Contrary to James Fallows’ lament, political coverage really is better this time

James Fallows. Photo (cc) 2019 by the Brookings Institution.

Previously published at GBH News.

Strictly speaking, there is nothing actually wrong in James Fallows’ 4,000-word takedown of the political press, which has been the talk of liberal Twitter since it was published by The Atlantic earlier this month.

The sins he documents are real: reflexively balancing coverage between “both sides,” even when one side lies repeatedly; dwelling on the horse-race aspects of the contest; and wallowing in the spectacle, as we did in 2016, when then-candidate Donald Trump’s unhinged rallies proved to be far more entertaining than anything Hillary Clinton could offer.

But to argue, as Fallows does, that we’re doing it all over again, and that Joe Biden is falling victim to the same irresponsible coverage that befell Clinton four years ago, is to misunderstand the moment. To put a new twist on an old phrase, Fallows is missing the trees for the forest. His grasp of the big picture is solid. What he doesn’t see is that the 2020 campaign is being covered very differently compared to 2016.

“Many of our most influential editors and reporters are acting as if the rules that prevailed under previous American presidents are still in effect,” Fallows writes. “But this president is different; the rules are different; and if it doesn’t adapt, fast, the press will stand as yet another institution that failed in a moment of crucial pressure.”

So far, so good. But his contention that we’re dealing with a “Groundhog Day” universe, in which the campaign is playing out just like it did in 2016, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. It’s no exaggeration to say that, four years ago, large segments of the political press had hated the Clintons for the previous quarter century. Hillary Clinton had to deal with her husband’s legacy, sexism, the bogus email story and the exaggerated Benghazi aftermath.

Biden surely has enemies, but they are fewer in number and softer of voice. Of course, he’s also campaigning in the midst of the worst pandemic since 1918-’19, so he hasn’t been scrutinized in quite as up-close-and-personal a manner as he otherwise would have been. Still, there is every reason to think that the vitriol directed toward Hillary Clinton was unique — that is, uniquely intense, uniquely awful and uniquely unfair.

Rather than deal with Fallows’ critique point by point, I want to bring up three stories that he doesn’t mention — the dogs that didn’t bark. They’re important because they demonstrate that it’s really not Groundhog Day. Any one of these stories would have been covered relentlessly four years ago regardless of their merits, and could have done great damage to the Biden campaign if given that kind of oxygen. Instead, all three have been relegated to the background. Yes, they could re-emerge, possibly at the debates. But the campaign will be over in a few weeks, and early voting has already begun.

• The Tara Reade story. Remember her? She was the former Senate staff member who stepped forward last spring and claimed that, years ago, Biden had pinned her to a wall and sexually assaulted her in the corridor of a Capitol Hill office building. The claim was shocking and seemed contrary to what we knew about Biden. But, at least at first, the media did not dismiss her charges. How could they? She was there, we weren’t, and she deserved to have a chance to tell her story.

Soon, though, Reade’s narrative unraveled. The two big blows came when the “PBS NewsHour,” in an exhaustively detailed report, found no evidence that Biden had ever been accused of sexual assault by anyone other than Reade — and that the logistics of the assault as she described them were literally impossible. Simultaneously, Politico reported that Reade had spent much of her adult life lying and cheating people out of money, and had never been heard to say anything negative about Biden.

That should have been the end of it — and, against all odds, it was, though in earlier campaign cycles it might have kept right on spinning. I do think the media made a mistake in not continuing to pursue the story to find out who, if anyone, was paying Reade. Still, it was a rare instance of a scandal being debunked and staying debunked.

• The Hunter Biden story. Who would have imagined that a salacious Rudy Giuliani-fueled tale of corrupt intrigue in Ukraine would have faded away? But it did, and despite occasional squeaks from the Trumpist right, it has remained on the fringes.

In case you’ve forgotten, Joe Biden’s son Hunter was wildly overpaid to serve on the board of a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma. Joe Biden, as vice president, pressured the Ukrainian government to remove the prosecutor general who had been investigating Burisma. That sounds pretty bad. But it turned out the prosecutor general was himself a corrupt hack, and Joe Biden had merely been acting at the behest of the entire international community.

There was more to it than that, but the bottom line is that there was no scandal. The media got off to a bad start, but soon realized they were being led down a rat hole and backed off. The last time I heard it mentioned was at the Republican National Convention, when former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi brought it up rather ineffectually.

• The dementia story. Now here’s one that the more mindless elements of the media really could have sunk their teeth into. All you have to do is remember the endless speculation after Hillary Clinton stumbled out of a car and then was diagnosed with pneumonia to understand how hard it is for the press to resist a story about a supposed medical cover-up.

In Biden’s case, the accusation coming out of the fever swamps is that Biden is suffering from dementia and that he is the mere puppet of the Democratic left, personified by his running mate, Kamala Harris, notwithstanding the fact that she’s never been a favorite of the left. The Trumpist right has been touting a Zogby poll that found more than half of respondents supposedly believe Biden “is in the early stages of dementia.”

