Bari Weiss, James Bennet and the selective omission of relevant facts

I had a chance on Monday to listen to Brian Stelter’s CNN podcast with Bari Weiss, the semi-conservative journalist who left The New York Times over what she perceived as an overabundance of left-wing groupthink.

It was an interesting conversation. I agreed with some of what Weiss had to say and disagreed with some of it. But I was put off by the revisionist history she espoused about the resignation of James Bennet as editorial-page editor of The New York Times. Stelter didn’t push back. I will.

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Weiss offered up as fact the notion that Bennet was forced out of the Times in 2020 solely because he published an op-ed piece by Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, calling for military force to be used against Black Lives Matter protesters. She described a letter signed by Times staffers saying that Cotton’s op-ed put their lives in danger as “craziness.”

And yes, Bennet’s departure came shortly thereafter. But here are a few facts that neither Weiss nor Stelter brought up:

  • After Bennet defended Cotton’s op-ed, it was learned that he hadn’t even bothered to read it before it was published — an inexcusable dereliction of duty.
  • Shortly before the Times published Cotton’s op-ed, Cotton called for the government to give “no quarter” to looters. As The Bulwark, a conservative website pointed out, giving no quarter in military terms means to kill indiscriminately — a war crime. Cotton, a veteran, knows that. Unfortunately, neither Bennet nor any other Times editor asked Cotton to address that in his op-ed.
  • In late 2019, Times columnist Bret Stephens suggested that Ashkenazi Jews might be genetically more intelligent than other people. Bennet allowed him to clean it up unscathed, although Stephens did have to suffer the indignity of an Editor’s Note being appended to his column. As Politico media critic Jack Shafer wrote at the time, “The Times disavowal and re-edit (tellingly neither co-signed nor acknowledged by Stephens) was too little and too late — if you’re going to edit a piece, the smart move is to edit before it publishes.” That, ahem, would be Bennet’s job. Wonder if he read that one before it was published?
  • Sarah Palin has sued the Times for libel over a 2017 editorial in which Bennet personally added language suggesting that a map published by Palin’s PAC, festooned with crosshairs, incited the shooting that severely wounded then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others. There is no evidence — none — that the mentally ill shooter ever even saw the map. The lawsuit is still pending.

In other words, the mishandled Tom Cotton op-ed was merely the last in a series of banana peels that Bennet stepped on. It’s a wonder he lasted as long as he did.

After leaving the Times, Weiss moved to Substack and started the newsletter Common Sense. She is currently in the process of hiring a team of opinion writers to create what she told Stelter will be “the op-ed page that I want to read.”

Well, if the selective omission of relevant facts is what she wants to read — and wants to publish — then  you can count me out.

Why our crisis of democracy is suddenly having its moment in the media spotlight

“Storm the Capitol” event at the governor’s residence in St. Paul, Minn., on Jan. 6. Photo (cc) 2021 by Chad Davis.

Previously published at GBH News.

All of a sudden, our crisis of democracy has moved to center stage. Building since 2016, when Donald Trump refused to say whether he’d accept the results of the election if he lost, and boiling since the Jan. 6 insurrection, the rising specter of authoritarian rule is now a lead story in much of our media.

From The Washington Post to Politico, from The Philadelphia Inquirer to The Boston Globe, from CNN to public radio’s “On the Media,” the conversation for the past week has revolved around the likelihood that Trump will run for president in 2024 — and the very real possibility that Republican functionaries at the state level and in Congress will reinstall him in the White House regardless of how the election actually turns out.

Perhaps the most chilling assessment was offered in the Post by Robert Kagan, a “Never Trump” conservative who began his must-read 5,800-word essay like this: “The United States is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves.”

Appearing on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” Yale historian Timothy Snyder, the author of the 2017 book “On Tyranny,” said it was long past time for the press to cover Trump and Trumpism as an existential threat to democracy.

