President Trump, whose multifarious assaults on basic decency include mocking a disabled reporter in front of a crowd of hooting supporters, may have hit yet another new low. Neomi Rao, Trump’s choice to replace Brett Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, is an enthusiastic supporter of dwarf-tossing.
Former Boston Globe editor Matt Storin once said there was nothing wrong with newspaper circulation that a depression and the return of the military draft couldn’t cure.
Storin was right about scary news driving circulation. The crisis (or the excitement, if you prefer) created by Donald Trump’s presidency has led to a substantial increase in the audience for journalism. Paid circulation has reached 4 million at the “failing” New York Times. The Washington Post last year reported it had signed up more than a million digital subscribers, a number that is presumably much higher today. Audience and contributions have risen at places like NPR and ProPublica.
But hold the applause. The flip side of Storin’s observation is that the improved fortunes for purveyors of high-quality journalism are fundamentally the consequence of national interest in national news. At the local level it’s a different story.
I was puzzled as I watched the returns roll in from Tuesday’s midterm elections. For weeks, the polls had pointed to a solid Democratic win in the House, continued Republican control of the Senate, and a tough slog for rising Democratic stars in Texas, Georgia, and Florida. That’s exactly how it played out. And yet the pundit class was acting as though Hillary Clinton had just lost again.
It was an irresistible hook at a moment of horror: Squirrel Hill, the heavily Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh where a hate-mongering gunman killed 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday, was the home of the late Fred Rogers, the otherworldly host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
“It doesn’t just feel like a ‘Mr. Rogers kind of neighborhood’ — it was Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood,” wrote my friend and former Northeastern colleague Dina Kraft in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, whose bat mitvah was held at Tree of Life after her family’s regular synagogue burned down, recalled Jews and gentiles working together, Mr. Rogers-style, to put out the fire.
Last week I was asked a provocative question. What prompted it was a panel discussion of The New York Times’ 14,000-word exposé of how President Trump built his fortune on the dual foundations of his father’s wealth and of legally dubious tax schemes. The story was such a sensation that the Times printed it twice — once on Oct. 3 and again the following Sunday. Yet it seems to have barely resonated beyond the Times’ core readership.
I’m not sure what can be done. But New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, one of our most perceptive media observers, thinks he knows what’s behind much of it: a deliberate blizzard of lying by our president aimed at burying stories beneath an avalanche of falsehoods; a right-wing populist movement in the United States and Europe that dismisses anything coming out of the mainstream press as corrupt and elitist; and the decline of trust in the media, accompanied and exacerbated by the ongoing deterioration of journalism’s business model.
Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser now has a name and a harrowing story to tell. Over the next few days, we can expect an avalanche of news stories and cable talk about Christine Blasey Ford and whether her allegations are enough to topple the Kavanaugh nomination.
But there’s a broader context to all of this, and journalists would be negligent if they fail to explore it. Simply put, Kavanaugh has been in close proximity to, and in some cases has benefited from, a cultural of sexual harassment and assault his entire life.
We are in the midst of a book-inspired frenzy over Donald Trump’s the cruelty and mendacity. The legendary journalist Bob Woodward’s latest, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” has renewed our anguished questions over how this petulant, foul-mouthed racist could be elected president.
But though Woodward has described the what and the how of the Trump presidency, we must look elsewhere for the why. Trump did not spring out of nowhere; we had been slouching in his direction for a long time. As former president Barack Obama put it the other day: “It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause.” But a symptom of what, exactly?
Attempting to give us some answers is Michiko Kakutani. Her new book, “The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump,” provides some much-needed context to help us understand what happened to our democracy. The tools wielded by Kakutani, the former weekday book critic for The New York Times, are deep reading and cultural criticism. The result is not entirely satisfying. But she does offer some provocative observations the about social changes that made Trump not just possible, but inevitable.
Early Monday morning, a gunman fired one shot through the plate glass window of the plant’s lobby facing Morrissey boulevard, narrowly missing a security guard, and three more shots through the plate glass windows of the press room. No one was injured.
— The Boston Globe, Oct. 8, 1974
Angry words have consequences. Nearly 44 years ago, The Boston Globe came under attack because of white racism, fueled by anti-integration activists who were furious at the Globe’s sympathetic coverage of and editorial support for court-ordered desegregation.
In addition to the shots that were fired at the Globe on two separate occasions (possibly by the notorious killer James “Whitey” Bulger), the Globe was beset by a violent demonstration in front of the plant as well as vandalism. At one point, gun-wielding youths forced a driver out of a Globe delivery truck, whereupon they pushed it into Fort Point Channel. All of this is described in J. Anthony Lukas’ “Common Ground” (1985), possibly the greatest book ever written about Boston.
