The sale of Politico marks the end of a long duel between the Allbrittons and the Grahams

Katharine Graham believed that Joseph Allbritton hoped to take advantage of the 1975-’76 strike against The Washington Post. Photo by Reading/Simpson, noncommercial use permitted.

Robert Allbritton last week sold Politico to the German media company Axel Springer for $1 billion. Ben Smith, who was part of the launch back in 2007, wrote about the sale earlier this week in The New York Times. I wrote about the two-generation rivalry between the Allbrittons and the Graham family, who controlled The Washington Post until 2013, in “The Return of the Moguls.” Below is an excerpt.

Katharine Graham’s other crucial move was to endure a strike in 1975 in order to get the Post’s printing costs under control. So arcane were the work rules that when an advertiser submitted a finished ad (known in the post-hot-lead, pre-computer age as “camera-ready”), a union compositor still put together an equivalent ad, even though it would be discarded as soon as he was finished with it. In deciding to put a stop to such practices, Graham was fortunate in the viciousness of her opposition. At one demonstration, a leader of the union, Charlie Davis, carried a sign that read “Phil Shot the Wrong Graham,” a reference to Phil Graham’s suicide. On the night that the pressmen went on strike, some of them beat the night foreman and started a fire in an attempt to sabotage the machinery. Because of those actions they earned the enmity of the Newspaper Guild, which represented the reporters. With the paper’s journalists crossing the picket line, the Post was able to resume publishing after just one missed day, enabling them to break the strike. The benefits of being able to modernize production were immediate, as income grew from about $13 million a year to $24.5 million in 1976 and to $35.5 million in 1977.

Not all observers were sympathetic to the Grahams. Ben Bagdikian, a former Post national editor who spent much of his long, distinguished career after leaving the paper as an academic and a harsh critic of corporate journalism, wrote an article in the Washington Monthly attributing the strike to Katharine Graham’s earlier decision to go public. “The idiosyncratic publishers, whose integrity led them to ignore narrow economic arguments in favor of quality, and who as a result created America’s great newspapers, are disappearing,” Bagdikian wrote. “They were being replaced by profit-maximizing conglomerate owners. It is a forecast of trouble for independent journalism in the country’s most important news companies.” Graham recorded her response in a note to Ben Bradlee: “I am really embarrassed to think this ignorant biased fool was ever national editor. Surely the worst asps in this world are the ones one has clasped to the bosom.”

The Post’s rivalry with The Washington Star played a small role in the strike as well, a tidbit of interest mainly because of who owned the Star at that time: Joe Allbritton, a Texan who had acquired the paper from the Kauffmann family in 1974. Katharine Graham wrote that Allbritton declined to help the Post during the strike because, in her view, the only way the Star could stay in business was for the Post to fail. Allbritton sold the Star to Time Inc. in 1978, which closed it in 1981 even though Katharine Graham, Donald Graham and Warren Buffett had made overtures to set up a joint operating agreement under which both papers would be published.

The Allbritton family’s ambitions remained entangled with the Post for many decades to come. Years later, two Post journalists, John Harris and Jim VandeHei, were rebuffed when they proposed setting up a separate political website under the paper’s umbrella. They took their idea to Joe Allbritton’s son, Robert, who helped them launch Politico in 2007. With its hyperkinetic insider’s approach to covering politics, the site quickly established itself as a serious rival to the Post on one of its signature beats, although Politico was often criticized for emphasizing the superficial horse race aspects of politics.

Robert Allbritton also backed a site cheekily named TBD.com (for “to be determined”), edited by the former washingtonpost.com editor Jim Brady and the future Post media blogger Erik Wemple, which covered local news in the Washington area in conjunction with a television station the Allbrittons had owned since acquiring the Star. Fortunately for the Grahams, Allbritton lost patience with it within months of its 2010 launch, and in 2012 the site was shut down. Another Allbritton connection: About a year after Jeff Bezos bought the Post, he hired Frederick Ryan, a former Reagan administration official, to replace Katharine Weymouth as publisher. At the time that the move was made, Ryan was president and chief operating officer of Allbritton Communications and had served as Politico’s first chief executive.

