Researchers dig up embarrassing data about Facebook — and lose access to their accounts

Photo (cc) 2011 by thierry ehrmann

Previously published at GBH News.

For researchers, Facebook is something of a black box. It’s hard to know what its 2.8 billion active users across the globe are seeing at any given time because the social media giant keeps most of its data to itself. If some users are seeing ads aimed at “Jew haters,” or Russian-generated memes comparing Hillary Clinton to Satan, well, so be it. Mark Zuckerberg has his strategy down cold: apologize when exposed, then move on to the next appalling scheme.

Some data scientists, though, have managed to pierce the darkness. Among them are Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy of New York University’s Center for Cybersecurity. With a tool called Ad Observer, which volunteers add to their browsers, they were able to track ads that Facebook users were being exposed to and draw some conclusions. For instance, they learned that users are more likely to engage with extreme falsehoods than with truthful material, and that more than 100,000 political ads are missing from an archive Facebook set up for researchers.

As you would expect, Facebook executives took these findings seriously. So what did they do? Did they change the algorithm to make it more likely that users would see reliable information in their news feed? Did they restore the missing ads and take steps to make sure such omissions wouldn’t happen again?

They did not. Instead, they cut off access to Edelson’s and McCoy’s accounts, making it harder for them to dig up such embarrassing facts in the future.

“There is still a lot of important research we want to do,” they wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed. “When Facebook shut down our accounts, we had just begun studies intended to determine whether the platform is contributing to vaccine hesitancy and sowing distrust in elections. We were also trying to figure out what role the platform may have played leading up to the Capitol assault on Jan. 6.”

In other words, they want to find out how responsible Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and the rest are for spreading a deadly illness and encouraging an armed insurrection. No wonder Facebook looked at what the researchers were doing and told them, gee, you know, we’d love to help, but you’re violating our privacy rules.

But that’s not even a real concern. Writing at the Columbia Journalism Review, Mathew Ingram points out that the privacy rules Facebook agreed to following the Cambridge Analytica scandal apply to Facebook itself, not to users who voluntarily agree to provide information to researchers.

Ingram quotes Princeton professor Jonathan Mayer, an adviser to Vice President Kamala Harris when she was a senator, who tweeted: “Facebook’s legal argument is bogus. The order “restricts how *Facebook* shares user information. It doesn’t preclude *users* from volunteering information about their experiences on the platform, including through a browser extension.”

The way Ingram describes it, as well as Edelson and McCoy themselves, Facebook’s actions didn’t stop their work altogether, but it has slowed it down and made it more difficult. Needless to say, the company should be doing everything it can to help with such research. Then again, Zuckerberg has never shown much regard for such mundane matters as public health and the future of democracy, especially when there’s money to be made.

By contrast, Facebook’s social media competitor Twitter has actually been much more open about making its data available to researchers. My Northeastern colleague John Wihbey, who co-authored an important study several years ago about how journalists use Twitter, says the difference explains why there have been more studies published about Twitter than Facebook. “This is unfortunate,” he says, “as it is a smaller network and less representative of the general public.”

It’s like the old saw about looking for your car keys under a street light because that’s where the light is. Trouble is, with fewer than 400 million active users, Twitter is little more than a rounding error in Facebook’s universe.

Earlier this year, MIT’s Technology Review published a remarkable story documenting how Facebook shied away from cracking down on extremist content, focusing instead on placating Donald Trump and other figures on the political right before the 2020 election. Needless to say, the NYU researchers represent an especially potent threat to the Zuckerborg since they plan to focus on the role that Facebook played in amplifying the disinformation that led to the insurrection, whose aftermath continues to befoul our body politic.

When the history of this ugly era is written, the two media giants that will stand out for their malignity are Fox News, for knowingly poisoning tens of millions of people with toxic falsehoods, and Facebook, for allowing its platform be used to amplify those falsehoods. Eventually, the truth will be told — no matter what steps Zuckerberg takes to slow it down. There should be hell to pay.

In the beginning: Emily Rooney and the early days of the WGBH-WBUR rivalry

Photo (cc) 2019 by Dan Kennedy

Twenty-four years ago, Emily Rooney — whose long-running media-criticism program, “Beat the Press,” on which I was a panelist, was canceled last week by GBH News — was just beginning a new phase of her career, as host and executive editor of the news and public-affairs program “Greater Boston.” I wrote a piece for The Boston Phoenix about her debut as well as the state of the rivalry between WGBH and WBUR — a rivalry that, if anything, is more intense today than it was then. This story was published on Feb. 7, 1997. I’m republishing it here courtesy of the Northeastern University Archives.

Making waves

With commercial stations going lowbrow, Boston’s public broadcasters are fine-tuning their strategies. The question: are WGBH & WBUR doing their duty?

The Boston Phoenix • Feb. 7, 1997

Emily Rooney is taping the intro to a segment of WGBH-TV’s new local public-affairs show, Greater Boston. Or trying to, anyway. It’s been a long day. Her feet are killing her. And her first few attempts at hyping an interview with Charles Murray, the controversial academic who’s currently promoting his new book on libertarianism, haven’t gone particularly well.

After several tries, though, she nails it. “That was warmer,” says a voice in the control room. “That was very nice.”