For the most part, though, the media have ignored this foolishness. They see what everyone sees — that, at 77, Biden comes across as less energetic than he used to, but with no loss of mental acuity. The gaffes roll right off him; after all, he has been putting his foot in his mouth for his entire career. Besides, his opponent is Trump, who’s only a few years younger and can’t put together a coherent sentence.

“It’s rarely the new issues that most bedevil us,” Fallows writes. “It’s the same old problems and failures and blind spots and biases, again and again and again.” He’s right. But Biden enjoys significant advantages in terms of media coverage compared to Clinton four years ago. Perhaps the biggest of those advantages is one I haven’t even mentioned: The press now understands that Trump can win, and he’s turned out to be an even scarier threat to democracy than he appeared to be in 2016.

The final few weeks of the campaign are going to be incredibly ugly, especially now that the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the politics of a vacant Supreme Court seat have been added to the mix. But Biden, unlike Hillary Clinton, is well-liked and has benefited from the media’s refusal thus far to wallow in phony scandals.

Political coverage of presidential campaigns can be and often is a catastrophe. This time around, though, it really is better.

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With Biden pulling ahead, the media must avoid the poll-driven mistakes of 2016

Jill and Joe Biden in Des Moines last Fourth of July. Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

From the moment that former Vice President Joe Biden emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee, political observers have been proceeding on the assumption that this year’s presidential election will be close.

But what if the dynamics are changing? What if President Donald Trump — behind in the polls even before the COVID-19 pandemic and falling further behind now — is written off as a political goner? Can the media handle it? Or will we see a repeat of 2016, when Hillary Clinton was subjected to a disproportionate amount of negative scrutiny on the grounds that Trump, as we all thought we knew, had no chance of winning?

First, let me lay out the evidence that Trump is starting to look unelectable — keeping in mind, of course, that he looked unelectable four years ago, too. Then I’ll loop back to what the media’s role ought to be in a campaign in which one candidate seems like the all-but-certain winner.

From the moment he took the oath of office, Trump has been a historically unpopular president. According to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average as of Monday, 42.7% approve of his job performance and 53.5% disapprove. That’s in line with his numbers for most of his presidency, and it represents a dip from the rally-round-the-flag bump he got after he belatedly started to address the pandemic.

Moreover, there were indications even before the pandemic that Trump would lose his re-election bid by a wide margin. For instance, in the very first sentence of his new book, “Downfall: The Demise of a President and His Party,” the political scientist Andrew Hacker of Queens College asserts: “There is not even a long-odds chance that Donald Trump will gain a second term.”

Although Hacker’s argument is backed up with a considerable amount of data, it essentially comes down to this: The blue wave that enabled the Democrats to take back the House in 2018 is almost certain to be followed by an even bigger blue wave in 2020, overwhelming any attempts at voter suppression or Electoral College math that would otherwise favor Trump.

Trump’s prospects have only deteriorated in the face of his cruel and incompetent response to COVID. Oxford Economics, which has a solid track record of calling presidential races dating back to 1948, is currently predicting that Trump will receive only 35% of the popular vote and lose the Electoral College by a margin of 328 to 210. The RealClearPolitics polling average as of Monday showed Biden ahead by more than 5 points and leading in battleground states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida.

So, good news for Biden, right? Not necessarily. Because if it looks like a Biden blowout, he may be held to a different, higher standard than Trump.

We all remember what happened in 2016. Clinton’s relatively minor shortcomings over issues like her speech transcripts and, oh yes, her emails were covered as though they were the equivalent of Trump’s stream of racist outbursts, revelations about his corrupt foundation and his boasts, caught on tape, that he had sexually assaulted women.

In his definitive study of how the media performed during the 2016 campaign, the political scientist Thomas E. Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School 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.”

(Incidentally, Patterson has a new book out called “Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?” Spoiler alert: He thinks the answer is “yes.”)

Unfortunately, we may be seeing the same thing happen again. Yes, the media showed some restraint in covering Tara Reade’s allegations of sexual assault against Biden, with Politico and the PBS NewsHour doing an especially good job of reporting problems with her credibility. But the smear lingers — despite Biden’s denial, and despite the 25 women who’ve accused Trump of similar and worse misconduct.

The media have risen to the bait regarding Trump’s claims that there was something called an “Obamagate” scandal in 2016. Although Trump hasn’t bothered to flesh it out, it appears to be based on his fury that his campaign’s well-documented ties to Russian interests (see thisthis and this) were the subject of an FBI investigation.

“It’s becoming clear that journalists never fully reckoned with the mistakes of 2016 campaign coverage,” wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan recently. “We know this because they seem poised to repeat them.”

And look at what happened over the weekend. Biden had to apologize for joking with the African American radio host Charlamagne Tha God that “you ain’t black” if he was still trying to decide between him and Trump.

Trump, meanwhile, went off on a sociopathic bender, retweeting attacks on Hillary Clinton (a “skank”), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (a drunk), Democratic vice-presidential hopeful Stacey Abrams (she’s fat) and repeating his nauseating and utterly false innuendo that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough murdered a female staff member when he was a congressman in 2001.