What brings this history to mind, obviously, is a death threat made against the Globe following the Globe’s campaign to persuade newspapers across the country to editorialize against President Trump’s anti-press rhetoric. (Ultimately more than 400 papers joined in.) The suspect, a Trump supporter named Robert Chain, reportedly referred to the Globe as “the enemy of the people,” thus quoting his hero’s oft-tweeted characterization word for word.
Fortunately no one was hurt, just as the anonymous shooter or shooters in 1974 somehow didn’t injure or kill anyone. But Trump’s dangerous words add up to incitement to violence — not in the legal sense, perhaps, but certainly in the moral sense. Our president is a careless and evil man.
There is nothing reporters and pundits love more than a mind-boggling gaffe. Rudy Giuliani achieved what you might call Gaffe Apotheosis on Sunday when he lectured Chuck Todd that “truth isn’t truth.”So let’s savor it, make memes out of it (Todd told us we should!), and throw it in the faces of President Trump’s allies whenever they repeat the falsehoods that spew forth from this administration. But let’s not pretend we don’t understand the perfectly reasonable point that Giuliani was trying to make.
As is the case with many political gaffes, the full effect of Giuliani’s howler depends on taking it out of context. The former New York mayor, now a member of Trump’s legal team, was asked by “Meet the Press” host Todd why the president won’t simply sit down and answer questions from special counsel Robert Mueller.
“I am not going to be rushed into having him testify so that he gets trapped into perjury,” Giuliani responded. “And when you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth.”
Todd: “Truth is truth.”
Giuliani: “No, it isn’t. Truth isn’t truth.”
Giuliani knew instantly that he had stepped in a big, steaming pile, and he tried ineffectively to push back. The damage was done. But think about what Giuliani was saying: If Trump answers questions under oath, he’ll say things that contradict what others have said under oath. And that could set up Trump for a perjury charge. Giuliani expanded on that point a short time later, arguing that if Mueller had to choose between Trump’s sworn statements and those of former FBI director James Comey, Mueller would choose Comey, whom Giuliani identified — or, should I say, derided — as “one of his best friends.”
Now, set aside our knowledge that Trump has spoken falsely more than 4,000 times since he became president, and that Giuliani has a credibility problem of his own. Giuliani was actually making sense in saying that Mueller would have to choose between competing versions of the truth, and that he might be disinclined to believe Trump. But the inartful (OK, idiotic) way he expressed himself is all we’ll remember. This is mostly Giuliani’s fault, but it’s partly the media’s as well. Because this is what we love.
Want some more examples? Before Sunday, perhaps the most memorable gaffe by a Trump official was uttered by Kellyanne Conway, who used the phrase “alternative facts” in an interview with the very same Chuck Todd. Appearing on Jan. 22, 2017, Conway sought to explain White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s obviously false claim that Trump’s Inauguration Day crowd was the largest in history. Conway didn’t push back as hard as Giuliani did when challenged by Todd. But, later in the interview, she said Spicer was simply relying on different sources of information.
“I don’t think you can prove those numbers one way or the other,” she said. “There’s no way to really quantify crowds. We all know that. You can laugh at me all you want.” Yes, I understand that the small size of Trump’s crowd is factually beyond dispute. But Conway’s spin was reasonable, if wrong. She was not invoking Orwell.
On a more serious level, Hillary Clinton has been castigated for years over a disingenuous reading of her Benghazi testimony before a Senate hearing in 2013. “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they’d go kill some Americans?” Clinton said. “What difference — at this point, what difference does it make?” How callous! But as PolitiFact observed in analyzing Clinton’s testimony, she continued:
It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator. Now, honestly, I will do my best to answer your questions about this, but the fact is that people were trying in real time to get to the best information…. But you know, to be clear, it is, from my perspective, less important today looking backwards as to why these militants decided they did it than to find them and bring them to justice, and then maybe we’ll figure out what was going on in the meantime.
The journalist Michael Kinsley once memorably defined a gaffe as an inadvertent statement of the truth. Sometimes, though, it’s a deliberate statement that you think won’t become public. That was the case in 2008, when Barack Obama told a group of his supporters what he thought of Clinton-leaning voters in poorer industrial cities: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Four years later, Mitt Romney said at a fundraiser that 47 percent of the electorate would vote for Obama because they “are dependent upon government,” “believe that they are victims,” and “pay no income tax.” Both Obama and Romney spoke as they did because there were no reporters present, but their damaging remarks became public anyway.