The Post and Politico make for a fascinating contrast. Both companies are ensconced in brand-new headquarters on either side of the Potomac; Politico occupies part of an office tower in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Virginia. The missions of the two organizations are very different. The Post is a general-interest newspaper with a substantial print presence. Politico is aimed at people in the professional political community, and though it publishes a small print product (daily when Congress is in session; weekly otherwise), it’s mainly digital. Yet if the ancient rivalry between the Post and The New York Times is mostly journalistic and symbolic, the Post’s rivalry with the Allbritton family has involved serious competition over whose news organization will prove to be more financially successful in the long run.

Correction: I have learned that the elder Albritton’s legal name was Joe, not Joseph. Unfortunately, it remains wrong in the book.

An anonymous source steps forth and saves (most of) The Washington Post’s bacon

Photo (cc) 2005 by Shawn Zamechek

The danger in reporting a story based on anonymous sources — in this case, one anonymous source — is that if you later are proven wrong, you’re left twisting in the wind with no one to blame but yourself.

It is highly unusual for a source to emerge from hiding and deliver a semi-exoneration. So The Washington Post got lucky Tuesday when Jordan Fuchs, the deputy secretary of state in Georgia who was the anonymous source for a Post story that resulted in an embarrassing correction, went on the record and said the Post got the story more or less right after all.

In case you missed it, the Post had to correct a story by Amy Gardner reporting that Trump had called Georgia’s chief elections investigator, Frances Watson, and urged her to “find the fraud” and that she would be a “national hero” if she overturned the results of the presidential election in her state. A tape of the call emerged recently, and The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s quotes were somewhat less provocative than that. Wemple writes:

In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Fuchs said, “I believe the story accurately reflected the investigator’s interpretation of the call. The only mistake here was in the direct quotes, and they should have been more of a summary.” Fuchs said that The Post disclosed her role in the story with her permission, and that she’d gotten the debriefing from the investigator — a direct report of hers — “shortly” after the call from Trump concluded.

“I think it’s pretty absurd for anybody to suggest that the president wasn’t urging the investigator to ‘find the fraud,’” Fuchs added, “These are quotes that [Watson] told me at the time.”

To be clear, what we’re talking about here is a secondary story — a follow-up to a more explosive report by Gardner about Trump’s call to Georgia Secretary of State Georgia Brad Raffensperger in which he demanded that Raffensperger find enough votes to reverse the results. There was audio of that call, published on the Post’s website.

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So, a close call for the Post — but lessons to be learned that really shouldn’t have to be stated. You don’t use quotes from a single anonymous source, especially when that source may have been second-hand. If you’re absolutely confident of your reporting, treat those quotes as a “summary,” as Fuchs suggested, rather than using quotation marks.

And understand that in this hypercharged political environment, you will be accused of making up fake news about Trump if you don’t get it 100% right. In this case, 95% isn’t good enough.

Don’t censor right-wing disinformation. Just stop making us pay for it.

Photo (cc) 2007 by Jason Eppink

Two Democratic members of Congress are asking giant cable providers like Verizon and Comcast some uncomfortable questions about their business dealings with three right-wing purveyors of toxic misinformation and disinformation — Fox News, Newsmax and OANN.

Among other things, according to Erik Wemple of The Washington Post, Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney want to know what “moral and ethical principles” are involved in carrying the channels and whether they intend to keep carrying them after their current contracts expire. This is not a good road to take. As Wemple writes:

The insertion of Congress into the contractual relationships of video providers with particular news/propaganda outlets, however, is frightening. Asking questions is a protected activity, of course — one that lawmakers use all the time. Yet these questions feel a lot like coercion by government officials, an incursion into the cultural promise of the First Amendment. Eshoo and McNerney’s letter hints that, unless the carriers proactively justify keeping OAN, Newsmax, Fox News and the like, the signatories would like to see them de-platformed right away.

