The First Amendment and Mayor Wu: What press restrictions and vile demonstrations have in common

Photo of protesters by Saraya Wintersmith for GBH News

Over the past week, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has been caught up in two seemingly unrelated controversies. What they have in common is that they touch on important First Amendment issues.

Read the rest at GBH News.

Why The New York Times’ acquisition of The Athletic could create an existential crisis for local news

Imagine that you’re the editor of a big-city daily newspaper whose reporting staff has been slashed by its corporate owner. You struggle to cover the basics — local politics, business, the arts. But you’ve managed to preserve a fairly robust sports section. After all, a lot of your readers are avid fans. If they no longer needed to come to you for coverage of their favorite teams, then your circulation, already sliding, would fall off a cliff.

Well, your worst nightmare just came true.

Read the rest at GBH News.

Axios Local is coming to Boston. Will it find a place on your smartphone?

Axios CEO Jim VandeHei on “Morning Joe.” Photo (cc) 2018 by MSNBC.

Previously published at GBH News.

Axios is building out its network of local newsletters. Here’s what it means to you:

  • Axios Local, as the initiative is called, will grow from 14 to 25 cities in the coming months, according to CEO Jim VandeHei — and could eventually reach as many as 100.
  • Why it matters: Boston will have its own Axios Local newsletter by mid-2022.
  • What you can expect: Axios says that “local reporters will deliver scoops, offer sharp insights and curate the best local reporting in our proven ‘Smart Brevity’ style.”

The big picture: Go deeper (1,038 words, 5 min. read).

All right, all right. You get the idea. Axios, the jittery, made-for-mobile news site that battles short attention spans with quick takes, boldface type and bullet points, has been expanding over the past year from national to regional news by unveiling a number of local daily newsletters.

Shades of its archrival, Politico? Well, not really. Because while Politico has gone deep with insider information for political junkies with newsletters like its Massachusetts Playbook, Axios is pursuing something different: general-interest news, heavy on business, lifestyle and entertainment, designed mainly to appeal to the young urban tech crowd.

In a “manifesto” released over the weekend, Axios put itself forth as nothing less than the savior that will solve the local news crisis. “Everyone needs — and deserves — high-quality reporting to understand the changes fast unfolding where they live,” the statement says in part. “Axios Local is the solution, synched elegantly to your smartphone.”

The trouble is, Axios Local is setting up shop in places that could hardly be considered news deserts. Instead of, say, Axios Worcester, Axios Newark or Axios Small City without a Newspaper, we’re getting newsletters targeted at affluent urban audiences in places that are already reasonably well served. And the Axios sites are so thinly staffed that it’s going to be difficult for them to make a real difference.

Let’s take Denver as an example. Thanks to the hollowing-out of The Denver Post at the hands of its hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital, Denver is often cited as a place that no longer has reliable regional journalism. But is that actually the case?

Not really. Consider that, even in its diminished state, the Post has a newsroom of about 60 full-timers. Colorado Public Radio has more than 60, including its Denverite website. The Colorado Sun, a highly regarded digital start-up, has 23 and continues to grow. About 90 full-time journalists work for a combined newsroom operated by The Gazette of Colorado Springs, Colorado Politics and the start-up Denver Gazette. Denver’s venerable alt-weekly, Westword, has about a half-dozen.

And Axios Denver? Two. As staff reporters John Frank and Alayna Alvarez put it in the introductory message you get when you subscribe, their aim is to provide some original journalism, curation from other news sources and “a little fun at the same time with everything from local beer picks to new outdoor adventures.”

Tuesday’s newsletter, for instance, ranged from an update on Denver’s homeless crisis to the latest on the Colorado wildfires, as well as how to take part in “Dry January.” (No, thank you.) The past week or so has consisted almost entirely of fire updates along with changes to the trash pickup schedule, things to do during the holidays and Colorado’s best beer and breweries.