Guess which story got more attention? To be fair, the press did take note that Trump went golfing and made no mention of the COVID pandemic as the U.S. death toll neared 100,000. But by every indication, it seems that Biden is going to be held to a more stringent standard — and his lead in the polls may have something to do with it.

What would better coverage look like?

First, the media should ignore the polls — not all the time, but most of the time. And they certainly shouldn’t decide who deserves the hairy eyeball on the basis of who’s ahead and who’s behind.

Second, the political press should report on what really matters. Gaffes, of which Biden will make plenty, are worth a tweet, maybe. Phony scandals ginned up by an increasingly desperate president and his supporters should get less than that.

Instead, the press should focus on offering an honest, fair-minded appraisal of the candidates’ character, leadership abilities and experience. And that coverage should look the same no matter who’s ahead or by how much.

Because we all know that regardless of what the polls and the models say, either candidate could win.

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In a new book, political scientist Andrew Hacker argues that Trump can’t win

Nearly every poll says the same thing: Joe Biden is beating Donald Trump nationally, but it’s closer in the swing states, and by no means should we rule out a second term for Trump. For those of us who believe Trump represents an existential threat, it’s a nerve-wracking prospect, conjuring up nightmares from 2016 all over again.

But not to worry, writes Andrew Hacker in his new book, “Downfall: The Demise of a President and His Party.” Hacker, a political scientist based at Queens College who’s best known for his book “Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal,” argues that 2016 was a fluke that won’t be repeated. He opens thusly:

There is not even a long-odds chance that Donald Trump will gain a second term. Nor is this wishful thinking. Compelling evidence abounds that anyone the Democrats nominate will win the popular vote, and by a margin to easily carry the Electoral College. Republicans down the ballot will suffer a similar demise, losing even more House seats, and very likely the Senate.

Among other things, Hacker argues that Hillary Clinton was a uniquely unappealing candidate who combined arrogance with a sense of entitlement (I don’t agree, but I know plenty of people who do); that massive Democratic turnout in the 2018 midterm elections foreshadows a blue wave this November; and that the electorate continues to favor the Democrats demographically as it becomes less white, less straight and better educated.

Hacker wrote “Downfall” before the Democrats had settled on Biden as their presumptive nominee and before anyone had heard of COVID-19. It remains to be seen whether Biden was the best choice to do battle with Trump. But polling shows that the president’s cruel and incompetent response to the pandemic is harming whatever chances he had of being re-elected.

The argument that Hacker offers is in line with that of Rachel Bitecofer, a political scientist based at the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank. Bitecofer made a splash earlier this year with a new election model that said Trump has virtually no chance of winning, mainly because unusually high Democratic turnout this fall is assured.

“In the polarized era, the outcome isn’t really about the candidates,” Bitecofer was quoted as saying in Politico Magazine. “What matters is what percentage of the electorate is Republican and Republican leaners, and what percentage is Democratic and Democratic leaners, and how they get activated.”

Another political scientist, Thomas Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School, argues in a new book that the Republican Party has guaranteed its demise by moving to the extreme right, by ignoring demographic trends, by taking dictation from right-wing media, by showering tax cuts upon the wealthy, and by disregarding democratic norms such as voting rights, through which “it has made lasting enemies and created instruments of power that can be used against it.”

In so doing, Patterson writes in “Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?,” the GOP has abdicated its role as the necessary center-right counterbalance to the center-left Democrats.

All of this is encouraging if you want to see Trump leave office next January. And the data suggesting that he’ll lose is compelling. But we’ve all been here before, haven’t we? Patterson, after all, is also the author of the definitive analysis of how media malpractice contributed to Trump’s election four years ago — and, as Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan laments, here we go again. So let’s see how it plays out.

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Van Jones should acknowledge that he was wrong about Clinton and Gabbard

Tulsi Gabbard earlier this year. Photo (cc) by Marc Nozell.

Van Jones is ripping Hillary Clinton for suggesting that Russian interests are seeking to use Tulsi Gabbard’s fringe presidential campaign to divide Democrats and help President Trump get re-elected. Here’s what Jones said on CNN:

If you’re concerned about disinformation … that is what just happened, just throw out some information, disinformation, smear somebody. She is Hillary Clinton. She’s a legend. She’s going to be in the history books, she’s a former nominee of our party, and she just came out against a sitting U.S. congresswoman, a decorated war veteran, and somebody who’s running for the nomination of our party with a complete smear and no facts.

In fact, there was nothing novel about Clinton’s contention. NBC News reported on Russian interest in Gabbard’s candidacy last February (via Sue O’Connell) in a detailed investigative report that begins:

The Russian propaganda machine that tried to influence the 2016 U.S. election is now promoting the presidential aspirations of a controversial Hawaii Democrat who earlier this month declared her intention to run for president in 2020.

An NBC News analysis of the main English-language news sites employed by Russia in its 2016 election meddling shows Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who is set to make her formal announcement Saturday, has become a favorite of the sites Moscow used when it interfered in 2016.