She sighs, visibly relieved at getting a break from the unblinking eye of the lens.

Rooney, the former news director of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), may be a respected newswoman, but the debut of Greater Boston last week showed that her transition to an on-camera role is going to take some time. And if Rooney and Greater Boston are struggling to find their voice, so, too, is WGBH.

Continue reading “In the beginning: Emily Rooney and the early days of the WGBH-WBUR rivalry”

Best wishes to Emily Rooney as ‘Beat the Press’ comes to an end after 22 years

Our 20th anniversary show, Dec. 7, 2018

Major local media news today as GBH News has announced that it’s canceling “Beat the Press” after a 22-year run. I am proud to have been part of the show since its first year, 1998, and to have been a regular for many of those years. And I’m grateful to Emily Rooney, the host and creator of the show. We’ve been on hiatus since June 11; as it turns out, that was our finale.

I’ll continue writing my weekly column on media and politics for GBH News.

It’s hard to put into words what I’m feeling right now. For so many years, heading over to GBH to record “Beat the Press” was simply what I did on Friday afternoons. I hugely enjoyed getting to know Emily, Callie Crossley and everyone else. (I’ll stop at Emily and Callie because if I start naming names, I’ll leave too many out.)

Emily began hosting “Greater Boston” in the mid-’90s. From the beginning it was a Monday-through-Thursday show, with the Friday slot originally taken up by something called “The Long and the Short of It,” with Robert Reich and Alan Simpson. After that show had run its course, Emily pitched “Beat the Press” to WGBH executives (yes, the station still had a “W” back then), and we were off and running.

I haven’t had a chance to talk with Emily yet, but I wish her all the best. She is a legendary figure in Boston media, as news director of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), at the national level and, for the past quarter century, at GBH News. It will be interesting to see what she does next.

Finally, best wishes to Kara Miller, whose program on WGBH Radio (89.7 FM), “Innovation Hub,” will be coming to an end later this year as well.

What follows is the press release from GBH News:

GBH continues to build a multiplatform news organization that provides our community with the most distinctive, relevant and interesting stories of the day. GBH News is deepening its focus on audience-centered local stories, and concentrating its editorial efforts on the critical issues of education, social justice, Covid/public health and politics. As a result, GBH will discontinue production of two weekly programs, Beat the Press with Emily Rooney, which examines the local and national media, and the national radio series Innovation Hub with Kara Miller.

“This was a difficult decision. Beat the Press has been one of GBH’s longest running news shows and has provided viewers with informative and thought-provoking insight, commentary and perspective on the workings of the media. We are grateful to Emily Rooney for her award-winning work, her dedication to her craft, and her many contributions to GBH over 24 years.”

Innovation Hub has given us a deeper understanding of the inventive spirit of human ideas and technology over the course of a decade. We thank Kara Miller and the Innovation Hub production team for their exceptional work, creativity and contributions to public media.”

– Pam Johnston, General Manager GBH News

Beat the Press is currently on summer hiatus and will not return in September; Innovation Hub will continue to air through mid-November in national distribution with PRX.

A media scholar explains why news for the liberal elite is hurting us all

Previously published at GBH News.

As technological and cultural forces have ripped apart the economic foundations of local and regional journalism, news executives have desperately sought out audiences with the money and inclination to pay.

These audiences — affluent, well-educated, liberal and overwhelmingly white — favor news organizations with a national focus such as The New York Times, NPR and the “PBS NewsHour.” Meanwhile, marginalized Americans, from urban communities of color to the rural white working class, have been left behind.

In her new book, “News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism,” Nikki Usher tracks the decline of what she calls “Goldilocks newspapers” — large regional papers like The Boston Globe, The Dallas Morning News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Unlike the fairy tale, though, Usher’s definition of Goldilocks papers are places where everything is just wrong — the outlets are too large to serve local communities, too small to contend with national media and unable to compete with Google and Facebook in the digital advertising market. (Disclosure: Usher interviewed me for her book.)

“Losing local news … leaves national news to pick up the slack,” Usher writes, “meaning many people in the United States do not see where they live or people like them authentically presented in the news.”

Usher, a journalism professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, earned her Ph.D. and M.A. from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and is a Harvard graduate. The following email interview has been lightly edited.

Q: You argue that the economic challenges facing journalism have led news organizations to pursue an audience that is mostly white, liberal and affluent. How did we get here?

A: For decades, news organizations have sought to reach so-called quality audiences, or audiences that advertisers want to reach — so trying to reach those with disposable income is always the goal, right? It’s important to remember that for most of contemporary history, newspapers, magazines, broadcast television and radio made their money by selling audiences to advertisers. However, since the 1960s and 1970s, newspapers strategically moved away from selling to working-class audiences to focus on those profiting from the post-war boom.

But now we’re in a really different era. The traditional advertising model for newspapers, in particular, has collapsed, thanks to the upside-down logics of digital advertising and the changing dynamics, interests and behavior of digital audiences. When it comes to digital, audiences for local news are especially tiny. And we have market failure for local newspapers, meaning that the market is no longer supporting the costs of production and distribution. This is a real, actual crisis, with at least 1,800 communities losing a local newspaper since 2004.

