By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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We need terms limits for SCOTUS as well as some constraints on its powers

Photo (cc) 2021 by TapTheForwardAssist

Like no doubt many of you, I am horrified by the Supreme Court’s decision in the presidential immunity case but have little to offer beyond what you’re reading and seeing elsewhere. Nor did I feel reassured when President Biden came out and read a five-minute speech. Here’s part of what the historian Heather Cox Richardson had to say in a truly chilling essay for her newsletter, “Letters from an American”:

This is a profound change to our fundamental law — an amendment to the Constitution, as historian David Blight noted. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said that a president needs such immunity to make sure the president is willing to take “bold and unhesitating action” and make unpopular decisions, although no previous president has ever asserted that he is above the law or that he needed such immunity to fulfill his role. Roberts’s decision didn’t focus at all on the interest of the American people in guaranteeing that presidents carry out their duties within the guardrails of the law.

It seems to me that if we’re going to save the country, it’s absolutely essential that a Democrat be elected to the White House this fall, whether it’s Biden or someone else, and that the Democrats take both branches of Congress as well. That’s a tall, unlikely order. And I’m sorry to have to be so partisan, but Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney are not walking through that door.

After that, we can talk about what needs to be done about the court, which has long since sunk into illegitimacy thanks to the machinations of Mitch McDonnell and the corruption of Clarence Thomas and Sam Alito. I’ve seen an upsurge in commentary that the court should be expanded, but that strikes me as a fool’s game — something that could easily be gamed by both parties until we’re up to a 57-member SCOTUS. Instead, I’d like to see term limits that guarantee every president will get one or two appointments plus constraints on the court’s powers, which at the moment appear to be limitless.

I would also like to see Santa.

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Kudos to The Philly Inquirer for a brilliant piece of performance art

The Inquirer editorial is reminiscent of this famous Boston Globe parody

On Saturday afternoon, The Philadelphia Inquirer published an editorial headlined “To serve his country, Donald Trump should leave the race.” It was intended as a rebuke to The New York Times’ editorial board, which on Friday posted a piece using the same headline, the only difference being that it was aimed at President Biden rather than Trump.

The Inquirer’s editorial was brilliant and inspired. It’s attracted a lot of well-deserved attention, and I hope it results in an upsurge of subscriptions. It begins:

President Joe Biden’s debate performance was a disaster. His disjointed responses and dazed look sparked calls for him to drop out of the presidential race.

But lost in the hand wringing was Donald Trump’s usual bombastic litany of lies, hyperbole, bigotry, ignorance, and fear mongering. His performance demonstrated once again that he is a danger to democracy and unfit for office.

In fact, the debate about the debate is misplaced. The only person who should withdraw from the race is Trump.

It reminded me of The Boston Globe’s fake front page from April 2016, imagining what a Trump residency would be like if he somehow were elected president, which of course we all knew would never happen. The page, dated a year into the future, led with the prescient headline “Deportations to Begin.”

Ultimately, though, the Inquirer’s editorial, like the Globe’s fake front, is performance art. Pro-Biden social media exploded in outrage at the Times’ editorial as well as the insistence of many pundits that Biden should step aside following his disastrous debate performance Thursday night. Why, critics asked, isn’t the Times demanding that Trump drop out given that he’s a lying, felonious insurrectionist?

The answer, of course, is that the Times wants Biden to end his campaign because they’re terrified that Trump will beat him — as am I. It’s ludicrous to believe that there’s anything anyone could do to persuade Trump to drop out. He needs to be defeated — and, while we’re at it, to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law and imprisoned if found guilty of crimes that warrant such punishment.

The Inquirer’s editorial is a great thought experiment, and I’m glad it’s grabbed so much attention. The Times’ editorial, on the other hand, is a serious plea for Democrats to do whatever it takes to keep Trump from being elected to a second term and ushering in an era of right-wing authoritarianism. Apologists for Biden’s frighteningly awful debate performance should stop pretending otherwise.