Now, I realize that CNN talking heads are required to speak many words, and sometimes things go haywire. But for Jones not to be aware of longstanding concerns about Gabbard and Russian propaganda is unacceptable.

Here is what Clinton said on David Plouffe’s podcast, in which she doesn’t name Gabbard but clearly points to her:

I think they [the Russians Republicans] have got their eye somebody who’s currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate. She’s a favorite of the Russians. They have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far.

Clinton also said Jill Stein, who ran a third-party campaign in 2016, was a “Russian asset,” which is an uncontroversial assertion to anyone who paid attention. As with Gabbard, we can’t know what Stein was thinking, but it’s simply a fact that Stein’s candidacy was pushed by RT and other elements of Russian’s propaganda machine.

What Clinton said was the opposite of fake news, and Jones should acknowledge it. Then again, liberal commentators like Jones have a huge incentive to rip other liberals so they will be seen as “fair.” And the Clintons have been everyone’s favorite punching bag for such exercises for nearly 30 years.

Correction and update: Thanks to this Wall Street Journal story and Dylan Smith’s transcript of the Clinton-Plouffe exchange, we now know that Clinton said Gabbard was being groomed by the Republicans, not by the Russians, and that she did not call Gabbard a “Russian asset” (that was reserved solely for Stein). So Jones was even more unprepared and offbase than I originally thought.

Fact-checking in the Age of Trump: Why false equivalence is harming democracy

Image (cc) by PolitiFact

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Have the media engaged in false equivalence when it comes to political lying? Do fact-checkers nitpick statements by Democrats in order to seem fair and balanced when they go after President Trump’s numerous and blatant falsehoods?

That proposition might seem ludicrous. After all, The Washington Post last month announced that Trump had made more than 12,000 false or misleading statements since his inauguration in 2017. Daniel Dale of CNN tracks every Trumpian falsehood — writing, for example, that the president “made at least 26 false claims” at a rally in New Mexico on Monday. PolitiFact has rated fully 69 percent of Trump’s public utterances as false to some degree, and 14 percent as being so at odds with reality that they have earned the coveted “Pants on Fire” rating.

And that’s just the tip of the journalistic iceberg. Indeed, if the media have told us anything about Trump over these past few years, it’s that he spews lies so freely that his every word and every tweet is suspect. So what do Democrats have to complain about?

This: Despite the media’s admirably tough-minded stance on Trump’s falsehoods, they are nevertheless holding Democrats to a much higher standard. Most politicians exaggerate, butcher the facts or shade the truth, and journalists should take note when they do. But the press should also be careful to point out the difference between standard-issue rhetorical excesses and the sort of gaslighting that Trump engages in on a daily basis.

Last week Michael Calderone of Politico wrote an important story about Democratic complaints regarding the fact-checkers’ embrace of false equivalence. He began with the example of Bernie Sanders’ claim that “500,000 Americans will go bankrupt this year from medical bills.” The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column awarded three Pinocchios (out of a possible four) to Sanders — not because he was completely wrong, but because medical bills were only one factor in those 500,000 bankruptcies. Meanwhile, Calderone noted, the Post also gave Trump three Pinocchios for claiming that large swaths of his border wall have been already built when, in fact, none of it has.

The Sanders example is a matter of factual interpretation. The Trump example is somewhere between a hallucination and a lie. Yet they each got the same rating. How can this be?

One explanation is that journalism, steeped as it is in notions of fairness and balance, is unequipped for the extraordinary challenge of the Trump era. Calderone offered several other instances of Democrats’ words being parsed for shades of nuance so that they could be labeled as lies. He also wrote that “several prominent fact checkers said they don’t believe their job has changed when it comes to holding politicians accountable for their words on the stump and in TV studios, despite Trump’s persistence falsehoods.” And he quoted PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan as saying, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” OK. But everything is not the same.

Consider an example that Calderone didn’t cite: Joe Biden’s recent mixing up of three separate stories about honoring a heroic soldier who had tried to save a comrade in Afghanistan. Yes, Biden botched it pretty badly, but the essential truth of what he was trying to say came through. Yet The Washington Post headlined it, “As he campaigns for president, Joe Biden tells a moving but false war story.” False? Not really. More like Biden being Biden, lacking the discipline to master the details and not understanding why it matters.

Or how about two years of obsessing over Hillary Clinton’s private email server while the news that Trump uses an unsecured cell phone, reported last October in The New York Times, got about two minutes’ worth of attention — even though Chinese and Russian spies were reportedly listening in on Trump’s calls.

Those last examples aren’t about lies and fact-checking. But all of this is grounded in a larger, more enduring issue — accusations of liberal bias on the part of conservatives, and the duck-and-cover response from too many journalists whose politics may indeed be liberal but who bend over backwards to torment liberal politicians. Eric Alterman, in his 2003 book, “What Liberal Media?,” called it “working the refs,” and it goes back at least to Spiro Agnew’s famous nattering nabobs of negativism speech of 1970.

