

Local news in crisis, Feb. 23. The plague of hedge funds undermining community journalism continued unabated in 2021. The worst newspaper owner of them all, Alden Global Capital, acquired Tribune Publishing and its eight major-market papers, which include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and, closer to home, the Hartford Courant. When the bid was first announced, there was at least some hope that one of those papers, The Baltimore Sun, would be spun off. Unfortunately, an epic battle between Alden and Baltimore hotel mogul Stewart Bainum resulted in Alden grabbing all of them. Bainum, meanwhile, is planning to launch a nonprofit website to compete with the Sun that will be called The Baltimore Banner.

The devolution of Tucker Carlson, April 15. How did a stylish magazine writer with a libertarian bent reinvent himself as a white-supremacist Fox News personality in thrall to Trump and catering to dangerous conspiracy theories ranging from vaccines (bad) to the Jan. 6 insurrection (good)? There are millions of possible explanations, and every one of them has a picture of George Washington on it. Carlson got in trouble last spring — or would have gotten in trouble if anyone at Fox cared — when he endorsed “replacement theory,” a toxic trope that liberal elites are deliberately encouraging immigration in order to dilute the power of white voters. A multitude of advertisers have bailed on Carlson, but it doesn’t matter — Fox today makes most of its money from cable fees. And Carlson continues to spew his hate.

How Black Lives Matter exposed journalism, May 26. A teenager named Darnella Frazier exposed an important truth about how reporters cover the police. The video she recorded of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin literally squeezing the life out of George Floyd as he lay on the pavement proved that the police lied in their official report of what led to Floyd’s death. For generations, journalists have relied on law enforcement as their principal — and often only — source for news involving the police. That’s no longer good enough; in fact, it was never good enough. Frazier won a Pulitzer Prize for her courageous truth-telling. And journalists everywhere were confronted with the reality that they need to change the way they do their jobs.

The 24th annual New England Muzzle Awards, July 1. For 24 years, the Muzzle Awards have singled out enemies of free speech. The Fourth of July feature made its debut in The Boston Phoenix in 1998 and has been hosted by GBH News since 2013, the year that the Phoenix shut down. This year’s lead item was about police brutality directed at Black Lives Matter protesters in Boston and Worcester the year before — actions that had escaped scrutiny at the time but that were exposed by bodycam video obtained by The Appeal, a nonprofit news organization. Other winners of this dubious distinction included former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, retired Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz and the aforementioned Tucker Carlson, who unleashed his mob to terrorize two freelance journalists in Maine.

How to help save local news, July 28. Since 2004, some 2,100 newspapers have closed, leaving around 1,800 communities across the country bereft of coverage. It’s a disaster for democracy, and the situation is only growing worse. The Local Journalism Sustainability Act, a bipartisan proposal to provide indirect government assistance in the form of tax credits for subscribers, advertisers and publishers, could help. The bill is hardly perfect. Among other things, it would direct funds to corporate chains as well as to independent operators, thus rewarding owners who are hollowing out their papers. Nevertheless, the idea may well be worth trying. At year’s end, the legislation was in limbo, but it may be revived in early 2022.

Democracy in crisis, Sept. 29. As summer turned to fall, the media began devoting some serious attention to a truly frightening development: the deterioration of the Republican Party into an authoritarian tool of Trump and Trumpism, ready to hand the presidency back to their leader in 2024 through a combination of antidemocratic tactics. These include the disenfranchisement of Black voters through partisan gerrymandering, the passage of new laws aimed at suppressing the vote and the handing of state electoral authority over to Trump loyalists. With polls showing that a majority of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen, it’s only going to get worse in the months ahead.

Exposing Facebook’s depravity, Oct. 27. The social media giant’s role in subverting democracy in the United States and fomenting chaos and violence around the world is by now well understood, so it takes a lot to rise to the level of OMG news. Frances Haugen, though, created a sensation. The former Facebook executive leaked thousands of documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission and spoke out — at first anonymously, in The Wall Street Journal, and later on “60 Minutes” and before a congressional committee. Among other things, the documents showed that Facebook’s leaders were well aware of how much damage the service’s algorithmic amplification of conspiracy theories and hate speech was causing. By year’s end, lawyers for Rohingya refugees from Myanmar were using the documents to sue Facebook for $150 billion, claiming that Mark Zuckerberg and company had whipped up a campaign of rape and murder.

COVID-19 and the new normal, Nov. 17. By late fall, the optimism of June and July had long since given way to the reality of delta. I wrote about my own experience of trying to live as normally as possible — volunteering at Northeastern University’s long-delayed 2020 commencement and taking the train for a reporting trip in New Haven. Now, of course, we are in the midst of omicron. The new variant may prove disastrous, or it may end up being mild enough that it’s just another blip on our seemingly endless pandemic journey. In any case, omicron was a reminder — as if we needed one — that boosters, masking and testing are not going away any time soon.

How journalism is failing us, Dec. 7. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank created a sensation when he reported the results of a content analysis he had commissioned. The numbers showed that coverage of President Joe Biden from August to November 2021 was just as negative, if not more so, than coverage of then-President Trump had been during the same four-month period a year earlier. Though some criticized the study’s methodology, it spoke to a very real problem: Too many elements of the media are continuing to cover Trump and the Republicans as legitimate political actors rather than as what they’ve become: malign forces attempting to subvert democracy. The challenge is to find ways to hold Biden to account while avoiding mindless “both sides” coverage and false equivalence.