So this is the context: the audiences for newspapers are smaller and the traditional ad model is broken. In a state of market failure, pre-existing inequities in coverage and access are amplified. News organizations have to focus on those most likely to pay for a digital subscription. The news organizations most likely to survive are large, national news organizations like The New York Times, which can scale these digital subscriptions.

Who are those who can and will pay? Well, those with disposable income who have the cultural capital to recognize that local journalism matters. That veers affluent, although “rich” is more tied to an elite outlook and framing than it is actual income. For instance, a student at Harvard might choose to pay for a student-rate for a digital subscription and get hooked for life, or at least that’s the hope.

Income and class are horribly correlated with race in this country, but the reality of white audiences comes out of a much larger problem: the longstanding whiteness of the institutional news media. At the moment we’re having a reckoning, but, for too long, white voices have dominated the production of news in this country, excluding and stereotyping historically marginalized communities and journalists from these communities. Institutional news media has for decades been for and by white.

And, well, the Blue? Liberal audiences? Oh boy, that’s a whole depressing conversation, but the only people who still trust the mainstream news media are liberals, which poll after poll shows is the case. Additional data suggests liberals believe in the civic value of local news enough to pay for it. Markets shape journalism and journalists, and here is where we are: digital subscriptions are not for everyone, and the news produced is coming from journalists who have a white, largely culturally elite background — especially as it becomes more and more financially precarious to become a journalist.

Q: What are the implications for democracy?

A: So, there are lots of different ways to think about democracy. The cynic in me would like to point out that much of the kind of locally specific accountability journalism we worry about losing has been a historical anomaly, mainly present only in major cities at large news outlets as a post-Watergate phenomenon. So news equals democracy isn’t a historically accurate framing.

But journalism is more than just about information; it’s about creating a shared culture. That shared culture reflects the biases of its creators, but it’s important to have journalism to document the shared meaning and history of a place — and I worry so much about what happens when that is no longer present.

When we just have large national news organizations telling the stories about American life, and quality news is available only to those who will pay, we get a super-distorted version of democracy. You can have democracy — but it’s an elite democracy that serves the interests and information needs of elites, rather than journalism that facilitates the pluralistic multicultural democracy that we need.

Q: You and I talked about The Boston Globe’s success, one of a few exceptions to the overall decline of large regional newspapers. Do you think that’s because of committed local ownership — and could that be replicated elsewhere? Or is it simply a consequence of Boston being one of the last great news towns?

A: Boston is a great news town. Have they finally caught Whitey Bulger’s ghost, or are there other mobsters still lurking around in Southie? I had a blast as a Globe intern eons ago.

But in all seriousness, Boston has a lot of advantages that structurally predispose it to being a place where local news thrives: there is a large sector of wealthy, educated, liberal Americans who see the value of paying for news. Boston also has famously corrupt institutions, like the Catholic Church, and the value of exposing corruption is not lost on Boston area residents. Boston sports fans are rabid.

So yes, local ownership makes a huge difference. John Henry’s tolerance for loss is likely a little greater than some of the other billionaires investing in news, plus he’s really in the billionaire class. That gives the Globe a bit of a cushion that isn’t present elsewhere.

Q: Could a healthier media environment help overcome the political and cultural polarization that is tearing us apart? How?

A: How we define health reflects our normative and partisan bias about what constitutes a healthy news environment. For those who are on the far right, the present news environment, where conservative media now reaches deep into the trenches of American life, this is a golden time for a historical correction.

Before having this conversation, we need to remember that diagnoses of health, civility and incivility, and polarization can be turned into variables, but they are also in the eye of the beholder. Some data suggests that what is tearing us apart is not just our views but how we actually feel about people who are not like us. To overcome this, it might be helpful to have the press stop demonizing people who don’t act or behave the way you wish they would — at present, anti-vaxxers in rural America — and stop stereotyping historically marginalized communities that have long been harmed by problematic and extractive news coverage.

The seeds of our dysfunction are baked into the press, yes, but also, as I argue in the book, are part and parcel of the larger social, regional, structural and racial inequities that we have let grow.

Q: Choosing from among the possible solutions you outline at the end of your book, please identify one that you think would have the greatest impact.

A: Can I pick two? Antitrust breakup of Big Tech, which might restore some competition to the digital advertising market and undermine the monopoly over consumer data that advantages big tech companies.

The unlikely one? Having the Democratic Party or party donors start funding local news media directly, as the Republicans are already doing.

Yes, Delta is serious business — but the media need to cover it with context and nuance

Photo (cc) 2008 by André Luiz D. Takahashi

Previously published at GBH News.

Like most of us, I’m confused and concerned about the latest news regarding COVID-19 and the Delta variant.

Everyone in my immediate circle, including me, is fully vaccinated, healthy and, if no longer young, then not elderly yet, either. So I’m confident that if any of us got sick, we’d experience nothing more than mild symptoms.

But what about others? We all encounter people on a daily basis who can’t be vaccinated because they’re too young or have compromised immune systems. If we don’t mask up once again, are we all going to turn into carriers who fuel yet another surge of a disease that has killed 613,000 of our fellow Americans?