Now, I can imagine that this would appeal to younger, well-educated professionals who don’t have much time for news and who are looking to connect with those of similar interests. But it’s certainly no competition for other news organizations in the Denver area.

And if that’s the case in Denver, it’s hard to imagine what sort of mindshare Axios is going to be able to command in a place like Boston, which has a healthy and growing daily newspaper, two thriving news-oriented public radio stations, a second daily, a multitude of television news operations and a number other niche and hyperlocal media. Even Politico’s aforementioned Massachusetts Playbook has competition in the form of State House News Service’s Masster List and CommonWealth Magazine’s Daily Download.

Nor will Axios Boston have the quick-hit general-interest-newsletter field to itself — although it is likely to be more robust than BosToday, a newsletter that launched recently under the auspices of a national network called 6AM City. BosToday promises “the inside scoop into what’s happening in your city in 5 minutes or less,” which I guess means that you’ll be a well-informed citizen by 6:05.

It will be interesting to see whether these advertising-backed new ventures can make enough money to justify their investment. In September, Sara Guaglione of Digiday reported that Axios Local was claiming it would pull in ad revenues of $4 million to $5 million in 2021, which isn’t bad for an estimated 30 to 40 full-time journalists; the eventual goal is to triple its staff. Rick Edmonds of Poynter reported around the same time that 6AM City has similar ambitions — a staff of about 30 that its executives hoped to build to around 100. The operation is being funded by venture capital, so look out below.

Axios Local is just the latest act in a drama that goes back to 2007, when Washington Post journalists VandeHei and John Harris left to found Politico after being turned down in their bid to launch a political website under their control inside the Post. They were joined by another Post journalist, Mike Allen, who wrote a widely read morning newsletter.

Politico is often accused by media observers (including me) of covering politics as a sporting event for insiders, and Allen’s newsletter was sometimes accused of crossing an ethical line by providing favorable coverage of advertisers, as the Post’s Erik Wemple has pointed out. But the project has certainly been successful.

Then, in 2017, VandeHei and Allen left to found Axios, setting up an intense rivalry with their former colleagues. Last year Politico was sold to a controversial German company called Axel Springer. According to Ben Smith, soon to be formerly of The New York Times, Axel Springer wanted to buy Axios, too, but VandeHei ended up nixing the deal. You have to imagine that there’s still some chance of that happening.

Axios Local began with Axios’ acquisition of the Charlotte Agenda in late 2020. The site, renamed Axios Charlotte, now has a staff of seven journalists, including an investigative reporter, according to its masthead. If the rest of Axios Local can grow into something equally robust, then VandeHei will genuinely have something to brag about.

For the moment, though, Axios Local is little more than an interesting project to watch as it tries to compete in a local news landscape that isn’t quite as barren as VandeHei and company seem to think it is.

It would have been nice if they’d genuinely tried to address the dearth of local journalism in places that have little or no coverage. Instead, they’re going where the money is. It’s an old story, and you don’t need boldface or bullet points to tell it.

A New York state judge’s ruling against the Times imperils First Amendment rights

2009 photo by Dan Kennedy

Previously published at GBH News.

What is New York Supreme Court Judge Charles D. Wood thinking?

On Christmas Eve, Wood issued an order forbidding The New York Times from publishing confidential documents it had obtained detailing legal advice given to Project Veritas, a right-wing organization that specializes in hidden cameras and infiltration. Moreover, Wood ruled that the Times would have to return the documents to Project Veritas and destroy any electronic copies that it held.

“In defiance of law settled in the Pentagon Papers case,” said Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger in a statement, “this judge has barred The Times from publishing information about a prominent and influential organization that was obtained legally in the ordinary course of reporting.”

The decision follows a temporary ruling Wood issued more than a month ago to stop the Times from making further use of the documents. The Times appealed that ruling, but an appellate court declined to act. (On late Tuesday, a state appeals court ruled that the Times does not have to turn over or destroy the documents in its possession, at least for now.)