A year ago at this time we may have felt a sense of optimism that proved to be at least partly unrealistic. Next year, we’ll have no excuses — we know that COVID-19, the economy and Trumpism will continue to present enormous challenges. I hope that, at the end of 2022, we can all say that we met those challenges successfully.

Finally, my thanks to GBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2022.

Why ‘both sides’ journalism fails in the face of the rising threat to our democracy

Previously published at GBH News.

One president lied about COVID-19 (the country’s and his own), embraced white supremacists and tried to overturn the results of an election that he lost. Another president has hit a few bumps in the road as he attempts to persuade Congress to pass his agenda. Can you guess which one received more negative news coverage?

If you guessed President Joe Biden, then come on down. According to an analysis of 65 news websites, Biden’s treatment by the media was as harsh or harsher from August through November of this year than then-President Donald Trump’s was during the same four-month period in 2020.

On one level, it’s inconceivable. On another, though, it’s all too predictable. Large swaths of the media simply cannot or will not move beyond both-sides journalism, equating the frustratingly hapless Democrats with a Republican Party that has embraced authoritarianism and voter suppression.

“My colleagues in the media are serving as accessories to the murder of democracy,” wrote Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who ordered up the study. He concluded: “Too many journalists are caught in a mindless neutrality between democracy and its saboteurs, between fact and fiction. It’s time to take a stand.”

As I’ve written before, and as many others have said, we’re in the midst of a crisis of democracy. The Republican Party, already disproportionately empowered because of the Constitution’s small-state bias and the Senate filibuster (the latter, of course, could be abolished tomorrow), is working to strengthen its advantage through partisan gerrymandering and the passage of voter-suppression laws. The result could be white minority rule for years to come.

The situation has deteriorated to the point that the European think tank International IDEA now regards the United States as a “backsliding democracy.” To quote from IDEA’s report directly, “the United States, the bastion of global democracy, fell victim to authoritarian tendencies itself, and was knocked down a significant number of steps on the democratic scale.”

And the media remain wedded to their old tropes, covering political campaigns as though they were horse races and treating the two major parties as equally legitimate players with different views.

It’s a topic that was discussed at length recently on Ezra Klein’s New York Times podcast by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen and guest host Nicole Hemmer, a scholar who studies right-wing media. Their conversation defies easy summary (the whole episode can be found here), but essentially, Rosen argued that the political press falls back on its old habits because breaking out of them is just too difficult.

“The horse race absorbs a lot of abuse from people like me,” he said. “But it can take that abuse, because it is such a problem-solver. It checks so many other boxes that even when people know it’s kind of bankrupt, it stays on.” As an alternative, Rosen proposes coverage based on a “citizens agenda,” which he has written about at his blog, PressThink. But he admitted to Hemmer that we may lose our democracy before his ideas are adopted by more than a fraction of journalists.

What I find especially frustrating is that the media have not been ignoring the Republican threat to our democracy. Far from it. As just one small example, the Times on Sunday published a front-page story by Nick Corasaniti on a multitude of actions being taken at the state level to suppress the vote and put Trump loyalists in charge of the election machinery.

“Democrats and voting rights groups say some of the Republican measures will suppress voting, especially by people of color,” Corasaniti wrote. “They warn that other bills will increase the influence of politicians and other partisans in what had been relatively routine election administration. Some measures, they argue, raise the prospect of elections being thrown into chaos or even overturned.”

So why am I frustrated? Because this sort of valuable enterprise reporting is walled off from day-to-day political coverage. We are routinely served up stories about the congressional Republican leaders, Rep. Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Mitch McConnell, going about their business as though they were latter-day versions of the late Bob Dole, sharply partisan but ultimately dedicated to the business of seeking compromise and governing. In fact, whether through cowardice or conviction, they are enabling our slide into authoritarianism by undermining the investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection as well as by failing to call out Trump and the excesses of their worst members.

Earlier this year, Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan endorsed the idea of a “democracy beat,” which would look closely at attempts to subvert voting rights. Sullivan would go further than that, too. “The democracy beat shouldn’t be some kind of specialized innovation,” she wrote, “but a widespread rethinking across the mainstream media,” permeating every aspect of political and governmental coverage.

If Trump runs again, he may very well end up being installed as president even if he loses both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Who would stop him? In the aftermath of the 2020 election, there were still enough Republican state and local officials with integrity who refused to go along with Trump’s demands that they overturn the results. That is not likely to be the case in 2024. As Barton Gellman wrote in a new Atlantic cover story, “The prospect of this democratic collapse is not remote. People with the motive to make it happen are manufacturing the means. Given the opportunity, they will act. They are acting already.”

Meanwhile, the media go about covering President Biden and his travails as though our politics hadn’t changed over the past 40 years. Of course Biden needs to be held accountable. The ugly withdrawal from Afghanistan, confusing White House messaging about COVID and his inability to bring Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to heel are all worthy of tough coverage. (But not inflation because, please, don’t be stupid.) But it needs to be done in a way that we don’t lose sight of the big picture. And the big picture is that we are in real danger of losing our country.

As the Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan put it on Twitter, “The problem is the media failing to distinguish threats to democracy from normal negative coverage (an important form of democratic accountability!).”

Five years ago Thomas Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School issued a report showing that coverage of Trump and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 general-election campaign had been equally negative — a finding that he found disturbing. Patterson wrote that “indiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions. 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.”

Well, here we go again. Next time, though, it’s the future of democracy that is likely to be at stake.