“If we’re not prepared for the attempt for people to take power undemocratically in 2024, then we’re just at this point pathetically naive,” he said. “Preparing for that and getting the facts out so that people can prepare for that and prevent it is what … journalism should be doing.”

Kagan, Snyder and others are right to be alarmed. But what accounts for this moment of media synchronicity? Why have they suddenly gone DEFCON 1 after months and years of covering the Trump movement all too often as a bunch of economically anxious white men in Ohio diners? I think there are three precipitating factors.

• First, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s new book, “Peril,” makes it clear that Trump was actively involved in trying to overturn the election in ways that we didn’t quite understand previously. Perhaps the most bizarre and disturbing of their findings is that a discredited lawyer, John Eastman, concocted a scheme for Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the results of the election. If Pence had wavered, who knows what might have happened?

• Second, the results of the fraudulent Arizona “audit” actually gave President Joe Biden a bigger lead over Trump than he had previously — and it didn’t make a bit of difference. As Will Bunch of The Philadelphia Inquirer observed, copycat attempts are now under way in Texas and Pennsylvania. It’s now obvious, if it wasn’t before (actually, it was), that the purpose of these ridiculous exercises is not to prove that Trump won but to keep his supporters stirred up and angry.

• Third, University of California Irvine law professor Rick Hasen, who’s been ringing the democracy alarm for years, recently published a paper and helped run a conference that generated widespread attention. That, in turn, led to an interview with Hasen by Politico Magazine and an appearance on “On the Media.”

Hasen bluntly described the threat in his interview with Politico, saying that the widespread, false belief among Republicans that the 2020 election was stolen could lead them to steal the 2024 election.

“The rhetoric is so overheated that I think it provides the basis for millions of people to accept an actual stolen election as payback for the falsely claimed earlier ‘stolen’ election,” Hasen said. “People are going to be more willing to cheat if they think they’ve been cheated out of their just desserts. And if [you believe] Trump really won, then you might take whatever steps are necessary to assure that he is not cheated the next time — even if that means cheating yourself. That’s really the new danger that this wave of voter fraud claims presents.”

Politico media critic Jack Shafer, trying to be his usual contrarian self, argued that Trump’s increasingly unhinged behavior and Republican attempts to rig the 2024 election through voter suppression and outright theft by state legislatures they control is actually a sign of weakness, not of strength.

“By signaling an attempt to regain power by any means necessary,” Shafer wrote, “Trump essentially confesses that Trumpism is not and is not likely to become a majoritarian movement.” He added that a fraudulent Trump victory would essentially amount to a coup, which “would only inspire a counter-coup by the majority, and maybe a counter-counter coup, and a counter-counter-counter coup. Trump is crazy enough to invite this fight, and narcissistic enough not to care what it does to the country. But is he shrewd enough to win it?”

Shafer is right that a Trump coup would lead to outrage on the part of the majority. But what would that look like? It could get incredibly ugly, as Kagan warned. The best way to deal with the Republicans’ assault on democracy is to make sure it fails. Sadly, the Democrat-controlled Congress can’t do much about it unless they abolish the filibuster, regardless of how Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe and his colleagues, writing in The Boston Globe, might wish otherwise. And Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema show no signs of yielding.

So what can and should the media do? Their current focus on the overriding crisis of our time is welcome and long overdue. From the false balance of focusing on lesser stories like Democratic bickering over the infrastructure bills to the situation at the border, the media have demonstrated a maddening impulse to return to business as usual following the chaos of the Trump years.

At the same time, though, the press’ influence is limited. Roughly speaking, 60% of the country is appalled by Trump and 40% is in thrall to him. But thanks to inequities in the Electoral College and the Senate, gerrymandering in the House and increasingly aggressive attempts to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning voters, the 40% may well succeed in shoving aside the 60%.

The press needs to tell that story, fearlessly and fairly. But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s not going to penetrate Fox News, Breitbart or Facebook. In the end, there may be little that journalism can do to stop our slide into autocracy.