Here’s some background. Last spring, Project Veritas, headed by the notorious James O’Keefe, sued the Times for libel, claiming that the Times’ reference to two Veritas videos about voter fraud as “deceptive” was false and defamatory.

Then, in an unrelated matter, the Times in November published a story following up news that federal officials were investigating Veritas’ possible involvement in stealing a diary kept by Ashley Biden, President Joe Biden’s daughter. In that story, the Times quoted from confidential documents that Veritas had received from its lawyers on how to carry out its dubious stunts while avoiding legal trouble. Those documents predated Veritas’ lawsuit against the Times by several years. The Times contends they were obtained through its reporting, not through pretrial discovery in the libel case.

And by the way, don’t be fooled by Wood’s lofty title — there are 62 supreme courts in New York State. He is, in fact, a trial-court judge, elected to that position in 2009 after serving as an aide to former state senator Nicholas Spano, a Republican who pleaded guilty to federal tax-evasion charges in 2012.

But you don’t have to have a sterling judicial pedigree to know that if the First Amendment stands for anything, it stands for the proposition that the government may not ban anyone from publishing or broadcasting. Yes, there are certain narrowly drawn exceptions; serious breaches of national security, incitement to violence and obscenity may all be censored.

Still, the rule against prior restraint is robust enough to have led the Supreme Court to allow the Times and The Washington Post to publish the Pentagon Papers, the government’s own secret history of the Vietnam War. It also led a federal judge in 1979 to agonize over a decision to prohibit The Progressive, a small left-wing publication, from publishing an article on how to build an atomic bomb.

“A mistake in ruling against The Progressive will seriously infringe cherished First Amendment rights,” U.S. District Court Judge Robert Warren wrote. But, he added portentously, “A mistake in ruling against the United States could pave the way for thermonuclear annihilation for us all. In that event, our right to life is extinguished and the right to publish becomes moot.” (Warren imposed a temporary restraining order and told The Progressive and the government to work out a compromise. That order was rendered moot when a different publication ran a similar article.)

No such agonizing over the prospect of muzzling the press is evident in Wood’s opinion. Take, for instance, his ruling that the information contained in the confidential documents the Times reported on are not a matter of “public concern.” A finding to the contrary might have opened the door to the Times’ publishing the documents despite Wood’s erroneous assertion that the attorney-client privilege is at stake.

“Undoubtedly, every media outlet believes that anything that it publishes is a matter of public concern,” Wood wrote. “The state of our nation is that roughly half the nation prioritizes interests that are vastly different than the other half.”

This is Wood setting himself up as editor, deciding what’s newsworthy and what isn’t. The documents concerned advice from Project Veritas’ lawyers on how to avoid legal trouble when carrying out its undercover operations. Surely that’s of public concern, especially since the courts have set the threshold for newsworthiness at a very low level precisely so that they can avoid playing editor.

But the larger issue here is Wood’s breathtakingly expansive definition of what’s covered by the attorney-client privilege. It’s true, of course, that if the Times had simply reported on the contents of documents Project Veritas had turned over to the Times’ lawyers during pretrial discovery in the libel case, the judge would be justified in his outrage. But there is no evidence to contradict Sulzberger’s assertion that the documents were obtained in the normal course of reporting — as Wood concedes.

“There is nothing in the record to show how the Times obtained the privileged memoranda that belong to Project Veritas,” Wood wrote. “That information is solely within the Times’ knowledge and possession, and it has not offered any explanation beyond vaguely stating that the memoranda were obtained through its ‘newsgathering effort.’”

Wood follows that up with a weird, gratuitous suggestion that perhaps the Times obtained the documents through bribery. And then, in ruling against the Times, Wood wrote:

“The Times is perfectly free to investigate, uncover, research, interview, photograph, record, publish, opine, expose or ignore whatever aspects of Project Veritas its editors in their sole discretion deem newsworthy, without utilizing Project Veritas’ attorney-client privileged memoranda.”

In other words, the Times is not free to publish or report on the documents in question even though it claims to have obtained them in the normal course of reporting, and even though Wood admits there is no evidence to the contrary.