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The three national newspapers say that Biden should pull out or at least consider it

President Biden in May 2023

The editorial pages of the three national newspapers are calling on President Biden to end his re-election campaign or to strongly consider it. The most forthright of the three is the liberal New York Times, which argues that Biden’s disastrous debate performance on Thursday shows that he’s no longer the strongest candidate to stop the threat (free link) that Donald Trump poses to democracy should Trump win election this November:

As it stands, the president is engaged in a reckless gamble. There are Democratic leaders better equipped to present clear, compelling and energetic alternatives to a second Trump presidency. There is no reason for the party to risk the stability and security of the country by forcing voters to choose between Mr. Trump’s deficiencies and those of Mr. Biden. It’s too big a bet to simply hope Americans will overlook or discount Mr. Biden’s age and infirmity that they see with their own eyes.

The Times does say that it will endorse Biden if he persists with his candidacy: “If the race comes down to a choice between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden, the sitting president would be this board’s unequivocal pick.”

The Washington Post, more centrist than the Times but just as anti-Trump, begins its editorial (free link):

If President Biden had weekend plans, he should cancel them in favor of some soul-searching. His calamitous debate performance on Thursday raises legitimate questions about whether he’s up for another four years in the world’s toughest job. It’s incumbent on this incumbent to determine, in conversation with family and aides, whether continuing to seek reelection is in the best interests of the country.

Unlike the Times and the Post, the right-wing editorial page of The Wall Street Journal is more concerned that an enfeebled Biden might actually win (free link) and prove that he’s not up to a second term:

Well, that was painful — for the United States. President Biden’s halting, stumbling debate performance Thursday night showed all too clearly that he isn’t up to serving four more years in office. For the good of the country, more even than their party, Democrats have some hard thinking to do about whether they need to replace him at the top of their ticket.

Closer to home, The Boston Globe has not weighed in. But three of its columnists have. Adrian Walker, Scot Lehigh and Brian McGrory all write that the time has come for Biden to step aside in favor of a Democrat who might stand a better chance of beating Trump. Walker has the line of the day in describing the president’s excruciating debate performance: “Biden was not merely bad. He was bad in a way people running for president are never bad.”

Biden could have pulled out a year or two ago but chose not to. The argument in favor of his staying in the race is that the chaos that would be unleashed by throwing the nomination to an open Democratic convention would be a greater risk than keeping him at the head of the ticket. Now it seems likely that the greater risk is to stick with Biden, a good and decent man and a successful president who just may not be up to the task of stopping the authoritarian menace that looms this fall.

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Dems in disarray — and this time it’s warranted as calls mount for Biden to drop out

For once, the pundit freakout is justified. Those of us who watched Thursday night’s debate between President Biden and Donald Trump saw an enfeebled, fumble-mouthed incumbent who was utterly unequipped to stand up to the blizzard of lies unleashed by his felonious, insurrection-inciting opponent.

Biden has been an excellent president in many ways, but he needs to announce as soon as possible that he’s ending his campaign for re-election. Ezra Klein laid out a path back in February, and at the time he was widely mocked for it. Now he looks prescient. The president should release his delegates and allow the Democratic National Convention to choose a candidate, who, in turn, will choose a running mate. I like the idea of a Gretchen Whitmer-Cory Booker ticket — or the reverse. But Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Gavin Newsom and others would probably be in the mix as well.

What happened? I honestly thought Biden had put concerns about his age to rest at his State of the Union address. Reading a speech is one thing, but he was mixing it up with the Republicans, ad libbing, obviously enjoying himself. Could things have really changed that much in a few months? Or is he like many people in their 80s who can have a good night or a bad night? We learned that he had a cold, which explains why his voice was so raspy and soft. But that doesn’t explain why he had such trouble forming his thoughts, articulating obvious talking points about issues like abortion rights, and standing up to Trump’s lies with specifics. “We finally beat Medicare” was a line that will stand as one of the defining moments of the evening.