In addition, there’s the resentment we can’t help but feel toward those who resisted masking and are now resisting vaccines. Josh Marshall, writing at Talking Points Memo, put it this way: “Masking is coming back largely because of the actions of the unvaccinated and also largely for the benefit of the unvaccinated [Marshall’s emphasis]. The burden of non-vaccination is being placed on those who are vaccinated. That basic disconnect is our problem.

“That disconnect places no effective pressure on the voluntarily unvaccinated while sowing demoralization and frustration and contempt with public authorities among those who’ve gotten the vaccine,” he continued. “No good comes of that combination.”

So where does that leave us? More than anything, I think the media need to do a better job of communicating risk. Even with Delta, which is far more contagious than the original iteration of COVID-19, the vaccines are highly effective. No one died in the now-infamous Provincetown outbreak, and life there is already returning to normal. As President Joe Biden said recently, what we’re dealing with now is a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

There are all kinds of data that show Delta isn’t a problem for people who are vaccinated. For instance, Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina tweeted on Sunday that just 6,587 have been hospitalized among the 163 million people who’ve been vaccinated. That’s an almost unmeasurable 0.004%.

There’s good news on the vaccination front, too, as the number of people getting the shots has been rising since mid-July. Presumably there are several reasons for that, such as fear of Delta as well as a sudden burst of semi-responsible behavior by leading Republican officials and right-wing media figures. More good news: Walmart and Disney announced over the weekend that they’re going to require their employees to be vaccinated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t covered itself with glory, arguably sending the country into a panic over the Provincetown outbreak before all the data were in. But as scientists who are responsible for public health, they’re going to try to provide guidance in real time, and sometimes they’re going to get it wrong. Which means that the media need to do better by not obsessing over infinitesimal numbers.

“Scary, sensational headlines about P-town have sparked confusion this week, but the problem is much bigger than a single outbreak in a single town,” said Brian Stelter, the host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” in his Sunday commentary. “The problem starts with the CDC and its absolute failure to communicate clearly and effectively. Sloppy news coverage then makes a bad situation worse.”

As Stelter noted, COVID hospitalizations are up nationally because of the Delta variant. But they’re up far more in states with low vaccination rates like Louisiana than in states with high rates like Vermont. If you and your family have been fully vaccinated, the pandemic is largely over.

My attitude about COVID since the beginning of the pandemic has been to take it seriously and follow the guidelines and mandates, but not to exceed them. I taught two of my classes in person and took public transportation throughout — masked, of course. I was thrilled when the mask mandate was dropped, and I’m not eager to go back to it.

But I will if those are the rules. I’ve gone grocery shopping a couple of times during the past week, and I’ve pulled out my mask and put it on. I didn’t think it was necessary, but most of the other shoppers were wearing them, so I didn’t want to seem cavalier.

This week we’re going on vacation, and on our way home we’re going to visit my 92-year-old father-in-law in upstate New York. He’s fully vaxxed, but that presents a dilemma, doesn’t it? The vaccines simply don’t work as well among the elderly. Maybe we’ll mask up. Maybe it will be nice enough that we can sit outside.

The past 17 months have been a nightmare for the country and the world. Just a few weeks ago, it seemed like it might be over. It wasn’t.

But that doesn’t change the fundamental facts. We are in a far better place than we were during the height of the pandemic. Vaccines work. With some adjustments, life can return to normal. And the media need to report this ongoing story with context and nuance rather than sending everyone into a panic with each twist and turn.

Why we need federal assistance to help save local news

Photo (cc) 2011 by Oregon Department of Transportation

Previously published at GBH News.

Can government help solve the local news crisis? The notion sounds absurd, even dangerous. You get what you pay for, and if government officials are funneling money to media outlets, then it’s not unreasonable to expect that they’ll demand sticky-sweet favorable coverage in return.

Yet the situation is so dire that once-unthinkable ideas need to be on the table. Since 2004, some 2,100 newspapers have closed, leaving about 1,800 communities across the country bereft of coverage. About 30,000 newsroom jobs disappeared between 2008 and 2020. The consequences range from the potential for increased corruption to a decline in voter turnout for local elections.

Now federal legislation long in the making may finally be ready to move ahead. Believe it or not, the bill is bipartisan. It also manages to avoid the entangling alliances that would endanger journalistic independence. That’s because the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, introduced in the Senate last week and in the House a month earlier, relies on tax credits rather than direct government assistance.

“This clever, bipartisan bill would provide more help for local news than any time in about a century, yet it’s done in a very First-Amendment-friendly way,” writes Steven Waldman, the co-founder of the Rebuild Local News Coalition as well as the co-founder and president of Report for America. (Disclosure: Report for America, which places young reporters at news organizations around the country, is part of the GroundTruth Project, affiliated with GBH in Boston.)

So how would the bill work? Essentially, it would provide three tax credits that would expire after five years, giving media outlets some runway to move toward long-term sustainability. I am oversimplying, but here is the rough outline:

• News consumers would be able to write off $250 a year that they spend on subscriptions or on donations to nonprofit news organizations.

• News organizations would receive tax benefits for hiring or retaining journalists.