There’s no reason to rule out a government bailout of local journalism

Photo (cc) 2014 by MIKI Yoshihito

I’m sure I’ll be writing a lot in the weeks and months ahead about whether and how government should provide a boost to local journalism — in crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic, and now on its knees.

Recently I reviewed Victor Pickard’s new book, “Democracy without Journalism?,” which is, among other things, a call for public assistance. Pickard’s argument for fundamental media reform and increased public investment in journalism was relevant before the pandemic, and is even more so now.

Today I want to touch briefly on a back-and-forth between Politico media columnist Jack Shafer and Mike Blinder, publisher of Editor & Publisher, a leading trade magazine for the newspaper business. Shafer is against a government bailout, arguing that newspapers have been in decline for decades, and that the pandemic is merely speeding up the end game. Blinder, naturally, is for public assistance. First, a bit of Shafer:

It might make sense for the government to assist otherwise healthy companies — such as the airlines — that need a couple of months of breathing space from the viral shock to recover and are in a theoretical position to repay government loans sometime soon. But it’s quite another thing to fling a life buoy to a drowning swimmer who doesn’t have the strength to hold on. Newspapers are such a drowning industry.

Now Blinder:

Perhaps the problem with Shafer is that he still thinks a newspaper is a singular paper product as he lives in a binary world where you either work for a newspaper or a “pure play” digital product like Politico or Slate, where he previously worked. Come on, Jack, you know better. Just because news publishers proudly keep the word “paper” in their branding does not mean that the end product must be printed on pulp.

Although I disagree with some of what Shafer says, he does make one good point — that it would be outrageous to reward chain newspaper owners that have been hollowing out their coverage for years so they could squeeze out a few drops of profit for their hedge-fund owners and corporate shareholders. At the very least, I wouldn’t want to see any money go to Alden Global Capital’s MediaNews Group or to Gannett unless it is matched by investments in journalism that those companies have, up to this point, shown no inclination to make.

We should also acknowledge that indirect government funding is already propping up a lot of the local and regional news infrastructure. Nonprofit media such as public broadcasters and local digital news organizations like the New Haven Independent, Voice of San Diego, MinnPost and Texas Tribune thrive in part because of tax advantages that amount to a government subsidy. (Public broadcasters receive some direct government funding, too.) Major newspapers may take the same route in the years ahead, with The Salt Lake Tribune leading the way.

My own view is that local news organizations, including newspapers, should be eligible for government bailout money just as other businesses are. As Shafer notes, there is always the problem of journalistic independence when the government gets involved. But structures can be set up that insulate news organizations from interference.

Former NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller tells Shafer that the current governing structure for NPR has created an “untenable structure for supporting independent journalism.” But even though NPR often strikes me as overly cautious and deferential to power, it is also our leading source of free, high-quality journalism.

We need a variety of different business models for local news — for-profit, nonprofit, cooperative and even volunteer. At the moment, most local news is based on the for-profit model, and that’s what’s in danger of being destroyed by the pandemic.

Right now, newspapers — print and digital — need a bailout. We can worry about what sort of relationship the government should have with the news business once the crisis has abated.

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Yes, Bret Stephens really did write that there might be something to eugenics

Over the weekend, media Twitter was aflame over a column by Bret Stephens of The New York Times in which he appeared to endorse the notion that Ashkenazi Jews are genetically more intelligent than other people. You can read the original here.

Stephens, who should have already been on probation for past offenses, appears to have gotten away with it again. After the column appeared in print, it was appended with an Editor’s Note saying that Stephens intended to say no such thing. The column was edited after the fact to remove the offending reference as well as a link to a study he was citing. You can see the new version with the Editor’s Note here.

I had intended to write a full post. But this piece by Jack Shafer in Politico is so comprehensive and spot-on that I’m going to suggest that you read it in full. I’ll just offer a few points that I think deserve emphasis, especially among those who’ve been inclined to give Stephens the benefit of the doubt.