The very real problem is that Fox News and its smaller competitors are unique in the extent to which they spout falsehoods and outright lies about everything from the COVID-19 pandemic to the outcome of the 2020 election. But what can we do about it without posing a threat to the First Amendment?

Liberal activists have pressured advertisers from time to time, which is well within their own free-speech rights. But Fox, in particular, is all but immune from such pressure because most of its money comes from cable carriage fees. As Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of the liberal media-watch organization Media Matters for America, recently told the public radio program “On the Media”:

They can have zero commercials and still have a 90% profit margin because they are the second most expensive channel on everybody’s cable box, and Fox is in the process right now of renegotiating 40 to 50% of all of their contracts.

A far more promising avenue is one suggested by the media-reform organization Free Press. Contained within its daily missives demanding that Congress take action against Fox, Newsmax and OANN for spewing “hate and disinformation into homes and businesses across the country” is a proposed solution that we all ought to support: mandating  à la carte cable so that consumers would only have to pay for the channels they want. (Bye bye, ESPN!)

The problem with these right-wing purveyors of lies isn’t that they exist. It’s that, unless we’re willing to cut the cable cord, we’re forced to pay for them whether we watch them or not, whether we’re appalled by them or not. It’s time to bring that to an end.

So yes, there’s a way to do something about cable hate without raising constitutional issues. Reps. Eshoo and McNerney should take note.

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Lauren Wolfe, The New York Times and the never-ending dilemma over social media

Photo (cc) 2019 by Andreas Komodromos

In what should be a surprise to no one, follow-ups show that The New York Times  fired freelance editor Lauren Wolfe after several previous incidents in which the paper’s editors believed she had violated social-media guidelines. It wasn’t just the “I have chills” tweet about President Biden. But the question remains: What was the big deal? As Joe Pompeo of Vanity Fair puts it:

As the situation snowballed, there was also a palpable yearning for more information about what was behind the Times’ decision. Was Wolfe a sacrificial lamb thrown overboard in the face of bad faith criticism? Had the Times overreacted to what could be interpreted as an expression of relief given the authoritarian bullet America just dodged? Or was there more to the story?

The answer, Pompeo says, citing “a number of senior Times sources”: “Wolfe had previously been cautioned about her social media behavior. A manager gave her a warning months ago after staffers expressed discomfort with certain tweets she was told bordered on being political.”

Tom Jones of Poynter argues that Wolfe’s termination raises questions that need further exploration:

This incident once again brings into question the social media presence of journalists. When a journalist tweets, do they represent just themselves or the organization they work for, as well? Can someone’s work be questioned over something they post on Facebook? Is a journalist always “on the clock,” even when they are tweeting personal thoughts?

Finally, Wolfe herself speaks to Erik Wemple of The Washington Post. And what she has to say casts doubt on the idea that her previous transgressions played any role in her firing. Wemple writes:

Months ago, recalls Wolfe, she received a warning from the same manager about her Twitter activity; as an example, he cited a tweet in which, Wolfe says, she’d connected the resistance of conservative men to wearing masks to “toxic masculinity.” She deleted the tweet. But, according to Wolfe, the manager said her posts in general were “borderline” and that other Times staffers had done “worse.” Last week’s tweet was “the only reason they fired me,” Wolfe says.

Wemple also describes as “dreadful” the Times statement (see previous item) in which management said it would respect her privacy while not respecting her privacy. It surely is that. By insinuating that Wolfe was fired for something much worse than the “chills” tweet, the Times harmed Wolfe’s reputation and made it more difficult for her to move on to her next job.

The Times is known for having strict guidelines about its straight-news journalists expressing opinions on social media. If, in fact, Wolfe proved incorrigible after previous warnings, then I suppose the Times acted appropriately, even though it still strikes me as an extreme reaction to a pretty harmless tweet.