• Local small businesses would receive tax credits for advertising in local newspapers and news websites and on television and radio stations.

The benefits would be restricted to small news organizations, defined as those with 750 employees or fewer in the House bill or fewer than 1,000 in the Senate bill.

At a time when Congress seems incapable of doing anything, some version of the bill appears to stand a good chance of passing. After all, elected officials, regardless of party or ideology, like to be covered by the hometown press, and the bill would help ensure that there will continue to be a press. As of Tuesday, there were 32 co-sponsors in the House — 25 Democrats and 7 Republicans. Because the Senate version was just introduced, the only co-sponsors so far are the three Democrats who introduced it — Maria Cantwell of Washington state, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Kelly of Arizona.

Among the all-Democratic Massachusetts delegation, Sen. Ed Markey will support the bill and has asked to be a co-sponsor, says Markey spokeswoman Giselle Barry. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is studying the legislation and has not yet stated a position, according to Warren spokeswoman Nora Keefe. On the House side, Reps. Jim McGovern and Seth Moulton are co-sponsors, and Mary Rose Tarpey, a spokeswoman for Rep. Stephen Lynch, says that Lynch will also be a co-sponsor, as he was during the previous session.

Government assistance for news is not new. During the early days of the republic, postal subsidies were the foundation upon which the distribution system for newspapers and magazines was built. Today, nonprofit news organizations ranging from hyperlocal websites to public broadcasters benefit from tax incentives that allow their donors to write off the money they give and that exempts the media outlets themselves from having to pay taxes.

Given the catastrophic state in which journalism finds itself, some activists and scholars are calling for more direct funding of news. For instance, Victor Pickard, a scholar at Penn’s Annenberg School, advocates much higher government spending on public media. Longtime media reformer Robert McChesney has talked about giving as much as $35 billion over five years to elected citizens councils that would fund local news and underwrite startups.

But there are dangers in such approaches. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the Republican-dominated legislature cut off $750,000 to the state’s seven public radio and television stations after one of them, WITF Radio of Harrisburg, began calling out any elected official who continued to challenge the validity of President Joe Biden’s electoral victory.

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch, while conceding there was no evidence of a direct cause-and-effect over what was admittedly a small amount of funding, wrote in his weekly newsletter that the action “shows the enormous peril of government dollars for journalism, even as a partial solution. In an era when a growing number of elected officials are waging war on the truth, from election results to coronavirus vaccines, would journalists be forced to choose between an important story or their survival?”

By contrast, the federal bill under consideration avoids those problems by putting as much distance as possible between elected officials and the aid that news organizations would receive.

My one reservation about the bill is that chain-owned newspapers would benefit along with independent projects. That said, the Rebuild Local News Coalition, whose members represent more than 3,000 newsrooms, includes some of the most public-spirited organizations that are working on these problems, such as LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers, the Lenfest Institute and the Solutions Journalism Network.

Perhaps the problem of chain ownership could be addressed, as Waldman proposes, by giving tax breaks to the likes of Gannett and Alden Global Capital if they sell their papers to local nonprofits and public benefit corporations. I would also suggest tax penalties if they decline to do so. Corporate ownership is killing local news just as surely as technological change and the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, and we need to get the publicly traded corporations and hedge funds out.

At a time when political and cultural polarization at the national level is tearing us apart, local news can help encourage the kind of civic engagement we need to rebuild community. But that can’t happen if the newspaper has gone out of business or is on life support, and if nothing else has come along to take its place.

Fundamentally, what’s at issue is that the advertising model that paid for journalism until recent years has collapsed. Publishers need to find a way forward, whether through reader revenue, nonprofit funding, paid events or even starting a bar and wedding venue next to the newsroom, as The Big Bend Sentinel in West Texas did.

The Local Journalism Sustainability Act will help sustain local news while we search for a workable model that doesn’t rely on advertising. After 15 years of declining revenues and dying newspapers, it may be our last chance to get it right.

President Biden says social media are killing people. But Fox News may be killing more.

Tucker Carlson. Photo (cc) 2018 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at GBH News.

With the delta variant spreading and COVID-19 rates climbing in all 50 states, President Joe Biden last Friday offered some tough words for Facebook and other social media companies that are enabling lies and misinformation.

“They’re killing people,” he said. “I mean, look, the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated. And they’re killing people.”

Biden was not wrong. But despite the enormous reach of Facebook, only one media outlet has devoted itself to injecting falsehoods about the pandemic into the nervous systems of its audience on a 24/7 basis. That, of course, would be Fox News, the right-wing cable station that tells its viewers, over and over, that vaccines are dangerous and that wearing a mask to prevent COVID-19 is ineffective — and, in any case, is not worth the price we’d pay in giving up our freedom.

Anne Applebaum, a staff writer for The Atlantic, put it well in a tweet reacting to Biden’s warning to Facebook and its ilk: “Surely Fox poses as big or even bigger problem?”

Consider a recent exchange between Fox’s biggest star, Tucker Carlson, and Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter and frequent Fox guest who’s become a notorious purveyor of pandemic falsehoods. “Masks are useless,” Berenson said, although he added that an N-95 medical-grade mask might be of “some minor benefit.” Mainly, he said, mask directives are “symbolic,” explaining, “If I don’t see people wearing masks I forget to be scared, and that’s why they want people wearing masks.”