This is an outrage against the First Amendment. “The opinion is jaw-dropping in its constitutional illiteracy,” wrote Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post.

Added Stephen J. Adler and Bruce D. Brown of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press: “The First Amendment does not tolerate the idea that speech can be censored in advance, even if it might be punished after the fact. This is because prior restraints do not just ‘chill’ speech on public affairs, they ‘freeze’ it, which can give the government and private litigants a powerful tool to hide information and to skew public debate.”

What’s worse is that Wood’s ruling provides an incentive for the target of investigative reporting to sue the news organization and then use that suit to shut down any further reporting by claiming attorney-client privilege. Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., a media lawyer whose clients include CNN, put it this way in an interview with the Times:

“It’s an egregious, unprecedented intrusion on news gathering and the news gathering process. The special danger is it allows a party suing a news organization for defamation to then get a gag order against the news organization banning any additional reporting. It’s the ultimate chilling effect.”

The Times says it plans to appeal Wood’s decision. Good luck with that. Although it presumably would take a few years, eventually the case might make its way before the U.S. Supreme Court. With a right-wing majority, the court could, if it chose, inflict incalculable damage.

We should all hope that Wood’s assault on freedom of the press is halted at the state level — and that this threat to the First Amendment fades to the obscurity it deserves.

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.

A $150 billion lawsuit over genocide may force Facebook to confront its dark side

Displayed Rohingya Muslims. Photo (cc) 2017 by Tasnim News Agency.

Previously published at GBH News.

How much of a financial hit would it take to force Mark Zuckerberg sit up and pay attention?

We can be reasonably sure he didn’t lose any sleep when British authorities fined Facebook a paltry $70 million earlier this fall for withholding information about its acquisition of Giphy, an app for creating and hosting animated graphics. Maybe he stirred a bit in July 2019, when the Federal Trade Commission whacked the company with a $5 billion penalty for violating its users’ privacy — a punishment described by the FTC as “the largest ever imposed” in such a case. But then he probably rolled over and caught a few more z’s.

OK, how about $150 billion? Would that do it?

We may be about to find out. Because that’s the price tag lawyers for Rohingya refugees placed on a class-action lawsuit they filed in California last week against Facebook — excuse me, make that Meta Platforms. As reported by Kelvin Chan of The Associated Press, the suit claims that Facebook’s actions in Myanmar stirred up violence in a way that “amounted to a substantial cause, and eventual perpetuation of, the Rohingya genocide.”

Even by Zuckerberg’s standards, $150 billion is a lot of money. Facebook’s revenues in 2020 were just a shade under $86 billion. And though the pricetags lawyers affix on lawsuits should always be taken with several large shakers of salt, the case over genocide in Myanmar could be just the first step in holding Facebook to account for the way its algorithms amplify hate speech and disinformation.

The lawsuit is also one of the first tangible consequences of internal documents provided earlier this fall by Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee turned whistleblower who went public with information showing that company executives knew its algorithms were wreaking worldwide havoc and did little or nothing about it. In addition to providing some 10,000 documents to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Haugen told her story anonymously to The Wall Street Journal, and later went public by appearing on “60 Minutes” and testifying before Congress.

The lawsuit is a multi-country effort, as Mathew Ingram reports for the Columbia Journalism Review, and the refugees’ lawyers are attempting to apply Myanmar’s laws in order to get around the United States’ First Amendment, which — with few exceptions — protects even the most loathsome speech.

But given that U.S. law may prevail, the lawyers have also taken the step of claiming that Facebook is a “defective” product. According to Tim De Chant, writing at Ars Technica, that claim appears to be targeted at Section 230, which would normally protect Facebook from legal liability for any content posted by third parties.

Facebook’s algorithms are programmed to show you more and more of the content that you engage with, which leads to the amplification of the sort of violent posts that helped drive genocide against the Rohingyas. A legal argument that would presumably find more favor in the U.S. court system is the algorithmic-driven spread of that content, rather than the content itself.