It also appears that Times management reacted as much to the outrage stirred up by the gadfly journalist Glenn Greenwald and others as it did to Wolfe’s actual tweet. According to Pompeo, Wolfe was told that her tweet had sparked an outcry, and “we can’t have that.” For what it’s worth, Greenwald says Wolfe shouldn’t have been fired.

Earlier:

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Obama’s farewell address runs afoul of the first rule of Trump

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Carl Bernstein on CNN Tuesday.

The first rule of Trump: It’s always about Trump.

Thus it was that even on the night of President Barack Obama’s farewell address, the big story was CNN’s report — co-bylined by Watergate legend Carl Bernstein, no less — about compromising (and unverified) personal and financial information gathered by the Russians that could be used to blackmail the president-elect.

On our screens, a popular, largely successful, and thoroughly reassuring president was preparing to leave the White House. Behind the scenes, all was trouble and turmoil.

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

New York Times under fire for San Bernardino screw-up

Tashfeen_Malik
Tashfeen Malik (photo via Wikipedia)

The New York Times has walked back an explosive claim: that San Bernardino terrorist Tashfeen Malik had “talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.” As Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple reports, FBI Director James Comey said earlier this week that there was no evidence for that particular morsel, which the Republican presidential candidates chewed over at Tuesday night’s debate.

Wemple also notes that the Times‘ revised story now makes it clear that Malik had actually discussed her views on violent jihadism privately. The result is a story about social media that’s not really about social media, with the Times “attempting to preserve the structure and feel of a story about federal government misfeasance” even though there is zero reason to believe federal officials should have been aware of her private communications.

An earlier Wemple post provides more details about what went wrong at the Times, as well as some less-than-adroit handling of the information by the Los Angeles Times and by CNN debate moderator Wolf Blitzer. Blitzer allowed the candidates to trash the Obama administration on the basis of the Times story even though it had already been contradicted by CNN’s own reporting. (#slatepitches: “Wolf Blitzer Actually Did a Good Job Moderating the Debate. Good Job, Wolf!”)

And as Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum notes, two of the three Times reporters, Matt Apuzzo and Michael Schmidt, “were also the authors of July’s epic fail claiming that Hillary Clinton was the target of a criminal probe over the mishandling of classified information in her private email system. In the end, virtually everything about the story turned out to be wrong. Clinton was not a target. The referral was not criminal. The emails in question had not been classified at the time Clinton saw them.”

The Times has a problem. We’ll see how executive editor Dean Baquet handles it in the days ahead.

Billionaires’ bash: Big moves by Henry’s Globe, Bezos’ Post

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 10.40.06 AM

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Tuesday may have been the biggest day yet for billionaire newspaper owners John Henry and Jeff Bezos. Henry’s Boston Globe launched the long-anticipated Crux, a free standalone website that covers the Catholic Church. And Bezos replaced Katharine Weymouth as publisher of The Washington Post, bringing an end to the 81-year reign of the Meyer-Graham family.

At a time when the newspaper business remains besieged by cuts (including 22 Newspaper Guild positions at The Providence Journal this week, according to a report by Ian Donnis of Rhode Island Public Radio), Henry and Bezos are taking the opposite approach.

“You can’t shrink your way to success,” new Washington Post publisher Frederick Ryan told Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post. “Growth is the way to continue to build a strong news organization.” Ryan’s words were nearly identical to those of the Globe’s chief executive officer, Michael Sheehan, at the unveiling of the paper’s weekly political section, Capital, in June: “You can’t cut your way to success. You can only grow you way to success.”

First Crux. To my non-Catholic eyes, the site appears to offer an interesting mix of the serious and the not-so-serious. The centerpiece is John Allen’s deeply knowledgeable reporting and analysis, some of which will continue to appear in the Globe. (In late August, Publishers Marketplace reported that Allen is writing a biography of Pope Francis with the working title of “The Francis Miracle.” No publisher was named, but according to this, Time Home Entertainment will release it in March 2015.)