Berenson wasn’t done. In response to gentle prodding by Carlson, he said, “The vaccines unfortunately appear to be declining in effectiveness very quickly.” He complained that he’d been suspended by Twitter for saying just that, and he urged Carlson’s viewers to subscribe to his Substack “before I get kicked off Twitter.”

Carlson responded by appearing to agree with Berenson. “The big media outlets are committed to lying and censorship,” he said sympathetically. “It’s terrifying.”

Carlson’s show is the top-rated program on cable news, drawing some 3 million viewers every weeknight. That may pale in comparison to the reach of social media. But unlike Facebook, where you’re going to encounter news about your family and friends, cat photos and the like along with the occasional falsehood, Fox is pushing this stuff at all hours of the day and night.

As CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy put it: “Rupert Murdoch, who was among the first in the world to receive a coronavirus vaccine, but who pays people who intentionally fear-monger to millions of people about them, must be smiling about all the attention Facebook is getting. Facebook is allowing for the spread of misinfo, but at least, unlike Fox News, has made some effort to reduce it.”

From “Fox & Friends” in the morning to Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham at night, Fox in recent years has morphed from a somewhat normal conservative news and opinion outlet into pure propaganda.

Last week, Media Matters for America released a study that showed the extent of Fox’s disinformation campaign about COVID and vaccines. Media Matters is liberal and partisan, but it also has a reputation for getting its facts right. The findings were sobering.

“From June 28 through July 11, 57% of segments about coronavirus vaccines on the network included claims that undermined vaccination efforts,” according to the report. The biggest offender was the “Fox & Friends” morning show, followed by Ingraham, though Carlson wasn’t far behind.

During the two-week period, the report said, “Fox personalities and guests made 216 claims undermining or downplaying vaccines or immunization drives. Out of those, 151 claims came from pundits on the network, which represented 70% of the total. Fox pundits described vaccine efforts as coercive or government overreach 103 times and described vaccines as unnecessary or dangerous 75 times.”

This is pure poison, and it goes a long way toward explaining why Trump supporters are lagging on vaccinations, and why we’re all wondering how soon we’ll be under a mask mandate once again.

The Washington Post and Time magazine weighed in earlier this month with in-depth profiles of Carlson, who has become perhaps the most influential force in right-wing politics since the semi-departure of Trump and the death of Rush Limbaugh. Both profiles focused on his racism — a worthy subject, for sure, but no doubt a sign that the stories were assigned before the recent resurgence of the pandemic.

Gillian Laub of Time, though, did manage to work in some key COVID-19 material into her piece, eliciting a ludicrously offensive answer from Carlson when she asked if he’d been vaccinated. He called the anodyne question “super-vulgar” and parried with “What’s your favorite sexual position and when did you last engage in it?”

Laub also noted that, early in the pandemic, Carlson took COVID-19 more seriously than his fellow Fox hosts and even urged then-President Trump to change course. As a result, researchers found that Carlson’s viewers modified their behavior in practices such as hand-washing sooner than did Hannity’s fans.

There are some recent signs that Fox is hedging its bets. Steve Doocy of “Fox & Friends” has been praised for pushing back against his anti-vaxxer co-host Brian Kilmeade. (Both sides!) Even Hannity has been edging toward encouraging his viewers to get vaccinated. But it’s Carlson with the most viewers and influence, and there’s little evidence that his bosses are going to intervene.

Is there anything that can be done about the toxic influence of Fox News? It would be exceedingly difficult. Occasionally you hear some talk about reviving the FCC’s fairness doctrine, which required broadcasters to air opposing views and offer equal time to those who had been attacked. But even if that were politically possible, it would be unlikely to pass constitutional muster. The fairness doctrine applied only to over-the-air television and radio, not cable TV, since the airwaves were regarded as a finite, publicly owned resource.

In any case, such a heavy-handed approach might not be necessary. Congress could require cable providers to offer à la carte service so that no one would have to pay for Fox News or any other cable channel unless they wanted to. No more bundling. Personally, I’d probably keep Fox so I could check in on what they were saying from time to time. But I’d happily give up the 57 flavors of ESPN I’m forced to pay for and rarely watch.

For now, though, we’re stuck with Fox and the baleful influence it exercises over our entire culture. People are literally dying because of the false beliefs they harbor about COVID-19, and Fox is one of the principal vectors for spreading those beliefs.

Donald Trump himself has urged people to get vaccinated. But that’s not the message being delivered to the Trump supporters who tune in to Fox News every day. As a result, some 47% of Republicans say they are unlikely to get the shots, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, compared to just 6% of Democrats.

Over the course of the next few weeks, more people will get sick and more people will die. We may be told to wear masks in public once again. New restrictions may be put in place. We were so close to beating COVID-19, and now we’re moving backwards. For that you can thank Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and the rest of their ilk at Fox.

Most of all you can thank Rupert Murdoch, for whom misery and disease is just another profitable day at the office.

The Supreme Court may be poised to weaken libel protections for the press

Photo (cc) 2005 by zacklur

Previously published at GBH News.