  • Stephens’ original column links to a 2005 study whose executive summary claims, over and over, that the Ashkenazi may well have certain genetic advantages with regard to intelligence. For instance: “In particular we propose that the well-known clusters of Ashkenazi genetic diseases, the sphingolipid cluster and the DNA repair cluster in particular, increase intelligence in heterozygotes. Other Ashkenazi disorders are known to increase intelligence.”
  • One of the co-authors of that paper, Henry Harpending, has been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “white nationalist” and a longtime advocate of eugenics — that is, discredited science that argues for the genetic superiority (and inferiority) of certain races and ethnic groups.
  • Stephens did not dismiss the study. Rather, he glossed over it, writing that whether it’s true or not, it’s less important in explaining Ashkenazi intelligence and achievements than their environment. Thus Stephens piously claims that the genetic theory matters less than other factors, but that there might nevertheless be something to it. Here is the key quote from Stephens: “Aside from the perennial nature-or-nurture question of why so many Ashkenazi Jews have higher I.Q.s, there is the more difficult question of why that intelligence was so often matched by such bracing originality and high-minded purpose.”
  • The Times’ re-editing of Stephens’ column goes far beyond correcting errors or clarifying ambiguities and raises ethical concerns of its own. Moreover, it signals that publisher A.G. Sulzberger and editorial-page editor James Bennet are once again prepared to walk away rather than deal with the mess they created when they hired Stephens away from The Wall Street Journal in 2017. Stephens is not just a Pulitzer Prize-winning #NeverTrump conservative; he is also someone who regularly engages in trollish behavior seemed mainly designed to call attention to himself at the expense of the Times’ reputation.

At a moment when Jews are under attack both in New York and nationally, it was unconscionable for Stephens, who is himself Jewish, to add fuel to pernicious, discredited theories about race and intelligence. I hope we learn in the days ahead that Stephens didn’t walk away quite as unscathed as it would appear.

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No, the Digital First approach to newspaper ownership is not defensible

Politico media columnist Jack Shafer has written, if you can believe it, a semi-defense of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital and its principal, Randall Smith, who are in the midst of running their newspapers into the ground. Alden owns the Digital First Media chain, whose Denver Post is the locus of an insurrection against hedge-fund ownership. The 100-paper chain also owns three Massachusetts properties: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

Shafer’s argument is a simple one: the end is at hand for the newspaper business, no one has figured out how to reverse its shrinking fortunes, and so therefore Smith can’t be blamed for squeezing out the last few drops of profit before the industry collapses. “Smith may be a rapacious fellow,” Shafer writes, “but his primary crime is recognizing that print is approaching its expiration date and is acting on the fact that more value can be extracted by sucking the marrow than by investing deeper or selling.”

Now, it’s possible that Shafer is right. But I’m considerably more optimistic about the future of newspapers than he is. Let me offer a few countervailing examples.

1. I certainly don’t want to sound naive about GateHouse Media, a chain of several hundred papers controlled by yet another hedge fund, Fortress Investment Group. GateHouse, which dominates Eastern Massachusetts, runs its papers on the cheap, too, and I’ve got a lot of problems with its barebones coverage of the communities it serves.

But GateHouse, unlike Digital First, is committed to newspapers. That’s why both insiders and outsiders were hoping GateHouse would buy the Herald. I genuinely think the folks at GateHouse are trying to crack the code on how to do community journalism at a profit for some years to come — and yes, its journalists are underpaid, and yes, I don’t like the fact that some editing operations have been centralized in Austin, Texas. But it could be worse, as Digital First demonstrates. For some insight into the GateHouse strategy, see this NPR story.

2. Smaller independently owned daily papers without debt can do well. The Berkshire Eagle is in the midst of a revival following its sale by Digital First to local business interests several years ago. In Maine, a printer named Reade Brower has built an in-state chain centered around the Portland Press Herald that by all accounts is doing well.