I thought CNN’s moderators, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, were OK. They should have asked Trump right off the bat about democracy and his status as a convicted felon rather than waiting until later on, by which time many viewers had probably changed the channel. They’re taking a lot of grief on social media for not fact-checking Trump, but it’s been reported that the rules were set ahead of time. Of course, telling Trump that no one will be fact-checking him was an act of grotesque irresponsibility. Team Biden should have insisted otherwise, but no doubt they went along with it because Biden really, really wanted this debate.

Biden got stronger as the night wore on. His voice recovered to some degree and he landed a few blows. Rather than the vacant, slack-jawed stare he displayed during the split screen early in the debate, he started to appear more animated and smiled a few times. By then it was too late. And his closing statement, which should have been his easiest task of the night, devolved into complete incoherence.

And let’s pause for a moment and emphasize that Trump turned in the second-worst debate performance by any presidential candidate in the television age, exceeded only by his own COVID-spewing yellfest in the first 2020 debate. He was completely untethered from reality. But he made it work, acting very much like himself, seemingly unaffected by his own advanced age.

Finally, a word about the media, which has been obsessing over Biden’s age for many months. A lot of us have been critical, thinking it was both unwarranted and unfair given that Trump is only three years younger and appears to have plenty of cognitive issues of his own. Trump, though, is loud and talks fast, and in that respect doesn’t seem that much different from when he was running against Hillary Clinton in 2016. Now it turns out that the scrutiny of Biden’s age was warranted, and perhaps we should have been paying more attention rather than dismissing it.

Sometime in the next few days, I hope, Democratic Party leaders, including former President Barack Obama, will pay Biden a visit and deliver an uncomfortable message: for the good of the party — for the good of the country — he has to step aside. All along, the calculation has been whether Trump could be more easily defeated by Biden or by someone else. Around 9:10 p.m. on Thursday, that calculation moved firmly to “someone else.”

Authoritarianism is on the march. A neo-fascist party seems likely to win the French election. Italy is ruled by an extreme right-wing government. Putin and Xi are becoming increasingly repressive. Modi has all but extinguished democracy in India. The U.S. can’t join them — and President Biden, a good and decent man, can’t let himself be used to pave the way for autocracy. It’s time for someone new.

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Media notes: Will Lewis’ unethical ask, Biden is still old and Hub Blog is back

Photo (cc) 2016 by Dan Kennedy

Once the mishegas over the shake-up at The Washington Post dies down, we are left with a question: Is publisher Will Lewis the right person to set a new direction for Jeff Bezos’ money-losing, reader-hemorrhaging newspaper? The New York Times has some disturbing news (free link) on that front.

According to Times reporters Benjamin Mullin and Katie Robertson, executive editor Sally Buzbee clashed with Lewis over a story about new developments in the British tabloid phone-hacking scandal. Lewis had some involvement as an executive in Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, and he reportedly told Buzbee that he didn’t want the story to run. Buzbee ran it anyway. The Times reports that the exchange was a factor, though not the decisive one, in Buzbee’s decision to leave the Post rather than accept a reduced role under Lewis’ plan to reorganize the staff into three newsrooms.

And lest we forget, Max Tani of Semafor reported a couple of weeks ago that the Post’s director of newsletter strategy, Elana Zak, sent out a missive instructing staff members “don’t distribute this story” in its newsletters. At the time, Zak’s email was attributed to some sort of internal mix-up, but the Times story casts that in a new light.

Buzbee, at least, stood up to Lewis and his ethically inappropriate demand. The problem is that his handpicked new editors, Matt Murray and Robert Winnett, may prove to be more malleable.