If we’ve learned anything about right-wing politics in the Age of Trump, it’s that what once seemed impossible becomes plausible — and then morphs into a new reality. We’ve seen it with the refusal to accept the outcome of a democratic election. We’ve seen it with attacks on face masks and vaccines. And now we may be seeing it with libel law.

For more than half a century, protections enacted by the U.S. Supreme Court have shielded the press by enabling journalists to hold the powerful to account without having to worry about frivolous libel suits. The 1964 case of New York Times v. Sullivan established the principle that a public official would have to prove a news organization acted with “actual malice” — meaning that the offending material was known to be false or was published with “reckless disregard for the truth.” That standard was later extended to public figures as well. The decision provided journalism with the armor it needed to report fearlessly, enabling stories such as the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.

It seemed impossible that this bulwark would fall when, during the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump promised to “open up libel laws” in order to make it easier for people to sue media outlets. And it seemed only slightly less impossible in early 2019, when Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote an intemperate dissent arguing that Times v. Sullivan should be overturned in its entirety, returning libel law to the tender mercies of the states.

After all, the actual malice standard was enacted because the racist white power structure in the South had weaponized libel during the civil rights era as a way to intimidate the press. Surely Thomas’ fellow justices had no desire to return to those blighted days. Besides, a strong First Amendment appeared to be one of the few areas on which liberal and conservative judges agreed.

But weakening those protections began to seem more plausible several months ago when Judge Laurence Silberman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia praised Thomas — and joined his call to overturn Times v. Sullivan. Silberman threw a judicial tantrum, blasting what he viewed as liberal media bias and writing that “when the media has proven its willingness — if not eagerness — to so distort, it is a profound mistake to stand by unjustified legal rules that serve only to enhance the press’ power.”

Impossible. Then plausible. And, now, a glimmer of a potential coming reality: Earlier this month, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch joined Thomas in dissenting from a decision not to hear a case brought by the son of a former Albanian president against the author of a book who’d accused him of illegal gunrunning. Thomas’ opinion bristles with indignation and approvingly cites Silberman. Gorsuch, in turn, cites Thomas. But unlike Silberman and Thomas, Gorsuch’s opinion is all sweet reasonableness, discussing how much the media have changed since 1964 and asking, gosh darn it, why we shouldn’t acknowledge that social media, cable news and clickbait websites require a different approach to libel.

Arguing — correctly, I should note — that the actual malice standard allows media outlets to escape a libel judgment if they can prove they believed the defamatory falsehoods they published were true, Gorsuch writes: “It seems that publishing without investigation, fact-checking, or editing has become the optimal legal strategy…. Under the actual malice regime as it has evolved, ‘ignorance is bliss.’”

Gorsuch’s conclusion oozes good intentions. “I do not profess any sure answers,” he writes. “I am not even certain of all the questions we should be asking. But given the momentous changes in the Nation’s media landscape since 1964, I cannot help but think the Court would profit from returning its attention, whether in this case or another, to a field so vital to the ‘safe deposit’ of our liberties.”

Gorsuch’s opinion relies heavily on an academic paper titled “Rescuing Our Democracy by Rethinking New York Times Co. v. Sullivan,” by David A. Logan, a professor at the Roger Williams University School of Law. Logan writes that actual malice has provided the media with “what amounts to an absolute immunity from damages actions for false statements,” which in turn has “facilitated a torrent of false information entering our public square.”

Logan’s examination of the data shows that libel judgments have plunged in the years since Times v. Sullivan, suggesting that the decision has created a nearly insurmountable obstacle to public officials and public figures who’ve been wronged. He suggests several possible remedies, such as narrowing the definition of a public figure or devising a system that would allow plaintiffs to “secure a judgment of falsehood in return for giving up a claim for damages.”

And he closes with the big one: getting rid of the actual malice standard altogether and replacing it with something easier to prove, such as “highly unreasonable conduct.”

Changes that result in fewer protections for the press make me queasy. But if the Supreme Court is serious about revisiting actual malice, then adopting something like a juiced-up negligence standard, as Logan proposes, wouldn’t necessarily be the worst outcome. Negligence is already the standard for private figures in most states, as laid out in the 1974 case of Gertz v. Robert Welch. It would certainly be better than overturning Times v. Sullivan altogether.

But remember: What seems impossible today may become reality in the not-too-distant future. Changes to libel protections that we had long taken for granted are starting to look inevitable, especially in the hands of a Supreme Court built by Trump and Mitch McConnell. Let’s just hope the justices don’t do too much damage to the press’ ability to hold the powerful to account.

Muzzle follow-up

Well, it happened. The 2021 New England Muzzle Awards, published on July 1, singled out former President Donald Trump for whipping up fears about race in the classroom. As I noted, New Hampshire was one of several states considering a ban on the teaching of “divisive concepts” about race and gender in public schools and in the workplace.

Trump won. Last Friday, the Portsmouth Herald reported that the ban was inserted into the state budget by Republican legislators, and Gov. Chris Sununu, also a Republican, signed it into law. Oyster River Superintendent James Morse called the new law “a fundamental affront to academic freedom in teaching in terms of teachers making decisions on how they apply the curriculum set by the school board.”