3. Large regional papers like The Denver Post are the most endangered. Transforming The Washington Post into a profitable national news organization, as Jeff Bezos has done, was a piece of cake compared to saving metros. As I describe in “The Return of the Moguls,” billionaire owner John Henry of The Boston Globe is pursuing a strategy that could result in a return to profitability: charging as much as the market will bear for print delivery (now up to more than $1,000 a year) and digital subscriptions ($30 a month). Globe executives say the paper is on track to pass the 100,000 mark for digital subscriptions in the first half of this year, and that the business model will start to look sustainable if it can reach 200,000.

In other words, reinventing the newspaper business is not a hopeless task. Randall Smith and Alden Global Capital have taken the easy, cynical route — but not the only route. There are better ways.

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Here we go again: No, print will not save the shrinking newspaper business

This 1910 photo of an 8-year-old Philadelphia newsboy, Michael Mc Nelis, was taken by Lewis Hine for the Children’s Bureau of the US Department of Commerce and Labor.
This 1910 photo of an 8-year-old Philadelphia newsboy, Michael Mc Nelis, was taken by Lewis Hine for the Children’s Bureau of the US Department of Commerce and Labor.

A few years ago Paul Bass and I appeared on a Connecticut radio station to talk about the future of local journalism. Bass was and is the founder, editor, and publisher of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit, online-only news organization that is the main subject of my book The Wired City.

Bass and I both came out of the world of alternative weeklies. He was the star reporter for the New Haven Advocate. I was the media columnist for the Boston Phoenix. While we were on the air, he told a story about a club owner in New Haven who had once advertised heavily in the Advocate—but had found he could reach a better-targeted audience on Facebook while spending next to nothing.

Need I tell you that both the Advocate and the Phoenix have gone out of business?

I’m dredging up this anecdote because the Columbia Journalism Review has published a much-talked-about essay arguing that newspapers made a huge mistake by embracing all things digital and should instead have doubled down on print. Michael Rosenwald writes that instead of chasing ephemeral digital revenues, newspapers should have built up their print editions and offered more value to their readers.

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

Jack Shafer: Don’t blame the media for Donald Trump

Jack Shafer of Politico puts into words what I’ve been inchoately thinking: Though the media surely have not covered themselves in glory by showering so much attention upon the candidacy of racist demagogue Donald Trump, it’s really not their fault that he’s leading the Republican field. Taking note of the epic negative coverage Trump has received, Shafer concludes:

If you were a conventional media observer, you might say that the Trump candidacy demonstrates not the power of the press, but—overwhelmingly, and to our chagrin—its relative powerlessness. But maybe that’s just what we want you to think.

Trump is a creation of the media, of course—but not of the news media. As Shafer observes, he’s been a fixture in the entertainment media for years on the strength of The Apprentice and his bestselling books.

I’d dial Shafer’s take back a bit. I do think the media are to blame for giving Trump way too many column inches (look it up, kids) and too much air time at the expense of the other candidates, and I don’t think the coverage has been as tough as it should have been until recently. But neither do I think the media had it within their power to derail the Trump Express.

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Boston.com hires a top editor

Matt Gross
Matt Gross

Boston.com, the venerable free website started by The Boston Globe in the mid-1990s, relaunched earlier this year with a new design and a difficult task: to find an audience without any Globe content, which was moved lock, stock and barrel behind the BostonGlobe.com paywall (with fairly generous sharing options).

The site also launched without a top editor, although Hilary Sargent of ChartGirl fame (see this Jack Shafer story) has been a visible presence as news and homepage editor. The new Boston.com offers a combination of aggregation, viral content and some original reporting. Traffic initially took a dip, but rose every month from April through July, according to Compete.com.

Now the site has named an editor — Matt Gross, the former editor of BonAppetit.com. Sargent will be his deputy. The press release is below.

Boston (Sept. 10, 2014) — Matt Gross, award-winning editor, writer and author, has been appointed as the new editor of Boston.com, effective Sept. 29.