In 2012 — a more innocent time — I wrote in The Huffington Post that one of the big problems with fact-checking was that politicians’ false or partly false statements were rarely full-blown lies, but that ratings like Pinocchios or “Pants on Fire” suggested that every falsehood was a lie. “The fact-checkers are shifting from judging facts to indulging in opinion, but they’re not necessarily doing it because they want to,” I wrote. “They’re doing it because politicians don’t flat-out lie as frequently as we might suppose.” Now we have a president who lies so promiscuously that the fact-checkers seek out minor factual discrepancies among Democrats so it won’t seem like they’re picking on Trump.

In a report for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Thomas Patterson found that press coverage of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign was actually more negative than that of Trump. In other words, her emails were treated the same as or worse than her opponent’s racist outbursts, the “Access Hollywood” tapecorruption at the Trump Foundation and so much more.

“Indiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions,” Patterson wrote. “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.”

Now we are moving into yet another presidential election season. The problem for 2020, as it was for 2016, isn’t that the media won’t report negative information about Trump. It’s that they will report negative information about his opponents in such a way that it all looks the same. In that respect, Democratic complaints about fact-checking that may seem trivial are actually emblematic of a much deeper problem with journalism: the primal urge to treat both sides equally, to be seen as fair, to avoid accusations of liberal bias.

It’s going to be an ugly, brutal campaign, and Trump’s going to drive the agenda once again. Are the media up to the challenge? The evidence suggests that the answer to that question is no.

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Thunder on the left: The New York Times gets an earful from its most loyal readers

Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It has been an extraordinary few weeks for The New York Times.

From an outcry over a headline that blandly reported President Trump’s denunciation of racism in El Paso without acknowledging his own history of racist comments, to the demotion of an editor for several racially clueless tweets, to a fraught meeting with the staff called by executive editor Dean Baquet, the Times has found itself in an unaccustomed position: under fire from its core audience of liberal readers.

In sifting through Baquet’s remarks as well as those of the Times’ critics and defenders, it strikes me that the dispute is over two conflicting views of journalism’s role in covering a uniquely awful and dangerous presidency. The two sides are talking past each other, in large measure because much of what they say sounds similar. That is, they are on parallel tracks that never quite meet.

The Baquet side is that the Times is aggressively covering a terrible president, and is now in the midst of shifting from the Russia investigation to race. In this view, the coverage has been relentlessly harsh and negative (and accurate) but based on traditional journalistic values such as the respect accorded any president and the reality that Trump’s supporters need to be understood and explained.

“Our role is not to be the leader of the resistance,” Baquet said at the town hall meeting. In fact, that’s pretty much the same view expressed by Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron when he said, “We’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work.” Like many other observers, I give the Post higher marks than the Times in not normalizing this most abnormal of presidents. But, fundamentally, Baquet and Baron are on the same page.

The critics’ view is that even tough-minded accountability journalism is not enough for a president who regularly expresses racist opinions and enacts racist policies, who gladly accepted foreign intervention in the 2016 election, and who is undermining democratic norms through his lies, his attacks on the media, and his false claims that the electoral system is rigged against him.

As Ashley Feinberg put it in Slate, “the problem for the Times is not whether it can navigate social-media controversies or satisfy an appetite for #resistance-based outrage, both of which it can tell itself are not a newspaper’s job to do. It’s whether it has the tools to make sense of the world. On this point, Baquet was not reassuring or convincing.”

Liberal criticism of the Times may have reached the point of absurdity with Sunday’s unsparing profile of Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s thuggish anti-immigration policies. The headline in the print edition, “Shift Against Immigration Lifted a Young Firebrand,” drew howls from the left for not clearly labeling Miller a racist. The comedian Frank Conniff tweeted: “NY Times today called Stephen Miller a ‘young firebrand.’ Also once described Norman Bates as the ‘reclusive iconoclast of the hospitality industry.’”

In fact, the headline wasn’t nearly as bad as the one from El Paso that caused such an uproar earlier this month: “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism.” And, as with that first headline, the digital version was better, if more neutral than Trump critics might like: “How Stephen Miller Seized the Moment to Battle Immigration.” Besides, the story, by Jason DeParle, was first-rate.

The real issue over the two headlines may be the declining importance of the print product as well as the difficulty of writing good headlines in small spaces. As Baron once said, “ I mean newspaper headlines are terrible, right? They all have to be constrained within column sizes, so if you have a one-column head it’s all headline-ese. People don’t speak in headline-ese.”

There are larger forces at work in the liberal critique of the Times as well. As New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen observes, the Times, like all newspapers, is far more dependent on revenues from its readers as it shifts its business model from advertising to digital subscriptions. And many of those customers have taken to social media to let the Times know it when they don’t like what they see.

More to the point, the Times may very well have gotten Trump elected because of its obsession with Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server for official business. The Times’ coverage of the email story reached its ludicrous apogee with an over-the-top front page after then-FBI Director James Comey announced he had reopened the investigation just before the election — a blow from which her campaign did not recover, even after Comey said “never mind” a week later.