Looking back at 24 years of New England Muzzle Awards

In the spring of 1998, civil-liberties lawyer and First Amendment advocate Harvey Silverglate had an idea: Why not single out enemies of free speech in the pages of The Boston Phoenix? Harvey was a Phoenix contributor; I was the media columnist. We refined Harvey’s idea and, at his suggestion, named them the Muzzle Awards — borrowing the name from the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression (now defunct) and restricting them to the Boston, Worcester, Portland and Providence areas, where we had papers.

We decided on the Fourth of July for two reasons — first, to emphasize that the Muzzles were an expression of patriotism; second, so that the rest of the news staff could pretty much take the week off. The first annual Muzzle Awards were published on July 3, 1998. Among other winners, we singled out of the FCC for shutting down Radio Free Allston, a pirate station that served the community at a time when it was even harder to get a license for a low-power FM operation than it is today; the town of Plymouth, where police roughed up Native American protesters; and Walmart, for refusing to sell CDs that carried a parental warning label.

The Muzzles turned out to be a hit. David Brudnoy and, later, Dan Rea would have me on to talk about them on WBZ Radio (AM 1030) and — I’d like to think — we helped educate our readers about the importance of free expression.

I continued writing the Muzzles after leaving the Phoenix for Northeastern in 2005. At that point, I stopped singling out colleges and universities because I thought it would be a conflict of interest. Harvey began writing the Campus Muzzle Awards as a sidebar.

Then, in the spring of 2013, The Boston Phoenix closed abruptly, and we needed a new home for the Muzzles. Fortunately my friends at GBH News stepped up and have been hosting them ever since. Although The Worcester Phoenix was long gone at that point, the Muzzles continued to appear in the Providence and Portland papers until they, too, shut down. (The Portland Phoenix was revived a couple of years ago under new ownership and appears to be doing well.) And here’s a pretty astonishing fact: Peter Kadzis has been editing the Muzzles from the beginning, first at the Phoenix, now at GBH.

This year’s New England Muzzle Awards, published on July 1, are, like their predecessors, a reflection of the era. The Black Lives Matter protest movement that was revived after the police killings of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor figure in several of the awards — from Boston and Worcester police officers who brutalized peaceful demonstrators, to racial justice protesters in Burlington, Vermont, who stole and destroyed copies of a newspaper whose coverage they were unhappy with, to Sheriff Scott Kane of Hancock County, Maine, who banned a desperately needed drug-counseling service from his jail after the nonprofit posted a statement on its website in support of Black Lives Matter.

We have some well-known winners, too, including Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, Fox News talk-show host Tucker Carlson and former President Donald Trump. The town of Plymouth is back as well — this time for threatening punitive fines against a Trump supporter who’d put a sign critical of President Joe Biden on his lawn.

This is the 24th year of Muzzle Awards, so next year will be a landmark. Will they continue after their 25th anniversary? Right now I couldn’t tell you. I have put together an index of all 24 years in case you’re interested in what previous editions looked like. Link rot had claimed some of them, but I was able to overcome that thanks to the Internet Archive.

The animating spirit of the Muzzles was best expressed by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in 1929: “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

It’s been a long ride — and I’ve already got a candidate for the 2022 edition.

This post was sent out last Friday, June 9, as part of the Media Nation member newsletter. If you would like to become a member, just click here. The cost is $5 a month.

The 2021 New England Muzzle Awards: Spotlighting 10 who diminish free speech

Illustration by Meryl Brenner / GBH News

Previously published at GBH News.

The past year was the most tumultuous in our history since at least 1968, characterized by a deadly pandemic, economic collapse and a presidential election whose aftermath culminated in a violent insurrection at the Capitol, cheered on — and, arguably, incited — by the losing candidate.

But that wasn’t all. Following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a revived Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets and protested from coast to coast. The response to those protests, and to the movement in general, leads our list of New England Muzzle Awards this year.

Those censorious actions include police brutality against demonstrators in Boston and Worcester who were attempting to exercise their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly. Efforts aimed at banning the teaching of “divisive concepts” about race and gender in Rhode Island and New Hampshire. Ending a drug counseling program at a jail in Maine because the organization that runs it had expressed sympathy for Black Lives Matter. Grabbing hundreds of copies of a newspaper from newsstands and burning some of them, as racial justice demonstrators did in Burlington, Vermont.

Other prominent winners include former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who refused to comply with multiple public records requests about an internal investigation of former Boston police officer and union president Patrick Rose, who faces 33 charges linked to sexually abusing young children; retired Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, who hit CNN with a $300 million libel suit that seemed aimed more at intimidation than illumination; and Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who all but invited his fans to terrorize two freelance journalists in Maine by falsely claiming they planned to reveal the location of his home in that state.

The New England Muzzles are published around the Fourth of July every year to call attention to outrages against freedom of speech and of the press. They were launched in 1998 at the late, great Boston Phoenix, which ceased publication in 2013. This is the ninth year they have been hosted by GBH News. They take their name from the Jefferson Muzzles, begun in 1992 by the now-defunct Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

The envelopes, please. Continue reading “The 2021 New England Muzzle Awards: Spotlighting 10 who diminish free speech”