Since 2012, Gross, 40, was editor of Condé Nast’s BonAppetit.com, where he designed and executed an innovative content strategy that tripled the number of monthly unique visitors in less than two years. Under his direction, BonAppetit.com became a widely known digital hub for entertainment, style, events, recipes, and pop culture.

From 2006-2010, he wrote the popular “Frugal Traveler” column for the New York Times, traveling to dozens of countries in pursuit of money-saving tips for fellow travelers.

He has also written on food and travel for several national publications, including Afar and Saveur magazines, and served as an editor at outlets ranging from FoxNews.com to New York Magazine and Vietnam News. He is also the author of 2013’s “The Turk Who Loved Apples,” a chronicle of his world travels.

“My primary goals as Boston.com editor are to understand what readers are interested in, how they use the site, and how Boston.com can best serve its audience,” said Gross.

“I’ve been to many cities around the world and my favorite ones are those that have a very distinct personality. Boston is unique, and I look forward to leading the team at this vibrant website that is such a critical part of the city’s daily conversations.”

Long before becoming a multilingual globetrotter, Matt called Massachusetts home, having grown up in Concord and Amherst. He is relocating to Boston from Brooklyn with his wife, Jean, and two young children.

“Matt’s experience gives him a unique perspective that will drive compelling content, leveraging multimedia and social channels to tell great stories on Boston.com, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary next October,” said Corey Gottlieb, Executive Director, Digital Strategy & Operations at Boston Globe Media Partners. “His vision will help to further define Boston.com’s identity.”

Boston.com also announced that Hilary Sargent has been named deputy editor of the site. Sargent, formerly the news and homepage editor, has been key in the reinvention of Boston.com content for the past ten months.

“NPR” is not a synonym for public radio

This is a mistake that comes up over and over, and today’s offender is the Boston Globe. The headline on an editorial about the Mike Daisey/“This American Life” debacle reads “NPR: Exposing Apple’s worm, and its own.”

The editorial itself refers to “This American Life” as an “NPR show.” It goes on to note that Daisey’s fabrications about his trip to China were unearthed by “another NPR reporter.” (“Another”? Daisey is not a reporter.)

If you haven’t figured out where I’m going by now, “This American Life” is not an NPR program. It’s produced by Chicago’s WBEZ Radio, a public station, and distributed by Public Radio International, a competitor of NPR’s.

Daisey’s assault on the truth was exposed by a reporter for “Marketplace,” which is produced by American Public Media, yet another NPR competitor.

But wait. Doesn’t “This American Life” appear on NPR stations? No. And here’s where it gets confusing. Plenty of public radio stations market themselves as NPR stations because it’s a name brand they can use to attract listeners and advertisers — oops, sorry. Underwriters. NPR itself does not own stations.

Both of Boston’s large public stations, WBUR (90.9 FM) and WGBH (89.7 FM) call themselves NPR stations. But WBUR’s license is held by Boston University, and WGBH is an independent nonprofit organization that includes radio and television stations. (Disclosure: I’m a paid contributor to WGBH.) NPR is just one of several services (albeit the best-known) from which public radio stations buy programming.

“In a just world,” Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer recently tweeted, “we could say ‘NPR’ to describe all public radio, just as saying ‘Kleenex’ covers Scott Tissues and generic brands.”

Shafer was kidding, of course. And it does get confusing. But NPR takes enough grief from its critics without having to get blamed for programming on rival networks.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to send an email to CNN complaining about Sean Hannity.

Afternoon update: The headline and editorial have been rewritten, and a correction has been appended.

Photo (cc) by Raul654 and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Debating Keystone, the environment and the Chinese

I honestly had no intention of using Storify again today, or even any time soon. But after Jim Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and I tweeted back and forth over the merits of Joe Nocera’s New York Times column on the Keystone XL pipeline, Reuters media critic Jack Shafer said I should post it. So here it is. The world will little note nor long remember …

[View the story “Hot liberal-on-liberal action” on Storify]