“While the Rohingya have long been the victims of discrimination and persecution, the scope and violent nature of that persecution changed dramatically in the last decade, turning from human rights abuses and sporadic violence into terrorism and mass genocide,” the lawsuit says. “A key inflection point for that change was the introduction of Facebook into Burma in 2011, which materially contributed to the development and widespread dissemination of anti-Rohingya hate speech, misinformation, and incitement of violence—which together amounted to a substantial cause, and perpetuation of, the eventual Rohingya genocide..”

Facebook has previously admitted that its response to the violence in Myanmar was inadequate. “We weren’t doing enough to help prevent our platform from being used to foment division and incite offline violence,” the company said in 2018.

The lawsuit at least theoretically represents an existential threat to Facebook, and no doubt the company will fight back hard. Still, its initial response emphasized its regrets and steps it has taken over the past several years to lessen the damage. A Meta spokesperson recently issued this statement to multiple news organizations: “We’re appalled by the crimes committed against the Rohingya people in Myanmar. We’ve built a dedicated team of Burmese speakers, banned the Tatmadaw [the Burmese armed forces], disrupted networks manipulating public debate and taken action on harmful misinformation to help keep people safe. We’ve also invested in Burmese-language technology to reduce the prevalence of violating content. This work is guided by feedback from experts, civil society organizations and independent reports, including the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar’s findings and the independent Human Rights Impact Assessment we commissioned and released in 2018.”

No doubt Zuckerberg and company didn’t knowingly set out to contribute to a human-rights disaster that led to a rampage of rape and murder, with nearly 7,000 Rohingyas killed and 750,000 forced out of the country. Yet this tragedy was the inevitable consequence of the way Facebook works, and of its top executives’ obsession with growth over safety.

As University of Virginia media studies professor and author Siva Vaidhyanathan has put it: “The problem with Facebook is Facebook.”

Maybe the prospect of being forced to pay for the damage they have done will, at long last, force Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and the rest to do something about it.

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.

It’s too simple to say the ‘mainstream media’ got it wrong on the Steele dossier

Russia ties? What Russia ties?

Previously published at GBH News. This is ostensibly a column about the Steele dossier. But it’s really a column about the media — or, rather, what we mean when we talk about “the media.”

You remember the Steele dossier, right? Just before Donald Trump’s inauguration as president in 2017, we learned that intelligence officials had briefed both Trump and outgoing President Barack Obama about a report that contained some lurid accusations. The most famous: that there was a video of Trump consorting with prostitutes in a Russian hotel room, which became known far and wide as “the pee tape.”

The dossier, we learned, had been compiled at the behest of Trump’s opponents for the Republican presidential nomination and later on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent, arrived on the scene at some point after it became a Clinton operation.

Now that special counsel John Durham, appointed by then-Attorney General Bill Barr in the waning days of the Trump administration, has indicted a crucial source and thus discredited the dossier, we are being subjected to some serious handwringing over the media’s credulous reporting.

Sara Fischer of Axios called it “one of the most egregious journalistic errors in modern history.” Writing in The New York Times, Bill Grueskin of the Columbia Journalism School lamented that “so many [journalists] were taken in so easily because the dossier seemed to confirm what they already suspected.” Needless to say, Fox News has been having a field day.

But there’s a huge problem with the narrative that the Steele dossier drove the story that Trump’s 2016 campaign colluded with the Russians, and that the media pushed it in order to destroy Trump’s presidency: that’s not what happened. Or, to be more precise, a few media outlets pushed it, but more didn’t. And most serious people understood from the beginning that the dossier comprised raw intelligence, some of which might be true, some of which almost certainly wasn’t, and some of which probably consisted of outright disinformation.