A flawed WSJ story

The Wall Street Journal has published a lengthy inquiry (free link) into President Biden’s mental acuity that has inflamed liberal critics. I read it with an open mind, but the story, by Annie Linskey and Siobhan Hughes, is based almost entirely on the observations of partisan Republicans like former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who’s quoted on the record, and current Speaker Mike Johnson, who isn’t.

The article, we’re told, is based on interviews with 45 people — but apparently six of those interviews were devoted to what Johnson had told people about a meeting he had with Biden in February. The story also contradicts earlier reporting about McCarthy, who has privately praised Biden’s mental sharpness even while mocking him in public.

One of the most fair-minded, nonpartisan media observers out there is Tom Jones of Poynter Online, so I was curious as to what he would have to say about it. Here’s his take:

Is it a fairly reported story on a pertinent topic? Or is it a pointed piece based pretty much on quotes and opinions from those who don’t want to see Biden elected to a second term?

I’d go with the latter — considering the money quote is from McCarthy, another key anecdote was reported by current Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson, and other tales suggesting Biden’s decline are flimsy, at best. (For example, he sometimes talks quietly, he uses notes, and he relies on aides.)

That “money quote” from McCarthy, by the way, is this: “I used to meet with him [Biden] when he was vice president. I’d go to his house. He’s not the same person.”

Despite Murdoch’s ownership, the Journal’s news coverage is generally superb. It was the Journal’s reporting, after all, that led to Donald Trump’s 34 felony convictions last week. You have to wonder how a slanted piece like this passed muster.

Fairly or not, the Journal has raised the stakes for Biden’s June 27 debate with Trump, who, it should be said much more often than it is, is nearly as old as Biden and whose own problems with age-related mental slips tend to play out in public rather than (allegedly) behind closed doors.

Jay Fitzgerald returns

Veteran journalist Jay Fitzgerald, one of the original Boston bloggers, has revived Hub Blog (via Contrarian Boston). It looks like Jay is mainly writing an old-fashioned link blog with a few longer posts on the turmoil at The Washington Post.

I started writing an early version of this blog in 2002, shortly after Hub Blog launched. I was actually doing it by hand — I had no idea there was this thing called blogging software that automated the process of date-stamping, archiving older posts, adding permalinks and the like until Jay asked me, “What are you using.” He led me to Blogspot, though I’ve been using WordPress since 2005.

Anyway, it’s good to have Jay back in harness.

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Guilty x 34

Some notable front pages reporting Donald Trump’s conviction on 34 counts of falsifying business records in order to cover up payments to the porn star Stormy Daniels — payments aimed at keeping their sexual encounter out of the headlines just before the 2016 election.

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Broadcast nets highlight Trump’s latest Nazi dalliance while newspapers fall short

Assert, deny, project. Repeat. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

Whenever Donald Trump erupts with rhetoric that is disturbing and offensive, questions are raised as to whether the media should amplify it. My own view: Yes, usually, although it shouldn’t be repeated over and over to the point at which it drowns out all other news. President Biden is struggling to get his own message out, and surely one of the reasons is that Trump is dominating just about every news cycle — not in a good way, of course, but that hardly seems to matter.

Yet how can we ignore the reality that, on Monday, his campaign promoted Nazi rhetoric on Trump’s own Truth Social platform? Among other things, the 30-second video that was posted refers to “the creation of a unified Reich” and says that Trump will reject “globalists,” code for Jews among the far right. The Trump campaign responded with the usual drivel. According to The New York Times (free link), the response was that the video was shared by a campaign staffer who didn’t notice the Nazi content and that Biden, naturally, is “the real extremist.” The post was reportedly left up for many hours, though it was taken down Tuesday morning. Trump himself has not addressed the matter.

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What’s interesting is that, far from giving the story too much attention, our major mainstream newspapers have actually paid little attention to it. Our three national papers, the Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, all published stories about it online. But only the Times saw fit to include it in its print edition, relegating it to page A17 of today’s paper, with no tease on the front. By contrast, there’s nothing on page one or inside the print editions of the Post or the Journal, either today or Tuesday.