For politicians and public figures, the solution to the gaffe challenge is obvious: Don’t step on your message with language that will seem clumsy, dumb, or insensitive if it’s taken out of context, as happened with Giuliani, Conway, and Clinton. And don’t speak your mind on the assumption that the media aren’t listening, as was the case with Obama and Romney. These things have a way of becoming public knowledge.
But there are lessons for the media, too. No one imagines that they should stop reporting gaffes, especially when they play out on live television. But even as Giuliani was making a mess of his interview, he was also saying something newsworthy: that Trump shouldn’t speak to Mueller for fear that he’ll be charged with perjury even if he speaks truthfully. You can agree, you can disagree, or you can denounce Giuliani’s statement as an outrageous attack on the rule of law. What the media shouldn’t do is overlook it in favor of cheap — if well-deserved — mockery.
Consider the humble newspaper editorial. Unsigned and often unread, these gray exercises in cautious chin-stroking — representing as they do the theoretically awesome power of the institution — assert, applaud, deplore, and urge. But only rarely do they leap off the screen or page and grab the reader by the throat.
For the past several years, though, The Boston Globe’s opinionators have been trying desperately to break free from that swirling vortex of irrelevance. A satirical front page imagining a Trump presidency drew applause, moans, and brickbats. More successfully, the paper published several digital editorials about gun violence that incorporated interactive data presentations and online tools for contacting elected officials. (Here’s the most recent example.)
Now the Globe has embarked on its most audacious campaign yet: a call for newspapers across the country to publish editorials this Thursday condemning President Trump’s repeated assertions that journalists are “the enemy of the American people” and purveyors of “fake news,” an outrageous tactic that has led to threats against reporters at Trump rallies. More than 200 papers have signed on so far. “This dirty war on the free press must end,” the Globe said in announcing the coordinated effort, which you can follow on Twitter at #EnemyOfNone.
The idea originated with Marjorie Pritchard, the Globe’s deputy editorial-page editor. She told me by email that she brought it up at a meeting of the editorial board (journalists who work for the opinion section) and got the go-ahead to begin contacting the editorial boards of other newspapers. Given the difficulty of changing anyone’s minds in this era of hyperpolarization, I asked her whether she thought the effort could truly make a difference. She took the optimistic view.
“This effort is an attempt to break through sides and remind everyone of the importance of a free press, no matter what their political preference is,” she said. “A free and independent press is one of the most sacred principles enshrined in the Constitution. It must remain so.”
The newspapers taking part will each write and publish their own editorials. “The impact of Trump’s assault on journalism looks different in Boise than it does in Boston,” Pritchard wrote in announcing the campaign. “Our words will differ. But at least we can agree that such attacks are alarming.” That should at least partly counter any claims made by Trump supporters that the mainstream media are marching in lockstep with the Resistance to drive the president out of the White House. Still, there is a certain predictability regarding who’s for it and who’s against it.
In addition to the 200-plus newspapers that have responded to the Globe’s call, organizations such as the New England Newspaper and Press Association and the American Society of News Editors are lending their support. Last Friday on WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press,” Tom Fiedler, the dean of Boston University’s College of Communication, gave the idea a hearty “rave.” For press advocates, the campaign is an opportunity to stand up for First Amendment values in the face of president who seeks to delegitimize journalism in the eyes of his followers.
But Trump-supporting media outlets have mocked the effort as the usual drivel from the usual suspects. “This is just another day at the office,” wrote Karen Townsend at Hot Air. “The press has never supported President Trump and both print and television network coverage has been grossly skewered [sic] negatively against him.” Over at Breitbart, John Nolte called the Globe a “far-left” outlet and, not surprisingly, turned the very fact that newspapers are working together on its head. “The bottom line,” Nolte said, “is that this coordinated attack coming from all corners of the establishment media only serves to validate the criticism coming from Trump and other media critics.”
In a sense, the effort is a perfect illustration of the dilemma facing the press right now. On the one hand, mainstream news organizations are attracting more subscriptions, donations, and readers. On the other hand, that increased interest is almost entirely restricted to opponents of Trump, as his supporters have gravitated to their own media ecosystem dominated by Fox News and Breitbart.
As someone who has written my share of unsigned editorials over the years, I doubt that more than a handful of hearts and minds are going to be changed on Thursday. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Journalism is under siege. Last week, incredibly, a new poll showed that 43 percent of Republicans believe the president should have the authority to shut down “news outlets engaged in bad behavior.”
It’s time for us to stand up for our values and to remind the public of what the First Amendment is all about. What we’re not: perfect. What we are: an independent monitor of power, the absence of which would make this fraught moment infinitely worse.