CNN, the first outlet to report that Trump and Obama had been briefed, left out any details in its initial story even though it had the 35-page dossier in hand. BuzzFeed News, which remains the only major news organization to publish the full dossier (a mistake, as I said at the time), called it “unverified” and noted that it included “some clear errors.” The New York Times reported that the dossier was “unsubstantiated” and “generated by political operatives seeking to derail Mr. Trump’s candidacy.” The Washington Post: “unconfirmed” and “unsubstantiated.”

To be fair, these articles also said that the allegations contained therein might be true, and that the intelligence officials who briefed the two presidents were taking them seriously. But that’s just accurate reporting.

By the time the dossier was made public, we already knew that Trump’s then-lawyer, Michael Cohen, had vociferously denied he’d held a meeting in Prague with Russian operatives. But as the national security blogger Marcy Wheeler noted in a Columbia Journalism Review podcast last week, at the same time Cohen was telling the truth about the Prague meeting, he was also lying about meeting with Russian officials regarding a deal to build a Trump tower and lying about paying off women to keep quiet about their sexual liaisons with Trump. (How can you tell Cohen isn’t lying? When he’s not talking.) Wheeler, I should point out, has been casting doubt on the Steele dossier for a long time, so she’s hardly an apologist for the media.

Were there some media outlets that irresponsibly ran with the Steele dossier? Of course. On the CJR podcast, Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple, who’s been indefatigable in his efforts to debunk the dossier, cited MSNBC, CNN and the McClatchy newspapers. Grueskin pointed to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg and McClatchy.

To which I would respond that MSNBC and CNN’s prime-time lineups consist of liberal talk shows aimed at keeping their viewers riled up so they won’t change the channel. They are certainly more careful with the facts than Fox News, but they are hardly the journalistic gold standard. I don’t think I ever saw McClatchy’s reporting at the time, and I don’t believe it made its way very far up the journalistic food chain. The Washington Post recently corrected and removed parts of two articles after Durham announced the indictment, thus making it clear that its sourcing had been wrong.

But how important was the Steele dossier to our understanding of Trump’s relationship with Russia? Not very, I would argue. Over the weekend, CNN.com published a lengthy overview by Marshall Cohen showing that the FBI began its investigation before it had any knowledge of the dossier. Cohen also reported that the dossier was not used as the basis for any part of the investigation except a probe into the activities of a minor Trump operative named Carter Page.

And let’s not forget that ties between the Trump campaign and the Russians were right out in the open. Donald Trump Jr. and other campaign officials met with a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower in Manhattan after being promised “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. The Mueller report found that Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had multiple contacts with Russian agents. WikiLeaks, almost certainly under Russian influence by 2016, released emails that had been stolen from the Democratic National Committee to damage the Clinton campaign — and Trump publicly expressed the hope that more of her emails would be dumped into public view. And on and on. Given all this, the Steele dossier was just one piece of the puzzle, and not an especially important one. I mean, come on. Trump engaging in water sports with prostitutes? Did anyone ever really believe that?

Which brings me back to the point I want to make about the media: there really isn’t any such thing as “the media.” Rather, there are a myriad of outlets, and at any given time some are acting responsibly and some are acting irresponsibly. Pointing to something that Rachel Maddow said as evidence of media malfeasance makes no more sense than blaming the media because Tucker Carlson used his Fox News streaming program to push the lie that the Jan. 6 insurrection was a false-flag operation. No, I’m not equating Maddow with Carlson. She tries to be careful with the facts, whereas Carlson just makes stuff up. But she’s the host of an opinionated talk show, not an investigative reporter.

“The ‘mainstream media’ — I’m going to stop putting that in quotes, but keep imagining that I’m saying it sarcastically — is probably made up of several thousand individuals and then a three-figure number of institutions,” the conservative commentator Jonathan V. Last wrote for The Bulwark recently. “At any given moment, on any given story, some number of these people and institutions will communicate facts that are eventually understood to be misleading or incorrect. Some of these people and institutions are better at their jobs than others.

“The point is that the MSM universe is so large that you’re always going to be able to cherry-pick examples to support the notion that ‘they’ are feeding ‘us’ false narratives.”