Locally, The Boston Globe actually has two stories in its print edition today, as it’s the lead item in its political roundup and the subject of a metro-front story on Biden’s speech in Boston. Neither, though, is on page one.

It seems like a classic case of being caught between news cycles — too late for Tuesday print, too old for Wednesday print. The Nazi story certainly dominated the political conversation on Tuesday, but for casual news consumers who aren’t constantly plugged into social media and cable news, that’s scant consolation. Print still matters, if only as a way for editors to communicate what they think are the most important stories of the day.

The Big Three national evening newscasts actually did better on Tuesday. I downloaded the audio and plugged the files into Otter, which uses artificial intelligence to produce reasonably good transcripts. I also watched a few minutes to fill in the gaps. Here’s what I found:

  • ABC’s “World News Tonight” had a story about 12 minutes into its newscast and stuck with it for almost a minute and a half. It included both the “N”-word (Nazi) and the “H”-word (Hitler) and incorporated Biden’s outraged response. There’s also this straightforward assertion by reporter Mary Bruce: “The Trump campaign is adamant this was not a campaign video, that it was reposted by a staffer who clearly did not see the word while the President was in court. But that video that included three instances of the word Reich remained on Trump’s page for more than 18 hours.”
  • The “NBC Nightly News” actually mentioned the Nazi story three times. Anchor Lester Holt teased it in his opening, and reporter Laura Jarrett referred to it at about the 10-minute mark in beginning her roundup of that day’s Trump-related news before offering a 30-second story at about 11:30. Again, the word “Nazi” is used several times.
  • On the “CBS Evening News,” anchor Norah O’Donnell teased the story about six minutes into the newscast, straightforwardly asserting that the term “Reich” is associated with Nazi Germany. Reporter Robert Costa then offered up some Trump news that provides the most thorough overview of the three networks, pivoting from the post and Biden’s reaction to this: “It’s not the first time Trump has used rhetoric prompting outrage for its echoes of hateful extremists.” That’s followed by some of Trump’s worst comments over the years, from saying that immigrants “are poisoning the blood of our country” to “radical left thugs that live like vermin.”

All of this matters because the three evening network newscasts are the closest thing we have left to a mass medium, with a combined audience of nearly 20 million. By contrast, Fox News, which attracts by far the largest audience of the three cable news stations, has an average of about 2 million viewers in prime time, generally defined as 8 to 11 p.m.

I harbor no illusions that Trump’s latest dalliance with Nazi and antisemitic rhetoric is going to have a lasting effect. It all played out in a manner that we’ve seen over and over: assert, deny and project — and then quietly remove the offending message after it’s accomplished its purpose of assuring the far right that he’s one of them. Stand back and stand by, everyone. It’s going to get a lot worse.

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Mein Gott

From The New York Times: “Trump Posts Video Online With Newspaper Headline About ‘Unified Reich’” (free link)

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How a private equity firm that destroyed newspapers helped Trump in Chicago

Trump’s Chicago tower under construction. Photo (cc) 2006 by JeremyA.

A private equity firm that helped destroy local newspapers was also involved in building Donald Trump’s Chicago tower, a fiasco that was the subject of an in-depth investigative report over the weekend produced by The New York Times and ProPublica. The story, published in the Times, found that Trump may owe $100 million because he used “a dubious accounting maneuver to claim improper tax breaks from his troubled Chicago tower.” That conclusion is based on an Internal Revenue Service investigation whose details the two news organizations uncovered.

The tower, built on the former site of the Chicago Sun-Times, was plagued by cost overruns and overly optimistic estimates of the revenues that would be brought in. But this post isn’t about Trump’s problems. It’s about this:

As his cost estimates increased, Mr. Trump arranged to borrow as much as $770 million for the project — $640 million from Deutsche Bank and $130 million from Fortress Investment Group, a hedge fund and private equity company. He personally guaranteed $40 million of the Deutsche loan. Both Deutsche and Fortress then sold off pieces of the loans to other institutions, spreading the risk and potential gain.