In Rosen’s view, the Times’ coverage of Clinton amounts almost to an original sin, and the paper has never come to terms with its readers — who, he writes, “are appalled by Trump and want to see his dark sides further exposed. They want the Times to be tougher on his supporters and more relentless in calling out his lying, his racism, his misogyny, his xenophobia. They want Times journalists to see what they see — an assault on democratic institutions — and to act accordingly. And they want a reckoning with the coverage of Hillary Clinton in 2016 because they know that somehow this is in the way of all other things.”

Of course, the reason that the Times has come under fire from liberals is that they see it as their paper. Whatever criticisms they give voice to are mild compared to the vitriol from the right — as we’ve experienced in recent days with the reaction of Newt Gingrich and others to the Times’ 1619 Project, marking the 400th anniversary of slavery in what became the United States. The 1619 Project promises to be a landmark achievement for the Times, which makes it all the more appalling that right-wing critics would rather defend white supremacy than come to terms with slavery’s legacy.

As Baquet said during the meeting with his staff, “Look, we are scrutinized. I ran another newspaper [the Los Angeles Times]. I’ve never seen anything like this. We are scrutinized more than any other news organization in the country, in the world probably. To be frank, some of that comes with being the biggest and, I would argue, the best. And as hard as it is to do this, I think we have to accept it.”

Baquet is right. As good as The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal are, the Times is still our best, most comprehensive general-interest newspaper. It is far from perfect. I’m still angry about the way it covered the run-up to the war in Iraq, the Whitewater non-scandal, and, yes, the 2016 campaign. If you’d like to go back a century, Walter Lippmann wrote that it blew the Russian Revolution and its aftermath as well.

But the Times’ journalistic values — offering a tough but straight report on what its editors have judged to be the most important news of the day — are always going to clash with the wishes of some of its audience to see their opinions and beliefs affirmed rather than challenged.

The Times has gone too far in normalizing Trump and Trumpism, and it often falls short on tone and emphasis. But you know what? We can adjust for that. It’s worth it.

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Better campaign coverage: More substance, less horse race — and holding Trump to account

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Nineteen days ago, the journalist and advice columnist E. Jean Carroll leveled a credible accusation of rape against President Trump. Carroll’s claim that Trump violently assaulted her during an encounter in the 1990s created a brief stir of outrage — then all but disappeared. Meanwhile, Trump’s lies and falsehoods mount, the abuse of children at the southern border continues, and his contempt for lawful subpoenas and even Supreme Court decisions grows. The press covers all of this, of course, but with an increasingly perfunctory, what-else-is-new tone of resignation.

Compare that with the second Democratic presidential debate, at which Sen. Kamala Harris reinvigorated her campaign by challenging former Vice President Joe Biden on race and by taking a stand in favor of Medicare for all. Here we are nearly two weeks later, and we’re still discussing whether Harris was being disingenuous given her own nuanced position on the use of busing to desegregate public schools and her shifting views on private insurance. Is Harris slippery? Is she electable? Was she too tough on poor old Joe? (And — gasp! — several of the candidates attempted a little Spanish, proving, of course, that they are hopeless panderers.)

Media coverage of the 2020 presidential campaign is shaping up to be the same depressing spectacle that it always is. With few exceptions, the press focuses on polls, fundraising, who’s up, who’s down, and who made a gaffe. Two and a half years after Hillary Clinton was denied the White House despite winning nearly 3 million more votes than Trump, there’s also a lot of dangerously silly talk about whether Americans are willing to elect a woman.

On Twitter, Washington Post political reporter Dave Weigel took a shot at acknowledging legitimate questions about Harris’ shifting views while placing them within a larger Trumpian context. “The question about Harris’s debate win is if she can shake off the problem that sapped her momentum before: Twisting into a pretzel when pressed on a policy question. So far…,” Weigel tweeted. “And yes, this is another area where Trump gets to play by different rules.”

The overarching problem is the same one that defined the 2016 campaign. As Weigel noted, the media hold Trump to a different standard than the Democratic candidates. The Democrats are treated as serious political players who should be held accountable for their policy positions and for what they say. Trump is presumed to be a lying imbecile, and is therefore not covered as though his words matter.

There was at least some justification for that in the last campaign, when media organizations assumed they could exploit the Trump phenomenon for ratings and profits, safe in the knowledge that, you know, he would not actually be elected. Now there are no excuses. But the press, like the rest of us, appears to be suffering from Trump fatigue, covering the president’s latest outbursts but then dropping them almost immediately in order to chase the next shiny object.

What would better coverage look like?

First, even though Trump will be all but uncontested for the Republican nomination (sorry, Bill Weld), reporters need to understand how crucial it is that he be held accountable in exactly the same way the Democratic candidates are. That seems unlikely to happen. But at a minimum we should avoid a repeat performance of 2016, when the media feasted on emails that had been stolen from the Clinton campaign, making themselves unwitting (and witting) accomplices of Russian efforts on Trump’s behalf.