Most of the media handled the Steele dossier responsibly right from the start, even if much of what it contained turned out to be even less credible than it originally appeared. A few journalists and commentators got carried away. And, in any case, the dossier played only a minor role in the investigations into Trump’s ties to Russia.

Attempts to conflate it into more than that are not only silly but play into Trumpworld’s lies that the entire collusion story was a “hoax.” It was not a hoax, and I suspect we haven’t heard the last of it.

Living the new normal, from a long-delayed commencement to an Amtrak trip

Photo by Matthew Modoono / Northeastern University

Previously published at GBH News.

We are now 21 months into the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m writing this on the Amtrak to New Haven, a remarkably normal activity that conjures up images of life as we once knew it.

Except that I paid extra for a business-class ticket so I wouldn’t be too near anyone else. Except that I put my cloth mask away and switched to an industrial-strength N95 as soon as I took my seat. Except that I’ve received two doses of a COVID vaccine along with a booster, and I’m still wondering when, if ever, this will all come to an end.

This past Saturday I took part in a ritual at Northeastern University that simultaneously underscored the hope and the sense of danger we’re all experiencing. Some 2,500 members of the Class of 2020 gathered in Matthews Arena to celebrate the commencement that had been canceled at the height of the pandemic. It was held in two shifts, morning and afternoon, and masks were mandatory. It was a wonderful, festive moment.

Even so, it was impossible not to notice that a few of the grads refused to wear masks. And it was hard not to wonder what the effect would be of all those people briefly removing their masks so they could get their pictures taken. I’m triply vaxxed and pretty healthy, but I’m also 65. And though I’m reasonably confident that I wouldn’t get too sick if I were infected, I don’t want to spread it to anyone else.

As we all know, once again we’re right on the cusp. The Delta variant, which wreaked such havoc on the optimism we all felt after the first vaccines became available, had been on the wane in recent months. But now it seems to be rising once again — even in Massachusetts, where the vaccination rate is among the highest in the country.

“These state trends are disconcerting, but not surprising, as national declines in COVID cases have stalled in recent weeks,” Harvard public health professor Howard Koh told The Boston Globe. “We need to be extra-vigilant and careful as the winter season approaches. We must push the state’s vaccination rates even higher, resist suggestions to drop mask requirements too early, and eliminate disparities.”

Yet the urge to move in the opposite direction is overwhelming. Even as COVID cases were ticking up, the city of Medford, where I live, was lifting its indoor mask mandate — except, incongruously enough, in city-owned buildings.

Maybe returning to our normal lives and going maskless when it makes sense (i.e., not in an arena packed with graduates and their families) is what we all ought to be doing. David Leonhardt of The New York Times, whose morning newsletter has been a source of calm for many of us, said as much last Friday. His take, grounded in evidence and statistics, is that those of us who are fully vaccinated and healthy are in no more danger of becoming seriously ill from COVID than we are from the flu. And of course, we take few precautions to avoid getting the flu except for annual vaccines, and many of us don’t even bother with those.

“The bottom line is that COVID now presents the sort of risk to most vaccinated people that we unthinkingly accept in other parts of life,” Leonhard wrote. “And there is not going to be a day when we wake up to headlines proclaiming that COVID is defeated. In many ways, the future of the virus has arrived.”

Consider the example of Alexis Madrigal, who wrote in The Atlantic about his experience with a breakthrough infection despite being young, physically fit and fully vaxxed. He attended a friend’s wedding in New Orleans at which all the other guests had been vaccinated, too. He got COVID. But he didn’t get all that sick. The worst part was how his illness affected those around him.

“My kids had to come out of school and isolate with my wife,” he wrote. “A raft of tests had to be taken by everyone I’d had even limited contact with. (I was one of at least a dozen people at the wedding who got sick.) I had been with several older people, including my mother-in-law. For my wife and children, the tests went on for days and days, each one bringing a prospective new disaster and 10 to 14 more days of life disruption or worse.”