Fortress Investment Group is the firm that launched the era of private equity firms’ owning newspapers, described by Margot Susca in her book “Hedged: How Private Investment Funds Helped Destroy American Newspapers and Undermine Democracy,” which was published earlier this year. I reviewed it for The Arts Fuse. As Susca wrote, Fortress paid $530 million in 2005 to purchase Liberty Group Publishing, which it renamed GateHouse Media.

GateHouse built a nationwide network of community newspapers, taking them in and out of bankruptcy twice and slashing newsrooms in order to goose revenues and fuel the acquisition of still more papers. That culminated in 2019 when GateHouse merged with Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain, a $1.1 billion deal that saddled the new Gannett with an enormous pile of debt. Fortress kept right on profiting, Susca wrote, as the firm continued to extract millions of dollars in managment fees. And Gannett kept right on cutting. Susca put it this way in describing what Fortress and other masters of the universe have done to newspapers, and what that has meant for democracy:

Researchers have shown that investments in sustainability, diversity, and community suffer when profit is the only goal; companies involved in those efforts to improve the world around them may actually inspire hedge funds to target them; hedge funds see line items in those businesses that, if eliminated, could lead to more profits….

At a time when government accountability and truth itself are at a crucial nexus, news organizations in the private investment era have failed citizens as these organizations have boosted private investment funds’ bottom lines.

To organizations like Fortress, it makes no difference whether they’re helping to bail out Trump or destroy newspapers. The bottom line is the bottom line, and nothing else matters.

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‘Catch and kill’ isn’t new; plus, Facebook spurns news, and why the WSJ will miss Rupe

Three media tidbits for your Tuesday morning:

• Catch and kill. The National Enquirer’s practice of paying for stories and of deep-sixing articles in order to gain power and influence over someone — known as “catch and kill” — didn’t start with former Enquirer owner David Pecker. Nor was Donald Trump the first alleged beneficiary. I recommend “Scandalous,” a 2019 documentary about the Enquirer that is revealing and highly entertaining. Both Bob Hope and Bill Cosby were caught dead to rights in tawdry sexual affairs, and the Enquirer killed stories about those affairs in order to force them to cooperative in cheery feature stories. Pecker’s innovation was to politicize the practice.

• Facebook and news. Back when I was reporting my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls,” news organizations desperately sought to use Facebook as a way of distributing their journalism. News publishers liked to talk about “the barbell,” by which they would attract readers on Facebook (one end of the barbell) and try to get them to migrate to their own digital products (the other end of the barbell), where, it was hoped, they would become paying subscribers.

In the years since, Meta executives have decided news just isn’t worth it and have throttled journalism on Facebook and other products, including Threads and Instagram. How bad is it? The Washington Post has conducted a data analysis (free link) showing that “the 25 most-cited news organizations in the United States lost 75 percent of their total user engagement on Facebook” between the first quarter of 2022 and the first quarter of 2024. It’s further evidence that news organizations’ business models shouldn’t be dependent on giant corporations with their own agendas.

• The WSJ will miss Murdoch. Axel Springer, the right-wing German media conglomerate that took over Politico in 2021, has its sights set on The Wall Street Journal, according to Ben Smith of Semafor. Rupert Murdoch, through his control of the Fox News Channel and other outlets on three continents, may be the most malignant media magnate on the planet. But he’s been a surprisingly good steward of the Journal, which after 17 years of his ownership remains one of our great newspapers. At 93, he won’t be in charge too much longer. And here’s a quote from Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner that you might enjoy: “I’m all for climate change. We shouldn’t fight climate change but adjust to it.”

I’ll grant you that’s something you might see on the Journal’s editorial page even  now. Murdoch, though, has been better about not letting that bleed into the news pages than Axel Springer might be.

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