Second, the media need to stop covering politics as a sporting event and focus on what really matters. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has emerged as a leading candidate on the strength of her in-depth policy proposals on issues such as income inequality, student debt relief, and health care. But a candidate’s background, experience, character, and leadership skills are at least as important as policy. Those tend to be the subject of lengthy chin-strokers early in the campaign, supplanted by the horse race once things heat up. It shouldn’t be that way — such stories are essential, and they should be at the center of any serious news organization’s coverage right up until Election Day. On a related note: Chuck Todd of NBC News should be banned from future debates for demanding one-word answers to complex, important questions.

Third, the press should stop trying to “define the narrative.” The narrative, such as it is, is what emerges, and shouldn’t be used as a mnemonic device to make it easier for journalists to do their jobs. Yes, there are serious questions about Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s temperament. But she had long been considered a real contender, and media overkill pretty much derailed her candidacy before it could begin. Warren was described as having missed her best chance by not challenging Clinton in 2016, but here she is. Harris opened strongly! stumbled! and now is back in it! These are normal ups and downs; the press errs by taking them too seriously.

There have been some positive signs. CNN’s one-hour town halls with the Democratic candidates have encouraged thoughtfulness and depth. Unfortunately, they demand too much from all but the most committed viewers. The 10-candidate “debates” on NBC were far too superficial. How about a series of 15-minute interviews, eight a night for three nights? That should be enough time to get into some substance.

As I wrap this up, Yahoo News is reporting that the Seth Rich conspiracy madness — the false tale that the Clintonistas ordered the 2016 murder of a young Democratic operative in order to cover up their own corrupt acts — originated with Russian intelligence. This bit of toxic fakery was not taken seriously by the mainstream media, but it was promoted by Sean Hannity on Fox News and, later, by the Trump White House itself. In other words, it got wide distribution and polluted our discourse even though actual news organizations handled it responsibly.

Which brings me to my final observation. Even if political reporters can improve on their efforts to hold Trump to account, to focus more on substance and less on the horse race, and to let the larger narrative emerge rather than trying to define it for us, there are few signs that they are prepared to deal with the new media world of foreign actors, Facebook fakery, and disinformation in which we are now immersed.

That world, as much as anything, got Trump elected in 2016. If the media aren’t prepared to identify and expose such efforts in 2020, it could happen again.

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God help me, but I’m writing about Elizabeth Warren and the likability factor

Elizabeth Warren. Photo (cc) 2012 by Edward Kimmel.

A few very brief thoughts about Elizabeth Warren and whether she’s “likable enough” (to recycle an unfortunate old quote from Barack Obama) to be elected president — the subject of a front-page story in today’s Boston Globe as well as multiple other outlets.

First, yes, of course there’s an element of sexism to it, as there was when the same questions were raised over and over about Hillary Clinton. But let’s not get carried away — it’s not just sexism. Republicans used the likability factor like a sledgehammer against Al Gore and John Kerry, and it was effective. Their opponent, George W. Bush, was regularly described as someone you’d rather have a beer with, which always struck me as pretty odd given that Bush was an alcoholic who had given up drinking.

Second, in Warren’s case, “likability” is shorthand for something real — a lack of political adroitness despite her substantive strengths and despite being, as best as I can determine, genuinely likable. The whole Native American thing is ludicrous, and it seems as though she should have been able to put it behind her years ago when Scott Brown and the Boston Herald first tried to make an issue of it. Yet it’s still here, and it makes you think she should have handled it differently. Certainly the DNA test didn’t help.

Third, there’s something to the idea that she let her moment slip away. The news and political cycles are so accelerated now that 2016 may have represented her best chance. That has nothing to do with likability. The fact that Beto O’Rourke may be a serious candidate seems silly unless you view it in that context.

Finally, Warren’s likability is a phony issue because it’s about the pundits, not the voters. If she wins the nomination and is ultimately elected president, there’s the answer to your question: she’s likable enough.

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Giuliani’s ‘truth isn’t truth’ gaffe was a howler. But it was also taken out of context.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

There is nothing reporters and pundits love more than a mind-boggling gaffe. Rudy Giuliani achieved what you might call Gaffe Apotheosis on Sunday when he lectured Chuck Todd that “truth isn’t truth.”So let’s savor it, make memes out of it (Todd told us we should!), and throw it in the faces of President Trump’s allies whenever they repeat the falsehoods that spew forth from this administration. But let’s not pretend we don’t understand the perfectly reasonable point that Giuliani was trying to make.

As is the case with many political gaffes, the full effect of Giuliani’s howler depends on taking it out of context. The former New York mayor, now a member of Trump’s legal team, was asked by “Meet the Press” host Todd why the president won’t simply sit down and answer questions from special counsel Robert Mueller.

“I am not going to be rushed into having him testify so that he gets trapped into perjury,” Giuliani responded. “And when you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth.”

Todd: “Truth is truth.”

Giuliani: “No, it isn’t. Truth isn’t truth.”