Crux national reporter Michael O’Loughlin has weighed in with features on Native American Catholics who blend tribal and Roman traditions and on the Vatican Secret Archives, whose contents turn out to be not as interesting as the phrase makes them sound. Vatican correspondent Inés San Martín covers stories such as Pope Francis’ call for peace in Gaza. WGBH’s Margery Eagan, a former Boston Herald columnist, is writing a column called “On Spirituality.” The events calendar makes it clear that Crux is a very Catholic venture.

There’s a lighter side to Crux, too, such as a trivia quiz on the saints and updates on football teams from Catholic colleges. Crux’s own reporters are supplemented with wire services, including the Associated Press, Catholic News Service and Religion News Service, as well as personal essays such as the Rev. Jonathan Duncan’s rumination on life as a married Catholic priest with children (he used to be an Episcopalian). Crux is also asking readers to write brief essays; the debut topic is illegal immigration.

Two quibbles. An article on the suffering of Iraqi Christians was published as a straight news story, even though the tagline identifies it as coming from “the pontifical organization Aid to the Church in Need.” When you click to “learn more,” you find out that Church in Need is an advocacy organization that is actively seeking donations. The disclosure is sufficient, but the placement strikes me as problematic. If Crux were a print newspaper, the article could have appeared on the op-ed page. Crux needs a clearly marked place for such material as well.

My other quibble is that content is undated, leaving the impression that everything is now. That can cause confusion, as with a John Allen Globe piece on immigration that refers to “Friday night” — and links to an Associated Press story published on Aug. 2. (Dates do appear on author bios.)

The site is beautifully designed, and it’s responsive, so it looks good on tablets and smartphones. There are a decent number of ads, though given the state of digital advertising, I think it would make sense — as I wrote earlier this summer — to take the best stuff and publish it in a paid, ad-supported print product.

Globe editor Brian McGrory, Crux editor Teresa Hanafin, digital adviser David Skok and company are off to a fine start. For more on Crux, see this article by David Uberti in the Columbia Journalism Review and this, by Justin Ellis, at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

***

A torrent of punditry has already accompanied the news that Frederick Ryan, a former chief executive of Politico, will become publisher of The Washington Post on Oct. 1.

The irony is thick. When Post political reporters John Harris and Jim VanDeHei proposed launching Politico under the newspaper’s auspices in 2006, they were turned down. Today, Politico often dominates the political conversation in a way that the Post used to (and, of course, sometimes still does). I’m not always a fan of Politico’s emphasis on politics as insider gamesmanship, but there’s no doubt the site has been successful.

As the Post’s own account makes clear, Ryan is a longtime Republican activist, and was close to both Ronald and Nancy Reagan. That shouldn’t affect the Post’s news operations, though it could affect the editorial page — hardly a bastion of liberalism even now. In another Post story, Ryan “endorsed” executive editor Marty Baron and editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt. Baron, a former Globe editor, may be the best newspaper editor working on this side of the Atlantic.

What concerns me is the strong scent of insiderism that is attached to Ryan. In an address to the staff, Ryan said one of his goals is “winning the morning,” according to a series of tweets by Post media blogger Erik Wemple (reported by Jim Romenesko). That might seem unremarkable, except that it sounds like something right out of the Politico playbook — um, make that “Playbook.”

A New York Times account by Ravi Somaiya dwells on Ryan’s obsession with the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, and quotes Ryan as calling it “an important event.” Those of us who find the dinner to be an unseemly display of Beltway clubbiness might agree that it’s important, but for different reasons.

Then again, if Ryan can fix the Post’s business model and show the way for other news organizations, all will be forgiven. The Post, like the Globe, has been expanding under new ownership. On Tuesday, the Post unveiled its most recent venture, The Most, an aggregation site.

Bezos’ track record at Amazon shows that he’s willing to take the long view. I suspect that he’s still just getting started with the Washington Post.