No, no fun. But, as he acknowledged, the vaccines worked. As Madrigal put it: “Maybe we’re in this space for another year or two or three. One way to put the question of endemicity is: When do we start treating COVID like other respiratory illnesses?”

The pandemic was especially hard on education. Students from kindergarten through college were affected, and instructors have had to juggle Zoom classes, hybrid learning, what to do when students test positive and a number of other challenges they couldn’t haven’t have imagined confronting before March 2020.

But the classroom, too, is returning to some semblance of normal. I’m on sabbatical this year, working on another book, but my colleagues tell me they’ve been having a reasonably upbeat semester. Vaccines are required. Everyone is masked and tested regularly. This is about as good as it’s going to get, at least for another year or so.

“Every graduating class — like every graduate — is tested,” Northeastern president Joseph Aoun said at Saturday’s commencement. “But your class faced the ultimate test: A global cataclysm that literally cut your final semester short. The scale and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything we have seen in our lifetimes, yet you persevered. You overcame every challenge, every hardship. Class of 2020, I am in awe of what you have achieved.”

I’m in awe, too. And I’m glad that my students — my former students — were able to come back to campus and be recognized for what they accomplished during their time at Northeastern, especially during those awful last few months. Meanwhile, it’s onward — to New Haven, to the future and to whatever this miserable pandemic has in store for us next.

GBH News names new morning anchor team

Paris Alston

Big announcement from GBH News: A replacement has been named for morning radio anchor Joe Mathieu, who left to take a job in Washington with Bloomberg earlier this year. And Mathieu’s replacement will be a team. The new co-anchors are Paris Alston, who’s currently across town at WBUR Radio, and Jeremy Siegel, who hosts a podcast for Politico.

I don’t know Siegel, but I do know Alston, who helped edit my column during an earlier stint at GBH. I enjoyed working with her, and I’m glad she’s coming back. According to the press release, “The duo will step into the role of co-hosts in early 2022, after spending time with local news audiences all across Massachusetts, listening and learning about the issues people care about most.”

Congratulations to both. The full announcement follows.

Signaling a new era for its popular local morning program, GBH has named Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel as the new co-hosts of Morning Edition at GBH News. The two journalists will bring a fresh and contemporary energy to the show, reinventing GBH’s morning news experience while welcoming new voices and perspectives into a daily multiplatform news conversation.

Alston will rejoin GBH from WBUR, where she is a host of the NPR podcast  Consider This, produced in conjunction with GBH. Siegel is currently the host and producer of the Washington, DC-based daily news podcast POLITICO Dispatch.

Jeremy Siegel

“Our audiences have told us that mornings matter most when it comes to news. They look to us to get the information they need and set the tone for the day ahead,” said Pam Johnston, General Manager of News at GBH. “With Paris and Jeremy as co-hosts of Morning Edition  at GBH News, our audiences will get local stories from different perspectives. They’ll engage with a pair of dynamic, smart and accomplished journalists who possess a real knack for understanding and dissecting the complex stories of our time.”

The duo will step into the role of co-hosts in early 2022, after spending time with local news audiences all across Massachusetts, listening and learning about the issues people care about most.

NPR’s Morning Edition is the most listened-to radio program in the country, delivering in-depth reporting about stories that break overnight and set the agenda for the day. As the local hosts of this national broadcast, Alston and Siegel will bring audiences into the center of these stories by adding local context and depth. Morning Edition airs on weekdays from 5 am – 10 am on 89.7 FM. The show also can be streamed online at gbhnews.org and via smart speakers globally.

Alston held several roles at GBH earlier in her career, most recently as host of GBH’s digital series Keep it Social. Prior to that, she worked at UNC-TV in North Carolina and NBC10-Philadelphia. Before his time at POLITICO Dispatch, Siegel was an anchor and award-winning reporter at KQED Public Radio in San Francisco.

The co-hosts join a dedicated morning news team that is led by Morning Edition producer Karen Marshall.