Giuliani knew instantly that he had stepped in a big, steaming pile, and he tried ineffectively to push back. The damage was done. But think about what Giuliani was saying: If Trump answers questions under oath, he’ll say things that contradict what others have said under oath. And that could set up Trump for a perjury charge. Giuliani expanded on that point a short time later, arguing that if Mueller had to choose between Trump’s sworn statements and those of former FBI director James Comey, Mueller would choose Comey, whom Giuliani identified — or, should I say, derided — as “one of his best friends.”

Now, set aside our knowledge that Trump has spoken falsely more than 4,000 times since he became president, and that Giuliani has a credibility problem of his own. Giuliani was actually making sense in saying that Mueller would have to choose between competing versions of the truth, and that he might be disinclined to believe Trump. But the inartful (OK, idiotic) way he expressed himself is all we’ll remember. This is mostly Giuliani’s fault, but it’s partly the media’s as well. Because this is what we love.

Want some more examples? Before Sunday, perhaps the most memorable gaffe by a Trump official was uttered by Kellyanne Conway, who used the phrase “alternative facts” in an interview with the very same Chuck Todd. Appearing on Jan. 22, 2017, Conway sought to explain White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s obviously false claim that Trump’s Inauguration Day crowd was the largest in history. Conway didn’t push back as hard as Giuliani did when challenged by Todd. But, later in the interview, she said Spicer was simply relying on different sources of information.

“I don’t think you can prove those numbers one way or the other,” she said. “There’s no way to really quantify crowds. We all know that. You can laugh at me all you want.” Yes, I understand that the small size of Trump’s crowd is factually beyond dispute. But Conway’s spin was reasonable, if wrong. She was not invoking Orwell.

On a more serious level, Hillary Clinton has been castigated for years over a disingenuous reading of her Benghazi testimony before a Senate hearing in 2013. “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they’d go kill some Americans?” Clinton said. “What difference — at this point, what difference does it make?” How callous! But as PolitiFact observed in analyzing Clinton’s testimony, she continued:

It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator. Now, honestly, I will do my best to answer your questions about this, but the fact is that people were trying in real time to get to the best information…. But you know, to be clear, it is, from my perspective, less important today looking backwards as to why these militants decided they did it than to find them and bring them to justice, and then maybe we’ll figure out what was going on in the meantime.

The journalist Michael Kinsley once memorably defined a gaffe as an inadvertent statement of the truth. Sometimes, though, it’s a deliberate statement that you think won’t become public. That was the case in 2008, when Barack Obama told a group of his supporters what he thought of Clinton-leaning voters in poorer industrial cities: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Four years later, Mitt Romney said at a fundraiser that 47 percent of the electorate would vote for Obama because they “are dependent upon government,” “believe that they are victims,” and “pay no income tax.” Both Obama and Romney spoke as they did because there were no reporters present, but their damaging remarks became public anyway.

For politicians and public figures, the solution to the gaffe challenge is obvious: Don’t step on your message with language that will seem clumsy, dumb, or insensitive if it’s taken out of context, as happened with Giuliani, Conway, and Clinton. And don’t speak your mind on the assumption that the media aren’t listening, as was the case with Obama and Romney. These things have a way of becoming public knowledge.

But there are lessons for the media, too. No one imagines that they should stop reporting gaffes, especially when they play out on live television. But even as Giuliani was making a mess of his interview, he was also saying something newsworthy: that Trump shouldn’t speak to Mueller for fear that he’ll be charged with perjury even if he speaks truthfully. You can agree, you can disagree, or you can denounce Giuliani’s statement as an outrageous attack on the rule of law. What the media shouldn’t do is overlook it in favor of cheap — if well-deserved — mockery.

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Misdiagnosing what’s wrong with The New York Times

Joe Pompeo has a new piece in Vanity Fair about all the unhappy people inside The New York Times. It’s deeply reported and interesting, but it also strikes me as a diversion from the main problem with the Times these days.

Pompeo’s thesis is that the Times is riven by factionalism that can largely (though not exclusively) be defined as younger “woke” staff members who would like to see the paper pursue a more explicitly liberal and anti-Trump path versus older, more traditional journalists who value balance and neutrality. The money quote is from Times manager editor Joe Kahn:

We do not see ourselves, and we do not wish to be seen, as partisan media. That means that the news and opinion divide, and things like social-media guidelines and some of our traditional restrictions on political activity by employees, may feel cumbersome to some people at this point in our evolution.

Pompeo did the reporting and I didn’t. So he may well be right about what people talk about inside the Times. Outside, though, the Times’ loyal and largely liberal readership is talking about other issues — such as the paper’s equally negative coverage of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign in the face of mountainous evidence that their transgressions were not remotely equal; the Times’ harsh but ultimately normalizing coverage of the Trump presidency (in contrast to The Washington Post, which has been relentless); and its weirdly gentle treatment of people on the far right, such as the notorious profile of the Nazi next door.

I wrote about these issues for WGBH News in January. I don’t think things have gotten better at the Times since then.

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